Way of the Wolf
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To prevent the Reapers from taking too much of an area's vital labor force, the Loop system was developed lifter twenty years of fractious and chaotic rule. The Kurians had little use for the high-rise business centers of the downtown, and after emptying the assorted museums and stores of anything they fancied, they created the walled enclave as a dumping ground for undesirables. Here the Reapers could feed without worrying about taking a vital technician or mechanic and starting a series of inter-Kurian vendettas that might escalate into a full-scale feud.
The workers of Chicago enjoy a security that few other communities under the Kurians know. But their existence depends on paying their way in old federal greenbacks. The destitute receive a quick trip into the Loop. But the elite Quislings who run the city for the Kurians amass sizable fortunes in a variety of barely legitimate ways.
One might wonder what the point of wealth is with the Kurians in control, but the Kurians have become infected with the viruslike corruption that seems to thrive in Chicago and are often bought off by their ostensible slaves. The top Quislings use their money to bribe the Kurians not with cash, but with 'tital auras, the one thing the vampiric Kurians prize above all else. The Quislings buy captives from a soulless body of men and women called the Headhunters, who in turn buy them from wandering bounty hunters who lurk on the fringes of the Kurian territory, grabbing everyone they can. These latter-day fur trappers pick up strays in a circle moving clockwise down from northern Michigan, across southern Indiana and Illinois, and then up the eastern shores of the Mississippi to the northern woods of Wisconsin.
When a wealthy Quisling has turned over enough vital aura to the Kurians, a brass ring is awarded. Only in Chicago is this practice of "buying" brass rings allowed. With the security of cash and a brass ring, these robber-baron Quislings then retire to Ringland Parks, a twenty-mile stretch of stately homes along the shore of Lake Michigan just to the north of Chicago, the only large area of suburbs to survive the flames that desolated greater Chicagoland. But as brass rings cannot be passed down to sons and daughters, their progeny are left with the tiresome task of doing it all over again.
Chicago has become what Vegas was to the pre-Kurian world: an anything-goes city where anything, including human life, can be bought or sold if the price is right.
The Chicago skyline looked to Valentine like the bones of a titanic animal carcass. His position atop the freight train gave him an unobstructed view as the train bore southeast, straight as an arrow in flight, toward the city. He would have felt naked and defenseless riding the rocking platform, clattering across the uneven points on the rail line, but for the companions scattered across the last few boxcars. Now and then other hitchers made the run-and-vault onto the line of cars.
He first spotted the skyline in the blackened ring of former suburbia that encircled the city like a burned-out belt. It reminded him of a picture of the town center of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb: nothing but rubble and cracked pavement. He wondered what the Kurians had done to the ground to poison the plant life; just dry-looking brown weeds and the occasional withered sapling grew from the bare patches of soil. He wondered why the Kurians wanted to create this vista of desolation. He asked an Illinoisan, a thirtyish man who had hopped on as the train left the hills north of Rockford.
"The Chicago Blight?" the man said, looking at the expanse as if seeing it for the first time. "You got me. My brother is in the Iguard, and he says it's a no-man's-land between the Chicago Kurians and the Illinois Eleven. They depend on each other, but they had a big fight back when I was just five or six. Anyway, the Blight makes them refrain from wandering out of their territory to feed. Then I got a sister-in-law in Chicago, and she says it's to make getting out of Chicago harder. Guess burning everything was easier than building a wall that would have to run for fifty or sixty miles. But I've still heard of a few people managing to run across it in daylight. If they get lucky and dodge the Security Service and make it out by nightfall, I've heard of people escaping Chicago just using their legs. A lot of times they run right back, though; it's more dangerous downstate. I've been trying to get a good-paying job in Chicago for years, but I don't have the toke for a good position."
"You don't have the toke? What's that?" Valentine asked.
