Naked, she floated in the warm, still water. It was quiet, and her eyes were closed. The sun was warm. She had no idea how long she had been floating there, and she had no plans to move. Maybe this was what it was like to be dead.
"Oh, my God! What are you doing there? Get out of my pool!"
starling opened her eyes. A chubby man was standing at the edge of the pool, shaking his fist at her. He had a receding hairline and was wearing plaid swimming trunks. He looked quite irate, and also quite nervous.
"See here," he said, talking quickly, "I don't know who you are, but you've got to be out of there before my wife gets home!"
starling sighed. She didn't understand the point the man was making about his wife, but she did understand that he was going to keep on yelling and hopping around until she left.
She rolled over in the water and swam quickly to the far side of the pool where she had left her clothes. The little man was chugging around the perimeter of the pool, still yelling. starling picked up a towel and started to dry herself.
"What do you think, you can just use a man's pool whenever you feel like it? That's a fine way to . . ."
She tuned him out. She was getting irritated at how much he was yelling. It was obvious she was leaving, what was the point of continuing to yell? Also, she didn't like the way he was looking at her body.
She was not about to get dressed, though, until she was completely dry. She dropped the towel she was using and picked up another, briskly rubbing down her thighs and calves.
"My wife! She's not going to like this! I don't see how you can expect . . ."
She tuned him out again, sitting down on a small stool to pull on her socks. First the light cotton pair, then the heavy wool ones. When they were smoothed to her satisfaction, she put on her bra and then pulled on her leotard, pulling it up to her waist. Then she slipped on the light nylon rig that held the long, flat knife between her shoulder blades. When that was comfortably in place, she pulled the leotard the rest of the way on.
She became aware that the man was now sputtering and pointing at her shoulder holster. It was a fine shoulder holster, she thought as she put it on, all hand-tooled leather, but she had a feeling that he wasn't admiring the workmanship.
"Hurry!" the man said as she strapped her gunbelt around her hips. Something didn't feel right.
"You can't go around like that!" the man yelled, gesturing at her knees. She looked down and sighed.
She had forgotten to put on her pants. She looked at him, about to say that this was what happened when you tried to rush things.
"Otis!" came a stentorian voice. "So this is your little plaything!"
Otis' wife (presumably) hove into view like an ocean liner coming into port. She started towards them around the perimeter of the pool.
starling was leaning over, her pants around her ankles. She took a quick look around for Otis' "little plaything" but she didn't see anything that seemed to qualify. Then she realized that Otis was tugging at her arm and saying something that sounded like "Kill her!"
starling reached over and picked up her hunting knife. "You want me to kill her?" she asked, not wanting to make a mistake.
"No! Tell her! Tell her!"
"Tell her what?" starling asked. By this time she was seriously considering killing both of them so she could finish dressing in peace.
"Tell her you're not my girlfriend!"
starling digested this request as she zipped up her pants. She buckled her gunbelt again, and put on her fatigue jacket. She put on her sunglasses and looked at Otis' wife, who was just arriving.
"You must be mad," she rasped.
"Death might be really cool," Carl said. He held his lighter over the small hole he had cut in the top of the apple, inhaling deeply from the second hole in the side.
Jennifer Owens shook her head. "For one thing, those pipes don't draw worth shit. For another, death is not really cool. I've seen people die, and I think it sucks."
She took the apple and toked, frowning.
"How's it draw?" Carl asked.
"Fuckin' awful. It's like smoking a sock."
"I think death sucks and I think life sucks, too."
Carl laughed and leaned back against the chimney. "Well, maybe your life–"
"Not my life, though that's bad enough. I mean this life," she patted herself on the stomach.
Carl's eyes widened in mock horror, but then he quickly shifted gears. "For real?" he asked.
"As real as cancer."
"You know, that's always the first question. Who does it belong to? Whose magic wand has caused this miracle to happen?" She shuddered. "I feel like a fireplug that's been peed on by two different dogs." She looked him in the eye. "I'll tell you who it belongs to: me. My fucking problem no matter what, and nobody's going to help me with it, I can tell you that."
"Oh, stop making yourself feel good. You hate my guts, baby or no baby. Look after your own bastards if you want to do something useful. I'm going in." She stood up unsteadily.
The blonde woman in the big army coat looked up as the kitchen window opened. Carl and Jenny came stumbling in, having come down the fire escape from the roof. The woman was sitting at the kitchen table, apparently trying to play solitaire with one of Carl's trick decks. She looked at them, eyes narrowing slightly, then she turned her attention back to the cards.
Jennifer Owens blinked her eyes, crossed her arms and said, "Well!"
The woman ignored her.
"Who are you?" asked Carl. She didn't react.
"Look," Carl said, "this is a quasi-private apartment. You can't just barge in here and sit around our kitchen looking like–"
"Oh, shit," Jenny said, sitting down heavily.
starling was used to this. For some reason, people didn't like to say her name out loud.
"Are you here for one of us?" Carl asked quietly.
"I'm waiting for Pete," she said without looking up.
Carl drew himself up and squared his narrow shoulders. "You'll have to go through me. Pete is my friend."
starling put the cards down and looked at him more closely, realizing for the first time that the conversation had gone off the tracks somewhere.
"Pete and I are going out to dinner," she said finally.
"Oh, cool. Can we come?"
She shook her head. "No."
It was Tuesday. Pete had been at work for five hours. In that time he had sold two pounds of coffee, two boxes of coffee filters and a bag of ginseng tea.
The store had been empty for a while. He leaned back and thought about his band, Kingdom Come. They had not been able to perform for an audience for several months, and it was even difficult to rehearse. Live music was all but illegal, and their situation was especially difficult because they were viewed as attracting "undesirable elements." Which was, of course, true.
But now there was actually a chance that they would be able to perform for an audience again later that week, and that meant there were a million things that had to be figured out.
As a matter of fact, Kingdom Come would succeed in playing a gig on that Friday night, but it would turn out to be their last. In the middle of their set, Philip Henshaw (the leader of the band) would be stabbed with a broken beer bottle by his girlfriend, Jennifer Owens. Later that night, Carl Neighbour (the drummer) would be shot to death in an alley. A little more than twenty-four hours after that, Jennifer Owens would be killed trying to get into an abortion clinic.
Of course, Pete didn't know any of this on Tuesday, and the one person who could have told him had her own reasons for keeping quiet.
Pete awoke with a start to find himself face to face with the most dangerous woman in America. She stood facing him across the counter, a shiny automatic steady in her hand. She spoke in a raspy voice.
"I want some information."
He sat up very slowly.
"I was told you could help me find somebody," she said, lowering the gun but holding it ready.
Nobody ever looks exactly like their photographs. Somebody had said that to Pete once, but this was clearly the exception. She was about 5'7" (Pete was cataloguing facts to try and calm his nerves), with a thin face, her eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. Her hair was dirty blonde, unkempt and hacked off apparently at random. Her mouth was small and grim. The most common characteristic in newspaper cartoons and caricatures was a short, flat line for her mouth.
She wore a bulky army coat, quite stained and worn, big fatigue pants tucked into black army boots, with a gunbelt across her hips. He had seen quite a few people dressed as her at various costume parties and parades, but somehow he knew this was the real starling.
"I want to find Deirdre Hammersmith," she said.
Pete felt a sinking sensation. "I've never heard of her," he said, thinking that these might be his last words.
starling looked vexed as the door started to open, setting off the little bell that let him know a customer was coming in. Without turning her head, starling tossed her automatic to her left hand, bringing it up again to point at Pete. She drew her revolver, aimed it at the door and fired.
The glass in the door shattered and the couple who had been coming in turned and ran. starling holstered her revolver again (her eyes had never left Pete) and said, "You haven't answered my question."
Pete felt light-headed as he tried to remember if she'd asked him a question.
"Question?" he asked hesitantly.
"Who can help me find Deirdre Hammersmith?" she asked.
"Does she live around here?"
starling shrugged, dropping the gun down to her side again. "I got a message from her. She wants to hire me. That's all I know."
Pete tried to think of something helpful to say. "Frances," he said finally. "She works at the bar the Quarter. She knows all kinds of people."
"Okay, let's go there."
"They aren't open this early. And I don't know where she lives." This last was a lie, but he didn't really want to lead starling right to Frances' apartment.
starling nodded, obviously thinking. "Where do you live? Around here?"
Pete couldn't think of any way to deny he knew his own address, so he just shook his head. "It's a little ways–"
"Okay, we'll go there first. I need someplace to leave my bag."
It was at this point that Pete started to get the idea that the most dangerous woman in America had basically attached herself to him and was not about to let go until he produced Deirdre Hammersmith.
starling jerked her head toward the door and Pete got to his feet. As they went outside into the bright sunlight their feet crunched on the broken glass. starling looked down at her feet, then looked at the door.
"The door's broken," she observed.
She said this very off-handedly, as if making a comment about the weather, and Pete wasn't sure how to respond. Finally he said, "It's okay, I'll close the gate." He reached up to pull it down as starling nodded and moved to the battered and mud-caked motorcycle that stood at the curb.
