Washed by a Wave of Wind
M. Shayne Bell, editor
[p.277]LeBarron’s jackals took their time beating the shit out of Brackett. They enjoyed it. They told him what they were going to do before they did it. Frank, the one with no front teeth, would hold him while the tall blond with a Death From Above tattoo on one bicep worked on him for a while, then they would switch.
Death From Above was imaginative. Frank concentrated on kidney punches and blows to the chest. Death From Above worked over Brackett’s face, closing both eyes, breaking his nose, clapping both hands over his ears until they ran blood. He was especially good at groin punches that just missed Brackett’s genitals. They didn’t break any major bones, and they didn’t mash his nuts. Brackett figured they were saving that for the next time.
The beating fell into a rhythm. Closed off in his head, Brackett orchestrated it to the Crusader’s Chorus from Alexander Nevsky. That kept him together, disconnected from the pain. Until the music ran out.
After a while he stopped feeling any new pain. His body was one red haze of agony and nothing they did to him mattered any more. Death From Above must have recognized that. He called Frank off. Holding Brackett upright with one muscular forearm around Brackett’s neck, he said, “Had enough, Dealer? Ready to cooperate now?”
Brackett managed to shape his split lips into “Screw you.”
Death laughed. “Maybe later, sweetheart. You’re not too pretty right now.” He dropped Brackett to the cold concrete floor. “We’ll be back. [p.278]You don’t deal with Rulon, we can keep this up for a long, long time. Think about it.”
Brackett couldn’t see much with his eyes swollen shut. He heard the door slam and the lock click over. The room, a basement storage unit in what was once the Hotel Utah, felt empty. One part of his mind, sitting way back trying to be divorced from the pain, urged him to try to find a way out. The rest of him just lay there and hurt.
Maybe what hurt most was losing the Kallinikov. He’d had a standing order for that piece for more than two years. It wasn’t easy to find. Kallinikov’s First Symphony was reasonably common, but the Second was a rarity. There weren’t many copies of it even before Sweep Night when the National Guard and army reserve units had confiscated all foreign music, books, clothes, cars, electronics, every item of foreign manufacture, everything on the proscribed lists that hadn’t been voluntarily surrendered. These days, the Second was as valuable as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Easter chorale set to the Feuerzauber from Die Walküre. He had a buyer for that one, too, if he ever found it.
He’d finally tracked the Kallinikov to a chemistry professor at the U. They met this morning at a restaurant on Foothill Drive, the prof looking guilty as hell, his nervousness so obvious that Brackett almost backed out of the deal. He watched the prof, potbellied and balding and twitching in the booth, ignoring a cup of what passed for coffee these days, and scanned all the other silent, eye-shaded customers for a long time before he decided the place was clean.
The buy went down quick. He passed the prof’s table, caught the man’s scared gaze, and jerked his head toward the men’s restroom. Eight thousand in old bills to the professor and, in return, a digital audio tape tight-wound on a small spool wrapped in a thin baggie. Brackett stepped into a stall and, after checking the seal on the plastic, shoved the spool up his ass. The charlies at the Sugarhouse checkpoint were fuzz-cheeked kids who seldom had the nerve to body search.
It was more than four miles from Foothill to Sugarhouse but Brackett walked it. Taking the bus made you a target, said you had money to waste. It was easier to slip into the crowds of unemployed homeless that milled along the broad main thoroughfares, passing under the Buy American banners that stretched over the streets, three to a block and flapping in the wind that came from the west, carrying with it an acrid tang from the copper smelters at Magna. He wondered why they bothered hanging the banners; it wasn’t as if you had any choice.
[p.279]The crowds were thick today, soft spring air drawing them out of their shacks and dens, just roaming around in the sun before the soup kitchens opened at noon. Brackett smelled their unwashed stink, saw their drained and empty faces. The old anger, usually only a background noise, surfaced. It pounded through his head with the force of Stravinsky’s percussion.
