Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Nick Windworth in The Man in Grey

DP 2

The shop bell chimed and a young woman entered. Nick guessed she was in her mid twenties; pretty, though less than she might be. Her fair young face was worn with anxiety and her light brown hair was tangled, probably from the number of times she’d run her fingers through it. She looked anxiously around the shop, then approached the counter in an uncertain manner.

“Well?” said Nick in a gruff tone that suggested she was interrupting something important. “Can I help you?”

“I…I’m here to see Mr. Eickstein?”

“He’s busy. What do you want?”

“Uh, I…I think I ought to speak to him personally…”

“I’m his partner,” said Nick. “Anything you can say to him you can say to me.”

She looked him over for a moment, as though trying to gauge his threat level. He was neared forty than thirty, with round shoulders and a slightly drooping face that somehow made him look a lot smaller than he really was. He wore a dirty old suit and tie, while a battered felt hat hung on the peg by the register. To all appearances, Nick very well might have been the junior partner of a low-rent pawnshop.

The woman swallowed and squared her narrow shoulders.

“I’ve come to redeem a necklace,” she said with more conviction that before.

“Oh?”

“My name Linda Hauge.”

“Oh! I see,” he said, nodding as if he’d been expecting her. Nick opened the logbook and ran his thumb down the figures.

“Hauge: one antique necklace for five-hundred twenty-three dollars. Is that right?”

“Yes,” she said.

Nick checked the tags and found the necklace, but he didn’t hand it to her.

“You have the money, I presume?”

Linda Hauge swallowed.

“No,” she said. “At least,” she added hastily. “Not all of it. But you see, I need that necklace for tonight.”

“Well, that’s awkward,” said Nick. “You need the necklace, I need the five-hundred twenty-three dollars.”

“The thing is, my husband doesn’t know I pawned it,” she explained. “It was…we were desperate. Now he has a new job and things are going well, but his parents are coming in tonight, and it’s a family heirloom, so they will want to see me wearing it, and if I don’t…they’ll be so angry with me. They – they were against our marriage in the first place and this…”

She swallowed, blinked a tear out of her eye and reached into her purse.

“I have three hundred and seventy four dollars,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been able to save thus far. I will get you the rest, I swear, but I need to have it back tonight.”

She placed the roll of cash on the table. Nick looked from her to the money, as though thinking about it. He picked up the cash and deliberately counted it. Mrs. Hauge waited with baited breath.

“Forget it,” he said.

“But…”

“I mean, forget the rest,” said Nick, taking the money and pushing the necklace across to her.

“I…what?”

“You take the jewelry, I’ll take the money, and we’ll call it even,” he said. “I’ll mark your account as closed. But only on one condition.”

Mrs. Hauge, who had been looking stunned and eager, now suddenly shied.

“What condition?” she asked.

“That you never come near this shop again,” he said. He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “If anyone ever found out that we’d done this for you, our business would be over. Understand? So don’t ever let me catch you anywhere near here again, and don’t you dare mention this to anyone.”

“I won’t!” she said eagerly. “I swear, I never…Oh, thank you, thank you so much!”

“Damn,” he said, handing her the necklace with a wink. “And here I thought I was heartless.”

She took it, and to his surprise suddenly kissed him on the cheek before rushing out of the shop.

Nick “Breezy” Windworth rubbed the spot where she’d kissed him, sighed, shrugged, marked the Linda Hauge account as closed, and then put the roll of money into his pocket.

The truth was, Nick didn’t work in that little shop. He didn’t exactly work at all these days. He got by on his quick wits and quicker fingers: picking pockets, forging checks, running low-level schemes when he thought he could get away with it, that sort of thing. In a word, he was a crook. Today’s excursion to the pawnshop was one of those endeavors, though the arrival of Mrs. Hauge had been an unexpected complication. Still, she’d seemed satisfied with the results and he was quite sure Eickstein never would have let her off the hook that easily, so he decided he’d count it on the positive side in that night’s examination of conscience.

