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An Echo of Death
1"And I don't want him there," I said."It's after two in the morning," Scott said. "Can't this wait until tomorrow?""No, I want to talk about it now."I glared out the window of the cab toward the Salvation Army Headquarters at Addison and Broadway. After the light changed, the driver waited for oncoming traffic to clear, then turned left and sped toward Lake Shore Drive. The cabbie's radio crackled for a few seconds. Then all I heard was the swish of tires on the rain-misted streets."Tom, he's a friend," Scott said. "He needs help."Even with the glass partition between us and the cabdriver nearly closed, we spoke in hushed voices."He's an overgrown child with a drug habit whose family owns half of this city," I said. "Why didn't he run to Mommy and Daddy for help?""He didn't say," Scott admitted."And that's another thing I don't like," I said. "He hasn't explained what this so-called big trouble is. We're supposed to simply believe him that something bad happened in Mexico, he rushed up to Chicago and came straight to us, and we've got to protect him and he can't tell us why? He probably tried smuggling drugs into the country and got caught or is about to get caught, and your reputationis going to be ruined along with his. He'll be suspended for life--again."The driver turned his wipers to intermittent as we waited for the traffic signal at Addison and Lake Shore Drive. Outside the cab, the light drops of moisture sprinkled themselves on black puddles.Scott said, "He promised me he was clean, and he said he could tell us the whole story. He just needs a little more time.""He also has a habit of exaggerating," I said. "Remember the time he got everybody on the team feeling sorry for him because he said he might have cancer? Turned out to be an exceptionally large boil.""I know he likes attention," Scott said, "but something about the way he talked last night made me believe him. I'm really upset about the way you treated him. At least he tried to be pleasant, and you didn't need to sneer at the gift he gave you.""They've got to be fake, or at least we better hope they are." Glen Proctor had given us each a necklace for a gift. He had claimed that the stone at the center of Scott's necklace was a Colombian emerald. It was the size of a quarter and the deepest green you could possibly imagine, and he swore the rest of the necklace was Mexican gold which was studded with diamonds, some the size of dimes. Mine had a stone that he claimed was a ruby but seemed mostly purplish and opaque to me."If those things are real," I said, "they are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he wouldn't be giving them to us. A real possibility is that he stole them, and by giving them to us, we're put in danger. It's not like we exchange birthday and Christmas gifts. This is out of the blue, and I don't like it.""We can have a jeweler appraise them," Scott said."A gemologist.""Huh?""You need a gemologist to appraise stones like this. Most jewelers don't know the first thing about ...""Fine," he said. "We'll get the King of Persia or whoever you want to play with the jewels. My point is, you could have been more polite when he gave it to you. It wouldn't have killed you to say thanks.""I'd rather buy a watch off a guy peddling them in the street. I'd trust him more than I trust Glen Proctor." Actually, I thought I'd been reasonably grateful--or at least tried to be."You're not being fair," Scott said."They're gaudy and they look stupid," I said. Scott had chosen to wear his this evening. "You look like a reject from a disco that's been nuked." I had tossed mine in the bottom of a drawer, hoping it would disappear forever.Scott was still trying to be relatively reasonable. He hadn't gotten to short, clipped sentences yet. We hadn't had time for this conversation last night or earlier today. Scott had stayed up until the early hours talking to Glen. I hadn't wakened when he'd come to bed. I'd had to go out for most of the afternoon to run some errands that I'd promised to do for my parents. We'd argued briefly while dressing for the fund-raiser, but Glen's hovering around prevented a major fight. We'd driven to the dinner in reasonable civility. On the way home, I had broached the subject as soon as the cab started away from the curb. He was trying to be calm and reasonable, neither of which I felt at the moment.Scott touched the chain that barely peeped from beneath the loosened tie and opened top button of his shirt."People change," Scott said."I don't like him," I said."You're jealous," Scott said as the driver cut off two other cars to be the first up the on ramp to Lake Shore Drive."I find it strange that he just