Left for dead after an epic shootout that blew the lid off a billion-dollar conspiracy, ex-cop Charlie Hardie quickly realizes that when you're dealing with The Accident People, things can get worse. Drugged, bound and transported by strange operatives of unknown origin, Hardie awakens to find himself captive in a secret prison that houses the most dangerous criminals on earth.
And then things get really bad. Because this isn't just any prison. It's a Kafkaesque nightmare that comes springloaded with a brutal catch-22: Hardie's the warden. And any attempt to escape triggers a "death mechanism" that will kill everyone down here including a group of innocent guards. Faced with an unworkable paradox, and knowing that his wife and son could be next on the Accident People's hit list, Hardie has only one choice: fight his way to the heart of this hell hole and make a deal with the Devil himself.
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Hell and Gone
By Swierczynski, Duane
Mulholland BooksCopyright © 2011 Swierczynski, Duane
All right reserved.
Hell and Gone
This is going to be hard to explain, but
She had crossed to the other side. She was part of the land. She was wearing her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues.
—Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
Julie Lippman woke up early the day her boyfriend died.
As she forced her eyes open and searched her memory bank for the date, she was relieved to discover it was Sunday, the last day of Christmas break, and she had absolutely nothing to do until that evening, when a bus would (she hoped) bring Bobby back to campus. Nothing to do was good, because she was hungover to the point of active nausea and her head throbbed from all the blow and the lack of sleep. It had all seemed like a good idea at the time. A kind of exorcism, a final wiping of the slate before a return to what she prayed was normalcy. God, what a week.
She hadn’t seen Bobby since the day before break. He had left in the middle of the night, the day before Christmas Eve, without a word. She had been vaguely aware of him kissing her forehead before slipping downstairs and out the town house door into the brisk December morning, leaving nothing but the start of a lame good-bye note that she later fished out of the wastepaper basket in his dorm room.
At the time, though, she thought he was being a dick.
Still, Julie was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the semester has stressed Bobby out, and he needed a little time to himself. So she decided to be a good girl the first week. Went home, did the Christmas thing. Got mildly buzzed on some good white wine—like her father would ever miss it—watched cable TV, even tried to read a little of next semester’s lit anthology.
But by New Year’s Eve, she’d grown bored with the good-girl thing. Was she supposed to live like a nun? Just because Bobby was off somewhere with his panties in a bunch? So she finally called and agreed to hang out with Chrissy Giannini, and that led them to a rooftop party somewhere, and that led her to a white tile bathroom with a group of people she didn’t know, and that led to a toilet lid with a line of blow on it. She was drunk enough to get down on her knees, feeling the cold tile through her black stockings. Drunk enough to lean forward and snort. And with that first hard snort, the good girl inside her settled down for a long winter’s nap.
Week two was all very Less Than Zero—Julie could practically hear the Bangles singing about a ha-zy shade of pure blow. Only she was coming back east from school out west, and Main Line Philadelphia was not exactly L.A. Her life became a dizzying succession of parties, from house to apartment to dorm room. She met up with a high-school boyfriend she thought she’d never see again; they spent what seemed like an eternity on a mattress in a high-rise apartment near the University of Pennsylvania campus, Julie insisting he keep his hands above her waist; the ex stubbornly, drunkenly refusing, a smile on his face the whole time. Later that night she crawled into the hallway, dragging her clothes with her, wishing her head would stop throbbing, using a dirty wall to support herself as she dressed, feeling a wave of regret wash over her. What the hell did I do? What am I doing?
The shame dogged her all the way back to her dad’s house, which was empty and cold and quiet. The Philadelphia winter had frozen her favorite quiet spot, the garden out back. There was nowhere left to go but school. Two expensive cab rides later, she was at the airport and flying back to campus, wishing she could erase the past week. Once home, she curled up next to her apartment’s heater and tried to read and sip coffee but all she could think about was Bobby, and how she would never do something this stupid again.
So now it was morning, Sunday morning, and she had the day to kill. Bus was due midafternoon.
But the bus never came.
By evening, the news was spreading around campus: a charter plane had crashed in the Nevada desert, just outside West Wendover, killing twenty-four people. All Leland University people, coming back from a holiday service project, building new housing for the impoverished.
Students were smoking on the lawn, some holding candles, some crying. Everyone looked dazed. A series of conflicting emotions washed over her. There was relief that Bobby hadn’t traveled by air—in fact, she’d once laughed when he said he’d never traveled by air before. Like, ever. She was also in shock at the idea that she may have known someone on that plane. Worry that Bobby still wasn’t back yet—and that was mixed with guilt. Maybe he’d heard somehow. Heard how she really spent her Christmas vacation, and now he’d never be coming back.
Come on, Bobby. Where are you?
Just before midnight someone had cobbled together a list of names; they used the copy machine in the student-union building and started to circulate the flyers. A page was pressed into her hand as she walked past the lawn. She glanced down, bracing herself for familiar names, and…
Not even remotely possible.
