Karl Gochsheim was not himself. Out of all of them, he'd never been the level-headed one. He gambled like a drunk, drank like a fish, and built museums dedicated entirely to clutter; but at the end of the day, he made money doing it. He knew how to work the system - the stock market practically wagged its tail at the sight of him. And yet here he sat, wrinkles carved deep in a week old suit, loose like parchment at the shoulders, avoiding the stares of those around him with dull, furtive resignation.
Even the table was better dressed.
Daimler sat back in the plush restaurant seats, eying his companion over the remains of their meal. Gochsheim had barely eaten. His eyes were shadowed, sunken and hollow in the recess of his skull and his wine remained untouched. It wasn't entirely unusual. Gochsheim had his moods. There were months when fine brandy and finer women couldn't comfort him - still others when whatever wife he'd managed to win gave up competing with women half her age, and somewhere between It's over and I'm leaving Gochsheim convinced himself he loved her. It was nothing, Daimler tried to tell himself. The desperation in the man's eyes was the same act as always.
Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.
"This is it, Patrick," he said at last, in a voice so far removed from his booming baritone that Daimler hardly recognized it. "I'm finished."
Finished? Daimler grinned. He knew the man better than that. Give it a week and he'd be out chasing anything with long legs and a short skirt, troubles forgotten until the next time his newest wife walked out. But then he saw the look on the man's face, really saw him for the first time that evening, and realized this was far more serious than he'd thought.
"Is it the stocks?" he asked, and paused to glance at the tables next to him before continuing, his voice a low comfort in the cacophony of laughter. "You know the share holders. This time next week - "
"This time next week I'll be dead."
Daimler stopped, halfway to reaching for the wine.
"Dead?" he tried to laugh. "You're joking, right?"
But Gochsheim only watched him, a chilling, absolute certainty in his eyes and Daimler was reminded of a clock his grandfather had owned. The hands cast forever downward, stark and motionless on bone-white backing. But the clock kept ticking, wound or not, the noise plummeting down from the mantel like a hangman's heartbeat and it was always, eternally, six-thirty.
"I know what I am. I'm not proud," Gochsheim said, avoiding his eyes, staring instead at the people around them. "I'm not even honest. I've been bribed and bought for years but now there's nothing left. It's over. My usefulness ran out."
"Usefulness to who?"
"Howitzer." And that was it. One name spat like poison with the most emotion Daimler had seen from him today and he began to realize, finally, that this was not a joke.
"So he'll kill you?"
Gochsheim nodded once, avoiding his eyes and Daimler felt a cold weight slide into the pit of his stomach.
"Have you seen a doctor about this? Howitzer's not going to kill you. That's just " Ridiculous, he wanted to say, but couldn't. "He's not going to kill you, Karl."
Someone laughed at a nearby table. Behind them, wine opened like a gunshot in autumn. Further down the aisle, in Smoking, it was someone's birthday. The waiters trudged past them in grudging, smiling lines as Gochsheim shook his head, resigned and quiet and frighteningly sane.
"He doesn't like to play second. He wants to be the head of the board, judge, jury and executioner all in one. All he cares about is building more and building it bigger."
Daimler opened his mouth to protest but the memory of his few meetings with Howitzer stopped him. The man's eyes were black, empty of color or emotion; a patient predator. The first time they'd met, Howitzer had been fresh out of Vermont, snapping up the slums on the edges of the city, buying anything he could cop the cash for. And he hadn't been rich - couldn't have been; not then - but he'd been dressed better than God, combed and coifed and painfully polite. Not that there was anything wrong with that. Not really. Buying and building - it was the only way to make money.
"Don't we all?" he said and forced a smile. "It's an admirable goal. Howitzer isn't evil. He's just "
Gochsheim's bleak ghost eyes met his over the bottle of wine, lost and unseeing.
"Progress," he said quietly and stood, folding his napkin. "He's progress."
Two weeks later, Gochsheim was dead.
Gochsheim grinned up at him from the front page of the paper, three years younger, wife in one arm, her sister in the other, and Daimler wasn't sure there was a woman in the background Gochsheim hadn't slept with. Suicide screamed at him from the headline. Tiny newsprint framed the photo, words like impending bankruptcy and police investigation glaring at each other over the ravine of a dead man's smile.