happened to manage towalk around the apartment in the most clinging underwear this noon and accidentally rub up against you when you passed in the hall, and that he practically sat in your lap while leaning over your shoulder when you were reading the paper. If he'd been any closer while you were making toast, he'd have come out singed, and he wears too much after-shave. It's not as if there isn't enough room in the penthouse for an army. He didn't have to get that close."Glen Proctor's underwear had been molded around his taut butt and bulging crotch. The guy had the compact muscular body of a stud athlete that I would have cheerfully shoved off the top of the building."He's straight," Scott said. "He brags about all his conquests with women. Every chance he gets, in the locker room, on the field, on the bus and everywhere else, he tells us how great he is with women.""And that's another thing," I said. "Besides being a prick tease, the man is a menace. That kind of promiscuity is unforgivable.""You don't know whether he uses protection.""How can you defend him?" I asked.We were talking about Glen Garrison Proctor III, one of the phenoms of the last few baseball seasons. He'd openly bragged last night that he wanted to break Steve Howe's record for being suspended for life from baseball the most times.Proctor and Scott had been teammates during Glen's first and second years in the majors. They'd become close friends, and Scott had been the players' union rep during Glen's suspension and before he was traded after the second season. They wound up working together for hours that year on Glen's first dismissal from baseball."I defend him because he's my friend. I'd think you'd be more understanding.""I wish I could be, but I think he's dangerous. You don't know what-all trouble he's gotten himself into. I didn't like him the first time I met him, and I still don't like him. Hetakes from people and never gives. He is the most self-indulgent person I've ever met, and I don't know why you can't see it. Frankly, I think we should call the police. He's nuts and he's stupid.""You're wrong," Scott said. "You're being unfair, and I don't like it. You always call something stupid when you're the one who doesn't understand. You're the one with the problem."The rest of the drive to Scott's penthouse occurred in icy silence.Out of the cab, Scott slammed the door and swept ahead of me toward the entrance. Howard, the night doorman, didn't greet us with his toothy smile. He was probably on one of his numerous breaks or occasional real errands. Seemingly a thousand times a night, Howard found excuses to attend to everything but his job. I always figured he hid in some dark corner to grab as many naps as he could when he should have been on duty. Scott had to use his key to let us in the lobby entrance. Howard locked it if he wasn't standing at his post, and tenants knew to use their keys. I caught up with Scott while he fussed with the door, but he ignored me as he marched across the lobby to the elevators. He punched the heat-sensitive button fiercely.I trailed through the marble-encrusted entry, feet clicking on the highly polished floor. We'd been to a fund-raising dinner for a lesbian candidate for alderman in the 44th Ward. It hadn't helped my mood any when the gay people in the audience fawned over my lover from the minute we entered the room. Yes, I know he was the main reason many of them bought tickets. I seldom have a problem with his fame, but being completely ignored by the crowd, coming on top of Glen's presence back home, increased my anger.Scott inserted the special key that allowed the elevator to deliver us to the penthouse. We barely glanced at each other while we rode to the top floor. Off the elevator andacross to the only door on this floor, we remained silent.Inside he flicked on the foyer light and stalked through the entryway and then turned left toward our bedroom. I hung my black leather jacket in the hall closet and began loosening my tie as I strode through the foyer and turned right into the living room.In the hallway, I tripped over a pile of boards and a scattering of bricks. Glen Proctor had been the proximate cause of our morning squabble, but his presence had only exacerbated a month-long difficult time in our relationship. My home had burned down several months earlier. We'd lived together at either Scott's place or mine for years, but we'd never consolidated households. This was at my insistence. The issue was dependence. Scott is one of the highest-paid pitchers in baseball, and something in my pride said that moving in with him would be a kind of living off his income and a loss of my independence. But after the fire, a series of discussions had resulted in a huge