Pete stood on the corner and took in a deep breath. He had managed to convince starling to wait in his apartment while he went out to make a few phone calls. This was pure balderdash, of course, he just needed to steady his nerves. There wasn't a working phone for blocks anyway.
He sipped from the can of beer he had just bought.
He had been surprised at how easily she had agreed to his leaving. She seemed to have no concern at all that he was going to run right out and call the cops. Either she was a canny judge of human nature, or she just didn't care.
When they had arrived at the apartment nobody had been there. starling had looked around, checking doors and windows, and had seen Carl's wall of clippings next to the sink.
"Fourteen Dead in Dayton Burger Chef 'Creamer' Flap"
"Community Policing Day Ends in Riot"
"Murder Maid Stages Muscatine Mall Massacre"
"Champaign-Urbana May Never Be The Same"
"Bloodbath in Cedar Rapids Friendly's"
She turned quickly and pinned Pete against the wall, her forearm like a steel bar across his throat. She pulled a pistol and pressed it into his left eyeball. He heard the click of the hammer being pulled back.
"What is this?" she snarled, her breath hot on his face. "Is this a set-up?"
Her arm across his windpipe prevented Pete from either speaking or breathing, leaving him with desperate hand motions, his eyes bulging. She stood motionless, waiting. It was a stand-off, or it would have been if Pete hadn't been about to pass out.
starling, realizing that she wasn't going to get an answer to her question this way, removed her arm from his throat and stepped back, her gun still held steady on him. "What the hell is going on here?" she demanded. "Why do you have those stories on your wall?"
Pete leaned over, his hands on his knees as he choked, trying to catch his breath. Fireworks were going off behind his left eye.
Then he gestured at the clippings on the wall. "Carl . . ." he gasped. "He collects . . . clippings. Wild ones. Like the ones about you."
She looked suspicious. "Who's Carl?" she asked finally.
"Carl," he said, straightening up slowly. "He's my roommate. He's the drummer . . . in my band."
Her expression indicated that she thought this was very unlikely, but she holstered her revolver again and said, "Maybe we should have some dinner soon."
It was right after this that Pete said he was going out to make some phone calls.
"Hey, Pete," said a voice from behind him, and Pete whirled, bumping into a pole that had once held a parking meter, losing his grip on his beer can (which went flying), and nearly falling off the curb.
Henshaw laughed as the beer landed in the middle of the street. "Next time I'll feel you up. Why so jumpy?"
Pete shook his head. "You wouldn't believe me. What's up?"
"I was just coming to pick up Herself." He jerked his head up to indicate Pete's apartment across the street. "She's been in a bad mood all day and I thought if I left her here for a while she'd have a fight with Carl and get it all out of her system."
Pete frowned. "I was just up there and I didn't see either one of them. Maybe they went out."
Henshaw shrugged and jerked his thumb upwards. "Or they went topside. You know Amadeus, he loves being up on the roof." He started to rub his hands together. "I just saw Eddy. I think he's going to go for Friday night. He's got some idea that he's going to get some press to come." He shrugged dismissively. "Fat chance, I say. But what it means is that we have to figure out some way to practice between now and then." He looked around impatiently. "Why are we standing around out here? Let's go inside."
Pete started to say something, but then he just shrugged and nodded.
Inside, starling and Jenny Owens were sitting at the kitchen table, and Carl was leaning against the windowsill.
Carl made a face at Pete. "Hey, chief," he said to Henshaw, "Pete's got a girlfriend!" He drew out the word 'girlfriend' until Pete started to wish starling would shoot him.
Henshaw wasn't paying any attention, however, and he didn't really look at starling. He was grinning at Jenny Owens, who was refusing to look at him.
"This is Philip Henshaw," Pete said to starling. "I guess you met these guys already. Jenny is Henshaw's girlfriend."
This statement was followed by a brief pause, then everybody started to speak at the same time.
Henshaw (to Jenny): Want to go eat? I'm ravenous. I think we
should . . .
Jenny (to Henshaw): Where the hell have you been? I've been stuck here . . .
starling (to Pete): Did you find out anything?
Pete (to starling): The phone calls didn't pan out. I think we should . . .
Carl (to nobody in particular): All this yelling is disturbing to a person of my delicate artistic temperament . . .
It went on like this for a while until finally Henshaw and Jenny Owens left, still yelling, and Carl stuck a small pad of paper in his pants pocket and climbed back out the window to the fire escape.
starling stood up and gestured at Carl's rump as it vanished out the window. "That guy with the pony-tail wrote down the Frances person's address for me. Let's go."
Frances Chan, the manager of the Quarter, sat at the end of the bar and regarded Jennifer Owens.
Philip Henshaw and Jennifer Owens had come in a half hour before, and had taken a small table in a far corner. It was still early in the evening. Only a few other regulars were there, most of the tables were empty. Donna was busy behind the bar, so Frances had served them herself.
After she had brought their beers (they were both such regulars that she knew what they would order as well as they did) she returned to her stool at the bar and tried to concentrate on balancing the books. Henshaw and Owens had necked for a while, neither looking particularly happy about it, and then Henshaw had stood up abruptly and gone out.
Frances really liked the band Kingdom Come, but she was starting to be sorry that she knew the musicians as well as she did. When they were playing she enjoyed it as much as ever, but it was never the same once you had to wonder how in the world such ordinary people were capable of producing such extraordinary music.
Jenny Owens put her empty beer bottle on the table and looked around. Frances caught Donna's eye and jerked her head toward the table.
Donna got a beer from the cooler, placed it on her tray and glided over to the table, wearing her highly efficient waitress expression.
Jenny reached and took the beer without looking up from the table.
"Drinking alone tonight?" Donna asked cheerfully. "What happened to your lord and master?"
"Mother-fuck you!" Jenny screamed.
Donna shrugged, picked up the empty bottle and sailed back toward the bar, her expression still serene.
"She seems a little bit cranky," Frances commented as Donna tossed the empty bottle into the big bin where it shattered.
"Oh, just a little," Donna said lightly. "Next drink she orders, I'm gonna pee in it."
Frances laughed and was about to respond when she heard a commotion. Suddenly worried about the possibility of a raid, she looked around. Everybody in the place seemed to be staring at the door. By leaning back and craning her neck she could see past the jukebox to the entrance area, where she saw Pete, the bass player for Kingdom Come.
She knew there must be more to this. Pete was well liked, but until now he had never managed to cause a stir just by walking in through the door. She stood up and walked around the jukebox to see who he was with.
The woman stood in the doorway, looking around slowly. She wore army boots, loose fatigue pants, a short military jacket and sunglasses. There was a gunbelt low on her hips, a large revolver at her side. She gave the impression that she might have left a horse tied up outside, but nobody was laughing.
It's not easy to get a rise out of the regular crowd at the Quarter, but enough of the people who were there managed to read a newspaper from time to time to have some idea who this was.
Pete saw Frances and came over to her, the blonde woman walking more slowly behind him. He looked rather nervous, which certainly seemed understandable.
"Hi," he said. "We went by your house before, but you weren't there."
"I had to get here early, we were expecting some deliveries." She glanced at starling as she came up beside Pete. "Sorry to have missed you, I guess. What's up?"
"Well, we wanted to ask you a question."
Frances nodded. "Fire away," she said as starling ran a finger along the butt of her revolver.
He winced. "Very funny. Do you know a Deirdre Hammersmith?"
Frances looked startled. She thought for a second, then shook her head. "Not that I can remember. Who is she?"
"I have no idea, but apparently she lives around here. Who would know?"
Frances sat back on the stool and starling looked around. "George, maybe," she said finally. "Dr. Lee knows a lot of people, but she's very careful about what she says, and to who." She thought some more. "That's all I can think of." She smiled. "If it was anybody else asking, I'd send them to you."
Pete didn't look pleased by this.
starling sighed and moved closer to Frances, removing her sunglasses and placing them in an inside pocket. When her hand came back out of her jacket it held a gun. She was obviously about to point it at Frances when Pete put his hand around her wrist. "That's not going to help," he insisted quietly. She looked grim as he waited, sweating slightly. Frances was suddenly aware of how close the three of them were standing to each other. starling's expression was impossible to read, and it seemed as though the three of them stood motionless for a very long time.
Without changing expression, starling slowly put the gun away and asked "Any more ideas?"
Frances looked at Pete. "Only one more possibility." She turned slightly so that her body hid her hand from the rest of the room (most of the patrons were watching this scene nervously) and pointed down at the floor with a quick gesture.
starling looked quickly at Pete and he shook his head, saying "Later" in a whisper.
To his surprise, she nodded in acquiescence.
Pete sat at his kitchen table. The room was dark except for the light from a single candle. starling slept curled up in the corner. Pete got up and went to the stove where he got down on his hands and knees and pulled off the battered metal front panel. He reached in and felt around, finally pulling out a large bound book. After carefully replacing the panel, he brought the book over to the table and sat down. He turned the pages until he got to the first blank one, and started to write.
