“How’s that feel, Carroll?” he said.
It was dark when Carroll strolled out of his building. He inclined his head at the doorman, who hurried over to him.
“Evening, Mr. Carver,” the doorman said, touching his cap respectfully. “You need the car?”
“Bring it around,” Carroll said, without looking at him.
The doorman nodded once at a hard-eyed youth in a crisp black uniform. The boy took off toward a door marked “GARAGE” at a dead run.
Carroll reached into the inside pocket of his blood-red overcoat and took out a packet of Chesterfields. The doorman immediately held out a cigarette lighter. Carroll let the man light his cigarette and took a deep drag.
“Mr. Carver, sir, do you mind if I ask you a question?” the doorman asked, putting his lighter away.
“Sure, go ahead,” Carroll said, exhaling a cloud of smoke from his nose.
“I’ve never seen a coat like that,” the man said. “Is that some kind of cashmere?”
“Astrakhan,” Carroll said, glancing down at his Rolex.
“Is that like, wool?” the man asked.
“Yeah,” Carroll said, lifting his head and looking into the man's eyes. “Special kind. Comes from unborn lambs.”
He smiled, and the doorman swallowed nervously.
The Town Car pulled up and Carroll got in. The big sedan's windows were completely opaque, as was the glass divider between the passenger compartment and the driver. “Take me down to the club,” he said. There was no answer, but the car turned smoothly onto the quiet street.
Carroll’s phone buzzed as the car came to a halt at a red light in a lonely industrial neighborhood. The intersection was empty. He glanced at the number and picked up.
“You better be calling ‘cause you found my sister, Danny,” he said in a voice that betrayed only the mildest of irritation. “Otherwise—”
“Look out your window, Carroll,” replied the voice on the other end of the line.
Carroll frowned. “Beckett?” he said, turning in both directions and scanning for headlights. There were none. “You’re hilarious, Ridgeback,” he sneered. “I’d know if you were within five miles of me. What do you think you’re doing?”
“What’s your favorite movie, Carroll?” Heath said.
“What are you talking about, shithead?” Carroll said contemptuously.
“Mine’s Ghost Rider,” Heath replied.
The line went dead. Carroll frowned at the phone.
The air around him rippled.
Carroll’s eyes widened. He reached for the seatbelt, pulling it around him and groping for the buckle, but it was too late. The passenger windows imploded, showering him with glass, and the side curtain airbags inflated explosively as the driverless Buick crashed into the Town Car with a sound like a meteorite strike. The big sedan’s frame crumpled into abstract sculpture as the Buick drove it into a thirty-yard skid on burst tires, bouncing Carroll around the crushed passenger compartment like a pinball until both cars finally slammed into a telephone pole. One of the Buick’s hubcaps dropped to the street and spun to a halt like a coin.
For a moment, everything was still and silent on the empty street.
Carroll wrenched the passenger door free of its frame and stumbled out of the Town Car. The sleeve of his overcoat was torn halfway off. He looked down at it for a moment, then stood up straight and sloughed the coat like a skin. He pulled his long-sleeved black tee shirt off as well, revealing the intricate network of tattoos beneath it.
“Beckett!” he roared. “Where are you, motherfucker!?”
The crackle of ball lightning behind him caught his attention. Quick as a big cat, he whirled around and thrust his arm through a rapidly-opening rent in the air whose borders were defined by flashes of electric blue. “Nuh-uh,” he grunted through clenched teeth. He yanked the struggling Puddles through the growing rip in reality by her neck and pulled her to him, roaring like a lion into her face.
The terrified Dancer’s eyes widened, and she reflexively went limp. Carroll held her at arm’s length, her feet dangling two feet from the ground, and stared into her eyes, his teeth bared. The rage in his countenance was completely inhuman.
All the remaining fight went out of Puddles. She began to cry quietly, tears of mingled horror and resignation. One rolled down her cheek and dripped onto Carroll’s wrist. He looked down at it for a moment, then looked back up at Puddles and slowly licked his hand clean.
