"Yeah, they're dead… They're all messed up."
- A Really Smart Guy
"What the fuck, Lazarus?!"
He was upset. I have a keen eye that way. Can't blame him, though. Brains are hard to get out of silk.
"She was turning."
Cam shoved her back into the grave, revealing a wider spatter than I'd suspected, thick with bits of his teenage daughter's gray stuff. That was never coming out.
"She would have been fine."
"No, she wouldn't." I reloaded my gun, which still felt heavy in my hand, despite being a bullet lighter. Reloading was an old habit, and a good one. Still, the urge to move was growing. Cops could be coming anytime. One thing that was guaranteed to spook the neighbors was a gunshot in a cemetery.
You get a feeling about these things, and my gut told me this one was coming back bad. The house bet is that they come back biting, hungry, pale and dead-eyed. Hell, sometimes they came back and twisted themselves into shapes that would have made old H.P. himself shit his non-Euclidean pants. But one in three comes back good. Their old selves, still remembering how to make that strawberry pie their mama showed him how to bake when they were just old enough to tug on an apron. One in three. A one in three chance to bring back the girl you felt up in the back seat of your first car, the one you had a kid with and don't regret it. Your brother, who you never had a chance to square things with. Hell, lots of reasons to bring back the dead. Just bad fucking odds is all.
This one played to the house, just a bucket of demonic shit in a rotting skin-sack.
"Come on, Cam. Let me take you home."
My '73 Corvette wasn't the most practical of cars, but I believe every man should have one thing they are unapologetic about in their love for. This candy-apple red machine of mine was one of only a handful of things I could look at with something like pride. It was a dream to ride in, the low-slung body gliding over the pavement like a 275-horsepower ghost. Cam didn't seem to notice, much less appreciate the joys of the ride on a cool summer night. In fairness, he did have the important parts of his oldest daughter's skull fanned over his nice shirt. He stared out the window as the rural, undeveloped land outside the city began to give way and the twin spires of the Bellsouth tower, referred to locally as the "Bat Building" for obvious reasons, became visible above Nashville's downtown district.
It was July, so the tourists were still filling the shops and bars on Broadway and Second Avenue, even as the hour leaned on midnight. Guitar and piano would continue to spill out of the small, smoky bars until at least three. My office was over an Irish pub, owned by the least Irish guy I ever met. The place is Mulligan's, and the band is real, get-drunk-on-stage Irish. If you've never felt the breeze blow down Second Avenue in the summer, when the exhaust catches the fishy smell of the Cumberland and blows right in your office window, and you can't do a goddamned thing about it because the air conditioner's broke again due to the lazy-shitness of your landlord, Stuckey… well, you just haven't lived.
Stuckey said he got his nickname from the roadside tourist traps of the same name. I never asked why, he never elaborated. Stuckey's good like that.
I know I told Cam I would take him home, but, fuck it, his car was at my office and his place was way the hell out in Smyrna, twenty more miles down I-24. Where he and his daughter had lived before she woke up and tried to eat him. That's a memory that's apt to linger with him.
The spaces in front of Mulligan's were occupied, mostly by the horse carriages that bilked some of the tourists out of their money. Fifteen bucks to ride behind a sack of horse shit to see construction zones. Maybe I just don't understand vacations. Still, people pay, and I'm never one to argue against an honest man making a living.
Cam was coming around, the sounds of the bar patrons whooping it up on the streets shredding the fog that covered his head like a neutral zone.
"Where are we?"
"I can call a cab if you need one."
"I'll be fine."
He opened the passenger door, the metallic squeal of hinges adding to the twang of music and low rumble of singing and shouting from the two dozen or so bars. He was sliding out when I cleared my throat. He looked back at me, eyes hollowed-out and tired. He nodded.
"You take a check?"
"For a friend? 'Course I do."
