Spoilers: Season 1: The Pilot, Frostbite, The Wall, Mob Wife, Faith. Season 2: The Quality of Mercy, Hot Time in the Old Town, Second Sight, Don't Walk Away Renee.
Major kudos to my beta readers, Maryilee and MaryKate sensei. They keep me and the characters in line. This would be a poor, whimpering, quivering tumble of letters across the screen without their input and editing talents. Thanks, ladies of the GTA!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Do you wanna die?!? Hunh?!? Do you wanna die?!?"
Short and stocky, the man was nonetheless powerful, and not only because of the gun clenched in his right hand. Hernandez shoved Gary angrily, forcing him down hard to the ground, then stood over him, gun pointed menacingly. Hands up in placation, Gary cringed away from the short revolver. But he couldn't not do what he had come to do. Pushing himself up from the dirt on one elbow, trying to ignore both the black muzzle of the gun in his face and the wild light in Hernandez' eyes, he yelled back.
"No! I don't! But you've gotta list--"
"Shut up! Just shut up!" Hernandez shook the gun in Gary's face again, and Gary, still mostly on his back in the dirt, shuddered involuntarily as the ex-con cocked the hammer. Behind Hernandez, on the other side of the tracks in which he stood, the crumpled form of the District Attorney hadn't moved, her blue dress incongruously bright against the muddy clay of the train yard where she lay. Gary hadn't gotten here in time to prevent her murder, and, for a brief moment, he considered just letting the crazed man in front of him die.
It wouldn't be any more than he deserves, Gary thought bitterly. But the train whistle ended his hesitation. He had learned a long time ago not to second guess what the paper wanted him to do.
"Look! There's a train, see, and it's gonna, it's gonna--"
"What do you care, man? What do you care? Just shut up, all right? Just SHUT UP!"
Gary couldn't believe Hernandez didn't hear the whistle of the approaching train, couldn't feel it rumbling through the track beneath him, rattling the rails that lay just before his feet and just beyond Gary's. Sparing one desperate look at the rapidly approaching train, Gary tried again, pointing down the track as he cried out.
"Look! There's a train and it's gonna hit--"
Gary's stomach turned over as his eyes popped open to the soft darkness of his loft. Closing them momentarily while he tried to still the pounding of his heart, he heard the brief wail of a siren outside.
"Sorry," he mumbled into his pillow, before rolling over onto his back with one arm across his forehead, the other clenched around the sheet he lay under. He took several deep breaths, closing his eyes again as he tried to shake off the nightmare. "It's not my turn for the night shift."
The siren's wail faded. Gary checked his clock: 3:13. Great. The middle of the night and he was wide awake. Wide awake. Experience had taught him that no matter what, his Early Edition of the paper would *still* be there in three and a half hours, cat in tow. Or was it cat with newspaper in tow? It didn't matter. Neither one seemed to care if Gary was rested or ready. Their relentless presence each morning never varied.
With a muffled curse, Gary threw back his covers and swung his feet over the edge of his bed. He sat for a few minutes, head hanging in his hands, trying to shake the persistent mental picture of Hernandez and his gun - much too close to Gary's face, even in a dream. Telling himself there were worse things he could have dre-- No! Not that; not now. Gary immediately slammed the lid on that particular nightmare, turning back to the bad dream from which he had just awakened. Shuddering, he got up and padded over to his small refrigerator. He'd get something to eat, and then he'd go back to sleep.
The refrigerator was empty, except for half a six-pack of Miller Lite and a quart of milk. Gary took one whiff of the milk and held it as far away from his nose as he could. Whew! No telling how long that had been in here. He couldn't remember the last time he had actually eaten in his apartment. Lately it had been easier to just grab his meals downstairs. Besides, when did he ever get time to actually go grocery shopping? His life was ruled by the paper, and Snow's cat. Anything left over went to McGinty's. Just ask Renee.
Running water to wash the last of the milk he had poured out down the sink, Gary crumpled the empty carton and tossed it in the trash, where it promptly bounced off the already overflowing debris to land on the floor. Gary shook his head. Housecleaning chores were another casualty of his haphazard life. Maybe he should hire a maid -- but then he'd have to explain the surfeit of newspapers stacked around his apartment. Maybe he shouldn't. Heading back to the refrigerator, he stared into it thoughtfully for a moment before pulling out and opening a beer. He wasn't about to hassle with going downstairs for a midnight snack. Besides, maybe the beer would help him sleep -- what little sleep he could still get before the ball and chain arrived to shackle his life for another day.
"California dreamin', on such a winter's da-a-a-a-ay--"
Chuck punched the off button on his radio with a muffled curse. It wasn't winter, not by a long shot, and it wasn't California dreaming, it was California nightmares, freeway style. He had never in his life seen so much traffic get backed up so fast. He was not only going to be late for his meeting with the potential backers of his new film, he was probably going to miss it all together. Around him, people were getting out of their cars, some shading their eyes as they tried to see far enough down the highway to find out why the busy freeway had become a parking lot. Others were leaning resignedly against their cars, or striking up conversations with other motorists.
Chuck pounded his steering wheel in frustration, much to the amusement of his neighboring traffic casualties. One man, standing outside his car, pointed to Chuck's Illinois license plate with a comment that had his companion, an attractive blonde woman in what amounted to about 8 ounces of clothing, howling with laughter. Any other day Chuck would have fully appreciated the effect her amusement had on various parts of her anatomy. But not today. Not with so much hanging in the balance. Resignedly, he pulled out his cell phone and switched it on.
"Maddie? Yeah, this is Chu-- Charles." The corporate secretary at the last business he had tried to interest in his latest idea had suggested he use his given name, instead of the familiar nick name. It sounded more prestigious, she said. "Steven" Spielberg, not "Steve." "Francis" Ford Coppola, not "Frank." Since she was also a good-looking brunette, Chuck took her advice. He was still trying to get her to let him take her out.
The female voice on the other end of the line asked a question. Chuck answered, trying to keep resentment for his current situation out of his voice.
"There's a bit of a traffic tie-up out here on the freeway, and it looks like I'm gonna be here for a while..."
Sympathetic noises came from the earpiece of his phone, followed by a patronizing lecture on why you never take the freeway to get here, you should have taken... and she launched into a dizzying description of major thoroughfares and so many lights and so many blocks. That, she insisted at the end of her recital, would have gotten Chuck to their main office in just a little bit more time than the freeway on a good day. It would have gotten him there eons before he would arrive today, if he ever did.
Yeah, yeah, now you tell me! Chuck groused silently, then reluctantly rescheduled his meeting with the prospective backers for next month. Disgusted, he tossed the phone over to the passenger seat, then leaned back against his own seat with a heavy sigh. The blonde and her boyfriend were still laughing, and Chuck decided road rage was a very understandable malady.
It was 10:35 p.m. when Gary stalked into McGinty's, nodding shortly to Crumb and the other night bartender as they chatted with patrons. Ducking behind the bar without speaking, he sorted through the fridge there for a couple of beers, opening one and taking a long swig of it before he headed back into the kitchen to find a sandwich or something to eat. He was starving, having spent the day racing around -- well, if you could call riding the El all over Chicago racing -- preventing a child from getting run over in a cross-walk, a jogger from being bitten by a dog (Gary almost got bit instead), and picking up an elderly lady's purse when she dropped it - with all her money for her medications in it - before the young thugs behind him could grab it. And that was just this morning.
All in all, though, not a bad day - if he didn't count his last encounter before heading home. No one had cussed him out, or called the police on him, and his own life hadn't been in danger, not really. Of course, nobody bothered to thank him either. Honestly, compared to times in the past, lately his days hadn't been so bad, just busy - very busy. It was the nights that were getting to him.
It had been two weeks since his first nightmare. That nightmare - and others - had replayed in various versions every night since then; sometimes both the kid and the DA died, and still he couldn't save Hernandez. One night, last night, actually, Hernandez had pushed Gary down onto the tracks, laughing wildly as he pulled the trigger. Gary didn't remember if the dream ended with him being shot or run over by the train. He just knew he had woken up in a cold sweat, heart pounding wildly. He spent the rest of the night wrapped in a blanket in his chair, surfing the infomercials on TV while he drank another couple of beers, since that seemed to be all he found in his fridge these days. Somewhere towards dawn he had finally dozed off, only to wake up with a start from a dream about finding Chuck's body floating in Lake Michigan off the Rosario docks. He had actually been glad to hear the paper's familiar plop! outside his door this morning. It gave him something else to think about, something besides his own demise and that of his best friend.
Gary still got chills up and down his spine when he thought about how close they had all come to dying that day on the tugboat. If it hadn't been for Marissa and her mystery woman... He pushed the picture away. Marissa had told him a little bit about the article the woman read to her, and he didn't like to remember that the "Bodies Found Floating" were his and Chuck's and Crumb's. They wouldn't have lasted long in the frigid waters of Lake Michigan even if they had survived the explosion on the tug.
