“Get ready?” One of them stepped into the Baron’s path. “Sir, who are you?”
The Baron grabbed his wallet and pulled out his driver’s license. “Ray Dufraine.”
The cop took it and held it out to his companion. “This is a Massachusetts license.”
“You’re damn right it is. When the Smith Act trials got rolling, I skipped town.”
“Why’d you come back?” the other cop asked.
“I didn’t. Some asshole in Barilla’s crew ratted me out to Malik.”
“Jesus Christ, really? We killed him on Sunday.” He took back his license with a little more force than needed. He antagonized them so they’d know that he had no reason to fear antagonizing them. “Can we get moving?” No waiting for an answer. He pushed past them and beelined for the double doors at the end of the hall. “The Baron is coming. I want to jump him.”
“The Baron will be here?”
“If I’m here, he will be. Just hold your horses, I need to tell the rest.” The Baron clenched the cigar between his teeth and pushed open the doors. There was an auditorium spread out before him, black velvet walls, black carpet floor, and bright stage lights. It was filled with chairs, a 19th century theater with a boarded over orchestra pit. A bored audience stirred to meet him.
The Baron understood the precarious balance of the situation. Push too hard, and people would stop him to examine why he was so anxious. Wait too long, let the momentum flag, and people would find the time to test their suspicions. As it was, someone in the room probably recognized him as the Baron d’Holbach, but there was a confusing detail—the NYPD officers, both CPUSA, were following him as if he belonged. Their presence muddied his identity.
“CPUSA soldiers, New York vassals.” The Baron swung the smoking cigar around to emphasize his words. “I’m Ray Dufraine. I need your help.”
“Who the fuck are you?” someone shouted from the back.
The Baron relit the tip of his cigar, then lobbed the lighter into the audience. “Catch!”
Someone caught it and passed it towards the back of the auditorium.
“Look at the engraving. I’m an officer in the Boston junta, operating under the authority of General Osman. Before that, I beat Pinkertons for cash and signed up with the Commies because I was poor, young and stupid. That’s come back to bite me in the ass. Now give me back my goddamn lighter.” It was passed back down to the front row and lobbed up. The Baron caught it and took center stage. “Before I dodged here, I was up on the Queensboro Bridge. You assholes heard the shooting?” There were murmurs of assent and several clear ayes.
The cops assumed a subordinate position behind the Baron. It strengthened his image, but it meant that his back was turned to two potential enemies.
“It’s a bloodbath up there. I was caught out in a car with a couple of others I met on Sunday, back in Red Hook.” He took a draw on his cigar. “The National Guard found the Atheist and the Zombie trying to cross the strait. Secular dipshits opened fire on those freaks too early. I tried to pick the Atheist off in the chaos, but got shot up for my trouble, so I healed up and dodged here. I’m looking to get the jump on him, but we don’t have much time.”
“Time for what?”
“There were hundreds of soldiers on that bridge. I figure sooner or later, the Atheist is going to dodge here, and I’m going to kill him. We just got to catch him outside the temple.”
“Kill him why?” someone in the audience shouted.
“For fucking with the crazy ass Russian instead of surrendering, you piece of shit. Are you even CPUSA? Or are you just a New York vassal hiding out while Langley shits GIs all over your streets?” The Baron shielded his eyes, as if searching for his interlocutor. He dropped his hand and waved any responses away. “Forget it. I’m not looking to break this down, and I’m not looking to win this bullshit for the Russian. I just want my revenge. If you’ve got a reason to see Baron d’Holbach dead, then let’s go. We’ll set up in the streets, just bring what you’ve got.”
Time was lost.
Then in the beginning, there was light. The Baron opened his eyes to see a brief burst of flame. The end of the cigar burned to ash all at once, and the hot peppery tobacco smoke filled his nostrils. He peeled his back off the carpet and sat up, body well-rested, mind exhausted, and patted his jacket pocket. The lighter and guillotine cutter were still there. He pulled out the cutter and snipped the end, then took a long draw. The smoke rolled around in his mouth. The cigar had dried out a bit, but the burn was perfect. He blew a ring and pinched the cloth of his stiff dress shirt. The sanctuary door cracked open on its own, letting in a soft pale light.
He was swamped in dry, clotted blood. No wonder he’d peeled off the carpet. There was a dry lakebed surrounding him, a sure sign of death. The cat in his belly was cool. There were no lashes of fire holding him together. There was a knot of scar tissue on the left side of his chest. His aorta must’ve been lightly ruptured when he was shot. All the bullet wounds were closed up and stiff, no longer aching but certainly uncomfortable. His conditional agelessness would restore him fully in time, but the cat had rushed the primitive repairs he suffered today.
He drew again on his cigar. There was a lesson here. He needed to be prepared with prestige for medical emergencies in the future. If there was ever another scenario as dangerous as this, he wanted to survive, and few people had the opportunity to learn from their near demise. The cat had given him a chance to gauge the the danger of modern urban combat. The Baron wouldn’t pretend that everything would be alright in a scrap, not after this. People really were willing to risk the Zombie’s pact in order to kill him. That recklessness implied things about human nature—and about the future of the Cold War—that sent chills down the Baron’s spine.
For now, he’d have to make do with the cat’s multiple lives, keep his wits about him, and find out where he’d teleported in the city. He got to his feet. The blood would be a problem, and he couldn’t afford to wish it away—cleanups were surprisingly expensive, and he could only afford a maximum of one month of debt. At least the room he was in would never be found again. It was impossible to tell whether the gods generated the sanctuaries for each individual debtor or cleaned the rooms after each use. Marks in a sanctuary disappeared when the door closed.