Real Name: unknown
Age: unknown (probably 25-40)
Height: 5'7" or so
Hair: Blond, straight, shoulder length, obviously cut on an 'as needed' basis.
First Met: At work. Somebody sent her to ask me how to find Deirdre Hammersmith.
Questions: 1) who sent her to me? (consider possible retaliation) 2) who is Deirdre Hammersmith?
I have a lot of questions (about starling, I mean), but I have a feeling it might be dangerous to know the answers. I remember reading an article recently that claimed she was once a top-level government assassin who went crazy. I've also heard (I think from a local politician) that she was once a mob enforcer who went crazy. That guy who makes speeches in the park claimed she was an alien soldier who got separated from the invasion force and went crazy because she was cut off from the group mind.
The common thread here seems to be that, whatever she was before, she is now crazy. I can believe this. She doesn't seem to own any clothes except what she's wearing, and at close quarters it's fairly obvious she doesn't rate personal hygiene as a very high priority.
Anyway, according to the Peterson Sanity Test, she's crazy. Unlike people who are just working at being eccentric, she seems to sort of come and go. Sometimes I can almost have a conversation with her (like our talk about the bathrooms at the Quarter), other times she seems to be tuning in to a few different stations at once.
There are certainly times when it's been easy to believe she's killed all those people. She looked ready to kill Frances without thinking before I stopped her (by the way, what the hell was I thinking of? - I was sure for a minute there that she was going to kill both of us).
(He was interrupted at this point by a soft knock on the door.)
starling opened her eyes.
She was in a dark room. She listened intently. She was completely awake, not tense but fully alert.
She was lying down, a cover of some sort over her, staring at the ceiling.
Someone moaned quietly. A woman, she thought. That was probably what had awakened her.
Slowly, without a sound, she rolled onto her side so she was looking across the room. The window behind her admitted a little moonlight, and she could see a refrigerator and a stove, the white surfaces seeming to shimmer in the gloom. She looked further and saw a mattress on the floor.
Slipping out of her covers, she padded silently on her hands and knees toward the mattress.
A man lay nearest her, one skinny arm and one hairy leg sticking out beyond the edge of the mattress. He was on his side, facing her, but she didn't recognize him. His face was thin, his hair dark and stringy.
She stood up further, into a half-crouch, to see beyond the man. The woman on the other side of the mattress made a small, high sound and the man rolled onto his back, saying something that sounded like "Five, it's five."
The woman was pale, facing toward the wall. Her wide, pale back looked eerie in the moonlight.
Then there was an odd series of taps, thumps and moans from the other side of a door, and starling turned her attention there. Her hand and arm looked as insubstantial as smoke as she reached up for the doorknob.
The other room was much smaller, barely big enough for the huge mattress in the center. She sat back on her haunches, absorbing a flurry of impressions.
She breathed deeply. Sweat (new and old), pot smoke, cigarette smoke, beer, and some pungent chemical smells she couldn't identify.
It was hard to figure out what was going on in the room. The pile of limbs and bed clothes defied easy analysis, especially in the near darkness. The whole mass was moving, like a thick bubbling soup.
She moved a little further into the room, crouching on her hands and knees, fascinated.
It had to be at least three people, she decided.
"Oh, my God!" came a woman's voice from the room behind her. starling was glad for the excuse to get out of the bedroom and close the door again.
The blond woman was looking out the window. "You weren't supposed to let me fall asleep!" she said to the man. He squinted at her, obviously perplexed and not yet awake.
"He'll be furious. What the hell time is it?" She dove for the bed and yanked off all the covers. "Where are my Goddamn clothes?"
"I–" the man began, but she whacked him. "You-Weren't-Supposed-To-Let-Me-Fall-Asleep!" she said, hitting him on the shoulder to emphasize every word. Grabbing a pair of jeans, she stood up and pulled them on, nearly falling over. "I'm fucked now, fucked! He's gonna know something's going on."
She picked up a sweatshirt and quickly pulled it on. The man picked up a bra from the pile of bedclothes. "Gimme that!" she snapped, taking it from him. She picked up a denim jacket from the floor and stuffed the bra into an inner pocket. "I'm taking your bike," she announced as she ran out, slamming the door behind her.
starling was starting to wonder if this was a dream. For one thing, nobody seemed to realize she was there. But then the man turned and smiled wryly at her.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi," she replied.
"Pete," he reminded her.
She nodded. "Pete."
He sighed. "Now I ask you, is it really worth all the fuss?"
A high, thin voice from the next room started to go "uuuuhUUUUHuuuuhUUUUHuuuuhUUUUuuuuUUUUuuuuHHHHH!"
Pete smiled, running his fingers through his hair. "Well, I guess Carl and his friends would answer 'Yes' to that particular question." He got awkwardly to his feet and stumbled to the door, snapping the lock.
He turned to her. "You want some coffee?"
He fumbled around on top of the refrigerator until he found a book of matches. Then he lit the fat purple candle that sat in the center of the kitchen table, surrounded by a hardened puddle of multicolored wax.
"She should get more exercise," starling said as she sat at the table.
"Who? You mean Jenny?"
"Yeah, Jenny. I think she said something about getting into a lot of fights." She reached for the pack of cigarettes Pete had left on the far side of the table and shook one out. "Of course, that's not the most important thing in a fight anyway."
"What is?" Pete asked, lighting the stove.
"Speed. Do whatever you're going to do before the other guy can, and maybe he won't get a chance to do anything."
The light from the gas stove gave the room a little more light. Pete put on a saucepan of water. starling went to the stove and leaned over to light the cigarette at the burner. She looked up as there was a series of thumps from the bedroom.
"What are they doing in there?" she asked.
"Defying the laws of physics. And good taste. And maybe the law of gravity as well."
"Time out! Time out!" came a chorus of voices from the bedroom. Then the door flew open and two small, pale figures raced across the kitchen and into the bathroom, slamming the door behind them.
Pete reached for the plaid shirt that hung on the refrigerator door handle and fished in the pocket. He pulled out a small piece of paper and a stub of a pencil. He wrote a couple of things, then looked up. "Did you happen to notice if the second one was a boy or a girl?" he asked conversationally.
"When I make a definite determination, I'll be sure to let you know," Carl said from the bedroom doorway. He flashed a wicked grin. Suddenly Pete was uncomfortably aware that he and starling were in their underwear.
Carl went to the sink and poured himself a glass of water. He drank it quickly, poured another, then emptied it over his head as he leaned over the sink. He straightened up, water dripping from his long red hair down his arms and chest. His body was wiry, covered in freckles. He flexed his arms and shoulders, then cupped his chin in his palm and worked his jaw back and forth a few times.
He grinned at starling. "Care to sit in for a few rounds?" he asked.
She glanced at the bedroom doorway. "I don't think so," she said. "It could get ugly."
He grinned. "Oh, I do hope so." He went and banged on the bathroom door. "Come on! Half-time's over!"
"I'm starting without you!" sang out a voice from the bedroom.
Carl turned, wrapping his long fingers around starling's upper arm. "I'll save a slow dance for you, sweetie," he murmured, "in case you change your mind." He gave her arm a squeeze as the two small figures ran back across the kitchen and into the bedroom. Carl loped after them, closing the door behind him.
starling looked down at the red marks on her arm.
starling scrunched her mouth over to one side, furrowed her brow and stared into space. Pete had already learned to recognize this as meaning that she was formulating a thought. He stood up and went to the stove to pour himself more coffee.
"I think it's weird," she said finally.
He raised an inquiring eyebrow. There were, he thought, a few different things she could have been referring to.
"What is?" he asked.
"That woman," she said pointing across the room, "the one who was in your bed."
Pete cleared his throat. "Oh, well, she dropped by after you fell asleep. I hope we didn't wake you up?"
She shook her head. "No. I just think it's weird how much she looks like the other guy's girlfriend."
"That guy from before. In the long coat."
Pete laughed. "Henshaw? His girlfriend? She is Henshaw's girlfriend. They're the same girl."
starling frowned as if considering this. "You and he have the same girlfriend?" she asked.
Pete sat down. "No," he said slowly. "She's his girlfriend. Not mine."
starling thought for another minute. She looked up. "You want me to kill him?"
"No!" he said in alarm. "He's one of my best friends."
starling lapsed into a thoughtful silence and Pete sipped his coffee, wondering exactly who was crazy here and who wasn't.
Pete sat at his kitchen table, feeling a little dazed. He had half expected to wake up and find starling gone, but she had been sleeping right where she had laid down when they had finished their coffee in the middle of the night. When she was ready to sleep, she just lay down where she was and closed her eyes, apparently dropping off immediately.
When he had awakened he had gone to the sink to wash his hands and had found there was hot water, which was very unusual. His downstairs neighbor was always fiddling with the hot water heater in the basement and sometimes managed to get it working for a few hours.
Pete had immediately awakened starling and dropped several hints about her taking a shower. She hadn't responded, so finally he had said, "You should take a shower. Before the hot water is gone." He'd said it quite forcefully.
