Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

A Gathering Evil, Page 2

Michael A. Stackpole

  Have to get out of this charnel house. Fresh air. The sky. Life!

  In the rearview mirror I saw bodies tumbling willy-nilly from the back. I also saw two more men with pistols come running into the area. They triggered off shots, but I knew that unless they were even better shots than I was, they had no chance of hitting me. Punching the gas, I upshifted and steered straight toward the ramp.

  I started up the ramp at 30 mph when the Reaper in black appeared in the driver's-side doorway. Blood bubbled from the lung-hits he'd taken, but he stood there, clutching either side of the doorway as if he'd not been hit at all. He opened his mouth to hiss at me like a cat and a thin, bloody mist sprayed out. His left hand grabbed at the wheel and jerked it toward him.

  I had no clue as to what this pasty-faced lunatic wanted to accomplish, but I had plenty of ideas how to discourage him. I shoved the Krait in his face and stroked the trigger. His visage disappeared in a cloud of smoke and fire. He hung in the doorway for a second, then fell away, anchored to the speeding vehicle by his left hand's deathgrip on the wheel.

  I pressed the Krait to his wrist and fired. The body dropped away with a thump, but it had hung there long enough to pull the truck over to the left side of the ramp. Sparks shot up as I sideswiped a railing, then I jerked the wheel back to the right. Oversteering, I pulled away from the railing, but managed to hit a girder stanchion on the other side at the top of the ramp.

  The airbag deployed as the girder crushed the right front quarter of the ice cream truck. I bounced forward then back as the vehicle slewed around to the left in a fishtail that sowed half-frozen bodies all over the ramp and the landing. The truck hit the closed doors going backward, which slammed me back into the rear of the driver's compartment, then I rebounded into the steering wheel. With a screaming crunch, the roll-away door snapped off the supports at the top and flowed out into the street like a metallic carpet.

  Shocked and battered, with blood leaking from my nose, I scrambled back through the truck, over the bodies and out into the street. Once clear, I turned back and emptied the pistol into the truck's gas tank. It went up in a boiling, orange-black ball that rose toward the sky, but never actually got there.

  One hundred feet up the fireball flattened against a construct of black panels, steel girders and tangled wires. In its wake it left ablaze a small structure that looked like a bird's nest built beneath the eaves of a house. In this case, however, the nest was large enough to house humans and the eaves were part of a roof over the whole city. The fire's smoke rolled across the underside of the panels like a dark thunderhead, then started to descend like a malevolent fog.

  They roofed over the city! Something inside me crumpled. The claustrophobic feeling of being inside the body bag flooded back like a recurring nightmare. The sky and the sun and the moon meant freedom to me, yet I found myself trapped like a cockroach beneath a black steel bowl. How can people exist like this?

  I felt a tugging on my pant leg and saw the Reaper's hand had become entangled in the fabric of Andre's pants. Revulsed, I shook it free of my leg, then kicked it back into the blaze choking the doorway into the Reaper's sanctuary.

  All around me the shadows began to move. People wearing multiple layers of clothing despite the stifling heat, slowly crawled out of the surrounding tenements. They shuffled forward, mesmerized by the fire. The reds and golden yellows provided the only color in this world, and people stared at it as if it were some mysterious avatar coming to liberate them from their gray homes.

  Where in hell am I? They murder people for their organs here. They have a roof between them and the sky. These people are mindless creatures. Why am I here?

  As that quandary struck me, an even more horrible question followed in its wake and left me hollow inside. My chest tightened and it drove me to my knees in the stinking street.

  Why do I care where this is or why I'm here when I don't have a clue as to who I am?

  I awoke with a start from the nightmare spurred by the day's events, barely remembering any of it. I had wandered dark, oppressively hot streets. Behind me a roaring conflagration attracted firefighting equipment the way an open flame attracts moths. Faceless and weary, with the empty gun tucked in my waistband, I staggered through the streets and trash-strewn alleys. With each step I felt the paralysis reassert control over my body until, stiff-legged and lock-jawed, I stumbled face-first into a phalanx of garbage cans.

