Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Paranormal

Histories of the Void Garden, Book 1: Pyre of Dreams

 

Histories of the Void Garden, Book 1:

Pyre of Dreams

 

 

A Novel by Damian Huntley

Copyright 2016 Damian Huntley

Published by Damian Huntley at Shakespir

ISBN: 9781311676450

 

 

 

Shakespir Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Table of Contents

Dedication

Quote

One – Capitalist Reform

Two – Charlene

Three – Questions

Four – Shadowcab

Five – DC

Six – Calvert Cliffs

Seven – Pizza and History

Eight – Saving Mr. Beach

Nine – The Void Garden

Ten – The Hopper

Eleven – Spiff

Twelve – Fighting Shadows

Thirteen – On the Road

Fourteen – Compound Fracture

Fifteen – The Kings Mosaic

Sixteen – In the Beginning

A Preview of Book 2 in the Series

About the Author

Connect with the Author

 

 

For Ryen, because without you I wouldn’t know how to write a grounded happy human.

 

For Jean Huntley, for life, the universe and everything.

 

For Katie Blackwell, for having the sense to tell me to try harder.

 

 

 

 

“There is nothing like a dream to create the future.”

– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

[]CHAPTER ONE

Capitalist Reform

 

David Beach was starting to flag a little. The heat would have been enough to wear him down, but with the added frustration of his seven-year-old daughter sitting on his shoulders, pounding incessantly on his chest with her feet, he was beginning to think that even this historic event didn’t merit enduring such torture. He gritted his teeth and gazed towards the podium, hoping that the leaders of the free world would hurry up and get their shit together.

“Stephanie, hun, do you mind standing for a while?” he asked his daughter, tapping her shins gently with his hands. He managed to contain a groan of exasperation when she responded, “Daaad, I might miss it.’ That whine … he only had himself to blame; he recognized his own corrosive determination in the sing song trail off of her plea.

“Spiff, you don’t even know what you’re going to see.”

“The PRESIDENT!” She still occasionally struggled with ‘r’ in president, but she had been practicing, and this time she managed to deliver the word perfectly, emphasizing her enthusiasm by gently patting her father’s hair.

David’s eyes rolled and he inhaled slowly, trying to be as happy as he knew he should be that Stephanie had understood something of the importance of the day. Still, she was underselling the gravitas somewhat. Today the President of America, along with the fifteen other world leaders who made up the Economic Unification Council, were meeting in order to sign an accord that promised to change the world economy at its most fundamental level.

It was an agreement that had been thirteen years in the making and David had played a part in its conception. It was only right that he should be within spitting distance of the podium. If you stood on the fifth floor of an apartment building and tried to spit on a passing pedestrian you could probably make the shot, and following that logic, David figured that he’d done alright; fifty feet or so from the podium might as well be spitting distance.

 

David worked as an assistant to the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence in President Tiernan’s administration. If he was honest with himself, he was only attending the signing ceremony because of his involvement with the Undersecretary. He’d had a sense of impending doom about the whole thing for several weeks now, and when that feeling had refused to abate, he’d tried to wriggle out of attending, but Carlton wouldn’t hear of it.

 

David’s friends often referred to him as a conspiracy nut, which was pretty much all you had to do these days to write off a person’s opinions. The Undersecretary valued much of what David had to say, even when his thoughts bled black. When David had voiced his concerns, Undersecretary Carlton hadn’t made him feel marginalized; however, he had reiterated that the signing of the Capitalism Reform Act had to happen. Everyone knew it. A great many people were concerned about today’s events, but those concerns could never be allowed to impact on the momentous occasion. The meeting of the Economic Unification Council and the signing of the act was to signal the end of the old regime; the President might as well have painted a bullseye on his chest.

 

There was a wave of motion in the crowd in front of David, an eruption of applause and cheering, but all David could see were the bobbing heads and waving hands of a few thousand people. He couldn’t even see the billboard-sized display playing live coverage of the stage. Unseen by David Beach, but watched by the avid eyes of hundreds of millions of people around the world, President Allan Tiernan walked up the short staircase to the stage, followed closely by Russia’s President Abakumov, France’s President Loubé and the leaders of thirteen of the most influential countries in the world. The men and women lined up on the stage, with President Tiernan making for the central podium, ready to address the nation. Each of the figures on the podium would have an opportunity to speak directly to the concerns and needs of their people, but this was President Tiernan’s moment, and he steadied himself, licking his lips and looking down with an air of solemnity.

By some miracle, a gap opened up in the crowd just large enough for David to push forwards a little and catch a glimpse of the giant monitor. David was already grinding his teeth, and as he arched his head to the side to see past Stephanie’s hand, his tension grew. There, writ large, crystal clear colors, strong contrasts, clean lines, the President stepped toward the microphone, smiling and waving confidently at the world.

 

One mile away, in a North facing room on the eighteenth floor of the Arctum Industries office complex, a lone figure packed ammo into four empty magazines. After all of the anxieties and tribulations, he was calm. Nothing could distract him from his goal. He wasn’t about to commit murder. He had told himself this so many times that he was almost convinced the rest of the world would see it that way. Five .338 Lapua Magnum bullets per cartridge. He loaded the first cartridge into the AWM rifle and checked the sights. There, through the glass of the U.S. Optics Scope, almost as clear as the image displayed on the high definition monitor next to him, the man watched President Tiernan commence his address to the nation.

The shots themselves would not be a test of skill, he could make this shot one hundred times out of one hundred and still feel no sense of achievement. Timing, that might be an issue though. There were sixteen squibs, small explosive charges, mounted at strategic points around the precinct and these squibs were set to go off at very precise times. He knew the squibs had not been discovered by the Secret Service, or this historic event would not be running on schedule. Speed was absolutely of the essence; sixteen shots fired within the space of nine seconds, four AWM rifles mounted on the window ledge, and the shots all had to be timed perfectly to coincide with the sound of squibs firing in close proximity to the stage.

The gunman felt no fear, felt no remorse for what he was about to do, no pride either. It wasn’t murder. It was just a message.

 

David had been watching the monitor for what felt like an eternity now and he was starting to wonder how bored Stephanie must be feeling. Stephanie Beach was in her element actually, ecstatic that she was so much taller than the people around her, and at the same time, pleased that she hadn’t been made to stand. At some point, David would explain to her that she didn’t have to understand the word manipulate to be manipulative, but that conversation wouldn’t happen today. Today she would pat her father’s hair with mild elation and grin at the little people around her, all much shorter than her.

President Tiernan placed his hands either side of the podium and focused his gaze on a distant point in the crowds. Behind him and to either side, the other heads of state prepared to deliver the address in their own languages.

“We speak today as one voice.” Tiernan lowered his head briefly as the crowd cheered. “We are a voice, not unified by a tragedy, but by our desire to forestall tragedy.”

David watched as the camera panned across the faces on stage, each of them pacing themselves to match the speed of Tiernan’s speech.

“We are a voice, not of lamentation for the ills of the world, but of hope for what we have set out today to achieve.” He paused, his eyes moving slowly about the faces in the crowd, “Economic Unification has been a shared dream … An all encompassing passion for those of us who stand before you today, and we know we share that dream with many of you, but to those who would seek to silence our voice, as one we ask, where is your shame?”

Cheers erupted from a crowd united, and David stepped to the side as one enthusiastic onlooker threw his arms in the air in celebration.

“No longer can we ignore the clamor of the masses, the chant of the ninety-nine percent when they ask, what gall? Where’s their shame? How dare they? Today, with one voice, we will answer loud and clear, enough is enough.”

Behind him, President Loubé finished, “ça suffit, comme ça.” Tiernan nodded, “Enough is enough. Today, with the introduction of a unified currency,” he raised the index finger of his right hand, counting off, “salary caps, minimum wages and globalized health care … today, we level the playing field, and we say as one, if you don’t like it, get off the field.”

As the madness of the crowd set in about him, David didn’t understand what had happened at first. He heard a loud crack, somewhere off to his left and he didn’t react to it, didn’t flinch. He was so intent on watching the huge LCD display, the close-up image of the president smiling and waving casually. There was something odd there, something about the president’s face. The moment stretched out in front of David, a smear on the camera lens, a long dirty line appearing on the image, and a flash of dark red there, along the crooked line. An eternity between David’s brain processing the image he was seeing, and connecting it to the loud cracking sounds that he could hear. Then the red was gone almost as quickly as it had appeared and now the president’s hand was clutching at his forehead as he stumbled backward. The camera had cut to a wider shot now and there were more explosive cracking noises and the other figures on the stage started to stumble and fall over each other in the commotion.

People around David pushed and shoved, some of them screaming and pointing at the monitor, other’s pointing to various buildings around the precinct. Stephanie was holding tightly around David’s shoulders and she was screaming too. David knew in the back of his mind that he should be doing something, anything to calm Stephanie or protect her from the pandemonium that was starting to unfold around them, but he was completely incapable of action. Something was profoundly wrong with what he had just witnessed. He was paralyzed by the thought, no, not even a thought. Just a feeling, an instinct. The hairs on his arms standing on end, Stephanie’s legs digging into his chest, the thought clattering around his numbed head, a clumsy but untouchable interloper.

The shots were still ringing out.

David blinked his eyes, trying to focus, trying desperately to see the stage or the monitor, but the panicking crowd made that impossible. Stephanie was patting her father’s chest, yelling at him to put her down. She didn’t understand why he wasn’t moving, what was wrong with him? Why wouldn’t he help her climb down? She was too scared of being knocked off his shoulders by the people who were running around. She would worry about why her father wasn’t moving once she got to the ground. She eased herself lower down his back, gripping tight with her knees, arms around his neck, then she dropped to the ground, stumbling slightly as her feet hit the floor. She tugged at her father’s hand, trying desperately to get his attention. “Dad, c’mon, Daddy … Dad!” She yelled at him, her voice breaking as tears started to flow.

David Beach looked down at his daughter, and he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t really recognize her in that instant. He couldn’t hold on to the fact that she was his daughter, and she needed him. Reality only gripped him when he realized that Stephanie was crying. He bent quickly and scooped her up in his arms, hugging her close to his chest. He started to try and dodge between the crowds of people to make his way toward the stage, unsure of what good it would do if he could reach that destination. Would anyone there allow him close enough to find out what had happened? Nonetheless, he obeyed his instincts.

By the time he reached the vicinity of the stage, he could barely hear Stephanie’s sobs over the wail of sirens and announcements being made through bullhorns. He patted the back of his daughter’s head and kissed her ear, “it’ll be alright honey, don’t worry.” He tried to sound reassuring, but his voice trembled as he spoke.

There was already a pretty intimidating line of police in riot gear surrounding the stage. David could see what looked like paramedics and a number of governmental agents swarming the stage. He entertained the notion that his White House credentials would get him closer, but when he arched his head back to see Stephanie’s tear-stained face, he thought better of it. What did any of this really matter anymore? This was the culmination of all of his worst nightmares. He didn’t feel vindicated in his paranoia. He might be out of a job. The president might be dead, and from the sounds of gunfire that he had heard, it was possible that more than one country would be left in turmoil.

 

[]CHAPTER TWO

Charlene

 

I could just kill them, West thought to himself, that would put a stop to it easy enough. He gazed vacantly at the television and he imagined the feeling of his fingers stroking the cold leather arm of the couch. He couldn’t remember the feeling of leather, or cold for that matter, these pleasantries long since lost to him. He was slightly melancholic for such things. Friends too … god knows how many friends he’d lost over the years, each of them as distant now as his sense of touch. He could recall them, friends, leather, places and all, if he could muster the courage to step up to the hopper, but even that had lost its appeal.

Weary, he cast an eye over the images of the riots on the large flat screen, well aware that if he walked up to the window, he would be able to see the lunacy unfold in real time on the streets below. This had been the state of affairs since the assassination three weeks earlier, but he was distracted and detached from it all, and this feeling had been building in him for months now, engulfing him.

Hearing had become somewhat of a problem. If he put his mind to it, he used to be able to hear conversations all over the city. Over the past year, he had struggled to restrain that ability, and it had reached a point where now, it required exhausting feats of his imagination just to block out the wall of sound. He would sit in darkness, imagining blazing infernos swallowing the city, or tornadoes sweeping through the streets of New York, sucking up the unwitting citizens as they went about their business. Anything, just to turn off the infernal babble of humanity.

The neighbors had been talking about him. Watching the news reports of the riots, he was beginning to understand his neighbor’s concerns at least. The screen went momentarily dark as the news coverage cut to commercials, there in his own shadowy reflection, unkempt, bearded, gaunt and brooding, definitely a terrorist. In another moment, he saw President Tiernan’s image, accompanied by that same sickening diatribe they had been playing over and over; the inaugural ball, the handshakes in front of the white house, and always such saccharine headlines, ‘The Nation Remembers President Tiernan: Too Young to Die.’ He shook his head in disbelief.

These were the end times, sure enough. All portents pointed to it. The bones had been cast. West needed someone. He needed someone who he could make understand. In that moment, West knew what he had to do.

 

Miss Osterman lived several doors down from West, apartment 412. When she heard the gentle knocking at her door she decided that whoever it was would go away if she ignored it. When the knocking was repeated, she rolled her eyes and braced herself, one fragile hand on the arm of the cushioned chair, the other hand grasping her dully aching right hip. Again, there was the knock and she hissed under her breath, shouting as politely as she could manage, “Just a minute will you? I’m eighty-five years old you know?” She breathed heavily, closing her eyes as the memory of some of those years flowed through her. She sometimes wished that she had been blessed with a little more grace and dignity along with her advancing years, but Miss Osterman reconciled herself to the fact that the younger woman in her, the one who would have already made it to the door, was pissed off.

She undid the deadbolt, pulling the door open a crack, the thick and reassuring chain preventing it from opening further.

 

Her eyes adjusted to the light in the hallway beyond and she managed to make out the hulking unruly form of that damned foreigner from down the hall. Definitely a terrorist that one, no doubt about it. She made to close the door, but his voice rang out, “Miss Osterman I need a haircut.” His voice was clean, almost practiced, Ford A-type, Apple Pie and Elvis American. Not what Miss Osterman had expected, and she was suddenly aware of the fact that she’d never heard the man talk, other than the occasional agitated utterance as she had passed him in the hallway.

She moved back towards the opening in the door and peered out, apprehensive but curious. The man needed a haircut, she was willing to agree with him on that issue at least, and that small concession was something. “So?” she asked. As she watched the man’s face, she thought she could see the suggestion of a smile somewhere amongst all that hair. The man’s hand moved to his beard, fingers moving slowly through the thick bristles, then up over the sandpaper stubble, and into his shaggy fair hair, brushing a few wavy locks out of the way of his eyes as they went. Those eyes. As the man looked down at her, Miss Osterman saw something vaguely familiar or welcoming in his eyes.

“So … I hear you are a girl who can cut hair Miss Osterman.”

Her mouth puckered up and her eyes narrowed as she broke into a slow and warm laugh. He certainly sounded wholesome and harmless, possibly a wolf in sheep’s clothing she thought, but possibly just what he appeared to be. Still, he’d called her a “girl,” which certainly won him brownie points.

“I’m old you know; I don’t do hair anymore.”

The man smiled broadly, white teeth beaming through the dirty blond undergrowth of hair, “I’m sure you’ll find it’s like riding a bike Miss Osterman …”

She frowned and laughed cynically, her voice breaking up slightly as she interrupted him, “Riding a bike would be a slice of misery, what with my joints aching the way they are nowadays.”

The man smiled and nodded apologetically, “I meant, it’ll come back to you,” he scratched his beard, smirking, “and let’s be honest, you couldn’t make it any worse.”

Miss Osterman was unsure of herself as she moved her hand to the chain on the door, but that hair … that big mop of hair. She had always reveled in a head of hair like that. You could really get to know someone over a haircut like that.

 

She led him into the apartment, making her best effort to walk casually and steadily, the pain in her hips and knees making the act rather difficult. She led him to the den, where her television silently played the daytime soap operas, the flickering light playing on a thousand tiny collected memories; painted shells, paper umbrellas, embroidered fans, Russian dolls, china bulls, all things Charlene Osterman had collected on her travels during her wilder days. She momentarily relished the thought that the gentleman might ask about them … about her. A faint smile played on her lips as she rummaged in a side table for her tools.

West enjoyed the sound of Miss Osterman’s voice, the slightly cracked southern lilt, New York pouring through those cracks here and there, neither side of the Mason-Dixon line conceding much ground. He closed his eyes to the room as she addressed him, “So, who told you I was a hairdresser hmm? There’s not many around who even know anymore.” West was quiet, hoping to sit out this particular verbal dance, at least for now. The sound of Miss Osterman rattling and rummaging through the drawer, metal on metal, pulled West out of his reverie and he coughed politely, “Oh, you know Miss Osterman, you live in a building long enough, you hear things.”

The woman stopped still, thoughtful. She’d lived at Madison and 30th on and off for most of her life. Her parents had owned an apartment there from the 1940s and she had taken it over in 1963 when her parents had died, too young, her Father from a series of heart attacks, and her Mother only months later, from throat cancer. Her Mother’s death had prompted her to spend some time visiting with family on her mother’s side in South Carolina and she’d held on to some inherited land there until the late seventies, but she eventually sold it for a pittance when the last of her Southern relatives had passed away. She started to wonder why her mind had skipped off down that path, then she remembered the young man’s statement about hearing things. She supposed he hadn’t meant any offense by it.

Of course she wasn’t a busy body, not at all, she was a concerned citizen, but she did try to pay attention to the comings and goings of new residents. Now that she thought about it, although she had heard his name mentioned often enough, especially over the last couple of years, she couldn’t remember when Mr Yestler had taken up residence there. She shrugged off the thought, having spied her favorite scissors and razor deep in the recesses of the sturdy Edwardian dresser. Plenty of time, she thought as she picked out the finely crafted scissors, only the bows showing from the neck of the velvet pouch. Nice thick hair, good facial growth, she’d figure him out soon enough.

 

Miss Osterman had, for several years, run a small salon near Madison Square Park. It had been a tribulation and a joy, often in equal measures, but her regulars had always given her a reason to show up each day. It had been her and Magda Breckon for the most part, Magda always trying to avoid taking on anything grandiose and complicated, pouncing on the few gentleman callers they had, because she knew it would make for an easy half hour. She had been good company, and when Magda announced to Charlene Osterman that she would have to part ways, it had come as a blow. It would be several days before Charlene Osterman would realize quite how serious a blow Magda had struck and by that point it was too late. Magda Breckon had cleaned out Charlene’s account and had left town, never to be seen by Charlene Osterman again.

The comfortable and worldly worn chair which Miss Osterman led Mr Yestler to now, was the only real remnant of her shot at the American dream.

 

“It’s a beautiful chair.” West smiled as he remarked to Miss Osterman. He watched her through the reflection in the large oval mirror mounted on the wall in front of him. He ran his fingers over the soft leather arms and patted them, “I love the feel of an old leather chair; it’s so comforting.” He lied casually.

She ran her fingers through his hair, plying the parting and allowing the long greasy ringlets to fall in their natural pattern. She should have offered to wash it for him she thought, but she didn’t have a wash sink, only the shower; she would have to spray him down well.

“So Mr Yestler, how much would you like me to take off?”

West’s smile broadened, taking on an almost mischievous countenance, “I’m sure I can trust your judgment, do whatever you think is necessary to make me human again.”

Miss Osterman returned West’s smile, nodding gently. It had always entertained her when the chair was taken by someone who had so obviously not had a haircut in a long while; there was often an air of pride about them, like they were every hairdresser’s dream. She didn’t keep a misting bottle around for the express purpose of doing hair anymore, so she moved discretely to the windowsill and picked up the bottle which she used for misting her window-plants, not concerned that the water might be stagnant because she did change it at least twice a week. Stepping in front and to the side of West, she placed a hand, palm facing down over his forehead to shield his eyes as she sprayed the water into his hair, then moving around behind him, she made sure his hair was wet through, with little pulses of her finger on the trigger of the plastic bottle.

 

With his head lowered slightly, West watched the old lady work. Old. West mused on the word, on the degrees of separation such a word could create. Miss Osterman’s features bore many marks of age, true, but West wouldn’t have described her as old, and he wondered now why the word had even come to his mind. He watched the tendons in her wrists as her fingers clutched the bottle, watched the colorful skin move subtly over the deep etched veins. He wanted her to discover him for who he was and he knew that ultimately it wouldn’t require another word to pass between them, but still, he hoped she would start to open up and talk. Perhaps she would ask the right questions and he would reveal himself before she finished cutting away his Clark Kent disguise. Then again … perhaps she wouldn’t know him after all.

He watched her purse her lips several times and lick them in concentration, watched muscles tense in her throat, all signs that she might talk. When he glanced down at the unnecessary towel tucked around his neck and saw that there were already several large clumps of hair lying there, he thought he would have to break the ice again, the pool of conversation had frozen over so quickly, but Miss Osterman was already waiting with her icepick.

“Mr Yestler, would you mind telling me about the leeches?”

West blinked slowly, running the question through his mind a couple of times, trying to figure out if perhaps he had misheard it. A sense of paranoia hardened his muscles, fingers clamping the arms of the chair with nervous tension. How could she possibly know about the leeches? Had he been made to sit and ponder this question for long, he would have abandoned this social exercise prematurely and returned to his apartment to hide for a few more days. At least that, although maybe he would have simply packed up, and abandoned New York altogether, write it off as an abortive attempt at assimilating with humanity. Before he had the chance to make up his mind to leave, Miss Osterman spared him the tortuous introversion and elaborated, “When you talk to yourself, when you’re storming out of the building or through these corridors,” she pulled down the tip of his ear with one hand and started to carefully snip a contoured line through the hair there, “you mention leeches quite frequently.”

West’s eyelids fell closed as he tried to imagine how her fingers felt touching his ear. It hadn’t occurred to him that he talked to himself; he’d heard voices for as long as he could remember, it didn’t seem possible that any of the voices were his.

“I’ve heard you often enough, f’ing leeches this and damnable leeches that. I’ve sometimes thought you might be talking about the other inhabitants of this building to be honest.”

 

He glanced up at her reflection in the mirror and made eye contact. This probably wasn’t the way West had wanted the conversation to steer. Not realizing that he talked to himself made it difficult for him to respond to Miss Osterman. He could have been talking about the residents of the building, but he estimated that playing to that line of thought wouldn’t be the most endearing tact to take.

“I’ve got some scars on my legs, they bother me sometimes,” West lied, “I had a nasty run in with some leeches while I was river swimming upstate a few years back.”

Miss Osterman smiled a thin lipped acknowledgment and nodded, “I suppose Mr Yestler, it’s possible that your neighbors have you all wrong. I’d be the first to admit, I am always worried when I hear you talking to yourself.”

West sensed that this honest admission from Miss Osterman deserved to be answered with an equal show of trust. He grimaced and let his eyes fall to his lap, “Miss Osterman, until just now, I hadn’t realized that I talked to myself.”

She pulled the scissors away from his hair and let her arms fall to her sides as she started to laugh warmly, “Well, it happens to the best of us, I wouldn’t worry about it. You can call me Charlene by the way.”

West smiled weakly, “and you can call me West.”

“Hippie parents?” she asked, innocently.

“My parents were scientists, foreign; for them, West was just a word that moved the air pleasantly.”

“So there is some foreign blood in you?” Charlene asked, reassuring herself that this was at least some validation of her suspicion that Mr Yestler was potential terrorist material. He smiled at her, brow furrowed slightly, “I’m not honestly sure what kind of blood runs through me anymore. I suppose it could be foreign.”

She had started cutting in layers at the back of his head, graduated towards a curve that described the arch of his neck, “Well I suppose whatever blood it is, it’s lived in America long enough to be considered native now?”

West laughed gently and nodded.

She pulled her hands away from the back of his head quickly, “Oh I’m sorry, did that hurt?”

West was confused by Charlene’s question; unable to tell what she had done that might have hurt him.

“No, no bother, don’t worry about me.” West knew that she couldn’t have cut him; he suspected she’d tugged his hair with her scissors. She looked calm, her mouth flickering into a smile as she returned to her work.

Charlene leaned in closer as she cut the hair around his neckline, “Were you born here?”

“No, I was born in a town called Allim.”

“Is that near Texas? California? I haven’t heard of it.”

West smiled broadly, “It’s not in America.”

Charlene stepped away from him, apparently ignoring his last statement. She went over to the sturdy dresser and picked up a small hand mirror and, bringing it back over to the seat, she moved the mirror around behind West so he could see how she had cut the back of his hair. West nodded approvingly as he glanced in the mirror at the smaller reflection. He didn’t care about how his hair looked of course; he cared about the reveal, the casting off of a long worn disguise.

Charlene watched his eyes closely, looking for approval. There was something odd about those eyes. She couldn’t put her finger on it, so she put the mirror down carefully on the dresser and continued with the cut.

“Have you lived in New York long?” she asked, again pulling sections of hair into uneven lines between her middle and index fingers, cutting a neat line and letting the hair fall back into place.

“I suppose. It depends on your frame of reference really.”

She pursed her lips as she glanced at his reflection, “Hmm, well let’s see … I bought one of the first pressings of the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan on the day I moved into this apartment on my own. Do you know Dylan?”

West laughed gently, “Not personally, but I do listen to him.”

Charlene nodded and smiled, “Well, I was 18 years old and that record was ‘bout all I played for the first few months after my mother, god bless her soul, passed away.”

“Well by that frame of reference, I suppose I’ve lived in New York a good while.” He glanced up at Charlene to gauge her reaction. She was squinting at his scalp, teasing and cutting his hair. She pouted and squinted as she cut a couple of layered sections on the top of his head. “So where else have you lived in the city?” she asked, letting him know that she had been paying attention to what he said.

“Since I moved to New York, I’ve mostly lived close by here. I had an apartment in East Harlem for a couple of years.”

Charlene nodded, “Where else have you lived?”

West closed his eyes and allowed his memories back in. “I … I … I’ve,” he stammered, unable to focus the flow of time in his mind’s eye. He settled on a noncommittal answer, “I’ve seen the world you could say.”

Charlene Osterman picked up a fine haired brush from the dresser and brushed hairs from around West’s neckline. “You may have traveled the world, but I’d wager it’s a while since you’ve had such a smart haircut.” She laughed gently to herself and picked up the hand mirror again to show West her handiwork. West looked at his reflection earnestly and nodded approval.

“Now,” Charlene tugged gently at his thick beard with her left hand as she reached over and put the mirror to rest again, “Time to take care of this.”

 

West watched Charlene as she busied herself in her kitchenette, boiling water on the stove, filling a bowl and a jug, adding a little cold water from the tap. She brought the jug over first, then the bowl, placing them with ceremony on the dresser beside her, and then returning to the side table where she had kept the scissors and razor, she pulled out a long length of leather with a handle on the end and a small stone. She placed these too on the dresser before she walked awkwardly out of the room and returned moments later with a short white towel over one arm and a white bar of soap and a brush in her other hand. Placing these on the dresser beside the bowl of steaming water, she soaked the towel in the bowl and came and stood behind West. “This is hot mind you!” she told West before she pulled his head back gently and placed the damp and steaming hot towel over his face.

Charlene soaped the water in the jug, rubbing the white bar between her hands in the hot water, then, having wet the small stone, she went about honing the blade of the razor, holding the razor by the shank with her index finger pointing down the spine, moving the blade carefully over the wet stone. The blade was already well honed, but she liked to be sure she was working with the optimum conditions. It had been a while since she had performed a straight razor shave on someone else, even longer since she had performed one on herself, her joint pains making it almost impossible to reach her legs, never mind taking the risk of using such a dangerous implement on them.

