The news destroyed all sense of perspective. In what world could the murder of one of his clients intersect with the assassination of a sitting president some fifty years earlier? It seemed impossible that the same weapon could have been used on both victims. And yet, according to the cook, the proof was resting in Bridge’s palm.
As if to verify the information, Bridge engaged in a lengthy staring contest with Zhàn until the time ran out on the cook’s smoke break. A sweat-covered Pang appeared at the back door to inform anyone willing to listen that there were “Odors.” Without so much as a sideways glance, the teen moved to go back inside, but Bridge once again caught him by the wrist. They weren’t done.
“Please know that should you break my arm, you will more than likely put that man out of business.” The statement was presented as a matter-of-fact, as if he were unconcerned about his own welfare, only that of his employer. No doubt Zhàn had lived through worse than broken bones. Maybe his dead eye had seen a possible future and the restaurant’s financial ruin in his absence.
“One last question,” Bridge said. That was a lie. If anything, he had more questions now than when he arrived. Unfortunately, his sole bargaining chip—the vessel—had already been played, and as witnessed, the threat of violence wasn’t much of a threat at all to the teenager. He relinquished his hold, and the cook remained in place while Bridge narrowed his queries.
“How dangerous is this thing?” The question may not have been his best, but it was as relevant as any other. The bullet was still in his hand, but held at arm’s length, away from his face.
“Not at all.” Zhàn folded Bridge’s fingers around the insect, then turned to go. Just before the door closed behind him, he added, “Unless your face has ever appeared on a five-dollar bill.”
Left to his own devices, Bridge was at a loss. There was a feeling of great uncertainty about him as he left Miss Fortune. For a case that had been fairly open and shut—a case he’d been prepared to consider closed only a short time ago—, it had taken an unexpected turn. He was no closer to finding the real killer than he had been before meeting with Zhàn, but his interest had been peaked. More than anything, he needed time to consider where to go from here, and that meant not yet returning to The Bethany.
This course of action infuriated Spade to no end. There were few things he enjoyed less than trundling through the city on stubby legs, no destination in mind. Of course, he didn’t say anything. Such was the lot of a cat. He couldn’t say anything, not in broad daylight. Instead, he made every attempt to get underfoot, draw attention to the scowl on his face, his whiskers shaking with anger from being ignored. No doubt he had already worked everything out, but Bridge was content to arrive at his own conclusions. His wandering would end if and when he had an answer of his own. Not before.
For starters, he compiled a list of things he knew as truths. Not only was this list short, it was almost non-existent. The blonde had given no last name, and “Laura” was most likely an alias, so that was a dead end. She said someone was trying to kill her only moments before someone did just that. What else was there? Much as Bridge hated to admit it, he’d let the one direct connection to her get away from him. Rook. Figuring out the dead woman’s story seemed to hinge on a certain dead man. The bullet had gotten him nowhere, but the man who fired it might still have some answers left in him. The problem would be in tracking him down.
His mind filled with the image of thousands of HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN? flyers posted throughout the city, but Bridge knew he wouldn’t find the killer by his face. The name that needed to be spoken was already on his lips, and yet he was still considering the repercussions that would come from saying it out loud.
As Spade was fond of reminding him, “one man’s pain is another man’s pleasure.” It all depended on perspective. Whether he liked to admit it or not, Bridge made a living off of pain, channeling the implements of torture from one plane into the tools of his trade on another. And yet the process wasn’t strictly one-sided. It was more of an exchange. In return for their services, he provided the punished individual with a brief respite from his or her woes, which meant that during the time Bridge was channeling Skinny, for instance, the fat bastard’s flesh stopped growing and the shylocks consequently stopped eating him alive. In an eternity of damnation, even a few seconds off the clock could become precious.
That having been said, there were those few who didn’t give a damn about Bridge or time off the clock. As in any prison, where there are inmates, there must also be guards, and those guards didn’t appreciate down time. They were 24/7, three hundred sixty-five. If anyone attempted to interrupt their vigilance, that person was going to have a fight on his hands. Such was the history between Bridge and Rex.
