In the City, The Cardinal rules, and Al Jeery is a loyal member of his personal guard. But when Al is pulled from his duties at Party Central to investigate a murder, an unexpected discovery leads him in a new direction, where his loyalties and beliefs will be severely tested.
Soon he is involved in a terrifying mystery that draws in the dead, the City's Incan forefathers, the imposing figure of The Cardinal, and the near-mythical assassin Paucar Wami.
Wami is a law unto himself, a shadowy, enigmatic figure who can apparently kill anyone he chooses without fear of punishment or retribution. And Al is about to find out that he has a lot more in common with Wami than he could ever have imagined...
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By Shan, Darren
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2011 Shan, Darren
All right reserved.
In Room 812 of the Skylight Hotel a woman lay close to death. She was sprawled facedown across the bed, naked and lacerated. Her back had been cut to fleshy shreds. Dark blood seeped from the wounds, trickled down her sides and gathered in the folds of the crumpled sheets beneath. A spider crept across her face, sensed death and scuttled away to safety.
A maid entered. A thick-limbed, middle-aged woman. She spotted the blood-drenched body instantly. Anyone else would have shrieked and bolted. But death was nothing new to this lady.
Closing the door gently behind her, she moved closer to the body. A dripping knife lay on the floor close by. She was wearing plastic gloves but didn’t touch it. Instead she stood over the corpse, gazing down appraisingly.
Kneeling, she pressed two fingers against the victim’s neck and checked for a pulse. Nothing. She was about to leave, when…
A slight vibration. She prized an eyelid open. The pupil dilated in the light and when she took her finger away the lid twitched and the woman’s mouth moved a painful fraction.
The maid frowned, then picked up the knife and scanned the wounds. She settled on one near the heart. Leaning over, she prized the flesh apart with her fingers, inserted the tip of the blade and wriggled it around in gentle circles, holding the woman down with her other hand, until she felt the body shiver for the final time.
She checked the pulse, the eyes, the lips.
The maid dropped the knife, went to the bathroom, rinsed the blood from her gloves, balled them up and pocketed them. She strolled to the door, opened it, mussed up her hair, took a deep breath, then let fly with a scream, bringing staff and guests running.
“she’s my girlfriend”
Bill reeled in his line and switched hooks. We’d been fishing since Friday and all we had to show for our efforts was an undernourished trout we’d have thrown back any other time.
“Reckon that’ll change our luck?” I asked.
“Probably not,” Bill sighed, tugging at the collar of his jacket. He wasn’t enjoying himself. I was happy to sit and chill, but Bill was a demanding angler and grew impatient when things weren’t going his way. “I told you it was the wrong time of year.”
“Quit moaning,” I retorted. “What else would you be doing? Reading or fiddling with fireworks in your cellar. At least here we can enjoy the fresh air.”
“Long way to come for that,” Bill grumbled.
“There’s the view too,” I noted, nodding downstream at the trees and fields. In the distance we could see the hump of the city’s skyline, but it didn’t distract too much from the beauty of the open countryside.
Bill’s expression softened. “Know what we should do? Build a shack and move out. Fish from dusk till dawn.”
“Sounds good to me, Huck Finn.”
Bill smiled and jiggled his line. “We should do it.”
“I’m with you all the way.”
He sighed. “But we won’t, will we?”
“Nope.” He looked so miserable, I had to laugh. “We’re city boys. We wouldn’t last pissing time living wild.”
“Speak for yourself,” he snorted, but he knew I was right. Bill thrived on city life. Take him away from the metropolitan buzz and he’d shrivel up and die.
We were silent awhile, thinking about the lure of the simple country life. Then Bill spoiled it all. “How’s The Cardinal?”
“You know I don’t see much of him,” I muttered.
“It’s not too late to get out,” he said. “There’s plenty of security jobs going. A man with your experience could make a—”
He cocked an eyebrow at me. “Conscience pricking you, Al?”
“We’ve been through this before. I like what I do. I’m not gonna quit.”
“What if you’re asked to kill a man one day?”
I sighed and stared into the cool night water.
“Maybe you’ve already been asked,” Bill said softly.
I maintained my silence.
“Have you killed for that monster, Al?”
I looked over at him. “You really want to know?”
Bill chewed his lower lip, studied my face and shook his head. “No. Guess I don’t.”
Bill was a cop. I worked for a gangster. Our friendship eased along nicely so long as we didn’t discuss work. He’d only raised the subject now because it had been a long weekend and he was irritable.
I checked my watch. “Monday morning beckons. We’ll have to be on our way soon if you want to beat the rush.”
“I should have taken the day off like you.” Bill sounded regretful. He reeled in his line and began dismantling his rod. Stood and gazed off at the city, then said, “Fog’s up.”
I squinted and saw banks of thick green fog billowing over the roofs of the city like a dome. The city was famous for its mysterious green fog, which blew up at random and made a mockery of meteorology.
“Great,” I groaned. “That adds a couple of hours to our journey.”
“Roads are fairly quiet this time,” Bill said. “Shouldn’t delay us too long. Want me to drive?”
“You drove coming. My turn going back.”
“I know, but it’s my car—I don’t want you wrapping it around a tree. I’ll take the wheel if you’d prefer.”