She picked up the long strip of leather and taking a metal hoop which was attached to one end, she hooked it over the handle of the dresser’s central drawer. She held the wooden handle which was attached to the other end of the leather strip and she pulled the material tight and applying light pressure, she ran the blade back and forth with the sharp edge trailing, stropping the blade. Charlene always found pleasure in the small details of such tasks.

She picked up the brush and the bar of soap from the dresser, submerging both in the jug of already soapy water and she whisked the brush back and forth on the soap, working up a good foamy lather. Placing the soap back on the dresser, she held the brush in her right hand and as she stepped behind West, she pulled the still warm towel off his face. She was surprised to see that he still looked quite pale, expecting that he would be rosy cheeked after the steaming towel. She placed her left hand on his forehead and tilted his head back gently, using the brush in her right hand to work up the foam around his facial hair, cheeks and neck, then she returned the brush to its place on the dresser and picked up her gleaming razor.

West allowed his head to fall forwards slightly, watching Charlene’s face as she stepped up behind him with the razor. That delicate hand, thumb on the blade, fingers trembling slightly, she brought the blade to the right side of his face, angling it and drawing it in a smooth motion towards the center of his cheek, then with a second stroke she moved the blade from his cheek to the side of his mouth. He watched her eyes tentatively as she brought the blade down beside the right side of his chin and moved it slowly out towards his ear, following the line of his jaw. West’s eyes traced the gentle curve and slight hollow of Charlene Osterman’s cheeks, then he gazed at the corners of her mouth as she stroked three lines with the blade down the right side of his neck, all the while holding his skin gently taught with her free hand.

There … there it was, that gentle twist and spasm of the skin at the corner of Charlene’s mouth. That was what West had been watching … waiting for. The blade dropped to the floor with a clatter and West closed his eyes and allowed himself to wade in the half silent reverberations caused by that razor shaped penny hitting the floor. He felt Charlene’s hands fall to his shoulders and start to slide down to his chest. He gripped her hands gently, but firmly, climbing quickly out of the chair as he ducked from between the hollow of Charlene’s crossed arms, dancing quickly behind her and catching her before she fell completely into unconsciousness.

[]CHAPTER THREE

Questions

 

Upon his return to Washington, David Beach had been called in for questioning several times. In the first week, he had felt almost exhilarated to be the center of attention; however, as the weeks wore on, it became tedious, the same questions coming up again and again.

“Did you receive any unusual phone calls in the week leading up to the March 10th?”

David’s heavy eyes rolled as he sighed a world weary response, “No, I’ve explained this already, I was on a week-long vacation with my daughter. The only phone call I received during the entire week, other than from my sister, was from Undersecretary Carlton.”

Sitting across from David, the agent ran his fingertips across the smooth steel surface of the table before reaching for his glass of water. He took a slow sip from the glass before continuing with his questions, “Please Mr Beach, I understand your frustration. We are doing everything we can to build a thoroughly accurate time-line for everybody surrounding the key figures of the administration.“

David chewed a fingernail idly, annoyed by a snag that kept catching on the fabric of his sports jacket, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to come off as frustrated, it just feels like you guys should have some of this straight by now.”

Agent McMahon didn’t like David Beach much. He was pulling out every trick in his limited repertoire of people handling skills to try to demonstrate to Mr Beach that they should be friends in this matter, but when he got right down to it, McMahon didn’t trust anyone now, and it showed. He hadn’t offered David any water, but that wasn’t tactical, that was just McMahon. He knew Mr Beach was itching to get out of this interview and pick his daughter up from the crèche facilities down the hall, and he contemplated needling him about this. It was probably a cheap shot, but he wondered if perhaps cheap would steer this conversation in the right direction.

 

Thinking better of this, McMahon flicked the side of his glass of water a couple of times before continuing, “Mr Beach, we have many notes on what you have told us about your vacation week. The problem we have is that something isn’t quite tallying up between your statements, and the statements we have collated from other members of the administration.”

David Beach leaned slowly towards the table, resting his elbows on the hard surface and cupping his head in his hands, “You’ve checked my phone records?”
“Yes.”

“And they corroborate with what I’ve told you?”

“Yes Mr Beach, your phone records do.”

“So what … what’s the problem here?” David felt like there was something that he was missing, some malevolent undertone to the line of questioning.

“It’s a matter of timing Mr Beach. As I said, we are trying to build an accurate time line and your conversation with Undersecretary Carlton brings into question statements made by several other members of the Department of Defense.”

 

Agent McMahon leaned back in his chair and stroked his chin, enjoying the rough texture of his two-day stubble. He wasn’t sure if he’d said too much. If this information put David Beach on his back foot, he was doing a good job of hiding the fact. On the other hand, if Mr Beach’s apparent lack of interest was genuine then McMahon really did have a problem.

“Mr Beach, I’m sure you’re eager to get back to Sophie …”

“Stephanie.” David corrected him, jaw tightening slightly as he spoke.

“Sorry, of course, Stephanie … If you could just help me by clarifying for me one more time, the exact nature of the conversation that took place between you and Undersecretary Carlton, I’ll let you get back to Stephanie.”

The two men sat looking at each other across the table, both of them irascible and tired. David really did just want to get out of that room and pick up Stephanie. He closed his eyes and tried to remember the exact wording of his conversation with Carlton. He couldn’t erase the image of McMahon’s sallow face, his designer stubble, his gelled blond hair, and that image made it exceedingly hard to concentrate on a conversation that took place weeks ago.

“Undersecretary Carlton wanted me to talk to someone at a company called Arctum Industries, based out of New York. There had been some concerns raised about security in that building for some reason. He told me that I needed to be discrete in my line of questioning with anyone I spoke to at Arctum Industries, but that ultimately he needed me to get hold of schematics for the building.”

McMahon frowned and picked up his glass of water again. He sipped, then returned the glass to the table, and leaned forward, bringing his chin close to the table to catch David Beach’s eye line.

“Are you aware Mr Beach, that on the afternoon of March sixth, when you apparently received this call about Arctum Industries from Undersecretary Carlton, that Undersecretary Carlton was in a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2pm to 4pm?”

David Beach lifted his head from his hands slowly.

McMahon continued, slow words, dripping maliciously from thin lips, “This information has been verified by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Undersecretary of Defense included. Everybody present at that meeting on the sixth has confirmed, time and again, that no phone calls were made during the entire two hours. No one left the room. Your phone records confirm that there was a phone call, but beyond that …”

David Beach threw up a little in his mouth and then chuckled slightly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He recalled his protestations to Stephanie that morning and the pains he went to, trying to explain to Stephanie that he didn’t want to have breakfast because it always gave him indigestion.

“Something funny Mr Beach?”

David shook his head and shrugged, “I was just thinking about breakfast.”

Agent McMahon tried to blink away his frustration. He was really starting to hate David Beach.

 

A tight band of pain around her chest woke Charlene Osterman, but the pain had subsided by the time she opened her eyes. As she tried to adjust to the light, she stared up at the sculpted plaster coving around the ceiling of her apartment, struggling to remember how she had come to be lying down on her couch. She felt something brush her hand and she reacted with a start, body tensing, pulse racing, she found she was unable to move her head because her neck was aching.

“Charlene, don’t panic.”

The voice came from somewhere beside her, soft and reassuring. Several slow breaths later, she recalled the voice, and what she had been doing before she had passed out. She tried to move, “Mr Yestler, I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me.” His hand on her forearm was comforting rather than restrictive, “Charlene, you don’t have to get up, take your time.”

Something had happened, something more than merely passing out, and although she was unable to put her finger on what exactly it was, she felt her eyes filling with tears. She was overwhelmed by a strange mix of emotions; fear, loss, melancholy, confusion, all completely uprooted from context. Her breathing shuddered and she rested her eyelids focusing on how heavy they felt, eyes tracing the subtle wash of shadows. “Did I finish your haircut at least?” she muttered shakily, still aware of West’s hand on her arm.

She felt his weight shift, the couch cushion moving under her as he knelt. His voice was close to her ear now, still comforting, still firm, “Charlene, before you look at me, think about what it was that you saw before you collapsed.”

She wanted to disobey his request, her instincts told her that she should look at him now. She opened her eyes, but it was still uncomfortable to move her head, and she quickly gave up, closing her eyes again as she tried to remember. There, in dark recollection, she could see it, see the reason she had lost control, and in seeing, the fear returned, her throat closing up, nostrils flaring, brow furrowing. She lifted her left hand from its resting place on her lap, fingertips touching her lips as her eyes teared up again involuntarily. She could see him, picture him sitting in the chair, the mirror in front of him. There, in the mirror, not Mr Yestler, not the stranger from down the hall. She knew the man who sat in the chair, or else she had known him, in recollection, in another life, too long ago.

She bit her lip, her fingers touching her cheek, she thought carefully before she spoke, “Mr Yestler, on the side table by the television, there’s a telephone there … do you see it?”

“Yes.”

Now that she understood what was happening, she was calm and collected, “Mr Yestler, I need you to call an ambulance for me, or my doctor; his number is written in the back of the little notebook by the phone.”

“Charlene, you’ll be okay, just take some time to breathe, relax and let your body do its job.”

“No.” She spoke clearly, her eyes opening wide, staring at the ceiling, “I am unwell, and I am in need of medical assistance.”

It was impossible but she knew him, this ‘Mr Yestler,’ more completely than she had known any other man. She knew, and the agony she felt was so palpable that her breathing slowed and her chest ached again. When he refused to fetch the phone a second time, it only went to confirm her suspicion.

The man’s name came to her easily. Anthony Statham. He had been a dear friend to her, but that had been nearly sixty years ago now. This was dementia, she was certain of it. She knew she must be talking to someone else, merely imagining that she was talking to Anthony Statham. She licked her lips, trying to remember the name of the help who brought her meals and shopping when she was out of sorts. Janice? Patrice? She couldn’t recall, and that was as sure a sign as any. She was probably talking nonsense to the poor girl.

Oh God, she thought to herself, what was the hair cut? What had she actually been doing? Janice, or Patrice, or whatever her name was, would never ask her for a haircut. Her fingers formed a barrier over her lips now, her hands shaking; she knew she had to stop herself from talking.

“Charlene, you know who I am. You saw my face; you saw enough of me to know for sure.”

She closed her eyes and gulped back tears, her head filling with the white noise of silent screaming. She had feared this moment for some time now, probably longer than she cared to admit. When she had turned sixty, she had started to be concerned about her memory, although Doctor Sawyers had frequently reassured her that everyone experiences forgetfulness. He had even joked with her about it the last time she’d mentioned it, “Miss Osterman, you needn’t worry every time you forget where you’ve put your keys. Come back to me when you’ve forgotten what keys are for.” Of course, she’d thought he was impertinent, and had told him as much. She’d always said he had dreadful bedside manner.

She felt her arm lifted from the couch, lifted by the ghost of a dear friend, and she shivered as he kissed the soft skin of the back of her hand. She swallowed uncomfortably, breathless and nauseous, she could feel her pulse in the veins of her neck.

“Charlene, open your eyes for me.” The request was soft, not threatening, but she didn’t know how to open her eyes any more. She felt as if she would never stop crying if she opened them. Her lips parted and she heard her own pathetic gasp and moan, her voice cracking as she tried to speak, “You … You …”

The room was dark, the light from the window dull and sunless, illuminating only in subdued tones and cutting dark swathes where it was unable to reach. She opened her eyes slowly and he was there, his face picked out of shadow cut contours. “Anthony?” She spoke the word as an admission of insanity, surrendering the possibility that she might be talking to her care worker. It didn’t matter anymore. She could only see his face. If this was dementia, her mind had conjured the most vividly real and heartbreaking memory to taunt her.

She stared at him, reconciling the details of his features against her memory of Anthony Statham, and she couldn’t discern any flaws in his likeness. It was him, down to the soft crow’s feet, the Prussian blue irises of his eyes, the slight cleft of his chin, the thick eyebrows.

West looked at the faded, but ornate fabric of Charlene Osterman’s couch and started tracing the pattern of floral swirls with the finger of his free hand, trying to imagine what the fabric felt like, trying to remember the softness of fabric. He didn’t want to look at Charlene’s face as she went through this agony. It was a necessary pain, he knew. He would be forgiven for it. Probably. He glanced about the apartment and noticed a large bromeliad on a plant stand, flowering with a beautiful deep purple cup.

“You can keep a plant alive now,” he whispered, “that’s a miracle in itself.”

Charlene pulled her hand away from West and covered her face with it.

West stroked his fingers against Charlene’s pearl white hair, wishing that he could feel it, “I know this doesn’t make sense to you Charlene. I understand that you’re frightened. I’m not going to hurt you and I’m not going to leave your side until you calm down and talk to me.”

Charlene lay trembling, trying to muster the courage to look again at the man who knelt beside her.

She turned her head slowly, staring into his deep blue eyes, those eyes she hadn’t recognized when he had come to her door, eyes that she had sworn to herself a thousand times she would never forget.

“Anthony?” she tried the word again, tentatively, unsure how much pain it would cause to say that name.

The man shook his head. “Charlene, my name is West Yestler, although you have known me, and the name you knew me by was Anthony Statham.”

Her chest caught again and a series of shallow breaths gave way to gentle sobs as she pressed the back of her left hand against her eyes. She fought against her frailty and self-pity, trying her best to sound firm and certain, “Anthony Statham was the kindest man I have ever known, and he would never have stooped to playing evil tricks on old women.”

West laughed gently, not mocking, “Charlene Osterman was one of the bravest women I have known in many years, and she would never deign to describe anything in such trivial absolutes as good or evil.”

She glared at him firing back quickly, “People change!”

West glanced around the apartment again before looking back to her, “Seldom do people change. You have learned to nurture plants though.”

Charlene covered her mouth with her hand, unsure how to respond, not because she was disarmed by West’s humor, but because of the specific nature of his taunt. During the brief period in which he had filled her life, her inability to keep even weeds alive had been a running joke between Anthony and herself.

She looked at him carefully, observing the minutia of detail; the strong line of his jaw, the smooth, blemish free skin of his cheeks, the short sandy blond hair; every aspect of his being as she remembered him. After so many lonely and bewildering years, the only man Charlene Osterman had ever loved was kneeling beside her. She wondered how the mysteries of the universe could unravel so quickly and cruelly around her.

 

Stephanie Beach wasn’t happy. She’d spent an hour in the crèche playing with a despondent five-year-old girl named Jennifer. As Stephanie saw it, Jennifer’s problem was that she didn’t seem to understand how to play with any of the toys, as if she didn’t have any idea how to react to them. Stephanie had resigned herself to acting out improvised movie scenes with broken action figures on her own for half an hour and her reward for this? She was now strapped in to the booster seat of the Toyota and her father appeared to be harboring the expectation that she would just keep quiet about it.

“I’m on the phone honey, just a minute okay? John, yeah, John it’s David can you hear me?”

The voice on the other end of the line was deep and commanding, “David, I’m not supposed to be talking to you, do you understand?”

David tried again to motion for Stephanie to be quiet, glancing over his shoulder sternly as she tried to kick the back of his seat.

“John, I don’t understand what’s going on. They seem to think I’m involved in all of this somehow.”

There was silence on the other end of the line. David didn’t know if Undersecretary Carlton was being maliciously evasive or just cautious.

“John, do you know what the hell they’re talking about?”

The quick inhale of breath from the back seat reminded David that he wasn’t supposed to use the “H” word in front of Stephanie and he mouthed a silent apology to her through the rear view mirror. The voice of John Carlton blared over the car’s speakers, “David, I’m getting a lot of flak about this already. You better be damned sure about who you talk to from now on, okay?”

“John, they’re saying you didn’t even call me while I was on vacation.”

“David, I’m not getting into this with you. What you discuss with the FBI is your business, and it’s sure as shit going to stay that way.”

Stephanie drew in breath again, feigning shock at the mild curse. She would be sure to guilt her father about his failure to protect her delicate ears from the harsh world, he certainly deserved such chastisement … crèche indeed. Chastisement. She ran the word through her teeth, tongue, pursed lips, and back to her tongue, the silent incantation curling the corners of her mouth. She had been struggling through Les Misérables since seeing the movie (she would tell anyone who cared to listen that she was reading it, although mostly, she jumped about the tome, battling with sentences here and there.) Chastisement was a heavy word, with heavy meaning, and she loved it, at least this week. She patted her back pack contentedly, feeling the edge of the thick volume there, her mind wondering off to the slightly violent fantasy of clobbering that listless waif back at the creche with the full force of French literature.

Back in the car, safe from Stephanie’s flights of fancy, but facing up to the harsher realities, David’s fingers gripped the steering wheel tightly, “John, I’m heading into the office, I need to talk to you about this.”

Undersecretary Carlton coughed to clear his throat, “David, you can’t come into the office. You need to lawyer up, and make sure whoever you get is damned good. Make no mistake John, your name is shit around these hallowed halls right now. You have royally screwed the pooch on this. Say Hi to Stephanie for me” Stephanie managed to shriek “Hi Mr Carlton.” From the back seat before the line clicked dead.

 

West was surprised when Charlene finally sat up and took her hands away from her face. The skin around her eyes was a little red and puffy, but at least she hadn’t been wearing makeup so there were no spider scrawl runs of mascara. He opened his mouth to speak, but Charlene cut him off, holding up a finger to silence him. He nodded slowly and sat back, leaning against a coffee table which occupied the space on the floor behind him.

Charlene wasn’t sure how long it had taken to muster the courage to sit up, and now that she found herself facing him, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to say to West. Charlene had often pondered on the possibility of this event. No, not this, not facing some unworldly doppelgänger of a man she once knew. She had thought about what she would say to the man she knew as Anthony Statham if she ever saw him again.

She had been best friends with Anthony Statham for a year, as close as she had ever been to a man, although their relationship had never broken into the realms of true physical intimacy. Anthony had been patient in his love, understanding of her timidity and naivety and Charlene could think of no better way of spending her life than in his company. Then, a month before her mother passed away, Anthony was gone from her life without a single word of explanation. He had no family that she knew of, no friends she could talk to about what had happened. She had been inconsolable at the time, but the sense of anger and loss was soon swallowed by the emotional turmoil of her mother’s passing.

When she’d thought of Anthony Statham over the years, she had imagined the anger she would unleash, the hurt and indignation she would vent at him for leaving her, for not understanding that she would be good enough, better than good enough … too good for him. She had always felt so cheated, robbed of her opportunity to hate him to his face, and instead she had been forced to spend her years wondering what she had done, how she had managed to turn away someone she loved so much.

“Who are you really?” when the words finally came, they were effortless and they did manage to evince a tempered disdain.

“I have gone by many names throughout my life, although the name I was born to was West Yestler and that is the name I hold dearest.”

Charlene closed her eyes and shook her head slowly, already frustrated by the conversation. She felt she had lived long enough to deserve frank discourse, not half-truths or lies of omission. She opened her eyes and glared at West, trying to push past her own frailty to portray a mask of no nonsense intimidation, “Your name tells me nothing Mr Yestler, except that you’re a canny liar. You know what I mean; who are you really?”

West touched his fingertips to his chin, wishing momentarily that he could remember the feeling of his skin. He had wanted this confrontation for a long time, to be able to reveal himself to Charlene Osterman completely. He looked around her apartment and drew comfort from her collections of trivialities and treasures.

“Charlene, you were a child when you met Anthony Statham and he was a man who loved you, but he was also a man who existed merely as a means to an end. Anthony Statham was a persona I adopted to establish contact with several people in this great city and that should have been the end of him. It was your fault, at least partially your fault that Anthony Statham became more than a figment of my lonely imagination.”

Charlene’s body rocked gently, a slow and throaty laugh building into a coarse cackle, “Impossible. I knew Anthony Statham nearly seventy years ago; how in the name of all that is holy do you expect me to believe …” she laughed harder and the laughter subsided into a fit of coughing, which she struggled to control. She could barely continue, “How the heck …” she coughed again, “How am I supposed to believe that you are that same man? You’re barely a man yourself.”

She was starting to feel comfortable with her thoughts, confident that this was not the onset of the end of her mind. She allowed her thoughts to stretch their legs and race again, trying to fathom how this man had worked such a devious trick, or better yet, why? What could anyone possibly stand to gain from all of this? She had nothing of worth, no great sum of hoarded wealth to pass on to anyone, and that thought puzzled her more than anything.

West smiled gently and nodded, “Let me ask you a question Charlene. You were coughing just now. When was the last time you coughed without your chest being wracked with pain?”

Charlene eased herself back on the couch, brushing the cushions with her fingers. She glanced at her lap as she thought about the odd question. She’d suffered from angina for the past year, that much was true. She tried to remember if it always hurt when she coughed. She glanced over to a small table in the corner of the room, a table on which sat a small jewelry chest in which she kept her nitroglycerin and beta blockers. She hadn’t taken her medication today, but usually it didn’t hurt so much to cough when she had taken nitroglycerin. She answered honestly, “It doesn’t always hurt.”

West nodded, “You were coughing pretty bad just now, did it hurt at all?”

“No.”

West allowed her time to think about this before he continued.

“I need you to relax Charlene, take some deep breaths and find calm within yourself.”

She squinted and leaned towards him, “I’m not into any of that meditation crap Mr Yestler. Say what you’ve got to say and be done with it; I’m too old for this verbal dance.”

West stood up and came to sit next to her on the couch, slow and careful, as if he was approaching a beast of the wild. Charlene moved slightly to accommodate him and she arched her head away from him disdainfully, which gave him cause to chuckle gently. “Charlene, I’m not going to hurt you, don’t worry.” He took her hands in his and held them on her lap.

“Charlene, if you were to drink a glass of water right now with some salt in it, you would be sick, a little sicker than you would usually expect. There is nothing wrong with you, you are not ill, however, when you woke just now, you woke because some small change was working itself in you.”

Charlene tried to back away further on the couch, pressing up against an embroidered cushion behind her, “What kind of a change? What are you talking about?” Her fear was obvious and West kept hold of her hands gently, rubbing the tendons of her fingers in what he hoped were comforting circles.

“The first change would be in your heart. You have had an obstruction that causes angina?”

She nodded nervously in response and West continued, “The first change in you would be in the coronary arteries, where the blockage would be loosened. Within the last few minutes, the muscles of your heart will have changed, almost imperceptibly to you, but you will notice already that your pain has subsided.” She pulled her hands away from him and tucked them firmly together on her lap. She didn’t like what he was saying, and she wished there was a way she could back out of this altogether, get him to leave her apartment and forget any of this had happened.

West sighed, shoulders heaving a little, prickled by her continued mistrust of him. “Charlene, you need to understand right now that any change that has happened to you will do you no harm. If you were to drink a glass of salty water, you would be sick and your life would continue as before, except you would probably not suffer any more from chest pains.”

“Doctor Sawyers says I’ll always have chest pains! What have you done? What have you given me?” She asked.

 

“Damned leeches!” Hannah Beach threw a half folded letter on the kitchen table as she heard the front door close. She glanced at her niece, grimacing and covering her mouth apologetically, “I’m sorry Spiff … Please don’t ever talk like your Aunt Han okay?”

Stephanie frowned. She had been so excited to embarrass her father, regaling her Aunt with stories of how depraved, and callous he was, and now she was more frustrated that her Aunt’s slip up had completely taken the wind out of her sails. She threw her little back pack on the floor in contempt, the weight of Jean Valjean’s misery thudding in satisfying syncopation with her own huff. She was sure if she pictured poor Courgette’s plight, she’d be able to milk this situation and squeeze out a tear (Cosette … she knew, but she enjoyed her father’s exasperation every time he had to correct her.) When no tear came, she tried humming a line of Castle on a Cloud, before conceding defeat, growling at her Aunt, and charging towards her, hugging her tightly around her waist.

David smiled at Hannah, shrugging to signal his confusion at Stephanie’s behavior, “So, who’s bleeding you dry now?”

Hannah ran her fingers through Stephanie’s hair, then shook her gently by the shoulders, rocking her in time to her words, “Oh, it’s just the mean old Po-Pos.”

Stephanie looked up at her aunt, a slightly vindictive glint in her eyes, “You got another speeding ticket?”

Hannah pushed Stephanie away playfully, “Gah, creep, get away from me. I knew I didn’t like you.” Stephanie’s little hands flung about Hannah’s back again, “You lurve me aunt Hannah. You buy me presents, and you take me to the library, and you buy me ice cream, and you take me to movies …”

“Creep, creep, creep, creep, creep.” Hannah rocked side to side in a mock attempt at shaking off her niece. Looking up, Hannah noticed that David was pinching the bridge of his nose with his right hand, his left arm folded across his chest. She wasn’t fantastic with body language, but right now, she was pretty sure that David was about to break down. She turned Stephanie about, and launched her towards the stormy seas, “Go hug your daddy, creep. He looks like he needs it.”

David laughed feebly, but then the tears did come. Stephanie stood between the two adults, glancing back and forth between them, tears starting to well in her eyes, that heady mixture of confusion and empathy building quickly. Hannah stooped close to her, kneeling down, “You know what creep? Daddy will be fine. Go watch some T.V while we talk about miserable grown up stuff, okay?”

Stephanie looked over her shoulder at her father, who forced a smile and nodded, shooing her away with his right hand, his left arm still wound tight over his chest. Stephanie understood the social contract enough to know that she had been released from her obligation.

As he watched Stephanie walk towards the den, David’s tears started to flow more freely. Hannah walked towards the island in the kitchen, and leaned the small of her back against the counter. She patted the stool next to her, “Get over here David. Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad.” She watched as his shoulders shuddered when he inhaled … bad sign, “Okay, it’s that bad … is it the crap with Tiernan again?” He walked over and took his place on the stool beside her, resting his forehead on the cool slate-topped counter.

“Oh god Hannah. I’m fucked. I’m really fucked.” He sobbed.

Hannah bit her lip and glanced towards the den, patting her brothers back tentatively, “What happened?”

He sucked up the drool that was starting to pool at the corners of his mouth, “They think I’m lying! Hannah, it really sounds like they think I’m involved in this.”

She was quietly glad that he wasn’t looking at her. She was nervous, possibly even scared for her brother, but she couldn’t keep herself from smiling, “David, chill.” She laughed, embarrassed at her own ineptitude, “Seriously though … if they really thought you were involved in the assassination of a president, you’d be hog tied and hooded by now.”

David laughed, and inhaled awkwardly, “Shut up Han, they don’t do that.”

“Oh, I’ve seen the photos”

David sat up and glared at her seriously, “I can’t go back to work.”

Hannah shook her head and rolled her eyes, “Of course you can … get over yourself.”

David’s mouth fell open, “Get over myself? You think this is me being embarrassed to show my face at work? No Han, I mean, I literally can’t go back to work … Carlton told me I couldn’t even go to the office to talk to him.”

Hannah laughed, her hands covering her mouth, “Shut up!”

No answer.

“Shut up!”

Still no answer.

“Oh god David … you’re Lee Harvey Oswald.”

He stood up quickly and walked over to the window facing the back yard, hands shaking as he filled the carafe with water from the tap. Coffee would help. Coffee always helped.

“Oh come on David, it’s funny because it’s true.”

David slumped to the floor with his back against the kitchen cabinets, sobbing, breaths coming in short, ragged, heaving bursts. Hannah finished her brother’s half-assed attempt at setting off the coffee, then slumped to the floor beside him. Sure, this was a big deal, but she felt like David could at least try to make it easy for her to sympathize with him. He was such a pussy sometimes, which was fine … he’d had to deal with a lot of stuff growing up that she had been too young to even acknowledge rationally, but she’d told him, so many times that she felt cold, and kind of nauseated when men cried near her.