Julie punched the combination—24, 3, 15—into the metal buttons on the outside of Bobby’s door, turned the knob. The room hadn’t been occupied for two weeks and smelled like it. Julie scanned the room for the culprit. Someone had tossed a half-eaten sandwich in the plastic wastebasket. There was the usual assortment of Pepsi cans covered in cigarette ashes. Bobby’s roommate, Pags, used them as impromptu ashtrays while he sat cross-legged on the floor and listened to Cure albums nonstop. Smoke and decaying meat; one hell of a combination. Julie covered her face with a sweater sleeve, pitched at least a dozen Pepsi cans into the wastebasket, then carried the wastebasket to the end of the hall, dumped it. Though she wasn’t sure why she bothered. Neither of the occupants of this dorm room was ever coming back.
What Julie couldn’t understand—and what kept the grief frozen, at least temporarily—was the mystery of Bobby being on that plane. He shouldn’t have been anywhere near a plane. She assumed he’d been home, working part-time with his dad to make up the tuition difference. He wasn’t off building houses for the poor. Hell, Bobby was one of the poor, basically putting himself through an expensive Ivy.
Why was he on that plane?
Maybe there was a clue somewhere on Bobby’s desk. Shoved into the corner, near the window, it was a gentle mess, covered in papers, notebooks, paperback editions of novels. He was an English lit major, and this semester he had taken a course on war literature—which, as he put it, was “all about being fundamentally depressed down to my soul twice a week.” Secretly, though, he loved it. On top of the stack was a book Bobby had written a final paper on—Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Julie wasn’t much of a reader. Bobby all but forced her to read his favorite story from the collection: “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” about a guy in the Vietnam War who somehow manages to import his girlfriend over to the war zone. And once she arrives, she goes native—strapping on a gun, smearing camouflage paint over her pretty skin, and stalking the humid jungle for enemy soldiers.
“You’d do that for me, wouldn’t you?” Bobby had asked.
“Pass the ammunition, stud,” Julie had replied.
Bobby faux-squealed—his goofy Prince imitation, which was a hit at parties. It was this absurd chickenlike squawk that started in an upper register, then briefly dipped down a few notes before ascending to the heavens again. It sounded nothing like Prince, but an accurate imitation wasn’t the point. Julie had once admitted to being a Prince fan in her preteen days, and Bobby teased her mercilessly about it. Then would come the cheesy hand signals, straight from Purple Rain:
And with that last letter, he pointed right at her. And every time, she’d giggle, despite herself, and call him a dick. But he was just a big goofball, her boy Bobby.
But now, sitting in the empty dorm room…
There were no plane tickets or date book or anything that would give Julie a clue about where Bobby might have gone. No notes, no receipts. After a while she sat down on his bed. Pressed his pillow to her face. She could still smell him. She started to cry.
U would, wouldn’t U?
She wished she could take back so much of what she said at that party…
As it turned out, nobody on campus knew that those twenty students—along with two grad students and two professors—had been off building houses for the poor. Those involved had kept it a secret from everyone, including their families. Like Bobby, they had given their relatives and friends some kind of cover story to explain their absences. An impromptu vacation. A job opportunity. A work-study program on campus. A road trip.
All of it: bullshit.
The university president explained it away as a “secret mission of kindness—these students and faculty did not want to broadcast their good deeds, merely complete them.”
Yeah, Julie thought. Right.
“Secret mission of kindness.”
Did nobody else realize that this whole thing made no sense whatsoever?
At the funeral, the casket was closed. Made sense to everybody. After all, Bobby had been inside a speeding tube of metal that had been hurled toward the earth at ridiculous speeds. Nobody wanted to see what kind of damage that would do to a human body.
Nobody except Julie.
As she sat there in a black dress—the same one she wore to a sorority social, Bobby at her side, just a few weeks ago, and until yesterday a Polaroid snapshot capturing that moment had been wedged in the corner of her mirror—Julie couldn’t stop staring at the coffin. She had no proof, no evidence of any kind. But she knew that coffin was empty. She could feel it.
Gathering proof became Julie’s focus that semester. She stopped attending classes and photocopied newspaper articles about the crash—every piece she could find, no matter where the story may have appeared. The university library had a thriving periodicals section; Julie practically lived there for a week. After that, she traveled to the crash site, which didn’t feel right, either. Had Bobby been here, ever? Had he been in the middle of that pile of burning, wrecked metal? Julie didn’t think so. Again, she had no proof other than the unease in her stomach.
When she traveled to the site of the houses that Bobby had allegedly helped build, near Houston, Julie became convinced that someone was following her.
Everything at the housing site checked out; the project manager even gave her a tour of the home that the Leland University students and professors (“God rest their souls, all of them”) had helped construct. Guy named Chuck Weddle was the manager, and he claimed to remember Bobby. Weddle even showed her the backyard patio that Bobby had worked on. “He mixed cement like a pro,” Weddle said. Julie did everything in her power to nod politely and not break into anguished scream.
Bullshit, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!
A man in a black sedan followed her all the way back to the hotel room, and then to the airport.
