Just as quickly I stopped.


I had left the club in time to see a limo pull away from the curb. I felt a click of recognition, then dismissed it.


No, I had been right the first time.


It was the same limo I had seen yesterday -- the one that had given me a feeling of being watched. And now I was seeing it again, taking away the woman in black and her large companion. If they saw me in the rear view mirror, they made no acknowledgement.


Just before it turned a corner, I stared straight at the license plate. Then it was gone. I suppose that I could have gone running after it with my strong legs, but that would have looked, uh, suspicious.


Still, I had a license plate number. Now how to trace...


Honk. "Hey, Jacob, how it's goin', man!"


I turned to see an elderly black cab driver sticking his head out of a window. Call it destiny or coincidence or dumb luck, but that cab driver was just the man I needed.


"Lonnie!" I called back and ran over to the cab. "I need your help."


"Get in then!" he said without hesitation. "I'm a motherfuckin' Helper, ain't I?"


I opened the passenger door and James Brown hit me full in the face. If you ever hail a cab in New York City and a cab driver pulls over with James Brown blasting on his stereo...well, I guarantee that you will arrive at your destination a lot quicker than you had predicted.


"I need to find a limo!" I yelled over the music. "It's just left here!"


"All right!" he said with a grin. "A chase!"


"No! No chasing!"


"Well, what the fuck do you want me to do?"


"Get on the radio and find out if anybody has seen this license plate!" I gave him the plate number. "Until we find them...just drive on."


Lonnie nodded, then picked up his radio mike and stepped on the gas. "Listen up all you motherfuckers out there," he declared over his radio, and every motherfucker responded. Lonnie had lived in New York City for sixty years and had been driving a cab for forty. He knew every inch of the five boroughs, and he had created a vast network of friends and informants in his life. If you didn't mind listening to "Night Train" at the peak volume, then he made an invaluable guide as well as an expert Helper. He was now sending out an all point's bulletin for the limo I had described.


"So how's Vinnie?" he asked as he casually drove through the thick traffic. As far as I knew, Lonnie was the only one who referred to my father as 'Vinnie.' (And could get away with it.)


I mumbled something about Vinnie being fine. Lonnie looked at me in his rear view mirror. "Your dad know you're out here?" he asked.


"Trust me, it's..."


A Toyota suddenly pulled in front of Lonnie's cab. Without taking his eyes off me he hit the brake and honked at the Toyota.


"...really important," I concluded.


Lonnie risked another look at me, then shrugged and looked back at the road. Not that it mattered. I honestly believe that Lonnie could have driven a cab blindfolded. He simply knew the traffic patterns of this city down to the last vehicle. His experience and knowledge had earned him so much respect that his company didn't ask questions if he took off an hour to help some mysterious fellow (like myself). Neither did his employers reprimand him for deafening passengers with "Live at the Apollo." Respect was also the reason why he was soon getting responses on the radio to his inquiry about the license plate.


I half-listened to the radio voices and half-watched the gleams of street lamps and headlights and traffic lights and movie theater signs swimming past my view. I questioned my actions. Shouldn't I be regrouping in the Tunnels, telling Grandfather what I knew, making a better plan? Rational thoughts, however, were drowned by the remembered sound of that voice...that beautiful voice reading Keats...


Lonnie finally got a report from another cab driver who had spotted the limo dropping its passengers off at 817 Fifth Avenue. "Oh me, oh my," Lonnie declared. "You followin' a rich motherfucker, Jacob."


I nodded. Even though my plan was inherently illogical, I was following it to its logical conclusion. I knew what I had to do if I wanted to catch up with the woman in black.


"Lonnie," I said, "I'm going to need two favors from you."


"Okay," he replied.


"Big favors."


He paused, then repeated, "Okay."


"First I need to find out which apartment those people have at 817."


Lonnie tapped one of his fingers on the wheel. "You think I can do that?"


"You know people all over the city, including Fifth Avenue."


"But you know how I feel about invadin' people's privacy."


"I know." Every gossip columnist and paparazzi in New York City was always trying to use Lonnie as a source for dirt. His network could have directed them to every celebrity currently in an embarrassing position. But he would turn them down with a flat "Hell, no." "Just 'cause you're rich and famous," Lonnie believed, "doesn't mean that people should be sniffin' your dirty drawers."


