chapter fifteen – the forces at work (conclusion)

Pete buttoned Chet's corduroy jacket, wrapping the scarf tighter around his neck and putting his hands in his pockets. They started trudging toward Frances' apartment. After a few blocks, during which time they passed almost nobody on the street, he said, "How about this: we pump Frances to see if she knows anything. If she does, we follow it up. If she doesn't, we steal a car somewhere and get the hell out of here."

starling, her cheeks pink and her breath coming in visible puffs, said, "If that's okay with you, it's fine with me."

Frances lived in a small, single-room apartment over an abandoned pet food store. The little two-story building was squeezed in between two taller buildings. The steel street door was closed, and had a lot of fairly nasty graffiti which hadn't been there the last time he'd visited her. He tried the door and found it was locked, so they pounded on it and yelled until they heard a window slide open on the upper floor. They looked up and saw a stick with a small mirror attached to the end of it slide slowly out.

"Wave," he said to starling, and they both waved. "It's us!" he called. "Pete and starling!" he added, since he was sure she wouldn't recognize them.

The mirror vanished, and after a minute the door opened, but it was Donna, not Frances, who looked out. She was wearing a fancy embroidered bathrobe and looked like she might have been sleeping, but she motioned them inside the tiny entryway.

"Please come in," she said, and she followed them up the musty-smelling concrete stairs. "I don't even care why you're here," she said, "it's just so nice to see friendly faces. I don't think I've talked to anybody but Frances since you guys walked me home from the Cave that night."

They turned the corner and entered Frances' apartment, and it was immediately clear that Frances wasn't home. The entire apartment was one squarish room, but wonderfully designed for efficient living. There were little shelves and drawers everywhere, a raised sleeping platform over a tiny desk and chair, everything painted in a variety of dark greens and blues and earthtones.

"Please sit down," Donna said, perking up by the minute. "I'll put up water for tea."

"Really, we came to see Frances–" Pete began, but she turned.

"Oh, please sit for a minute," she said. It was delivered lightly, but she obviously really wanted them to visit, so they sat down at the little table. Pete reflected that it was good that neither starling nor he was very large. CJ would probably have broken any chair in the place.

"Frances is over in the city, looking for a job," Donna said as she sat down in the third chair. "As soon as she finds something, we're going to move out of here. We're just . . . nobody talks to us, not even on the street. You're the first people to come by who weren't here to paint nasty messages on our door, or throw things at the windows.

"So, how have you guys been? What's with the clothes and the hair?"

"We just felt it was time for a change," he said, which was ridiculous, but he thought she might buy it. "We're planning on getting out, too, but there's one thing we want to do before we go."

"What's that?" she asked, leaning forward.

"Jenny Owens' death," he said. "Nobody ever found out who killed her, and I'd really like to know."

She gave him a strange look. "So, you're going to do Henshaw's job after all? To get back on his good side?"

Pete felt starling's attention suddenly come into focus, but she didn't say anything. "What do you mean?" he asked slowly.

The water started to boil and Donna stood up to make tea. She smiled at him. "You mean she didn't tell you?" she asked, tilting her head toward starling. "Hope I'm not making trouble in paradise."

starling and Pete exchanged a quick glance and he said, "I think something's screwy here. Why don't you tell us about it as if we don't know anything?"

Donna placed cups of tea in front of each of them, laying out sugar, lemons, honey and milk, and she sat down again. Pete felt like commenting that she'd never given this kind of service when she was a waitress, but he didn't want to interrupt whatever she was about to say. They occupied ourselves for a minute preparing their tea, then Donna looked up and smiled. Pete could tell she was puzzled by starling's question, but she was obviously so eager for conversation that she would have talked about anything to keep them there.

"I heard about this at the funeral," she said. "Tom was depressed because Henshaw was bossing him around, and I was upset because of something Frances said, so we ended up hanging out a bit. Anyway, after Henshaw's speech, he and Tom and I were sitting down and Henshaw asked Tom if he'd talked to you." She tilted her head, indicating that she meant starling. "And he said, yes, and that you weren't going to do it. I started to tease them, to get them to tell me what it was about, but they both clammed up. Then later, at Duffy's, Henshaw was really drunk and I started to nudge him about it again, and finally he told me."