I watched him withdraw the checkbook from the inside pocket of his jacket, writing the check with an unsteady hand. My heart went out to him 'til I reminded myself he brought this on himself. He should have left her in the ground. Glancing up at my office window, I knew the night wasn't over yet. I had turned the light off before I left, and I knew for damn sure that Abby hadn't come in to do any late-night bookkeeping.
I took the check and Cam left without a word, shuffling into his Audi, sitting behind the wheel for a long time before he started the engine. I waited with him, alternating between his dour expression in my rearview, the light burning in my office window, and the chubby blonde who had packed ten pounds of ass into five-pound jeans posing beside the Elvis statue on Broadway. When Cam finally pulled away from the curb and took the left onto Church Street, I stepped out, locking my car on the way – another good habit.
Inside, Mulligan's was packed to the rafters with drunken patrons listening to songs about drinking. Smoke drifted over their heads like carcinogenic clouds, and, mounting the steps to my office, I could see more than a small peek at girls' cleavage, put on display for the frat boys and good time guys that might get a little rub and tug in the parking lot later.
Up two landings, past the offices for the bar, and there's my door, the one with the pebbled glass and the black script: COLLINS POSTHUMOUS SERVICES. Most of my work finds me. I've never spent a thin dime advertising.
The door was left open, a couple of inches of unobstructed view into the office, its single desk, two chairs in a boxed-in waiting room and the inner office beyond, where I take my private meetings. There's a hallway off to the right, which led to the room I'd been sleeping in since I got the place. The office door was open, too. The shades inside were drawn, providing the privacy my clients like, but not doing shit for me at the moment. I lowered my hand to the small of my back where I'd tucked the pistol away, a SIG Sauer P220 that was snug as a bug tucked into the belt and packed a wallop.
I moved as quietly as I could to the corner of the inner office, pressing face to glass to peer through the slats of the blinds, but all I could make out was the silhouette of black that told me someone was inside. I took a breath, straightened, and did what I usually do in these situations. I barged into the room, no idea what awaited me, but pretty sure it would resolve itself one way or another in short order.
I didn't expect the punch. Well, that's not entirely true. I suspected a punch could be in my future, I just had no idea that it would be that hard, or that it would take me off my feet and plant me on my ass, where the barrel of the pistol slammed against my coccyx before ejecting itself from my waistband and skittering across the floor.
"Moron, " Kate said. "You should be careful with that. You're gonna kill yourself handling a gun like that one day. And who's going to bring you back?"
I rubbed my jaw where she connected. I didn't get up just yet. Why bother if she was going to put me on my ass again?
"Nice to see you, too, Kate." I paused, inhaling and holding it, waiting to see if she was going to make another move, eyeballing the pistol on the floor. It was going to be a reach.
She stood in the center of my office, the dress she wore billowing at the bottom, hugging her chest. A jumble of trinkets and charms dangled from her wrists and neck, even one around her right ankle before it tapered into a sensible heel. She would be the height of dinner party chic if the rest of her didn't come with the package. Her skin was pale, soft, flawless. Her lips were painted deep red to match her hair, both fiery enough to give the illusion of motion and abandon, even when she was still. Her eyes were the feature that got you first, green flecked with yellow, horizontal slits for pupils – goat-like. When she was angry, as she was now, the yellow flecks glowed and danced, as if the inferno that burned inside her threatened to spill out and ravage everything.
"You going to get up, chere?" She took a step closer, extending her hand to me, the red-tipped nails looking sharp, like manicured talons.
I took her hand, never losing eye contact. She stood an inch shorter than me in her current dress, but I can never forget that time at the Frist, surrounded by Van Goghs and Rembrandts, when she had on her highest fuck-me heels and she had me by a solid three inches. I told myself at the time that everyone was looking at this tall couple, the striking, red-haired Amazon and her ruggedly handsome consort, but that was horseshit. They were looking at her, at the lean lines of her body, that hair casually tied back.
"That pigeon French sounds like shit."
"You always liked it before."
"You weren't faking it before."
She smiled at that.
