- Dragon Tears
Damage from the explosion was extensive. The building was old enough to have lath and plaster construction instead of drywall, and in places the lath showed through like brittle bones between ragged gaps in the desiccated flesh of some ancient pharaoh's mummified body. Splintered floorboards had torn loose; they were scattered half the length of the corridor, revealing the subfloor and in some places the charred beams beneath.
No flames had sprung up. The snuffing force of the blast had prevented anything from catching fire. The thin haze of smoke from the explosion didn't reduce visibility, except that it stung his eyes and made them water.
The perp was not in sight.
Harry breathed through his mouth to avoid sneezing. The acrid haze was a bitterness on his tongue.
Eight doors opened off the hall, four on each side, including the one that had been blown entirely from its hinges. With no more direct communication than a glance, Harry and Connie moved in concert from the top of the stairs, careful not to step in any of the holes in the floor, heading toward the open doorway. They had to inspect the second level quickly. Every window was potentially an escape route, and the building might have back stairs.
“Elvis”' The shout came from the doorless room they were approaching.
Harry glanced at Connie, and they both hesitated because there was a weirdness about the moment that was unsettling.
“Elvis”' Though other people might have been on the second floor before the perp had arrived, somehow Harry knew it was the perp shouting.
“The King! The Master ofMeinphis!”
They flanked the doorway as they had done at the foot of the statrs.
The perp began shouting titles of Presley hits: “Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes, Hound Dog Jailhouse....”
Harry looked at Connie, raised one eyebrow. She shrugged.
“Stuck on You, Little Suter, Good Luck Chad...”
Harry signaled to Connie that he would go through the door first, staying low, relying on her to lay down a suppressing fire over his head as he crossed the threshold.
'Are You Lonesome Tonight, A Mess of Blues, In the Ghetto!"
As Harry was about to make his move, a grenade arced out of the room.
It bounced on the hall floor between him and Connie, rolled, and disappeared into one of the holes made by the first explosion.
No time to fish for it under the floorboards. No time to get back to the stairs. If they delayed, the corridor would blow up around them.
Contrary to Harry's plan, Connie rushed first through the blasted doorway into the room with the perp, staying low, squeezing off a couple of rounds. He followed her, firing twice over her head, and both of them clattered across the shattered door that had been torn off its hinges and blown down in the first explosion. Boxes.
Supplies. Stacked everywhere. No sign of the perp. They both dropped to the floor, thr themselves down and between piles of boxes.
They were still dropping, scrambling, when the hallway went to pieces in a flash and a crash behind them. Harry tucked his head under his arm and tried to protect his face.
A brief hot wind brought a storm of debris through the doorway, and a lighting fixture on the ceiling dissolved into glass hail.
Breathing the fireworks stink again, Harry raised his head. A wickedlooking piece of wooden shrapnelas big as the blade of a butcher's knife, thicker, almost as sharhad missed him by two inches and embedded itself in a large carton of paper napkins.
The thin film of sweat on his face was as cold as icewater.
He tipped the expended cartridges from the revolver, fumbled the speedloader from its pouch and slipped it in, twisted it, dropped it, snapped the cylinder shut.
“Return to Sender, Suspicious Minds, Surrender!”
Harry was pierced by a longing for the simple, direct, and comprehensible villains of the Brothers Grimm, like the evil queen who ate the heart of a wild boar, thinking it was really the heart of her stepdaughter, Snow White, whose beauty she envied and whose life she had ordered forfeited.
Connie raised her head and glanced at Harry, who was lying beside her.
He was covered with dust, chips of wood, and gIimmering bits of glass, as she no doubt was herself.
She could see that he wasn't getting off on this the way she was.
Harry liked being a cop; to him a cop was a symbol of order and justice. Madness like this pained him because order could be imposed only through violence equal to what the perpetrator dealt out.
And real justice for the victims could never be extracted from a perp who was so far gone that he couldn't feel remorse or fear retribution.
The geek shouted again. “Long Legged Giil, All Shook Up, Baa Don't Get Hooked on Me!”
Connie whispered: “Elvis Presley didn't sing 'Baby Don't Get Hooked on Me.”' Harry blinked. “What?”
“That was Mac Davis, for God's sake.”
“RockaHula Baa Kentucky Rain, Flaming Star, I Feel So Bad”' The geek's voice seemed to be coming from overhead.
