With Katz in the hospital and Liz not speaking to him, Charles was left somewhat at loose ends. There wasn’t anyone for him to call, nothing for him to do, exactly. He made some half-hearted calls to Los Angeles, following up on those he’d made to track the origin of Liz’ briefcase, and got nothing. On a hunch, he looked up the name Valentine, not knowing if it was a first or last name, and turned up Valentine Murrow. Murrow was, it seemed, wanted in Los Angeles regarding the murder of one Paul Reilly, whose address was crushingly familiar. Charles had the available details faxed to him, and suspected strongly that Katz’ attacker–and the man they’d seen but not reported in LA–was Valentine Murrow. Which meant that Valentine was in Michigan. Had he followed Liz, or were they still involved somehow? From what Liz had said, it was probably a stalking, and she needed to be warned. Charles called her home number and got no answer. No answering machine picked up. Did she have a caller ID? He wasn’t sure if she was ignoring his call, or if she honestly wasn’t home.
That left him with nothing to do again. He turned the television on and wandered through the condo, rearranging his luggage, moving Katz’ luggage about. If nothing else, the private detective had been useful when it came to deciding what the next step should be. It was as though he had a trail of metaphysical breadcrumbs to follow when the obvious clues ran out.
Charles started looking through Katz’ messy briefcase. There were several manila folders; the topmost was large, crumpled, and had “San Fran Vampires” written across the flap in black marker. One of the photos of Nikki Katz had shown him was hanging half out of that folder, and Charles dumped the whole thing out on the table. An avalanche of paper scraps led the way, followed by more blowups of the picture of Nikki, a mechanical pencil in a Ziploc bag and a videotape. Most of the papers had scrawled notes of varying usefulness on them–the names of Liz’ friends, phone numbers, snatches of conversation. Deciphering all of the tidbits that had washed into Katz’ net would take all night. A strip of tape on the videocassette identified it cryptically as “100396.” Charles realized a moment later that it was a datecode, and the video was a bit over a month old. A dog-eared sticky note attached to the tape had three counter readings attached.
He looked at the pencil for a moment, then took the tape to the television. A TV/VCR combo occupied its own niche in the floor-to-ceiling shelving unit, and Charles put it in.
The image was in color, but it was a security tape from a bank, judging by the teller windows and counters in sight. He fast-forwarded to the first time indicated on the sticky note. The video wasn’t theater-quality by a long shot, but Charles had no trouble picking out Nikki when she walked into the frame and got into line. She was still carrying the oversized bag she’d been using since junior high, he noticed. It looked more overstuffed than it ever had, but the bag alone would have told him that the woman on the screen was his sister. An involuntary smile broke across his face. Katz’ hadn’t been leading him on. Nikki was alive.
He tapped the scan-forward button and the image went into jerky high-speed motion. Anomalous motion caught his eye, and as the picture returned to normal speed three black-clad figures with weapons rushed into the frame. The bank was being robbed by three helmeted, armored men. The patrons, including Nikki, were forced to lie on the floor, and the robbers began prowling the bank with rapid, fast-forward steps. Charles checked the time code; there was still a long way to go before the second bookmark Katz had indicated. He sped it up again, trying to distance himself from the useless concern he felt for the image of Nikki on the screen. Whatever was going to happen was a month old. He couldn’t do anything about it.
There was a break in the time stamp; four hours went by in a blink, and Charles returned the tape to normal speed as the second time came up. Nikki was on her feet this time, confronting one of the robbers. There was no sound, but Charles recognized her demeanor by the way she was standing; she was very, very annoyed. The camera had caught both of them in profile, and he could see her mouth moving rapidly, her eyes intent on the helmeted man she was talking to. He imagined that she was yelling, and the thought of her screaming down a man with a gun sent chills down his spine.
Sure enough, the bank robber pulled a pistol and stuck it in her face. Almost before Charles could register that it had happened, the man had pulled the trigger. Nikki’s hands and knees jerked, her head snapped back, and the video was of high enough quality that Charles saw much of the back of her skull turned to fragments.
She dropped forward like a bag of sand and didn’t move. A pool of blood began to spread, and the hostages trembled accordingly. He couldn’t hear their screams, but he could hear his own. Before he even realized it he was on his feet, the chair tumbling to the floor behind him. “Oh my God!” he cried, his fist in his mouth. Nausea trembled in the back of his throatl; his eyes burned with tears. “Oh my God! You son of a bitch!” Had Katz known Nikki was dead? Why had he led him across the country if she was dead?
