viernes, 2 de febrero de 2018

JOHN CH 3

CHAPTER 3

Grilling with Morgan Freeman

I was alone in the “interview” room at the police station; the one-way mirror was to my left. In it I saw myself slumped in the chair, the disorganized black hair, the beard stubble that had crept onto my pale face like mildew on white porcelain.
Man, you need to lose some weight.
I had been in there for thirty minutes. Or two hours, or half a day. If you think time stops in the waiting room at the dentist, you ain’t never been alone in an interrogation room at a police station. This is what they do, they throw you in here to stew in the silence, all your guilt and doubts burning a hole in your gut so the truth can spill out onto the tile floor.
I should have gotten John to a hospital. Hell, I should have called an ambulance as soon as I got off the phone with him this morning. Instead I’ve fucked around for twelve hours and for all I know that black shit from the syringe was eating through his brain that whole time.
That ability to see the right choice, but not until several hours have passed since making the wrong one? That’s what makes a person a dumbass, folks.
Morgan Freeman stepped in and laid a manila folder before me. Thick paper. Photos. A white cop followed him. Something about their manner pissed me off; like they were swooping in on prey. I wasn’t the bad guy here. I wasn’t the one selling that black shit. But now I get to listen to these douchebags tell me everything I should have done instead of what I did? There was no fucking time for that.
“I want to thank you for coming down, Mr. Wong,” he said. “I bet it’s been quite a night for you. Been a long night for me, too, as a matter of fact.”
“Okay.” You know what helps? A warm glass of go fuck yourself. “Where’s John?”
“He’s fine. He’s talking to another officer just a few rooms from here.”
I actually couldn’t name the actor the black guy reminded me of, so I stuck with Morgan Freeman. Though now that I looked at him he bore almost no resemblance. This man was heavier, with round cheeks, a goatee and a shaved head. I couldn’t remember what he said his name was. His white partner had a crew cut with a mustache. Almost a G. Gordon Liddy, a cookie-cutter cop from central casting. I couldn’t help but think how much cooler he would look if he would just shave his head like his partner. Morgan should say something to him about that.
“John is talking?” I asked. “Really?”
“Don’t worry, man. Since you’re both gonna tell the unvarnished truth, you don’t gotta worry about your stories matching, do you? We’re all friendly here. I ain’t here to make you piss in a cup, or to lean on you about all that mess that happened your last year in school with that Hitchcock kid.”
“Hey, I had nothing to do with—”
“No, no. Don’t even bother. That’s what I’m sayin’, I’m not here to accuse you of nothin’ at all. Just tell me what you did last night.”
I had a knee-jerk impulse to lie, but realized at the last second that I hadn’t actually done anything illegal. Not as far as I knew. Sounding guilty anyway, I said, “Went to a party out by the lake. I came home just after midnight. I was asleep by two.”
“You sure about that? You sure you didn’t go over to the One Ball Inn down on Grand Avenue for a nightcap?”
“What’s a nightcap?”
“Your buddies were all there.”
Well, officer, I really only have the one friend . . .
“No, I had work this morning. As you know. I went straight home.”
I knew I should be talking about the Jamaican. Only my knee-jerk impulse to never volunteer anything to the cops was holding me back. That was stupid. Robert Marley should be sitting here, not me. He was the one handing out the black voodoo oil that seems to have put a crack in the universe. That’s got to be a felony, right?
I thought about that shit, moving, out of the syringe like a worm. Then I thought of that substance being inside John, and shivered.
“You feelin’ okay?”
I heard myself say, “Uh huh.”
As I said it, a strange, jittery energy rose up inside me, radiating from the chest out.
The syringe.
In my pocket.
Biting my leg.
The spot of blood.
Moving. Inside John. Inside me.
All of a sudden everything was too bright, like somebody turned up the saturation on all the colors in the room. Everything came into high focus, a high-def signal. I spotted a moth on the opposite wall, and noticed a small tear in one of its wings. I heard a guy talking on his cell, and realized he was on the sidewalk outside the building.
