Twenty minutes later, I say: “Well I’ll be a sonofabitch.” And my voice, loud against my car windshield, surprises the hell out of me.
Past my steering wheel crouches the dilapidated warehouse from last night. Weathered numerals like a tattoo on a soldier proclaim the thing to be number 43. A barge floats, moored behind the warehouse and drifting down its gangplank like a gust of wind is the ice-eyed lady, Sylvia, Jenny’s sister, as animal graceful and out of place as she was under the overpass.
Her hair hides under a broad-brimmed cap, and as she walks the dock she’s buttoning up that same knee length coat she wore yesterday, warding against a wind that puts white-caps on the canal’s face. She disappears down the walkway on the other side of the building, the same spot Jenny shot Raisin-Face.
For a moment I’m frozen in indecision. I really hadn’t expected to see her. But, I might as well introduce myself and tell her about Jenny, if she doesn’t already know.
Half out of my car I freeze, then sink back to my seat. The wound in my ribs remarks its displeasure, and I respond cordially with a whimper. Jenny’s gun waits in her purse. I pocket it. The action stirs something sweet in me, that whispers of power. My bullet wound doesn’t agree. They continue their conversation of groans and whimpers as I half-saunter, half-limp toward the warehouse. There’s nothing like a gun in your pocket to give you a little false confidence.
I’ve taken about three limps before she rounds the warehouse corner, sees me, and stops mid-step. Her hands glide into her pockets, but her eyes command a halt. Her face is a granite statue: hard beauty, hard eyes, cold and absent emotion. No makeup, just a faint pattern of old scars like scattered cherry blossoms. That pattern sends a little ripple of wonder through me: I know those scars like I know my reflection.
I limp toward her across the street, wondering what to say.
At about six yards out, Sylvia beats me to the draw.
“What do you want?” The demand is a flat note from a voice like an alto saxophone. She has an accent but I can’t place it; it sounds international, maybe Asian, but her complexion, though bronzed by sun, looks Slavic, or maybe Caucasian.
“Mark Simmons,” I introduce myself with a hint of disappointment. “I know your sister.”
A lightning bolt of a frown flashes across her face, revealing deep lines. “I have no sister.”
She glances over her shoulder at the warehouse and past it to the barge.
“Sure you don’t.” I game a step closer, then pull the gun out of my pocket and raise it like a crucifix, gripping the barrel pointing down, and presenting the custom carved grip. “You’ve seen this before?”
She moves like water from a dam: rushing, sudden, and intense – five yards in the pause between two heartbeats. Her gloved hand cools mine, pushing the gun out of sight as she blocks the view from the warehouse windows with her body.
“Not here.” Her eyes flick to the hole in my coat and she tilts her head to get a look at the red-brown stain underneath, then she pockets her hands.
“I’ll be alright.” Probably. Either way there’s no use making a point of it. “Jenny’s in trouble, some of your people I think. A man with a face like a raisin?”
The frown-lines deepen. She must frown often.
“Walk,” she says with a tiny duck of her head that tells me it isn’t safe here. Her steps lead me up the road, past the warehouse and I tag along.
“Nash,” Sylvia says. Mabye a name? She’s a miser with her word supply. “Hunting Jenny?”
“She shot him. He didn’t like that-”
“Right about where we’re walking, last night. He and a big German guy showed up to your dance hall looking for whatever it was you stole. Jenny dodged out. I haven’t seen her since, but she’s looking for you.”
She stops and I turn to discover her too-cold eyes studying me like I’m trying to sell her tickets to the met from my jacket pocket. Weariness and caution paint in subtle strokes on a face that looks like it’s seen far too many layers of those colors.
I tell her about the note, the word ‘Leụ̄xd.’ “What’s that mean?”
Instead of answering, she glares. The breeze carries that distinct smell of rain approaching from off the lake, colored with pigeon poop and smoke. My rib cooks itself.
At last, she says: “What do you want?”
“After I found the note, I came here and your sister followed me. I met Nash by the water’s edge. He thought you’d been killed. That’s when your sister shot him. Then we beat it. Look, Nash set a really big German guy to follow Jenny. I think she’s in trouble.”
Those eyes freeze over. She turns her hands out in a small gesture like a push and says: “Run.”
I can’t meet her gaze, so I look away. A shiny black Cadillac ambles down the road toward us – the only car on the street. As I’m trying to gather my thoughts, the caddy pulls over in front of warehouse 42, the door opens with a squeal, and Raisin-face climbs out.
My car’s a dozen yards away and there’s no-place to hide. We’re standing in the empty street, in broad daylight like fools.
The woman next to me eyes the newcomer, her face neutral.
“Your name, lady, for starters,” I tell her.
I’ve finally caught her off guard. For an instant, there’s a crack in the wall, a glimmer of confusion and something else: fear.
“My name?” she asks.
“And I want to know why I know you. Did we meet before? Why do we have the same scars?”
