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By Bob Forward
Brash Books, LLCCopyright © 2014 Bob Forward
All rights reserved.
Four a.m. it was cold, but not too bad. Just chill enough for the sewer manholes to emit ghostlike wraiths of steam in the dead light from the street lamps. I breathed through clenched teeth, and the faint whistle of air resonated lonely and forlorn against the dim buildings that lined the street.
I was in East Central Los Angeles, a dark and smelly area filled mainly with warehouses and other storage buildings. The only real life here was a few blocks away, in a semi-punk bar called Dodo. I had just left there. It was way past the legal closing time, but places like Dodo are kind of lax that way. Places that stay open past midnight get my business. I'm usually looking for something to do during normal sleeping hours — because, to put it bluntly, I am not normal.
I don't sleep, see. Ever.
My name's L'Hiboux. Translated from the French, that means the Owl — a poetic coincidence that practically seems ordained. It's my real name, though there isn't a drop of French blood in my veins. Mostly I'm American Indian, Jamaican, and Irish; a lucky combination because it means I never have to shave. For me, that's particularly fortunate.
I live on the streets of Los Angeles. No home. No car. No possessions other than those I carry in my pockets. You see, a home can be watched; a car can be bombed — and the Owl is wanted dead by many people. I stay alive because I can never be found. And because I stay alive, other people do not.
Technically, I guess you could call me a private detective. But I have no legal standing as such, since I have no license and make no arrests. But I've never left a case unsolved — and there have been a lot of cases.
Enough to fill a cemetery.
I wasn't counting up my score just then, since I was too busy clenching my teeth. It was definitely chilly. Early spring in Los Angeles; it's what you would expect. Cold, but not enough to make your teeth chatter or your scalp twitch. So it wasn't the cold that was making me grind my jaws. And I like to think that it wasn't fear either. Call it frustrated professional pride — I wasn't used to letting someone else get the drop on me.
He was talking again. His initial opening line had been: "Freeze, mister!" and I had done just that. I hadn't seen him, and before that line, I hadn't heard, smelled, or otherwise sensed the sonofabitch. But right after that first cheery greeting, I definitely did hear something — the snickering click of a cocked hand cannon. He was behind me, and I didn't turn around.
"The wallet, mister. Drop the wallet and split. Drop it and split, man! I don't want to hurt you."
Yeah, right. That's why he carried a gun instead of something dangerous, right? Like as not pointed right at the back of my head. And if his fingers were shaking as much as his voice, I could accidentally get myself a lead lobotomy no matter how sweet I was. I decided not to be sweet.
"My name's L'Hiboux," I said without moving. Hey, my voice was so calm, I almost relaxed myself. "Mean anything to you?" My eyes were panning the street for signs of life. Not a damn soul. Nothing in front of me but dark buildings and dim streetlights. The lamps cast an ugly, hazy, piss-yellow wash of light over anything that wasn't too dirty to reflect it. Not even a wino anywhere in front of me. And behind, a dark alley and cold death ... "Also known as the Owl."
"Hey, just shut the fuck up, mister!" I could see the name hadn't impressed him overmuch. "Drop the wallet and move before I —"
I moved all right. Sideways and down, right hand heading into the left inside of my jacket. There was a flash that hurt my eyes some and a bang that hurt my ears a lot more, but his shot went wild. The next one didn't, though. I briefly saw a featureless outline silhouetted against a dim building, and then another flash. The bullet hit me right in the chest, slamming me back against grimy brick. But my right hand was out now, and the Peacemaker was in it.
Boom! For the smallest instant, I saw a face illuminated in the stark glare of a muzzle flash. A face with a dark hole in the forehead. And then the light was gone, and the face a fading retinal afterimage. The soft, plopping rain of blood, brains, and skull fragments sounded soothingly against the asphalt.
I put a hand on the soot-velvetized brick behind me and pushed myself upright, keeping the Peacemaker extended. A shot in the head with the soft lead bullet of a retrofitted Colt .45 New Frontier revolver leaves results like a kicked pumpkin, but I didn't live to the ripe old age of thirty-two by taking things for granted. This one was face value, though. The filthy water in the gutter was running a little thicker and darker downstream from me, and the greasy light from the distant lamps showed clearly that this man would never get up. He lay on his back, knocked into the street by the shot. His head was gone from the ears west. It looked like someone had dug a neat hole in the street and carefully fitted it to his skull. But there was a steaming dark river that stank of iron pouring into the gutter, and glazed eyes of death stared sightlessly toward an overcast moon. For all it hurt my chest, I decided maybe I could breathe again.
Wincing, I peeled the flattened remains of a .38 slug from the Kevlar fabric of my custom-made bulletproof jacket and dropped the warm bit of metal into a pocket. Then I stood there, just stood there for a long moment, breathing and wondering what to do.