What the fuck?
I looked the detective in the eye. I was startled to find I could see his next question coming before he even spoke it, word-for-word . . .
Have you heard the name . . .
“Have you heard the name Nathan Curry? Guy your age, parents own a body shop here in town?”
My heart was hammering. I muttered, “No.”
How about Shelby Winder?
“How about Shelby Winder? Heavy girl, senior at East Side High? Ring a bell?”
“No. Sorry.”
Clarity lit up my mind like a sunrise. Everything was obvious now, all the walls of the maze turned to glass. I immediately knew two things: this list of people had all been at the party last night . . .
And they were all now dead or heading there.
Now how do I know that? How do I know any of this? Magic?
You know damn well why. That black shit John took made blood contact with you. Now you’re getting high, partner.
He asked, “What about Jennifer Lopez?”
“Oh. Yeah. I know her.”
“Not the actress, now, but—”
“I know. I saw her last night. Is she okay?”
“Arkeym Gibbs?”
“No. Wait, yeah. Big guy, right? Black? I don’t know him, but he was the only black guy in my high school . . .”
I trailed off, studied the detective’s face. No, this was not another day at the office for this guy. He’s seen things, the kind of things that sit in the brain, like a tumor, poisoning everything around it. I saw all through him, just like that.
He’s got two kids, two beautiful daughters. He’s suddenly very, very worried about the world they’ll grow up in. He’s Catholic, wears a gold cross around his neck. But today he’s taken it off, put it in his pocket. He keeps sticking his hand down there and rubbing it between his fingers. He thinks the end of the world is coming.
It’s not that I could read the cop’s mind. I couldn’t. I just read his face. We all can tell by the look in somebody’s eyes that they don’t think our joke is funny or that they don’t like what they’re eating or whatever. It was just like that. The information was there, presented in the subtle play of facial muscles from microsecond to microsecond.
He read off more names. Justin White, Fred something, a couple others. I didn’t recognize any of them and told him so. The last name on the list was Jim Sullivan.
So Cucumber was right to worry.
I didn’t tell Morgan I knew the name. In the years since I’ve wondered how many lives could have been saved if I had.
“You’re not outta school even three years. You went to high school with most of these people, East Side. But you only knew the one girl?”
“I kind of kept to myself.”
“And then you got shipped off to the other school—”
“Look, I’m not saying anything else until you tell me whether Jennifer is dead or alive. That ain’t confidential information and I deserve to know.”
Don’t bother. He doesn’t know.
“We don’t know. You see, that’s the problem. That’s why I got six hours of overtime already today. At least nine people were at the One Ball at closing time, twelve hours ago. Four of them are missing. Your friend is here.”
He paused, probably for effect.
“The rest are dead.”
It’s funny. Up until that point, despite all the evidence that had been provided to the contrary, it had never hit home how much trouble I was really in. I thought about John, again wondering if I had killed him by not rushing him to the ER.
I turned and looked at myself in the one-way mirror. The image was distorted, the other cop out of range at the back of the room. What was left was just me and Morgan, the clean-cut protector of the people, standing tall over the slumped, unshaven kid in a battered video store T-shirt that looked suspiciously like it had been wadded up on a car floorboard for two days. Good guy and bad guy. Trash man and trash.
“What about Justin Feingold and the guys John was with?” I asked. “Kelly and—”
“They’re fine. I’ve already talked to ’em, the whole band. They went home before the party moved on. Which brings us to my next question. Your friend is the only known survivor of the One Ball Inn and—now don’t take offense at this—but he ain’t lookin’ too healthy right about now. Did he say anything this morning at work? Maybe while you guys were putting away the last night’s porno returns?”
The white cop across the room stepped forward, put his hands on his hips. Waiting for an answer. Morgan left his gaze on me, calmly waited for me to fill the tense silence. Old interrogation trick.
