THE PUSHER CHAPTER 1 BITTER MEDICINE
1When the gunslinger entered Eddie, Eddie had experienced a moment of nausea and he had had a sense of being watched (this Roland hadn't felt; Eddie had told him later). He'd had, in other words, some vague sense of the gunslinger's presence. With Detta, Roland had been forced to come forward immediately, like it or not. She hadn't just sensed him; in a queer way it seemed that she had been waiting for him - him or another, more frequent, visitor. Either way, she had been totally aware of his presence from the first moment he had been in her. Jack Mort didn't feel a thing. He was too intent on the boy. He had been watching the boy for the last two weeks. Today he was going to push him. 2 Even with the back to the eyes from which the gunslinger now looked, Roland recognized the boy. It was the boy he had met at the way station in the desert, the boy he had rescued from the Oracle in the Mountains, the boy whose life he had sacrificed when the choice between saving him or finally catching up with the man in black finally came; the boy who had said Go then - there are other worlds than these before plunging into the abyss. And sure enough, the boy had been right. The boy was Jake. He was holding a plain brown paper bag in one hand and a blue canvas bag by its drawstring top in the other. From the angles poking against the sides of the canvas, the gunslinger thought it must contain books. Traffic flooded the street the boy was waiting to cross - a street in the same city from which he had taken the Prisoner and the Lady, he realized, but for the moment none of that mattered. Nothing mattered but what was going to happen or not happen in the next few seconds. Jake had not been brought into the gunslinger's world through any magic door; he had come through a cruder, more understandable portal: he had been born into Roland's world by dying in his own. He had been murdered. More specifically, he had been pushed. Pushed into the street; run over by a car while on his way to school, his lunch-sack in one hand and his books in the other. Pushed by the man in black. He's going to do it! He's going to do it right now! That's to be my punishment for murdering him in my world - to see him murdered in this one before I can stop it! But the rejection of brutish destiny had been the gunslinger's work all his life - it had been his ka, if you pleased - and so he came forward without even thinking, acting with reflexes so deep they had nearly become instincts. And as he did a thought both horrible and ironic flashed into his mind: What if the body he had entered was itself that of the man in black? What if, as he rushed forward to save the boy, he saw his own hands reach out and push? What if this sense of control was only an illusion, and Walter's final gleeful joke that Roland himself should murder the boy? 3 For one single moment Jack Mort lost the thin strong arrow of his concentration. On the edge of leaping forward and shoving the kid into the traffic, he felt something which his mind mistranslated just as the body may refer pain from one part of itself to another. When the gunslinger came forward, Jack thought some sort of bug had landed on the back of his neck. Not a wasp or a bee, nothing that actually stung, but something that bit and itched. Mosquito, maybe. It was on this that he blamed his lapse in concentration at the crucial moment. He slapped at it and returned to the boy. He thought all this happened in a bare wink; actually, seven seconds passed. He sensed neither the gunslinger's swift advance nor his equally swift retreat, and none of the people around him (going-to-work people, most from the subway station on the next block, their faces still puffy with sleep, their half-dreaming eyes turned inward) noticed Jack's eyes turn from their usual deep blue to a lighter blue behind the prim gold-rimmed glasses he wore. No one noticed those eyes darken to their normal cobalt color either, but when it happened and he refocused on the boy, he saw with frustrated fury as sharp as a thorn that his chance was gone. The light had changed. He watched the boy crossing with the rest of the sheep, and then Jack himself turned back the way he had come and began shoving himself upstream against the tidal flow of pedestrians. "Hey, mister! Watch ou - " Some curd-faced teenaged girl he barely saw. Jack shoved her aside, hard, not looking back at her caw of anger as her own armload of schoolbooks went flying. He went walking on down Fifth Avenue and away from Forty-Third, where he had meant for the boy to die today. His head was bent, his lips pressed together so tightly he seemed to have no mouth at all but only the scar of a long-healed wound above his chin. Once clear of the bottleneck at the corner, he did not slow down but strode even more rapidly along, crossing Forty-Second, Forty-First, Fortieth. Somewhere in the middle of the next block he passed the building where the boy lived. He gave it barely a glance, although he had followed the boy from it every school-morning for the last three weeks, followed him from the building to the corner three and a half blocks further up Fifth, the corner he thought of simply as the Pushing Place. The girl he bumped was screaming after him, but Jack Mort didn't notice. An amateur lepidopterist would have taken no more notice of a common butterfly. Jack was, in his way, much like an amateur lepidopterist. By profession, he was a successful C.P.A. Pushing was only his hobby. 