With some sixth sense, Frank was suddenly aware of a murderous, descending weight. He rolled to his right, flat up against the same wall of crates atop which Skagg stood. Behind him, a second huge box crashed to the warehouse floor.
"You alive?" Skagg called.
Frank did not respond.
"Yeah, you must be down there, because I didn't hear you scream. You're a quick bastard, aren't you?"
That laugh again. It was like atonal music played on an out-of-tune flute: a cold, metallic sound. Inhuman. Frank Shaw shivered.
Surprise was Frank's favorite strategy. During a pursuit, he tried to do what his prey would least expect. Now, taking advantage of the masking roar of the rain on the corrugated steel roof, he stood up in the darkness beside the wall of crates, holstered his revolver, blinked tears of pain out of his eyes, and began to climb.
"Don't cower in the shadows like a rat," Skagg shouted. "Come out and try to take a shot at me. You've got a gun. I don't. It'll be your bullets against whatever I can throw at you. What better odds do you want, you chickenshit cop?"
Twenty feet up the thirty-foot-high wall of wooden boxes, with his chilled fingers hooked into meager niches, with the toes of his shoes pressed hard against narrow ledges, Frank paused. The pain in his right side tightened as if it were a lasso, and it threatened to pull him backward into the aisle almost two stories below. He clung to his precarious position and squeezed his eyes tightly shut, willing the pain to go away.
"Hey, as**ole," Skagg shouted.
"You know who I am?"
Big man on the psycho circuit, aren't you?
"I'm the one the newspapers call the Night Slasher."
Yeah, I know, I know, you drooling degenerate.
"This whole damn city lays awake at night, worrying about me, wondering where I am," Skagg shouted.
Not the whole city, man. Personally, I haven't lost any sleep over you.
Gradually the hot, grinding pain in his ribs subsided. It did not disappear altogether, but now it was a dull throb.
Among friends in the marines and on the police force, Frank had a reputation for persevering and triumphing in spite of wounds that would have incapacitated anyone else. In Nam he had taken two bullets from a Vietcong machine gun, one in the left shoulder and one through his left side directly above the kidney, but he had kept on going and had wasted the gunner with a grenade. Bleeding profusely, he had nevertheless used his good arm to drag his badly wounded buddy three hundred yards to a place of concealment, where they were safe from enemy snipers while the medevac chopper had sought and found them. As the medics loaded him into the helicopter, he had said, "War is hell, all right, but it's also sure exhilarating!"
His friends said he was iron hard, nail tough. But that was only part of what they said about him.
Overhead, Karl Skagg hurried along the tops of the boxes. Frank was close enough to hear the heavy footsteps above the ceaseless rumble of the rain.
Even if he had heard nothing, he would have known that Skagg was on the move. The two-crate-thick wall trembled with the killer's passage—though not violently enough to shake Frank off his perch.
He started to climb again, feeling cautiously for handholds in the darkness, inching along the pile of plumbing supplies. He got a few splinters in his fingers, but it was easy to screen out those small, stabbing pains.
From his new position atop the wall, Skagg shouted into another shadowy section of the warehouse to which he apparently thought Frank had moved, "Hey, chickenshit!"
"I have something for you, chickenshit."
I didn't know we were exchanging gifts.
"I got something sharp for you."
I'd prefer a TV set.
"I got the same thing for you that I used on all the others."
Forget the TV. I'll settle for a nice bottle of cologne.
"Come and get your guts ripped out, you chickenshit!"
I'm coming, I'm coming.
Frank reached the top, raised his head above the edge of the wall, looked left, then right, and saw Skagg about thirty feet away. The killer had his back to Frank and was peering intently down into another aisle.
"Hey, cop, look at me, standing right up here in the light. You can hit me with no trouble. All you have to do is step out and line up a shot. What's the matter? Don't you even have the nerve for that, you yellow bastard?"
Frank waited for a peal of thunder. When it came, he levered himself over the edge, on top of the stack of crates, where he rose to a crouch. The pounding rain was even louder up here, and combined with the thunder it was enough to cover any noise he made.
"Hey, down there! You know who I am, cop?"
You're repeating yourself. Boring, boring.
"I'm a real prize, the kind of trophy a cop dreams of!"
Yeah, your head would look good on my den wall.
"Big career boost if you brought me down, promotions and medals, you chickenshit."