He put the guillotine cutter away and pulled out the lighter to keep the cigar burning. He felt letters under his fingers. He looked by the light and saw it was engraved, “Improved Order of Red Men,” and marked with the simple image of a man in Delaware tribe headdress. This would be useful. The Red Men were the original mixed colonial and Native American cult that founded the first of the secular Tammany societies. Not that the Tammany Hall of today knew the customs and rituals that defined the worship of the old American cults, but engraved lighters like these were clearly the decoration of Tammany nobility, gaudy baubles of “rich heritage.”
The Baron stepped out into the hall. The sanctuary door closed itself behind him. There were two police officers standing around in the hall, waiting for people to leave the sanctuaries. He doubted they were here on secular business. They noticed him, his blood, and one of them said, “Oy, what’s this mess about, sir?”
The Baron sucked on his cigar. “Thank the fucking gods.” The forced relief bought him a second to think. They might be affiliated with New York. They might not. “Have you been looking for the Baron d’Holbach today?” he asked angrily.
“Fuck those Russian bastards.” The words came out with puffs of smoke. He glanced down at his shirt. “It’s a goddamn bloodbath out there. I just came from the bridge.”
The cops glanced at each other. The other squinted at the Baron and asked, “Why did traffic administration order the workers to salt the roads?”
Traffic administration? That was lazy security on the part of Malik. These must be CPUSA insurgents, probably dodged to this location. “Fuck this code crap,” the Baron grumbled, “I’m not working for Malik anymore. This is about revenge, you understand me?”
“The fucking Russian can’t keep his trap shut. His real name is getting around.”
“Jesus,” the other cop said.
“Yeah, Jesus—” The Baron scoffed. “What the fuck is this?”
“What is what, sir?”
“Why are you here when the Baron is out there?”
“We were running from the spooks and had to dodge here. The CIA’s got a list of our names somehow. They must’ve stolen ‘em from the Soviets.”
“Right, but what are you doing in this borough?”
“Administration had some of us in Queens, in case the Baron snuck over the East River.”
The Baron was relieved. He’d dodged to a temple in Queens, probably the largest one in this slice of town. He glanced down at his bloody clothes, taking the initiative before the cops could bring it up again. “I had to spend all the prestige I’d saved on these goddamn wounds.” He shook his head sadly and looked them in the eyes. “How can a man afford the afterlife like this?”
The cops were confused. “Didn’t they give it to you during your induction?”
The Baron covered for his surprise by rolling his eyes. That explained why the CPUSA members were so ready to die. Every last one of them had a ticket punched for eternity. “For fuck’s sake, not myself. I have a new wife—you know what, nevermind. We need to get ready.”
Phyllis stepped over the railing, spread her arms out slightly, and walked the trusses quickly. The steel beams crossed the bridge’s structure in a broad X, creating a node about fifteen feet over the suspended stairs. If she hung from there, she could drop down maybe nine or ten feet and land on metal steps. He crouched down, almost dizzy watching her. She reached the node, squatted, grabbed the edges of the beams, and lowered her body down. Here, she hesitated, looking repeatedly to make sure the stairs were underfoot. Then she dropped, slammed into the metal with a bang, and fell forward onto her hands and knees.
“Phyllis,” the Baron hissed.
She was shaking slightly, but she pushed up onto her feet and grabbed the railings. “Come on,” she said, “Come on!”
He put his right foot over the railing. The truss seemed to wobble, but that was just the wavering strength of the leg beneath his wounds. He willed the cat’s fire to hold him steady. He put his left foot over the railing. He didn’t extend his arms to prevent himself from falling. That was the path to panic. He was not falling. He insisted it was true.
The truss was nine inches wide. If he could’ve wished his fears away, he could’ve run on it. Instead, he mechanically arranged one foot in front of the other. Round, button-shaped bolts were smooth underfoot. He ignored the irrational fear that they’d foul his footing. They’d only foul if he overreacted. If his leg jerked away. If he reacted.
One foot. Then another.
One foot after another.
Phyllis was saying over the wind, “You’re halfway there.”
He could see the node approaching.
“You’re almost there.” She didn’t tell him to hurry. He was hurrying.
Ten steps distant. He wished he could go faster. Nine. Eight.
“Baron!” Phyllis shouted.
He froze and looked up. At the far cusp of the cantilever, the assaulting party reached the top of their hill and found their target, some hundred yards away but vulnerable. Their binoculars were in hand. Springfields with scopes were being lifted.
The Baron waved at them, both arms, hands raised. “Don’t shoot!”
There were several sharp barks of rifle fire, and the Baron jerked violently. The world reeled, his arms spiraled. Pain lanced through his chest and back, entry wound beside his heart, exit wound just beneath his shoulder blade. The Earth turned to spin out from under him, but he dropped down towards the beam, grabbed onto it with his hands, even as his entire left lung collapsed and the cat forced it full again, a now familiar repair.
The Zombie threw the corpse of his victim off the bridge, turned and sprinted at a speed that was damaging the catwalks, like sledgehammers on thin steel sheeting. “Baron!”
The Baron glanced down at Phyllis. He had to run, but he could hardly stand. His lungs were frozen, but by command of the cat o’nine lives, he forced out a rasping voice—he played his larynx like a violin of pain. “Half day!” he shouted, almost without air. He was going to have to dodge, and he had no clue where he might go. He might end up back in Manhattan, back where he started and even less likely to cross the East River. Only the gods could know.
“I wish—” Phyllis began.
The Baron let go and pushed up, he ran at full speed.
They opened fire, and his calf burst, a leg stopped.
He fell left over the truss, over open air. The rush of prestige was a mere hum beside the screeching adrenaline. He fell out of his pain; it seemed to remain behind him, a ghost of sensation feeling fatal wounds, haunting the shadows among the trusses of the bridge.