She'd immediately taken off all her clothes and complied.
starling's bag, a stained and cracked airline travel bag, sat on Pete's kitchen table. It leaned to one side and looked as if it might fall over at any moment. Pete was considering peeking inside it when the apartment door opened.
Carl poked his head in and looked around. "Is Lady Britomart t'home?" he asked.
Pete was not in a mood for Carl's jokes right at that moment. "Who?" he demanded.
"Your new sweetie," Carl said, coming in and closing the door.
Pete shook his head. "If you mean starling, she's in the shower. The water is actually hot, for once. And she's not my sweetie."
Carl laughed. "Oh, I don't know. That was a very cozy scene I saw in here last night. You and the lady gun-slinger sipping coffee together in your skivvies." He opened the refrigerator and peered inside.
"Jenny overslept, and then she woke us all up."
"I thought I heard her bellowing." He closed the refrigerator door and turned to face Pete. "Listen, Eustace, if you want my opinion, I'd say stop that preposterous business with Owens and concentrate on Sweetie. I think she's a better bet."
"I shouldn't have to point out that she may kill all of us before she's through. She almost killed Frances last night."
Carl raised one eyebrow, and Pete suddenly knew he'd heard the story already.
"Okay, so she didn't come that close. But she did pull a gun on her."
"And then what happened?"
Pete sighed. "I guess I stopped her."
Carl smiled indulgently. "A woman will do amazing things when her sweetie asks her nicely."
Pete nodded. He knew there was no point in going further with this, Carl would always win in the end.
"Anyway," Carl said when he saw Pete had conceded defeat, "I wanted to ask your opinion about something. I just got a new exhibit for the wall." He gestured at the wall of clippings beside the refrigerator. "But I wanted to ask if you thought I should put it up. It's a little different now that she's right here among us. She might get a swelled head if I keep posting things about her." He made an elaborate gesture and placed a clipping in front of Pete.
The headline was "White House Admits All!"
starling came in drying her hair and said, "Come on, let's go."
She came up to the table as Pete got to his feet, wondering how to bring up the possibility that she might want to put on some clothes. She reached for her bag, and then her eye was obviously caught by the clipping Carl had brought. She leaned over to read it as Pete asked, "Where are we going?"
She didn't seem to hear him. Carl clapped his hand on her shoulder and said, "I guess any publicity is good publicity, huh, sweetie?"
Without looking, she grabbed his wrist and slammed his hand down on the table. She reached into her bag with her other hand and pulled out a large knife. Her eyes still on the article, she raised the knife over her head, obviously ready to pin Carl's hand to the table like a butterfly held by a pin.
"No!" Pete said, reaching for her upraised hand.
"I agree!" Carl yelped.
"Why not?" she asked, looking up from her reading.
Pete thought quickly. "Drumming!" he said. "We need him to drum for us on Friday night." He made a few drumming motions with his arms.
starling thought about this. "But he's annoying me."
"Immediately!" Carl added.
She sighed and released his hand. He leaned over and pecked her on the cheek. "Thanks, sweetie," he said, patting her on her bare buttocks and then scampering into his room and slamming the door.
starling looked accusingly at Pete. "You see?"
Pete nodded. "I know. He annoys me a lot of the time, too. But he's a good friend. Try not to hurt him, at least until after Friday night."
"Gee, thanks," Carl yelled from the other room.
Of all the coffee shops he patronized, Pete's favorite was February Island. It was, he always said with some pride, a dump. Pete was quite a connoisseur of dumps, and February Island was top drawer. In fact, so far it was the longest entry in his monumental work-in-progress, "Dumps, Dives and Dangerous Diners."
Pete opened the heavily-taped glass door and entered The February Island Coffee Shop as if he was coming home. Standing in the doorway, he looked around, savoring the various familiar odors and automatically taking note of who was there, and who was sitting with who.
The restaurant was located on a corner and had expanded a couple of times into abandoned storefronts adjacent to it, so it was now quite large. It was L-shaped, with booths along the two windowed sides, and a long counter with stools in the center. As usual, a couple of different areas were undergoing construction, imperfectly sealed off from the remainder by hanging pieces of plastic. Looking to his right, Pete saw two people he wouldn't have minded talking to, and one he was avoiding. He moved quickly into the opposite part of the room, hoping he hadn't been seen. starling followed him.
The place was about half full, and they took his favorite booth in the corner. A couple of people looked up as they passed, obviously thinking, "Oh, there's Pete, and he's got the most wanted criminal in the country with him. That's nice. Now, what was I saying?"
Roy the waiter cruised by as they sat down, dropping two menus on the edge of the table. Pete handed one to starling, who opened it. Something about the way she stared at it made him wonder if she knew how to read.
Roy the waiter came back and stood by the table.
"Are there eggs?" Pete asked hopefully.
Roy gave him a look of withering disdain. "There are no eggs," he replied patiently.
"Is there milk?" Pete asked.
Roy winced at the ignorance he was expected to put up with. "No, there is no milk."
A more alert observer than starling might have detected that this was a ritual.
"Ahhh," Pete said. "Then I expect I'll have the pancakes."
"I expect you will," said Roy. "And for the young lady?"
starling, if she was paying attention at all, evidently didn't realize he was referring to her.
"Pancakes?" Pete asked her after a moment.
"Hmmm? Oh, yes, pancakes." She turned to Roy. "With butter and syrup, and coffee, with milk."
"As I may possibly have mentioned, there is no milk," Roy said, staring off out the window. "Also, the refrigerator is still out of order, so there is no butter."
He sighed deeply and walked off.
"I do wonder about one thing," Pete said. "If they never have milk, or eggs, or butter, or even a working refrigerator, what do they make the pancakes out of? But, of course, I figure I'm probably happier not knowing." He had lost starling's attention completely by this time, she was looking out the window, her elbow on the table and her chin cupped in her hand, humming.
In Pete's shirt pocket was a small piece of paper with a note he had scribbled while starling was getting dressed. It read: "starl – clothes & weapons – big deal – changes." He intended to flesh out this observation later in the day, when he had the time.
The pancakes came after a while, and Pete and starling ate mostly in silence. From time to time, Pete would comment on somebody who was walking by the window, or talk about something in the news, and starling would nod, continuing to chew.
When he was done Pete pushed his plate away and tried for one last time to get one more drop of coffee from his cup. Roy came over and asked them, "Would you like more coffee?"
starling nodded. Roy dropped the check on the table and left.
"He's not going to bring you any more coffee," Pete said. "He just likes asking if you want it."
starling nodded, though she looked as if she didn't really understand.
Pete looked at the check and suddenly wondered if he was going to have to pay for both of them. He was trying to figure out how to broach the subject when starling stood up and unzipped a big pocket on the side of her pants. She reached in with both hands and pulled out a huge wad of bills, which she plopped in the center of the table.
She then hesitated and Pete reached over to pluck out two bills. He flattened them carefully and put them on top of the check, with an empty water glass as a paperweight.
It took a few moments for them to stuff the remaining bills back into her pocket. During this time Roy came, picked up the money, and forced out a quiet "thank you."
When they were still a block away from the park, Pete paused and sniffed the air. "Hey," he said, "I think they're back."
They turned the last corner and he pointed at the colorful banners visible above the high stone wall. He laughed, mostly from the pleasant surprise. "I do wonder where the hell they went, though," he said.
They followed the wall to one of the arched stone entrances, and Pete walked right through, but starling hesitated.
He couldn't tell what was bothering her. She stood motionless, leaning forward as if pressing against some kind of resistance. "I don't know about this," she said quietly, looking around.
He laughed and took her sleeve in his hand. He tugged her forward until she stepped inside the park.
The night before, after leaving the Quarter, Pete and starling had gone to the park to find his friend George, but the tent city hadn't been there. The few working streetlights showed the areas of hard, dry earth, the scraps of trash, the few patches of grass, the charred remains of the cooking fires and the holes where the tent pegs had been.
"There isn't anybody here," starling had said after a while.
"I can't figure where they could've gone," Pete replied quietly. "I was here . . . just a few days ago. Sunday, I think. There were at least fifteen, twenty tents right here." He gestured around. "I can't imagine that something this big happened and I didn't hear about it." He jammed his hands into the pockets of his jacket. "And Frances, we just saw her. She usually knows everything."
"She didn't know about Deirdre Hammersmith."
Pete nodded. "Well, this is true."
They stood in silence for a minute, then starling said, "Maybe they'll be back tomorrow."
Today, the bright sunlight showing clearly that everything was as it had been the week before. It looked like the site of a particularly festive and raggedy gypsy encampment. He glanced over to see starling's expression. She was again standing motionless, taking in the whole scene.
Tents were everywhere, all sizes, shapes, colors and materials, most of them obviously homemade. There were even impromptu structures made from packing boxes and auto bodies, some decorated quite creatively. The pennants, banners and flags were flying from the trees and from the tops of some of the tents. Small fires were visible through the trees, and the smells of cooking and incense were much stronger here.
"You see," starling said, shrugging, "they're back."
Pete thought it was going to be a long day if starling was going to start being right about things. He looked around. The tents were all in different places than he remembered, and he didn't see his friend George. He and starling started walking along the big circular path through the park.