I shook my head. “I don’t mind.”
“In that case, I’ll treat myself to another beer.”
While Bill was cracking open a can, I began tidying everything away. It didn’t take long. I asked if he wanted the trout but he said I could take it. I put it on ice and loaded it along with the gear.
I looked at the distant city again, which had all but disappeared under the fog. A stranger to these parts might have missed it altogether, mistaken it for a shrouded lake.
“Looks like it’s down to stay,” I noted.
“Yeah,” Bill agreed, rolling up a sleeping bag and sticking it in the back of the car. “Could be a bad one.”
I hit bed as soon as I got back. Since I’d booked the day off to make a long weekend of it, I left the alarm off and slept in late, a luxury I rarely enjoyed. I woke about twelve and spent the next hour propped up on the pillows, listening to the sounds of the street outside. It wasn’t as busy as normal—the fog kept a lot of people inside.
I turned on the radio. A DJ was talking to a woman with piles. She was sick of the attached stigma. She wanted to build a society where people could discuss such matters openly, without fear of embarrassment. The DJ was on her side and invited listeners to call in with their own—as he elegantly put it—piles files.
I surfed the airwaves. Found a couple of politicians arguing about the fog. One wanted to know why more wasn’t being done to make life easier for the citizens during times of siege. He wanted extra-strong streetlights, emergency buses and trains, home delivery services for the elderly and single mothers.
I didn’t stick around for the counterargument. I’d heard it all before. You got these idiots on the radio every time the fog rolled in. If I kept on searching, I’d find a thin-voiced professor of whatever explaining how the fog formed, how long we could expect it to last, what the authorities should be doing to prevent future upsets.
I switched off and went to the bathroom. Drank some water, dug out a good book, switched on my reading lamp and sat down for a couple of hours of glamorous molls and steel-eyed heroes.
Early afternoon, I rang Ellen.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“Just checking if tonight’s still on.” We’d made arrangements to go for dinner together. The Golden Moon—I’d blow most of the week’s wages there, but Ellen was worth it.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” she snapped.
“You’ve been busy lately. I thought you might want to beg off.”
“I have been busy but I’m no slave. I’ll make it. Meet you there at nine?”
“Nine,” I agreed and she hung up.
I called Nic next. She’d wanted to come on the fishing trip. Got in a huff when I told her it was guys only. I wanted to make things right but there was no answer. I let it ring till her voice mail cut in, then severed the connection—I hate leaving messages.
I took the trout out of the fridge, stared at it and sighed. It seemed a waste of time, going to all the effort of cleaning and cooking a pissant fish like this. But I didn’t want to throw it away—I wasn’t raised to dump good food. So I set to work.
As I was cutting off its head, I realized there was something in the trout’s mouth. Prying its jaws apart, I discovered a black ball. I dug it out, wiped it clean and held it up to the light. It was a pure black marble, with two golden worm-like squiggles down the sides. Puzzled—how had the trout taken the bait when its mouth was stuffed?—I laid it on a shelf over the bread bin and got on with the cooking.
A few hours later, in the smart-casual clothes I kept at the back of my tiny wardrobe for special occasions, I hailed a cab and went to meet Ellen, my recently decreed ex-wife.
The fog had started to clear, sooner than expected, so the cab made good time and I arrived early. I waited for Ellen in the lobby of the Golden Moon, which was a favorite restaurant of ours. The prices had escalated sharply since our courting days, but little else had changed. It was one of the few physical links we had to our happier past.
Ellen arrived promptly at nine, looking her elegant best. She kissed my cheeks and gave me a hug. The eyes of the other men in the lobby were tinged with green. That was the great thing about dining with her in places like this—I might be shabby as a sheep in the run-up to shearing, but I still had the most beautiful woman in the city clinging to my arm.
“You could have worn a suit,” she said critically as she let go of me.
“If I wore a suit, next thing I’d have to start shaving regularly, washing daily and changing my underwear once a week.”
“Horror of horrors.” She smiled, straightening my tie. “Did I buy you that shirt?”
“Probably.” It was a dark purple satin number. Of course she’d bought it—I despised the damn thing and wouldn’t have worn it otherwise.
“Suits you,” she murmured, then we headed up. A curt waiter directed us to our table. We ordered before sitting, without looking at the menu. In the old days there’d have been two or three bottles of wine to accompany the meal, but tonight we shared a bottle of mineral water instead.
“Any luck with the fishing?” she asked.
“Don’t ask,” I groaned.
We discussed work—mostly Ellen’s, since she never enjoyed hearing about the Troops—and old friends. Not a word about my alcoholic past or all the times I’d let her down. Ellen wasn’t bitter or vindictive that way.
It was my fault the marriage didn’t work. I was an asshole. Got too involved with work. Spent endless nights out drinking with the boys. Slept around. Treated Ellen like a cheap accessory. She didn’t need that shit. She was a beautiful, intelligent, career-minded woman who could have had her pick of men. She chose me when I was young and passionate, prepared to listen to what she was saying and be there for her. When I hit the bottle and acted like a prick, she dumped me, the way any sane woman would.
The food arrived and we tucked in. We’d always shared a healthy appetite, so neither of us said much till the plates had been cleared.
