“He’s waking up,” a voice said from somewhere above me.
“Yes, he is,” I tried to say, but it came out as more of a collection of sputters and coughs than actual words.
“Don’t try to talk yet,” another voice said.
My tongue felt three feet thick and covered in sand. Not talking, I could do. The rest of me wasn’t in the best of shape either. An ache, dull and throbbing, reached from the soles of my feet to the top of my head.
I’m on my back.
That much I could tell.
It occurred to me, however dully, that being on my back might be why I suffered from the all-over-ache. My ears rang, and I guessed that the warm wetness on my lips and chin was not drool from my involuntary nap.
A year had gone by since anything supernatural tried to kill me.
Apparently, my streak was over.
The dream was nearly gone, but I could still see the Red Death; could still hear her words.
Something is coming.
“Looks like it’s here,” I said, unfortunately aloud.
“He’s trying to talk,” a male voice said.
“Good,” A female voice said from some distance away. “How’s his pupil response?”
They continued talking about me while I was distracted by a series of bright lights, shining first in one eye, then in the other. I heard sirens in the distance.
“I’m okay. Knock it off,” I said, but the words came out a bit slurred. “Maybe not.”
“Yeah, definitely not,” The female voice said. “Do not attempt to get up. In fact, don’t move at all if possible.”
The female voice sounded familiar. The scent of some floral body lotion fled under the pressing weight of newly opened smelling salts. More fingers prodded me from different angles.
The male voice asked me if this and that hurt. I wanted to tell him everything hurt, but not more than I would expect from being…
…What? Attacked by what? My mind wouldn’t wrap a coherent thought around it. I had been there, seen the thing, but I couldn’t process it yet. I didn’t think he’d understand either.
“Okay,” the female voice said. “How are his vitals?”
“They appear stable,” The male voice said.
“Bullshit,” She said.
“Cassandra?” I asked the blurred spot I assumed was the sky.
“Caleb Carson,” she said, still out of sight but somewhere overhead, “What have you been getting into?”
“Trouble,” I said.
I would have laughed, but just breathing hurt enough.
“The other guy?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about that now,” She said.
“Didn’t make it?” I asked.
“No. Was he a friend of yours?”
“No,” I said, “A client.”
It was a small lie, not one that would matter to anyone else, especially to the people responsible for the poor bastard’s demise.
I knew they, whoever ‘they’ were, wouldn’t care that I hadn’t taken his case, or that I hadn’t even believed him when he came to me for help. All they would know is that I was a witness. Thanks to Barbara Hicks and her rag of a local tabloid, ‘they’ would know my reputation. They would know that for paranoid certain. This wouldn’t be the last time I had a run-in with whoever the hell had done this. I needed to be better prepared for the next encounter. But, just then, I didn’t feel prepared.
More like nauseous.
“Could you move the smelling salts a little farther away please?” I asked.
“Huh?” The male voice said.
“Making me sick,” I said, trying to control the urge to vomit.
“Oh,” He said, “Sure.”
He chucked the broken paper container away.
The smell gone, my insides began to calm down. It also didn’t hurt that the world stopped moving.
“Thought you worked nights,” I said, some of the sluggishness easing off my brain.
“Do,” she said from somewhere above. “Just booking some overtime running the rookie around.”
“You let the rookie check my vitals?” I said, only half-joking.
“Seemed like good practice for him,” she said.
“You had a cardiac event,” he said.
“Had?” Cassandra and I asked in unison.
“Yes,” The male voice said, “It’s gone.”
“Are you reading those instruments correctly?” She asked him.
“Pretty sure,” He replied, confusion tinting his voice.
“Pretty sure doesn’t cut it,” she said. “Hold on.”
Before I could ask why exactly I should hold on, everything in my universe jerked forward.
“Get up here and drive,” She commanded.
Somewhere between the sudden, violent stop and ‘drive’ I realized I was in the back of an ambulance. The world that swam back into focus confirmed my suspicion.
“You’ve got to be reading the monitor wrong,” She said. “Even if the event has subsided, there should still be residual effects. Heart rate, BP, something.”
“Check for yourself,” He said, climbing out of her way.
“Don’t start her back up yet,” She said to her rookie, “And kill the sirens.”
“Why the hell…” He began.
“Just do it,” She blurted out. “I’ll take care of the paperwork.”
The rookie raised his hands in surrender and disappeared into the cabin.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Don’t thank me yet,” She said, the usual warmth draining from her voice. “I saw your street. Saw the other guy. No way I’m taking you to a hospital full of patients before I know whatever it was is not going to happen again any time soon.”
I could hear the words, “potential victims” resonating in the way she said patients. I wasn’t about to argue the point.
