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By Warren Ellis
Read by Reg E. Cathey
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After a shootout claims the life of his partner in a condemned tenement building on Pearl Street, Detective John Tallow unwittingly stumbles across an apartment stacked high with guns. When examined, each weapon leads to a different, previously unsolved murder. Someone has been killing people for twenty years or more and storing the weapons together for some inexplicable purpose.
Confronted with the sudden emergence of hundreds of unsolved homicides, Tallow soon discovers that he’s walked into a veritable deal with the devil. An unholy bargain that has made possible the rise of some of Manhattan’s most prominent captains of industry. A hunter who performs his deadly acts as a sacrifice to the old gods of Manhattan, who may, quite simply, be the most prolific murderer in New York City’s history.
Warren Ellis’s body of work has been championed by Wired for its “merciless action” and “incorruptible bravery,” and steadily amassed legions of diehard fans. His newest novel builds on his accomplishments like never before, announcing Ellis as one of today’s most daring thriller writers. This is twenty-first century suspense writ large. This is Gun Machine.
ON PLAYING back the 911 recording, it’d seem that Mrs. Stegman was more concerned that the man outside her apartment door was naked than that he had a big shotgun.
A 911 call is the pain signal that takes a relative age to travel from the dinosaur’s tail to its brain. The lumbering thunder lizard of the NYPD informational mesh doesn’t even see the swift, highly evolved mammals of phone data, wi-fi, and financial-sector communication that dart around the territory of the 1st Precinct under its feet.
It was a good seven minutes before someone realized that 1st Precinct detectives John Tallow and James Rosato were within eight hundred yards of naked shotgun man, and called upon them to attend the scene.
Tallow wound down the passenger-side window of their unit and spit nicotine gum onto Pearl Street. “You didn’t want to do that,” he said to Rosato, watching without interest as a cycle courier in lime Lycra gave him the finger and called him a criminal. “You’ve been bitching about your knees all week, and you just responded to a call at the last walk-up apartment building on Pearl.”
Jim Rosato was recently married, to a Greek nurse. Rosato was half Irish and half Italian, and there was a pool on at the 1st as to which of the two would arrive at work wearing the other’s skin as a hat within the year. The Greek nurse had prevailed upon Jim to improve his health, an emergency-scale program that included Jim jogging before and after each shift. In the past week, Jim had been lurching stiff-legged into the 1st with a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp, declaiming to any and all witnesses that his knees had fused solid and that he had only days to live.
When Rosato swore, his Dublin mother’s accent spoke through him from the grave. “Shite. How do you even know that?”
The backseat of their unit was a shale formation of books, papers, magazines, a couple of e-readers, and a cracked gray-market iPad. One or the other of them often had to put a boot to it to create enough space to slide a suspect into the back. Tallow was a reader.
Rosato slapped the wheel, crossed traffic, and pulled the unit in beside the apartment building on Pearl Street. It was a grim gray thing, the squat building, a fossil husk for little humans to huddle in. Every other building on this side of the block had had, at the very least, dermabrasion and its teeth fixed. Two stood on either side of the old apartment building like smug Botoxed thirtysomethings bracing an elderly relative. Many of them looked empty, but nonetheless there were flocks of young men in good suits and bad ties with phones nailed to their heads, and rainbows of angular women stabbing out texts with sharp thumbs.
The shotgun blast from inside the old building made them all clatter away like flamingos.
“This was your idea,” Tallow said quietly, popping the door. On the street, Tallow compulsively lifted and reseated his Glock in its holster, under his jacket. Rosato moved stiff-legged to the apartment building door.
Lots of cops married nurses, Tallow knew. Nurses understood the life: murderous shiftwork, long stretches of boredom, sudden adrenaline spikes, blood everywhere. Tallow almost smiled as he followed his wincing partner into the apartment building. He made sure the door closed as silently as possible, and only then did he draw his firearm.
The hallway parquet crackled under their feet. It was cratered, here and there, exposing rotting-newspaper backing. Tallow recognized a masthead from the fifties poking out from under the parquet by the south wall. The plastic wallpaper was slick with ancient nicotine stains, the air was warm and wet, and the staircase handrail looked tarry.