Patriots’ Public Radio said that the unemployment rate was holding steady at 23 percent, but Brackett knew they lied. After the economic collapse that followed the nationalization of all industry and the forced divestiture of foreign holdings, the jobless rate had shot up to 47 percent. Yet Brackett saw more sad, hopeless men and women on the streets now than there had been eight years ago when Insulation became national policy. Unemployment had dropped some when all foreign nationals, including those married to Americans or naturalized citizens themselves, were deported; but as the country completed its withdrawal from world markets, the reality was that there were no jobs.
Brackett’s anger was bone-deep. The worst of it was that he didn’t see it reflected in the faces around him. They only milled and waited for their soup. The angry ones had already been gathered up. Brackett used the Largo from the New World Symphony to keep his own anger off his face. Slouching along with the crowd, his ragged jeans and black windbreaker no cleaner than theirs, his brown hair just as shaggy, dirt lined in the creases of his knuckles, he melted into their sullen silence.
There was nothing wrong with his planning. He just ran out of luck.
“Jackals.” The word whispered through the crowd and sliced through the Dvorak playing in Brackett’s head. Instinctively, he hunched his shoulders, making himself shorter. An eddy formed, pressing people in on Brackett, no one willing to move.
The woman in front of Brackett, a stringy-haired blonde with a skinny baby on her hip, said, “Are they blues?”
Someone snarled, “Hell, no. It’s goddamn state maroons.” The woman whimpered and backed into Brackett. But there was no place to go. Farther back, where the word hadn’t reached, the hungry mass surged forward, carrying them toward the checkpoint. Brackett kept his head down and shuffled along with everyone else.
The two jackals sat on the hood of a long, black Lincoln, strafing the checkpoint line with cold faces. They were shiny with polished silver buckles and buttons, their expressions hidden behind reflecting sun-[p.280]glasses. Their short-sleeved gray uniforms were sharp-creased and bloused into mirror-bright black jumpboots. The angle of their maroon berets claimed an arrogance that set them above run-of-the-mill check-point charlies.
Chainlink fencing funneled the crowd into a grocery store parking lot, clearing the streets for approved traffic. Brackett had no place to go but straight on. The jackals could have been looking for anybody, but the hair on Brackett’s neck stood up and prickled. Without being able to see their eyes, he felt their attention rivet on him as the line moved forward. He jammed his hands in his pockets so he wouldn’t wipe the sweat that slid down his cheek.
The jackals watched him hand his ID card to the young charlie who, smug with his small handful of authority, took one look at the red striping that labeled Brackett as unemployable because of unAmerican activities and immediately ordered him into the stripsearch canvas tent.
Even though the lump in his rectum felt as big as a baseball, Brackett held himself calm and loose as three stripsearch charlies checked the labels on his clothing and shoes and watch. They went through his wallet and turned out the labels on his shorts and T-shirt, seeming disappointed to find Made in America tags on everything. They matched his Social Security number against his retinal pattern in their computer files. When it cleared, they let him put his clothes back on and stamped the date and time on his daily papers. Brackett released a tightheld breath and walked out of the tent right into the cold grins of the two gray jackals.
“Mr. LeBarron wants to see you,” Death From Above said. They shoved him into the deep back seat of the Lincoln and drove to what Brackett still thought of as the Hotel Utah, even though it had been turned into an office building several years before Insulation. Frank slung the big car across 21st South and up the wide, mostly empty expanse of State Street while Death From Above hung one arm over the back of the front seat and watched Brackett with a silent, bare-toothed smile. Brackett saw himself reflected in duplicate from the sunglasses and tried to ignore the sudden fear that etched its way up his backbone. He reached for the music, but nothing came into his head.
Rulon LeBarron held no elected office, his name wasn’t on any official letterhead, but neither the governor nor the state legislature made any moves that Rulon LeBarron wouldn’t like. It was said that he was a jack Mormon renegade, but even the LDS church left LeBarron [p.281]alone. The church may have had to rent him space in their office building, but they disassociated themselves from him, as far as it was safe to do it, anyway. Of all the people Brackett didn’t want to meet, Rulon LeBarron topped the list.
Frank parked the Lincoln in the red zone in front of the building. The two jackals marched Brackett through the landscaping of tulips and daffodils and into a foyer of wine carpet and dark heavy furniture massed with brass fittings. Men in business suits and secretaries in crisp white blouses looked away, suddenly busy elsewhere. With both elbows held in a grip that threatened to numb the nerves, Brackett had no choice but to grit his teeth and move where he was dragged.
