His yellow eyes flared. I knew that he had registered the pistol in my right hand and that it was an unpleasant surprise for him.
The tumbling flashlight struck the farther wall, bounced to the floor without shattering the lens, and revolved like the pointer in a game of spin the bottle, casting luminous spirals over the glossy blue walls.
Even as the flashlight clattered to the floor, my smiling assailant was winding up to take another swing, handling the two-by-four like a baseball bat this time.
Rocked by the first blow, I warned him: “Don’t.”
His yellow eyes revealed no fear of the gun, and the expression on his broad blunt face was pitiless fury.
I squeezed off a shot as I twisted out of his way. The club cut the air with sufficient force to have driven shards of bone and splinters of wood into my left temporal lobe if I’d not been able to dodge it, while the 9-millimeter slug ricocheted noisily but harmlessly from wall to wall of the concrete passage.
Instead of pulling the blow, he followed all the way through, allowing the momentum of the club to swivel him three hundred and sixty degrees. As the spinning flashlight slowed, the attacker’s distorted silhouette pumped around the corridor, around and around, pumped like a carousel horse, and out of his own galloping shadow, he rushed at me when I stumbled backward against the featureless wall opposite the doors.
He was as condensed as a cube of squashed automobiles from a salvage-yard compactor, eyes bright but without depth, face knotted and florid with rage, smile fixed and humorless. He appeared to have been born, raised, educated, and groomed for one purpose: hammering me to pulp.
I did not like this man.
Yet I didn’t want to kill him. As I said before, I’m not big on killing. I surf, I read poetry, I do some writing of my own, and I like to think of myself as a sort of Renaissance man. We Renaissance men generally don’t resort to bloodshed as the first and easiest solution to a problem. We think. We ponder. We brood. We weigh the possible effects and analyze the complex moral consequences of our actions, preferring to use persuasion and negotiation instead of violence, hopeful that each confrontation will culminate in handshakes and mutual respect if not always in hugs and dinner dates.
He swung the two-by-four.
I ducked, slipped sideways.
The club cracked so hard against the wall that I could almost hear the low vibrations traveling the length of the wood. The two-by-four dropped from his numbed hands, and he cursed vehemently.
Too bad it hadn’t been an iron pipe. The recoil might have been nasty enough to loosen some of his milk-white baby teeth and make him cry for mama.
“All right, that’s enough,” I said.
He made an obscene suggestion and, flexing his powerful hands, snatched the club off the floor, rounding on me.
He seemed to have little or no fear of the gun, probably because my reluctance to fire it, other than to squeeze off a warning shot, had convinced him that I was too chickenshit to blow him away. He didn’t impress me as a particularly bright individual, and stupid people are often dangerously sure of themselves.
His body language, a sly look in his eyes, and a sudden sneer told me that he was going to feint, fake another swing with the club but not follow through. He would come at me some other way when I reacted to the false move. Perhaps he’d drive the two-by-four like a pike straight at my chest, hoping to knock me down and then smash my face.
While I like to think of myself as a Renaissance man, persuasion and negotiation were unlikely to bear fruit in this situation, and I manifestly do not like to think of myself as a dead Renaissance man. When he feinted, I didn’t wait to see what the bastard’s real plan of attack might be. With apologies to poets and diplomats and gentle persons everywhere, I pulled the trigger.
I was hoping to hit him in the shoulder or arm, though I suspect it’s only in movies that you can confidently calculate to wound a man rather than kill him. In real life, panic and physics and fate screw things up. Most likely, more often than not, in spite of the best intentions, the polite wounding shot drills through the guy’s brain or bounces among his ribs, off his sternum, and ends up dead-center in his heart—or kills a kindly grandmother baking cookies six blocks away.
This time, though I wasn’t firing another warning shot, I missed his shoulder, arm, heart, brain, and everything else that would have bled. Panic, physics, fate. The bullet tore into the club, spraying his face with splinters and larger fragments of wood.
Suddenly convinced of his own mortality and perhaps recognizing the incomparable danger of confronting a marksman as poor as I am, the weasel pitched his makeshift cudgel, turned, and ran back toward the elevator alcove.
I juked when I saw he was going to throw the club, but my Big Bag of Really Smooth Moves was empty. Instead of ducking away from the club, I cunningly dodged straight into it, got rapped across the chest, and fell.