compromise. We would redecorate his place, and I would move in permanently.It sounded so simple, but all his money made it worse. Scott--and thus we--could afford just about anything we wanted. First of all, we've always used separate bathrooms. I love watching him shave and his double-nozzle sunken tub and Jacuzzi were very sexy, but I'm a slob and he's a neatnik; and yes, I know he's got a maid service, but if he put my stuff onto my shelf in my cabinet one more time, I was going to toss it through one of the floor-to-ceiling windows.This week's epic battle had been over the bathroom faucets. He wanted gold-plated ones made in Italy. This made no sense to me. And the whole operation would have a waterfall effect for the flow in the sink in each bathroom, a soft and gentle cascade of fluid. Very nice, but how are you supposed to rinse the toothpaste from your brush or the hair from your razor in a gentle flow? He couldn't understand why mine had to be different from his.It did seem like the smaller and less significant the item became, the more we fought over it. What I really wanted to do--and more so with each grapple with contractors and fight over minutiae--was to build a new place down in the south suburbs near where I taught high school. I knew I loved him and I wanted our relationship never to end, but I had to tell him soon that I wanted my own place. We'd go on as we had before, living together in my place or his.I passed the mountain of mess in the hall, strode a few feet forward, and tripped over the debris left by the workers renovating the fireplace in the living room. Arguing about this (what kind of stone and how large) had long since taken backseat to arguing over who was going to call which day to find out where the hell the workmen were. They'd promised to finish the job twenty-six days ago, but who's counting? At their speed, they might be finished before the next ice age. We'd fought about who would move the beginnings of the soon to be fireplace out of the way so we'd stop running into it.I pulled myself up and dusted off my hands and paused in the entrance to the living room. I usually paused to survey the fantastic view of Chicago's magnificent buildings that could be seen through the walls of glass windows. But now I also paused to try to let my anger cool. Watching the towering works of man always had a soothing effect on me. I sighed at the quiet majesty, descended two steps, and stopped.On the far side of the room, propped up against the windows and sitting three feet to the left of the table that held Scott's baseball trophies was Glen Proctor. He had a large red stain in the center of his beige fisherman's sweater. A small red pool around his body showed starkly against the white carpeting."Scott!" I called while I hurried to the body. A bullet between Glen's eyes had penetrated but not emerged against the glass. A smear of blood and a rim of black showed around the wound. Splashes of blood dribbledfrom both sides of his nose. The gaping hole in his chest told of the source for the still-damp blood pooled on his chest."Scott!" I called again.Proctor was dressed in the usual tight acid-washed Levi's he always wore, the type that emphasized the bulge in his crotch, and the round firmness of his butt. I didn't say he wasn't attractive, just that I didn't like him. He wore dark mahogany loafers and beige socks.I checked for a pulse, although I didn't think there was much point. As I touched the cool skin around his neck, the memory of similar contact with bodies in the jungle while in the marines in Vietnam flashed through my mind. The instant my fingertips made contact with his skin, they confirmed the obvious, but I moved my hand up to the flesh over the carotid artery. A few seconds there absolutely confirmed that the handsome and swaggering Glen Proctor wouldn't play another inning of baseball.I glanced around the room. Where was Scott? Fear chilled every bone in my spine as I realized the killer might still be in the penthouse.I whirled around trying to sense any alien smell, sound, or sight. Nothing else in this room seemed out of place, but with the mess from the workmen, it was hard to tell. I tiptoed noiselessly toward the hall down which Scott had disappeared. Five feet before I turned the corner, I eased up against the wall. I listened intently, but even the heaviest footfall would be muffled by the inches thick carpet. I debated which way to sneak through the warren of rooms in the penthouse, but I didn't know from which direction an enemy might appear. Most of all, I wanted to find Scott and make sure he was all right. I drew a silent breath and swung out toward the hallway to the bedroom and almost banged into Scott."What the hell's going