LeBarron’s suite took up the top floor, displacing what had once been a restaurant. The view from the plate-glass windows encompassed the city from Emigration Canyon and the Uinta Mountains on the east to the islands in the shrinking Great Salt Lake. When the elevator
disgorged Brackett and his guards, LeBarron was standing, hands laced behind his back, looking down on the golden statue of the angel Moroni with his trumpet topping the temple that raised its semi-Gothic spires across the street to the west.
LeBarron let them wait in silence for a time before he turned, a smile on his ruddy, affable face. He was a big man, broad with authority, solid in his power. Despite the smile, his eyes were as dead as a snake’s. He came around a teak desk the size of a dining table to stand in front of Brackett.
The jackals dropped Brackett’s arms. LeBarron made a couple of sucking noises through his front teeth, then said, “I’ve been told you deal in contraband music, Mr. Brackett.”
The fact that LeBarron knew his name scared Brackett more than anything so far. Brackett ignored the swirl in his gut and shook his head. He matched LeBarron’s smile. “You’ve been misinformed. I’m just one of the great unwashed.”
LeBarron’s smooth forehead creased. “You’re a smartass. I don’t like smartasses.” He nodded to Death From Above. The blond jackal stepped away from Brackett then backhanded him across the mouth, snapping his head back. Brackett felt blood trickle from a split lip.
LeBarron said, “Let’s try again. I know who you are. I know you make your living dealing proscribed music. I want to talk some business.”
Brackett slowly raised one hand and wiped his chin. “I don’t know [p.282]what you think I can do for you. You’ve got me mixed up with someone else.”
LeBarron exhaled a sharp breath. “I’m not going to waste much time with you, Mr. Brackett. Give me the tape you picked up this morning.”
With his mouth gone suddenly dry, Brackett understood why the chemistry professor had been so nervous. “What tape?”
“Get it,” LeBarron said.
Death From Above jerked Brackett’s arms behind his back, up between his shoulderblades, and bent him double. Frank pulled a surgical glove from a pocket and slowly stretched the tight rubber over his right hand, grinning into Brackett’s face. He dragged Brackett’s pants and shorts down and dug for the tape.
Brackett tried to keep his rage and shame off his face and knew he failed. “You son of a bitch.”
Frank stripped the plastic baggie from the spool, dropping the baggie and glove into a trash can, then handed the tape to LeBarron. LeBarron juggled the tape in his palm. “Kallinikov, I believe? Russian.” He shook his head sadly. “Garbage. But, it does establish your profession beyond doubt. Now shall we talk business?”
Through clenched jaws, Brackett said, “Have I got a choice?”
LeBarron laughed, a jovial, friendly sound. “No, Mr. Brackett, you do not. Now that you understand that, our relationship will go much easier. You may put your pants back on.”
Brackett felt better with his dick covered up. LeBarron strode around the desk and sat in a high-backed chair. He plucked a cigar from a teak thermidor and let Brackett wait while he went through the ritual of smelling, clipping, and lighting it. Exhaling a corona of sweet blue smoke, he said, “I was dining with a business acquaintance recently. In the course of our conversation, it came out that he is planning to purchase from you a certain piece of illicit music.” He drew again on the cigar. “The Ninth, by Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, I believe.”
The bastard was playing with him and Brackett didn’t like it. “So?”
“So, I want that piece, Mr. Brackett.”
Brackett felt his blood slow down and get heavy in his veins. Dealing illegal music with Rulon LeBarron had the earmarks of a suicide run. He’d geared himself up to face jail, but he wasn’t ready for this. Several different responses flitted through his mind, none of them of much use. [p.283]LeBarron had him, and had the power to do just about anything he chose. Brackett settled for, “I can’t sell you that piece. I’ve already taken money for it. If you know I deal, then you know I deal in exclusive sales. Your ‘acquaintance’ has already bought the Ninth.”
“But you haven’t delivered it.”
“Makes no difference. I gave him my word. We have an agreement.”
“Break it, Mr. Brackett.”