"It just doesn't seem like Karl to me, Bull," he said. "I mean, he's been half a second away from bankruptcy before, and last time he thought it was funny."
Tim Bull glanced up at him, balancing his mountainous piles of folders and fact sheets as their driver swerved through cutthroat traffic with sedate and practiced ease.
"Morbid debt has to lose its charm sometime," he said and shrugged, returning to his numbers. "Still sad though."
Daimler nodded, murmured something like agreement and found himself staring down at Gochsheim once again. The ever present brandy was there in his left hand, and the best cigar money could blend, wrap, and buy balanced in the other. He was laughing, flirting with someone off-camera and none of it made sense. Something was wrong. The knowledge plagued him, twisted like instinct, like a warning ten minutes shy of six-thirty, writhing and illusive in the back of his mind. This picture - the man he had known, worked with, befriended - was not the man he'd met last week for dinner, and no amount of time alone could make it so.
"It's not that he wouldn't kill himself," he said at last. "He hated getting older. But he'd take too many pills with a glass of champagne or tip his television into the bath. Or or die in a sarcophagus in a collapsed pile of broken appliances somewhere. But this? There's no finesse here. No mystique."
Bull laughed. "Conspiracy theorizing again, Patrick?" he asked and it was meant to be a joke, but it was flat and hard around the edges and Daimler knew there was more truth in what he'd said than either of them wanted to see.
At a party three Christmases past, he'd watched Will Barrow announce to the press, God and everyone that he'd officially made it, goddamn it, and he'd never touch his own steering wheel again. Yesterday, Will had driven past him, knuckles white around the wheel, lips pressed into a grim colorless line. And as he'd watched the car pass, he'd seen the look in the other man's eyes, and a hollow, horrible ticking had filled his head.
"I had dinner with Gochsheim the other week," he said at last. "He wasn't himself."
Bull barely looked up from his papers. "Jenny said he'd lost his mind."
Daimler wanted to believe it. Wanted to believe that the worst of everything could be explained, ordered and filed away in the back of his father's old metal cabinets. But the look in Gochsheim's eyes, in Barrow's eyes, could never be filed away. Gochsheim had known what was coming. He'd been more than lucid. Hunted, haunted, resigned, but he'd known what was coming. He'd known.
Daimler stared out the window at the blur of lights and lime green row houses, fiddled with the seat heaters and made a game of passing license plates. Anything to avoid the ghost grinning at him from the next seat, abandoned on the front page of every newspaper in the city.
"Listen," Bull said suddenly, looking up from the file in his lap. "Do you mind if we eat at Sybaris today?"
Suspicion slithered through the forefront of his mind, twining with metronome knowledge that something isn't right here, something isn't right.
"Tired of the Derby?"
They always ate at the casino. Bull owned it, bet cigarettes on the horses because he couldn't put money on his own game. And the food there wasn't spectacular - Sybaris catered to luxury, the rich side of town and proud of it - but they always ate at the Derby. Always.
In the ragged edge of a second, their eyes locked and Daimler didn't need to ask.
Bull had lost the Derby.
"It's been a bad year," Bull said, staring fixedly out the window. "I've been a little deeper in the hole than I would have liked and when Howitzer offered me a deal, I took it."
He fell silent for a moment, shrugged and started again, "The Derby's still mine. I've got the payments under control."
Even as the other man spoke, Daimler could see the unspoken for now hanging sick and clammy like wet cigar smoke in the air between them. He opened his mouth to say something, anything - get out; it's too late already - but Bull plowed on like he couldn't stop, a desperate, stubborn glint in his eyes.
"It doesn't matter anyway. Everybody trades, right? Buildings get torn down - built again and built bigger. Things have to change with the times," he said, his voice tight, humorless. "Just progress, I guess."
And Daimler went cold in a way that had nothing to do with the leaves plummeting down outside.
Daimler drove past the Garden View Terrace Apartments without thinking, barely spared it a glance as he headed on towards Penn Avenue and when, ten minutes later, what he'd seen finally registered, had to turn the car around. No one noticed. There wasn't anyone around to notice. The road was deserted.
