Art In The Blood

Chapter 9

chapter
Chapter

THE AIR WAS foul from the stink of spilled gas by the car. When I materialized I had to steady myself against one of the pumps because the sickness had followed me from the garage.

At that distance I couldn't tell if he was alive or dead. If dead, then we could take our time; if alive, then we had none left to spare. And if they put him alive into that drum…

With the pumps and car between us I knew the man watching from the station couldn't see me, and no one had noticed my return. Escott and the old man were still poking at things under the hood and Barb was watching the spot where I'd gone around the far corner of the garage. I tapped on her window. She whirled and slid over to roll it open.

"What's the matter?" she whispered, too worried to question how I'd gotten there. "Did you find anything?"

I could only nod and realized it would not be wise to get too detailed. "They've got Alex. They're-"

"Is he all right?"

"I don't know, I couldn't see that much. There're two men inside, and they've got him trussed like a turkey." She made to move and I stopped it with a short, hard gesture. " Don't, they're watching us right now. They're only waiting for us to leave-"

"But we can't-"

"Yes, we will. You and Charles are going to drive off and find the nearest phone.

You call the cops and get them here as fast as you can."

"What about you?"

"I'm staying here to keep an eye on them."

She dived into her purse and brought out a beautiful nickel-and-mother-of-pearl derringer, pushing it into my hand. "Here, you'll have two shots. You have to remember to cock it first before pulling the trigger… you do know how to shoot?"

"Yeah, but-"

"Just in case," she said, and I knew it would be easier to pocket the thing than argue with her.

"Okay, thanks. You get the cops here fast, got it?"

"Yes-"

"And an ambulance, too."

"Ambulance?" The word moved on her lips with no sound behind it.

"Just in case." Adrian might need it if he was still alive, and it not, then his killers most certainly would before I was finished. "Has Charles mentioned me at all while he's been keeping Chuckles busy?"

Her expression flickered as she shifted thoughts and tried to remember. "I don't think so, he's been talking about the car the whole time. Why?"

"You'll see." I hoped Escott would follow my lead.

The old man glared at the engine with contempt and shook his head at Escort's latest question. "I jus' pump the gas, I'm tellin' you I don't know nuthin' 'bout these things."

"But just listening does not require any mechanical skill, and I'm sure if you did so while I pressed the accelerator, you'd be able to hear it as well." Escott was using his most persuasive voice and sounded like an amiable idiot. He looked up as I approached. "Oh, hello, I was trying-"

"Just wanted to say thanks for the lift," I interrupted, holding out my hand. He'd picked up the cue without batting an eye and we shook briefly.

"You're not coming along?" he asked.

"No, this is where I get off. I already said goodbye to your missus. See you around."

He wished me well and continued to argue happily with the old man for another few minutes, long enough for me to take to the sidewalk and stroll away out of sight.

I blessed the actor in him, vanished again, and doubled back.

The sidewalk was my prime landmark. I followed its flat, hard surface, keeping low out of instinct rather than necessity. In this form, body posture is meaningless, but the illusion of it in the mind is a comfort.

My second landmark was the old truck parked in front of the garage door, where I turned left, moving forward until I felt the wall of the garage itself. Floating upward, I quickly found the window with the broken pane. The last faint outside noise I heard was Escott's Nash starting up. Pouring inside to the spot behind the tires, I faded enough of myself back into the world to see and hear things.

They hadn't moved. Francis held his shovel in the trough of cement, the man at the door kept watch, and Adrian hung motionless from the ropes. After stuffing him into the oil drum and filling the leftover spaces up with cement, they'd probably load it onto the back of their truck. North of us was a perfectly good lake with miles of coastline; finding a deserted spot to dump their problem wouldn't be too hard.

"You took your time," the man complained, holding the door for the old geezer to come in.

"They din' wanna leave and so what? He's gone now."

"What about that other one? Where'd he go?"

"Off. Hitchin' a ride and got hisself unhitched."

"You sure?"

"I seen him walk."

Francis resumed scraping at the cement. "This shit's starting to set, Dimmy, we gotta move."

"Who's stopping you?" he snarled back.