"You must be on your first trip to Chicago, blue boy. A toke is like a tip, but it's more of a bribe. Money's the best, but it's got to be their authorized stuff. You try to palm off a bill you picked up in Peoria, and you're asking to get your face smashed in. Cigarettes are good tokes, too. And if you are doing anything major, like getting a cab ride or checking in to a hotel, you toke twice, once when you arrange it and again when you're done. If the first one is too small, they might blow you off and look for someone else. If the second is too small, they'll just swear at you, but you'd better not expect any more favors. I've seen fistfights over too small a toke at the end of a cab ride, so be careful. But getting back to my point: For me to get a decent factory job, I'd have to toke the doorman, the union boss, and the manager. Maybe a couple of managers. And those would be big tokes, in the thousands. Hard to scrape up that kind of money on the farm."
Valentine reached into his bag and extracted one of the major's cheroots. "Thanks for the tip," he said, handing it to his fellow traveler.
"Hey, you catch on fast. Listen, if you want, you can come with me when we get off. I know a good route out of the railroad yard. That's a fine rifle, and some Chicago Security Service officer is gonna quote regulations and take it off you if you go through channels. Unless you can cough up about a hundred bucks worth of toke, that is."
"You're a pal. My name's Pillow," Valentine said, using the name on his identity papers.
"Norbu Oshima. Most of the guys call me Norby. Pleased to meet you, Pillow."
"My friends call me Dave. It's my middle name."
They made small talk as the city grew steadily larger. At last the train pulled into a bustling rail yard spread out over several square miles and dominated by a thick concrete tower. The train eventually switched to a siding near a series of livestock pens. Produce trucks and horse-drawn carts waited nearby, ready to accept the contents of the boxcars as the shipping clerks sorted them.
"C'mon," Oshima said as they jumped off. "Through the cattle crushes. There's a storm drain to the HalstedBridge."
Other figures were hopping off the train and scattering, pursued by a few police in navy blue uniforms. A corpulent CSS cop jumped out after them from between two cars, but Valentine and his guide vaulted over a series of fences as they ran across the pens, and their pursuer gave up after mounting the first two bars, settling for yelling a few obscenities after them.
"Fuckin' yokels," the distant voice protested. "Where's my toke, you bastards!"
They rolled under a chain-link fence and slid into the concrete drainpipe, dragging their bags after them. "Welcome to Chicago," Oshima said, panting and slapping dirt from his clothes.
"Looks like he lets his uniform do his fighting for him," Valentine observed.
"Yes, those CSS guys got it made. Everybody tokes them. He's had one too many free burgers and beers at the Steak and Bun. Speaking of which, I'm starved. After I drop my stuff off at my sister's, you wanna eat?"
"Thanks, but I have to find someone. You know where I can find a bunch of bars in a row called the Clubs Flush? On Rush Street, I think."
Norby whistled appreciatively. "You must have some good barter in that sack. Those are some nice places. Never been in 'em myself. They take up a whole block. Rush is easy to find; it runs at an angle to the rest of the streets. Watch yourself around the vacant lots. I'll get you to Division Street and point you in the right direction."
"Thanks," Valentine said, and meant it. He handed Oshima two more cheroots.
"Don't worry, David. You'll do fine. As long as those cigars hold out, anyway."
Valentine walked down the street, consulting his tourist map. Even in the afternoon, there were more people on the street than Valentine was used to seeing in the most populated parts of the FreeTerritory. Despite the people, he felt strangely alone. The city smelled noxious; a mixture of tar and garbage assaulted his nostrils. Sewage odors wafted up from the storm drains, and trash overflowed from Dumpsters in the alleys. Public sanitation was not a priority with the Kur.
"Hey, blue boy, want a ride?" a man in a straw hat called from the front of a carriage. A horse stood patiently in harness. "Take you to the Zoo. I got a friend at one of the entrances, let you in half-price. Your buddies in Wisconsin won't believe their ears when you get back."
"Maybe later," Valentine said.