As he eased back the way he'd come, slower than the speed limit and gawking like a tourist who'd never seen trees, he realized the apartments were empty. Leaves and limbs from their last storm littered the ground unheeded. Row after row of sepulcher houses lined the hill, naked windows like dead and empty eyes stared out onto the landscape. From the road, Daimler could see the streets and driveways sprawling upwards like veins, all of them dull and dirty gray in the morning light, absent of even a mail truck.
Only the gatehouse was occupied. A muscle-bound man hunched inside the too-small frame, watching a portable television. Nearby, four identical company vans were parked inches from the entrance, each embossed with Howitzer Enterprise arched neatly over a brass cannon. Another car, this one a black antique, was parked under an overhanging willow, the driver inside and asleep.
"Bribed and bought for years now," Gochsheim's voice whispered at him from the passenger's seat. "Now there's nothing left."
He had not yet been dead a week.
Daimler pulled the car over and onto the shoulder, gravel spitting from beneath his wheels as he eased to a stop beside the vans. Slowly, he stepped out, watched the ever empty road for a long moment before he turned and made his way towards the gate.
"ID?" the caveman in the box grunted, eyeing him like a pit-bull barely tethered.
He'd seen the man before, he realized. Howizter's shadow - one of his many personal bodyguards. And the man looked like he predated Cro-Magnon, but Daimler knew better than that. Howitzer wasn't an idiot. He'd chosen this man for a reason.
Daimler took his driver's license from his wallet and handed it to the man, staring him down with a look that dared he suggest it wasn't the right kind of ID. The man barely glanced at it, shrugged and grunted and went back to his TV.
"You're not on the list, buddy. Lemme call the boss," he said and then, Bakelite black receiver pressed to his ear, "Patrick Daimler here to see you."
A moment later the phone was back in its cradle and the caveman glanced his way. Something like pity etched itself into the lines of the man's face for a moment, gone in the next, blank, feigned stupidity slotting downward into place.
He knew. Whatever Howitzer was planning, he knew.
"Boss is coming down," he said simply and turned back to his show. "Wait here."
Daimler nodded, wary, and stepped back under the shade of a tree. Gochsheim's ghost was here, too, his booming laughter tumbling down the road as he gestured with giant golden scissors, broad shoulders framed by candy striped gates tied with a bow.
"This is a present to myself, really, but I am a generous man," he'd said, his at-the-time wife tucked neatly on his free arm. "You know how it is. If you want a little something sweet, have to bring enough for the whole class."
The memory lingered a moment more before dissolving, a bubble of past fragmenting into the sky. Howitzer strode through Gochsheim's right shoulder as he crested the hill, surrounded by middle-class men in white dress shirts, each of them shouldering their tubes of blueprints with a stifling air of desperation. Daimler watched them approach from the shade, saw Howitzer's eyes fix on him and knew the smile twisting at the corners of his mouth was amusement, not surprise.
"Hello, Patrick," Howitzer said, coming to a stop at the bottom of the hill as the men behind him eased towards their vans. "Lovely morning today."
"Howitzer," he said, because he had to say something, and nodded in a way that might have been polite, hiding unease behind dark eyes. "I saw your trucks out front. Didn't realize they'd sold the place."
For a moment, Howitzer only looked at him, his smile like a mask, and if he hadn't been suspicious before, that look - that sideways, sizing glance - would have done it. Daimler took an easy step back, glanced around at the empty street and fell into his old fighter's stance, one eye fixed on the caveman in the box.
At last, Howitzer shrugged.
"I do what I can to help. Jenny was in a rather foul place when Karl died. Apparently there was barely enough money for the funeral."
And then those black eyes were fixed on him and Howitzer was watching, waiting for him to react, something like laughter hidden in the tilt and heft of his shoulders, like a hyena gauging weakness, circling. He'd paid for it, Daimler realized. He'd killed Gochsheim and bought the box to bury him out of the kindness of his heart and it was only when pain began to shoot like lightening up his arms that Daimler forcibly unclenched his fists.
He'd done it. He didn't know how, didn't want to know, but he knew the look of a predator when he saw it - knew beyond a shadow of a doubt Gochsheim had been sane the day he died.
