Prologue: Flashes of the Past
It was difficult to focus on anything in my state, however. Everything felt off-kilter, as though the world had turned upside down and then spun backwards. This still felt like some sort of lucid dream, bright lights blinding me as I tried to reorient myself. My memories were as much of a jumbled mess as everything else. For whatever reason, I was now remembering a time when I was ten years old, lying in a hospital bed after attempting, and failing, to climb a tree in the woods near my childhood hometown, Willow Falls, California. I could practically hear the concerned cries of my mother as I was rushed to the examination room, could almost see the stoic, stetson-adorned silhouette of my father in the background. For a moment I wondered if I hadn't simply dreamed the rest of my life since then. If I would not wake up and discover that it had all been some terrifying dream. If only it could have been that simple...
My fantasy was interrupted by the sound of a door opening somewhere...I felt rather than heard someone approaching me. I clearly was not alone in this room. With effort, I blinked my eyes open again, and this time, I was able to see a bit more clearly. The figure in front of me solidified into the shape of a woman in a white gown, with shadows falling in place behind her. Couldn't have been an angel, could it? I should be so lucky, I thought to myself sardonically. But no, I realized as my vision finally began to clear up, and my surroundings became clear. The mystery dame appeared to be nurse, apparently come to check on me. So at least one part of my dream was real. I was in a hospital, and as the feeling of pain sharpened again when I tried to lift myself up, I was beginning to remember...I’d suffered an injury all right, one far worse than that of my younger self. The nurses eyes widened when she realized that I was awake and alert.
"Mr. Archer! Please try not to move too much, it'll only aggravate your wound. Oh, I must go tell your visitors, They'll be so glad to know-"
Before I was able to get a word in, she had run out the door, presumably to speak to whoever had accompanied me here. There were a couple of suspects, but it didn’t take long for the suspense to be cleared up. For only a few moments later, she returned with a worried look and a stoic police detective on her heels. He’s not the one I’d been hoping to see first, I thought to myself. The tug in my gut told me that I'd met him before, but everything felt terribly woozy in the moment, as though I was still caught between a dream and reality. It must have been the medication, I figured. Even so. I didn’t want to present myself to him in this drug-addled, semi-conscious state, so I forced my static limbs to move, to wake up.
I tried to position myself more comfortably in spite of the nurse's warning against it. The excruciating pain, as though every inch of my chest had been set on fire. shot through me as soon as I attempted this, and a grunt escaped my lips as I clutched at the heavily bandaged area of my body. The pain was far worse than I could have imagined, I could feel my mind struggling to retain consciousness, my eyes blurring as they tried to squeeze shut instinctively in response to the agony wrought by the bullet. A bullet...I’d been shot, that was it. I could have sworn it was all over when I first felt it pierce my skin, when my world turned to black, yet somehow, here I was. I was alive, but for how much longer? How much longer until my luck ran out?
"Mr. Archer, this is detective Thompson, he'd like to have a few words with you."
I nodded slowly. "We've met before."
The nurse gave me a concerned glance. "Are you all right, do you need anything more?"
"That's all right. You've done plenty. How are the others doing? Are they...holding up?"
"They'll be delighted to hear that you've pulled through, Mr. Archer. I'll let them know at once."
"Thanks," I said, though it came out in more of a mumble, being that each breath I took made my chest feel as though it were about it explode.
The nurse left us, and now it was just me and detective Thompson again. We'd been in rooms alone before, quite a few times, this was nothing new. I’d never been sure what to make of the detective, was he on my side, as he claimed, or a puppet of the corrupt LAPD? There were times when I’d wanted to trust him, and others when I felt he was the last man I wanted to see. Perhaps then, after all that had happened, it was fitting that this was how it should end.
Thompson took off his hat and examined the room with the hawk-like focus I'd come to expect from him. He cut a tall figure, with rigid features, like a statue brought to life, a hardened face and a perfect crew cut that betrayed his time as a Brigadier General during the War. In some ways, for better or worse, it seemed he’d never stopped being a soldier. He'd always been a tough customer, whether he was on my side or not, and details rarely slipped past him. On that count at least, I was able to give Thompson my respect, even as I'd come to resent the man for his dogmatic approach to the investigation that had landed me in this hospital bed.
Finally satisfied that we were alone, Thompson pulled a chair over so as to be by to my bedside and sat himself down. He appeared as grim as ever, as if he’d been dreading this conversation as much as I had. I would say that the feeling was mutual, but a part of me now almost welcomed it, and that terrified me. There was an old saying I recalled; that one is never truly at peace until right before he dies. If that was the case, then my time couldn’t be far off. It was either going to be here, or in the Chair, once Thompson found out what I had done. There was no escape this time.
"You look like you've seen better days," Thompson quipped, a faint smile almost, but not quite creeping onto his face.
"I could say the same for you," I replied, content to play along for as long as he wanted to.
The look in his eyes said it all, however. We couldn’t dance around the white elephant in the room forever. So this was it. The end of the line. The time to reckon with my actions. Some men might have felt remorse for what they had done, and begged for mercy. Others might have gone to the grave defiant, insisting their way had been the one true path. I fell somewhere in between these. My choice was not one made in malice, only that of a desperate man seeking personal justice and peace. If in the process of trying to right a wrong, I had wrought worse wrongs still, then I could accept my punishment. But was I sorry for what I had done? Would I have done it again? Would it have been better to let those murderers live? No...that’s where I drew the line.