Dimmy Wallace: bookie, loan shark, and new terror of the south side, but then Francis was easily impressed. I saw a middle-size, stocky man who badly needed to cut the limp blond hair straggling from under his hat. He had a pudgy face and colorless eyes with the kind of blank expression you usually find on infants or lunatics.

Francis took the hint with a short, relishing laugh and put down his shovel.

"C'mere, Pops, gimme a hand." He went to a length of chain leading down from the pulley mechanism above, presumably so he could lower Adrian down into the oil barrel.

Pops thought it over sourly. "Nuh-uh. None o' this crap, I pump gas."

"I said I need a hand," Francis insisted, but apparently he was too much a junior member of the team to swing any authority. Pops turned around and went back to the tiny office. Francis tossed a comment about the old man's ancestry to his indifferent back and unhooked the chain from the wall in disgust.

Bringing Adrian's body down a few more feet was a strain for him. Dimmy Wallace made no move to help, nor was he asked. When Adrian started to double over, Francis reversed the chain to take in the slack. He strutted up, hands on his hips, the owner of a brand-new toy.

"Do I kill him now or wait and watch him squeal?" he asked Wallace.

That was the best news I'd heard all evening. It gave me a whole new set of worries, but at least I knew Adrian was alive.

"Do what you want, but just do it. We ain't got all night." Wallace was bored with the business.

"We got till Toumey comes back."

"You got till the cement sets. Remember?"

Francis did, much to his disgust. He wasted no more time and poked at Adrian's downturned face. "Hey. Mr. Hot Shit. C'mon, you don't wanna miss any of this."

"Give 'im some air," Wallace suggested.

Francis moved faster than thought. A knife appeared like magic in his hand and the blade slashed at Adrian's throat and caught on something. When his hand came away he was holding the knife and Adrian's tie. I sagged inwardly with sick relief.

He showed it to Wallace. "That's a fancy one, ain't it? These hot-shit rich guys like the good stuff, don't they?"

I shifted a little more to the right to get a better angle on Francis. It would be steep and fast and I'd have to judge it just right when to-

"And lookit these fancy buttons… But maybe they ain't good enough for such a nice shirt. Maybe they oughta be solid gold instead." He dropped the scrap of tie and neatly sliced away a collar button. "Come on, hot shit, I'm talking to you-wake up and lissen."

The point of the knife jabbed Adrian lightly in the side and he jerked, swinging a little from the rope.

"Yeah, hot shit, have a good look at things. You 'member trying to fight me? This is how I pay you back, you see? You see?" He laughed at whatever he saw on Adrian's face.

Adrian mumbled something I couldn't catch. Francis looked at Wallace.

"He wants to know if you killed some broad, Dimmy. You kill anyone today?"

"Not that I can remember," said Wallace, his voice flat.

"How come you don't ask me, hot shit? Maybe I did it, maybe I walked in and did her good. Maybe she let me in and wasn't friendly enough. That's the sister, huh?

Robley's sister? He keeps quiet about her, but we know all about her, and we know all about how to make a girl real friendly. Hey, Dimmy, he's telling me to shut up. What do you think of that?"

Dimmy was bored again and expressed no opinion.

Playing, Francis jabbed the knife at Adrian's face. "That's what I think of shutting up, Mr. Fancy Hot Shit."

I moved a little lower. It would have to be from below. The rack of tires ran all along the wall's length and there was no room to go above them.

"You know you're bleeding? Maybe I should just open it up a little more…"

He was very close to Adrian, it was going to be tight.

"… slip it right between the ribs. I can do it fast or slow-how thick is your skin, Mr. Hot Shit?"

I was nearly too solid. Gravity tugged at me as I pressed my feet against the wall and launched across the open space of the garage like a swimmer into water. I felt the resistance of the air slow me down and countered it by growing more solid.

Solidity gave me weight and speed, and when I slammed into Francis with a full body tackle I'd completely materialized.

We crashed into the stacked oil drums, bringing them down with a stunning amount of sound. One of them fell right on me, cracking my head, and I couldn't move for a moment. With some disgust, I belatedly realized I could have vanished right after hitting Francis and saved myself the discomfort.