I glanced around the restaurant, noting how few of my own race were present. The city opens its doors to people of all colors and creeds, but if you don’t think there’s a wide dividing line between whites and blacks, you’re living in a dream world. In the Golden Moon—a place of money and style—I stood out like a drag queen in a church choir.
“What’s the special occasion?” Ellen asked, burping lightly.
“Nothing. Just fancied a night out with the woman of my dreams.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Jeery,” she snorted. “I know how that mind of yours works—you don’t do nothing without a reason.” The double negative was an old joke between us. “Last time you invited me out on a date was the day our divorce went through. Need money? Representation?” She worked for a law firm, one of the best in the city.
“You know I wouldn’t come to you for that,” I said, upset that she’d think such a thing.
“I was joking,” she said, covering my big black knuckles with her small white fingers. “Don’t go getting precious on me, Al.”
I smiled, turned my hands around and tickled her palms the way she liked. “Know what day it is?”
“Six months since the divorce was finalized.”
She frowned and calculated. “That was a Friday, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, but the date’s the same.”
She shrugged. “If you say so. That makes this… what… a semi-anniversary?”
“Yeah. I tried not to dwell on it, but the date got stuck in my mind and I felt we should commemorate it.”
“You’re a strange guy, Jeery.”
“Only figured that out now?”
“This isn’t a ploy to win your way back into my good books, is it?” she asked suspiciously.
“You mean get you drunk, harp on about the good old days and hope it leads to your place and a roll in the hay?” She nodded. “Absolutely.” I raised my glass of mineral water and clinked it against hers. “Drink up—a couple more of these and we’ll be flying.”
“To flying,” she smirked.
We lingered over dessert, reviewing the past six months. We’d been separated nearly two years by the time of the divorce, so it wasn’t as if we were raw from the rift. I’d straightened myself out and Ellen had forgiven me long before one of her colleagues drew the final legal line between us.
“Find a woman yet?” Ellen asked as the meal drew to a close.
“No one could replace you,” I said, giving her the doe-eyed treatment. She tossed her napkin at me.
I thought of Nic and smiled. “I’ve been getting some action. Nothing meaningful. You?”
She sighed. “The only men who chase me these days are married, middle-aged lawyers who think I’m easy because I’m a divorcée. It’s becoming a struggle just to get laid.”
The waiter brought the bill and I settled up, trying not to stare at the figure at the bottom. Ellen offered to go halves but I waved her money away. I hadn’t treated her much the last few years of our marriage. I owed her a meal or two.
“Where are you off to now?” she asked.
“Back to the apartment.”
“Ali still working downstairs?” I nodded. “Tell him I’ll be by one of these days for a bagel.” As newlyweds we’d lived in the apartment block that I’d returned to following the dissolution of our marriage. We’d shared some good times there, poor as we’d been.
“I’ll pay for the cab,” Ellen said as one pulled up in answer to her hail.
“That’s OK,” I told her. “I’m walking.”
“You sure? The fog’s still pretty strong in places. You might get mowed down.”
“I’ll take my chances.” I kissed her cheeks. “See you, Ellen.”
“Soon,” she said. “You don’t need to wait for special occasions to call. Get it?”
We smiled, then parted. I watched the cab disappear into the fog, then went for a walk. Back home I collected the marble from the kitchen and took it to bed. I studied it for ages, running my fingers along the streaks of gold. I fell asleep with it in the palm of my left hand, but when I woke in the morning it was gone, and although I searched all over, I couldn’t find it anywhere. It seemed as if it had been lost to the shades of the night.
Tuesday morning. Back to work.
I cycled to Shankar’s for breakfast. One of the perks of working for The Cardinal—free meals at Shankar’s. I wasn’t a regular—most mornings I grabbed a bagel from Ali or a sandwich at work—but I liked to pop by a few times a week.
I parked out back. My bike was my only means of transport. I cycled everywhere, unless on a job with the Troops. I started using it when I got busted for drunk driving some years ago. Enjoyed it so much, I stuck with it even when I got my license back.
Shankar’s was a huge, open-plan, two-story structure (the upper floor was made out of glass) but barrenly decorated. Leonora Shankar was a famed minimalist.
I spotted a flock of Troops gathered by a table near the door and slotted in. Jerry and Mike were the only ones from my shift but I knew the rest of them. Most members of The Cardinal’s personal army got to know each other over the years. There weren’t that many of us, and we were all bound to the city, so we were a close-knit group.
“Back from vacation,” Jerry noted, welcoming me with a raise of his mug. That led to questions about where I’d been, and I spent a pleasant quarter of an hour describing my fishing trip.
“Wish I could get up there,” a sad-eyed guy called Oisin remarked. “I’ve been working weekends since New Year’s. Going up midweek ain’t the same.”
“Switch shifts,” somebody told him.
“No point. The wife works weekends too. If I took a weekend off without her, she’d think I was doing the dirty.”
“Women don’t understand fishing,” Mike agreed. “I went when I was younger. Every time I came back, my girl went through my stuff, looking for evidence. Got sick of it in the end, gave up the fishing. Should have given up her.”
We all muttered and spent a few silent seconds reflecting on the ways of women. My coffee and toast arrived and I tucked in. I always started the day on a light meal.
“Anything happen while I was away?” I asked.