Finishing his beer while he put his sandwich together, trying to stay out of the way of the night staff cleaning up after the kitchen closed, Gary sighed. On top of everything, there was Renee. Last week she had complained that their dates lately consisted of her sitting at McGinty's bar while Gary tried to talk to her between customers, or her sitting in his apartment watching a movie she didn't really care about while he fell asleep next to her. He hadn't heard from her since then. There wasn't much he could do; with Chuck gone Gary's presence was required at McGinty's far more often than in the past. Add the paper on top of that, and Gary really didn't have time for Renee.
"Just one more thing about my life that's been screwed up cause of that damn cat." Gary found himself more resentful of the paper as each day went by. He couldn't even sleep any more because of it. Gary dreaded going to bed at night, putting it off as long as possible. Which meant he was all that much more tired in the morning when the paper arrived, but not that he had an easier time getting to sleep the next night.
Taking his plate and heading for the office and his loft, Gary stopped at the cooler for another beer. On second thought, he set the plate down for a moment while he punched the handle out of a half rack, then grabbing both headed out into the bar and up the stairs to his loft. Maybe, just maybe, if he had a couple of beers before bed tonight, he could sleep without the plague of nightmares.
Chuck couldn't believe his good luck. He was actually on his way home from a champagne and lobster dinner, a dinner where he and his corporate sponsors had signed all the necessary contracts for Fishman Productions' first venture into Wholesome Family Entertainment. Everything Chuck needed, signed, sealed, and delivered. Money? Not a problem, not anymore. Now his problems were of a different sort. Finding a screenwriter, a film crew, stars... Let's see... Julia Roberts... Sandra Bullock... no, Pamela Anderson! She would be perfect! Chuck made a mental note to find out who her agent was first thing tomorrow morning.
Topping it all off, Roxie, the good-looking brunette from his first failed attempt at sponsorship, had finally consented to a date. He was picking her up at 6:30 tomorrow night, and he had great expectations for the evening.
Flipping on the lights in his apartment, Chuck knew he had to find someone to share his news with, or he would burst. Gary! They hadn't talked for a couple of weeks now. Gary would be properly appreciative of his good fortune. Then Gary could tell Crumb, and, while he wouldn't be there to gloat in person, Chuck could at least relish the fact that Crumb knew he was a success out in California. He checked the clock: 9:30. Good! It was only 11:30 in Chicago, and Gary probably wouldn't be in bed. If he was, well he was a good guy. He'd be happy for Chuck anyway.
Dropping his keys on the kitchen bar, Chuck dialed Gary's number. The tinny voice of the operator came on after the first two rings, and he cut it off before she could tell him the number he dialed was not in service. After all those years of living in the same town as Gary, he couldn't seem to remember that now he had to dial the area code before the actual number. Dialing the entire number the second time, Chuck settled back on his couch, flipping the TV on with the remote while he waited for Gary to answer. It took a long time, and Chuck was about to hang up and try McGinty's number downstairs when Gary finally picked up the phone.
Chuck frowned. Gary sounded sick - or something. Or, maybe he had been asleep.
"Hey buddy, it's Chuck! Guess what? Great news! I just got home from a champagne and lobster dinner, and it was all to sign the paperwork for my project. Sony/Tristar is going to foot the bill for my movie idea! Isn't that great?"
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. Chuck frowned. He could hear vague background noises, but not much else. Then, finally,
"Nyeah, Chuck, tha's, tha's great."
"Gary? Are you all right?"
"Nyeah. Yeah. Was jus' ‘bout sleep, thassall."
Chuck had a sudden, funny feeling. Gary didn't sound sleepy, he sounded, well, slightly drunk. Either that or he wasn't bothering to lift his face off the pillow when he talked.
"Hey, is everything all right back there, buddy? Crumb keeping you in line? How's Marissa?"
Another long pause. Chuck wasn't feeling funny anymore, he was getting worried.
"Nyeah. Evverthin's fine. Jus' fine."
"How's the paper been lately? Keeping you busy?"
"How elsh does it keep me?"
"Yeah, well, you know you should take some time off, Gary. Get your folks up for the weekend, they can handle the paper. You take Renee and go away for a couple of days, just the two of you somewhere. Come see me out here!"
"Can' do that. Ish my responsi- responsh- responsibility." Chuck was really concerned now. But Gary was still talking. "Gotta go, Chuck, ge' shom sleep. While I can."
"Hey, Gar, I'm serious. You should come out here--" The dial tone
cut Chuck's invitation off, and he sat, staring thoughtfully at the receiver
in his hand for a long time after that.
They all heard the muffled boom, felt the ship shudder. Gary froze, ceasing his struggles to look around him anxiously. Crumb and Chuck quit arguing to join him. The ship suddenly groaned, then listed slightly toward one end. Crumb caught Gary's eye from where he and Chuck were handcuffed together through the ladder-like stairs of the tugboat.
"Just a guess, Hobson, but I don't think this is a good sign."
Gary didn't answer as he resumed his frantic tugging at the ropes that bound his hands together around the thin metal pole, his wrists raw already from his earlier attempts to free himself. He didn't want to admit that he had yet to feel any give in the knots, especially not when he could hear a rushing noise in the background now, a noise that sounded suspiciously like running water - lots of running water. Chuck and Crumb watched in silence. No one needed to mention all their lives hinged now on whether or not Gary could get free of his bonds.
He wasn't getting anywhere. The ship was listing more and more, groaning and creaking around them, and the lake had begun rushing in to their compartment. Gary swore as he felt the first icy fingers of water grip his ankles. Crumb looked resigned, Chuck desperate.
"Come on, Gar! You gotta get loose!"
"Yeah, well, what do you think I been trying to do all night, huh?" Gary wasted precious seconds glaring at his friend, who had the grace to look abashed. When Chuck looked away, Gary returned to his desperate struggles for freedom, more desperate now as the icy water climbed swiftly around him. The more water that came in, the further his end of the tugboat sank. As a result, while Gary was going under faster, his two companions were actually higher above the rising water.
"Gar..." Chuck looked like he was beginning to realize this might really be it.
"Just stow it, Chuck, all right? Just stow it." Gary was in no mood to deal with a penitential Chuck. Not with icy lake water up around his waist. Not when his hands, now underneath that water, were quickly going numb. Suddenly, with a long, loud moan, the ship shuddered and slipped, and Gary was in water up to his chin. Chuck and Crumb were scrambling to hang on to their ladder, now more horizontal than vertical.
"Gary!" Chuck's eyes were huge, horrified.
The ship settled again, and Gary choked on a mouthful of seawater as it swept over his head. Still struggling against bonds he could no longer feel, Gary refused to give in, refused to admit this could be it. Until the water came up over his head. Until...
Gary fought the entangling covers, frantic to be free; frantic to get his head above the lake waters subsuming him. Abruptly he felt himself falling - falling? - hitting the floor beside his bed with a loud thump. Jolted awake, he saw the sunlight streaming in his windows, heard over the pounding of his heart the radio announcer: "Good morning, Chicago! It's gonna be a warm one--" Gary fought his covers once again, sitting up to slap the voice into silence. Into that silence came the plop! and mreeow! that had started his day every day for the last two years.
Sitting on the floor beside his bed, hands covering his face, Gary fought to control his panic, struggled to calm his racing heart. Snow's cat mreeowed again, and he moved a hand long enough to cast a one-eyed glare at the door. Finally managing to extricate himself from his sheets, he headed for the bathroom. Leaning over the sink to splash his face with cold water, the man he saw in the mirror was hollow eyed, unshaven, unkempt. He looked... like something the cat dragged in.
His pulse settled somewhere near normal about the time he realized he had a headache. Not just a headache: timpani in full concert, one set on each side of his head. Gary made his way gingerly over to the door. Opening it, he stared grimly at the cat.
"Don't suppose you could hand that up to me, do ya?" The cat ran in with a loud mreeow. Gary started to shake his head, changing his mind immediately. "Yeah, well, thanks again for nothin'."
After a moment's consideration, he reached for the paper with one hand, squatting down slowly so as not to aggravate the pounding in his skull any more than he absolutely had to. He dropped the paper on the table without looking at it on his way to the medicine cabinet. Fighting the aspirin bottle, he finally got it open and took 2, then 2 more out. His stomach lurched uneasily as he found a glass for water, so Gary turned instead to the fridge. Frowning at the 5 bottles of beer left in it, he looked for something else to drink. There was nothing else, so, shrugging, he grabbed a beer and opened it. Swigging down the aspirin, he wobbled over to ease down on the couch, absently drinking from the bottle in his hand once he was settled.