A hand plowed in and grabbed the collar of my coat, hauling me out of the mess.

I sprawled backward, throwing my arms out for balance, but my rescuer dodged out of range, not that I was in shape to do him harm. My head felt like a small firecracker had gone off just under the spot where the barrel had landed. The metal wasn't as bad as wood, but the pure kinetic shock of all that weight required some recovery time.

Pops appeared from the office, gawking at the chaos and then at me. "Thas one of

'em-the hitcher with that feller who wouldn't leave."

"What?" demanded Wallace.

"I seen 'im walk. How'd he get in here?"

Dimmy Wallace had more cause to wonder about that himself, having witnessed my miraculous appearance out of nowhere. I rubbed the sore spot on my skull and got reoriented. Francis was facedown in the middle of the overturned drums, not moving. I hadn't killed him, but he wouldn't be functioning for some time to come.

In front of me was Pops and on my left and coming around to the front was Wallace.

He had a stubby black revolver in his hand. From the tiny size of the barrel opening it looked to be only a twenty-two. They could do damage and could certainly kill, but you had to know how to use them. Since I didn't know what kind of shot he was, I'd have to assume he was an expert and handle things from that angle. Adrian was my prime worry; we were both on the wrong end of the gun, but he'd be the one to get hurt if I weren't careful.

He swung a little against the confines of the barrel. Francis had been so close to him when I came hurtling down that he'd been bumped by the rush. His face was guarded as always, but flushed with a new alertness at my arrival. His eyes were sharp, dark pinpoints, full of sudden questions and something I interpreted as fear.

"You okay?" I asked.

His eyes widened slightly and his mouth twisted open-into an awful gasping laugh. He shut it down almost as soon as it was out.

"You!" This from Wallace. After that he couldn't seem to think of anything else to say. He'd seen me literally come out of thin air and was having a lot of trouble handling the event. His eyes kept bouncing from me to the rest of the garage, searching for some hiding place that I might have sprung from.

"Looks like Francis is a little flat," I said conversationally. "You want I should pick him up?"

The words didn't really register, which was too bad, as I wanted to distract him from his uncertainty and speculations.

"He was with that car?" he asked Pops.

"I tol' ya," came the confirmation.

Wallace shifted from me to Adrian and back again. "The other guy'll bring help, you can bet on that."

"Then I'm gittin' gone."

"Yeah, go start the truck."

Damn. I'd been hoping to stall him a little longer. I was ten feet away from the gun. Wallace had judged that to be a safe distance to keep me from trying anything.

It couldn't be helped, I wasn't about to let them take a free walk out.

I moved a step to the right, widening the space between myself and Adrian. The gun muzzle swung and centered on my chest. Pops froze, his mouth slack, and the bottom gums showing as he waited to see what happened.

"Stay put," said Wallace.

His eyes were still blank and I didn't like what wasn't in them. Off to the left Adrian expelled another short hiss of air. I couldn't tell if it was laughter, pain, or fear.

Then Wallace moved one finger. He was fast, there was no way I could have stopped him in time.

The bullet lanced my chest like a white-hot needle, its impact and effect all out of proportion to its size. His aim was perfect, precise as a top surgeon's. It went in just left of my breastbone, slipped between the ribs to clip my heart, and tore out my back.

Time slowed and movement along with it. As a sound separate from the shot, I heard the flat link of lead on steel as it struck one of the barrels behind me. Before the finger could tighten on the trigger again I was on him. His lips peeled back as I wrenched the gun away, a mirror of my own pain. The bullet's tearing flight through my body had nearly knocked me down from the fire-red shock. I wanted him to feel the same hurt, I wanted him to know about death…

A short, curse-choked scream.

Adrian's voice shouting my name.

White darkness clouding my sight.

Din-filled silence jamming my ears.

Sound flooded back into my consciousness as though I'd never heard it before.

Time had slowed and then vanished altogether I mm my mind. It returned, trickling unevenly as I woke out of the cold rage that had taken me down to… to…

I shied away from what lay within me. My body trembled. The first time this had happened, it hadn't been so bad. Understanding had come with experience, but that didn't make it any better. If I'd still been a normal human, I'd have staggered to the grease pit and been sick.