A twitch of her eye dismisses me like a bit of slush-mud she’d flicked off her shoe. We both turn to watch Nash-Raisin Face slouch toward us.
“Well hot-damn,” he says, stopping, “if it isn’t Mr. Gut Wound. Friend of yours, Wren?”
Wren? Her name is Sylvia. A pseudonym. I wonder if Hilda was too.
Sylvia says nothing.
“Funny,” continues Nash, pensively. “Funny. You know I’ve been out all day looking for the package you were supposed to deliver last night?”
“It’s done,” the lady replies.
“Well, I don’t have it. So, I don’t think I agree.” Nash sticks his hands in his pockets, pushing the tails of his trench coat behind him. His eyes are sharp as they glide between Sylvia and I, but his button-down shirt hangs loose and sloppy. His revolver, holstered in black leather, hangs from his belt above his right pocket. The cold wind flaps his coat-tails.
“What happened?” he asks, with his eyes gliding between us. “I was expecting you downtown and you didn’t show. I come here and somebody I never heard of shoots me. I get dragged out of the bay and into the tender embrace of Hilda Huppricht who tells me Agafya and his entire crew, your crew, is hunting, for you.”
Sylvia glides a casual half-step that leaves her weight on her toes, as if she’s about to pounce.
Nash keeps talking: “See they sent Boonrit to find you yesterday and today he’s got an obit. Seems like you might know something about that?”
An empty beer bottle in the gutter bounces away from my kick. I follow it a few steps and kick again. Further away from Sylvia is good. My car waits ten meters away. If I make a break for it, will Nash shoot me again? The beer bottle stops in the middle of the muddy street like an exclamation point on an otherwise blank page.
Sylvia’s voice behind me carries like the off-tune note of a winter dam about to crack. “Where’s my sister?”
Nash blinks surprise. “The cute blond? She was your sister?”
I glance back in time to see Sylvia betray a ‘yes’ with a Jenny-like narrowing of the eyes.
“What the hell has she got to do with…” The wind makes a roof-tile clap. Nash’s lips split in a cat’s smile. “Ahh. That’s it. You’re scramming. Jesus, Wren, you’ve got some guts. You burned Boon ‘cause he knew you. They got to you. Was it the heat or just a turn of heart?”
Her face is ice on the big lake. “His name was Boonrit. Where’s my sister?”
“Yeah screw your sister. Is that what got you? Where’d she go Hilda?” Nash directs the last words past us.
“I didn’t follow,” says a heavy German accent immediately behind me.
I don’t yelp like a dog, I swear like an adult. Turning, not twitch-jumping, in place to discover the six and a half foot tall bruiser has somehow snuck to a spot equally two paces from Sylvia and from me, and behind us both. He looks like he ought to make thunder noises when he walks and his brown jacket would make a decent sail for a small ship, yet he’s almost close enough to hit me.
“She vas clever und she had help,” the silent giant continues. “A skilled man, good at hunting, came behind me as I followed her und she seemed to know because zey worked together und almost trapped me. It was a fun game, but zen I thought, vy am I playing with zis girl while Nash is all alone getting ze drug back?”
My jump must have torn something in my stomach because pain spikes there like a swallowed beaker of some blunt acid. I stumble to my car and lean on the hood, feeling liquid trickle through my internal organs.
They’re still talking, but I can’t understand. It’s like we’re under water. I thought the bullet missed my vitals. Maybe not.
From against the car I can see all three of them, the warrior, the goblin, and the Lady square in the middle. Gusting wind catches the empty bottle, spinning it in place. The roof tiles flap. If it were up to me, there would be a tumbleweed.
The narrow world slowly widens as I focus on breathing.
“She has the drug, Hilda,” Nash is saying, “She’s scramming. Probably gabbing too.”
The big German’s gaze shifts back and forth between them. “No.” he says, “Not Wren.” He glances at me. “This one stole it maybe. Wren vas getting it back.”
Sylvia’s a statue, and Nash blows his lips. “I’m telling you, Hilda, she’s a snitch. Let her go and the coppers will be upon you.”
Hilda pops his neck. For the first time, I notice he has long hair: braided halfway down his back. “Vren,” he says to her, “Erklären Sie, diesen Unsinn?”
It takes me a moment to dust off enough German to sort out he’s asking for her to explain.
Her reply, also in German: ‘You know me.’
“Of course.” Hilda replies, switching back to English. His razor gaze never left the fellow opposite him. “But ze Leụ̄xd has gone. Vy don’t ve all go have a chat with Agafya?”
Nash’s eyes narrow. “Isn’t Agafya in Siam?”
The German’s braid bobs as he nods. The wind moves it like a snake.
Nash takes his hands out of his pockets. The right one lands on his revolver. “Nah, see, I don’t really feel like going all the way across the pond on account of one missing box.” His sewing machine voice slows to the same clicking tempo of the big industry around us. As something rumbles in the distance, he says: “You brought me on me for my guys and that boat. I delivered. Handle your own missing box.”
