When I looked in the mirror the next morning, I was changed. The insomniac bags under my eyes, laden with a night’s tossing, pulled my face gaunter than they used to. The corners of my mouth turned down a little liike invisible weights were hooked there. The lines in my face, the ones I used to see but not notice, suddenly made me look old.
My hair stuck out in every direction, as much from another restless night as a sudden refusal to stay where it got put. I hadn’t shaved in days.
But my eyes were the worst. They were what shocked me.
My own face, a shock.
They were haunted with, God knew, good reason, but they sunk in deep and dark and I couldn’t put a shine there when I tried.
I slapped water against my face and neck and tried to pretend everything was normal, but it wasn’t.
Oh, it wasn’t.
I stopped after I got my coat on, leaning against the wall like one tree against another. I knew what that felt like now. Too much weight. Not enough root.
Or maybe the roots broke.
Maybe the roots…
I sank to my haunches and lay my head against cracked plaster. Dust swam and danced in grey bars of sunlight that pushed through cloud and window alike, desperate to shed something.
They didn’t bring warmth. I huddled deeper into upturned wool.
The kitchen clock ticked, loud.
I gave a resigned sigh and stood with the labour of an old man. My hat was where I’d hung it.
It doesn’t start ending until you put boot to pavement. Every journey ends the way it starts.
It was raining, which explained the awful sunshine. And it was really coming down, the rain. Puddles formed puddles, almost frothing before disappearing down gutters and drains. I gazed through it all for a moment, then hunched shoulders to neck and braved it.
I only had a few blocks to walk. I welcomed the rain, but kept a hand on my hat.
The apartment building towered imposingly in the gloom. There was no need to say anything to the doorman. He stood aside.
Sixth floor. Her door was closed now, but a hole still gaped through splintered wood. That same, pathetic sunlight issued from it and pointed at my feet.
The door opened before I quite reached it. I watched the occupant from under the brim of my hat.
Finally, he said, “Ephraim.”
“Hendricks.” I didn’t nod, didn’t offer my hand, just stood unmoving in the hallway.
“They moved the body, you know.”
I felt ill. “Why are you here?”
“I was just leaving.” He lifted his hat and put it on. “It’s been interesting, Ephraim.”
I watched that spot of sunlight on the floor and said quietly, “Like fuck.”
I lifted my eyes until I could just make contact with his again. I repeated, almost inaudibly, “Like. Fuck.”
His mouth twisted in a disbelieving smile. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying,” I began. My words felt strange, like they were passing through numb lips on their own. “You’re a murderer. And I won’t let you pass.”
He spread gloved hands wide. “We’re all killers, DeLaney. It’s our job.”
“I said nothing about killing.”
“What in the hell did you say, then?” He was beginning to sober up, maybe realizing I was serious.
“Said you’re a murderer, Hendrcks. Murderer. Not killer.”
Just like that, he looked dangerous. Nothing changed much. His hands went down to his hips a little, barely perceptible. His whole body didn’t tense as much as it focused.
I knew that look. I couldn’t wait for what came next.
“You’ve had your share of botched jobs yourself, you know.”
“Making excuses, Hendricks?”
“Just stating facts.”
“I know the facts.” I tilted my head at him. “Your relationship with them is on shaky terms, last I checked. Soon enough, she’ll leave you for another.”
He took a step across dusty floorboards, slipping a hand underneath his coat at hip level. “You think the truth is so fickle that it needs to be romanced?”
I didn’t move. “I think if you wanted a relationship with the truth, that’s exactly where you’d have to start.”
His eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched visibly. “This was never a game, DeLaney. You think your smart mouth can bring your friend back?” He slid a long blade from under his coat and held it in front of himself threateningly. “Now, move or get cut.”
He took another threatening step forward, brandishing gleaming steel.
In almost every situation, a winning play sits on a razor’s edge between success and failure. Sell it wrong and you wind up dead.
I took a faltering step back. “You gonna use that thing or do you just like the way it shines?”
He grinned, all confidence now. “That’s just it, DeLaney. You run that mouth when really you’re just looking for a way to weasel yourself out of whatever mess you’re in.” He paused. There was a lustful gleam in his eye that hadn’t been there before.
Men like him only know a few things, and most of them start with lust. This was no different.
I played my hand.
“You like it, don’t you? The kill,” I asked while I took another step backwards.
His eyes gleamed like his knife.
“It gets you, doesn’t it? Gets your blood pumping.”
He stepped forward again. I deserved it, probably. He’d tell himself all kinds of reasons. There was no reason for him to come back here other than gloat about what he’d done. It set him on fire.
“You’ve got a fire in your eyes,” I continued. “I’ve seen that before. Long way back, when I was a kid. We had the horniest dog you’ve ever seen. Stupid bitch was always in heat. Humped everything she saw.”
A snarl tugged at his lip. His eyebrows dropped.
“You’re like a fucking dog, Hendricks. You get it up by bleeding innocents.”
I don’t know how I knew that would get him, but it did. His battlecry was a wordless bark and the scuffling of shoes on dusty floorboards.
It’s way too easy to read somebody whose blood is boiling. They telegraph it with their eyes because the fire inside them burns so hot there’s no way to keep it in. If there’s one certain killer in the world, it’s bloodlust; it just goes both ways.
I set a palm against the side of his wrist and pushed so that the blade just missed my coat. He was still coming at full speed, so I took a small step to the side and lifted my knee, catching him right in the diaphragm. Before he could double over, I closed my hand around his wrist and continued stepping to his side, pulling the knife as I went.
With a hard twist, there was a crack and he let go of the knife. It dropped into my ready palm and I thrust it home, into his throat and down underneath his ribs.
Blood spurted all over my arm before I could pull away.
He got out a badly winded gurgle as he died. It was the kind of sound that haunts you and makes grown men wince at the memory.
I made out three words. “Just like me,” and then he was gone.
It was his own death to bear, though. The killer, dead at his own game, killed by his own blade. Betrayed by his own malice.
It fit, even if the cloud cover didn’t lift in agreement. They still mourned for the rest of his victims.
As I left with his last words ringing in my head, I wondered if maybe not all his victims were dead yet. Maybe some yet lived to bear the weight of his passing.
And the memory of those words.