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'When he said he'd killed himself,' laughed Al, 'I knew you'd find this one to your liking.'
Al is my favourite bar owner, with a surname that I couldn't spell even if I managed to wrap it round my tongue. I've known him for years. I must have had some sort of glint in my eyes because he gave me one of his unfeasibly wide grins, pointed to the back room and said, 'He's in the back. I gave him a shot to calm him down - it's on your tab, John.'
That was another of Al's myriad jokes. Way back when, I'd saved his hide from a couple of junkies in an alley. They were desperate enough to kill him for the little money he had, and Al knew it. So now, whenever I darken his door, the drinks go on my tab. The joke is that he won't let me pay it off.
The door to Al's back room is solid and daunting, but usually open. This was one of the rare times I'd seen it shut. Inside were the sort of things you'd expect. The bookcase in the corner had more trophies on it than books, from the days when Al had time for competitions. He shoots a mean game of pool. There's a pile of magazines in front of it, a table and a couple of chairs. The usual. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Except the man slumped backwards on one of the chairs. I'd certainly call him out of the ordinary. The jeans, black shirt and crew cut were normal enough, but in all my thirty years at the New York Police Department I'd not seen too many people with slit throats.
At least not ones that were still alive to talk about it.
Al said that the guy had killed himself, and it certainly looked like he'd done a good job. From the paleness of his skin, I could tell he'd lost a lot of blood. A hell of a lot. Enough to kill him a couple of times over. All I had to do was work out why it hadn't.
I was wondering why Al hadn't rung for an ambulance when he volunteered, 'The name's Richards - Reece Richards'. The slice across his throat had been seeping blood slowly and when he opened his mouth it became something a lot more substantial. It came out of his mouth too, turning his words into the sort of gargling noise you'd recognise if you've ever had to talk with your chops full of mouthwash.
I jumped in pretty quick, along the trail of spilled blood that led from outside the door, and stopped in front of him. My hands leaned heavily on the table and I nearly knocked over what was left of the whiskey that Richards hadn't quite finished.
'You'd better take it easy, son,' I told him in the firm voice I've cultivated over a lifetime of policing. 'That slice hasn't killed you yet, but it will if you keep on talking.'
I've seen a lot of different reactions from people who have only a short time to live. I've seen hope and I've seen despair. I've seen them laugh, scream and cry. But I never saw anybody laugh like Richards did then, sat in a chair with his life pouring out of his throat.
It wasn't the laugh of the desperate, the man who's frantically churning his mind through the dreams he won't ever see. It wasn't the laugh of the madman, the fanatic, shrill and uncontrolled. It wasn't even the laugh of the man who's got enough guts in him to hold on to sanity and spit in the face of death. It was the laugh of someone who knows. Knows what's gone and what's to come. And what lies beyond. Everything.
The calmness of the man took me aback. Momentarily. Just then, I realised why Al hadn't called an ambulance, and why I wasn't going to either. So I lifted the chair next to me, spun it round and sat down, arms crossed, and leaned them on the back of the chair, over which I looked at the man with the slit throat.
'OK, I don't know what's going on', I said. 'You obviously do. How about filling me in, huh? Starting with who did that to you?'
He laughed again, short and controlled. 'I did,' he grinned. Two words, that was all. He scratched his ear, prompting another flow of blood from his neck, then looked back at me, straight at me, and carried on.
'I had to test it, see if it was true after all. I mean I knew it was, but I had to test it. Just to make sure.'
The gargle was getting clearer now. He must have been running out of the blood that was causing the problem. There's eight and a bit pints of it in the human body. Man can cope without a little, it just sends him a bit high. But take more than a couple of pints and you're in trouble. This guy probably didn't have more than that left. By all the laws of nature, he couldn't be alive.
'Test what?' I asked him. 'To see if what was true?' I stopped myself there. There were a hell of a lot more questions I wanted to ask, but I decided to take it slow. Start at the beginning.
'You really want to know?' he said, as calm and quiet as I was trying to be, but he did it better than I could manage. 'It's a joke. Everything. One big, stupid joke.'
He paused then, to see what effect his words were having on me. Not one whole hell of a lot until I got some more details. So he carried on, which is how I wanted it.
'My name's Reece Richards, I'm thirty-two. I've lived in New York all my life except for a couple of years in the army. Never got married. No kids. I'm the typical nobody, nothing ever happens to me. Ever. Until last May when I saw a murder. Normally I wouldn't have given a damn, but it was my neighbour that they killed and I liked her a lot. So I chased after them and when I lost them I tracked them down. I had the number plate but the cops didn't want to do anything. Too much trouble, they said. So I did it myself. It took a couple of months but I found them. I was too late though, somebody had beaten me to it, and they'd done a pretty good job on them. I only just got out before the cops.'
He'd been flowing, spilling it out for somebody else to hear. Catharsis. But he paused then and said 'Remember it? It was in the papers. Two white guys and a black woman. Heads cut off.'