“Shite,” Rosato said as he started up the stairs. Tallow made to slide past him, but Rosato waved him back. Rosato had had longer on the beat than Tallow before he made detective and felt it gave him innate superiority on the street. Tallow was too all up in his head, Rosato would tell people. Big Jim Rosato was a street police.
The voice of naked shotgun man was carrying down the stairwell. Naked shotgun man was apparently unhappy at the letter that had been slid under his door this morning explaining that the building was being purchased by a development company and that he had a generous three months to find other accommodations. Naked shotgun man was going to blow away any asshole who tried to take his home from him because this was his home and no one could make him do anything he didn’t want to do and also he had a shotgun. He didn’t mention being naked. Tallow presumed that he was simply too angry for clothes.
They made the second landing and looked up. “Bastard’s on the third floor,” Rosato hissed.
“The guy’s barely in his body, Jim. Listen to him. His voice is doing scales and he’s repeating himself in the same sentence. We might just want to wait until someone with crazy-person skills arrives.”
“Read him one of your history books. Maybe he’ll pass out and fall on his shotgun.”
“Seriously, shite. We don’t know yet if that shot he took hit anyone.” Rosato pushed on, flexing his fingers around his gun, holding it down by his leg.
They quietly ascended. The voice got louder. Rosato made the landing before the third floor, raised his gun, and took a step up before declaring, in a sharp steady bark, that he was police. And then he took another step up.
His knee folded under him.
Naked shotgun man stepped to the top of the stairs and fired down.
The blast tore off the upper left side of Jim Rosato’s head. There was a wet smack as a fistful of his brain hit the stairwell wall.
From his vantage, three steps back and to the right, Tallow could see Rosato’s eye a good five inches outside Rosato’s head and still attached to his eye socket by a mess of red worms. In that single second, Tallow abstractly realized that in his last moment of life, James Rosato could see his killer from two different angles.
Rosato’s eyeball burst against the wall.
The thick air pulsated with shotgun reverberations.
The sound of Jim Rosato’s killer racking another shell seemed to go on forever.
Tallow had his Glock in a two-handed hold, fourteen in the clip and one in the pipe. He’d taken first pressure without knowing it.
Jim Rosato’s killer was a bodybuilder gone to burgers and long days on the sofa. He was trembling all over. Tallow could see the dim echoes of his muscle under the flab. The top of his head was bald and seemed too small to contain a human brain. His cock sat atop his pouchy balls like a gray clit. The name Regina was badly tattooed over his chest, stretched by his hairy tits. John Tallow could not in that moment see any reason why he should not just fucking kill him, so he put four hollow points through Regina, and a stopper through the shitbag’s stupid tiny head.
The stopper sent Jim Rosato’s killer falling backward. A thin stream of piss described the arc of his drop. He hit the floor, retched out one autonomic attempt at a breath, and died.
John Tallow, standing still, made himself breathe. The air was thick and bitter with gunshot residue and blood.
Nobody else was in the corridor. There was a hole in a wall behind the dead man. Maybe he had randomly shot a wall to get people’s attention. Maybe he was just crazy.
Tallow didn’t care. He called it in.
People wondered why John Tallow didn’t put a hell of a lot of effort into being a cop anymore.
JOHN TALLOW stood while the medics scraped up and lifted and bagged and took away his partner of four years, and then he sat on the stairs silently so that they had to lift Rosato’s killer over him to get him down and out of the building.
People said things to him. Gunfire in close quarters had temporarily dulled his hearing, and he wasn’t that interested anyway. Someone told him that the lieutenant was driving out to tell Rosato’s wife the bad news. She liked to do that, the lieutenant, to take that weight off her people. He’d known her to do it three or four times in the past few years.
After a while, he became aware that someone was trying to get his attention. A uniformed police. Behind him, the Crime Scene Unit techs were moving around like beetles.
“This one apartment,” the uniform said.
