Books · Journalism · Information
|The Prey Series|
A thought sparked in the chaos of Bekker's mind.
He caught it, mentally, like a quick hand snatching a fly from midair.
Bekker slumped at the defense table, the center of the circus. His vacant blue eyes rolled back, pale and wide as a plastic baby-doll's, wandering around the interior of the courtroom, snagging on a light fixture, catching on an electrical outlet, sliding past the staring faces. His hair had been cut jailhouse short, but they had let him keep the wild blond beard. An act of mercy: the beard disguised the tangled mass of pink scar tissue that crisscrossed his face. In the middle of the beard, his pink rosebud lips opened and closed, like an eel's, damp and glistening.
Bekker looked at the thought he'd caught: The jury. Housewives, retirees, welfare trash. His peers, they called them. A ridiculous concept: he was a doctor of medicine. He stood at the top of his profession. He was respected. Bekker shook his head.
The word tumbled from the judge-crow's mouth and echoed in his mind. "Do you understand, Mr. Bekker?"
The idiot flat-faced attorney pulled at Bekker's sleeve: "Stand up."
The prosecutor turned to stare at him, hate in her eyes. The hate touched him, reached him, and he opened his mind and let it flow back. I'd like to have you for five minutes, good sharp scalpel would open you up like a goddamn oyster: zip, zip. Like a goddamn clam.
The prosecutor felt Bekker's interest. She was a hard woman; she'd put six hundred men and women behind bars. Their petty threats and silly pleas no longer interested her. But she flinched and turned away from Bekker.
What? Standing? Time now?
Bekker struggled back. It was so hard. He'd let himself go during the trial. He had no interest in it. Refused to testify. The outcome was fixed, and he had more serious problems to deal with. Like survival in the cages of the Hennepin County Jail, survival without his medicine.
But now the time had come.
His blood still moved too slowly, oozing through his arteries like strawberry jam. He fought, and simultaneously fought to hide his struggle.
And he started, so slowly it was like walking through paste, trudging back to the courtroom. The trial had lasted for twenty-one days, had dominated the papers and the television newscasts. The cameras had ambushed him, morning and night, hitting him in the face with their intolerable lights, the cameramen scuttling backward as they transferred him, in chains, between the jail and the courtroom.
The courtroom was done in blond laminated wood, with the elevated judge's bench at the head of the room, the jury box to the right, tables for the prosecution and defense in front of the judge. Behind the tables, a long rail divided the room in two. Forty uncomfortable spectator's chairs were screwed to the floor behind the rail. The chairs were occupied an hour before arguments began, half of them allotted to the press, the other half given out on a first-come basis. All during the trial, he could hear his name passing through the ranks of spectators: Bekker Bekker Bekker.
The jury filed out. None of them looked at him. They'd be secluded, his peers, and after chatting for a decent interval, they'd come back and report him guilty of multiple counts of first-degree murder. The verdict was inevitable. When it was in, the crow would put him away.
The black asshole in the next cell had said it, in his phony street dialect: "They gon slam yo' nasty ass into Oak Park, m'man. You live in a motherfuckin' cage the size of a motherfuckin' refrigerator wit a TV watching you every move. You wanta take a shit, they watchin' every move, they makin' movies of it. Nobody ever git outa Oak Park. It is a true motherfucker."
But Bekker wasn't going. The thought set him off again, and he shook, fought to control it.
He focused on the small parts: The gym shorts biting into the flesh at his waist. The razor head pressed against the back of his balls. The Sox cap, obtained in a trade for cigarettes, tucked under his belt. His feet sweating in the ridiculous running shoes. Running shoes and white socks with his doctor's pinstripes he looked a fool and he knew it, hated it. Only a moron would wear white socks with pinstripes, but white socks and running shoes... no. People would be laughing at him.
He could have worn his wing tips, one last time a man is innocent until proven guilty but he refused. They didn't understand that. They thought it was another eccentricity, the plastic shoes with the seven-hundred-dollar suit. They didn't know.
Everyone was standing now, the crow-suit staring, the attorney pulling at his sleeve. And here was Raymond Shaltie...
"On your feet," Shaltie said sharply, leaning over him. Shaltie was a sheriff's deputy, an overweight time-server in an ill-fitting gray uniform.
"How long?" Bekker asked the attorney, looking up, struggling to get the words out, his tongue thick in his mouth.
The judge was talking, looking at them: "... standing by, and if you leave your numbers with my office, we'll get in touch as soon as we get word from the jury..."
The attorney nodded, looking straight ahead. He wouldn't meet Bekker's eyes.
Bekker had no chance. In his heart, the attorney didn't want him to have a chance. Bekker was nuts. Bekker needed prison. Prison forever and several days more.
"How long?" Bekker asked again. The judge had disappeared into her chambers. Like to get her, too.
"Can't tell. They'll have to consider the separate counts," the attorney said. He was court-appointed, needed the money. "We'll come get you..."
Pig's eye, they would.
"Let's go," said Shaltie. He took Bekker's elbow, dug his fingertips into the nexus of nerves above Bekker's elbow, an old jailer's trick to establish dominance. Unknowingly, Shaltie did Bekker a favor. With the sudden sharp pulse of pain, Bekker snapped all the way back, quick and hard, like a handclap.
His eyes flicked once around the room, his mind cold, its usual chaos squeezed into a high-pressure corner, wild thoughts raging like rats in a cage. Calculating. He put pain in his voice, a childlike plea: "I need to go..."
"Okay." Shaltie nodded. Ray Shaltie wasn't a bad man. He'd worked the courts for two decades, and the experience had mellowed him allowed him to see the human side of even the worst of men. And Bekker was the worst of men.
But Bekker was nevertheless human, Shaltie believed: He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone... Bekker was a man gone wrong, but still a man. And in words that bubbled from his mouth in a whiny singsong, Bekker told Shaltie about his hemorrhoids. Jail food was bad for them, Bekker said. All cheese and bread and pasta. Not enough roughage. He had to go...
He always used the bathroom at noon, all through the twenty-one days of the trial. Raymond Shaltie sympathized: he'd had them himself. Shaltie took Bekker by the arm and led him past the now empty jury box, Bekker shuffling, childlike, eyes unfocused. At the door, Shaltie turned him docile, quiet, apparently gone to another world and put on the handcuffs and then the leg chains. Another deputy watched the process, and when Bekker was locked up, drifted away, thinking of lunch.
"Gotta go," Bekker said. His eyes turned up to Ray Shaltie.
"You'll be okay, you'll be okay," Shaltie said. Shaltie's tie had soup stains on it, and flakes of dandruff spotted his shoulders: an oaf, Bekker thought. Shaltie led Bekker out of the courtroom, Bekker doing the jailhouse shuffle, his legs restricted to a thirty-inch stride. Behind the courtroom, a narrow hallway led to an internal stairway, and from there, to a holding cell. But to the left, through a service door, was a tiny employees-only men's room, with a sink, a urinal, a single stall.
