It was the taste that woke him. It was a sour taste, and it soured the dream he was in; a dream of waves and of salt, of engines throbbing under him, and the tacit, fading warmth of her body against his.It was whisky. He had never been a whisky drinker but he knew the complex honeycomb of heat and weight in his mouth, the sourness, the burn that torched his throat and set up a humming in his bones. Even as he rose unwillingly from a sleep too deep to shake loose, he understood that the heaviness in his body wasn’t only from the drugs, this time. The drilling through his head wasn’t only the boat’s engines. No. Somewhere, one of his other selves was drinking them both into a stupor.
He knew better, now, than to open his eyes. He knew better than to look through hers. Brine stung his nostrils, and when he tentatively rolled his lips into his mouth they tasted of salt. Somewhere in the North Sea the little boat forged on, stranded between empty horizons like a cork on a lake. Safe, away from landmarks and roadsigns, away from the people and things he knew.
Still, Will didn’t open his eyes.
By the light of cars that passed like strobes in the street outside, Wolfgang poured his fifth shot from the bottle and upended it in one, untasting swallow. The burn as it went down was good; the burn reminded him that he was still alive. Alive, when he knew in the deepest reaches of his heart that he shouldn’t be.
The last of his ‘family’.
There was his aunt, of course: a fussy, vapid woman who had pretended not to know where the money she spent in profusion came from, who had always been kind enough to him in her own, disinterested way. He could leave her to her widowhood in peace. As long as the last of his blood was gone, he cared nothing for the dead branches of the family tree.
Wolfgang turned the depleted bottle in his hand and felt the tilt of the liquid inside, the weight of it pooling thickly to a new horizon against the glass. It was heavy, this whisky, these waters of the Lethe. Heavy as blood. In the tinted neon darkness, flushed with crimson from the sign of the corner store across the street, it even looked like blood.
He drank it down like the oblivion that it was.
Will felt the press of the needle against his arm, cold steel even in the cold sea wind. Her hair blew across his lips and he felt her breath on his face, a heat more torrid for the outer cold. Then the pinch into his skin and a tremble of her hand, preparing to plunge the hypodermic in.
“Riley.” His voice came with difficulty, rusted over by the salt and the spray.
“It’s okay, Will. I can put you under again.”
Will ran his tongue over his dry lips, taking the taste of salt down into the alcoholic afterburn. He was thirsty: terribly thirsty. Blood pounded, pounded in his skull. No . . . it tilted, like liquid in a bottle turned slowly on its side. On the back of his eyelids light strobed like headlights, illuminating briefly a colourless wall, a table, his own outstretched legs in blind-striped shadow. The bottle in his hand flared momentarily into focus as the light passed: a round-sided, clear glass bottle colored from within with gold and with a brown and cream label in a language which should have been alien, but wasn’t. German. He was reading German and the legs that stretched out ahead of him were dusted with fine, blond hair.
“Riley,” he said, again. “Wait.”
He would never have children. The name of Bogdanow would die with him.
As a car passed behind the armchair and sent its tiger-stripes of light and shade through the window blinds, Wolfgang glanced at the bottle in his hand and for a moment the words became only abstract shapes to him, shapes which meant nothing. Blau Maus – what was that? But the momentary forgetfulness passed as the car passed, as its white-stained headlights did; he was left in the dark with his drink, and with his thoughts.
He had driven until he was twenty miles outside of Berlin, and checked into this hotel hours after dusk. Too late, tonight, to check on Felix. Too late for a good many things. He had been on the other side of the city before he remembered the fingerprints he had left like memories in his uncle’s house: not just on the furniture, the door handles, easily excused by his familial connection, but on the guns. On the weapon that had blasted open his uncle’s face as it blasted open his past, obliterated both, left nothing behind. Even that act, of facial mutilation, damned him to suspicion. The police would know that the killing was personal. But it was too late to recover the evidence, now. Too late, to control the rage that had blasted from his arm with every bullet. So he drank down forgetfulness and in the process, perhaps, he hoped he might also drink down them.
Drink down her.