God, what a dream! And Chuck, damn him, it was all his fault-- Chuck? Gary frowned as the cat jumped up on the couch beside him. Chuck... what was it about his friend? Unable to remember, Gary started to shake his head, only to stop, wincing. Groaning aloud at the knife throwers who now joined the timpani in his skull, he slid down the couch to where his head could rest comfortably on the back. Closing his eyes, Gary waited for the pounding headache to recede, praying for the nightmares to end.
Marissa took the call in the office, where she had been waiting to catch Gary on his way down this morning. She had a couple of questions concerning the bar for him, but he had yet to show his face downstairs. Wondering briefly if he was out with an early start this morning, she finally gave up and ordered the new beer glasses without him. About 10:00, Robin stuck her head in the door.
"Marissa? There's a call on line one. I think it's Chuck."
Marissa's eyebrows went up in surprise, but she felt for the phone on her desk anyway.
"Well, he's up early." She found the right buttons and pushed. "Hello?"
"Marissa! Hey, guess what!" Marissa held the phone away from her ear.
"Um, you got a date with Pamela Anderson?"
"No, no, but I am going to ask her to be in my movie."
"Movie? What movie?"
"The one Sony/Tristar is funding for me." Chuck sounded like a 7-year-old with his first bike.
"Chuck! That's wonderful! Congratulations! Have you told Gary?"
"Well, that's sort of why I called." Chuck's voice was abruptly serious. "I called Gary last night. He, uh, he didn't sound quite right, Marissa."
"What do you mean ‘right' Chuck? He's been pretty tired. With the nice weather it seems like the paper's been keeping him really busy, and between that and the bar, you know how hectic things can get for him."
"Have you seen him this morning?"
"No, he hasn't shown up yet. I figured he got an early start." Chuck didn't answer, and Marissa, always intuitive, felt her four good senses come alive.
"Chuck? What is it? What are you worried about?"
"Well..." Marissa waited impatiently for Chuck to continue. "Well, last night he sounded, well, almost drunk."
"Drunk? Gary?" Marissa would have laughed, except Chuck sounded so worried. "Really Chuck, are you sure it wasn't the connection or something? Are you sure you had the right number?"
"No, Marissa, I swear. It was Gary. And, I told him what I just told you and he didn't even respond. When he did, he just said, ‘that's great' and he never even asked me for any more details. I tried to talk to him, but he just kept saying everything was okay, and then he hung up on me."
Marissa didn't answer, and Chuck went on.
"Hey, I know it hasn't been easy, running the bar and dealing with the paper too. Have you guys hired another manager?"
Marissa couldn't tell Chuck that she didn't think Gary wanted another manager. In spite of his almost constant irritation with the man, Chuck had been Gary's best friend for more than ten years. Gary hadn't yet gotten to the point where he was ready to replace his friend.
"Um, no, we haven't. Between Gary, Crumb, Robin and I, we've been making it work."
"Well, you've got to get someone else to do it. Gary can't do both. I know. Look, I gotta run, got lots of stuff to do. Do me a favor, and check on him, all right, Marissa? Make sure he's okay. And make him hire a manager!"
"Yeah, sure Chuck." Marissa said goodbye, hanging up the phone to sit thoughtfully at her desk for a few moments. It didn't sound like Chuck had talked to a normal Gary last night, but it could just have been that Gary was tired. He had been busy, really busy lately. So busy she hadn't had an actual conversation with him since... Marissa frowned as she tried to remember the last time she and Gary had talked about anything other than the bar. Come to think of it, he hadn't mentioned anything out of the paper now for... Two, maybe three weeks? That wasn't normal, not for Gary. She was the only one left for him to talk to about the paper, since Chuck was gone. Even before Chuck left, Marissa had been the one Gary discussed the paper with most often.
Coming to a quick decision, she reached for her cane and went tapping up the stairs. Calling his name as she knocked on his door, Marissa was surprised when he answered it.
"Gary? I thought you were gone already."
"Yeah, well for once I got to sleep in. Um, but I'm kind of on my way out now. Is there something you need?"
"He did? What's he got to say for himself?"
Marissa cocked her head, concerned now herself. For Gary not to remember Chuck's call...
"He, um, he got Sony/Tristar to back his movie idea."
"Really? That's great!" It sounded like Gary was shifting his weight from foot to foot. Like, he was... uncomfortable or something. "Look, Marissa, I really gotta go. I'll call Chuck later and talk to him about it, okay?" Marissa heard the paper rustle in Gary's hand as she stepped aside.
"Yeah, sure, Gary. See ya later."
She stood at the top of the stairs for a long time after he left, just thinking.
Gary couldn't count the times the paper had almost gotten him killed anymore, nor the ways. Let's see... He had almost frozen to death, been hit by at least two cars, and head injuries from one of those hit and runs had almost done him in - injuries aggravated by the fact the paper didn't care if he was sick or not, it still called him out to help others. Gary had also lost count of how many times he had intervened in fires, car accidents, shootings, robberies, tornad-- no, he still remembered both tornadoes, all too vividly. But the rest had all become a blur in his mind, except, of course, for the nightmares he'd been having lately. His subconscious didn't seem to have any problems recalling all the various incidents of the past two years. It just had problems with the results.
Leaning his head back against the side of the El car, Gary searched for something else to think about. At least today the paper seemed to be giving him a break. Or something. He wasn't sure what to think about the fact that the paper was suddenly, mysteriously clear at 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon when for the last 2 months he had run himself ragged well into the evening, every evening, to keep up with its demands. Maybe it was giving him a lesson, like a schoolmaster gave a tardy school boy. Detention. Sitting around staring at the walls in his apartment, with time to think -- and one too many unpleasant things to think about.
His head was starting to hurt again, and Gary tried unsuccessfully to concentrate on that rather than think about the two headlines that would be in tomorrow's paper - headlines unchanged from his Early Edition. Headlines that he had missed because he had spent 3 hours passed out on his couch this morning, sleeping off the beer he had drunk last night. Still didn't get rid of the nightmares, either, Gary grumbled to himself. At least the headlines weren't that drastic. He told himself the old lady would recover from her broken hip, eventually, not like-- Gary shoved the thought away as fast as it appeared. The second headline wasn't as bad. A video store had gotten robbed, but this time no one was hurt in his absence. He told himself to be thankful for small favors.
Hey, maybe he could even get a hold of Renee tonight, and they could have
a real date. Holding on to that thought, Gary resolutely forced his
recent troubles to the back of his mind as he made his way down the EL
stairs and headed towards McGinty's.
"Hey!! Somebody!!! You gotta let me outta here! The city's gonna burn!!" It was no use. His throat was hoarse from yelling; his cell mates ready to knock him over the head again to shut him up. Slapping the iron bars in frustration, Gary backed into a corner, keeping a wary eye on the two rough-looking characters he shared the dingy, smelly jail with. The city was going to burn. He couldn't stop that; it was over his head. But it wasn't just the city he had to save, it was...who? Gary shook his head, desperately trying to clear the last of the cobwebs the crooked cop's cudgel had left in his brain.
"Hey!! Somebody!! Anybody!!" Then, suddenly, Gary heard Marissa scream. No, wait, not Marissa... Not Marissa -- Eleanor! Oh my God, what they were going to do to Eleanor! He grabbed the bars of the cell, rattling them with all his strength.
"Mr. Hobson!" The urgent voice came from the window high at the back of the cell. Gary whirled around to find a young black boy standing outside it.
"If I get you outta here, will you promise to help Eleanor?"
Gary didn't need the prompting of his cell mates to get him to agree. The increasing screams he heard outside were enough.
"Yeah, sure, but how are you gonna do that?"
Jesse held something up through the bars. Gary reached for it, found himself holding what looked like a key made of wax.
"Just stick this in the lock." Confused, Gary did as he was told. As he handed it back out the window to the waiting boy, a large white hand suddenly grabbed it.
"I'll take that, Mr. Hobson." Sullivan's leering face appeared next to Jesse's at the window, his other hand seizing the boy by the neck. Gary frantically grabbed for him through the window, but sniggering, Sullivan stepped back, yanking Jesse down from the wooden box he had used to get up to the window. Tossing the struggling boy's stick of wax aside, he shook a knife down into his hand from his sleeve.
"No!" Gary's hand went out, pleading, for the boy's life, for the lives of so many others. "Y-y-y-you don't understand! You can't do this! It, it, it's not just him, not just the boy! If you kill him, hundreds, thousands of people maybe, will--"
"You've interfered for the last time," Sullivan sneered. Gary could only watch as the knife flashed briefly in the dim alley; the screams in the background subsiding slowly into ragged sobs...
"Marissa? Can I talk to you?" Marissa looked up in surprise as Crumb came around the partition toward her desk. He rarely came into the office, preferring to deal with the customer and product end of the business more than management. Crumb was the one who had kept the inventory going in Chuck's absence. Marissa set her accounts aside for the moment.