on?" he asked. "I heard you calling. Glen's not around."For a comment I pointed across the room.Scott looked. "What happened?" he said. "Is he ...""Glen's dead," I whispered. "The killers could still be in here.""We've got to call for help," he whispered back.I pushed Scott up against the wall next to me. "We've got to be careful," I said.That's when the knocking started on the front door.Scott turned toward the noise, then glanced back at the body and said, "I'll get the door.""No," I whispered. "How could anybody get up here? Only you and I have keys for this stop on the elevator.""Howard has a key," Scott said."He wasn't at his post, and he wouldn't give out his key to a stranger. He'd have called up here first.""Who's there?" Scott called out.The knocking changed to shouts of "Open up! Police!" Then I heard thuds, as if someone was trying to break open the door."We're getting out of here!" I said."It's the police," Scott said. "We can't run!" He began to move toward the entryway. I stopped him at the far end of the hall, from which we could see the front door."Something is not right," I said. I grabbed his arm and began pulling him along. "Let's go out the back way. We can talk to the cops when we get downstairs. This is too spooky. Come on!"Someone started banging repeatedly on the door. Then somebody shouted, "Hold it!" A few moments of silence followed. The doorknob slowly began to turn."Let's go!" I said.Reluctantly, he began to follow.Suddenly the front door crashed open. Men carrying machine guns and sawed-off shotguns leaped through the opening. That was more firepower than your ordinary beat cop or police detective in Chicago carried.I shoved Scott out of the line of fire and leaped after him. "Not cops! Run!" I yelled.Galvanized into action, we tore through the 8,000 square feet of twists and turns of the penthouse.The elevators rose in the middle. You walked out of them facing east and proceeded to enter the complex down a hallway to a living room. Off this to the right through louvered doors was a den through which you could get to a library, all of which faced north. To the left of the living room was the kitchen area that faced east.You could make a circuit three-quarters of the way around the outer rim of the penthouse. The bedroom with its matching bathrooms was completely cut off from the circuit and covered most of the western wall looking toward the prairies of Illinois and beyond.The exterior rooms tended to be long and expansive, with great views of the city or lake. One guest bedroom beyond the den afforded a fantastic panorama of city and sky. The other rooms all branched off an interior corridor.We tore through the kitchen to the interior hallway. The rehabbers had been busy here, removing one wall to help make the television room and a small bedroom into one large suite for all the electronic paraphernalia I liked to have around. Scott tripped over a stack of two-by-fours. I tumbled into him.He cried out. I jumped up. His body had cushioned my fall, but my elbow had caught him in the nuts. I helped him up. His hands covered his crotch and he moaned.I jammed two-by-fours between the wall and the door to construct a barrier between them and us. I heard banging on the door, but the hastily wedged two-by-fours held for the moment. If these guys took a minute, they would find another way through the warren of the penthouse and arrive at us from the opposite direction. We couldn't stay here."Let's go," I said.Scott breathed deeply several times."Can you run?"He nodded. He staggered for a few feet and then began to move with more confidence.We rushed to the stairs that led to the floor below where Scott had installed a private gym with a running track around the perimeter and thousands of dollars of the most up-to-date training equipment in the middle.We crossed quickly, dodging between machines and barbells. At the exit door, I looked back to see the killers just emerging at the far edge of the running track. Quickly through the door, we began descending flights of stairs. The rear entrance existed specifically because of fire-code regulations.We passed numerous fire doors leading to the floors we hurtled past. We didn't dare try opening one of these emergency doors leading to the inhabited floors we flew by. Who knew whether we'd run into someone willing to help, and we could spend precious seconds banging on doors trying to find someone who was home. Besides, getting into somebody's apartment and holding up until whoever this was bashed down that door didn't seem to make much sense. Or we might wait who-knows-how-long for an elevator and could be trapped in the hallway. So far we had no evidence of enemies coming up from below us.We flew pell-mell down. Around