CHAPTER SEVENTY NINE

His nickname was the Preacher. Not for any religious values; he, like the others, seemed to have none. No, he'd gotten the nickname from his propensity to lecture those he went after, explaining in great detail why they had erred, and why that meant he had to deal with them. A sermon, of sorts, but not one that would be heard in any church.

Perhaps it was his sense of right and wrong that made this assignment so difficult. Certainly, the people he was after had strayed, but they had, in reality, done nothing wrong. Other than outwit the general. And they were, after all, members of the same fraternity.

The one that had caused the real damage was already dead; his accomplice, if one could even call him that, was clearly not in his right mind. Lead astray. A lost sheep. One to be brought back into the fold. That's what the general wanted, for all of them, and therefore that's what the Preacher wanted.

All they had to do was cooperate.

Once he knew what had happened to the Ables originally sent here to watch the priest, he would know if that was possible. He knew Smith was not a killer, would not willingly allow any member of the team to kill. At least, he hadn't in the past. But he knew the history of this entire quest, knew there was a blood trail and that Smith's men, to some extent and one in particular, had been involved in the deaths. If the Ables were still alive, Smith and his team would live to return to the general.

If not...

He'd started with the first derelict building he'd spotted earlier. Several people still lived in it. It seemed less rundown than the other. And it was directly across from the Church's building. If he were to choose a new command post, this would be the one he would use.

As he stepped through the front door, an old man came down the stairs with a small dog on a leash. The dog started to growl, but a sharp word from the old man silenced it. He and the man exchanged looks, contempt in the wrinkled face. He took a half-step to the side, just enough to subtly block the elderly man's way.

"You live here, old man?" He smiled, softening his words.

"Yeah. So?" Belligerence in the voice, but a quaver, too. Good.

"I don't want any trouble, Pops. I'm looking for some people. New to the neighborhood."

The old man took in the suit, the demeanor. "Cop?" A hint of hope in the voice.

"You could say that. Seen anyone?"

The old man licked his lips, looked down at his dog. Thought for a moment. "Second floor, back."

The Preacher smiled. "Thanks, Pops." He stepped around him and moved quietly up the stairs.

Shaking his head, the old man continued out the door. His dog would have an extra long walk this morning.


*****

He had turned down the mic's some time ago, so the voices in the room were a mere murmur in the background. Occasionally he had turned it up to listen, when the voices had gotten louder, or the tempo changed. Otherwise, he had no desire to actively listen to what went on between the two men.

He wasn't even sure why he was still recording it. Insurance, he would guess. Against the future. Or reference, for the future.

At any rate, it wasn't for Stockwell's uses. That much he knew for sure.

Turning the volume up just a tad, he wandered through the vacant apartment. Mice, maybe rats, probably both, scuttled through the walls at the sound of his steps. He stopped in what would have been the living room, staring idly around. He was glad it wasn't on the top floor; the heat of the day was already seeping in, making the rooms stuffy and close.

He stood there for some time, listening to the dim street noises, an occasional groan from the building's ancient plumbing. There were a couple "real" apartments still here, die-hards holding on to their homes for as long as they could before the city finished condemnation procedures. One, an elderly man, had glared at him from the upper stairwell on his last trip from the old apartment. He'd smiled back, trying to reassure him, but the man had just turned back through his door, shutting it firmly behind him.

He shook his head, sadly, thinking about that old man. He knew he would never be that old. Nowhere near it. Did he regret that reality? All the things he would miss, growing old? All the things he wouldn't see, wouldn't experience? Not really. Seeing that old man reminded him that growing old merely meant living through more disappointments than those who died young.

If it hadn't been for his roommates in the walls, he might have missed it. But the sudden scurrying amidst the silence caught his attention, and he heard the footsteps outside his door...


*****

He stopped, head up, eyes closed, listening. Through the thin door, he could just make out voices. Barely. Probably from the back of the apartment.

The missing Ables?

Now, that would put a kink in the general's theory. And certainly make his job a lot easier. He shook his head.

Things were never that easy.

He moved closer to the door, hand lightly resting on the knob. He could hear nothing else coming from the apartment. If they kept talking, they would never hear him enter. Regardless of who was in the room, he knew they were highly trained and wouldn't appreciate being taken by surprise. When they realized he was inside, they would react without thinking, instinctively. He knew how to handle that, too.

Carefully, he tried the doorknob, expecting it to be locked. He looked at the door critically. Obviously whoever was in there had only recently moved in - the lock was original, simple to open. Of course, he couldn't know what kind of booby traps might be on the other side, but he would be expecting them and know how to react.

The door slowly slid open. The voices never hesitated. A good sign. He stopped. Something odd about those voices. They didn't sound right. He stepped quietly inside, leaving the door open behind him. Took another step. Felt the hairs on the back of his neck raise.

Something was definitely wrong. He didn't know what until he felt the tip of the blade against the small of his back. Heard a quiet chuckle.

"No one ever looks behind the door, do they?"


*****

The door was pushed open, protesting loudly. He peered inside the room, barely making out the contents in the dim light from the dirt frosted windows. It looked like nothing more than old furniture, piled high and precariously. Then he heard a muffled noise from the corner. Squinting to see, he looked closer.

Ah, yes. As promised.

He nodded at his companion, and the two men retreated from the dust and mold. The door squeaked to a close behind them, locking the noises inside once more.

Silently, the two men climbed the stairs and stepped out into the street above, squinting at the late afternoon sun. He looked again at his companion, who nodded his head at a small cafe across the street. Both men glanced around them before crossing. Once inside, they moved of one accord to a small table near the kitchen. They sat, one facing the kitchen door, the other the main entrance. The waitress took their order and the two men sipped coffee until it arrived. Once the waitress had retreated to her movie magazine behind the counter, they began softly talking.

"He'll never go along with this, you know."

"Oh, I think he will. After all, it's merely a matter of restoring the status quo. And he's getting what he says he wants, after all."

"Not everything."

"Everything he needs. The other is my insurance."

"Only insurance?"

"Only insurance. There's been enough damage done to shove home the lesson. And too much peripheral damage. It's time to be done with it."

He cut his steak - cooked too fast, making tough and leathery - and chewed thoughtfully before speaking again. "And what of the rest? Are you so sure they'll agree to this?"

"I only have to convince the one; the rest will follow."

"Including..."

"I can't speak to that. Not yet."

"Will the rest cooperate without him?"

"If it means his safety, yes."

"And if he takes matters into his own hands?"

"I'll deal with it. No one else need be involved."

"You've yet to explain why I should go along with this scheme of yours. What do I get out of it?"

"You'll get credit for pulling it all out of the fire. For getting the parties together. That was, after all, the only thing I hadn't quite figured out yet. How to contact him without giving it all away. Your showing up was quite fortuitous, actually. The perfect go-between."

"Hmm. As long as he sees it that way."

"He sent you here to see what was going on, to clean up any messes. I'd say this accomplishes that quite nicely. And without any bloodshed. What more could he ask for?"

"Your head on a platter, to start with."

"And would you deliver?" The words were spoken calmly, but there was no mistaking the menace beneath it.

"You're dead. How does one deliver a ghost?"

The two men smiled at each other, smiles not quite genuine.