The snow had stopped. Barely an inch of it had come down to cover the icy sheet that made New York City shine with strange new prisms of light. The temperature was twelve degrees below freezing, and it wasn’t going to get any warmer. Traffic barely moved, and a lot of it was pinched against curbs where they had slid earlier. Nobody bothered to stay with their vehicles. Sitting shut up with an engine going was inviting trouble, and with all the lights on outside the bars in the adjoining blocks, it was a night to play until it thawed or somebody came and got you.
I had enough of being parked on a bar stool, brushing off the half-drunks and the chippies who were making the most of a bad night on the street. I paid my tab, nodded good night to the bartender, left a full Scotch and soda for the doll baby who was trying to give me a rush job, and went outside.
Damn, it was cold.
I buttoned up the old pile-lined trench coat and snugged the belt around my waist, glad I wasn’t on a job where I’d need the .45. This time it was in a belt holster on my right hip, accessible through my pocket. Nothing was happening, but the precaution of keeping my hands stuffed in my coat wouldn’t be a noticeable gesture. Everybody else had their hands in their pockets, too.
Across the street a battered sedan was parked, a gypsy cab, the hood and top under a layer of snow. The front wheels were angled out and the distance from the car in front of it was enough to make sure it wasn’t trapped. The windshield wipers had kept the snow off.
Briefly, there was a dark blur of a face in a rear window—up front, the driver, a guy in a stocking cap, was bored and slumped behind his wheel; but behind him, the blurred face slowly scanned the sidewalks before sinking back into the darkness.
Whoever this passenger was, he’d been sitting there for over an hour freezing his ass off, waiting for something to happen. And paying a cabbie for the privilege.
I had seen too many nights like this on streets like these. There is an atmosphere that goes along with it, like smelling smoke from a fire a long way off. There was nothing you could put your finger on, but the years of living under the shadow of violence gave me an alertness I never tried to shrug off. Something was going to happen.
Two drunks came out of a bar trying to sing. One got as far as the curb and threw up. The sight and smell of it caused the other one to make it an upchuck duet. Then they both argued about which way to go, decided to head toward the dull glow of Sixth Avenue, and lurched off.
A fat guy carrying a couple of packages came by, and when he waddled past, I stepped out, went about ten feet, and stepped into a doorway beside an abandoned old store.
Nothing was happening. But it was getting ready to. I could feel it. Pat Chambers of Homicide always told me that’s what cops felt. Old cops. Real street cops. He always said I should have stayed one instead of taking the money road of being licensed to play the cop game for big and private bucks. Guys like me weren’t supposed to have those weird feelings, like having little people crawling up along your spine and making funny noises in your ears.
Something was happening, all right. It was under way. I was buried in the shadows and had pulled the glove off my right hand. My fingers crept to the liner opening in the pocket where they could slide around the butt of the cold 1911 model .45 caliber Army Colt Automatic that had six in the clip and one in the chamber.
All I had to do was clear the fabric of my trench coat and thumb the hammer back.
Across the street, a dingy late-night diner disgorged a pair of mildly gassed-up college kids who took a long time figuring out where they were. Taxis weren’t showing, so the Broadway glow waved them to head that way and they shuffled off, kicking up the snow ahead of their feet.
I took my thumb off the hammer of the Colt.
Thirty feet down toward the bright lights, a door opened, and the glow of a Chinese restaurant spilled out onto the sidewalk, making a rainbow of colors from the red and green lanterns inside. The noise was muffled, but it had to be a popular place, happy with laughing sounds and even the faint rattle of dishes.
The pair that stepped out were also of college age, well dressed and sober. The girl had her blonde hair mostly stuffed under a stocking cap and wore a fur-trimmed suede coat; the boy had on a Western-style sheepskin coat and no hat at all. The boy was carrying a tubular brown-paper–wrapped package that was three feet long or more and a good six inches thick. His hand held it at the bottom and the other one clasped it firmly to his chest. A musical instrument, maybe? If so, a precious one to this kid. I didn’t know what, but something was going to happen. The needles along my spine were beginning to probe into my skin.
I heard the car door open and saw, from the rear of the gypsy cab, a bronze-faced figure emerge in hooded navy sweats, loping across the street and falling in behind the two kids, whose backs were to him. The couple disappeared down the stairs of a subway station. The hooded figure, lagging perhaps a dozen feet behind, followed them.
I moved fast but I didn’t run—I might have slipped and broken my tailbone, and maybe, just maybe, I was wrong. Maybe there was a good reason for some asshole to sit in a gypsy cab for God knew how long waiting till a couple kids left a bar with a bulky wrapped package and headed for the nearest subway station. . . .
The stairs were empty by the time I got there, but as I headed down, hand on the .45, I knew damned well I hadn’t
been wrong. I couldn’t just feel it, I could hear
it. . . .
Panic has its own sound. It hisses with a terrified breath full of wild fear. It stumbles and makes strange animal noises of knowing something deadly is right behind you.
But this panic came toward me, its panting a harsh rasp, tripping on the steel steps, creatures fleeing from a dark nightmare. Here I was trying to catch up with them when the two kids were suddenly scrambling back up at me, eyes wide but not seeing me, running jerkily my way, only their eyes directed past me toward the freedom above, on the streets of New York. So close. So close . . .
The oval-faced, blue-eyed young man was half-dragging the terrified dark-eyed little looker behind him, his arm bent, holding her by her wrist, clutching his bulky package with his other arm. Then the girl slipped, nearly pulling the guy down with her, and he almost dropped the package, trying to hang on to her. It was only a momentary pause before he got her to her feet, and for an instant I saw the contorted, frenzied expression as she turned her head for a terrified look over her shoulder.
Their pursuer was right behind them, running silently on rubber-soled shoes, the gun in his hand ready to pump slugs into the backs of the kids and in two more seconds, it would be done.
I grinned because I already had the .45 out and in my fist, the hammer thumbed back, and nothing bothered me because this was no cop after a couple of young offenders, not with that silencer on the snout of his piece, and when he paused for that fraction of a second to aim, my .45 slug tore the rod right out of his hand and in that fleeting moment, dread bit into him like a lightning flash that contorted his face, and he spun to get away from this sudden nightmare.
But his feet didn’t hold him.
He tripped, made a waltzy spin and his echoing yell was stifled when his head smashed against the metal-tipped stairs and his body made squashy sounds in its mad tumble, the head pounding out drum notes until it spli...