"Good god..." Mack Reynolds panted. His legs collapsed in a heap underneath him, he couldn't escape, even if his head weren't spinning. His friend, his killer, stood above him. "Why?"
"I'm sorry, Mack. I have to. I don't expect you to understand."
"Please..." Mack half-coughed, half-gulped. "Could... Could I at least say my last prayers?"
"Oh, Mack..." The figure towering over him shook its head sorrowfully. "Of course. Go ahead. I owe you that much."
Mack crossed himself, long-forgotten prayers flowing through his mind. "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." He stopped, tears squeezing through his tightly shut eyelids. He gasped for air, and continued. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our... our daily bread, and forgive us our tresspasses... as we forgive those who... who..." A sob wracked his chest. Some tiny part of him felt ashamed at his tears, but most of him didn't care. "Oh, God, please, I don't want to die..."
"I'm sorry." Mack's killer was very careful to make sure that the blow killed his victim instantly.
"All for the want of a nail..." Jack Marshak shook his head, his fingers running over the browned, brittle final page of the Manifest, as he had almost every night for years. "A kingdom was lost. And for the want of an inkblot..." This one entry, the last cursed antique Lewis ever sold, had been an unsettling thorn in Jack's mind ever since he first read it, and as the number of antiques left grew steadily, but very slowly, smaller, he became more and more determined to find that antique.
Micki Foster came up behind the desk, resting a hand against the back of Jack's chair. "Still trying to figure it out?"
"I stare at it every time I open the Manifest, trying to find the slightest clue to what it is. I haven't found one yet."
"Hey, guys." Johnny Ventura entered the store with a slight hop in his step, cheered by the bright, sunny day currently enveloping Chicago, a welcome change from usual wind and cold that came in late autumn. "Found a lead on one of the antiques?"
"No," Jack replied. "Which is why we're finally going to search for it."
"We are?" Micki asked.
"Search for what?" Johnny chimed in.
"We don't know," Jack replied. "That's the problem." He turned the Manifest towards Johnny and pointed. The final entry in that hated book, Johnny immediately saw, was mostly obliterated by a messy inkblot. Only the barest scrap of an address was still legible; the rest was obscured by a long-dried black blob.
"Oh, man..." Johnny brought the page closer to his face and squinted. "I can't read a damn thing... It was like this when you first found it?"
"Of course," Jack snapped with slightly unreasonable annoyance.
Micki, noticing this, quickly stepped in. "With all the stress Lewis must've been under when he finally decided to break his pact with the Devil, we figured he must've just gotten careless in the end." She shrugged, sending waves of reflected light off her clean red curls. "I don't think he ever noticed."
"Well, I've had enough of it." Jack slammed an open palm onto the desk, standing. "I'm tired of looking at that entry every night, wondering. We're going to find it. No matter what."
Johnny shook his head. "But how? I mean, you can't read most of this entry..."
Jack held up a finger. "I've been working on that." He opened one of the desk drawers and pulled out a notepad, covered with several chains of letters, most of them crossed out. "I think I've been able to just make out the name and address, at least. 'Reynolds, something-63 15th Street."
"15th Street?" Johnny repeated incredulously. "Do you have any idea how long that street is?"
"Look at it this way, Johnny," Jack replied with a grin and some cheer. "You get to spend time outside on such a beautiful day." He slapped Johnny on the back. Micki and Johnny winced.
Two hours later, after checking every building ending in 63 and finding everything from record stores to small parks to post offices, with no sign of anyone named Reynolds, Johnny was almost ruing the bright sun that pounded down on him. Micki wasn't looking that chipper either, greedily gulping at a large soda they'd bought at 3363, a Burger King. Only Jack's steely look of determination hadn't diminished.
"Jack, maybe we should pick up again tomorrow..." Micki began.
"No." He said it so calmly, so firmly, that it sounded to both of the younger people as half command, half mantra. "We're close. I know we're close."
Johnny finally asked the question that Micki had wanted to ask for the entire afternoon. "Jack, are you okay? I've never seen you like this..."
He whirled towards them both, a shout on his lips, then deflated, sighing. "I'm sorry, both of you. It's just that..." He turned back towards the street and continued walking. "This business is hard enough when we know what we're up against, when we can at least search records and legends and find out at least a little of what we're up against. But this, this is a complete blank. Every time I looked at that entry, I dreaded it." He stopped abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk, causing an elderly couple to skirt him with barely concealed annoyance. "I was afraid. But I can't be anymore." He turned back towards Micki and Johnny. "Lewis and I have put you two in enough danger as it is. I don't want either of you to be hurt because of my ignorance."