"I only ask," I said, "because this is very important."


"Uh-huh. So what's the second favor?"


"I need to find someone."




I gave him a name. He looked at me in surprise. "You serious?" he wondered.


"I know she's in town shooting a movie. My guess is that she's at Ackroyd's, but I need you..."


"Whoa, whoa, whoa there, son. What the hell do you want with..." His eyes lit up. "Oh, you sneaky little bastard, I know what you're..."


"Again, I'm only asking because it's important."


"How important?" he asked. Ahead of him a light turned red.


"You heard about Harry Eastland?"




"You think I did the right thing there?"


With his eyes still on me he stopped for the red light. "Do I think that?" he snorted. "I wish I could have sold tickets to that motherfucker's smackdown."


"That's how important this is."


Lonnie stared at me, judging how truthful I was. And I was being truthful. Sort of.


The light turned green. He kept his eyes on me for a few more seconds after he pressed the gas pedal. Then he said, "You better be right."


He got back on the radio. I could hear the hesitancy in the voices of Lonnie's fellow cab drivers when he requested his information. They knew that he was stretching his own personal rules. However, they also trusted him. If Lonnie wanted to know the names of a Fifth Avenue resident and the current location of anyone in the city, then that's what he'd get because he's Lonnie. As his personal search engines went to work, I listened to James Brown.


"You got to live for yourself, yourself and nobody else..."


Trying to, Soul Brother Number One, trying to.


A few minutes later Lonnie got information from a guy who knew a guy who worked at 817 Fifth Avenue. The owner of the limo was Edward Bradbury. He also owned the top-floor apartment of 817. He lived there with his daughter.


Her name was Alexandra.


I closed my eyes and the letters of that name seemed to shine in the darkness. I caressed each syllable with my tongue. Al-ex-an-dra. Yes, I thought. This was the name of the woman who understood poetry, who brought out the beauty in words I had neglected for so long, who used her voice the way a conductor uses an orchestra.


This was the woman I would do anything to meet.




When the doorman first let me into Ackroyd's, he did it for entertainment purposes. He knew that the customers liked exotic things, and a handsome long-haired fourteen-year-old with a confident gleam in his eye fit the bill. However, he probably wouldn't have allowed me in again if I had shown up on the very next night. Instead, I made a second visit six months later. He was impressed that I hadn't abused the privilege.


I didn't return the very next night because Ackroyd's didn't really impress me, despite being a watering hole for the rich and famous. Oh, Jacob, you might be saying, aren't you down with the common man? Well, I couldn't figure out why this was such a hip place for the cognoscenti of New York City. First of all, the interior decor -- all blue colors and mirrors -- wasn't that attractive. The drinks and food were decent, but not spectacular. As far as I could tell, the rich and famous gathered here because, well, this was where the rich and famous gathered for the moment. And actually meeting the R & F didn't really wow me. For those of you expecting tales of debauchery will be disappointed to know the elite don't just mix business with pleasure. Business is their pleasure. There was a lot more deal making and contract signing than sex and drugs. I guess the seventies really are over.


Even their interest in me was business-related. "Are you in the movies?" they kept asking me. "Are you a model?" They were stunned to find out that I wasn't, then made me a career offer right on the spot. I politely turned them down. Of course, if I didn't have the secrecy of the Tunnels to protect...


Anyway, six months separated my two visits to Ackroyd's. My second visit was due to mild curiosity and nothing else. This time there was a younger crowd who showed some interest in wine and sex. I ended up banging one young lady in the bathroom (which smelled a lot better than the one in Knucklebones.) I forgot her name, too, until I saw her again on the cover of Vogue. A month after we had encountered each other at Ackroyd's, that same lady was the star of The Movie Which Unexpectedly Broke the One Hundred Million Dollar Mark at the Box Office and Made Her the Hot New Thing in Hollywood.


I have enough decorum not to mention her by name. Let's just refer to her as The Actress. Thanks to the info network of Lonnie, I found out that The Actress had indeed returned to the club where we had first met. Lonnie drove me to Ackroyd's. He promised to wait for me outside the high-class club. I knew that no one would tell him to move. (Lonnie was known everywhere. Anybody who didn't know him would get quickly educated.)