“John called me last night, talking crazy, clearly out of it. Paranoia, hallucinations, the whole bit. This would have been around five A.M. I came over. He was acting, well, crazy. Seein’ things. But otherwise okay. Conscious, you know. Not, like, puking or convulsing or anything. I calmed him down, we went and got some food. That was that. We went to work.”
“What did he say? Exactly?”
“Monsters in his apartment, said he couldn’t remember how he got where he was, so on.”
“Did he say what he was on?”
“No.”
“You know we can find out anyway, right? We’re not interested in booking a bunch of your raver friends for poppin’ pills. To somebody like me, the dead bodies are what matters. And if somebody’s sellin’ poison, right now, as we talk—”
“No. I’d tell you if I knew. You’re a cop, you know I’m tellin’ you the truth. So, what, that’s how everybody died? Overdose?”
“This Jennifer Lopez, she was your girlfriend?”
“No.”
I thought about repeating my question, then stopped. Instead I replayed his question in my mind, focused on it, studied every contour of each word, was almost terrified to find I could glean libraries of information from between each syllable. In an instant I learned volumes by what he didn’t say, by the way he breathed, the minute twitch at the corner of his mouth, the slight widening of his left eyelid on the third and fifth word.
This detective last ate seven hours and fifteen minutes ago, two Egg McMuffins and four cups of coffee. You can smell it in the oils seeping through his skin. Check out his posture, he hasn’t slept in twenty hours. He forces a smoothness into his voice, wants to come across cultured but shrewd. He tells people his hero is Shaft, but it’s really Sean Connery’s James Bond. In his daydreams he sees himself hanging off a helicopter in a tuxedo.
And then, in a blink, I knew everything he knew. I saw the fate of each of the dead kids from the One Ball.
Nathan Curry had committed suicide, shot himself in the temple with a little .32 caliber pistol he kept hidden under his bed.
Arkeym Gibbs took a swim, fully clothed, in his family’s swimming pool—they found him floating facedown a few hours later.
Shelby Winder and another girl, Carrie Saddleworth, were found together. Each dead of a massive stroke. Shelby was missing her right hand, the wrist a ragged stump wrapped with a blood-soaked shirt.
The rest—Jennifer Lopez, Fred Chu, Big Jim Sullivan are nowhere to be found. They were all at the One Ball with John last night.
Now, only John remained.
You know all that, but you still can’t remember this cop’s name? You’re teetering on the brink of Crazy Man Bluff overlooking Weird Shit Valley.
“And to answer your next question,” I continued, “I didn’t know Jennifer well enough to know who her friends were or where she may have run off to. I’m sorry.”
Detective Freeman stepped forward and flipped open the manila envelope. He fanned out four photographs. One was a mug shot of a young black guy. Dreadlocks. I knew this was my fake Jamaican, knew before my eyes focused on the photo.
The next three pictures were vivid splashes of crimson.
Once, when I was twelve, for reasons that made sense at the time I filled a blender with some ice cubes and three cans of maraschino cherries. I didn’t know you had to use a lid on one of those things, so I hit the button and watched it erupt like a volcano. The room in the cop’s photographs looked like the resulting mess in our kitchen that day, everything a red spray with lumps.
He pointed to the Jamaican’s mug shot. “What about that guy? You know him?”
“He was there. At the party last night. Whatever John was on, this guy gave it to him. John told me.”
You already knew that, didn’t you, detective?
“That’s Bruce Matthews. Runs an amateur unlicensed pharmaceuticals operation on the corner of Thirtieth and Lexington.”
I nodded toward the red photos.
“What’s that?”
Morgan pointed to the mug shot.
“Before.”
He pointed to the red-drenched pictures.
“After.”
The first picture was just lumps on the floor, on carpet that was probably brown at one time but was now dyed a wet, purplish black. It looked like somebody had tossed down a bucket of raw steaks and chicken bones. The next picture was a close-up of one wall, deep red splatters over half the surface area, occasional bits of meat stuck here and there. The third picture was a close-up of a severed brown hand in a pool of red, fingers curled loosely, a bandage around the palm.
