The Game . . .
Warning . . . Extreme Violence.
Hush, little baby, don’t say a word,
Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird . . .
And if that mockingbird don’t sing,
Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring . . .
And if that diamond ring turns brass,
Mama’s gonna buy you a looking glass . . .
And if that looking glass gets broke,
Mama’s gonna buy you a billy-goat . . .
The woman’s voice was soft and gentle. Almost otherworldly. It floated on the night. It came from a distance, making the words hard to understand. But Johnny knew them all by heart. His own mother had sang them to him herself in his infancy.
Johnny strained to tell where the sound that had awoken him came from. It seemed to have no direction.
It seemed to be everywhere—and nowhere—all at once.
The bed was large, and well covered. But even at that, Johnny shivered a bit in the cold. Detroit, on this 15th day of April, in the year of the Lord, nineteen hundred and forty, was wet, foggy, and near freezing. The dampness seemed to settle in the bones—indeed, even into the very cells of the body. The old Victorian house on Virginia Park Street was large. One could even say rambling. Much too much space, for way too little coal-furnace.
Johnny pulled the covers up higher, and buried his head in the old-fashioned feather-pillow, trying to settle in again and return to sleep. He could just see the faintly illuminated hands of his wrist-watch on the night-stand.
Three-thirty in the morning.
In a few moments, the song began again. A bit softer—a little farther off.
And if that billy-goat won’t pull,
Mama’s gonna buy you a cart and bull . . .
And if that cart and bull turn over,
Mama’s gonna buy you a dog named Rover . . .
Hesitation, as though the baby were finally drifting off to sleep. Then, a few moments later—the conclusion.
And if that dog named Rover won’t bark,
Mama’s gonna buy you a horse and cart . . .
And if that horse and cart fall down,
You’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town . . .
Hush, little baby, don’t you cry,
Your Daddy loves you and so do I . . .
Johnny listened intently, as it faded away to silence at the close.
In the end, there was nothing but the creaking of the old house, a gentle April breeze softly rattling the window shutters, and Johnny’s shallow breathing, to be heard.
With a slight involuntary shutter—he returned to a fitful sleep.
* * *
At Detroit Metro airport, Howard Carter, Linh Zhou, and Maggie Moran made their way into the mostly deserted main airport concourse, as the pilot turned the small jet around and taxied once more out onto the runway, for the return trip home. He was not anxious to remain for long in the city of blood, as Detroit was being called on the news.
The terminal was cavernous, dark and cold. There were of course, no waiting curb-side taxis, as the terror-stricken city remained on full lock-down.
Howard went off to try to find a rental-car, while Maggie and Linh settled into a pair of hard, cold and unwelcoming waiting-room chairs.
“How you doing, pregnant girl?” Maggie asked with a thin smile.
“Had better days, to tell you the truth, Maggie. How ‘bout you?”
“Had better days too, Linh. Had better days too.”
Linh shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
“How is little Matthew doing?”
“Quiet. Just moving around enough to let me know he’s all right.”
“What’s on your mind, Maggie?”
“Just wondering what it would take to talk you into sitting this one out.”
“Not a chance.”
“You’re pregnant, Linh.”
“Yeah—I know. And the child I have inside me is part of this. Just as surely as you, or me, or Howard.”
“I don’t want you to be angry with me Linh, but do you have the right to risk his life?”
“I’m not angry with you Maggie, and I’m not about to be either. Everything you say to me is said out of love and concern. But the answer is yes. I do think I have the right to risk his life—and I have every intention of doing it.”
“I know you have strong feelings for Johnny, Linh—but he isn’t your husband.”
“Again, Maggie—and with all due respect. I’m sitting in a dark, empty and cold airport terminal well over a thousand miles from home, in the middle of a Michigan winter night. I’ve got two of my three best friends with me and the third one needs our help. The child I’m carrying has his name as well as Matt’s. As a fine point, and as a matter-of-fact, Johnny actually means a lot more to me right now than Matt does. In case you haven’t noticed it Maggie—I don’t have a husband right now. And I’m not real sure I’m going to ever have one again, either.”
“Johnny is almost certainly dead.” Maggie said softly, her eyes cast on the tile floor.
“I’m sorry Maggie, but you don’t know Johnny O’Brien like I do. You haven’t seen the hell on earth that man can wade through. I have. I’ve waded through some of it with him. I’ll believe he’s dead when I look into his cold, sightless eyes, and not one micro-second before. And Albert and I are going to go look for him—if it kills us both. End of story.”
“It’s what he would do for you—isn’t it?”
“Yeah, Maggie—it’s what he’d do for me. Or you. Or Howard. Or even Matt, although I believe he’s not proving himself to be really worthy of that kind of loyalty, sad to say.”
“I’m sorry, Linh.”
“Don’t be, Maggie. We all sleep in the beds we make. I’m just sleeping in mine now, that’s all. I knew I wasn’t his first love. I knew every bit of it because he told me every bit—every single word—himself. This blame I take on me—no one else.”