The doorman allowed me into Ackroyd's with no fuss, much to the outspoken dismay of people who had been trying to talk their way into the club. I turned in the doorway and said to them, "It's really not that interesting, folks." The doorman chuckled as the door closed behind me.


I went looking for The Actress. She wasn't hard to find. When I had first seen her, she had been on the edge of Ackroyd's social scene -- a pretty young lady who had done respected work in supporting roles, but hadn't become The Hot New Thing yet. This time she was at the center of attention, right on Ackroyd's dance floor. Considering that the club was more used for deals than getting down, it was a little strange to see a dance floor on the premises. Not many people had bothered to use it when I had last been there, except for The Actress and some of her friends. Now she had a lot more friends, all of them dancing with her to The White Stripes or Coldplay or some other hip band which I never listen to. (Rock snob, me.)


I made my way around the dancers until I was right behind The Actress. I whispered in her ear. She spun toward me with a guarded expression.


Then her face brightened. "Jacob!" she cried out and embraced me. I hugged her, aware that I was sharing her spotlight. And I felt guilt twist in my heart because I would now use that spotlight for my own devious purposes. For a moment I thought, stop what you're doing.


Then, once again, a voice singing Keats swallowed the voice of my conscience.


"Could we go somewhere a little more private?" I asked softly.


She giggled. "The bathroom is pretty private."


"Then let's go there."


She was kissing me and rubbing her thigh against my leg the moment we found an empty stall. I returned the kisses until she unzipped my jeans. "Um, I'm sorry..." I mumbled.


"What?" she said breathlessly.


"I came here for a favor."


The eager young lady changed into a cautious deal maker. "What sort of favor?" she asked in a flat voice. I could see the beginning of a harder personality than the one I saw months ago. When you start getting fifteen million dollar salaries, see what it does to you. I was hoping that it hadn't made her too hard.


I looked straight into the eyes and said, "I need to get into 817 Fifth Avenue."




"There's someone I need to see."




I couldn't bring myself to say Alexandra's name. For the moment that name was too special to casually drop into a conversation. Nor did I want to draw attention to the woman who kept her face hidden.


What could I say, though? I decided to give a truthful answer --


"Someone I would do anything to protect."


The Actress' caution was melted by the honesty in my face. "Is it a woman?" she asked.




She looked at me with irony as she said, "So I'm not the only woman in your life?"


In reply I could only say "Uh..." The Actress laughed and ruffled my hair.


"Oh, I knew that I wasn't the only one when we first met," she said. "I also knew that you would go through a lot of different women before you met the one you truly loved."


"You did?" I was really surprised by her observation.


"You're something special, Jacob," she told me in a softer voice. "I only met you one time, but you make an impression. You're like something out of the movies."


Great, I thought. Even people who didn't know my background romanticized me. But didn't I contribute to that? Didn't I know the effect I had on people? On, ahem, women?


"I've been thinking about you," The Actress told me. "Wondering if you'll ever show up again."


"Well, you did say that if I were in the neighborhood..."


"I did say that." She kissed my cheek. "And now you need my help to meet the woman you love."


I do love Alexandra, I thought. I haven't even talked with her, but I love her. So I said, "Yes."


She smiled. "Okay then. Let me be in your movie for awhile."


"Thank you."


And I'm sorry for what I'm going to do.




When I returned to Lonnie, I said, "I need you to..."


"Go to a back entrance. I know where it is."


Of course he did. There was a special little exit in Ackroyd's where the famous folk could leave without being watched. There were a few paparazzi out front and I didn't need my photo shown on the E! Network.


Lonnie drove the cab to that exit, and the Actress joined me on the backseat. "Why hello, Lonnie," she said.


"Evenin'," he responded as he nimbly slid back into the traffic. Like I said, Lonnie knew a lot of people and a lot of people knew Lonnie.


"So," she said, "you tracked me down for Jacob."


Lonnie's shoulders squirmed. "He says that it's important."


The Actress patted my hand. "It is," she said.


"Hope so," Lonnie muttered.