Dimmy Wallace was on his side at my feet, curled fetuslike around his broken arm. Pops was gone and distantly I heard the rough thrum of the truck outside starting up. He'd be well away by the time I ran out front. The cops could worry about him, I had troubles of my own.

I turned Wallace over gently, as though to make up for what I'd done. He mewed out, crying over his ruined arm. His colorless eyes opened, squinting as though simple sight caused him pain as well.

Then he bared his teeth and started calling me every foul name in his ample street vocabulary.

The world shifted abruptly back to normal, and his cursing washed over my fear and dissipated it. He called me more names, thinking my laughter was at his agony, then the eyes widened a little more as he decided I was crazy. I had been, for one brief, awful moment. Now I was deliriously thankful I'd not passed the insanity on to him.

"You're staying right where you are, understand?" I made certain he would obey but didn't bother putting him to sleep. I had, after all, wanted him to feel pain.

Francis was well and truly out, but I collected his dropped knife and put it in my coat pocket. It clattered against Wallace's gun. Another small tremor fluttered against the base of my spine because I couldn't remember picking the thing up.

I finally stepped clear of Francis and went to Adrian, pulling the knife out again.

We locked eyes as I reached above him and cut at the rope. He said nothing, but his gaze dropped after a moment to the hole in my shirt. He'd been awake. He'd seen and heard it happen.

"Bulletproof vest," I said.

"Yes… of course," he murmured.

The last strand broke away and he collapsed forward, biting off the agony of release. We had a clumsy moment as I alternately pulled and lifted him from the oil drum. When he was out flat on the filthy floor, he groaned gratefully at the change of position.

"Your hands?" I asked. The skin was swollen and red where the rope had cut into his wrists, but his fingers were still moving a little.

"Can't feel a thing yet. It's my shoulders and back-" He broke off and the creases around his eyes and mouth deepened as he dealt with the inner protests of his body.

Outside, a car rolled up, nearly silent. I only just caught its tires crunching over the road surface. The driver must have cut the motor and coasted in. I told Adrian to keep quiet and cracked open the office door for a look as Wallace had done before me.

I saw a narrow piece of the station and some of the street beyond. Parked across the street, opposite the pumps, was Escort's big Nash. In the distance and coming closer I heard the first siren rise and soar into the pale night sky. I sighed relief and went out to meet them.

Lieutenant Blair had been up all night as well, but suffered the effects more. I was tired, too, but in a different way from him.

"And you say that when you drove off in the car, Charles just slipped into the garage and surprised them?"

"Yeah. I wanted to go in, but he was in charge and said it was his place to do it himself. Somebody had to drive the car away as a distraction and to keep an eye on Miss Steler, so I got the job."

The uniformed cop who took down my original statement had listened to it twice over now with mild interest. His current entertainment came from watching Blair trying to swallow it all. He sat at our table in the hospital canteen, his notebook and pencil on standby in case I decided to change anything. Blair was across from me and fastidiously ignoring the stale cup of coffee someone had brought him.

The canteen was empty except for a woman behind the counter minding the coffee machine and a pile of donuts. She looked more interested in the donuts than us. It was a big hospital for a big city; maybe she was used to cops interviewing people at ungodly hours of the morning.

"Dimmy claims that he shot you," he said.

"Uh-huh." I sounded doubtful. Who was he going to believe, some crook or me?

On the other hand, this could prove to be quite a strain on our induced friendship.

"If he wants to put a nail in his coffin, that's his business, but it was Charles he shot."

"Really?" It was Blair's turn to sound doubtful and he leaned forward, lacing his fingers together. "And just how did he survive?"

"He's got a bulletproof vest. He said Wallace looked pretty rattled when he didn't fall down, maybe that's why there's a mix-up about who got shot."

Blair had done a quick inspection of my clothes and found no trace of a bullet hole. Earlier, Escort and I had hastily switched shirts in the men's room while everyone had been busy with Adrian and the others in emergency. I carried my punctured coat over my arm.