Bridge had used Rex’s services before and paid the price. If nothing else, this time he felt he was better prepared for it, had some idea of what to expect. His decision made, he came to an abrupt stop, and Spade ran headfirst into his legs. Bending down, Bridge grabbed up the cat and held him in his arms. He needed to work much faster because Spade knew instantly what was happening and was none too pleased. This wasn’t his first rodeo, and he wasn’t eager for a repeat performance. In protest, he sunk his fangs into the meat of Bridge’s hand, between the thumb and forefinger.
As much as it hurt, Bridge expected no less. Besides, the pain might help to take his mind off what was still to come.
Through gritted teeth, Bridge spoke the name. “Rex.” His mouth filled with saliva, and the mundane world around him dropped away to be replaced by an abundance of sensory input. Colors took on a myriad of gradations his own eyes were normally incapable of perceiving. Sounds came to him on a near cellular level. He could literally hear his hair growing. But all of these things were worthless to him because he was solely concerned with smell.
Shoving Spade—along with his hand—inside his coat, he brought the sleeve up to his nose and inhaled deeply. The scent may have faded, but it was still present, still viable. In preparation for what came next, Bridge closed his eyes, as if not seeing could change the outcome.
Forced to describe the sensation, Bridge would have compared it to boiling water. All the molecules in his body were suddenly super heated until he was no longer capable of holding his form, escaping into the air. But this transcendence of corporeality didn’t last long before he was thrust back into a solid shape, the knees of his newly-formed legs buckling beneath him.
When his eyes re-opened, his vision was swimming, and he was dry heaving onto sidewalk. Had he a choice, Bridge would have preferred to throw up three meals—one after the other or all at once—rather than feel the squeeze of an empty stomach. Between retches, Spade jumped clear of him with a “tsk, tsk” sound, wobbling but otherwise none the worse for wear.
Although the same could not be said of Bridge, he knew the effects on him would be temporary as he relinquished his hold on Rex and Rex relinquished his hold on him. Within moments, Bridge’s vision began to clear and he rose to his feet, ready to determine the location where Rex’s tracking skills had brought him. If not for the occasional passerby, there was no way the cat could have contained his laughter.
As Bridge looked up, he saw the massive structure before him and recognized where he was. Despite his earlier protests, both he and the cat were standing in front of The Bethany Hotel. Even in the absence of heightened senses, he was still able to smell the killer. Rook was here. Inside.
This time, Spade kept his teeth to himself when Bridge scooped him up. He wouldn’t have missed this for the world. The potential for violence was overwhelming. Inside the lobby, Two Dollar Bill was back at his station, holding a single finger in the air as if testing which direction the wind was blowing. Bridge knew the man was indicating that Bridge’s quarry was upstairs, but the stench made it unnecessary.
Elevator. Fourteenth floor. Knock. Response. All the while, Bridge was seething, the odor in his nostrils growing more potent as he drew closer to death.
He discovered the office door was wide open, and inside Goldilocks was far from asleep. Not only had Rook found the desk drawer, but the bottle containing his fingers was out and in his arms. Rather than pouring out the contents or smashing the glass, the dead man was fishing inside the neck with his remaining digits without success. He was oblivious to Bridge’s presence—all his focus on the task at hand—until Bridge cleared his throat.
Rook’s head jerked up from his work, and he gave his full attention to the man standing in the doorway. His lack of lips gave the impression of a constant smile, and Bridge was surprised to find that all the killer’s teeth were back in his head, albeit not in their original spots. They appeared to be held in place by some kind of adhesive.
“You must have some serious cojones coming back here,” Bridge said, lowering the cat to the floor and then shrugging off his jacket. It fell where he considered it to be out of harm’s way. He’d had more than enough blood spilled on it for one day. “Looks like I’ll have to take those next.”