Howitzer only smiled.
"Mind if I go up?" Daimler asked, pleasant as he could manage. "I haven't been here since Karl built the place."
"I'm afraid not. Demolition's set to start within the hour."
"Yes. I'm tearing it down," Howitzer said and turned to gaze up the hill, insufferably pleased. He turned back, smile fixed in place, the predatory gleam in his eyes still there. He was waiting for Daimler's next reaction. Waiting for the rabbit to run. "Gochsheim had no vision."
"Vision?" Daimler wanted to say. "Gochsheim made his living selling people shit."
He shrugged instead, murmured something noncommittal, not trusting himself to speak, and Howitzer continued as if commenting on the weather.
"Have you ever considered developing Baltic?"
Daimler turned then, met his gaze full on, thinking and so it begins as the leaves whipped around his ankles. Was this always how it started, he wondered? A vague business proposal, a suggestion? Was this how he'd managed to take the Derby? How he'd charmed Gochsheim out of everything - bribed and bought - leaving Jenny always playing catch-up on her dead husband's mortgages and rent?
"Can't say as I have," he said at last.
It was not the answer Howitzer had been expecting. Suddenly Daimler had the man's full attention, his head cocked slightly to one side in almost childlike curiosity. And in that moment, the sunlight caught like fire in his hair, carved corners and shadows into the lines of his face and Howitzer did not look human.
"I sincerely doubt that," he said and smiled, showing far too many sharpened teeth. "That kind of potential? Of course, it's only slums now. Barely worth what's breeding there, but near the bank - a street away from Boardwalk and that's yours in full, if I am not mistaken. The possibility there, Patrick - "
"The progress?" Daimler snapped, remembering too many things better never seen.
Howitzer grinned, a hungry, cunning light glittering like flint in fathomless eyes.
"I own the other side of the district now, so you'll need my signature whatever you decide." And then, after a moment, watching as the workmen roared off down the road in single file line, "I'm an amiable man, Patrick, but better as an ally."
Still smiling, he handed Daimler his card. "Be seeing you."
Daimler got into his car, watching as Howitzer sped away, hidden behind tinted, bulletproof glass. Years ago, when Vanguard had sold St. Charles Place, he hadn't thought anything of it. Vanguard was getting old, getting tired of playing the stocks and not doing so well at it anymore. At the time well, everyone retired eventually, pulled a little money out of the market and went on a long holiday, world tour, something. Even a battleship couldn't sail forever. It made sense that he'd sell to Howitzer. A kid with a little money, looking for a challenge - someone's protégé, no doubt. There was nothing unusual about that. Nothing at all.
And when Anthony Gibus had sold the brownstones nearby less than a year later - St. James Place, the avenue, everything - there'd been nothing unusual there either. The auction had been perfectly legitimate and above ground, no bribes to be found, no unusual circumstances. Just another retirement. Early retirement, Anthony had said. For his health.
He'd looked desperate, Daimler remembered. He'd looked like the world was crashing down around his ears and word was his doctors had him drugged to the gills with so many anti-depressants and anxiety reducers he could barely see the world around him for the colors. It happened. It happened again and again and no one spared it a passing thought at all, but now that Daimler was, now that he connected all the dots in their neat little sequential lines, he recognized that look.
Gibus had looked about to collapse - hunted, haunted.
He'd bought Baltic at that auction, a hundred acres and the house on Penn Avenue. The last privately owned strip of land in Green Hollow Glade. The last strip of land in Green Hollow Glade Howitzer didn't own. And now, with Gochsheim six feet under, Bull and Barrow with their balls in a Howitzer Enterprise vise, he was one of the few out of debt, all his property signed and sealed in his own name.
He was the one of the last left standing in Howitzer's way.
Daimler sat, silent and unthinking, staring out at the empty drive with his hands fastened to the wheel, only listening to his heartbeat echo in the cavern of his chest. The late morning sun was beating down outside his car, falling in warm strips between the trees. Indian summer, not a cloud in the sky, breeze tossing leaves like licks of flame into the air.