"Going out on a limb and guessing you're here because of the gig, tonight. You're pissed at me because I didn't tell you about the girl. It was a last-minute thing."
"I don't care about what you were doing, unless it gets you in trouble. But you don't have to hide your business from me. Do you really think I want to see you hurt?" The question was an honest one, not rhetorical. Rhetorical questions are for assholes, aren't they?
"Lest you forget, Red, I don't know what you're capable of. For all I know, you knew where I was going and you wanted the girl to come back bad." I decided to punctuate my jab by lighting one of the Pall Malls I kept in my jacket, but she had a jab of her own – the kind that sent me back on my ass, smoke broken and lip bleeding. Didn't she appreciate how expensive these things were getting?
"A girl," she mused. "Young?"
"She was. Sixteen, I think."
"That's too bad. Not much older than my sister."
"No," I corrected, "Kate's sister. You're just some sulfur crammed into her skin. And, considering the day it's been, not to mention the fact that you sucker punched me twice, I'd appreciate it if you beat feet." I paused. "If you didn't know about the girl, why'd you hit me?"
"Because you lied to me about where you would be tonight. I don't mind you doing your job, but I can't stand being misled."
I watched her tense up and narrow those blazing eyes. I wasn't sure if shooting her with that 9 mil would actually kill her or not, but it would sure as hell be worth a go. I began to wish for her to do anything other than stand there, staring at me with those unnatural eyes. She relaxed, finally, turning away from me and letting her shoulders sag.
"I'm not going to hurt you, not really," she said. "I can see that you think I might." She turned to me. "I would never hurt you, Lazarus."
"I hope you understand how that may be seen as a touch hypocritical," I countered, thumbing thickening blood from my lip.
It was strange to see her soften, see her eyes widen, the corners of her mouth turn down. She took a step toward me and I held my ground. This wasn't the first time we'd done this dance and we knew the steps by now. Soon, she would be kissing me with those perfect lips, the ones I'd traced with a finger so many times before. Then, our hands would pull our clothes free and I would be inside her. Yeah, we knew how this dance went, and we performed the steps eagerly and without reflection. It was morning before I hated myself again.
I awoke in the side room that served as my bedroom, probably a private office once upon a time. Big enough for the futon and the TV perched on a wooden crate. Some people might call this kind of living rustic, but that's what people with money call being poor. My own poverty was self-inflicted. Z. Vernon, my old man, gone now for a hair over twenty years, would have called it monastic. I'm not the most self-aware of individuals, but this particular quirk of mine didn't require a therapeutic level of introspection. The money I got from bringing people back… I hated it. I needed it. God's got a fucking grisly sense of humor.
I could hear the sounds of movement in the outer office. I checked the surroundings and found myself to once again be in a Kate-less world. From the clock on the DVD player tucked beneath the TV I could see that it was almost nine. That would be Abby.
"Laz?" she called from the office.
"You got a meeting at ten."
I could hear her shuffle away, then the choking cough of the coffee machine spitting and hissing. She may not listen, but Abby's a peach.
When the entrance door opened and closed again I felt the gravity pull me back onto the futon.
If I stayed quiet, there was every chance he would go away.
The door opened.
"You gonna sleep all day?"
"Go away, Sean."
"No coffee yet?"
"You know I have a gun, right?"
"I'll grab you a cup."
As he closed the door behind him and marched into the belly of the office, I could hear him singing a Soundgarden song that he would have referred to as "classic rock." The thought of shooting him crossed my mind again, if for no other reason than he was young and full of life and singing at nine in the morning. He reappeared with mug in hand, the one with the chip on the corner that always cut my lip, which reminded me…
"Jesus, Laz, what happened to your face?" Then he sniffed the air and a realization tugged the corners of his mouth up into a knowing smile. "How's Kate?"
See what I mean about shooting him?
"Get out of here."