Cats seemed to be everywhere, especially in the rubble of the empty blocks. Hungry-looking stray dogs prowled the alleys, sniffing the gutters.
Valentine spotted the Clubs Flush. Had it been night, he would have seen it from farther off; electric lights on the building illuminated a ten-foot mural of a hand holding four kings and a joker. In sight of his goal, Valentine realized how tired he was. His last night in bed had been interrupted by Molly's visit, and he had been active ever since. He unbuttoned his shirt and smelled his chest. Molly's rosebud-soap scent still clung to his skin. The memories gave him new strength, even as he considered the hopeless task ahead of him. How could he have imagined a city this size?
He reached the bars, but there seemed to be no way to get inside. Nor could he see through the dark-tinted glass windows to get a hint of what waited within. He passed a woman wearing a dirty smock, standing out of the wind and smoking a cigarette.
"Entrance is around the side," she informed him, pointing her thumb over her shoulder. She took a long pull on a cigarette. "I work there, three-to-eleven shift. Good luck getting past Wideload. You looking for a job?"
"No, just a little fun. Thanks."
"Hey," she said conspiratorially, removing a brown-paper-wrapped package from under her smock. "Check it out. Sixteen-ounce porterhouse, right out of the Diamonds' cooler. Twelve bucks, what do you say?"
"No, I'm fine for food. "
"Eight bucks. Can't do better. You can sell it for at least twenty on Michigan Avenue."
Valentine turned the corner and found the entrance. It was a decorated alley, with a brick arch above, wide enough to allow a wagon inside. Red and black painted wooden double doors with the Clubs' hours stenciled on showed that it must still be before six, as they were closed and locked. A smaller door was fitted into right side of the gate, and Valentine knocked.
A face that would not encourage casual conversation scowled out from a crack in the door. "What?" it said in a deep, monotone bass.
"You Wideload? I want to see the Duke, if he's in."
"Not for you, hick. Beat it."
"I'm forgetting my manners," Valentine said, reaching inside his pack. Looking at the fleshy face, he opted to hand over the brick of cheese he had snacked on earlier.
"That's more like it," the heavy-framed man said, opening the door and engulfing the three-pound brick in a paw that resembled a gorilla-hand ashtray. Valentine watched Wideload as he sampled the Wisconsin dairy gold. Both of the Wolf's legs would have fitted in the man's shirtsleeve, and he and Gonzalez could have slept out of the rain in his trousers. "Mmmm, not bad, blue boy. Go up the spiral staircase. There're two doors at the top. One's marked 'office." Go in the other one."
Valentine nodded and entered the courtyard. Plants sprouting through a mulch of cigarette butts decorated the brick-paved enclosure. Beautiful brass and glass doors, one facing in each direction, indicated the locations of the four bars. Each was named for a suit of cards.
Curious, Valentine looked in each door. The one marked spades seemed to be devoted to gambling; the kidney-shaped green baize tables could mean little else, and brightly lit slot machines filled the walls. The Diamonds bar looked like a dining room. Valentine had heard about, but never before seen, white tablecloths, polished silver, and flowered centerpieces. All were in opulent abundance inside the restaurant. The Clubs room was the only one open for business. Comfortable leather chairs lay scattered around next to small tables, and the bar appeared as devoted to cigars and pipe tobacco as to alcohol. A few men, some even wearing suits and ties, lounged around, reading newspapers or playing cards. Most were smoking. The Hearts bar looked like a glitzy brothel. It was the largest, taking up two stories, and had an open space in the center that featured the traditional stripper's pole mounted on a circular stage. Valentine counted three bars within the mirror-decorated main room.
"Hey, Tori," Valentine heard Wideload say from his door.
"Hey," a bored female voice answered, and a woman who seemed mostly made of blond hair and legs strode into the courtyard, carrying an angular purse over her shoulder big enough to sit in and paddle down a river. She glanced at Valentine with an appraising eye and disappeared down a narrow hallway branching off from the central area.
