A whirlwind of short scenes across genres, connected by a troubling reoccurrence.
|The rain began drumming against the window. First, a single droplet appeared on the bottom left pane. Then two more near the top row. Soon, streams of water covered the entire glass as the downpour began in full.|
"And was that the moment you decided to kill him?" Detective Presper asked.
He gazed out the window – perhaps just at the window; the water was growing too thick to see through. With his back to me and the pounding noise of the rain, it took a second to register his question. My mouth became dry. My tongue leaden. My reply came as a stutter.
"Sir? No... No. I wouldn't..."
"Really Jay?" the policeman leaning against the bookshelf spoke up. I believed his name was Eckert? The appearance of the Detective Jay Presper at the crime scene had overwhelmed me such that I'd hardly noticed the names of his accompanying officers. I couldn't make out the lettering on his badge from across the room, but whatever his appellation, I was grateful for the disbelief in his voice. "I've seen you reach plenty of surprising conclusions before. But I think this might well take the cake."
"I concede there is always the possibility that my reasoning has gone astray," Presper replied in a measured tone, "but you'll find that the evidence presents quite a compelling case. Perhaps we should review the facts of the investigation?"
The officer looked slightly exasperated. "Look Jay, I know you love doing this, but we've all been here the last two days. Can you just cut to the chase?"
Presper began to pace, one foot always landing precisely adjacent to the shag rug covering the center of the room. "Very well. Then there are two unresolved questions which have struck me as key to unraveling the larger mystery of who killed Mister Mauchly. They may seem trivial at first, but I assure you of their importance. The first is the identity of the woman in the red mask. The second is the whereabouts of Mauchly's signature wristwatch."
"I'd been wondering about the wristwatch too. But as for the masked woman, surely that was Signora Antonelli returning to shred the merger documents. She confessed to it yesterday."
Presper reached one end of the rug and as he turned to pace in the opposite direction, I caught a faint smile beneath the curls of his mustache. "A reasonable conclusion. We know that Kathleen spied a woman in a red carnival mask sneaking through the east corridor at around midnight. And we know that Signora Antonelli confessed to passing through that same corridor in the described attire at precisely 12:04 AM. However, the uncertainty of the timing in Kathleen's account leads to the possibility that these were two separate occasions and that there were, in fact, two women donning red masks in Mauchly's mansion that night."
"That would be quite a coincidence," Eckert scoffed.
Now that Presper's route had turned to put his back to me once again and Eckert's attention was solely on the detective, I began to inch towards the doorway. I'd never escape on foot, but if I could only reach the Device sitting in my pocket without Presper seeing...
"Truly it would be most unusual. But when we consider the conundrum of the wristwatch in light of this slim possibility, we find – Stop running!"
But he was too late. I was out of the room. My hand plunged into my pocket and...
The damn wind tore the Stetson off my head as I pulled myself out the window and up onto the train car's roof. My duster billowed out in the same direction and I had to hunch down to avoid being blown off myself. At least the turbulence offered some relief from the sun. Without a hat, the ride through the desert back to our hideout on horseback was going to be brutally hot.
A gunshot. I bellowed a curse which followed the Stetson into the wind. I didn't feel any piercing pain or sudden impact or hole punching through my torso. Must've missed.
A few panicked steps stumbling forward, and then I pulled myself behind a smokestack, coughing as I breathed in black fumes.
This was bad, but the plan hadn't gone to the dogs entirely. The bag was still tied to my belt, and I could feel the weight of the gold bars inside. I just needed to stay on the roof until I saw Antonelli leading the horses parallel to the tracks. She'd match the train's speed. Then I'd need to jump off onto a steed. If I didn't miss – if my broken body wasn't left lying beside the rails – we'd disappear among the buttes and tumbleweeds with a fortune.
I peeked out from behind the smokestack and spotted the shooter. It was that damned Deputy Eckert. He was leaning out a train window a few cars back, rifle in hand, saguaro arms passing dangerously close to his head – if only one of their thorns would take out an eye. I pulled back behind my cover. Lawmen were quick shots 'round these parts.
I glanced down at the wristwatch I'd snagged off Mauchly's body. The rendezvous time with Antonelli was still a minute away. Damn fine watch though; the old prospector had been a fool, thinking I'd hesitate to shed a little blood getting the safe door open. But he did have an admirable taste in accessories. If I made it off this train alive, I'd be keeping the souvenir.
I started to scan the horizon for signs of my partner's arrival and then froze. Someone else had appeared at the back end of the train car's rooftop.