“Hell David, what’s the worst that could happen?”

David’s sobbing ceased momentarily, and he lifted his chin from its resting place on his knees, “ … fucking shit, I don’t know Han. Maybe, life in prison … Death penalty?”

Hannah clamped her teeth around her knuckle, and took a slow breath to steady her nerves, “So, I’ll get to keep Spiff, and she’ll grow up a little bit maladjusted, which, let’s be honest, was definitely on the cards for her anyway.”

David started laughing, but this seemed to have little effect on the flow of tears, so Hannah dug deep, and draped an arm over her brother’s shoulder. “Seriously Dave, this is only one of the worst things imaginable, definitely not the worst. You’re allowed to feel a little sorry for yourself, but now you need to pick your sorry ass up off the floor, and put on a happy show for Stephanie, or I swear to god, I’m going to beat the living shit out of you.”

With the sound of tiny feet slapping on the hardwood floor of the kitchen, Stephanie came running from the den with her hands behind her back, “Aunt Han, what’s a sphincta?”

David’s smile was crooked, but presentable, “What are you watching Stephanie?”

“Wayne’s world.”

David laughed a little and coughed, “A sphincter is what stops you from drowning in the bath when you let one go.”

Hannah slapped the back of David’s head playfully, “Don’t listen to your dad Spiff. Let’s look it up okay?” Hannah pushed with her feet, sliding her back up the cabinet, and took Stephanie’s hand as she walked her back into the den.

David got up off the floor, and poured himself a coffee. He was glad to be home. He looked out at the back yard and saw the twisted limping swing-set that longed for attention. He would fix it. Manual labor would take his mind off everything.

 

West stood up from the couch, glancing around the room, as if one of the porcelain bulls, or china fishermen might have the answer to Charlene’s question. What had he given her? Charlene’s fingers stroked the skin of her neck carefully, tracing a tentative line towards her chest. He knew that she must be feeling better, and in the long run, that would be all that would matter to her. He looked back at the porcelain bull, before finally deciding that so far as demonstrative props went, this would have to suffice.

“Charlene …” He picked up the bull, tossing it from hand to hand before holding it out in front of him, “The cow’s stomach has four chambers, the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and the abomasum.”

Charlene glared at him, “Put that down, I’ve had that forty years son.”

West smirking, quickly obeyed, placing the cow back where he found it, amongst the menagerie of ornate fish, and fowl. Charlene continued, “I’ll tell you what, if all my aches and pains can be fixed with cow stomach, and I’ve been suffering all this time, there’ll be hell to pay, and that’s all I’ve got to say on the matter.”

West waved his hand in the air, clearing the imaginary slate, “No, I’m sorry … What I was trying to say,”

“Say it man, there is no try.”

“The cow stomach.”

Charlene slapped her open hand on the couch beside her, “Spit it out. I’m eighty-five years old you know; I’ll be in my bloody grave by the time you’re done.”

West licked his lips involuntarily, “Leeches.”

“Leeches?”

West nodded, “I’ve given you leeches.”

Charlene slumped back into the comfort of the couch, “Waste of time lad. I’ve had ‘em before, and they did nothing for me …” her eyes narrowed as a thought seemed to occur to her, “Here, you say you gave me them? You mean you put one in my mouth?”

West shook his head vehemently, “No, I simply placed one on your chest.”

Charlene’s mouth contorted into a disgusted frown as she tried to look down at her chest, wiping the skin feverishly with her hands. “Where’s it now?”

West pointed a finger at her, “These particular leeches have an ability to pass through skin and muscle fibers with great ease, and they form a strong neural bond with their hosts.”

“You mean to tell me that there is one of those … those things in me?”

West nodded, “One single leech, yes.” Charlene moved her hand over her skin, trying to feel where the creature might be inside her. She was horrified, panicked at the very thought of such a creature moving in her, sucking her blood from within. “Why would you do this to me?” she asked, fear rising in her voice, “Will I die? Is that what you want?”

West looked sympathetic, almost condescendingly so. He had known that she might react like this, and he had been prepared for the risk, ready to reason with her, and explain what was happening. Still, he was surprised that Charlene would imagine he was trying to kill her.

Charlene had started to scratch at the skin of her chest, imagining that she could feel the thing moving, feel it destroying her insides. West moved to her quickly, pulling her hands down and holding them still, “Listen to me,” she struggled to release herself from his grip, “Charlene, just listen before you do yourself an injury …” She tried to spit in his face, but her mouth was too dry, her throat contracting with fear.

“Charlene, the creature can be killed, and it would do you no harm if it died right now. A single glass of salt water would drive it out of you, but I need you to listen to me first.”

She rounded her eyes on him furiously, “You’re a pig. You’re a monster, that’s what you are. How could you do this to an old lady?” She redoubled her effort to free herself from his grip, but his hands didn’t give at all.

“Charlene stop, now.” He shouted calmly. She stopped still, clearly terrified of what he would do to her if she didn’t stop struggling.

“Charlene, I will never hurt you. If you refuse to listen to me, and insist that we end this right now, I’ll understand and I will accept. I ask only that you allow me to explain myself before you judge.”

She leaned forwards, “Oh, you’re a big man, threatening an old lady. ‘Ooh, I’ll never hurt you’ you say, but you know that mentioning hurt puts the thought in my head. I know reverse psychology when I hear it.”

West heaved a sigh of frustration, and decided to forge ahead, disregarding Charlene’s fear.

“The creature inside you has an incredible ability to regenerate its own cells. Not only that, it has the ability to regenerate the cells of its host. It wants nothing more than for its host to be in perfect health, for its host to be the perfect body in which to be transported around the world.”

Charlene was stony faced, but West thought he might be getting through to her. He smiled, “Want may seem too strong a word to attribute to such a creature and perhaps it is, but these leeches do tap into their host’s nervous system and they know intuitively what they must do to keep their host healthy.”

He watched her eyes, watched the subtle changes in her attitude. Her body wasn’t the tightly wound spring of tension that it had been moments ago. She was trying to understand what he told her, fighting some internal battle with her thoughts.

“Before you woke, I placed a single leech on your chest. The first thing it did was to anesthetize your skin so it wouldn’t hurt you as it cut its little entry wound. You didn’t wake up at that point. You probably woke when the creature had found its bearings within your body and realized that the greatest risk to its host’s life was a cardiovascular blockage. If left to its own devices the creature will move through you, traveling through muscle fibers, under skin tissue, even through vital organs as it sees fit, and everywhere it goes, it will try to make you the perfect host. One leech though, there is only so much it can do.”

Charlene frowned, leaning towards him slightly, “What do you mean?”

“I simply mean that if you were to be seriously hurt right now, mortally wounded, you would die. You could sustain a wound in the direct vicinity of the leech and it would do its best to sustain you and heal you, but ultimately, if you walked out in front of a bus …” The skin of Charlene’s nose wrinkled slightly as her mouth opened. It was too much for her to take in, she felt like she was missing something important in what he was telling her.

West let go of her hands and smiled, “I want you to try something for me and I will leave you alone for today.”

She still looked a little scared, though she managed to contain her thoughts, so he continued, “Go about your day, don’t leave the apartment today, don’t tell anyone about our encounter, simply live for today with the creature inside you. I promise that if I return to you tomorrow and you feel uncomfortable about it, I will stand by you and comfort you as you drink your glass of salt water and the whole thing will be over and done with. Leeches have been used medicinally quite frequently throughout history; treat this as one day of medical testing okay?”

She wrestled with her thoughts as she looked around the apartment. There were many little tasks and chores she had avoided because she had known her chest pains would cause her discomfort. Perhaps this was to be how she would die. Then again, perhaps it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to enjoy being busy without that nagging discomfort. He was the most perfect double of the man who had left her so abruptly all those years ago, and surely, if he wanted to kill her …

“Mr Yestler, tell me about the first time we met.”

West smiled, glad that for the first time that day, his memory was capable of serving a use, “It was Wednesday evening. It was warm outside, and I was visiting one of my favorite bookstores off central park. There was a girl, leaning against a high stacked bookcase at the rear of the store, one leg crossed behind the other, hair hanging to one side of her head as she thumbed through the pages of Don Quixote. I walked up to that girl, and I said, ‘Too much sanity may be madness, and maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.’ Then you looked at me for the first time, and you said …”

“Until death it is all life.” As she spoke the words, Charlene frowned, trying to wish away the tears, then relinquishing, she wiped her eyes and smiled at West.

“Is there anything I need to know? Is there anything I should do?”

West smiled deeply, feeling no small amount of accomplishment, “No Charlene, just don’t go out and don’t accept any visitors.”

“Why? What will happen?”

West laughed, “Nothing will happen, it’s just a precaution, and one you may understand more fully tomorrow.”

Charlene looked at the liver spots on her hands, then she looked at West and she felt a deep sense of melancholy and loneliness, “Promise you’ll come back tomorrow?”

West nodded and leaned forward, “I promise I will return.” He touched a hand gently to her cheek and stood, walking to the apartment door. He paused as he reached the door and turned, “Do you have plenty of food in?” he asked. Charlene turned to face him, “I do. Why do you ask?”

West shrugged, “You will probably need to eat a little more today than you usually would.”

 

David wasn’t good with tools. He was good at fixing things, identifying problems, but he was bad with tools. He resented when people called him clumsy, and it especially hurt when it came from Stephanie, a human who was basically capable of hurting herself before she’d even climbed out of bed. There was blood on his shirt which had poured quite abundantly from a wound that went almost clean through the palm of his right hand. He had almost passed out when the Phillips-head slipped its target, and when he grabbed the chain of the swing to prevent himself from falling, he’d managed to wrap the plated iron links around two of his fingers, nearly breaking them in the process.

He was in agony, he was nauseous, and suddenly exhausted. Tentatively, he sat on the swing seat, not entirely confident that the job was done. He could see Hannah and Stephanie through the sliding glass doors of the den, the pair of them hunched over an old tablet computer. When his wife Carol had died, there hadn’t really been much discussion about moving in with Hannah, she just became a whirlwind of affection, and action, and she hadn’t stopped until David and Stephanie were completely settled. The house was owned outright by their mother, but that didn’t seem to matter anymore. She wasn’t missing, she still wrote them occasionally, and called once a year, but when Carol had died, it became quite apparent that Valerie Beach didn’t want anything more to do with the unmitigated disaster that had become her family life.

Avoiding thinking about his mother, he started to back track, searching for what it was that had brought him out to the yard in the first place. His chest suddenly burned with acid reflux, like a five kilo weight had been dropped on his diaphragm. Tiernan, of course. How silly he’d been to think he could escape that mental anguish for five minutes.

He’d gone through it all a thousand times, and he still couldn’t figure out what exactly he’d done. There had been no direct accusations yet, that much was true, but the phone call, that one ember of doubt they kept coming back to seemed poised now to catch, and engulf his entire world. It was unfair. That’s what was eating him up. He didn’t have the first clue as to why the phone call mattered so much, but they, the royal they, were going to ruin him over it.

David sucked his bleeding palm and eased himself up from the swing, suddenly aware of how much the chains were digging into his under-exercised hips. He walked through the grass towards the sliding doors and mashed his face against the glass, puffing his cheeks out for Stephanie’s amusement. Stephanie ran up to the door, grinning from ear to ear as she unlocked it. “Dad, I’ve got over fifty sphincters,” she exclaimed gleefully.

“That explains a lot honey.” He smiled as he bent down to hug her, but Hannah had already leapt up from the floor and grabbed Stephanie from behind, “No, you can’t have her, she’s all mine.” She ran towards the couch and threw Stephanie onto the cushions, in a bundle of giggling limbs and hair. Hannah faced David now, her arms spread wide, palms facing backwards so she could grab Stephanie if she attempted to get by, “I’ve captured Captain Spiff, and she will not be released until the human cooks eggs. I demand lots of eggs, and hot sauce.”

Stephanie wrapped her arms around her aunt’s neck, “No, I want soldiers. Demand soldiers.”

Holding onto Stephanie’s wrists, Hannah stood up, “We have revised our demands human. Bring us soldiers, and eggs, and the eggs shall be of the kind in which we can dip the soldier’s heads, and bite them off at our pleasure.” Then she stopped abruptly, gasping a little as she saw the blood on her brother’s shirt.

“Holy sh …” she caught herself, “… Shish kebab David, you seem to have sprung a leak.” Although her words were light calm, for Stephanie’s sake, her eyes were wide, serious with concern. “Do we need to take you to be repaired?”

David looked at his hand, the skin ragged and painful around the wound, “No, I’ll be fine, we’ll just wrap some gauze, throw some rubbing alcohol on it.”

Stephanie laughed and then whispered in her aunt’s ear, “You were going to say shit.”

Hannah’s eyes widened further, and she sucked her lip to prevent herself from laughing, but she decided to say nothing, just this once.

 

 

Opening the cupboard under the granite topped island, David pulled out a heavy bottomed pan, and took it to the sink. He set the water running, but when the weight of the water caused his hand to spasm, he realized he was going to have to attend to his wound before cooking. Stephanie had already taken her place at the island, pulling herself up onto one of the tall stools, and he could see the anticipation etched across her face. He asked Hannah if she would mind taking over the cooking duties while he fixed himself up, and she grumbled her consent, “What is the point of hostage demands if we have to carry them out ourselves?”

By the time he’d cleaned the wound, applied antiseptic, and taped up the gauze, he returned to the kitchen to the sight of steam rising from the pot of boiling water, and the sound of some unrecognizable girl band streaming from the ceiling mounted speakers.

“How long have they been in?”

Hannah pointed at the old fashioned egg timer on the counter, which looked about half done, “Maybe a minute and a half? Maybe seventy thousand grains of sand? Maybe Spiff forgot to turn it over when the eggs went in, so maybe the soldiers are going in dry,”

Hannah was a little disappointed that the euphemism didn’t get much of a rise out of David, but she knew he must still be stressing, so she tried again, “Spiff, how do you like your soldiers?”

“Almost black.” Stephanie answered innocently, but that was enough to set Hannah off, laughing at her own set up, “Me too hon. But you know what they say …”

David almost choked on his laughter, “Don’t you dare Hannah!”

Hannah feigned offense, glaring at her brother, “They say that burnt toast is carcinogenic.”

Stephanie spun round to look at her aunt, “Really?”

Hannah wrinkled her nose in sympathy with Stephanie’s shock, “They sure do.”

“I’ll settle for soft and white then.” Stephanie responded, then watched in confusion as her aunt ran out of the kitchen.

“What’s wrong with aunt Han?”

David laughed, and started towards the bread bin when the phone rang. David ignored it. The phone rang off, then immediately started ringing again. David made towards it, but it clicked off again. When it started ringing a third time, Stephanie ran and picked up the phone from its base unit on the side table.

“This is the Beach residence, Stephanie speaking, how can I help you?”

A voice on the other end of the line asked condescendingly if her Daddy was home and on autopilot, Stephanie responded, “No, my Dad is out at the grocery store, can I take a message?” The line clicked dead and Stephanie hung up the phone.

David felt himself welling up with emotion. There were so many reasons he loved his daughter.

[]CHAPTER FOUR

Shadowcab

 

West leaned against the window, one arm on the glass, his head resting against his forearm. He could see a burning car in the street, but whoever had set the fire had already moved on to other acts of mindless vandalism. He understood that people were angry; the whole world was in turmoil, but it distressed him when people vented their frustrations in such misdirected and futile acts.

The political landscape had never much interested him, because it nearly always played out as expected. The onward march of the great dream, Somnium Mirificum, that endless self-fulfilling prophecy. Except it wasn’t endless, which was part of the problem. He couldn’t pretend he saw the assassination coming. It wasn’t surprising, but it certainly wasn’t written in the stars. It had heightened his awareness of the fact that he’d been out of touch with most of the key players for far too long. The few people he knew how to contact were on the wrong side of the fence. He was starting to feel uncomfortable with himself, cringing at his cowardice every time he saw his own reflection. As much as he understood, even after looking at this thing for a few weeks, there were still things about the Tiernan incident that made no sense.

 

David Beach had been his first stumbling block. From what West could tell, Beach was an almost depressingly mundane member of Tiernan’s staff. His father, an author of little note, had died when David was young. West was unable to find a copy of Doctor Julien Beach’s only published work, but he had found a couple of mentions of him in the digital archives of academic reviews, and both of these suggested that the doctor had been widely regarded as a laughing stock by the time he died, completely shunned by academia. His book The Kings Mosaic was described in one article as a rambling mess, focused loosely on the supposed links between modern day politicians, various royal families and their ancestors. There was something to that of course, but without a copy of the book, West could make little more of it. If David had followed his father’s work, it would go some way towards helping to explain his fascination with conspiracy theories, which was all well and good, but it didn’t help West with the issue at hand.

He’d tried to look at it from the FBI’s perspective, but West just couldn’t understand why Beach had become a target. The reports of one agent McMahon described his concerns that Mr Beach had been snooping into files relating to Arctum Industries immediately prior to the events of March 10th. That could only be a bad thing, but on its own, it didn’t seem particularly damning. McMahon’s report also didn’t actually evidence this, so as far as West was concerned, McMahon was tiptoeing into the realms of hearsay. Beach had been interviewed by McMahon a couple of times, and prior to that, he’d also spoken at great length to an agent Carmichael. Going by the transcripts, these interviews were almost singularly focused on a phone call which occurred on March 6th. The FBI appeared to be fumbling in the dark on this one, and they had apparently stumbled out of that particular closet, clutching onto the fact that the phone call hadn’t come from the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. There was no audio transcript of the call, which was probably the most miraculous discovery West had made so far. Someone must have lost their job over that one …

A large solid mahogany pedestal desk stood several feet from the Eastern wall of the living room. There was sufficient space to access both sides of the desk, which was often necessary as it boasted nine drawers to the front, and three drawers and two cupboards to the rear. The desk was ornate, but not obscenely so, and West treasured it almost as much as his bed.

He walked over to the desk and seated himself facing the eastern wall, unlocking the large central drawer and removing the tablet that was nestled away there. West refused to rule out the possibility that the FBI really weren’t interested in finding anything genuine on Beach. Why bother, if they could simply cut and paste him into a fiction? There were things, obvious things about Beach, which weren’t mentioned anywhere in their files. Notably, David Beach was a frequent visitor of on-line conspiracy newsgroups, and reddit subs.

West had been following a comment thread for several days now, and he couldn’t help but chuckle when he read Beach’s latest entry,

Shadowcab73 2 points 21 minutes ago 

My sister thinks I’m the next LHO. Yeah, I laughed too. I’m probably going to get down-voted to shit for this, but I feel like March 10th was one big grassy knoll. Look at my history. No one can say I have been a supporter of such theories as those surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. God knows, in my position, I could not consider myself to be fit for purpose or sufficiently patriotic if I fostered such beliefs. In light of this, it pains me to say that my current treatment at the hands of the authorities is unbecoming, and furthermore, I believe that their behavior is highly suggestive of the possibility that, in the absence of a true suspect in the case of the assassination of President Tiernan, the powers that be are trying to scapegoat me. If anything happens to me, you read it here first – I would never knowingly participate in any act that would endanger the lives of any other human, let alone a member of the presidency under which I have served as a dedicated and loyal member of staff.

 

West logged in and replied to Beach’s post,

I would like to offer my assistance, and I can only hope that you are not too stubborn to accept it. I’m well versed in the circumstances surrounding your case.

West sat staring at the message, wondering if he should say more. Eventually, his finger tapped the save button on screen, and he felt immediately dissatisfied with his decision. He should do more. He knew he should try to call the Beach’s house again at least. Looking at the time stamp on Beach’s comment, it was obvious that his daughter had been lying to him on the phone. She sounded young. West was impressed. The girl obviously had a natural talent for subterfuge, but he was pretty sure he could figure out a way past the masterful call screening.

 

Left alone, Charlene had sat in the dark of her living room. She watched the dust motes, swirling and spinning their merry dance through the few graying slats of light which punctuated the darkness. She would pucker her lips, blowing into the stream, and she would imagine that the billowing dust was really plumes of smoke, blown by her dead mother, or father, always there, just out of sight. She wasn’t religious, but she spoke to them sometimes. Funny that you could carry a person wholesale in your head, she thought. It was never really them, but then, who was? You never knew but as much of a person as they knew of themselves, or at least that’s what her Daddy had said. Well, he was too young to know. Hadn’t broken forty when his heart gave out. She watched her mother blow a mote ring into the light.

There were too many thoughts, and every time she made to move one of her limbs, her brain was completely shut down by the overload. Could she feel it? Her stomach would rumble, or else she would get a twinge of pain in one of her joints, and she’d be momentarily convinced that it must be the little creature, but then the feeling would subside and her thoughts would swing wildly back to her youth, back to the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

Gradually though, something had changed in her. It was as specific as that; she knew it wasn’t a process of rationalization, because she didn’t know where to begin with her thoughts. Something in her changed. It wasn’t a spasm, a pain, or an uncomfortable movement; it was a paradigm shift brought on without the effort of deep introverted thought. In a moment, clarity broke through the din, and it occurred to her that she had nothing to lose in the scenario she was faced with. She went about most of her days doing whatever she could to avoid pain or discomfort. She didn’t have anything, even something trivial which she looked forward to on a day to day basis. She had no relatives, or anyone she cared about even enough to mention them in a letter, let alone a will. A year ago she had spoken to a weaselly looking man from a small firm of lawyers, and she had managed to figure out that if she left her worldly possessions to anyone, she would be doing them a disservice.

By the time Charlene had realized the sense of relief brought on by relinquishing the burden of worry, she was already on her feet.

Now there was only hunger. She had spent the past hour spring cleaning, experiencing no breathlessness or pain, which she had to admit, felt pretty damned good at her age. When the hunger hit, it almost stopped her dead in her tracks. She went to the kitchenette and started to fix herself a ham sandwich, then thought better of it and ate the ham on its own, putting the bread back in the cupboard.

She threw away the packaging from the ham and as she was bending over, she noticed a jar of chunky peanut butter on the counter. She undid the lid ravenously, and taking a spoon from the top drawer beside the sink, she plunged it deep into the jar, scooping out a good desert spoon full of peanut butter. She didn’t usually eat peanut butter; her care worker brought her a jar every week when she visited, and Charlene hadn’t had the heart to tell the girl she didn’t like it. Now, she savored the taste and the texture as the convex bowl of the spoon rested against the roof of her mouth.

She washed the spoon and dried it on her blouse before returning it to the drawer, and then she walked back to the den and turned on the television. She flicked through several channels all displaying depressing news of the riots and unrest around the world. She finally found a station which was playing an exercise video created by a now deceased celebrity fitness instructor. Charlene was curious. It had been a few years since she’d been able to exercise, although until her seventy-fifth birthday she had kept up a daily routine of jumping jacks and stretches. She started to mimic the motions of the on-screen instructor, reaching her right hand down her thigh towards her knee, then her left hand to her left knee. She reached up towards the ceiling fan and arched her back, and she almost fell over, excruciating pain coursing through her external and internal abdominal oblique muscles. She didn’t know the names of the muscles in her lower back, so she collapsed into her armchair cursing her aching back as a whole.

She lunged forward in the chair, feeling something move in her stomach, then again, in her back. She reached her arm behind her and she could feel a small lump there, moving. She would have been scared, she would have screamed in fear were it not for the fact that she felt the pain in her back start to subside almost immediately. She bit her lip, patted the little lump in her back and sat back carefully, hoping she wouldn’t squash it. It felt not entirely unlike she was sitting on a massage chair. The late great instructor urged her to ‘work those muscles,’ and Charlene Osterman directed her thoughts somewhat guiltily towards the lump in her back, muttering softly, “Yes, go on, work ‘em.”

 

West refreshed the browser window on his tablet and saw that there was still no response to his message to shadowcab73. He picked up the phone and paced the floor, mentally preparing himself for Stephanie Beach, determined that she would not best him again. Having routed the call through several voice over I.P. services, he heard the ring tone and managed to confine his amusement to a smile when he heard the girl’s well-rehearsed welcome message, “This is the Beach residence, Stephanie speaking, how may I help you?”

“Hi Stephanie, I’m so glad I got through to the right person.” West affected the most amiable tone of voice he could muster, “My name’s Tony Statham and I’m delighted to inform you that you’ve won a very special prize from Manermanam Games.” West offered a silent prayer, wishing that the child would try and repeat the company name, but there was nothing but the sound of slightly nasal breathing, then faint whisper before Stephanie Beach finally responded excitedly, “I have?”

West winced a little, disarmed by the sound of Stephanie’s unassuming excitement, but he continued, “You have. You’ve been selected as the lucky winner of our on-line supermarket sweep.” West listened calmly to Stephanie’s gleeful exclamation, her hurried repetition of the news, presumably to her father. West hoped that this wouldn’t blow his window of opportunity, but then he heard her excited breath on the other end of the line, and took his cue to talk again, “I just need to talk to your father for a couple of minutes so we can give him all the details you’ll need to claim your prize.”

West leaned against the wall and smiled inwardly, listening to the muffled pops and clicks as Stephanie handed the phone to her father, “David Beach speaking, and listen bud, before you even begin your spiel, let me tell you, I’ve had it up to here with guys like you calling at the most inappropriate times, preying on people’s good nature,”

“Mr Beach, it’s important that you don’t hang up the phone.”

“Oh sure it is, we’ve won another fantastic grand prize that I never signed up for huh? You should be ashamed of yourself, getting a little girl’s hopes up like that. What do I have to do this time? Come down to the Motel 6 and listen to you wax lyrical about a set of miracle knives?”

West closed his eyes and he sighed, David’s tirade still brewing in his ear. He thought he perceived a momentary lull, and was about to start talking when Beach kicked off again, “Oh, please say it’s a time share in the middle of some uninhabitable hell hole, I was just saying how much I needed one of those. Honest to God man, you’re all I fucking need today, you know that? I’m at my whit’s end with shits, and backstabbing…” The sound became muffled, “Honestly Han, I’m just sick of it … I left the room…” West could hear a woman’s voice on the other end of the line, calm, patient, then David’s response, “Okay, I’m sorry, I’ll take it out back.”

Again, West tried to seize this opportunity, “Mr Beach, I really must speak to you, it’s about…”

“Screw you buddy. You guys just don’t know when to let the fuck up do you? You don’t know when the button’s been pushed do you? Well you pushed it man. Is that what you were waiting to hear? You pushed the button and it’s not going to be un-pushed. You want to talk to me? Man up and come to the fucking house if my daughter’s won this grand prize, okay? Just pick up your sorry ass and make the effort instead of butting in to my evening, prick.”

The line went dead.

West slumped into the comfort of his leather sofa and lay back. It wasn’t as if he had any real time invested in David Beach, but the FBI were putting all of their eggs into that basket case. He got up from the sofa and sat at the desk, glaring at the dejected phone, wishing it all manner of ill will. He shook his head in disgust, allowing his eyes to drift to the screen of his tablet. He knew David Beach wasn’t being held for questioning and he also knew that things weren’t likely to change by the morning. Even over an encrypted line, what had he expected to accomplish in the course of a single phone call? Beach was right … He just needed to get up off his ass, and make the effort.

It took David a while to calm down. He paced the flagstones of the back yard, not walking as far as the screen door to the den, because he didn’t want Hannah or Stephanie to see him so worked up. Eventually, he stepped back into the kitchen and made himself a coffee, sipping slowly, breathing meditatively.