Nick didn’t think of himself as a particularly dishonest man…at least, no more than anyone else. One thing life had taught him thus far was that practically everyone lied, everyone cheated, and everyone was mostly out for what they could get. Nick was just willing to play the game with a straight face. Besides, he wasn’t nearly as bad as some he could name: he was just trying to get by, not out to reach some imaginary summit by turning his fellow creatures into stepping stones.

Right now, though, Nick wasn’t really considering any of this; he just wanted to get out of the shop before another customer arrived, as he didn’t think he could square two such missions of mercy in one day. He came out from behind the counter and head for the door, intending to turn the sign on the door from ‘open’ to ‘closed’ and leave, but a man walked in before he’d quite reached it.

He was not a tall man, nor especially large. He was, in fact, almost wholly unremarkable in appearance. He had sandy brown hair, was about ten years younger than Nick, and to judge from his gray suit might have been anything from a lawyer to an office worker. But what struck Nick most of all, from the moment he laid eyes on him, was the way the man carried himself; that confident, cool, predatory poise that comes to men sure of their own power.

It was something Nick was all too familiar with.

Adjusting at once to the new situation, Nick converted his path to the door into a path to adjust a clock that stood on an antique dresser, then turned to meet his new customer.

“Can I help you?” he said.

The man looked at Nick with pale blue eyes. Those eyes made Nick’s blood run cold, but he met them steadily, opting to appear too dense to recognize their expression.

“Where’s Eikstein?” he asked.

“Sick in bed,” Nick answered. “Name’s Elijah Gould: I’m his partner.”

The man in grey frowned at him.

“I’m here to pick up a package,” he said. “Mr. Mistretta said you’d have one for me.”

Nick raised his eyebrows and whistled.

“Well, if it’s for Mr. Mistretta, then we’d better find it,” he said. Though all his instinct screamed against the move, he turned his back on the man and bustled behind the counter, adopting a somewhat lopping walk as though he weren’t used to much activity.

“Surprised he didn’t mention it to me,” Nick went on. “But then, he’s not got the best memory in the world, you know; he doesn’t write something down, he doesn’t know anything about it.”

Morris Eickstein’s bad memory had been why Nick had decided to attempt this angle in the first place. Well, that and his bad temper and habit of charging customers almost double what he’d paid them for their pawned goods. An unfortunate hand of cards had created something of a set-back in Nick’s plans to finally get out of LA and set up shop somewhere far away; further than San Francisco or San Ignatio. Maybe Houston, or St. Louis, or New Orleans. Anywhere no one would know his name and he could start over.

Nick had calculated the amount of money he would need for the move, and had almost gotten there too…until that cheat Lenny Sorrell had started clearing him out. Fortunately Nick had the sense to know when to get out of a game and hadn’t thrown all his cash away, but it had been enough to set his plans back quite a ways.

That’s when he’d hit on the pawn shop angle: pawn his watch, the only valuable thing he owned, get the money, then a few days later come back and reacquire it, crossing out the account in the process. Nick had a handy little gadget he’d borrowed from a locksmith friend, with which he’d made a copy of the shop key before the owner had even realized it was gone. Eickstein’s on coming flu – a pure stroke of luck – had helped with this, and the rest was just a matter of watching the shop until the day he didn’t come in. Now, thanks to both Mr. Eickstein and Mrs. Hauge, he had all he needed and more, and he just wanted to get out of there and start pulling up his stakes.

Instead, he found himself obliged to fill and order for the scariest gangster in Northern LA and what was apparently his pet psychopath. That was just his luck, but then if he could rely on luck, he probably wouldn’t have become a crook.

“You couldn’t possibly describe what you’re looking for?” Nick asked after a few minutes’ searching behind the counter.

“You don’t need to know that,” said the man in grey.

“Kinda do if I’m gonna give it to you,” said Nick. “Like I say, he didn’t write anything down. Suppose that was the idea, but it leaves us in kind of an awkward position, don’t it?”

