Rook looked dumbfounded, as if this turn of events were completely unexpected. He lowered the bottle to his side, the remaining fingers on his right hand trapped within. The two trigger fingers were attempting to swim their way upstream in hopes of a reunion, scrabbling at the glass.
Bridge took a single step forward, and the killer countered, lunging toward the desk. The expectation would have been for him to grab a weapon, but there were no weapons to be had, other than alcohol. Instead, he snatched up the cell phone that had been taken from him earlier and held it out in front of him, indicating he had something to say/type.
If there had been even one other lead in the case, Bridge wouldn’t have stopped. By the time he finished with Rook, there would have been another bloody room for Spade to clean. And a hallway. And most likely a ceiling. But there were no other avenues to explore. After a deep breath, he silently counted down from twenty—ten wasn’t going to be sufficient—, then gave his assent with a nod.
Rook’s eyes barely glanced at his hand. Though he played havoc holding the phone and pecking away with his thumb, he finished composing his message soon enough and turned the screen around for Bridge to read.
The text appeared smaller than before, and there wasn’t much of it. Even as Bridge was leaning across the desk for a closer look, he knew he was making a mistake. The single lower-case word only served to confirm it.
The bottle of rotgut smashed into the side of Bridge’s head, dousing him in cheap alcohol. The trigger fingers inside it went flying, one landing on the desktop, the other flopping in a puddle on the floor like a dying goldfish. In the confusion, the killer was quick about retrieving the former, but Bridge stepped on the latter, while at the same time wiping a cocktail of blood and booze out of his eyes. Given the amount of blood he’d lost today, there was a good chance he’d need a transfusion by nightfall.
Or a coroner.
Rook tucked his winnings inside his coat pocket and took a step back, his arms held out at his sides, head bobbing back and forth between them like a yo-yo on a string. The desk was his only saving grace. Bridge was concerned that if he went over it and failed to make contact, the killer might grab his other finger and hightail it, and the way Bridge’s head was feeling, he didn’t have another run in him. So he improvised.
Grabbing Spade by the scruff of his neck, Bridge hurled him at Rook. The cat was just as surprised as the killer, but he got over the initial shock by the time he made contact. His claws sank into the dead man’s moldering flesh and went to work, hacking away at his neck and chest until the skin hung in ribbons.
Bridge took his time coming around the desk, using it for support. The world around him was fading fast. Whatever he intended to do, there was no time to dawdle. He tapped Spade on the shoulder as if he were cutting in on a dance partner, and the cat worked its weapons out of the dead man’s suit coat and hopped to the floor.
A miserable gurgling sound came from Rook’s opened throat, and he slapped his hands over the open wound. The noise stopped, but his general condition failed to improve. His eyes went wider in their sockets even as Bridge’s eyes were narrowing.
Unable to overcome his double vision and merge Rook with his identical twin, Bridge split the difference and punched at the space between them, making solid contact. The sound of the killer’s makeshift dental work giving way brought a smile to his face. “When I knock somebody’s teeth out,… I mean for them to stay that way.”
Teeth skittering across the hardwood, Rook went down for the count, his body straight as a board. Much as he would have liked to savor the moment, Bridge was close behind him. As the floor drew closer, he did his best to avoid the sharp corners on the desk, tilting his head just enough to avoid breaking his nose upon impact with the floor. After that, there was nothing.
When Bridge came to, his head was no better. It felt as if it had been cleaved in two with an axe, even though his hands told him the wound had been both cleaned and bandaged in the interim. His left eye had developed an intermittent twitch, the lid closing at random intervals like an automatic garage door on the fritz. The first thing he saw was Rook. Just as there was no way of knowing how long Bridge had been out, there was no way of knowing how long Rook had been up. The only consolation came from knowing that the killer wasn’t going anywhere.
Rook’s pants had been removed and used to tie him to the chair in which clients normally sat, leaving his scrawny legs exposed. It looked like something nasty had burrowed into the remaining meat of his left calf and then made itself at home. The man’s eyes were watching Bridge in anticipation, drool running down his chin and pooling on the front of the brand new bandages that were keeping his vocal chords from being exposed. He looked like Bridge felt.
To the dead man’s right, Spade sat on the desktop, gnawing on the remains of what looked to be a sizable rat. When he noticed Bridge was awake, he interrupted his meal, making a gesture toward Rook with his paw that seemed to say Well, go ahead. It was unnerving. All of it. This was the second time today that the cat had accomplished something he shouldn’t have been able to do. How soon would it be before Bridge would need to do to Spade what the cat had done to Rook?
He was still imagining how that scenario might play out when a familiar scent flooded his nose. It was a wonder he hadn’t noticed it before. It might not have hit him so hard if he weren’t already in a weakened state, but there it was, along with all the old feelings it inspired, because he was literally soaked in alcohol, its fumes assaulting his will, tempting him to give in and suck the moisture from a sleeve or simply wring out the shirt like a dish towel over his open mouth. There was no one else to blame but himself. When they say to keep your enemies close, they don’t mean in your desk drawer.
On uncertain legs, Bridge stood up and stripped to the waist, not bothering with buttons. With little windup, he flung the shirt as far as he could into the corner of his office, hoping it was far enough. For the first time, he longed to be engulfed by the dead man’s smell. He breathed in deeply before drawing his own chair close and taking a seat, less for the sake of comfort than the stability it provided. What he really needed was to attend a meeting, but that wasn’t an option right now. Instead, he scooted himself closer to the killer, hoping Rook was incapable of spitting from his ruined mouth. His eyes focusing, he explained himself, talking slowly to keep the craving out of his voice.
“I need to ask you a few questions,” Bridge said. “You need to answer them. Now, before you make any decisions, I want to remind you that there is no shortage of bottles in this building—empty or otherwise—, and if you lie to me or try to withhold information, I will take you apart piece by piece until my collection is complete.” He did his best to ignore the dull screwdriver pain in his temple, the smell of the booze evaporating from his skin. “It may not kill you, but I guarantee you, you will not be happy. Understand?”
The killer nodded. As if on cue, he held his hand out from underneath his restraints. With his clouded head, it took a moment for Bridge to work out the gesture. For some reason, the killer seemed to think he’d be communicating by phone again. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
“No. Sorry.” Bridge slid the cell on his desktop even further away from Rook. “We tried that already, and look where it got us. From here on out, we’re going to do things my way.”
Without warning, Bridge hooked his foot around the leg of Rook’s chair and pulled him in close, till the two of them were nearly eyeball-to-eyeball. Breathing through his mouth, he said the magic word and watched the killer’s muscles go rigid at the sound of it.