"Sure. Come on in." Listening to Crumb grab a chair and set it down near her, she frowned. When he did make his rare appearances in the office, Crumb never stayed long enough to sit down. For the second time in as many weeks she waited patiently for someone to tell her what was on his mind.
Crumb cleared his throat.
"Um, it seems, well, we're missing some inventory."
"What kind of inventory?"
"Well, at first it didn't seem like much. The last couple of weeks we've been coming up a few beers short here and there. This week, though, well, we're missing two cases so far." She could feel Crumb waiting. Could feel his eyes on her, assessing whether or not to say the next thing on his mind.
"And?" she prompted.
Crumb shifted in his chair, cleared his throat again. Taking a deep breath, he must have had to bring his next thought up from his toes, it took so long for him to put it into words.
"Um, well, have you noticed anything funny about Hobson lately?"
"Gary? Why?" Marissa wasn't sure she liked the change of subject, not after Chuck's phone call at the end of last week. Not after her own observations since then. Observations that left her with the distinct impression that her friend was avoiding her. Why, she didn't know. She'd had so much to do in the office she hadn't yet had time or opportunity to corner Gary and find out what was bothering him.
Crumb answered her slowly, reluctantly.
"Well, he, uh, he seems to be, well, he seems kind of... off. You know, off his feed or something. Depressed almost. At first, well, I just chalked it up to Fishman being gone. I mean, I know how good of friends they were, even though I've never understood it. And, I know Hobson's been busy, between the bar and, well, whatever it is he does." Crumb quickly forestalled Marissa's evasion with his own. "That's okay. I don't want to know." Marissa's lips curved into a small smile. Crumb's oft-repeated mantra had become a standing joke among the trio of Gary, Chuck and herself.
Crumb went on. "But now, well, now it seems like there's something more bothering him. He doesn't talk, he doesn't come out and work at the bar in the evenings like he did for a while. Hell, I can barely get him to talk to me about anything anymore. I start to say something and he just waves and says ‘Order whatever you need.'" Marissa knew Crumb was studying her again, weighing the impact of his next words. "I, um, well, I was just wondering if you knew anything... I mean, I don't know where he goes or what he does, and like I said, I don't want to know how he knows the things he knows, but I was wondering if maybe something..."
Suddenly, it all made sense, and Marissa could have kicked herself. The paper! It had to be! Something in the paper... She had been trying to figure out how to talk to Gary about Chuck being gone, and hiring a new manager, and since she was so totally consumed with running the bar in Chuck's absence and Gary being MIA lately, she hadn't even stopped to think it might not be Chuck at all.
Then she put everything Crumb was telling her together.
"Wait a minute -- are you trying to tell me you think Gary's responsible for the missing inventory?"
She could feel his discomfort, almost smell him sweating. Crumb liked Gary, liked him a lot. And, he was technically Crumb's boss. It was never easy to tell on your boss, not to another boss, and especially not if you had as much respect for the boss in question as Crumb had for Gary.
"Well, no, it's just..." Crumb's voice trailed off momentarily, then she felt him come to a decision. "Last Thursday night he came in late, looking like he'd had one hell of a day. And not in the good sense, ya know? Anyway, he grabbed a couple of beers from the bar, then went off into the kitchen. I didn't think too much of it, ‘cause that's what he does, and we were busy at the time. But then, a little later, I saw him walking through the door to the office here, and I'd swear he had a half rack in his hand. It just - well it was so odd that it kinda stuck in my brain. Then when the inventory comes up short, and the way he's been acting lately -- He doesn't have any history of alcohol problems, does he?"
Marissa shook her head.
"No." She didn't add that it wasn't Gary's nature to deal with things that way, wasn't like him at all. They both knew that. In the midst of all his problems with Marcia and with everything the newspaper had thrown at him in the last two years, even terrified and on the run from the rogue agent Marley and Crumb himself two winters ago, Gary had never not been able to cope. Oh, he had his off moments, but that's what they were: moments. Maybe hours. A day or two, here and there. Not days and certainly not weeks. Marissa shivered, suddenly chilled.
What could have happened to push Gary over the edge like this? It would have to be something terrible, something horrible. And she had missed it. Missed it completely. Chuck out in California had picked up on it before she had. Gary had always been there for her, and now she had failed him.
Crumb was still waiting for her reply.
"I'll talk to him, Crumb. Thanks."
"Yeah. Sure." His tread was heavy as he left the office, but no heavier than Marissa's heart.
The clock behind the bar read 8:02 when Marissa asked Crumb for the umpteenth time the next evening. She was sitting at the end of the bar matching inventory and invoices. Crumb stood nearby, drying glasses in between reading things out for her. He was also keeping an eye on the front door for her. Gary had last been seen heading out about 11:00 this morning. Marissa was hoping to catch him on his way in. He had been gone - or hadn't answered the door - when she had gone up to his apartment last night, and the same this morning. She had hovered around the office all day, yet Gary had still managed to evade her. The only other time Gary had been this elusive was when he had been trapped in the abandoned theater last winter. This time she had enough staff sightings to know he hadn't literally dropped off the face of the earth, but he might as well have as far as she was concerned. Marissa was left with the cat, who seemed to be under her feet everywhere she turned - a fact that only increased her worry.
With the background noise of people, music and dishes clinking, she didn't hear McGinty's front door opening or closing, but she couldn't miss Crumb's sudden tension. The cat appeared, jumping up on the stool next to her with a piteous mreeow. Marissa heard the door to the office open and close a moment later.
"Yeah. It's him."
Marissa felt for her cane as she got down from her stool.
"Wish me luck," she said, without thinking.
"Yeah. Good luck." Crumb was unusually somber. He had incredible faith in Gary, in his "abilities," and she knew how hard it had been for him to talk to her in the first place. Today he had been all for calling Gary's parents, but she had managed to talk him out of that. God alone knew what Gary would do if they turned up right now. She didn't want to know.
Pausing in front of Gary's door a few minutes later, cat curling about her feet, Marissa took a deep breath before knocking. She wasn't sure what she was going to say, but she knew the words would come to her. They always did. Still, she breathed a silent prayer as she heard the knob turn.
"Uh, hi, Marissa." The TV was blaring in the background, and Marissa wasn't sure what smell it was that came wafting out the open door with the noise. Unconsciously her nose wrinkled.
"What's that smell?"
Gary shifted his feet.
"Well, uh, there was gonna be this accident at the stockyards, and well, I kind of fell..." Gary's voice trailed off into an embarrassed silence.
"Do I really want to know what you fell into?" Marissa asked, her sense of humor returning briefly.
"No. Uh, no, you don't." She thought maybe he smiled, but she wasn't sure. Not for the first time in recent memory, Marissa cursed her blindness. Right now she would have given almost anything to be able to see her friend, see the look on his face, the look in his eyes. In the absence of that, she tried to see with her heart.
"Do you mind---"
Speaking at the same time, they both broke off. When Gary didn't continue, she did.
"Do you mind if I come in?" He minded. She could tell. It made her all the more determined not to let him get away without talking to her- not this time.
"Um, well, I was just gonna get in the shower..."
"That's okay. I'll wait." Marissa walked past Gary into the loft, feeling her way past the obstacles in the room. Her foot kicked a bottle, and Gary moved swiftly to sweep it and what sounded like several others out of her way with one foot. His hand grasped her arm and guided her carefully over to the couch.
"I, uh, I haven't had time to clean the place up lately. Sorry."
Feeling the for the seat beneath her with one hand, Marissa smiled. Was that beer she smelled under the other odor?
"That's okay. I know how hectic things can get." She sat back on the couch, putting her cane off to one side. "Go on. That smell must really be getting to you. It's getting to me and I've only been here for a minute." The cat jumped up on the couch beside her, purring. "We'll be fine here."
He hesitated, then gave in reluctantly.
Marissa wasn't sure how long she sat there, listening to the TV she couldn't see, rubbing the cat's head with one hand. It seemed like forever, but she knew that was subjective. Lost in thought on what exactly to say to Gary when he finally did come out of the bathroom, the first ring of the phone left her breathless for a moment. She heard the shower shut off, but Gary didn't seem to be worried about answering the phone. It quit ringing before she decided whether or not she should answer it for him.
When the bathroom door finally opened minutes later, Gary didn't come right over to talk to her. Instead, she heard him at the refrigerator, heard, in the momentary silence between commercial and program on the TV, the unmistakable sound of a bottle being opened. A minute later, he sank with a sigh in the chair beside the couch, belatedly asking, "Um, you want a drink or something?"
Marissa shook her head.
"No, not right now. Thanks."
Tinny music from the TV filled the silence that stretched between the two friends. Now that the moment had come, Marissa wasn't sure what she to say. With an internal shrug, she decided that her usual direct approach was the best place to start.
"Gary?" He didn't answer right away, and she couldn't tell if it was because he didn't want to, or because he couldn't hear her over the TV. Marissa decided she had had enough of that TV. Besides, getting up to turn it off gave her something to do, hofefully allowing a bit more time for inspiration to strike about how to approach Gary.