The man considered a moment more.

“It’s a gas canister.” He said. “About a foot long. Green. Unmarked. Check the back.”

Nick nodded and went into the back room, searching along the shelves. As he did so, he was thinking. Who was this guy? What did he want with this cylinder, and why all the secrecy? What was Mistretta up to?

He soon found what he was looking for; an unmarked, dark green gas canister, but he kept pretending to search a while longer, concocting a plan.

Finally, deciding he could delay no longer, he picked up the cylinder and returned to the main shop.

There she is,” he said. “It was tucked back behind a box labled ‘cleaning supplies.’ Go figure. So, is there a charge for that, or…”

“More of an exchange,” said the man. “You hand it over and don’t mention this to anyone, and you don’t have anything to worry about. Understand?”

“Perfectly,” said Nick, handing the canister over. “I know how to keep a secret, and who not to get on the bad side of.”

The man in grey said nothing, but took the canister and tucked it inside his suit (which was evidently tailored for such a conveyance).

“Anything else I can get for you?” Nick asked, coming out from around the counter as though to offer one of the items on a distant shelf. “We have some lovely…”

“No,” said the man in grey. “Nothing more.”

Nick looked at him, seemed to hesitate, and then nodded as though resigned.

“All right,” he said. “I hope you’ll come again, though.”

He went and opened the door for the man, standing on the near side of it as though to hold it in place with his body. The man gave him an inscrutable look, then passed out, just brushing against him as he went.

As soon as the man was out of sight, Nick locked the door, changed the sign to ‘closed’ and hastened out the back way. Clutched in his hand was a neatly folded envelope that had come from the man in grey’s pocket. He didn’t know how long it would take for the man in grey to notice his loss, but once he did he’d probably know exactly what happened and Nick meant to be far away beforehand.

About a quarter hour later, having travelled down three streets and four alleyways to end up in a run-down diner just coming off of the breakfast rush, Nick ordered himself a coffee, selected a booth with a good view of the door, and sat down to study his find.

It wasn’t much; a photograph and a strip of paper. The photograph showed a pretty, smiling Asian girl of about fifteen or sixteen, he guessed. She looked like a nice kid. The paper had a few terse words written on it:

St. Andrews. 332. Five-thirty.

Nick sipped his coffee, thinking. St. Andrews was a hospital. ‘332’ was probably a room number, and five-thirty was obviously a time…though there was no date, so that could be five-thirty today or tomorrow or next week, morning or evening…no, more likely today, if this is what the cylinder was for.

As for what would happen at five-thirty in room 332 to this girl, he had known that from the moment the man in grey walked into the shop.

Nick hadn’t always been a small-time crook. Back when he was young – strange to think of that now – he’d been around quite a lot; he’d gone to Vietnam with the first wave and stayed for the duration and a little after, did a lot of things with and without official approval, and met a lot of people. Over the years, he’d gotten to classifying people rather like how a taxonomist classifies animals, and by this time he could pretty well tell the genus and species of a man within a few minutes of meeting him. But people like the man in grey he’d learned to spot almost at once. They were predators, and the rest of the world was prey to them.

Mistretta was like that too. Nick had only met the gangster once or twice, but that was enough for him to know to steer well clear of the man. Mistretta was pretty small time compared to the big crime syndicates – Gallano, for instance – specializing in protection rackets, money laundering, and car thefts. Strictly local crimes, but anything that fell under that category answered to Mistretta.

And apparently he wanted the man in grey to murder this girl. The canister, no doubt, had something to do with that. That probably meant it was happening today.

Nick sighed and checked his watch. Assuming the man in grey stuck to the schedule, that left him about eight hours to work. He’d done more with less.

###

            Nick’s first move was to start the information train rolling. To that end, he headed straight for the place that was the secret of his success: the Department of Motor Vehicles.