Pete made a face as a woman waved from a nearby rock. He waved back and started to hurry past. A black Labrador retriever barked and ran after him. Pete slowed, stopped, and squatted, rubbing the dog's head.
"Hello, Presh," Pete said quietly. The dog wagged its tail. The woman stood up and slid down the rock to the ground, but then held back, glancing at starling.
Pete looked up and spotted George's little green pup-tent ahead. He stood and said to starling, "Come on, there he is."
"Who's Paul?" she asked.
George waved as he saw Pete coming up the little rise. "Hello, friends," he said. He motioned for them to sit down. Pete shook out a pack of cigarettes and held it out for him. He took one and lit it with a kitchen match, then leaned back against the trunk of a tree.
"George," Pete said, "this is starling. starling, this is George." starling wiped her hand on her jacket and held it out for George to shake. He laughed as he shook it firmly.
"There is a strong temptation to ask how in the world the two of you ended up as a team," George said with a smile, "but I'm afraid the answer would be a let-down." He looked at starling's gunbelt. "I am surprised nobody spoke to you about the guns on your way in. It certainly doesn't matter to me, but there is a general feeling that they don't belong here."
"We're looking for Deirdre Hammersmith," starling said.
George looked blank. "Who is that?"
Pete shrugged. "That's just it, we don't know. All we know is the name, and that she lives around here somewhere."
George puffed on the cigarette and looked up at the sky. "No, can't place it."
"Frances made one suggestion last night," Pete said. George looked up as Pete leaned forward and tapped the ground with his forefinger, pointing down.
George thought for a minute, then said, "I don't know if that's possible. Check in at around five. The usual way." He looked at Pete, inclining his head very slightly towards starling. "How desperate is your situation?"
Pete shrugged, noting out of the corner of his eye that starling was obviously not following this part of the conversation. "Could be pretty bad, if I don't come through."
George nodded. "Anything else up?" he asked.
"Oh, more of the same. Soap operas, stress and suchlike. We may get to play a gig, though. On Friday night."
"I know, Frances told me. That'll be something, if it happens."
They chatted for a another couple of minutes and then starling and Pete said their goodbyes and walked back along the road to the exit. The woman who had called to Pete from the rock didn't appear.
On the street outside, starling said, "That Frances person also mentioned something about a doctor."
Pete smiled. "Dr. Lee. She's not really a doctor, at least as far as I know, she's the head of a motorcycle gang. And you know, I'll just bet that if we go to my job and wait there, she'll come to us."
Pete and starling arrived at the store at noon. By 12:15pm the broken glass was swept up and the store was open for business. By 12:50pm they were both fast asleep.
At 1:35pm the door opened, setting off the little bell that said a customer was coming in. starling, jerked abruptly out of a dream, jumped to her feet and looked around wildly. She yelled something, dove over the counter and crashed into Pete, knocking him off his stool. Her fingers clawed toward his throat as they fell to the floor behind the counter. starling's eyes were wide and unfocused, her breathing ragged and shallow.
Then, as Pete was starting to try to fight her off, a huge dark shape loomed up behind starling and something clamped onto her shoulder. She was yanked up into the air, her arms and legs flailing around. There was a grunt and a thud as Pete fumbled his way to his feet, nearly falling over the stool he'd been sitting on.
starling lay face down on the floor. Sitting on her was CJ of the Jinx, and Pete could see Dr. Lee and Neil by the door. CJ pushed her long red hair out of her face and said, "Hi, Pete. So, who the hell am I sitting on here?"
Pete nearly choked as he laughed and gasped for breath at the same time. "Oh, well, that's the most dangerous woman in America."
"She doesn't seem to like you."
Pete coughed and rubbed his neck. "Oh, I think she does, she just has strange ways of showing it." He squatted down and put his hand on starling's upper arm. "starling?" he asked. CJ's eyes narrowed as he said the name.
"Mmph," starling replied cautiously.
"The woman sitting on you is CJ. She didn't mean you any harm, she just thought she was protecting me. Please don't kill her."
He stood up. "It's okay," he said, "you can let her up now."
CJ got to her feet and stepped back slightly, obviously trying to be ready for an attack with either a knife or a gun, but starling just stood up and looked at her for a moment. "You're big," she said.
CJ grinned. "It's true."
Pete spent a good deal of time surrounded by tea and coffee, and usually his preference was firmly for coffee. However, he thought, there are times when tea is a better choice. He had brewed up a big pot of Earl Grey and now he, starling, Dr. Lee, Neil and CJ each held a steaming mug. Pete, starling and Dr. Lee sat on stools, Neil stood by the door and CJ leaned against the wall. The small store was quite crowded.
"It seems fine to me," Pete said again, "but it's really up to Henshaw."
"Does he already have a lead guitarist lined up?" Dr. Lee asked.
Pete shrugged. "Not that I know of, but he doesn't always tell me everything. Me or anybody."
Pete had only part of his attention on the conversation, distracted by the expression on starling's face. She sat on a stool in the farthest corner of the store, full mug cupped between her hands, frowning. She had put her dark glasses on, though the corner where she sat was in shadow. He couldn't tell what she was looking at, but it seemed to be Dr. Lee, and under her dark glasses her thin lips were especially grim.
He sipped his tea. No, he wouldn't have wanted to serve coffee to this group. On one hand, there was starling, heavily armed and subject to sudden violent episodes. On the other hand, there was Neil, Dr. Lee's bodyguard, also heavily armed and watching starling very carefully. Plus there was CJ, who had already handled starling like a rag doll and looked like she would cheerfully do it again if necessary. The situation did not need extra caffeine poured into it. He had considered making herbal tea, but this was not a group to which you could serve herbal tea.
He sighed, bringing his attention back to the conversation. "It sounds great to me," he said. "This gig still may fall through, but we need a lead guitarist to be ready if it works out. CJ certainly played great when Tom was in the clink last spring, so we'd just have to run over the set and teach her a couple of new songs. If Henshaw says it's cool–"
Dr. Lee stood up. "Let us know about rehearsals."
starling stood up, obviously trying to get Pete's attention. "One more thing," he said. "We're looking for a woman named Deirdre Hammersmith, but nobody seems to have heard of her. Does the name mean anything to you?"
Dr. Lee shook her head. "No," she said. She looked at starling, who hadn't moved. "Goodbye."
"Goodbye, Dolores," starling said, sitting down again. Neil blinked at this, but neither Dr. Lee or CJ reacted. The three Jinx left and Pete walked over to starling.
"Who's Dolores?" he asked.
"What?" asked starling, obviously startled. She took off her dark glasses and stuck them in her pocket, nearly dropping them on the floor. She was so obviously flustered by the question that he didn't pursue it.
"A couple of things," Pete said as they walked under the elevated train tracks. He seemed to have her attention. "We're going to a place called Duffy's, and we're going there to have a cup of coffee. That's all."
"But I thought–"
"That's how we act. Casual. Just having a cup of coffee. We can't make things happen here, we have to wait for them to happen. That's very important."
They turned. A small woman with her black hair greased up into a huge pompadour trotted across the street toward them. She wore black jeans with hi-top sneakers and a leather jacket over an untucked man's shirt.
"Yo, Frankie," Pete said as she joined them.
"Yo," she replied cheerfully.
Pete gestured at starling. "Frankie, this is starling. starling, this is The Amazing Frankie."
Frankie stuck out a hand which starling shook hesitantly.
"So," Frankie said to Pete, "you guys still need a lead guitarist?"
"Well, I think CJ from the Jinx is going to fill in. It's really up to Henshaw. I've told him you're interested–"
"Hey, let me know. I know most of your tunes already." She grinned and punched him in the shoulder. "It could be great!"
She turned to go, calling back over her shoulder, "Leave a message at Shakey's if you want to get in touch with me. Bye."
Pete sighed. "She is totally wrong for us," he said quietly, "but I don't want to tell her that."
They heard a hum from the subway tracks above them that made the skin on their scalps tighten.
"What's happening?" starling asked, her hand moving to the butt of her revolver.
"The power's been turned on. For the people going home from work. It'll be on until around 7:30."
Then the evening siren blew and starling looked around, obviously alarmed. She licked her lips. "What is that?" she demanded. "What is it?"
"It's just the siren," he said.
"It sounds like . . . prison."
He smiled wryly. "And with good reason, I guess. They blow it every day at 5:30 for the end of work in the factories. They blow it in the morning, too, at eight, but it's not so loud way out by the river, where the apartment is."
"Now," he said firmly, pointing down the block, "there's Duffy's. How are we going to act?"
starling looked confused, then she shook herself and nodded. "Casual."
He smiled. "Very casual."
Pete threw open the door of Duffy's and bowed starling in.
"Archibald!" he greeted the stout man behind the counter.
"Petronius!" the man said cheerfully.
Two men in dark coats and fedora hats sat at the counter. They looked up as Pete and starling came in. One started to stand up, causing starling to tense, but then he looked at her again and sat back down. The other man said something to him in a low voice and he chuckled.