“Agafya does not have. Wren says she does not have. You say you do not have. Boonrit is dead, but he did not have. Wren I trust. You I don’t. Und also, you are ze only one with contacts to try to sell such a thing. Both vill come, explain to Agafya vere his prize has gone.”
Sylvia shrugs with her hands in her pockets. The gesture says: ‘I will go.’ Without uttering a word.
Nash shakes his head. “Naw. See, this isn’t my mistake. Your little piracy went easy. You wanted a boat, you got the boat from me, the guns, the help, all you paid for and more. Wren had the prize when we took it, had it on the boat, had it in the city, had it in her pocket. She wouldn’t let me touch it even if I wanted to. So now it’s missing and you want to press gang my person all the way to Siam? Naw I say. I know Agafya’s rep. I got no need to meet his particular brand of hospitality. So I say naw. Go on home now. Tell’em Nash don’t have your drug.” And with the last denial, the snap on his holster pops open. Its little sound resounds in the rumbling morning air, somehow louder than the wind or industry.
Hilda smirks. “It iz not so far as you think.”
“Now the job’s done I don’t work for you, so this is a nickel’s worth of free advice: Wren’s pulled a fast one. She’s singing for the feds or I’m a goddamn greyhound.”
Hilda removes a small automatic from his jacket pocket. A boxy barrel of blued steel looks as lethal as it is ugly. His hands are huge enough that he shuttles the slide with his thumb.
“Now, now.” Says Nash, without surprise. “Kill me and my people kill back. We don’t need to make this into something. The job you hired me for is done. Let it go.”
His words break over the German with all the impact of the blustering wind.
“Come or die.” The German’s voice and body contrast: His tone immobile, his body swaying like he’s drunk, moving his feet in shuffling steps.
Nash’s beetle eyes turn to Sylvia. She shrugs and takes a step backward, out of the line of fire.
Both men raise iron. It’s slower than I expect. Nash fires first with his revolver still climbing and the bullet buzzes past Hilda’s dancing elbow in the same instant the German’s gun returns a single shot.
Nash throws himself to the ground on his side, swearing and shooting fast even though his shirt has a new hole in it. His four bullets beat a violent rhythm. The smack and crunch of their impacts against brick or concrete far down the street behind Hilda make their own echoes.
The German steps once toward Nash and fires a second shot.
Nash’s swearing stops with a choking hack. The gun slides from his hand. He curls in on himself and blood spreads.
That wasn’t a gunfight; it was an execution. The German stared down Nash’s flashing muzzle like it was a match he needed to snuff.
Sylvia turns toward the victor. I know the look in those eyes; it’s the look Jenny wore in the moment she chose to kill. As a black gun glides from beneath her coat she leans forward and it feels as if her body were a lever tilting the whole world. A current of wind as thick as an outgoing tide rushes past us toward the canal, sucking at my heels, rattling the shingles of the warehouse, and staggering the big man like he’s caught in a wave.
Hilda sees her face. Dismay and betrayal cross his and vanish into a gaping distortion that can only be terror. His gun turns to her as if outside his control.
She says: “I’m sorry,” and everything about her is death.
The German’s finger squeezes the trigger.
And I pour five shots from Jenny’s pistol into him.
The first three punch into his left breast, leaving little holes in his coat. The fourth clips his cheekbone, and the fifth skips off his eyebrow to pop his right eye in a squirt of something clear like from a pebble thrown into a shallow puddle.
His face acknowledges neither pain nor surprise as his gun changes direction, whipping from the lady to me. Two shots sound shuddering thunder and a narrow punch shears through my upper chest.
I’m face down in the mud, looking through one open eye at oil slick and an empty beer.
Blood comes out of me in a rush like bad water from a broken toilet, and I feel like a deflating tire. The blood pools around my face and it tastes like bile, iron and coffee. I can’t turn my head away. Breathing sprays blood away from my face and something fluid and acid comes up my throat.
I shouldn’t have used the gun. Tired. I’m tired. A gun is a gamble and gamblers always lose. I should have dodged. Well yeah. Dumbass. You should have dodged.
I can’t breathe. There’s something in my lungs that isn’t air, but they’re busy trying to crawl out my throat. I don’t want to die. I’m going to.
So ends Marcus Summanus, professional adventurer, exactly how they all said he would: sticking his neck where it didn’t belong.
Maybe I’ll see my mother again.
Breath fails in a body that won’t move. I’m drowning.
Flats footprint my blood in the narrowing dark. The hem of a dark coat. The lady crouches; something moves through my pain, something white, with veins of blue, something empty and moving against itself. It spreads from the vein on my neck down my spine and into every limb like a torrent of fireworks inside my body. I hate it. It’s worse than the pain.
Sylvia turns my face up. Her eyes of blue ice fall away down a tunnel. Too far to reach.
A human shape rises like a storm behind her: a man, wild of hair, taller than a door and naked as a bull. He curls hoary-knuckled hands around Sylvia’s throat.
And then the long tunnel closes, the dark and light are gone, and there’s nothing left but white.