The university cut her loose in early March. Her parents claimed not to understand, but then again, they didn’t ask too many questions, either. They continued to pay her rent and send her living-expense money.
Julie continued investigating.
Spring break—of course Taylor would come out and visit her in beautiful California.
Taylor Williams was the high-school ex, and Julie was sure that visions of their time together on that mattress in the high-rise were dancing through his head. She insisted that he bring a friend. She didn’t exactly specify why, but from the excited “yeah” she heard over the phone, she assumed Taylor had put things together. Either Julie had a friend who was looking to hook up, or Julie wanted to try a little ménage action.
Neither was the case. She thought it would be easier with three shovels instead of two.
Taylor arrived with his pal Drew Nardo, a case of Miller Genuine Draft, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and a gleam in his eye. Julie didn’t exactly rush them, but before Taylor and Drew knew it they were all driving out to Stockton to do her a little “favor.” Predictably, the boys freaked a little when they heard what Julie had in mind. I mean, seriously—a graveyard? But Julie was convincing. She told them that she’d given Bobby her father’s college ring (a lie), something she didn’t have permission to do, and unknowingly, his family had buried him with it (another lie). And now her father was asking about his missing ring, and Julie couldn’t bring herself to tell him the truth (the third lie). The boys seemed to buy it. Julie also implied a wild night if they’d just help her with this one little thing, even though it was a little creepy…
The dirt was cold and hard-packed. In the two months since the burial, the earth had frozen and refrozen, thanks to some freak cold blasts in this part of California. The boys worked hard, though, fortifying themselves with swallows of Jack as they went along.
“Do they really bury coffins down six feet?” Taylor asked. “I mean, did you do your homework on this one? Because we’ve been out here all night.”
“I did,” Julie said quietly. She’d been graveside during the funeral. She saw exactly how deep the hole went down. It took a tremendous amount of self-control to resist running toward the casket and prying it open and looking, just to confirm to herself that she wasn’t losing her mind, that Bobby was just missing, not dead…
And that was the point this evening: to unearth the coffin and see if Bobby’s remains were indeed inside.
They’d only made it three feet down when bright lights flashed in the distance. A truck engine revved.
“What—what the hell’s that?” Taylor asked, wiping the edge of his wrist across his forehead.
They weren’t alone. Shadowy figures swept across the graveyard, too many to count. Flashlights in their hands, beams cutting through the gloom. Thick dark forms moved around headstones and mausoleums with precision. They weren’t trying to hide. They were trying to make it clear that they were in control, and that running would be futile. Of course, that didn’t stop Taylor from trying, screaming drunkenly and kicking up dirt as he scrambled into the darkness. He didn’t make it far.
The life Julie Lippman knew was over when the crack of the first gunshot echoed throughout the graveyard.
Sixteen Years Later
Death is only an experience through which you are meant to learn a great lesson: you cannot die.
During the past fifteen minutes Charlie Hardie had been nearly drowned, shot in his left arm, shot in the side of his head, and almost shot in the face at point-blank range.
Now he was sprawled out on a damp suburban lawn handcuffed to a crazy secret-assassin lady who liked to sunbathe topless.
He figured things could only go up from here.
The police arrived, along with a flotilla of EMTs. Somebody used a key on the cuffs and separated Hardie from the crazy secret-assassin lady, who was named Mann. (Go figure.) Somebody else checked Hardie’s neck, his vitals, shone a light in his eyes, and then he was loaded onto a gurney and carried through the Hunter home.
The rest of the people inside the house weren’t doing all that great, either. The psycho brother-and-sister team was still groaning and writhing, even though they would most likely survive their gunshot wounds. Same deal with the two nameless gunmen—which meant that Hardie was losing his touch. When he shot people, he preferred them to stay down for good.
Of course, all of this was very déjà vu, in a bizarro-universe kind of way. Being shot and beaten to the brink of death, then carried through some innocent family’s home. Just like when he was carried through Nate’s home, after all the shooting had stopped three years ago…
Maybe this was it, finally, at long last—the closing credits that had been waiting three long years to crawl across the screen.
Please, God, let me just fade out and realize that the past three years have been an elaborate imagined fantasy sequence as my dying brain fired off its last few neurons. Please tell me I actually died at Nate’s house, and all this has been some kind of fire I had to pass through before making it to the next life. Please tell me this was meant to purify my soul, and now I can rest in peace.
God—if listening—declined to respond.
Some time passed. Hardie wasn’t sure how long, exactly. A minute maybe. He felt his eye go out of focus. His mind wandered, as though he were on the edge of sleep. His life didn’t flash before his eyes. There were no last-minute revelations or epiphanies. Everything was just gray and soft and pleasantly numb.
An EMT appeared next to him. He ripped open some plastic. Pulled out a syringe. Pried off the plastic top. Slid the needle into a glass bottle. Flicked the syringe with a finger. Drew back the plunger.
“Oh, they’re going to have fun with you,” the EMT said, then slid the needle into Hardie’s arm.
And then Hardie was choking her again.
His beefy hands around her thin, soft neck, squeezing as though he were trying to get the last dollop of toothpaste out of the tube.