  Now, sitting bolt upright, the sheet covering my sweat-slicked chest slipped down toward my lap. I found myself lying on an overstuffed couch with crocheted doilies on the arms and back to hide the spots where the cloth had been worn shiny and bare. Over in the corner I saw a television and wondered why there seemed to be so much cabinet and so little picture tube. The rabbit-ear antenna hid within a collection of a dozen black-and-white photographs arranged on top of the TV and a blocky, black rotary phone sat atop a dais of thick phone books on a table next to it.

  I shivered. I felt as if I had awakened in the first reel of a 50-year-old cine noir classic film. That impression deepened as I looked over at a chest of drawers built into the wall and saw a huge radio with a yellow light softly glowing in the little window showing a portion of the tuning wheel. Faint strains of monotone Spanish music with tinny horns and castanets clicking like the hungry mandibles of a giant cockroach came from its speakers.

  Over on the wall, between two windows with the shades drawn against the night, I saw a clock. What first struck me as unusual about it was that it was analog, not digital. That was not an overwhelming problem. I glanced at my wrist, where my watch should have been, and knew whatever I wore there normally had both a digital and analog readout, so I could decipher the meaning of the hands and their position. What struck me as absolutely odd was that, instead of numerals, there were little words at the positions of the clock.

  Those words were what made me uneasy. It took me a second or two to see why. They were in Cyrillic and corresponded the number at that position on the clock, which made sense. What baffled me was why whoever owned the house would have a Soviet clock on the wall.

  No one buys Russian if they can avoid it.

  In any language, the clock reported it was 11:30.

  A giggle caused me to spin and look behind me. A 1ittl e girl with bright brown eyes looked at me, surprised and delighted that I saw her. She clapped her hands to her mouth, then went running back down the dim hallway to a back bedroom. From my vantage point I could see the foot of a bed onto which she leaped, then scampered up toward the headboard. I heard voices but could make no sense of what I heard.

  The bedsprings creaked, then a man of slender build and average height filled the doorway. He wore a tank-top T-shirt and was in the process of zipping up a pair of canvas work pants that were covered with splotches of brightly colored paints. As he approached, I saw that the girl's coppery complexion and dark hair could well have come from him.

  He gave me a smile that showed he still had most of his teeth. "¿Como estáusted?"

  "Bien," I answered fluidly. "Buenas noches."

  "Buenos dias." The man scratched at the thin growth of beard on his chin. "You have slept for a day and a half. It is 11:30 in the morning, Señor..."

  I concentrated, but still could not recall my name. "I'm sorry, I'm afraid I don't know who I am. I don't even know where this is."

  "You are in Phoenix." He came around and pulled a chair away from the wall. My lab coat and pants were folded on it. The Krait rested on top, but the clip had been pulled from the gun. "I am Estefan Ramierez. The little girl is my daughter, Maria. My wife, Consuelo, is still in bed." He set the clothes and gun on a TV tray and sat down.


  What the hell am I doing in Phoenix?

  Somewhere in the distant reaches of my mind I knew there was an answer to that question, but it was beyond my ability to recover it. "How did I come to be in your house?"

  Estefan gave me a lopsided smirk. "Los Reapers son muy malos. Word got
around fast that someone had chewed on them real good and many folks thought it was Coyote. I did not think so, but I went to check anyway, and I found you."

  "Why did you help me?"

  He shrugged. "Five years ago I came up here and someone helped me. 'You don't pay back; you pay forward,' he told me. I pay forward."

  Off to my left, at the opposite end of the house from the bedroom, I heard a knock at the kitchen door. Estefan smiled, but after what I had been through, I did not feel optimistic. I reached for the Krait and he produced a loaded clip for the gun and tossed it to me. I knew, in the easy way he did that, he trusted me. As I slid the clip home and snapped the slide back and forth, I hoped that whoever I was, I was worthy of his trust.