LeBarron’s smooth assurance fired Brackett’s resistance. “If I slide out of a deal, my reputation goes to hell. If customers can’t trust me to deliver an exclusive product, my business suffers.”
LeBarron chuckled. “Reversals happen to every businessman, Mr. Brackett. What you have to decide is if your business reputation is worth your life.”
Death From Above slid his arm around Brackett’s shoulders. His voice came soft in Brackett’s ear. “Pay attention, sweetheart. This is where it gets interesting.”
“I want that piece of music, Mr. Brackett.”
Brackett shook his head. “I can’t sell you that piece. I do have a version by George Szell and the Cleveland—”
“Trash. Von Karajan defined Beethoven for all time. I won’t settle for an inferior recording. I’ll be generous. I’ll double the price you asked for it. That should salve your conscience, Mr. Brackett.”
At the smug repetition of his name, emphasis on the mister, Brackett felt his good sense snap. Raw anger seared along his nerves. “Do you really think you can buy me that cheap? You bastards took my job. You took my country. You took the rest of the world away from me. You took everything I believed in and twisted it, made it shit. Well, fuck you, Mr. LeBarron. This is one time you’re going to be disappointed. You don’t get the Ninth.” He set himself, stomach tight, waiting for the jackals to move on him again.
LeBarron’s smile never wavered. “Defiance. People of your sort never learn. We’ll talk again tomorrow. You may think differently then. Gentlemen, escort Mr. Brackett to the basement. Discuss the matter. See if you can persuade him to be more agreeable.”
Now that the jackals’ discussion was over for the time being, Brackett didn’t feel agreeable. He just hurt.
After a time, the cold of the concrete floor got through the pain. [p.284]Shivering hurt so he forced himself to stand up. It took a while. Once he was up, it felt good to lean his battered face against the chill of the wall.
Helpless rage twisted in his gut, hot enough to burn out the fear. He wanted to kill someone. Rulon LeBarron or Death From Above, it didn’t much matter which. Preferably both. He reached for the music and pulled in Gotterdammerung.
That smooth bastard could have his balls for breakfast before he’d give in.
Brackett broke after the third session. The music was gone, his head empty and echoing. Death From Above proved that the relatively mindless beating they began with was minor compared to the pain that could be inflicted by a truly original mind with access to psychogenic drugs and electric leads. Old methods, maybe, but effective. The most Brackett’s pride could manage was to sway on his own two feet as he squinted through blood encrusted eyelids at Rulon LeBarron, and said, “The Ninth is yours.”
They sat him in a chair in LeBarron’s Iight-washed office. A warm rag rubbed gently at his face and he smelled a tropical flower perfume. A woman’s voice said, “Jesus, you really worked him over. It’s going to take a while to fix this.”
LeBarron’s rumble cut across her protest. “Don’t worry about it, Lela. Just make him presentable from a distance. I want to get this business over with.”
Nothing was making much sense to Brackett. He flinched as a needle slid into the soft skin inside his left elbow. When it pulled out, the pain was already flowing out with it. He floated, silly-happy with the relief.
Lela’s breath was warm on his cheek. “Hold still, babe. Going to fix you right up.” With one hand she held his head back and dropped an ice pack over his eyes and nose. She took the ice away and put a warm cloth in its place. After a few changes back and forth, Brackett found his eyes would open some.
Lela’s face filled his vision. Big, dark eyes and hard lined red lips. Olive skin stretched tight over fragile cheekbones. A lot of black hair and golden hoop earrings. Brackett found himself grinning foolishly at her while she dabbed at his face with a makeup sponge. She set a pair [p.285]of heavy black plastic sunglasses on his broken nose. “There you go. Ready to face the world.”
Things started to come back into focus. Death and Frank were standing behind his chair, Rulon LeBarron ensconced behind the desk with Lela sitting on one corner. LeBarron’s easy affability was gone. He didn’t need it anymore. “Lela, you drive the car. I have another task for Frank. Take Mr. Brackett to his stash and bring back the merchandise. Here’s a list.” He handed a piece of paper to Death From Above.
That got through. So the bastard was going to clean him out, take more than just the Ninth. Something inside him still wanted to tell LeBarron to go to hell, but his flesh screamed at him to stay quiet. His body, at least, had learned Death’s lessons.