Stephanie pouted, and then growled when David explained that she hadn’t really won a competition. She wasn’t convinced by his explanation that there was no such thing as a ‘free lunch,’ even after he had elaborated on this, offering up that the free lunch was a metaphor. After some coaxing, she had eventually curled up beside Hannah on the couch, and had started to read aloud from Les Misérables, much to Hannah’s dismay. Hannah was impressed, perhaps even a little jealous that Stephanie’s interest in the book hadn’t waned, but as she was studying for her masters in history, she struggled to contain her desire to complain about the lack of historicity. She was surprised when she heard Stephanie read aloud the singular thought that she herself repeated ad infinitum.

“’She must be a big girl now; she is seven years old; she is quite a young lady; I call her Cosette, but her name is really Euphrasie …’”

Yes, Hannah thought to herself, she is seven years old, don’t be such a bitch.

David stretched out on the floor of the den and stared blankly at the screen of his laptop. The sound of the air conditioner was enough to distract him from the dulcet tones of his daughter’s reading, but there was still too much noise in his head to really pay attention to any of the websites he visited. After clicking idly through a few tech and entertainment sites, David finally succumbed to the inevitable and logged on to reddit. He read the most recent messages several times over, and the noise seemed gradually to die away, till all he could hear was his heart pounding in his chest.

ThaneOfTheVoid 1 point 2 hours ago

I would like to offer my assistance, and I can only hope that you are not too stubborn to accept it. I’m well versed in the circumstances surrounding your case.

Edit: By the way, your phone manner is dreadful.

 

Charlene woke up slumped over in her armchair, breathing in through her teeth ruefully, anticipating the pain in her lower back, and across the arch of her shoulders. The pain didn’t come. She felt relaxed and refreshed, which was unusual. Hesitantly at first, she pressed her hands into the arms of the chair, pushing her weight forward, then she stood up and stretched, reaching her hands up over her head. No discomfort. “Son of a bitch,” she whispered, licking her lips, running her fingertips down the base of the spine as she arched her back.

She walked to the bathroom and turned on both taps at the sink below the vanity unit. She bent her head over the ceramic sink, and cupped both of her hands under the pooling water, splashing a little on her face. She blinked a couple of times, splashed again, then she stood up and looked at herself in the mirrored door of the vanity.

Her eyes were still foggy with sleep, so she bent over again, repeating the exercise of splashing her eyes, but this time she took care to rub her eyes gently with the warm water, running the pads of her fingers along her eyelids. She stood once more and looked at her reflection. She squinted and leaned closer to the mirror. She looked at the tube of toothpaste which lay next to the cold water tap on the sink and she read the ingredients. “Son of a bitch!” she declared, dropping the toothpaste tube into the sink.

She lifted her eyes to her reflection and smiled, but the corners of her mouth fell, nose wrinkled in bemusement as she examined her face more closely. There were lines there, sure enough, where there had been lines for many years; creases at the edges of her eyes which ran down towards her cheeks, and more creases by the edges of her mouth, little tributaries running their course toward her chin; however, all of these lines seemed to have softened by degrees. Something more than this though, which sent shivers down her spine; it wasn’t really her face, not the face she’d grown accustomed to, nor the face she’d grown up with. She was looking at her mother, and as she exhaled and the mirror steamed with her breath, the illusion was complete.

She wiped the condensation from the mirror with her forearm and leaned in, examining her eyes closely. The irises were not hers, not her own near-mahogany brown eyes. Now she saw her mother’s eyes; green with flecks of brown; staring at her, blinking with her, looking to the sides suspiciously. The particular slant of her eyelids, the depth of the crease over her eyes and the arch of her eyebrows was wrong. Everything was beautiful; yes, her mother had been beautiful, but everything was so completely wrong. Her nose; the arch more pronounced, her nostrils thinner, the creases of her cheeks bore deeper grooves from a life more full of laughter. All wrong. Then, by degrees, as she stared at her lips, Cupid’s bow arched as it was notched with her tongue, and there, the bow grew deeper, her lips filling out. Her lips, not her mother’s. The arch of her nose rippled, and she could hear it as much as she could see the change, like water dislodging from her ear, the crackling sound of the cartilage moving. The irises of her eyes began to be shot through with dark beams, each one filling out the strands of green, blue, and gray; subtle flecks all now lost in dark lakes of umber. Her eyes. No, not the eyes she’d grown accustomed to, settled for, bemoaned, but accepted. These were the eyes she’d grown up with. The crow’s feet, gone; carrion of age given flight by this fearsome transformation. Laugh lines no more, for the woman who stared back at her meant business.

“Well now, there’s a thing!” She watched the young girl’s mouth, forgetting herself, admiring her bloom of youth. Then she looked away, lured by the siren’s call from the living room. Another long dead fitness instructor beckoned for her to join.

[]CHAPTER FIVE

DC

 

West booked a 9pm flight from La Guardia to Ronald Reagan Washington National, traveling under the name of Anthony Statham. He traveled light, carrying only a small case containing his forged credentials, and he arrived at check-in with enough time to relax while enjoying an hour of meandering, and people watching at the departure gate. The flight wasn’t fully booked so he was able to enjoy the short journey with the luxury of two seats to himself.

In Washington, West took a taxi from the airport into downtown D.C. and asked the driver to drop him at the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania. The Willard wasn’t close to David Beach’s home, but it was a short walk from a private parking deck which housed one of West’s cars. He checked into the hotel, made his way to his room, lay on the bed, and closed his eyes, allowing the past to flood his mind.

At five in the morning, West checked out, walked the two blocks to 14th Street NW, and keyed into the parking garage. West had made a habit of keeping a couple of car to hand in most major cities. Licensing, taxes, tag renewals, roadworthy tests and other such administrative headaches had made this particular habit almost impossible until he had found a small company based out of Iowa who were happy to take care of those intricacies on his behalf. It was a vulnerability of sorts, but it was a minor consideration for the luxury it afforded him.

He pulled a key out of his pocket and hammered it into the awkward old lock of his 69 Mustang Boss, resting his case in the passenger’s seat. He had built the Boss’s engine himself, hand machining parts rather than 3d printing; however, the engine was sufficiently powerful that designing and fabricating specialized tires for the car had also been a necessity.

Every time he heard the deep throaty roar, it brought a smile to West’s face, but the streets of D.C made him feel like a caged animal. He drove up New York Avenue, heading toward 34th Street and pulled into a small housing development, coming to a stop one block from the Beach’s house in Brentwood at five thirty.

It was a pleasant neighborhood, with tree lined streets and houses built in a modest variety of styles. West climbed out of the car quietly, closing the door with a gentle push. No longer the caged beast, now he scanned his surroundings for possible threats. Not many things could pose a real threat to West, but not many, was too many, and that thought was never far from his mind. He walked toward David Beach’s house slowly, stopping beside a large oak tree. He leaned against the tree and stood silently watching the cars in front of the house. There should be something there, some movement, some indication …

He was only standing there for a few minutes when he heard the low rumble of a van’s engine as it pulled around the corner. The advertising decals on the van boasted the “Best cleaning service in Maryland” and West wasn’t surprised to see the van roll past him and park on the opposite side of the street, fifteen yards from the Beach’s home. He was even less surprised to see two men of average stature exit the front cab of the van, both glancing furtively about the street, both paying particular attention to the cream sided double garaged three bed townhouse. The two men climbed into the back cab of the van and closed the door behind them.

 

Stephanie couldn’t sleep, which was always the case if she was awoken by the first light of day. She would pull the blankets about her head, leaving a little tunnel to the outside world so she could breathe, and she’d lie with her eyes closed, concentrating as hard as she could on not thinking about anything. It never worked. Once she’d accepted that she wasn’t going back to sleep, the morning seemed to open up in a vast array of possibilities, and usually, overwhelmed by choice, Stephanie would resort to the familiar.

She was part way through this ritual, pulling the first breaths of outside air through her blanket snorkel, when she heard coughing from the next room. Brow wrinkled with determination, she climbed carefully out of her bed, tiptoed to the bedroom door, and pulling the brass handle down slowly, she whipped the door open in a smooth motion, making sure she didn’t slam the door handle into the wall. She took wide steps past her dad’s bedroom door, determined not to wake him. Her Aunt Hannah’s door was an altogether trickier affair, usually booby trapped with clothes hanging on noisy hangers on the back of her door, but Stephanie was ready for this, and only opened the door far enough that she could squeeze through the gap, but not so far as to bump the jangling clothes against the tall dresser behind the door.

 

Hannah woke with the smell of strawberry lip-gloss, wafted into her face by the labored breathing of Stephanie, who had either been running laps, or had been trying really hard not to breathe.

“Spiff, I’m really sorry, but if the big fat hand hasn’t made it past six, I’m going to have to kill you.”

“There’s no big fat hand.”

“You know what I mean.”

Stephanie pressed the button to wake up her aunt’s phone on the bedside table, and saw that it was a little before twenty till six. She buried her face in the pillow, and mumbled something.

Hannah nudged her shoulder gently, “What did you say?”

Scared eyes peaked out from the safety of the pillow, “Aww shish kebab,”

Hannah gasped, “Stephanie Beach!”

“I said shish kebab!”

“You know what it means. What time is it anyway?”

Stephanie checked again, “It’s five twenty-seven, and plus forty-two seconds.”

Hannah groaned and pulled the blanket over her face, “Run away little girl!”

Stephanie jumped out of bed and ran out of the room as delicately as she could. Muscle memory kicking in as she reached the hallway, she skipped over several squeaky floorboards so as not to wake her dad, then crept downstairs, using the banisters to take the weight out of her steps. She ran through the kitchen into the den, and issued the command, “TV on, volume mute.” It had taken her a while to get used to the correct inflection to use with voice commands, despite her dad’s insistence that it worked perfectly, there was definitely a knack. She lay on the floor, waving her hand listlessly in the air in front of her, conducting her own symphony of colors and shapes until she found what she was looking for. She made a beckoning motion with her fingers, the conductor asking for that little bit more from the timpani drums, the volume raising on the TV, as the rolling deeps of the ocean, and the tattered French flag filled the screen. Stephanie leaned back on her elbows, ready to sink into:

 

“1815, Twenty six years after the start of the French Revolution …”

 

Before the string section was able to strike up its first note, Stephanie’s attention was torn from the screen by the sound of a car pulling up outside. She heard a car door slam shut, and she ran over to the couch so that she could stand on the cushions, leaning over the back of the couch, watching the street through the large front window. She pried open the blinds, trying to make out which of their neighbors was returning from work at this early hour, but a little way down the street, she caught sight of a man standing under a tree. He was quite motionless, just staring at the back of that same cleaning truck she’d seen outside of the house this past couple of weeks. She watched as he shifted his weight, pushing off from the tree, long slow steps through the shadows, the sound of the waves and the symphony orchestra crashing about him, his movements fell oddly into syncopation with the yells of the slaves. Stephanie smiled at the coincidence, then suddenly, as Jean Valjean sung the first notes of his song, the man turned to face her, looking at her, even through the blinds, she was sure of it. From behind her, Jean Valjean sang his warning to her, “Look down,” and she did, breathing rapidly, shivers running down her spine as she allowed herself to get carried away with the serendipity, listening to the words of the song, ‘look down, you’re here until you die.” She gasped, sucking her bottom lip. She was too young to die.

“TV mute!” she grabbed a couch cushion, and bravely peaked through the blinds again, but now the man was gone. When the phone rang, she mashed her face into the cushion and screamed a little.

 

West placed his phone back in his pocket and tapped the side of the van with an open palm. When no response came from within, he leaned his back against the van, and crouched, curling his fingers under the van’s sill. He lifted the van slowly, cleanly, just far enough that he could hear things tumble about inside, then he bent his knees, touching the tires to the floor, so very gently. West had expected the FBI, and it had cost him very little time, and only a couple of thousand dollars, to ensure that he was the only person with a working cell phone. It was almost disappointing that the agents didn’t call for back up. The doors didn’t burst open in a flurry of motion. The side paneling of the van didn’t erupt in a thousand smoking metal flowers while agents with itchy trigger fingers fired blindly.

Hearing had become somewhat of a problem for West, but it had its uses, and right now he could hear two heartbeats, calm and steady, and he could hear another thing; subtler, more delicate … that unusual flutter, the silent yearning of a thousand mouths, so desperate to make their hosts perfect, the perfect machine, the perfect vessel.

He stepped away from the van, calmly, backing onto the short grass.

“Can Agents Carmichael and McMahon come out to play today?” West spoke the words softly, and in response, he heard the soft clicking of useless buttons, the tapping of useless screens, “Asspérges me, Dómine, hyssópo, et mundábor; lavábis me, et super nivem dealbábor, …” West whispered the words from the rite of extreme unction, and the response from inside the van was unmistakable. West could taste it on the air, that heady mix of adrenocorticotropic hormone, cortisol, and epinephrine … fear, and anger, in almost equal doses.

The rear door of the van opened slowly, and the two men stepped out onto the street, weapons holstered, hands held with palms facing forward at waist height. This signal, their welcoming of hand to hand combat was an empty gesture; each of the three men knew there would be no exchange of gunfire. West didn’t move, offered no countersign, no genuflection, no kowtow.

“We have no quarrel.” The man on the right spoke. West recognized him from his file as agent Carmichael, forty-two years old, single, Episcopalian, of Irish descent, and a recent transfer from Jersey to the D.C field office. Except for the fact that he had transferred from Jersey, none of this was true, of course, but it added flavor to West’s perception of the man behind which the monster lurked. West thought of Sun Tzu, know other, know self, hundred battles without danger. Recently, he’ had to acknowledge that he was struggling a little with his self-awareness, but by Sun Tzu’s math, this meant that he should have at least a fifty fifty chance of coming through this little fracas unscathed.

McMahon raised his eyes to the morning sky, “Their concerns are not our concerns friend. Leave us in peace, and go about your business.”

West narrowed his eyes, and knelt in the grass, watching the two men closely. “You, the two of you were born of the Void Garden, and so, there is a possibility that your making was not of your own volition. You have chosen names which suggest Gaelic ancestry, so perhaps you are Sentinel of Aífe, or else of Bé Chuille, or possibly you’re Tuatha Dé Danann? It’s of little consequence … It could be that your chosen names are merely an affectation. Whatever is true of your ancestry, on this day, you walk in to battle with unsound reasoning, a dogmatic and uneducated adhesion to a woefully corrupt morality, and an entirely misplaced confidence. Their concerns are the only concern.” West spread his arms to indicate the surrounding houses. “Their needs are our needs. To carry yourself without concern for others, you are completely without self. Opinions can change, and the defects of thought can be untaught, but you have chosen your side. You were born of the Void Garden, and of your unmaking, I shall fertilize the Void Garden. I was once her scourge; I am now her groundsman.” He grinned malevolently, and lowered his voice, almost to that of a growl, “We’re painting the roses red.” He watched Carmichael and McMahon’s expressions, wondering who would be rattled more by his words. McMahon.

 

West leapt across the space between them, mouth aiming at no particular target, but finding a hold on McMahon’s left eye socket, digging in quite firmly to the curve of bone which formed his left eyebrow. He wrapped his arms around the man’s neck, swinging his legs to the left so that McMahon’s neck twisted almost to the point of snapping. Alarmed by agent McMahon’s screams, and suddenly aware of the trajectory on which West’s feet seemed to be traveling, Carmichael stumbled backwards, but his action came too late, and he felt a sharp blow to the back of his head. His arms flailed at the air in front of him, hoping to catch the assailant’s legs, but he was disoriented. By the time he’d managed to work out where the man had landed, there was already a blur of motion from below, a hand punching up towards him with disgusting certainty, thrusting into his rib cage, bending the costal cartilage and shattering his sternum. Carmichael realized before his head hit the ground that he couldn’t breathe, and that McMahon would be dead before he could attempt to come to his aid. He clutched his chest, and allowed his head to roll to the side as he watched McMahon stumble cautiously about the grass, body low, legs wide, arms forward.

West now had his legs wrapped around McMahon’s neck, trying to choke him. From his position in the grass, all that Carmichael could see was West’s hands gripping McMahon’s left calf, an unusual sight, but Carmichael was unable to move his head to see what was happening further up this slithering totem of flesh, and he gazed on in impotent horror, as thumbs and fingers pushed through fabric, into muscle fiber, and presumably, only stopping when the hands had grasped bone. He had closed his eyes, but the soft crunching sound confirmed his suspicion.

When he opened his eyes again, McMahon’s body was nowhere to be seen. His breath caught finally, and he inhaled, pushing himself over in the grass. There, by the van, the attacker stood, blood dripping from his face, his hands, and smeared across his chest. Carmichael got to his feet carefully, his gaze fixed on the man, desperate not to be taken unaware again.

“It doesn’t have to be like this.” His words were ragged, still struggling to breathe deeply.

West walked forward, surefooted, calm, “You will have a chance. Just a ghost of a chance mind you, but that’s all we ever have really.”

Carmichael didn’t see it coming, and couldn’t understand how he had been bested, but he felt consciousness slip away quickly, as somewhere in the distance, a voice spoke softly to him, familiar words, “Pax huic dómui.” Peace to this house.

 

West dragged agent Carmichael into the rear cabin of the van and lay him next to McMahon. At least Carmichael was a clean take down. Neither of the men were dead yet, but their bodies were in a race against time, and odds were not in their favor. He undressed, wiping his face with his shirt, spitting on the fabric and doing his best to clean off the blood. He did the same with his hands, and realized that he really wasn’t getting anywhere with the blood, so he tossed the shirt on the metal floor. He stripped Carmichael of his clothes, careful not to get any blood on them as he tried them on. They were a tight fit everywhere except the waistline, which although not ideal, West could cope with.

He went about the van now, systematically removing every type of hard drive, recording media, or transmitting device. The hard drives and recording media, he placed in a gym bag he’d found conveniently sitting behind the driver’s seat, and the transmitting devices, he crushed and broke, either with his hands, or under foot.

Once he was satisfied that there was nothing left of use, he stepped out of the van, and closed the doors on the devastation, removing the phone from his pocket, and navigating to redial.

 

 

 

Stephanie had only just managed to regain her composure, but as Jean Valjean marched towards the camera, veins almost managing to claw free of his forehead, the phone rang again. Stephanie inhaled quickly, her eyes darting to the phone, but after two rings, she hid it under the couch cushion, and allowed her eyes to return to the safety of the screen, where a leaf traveled up into the clouds. The phone rang off, then started up again immediately.

She took a deep breath, then pushed her hand under the cushion.

“This is the Beach Residence …” the voice on the other end of the line cut her off, “Yes, good morning Stephanie Beach, it’s so good to hear your voice again. I spoke to you, and your father last night regarding your prize, and I’m afraid he was rather short with me.”

Stephanie sighed her relief, “He’s average, he says he’s average anyway. He can’t help his height.”

“No, sorry, short tempered, he lost his temper.”

“Oh … yeah.” Stephanie’s focus returned to the screen in frustration, lip syncing to the mute singers. No free lunch … no free lunch.

“Do you mind putting him on the phone, there’s something I need to discuss with him urgently.”

On autopilot, Stephanie spoke the words she’d been just about to lip sync, “At the end of the day …” she tried to think of an appropriate follow through, “He just doesn’t want to talk to you. You could … I suppose you could send him an email or something … He has email.”

“Miss Beach, this is a matter of life and death!”

“Dun … Dun … Duuunnnn …” Stephanie responded mockingly, in a sing song tone, as if she’d expected this. “Everything is.”

There was dumbfounded silence on the other end of the line, then finally, an equally dumbfounded, “Pardon?”

“Everything is either life, or death. There isn’t another thing, like not life, or death … there’s just them.” She breathed slowly for effect, mucus catching in the back of her throat, then she repeated her key thesis, “Everything is either life, or death.” She hung up the phone, satisfied that her philosophical observation would give the salesman something to think about.

 

West stomped the grass in the shadows at the side of the house. He pondered the child’s words while he listened to the sounds of the house. She was right of course. Everything was about life, except the bits which were about death. Profound thoughts indeed from a seven-year-old, at … he glanced at his phone again … not even six in the morning. He redoubled his efforts, trying to cleanse his mind of the Zen of Stephanie Beach.

 

It wasn’t always possible to tell a person’s sex just by the sound of their breathing, but West was pretty sure he had the somnolent rumblings pegged. He picked a pebble up from the ground, and threw it at the window frame. He waited a while, and when there was no response, he tried again. A woman’s face appeared at the window, and West tried his best to hide behind a marginata bush, which provided less than adequate coverage. The window opened, and Hannah Beach held her hand over her eyes to shield them from the rising morning sun.

“Are you fucking kidding me? I can see you dick head.” She waved, and the bush rustled its awkward response. “Yeah you! You better be about to propose to me or I’m gonna ram that fucking bush up …” West stepped out from behind the bush, waving his hands in surrender.

“Absolutely. I’ll marry you, if you’d just fetch your brother for me.”

Hannah frowned in disgust, “Pervert.”

The window slammed shut, and West was about to look for something else to throw, when another window opened.

“Hello?”

“Mr Beach, I spoke to you last night … I took up your offer, dragged my ass down here.”

The window started to close, “Mr Beach, it’s about the assassination. I can help.” West could still see David Beach’s distorted and shadowy form, standing at the window, so he forged ahead, “David, I know you didn’t do it, I know you weren’t involved, and I can help you. Please, it will only take a few minutes of your time, if you’ll just come down and talk to me.”

The window closed.

Half a minute passed, before the window opened again, “I’m coming down.”

 

David leaned against the door frame, peering tentatively through the glass panel at the side of the door. He couldn’t make out much, except for the same cleaning van that had been parked there for several days now, and the sight of it made his hackles rise. Homeowners weren’t permitted to park commercial vehicles in the neighborhood. Even the worst house clean couldn’t require that much attention. This, thought David … this was why this neighborhood was going to hell in a hand basket.

He opened the door, and stepped out onto the front step, closing the door gently behind him. Standing in the shadow of the Bleaker’s cherry blossom, David could make out the man whom he had spied from his bedroom window. The same man who had apparently phoned the night before. The same creep who had messaged him on reddit. As the man started to walk towards him, David felt his own unease rise through his body, tightening his chest, drying his throat. David stepped backwards, stumbling over the single raised concrete step as he retreated toward the safety of his front door. He tried to turn around to open the door, but too quickly he felt West’s hand on his shoulder and he shuddered with the shock of it, the hairs of his arms prickling.

“Mr Beach, I need to talk to you and in order to do so, we need to get away from your house for a few minutes.”

David turned abruptly, pushing the man’s hand away, “What are you going to do to me? I haven’t done anything for God’s sake.” The sound of his own voice, high pitched and faltering, came as a surprise to David. He hadn’t had many physical altercations, and in the calmer recesses of his mind, he liked to think that he could handle himself. Perhaps he needed to reassess.

West took a firm hold of David’s shoulders with both hands, and this only served to further panic David, who had already started to writhe and jostle against his grip. Focusing, slowing his breathing, West reigned himself in, concentrating on his strength before slapping David’s cheek with the back of his hand. Wide eyed, a picture of veracious fury, West glared at David. “Calm down man. Do you see the van behind me?”

“Yes.”

“Up until a couple of minutes ago, there were two FBI agents camped out in that van monitoring your home.”

David frowned, “There were?”

Unable to widen his eyes any further, West resorted to raising his eyebrows, nodding slowly.

“Where are they now?” David asked cautiously.

“To tell you the truth, they’re still in there, but they are no longer monitoring your house.”

David opened his mouth, then closed it again, then made another attempt, “Why?”

West bit his bottom lip, and exhaled through his nose, “Mr Beach, they are functionally incapacitated. They will stay like that for some time, but we don’t have all day.” David’s nose wrinkled in confusion, but West pushed on, “The point is, we can’t talk in your home, there are almost certainly monitoring devices in there, and I don’t have the time or equipment to check for them.” West started walking down the street away from David’s house.

“I can’t leave Stephanie alone!”

West turned to look at him, “There’s a woman in there.”

“Yes my sister, but I need to keep an eye on Stephanie”

West guessed that Beach just didn’t want to be alone with him, but he knew there would be little mileage in humiliating him on this issue. “Fine, is there somewhere we can talk?”

David nodded, “We’ll go out back, in the yard. I doubt they’d put any monitoring equipment out there.”

West was pensive, eyes traveling over the cracks in the pavement. He glanced at the van and thought about agents Carmichael and McMahon. He looked back towards David and nodded, “Lead the way.”

David sat on one of the swing seats, watching Stephanie in the den. She had protested that she wanted to come play in the yard, but David had insisted that this was grown up stuff.

“Mr … I’m sorry, I don’t recall your name.”

West stood facing David, legs apart, arms crossed, straight faced, “My name is West Yestler, although I didn’t actually get a chance to tell you that last night. After our little talk, I was inclined towards leaving you in your mire, to flail and fester in your own shit. Your situation is … odd. Good odd, but odd nonetheless. Still, I wasn’t sure you would be entirely worth taking a risk on, because right now, you are one of most dangerous men in the world. To talk to I mean. Obviously.”

David looked hurt, “What do you mean obviously? I could be dangerous.”

In the rat runs and oubliettes of his mind, West was heartened by David’s bravado, although his face did not portray even a hint of this. “David, I’ve thought a lot about what I would say to you. There were some questions I had, certainly, but for the most part, they have been answered simply by seeing you. I think two questions will suffice. Others may arise, but now, I need you to tell me two things.” David nodded, slack jawed wonder, swinging slowly, allowing his feet to trail in the mulch.

“When you received the phone call on march sixth, did the impostor tell you what to do with any information you discovered about Arctum?”

A lump caught in the back of David’s throat, because of the word impostor, and because this question had never been raised during his FBI interviews. When he recovered from that thought, another occurred to David immediately, “I don’t know you. For all I know, you’re part of the investigation! I’m a government employee. Discussing my predicament would involve divulging highly confidential information.”

West watched David’s legs swing out in front of him, “David, assume, for argument’s sake, that I know everything about your situation. Assume that I’m privy to the fact that you’ve been pulled in for questioning eight times in the past month, that you have been asked the same questions repeatedly, and that you are not responsible for any of the assassinations which took place on March tenth. Now, within those parameters, tell me, what did the impostor ask you to do with the information they requested.”

David plowed the mulch with the balls of his feet, leaning his upper arms in to the chains. “They didn’t tell me what they wanted me to do with the information.”

“Now David, tell me, what did you actually find on Arctum?”

David brought the swing to a stop, and stared into West’s eyes. He suddenly felt sick to his stomach, as the true absurdity of his situation hit him like a clown car. With less than four days to go till the meeting of the EUC, and marooned as David had been, in a vacation house with only a phone, he had found nothing about Arctum. He’d placed a few phone calls to planning, code, and records offices in New York, and he had actually called the building management company who were responsible for the upkeep of Arctum’s massive office complex, but he had soon resigned himself to the fact that he wasn’t going to be able to get anything solid. He was on vacation. He’d been pissed at Carlton for even trying to call in a favor during his vacation time.

“You know!” He could see it in West’s face, although nothing had changed there, no emotion, not even eye movement, but it was there. “You know that I didn’t find anything. How? Why haven’t they asked me this? What the fuck is going on with my life?” David wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, slipping forward on the swing seat so the chain dug painfully into his armpit. West walked behind the swing set, and started to push David gently, the palms of his hands landing between David’s shoulder blades on the back swing, then launching him away.