The ceiling lights were only ten feet above their heads, and at such short range even the dim bulbs in the security lamps cast enough of a glow to illuminate half the crates on which they stood. Skagg was in the brightest spot, posturing for the one-man audience that he believed was below him.
Drawing his .38, Frank stepped forward, out of a shadowy area into a fall of amber light.
Skagg shouted, "If you won't come for me, you chickenshit, I'll come for you."
"Who're you calling chickenshit?" Frank asked.
Startled, Skagg spun toward him and, for an instant, teetered on the edge of the boxes. He windmilled his arms to keep from falling backward into the aisle below.
Holding his revolver in both hands, Frank said, "Spread your arms, drop to your knees, then lay flat on your belly."
Karl Skagg had none of that heavy-browed, slab-jawed, cement-faced look that most people associated with homicidal maniacs. He was handsome. Movie-star handsome. His was a broad, well-sculpted face with masculine yet sensitive features. His eyes were not like the eyes of a snake or a lizard or some other wild thing; they were brown, clear, and appealing.
"Flat on your belly," Frank repeated.
Skagg did not move. But he grinned. The grin ruined his moviestar looks because it had no charm. It was the humorless leer of a crocodile.
The guy was big, even bigger than Frank. He was six five, maybe even six and a half feet. Judging by the solid look of him, he was a dedicated, lifelong weight lifter. In spite of the chilly November night, he wore only running shoes, jeans, and a blue cotton shirt. Damp with rain and sweat, the shirt molded to his muscular chest and arms.
He said, "So how're you going to get me down from here, cop? Do you think I'll let you cuff me and then just lay up here while you go for backup? No way, pig face."
"Listen and believe me: I'll blow you away without the slightest hesitation."
"Yeah? Well, I'll take that gun off you quicker than you think. Then I'll rip your head off and shove it up your ass."
With unconcealed distaste, Frank said, "Is it really necessary to be so vulgar?"
Grinning more broadly, Skagg moved toward him.
Frank shot him pointblank in the chest.
The hard report echoed off the metal walls, and Skagg was thrown backward. Screaming, he pitched off the crates and plummeted into the aisle below. He landed with a thunk that cut off his scream.
Skagg's violent departure caused the crates to rock, and for a moment the unmortared wall of boxes swayed dangerously, creaking and grinding. Frank fell to his hands and knees.
Waiting for the stacks to steady under him, he thought about all the paperwork involved in a shooting, the many forms required to appease the bleeding hearts who were always certain that every victim of police gunfire was as innocent as Mother Teresa. He wished that Skagg had not forced the issue so soon. He wished that the killer had been more clever, had managed a more involved game of cat and mouse before the climactic scene. Thus far the chase had not provided half enough fun to compensate for the mountain of paperwork ahead.
The crates quickly steadied, and Frank got to his feet. He moved to the edge of the wall, to the place where Skagg had been flung into empty space by the impact of the slug. He looked down into the aisle. The concrete floor was silvery in the glow of the security lamp.
Skagg was not there.
Storm light flickered at the windows in the warehouse eaves. At his side, Frank's shadow leaped, shrank back, leaped, and shrank again, as though it belonged to Alice in one of her potion-swilling fits beyond the looking glass.
Thunder pummeled the night sky, and an even harder fall of rain dissolved against the roof.
Frank shook his head, squinted into the aisle below, and blinked in disbelief.
Skagg was still not there.
HAVING DESCENDED THE CRATES WITH CAUTION, FRANK SHAW LOOKED left and right along the deserted aisle. He studied the shadows intently, then crouched beside the spots and smears of blood where Karl Skagg had hit the floor. At least a liter of blood marked the point of impact, so fresh that a portion had still not soaked into the porous concrete but glistened in small, red, shallow puddles.
No man could take a .38 hollow-point in the chest at pointblank range, get up immediately, and walk away. No man could fall three stories onto concrete and spring straight to his feet.
Yet that seemed to be what Skagg had done.
A trail of gore indicated the man's route. With his .38 tightly in hand, Frank traced the psycho to an intersection, turned left into a new aisle, and moved stealthily through alternating pools of shadow and light for a hundred and fifty feet. There, he came to the end of the blood trail, which simply stopped in the middle of the passage.
Frank peered up at the piled crates on both sides, but Skagg was not clinging to either partition. No offshoot passageways between the boxes and no convenient niches provided a good hiding place.