Sean sat on the corner of the futon, and I got a close-up look at today's outfit – blue jeans rolled at the cuffs, rockabilly-style, a Sex Pistols tee beneath a leopard-print vest. He was pale, a few moles polka-dotting his face and neck. He was only twenty, now, but could have passed for sixteen. In school, he must have been a prime target for the bigger kids, not that he spoke much about anything that happened before Lost got cancelled. He pushed the mug at me and I took it.
"We got to have an office meeting regarding personal space and the lack of acknowledgement of said space."
"Did you guys… you know?" He waggled his eyebrows and tilted his head, and I hated his stupid face righteously in that moment. I sipped the coffee and felt some of the sleep drain from my foggy head. These late nights were going to kill me, one way or the other.
"Get out of here," I said. That's as witty as I was going to get until the second cup. To his credit, Sean did leave, but not before giving me another of his self-satisfied nods.
I have a half-bath at the office with a standing shower that is just big enough for a human being to swivel their hips. I stood there for a long time, letting the hot water hit the back of my neck and roll down my chest and back. I touched the scar above my right breast, a little present from the second person I ever brought back from the dead, a deep, gouging mottle of skin that still looked painful after almost twenty years. At the time, I thought that thing had killed me, the way I was bleeding, but I hung on while my father finished the job I'd started. It was the last time I ever allowed another person to clean up my mess.
The suction-mounted mirror in the shower showed me a face edging to forty, dark eyes, the lines at the corners already grooving the skin, a wide nose over lips that were swollen still from Kate's visit. I pushed my hair back, confirming that the hairline was still good for now, dark blonde hair with the first signs of gray at the temples. Time was having its way with me, there was no doubt about that, and you either learned to love the changes that came with the march of days or you got bitter. I was trying to blend the two into my own cynical flavor, but bitter is how it came out most days.
Outside, I could hear Abby and Sean arguing, but I couldn't make out the words. I didn't have to. It was the same argument I'd heard a hundred times by now, the one where Abby would tell Sean to lay off, to give me some room, that I was pushing myself too hard. Sean would tell her I could handle it, that I was fine. I'm not sure where the truth lay. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to stay in this fiberglass, steaming coffin, let the hot water soothe me until my fingers shriveled and pruned and my head emptied. I leaned my forehead against the wall, eyes shut, feeling the rivulets descend and join into heavy streams down my legs. For a second, it all went away.
I was still getting dressed when Abby pushed her way into the office/bedroom. I had made it into my boxers, at least. There's nothing quite so ridiculous as a man in socks, boxers and undershirt, the button-up still unbuttoned, hanging loose off the shoulders. It's like glimpsing a half-finished painting done by a four-year-old. Even when complete, you know it ain't gonna be that great and, half-done, looks like insane and unnecessary scribbling.
Abby was only eighteen when she came to me with her proposal. She wanted to intern for me, get me organized, she said. She had a slight frame, and a natural frailty to her that broke your heart to see. You could see in those wide blue eyes that she had hope that this big fart of a world would right itself one day, that good inevitably triumphed over evil and that the just were rewarded and the wicked punished. I did nothing to disabuse her of those notions, but I was quick to see her out the door.
She was back the next morning, and, while I was explaining to her that the line of work I was in was inappropriate for a girl of her age, she made coffee from the dusty machine by the window and I took the Styrofoam cup from her without thinking.
She had gotten my name from her uncle, a man I had been hired by to bring back his wife, a woman Abby had been close to in life. I'll be damned if that one didn't come back alright, and her uncle, an old farmer named Myrom, had paid me in bills wadded up and rusted, and you just know they'd been in jars the day before. He had mentioned my name, or at least the one he knew me by, to Abby and it must have struck her that I was as magic as unicorns and just the kind of person that made the world safe for people like her.
By the end of the first week, I gave her a key. By the end of the second, she knew more about my money than I did, which you can call irresponsible, but you just don't know Abby. She's just so goddamned good.
Abby leaned against the door way, folding her arms beneath her small breasts, her brow low.