“We checked all the apartments, to make sure everyone was okay. But this apartment here, there’s a shotgun hole in the wall and no one’s answering the door. Did you check this one apartment?”
“No. Wait, what? That hole’s kind of low. I don’t think it can have hit anyone.”
“Well, maybe the occupant’s out at work. Though that’d make him kind of unique in this building so far.”
Tallow shrugged. “Force the door, then.”
“The door’s tight. Can’t imagine what kind of lock’s behind it, but it don’t want to give.”
Tallow got up. He knew buildings like these weren’t Fort Knox. But if the uniform said the door wasn’t giving, it was pointless to repeat the effort. The door wasn’t the thing. The hole was. He got down on one knee by the hole. The internal walls in these places weren’t worth the name. Plasterboard partitions, for the most part. When this building was crammed with people, way back when, it must’ve been like living in a hive.
The hole was a foot across. Tallow peered through it. No light in there. Tallow shifted his position to let in ambient light from the hallway. The uniform watched him frown.
“Give me your flashlight,” Tallow said.
Tallow twisted it on and played it through the hole. Things glinted in the dark, as if he were shining the flashlight into the teeth of an animal deep in a cave.
“Get a ram,” Tallow said.
The uniform went downstairs while Tallow sat on the floor with his back to the wall, dismissing the CSU complaints with a finger. That’d come back to bite him later, he knew. CSUs loved to complain, and if he didn’t listen, they’d find someone who would.
Then again, maybe he’d earned a pass today.
Tallow sat and thought about his partner for a while. Thought about never having met his wife. Having actively avoided it, if he were honest. Remembered feeling relieved that Jim and his wife had gotten married on vacation, so he couldn’t and therefore didn’t have to attend the ceremony. Tallow had decided, after the one time he’d had to crush a stranger with the news that her husband had died on duty with three big bullets in his gut, that he couldn’t be married. He didn’t want to stand at a wedding and think about being married. He didn’t want to sit at Jim Rosato’s table and think about being married.
The uniform had found another uniform, and together they had unhappily carried the ram upstairs, blistered black paint over blue metal.
Tallow stayed on the floor and hitched his thumb at the door.
The uniforms put the ram to the door. It bent and held. They looked at each other, swung back harder, and drove the ram in again. Wood splintered, but the door stood.
Tallow got up. “Take out the wall.”
“Yeah. It’s on me. Take it out.”
The ram crushed the wall in. A few dull thumps sounded from within. The CSUs cursed their mothers for the dust the strike kicked out. Three more short swings made a hole big enough for Tallow to step through. Two more dull thumps. He twisted on the borrowed flashlight and passed it around slowly.
The room was full of guns.
Guns were mounted on all the walls. There were half a dozen guns at his feet. Turning around, flashlight at shoulder level, he saw that guns were mounted on the wall he had come in through. Some guns were mounted in rows, but the right-hand wall had them in complex swirls. Some were laid on the floor on the far side of the room, forming a shape he couldn’t quite fathom. There was paint daubed on those.
There were scents he couldn’t place. Incense, perhaps. Musks. Fur or hide.
Rippling patterns of gunmetal, from floor to ceiling. In the stale, faintly perfumed air of the room, Tallow felt almost like he could be in a church.
Nobody was in the apartment but him. He pointed the flashlight at the door. The door was reinforced with sliding metal bars and heavy locks. There was the red flicker of an LED on one of the locking devices. Tallow couldn’t figure out how anyone could get into this apartment by way of the door, but he could see that a ram wasn’t going to do it.
Tallow carefully stepped through the apartment, checking all the rooms without touching anything.
There were guns in all the rooms.
In the back room, there was a gap between the heavy curtains covering the sole window. A single shaft of light fell through the gap into the small gun-encrusted room. Dust motes hung in the still beam. Tallow stood for a moment without breathing. Left the room slowly and silently.
Tallow almost smiled as he put his head back out through the hole, pointed at a CSU, and said, “Got something for you.”
THE SITUATION at the apartment building quickly boiled into rolling chaos. When uniforms started jostling with a few co-opted detectives during the recanvassing of the occupants about apartment 3A, Tallow took the opportunity to slide downstairs.
