by S. Foster
|Table of Contents|
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
“As far as possible. As fast as possible.” She sighed. She’d been resting her chin on one fist, and now the knuckles went pop. “This isn’t so bad. It earns like forty-four thousand, plus paid sick, plus full health and dental.”
He made one of those little admiring frowns that periodically reset his jowls. “Not bad.”
“Well, of course, I’m still eighty-thousand in the hole over student loans — double degrees don’t come cheap.” She sipped. “Though thankfully I’ve also got bonus pay since I’m director pro tem.”
“Maybe it’s just getting late, but I thought you were the curator. Not that I actually know what the difference is.”
“I am the curator, but I’m also semi-officially pulling double-duty until they can find someone to replace Gilroy.”
“And who’s he?”
“Gilroy F. Considine. Died not too long ago — from emphysema, which is bizarre, considering that he was ex-Navy and had a reputation for being a tremendous racquetball player. Never met him personally, but everyone who knew him said he was in great shape — always jogging on his lunch hours and so on. And young, too — only forty-three.”
“Shame.” He kicked idly at a piece of gravel. “Is it tough for you? Doing two jobs at once, I mean?”
“It can be, especially for someone who doesn’t have a business background, which I certainly don’t. I’m not too good at all the glad-handing the job calls for, but I do get to meet some interesting people — city council members, ‘pillar of the community’ types and so on. And I’d say I definitely get more respect than I would otherwise — there’s this tendency to look at curators as glorified technicians, which is not true, by the way. No offense to my tech staff, naturally.” She drained the last of her cocoa. “So,” she said, brightening. “You’ve heard my story. How exactly does one become a dick? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“Well, if you want to be a serious dick, you could wear a real estate blazer in bed and ignore the people who love you the most.”
She grinned. “Good answer.”
Though she didn’t press the issue, he felt obligated to be a little more forthcoming. “Not much to tell, really. Just got sick of everything else, I guess. Already had a piece and a license to carry... spent some time in night school... took an exam or two... and here I am. I liked the thing about the matchbook cover — in my case, that’s not far off the mark. See, most people in this line of work are exes: ex-cops, ex-FBI, and so on. As for me, I never —”
Her head swiveled. “Did you hear that?”
“You’re the detective, you...” Her insult fizzled. “Didn’t you hear something? Like a thumping sound?” By now, Scoggins had made his way to the opposite end of the railing; suddenly quiet, the only indication of his presence was the dullish green glow leaking from the monocular’s ill-fitting rubber eye-cup.
“Over here! This way,” she hissed, plainly hoping that her voice wouldn’t carry too far. “It came from this way!” Insistently, she pointed. Near her now, he saw what she’d been silently indicating: the paint-speckled legs of an aluminum ladder. Above them, within the building, lights snapped on. “It’s the new section,” she whispered. “Do something!”
“I’m calling the cops,” he said as he activated his cellular phone, only to hear a recording announcing that — improbably, in the dead of night, near a major city — service was temporarily unavailable.
She ssshhhed his dammit, offering tersely,”I’ll call the police from the lobby phone. You get upstairs and apprehend!” In turning to go, she snapped her fingers, possibly more loudly than she meant to: “I’ll turn off the lights at the circuit breaker!”
Suddenly full of directionless energy, he looked almost as puzzled and desperate as he actually was. “Why?”
“The night vision! You’ll have an advantage!”
She disappeared around the corner so quickly that she didn’t have time to hear him mutter,“Not if he’s got one too...”
* * *
“I am armed,” announced Scoggins as he reached the top step, “and authorized to use force. The police are on their way. You probably triggered a silent alarm, but we both know you can forget about that. I want you to play nice and surrender, or I will plug you.” He lied: “I’ve done it before.” No response.
Then, from the shadows, a cough. Harsh, phlegmy, like a carton-a-day smoker’s cough. The detective peered through the monocular with its strap bunched in his sweaty palm, and aimed the device toward the source of the sound, toward a second stairwell beneath a vinyl banner reading WELCOME TO THE NOAA EXHIBIT.
Sneakers scurried on tile; an overpowering, industrial-grade halogen flashlight beam caught Scoggins square in the face, stunning him, and momentarily extending the unflattering silhouette of his overweight shadow down the full length of a nearby hallway. He couldn’t decide which was worse: the sudden flurry of green pixels in the eye that still squinted against the monocular, or the unprocessed light that assaulted the other.