Hands around his hands, forcing him.
Voice in his brain:
Look at her. You’ve wanted her from the minute you saw her. Haven’t you, Charlie? Your little celebrity.
His useless rubber-meat hands on plastic bones, being forced to squeeze harder and harder and harder—
Go ahead, Charlie. You know she wants it. She’s practically begging for it.
Gloved thumbs guiding his own useless digits into the middle of her soft throat, pressing down—
Feels good, doesn’t it, Charlie? Choke that bitch out. Go on. Break her little scrawny neck.
Feeling her hips jolt beneath this…
Murdered by you, Charlie.
Hardie snapped awake sometime later in the back of an ambulance. Above him, bright lights gleamed off steel hardware. Plastic tubing that didn’t quite fit into cubbyholes jiggled as the vehicle hit bumps in the road. He could feel every jolt as it traveled up the undercarriage of the vehicle and through the gurney. He tried to lift an arm and discovered that he was strapped down. He turned his head, saw the back of another man—part of his white shirt and vest, dark blond hair. The man was in the middle of a conversation with the driver.
“What are you doing? Take the surface streets. Why are you messing around with the 101?”
“Because it’s big, it’s anonymous, it’s perfect.”
“Yeah, and it’s slow.”
“So what? Our guy’s stable, isn’t he?”
“For now. He could crash at any moment. I’d rather get him to where we’re going before that happens, let him be somebody else’s headache.”
Hardie didn’t like the sound of that. The ambulance driver and the EMT didn’t exactly sound like they had their hearts in their jobs. He could have interjected, but the driver spoke first.
“But he is stable, right? So leave the driving to me. I don’t go around telling you how to stabilize people, do I?”
There was a pause as the EMT considered this, then blew the driver a raspberry.
Get a room, you assholes, Hardie thought.
“Pretty amazed he is so stable. Dude’s been shot twice, once in the goddamned head, and yet his pulse is strong and he’s still breathing.”
“All we have to do is keep him that way until we get there.”
Yeah yeah, keep talking, Hardie thought. He could still feel with the fingertips of one hand—his right. Now, his left arm and hand, they were pretty much useless. Fingertips numb, hand inert and dead. A bullet in the bicep will do that.
But his right hand…
Hardie curled his wrist up until his index and middle fingers could touch the strap. It was thick, almost rubbery. He curled even more and was able to press the pads of two fingers into the strap and push. The strap slid a tiny bit. It was something. It was a start.
“Shit, I told you. Look how jammed it is up there!”
“Don’t worry. It’ll move. We’ll get there.”
The strap gave another inch. If he could just get it to clear the loop, maybe he could pull it enough to slip the prong out of the metal-ringed hole…
“Will you relax? Do you ever drive in L.A.? I mean, except around Sherman Oaks, or wherever the hell you live?”
“Hey, now. No personal stuff, remember?”
“Well, you’re getting on my personal nerves with your driving advice.”
…and then if he could get his right arm free, well, then, Hardie was in business. Because he was jammed up against the cabinets and supply shelves on the right side, and he could stick his hand up there and maybe dig out a needle or scalpel or something else sharp. EMT turns around, Hardie could nail him in the thigh—or no, better yet, point it at a testicle, either one, didn’t matter—and order his driver buddy to put the ambulance to the side of the road and hand him a cell phone. Otherwise, Hardie would be serving up some shish-ke-ball…
And right at that moment, as if some kind of extrasensory perception had kicked in, the EMT with the dark blond hair glanced down at Hardie and did a little involuntary jolt.
“Fuck, his eyes are open!”
“He’s moving his hand and shit, he’s trying to undo a strap.”
Who? Me? Undo a strap? Hardie let his hand drop and prepared to feign ignorance or incoherence…whatever would work best. He rolled his eyes around in a faux daze, swallowed, asked, “What time is it?” Everything depended on getting his wrist free…
“He’s doing what?” the driver asked.
“Oh, he’s definitely awake.” The EMT snapped his fingers in front of Hardie’s eyes. “Can you, like…see me doing this?”
“Please,” Hardie said. “What time is it?”
When the EMT leaned in close, Hardie started in with his right fingers again and he was overcome with a wave of dizziness. His head pounded and his vision went all blurry. Maybe he was strapped down for a reason. Like, he shouldn’t be moving his head or something. Screw it. He didn’t want to hang here in the back of an ambulance with these idiots. He may be at death’s door, but there was no reason to die in the company of assholes. He tried pushing the strap again, curving his hand around until it felt like his tendons were going to pop…
Above him, the EMT rummaged in a box and came out with a syringe, then rummaged around in another box until he found a vial.
“Let’s try a few more cc’s,” he said, glancing down at Hardie. “Believe me, buddy, you’re not going to want to be awake for any of this.”
“Please, listen to me…”
“Listen to me, you fucking fu—”
The cc’s blasted down the central line; something cool and wet ran over the top of his brain.
