TITLE: Dwight Hendrickson and the Tigers From Mars
LENGTH: 11,000 words
SUMMARY: From perpetual flies and illusory zombies to alien dimensions, Dwight's service cleaning the Troubles in Haven, through the transition between Chief Wuornos and Chief Wuornos.
NOTES: Troublesfest 2013, written for Dorinda.
DISCLAIMER: Not mine, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Dwight Hendrickson and the Tigers From Mars
Garland Wuornos was an odd, taciturn sort of man, the sort that seemed to grow only in small towns like Haven - though of course there weren't any other small towns like Haven - but Dwight had picked up a liking for him in the course of their interactions. He was to-the-point via minimum possible extraneous crap in a way Dwight approved, but twisty in other, unexpected ways. There was a sort of honesty in his directness about how he wasn't telling you everything and wasn't gonna tell you everything. After dealing with certain other people in town... well, let's just say people Dwight had moved beyond dealing with, Garland was a breath of fresh air.
After cutting those first ties he'd made in Haven, Dwight had done the odd job here and there, starting out as a handyman in truth. It hadn't been long before his extracurricular activities helping out the Troubled had developed into something more. He'd kind of found a niche, from which the working relationship with Chief Wuornos and a few other of the town's notables in the know naturally evolved.
Despite having been in town a few years, he hadn't made any friends he'd kept in that time, and had become somewhat insular, deciding that for now he preferred to keep things that way. Simpler. This way, he knew this was his life, what was what. Stick to the job. Help people like himself and... and Lizzie. The odd conversations with people like the Chief and Vince Teagues kept him from turning into too much an unsociable type.
It had become custom to get together with Garland a few times a month to drink beers and talk shop. The Rusty Bucket had recently had an upmarket makeover and no longer possessed quite the ambience for covert meetings, and likewise the old place on the shore that had been the Cobin Inn was having some other fancy ideas put into practice, things involving expensive food, napkins, and tourists, which neither man really approved of, so they'd settled lately upon a bar in town called the No Such Inn. Its variety of beers and dark corners fit their needs, and the churning of the geriatric juke box and clacking of pool cues veiled private conversations neatly.
"Over there," said Garland, wafting his finger over in the general direction of a fellow who propped up the bar. "You met Pete? Flies love him. Now, there's a Trouble. Don't matter how much the man washes, got his own personal cloud 24/7. Buzz, buzz." He guffawed. A couple of beers more than usual down both of them had he and Dwight looser than they usually got around company, but the day warranted it.
Both men regarded Pete for a moment and gave surreptitious sighs, which they instantly tried to cover up, and eyed each other cagily.
Garland knew about Dwight's Trouble, of course, because it would be nothing short of suicidal trying to hide such a thing while working closely with armed law enforcement. Even if he hadn't known about it before, he'd have learned it today. All Dwight knew about Garland's Trouble was that he had one. And that he'd trade it in for perpetual flies.
"No flies on us," Garland concluded morosely, and downed the rest of the pint in his hand, moving on to the next, which he'd already queued on the table.
"We could also do worse," Dwight offered. Contrary to all expectation, he had managed to find a positive use for his affliction a time or two over the years, and whatever the Chief's was, it wasn't visibly affecting his life that Dwight could see. "Bentley. Or the baby animals thing." He'd never seen anything more scary than those stampedes of young girls. "Or Bentley." Ignatius Bentley was the man who'd snapped and taken hostages in a corner store earlier that day. The man who saw everyone dead and rotting already, whose eyes showed him the world as a hive of festering corruption, his life a permanent Night of the Living Dead. His ears still delivered to him the truth, the negations from the people around him, the words of therapists who thought it was some regular - non-Troubled - psychiatric disorder. He'd snapped anyway, beneath the endless onslaught of his eyes.
"True, true." Garland shuffled back, seeming to sink into the cushions, smaller and older than he ought to be. As if in defiance of the sudden frailty in his image, he shoved his feet up on the low table, took a quick peek around at the positions and attention of the staff, and furtively took out and lit a cigarette. "Believe you me, there'll be more like that - and worse - before we weather the storm this time around."
Dwight sat up and leaned in with interest. The Chief had lived through this once already. If he was going to share new information, Dwight had no intention of missing anything. But Garland only smoked his cigarette, sagging so far down in his seat that the tip of his head was beneath the level of the chair back, and wafted the thin plume of rising smoke with his hand to try and disperse it. Dwight prompted, "What kind of thing can we expect?" And after a silent, searching scrutiny from the surprisingly alert eyes gazing out from Garland's weathered face, "What kind of thing did you see last time?"
Garland shook his head, lowering his hand to hide the illicit cigarette in the shadows beneath his knees. Dwight took that to mean he wouldn't answer, but presently the Chief said, "There'll be a woman. Young. Smartass type, the sort knows better'n anyone, and the one thing more annoying than anything else that she'll usually be right. Pretty soon now, I'm thinking. Things'll get worse before they get better, lots worse, but at least there'll be help."
As far as Dwight was concerned, all of that sounded more confusing than helpful, but he nodded along with Garland, hoping to keep the conversation going, when Garland cut it abruptly very short, his next words having an arrow of purpose that made it suddenly clear it was really the thing this whole clandestine meet today was about. "Favour you've already done me today decided me on it. You know what they say about the reward for a job well done? Well, I want to ask another of you." He cursed scorched, distracted fingers and stubbed his cigarette out on the edge of the table.
Dwight waited, not quite at the stage of holding his breath, but surely interested by the break in pattern.
"Want you to look out for my damn fool of a son on this latest case of his," Chief Wuornos said, an unaccountable irritation creeping into his voice.
"Son?" Dwight hadn't know he had one, let alone- "Your son's a cop?"
Garland nodded, his head looping in big, slow movements. "Detective. He's one of yours, too, not that he'll own to it. Still reckons doctors have got something to offer him." The snort he gave was impressively long and vulgar. "Anyway, reckon it's one of those cases. Him in denial and all, I'd rather someone in the know was watching his back."
You could always tell him. But Dwight had learned better than owning up to responses like that. "What's the case?"
"Disappearance. I'll pass you copies of the files tomorrow."
"What's his name?"
"Nathan." It was a funny sort of distaste in his voice. Dwight thought that maybe Garland didn't like his son very much, though it didn't quite seem that way. Besides, he did want the boy looked out after, even if he hadn't tried to make him understand about the damn Troubles... something that pushed a few of Dwight's sour buttons and made him a little colder on the Chief than he wanted to be, after the events of that day.
"You don't think it'll look mighty suspicious if Detective Wuornos finds out I'm following him?"
