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Authors: Bill Crider

A Knife in the Back (7 page)

BOOK: A Knife in the Back
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T
he creature roared and shambled toward them, waving a ballpeen hammer menacingly.
Sally realized at that moment that she wasn't seeing some movie monster at all but a human being. Monsters didn't carry hammers—not ballpeen hammers, anyway. Maybe claw hammers, but definitely not the ballpeen variety.
But people did, even when they were wearing a welder's helmet, jacket, and gloves.
That was all Sally had time to think before the helmeted figure shoved her to the floor, causing her to scrape her hands and knees on the oil-stained concrete. Jack tried to stop the charging figure, but he was flattened by a solid side-body block. He got up quickly, however, and made a running jump, landing squarely on the figure's back, wrapping his arm around the helmet.
The temporarily blinded figure stumbled forward, trying to fling Jack away and at the same time swinging an arm behind its back in an attempt to hit Jack with the hammer. To Sally's amazement, Jack managed to hang on until both he and the figure yelled and disappeared from Sally's view as they fell forward into the grease pit.
 
Jack was momentarily stunned. He knew he was lying on someone, and then he remembered the man in the welder's mask. He tried
to regain his grip but stopped when he discovered that he was staring down into the wide-open eyes of Ray Thomas, the college's automotive instructor.
Thomas, in spite of the open eyes, merely appeared to be staring back. He wasn't seeing a thing, and he wouldn't be, ever again.
Almost at the same time Jack realized that Thomas was dead, Jack felt something wet and slick under his hand. He didn't even have to look to know it was blood, or something worse.
Jack recoiled from the clammy body beneath him, jerking himself into a clumsy crouch. He was wiping his hand on his pants when he saw the phantom welder climbing out of the pit on a set of concrete steps. Jack went after him just as Sally appeared and slammed something into the side of the welding helmet.
The man fell backward onto Jack, and they both hit the floor again. This time the back of Jack's head bounced lightly off the concrete, and bright white lights flashed in front of his eyes. His situation wasn't improved any when the welder got up and kicked him in the ribs. Jack groaned and tried to roll away, but the welder got in two more solid kicks before Jack could escape.
Jack got to his knees and tried to hold up his head. The welder moved fast and well for a man his size. He was big, as large as Jorge Rodriguez. But it couldn't be Jorge, Jack told himself. Jorge had already been in prison once. He wouldn't want to go back.
Jack's assailant, whoever it was, was no longer interested in Jack. He was climbing out of the pit again, and this time he was ready for Sally. As his head passed the level of the floor, he put up his arm to block the blow she aimed at him and made a swing at her with the hammer. He missed, as she easily ducked aside and darted backward. The welder emerged from the pit and started toward her.
Jack stood up. It hurt to breathe, and he figured he had a couple of broken ribs. Maybe more than a couple, but that didn't matter. He had to help Sally. He staggered toward the steps and climbed them slowly. A sharp pain stabbed him with every step and every breath.
Jack decided that the sharp edges of his broken ribs were poking into his lungs, which would probably pop like a balloon, causing him to sail around the room like a rapidly deflating cartoon character. A ridiculous image. Maybe his brain was damaged, too.
When he got to the top of the steps he saw that Sally was standing in front of the door, blocking the welder's exit. She was holding something in her hand and waving it in front of her. Every time the welder advanced on her, she swung at him and backed him away from the door.
Jack tried to sneak up on the man from behind, but it was hard for him to move quietly. His breath rasped out throatily, and his feet were scraping on the concrete. He tried to lift his feet higher, but he couldn't.
When he was a couple of feet behind the welder, Sally got lucky and hit the hand with the hammer in it. The hammer spun away, and the welder turned to see where it was going.
He also saw Jack, who had to duck out of the hammer's path. Sally tried to hit the welder in the back of the head, but he tucked his shoulder and plowed into Jack as if he were a Dallas Cowboy lineman clearing a path for Emmitt Smith.
Jack felt all the rest of his ribs crack in half and sat down hard on the floor. A shock traveled all the way up his spine and came out at his eyes. The welder retrieved his hammer as Sally knelt by Jack.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
Jack couldn't help laughing at the question, but the laughter hurt so much that he stopped immediately.
“No,” he managed to say.
He tried to stand up, and with Sally's help he made it, though he was so bent at the waist that he looked a little like a crone searching for a broom to ride.
There was a ringing noise, followed by a loud and continuous scuffing. Jack forced his head up for a look.
The maniac welder had dropped his hammer and was pushing the portable chain hoist across the floor. It moved slowly at first,
but it picked up speed quickly. The dangling engine was swinging a bit, back and forth, gaining momentum from the movement of the hoist, and it was headed straight for Jack and Sally. Jack could almost feel it crashing into his ribs, what there was left of them.