  When Estefan returned to the small sitting room, he brought with him the tallest man I had ever seen. Ducking his head to get through the doorway, the African-American man smiled, then straightened up to his full height. At least seven and a half feet tall, his loose-fitting shirt and faded jeans covered a body with enough muscle to rob him of the string-bean physique expected of someone so huge. Bearded and balding, he gave me a wide, white smile and offered me a hand that would have swallowed both my right hand and the Krait if I hadn't shifted the gun to my left.

  "I'm Hal Garrett. From what Estefan has said, you're a mystery man."

  The name Hal Garrett rang a bell somewhere, but I could not place it. "You have me pegged."

  "Anyone who can anger the Reapers is a friend of mine." Garrett appropriated Estefan's chair and the master of the house retreated to the bedroom where he closed the door. "If possible, I'd like to help you with your problem."

  As with Estefan, I sensed in Garrett's booming voice and easy manner a basic trust and willingness to aid me. I found this very gratifying, but likewise suspicious. Still, when alone in a foreign land, any alliance is a benefit. "What do you want to know?"

  His shoulders heaved like mountains in an earthquake as he shrugged. "Anything you can remember that will give us a place to start."

  "Us? Is that 'you and me,' or are there other elves who will become involved in this quest to find my memory?"

  "For now it's you and me, but I have friends who might be able to help solve the puzzle." His manner hardened a bit, and this pleased me. I decided Hal Garrett was a man proud of his own abilities, but not so vain that he did not seek out assistance when he needed it. "Not many folks wake up in a Reaper packing house and live to tell about it. That alone makes you remarkable."

  "Fair enough. I actually woke up before the Reaper chopshop. I found myself fully conscious but unable to move any voluntary muscles. Whatever I had been hit with, adrenaline seems to help throw it off, and I had plenty of that coursing through my veins when I heard they meant to sell me off in job lots."

  Garrett nodded easily. "I can see that."

  I closed my eyes and found the memories came easily, which frustrated me because they only went back, at best, 36 hours. "I was in an ambulance. One of the two men was named Jack or Jackson. I was not the first person they had sold to the Reapers. A recent deal including two bodies proved unsatisfactory. The name Harry came up as someone who might be a supervisor with the ambulance company. The ambulance crew said they found me in Slymingtown."

  "That's 24th and Camelback—the Esplanade and Build-more district. That's north of here a bit."

  "Jack said they found me in a squat-shack in a room that looked like a setup. They said Scorpion Security was on its way, so they took me and called the Reapers. Within an hour of pickup, they'd sold me off. The drivers sold me for 1.5 megs, 7% of exotics and 1% of any DNA applications from my body. Should I have been flattered?"

  "You don't look like a wastoid or twink, which means your insides should be useful. You could probably earn that many dolmarks in a week if you wanted to turn yourself out as a slumming corporator's night-thrill, but that's a fair price for a worm-buffet." Garrett again gave me one of his disarming smiles. "You've given me some real basics, so we can probably track down the drivers. I'll make some calls."

  "Good. Part of their deal was that they got to keep my effects, which means they might be a shortcut to solving this thing."

  "I hope so." He stood and we shook hands again. "So, listen, Mr. Mystery, I've got to go to a local gang pow-wow. I won't be able to help you track these ambulance dexters down, but I'll send over another guy who will. His name is Rock Pell. Estefan knows him. He'll get you around so you can find them—and he can be convincing if they fan on your questions."

  I smiled. "Thank you. One thing."


  "Are you this Coyote Estefan mentioned?"

  Hal threw his head back and roared out leonine laughter. "No, no I'm not. I am, however, acquainted with him. We have many parallel goals and I am pleased to help him when I can."

  "And will helping me help him?"

  "I don't know. I have not heard from him concerning you, but I suspect your situation will intrigue him. Rock is another of Coyote's associates, so he may have other news. I will see you later, I hope."

  "I look forward to it. Thanks."

  Garrett let himself out and Estefan stayed in the back bedroom, which gave me time to think. Something Garrett had not mentioned, but something I was certain he did not miss, was Jack having said he felt my "death" had been a setup. It suggested I had one or more enemies and because of my current memory loss, I had no idea who they were. This did not bode well for my continued survival.