He passed so close to Phyllis. The first second was the slowest. Then the world tumbled over, and he was in the terrible sunlight. There were no second chances. No resurrection.
“I wish I didn’t feel—” but he felt the denial, for he already felt nothing. Oh, tumbling corpse to be, have you left the world already? The bridge accelerated away, Phyllis already small.
He reached for his pocket as the Earth orbited around him in a sickening tumble. No penny. A wallet, and something else. In the corner of one eye, buildings scraped sky.
He grabbed the object, pulled it, turned his back to the Earth. The last cigar from Tammany Hall, still kept. Words spilled out of him quickly; adrenaline stretched out what little remained. Have time! Have time!
Into the final shadow of buildings, no longer under the sun.
The valley of high-rise tenements, the passage of floors.
Glimpses of windows, arches. Even doors.
He landed in the Stygian darkness of debt, then fell out of his torpor at full mental speed, body seizing in one solid jerk. Up half a foot, then slamming down hard into the floor, like a dream of falling awoken by reaction to impact.
The darkness shushed him, swam around him like soft static. This was not how debt was felt. He had to choose to abandon torpor; it couldn’t be torn from him if he wanted it, and how he relished it, how he cried out for its release. It was the closest thing to death with life returning on the far side. He refused to feel an artery severed so close to his still-beating heart, gushing blood onto the carpet. He refused to feel himself die yet again.
This was the past, five days deep in debt. While his body bled out and filled up with the energy of the cat, he was also outside, earnestly rushing forward through time and space to nearly die and end up here. The gods claimed he had a choice, but what choice was there in that? He couldn’t leave to warn himself. His debt locked the door, and it would open at the very moment that he made his wish. The cigar would be grasped for days in a clammy, still palm.
The cat knitted him while his mind finally faded to hibernation.
The Baron pushed up onto his arms and waved.
The Zombie waved back. His clothes were filled with bullet holes, and there were a couple of fist sized patches missing, but the seams were holding together. He still wore shoes.
“He’s your friend,” Phyllis said, as the Zombie wiped blood across his tattered shirt.
“He is,” the Baron said.
“I already knew he was dangerous, but to see—no, you really can’t die here.”
The Baron got up and breathed deeply. “I know.”
“Baron!” the Zombie shouted, “Come!”
“Coming!” the Baron began to jog.
The Zombie glanced up the ladder. Someone dropped a pineapple grenade down the hole, which he caught easily. “Grenade!” He cupped his hand away from the bridge, and the explosion was directed out in a silvery-black puff of shrapnel and smoke. He leaned over and flipped the bird at the hole, enduring a sudden rain of rifle fire. Men must be standing around the ladder hatch, armed and ready. The Zombie stepped back briefly. “I’ll have to clear the deck,” he shouted. Then he slipped back into the line of fire like a child diving into a sprinkler, laughed under the patter of bullets and began to climb the ladder up to the bridge.
Phyllis was close behind. “Cover the left, then cut right.”
When the Zombie vanished out of view, there were shouts and jeeps peeling out. The rumble of tanks immediately redoubled, shifting gears to change notes in a diesel melody. The Baron sprinted, ignoring the lashings of pain up and down his ribs.
Another Guardsman came down the ladder on the left, jumping the last few feet. The Baron had two rounds. He fired once, driving the target to cover against the anchor column.
Phyllis was out of ammo. The Baron had one shot remaining.
The Guardsman blew a whistle. Two more armed soldiers came down.
They were fifty feet away, and there was a junction crossing over on a node in the truss. The Baron grabbed the railing, turned right sharp and kept going. Phyllis followed.
Now there were three soldiers behind the column.
The Baron stopped and aimed, tightly gripped. He had to put fear in them. A revolver wasn’t an accurate weapon, but that didn’t matter. He only wanted fear.
The nearest Guardsman leaned out. The Baron fired, and the man jerked back. Whether or not he was hit was unclear, but the Baron tossed the gun back to Phyllis and started running. She caught it and followed fast. They turned sharp at the next corner and kept going. The right column wasn’t being used. The Zombie’s victims were strewn about there.
They were about to be shot at. The Baron watched closely.
The Guardsman leaned out, and the Baron dove flat onto the catwalk. Phyllis landed behind him, and the chatter of a Thompson whipped bullets overhead and underneath. One round even blasted paint off the railing, but nobody was hit.
There was return gunfire from somewhere much further away. From here, the Baron could only make out the slightest touch of motion on a far catwalk, but he thought it must be Lloyd with his Luger hundreds of feet past the tower, back where they’d come from. There wouldn’t be a single successful shot at this distance, but there didn’t have to be. The Guardsman, already on edge, ducked back, and the Baron was up as quickly as he’d dropped. Phyllis had the same instinct. You went down without cover. You moved under covering fire.
Twenty-five feet remained when the Zombie dropped down through the hatch, now slinging fresh blood from hands soaked up to the wrists, cuffs sopping wet and dark. He pointed left. “There?” The Baron nodded. There were guardsmen there. The Zombie pointed up, “We can’t!” The sound of tanks was almost directly overhead. He couldn’t survive on the bridge.
“Where?” the Baron shouted.
The Zombie pointed to the stairs from the trolley platform, running between the catwalks and down to the Earth. The only direction not covered was down to Welfare Island. He picked up a rifle off of one of the corpses he killed, then stepped out onto the walk and aimed at the opposite column. The guardsman on the left emerged to look at the noise, and the Zombie put a round in his head, a great trough of skull blown open where an eye ought to be. The corpse fell forward, and the Zombie swung the rifle around like a club and charged along the tower’s walks.
The Baron stopped, now twenty feet from the tower, and looked over the waist high railing. Below them, there were three hundred feet of spring air, the shade of the bridge, two rows of tenement buildings fifty-feet tall, and a street laid across the land like a blacktop valley. If he fell, there was no more than four seconds to absolute death. The cat couldn’t save him here.