The sun was already behind the long chromed arms of the financial district. He looked at the pale sky and wondered for a moment where the day went. He got in the car. It felt empty even when he sat in the driver’s seat. Tallow nosed the car out into the thickening traffic and pushed east, back into the deep of the 1st Precinct.
Fifteen minutes later, he was parked outside his favorite coffee shop, the one with tables on the sidewalk and nobody to complain about smoking. He bought a pack of cigarettes and a disposable lighter from the place on the corner, sat at a metal table with a tall sleeved-cardboard cup of venomously dark coffee, lit up with hands that were not yet shaking, and began the effort to shift out of automatic and let the world back in.
Letting the world back in by stages. Letting himself become aware of that slight pinch in his suit jacket, under the arms. This was the only suit jacket he’d had cut to accommodate his shoulder holster, which meant he’d gained some weight across the chest. As he shut his eyes for a moment, he could feel little points of tightness on his scalp. Spots of dried blood stuck to his skin.
By stages. The untreated cardboard sleeve around the venti-plus cup, stamped with biodegradable inks, proclaiming the coffee shop’s proud independence, the simple black printing on the flecked card making its own statement about authenticity. The shiny metal table reflecting too much light, the glare making it hard to sit there for too long during the day, especially if sitting there with a notebook or laptop, ensuring that no one hogged the sidewalk seating for too long. The taste of wood and oil on the cigarette smoke. Drawing it down, the warm comfort of it in his chest, letting the smoke bleed out of his nostrils. Chemical aftertaste on the back of his tongue. Autonomic reach for the coffee, sweet and rich, washing away the cigarette, stopping his head from going too light. Tallow hadn’t smoked in nine months. He hadn’t started again either, not in his head. This was medicinal. He’d toss the pack and the lighter when he left the table, he’d decided.
More stages. The music leaking out onto the street from the open coffee-shop door. Brooklyn glo-fi, a couple of summers old, kids on the edge of Park Slope imagining California beaches. Two girls on the other side of the window, in fauxhawks and sleeveless hoodies framing unfinished sleeve tattoos. The more unfinished of the two was the better one. That girl had less money but a finer eye for an artist.
Behind them, a printer rattled on a trestle beside the countertop, an automated print vendor coughing out a POD paper, the New York Instant, or an aggregation of social-network capture.
Stages. A bus growled by, the dynamic display strip down its side scarred by a black rash of dead pixels. Advertising some CGI thing starring three different versions of Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of them from his twenties and another from his thirties. A car jumping impatiently behind it, sparkling new and fresh off the lot but proudly sporting 1950s fins. Candy-apple red and spikily sporty, driven by a man closing on fifty in a candy-striped shirt with sleeves carefully furled to show a maintained forest of gray forearm hair.
Stages. Jim Rosato was dead. Nothing was getting rid of the copper taste that kept jabbing Tallow’s tongue, as if he’d aspirated some of Jim’s atomized blood when the shotgun blasted half his partner’s head off. Tallow had blocked everything, and now the screens were down, he couldn’t help but see Jim’s death on high-definition replay.
Tallow choked on smoke.
“I knew you’d be here. Mind if I sit down?”
His eyes snapped up. The lieutenant was standing by the opposite side of the table. She had a coffee in her hand. Tallow wondered how long he’d been sitting there replaying Jim’s death and not noticing anything else at all.
“Please,” he said.
She had a manner of moving like an intricate folding machine when she sat or stood, a slow precise compression, her head and shoulders remaining quite still. Her black suit creased perfectly. She flicked out legs in boot-cut pants. Her father was a tailor who knocked her out bespoke clothes at cost. Tallow knew to avoid her on the days she wore a new suit, because the collection of it was a traditional event in which she was berated by her father at length for becoming “top pig.”
The lieutenant was watching Tallow with those sharp glacial eyes, clever glass scanning him with mechanical precision.
“I spoke to Jim’s wife,” she said, prying the lid off her coffee with clear-polished nails.
