Mahoney crawled, hand over hand, elbow over elbow, for hours. Every so often he would hear the tinnitus that preceded the deafening noise, and he would put his head down and clench his whole body until it receded. He had no concept of the time, he only knew it was night by the street lamps. The smell of the vomit dried onto his suit had become mere background whisper, as had the pain from the injuries he’d sustained over the past few days. Mahoney crawled.
“Mahoney?” A pair of leather loafers stepped into his narrow field of vision. “Mother of god, what are you doing on the pavement? I called hours ago, I thought they got you!” Dooley knelt until his face was near-level with Mahoney’s. Disgust and fear were writ large on his face.
“Jesum Crow, you’re worse than I thought. What the hell did they do to you, man?”
Mahoney felt arms encircle his midsection, lifting him. He screamed “NO!” and pressed his body to the pavement. They dropped him.
“What the hell is the matter with you?”
Mahoney pressed his face to the sidewalk. It felt so solid, and yet insubstantial as smoke.
“There’s something wrong with the world,” he said. His throat felt like fire but he had to talk. “It’s a cage and we’re in here with the beast. They all knew. That’s why they hid in death. It’s following me Dooley, it’s everywhere. I’m in a web. Every step I take shakes a strand. No hiding for me.”
“Mahoney…Christ.” Dooley’s disgust turned consoling. “It’s all right now. We’ll get you help. Just after this.”
Mahoney lifted his head. There was a knot of policemen gathered on the sidewalk in front of him, and a few newsmen. Chick was carrying on an animated conversation with a beat cop, with lots of gesturing. Mahoney ran a tongue over sharkskin-rough lips and croaked, “what’s going on?”
“We got him, Mahoney. With your help.” Dooley produced a handkerchief and wet it with a flask. He dabbed at the front of Mahoney’s suit. “I tracked the bastard all the way to this house, and we’ve got enough dirt on him to put him away for a long time.”
“Who do you think? Orroft.”
Mahoney looked over at the building the policemen were gathered around. It had gables and towers and angles all arranged in the artful disarray of Milosz Sikorski.
Mahoney grabbed onto Dooley’s forearms. “No,” he said in a dry whisper.
Dooley, bemused, tried to wrench away. Across the lawn, the cops had produced a battering ram and were going after the door with evenly timed thuds.
“We’ll get you to a hospital, pal, just be patient.”
“No.” Mahoney was clawing at his suit jacket now. “Tell them not to go in there—not there!”
The door fell in. The cop at the end of the line threw his forearm over his nose.
“Man, what the hell is that smell?”
Dooley was trying unsuccessfully to dislodge Mahoney’s hands. “It’s just a house, and they’re armed. Relax.”
“Not it’s not—that’s wrong! Everything is wrong.” No matter how he tried, Mahoney could not force sense into his words. He could not push the truth through fast enough to stop the policemen that now stepped over the threshold.
Chick walked over, suit jacket flung over one arm. “Lieutenant says we’re good to follow. Needs a translator for some of the stuff in there.”
Dooley tried to stand, but was stymied by the full weight of Mahoney hanging from his lapels.
“Don’t go in,” Mahoney begged, “the house is wrong—you’ll never come out!”
Dooley frowned thoughtfully. “How is it wrong? I need to know.”
“Sikorski. Sikorski did it. He folded it wrong so time runs every which way in there. He could see like I can. Dooley, please, you have to listen!”
Dooley, staring gravely at Mahoney’s face, nodded. Mahoney relaxed his grip as Dooley rose. He turned back to some of the cops that had chosen to stay with the vehicles.
“Hey,” he said, “could one of you watch him for me? Just ‘til I get back?”
A sudden terror flared within Mahoney. He would have leapt for Dooley to cling to him and drag him back, trip him, anything, anything to keep him from going in that house,
but the tinnitus
flared up again
and he fell
to the sidewalk
clamping his hands to
clenching his whole body,
at the thunder
like great wings—
He came to when someone splashed a lukewarm cup of coffee on his face. Mahoney leaned upright against the police car. His whole body ached as if he’d been clenching it for hours. He must have—dawn was showing pink in the east.
One of the cops sat on his haunches before Mahoney, his partner stood with truncheon tucked in elbow as he gazed back at the house.
“They still ain’t back,” the standing cop said, “we have to radio the chief.”
The crouching cop nodded, setting his empty cup down. “What do you think we should do with his little friend here?”
“Who him? Toss him in the paddy wagon, he’s just some drunk bum.”
Mahoney heaved froward, making the sitting cop fall back with a shout.
“No! Nobody goes in there, nobody else!” he grabbed and squeezed the policeman’s arms. “It’s a trap! The whole thing is a trap!”
There was the startlingly crisp sound of a truncheon hitting something, and compared to the solidity of that sound everything felt less real. It took Mahoney too much time to realize he’d been hit on the head, and by the time he processed it he was being thrown bodily into the paddy wagon.