Phyllis slapped the Baron’s shoulder. “Are you scared?”
He felt the bridge shift beneath him. Whether that was the wind, the armored unit, or just the sudden surge of fear breaking its leash, he couldn’t tell. “Yeah.”
“I can go first.”
“Okay.” He looked up. “Quick though.”
The Zombie reached the left column, swung around it while holding the rifle by the barrel, and killed someone with a single blow from the heavy wooden stock. A body fell flat on the platform, limp. The Zombie’s final victim was out of view, but his shouts for mercy—though wordless—were wracked with sobs and drowning in tears. The Zombie dropped the rifle and stalked forward with his bare bloody hands held out. The victim’s cries choked to a stop.
This would continue if he didn’t move. The Baron had to move.
“How? They’re coming down!”
“We’ll try to break through. Play it by ear.”
“Okay, okay. Ladder to the left.”
The Baron glanced back down the slope. The guardsmen were running at them now. They were already within rifle range, but they wouldn’t try firing from below. They understood that they were assaulting a high ground position up a narrow pass—the only way to take it was to rush it while the Baron and Phyllis dealt with the flanking force.
Phyllis took off at a sprint. The Baron sprinted after her.
“Let me get ahead!” he shouted.
“I can take a bullet!”
She paused and he passed. The revolver was still in his hand. There must be hesitation up on the deck. Nobody else was coming down the left side. Three however were coming down on the right. The Baron waited until the first one was nearly down, then aimed vaguely and fired off two rounds, both aimed to hit a target he couldn’t miss—the anchor column. The pang of hammered metal was clear and immediate. The soldier pressed to cover instead of aiming.
One hundred feet laid between them and the left anchor column.
The second and third soldiers crowded down into cover. Another two began the descent, but there was a frantic argument—not enough space. Then one of the three edged up on the column, saw the Baron and took two quick shots, both wide but demanding a response. The Baron raised his revolver and returned fire, but this time he missed—and the soldier stepped out of safety. He knew the revolver was meaningless. Phyllis halted and fired at him with the carbine twice. He yowled, audible over the wind, grabbed his gut and fell back into cover immediately.
“Fucking asshole!” Phyllis shouted. She followed the Baron.
Seventy-five feet remained.
Two soldiers crawled out of cover, prone on the platform. The Baron didn’t waste his shots. He couldn’t hit them, and if Phyllis stopped, they’d shoot her instantly. This was the worst case scenario, but it was essentially unavoidable. The shooting gallery.
“If they shoot—” the Baron began.
The rifle shot became an explosion of pain across his right lung. One of the shooters made his mark. The entry wound was just below the Baron’s right armpit. The entire lung was seizing, punctured, ready to collapse. He didn’t allow himself to fall. He chose to drop flat.
Phyllis landed prone, took aim with her carbine and fired back. The exchange of fire was testing but pointless. Rounds sailed out into the sky.
The Baron demanded his body to breathe. There was no choice in the matter. He needed the oxygen. Even the fluid-filled lung must work, if the cat required it. He gritted his jaw until he thought his teeth would break; then his nostrils hissed as fire gripped his lungs and pulled them open, and the Baron felt the sharp pain of the rifle wound gurgling on his flank, bringing in air.
“Breathe!” he shouted into the catwalk with his new, blistering hot breath, the flavor of roasted blood across scattered over his tongue, thick and metallic.
Phyllis fired twice more. “We’re fucked here!”
In, out. Easier now, because the hole in his flank was sewing shut. He was dizzy, then dizzy again, as if he was one second hypoxic, then next breathing pure oxygen. The world was oversaturated, the edges of colors ran full of rainbows, the sky was shining pearl.
“Bulletproof!” came the shout. “Bulletproof! Bulletproof!”
The Baron tilted his head up in time to see the Zombie tackle someone down the ladder shaft, catching his victim’s face against a ladder bar, tumbling off it, slamming into the side of the shaft and then falling arms first into a prone soldier scrambling too late to move out of the way. The first victim landed in a heap, head twisted around, nose smashed into his brain. The person the Zombie hit was mashed through one lung, with the Zombie lifting a bloody hand out of the victim’s back. The others were rising, trying to back away on the small platform.
Phyllis opened fire. Once. Twice. Two men down. An empty magazine.
The Zombie pulled out his knife, thumbed it open and grabbed the nearest soldier by the collar, lifting him up. The victim began to fire wildly, emptying his Garand into the Zombie’s stomach, groin and thighs. With devilish delight, the Zombie cut the soldier’s throat open from one side to another, then dropped him to die. The remaining man was backed up to the edge, screaming hysterically. The Zombie put away the knife, took two steps forward and kicked him in the chest. He fell back over the railing, hit the sloped side of the tower no more than fifteen feet down with the back of his head, and died, painting a red streak down the stone. The body tumbled out of view, and the Zombie looked up, finally aware of his surroundings.
“Look ahead.” The Baron pointed to the tower and the anchor columns. “Nobody.”
“No civilians on the stairs,” Phyllis said.
“The question is, is the Guard waiting for us?”
“They targeted us earlier.”
“There’s a bigger threat though.”
“Wait, Baron. Do you hear the Zombie?”
The Baron quieted down and listened. There wasn’t any gunfire now. There were no cars, no shouts, no thumps, thuds or explosions. There wasn’t even the distant diesel thrum of a tank. There was only the heavy wind, growing bolder and stronger before the approach of massive clouds—a slate barrier peeking over the horizon from the North Atlantic. The weather had been shifting heavily since their arrival. This morning’s dry cold front had blown out over the Gulf stream and concentrated the scattered strength of the warm current. Now it was returning to land, first as foreboding clouds, but by sunset as a vicious nor’easter storm. Even at this incredible distance, even in the light of the afternoon, the Baron could see dim wreaths of lightning dancing across their crowns, violence on the edge of the sky.