When they’d finally let him piss this morning, there was more blood than urine in the weak stream that dribbled out. Something inside felt torn, a deep pain that didn’t shout as loudly as the superficial burns and lacerations on his skin, but muttered of serious damage somewhere inside.
Death From Above jerked him out of the chair. “Be nice, sweetheart. Make this easy.”
LeBarron had turned back to the window, once again staring down on the golden statue of Moroni atop the temple. His voice followed them from the room. “You’re getting off easy. Remember that, Mr. Brackett. You could just as easily be a faceless body floating in the Jordan River.”
Brackett’s head cleared a bit in the ride down the elevator. Whatever drug Lela had injected into his system let him ride over the pain, let him move almost normally in spite of the grinding ache in his lower back.
At the car, Death patted Lela’s butt. “Want me to drive? This machine might be too big for you to handle.”
“Asshole,” Lela muttered as she slid behind the wheel. She took the Lincoln smoothly through the streets, her hands firm on the wheel.
Brackett slumped into the butter-smooth leather. His head was light enough to float through the top of the car. He felt his heart flutter, its rhythm missing the beat, steadying, then taking off again into a wild fugue. He tried for Vivaldi, but nothing came. The sounds refused to form in his mind.
Death sat wedged in one corner of the deep leather back seat, alert, the ever-present grin stretching his lips. Brackett ignored him as much as possible. He gave directions to Lela, east on 4th, right onto 9th East, then south to Ramona, a quiet, tree-shaded street in the cleared zone, [p.286]lined with modest brick houses surrounded by small yards planted with fuschia and lilacs. Halfway down the block, Brackett said, “Stop here.”
Death shifted in his seat. “Park it, puta.” In the rearview mirror, Brackett saw Lela’s face go hard. “Watch who you’re calling a whore. Rulon buys you the same as he buys me.” She didn’t bother pulling over, just braked and shut off the engine. No one was going to mess with a car with Priority One plates.
The curtain twitched in a side window as Brackett led them down the cement driveway to the rear entrance to his basement apartment. Brackett noticed but didn’t expect any help from his landlord. The jackal’s uniform guaranteed that Brackett had too much trouble coming down for anybody with half a brain to get involved. Like LeBarron, all Brackett wanted was to get this over with so he could work on finding an underground doctor who could fix whatever was wrong inside him. If it was fixable. That fear crept to the surface of his mind as he unlocked the double dead bolts on his door.
The basement was black-dark. Death pushed Brackett inside and snapped, “Light.”
Brackett flipped the wall switch.
“Holy shit,” Death said.
There was one room with a door leading to a tiny bathroom. A hotplate on the counter beside a rust-stained sink sufficed for the little cooking Brackett bothered with. A bright Mexican blanket covered an iron bedstead. The slit windows were stuffed with styrofoam slabs and hung with black cloth. A metal chair was shoved under the sink. Wooden crates served as cupboards for the few shirts and Levis Brackett owned. An industrial-sized humidifier hummed quietly in the middle of the room.
There wasn’t room for much else. Tapes, CDs, old vinyl LPs, Technics DAT units, TEAC open reel decks, a Pyramid mixer, equalizers, pre-amps, a couple of Marantz duplicators, a jumble of Bang & Olufson components, even a few outdated Sony and San sui and Pioneer stereos covered every centimeter of wall space and piled in the corners.
Death whistled softly. “You got enough stuff here to go to jail for a few million years.” He prowled the length of the shelves, drawing one finger along the catalogued titles. “And would you just look at this. Dealer, I’m impressed. You got a stash here that’d make Rulon cream his pants.”
“He ain’t got no speakers,” Lela said. “Why not?” Having them poke [p.287]through his equipment and the music he’d painstakingly collected over the years felt like rape. Brackett nodded at the Sennheiser HD-250s hanging on a pegboard. “Headphones. They’re quieter than speakers.”
“He’s the careful sort.”
“Lot of good that did you,” Lela said. “Too bad. What all you got here?” She peered at the titles under the neatly labelled heading Rock.
The drug-hazed pain was beginning to creep back at Brackett. “Take what you want and get out. Leave me alone.”