She sipped her tea, clearly aware that she had their full attention. "He wanted revenge on whoever killed Jenny. He couldn't do it himself, because he was in the hospital, so he wanted to hire starling. He sent Tom to propose it to her, or to bring her to him, but Tom said you wouldn't do it. So, that's why I said maybe now you are going to do it after all, to patch things up with you and Henshaw." She tilted her head to one side. "So, is that it?"

Pete felt starling tense up, drawing her feet in under her chair, as he forced himself to calmly put his cup in the middle of its saucer. "Donna, thank you for the tea," he said, "but I'm afraid we have to go. We'll come by tonight and take you and Frances out to dinner." She started to say something, but he smiled what he hoped was a pleasant smile. "Nobody will bother you, not when you're with us."

They hit the street and started to walk quickly. There were a lot of things starling could have said, but she didn't say a word. Pete was grateful for that.

Pete knocked on the apartment door loudly. When he heard a noise inside, he said, "Hey, it's me, Pete! Open the door, quick. I think they're after me."

Tom Drenkenson opened the door and found himself face to face with Pete's gun. "Back up and hold your hands away from your sides," Pete said, and Tom did it. Pete saw his eyes flick to the right for a instant, and he said to starling, "Check that closet."

She did, and she brought the rifle over to him. "Listen," Tom said, but then he lapsed into silence.

"Is it loaded?" Pete asked starling, not taking his eyes off Drenkenson.

He heard a click and she said, "Yes."

"Empty it." When he heard another click he held out his hand. "Cover him" he said, "and give me the rifle." He took the rifle and rested the butt end on the floor. He turned to starling, who had her automatic trained on Drenkenson, and handed her his gun. "Hold this," he said.

He turned back to Tom. "I have an idea you killed Jenny Owens with this rifle. I have an idea the reason you didn't try to hire starling to kill the murderer for Henshaw is because it would have been putting a homicidal lunatic on your own trail. I have an idea that's why you never talked to her, and why you lied to Henshaw. I have an idea you told Henshaw about me and Jenny knowing perfectly well he'd come after me, and then starling would kill him. And I have an idea that the reason there was never any fucking sniper activity before or after Jenny's death was because you were trying to kill one very specific person, and you did." He couldn't say any more, his voice was shaking too badly.

"You don't under–" Tom began, but that was as far as he got because Pete picked up the rifle by the barrel like a baseball bat, brought it back and swung it as hard as he could against the side of Tom's head. He threw the rifle away and held out his hand to starling as Tom rolled on the floor, blood leaking out between his fingers as he held his hands over his face. "Katherine," he said, "give me my gun, and then please wait out in the hall."

She put the gun in his hand, putting her own away, and said, "The safety's off," then she went out and closed the door.

Pete squatted by Tom. "I don't understand," Tom said thickly. "You didn't want her to go there either. You refused–"

"Listen, don't compare me to you. I betrayed her, I let her down, I was the worst possible excuse for a friend she ever had in this whole fucking world, but I didn't kill her."

"But it was my child," Tom said, pushing himself to a half-sitting position with one arm. "Henshaw had a vasectomy, when his wife had their third child, but he never told Jenny, and the timing was wrong with you. It was mine, hers and mine, and she–"

"Shut up," Pete said, standing up. "I don't care about any of that. I don't care if it was my baby or yours or the fucking Christ child. Listen to this, you sorry son of a bitch, because it's the only thing that matters. I loved her. You killed her."

starling came in when she heard the shot, but she came in slowly, with her hands empty. She picked up his gun from where he had dropped it, and stuck it in the back of his waistband as she put her arms around him. The tears were streaming down his face like a waterfall, and he turned and she held him for a long time.

Finally, as the tears slowed, she started to move him out into the hall. They got to the stairs and took one slow step at a time down to the ground floor. As they reached the front door, she stroked his head and said, "It's okay, Pete. We're going to be okay."