I didn't recall it at all, but nodded my head and told him, 'Go on.'
He smiled. 'Liar', he said. 'It didn't happen.'
I knew he'd been working up to something and so I wasn't too surprised. I had to ask the question, though. 'Why tell me, then?' I asked.
He ignored it and went off at a tangent. 'That was last May. Couple of months later I picked up a book at a used store. Murder story. Took it home but I never opened it. Till two weeks ago. Guess what I found?'
I knew that was rhetorical, so I shrugged my shoulders and waited for him to continue. But what he said next wasn't what I was expecting to hear. I don't think I had a clue quite what he was building up to, but if I did it certainly wasn't that.
'Me,' he said. 'Me. Pages forty-nine to fifty-four. Goddamn bit part. D'you know what it's like to find out you've been made up? Your whole life's been a lie? Everybody you ever met didn't exist either? I'm sat here talking to you and you probably don't exist. It's the worst feeling in the world. Like everything you ever did was for no reason.'
He was obviously raving, but with a gash like that in his throat I was quite happy to wait him out. To find out why this dead man wasn't dead. If something that strange was going on, I'd listen to him tell me he was Jesus Christ reborn.
I said, 'So you decided if you weren't real, you'd kill yourself?'
'Not quite,' he replied. 'Thought of it though. Just didn't have the guts. Not then anyway. No, I looked up the author instead. The book said he lived round here so I checked up and found out where he lived. Guess where? Just four blocks down the road.'
I cut in. 'Which road?' I asked.
He laughed again. 'This one. I live practically next door to this place. Four blocks down from him and I never knew him. Just a block nearer from here and I never came in here either. Can you believe that. You live somewhere for twelve years and you don't know who lives round you. I must know about six people that live close by. That's it. Six people.'
'I know what you mean,' I said. 'I've been married for twenty-eight years come June, and I don't even think I know my wife.'
He laughed at that, and the blood spilling from his neck had gone back to being a slight trickle again.
'Hold on a second,' I muttered, and headed for the phone on Al's bar. I rang the precinct and asked Dave on the desk to check up on the writer Richards was talking about. I had a funny feeling about the whole thing so I told him to send a unit round.
Richards hadn't moved since I'd left the room. I said, 'Sorry about that,' and carried on where we left off by asking him what happened when he got to the author's house.
He laughed again and said, 'What d'you think? It was an intense experience, that's how I'd describe it. It's not every day a man meets his maker. We talked a little, but he kept getting more and more nervous till he practically kicked me out of the house. I guess he had the same sort of problem as me. What do you do when a figment of your imagination turns up on your doorstep and says Hello? Anyway I took exception, so I broke back in and killed him.' He saw my expression change, minutely but still noticeably, and added, 'What else could I have done? He turned his back on me. It was my only option. Deicide.'
Naturally I had to excuse myself again. I didn't bother to cuff Richards because he was so weak from loss of blood that there was no way he was going anywhere. Likewise I didn't have to worry about him committing suicide because he already had done and he ought to have been dead by now anyway. But I still felt uneasy leaving him alone. I'd almost made it to the phone when it started ringing. I answered it and it was Dave from the precinct on the other end.
'Squad car's just reported in,' he said. 'They had to break in to the place and the guy's only just holding on. He's on his way to hospital. I'll ring you back when I hear more.' That was all I needed. I thanked him and headed back to see Richards. What had started out as a mystery had ended up as a simple murder one.
I sat down and asked Richards why he'd tried to kill himself. That was the one strange bit left. He looked at me straight and said what he had said at the beginning.
'I don't exist,' he said calmly. 'This guy wrote a book and he put me in it. I'm a fictional character. Everything I am he made up. The way I talk, the way I dress, where I went to school. Why I never married. Everything I do is because he wants it to happen. I wanted to know if I could do something for myself, so I killed myself. I thought, either it works and I'm free or it doesn't work and I'm no worse off. I didn't expect this.'
'Didn't expect what?' I asked.
'That I'd be dead but still alive. Don't you get it? I can't die until he dies, till his imagination dies with him. If I hadn't have killed him anyway, I'd have killed him because of that.'
He was laughing again as I said 'He's not dead,' for want of anything else. 'But it's close. It won't be long.'
'Of course he's still alive. If he'd died d'you think I'd be here talking to you. As soon as he dies his imagination dies. Then I'm nothing, I'm gone and I've never existed.'
He picked up his glass and raised it to me in a toast. 'To you,' he said, 'hoping that you're more real than I am.'
As he lifted the drink to his lips, the phone rang again and I stood up hurriedly and started for the bar. Al was there but even before he answered it I knew what had happened. I knew because even as I was turning round I'd heard the sound. The sound of shattering glass.
Al looked up and said, 'The guy's dead. That mean anything to you?'
I nodded and slowly, very slowly, I turned round. The table was there, the chairs, the trophies. There was an empty glass of whisky lying on the floor in a hundred pieces.
But I was the only person in the room.
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