1956: An Interlude VII
The inimical click of a cocking gun. It dug into his muscles, awoke the razor-edged nerves on which he’d so often depended. He drove forward, toward Larry the Ape, just as the silenced gun’s report whistled through the warm air in Verina’s kitchen. The chalky sound of tile shattering. Evan did not hear it. His vision was Larry, his breath was Larry, and as he shoved the ape against the back door, cramming his own revolver deep under the shelf of the man’s jaw, his hate was bent on Larry. He pulled the trigger, and the bullet exploded through the upper portion of Larry’s big skull, spattering the white wall and curtains with red and small chunks of gray. Larry’s eyes rolled and he fell to the side like a large slab of beef dropped from its meat hook, dragging a red smear behind him.
Evan did not wait. He spun, feinting right then dashing left for his gun, just as Sal fired another shot through the door. The kitchen stank of gunpowder, smoke swirling up to hang heavy in the air. Evan fired his gun, clipping Sal in the shoulder, and then shoved the man back just as he had the unfortunate Larry. Sal reeled, caught his balance, stepped on a throw rug, and spilled backward. Now Evan was on him, pinning the man’s arms down with his knees.
“Wait!” Sal cried. “Ev, Ev, listen to me!”
Evan bared his teeth. “You made me!” he growled. “You made me do it! You lied!”
“You don’t understand!” Sal shouted back.
Evan brought the revolver down onto Sal’s upturned face once—twice—and again, like a hammer, like a mad blacksmith. He pounded Sal’s face until the nose was a raw red sponge, the teeth broken and poking through the shredded lips.
Evan screamed while he worked, though he didn’t realize it, and when he finally stopped, his right hand sticky and dripping, he gazed down at the ruined face of Salvatore Puchini and said, “I’m going to burn you alive, Sal. You’re gonna cook. Then—then I’ll cut out your stinking heart.”
Sal, gasping and hawking up teeth and blood, chuckled. “You always were the best, Ev,” he gurgled. “Always the craziest. That’s why—I hired you.”
“Laugh,” Evan said evenly. “Laugh all you want. It’ll make it easier.” He rose, aimed at Sal’s legs, and shot a bullet into both kneecaps, shattering the protective plates of bone, and Sal’s laughter rose to shrieks, horrible, eye-watering shrieks that threatened to burst Evan’s eardrums. And so Evan dealt several kicks to the supine man’s face, quieting him.
How could a human make such a noise? What did it matter? Evan tucked his pistol into his waistband, turned to Verina’s crumpled body, knelt, and cradled her head. The glass eye shimmered, seeming almost alive. Without knowing why, Evan grasped it, ever so gently, pulled it out, and placed it in his breast pocket. It felt warm against his skin.
He was weeping. Rocking back and forth in a room that stank of gun smoke and blood with the body of a woman he’d loved, loved more completely than he thought possible. And so he wept. He wept for a long while.
When he’d regained control of himself, he turned back to Sal who had awakened to an unintelligible consciousness. He nudged one of Sal’s shattered knees, and that brought the man around. Sal met Evan’s gaze with a bald kind of defiance.
“Killers don’t play with their food,” Sal said. “You’ve won. Now finish up.”
Evan kneeled, leaning close enough so he could smell the sour ghost of wine on Sal’s breath. “Why?” he asked, and pointed the gun at Sal’s crotch. “You tell me, or your dying’ll be slow. I can make it take hours. Days, if I find a place to stash you.”
Sal’s torn and swollen lips worked, producing a sound like ground beef mashed together. “She was dangerous,” Sal said, licking his lips compulsively. “There are—things you don’t know, Ev. Old things. Things that’ve faded but still exist. Verina knew those things. She should never have meddled with them.”
“Bullshit,” Evan spat.
Sal reached up and gripped the collar of Evan’s bloody shirt. “It’s magic, Ev. Real magic. She had not right. It’s dangerous. I tried to tell her. Tried to help. But she wouldn’t let me. She wouldn’t—”
Evan brushed Sal’s hand away. “You were jealous,” he said, his eyes narrowing, head tilting, tone epiphanic. “That’s what this was all about. You wanted what she had. But she wouldn’t give it to you.”
“It wasn’t right!” Sal bellowed, and blood dribbled from his mouth and pattered the floor.
Evan pointed to where Verina’s body lay still, the skin he’d often traced with his fingers already gone a lifeless gray. “And will she share those secrets now?” he said. “Will she pass them on? You’ve taken her from the world.”
Sal leaned back, grinning. “You did it, kid. Not me.”
Evan closed his eyes, took several deep, slow breaths, recalling the look on Verina’s face as he’d squeezed her throat, the way she’d caressed his cheek. He shuddered. He did not notice Sal toying with the ring on his left hand. “What I saw—” he began, still not opening his eyes. “Was Verina really—Did she lie to me?”
When Evan opened his eyes Sal wasn’t looking at him. He was twisting the ring on his left hand, the ruby catching the light in seeming haphazard patterns, muttering words Evan could not understand. They circled his ears, made them ring, brought salt to his eyes.
Sal’s eyes shot open, but they were no longer the hard blue eyes Evan knew; they were small ovals of jet, shining with some kind of lunatic humor. Evan could see himself reflected in those eyes, could see the blood on his shirt, could see the haggard face. And now that face appeared to shrivel, to mummify, and he cried out, looking away.
Sal cackled, and his voice was many, and he reached for Evan, gripping the breast pocket of his shirt. “Your death rides with you,” Sal said and grinned. “Thine death riden wither!”
With that Sal lay back, and he died.
Evan stood, swayed, regained himself. He felt very cold. The place where Sal had touched him radiated with that cold, supplanting the warmth Verina’s eye had lent.
His grief was titanic, and when his instincts nudged it aside, the instincts of the professional, he allowed them, took it as a mercy. It took him ten minutes to load Sal Puccini and Larry the Ape into his car, another twenty to wipe down the kitchen with bleach. After that, he stood staring at Verina’s cold body. “Can’t leave her like this,” he said. And so he picked her up, cradling her with a sort of reverence, and laid her down in the garden. He had no spade, and so he dug into the earth with his hands. The grave would be shallow, but at least she would be buried in the place she loved most.
When he was finished he stood over the mound, wiping at his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Verina,” he whispered. And as he left he knocked over one of the candles burning in the living room. May the flames purge the sins that had been committed here.
Somewhere along Leeds Road he found a disused trail and drove along it, deep into a copse of pine. Here he dumped Larry, leaving him for the wildlife. A mile further along the trail the ground grew too soft to drive, and so Evan took Sal up on his shoulder and dropped him in a bed of leaves and twigs. He removed the spare gas can from the Chevy’s trunk, upended the contents onto Sals’ dead, upturned face, and set him alight. He watched Sal burn, and even as the flames bit into the man’s face, curling the flesh, flaying it away, Evan thought Sal was smiling.
Not Sal, he thought. Merlin.
Glancing into his rearview mirror on his way back to the main road, he saw that the tree line was glowing a dull orange, and a pillar of smoke was rising up into the bruised night sky.
Evan drove on. And when he would arrive home his family would be asleep, and he would look in on his daughters, Tilly and Ally, and he would kiss them, but not before scrubbing the blood and dirt from his soured hands. And then—then he would take a trip to the cellar. Because Verina’s eye was still in his breast pocket, though he didn’t realize it just now. For the moment it was a forgotten token, an empty vessel.
But it wasn’t empty. Sal Puchini, with his last few words, had seen to that.
And so Evan Harmont was unaware that he carried with him a passenger.
And that passenger was quaking with fury. But it would be patient. Yes, it would be very patient, indeed.