He wore a mottled white duster that the wind flared out in my direction, a gun rested in his holster, and his eyes hid below the brim of his hat. But just from his stance I knew who it was – but no, that was impossible! I'd seen Presper fall into that canyon. Watched his body plummet into the darkness during the ambush with my own eyes.
An irrational thought – maybe this was Presper's ghost, a specter of some sorts? That would explain how he was able to stand upright on the train rooftop against the howling wind, like that brutal force was of no consequence. Or maybe the old cowboy was just hard to kill.
"There's no game in shooting a man when his back is turned and he's cowering behind a chimney." The wind carried Presper's words to me although his weathered lips barely moved as he spoke. "So instead, here's how we're gonna play things. You're going to stand up straight. Eckert knows not to take his shot. Then I'm going to count down from three. When I reach one, whoever's the faster draw lives."
Damn it! Presper on one side, Eckert on the other, and the passing landscape held no sign of Antonelli's face, beet red from the desert sun. I stood up.
"Three. Two." It was a fair countdown.
"One." My hand shot towards my waist but not to the Colt 45 in my holster. Presper's own revolver was out. His eyes narrowed, saw me reach for my pocket. I held the Device and...
At last, the bell freed us from math class, but I had barely made it out into the hallway before a hand grabbed me by the collar and slammed me against the lockers. My backpack took all the force. I hoped my calculator wasn't damaged – the gold-ringed binders would be fine.
It was Jay. That was embarrassing, getting tossed about by a scrawny kid with a stubble mustache that he'd missed shaving. Was it too much to ask for no girls to be watching?
"I heard you were hitting on Kathleen last night." Man, he looked angry.
So that was what this was about? I laughed. "A bit more than hitting on her. But what's that to you? You're not exclusive. At least, that's what she told me."
Okay, that might have been a bit dumb to say when I was pinned to a locker. And not particularly true. Jay would know that if he'd actually talked to Kathleen. But judging from how pissed he looked, the kid must have gotten hold of some gossip a lot juicier than what really went down. I guess I just wanted to see how angry I could make him. Getting into a fight in the middle of the hallway would damage someone like Jay's school record a lot more than it would mine.
A larger hand grabbed me, by the shoulder this time. A football player hand. Ah, that made sense; Eckert – what a weird name – must have left math class a bit behind me. He had one hand on Jay and one hand on me, and he was forcing us apart.
"He's not worth it man." The hulking brute of a high school student had a voice that had gone through puberty and then just kept on going.
Jay let go of my collar, but he was still seething.
"Asshole," I declared wittily and then turned to see the crowd which had gathered around the confrontation. No luck on the no-girls front. And no teachers yet. I straightened out my shirt and said in a way that I hoped seemed nonchalant, "Well, I've got to get to class."
The crowd all seemed to realize they all had places to be too, and Eckert started pulling Jay down the hallway. They were headed in the same direction as my Comp Lit class, but I pretended my destination was opposite theirs. I could take the long route along the east corridor.
How'd a loser like Jay Presper end up with someone like Kathleen anyway? And the nerve of Eckert saying I "wasn't worth it." What did that mean? In a sick, roundabout way, the stupid jock should be grateful to me. If I hadn't rear-ended Mauchly's car and put him out for the season, then Eckert wouldn't have got a chance to play in the opening game, wouldn't have become the star QB. Now that had been a scary accident. Pissed off my parents too.
Shoot, maybe heading this way to class would make me late. I reached into my pocket to check the time on my phone. I had a few minutes. But... my heart skipped a beat. Where was it?
I needed that Device! I knew it would help. If I was in trouble? Or something?
Maybe it had fallen out when Jay had grabbed me? Or... no. Jay must have known about it. Noticed it that last time... what was that last time? I wasn't sure, but I knew Jay must have stolen it out of my pocket when he had me pinned. I hadn't even noticed. Clever bastard.
I raced back down the hallway, darting between students. There were Jay and Eckert, and sure enough, that prick was holding the Device in hand. A small, smooth box with a round button on top. He looked bewildered, like he couldn't quite place something. I reached out. He tried pressing the Device button, and...
"Objection, Your Honor. These unsubstantiated insults to my client's character bear no relevance to the case." Eckert was a dutiful lawyer. I knew he personally thought I should be behind bars, but he was still giving the case his all. I could never set aside my individual interests like that. Of course, inability to put aside individual interests had landed me in this courtroom.
"Sustained," Judge Kathleen pronounced, "let me remind Mister Presper that all evidence must be strictly pertinent to the accusations of insider trading leveled against the defendant."