4 The gunslinger returned to the back of the man's mind and fainted there. If there was relief, it was simply that this man was not the man in black, was not Walter. All the rest was utter horror ... and utter realization. Divorced of his body, his mind - his ka - was as healthy and acute as ever, but the sudden knowing struck him like a chisel-blow to the temple. The knowing didn't come when he went forward but when he was sure the boy was safe and slipped back again. He saw the connection between this man and Odetta, too fantastic and yet too hideously apt to be coincidental, and understood what the real drawing of the three might be, and who they might be. The third was not this man, this Pusher; the third named by Walter had been Death. Death ...but not for you. That was what Walter, clever as Satan even at the end, had said. A lawyer's answer ... so close to the truth that the truth was able to hide in its shadow. Death was not for him; death was become him. The Prisoner, the Lady. Death was the third. He was suddenly filled with the certainty that he himself was the third. 5 Roland came forward as nothing but a projectile, a brainless missile programmed to launch the body he was in at the man in black the instant he saw him. Thoughts of what might happen if he stopped the man in black from murdering Jake did not come until later - the possible paradox, the fistula in time and dimension which might cancel out everything that had happened after he had arrived at the way station ... for surely if he saved Jake in this world, there would have been no Jake for him to meet there, and everything which had happened thereafter would change. What changes? Impossible even to speculate on them. That one might have been the end of his quest never entered the gunslinger's mind. And surely such after-the-fact speculations were moot; if he had seen the man in black, no consequence, paradox, or ordained course of destiny could have stopped him from simply lowering the head of this body he inhabited and pounding it straight through Walter's chest. Roland would have been as helpless to do otherwise as a gun is helpless to refuse the finger that squeezes the trigger and flings the bullet on its flight. If it sent all to hell, the hell with it. He scanned the people clustered on the corner quickly, seeing each face (he scanned the women as closely as the men, making sure there wasn't one only pretending to be a woman). Walter wasn't there. Gradually he relaxed, as a finger curled around a trigger may relax at the last instant. No; Walter was nowhere around the boy, and the gunslinger somehow felt sure that this wasn't the right when. Not quite. That when was close - two weeks away, a week, maybe even a single day - but it was not quite yet. So he went back. On the way he saw ... 6 ... and fell senseless with shock: this man into whose mind the third door opened, had once sat waiting just inside the window of a deserted tenement room in a building full of abandoned rooms - abandoned, that was, except for the winos and crazies who often spent their nights here. You knew about the winos because you could smell their desperate sweat and angry piss. You knew about the crazies because you could smell the stink of their deranged thoughts. The only furniture in this room was two chairs. Jack Mort was using both: one to sit in, one as a prop to keep the door opening on the hallway closed. He expected no sudden interruptions, but it was best not to take chances. He was close enough to the window to look out, but far enough behind the slanted shadow-line to be safe from any casual viewer. He had a crumbly red brick in his hand. He had pried it from just outside the window, where a good many were loose. It was old, eroded at the corners, but heavy. Chunks of ancient mortar clung to it like barnacles. The man meant to drop the brick on someone. He didn't care who; when it came to murder, Jack Mort was an equal-opportunity employer. After a bit, a family of three came along the sidewalk below: man, woman, little girl. The girl had been walking on the inside, presumably to keep her safely away from the traffic. There was quite a lot of it this close to the railway station but Jack Mort didn't care about the auto traffic. What he cared about was the lack of buildings directly opposite him; these had already been demolished, leaving a jumbled wasteland of splintered board, broken brick, glinting glass. He would only lean out for a few seconds, and he was wearing sunglasses over his eyes and an out-of-season knit cap over his blonde hair. It was like the chair under the doorknob. Even when you were safe from expected risks, there was no harm in reducing those unexpected ones which remained. He was also wearing a sweatshirt much too big for him - one that came almost down to mid-thigh. This bag of a garment would help confuse the actual size and shape of his body (he was quite thin) should he be observed. It served another purpose as well: whenever he "depth-charged" someone (for that was how he always thought of it: as "depth-charging"), he came in his pants. The baggy sweatshirt also covered the wet spot which invariably formed on his jeans. Now they were closer. Don't jump the gun, wait, just wait ... He shivered at the edge of the window, brought the brick forward, drew it back to his stomach, brought it forward again, withdrew it again (but this time only halfway), and then leaned out, totally cool