Slowly, he pushed the car in gear and rolled away from the shoulder, scattering dust and gravel in his wake as the first of the explosions started behind him.
The clock on the dash read six-thirty.
Someone was following him.
It took a few weeks for the realization to finally sink in, but once it had, there was no denying it. At first he'd thought it was only coincidence. The city was expensive, not big - so some guy with a bad shave and an obvious penchant for cheap razors happened to have a roughly similar schedule. It was bound to happen eventually. Daimler wasn't exactly a fixture on the rich end of town - most of his days were spent in his office down by Penn Station. He was bound to see some of the same people every day.
Thing was, there was no simple coincidence that could explain his shadow. And he could have ignored it. Paranoia only went so far into the real world. But now, three of the old office's file cabinets were unlocked.
There was no reason for those filing cabinets to have been opened. The files there were thirty years and older, associates of his father who'd died decades before, and only good for history now. Daimler kept them, carried them from office to office for no better reason than his father's organized, illegible scrawl covered every page. They were rarely opened and even if he had needed to see something inside, he made painfully sure each and every lock in his office was secure at the end of the night, every night, without exception.
When his father had been alive, an army of reporters had waited slavering at the gates for scraps of scandal while a dozen or so of the old man's enemies lingered in the wings, just waiting for the opportunity to feed them. And so his father had left in the back of one drawer, out of order and filed without the usual date and color coding, a file labeled simply Marissa.
Inside was a solid steel rat trap.
The rat trap had been sprung.
Mechanically, Daimler pried the jaws apart and replaced it in the file before locking every drawer. Nothing was missing. There was nothing to be gained from the old black mail his father had filed away - who'd been stealing from who whom in 1962.
He sat back at his desk, staring blankly out at the world from behind tinted glass, wondering just what the hell he was supposed to do about this. Not the would-be thief. That was a simple enough matter. He had enough security cameras and back-up cameras littered throughout the building that it was physically impossible to shut down every one in a given corridor. He'd have a clear image of the man, charges would be filed, money would have the whole process sped up, and without the possibility of bail, the man would be locked up from the moment they caught him until the last day his sentence was served.
Problem being, that still left the man who'd hired him.
But there was a man crossing the street outside, badly shaved with a splint on the first two fingers of his left hand, and he knew what had to be done. Watching the bastard duck into the café across the street from his building, Daimler leaned forward and dialed his secretary's extension.
"June, I need something with a hood and a pair of jeans as fast as you can get them," he said. "You know my numbers, yes?"
He walked into the cafe with his shoulders rounded, hands shoved deep into his pockets, hood up. The man with the splint looked past him, unseeing, eyes fixed on the door of his office despite the book lying open on the table. Daimler ignored him for the moment, fixed the barista with a charmer's grin and ordered something more foam and sugar than consumable in a voice an octave deeper than his own.
His stalker didn't so much as glance his way.
Daimler grabbed a package of cream from the nearby stand, maneuvering closer as he made his way down the line of napkins and condiments until he was standing behind the man's table. Moving fast, he pulled a chair from nearby, swung it around and sat down like he belonged there.
The stalker looked up, face contorted, glowering.
"Seat's taken, buddy."
Recognition hit him a moment too late. With speed Daimler hadn't used since his college boxing days, he had the first two fingers of the man's left hand clenched in his own. Hatred smeared over the man's face like a bad Halloween mask and for a split second, he looked ready to fight. Daimler only smiled, leaned forward and twisted.
"You were in my office," he said pleasantly, like a greeting. "Who sent you?"
"Crazy-ass son of a bitch," he snarled and before he could make a scene, something in his finger wrenched to the left with a sickening pop. He hissed a string of curses, the color draining from his face like a sinking ship, before he finally forced out, "Howitzer."
Daimler let go, leaned back in his chair and regarded the man with a look as innocent as angels.
"Nice of you to cooperate. What were you looking for, anyway? I can't imagine forty year old business deals are that marketable these days."
"Bastard," the man spat and he was almost whimpering, cradling his hand as he lurched to his feet. "You sick-ass bastard. That goddamn snare was entrapment."
Daimler smiled like the sun and shrugged.
"We have a rodent problem," he said and stood, holding out a hand. "Nice meeting you, though."