His quarry escaped down the far staircase, wheezing all the way; the dimming monocular afterimage in the detective’s badly-abused visual cortex revealed a thin man in a jogging suit, cradling something a little smaller than an average watermelon, yet substantially more technological-looking.
Scoggins shouted for the curator as he broke into a waddling run... and propelled himself directly into a thigh-high display pedestal. As his waist bent to absorb the impact, the monocular escaped his grasp, leaving a punctuated comet-tail of phosphor green as it spun in a graceful arc toward the floor, where its lens immediately distributed itself among the greatest possible number of hard, unforgiving tiles. Precision-ground Swiss optics tinkled and skidded; then, all was silent. Evidently, the intruder had made it all the way down the stairs.
With great effort, the detective drew a breath and shouted again: “Miss Kolodny!” No response. Pain set in a moment later as he finally made headway toward the staircase, with expensive fragments crunching underfoot. To add proverbial insult to his very real injury, the upstairs lights came back on behind him as he descended the stairs into darkness.
Later, as detective and curator were interviewed, it would become evident that neither had the slightest idea of the intruder’s whereabouts during the next ninety seconds or so. Until, that is, Carrie Kolodny swatted their guest with a mop handle, eliciting a shriek.
The detective, wending his way through the shadows of the relatively unfamiliar first floor, doubled back upon hearing this, and entered the scene with pistol drawn, not knowing where to aim it. The two of them winced as the lights came on, but the intruder appeared completely unfazed. As if it weren’t clear from his wild stare and pinpoint pupils, this guy was high on something.
Immediately upon operating the light switches, she returned her hand to her side, where it again gripped the mop in perfect balance with the other hand farther up, as if she were used to this sort of thing. Hobby-horsically, she jabbed him in the ribs.
“Identify yourself!” demanded Scoggins. The guy just stood there with a welt emerging on his blotchy pink cheek. It’d be quite a while before they learned his name.
Kolodny poked threateningly with the mop. “That atmospheric sample does not belong to you, mister! You put that down immediately.”
“Not on your life!”
“He cut the phone line the alarm uses,” she interjected. “Bastard.”
Scoggins leveled the pistol. “I’m going to handcuff you whether or not you put it down. I think you’ll agree, it’s going to be less painful if you do like the lady says. If it was up to me, I’d shoot’cha dead, but I think that’s against the rules.”
So what exactly did she take offense at in that moment — bad grammar? His affected gruffness? The anachronistic use of lady? For whatever reason, the curator rolled her eyes; she and the detective shared a glance. Unwise: seizing the opportunity, their captive darted from the room with speed inappropriate to someone in his condition. They gave chase, and presently emerged into the main entry hall where the pursued had shouldered, quarterback-style, through the first set of doors, still cradling the canister as tightly as ever, hurtling toward the end zone. More as a warning than anything else, Scoggins fired a single round into the wall just centimeters from the inner doors.
“Freeze!” Surprisingly, the command was obeyed. A thin trickle of plaster dust settled; cordite smoke swirled.
With canister still tightly held, the intruder re-emerged into the well-lit foyer. “I’m not a monster, you know. We all have our vices.”
With handcuffs at the ready, Scoggins began to advance, then: “What are you talking about? What’s that supposed to mean, ‘we all have our vices’?”
The man evaluated his appearance. “You’re old enough to remember how it was back then.” He looked Carrie up and down, noting with obvious approval that she’d let go of the mop. “So are you, I’m guessing.”
“Why are you stealing from the museum?” asked the detective.
Cough, cough. “I saw the spot they did on TV a while back, for the grand opening of the, uh —” he jerked a thumb upward as he locked eyes with her. “You were there. You were wearing your hair differently, but I know it was you,” he said in the manner of an obsessed fan who scrawls things backwards on bathroom mirrors with lipstick. “I heard you say that these canisters, these samples, come from way back before they started getting rid of pollution.”
“Unbelievable,” uttered Scoggins. “This is like a... nostalgia trip for you? You breathe air pollution on purpose?”
“It’s not just me, you know — I’ve got customers! Bankers... lawyers... ordinary folks... the sort of people you’d never expect. People you know, even.” He articulated this with great moment, as if he’d rehearsed it. “Haven’t you heard that song — the one that goes, There’s something missing from our lives / Now that the world is sanitized...?” The last words tumbled out in an unanticipated cough.