“Your life Mr Beach, has become inextricably entangled with the day to day enterprises, industries, and affairs of angels and demons, the fey and the foe, the gods and the monsters of this world.” He continued to push David, his voice raising and lowering in pitch, as if the words were a lullaby, “Agents Carmichael and McMahon occupy a world within … an underworld, a subclass. You’ve written about these things, and talked about them, but you have never even come close to describing the true magnitude of that other world. You nurture a fascination with conspiracy. I know, you read about the Templars, the Freemasons, and the Illuminati, and you post your comments about the moon landing, and JFK.” He pushed David a little harder, stepping back to allow for the larger back swing, “Well here you are, finally in the belly of the beast David. You’re being devoured already, and you didn’t even notice the mouth closing behind you. You didn’t see the light emptying out of your world. Your sister compared you to Lee Harvey Oswald, and in some respects, the comparison is an apt one, because there was a very single minded attention to that man; however, he was found and arrested quickly, and murdered in plain view of the whole world. You’ve been questioned and monitored, and yet your name hasn’t come up once in the news, not because of your role within the government, but because they don’t know whether or not you were involved. They don’t know David. Do you understand how important that is?”

David couldn’t speak. He was embarrassed to admit to himself that he didn’t really understand, certainly not in that moment. He was too afraid to jump up from the swing seat, even though everything in him said that this was exactly what he should do. The voice went on, soft Doppler of doom, waves of insanity drowning out David’s capacity for reason, “I had thought at first that perhaps this was all part of Tiernan’s grand plan. Beyond De Somnio Mirifico, we can not know his designs for the world. It has become increasingly obvious that you represent an unknown quantity for them, something that lies beyond the scope of any plans of theirs. You are in grave danger.”

David felt the man’s hands on the small of his back, slowing the motion of the swing, but still pushing him, “I need you to do something for me, but before I ask it of you, I need you to understand that death is everywhere about you now. They will kill you without question or hesitation, and what is more, they will kill everyone you hold dear, and their wrath will not be born of malice, but of ignorance. In the van out front, Agents Carmichael and McMahon are not dead and it’s only a matter of time before they wake. Upon waking, their actions will be swift and unyielding, so you must steel yourself against questions of morality, or hesitations of the heart. They will murder you, they will murder your daughter, and they will erase every piece of evidence that you were ever part of this world. Do you understand me?”

A dry, crackling wheeze escaped David’s throat, and he nodded.

West smiled, “Good. Now David, you know of the cliffs at Calvert, the ones that overlook the Chesapeake Bay?”

And David listened, while West’s hands pushed him deeper into the belly of the beast.

[]CHAPTER SIX

Calvert Cliffs

 

Charlene was awake with the sound of the first birds. She hadn’t been woken by the morning chorus for the longest time and it brought a smile to her face. She had slept above the covers, the unbearable heat of the eiderdown making it impossible to fall into a heavy sleep. She sat up and stretched her arms and felt a dull, but pleasant ache running through the muscles in her shoulders and upper back. She swung her legs over the side of her Edwardian four post bed and felt the deep pile of the rug against the balls of her feet and her toes.

Her parents, both of them had visited her dreams, and as the memory returned to her, she felt a moment’s melancholy. She had spent the night weaving in and out of events throughout her life, in a way that she hadn’t experienced in years, and now that she was awake, it seemed almost sad to have to come away from all those cherished memories, even if experienced in that surreal mist of sleep.

She relaxed her shoulders, lowering her hands slowly, pausing to look at them, and she was fascinated and shaken by what she saw. She pulled her legs back onto the bed, and lay face down staring at her hands and arms up close, marveling at the millions of intricate changes that had been wrought through the night. She had grown familiar with the pits and valleys of veins and tendons over the years, the little whorls and wrinkles, the liver spots and calluses. She had worked eight years in a munitions plant, hands yellowing with oxides as she coughed up bile and evil every night. She had learned her way around a car engine when lack of money or a good man had necessitated it. Her hands bore no evidence, no mark of these small battles now, no sign of the callused palms of a woman who had lugged mail sacks in a depot for a year, listening to the coarse and curse laden ramblings of the other postal workers.

Where were the white lines of fibrous tissue, the scars which had run the length of her arms after her car crash in seventy-six? Those scars had run a more disastrous path across her body, the zigzag line drawn in flesh by the car door as it ripped and dragged across the skin of her chest. Charlene hunched up now on her elbows and pulled back the neckline of her long nightgown, and she sobbed deeply with an insane mixture of joy and confusion as she examined the pure, smooth skin.

When hunger finally drove her from the confines of her bed, Charlene walked to the kitchenette and looked in dismay at her refrigerator which was almost completely bereft of food. She had eaten a lot the day before, she knew that, but she hadn’t realized quite how much. She was desperately hungry now though, her stomach turning in knots. She thought about what West had told her the day before, his suggestion that she shouldn’t leave the apartment. How much harm could it really do to nip out and get some food? She walked to the bathroom to freshen up and at the first sight of her reflection in the mirror, she was reminded of the story of Narcissus, the hunter who was so enamored of his own reflection that he died gazing at himself in a pool. She was sure that if she didn’t leave the apartment to find food, she would certainly fall to a similar fate. Even though she knew the answer, she still wondered how she could have been so affected over the course of one afternoon and one night of restless dreams.

The bathroom had been fitted some years ago with a walk in shower, her joints too weak for getting in and out of the bathtub, but she had kept the bath as well. Even though the bathroom was barely large enough to accommodate both, she just couldn’t bear to part with the large copper bath which had been part of the makeup of the apartment since 1973. She eyed the bathtub now with an excited intake of breath.

“Double dare you, you old ninny.” She spoke the words aloud, as an incantation to give her courage and then she walked to the bathtub and turned the stainless steel knob with the ivory crest embossed with a black ‘H’. She allowed her lace embroidered nightie to fall to the floor of the bathroom, although it would take more than an incantation to summon the courage to look at herself fully yet. She leaned over the tub, picking up the chain attached to the plastic plug, allowing the plug to dangle into position and fall into place in its hole. As the hot water washed against her arm, she noticed a small bulge beneath the skin and it appeared to move towards the heat. Higher up her arm, a second bulge raised briefly under the skin of her forearm and it too moved. She sat on the side of the bath, holding herself steady with her left hand on the enameled rim.

Where the muscles of her left arm tensed, her attention was drawn now to the ripple of three more small bulging shapes moving beneath the skin and she watched as the skin of her arm seemed to pucker in slightly, being sucked subdermally by … What? Not that she would undo this magic, but there had been one leech and West had assured her that a glass of salt water would drive it out of her system. Had he known? Had he left her to undergo this change, knowing how complete it would be? These were questions she didn’t know the answers to, but looking at what was happening to her body, she had little doubt; that single leech had somehow reproduced.

She felt the warmth coming up from the bathtub behind her and she leaned over and twisted the cold tap on full blast for a few seconds, then standing and leaning over the bath, she plunged her arm into the hot water and swirled it about before turning off both taps. Only then, as she climbed into the bath, did she allow herself to look fully and unabashed at her body. For sure, she thought as she lay down, this was not her body. She grinned, bent her knees and allowed her head to submerge in the delicious heat of the water.

 

For the first two miles of the drive to Calvert, it was conspicuously clear that David had never driven a van. Curbing the rear wheel at every corner, then over correcting and veering into the middle of the road, David was certain that he would be pulled over if he happened to pass a traffic cop. The cleaning supplies rattling around in the back of the van did nothing to help his nerves. Cleaning supplies he told himself, repeating the words over and over. Cleaning supplies … not unconscious FBI agents. Certainly not dark denizens of a heretofore unknown place of torment. Thump, crash went the brooms. David wiped the sweat from his forehead and rolled down the window, glancing at both side mirrors as he flipped on the turn signal.

David had been to Calvert Cliffs a couple of times before, fossil hunting with Stephanie. He had been hesitant to contradict West, but he was sure that his plan would be pretty much impossible. West’s instructions came with dire warnings that Carmichael and McMahon’s shift change was at eleven. He drove up and down a long stretch of Solomon’s Island Road, convinced he hadn’t gone far enough, when he finally saw the turn off for the neighborhood West had mentioned. Sure enough, there were several houses on plots of land with well-kept lawns, each of which presented a good runway from which to launch a van. He pulled up against the curb, turned off the engine, and sat looking out over the bay. The waters were calm, and the sun, still low on the horizon, bathed the bay in a warm glow. David could almost imagine that everything was right with the world.

Then he heard it … a distinctive squeaking sound behind him, accompanied by the gentlest rocking motion. He couldn’t move. At the periphery of his senses, he was aware of the sound of air rushing past his ears, aware of his white knuckles, aware of the pulse of his blood flowing through his fingertips, clasped tight on the steering wheel. Squeak … that particular noise, rubber, or flesh, and either way, horrifying. Squeak … His heart hammered through muscle and bone, a repetitive deafening thud, and he knew that if it could, his heart would leap free of its cage and slam onto the accelerator. Then thud, directly behind his head, so loud that David screamed, his right hand grabbing the key, turning it in the ignition, his right foot slamming down hard on the accelerator as his scream became a guttural yell.

He looked at the tree line ahead of him, and he knew that this was impossible. There was no way. He could drive this line a hundred times, and hit a tree every time. Thudding behind him, hammering, the sound of a male voice, yelling bloody murder, wishing hell’s wrath and damnation on him. The van lurched, and David’s chest slammed against the steering wheel, his head snapping forward sharply. Focus. He managed to keep the accelerator floored, his eyes fixing on a gap. He held the wheel with his left hand, and reaching out to his right, he felt for the tool chest. The cool metal handle grasped hard, he heaved the toolkit off the seat, felt its sharp edge scraping down his shin, felt it’s crushing weight tumbling over his foot, but none of that mattered. Focus. He took his eyes off the gap in the trees, and quickly caught site of the dash instruments. Thirty, thirty-two, he knew he had to jump now. The yelling, two voices now in chorus, four fists hammering and pounding the metal behind his head, as his left hand reached for the door handle, and then as he started to pitch his body sideways, he heard the popping, tearing sound of the metal giving way.

It felt like every part of him hit the dirt and grass with equal force. He had broken everything. Definitely everything. He managed to open his eyes in time to see the van clip one of the trees, then tip onto two wheels as it sailed over the edge of the cliffs. Not perfect, and he was damned if he was going anywhere near the edge to check that the thing was sinking.

Nope.

Not a chance.

Fuck.

That.

 

Then clearer thoughts came to him. He had to move, had to get out of there. Oh God, those sounds. The shouting, and pounding. He’d just killed. Actually killed two men. Then an even darker thought tore through his body, and with that thought, David Beach was on his feet, and he could feel no pain.

 

The sun had just started to peek over the horizon as West was leaving the capital. He took it steady, trying to relax into the road, taking in the beauty of the silhouetted buildings, the warm morning glow rendered a deep burgundy by the Boss’s tinted windows. He announced his instructions to the entertainment system, “Audio please, Mozart, Die Zauberflöte, full volume.” He held his breath as his mind filled with a world of associations, each measure precious, the entry of ever instrument impacting on his temperament.

 

It felt appropriate to listen to an opera with such masonic overtones as he left Washington. He had made many lasting and important acquaintances through his involvement with the Freemasons over the years. With a running time of two and a half hours, The Magic Flute, and by extension, the memories of so many people who had come and gone from his life, would accompany West for most of his travel time. With the studious use of his radar scanner, his own rather canny senses, and a top speed of two hundred and fifteen miles per hour, he would reach the outskirts of Wilmington Delaware just as the Queen of the Night sung her aria, “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (“The Vengeance of Hell boils in my heart”).

 

The Queen of the Night … West thought about Charlene Osterman and what wonders the night may have worked on her. Charlene had been beautiful when he’d first met her, but young, much too young. She had known nothing of the world, yet she was fascinated with everything, and her thirst for knowledge and experience was intoxicating. The decision to remove himself from her life had been an easy one. His respect for life was absolute, and he had understood that his continued presence in her life would have destroyed her.

 

If he’d learned anything in his lifetime, it was that patience was its own reward. He had checked in on her over the years of course, from a distance, and he had been frequently disturbed to learn of the various hardships that she had undergone, but he felt no desire to intercede. Every acquaintance was for West, a test of patience.

 

That Charlene Osterman had survived to the age of eighty-five was impressive, considering the car crash, the financial ruination, the tornadoes and floods she’d experienced in Louisiana and Florida. He thought about how she’d looked the night before, her body a manuscript of misadventure and hardship, but beyond all of that, experience, real experience. Had he stayed in her life, she would have barely known more than the tragic loss of her parents; everything else would have been a hedonistic whirlwind … probably. Probably was enough for West. Charlene Osterman was a woman who had survived life without any unfair advantages and that was far more intoxicating to West than the curiosity and excitement of a young girl growing up in New York.

 

Charlene sat on the edge of her bed, towel tucked in on itself around her chest, thin gray hair hanging damp over her shoulders. She gazed at the tall dresser. The mirror there almost full length, bore the image of something awesome. What had she become? She stood, allowed the towel to fall away, and tears came quickly. She couldn’t take it in. She staggered forward, the wind taken out of her body by the shock of what she saw. Her hand punched forward as she tried to steady herself, the mirror cobwebbing out in fracture lines beneath her knuckles. She gasped, wincing in anticipation, but there was no blood, and only a mild twinge of pain. She felt the adrenaline rush, felt it in her face, a rising heat, a stinging warmth, and she moved, still unsteady, arms shaking. She stood up straight, and faced the mirror. No, this was wrong, worse … what in damnation was she seeing? Her face was shrinking back, sagging, cheeks puckering, shriveling like a rotten fruit. “No!” She sobbed, hands grasping, pinching the skin of her cheeks, “No, god damnit!” She screamed, and sobbed, fists hammering the mirror, “Change!” She screamed in exasperated fury, “Change!”

And it was that simple. The heat, the prickling, the subtle pulling of muscles, the sickening popping sound in her ears. The skin filled out, tightened, returned to that beautiful, youthful form. She was suddenly giddy, incredulous at how easy it was. What had West given her? She laughed, smacking the shattered mirror, offering a high five to the girl in the mirror. Girl. She laughed out loud at the absurdity, shaking the glass shrapnel from her palm. The only thing wrong with that girl was her hair, limp and gray. She could do something about her hair though, and she knew she would have to. Not possible yet … he’d told her she couldn’t leave, and although she had boxes of hair dye somewhere about the apartment, she knew that the tint would be oxidized and useless.

Behind the girl in the mirror, there was a wardrobe full of clothes that had served Charlene well over the years. She’d kept many of her dresses, blouses and skirts from her younger days, some due to nostalgia and others due to laziness. She stood up from the bed and walked over to the wardrobe, where she quickly put her hand on a knee length bright turquoise chiffon dress. She had last worn the dress when she’d been in her forties and she was certain that she could pull it off now. She closed the door, allowed the towel to fall and pulled the dress on over her head. She ran her fingers thoughtfully over the lace trimmed neckline and smiled at the young woman in the mirror. The woman smiled back.

Underwear and stockings turned out to be a little more problematic. Nostalgia and laziness only went so far when it came to the preservation of clothes. She opened her lingerie drawer and pulled out a large pair of white satin panties, which were as close to flattering as she could hope for. The drawer beneath the lingerie held her winter accoutrements, hats, scarfs, shawls and gloves. She pulled out a cream wool hat and walked back over to the wardrobe, pulling it on and checking her reflection to make sure she had tucked her hair under the thick crocheted rim. With her gray hair hidden, if she’d been asked to guess the age of the woman who looked back at her now from the mirror, she would have guessed thirty, thirty-five tops

She sat on the velvet cushioned chair in front of her dresser and placed her makeup bag on the table beside her, ready for her ritual of makeup application. She couldn’t help but laugh a little as she looked through the bag, realizing that all she would need was a little eyeliner and a touch of lipstick.

 

Blood had started to gather and congeal at the cuffs of David’s shirt sleeves, both hands bleeding sufficiently that David felt sure he would die before he reached civilization. To be sure, Calvert Cliffs state park was not entirely uncivilized, but what of it? David hadn’t laid eyes on a forest trail, car park, or a power plant, and every time he fell (which was happening a lot,) his knees, hands, shins, elbows, or more often than not, all four would scrape agonizingly into a sharp edge. He had cried for some time, breath rasping in his throat, manly groans and grunts terrifying any nearby wildlife. When his self-pity had subsided, it had quickly dawned on David that mind numbing panic had been a more situationally appropriate reaction, and on cue, punctuated by a full bodily fall, panic had returned, and now seemed to hold a permanent sway over his mental state. He was convinced that agents Carmichael and McMahon must be giving chase now. West had made it clear that the van needed to sink, and that the men needed to drown in salt water. Which was another thing. David wasn’t convinced that the Chesapeake even had salt water this far inland. No, if that’s what it took to kill these men, David knew that he was unequivocally screwed.

His only solace was that he was confident of his directional sense. No matter how many times this confidence had proved to be entirely misplaced, be it in malls, city centers, amusement parks, or his workplace, his internal compass remained nevertheless, an unwavering bastion of hope for David. He always knew where he was going, no matter how wrong he was. He was clinging to that very thought, looking up and trying to calculate the angles of trajectory of the shafts of light which were now piercing through the trees, when he caught his ankle in a knotted tree root, and fell sideways, pain screaming out from his ankle before he’d even hit the floor. He screamed an expletive, his voice so torn, chest so tight, that what came out was an incomprehensible shriek of vowels and consonants, ending unusually on a plosive as his lungs seized up and his lips closed fast. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again he was vaguely aware of the notion that some time had passed.

He jolted into action, teeth gritted in anticipation of pain as he clambered to his feet. He pressed the ball of his left foot to the floor, tentatively, felt the warmth of pain wrapped around his ankle, those embers catching light as he applied more pressure. Behind him, somewhere close by, he heard a twig snapping, and a rustle of leaves. The sound of the second, larger limb cracking might just as well have been a starter pistol. David was running now, every step an agony, but eyes fixed on the forest floor, there was a determined clarity to his movements. Branches or twigs would whip at his skin, and he’d push forward, unflinching. His feet skimming close to his backside, hands pulsing forward and back, pistons forcing forward an unlikely, and shambling machine. He could hear footsteps pounding the dirt, not his, but right on top of him, thudding in his head, and every breath he took was a gasping plea for mercy. He couldn’t look back, he knew that if he did, he’d fall again. He had learned that much about himself this morning. He imagined his epitaph after they scraped his mangled corpse from the leaves and detritus of the forest floor, David Beach: Not a gazelle.

He listened to the thumping, never losing distance, never gaining on him. Why were they toying with him? He was sure that if they wanted to, they could pounce at any moment. He could do this. He could keep running until they decided to kill him. Then a switch flipped in David’s mind, and like an acquaintance who had been reaming off facts, waiting for the recognition to dawn, the fear became suddenly mundane in its familiarity. He’d felt it before, this panic … very specifically this exact state of panic, when he was twelve. The circumstances had been different only in the minutia of detail. This was how he would die. On the playground, twelve years old, exhausted after thirty solid minutes of being chased by a thug, David would die beaten to a bloody, pissing, pulp. From the list of anecdotal evidence, the running, the pounding sound, the fear, the determination, it was the urination that had finally clicked everything into place in David’s repressed memories.

In the distance, there, a break in the tree line, and a clean horizontal plank, no jagged edges, no limbs or twigs. A fence, which meant humanity. Surely the FBI, even a demented homicidal agent of darkness acting under the guise of the FBI wouldn’t kill him in front of early bird campers? And now he was a gazelle, for sure, graceful, limbs acting in synchronous beauty, chin forward, body light as the air. Far from the fence, he leapt, safe in the knowledge that he was this creature of the woods, this testament to the human form, and speed. Over the fence to safety. In the periphery of this steely beast like vision, there was a car, no, a camper van. Yes, safety. Then his foot caught. Then the world spun, and David died.

 

He was sure he’d died.

 

Why did the footsteps still thud in his ears?

 

He opened his eyes, and there, looming above him, silhouetted against the morning sky, David could make out curly hair, spilling out from the hem of a beanie, then as his irises contracted, more detail emerged from the darkness, the stubbly cheeks, full beard, the shoulder straps.

“Fuck dude, you took a tumble. You lost?”

Still the pounding, relentless footsteps filling his head, David looked about, panicked, glancing back to the trees, trying to pick out the men in the shadows there. Nothing. Then the thumping slowed. Nothing? He shielded his eyes with his arm, squinting. Nothing. Just his heartbeat.

 

 

The stranger had helped David to his feet, asked him if he needed a ride, and was clearly crestfallen when David insisted that he only drive him to the nearest main street. He was desperate to help, the good Samaritan in him, itching for a fix, but this was all he was going to get. He wanted to be able to post before and after pictures, showing the amazing transformation, from torn up tramp to upstanding citizen, but David was going to deprive him that joy. A little begrudgingly, the stranger pulled over, then he jumped out eagerly, and ran around to the passenger side of the van to help David with the door.

“It’s Phil, and you’re more than welcome. I just wish there was more that I could do for you.”

David thanked Phil again. He had lost his phone somewhere on the run, but miraculously, somehow, he’d managed not to lose his wallet. It had only been a two-minute drive to the main road, but David couldn’t quite express how thankful he was to the stranger, and he went to offer him money.

“Please, put that away, it’s nothing.” He reached into his jacket pocket and handed David his phone.

David leaned up against the side of the van, and glanced at the screen, which currently displayed a photo of a golden lab puppy with a daisy hanging from the corner of its mouth.

“Oh shit, sorry, here,” Phil took the phone back off him, “Let me unlock that.”

David smiled gratefully, “You mind if I look up the number for a taxi?”

“I’ve got Uber, and Lyft on there.”

David shook his head, “I’d rather not.”

Phil shrugged, “Double tap man, I’ve got most of the local companies on speed dial.”

David nodded, impressed with his own turn of fortune more than Phil’s disaster preparedness plan.

“You never know right?” Phil’s eyebrows raised in slightly smug pride.

David agreed, you really didn’t. He told the operator for Delta Cabba that he’d be walking towards the city on, he looked at Phil, who whispered, “Saint Leonard Road.”

“Saint Leonard Road,” David repeated. The operator asked where he would be heading, and David was about to offer his home address when he thought better of it, “Yeah, just to the town center at Prince Frederick.”

He handed the phone back to Phil, “You’re a brick man, seriously. Lifesaver.”

“I could drive you to Prince Frederick!”

“I’ve got to make this trip on my own Phil. I really appreciate the offer though.”

Phil put a hand on David’s shoulder, and withdrew it quickly when David let out an involuntary groan. “Any time bro.” He grimaced as his eyes poured over the devastation that was David’s state of dress, “Seriously though, what the heck happened to you?”

David raised his head, but the muscles of his neck, warm and angry as they were, brought his eyes back to the roadside, “I’d tell you Phil, but then someone would probably make me kill you.” Phil laughed, then looking at the dark patch surrounding David’s crotch, he stopped laughing, and started coughing.

“Look, Simon was it?”

David nodded.

“Look Simon, I’ve got a ton of clothes in the back here,” he patted the van twice, “Let me fix you up.”
David sighed, not sure he could trust reality any longer, “No, no, I’m fine.”

Phil punched the side of the van, “Simon, man, you are so not alright. You’re the most badly fucked up sight I’ve seen in a long time, and I do a lot of really stupid things, I mean … I’ve seen some really twisted individuals. Take some clothes. It is the very least I can do.”

David pushed himself upright, hands on his knees, flashing a ruined smile at his new friend Phil, “Never look a gift horse.”

Phil, who had managed to live thirty-six years without hearing the expression, frowned, “Nope, never look a gift horse.” When in Rome, he thought to himself as he walked around to the back of the van.

 

Now dressed in khaki shorts, a green ringer, and flip flops, David waved to Phil as he pulled away. He started down the road in the opposite direction, and had only been walking for two minutes when he saw the taxi, the cartoon font DC encircled by the times roman ‘Delta Cabba’. David waved, and limped out into the road, making sure he caught the driver’s attention. The driver passed him, signaling, then performed a clean U-turn and pulled up next to David. The passenger side window slid down smoothly, “Where to?” the voice from inside the cab called out, unexpectedly gruff and demanding.

“Prince Fred?” David replied, hoping that in the act of shortening the town name, he’d come off as sounding like one of the locals.

The driver tipped his head back slightly in acknowledgment that this was the correct response.

“Jump in.”

 

The cab driver watched David hunker down suspiciously in the back seat.

“You drawing heat?”

David caught site of the driver’s face through the rear-view mirror. The man’s expression was one of sarcastic entertainment rather than genuine interest.

“If you gotta’ know, I’m having an affair with a girl in Port Republic, but I’ve got family out this way too.”

The cab owner looked impressed, “That how come you’re all beat up?”

“Pardon?”

The man dispensed with the illusion of driving and glanced over his shoulder, pointing, “You know, your cuts and bumps, you get them on account of your nocturnal indiscretions?”

David laughed painfully, “Sure, sure. I’ve taken some flak for it, but what’s a guy to do right?”

“Right, right.” This guy, the cab owner nodded … affair my ass.

The rest of the thankfully short drive went by in stony silence until the car wheezed to a stop on the main strip of Prince Frederic. “That’ll be twenty-two sixty.” David was outraged, but smiled, and handed over thirty, “Keep the change.

 

 

He wasn’t sure why Prince Frederic had come to mind, but he put it down to hunger. He’d eaten at an Outback Steakhouse there, once upon a time, when he was a child, and Hannah had been barely grown enough to be seated at the table. It was one of those odd memories that had etched permanently into his repertoire, and for the most trivial of reasons. Nonetheless, there it was in his mind’s eye, a vivid window into an incident that would hold no sway or relevance ever again. As he looked at the store fronts, trying to figure out if one of the stores would let him use their phone, he rubbed his mind’s eye. Salt. That was how that particular evening had become so indelibly etched. Excited by everything on the menu, he had ordered a rack of ribs, and a side that was mostly an onion, but looked kind of like someone had battered and deep fried a chrysanthemum. When the meal was brought out, David had proceeded to reach across the condiments in the middle of the table and spoon what he assumed to be salt over everything, then he had sat teary eyed, grimacing, too embarrassed to tell anyone that he’d ruined his meal with sugar.

Well, that was all behind him now. Here he was, a grown man, back in town, and he walked towards a coffee shop, a smile forming as it occurred to him that he always read the packets now, even in a coffee shop, where they would all be sugar, or sweetener of some sort.

“Do you mind if I use your phone?”

The girl behind the counter, teenage, red haired, tattoos peeking out from her neckline and under the cuffs of both short shirt sleeves, tilted her head sideways, eyes wide, mouth falling open. She scratched her shoulder, and David was pretty sure she managed to sneak a quick sniff of her armpit as she did so. “You gotta buy something.”

David nodded, “I’ll take a coffee.”

The girl pointed at the large blackboard which hung on the back wall, but David now couldn’t take his eyes off the girl’s mouth. She had the worst teeth. How, he wondered, does an individual allow that to happen inside their mouth?

“You gonna’ order something, or what?”

David drummed the counter with his fingertips, “I’ll have a large Americano, with four shots of espresso and room for cream.”

The girl’s smile was hostile as she walked towards the large Italian made espresso machine. David waved to her, and then pointed towards the phone, which sat at the end of the counter. The girl raised a nostril and looked away in acknowledgment, downcast eyes managing to convey a hostility of such specificity that David shuddered. As he walked to the end of the counter, he noticed that conveniently (at least for patrons of the store,) there were business cards for several taxi companies arranged in neat piles beside the phone. As he picked a card, more or less at random, he watched the red head, half convinced she would spit in his coffee.

