Upper West Side, Manhattan
Seventeen years ago
he summons came at three
Three short hits on the intercom.
Dr. Howard Parr leaped up, knocking over his drink. His cigarette flipped, sparks scattering. He made his way slowly down the steps to the door of his town house, swaying, clutching the banister. He peeked out the spy hole. The big envelope lay on the stoop. He opened the door, not even bothering to touch the envelope with care to avoid obscuring possible fingerprints. They all knew that he wasn’t going to the police.
Two objects inside. One was in pieces; the smashed remains of the closedcircuit camera he’d put up in an ill-conceived attempt to monitor his front door. Someone had ripped it out days after it had been installed. He’d been braced for a slap-down ever since, wishing he hadn’t done it. That he could roll onto his back, showing his throat, saying, “I’m sorry.” But they didn’t care. The other object was a videotape. His guts lurched.
His eyes swept the darkened, car-lined street. No one was there, but he felt malevolence oozing from the darkness like poison gas.
Howard trudged up the stairs, slid the tape into the VCR, docile as a beaten dog. A burning smell tickled his nose. He looked down. His cigarette was smoldering in the carpet. He crushed it as footage began.
He realized, with a sickening rush, that the camera’s jolting progress showed the interior of his own house. It turned a corner, zoomed in on Howard himself, passed out on the kitchen floor. He could not have said what day it was. His nights often finished there. He found the hard, cold floor tiles vaguely comforting, pressed against his hot face.
The camera moved up the stairs, past Howard’s bedroom. A featureless hand in a rubber glove turned a knob and walked into his elevenyear-old daughter’s room. Howard’s guts began to spasm.
The camera moved toward Lily’s bed. Light from the hallway spilled in. The camera focused on her half-open mouth. The hand held up a spray bottle with a “ta-da” flourish and sprayed Lily’s face. She murmured but subsided without waking. The camera sank as the man sat on the bed, bouncing. He slapped Lily’s face. She did not stir.
The hand pulled the sheet and coverlet down with taunting slowness. The camera surveyed the girl’s body, curled into a huddled comma. She wore a T-shirt and panties. The rubber hand shoved the garment up over her ribcage, petted her budding breasts. The hand arranged her body, bent up her knee, splayed out her thigh. It zoomed in close onto the crotch of her chaste cotton panties, staring directly at that featureless field of white for many long, horrible seconds.
Howard clutched his mouth, struggling not to vomit.
A knife appeared in the hand. A short, dark blade. Howard’s breathing hitched. Lily was fine. Asleep upstairs. She’d scolded him before she went to bed, for being drunk, like always. She’d been OK, apart from angry. She hadn’t been . . . hurt. Howard gnawed his fist as the blade moved intimately over her body, pressing here and there.
It paused over her femoral artery, then the disembodied hand replaced the coverlet, tucking it tenderly under her chin. Fingers wrapped around her throat for a moment. Then the hand thrust a finger into her mouth and slowly withdrew it, petting her soft lips as he did so.
Howard lunged for the bathroom, but did not make it. Spewed the alcoholic contents of his stomach in the hall. Fell to his knees, belly heaving. He crouched there for the better part of an hour before he dared to rise to his feet. Before he found the nerve to do what he had to do next.
He shook two pills from the special bottle, hesitated for a moment, and shook out a third.
It was for love, he told himself, over and over. He did this for her. His precious girl. The only way to protect Lily was to shut up, swallow the poison. Roll a rock over what he knew. His awful secret. He needed help for that. Stronger help than booze. If it killed him, so be it.
Lily would be better off.
ust a dream, man. Just a dumb dream.
Right, and so? Knowing it was a dream didn’t help. When he was in it, he was in it. Stuck in a white nowhere, that booming voice in his head saying words that made him want to scream, though they were just bland numeric sequences.
“. . . DeepWeave four point two, combat level eight, sequence five commencing . . . four, three, two, one . . .”
Then Rudy came at him, stinking of drink and sweat. Slashing at Bruno, switchblade in one hand, broken beer bottle in the other.
Mamma lay on the floor behind Rudy, beaten and bleeding, eyes pleading over the gag. All because her useless, pussy son hadn’t had the balls to steal Rudy’s Beretta and shoot the scumbag dead. Kitchen shears would do fine, too, slashed across the jugular. A bread knife right between the ribs. A machete.
Take that, dickhead.
Or a chainsaw, even better. Swoosh, swing. Splatter that rabid bastard every which way.
That’s what you get for hitting my mamma, fucking shit-for-brains.
But he never killed Rudy in the dream, even if he landed a perfect blow. The bastard just winked out of existence, and a fresh, unharmed Rudy popped out from another direction. The video game from hell, but somebody with a forked tongue was plugging in the quarters.
He fought grimly on, ducking, lunging, slashing, punching, and kicking, then Rudy cloned himself into six Rudys, and they slammed him all at once, knocking him to the ground—
The images broke apart, fighting to maintain their space in his head, but waking reality rushed in through the cracks.
It should have been a relief, but God, his head. It throbbed, like he’d been clobbered with a bat. His heart banged against his ribs.