A good con-artist required two things; the right attitude and the right information. The former he had for free, but the latter required a reliable source and usually a fair amount of cash. Nick’s primary source for most things was a middle-aged, three-hundred-pound tiger whose parents, showing an appalling lack of foresight, had christened Angel Sue Lewee. Had they been more prescient, they probably would have called her “Cerberus.” Like that creature, she was terrifying and indomitable, but could be appeased with the correct type of gift. In her case, that gift tended to be money.

Nick found her, as usual, terrifying some poor citizen who was taking his written driver’s test.

“You think the yellow line means passing allowed?” she snapped, smearing a great line of red across the paper. “Why not do us all a favor and drive yourself into a tree on your way home? Then at least you won’t take anyone else with you.”

“Angel, my angel!” Nick said as the would-be driver beat a hasty retreat from the gorgon. “You’re looking radiant this morning!”

Angel snorted like an irritable bison.

“Cut the crap; what do you want, Breezy?”

“Information,” said Nick, passing her a roll of bills. “And it’s for a very good cause this time.”

“Bull,” she answered, flipping through to confirm they were all the correct denomination before pocketing them. “Your last good cause was a pyramid scheme.”

“Serious this time,” said Nick. “I need you to look and see if you can find anything at all on this girl, and particularly who her parents are and any known connections to crime or criminal organizations.”

He handed her the photograph. She looked at it, then glared suspiciously at him.

“Isn’t she a little young for you?”

“Yes, but this is business, not romance. Besides, you know you’re the only woman for me, Angel.” Then, adopting a more serious expression, he explained. “I think the girl’s in danger and I want to find out why.”

Angel frowned, evidently surprised to see this side of him.

“You serious, Breezy?”

“Serious as can be,” he answered. “I need it as soon as you can, and if you need more cash just name your price.”

“Wow, you are serious,” she said. “You have a name?”

“No, not yet. What me to let you know if I get one?”

“Don’t bother; I’ll probably have it faster than you.”

“Then you’ll do it?”

She considered with a noise like a bear weighing the pros and cons of raiding a campsite

“Fine, I’ll see what I can dig up. But you better not be lying!”

“That hurts, Angel; it really does.”

She snorted. “What are you gonna do in the meantime?”

“If I knew, I’d tell you,” he sighed, walking off with a wave.

Nick didn’t doubt she’d find out what he needed. If you wanted to know all there was to know about someone, the best source in the world was an unscrupulous civil servant with an intimidating personality. Angel didn’t technically have access to the city records, but that had never stopped her in the past. She wasn’t the kind of woman that people generally said ‘no’ to. She’d come through. In the meantime, he needed to double check that the girl was still alive and make sure she stayed that way until he could figure out why someone wanted her dead. To that end, upon leaving the DMV, he headed straight for the hospital.

It is very, very tricky to pretend to be a doctor. You need to be very precise in the personality you convey, as well as have a pretty good basic knowledge of the subject and an air of authority so that you can delegate anything you don’t know.

Pretending to be an orderly, on the other hand, that’s much easier. All you have to do is put on the right uniform and always be carrying something about with a look of purpose.

In this way, with a bundle of towels taken from a supply rack, Nick made his way to room 332. The tag on the door read “Jenny Chen.” He knocked and entered in proper hospital fashion.

It was her alright. She sat propped up in bed, reading a book, looking distinctly paler and more worn than she had in her photograph (unsurprising, since no one looked their best in hospitals). However, she looked up and smiled at him as he came in.

“Excuse me a minute,” he said. “I just need to change the towels.”

“Thanks,” she said in a slightly croaking voice that suggested throat trouble. “But I think they just did that.”

“Really? Well, can’t hurt to do it again. That’s how things work around here; hasn’t been used, so we might as well clean it.”

She laughed, which brought on a brief fit of coughing.

“How’re you feeling today?” he asked as he replaced the towels.