the fifteenth floor, Scott stumbled.I grabbed him. "You okay?""Yeah. What if they're waiting for us at the bottom?""I don't know. Go!"In the brief pause, I heard the pounding footsteps above us.It didn't help that we were both still in our dress shoes. The soles made the going more slippery and kept me from hitting top speed.Gasping great gulps of air into my seared lungs and willing my tired legs to keep going, we ran on, finally arriving at the ground floor with pursuit still far behind us butcoming on quick. We both worked out, and Scott, a professional athlete, was in great shape; so even with the wrong type of shoes, we probably gained in the rush down.At the foyer level we were now on, the stairs ended at the rear of a room that once had been a lounge for guests and tenants to meet. It hadn't been used as such since the seventies, when the new marble-and-glass front of the building had replaced an art deco eyesore or treasure, depending on whose side of the fight over the change you'd been on. I could see old couches, table lamps, and oil paintings by deservedly unknown artists. Huge canvas cloths covered nearly half of the relics of a lost golden age. With all this debris, the thirty-by-forty-foot space was tough to maneuver through. Near the front were a row of buckets, carpet cleaners, mops, brooms, and cardboard boxes labeled: INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH SEE INSTRUCTIONS ON CONTAINER.An exit to our immediate left led I knew not where. A door twenty or thirty feet straight ahead of us led to the foyer. Through its square of glass, I could see the front desk. Howard wasn't present, but I saw the top half of a bald man with a blond mustache speaking into a portable phone. He clicked it shut and motioned toward the door I was looking through."They're coming this way," I said. "No choice." I led us to the door on the left.As I pulled on the handle, the door to the foyer banged open."Get them!" the bald man yelled.I yanked on the door. It was stuck or locked. I glanced over my shoulder. Two guys had joined Baldy. One was pulling a gun. Scott leaned down, and we both yanked on the handle. It burst open.It was a straight flight down maybe twenty stairs with one bulb overhead illuminating cinder blocks painted white. Down we rushed. I wrenched open the door at the bottom. Scott leaped through and I darted after him.I wondered why they didn't shoot. They wouldn't get the best shot, but all the way down the endless flights from the penthouse, that threat had flashed through my mind.We arrived at the underground parking garage. The lighted security area loomed fifty feet on the other side of the car-filled underground barn. Two hefty looking guys in gray suits glared at the surrounding cars from within the glow of the neon of the glassed-in enclosure. They looked very much like the guys upstairs and definitely not like the blue-jean-clad casual guys who parked the cars and were our supposed security. These two guys held their hands inside their vests, maybe pretending they were Napoleon, or maybe ready to reach for their guns. They were between us and my pickup truck or Scott's Porsche; but, even more important, between us and the ramp leading out.A car started up on our left and moved toward us. I decided not to wait around to see if it was someone barreling down on us trying to run us over or simply somebody on their way out."We can't get past them," Scott said. "Now what?"I pointed to the ramp leading to the bottom level. "That way," I whispered."Can we get out that way?" Scott whispered back."I hope so," I said. "The only other way is blocked."For some reason, I desperately wanted to say, "Walk this way," and a brief vision of old comedies flashed in my mind. You think of the goofiest stuff at scary times.Forcing my tired legs to move, I started jogging toward the car-sized opening that led down. The door we just exited banged open behind us."Where are they?" someone shouted.I glanced behind and saw the guys at the security desk running over to join the newly emerged guys from the stairs.As we rushed around the corner leading to the next level, I heard a set of brakes squeal, a male voice swore, and someone shouted, "There they are!"We flew down the ramp and entered another flat parking expanse jammed with cars. This area was darker because there was no illumination from a security area. Neon lights gave off their impersonal emanations at regular intervals. No people or cars moved at this level.I raked my eyes over the gray walls searching for an opening. On the opposite wall away from the ramp leading up, an exit sign glowed redly. No time for indecision. I had no idea where this new doorway led, but we couldn't go back.We hunched behind cars