Felix had always laughed at his name, but it was the one thing his father had ever done right in his miserable life. A wolf may be a pack animal, but he fights for dominance; and the image of the lone wolf had always pleased him, an aesthetic which he could see in himself, could see as himself. And he was dammed if he would spread this red cloud that was neither blood nor rage but something in between to people he had only, just recently, begun to see. Pack or not.
The way she had looked at him . . . not as a wolf, an animal that could be tamed.
As a monster.
“Riley . . . please. Wait.”
The pinch in his arm retreated; a moment later, he heard the clink of the syringe dropped into some unseen receptacle and felt her hand return to his arm. Cold, that hand, so cold. He wished he could hold her, share his body heat with her, as he ought to do . . . but his bones had turned to lead and somewhere in his blood the hum was pitching itself higher.
“What is it, Will?”
Will screwed his eyes tight shut and swallowed down the dryness in his mouth. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, right?”
“Well, yes. It’s just ocean.”
“So Whispers can’t know where we are, if I’m awake for a few more minutes?”
He felt the sweep of her hair over his face: shaking her head, no. “I don’t think so. Why?”
For a moment he debated how much to tell her. He didn’t know what to tell her. All he had were those few images, isolated frames from a movie he hadn’t seen . . . and a feeling. The images were brief and brutal as a gas-flame, there and gone, but the feeling – that roared through him like the motor that thrummed through the deck of the boat. It was red as neon.
Red as blood.
“Wolfgang’s in trouble.”
The sixth glass slid down as the others had done – smooth, and laced with fire. The edges of his vision had begun to blur, to grow golden as that whisky, even though he sat in the dark. But something in its taste was wrong, this time: this time, it tasted faintly of salt.
In disgust Wolfgang set the bottle on the floor, and took from under his chair the item he had stored there when he sat down to drink. It was cold, and its weight was reassuring in a way that that of the whisky bottle was not. This, unlike the single malt, belonged there.
He sat back with a creak of his bones and laid the object across his knees. In the intermittent light it was black as tar, without detail, a shape cut from the night.
Most of his arsenal had been left behind, but this, he had stashed below the driver’s seat of his car as a last line of defence. It was not sentimentality that had lead him to choose this particular weapon: only that it was small. It had fit under the seat, and now it fit in his hand, a natural extension of it, something he had been born with as the English aristocracy were born with silver spoons in their mouths.
As Kala’s face had fit there, the one time he had permitted himself to touch her the way he had wanted to from the very first moment he saw her.
“She forgives you, you know,” he heard a voice say, from across the room.
It was a man’s voice – an American voice, young, soothing. Wolfgang turned his head only the slightest fraction to glance in the direction of his visitor . . . then returned it to its previous position, face front, and bland as milk. It was the cop, the one that had warned him of his uncle’s bulletproof vest. Wolfgang fought to keep his voice steady, but eagerness crowded onto his tongue and only a lifetime of schooling kept him from allowing it to spill out.
“You’ve spoken to her?”
“I don’t need to. I know she forgives you . . . because I do.”
The hotel room was small, shabby. It was difficult to make out in the sickly light of the streetlamp outside and the stripes of passing headlights, but it looked cheap and comfortless. Lying low, Will supposed. Someone like Wolfgang would know better than to flash his newfound wealth and leave behind a viable paper trail. He would know better than to be in any way memorable. And it meant, too, that even if Whispers should see into this visit, there would be nothing of use to him: nothing that would give away Wolfgang’s identity, or location.
Wolfgang himself sat in the one winged armchair beside the window, his ankles crossed ahead of him, in only his boxers and a black t-shirt stained under the arms with sweat. Will could smell it dried on the man’s skin, a metallic taint that he knew from painful experience: fear. The whisky might have loosened Wolfgang’s muscles, and if Will reached tentatively outward with that part of his mind he still barely understood, then he sensed only disillusionment, melancholy, loss . . . but he had been afraid. For however brief a time, earlier today, Wolfgang had feared for his life.
And it wasn’t an emotion the German was used to feeling.
“Maybe I don’t want forgiveness,” he said now, still not looking at Will. “Maybe I don’t need it.”
Will crept a step forward: two. With slow, careful movements and with his eyes never once leaving Wolfgang, he sat on the end of the narrow bed and folded his hands between his knees.