“Better,” she said. “Doctor Johns says I can go home tomorrow. I just wish this hadn’t happened in the middle of soccer season.”

He smiled. As he thought, a nice kid.

Now the question was how he’d keep her alive long enough to go home. That and why anyone would be trying to murder her in the first place.

He abandoned the unsoiled towels in a likely-looking receptacle and descended to one of the employee exits in the back of the building, still thinking. He wondered whether Angel had found out anything yet, and whether the man in grey had yet discovered his loss and, if so, how he had reacted to it.

The latter question was abruptly and unexpectedly answered when Nick, turning the corner on his way from the hospital, was suddenly struck hard on the back of the head and knew no more.

###

            Consciousness slowly returned, bringing with it a throbbing headache and a vague sense of paralysis. The vagueness became sharp when the process was accelerated by a sharp knock on the head. Nick blinked into the veiled light coming through a plastic-covered window and saw that he was in an empty room that looked like it was destined to one day be an apartment, but hadn’t yet made the grade. He was handcuffed and tied to a metal chair, and a breath mask had been strapped over his nose and mouth. A tube ran from the mask to what he was unpleasantly certain was a heavy-duty shop vac.

Two men shared the room with him. One was the man in grey, who stood by the vacuum, glaring at him with silent malevolence. The other was Tony Mistretta.

“Welcome back, Breezy,” he said.

Mistretta was not a large man, but he conveyed an unmistakable sense of power. He was square and compact, with a hard eye and probably no an ounce of body fat on him.

“So, Breezy,” he said. “I hear you been spying on my boy, Serjy, here.”

He nodded to the man in grey.

“’Spying’ is such an ugly word,” said Nick. “More of an accidental point of interest.”

Serjy flipped a switch on the shop vac. Nick immediately closed his air passages as best he could, but still the wind was sucked from his lungs and he couldn’t draw breath to replace it. His body spasmed painfully against his bounds, but his mind remained oddly clear, speculating in a strange, detached way whether they meant to kill him outright or just to torture him for a bit. Strangely enough, he was more curious than frightened. Death didn’t seem to matter that much…

Then the vacuum was turned off and air, blessed air, returned, along with a body-wide ache and a sick, dry sensation in the mouth. His sense of detachment was suddenly gone; now the important thing was to keep the air coming, because air was good.

Serjy turned on the vacuum again, and the whole terrible ordeal started over, except now the detachment was gone. He wanted air, wanted it badly, desperately.

Again it was turned off, and again he gasped for breath, with that nasty sense of dryness in the mouth.

“What were you doing in that shop?” Mistretta asked. “We checked with Eickstein; you don’t work there. He doesn’t have a partner.”

Nick drew a deep breath.

“I had been minding my own business,” he answered. “Your boy walks in and asks for a gas canister, so I gave it to him. Simple as that.”

“Then you picked his pocket,” Mistretta added.

“I…”

The vacuum was turned on again. This time Nick felt darkness creeping around the edge of his vision before it was turned off and he was allowed to breathe.

“You picked his pocket, going straight for his instructions from me, and I’m supposed to believe you met by coincidence?”

This was not a good development. Mistretta now had an idea in his head about how Nick had become involved: an erroneous idea. He thought that Nick had somehow planned the whole thing from the beginning, possibly to get to him, which would imply Nick was working for or with someone for their own ends.

Now, when a man has the wrong picture of a situation in normal life, it’s usually pretty hard to convince him of the fact, especially if his false view includes a ready made reason you might be lying. When he’s a ruthless criminal in the process of torturing and probably murdering you, on the other hand, it’s all but impossible. That was part of the trouble of torture: it’s so easy to get wrapped up in preconceptions that you don’t profit by anything you actually hear.

“Well,” Nick said, playing along. “Maybe not a complete coincidence…”

Mistretta grinned.

“That’s better. Now, why don’t we start with just how much you already know?”

Cautious devil. Best to try to ascertain what the subject knows before you ask him anything else in case you end up telling him more than he tells you.

