by Dan Swanson
When Tomas Thomas returned to self-awareness, for a short second or so he thought he was back in nowhere. He couldn’t see anything. But he quickly realized that he could feel his body, so he wasn’t off in mental never-never land again.
Well, actually, what he was feeling was his head. He had a headache that felt as if someone were using sledgehammers as drumsticks on his head. He breathed in very small sips of air, trying to make sure his head didn’t move when he breathed. The air around him seemed very stale, and he felt as if he were choking. He sluggishly put two and two together in his slowly working mind. “The oxygen in here is almost gone! I’m suffocating!” This galvanized him into action, painful headache or no.
Trying to ignore the throbbing pain in his head, he reached up and found the trapdoor, and heaved up underneath it. It flipped open, and cold, sweet fresh air blew in. Tomas breathed deeply, and after several minutes, his headache started to improve. When the pain had finally diminished to about the level of a medium hangover, he climbed up and out of the ice room.
The sun was just rising. He had fallen into that room more than twelve hours ago, during which time a fire had been burning overhead, consuming oxygen. No wonder his head hurt so badly. It was probably a good thing he had been unconscious, or he would have needed more air, and might not have survived.
His headache continued to clear, and he was surprised at how well he felt overall. In fact, it seemed almost impossible that he could have climbed out of the ice room so easily, given his recent injury. But his leg felt fine, with no trace of pain. He gently reached up to touch his head, where he had bashed it, and there was a small lump there, and it was a little sore, but nothing to worry about. Then he realized that he was very, very thirsty and as hungry as he could ever remember being before.
It had begun to snow while he had been unconscious, which made the footing very treacherous as he scrambled out of the cellar and made his way over the remains of the demolished house. He didn’t even think about looking for the bad guys until he reached some solid ground, and he was lucky they hadn’t stuck around. If there had been a shooter nearby, he would have been shot. He could see no tracks of any kind in the fresh snow, so if anyone had come to check out the explosions and the fire, they must have left before the snow started to fall.
Feeling parched, Tomas ate some handfuls of snow from the ground. It didn’t do anything for his hunger, but helped his thirst a little. He ate several more handfuls, and eventually his stomach started to quiet down a little bit, but he knew he had only fooled it temporarily. He checked himself out again, and realized that he was in surprisingly good shape for someone who had been so badly injured only twelve hours before. He realized that it must be tied into the powers he had gained from the anti-crime drug. He probably owed Todd his life once again.
Tomas was filthy, he smelled like smoke, and his clothes were torn and bloody. His pickup truck was a pile of shattered junk, covered in a thin layer of snow. He was lucky the snow was only an inch or so thick, and the temperature, though quite chilly, was still below freezing. The way he felt, he’d be able to get back to the main road in twenty minutes or so, and if he could hitch a ride, he’d be home in another twenty minutes. That was, if anyone would stop for someone who was such a mess.
He didn’t even bother to check out the pickup; he had felt and heard the gas tank go up in the explosion. There couldn’t be anything useful there. The house was completely destroyed as well, but the barn was still standing. He hoped maybe he could find some rags or something in the barn, to clean up with, and maybe to use as gloves.
After a search he found a variety of farming tools in the barn, and he did find some old rags. A few minutes later, looking somewhat more respectable, he left the farm and started running down the road. Even in his depleted condition, Tomas was faster than any normal human, and he covered the three miles back to Highway 41 in a little over fifteen minutes. He started walking south, his thumb out.
A few minutes later, he was surprised when a Highway Patrol car pulled over. They didn’t usually bother hitchhikers.
One officer got out of the car. “Morning, son! You look kinda banged up. Where you headed?”
“Good morning, officer. Yeah, I had a night you might not believe. My name’s Tomas Thomas, and I’m headed home to Calumet.” Tomas showed him his I.D., both his driver’s license and his Dewey, Ketchum, and Howe I.D.
“We saw some footprints on Moeller Road. Was that you, Thomas? Know anything about those explosions and the fire last night?”
“I’ve got a long story, sir. Tell you what, I’m famished. If you’ll let me buy you and your partner a cup of coffee at Donna’s down the road, I’ll tell you the whole thing! I’m so hungry I might pass out otherwise!”
“You better not be trying to bribe us, son!” said the officer with a smile. Tomas noticed that his name was Sergeant Ken Williams. “Hop in.” Tomas got in and noticed that there were no door handles on the inside of the back doors. Well, he wasn’t trying to escape, anyway.
They stopped at Donna’s, and as Tomas ate, he gave them the whole story. Sergeant Williams asked him questions as his partner, Officer Johnson, went to call in the story, and then called Dewey, Ketchum, and Howe and talked to Bonnie Marlowe to verify his identity. Williams and Johnson were assigned to investigate further, and after they took Tomas home to clean up some more and get some clothes, they headed back to the now-demolished farmhouse.
The three of them searched the demolished farmhouse and the surrounding area closely, but they couldn’t find any clues. Tomas contributed what he knew — three men driving a red and black Aston Martin DB2, armed with pistols and a pistol-mounted rocket-launcher. The patrolmen were skeptical about that, but they couldn’t doubt that Tomas’ pickup truck and the house had been blown up. And Tomas’ own footprints in the snow proved at least part of the story — he had clearly been in the house sometime before it began to snow.
There had been a pretty big crowd here just after dark, with fire trucks, police, and spectators, and nobody had seen the DB2. They had noticed Tomas’ truck, and there was a full-scale investigation team on the way. After they searched the crime scene, Tomas was questioned at Highway Patrol headquarters. When they found out that Ida Autumn had died in his office the day before, and he had admitted being involved in the explosions last night, the patrolmen wanted to keep him overnight in jail, but Bonnie managed to track down Ketchum, who convinced them to release Tomas on his own recognizance.