The jackal quit grinning. “Afraid we can’t do that, Dealer. Something Rulon didn’t tell you.” He reached up and tore the styrofoam from a window over the sink. Grabbing the chair, Death From Above used it to break out the glass. He dumped a metal wastebasket and set it in the sink. He reached into a pocket in the gray uniform and pulled out what looked like an orange sausage wrapped in 7 mil polyplastic. “You got proscribed, unAmerican material here, sweetheart. Rulon don’t like that,” he said, then ripped the plastic off the chub. Flicking open a Zippo, Death held the flame to the orange gel. It flared into white fire as he dropped it into the trash can.
Death handed Lela the paper LeBarron had given him. “See which ones of these he’s got. Pull them out.”
Lela read the list. “What about this other stuff? I sorta like some of them.” She took a CD box from the shelf. “Pink Floyd. This is a good one.”
Death grabbed her wrist, twisting. He caught the disk as it slipped from her grasp.
Lela’s eyes slitted. “Bastard.” She rubbed her wrist. He held the box over the flaming trashcan. “See, Dealer, Rulon thinks you’re slime. You pervert everything a decent America stands for with this foreign rot.” Smoke was beginning to rise from the bottom edge of the box when Death drew his hand back. “At least that’s what Rulon thinks.”
Brackett stilled the sudden throb of hope. “What do you think?”
Death From Above looked at Brackett with serious blue eyes. Then the grin curled around his face. “Me? I think you’re a dumbass. You just haven’t learned when to bend over. It’s a new order, sweetheart. If you’re too stupid to figure that out, then we better get you out of the gene pool. You made the number one stupid mistake, Dealer. You got involved with your product. Bad news, bad news.” He tossed the CD into the trashcan. Dark smoke billowed up from the can and out through the broken window.
[p.288]“You miserable slime,” Lela said.
Brackett jumped him, swinging. Death stepped into Brackett’s rush. Two short punches, one to the sternum and one in the pit of his belly put Brackett down, curled up, trying to suck air into his shocked lungs.
Death From Above used two fingers to pull out another CD, holding it like he had a rat by the tail. “Prokofiev.” He shook his head. “Trash.” It sailed into the fire.
Brackett watched, swearing weakly when he could breathe again, as Death went down the line. “Rachmaninoff, Moussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, more Russian garbage. As differentiated from French garbage.” A handful of DAT cassettes went into the fire. “Or Italian garbage. Or Polish garbage. My, my, Dealer, you’ve been a busy little sucker. This looks like a lifetime’s work.”
Lela folded her arms around her purse, holding it to her breasts. “For Christ’s sake, get on with it, you psychotic moron. Just do it. You don’t have to enjoy it.”
Death froze, a La Boheme LP in his hand. His teeth snapped together. His voice hissed out flat and deadly. “Your turn is coming, whore. I hear Rulon’s getting tired of you. Guess who’s second in line.”
Lela backed up a step.
Brackett watched as the jackal grabbed a handful of cassettes under Rock and waved them before Lela’s white face. “This is the kind of crap you like, isn’t it?” He slung them into the trashcan and took several more. Turning the slim plastic boxes, he read, “Tommy, Rock Opera by The Who. Bye-bye, Tommy.” He flipped it over his shoulder.
“Stop it,” Lela said.
Death From Above went back to the trashcan. “How about this one. U2, The Joshua Tree.” He tossed it up and caught it just before it dropped into the flames. “You like this one? What’ll you give me for it?”
“I won’t give you shit.”
She wanted it. From the sudden tension in her body, Brackett could tell she wanted it real bad. He spat to clear the blood out of his mouth. “Give him what he wants. Give him anything. Once that tape is gone, it’s gone forever.”
Lela looked down at Brackett. She looked at Death grinning, then she looked back at the shelf of music.
Brackett got to his knees, shutting out the pain that lanced through his back and darkened his vision. “He’s going to burn them all. Gabriel, Police, Beatles, Collins, everything. Stop him and you can have them.” [p.289]Brackett pitched his voice low, talking to her like a lover. “The only copies left. You can have them all.”
Death laughed. “Right, slut. Stop me.” He held the tape out to her. “Come and take it. It’s yours.”