"I want you to turn this job down."
"You're the one who's making me take the meeting," I said, buttoning the plain blue shirt up to the second button. "You can tell him to screw if you want."
"You should take the meeting, but not the job."
"You understand how those two things are sort of at odds with one another?"
"Not in the least. He seemed desperate. He needs someone to talk to, to tell his grief to, but under no circumstances are you to agree to do anything of the resurrection kind for him."
"Why don't you just explain to him that you've forbidden me from accepting his job and let me get another hour of sleep?"
"Because the service you provide isn't just in bringing back people. You're sort of a – I don't know – a grief counselor. You help them get their arms around their loss in a way that nobody else can."
I sized her up as she returned the gaze, that shoulder-length red-hued bob, the chiseled earnestness on her face. She could stare me down and make me feel two inches tall, despite the fact that I had almost a foot and two decades on her.
"Good. You don't look well."
"If it makes you feel any better, I feel terrible, too."
Abby left the door and approached, straightening the collar that had tucked itself under my shirt. At that second, with that simple gesture, an eruption of pure affection for her warmed me, and the need to protect her from all the ugliness of the world was as sure a thing as I'd ever known.
"You know that doesn't make me feel any better. You're doing too much and you don't need the money. I should know. There."
She stepped back and admired her work. I don't believe in cosmic justice or the like, but I do believe that, every now and again, you get a break, and Abby was the break I got. I saw behind her, at Sean watching us through the glass. I could see in the way that he looked at her that he cared about her, too, and that made him a better person in my accounting.
"Go. I'll talk to the guy and show him the door once he's done confessing. Better?"
She leveled a finger at me. "I'm serious. Don't take the gig."
"I'm not. Give me some credit, will ya?"
I took the job, of course.
Reece Henriksen was the most elegant thing to come into my office since Sean brought in a bottle of Moet to celebrate the end of his parole. Henriksen was a couple inches shorter than me, maybe 5' 10", his dark hair thin and wispy, almost disappeared from the top of his scalp, leaving behind a few strands on the battlefield of his bald pate. His lips were thick, made more so by his thick moustache. Hell, everything about the guy spoke of thickness. He was fifty pounds overweight if he was a pound, the sharply-tailored suit he wore designed to make him look regal rather than dumpy. The watch on his wrist was gold and heavy, the kind you don't expect to keep time all that well. That watch is there to tell you that this guy can put together a deal, not necessarily that he'll be there on time for the meeting.
He was waiting for me in my office when I entered. Abby had given him coffee, but he'd placed the Styrofoam cup on the table beside the cheap office chair and left it there. He was shaking his wrist, rattling that gold watch in an effort to fill the silence of the room. Outside, Nashville was awake, but it still needed a couple of hours and maybe a Bloody Mary to get rowdy again. Even the fan I keep by the window was still, as the day's heat had yet to drift up to the second floor.
He stood as soon as I came in, extending a hand to me and dabbing at his forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief simultaneously. I shook his hand – wet and warm – and took a seat behind my desk. I folded my hands in a tent on the desk, like I'd seen gumshoes in old movies do. He had a seat and took my measure. If I hadn't been who I was, and the kind of person who does what I do, I doubt he would have made much of me at all. We sat that way for what seemed like a long time, maybe thirty seconds, maybe less, before he wiped that furry upper lip of his and spoke.
"What people say you can do... You can do that?"
"What have you heard?" I liked to make people say it.
"You can bring someone back to life." He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, like he'd just passed gas at a dinner party. I don't blame people. It's a hard thing to say. The saying of things makes them more real, somehow, and I don't know of anyone who's comfortable with the notion of seeing a dead body start to breathe again, least of all myself.
"I can," I said. "There are conditions."
"Yes, I've heard," he said, twisting his wide ass to retrieve a slip of paper from his interior jacket pocket, slipping a pair of half-glasses on. I would have guessed his age at late thirties before, but, with those Ben Franklins on, he could have been mid-forties. I would have been a shitty carnival barker.