Nothing from the Zombie. An ambush was a real possibility.
“What do you want to do?” Phyllis asked.
“Keep going forward.” They hadn’t stopped jogging.
“We’re on the same page then.”
On the close approach to the tower, the Baron had a better view of the steps leading down from the trolley platform. They left the lower deck near the dead middle of the bridge, maybe twenty feet past the tower, ran parallel to the catwalks, slipped under the tower’s arch more than twenty-five feet below and wrapped around the inside of the right post before zig-zagging to the elevator building. Reaching them required a dead drop of more than two stories from the walk on the near side or a climb across the narrow trusses on the far side, suspended 350 feet over the streets and buildings of Welfare Island.
He glanced back at Lloyd and Sean. They were walking several hundred feet back. He waved for them get down. They stopped and sat on the walk. If there was a fight, they’d have to stay there and hope nobody picked them up. Either that, or they’d have to double back.
“Think they’re good enough climbers to make it to the stairs?”
“You mean up ahead?” Phyllis shrugged. “I think so. Hanging onto the bridge is their job.”
“Good. They underestimated the drop here by half.”
“We’re up high. Scale is hard to figure.” She glanced over the railing.
“Everything looks small,” the Baron said, without actually looking. He kept all senses on alert. His footsteps echoed off the face of the tower. Still no gunfire, no fighting.
“Nobody,” Phyllis whispered.
The Baron looked up at the gap for the stairs. Empty sky. The vehicle elevators were seated in their docks to either side. The frames of their rails sat silent, immovable against the inertia of the stone tower. The platforms were empty. The ladders on the anchors were bare.
“Where is the Zombie?” the Baron asked.
“Think he got blown off the bridge?”
“Explosions usually can’t do that. There’s not enough concentrated force.”
“I don’t know then.”
They slowed until their footsteps no longer rang through the metal. They stared up, waiting, ears keen. The Baron could feel his heartbeat throbbing along the lines of fire, the lashings of the cat. Maybe the National Guardsmen were all hunkered down. Maybe the Zombie was stalking the living, moving from place to place and silently strangling.
They crossed the tower and continued on, and when the world opened out beneath their feet again, the dizzying height was a relief. Only a few hundred feet ahead, the island ended and the open waters of the strait began again. Far ahead, they could already see the banks of Queens. Somewhere to the northeast, towards those dark clouds, LaGuardia waited.
They picked up the pace. “The Zombie will catch up,” the Baron said. “We need to get off this bridge immediately.” He ran faster. “We can probably be off this mess in three solid minutes.” He ran at a strong pace, and said nothing because he was breathing deep and steady. Phyllis followed closely, looking back every so often.
Somewhere distant and somehow omnipresent, diesel engines coughed into life.
“Ahead?” He asked.
“Behind too,” Phyllis said.
The National Guard was finally beginning to move. Where was the Zombie? They rapidly reached the suspended span connecting the island trusses to the cantilever sloping down towards Queens. It vibrated sympathetically to the rumble of tracks on pavement. The vehicles weren’t directly overhead, but the bridge was alive with the sounds of machinery.
They stepped onto the cantilever arm and reached the cusp of the hill, the edge of the internal horizon where the bridge began to slope down towards Queens.
The Baron stopped short. “Uniforms,” he said.
Phyllis stopped right behind him. “Jesus.”
Half a dozen soldiers were coming up the catwalks armed only with rifles. They must’ve climbed up on the Queens anchor when the fighting started. They were still almost a thousand feet away, but there was no hiding. Fingers were pointed. Binoculars were raised.
“We can’t go forward,” the Baron said. He turned to look at Phyllis, ready to say we have to go back, but then he spotted something worse. Men in uniforms were descending from the lower deck to the platforms of the last Welfare Island tower. After they’d passed, someone must’ve signalled it—maybe from Welfare Island itself. “Behind us too,” he said.
Phyllis swept around, raised the carbine, aimed for three seconds, and shot the first climber. He jerked back, missed the platform on the fall and slid out of view. “We have to get off the bridge.”
The Baron shook his head and grabbed Phyllis by the shoulder. “We need to climb up and find the Zombie. Without him, we can’t escape.”
They crossed over from the cantilever to the Welfare Island truss and kept running. The wind blew flakes off the catwalk in a black snowfall raining down on the oily East River. The pall of heavy smoke blew to the southwest, falling as it became colder and heavier than the surrounding air. Something oily was burning on the upper deck far ahead.
“Do you think the approach is safe?” Phyllis asked.
“I don’t see anyone coming down to meet us. Not after that explosion.”
They ran another solid minute, crossing the first half of the East River and over the first tower on Welfare Island. For a few meters around the anchors, the bridge overhead was baking hot—burning liquid must’ve drained down and pooled on the lower deck. Then they cleared the unseen wreckage and slowed down. Lloyd and Sean couldn’t keep pace any further.
“Is that the Welfare Island elevator up ahead?” the Baron asked.
At the next tower, there was a stairwell creeping down the face of the masonry until it reached the top of a tall building almost a hundred fifty feet below.
“Yeah.” Lloyd was out of breath, “You come down from the trolley platform. Easier than taking the ferry, so long as you ain’t afraid of heights.”
The Baron squinted. The bridge was long, straight, and began to slope down. He couldn’t tell if it was blocked at the next tower or clear all the way to its internal horizon. “Is there a room there?” he asked Lloyd. “I can’t see one.”
“Do the stairs connect with this walk?”