"Best he not spot you, then. I'd... count this a personal favour," Garland said, twitching, and the conversation ended about there, barring monosyllables and casual man-talk, as they sat for a half hour more in the No Such Inn, until the Chief made noises about getting back home to his tinned stew so he could be up bright and early to do his damned paperwork tomorrow. He gave the businesslike parting shot, "Pop into my office around eleven. I'll leave the files with Laverne if I get called out."
In the present, it was no longer Garland Wuornos sitting across the table from Dwight, but his taller, skinnier son, and it seemed a long while had passed since that strange, tired conversation wherein Dwight first realised the Chief had a son. The No Such Inn no longer existed, having met its demise six months prior to Garland himself - or at least, it no longer existed as a bar, and was no use to its former owner four inches high and acting as an interesting ornament on a bookshelf at the Haven Herald office. But Nathan wasn't the sort who preferred to haunt dark corners of bars and had scheduled the meet in a sunny corner of Jenn's Coffee House on the main street. The door was wide open, spilling in noise from the street, and with the turned-up radio behind the counter it was as private as ever the bar had been.
It hadn't taken Dwight long to get over an initial impulse to think of Nathan as Wuornos Junior. Despite the manner the old chief spoke of him, this was a man Dwight's own age with equal competences and life experiences. Though it was markedly distinct from his father's, Garland's son also had a presence and gravitas of his own. It was funny the ways they were both opposite and the same.
Chief Wuornos 2.0 sat stiffly; he always sat stiffly. But he was smiling, if wryly, and had a plate in front of him with a pile of syrup-drenched pancakes that Garland would never have entertained. He'd ordered a pile for Dwight, too.
"So, to what do I owe all this?" Dwight asked, nodding down and picking up a pancake with his fingers.
"Found a few of the Chief's old files. The 'special' files." Nathan pulled up the copy of the Haven Herald he had next to him on the table, revealing manila folders underneath, briefly. "You're mentioned in them. Some of these cases, I remember." His face wiped blank of expression. "What's funny is I don't remember 'Troubles' being a part of it. So..." His hands waved, encompassing the circle of the table top. "I thought we could talk over old times. Maybe you can shed some light on some things that apparently you knew more about than I did. Besides, it's probably past time we had a talk. Stopped just brushing shoulders at crime scenes and... armed sieges."
While obviously not happy, and attempting to subdue a considerable streak of sarcasm beneath politeness and pancakes, his approach was a reasonable shot at civil. Dwight supposed he'd seen this coming. Nathan wasn't going to be happy with having his questions dodged forever. He didn't know Dwight from Adam, after all, and probably couldn't be expected just to accept inheriting his father's 'Cleaner' without asking a few prying questions first.
"All right." Dwight held out a hand for the files, and flicked through them when Nathan obliged. "Let's see what we've got... You know, I don't keep any records, so there's no guarantee I'll remember."
Nathan's mouth gave a downward twitch. Nope, he didn't believe that, and nor should he. What Dwight didn't intend, however, was to spill secrets that weren't his to tell. Just because Garland was gone didn't mean it was open season. It was also likely that re-treading this old ground was going to go nowhere his son would like. Nathan had the secret files now, and the bare facts were in there, probably a dozen cases or more where he'd been blind to what was really going on. Dwight found what he was looking for and held it up. "This one, I do recall."
"Ivan Lomas, the artist," the Chief said flatly. "It's not real clear, but I do know I was the investigator on that, and that it turned out he was hiding in his workshop the whole time, quietly going nuts. Now we're talking about, what, paintings of other dimensions?" He watched Dwight closely. "I'm guessing not in his workshop, then."
"Right. Garland had a hunch it was a Trouble. Asked me to watch out for you."
"You?" On the brink of annoyance, Nathan consciously pulled himself back. "The Chief - dad asked you to watch out for me?" A trace of disbelief in his tone.
Dwight shrugged. He'd thought at the time that Garland didn't like his son, but as he'd become aware, later and much later, it was more complicated than that. Too different and too much the same, their hard edges abraded off each other. Put them in a room together and they'd argue. It was what it was, and nothing could change it, but there had still been real affection underneath.
Nathan covered his eyes with his hand, his forehead pinching as if he concentrated hard on something... trying to remember. "Those pictures of Lomas' ... I know they were on the walls of his workroom, that that's where I saw that place, those landscapes... That funny yellow-orange light and the red rocks, like the surface of Mars." A chill ran through Dwight, of memory likewise, long-buried; his feet trailing the ground of an alien world. Nathan shook his head and pulled his hand back abruptly, jolting upright and staring across the table. "I always had this funny feeling I'd been in that place for real. What the hell happened back then? I just had a... a flash, and you were there, too. In Lomas' pictures, except they weren't pictures- Damn it, Dwight!"
The Chief was on the edge of losing his temper, and Dwight had dealt with enough wayward Troubles to know that a man would do that when he was doubting his own perceptions. "Relax, Chief. I've got this. It's been waiting long enough. I'll tell you straight."
"Forgive my scepticism," Nathan said sourly. He soothed himself with a bite of pancakes. A few bites later, he'd wound down enough to add, "No, carry on. The Chief asked you to look out for me. So."
"He did." Dwight lay out the folder and sifted papers across the table, trying to avoid coating any corners in syrup. Nathan tugged pages around, scanning the contents to remind himself. "I started trailing you the next day, July 22nd..."
His first thoughts after Garland pointed Nathan out had been irritation: this wasn't a youth or rookie, but the lean detective Dwight had seen about the station, who'd also been at the situation yesterday. He prodded Laverne on the subject and it didn't take long at all to discover that Nathan was well-liked - by Laverne not the least - and there weren't any concerns about his competence. So Dwight had to wonder just what game Garland was playing.
He spent the first day following Nathan around, partly on routine calls - including one honest-to-God cat-up-a-tree callout, handled with good humour all around. It was a revelation for Dwight. As well as being, well, Haven, Haven was also just a small town.
Some of their stops seemed linked to Garland's copied file. Dwight figured out that Nathan was periodically revisiting places connected with Ivan Lomas, the disappeared man. He had his proof when it came to evening and Nathan returned to a location they'd visited earlier in the day.
Lomas sold pictures of bright boats and charming, ramshackle fishing huts to tourists, from the walls of the folksy Haven Gallery and half the cafés on Main Street. His workshop studio was a short stroll along the waterside from his house. A converted boat house out on a lonely shore, it wasn't the easiest place to follow a man without being seen. Dwight hung well back, and by the time he got there and peeped through the windows, Nathan was nowhere in sight.