“Yes, hi, I wonder if you could send a taxi right now?” The man on the other end of the line mumbled something that David couldn’t make out, and David asked his pardon.

“I said …” he sung, stretching the word ‘said’ into a little aria of exasperation at the indignity of having to repeat a sentence, “We’ve got your current location in the system, we just need to know where you’re heading.”

“Brentwood.”

“I need an address sir.”

David gave the man an address, someone from Stephanie’s carpool group, but his mind had already checked out of the conversation. The red head had sneezed over his cup before placing the lid on, nice and tight.

 

“What’s your name kid?” David heard the words come out of his own mouth, and could do nothing to change that this had happened. They’re out there now, he thought, let them go … In his mouth brain, he had sounded like an old school detective, about to drill a suspect. In his actual brain, he realized immediately that he sounded like an asshole.

The girl flicked her head, which had no effect as her hair was tied up in a ponytail, “Brook.”

“Babbling Brook.” David responded, aware that this only served to compound his apparent personality deficit.

“No. Just Brook.” The girl smiled awkwardly now, flashing all of her yellowing teeth in their full horror.

David stared at her mouth for too long, “Brook, I’m sorry but I’m going to have to ask you to fix me another coffee.”

“Why?”

He nodded towards the waxed cardboard cup which sat on the counter between them, “Because Brook, as much as I’ve grown to like you in the past couple of minutes, and that’s a whole heck of a lot, I am not yet ready to swap spit with you.”

Brook’s mouth opened wide, her lower lip curling over her bottom teeth (thank god), her jaw pushing forward. She picked the cup off the counter, staring deep into David’s eyes. David nodded, “I can see it Brook, don’t worry. I see the flames. I see the fires of hell you’re imagining for me.”

Brook hid her head behind the glistening chrome machinery, blushing.

 

As he watched the taxi pull up outside, David began to suspect that feigning sleep would be implausible. The taxi was a 2010 Honda Accord, a fine car in its day to be sure, but as far as this taxi was concerned, today was clearly not its day.

“Sorry I took so long getting here, had to gas the bitch up.” The driver leaned towards the open passenger window, morning sun gleaming on his balding head. David hated the driver, immediately, from his thick jawed unshaven and pock marked face, right down to his ripped, and god he hoped … coffee stained jeans.

“It’s all good my man.” David lied, hating himself for his half-assed attempt at camaraderie.

“You been out partying bro?”

David opened the rear passenger side door and climbed in apprehensively, pondering on the unfortunate series of catastrophes which would have led to his mother stooping low enough from grace to fornicate with this fuckwit’s father. “Something like that br …” He managed to stop himself before he finished uttering the loathsome appellation “bro” and he ended instead on a weak, “yeah …”

The driver turned in his seat and faced David, “So?”

David was confused, until he realized that the driver must have either not been told by the dispatch office, or had already forgotten where David was heading.

“Brentwood.”

The driver turned up the radio which was tuned to a talk station, and craning his neck over the headrest slightly, he asked David if he minded. David muttered his unenthusiastic approval.

The voices of three brash and opinionated pseudo-intellectuals hammered out a heated debate over the succession and appointment of President Lucas Miller and what it meant for America.

“What do you think to Miller Bro?” The driver watched David through the rear view mirror, clearly awaiting a response. West had warned David about the danger of revealing anything about his identity, so David offered a noncommittal, “He seems okay, I honestly don’t pay enough attention to politics.”

Of course, David had been on first name terms with the then Vice President Lucas Miller and his wife, now First Lady Petra Miller. What was there to say about Miller? As far as David was concerned, he was really a carbon copy of Allan Tiernan. He even looked like he could have been family.

“Man, I’m not into politics either, for real. I mostly listen to this shit for the sports desk.”

“Right.” Sports was a topic that David felt inadequately equipped to discuss. He didn’t follow any teams, he didn’t watch many games and he knew this made him difficult for a lot of guys to relate to. The driver seemed to be perceptive enough at least to pick up on David’s lack of gusto for sport, focusing his eyes on the road ahead, apparently listening to the radio show.

Garry Watzchek wasn’t listening to the radio, he was rifling through his mental index cards, trying to find a more appropriate opening gambit to try on with his passenger, “You read much?” he ventured.

David licked his lips and thought about deflecting the offer of conversation again, thinking to himself that literature might turn out to be the lesser of evils when it came to making conversation with this loathsome prick. He wrinkled his nose and rubbed his brow slightly, bracing himself for the worst, “Yeah I read some …”

Garry Watzchek smiled inwardly as he navigated the car along Solomons Island Road. He had a pretty good knack for breaking down people’s barriers and he was pleased with himself that this guy had only taken him … what, three minutes?

“So what kind of stuff do you read?”

David watched the trees race by as his breath fogged up the window, “I read a lot of factual stuff, books on physics, history, things like that.”

Garry nodded his approval, “Physics man, that’s some heavy reading right?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“You read any of Fenyman’s books?” Garry mentally patted his own back, confident that his passenger would warm to him now. In the back seat, David bit his knuckle discretely, wishing that the driver had been a history buff. The name Fenyman was familiar to David, but he wasn’t sure what he had written. He tried bluffing, “Yeah, he’s quite the character.”

Garry laughed and nodded, “He really knows how to make that shit relatable right?”

David smiled at the driver as he caught him glancing back at him through the mirror. He made a mental note that he should look up the name Fenyman when he got home.

“Dude, I was like four years old when Fenyman died. I actually frickin cried when my dad told me he was dead. Can you believe that shit?”

David shook his head. The idea that the cab driver could be moved to tears by the death of an author seemed surreal and jarring. He was starting to feel guilty over his conceited attitude towards the man.

The driver continued, “You know, I studied physics at Caltech for three years? I had to pull out when my Mom died … had a bit of a … a breakdown I guess you’d call it.”

David’s feeling of guilt turned to embarrassment as he listened to the driver talk. His heart raced and his stomach knotted up. He felt in his pocket, realizing he’d stuffed a napkin in there. He knew that the redhead had handed him a napkin along with his coffee, and as he pulled it out, he saw that she had written down her phone number, scrawled her name, and left him three yellow toothed kisses.

 

xxx

[]CHAPTER SEVEN

Pizza and History

 

West made good time, arriving in New York by ten a.m. He had hoped to get back in time to catch Charlene Osterman waking, but it had been worth putting in a little extra time with David Beach to make sure he was left with clear instructions. When he got to the apartment block, he headed towards the stairwell, but he was stopped in his tracks the doorman.

“Hey there, wait up… wait a minute sir.” He heaved out of his comfortable seat, “Could I ask who you’re here to see?”

“Larry it’s me.”

The doorman squinted, resting an amiable hand on West’s shoulder, “Westie? Holy shit man, I didn’t recognize you without your Rasputin getup.”

West laughed, “Rasputin? That what you think of me?”

“Son, I ain’t saying nothing ‘bout your way with the ladies, but you been rocking that Tsarina screwing, Grizzly Adams mess for long as I can remember.”

West nodded his acknowledgment, “What can I say? I’m coming out of my shell.”

Larry’s eyes widened ponderously, “Well good for you.”

West smiled, “Listen Larry, about that… I’m expecting company; a guy and his daughter. I’m putting them up in 210.”

“No problem.”

West opened the door to the stairwell, but then turned as an afterthought occurred to him, “Expect the unexpected. The guy, he’s in trouble.”

Larry settled back into his chair, “You in trouble?”

“Heading that way.”

 

West took the stairs and dropped his case off at his apartment, changing into a pair of dark jeans, a slogan laden t-shirt and a black sweater before making his way down the hall to Charlene’s apartment. He knocked on the door gently.

Inside the apartment, Charlene had been sitting on the floor of the kitchenette, rocking back and forth, staring at the empty refrigerator. She was only vaguely aware of a sound somewhere at the periphery of her senses. By the third set of knocks, Charlene picked herself up from the floor, rocking forward onto the palms of her hands and pushing up. She walked to the door apprehensively and stood looking at it, waiting for something to happen. When the knock came again, she spoke up, “Who is it?””

West leaned close to the door and whispered, “It’s West.” He heard the rotating lock cylinder of the deadbolt and the door opened. Charlene leaned an arm up against the door and rested her head against it, adjusting the cream wool hat with her free hand. “You want to go get some breakfast?” she asked, her voice slow and husky. West’s hand went unbidden to his mouth, touching his lips, fishing for words. West recognized the woman who stood before him, knew it was her, understood that she bore many of the same characteristics of a girl he had known once. Here was Charlene Osterman, no longer the hopeful and naive girl he had left without a word, or the woman he had watched from a distance as her features became etched with age and her energy waned. This was wrong, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this. He had expected Charlene to be pleased with the relief from pain brought about by the presence of the leech. Not this though … When he finally spoke to her, the only thing he could think to say was, “Charlene, I’m sorry.”

She smiled coyly, her hand sliding down the door and pushing it open further, “Mr Yestler, buy me breakfast and all will be forgiven.”

West moved towards the threshold of the door and leaned towards her, “I don’t understand how this has happened. One leech shouldn’t …” Charlene raised her left hand and put a finger to his lips, offering her suggestion, “Perhaps it was a girl leech?” West shook his head, “They’re hermaphrodites, but …”

Charlene took a step closer and West backed away. Her smile broadened as she reached out and touched the side of his face, “Really West, food first, questions later.”

West nodded and closed his eyes for a moment, inhaling slowly, mastering his nerves before he looked at her again, “You’ll need to cover up then.”

“I’m sorry? I’m eighty-five years old, I can damn well make up my own mind how I dress, thank you very much.” She replied in a mockingly petulant tone.

West grimaced, realizing how he must sound, “No Charlene, you look … It’s just … the leeches …” He stopped and took a breath, “Do you have any antihistamine pills?”

Charlene shook her head, “I don’t suffer from any allergies.”

West nodded, “Let me run next door, I’ll be back in a second.” Charlene was left standing in the doorway, and she leaned against the door frame, watching West hurry off down the hall. When he returned, he was brandishing a small blister pack of pills, “You need to take one of these.” Charlene took the packet from his hand, read the label and asked, “Why antihistamine?”

“You might experience a slightly adverse reaction to the sun, a form of Solar Urticaria. Apparently there are certain antibodies in blood that the leeches aren’t able to reproduce. Antihistamine does a pretty good job of keeping it at bay.”

Charlene rolled her eyes and pressed a finger into one of the small plastic bubbles, pushing the pill through the paper before throwing it into her mouth casually. Food is food, she thought, and besides, if the leeches hadn’t killed her, what harm could an antihistamine pill do.

 

As they traversed the stairs of the apartment building, Charlene asked West what Solar Urticaria was and he explained that it was basically a skin irritation brought on by the sun, “As I remember it, my first experience of it was pretty excruciating, but it didn’t last very long.”

“When was this first experience?” Charlene asked, grinning widely as she took the stairs two at a time.

West raised an eyebrow as he glanced at her, “Food first, questions later.”

They walked out into the street and Charlene immediately felt the heat rise in the skin of her arms and legs. She thought that perhaps this was the skin irritation West was referring to. It wasn’t painful, certainly no more unpleasant than the hot flashes she’d experienced with the onset of menopause. She had never taken antihistamine and she wasn’t sure how quickly they would work, but she guessed that the small pill probably wasn’t even taking the edge off anything she was feeling right now, so if this was the worst of it, she wasn’t going to worry too much about the “excruciating” skin irritation.

West looked up and down Madison Avenue and asked Charlene where she would like to eat.

“Well, there’s a little pizzeria on Park, which always looks quite charming, and I must have passed it a hundred times … You know, I haven’t had pizza in years.”

West laughed, “Pizza for breakfast?”

She frowned, “You did this to me! I’ve been eating like a sparrow since I was sixty-eight. I cleaned out my entire refrigerator yesterday. Even drank the bloody ketchup.”

West took her arm in his and started walking down Thirtieth Street towards Park Avenue, “Oh, I understand, don’t worry. It takes a lot of food to go from eighty-five to thirty in eighteen hours.”

She looked at him as they walked, “Thirty … is that how old you’d guess I look, or is that flattery?”

West shrugged, “Possibly younger. The natural tendency of the delvers is to bring their host to whatever physical state they are most comfortable with.”

“The what now?”

Charlene’s Question gave West pause, “The delvers?”

“Yes sir,” Charlene reiterated, “what are the delvers?”

West nodded, and continued walking, “Delvers … that is apparently the nom de jour for the Leeches, at least in the common anglicized parlance.” He glanced at Charlene, who nodded. He continued walking, “I’ve seen men and women in their eighties who didn’t change at all at first because they were comfortable with how they looked. The most violent and unexpected changes are often wrought in children or teenagers, because their self-image is usually so far removed from the expectations of the people in their lives. Nothing is set in stone though.”

West had lost his audience though. Charlene was distracted by how much of the surrounding city she was able to see. Her distance vision had been failing for several years now and the streets of New York had become a smudgy landscape of gray for the most part. As she looked about her now, Charlene could see every brick, every piece of sculpted stone ornamentation, every steel strut and lintel, and she was overwhelmed by the beauty of her city. This was New York as she hadn’t seen it since her sixties and it was so full of intricate splendor. They reached the corner of Thirtieth and Park and Charlene pulled West’s arm gently in the direction of the pizzeria.

For West, New York was something else altogether. He saw the majestically overreaching buildings as the culmination of a lifetime of wonder and discovery, a world he had waited for, a child’s vision he had believed in. When he occasionally used the hopper, he still found it disturbing how close New York had come to that child’s dream. Whisked out of his reverie, he felt Charlene’s arm tug him into the doorway of the little restaurant.

 

“Table for two?” The host patted the podium in front of him, repeating the words over and over. Calas Gabris was Greek, and three days after receiving his work permit, he had landed his first job in New York. Convincing the owner of ‘The Moon Hits Your Eye’ that he was Italian did not require the level of commitment that he brought to the table, but Calas didn’t half ass anything. In just two days, he had watched Roberto Benigni’s 1999 Oscar acceptance speech over two hundred times. That was preparation. That was dedication. Interviews and press junkets with the director too, he’d seen them all now, and he was ready. The first customer to grace his palm with a crisp folded twenty, he would grin widely, and tell them, “Ah, he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise,” or perhaps, “I feel like now, to dive in this ocean of generosity.” He knew, one of these lunch shifts, his moment would come.

The bell rang over the door, and he looked up from the pristine seating chart, “Ah, welcome, welcome. Here, I find a seat for you. You will have an incredible meal, incredible, just come … come with me.” His hand motions, the gait of his feet, both well-rehearsed impersonations of a Benigni interview from 2009. He ran his long fingers brushing through his impressive, thick black hair as he led them to a booth.

“I assure you we have, le migliori pizze in città, that is, how you would say, the best pizzas in the town.”

Hearing the host’s bold proclamation, West and Charlene both started laughing politely. This wasn’t the city in which to lay stake to such a claim lightly.

The host nodded, smiling and bowing to them, “Your waiter, he will be over in un minuto. You will enjoy, I assure you. Have a fantastic meal.”

 

West smirked, picking a menu out of its holder on the table. He glanced at Charlene, “Good choice, very authentic.”

Charlene noted that the pizzas were numbered, and put the menu aside, “We’re in New York, don’t you know everything is authentic here?” There was a dryness, a bite to her tone that West wasn’t sure he liked. He looked up from his menu, “I’m …” but Charlene stopped him, “Ah, ah, ah … shut up, shut up. I told you I was hungry, and I am. Ravenous, I’d say. I’ll probably eat the table if our damned waiter doesn’t hurry up.” Her voice rose towards the end of the sentence, clearly vying for attention. In response, a tall, somewhat frail looking boy sped across the restaurant, almost falling on Charlene as he reached the table.

“Hi, I’m Gavin, I’ll be serving you today. Can I start you off with some drinks?” Gavin was a third generation Irish New Yorker, and made no pretense of caring about the authenticity of any given diner’s experience.

Charlene shook her head and pointed a finger at him, “You can start me off with a number three, a number five, and a number ten, each of them sixteen inch, each of them thin crust, and if there’s an anchovy anywhere in sight, woe betide you.”

Gavin tapped his notepad with the tip of his pencil, “A number ten with no anchovies is just a Margherita.”

Charlene smiled viciously, “What number’s a Margherita Gavin?”

“Margherita is a one.” Gavin, couldn’t help his eyes; the roll had become so involuntary by the age of eighteen, that during arguments with his mother, or his sister, he almost never saw the ground.

Charlene shook her head, “You know young man, I didn’t come here for your lip.” Gavin’s eyes did another lap of the room, taking in the ceiling, the full horror and embarrassment of his tick only really sinking in when he came towards the finish line and met up with Charlene’s enraged glare. He swallowed hard, “So that’s a one, a three, a five with no anchovies …”

Charlene grabbed the menu and looked at the number five.

“Gavin, do you think perhaps we should start again?”

The whites of his eyes showing, Gavin nodded, performing a circular motion with his right shoulder and tapping the pad nervously.

West clapped his hands together, “Gavin, good man, just ask them to cook up one of everything. I’ll pay for them all, and you can run along outside and drum up some interest, how does that sound?”

“I’ll have to check with my manager.”

West nodded, passing both menus back to the boy. He leaned towards Charlene conspiratorially, pointing his bread knife at Gavin, “Management material written all over him that one, you mark my words.” The two of them sat, watching the silent drama play out between the boy and his manager, then Gavin scampered back to their table, blushing, bottom lip trembling, “Mr O’Keefe would like to extend his gratitude.”

West waved at the man who stood by the bar. The manager returned the gesture with a hearty smile.

West placed his hand on Gavin’s, palming him a bill roll which he imagined would be sufficient to cover the meal, “And Gavin, I’ll take two pints of the pale ale, and …” he looked at Charlene expectantly.

“Oh,” She chuckled, “Just bring us one of everything, and we’ll see how we manage eh?”

West grinned widely. Touché.

 

“So West,” Charlene began, emphasizing his name caustically, “what am I?”

West leaned back into the leather padded seat, crossing his hands behind his head, “Is there something different about you?” He squinted, feigning confusion. When Charlene failed to respond to his attempted levity he started to answer her question,” There are a thousand names for what you are becoming.”

Charlene rolled her bottom lip backwards and forwards between her teeth, and tutted, “I’m not going to accept any more vagueness or avoidance Mr Yestler. I’m willing to concede that so far, I’m not disappointed with the result of your little experiment, but that good will only stretches so far. I want to know what’s going on.”

West shrugged, “I’m not being vague, not deliberately at least. There is a myriad of specific terms used throughout the different cultures of the world, each describing a learned behavior, a physical trait, a specific eccentricity of muscle memory. Some of these terms were arrived at over centuries of observation, while others were more or less representative of the desperate scrabble of a frightened people attempting to put a name to their nightmares.” He smiled politely and leaned away from the table as Gavin returned with a tray full of drinks and two bowls, one containing olives, the other spilling over with bread. Gavin set the tray down on the table and wandered off before West or Charlene had a chance to comment.

West picked up his pale ale and sipped the white froth, then returned the glass to the table, holding it between his hands. Charlene opted for a clear glass, which turned out to be lemonade. She sipped through a straw, wagging a finger in the air in front of West as she swallowed. Gulping, and a little out of breath, she launched in with a quiet but angry whisper, “I mean it mister, if you don’t start making sense of all this for me, I’m going to walk out of this place and forget I ever met you.”

“Charlene, there is too much, even if we sat and ate two of everything on the menu, and talked into the wee hours of the morning, we wouldn’t scratch the surface of describing what it is you are becoming. Not really. You want a simple all-encompassing word, or phrase, then you are Leechborn, Leechkith, a Child of the Delvers, Dannum’s seed, a daughter of the blood of the river Dannum, Blood Thief, Ever-Hunger, Blood-Brood, spawn of Antrusca. Those are but a handful of the terms used in the Anglicized modern vernacular to describe generally, any individual who has become host to the leeches. If I dip my toes in the waters of specificity, describing one such as yourself … that is, one who was not born of Allim, then you would be termed a progeny of the void, Chosen of the Second-Kingdom, Freeblood, Hated of Pretchis, Ahken’s folly, Blood-Bastard, Seeded Second-Realmer.”

Charlene blew bubbles into her lemonade, then returned the glass to the table and moved on to a beer. She was starting to appreciate what he had meant. She’d managed to retain almost nothing of what West had said, but a couple of words had stood out in her mind. She nodded, kissing the side of the cool glass, feeling the condensation on her lip, then she tipped her head back and drank the glass dry, gasping as she came up for air.

“What is Dannum?”

West smiled, “Dannum was the first king of Allim, my home country.”

“And Pretchis? Who’s that?”

West’s smile faltered, “Pretchis was the reigning king when my country fell to ruin.”

Charlene noticed that Gavin was returning to the table, accompanied by two other waiters, each of the three lanky teenagers carrying their own tray with several pizzas a piece. They pulled a table closer to the seated couple, laying the pizzas out in a circle.

Gavin leaned casually against the table, “Can I bring you anything else? Black pepper? Parmesan?”

West nodded, “Sure, sure, and Gavin, remember what I said. Throw the doors open, invite people in, and just keep the food coming.”

 

It didn’t take long for the restaurant to fill up around them, and Charlene quickly found herself absorbed in the bizarre tapestry of conversation that unfolded around her. She was bewildered, suddenly aware that she was able to concentrate on the things that West had mentioned, replaying them in her head, yet at the same time she could discern the separate conversational strands of thirty other people. She picked up a couple of slices of pepperoni pizza, and she ate them slowly, closing her eyes, simply allowing her brain to wade through the whirls and eddies in the vibrant sea of dialogs, both internal and external.

When she opened her eyes, and reached for another slice, she noticed that West was just sitting, watching her, not paying any attention to the room around them.

“Do you want me to go on?”

Charlene shook her head, holding out her hand as she swallowed a mouthful of peppers and cheese. She wiped her mouth with a napkin, and took a swig from another glass of beer, “Why did you leave me?”

He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t anticipated that question, and now that he was confronted with it, West wondered why she hadn’t asked sooner. It still felt awkward to say it, even though he knew he had been absolutely right in his actions. He looked at the table, at the damp rings that had been left by those glasses which were in play, “Charlene, you were a child. I mean no disrespect to the girl that you were, but you know. I mean to say, you’ve lived enough to know that any relationship that we could have had would …” He looked up from the table and realized that Charlene’s body was rocking with silent laugher.

“I’m eighty-five years old, you ninny. I understand well enough. I meant yesterday … What was so important that you had to leave me yesterday.”

West pinched the skin of his forehead between his thumb and fingers, frustrated with his own arrogance. Of course she understood. “There’s a man named David Beach. He’s a governmental peon, and he has become entangled in the investigation into the assassination of President Tiernan.”

Charlene glanced around the room, trying to put faces to some of the conversations she could hear. She rolled her hand in the air, indicating to West that he should keep talking, but she had become more interested in what Shauna was telling her mother. Who was Shauna? By the front window, under the impotent neon sign, Charlene saw lips that synchronized with the conversation, a strawberry blond, freckled teenager, pouring her heart out to a mother who was almost perversely callous, and nonchalant. While West rattled on about this Washington peon, Shauna cried, trying with everything in her to explain to her mother, that what she was experiencing was normal, that it didn’t mean she was a freak, that it wasn’t a phase, wasn’t a choice, wasn’t wrong. Charlene turned her head back, watched West’s lips, and heard Shauna’s voice, this teenager, on the brink of an apocalyptic change in her relationship with her mother. When his lips stopped moving, Charlene’s mind went about untangling the cascading cacophony of West’s words. Beach couldn’t have committed the assassination, couldn’t have been involved, he was low hanging fruit. There had been something else, something that had almost pulled her interest back from Shauna’s emotional renaissance. FBI men, a van, cleaning service …

Charlene pushed back from the table, mouth wide, her voice a rapid whisper, “You killed them?”

 

 

David was relieved when the taxi pulled into his neighborhood. He paid, tipping generously, then climbed out of the car and immediately collapsed onto the sidewalk, clutching his leg. The driver’s window slid down with a mechanical whir, “You okay?”

“It’s nothing … just pins and needles.” David lied, waving the driver off. He waited for the car to pull out of sight before he attempted to get up. It took several minutes of limping and hopping before he rounded the corner onto the home stretch. Hannah’s car was gone. Panicked, he shuffled into an uncomfortable, lopsided jog, hands out in front of him as he tried to steady himself. Once he reached the house, he threw his weight against the front door, fumbling to get the keys into the lock. He collapsed through the door and lumped his weight unsteadily against an insubstantial side table next to the door. Squinting through pain, he balled up his fist against the hard surface of the table, and realized that his hand was clutching a note written in Hannah’s angry chicken scratch.

 

‘David, you total dick. Spiff with Bleakers. WTF is wrong with you. Late for Darowiscki again. Dick.’

 

If the tone hadn’t been sufficient, David would have known Hannah’s state of mind merely by the fact that she’d actually gone through the paper several times with her pen. He shouted for Stephanie, just in case, then when no reply came, he hobbled up the staircase, one stair at a time, each one as painful as the last. He sat on the edge of his bed, grunting and spitting as he pulled off the khaki shorts and t-shirt, kicking the flip flops across the room in the process. There was blood on the shorts. Blood on the green ringer too. Not good, but he knew that he needed to move. He went to the bathroom, chugged back a couple of Motrin, and Acetaminophen, splashing water into his mouth, red water dripping from his hand onto the white porcelain. He stifled a sob, and returned to the bedroom, throwing a couple of pairs of pants, a couple of tops, some underwear and socks into a duffel bag, before setting about the terrifying chore of dressing himself again. Once dressed, he pulled down two suitcases from on top of his wardrobe, tipped the contents of the duffel into one, and emptied half of the contents of his wardrobe, almost filling both.

 

Donald and Julie Bleaker weren’t elderly, but they had plunged into their sixties with unbridled abandon. They now seemed to be in some sort of mad scramble to pass go, collect their two hundred dollars, and settle in to a daily routine of sucking boiled sweets while yelling at the kids in the neighborhood. Every time David spoke to Don nowadays, Don would adopt a sombre tone of voice, talking with this condescending assumed wisdom of age. Time and again, Don and Julie had made it abundantly clear that they didn’t approve of David’s lifestyle, his parenting skills, or his yard work. It was just who they were though, and at least their disdain was not reserved exclusively for those outside of the Bleaker household. Julie would routinely talk about her husband with caustic sarcasm, pantomiming to anyone who cared to listen (and many who didn’t) the whispering of completely audible insults from behind the barrier of her plump hand, while her husband flushed with dismay and embarrassment.

David pulled the screen door aside and knocked on the front door with heavy fist, and heavier heart, but moments later, that weight was lifted when the front door was flung open by Stephanie. She ran through the doorway, threw her arms around his back, pressed her head against his stomach, and yelled, “Daddy, you look terrible.”

David laughed, grimacing at a pain which coursed through his body, seemingly from everywhere simultaneously.

“Thanks hon.” He patted his daughter’s back, his eyes gravitating naturally towards Don’s stern expression as he arrived in the hallway behind Stephanie. Miserable prick, thought David, but the words that came out were more congenial, “And you Don, thank you. I really can’t thank you enough.”

“Mhmm. Hannah called the school, gave them some cock and bull story about this one being ill.”

He nodded his head towards Stephanie, “Truancy is no laughing matter Dave.” His eyes flickered, jumping about David’s clothes, his hands, his mussed up hair, then he continued. “I guess you’ve got a lot on your plate.” He waited awkwardly for David to talk, then in a softer tone, he offered, “Look, any time. Stephanie’s no bother.”