I turned my eyes away, suddenly sweating heavily. There was that tableau in the mirror again, just me and Morgan, face-to-face. Did he think I had anything to do with this? Was I a suspect? In my panic, I couldn’t read him. He let the silence congeal in the air, staring down on me. He broke me, and I broke the silence.
“What could even do that to a person? A bomb? Some kind of—”
“Nothing you know how to do, I’m sure of that. Maybe somethin’ not, uh, not within our bounds of familiarity.”
That fear again, on Morgan’s face. I understood it now.
But there’s more. Much more. He’s buried it so deep even you can’t read it.
The door opened and the detective’s words trailed off. A fat Hispanic cop ducked in and whispered in his ear. Morgan’s eyebrows shot up and the two of them left the room.
I heard a commotion outside, hurried shouts and feet shuffling on floor tile. After about ten minutes Morgan stormed into the room, eyes wide.
No, no, no, no-no-no. No. Don’t say it . . .
“Your friend is dead.”

CLICK!
A tape recorder, clicking off at the end of a cassette. Arnie had apparently set the thing on the table before me at some point. I hadn’t noticed. He grumbled an apology, fished out a new tape and went about changing it. I glanced over at his discarded notebook, saw he had abandoned his note-taking just after the word “Holocaust.”
I pushed away the plate of chicken, rice and snow peas that was the Flaming Shrimp Reunion. I had been picking through it for the last half hour, leaving the chicken. That bird, I knew, had lived a very sad life and I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. It also had spent its days covered head to toe in bits of other birds’ crap.
“When you got your cell phone bill, did it list the call you got at Denny’s?”
“What? I’m sorry.”
“The call you got from your friend at Denny’s when your friend was sitting there next to you without a phone. Was that call on your cell phone bill?”
“I never thought to check.”
The waitress swept by and claimed my plate, dropped off a fortune cookie and my ticket. She ignored Arnie. I held the cookie in my hand, tried to concentrate and “see” what the fortune said inside it. I found I couldn’t.
Arnie scratched his head, knitted a question with his eyebrows.
“So the black stuff, the soy sauce, it’s a drug, right?”
“Well, I’ll get to that.”
“And it makes you smarter? When you take it, it lets you read minds and all that?”
“Not really. It heightens your senses. I think. I don’t know. When you’re on it, it’s like overload, like if you hooked your car radio up to one of those interplanetary SETI antennas. You get shit from all over the place, can see things you shouldn’t be able to see, but I don’t think it would help you do your taxes.”
“And you still got some of this stuff?” He glanced quickly down at the silver canister.
“I’m getting to that.”
“You’re on it right now? That’s how you did the thing with the, uh, with the coins and the dream and all that earlier?”
“Yeah. I took some today. It’s fading though.”
“So the effects don’t last that long.”
“The side effects don’t last that long. The effects will last the rest of my life, I think.”
Maybe longer.
Arnie scratched his forehead.
“So, the kids that died, this is that rave overdose, right? I remember all that a few years ago, seein’ it on CNN. They thought they had gotten hold of some tainted Ecstasy or somethin’ like that? So you were the guy that—”
“I can’t figure out at what point the party got turned into a ‘rave’ in the newspapers. There was no techno music or dancing or PVC pants and there was certainly no raving. Freakin’ rave. It’s one of those words they throw around to scare old people.”
“What color is the interview room down at the precinct?”
“Uh, white. It’s flaked off in places, shows institutional green underneath.”
“And if I contact Detective Appleton, he’ll remember talking to you?”
“Good luck finding him.”
Arnie made notes.
“So?” I asked. “What do you think?”
“I think you’ve probably got a book here,” he said. “Flesh it out a little.”
“A book? Meaning a work of fiction? Meaning it’s all bullshit?”
Arnie shrugged. “It’s nothin’ to me. A story is a story. I’m just a feature reporter, so the fact that you think it happened is my story. But it’s like Whitley Strieber, writes that book about aliens. Nobody would ever have heard of it, except he sells it as nonfiction, swears to the end that it all really happened.”
