CHAPTER FIVE

 

THIS WREATHED TOMB


Navigating the Tunnels and riding on the tops of trains were two of the first things Father taught me, so I took only a few minutes to get to The Live Letter Office. The sky was dark when I entered Above. So was the inside of Russ' bookstore.

 

I looked through the window of the front door, feeling irritated and a bit puzzled. I had been sure that Russ would still be working on his computer. Maybe he had actually left the store for some fun, or his investigation had required him to leave. I went back up the stairs to the street level, and looked at the windows of his apartment. No lights on there, either.

 

Wait, yes, there was. A very small one, being held below the window. It was probably coming from a pencil-sized flashlight. I could catch the faintest glimmer bouncing off a wall.

 

I went downstairs and peeked through the window. Neither moonlight nor street lamps were positioned right for me to see inside the store. I didn't need them. My eyes eventually adjusted and pierced the blackness. Even then it took a few seconds for me to see the eyes staring back at me.

 

They belonged to a man hiding behind a shelf. He was looking around its corner, just enough to see any person at the door and keep hidden. He would have stay hidden but for my sharper-than-thou eyes. I casually walked away from the door, hoping that my second appearance didn't cause too much suspicion.

 

Again, this was another situation where I should have notified the police, but I didn't know if I could have reached a phone in time. Besides, I didn't work like that. You knew that already.

 

So what to do? For starters, find another door. And I knew exactly where one was. Next to the store was an alley. Its entrance started at the back street, but I found no problem in climbing over a steel fence and quietly lowering myself to the ground. I was equally quiet as I walked to the door. This was where Russ brought new stock into his storage space.

 

I grabbed the door's handle and pulled. I didn't worry about silence this time. In fact, I wanted the biggest noise I could make. The sound of a metal door being wrenched off its lock was plenty big.

 

I found both good luck and bad luck on the other side. The bad luck was that the small white box next to the door wasn't flashing a red light. The burglars had disconnected the alarm. I couldn't expect the police to show up. That was all right, though. I didn't really want the police to come.

 

Good luck manifested itself in the form of boxes gathered in the storage space. There was just enough room to hide behind them and to maneuver in the small space. I squatted behind a two-box-high stack just as the first burglar entered the room. I couldn't see him from my position, but I could see the beam of a flashlight pass over my head. I could also hear him, keeping his breathing under control and his steps cautious. I also smelled the scent of oil -- probably from a well-tended gun.

 

I kept my eyes on the beam and my ears focused on the steps. My hands went where I wasn't looking. A box was right behind me. I had expected to heft the whole thing, but it was open. As softly as possible I withdrew two heavy bound books, one for each hand.

 

I waited for the worst thing to happen. The worst of the worst would have been the burglar shooting at the boxes I was using for cover. A professional wouldn't simply fire into the darkness, but I didn't know how spooked this guy was.

 

He also could have searched behind my boxes before going toward the door. I would have to move really fast then.

 

I listened. I watched. The steps got closer. The beam ran straight over my head. Turn, I though. Turn, turn, turn, for every season, turn, dammit...

 

The steps halted, right next to the boxes, right across from me.

 

The flashlight aimed itself at the door. It's instinctual, you know. You see an open door and look toward there, expecting to see someone.

 

But I wasn't there. I was now standing right next to the burglar (yes, he did have a gun, no, he wasn't looking at me, but he was quickly turning) with my arms spread wide. They were long enough for me to stretch them over the boxes and slam the books against the man's head, one for each side.

 

I was hoping my right arm would block the man from completely turning in my direction. Wouldn't you know that the guy was shorter than I was? When I hit him, his gun had swooped under my arms and lodged against my throat.

 

For a second I wondered if I had hit him hard enough. Or if my blow would cause his finger to twitch.

 

It was a long second.

 

Then the burglar slumped forward. The gun barrel slid off my skin. I clamped the books over his ears, then lowered him to the ground. He was a dark-haired man wearing black clothes. There was nothing unique about him except for a few scars on his face.

 

Being the instinctual literary guy I am, I checked the book's titles. My sharp eyes picked out the words 'Ulysses' and 'Swann's Way.'

 

I grinned. Knocked out by modernity.

 

Then I heard three knocks. The second burglar was rapping on the floor upstairs. It was obviously a signal. Both of us waited -- him for a response, me for his reaction to silence.

 

I expected the man to flee down the stairs and out the front door. That would have been okay. I just wanted one of the burglars.

 

Instead I heard a dresser being opened. The second burglar wasn't leaving without getting his desired object. Pretty dedicated, I thought. It also determined my course of action. I wasn't going to let him leave with the thing he came to steal.

 

Of course I had the advantage of the first burglar's gun. Right?

 

Well, no. I had no interest in starting a firefight in an enclosed space. Besides, that wasn't my style, either.

 

You, dear reader, must be slapping your forehead. And he calls his Father a reactionary! Well, sue me for my upbringing. There may be crossbows down in the Tunnels, but no guns. I was taught that guns were the tools of the scared and the corrupt. You can argue otherwise all you want, but I simply don't use firearms.

 

I had another use for the gun, though. I took out the bullets and stuffed it in my coat. Then I mused on the door leading to the storage space. Should I block it with something? I thought. No, that would have looked suspicious. I wanted the guy to head for the front entrance on his own choice.