and ran bent over. They would see the one exit sign, too, but they couldn't be sure which way we were taking to get there. Maybe they'd split up to hunt for us among the cars. I'd have preferred a vast suburban mall parking lot for them to spread out and search.My muscles were long since past aching from the race down the stairs, but I urged them to further efforts. I'd seen the results of these guys' ministrations on Glen Proctor, and I didn't imagine gaping red holes in various parts of my anatomy would improve my appearance.Scott trotted ahead of me. I could hear his rasping breaths. Ten feet away from the new opening, I saw Scott glance back. "At the end of the ramp," he gasped.I didn't bother to look back. I leaped forward. I shoved on the safety bar on the door. We emerged onto a five-foot-by-five-foot landing with stairs leading down to the left, with a single bulb enmeshed in a wire screen providing illumination. The air smelled dank and unused. Down the stairs we rushed to another landing which contained two gray doors perpendicular to each other, one in front of us and one on our left. Both had large gothic lettering saying "Do Not Enter."Scott banged open the one in front. Over his shoulder, I saw it was crammed with buckets, mops, brooms, pails, and cleansers. I pulled open the door on the left.We paced slowly for a few seconds down the narrow center aisle of a room lit by widely spaced bare bulbsencased as the one on the landing had been. To our immediate right was a freight elevator whose gaping maw was enclosed by a row of wooden picket teeth, joined in the middle. The cage wasn't on this level. We could see into a mass of cables that seemed to end in the depths about ten feet below where we were.Beyond this on the right and to our left the room spread out, but I couldn't see how far the walls extended because cardboard boxes stacked nearly to the ceiling barred any vision in those directions. The boxes had labels such as "light bulbs," "plumbing fixtures."The path stretched for another hundred feet and ended in a row of boxes. No indentation led off to right or left. We hurried toward the far end hoping for some way out. I began to lose hope as we passed between the looming walls of brown.As we hurried down the path, we swiveled our heads in every direction trying desperately to spot any escape. It was useless to try hiding in a box. They knew we'd come down here. The prospect of searching even this many boxes wouldn't deter them, not with the kind of determination this crowd seemed more than likely to have.No opening appeared among the rows of boxes."There!" Scott pointed.I looked. The row of lights ran above the central corridor, but to our left near the far end about fifty feet away, a feeble light glowed in the murky dimness. Because of the boxes, we couldn't see what it illuminated, but there had to be a reason for its being back there, and we were rapidly running out of choices. We hurried forward. We reached the end of the box-induced hallway. No path led to the light. The door behind us crashed open.We scrambled up a staircase of boxes. At the top it was impossible to stand up, so we alternately crab-walked or crawled toward the light. Several times my back or butt touched the clammy ceiling, which I could feel through my shirt and pants. The boxes must have been full because, aswe scrambled forward, while we heard faint crunches and made occasional dents in the packaging, neither hand nor foot penetrated the outside. Perhaps we were moving fast enough so as not to put sufficient pressure for one of us to fall through. This cardboard flooring held until we scrambled down the far side, half sliding, then falling. My foot sank into one of the boxes, and I began to lose my balance. I growled in frustration. Scott reached back and hauled me up. We jumped past the last set of boxes to the floor.The feeble glow we had seen illuminated a little square of space fronted by two doors. In bold red letters, one said "High-Voltage Electricity, Keep Out." I yanked it open. A million wires glared back at me.Cardboard cartons began being shoved around behind us. Looking back, I saw the head and gun of one of our pursuers emerge as he slid toward us over the barrier of boxes. He leaned on a carton beneath him with his left hand and with the other raised his gun and pointed it at us."Hold it, you two!" he bellowed.The carton he was resting his weight on gave way. His left arm disappeared up to the elbow. The arm with the gun shot up toward the ceiling, and the weapon fired.The noise and smell surrounded us, but I had no time for that. The other door said "No Admittance." Scott had already ignored the sign and was through the opening. I followed, closing the door behind me.