Nobody said another word until we reached 817 Fifth Avenue. (In Lonnie's skillful hands that took half of the time needed by your average cab-driver.) "Thanks, Lonnie," I said after getting out of the cab with the Actress. "I can take it from here."


Lonnie just looked at me for a few seconds, then drove away from the building.


The doorman of 817 Fifth Avenue blinked when he saw me and The Actress. "Hello," she said, dazzling him with the smile that made a hit movie. "We're here to see a friend. Mind if we come in?"


It was his job to keep suspicious people (like me) out of this residence for the wealthy. However, The Actress' smile overcame his defenses. Besides she was rich and famous, right? Surely she knew somebody who lived here. He held open the door for us, barely noticing the scruffy, long-haired youth on The Actress' arm.


She got similar looks from security guards, maids and the occasional 817 resident. She gave them the same disarming smile. We walked through the wide, expertly decorated front lobby of the building. I vaguely noticed the attractive decor, but I was mainly conscious of how close I was to Alexandra.


We finally reached the elevator. For a moment I was worried that the elevator might have some special guy to push the buttons. However, the doors opened to reveal not a soul. We entered the elevator, the Actress flashed one more smile to anybody watching, and the doors closed.


"Okay," she said. "Where does this special lady live?"


"Top floor. But I don't think..."


She pressed the button marked '17.' It didn't light up. "Huh," she commented, then pointed at a key hole next to the button. "I think you need a key to reach that floor."


"Yeah, I figured," I said, then tapped the button for the seventeenth floor.


"Well, how are you going to get in?"


I didn't answer.




Still no answer from me. The ride to the seventeenth floor was quiet until the doors opened. I saw a long corridor leading to an apartment door. Only one apartment occupied this floor, just like on most of the others at 817.


"Jacob, just what are..."


I walked to the apartment door. The Actress followed reluctantly.


I knocked on the door and waited for a response. I knocked again. I pressed my ear against the door. My sharp hearing picked up no hint of people on the other side.


"Were you expecting somebody?" the Actress wondered.


I stepped back from the door. "Think they've got an alarm?"


"What? I..."


I kicked the door. The lock broke and let the door swing through the darkness of the apartment. Just as my ears had told me, nobody was home -- lucky for all of us. The mouth of the Actress was stretched wide as I checked the door frame.


"Nope," I said. "No alarm. Guess they expect the security downstairs to handle things."


"Christ, Jacob."


I looked at the Actress. "This is as far as I need you to take me. Now..." I held a breath, then exhaled. "...what do you plan to do now?"


She looked at me with the realization that she had been used. She wasn't shocked or angry -- just sour and disappointed. So much for romanticism, she must have been thinking.


"Well," she said, "can you trust me to walk away and not tell the cops?"


"It's not a question of that. It's a question of whether anybody will believe that you weren't complicit in my crime."


"Hm. That's the thing, isn't it? I was complicit."




"To the media," she said in a cold voice, "that distinction won't mean shit."


I shifted my boots. "Um, yeah."


"And I can't just walk away. People saw me with you. And they'll figure out quick who broke that door."


"So...what we have to do is convince them that I had forced you to help me."


She nodded. I wondered if the expression on her face was the one she used for negotiating salaries. She looked into the apartment and said, "I wonder if they have any rope."


They didn't, but the occupants of the seventeenth-floor apartment had enough ties, scarves and socks to tie up a young lady. "Make it tight," she told me as I bound her. "I need bruises."


God, I'm a bum, I said to myself. Why am I doing this? Then I remembered how close I was to Alexandra, so close to the person I desperately needed to meet.


I made sure the knots were good and tight. The Actress now lay on the floor, looking very uncomfortable but her voice was firm as she asked, "Know a painless way to knock me out?"




"Then do it."


I used a trick Jamie had taught me -- press hard against certain points and nerves so that the other person fades out. It takes a little time to work. As the Actress' eyelids fluttered, she slurred --




After she was finally unconscious, I went to phase three of my alleged master plan.


Now, some of you might be wondering why I went through all this trouble when I had the ability to just climb the building from the ground floor. My answer is that there were too many tourists, police and security guards who could have seen me. And that large man I encountered at The Wall of Sleep convinced me that I needed to be as surreptitious as I could be.