Lela reached for the tape. Death From Above caught her wrist, pulling her close, wrapping both arms around her. “Of course, you’ve got to pay for it.”
Lela jerked free of his embrace. “I’d rather screw a snake.”
His face went cold. “That can be arranged. Might be fun to watch.”
“In your dreams, asshole.”
Death grabbed Lela, pinioning her arms. He covered her mouth with his, grinding a kiss onto her lips. Lela twisted her face away. He took her face in both hands and kissed her again. She bit him.
“Bitch!” Death slapped her, a hard openhanded slap that knocked her back onto Brackett’s bed. “You like that kind of game? Fine with me. Let’s play.”
Lela’s hand came out of her purse gripping a short-barreled .357. She leveled the gun at Death’s chest and pulled the trigger. The heavy slug slammed the jackal back, crashing against the humidifier. Death folded over the humidifier then slumped to the floor. Blood ran from under his body to puddle on the worn, yellow linoleum.
Lela dropped the .357 on the bed. She looked at Death From Above’s body and put both hands over her mouth.
Brackett’s ears rang from the blast. His mind was empty. A couple of the orange chubs had spilled out of Death’s pocket. He picked one up, rolling it between his palms.
Lela sagged off the bed onto the floor. “Oh, no.” The room stank of blood and piss and cordite. The chub gave under Brackett’s fingers, not liquid, not solid. He coughed to clear the rasp from his throat. “What is this stuff?”
Lela looked blankly at him. She closed her eyes, opened them, shrugged. “Plastic explosive. Death keeps a couple of boxes in the trunk. Kept a couple of boxes.”
Brackett put the chub down very gently. Lela managed a laugh. “Don’t worry. It’s stable. Won’t explode without a detonator.” She stretched out one foot and prodded Death’s flaccid body. “What am I going to do now?” Pinning Brackett with a dark gaze, she said, “For that matter, what are you going to do now, Dealer?”
The take-up reel in Brackett’s brain started turning again. Death [p.290]From Above wasn’t just going to rip off his stash, the son of a bitch was destroying it. Deciding what was good and what was bad according to LeBarron’s list. Destroying everything that didn’t fit within LeBarron’s narrow range of approval. He looked at Death and was gut-deep sorry that he hadn’t been the one who pulled the trigger.
There wasn’t any music left in his head. Nothing to orchestrate the destruction of his life. His pulse fluttered, fast, slow, fast. His head pounded in time to the thump of pain growing in his body, shrieking that, beyond any doubt, the beatings had ripped something irreparable. Kidneys. Spleen. The diagnosis wasn’t important. They said you always knew when you were dying.
And with the music gone, maybe it didn’t matter. Or maybe it did.
Brackett got to his hands and knees and crawled to the jackal’s body. Going through the pockets, he found several more chubs. “How do you detonate these?”
“Plain old blasting caps. There’s some of them in the trunk, too. Be Prepared, that was Death’s motto. Oh, Jesus, Dealer, we’re dead.”
“You’re half right.” Ignoring the wrench of abused muscles, Brackett turned Death over. He unbuckled the jackal’s belt and began tugging at the gray uniform pants. “Help me.”
“Because I want his pants.”
“You gotta take his boots off first,” Lela said. Her fingers fumbled at the metal buckles. “Why do I have the feeling you’re going to do something real stupid?”
There was a little blood on the front waistband, but the black belt hid it. The shirt was soaked with Death’s blood, useless. The boots were too big; laced tight, they would do. He set the maroon beret on his head.
Lela looked at him, the livid welts and yellow-green bruises that covered his torso. She shook her head. “His gray jacket is in the car. I’ll get it.”
While she was gone, Brackett rummaged through the pile of CDs she had pulled from the shelves. He found the Ninth, with the photo of von Karajan, face intent, both arms lifted, eyes looking beyond human limitation, raising the Berlin Symphony into a soaring act of inspired creation. The disk was still safely spindled inside the transparent plastic. Brackett took a small canvas bag, put the Ninth inside it, then added a tape and a Panasonic portable DAT deck with lightweight phones.