"So Dimmy shot him and it sort of slipped his mind?"

"He's not the type to get worked up about a thing like that."

The cop at the end made a noise and Blair glared at him, then came back to me.

"Well, yes, I can see how that could happen, he must get shot several times a week.

I'm sure he's used to it by now."

I shrugged good-naturedly. "You'll have to talk to him about it, I missed all the fun."

I'll bet." He couldn't quite resist putting in some sarcasm, but he was at a dead end and knew it. A change of subject was next. "All right. Now, as to how you knew to go there…"

"The gas station? That was Charles's idea."

"Was it?"

"Yeah. He thought maybe Adrian might have gone after Dimmy Wallace because of Sandra-which is how it turned out-and he's got a few connections around town…" Some truths, some falsehoods, they were mixed up enough for me to get away with them.

"What connections?"

I shrugged. "You'll have to ask him."

"I will. How did that reporter get involved?"

"She followed us and wouldn't leave, you know what they're like."

"I know what that one's like," he muttered, and the cop made a noise again and got another glare.

A third cop came in and said that Francis Roller was awake. Blair told me to get lost and went to yet another interview. My old suggestion of friendship was definitely wearing thin.

When they all walked out and left me alone I put my head on my folded arms and felt old in heart, cold in spirit, and tired to the bone. It was a mental weariness, harder to deal with than the physical kind. You can go to bed and rest the body, but the burden of your own emotions can take years to lift, if ever.

"Would you care to go home?" Escott stood in the doorway, hands in his pockets, head cocked to one side.

"Like a week ago. What's the time?"

"A little after five."

Dawn was still too far away. I wanted oblivion now.

"Headache?"

"Yeah, but all over, if you know what I mean."

"Indeed I do. How did things go with Lieutenant Blair?"

"Pretty much as you expected."

I'm pleased to hear that."

"Said he'd talk to you later."

Escott gave in to an extended and luxuriant yawn. "You take the car, then. I'll find a cab after he's finished his questions, with me. Come on, I'll walk you out."

My chair squawked loudly against the floor as it scraped back.

"Will the suggestions you gave to Miss Steler about who did what hold?" he asked.

"I don't think there'll be any problem."

"Let us hope so. With your condition you could hardly put in a court appearance if and when this mess comes to trial."

" Maybe if it were a night court… ?"

He smiled. "What about Koller and Wallace?"

"I was able to talk to Wallace before they put him in the ambulance. He didn't kill Sandra but he couldn't say yes or no for Koller. The white coats chased me out before I could tell him what kind of story to give." What about Koller?"

"Him I'll have to talk to later, or maybe the cops can sweat it out of him today. I don't think he can back up Wallace's story. I came in so fast he never knew what hit him."

We'd only gone a few yards down the hall when a large nurse stepped from her station and blocked the way. "Mr. Fleming?" She glanced back and forth between us.

"Me," I said, halfheartedly raising a hand.

"One of my patients asked to see you before you left."

"Isn't it past visiting hours?"

"It certainly is," she said wearily. "But he was very insistent."

"Alex Adrian?" I'd been expecting this and dreading it.

"Right this way." She led off without waiting to see if we followed.

Escort politely waited outside as I went into Adrian's private room. He was sitting stiffly against a bank of pillows on the high bed, wearing a flimsy hospital gown and a disgusted expression. Two big wads of bandages covered his wrists and I couldn't help but think of Popeye the Sailor.

"Something amusing you?" he said.

"Just glad you're all right."

"That's one man's opinion."

"The nurse said-"

"Yes, please come in."

His face was drained and gray against the white pillows, and the cloudiness in his dark eyes suggested drugs. In deference to his wrenched shoulders and arms, he was careful not to move his head too much. I took a metal chair next to the bed and turned it around to face him.

"Cops talk to you?" I asked.

"Oh yes. Quite thoroughly and at great length, then that lieutenant told me I'd been damned lucky and to leave police work to the police from now on."

"Nothing like adding insult to injury."

"The insult is that they're not telling me anything. What's to happen to Wallace?"

"I don't know. Last I saw, they'd knocked him out to work on his arm."