David smiled appreciatively, and hugged his daughter tighter, “Thanks Don.”

 

The moment the door closed on Don Bleaker, David patted Stephanie’s shoulder, “Pack a back pack honey, we’re going on a road trip.” She glanced over her shoulder, squinting with dumbfounded glee.

“Where are we going?”

David thought about New York, the madness of the assassination, the crowds crushing in about them.

“It’s a surprise … Go!”

Stephanie launched herself at the staircase, and made straight for her room. By the time she’d finished packing her little back pack, she was bouncing off the walls. She didn’t want to say anything, too afraid to ask her father what was going on, because that might burst this magical bubble that seemed to be growing around her. She pulled the straps of her backpack over her shoulders, and felt the weight of her hard backed Les Misérables pressing against the small of her back. She looked at the pile of clothes on her bed.

“Dad!”

Within seconds, her father appeared at the bedroom door looking panicked.

“You okay? What’s wrong?”

Stephanie pointed at the clothes, “I can’t fit any more.”

David nodded, smoothed his hair back, then nodded again, swooping towards the bed and bundling all of Stephanie’s clothes in his arms, “I’ll handle these, just make sure you’ve got your toothbrush, and your inhaler.”

Within minutes, David was throwing his duffel bag and Stephanie’s backpack into the back of the Toyota. He leaned against the back of the car, waiting for Stephanie to finish up inside. His head was starting to throb now, pain spearing sharply around the front of his skull, as if his temples were being crushed. He leaned into the back of the car, pushing his chin over the rear seats, straining to see the clock on the dashboard. Four hours before he could take any more pain killers. He climbed back out of the tailgate, just in time to hear Stephanie close the front door of the house behind her. David reached up to close the tailgate, the pain coursing through his body forcing him to close his eyes for a long second.

His hands aching as he grasped the wheel, his right ankle in agony as he applied pressure to the accelerator, David pulled out of the driveway and set off towards New York.

 

The pain kept David alert for the most part, and when the pain took over his senses, the driving assists prevented him from rear ending anyone. A couple of times, he had nodded his head at stop lights, and woken up in a panic, mind twisted from a surreal dream, hands lashing out desperately, while his foot mashed at the brake-pedal. Once he reached the interstate, he sharpened up, embracing every ache and pain, eyes flicking from car to car, rising paranoia fueling his hazard perception.

They were coming up on exit twelve on I95 when Stephanie’s voice piped up from the back seat.

“I want tacos.”

David felt an immediate sense of relief at the thought of some brief respite from tension.

“Not burgers?”

“No. I really want tacos dad.”

“Not … pizza?”

“Dad!”

Stephanie’s obvious exasperation brought a smile to David’s face.

 

 

David didn’t have to drive far off exit 12 to find a Tex-Mex joint. The place was clean, well-staffed, and smelled right, but none of that mattered much to either David or Stephanie. They had eaten from some truly unwholesome taco stands over the years, and had rarely been disappointed. He sat Stephanie at a table with six hard tacos, six soft tacos, and drinks, then asked one of the servers if they minded watching her while he used the restrooms. By the time he got back to the table, Stephanie had already eaten two soft tacos, and was gleefully raising a hard taco to her mouth, sour cream and salsa dripping down her chin.

“Stephanie Beach, you’re a disgrace.”

She tipped her hand, trying to angle the taco so that she could take a bite, spilling half of its contents onto the plate in the process. She nodded, rocking back and forth, giggling cheese and black beans into her hand.

“Good!” she exclaimed, giving a messy thumbs up.

David sat down, plating himself a couple of soft tacos, taking a long swig of his drink.

“You know you’ll get a stomach ache if you eat too fast.”

Stephanie glowered, “Daddy, I never get stomach aches.”

David nodded. She did, although she had a willfully short memory for such things.

“Where are we going?”

“I told you, it’s a surprise.”

“We’re going to New York aren’t we?”

David wiped salsa from his mouth with the back of his hand, “It’s a surprise.”

Stephanie shrugged, “The way we’re going, I wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up in New York.”

David laughed warmly, dropping his taco onto the plate in front of him. He could hear Hannah sometimes when Stephanie talked, probably more than himself. She was sharp, and he knew that he often didn’t give her enough credit for just how much attention she paid to what was going on around her.

“Okay, we’re going to New York. You okay with that?”

“Sure. Hot Dogs, pizza, spaghetti, squids, steak and burgers.” Stephanie checked off an imaginary shopping list on her fingers, grinning a lettuce and tomato smile. “Why isn’t Aunt Hannah coming with us?”

“She has classes.”

“I have classes”

David leaned forward, slumping his head against his hand, “Honey, there’s some things I’m not going to have answers for okay? You know I’d tell you if I could, but I don’t know everything at the minute. There’s a lot of things going on.”

Stephanie felt the confusion filling her eyes. Confusion did that sometimes, like sadness, or too much laughter. A mouthful of cheese and overcooked beef brought clarity.

“You didn’t tell me about New York.”

“Last time we were in New York, a lot of bad things happened.”

Stephanie shrugged, “That was pretty pacific.”

“Specific?” David asked, correcting her.

“Are we going to see the president again?”

“No.”

“Can I have hot dogs, and steak?”

“Sure.”

Stephanie smiled and forced a small fistful of taco past her teeth.

 

 

Stanwick Thrass sat alone in her Pontiac watching the entrance to the taco dive. She didn’t know where David Beach was heading, but she had a good idea what had prompted him to bolt so suddenly. She hadn’t been watching him as closely as she should have. She’d arrived in time to see him drive off in the surveillance van that morning, which had struck her as particularly bizarre. Physically Beach was a pretty average guy, and there was no way he could have had the wherewithal to dispose of two federal agents, at least not without waking the neighbors, and certainly not agents Carmichael and McMahon. Stanwick had watched those two, almost as much as she’d watched Beach recently, although she’d known of them for much longer. She wondered if perhaps she should have taken more time with them, but they weren’t her responsibility, not now, if they ever had been.

She hadn’t followed Beach, because she knew he’d return to his home, although she was surprised to see him turn up almost three hours later, limping, and wrecked. She supposed now that he was heading to New York. He was definitely on the right path, and she couldn’t figure out where else he could be heading. New York … As she watched the entrance to the restaurant, waiting for Dave to come out trailing his daughter behind him, she wondered if he was even dumber than she’d given him credit for. He certainly wasn’t cut from the same cloth as his father.

 

 

Charlene held two boxes up for West’s inspection, “Which one?”

West raised a hand and tapped the glossy lid of the box bearing the title “Ebony Forest.”

Charlene read the description of the dye, which suggested that it would give her hair a complete beauty makeover, with visible glimmer and high shine. She knew hair dye, or at least she used to, but it had been a long time since her hair had been anything but silvery white and she was concerned that going so dark would be too dramatic a change.

“Really? You think I could pull this off?”

West couldn’t tell the difference between the two shades of hair dye, so he shrugged and nodded in response, “Of course you can, have you seen yourself recently?”

Charlene smiled and returned the box marked “Midnight Rogue” to the shelf, “You know, I was naturally a redhead …”

West’s brow furrowed as he tried to cast his memory back so many years, “You were?”

Charlene smiled at him and raised an eyebrow as she walked down the aisle towards the checkouts, “I was. I always suited darker hair though. It was still a little outrageous to dye your hair when I was a teenager. I never would have admitted to it at the time. It was something ‘loose’ girls did.”

She put the box down on the counter and looked towards West, batting her eyelids coquettishly. He smiled, pulled a hundred-dollar bill out of his pocket and handed it to the cashier.

“You got anything smaller?” she asked sullenly.

West rolled his eyes, “If you can crack a smile you can keep the change.”

The girl grinned and raised her eyebrows, “For real?”

“Sure,” West replied, “You honestly deserve it more than me. I don’t work one day in twenty.”

West didn’t wait to see her response, he took Charlene’s hand in his and headed out of the store.

“Is that true?” Charlene asked, tugging West’s arm in the direction of a lingerie store she had spotted.

“It depends what you call work really.”

Charlene pointed to the lingerie shop, “Do you mind if I step in here? My wardrobe leaves a lot to be desired.”

West laughed politely, “You want me to wait out here?”

“No, if you’re not embarrassed. I haven’t taken any pleasure in shopping for lingerie for quite a while though, so I don’t intend to be rushed.”

West knew that it would be some time before David would arrive in New York, even if he didn’t make any rest stops. He opened the door for Charlene, and followed her into the store, “Take as much time as you need.”

Charlene was offered assistance immediately by two of the three female store clerks, and for once, she was quite relieved to have the help. She informed them that she hadn’t been fitted for a bra recently, and yes, she would like to be fitted. She was noncommittal on the issue of cleavage, and she would accept their guidance. One of the girls reached behind Charlene’s back and brought a nylon measuring tape around her front, taking the measurement under her breasts, then reaching her hands back she lifted the tape and took the measurement around her bust line. The girl stepped back and smiled, “Okay sweetie, you’re a thirty-two B. Is that close to what you’re wearing right now?”

Charlene touched the girls arm, “Dear, thirty-two is about how many years it is since I paid any heed to this sort of thing.” The girl smiled awkwardly and glanced towards the other assistant. Charlene caught their interaction just in time to laugh it off, as if she was just toying with them. The girl smiled more naturally, and tried not to look at West as she asked Charlene, “Now are you looking for something sexy, or just day to day wear … casual sort of thing?”

Charlene shrugged, “I don’t know really …” she also avoided looking at West, leaning her head close to the girl, as if she was in on some great conspiracy, “I suppose I ought to get a mix. I’ve just had a major wardrobe clear out …”

“I could do with that myself … pare everything down to like, a capsule wardrobe.” The other girl laughed, “Sure, a time capsule maybe.” The first girl pouted and touched Charlene’s shoulder, “Ignore her, she’s jealous. Let’s see …” she led Charlene towards an alcove in the store which was stocked wall to ceiling with racks of bra and pantie sets.

West hung back, and the second assistant took a couple of steps towards him, “Is there anything you want to look at while you’re here? We have a wide selection of colognes … Or perfumes for your lady friend perhaps?”

West stroked his chin, wishing he could remember the feeling of his stubble, certain it was a sensation he had enjoyed, “I don’t know, I don’t tend to bother with cologne.”

“Would you like to look at what we’ve got? There might be something that takes your fancy?” The girl was polite, not too pushy, and West thought that she at least deserved his attention, even if he didn’t intend upon buying anything. He smiled and walked towards her, and she gladly took the cue to lead him towards the token men’s section. She picked a small clear glass bottle from one of the shelves, along with a tester card. She pumped the spray action, wafting the card in the air for a second as she explained to West, “This is one of our newer colognes, ‘Coiled Tryst.’ It’s infused with artemisia, cumin and bergamot,” she held it towards West’s nose, “there’s an undercurrent of orris and sandalwood. This is probably our most popular cologne at the moment.”

West sniffed and closed his eyes. He knew better than to allow himself to be carried away by scent memory. Sandalwood held so many associations for him and it was this scent which stood out most prominently to him. He opened his eyes and nodded approvingly.

“You like it huh? Like I say … real popular at the minute. We’ve got it on special too, so if you buy anything above three ounces, you get the matching face lotion.”

West tried to imagine what misfortune might prompt him to need face lotion. On the other hand, the girl was doing her job, and doing it well, so he figured he might as well buy a four-ounce bottle. Coiled Tryst, he thought to himself, toying with the letters in his mind … city oldster … dirty closet …

The girl stepped behind the till and rang up the transaction, “That’ll be one hundred and twenty-six eighty with tax.”

West reached into his pocket and pulled out his money clip. Handing a couple of bills over to the girl he smirked, “Tried … costly.” The girl looked confused by his non sequitur, so West elaborated, “Your employers obviously have a sense of irony. Coiled Tryst is an anagram of tried costly.”

The girl smiled as she put the cologne into a small paper bag and reached into a basket to get one of the little tubes of face lotion, “You know I doubt they were being ironic, Tryst is one of the cheaper colognes we sell.”

West returned to browsing the colognes, boxes of men’s briefs, boxers, y-fronts and socks. He spent forty minutes in this activity before he noticed Charlene walking towards the cashier’s desk, her arms laden with a multitude of items. West took great pleasure from seeing how happy all of this made Charlene. He watched the cashier ring up the purchases and he kept an eye on the dollar total, counting off hundred dollar bills from his clip.

“That’ll be six oh five ninety-six.”

West put down seven crisp hundred dollar bills, and looping the corded nylon handles around his index finger, he picked up the three small bags into which the other assistant had neatly placed the clothes from the glass counter top.

The assistant started to count out change from the register, but West waved his free hand in the air, “Please, keep the change, you girls have been wonderful.” He nodded his head towards Charlene, “Look at the smile on her face; that’s worth every penny.”

 

West was sure he heard one of the girls mutter the word ‘chauvinist’ as the door closed behind them.

[]CHAPTER EIGHT

Saving Mr. Beach

 

David Beach didn’t enjoy Manhattan traffic, and to be experiencing it again set his nerves on edge. He’d had a narrow miss crossing 35th at Dyer Avenue, narrow enough that he was pretty sure that the car behind him had been clipped by oncoming traffic, although neither party stopped to exchange details. As Mr Yestler had instructed, he finally pulled into the parking lot on 30th, his hands trembling to the extent that he almost dropped the keys in the process of handing them off to the valet. David lugged two large suitcases out of the trunk, and looked Stephanie over to make sure she had her back pack. He checked his pocket for the apartment key which he had been given that morning, and having assured himself that the key was safely located, he thanked the valet and took the parking ticket from him.

With his limping gate, David kept tilting one of the suitcases onto one wheel, almost tipping it over with each step. The going was awkward, and painful, but he located apartment building as soon as he and Stephanie stepped out of the parking deck. Stephanie clung to his arm, rather unhelpfully as he found a gap in the traffic and lunged across the street.

Once inside the apartment building, Stephanie let go of her dad’s arm, running a small lap of the foyer, brushing her fingers against the brass mail slots as she made her second circuit. David reigned her in, nodding apologetically at the doorman, then made his way to the stairwell.

“Apartment 210?”

The doorman looked quizzical, “Westie’s place right?” The doorman waited for a look of comprehension which never came, “Yestler’s place?” he tried again.

David nodded.

“You Beach?”

Stephanie curtsied elaborately, “Madam Stephanie Beach, at your service.”

The doorman looked at Stephanie, “Does Madam Beach have ID?”

“Nu uh.” She looked at her father hopefully.

David dropped the handle of the suitcase, allowing it to tip over against the wall as he pulled out his wallet, handing it over.”

“Second floor, first on your left.”

David dragged the suitcases slowly up the stairs, panting and moaning slightly, spurred on not in the least by Stephanie’s giggles. She huffed and moaned mockingly, “It’s too far daddy, carry me, carry me.” David collapsed against the wall, halfway up the first flight, bloody hands wiping his sweating brow. Stephanie pursed her lips and looked genuinely apologetic.

 

David fussed with the key, allowing one of the suitcases to fall over as he slid the key into the lock. He dragged one suitcase into the small entrance hall and went back into the main hall for the other. Stephanie pushed past impatiently, running into the wonderland of hardwood floors, tall walls, high ceilings and modern furniture, kicking off her shoes so she could pretend to ice skate around the room.

“You like it?”

Stephanie slid onto her belly and pushed herself along the polished floor with her feet, “Oh Papa, it’s delightful, can we move here forever?”

David rolled his eyes and stepped past her into the living area. It was … he struggled to find a word, before settling on agreement with Stephanie. Delightful. It wasn’t that the apartment was ornately furnished, but it was so impeccably tasteful that David felt almost embarrassed to be standing there. The galley style kitchen area was decked out with marble counter tops, embedded with fossils, cleanly cut and polished. The appliances bore no grubby fingerprints or food spills, and each one was state of the art. In the living area, the furniture looked fit to melt into, but not slovenly and worn. The television was massive, but flush to the wall, and so not overbearing. He wandered down a hallway and glanced into each of the two bedrooms, and marveled at the fact that each of them bore king sized beds with en-suit bathrooms.

When he returned to the living room, Stephanie had already turned on the colossal television.

“Nope.”

Stephanie flipped over sullenly on the soft fabric of the couch, “But dad!”

“Not Les Mis!”

“Dad!” She looked crestfallen, but David shook his head sternly.

He stood in front of the screen, waving his hand as the movie covers flowed by. The occasion called for something special.

“That one.” Stephanie yelled as she saw Hello Dolly flash past.

David looked at his daughter with mock disgust, “You never, never make it through that movie.”

“Do too.”

“What happens in the end?”

Stephanie looked up to the ceiling, searching for an answer, “They all live happily ever after.”

Still watching Stephanie, he waved his hand to push past the title.

“That one!”

David glanced back at the screen.

“Iron Man?”

Stephanie gave her two thumbs up and lay her head back into the couch cushions expectantly.

David nodded his approval and pointed at the screen. Even in her absence, Hannah’s influence on his daughter was warmly appreciated. That thought flashed through David’s mind as his head hit the floor, but he was unconscious by the time Stephanie started screaming.

 

Stanwick Thrass had held back in traffic, then pulled up behind some construction workers, watching from a distance as David and Stephanie Beach left the parking lot. She watched patiently as they headed towards the intersection of 30th and Madison. She pulled out into traffic and raced to the intersection just in time to see them enter an apartment block on Madison.

Once she was sure of where they had headed, Stanwick took a circuitous route, doubling back to the parking lot on 30th. She pulled into the lot and cranked the hand break on, leaving the engine idling while she climbed out hurriedly to survey what damage had been done to her beloved Pontiac in the side on collision. “Piece of shit!” she hissed, leaning down to stroke the buckled metal and the foot-long scratch which coursed through the paintwork. She bit her knuckle and punched the car furiously, admonishing herself for not paying more attention. She held onto the rear bumper and took a deep breath, trying to reassure herself that keeping pace with Beach had been worth taking the hit. She wasn’t entirely sure of that yet. She wasn’t sure about any of this, which made it all the more frustrating.

The valet attendant approached apprehensively, “Can I help you mam?”

“Do your skills extend to body work?”

The valet grimaced as he surveyed the damaged rear wing and wheel arch, “No mam, I’m sorry. I can do my best to clean and buff the scratch, but it looks like you took quite a ding there. Are you okay?”

Stanwick smiled vacantly, “Oh I’ll be fine, thanks for asking though.”

“You need me to park her up for you?” the man asked, sounding rather too cheerful for Stanwick’s liking.

“Sure, thanks.” She took the ticket from the valet and walked down the ramp towards the pedestrian exit. She made her way down 30th towards the apartments, eager to perform some elementary reconnaissance on the layout of the building. Once she was certain that the only entrance to the apartments was on Madison, she scanned the surroundings and noticed a small café on the opposite side of the street, with window seats the entrance.

She ordered an Americano, found a well situated seat and tried her best to switch off her busy thoughts. She took a sip of coffee and allowed her gaze to drift down the street to the intersection. A handsome couple caught her attention as they walked slowly around the corner from 30th and onto Madison. She watched them distractedly, imagining that they must be a fairly recently acquainted couple. Was she being cynical? No, she felt sure that this was a new romance; the two walking with linked arms, him carrying the shopping, her with a spring in her step. Cute outfit though … not self-consciously retro. She was surprised to see the couple walk up the couple of steps to the apartment building, then as they reached the top step, the man turned, and Stanwick’s coffee spilled across the table in front of her. A concerned waiter ran to the table, “Is everything okay?”

Stanwick couldn’t take her eyes off the apartment entrance, the blue dress slipping through the doorway, “Oh no. No!”

“Sorry?” the waiter started to mop up the spilled coffee.

“The Thane of the Void. My North, my South, my East … My West.”

The waiter perked up, “Four Weddings and a Funeral right?”

Stanwick spun quickly in her seat to face the waiter. She pushed a wad of money into his hand before storming towards the exit, “Buy an education.” The yelled response didn’t play out as nonchalantly as Stanwick would have liked.

 

West heard the child’s screams as soon as he opened the door to the stairwell. He called out to the doorman, “Larry, did my guests arrive?”

“Sure did Westie.”

Before Charlene could ask what was wrong, West had already rounded the corner of the first flight of stairs. The door to apartment 210 was wide open, and as he entered the hallway, West could already see David Beach sprawled out on the hardwood floor, Stephanie kneeling over him sobbing.

“Stephanie, stand back.” West commanded as gently as he could manage.

“What’s wrong with him? What’s wrong with him?” Stephanie cried, turning to Charlene for an answer. Charlene dropped her shopping on the floor, ran forward and hugged the child, picking her up and stroking the back of her head, “He’s going to be okay sweetie, don’t fret.”

Crouching down beside him, West slapped David’s face firmly. David didn’t stir. West shook David’s shoulders and slapped him again as Charlene stepped backwards slowly, whispering calming words into Stephanie’s ear.

“Why’s he slapping daddy?”

“Hush now, he’s just asleep. West’s trying to wake him up.”

West turned David’s head and noticed a pronounced dark vein on his neck. He ripped David’s shirt easily, but just then, David started to cough and lift his head forwards.

“What’s what now?” He mumbled, watching West’s face loom overhead, “Hey. Hey buddy. What you doing?” David sounded delirious, words slurred drunkenly together.

“You’re dying.” West informed him urgently.

Stephanie screamed and tried to push away from Charlene, but Charlene hugged her tighter, “Stephanie, he’s going to be fine, it’s just an expression.”

David’s eyes rolled, “I’m dying? Oh God … I’m dying.”

Charlene couldn’t help but laugh at how horrible West’s bedside manner was. She watched him lift the man off the floor and drag him to one of the couches. The man vomited on himself, then slumped back into the cushions.

West turned to look at Charlene and mouthed the words slowly, “He’s dying.”

 

Stanwick Thrass stood in the foyer of the apartment building, tracing her fingertips over the nameplates of the mail slots. West Yestler, Dannum’s second son, here in New York. She scanned another row. West Yestler, Thane of the Void, Master of the Fall, living in obscurity on 30th and Madison. Her finger found the mail slot. She spoke the words, out loud, paraphrasing the label slightly, “West fucking Yestler.”

“He’ll be up in 210. Some kind of ruckus up there.”

“I’m sorry?”

Larry looked up from his paper, “Westie … I’m pretty sure he’ll be up in 210 if that’s who you’re looking for.”

“Oh.”

Westie … Ahken’s Bane, Destroyer of Allim, Herald of De Somnio Mirifico.

“You mind if I head up there?

“Friend or foe?”

“Not sure to be honest.”

Larry shrugged, “That fool’s handy with a knife lady. Saved my life once. You better hope you ain’t a foe.”

Stanwick nodded appreciatively and made for the stairs.

 

As she approached the door of apartment 210, Stanwick could hear a commotion coming from inside. She waited, wondering if she’d be able to hear his voice, or get any sense of his presence. She pressed her ear to the door, and she heard a woman’s voice, muffled but distinct enough, “Look, he’s awake, he’s okay,” then a man’s voice, “Stephanie, Daddy’s fine. Daddy’s just fine.”

She recognized Beach’s voice, even drunk, even muffled by the door. She suddenly felt stupid, like she’d been missing something that should have been obvious for a long time. Of course Beach was working with West; how else would someone like him be able to pull off the assassination? Then clear as a bell, a voice which came from much closer to the door, “Stephanie, your dad is very unwell, but I can help him. He is dying, but with my help he will not die. I can guarantee it … okay?”

Stanwick hammered on the door, her fists raining a fast series of blows. There was silence from within for several moments, then the slurred voice of David Beach, “You … you gonna get that?” She hammered again, punching the door now, slapping it with the flats of her hands, kicking it repeatedly. She could hear a child screaming, sobbing, then the sobbing became hushed, mumbled angst mushed into fabric, and the door handle turned slowly.

There, unchanged, yet somehow inconstant, a bolt of lightning in a world of eternal darkness, there he was; her West, the Sire of the Second Kingdom. Her punch landed squarely in the center of his face with enough force to throw him several feet, where he landed flat out. She walked slowly into the apartment and stood over him.

He lifted his head and smiled full beam.

“Stanwick!”

“West!” She yelled the word, then glanced menacingly at Charlene, who appeared to be considering some sort of intervention. Charlene backed up a step in acknowledgment, and Stanwick’s gaze returned to West.

“West Yestler … a mailbox label! What the fuck?” West started to laugh, but Stanwick Thrass continued, “What? You think it’s funny? The whole world moves into the digital age and somehow you manage to avoid me? Phone directories, government databases, social networks, and you remain elusive. I spend a century looking for you, trying to contact you, wishing like some forlorn child that you’d even spare me a moment of thought, hoping beyond all hopes that you’d contact me! Then this?” She pointed at Charlene, “Strolling through New York without a care in the world, belle of the frickin ball on your arm?”

Charlene waved meekly, “Charlene Osterman. Charmed to meet you, I’m sure.”

Stanwick looked more carefully at Charlene now. She was beautiful, she conceded. She had that certain glow about her. Stanwick lowered her head, her eyes meeting with West’s once more, “You … You made her?”

West nodded slowly.

“No, I mean …” Stanwick closed her eyes and composed her thoughts, “When? When did you make her?” She bit her lip and waited for a wave of burning melancholy, but her anger subsided quickly. She smiled at West, her longest living friend, “How long did you wait?”

“Seventy-five years.”

Stanwick walked over to Charlene slowly, her palms outstretched, her eyes soft, her smile heartfelt. Stephanie nestled her face against Charlene’s neck as the woman approached.

“Stanwick Kith Thrass. Charmed to meet you.” She touched Charlene’s arm gently, feeling the warmth of her skin, watching for the telltale ripple there, the delvers protecting their carriage.

“Hello!” David Beach spoke up, waving a tired hand, “David Beach. Dying over here!”

Frustrated by the interruption, Stanwick’s hand fell from Charlene’s arm as she walked over to the couch.

“David Beach. Your name, and your actions precede you.”

“Wha?” David managed, coughing and gripping at his chest with aching hands.

“Tiernan, struck down in plain daylight, shunted from his pedestal by an office grunt. None of us could have imagined that the dream would end with such ignominy.”

West got up from the floor and came quickly to Stanwick’s side, “Stanwick, Beach had nothing to do with the assassinations.”

She ignored the words, kneeling on the floor in front of David Beach, “Tell them David. Tell them how you and your father masterminded this. Tell them how you helped him take down the would be Emperor of the Void.”

David shook his head slowly, lolling from side to side, “Dad’s a cock. Dad died.”

Stanwick grabbed the front of David’s shirt, shaking him bodily, “Tell them! Tell them how your father stole the seed of Dannum.” She glanced up at West, “Don’t pretend you weren’t involved in this.”

West knelt at her side, “Stan, you’ve lost your mind. Julien Beach died years ago. David doesn’t know a thing about the assassination.”

David stuck out his tongue, slowly, biting it as he spoke, “Dying here.”

West took hold of Stanwick’s arm firmly, pulling her hand away from David’s chest. He pulled the fabric down to reveal the skin, then he spoke softly, “David’s body is riddled with poison.” He lifted David’s limp hand, showing Stanwick the maze of cuts and scratches, “He’s managed to cut himself all over, and he has some badly infected wounds, so it’s spread fast. He’s done.”

“You honestly think he wasn’t involved in the assassination?”

West’s words thundered, “I know he wasn’t.”

“How do you know?”

West sighed, “Here, take his hand.”