Shaltie followed Bekker into the men's room. "Now, you're okay..." A warning in his voice. Ray Shaltie was too old to fight.
"Yes," Bekker said, his pale-blue eyes wandering in their sockets. Behind the wandering eyes, his mind was moving easily now, the adrenaline acting on his brain like a dose of the purest amphetamine. He turned, lifted his arms up and back, thrusting his wrists at Shaltie. Shaltie fitted the key, uncuffed the prisoner: Shaltie was breaking the rules, but a man can't wipe himself if he's wearing handcuffs. Besides, where would Bekker go, high up here in the government building, with the leg chains? He couldn't run. And his wildly bearded face was, for the moment at least, the most recognizable face in the Cities.
Bekker shuffled into the stall, shut the door, dropped his trousers, sat down. Eyes sharp now, focused. They used disposable safety razors in the jail, Bics. He'd broken the handle off one, leaving only the head and a stub, easy to hide during the shakedowns. When he'd had a chance, he'd burned the stub with a match, rounding the edges, to make it more comfortable to wear. This morning he'd taped it under his balls, fixed with the end of a Band-Aid. Now he peeled the razor off himself, pulled the remaining tape off the razor, and began hacking at his beard.
He'd grown the beard to cover his furrowed face. Bekker, once so beautiful, the possessor of a classic Nordic face, a pale, uninflected oval with rose lips, had been beaten into a grotesque gnome, torn to pieces and only poorly repaired. Davenport. Get Davenport. The fantasy seized him: opening Davenport, using the knife to peel the face, lifting the skin off inch by inch...
He fought it: fantasies were for the lockup. He forced Davenport out of his mind and continued shaving, quickly, raggedly, the razor scraping over his dry skin. The pain prompted a groan. Outside the stall, Shaltie winced.
"'Bout done in there?" Shaltie called. The bathroom smelled of ammonia, chlorine, urine, and wet mops.
"Yes, Ray." Bekker dropped the razor in his jacket pocket, then worked on the toilet-paper holder. Originally, it had been held in place with four screws. He'd removed and flushed two of them during the first three days of the trial, and had worked the other two loose. He'd actually had them out the day before, to make sure the holder would pull free. It had. Now he removed the screws one last time, dropped them in the toilet and eased the paper-holder free from the wall. When he grasped it by the roller, it fit his hand like a steel boxing glove.
"Okay now, Ray." Bekker stood, pulled his pants up, pulled off his jacket, dropped the coat over the iron fist, flushed the toilet. Took a breath. Put his head down, as though he were looking at his fly. Opened the door. Shuffled forward.
Shaltie was waiting with the cuffs: jowly, freckled, slow on the uptake. "Turn around..."
Seeing Bekker's face, realizing: "Hey..."
Bekker was half-turned, wound up. He dropped the jacket, his right hand whipping like a lash, his mouth open, his white teeth flashing in the fluorescence. Shaltie lurched back, tried to cover with a hand. Too late, too late. The stainless-steel club hit him above the ear: Shaltie went down, cracking the back of his head on the porcelain sink as he fell.
And then Bekker was on him, lifting the steel fist, smashing it down, lifting it, feeling Shaltie's skull crack, the blood spatter.
Hit hit hit hit...
The synapses of Bekker's brain lit with the static sparks. He fought it, fought for control, but it was hard, the smell of fresh blood in his nose. He stopped swinging, found his left hand on Shaltie's throat. Pulled the hand away, half stood, brain not quite right: He said aloud, shushing himself, "Shhh. Shhhhhh," finger to his lips.
He straightened. His blood was running like water now, like steam, filling him. Now what? Door. He hobbled to the door, flipped the catch. Locked. Good. He went back to Shaltie, who was supine on the tile floor, blowing blood bubbles through his torn nose. Bekker had watched the deputy handle his keys, and the keys had gone in Shaltie's right pocket... He found them, popped the locks on the leg chains. Free. Free.
Stop. He brought himself back, looked in the mirror. His face was a mess. He retrieved the razor from his jacket pocket, splashed water and liquid soap on his face and raked the razor across it. Listened to Shaltie, breathing, a gargling moan. Shaltie's head lay in a puddle of blood, and Bekker could smell it.
Bekker threw the razor in a trash basket, turned, stooped, caught Shaltie under the shoulders, dragged him to the toilet stall, sat him on the toilet and propped him against the wall. Shaltie made a snoring sound and more blood bubbled from his nose. Bekker ignored him. Not much time.
He stripped off his suit pants, put the Sox hat on his head, and used the pants to wipe up the blood on the floor. When he finished, he threw the pants, jacket, shirt and tie over Shaltie's body. Checked himself in the mirror: green tank top, red shorts, gym shoes, hat. A jogger. The face was bad, but nobody had seen him close up, without a beard, for weeks. A few of the cops would know him, a couple of lawyers. But with any luck, they wouldn't be looking at joggers.
Davenport. The thought stopped him. If Davenport was out there, had come to see the verdict, Bekker was a dead man.
No help for that. He threw off the thought, took a breath. Ready. He stepped inside the stall with Shaltie, locked it, dropped to his back, slid under the door, stood up again.
"Motherfucker." He said it out loud, had learned it in jail: the standard, all-purpose curse. He dropped back on the floor, slid halfway under the stall, groped for Shaltie's wallet. Found it, checked it. Twelve dollars. One credit card, a Visa. Not good. Money could be a problem... He slipped the wallet into his underpants, went to the door, listened.
Could hear Shaltie breathing, bubbling. Bekker thought about going back into the stall, strangling him with his belt. All the humiliations of the past weeks, the torture when they took away his chemicals... Not enough time. Time was hurting him now. Had to move.
He left Shaltie living, turned the lock knob, peered into the hallway. The internal corridor was empty. Went to the next door-public hall. Half-dozen people, all down at the public end, near the elevators, talking. He wouldn't have to walk past them. The stairs were the other way: he could see the exit sign, just beyond the fire hose.
Another breath. And move. He stepped out into the hall, head down. A lunchtime bureaucrat-jogger on his way outside. He walked confidently down the hall to the stairs, away from the elevators. Waiting for a shout. For someone to point a finger. For running feet.
He was in the stairway. Nobody took the stairs, not from this high up...
He ran down, counting the floors. As he passed six, a door slammed somewhere below and he heard somebody walking down ahead of him. He padded softly behind, heard another door open and shut, and stepped up the pace again. At the main level, he stopped and looked out. Dozens of people milled through the reception area. Okay. This was the second floor. He needed one more. He went down another level, and found an unmarked steel door. He pushed it open. He was outside, standing on the plaza. The summer sun was brilliant, the breeze smelled of popcorn and pigeons. A woman sitting on a bench, a kid next to her. She was cutting an apple with a penknife, her kid waiting for the apple.
Head down, Bekker jogged past her. Just another lunchtime fitness freak, weaving through the traffic, knees up, sweating in the sunshine.
Running like a maniac.