[p.291]Lela returned just as he was scraping the last crumpled bills from their hiding place in the wall behind the huge, antique Akai open-reeler. He took the jacket and handed her the money. She took it, her eyes full of questions. “You want to get out of Salt Lake City?” Brackett asked.
“It would be a real good idea, Dealer. Rulon is gonna be real pissed.”
Brackett nodded, feeling the tang of old blood in his throat. He stretched his shoulders carefully. It hurt. The ache in his kidneys felt like something chewing at his flesh from the inside. “Don’t worry about LeBarron. Show me how to use the blasting caps. Help me pack what’s left of my stash in the Lincoln. There’s over ten thousand dollars here. That and the car should get you to Seattle. I’ve got a phone number for you. Memorize it. If you give the music to the guy who answers, he’ll get you into Canada.”
“Drive from here to Seattle with a car full of contraband music. Uh-uh. I’m not stupid. You’re going to have to come up with a better idea than that.”
Brackett rubbed one hand over his face, swearing as he touched the crushed cartilage in his nose. Eventually, when the reek of Death’s decomposing body called the landlord to check out his room, all the music would be lost anyway. “All right, forget the rest of it. Just save the Ninth. You’ll need it to get over the border.”
Lela edged around Death From Above, stooped in the corner and came up with The Joshua Tree. “I want this one, too. I heard it when I was a kid.” She moved back to Brackett and put one cool hand on his cheek. Her head tilted. She looked at him through long, black eyelashes. “You could come with me. No use dying for a pile of plastic.”
He didn’t try to explain that it was more than ribbons of plastic, electronic parts, metal fittings, digital storage and laser optics, copper wires, and shreds of solder. He shrugged the jackal’s gray windbreaker over his shoulders. The decision made, he felt disconnected, his skin gone cold.
Bent over the trunk of the Lincoln, the car’s plates and the jackal uniform making them invisible to the muted inhabitants of Ramona Avenue, Lela showed him the simplicity of attaching blasting caps to the chubs. When he understood, she brought a book of Alta Club matches from her purse. “Go out in a blaze of glory, you idiot.”
Brackett settled into the front passenger seat of the Lincoln. The car’s door shut with a solid clunk. Like maybe the door to hell. Lela [p.292]started the engine, heavy-footed, revving it a couple of times. “You’re sure about this?”
Brackett inserted the Ninth into the Blaupunkt CD/Cassette player. He leaned back into the soft headrest. His eyes closed. “Take the long way back. You have about 24 minutes to kill.” He punched play. The last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Ode to Joy, swelled into the car, drowning out the rumble of the engine, drowning out thought; washing the ugly reality of Insulation America from his consciousness; leaving only the wonder of a rich baritone voice proclaiming Freude, schaner Gotferfunken! Strangely enough, Brackett knew the joy. Maybe even the bright spark of divinity. He couldn’t analyze his actions. Saving this piece of music would have to be enough.
Lela turned right onto 9th East and headed south. She raised her voice over the music. “You could change your mind, Dealer.”
“Shut up,” Brackett said.
Alle Menschen werden Bruder.
Her timing was good. The car rolled to a stop as the final notes faded into silence. She watched Brackett as he checked the plastique chubs stuffed into his pockets, more of them bulking inside his black Deadhead T-shirt until the jacket barely fastened. She leaned across the wide seat and brushed her lips across his battered cheek. “Good luck, Dealer.”
Standing outside the car, Brackett dropped the Panasonic DAT portable into the pocket with the fused chubs and matches. He settled the headphones under the maroon beret and shoved the tape in. He passed into the Hotel Utah with Te Kanawa’s crystalline soprano pouring Strauss’s Beim Schlafengehn into his head. It gave him courage, for a bit, anyway. For long enough.
Heading north on 1-15 towards Idaho, weaving the car through the sparse traffic, Lela saw the flash of the blast in her rearview mirror. The concussion shook the Lincoln two miles away as the explosion took out the southwestern corner of the building’s top floor, blowing the peregrine falcons from their nest under the cornice. A flying chunk of granite sheared Moroni from his perch atop the temple. Dense black smoke roiled from the shattered stone and glass and twisted steel.
Lela lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. “Here’s to ya, Dealer.” She shoved the U2 tape into the player and cranked up the volume.