His eyes flicked over to the little metal canister again. I realized my fingers had been fidgeting with it.
“Well, I’m not into that whole aliens thing, but I don’t think it’s right to label the guy a fraud, Arnie.”
“Exactly. He’s got a nice house, though. His own radio show. Played by Christopher Walken in a movie. Wouldn’t you like that? You know, I don’t remember leaving the house with any change in my pocket. You could have slipped those coins to me.”
“Without you feeling it? And the thing with your dream? Come on, Arnie.”
Gotta love the skeptic, mon.
“I saw a sleight-of-hand artist in Vegas who, as part of his show, would call somebody out of the audience and steal the glasses off their face. No kidding. He’d send the poor sap back to his seat and he’d be squinting around, tryin’ to figure out why he couldn’t see all of a sudden. There’s no magic, Mr. Wong. Just knowing tricks the other guy doesn’t know about.”
I stood up. “Come with me. I wanna show you somethin’. In my truck.”
We made our way out to my rattly old Ford Bronco II. I bought it after my old Hyundai got totaled a few years ago in a manner that was undoubtedly unique among all vehicles ever totaled in vehicle history.
I approached the rear and dropped the tailgate, revealing a white sheet covering a large box the size of one of those plastic portable dog carriers. Not coincidentally, it was a portable dog carrier.
“What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen, Arnie?”
He grinned, looking over the box. Like a damn kid at Christmas.
Look, everybody! The crazy man carries around a big crazy box! Let’s all humor him at once!
“One time,” he began, “I was down in my basement and there’s just a couple of bare lightbulbs that hang down, you know? So it’s all shadows, and your shadow kind of stretches out across the floor. Anyway, one time, out the corner of my eye, you know, it sort of looked like my shadow back there was movin’ without me. I don’t mean the bulb was swinging and the shadow was just wavering back and forth, I mean the limbs were, like, flailing around. Real fast, too. It was just for a second and like I said, it was just one of those tricks of light you get out the corner of your eye. But I tell ya, I didn’t go back down there until it was broad daylight out. Is what you got in there gonna beat that?”
“I need you to get in that mind-set, Arnie. We’re out here, in public with lights on and the whole world’s solid and lined up real neat. But down in that basement, in the dark, alone, you believed in things. Dark things. I need you to open yourself up like that. Okay?”
“It was just somethin’ I thought I saw. I never said there was anything there, Mr. Wong.”
“Just humor me. Ready?”
I threw back the sheet. Long pause.
“Do you see it?”
“No. Or, you know, it’s an empty cage.”
“Turn your head, so you’re looking at me. You should see the box out the corner of your eye, just like the shadow in the basement.”
“Okay.” Arnie’s grin was fading. He was losing patience fast.
“Do you ever go in the bathroom at night, Arnie, and for a second, just a split second, you glimpse something in the mirror other than your reflection? Then you turn the light on and, of course, everything’s fine again. But for just a half a second, maybe while you’re leaving the room, you see out the corner of your eye that it isn’t you in the mirror. Or maybe it is you, only changed? And what’s looking back at you is something completely different? Something not very human?”
“Let’s go back inside, okay? Your story was more interesting.”
“You’re going to die, Arnie. Someday, you will face that moment. Regardless of what you believe, at that moment either you will face complete nonexistence, which is something you can’t possibly imagine, or you will face something even stranger that you also can’t possibly imagine. On an actual day in the future, you will be in the unimaginable, Arnie. Set your mind on that.”
Silence, for a few seconds. Arnie nodded a little.
“Okay.”
“Now, without turning your head, look at the box.”
Arnie did, recoiled, yelped, stumbled and finally fell on his ass.
“Oh, shit!” he gasped. “Shit!! What the shit is that? Sh-shit! Shit!”