“I don’t remember you, but I do recognize the flavor,” he said thoughtfully. He shook his head. “Your poison doesn’t work on me; you’re mine already.”
Still holding her by the neck, he brought her to him and kissed her roughly, slipping his tongue into her mouth. Puddles whimpered, but offered no resistance.
“Mmm,” Carroll said appreciatively, lifting his head from the kiss and tipping his head to one side to look at her.
Puddles’s lower lip trembled, then her mouth slowly twisted into a wretched, ingratiating smile.
Carroll smiled back. He tossed her to the ground. “Good girl,” he said. “Now stay put. Gonna need a snack after I kill your boyfriend.”
“Husband,” Heath said from behind him.
Carroll turned and looked down at Heath. “Oh,” he said, chuckling. “Sorry. I didn’t know.”
Heath crouched and punched the giant in the thigh. Carroll stumbled, grabbing at his leg. He looked at Heath, confusion and pain in his eyes.
Heath stepped back and held up his fist. Polished D-ring trench knuckles glittered as they caught the sodium light from above. “How’s that feel, Carroll?” he said. He stepped in again, and Carroll raised his forearm to block the strike. There was an audible crunch as the brass knuckles caught him in the elbow.
Carroll clutched his broken arm and screamed in pain. Heath dropped back out of range. “You lean on that glamour of intimidation way too hard,” he said. “I guess you forgot it doesn’t work if you know the fear’s not real.”
He feinted, spun, and backhanded Carroll across the face with his left hand before landing an overhand right with the knuckleduster that snapped the giant’s collarbone. He stepped back out of range again. “I was a Hound, asshole,” he said calmly. “I hunted men for your dad. He caught you in your sister’s bedroom and tossed you out on your ear before you ever got close to being what I am.” He cracked his neck. “Your dad’s scary, Carroll. You aren’t.”
Carroll lunged at Heath with his good arm; the other dangled useless at his side. Heath ducked easily, came up and slammed a right hook into Carroll’s face.
Carroll sat down, hard. He put his hand up to his ruined mouth; it was suddenly a graveyard that overflowed with blood and broken teeth. He stared up at Heath, uncomprehending. For the first time, he looked small.
Heath regarded him coldly from above. “You starting to feel weak, big guy?” he asked. “That adrenaline dump keeping you upright wasn't going to last forever.”
Carroll faltered, unable to meet the Ridgeback’s gaze. Heath crouched in front of him, put his hands on the sides of Carrol’s shaved head and stared into his face.
“I just hit you with a car, Carroll,” he said. “Beating you down was gravy for me; the point was the car crash.”
He pointed backwards, in the direction from which the driverless car had come. “Colin calculates the trajectories of moving objects like other people breathe. He aimed a four thousand pound Buick at you from ten blocks away, and he made sure it was going no less than two hundred forty miles an hour when it connected. You will die if you don’t get to a hospital equipped with a shock trauma unit inside the next half hour or so.” A chilly smile flickered across his face, and was gone. “You will not be making it to any hospital.”
Carroll’s eyes flicked to Puddles, who sat trembling on the curb with her arms wrapped tightly around her knees, staring at nothing. Heath grabbed him by the chin and tilted his line of sight back upwards, forcing him to maintain eye contact. “Yeah,” he said. “Deena’s entrance scrambles radio waves in the immediate vicinity. There’s no cellular signal in this neighborhood right now. I had a guy cut the land lines twenty minutes ago, too, just in case. No one is coming to save you.”
His eyes scanned Carroll dispassionately, taking in the rapid rise and fall of his chest. “You can turn girls into parasites, and that glamour of yours is scary if you don’t know it’s an illusion,” he said, “Credit where it’s due; even without your powers, you've got your size, and you’re a tough guy. But at the end of the day, you are bone and meat animated by a spark of the divine, and I have snuffed that spark at long last.”
