Out the window. Up the fire escape. Across the rooftop, over the ally to another roof. Every footstep he took, I matched, tumbling through the maze of the city. About to cross another gap between rooftops, he looked back to see where I was. A mistake on his part. Fatal, as it turned out. His timing off, he plunged down to the earth below. Spread out on the concrete. Neck broken. A bloody mess.
I turned around and headed back the way I'd come. I felt robbed. The knife in my hand felt robbed. I tucked it back inside my jacket. No real need to run now, I took my time across the roofs, till I came to the one where my car sat parked below.
"We should check in on the girl," he whispered to me. I don't know why he always whispered. It's not like anyone else could hear him.
I nodded and took the fire escape down two flights to the window that I'd exited shortly before. She was sitting at the table. Around her, things were strewn across the floor, broken and spilled. An ode to the fight I'd just had with the freshly spattered man.
"Sorry about the mess," I said.
She looked up startled for a moment but calmed instantly when she saw it was me. Humans are funny. Save someone's life and they instantly trust you. I could just as easily be a murderer, but how would she know?
"Don't worry about it. Thank you for saving my life," she responded.
She was pretty; black, athletic, with long dark hair and chestnut eyes. Her hair was messy and her clothes torn. That was only to be expected after what had almost happened.
"Happy to do it. Listen, should we get you to a hospital or something?"
"I'm fine. What happened with that guy?"
He looks like a Jackson Pollock.
"He looks like a Jackson Pollock," I responded. I have a bad habit of speaking my mind.
"He fell off a roof as I was chasing him," I course corrected. "He's dead."
She was looking at me funny and I could guess why. I was dressed like a Victorian gentleman, complete with long coat and cane. Well, the cane I'd lost in the fight. I took a moment to locate it and retrieve it.
"I guess I should be going," I said.
"I'll see you out."
I stood in the doorway. A dim lit light in the hallway shined just brightly enough to guide you to the stairs. I smiled at her, as we stood there, unsure of what else to say.
"Ask her about him," he hissed at me.
"Did you know that man?" I asked.
She shook her head no, but I could tell she was holding back. So I probed deeper.
"No? Should I tell the police he just followed you home?"
"The police? Do we really need to get them involved?"
"Of course," I lied. "A rapist is dead, in part, because of me. The police are going to want to know what happened."
"He wasn't raping me, he was trying to kill me. But I understand. do you think you could at least wait till morning? It's been a long night and I really need some time to process things."
"Ask her about who's in her closet," he whispered in my ear.
"Not at all. Goodnight to you," I said, ignoring him.
She bid me goodnight and closed the door. As I walked down the hall he materialized beside me. Short, skinny, and white with a stupid, push broom mustache. He was also dressed like a Victorian gentleman, though he had a bowler hat atop his scraggly brown hair.
"There's a man in her closet, tied at the hands and feet," he spoke.
"Don't care. Not my concern. That counts by the way. I'm at 14 now. She makes 14."
"That would only be the case if you had saved her life. She's still going to die tonight unless you intervene."
We had reached the stairs now and were descending.
"That man, by her own mouth, was there to kill her. I want credit for it, damn it."
"Alright. Since that was half the job, I'll credit you half a soul. If you're content to just have half, then by all means go home and celebrate."
We had reached the outdoors. The night was damp, but fresh. The city lights illuminated the streets, offering passerby a false sense of security. At home, a bottle of scotch was waiting for me. I hate to disappoint an old friend, especially when it's a liquid dinner date. But I'd waited a long time to move up in numbers.
I took the fire escape again. It's a good thing I'm in excellent shape, otherwise I might find this up and down exhausting. I arrived, out of breath, at the window I'd been in and out of all night. Inside I crept, looking around. She was gone, replaced by the body of a dead man who, by the looks of things, had been shot a half dozen times.
"Make him talk, will ya'?" I said to my companion.
He reached through the floor underneath the corpse and pulled something up. A moment later our sieve looking friend was gasping.
"Where's the girl gone to?" I asked the reanimated man.
"What's happening? Who are you?" he asked back.
"I'm Ian, this here is Thornton, and you're dead. Now that were all caught up, why don't you tell me where the girl went?"
"She's gone after McLaren. I'm dead? Oh, God, I am! I remember."
"Who's McLaren?" I demanded, shaking him.
"God, I'm sorry. I shoulda listened to my mama. Please God, forgive me."
Suddenly, a light flashed over the goon, illuminating his body. A second later his soul was gone.
"Son of a bitch," I spat.
"It's your own fault, for reminding him he was dead. Once a soul is reclaimed after death, it's taken immediately."
"Yes, thank you, Thornton, I remember. Doesn't really help me out right now though, does it?"
"I'm just saying..." Thornton just said.
I rifled through the twice dead man's pockets. There was no wallet or anything that could ID him. I did however find a matchbook. Little tip out there for you amateur sleuths, there's always a matchbook. I don't know why --maybe people really love fire-- but there's always a matchbook.