I threw the sheet back over the box and closed up the Bronco. Arnie scrambled to his feet and backed up ten steps, halfway to the door of the restaurant.
“How did you do that? And what the fuck was that thing? What the fuck?”
“I don’t know what it’s called. Pretty freaky, isn’t it?”
“You—you made me see something. Something out of my own head. You freaked me out so I would see something.”
“No, it’s really there. I’m surprised you saw it so easy. You must have an open mind. Most people don’t see it that fast unless they’re stoned or drunk.”
Arnie kept stepping back, muttering.
“I was in the Navy. Diver. I saw some shit, deep-sea shit that didn’t look like anything that belonged on this world. But that was nothin’, nothin’ like that . . . that thing.”
“I want to tell the rest of the story, Arnie. I need to. I need to get it out. But you need to take it for what it is. The truth. Are you ready to do that?”
Arnie looked at me with uncertainty, then nodded. “Okay. Until I figure it out for real, okay.”
“Eh, that’ll have to do.”
After a moment we walked back toward the restaurant. As we passed through the swinging doors (still painted with the slogan HOLA AMIGOS!!) I picked up my story.
“Anyway, so the cop comes in and tells me John is dead . . .”

I was out of my chair before I knew it, halfway to the door.
“Wha—How??!”
The cop stopped me cold with a stiff arm to the chest.
“Now calm down,” Morgan said, not looking at all calm himself. “He went into a convulsion or somethin’ and his pulse stopped but—now listen to me here—we got ambulances, they’ll be here in thirty seconds. We got Vinny doin’ CPR on him. Vinny’s a lifeguard in his off-hours. That boy’s in the hands of people who know what they’re doin’. That don’t include you, so you got no business fartin’ around out there, gettin’ all hysterical and whatnot.”
I knocked his hand away from my chest. The white cop dropped his arms and came toward us, though looking a little less shocked than what I would have expected, having had somebody just drop dead in their police station. Apparently he wouldn’t have to fill out the paperwork.
Morgan’s lips peeled back slightly to reveal gritted teeth. He started to say something, stopped himself.
Oh, shit. This guy’s on the jagged edge . . .
“Here’s what you’re gonna do, son.”
He breathed.
“You’re gonna wait here. I’ll be back in five minutes and you are gonna start telling me the truth. I am gonna get to the bottom of this and if you obstruct me you will live the rest of your days wishing you had not.”
He stepped back, made sure I wasn’t going to rush the door, then turned out of the room. What chilled me wasn’t the cop’s threats. It was the single, dark thought I could read pulsing through his head:
The dead are getting off lucky in this deal.
That didn’t seem like a normal cop thought to me.
I stood there, lost, listening to the confusion of shouts and controlled panic outside. I heard sirens out front. Ambulance.
My cell phone chirped. On any other day I would have shut the thing off, but that seemed unwise somehow. I looked toward Officer Liddy, now standing placidly in the middle of the room, and I gestured toward my pocket as if to ask if he minded. He said nothing, I answered my phone.
“Yeah.”
“Dave? This is John.”
“What? Are you—”
Alive?
“—in an ambulance or something?”
“Yes and no. Are you still at the police station?”
“Yeah. We were both—”
“Have I died yet?”
A long pause from my end.
“Um, yeah, according to the cops.” I glanced at the white cop, who showed no interest in my conversation.
“Then there’s no time to explain all this. Get out of there.”
“But—I’ll be a fugitive,” I whispered, turning away from the cop. “They know where I—”
“Listen. Get up. Walk to the door. Leave the room. Leave the building. Whatever you do, see that big white cop standing there in the room with you? Don’t look at him in the mirror.”
“Huh?”
I glanced back over my shoulder at the cop. Something was . . . off.
“Just go. Now.”
I tried to get a read on the cop, and realized that’s what was off. Even with the soy sauce I was getting zero information from the G. Gordon Liddy–looking detective. I turned my head a few degrees to the right . . .
Don’t look at the mirror don’t look at the mirror
. . . to the reflective surface of the two-way mirror directly opposite the cop.