“Well. Not from me, maybe.”
“Not from anyone. You think I need absolution for killing my cousin, my uncle? They had it coming.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” said Will. The silence stretched away between them, and only the knock of Wolfgang’s foot against the whisky bottle sounded in the dull air. “I’m not gonna lie, this time last week I probably would have wanted you brought to trial for what you did. I would have seen one criminal taking out a bunch of them, and let me tell you, I wouldn’t have lost any sleep over that . . . but I also would have thought you were just one of them.”
In the stillness of the hotel room, a breeze whipped past. The windows were shut, locking out the sounds of the street outside; but a cold breath of wind lifted Wolfgang’s hair and fluttered his limp shirt against his ribs. Distantly Will smelled the faint, primordial sting of brine, oceanic and ancient, the scent of memory.
“Do you smell that?” asked Wolfgang.
Will glanced up at the German and felt reality slide away from him like a change of negatives in a projector. A moment before they had both been seated, sharing a common eye-level in that rusty darkness; now Wolfgang stood on the swaying deck of the little boat and Will was looking up at him from the safety of Riley’s lap.
“You’re not the only one who’s had one hell of a day,” said Will.
Wolfgang nodded, a quizzical twist to his mouth that was not, quite yet, a smile. “I can see that.”
Back in his own body, Will felt the numbing sedation of the drugs in his system start to creep into his muscles once more: sensed Riley, raising her head to look at the half-naked, fevered Wolfgang standing before them on the deck. And with an effort that was not so much the clenching of a muscle or the thinking of a thought as it was a release, Will sent them back to that gloomy hotel room. There was the armchair, green velvet worn thin under a hundred resting heads and hands; the half-opened blinds, leaking slatted light onto a blank wall. And there was Wolfgang, sat in that chair with his ankles crossed, and a darker shape that was only a smudge of shadow in his lap.
“So what was it you didn’t want her to hear?” asked Wolfgang.
“She could visit if she wanted to. She’s letting us talk in private.”
“I’m a criminal. And you’re a cop. So what could we possibly have to talk about?”
“You tell me. I’m not the one that’s drinking himself insensible in some sleazy hotel room.”
“No. Just drugged unconscious on a boat in the middle of nowhere.”
Will felt his laced fingers crushing each other until his knuckles popped: his teeth, bearing down like an electro-shock patient biting on rubber. The taste in his mouth had become, suddenly, unbearable. “Fine. You wanna play that game? We’ll play. I know why I’m drugged . . . but do you know why you’re drinking?”
A face, blown apart by gunfire. A man in sweaty wife-beater and three-day stubble, turning each of five blunt fingers to the sky. A bruised eye, a broken rib. They were scratches on a sheet of ice, these images, cloudy and indistinct – they only obscured the darker memories, the visions that had sank down deep where the thermal currents ran. Still, Will experienced them as a series of stabs in his head . . . as punches to the gut that knocked all the air from his lungs.
“Now do you see?” said Wolfgang. Coldly.
For a moment Will couldn’t form a reply. His lungs felt crushed in his chest like paper bags in a careless fist. “Yeah. I know a bad guy when I see one.”
“No-one will remember if we were good men or bad.”
It was a phrase Will had never heard before; and yet an answering one came to his mouth as if it had been laid out for him to find. “Only that two stood against many.”
For perhaps the first time in this whole charade, Wolfgang looked at Will with genuine interest. For a moment brief as the passing of those intermittent headlights, Will saw another Wolfgang sat in that armchair, one whose closed shutters had lifted and who, for that one second, looked younger than his twenty-seven years. “You helped me, in my uncle’s house. Did you know what it was you were helping me do?”
“Did you, when you stepped in to drive that ambulance for me?”
“You say that like we’re the same.”
Will smiled, faintly. “And you say that like we’re different. You weren’t the only one who went into a building with a 9mm tucked under his arm today.”
Wolfgang’s mouth pressed down into a strange, hard line that set a muscle in his cheek twitching below the skin . . . but it was the only movement. Will had never seen a human being so unnaturally still, the rise and fall of his chest autonomous as a man in a deep sleep. He was a mannequin fitted with bellows where the lungs should be.