The one I got off the corpse directed me to a dive bar across town. I grabbed Corpse-y Magoo, and hefted him up the fire escape to the roof. Thornton helped for a change. Once on the roof I hefted him into the ally down below. Best I could do with limited time. That taken care of, I headed down the fire escape for what I hoped was the last time.
Back in my car, I headed to the bar. Thornton sat patiently beside me. Cops were already blocking up the road by where the first body had dropped. I circled round, heading down a side street. It was a cool night and I drove with the windows down enjoying the wind drying the sweat off my head.
"You know, I have to admit that was impressive," I said to Thornton.
"What's that?" he responded.
"In the time we walked down the stairs, she killed him and managed to get down the fire escape."
"You would find that admirable," he said in disgust.
I smiled and drove on. The dive bar on the matchbook was closed when we got there. I peered through a window but no one seemed to be home. Just to be sure, and because I'm polite, I knocked. When there was no answer, I felt satisfied in having done my due diligence. Using the brass knob on the end of my cane, I smashed a window and let myself in.
The bar was not what I expected. For one, there was no bar. For two, it was stacked full of boxes. I slit the one on top and had a look. It was full of matchbooks like the one in my pocket. The label on the side was a little more helpful as it was addressed to a Sean McLaren. The address was to the bar, but at least I had a first name to go along with the last.
"Got any ideas on how to find this Sean McLaren?" Thornton asked.
I looked up from my phone. "Really? It's called Google, ya' nob. I realize you've been dead for some time, but that's no excuse for not keeping up with technology."
The search results led me to news stories about a suspected drug lord. From there it was a couple quick jumps to connect him to a Chinese restaurant. I helped myself to a box of matches. I could feel Thornton's scowl as I loaded the box into the back of my black, '65 Ford Falcon.
"What do you need with all those matches?" he asked.
"I don't know. I just really love fire, I guess."
Ming's China Palace wasn't far from the bar. I enjoy Chinese food as much as the next person. If tonight's events could be resolved without too much violence, I'd have to see if they were any good. That said, I would not be entering via traditional means. Whatever hope I'd had of not using anymore fire escapes that night was quickly dashed by the site of the young lady I'd saved earlier, entering a window three stories up.
"Drug dealing Chinese restaurant...what a cliche tonight is turning into," I muttered to myself.
I climbed up the stairs, as quietly as I could, thankful that this was a much shorter trip up. At the window I stopped and peered carefully around the edge. Inside was well lit. My young friend was sneaking up on a man twice her build. A moment later and she had him in a choke hold. He struggled, lifting her into the air and bashing her against the wall.
"What are you waiting for?" Thornton poked at me.
"She seems fine so far. I wanna see where this goes."
Where it went, was down. The big man had run out of steam and oxygen. She rode him to the floor like a kitten on a moose. Seconds later she was back up. Just in time for a group of five to enter the fray. None were as big as the moose, but each one had a hundred pounds on her easily. They all had bats and knives. No guns, I was surprised to see.
The first one that came to meet her swung wide. She ducked quickly, and landed a punch in his gut. I looked closer. More than a punch! She'd left a knife embedded in his stomach. He collapsed in a heap, by his moose buddy. Next came two at once. One was brandishing a baseball bat, the other a heavy metal chain. As they swung their respective weaponry in unison, our young heroine leaped into the air, grabbing hold of a light fixture dangling from the ceiling and kicked them both in their faces.
"You know it really is a shame that the criminal world is just as sexist as any other corporation," I said to Thornton who was looking on appalled as the two goons crumpled to the ground. "See how quick and nimble she is? And they don't have any female talent on their side to match her."
The final two chickened out and ran for help. She took that moment to catch her breath. I found myself breathless as well, admiring her dark beauty. The next group that came in was easily three times the size of the first. They had guns too, which hardly seemed fair to me. I'd been enjoying the show.
From the back of the group, a mid 30's Asian guy, stepped out. He wore a perfectly tailored suit and expensive shoes. His expression was of pain, like all villains get when they feign butt hurt over some perceived betrayal. His words soon confirmed my feelings.
"What are you doing here, Neska? This isn't like you," he said.
"You know why I'm here, McLaren," she replied. "What you did to my sister was inhuman."
"That was between me and her. She had a debt to pay and I settled it. As far as I'm concerned the matter is in the books."
"Not between you and me it isn't."
"Neska, Neska, Neska. Do you see all these men with all these guns? I'd hate to see something as beautiful as you ruined. It'd be like defacing a Picasso."
"I will kill you, even if it's with my last breath," she promised.
"Fine, have it your way," he said, waving it off with his hand. "Kill her, please."
Guns were raised. I took this as my sign it was time to intervene.
"We're on Thornton," I said, leaping in the window.
Everyone in the room, while surprised at my appearance, quickly recovered and began firing at me. Neska, took the opportunity to run out of the way. Thornton, my spiritual friend, began swirling around me like a mist. As the bullets ran through his ghostly body they were decelerated to a level that would leave bruises later, but not penetrate my flesh.