Thanks to the Actress, I only had one floor to scale. I opened the window, stepped on a ledge and pulled myself to the top floor. After I balanced myself on the top-story ledge, I walked over to a window.


None of the lights were on, but my eyes were still able to discern shapes. Through the first window I could see an oven and a refrigerator. Must have been a kitchen. I walked over to the next window. The wind blew a little harder against me, but I kept myself steady. The long distance between the pavement and me didn't bother me at all.


I could see chairs, lamps and book-shelves on the other side of the next window. A living room, I concluded.


I moved to the third window. This time curtains blocked my view. However, I could see the faintest glimmer of a lit candle, its small light almost nothing against all that darkness. I could also hear music -- sweet female voices singing old songs.


I knew she was there, no further away than a layer of glass.


What to do then? Knock on the window? Burst in? No. Be careful, thought the man perched on a ledge several hundred feet above pavement.


I went to the living room window. And Mouse helped me out again. A few months ago he had said, "If you keep going through windows, you might as well be smart about it." Then he had given me his latest gadget.


Basically it was a blade attached to a suction cup. You stuck the cup to a window, then turned the blade around the cup in a circle. Yes, just like in the movies. Mouse's gadget worked as well as the movie gadgets, too. It was the first time I had used it, and I thanked Mouse as I created a hole. I peeled off the solid circle of glass, tucked the cutter back into my jacket, placed the glass on the ledge and reached through the hole.


I found the latch and turned it. Then I pushed open the window as softly and slowly as I could. I expected every little noise to alert Alexandra's bodyguard. None of them did. I entered the apartment with equal caution.


Even in the dark you would have known that this was a rich man's apartment. I could tell by the sensual curve of a vase and the artful shape of a sofa's back that Edward Bradbury was (pardon me, Mick and Keith) a man of wealth and taste. I could also tell that he liked rare books. I could smell the old leather bindings of books published centuries ago.


Anger heated my face. I planned to ask Mister Bradbury whether a book was worth a man's life. I would see if he could answer after losing a few teeth.


Then my hand touched a door handle. I only had to turn it, and I would see Alexandra. But what would she see?


As I stood there, I recognized the music in the next room. Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, 'Columba aspexit.' The song went --


'The dove peered in through the lattices of the window where, before its face, a balm exuded from incandescent Maximin.'


I took this as a sign and opened the door.




She didn't turn when the door opened. She didn't even raise her head. The single lit candle formed a glowing outline around her kneeling figure. Her back was turned to me. The hood of her cloak was still over her head.


I waited for her to speak or move. When she didn't, I took one single step into the room...


"I don't receive many visitors, much less uninvited ones." Her voice was calm and still beautiful. I noticed for the first time that it was a teenager's voice. She had expressed herself with so much knowledge that I had previously overlooked the youth of the speaker. I now estimated that she was fifteen years old -- my age.


In response I quoted from 'Lamia,' "'Yet must I do this wrong, and you forgive me.'"


She raised her head. After a moment of silence, she said, "You were there at The Wall of Sleep."


"I was. But I don't think it's the first time our paths have crossed."


A longer period of silence went by. "Yes," she finally said. "I remember a young man, beautiful and strange, walking through the city streets. He looked to be under a heavy burden, even though he moved with the grace of a tiger. And then...I saw him again among children who were both brave and scared, together yet alone."


I took another step forward, followed by my third. Each step was made slowly as if my feet were sinking into the ground. "I remember the feeling of being watched," I said, "of being seen more clearly than ever before. I also remember a voice..."


She quickly raised her gloved hand and pulled the cloak forward to hide her face even more. "Is that why you've come here?" she asked. "For the sake of words?"


"Words are enough to compel any man, or any woman, to do impossible tasks. You should know that better..."


I was close enough to see her knees and the objects lying in front of them -- a lit candle, a morocco bound book...


Dark glasses and scarves.


Alexandra's face was naked under the hood.


"...than anyone," I concluded.


"Words are merely sounds," she said, her voice edging into bitterness. "They are fragile shields we hold against nothingness, but they always break and fall apart into dust."