It was just you and Morgan in the mirror, Dave. Even after the white cop stepped forward.
In the mirror it was just me. Standing there, talking on my cell.
Alone.
I spun toward the cop.
“I don’t get it.”
“He’s not real, Dave. Not in the, uh, traditional sense.”
“He’s coming toward me!”
“Go, Dave. You’re gonna start seeing things like this from time to time. It’s important that you not freak out.”
The cop was one step away from me now. His mustache twitched, as if he was starting to grin underneath it.
“So he, uh, can’t hurt me?”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure he can.”
A hand clenched around my face. The cop’s fingers dug into my cheeks, squeezing, rigid as iron bars. I thought my teeth would crack into pieces. He pushed me back using my face and slammed me against the wall.
I clawed at his arm, but it was like trying to tear the limbs off a bronze statue. I smacked him across the nose with my phone. His mustache twitched again as if this amused him greatly.
The mustache kept twitching and twitching and then one end of it began to curl up and peel off, like a man’s disguise torn off by a hard wind. Finally the mustache detached completely, leaving a patch of pink, shredded skin. The thing flapped its halves like bat wings—no, it really did—and flew over and landed on my face.
The cop’s mustache bit me above the right eyebrow. I slapped at the thing with my left hand, then worked my leg up and, with all my strength, shoved a knee into the detective’s guts just below the ribs.
A jolt of pain shot up my thigh, like I had kneed over a pile of cinder blocks. But I felt him give, pushed back by the force. The mustache bat flittered over to my ear and clamped down, feeling like somebody doing five piercings at once. I slapped at it again, suddenly realized the cop had reeled back and fallen to a knee on the floor. I should have been free of him but the hand was still around my face—
Ah, look at that. His arm came off.
The man had a six-inch bloody hole on one shoulder now. The detached arm, on its own, whipped around my neck and coiled up like a python. No hint of bone in there now, the arm making two loops around until the ragged stump hung under my chin like a meat scarf.
I thrashed around, tried to pry the thing off. The armsnake was all muscle, tensed and wiry, slowly squeezing off my windpipe.
Colored spots flashed before my eyes, lack of oxygen shorting out the wiring in my brain. I blinked and saw the floor was closer than before. I was on my knees.
The mustache bat flitted around my head, taking stinging little bites on my cheek and forehead. It went after my eye, pulling at the lid, and I couldn’t get my hands up to swat it away. Arms not working right.
The meat scarf squeezed tighter. The whole room got dark. I was on all fours and I suddenly realized the best idea was just to lay down there on the floor and go to sleep.
I detected movement from the corner of my eye. The rest of the cop’s body. It was up, walking toward me.
Shit!
I crawled clumsily toward the door. Gordon reached for me with his remaining arm and I felt his fingers try to snatch my shirt. I flung myself toward the door, my face banging off it. I reached up, clawing around for the handle. I sucked air through a squeezed windpipe, my head felt like it would pop like a balloon.
Don’t be locked don’t be locked don’t be locked . . .
The handle turned. I banged open the door with my head and spilled out of the room—

—And it was over.
The thick bundle of armsnake had vanished from my neck, as had the flying mustache. I stood up, saw four guys hustling down the hall with an empty stretcher. I stuck my finger in my mouth, it came out bloody. I looked my cell phone over, saw it had the cracks and busted mouthpiece from its tour as a nose club seconds ago. I cursed at myself, sure that whatever freak-ass cellular conduit I just had with John was now cut off.
People rushed past me and I wanted to push my way through to see what was up with John, remembered John’s disembodied instructions. Taking advantage of the chaos, I strolled back through the police station, finally walking right out the front door.
I hit the sidewalk, my heart pounding. What now?
A fat man in a shiny business suit strode by without a glance my way.
Without trying, I realized that he was going to die in just two weeks, a heart attack while trying to knock his cat out of a tree with a broomstick.