“I left something out when I talked to you,” Tallow said. “His knee gave out when he was taking position. All that jogging. Didn’t want you to mention it to her.”
“You can leave that out of your typed statement too,” she said, with an attempt at a smile. The lieutenant had strong, handsome features. When she smiled, Tallow thought he could see a little girl peeking out from behind that hard face, from under the efficient cap of black hair. “Your shooting’s going to be ruled good, of course. I spoke to people. You’ll still have to go through a formal interview and appearance, but no one’s going to give you any trouble.”
“I wasn’t worried.”
Her eyes flickered over Tallow’s face, looking for something. When she didn’t find it, she let out a disappointed breath and raised her coffee to her lips.
Tallow took a last draw on his cigarette. Turned to face the road and accurately flicked the stub across the sidewalk and down a drain. Swilled some coffee to wash the taste of the thing out of his mouth. The lieutenant was watching him again.
“You haven’t talked to me about the apartment you knocked a hole in.”
Tallow sucked his cheeks in, trying to force coffee-flavored saliva over the foul taste on the back of his tongue. “Not a lot to tell. Never seen anything like it. I’m presuming it’ll make an interesting news story when it gets out.”
Tallow became aware that she was watching him again. “What is it, Lieutenant? Am I doing something wrong?”
“You seem further inside your head than I’d like. More than usual. I want to know that you’re dealing with what happened today, John.”
“That’s what bothers me. I partnered you with Jim all those years ago because you were complementary kinds of crazy. You kept each other in check. I need you to not crawl back inside your own skull and watch the world with binoculars from deep cover. You’ve been bad enough for the past year as it is.”
“I don’t follow.”
She stood up. “Yes, you do. You’re at the age where the rush of the job has passed and the grind of the job is taken in stride, and this is the time when you’re wondering if it wouldn’t be so bad if you just stopped giving much of a shit and rolled along doing as little as possible. I’m resting you for forty-eight hours, mandatory. Come back as a detective I can use.”
She paused, and then tried to fly that smile again. “I’m sorry about Jim.” The smile didn’t take. She left.
Tallow waited five minutes, turning another cigarette around in his fingers. Put it back in the pack. Pocketed the pack and the lighter. Walked into the coffee shop, found the bathroom, and vomited coffee and his past two meals into the toilet with a thin scream.
JIM ROSATO once commented that Tallow’s apartment was where he unpacked his head.
One bedroom was stuffed with books, magazines, and paper. Its door was missing, like a failed levee, and the flow of print coursed into the living room, cresting under the table that two old laptops and an external drive lived on. Two tall speakers jutted from the surface of it all like lighthouses. The other bedroom was halfway bricked up by CDs, cassette tapes, and vinyl. A store clothes rack filched from a dumpster stood in the corner of the living room as his wardrobe, but most of the clothes that should have hung from it were slumped under it on the floor.
Tallow elbowed into his apartment with the day’s magazines under his arm. Not the sheaf it would have been at the top of the month even five years ago. A lot of his favorite stuff had migrated to the web. A lot more had just disappeared over the horizon of the digital dawn, never to be seen again.
He didn’t open them, just put them down on whatever stable surfaces he could find. Took his jacket off, wriggled out of the shoulder rig. Hung the rig on the clothes rack, dropped the jacket on the floor. Sat in one of his two chairs.
Tallow tried to think about the apartment full of guns. How a place like that would come to be. But all that would stay in his head was his partner and only real friend having a handful of his brain torn out by a shotgun.
Forty-eight hours. Tallow knew he was going to go crazy in here.
TALLOW’S SLEEP was studded with unremarkable nightmares of a coppery shine. The cell phone on his bedside stack of books woke him.
The women in Tallow’s life had all informed him that he habitually awoke with a form of Tourette’s. For the first hour of the day, he was incapable of summoning reserve, patience, or social skills.
Tallow assaulted the cell phone and answered it with “The fuck what.”
“Come into the office.”
- "Warren Ellis's work displays a knack for mad hilarity, merciless action, dark cynicism and incorruptible bravery."—Wired
- On Sale
- Jan 1, 2013
- Hachette Audio