She rose and hesitantly made her way towards the TV, not noticing when her cane slipped to the floor. Gary didn't say anything, and she once again wished vainly to see. Where was Chuck when she needed him? Missing it with her outstretched hands, Marissa's hip bumped the TV. She quickly felt for the switches and turned it off. The sudden silence was deafening. Gary's chair creaked as he shifted in it. Marissa turned to face him.
"Gary? What's wrong?"
"Wha-whaddya mean, ‘what's wrong?'"
Marissa sighed. No doubt about it, this was going to be difficult. She felt a sudden surge of sympathy for doctors with recalcitrant patients. Well, she could be stubborn too.
"I mean what's wrong?" She listened as Gary took another long drink of his beer, then, setting the bottle on the coffee table, he got up and went to open the refrigerator again without answering her. Marissa frowned as she heard him pulling the lid off another bottle. He couldn't have finished the first one he'd opened that fast, could he? Not hearing any indication Gary was coming to sit down again, Marissa cocked her head, trying to figure out where he had gone. He must still be over by the refrigerator. She began walking that direction, forgetting where she had left her cane. Tripping over it, she fell. Her hands hit the floor a second before her body did, and Marissa cried out at the sudden, sharp pain in her right hand.
"Marissa!" Gary was there immediately, gently helping her to sit up. Marissa could feel the warm blood trickling down her hand, and she cried out again involuntarily as Gary turned it so he could examine it.
"What is it, Gary? What is it?" She was shaking now, shivering at the pains shooting from her hand up her arm.
"You, uh, your hand landed on a piece of glass. It's pretty deeply
embedded. Let me get my shoes on and I'll take you to the emergency
The coffin was open. Gary frowned. Weren't they supposed to shut those things before they got to the graveside? He waited until everyone else left, then, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his trench coat, walked slowly up behind Chuck. Gary didn't try to say anything to his friend. Some things were better left unsaid, especially the kinds of things he would have to say if he ever started to tell his friend the truth.
Chuck didn't move, though Gary knew he had heard him approach. Then, abruptly, Chuck turned on him, eyes blazing.
"Why didn't you stop it? You knew! The paper told you! You could have done something about it, but no, you decided not to. You want to tell me why? You want to tell me just exactly what kind of deal you made with Perelli? Huh? What did he give you in exchange for her life?"
Openmouthed, Gary stared at Chuck. He glanced down toward the open coffin, and his guts suddenly froze. A body lay there. A woman, brunette, young, good-looking... Theresa No! That wasn't the deal he made! It wasn't Chuck's life for hers... It was--
Chuck claimed Gary's attention again with a short, hard right to the jaw. Gary fell back against a neighboring headstone, grabbing at it as he hit the ground. Stunned, he sat rubbing his jaw with one hand as Chuck stalked up to stand over him.
"Well, I hope it was worth it. ‘Cause I'm gone. I'm outta here. If I ever see you again it'll be too soon." Gary opened his mouth, but the words wouldn't come as Chuck turned and left. He couldn't explain to his friend that this wasn't the way it was supposed to happen, it wasn't supposed to end like this, with Chuck leaving and Gary alone in the graveyard. It had ended... How had it ended?
Still rubbing his jaw, Gary slowly pulled himself to his feet, his eyes following Chuck's retreating figure. Marissa and Crumb were waiting for Chuck at the driveway, joining him as he walked to his car. Crumb helped Marissa in, then the three of them drove away, leaving Gary alone in the cemetery. Confused, Gary turned to the coffin again. It sat, still open, a dark blot above the gaping grave. Warily he approached it, and his heart nearly stopped when he saw who was lying in it this time: Rachel! Rachel Greenberg! Gary hesitantly reached toward her face, pulling his hand back abruptly as it came into contact with her marblelike flesh. No! Wait, this wasn't right, Rachel, Rachel, she had lived... but maybe she had died later - when he wasn't around to save her.
Trembling, Gary backed away from the coffin, tripping over another headstone as he turned to run. Hands scrabbling at it as he struggled to rise, he froze as the name on it registered: Tommy Grazier. No! Gary had saved him! He remembered - at least, he thought he did. Scrambling to his feet, Gary found himself drawn inexorably to the next tombstone: Tony. No! That wasn't right either! He began to run down the line of gray weathered stones, fighting to turn his eyes away from the names he knew shouldn't be there, desperate to deny this stone cold record of all his failures, all the deaths he knew he should have - could have - prevented: Allie Chapman. Amanda. Jim Matthews. Jesse Mayfield. No! He had done what he was supposed to do, he had been there for all of them. All of these people! This wasn't real, this couldn't be real. He had almost convinced himself he was dreaming - until he came to the last, raw grave in the row.
Gary's head hit the wall behind him, startling him from his nightmare. Heart pounding, it took him a minute to remember where he was, to recollect why he was sitting in the waiting room of the hospital - again. Shuddering, hands shaking as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, Gary tried to focus on the sights and sounds of the hospital around him, using them to push the remnants of his nightmare from his fuzzy brain.
The clock on the wall read 9:27, and Gary sighed. Wide awake now, he shifted uneasily in the overstuffed chair, brushing absently at the bloodstains on his jeans. It had taken forever for a doctor be available to look at Marissa's hand; now it was taking forever for them to actually look at it. Stretching his legs out in front of him, he slumped deeper into his seat, head propped on one hand. This made altogether too many trips to the hospital in the last few weeks. He was really coming to hate this place.
Not to mention the fact that he was really coming to hate himself. How could he have been so stupid? Seriously afraid of what the doctor was going to say about Marissa's hand, Gary wished he could forget what the glass looked like as it went halfway through her hand, down and into the ball of her palm. What was he going to say to his friend? "Uh, gee, I'm sorry, Marissa. I got falling down drunk last night, fell down, and broke a bottle of beer on the floor. Too bad you just happened to trip and land in the same place, on the one piece of glass I missed when I cleaned up this morning."
Gary closed his eyes, willing the lurking headache he'd fought all day into obscurity again. Wondered if he could get some aspirin or something from one of the nurses. Denied the rumbling of his stomach - he hadn't been able to keep down most of what he'd eaten today anyway. Wanted a beer. Wished Renee hadn't "had plans" the last time he called her. Tried not to think about the fact that - once again - someone was in the hospital because of his laxity - his error in judgement. Worked on forgetting the other three people whose lives were not as happy as they would have been if Gary Hobson had gotten up and out the door on time this morning - like he always used to. Gary couldn't care about the three headlines he had missed this morning, puking his guts out in the bathroom for an hour after he woke up. He wouldn't care.
Yeah, right, Hobson, so why are you moping in your chair here? Because it had almost worked, this time; it had almost worked. Last night's nightmare had come, but Gary had only woken up for a few minutes afterward, passing out again before his heart even stopped pounding. He refused to think about the subject matter of his dream, concentrating instead on the fact it had been the best night he'd had sleepwise in at least three weeks. Just don't think about the morning afterward. Or tonight.
A vaguely familiar voice caught his attention, just as he was nodding off for the second time. Blinking, Gary searched the room, his eyes finally finding the short, black-haired nurse chatting with the blonde receptionist at the desk. She was the same one he had talked to the last two times he was here. Fumbling through his memories, he came up with a name: Ortiz. Cup of coffee in her hand, stethoscope around her neck, she was giggling over whatever the receptionist was saying. Heart pounding suddenly, Gary swallowed. Maybe she could tell him... Maybe... If he really wanted to know... Closing his eyes, he struggled briefly with himself, then decided he had to know.
"Yes? Can I help you?" The receptionist turned to him as he stood in front of her desk, swaying slightly. Her friend waited quietly behind her. Gary hesitated, not quite sure how to ask his question. Then suddenly, brown eyes widening in recognition, the dark-haired nurse leaned over the counter towards him.
"It's Hobson, right? Mr. Hobson?"
"Yeah, that's right." There was an awkward pause. Swallowing, wondering if he looked as exhausted as he felt, Gary tried to conjure up his "grandma-charming" smile, as Renee called it, telling him laughingly one night that he could charm the grandmas right out of their rockers on the porch. There was no response from the two women watching him closely from the other side of the barrier erected between consumer and provider. No real surprise, either, when he remembered the haggard face greeting him in the mirror this morning after his dream about Marissa - no, Eleanor, and don't think about that now, not here, not with Marissa in there getting stitched up because of your own stupi-- with an effort, Gary wrenched his thoughts back to the women in front of him, back to this particular nightmare.
"Uh, um..." He gave up on the smile. "D-d-do you remember the little girl, Samantha? Samantha Edwards? I, uh, I was wondering if you could tell me how she's doing..."
Ortiz' eyes narrowed as she stared thoughtfully at Gary.