“Run for it,” Jack said, giving Sally a gentle shove only because he couldn't push her aside with any more force.
Sally moved away, trying to pull Jack along with her. Jack went, but it was an excruciating experience. The chain hoist followed right along.
Jack saw that Sally had a lug wrench in her right hand. Jack stopped moving and put a hand on the wrench.
“Let me have that,” he said.
Sally let it go, and Jack heaved it at the deranged welder. It flipped over in the air and struck the man right in the faceplate. If Jack had been able to throw it harder, it might actually have done some good. As it was, the wrench bounced harmlessly off the faceplate and clattered on the floor. The chain hoist paused, then started moving again.
“I really don't think that guy likes us,” Jack said. “Do you have your cell phone?”
Sally nodded.
“Get down in that grease pit and use it, then.”
“Won't work in here,” Sally said. “Too much metal in the building.”
“Try it,” Jack said.
Sally ran for the pit, and Jack tried to lead the hoist away from her. He was as slow as a three-legged turtle, and he was afraid the engine was going to smash into him and finish him off. He'd probably wind up looking like one of those cartoon characters that had been run over by a bulldozer.
As he hobbled, he kicked a hubcap. He stopped to pick it up, then sailed it toward the welder. It flew through the air, looking a bit like a flying saucer in a grade-Z movie. Jack envisioned it chopping the welder's head off at the neck, causing the mask to go bouncing along on the floor.
Things didn't work out quite the way Jack had imagined them, however, because the hubcap never got near the welder. It chinged off one pole of the chain hoist and rattled across the floor, finally righting itself somehow and rolling smoothly for several feet before dropping over the edge of the grease pit. It must have landed on Thomas's body, or maybe on Sally, because it didn't make another sound.
The chain hoist kept right on moving, and Jack braced himself for the impact.
It didn't happen.
The hoist stopped moving while it was still several feet away from Jack, and the welder left it to run for the door. Jack realized that the man hadn't intended to hurt him anymore. All he'd really wanted was a way out.
Jack limped after him, but he couldn't have caught a sluggish snail. The man was outside in moments, and the door swung shut behind him. Jack was still trying to get the door open when Sally came out of the pit to help him.
Together they pulled the door back and looked outside, blinking in the late afternoon light. There was no one in sight. After all, it was Friday afternoon, and the campus was virtually deserted. The welder's mask was lying at their feet where whoever had been wearing it had hastily dropped it. The gloves and jacket were a little farther away, but not much.
Jack leaned back against the rough brick side of the building and slid slowly down it.
Sally sat down beside him. For a while neither of them said anything.
Finally Jack turned to Sally. He tried to smile, which was about the only thing he could do that didn't hurt him, and even that didn't feel so good.
“Who was that masked man?” he said.
J
ack, who had been taped up tighter than King Tut by the skilled practitioners at the Hughes Hospital emergency room, was sitting in Eric Desmond's office with a can of Pepsi One in one hand and a package of peanut-butter-and-cheese crackers in the other. Jack had often wondered what there was in those crackers to make them such a funny color of orange. Probably better not to think about it.
Jack looked around the office. There were photos of Desmond on all the walls: Desmond riding horses, Desmond crossing the finish line at a 10K race, Desmond receiving some award, Desmond on the firing range wearing ear protection and holding a very large pistol, Desmond (probably a much younger version, though he still looked much the same) leaning out of a military helicopter and waving to someone, maybe the photographer.
“You're supposed to like yourself,” Sally said, walking into the office. “It's a sign of a healthy self-concept.”
Jack told her that he hadn't heard anyone use the phrase
self-concept
in years. “Are you sure there's not some new phrase for that?”
“I don't keep up,” Sally said. “It doesn't seem worth it, somehow.” Then she changed the subject. “Weems is pretty upset with us, you know.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” Jack said. And immediately felt like an idiot.
“Sorry. I didn't mean to be crude. That just slipped out. I've been feeling a little weird ever since I hit my head on the floor in the automotive building.”
“It's nothing I haven't heard before,” Sally said. “And the thought of having to talk to Weems would make anybody want to say a few bad words.”
Jack had avoided seeing Weems sooner by virtue of the fact that Sally had called the EMS on her cell phone while Jack sat by the wall and suffered in silence. As she had predicted, the phone hadn't worked inside the shop, but it worked just fine once they got out. She called the EMS first, then Desmond, and then Weems. The EMS had beat Weems to the scene by at least a minute and a half, for which Jack would be eternally grateful.