“How did you find me?” Carroll managed.
“Your pimp friend was a grandiose paranoid who did IT for his day job,” Heath said. “He bugged everyone on his contacts list.” He reached into his jacket pocket and got out Danny’s cell phone, holding it up for Carroll to see. “Even you. He had his phone set up to track you.”
Carroll collapsed onto the street. He looked uncomprehendingly at Heath; his breath came in shallow gasps.
Heath sat down on the street cross-legged next to him. “You know why you’re breathing like that, Carroll?” he said. “High-energy trauma, like you get from a serious car accident, sends you into shock. It breaks everything in you, in subtle ways, all at once. Your blood pressure is dropping because your circulatory system can’t handle what just happened to your body. You’re confused because you’re decompensating; you’re losing blood and lymphatic perfusion, and the change in blood flow to your brain is affecting your cognition. Soon the shock’ll be irreversible.”
He looked at his watch. “Your dad taught me that,” he said. “He taught me and Colin and the other Hounds how to hunt and kill things like you. He saved us, and that was what we did for him in exchange. Five years in the service of The Ghost, during which time we were not entirely human, and then he shook our hands and set us free.”
Carroll tried weakly to sit up, but fell back again. His skin, already naturally pale, had gone bone-white. “Water,” he said faintly. “Please.”
Heath ignored him. He looked around at the sound of footsteps and nodded at Colin, who was walking unhurriedly down the sidewalk toward them. Colin saluted casually and ambled over.
Heath turned back to Carroll. “We were animals,” he said, “and your father made us men again. And you were in his house, doing what you do, and he didn’t know.”
“You broke your dad’s ‘eart, Carroll,” Colin said. “There ‘aven’t been any new ‘ounds since your sister ran away from ‘ome.” He crouched down next to the fallen giant and felt his neck for a pulse, then stood up. “Not long now,” he said to no one in particular.
He turned to Heath and jerked his head at Puddles. “The midget’s on ‘is way,” he said. “We’ll do our bit ‘ere. You say goodbye, then go finish the job.”
Heath got to his feet, and he and Colin embraced. “Good to see you, brother,” he said to the Englishman. Colin smiled and clapped him on the shoulder.
Heath walked over to Puddles and sat down next to her. “This part of your life is over, Deena,” he said gently.
Puddles didn’t move. Heath put his arm around her and pulled her to him. She buried her head in his shoulder and began to cry, deep, wracking sobs that shook her entire body. He brushed a lock of hair from her face with his thumb and kissed her softly on the cheek. He tasted saline, and waited tensely for a few minutes, holding her in his arms, but no hallucinations came.
He hugged her tightly. “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you,” he said. “You’re free.”
He released her and stood up. He glanced back, willing her to be okay, then slipped the brass knuckles into his pocket and walked down the empty sidewalk toward the lights of downtown, away from the madness.
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It's tricky to articulate the thing you pull off here. Which is the antithesis of the classic climactic fight scene we've all grown used to. The pace at which Carroll's dignity is lost is so very satisfying. It affords the reader more luxury moments of contempt, for which there has been a lot of pent-up demand.
Puddles, though. Released but lessened. That's a bitter aftertaste. Very very cool writing.
"I don't remember you, but I do recognize the flavor." DAMN.
I think this is the longest chapter yet? And what a ride, what a moment, what a beatdown. Carroll has been a constant presence in the story although we've seen so little of him up till now, and the culmination of so much movement and tension and decades of history, all centered on a single well-executed (admirably underhanded!) confrontation, seems perfectly, terribly fitting. The results satisfy like a hearty meal.
Once again, there's that surprising tender streak running alongside the old ultraviolence. That weary sense of years and damage, scar tissue and self-defense. There are depths to all these people; they're all doing what they have to do, in their own ill-considered ways, not to stumble and fall in.
You're doing the good work, man. Can't wait to see where it ends.