Dark Road Rising Chapter 21

FLEMING

DUGAN'S hideout was the last of four similar small houses on a narrow road that continued south through empty fields;in the distance were enough lights to indicate a town. The two farthest houses showed lights, the nearest was dark. He'd picked a great spot for privacy.

To the north was Chicago, its glow against the clouds unmistakable and reassuring.

Mindful of how Dugan had acquired his last lair, I looked for graves and was thankful when nothing obvious presented itself. There was a rickety shed in back, empty, dirt floor undisturbed, a faded FOR RENT sign leaning against one side. The house itself was empty of furnishings except what he'd apparently brought himself. He must have gone legit to better keep his head down.

Putting the revolver on a kitchen counter, I gave myself a preliminary wash in the big sink, getting most of the blood and grime off my face and arms. The water was even hot.

He'd been intent on bathing, too, before my interruption. The bathtub had water in it, but it was draining away around a leaky plug. I quelled an urge to fill the thing and dive in.

His shaving things were balanced along the edge of the sink. I felt my beard, considered for less than a second, and left. I didn't want to touch any of his stuff if I could help it.

First things first, I found the rest of the blood supply he'd brought for me in the fridge: a dozen quart milk bottles filled to the brim. I snagged one and drank it straight down. My healing and the fight had taken it out of me, and even after my drink I still felt a general weariness.

That, I told myself, would fade with time. He'd given me his worst, and I'd beaten him. Maybe tomorrow night I'd get the shakes or cringe at a bad memory, but I'd worry about it then, not now.

Next I had to clean things other than myself, and it wasn't easy going back down into that damned basement. It stank of blood and terror. I made an effort not to breathe the rusty sweet stench.

The table must have been brought down in pieces;it was that big. He couldn't have managed it on his own otherwise.

The two rods stuck up as I'd left them, one with the handle broken off. I looked underneath to see how he'd worked it and saw that there had been a reason for the threading.

The lower part of the rods extended about a foot and a half below the table, and he'd filed the ends to points, the easier to pierce my arms. There were two thick metal squares with half-inch holes drilled in their centers firmly screwed to the underside of the table. Each rod went through that hole, held firmly in place with thick nuts and washers. Without the plates to spread the load, I might have been able to pull the rods out from the wood. Hideous, simple, and it worked.

I wanted to burn the table, but that would not be practical. Instead, I removed the rods, leaving the table with the holes and reinforcing plates as a mystery for anyone who happened to come down here next. The rods, rope, and my packet of earth went into the car. I kept the butcher's apron out.

The basement had a cement floor with a drain and over in a corner was a faucet. Cold water, but it did the job once I found a bucket and an ancient mop. I threw water over the table and swabbed it down, on top and underneath. My blood had soaked into some spots, but given time would turn into unidentifiable stains.

After the table I threw water on the stairs and floor, mopping them down. The porous cement would not scrub clean, but most of the red stuff went down the drain, and the place looked less like a slaughterhouse. The mop head remained bloody however much I rinsed it, so it would also go in the car.

Upstairs, I swept up the broken glass and put it in the bucket. I carried his radio, toolkit, and the bottles of animal blood to the car. He had a crate in the trunk, and the bottles fit neatly into it with no chance of spilling. This must have been how he'd carried them in the first place.

I searched his suitcase, finding bundles of money, spare clothes, newspapers, and most of a ream of writing paper, but nothing to indicate his identity.

On his writing table was a bottle of his favorite green ink ready to refill his favorite fountain pen.

In his neat, machinelike hand, he'd covered one sheet of paper with personal observations about his experiment-me. I didn't care to read more, and found matches left forgotten in a kitchen drawer. I crumpled his latest thought into a ball, and gathered up all the origami animals, carrying them to the kitchen sink.

They made a nice blaze for a few long minutes. I unfolded and fed them in one by one until the green was consumed by black, then crushed the ashes to dust. Running water flushed the last of his poisonous thoughts away for good. The sink had a scorched area, but that would be someone else's problem.