Pete sat at the counter and said, "Archibald, draw us two cups of your finest brew." starling took the stool next to him. His leg started to jiggle up and down.
starling tapped Pete's arm and leaned toward him, whispering, "More casual."
Pete nodded, controlling his laughter. He hadn't realized how tense he was.
Pete sipped his coffee and took a small notebook from his pocket. He placed this on the counter in front of him, going through his pockets until he found a small pencil. He thought for a moment, then started to write.
After a few minutes he felt starling's breath on his cheek as she peered over his shoulder. "What are you doing?" she asked.
"Oh, just writing some things down. I like to–"
The door opened and a plump little man in a shabby suit came in and went quickly to the counter.
"Hey, chief," he said to Archie, "you know anybody wants to buy a hog?"
"Nobody, Zeke," said Archie without looking. "Now blow."
Zeke turned to Pete and starling. "How 'bout you folks? Give you a good price."
"A hog?" starling asked dubiously.
"You know, a motorcycle," he said with a grin. "What do you say?"
"A motorcycle?" starling asked, standing up slowly.
"Run for your life," Pete advised Zeke quietly.
"I had a motorcycle," starling went on. Zeke caught sight of her revolver and turned, but she grabbed his collar. She turned to Pete. "I did have a motorcycle, didn't I?"
Pete nodded. Zeke tried to get free, but she pulled her revolver and pressed it against his temple. "It's brains for dinner if you annoy me," she said. She turned back to Pete.
He shrugged. "It must have been stolen last night. You parked it right in front of the apartment yesterday, and it wasn't there this morning."
Zeke squirmed around. "Archie," he said, "help me out here!"
"Lady," Archie said, "if you're going to shoot him, do it outside."
"Hey!" Zeke protested.
"Where did you get this motorcycle?" starling asked.
"Well, you know, it was one of those things. I–"
"Show it to me."
He sagged in her grip. "It's outside."
As they headed for the door, Pete glanced back. The two men in the fedora hats hadn't moved. They looked amused.
Outside, a battered motorcycle stood at the curb. starling dragged Zeke to the curb and said, "Lie down."
"Lie down. Face down. Right here."
He did. She planted a foot in the middle of his back and leaned forward to examine the motorcycle.
"That's not the one you had, is it?" Pete knew very little about motorcycles.
She laughed. "No, it's not. This is a piece of crap, a tricycle with an outboard motor." She squatted and looked at the motor. "I wouldn't ride this thing if my life depended on it." She stood up and nudged Zeke with her toe. "Get up and get gone," she said, holstering her gun.
As she and Pete turned, the two men came out of Duffy's and walked down the block, deep in conversation.
As soon as they were gone around the corner, Pete said, "Come on!" and pulled starling back inside.
Archie motioned them behind the counter, where he had the basement trapdoor open. "Hurry," he said, "before somebody else comes in."
Pete started down the ladder. starling looked down into the black shaft for a moment, then followed him down.
As they climbed down the ladder into the lightless pit, starling asked, "Where are we going?"
"There are people who live down here," Pete said quietly. "They–"
"In the basement? Why?"
"Well, not really in the basement. They're under the whole area. There are all sorts of tunnels and passages down here, and they're adding more all the time. It's kind of–"
Pete's foot encountered the stone floor. There was no light, but there was a slight dry breeze from somewhere. starling stepped off the ladder and bumped into him.
"Take my hand," Pete said.
There was a pause. "Why?" she asked.
"Because it's as black as the inside of a cow down here," he said with a laugh, "and I don't want us getting separated." He felt her take hold of his sleeve. "That's good enough," he said. "Now come on."
He moved carefully toward the slight breeze. The floor under their feet felt like hard-packed earth. He reached out with his free hand and touched a stone wall, feeling along it. Something about the way her grip shifted on his sleeve told him she was drawing her gun with her other hand. He turned a little bit, though of course he couldn't see her. "Don't shoot anybody down here," he said.
"What if they shoot at us?" she asked.
"Well, then we'll be dead anyway, so do whatever you want."
"Okay," she said. After a couple of minutes she asked, "Is Deirdre Hammersmith going to be down here?"
"I doubt it," Pete said. "I really can't see anybody down here trying to . . ." His voice trailed off and he slowed down. "I need to ask you a question."
"Okay." He felt her holster her gun again.
Pete hesitated before speaking, cursing himself for not thinking to do this before, in the light. Talking about this without being able to see her facial expressions was really flying blind.
"First," he said, "I'm assuming you're honest."
"Why?" she asked. There was no inflection to her question but curiosity.
"Because I've spent the last 24 hours with you, and because of one very specific thing you did today." He pushed ahead before she could ask what that was. "We can talk about that later. So, I know you're not just using me to get around, and to get down here. But what if somebody is using you as a stalking horse?"
"As a what?"
"A stalking horse." He knew he had to get more concrete. "What if Deirdre Hammersmith doesn't exist? You were sent here to find her, so somebody sent that message and assumed you'd come here and get into all kinds of places, maybe cause trouble, maybe find some things out–"
"No, Pete!" she said, her voice agitated. She whacked him on the shoulder. "I'm not! I'm not a . . ."
"Stalking horse," he supplied automatically. "But that's the point, isn't it? You might not know."
"Then why are you asking me?" She sounded as if she was in agony.
Pete sighed and opted for the short answer to that question. "You're right," he said. "Let's go." He reached out, his hand bumping into hers.
She took his hand. "Let's go," she said, her voice firm.
They walked a little further, and Pete was starting to wonder if he was going in the right direction when his hand found the door he was looking for. He knocked.
"What do you want?" said a soft voice from behind them. Pete squeezed starling's hand, hoping this wouldn't be one of the moments when she flipped out.
"Just a short visit," he said evenly. "I'm just here after some information."
"Oh, is that you, Pete?" the voice asked, a little louder than before.
"Yes," he said.
The door in front of them opened, the light from beyond shining right in their eyes. starling let go of Pete's hand as they moved forward. "Hello, Pete," a voice said as they ducked under a low stone archway. They were both blinking as their eyes adjusted. The light was low, but it seemed bright after the unlighted corridor.
They were in a large room with stone walls, a high arched ceiling and dirt floors. There were several wooden packing boxes around. Two men were in the room, one sitting on one of the boxes and the other standing in the center of the room. Both wore coveralls, caps and bandannas over their faces.
"It's been a long time . . ." the standing man started to say, but then he stopped in the act of pulling down his bandanna. "What's she doing here?" he asked slowly, not taking his eyes from starling.
starling reached over into Pete's shirt pocket and pulled out a cigarette. She lit it calmly as Pete said, "She's with me."
The man laughed bitterly. "Look, Pete, we like you. You're a right guy, everybody knows that. But you haven't got the clout to get her in here."
"She's not going to hurt anybody," Pete said, trying to sound more confident than he was. He stepped forward. "George said it would be okay if we came down. We have a question–"
The other man slipped down to the floor. Pete suddenly had the idea that it was up to him to keep the situation under control, but before he could figure out how to do that, the second man moved forward and grabbed his arm, turning him toward the door.
"You two should get the hell out of here," he said. "Now! You had no business bringing her here. Now get–"
He stopped because starling had grabbed him around the neck from behind. Her right hand held a long, wide hunting knife. She clutched the man back against her chest, holding the knife around in front of him where he could see it. With a flick of her wrist she reversed the knife in her hand so the blade was pointing back at her. Then she yanked down his bandanna and quickly slid the knife into his open mouth like a big metal tongue depressor.
"Don't push him again," she said through clenched teeth. A trickle of blood came from the corner of the man's mouth. He stood rigid, almost quivering, his eyes wide.
The other man moved towards them and Pete suddenly found that starling's revolver was in his hand. Pete's brain viewed this with alarm and sent various urgent messages to his hand, but his hand ignored them.
"We just want to ask a question," he said, doing his best to sound reasonable. "We're not trying to make trouble. We're just looking for somebody. George thought you might be able to help us."
"Let him go and we'll talk," the second man said. Pete turned to starling, who slid the knife out of the man's mouth and released her grip on his throat. He pressed his sleeve to his bleeding mouth, moving slowly away from her.
"Let's not allow this to get out of hand," the first man said. "Tell us who you're looking for."
"I want to find Deirdre Hammersmith," she said, then carefully spelled the name. "She lives somewhere around here."
The first man shook his head. "Never heard of her." He looked at the other man, who shook his head slightly, looking down at the floor, the bandanna still pressed to his mouth.
"We'll ask around, but I've never heard of her. If we find out anything, we'll get back to you."
"When?" starling asked, slipping the knife into the lining of her coat.
"By tomorrow. We'll send somebody to Pete's."
She nodded. "That's okay." She turned to Pete. "Come on, let's go. I'm ready for dinner."
She held out her hand and he gave her back her gun.
Pete and starling walked along a block of brownstone houses. Pete wiped his face with a bandanna. "I'm exhausted," he said. He fumbled through his pockets in a futile search for a cigarette.
"So," she said, "where are we going to look tomorrow?"