He’d hit the floor. That was what had wakened him. He was on the floor, next to his bed. He was Bruno Ranieri, and he was thirty-two, not twelve, and this was his own king-sized bed, in his own condo, not Mamma’s tenement apartment in Newark. The sweat-soaked sheet wound like a noose around one ankle was custom-made high-thread-count Egyptian cotton. His picture window framed the pink-tinted Portland skyline and a view of Mount Hood, not a sooty brick wall over a cluster of garbage cans. No drunken Rudy bellowing through thin walls as he beat up Mamma. He stared around at his own space, his own life.
Tried to believe it. To own it.
He gasped for breath. Hoarse rasps. Drenched with sweat, muscles twitching like he’d been electrocuted. He pried the twisted sheet off his ankle and sprawled flat against the cool wooden floor.
It was all behind him now. Rudy was dead, decades ago. Uncle Tony had seen to it. Mamma was dead, too, eighteen years ago. Nothing could hurt her anymore.
Just . . . a . . . fucking . . .
Long past. Dead and gone.
He’d moved on, gotten his shit together. He was not that helpless boy anymore. He deepened his breathing, got up on wobbly legs. He’d use the tricks Kev had taught him.
When you can’t stand what’s happening in your head, float back from it,
Kev always said.
Three steps. Turn down the volume. Then look at it. Idly curious. It’s just a bunch of monkeys fighting in a cage. Stupid. Irrelevant. Can’t hurt you.
He stumbled into the living room, air cooling his naked skin. The city lights reflected off the broad swath of planked flooring. He sank down into horse stance and began the kung fu forms Kev had taught him. His legs shook, and monkeys screeched and flailed in their cage for a while, but eventually, he got where he needed to be. One with the night, crouching, leaping, punching.
Black panther climbs the tree. Crane guards his nest. Crane flies into the sky. Wild tiger raises his head. Golden dragon stretches his left claw.
Time flowed, smoothing.
Who the hell would call at this ungodly hour? Oh, man. Maybe it was Kev. The blaze of hope broke his mellow Zen trance, had him leaping for the phone like a fish for a bug. “Yeah?”
“It’s Julio.” The cigarette-roughened voice of the fry cook at Zia Rosa’s restaurant rasped uncomfortably over Bruno’s nerve endings.
Bruno’s stomach thudded down a couple notches. Not Kev.
Of course not. Why would Kev call? He was traveling the globe with his true love, Edie. Tied up in erotic knots on some sugar sand beach under the moonlight. Which was fine. Bruno was thrilled for that. He’d hoped and schemed to get Kev happy, smiling, sexually fulfilled. He loved that scenario,
it. Kev deserved blithering happiness and nonstop screaming orgasms after the horrific shit he’d been through.
But those dreams, man. Kev was the only person Bruno could talk to about that stuff. Kev had saved him, back when he was thirteen. He’d been wild-eyed and desperate with the grinding, constant Rudy nightmares. At the time, the idea of throwing himself under a bus had been looking kind of restful. Kev had understood that. The way he understood everything. He’d saved Bruno’s ass, so many times, on so many levels.
But then, Kev was a freaking genius. Nobody argued with that.
“. . . is the matter with you, man? Do you even hear me?”
Bruno shook himself out of his daze and tried to zero in on Julio’s grating monologue. “Sorry. Still half asleep. What did you say?”
“I was saying that Otis didn’t come in tonight at all, and Jillian called, said she can’t make it in at six, either, and I am so done, man. I’ve been here for twelve and a half hours.”
“Not coming in? What’s the matter with those guys?”
Julio grunted. “I don’t know or care, buddy. Call ’em yourself if you’re curious. But I’m outta here, at six sharp. Closing the place up and locking the door. Just lettin’ ya know.”
Bruno glanced at the clock again, calculating dressing time, driving time. “Make it six thirty?”
Julio paused, considering it. “On the nose, dude,” he growled.
Julio was gone. Bruno let the phone drop, slid down the wall until his naked butt hit the floor. Great. An extra shift at the diner. This negated the mellow kung fu vibe in one crushing blow.
There was no logical reason to be so uptight about closing Tony’s Diner while he scoured the city for some decent waitstaff. But the place had been a fixture in his life since Mamma sent him there at age twelve, right before all the bad stuff happened. Bruno had worked there throughout his adolescence, bussing plates, waiting tables.
Thirty years ago, after Vietnam, Uncle Tony decided that he wanted to run a food joint in his adopted West Coast city of Portland, Oregon. A no bullshit place that slung great hash twenty-four-seven, like the diners of his youth in New Jersey and New York. Where a guy working swing shift could get great fries or chops anytime, day or night. He’d persuaded his unmarried sister, Bruno’s Zia Rosa, to move out and help. Zia had added her own heroic efforts to the production of food that made your taste buds burst into six-part harmony while simultaneously clogging your arteries with deadly plaque.
But Uncle Tony was dead. He’d died a hero, almost a year ago, now, saving Bruno’s life among many others. He could hear his uncle’s gruff, Marines drill sergeant voice in his head.