"Somehow, I doubt that," Inspector Novak said as he opened the door and stepped in. starling grabbed Pete's shoulders, spun him around and shoved him into Novak as hard as she could. Novak wasn't ready for the blow and he stepped back onto the snow-slick front stoop. His foot slipped and he lost his footing and fell down the stone steps to the sidewalk in a tangled heap with Pete.

The next thing Pete remembered was the smell of tea. "Go ahead, Peterson," Novak said, "take a sip. It's your favorite flavor."

Pete opened his eyes. They were in a room, empty except for a table and two chairs. Pete was sitting at one end of the table, and Novak was at the other. Each man had a cup of tea in front of him. It was all very civilized, except that Pete's left wrist was handcuffed to the table leg, the table was bolted to the floor, and Novak had a shotgun on the table in front of him.

Pete don't know if he'd cracked his head on the pavement, or if somebody had knocked him out, but he had a bad headache. He knew this was no time to be at anything but his best, though, so he forced himself to think clearly. Putting Jenny, Tom, Henshaw and everything else irrelevant out of his mind, he concentrated on Novak, the table, the chairs, the cement walls, and handcuffs and the shotgun. And on starling, wherever she was.

Novak gestured around at the blank walls. "Basement room," he said. "No windows. When she comes, she's got to come by that door." He gestured at the door, which was closed.

"What do you mean, 'when she comes'?" he asked.

"starling. When she comes to get you out. There's two officers at the front door of this building, and another one in the outer room there, but I expect her to get past them." He pointed at the red light bulb over the door. "When the door to the outer room opens, that light goes on." He tapped the shotgun. "She kills the officer outside, then I kill her."

"Two questions," he said. "What makes you think she's coming here? And why are you suddenly so interested in her? She didn't just arrive at my apartment yesterday, you know."

Novak leaned back in his chair and ran his fingers through his short-cropped hair. "First," he said, "we both know she's coming to get you, so don't pretend."

"But she's the one who gave me to you," Pete pointed out. "She threw me into your loving embrace."

Novak grinned. "She thinks fast, I'll give her that. You were all weepy because she killed Drenkenson, so you were in no shape to get away from me. But she had to get away, because she knew I'd shoot her like a mad dog. So, she gave me you, figuring she can find a way to get you back later."

He waved a hand, as though further discussion of this point was beneath them. Suddenly, the room shuddered. Novak straightened up in his chair. "That's the answer to your other question," he said. "I'm interested in starling now because things have changed. The shelling started about half an hour ago." He raised his cup. "To U-town," he said.

Pete put his cup down. "I won't drink that toast," he said. "Not with you."

He laughed. "I always did like you, Peterson. You're deluded, but classy." He sipped his tea. "This place is history," he said, "so I need a new job description. I've decided to be the man who killed starling, the police officer who finally put a stop to her rampage of terror and mindless murder." He winked. "That sounds like enough for a major book deal, doesn't it?" He sighed. "It's a big step down, of course, but wishes aren't horses."

"You're too high-falutin' and my head hurts. What the hell are you talking about?"

"Peterson, what do you think about me?"

"I'm not telling you," he said. "You've got a shotgun."

"Good answer. Okay, to you and your little friends I'm the big bad wolf. You know, sometimes when I was in a really bad mood, I'd go eat breakfast at Feb Isle, just to feel how much everybody there hated me, and how little any of them could do about it." He sipped his tea. "But to the rest of the world, I was the expert on this shit-hole. Anybody wanted to know what was going on here, they came to me. I had meetings with men who reported directly to the President.

"But, within twenty-four hours, I'm going to be the world's biggest expert on a big hole in the ground. I don't need to tell you how much that will be worth. And I can guarantee you that there won't be any books about it either, unless somebody makes one with a home copy machine. So, I'm going to kill starling. They'll publish a book about that."

"You look pretty grumpy for a guy thinking about a big book deal."

"Well, how do you feel, Peterson? In a few hours, starling will be dead and U-town will be bombed to rubble. You could probably write a book about the last few weeks yourself. Would you rather write the book, or still be living the life?"

"Okay, I get it," he said.

Novak smiled, finished his tea and put the cup down. "Face it, I know everything that matters about this place. I know why your girlfriend killed Drenkenson for you, and I knew who killed Carl Neighbour long before you even knew he was dead. You want to see pictures of you banging Jenny Owens in the alley next to the Q?"

"No, thanks," Pete said dryly. There were a few things he could have pointed out to prove Novak wasn't as all-knowing as he thought, like the shoot-out in his apartment, but he kept them to himself. He wanted Novak to be as self-confident as possible.

There was another explosion, sounding closer than the last one. Novak shook his head. "The whole idea was doomed from the start, of course, but I thought you kids would make it last a little longer than this. I–"

He grabbed for the shotgun before Pete had even realized that the red light over the door had come on.

Could starling have taken Novak? Pete thought so. But this setup wasn't exactly fair, and he was cautious by nature, so as Novak picked up the shotgun and turned toward the door, Pete shot him in the back. He shot him again quickly, because once Novak fell to the floor he would be hidden by the end of the table.

starling came in quickly, guns drawn, crouching, and then stopped in surprise. She looked at Novak, then at Pete, then back at Novak. "I don't understand," she said, but then the room was rocked by another explosion.

"Keys now, stories later," Pete said quickly, holding up his hand so she could see the handcuffs. "Go through his pockets."

A few minutes later, as they ran down the street, there was another explosion and they ducked into the doorway of a building. She poked him in the stomach. "So," she said, "how did you manage to kill Novak?"

"Expertise," he said. "Oh, not mine," he added quickly. "His." he smiled at her skeptical expression. "Let me tell it from the beginning. You pushed me into Novak's arms–"

"Oh, yes, I wanted–"

"No problem. Even he knew why you did that. I got knocked out somewhere along the line, and when I woke up I was sitting in that room. My head hurt like crazy, but my butt hurt, too, like I was sitting on something hard."

"Your gun?" she demanded. "He hadn't searched you?"

"It had fallen down into my underwear when he and I took our tumble, I guess. If he searched me at all, it was just for laughs. I'm sure it never occurred to him that I'd actually be armed. Neil made the same mistake, you remember, when we got to the Jinx headquarters."

He shrugged. "Novak was so sure he knew everything that he got sloppy."

starling smiled. "People can change," she said quietly.

"True." He touched her arm. "Don't worry. I don't blame you, because there's nothing to blame. I wasn't crying about Tom after I killed him, but because no matter what anybody does, Jenny isn't coming back. And I certainly don't regret Novak. He was aiming that shotgun at you, and I'd do the same thing again in a second, to him or anybody." He suddenly had a thought, and he glanced at his watch. "Come on," he said. "We're supposed to meet Chet and Randi, and we're two hours late already."

They stood on the roof of the Federal Building. The bombing seemed to have stopped for a moment, but one side of the old state office building was now collapsed. They looked down on what was turning into a steady stream of people trudging toward the bridge. Pete had told Chet and Randi that they were leaving.

"That's too bad," Chet said. "There's a Meeting at the theater in a few minutes." He gestured at the people down on the street. "That isn't the whole story. A lot of people are going to stay. Maybe we can figure a way out of this. Barry's been on the radio all afternoon, pushing it, trying to get people not to make a definite decision until after the Meeting."

–We're going to stay, Randi said, and you two should stay, too.

Pete shook his head. "I'm afraid not," he said. "Even apart from the bombing–"

–Oh, don't worry about that, Randi said cheerfully.

"Are you going to make the bombs stop falling?" Pete asked.

–No, but they will stop in a minute. And no, starling, I'm not going to stop you from being crazy. You're going to do that yourself, with some help from Pete, and from Ray Stone.

"Ray Stone is dead," Pete said, and he could tell that even Chet was confused.

–Tell you what, Randi said. Pete, why don't you give your lady a nice long kiss, and I'll do the same with my fella here, and when we're done, we'll see what we'll see.

Pete felt a little embarrassed to be kissing starling in front of anybody, but she came calmly into his arms and kissed him. He held her close with one arm and his other hand cradled her head, and he told himself that he wouldn't stop until he heard the next bomb fall. He just hoped it wouldn't fall on them.

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