 

I entered the store. You gotta admit, I had stealth. I worked my way around the shelves and toward the front door without making a sound. I couldn't avoid a click as I unlocked the front door and a slight creaking as I opened it, but judging from the noise upstairs the second burglar didn't hear me.

 

I went to work on something in front of the door. I was half-done with my little job when the noises stopped upstairs. The second burglar was done. He had found what he needed.

 

As fast as I could, I finished the job and hoped that it was good enough. Then I went inside, expecting to see the second burglar already down the stairs. I was saved by his caution. He was apparently warming himself up to face his enemy.

 

I closed the door, locked it, then hid just as I heard footsteps. I picked a spot behind a shelf, as close as I could get to the door without being seen. Russ' shelves had a solid piece of wood down the middle so a person on one side couldn't see the other. From my position I could see a flashlight glare against a nearby wall, then vanish as it passed over my hiding place.

 

This was the choice facing the burglar -- head for the front entrance or the alley. I was hoping that the storage room had a 'Here There Be Tygers' feel to it. Would he go there, knowing what happened to the first man who went looking?

 

I have to give the man credit. He didn't make a sound as he pondered this decision. As for myself, sweat was moistening my forehead and armpits. I wondered what the hell I was doing here.

 

Because I could smell blood from upstairs. Fuck me with a toilet brush if I let this guy go.

 

The man moved. His footsteps were...

 

...going toward the front door. They were paced in this odd way which told me that he was keeping an eye around him, even as he was walking straight ahead. He wasn't going to be attacked from the rear or the sides.

 

Just what I wanted him to fear.

 

I heard the door unlock. I pulled out the gun. I selected another large book. (Robert Musil this time, perhaps?)

 

The door opened. The second burglar made his first step outside.

 

I reached around the shelf and threw the book. It collided with some other novels, knocking them to the ground, a rolling noise like thunder.

 

The man turned and aimed his gun at the sound even as he was heading up the stairs. Going forward, looking back -- the perfect way to trip on a wire stretched across the first step. I heard a twang, a gasp, a thud, a clatter of metal. I moved.

 

As fast as I was and as close as I was to the door, those six steps toward the outside seemed to say, 'What a stupid plan! He has a loaded gun and yours is unloaded!' My legs, my body, my mind all ignored the warning. I burst through the door, ready to point the gun in hopes of scaring him.

 

Then I stopped. The second burglar wasn't holding his gun. He wasn't even moving. He just lay crooked over the steps. When I smelled the blood, I thought, 'God, I killed someone. I finally killed a man.'

 

Believe it or not, I was grateful when I heard his breathing. He had been knocked out, not killed, by a step colliding with his head. I was willing to perform all sorts of physical abuse on evil men, but not murder. Bones could be fixed and wounds could be healed, but death was too final a thing.

 

And killing someone would make me more like Father.

 

I took his gun, untied the wire, silently thanked Mouse for his inventions, dragged the burglar inside, closed the door. I carried him into the back and tied the two burglars together by the wrists.

 

Then I went upstairs. The smell of blood got stronger with each step.

 

I found Russ in bed. I spent a few moments upstairs, then headed back downstairs.

 

Would I kill a man? No. Hurt him until he squealed? Oh, yes.

 

I covered the mouths and noses of the two burglars until the need for air shocked them into consciousness. They weren't looking too well, especially the one who had tripped on my wire.

"Think about what I did when you were unbound and armed," I said. "Now think about what I could do when you're like this."

 

They were obviously thinking about that. The odd thing is that they weren't exactly scared. They didn't want to be in this position, but I didn't know how they prepared they were for such an eventuality.

 

"That was a friend of mine you killed," I continued. "I'm also guessing that you were hired for this job by someone else. I want to who..."

 

I stopped as I watched their tongues move alongside their cheeks. I couldn't figure out what they were doing until I heard tiny cracks in their mouths.

 

The burglar I had tripped died first. I squeezed the other one's cheeks until his mouth opened, then stuck my finger inside for a phony tooth, thinking, 'Jesus, I didn't know people actually used cyanide capsules...'

 

I was too late. The man's neck became limp, but I held his head upright and yelled, "Who sent you? Who is responsible for this?"

 

Like the echo of a pebble tossed into a well, a single word floated upward from the dying man's throat.

 

"...crown..."

 

Then I was the only person alive in that store. I felt useless. I had done nothing to save Russ and I had lost a means of finding the people who had sent his killers.

 

I spent the next minute kicking and smashing a lot of boxes.

 

A little bit of sense pushed its way through my rage. I remembered that the two dead guys on the floor had been looking for something.

 

I searched them. I found all of Russ' computer disks, but I had trouble believing that Russ would keep all of his important information on them. He was a man dedicated to pen and paper. The burglars might not have known that, but they obviously didn't want to take the chance of leaving behind something important.

 

That thing was a notebook. The second burglar had found it upstairs and had tried to escape with it. It was just a simple blue pad. When I opened it, the first words I saw were "Kathleen Knight."

 

When I left the store with Russ' notebook and Mouse's special wire, I wondered if any book was worth murder. Could Knight have really thought that it was so valuable?

 

Well, Miss Knight, I thought, you better hope that it's worth dealing with me.

 


Continued in Chapter 6