Cursing inwardly, he rounded the small building. Nada. Scanned the low-lying shores around, over scrubby grass and expanses of sand, where nothing bigger than an old wooden marker punctuated the landscape. Dwight looked through the workshop windows again, and waited, and fretted, and wondered what the hell Garland was going to say if his son had disappeared as comprehensively as Lomas had, and on Dwight's very first watch.
Eventually, nerves and impatience got the better of him, and Dwight pushed the door back and ventured in.
The cause of his confusion was immediately apparent as he rounded some canvasses and boards at the side of a big table. Obscured from the window, Nathan had pulled away a few square metres of linoleum from the floor, revealing an opening into another workspace beneath. The quick peek that Dwight seized determined it was big enough to class as another room down there, but he had to back off as he heard steps creaking.
Garland's son poked his head up into the workshop and stood, looking around, puzzled like he'd heard something. He might well have. Dwight, now safely watching from the window again, could have been quieter about that swift foray. Careless - but at the time he'd thought the other man had vanished. Nathan glanced at his watch and pulled a face. His shoulders sagged and he stood and headed for the door. Dwight quickly rounded the corner of the building to avoid being spotted.
He let Nathan go, hoping that his own truck, next to the blue Ford Bronco, would be written off as belonging to a fisherman or tourist. It was obvious Garland's son was headed home now and Dwight wanted to take a look at that hidden room.
Nathan had relocked the door with keys he must have obtained as part of his ongoing investigation, but it was no problem for Dwight to let himself in. Nathan had also replaced the linoleum and closed the trapdoor. Was he expecting someone else to come back there?
Dwight pondered. Obviously the detective was working on an instinct that Lomas wasn't really gone. Nathan had been revisiting his haunts looking for clues Lomas had also returned in the meantime, and this place had particularly sparked his interest. Now he'd found a... secret hideout, of some kind, though by his reaction it was empty. But that did suggest Garland had been wrong and maybe they weren't dealing with a Troubled disappearance at all.
Dwight pulled away the linoleum and hauled up the trapdoor. There was a light switch on the side of the opening, which Nathan had left switched on. Had he found it that way? Dwight eased his body through the narrow space. The steep, wooden steps had been cobbled together from leftover scraps of timber and were treacherous, with splintery edges threatening to bite at his fingers.
Not a hideout; not an underground shelter or survivalist store. Another workshop, with paint and canvasses and finished works on the walls, just like the one above. But the paintings here were much different to the bright and cheerful tourist fodder of Ivan Lomas' public face.
These paintings were disturbing. The landscape which looked back out of them was alien, its colours and textures subtly unlike any Dwight had ever seen or even seen depicted before. The artistry, too, had risen a notch in quality. They had all been painted with a manic desperation, a passion that showed through in every daub of paint and strong, vivid brushstroke, and which the serene, gentle boats and sheds of the room above could not hope to match. Dwight was impressed, but also ill at ease. He'd seen enough Troubles to smell one at work. He was drawn to touch a picture, wanting to see if the paint was still wet, but held back. He knew better.
"Who are you?"
He spun around. Nathan Wuornos was crouched on the top few steps; his head ducked down and service pistol in his extended hand. He looked surprised. He'd been expecting Lomas, Dwight realised, and offered somewhat hopefully, "A friend." Nathan looked unconvinced. "Someone else who's interested in finding out why - or how - Lomas disappeared. You don't need that." Nodding toward the gun, Dwight made no effort to hide his nervousness. He wasn't wearing a vest today: it was hot and his ribs still ached keenly from the day before, so he'd taken the calculated risk that he probably wouldn't need one on a missing person investigation with no suggestion of normal foul play.
"Some kind of PI?" Nathan edged down another few steps and balanced, held out his other hand. "Let's see a license."
"Not that kind of PI," Dwight said, chuckling a little despite himself. Nathan wasn't going to shoot him, but a warning shot or misfire could be fatal, so he was careful with his every movement. "Name's Dwight."
Nathan hopped the last few steps. A splintery edge tore a gash in his left palm where he rested it on the wood, but he didn't appear to notice. "How did you get in?" He watched Dwight's face, then rolled his eyes and shook his head.
Garland was going to be pissed, but he was going to be pissed anyway, and maybe Dwight could still keep his original word working in plain sight. "Look, we're both investigating the same thing - a case everyone's written off, a man no-one else is looking for. Don't tell me this is a police priority?" He spread his palms. "Maybe we can help each other."
Nathan circled him a bit before tipping his gun hand and averting his aim. He watched Dwight's reaction, then holstered the sidearm, though he left it unclipped. "Alright. Help me out. What the hell is all this?" He gestured around the hidden room, at the paintings, and for the first time noticed he was bleeding. He passed it over with an instant's sour expression, pressed the blood onto his pants and ignored it. Odd. Laverne had said he had a nerve disorder; Garland had said he had a Trouble. This was, presumably, connected.
Dwight shrugged, turning around to look over the paintings again, figuring it could do no harm to show Nathan he was happy to turn his back on him. "I found it when you found it. Look..." Warily, he decided to test the ground. "You don't think these are normal paintings, do you?"
Nathan's brows rose. "I think they're pretty good. He's got a deft stroke. An eye for colour." He waited, and his expression changed. "No. You're talking about something else. So you're that kind of investigator."
Dwight could see he wasn't any sort of comfortable with the idea, but wasn't totally blind to it either. You couldn't really be a cop in this town and be oblivious that things happened in Haven which were just too strange to explain by any normal means.
Nathan shook his head. "The pictures are weird. I don't know why he'd hide them down here, unless it's an ego thing. But Lomas isn't gone. He's been here. Look." His boot toed a line through yellow dust on the floor. Was that sand? The colour looked wrong, sulphurous and too-bright. He made his way to the sink in one corner, picking between boards and boxes, and lifted up a drinking glass standing on the drainer; upended it in his hand. A drip fell from the lip. He set it down and pulled a face, wafting his hand. "It smells weird here, too."
"Paint," said Dwight.
"It's not paint." A phone rang shrilly, making both men jump. Nathan pulled a face, groping in his jacket pocket. "I'm supposed to be going round to the Chi- to my dad's for dinner... It's pie night." He flipped open the phone. "Yep? Sorry. Got delayed. See you soon." Flipped it closed. The conversation had been enlightening in its curtness. "Weekly torture session. I have to go. You can't stay here. I'm gonna lock up and I'm gonna tape the door to be sure. But tomorrow morning-"
"I still want to see an ID. Of some sort."
Dwight had a number of IDs showing him to be Power, Gas, Water, Forestry or Pest Control as the need required, but on what seemed the reasonable assumption that he would cross paths with the Chief's son again under his own guise, he simply flashed his driver's license instead. Accepting the inevitable that the detective would run a check on him, but wouldn't find any connection to Garland.