Kolodny opened her mouth to speak and took a full seven seconds to find any words. “Why don’t you smoke cigarettes? Whittle yourself a pipe? If you want air pollution so badly, why don’t you just build a fire in your backyard? Hey — throw on some particle board if you really want to trash your lungs.”
Angrily, dismayed: “You can make wine in your backyard too if you learn to stomp hard enough! No, sir — no, ma’am — this is the real deal!” He fingered the embossed NOAA insignia, right next to a stenciled CAUTION: CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE. “This is pure vintage smog!”
She craned her neck, and then frowned. “That’s from 1987. More of a... table vintage year, if you want my opinion. Try 1999 — height of the SUV craze.”
His already-maniacal eyes widened. “You huff, too?”
“Huff? Me? No. Well, not when I’m working.” Scoggins regarded her with the strangest expression she’d ever seen on a human face. He managed to keep the pistol aimed at their guest. “I’m joking, you morons,” she affirmed.
“Must be tempting,” said the interloper, between coughs, as he set down the canister in order to retrieve a handheld inhaler from a pocket. “You come to work here every day surrounded by all this... pollution!”
“It’s a living.”
The criminal’s eyes narrowed, ferally, as the inhaler hissed out a dose. “What do you want to bet that’s not asthma medication?” observed the detective, in a rare moment of genuine hard-boiledness.
“Just cuff the dumb bastard before he gets violent,” said Carrie as she rounded the polished oak of the receptionist’s counter. “I’ll try to find a working phone.”
With pistol and cuffs at the ready, the detective advanced hesitantly. He’d hooked half of the pair of handcuffs around one of the man’s unhealthily bony wrists when the perp landed a decisive kick to Scoggins’ shin, causing him to crumple in agony. This afforded the attacker just enough time to recover the canister and flee. The pistol went off; the bullet shattered upon impact with the Fensterite just above the door handles. Deflected copper fragments peppered the high ceiling as Scoggins righted himself; in doing so, he was surprised to see that the pollution addict hadn’t left the building. By way of explanation, the curator shouted, “The outer doors are chained — padlocked.”
Wondering what further difficulties the morning might offer, Scoggins tucked the pistol away and limped toward his adversary. Facing him from the other side of the Fensterite, the perp had again set the NOAA canister aside momentarily as he squatted in the well-lit vestibule delineated by the two sets of closed doors. The man passed the metal crescent of the single undeployed handcuff through the handles of the inner doors — effectively locking them, and thereby also locking himself in.
This looked kind of stupid.
“I just had the weirdest thought,” said Scoggins. She was either ignoring him or couldn’t hear. Again, a little louder: “I said, I just had the weirdest thought — no matter what happens, nobody would ever blame you or me for this handcuff thing, what he’s doing now.” He scowled incredulously at the entryway. “There’s no possible way to physically get someone into that position without his consent.”
“Ah, the voice of experience,” she said from around a corner.
In this absurd posture, the pollution enthusiast managed to unscrew the top from the NOAA canister (he did it one-handed, which is tricky), and fitted the now-uncovered nozzle with something that looked like a length of improperly cared-for hookah pipe. “If you’re gonna go out,” he suddenly shouted, loudly enough to be heard through the closed doors. This outburst, which presumably would have ended with something about a bang, remained unfinished as it deteriorated into a coughing fit.
“Any luck?” Scoggins shouted over his shoulder, unable to avert his eyes from the bizarre scene unfolding.
“All the lines’re dead,” came the response.
He extended the antenna on his cell phone and dialed 911. The call went through; to the high-pitched electronic tone and professionally calm voice on the other end, Scoggins identified himself as a private detective, gave his license number, and then (after a moment of entirely understandable indecision) continued, “We need an... ambulance at —” Kolodny’s voice reverberated weirdly and impatiently among the Fensterite and concrete as she shouted the street address to him. He then relayed this into the phone as rapidly as he could. “And a psychiatrist, if you can spare one.”
The man’s grip on the cylinder relaxed as he fell dead, his floorward slump arrested only by the pulled-taut tether of the handcuffs, with a hint of a smile playing about his bluish lips.
“Cancel that,” mumbled Scoggins and thumbed the phone’s OFF button.
Copyright © 2005 by S. Foster