“A couple of new boys started,” Jerry informed me. “Been showing them the ropes.”
“Tasso and Weld are at it again,” Mike added. Ford Tasso was The Cardinal’s right-hand man. Used to be commanding officer of the Troops. Frank Weld replaced him several years ago but Tasso continued to think of the Troops as “his men” and was constantly criticizing Frank’s handling of them. I had sympathy for Frank but I liked Tasso and had to admit that life had been more interesting when he was head honcho.
“What’s it this time?” I asked.
“Some broad was killed in the Skylight last Friday,” Jerry told me. “Wasn’t authorized. The Cardinal’s furious. He chewed out Tasso, and Tasso chewed out Frank. The two have been screaming at each other all weekend. Tasso’s saying nobody would have gotten past the Troops when he was in charge. Frank’s going on again about the security arrangements at the Skylight.”
Frank had been looking to upgrade security at the Skylight since he took over from Tasso. It was one of The Cardinal’s key establishments, where many of his staff and clients stayed when in town. But unlike Party Central—which was pretty much impregnable—it was poorly guarded. The Cardinal liked it that way—it made his guests feel more relaxed—but Frank, who took the flak whenever anything went wrong, hated the setup.
“Guess he’ll be bitching at us all week,” I sighed.
“We’ve already had a day of it,” Jerry said. “Yesterday will go down as one of the biggest pain-in-the-ass Mondays in history. You were lucky you missed it.”
“Yeah,” Mike said, checking his watch and drinking up, “but it’ll be even worse if we’re late today. Slightest excuse, he’ll be on our case. Let’s split.”
“But we’ve half an hour yet,” I protested.
“You think Frank will give a shit?” Mike replied. “I was ten minutes early yesterday and almost got my marching orders.”
“Great to be back,” I grumbled, finished my coffee and grabbed the last slice of toast. “OK if I stick my bike in the back of the van and come with you guys?”
Jerry’s got a soft spot for his van and normally vetoes such requests. But he took pity on me this once and helped me load it in, making sure I didn’t scratch the paint.
Frank spotted us entering and made a production of checking the clock in the downstairs locker room of Party Central. We were a good eighteen minutes ahead of schedule.
“Come in this time again,” he growled, “and it’ll be to pick up your personals.”
While Frank stormed out to berate latecomers, we got into uniform. Dark blue pants and jacket, light blue shirt (a similarly shaded sweater for cooler seasons). Green-blue beret. Black shin-length boots. No tie, thank God. I had three uniforms, which I kept spotlessly clean. Ford Tasso hadn’t paid much attention but Frank was big on presentation. Rightfully so. It was different in the old days, when the Troops were an illegal band of thugs. The Cardinal had grown in stature and we were a city-approved force now, with all the trappings of respectability. We even got the occasional tourist stopping by Party Central to check us out. We worked for a gangster, sure, but we were one of the public faces of his organization, and as such we had to present a smart, professional front.
Jerry studied the shine of his boots, shook his head and started working up a mouthful of spit. Mine were OK so I headed up a flight of stairs to one of the building’s many conference rooms, where my duties for the day would be posted.
The room was half-full of soldiers, some coming on watch like me, some going off, some on their break. I found my name on the bulletin board and scanned to the right. Front door till lunch, yard patrol in the afternoon. That meant a rifle. Damn. I hated any weapon that required more than a single hand to operate.
I signed for the Kalashnikov—a throwback to Tasso’s time—and a pretty young girl called Anra handed it over.
“Missed you yesterday,” she said.
“Vacation,” I explained.
“You on for some overtime this week?” she asked.
“What suits you?”
“Tonight and tomorrow. I’ll see after that.”
Overtime was never a problem in the Troops. I’d been putting in a lot of extra hours the last year or so. Nothing better to do with my time. Besides, keeping busy made it easier to stay off the bottle. Back when Ellen and I split, I hit it hard. Almost got drummed out of the Troops. Sunk about as low as you can get without going under, before Bill pulled me out of the slump.
I spent the early part of the day out front of Party Central with nine other Troops and a couple of red-suited doormen. We were the first line of defense. We looked pretty lifeless to the hordes of people passing in and out, as if we were only there for show, but we were on constant alert, observing all who entered, ready to open fire at the first sniff of a threat. We weren’t on the lookout for weapons—the X-ray machines would pinpoint those—but telltale facial expressions and tics. Our job was to spot people who didn’t belong.
Each of us had spent years studying the art of body language. You didn’t simply join the Troops and go on watch at Party Central. There was a six-month induction period, followed by five years in various branches and posts. Only then, if deemed worthy, were you introduced to the Party Central setup. A couple of months patroling the middle floors of the building, where you couldn’t do too much harm, then a gradual drift toward ground level. Several months pounding the beat in the rear yard, eventually moving out to guard the fences, and finally the front of the building and the lobby, where only the best were placed.
An unofficial extra requirement for front-line Troops was that they’d drawn blood during their tenure. All of the ten guards on duty had killed at least once in the name of The Cardinal.
I’d killed three times. The first was a butcher, after a mere eleven months in the service. He hadn’t been scheduled for execution. I’d gone around to his shop with a couple of more experienced Troops to squeeze protection money out of him. He was a stubborn, foolish old man. Lost his head. Let swing with a thigh-length blade. My colleagues ducked. That left me with a clear shot. I drew, took aim and—as he raised the knife high and roared like a bull—put four bullets through the center of his forehead, neat as you please.