Cautiously Connie eased up from the floor, revolver in hand. She peered between the stacked boxes, then over them.
At the far end of the room, near the corner, a ceiling trapdoor was open. A folding ladder extended from it.
'A' Big Hunk o' Love, Ki's Me Quick, Guitar Man!"
The walking piece of dog vomit had gone up that ladder. He was shouting at them from the dark attic above.
She wanted to get hold of the geek and smash his face in, which was not a measured police response, perhaps, but heartfelt.
Harry spotted the ladder when she did, and as she rose to her feet, he stood beside her. She was tense, ready to hit the floor again fast if another grenade dropped out of that overhead trap.
'Any W You Want Me, Poor B Running Bear:“' ”Hell, that wasn't Elvis, either,“ Connie said, not bothering to whisper any more. ”Johnny Preston sang 'Running Bear.
“What does it matter?”
“The guy's an as**ole,” she said angrily, which was not exactly an answer. But the truth was, she didn't know wry it bothered her that this loser couldn't get his Elvis trivia correct.
“You're the Devil in Disguise, Don't Cry Daddy, Do the Clam!” in 'Do the Clam'?" Harry said.
Connie winced. “Yeah, I'm afraid that was Elvis.”
As sparks squirted from the shorting wires in the damaged light fixture overhead, they crossed the room on opposite sides of a long waisthigh row of boxes, closing in on the attic access.
From the world beyond the duststreaked window, faraway sirens wailed.
Backup and ambulances.
Connie hesitated. Now that the geek had gone into the attic, it might be best to flush him out with tear gas, lob up a concussion grenade to stun him senseless, and just wait for reinforcements.
But she rejected the cautious course. While it would be safer for her and Harry, it could be riskier for everyone else in downtown Laguna Beach. The attic might not be a dead end. A service door to the roof would give the creep a way out.
Evidently Harry had the same thought. He hesitated a fraction of a second less than she did, and started up the ladder first.
She didn't object to his leading the way because he was not acting out of some misguided protective urge, not trying to spare the lady cop from danger. She'd come through the previous doorway first, so he led this time. They intuitively shared the risk, which was one thing that made them a good team in spite of their differences.
Of course, though her heart was pounding and her gut was clenched, she would haveprred to go first. Crossing a solid bridge was never as satisfying as walking on a high wire.
She followed him up the ladder, and he hesitated at the top only briefly before disappearing into the gloom above. No shot rang out, no explosion shook the building, so Connie went into the attic, too.
Harry had moved out of the gray light that came up through the trap.
He crouched a few feet away, beside a na*ed dead woman.
On second glance, it proved to be a mannequin with permanently staring, dustcoated eyes and an eerily serene smile. She was bald, and her plaster skull was marred by a water stain.
The attic was dark but not impenetrable. Pale daylight sifted through a series of screened ventilation cutouts in the eaves and through larger vanecapped vents in the end walls, revealing cobwebfestooned rafters under a peaked roof. The center offered enough headroom for even a tall man to stand erect, though nearer the wide walls it was necessary to crouch. Shadows loomed everywhere, while piles of storage trunks and crates offered numerous hiding places.
A congregation seemed to have gathered in that high place to conduct a secret Satanic ceremony. Throughout the long, wide chamber were the partial silhouettes of men and women, sometimes lit from the side, sometimes backlit, more often barely visible, standing or leaning or lying, all silent and motionless.
They were mannequins similar to the one on the floor beside Harry.
Nevertheless, Connie felt their stares, and her skin grew pebbly with gooseflesh.
One of them actually might be able to see her, one who was made not of plaster but of blood, flesh, and bone.
Time seemed suspended in the high redoubt of the mannequins.
The humid air was tainted with dust, the crisp aroma of age yellowed newspapers, moldering cardboard, and pungent mildew that had sprung up in some dark corner and would perish with the end of the rainy season.
The plaster figures watched, breathless.
Harry tried to remember what businesses shared the building with the rest, but he couldn't recall to whom the mannequins might belong.
From the east end of the long chamber came a frantic hammering, metal on metal. The perp must be pounding on the larger vent in the end wall, trying to break out, willing to risk a drop to the alley, serviceway, or street below Half a dozen frightened bats erupted from their roosts and swooped back and forth through the long garret, seeking safety but reluctant to trade the gloom for bright daylight.
Their small voices were shrill enough to be heard over the rising shriek of the sirens.
When they passed close enough, the leathery flap of their wings and an aircutting whoosh made Harry flinch.
He wanted to wait for backup.
The perp hammered harder than before.
Metal screeched as if giving way.
They couldn't wait, didn't dare.
Remaining in a crouch, Harry crept between piles of boxes toward the south wall, and Connie slipped away in the opposite direction. They would take the perp in a pincer move. When Harry went as far to the south side of the room as the sloping ceiling allowed, he turned toward the east end, where the heavy hammering originated.
On all sides, mannequins struck eternal poses. Their smooth, round limbs seemed to absorb and amplify the meager light that passed through the narrow vents in the eaves; where not clothed by shadows, their hard flesh had a supernatural alabaster glow.
The hammering stopped. No clang or pop or final wrenching noise indicated that the vent had been knocked loose.
Harry halted, waited. He could hear only the sirens a block away and the squealing of the bats when they swooped near.
He inched forward. Twenty feet ahead, at the terminus of the musty passageway, dim ashgray light issued from an unseen source to the left. Probably the big vent on which the perp had been hammering.
Which meant it was still firmly in place. If the vent had been knocked out of its flame, daylight would have flooded that end of the attic.
One by one, the sirens expired down in the street. Six of them.
As Harry crept forward, he saw a pile of severed limbs in one of the shadowy niches in the eaves between two rafters, spectrally illuminated. He flinched and almost cried out. Arms cut off at the elbows. Hands amputated at the wrists. Fingers spread as if reaching for help, pleading, seeking. Even as he gasped in shock, he realized the macabre collection was only a heap of mannequin parts.
He proceeded in a duck walk, less than ten feet from the end of the narrow passageway, acutely aware of the soft but betraying scrape of his shoes on the dusty floorboards. Like the sirens, the agitated bats had fallen silent. A few shouts and the crackling transmissions of policeband radios rose from the street outside, but those sounds were distant and unreal, as if they were the voices in a nightmare from which he was just waking or into which he was slipping. Harry paused every couple of feet, listening for whatever revealing noises the perp might be making, but the guy was ghostquiet.
When he reached the end of the aisle, about five feet from the east wall of the attic, he stopped again. The vent on which the perp had been hammering must be just around the last stack of boxes.
Harry held his breath and listened for the breathing of his prey.
He eased forward, looked around the boxes, past the end of the passageway into the clear area in front of the east wall. The perp was gone.
He had not left by the yardsquare attic vent. It was damaged but still in place, emitting a vague draft and thin, uneven lines of daylight that striped the floor where the perp's footprints marred the carpet of dust.
Movement at the north end of the attic caught Harry's attention, and his trigger finger tensed. Connie peered around the corner of the boxes piled on that side of the garret.
Across the wide gap, they stared at each other.
The perp had circled behind them.
Though Connie was mostly in shadows, Harry knew her well enough to be certain of what she was mouthing silently: shit, shit, shit.
She came out of the northern eaves and crept across the open space at the east end, moving toward Harry. She peered warily into the mouths of other aisles between rows of boxes and mannequins.
Harry started toward her, squinting into the gloomy aisles on his side.
The garret was so wide, so packed with goods, that it was a maze. And it harbored a monster to rival any in mythology.
From elsewhere in the high room came the nowfamiliar voice: “All Shook Up, I Feel So Bad, Steamroller Blue'!”
Harry squeezed his eyes shut. He wanted to be somewhere else.
Maybe in the kingdom of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” with its twelve gorgeous young heirs to the throne, subterranean castles of light, trees with leaves of gold, others with leaves of diamonds, enchanted ballrooms filled with beautiful music. ... Yeah, that would be all right. It was one of the Grimm Brothers' gentler tales.
Nobody in it got eaten alive or hacked to death by a troll.
It was Connie's voice this time.
Harry opened his eyes and frowned at her. He was afraid she would give away their position. True, he had not been able to pinpoint the perp by listening to him; sounds bounced around the attic in strange ways, which was a protection for them as well as for the madman.
Nevertheless, silence was wiser.
The perp shouted again: “A Mess of Blues, Heartbreak Hotel!”
“Surrender!” Connie repeated.