“You’re not a killer,” said Wolfgang.
“That’s what Whispers thought. What he said. But I keep coming back to that second in the ambulance, that second when I had to decide, and you know what? I can’t believe that anymore. I don’t believe you could have taken that helicopter down the way you did . . . unless I let you.”
Wolfgang glanced, briefly, at the other man: at a face that was strong-boned and earnest, blank cop face sitting like a rime of frost over an inherent softness. That was it, in a word; Will was soft, a man who could take care of himself to a point and who knew how to fight – to a point – but who was, nonetheless, too easily affected by other people’s pain to turn away from it or pay much heed to his own. “You think you wanted me to crash that helicopter?”
“I know I did. You might have been the one driving, Wolfgang . . . but we were on the same page. We both did it.”
Wolfgang was silent for a moment. Then he said: “Did you ever kill anyone before?”
Will nodded. Looked away, for a moment, to the boxy shadow of the headboard against the wall and the rectangle of faded colour that was a cheap print above it. “My first month on the Force. Diego and I responded to an APB at this Mom-and-Pop store, and there was some guy with a shotgun using the checkout girl as a hostage. Diego, he didn’t have a clear shot . . . but I did. And I didn’t wanna pull that trigger, you have no idea how close I came to not doing it . . . but it was him or the girl. So I took it. I took the shot.” Will sighed. “It messed with my head, let me tell you. I was second-guessing myself all the way back to the station; but then they ran a search on the guy and it turned out he was wanted for a string of armed robberies across town. He’d shot three people, killed one. And after that I couldn’t feel bad about it anymore.”
Now it was Wolfgang’s turn to say nothing. He turned his face away from Will’s; and he could almost hear some invisible scoreboard totting up the points the cop had scored, lighted numbers calculating how much he had won. The balance of power tilted like whisky in a tipped bottle; like the horizon on the edges of the sea whenever the boat hit a wave.
“If I were to run some names from that house today,” Will said, carefully. “Would I find worse than just a few armed robberies?”
And despite it all Wolfgang couldn’t help but smile, trusting to the darkness to hide it from his ‘guest’. He recognised in this cop the technique inherent in all police, be they American, German, or otherwise; he remained quiet, this one, an unassuming presence that invited confidence. Invited a loose tongue, and the consequences of it. Wolfgang knew that trick of old – when his father had been found dead and burned in his car, when the Polizei arrived to question him and he had sat in unblinking silence, insensible to his uncle’s demands, to the calm exterior of the two policemen. They had told him with their quietness and their unjudging faces that they only wanted to be his friend . . . but they hadn’t wanted to be his friend. This cop didn’t want to be, either.
“So. Is this my trial, Will?”
“I don’t know. Do you need one?”
Wolfgang made a sound that was not quite a laugh. He had to hand it to his unwanted visitor, he knew how to draw his subject out. The two German officers who had interviewed him after his father’s death had not had a tenth of this guy’s talent. “This isn’t a trial. It’s therapy. You Americans, you think therapy is the answer to everything.”
“No. Therapy only helps the people who put you there.”
“Are we talking about my family, now . . . or yours?”
He heard, rather than saw, the American stand up. Saw, from the corner of his eye, the disgust on that flushed face. But he didn’t need to see it. “Okay, you know what, fine. I’ll just leave you to drink yourself into a jail cell, be my guest.”
Wolfgang knew that one or both of them could end this visit with a thought, a clench of a muscle or the blink of an eye . . . but clearly the cop felt the need for a dramatic gesture, all the same. By standing, he announced his intention to leave. He had turned his back on the window and the armchair when Wolfgang spoke: slowly, as if measuring out sentences like lengths of rope.
“Sit down.” Then, after a pause: “Please.”
Cautiously – a volatile one, this, sugar and weed-killer ready to mix at the slightest shake – Will sat back down on the bed that felt as real to him as if he were physically on it. Wolfgang had sat in immemorial stillness throughout this surreal dialogue – his right hand rested on the dark object across his knee, his face turned down – but at last he turned his head in Will’s direction. He fixed those heavy-lidded eyes on Will and one corner of his lips ticked upward in a tiny smile.