"Didn't anyone let you know? Father Dow was trying to find you."
Gary shook his head as his stomach clenched.
The nurse looked at her friend, then reluctantly met Gary's anxious gaze.
"They took her off life support 4 days ago." She spoke slowly, as to a child.
"Off life support? Th- the- then that means she's gonna, she's gonna be okay?" Gary's brief flash of hope was aborted at conception. Ortiz was shaking her head, dark brown eyes full of sympathy.
"No..." She traded another reluctant look with her friend, then looked Gary full in the face as she spoke again.
Gary suddenly felt nauseous, wishing he hadn't asked. Wishing he could stop his ears, could refuse to hear what the woman in front of him was saying.
"...no hope of recovery. Too much brain damage. The doctors had no choice but to let her go."
"Gary?" Marissa paused, momentarily dizzy as she stood in the entrance to the hospital waiting room. The nurse escorting her gently guided Marissa to a seat.
"Here, you sit down while I find your friend."
Reaching out carefully with her good hand, Marissa sat willingly, more woozy than she cared to admit after 12 stitches inside and 14 outside of her hand. Once she was settled, the nurse asked, "Now, what did you say he looked like?"
Marissa smiled as she answered. Her description of Gary never failed to lead people to the right man.
"Tall, dark hair, face like apple pie...."
She felt the woman's amusement as the nurse scanned the room.
"Well, there's no apple pie here, I can tell you that. A few tarts maybe. He probably went to get a cup of coffee or something. What's his name? I'll have the receptionist page him, then I'll check back in a few minutes to make sure he's come to claim you. Okay?" The woman patted her arm maternally. Marissa nodded.
"Hobson, Gary Hobson. Thank you. I'm sure he'll be here in a minute."
The nurse bustling off, Marissa leaned back in the chair, content just to sit for a bit and pull herself back together. This evening had definitely not gone as planned. Now that the doctors were through with her, she had more to worry about concerning Gary than ever. Maybe she should call Chuck again... But, what could he do out there in California? Sighing, Marissa waited to hear Gary's name go out over the intercom.
She was still waiting, several minutes later. Enough minutes that Marissa was dozing off when a hand gently touched her arm.
"No, I'm sorry." It was the same nurse who had brought her out to the waiting room. Marissa's good senses quickly told her there was someone else there too. She fought down a sudden sense of panic.
"This is Guille Ortiz." She pronounced it GEE-yah. "She's one of our pediatric ICU nurses. I think you need to talk to her."
Marissa shut the door to her apartment behind her with a sigh of relief. She hoped the cabbie had given her back the right change. But, since the nurses at the hospital had insisted she wait for this particular man, she supposed he must be trustworthy. He had gotten her home all right. She'd just have to take the rest on faith.
Walking quickly, confidently across her apartment, Marissa reflected that she probably should have called Crumb after Gary disappeared from the hospital. But she wasn't ready to tell him what she had found out tonight about Gary, not just yet. Her friend didn't need his vulnerablilty paraded out for the world to see. Besides, didn't Crumb always say he didn't want to know? Yes, he was a friend, but maybe not the kind of friend Gary needed right now.
She reached her clock, the mechanical voice intoning "11:02" when she pushed the right button. Good. That made it only 9:00 in California. Making her way over to the phone, Marissa quickly punched the numbers, willing Chuck to be home, silently begging him to be there this time.
The van spun two wheels up and over the cement barrier and onto the sidewalk before Gary's foot found the brakes. It lurched forward as he lost the pedal momentarily, but then the van's engine stalled and died as he slammed the brakes on again. The world around him spinning, for a moment Gary rested his head on his hands where they gripped the steering wheel, then groped down beneath his seat for the sack he had stashed there earlier in the day. His fingers found it, curling around the smooth, cold glass inside the brown paper bag, drawing the bottle out from under the seat.
Gary had thought he knew what hurt was when Marcia dumped him, but this - this was different. This was worse, much worse. He didn't know how to describe it, didn't know how to tell anyone about it. He never knew he could hurt this bad inside, at least, not and keep on going, keep on living. The pain consumed him, devouring him while at the same time it squashed him flat inside, the weight of it pressing his soul down to where he couldn't lift it up anymore. Eaten alive, crushed flat against his own guilt, Gary was yet so full of torment he was amazed his insides didn't burst right out like a squeezed tomato, spilling his misery all over the ground around him. Now, that would be a mess to clean up.
Only, there wouldn't be anybody there to clean it up. Not with Chuck out in California. Not with Marissa abandoned at the hospital. Gary knew he should have waited to take his friend home, but he couldn't face her tonight, couldn't face those blind eyes that saw right through him into his soul. He didn't want Marissa fingering his guilt, examining what he had done, what he had become in the last few weeks. He didn't want to be there when she passed judgement on him; didn't want to hear her telling him - like she had Chuck - that his good deeds didn't make any difference against one big wrong.
And Chuck: when Gary really needed his help, he had been half a continent away, in California. Marissa, she had always had a life outside McGinty's and the paper. Her family, school, and other things claimed her time, gave her space away from the insanity of the world according to Snow's cat. Chuck hadn't had much else in his life, not really, and Gary had nothing at all, so it was usually the two of them in this mess together, the two of them shoulder to shoulder against the cat, against the paper and the wolves it threw them to. Now it was just Gary and he didn't like being the Lone Ranger. Didn't like it at all -- especially not after what happened to that little girl. To Samantha.
Samantha. He made himself say her name, forced his reluctant mind to remember her running across the green grass, warm brown skin like Marissa's wrapped in a pink and white striped sundress. Her long black pigtails bouncing behind her were fastened with little pink balls, top and bottom. It was amazing how details like that stuck in his mind. Closing his eyes, Gary pulled the memories out from where he had stored them away that day, dredging them up from deep down inside himself, from where he had shoved them after that night at the hospital, after Samantha's mom had come screaming at him - screaming that it was fault her little girl was dying. His fault he didn't get there in time. Father Dow had tried to stop her, tried to tell her she couldn't hold Gary responsible, but Talitha Edwards kept screaming because she knew she was right. And Gary knew she was too.
He saw the skaters now, 7 or 8 teenage boys, laughing and shouting, racing down the sidewalk, almost running over anyone who wasn't fast enough to get out of their way - but the only one who didn't make it was a diminutive 3-year-old girl so excited about the park and the water she didn't hear her momma calling her name, didn't hear Gary's frantic voice. All Samantha heard was the roar of the skates as she was suddenly in front of them, and they didn't - couldn't - stop in time.
Helpless, Gary skidded to a stop as the first two skaters bounced Samantha between them like a little peppermint pinball, sending her richocheting directly in front of the next skater. The boy tried to jump over her as she fell, but one skate caught her in the side of the head, hard, and Gary saw the dent it left in her little skull, saw her head bounce as she flopped brokenly to the cement seconds later in the path of yet a fourth boy. That skater crashed to the ground beyond Samantha, rolling over to cradle his broken arm, while his friends raced away - away from the still, small body lying in the spreading pool of blood on the sidewalk, away from the screams of her mother, away from Gary, standing horrified a few feet away from the disaster he should have prevented...
Gary replayed the events again and again. His decision to stop and get a burger - he was so hungry. He'd grab a bite to eat, and then catch the El, getting to the park in plenty of time, never realizing his watch was slow until he was running up to the El platform as the critical train pulled away. Oh sure, he had caught the next train, and he had made it to the park -- almost in time. But almost didn't count in this game, not in the game of life and death he played with the paper and the cat too many days of his life.
Swallowing, Gary opened his eyes, surprised to find himself huddled in the van, in the night; the memories had seemed so real to his sleep-deprived and booze-befuddled brain. But he was in the right place, at least, here at the park where he had failed so miserably, so completely. Mrs. Edwards was right. He should have been here. Her little girl shouldn't have had to die because of his error. He couldn't fix that, not now, but he knew he had to find a way to apologize, to show just how sorry he was that Samantha had to die. He hadn't figured it all out yet. But he would. He knew he would.
The night whirled around him suddenly and Gary grabbed at the steering wheel to steady himself, then stared warily at the sack he clutched in one hand. This afternoon he had found himself standing outside Zimmerman's Discount Liquor store, just around the corner from home, not really knowing - or caring - how he got there. He did know that if he didn't find something to hold off the nightmares that were tearing him apart every night, he was going to... well, he wasn't sure what he was going to do. Gary just knew he had to find something to hold the nightmares at bay. Appearing mysteriously, as it was wont to do, the cat had run beneath his feet as he opened the door to go in, almost tripping him, but luckily he had avoided it. Damn cat, anyway. Always trying to run his life. Ruin his life was more like it. Later, to hide his purchase from prying eyes, Gary had secreted the bottle in the van, planning to claim it after McGinty's had closed and everyone gone home for the night. There was no doubt he'd still be awake. He wasn't completely convinced this was what he wanted, but the beer hadn't drowned his sorrows, not so's he could sleep anyway - and not so's he could live with himself. Shrugging, Gary figured he might as well give it a try.