Williams and Johnson dropped him off at his house, and he hit the sack for a couple of hours. His subconscious must have been working overtime while he slept, because he awoke with a couple of conclusions and a lot of new questions.
Somebody wanted him dead. It had to be Harvey Autumn; he couldn’t think of anyone else in Chicago who would come after him. The man with the German accent must be an out-of-town contract killer, and the Aston Martin and the rocket launcher both probably belonged to him. Right now, Tomas had an advantage — if the gunman thought Tomas was dead, he might hang around Chicago for a few days. Tomas had to get downtown and see if he could find that car.
Catching a cab to the train station, he caught the next train into town, and then rented a car from Hertz Drive-Ur-Self. The gunman was obviously highly paid, so he would probably be staying at one of the high-class hotels, the Drake, the Fairmont, the Radisson, or the Chicago Hilton. Tomas wondered for just a second if Todd Drake was related to the family who owned the Drake Hotel, but it didn’t seem likely.
He checked in with Bonnie and told her where he was headed. Then he went out to do some good old detective work.
Parking downtown near the Radisson, Tomas watched people go in and out for a few minutes, noting which of the attendants did the valet parking for guests. During a lull in guest traffic, he walked up to these attendants and began a conversation with them. “Hi, guys! Did you get a chance to drive that Aston Martin DB2 I saw fly out of here a while ago? Man, what a great car!”
“You talkin’ that red and black one?” asked one of them, the one whom Tomas had seen parking the most cars. Tomas nodded his head. The speaker had a wistful expression on his face. “I’ve seen it on the streets, but whoever owns it ain’t staying here. Too bad. Man, I’d give a bundle to take that one for a spin!” Suddenly, he looked worried. He and his mates were not supposed to drive guests’ cars any farther than the garage and back. He had heard that sometimes the hotel would hire people to report on what the employees were doing. He might have just talked himself out of this great job.
But Tomas wasn’t interested in getting these kids into trouble. He’d found out that the DB2 had been seen downtown recently, in the grand hotel area, and even though the owner wasn’t registered here, he seemed to be on the right track.
“Me, too! I wonder what they cost. More than I’ll ever have, I bet…” And he walked away.
This scene was repeated with minor variations at the Hilton and the Fairmont. The guy in the Aston Martin wasn’t shy about showing it off, which argued that he was pretty sure Tomas was dead, and there had been no witnesses.
Tomas had subconsciously saved the Drake for last, probably because of the name. But at the Drake, he had some luck.
“Tell you what, that is one fantastic car! It’s weird driving on the wrong side, but once you get used to that, it’s like riding a tiger!”
“Is it fast?” Tomas asked him.
This kid was smarter than the first one, and a little suspicious. “Sorry, pal, I don’t know. I drive it from the front door here to the parking lot, and then back again. Enough to make me wish it was my car, but I’ll never get a chance to see how fast it is. Say…” His voice became harsh. “…ain’tcha got someplace else to be? We’re busy here.”
Tomas smiled to himself and walked away. “Thanks!” he said cheerily, and waved. What else might he find out?
He stopped in a sheltered doorway down the street and watched to see where the Drake valets took the cars they parked. It was a covered garage about a block from the hotel. He scouted the garage, and the next time one of the valets brought a car around, he sneaked inside while the booth attendant was distracted. A little cautious scouting — he could be very quiet — and there was a another piece of good luck: the DB2 was in the garage.
But what was he going to do next? He didn’t have any magical devices he could stick to the car that would enable him to follow it using his extrasensory perception. He glanced at the license plate and carefully checked the doors and the boot, but the car was locked. There were no obvious clues that he could see through the windows, either.
He had an idea. He owed this guy big time for his pickup truck and his scrapes and bruises, so why not give him back a little aggravation? And maybe he could find out who the guy was at the same time.
Pulling out his trusty Swiss Army knife, Tomas used the corkscrew to bore a hole in one of the front tires. Then he covered the headlights in turn with his jacket, and shattered them. The jacket kept the noise to a minimum.
Finally, he headed toward one of the emergency exits. He pulled out his pistol and, apologizing to the patron god of performance automobiles, shot out the front windshield of the DB2 and then took off. The emergency exit let out the back, and the only attendant in the garage was in the booth at the front, so he got away without anyone seeing him.
Suddenly, he had doubts — suppose this wasn’t the car he was interested in. It would take him six months of successful cases just to cover the cost of the windshield. And he doubted that Ketchum would allow him to put it on his expense account. In fact, if this was the wrong car, he was pretty sure Ketchum would fire him and make sure he never got another private investigation job in Chicago. Come to think of it, who was paying for this investigation, anyway, with the principal dead? Well, he could worry about those things later.
Opening the emergency exit set off the alarm, but he was prepared for that. He withdrew at top speed. By the time the disturbance had calmed down, he was back on the street in front of the hotel. He entered and made for the restaurant, taking a seat where he could keep an eye on the lobby, and sure enough, in a few minutes he saw a hotel manager escorting a very disturbed blond man toward the garage. The man was obviously angry, loudly berating the manager, and Tomas was sure it was the same man he had heard yesterday giving orders. He heard the manager apologize to Mr. Ackerman. It was almost certainly a pseudonym, but he sure knew a lot more now than he had this morning.
He felt sorry for the hotel staff for a few minutes, but their security was lax. He was about to leave when four very large men came over to his table and sat down with him.