“No, they go down around the side of the lower deck and straight onto the tower. Otherwise people would be sneakin’ onto these walks all the time.”
“How close are they?”
“The walks go over ‘em, maybe ten feet up.”
The Baron nodded. The National Guard could station someone on the stairs, but they couldn’t get down that easily. “Are there more ladders at the tower?”
“Just like the last one.”
“We can’t slow down,” the Baron said, “the Guard will figure out where I am. They’ll be ordered down to the platform to stop me.”
“I’m beat,” Sean said, “I can’t run any further.”
The Baron slowed to a halt. “Phyllis, how about you?”
“I can run five miles,” she said.
“I haven’t raced since I was a boy.”
“I’m going ahead then. Phyllis, you stick with me. Lloyd, Sean, you both put blood on your hands for me. Don’t let that rest heavy on you. There’re strange things going on today.”
“Shit,” Lloyd said, “there damn well are.”
“They would’ve shot us too,” Sean said.
The Baron nodded. “When we reach that tower, I want you to climb down and get to Welfare Island. Get rid of your work clothes, disappear in the streets.”
“Okay,” Lloyd said, “fuck it, okay.”
“You’ll still be paid,” Phyllis said.
Sean ejected the magazine from his pistol and cocked it to pop the bullet out of the chamber. He threw them over the top of a building more than two hundred feet down. He gestured at the Baron’s bloodstains. “Good luck to you. Run like the wind, you fucking freak of nature.” He wiped his hands on his pants. “I’m walking from here.”
Lloyd pocketed his Luger and said nothing more.
The Baron turned and began to run again. Phyllis fell in behind him, carbine slung over her back. After they were a few dozen feet away, she asked, “Do you want my revolver?”
“I might need it,” he said.
She caught up and handed her little gun over his shoulder, then pulled loose bullets out of her pockets. “You’ll need to reload it.” She pressed them in his palm. “All I got.”
The Baron flipped opened the cylinder, shook the cartridges out, and started slowly loading the chambers while he ran. “Thank you.” He knew what a pistol was for. Noise was one use. Murder was the other. Considering the enemy, he’d prefer neither.
“Why aren’t you armed already?”
“Because I’m an idiot.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“I want to do my job without fighting anyone. If I don’t have a gun, I don’t have the option of pulling it out in a pinch.” He finished loading and snapped the cylinder in place.
“You won’t take the low road if you can’t.”
“But you want the gun now.”
“It’s too late to get away without shooting at someone.”
Phyllis didn’t respond to that.
“I’m not insulting you,” the Baron said. “You’re not stupid. You came armed.”
“There was going to be a fight eventually,” she said.
“Yes, which is why you’re not stupid like me.”
After a few moments, Phyllis chuckled, and the Baron hoped that she understood the difference between them wasn’t one of moral righteousness. It was a matter of preference.
Welfare Island stretched out below like a mottled finger, a patchy mixture of empty barren lots, newly rising tenements, and derelict prison and quarantine facilities. To the south, one could glimpse a 19th century city in ruins, an abandoned complex of fences and gutted buildings rotting in the sun. North was a cleared flatland, a texture rubbed out by machinery. Directly underneath the bridge, the island population bloomed like brown mold. There were two pairs of vehicle elevators on the far side of the next tower, and the sparse roads that lined the otherwise pedestrian island were light on traffic. The tenements were clustered within walking distance of churches, hospitals, and a broad baseball diamond. Welfare Island was poor, condensed, and yet somehow growing simply because the middle class couldn’t be bothered to reach it.
This corner of New York thrived beneath their feet, and they ran onwards.
Phyllis caught up to him. “You’ve adjusted fast to the cat.”
“Yes.” It hadn’t surprised her when he’d announced that he’d swallowed it. She’d expected him to preserve his life at greater costs than future field surgery. “Bleeding though.”
“We’ll figure out a way to clean you up on the other side.”
While they ran, the sounds of gunfire receded into the distance behind them. Wherever the Zombie stood untouchable, people were dying. He’d kept the knife from Tammany Hall, whole despite the explosion because it’d been in his front pocket, shielded by his legs. By the Baron’s judgement, he’d eventually opt to cease destroying vehicles and start destroying men. The Zombie could spare the most lives—and have the most fun—if each kill was slow, personal, and grotesque. After carving up a few more, the survivors would surrender.
Five hundred feet had passed underfoot.
The Baron was fit. A mile was a warm up when healthy, and a difficult run while he bled, but it was still nothing beyond his strength. Phyllis wasn’t as fit, but she didn’t have the luxury of wealth, and she wasn’t overwhelmed or exhausted by any means. She breathed neatly through her nose. Only Lloyd and Sean seemed to suffer. They were strong, they climbed and lifted, but they weren’t practiced runners. They’d become exhausted soon.
Six hundred feet had passed. They heard the gunning of several engines, the screeching of car tires, the acceleration and shifting of gears. After a few seconds, they heard vehicles roaring down the lanes, going after a fast target—the Zombie?
“What’s happening up there?” Phyllis asked.
“He must have something they want,” the Baron said, “They’re going pretty fast.”
“They could be running from him.”
“What the hell is he?” Lloyd asked.
“A monster,” Phyllis said.
The vehicles disappeared ahead of them, nearing the first anchor of the truss standing over Welfare Island. “They’re gone,” the Baron said.
There was a deafening thump that threatened to pull the world out from under his feet. The closest thing the Baron could compare it to was the explosion of a gunpowder dump, a punch in every direction, throwing the catwalk down a half inch. It rose back instantly and slapped his feet, causing him to fall forward and land on his chest, feeling the snowfall of rust and paint showering over his bare, sweat-streaked scalp. The bridge snapped and swayed like it was made of string and paper, but it didn’t break. It was meant to withstand the fury and might of a hurricane, and whatever had exploded likely took most of the damage, forming a shield to punch and whip the structure without collapsing the bridge.
