CHAPTER THREE: SMOKE (3/4)

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The man standing in the entrance simply didn't belong. His long, brown overcoat looked brand new and there was a confidence in his stance that had long-abandoned any of the men lying on the floor. His hat had a wide brim that kept his face in shadow, but somehow Sol was convinced that he was looking at him. He turned back to the barman and lowered his voice.

"Is there a back exit to this place?" he asked.

The barman frowned. "Just the fire escape, but that only leads to the roof."

"Where is it?"

The barman nodded to a rusty metal door. "What's wrong?"

But Sol didn't answer. He headed towards the door, stealing one last glimpse of the stranger inching closer across the sea of sleeping men as he pushed the door open with a metallic groan.

Sol exited onto the bottom of a metal staircase that zig-zagged up the side of the building. He pushed the door closed and started upwards, ascending two whole flights before he heard the groan of the door opening again and looked down to see the mysterious stranger following after him.

"Wait!" called a man's voice, but Sol was already taking the steps two at a time. He was short of breath by the time he reached the top of the escape and scrambled onto the windy rooftop, but as he ran out into the middle, he was dismayed to see there was nowhere left to go.

He spotted a three-foot metal pipe lying on the floor and hurried to grab it, wielding it with both hands like a baseball bat. He spun to face the fire escape and waited for his pursuer to appear.

"C'mon you sap," he growled.

"You don't need to run from me," the stranger's voice called out from the darkness. "I'm not going to hurt you."

"Why are you following me?" Sol asked.

"I just need to ask you a few questions."

"Questions about what?"

"About what happened in the park."

Sol's mouth dried up. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"I've got witnesses that saw you running from the Arch."

"I think you'd better leave me alone."

"Just answer my questions and I'll go."

"I told you, I don't know anything. And even if I did, I'm not talking to the police."

"I'm not with the police; I'm a private investigator."

"A P.I.? In that case, I'm definitely not talking to you."

When the man didn't respond, Sol started to hope that he'd taken the hint and left. Instead, he tightened his grip on his pipe as the man emerged atop the fire escape.

The private investigator looked remarkably relaxed with his hands in his pockets, as though he was simply returning from a stroll through Central Park. Frustratingly, his hat was still casting an impenetrable shadow over his face.

"Tell me what happened tonight," said the man.

Sol raised his metal bar a few inches higher. "I'm guessing you've got a gun in one of those pockets."

"No gun. Like I said, I'm not going to hurt you." He started walking towards Sol.

"Stop! You come any closer and I start swinging!"

But the man didn't stop. "You won't even talk to me?"

"I said stop! I'm not kidding!"

"Just tell me, did you see him?"

"Back off!" The man was only a couple of paces away now, and he still hadn't taken his hands out of his pockets. If he didn't have a gun, it would be a knife, he knew. Sol really didn't want to hit him, but he wasn't about to back down, either. Once the man stepped within striking distance, Sol kept his word and swung the pipe hard at the man's left shoulder. The pipe whizzed through the air and connected, but to Sol's amazement, it didn't make the solid thwack he expected but ploughed right through the man's coat like it was filled with air. A shocked Sol looked into the man's face, only to realise that the shadow below his hat was not a shadow at all but an empty void.

The Invisible Man.

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