"Oh, Jack..." Micki gave him a tight hug as Johnny patted him on the shoulder. "It isn't your fault."
"You don't have to feel responsible for us, Jack," Johnny agreed. "We knew what we were getting into. We can take care of ourselves."
Jack nodded with a small smile. "Thank you. Both of you." He looked down at his notebook and sighed. "Why don't we go home? We can continue this tomorrow."
"Wait," Johnny said suddenly. He pointed up at the crumbling brownstone apartment building they were standing in front of, at the numbers "3963" barely visible in chipping, worn yellow paint. "One more."
The landlord was a portly, balding man, at first annoyed that they weren't going to rent a room, then eager to rant about one of his former tenants. "I'd like to get my hands on that bum Reynolds."
Jack leaned forward eagerly. "Reynolds?"
"Yeah, Mack Reynolds. A mick, I think. He disappeared a coupla months ago and skipped out on his rent. I knew he was trouble. Like this one time, he..."
"Yes, yes," Jack said impatiently. "Is his room still vacant?"
"Yeah," the landlord said slowly, eyeing Jack with mild suspicion. "What's it to you?"
"If we could see that room..."
"Hey, if you wanna see it, yer gonna rent it."
Jack coughed, drawing out a wad of twenties, fresh from the bank. The landlord's eyes widened. "You said Mr. Reynolds had back rent...?"
Ten minutes later and a couple hundred dollars poorer, the three antique hunters were rooting through molding mattresses, fly-infested dirty dishes, and dusty clothes. "What are we looking for, anyway?" Johnny asked between allergic coughs.
"Something. Anything." Jack tossed a rumpled aloha shirt onto the bed in disgust. "It doesn't look like he left town. Not without most of his belongings. He might've become a victim of whatever he bought from Lewis." He looked about with some measure of helplessness. "Nothing here looks likely to be..."
"Jack, take a look at this." Micki held up several identical looking matchbooks. "These are all from the same place." She handed one each to Jack and Johnny.
"The Death's Door Pub?" Johnny read. "Hey, I know that place; some of my Dad's old friends drink there sometimes. It's a bar about four blocks from here."
"Judging from this pile, he must've gone there often," Jack mused. His eyes twinkled from the excitement of the new lead. "Johnny, get in contact with some of Vince's friends. I think it's time we paid a visit to the Death's Door Pub..."
Micki was the first to arrive, pulling her jacket closer against her chest as the late afternoon breezes picked up. She glanced at the address on the matchbook, then looked up. The pub was located on a lonely stretch of novelty stores and pawn shops closing up for the night, just one bright red brick building among many, the entrance tucked into a short alley. A worn wooden sign swung slowly in the chill night wind right above the door, painted with a grinning Grim Reaper astride his pale horse, frozen in mid-stride, alongside the bright red words "Death's Door Pub". Micki paused by the entrance, an ornately carved wooden door, and knocked on one of its large window panes.
"I'm comin', I'm comin'," a gruff voice said from within. "You'd better not be here for a drink, 'cause I ain't openin' early for no one!" Finally, it swung open, revealing a hearty middle aged man with snow-white muttonchop whiskers and a large grin, his rotund girth hardly concealed by a clean green apron. "Ah, you must be Micki."
She nodded. "I hope you don't mind, but as I said on the phone, I could really use the job."
"And I could really use a waitress. I hope you can handle a buncha lovable old drunks." The large man chuckled, sweeping an arm in a welcoming gesture. "I'm Charlie Murphy, owner of the Death's Door. C'mon in."
The interior of the pub was warm, comforting, smelling vaguely of long-dried spirits. The polished wooden floors gleamed under soft lamplight. Chairs were perched atop solid wooden tables, the wood-panelled walls lined with sepia photographs and various knickknacks, including a wooden crank telephone. A well-punctured dartboard hung from one wall, a playing field marked out in brass strips screwed into the floor. The bar was brightly lit, causing rows of hanging beer mugs to dazzle Micki's eyes with hundreds of pinpoints of light. Micki breathed a sigh of contentment despite her caution; a soothing warmth oozed from a wide-open door leading to a kitchen, casting the whole room in an atmosphere of hominess and serenity.
"Nice place, isn't it?" Murphy asked, interrupting her thoughts. "My great-great-grandfather founded the Death's Door Pub in England in the 1800's. When his son came to America, he brought the name with him. Murphy sons have run the Death's Door ever since. A family tradition, t'be sure." He patted Micki's shoulder, a friendly gesture, and led her into the back kitchen, filled with fragrant steam. "We just started servin' dinner, so we could really use your help." A tall, thin, reedy man, with slicked back black hair and a pencil moustache, was in front of the brand new stainless steel stove, a clean white poufy chef's hat perched jauntily on his head. Sharp sizzling filled the air as he flipped a chicken breast over in an iron pan. "Hey, Eddie, this is the new waitress, Micki. This is my brother-in-law, Eddie Slepian. He helps me out 'round here."
Eddie gave her a rough nod. "Nice to meet ya. As long as you pull yer weight, we should get along fine."
"Eddie!" Murphy chided. "Be a little more polite to the lady, will ya?"
"Yeah, yeah, sorry."
"You don't have to worry about me," Micki replied assuringly. "I won't get in your way." *Not unless you have the cursed object I'm looking for,* she added silently. She could already tell that it was going to be hard; the pub hadn't even filled with its usual customers. With so many possible suspects, she hoped Johnny and Jack were having better luck...
"Mack Reynolds?" Detective Tom McMasters asked, his full, brushy, white-streaked moutache wriggling as his face settled in thought. "I haven't seen him at the Death's Door for at least four months. Everyone's worried." He turned to his old friend Vince Ventura's son as he shrugged on a long brown trenchcoat. "How do you know him?"
"Well, I don't," Johnny admitted. "Not really. His name just sort of came up a while ago."
McMasters slipped a fedora over his salt-and-pepper hair as the two left the heated car into the chill of a Chicago fall evening. "Well, maybe one of the other regulars can tell you more. I only started showing up in the past year or so. It's a great little place, though; you chose a good time to come visit. I took your father there for the first time a couple of months before he died. He had a good time. The people there are the best."
*And one of them is using a cursed antique. Whatever it is.* "Sure. Thanks, Tom." He let McMasters lead him down a short alley to a sturdy, ornate door. McMasters pushed it open, and a blast of laughter and warmth immediately hit Johnny in the face. It was only eight o'clock, and already the room was full with patrons. These weren't just the downtrodden, depressed losers Johnny had imagined as bar patrons; among the older men sat a pair of giggling coeds, a middle-aged couple sharing a steaming plate of rigatoni, and a woman in business clothes reviewing papers while sipping at a glass of wine. A feeling of comfort surrounded Johnny like a warm blanket. *How could a cursed antique be here?* he had to wonder.
It was then he spotted Micki serving the coeds a bowl of chips. Remembering Jack's admonitions not to indicate they knew each other, he said nothing. McMasters led Johnny to the bar, where the two men sat on high wooden stools. The older man waved the bartender over. "Hey, Murphy, come over here. This is Johnny Ventura, Vince's son. Johnny, this is Charlie Murphy, owner of the best pub in Chicago."
"Naw, not best in Chicago," the portly bartender rumbled.
"Of course not!" an elderly man sitting nearby cackled. "Best in the whole goddamn state!"
"And that," McMasters continued, "is Old Man Winter." Noticing Johnny's bemused look, he nodded. "Yep, that's what we call him around here. I don't think he's ever told us his real name, have you, Winter?"
"Nope, and I never will," Winter laughed. "It's too good fer the likes of you! Hey, missy!" He waved Micki over. "Get me a beer, will ya?" Micki nodded and began to leave, when the old man let out a high, sharp whistle. She turned, startled. "Eh-eh-eh... Guess Murphy didn't tell ya. I only take my beer in this." At that last word, he whipped a heavy, ornately carved pewter beer stein out of a small sack resting at his feet and slammed it onto the table. "Never gimme a drink in anything but that. Got it?"
"Yes, sir," Micki said brightly as she picked up the stein and headed towards the bar.
"Crazy old man," someone else sneered in a lighthearted manner. A sandy- haired young man, with the build of a recently retired college athlete, raised his beer glass towards Winter.
Winter snorted. "Bah. You young people have no sense of tradition. I've had that stein for over fifty years, and goddamn if I'm gonna let it go to waste!"
"Pay no attention to him," the young man sniggered, rising from his chair and heading towards McMasters and Johnny. "He hasn't been right since World War II."
"I'm more right than you'll ever be, you young Turk!"
"I'm Randy Collingsworth." He extended a hand to Johnny, which he shook. "Always glad to see some new blood around here. Yer letting your customers get too old, Murphy. Soon you'll have to have Metamucil on tap!" A roar of laughter greeted that statement, even from Old Man Winter. "Hey, you play darts?" he suddenly asked Johnny.
"Sure. A little."
"C'mon. Let's play."
Johnny shot a quick glance at Micki. She gave him a subtle "I'm okay" nod. "Sure. Why not."
"I gotta warn ya, young man," Old Man Winter chimed in. "That Collingsworth has the luck of the Devil!" The inadvertent reminder chilled Johnny to the bone. Suddenly, the bar seemed filled not with customers, but with potential enemies. *God, I hate this.*
Micki's face glistened with sweat as he brought yet another tray of dirty glasses into the kitchen. "Whew," she said to Eddie in an attempt to make conversation, "busy night."
"Get used to it. It's hard work, running a place like this." With that flat reply, he returned his attention to his Caesar salad.
Micki coughed and tried to continue. "Your brother mentioned a customer named Mack Reynolds..."
Eddie turned towards her, surprised. "He did. Huh. I wonder why, considerin' he ain't been around for a long while."
"Really? I wonder why? He sounded like such a nice man," she lied, trying to keep Eddie talking.
"I guess," Eddie snorted. "He loved this place. He was really popular with everyone, and what did he do? He vanishes. Broke Charlie's heart, since Mack was one of his first regulars. As far as I'm concerned, the guy's dead and buried."
*Maybe he is,* Micki thought grimly.
"Hey!" Eddie suddenly snapped. "We've got customers! Move it!"
"Jack and Johnny would be lost without me to take these jobs," she muttered under her breath as she swept up a tray of bread sticks and returned to work.
"Hey, Eddie, I'm beat. Can ya close up for me?"
"Yeah, sure thing, Charlie. See ya tomorrow." Eddie nodded to his departing brother-in-law and shut off the lights. Bereft of illumination, the pub was enshrouded in shadow, feeling somewhat sinister. Definitely not the warm cheery feeling that pervaded the place when occupied. Eddie, however, took no notice of it. He simply put on his heavy coat and began to lock up the place.
When he was finally done, he faced the narrow alley and breathed in the cold night air. He patted his pockets, finally finding a stray cigarette. Breathing a sigh of relief, he lit up. "Eddie." He nearly jumped back in surprise when his match illuminated a familiar face.
"Geez, you startled me!" he panted. "What're you doing back here. Forget something?"
"In a way. Look, kid, I'm sorry."
"This." True to the killer's intentions, Eddie never saw the crowbar coming, only felt the barest flash of pain as the cold metal bar bit into his skull, before it snuffed out his life forever.
Jack sniffled into a handkerchief, nodding. "Very interesting. Anything else either of you can remember?"
Micki shook her head. "Not really. As far as I can tell, everyone there loved Mack Reynolds. As far as they can tell, he just vanished."
"Detective McMasters said they never got a missing persons report on him. Except for his friends at the Death's Door, he didn't have any living relatives." Johnny shrugged.
"I'll do some more checking into Mr. Reynolds' past." He paused to stifle a titanic sneeze. "Damn flu."
"That sounds like a sign of bed rest, Jack," Micki said gently, but firmly. "You get yourself into bed." She put her arm around Jack's shoulder and began leading him up the stairs.
"I can't do that now," Jack insisted, trying to resist, but failing miserably in his condition. "I have to help..."
Micki rubbed Jack's back. "What did we tell you about us being adults? I'll continue working at the pub, Johnny will get more information from McMasters, and we'll pass it on to you. You can help us while you're lying in bed, eating soup and watching TV."
Jack shuddered. "I'd rather be out there, helping."
"Bed," Micki countered flatly, shoving a collection of the works of Poe into Jack's hands. "Read. Sleep." Jack sighed in resignation.
"Damn!" Johnny watched in dismay as yet another dart hit the bull's-eye. "You're good. I mean, really good."
"Thanks," Randy Collingsworth chuckled as he strode forward and plucked out his darts. "I've been playing since I was old enough to toss a pencil. Plus, these are my lucky darts." He gave Johnny a dazzling smile. "Never leave home without your lucky darts."
"I'll keep that in mind," Johnny replied wryly. "Excuse me, miss?" he snapped as Micki passed by with a tray of beer mugs. "Could I get another beer?"
"I'll be with you in a minute, sir." *He's enjoying this way too much,* Micki thought ruefully.
Johnny returned to the bar, where Detective McMasters nursed his own drink. "Find anything?"
McMasters shook his head. "I checked the John Does from the past few months. So far, can't find a match. But since Reynolds didn't have a record, it'll take a while to be sure. Why are you so interested in this guy, anyway?"
"Um, Dad mentioned him to me once. Sounded like a good guy."
"That he was," Old Man Winter cut in, as he was wont to do. "Loved this place. Loved everyone here too. Of course, that just proves he had no life," he added with a high-pitched giggle as he chugged from his beer stein faster than any man that old had a right to.
Micki swept into the kitchen, panting as she laid down tray after tray of dirty dishes. It seemed that every time she cleared a table, two more were waiting to be cleaned. In just days, she had gained a whole new respect for waitstaff.
She frowned as she fully noticed, for the first time, the chubby Mexican woman in front of the stove, whom Micki had gleaned was an old friend of the Murphy family. "Mr. Murphy," she said tentatively as her employer passed through. "What happened to Eddie?"
The older man's face scrunched in concern. "That's what I'd like to know. My sister said he never came home last night. If this were a coupla years ago, I'd have said that he was sleeping in some park somewhere, but he's been off coke for years." Murphy sighed. "I hope he's okay."
"Unsolved murders?" McMasters repeated, stroking his chin in thought. "Not anything unusual that I've noticed. First of all, I work a different detail. Second, you know how many people get killed in a city this size?"
"What about disappearances?" Johnny pressed. "Are they happening more often? People like Mack Reynolds just vanishing?"
"You got a morbid curiosity, young man," Old Man Winter cut in. "I LIKE it!"
"I've gotta agree with the Old Man," Collingsworth added. "With the first part, anyway. What is it with you and death, Ventura?"
Johnny attempted to make his shrug nonchalant. "Being a cop's kid does that to you, I guess."
"I hope not," McMasters laughed. "I got my own kids to watch out for. Anyway, why don't you stop by Missing Persons tomorrow? I'll let you take a look at the recent records, see if that helps you any."
"Hey, anything for Vince's kid."
"Well," Old Man Winter declared, raising his pewter stein. "Here's to the cops. May they ever be the lovable rapscallions they are!" Johnny joined in on the toast, not quite sure what it meant.
"Jack. Stay." Micki sighed, reminded of her efforts to train her puppy Oswald when she was ten. The whole frustrating ordeal reminded her a lot of her attempts to keep Jack Marshak in bed, where he belonged. "You're still running a fever, and..."
"It's just too neat!" Jack declared again, trying to sit up despite Micki's restraining hands. "First Mack Reynolds, now this Eddie... Someone there has the antique, dammit! We have to find it before..."
"YOU aren't finding anything in your condition, except another bowl of chicken soup."
"Soup," Jack grumbled. "I'm drowning in it already."
"Johnny is going to be at the police station searching missing persons records, and I'm going to visit Eddie's wife to see if she knows anything. And you're going to have some more soup and get some sleep, and you are NOT to move from this bed. Got it?" No answer. "Got it?"
"Yes, yes," Jack sighed reluctantly.
"Good. I'll stop by to check on you before I have to work." She gave Jack a light kiss on the forehead and left the bedroom. Jack waited until he heard the merry chime of the front door and the slam before throwing the covers off him and jumping to his feet. Still sniffling, he slipped a small pile of books out from under the bed. He dropped one onto a table and began reading. "Let's see, I know I saw that reference somewhere..." He did. He tore his glasses off his face and slammed the book shut. "Of course!" Jack began to strip off his pajamas and toss on some clothes. He had to get out, tell Micki and Johnny, before it was too late... * * * Theresa Slepian looked for all the world like a smaller, rounder version of her brother, though her baggy eyes and rumpled clothes bespoke of great worry. "I'm sorry, Miss Foster. I wish to God I knew where Eddie was. The police say I have to wait, but..." She sat heavily in a large armchair; Micki kneeled by the sobbing woman in concern. "They said he probably got back on drugs. But Eddie was sober. I know he was. He wouldn't ever have touched that poison again, ever. They don't say it, but I know they think it. Once a junkie, always a junkie. But it's not true. It's not!" She nearly shrieked this last.
"I believe you, Mrs. Slepian," Micki said firmly, which seemed to strengthen the older woman's resolve. "Please. Can you think of anything that might help?"
She shook her head. "Nothing. Except..."
Micki raised an eyebrow. "Except?"
"He always said he always saw one of the customers around at odd times."
"Who?" Micki had to stifle her excitement.
"That old man, Mr. Winter. He'd bump into him at the mall, at the race track, all sorts of places. You know he'd be waiting around the pub for it to open, and is the last one to leave every night?"
Micki nodded. "I noticed."
"Eddie thought he was just being a loyal customer, but now..." She shuddered. "Maybe I'm just being paranoid."
"Maybe not. Thank you, Mrs. Slepian."
"Eddie." The elder woman clutched at Micki's sleeve. "Will Eddie come home?"
Micki's heart sank. "I don't know..."
"You were right," McMasters admitted as the two men climbed out of his car. "And I didn't even notice." He snorted to himself as he and Johnny started towards the Death's Door. "Five times the disappearances in this area, and I never see it. Some cop I am."
"You weren't looking for it," Johnny replied. "Don't worry about it."
"So you think Eddie Slepian and Mack Reynolds were killed? By the same guy? Why? Think we've got a serial killer on our hands?"
Johnny shook his head. "No. It's not that. It's got something to do with the Death's Door."
"How do you figure that?" McMasters pulled his trenchcoat tighter around him. "Damn, it's getting windier..."
"I can't tell you," Johnny answered reluctantly. "I... Hey, who's that?" He pointed at a figure slumped against the entrance to the Death's Door, a blob of shadow reminding Johnny of the inkblot in the Manifest.
"Probably some bum. Hey, you, get out of here!" McMasters shouted. The figure didn't stir. He knelt over the man and suddenly whistled. "Hey, this guy's been hit on the head. Hard."
Johnny was immediately at McMasters' side. The first thing he saw was a chillingly familiar hat. "Oh, my God..." He lifted the hat to see the face he didn't want to see. "Jack!"
"You know this guy?"
"He's a friend of mine. Jack!"
"He's hurt real bad," McMasters said as he whipped out a handkerchief and pressed it to Jack's head.
"Johnny?" His head rose to find Micki standing over them in mute horror. "What... What happened...?"
"Micki, call an ambulance." She didn't move. "Now!" The exclamation seemed to snap her out of her trance, and she ran back out of the alley.
"Johnny?" This time, the voice was masculine, weak. He looked back down to find Jack starting to stir. "Johnny... I found..."
"Jack, don't move." He knelt by his friend's side even as McMasters pried open one of Jack's eyelids to examine his pupils. "Don't try to talk."
"He attacked... I found it, Johnny... Cursed..." He looked about him through bleary vision, apparently confused. "Bastard took my book...?"
"Who?" Johnny pressed.
"Hey, leave him alone!" McMasters cried.
"Who did this to you, Jack?"
Jack shook his head weakly. "No... More important. Cursed... He tried to... it's cursed, Johnny..." Weakly, one of Jack's arms rose slowly, shakily. With herculean effort, he managed to point directly upwards. Right into the face of Detective Tom McMasters. Johnny stared at him in shock as Jack sagged back, unconscious.
"How is he?" Micki asked, feeling a little safer in Johnny's arms as they stared through the hospital window at Jack's bed.
"The doctor said there wasn't any brain damage. But he's still pretty badly hurt."
"Has he waken up yet?"
"Not yet. No telling when he will."
Micki turned towards him, a cold hard look on her face. "We have to find this guy, Johnny. Before he harms anyone else."
He nodded grimly. "But where do we start? Whoever attacked him took whatever Jack used to find the antique."
Before Micki could answer, they were interrupted by a pair of gruff voices becoming louder as their owners approached. "You have to admit these are serious charges, Detective."
"Sir, the victim was obviously mistaken." Johnny immediately recognized this as McMasters. "Mr. Marshak was obviously attacked just seconds before I arrived on the scene; the doctors say that the perp must've run when he heard me coming. I have a witness who'll vouch for my whereabouts right up until we discovered the victim."
"Nevertheless, it's best if you took a few days off, pending an investigation. In the meantime, there'll be a 24 hour guard on Mr. Marshak. When he wakes up, I'm sure he'll clear up everything. Until then, take a vacation, Detective." The speaker turned and walked down the hall, leaving McMasters staring at him in ill-concealed rage. He turned, noticed Micki and Johnny, and stalked off.
"We have to find this guy," Micki repeated. "Before he destroys anyone else." Johnny didn't need to reply.
Johnny stared down at the spot where Jack Marshak had been attacked, trying to fight back his grief and anger. The Death's Door Pub was closed, as its very doorstep was a crime scene. He still found it hard to believe that on that very spot, a dear friend had nearly lost his life... *It's those antiques,* he thought fiercely. *Damn Lewis.*
A cough caused him to spin around violently. "I guess it won't be opening tonight." Randy Collingsworth stood there, his scarf flapping in the cold wind. He nodded towards the door of the pub, cordoned off with bright yellow tape. "A friend of yours?" Johnny could only nod dumbly. "I'm sorry."
"Thanks," he managed to reply. "What're you doing here?"
"Well, I thought I was going to get a drink, but I guess not." Collingsworth looked around. "Guess Old Man Winter musta already left."
Johnny shook his head. "I didn't see him..."
"Weird. He's usually the first one here." He shrugged. "I guess I'll have to come back later. See you. Maybe next time we can get in another game of darts." Collingsworth chuckled. He then turned and disappeared into the gloom without another word. Johnny heaved a sigh and turned back towards the crime scene. The pub's sign groaned as it swayed in the increasing gusts that fanned Johnny's raven-black hair, whipping it about. He turned to leave, and immediately saw the pistol aimed at his forehead.
"Don't move. I don't want to shoot you."
Micki felt the cold glass against her forehead as she watched Jack's horribly still form in the room on the other side. "What were you trying to say, Jack?" she asked, as if expecting an answer. "What the hell did you find?"
He'd found what the antique was. He'd come to the pub to warn them, but nearly found death instead. Whatever he'd used to figure it out wasn't at the store, and wasn't on Jack when he was attacked. Micki pressed her forehead against the window, feeling her long copper-burnished tresses tickle her cheeks. "Jack..."
She had to think. Had to think. She tried to imagine the scene as Johnny described it. Jack, slumped against the door to the pub. Saying that he'd figured out what the antique was. Pointing towards McMasters. Why? Johnny confirmed that they were together when Jack was attacked. *Think, Foster, think!*
"Bet you say that to all your victims," Johnny snorted. "How many people have you killed?"
"I never wanted to!" The voice raised to a shriek. "I swear, I didn't. You think I enjoyed killing people who loved me? But that was the only way that damned thing would work. The more they cared about me, about the pub... That was the only way."
Johnny felt his lip curl to a snarl despite his fear. "You almost killed Jack."
"He surprised me. He knew about what I was doing. I had to do it."
"You keep saying you had to! You never had to! You never had to kill people!"
Jack pointing at McMasters. That was the part that Micki kept coming back to. Why? McMasters couldn't have been the attacker. Could Jack have been delusional because of the blow to the head, like that cop had said? Could the antique have somehow allowed McMasters to make the assault? She remembered the camera, and knew it was possible. But that felt wrong.
Jack pointing at McMasters. Why? There was no reason for him to do so.
Unless he wasn't pointing at McMasters.
"It's cursed..." Jack was trying to tell Johnny something. She pictured the scene again. Think. Jack, leaning against the door. McMasters and Johnny, hovering above him. Think. Imagine Johnny and McMasters aren't there. Jack is pointing. Pointing up. Up at what? Think.
Micki's eyes widened. Something above his head. Above the door. The cursed antique, right there in plain sight the entire time.
The sign. An antique sign. The sign for a pub whose name had been in the Murphy family for over a hundred years.
"Oh, my God..."
"Shut up! Just... shut up!" Johnny saw the gun barrel waver, but his hands were still firmly lashed together behind his back. "You don't know what it's like. I love that place. It's been in my family for four damn generations! It was dying! I was going to be the one who saw the Murphy family's greatest love collapse and die! I couldn't let that happen! I couldn't!" Charlie Murphy was close to tears now. "I just couldn't..."
"Now what? You're going to kill me too? I'm a stranger to you; it won't help with the curse."
Murphy nodded. "I know. But you and your friends are a danger to me. I know that you and Micki know each other. You're going to bring her here." He placed a phone on Johnny's lap. "Call her. Tell her to meet you here. If you don't, I'll kill you, and there'll be no one for her when I kill her later anyway." Johnny glared as Murphy picked up the cradle and put it to his ear. "Tell me what number to dial. Now."
Micki nearly shrieked when her cel phone rang. She immediately pulled it out of her pocket and flipped it open. "Johnny?"
"Yeah, Micki, it's me." His voice sounded scratchy and hoarse, even through the static. "Look, I think I've figured out what Jack was trying to say. Meet me at the pub as soon as you can."
"The pub?" Micki asked, confused. "But Johnny, the pub's where the antique is..."