Gradually, I became aware of the weight that still dangled from my hand. I reflexively reloaded the spent cartridge and holstered the heavy weapon, dropping the brass shell into the same pocket as the mugger's slug. The action seemed to clear my head, and I looked around with a new eye.
No one, still no one. For a city as populous as mid-1980s Los Angeles, that might have been considered unusual, but not in this section. East of Alameda is definitely the wrong side of the tracks. The hollow shells of long-dead factories lined streets as deserted as those in a ghost town. That was why, I rationalized to myself, I had been taken unawares. My guard had been down, since I never would have expected a mugger to haunt such slim pickings. That made good sense, and I would have felt better, but unfortunately I'm constitutionally unable to believe my own bullshit. I had been careless, period. And the results of carelessness lay spread-eagled before me, still warm to the touch.
Still, it could have been worse. Hell, it could have been me.
A far-off sound caught my ear almost simultaneously with my sudden notice of a dark circle on the sidewalk. Hot damn, a manhole. And the noise in the distance grew louder. I bent hurriedly, hooking my finger inside the rusty lever hole of the iron cover. The inner edge wasn't exactly a smooth lip. I gave a yank and damn near cut my finger off, but the lid didn't budge. Jumping up, I gave the cover a few choice words around the injured digit in my mouth. No time for pleasantries. Necessity required improvisation. I redrew the Peacemaker and shoved the barrel into the hole. Hooking the front sight under the lip gave me a solid handle that caused me anguish over the damage I was doing the gun's fine finish even as I raised the lid. The metal plate banged down to one side as I put the big cowboy pistol away and gazed down into the concrete-and-conduit depths.
A brief flicker of the pencil flash showed it to be a Pac Tel service hole. Perfect. Working quickly, I rifled the mugger's pockets and transferred their contents to my own without examining them. Then I turned him over — yech — and lifted him by belt and bloody collar to the hole, trying not to let him drip on the sidewalk. A push and a kick, another struggle with the heavy plate, and my little friend was gone to play jack-in-the-box with the next telephone service personnel to pop the lid. Given that there wasn't much call for phone service in this neighborhood, that little treat might well wait until the corpse was good and ripe.
Off in the night the noise grew louder, and now there was a flashing yellow light reflected in the dusty and broken windows on the cross street. With a sudden increase in volume, the huge bulk of a street cleaner rounded the corner. The rushing noise of its water-washed metal brushes sounded like the parting of the Red Sea, and the yellow warning light flashed balefully as the monster lumbered unconsciously toward the near-invisible stain against the darkness of the asphalt. I backed into the alley and didn't bother to watch it pass. I turned instead and went off to find someplace to clean my hands.
A scrap of newspaper cleaned off enough of the blood to permit me to put my hands in my pockets. I dropped the scrap into a wire litter basket half-full of fellow scraps, and followed it up with a match. It made a cheerful glow behind me as I walked warily down the deserted streets toward the lights that indicated the busier section of Central Los Angeles.
Five-thirty a.m. found me in the tiny, one-person rest room of the Original Pantry with the door locked, scrubbing down in the sink. Somebody'd ripped off the soap dispenser and I was having to make do without. It took hotter water than I liked, but I finally got the bloodstains off my fingers. It was then I noticed that the paper towel dispenser had been ripped off too. Cursing the gods of the night, I wiped my hands on my pants.
A perfunctory glance at the mugger's possessions showed nothing of interest. A driver's license, a few dollars, two keys. One of the keys was for a Corvette. The mugger hadn't been badly dressed either. Some muggers did pretty well. There must have been better pickings in that area than I thought. I pocketed the money, ripped up and flushed the driver's license of ex-successful mugger Nathanial David Kovacik, and dropped his wiped keys in the trash as I left the rest room. I fingered the money in my pocket. I had plenty of my own, but after all the trouble the sonofabitch had caused me, I figured he at least owed me a breakfast.
Nearing six. The Pantry was a twenty-four-hour restaurant with a reputation for good, solid food at reasonable prices. At this hour the place was full, if not crowded. In the light of the restaurant I pulled the brim of my cap lower and donned the shades I carried in one pocket. There was no real reason for secrecy except habit, a habit I developed as an offshoot of the life-style. Equally habitual, I studied the surroundings with some care but little or no interest.
Faded green ceiling, faded yellow walls, faded linoleum fl oors, faded formica tables. The pictures on the walls were so faded you could barely tell what they were supposed to be. The customers were even more faded than that. Night-shifters on their way home to bed, day-shifters on their way to work, students and kids up all night for any reason or none. Nobody was more than half-awake, and all seemed strongly inclined to favor the idea of crashing out, including the waiters. This was the time of day that makes all men equal.
Well, almost all men. Feigning tiredness, I lethargically ordered a steak and eggs from a somnambulist in waiter drag and watched him plod away. Might as well fit in, though I doubted anyone would bother paying attention to me no matter what I did, dopey as they all were.
I am the Owl, and like I said, I don't sleep. It's called insomnolence, and it's rare, but it exists. Some people who have it need sleep only once a week or once a month or once a year. Me, I haven't slept in eight years — not since the night I strangled the girl I loved and walked out into the darkness to find the man that made me do it. He died — horribly — a week later. I gave him a decent burial — it was the least I could do for my brother. After all, he was my only relative.
That was a night: a night I still remember through eight years of trying to forget. That was the night that Alexander L'Hiboux abandoned his job, his life, and everything he'd ever worked to achieve — to walk the streets alone.
I cannot — must not — care for anyone, ever again.
Alone; yet a purpose for me still exists. There are those who commit heinous crimes and escape all retribution, crimes for which no punishment is vast enough. In such cases, the law is powerless. The Owl is not.
Alexander L'Hiboux is the Owl, reputed to be unearthly, almost certainly ungodly. It's a reputation I work hard to maintain. I am vengeance for hire — justice at a price. My relentlessness is a selling point, since I never stop working on a case. When I get tired, I sit down. When I'm rested, I stand up and keep moving. I travel by bus, cab, train, plane — trying to keep my movements random. A pain? You bet your ass. But nobody's going to nail Alexander L'Hiboux easily.
The waiter brought my order and I dug in, spearing a forkfull of eggs. I ate fast, though with no particular rush. There was simply no reason to dawdle, and I don't much care to stay in the same place for long.
I was done, paid up, and out of there by six-thirty. The sun was starting to rise. There was a pink glow shining over the dim bulks of the buildings. I kept the sunglasses on and started hoofing it out of the central city. I didn't go particularly fast. It took about an hour to reach the corner of Wilshire and Vermont.
Wilshire and Vermont is one of those main intersections where buses hang out a lot. I dumped a quarter into a paper vendor and snagged a Times. Six more steps and I was dropping half a buck into the fare box on the crosstown. Maybe six people on the bus, but it smelled like a hundred. Somebody'd left a used diaper on the rear seat.
I love L.A.
Not surprisingly, nobody was sitting in the rear of the bus, so I did. Kept me behind everyone and in a good place to observe from. I chose a seat that was a little cleaner than most and parked in it. Left side, always. Keeps my right hand in the open. The bulk of twin shoulder holsters bunched up under each armpit — the .45 on the left, and the Waster, a slim, ultra-accurate air pistol on the right. Their weight was reassuring.
Not that there was any real worry. Half a glance around the bus was enough to show the lack of danger. At seven-thirty there would usually be a lot of commuters going to work, but this bus was following two blocks behind another one. The one ahead was getting all the jam. It wouldn't last long, though. Sooner or later this bus would catch up and pass, and then it would be sardine time. No telling who would get on then. But right now, all I had to fear was a couple of bag ladies and four monkeys in polyester business suits from K-Mart. I took time to scan my paper.
The Los Angeles Times is one of those papers that believes in quantity. Even the daily editions are as thick as a phone book, and the Sunday edition could stagger an ox. Your average Times reader swiftly learns how to grasp the pile by the folded edge and upend it over a trash can. Just the right amount of pressure, and swoosh! — the middle half, the advertising part, drops right out, leaving you with the meat. I had done this before I had gotten on the bus, but I was annoyed to find that I had squeezed too hard. I had lost the funnies along with the chaff.
Oh well, I could make do with the front page. Not much there for thrills, though — another cocaine ring broken up, more dead Haitians washing up on the beaches, and President Reagan talking about Nicaragua. Then some stuff about arson and a plot to run guns to South America. I read through it all but wasn't what you might call enthralled. So when we stopped at a light, it wasn't too tough for me to notice the guy in the car outside the window.
If it hadn't been for the smirk on the guy's face, I would have noticed the car first. Even in Beverly Hills you don't see many Lamborghini Contache convertibles, and this particular storm trooper was painted an awesome ruby red so rich and deep that it must have doubled the price of the car. But like I say, the guy's face was what first caught my eye. He had on a smirk that could never have been duplicated by anyone without an equivalent pencil-thin mustache, and he was directing it at the bus. At me, actually, because I was right on a line with him. Several feet up, of course, but clearly visible through the bus's plexiglass windows. I was looking down on blond hair, pencil mustache, and dimples, about twenty-two, sitting in the most righteous smoker I'd ever seen. The car was hot stuff and the guy knew it. He wanted me to know it too. He was looking at me with an expression that said as clear as a billboard: "Hey, bus rider — don't you wish?"
Excerpted from The Owl by Bob Forward. Copyright © 2014 Bob Forward. Excerpted by permission of Brash Books, LLC.
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