Unhinged, page 1
Also available from Titan Books and Barbra Leslie
About the Author
Also available from Titan Books
ALSO AVAILABLE FROM TITAN BOOKS AND BARBRA LESLIE
Print edition ISBN: 9781783297023
Electronic edition ISBN: 9781783297030
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First edition: November 2017
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This is a work of fiction. Names, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead (except for satirical purposes), is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 Barbra Leslie. All Rights Reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
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Dedicated to the memory of my sister
Pamela Vail (Leslie) Lowes
who died on August 1 2017
I can’t find the words to express how much she is missed
New York City
I’d had enough of hospitals to last me a lifetime. But this time, I wasn’t the patient.
Most of the time – when we were walking down the street, or in bed – I forgot how slight Dave really was. I remembered my first impression of him, when he was posing undercover as a slacker pawn shop clerk without two brain cells to rub together. Dave was good at what he did, and when he was in character, his walk was different, his speech, even the way he wore his clothes. Later, when I got to know him, when his true self emerged as some kind of vigilante superhero security expert, I thought he was untouchable.
I’d thought that about my late husband Jack, too.
Dave wasn’t unconscious, he was just sleeping. The nurse swore to me he was just sleeping. But I’d been there for four hours since getting the call, and he hadn’t stirred. I watched him, observed the measured movements of his chest. He’d been shot. He’d been on an easy job, a job I was supposed to be helping on, protecting a wealthy elderly couple from their estranged son. The son had skipped bail on a manslaughter charge and apparently blamed his parents for everything that had gone wrong in his miserable life. There were mental health issues there, but the old couple didn’t like to talk about that. Dave knew the family from a job he had done six or seven years ago, and he was fond of the couple. Less so of their wayward son. Who, as it turned out, was the one who had shot Dave in his upper right arm.
It’s not like on TV, being shot. I’d had a bullet graze my bicep once, and at the time the doctors had told me all the horrific things that can happen when a person is shot in the arm – the subclavian artery being severed, bleeding out immediately, or nerve death, amputation. Dave, the nurse had told me, was lucky. The shooter had used a .22 caliber firearm – more suited to hunting rabbits than humans – and the hospital had operated and removed the slug. He would live, and he would probably – probably – regain full use of his right arm, with enough physical therapy and dumb luck.
I watched him, and waited. Waited for the monitors to start beeping loudly and a legion of doctors and nurses to come in and hustle me out of the way, then tell me how sorry they were, but they’d lost him. If I waited long enough, I was sure it was inevitable. I had this effect on men.
I closed my eyes and prayed wordlessly. I replayed the nurse’s assurances in my head: he will be fine. But there were other things in my head, other voices screaming at me, telling me that this was wrong, and it was my fault; it was my hubris – thinking I could be whole again – that put Dave in this hospital bed. Even Dave’s strength was no match against the evil that followed me around like a bad smell. The cautious happiness I’d been relaxing into had made way for the return of the mantle of pain and dread I’d worn for the last two years. Enough. It was enough.
I got up and leaned over Dave, kissed his forehead, and walked out of the room to the elevators. Dave’s buddy and colleague Ned was getting off one, and I hopped in. “He’s going to be fine,” I said brightly. “I’m just going to grab something to eat. I’ll be back.”
Ned smiled and tilted an imaginary cap at me, and looked like he was going to say something. I kept my face bright and cheerful through some miracle of will. The elevator doors shut before Ned could speak.
I got a cab back to the bolthole that Dave kept in Manhattan, a third-floor walk-up in Hell’s Kitchen that was rented in a fake name and paid for a year in advance with cash. Neither Dave nor I were what you could call tidy, and the place was in desperate need of some TLC. I wished I could clean it for him, at least, before I left. But there was no time. I threw what clothes of mine I could see into the small suitcase I’d brought, and spent twenty frustrating, sweaty minutes searching for my passport. After grabbing a few things from the bathroom and the nightstand, I left, closing the door behind me softly. I’d been happy in this dump. The thought made me feel sick, lightheaded. On my way down the stairs I realized I hadn’t left a note, but it wouldn’t matter. And really, what could I say?
The smells on the street assaulted me when I left the building. I hadn’t noticed them before, but I was fighting a growing nausea. I walked until I could hail a cab on 11th Avenue.
“The Sansevoort,” I said. I didn’t look at the driver. I was just glad his cab was clean.