I was getting up even as I was going down, but by the time I made it to my feet again, my assailant was nearing the end of the hall. My legs were longer than his, but I wasn’t going to be able to catch up with him easily.
If you’re looking for someone to shoot a man in the back, I’m not your guy, regardless of the circumstances. My attacker safely turned the corner into the elevator alcove—where he switched on a flashlight of his own.
Although I needed to nail this creep, finding Jimmy Wing was an even higher priority. The boy might have been hurt and left to die.
Besides, when the kidnapper arrived at the top of the ladder, a toothy surprise would be waiting for him. Orson wouldn’t let the guy get out of the elevator shaft.
I scooped up the flashlight and hurried to the third in the line of doors along the hall. It was ajar, and I pushed it all the way open.
Of the three chambers I’d thus far explored, this was the smallest, less than half the size of the other two, so the light swept from wall to wall. Jimmy was not here.
The only item of interest was a balled-up yellow cloth about ten feet beyond the threshold. I almost ignored it, eager to try the next door along the corridor, but then I ventured inside, and with the same hand that held the gun, I plucked the rag off the floor.
It wasn’t a rag, after all, but the soft cotton top from a pair of pajamas. A crew-neck pullover. About the right size for a five-year-old. Across the chest, in red and black letters, were the words Jedi Knight.
A sudden foreboding made my mouth go dry.
When I’d followed Orson away from Lilly Wing’s house, I had already reluctantly decided that her little boy was beyond saving, but subsequently, against my better judgment, I had allowed myself to hope too much. In this uncertain space between birth and death, especially here at the end of the world in Moonlight Bay, we need hope as surely as we need food and water, love and friendship. The trick, however, is to remember that hope is a perilous thing, that it’s not a steel and concrete bridge across the void between this moment and a brighter future. Hope is no stronger than tremulous beads of dew strung on a filament of spiderweb, and it alone can’t long support the terrible weight of an anguished mind and a tortured heart. Because I had loved Lilly for so many years—now as a friend; in other days, more deeply than one loves even the dearest friend—I had wanted to spare her from this worst of all calamities, from the loss of a child. I had wanted this more desperately than I’d realized, and consequently I’d been running across a bridge of hope, a high arched span, which now dissolved like gossamer and directed my attention to the chasm beneath me.
Clutching the pajama top, I returned to the corridor.
I heard the boy’s name, “Jimmy,” before I realized that I was the one who had softly spoken it.
I called to him again, not sotto voce this time but at the top of my voice.
I might as well have spoken in a murmur, because my shout drew no more response than my whisper. No surprise. I hadn’t expected a reply.
Angrily, I wadded the thin pajama top and stuffed it in a coat pocket.
With the illusion of hope dispelled, I could more clearly see the truth. The boy wasn’t here, not in any of the rooms along this hallway, not on the level below this one or on the level above. I’d thought it must have been difficult for the kidnapper to descend the maintenance ladder with Jimmy, but Jimmy hadn’t been with him. The yellow-eyed bastard had at some point realized he was being followed by a man—and a dog. He had put Jimmy elsewhere before carrying the pajama top—which was saturated with the boy’s scent—into the rat catacombs under the warehouse, hoping to mislead us.
I remembered how uncertain Orson had become after leading me so confidently to the warehouse entrance. He had wandered nervously back and forth in the serviceway, sniffing the air, as though puzzled by contradictory spoor.
After I’d entered the warehouse, Orson had remained loyally at my side as we had been drawn by the noises rising from deeper in the building. By the time I’d found the Darth Vader action figure, I’d forgotten Orson’s hesitancy and had become convinced that I was close to finding Jimmy.
Now I ran toward the elevator alcove, wondering why I hadn’t heard a bark or a snarl. I’d expected the kidnapper to be surprised when he found a dog waiting for him on the main level. But if he’d known that he was being tracked and had taken the trouble to use the pajama top to establish a false trail, perhaps he was prepared to deal with Orson.
When I reached the alcove, it was deserted. The shaft wasn’t aglow with the kidnapper’s light, which I had glimpsed just before I’d gone into the third room and found the pajama top.
I directed my flashlight up toward the warehouse, then down at the bottom of the shaft, one floor below. There was no sign of my quarry in either direction.