Lucas whipped down the asphalt backroads of Wisconsin, one hand on the wheel, one on the shifter, heel-and-toe on the corners, sunlight bouncing off the Porsche's dusty windshield. He slow-footed across the St. Croix bridge at Taylor's Falls into Minnesota, looking for cops, then dropped the hammer again, headed south into the sun and the Cities.
He caught Highway 36 west of Stillwater, the midday traffic sparse and torpid, pickups and station wagons clunking past the cow pastures, barns and cattail sloughs. Eight miles east of Interstate 694, he blew the doors off a red Taurus SHO. Clear road, except for the occasional crows picking at roadkill.
His eyes dropped to the speedometer. One hundred and seven.
What the fuck are you doing?
He wasn't quite sure. The day before, he'd rolled out of his lake cabin late in the afternoon and driven eighty miles north to Duluth. To buy books, he thought: there were no real bookstores in his corner of Wisconsin. He'd bought books, all right, but he'd wound up drinking beer in a place called the Wee Blue Inn at eight o'clock in the evening. He'd been wearing a dark-blue dress shirt under a silk jacket, khaki slacks, and brown loafers, no socks. A laid-off ore-boatman, drunk, had taken exception to the bare feet, and for one happy instant, before the barkeeps arrived, it had looked like the boatman would take a swing.
He needed a bar fight, Lucas thought. But he didn't need what would come afterward, the cops. He took his books back to the cabin, tried to fish the next day, then gave it up and headed back to the Cities, driving as fast as he knew how.
A few miles after blowing off the SHO, he passed the first of the exurban ramblers, outriders for the 'burbs. He groped in the glove box, found the radar detector, clipped it to the visor and plugged it into the cigarette-lighter socket as the Porsche screamed down the cracked pavement. He let his foot settle further; punched up the radio, Cities-97. Little Feat was playing hard hot boogie, "Shake Me Up," the perfect sound to accompany a gross violation of the speed limit.
The interstate overpass flicked past and the traffic got thicker. A hundred and eighteen. Hundred and nineteen. A stoplight he'd forgotten about, looming suddenly, with a blue sedan edging into a right-on-red turn. Lucas went left, right, left, heel-and-toe, blowing past the sedan; and past a station wagon, for a split second catching at the periphery of his vision the surprised and frightened face of a blond matron with a car full of blond kids.
The image fixed in his mind. Scared. He sighed and eased off the gas pedal, coasting. Dropped through a hundred, ninety, eighty. Across the northern suburbs of St. Paul, onto the exit to Highway 280. When he'd been a cop, he'd always been sneaking off to the lake. Now that he wasn't, now that he had time sitting on him like an endless pile of computer printout, he found the solace of the lake less compelling...
The day was warm, sunshine dappling the roadway, playing games with cloud-shadows on the glass towers of Minneapolis to the west. And then the cop car.
He caught it in the rearview mirror, nosing out of Broadway. No siren. His eyes dropped to the speedometer again. Sixty. The limit was fifty-five, so sixty should be fine. Still, cops picked on Porsches. He eased off a bit more. The cop car closed until it was on his bumper, and in the rearview mirror he could see the cop talking into his microphone: running the Porsche's tags. Then the light bar came up and the cop tapped his siren.
Lucas groaned and rolled to the side, the cop fifteen feet off his bumper. He recognized him, a St. Paul cop, once worked with the Southwest Team. He used to come into the deli near Lucas' house. What was his name? Lucas dug through his memory. Kelly... Larsen? Larsen was out of the car, heavy face, sunglasses, empty-handed. No ticket, then. And he was jogging...
Lucas shifted into neutral, pulled the brake, popped the door and swiveled in the seat, letting his feet fall on the shoulder of the road.
"Davenport, God damn it, I thought this was your piece of shit," Larsen said, thumping the Porsche's roof. "Everybody's looking for your ass..."
"Fuckin' Bekker blew out of the government center. He's knocked down two people so far."
"What?" Lucas Davenport: deep summer tan, jagged white scar crossing his eyebrow, khaki short-sleeved shirt, jeans, gym shoes. A surge of adrenaline almost took his breath away.
"Two of your buddies are laying up at your place. They think he might be coming for you," Larsen said. He was a large man who kept hitching up his belt, and peering around, as though he might spot Bekker sneaking through a roadside ditch.
Lucas: "I better get my ass down there..."
"Go." Larsen thumped the top of the car again.
Back on the highway, Lucas picked up the car phone and poked in the direct-dial number for the Minneapolis cops. He was vaguely pleased with himself: he didn't need the phone, rarely used it. He'd installed it the week after he'd bought the gold-and-steel Rolex that circled his wrist two useless symbols of his freedom from the Minneapolis Police Department. Symbols that he was doing what every cop supposedly wanted to do, to go out on his own, to make it. And now the business was snaking off in new directions, away from games, into computer simulations of police tactical problems. Davenport Games & Simulations. With the growing sales, he might have to rent an office.
The switchboard operator said, "Minneapolis."
"Gimme Harmon Anderson," Lucas said.
"Is that you, Lucas?" the operator asked. Melissa Yellow Bear.
"Yeah." He grinned. Somebody remembered.
"Harmon's been waiting. Are you at home?"
"No, I'm in my car."
"You heard what happened?" Yellow Bear was breathless.
"You take care, honey. I'll switch you over..."
A moment later, Anderson came on, and said without preamble, "Del and Sloan are at your place. Sloan got the key from your neighbor, but they're wasting their time. He won't be coming after this long. It's been three hours."
"How about Del's place? He and Bekker are relatives of some kind."
"We've got a couple of guys there, too, but he's hiding somewhere. He won't be out, not now."
"How did he..."
"Go on home and Sloan can fill you in," Anderson said, interrupting. "I gotta go. This goddamn place is a madhouse."
And he was gone. Police work to do, no time for civilians. Lucas got off at University Avenue, took it to Vandalia, across I-94 and down Cretin, then over to the tree-shaded river road. Brooding. No time for Davenport.
Feeling sorry for himself, knowing it.
Two blocks before he got to the house, he slowed, watching, then turned a block early. The neighborhood offered few places to hide, other than inside the houses. The yards were open, tree-filled, burning with color: crabapple blossoms and lines of tulips, banks of iris, pink peonies and brilliant yellow daffodils, and the odd patch of buttery dandelions that had somehow escaped the yard-service sprayers. The day was warm, and people were working in their yards or on their houses; a couple of kids in shorts shot baskets at a garage-mounted hoop. Bekker couldn't hide in the open yards, and breaking into a house would be tough. Too many people around. He turned a corner and idled down toward his house.
Lucas lived in what a real estate woman had once called a soft rambler: stone and clapboard, a fireplace, big trees, two-car garage. At the end of the asphalt drive, he slowed, punched the garage-door opener, and waited at the end of the driveway until the door was all the way up. A curtain moved in the front room.
When Lucas pulled into the garage, Sloan was waiting in the door between the house and the garage, hand in his jacket pocket. He was a thin man with high cheekbones and deep-set eyes. As Lucas got out of the car, Del drifted up behind Sloan, the butt of a compact 9mm pistol sticking out of his waistband. Del was older, with a face like sandpaper, a street burnout.