"What?" he asked, alarmed.
She shrugged. "Were you thinking of looking more tonight? I'm kind of hungry."
"No," he said quickly. "I think we did a lot today. Tomorrow morning will be fine."
"Good. So, where will we look?"
"I have no idea," he said. "We've done everything I can think of."
"Well, you'll think of something else," she said. "You're very smart."
"Thank you," he said sadly. Then, putting the bandanna in his back pocket, he looked down the block to the far corner and slowed. He tugged starling's sleeve.
She looked down and tried to pull her arm free. "You're holding my sleeve," she said.
Then, Pete quickly threw his arms around her and crowded her into a doorway as someone opened fire. The door swung open as they pressed against it and they fell into a dark hallway, Pete falling on starling.
"What are you doing?" she demanded.
"I'm saving your life," Pete snapped. "Is that okay with you?"
She seemed to hear the gunshots, now sounding like they were coming from both ends of the block, for the first time. "Oh," she said. Pete started to stand up, but then a teenage boy ran into the hall from the street. He was obviously terrified, looking over his shoulder as he ran, and he crashed right into Pete, who lost his balance and again fell on top of starling, who said, "Ooof!" as they all ended up in a heap in the narrow hallway.
"This must be my lucky day," said a harsh voice as a large man filled the doorway. "Nobody move," he said as he came forward slowly. He squatted and pressed his pistol into the boy's chest.
"Now, little man, I want you to give me the package you were bringing to Mason. I'm going to–"
starling's hand slipped up out of the pile and buried a small knife to the hilt in the man's bicep. He cursed and dropped his gun. Pete quickly lifted the boy out of the way as starling stood up slowly.
She pursed her thin lips thoughtfully. "Your lucky day?" she asked, flipping her free hand palm-up. "Maybe not."
She fired three times. The boy scrambled to his feet and ran out the door. Pete shuddered, feeling nauseous.
"Let's go back to the office," he said.
starling looked around as they came to the top of the stairs.
"This is your house," she said accusingly.
Pete looked startled. "I know that," he said slowly. "What did you think it was?"
"You said we were going to your office."
He laughed. "Oh, I just call it my office. It's kind of a joke." She looked skeptical. "Okay," he admitted, "it's not really much of a joke."
He reached for the doorknob, but she pointed at the writing on the door, which said, "Living in Unfortunate Circumstances" in large red letters.
"That's a strange thing for somebody to write on your door," she said.
He laughed. "Carl put that there."
She frowned, obviously thinking about this.
"Why?" she asked finally.
"I'll explain when we get inside," he said, opening the door. "I want to show you–"
A hand grabbed Pete and yanked him into the apartment.
Carl had wrestled Pete to the floor and was trying to kiss him when he heard the click and felt the pressure on the back of his neck.
"Let him up," starling said.
"You never let me have any fun," Carl said grumpily as Pete got to his feet.
"Never mind all that," Henshaw said. "We have some serious celebrating to accomplish here." He was standing by the kitchen table, his eyes wide and his face flushed. He threw his arms out. "Ta-Daah!" he said.
Carl went over and flopped down on Pete's bed, picking up a beer can from the floor. Jenny Owens, Fifteen and the Drone were sitting at the kitchen table. There were beer cans all over.
"Celebrating?" Pete asked. Fifteen went to the refrigerator and took out two beers. Turning his back, he flipped one over his shoulder to Pete, who barely caught it, and the other to starling, who snatched it out of the air while holstering her revolver.
"The Friday night gig at the Quarter is definitely on," Henshaw said happily. "I've even hooked up a practice place for Friday morning."
"Ahem!" said Fifteen loudly, sitting down again.
"I should say that, as usual, our enormously efficient staff has made all the necessary arrangements," Henshaw said grandly.
"Great," Pete said, popping open the top of the beer can and drinking deeply. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
"Whatever will we do about a lead guitarist?" Carl asked quietly.
"CJ from the Jinx can fill in," Pete said. "She came by my work today with Dr. Lee."
Henshaw nodded. "Good, I was hoping that would work out." He looked at Fifteen. "Can you run over there tonight and let her know where and when we're practicing?"
Fifteen nodded. "No problem. I haven't asked Christy out in a couple of days anyway."
The Drone hooted a laugh. "Dream on, lover-boy."
Oblivious to all this, Henshaw managed to catch Jennifer Owens' eye. The expression on her wide, pale face didn't change, but he went over and sat next to her and she leaned against him, her eyes closing.
Carl, who was sitting behind them, was obviously been about to say something, but instead he just smiled to himself and stood up. He drained the beer and threw the empty can into a wastebasket. "I'm off," he said. "See you all later."
Fifteen finished his beer and stood up. "Me, too. It's movie night, and it'll take me a while to get over to the Jinx and back across town."
The Drone belched loudly and followed them out. Pete started collecting beer cans, drinking the remains in those that weren't empty. He dumped the empties into the kitchen trash can, then looked around. starling was sitting at the kitchen table, sipping her beer, and there was nobody else in the room.
"Where did Henshaw and Owens go?" Pete asked.
starling pointed at the door of Carl's room, which was closed. "Ah," Pete said, "a temporary truce."
Pete sat down on the floor and pulled off a small metal panel on the front of the stove. He reached in and pulled out a pile of papers and notebooks. He placed these beside him and leaned forward, reaching further in to pull out a second pile, which he placed on top of the first. He lifted the whole rather precarious stack and got awkwardly to his feet.
"I've got something here I want to show you," he explained as he brought the pile to the kitchen table and dumped it in front of his chair. He sat down and started to sort through it. "It's about 'living in unfortunate circumstances.' Besides," he added, steadying the pile, which was starting to tilt to one side, "I really have to throw some of this stuff out. All my little hiding places are almost full."
starling reached forward and snagged the corner of one sheet of heavy paper.
"Pictures?" she asked, tugging it toward her.
Pete looked and saw what she had. "Oh, that's nothing," he said and attempted to pull the pile away from her.
She continued to tug at the sheet of paper, eventually toppling the whole pile onto the floor except for the sheet she held. She placed this flat on the table and smoothed it out with her hands.
"Oh, that's nothing," Pete said, "just a little thing I was fooling around with." He shifted in his chair, ignoring the papers all over the floor.
starling's eyes widened as she looked at the carefully rendered page of comic book panels. She poked a finger at one of the frames, then looked up at Pete.
"That's you!" she said.
He winced, slouching down in his chair. "It's Star Trek," he said quietly.
She frowned. "Star Trek?" she asked.
Pete, who was obviously steeling himself to explain his creation, was thrown off by the fact that he would apparently have to explain Star Trek as well.
"That's the other guy!" she said, pointing at another panel.
He leaned forward to follow her finger. "Henshaw," he said. "As the captain. And there's Carl as the doctor."
"You did this?" she asked.
He nodded dismissively. "Oh, yeah, I just–"
"You got any more?"
He leaned forward and started to gather up the scattered papers from the floor.
"Well, I think I might have done one or two more pages . . ."
Carl poked his head into the apartment, a huge grin on his face. "You know what this place needs?" he asked.
"Heat," Pete said.
"Dinner," starling said.
Carl shook his head. "Nope, try again."
"Peanut butter, and milk."
"A Ferris wheel."
"No, not even close." He threw open the door and tugged on the leash in his hand, leading in a woman with short blonde hair. She was walking on all fours, wearing black jeans and a black sweatshirt. "What we really need is a dog," he said simply.
"Oh, no," said Pete.
"Her name is Daphne," Carl said, leaning over to unhook the leash from her wide leather collar.
Daphne shook herself and looked around the room. She sniffed at both Pete and starling, then moved beside Pete and pressed her rump against his thigh. Pete looked at Carl and said, "No."
Carl grinned, his hands held wide. "Think of the advantages." Pete shook his head.
Sensing perhaps that Pete was not going to be budged, Daphne moved to starling, placing her chin on starling's leg and looking up at her dreamily.
starling reared up a little, then tentatively stuck her hand out and skritched Daphne on top of the head. Daphne closed her eyes and thumped one leg on the floor.
Pete rolled his eyes. "Don't encourage them," he said in exasperation.
The bedroom door opened and Henshaw and Jennifer Owens came out, arms around each other. "We have reached an understanding," Henshaw said happily.
Daphne stuck her nose up, sniffing the air, then bounded across the room, apparently making a bee-line for Jennifer Owens' crotch. At the last minute, Jenny cuffed her across the mouth and she crouched down, whining softly.
"Hey," said starling sharply, "don't hit the dog!"
Pete buried his head in his hands. "I can't stand it."
Carl went over to Pete and clapped him on the shoulder. "So, what's the verdict, chief?"
Pete motioned for Carl to lean over and he did, his long hair fanning across Pete's face. Pete reached up and carefully parted the hair so he could yell "NO!!!" into Carl's ear.
Carl stood up slowly, looking rather hurt. "Son, it's like I've said before," he said, snapping his fingers. Daphne trotted over and he re-attached the leash to her collar. "You're just not open to new ideas. Come, Daph, let us go out to romp and play."