Valentine shrugged to the cheese-eating doorman and climbed the metal spiral staircase. He went to the unmarked door and knocked.
"It's open," a familiar female voice sang out.
He entered, and recognized the Duke's escort sitting behind a desk larger than the one in Flanagan's office but somehow more delicate and feminine in its rich glossy sheen. Debby? No, Dixie. Valentine's mind cast about for her name. Denise, of the revealing decolletage dress, he remembered. Today she was wearing a simple gray sleeveless outfit.
"Hi, Denise. Can I see the Duke?"
She looked up at him, puzzled. "Does he know you?"
"Sort of. We met at the Bunker in Madison. He said to drop by if I was ever in Chicago. David Tiny, remember?"
"That's it. I thought I saw you before. You're the guy with the nice hair. The Duke says some wild stuff after a few drinks, but you might be able to see him for a minute before we, er, he goes to dinner. Hey, you wouldn't have an extra toot of that happy-dust, would you?"
"I'll see what I can do later," Valentine said.
"Great, thanks. If you want to sit, there're a couple of chairs. He's meeting with the guy who brings in the drinks and eats. They've been at it all afternoon, so they should be done soon." She favored him with a smile.
Valentine offered Denise a cigarette. Her smile widened, and she tucked it away in her desk. He sat, trying to stay alert. Faint, muffled voices came from the inner office behind a door painted with a king of clubs. Trust someone with the Duke's taste in clothes and women to carry an idea too far.
Needing something to occupy his mind to prevent himself from dozing off, Valentine hardened his ears and listened to the voices inside the office.
"I tell you, it's hell, Duke. The whole Kurian system would work better if they just formed a New Order bank or something and had a currency that was good everywhere. This business of shuttling around boxcars full of people is just ludicrous. "All I've got is a two-hundred-pound male, can I get a hundred-pound woman and a fifty-pound kid as change?""
Valentine heard the Duke laugh.
"Okay, I'm exaggerating again. It's a little better organized than that. It's one thing for the Kurians here to send a few boxcars full of people up to Milwaukee and then bring the cars back here loaded with beer. But let's say I want to buy beef in Texas. If it's hot, some of the 'currency' is going to drop dead on the trip. Plus you got the local Reapers in Tennessee and points south looking to take some people off you in exchange for riding their rails."
"Well," the Duke countered, "you got to look at it from their point of view. Money doesn't mean much to them. Some of them like art and stuff, but auras are the only recognized currency. They're like a bunch of damn junkies."
"Yeah, you're right. But it still makes me nuts. Plus the people know what's coming at the other end of the ride, which makes them tough to control. And finding good men to do the work of keeping them in line ain't easy. Most of the ambitious ones are in the military. Leaves me with the idiots and thugs who just want to push people around."
"I hear that," the Duke agreed. "Listen, if the side meat is a little late, we're okay. I'll just do a special on pork chops or something. But you gotta get home to those pretty wives of yours, and my stomach is growling. Call me tomorrow and let me know if you've made any progress."
They said their good-byes, and the man, richly dressed in a matched set of pin-striped pants and a vest, walked out and waved at Denise. She picked up the telephone and pressed a button.
"Hi, big guy. Can you see someone really fast? It's that sailor with the black hair, David Teeny... No, we met him in Wisconsin last month... Yeah, at the buy... I dunno, he said he might have some later... Okay."
"You can go in, Dave," she said, getting up and opening the door. The empty eyes of the pale painted king stared into his.
The Duke, who seemed to draw his fashion inspiration from Elvis Presley, wore a white silk jumpsuit with the four suits of cards printed as racing stripes going down his arms and the seams of his pants, which were tucked into white leather boots. His office was all business, save for a rug made out of a polar bear. Its snarling mouth pointed at the door.
The Duke was putting away papers and clearing his desk. Valentine noticed a gleaming revolver in easy reach used as a paperweight.
