I jar myself awake staring at the stippled ceiling. My eyes track down the yellow wall paper to the sheets that are knotted and soaked to my body jammed between the cot and the wall.
My head feels stuffed with smoke and my eyes feel like ashes in my skull. At some point in the night I stripped to the waist and both my shirts lay in a heap on the wood floor. Grey light seeps in as rain pelts the single pain of glass in a dismal monotone.
My dreams pound through my head and I roll away from them trying to dismiss the feeling of vertigo they induce. She was so real, her so clear. For a second when my eyes opened I thought she was still alive, that I’d roll over and see her, and we;d be safe again. Instead I’m alone in a strange room and struggle to piece together the last twelve hours.
I remember the nightmare at the end of my dream with Louise. Roger confessing war crimes to me as if discussing the rain. I take a shuddering breath and throw the covers off. I sit up and hang my feet, still in my shoes, over the edge of the bed. I hold my head in my hands trying to cool it, to separate fact from fantasy. I focus on what I know, the doctor is here. I can’t have dreamed that. The bed beside me is made up but used. The ashtray on the desk overflowing like the one in his office. I move to it and feel the discarded chesterfield stubs, cold. Wherever he is he’s been gone for a while.
The room sways slightly and I feel my ticker speed up in my chest, trying for some kind of equilibrium. I sit at the desk tasting the acidic bite of bile at the back of my throat. I search the drawers looking for anything that might tip me off to where the Doc is, and if he’s gone for good.
The bottom left drawer sticks and a few errant pill bottles roll towards me. I pick one up and focus on the water spotted label. Morphine, Rohypnol, The morphine takes me back to the field, hearing the moaning appeals for the drug coming from living corpses sucked into the mud. The pills belong to Simon Mack with Carruthers as the prescribing physician. The kid’s too young to need stuff this strong, so what am I missing? I wait to see if any unseen providence will give me a hint, but I guess I’m out of luck.
I gaze out the window but all I see is a forest creeping around the perimeter beyond yellowing sod. The rundown gazebo sits like a cyst in the dying grass. I linger on it for a beat, it looks the same as in my dream, but that must confirm the dream right? I must have caught a glimpse of it last night and it didn’t register. Again I have a question without an answer.
The trees sway slightly in the morning wind. I can’t see into the shadows beyond, so getting my bearings for where we are in the city is next to useless. The forest seems to glare back at me. It’s deep reds and yellows mirroring the bruising in my face. I run a hand along my five o clock shadow and wince. I replace the empty bottles. In one of the drawers I find a leather bound datebook. A flip through the pages shows rows of neat script scribbled along some of the dates. The writing is the same tight cursive the Doc used on the pills, and the entries shift from curriculum covered a few months ago to coded entries a few weeks ago with amounts next to them. I work over the script until it’s clear that this is where the chips have come from, the codes show a list of ailments next to names: Bruiser C lacerated brow, fifty chips. I think about a drunk Charlie threw out a few weeks back that caught him with a hidden blade. When I saw him again he had a tight stitch line above his eye and I wondered what kind of whopper he told at the ER to get them. Looks like Carruthers was the in house sawbones for Sally Calls. Something overheard last night flits through my memory but it’s gone before I can grasp it, something Roger said about the sawbones cleaning up.
Finally I reach the week that just passed and the entries become a slew of words thrown together beside medication amounts. The writing loose and shaky departing so much from the earlier entries I have to flip back and forth a few times to check it’s the same.
I see the two medications found in the drawer with increasing milligram numbers in the margin. The word red dragon is scribbled and underlined on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
Just then I feel like someone is watching me from the doorway. I feel the itch of eyes drilling into me and whirl around to see nothing but the peeling paint of the closed door.
“Get a hold of yourself Slate.” I mutter “nothing but a drafty house.” I turn back to the journal but the rest of the pages are blank. I decide I’ve found all I can in here. Putting on my shirts feels like draping myself in a fever, I look for anything else but the room is spartan.