"It has to be done within seventy-two hours of the person… passing… and it has to be done on hallowed ground. There are other things, but it was my understanding that you would provide for those considerations."
I nodded, keeping my eyes level so when he slipped the glasses back into his coat pocket with the paper, he found me staring at him. I kept my face blank, emotionless, letting him read what he wanted. You know, psychology.
"I should tell you-" he started, but I held up a hand and he grew quiet. The very fact of his quietude made him frown, as if he had somehow betrayed himself.
"Before you tell me anything else, there are some things you need to know. First of all, I do not come cheap." He started to tell me how much money he had, like it wasn't obvious, but I continued before he could go further. "Secondly, I'll have to know more about the person I'll be bringing back. And, lastly, it probably won't work."
"I have faith, Mr. Lazarus…"
"It's Collins. Lazarus is a nickname, and one I'm not terribly fond of. And when I say that it probably won't work, that is not pessimism, that's just how it is. As the old saying goes, you can hold your faith in one hand and shit in the other and see which fills up first."
Henriksen opened and closed his mouth like a goldfish out of its bowl as I stood and came around the desk, perching on the corner.
"Who did you lose? Wife? Daughter? Sister?"
"My wife." His voice trembled when he said it, and that's when I knew I was probably going to do it. But he had to hear the hard truth of things first.
"What's going to happen is we are going to take the body of your wife and you are going to bury her. You will literally shovel dirt on top of her until she is covered and then you'll stand back while I do my thing. Once I do that, there's about a seventy percent chance that what comes up out of that ground isn't your wife, but it'll look like her and it'll remember what she remembers, but it won't be her. It'll be a thing, some demonic piece of shit wearing her body like that nice suit of yours and the first indication that she's not the Mrs. Henriksen you remember is that she'll be clawing through your chest to eat your heart through your ribcage. That's the most likely outcome of this little venture, and you'll be out a lot of money, only to have the last memory of your wife be some monster that I'll have to put a bullet in. All that seem like a good way to spend a Wednesday?"
Henriksen surprised me with streaming tears, his lower lip quivering like a child's. There's something off-putting about seeing a man so obviously in control of himself at all times weeping so openly. It was sad and humiliating, and just the sort of thing that makes you want to take someone in your arms and tell them things will be okay, but that would be a lie and I had no interest in lying to this man.
"Please, Mr. Collins," he said, snorting a thick line of snot from the wilds of his moustache. His face had reddened, and the capillaries seemed to flow like rouge rivers around his nose. "I can't let her go like this. If there's any chance at all, I have to try, don't I? We lost our little girl three years ago and she was all I had left. Please."
If the tears had been unexpected, Henriksen dropping to his knees and hugging my legs was a real stunner, and I could only stand there as he looked up at me, arms to my sides, watching this man's tear-rimmed, bloodshot eyes beg me not to abandon him.
When he left my office, Henriksen was back on his game, the tears dried up and me, stupid old me, in bed with the idea of bringing his wife back, if I could. He gave a terse nod to Abby and Sean, huddled by the receptionist's desk, as he left. I stood in the doorway, watching him exit without a look behind him. It was a memory he probably wouldn't want to hold onto, but it's been my experience that memories sort of decide for themselves how long they'll stick around.
Abby looked at me sympathetically and I could almost read her thoughts. 'I'm so sorry you had to turn that poor man away. I know how hard that must have been, but I'm proud of you for doing it.' When I retreated back into the office and closed the door, I knew that she would guess the truth of it.
"You took it," she said, slamming the door behind her, rattling the pebbled glass that was stamped PRIVATE.
"Abby, look-" I began, but Abby had a head of steam built up, and there was no derailing her.
"Shut up. Have you looked in a mirror lately? Maybe you haven't noticed, but you look like three kinds of hell. I don't pretend to understand what it is that you do, but I do know that it's taking something out of you. You need to rest."
