Our story so far: There is something a lot of people are prepared to do a lot of bad things to get, a thing of such value that for its possessor it renders the idea of money inconsequential. Charles Lowell does not have that thing, but he and his faithful assistant Alice have been caught in the middle of a struggle for the possession of a painting that is said to contain a map to the fabulous treasure.
Now Charley has the painting, and people around him are starting to kill each other at an alarming rate. Meredith Baxter, a.k.a Lola Fanutti, his employer and one-time lover, has fallen in the opening stages of a shootout on a pier over the East River.
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I ran through the pea-soup fog, hunched over, the package wedged close to my chest. Behind me guns cracked and chattered furiously, and more than once I heard grunts, coughs, and cries of pain choked with blood.
Ahead loomed the glow of the single bulb, and my running was finished. The light cast a feeble glow over the door of the shack that seemed to hover in the darkness, the entire world reduced to me, a weathered wooden door, and a few rough planks between us.
Behind me, the intensity of the gunfire was decreasing; I figured that most of the men still standing must be running out of ammunition by now. If only they could all kill each other. Someone would survive, however, and once the opposing faction was eliminated, they would start looking for the package I carried. A painting, Meredith had said, that carried in its imagery the key to a treasure worth dying for. Plenty of people had done just that. I wondered if there was anyone alive anymore who even knew how to read the damn clues I supposedly carried.
Meredith lay back there, dead. I thought of the look she had given me before she pulled her trigger. Did Meredith die — kill herself, really — because of me? Because I had contacted Cello?
It didn’t matter, I told myself. Dead is dead, and the top priority now was not becoming one of the dead myself. There would be time for second-guessing later, on the long nights when the whiskey wasn’t enough. Remorse is a luxury reserved for the living.
Cello. He was dead now as well. How had he found us? I had passed word to him, but nothing specific. Obviously he had other sources of information as well. In the end, all I had done was give him a way to get under Meredith’s skin, a tool he used at the cost of his own life. He hadn’t thought Meredith would fire, either. She was colder than that, not prone to such an emotional response.
Damn, I wanted a drink.
Silence had fallen over the pier. I listened to the gentle sloshing of the water below me, smelled pungency of decay and life and fuel oil. There was a whiff of something else as well, something that didn’t belong here.
With my pistol I smashed the light bulb, but I didn’t try the door to the shack. It wouldn’t protect me in any case, and that’s the first place anyone would look for me. The first place and the last place; there was nowhere else to hide except in the darkness itself.
I groped my way to the left, careful not to fall off the pier. My hands met the rough wood of a pylon and I crouched down, thinking, waiting, hovering between earth and the dark water below, the water that held the secrets of this mad city, the people and things lost and forgotten save for quiet whispers and legends. Gone, now, all of them, all those people, gone along with their hopes and dreams, reduced to lunch for the eels who lived in the darkness. In the end, that’s all any of us could hope for. We were born to feed the eels.
Footsteps approaching, heavy on the planks; two people, one’s shuffling gait betrayed injury. They moved cautiously, and carried no light that would make them a target. I considered trying to slip past them, hugging one edge of the pier. I decided to make a move when they were checking the shed; the noise they made might help mask my own movements. It was about the only chance I was going to get. Despite the chill air my palm was wet where I held my little Walther.
It seemed an eternity for the footfalls to come close; the silence and the heavy air played tricks with the sound, making them seem closer than they were. In the distance I heard a siren.
The footsteps stopped, only a few feet from me but the source still invisible. There was a pause as the two men sized up the shack in the darkness. After a few seconds the silence became absolute once more. Finally one of the men cleared his throat.
“Charley?” he said. “You in there? Mr. Lowell? It’s OK, it’s just us.” He didn’t specify who just us referred to. I waited.
“Mr. Lowell,” the other man said, “Ms. Fanutti told us to look after you if things went wrong. Told us to do what you said.”
The sound of sirens was close now, and I heard the screeching of brakes. I could convince myself that back down the pier I could make out the throb of flashing red lights.
“Mr. Lowell?” one of the men said. “Listen, we’ve got to get out of here.” I heard a rustling sound from within the shed. The door opened with a soft moan. Suddenly light shone from within. “Who?” was all the first man said before four more shots cracked out in the night, the four muzzle flashes turning the surrounding fog brilliant white for an instant. The light from the shack went out before the two had even hit the ground. The door of the shed closed quietly. From shore came more excited voices as the police prepared to assault the pier.
“Charley,” a voice said, quietly, in control. A woman’s voice. “I’m glad you’re all right. There’s not much time. I have a boat over here.”
“Alice,” I said. “I thought that was your perfume.”
Tune in next time for: The Invisible Hand!