I squashed his clothing into the suitcase with his shaving gear, the paper and ink-everything he'd brought-and put it in the car, keeping one of his shirts. I used it to rub down every surface in the house I could remember touching and a few more besides just to be careful. I used it like a glove to pick up the revolver again, wiping it, too, then thoughtfully switched off the lights. The doorknobs got a final swipe as I went outside.

My arms were still bare, what with the sleeves having been cut away, but I didn't feel cold. I'd worked up a good sweat from all the work.

There was one last job to do, and I'd allowed for the fact that I might not be able to finish it.

Dugan lay flat on the ground next to the grave he'd dug.

I'd shot him. He was dead.

For now.

I didn't know if he would stay that way.

After all the blood he'd drained from me, I sure as hell wasn't going to take any chances.

I looked at his corpse, and all I could feel was relief. Guilt, regret, fear of being caught, even satisfaction-all the varied emotions that people experience when they murder another human being weren't there for me. I was only relieved that it was over.

Maybe that meant another piece of my soul was gone, burned away like his writing. Or maybe I was in some kind of shock.

Then it was a relieved kind of shock.

I dropped the revolver into the hole and tossed the shirt aside in case I wanted a rag for later.

His shovel was on the ground next to a pick he'd used to break up the tough earth. He was no expert at grave-digging, but he'd made it and the smaller hole very deep. All the energy and strength he'd taken from me had had to go somewhere.

I stooped and got the shovel. It still had the price written on the handle in grease pencil.

Last job.

It was a bad time to stop and think, but I realized I didn't know just how to do what needed to be done.

One short moment of consideration later, I turned him on his face. His body was flaccid and oddly heavy. Was it already repairing that bullet hole in his heart? I had no sense that there was anything left of him. There is an awful emptiness to the dead. You expect them to notice and react to your presence. It's unsettling that they don't.

Of course, it's even more unsettling if they do.

Two-handed, I raised the shovel and brought it straight down like a guillotine blade on the back of his neck. It sheared through the bones and flesh, biting into the earth beneath. His head did not roll away. Appalled that I'd even thought of it, I had carefully banked snow around him to prevent any such motion.

There was, not surprisingly, a great deal of blood. Much of it leaked into the ground, but a lot splashed onto me. I'd put on the butcher's apron, though, tying it low to cover my legs and shoes.

I kicked his body into the longer hole. It landed chest up.

Snapping the pick handle in two over one knee, I vanished, went down in the hole long enough to ram half of the splintered length of wood into his heart, took off the heavy apron, and shot swiftly clear.

Solid again, I quickly stumbled away and threw up.

My legs gave out. I fell on all fours in the snow, heaving and whooping and finally sobbing, though my eyes were dry. The emotional reaction caught up to me sooner than expected. I rode it out like a storm, letting my body have its way so I could eventually function again. On an intellectual level I'd done what was necessary, but certain horrors are harder to deal with than others.

Nausea anchored me in place for some time, blotting out even the cold, wet snow as I lay curled on the ground, groaning and miserable.

Once more I conjured that perfect summer day, but it was less perfect now. The stock-tank water was uncomfortably cool, and gray clouds crowded in, dulling the blue sky. Bobbi and Escott were nowhere in sight.

My doppelg§Ԯger loafed under the shade tree, hands in his pockets, his expression sympathetic.

For the first time it occurred to me that doppelg§Ԯgers in legend were supposed to be evil things. They brought calamity, chaos, and worse to those unlucky enough to see theirs.

Maybe he was the real Jack Fleming, and I was his doppelg§Ԯger.

The other me gave a sardonic snort, shaking his head, showing a brief grin.

’’Don't be a pill,’’ he said, then walked away.

I blinked awake. What the hell did that mean?

Ah, crap, I'd think about it later. I was freezing.

I scattered snow over the mess I'd made and went back to the long hole. Dugan's body was still in it, showing no signs of resurrection. I shoveled dirt in, enough to discourage scavengers, then regarded the smaller hole.