"What the hell happened?" Lucas asked as the garage door rolled down.
"An old-fuck deputy uncuffed him so he could take a shit," Sloan said. "Bekker'd been telling everybody that he had hemorrhoids and he always went to the can at the noon recess."
"Setting them up," Lucas said.
Del nodded. "Looks like it."
"Anyway, the jury went out and the deputy took him to the bathroom before hauling him down to the holding cell," Sloan continued. "Bekker unscrewed a steel toilet-paper holder from the wall of the stall. Came out of the stall and beat the shit out of the old guy."
"Not yet, but he's leaking brains. He's probably paralyzed."
"I heard he hit two guys?"
"Yeah, but the other was later..." Del said, and explained. Witnesses waiting outside a courtroom had seen Bekker leave, without knowing until later who he was. Others saw him cross the government-center plaza, running past the lunchtime brown-baggers, through the rafts of pigeons, heading down the street in his shorts. "He went about ten blocks, to a warehouse by the tracks, picked up a piece of concrete-reinforcement rod, went in the warehouse and whacked a guy working at the dispatch desk. A clerk. Took his clothes and his wallet. That's where we lost him."
"He's fucked up."
"I'm surprised Bekker didn't kill him."
"I don't think he had time," Del said. "He's in a hurry, like he knows where he's going. That's why we came here. But it don't feel right anymore, the longer I think about it. You scare the shit out of him. I don't think he'd take you on."
"He's nuts," said Lucas. "Maybe he would."
"Whatever, you got a carry permit?" asked Sloan.
"We'll have to fix you up if we don't get him..."
They didn't get him.
Lucas spent the next forty-eight hours checking old sources, but nobody seemed much inclined to talk to him, not even the cops. Too busy.
He brought a Colt Gold Cup.45 up from the basement gun safe, cleaned it, loaded it, kept it under the bed on a book. During the day, he carried it hidden in the Porsche. He enjoyed the weight of the gun in his hand and the headache-making smell of the gun-cleaning solvent. He spent an hour in a Wisconsin gravel pit, shooting two boxes of semi-wadcutters into man-sized silhouettes.
Then, two days after Bekker broke out of the courthouse, neighbors found the body of Katherine McCain. She'd been an antiques dealer and a friend of Bekker's wife, and she'd had the Bekkers to a party six or eight weeks before Bekker's wife had been murdered. Bekker knew the house and knew she lived alone. He'd been waiting when she came home, and killed her with a hammer. Before he left in her car, he'd used a knife to slash her eyes, so her ghost couldn't watch him from the other world.
And then he disappeared.
McCain's car was eventually found in an airport parking lot in Cleveland, Bekker long gone. On the day the car was found, Lucas put the.45 back in the gun safe. He never got the carry permit. Sloan forgot, and then after a while, it didn't seem important.
Lucas had temporarily gone off women, and found it hard to focus on the idea of a date. He tried fishing, played golf every day for a week. No good. His life, he thought with little amusement, was like his refrigerator and his refrigerator contained a six-pack of light beer, three cans of diet caffeine-free Coke, and a slowly fossilizing jar of mustard.
At night, unable to sleep, he couldn't get Bekker out of his head. Couldn't forget the taste of the hunt, of closing in, of cornering him...
He missed it. He didn't miss the police department, with its meetings and its brutal politics. Just the hunt. And the pressure.
Sloan called twice from Minneapolis, said it looked like Bekker was gone. Del called once, said they'd have to get a beer sometime.
Lucas said yeah.
Bekker was a bad penny.
Bekker would turn up.
Louis Cortese was dying.
A brilliant floodlight lit his waxy face and the blood on his cheeks, and emphasized the yellow tint in his eyes. His lips were twisted, like those of an imp in a medieval painting.
Bekker watched. Touched a switch, heard the camera shutter fire. He could feel death swooping down on them, in the little room, in the lights, as Louis Cortese's life drained into a plastic jug.
Bekker's brain was a calculator, an empty vessel, a tangle of energy, a word processor, and an expert anatomist. But never more than one thing at a time.
Three months in the Hennepin County Jail had changed him forever. The jailers had taken away his chemicals, boiled his brain, and broken forever the thin electrochemical bonds that held his mind together.
In jail, lying in his cell in his rational-planner mode, he'd visualized his brain as an old-fashioned Lions Club gumball machine. When he put in a penny, he got back a gumball but he never knew in advance what color he'd get.
The memory of Ray Shaltie, of the escape, was one color, a favorite flavor, rattling down the payoff chute of his psyche. When he got it, it was like a wide-screen movie with overpowering stereo sound, a movie that froze him in his tracks, wherever he was. He was back there with Ray Shaltie, with the steel fist, smashing...
Bekker, real time.
He sat in a chromed-steel chair and watched Cortese's death throes, his eyes moving between the monitor screens and the dying subject's face. A clear plastic tube was sewn into Cortese's neck, piping the blood from his carotid artery to an oversized water jug on the floor. The blood was purple, the color of cooked beets, and Bekker could smell it, his fine nostrils twitching with the scent. On the EKG, Cortese's heart rate soared. Bekker trembled. Cortese's consciousness was moving outward, expanding, joining with... what?
Well. Nothing, maybe.
Cortese's... essence... might be nothing more than a bubble reaching the top of a cosmic glass of soda water, expanding only to burst into oblivion. The pressure of the thought made Bekker's eyebrow jump uncontrollably, twitching, until he put a hand to his forehead to stop it.
There had to be something beyond. That he himself might just blink out... No. The thought was insupportable.
Cortese convulsed, a full-body rictus throwing him against the nylon restraining straps, his head cranking forward, his eyes bulging. Air squeezed from his lungs, past the elaborate gag, a hoarse bubbling release. He was looking at nothing: nothing at all. He was beyond vision...
The alarm tone sounded on the blood-pressure monitor, then on the EKG, twin tones merging into one. With his left hand still clapped to his forehead, restraining the unruly eyebrow, Bekker turned toward the monitors. Cortese's heart had stopped, blood pressure was plummeting toward zero. Bekker felt the large muscles of his own back and buttocks tighten with the anticipation.
He looked at the EEG, the brain-wave monitor. A jagged, jangled line just seconds before, it began flattening, flattening...
He felt Cortese go: could feel the essence go. He couldn't measure it not yet but he could feel it. He bathed in the feeling, clutched at it; fired a half-dozen photos, the motor drives going bzz-whit, bzz-whit behind his head. And finally the magic something slipped away. Bekker jumped to his feet, frantic to hold on. He leaned over Cortese, his eyes four inches from the other's. There was something about death and the eyes...
And then Cortese was gone, beyond Bekker's reach. His body, the shell of his personality, went slack beneath Bekker's hands.
The power of the moment spun Bekker around. Breathing hard, he stared at a reflection of himself in a polished stainless-steel cabinet. He saw himself there a dozen times a day, as he worked: the raw face, the sin face, he called it, the cornrows of reddened flesh where the gunsights had ripped through him. He said in a small, high voice: "Gone."