What’s this? Ya wanna close Tony’s Diner because of, what? Nightmares? Fuckin’ stress? You tired, boy? Fuck tired! Tired’s for pussies! You can rest when you’re dead!
Tony was resting. It was Bruno that couldn’t seem to manage it. Not with the Rudy dreams and Zia Rosa missing in action. Zia had gone haring off a few weeks ago to attend the birth of yet another of the McCloud crowd’s innumerable spawn, expecting Bruno to pick up the slack. Kev was off the hook, because Rosa wanted so badly for him to procreate, and all that sweaty humping took time and effort, right? But Bruno, man. Anything goes. Put that boy to work, day and night. Never mind lost sleep. Never a thought for his own kite and toy business.
Fortunately, his own outfit was a smoothly functioning perpetualmotion machine. One of Bruno’s talents was to pick good staff and motivate them well. Too bad Zia Rosa couldn’t do the same.
But the restaurant was his most visceral link to Tony. God, how he missed the old bastard. Tony had loved the place. Bruno owed Tony his life, several times over. Tony had never closed the joint but for a couple of very notable days; one being the day eighteen years ago that Rudy and his goons had come to the diner to kidnap and murder Bruno. They had not succeeded, thanks to Kev, aka white-hot ninja maniac, and Tony. His uncle had carted the goons away in his pickup to an unknown fate. Or, well. Unknown, maybe, but certainly not un-guessed. It had been a day of blood, terror, and broken glass.
The other day the diner had closed had been the day Tony died. Another day of blood, terror, and broken glass. Bombs and bullets, too.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Thought about in those terms, closing down Tony’s Diner was starting to look like the knell of fucking doom.
Aw, hell with it. He’d cover at the diner, for as long as it took. He wasn’t sleeping worth a damn anyhow, with Rudy coming at him full bore every night. His sex life was decimated. A guy couldn’t invite lady friends over for erotic frolics when he had an early-morning date with monsters from the depths of his damaged psyche. Real mood-killer, that. Hadn’t seen any betweenthe-sheets action in months now.
Or missed it much, to be honest. Too tired.
He headed into the bathroom, stared at his face over the sink. He looked bad, he noted critically. Reddened eyes, cheeks starting to cave. He’d lost about twenty pounds since the dreams started up again. His head still throbbed, now that the calming spell of the kung fu forms was broken. He yanked open the medicine cabinet, rummaged ’til he found a cluster of prescription bottles, rubber banded together.
He’d gone to a shrink with his problem a few weeks ago. This eerie cocktail of antidepressants, antianxiety meds, and antipsychotics had been the guy’s recommendation. Bruno checked it out on the Internet, discovered that his dose of the antipsychotic was higher than the max recommended dose for schizophrenia patients. Similar to what they were giving Iraq veterans suffering from PTSD after multiple combat tours. He’d made a real impression on that shrink. Possible side effects included, but were by no means limited to: diabetes, weight gain, muscle spasms, slurred speech, disorientation, tremors. And to top it off, some of the vets who took it were dying in their sleep.
Yet here he was, getting out the bottles. Rereading those labels.
Aside from possible side effects—like, say, death—he had a creeping sense that if he drove Rudy underground, the guy would really be able to fuck with him. At least when Rudy was in his face, he could see what he was dealing with. Who knew? He was feeling his way. He wasn’t great at introspection. He liked action. Constant, restless motion.
Don’t think about it. Shine it on.
The hole in his belly was deep enough as it was. Just stay shallow, that was the trick. Babblingbrook shallow. He was great at that. Ask any of his ex-girlfriends.
He batted the bottles aside with the back of his hand and kept digging. Found some aspirin, swallowed it dry, and turned on the water to wash that fried look off his face. Maybe he could sneakily do for himself what Kev had done for him years ago. Kev had researched lucid dreaming, speed reading hundreds of books and medical journals. Every night, Kev made him practice kung fu forms in the wide part of the alley out back, behind the diner, practicing stepping back from the cage of monkey. And after, Kev sat next to Bruno’s bed as he went to sleep, helping him visualize Rudy putting down his weapons and fading away. Imagining that booming voice getting softer, until it disappeared.
Then Kev stretched out with a blanket and slept on the floor. And when Bruno had the nightmare, Kev woke him and did it again. Every night, for months. And bit by bit, it started to work. A night would go by, no dream. Then another. Bruno stopped freaking out in school, for the most part. He’d stopped getting straight D’s and F’s. He’d never gotten particularly good at sleep, being hyper by nature, but it was better. And finally, the dreams stopped altogether. He was cured.
Or so he thought, until a couple of months ago.
He could make a recording similar to Kev’s mesmerizing monologue, and hypnotize himself, as Kev had hypnotized him. Problem was, he suspected it was the force of Kev’s will that made the technique work. Kev had been a bulwark by his bed. No one messed with Kev.
But Rudy knew damn well he could mess with Bruno. No lame guided visualization with waves crashing and birds chirping was going to change that. But what could he do? Call Kev, bleating for him to come home, tuck Bruno into bed? Whining to be rescued, like the zinged-out twelve-year-old dingbat he’d been when Kev met him?
No. Grow up. Get a spine transplant. Get the fuck over it.