~ Pt. II~


So that was that, more or less. And when I came to, I was in the hospital...

Did I dream?

Well, yeah, I figure I must have dreamed. I normally do. But if you're asking me what I dreamed that night, then no, I don't remember. You know how that is. If it's worth remembering you never do, and if it isn't worth it then you always do. Except when that isn't the case.

Yes, I'm sure. I don't remember a damn thing from that night, other than that bum's eyes, staring into mine as I felt my neck crunch. Not a damn thing. Okay?

Now let me tell the story the way I want to tell it. We haven't even gotten to the seriously bad parts of it, yet, and I don't want to break stride too much.

I might not have much time as it is...

So, like I was saying: when I came to, I was in the hospital.

It wasn't the ICU. It was just an ordinary bed in the recovery area. Small, private room with a small window and a large, closed door. It was about as cheery as a funeral home's waiting room, only without the plastic ferns and brochures on coping with your loss. That and a guy in a bad suit trying to get into the widow's pants.

Yeah, I'm more than a little cynical about those kinds of guys. No one in their right mind really wants to work at a job where you can see a parade of human misery day in and day out. So I figure they gotta have some kind of reason. Either that or they really are nuts.

Come on. I don't think you can compare being a private dick with a funeral home director. I get the problems before they get to his department, plus I get to carry a gun. Maybe if I do my job he won't have to do his. But...

Naah. Nevermind. That wasn't my fault.


The hospital. They had me in a nightie that closed up the back and had me hooked up with a drip, which stung like hell. I can't remember if they had me hooked up with any monitors or not, but I can't remember feeling the pads on my chest, so I guess maybe they didn't.

I looked around the room again, and then I checked myself out. You have to remember that, as far as I'd known the last time I was conscious, I was dead. So I listened for my heartbeat, took a breath, and twitched my fingers and toes to make sure they all worked.

Then I tried sitting up a little, to look down at where they'd jabbed me with the drip. That was a dumb move. The pain in my neck flared up like someone'd just mulekicked me in the throat, and it hurt so bad I screamed.

No, I take that back. I couldn't really scream. I gurgled. I gurgled really loud, and then shut the hell up once I realized how bad my voice sounded. It also didn't feel too good going though my neck, either.

I reached up to touch it, and I found that it'd gone about as hard as a rock where it was supposed to be soft. It was warm and sore, and my adam's apple felt like someone'd popped it like a plum. I didn't have a mirror, but I was willing to bet I was black and blue from my jawline down to my nape.

Now, the last thing I remembered, I was feeling my neck pop. So I guessed that maybe that was something in my throat going a way it wasn't supposed to go. The bastard had throttled me, and then not really stuck around to finish the job right. Lucky, lucky me.

Right about then, some candy striper with eyes like vacant windows opened the door, looked in, and announced to someone that I was awake. Then she came in and asked how I was feeling. Boy, did I ever tell her...

Oh, that's in your notes, too? Well, hell. What was I supposed to say? 'Just peachy?' You ask a stupid question, you get an answer you don't want to hear. That's my philosophy.

So, yeah, she left with a sour look on her face. Then this doctor came by and talked with her for a second, out in the hall. Then he walked on in and closed the door behind him, and proceeded to tell me to be more polite with the help.

He had a hard edge to him, so I figured we could talk straight. I asked him to give it to me just like that - straight, that is. And all the while I was trying to ignore how bad my throat felt, and how messed-up my voice was.

How'd he put it... 'Well, Harry, let me be honest with you. I realize this sounds like a cliche, but you are lucky to be alive.'

Me, I said: 'Well, I've been choked before, just not that bad.'

And he looks down his glasses at me, and shakes his head: 'Harry, you weren't just choked. Another couple pounds of pressure and your neck would have been crushed. It's cracked as it is.'

He went on a bit more, mostly crap I can't repeat word for word but I can kind of get the meaning of. You been in hospitals enough, you get an ear for the lingo. Partially crushed larynx, torn muscles, popped veins, hairline fracture in whatever descending vertebrae... basically it all added up to 'your neck got fucked up, pal.'

That and I was really, really lucky. Turns out my shooting was the only thing that brought the call. That house was so far out of town the nearest neighbor was half a mile away. She was up late, watching TV, and heard the shots. So she called 911, and they found me just in time before my throat choked me to death from the swelling. Lucky, lucky, lucky me.