“Fuck,” Lloyd said, arms wrapped around the railing. “Fuck, fuck.”
“My ears are ringing,” Sean said.
Phyllis was rising behind the Baron, shaking paint chips out of her hair. “I think he just blew up a welcoming party over that anchor tower. We’re lucky he didn’t do it over the span.”
“He knows where we are,” the Baron said, “this was for us.” He could only suppose the Zombie had retrieved an explosive and rammed it into something filled with more explosives. Dynamite maybe? Hopefully he’d live long enough to ask him later.
Sharp pain rushed through him, cold, and the cat burned hot in equal measure. His vision was filled with swarms of fireflies. He squinted and it cleared. With his face planted to the metal, he saw Phyllis draw a revolver as she sprinted, stop and open fire. Six rounds, as fast as she could empty them. He couldn’t see her target until he slumped forward out of cover, dead, and Phyllis ran for the turn in the catwalk that would put her on his platform.
The man who shot the Baron ducked back behind his cover and started reloading his Thompson. Sean rose again and sprinted, jumping over the Baron and making for the near cover. The guardsman made a move to lean out, but Sean put down covering fire with his 1911. Phyllis made it to the other guard’s dead body, grabbed an M1 carbine where it was slung over his back, and pulled him out of view. She’d have a better weapon shortly.
Lloyd fired again. His eighth and final round was well-aimed, blasting an entry wound in the guardsman’s right arm. The man shouted in pain and pulled back. Voices shouted down at him. “What’s going on down there? We can’t see, what’s going on?”
Sean came around the back of cover, caught the guard by surprise and emptied his 1911 into the guardsman. He took one step out, to take the Thompson.
“Stay out of view!” the Baron yelled to Sean.
Sean paused, glanced towards the ladder hole, and ducked back before anyone could see him. If the workers wanted to escape the fight without becoming wanted men, they couldn’t be witnessed by survivors. He aimed from the corner and shot the fallen man as well.
The Baron concentrated on the heat of the cat in his belly. He could’ve swallowed boiling hot coffee and felt less discomfort, but he knew the effect was temporary. Users acclimated to the cat; they grew used to its integral role in their survival. The Orthodox faction, unlike most cults of the western world, followed the Eastern tradition of heavy recordkeeping, and the properties of the cat were fairly well understood. Having witnessed its effect on Marco first hand, the Baron knew he only had to force it. He had to will his body to work, even when it wouldn’t.
One hand down, the one made of cobwebs wrapped around static, then the other, fingers throbbing. Then up on one knee, beneath the wound. He’d been shot in the large intestine. He was only glad he hadn’t crapped himself, though he’d shit blood later. The other round had shattered the end of his rib right over the kidney. There was a lot of blood coming out of that hole. An artery might’ve been punctured. By any normal standard, these were deaths.
“Are you fucking okay?” Sean shouted.
Lloyd came up behind the Baron. “You need help?”
“Go,” the Baron said. He forced his right leg to move as it should. A muscle was seized by a string of fire. He was the puppeteer grabbing the puppet, and with the cat inside of him, mind ruled over body. “Go!” he said with twice the force. There were at least three thousand feet to go before they fully crossed the East River. He wanted to make this a six minute near-mile.
“Hell,” Lloyd said.
The Baron began to run, a human mechanism, a pattern built through concentration.
Phyllis came around her platform with the carbine over her shoulder. She crossed over at the junction along the front of the tower and met Lloyd and Sean at the right anchoring column.
“Is he going to be okay?” Lloyd asked.
“He will,” Phyllis said. She pushed between them carefully and started jogging.
Somewhere overhead, the shouts of men transformed to panicked screaming. The Zombie had caught up and was punishing the people around the ladders. A limp body fell through the gap behind them and landed by the rest with a crash. Small arms fire followed up, then were cut short. Lumbering vehicles gunned to life, diesel engines snarling, the bridge shuddering under their shifts and turns. The Guard was beginning to move heavier equipment now.
The Baron felt blood streaming out of his wounds and down his right leg. The cat gave him heat in his heart and bones. His lungs were hot. He was being sustained, recreated, even as the running aggravated both wounds. The cat was meant for warriors. The legends were clear. After taking a sword through the sternum, Ilya Muromets had pulled out the blade and stabbed his assailant without hesitation. Some of the assassins who’d assaulted London had been witnessed showing particular resilience while bearing the cat. They’d treated it like an occult combat suite, a whole set of survival functions for winning a fatal fight.
The Baron could feel it now, as Marco had felt it with a bullet through the brain. You were dying, but you were not allowed to die, and forward you ran.
They’d passed the final anchor on Manhattan. Ahead, the cantilever span reached one thousand feet to the truss bridge standing over Welfare Island—another thousand feet—and further yet stood the opposite arm on Queens—the third thousand—sloping down to another pair of anchor points and their destination, an old trolley station.
Sweat ran from the hatband down into his eyes. With the wounds on his gut, there was no more point to the fiction. He pulled off his hard hat and threw it over the railing. It tumbled out of sight, objectively three hundred feet to the water, subjectively lost to an endless fall.
He crossed two hundred feet in a solid run. The shimmering water wavered below the Baron, but as long as the motion and will were pure, he would not fall.
A thunderous boom blossomed somewhere behind them. It wasn’t the kind of sound heard; the crack was deflected up and away by the bridge. Rather, the thud of force was felt in the back of the brain, and despite having not heard the sound in more than a century, the Baron’s primal memory disgorged a fearful flash of a 12-pounder Napoleon firing in the dark, lobbing shots and shells with equal ease, obliterating earthworks before showering cowered ranks with shrapnel. He gritted his teeth and jerked his shoulders but didn’t stumble.