“The hotel, miss?” the driver asked. He was looking at me in the rearview so I just nodded. It was in the Meatpacking District, not far away, and I’d walked past it before. The Dutch name somehow stayed in my brain, and Dave had mentioned that Ned stayed there sometimes when he wanted to push the boat out, because it had smoking rooms. In this culture of the vilification of smokers, I’d filed that fact away. And while I wasn’t exactly a full-time smoker – I picked it up and put it down as the mood struck me – my fingers itched to hold one.
I spent a couple of minutes considering trying to score some crack somewh
I would be checking into the hotel. I was going to order up a glass of wine. Or probably a bottle, and of something I wouldn’t normally waste money on, even though I could afford to now. I would write a couple of notes: one to my brothers, and one to my nephews. And when I was done with all that, I would put a note on the door for the maids to tell them not to enter, take the gun out of my bag, and this would all, finally, be over.
I’d cheated death before. This time, no one was taking my life from me. I would be in control of my own end.
I would be with Jack and Ginger. I knew for certain that there was something beyond this world; Ginger had been with me too many times, and I knew the difference between my imagination and her presence. She had been my twin. We were tied, we had always been tied, by something beyond science and a split egg in our mother’s womb.
I would finally draw a black curtain over the memories that haunted me: of Jack bleeding out under my hands, of Ginger being raped and killed, of Darren lying in the snow with an arrow in his chest. The violence that gravitated to me and the people who loved me would end, and the man who was hunting me would most likely be placated by my death. If he wasn’t, if he still wanted to target the Clearys, I had three very capable and competent brothers who could steer the ship. Not to mention Dave’s crew, who wouldn’t see my family hurt if they could help it. We’d formed a bond, all of us, and it went beyond my relationship with Dave.
A sense of serenity washed over me, and I felt a peace I hadn’t experienced in years. A wave of calm and love made tears roll down my cheeks.
“You’re okay, miss?” the driver said. We were in front of the hotel.
“Thank you, yes,” I said. I gave him a fifty and told him to keep the change. “I’m better than I’ve been in a long time, sir. Thank you for asking.”
Ginger, and Jack. I was going to see Ginger and Jack. My dead twin, and my dead husband.
* * *
An hour later, I was sitting cross-legged on the king-size bed, flipping through channels on TV and waiting for room service: a bottle of Prosecco and ridiculously overpriced macaroni and cheese. While waiting, I’d fixed myself a gin and tonic from the mini-bar, and was eating a small bag of potato chips that would probably cost me ten bucks. I would drink the wine and eat, and write my notes, including one for housekeeping telling them not to enter and to call the police. Although I was sure I wasn’t the first person to check into a hotel to die, I hated the idea of some poor maid having to find me. That’s why the bathroom was best, and easier to clean up, too.
I felt calm, and actually quite cheerful. All thoughts of Dave had very effectively been shunted to some corner of my brain. I was looking forward to my meal, and debating ordering a movie from cable to have on in the background while I wrote. The notes would be short, in any event. My brothers knew what I’d been through, and they knew how much I loved them. I doubted they’d even be surprised.
The note to Matthew and Luke would be more difficult, but that’s what I was hoping the Prosecco would help with.
A short tap at the door, and I bounded off the bed, grabbing a twenty-dollar bill I’d set on the credenza to tip the room-service waiter.
I began to open the door, but someone pushed it hard, so that it hit me square in the face. In the nose, in fact.
I’d broken people’s noses before, but even in my fighting days I’d managed to avoid being struck there. Like this, at least. The pain was instantly blinding, and there was blood in my mouth and on my face. A man came in and locked the door behind him. I held my hand to my face and tried to will the pain away enough to assess the situation.
Definitely not room service. Or if it was, this hotel had to do some serious customer service training.
I started laughing. I had blood streaming from my nose, a strange man had burst into my room who did not seem to have any Prosecco on his person, and I couldn’t stop laughing.
The man just looked at me. This was not, obviously, the reaction he had been expecting.
“You’re not room service,” I said, through the blood. Which made me laugh even harder, bent over at the waist. A touch of the old hysteria. Happens to me sometimes, in moments of physical or emotional pain.
“I followed you,” he said. I thought he sounded a bit slow, but I also knew not to trust my instincts in that moment. “From Dave’s place. I followed you up the street and got in a cab after you did. I followed you here. I followed you right up to your floor.” He sounded proud of himself, and almost incredulous at how easy it had been.
The mention of Dave snapped me out of my hysteria. My adrenaline shot up, and I could almost feel the blood rushing away from the pain in my face, to my brain and my limbs. But I pretended to still be incapacitated.