"Well, well, well. David Tiny, right? Didn't expect to see you so soon. I heard a boat from the Fleet was in, but it wasn't yours. What are you doing in Wisconsin blues? You jump ship?"
"Bull's-eye," Valentine said with a smile. "There was some bad blood with the captain. I'm searching for fairer horizons."
Valentine reached into his bag and pulled out one of the bottles of bonded whiskey. "Here you go, Mr. Duke. A little token of my esteem. Thanks for the great party that night at the Bunker."
"Hey, thanks, Tiny, you're two flavors of all right," the Duke said, reading the label. "So you're seeking a new opportunity. Ambitious fellow. Good for you. Hey, you wouldn't have another load of that high blue, would you?"
"Sorry, sir. But if I did, you'd get it." All of it, Valentine thought. Wonder how you'd look after swallowing a pound of cocaine?
The Duke seemed to lose interest. "Too bad. So, you gave up life on the waves and are toting a gun in Wisconsin. Any other plans?"
"Just a brass ring."
"Well, I wish you luck. Here's a card; you can get an evening's drinks at any of my clubs. And here's a backstage pass for the Hearts room. You're good-looking. One of the girls might take a shine to you. You'll find they're a lot more fun than those would-be dykes on that ship. Have Denise endorse it on your way out, would you?" the Duke said, putting his hand significantly on the phone.
"Sir, I'm new in town. I've got some barter I want to turn into cash. Where won't I get ripped off?"
The Duke's interest returned. "Sure, buddy, I can give you an opinion on that. What you got?"
Valentine placed the contents of his sack, save for his parang and Virgil Ames's pistol belt, on the Duke's desk, finishing by laying the Remington carefully on top. The Duke picked up the gun and worked the action. "Not bad, Dave. How'd you come up with this stuff after only a month in uniform?"
"Same way as I got the pass to come down here for three days. I did my captain a big favor."
"A favor? What kind of favor?"
"I promised not to say."
The Duke smiled. "I get it," he said, flicking the side of his nose with a finger. "I bet you took out the captain's rival. Or did the colonel get shot by insurgents and the captain take his place?"
"You're warm, but I can't tell you, sir. Sorry."
The Duke examined the rest of the loot. He plugged in the silver cigar lighter and worked it. "Hey, that's aces. Look nice down in the Club Room. Tell you what, since you're an old friend and all, I'll buy it all off you. Make it three grand, plus free drinks in the Hearts room while you're on your pass. This your first trip to Chicago? You can have a lot of fun on three grand."
"Yes, it is, Mr. Duke. But I think I can do better on Michigan Avenue."
"Hold on, son. Okay, five grand. I wish I could do better, but jewelry just isn't worth what it used to be."
"Mr. Duke, some patrollers told me about the Zoo. What's that?"
The Duke laughed. "The Zoo, huh? I guess your balls are working again after that kick you took. Well, the Zoo is the place for you, then. It's pricey, but it's a blast. Every night is anything-goes night. Ever seen a Grog fuck a woman? They got one there with a dick like your forearm. Hey, Tiny, tell you what. Just to seal the deal, how about I give you a three-day pass to the Zoo. Save you a grand right there."
Valentine reached into his pocket and pulled out the mirrored sunglasses. "You do that and give me a place to crash while I'm in town, and I'll throw these in."
"Let me see those," the Duke said. Valentine passed the shades over, and the Duke looked at the wire-thin frame. "These are twentieth century, maybe." He gently flexed a bow. "Hell, real titanium. Okay, Dave, you got your place to sleep. Have Denise set you up in one of the rooms above the Club Room. There's even a shower down the hall. You can get yourself all squeaky clean for your night at the Zoo."
"And my five grand?"
"Coming, coming. Gotta hit the old bank."
The Duke walked across his office to the rear and swung a velvet painting of a grinning jester's face away from the wall. A gray, formidable-looking safe sat in the wall behind. Whistling, the Duke spun the combination and opened the door, which was layered with multiple panels of steel. He extracted a pad of bills with a thick rubber band around it and walked over, handing it to Valentine.