now. He always was at the penultimate moment. He dropped the brick and watched it fall. It went down, swapping one end for the other. Jack saw the clinging barnacles of mortar clearly in the sun. At these moments as at no others everything was clear, everything stood out with exact and geometrically perfect substance; here was a thing which he had pushed into reality, as a sculptor swings a hammer against a chisel to change stone and create some new substance from the brute caldera; here was the world's most remarkable thing: logic which was also ecstasy. Sometimes he missed or struck aslant, as the sculptor may carve badly or in vain, but this was a perfect shot. The brick struck the girl in the bright gingham dress squarely on the head. He saw blood - it was brighter than the brick but would eventually dry to the same maroon color - splash up. He heard the start of the mother's scream. Then he was moving. Jack crossed the room and threw the chair which had been under the knob into a far corner (he'd kicked the other - the one he'd sat in while waiting - aside as he crossed the room). He yanked up the sweatshirt and pulled a bandanna from his back pocket. He used it to turn the knob. No fingerprints allowed. Only Don't Bees left fingerprints. He stuffed the bandanna into his back pocket again even as the door was swinging open. As he walked down the hall, he assumed a faintly drunken gait. He didn't look around. Looking around was also only for Don't Bees. Do Bees knew that trying to see if someone was noticing you was a sure way to accomplish just that. Looking around was the sort of thing a witness might remember after an accident. Then some smartass cop might decide it was a suspicious accident, and there would be an investigation. All because of one nervous glance around. Jack didn't believe anyone could connect him with the crime even if someone decided the "accident" was suspicious and there was an investigation, but ... Take only acceptable risks. Minimize those which remain. In other words, always prop a chair under the doorknob. So he walked down the powdery corridor where patches of lathing showed through the plastered walls, he walked with his head down, mumbling to himself like the vags you saw on the street. He could still hear the woman - the mother of the little girl, he supposed - screaming, but that sound was coming from the front of the building; it was faint and unimportant. All of the things which happened after - the cries, the confusion, the wails of the wounded (if the wounded were still capable of wailing), were not things which mattered to Jack. What mattered was the thing which pushed change into the ordinary course of things and sculpted new lines in the flow of lives ... and, perhaps, the destinies not only of those struck, but of a widening circle around them, like ripples from a stone tossed into a still pond. Who was to say that he had not sculpted the cosmos today, or might not at some future time? God, no wonder he creamed his jeans! He met no one as he went down the two flights of stairs but he kept up the act, swaying a little as he went but never reeling. A swayer would not be remembered. An ostentatious reeler might be. He muttered but didn't actually say anything a person might understand. Not acting at all would be better than hamming it up. He let himself out the broken rear door into an alley filled with refuse and broken bottles which twinkled galaxies of sun-stars. He had planned his escape in advance as he planned everything in advance (take only acceptable risks, minimize those which remain, be a Do Bee in all things); such planning was why he had been marked by his colleagues as a man who would go far (and he did intend to go far, but one of the places he did not intend to go was to jail, or the electric chair). A few people were running along the street into which the alley debouched, but they were on their way to see what the screaming was about, and none of them looked at Jack Mort, who had removed the out-of-season knit cap but not the sunglasses (which, on such a bright morning, did not seem out of place). He turned into another alley. Came out on another street. Now he sauntered down an alley not so filthy as the first two - almost, in fact, a lane. This fed into another street, and a block up there was a bus stop. Less than a minute after he got there a bus arrived, which was also part of the schedule. Jack entered when the doors accordioned open and dropped his fifteen cents into the slot of the coin receptacle. The driver did not so much as glance at him. That was good, but even if he had, he would have seen nothing but a nondescript man in jeans, a man who might be out of work - the sweatshirt he was wearing looked like something out of a Salvation Army grab-bag. Be ready, be prepared, be a Do-Bee. Jack Mort's secret for success both at work and at play. Nine blocks away there was a parking lot. Jack got off the bus, entered the lot, unlocked his car (an unremarkable mid-fifties Chevrolet which was still in fine shape), and drove back to New York City . He was free and clear. 7 The gunslinger saw all of this in a mere moment. Before his shocked mind could shut out the other images by simply shutting down, he saw more. Not all, but enough. Enough. 