But not quite. Bekker felt the pressure on his back; his spine stiffened, and a finger of fear touched him. He turned, and the dead man's eyes caught him and held him. They were open, of course. Bekker had carefully trimmed away the eyelids to ensure they would remain that way.
"Don't," he said sharply. Cortese was mute, but the eyes were watching.
"Don't," Bekker said again, louder, his voice cracking. Cortese was watching him.
Bekker snatched a scalpel from a stainless-steel tray, stepped to the head of the table, leaned over the body and slashed at the eyes. He was expert: it only took a second. He carved the eyes like boiled eggs, and the vitreous aqua leaked down Cortese's dead cheeks like jellied tears.
"Good-bye," Bekker said dreamily. The ruined eyes were no longer threatening. A gumball dropped, and Bekker went away...
Thick stopped at the curb, rocking on his heels, waiting patiently for the light. Thin snapped a cigarette into the street, where it exploded in a shower of sparks. The cars went by in a torrent, battered Toyotas and clunking Fords, fender-bent Dodges, pickups and vans blocking the view ahead, trucks covered with graffiti, buses stinking up the streets with noxious diesel fumes, all rolling past like iron salmon headed upstream to spawn. Through all of it, the taxis jockeyed for position, signaling their moves with quick taps on their horns, an amber warp to the woof of the street. New York was noise: an underground rumble of trains and steam pipes, a street-level clash of gears and motors and bad mufflers, a million people talking at once, uncounted air conditioners buzzing above it all.
All of it congealed in the heat.
"Too fuckin' hot," Thick said. And it was; he could feel it on his neck, in his armpits, on the soles of his feet. He glanced at Thin, who'd stopped at the curb beside him. Thin nodded but didn't answer. They were both wearing long-sleeved shirts with the sleeves rolled down to their wrists. Thin was a problem, and Thick didn't quite know what to do about it. Hadn't really known, he thought wryly, for almost forty years now...
The walk sign flashed on and he and Thin crossed the street. A traffic-light pole, splattered with pigeon shit and encrusted with the grime of decades, sat on the corner. At the bottom, and up as high as a hand could reach, it was covered with fading posters. Above that, two street signs were mounted at right angles to each other, a bus-stop sign faced the street, and a temporary traffic-diversion sign pointed an arrow to the left. Above all that, a spar went out to the traffic signal, and another supported a streetlight.
Oughta put one in a fuckin' museum someplace, just like that. Our own fuckin' totem poles...
"Dollar..." The woman on the sidewalk reached up at him, holding a dirty hand-lettered card: "Help me feed my children." Thick walked past, thinking that it was impossible that the woman had children. In her forties, perhaps, she was withered as a week-old carrot, her emaciated legs sprawled beneath her, her bare feet covered with open sores. Her eyes had a foggy-white glaze, not cataracts, but something else. She had no teeth at all, only dimples in gray gums, like the vacant spots left by corn kernels popped from a cob.
"I read this book about Shanghai once, the way it was before World War Two," Thick said as they passed on. Thin looked straight ahead, not responding. "The thing was, begging was a profession, you know? But an ordinary guy couldn't get any alms. You needed to be special. So they'd take kids and burn their eyes out or smash their arms and legs with hammers. They had to make them pitiful enough to get money in a whole city full of beggars..."
Thin looked up at him, still saying nothing.
"So we're getting there, too," Thick said, looking back at the woman on the street. "Who's gonna give money to your average panhandler when you walk by something like that every day?" He half turned to look back at the woman.
"Dollar," the woman wailed, "Dollar..."
Thick was worried. Thin was talking about running out. He glanced at his partner. Thin's eyes were angry, fixed straight ahead. Thinking...
Thick was carrying a large, flat, cardboard box. It wasn't particularly heavy, but the shape was awkward, and he slowed to hitch it up under his arm.
"I wouldn't mind..." Thick started, then let it go. He reached up to scratch his face, but he was wearing thin, flesh-colored surgeon's gloves, and he couldn't effectively scratch. They moved along, quickly, to an apartment building across the street from the steak house. Thick had the key in his free hand and opened the door.
Thin said, "I can't do it."
"We gotta. Jesus Christ, if we don't we're fuckin' dead, all of us..."
"Off the street, off the street..."
Inside the door, the hall and landing were dimly lit by a yellow sixty-watt bulb. The stairs were immediately to the right, and Thick started up. Thin, undecided, looked back out at the street, then, reluctantly, because Thick was already moving, followed. At the top of the stairs, they stopped in the hallway for a moment and listened, then went to the front apartment and opened the door with a key. The only light in the apartment came through the yellowed shades on the front windows, from the street. The place smelled of dead air, old coffee grounds, and dry plants. The owners had been in Rome for a week, to see the Pope. They'd go to the Holy Land afterward. The Holy Land in July. They'd burn their brains out, if they had any, which they probably didn't, if they were going to the Holy Land in July.
Thin shut the door behind them and said, "Listen..."
"If you weren't going to do it, why'd you come this far?"
"Because you got us into it. I don't want you to get fucked up."
"Jesus..." Thick shook his head and stepped carefully through the dark room to the windows and lifted a shade. "Get the rifle."
"All right, I'll do it. Jesus, if that's the way you feel about it, go. Get the fuck out," Thick said, anger riding his voice. He was older than Thin by twenty-three years and two days, his face stamped with the cuts and gullies of a life on the street. He picked up the box he'd carried in. "Go."
Thin hesitated, watching. The box was five feet long by three wide, but only eight inches deep. It might have held a mirror, or even a painting, but it didn't it held a Colt AR-15 with a flash suppressor, a twenty-shot magazine, a two-power light-gathering scope, and a laser sight. The weapon, manufactured as a semiautomatic, had been converted to selectible fire, semiauto or full auto, by a machinist in Providence.
Thick had spent an afternoon in the Adirondacks shooting plastic milk jugs from a perch high on the bank of a gully. The gallon-sized jugs closely simulated the kill zone of a man's chest from any angle. Thick used hand-loaded cartridges, and he was a very good shot. When hit by one of Thick's hot loads, the milk jugs literally exploded.
Thick used a penknife to cut the twine that held the box shut, stripped off a couple of pieces of tape, opened it, and took the weapon out of the sponge-rubber packing. New scope mounts weren't as delicate as those he'd grown up with, but there was no point in taking chances. He hadn't. A fully loaded magazine was packed with the weapon. Each cartridge had been polished with a chamois to eliminate fingerprints. Thick slapped the magazine home with his rubber-gloved hands.
"Get the couch," Thick said. "Hurry it up."
"No: he's a cop. If he wasn't a cop..."
"Bullshit." Thick went to the windows, looked out on the empty street, then unlocked one of them and carefully raised it until it was fully open. Then he turned, glanced at Thin, and picked up the rifle.
"You never had this problem before..."
"The guy hasn't done anything. The others were scumbags... This is a cop. ..."