"Five thou, my friend. Pleasure doing business with you."
Valentine pulled up the first bill and flipped through the others. "Hey, most of these aren't authorized!" he objected.
The Duke slapped him on the shoulder. "Good eye, Dave, good eye. I knew you were sharp! That was just a test to see what kind of an edge your mental blade has. Here, give me that back, I'll get you the real stuff."
The Duke wandered over to a decorative roulette table stacked with bottles of fine liquor. He spun the wheel to a point Valentine could not determine and pulled up the spinner. He reached into the space beneath the wheel and took out a sheaf of bills. He hurriedly counted.
"Okay, all this is authorized, Dave. Scout's honor. But spend it all-that stamp's good only for a couple more weeks. Then you gotta stand in line for a new issue. Counterfeiters make it tough on us hardworking smugglers."
Valentine checked again, seeing the red circle with cryptic squiggles stamped over the face of Ben Franklin on each bill.
He picked up the now almost-empty sack. "Thanks, Duke. I want my first trip to Chicago to be a memorable one."
"Don't mention it. If you decide to move here, I might be able to connect you to a job. For, say, fifteen percent out of your first year's paychecks. I could even need a favor myself someday. You might be able to help me with that, and I'd be able to give you a hell of a lot more in return than your captain, or whatever he is. And Chicago beats the hell out of living up in Cheeseland."
"It's my kind of town," Valentine agreed.
Valentine arranged for his room with Denise. The room was small and clean and had a mattress to die for. Valentine inspected the late Virgil Ames's pistol again. It was an old army Colt automatic, firing the powerful .45 ACP cartridge. It wouldn't necessarily stop a Reaper, but it would give it something to think about. The gun belt also held four spare magazines, all of which were full. With the ammunition in the gun, that gave him thirty-five rounds. More than enough, as he did not want to use the weapon except as a last resort.
Valentine stretched out on the bed and forced himself to sleep for two hours. He showered and put the gun belt and his knife back in his pillowcase sack.
He ate downstairs in the Club room. The food was simple, satisfying, and overpriced: He paid twenty-five dollars for an overloaded sandwich and a pot of tea. He looked at an employee working on a case that held smoking paraphernalia and had a thought.
"Excuse me, sir," he said to the server behind the counter. "Do you have any waterproof matches?"
"Huh?" the waiter asked, flummoxed.
"He means the big matches in the tins," the man arranging cigars in the display case said. Valentine noticed a tattoo with a dagger stuck through a skull on his arm. "They work good even in the rain."
"Yeah, that's what I'm looking for," Valentine agreed. "I'm outside a lot, and it's a bitch to light a cigar in wet weather."
"Here's what you want," the cigar man said, putting a circular tin in front of Valentine. Valentine unscrewed the lid and extracted a three-inch match. The entire thing was lightly coated with a waxy substance. Valentine struck one on the strip at the side of the tin, and it flared into a white light. He could feel the heat on his face. "That's magnesium," the man explained. "It'll get a cigar going in any wind, unless your tobacco is soaked, of course."
"Hey, thanks. Can't find these in Wisconsin. How much for a tin?"
"They ain't cheap. Fifty bucks for a tin of ten matches."
"If I buy five tins, will you give them to me for two hundred?"
"Sure, seeing as you're a friend of the man upstairs."
"Done," Valentine agreed, and toked the man the other fifty.
"You must not get to Chicago often."
"No, there's lots of things here that you can't get in Wisconsin. Like the Zoo."
The tattooed man looked wistful. "Yes, but I can't afford to go there often. Once in a while I buy a cheap pass off the Duke."
"Ever been to the Black Hole?"
"Oh sure, I've checked it out a couple of times. I've got a strong stomach for that kind of thing. Some of it even turned me on."
"Do they ever let regular guys get at the girls, or is it just shows?"