8 He saw Mort cutting a piece from page four of The New York Daily Mirror with an Exacto knife, being fussily sure to stay exactly upon the lines of the column. NEGRO GIRL COMATOSE FOLLOWING TRAGIC ACCIDENT, the headline read. He saw Mort apply glue to the back of the clipping with the brush attached to the cover of his paste-pot. Saw Mort position it at the center of a blank page of a scrapbook, which, from the bumpy, swelled look of the foregoing pages, contained many other clippings. He saw the opening lines of the piece: "Five-year-old Odetta Holmes, who came to Elizabethtown , N.J. , to celebrate a joyous occasion, is now the victim of a cruel freak accident. Following the wedding of an aunt two days ago, the girl and her family were walking toward the railway station when a brick tumbled ..." But that wasn't the only time he'd had dealings with her, was it? No. Gods, no. In the years between that morning and the night when Odetta had lost her legs, Jack Mort had dropped a great many things and pushed a great many people. Then there had been Odetta again. The first time he had pushed something on her. The second time he had pushed her in front of something. What sort of man is this that I am supposed to use? What sort of man - But then he thought of Jake, thought of the push which had sent Jake into this world, and he thought he heard the laughter of the man in black, and that finished him. Roland fainted. 9 When he came to, he was looking at neat rows of figures marching down a sheet of green paper. The paper had been ruled both ways, so that each single figure looked like a prisoner in a cell. He thought: Something else. Not just Walter's laughter. Something - a plan? No, Gods, no - nothing as complex or hopeful as that. But an idea, at least. A tickle. How long have I been out? he thought with sudden alarm. It was maybe nine o' the clock when I came through the door, maybe a little earlier. How long - ? He came forward. Jack Mort - who was now only a human doll controlled by the gunslinger - looked up a little and saw the hands of the expensive quartz clock on his desk stood at quarter past one. Gods, as late as that? As late as that? But Eddie ... he was so tired, he can never have stayed awake for so I - The gunslinger turned Jack's head. The door was still there, but what he saw through it was far worse, than he would have imagined. Standing to one side of the door were two shadows, one that of the wheelchair, the other that of a human being ... but the human being was incomplete, supporting itself on its arms because its lower legs had been snatched away with the same quick brutality as Roland's fingers and toe. The shadow moved. Roland whipped Jack Mort's head away at once, moving with the whiplash speed of a striking snake. She mustn't look in. Not until I am ready. Until then, she sees nothing but the back of this man's head. Detta Walker would not see Jack Mort in any case, because the person who looked through the open door saw only what the host saw. She could only see Mort's face if he looked into a mirror (although that might lead to its own awful consequences of paradox and repetition), but even then it would mean nothing to either Lady; for that matter, the Lady's face would not mean anything to Jack Mort. Although they had twice been on terms of deadly intimacy, they had never seen each other. What the gunslinger didn't want was for the Lady to see the Lady. Not yet, at least. The spark of intuition grew closer to a plan. But it was late over there - the light had suggested to him that it must be three in the afternoon, perhaps even four. How long until sunset brought the lobstrosities, and the end of Eddie's life? Three hours? Two? He could go back and try to save Eddie ... but that was exactly what Detta wanted. She had laid a trap, just as villagers who fear a deadly wolf may stake out a sacrificial lamb to draw it into bowshot. He would go back into his diseased body ... but not for long. The reason he had seen only her shadow was because she was lying beside the door with one of his revolvers curled in her fist. The moment his Roland-body moved, she would shoot it and end his life. His ending, because she feared him, would at least be merciful. Eddie's would be a screaming horror. He seemed to hear Detta Walker's nasty, giggling voice: You want to go at me, graymeat? Sho you want to go at me! You ain't afraid of no lil ole cripple black woman, are you? "Only one way," Jack's mouth muttered. "Only one." The door of the office opened, and a bald man with lenses over his eyes looked in. "How are you doing on that Dorfman account?" the bald man asked. "I feel ill. I think it was my lunch. I think I might leave." The bald man looked worried. "It's probably a bug. I heard there's a nasty one going around." "Probably." "Well ... as long as you get the Dorfman stuff finished by five tomorrow afternoon ..." "Yes." "Because you know what a dong he can be - " "Yes." The bald man, now looking a little uneasy, nodded. "Yes, go home. You don't seem like your usual self at all." "I'm not." The bald man went out the door in a hurry. He sensed me, the gunslinger thought. That was part of it. Part, but not all. They're afraid of him. They don't know why, but they're afraid of him. And they're right to be afraid. Jack Mort's body got up, found the briefcase the man had been carrying when the gunslinger entered him, and swept all the papers on the surface of the desk into it. He felt an urge to sneak a look back at the door and resisted it. He would not look again until he was ready to risk everything and come back. In the meantime, time was short and there were things which had to be done.