"Dwight Hendrickson," Nathan read. "Fine. Nathan Wuornos."
I know wasn't a reassuring response, so Dwight just nodded and accepted the surprisingly tentative handshake. There was something wrong with the guy's grip. It didn't fall naturally into the right places against his own hand. The pressure was wrong. Tempted, Dwight put a bit more strength into it than should be comfortable, keeping his face straight, but Nathan accepted the bonecrusher without reaction. His own grip didn't change.
Like he can't feel it at all. Okay. As Troubles went, this one seemed harmless, and Dwight was happy to file it as something that wasn't likely to turn into a Problem later.
As Dwight expected, Nathan tried to double back, cut behind and follow him in that blue Bronco after they left. He dodged the attempt at a tail and hid out until he was sure the other man would have gone to make his tortuous dinner date. Returning the trick wasn't a problem, since he knew where Nathan was headed.
Sure enough, the Bronco was parked outside when Dwight drove past the Chief's place. He parked his own truck near enough to keep watch, stuck the radio on a suitably pleasing classical station and settled in to wait. It took over two and a half hours and a switch from opera to a recording of an old Bowie concert from 1973. By the time they once again rolled up the dirt track on the headland by Lomas' workshop it was almost dark. Dwight held a good distance back and kept his headlights off. He cut the engine when he saw the Bronco's lights stop moving, waiting in silence as those lights cut out, to be replaced shortly by a bobbing flashlight in Nathan Wuornos' shadowy hand.
Depending how much he could or couldn't feel, Nathan possibly needed the flashlight. Dwight figured he could manage in the dark.
He waited until the detective had unlocked the door before clearing his throat. Nathan spun, dropping the keys - keeping the flashlight - and going for his gun. But he reversed the movement just as fast when he saw who it was. "You followed me."
"Tit for tat. Only I made it work."
Nathan stirred a shoulder in a barely-there shrug.
"Should I be all upset you came back without me?" Dwight was, actually, a bit peeved. At least, their agreement to co-operate had seemed genuine. But he'd followed Nathan anyway, so probably couldn't complain, even if he was just keeping his word to the Chief.
This was a damn mess. What he wanted was to tell the guy to be honest with his own damn son, but that wasn't Dwight's job, or his place.
Nathan bent and picked up the keys, his movements sharp and frustrated. "Kept thinking about it. Those pictures. The water. Stuff that seemed to have moved. I'd meant to leave it till morning. No bed here - this can't be where he's crashing. But if not here then where? It's a secret room. It should be the answer. Why go anywhere else?"
It did seem pretty perverse to find that and still not find the missing man. Dwight nodded.
"All right. Come on." Nathan shoved the door open, shining the flashlight within. Nothing looked out of place in the beam of light. He made his way to the trapdoor, uncovered its linoleum disguise, and crouched beside it. Obligingly, Dwight hunkered down and set his hands to the hatch. They exchanged a glance and Dwight hauled. Quickly, the detective braced his hands either side of the opening and bobbed down through the gap, but pulled up again, frustrated.
"...Empty?" Dwight asked, noticing idly, as Nathan reversed his angle to climb down the steps, that his cut hand now had a white dressing on it.
"Apparently this was a nowhere idea." The click of the flashlight switching off sounded overly loud in the underground space.
"Seems pretty appropriate for finding the nowhere man." Dwight climbed down and scowled around the emptiness. Okay, this case was not his business. Nathan Wuornos' welfare was his business. But this was starting to grate on him.
Nathan cracked a grin, anyway, at what Dwight had thought a fairly nowhere joke. A revelation: a genuine smile changed his face completely. The flat veneer of too-serious, too-focused fell away, and there was someone who remembered how to enjoy life.
"Closet Beatles fan, huh?" Dwight grunted.
"Yellow Submarine is a guilty pleasure."
Nathan waved the dead flashlight briskly. "I should go. For real. Stake this place out in the morning." His dubious frown told of still not being wholly convinced this was appropriate as a joint venture. The only reason Dwight figured he hadn't been kicked out on his ass was due to Nathan's own interest in the case being largely extracurricular. "So you investigate Troubles?"
Dwight said, "More like damage limitation. Think of me as a caretaker. You can trust me."
"I-" Nathan broke off and his hand swung behind him to grope for his gun. "What is that?"
Dwight was already turning, pretty sure he needed to know what could put an expression like that on the wooden-faced cop.
A small patch of - thin air, there was no other description - had parted to reveal blurred colours straight from the palette of Lomas' weird paintings. As though the air was a fresh canvas, and one of his paintings was superimposing itself onto it, landscape features resolved fast as the patch grew. The process seemed to speed up exponentially, and it was big enough to swallow a man in moments, re-casting a scrap of the floor as gaudy desert and wafting foul-smelling atmosphere into the underground room. In the morbid expectation of someone who dealt with Troubles on a weekly basis, Dwight retreated until his back pressed against the wall. But instead of swallowing anyone, the portal spat a man out.
Reflexes working independent of shock, Nathan caught and grabbed him. "Ivan Lomas?!"
Behind Lomas the portal blinked out even quicker than it had appeared.
Lomas had several days worth of beard and he'd been losing weight. Dark smudges pooled under his eyes and his cheeks were sunken. His clothes were unwashed, yellow-orange dust clinging to them, and he stank. Dwight could smell it from where he was. Nathan turned his head aside, reeling like he'd been hit by a physical blow.
"Let go," croaked Lomas, breaking Nathan's hold with strength it really didn't look like he should have and lunging for the sink. "Water. I need..." He grabbed up the glass from the drainer and scrabbled at the faucet. Water gushed, and he filled up the glass and drained it three or four times before pausing at all. Dwight and Nathan exchanged glances - the detective looked just about struck dumb - and Lomas turned aside and sagged into a wooden chair. After a moment, he looked up and his hands gripped the chair arms and his back went rigid. "What are you doing here? Who are you?"
Nathan half opened his mouth, gave up, took out his police badge, flipped it open and held it out silently. Dwight eyed him, decided he was fine, or at least that there were other priorities, and stated, "You've been officially listed as missing, Mr Lomas. Anything you'd care to tell us about where you've been?"
Lomas' eyes slid uncertainly around the room, as if he really didn't know what response they expected. Having just watched the fellow materialise out of thin air, Dwight supposed that might be fair enough.
"That. Was some kind of..." Nathan started, and stopped.
"Portal," Dwight filled in. "What's on the other side, Lomas? How does it work?"