"Oh, if you've got a couple thou in cash, they got these rooms in the basement. Soundproofed, you know. And you can do anything you want. Anything. After all, the women and men in the Black Hole, well, they're the people that the Kur decided deserved something worse than the Loop."
"You don't know anyone who works there, do you?"
"Nahh, sorry. Wish I did. But you seem to know how to toke. Just get the money in the right hands, and you'll be fine."
Valentine paid for his matches and took his leave of the eatery. He approached Wideload, still on duty, blocking the door like a parked dump truck.
"Leaving?" Wideload said, stepping aside to open the door after a glance outside. "Fun starts soon."
Valentine squeezed past the human obstacle and entered the street.
He turned and looked up the sidewalk in the direction of Lake Michigan. A black van, its windows reinforced with wire, stood on the curb in front of him. The initials CSS and a small logo were stenciled in white on its side. The Chicago Security Service?
Two grubby youths leaning on a corner stubbed out their half-smoked cigarettes.
A silent siren went off in Valentine's head. Tobacco in Chicago wouldn't be wasted by street punks. He heard footsteps behind him.
For a moment his body betrayed him: His legs turned to bags of water. When the handle on the back door of the CSS van turned, he knew the trap was being sprung.
Two massive arms enveloped him. Wideload locked his hands in a deadly variation of the Heimlich maneuver, but instead of pushing up into his diaphragm he pulled Valentine to him in a rib-squeezing embrace. Valentine's breath left him.
A second pair of men approached from across the street.
One, tall and thin wearing a red tank top and pair of chain-mail gloves, removed a pair of familiar sunglasses as he ran toward Wideload and his victim.
"You're-," Wideload started to say, when Valentine brought his booted heel down hard on his captor's instep. He thrust back his head, and felt a solid thunk. The bear hug ceased.
The four men closing on him were trying to trap him between the Clubs Flush wall and the CSS van. Its rusty back door swung open. He lashed out with his foot, kicking the door closed again. It shut on something, fingers or a foot; muffled howls echoed from inside the van.
He ran across the street, accidentally spilling a pair of riders on bicycles as they turned on their rubberless wheels to avoid him. The four pursuers tried to triangulate in on him, but he called on his speed and his legs answered. He cornered around a parked horse wagon so fast his feet skidded on the pavement. But he maintained his balance... just.
With open sidewalk ahead of him he broke into a loping run. A few loungers on doorsteps stared as he passed. He chanced a glance over his shoulder; the four were sprinting to catch him.
Thirty seconds passed, and the four became three. In another minute, the three were two. By the time Valentine turned a corner, running up a series of short cluttered blocks, the two had become one: the tall man with the chain-mail gloves. His red tank top was dark with sweat.
Valentine turned down an alley and found breath in his body to do one more sprint. He zigzagged around fetid mountains of refuse, scattering rats with his passage. His pursuer just managed to start down the alley as Valentine turned the corner at the other end. To the east down this street he saw an end to the buildings. I must be near the lakeshore... and the Zoo.
He pressed himself up against the corner and listened to his pursuer's heavy breathing and heavier footsteps as he trotted up the alley. The man slowed, sucking wind as he approached the alley's exit.
When he knew the man was about to come around the corner, Valentine lunged. He brought his knee up into the winded man's groin. Chain-Mail Gloves managed to avoid the blow, but Valentine's thick thigh still caught him in the stomach. The blow was just as debilitating: The Chicago air left Chain-Mail Gloves's lungs in a gasp, and he bent over in breathless agony. In no mood for a fair fight, Valentine grabbed his assailant by his hair and brought his knee up again. Cartilage gave way with a sickening crunch. The man went down, now out of what wasn't much of a fight to begin with.
The Wolf shuddered, still keyed up. He pulled the gloves from the unconscious man and added them to his sack of weapons, then trembled again. But for a different reason.
A Reaper. Coming, and already so near.