  As Garrett had required of me in recalling details about the ambulance, I concentrated to see what I could postulate about myself from my experiences. I apparently was, at the very least, bilingual because I understood and spoke both Spanish and English—though some of the street slang Hal had hit me with I caught only from context. I had no idea what a "twink" or "wastoid" was, but I assumed they were derogatory in some form or another. Coupled with my shock at Estefan having a Soviet-made clock, radio and television in his home, I suspected I did not often frequent this socio-economic strata.

  Whatever had been used on me to simulate death was not a natural thing. Most animal or plant toxins that paralyze the neuromuscular systems cause death by suffocation when the diaphragm stops working. I knew of none that had as its specific or recommended treatment a dose of adrenaline. Whatever had been used on me was very special stuff, specifically designed to paralyze voluntary muscles but not the autonomic nervous system.

  That special toxin, and the setup remark, again pointed to my having some special enemies. By the same token, my familiarity with the Colt Krait and my ability to shoot well at extended pistol ranges suggested I could take care of myself. Even the kick that disabled Andre had been more reflex than thought, which told me I'd been trained in martial skills. Taken with my feelings about Estefan's possessions, I could see myself as having been a corporate security specialist or something equally bizarre in the corporate world.

  There were still some loose ends that made no sense. In the Reaper area I had only heard Andre say a couple of things, but I had pegged his accent and had been able to mimic his voice convincingly enough to trick at least one guard. That might have been a natural gift, but surely one that had been honed by practice. My surprise and despair at seeing a roof over the city told me I was not at all familiar with Phoenix. If I was a corporate security specialist, I had been brought in from outside to deal with a problem.

  That problem, quite likely, had cost me my memory and almost cost me my life. Without knowing who I was or what mission I had been given, my chances of survival were slightly higher than those of a blind man doing a freesprint across the Autobahn. And, like it or not, those long odds were what I was betting my life on.

  Estefan reappeared, bringing with him his daughter and a very shy wife who looked barely, if at all, out of her teens. Without saying a word she went directly into the kitchen and started clattering pots and pans. Maria took up a position in the doorway leading to the kitchen so she could watch me and her mother at the same time.
Estefan again took his chair.

  I kept the gun hidden beneath the sheet that had been draped over me. "Garrett said he is sending another man, Rock Pell, to help me find the men who sold me to the Reapers."

  "Señor Pell es un hombre bueno. If those men can be found, he will do it. My wife, she makes us some lunch." He pointed to the clothes on the tray. "Those do not fit you. Señor Pell will be bringing other clothes that will. Con permiso, I will get rid of them."

  "Please, and if you can get money for them, keep it in exchange for the inconvenience I have been." I glanced back toward the hallway. "¿Dónde estála ducha?'

  Estefan glanced down. "We don't have a shower, but that is the bathroom and you can clean yourself up there."

  "Muy bien, gracias." Wrapping the sheet around me like a toga, I padded across throw rugs to the bathroom and closed the door behind me. I hung the gun by its trigger-guard from a hook on the door, then draped the sheet over it. As I looked the bathroom over, a depressing wave of nostalgia hit me again.

  All of the fixtures looked old and the pipes supplying water were not built into the wall. Over beside the low-water-use toilet I saw a hand crank sitting atop three feet of pipe. From it led another pipe to a shunt valve that let water flow to the toilet or up into the newest device in the whole room: a storage tank that had a heating element on one half of it.

  Below the storage tank, so gravity would feed the water, was the rust-stained sink with dual faucets—both of which leaked. Off to the right, next to the door and the interior wall, a claw-footed tub dug its talons into tile mosaic floor. The floor, which once had some sort of logo as the central feature of the design, had been patched with so many different sizes and colors of tile that the original pattern had been all but lost.

  I reached up and flicked the switch to start the water heater working, then I sat on the john and bided my time cranking water into the tank and the toilet. I would have found that task tedious in the extreme, but after having lost complete control of my muscles, having them respond for me in this menial task provided its own satisfaction. Besides, in the desert, pumping water was as close as it got to chopping wood, so it was the least I could do for Estefan and his family in return for my room and board.