“I don’t need you to save me, Will.”
Will opened his mouth only to find that he had nothing there to say. He had been so certain of his right to be here, till now: Wolfgang was a part of his cluster, a part of whatever it was that had finally come together during this long, impossible day, and was his to protect. It was what they did, what it was all for. But now he hesitated, as he had sighting down his arm at the balaclava’d head of that armed robber. Not sure, for a second eternal and yet instant as a sneeze, if he should open fire . . . or just holster his gun and step away.
“Funny,” said Will. “’Cause from where I’m sitting, that’s exactly how it looks.”
Now the little tug of Wolfgang’s mouth was wistful, humourless. “Perhaps it’s you that needs therapy. Who are you really trying to save? Or do you believe you have to save everyone, whether they need it or not?”
“I didn’t see you ignoring my advice earlier.”
“With the bullet proof vest? That was just a case of using the things around me to my advantage. You were in the right place at the right time.”
But this, at least, Will didn’t believe. He had seen the spark of understanding in Wolfgang’s irreconcilable face, in that moment. He had seen gratitude. And Wolfgang, after all, had repaid him in kind.
“Its always been me and Felix, against the world,” said Wolfgang, now. “I went into my uncle’s house today, knowing that I would be coming out again. I would take care of it. Just like I’ve always taken care of everything.”
“You mean like you took care of your old man?”
“So you know about that. Yes, like I took care of my father. I planned his murder to the last detail, and I did it alone. And ever since then I’ve done what needed to be done. Until today. Now Felix is in a hospital with a hole in his stomach, and I – I should be dead.”
And it was only now, in the self-same moment in which Will really understood the level of Wolfgang’s volatility, that he saw at last what that dark shape on the other man’s knee really was.
It was a revolver.
“You feel like your luck finally ran out,” said Will. “You were always invincible, and now suddenly you aren’t. I get that, I do.” His eyes never left Wolfgang as he eased forward onto the very edge of the bed: his weight tipped onto the balls of his feet, reaching unconsciously for the gun under Wolfgang’s hand. He slipped into the fatal trance of negotiation as softly, as easily, as a hand into a well-fitting glove.
“I don’t believe in luck.”
“You didn’t believe in love at first sight, either.”
“Love is just another lie we tell ourselves. It makes the world an easier pill to swallow.”
“Well, thanks, I’ll be sure to pass that on to Riley when I wake up.”
But still, Wolfgang ignored him. Casually, as if he only raised a lighter to an unlit cigarette, he lifted the gun from his lap. In silence he spun the cylinder, opened it, and deposited six bullets into his palm. He coldly, calmly, plucked a single bullet from the pile and fitted it back into the cylinder. Then he spun it, snapped it home, the lone bullet lost in the wheel of fortune in his hand. “This was my grandfather’s. He was Russian Orthodox, and he would pray to his God to help him kill his enemies. The night before a big heist he would put a single bullet into this revolver, and spin the cylinder, and fire it at his own head to prove that his God was with him.”
“And was he?” asked Will, in spite of himself.
“The bastard died of old age this week. I don’t believe in luck, but I don’t believe in his God, either. So why did his ‘magic gun’ always come up empty? What was it that saved him, every time?”
Will felt cold settle into his stomach as quietly, as unobtrusively, as sediment in a bottle of wine. For a moment he remembered that his body, so many miles away on that boat on the open sea, had been buffeted by sea-winds and chilled half to the marrow over Icelandic waters – but this cold, this cold, was different. It was the cold that he had felt when he first heard that his dad had been shot, so very long ago. That he had felt, as he waited helplessly at Riley’s bedside and prayed for her to wake.
When he had so foolishly glanced out from that moving elevator, and fallen into the abyss of Whispers’ eyes.
“I can’t answer that,” said Will. “But I do know that this thing, whatever it is – it’s bigger than us. And a week ago I would have said it was impossible. But here we are.”