Charles paced furiously for a few seconds, weeping, his hands clenching and unclenching, grasping at the air. After a few quick trips from the couch to the kitchen and back, he had his pain and outrage under control for the moment. He’d just seen the last member of his family killed. There wasn’t anything he could do about it, short of making sure Nikki got a proper burial. The mystery lay in the present–why hadn’t Katz told him? Katz was a private detective. He could track down the men who’d done this to Nikki. Maybe he already had. The little man had said more than once that there was more information, and he needed it before he’d know what to do. Likely as not, Katz was going to offer to find Nikki’s killers for some exorbitant sum, and if he didn’t calm down, he was likely to pay any ridiculous amount for needless revenge.
Or maybe that wasn’t it at all. Maybe Liz and Valentine were involved in the robbery. There was the case full of money Liz had talked about. Maybe they’d robbed the bank. Maybe Liz had been there, and knew who’d killed Nikki. Charles’ fists clenched again.
With a deep sigh, he turned the chair upright, but didn’t sit. The video was still playing, Nikki’s body inert and small on the far left side of the frame, curled around her bag. There was one more time stamp indicated on the note. Charles wiped his eyes and reluctantly began scanning forward again, thinking ironically that he had nothing left to be concerned about. What more could they do to her?
The robbers moved around his dead sister in high-speed bursts as they roved to keep the rest of the hostages cowed. From what Charles could tell, they forced about a dozen of the women to remove their clothes and stand in a line in front of the tellers’ windows. The leader–the one who’d shot Nikki–talked occasionally on a cell phone. Charles couldn’t pay much attention to what the other people were doing, though. His eyes kept drifting back to the growing lake of blood around Nikki. When it stopped, it looked like an upside-down map of Australia. Her head was near Adelaide.
He paused it. If this went on much longer, he was going to vomit. He swallowed the acid taste in his throat, took a deep breath, and hoped it was almost over. He looked away for a moment, taking in the comfortable solidity of the wooden kitchen table, then looked back at the television and let it play again. Two of the robbers, including the one who’d shot Nikki, were standing near her body. The leader was gesturing with his gun to one of the doors, and the third started to move in that direction from the other side of the lobby, stepping over prone hostages. And then–
And then Nikki got up.
She came off the floor in a blur, coiling around the lead robber’s leg, grabbing him by the hand holding the gun and his upper leg and raking a fist across the thigh in a violent stabbing motion. Then she was up on her feet behind him, pulling him backward as he grabbed at his groin, deftly taking his gun as he tumbled past her to the floor. Blood began spurting from his leg–she had cut an artery, Charles realized. The lead robber fell to the floor thrashing about and creating a blood-lake of his own. Nikki was still in motion, ramming the gun up hard against the second robber’s throat and pulling the trigger, and he could see the exit wounds blossoming in the back of the man’s neck, one, two, three, and then she was spinning away from the falling body as the hostages began to jump to their feet. The third robber, on the other side of the lobby, was drawing his gun, but Nikki was already shooting him, dropping into a shooter’s stance, her demeanor utterly unfamiliar to Charles now, she was brutal, she was predatory, and the third robber was staggering backward under the force of bullets slamming into him. One of the male hostages jumped on top of him, then another, and they subdued him before he could draw his gun. And Nikki–
Was gone. A surging crowd of hostages was running for the doors, and she’d disappeared in the chaos. Charles rewound quickly. This time he kept his eye on Nikki. She shot at the third robber, then dropped the gun and began running with the other people, melting into the panicked mob. She was out the doors and gone in a second.
Charles was still staring at the screen, the reality of the violence and the part his sister had played in it beginning to sink in. “What the hell just happened?” he asked. He rewound it and watched it again. Obviously he’d been mistaken about the shot that seemed to have killed Nikki, and the robbers had, too. The head shot hadn’t been fatal, and she’d played possum until she could…
What had she done, exactly? Charles replayed the attack several times. Nikki had an efficiency of motion, a singularity of purpose that he’d only seen in elite soldiers. Where had that come from? He looked at Katz’ notes for answers. Near the bottom of the pile, he found information about the robbery itself, in the form of a newspaper report and a police report. The police report didn’t mention Nikki–it said the three robbers had been taken down by police sharpshooters, and there were witness statements that agreed with this. Curiouser still was an unsigned medical report which noted that one of the robbers had died of multiple stab wounds that had punctured his femoral artery, as seen in the video. The weapon was not a knife, but an irregular…Charles suddenly realized why the mechanical pencil was in there. He picked up the bag and looked at it closer, not taking it out.
It was liberally greased with dried blood.
“What the hell just happened?” he said again. He had more questions than ever, and was even farther away from an answer. Charles turned the video off and put his coat on.