It was a month before they let me back into uniform. A month of psychiatric analysis. I didn’t think that was necessary—as I kept telling them, I didn’t enjoy killing but wasn’t afraid of it—but this was back when The Cardinal was fighting to have the Troops legalized. We were in the public eye, a topic of hot debate, and a lot of people claimed we were no better than hired assassins. Tasso and his administrators had to play things cautiously. Hence the kid-glove treatment.
It was four years until I killed again, in a free-for-all shoot-’em-up with Russian mafia muscling in on The Cardinal’s territory. A hundred of us against thirty Ivans. The fighting raged through an apartment block they’d annexed. I was part of the third phalanx of Troops sent in. Ran up against a teenager in a dark, smoky hallway. He had a sock filled with coins and stones. I had a dagger that could have slit a bear’s chest open.
I started at Party Central a couple of weeks after that.
The third was three years ago. A crooked cop. It was the first time I’d been specifically sent to kill. I broke into his home while he was out. Gagged and tied up his wife and kid. Stood behind his bedroom door when I heard him entering downstairs. When he came in, I stepped out and put the lips of my gun to the back of his head.
I nearly quit the Troops after that. It wasn’t the killing that got to me, but his status. He could just as easily have been a straight cop. Could have been Bill. You don’t make choices when you’re in the Troops—you go where told, shoot when ordered. I’d always known I might one day cross swords with Bill, but I only seriously contemplated the possibility after my run-in with the cop.
I came close to packing it in. Life would have been so different if I had. I might have patched things up with Ellen. I won’t say the job’s what came between us, but it didn’t help. If I’d found legitimate employment and spent more time working on my marriage than polishing my guns…
But past is past. No changing it. I dithered, drank, broke up with Ellen, drank some more. Bill finally weaned me off the bottle in his own inimitable way—he dragged me out of my apartment one drunken night and stuck a gun in my mouth. Told me his father drank himself to death. Said he wouldn’t let it happen to me. He’d rather kill me himself. Quicker that way. I stared into his eyes, found not even the ghost of a bluff, and went cold turkey the next day.
I had a long talk with Tasso once I sobered up. Told him I was thinking of quitting. Spilled my fears. He listened silently. Doubtless he’d heard it all before. When I finished, he shrugged his impossibly broad shoulders and sighed.
“What do you want me to say? Promise not to send you out to kill one of your friends? I can’t. Killing’s what you’ve been trained for. It took a long time to make a Troop of you, Algiers. If you want out, fine, you’re out. But if you stay, you carry on the same as before. You don’t get to choose your targets. You kill who you’re told, and if you don’t, you’ll be killed too.”
Tasso always served it to you straight.
I thought it over, weighed up the options and decided I was better off here than anywhere else. At least in the Troops I knew the score. So I carried on as normal and prayed I’d never have to go face-to-face with Bill or any of my friends.
I spent lunch in an underground canteen watching sports on the TV. One of those world-sports programs, cutting from surf trials to beach buggies to cliff-diving. It was on most days around this time and was the only kind of regular show on my itinerary—I didn’t have a TV at home.
Frank turned up toward the end of my break. Three-quarters of the people present sprang to their feet and started back to their posts, but he waved a hand at them and smiled ruefully. “It’s OK. I’m back to normal. No need to rush off.”
There were some cheers and everybody sat down again. That was the good thing about Frank—his moods passed quickly.
“Have a good weekend, Al?” he asked, taking the seat beside me.
Lots of people knew Bill. He ran a lucrative sideline in fireworks and had staged many private displays for friends and associates of The Cardinal’s. Bill was honest but realistic. If you were a cop in this city you could be straight but not antagonistic. It didn’t pay to get on the wrong side of The Cardinal.
“Hear about the stairs?” Frank asked.
“What about them?”
“We’re to keep off them, nights, till further notice.”
Frank shrugged. “Orders from above. No patrols. No guards on the doors.” He wasn’t happy. “You use the stairs a lot, don’t you?”
“Yeah. Keeps me in shape.”
He glanced about to make sure no one was listening. “You working overtime this week?”
“Three or four nights, most likely.”
“Mind if I assign you to the upper floors?”
I smiled. “I go where I’m told.”
“Good. And, y’know, I might send word a few times a night that I need to see you down below, and, when you’re coming—”
“—I’ll take the stairs?”
“Right,” he grinned. “Unofficially, of course. Just taking the opportunity to grab a spot of exercise.” He stood, checked the TV—two bare-chested giants were using their teeth and lengths of rope to haul trucks in a race against each other—and shook his head. “Don’t like leaving the stairs unguarded. The orders come from The Cardinal, but try reminding him of that if something goes wrong…”
Still shaking his head and muttering, he clapped me on the back and went about his rounds.
Cloak-and-dagger stuff like that was par for the course in Party Central. The Cardinal moved in mysterious ways. You often saw men and women of power roaming the corridors of Party Central, pulling their hair out by the roots. The braver ones—like Tasso and Frank—took matters into their own hands and plotted behind The Cardinal’s back, doing their best to protect him from his crazy flights of whimsy. It was fine if he didn’t find out, but if he did…
I wasn’t looking forward to taking the upper-floors watch—not much happened up there at night—but it always paid to do a man like Frank Weld a favor. You never knew when you might need one in return.