“Well,” said Nick. “Quite a bit. I know the kings of England, and can quote the fights historical, from Marathon to Waterloo in order categorical…”

The vacuum was turned on again, but only for a moment.

“I meant what do you know about my operations,” said Mistretta.

Not so much as the ghost of a smile or the trace of recognition. Uncultured thugs.

“We know the obvious,” Nick answered. “You’re Tony Mistretta, you run just about everything there is to run outside the drug trade in this end of town. Lately you’ve taken to hiring Mr. Personality over here to murder innocent little girls, which, I have to say, we think is pretty low.”

Mistretta grinned.

“I’m sure you do. So, who is ‘we’ here?”

“My friends and I,” said Nick. Then, taking a shot in the dark, he added. “Some of us also suspect that you might be in, shall we say, an expansionary phase?”

“Oh, is that what you think?” Mistretta with a grin, spotting the obvious ploy.

“Well, you know what they say, Mr. Mistretta; you’re either growing or your dying. Me, I’m of the other camp: I think you’re dying and that killing Jenny Chen is an act of desperation. I mean, why else take the risk?”

“There is no risk,” said Mistretta hotly. “You think I’m weak? You think I’m falling apart? I’m on my way to the top! In another week, no one’ll be able to touch me, you understand?”

As he had thought, Nick had hit a nerve.

“I guess that proves me wrong, but then why kill the girl? What’d she ever do to you?”

“Not a damn thing,” said Mistretta. “I don’t know her from Adam, and you know what that means? No motive. No motive, no risk. Simple as that.”

He wiped a bead of sweat away from his forehead, then checked his watch.

“Damn, I’ll be late,” he said. “Leave him here, Serjy. We’ll find out the rest when I get back. Meanwhile, stick to the plan.”

Serjy nodded, then turned the vacuum back on for a moment just out of spite.

Nick was thus left alone in the room, exhausted, but more importantly unguarded. For a moment, he contented himself with breathing the sweet, sweet air, refilling his depleted lungs, and making sure that Serjy wasn’t coming back right away. Then he set to work.

One way or another, Nick had developed a few habits over the years. He never entered a room without immediately identifying the exits. He changed his handwriting every time he signed his name or wrote a letter. And he always stashed little hairpins or razorblades inside the cuffs of his shirts for just such an occasion as this. It was far from the first time he’d been captured.

Feeling along the cuff, he found the stashed hairpin and pushed it out through the small gap in the stitching, and with an expert’s hand began working the lock on the cuffs. He’d opened more than his share of locks in his day, and it wasn’t long before the cuffs dropped away. A moment later he’d torn the mask off his face, untied his ankles, and stood up, wincing from the cramps that came from being bound in place for too long. He rubbed his arms and legs vigorously to get the blood flowing again, then checked his watch. Five after five.

Swearing softly to himself, Nick rushed to the door. It was locked, but a few minutes with a couple hairpins fixed that. He burst of the room and into the hall. It was empty, of course; an unfinished apartment building when the workers were on strike was the perfect place for an illegal detention and interrogation. He took the stairs two at a time to the ground floor and emerged onto the street. There wasn’t a lot of traffic around, but there were a few cars parked by the side of the road.

Nick checked the road signs: Ash and Fresno. That was about a mile from the hospital.

Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, Nick went to the first car he found and, not having time for subtlety, elbowed in the driver’s side window to get at the lock. The noise would almost certainly attract attention, but he couldn’t help that: he’d just have to be quick about it.

A moment later he’d hotwired the car into motion and was pulling away from the curb. As he did so, he saw a pedestrian making for a payphone, eying him with horror and disgust. Oh, well; couldn’t worry about that now.

Nick rode the gas all the way to the hospital, running red lights where he dared, but taking a somewhat circuitous route to try to avoid the regular police hangouts. He arrived with ten minutes to spare. That is, assuming Serjy stuck to a strict schedule, which he doubted.