“Now you sound like her. Kala. She, she believes in gods and miracles, in divine intervention. She would say that you were meant to help me. She would say I had the blessing of her god and that’s why I’m still here.” For a moment Wolfgang only continued to stare at the gun in his hand with his brows clashing like swords above his nose; then he slowly, deliberately, looked up at Will. There was no unnatural pull to those eyes, no sensation of falling as there had been with Whispers, with Riley . . . they were just eyes. Large, blue, and cold as Iceland in winter.
“But if she’s right, if there is something protecting me . . . then that something will make sure that when I fire this gun I come up on an empty chamber. Or it will stop me from pulling the trigger altogether.”
Too late Will saw why the elaborate disarming and re-loading of the revolver; not a demonstration, as he had half believed, or an exercise in self-comfort, which he had more than half believed . . . it was a challenge to something which may or may not exist. Be it to Kala’s elephant-headed god or to the impersonal caprices of luck, Wolfgang was throwing down the gauntlet.
Will dived for the gun before he even knew that he meant to move.
For minutes now he had been poised, his weight rested forward on the balls of his feet, his hands loose between his knees; now he flung himself forward and grabbed at Wolfgang’s wrist with a twist of his body that snapped the German’s arm out and pointed at the window. For a second Will blocked the gun arm with his own and Wolfgang did not resist; then with a sudden pop in his knee and a neat hook around the back of his ankle, Will found himself slammed off his feet and onto his back on the floor.
He looked up into the sea-lashed face of the German cut out black against a white sky. The blow had sent Will back into his body and now he lay on his back on the deck, his head in Riley’s warm, dark lap, and Wolfgang stood over them both with the revolver in his hand and the lowering clouds of the Northern Sea racing past behind him.
“Will?” came Riley’s voice, questioning, not yet alarmed – but heading there, all the same.
Wolfgang had paused, head cocked to one side as if listening to something in the grey expanse . . . and Will threw himself from his prone place in Riley’s lap with a suddenness that even Wolfgang, for all his savvy, would not see coming. His upper body slammed into Wolfgang’s legs . . . Will’s arms closed around the German’s knees . . .
. . . and then they were falling back onto the grey carpet of the hotel room, and Riley, the boat, the sky, the sea, were gone.
Wolfgang had thrown Will off almost as they hit the floor. Perhaps the drugs in the American’s system slowed him down, perhaps it was only chance – chance, the bastard cousin of luck that he could believe in – but whatever the reason, Wolfgang was on his feet and running before the cop had climbed to his knees.
He had heard a noise outside.
The streetlamp blasted his night-blinded eyes, and for a moment Wolfgang paused in the doorway of the hotel foyer and squinted into the light-splashed street. Halogens bathed the damp tarmac with pumpkin-coloured light, and in the gutters the neon of the off-license’s proclamatory sign quivered. Most of the shops and flats that lined the street were closed up for the night, windows darkened, awnings collapsed and shutters drawn . . . but as Wolfgang’s eyes adjusted he made out two figures in the mouth of the alleyway across the road. Two figures who were as familiar to him as the rain, although he had never laid eyes on them before.
It was them that he had heard from inside.
He broke from the doorway and into the light drizzle of the street a moment before Will’s footsteps sounded behind him. His bare feet protested the sharp ground and the persistent moisture that was not quite rain clung to his hair and to his flimsy clothes; but still, Wolfgang ran.
The two figures broke apart as he bore down on them. One was a large man, jowly and unshaven and with that telltale redness of eye, the broken capillaries of a hardened drinker; the other was a blond boy of thirteen or so, silent and sullen, as if his blank face were a mask and he had forgotten he ever had any other. The man’s blunt fingers curled still in the boy’s shirt . . . but he had stepped away.
As if that would fool anyone, even for a moment.
Like an automaton, Wolfgang raised his hand. Pointed the revolver that he gripped in it still directly at the man’s head.
“Take your hand away. Now,” he said.
The man scowled at Wolfgang through those piggish, red-rimmed eyes . . . but he had uncurled his fingers from the boy’s collar and now he held both hands aloft, in a manner so automatic that Wolfgang knew he had performed the ritual before. The boy only stared at Wolfgang with hooded eyes.
“Do you have somewhere safe that you can go, kid?” asked Wolfgang.
“My grandmother’s. Just up the road.”
Wolfgang nodded. “Then go. Now.”