I admired the judge's commitment to her duty in a way too. My associates had told me that she could neither be bribed nor threatened. A "selfless public servant," they'd said. Unusual people went into the legal system.
Still, she didn't seem prejudiced against a man like me; I could have ended up with someone far worse. She hadn't used her gavel while calling for order a single time though. That was a disappointment. Wasn't that supposed to happen in a courtroom? Maybe I should make a fuss just to see her use the little hammer once. My associates wouldn't like that; they'd promised to get me off scot-free – "liberated from your tethers," they'd said – but they'd frown if I complicated their job unnecessarily. Eckert didn't know about my associates of course.
Presper nodded curtly in acknowledgement. Even though I suspected he despised me, he was still always professional. A model lawyer like Eckert, his mustache neatly trimmed, his sheer white, single-breasted suit serviceable, albeit a bit garish. He began pacing back and forth as he launched into speech again. I supposed he tended to do that.
"Then let us turn to our next piece of evidence. I believe that Your Honor will find this one quite pertinent." He opened up his hand – had he kept it clenched shut the entire trial? – and held up the Device in his palm. A plain gray cube with a button on top.
The Device was... familiar? I just needed to press that button. It would get me out of trouble. I was certain of that. No need for my associates. No debt to repay.
"What is that?" Judge Kathleen asked, leaning forward at the bench.
Presper paused. At first, I thought it was for effect, but then the silence dragged on too long. He lowered the Device to his eye level, brow furrowed. Eckert and Kathleen bore similar expressions, like each one was on the verge of a realization.
"I don't..." Presper began before the sound of the courtroom doors swinging open interrupted him. I vaguely recognized the massive man who strolled into the room. An expansive space. Marble columns under a vaulted ceiling. Ostentatious art nouveau décor. Right, he'd been that figure lurking in the back during the last meeting with my associates.
Apprehension filled me suddenly, inexplicably. Had the higher-ups opted against proving my innocence? Decided in favor of a more extreme solution?
"...know how but it can resolve this situation..." Presper finished absentmindedly, his mind torn between the mystery of the Device and the silent man in the entranceway.
I lunged towards Presper, whose pacing had brought him close to the defendant's table. The court hadn't deemed me enough of a physical threat to require handcuffs. Presper pulled back in alarm but not before my outstretched fingers grazed the Device's button and...
I ended up sprawled on my knees. The Device tumbled out of my extended hand and landed among the filth on the floor – button facing to the side. What was I doing? No one else was in my office other than me, cigar smoke and stale beer. Then I heard a rapping on the door.
I pocketed the device – I just had to press it if I was in trouble – and stood up. I recognized the willowy silhouette through the door's patterned glass. What were those knocks? Three, then a pause, then two more. That meant she was alone and hadn't been followed. Still, I kept one hand in the Device pocket as I unlatched the door.
Antonelli pushed her way in. I closed and locked the door the second she was through.
"Trouble." Antonelli was always to the point. "That Kathleen broad hired Presper."
I shrugged. "Presper's a boozehound. He'll only uncover the bottom of a bottle."
I made my way to the far side of my desk to get out some scotch. Antonelli liked the finer stuff, not my usual poison. As I bent down to unlock the bottom drawer, I heard her reply, "Don't discount him. The detective's broken – we all heard that – but he sees truths a straight-laced copper like Eckert never would."
I fumbled with my key in the drawer lock for a second. Hard to see in here – the flickering lightbulb overhead barely reached far enough to spotlight the cracked ceiling paint, and the neon shop light filtered through my window shades offered little additional relief. But it was only natural to do my type of work in the dark.
Could Antonelli be right? Could Presper follow that winding river of bodies upstream to the headwaters of my office?
I was halfway through standing back up, scotch in hand, when it happened.
Rat-a-tat-tat. An all too familiar sound. My window shattered into a thousand shards and the shades were wrenched inward. I dropped back down to shelter behind my desk – I knew its heavy oak could take bullets from past experience. Antonelli dropped too, but in a spray of red with her body bending at unnatural angles.
What was happening? Was I hit? I couldn't tell – I just felt everything at once.
A moment of pure confusion. Then another shot. No, a car backfiring. The screeching of tires outside. A drive by shooting?
An hour of stillness. Or perhaps just a moment. I could see Antonelli's body lying still on the other side of the desk. Her face was drenched, a red mask of blood. Like that one she'd worn before. When? The only sounds now were her labored breathing and the ticking of Mauchly wristwatch. Then some gorilla's feet thudding down the hallway outside. Were they coming to finish the job?