Tanks would give the National Guard momentary hope, but they wouldn’t stop the Zombie. They wouldn’t even deliver enough force to throw him over the side of the bridge, though it might knock him down. If only they weren’t secular, they might’ve known. The best strategy here was to drop all arms and rush the Zombie as a group. With bare hands carefully held, he was no stronger than any other man, and constrained, he couldn’t force a divine intervention. Lives might be lost, but they could carry him to the side and throw him off the bridge.
Instead, they fired at the invincible man. They gave him the freedom to move, to build up speed and attack hardened targets with his would-be-soft body. Even though the Zombie was his friend, the Baron regretted permitting this kind of asymmetric fight. Yet the fire in his belly was stolen. It was meant for other hands. Lo, Prometheus, titan with a light head from blood loss. This is a gift of fire, peace stolen out of the hand of warmakers.
Shit, he was losing it. He concentrated on thinking straight, and warmth rushed up the arteries in his neck. The lightness became heavy again. The cat cleared his head.
The Baron ran through the door. The platform was wide. The railings were real, even if they were little more than piping. There was no reason to hesitate, even as the world seemed to sway beneath the bridge. As long as his feet came down, he wouldn’t fall.
Two men followed, and Phyllis behind them, all running.
“Is this about to be a fight?” asked the Irishman.
“Looks like it!” shouted the black man.
“Keep running!” Phyllis yelled.
The Baron slowed and glanced back. Far behind them, the third man closed the door. “Why’s he staying back?” The others were catching up. He ran again.
“Locking the door, slowing them down!” Phyllis shouted over the rising wind.
Somewhere on the lower deck, submachine guns began to chatter like metal teeth. There were a couple of terrible slams and the sounds of glass and metal.
“He’s flipping cars,” the Baron said, even though the others couldn’t hear him.
The Queensboro bridge was about seven thousand feet in length by car, including long ramps up to the spans. They’d skipped a couple thousand feet at the start by coming up through the old trolley station, but the rest of the running distance was measured out by six towers, with about five hundred feet between the two anchor points on Manhattan. It was a hundred and fifty meter dash on an exposed catwalk, and they weren’t world class sprinters. The run to the next span would take thirty mad seconds, and the Guard would be moving quickly.
There was a hesitation, and then another volley of heavy fire, including the roar of a Browning and the chunk-chunk of a 20 MM antiaircraft gun turned towards the road. They’d brought half-tracks to shoot down planes. They’d fucking planned to shoot him out of the sky if he’d taken a plane. Overhead, the trusses shed dark red flakes of rust.
The Baron heard the workers behind him.
“What the fuck is that?”
“That Chinese man is still alive.” A voice of disbelief.
“What’re your names?” Phyllis called out behind them.
“Lloyd,” said the black construction worker. He’d pulled out a souvenir Luger, chosen for its accuracy at range.
“Sean,” said the Irishman. He had a 1911 produced from one of his large pockets.
“I’m your Boss. That man ahead is the Baron. Boys, what is prestige?”
“Never heard the word,” said Sean, who was panting, slowing.
“It’s your reputation,” said Lloyd, who was sweating but still keeping pace.
“Good, keep going! And don’t worry about the Chinaman! He’ll keep up.”
The message was clear. These were secular friends of the cosa nostra. They wouldn’t be ready for occult intervention—not that the Baron had any prestige to spend. With the Zombie on the bridge itself, they’d have to meet any forces down below with physical force.
“Men!” Phyllis shouted.
There were ladders built into the bridge, coming down through gaps between the lower deck and the attached outer lanes. This anchor tower didn’t contain a room. It ended just below the trusses of the lower deck, providing two tiny platforms to either side of the bridge superstructure. Three guardsmen were descending to them. Two on this side, one on the other.
The Baron leaned into a full sprint on the catwalk. The columns going down into the anchor points rose up past the bridge and high into the air. They completely blocked view of the platforms, and provided the only cover available for hundreds of feet in either direction.
Lloyd kneeled and sighted the Luger. “Ma’am?”
Sean stepped over Lloyd’s shoulder and kept running after the Baron.
Phyllis cut back and took a junction to the other platform. “Do it!”
Lloyd fired once at the near two. The crack was weirdly soft but reverberated, echoing repeatedly off the underside of the bridge and the water below. The guards descended faster. He adjusted and fired again. Again. Again. On the fourth round, the lower guard took a hit to the back of his calf, clearly visible from the sudden flap of cloth fluttering in the breeze, and lost his grip. He fell about ten feet and hit the platform flat on his back, metal mesh clattering violently.
The Baron could see that the man had broken something severe. He moved slowly and didn’t breathe, but he was alive.
Lloyd fired two more shots, and the last guardsman on the right side risked a jump, came down eight feet off the ladder and landed harshly. He staggered under fire, Lloyd spending his seventh round, then pulled up a Thompson on a strap.
The Baron roared, “Don’t shoot!”
The SMG chattered off, sweeping up the catwalk and forcing Lloyd and Sean prone. A second burst turned at the Baron from no more than fifteen feet, angle closing, shots taken awkwardly.
The chatter of rounds threatened to throw the Baron off balance. He fought with every inch of will to not dodge, to run forward, because there was no safety but ahead.
His gut burst above his hip bone, and a rib was fractured instantly. The novas of pain shone brighter than his force of will. He lost his footing, fell forward and to the right over the injured side, and slammed hard onto the railing, wrenching his shoulder in his socket, making the entire arm sear with fire. He slid down, right leg going out over the abyss over the last few feet of Manhattan, but he clawed at the walk and yanked himself left. The skin was peeled on his fingertips, but his body rested on solid metal, and gunshot wounds became his world.