"He needs my help, such as it is."
"He's a grieving man who will do anything to have something he lost brought back to him. You're still here, but I wonder how long that'll last if you keep this up. And as for Kate-"
"Stop it. I appreciate what you're saying. I do. But you do not decide which cases I do and do not take. Last I checked, it's my name on the masthead. You are a bright, lovely girl, Abby, and I couldn't do what I do without you. You're just going to have to trust that I know what I'm doing. As for Kate, I'm handling it."
Abby came close, her expression swaying from concern to anger and back again. She knelt beside me, hands on my knees, and I could see that she was close to tears. I really didn't feel like seeing two people blubbering in my office on the same day.
"You don't have to do this anymore, Lazarus. You have more money than you could spend. You can tell me it's not my place all you want. I don't give a crap. It's time you stopped. Whatever it is that you're supposed to have done, it's finished. Stop."
"If I did that, where would you work?"
She barked a bitter laugh. "I won't watch you die like this."
"I'm not going to die."
She stood and smoothed the waist of her skirt. "I guess we'll see, huh?"
"Send Sean in, will you?"
"Want some more coffee?" she asked, and she was back to normal, her emotions reined in, but her words had landed, and she knew it.
I shook my head no, hearing the walls go up in her voice as she resigned herself to my obstinacy.
"Abby, I do appreciate what you're saying. Thank you."
She left the door open and gestured Sean inside, who was conveniently just outside. He looked from Abby to me and gave her a wide berth as he entered. When he sat in the same chair Henriksen had occupied, he hooked a leg over one arm. Sean was one great big wrinkled shirt on the floor of the universe's closet.
"Abby was pissed, huh? Guess we're taking the gig."
"I'm taking the gig. You're following him."
"What? Right now?"
"Yes, right now. Go. I've got things to do before tonight."
Sean stared at me, brow furrowed, putting it all together.
"Go, for chrissakes."
He hopped from the chair and exited, giving Abby a shrug as he passed.
Sean was behind the wheel of his Mustang – an $800 Craigslist special – when he caught sight of the limo. He whistled appreciatively as it pulled away from the curb and eased into the morning Broadway traffic, and the seemingly endless series of traffic lights beyond.
Sean dropped the 'Stang into first and winced at the grinding that came from beneath the hood. The engine was in no better shape than the cherry red-and-primer hood that hid it. The thought to ask Lazarus for a raise flitted across his mind as he waited for a Toyota to come between him and his target, but the thought got lost as he turned up the stereo worth more than the car around it. Jello Biafra sang in a near-falsetto about vacations in Southeast Asia while Sean watched the limo through the windshields of the Toyota.
Sean hammered his fingers on the steering wheel to the staccato beat, already bemoaning the heat that was sure to be coming. Ten in the morning and he was already seeing the air above the four-lane road waver.
The limo merged left, angling towards the interstate. Sean followed suit, leaving no buffer between himself and the black stretch. He assumed the man was staying near the airport, which would mean a trip down I-40 and plenty of places to hide in the airport traffic. For now, he felt exposed, easing behind the limo with a squeak of the brakes. Something else that was falling apart. The metaphor for his life was not lost on him as the Dead Kennedys faded into some old Police. If you were going to be on surveillance duty, Sean believed, you might as well enjoy the atmosphere.
Ahead, in the limousine, Henriksen patted at his sweaty forehead with a damp handkerchief.
"Turn the air on, won't you?" He winced at the formality of his words, the way they sounded so completely normal. A perfectly reasonable request for cool air while sitting in the back of a rented limousine. But that was where normalcy began and ended.
"It's on," the man called Langdon said from the driver's seat, the interior privacy window rolled down. Henriksen had tried to roll it up upon entering the car, but Langdon made it known with a hard look that Henriksen's privacy was unimportant.