Carter appeared in a few minutes, carrying a set of keys, and what appeared to be a rolled-up jacket.
“We’re in luck. Not a rental to be had in Detroit, but the head of airport security is an ex-cop, and he’s loaning us his own personal car. He says there is a makeshift city morgue set-up in a Church just across the street from the Hilton. He knows the Sergeant on duty and is calling ahead for us. We can be there in an hour or less. There’s about forty or so dead in there, and if Johnny’s not among them, we’ll go over to the Harper Hospital on Woodward, just up the street from the Hilton. Most all of the wounded are there, and quite a few minor injuries have already been released. Even if he’s one of those, they’ll still have his name on file. Then we’ll go from there.”
Linh started to arise. “Let’s get going then, and get this part over with.”
“Linh,” Howard began.
“Forget it Howard. You’re not my boss tonight. You’re my friend. And I’m going along.”
Howard smiled his patented crooked smile. “Never doubted it for a second, Officer McCabe, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Just wanted you to take a minute and put this one. Let’s give little Matthew Albert every chance we can—all right?” Howard unfolded the smallish Kevlar vest he had been carrying and tossed it to Linh. “One of the security ladies on duty here tonight volunteered it. Said she had a spare in her locker.”
It was Linh’s turn to smile. “Good old Howard Carter. Have I told you lately just how much you mean to me?”
“Knock it off, Sergeant. You’re going to have me crying.”
“Will do, Sir. Horses tied-up out front?”
“Close. Light green Ford mini-van—just out the back door.”
They walked out the terminal then, the three of them, Linh putting on the vest as they went, and pulling her winter jacket over it—enshrouding in protective fiber the unborn infant in her body, and doing her best to keep him safe from harm.
* * *
The muffled shriek rose in pitch and intensity—sending goosebumps down the arms and legs of the woman as she sat in a chair watching the unholy inferno slowly unfolding before her eyes. The two men had been busy with their knives and scalpels for a while. There was little life left inside their victim. Still he tried to cry out, hoping somehow for mercy where there was none to be had. Strapped solidly to the embalming table, the naked man made little attempt to move. He was far beyond that now. Most of his intestines were outside his body, and laying off slightly to the side. Among them were his two eyes, tongue, ears, nose, penis and testicles.
The bleeding was largely staunched with a small butane torch, and consciousness maintained with a large supply of ammonia soaked cloths. The blood that could not be stopped ran from the grooves in the sides of the table and into a floor drain. Outside of splatter, there was surprisingly little mess. The two men, fastidious about their appearance, wore plastic aprons.
The Ice Queen was surprised that he hadn’t died by now. He was turning out to be a lot tougher than she would have thought. A shame. He wasn’t a bad guy really. Mostly just a stupid little bullshit indoctrinated bastard. He was paying for that stupidity now, with his life—and a long, slow, and hideously ugly death.
The men were moving on to the fingers now. She heard the dry-branch snapping sound as the left thumb detached. Again the bound man shrieked as the pruning shears were placed on his next digit, and it was severed as well.
The woman’s stomach heaved slightly.
Just then the door to the embalming room opened and Saal Moradi entered. The two men stopped what they were doing as Moradi surveyed their work. His flat eyes seemed well pleased and he nodded his approval. The two men began to pack away their tools. They hung their aprons on a pegboard.
“Do you want us to finish him?”
“No,” Moradi replied. “Let him die slow.”
With that, the two men were gone, and Moradi and the Ice Queen remained together in the room.
“What do you think of my little set-up here?” he asked.
“Where is this?”
“An abandoned funeral home on Woodward and John R. There are many such placed in this city. Very convenient for me. I can get any information I want from a person in this room.”
The near corpse on the table moaned loudly.
“He didn’t have any information,” the Queen said.
“He failed me.”
“So did I.”
“So you did. What, I ask you, Sandra Buckles—should I do about that?”
“You know my name.”
“I know everything about you, Sandra Buckles of Chicago, Illinois. From your childhood to now. I know about your father too. Not a very nice man—was he Sandy dear? No—not a very nice man at all. Made you what you are today, didn’t he? A man-hater. That’s your thing, isn’t it? Oh, you like the money all right. You made yourself a promise that you would never be poor again, didn’t you? No—no more tenement apartments for little Sandy. And no more dark of night visits from daddy dearest either. He was the only person you ever actually killed yourself—wasn’t he, Sandra?”
The Queen obeyed. Grabbing her hard by the back of the neck Moradi walked her to the table. He forced her head down, and her nose nearly into the gut-pile oozing out over the edge of the table. Thick bile began to gather and rise in her throat.
“DO NOT VOMIT, my dear. Do not. If you do, you will join him.”
Somehow, she did not.
Moradi released her. “Sit back down, Sandra.”
“Why do you think I do what I do, Sandra?”
“Money?—or power.” she replied.