What's the point of having a cane if it doesn't do anything, right? I twisted at the top and pulled, revealing a rather cruel looking dagger. This paired with the knife in my jacket, and I felt fashionably attired for the fight. Realizing their bullets were useless, most had dropped their guns and retrieved hand weapons of their own.
I would love to write in great detail about the melee, but the trouble is, when you're in one it's not really as exciting as watching. There was a lot of ducking and dodging. A couple managed to penetrate Thornton's protection and cut me, or give me a good punch, but that was it. Mostly I slashed my way through the lot of them.
I noted at one point that dear, sweet Neska, had joined me in the fight. She was marvelous. Watching her was like watching a ballet bathed in blood. I was actually pleased to be saving her. A sentiment I rarely felt. At last, after what was, again mostly grueling work, the room was littered about with the dead. I looked upon my work and was pleased.
There was only one left to dispatch. Sean McLaren stood against the door looking on. He had that jaded look upon his face that can only come from a life of brutality. I approached him, knives in hand, ready to complete the task.
"What's your deal?" Sean asked me. "Are you a hired hand for Neska? I'll pay you triple if you take her out right now."
"Money doesn't interest me. I owe a debt that needs to be repaid."
"Please, let me do it," Neska implored. "Let me kill that Irish son of a bitch for what he did to my sister."
"Irish?" I responded. "He's Chinese."
"I'm Irish-Korean, you racist asshole."
"Really? Why Chinese then? Why not a Korean restaurant?"
"I hate kimchi," he answered.
"Huh, fair enough. He's all yours Miss Neska."
I stepped aside and offered her a knife. She took it from my hand and approached him. Out in a flash came his gun. I couldn't believe I hadn't thought to frisk him. I was so quick to let her have her revenge for...whatever, and now I was about to lose my 14th soul. I started to run, to head her off, but as it turned out she was quicker than I was.
The knife I'd given her flew threw the air, and landed in his arm, causing him to drop his gun. She quickly followed after, landing on top of him, a syringe in her hand. God knows what was inside it, but a moment later he was writhing in agony. Another moment later, and he wasn't doing anything ever again.
Danger seemingly over, Thornton stopped spinning his protective mist around me and materialized as a man again.
"Well done," he said.
Neska looked up from the man she'd just killed to me.
"Who and what are you guys?" she asked.
I looked at Thornton startled, then back to her.
"You can see him?" I asked in return.
"Of course I can. I'm not going to miss two dudes dressed like Pride and Prejudice."
"Double huh. This is an interesting development, to say the least. Anyone up for Chinese?" I wiped my dagger clean and inserted it back in the cane, before heading out the door.
"Is he serious?" she asked Thornton.
"You get used to him after awhile," he responded.
Downstairs I ordered myself some lo mein and crab rangoons. They were okay, but nothing special. McLaren should have stuck to drugs and left the food business to the experts. Still, food is food. I sat there eating it as a barrage of questions were hurled at me. Who was I? Why had I helped her? How did I know to help her? Why didn't the bullets kill me? How does Thornton...Thornton? I happily ignored her, choosing to focus on my food instead. Thornton, not able to partake in the meal, filled her in on the details.
"200 souls?" she asked.
"Yes, madam," Thornton replied. "A debt to be repaid to the universe by Mr. Caliber for his sins."
"What sin did he commit?"
I wiped my mouth and answered that one.
"Quite a few, but in this instance murder."
"Who did you kill?" Neska asked.
"Me, of course," Thornton spoke nonchalantly.
I stood up and threw some money down on the table before continuing.
"Well, this stroll down memory lane has been fun, but I really only stayed this long cause I was craving Chinese. I think I'll head out."
"Wait," she said, pulling on my sleeve. "I'd like to help. I have skills --ones you don't even know about. I think I could you help with your quest."
I laughed. "I don't do sidekicks. You can lose souls that way. Best of luck to you, 14."
I exited, leaving Thornton to handle any unfinished business he might have. I got as far as opening the door before I turned around. I walked back slowly to my dinner dates and slumped down in my still warm booth. Thornton was twirling his thumbs and rolling his eyes innocently, like this was some damn Laurel and Hardy routine.
"Did you forget something?" asked Neska.
"It would appear that I'm without a mode of transportation currently as my car is on fire," I responded and glared at the ghost beside me.
"I certainly hope you don't think that I would..." Thornton responded, over-dramatizing the hurt in his voice. "That is to say, what did you expect, hauling a big box of matches around like that in the back of your car?"
"Uh-huh." I sighed and prepared to swallow my pride. "Neska, I don't suppose you could give me ride?"
"Of course," she replied. "It's the least I can do."
"Splendid!" Thornton exclaimed. "Now you two will have a chance to talk more."
"Sometimes Thornton..." I said, rubbing my wearied head. "Sometimes I wish I could kill you again."