Tequila clasped tightly in one hand, Gary fumbled for the door handle. Several empty beer bottles crashed on the sidewalk as the door swung open, and he caught himself just before he fell out. Balancing precariously against the vehicle's frame, he clambered out of the van. But the ground wasn't where it was supposed to be when his feet reached for it, and Gary landed hard on the sidewalk. He pushed himself up with one hand to sit, leaning against the side of the van, while the other cradled the precious bottle to his chest.
Hey, what do ya know? Gary stared stupidly at the blood on his palm, then shrugged, accepting the cut from the broken beer bottle as just the beginning of the payback he had coming to him for all the mistakes he had made.
Then, staggering to his feet, he stumbled off into the darkness of the park.
Yawning, Chuck rubbed his eyes and shifted in his seat, trying fruitlessly to get comfortable. If he could just snatch a few minutes of sleep.... With a muffled curse, he gave up. It didn't matter if you were short or tall, airplane coach class seats were not built with anyone's comfort in mind. Leaning back, he settled for star gazing, grateful that he had at least been able to get a window seat - even if he did have to fly out at this god-awful hour.
With a heavy sigh, Chuck watched the velvet sky go by, stars above him matched by the twinkling lights below. Tonight he was more worried about someone other than himself than he could ever remember being in his life. He had known something was up; Gary hadn't answered his phone for the last 4 nights running, but he had never, never expected anything like this. Chuck still felt sick to his stomach when he thought about what Marissa had told him, felt a twinge of guilt that he hadn't been there to help his friend out when he really needed it.
The fragment of glass in Marissa's hand had been from a beer bottle. Neither one of them wanted to think about what a beer bottle was doing in pieces on Gary's floor. But the news got worse as Marissa kept talking.
"Gary missed saving a little girl, Chuck. She spent almost three weeks in ICU. Gary kept coming up to check on her, enough that he caught the family's attention. The nurse didn't know exactly what happened, but she did know that the last time he was here the little girl's mother was screaming at him that it was his fault her baby was dying. I guess the hospital chaplain tried to catch him, but he left before anybody could stop him. Chuck, the night you called, last week? That was the same day."
All Marissa had been able to tell him about the accident was that the little girl had been run over by some in-line skaters at one of Chicago's lakefront parks. There had been some hope that she would live, despite the severity of her injuries, though she would never have been normal again. Gary had evidently just been told tonight that the little girl had been allowed to die.
The vast night sky outside his airplane seemed abruptly, forebodingly empty and Chuck closed his eyes, shivering with a sudden chill. Always more superstitious than he was willing to admit, he tried to will away the disturbing omen, tried refusing to contemplate the awful void in his life without Gary. But he couldn't shrug his dread off, not completely. Two hours after he first spoke with Marissa, he had called from the airport to tell her his flight number, finding her as close to frantic as he had ever known her to be. There had been no sign of Gary at McGinty's before Crumb locked up for the night. Gary had driven Marissa to the hospital in the tavern's van, and it hadn't been returned to its parking space behind the building.
Chuck's last thought as he drifted into an uneasy sleep was that after
all the paper had put Gary through in the last two years, all the people
he had helped, all the lives he had saved - including Chuck's own, more than
once - it was looking more and more like Gary was the one who wasn't going
to make it this time.
Gary fought the handcuffs once more, and once more there was no give in them. His hands were still as securely fastened around the thin metal scaffolding behind him as they had been a minute ago. The cold knot of fear in his stomach hardened as he stared once more at the rogue Secret Service agent. Marley ignored him, instead moving the small table closer to the window and beginning to set up the rifle for his shot at the President.
Concern for his own life overwhelmed by the greater need, the greater loss, Gary desperately tried to think of something to say, anything to stop the evil that the man in front of him was about to perpetrate on an unsuspecting nation.
"Look Marley, your logistics are off. Your letter bomb, it didn't kill Hawks."
Marley favored Gary with a brief glance, and a skeletal grin.
"Yeah, but it got me you, didn't it?"
Gary didn't want to be reminded about that right now.
"My own choice."
Marley grinned again, cadaverously.
"Admit it. These past few days, you've fantasized: squeezing the trigger, immortality a heartbeat away -- you must have been tempted."
"No, I haven't." Gary tried the handcuffs again. No use. Surely there was something he could do, or... someone who would show up to help him! He shook his head, trying to deny a sudden picture of Chuck, Marissa and Crumb all driving off without him.
Marley wouldn't be denied.
"Of course you have."
Gary was running out of time. If he could just get his hands on the gun...
"All right, you're so sure, let me have the rifle. I'll take the shot."
Marley smiled as he made the last adjustments to his rifle.
"I don't think so."
He could hear the cars pulling up outside, the sirens of the police motorcycles. The president was arriving now, and Gary was trapped, handcuffed, and -- again -- someone was going to die because he had failed. He made one last desperate attempt.
"Listen, Marley, what you said before, about not having a soul? That was a lie, wasn't it?"
Marley ignored him, taking aim at someone Gary didn't want to guess at. He kept talking, yelling at the rogue agent, trying to unsettle him, stop him.
"You hear voices of your own, don't you? You're lost, Marley! You're drowning in your own logistics. You're so far gone you don't even remember when you were you!"
Marley held the rifle close to his cheek, almost caressing it. Gary could hear car doors slamming outside, hear the shouts and calls of the President's entourage as they cleared the way for their charge. But something else was missing. He looked around, desperately. What was missing? No...who was missing? Chuck? Marissa? Crumb? Shouldn't they be here to help him? Shouldn't there be--
The echoing report of Marley's shot shattered his thoughts. Gary stared in horror as Marley allowed himself one exultant look out the window, before picking up the rifle and turning towards his helpless captive.
"Like the moth to the flame." Marley's eyes were cold, gloating, and Gary's fear was all for himself now. How was he going to get out of this?
He wasn't. Desperately, Gary lunged up from where he had been sitting for the last 45 minutes, but the cuffs around his wrists held, and he couldn't move the scaffolding enough to get away. Marley was on him in an instant, using his superior height and experience to wrestle Gary back into a sitting position against the metal pole. Gary kicked out with all his might, but Marley's weight pressed the younger man down. Suddenly, Gary's world flashed and reeled about him as Marley dealt him a sharp blow to the head with the butt of his rifle. Limp, head hanging and only half-conscious, he felt Marley position the gun between his feet, and then grab his face to push the barrel of the rifle towards Gary's mouth. Unable to rally the strength for anything else, Gary gritted his teeth grimly, refusing to allow the rifle entrance, praying that the shouts and sirens he heard outside would get here to the 13th floor before Marley finished what he had come to do.
Marley sucker punched him. Gary's mouth opened reflexively as he gasped for the air that had been driven from his lungs, and suddenly the cold hard metal was between his teeth, jammed so far back in his throat that he gagged. The rogue agent's face spun above him as Gary took one last, desperate look at the world... In the back of his mind a thought niggled at him, something was wrong. Somehow it wasn't supposed to end like this. Someone was supposed to be here, to help him...
Gary's eyes focused finally, multiple Marleys resolving into one leering face in front of his.
"You can't run from your fate. You might as well go toward it."
Leaning against the rifle to hold it in place, Marley grabbed Gary's hair,
holding his head down on the gun barrel as his other hand reached for the
trigger. Gary stiffened, frantically pulling at the handcuffs, his
feet making one last vain effort to dislodge the rifle, and Marley pulled
The booming crash of thunder accompanied the lightning flaring through the clouds. Chuck jerked in his seat, instantly wide awake. Rubbing his hand across his face, he checked his watch: 3:49 a.m., California time. That meant it was almost 6:00 a.m. in Chicago, and they should be landing shortly. The "fasten seatbelt" light blinked on above him just as the stewardess arrived to request he move his seat back to an upright position. Chuck complied, then stared out his window. City lights winked into sight as the plane descended below the clouds, and the slow knot of dread once more drew his stomach up tight. God, he hoped Gary was all right out there, wherever he was.
The twinge of guilt he had felt earlier was in full bloom now, and he miserably rode through the plane's landing. If anything happened to Gary... How many times had he been there for Gary in the past? How many times would Gary have failed in his rescues if it weren't for Chuck? He couldn't count the times he, Chuck Fishman, had been the final link in Gary's efforts to save someone. How many times would Gary have died without Chuck's help? Two at least, maybe more. (Chuck pushed away a stray thought about the time Gary almost died because of him.) And now, when Gary had obviously needed him, Chuck had been unavailable. Out in California, chasing a life that Gary, shackled to the paper and Snow's cat, could only dream of. Second banana, indeed.
