27

IT WAS EARLY AFTERNOON when they arrived at Mother of Roses in the older section of Orden. As was his custom, Alex found a parking place on a hill and at the end of a block so that if he had to he could let the car roll to get it started. The spot was only a few blocks from the hospital.

He cocked the wheels against the curb, set the brake, and then turned to Jax. “We can’t take weapons into this place.”

“They won’t see my knife.”

“They don’t have to see it. They have technology that detects metal. The machine will set off an alarm if we have any weapons on us.”

Jax sighed. “We have ways of detecting weapons, too.”

“I have to leave my gun here. You have to leave your knife.”

“Knives,” she said.

“How many do you have on you?”

“Three.”

“Well, you have to leave them all here.”

She didn’t appear to like the idea one bit. “Without my knives I can’t defend us as well.”

“I understand, but we have to go through the detector in order to be allowed in to see my mother. If we set off an alarm they won’t let us go in, period. Worse, if they find the kind of knife on you that I saw the last time, then we’re going to have problems we don’t need.”

When she hesitated he asked, “Do you want to wait here? I can go alone and see if my mother can tell me anything. You could wait here until I—”

“No,” she said emphatically. “Your grandfather’s place is gone, you don’t go to that gallery anymore, and you’ve left your house. Not being able to find you at places they know — the patterns of your life abruptly changing — may spook them into changing their plans. You come here regularly. They could be watching the place to find out where you are. I have to be there to protect you.”

“All right, but since we have to go unarmed let’s try to make it as quick as possible. If my mother is out of it, then there’s no need to stay anyway; she won’t answer anything when she’s in that state.

“I’m hoping, though, that if she sees you with me that might draw her out. I’m hoping that you might have a positive influence.”

Jax frowned. “Why would that make any difference?”

“She’s my mother. You’re going to marry her baby boy. She’ll want to wring your neck.”

Jax smiled as she hooked a stray lock of wavy blond hair behind an ear. “Maybe you’re right that a new face will get her attention. Maybe I can help get her to talk.”

“I sure hope so, since we’re pretty much in the dark and we need some kind of answers. I really don’t want to have to come back every day until she’s aware enough to talk to me. Sometimes that can take months.”

“We don’t have months. With the things that have been happening, I’m not even sure that we have days.”

Alex let out a sigh. “Let’s hope she can tell us something, then.”

He wrapped his gun, safely in its holster, in one of the old T-shirts he kept in the truck. He used them as rags for cleaning brushes when he went on painting excursions to the countryside. He reached down and stuffed the bundle under the driver’s seat where it would at least be out of sight.

He had also stashed nearly all of his money farther back under the seat. He didn’t like walking around with large quantities of cash, so he had placed it beneath the carpet in a depression in the floor.

When he looked up, Jax handed him three knives. He wondered where she’d been keeping them.

Two of the knives, with leather-wrapped handles, were in simple but well-made brown leather sheaths. The third sheath was a fine-grained black leather, trimmed in silver that matched the knife’s silver handle. Elaborate, beautifully engraved scrollwork decorated the silver handle. Not wanting to take the time to admire it, Alex hurriedly rolled the three knives up together in another old T-shirt from the bag on the floor behind him and stuffed the bundle under the passenger seat.

“What about your pocketknife?” she asked.

“It’s more of a common tool. It doesn’t look scary like those knives you carry — especially that silver one. They don’t want anything that could be used as a weapon going into the hospital, so I have to give them my pocketknife and keys for safekeeping when I visit.

“I’ve been coming to visit my mother for years. I know most everyone who works here. This isn’t a place like when we went shopping for clothes where there were strangers coming and going all the time. I know most everyone here.”

Jax looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “That’s all the more reason to be careful.”

“You said that Cain’s people don’t know enough yet and they’re just watching me.”

“These people are killers, Alex. I’m only making guesses about what they’re doing and what they may be thinking. We can’t count on that assumption. I could have it all wrong.”

“All right, I get it. We still have to worry about getting our necks broken.”

“We should be so lucky if they catch us.”

Alex cast her a suspicious look. “What do you mean?”

“They only break people’s necks when they don’t have the luxury of time and the person isn’t important enough to warrant closer attention.”

“What do they do if they have time?”

“Any number of things,” she said. “They’re pretty inventive.”

Alex wondered why she was being evasive. “What do you mean?”

Jax looked away, staring out the window for a time. She finally turned a serious look on him.

“One of the things Sedrick Vendis likes to do to get people to talk is to hang them up by their wrists, stretched up high enough so that they can just barely touch the ground with their tiptoes. Suspended by your wrists like that, you have to stretch on your toes to take some of the weight off your arms in order to breathe. It’s an agonizing effort to pull air into your lungs. After a short while, if you don’t use your toes for support, it’s impossible to breathe.

“I’m told that it feels rather like you’re drowning. You struggle for every breath as you slowly suffocate. It takes all your strength and effort to help keep enough weight off your arms so that you can get each breath. As you become exhausted, panic sets in, heightening the terror of it.

“After a night like that, alone, unable to sleep, having great difficulty breathing, exhausted from the effort of taking enough weight off their arms so they can get each breath, people are only too eager to tell everything they know, eager to believe that if they cooperate they will be let down.

“Talking, though, doesn’t do them any good. Once the person has confessed all they know, they are of no further use. Strips of skin are peeled down their back and left hanging to attract animals. Birds, ravens especially, will clean the meat right off the exposed ribs. Maggots start growing in the exposed flesh while the person is still alive.

“Dehydration, shock, blood loss — it’s not a pretty way to die, nor is it fast. Unless, of course, they grant you mercy and break your legs so that you can’t support your weight. Then you suffocate and death comes quickly.”

Alex didn’t know what he had been expecting, but it was nothing like this. He couldn’t have imagined such a thing.

He had to remind himself to breathe. “I can’t imagine anyone being that inhuman, that barbaric.”

“Then I won’t tax your imagination by telling you the things they do that are worse.” Her brown eyes turned to focus on him. “You think about that before you let yourself get caught.”

Alex hadn’t been thinking about not getting caught. He’d been thinking only about not letting them catch her. That was the thought that truly terrified him.

He finally took a full breath. “Jax, I’m sorry. . I shouldn’t have asked such a question.”

He wiped a hand back across his face. He felt hot and a little sick to his stomach.

“I didn’t mean to sound angry at you for asking,” she said. “I’m angry at the people who do these things. You were right to ask — after all, it’s you they’re interested in. You need to know what these people are really like. You need to understand the consequences of hesitation.”

Alex clenched his jaw as his revulsion began to melt into smoldering rage.

Her expression softened into regret. “I’m sorry I have to bring such things into your life, Alex. I’m sorry that I—”

“You didn’t bring them into my life,” he said as he held up a hand to stop her. “The truth is the truth. Only a real friend would warn me about the kind of people who are after me.”

She smiled sympathetically, relieved that he understood.

“Now,” he said, “let’s get in there and see if we can find out what these bastards want from my world.”

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