Leaving the car parked out front, Nick rushed inside. He had to slow down on entering; if he got caught by hospital security that would be it.

“Hi,” he said, approaching the front desk. “My name is Reverend Moran, I’m here to see Jenny Chen. Her parents asked me to come by to let her know there’s been an emergency and they won’t be able to pick her up tomorrow.”

“Oh, dear!” said the desk nurse. “I hope everything is alright.”

“That’s in God’s hands now, ma’am,” he said. “But I need to see her right away.”

“Of course,” she said. “Room 332: take the elevator and it’s just to your left.”

“Thanks,” he said, dashing to the elevator and pounding the ‘three button’ and ‘door close’ in quick succession.

The ride up seemed agonizingly long. It hadn’t been this long the last time, had it? He paced anxiously in the small space, cursing the delay.

The doors slid open. He stepped out into the hall; not too many people about. Room 332…and a doctor just opening the door.

Nick usually tried to act with finesse, to think his way through situations and manipulate events to his advantage. No time now. He darted forward and seized the ‘doctor’ by the wrist.

He and Serjy looked at each other, and for an instant those soulless eyes showed shock and disbelief, but they almost immediately resumed their cold, calculating expression.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.

“Doctor!” said Nick. “You have to come with me this instant! A man is dying, and you’re the only one I’ve been able to find!”

For a moment, time seemed to stand still as each weighed how far he would push this angle. Then Serjy nodded.

“Very well,” he said. “Take me to him.”

Nick took him by the arm and they moved to the elevator. He could feel the tension in the other man, like a rattlesnake preparing to spring.

They entered the elevator, Nick pressed ‘L’ and the doors slid shut behind them.

The instant they were out of view of the rest of the hospital, they both moved at once. Serjy aimed two quick blows at Nick, one at his face, one at his solar plexus, but Nick was expecting the attack and blocked them both before countering with an uppercut to the chin. Serjy reeled back against the wall, surprised.

“You know how to fight, Breezy.”

Nick shrugged as he hit the ‘emergency stop’ button to ensure they weren’t interrupted.

“Beginner’s luck.”

Serjy reached into his pocket. Nick closed as soon as he saw the move and caught his wrist before he could bring the switchblade to bear and bent his wrist hard to make him drop it. This forced Nick to drop his guard and he took two solid blows to the ribs, which hurt a lot and would hurt even more once the adrenaline wore off. He tried to elbow Serjy in the gut, but he struck something hard that bruised his funny bone.

He’d almost forgotten the cylinder.

Serjy took advantage of his momentary disorientation to wrap his arm around his neck in a brutal chokehold.

“This time, you little prick, I’m gonna squeeze all the wind right out of you!” he snarled.

Nick gagged, unable to speak, but didn’t even try any of the techniques he knew to escape the hold. Instead, while Serjy was focused on choking him, he reached inside the assassin’s lab coat and drew out the cylinder. He was fading fast, but his mind was once more remarkably clear. The cylinder was already hooked up to a breath mask. He took this in one hand and before Serjy realized what was happening, Nick jammed the mask into his face and flicked the valve open all the way.

The sweet-smelling gas was practically shoved down Serjy’s throat. He yelled and released Nick, batting the mask away, but already the damage was done. Nick hastily switched the valve off even as he himself gasped for breath, breathing in the gas. Serjy staggered against the wall of the elevator, his eyes rolling up into his head as he tried to stay awake. Nick, feeling woozy himself, rushed against him and again forced the mask onto his face and opened the valve.

This time, the assassin was too weak to push it away, and within seconds he had stopped moving entirely.

Nick switched off the gas, struggling to maintain consciousness. He’d only gotten a brief whiff himself, but it was enough to nearly knock him out. Apparently the stuff was some kind of concentrated anesthetic. He needed to get out of the elevator fast.