The man growled, hatred and humiliation burning in every line of his body as he shoved past - would have punched him had he not been cradling his hand - and settled for battering his shoulder. Daimler staggered backwards for effect, looked wounded and pleasant as the man thundered outside and the barista watched in sympathy.
"Jesus, what's his problem?" she asked, painted mouth twisted in disgust.
He shrugged, looked about as contrite as a wolf in sheep's clothing and flashed an empty smile, thinking same one as mine.
Daimler didn't stop to change. He called June, canceled his meetings and drove off. This had to end. He was done playing this game with Howitzer. He wasn't going to be the next on his list. Chances were Bull was only a means to an end. Howitzer didn't want the Derby - the Derby was pennies in a wishing well compared to Green Hollow Glade. He only wanted Daimler to step in, to pay off a few of Bull's debts and when those debts never stopped growing, when the mountain threatened to tumble in and crush the both of them, all the land Howitzer wanted would be spread out and bankrupt for the taking. That was the plan. This was the nerve he'd been hoping to find. Pick off the weakest members of the herd, one by one until there was no one left but the hyenas, circling in the underbrush.
So he drove, made his way to the other side of the city with blinding speed and stopped outside of Howitzer's main office. He'd better be in. He'd sure as hell better be in or so help him, Daimler was going to do something he'd seriously regret.
Wrenching the car into a spot barely half a block from the door, Daimler got out without so much as a glance at traffic, launched himself onto the sidewalk
And stopped dead at the sight of the newspaper stand.
Calvin Rye was going bankrupt.
The herd was down to one.
"Good morning, Patrick," he heard, and turned to find Howitzer watching him with a slick smile, body guard trailing an easy ten paces behind. "What brings you to my side of the board this morning?"
Daimler wanted to deck the smirking bastard. Wanted to shove his head into the newspaper stand and bring the edged lid down on the back of his neck. This was all a game to Howitzer. Driving people under, bankrupting the lot of them left and right - burying them.
"You know about this?" he asked, jerking his head in the direction of the headline. And there must have been a certain kind of desperation in his voice because in a second the bodyguard was growing like a tumor from Howitzer's side, glowering all the while.
If Howitzer noticed, he didn't let on. Only smiled beatifically and shrugged.
"The races can't go on forever, Patrick. It's time to put the old horse down - I'm sure you understand."
Daimler stared at him, unable to speak, unable to form a coherent thought that didn't involve strangling that inhuman little bastard. He turned away before Howitzer's bodyguard could decide to take a preventive parting shot and climbed back into his car, pulling blindly out in traffic.
He was the last one.
Howitzer had ruined Vanguard's stocks. He'd driven Gibus to drugs that couldn't save him, had killed Gochsheim, and started on Bull and Barrows. He was finally pulling the carpet out from under Calvin after years of picking at his properties and now Daimler was the only one left.
This had to stop.
He flew home, had barely unlocked the door by the time he was barreling through it. The maid looked at him with wide eyes, sponge dangling from one lacquered hand but he didn't stop to see her. He wrenched open the door to his office, tore through every file, every deed, credit and bank statement he could find. The money was all there. He could do this. He could beat Howitzer at his own damn game.
Finding the rolodex was trickier. It was buried under papers, rarely used - he normally called June to find his numbers, but there was no time for that today. Calvin's was somewhere in the back. He tore it out, dialed it into his cell with shaking fingers and paced, listening to his grandfather's clock ticking, to his own metronome footsteps across the hardwood floor.
"Calvin? It's Patrick," he said as soon as the man picked up. "I'll buy everything you have. Debt, deeds, everything. I mean it. We can't let the bastard win."
There was silence for a long moment from the other side.
"You don't understand," Calvin said and he sounded hollow on the other end, hunted and beyond exhaustion. "When they say Howitzer owns everything, they mean it. The bank's his now. So's the court house; he pays their salaries there. He owns the entire West End, the North Side, has shares in the slums and whatever else."
A long, sickening pause sprawled between them, wet cigarette smoke, bleak ghost silence.
"It's over, Patrick," he said at last. "He's already won."
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Crystal Lynn Hilbert. All rights reserved.