The boy gave one last, uncertain glance at the silent man beside him; one last, disbelieving look to Wolfgang; then turned, and loped away down the street.
The boy had barely vanished around the corner when Wolfgang heard a skidding sound to his right, the sound of rubber soles on the wet road; and although the sound could not be real and must only be his mind supplying what he thought he should hear, Wolfgang only thought of that later. For an instant as he heard the approach of somebody alongside him he felt his hand twitch the revolver’s blind eye towards the sound: let his eyes tick right for the briefest moment. But it was only Will, panting a little as if he had been physically running, although his body lay hundreds of miles away on the deck of that little boat.
“Wolfgang. What are you doing?” said Will, breathlessly.
“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m doing what I wanted someone to do for me, when I was that boy’s age. Didn’t you see him? The kid, just now?”
It was a rhetorical question. What Wolfgang saw, here, in this suburban street, Will must see, too. What he heard, Will heard, too.
What he felt . . .
Cut that thought off at the root, like a withered stem.
The man – swaying, now, breathing a miasma of alcoholic fumes that would fell an elephant – took one, unsteady step forward. “Who are you talking to?” he demanded. “You wearing a wire, is that it, buddy? You police or something?”
For a moment Wolfgang almost laughed aloud. Of all the things that this animal might have said, of all the things . . . but now the real cop spoke up, and it cut through the awful desire to laugh like a knife through muscle.
“You don’t know that’s what’s going on. You don’t know what that boy wants.”
“I know his type,” Wolfgang spat. “These bastards, they’re all the same. I bet he beats the shit out of the kid, every time he’s been drinking. I bet he staggers home at two in the morning and that boy is lying awake in his bed, listening for the door to open.”
Wolfgang took one step closer to the man that he had heard, with his own, safe-cracker’s ears, punching the boy not minutes before. The toadish face glowered mutely from atop the bull-neck, and up close Wolfgang could see the broken veins in his cheeks, red rivers of blood like lava cutting through rock. “My father would drink himself into a rage at least twice a week,” he said – and now it was not to Will, that helpless Jiminy Cricket on his shoulder, but to the man. “And then he would come home and let me know what a streak of piss he thought I was. What I was good for. My uncle knew what was happening, but he never stepped in. All I wanted was for someone to free me of him . . . just like I could free that boy of you.”
Will had said, had done, nothing for the whole of this speech. He had only stood, wordless, listening. Now Wolfgang felt a warm hand laid gently on his shoulder; and close by his ear, so soft it was almost a whisper, he heard the cop say: “Wolfgang. Please. Don’t do this.”
And Wolfgang hesitated. Just for a moment, and with the drunken bastard’s face looking more like his father’s with every passing minute, Wolfgang listened.
“I know you thought it would stop,” said Will. “All of it. You killed them all and you should feel free of them, you should feel, I don’t know, complete . . . but that’s the thing, you know? You can kill this guy, and the next one, and the next one, but it won’t make your family go away. Revenge . . . it never ends.”
He was so earnest, this big American with his soothing voice and the lulling quality of forgetfulness in his every word. Like the whisky, like the Lethe. For a moment Wolfgang felt himself totter on the brink with every intention of falling in and letting those waters obliterate him; but his hand tightened its grip on the revolver, anchor to his past and to his inalienable present. At the last second, he drew back.
“And how would you know?”
Ahead of them the man had frozen at the end of the gun barrel as if some hand had paused the world, and Wolfgang remembered how that had happened before, when the Mexican had stepped in to save him from Steiner and the circle of men had seemed, for that instant, suspended in time. Whatever it was that he and the cop were doing, invading each other’s minds like cuckoos in the nest, it was happening at the speed of thought.
“Because no matter how many people I help, no matter how many I save, I can’t make her go away. Sara Patrell, that . . . that little girl I didn’t save. That I failed.”
Will’s voice cracked on that last and it was all Wolfgang could do, for the moment, not to turn his head and look at him. Not to turn and see, for once in his life, what a man who was able to cry might look like.
“You say that like we’re the same,” said Wolfgang . . . and pushed the barrel of the gun into the drunk man’s stubbled, trembling cheek.