"He's a goddamn computer asshole cockroach and he's gonna put good guys in jail for doing what had to be done. And you know what happens if we get sent up? We're fuckin' dead, that's what. I personally doubt that I'd last a fuckin' week; if they come for me, I'm stickin' my goddamn pistol in my mouth, because I ain't goin'..."
Thick, standing well back from the window, looked at the restaurant across the street through the low-powered scope. A Visa emblem was stuck to the window on the door, under the script of the restaurant's name and logo. Looking at the logo, the theme song from an old television show trickled through his head: "Have gun, will travel" is the card of a man...
He picked up the Visa sign in the scope, touched the laser switch with his thumb. A red dot bloomed on the sign. Thick had a head the size of a gasoline can, with small ears that in the semidark looked like dried apricots. "He's worse than the shooflies."
"He..." Thin's eyes went to the street, and Thick followed them. The restaurant door was opening.
"Wrong guy," Thin blurted.
A man in a white tennis shirt and white shoes stood there, probing his gums with a plastic toothpick. The toothpicks were shaped like swords, Thin knew. They'd made a recon trip to the steak house the night before, to figure times and placements. The target always came in for the Friday special, New York strip with sour-cream baked potato and choice of draft beer. The man in the tennis shirt ambled down the street.
"Fuckin' faggot," said Thick. He flicked the switch on the laser sight and the red dot bloomed on the Visa sign.
He turned away from Cortese's body, his mind like a coil of concertina wire, tense, sharp, dangerous. He touched his shirt pocket: the pocket was empty. He stepped out of his room, with a touch of anxiety, and went to the old dresser where he kept his clothes. A half-handful of pills were scattered across the top of it, and he relaxed. Enough. He picked up several, developing a combo rush as he went, popped them into his mouth, savored the acrid bite, and swallowed. So good; but so few. He looked at the top of the dresser, at the pills there. Enough for another day, no more. He'd have to think about it but later.
He went back into the workroom, killed the monitors, their green screens blanking out. Nothing to see anyway, just horizontal lines. Bekker ignored the body. Cortese was simply garbage, a matter of disposal.
But before the death... A new gumball dropped, and Bekker froze beside the worktable, his mind sliding away.
Louis Cortese had been dark-haired, seventy-one and one-half inches tall, one hundred and eighty-six pounds, and thirty-seven years old all of it carefully recorded in Bekker's notebooks. He'd been a graduate in electrical engineering from Purdue University. Before Bekker'd cut off his eyelids, when Cortese had still been trying to ingratiate himself, still fending off the idea that he was about to die, he'd told Bekker that he was a Pisces. Bekker had only a vague idea what that meant, and he wasn't interested.
Cortese's body lay on a stainless-steel countertop, which had cost six hundred and fifty dollars at a restaurant-supply shop in Queens. The countertop, in turn, was fixed to an old wooden library table; Bekker'd had to cut down the legs to get the proper working height. Overhead, a rank of three shop lamps threw a flat, cold light on the table.
Because his research subjects would be alive, Bekker had fixed restraining rings to the table. A brown nylon strap was clipped to a ring just below Cortese's right armpit, and ran diagonally from the armpit across the chest between the nipple and the shoulder, to another ring behind the neck, then from behind the neck, back across the opposite side of the chest to another ring below the left armpit; it held Cortese like a full nelson. Additional straps crossed the body at the waist and knees and bound the wrists and ankles.
One of the hands was taped as well as bound: Bekker monitored blood pressure through a catheter placed in the radial artery, and the wrist had to be totally immobilized. Cortese's jaws were spread wide, held open by a hard-rubber cone: the subject could breathe through the nose, but not through the mouth. His screams, when he tried to scream, sounded like a species of humming, though not quite humming.
Mostly, he'd been as silent as a book.
At the head of the table, Bekker had stacked his monitoring equipment in what a discount stereo store had called a home entertainment center. The arrangement was pleasingly professional. The monitors measured body temperature, blood pressure, heartbeat, and brain-wave activity. He also had a neuro-intracranial pressure monitor, but hadn't used it.
The room around the equipment was also carefully finished: he'd worked on it for a week before he was satisfied. Scrubbed it with disinfectant. Installed an acoustic-tile ceiling and Formica wall panels in a smooth oyster-white finish. Put down the royal-blue carpet. Brought in the equipment. The monitors had been the hard part. He'd finally gotten them from Whitechurch, a dealer at Bellevue. For two thousand in cash, Whitechurch had taken them out of a repair shop, first making sure they'd been fixed...
One of the monitors was telling him something.
What was it? Hard to concentrate...
Body temperature, eighty-four degrees.
That was too low. He glanced at the clock. 9:07...
He'd been gone again.
Bekker rubbed the back of his neck, disturbed. He would go away, sometimes for an hour. It never seemed to happen at critical times, but still: he should have recognized it, the sigh when he came back. When he went away, he always came back with a sigh...
He stepped to the tape recorders, looked at the counters. They were slightly out of sync, one of them at 504, the other at 509. He rewound them to 200 and listened to the first.
"... direct stimulus brings only a slight reaction, no more than one millimeter..."
His own voice, hoarse with excitement. He turned off the first recorder, turned on the second. "... no more than one-millimeter reflex in the iris followed by immediate release of..."
He turned off the second one. The recorders were working fine. Identical Sonys, with battery backup in case of power failure, they were better than the ones he'd used at the University of Minnesota.
Bekker sighed, caught himself, looked quickly at the clock, afraid that he'd been away again. No. 9:09. He had to clean up, had to get rid of Cortese's body, had to process the Polaroid color-slide film in the cameras. And he had some ideas about the taking of the specimens, and those ideas should be noted. Many things to do. But he couldn't, not at just this moment. The PCP hadn't arrived, and he felt... serene. The session had been a good one.
He glanced at the clock, felt a tiny thrill of fear. Nine twenty-five. He'd been gone again, frozen in one place; his knees ached from the unmoving stance. It was happening too much. He needed more medication. Street cocaine was good, but not precise enough...
Bekker turned his head. The intrusive sound came from a corner of his basement apartment. Almost a bell, but not quite. Instead of ringing, it simply struck once each time the old woman pushed the button.
Bekker frowned, walked to the intercom, cleared his throat, and pressed the talk button. "Mrs. Lacey?"
"My hands hurt." Her voice was shrill and ragged. Old. She was eighty-three, hard of hearing, nearly blind in one eye. Her arthritis was bad and growing worse. "My hands hurt so much," she complained.
"I'll bring a pill... in a few minutes," Bekker said. "But there are only three left. I'll have to go out again tomorrow..."
"How much?" she asked.
"Three hundred dollars..."
"My golly..." She seemed taken aback.
"It's very difficult to find these days, Mrs. Lacey," Bekker said. And it had been for decades. She knew that. Morphine had never been street-legal in her lifetime. Neither had her marijuana.
A few days after he'd taken the job as a live-in helper the old woman's word, she didn't need bathroom assistance he'd shown her a Wall Street Journal story about bank failures. She'd read it, nearly whimpering. She had her Social Security, she had her savings, some $370,000, and she had her building. If any of them broke down...