Clearly he'd dug it as a place to bury my head when the time came. It would be easy enough to toss his in, but I felt a reluctance to do so. There was no excuse not to use it, but from there I went up against an unexpected streak of superstition.

I had a nightmare picture of Dugan's body blindly lurching from its grave to go digging up its head.

That would not happen... but sometimes it's okay to give in to a mild case of irrationality. If it makes you feel better, why not?

My irrationality was sufficiently strong that it gave me the stomach to slam the sharp end of the pick through the back half of Dugan's head. Can't say I felt better, as the nausea returned in force, but the action removed all doubts that Dugan would somehow revive. His ghost might haunt me, along with the sound his skull made when the bones shattered, but everyone else was safe.

I shut the impaled remains in the rickety shed along with the swabbed-down shovel. In a couple days I'd call the cops and complain about intruders in the house and a bad smell coming from the shed. Of course they would be revolted by the headless corpse and the obvious violence that had taken place, but that couldn't be helped. They would eventually identify Dugan from his prints or what was left of his face and unofficially close a few files.

Someone would have to make an effort to find his killer, of course. That was of no concern to me so long as they didn't come knocking on my door. If that happened, well, I had plenty of friends who would provide me with an alibi, no questions asked.

Keeping my head low, I drove his car past the two occupied houses at a sedate, everything's normal pace, and continued north.

The city gradually embraced me, fields giving way to sidewalks and houses and traffic;I made brief stops to clear the car of evidence. Most of it went into an incinerator near the Stockyards that I'd used before for getting rid of incriminating things. Dugan's suitcase and that goddamned bottle of green ink went into the fire, along with the mop.

I left the small radio on someone's porch. Did the same again for the box of new tools. Happy birthday.

The blood went into a gutter drain. It seemed to take a long time to pour out, but only because I was worried someone would catch me at it. Though it was wasteful, I wasn't hungry. The empty bottles and threaded rods I shoved into trash cans behind a closed diner along with the bucket of broken glass.

The car emptied bit by bit until only the bundles of cash remained. In a few weeks I'd mail the money back to the woman it belonged to with the hope she'd wise up about her choice in boyfriends.

Cleaned out, my prints wiped away, I left the car across from a police station and slunk off into the shadows before anyone noticed.

I was still in a scary-looking condition and avoided people. A beat cop noticed me and started coming in my direction, but I vanished into an alley and sped along for a block before re-forming again.

Needing clothes and a cleaning up, I slipped into a closed men's store and helped myself to one of everything, leaving the tags and more than enough cash on the counter.

A few streets over I found a hotel. Not wanting to startle the night clerk, I floated up the outside wall and sieved into an empty room on the top floor. There I stripped and scalded clean in the shower bath.

With much relief I noted that there were no permanent scars on my arms or my wrist where Dugan had cut me. The old ones left by Bristow were still present, but they didn't bother me as much now.

I had no shaving gear, but the rest of me was clean and grateful for the new clothes. I shoved my rags down the hotel's own incinerator chute and left five bucks in the bathroom for the maid to find.

Doing a plausible impersonation of a respectable citizen, I hired a taxi from the hotel stand, and got a quick ride to Lady Crymsyn.

The lights were on. Myrna must be awake. I paid off the driver and strolled across the street, checking both ways for anything more dangerous than myself.

The front door was unlocked. I listened a moment. A radio played, and a woman was singing along with the music.

I pushed in. Bobbi was at the bar with several stacks of paper scattered over it. She was in deep study over something but looked up the moment the door opened.

Her eyes widened as she stared me up and down, but I couldn't read anything of what she was thinking. I let the door shut softly behind and stepped in, unsure of my reception. She shut off the radio.

’’I'm back,’’ I finally said, just to break the thick silence.

’’No kiddin',’’ she replied. ’’You get your thinking all done?’’