A pretty late-model Trans Am gleamed past and I noticed from the posture of the driver that the car was stolen and that the owner was dead. The car’s fan belt was going to break in 26,931 miles.
Man, I gotta focus on one thing at a time or my brain’s gonna melt and run out of my ears like strawberry jam.
Fine. I took a deep breath. Now what?
My car was two miles away at Wally’s and I didn’t have cash to waste on a taxi, even if one of the town’s three cabs should happen by at this moment. To my surprise, my cell phone rang. I put the broken thing to my ear, realized I owed some props to the engineers at Motorola.
“Hello?”
“Dave? It’s me.”
John.
“Where are you right now, Dave?”
“I’m on the sidewalk outside the cop shop, walking. Where are you? Heaven?”
“If you figure it out, let me know. Right now just keep walking. Go toward the park. Don’t freak out. Are you freaking out?”
“I don’t know. I can’t believe this phone still works.”
“It won’t for very much longer. Half a block away, there should be the hot dog guy. Can you see him?”
I walked a dozen steps, smelled it before I saw it. The cart was plastered with right-wing stickers, and had a yellow-and-orange umbrella hanging over it. The hot dog guy was painfully thin, looked about one hundred and sixty years old. As much a landmark as this city has.
“Okay.”
“Buy a bratwurst from him.”
Questioning this seemed a waste of words.
The man and I exchanged $3.15 and a brat wrapped in a hot dog bun and a sheet of wax paper.
For a moment, I hesitated, then drew two fat, neat lines of mustard along its length. It seemed like the right thing to do.
Cell phone balanced between shoulder and ear, John spoke again, as if under water, his voice growing fainter by the second.
“Now put it up to your head.”
I looked down at the rivulets of oozing grease, congealing with the now dripping mustard and was thankful that I didn’t use ketchup or that brown hot onion sauce.
Glancing around, I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible as I lay the sausage against my ear. Abruptly, my cell phone went dead.
A drop of grease dribbled into the dead center of my ear, creeping like a worm down onto my neck and below the collar of my shirt. A group of men and women in business suits walked by, swerving to avoid me. Across the street, a homeless-looking guy was staring at me, curious. Yep, this was pretty much rock bottom.
As I was about to reach for a napkin and at least get my money’s worth by eating the bratwurst while it was still hot, I heard it.
“Dave? Can you hear me?”
John’s voice, coming clear as day through the tube of seasoned meat. I glanced down at the cell phone and got the point. The display was black, the glass busted out of it. A green circuit board was poking out of the warped seam along one side.
“All right, all right. I’m hearing you through some kind of psychic vibration or whatever and not the phone. I get it. You could have just told me that.” I lowered the sausage and replaced it with the cell. “Okay, what’s next?”
Nothing.
I heard a faint sound coming from the bratwurst, put it back to my head.
“Dave? Are you there?”
“Yeah. I can’t get you through the cell now.”
“You have to talk through the bratwurst from now on.”
“Why—”
I sighed and rubbed my eyes, feeling a headache coming on.
“—Okay. What do we do?”
“The only reason you can hear me is because you got some of the soy sauce into your system, from the syringe. But it’s not very much and it won’t last long.”
“What is it, John? The sauce . . . it was alive. I swear it—”
“Listen. You gotta get over to Robert’s place. There aren’t any cops there now, but there will be. We have sort of a narrow window here. Take a cab to Wally’s and get your car, then go to Shire Village on Lathrop Avenue. It’s a trailer park, south of town past that one candy place. You should be able to get there in twenty minutes with any luck.”
“I don’t have any cash. I had five bucks and I just spent three of it on the bratwurst.”
“That bratwurst was three bucks? Holy crap. Okay. Give me a second. All right. Check between the sausage and the bun. You’ll find a hundred dollar bill folded up in there.”
Encouraged that maybe all this black magic could actually produce something positive, I fingered around under the sausage for a few seconds.
“Nothing here, John.”

“Okay. I guess I can’t do that. Do you have your ATM card?”

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