Bridge was still puzzling out how Miss Fortune could function with just one small garbage dumpster—only half-full in the early part of the evening—when the cook stepped out the back door and lit a cigarette. He seemed to take no satisfaction from it, and Bridge could have sworn he wasn’t inhaling, the smoke drifting past his face and lingering near his left eye before dissipating into the air.
That same eye drew Bridge’s attention, despite his attempts to look elsewhere. Had he never seen it before, he might have believed it to be blind, its milky white coloring obscuring the kid’s view of the world around him. But that wasn’t true. Closer inspection revealed the tiniest speck of pupil and though it never did expand or contract, it still saw things, things that others—including Bridge—could not.
“Where did you find it?” Zhàn asked, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. The cherry on it illuminated three overlong hairs on his chin, presumably all the whiskers he could muster. His upper lip was barren by comparison.
Bridge had never been a competent liar, but he was the most talented half-truth teller he knew. He liked to think of it as rationing information, often leaving out details even when he stood to gain nothing from it. In his mind, as long as he was even a little more in the know than someone else, he had an advantage he might one day be able to exploit.
“A client brought it into my office.”
Zhàn winked with his good eye in response. Only then did Bridge recall the gesture and the significance of it. It had been too long since he’d had any dealings with the cook. What appeared to be innocuous—the eyelid remained closed for no more than a second—was enough for him to take the full measure of the man who had come to him for his help.
“And is it the blood of your client you have all over your hands?” Bridge fought the urge to look, remembering how furiously he’d scrubbed at the skin. “Or is that from the fresh wound in your abdomen?”
Though he’d witnessed the cook perform this little trick before, it still eluded Bridge as to how he did it. Something about the mostly dead eye was capable of picking up on all kinds of knowledge that would never come to light otherwise. “This isn’t an exchange of information,” he said. “I know you want to get a good look at the item just as much as I want you to tell me what the hell it is.” Bridge held out the bottle. “Let’s leave it at that.”
Zhàn smiled as he accepted his gift, but the smile seemed unnatural. It wouldn’t have come as a shock to Bridge to discover invisible fingers manipulating the corners of the cook’s mouth, working his face as if molding putty. “As you wish.” Despite his warning not to open the bottle, it was the first thing Zhàn did. The insect inside spilled out into the palm of his hand, and once more the good eye closed.
For Bridge, patience might have been a virtue, but it wasn’t a high priority. He could feel the trail growing colder the longer the cook stared into his hand. “Do you know what it is or not?”
Again with the invisible fingers. “There has not been a documented sighting in more than fifty years. If there are others like this—and I reiterate, if—you will not see one again in your lifetime.” With his finger, Zhàn stroked the segments of the bullet’s back. “This is a rare and wondrous thing.” Removing his cigarette from his mouth, he pursed his lips and exhaled into his cupped palm. He then closed his fingers as if to squeeze the insect, but it soon became obvious he was not killing it, but suffusing it with smoke. Afterward, he peered into the hole with his good eye.
“There are no names on the vessel.” By way of explanation, he added, “The smoke would have revealed them. For all intents and purposes, the vessel is… unarmed. For now.” Bridge made no attempt to act as if he’d understood. He even went so far as to wrinkle his forehead for effect.
“I have no idea what you’re–“
“Give me a name,” Zhàn said. “Any name, of any person living or dead.”
A penny lying on the ground near his feet made Bridge answer “Abraham Lincoln.” Nothing happened, but then Bridge wasn’t the one holding the weapon. When the cook said the same name, the grub twitched in his hand, the rearmost segment locking in place as those preceding it sent back dark swaths of color that then caught and stayed at the end, layering on top of one another until the name of the sixteenth president of the United States was spelled out plain as day.
The sound of Spade jumping atop the dumpster for a bird’s eye view startled Bridge, and by the time he redirected his attention, the name had vanished, as quickly as it had appeared. Though Bridge already had some idea of the answer, he asked his question anyway. “What’s the significance of the name?”
“The name identifies the victim. Were you to take the vessel within 500 feet of Lincoln’s tomb, you could put a new hole right through his moldering corpse.” There was a dark fascination in the cook’s voice as he said, “It would make no difference what stood between you and the victim or which direction you aimed. Fire it into a crowd and it will find only its intended target.”
A tingling in his stomach forced Bridge’s next question. “How many names can the… vessel hold?”
“As many names as there are segments. Should all the victims happen to be in a single room, each would fall in the order listed. No exceptions.”
It wasn’t what Bridge wanted to hear, but there was still one way to quiet the roiling in his gut. Smacking the bottom of Zhàn’s outstretched hand, he sent the vessel flying upward into the air. After snatching it with his left hand, he dropped it into the palm of his right. It wasn’t the fact that he’d been targeted alongside the blonde that bothered him so much.
“Bridge,” he said. No change. “Bridge,” he repeated with more conviction, but the vessel failed to make a single shudder. It took everything he had not to crush the grub between his fingers because things were as bad as he’d thought. Maybe worse. There was a definite possibility he was going to throw up.
“True names hold great sway over their owners,” the cook said, placing a hand over the vessel, so that Bridge could no longer see it. “You and I know this all too well.” For a moment, the two of them looked into each other’s eyes, and Bridge must have known that Zhàn was seeing fear. “Which would explain why we choose to be addressed otherwise. Unfortunately for you, someone out there has discovered your true name.” Here, Zhàn placed his hand on Bridge’s stomach, in the exact spot where he’d been shot earlier that afternoon. “And then they saw fit to write it on a bullet.”
Bridge’s instincts took over, and the cook quickly found himself doubled over with his arm twisted around behind his back. If the cat were really the detective, then Bridge would step into the role of the muscle without giving it a second thought. “What else do you know?” he asked. “I want all of it. What is the vessel? Is it organic or man-made?”
“Both.” Unsatisfied, Bridge tweaked the cook’s wrist until Zhàn hissed with pain. “You might as well ask for the origins of the universe. You would have the same chance of comprehension.”
“Who might have owned it last? Why would they be gunning for me?”
“I could fill your head with nasty rumors, Bridge, but what good would that do you? Suffice it to say, the vessel has been around for countless centuries and in that time has answered to innumerable names, most of which I know but none of which would mean anything to you.” There was a brief hesitation. “Except one.”
“Which is?” Bridge would have gone further with the arm, but any additional pressure he applied would have done permanent damage. Despite their history together, he had to remember that right now he was dealing with a teenager. He released his grip and pushed Zhàn a safe distance away.
The cook rubbed blood back into his wrist. When he finally looked up at Bridge, the invisible fingers were back at work, manufacturing his smile.
“In the fall of 1963, they called it a magic bullet.”