“Money mean nothing to me, Sandra. And power I already have—power over life and death. Nor does the foolish religions of men, or their empty, meaningless and pathetic politics. I couldn’t care less. I have my virgins right here on this earth—anytime I want. I give life when I choose to—and I deal death when I feel like it—and no one stops me.”
“Why? Why, you ask? The game my dear. The game. The game of life and death. The eternal struggle between so-called good and so-called evil. The stuff of devils—and of gods. The stuff of myths—and legends.”
The near-corpse moaned again—weaker this time.
“Do you believe in god, Sandra?”
“Me either. That’s because I’ve never seen god. I believe in Satan though. Him—him I’ve seen. Do you know where I’ve seen him Sandra Buckles?”
“When I look in the mirror.”
The near-corpse began to thrash weakly on the table.
“Still pretty energetic for a dead man, wouldn’t you say, Sandra?”
The Queen said nothing.
“Tonight I have dealt death. I shall deal more, and more slowly yet, when I place Mr. O’Brien on this very same table. He has escaped me twice, and Mr. Wahl one time too. I am tired of them both. Wahl I will simply kill. Mr. O’Brien—I will annihilate, eradicate, and obliterate—simply because I can—and because I feel like it. I went to a great deal of trouble to bring them both together, here, in my lair—and now they belong to me. O’Brien thinks I care about his precious Christian children, or his watch. They can bury him with that watch for all I care.”
“So he is. And that’s a part of the game as well. But I shall best him easily, Sandra Buckles. I will best him because I know what he will do.”
“Because I have studied him. I know him inside and out. Every strength, and every weakness. I know him because I have read every single word of his Jack McGuire. That is one of his weakness my dear. He likes to brag. Oh, not about himself. He is much more modest than that. He brags through his Mr. McGuire. I guarantee you, Sandra Buckles—that bragging will be the death of him. A death that will make the one you just witnessed, look like that of a man who passed peacefully in his sleep. Mr. O’Brien is a white-knight—tilting at windmills. That is his weakness.”
“What about the partner in his agency?”
“Yes. The very absent Mr. McCabe. The time-traveler. Well, Mr. McCabe is lost in time right now my dear. Lost in the fifties, tonight—his attention focused entirely and solely on the brightly-colored baubles and trinkets I have placed before his eyes. He is being dealt with even as we speak. Do you think that I would have forgotten such a detail as that?”
“No, I don’t suppose you would have.”
“After I finish with all of them, I will move on to the bigger game—the true game. A very, very foolish man, Sandra, has made a deal with the devil. A man that believes he has power. He has made a deal with Satan himself—foolish man. He thinks he is powerful. He thinks he is clever. He thinks he cannot be touched. He thinks he is immortal. Satan knows better. Satan intends to break that deal, and commit a crime that will live on forever in myth and legend. The crime of the century. Maybe of all the centuries.”
“Men before me have become such legends—but they paid with their own lives. Not me, Sandra. Not Satan. Satan shall walk away—unscathed—simply to show mere mortals that he can.”
“I am becometh death, sayeth the worm. But tonight, Sandra dear, I give life. Unto thee I give life. It’s a lot like the idiotic American game of baseball. Only one difference. Here, you get only one strike. Strike number two—and you’re out—way out. Do you understand what I am saying to you, Sandra dear?”
“Yes. I believe you do. Do not fail me again.”
The near-corpse moaned.
“I will send you four men tomorrow, Sandra. They are killers of the highest quality. Experts every one. The best assassins on the planet. You will be in command of them. I will be in command of you. You will hunt down Wahl and O’Brien. Wahl you will kill. O’Brien you will bring to me.”
“What about the old man? Who is he anyway?”
“I don’t know. He is the only part of this puzzle that I don’t quite understand. Kill him on sight if he interferes again. Do not fail me again, Sandra. Do not.”
“Just one more thing then before we part company for the night.”
Moradi walked to the other side of the old embalming room. He retrieved a smallish electric chain-saw from a corner cabinet. Plugging it in and flipping the switch, it sprang to life, and hummed contentedly. Pointing to the near-corpse on the table, he said simply, “Show me your bona-fides, Ice Queen. Show me your stuff. Show me just what you did to your dear old daddy—all those long years ago.” Nodding toward the near-corpse, he said, “Bring me his head. Bring it to me in your hands.”
* * *
At that very moment, in a city far away, a dark limousine made a slow turn into a long drive of a large building and pulled up beside a nearly concealed doorway. It was the servant’s entrance, marked simply—RECEIVING. This night however, there were no servants, nor deliveries. This night there was only the limo, with but one person inside.
The rear door of the car opened slowly, as a woman in black stepped out, and then quickly entered the building—slowly and deliberately closing the door behind her, making sure it was locked. The limo driver pulled carefully and soundlessly away—disappearing into the cold black night.
Thanks so much for reading . . . back in a day or two with another chapter of THE RECKONING.
Dumb joke of the day: