I hate whiskey. I hate the way it burns going down, I hate the way the buzz creeps up on you if you're not careful. I'm a beer man, myself; never needed anything stronger than that most of the time. Not until now.
I am mourning the death of one of my closest friends.
The apartment is tiny and black, the lights off because I don't want either Jack or Micki coming by to check up on me. The phone is unplugged and lying in a corner, unmoved from where I threw it a week ago, and the door is locked as well (but there's a sturdy chair bracing it, just in case). I don't want to be disturbed right now, I don't think I could handle dealing with the outside world. The streetlight outside filters in through the shades, throwing barlike shadows across the room. It looks like a prison, and in many ways it is: but a prison without any bars or guards or walls, a prison that doesn't need any because it's inside my own mind.
I left Curious Goods ten days ago, the night I learned the truth about the curse. I left Micki there alone with him, knowing what he had done. I just remember shouting at him and then storming out the front door... and then I hardly remember anything. I've been drunk for the better part of the week, hiding from daylight in my apartment and only going out for more booze, but nothing seems to take the edge off. The knowledge is always there, gnawing at the back of my skull with tiny, sharp teeth that never cease, terrifying me, threatening to drive me insane.
Even more terrifying is the realization that I might welcome insanity.
I take another swig and set the bottle on the carpet beside me, then I reach out for a darker object in the blackness, a heavy chunk of metal that belonged to my father for many years before it took his life. I managed to get an old friend of the family to sign it out of the evidence room for me last week, and I've had it nearby ever since. The smell of metal mingles with gun oil as I swing open the cylinder and slide a single brass cartridge into a chamber. Then, my eyes tightly closed, I spin the cylinder and slam it closed, holding the grip loosely in my hand. In the darkness I can't tell which chamber is loaded.
That makes the game fair, you see.
I speak, my voice gravelly from the alcohol and cigarettes I've been consuming since this most recent nightmare began. "Why'd you do it, Jack? Huh? Why the hell did you make a deal with the devil? Why did you have to break it? We're supposed to live with the consequences of our actions; aren't we supposed to die with them as well?"
The darkness answers only with silence, so I continue. "It's not fair, Jack. It's not fair that it happened this way, that you got another chance while good people died." I raise the pistol to my chin and yank the trigger before I can think about it, flinching as the hammer lands on an empty chamber. "It's not fair that we got dragged into this, you son-of-a-bitch!" I shout, crawling to my feet and staggering toward the desk, the gun held in front of me as if to ward off some evil spirit. I stagger across the room and barely manage to reach the desk, where the irregular shape sits in the blackness as if just waiting for me to pick it up, taunting me with its very presence.
I raise the gun and point it at the shape, knowing that even if the bullet fires this time it will do no good. "Why the hell did you do it, Mikey? Why the hell did you use it?" I slowly slide to the floor, my knees gone to rubber as the grief washes over me.
And then the memories come, sharp and strong despite the alcohol and exhaustion.
It was six days ago, and I was at Riley's, a local pub that my father went to for years before he quit drinking. I remember going inside and seeing a basebell game on the big screen TV over in one corner; the Cubs were playing the Padres for a shot at the pennant, and every die-hard baseball fan in Chicago knew that this was gonna be the year. I wasn't feeling too great; the revelations that Jack had told Micki and me were still fresh in my mind, but the anger had faded a little and some reason had crept into my thinking. I sat at the bar and had a beer, and after a while one of my best friends came up to me and clamped a hand on my shoulder.
I'd known Mikey Connant for almost as long as I can remember; we went to school together, worked at the same garage for a while after graduation until I got a better offer. We still kept in touch, and on that night I needed someone to talk to. "Heyyyy, Ventura!" he cried as I turned around. "Man, you look like shit, you know that?"
"Really? I look that good?" I found myself grinning back at him as he sat down next to me and ordered a boilermaker. "Rough day?" I asked, gesturing at the drink the bartender was pouring.
"Nah, just getting ready to celebrate. I've got a good feeling about this game." The drink arrived in front of him and Mikey took a long pull on it. "Hits the spot."
"You're dreaming. Cubbies are gonna blow it again."
"Oh ye of little faith, Johnny. Everybody deserves a chance, and this year the hometown boys are gonna show the world what they can do. Especially Morgan." He took another swallow as I laughed.
"Morgan? Tyler Morgan, the only man in baseball to wash out of six teams and still have a career? I was wrong - you're not dreaming, you're crazy."
We talked for a while after that, and the conversation was gradually pushed to the back of my mind by the game itself. The Cubs played like gods that night; only ten hits allowed in seven innings, and Tyler Morgan saved the team from getting buried by a grand slam. Then came the top of the eighth, and when the Cubs took the field it was like a whole new team - there were two errors in as many plays, and Morgan dropped an easy fly ball that came right to him. "Had to end sometime," I muttered into my beer, expecting a quick response from Mikey. When it didn't come, I looked up to see him staring at the TV, his face almost white. "Mikey? You okay?"
"Yeah... oh, yeah. Just not feelin' too great. Musta been the free weiners they got set out. Look, I gotta make a phone call. be right back, okay?"
"Sure." And Mikey walked out of the bar through the smoke and laughter. I don't know what made me follow him; maybe it was concern for my friend, maybe it was a need to get my secrets off of my chest... or maybe it was just that I knew something was wrong. I watched as he went up to a hooker and smiled, handed her a few bills and strolled off. I followed them for two blocks and into a dark alley, making sure to keep myself pressed against the wall in the shadows (a year and a half of snooping around with Jack and Micki left its mark). And I saw him raise the pipe wrench he had been hiding under his jacket, ready to smash the life from her with one blow.
And then I was running, a shout tearing from my throat before my mind could register the motion. Mikey looked up at me in alarm as I charged him, and the hooker took one look back before tearing down the alley to safety. I slammed into him with my shoulder and we both went sprawling to the asphalt, the wrench making a heavy thunk as it landed a few feet away. I got to my knees and dragged Mikey to his feet as he tried to throw a punch at me. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" I shouted.
"I have to, Johnny. They won't win without my help," was all he said, and in that instant I knew what was going on. I'd seen it too many times before; people who get caught up in the effects of cursed antiques, unable to break the cycle of death and pain they've created. "No..." I whispered, relaxing my grip for an instant.
That was all the time he needed to break free and throw a punch, a solid hit to my jaw that sent me back down to the pavement. In the few seconds that I was dazed, Mikey retrieved the wrench and came toward me, raising it over his head like a sacrificial dagger. "It's nothin' personal, Johnny. Sometimes you gotta take one for the team -
He looked down at the hole in his chest and the pipe wrench slipped from his grasp, a look of wonder spreading over his face. "You shot me, Johnny," was all he said before he fell backwards, his last breath escaping with a gurgle. I could hear the hooker screaming at the far end of the alley, could hear the approaching sirens, and I knew I had to work fast. I found the baseball glove in one of the big pockets on his trenchcoat, battered and worn and indestructible, and I tucked it inside my own jacket just as the cops started up the alley toward us.
With my own connections at the prescinct and the hooker's statement, the detectives didn't give me too much hassle about the shooting. It turns out that there had been seven other deaths over the past two months that fit the pattern, and tests of the wrench will probably prove that Mikey was the killer in those cases too. One of the detectives said that it was ironic that a cop's gun had saved someone's life, even though the cop himself had died by the same weapon. Poetic justice.
And now I sit here in darkness, surrounded by liquor and fear and the fact that I murdered one of my best friends because it was him or me. "God damn it, why did it have to be Mikey? Of all the people who would do something so thoughtless, why was it him? Why was he tempted?" No answers come.
I raise the gun again, but not to pull the trigger. I carefully remove the shell and set the weapon down on the desk and then switch on the lamp, squinting as the light reaches my eyes. The glove is still there, but I'm not looking at it; I'm looking at the telephone lying in the far corner of the room. "All right, fine," I mutter to nobody in particular. "We'll play it your way."
The voice is dull with sleep and worry on the other end. "Hello?"
"Micki? It's Johnny."
Immediately her tone changes to one of concern. "Are you all right? We've been trying to get in touch with you for a week, but there was never any answer on your phone and your lights were off -"
"Micki, we need to talk. All of us, right now." It's almost one in the morning, but this has to be done now. I don't want to lose my nerve.
"Okay. I'll wake up Jack and we'll be waiting for you." I quickly make another call and move the chair from the door, eventually ending up outside in the cold October air. After a short taxi ride, I'm standing in front of Curious Goods again... but I'm suddenly afraid to go inside, more so than I have ever been before.
The door opens and Micki is standing there, bundled up in a terrycloth robe with her hair wrapped in a towel. "Hello," she says, opening the door a little wider.
"Hi, Micki. How've you been?" I ask guardedly, unsure of what else to say.
"All right, I guess. Come on inside."
I step into the store and am greeted by the scent of pine cleaner and Earl Grey tea; they must have tried to keep busy since the last time I was here. I am a few steps behind Micki, walking softly toward the desk where I see Jack seated, absently stirring a cup of tea. For a long moment none of us say anything; it's like we're all strangers again, separated by thousands of miles from the friendship we once had. "Hello, Jack," I say.
"Hello, Johnny." His voice, so deep and forceful in my memories, is now a shadow of what it used to be. It's the voice of a broken man... and I am sorry. I'm sorry because, despite all that we've learned about each other, all the mistakes we've made and the words we've spoken in anger, I want them both to be my friends again.
But I don't know if that can happen now.
I pull out the baseball glove and lay it on the desk. "We'd better put this in the Vault." Jack looks up at me but asks no questions; he just turns the glove over in his hands for a few moments. "I don't want either of you to misunderstand me. It still hurts, knowing what happened to start all of this, Jack. I'm not sure if I can trust you completely. But we've always said that we're in this together... and I want to believe that. You don't know how badly I want to believe it. We have to finish this, one way or another. All of us."
I extend my hand and, after a moment's hesitation, he shakes it. "Agreed, Johnny."
Micki takes our hands in both of hers and says, "Agreed."
And, for that moment, that friendship we shared returns.
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This page was created on May 20, 2000.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.