Walking with their heads held high in the same attitude of injured pride, Carl and Daphne left, Daphne giving a last little twitch of her rear as she left the room.
"Anybody else want to smell my crotch?" Jenny Owens asked. "Good, let's go eat."
She circled her arm through Henshaw's and led him out. As they left, he said, "I notice you didn't ask that while Carl was still in the room," and she laughed.
Pete laughed, too, and turned to starling. "And they say you're crazy," he said.
starling looked surprised. "They do?"
By the time Carl, Daphne, Henshaw and Owens had all left, Pete was exhausted. It was cumulative, he knew, from all the day's tension and excitement, but adrenaline had kept it at bay for the last couple of hours.
He scrounged through his meager supply of food and produced a modest dinner of canned soup, one Vienna sausage (which he carefully sliced down the middle) and canned brown bread, each slice of brown bread topped with a tiny cube of government cheese.
As he laid out this repast, he stopped and rubbed his hands together. "Is it getting cold in here?" he asked.
"It's been cold," she said. She had put her coat back on and had her hands in her pockets. He had noticed that as soon as they were alone she had taken off her gunbelt and shoulder holster and put them in the corner with her bag.
"Well," he said, taking his moth-eaten sweater from its peg and pulling it on, "a little soup will help."
They ate in silence. When they were done Pete stacked the dishes in the sink. He was too tired to face heating the water to wash them. He looked at starling, who had walked over and started to read one of the articles Carl had posted on the wall next to the refrigerator.
"You certainly can't just sleep on the floor tonight," Pete said. "You'll get sick. Hang on." He went into Carl's room, emerging a moment later with a sleeping bag, apparently hand-made from a brightly-colored quilt. He unzipped it and shook it out repeatedly.
"With Carl," he said, "you can't tell what might have been in there. Or who." He laid the sleeping bag out next to his bed. "It's a good sleeping bag," he said. "It'll keep you warm."
She looked over. "Thank you," she said, then turned her attention back to her reading.
Pete kicked off his sneakers and got into bed. "Good night," he said.
"Good night," she replied. His last thought was that this was the first time in a couple of months that he would miss movie night at T.C.'s.
The next think Pete knew, somebody was shaking him. He opened his eyes, squinting at the light.
"One of my guns is missing," she said. She was squatting next to the bed, rocking back and forth a little.
"One?" he asked. "How many do you have?" The question sounded asinine to him as soon as it was out of his mouth.
"Four. It's the little one. I wear it in an ankle holster. A little Colt Woodsman."
"When did you see it last?" he asked, sitting up.
"This morning. When I took a shower. I tucked it into the outside pocket of my pack. I just looked now, I thought I had part of a candy bar in my bag, and I saw the gun was gone." This was a very long speech for starling, and it gave Pete the idea she was really upset.
He started poking through the overflowing ashtray on the floor beside his bed. "Well, who's been here today? Carl, me, you, Jenny, Henshaw. And Fifteen and the Drone. And Daphne the dog."
"Which one would take a gun?"
Pete started to answer a couple of times, but stopped each time before a word came out. He found a cigarette that was only half-smoked and lit it. Lying back down, he said slowly, "Fifteen wouldn't. And I can't really see Carl stealing a gun, unless it was for a gag or something. He does love to tease you. The Drone wasn't wearing enough clothing to hide a gun. And Daphne was only here for a minute. So I guess it was probably Henshaw or Owens. Things are so tense with those two, it could easily have been either one of them. Unless it was Carl. Or somebody could have come in while the place was empty. I didn't realize you were leaving a gun here or I would have hid it for you." He closed his eyes.
She reached forward and poked him in the shoulder. "Don't fall asleep again," she said.
He shook his head, opening his eyes. "I won't. I don't know what we can do about this now, though. Is Carl here?" She shook her head. "Well, when he comes home we can ask him. He was here before we got home, when the celebration was going on. Maybe he saw something." He looked at the dark window and wondered what time it was.
starling tugged at his sleeve. "Let's go out. For a walk or something."
Outside, it was even colder than Pete had expected. He buttoned his plaid shirt and stuck his hands into his pants pockets. Then he said, "Wait a minute," and ducked into the little grocery store on the corner. He emerged a minute later with two containers of hot coffee. He handed one to starling.
She lifted the lid and sipped, then looked around. "What's that way?" she asked, pointing.
"The Quarter, and Duffy's. We went that way before."
"And that way?"
"The park, about three blocks down. You can see the trees a little." He laughed. "Well, you can see them in the daytime."
"And that way?"
"Oh, just the highway and the river. There's nothing–"
"I want to see the river. Come on."
It was a four-lane highway, with a small strip of divider in the middle. Cars and trucks whizzed past in both directions. Pete pointed a block down the road. "There's a little bridge over the–"
That was as far as he got before starling grabbed his sleeve and pulled him across to the little strip in the middle of the road. He felt the breeze from a passing truck as he nearly lost his balance, but she pulled on his sleeve to steady him. Then she spotted a gap in the flow of traffic and they ran across the rest of the way to the far side.
The little concrete path between the highway and the river was barely wide enough for them to stand on. They looked out at the water through the chain link fence that went up six feet over their heads with barbed wire along the top.
They sipped their coffee for a minute, looking out at the river. There were a few lights on the other side, reflected on the water. Pete couldn't decide if the sky was starting to get lighter or not. Cars whizzed by behind them, all with their windows shut up tight.
"Everybody seemed pretty excited about this concert you're playing," starling said.
"Well, we haven't played out for months. I hope you can come." As he heard himself saying this, he wondered why in the world he would want her to come.
She shrugged. "Well, it depends. If we can locate Deirdre Hammersmith, I've got to see her."
Pete nodded and sipped his coffee.
"I'd like to ask you about something that happened this afternoon," Pete said after a while.
"It's about Dolores–"
That was as far as he got. "No! No!" she said, whacking him on the forearm. It reminded him of when they had been down in the tunnel together.
He grabbed her wrists and said, "It's okay. Listen. I'll tell you what I think, and then you won't have to say anything." Her head was down, her eyes squeezed shut.
"Okay," he said quietly, "three things. One, you seemed to know Dr. Lee, and she seemed to know you. From the way Neil was watching you, maybe he did, too. Two, you know motorcycles. Three, the Jinx will not tolerate anybody who they think is out of control.
"So, I think you used to be in the Jinx, probably before they came here. And you knew Dr. Lee's real name. And, when you weren't thinking today, it slipped out and now you're mad and upset with yourself for telling secrets.
"But look, it's okay. What did you reveal?" Her head was still bowed, her eyes squeezed shut. "You revealed that you used to be in the Jinx. Now, I'm sure it might be a problem for them if that were generally known, but it won't be. I keep my mouth shut. And you revealed Dr. Lee's real name, but only to me and I knew it already. She and I have known each other a long time."
Her eyes came up and he watched carefully to see if she was buying this lie.
She was. She smiled and he released her hands. "Okay," she said. "Now I have a question for you."
"Who is Paul?"
"Oh," he said.
"That woman in the park, with the dog," starling explained. "She called you–"
"I remember," he said. He smiled. "I thought you had a lousy memory."
"I wrote it down," she said proudly. "In the tea place, after you fell asleep." She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a sheet from the store's receipt pad. In crude block letters it said, "Who is Paul?"
"I wanted to remember to ask you," she explained.
"Well, it's no big secret. My name is Paul. People call me Pete because my last name is Peterson, but my first name is Paul. Paul David Peterson. I hate the name Paul, though, so I never use it."
"Then why did that woman call you that?"
He gave a wan smile. "She and I used to . . . date, a while ago. She liked to call me Paul because . . . well, because it was my real name, and most people didn't know it. She never believed how much I hated the name." He repeated the name a couple of times, drawing it out in order to emphasize how awful it was.
"I'd like to ask you another question," Pete said slowly. "But it's a question I have a hunch I'm not supposed to ask you. So, if it's out of line, you just tell me."
She looked thoughtful, obviously working her way through what he had just said. He waited patiently.
"Okay," she said.
"Do you have a real name? Something other than starling?"
She stood motionless for what seemed like ages.
His first reaction to her had been fear. He had expected to be killed at any moment, especially when he hadn't been able to answer her questions. He had kept repeating to himself the lesson his mother had taught him, that animals can sense fear. But it did no good, he was sure he was exuding fear from every pore.
His second reaction had been a kind of respectful wariness, similar to what he felt when he was around the Jinx.
But now he was completely into his third reaction, which was unabashed curiosity.
She was still motionless, her eyes closed, her hands on the railing. He waited a while, then said, "It really doesn't–"
"Ssshhh," she said, waving one hand at him without moving her head or opening her eyes. "It's hard," she whispered. "Usually I can't . . ." Her voice trailed off.
He waited a while longer. The sky was definitely starting to get a little lighter. He looked out at the waves, then at starling. Her brow was furrowed in concentration, her hands gripping the rusted metal railing.
Then her eyes opened. Her thin lips smiled as she turned to face him.
He leaned his head toward her and she whispered in his ear.