The artist had nervously dragged himself upright again, backing off from both of them. The weighed-down weariness of his movements were painful to watch. He waved a hand at the walls around him, the gaudy and strange canvasses. "That. That's on the other side. I started painting it, before..."
So the pictures might be just pictures, after all. Dwight looked anew at the yellow-orange land, the stark and barren alienness of the landscapes. The creatures. Scales. Claws. Teeth. "Doesn't look hospitable."
The artist shook his head, lurching for a box of brushes on a table. Dwight couldn't imagine what he was doing until his rummaging dug up a palette knife, long, sturdy and angled to a point, if not sharpened to one. There was no doubt from the way he held it that he planned to use it as a weapon. His panting breaths excited further and his mouth curled into a grin, then the grin folded and grimly, fatalistically, Lomas warned, "Stay back."
"You're not in trouble," Nathan said, holding out a pacifying hand. "People are just worried. Take it easy."
"You don't understand!" Lomas' voice rose to a manic intensity. "Stay away from me!" His panic was potent enough that Nathan did lower his hand and fall back a small step, but it didn't satisfy Lomas, whose agitation was practically rolling off him in waves. "You don't understand! It's going to happen again! Get back, I said!"
It started in the air over his shoulders. Just a breath of distortion at first, like the way heat rising from a hot pavement distorted the air. Then the stark colours of the alien desert rushed in, and Dwight had only begun to bark out a warning shout, had barely begun his lunge forward to haul Garland's son back. He wasn't fast enough. The resuming portal swallowed up Lomas again, and this time, swallowed Nathan as well.
The silent, empty studio bounced his warning shout back at him; Dwight clapped a hand to his forehead and ground his fingers into his aching skull in frustration.
Panic was one option. Dwight opted not to take it. Instead, he set himself down in Lomas' chair. They had ample proof that the artist had reappeared back here more than once. He'd reappear again. It was just a matter of waiting.
He waited. He tried not to think about the man he'd promised to look out for trapped in an alien dimension that challenged his concept of reality, or all the things that could probably happen there to make that the least of Nathan's problems and render Dwight's promises worth shit. He also tried not to think about explaining this to the Chief.
The hours ticked away. Only a little sense of the changing light filtered through the open trapdoor overhead, but the clock on the wall passed 3AM, then 4AM, and was nearing five - and Dwight's eyelids were drifting, but he was struggling manfully and would have managed to keep them open even if he had not seen the yellow-orange landscape resolve out of the air again.
Lomas fell through, alone. Dwight watched the portal vanish again with dismay.
He grabbed Lomas on his headlong lunge for the sink, thought better of it, let the gasping, half-dead man gorge himself on fluids, then grabbed him again. "Where's Nathan?"
"He..." Lomas looked around, confused, then shrugged. "I guess he wasn't near enough to get pulled through."
Great. But on the plus side, alive. "He's all right?"
"Yeah, he's all right." A faint note of disgust among what was predominantly, Dwight judged, relief. "He had a gun."
That wasn't usually his favourite news but right now he'd take it. He noted the palette knife, smeared with new, crusted stains that were definitely not paint, looped through Lomas' belt.
"But he's out of bullets."
"You don't have any...?" Lomas asked hopefully, but his eyes scanned Dwight's body and saw he wasn't carrying. "Look, could you do me a favour, for next time? Your buddy, too, if he doesn't get back..." He waved his hand at the sink. "I need a container for water. One that's not had anything toxic, like paint, in it." He scowled sourly around the workshop. "If I had some way to store water... If you could bring that back and leave it here..."
Lomas' face fell.
Dwight slung an arm around his shoulder and squeezed him hard in what was not an overly affectionate hug. "You and me, we're going to stay very close. And when your whatever-it-is kicks in again, I'm going back with you. We're going to find Nathan, and we're all three of us going to stay very close again until we get back here. And we will sort this out," he added, belatedly trying to inject a note that smacked more of comfort than of threat. "Somehow."
"Oh." The artist squirmed uncomfortably. Lomas was only a little, weaselly guy for all the survivalist skills he'd managed to display. "I guess." After a minute or so had stretched out and Dwight suspected his expression was getting somewhat fixed, "This feels kinda awkward..."
He supposed he was too close to Lomas to notice. One moment they were still in the hidden studio, and the next, the landscape from the paintings surrounded them. "Ow." Something about the yellowish light hurt intensely, reverberating inside his head, and he let go of Lomas to shield his eyes.
"Yeah, I know." The artist was squinting into it as he moved in a half crouched stance, circling warily to take in their surroundings. "It never gets dark here. Sorry. But you do get used to it, a little bit. And your buddy, it didn't seem to bother him at all. Hey, there he is. Nathan! Nate!"
Dwight spun and saw the Troubled detective loping toward them, grinning. The bandage on his hand had come off and been replaced by strips torn from his shirt sleeves. The bare skin of his arms was powdered yellow, and the dust clung to his clothes and hair, but he looked fine. His face didn't acknowledge any discomfort over the painful light, although his eyes were bloodshot - his wide grin was, in the circumstances, plain weird.
Nathan inclined his head. "Welcome to Mars."
"It's not Mars," Lomas sighed. "There's no air on Mars."
"Good a name as any." Dwight shrugged. "You okay?"
"Sure." The word rolled off Nathan's tongue with casual ease, as if he had no concerns about the alien environment he'd found himself in, or briefly being left behind alone. "Ivan says time passes differently here." He tapped his watch. "I get 2.15AM. What do you have?"
Dwight looked at his phone. There was - big surprise - no reception. "5.08AM. You're saying we're stuck here something like six hours?"
"It doesn't work like that," Lomas protested. "I never know when it's gonna happen. Probably, uh... probably at least that, though."
It was hard to concentrate, but Dwight made efforts to focus on their surroundings. There was no sun visible in the sky. That weird light was the product of a chemical smog or cloud blanket of some kind, which shifted and glowed overhead. The land was just rock and dry terrain, the rise and fall of a few slopes, but no real landscape features other than some big rocky outcrops scattered about. He could see one with what looked like a cave opening in the near distance.
"On the plus side," Nathan offered, "Ivan promised to make big cat burgers." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. Halfway between their position and the distant cave, a yellow and black lump decorated the rocky ground.
"You're kidding me." Dwight dragged his feet reluctantly, following them both to the kill. Lomas had perked up and was almost enthused, crazy-excitable as he shot ahead and bounced gleefully around the lump. Nathan was steadier, but that lunatic look on his face, so unlike everything he'd seen of the dour detective so far, was a matter of concern. Dwight felt like he was missing some punchline.