Edith Lacey had watched the old street women as they went by, pushing their shopping carts along the broken pavement, guarding their bundles of rags. She knew them, she said, although Bekker didn't believe her. She'd look out and make up stories about them. "Now that one, she once owned a grocery on Greenwich..."
Bekker suggested that she spread her cash among three or four unrelated banks, so more would be insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
"Uncertain times," he told her in his careful voice.
She'd talked to her only ambulatory friend about it. Bridget Land, who didn't like Bekker, had thought that spreading the money among banks would be a good idea. And she'd volunteered to go with them: "To make sure everything is on the up-and-up," she'd said, her eyes moving almost involuntarily toward Bekker. "At the banks, I mean."
They'd moved the money in a single day, the two old women nervously guarding the cashier's checks like mother hens. Edith Lacey carrying one inside her blouse, Bridget Land the other in a buttoned pocket, just in case. They'd focused so closely on the checks that neither had paid much attention to Bekker as he reviewed Edith's applications for new accounts. Bekker had simply checked the "yes" box that asked if the applicants wanted automatic-teller cards. He picked up the mail each afternoon; a week after they'd moved the money to the banks, he'd intercepted the automatic-teller codes, and a week after that, the cards themselves. The cards were each good for five hundred dollars a day. During the first month, Bekker worked the accounts almost daily, until he had twenty thousand in cash.
"Get fruit," the old woman ordered.
"I'll stop at MacGuire's," he said on the intercom.
"Okay." He started to turn away.
"Be sure to get apricots..."
"Yes," he snapped.
"You didn't get them last time..."
He was seized by a sudden urge to go up and choke her: not the urge that took him to his subjects, but an almost human desire to choke the shit out of a common nag. "I'm sorry," he said, abjectly, hiding the sudden fury. "And I'll try to get your pills."
That would shut her up...
Bekker turned away from the intercom and, through the dark living quarters, saw Cortese's body in the bright light flowing from the operating room. Might as well do it now.
From the kitchen, he brought a long roll of black polyethylene, sold as painter's dropcloth. He unrolled it beside the dissection table, used a scalpel to cut it to the right length, then unfolded it. Unstrapped the body. Pulled the catheter from the wrist, pulled the temperature probe. The temperature was down to seventy-nine. Cooling quickly.
Bodies are hard to manipulate, and Bekker, with much experience, didn't even try. He simply walked to the far side of the table and pushed. The body rolled out of the tray and fell on the plastic sheet with a meaty thwack. He walked back around the table, wrapped it, folded the extra length, tied it with clothesline. He took two extra loops at the waist, to use as a handle. He hauled the body through the living quarters and up the steps to the building's reinforced back door, struggling with it. Even when you didn't care if they were damaged, bodies were difficult. And Cortese had been hefty. He should go after smaller people...
The back door of the Lacey building was hidden from the street by a lean-to structure, designed as a car shelter. He popped open the door, chain still on, and checked the lean-to. In the past, bums had sheltered there. Nothing but the Volkswagen, undisturbed. He dragged the body outside, and, with some difficulty, stuffed it into the passenger seat. When it was in, he stepped to the edge of the lean-to and peeked toward the street. Nobody. He went back inside, closed the door, and hurried down the stairs.
Bekker showered, shaved carefully, dressed, and put on his makeup. The process was intricate: The heavy base makeup covered his ruined face, but had to be carefully shaded into the clear skin at his temples without obvious lines. He took half an hour, working at it. He'd just finished when Mrs. Lacey rang again.
"What?" Old hag...
"My hands," she whined.
"I'm coming now," he said. Maybe he should kill her, he thought. He allowed himself to feel the pleasure of the idea. But then he'd have to explain her absence to Bridget Land. Though he could eliminate Land... But that led into a maze of unresolvable questions and dangers: Did Land have other friends, and did they know she came to see Edith Lacey? If Land disappeared, would others come looking for her?
Killing her would be dangerous... No, he would kill neither of them. Not yet. Lacey was the perfect front and Land was, so far, only a modest inconvenience. Bekker, thinking about them, got a bottle of pills from his bureau, shook one into the palm of his hand, went to the bottom of the stairs, flicked a light switch, and went up.
The stairs emerged into the back part of the first floor, then curled and went up to the second and third floors. The first floor had once been a plumbing-parts supply business, but had been vacant for years. During the day, a murky green light filtered through from the street. At night, the grille-covered windows were simply dark panels on either side of the street door.
The old woman huddled on the second floor, where she'd lived with her two cats since her husband's death. The second floor reeked of the three of them: cooked carrots, dope, and cat piss. Bekker hated the cats. They knew what he was and watched him from shelves, their eyes glittering in the gloom, as the old woman huddled in front of the television, wrapped in her tie-dyed shawl.
The third floor had once been part of the living quarters, when Mrs. Lacey's husband was living, but now, like the first, was vacant.
Bekker climbed to the second floor, the smell of carrots and marijuana closing around him. "Mrs. Lacey?"
"In here." She was a small woman, with thick glasses that enlarged her rheumy blue eyes. Her hair, wiry and gray, clung close to her head. She had a small button nose and tiny round lips. She was wrapped in a housecoat. She had four of them, quilted, in different pastel colors. She was waiting in the big chair in the living room, facing the television. Bekker went to the kitchen, ran a glass of water and carried the pill out to her. A cat ran from under her chair and hid in the next room, looking back at Bekker with cruel eyes.
"This'll help. I'll get more tomorrow."
"Thank you." She took the pill and drank greedily from the glass.
"You have your pipe and lighter?"
"You have enough of your tea?"
"Yes, thank you kindly." She cackled. She'd washed out of the bohemian life of the forties, but she still had her tea.
"I'm going out for a while," he said.
"Be careful, it's dangerous this late..."
Bekker left her in her chair and went back down the stairs and carefully checked the lean-to again. Nobody.
The Lacey building fronted on Greene Street. The buildings on either side ran all the way back to Mercer, but the Lacey building filled only half the lot. The back lot, overgrown weeds and volunteer sumac, was closed off with a ten-foot chain-link fence. Before Bekker had arrived, vandals and bums had been over and through it and had broken the lock on the gate. After Bekker had bought the Volkswagen, he'd had the fence fixed and a long twisty strand of razor wire laid along the top.
Now he backed the Volkswagen out of the lean-to, wheeled it to the fence, hopped out, opened the gate, drove through, stopped once more, and locked the gate again.
New York, he thought.
Bagels and lox / Razor wire and locks.
"Door," said Thick. He was standing by the window, the M-15 at his shoulder.
On the street below, an old-fashioned Volkswagen, a Bug, zipped past. Thick, looking through the scope, ignored it. A man had stepped out on the street and paused. He had light hair, slightly mussed, and gold-rimmed glasses. Narrow shoulders. He was smiling, his lips moving, talking to himself. He was wearing a blue short-sleeved shirt, and jeans that were too long for his legs. He used his index fingers to push his glasses up on his nose.