Uncomfortable with such introspection, Chuck flicked his seatbelt off as the plane taxied into the terminal, standing up and grabbing his one bag out of the overhead compartment even before the plane had stopped moving. Stepping past his seatmates into the aisle, his wiry stature came in handy as he shoved his way unceremoniously past the other passengers up to the head of the line to disembark the plane. He had to get out of here, find a cab, pick Marissa up, and get to... where? Gary, wherever he was. Chuck strode grimly down the entryway to the plane, unwilling to consider how hard it might be to find his friend in the bustling city.
Marissa was waiting for him, her left hand wrapped in a stark white bandage. Her normally impeccably arranged hair fell haphazardly around her face, and beneath her long black coat her clothes had the same rumpled, slept in look his did after a night on the plane. She looked awful. Like he felt, Chuck thought. Worried sick to death about Gary, and unable to do anything for him but wait.
Spike woofed softly as Chuck walked up. Outside dawn was breaking through the receding storm clouds.
"Chuck?" Marissa put a hand out.
"Yeah." He set his bag down and took her hand in his. "Any word?"
Marissa shook her head mutely, and without thinking, Chuck gathered her in his arms. She was shaking, close to tears. He patted her back gently with one hand, as, tail wagging, Spike looked on.
"He'll be all right, Marissa. You'll see."
"You weren't here, Chuck, and I missed it. Completely. If it hadn't been for Crumb I might never--"
"Hey. Enough of that." Chuck let go of Marissa and held her by the shoulders, staring intently into her face. "Gary's never been a man of many words. If anyone failed him, it was me, out in California." Chuck wasn't used to this Marissa. She had been the strong anchor for Gary in all his hard times, and as he found her reaching out to him for reassurance, Chuck realized how much he too had come to depend on her. He took a deep breath. "You'll see, Marissa. We'll find him."
Marissa stood up straight, her blind eyes desperate.
"But where? I had the cab driver go by McGinty's on the way here, and he still hasn't shown up there. The van wasn't there, and he wasn't inside, anywhere. How are we going to find him if we don't even know where to look?"
"The paper. What about the paper?"
"It wasn't there. I thought we'd go back and see if it showed up while you were here. But..." Her voice trailed off. Chuck didn't need a map to follow her thought. The paper usually showed up wherever Gary was, in whatever condition he was in. It had followed him to the wilderness, to the hospital... Or, it could be in Hickory, Indiana, with Gary's parents. Chuck didn't even want to think about trying to explain to Bernie and Lois Hobson just what was going on in their son's life right now - if he even could.
He opened his mouth to answer Marissa, to say something, anything, to try to comfort her.
Chuck held his breath for a moment, his blue eyes tracking the sudden hope that broke across Marissa's face. Then, exhaling loudly, he turned around. Sure enough, on the dingy gray airport carpet behind him lay Gary's Early Edition, Snow's ginger cat sitting regally on it.
A booming crash of thunder woke Gary, just as the first drops of rain began to fall on his upturned face. He rolled over to one side, retching what little his stomach contained out onto the grass. That done, he lay gasping, watching faintly shining city lights do a slow loop-de-loop with the lakefront before him, waiting for his heart to stop pounding.
Lightning flickered, and Gary shuddered as the thunder crashed again like a gunshot, the rain now beginning in earnest. My God, what a dream. It hadn't ended like that, it couldn't have. Gary foggily tried to remember what had happened that horrid day, but it was too much effort. He gave up, lying back in the grass, shivering now in the wet chill of the rainstorm. He blinked against the rain, reluctant to close his eyes lest the apparition of Marley return to haunt him.
A moment later his nausea returned, and Gary spent several more minutes retching nothing up onto the grass. The mostly empty tequila bottle was still clutched in his hand. As he rolled back panting after the spasm had passed, Gary feebly tossed it away from him. The stuff hadn't helped at all; made things worse in fact. The tinkle of broken glass was lost in the patter of rain around him, and Gary staggered to his feet. He had to leave, had to get away, before Marley came back to finish what he had started that day.
Reeling, he tripped over something, falling full length on the grass before he could stop himself. His confused mind took a while to connect the white blobs scattered around him with the word "flowers," and even longer to connect the flowers with his own presence in the park today.
Slowly the thought swam up from the recesses of his brain.
The flowers were here because of Samantha.
Marley had failed, and he was dead. Gary had failed, and he was alive. Samantha was dead. And it was all his fault.
"Like the moth to the flame."
Up on his hands and knees, Gary looked around to find the source of the voice, immediately regretting it. As the world spun around him, he staggered once more to his feet, tripping this time over the edge of the sidewalk, landing hard on the concrete. The rain had sputtered to a stop, leaving the sidewalk only spotted with its residue. There was a darker spot next to his hand, larger than all the other rain spots, and Gary, staring at it, suddenly blanched.
It was where Samantha had lain. Where Samantha had bled, while he watched, helpless. Useless.
"Must be a burden, knowing what's going to happen."
Gary tried to ignore the ringing in his ears, tried to ignore the sepulchral voice haunting him. Eyes glued to the dark smear on the sidewalk, he slowly pushed himself up on his hands and knees.
"So, what happened, Hobson?" His unseen inquisitor persisted.
Dizzy, Gary swallowed, closed his eyes. Opened them again, immediately, when that made the dizziness worse. Stared at the dark blot on the concrete, seeing once again the small peppermint pinball, the little girl, as she fell, her skull dented and bashed by the skates that ran into her.
"What's the matter Gary, cat got your tongue?"
Gary fought the cotton in his throat.
"I-I.. I- I tried. I tri' t' be here," he finally managed.
"Ah. But you weren't. Just threw her soul away. Like you did mine. Threw Samantha's soul away. For a hamburger."
Gary shook his head, denying the dizziness to push himself up to a kneeling position.
"N-n-n-no... ish no' like tha'" He caught himself with one hand and then the other as he lost his balance, pushed back at the sidewalk as he pulled his feet under him. "I- I- I- wou' ha' made it...Chuck. If Chu' ha' been here..." Crouched there in the half dark, trying to keep sky and earth in their proper positions, he looked for his inquisitor. There was nobody, nobody there but his own tormented soul.
And a cat. A ginger tabby cat. It rubbed against him, knocking him further off balance. Sitting abruptly, crookedly, one leg out in front of him on the concrete, Gary tried to make some sense out of his swirling thoughts, and failed. He shoved the cat roughly away as it rubbed against him again. One thought laboriously took shape in his brain.
"No. Don' wan' it no more. Ain' gonn' play God no more." He lifted his hands, abraded from his falls throughout the night, blood from the most recent scrapes mingling with dried blood from the earlier glasscut. Gary's eyes focused on the blood. Samantha's blood, his befuddled mind told him. He tried to wipe it away on his jeans, but it wouldn't be removed. The cat came back, and he almost threw it away this time, leaving a great bloody hand print on its back. He had to get this blood off his hands. Then he was going to have to find somewhere to get away, to get free of that damn paper, that damn cat. He wasn't gonna be responsible for any more deaths.
The clouds were lifting, revealing a golden pink dawn in the east. Gary grimaced as the light lanced into his eyes, refracted a thousand times off the lake. The lake... Water. He could wash the blood from his hands before he left, before he found somewhere the paper couldn't find him.
In the graying light of dawn, Gary somehow got his feet under him, and lurched toward the lake.
"Can you see anything?"
"Stop! Stop right here!"
Chuck and Marissa both spoke at the same time, and they all lurched forward as the cabbie slammed on the brakes. Chuck was out of the car and running as they stopped, running through the early morning light to McGinty's van, parked half up on the sidewalk across the parking lot. The driver's side door to the van was open, the annoying chime of the key in the ignition loud in the morning stillness. Broken glass crunched under his feet as he climbed in.
"Gary! Gar!" The van was empty except for half a dozen or so beer bottles strewn around it. Chuck shook his head, then pulled the keys out of the ignition before he got out. Slamming the door shut behind him, he ran back to where Marissa and Spike had just climbed out of the cab, Gary's paper clutched tightly in Marissa's hand. The cabbie reached back to toss Chuck's bag out on the ground behind her.
"It's the van, but Gary's not in it." Chuck answered Marissa's unspoken question. Marissa waited while Chuck paid the cabbie, then he grabbed his bag in one hand and her elbow in the other, dragging them both over to the van. He tossed his bag inside, then locked the doors.
"Okay, he's got to be around here somewhere." Glass ground under his feet as he turned to Marissa, and she winced. Chuck looked down at the remains of another 3 or 4 beer bottles, before looking at her, his blue eyes thoughtful as he tried to decide if he should say anything to her. He didn't have to.
"Beer bottles?" she asked, and Chuck nodded once.
"Yeah," he belatedly remembered to add. "Come on, we've got to find him before it's too late." He took her elbow once more, and they headed off into the park.
Go to Installment 2
Email the author: inkling