The house is quiet when I leave the room and I head to my right walking by the bathroom door and down a hallway, with only the creaks and rain for company. I walk through a sitting room that leads to the front entryway. The front door is bolted from my side with four padlocks running down it’s seam. I try the knob and it won’t budge. Panic from deep within my gut tries to crawl further into my chest but I assure it there’s a rational explanation for this. There has to be. I turn around t outlook up the stairwell opposite the door. I feel like I can hear movement up there, maybe music faintly? I step on the first riser. I look back at the door, I feel the panic skitter just below my throat. From above me I swear there’s movement. Like someone standing just beyond the reach of my vision. I lick my lips to call out, sure I can see the crown of someones head, wisps of brown hair sticking up. I think of my dream. I hear the slap of tarot cards on my desk. I move to take another step, and an explosion of sound makes me jump.
I hear a group of men laughing further down the hall to my right. I weigh my options. Better I find them than the other way around. I cast one last look upstairs before descending and moving towards the voices.
I move through a living room with a gaping maw of a fireplace roaring with the remnants of flames that throw a fresh wave of nausea over me. I follow the voices until I come into the kitchen and see the guys from the night before huddled around the counter. All of them save for one are present. I examine Simon closely. He doesn’t favour anything and moves lithely. The pain pill label remains a mystery. Roger stands in the middle looking over a rats nest of papers while Joe points to one paper in particular.
“See this, right here, this don’t look anything like what I saw last night. the offices are all screwed up, we woulda been running around like mice in a maze if we went through with it.”
“It makes no sense.” Roger shook his head. “He told us this was sound, hell he drew it out himself, from memory! John screwed up, bad.”
“Couldn’t have been intentional. Maybe his head’s all screwed up.” Simon lifted a pointed stare at Joe who’s eyes flew to Roger. I tracked all this from outside the circle. Roger glared back at Simon. “Oh he’ll help. I’ve got Brent on top of that. If Carruthers -” Roger catches Joe looking at me and turns. I see wild eyes calm like the centre of a storm. I remember the dream, the door with its many padlocks. Goosebumps climb up my back and I hear Louise’s voice in my head.
Beware the kindness of strangers.
“The man of the hour.” Roger bellowed, stepping toward me. He’s wearing a heavy grey sweater and dungarees covering a pair of trench boots that squelsh across the wooden floor. He clasps my shoulder and points to the slew of papers on the counter. “Excellent intelligence last night Percy, saved us a lot of grief.”
“If you’ve got your fill of free booze and food, I guess you’ll be hitting the road?” Joe griped from where he stood nursing a black coffee.
“I- ah” part of me, that small secret space in the back of my head where common sense lives, screamed at me to jump on the opportunity. To walk out of this horror show before I could see or hear anymore. But if I walked out now I’d be leaving the Doc behind. And that meant saying goodbye to my payout. Leaving the Doc didn’t break my heart so much, but I needed the dough. Harry had a stubborn streak as bad as his sister’s. I couldn’t trust that he would just vanish after a few days. Mrs. Carruther’s cash could go a long way in keeping me underground. I wondered how long I could hold out here. The place was starting to give me the creeps, like the walls had eyes and ears, but where else was I going to go?
It was Roger who answered that question.
“Of course not. You know your way around the Chicago. How about some of the other downtown dives?”
“I’ve done a few odd jobs here and there.” I said “What can I tell you?” Roger fell on that like a wasp to a flower.
“Everything.” he exhaled “the layout, how many guys they got working the counter, hell, how many cigarettes they got in the bathroom machine?” A few of the guys chuckled at that.
Something else struck me as funny “you gunna knock off half the Cochrane block or what?”
My question is met with silence, making me think that’s exactly what his plan is.
The guys pass uneasy looks from eye to eye and I can almost feel how much Roger is weighing his answer, looking to his men as they take a silent vote. Everyone but Joe seems satisfied with the result.
“What did you come home to, Percy?”
“after being over there. Did you come back to the life you left?”
“I mean” I scratch the back of my neck “did any of us?” this is met by murmurs of agreement from the guys gathered at teh counter.
“exactly!” Roger’s voice has gone small, the mounting quiet in the kitchen is palpable.
“We left to do what we had to do for a King that treated this country like a body bank, and what did we come home to? less friends and more gangs. My town gutted like a bayonet wound by these hoods and thugs growing fat off proceeds of death.” Around the counter the guys shuffle murmuring agreement. I can see how they would follow him into a death trap like the Chicago Club even unprepared. Hell even I had to admit he was making sense. I thought of Sally Calls on the business end of a handgun, of his following blind orders that left my wife dead.