The memory drifted like a shadow across my mind. Huge, blocking the sun, it swooped down on us in the street — a giant raven, its eyes burning fire; wingtips trailing black smoke. You could almost see through it, like thick, roiling smog. I tried to push him out of the way while grabbing for my pistol. Two shots, I know I hit it. I know I did. Nothing. Then it screamed. And the world exploded in a spray of glass and heat.
How much could I tell her? Cassandra had seen the aftermath of a few of my run-ins with the unknown. She was a good medic and didn’t ask too many inconvenient questions. But the answer to this question might get me tossed in for seventy-two hours psychiatric observation. Seventy-two hours in a psych ward is a long time, especially when something would almost certainly be looking to remove me as a potential problem.
I’m good at that.
“Don’t really know what happened,” I said, hoping the grogginess lent my tone some believability.
“That doesn’t help me,” She said, pushing a strand of blonde hair away from her face with the back of her forearm.
“I realize that,” I said, as apologetically as possible. “Just let me out somewhere. I’ll be fine.”
“Doesn’t really work like that,” She said.
“Then leave the back doors open when we get to the hospital,” I said. “Just be momentarily careless. I’ll slip away. My vitals are normal.”
“So?” she said.
“So, I’m in no medical danger,” I said, making it up as I went. “No reason to rush. No codes to call or whatever. Just take your time and I’ll slip away.”
“Simple as that?” she asked, disbelief deepening the creases around her eyes.
“Simple as that,” I said.
I hoped she’d buy the lie. Even if she did, there was going to have to be an explanation of this at some later date, providing I survived until a later date.
And I was just getting used to the idea that I would live to a later date before all this happened.
“Do you drink?” I asked her.
“Yeah, occasionally,” she said.
“When this is over, I’ll buy you a drink or three and try to explain it,” I said.
“When this is over, I’ll let you,” she said.
At the hospital, the doors to the ambulance were mysteriously left open, and both EMTs went to check on something at the same time. I slipped away. I owed Cassandra one. Oh, she wouldn’t think so. She would think she was doing what was best for the people who might get hurt if whatever happened on my block happened again. No, she wouldn’t think I owed her one, but I did.
I slunk away from the hospital, trying to not look like I was slinking or limping. I hurt everywhere. A cab was in the parking lot, dropping off somebody or other. I slid into the back seat and gave him my address. To the cabby’s credit, he didn’t so much as look at me cross-eyed while I pulled the sticky monitor patches off my chest and ribs. They’d cut my shirt open to place the tabs. I buttoned my jacket to cover the fact. From across the street, I would have looked strange, like a flasher without the courage of his perversions; up close it would be obvious. I just hoped no one would get that close until I had time to change.
Your luck doesn’t run that way.
No. It usually doesn’t.
The cabby dropped me off a block away. I wanted to see how far the damage had spread. That, and I wanted to scout my block and see who was poking around. Justin I could handle, maybe. But if Barb had loosed her hounds to find a scent…
…Well, I didn’t want to be the fox in that hunt.
None of the buildings on the adjacent street were damaged. The glass from all those car windows exploding had made a hell of a boom, but it looked like all it did was rattle the windows on the surrounding blocks.
I am thankful for small favors.
I rounded the corner to see detective Justin Hagen, and a small detachment of uniformed officers walking the scene. No way to slip past them.
Balls first, then.
I strolled up as nonchalantly as possible and picked my hat off the ground. It lay a couple of feet from where Justin stood, eyeing the area. The back side of the fedora was crushed all to hell. I stood there, straightening it as much as I could, and trying to think up a convincing lie for the authorities. The dead guy would be easy. The block full of blown-out car windows would be a different story. I surveyed the wreckage, trying to think up something plausible. I failed utterly.
The street was covered with pebbles of shattered glass. From one end of the block to the other, no car was spared. I was glad I had parked in a garage down the street. The streetlamps had melted in their cases. A few globs of melted glass hung in stalactites from the charred lamp heads. The buildings had been far enough back from the epicenter that most of their windows survived with only a light crazing. Car alarms should have been going off and weren’t. A smoky slick lightly dusted all the nearby vehicles.
Okay, how the hell do I explain this?
I took a few unsteady steps. What was left of my energy rapidly drained through the soles of my feet.
You’ve just been blown down by a giant, supernatural raven. How should you feel?
Must’ve been some kind of reaction to whatever the big bird was slinging. I hoped it would pass, soon.
“Just the man I was looking for,” Justin said when he noticed me.
“I swear Detective, she said she was eighteen,” I said.
“Funny,” he said, his tone both tired and grim. “What do you know about this?”
“Not much that I can tell you on the street,” I said.
“Okay,” he said and dragged out the word.
“Come up to the office,” I suggested.
He nodded, and we headed for my building.
“The DB?” he asked as we walked.
“A client,” I said. “Well, a former client.”
Justin arched an eyebrow at me, and we ducked inside.