Valentine tried to clear his mind, make it as empty and transparent as a paneless window. He stepped back into the shadows of the alley, moving away from the Reaper. At the other end, he dug himself into a pile of trash, burrowing on his knees and elbows into the filth. He felt cockroaches crunch and crawl as he joined them at the bottom of the sodden refuse pile.
The alley grew colder.
up, you, up, Valentine heard a Reaper say, seemingly in his ear.
The Wolf almost leaped to his feet, ready to fight and die, when he realized the voice was at the end of the alley with the Duke's thug.
Center, center, I've got to center or..., David thought frantically.
you, foodling-where is the terrorist?
"Murfer... motherfucker jumped me," the man groaned, in the sharp honking tones of a man with a broken nose. "I dunno... speak clear, willya? Who? Ohmygod!"
"Yessir... umm, I think he went... toward the lake? That's where he was running. Sorta."
you were supposed to follow him, not take him.
"The Duke said-"
the duke isn't here, or he would be taken... instead of you!
A motor at Valentine's end of the alley drowned out the Reaper's low hissing voice. He looked out from beneath his garbage and saw a gleaming red car stop. One of the punks who had dropped out of the footrace sat on the hood, directing it. Rats scattered again as the man jumped off and the passenger door opened.
Valentine heard screaming, the terrible gurgling sound of a man being fed on, from the other end of the alley. The cold spot on Valentine's mind marking the Reaper swelled and pulsed as it conducted the aura to its Master Vampire. All around the neighborhood Valentine heard doors slamming and windows closing.
From beneath a mass of flattened cardboard Valentine watched the Duke, in all his gauche splendor, blanch as he looked down the alley. The Duke gulped, and slunk into the alley toward the scene. His henchman trailed him for two steps, then thought better of it and returned to the car. The Duke rubbed the brass ring on his finger. Valentine wondered if he sought comfort in its touch, or perhaps imagined what having his finger pulled off would feel like. The Wolf read mortal fear in the Duke's eyes before he passed. He let his ears take over, afraid to shift his position. The Reaper had senses other than that which allowed it to read auras.
the good duke, the Reaper whispered, slowly and thickly. eight years with a brass ring courtesy of his aura-drunk lord, dealer of powder-white chemical joy. harborer of terrorists.
"How was I to know, sir?"
you are too ready to do business first and ask questions not at all. you have tap-danced close to the edge of the law too many times: others in the order are beginning to take notice, like this fiasco, my instructions were not clear?
"I just thought-"
you're kept alive to do, not think, the Reaper hissed.
"Well, why should that damn renegade get my money anyway, sir? He's up to no good; throw him in the clink and be done with him."
that "damn renegade" is something special, one of my clan sensed him coming into the train yard, we want to know, who he is going to meet, what they know, and what they plan, his kind do not just wander into town to look around, he's one of that breed our foe-kin use for their dirty work, clean up this mess and return to your club, we will take over the search.
"He said he was going to the Zoo."
a cover story, or perhaps...
"What shall I do with my man?"
throw the corpse to the snappers, i go now, to find what you have lost, i felt his aura hot and clear for a moment as he fought with your man, i can find him again.
The chilling spot in Valentine's mind moved away. He waited while the Duke had another henchman carry the corpse to his trunk. By the time they left the alley, it had grown dark.
Valentine emerged from underneath the garbage and left the alley. He concentrated on keeping lifesign down, casting about for somewhere to get some clean clothes. He found a used-leather-goods store and purchased four cheap belts and a long leather trench coat that was missing some buttons. He put the black coat on after paying for it. In an alley, he put on the gun belt and the parang and filled his pockets with the tins of matches. He tucked a belt up his left sleeve and rolled the others up and put them in his pants pockets. His remaining cash lay folded in his breast pocket, next to his identity papers and a small white card.
Well, I'm as ready for the Zoo as I'll ever be, Valentine thought. Pray God the Zoo isn't ready for me.