"Police! Open up!" Hollers from outside my door. Had the coppers arrived? Or were they lying so I'd let them in? No, everyone knew I wouldn't open the door for law enforcement.
Then it clicked – this was a set up. The shooting. Presper. The hit on Mauchly last week. Of course! It all lined up.
I'd been outmaneuvered, cornered.
No! Snap out of it! I wasn't cornered at all. If they'd plugged me, it would have all been over. But they'd played themselves – tried to be too smart. I had something those damn mugs didn't know about at all. I reached into my pocket for the Device and...
It was a beautiful day. Not outside of course. The storms surrounding the isle seldom ever abated – I could hear the intermittent peels of the thunder shake the castle interior even now. But it was quite beautiful within the confines of my laboratory.
My eyes darted back and forth over the record collection. Brahm's Symphony No. 4? No, something special for an occasion like Presper. Only Liszt would do. Liebesträume, perfect.
Next, to the desk for my instruments. Scalpels, curette, sutures, antiseptic, the wristwatch. All cleaned and expertly maintained if I do say so myself. I donned my lab coat.
All set. Then my last destination, the bookshelf. The fifth book on the fourth level, the one with the golden binding. I pulled on the spine and moments later heard the grinding of stone. The bricks of the neighboring wall retracted, opening the maw of a passageway.
The mechanism operated so smoothly that I could almost forget how much of a headache it had been to install the hidden gears and counterweights required to conceal the east corridor.
I entered the darkness of the passage, tried to contain the giddiness in my steps. As I drew closer, I could hear snippets of muffled conversation – I'd seen no reason for gags; they removed a crucial part of the experience. Presper's voice, "remember, we're scientists, but not this sort. It's fuzzy, but I know this isn't really happening.."
A few more steps. My eyes adjusted to the light of the operating chamber.
Excellent, they were still where I had left them: Doctors Presper and Kathleen bound and shackled to the two operating tables by the near wall. Mauchly and Antonelli's bodies reposed on the two tables near the opposite wall of the chamber. I still needed to remove those. Shame about Antonelli, but these things couldn't be helped. I cleared my throat.
"My esteemed colleagues, I assure you there is no need for alarm." A lie. "I did not lure you to my island under false pretenses. In fact, I intend to fulfill the promise I made to you at dinner last night – the promise to demonstrate my latest breakthrough in surgical research. I will even allow you the opportunity to participate firsthand."
I would have thrown back my head to cackle, but Presper interrupted me with remarkable calm for a man in chains, "You've got to turn off the Device. It might be too late to do anything to help Ant and Mauchly, but no one else needs to get hurt."
What? The Device? No, I would not let them ruin this. Not like they'd ruined my chance to study at the academy. Decrying my work as immoral. Fools. Science must know no bounds.
I let my planned speech continue unperturbed. "Of course, you must be wondering about the whereabouts of your loyal colleague Dr. Eckert. The man was never much of a scientist, but he always remained your trusty lapdog. You'll find him much improved in this regard." I loosed a shrill whistle, and Eckert loped in from the east corridor's shadows.
Already a large man, Eckert now loomed over the proceedings. Sitting on his haunches, the creature towered over seven feet. His canine snout sniffed the air, but Eckert's familiar green eyes showed no hint of recognition. They simply bore forward with an empty, tortured gaze.
"Monster!" Kathleen shouted. Finally, a proper reaction. But Presper just said, "Goodness. Eckert, please, if you can understand this, you're not some sort of," he twirled one hand, looking for words, "H. G. Wells lobotomized dog-man. He's using the Device. Break free!"
This was wrong. All wrong! I reached for my pocket and...
My blasted lab coat got in the way. I couldn't reach the Device. I began the motions to remove it, but Eckert barreled forward. I whistled again but the disobedient mongrel had somehow broken free from my control.
Suddenly, I was on the ground, body screaming, wet fur pressed up against my face. I heard Presper shout, "Hold down the button! Don't release it! Five seconds ought to do. It'll release us from these illusions."
My head spun. Barking. Something tearing? My coat. Then that terrible weight shifted, and I pulled myself out from under the brute.
My coat was in tatters, and Eckert had retrieved the Narrative Device. I don't know how he'd managed it with those monstrous paws of his. He was pressing the Device against the floor, using his weight to hold down the button. I almost ran over to intervene but it suddenly all felt futile.
Around ten seconds passed in almost comical silence. Presper and Kathleen gazed hopefully at the events from their tables, Eckert's dog body leaned on the little cube like his life depended on it, and I just sat there on my butt with my clothes ruined.
At last, Eckert let up on the button and...