I spent the afternoon in the massive rear yard of Party Central. This was my favorite spot. Business was brisk, as a result of which time—the foe of bodyguards worldwide—flew by. Cars had to be checked and rechecked. The fence had to be probed hourly for weak points. Delivery teams, chauffeurs, executives—all were subjected to our scrutiny and tracked into the building if they looked in the least suspicious. The yard could have been Party Central’s Achilles’ heel if not properly policed. As it was, you had a better chance of blasting your way through the front than squeezing in by the back.
At the end of an uneventful shift I ducked out to grab a pizza. Shared it with a couple of guys in the canteen when I got back. Jerry was among them.
“Frank get onto you about the stairs?” he asked as we ate.
Jerry made a face. “I hate the espionage shit. If The Cardinal says leave the stairs alone, we should leave ’em the hell alone. For all we know, he plans on running a team of cannibal ninja bastards up and down them all night long.”
Cannibal ninja bastards. I had to smile. “You could have said no.”
“To Frank?” Jerry snorted. “I also could have said, ‘Here’s my ass—ram a stick of dynamite up there and blow me to fuck.’ It was different with Tasso—he didn’t sulk if you turned him down. But Frank…”
I nodded. Frank did tend to take things personally.
“Wanna go out later?” Jerry asked. “I’m meeting a coupla guys in a club.”
“I’ll pass,” I told him. “It’s been a long day.”
Pizza finished, we took the elevator up, Jerry to the sixteenth, me a couple of stories higher. Offices were few and far between up here. Most petered out at the fourteenth. The Cardinal occupied the fifteenth. Beyond that sprawled the legendary floors of files—room after room packed with newspapers, reports, data sheets, populace surveys, birth and death certificates, volumes of city history, housing plans, income tax returns. The myth ran that The Cardinal had a detailed dossier on every one of the city’s millions. That couldn’t be true, of course, but he probably had something on the majority of them.
I made the rounds of the mainly deserted rooms, breaking off two or three times an hour to meander down the stairs and back up again. I ran into other similarly deployed Troops a couple of times but we never acknowledged one another’s presence.
I was on my way up from the third floor at about half past nine when Frank came storming down, his face a furious twist of lines.
“Jeery!” he snapped. “What are you doing on these stairs? Haven’t you heard they’re off-limits?”
I paused, wondering if he was joking or testing me. “You want me off the stairs?” I asked cautiously.
“Of course I want you off the fucking—,” he started to roar, then caught himself and forced the bleakest of grins. “I know what I said earlier, but those orders are canceled, OK?”
Frank studied my face, daring me to question him. When I didn’t, he relaxed slightly and drew a long, disparaging breath. “Know what the crazy bastard’s done now? Ripped three-quarters of the guard out of the yard. Told me it was an exercise.”
“What do you reckon he’s up to?” I asked.
“Fucked if I know,” Frank replied. “Seems like he’s clearing the way for an invasion. There’s a gap out back that you could drive a fleet of tanks through. But what do I know? I’m just the head of this goddamn army. I’m a nobody.”
He fumed for a few seconds, then grimaced. “Anyway, with this other shit going on, we may as well forget about the stairs. Let the lunatic have his way. Finish your shift, then do whatever the hell you want the rest of the week.”
“And pass on the word, would you?”
“You’re the boss, Frank.”
I saw the shift out, then took an elevator down to the basement and made for my locker. It had been a long night and I was looking forward to changing clothes and getting home. When I opened the door, something rolled out of the bottom and spun away down the floor. I thought it was a coin and I wasn’t going to bother with it, but then I noticed the dark sheen of the rolling object and hurried after it. I stopped it with my foot, then picked it up and studied it with incredulous suspicion.
It was the small black marble I’d found in the trout’s mouth and then lost. Only now the golden squiggles down its sides no longer reminded me of worms. They’d been broadened and touched up. Now they looked like snakes.
The marble bugged the hell out of me and I slept fitfully. By morning I knew I must have had it on me all along, and was only imagining the change in the squiggles, but part of me wasn’t convinced. I laid it on a wad of cotton wool on the mantelpiece in my living room and kept a close eye on it for the next day or two, but when nothing further happened I forgot about it and concentrated on work.
Wednesday was another busy day. I didn’t get home till two in the morning. Spent the last four hours covering for a sick colleague on the fifteenth floor, one of seven Troops guarding the elevator doors. A further ten soldiers would usually be on each of the three stairway openings, and more patrolling the corridors, but due to The Cardinal’s recent instructions the floor was largely deserted.
It could be difficult staying alert in such conditions. The warm air, the peaceful corridors, the mostly inert elevator, the carpets tickling the soles of my feet. Party Central was layered with thick, expensive carpets from the second floor up. No shoes were allowed. Had to check them in downstairs, even if you were only running a quick errand. Most of the carpets were more comfortable than an average mattress. The temptation to lie down and snooze was overwhelming.