"Is anyone watching him or Koller?"

"Yes." I didn't like this turn of the conversation. "Stay away from them, Alex."

He said nothing. A sullen red fire glowed far back in his half-lidded eyes.

"They're in custody and that's enough for now. You can press charges-"

"I already have, for assault and attempted murder, but it is not nearly enough."

"It'll have to be."

He looked straight ahead to the blank white wall in front of him. "If it had been Miss Smythe, what would you do?"

That one hit me hard, as he'd meant it to. Once my gut reaction eased, I realized it had taken a lot out of him to say that, to admit Sandra had made him so vulnerable.

"Same as you, want to tear them to pieces."

His eyes shut, his voice dropped to a gentle whisper. "That's exactly what I want to do to them, and I want to do it with my own hands."

I couldn't hold that against him. I knew exactly how he felt. More so, because in the past I had acted on those feelings and killed.

"Thank you for coming after me," he said in the same quiet tone. The darkness within and around me lessened a little.

"You're welcome."

His breathing evened out and deepened. Whatever they'd given him was getting a chance to work now. "Did it hurt very much?" he asked.

"Did what?"

"When he shot you."

Hell.

"I once saw a magician shoot at a deck of cards and hit only the ace of spades…

Perhaps Wallace had a magical bullet that only puts holes in clothing and not in people."

"What do you want?"

The question surprised him enough to open his eyes. "Nothing, really-only confirmation of what I know I saw. You came diving out of thin air from an impossible angle, then look a smash in the skull that should have knocked you cold for hours-or even killed you."

"Maybe you were a little feverish from hanging there for so long."

"Yes. Perhaps I was, but I'm not now." He looked away from me, a faint glitter coming from beneath his lashes. "I saw you fade and flicker back, like a light bulb losing and then regaining its power. I saw you. I did not imagine it."

Hell and damnation.

"The barrel came crashing down and you dropped under it, and then it rolled away because you weren't there anymore. Wallace only saw you coming out of nowhere, he missed the rest. The other barrels were in the way for him. By the time he'd waded through, you were back again, and solid."

I bit my tongue and waited him out.

"And you got up seconds later, asking me if I was all right." He laughed faintly, like a ghost. "I might have blacked out then, I might have imagined it all, but not the shot. I was quite wide awake. I saw you take it point blank, I saw the exit hole in your back." His look dared me to contradict him.

I didn't and confirmed things by turning away.

"I thought you were rushing him on momentum alone, that you'd fall at any time, but you didn't. You got to him and he screamed."

"I was breaking his arm."

"It was more than pain; it was like what you did to Roller the other night when you frightened him."

"Maybe I've just got a way with me."

"Yes, you do. I wanted to see your face then, I wanted to see why he screamed."

His voice was still low and gentle, but somehow filled the sterile room with vibrations of his… hate? That wasn't the right word, it wasn't large enough to encompass the emotions quietly seething from him. I knew and had felt all that he was going through: the rage, the need to do something about it, and the ultimate helplessness when that need is denied. It was different for me; I could free myself, but only at the cost of someone else's sanity. Adrian did not have that terrible luxury.

He could only talk, which was why I was so ready to listen.

"I didn't tell the police any of this, of course," he said. "And I can understand why you asked me to lie to the police about you and your friend."

"They'd just think you were crazy, coming at them with a story like that."

"They certainly would."

It would only take a moment and he was more than half-under now. A moment of shifting his thoughts around, a few suggestions, and I'd be safe.

"I won't tell anyone."

He didn't have all of it, just enough to question, to be dangerous.

"You moved very fast, you know-when you went after him. You seemed to flow and merge with the air." He was starting to drift already.

Only a moment to convince him of a false memory, to tell him what he should think. I hesitated, because this acceptance was suddenly very important to me.

"It's quite… beautiful." The creases on his skin smoothed as the muscles beneath relaxed.

A touch, a freezing of our eyes and a simple command…

"… beautiful…" The glitter submerged under his lids.

I went out quietly so as not to wake him.

"What did he want?" asked Escott, falling into step with me.

"To say thanks."


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