Now, normally, when someone's that bad, they wake up in the ICU. I asked about that, and the doc shook his head and said that the ambulance crew must have gotten a few things wrong. Once I got to the emergency room, I was still in bad shape, but not nearly as bad as they'd thought I was. So here I was, and they could probably discharge me in a day or so.

Oh, that and the police wanted to talk to me right away...

I kind of figured that was coming, next. I'd been within my rights to be where I was, and be carrying a gun on the job for self-defense, but cops like to crawl up your ass to look for treasure whenever they can. And I know that some of them are actually trying to do their job, and just need to ask some questions, but even the best ones have this look in their eye like "what do you think you're doing? Trying to do our job?"

I was hoping for a day or two before having to deal with it, considering what had happened. I wasn't in much shape to deal with the third degree, anyway. That and we don't like having the cops come in and laugh at us when we're lying in bed all stitched up. It's a matter of professional pride.

So I asked the doc if he could maybe stall them for the night, but he shook his head: 'Sorry, Harry. He's right outside, and he's very interested to talk to you. I believe you two have met?'

He opened the door, and in walked Fred. And then I knew I was in trouble.

Yes, Fred. That Fred.

You're damn straight there was history between us. Damn straight. The bastard hated me, and the feeling was mutual. We stepped on each other's toes a few times too many early on, when I first got out here, and we never really got past it.

You see, he had this thing about private dicks. He figured that there was no reason why anyone should go to anyone but the cops, unless they got something to hide. So he figured anyone I worked for was dirty, and I was double dirty for taking the job. Real nice guy, huh?

That's not to say that I really wished him ill. I'd like to say I'd have accepted an apology if he'd offered it, but...

Ah, who am I kidding. I'm sorry, I shouldn't try to fool myself. I'd have thrown it all right back in his skinny, weasel face and told him to stuff it up his ass. We were oil and water, and it didn't take too much to make us explode.

But yeah, I'm sorry about what happened. Sure, he was a prick, but Jesus... no one deserves to have that happen to them...

Anyway: 'So I heard you had some problems, Harry,' he said, soon as the doctor left: 'What happened? One of your old clients had enough of your mouth?'

I bit my lip and told him the usual story. I was on a case, and I couldn't discuss the details. But I had a reason to be there, and the door was unlocked when I got there, so I just poked my head in to see if illegal activity was going on. Things went downhill from there.

Of course, he didn't believe me. He leaned over me, smirked, and told me as much. And then he asked me why I'd torn up the whole upstairs and the attic in all five houses, and what I'd been looking for.

I found that pretty interesting. That probably meant that the guy who'd done this to me hadn't known where something was. It was probably theft on his part, then, as opposed to retreiving something for someone. Unless, of course, 'someone' hadn't known exactly where that something was, either.

But I kept that under my hat.

I told him it wasn't me, it was the guy who choked me. I was about to place him under citizen's arrest for trespassing and damaging private property when he charged. Things went downhill from there.

Yes, I really did say that twice. He didn't like having things repeated at him, so I always did, just to piss him off. That and talking was really painful, so anything I could do to get him out of my face and in someone else's was a good thing at the time.

But yeah... he still didn't believe me. He did ask for a description of my assailant, though, which I gave him. I don't think he liked it, judging from his facial expressions.

I also told him that I suspected there was someone else there, too, since I'd heard a voice. But I hadn't seen the other guy.

'So you say you shot the man?' he asked after he'd taken all that down.

'Yes I did,' I replied: 'And he kept coming, too. I figure he was on something.'

'Maybe you are,' he said, smirking again: 'You say that he grabbed you by the neck and forced you down to the floor?'

'Yes, I did.'

'Then why didn't you have so much as a drop of blood on you when the ambulance arrived?'

Right about then's when the room went really cold. I mean, cold like icewater. I didn't have anything to say, just then, thinking about how bad that guy had looked.

I mean... what if he really had been dead?

So I didn't have a damn thing to say, just then. I was just too spooked. And let me tell you, if I'm spooked, there's a problem. I usually don't spook.

Fred, he figures that means he's got me where he wants me. He pounces: 'So where's the rest of the money?'

'The rest of what money?' I asked, coming out of it.

'We found a box stuffed full of Franklins upstairs, in that house' he tells me: 'It's been there a while, and it looked like there were some other things up there as well.'