Hardie heard one last exchange before fading into black:
“Christ, he shouldn’t have woken up. Like, not at all. Not with the amount of shit I shot into him.”
“You see strange things all the time in this business.”
The next time Hardie woke up he saw a shotgun-blast pattern of lights. No, not lights—stars. Lots of them. Moving. Which meant he was moving. Being wheeled somewhere. Hot wind brushed his face. Hardie tried to turn his head to the left and only made it a millimeter before something went squish, which was not exactly reassuring. They’d put a stabilizer on his neck. He tried his wrists. He was still strapped to the goddamned gurney. Wrists and ankles, too. He felt pains in his chest and his heart racing until he remembered Deke.
His old pal Deacon “Deke” Clark, FBI superstar. He’d called him what…hours ago, from that hotel on the fringes of Los Feliz.
Deke would be looking for him…right?
Of course Deke would.
Deke probably arrived at the Hunter home not long after they took Hardie away. Food in his hand (the man was always eating, always with a hot dog or a bag of chips or a soft pretzel or something), touring the scene, trying to figure out just what had happened during the past twenty-four hours.
Hell, even Hardie had a difficult time putting it all together in his own mind. The details of the previous day floated around like pieces of a book he’d once read but couldn’t fully remember. He’d been hired to watch a house up in the Hollywood Hills. That’s what he did—babysat the homes of the rich. He’d been doing it for the past two years. He watched old movies and drank and made sure the places he watched didn’t burn down. The last gig, however…the house more than burned down. Hardie had made enemies of a group of killers who called themselves the Accident People. They made murders look like something else. They were led by Mann.
Oh, she was a piece of work.
Mann had been hired to kill famous actress Lane Madden—and this is what made Hardie’s head hurt even worse. Had he really been in that house with Lane Madden, or was this some half-remembered fantasy?
No. That had been real.
Hardie and Mann had gone back and forth, trying to outwit each other at every turn. But in the end, the Accident People had caught up with him. Forced Hardie to do the unthinkable, then left him for the gas chamber. Only then did he piece together the second part of their scheme: the carefully planned execution of Jonathan Hunter and his family.
Which had turned out…well, you know. Kind of a mixed bag.
But Hardie had managed to call his pal Deke Clark earlier in the day, convinced him to leave Philly and help him out here in L.A.
So Deke would be looking for him…right?
I’ve got a near fatality here.
—Finlay Currie, Bunny Lake Is Missing
Deke Clark stood in the middle of LAX’s Terminal 4, fresh off the cramped, hot plane, canvas go bag in his hand, and he was staring up with a stupefied expression at the flat-screen TV hanging from the ceiling. You couldn’t hear every word the pretty blond girl was saying, not with all the noise in the terminal. But the news crawl along the bottom, along with the photo in the upper right-hand corner, filled in all the vital details. Lane Madden, actress—recovering addict—found strangled to death in a Hollywood hotel room.
Okay, so let’s get this straight, Deke thought.
Buncha hours ago, I’m on my back deck in Philadelphia, grilling up some carne asada, thinking about throwing some peppers and mushrooms on there, sipping a Dogfish Head.
Call comes from a guy I haven’t spoken to in years. Guy I haven’t wanted to speak to, tell you the truth.
Don’t like him much now, never really did back in the day, either.
“I’m kind of fucked, Deke.”
“You don’t think you can get out here sometime tonight, do you?”
Here, meaning: Los Angeles, California. All the way across the country.
Hardie explains the trouble. So of course Deke packs a bag, that’s the kind of guy he is, can’t say no to a man full of trouble. Goes to the airport. The whole flight out to L.A. he’s thinking about the crazy story Hardie told him. That Hardie was house-sitting in the Hollywood Hills and there was a squatter in the house—only the squatter turned out to be famous actress Lane Madden, and that people were trying to kill her. Like, with exotic knockout drugs and speedball injections and shit. And now Hardie and this world-famous actress were on the run, somewhere in L.A.
Fresh off the flight, Deke stumbled up the jet bridge and into the terminal and saw Lane Madden’s face on TV. Lane Madden, found dead in a hotel room near…
Only the news people weren’t talking about killers. They said police were on the hunt for a killer, singular:
Charles D. Hardie.
Goddamn, Charlie, what are you getting me into?
“I know how this sounds, Deke. About ten hours ago, I wouldn’t have believed me, either.”
Got that right.
The local FBI-LAPD liaison was all over his ass when Deke told him over the phone that he’d heard from Hardie just a few hours ago—the liaison pumping Deke for information rather than the other way around. Deke said unh-unh. First you’re going to walk me through what they have on the murder, what kind of evidence you have on my boy.
The liaison: Well, how about the fact that witnesses saw the victim and your boy at Musso & Frank, both looking like they were coming off a weeklong heroin binge?
A security camera catching your boy stealing a car from the back of Musso & Frank, and the vic playing Bonnie to his Clyde?
Another security camera catching the vic and your boy sneaking into their hotel?
Then there was the matter of your guy’s fingerprints all over the vic’s neck—and his DNA all the hell over her naked body.
Annnnnd we found your boy at the scene, drunk off his ass, slumped shirtless in the corner of the room, vic’s DNA all the hell over him.
And then finally the big one—the one that kind of clinched it for everybody involved—your boy mounted a daring and violent escape out of a moving squad car, incapacitating both officers with some kind of crazy poison gas and damn near killing them before jacking the car and heading off to who the hell knows where.
So…evidence against “your boy”? Pretty damned compelling.
Deke had to admit: Yeah. Sounded pretty damned compelling.
But Deke also knew Charlie Hardie. And even though he thought Charlie Hardie was kind of a dick, he also knew Hardie wasn’t capable of something like this. Deke told the liaison so, added: “I talked to Charlie Hardie earlier today. He said was trying to keep Lane Madden safe from people who were trying to kill her.”
“Did he say who these people were?” the liaison asked.
“No,” Deke lied.
“So why did he run?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where do you think he might have run?” the liaison asked. “Did you give him a place to hide? Give him a contact out here?”
“No, I didn’t, and fuck you very much for asking.”
The liaison softened up a bit after that. He told Deke the address of the hotel, some dump on the fringes of Los Feliz, and gave him the name of the LAPD homicide dick working the scene. But Deke didn’t want the address or the name. He wanted to figure out where Charlie would run next.
Because although he didn’t lie to the liaison, he also left out a key bit of info.
Namely, the deal with the killers; Hardie had called them the Accident People.
Hardie had told him:
“They’re smart, they’re connected, and it’s only a matter of time before they find us again.”
Deke didn’t know who they were, but Hardie said they wanted to kill Lane Madden to cover up a three-year-old hit-and-run.
That would be the hit-and-run of Kevin Hunter, the eldest child of TV executive Jonathan Hunter, who would later create a hugely popular series called The Truth Hunters—dedicated to catching people who got away with crimes.
The actress, Lane Madden, was apparently involved. At least, that’s what Hardie had claimed. How was she involved? Deke had no idea.
Now Deke Clark was rocketing up the 405 toward Hollywood. He could have probably commandeered an agency car from Wilshire Boulevard, but that would have taken too much time—forms, mileage check, all that. Better to stay light on his feet and intercept Hardie as quickly as possible. Deke merged onto the highway, which in the gloomy night twitched and crawled like an army of slow-moving lightning bugs. He tried to put himself in Hardie’s mind:
I’ve just been accused of killing an actress.
I called my FBI pal. (Would Hardie consider him a “pal”? Probably not.)
Help is more or less on the way.
So I hole up, right? Wait for my FBI pal to contact me?
No. That didn’t sit right. Hardie wasn’t the kind of guy to sit still. He’d go after the people who’d killed the actress. For revenge, if nothing else. That was the thing that Deke both admired and loathed about Hardie. He did the things you wish you could do. Thing was, you weren’t supposed to actually do them. Just because it felt good didn’t make it legal.
So that’s what Charlie Hardie would do.
And then Deke remembered one of the last things he’d said to Hardie on the phone:
“Hell, if they’re already going through all this trouble, why not just bump off the Hunters, too?”
Deke arrived in Studio City as twitching, bleeding, moaning bodies were being carted away from 11804 Bloomfield. The address came from the L.A. field office; he was given another name to liaise with at the scene. Deke didn’t want to be caught in some interdepartmental clusterfuck. So instead he flashed his FBI badge and pinned down an LAPD uniform, who gave him a terse rundown of what had happened. The whole thing was turning out to be a bloodbath, the uniform said. At first the body count didn’t seem too high, the uniform explained, but two of the suspect/victims went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital. The two others were alive, and still en route. Two plus two equals four. Was Hardie one of these four? Deke interrupted him to ask:
“Which one of them was Charles Hardie? Which hospital they send him to?”
The uniform didn’t know. “We think the family’s okay, but they’re missing. No sign of them at the scene.”
“Family”—the Hunters. Was Hardie with them? Did they make their escape together? Were they waiting until it was safe to make contact?
Before he went back outside to find someone who could give him answers, Deke scanned the living room. Tastefully appointed, if you ignored the broken furniture, the blood on the rugs, the shattered patio doors. The thought went through his mind: What would I do if someone broke into my house and started shooting at my family?
Outside, Deke pulled aside an EMT, flashed the badge again, got the skinny: There were actually five people carried away in ambulances: three men, two women. None of them members of the Hunter family.
“Any one of them named Charlie?
“Yeah, Charlie Hardie.”
The EMT had no idea, told him he should speak to the liaison on the scene.
“Everyone went to Valley Presby.”
Deke nodded, looked it up on his cell phone, hopped back into his rental, and sped out there, listening to his phone tell him where to go. He didn’t know L.A. Thank Christ for GPS units. Deke thought he’d better check the hospital first, see if Hardie was there or not. If not, then he was probably out with the Hunter family. Maybe they all went to the Cheesecake Factory, enjoyed some chicken française and a bottle of Pinot Noir to celebrate their most recent escape from death.