Although badly hurt and hurrying to get out of his pursuer's reach, Skagg appeared to have carefully bound his grievous wounds to control the bleeding, had literally bound them on the run. But with what? Had he torn his shirt into strips to make tourniquets, bandages?
Damn it, Skagg had a mortal chest wound. Frank had seen the terrible impact of bullet in flesh, had seen Skagg hurled backward, had seen blood. The man's breastbone was shattered, splinters driven inward through vital organs. Arteries and veins were severed. The slug itself surely passed through Skagg's heart. Neither tourniquets nor bandages could stanch that flow or induce mangled cardiac muscles to resume rhythmic contractions.
Frank listened to the night.
Rain, wind, thunder. Otherwise silence.
Dead men don't bleed, Frank thought.
Maybe that was why the blood trail ended where it did—because Skagg died after going that far. But if he had died, death had not stopped him. He had kept right on going.
And now what am I chasing? A dead man who won't give up?
Most cops would have laughed off such a thought, embarrassed by it. Not Frank. Being tough, hard, and unbreakable did not mean that he had to be inflexible as well. He had the utmost respect for the mysterious complexity of the universe.
A walking dead man? Unlikely. But if that was the case, then the situation was certainly interesting. Fascinating. Suddenly Frank was more thoroughly involved in his work than he had been in weeks.
THE WAREHOUSE WAS VAST BUT, OF COURSE, FINITE. AS FRANK EXPLORED the gloom-filled place, however, the chilly interior seemed to be larger than the space enclosed by its walls, as if portions of the building extended into another dimension, or as if the actual size of the structure changed magically and constantly to conform to his exaggerated perception of its immensity.
He searched for Skagg in aisles formed by crates and along other aisles between towering metal shelves filled with cardboard cartons. He stopped repeatedly to test the lids of crates, suspecting that Skagg had hidden in an empty one, but he found no makeshift coffin belonging to the walking dead man.
Twice he briefly suspended the search to take time to stay in touch with the throbbing pain in his side. Intrigued by the mystery of Skagg's disappearance, he had forgotten that he'd been hammered with a length of steel rebar. His extraordinary ability to block pain contributed to his hardboiled reputation. A good buddy in the department once said that Hardshell Shaw's pain threshold was between that of a rhinoceros and a wooden fence post. But there were times when experiencing pain to the fullest was desirable. For one thing, pain sharpened his senses and kept him alert. Pain was humbling as well; it encouraged a man to keep his perspective, helped him to remember that life was precious. He was no masochist, but he knew that pain was a vital part of the human condition.
Fifteen minutes after having shot Skagg, Frank still hadn't found him. Nevertheless, he remained convinced that the killer was in the warehouse, dead or alive, and had not fled into the rainy night. His conviction was based on more than a hunch; he possessed the reliable intuition that distinguished great cops from good cops.
A moment later, when his intuition proved unnervingly accurate, Frank was exploring a corner of the building where twenty forklifts of various sizes were parked beside a dozen electric carts. Because of their knobby hydraulic joints and blunt tines, the lifts resembled enormous insects, and in the smoky yellow glow of the overhead lamp, they cast praying-mantis silhouettes across other machinery.
Frank was moving quietly through those spiky shadows when Karl Skagg spoke behind him:
"You looking for me?"
Frank turned, bringing up his gun.
Skagg was about twelve feet away.
"See me?" the killer asked.
His chest was intact, unwounded.
His three-story fall had resulted in no shattered bones, no crushed flesh. His blue cotton shirt was stained with blood, but the source of those stains was not visible.
"I see you," Frank said.
Skagg grinned. "You know what you're seeing?"
"A piece of shit."
"Can your small mind possibly conceive of my true nature,
"Sure. You're a dog turd."
"You can't offend me," Skagg said.
"I can try."
"Your petty opinions are of no interest or concern to me."
"God forbid that I should bore you."
"You're getting tiresome."
"And you're nuts."
Skagg cracked a humorless smile of the sort that earlier had reminded Frank of a crocodile's grin. "I'm so far superior to you and to all of your kind that you're incapable of judging me."
"Oh, then forgive me for my presumption, great lord."
Skagg's grin faded into a vicious grimace, and his eyes widened. They no longer seemed like ordinary brown eyes. In their dark depths was a hungry, chilling reptilian watchfulness that made Frank feel as if he were but a fieldmouse staring into the mesmeric eyes of a blacksnake.