Of course, that's kind of good news for me. I was willing to bet that the Franklins were my client's hubby's secret stash of cash, which is what I'd been looking for all along. But yeah, I wasn't going to tell Fred that, either.

The thought brought me out of noticing how damned cold it was, though. I just shrugged and said 'So what?'

'So I'm guessing you and your assailant had a plan,' he said: 'Your friend went in there with you to get the money, and then he got upset and tried to choke you. Probably didn't like you any more than I do.'

'Well, thanks,' I told him: 'So what about those gunshots?'

'Well, you must have got your gun back and shot at him before you blacked out. Of course, you're a lousy shot even when you aren't almost dying, so you missed. And then he ran off with what he'd already gotten.'

Yeah, some story, huh? Fred sure had an imagination, just not a very good one. I bet he even wore a tie to grade school.

So I called him on it: 'Prove it,' I said: 'I say I was there on a case, and I was attacked by some guy I've never met.'

'And you won't tell me what your case is,' he said: 'So how can I trust you?'

'You don't have to,' I told him: 'But you can't charge me on a hunch, either.'

I smiled, then, too. And that got him mad enough to shit bricks. He yelled at me for about... oh, maybe a full minute. The doc eventually came back and told him to watch his language, which worked as well on him as it did for me.

'This man doesn't leave this hospital until I say he does,' Fred said on the way out: 'I want a guard on his door and his window locked.'

No, he really didn't have the authority to do that. I think he knew that, too. He was just screwing with me. Same old Fred...

Yeah, I think I am sorry about what happened to him. The world could always use a funny asshole who's too stupid to be dangerous. There's too many of the other kind around for me.

After I was sure that Fred was good and gone, I asked for the phone and gave my client a call. She was glad to hear from me, of course. I let her know what happened, up to a point, playing the sympathy card for all I could get.

Then I informed her that her missing money was, most likely, in the hands of the police. I told her to get a lawyer and have him start rattling their cages to get it back. I also let her know that I was counting my stay in the hospital against her per diem, which made her less than happy. But I figured with a box full of Franklins she could damn well afford it.

So yeah, yet another case closed for yours truly. But there was still that nagging wonder, keeping time with the pain in my neck. What was so important that the messed-up freak who tried to kill me had passed up a box stuffed with c-notes? Any other bum would have taken the money.

And where had that other guy been hiding? I'd played my flashlight around enough to see if anyone was there, but no one was. I had the scary feeling that maybe he'd been standing behind me, or something. Following me, maybe.

Come lights-out, I couldn't sleep. There were too many unanswered questions. I'd almost wound up dead because of a case, and it was something that'd come right out of left field. You normally figure you're going to buy it from a jealous husband's gun, running across the wrong branch of organized crime or else boozing yourself to death. Not from crazy bums.

And I didn't like that - not one damn bit. In this line of work you have to maintain control over the situation, or the situation will get control over you. That's the best advice I ever got, and I tried to live up to it, to the point where I wouldn't let myself rest until I'd faced the matter down and gotten my leg up over it. It was my way of saying 'never again.'

So I tried to think about what had happened. I replayed the stairs over and over in my head. And the more I did the more I thought I remembered what the guy'd had in his other hand as he'd come down the stairs. It was hard to see, since we were playing dueling flashlights, but the moment he came at me I did see something in his other hand.

It was a book. A ledger of some kind: big, thick and long, all wrapped up with black, felt ribbon to keep it from splitting open at the seams. It was an old fashioned style, too; You don't see too many around like that, anymore.

The only thing someone keeps in a ledger is financial information. Who paid what to who, who owes you, and what's where. I couldn't figure why a bum would want to get his hands on something like that, but if I could find him, I could find the ledger.

And somehow I knew, I just knew, that whatever was in it was going to explain why the hell I almost died back in that house.

It was right about then that I really felt like getting up and getting out of there. They talk about second winds, but I was having a third and fourth rush right through me like juice from a wallsocket. All I could think about was going to find out what the hell happened, and why. I've never felt like that before: not ever.

That and my neck stopped hurting. I mean, it just stopped. By the time I'd gotten out of bed and ripped the drip from my arm, it felt well enough to call out for the doc. Damn if my voice didn't sound like it normally did, again, too.

And damn if the room wasn't as cold anymore, either.

* * *