"And yet we keep returning to them," I told her. "You don't seem to need much more than sound." I indicated the room. As opposed to the rich decoration of the living room, her room only held a cot and an old vinyl record player. 'Iste turris excelsa,' women sang from inside the turning disc.


I smiled. "I know a man who shares your disdain for modern technology."


"You mean, Vincent?"


I felt like I had been slammed against a wall. My love changed to confusion in a heartbeat. " did..."


"I didn't know your identity at first," she interrupted, her voice still soft. "But I knew this young man did not come from an ordinary place. I eventually saw the answer -- he was the son of the lion-man who lives underground and the woman who died at the hands of Gabriel."


How could she have known? my mind bellowed. Faced with such uncertainty, I resorted to my most common weapon -- anger.


"You seem to know a lot about me, Alexandra," I growled.


"I know more about the world than most people do," she replied, not surprised that I knew her name. I no longer found the calm in her voice attractive. What the sweet hell was I doing here, anyway? I had gone through such trouble for the sake of poetry -- poetry, for chrissake! All of this fuss over that fucking book lying on the floor...


"What do you know about that book?" I spat.


"It was a gift from my father."


"Well, do you know that your father killed a man to get that book?"


She quickly looked down at it. Her tense body spoke of shock. In that moment of distraction I sped over the last few steps, grabbed her hood and pulled it back.


You saw what was coming, right? I don't know why I didn't. Couldn't I have heard the empathy when she said, "Give me my woman's form?" Why was I surprised to see a bald head, green scales instead of skin, white lips, red eyes?


Why was I horrified before the sight of a human face with the features of a snake?


After being raised by Vincent, I should have been a bit more...sensitive. Instead I screamed. I backed away from those red eyes and tripped backwards over the cot.


Alexandra looked at me crawling on the floor. Her white-lipped mouth hung open. What words would they speak now? Would they be angry sounds in response to my disgust? Or would she simply sink her teeth into my throat? I couldn't read the expression in her red eyes; couldn't tell if it was fear or fury. Both of us were trembling in the dark.


Then the door swung open. I looked there and saw the huge man with colorless eyes standing in the doorway. The same question from our first encounter popped in my head -- where did he come from? Had he been outside the apartment? In another room? How did he come so quickly and soundlessly?


He seemed to be considering whether it was worth soiling his shoes with my face. I looked back at him, never feeling so helpless, feeling trapped between the man with the colorless eyes and the woman with the red eyes.


Then Alexandra said, "Crown, wait!"


Crown. The last word of the man who had assassinated Russ. I realized that this was the assassins' leader, the person responsible for my friend's death.


I remembered vengeance. Once again, I fell back on anger as a tool. Succumbing to fury seemed like the best way to cut through the strangeness around me.


So I stood up.


And I roared.


And I pounced.


And I flew through the doorway, past Crown and into the living room. I crashed onto the floor.


To say that Crown dodged me doesn't feel right. The word 'dodge' implies a hurried, impulsive motion. He just simply and calmly moved to one side.


I rolled onto my knees and turned to him. Crown raised an eyebrow. He seemed intrigued by me. The eyebrow stayed raised as I bounced myself off my knees and onto my feet. Then I skipped forward with my leg raised for a kick to his mid-section and followed that with a punch.


He deflected the kick with one hand and the punch with the other, his movements as smooth as a seamstress threading a needle. Then he pushed me. I stumbled backwards until my legs hit a chair. I barely managed to stand upright.


"Crown, stop..." Alexandra called out. Without taking his eyes away with me, Crown closed the door and locked Alexandra in her room. Then he casually walked toward me.


What happened after that was strange. We weren't so much fighting as we were co-operating. Every punch I threw seemed to be exactly what Crown had expected. It was as if he had planned for this fight weeks in advance. He never seemed concerned that my fists and feet could break bones. Even his breathing stayed constant.


My lungs, on the other hand, gradually burned. The quick beating of my heart wasn't intoxicating me as it had before. It just hurt. I was exhausting myself trying to hit the man. I searched in vain for some trick that could penetrate Crown's defenses. Every attempted blow would simply meet the air or be deflected without harm.


I had never been scared in a fight before. Harry Eastland with a gun didn't intimidate me. The blank face of Crown did. I got so unnerved that I picked up a vase and hurled it at him.


He caught it like a ball and carefully placed it on a shelf. Then he turned to me as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a switchblade knife. I guess he had seen all he had wanted from my offense.


Now it was his turn.


My stomach knotted as he charged me. Then I realized that he was simply raising the knife for a downward blow. It was such a clumsy move that I felt hope. I didn't suspect that it looked too clumsy.


Here was my idea -- I would raise my right arm and block Crown's attack arm under his hand. Then I would let it slide down my arm as I grabbed Crown by the wrist. I would force his arm down with Crown's momentum and direct the knife into his own groin. Hello, Crown, are you singing soprano now?


The first part of my plan went perfectly. I blocked Crown's knife-wielding arm while grabbing his shoulder.


But I forgot about his other three limbs.


He swung up his other arm, jamming it against the forearm below his knife, stopping me from pushing down. Then he kneed me in the groin.


Pain blossomed below my waist and flowed all the way up to my ears. Vomit stirred in my gut as my arms weakened. Crown grabbed me by the shoulder, spun me around and held me tight against his chest.


My body felt a second pain, much harsher than before. I wasn't entirely sure about the source, but I knew that it required some kind of reaction from me.


I thrust my head back into Crown's nose. It was the only time I made contact during the whole fight. And all I had to do was get stabbed in the left shoulder first.


His arms slipped off me. I staggered forward, knocking over a small table. I could feel my jacket sticking to my body. I pressed my hand against my coursing blood. At this point I was beyond any kind of careful thought. My mind was a jumble of words like pain, knife, escape. I knew that if I were to stay in that apartment with Crown, I would die.


So I did what came natural to me. I jumped through a window.


Glass shattered around me. The air of the apartment changed to the wide open atmosphere of the city. I could hear Alexandra pounding on a door and yelling at Crown to stop. How nice of her, I thought. I really shouldn't have reacted so badly to her face. Oh, hey, I'm falling.


After a second of free-fall, I reached out and grabbed a cornice at the ninth floor with my right arm. (Or was it the eighth?) Yes, it hurt a lot, but after a knee in the jewels and a stab in the shoulder, the pain had enough company to keep it happy. I was fortunate not to wrench out my other shoulder and break any bones.


I heard the tinkling of glass on the street, followed by shouts. Great, I had an audience. Luckily the glass hadn't landed on anybody. In fact, my night had been full of luck except for the part about getting stabbed.


I heard a window frame slide upwards. I looked to the top floor. And Crown was looking back down at me. He stared at me for a moment, then pulled his head back into the apartment.


I wasn't waiting for his next move. I pulled myself up onto the ledge. Then I pulled out Mouse's wire and tied the strongest possible knot around a cornice in the shortest amount of time. I had to do it with one hand while keeping the other pressed against my wound. I vomited in the middle of doing this, dropping something else onto the street. My vision kept blurring and my fingers felt like they were a mile away from my shoulders. Still, I got that wire tied tight enough and let the other end fall to the street. Then I grabbed the wire -- well, put my hands loosely around it -- and stopped trying to stay balanced.


Gravity laughed at me. "A-ha! I knew you would fall off a ledge some day!" I slid past windows, stopped briefly to bump against a wall, then slid some more. I wasn't plummeting, but the plastic on the wire didn't keep my hands from burning.


Nor was the wire long enough for me to reach the street. It was two floors short. Oh, well, I thought and simply let go at the end.


I received another chorus of yells as I dropped onto the pavement. I landed perfectly on my feet, not breaking one bone.


Then I fell sideways to my right. Lampposts changed to ladder rungs from my new perspective. I became very aware of the shoes people wore as pedestrians gathered around me. I could see my own vomit splattered on a curb. Sight was all that I had left. My ability to move had departed with most of my blood. I could do nothing to stop concerned citizens from touching me.


Then the hands and shoes fled before the bellow of a horn. A white light and a dirty yellow overcame my sight. Those were the last colors I saw before my eyes surrendered with the rest of my body.


I remembered a wonderful voice saying, "The stately music no more breathes/ The myrtle sicken'd in a thousand wreaths."


God, my last conscious thought said, I'm dying and I'm thinking of Alexandra. What a corn-ball I am.


Continued in Chapter 9