The animal was like a tiger and distinctly not a tiger. Its build and colouration were close, but he doubted it was even technically a feline. Its legs weren't the right shape, its claws were more like talons, and its size was frightening. It did however have a lithe body with four legs, a thick tail and little triangular ears, and a mottled pattern on a thick pelt that almost resembled stripes. Creatures like it had adorned Lomas' paintings. Its head had been bashed in with a large rock.
"You?" Dwight asked, quirking his eyebrows at Nathan.
"Less impressive than it looks. They don't seem to know what to do with people. Don't like the smell, either. They don't go straight for the kill. You can bluff them."
"Make a lot of noise and strike quick, right in their face!" Lomas blurted joyously. "That's the rule! C'mon, we gotta get this thing back to base before anything smells the fresh meat."
Six foot plus of trained policeman was one thing but that the scrawny, unwashed artist had found that out on his own, unarmed, and managed to survive it impressed the hell out of Dwight. Though he reflected, as he watched the capering, grubby man, that it seemed he'd paid for his survival with a sizeable slice of his sanity.
The details of Ivan Lomas' story came out slowly while the three of them sat chewing half-blackened, half-raw hockey-puck-shaped parcels of stringy meat in the shelter of the cave Lomas was using as a base.
It had started with mere momentary flashes: finding himself in an alien landscape for a few seconds, long enough for a visual impression and for most people not even to realise he'd been gone. That was when he'd begun to paint, utilizing the cellar beneath the old boat house he'd bought for his studio. Smugglers had used it as a store, in decades past. He'd hidden those first paintings, believing them products of hallucinations, proof of a mind falling into madness.
Gradually, the flashes extended, lasting longer and longer. Lomas started to become aware that this was a real place, with things he could touch and feel. Dust that came back on his clothes. Animals that could attack him. He started to be there long enough to suffer from the lack of food, lack of water. He figured out he could kill and eat the cats, but never could find water, even though the animals must have access to it somewhere.
Time went by, and unable to control the jumps, he'd reached the point where he was spending most of his life in the other world, barely any in Haven. That was when he'd finally been reported missing by his neighbours.
His story told, his big cat burger scarfed down, Lomas curled next to the remnant of the fire. Dwight watched, cautiously hopeful, until the artist's breathing became slow and shallow and it was obvious the portal wasn't going to reappear and reverse itself just because he'd fallen asleep.
Nathan gestured purposely and they both walked a short distance away from the shallow cave and sleeping man before he said, "I thought that, too, the first time. Doesn't work, but I have an idea what might." His voice rasped around the words but he still looked like it was all wonderful.
Dwight couldn't hold off asking any longer. "Why are you this happy? Portals. Other worlds. Cat monsters. Is this suddenly your idea of fun?"
"There's... something wrong with the light. Or maybe it's the atmosphere." The grinning detective gesticulated with his hand and looked, for a reassuring moment, mildly frustrated. "It... I think it took a few hours to take ahold, but Lomas has been popping in and out of here so long it's got him good. Causes some kind of euphoria. I can't help it. Lucky for Lomas, though."
Yeah, Dwight could see that. If the alien land with no water and killer monsters didn't also make you absurdly happy to be there, the scrawny artist probably wouldn't have lasted this long.
"Sorry," said Nathan, shaking himself. "I haven't felt like this since Duke Crocker brought those candies into school that it turned out weren't candies."
"Just... try and keep it together," Dwight advised incredulously. "What's your theory?"
"When the cat attacked before, and I told him I was out of bullets, I think that's what triggered the portal."
"Stress? The guy's a bundle of nerves."
"Right," Nathan agreed. "I wondered... maybe that's why he's spending more time here. I don't pretend to know how it works, but this place is pretty stressful. Probably built up on him."
"Fine. Good work. Let's get him home, pump him full of Valium, and try to figure out how to make him stay put more permanently."
Nathan grinned like a loon and patted his pockets. "Sorry, don't carry mine on me. You?"
"Alright, so we get him home and smack him over the head, and hope that puts down him and his Trouble long enough to apply more effective measures." Dwight ran his eyes assessingly over the other man. "How are you doing, really? You can't have had any fluids in a while now, and this place is hot."
"I'll hold up till we get back. I guess all we have to do is stick to Lomas like warts. I don't know about trying to stress him further. The little guy might just explode, and it's gonna happen anyway sooner or later."
"Easier to ensure it happens while we're close enough to cling on if we can trigger it on purpose," Dwight said, thinking they should also preferably do it before he, too, turned into a grinning idiot. "But let him sleep for now. If you're sure it's not going to happen in his sleep."
"Wait for it," Nathan warned with a wry wave of his hand toward the restlessly sleeping artist in the mouth of the cave.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, Lomas came awake with a jolt, rolling over and scrambling up with a sharp cry. Dwight tipped his eyes that way. "I'm going to stress him out. You just be ready to dive in and grab hold."
Nathan looked for a moment like he wanted to protest, perhaps on the grounds of which one of them actually carried a badge. But perhaps also remembering that even if he wasn't out of his depth already, his judgement was compromised, he stopped himself and nodded. "You've done this a lot."
"Some. This is my first alien planet."
Inside the cave, Dwight clapped his hand to Lomas' shoulder. He was sitting up by the fire, gawking around and stupid from sleep. "Hey, buddy. Got bad news for you. Nate and I, we both agreed on it, stood out there, watching the colour of the sky. Light level's changing. I guess that means the sun's finally going down, behind all that cloud. What do you reckon it's like in this place when night falls?" He watched edgily as Nathan joined them, crouching next to the fire and feeding it a few more of the dead cactus-like husks that rolled around the desert floor.
"No," Lomas protested, pawing at Dwight until he clutched him by the collar, practically climbing up his larger form. "No, it doesn't go dark here. Not in months and months and months and-" He fell quiet but his lips kept moving, as he did the calculations in his head. "Eight months! That's how long I've been coming here. Never dark. Never!"
"Sun must go down sometime. Just because it has long days doesn't mean they're endless. You think this place gets cold at night?"
"Cold... It could get cold. But we have... cat pelts! Ohhhh, shouldn't have dumped the carcasses. Shouldn't have done that. Do you know how to cure skins?" He was a practical little soul, and Dwight couldn't help feeling a bit of a heel when faced with the plaintive keenness of the question.
"Nope, sorry. Boy, I wish it wasn't gonna get dark." Dwight raised his brows at Nathan, behind Lomas. "Let me tell you, night is hell when you're out in the desert with enemies... with predators about. Can't see 'em even if they're right next to you, switch on a light and it's all over. You can hear them, though, all around. Scuffling in the dark. I wonder if the animals get more aggressive towards humans at night."