Langdon was a hard man to look in the eye, Henriksen found, a fact that surprised him some and frightened him more than a little. No stranger to tense board rooms and meetings with disgruntled investors, Henriksen found that he could usually win over any objection with his easy, if jowly, smile and a few soft words. He had even once faced an ex-employee who had come to the office with a Zippo and a can of gasoline, threatening to immolate himself in the center of the office. Henriksen had talked to him in measured tone, asking what all this was about, how the man could leave his family in such a way, how he was wasting future that was, as yet, unwritten… keeping the wild-eyed man going until the police could arrive. No, Reece Henriksen was not afraid of a single man in his memory until he had met Langdon, whose first name he had not been able to divine.
Henriksen watched the rearview, angled to look on the driver's steely eyes, gray with flecks of black that Henriksen would have sworn wore the effect of some special contact lens if he had not seen them close-up when they first met and determined they were, in fact, natural, despite the unnatural look to Langdon's gaze. Langdon wore the same tight-fitting black leather gloves outside of the car as he did when he was driving. His black suit and black tie were classic, but somehow made him nondescript, and the ability he had to appear normal and yet so threatening at the same time unnerved Henriksen.
Langdon glanced up from the road ahead and met Henriksen's stare, which dropped immediately to his lap.
"Here," Langdon said, handing a cell phone over his shoulder to Henriksen, who unconsciously retrieved it with his handkerchief, as if the phone was crawling with malevolent bacteria. "You'll be getting a call. Also, you know the guy in the Mustang behind us?"
Langdon took a breath, and squeezed his eyes closed. "Behind us. You know him?"
Henriksen turned in his seat and saw the battered Ford behind.
"I've never seen the car before."
Langdon smiled, but it was cold, reptilian. "Answer your phone."
On cue, it rang. Henriksen looked at the display screen – UNKOWN CALLER. He only wished that was true.
Henriksen saw Langdon was looking at him in the rearview.
"Yes. He's making the preparations. I gave him the address."
"Excellent. Your wife will be happy to see you"
Henriksen opened his mouth to say something more, but the line was dead and Langdon was reaching back for the phone. Henriksen handed it over.
"You've done well, Reece."
"I just want my wife back."
"I know you do," Langdon said, smiling his non-smile. "And you'll have her. Put on your seatbelt. We're going to lose this asshole."
Sean followed three car lengths behind, even though no car was between them as the limo passed the interstate junction and proceeded down Broadway, past the tourist traps, towards Vanderbilt University. The road narrowed as the buildings grew closer to the curb, advertising pizza places and vinyl record shops that catered to the Vandy hipsters. Sean checked off a quick list of how he hated these over-privileged little shits while trying to maintain his stealthy position behind the stretch. On the narrow two-lane that Broadway had become before disappearing entirely into 21st Avenue, where the trees leaned over the road and Vanderbilt Hospital loomed large on the left, Sean could not keep his distance and finally pulled near the rear bumper of the limo.
"What the hell are you doing?" he wondered aloud at the limo, verifying the light was indeed green.
The light switched from green to yellow.
"Oh no you don't," Sean said, dropping the 'Stang into gear. 'I'm not falling for that old trick."
The light turned red and the limo driver revved, leaving eighteen inches of rubber on the road as the limo swung left onto 21st. Sean followed, barreling through the red light in pursuit, any effort at concealment abandoned.
The first thing he heard was the honking, then came the sound of metal crunching, It reminded Sean of the sound those compactors at the junkyard make, right before they turn a sedan into a metallic cube. Then, the glass – the shattering sound as he registered the windshield spiderwebbing and collapsing into the front seat like painfully sharp confetti.
The world spun around and around and finally settled, the ruined nose of the 'Stang pointed down 21st where he could see the taillights of the limo roll away and down a slight hill, disappearing.
"Huh," he wondered aloud, "I guess that does work."
Then, everything was black.
LAZARUS AND THE WIFE WHO CAME BACK by Bo Ransdell
Find at Amazon.
Find at Amazon.