By the time Bridge reached The Bethany’s double doors, he was out of breath. Though the rain had started to taper off, the sun still refused to make an appearance. At this point it would have felt like too little, too late anyway. Best to just wait and try again tomorrow.
Inside the hotel, the lobby had emptied out. The card table and chairs had gone missing, and there wasn’t a single checker in sight. A handful of candles still held the darkness at bay, however, judging by their size, none of them were long for this world. The tarnished service bell that sat atop the counter at the check-in desk seemed an unworthy replacement for Two-Dollar Bill, a staple if ever there were one. If Bridge were to use the bell, he wasn’t sure who would answer the call, if anyone.
He was nearly to the stairs when the overhead lights flickered, forcing him to stop and wait. Despite his rush, he knew full well what lay ahead of him. Though the trip down fourteen flights of stairs had taken seconds, he didn’t have a similar trick up his sleeve for ascension. Rather than slog his way up, he’d give the building’s electricity two minutes to make up its mind.
After one more brief struggle, the lights won out. The possibility remained that their return was only temporary, but he’d deal with that situation if and when it arose. In the meantime, Bridge moved away from the stairs and toward the elevator, drawing the cage closed behind him and pushing the button marked 14. He felt the floor shift beneath his feet as the cables traveled the pulley system, drawing him upward at a glacial pace.
The ride took far too long. It allowed him time to think, and as much as he tried to maintain focus on Laura—u lft hr alon—, he couldn’t help but consider the man named Rook. How long had the assassin been dead? Days? Weeks? Long enough to be buried. Long enough for something to start snacking on his face. Dark suit. No internal organs. Dirt under his fingernails from where he’d clawed his way out of the ground. All signs pointed to a resurrection, but who would have brought him back? And what made him a necessary player in the blonde’s death?
Bridge tried to clear his head by peering up at the ceiling but it only caused him to imagine what it would be like to dig himself out of his own grave, no other tools at his disposal but his own two hands. When the elevator car came to a stop, he was only too happy to step out of its confines and take a deep breath.
From there, he walked down the hall to the door marked STAIRS and stepped through it. Now standing before the door marked 14, he gave the secret knock and waited for the phantom response before walking onto the thirteenth floor. The killer’s odor hung heavy in the air. It might have been in the lobby as well, but here it seemed more concentrated, as if it remained attached to his evil deeds.
The hallway was empty, save for a handful of bloody footprints he recognized as his own. By the light of several ornate wall sconces, he could see all the way to the solid wall at hall’s end. Aside from his office, there was nothing else here, and the only way onto or off of the thirteenth floor was through the door behind him. If anyone were waiting for him ahead, there was no way they could get past him. Not in one piece anyway.
At his door, he discovered that all that remained of the frosted glass was the lower right-hand corner. The irony wasn’t lost on him that the only letter left intact was the letter “E.” Pushing the door open, Bridge stepped inside, his hand groping along the wall for the light switch. Once he found it, the entire room was revealed, and the effect upon Bridge was much like the gunshot from earlier that afternoon, triggering in him a new moment of sensory overload with the blood, the body, the words, the pain.
First and foremost, there was the blood. Everywhere. And there was no distinguishing hers from his. It had all run together, its darkest point the spot on the hardwood where her heart had come to rest, pumping life out of her body until there was nothing more to give. From there, it pooled out in the shape of a kidney until it merged with his blood along the back wall. Any trail he had made on his way out of the office in pursuit of her killer had long since been covered. Now all the blood laid stagnant, unmoving, and the thought occurred to him that rather than spreading outward, the excess might instead work its way down until it passed through the cracks in the floorboards. Given the nature of his office’s existence, he wondered if the residents on the twelfth floor could expect to see it soon on their ceilings or if it would simply disappear.
Much like the blonde’s body.
Laura was gone. There were draglines stretching from the central pool all the way to the room’s threshold. In his mind’s eye, Bridge conjured an image of some faceless individual latching onto the woman’s ankles and pulling her to the doorway but not through it. A quick glance back into the hall—both directions—confirmed that the blood went no further than his office. Her corpse had been taken, but there were no clues as to how it had been accomplished. What could have happened to her?
Part of the answer was scrawled upon the far wall in capital letters. Someone—presumably Laura’s abductor—had taken the time to write him a very clear and concise message, the words already changing from red to black as they dried. He couldn’t say he wholly understood its meaning, but Bridge found himself turning away from the sight, his head in his hands, overwhelmed by too much information. It was a moment of weakness, and it was well on its way to becoming a moment for weakness, consequences be damned.
Righting the chair behind his desk, Bridge sat down and pulled open the bottom drawer, verifying that whoever had taken the blonde had no interest in his secret stash. He placed all three bottles before him, arranging them by height, Laura’s contribution on his left. It wasn’t the bottle’s size that made it seem extraneous but its contents. For what he had in mind, Bridge had no need for the good stuff.
He was in the process of opening the tallest bottle when movement in his pocket stopped him. His initial thought was that the cell phone had been set to vibrate, but he was wrong. Emptying the contents of his pocket onto the desk, Bridge watched as the cell remained silent while Rook’s severed fingers inchwormed their way toward the edge of the desk nearest the door. When they encountered a bottle in their path, they split up and took separate routes around it, meeting up again on the opposite side.
It was impossible to be certain—unless he’d been willing to let them run free and follow their progress—, but it appeared that the assassin was summoning them home. Whether it took hours or days, the three of them would at some point be reunited, assuming no one intervened.
Bridge opened the two tallest bottles, doing his best not to inhale from their open mouths, for fear of losing his train of thought. One at a time, he then picked up each of the wriggling fingers and deposited them into their own boozy prison cells, observing their respective falls to the bottom of the bottles before putting both lids back on tight. Each tapped away a makeshift Morse code at the glass with an overlong fingernail until Bridge put both bottles back in the drawer. Even he would have to grow much more depraved before he’d drink from either one now.
Of course, that left him with Laura’s bottle, and what was there to keep him from downing it in a single swallow? Nothing. Nothing at all. Except for the fact that he hadn’t earned it yet, if earned was even the right word for it. And then there was the bloody message on the wall behind him. Try as he might, he couldn’t get it out of his head, its words burning into him as if to remind him that even though his client was dead and gone, this case was far from over.
No longer able to process anything, Bridge closed his eyes and laid his head on the desk, wishing the words and the world away and wondering what could be the meaning behind PLEASURE DOING BUSINESS WITH YOU.