"Lights? There are no lights," Lomas said helplessly. "Wait. We've the fire. That's light - and they stay away from fire. Mostly. We can still do this. I can do this."
Nathan tossed a cactus husk at their feet. "Almost out of those. Not too abundant, either. If the day lasts eight months, I hate to think how long the night is. We're not gonna have time to find enough fuel to keep a fire going."
Lomas twitched and planted his forehead in his fists. "Stop it. Why are you saying these things? You've got to think positive. Stop it..."
Dwight stopped feeling bad the second he saw the distortion rippling out over the artist's shoulders. He said sharply, "Nathan-" and the detective lunged towards them, gripping Lomas' nearest shoulder. The secret studio coalesced around them, and Dwight promptly planted his best knock-out punch in the side of Lomas' head. The artist slumped and dropped. Nathan caught him around the waist to lower him safely.
"Keep back," Dwight warned. "It might not work." He peeled Nathan's hands from the limp body, letting the unfortunate Lomas slump the rest of the way unsupported as he pulled Garland's son clear.
"Right. Don't want to end up back there." Grimacing as his voice grated like sandpaper, Nathan went to the sink, rinsed his hands, and after a sharp intake of breath and inexplicable hesitation, drank out of his palm. He came away wrapped in distraction, more dazed than he'd been under the alien world's narcotic influence, his face wiped even blanker than usual.
Dwight frowned. Nathan had been more useful by far than he'd expected from Garland's evidenced opinion of him, but the Troubles could be a jolt to the psyche of anyone, and this one had been a particular gem. It was at least convenient of him to wait until after they were safe home again to blank out, but Dwight had rather been hoping the part where he rationalized and explained away the weird to its shell-shocked bystanders wouldn't apply in this case.
"Nathan," he said, battling for the other man's attention. Enough time had passed to convince him Lomas wasn't going to blip back again while he was unconscious, so he checked the guy's pulse and patted his shoulder apologetically before hauling him up by his underarms and nodding towards his feet. "Help me get him up to my van. I've got tranquilizers there that'll keep him out."
Nathan's glance was briefly re-lit by a spark of suspicious interest, but that spark died almost on the instant as he held up his left hand. Dwight saw the makeshift bandages dangling around his wrist. Above them, the small cut of earlier was engorged, livid red and surrounded by swollen and blackened flesh that covered the whole palm, from his wrist to the base of his fingers.
"Sounds like a plan," he said, swallowing, gulping the shaky breath he needed to keep talking. "After that... I think I should probably get to the hospital."
"I remember, now, what happened next," the Chief said, sitting back with a sigh of displeasure. "I got blood poisoning - from apparently alien bacteria - and spent over a week hooked up to machines in the hospital, and when I came out of it thought the whole thing had been a hallucination. What I remembered of it. Which wasn't much."
"Mm." Dwight gave him a steady look over the small café table, over the sea of files, the hidden history between them - unknown to Nathan, until now. The Lomas incident was the worst of it, but not the end of it. "If it helps, it's good to have you back as an ally again." He held his hand across the table hopefully. Nathan's expression lingered on sceptical for several seconds, then he tipped his head with a touch of irony and accepted the handshake.
It was different from their last. He gripped confidently with the fingers he couldn't feel, shaking briskly and retreating before - had Dwight not already known it, anyway - any abnormality was possible to notice. He supposed Nathan had been getting a lot more practice lately, with the political side of his father's role.
"So here we are again," Nathan said slowly. "I feel like that guy, from those kids' TV shows that repeat the same plots time and again. The guy who doesn't know the secret identity, or what's really going on, and never finds out 'cause whenever he might learn anything he always gets... bashed on the head, or brain-wiped, for the sake of the status quo."
Dwight winced and nodded sympathy. That had to be a hard pill to swallow.
"But now I know." The Chief's gaze became steely. "No more reset button, Dwight. If it happens in Haven, I want to hear about it. No more 'cleaning' me."
"Wasn't intentional," Dwight offered cautiously. "If that helps. Hey, I'm all for full disclosure if you happen to be headed into a war zone with some wacky mystical target in the centre of your back."
It was Nathan's turn to wince. "Sounds a pretty accurate analogy."
"And if it helps," Dwight added, "I got your back."
"It helps." Slowly, Nathan flipped his Haven Herald up to reveal one more file. "I found this, too. So I know how you... looked out for dad."
The file said Bentley on it, a painful stab from the past that would never be far enough from Dwight's memory; the bitter recollection of a man with a Trouble so vile no-one and nothing could help him. Lomas got a prescription for anti-anxiety meds that he complained dulled his ability to paint, yet he still happily enough daubed pretty boats, sheds and lighthouses for tourists and the walls of cafés. Bentley, no less a fighter in his own way, and just a guy, a normal guy trapped inside that horror - Bentley had never stood a chance. But there was more than that. Dwight reminded himself the file also represented a success. Lives saved. Trust earned. A milestone in a relationship between two men who neither of them were much for talking.
"Thanks for keeping the old buzzard around a little while longer," the Chief said. "And if he trusted you, then I guess I can trust you with my back, too."
Bentley had gone in the store to buy cigarettes and whiskey. He said they drowned out the stench. All evidence suggested that his sense of smell was normal, and only his vision was affected by his Trouble, but Bentley swore he could smell the rot anyway. It was a pretty sure thing that, psychosomatic or otherwise, smell wasn't the only thing the booze and tobacco drowned out.
In Dwight's estimation, there were a hell of a lot of people in the world with a hell of a lot less reason for becoming the town drunk.
If, as he said, he'd only and truly gone in there for the cigarettes and whiskey to begin with, no-one knew why he had the knife. Everyone knew where he subsequently got the gun - the luckless store owner, who Garland swore he'd told a thousand times not to be so damn keen pulling that thing, and damn it, he couldn't shoot the local kids for shoplifting even if he did catch them red-handed.
"Freaked out faced with the weapon," Garland summed up, and gave a low whistle, watching. They were stealing a moment in the Haven PD police van to view the store's security camera feed Dwight had hacked into. "Lookit that. Watch him go. Strong sucker. I always figured a five year old girl could knock him down with a slap."
Skin-and-bones Bentley, scoured down by a liquid diet, had just made short work of Lyle behind the till. Wasn't all the fault of the booze that the man was so thin - Dwight had heard he couldn't eat unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruit and meat, because he saw those decomposing on the plate as well. Bentley started shouting and shooting, silent on the black and white image. Lyle got it first in the centre of the chest. A youth from the queue caught a bullet in the leg and a round woman shrieked and slumped clutching her shoulder, sagging down into piles of cheap DVDs stacked in front of the counter.