“so yes.” Roger continued “We plan to bleed these pigs dry and take the city back, you want to take them down a notch or not?” I remind myself I’m only playing a role as I agree with Roger and join in on the handshakes. I’m only doing this long enough to get to the doctor and get him out. But I feel the yearlong ache I’ve been harbouring even as I look over the paperwork on the counter. I’m filled with an unrelenting rage at what my life has become, all because of one man. I agree with Roger. I want to hurt them all, but I want to hurt Sally Calls the most. I want to wipe him off the damn map.
I look over the drawings and add my input erasing walls and creating them until the pencil I'm using is blunted. The guys part for me and after a while a round of beers is passed around. I sip on mine as a plan begins to form in the back of my head.
Joe flips a page and I see the layout of the offices behind the cash room. I’m drawn to one diagram in the middle. A black X has been inked and underneath it the words Kill the Dragon in Its Lair are scrawled in that same loose hand writing from the Doc’s journal. I straighten up, putting on a furrowed brow that I hope conveys the right amount of puzzlement. I feel my gut flip with cold realisation as I read the words over again. I swallow. “what’s that mean?” I point to the X “Kill the dragon?” I lean closer and that’s when Joe reaches for his bottle of beer. He’s had two already so his reflexes aren’t what they should be. His elbow knocks the china cup full of coffee onto my lap. It’s lukewarm but the stain spreads fast.
“ah shit, that’s my fault.” he said, throwing a stained dish towel for me to start blotting with. His apology doesn’t quite reach his eyes and he snatches the sheets up in an attempt to save them from the flood of brown sludge heading across the counter.
I give up after a few attempts. My clothes are soaking up the coffee like they’re pulling an all nighter. From the stove Roger clicks his tongue. “Lucky for you some of us guys pitched in for a gift.” I look up at him waiting for the gag.
“Yeah we got tired of that reek that you carry around.” This from Alan who sat under a cracked window smoking a rolled cigar. The rest of the guys erupt with laughter and Roger tells me to check the closet when they quiet down. “and grab a shower while you’re at it, by god.” Alan throws at my back and I leave the group in a fit of laughter, feeling my ears burn.
Back in the room I find a pair of trousers hanging in the closet along with a shirt and waistcoat. A black tie hangs from the wire hanger and deeper in the shadows of the closet a black raincoat hangs. I feel my vision double as my dream resurfaces to give me deja vu. I try to dismiss it, the way I tried to dismiss those damned cards Louise used. And yet every time I did, something would happen that I couldn’t explain away. A palm reader once called her a medium, I called the palm reader bullshit, but here I was examining my dreams for meaning. I exhale into the chill of the room. Outside the window dusk creeps in through the leaves and I snap on the desk lamp to see better. I empty my pockets on the bed and take stock. Half a tin of altoids, a few spare chips from the Doc’s stash, my old Webley, and a coffee stained scrap of eggshell coloured paper. I flip it over to see it’s Ernie Feltzer’s business card. How the hell did I end up with this? Something the Doc’s wife slipped me back at the office? everything from then seems fuzzy. I tuck the revolver into the rain coat pocket and head to wash the coffee stench off myself.
I feel like I’m washing off a second skin as the water pools around my feet and settles down the drain. When I step out into the steam filled room I run the towel across the bathroom mirror. I take a look at my mug, the dark circles match the bruising, but it looks better than it did.
“How about your heart?”
I spin around, the voice was so close I could feel her breath on the nape of my neck. Louise. My world lists and I grab the wash basin to steady it. I cup a handful of cold water and rub my eyes with it. I pinch myself until it feels like a wasp sting in my forearm, so this isn’t a dream. I know what I heard. Even as it registers doubt is trying to needle under it to throw me off. The mirror fogs again and I run the towel across it, convinced this time she’ll be standing beside me crying that same bloody tear, but I’m alone. Her voice serve to sober me and I dump the last quarter of my beer. I think about the Doc’s journal, his absence, and the words underneath the X on the map. The clues slowly click together and I realise the Doc might not have much longer in this world. I need to find him, and it needs to be tonight.