But I was paid to ignore such temptations, so I focused on the doors of the elevator, didn’t let my mind wander, and kept my hand close to the butt of my gun. In the unlikely event that we ever came under attack, I’d be ready.
I meant to call Nic—I still hadn’t spoken with her since I got back—but didn’t get a chance. It was too late when I got home so I simply undressed and crawled into bed, same as the night before.
Thursday, the shit hit the fan.
I’d clocked on an hour before midday and was changing into my uniform in the basement when Vincent Carell stormed in. Vincent was one of Tasso’s men. Thin, face like a ferret, not blessed in the brains department, quick to draw his dick and his gun. I never knew why Tasso placed so much faith in him.
A guy called Richey Harney was by my side, slipping off his boots. “Richey!” Vincent barked. “With me.”
Richey glanced up, pained. “I was on my way home.”
“Was,” Vincent snickered.
“But Frank said I could leave early. He—”
“I don’t give a fuck what Frank said!”
“It’s my daughter’s birthday,” Richey moaned. “I missed her First Communion last month. If I miss this, my wife’ll kill me.”
“Do I look like I give a fuck?” Vincent snapped.
Richey lowered his head and muttered something, then started lacing up his boots again. Sap that I was, I took pity on him.
“Could you use me instead? I just arrived—I’m fresher than Richey.”
Vincent rolled his eyes, then nodded. “Sure. One asshole’s the same as another. Meet me out back three minutes from now.”
“Thanks, man,” Richey said softly as Vincent left.
“No problem. You’d do the same for me, right?”
“Sure.” Richey laughed lamely.
Vincent had calmed down by the time I reported for duty. He tapped the dashboard of a glistening ambulance. “I love these,” he said as I got in, then jammed his foot down. The Troops on the gate only just got it open in time. Their curses trailed us out of Party Central.
“Where are we headed?” I asked, raising my voice to be heard over the blaring sirens Vincent had activated.
“The Fridge,” Vincent replied, taking a corner like a Keystone Kop. He always drove like this when Tasso wasn’t around.
“Dropping someone off?”
“Picking someone up.”
The Fridge was a privately owned morgue, sometimes referred to by brave—but foolish and short-lived—reporters as the Elephant’s Graveyard of the city. It was where The Cardinal’s employees took undesirable corpses, bodies they didn’t want washing up, victims they wished to keep on ice. Sometimes his own men were stuck away there too, if they’d died in suspicious circumstances and required an autopsy. Apparently the best pathologists in the country plied their trade behind the camouflaged walls of the Fridge.
“What’s the deal?” I asked.
Vincent swerved to avoid a necking couple who weren’t paying attention to the road, pounded on the horn, gave them the finger, then looked at me and grinned. “You heard about the girl who got sliced at the Skylight?”
I recalled my conversation with Jerry and Mike. “Yeah.”
“Nobody knows anything about her. She checked in under a pseudonym. Might have been a hooker but wasn’t a regular. We brought her out here to let the experts at her. They haven’t gotten around to her yet—there’s always a backlog at the Fridge. She wasn’t supposed to be a priority but now she is—word leaked and we’ve gotta take her back.”
“To the Skylight. A cop phoned Tasso. Said someone told him what happened. We have till midnight to return her and report her murder or he sweeps in with his men. If she ain’t there, he’ll go to the press.”
“So? Kill the cop, can the story. That’s SOP, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Vincent said. “But it’s simpler to let the cops have her now that they know about her.”
“Won’t the state pathologist figure out how long she’s been dead?”
“That asshole drives a BMW,” Vincent said with a wink. “Gets a new model every year on his birthday. Gratis. He sees what we tell him to see.”
The Fridge looked innocuous from the outside. Set close to the docks, it was a huge dilapidated building, broken glass in the windows, a couple of lights shining to deter tramps, graffiti scrawled by design across the lower walls. We parked down a side alley and let ourselves in. A short stroll down a corridor, through a splintered door, and suddenly we were face-to-face with a vast, whitewashed, stone monstrosity.
The entire interior of the old building had been hollowed out and this enormous box had been constructed inside. Or else they’d built this first, then placed the frame of the older structure around it. I never did think to ask.
Vincent made his way to one of the entrances and tapped in the security code. The door hissed open and a cold blast of air swirled around us. Vincent shivered. “Should have brought my long johns,” he grumbled.
This section of the Fridge contained nothing but coffin cubicles. Cold, metal containers, inside which, on ice-cold slabs, rested the dead. They stood in rows of a hundred, five cubicles high, twenty long. There were six floors of scaffolding above this first level, all stacked similarly, staircases and catwalks running around them.
Most of the nearby containers were occupied, their doors tagged and hung with accompanying files. Alongside the usual statistics—gender, height, weight, address, next of kin—were details of how they died, when they were admitted and by whom, and what was to be done with the body. Very little of the information was censored since none but The Cardinal’s own was ever admitted.
Vincent located an internal communicator and pressed a button.
“Dr. Sines will be with you presently, Mr. Carell,” a woman informed him before he had a chance to speak. “Please remain where you are. Refreshments will be provided if requested.”
Vincent looked at me and grinned. “Hungry, Algiers?”
“I couldn’t eat in here if I was starving.”
“Chickenshit,” Vincent laughed, but he ordered nothing either.