"Yes," Thick grunted, his finger tightening on the trigger.
"No..." said Thin, taking two steps toward the window.
But a red dot bloomed on the target's chest. He may have had an instant to think about it; again, maybe not. The blast of the gun was deafening, the muzzle flash brighter than Thin had expected. The target seemed to jump back, and then began a herky-jerky dance. Thin had once seen a film showing Hitler dancing a jig after the fall of France. The man on the street looked like that for just a second or two: as though he were dancing a jig. The thunder rolled on, six shots, eight, twelve, quick, evenly spaced, the lightning flickering off their faces.
A little more than halfway through the magazine, Thick flicked the selector switch and unloaded the remaining cartridges in a single burst. The target was now flat on the sidewalk, and the burst of bullets splattered about his head like copper-jacketed raindrops.
Thin stood by the window, unspeaking.
"Go," said Thick. He dropped the rifle on the floor. "Hands."
With their gloved hands pressed to their faces, they walked down the hall to the back of the building, ran down a flight of stairs, along another hallway, then out a side door into an alley. The alley led away from the shooting.
"Don't run," said Thick as they emerged onto the street.
"Watch it," said Thin.
A Volkswagen lurched past, a Bug, catching them in its lights, their pale faces like street lamps in the night. It was the same car that had driven past the restaurant just before the computer fag came out on the sidewalk...
With the body beside him, Bekker was tense, cranked, watching for cop cars, watching everything that went by. He had a small pistol by his side, a double-barreled derringer.38 Special, but if he had to use it, he'd probably be finished.
But so far, so good.
SoHo streets were quiet at night. Once out of the neighborhood, things would get more complicated. He didn't want anything high beside him, a van or a truck. He didn't want a driver looking down into the Volkswagen, even though he probably wouldn't see much. The body, wrapped in dark plastic, looked more like a butterfly's chrysalis than anything, a cocoon. What you might expect from a Bug.
Bekker almost laughed. Not quite; he was too crazy to have a genuine sense of humor. Instead he said, "Motherfucker."
He needed a wall, or an unguarded building with a niche in the wall. Some place where nobody would look out and see him unloading the body. He hadn't thought much about disposal: he'd have to think more. He'd need a random dispersal pattern, nothing they could use to focus on his particular block. He'd have to decide the optimum distance far enough not to point at SoHo, but not so far that the drive itself became risky.
He drove past the Manhattan Caballero, a Village steak house, a couple of bright beer signs in the small barred windows. The door opened as he went by and he saw a slender man come out, caught just for a moment by the light inside the doorway; and behind him, a cigarette machine.
The gunshots sounded like popcorn. Or like a woman ripping a piece of dress material. Bekker looked in the mirror, saw the lightning. Bekker had been in Vietnam; he'd heard this noise from a distance, this snickering popcorn thunder. He'd seen this flickering light. The man he'd seen in the doorway was flopping on the sidewalk as the bullets tore through him.
"Motherfucker..." Teeth bared, mouth wide, Bekker screamed the word: he was innocent, he had nothing to do with it, and he could get caught, right here. Half panicked, afraid that neighbors would take the number of every car they saw, Bekker floored the accelerator and raced to the end of the long block. The gunfire lasted for only two or three seconds. It took another five before he could turn left, out of sight, onto a one-way street. The adrenaline surged through him, the PCP panic. And up ahead, yellow lights flashed in the street.
The panic jumped him. He jammed on the brake, forgetting the clutch, and the Volkswagen stalled. The body crinkled its plastic coat as it swayed in the seat toward him. He pushed it back with one hand, fighting the fist in his throat, trying to breathe, trying to get some air, and stabbed at the gas pedal. Finally realizing what had happened, he dropped the clutch and turned the key again, got started, shifting into second.
He jerked the car to the left, still dazzled, before he realized that the yellow lights were road-construction warnings. No reason to turn but he already had, and he sped on. Near the end of the block, two figures stepped out of an alley. His headlights swept them, and he saw their hands come up. They were hiding their faces, but before they'd covered them, they'd been as clear as the face of the moon.
Bekker swerved, kept going.
Had they seen his plates? No way to tell. He peered into the rearview mirror, but they were already lost in the dark. He was okay. He tried to choke down the fear. The back plates were old and dirty.
But the gunfire.
Had to think. Jesus, he needed help. He felt for the matchbox. No, that wouldn't be right. He needed speed. Uppers, to help him think.
Somewhere behind him. He wasn't sure quite where he was anymore, took a left, moving away, coming up to a major intersection. He looked up at the street signs. Broadway. What was the other? He rolled forward a few feet. Bleecker. Okay. Good. Straight ahead, along Bleecker. Had to get the body out. A darker block, a deep-red building with niches, but no place to pull over. Another fifty feet... there.
He pulled to the curb, hopped out, and looked around. Nobody. He could hear somebody talking, loud, but it sounded like a drunk. He hurried around the car, shifted the body out and dropped it in a doorway. Looked up: the ceiling in the deep doorway was decorated with intricate designs in white terra-cotta; the designs caught his mind, dragged it into the maze of curves...
Another siren brought him back. It was somewhere down Bleecker, but he couldn't see the lights. He hurried back to the car, sweating, climbed inside, and looked back through the open door at the mortal remains of Louis Cortese. From any more than a few feet, the body looked like a bum sleeping on the sidewalk. And there were hundreds of bums in the area.
He risked a last look at the terra-cotta, felt the pull, then tore his eyes away and slammed the door. Hunched over the steering wheel, he headed for home.
Thick picked up the pay phone and dialed the number scrawled on a scrap of paper. He let the phone ring twice, hung up, waited a few seconds, dialed again, let it ring twice more, hung up again.
Thin was waiting in the car, didn't speak.
"It'll be okay," Thick said.
After a very long time, Thin said, "No, it won't."
"It's fine," the big man said. "You did good."
When Bekker got to the Lacey building, he parked the car, went down into the basement, stripped off his clothes, scrubbed his face, changed into a sweat suit. And thought about the killing he'd seen. New York was a dangerous place someone really ought to do something about it... There was some cleanup to do in the operating theater. He worked at it for ten minutes, with a sponge and paper towels and a can of universal cleaner. When he was done, he wrapped all the paper and put it in the garbage. He remembered the blood just as he was about to turn out the lights. He picked up the bottle and tipped it into a drain, the blood as purple and thick as antifreeze.
Again he reached for the lights, and saw the four small nubbins of skin sitting on top of an anesthetic tank. Of course, he'd put them there, just a convenient place at the time.
He picked them up. Shriveled, with the long shiny lashes, they looked like a new species of arachnid, a new one-sided spider. They were, of course, something much more mundane: Cortese's eyelids. He peered at them in the palm of his hand. He'd never seen them like this, so separate, so disembodied.
Ha. Another one. Another joke. He looked in the stainless-steel cabinet, laughed and held his belly, and pointed a finger at himself. Disembodied...
He went back to them, the eyelids. Fascinating.
27 February 2020
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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