Will watched helplessly as Wolfgang pressed the revolver into the man’s flaccid jowl, angled upward so that the bullet would shatter its way through the teeth and pass through his skull. He could tackle the German, he was larger and might have surprise on his side – but the gun might go off accidentally at a single knock. He still wasn’t sure, even, how the two of them had been able to fight in the hotel room, if it had only been in their minds, if their bodies had reacted to a force that wasn’t even present simply because they expected to fall – but he couldn’t trust that the same would be true this time.
He couldn’t risk a man’s life, even if the guy was a piece of shit who beat his kid.
“It’s your lucky day,” Wolfgang told the man. “You see, I have an angel on my shoulder. He’s a pain in the ass but he wants me to let you live. I don’t.” The smile that twisted Wolfgang’s mouth as he spoke caught at Will’s gut like a fish hook. This Wolfgang was volatile, nitro-glycerine waiting only for one sudden jolt. He hadn’t become a cop without learning to recognise an unexploded bomb when one stood in the street with him. “This gun only has one bullet in it. Just one. But I don’t know which chamber it’s in. So the question is—” And here Wolfgang spun the cylinder again. “—do you think the universe agrees with my angel . . . or with me?”
The man’s eyes were wild now, rolling from one side of the street to the other as if looking for someone, anyone, to help him. But Will knew that look, had seen it on more petty criminals than he could count, and he knew what it meant; the guy was going to make a break for it.
And then an incredible calm overtook Will, a calm as soft and enveloping as the rain he felt coalescing on his skin, even though that skin was so many miles away.
You couldn’t have taken down that helicopter . . . unless I let you.
Softly, Will closed his eyes. The street, the rain, the glaring orange halloween-light, all gone. There was only darkness.
And he reached out.
He remembered how it had felt, knowingly turning over his body to others to use as they needed. How it was to feel his muscles move, to feel the signals racing from his brain to his limbs and know that they really came from another’s. And he remembered the sensation of sending himself out, invisible hands reaching into a current and then letting go . . . letting whatever small part of him that they needed wash away into the stream, to come back when they were done.
And he reached into Wolfgang.
From nowhere, it seemed, Wolfgang felt a trembling in his hand. He had maintained this grip on the revolver for too long; lactic acid had built up in his arm and now the muscles convulsed, sending the barrel wavering across his line of sight. It was to be expected, that his hand would begin to shake. Soon, if he didn’t pull the trigger, he would have no option but to lower the gun altogether. Wolfgang bore his teeth down and tightened his grip on the revolver until his knuckles turned a bloodless white.
And the shaking stopped.
“We’ll let luck decide,” Wolfgang said – doggedly now, his throat raw with whisky and his arm burning with the strain of holding his stance. “Or Ganesha. Or whatever it was that made my grandfather come up against an empty chamber for so many years. Not me. And not him.”
Then Will’s voice, a whisper, melting into the rain like a memory. “And what do you think she would decide?”
The way she had looked at him . . . like a stranger.
For a moment, it was on the tip of his tongue to just say it: to do the unthinkable and admit, in a surge of unaccustomed honesty, just how it had felt to discover another Wolfgang inside this one. A Wolfgang that could smile and have it reach his eyes. A Wolfgang who, against all precedent, had opened himself to Kala as thoughtlessly as a flower to the sun.
That Wolfgang . . . that Wolfgang would do the right thing. The merciful thing.
Softly, without a word or a sign, he closed his eyes against the sight of the man who reminded him so much of his father. His arm shook so badly now that the gun clattered against the man’s cheek and the teeth behind, bruising the flesh.
It’s so simple. Just turn the wheel . . . and the future changes.
And slowly, with eyes tight shut and an outrush of breath that blew cold against his face, Wolfgang lowered the gun.
For a moment, there was only silence in the empty street. Not a soul, not a car, passed by. Then Wolfgang heard the pounding of booted feet on the pavement, the skidding of rubber soles on wet ground, and opened his eyes to find that the man had gone.
So, too, had Will. But Wolfgang still felt the ghost of the American cop in his mind, like an afterimage, an echo of a vanished voice. It sounded . . . afraid.
“Whispers,” it said.