Fumbling, he reversed the emergency stop button, taking them down to the lobby. There weren’t many people around at this time of day: visiting hours were over, so no one immediately noticed him staggering out of the elevator. He didn’t dare use the main exit; instead he went deeper into the first floor, along a hall, and into a back room. With clean air to breathe he was able to steady himself enough not to attract too much attention as he moved purposefully to the employee exit.

 

###

 

By the time the police had arrived to examine the dead man in the elevator, Nick Windworth was back in his own apartment, weighing his options.

Jenny Chen was safe, for now, and with such a spectacular failure on his hands, Mistretta wouldn’t try for her again in a hurry. He was much more likely to come after Nick for messing up his plans, whatever they were. Not to mention that he had now killed a man, his fingerprints would be on the canister, and he’d committed auto theft in broad daylight. Not a lot of positive spins you could put on that.

The smart thing to do now would be to get out of town, to disappear just as he’d planned to before all this had started. He knew perfectly well that once he left Los Angeles he could vanish so thoroughly that no one would ever find him.

That was the best option, and he would need to move fast to make it happen. Yet he hesitated, sitting in his tiny room, smoking a cigarette and looking, to all appearances, as though he hadn’t a care in the world. He still ached from torture and the fight; his head throbbed and his side was sore, but he seemed indifferent to the pain. He was thinking hard.

After a short while he picked up the phone and dialed.

“Angel, my love, tell me you have news,” he said.

“You sure can pick ‘em, Breezy, that’s all I’ll say,” she answered. “Jenny Chen is the daughter of Joseph Chen, who is a lawyer with the District Attorney’s office.”

“A lawyer, huh?”

“Right. And here’s the interesting part: for the last few weeks, Chen’s been trying to put together a big case…”

“Let me guess,” said Nick. “Against Tony Mistretta?”

“No,” she answered. “Against Eugenio Gallano.”

Nick started. All at once, Mistretta’s taunt about having no motive for killing Jenny Chen made perfect sense. He didn’t have a motive, but Gallano did. If Mistretta killed her on Gallano’s behalf, it would have been very hard to link either of them to it, since no one suspected…

“They’re in it together,” he groaned.

“What?”

“Mistretta and Gallano have done a deal,” said Nick. “They’re collaborating on select crimes so that neither one is implicated. Local gangs and organized crime in one neat little package.”

Angel whistled.

“If that’s the case, I want I want nothing to do with it,” she said. “Digging up public records is one thing; tangling with Gallano is something else. You best find someone else to do your dirty work from now on.” Then, after a pause, she added (as though grudgingly), “And watch yourself, Breezy; this is all way outside our league.”

She hung up. Nick put the phone down, thinking.

Even with the money he’d paid Angel, he still had enough to get out of town. He could be out of LA within an hour, and free of all this. It would be so easy.

He’d leave it all behind: Gallano with his drug war tearing up the city, Mistretta sending assassins after innocent kids because their parents were trying to do the right thing, a police force that was half corrupt, half oblivious to just what was going on…

LA was becoming a warzone. War was something Nick had had enough of. It wasn’t his job anymore. The police could handle it. There probably wouldn’t be too many more people killed before they figured out the full extent of what was happening, as they surely would sooner or later. It wasn’t his concern.

Nick stubbed out his cigarette, picked up the receiver, and dialed. The phone rang several times before it was picked up.

“Yes?” said a female voice.

“I need to speak with Detective Crane,” said Nick. “I’ve got some…important information for him.”

“He isn’t available right now,” she said. She had a faint, but very peculiar accent that Nick couldn’t quite place, though it was pleasant to listen to. “Perhaps you can tell me? I’m his partner.”

“Detective Archer!” he said, unable to resist. “Sounds like you’ve had a little work done.”

“No, not Detective Archer!” she snapped. “He is on medical leave; this is Detective Stillwater. Who is this?”

“Nice to make your acquaintance, Detective Stillwater,” said Nick. “Just tell Crane that old Breezy has something he’ll want to hear about the Gallano case.”

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