Or maybe more of these mysterious killers had caught up with them, and the family minivan was somewhere in the hinterlands outside of L.A., parked in front of a motel, and inside a room would be the cold and blood-splattered corpses of the Hunter family, and a revolver in the dead stiff hands of his “boy.”
More bad news at Presby:
Only four victims had shown up.
“I was told they sent you five,” Deke said.
The harried supervising ER doc shook his head. He looked like he hadn’t slept, combed his bushy hair, or shaved his gaunt face since the previous weekend. Strangely, his teeth were freakishly straight and white and perfect, as if he were merely an actor playing a harried ER doc on TV.
“No. We got four. Three were DOA. The other one doesn’t look too good.”
“Where’s the fifth one?”
“We weren’t sent a fifth one. Just the four.”
“I mean the fourth. Let me see number four?”
The ER doc swept his arm out in a help-yourself gesture. He’d probably dealt with cops and feds before. He knew the futility of arguing for patient privacy.
Deke was directed down a hallway into a receiving area. At first he thought he’d been misdirected, but then he came to a room where he saw three bodies on gurneys. There hadn’t even been time to cover them with sheets. All three of them, dudes. None of them Charlie Hardie.
Back out in the ER, Deke tapped shoulders until he finally had someone take him to the fourth victim from the 11804 Bloomfield massacre. Deke wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed that it was a woman, and definitely not Charlie Hardie. She was a plain-looking thing, tiny face and deadly serious eyes. She was dying, the ER doc whispered.
Deke looked at the woman. A girl, really. The doc was telling the truth. She couldn’t even speak, and she kept fading in and out of consciousness.
The idea of a fifth victim nagged at Deke.
What if the ER staff had been mistaken, and Hardie had been brought here? Maybe he was languishing away in one of these rooms while Deke kept spinning around out here. It was something to check out, at least. Otherwise, Deke had nothing. No choice but to return to 11804 Bloomfield and liaise with everybody.
But after checking a series of rooms again and finding no sign of Hardie, Deke had a brainstorm to check the security footage from the ER. Maybe Hardie had been here and gone. The man had an uncanny ability to survive an insane amount of injury. Unkillable Chuck, they called him back in Philadelphia, and Deke couldn’t disagree with that. Considering what Hardie had been through.
Deke went to the security office and had the old man with the runny nose behind the desk roll back the last two hours.
And there he was.
Charlie Hardie, in a neck brace on a gurney, rolling right into the front doors. Goddamn it, he had been the fifth victim. He had been brought here.
So where was he now?
The old man rolled the footage forward; Hardie was not seen again. Deke asked if any cameras covered any other exits. The old man groaned and nodded, then cued up the footage from a side exit. After a few minutes of fast-forwarding, Deke told him to stop. There was Hardie again, same neck brace, same gurney, only rolling out the doors of the hospital and into the back of a waiting ambulance. The camera angle, of course, only revealed part of the vehicle. A partial license plate, not much else.
“Get what you wanted?” the old man asked.
“No,” Deke muttered. “Not at all.”
I don’t know if I’m alive and dreaming or dead and remembering.
—Timothy Bottoms, Johnny Got His Gun
Kendra Hardie never liked it when her husband got sick.
Which wasn’t often. A cold in the summer, usually, sometimes a minor bout with the flu in winter. But when it hit, Kendra pretty much left him to die. For the longest time he couldn’t figure it out. Weren’t wives supposed to be all mothering and shit when their spouses were ill? Was she just keeping her distance, afraid she’d fall ill, too? No, it was more than that with Kendra. She’d seem actively mad at him, as if he’d done this to himself, going out and licking subway seats or running naked through the streets of the Philadelphia badlands during subzero season.
So three years ago, when Hardie been nearly shot to death and was clinging to life in an ICU, Hardie half expected the reaction he received: the cold shoulder. Didn’t mean it hurt any less. Here he was, going through the most traumatic moment of his life—the senseless slaughter of his closest friend and his family—and still, Kendra kept her distance. As if he had nothing more than a bad cold.
The day he arrived home from the hospital Hardie wanted to shout at her, Please, put me out of my misery. What’s going on? Why aren’t you speaking to me? Isn’t this what you wanted? Me, not working with Nate? Me, home more often? Was she furious because the Albanian hit men had shot up their house—and it was a stroke of luck that she and the boy weren’t home? If so, fine, let’s have it out, yell at me, do something…don’t ignore me.
But at the time, Hardie believed himself too weak for an argument. He merely asked if she’d call his doctor to find out whether he would up his pain meds a little. She did, and the doctor said no, he should try to cycle down, in fact. Kendra Hardie didn’t like her men sick.
The next time Hardie woke up he was staring at a bright light, listening to the murmured conversations around him. For a moment he thought it was three years ago, that he was at Jenkintown Hospital, fighting for his miserable life, and that his recent limbo-style existence was just a fever dream. He blinked. The light was fiercely bright, ridiculously bright. Like the shining gleam off a tooth in God’s own pearly smile. The voices kept murmuring, which was rude. Didn’t they know he was dying over here?