"God damn it, Lyle," Garland cursed, rubbing his forehead in frustration.
"It doesn't look hopeful, Chief." Dwight switched back to the live feed. Lyle had fallen behind the counter, but the one bit of him they could see, his outstretched arm, hadn't moved at all from the earlier footage, and that shot had looked like a kill shot if ever Dwight had seen one.
The woman and the youth still huddled against the counter, visibly moving. Half a dozen other people who'd been in the store were on their feet, hands raised, not daring to move except to jolt and jump whenever Bentley took a break from his frenetic pacing to point the gun and shout at one or other of them. Dwight assessed the uninjured bystanders; a kid, ten-years-old or so, and his father; a pretty woman in her twenties who still clutched her basket of groceries; a teenage girl; a couple in their seventies; an overweight man who kept looking at Bentley like he fancied himself a hero.
"Shit." Garland gave the epithet almost three long-drawn-out syllables and started pulling his thick jacket off. "I'm going in. Damn it, Stan, where did we put those vests?"
The harried younger officer scrabbled around in the back of the van and quickly dragged out the requested protection.
Dwight asked, "Is that wise?"
"Someone's got to. Won't answer the damn phone. Bentley knows me. Knows my voice. Picked him up a hundred times for loitering, given him a nice, warm night in a cell."
"Hope he remembers it so fondly."
Garland refastened his jacket over the vest and brushed his gaze roughly over Dwight, assessing. "You sure as hell can't go in. You are wearing, right? Wouldn't want you to pick up any wild rounds."
"I'll be a mile away." An overstatement, but yes, he was also wearing his vest. "Worry about yourself, old man."
"Don't call me old, you oversized, hairy ingrate," the Chief sneered back. He slid out of the van and strode towards the shop. Stan dashed off after, diverting course to update the other officers present, trying to keep back the public. Dwight hung back, pinned by necessity. Crazy men with guns were not his forte. From his vantage, he saw another cop, a detective he'd seen around the station, sprint to intercept Garland's progress. There was a brief and surprisingly physical argument between the two before Garland shoved the insubordinate younger man off and stalked up to within ten feet of the shop front, hollering, "Bentley! Damn it, Iggy. It's Chief Wuornos, out here, and I am coming in!"
The detective he'd left behind twitched on the spot as the Chief surged the last short distance and disappeared through the door, but it was too late to intercede short of putting himself in there as well.
Dwight edged back inside the van, settling himself into the driver's seat, pulling the laptop around on the passenger side to watch Garland appear in the grainy black and white image on screen. His hands were raised loosely to the level of his shoulders but his visage remained remarkably unconcerned. The camera wasn't good enough to catch more than a general impression of anxious hope on the expressions of the visible hostages.
Later, Garland would repeat Bentley's wrenching words in reply to his attempts to talk him down. "All the times I've thought about putting out my own eyes so I wouldn't have to see... but I never did dare. What if I got left in the dark and it was all still there? I can smell them, damn it! What if once I was blind I could feel them as well? If I was stuck there, in the dark, and it all only made it even more real. What if I'm not just seeing things?"
The Chief's entrance onto the scene had one definite, marked effect - to focus all Bentley's attention on him. Bentley's, and that gun's.
Dwight raised his eyes from the screen and looked across at the store, gauged the angles with some quick calculation, and inwardly cursed. If he shot now, if Dwight wasn't far enough away, that shot was likely to go through the Chief on its way to him. Even if his Trouble didn't pick up the bullet, right now everything Dwight was witnessing told him a bullet in that gun had Garland's name on it - he of all people knew a vest wasn't infallible. Particularly not when your shooter was close enough to see you were wearing it and place his shots in vulnerable areas.
There was one thing that Dwight could invariably do to screw up the path of a bullet, but right now, he was most definitely in the wrong place.
The keys were handily in the ignition, though if they hadn't been it wouldn't have been the first time he hotwired a police car. He started the engine and guided the van very slowly through the police-controlled chaos outside the store, across the street and around the corner, pulling into the mouth of a side street next to Lyle's place. Still within the police lines, much closer to the action, and behind Bentley. Periodically he checked the screen of the laptop, making sure Garland was still up on his feet and among the living, passionately trying to talk down the Troubled madman.
"Shut your damn eyes," Garland said he'd been saying, later. "Shut your damn eyes and think about what you're doing."
Bentley didn't shut his eyes, but the big guy among his hostages seemed to consider it his moment for amateur heroics.
It was hard to tell on the screen that the gun had been fired, but the sound of the shot made it clear beyond doubt. The noise rang across the street, the accompanying sound of shattering glass distant and tiny. Dwight, in particular, wasn't in any doubt a shot had fired, as the impact stole his breath and skewed him sideways in the seat. It hurt less than he'd been expecting - he'd taken enough bullets through kevlar (and without it) for comparison. It didn't stop each breath searing his chest as he tried to gulp air back into his lungs.
He scrabbled for the laptop, knocked from the passenger seat when the bullet sent him sprawling, and tensely shook it until the image flickered to life again.
The Chief was still standing. Bentley wasn't.
Back around front and across the street, Dwight heard the noise as the uninjured hostages flooded out of the store.
Bentley died, the bullet passing right through him before the store window and the truck, stopping finally at Dwight. He wasn't dead on the spot; that happened later in the hospital. Dwight felt bad about it - hadn't meant to kill him, but it was true that it was safest for the hostages if he put himself behind the poor bastard, and he couldn't be all that sorry. Lyle was also dead, and you had to suspect that Bentley was better off as he was now than he had been in years.
"Ballistics'll be scratching their heads awhile over how a bullet came to do a total 180," was Garland's first comment, as he poked his finger grimly through the hole in the bodywork of the police van. He regarded Dwight. "Now, did I ask for your help?"
"You did." This morning's request had been pretty unspecific. "Don't worry. I'll clean it up for you."
Garland snorted. "Clean it up," he echoed. "Fine. You clean it up, and I'll be seeing you at the No Such Inn later, when you've done that. Because it seems to me I owe you a drink. It's the least a man can give in payment for his life."
His blunt, wrinkled paw came down hard on Dwight's shoulder a couple of times, then Garland swung away. He hesitated mid-stride as he caught sight of the annoyed, insubordinate detective of earlier heading briskly towards him. But he caught himself, changing the fumble into a pause to break out a cigarette, light it, and set it to his lips. The younger man was still oncoming, wearing a face full of thunder. Eyes on nothing else, the Chief set his own face into harsher lines, renewed his purpose and destination, and let his steps resume.