I climbed up a couple of flights and went walkabout while we were waiting, checking the roll call of the dead, examining their testimonies. Men, women, children, cops, gangsters, priests—all were represented. Vincent joined me after a couple of impatient minutes and we padded along quietly, one after the other. It was supposed to be good luck to find the final resting place of someone you knew.
“This is where we’ll wind up,” Vincent said quietly. “A couple of coins over our eyes, jellylike blood, blue skin and a slab for a bed.”
“I’d rather burn than freeze in here,” I said.
“That’s what hell’s for, Algiers.”
We moved up another flight and I finally stumbled upon a name I recognized.
“I remember this guy,” I said. “I was there when we took him out.”
“Theo Boratto.” Vincent frowned. “That was the night we picked up Raimi.”
“Capac Raimi. The guy we let walk.”
I thought back. I’d been part of a support platoon sent to eliminate Boratto and his cohorts. Tasso had lined us up beforehand and described a young man who would be with Boratto. He wasn’t to be harmed. If necessary, we were to sacrifice our own lives before jeopardizing his. No reason was given.
“He’s working for The Cardinal now, isn’t he?” I asked, recalling scraps of gossip I’d picked up in Shankar’s.
“Sure as shit is,” Vincent growled. “The Cardinal’s pet monkey.”
A tall man in a white uniform appeared beneath us and called up, “Mr. Carell?”
“Yeah?” Vincent replied, leaning over the bar.
“I’m Dr. Sines. You’re here to pick up Miss Skylight?”
“Got it in one, Doc.”
Sines didn’t say much as he led the way through the arteries of the Fridge. Five minutes later we entered a large, spotlessly white operating room. Stiff corpses hung from the walls by steel hooks, entrails tumbling down their fronts. I’d been startled the first time I saw them. Thought they were real. It was only when I noticed the pathologist laughing that I realized they were fakes. Lab humor—go figure.
Other doctors and assistants circled the room, ignoring us, up to their elbows in blood and gore.
Our cargo was lying facedown on a slab, naked, whitish-blue.
“I’ve taken her prints, measurements, photographs,” Dr. Sines said. “Had to work quickly. Been examining her back while I was waiting. A clumsy piece of work.”
The back in question had been carved to pieces. Long slashes, deep gouges, thin red cuts and violent purple punctures. An uneven circle had been etched between her shoulder blades, several straight lines radiating from it at tangents.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Maybe a sun symbol,” the doctor replied.
“I didn’t notice that when I brought her in,” Vincent said.
“There was a lot more blood then. We’ve cleaned her up. Amazing what comes out in the wash.” He smiled briefly but Vincent and I remained stony-faced. “How do you want her?”
“What do you mean?” Vincent asked.
“You want us to leave her like she is or should we bloody her up again, make it look like she’s just been killed? She’s to be returned to the scene of the crime as I understand things.”
“Yeah.” Vincent scratched his nose uncertainly. “Fuck it, I got my suit bloody bringing her here—no point ruining it again dragging her back. We’ll take her clean.”
“Shouldn’t we get a bag or something?” I asked.
“Doc?” Vincent sniffed.
“I think some form of wrapping would be appropriate.”
“Then step to it, man! We’re working to a tight schedule.” Vincent smiled at me as the doctor bristled and clicked his fingers at one of his assistants. “Pays to keep them on their toes,” he whispered.
“I wouldn’t pester them,” I whispered back. “Never know how they might take it out on you if you turn up here dead.”
Vincent shrugged. “Like it matters a fuck at that stage. C’mon—let’s turn her, so we’re ready to tip her in. You wanna take the left or right side?”
“I don’t care.”
“Then I’ll take the right—don’t want to be the first to hear her heart if it starts beating again.” He laughed ghoulishly and grabbed her arm as the assistant arrived with the bag. I took the other arm. It was cold. Stiff. Clammy. “Ready?” he asked and I nodded. “One. Two. Three.”
We flipped her onto her back. Vincent tugged her toward the edge of the slab. I started pushing but then my gaze fell on her face and I froze.
“At least look like you’re trying,” Vincent huffed. “Don’t leave me to do it all by my—”
He caught sight of my face and stopped.
“Christ, Algiers, you look worse than the corpse. What’s up?”
I shook my head numbly.
Vincent leaned over and slapped me. “Algiers! Snap out of it. Focus on my lips. What’s. Wrong?” He spoke slowly, as if to a dim-witted child.
“The girl,” I managed to sigh.
“Like you’ve never seen a corpse before. It ain’t like you know her or anything.” He started to laugh, then stopped, his eyes narrowing. “Or do you?”
I nodded wordlessly.
“Shit.” He licked his lips. “Who is she?”
“Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh,” I stuttered.
“You wanna sit down? Doc, you got a chair?”
“I might be able to rustle one up,” came the dry reply.
“No. Don’t need one,” I gasped. “I’ll be OK.”
“So who is she?”
“Here we go again. Take a deep breath, Algiers. Concentrate.”
I looked him in the eye and said it. “Her name’s Nic Hornyak.” A moment’s silent beat and I added the kicker. “She’s my girlfriend.”
Excerpted from Hell's Horizon by Shan, Darren Copyright © 2011 by Shan, Darren. Excerpted by permission.
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