“…seen anything like this, have you?”
“Don’t you wonder?”
“Where he’ll end up.”
“Does it matter?”
“I’ve been hearing stories.”
“No, seriously, I hear that these near-death cases we get, we end up patching them up just good enough so they can be transported to, like, Kosovo or Thailand, only to be pulled apart again a piece at a time, packed in ice, and—”
“Hand me a suture, will you? Anyway, I recognize him. We’ve got a minor celebrity here.”
“So who is he?”
“If you don’t know, you don’t want to know.”
“Give me a hint.”
“I did, actually, and no, I will not give you another.”
“What time is it?” Hardie asked, his voice dry and weak and cracked.
Hardie tried to blink, as if that would help his eyes adjust.
“Christ on a cracker. Our guy’s awake.”
“You’re the anesthesiologist. What did you give him?”
“Not enough, apparently.”
“What time is it?” Hardie asked.
“Take care of it. He’s fucking open, man!”
Hardie’s eyes rolled around in his head. He couldn’t feel his body, not really, but he had the sense that it was still there, that he wasn’t some disembodied spirit rushing up toward the immaculate light. No. That would be too easy. He’d been given something. The guy in the ambulance was going on about cc’s.
A man’s face appeared in Hardie’s vision. A white mask covered its lower half. Fuzzy caterpillars clung to the man’s brow line.
“Shh,” he said. “Everything’s going to be all right.”
Hardie was not put at ease. He knew “everything’s going to be all right” was code for “everything’s fucked up beyond all recognition, and it’s not going to get any better.”
“What time is it?”
“Let me give you something.”
Really, he wanted to know what time it was. Was that such a hard question to answer? Not knowing where he was, or what condition he was in—Hardie could deal with that. But time meant everything, and it bugged him to the point of insanity that he couldn’t connect the dots on the time line in his brain. Had an hour passed since he was in the Hunters’ living room, getting blown away? Two hours? Or had it been a day? Hardie didn’t know which answer he’d prefer, to be honest. A day would imply he was out of the woods, that he was stubbornly clinging to life. An hour could mean he was on his way out, and it just seemed like this whole death thing was taking forever.
“Just relax,” the masked man said.
Hardie would not relax.
In fact—fuck this shit.
He needed to move his hands. Where were his hands?
But before he could find them the man was pumping something else into his veins and he felt the horrible cool rush all over his body, not a reassuring peaceful rush, but the rush of icy death, your body’s way of saying “fatal system error,” warning you that this shit was real, you may not come back from this…
And as he went under he thought of his wife and his son and Deke, praying once again that Deke had doubled up the protection like he’d promised and that he’d follow the bread crumbs and figure this shit out.
Because Hardie was okay with death; he probably deserved as much. But not his wife. Not his boy…
You know why so many people came to my funeral?
They wanted to make sure I was dead.
—Larry Tucker, Shock Corridor
Deke Clark drove up and down the 101, burning gas.
Deke didn’t know what he expected to see, really. The mystery ambulance? Not a chance. Some little random forensic clue that would unravel the case? Yeah. Like that ever happens. Besides, he’d done as much of the forensic-type work as he could, tapping traffic cameras everywhere from the Studio City crime scene all the way out to the hospital, and then out again to the major highways. He’d spent days trying to account for every ambulance on camera, retracing their routes, trying to find his phantom vehicle. It was a hard task, and hard to stay focused, since he kept pausing to check his cell phone and e-mail accounts—both official and private—hoping to hear from Hardie. Nothing. Exacerbating the whole situation was an awkwardness with his wife. When she’d call to check in, Deke would invariably be distracted, and it would leave his wife hurt. Later he’d feel bad and want to call back, but then would feel guilty about not using every waking minute to search for Hardie. Five days in, and nothing to show for it except half a license plate.
Deke knew who would have been great at this: his buddy Nate Parish.
Until his untimely death, the man was the secret genius of the Philadelphia police department.
Nate and Charlie Hardie had worked together—only semi-officially. Their mission: clean up the streets of their hometown, using whatever legal or extralegal means necessary.
Deke himself had almost busted the two of them during the infamous mob wars that permanently finished the Italians, crippled the Russians—but also opened the way for the Albanians.
Only reason he didn’t bust them was that Nate knew what he was doing, and he was doing the right thing. And he wouldn’t work without Hardie.
So what would Nate Parish do?
He had this gift for boiling things down to their simplest and purest form. Crime was not complicated, he’d say. Sure, criminals would obfuscate and try to make it seem as clever and confusing as possible, but it always boiled down to something simple. Almost always money. If you can strip away the drama and the clues and bullet casings and the blood-splattered walls, boil it down until the fat and meat fall right away from the bone…what do you have? You have some kind of financial transaction.
That’s when it hit Deke—the ambulance.
Keep digging until you find out who owns it.
Whoever owns it might know who was driving it.
Whoever was driving it would know where Hardie was.
Excerpted from Hell and Gone by Swierczynski, Duane Copyright © 2011 by Swierczynski, Duane. Excerpted by permission.
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