Thompson sighed. "You've taken me on one hell of a ride, Nick."
I couldn’t help but offer up a thin smile, a mirthless grin, one filled with wishful thinking, and, in spite of my conviction to to exact revenge on Meza, a twinge of regret for the path not taken. Even now I couldn’t help but wonder, what could have been? What if I'd listened to Moira when we were in Mexico, away from Meza’s sight, away from his clutches? If I could have set aside that burning need within me, if I could have let go...we could've been far away from here by now. Free from Meza, free from the cops, free from everybody. As ever, it’s man's pride that causes his fall. It's been that way since the beginning of time itself, and I was a fool to think I'd be the exception.
"Took you long enough to track me down," I shot back wearily. Bantering with the detective seemed to be the only thing keeping me from a total emotional and physical breakdown. Thompson, however, didn’t take the bait.
"You know, none of this had to happen," he went on balefully. "If you would have just waited as I told you-"
“You and I both know that the DA wouldn't have filed a charge after the way they closed that investigation.” For a moment, I felt my old conviction come roaring back. I felt the adrenaline pumping through my veins, only for it to subside just as quickly. I slumped back and laughed weakly. “They've always been afraid to get their hands dirty, haven’t they?"
Thompson didn’t answer, but he had a troubled look on his face. Moments later, he was lighting up a cigarette. He wasn’t supposed to do that here, of course, but we both knew we wouldn’t be disturbed. He offered me a light, which I accepted gratefully. Yet that spark which had briefly reignited would not be put out without a fight. That part of me which had sworn to pursue Meza until my dying breath, and which was totally convinced of the rightness of my decision. I spoke before I could restrain myself.
"You want the lowdown? I did what I had to do. I swore to God, to myself, to James and Katie..." I pounded my fist into the dingy hospital mattress as I fought back tears from springing to my eyes, "I swore that I wouldn't stop until that bastard got what was coming to him."
Thompson put his firm hand over my arm, stopping me from moving any further. "Easy now, Nick, you're still hurt. You're no good to me dead. I'm sure your friends would say the same."
I shrugged him off. It didn’t matter anymore, didn’t he see? I could feel my life slipping alway...whichever path I took, the end was near, and soon the choice might be taken from me anyhow. The pain I carried was deeper than a physical wound. It was a burden that could never be lifted, that only death itself could relieve. The burden was the fact that I had been told what was going to happen, and still could not prevent it. It was the guilt that shadowed me every day, the voice in my head that told me that I had failed my friends when they needed me most. It was that same voice that told me that I could atone for my failure by finding the killer and ridding the earth of him. I had done things to relieve that crushing burden...things that I would have found unspeakable had become necessary, things that I had not known myself to be capable of became terrifyingly simple. I didn’t expect the detective to understand my reasons, the turmoil going on in my head, when I could hardly make sense of it myself. It would be far simpler to give me the chair and have it over with. Simpler for him, simpler for me. He plucked the cigarette from his lips and exhaled deeply.
"Listen, I don’t think you ended up on that boat on accident. And the other incidents that have been reported...Mercutio’s, the docks, Bormann, Holt...it’s all too suspicious to write off. What really happened, Nick?"
I hesitated instinctively. I trusted the cops once, and they didn't do anything for me. I didn’t owe Meza or his boys anything, but that didn’t mean I felt any warm fuzzies for the DA's side either. Not after the way they’d written off this case. They had a damn good idea of who did the job, they just didn't want to ruffle any feathers, and look where that got us. Thompson briefly noted my lack of a response and went on.
"I want to help you, son. I really do. But I can't do it alone. I need you to trust me. Whatever happened on that boat, whatever happened after we last spoke...it could all be water under the bridge as far as I’m concerned. It may be nothing at all. But whatever it was, I need to know."
"I...I needed the department when James and Katie were murdered...they could’ve tagged Meza if they’d wanted to, if they’d just dug a bit deeper. You knew that too, didn’t you?"
Detective Thompson shook his head. "We did the best we could. I’ve never been under the illusion that the department is clean, we’ve been fighting corruption for as long as I’ve been here, and before that. But you should know that I pursued every lead, chased down every possible informant. And we got him, Nick. We found someone willing to flip on Meza. But by that time, I hadn’t heard from you in weeks. I didn’t know what to think, where you’d gone, what you’d done..."
I felt my eyes closing again, fighting to remain conscious. I imagined what it would be like to let go. I didn’t have to tell Thompson anything, not after the way he’d dismissed my concerns time and time again. I could simply submit to the darkness, accept my fate silently. Defiantly. Convince him that I had died totally secure in my self-righteousness. But that lie...it was yet another burden I carried, and I could carry it no more.
"All right, Thompson...I’ll give it to you straight. Beginning to end. You’re not going to believe half of what I say, and the other half is going to make you want to put me on death row, but I want you to promise you won’t interrupt me until I’m through."
And as the memories come flooding back to me, vividly as though it had all happened yesterday, I found myself chuckling softly.
Thompson looked mildly confused. "What is it?"
I felt unexpectedly light. It had been so long since I’d been truly unburdened, since I’d had nothing to hide. For the first time since detective Thompson walked in, I found that I was at peace with whatever came next. My fate was out of my own hands, my purpose was gone, my resolve drained, the path that led me here was all I had left.
"You were right about one thing. It was one hell of a ride."