Oh. Dugan had left a misleading message on my behalf. May he rot in hell or at least in that pit he'd dug for me. ’’Yeah. All done.’’

’’Good.’’

I wanted to hold her, make sure she was real, but sensed she was in a prickly mood. ’’What's that?’’

She rested her fingers lightly on the papers. ’’Head shots, clippings, and my credits list. It was in the files upstairs. I want to get everything in order. Lenny Larsen said I'd need to have new photographs, but that I should wait and have them done in Hollywood.’’

’’He'd be the expert. How are Roland and Faustine?’’

’’They're fine. He's getting better. So's Gordy.’’

I nodded, forcing a brief, wooden smile.

God, I felt as awkward as a kid at his first dance. After three nights of surviving hell's antechamber it was disorienting to be back in my normal world. It and the people there had no idea of what I'd been through. I had no inclination to tell them, either.

’’What is it, Jack?’’

’’I... I'm just glad to see you. I missed you.’’

’’Missed you, too.’’

She was waiting for me to work up to the delicate topic of her going off to make that screen test. I'd promised to think about it. And I had. At length. It was one of the things that had kept me alive.

It had to wait, though. A car pulled up out front. Probably some late drinkers hoping the club had reopened. I went to the door to lock it, but not in time.

Escott, looking like he'd been dragged through Lake Michigan and hung out to dry in the rain, barged in. He stopped in surprise, glaring.

’’Well, it's about damned time you got back,’’ he told me, and bulled past.

Behind him was Kroun. ’’Where the hell have you been?’’ he said.

He didn't wait for an answer but trudged to a chair and dropped heavily into it. He'd been dragged through the lake, mudflats, and some kind of obstacle course.

Bobbi didn't know who to stare at the most. That made two of us. ’’Charles?’’

’’May I have a whiskey?’’ he asked her. He peeled out of his damp overcoat.

She played barmaid. ’’What happened to you?’’

’’Minor escapade. Quite stupid and wholly boring.’’

She shot a glance at me. Neither of us believed him. ’’Mr. Kroun?’’

He held up a grubby palm and summoned some charm for her. ’’Gabe, please.’’

’’Gabe. What happened?’’

He grimaced and brushed his hand over the white patch. ’’I had some business problems to work out. Got a little messy. I need to lie low for a while. Escott said this joint would be all right.’’ He looked at me.

I gave an I-don't-mind shrug, trusting Escott would explain later.

Something shook inside my chest, fighting its way out. I tried to suppress the urge, but nothing doing, it was too strong.

I started laughing.

Thankfully, it wasn't that scary, maniacal kind, but the three of them stared until I got it under control.

’’Sorry,’’ I said.

’’We were worried about you,’’ said Escott sourly. He downed his drink.

Bobbi poured him another and growled agreement.

’’I wasn't,’’ said Kroun. ’’But you picked a hell of a time to run off.’’

’’Sorry,’’ I repeated. ’’Won't happen again.’’

That stood on its own for a while. I took off my new coat and hat, putting them on one of the stools. No one seemed disposed to start a conversation until the light flickered behind the bar.

’’Hello, Myrna,’’ I said. ’’Good to see you, too.’’

Kroun muttered something I didn't catch.

’’Figuratively speaking,’’ I added.

The flickering stopped. I thought that later, when I was alone, I'd tell Myrna what I'd been through. She wouldn't mind. It wouldn't change things between us.

’’What's with the beard?’’ asked Kroun, rubbing his own unshaved jaw.

’’Forgot my razor.’’

’’Jack... is that a new suit?’’ Bobbi came around the bar for a closer look.

’’Like it?’’

’’It's nice.’’

At the clothing store, the only double-breasted in my size that I could halfway tolerate had been a pale gray number. I felt like an overdressed street sweeper.

’’It's kind of light for the season, isn't it?’’

’’Well... uh... I heard it's warmer in California.’’

Her eyes blazed impossibly bright;she gave a laughing shriek and jumped into my arms.


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