At the ER, he'd been poked and probed and X rayed and wrapped. To his surprise, he had only two cracked ribs—not broken but cracked—and while they hurt quite a bit, it could have been worse. The tape would hold him together for a while, and then he'd be fine. Or so he'd been told. Jack wasn't sure he trusted a doctor who looked so young that she could have passed for a student at HCC. Besides the cracked ribs, Jack also had a hard little knot on the back of his head, but there was no concussion.
He sipped at his Pepsi, then said, “Weems can't possibly believe I had anything to do with this murder,” he said. “Can he?”
“I don't see why not,” Sally said. “You're the one with blood on his hands. You're the one whose handprint is going to be right there on the floor by Thomas's body in Thomas's own blood.”
“I think it was something besides just blood,” Jack said, but he didn't say what it was.
He looked at his hand, palm up. It was clean now, but he easily could imagine that the blood was still there. He could practically see it trapped in the lines that crisscrossed his skin. He knew how Lady Macbeth must've felt.
“I shouldn't have told you about that,” he said. “That Weems couldn't possibly think I had anything to do with the murder, I mean.”
“Why not?”
“It sounds almost like I was trying to create an alibi. When I think about it, I can see how Weems might figure it: I was supposedly in my office working on the lesson plans for Naylor, but in reality I was out in the automotive building killing Thomas.”
“Why would you do that?”
“I don't have a clue, but I'm sure Weems will come up with a reason. That's the way his mind works.”
“You don't have any history with Thomas, do you?”
Jack sighed and offered Sally a cheese cracker. She declined, so he ate it himself. The peanut butter gummed up his mouth, and for a few seconds he couldn't talk at all. He took a drink from the Pepsi can, swallowed, and said, “I might.”
“You might? What do you mean by ‘might'?”
“I guess I mean that I sort of do.”
It was Sally's turn to sigh. “For such a mild-mannered man, you seem to make a lot of enemies.”
Jack wondered whether it was a compliment to be considered mild-mannered. He decided that he wouldn't ask. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.
“We weren't enemies,” he said. “I just had a little disagreement with him. It wasn't even that, exactly.”
“What was it, then?”
“Okay, call it a disagreement. It was when I was taking that knife-making class.”
“You really should've found a better way to spend your time,” Sally said.
“I couldn't agree more. Next time I think I'll take something safer, like recreational bungee jumping.”
“What did you disagree with Thomas about?”
“He disagreed with me. He thought I was a bit careless with the torch when I was heating my knife blade. He said I was a menace, or words to that effect.”
“Were you?”
“I don't think so, but then I'm not a professional welder. It was the way he said it that upset me.”
“Just how upset were you?”
“Well, I might have told him to back off before I set his shirt on fire.”
“There's that ‘might' again,” Sally said.
“Right. Well, that's what I said, more or less. I don't remember the exact words, but that's close enough.”
“Did anybody hear you say them?”
“Sure. Several of the class members were there, not to mention the instructor.” Jack had another drink of Pepsi. “But why should any of that matter? You saw what happened in there. You even know how the handprint got there, if there is one. Weems would have to be crazy to suspect me.”
“You could have set up the whole thing,” Sally said. “Just so you could claim me as a witness.”
“Who's my accomplice in the welding mask?”
“You'll have to tell me. I don't know.”
“Why would I let him beat me up?”
“What better way to set up your alibi?”
Jack ate the last cracker, crumpled the cellophane wrapper, and tossed it in Desmond's wastebasket. He finished off the Pepsi and set the can on the desk so he could take it out to the recycle bin in the hall later.
What kind of killer would recycle aluminum cans?
he asked himself. He was sure Weems would have an answer for that, too.
“You should have been a cop,” he told Sally.
“I'm sure you mean that in a good way.”
“I do. Really. It's not just anybody who could come up with that line of reasoning.”
“I've been teaching Poe.”
Jack laughed. One of the things he enjoyed about Poe's detective stories was that the explanations for the crimes took up about two-thirds of the stories.
“I don't think these two murders are as complicated as what happened in the Rue Morgue,” he said.
“Do you think they're related?”
“To the murders in the Rue Morgue?”
Sally just looked at him.
“I'm sorry. I told you I wasn't thinking straight. Anyway, this isn't Houston. We might be fifteen miles away, but we're still not a big city. So I think that when two guys connected with the college are murdered, the killings just about have to be related.”
“You forgot to mention that both of the murdered men are connected with you, however tenuously.”
“I didn't forget,” Jack said. “And I'll bet Weems won't, either.”
“Forget what?” Weems said, walking through the open door.
“I can't remember,” Jack said.
BOOK: A Knife in the Back
11.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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