There was hardly any room in the wagon. The seat nearest Mahoney was occupied by a young man with a dazed expression and track marks on his arms. When he turned Mahoney could see blood streaming from his temple. In the corner nearest to the cab, between two men who looked like they’d been in the same bar fight, was a red haired fellow who gibbered unceasingly as the doors closed. Mahoney had to strain to hear what the policemen said over his stream-of-consciousness rant.
“…where you want them? Just dump them off in the drunk tank?”
“—yellow, yellow, he’d never even used the color yellow before that day, how’d he get so many tubes—”
“Why not? Most of ‘em are stinko anyway.”
“—there was a crooked man who built a crooked house, he drew up all the plans, that crooked little louse—”
“That feller by the door’s nodding off. We could wind up with a stiff if we don’t get him treatment.”
“—burn the roof off? You might as well saw the branch you’re sitting on, it all comes to the same end—”
“He dies in jail, he dies on the street. Same difference.”
“—My prison is a ladder that climbs endlessly upward, rung by rung by rung by rung—”
The wagon started to move. Mahoney fit his head into the corner where the body of the truck and back door met. The pain was refreshingly clarifying. He could think without the intrusion of fear.
“—thin as paper, all of you, all you bit players full of sound and fury signifying nothing—”
The intrusion of that, on the other hand….
Mahoney shifted in his seat and closed his eyes. Dooley was gone. He knew that with a certainty he could not ascribe to anything. Dooley simply would not be coming back out of that house. None of them would.
What was left to do? There was no way to throw light on it all now, now that he had lost Dooley. And furthermore, did he want to throw light on it?
Mahoney swallowed and it felt like a knife going down his throat.
He had been better before knowing. He had been able to live quite content, if cluelessly. And now he knew he was winding down a sentence without any hope of pardon. The minutes passed nearly visibly before his eyes.
He couldn’t inflict this on anyone else. Perhaps that was what the others had done as well. They had known they couldn’t go back, and the only thing left was to cut the infection off at the source. Perhaps not the maestro, but Rousseau and Sikorski, certainly. They had kicked and fought against the bars of their cage, but ultimately surrendered rather than be overtaken.
Mahoney did not want to be overtaken. Not at all.
He knew he didn’t have the strength within himself to stop the institute from claiming another victim, and if he couldn’t do that—
“—then what use is there in living on?” came a voice from across the paddy wagon.
Mahoney opened his eyes. The red haired fellow across the way was staring right at him. He smiled familiarly. Mahoney did not return it.
“I got a joke. Wanna hear it?” the fellow said.
Mahoney made no response.
“Two fish are swimming upstream. They see a duck coming down the other way, and the duck turns to them and says ‘hey,’ he says, ‘hey, how’s the water today, fellas?’ and the one fish turns to the other and says, ‘what the hell is water?’”
The red haired fellow grinned. Mahoney didn’t react.
“Wanna see a neat trick?”
Mahoney shook his head.
The red haired fellow pulled both of his sleeves open to show that there was nothing up them. He made a fiddling motion in the air with his hands and suddenly there was a small oblong shape in them. He thumbed the blade open and now Mahoney could see it was a straight razor. But not just any straight razor, the handle had a bird worked in fire-red enamels with a tail that plumed like smoke. Vladimirovitch’s razor.
“Presto,” the red haired man said, and slit his own throat.
The other drunks shouted and pulled away from the spectacle. The junky at Mahoney’s left was the only one who didn’t react, he lay against the wall stiff as a rake.
The wagon stopped, jarring them into their seats once more.
The cop who opened the back door whistled. His partner called something unintelligible from the front of the van.
“Yeah,” the cop called back, “looks like Gillman just slit his own throat.”
Something jolted through Mahoney’s whole body.
A garbled reply came from the front.
“Nah, we’ll just close the doors and let the desk sort it out when we get there.”
The cop boarded the wagon and snagged the straight razor from the dead man’s hands. He held it up.
“Anyone see how he got this?”
The drunks stared at him. Mahoney stared at Gillman’s corpse.
The cop let the silence linger for another minute and then shook his head, tsking. He hopped out of the wagon and slammed the doors, leaving them alone with the copper-smell of death.
“Forget this for a game of soldiers,” the drunk to Gillman’s left said, getting up to squash between Mahoney and the junky.
“You said it brother.” the drunk to Gillman’s right merely slid down the bench, compacting the others sitting next to him.
Gillman lay back against the wall, body jostling with every movement of the wagon. The smile on his face seemed triumphant, somehow. The rest of the ride to the station was silent. When the cop opened the doors again, he called for two stretchers. The junky had nodded off permanently sometime during the ride, so he was loaded next to Gillman’s smiling corpse.
One of the drunks caught Mahoney staring and nudged him. “Helluva day, huh?”
Mahoney watched the stretcher bear Gillman away. “…yeah.”