This was the man who had shot Dave. This was that elderly couple’s son, the couple Dave was supposed to be protecting. That we were supposed to be protecting, but I had swanned off on my own errands. This man had shot Dave. He was mentally ill, I knew that, and I had more compassion and understanding than your average person when it came to the mentally ill.
But he had shot Dave. And right now, while I didn’t see a gun, he could have one in his pocket.
I took my hand away from my bloody nose. “Do you mind if I get a towel, please?” I said calmly. I nodded in the direction of the bathroom. “I don’t want to get blood all over the carpet. It’s not fair to the cleaning staff.”
The man, whose name I suddenly remembered was Nicholas, looked at me oddly. He’d probably been expecting a fight, or for me to beg for my life. I may have been planning on dying in this room, but I’d be damned if I was going to let anybody else have the pleasure of taking my life.
He waited a beat, and it occurred to me that he was on something. I didn’t know if he was on his medication now, lithium maybe, or on some street drug. But his reactions were definitely off.
Except when he’d burst into the room, I thought. Yup, his reaction time then had been spot-on.
He nodded, and started heading towards the bathroom. Shit. My gun – well, Dave’s gun – was sitting on the vanity, under a hand towel. I’d put it there for later, and put the towel over it in case the room service person caught a glimpse of it. It was the first towel Nicholas would see when he walked into the room, if he was planning on grabbing one for me. Besides, he was a big man, somewhere north of six-two or -three, and well over two hundred and fifty pounds, I estimated. I wasn’t looking forward to hand-to-hand combat against someone with that much of an advantage.
As we both walked into the room, I pushed him out of the way before he could do anything.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m going to puke.”
I brushed past him and retched blood into the toilet. It wasn’t hard to do.
Nicholas moved out of my way politely, as I thought he would, and turned to look the other way. Men can’t handle watching other people vomit. Especially women. I had three brothers. This, I knew.
I straightened up, blood and mucous still streaming from my mouth, and grabbed the gun, kicking Nicholas as hard as I could in the back of the knee before he had time to turn around. I was relieved I hadn’t taken my combat boots off. The old adage “die with your boots on” had stuck with me, and while I was no soldier, the idea of committing suicide in bare feet seemed somehow obscene.
I didn’t kick Nicholas as hard as I’d wanted – he’d moved too far away, into the hallway – but his knee still gave way. Without pausing, I swung the gun in a wide arc, hitting the side of his head with the butt of it while he was down on one knee.
I heard a crack, a very ominous crack, as he hit his head on the opposite wall. He was absolutely still.
I stood still for a minute. “Shit,” I said. I hoped he wasn’t dead. He’d shot Dave, and who knows what he had planned for me, but he was ill. I didn’t want to kill him.
I felt around his neck for his pulse. It was there.
I sat back on my haunches and surveyed the scene. Between the profuse, unchecked nosebleed and my retching blood for effect, the bathroom looked like a crime scene. Which I supposed it actually was. I felt my nose, gingerly. I didn’t think it was broken after all, but I couldn’t be sure. Wearily, I picked up the towel that had gone flying when I’d grabbed the gun, and put it to my face.
“Room service,” a voice said from the other side of the door, and then a knock.
I stood slowly, my muscles stiffening now that the adrenaline had abated, and opened the door with the towel to my nose. I was covered in blood, and behind me a large man was unconscious and tied up with electrical cords. But this was New York, and the young man with the cart tried very hard not to look surprised. As far as he was concerned, I supposed, this could be nothing more than some extremely kinky play.
I took the towel away from my face and smiled, which, considering the fact that my teeth were probably coated in blood, seemed to scare the poor kid more than anything. I reached for the bottle of Prosecco on the cart and started to peel the foil off the cork.
“You’ll want to call the police, I think,” I said. I sounded nasal. “This man,” I nodded behind me, “burst into my room.”
“Is he…?” The young man had gone white.
“He’s fine,” I said. “Just unconscious.” I popped the cork, and took a swig of Prosecco from the bottle. It tasted like blood. Bubbly blood. I took another one. Better.
“Are you?” He was staring at the blood on my shirt. He’d backed up a couple of steps, and he pulled a phone from his pocket.
“Yes, thank you,” I said. I was calm, but it’s hard to sound in control when your nose is possibly broken. “I’ll just wait here for the police, shall I? Tell them to send an ambulance as well. For him,” I added. The kid nodded. He was starting to enjoy himself a bit, I could tell. He was going to have a story to tell.