"Just meet me there, Micki, okay? I gotta go." Click. Dial tone. Micki stared at the phone. Something was nibbling at the back of her mind. Something bad.
"Good," Murphy snorted as he replaced the phone.
"You won't get away with this," Johnny snarled, trying to keep up his bravado. *Please, God, let her have figured it out...*
"I don't have any choice in the matter," Murphy replied flatly. "I have to to survive. That's all there is."
"For a pub?"
"I don't expect you to understand. My father first brought me to the pub when I was four. I can actually remember the warmth, the laughter... It was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen in my life. I remember him telling me that this would be my place soon, someday. I was so excited... I lived my life until he died preparing for my chance to run that place, be the man who smiled and handed out drinks and made people happy. Then, when I finally did..." Murphy shook his head violently. "I did everything wrong. Business was dropping like a rock. I did everything I could, but nothing helped. It was like I was watching my father, my family, die. And I was the killer." He choked back a sob. "Then Mack gave me that sign; he said it was the same sign that hung over the first Death's Door in England. He thought it'd bring me luck." He gulped. "It did, but the price..." Murphy closed his eyes and exhaled sharply. "I had to pay the price. I had to." Johnny wasn't sure which of them he was talking to.
The minutes after that passed by in silence. The pistol never wavered, and the ropes around Johnny's wrists never loosened. Johnny could feel each tick of the seconds in his brain, wondering if the next would bring impatience, a bullet crashing through his head. Then a knock. "Johnny?" Her voice was muffled, but there was no mistaking it. Johnny's heart sank.
"Don't make any sudden moves." With one quick motion, Murphy loosened Johnny's bonds and motioned him to get to his feet. "You're going to let her in. Let's go."
The two made their way through the darkened pub; with each step, he could feel the hard cold muzzle of the pistol against the small of his back. When they got to the front door, Murphy stepped back. "Open it," he commanded. Johnny closed his eyes for a moment, and nodded.
*Please, Micki... Run.* He felt the cold knob under his fingers and began to turn it. Even as his nerves told his hand to make the motion, his brain rebelled. *To hell with him! I can't let Micki die. Let him shoot me; I can't do it!* Too late. The door began to swing open. "Micki!" he screamed. "Run!"
With a sharp crash, the door burst open, knocking Johnny off his feet. Detective Tom McMasters stepped into the room, pistol raised. "Freeze! Police!" Over his momentary surprise at once, Murphy raised his weapon. McMasters immediately answered with two quick shots. Johnny's ears rang with the reports even as Murphy collapsed to the floor.
"Johnny!" Micki rushed into the room, hugging Johnny tight. He returned the embrace, almost afraid to let go.
"You figured it out... Thank God..."
Micki nodded through her tears of relief. "I did... It's over, Johnny..."
"Now Tom's back on duty," Johnny finished. He leaned forward in his chair as Micki fed Jack even more of that chicken soup Jack had grown to so loathe, except now it was hospital chicken soup, even worse. He waved Micki's spoon away impatiently. "They found evidence in Murphy's home that he'd killed Mack Reynolds and Eddie; one part of it was the crowbar he used to hit you, Jack."
Jack shook his head. "I should've expected him to be there. He may've been bold, putting that damned sign out for everyone to see, but he certainly wasn't stupid."
"Well, Murphy died of his wounds a couple of hours ago. The sign's safely in the Vault, so I guess that's the end of Lewis's last entry." Micki smiled. "And your obsession is over."
"Obsession?" Jack bristled.
"Anyway, we'd better get going." Johnny patted Jack on the shoulder as he rose.
Jack straightened. "Go? What happened to getting me out of here?"
Micki shrugged, unable to keep the smile from her face. "Your head may be better, Jack, but you still have that flu. And considering that you ignored my orders and got out of bed, we thought you'd be better off recuperating here, with nurses to keep an eye on you. Just in case there are any complications with your head, of course."
"What?!" Jack roared. "I'll have you know I'm perfectly health... heal..." He had to stop as he erupted in a huge sneeze.
"Bye, Jack," Johnny chuckled.
"Bye!" Micki gave a cheery wave as the two left the hospital room, slipping past a large, burly nurse who carried a tray.
"Dinner time, Mr. Marshak!" she called out as she placed it in front of Jack. With an almost comedic flourish, she whipped off the cover to reveal jello and another bowl of chicken soup. "And we're going to stay right here until you eat it up!"
Jack groaned. "I'll get you two for this..."
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This page was created on February 10, 2000.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.