He might have descended. Maybe he was more familiar with this section of the Wyvern maze than I was. If he knew of a passage connecting the lowest level of the warehouse with another facility, elsewhere on the military base, he could have left by that back door.
Nevertheless, I intended to go upstairs and find Orson, whose continued silence worried me.
I could risk climbing with one hand partly encumbered, but I couldn’t hold both the flashlight and the pistol and still keep my balance. The Glock wouldn’t be helpful if I wasn’t able to see trouble coming, so I holstered it and kept the light.
As I ascended from the second subterranean level toward the first, I became convinced that the kidnapper had not gone all the way up to the ground floor of the warehouse. He had climbed just one level, halfway. He was waiting there. I was certain of it. He was waiting there like a troll with a lemon-sour gaze. Going to ambush me as I clambered past the next entrance to the shaft. Lean out, smile to reveal all his neat doll-size teeth, and take a whack at my head with another club. Maybe he’d even discovered a better weapon this time. An iron pipe. An ax. A scuba diver’s spear gun loaded with a barbed, explosive-tipped, shark-killing bolt. A tactical nuclear weapon.
I slowed and finally stopped before I reached the rectangular black hole in the shaft wall. From a few rungs below, I played the flashlight beam into the alcove, but I was at an angle that allowed me to see little more than the ceiling of that space.
Indecisive, I hung on the ladder, listening.
Finally I overcame my trepidation by reminding myself that any delay could be deadly. After all, a humongous mutant tarantula was crawling toward me from the pit below, poison dripping off its serrated mandibles, fiercely angry because it hadn’t gotten me on my way down.
Nothing gives us courage more readily than the desire to avoid looking like a damn fool.
Emboldened, I quickly climbed past the first basement, to the main level, into the office where I had left Orson. I was neither hammered into mush by a blunt instrument nor shredded by giant arachnid jaws.
My dog was gone.
Drawing the pistol once more, I hurried from the office into the huge main room of the warehouse.
Flocks of shadows flew away from me, then circled to roost in even greater profusion at my back.
When circumstances left him no alternative, he was a first-rate fighter—my brother the dog—and always reliable. He wouldn’t have allowed the kidnapper to pass, at least not without extracting a painful toll. I’d seen no blood in the office, and there was none here, either.
Echoes of his name rippled across the corrugated steel walls. The repetition of those two hollow syllables was reminiscent of a church bell tolling in the distance, which made me think of funerals, and in my mind rose a vivid image of good Orson lying battered and broken, a glaze of death in his eyes.
My tongue grew so thick and my throat so tight with fear that I could barely swallow.
The door by which we’d entered was wide open, just as we had left it.
Outside, the sleeping moon remained bedded down in mattresses of clouds to the west. Only stars lit the sky.
The cool clear air hung motionless, as sharp with dire promise as the suspended blade of a guillotine.
The flashlight beam revealed a discarded socket wrench that had been left behind so long ago it was orange with rust, from its ratchet handle to its business end. An empty oil can waited for wind strong enough to roll it elsewhere. A weed bristled out of a crack in the blacktop, tiny yellow flowers rising defiantly from this inhospitable compost.
Otherwise, the serviceway was empty. No man, no dog.
Whatever might lie ahead, I’d deal with it more effectively if I recovered my night vision. I switched off the light and tucked it under my belt. “Orson!”
I risked nothing by calling out at the top of my voice. The man I’d encountered under the warehouse already knew where I was.
Possibly the dog had split shortly after I’d left him. He might have become convinced we’d followed the wrong trail. Maybe he had caught a fresh scent of Jimmy; weighing the risks of disregarding my instructions against the need to locate the missing child as quickly as possible, perhaps he had left the warehouse and returned to the hunt. He might be with the boy now, ready to confront the kidnapper when the creep showed up to collect his captive.
For a two-bit philosopher full of smug homilies about the danger of investing too much emotional capital in mere hope, I was laboring mightily to build another of those gossamer bridges.
I drew a deep breath, but before I could shout again, Orson barked twice.
At least I assumed it was Orson. For all I knew, it could have been the Hound of the Baskervilles. I wasn’t able to determine the direction from which the sound had come.
I called to him once more.
“Patience,” I counseled myself.
I waited. Sometimes there is nothing to be done but wait. Most times, in fact. We like to think we operate the loom that weaves the future, but the only foot on that treadle is the foot of fate.
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