Stanwick took command of David’s clammy palm, extending a finger to his wrist, feeling his pulse. West was right about one thing at least; without intervention, David was about to die. He could die, she thought; it wouldn’t really change anything, and eventually she’d learn the truth of his involvement. West wanted him alive. She glanced at the child who still clung nervously to Charlene’s side. Of course the child wanted him alive. She lowered her head in an attempt to make eye contact with David, “Hey, David … David” She snapped her fingers in front of his face, and his eyelids raised slowly, “Huh?”

“David, we can save your life, but you’re going to become one of us.”

“A dick?” David chuckled slowly, his breath catching in his throat. “Hoth …” he tried again, “Hothpital.” David chewed his tongue again, eyes wandering about the room.

Stanwick stood up, and pulled something from her pocket. She looked at Charlene, “Cover her ears.”

“What?”

“The child. Cover the child’s ears.”

Charlene’s brow furrowed in confusion, but she clamped her hands over Stephanie’s ears. Stanwick’s stern expression flickered into a smile as her eyes locked on West’s, “He needs this bad. He needs it fast.”

West offered no resistance.

Glancing about the ceiling, Stanwick spoke firmly, “Music please, album Achtung Baby, volume full.”

She listened to the three seconds of chiming that signaled the start of Zoo Station, then she counted off thirteen bars of sliding guitars and drums. Bar fourteen, she raised a handgun in front of her. Bar fifteen, as the song entered full swing, she fired a shot into David Beach’s leg, the sound masked by the first thud of the kick drum. David Beach’s scream was joined by the self-proclaimed beautiful voice, not that Stanwick was inclined to disagree with Bono.

“Fix him.” She yelled at West.

“This was your choice!”

David’s hand lashed out as he groaned in agony, trying to grab West’s arm.

“He has a daughter! Fix him, or he’ll bleed out before the chorus.”

West looked genuinely panicked, which was not something Stanwick was used to. “I’ve got nothing Stanwick.” West yelled over the music.

“You promised his daughter you’d save him!”

Dumbfounded, West shook his head, “At my apartment Stanwick! I have nothing here!”

Stanwick reached into the inner pocket of her jacket and pulled out a metal flask, but scared of what new hell she was about to unleash on him, David clambered up from the couch, blood gushing out from between his fingers. He fell backwards over the couch’s low back, vomiting as he went. Stanwick threw herself after him, her pant knees slipping in David’s bile as she hit the hardwood floor. She gagged, dry heaving as she spilled the contents of the metal flask onto his fresh wound, then she watched his writhing form spiral out of control, an eerie death spasm break dance, and Bono sang on, ‘ready to duck, I’m ready to dive, I’m ready to say I’m glad to be alive.”

David felt numbness at first, as if the lower half of his body was being thrown about the floor without his will. For brief moments when he managed to open his eyes, the room span wildly, then the pain came crashing through the wall of numbness, like a fire spreading through his body. He closed his eyes against the pain, his mind closing down quickly.

Stanwick grinned self-satisfaction as the multi tracked heavenly choir heralded the birth of another Progeny of the Void. She picked herself up off the floor, and walked over to Charlene, who had danced with Stephanie towards the kitchen in an attempt to shield her from the madness. Taking Stephanie from her arms, Stanwick swung her on her hip with one arm, and pointed at the speakers, “Listen child.”

And Stephanie heard the voices, ‘Hey baby, hey baby, it’s alright, it’s alright.”

 

When consciousness returned, David lay still on the floor, breathing heavily, aware of the weight of his limbs as his body pulsed with pains and shocks. He could hear Stephanie’s voice, soothing, telling him again and again that he was going to be okay, that the nice lady had fixed him. In the darkness, he could see her standing there still, looming over him, gun raised. Nice lady. He tried to respond to Stephanie, but his jaw felt tight, his lips unyielding. His skin crawled as if there were insects moving all over his body, then the feeling would change, and he was sure that someone was scrubbing him all over with wire wool. He wanted to ask them to stop, but he could only manage a repetitive “Mmm, mmm, mmm.” Freezing fingertips stroked his brow, then Stephanie’s voice, “Dad, I can see it! I can see you fixing up. Open your eyes.” Slits of harsh light, broken by vague shadows.

Stanwick nudged Beach’s leg with her foot, “Come on lazy legs, up and at ‘em.”

Charlene folded her arms across her chest sternly, “You just shot the man!”

Stanwick didn’t take her eyes off the leg wound, which was now barely visible, “He was going to die Charlene.”

“You didn’t have to shoot him.”

Stanwick laughed, “You rarely have to shoot anyone, but when the opportunity presents itself …”

West stepped away from the group, heading towards the kitchen, “Charlene, pay no attention. Stanwick’s not as callous as she makes out.” Feigning shock, Stanwick looked at Charlene, “Oh, no, I’m not being callous. Great big open wound like that gives the little shits something clear to work with, focuses the mind.”

“The leeches?” Charlene asked, and Stanwick nodded and shrugged a noncommittal response.

West returned from the kitchen with a small stack of glass tumblers and a bottle of Drambuie. Handing each of the women a glass while keeping one for himself, he reaffirmed Stanwick’s claim, “She’s not wrong Charlene. David was fading fast.”

Stephanie suddenly bounced into motion, rocking back and forward on her haunches, “He smiled.” She patted her father’s head, “Wake up lazy legs. Up and at ‘em.”

Charlene rolled her eyes in dismay at how quickly Stanwick’s influence had rubbed off on the girl. She watched West filling the woman’s tumbler, and she suddenly found herself wondering where she stood. There was clearly a connection between West and Stanwick, and Charlene was surprised at her own jealousy. Yes, that was the feeling, painful anger, bubbling to the surface, a tightness in her chest. Stanwick stepped towards her and leaned her glass in to chink against Charlene’s. Their knuckles touched for a moment, Stanwick’s eyes locking onto Charlene’s. She smiled slyly, “Down girl.”

“I’m Sorry?” Charlene asked, stepping back involuntarily, her calves pushing up against the couch.

Stanwick took a sip from her drink, allowing the sweet liquor to warm her throat, “I can hear you gritting your teeth Charlene. I can see the veins standing proud of your temples. I can hear the unspoken word as your tongue clicks about inside your little mouth. Such a harsh word, but a personal favorite.”

Charlene made to speak up in her own defense, but Stanwick raised her glass to silence her, “Down. Girl.” She spoke the command softly now, then lowered her head conspiratorially, closing the distance between Charlene and her, “I love West. I’ve always loved West, but spend a thousand lifetimes in someone’s company, and love takes on a different meaning. West would not wait seventy years for anyone, certainly not at any time in my recollection. I can’t tell you he loves you, but I can tell you that he’s fascinated with you, and in that fascination, he has found joy.”

West tilted his glass towards Charlene’s and smiled warmly, “She’s not wrong.”

 

From smiling to sitting upright took David another ten minutes, and by that time he had managed to speak a few strenuous sentences, while the others busied themselves with drinks, and cleaning up his blood and vomit. Stephanie sat by him, holding his hand, or stroking his brow, only moving when it was necessitated by busy dishcloths and towels. Once the pain had subsided, he had felt the steady and gradual progression of his strength returning, and as he sat up, fully alert, Stephanie’s arms wrapped tightly about his neck, which to his relief, caused no pain.

“There he is, the man of the hour.” West announced, pouring a glass of Drambuie, and passing it off to David, “Let me fix you some food. I don’t know if you’ve been here long enough to see, but the fridge is stocked fresh with meats and cheeses.

David stared at the glass for a moment, sniffed it, then sipped apprehensively, “We had really just got here, when … What happened to me?”

Stephanie stood up and twirled on one foot, “Stanwick fixed you up.”

David looked up at the two women, unsure now which one had shot him, “Stanwick?”

A woman stepped forward, finishing her second glass and setting it on the end table by the couch. Seeing her properly for the first time, David figured that there could have been worse ways to go than to be shot by her. She was tall, with long dark hair falling either side of her face, and David, (who had never seen a contract killer, except in movies,) thought that she looked like she could be an assassin, in her well fitted leather jacket and tight jeans.

Stanwick could see what West meant about Beach. She had been following him since March, reading so much into his every move, listening to the transcripts of his interviews with a steely cynicism, but now that she was in the same room as him, she could sense something about him. She’d brought him into their world, and she would have to take ownership of that act now, but she could feel it, exuding from every mannerism; an overwhelming goofiness.

“You don’t know anything about your father do you?”

“Huh?”

She watched West as he walked from the kitchen carrying a plate of food for David. Dismayed, she stopped him in his tracks, “Tell me, please … Tell me that you’ve brought David here because of Julien?”

That same dumb look on West’s face. Stanwick sighed heavily.

“The assassination? Dr.Julien Beach, the Prometheus of the new world, stealing the gift of life from the waters of Dannum?”

West looked at Beach, hoping that he would be able to elaborate, but Beach shrugged, “Dad was a …”

“Cock?” Stanwick cut him off, “Yeah, I got that.” She picked up the Drambuie and poured herself another glass.

“Did you even read his book?”

David stuffed a couple of slices of pastrami into his mouth, then answered while chewing, “No, I never really got a chance.” He sucked his fingers before continuing, “Someone bought up pretty much every copy, and there was never a second print run.”

Stanwick nodded, “The Kings Mosaic. It’s a fascinating read. Dr.Julien Beach’s attempt to lay bare a global conspiracy of shadowy figures who he believed appeared time and again throughout the pages of historical texts. If he’d been slightly less astute in his observations, it would still have made some people very uncomfortable. Unfortunately, he spent the final five chapters discussing the rise of a political family, who at the time, had not yet garnered much national attention, but he remained convinced that this was all about to change.”

West watched David’s face, wondering if there would be any sign of recognition, or recollection, but none came. He turned his eyes to Stanwick, lifting his glass towards her, “You’ve read it?”

“Of course. I bought four thousand copies in some vague hope that he hadn’t already drawn too much attention.”

David pulled his daughter closer, hugging her more for his own comfort than hers, “What are you saying? Do you mean my Dad’s book was the real deal? He wasn’t just a conspiracy nut?”

Stanwick laughed, “Julien Beach was a genius. Or an idiot, I’m still not really clear on that yet, but either way, yes, his book was, as you say, the real deal.”

West slumped into the cushions of a single seated sofa, facing Stanwick. It occurred to him that he should have spent a lot more time trying to locate a copy of Julien Beach’s work. He sipped his drink thoughtfully, staring into Stanwick’s deep turquoise eyes, “Julien Beach was onto Tiernan?”

“Yes.” Her lips barely parted, her head tipped forward slightly.

“Prometheus … I take it you mean that he found someone’s cache of leeches?”

Stanwick shook her head almost imperceptibly, and her eyes widened, igniting with excitement, “Our numbers have now been joined by a true third generations West. Beach found the source.”

Still holding onto Stephanie, David Beach stood up easily, giving no thought whatsoever to the fact that this was an achievement in itself. He walked around the couches and stood in the middle of the living room, lowering Stephanie to her feet. He spread his arms, sloshing some of his drink on the hardwood floor in the process, “What the hell are the two of you even talking about? I mean, what did he uncover?”

 

 

Stephanie slumped against her dad, a little bleary eyed, but desperate to pay attention to the adults. She had insisted that David lay his leg up on the couch so that she could see the bullet hole in his pants, and now she tugged idly at the frayed cloth, silently marveling at the fact that her father was alive. If she could have placed her hand on a pin, she would have jabbed her father’s leg to see if he could feel it, but she figured that asking for a pin would look suspicious.

Stanwick sat cross legged on the floor, gazing idly at Charlene, who sat pressed up against the cushions at the end of the couch, trying her best to ignore David’s foot, “How much has West told you?”

Charlene shrugged, “He rambled off some names while I ate pizza.”

West held up a hand defensively, “Oh hang on a minute, I went into that situation fully prepared … I just didn’t get a chance to bust out this bad boy.” He leaned forward, and pulled his sweater off, allowing it to drop on the floor beside the couch. There, emblazoned across his t-shirt, the other’s struggled to read the small white text as West pulled the material tight:

 

‘I survived the collapse of Allim, the Leechborn Wars, the terrors of the Mythologue, the discovery of the new world, the building of stone henges, the birthing pains of every major religion, the rise of the Egyptian empire, the building of the Pyramids, the desertion of Jericho, the deluge, the burning of Alexandria, the rise and fall of the Roman empire, the battle of Hastings, the crusades, the bubonic plague, the Spanish Inquisition, the great fire of London, the Crimean war, the first and second world wars AND Jojo’s 54oz steak night challenge, and all I’ve got to show for it is this stupid t-shirt’

Stanwick blinked, trying to cleanse her eyes of the experience, but she saw out of the corner of her eye that Stephanie had sat forwards attentively, pushing her dad’s leg off the couch. The child raised an enthusiastic hand, and West nodded towards her, “Questions?”

Stephanie inhaled, “What are leechboraws?”

West looked down at his tee-shirt and pulled the material so he could trace the words with the finger of his free hand, “That’s Leechborn Wars.” He spoke the words slowly and somewhat condescendingly.

Stephanie sighed, a little exasperated, “Sorry mister …?”

Stephanie’s question hung in the air, waiting for West to introduce himself properly, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m West Yestler,” he nodded his head towards Charlene, “and this is my friend Charlene Osterman. You can call me West.”

Stephanie patted her knees triumphantly, “West … that’s a funny name. West, what are Leech born?”

“We are.” West replied. He watched her face work its way through varying levels of confusion while he waited patiently for her to ask her next question.

“You are?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“She is?” Stephanie asked, pointing to Stanwick, who nodded, smiling kindly.

“You are?” She asked Charlene, who shrugged, glancing at West, “I guess so.”

“And now, your father is also.” West added, raising his eyebrows slightly.

Stephanie spun quickly, looking at David, who looked concerned, “I … I’m what now?” David stuttered into alertness, leaning forwards on the couch so that he could see past Stephanie.

“Leechborn, Leechkith, Blood Thief, Ever-Hunger,” West started, but he stopped when he noticed that Charlene was pointing at him repeatedly, vying for Stanwick’s attention, “See? Like that,” she called out, “list of names.”

Stanwick laughed. She leaned back on her arms, tossing her hair back over her shoulders, “Stephanie, does that help you at all?”

“Nope.” Stephanie replied, sitting up straight at the edge of the couch, folding her arms as an indication of her dissatisfaction, “What’s Allim?”

West sat back and poured himself another drink,

“A long time ago, there was a country called Allim …”

“Is that near France?” Stephanie asked, hoping that she would be able to forge some mental connection with the familiar. Stanwick responded quickly, “It wasn’t too far from the South Pole, but it was pretty warm back then.” West exchanged glances with Stanwick, nodding a slow and uncertain affirmation, which convinced no one except David, who was still trying to digest the word Leechborn.

West continued, “As far back as our histories record it, Allim was defined by the walls which surrounded the capital city. Beyond the walls, was the world which we knew as the Void Garden, and within the walls, the people of Allim lived peacefully, protected by the watchful gaze of the ancestors of King Dannum, the country’s founder.”

Stephanie raised her hand, and waited for West’s patient nod of approval, “Why did they build walls?”

“The followers of Dannum built the walls to protect the people of Allim from the void garden.”

“Near the South Pole?” Stephanie asked.

West smiled, narrowing his eyes, “Near it, relatively speaking.” Stephanie pursed her lips, convinced that West was being evasive, but choosing to remain silent on the matter. Pick your battles she told herself, a phrase she had often heard her aunt use when she spoke to her father.

“So,” West continued, “Dannum sat, as the self-proclaimed God amongst men, King of the walled city, the tale of his long life and the future of Allim laid out in the pages of The Book of Antrusca.” He watched Stephanie shift uncomfortably before explaining, “Antrusca, daughter of the God King, the founder of the Matriarchal Divinity, she was for a long time the only person trusted enough by King Dannum to set forth the histories.”

Stanwick took off her leather jacket and motioned for Stephanie to come and sit in front of her. Stephanie grimaced, but when Stanwick smiled and waved her over a second time, the child pushed herself off the edge of the couch and shoved with her hands, sliding across the hardwood floor until she came to a rest, sitting on her haunches, staring timidly at Stanwick’s smooth skin,

Stanwick took Stephanie’s hands in her own, stroking the backs with her thumbs, feeling the child’s tendons budge gently beneath the skin, “When I was a little girl, I was raised in the houses of the Matriarchal Divinity, as were all of the daughters of Allim.”

“You were?”

Stanwick nodded, her turquoise eyes pouring over the details of the child’s face.

“Every girl was taken to the houses of the Divinity on the day they were born.”

“No boys there?” Stephanie asked, thinking that this sounded like a pretty great idea.

“No, there were boys too. Boys orphaned by disease, starvation, or dark thoughts were brought up by the wet nurses and sisters of the Matriarchal Divinity, and all boys of the agricultural, or tech sectors would come to the houses of the Divinity for schooling, but they would return to their parents in the evening.”

Stephanie looked down at her hands in thought, and when she looked up, she stared into Stanwick’s eyes, and Stanwick could see that she was on the verge of tears, “So if I’d been born in Allim, I wouldn’t live with my dad and Aunt Han?”

“No, you would have been brought up in a house of a million sisters, each one of them dear to you. When you reached the age of fourteen, you would have been sent to live in the Ag, Tech, or Science Sectors.”

Stephanie inhaled a little raggedly, a single tear spilling from the corner of her eye, “I don’t want to live in Allim.”

Stanwick laughed, dropping Stephanie’s hands and hugging her gently, “Nobody lives in Allim anymore Stephanie, don’t worry.” Stephanie turned her head, feeling her cheek brush against the silk of Stanwick’s blouse. She looked at West, and read the words again, ‘I survived the collapse of Allim,’ and a smile formed on her lips, “When did Allim collapse?”

“About thirty-thousand years ago.”

Spoken softly, Stanwick’s words washed over Stephanie, “but you said you were in the,” she paused, preparing the words in her head, “Matriarchal divinity.”

Stanwick ran her fingers through Stephanie’s hair, “I am Leechborn Stephanie, hated by Pretchis, the last king of Allim, kissed by the tongues of Antrusca; the leeches that live within me, ever hungry, thieves of blood, delvers of the flesh. The leeches are the seeds of the river Dannum, the river named for Allim’s first king, and I am a child of the blood of the river Dannum.”

“And now dad is too?”

“Yes.”

Stephanie considered the information, spinning the words into webs, trying to imagine being hated by a king, picturing a wide river overflowing with leeches. She glanced at the tee-shirt again, but remembered West’s words before she saw them, “The Leechborn Wars … Is that how your country ended?”

“The fall of Allim was caused by someone like your grandfather, a little too curious, and a little too smart for their own good.”

Stephanie sighed, “I never met my grandpa.”

“That my dear, is something even your dad wouldn’t be able to say for sure.”

Stephanie sat up straight, looking Stanwick in the eye, “What do you mean?”

Stanwick’s eyes widened, the full turquoise irises showing, “Well, it goes back to the great secret that he stumbled upon, like West before him.”

David sat to attention now too, his hands on his knees, “My father died before Stephanie was even born, what the hell are you talking about?”

Stanwick looked at West in disbelief, then at Charlene, “You understand don’t you?”

Charlene blushed a little, embarrassed at being put on the spot and unsure if she’d missed something important, “I mean, I get that his dad’s alive …”

David stood up abruptly, pacing the floor, “I don’t understand this. I don’t understand any of this. Will someone please explain what the fuck is going on?” He looked at Stephanie suddenly, his lips pursed tightly, but she let him off the hook with an exasperated shrug of her shoulders, “Dad, the leeches fixed you. The leeches are from the river of Dannum, and grandpa found them.” She turned to look at Stanwick, “Right?”

Stanwick grinned at David Beach, allowing the weight of Stephanie’s words to sink in fully, “It seems that his genius skipped a generation, but yes Stephanie, your grandpa found out about the leeches.”

West picked up the bottle of Drambuie from the side table and offered David another glass, “David, relax, have a drink, eat some food, and let me explain.”

 

West sat back into the couch cushions and closed his eyes, “I was fourteen the first time I met King Pretchis the 289th king of Allim. I recognized him of course. I’d seen his face in public transmissions, but I was in no position to appreciate who the man was until my first meeting with him. Pretchis was a little older than he appeared to be, I mean to look at him, I would have guessed he was in his late fifties and yet he had held court for most of our lives, so he was certainly older. When I met him though, I realized that this man, this face … somewhere in the back of my mind, this face transcended the superficial recognition of first meetings. Pretchis was archetypal, his face typifying what we thought of as the face of King Dannum. His strong jaw line, deep set eyes, the lengthened bridge of the nose, these features cropped up again and again in the archives of Allim, in illustrations of the great figures from our history. If you had asked an artist to render a likeness of Dannum, there you would have the face of Pretchis.’

Stanwick laughed, “You want to explain how you came to meet the king?”

West licked his lips, trying his best to stir his recollection, “I was brought before Pretchis, because I’d been skim reading.”

Stephanie’s nose wrinkled, “You mean, like when you read a few words from each paragraph of a book?”

West opened his eyes, “Not quite. You see, there were great stores of knowledge held in the archives of the scientific academy of Arctum. It was an immense privilege to be given access to the archives, and there was a very clear protocol dictating how the archives were to be read.”

Stephanie shook her head in disbelief, “There were rules for reading?”

West nodded, “Certainly. Many libraries even now have very explicit guidelines for handling precious books. In the archives, you had to inform the administrators exactly what it was that you intended to research, and they would provide you with an index log which granted you access to specific files in the archives. Once you had located your file, you could only read one page at a time.”

Stephanie lay down on the floor with her head resting on her arms, “So how could you skim read?”

West smiled mischievously, “There was a device, common to every home in Allim. it was referred to with an initialism made up of our words describing the parts of the brain. In modern parlance, the acronym would be H.O.P.A.R, denoting Hippocampul, Occipital, Parietal, Amygdalic repeater, or the ‘hopper.’ When it was first introduced, it allowed its user to revisit dreams or memories in perfect detail, with the ability to abstract an out of body experience, or to slow down or speed up time. My description won’t do it justice, but imagine being able to recall a dream as if it was a real experience that you’d lived. Skimming the archives was made possible because of the hopper. The ability to slow down a memory, and really take your time to examine the details was incredible, but additionally, events experienced in the hopper occurred outside of the normal scope of time. The brain would kick into a much higher gear, so something that would appear to take an hour in the hopper might only take a couple of minutes of real time.”

David clapped his hands together, “Oh God, that’s awesome. So you were flicking through the information in the archives, then reading them at your leisure in this device?”

“Do you not have one here?” Stanwick asked West, “I’m sure everyone would love to try it out later.”

West replied, “I’ve got two; not here, but upstairs sure.”

Stephanie looked at her dad, grinning from ear to ear, “Can you imagine?”

David smiled at West uncertainly, “Why aren’t these things in the news?”

“David, you have to understand, there’s been a war waging between two factions from Allim, and it’s a war that’s lasted for the entirety of human history. The two sides have always been in agreement over one thing; we will never share the technology of Allim with the rest of humankind. Our society wasn’t ready for it. Our society found ways to abuse it, and none of us harbors even the remotest hope that another society would have reacted to our technology differently. By the time of the fall, Allim was in many respects more advanced than civilization is currently. We hadn’t managed to escape the planet’s atmosphere, but there are a great many things that you take for granted now which were also commonplace then.”

Stanwick rolled onto her front and propped her head up in her hands, “Of course, one could argue that if it hadn’t been for West’s abuse of the hopper, people might have taken a different view on the dissemination of our technology. One would have to be very wary of whom one made such an argument with, and that in presenting such an argument, one would be inviting oneself to a full scale brawl. I for one, would never suggest such a thing.”

Unable to contain her thoughts any longer, Stephanie asked West, “What were you reading?”

West set his head back down and closed his eyes again, “It started with reading about the hopper, and the research that led to the creation of that device. It may sound pretty stupid, but I suppose it comes down to the fact that I was convinced that using the hopper, I could find a way to alter reality with my mind. It started with the death of my parents, and a desperate desire to bring them back … As crass as it sounds, that childish ambition was the reason I started to visit the archives, but I was a keen enough student to learn quickly that my desire was beyond the scope of science or technology, at least at that time. In reading about the hopper, I learned about the device’s inventor, Stracklin Kith Tiarsis. Reading about Stracklin led to more important discoveries.”

Stephanie sat up again, too engrossed to lie still, “What was it? What did you discover?”

“For one, I discovered that Allim had not always been peaceful. We lived in a society without weapons, and without a language of warfare. Granted, if you want to harm, or even kill a man, even the most innocuous household item can be put to the task, but to the best of common knowledge, no item was made in Allim with the sole purpose of causing harm to another human.”

Charlene interjected, “Pff … You all were pretty naive.”

West sat upright, turning to Charlene, “How do you figure?”

Charlene laughed, “You don’t get to a place where nobody feels safe flicking through the pages of a book, not unless you’ve broken a few fingers along the way.”

West relaxed again, “We were naive! We were scared, and naive. I couldn’t tell anyone about my discovery, because it ran contrary to the teachings of the book of Antrusca … Heresy.” West held up a finger, marking a point in the air, “Not the only culture ever to come to the conclusion that heresy should be punishable by death; however, the Kings of Allim were certainly some of the most ardent adherents to such thinking. Eventually, I was caught skimming the archives, I was brought before King Pretchis, and suddenly, my reading gave birth to another revelation. Pretchis’ likeness to the archetype of Dannum went far beyond a casual similarity.”

West heard the hush sound of fabric on the hardwood floor, and he looked up to discover that Stephanie had sidled closer to him. Sitting by his feet now, she asked, “Did Pretchis know what you’d discovered?”

“Actually no, at least, he certainly didn’t give that impression. Pretchis seemed to know only as much as my index logs revealed, that I’d been reading about Stracklin Kith Tiarsis, and his field work outside of the walls of Allim.”

“In the void garden?” Stephanie asked enthusiastically.

West touched his nose with the tip of his index finger, “Correct. King Pretchis explained that I was one of only four people that now knew the truth about the work of Allim’s greatest mind, and as Pretchis himself was one of the four, and the other two were his closest advisers, he needed me for a very special task.”

“What did he want you to do?”

West laughed as he sat forward on the couch again, “He told me that I was to leave Allim, find the base camp that Stracklin Tiarsis had established in the void garden, and learn as much as I could about whatever it was that had led to Stracklin’s greatest invention.”

“Oh God!” Stephanie inhaled deeply, covering her eyes with her hands, “Did he let you take any friends?”

“No, in fact he told me that because I had officially been arrested, the Dannustine guards would make a show of publicly executing me.”

Stephanie slumped onto the floor dramatically, gurgling while she clutched her throat, “You had to play dead?”

West nudged her with his foot, “There wasn’t really much pretending. I was given a drug which put me to sleep.”

Stephanie lay on the floor now, pressing her arm against her forehead. She waved her legs about, feeling her feet swaying lazily as she mulled over everything she’d heard, then suddenly she kicked the floor, and lifted her head, rambling excitedly, “Pretchis, Dannum, Pretchis, Dannum!”

West looked at Stanwick, and the two exchanged knowing smiles.

“Go on Stephanie …” Stanwick suggested.

Stephanie turned over and stared at the ceiling, sure that her sudden epiphany was correct, “King Pretchis was King Dannum! Because of the leeches right?”

Stanwick lay down on the floor, with her head next to Stephanie’s, “Right.”

Stephanie shut her eyes tight, her mind buzzing with a thousand thoughts. I want it, she thought to herself, I want to be a frickin Leechborn. She felt Stanwick’s head move beside her, then felt her breath as she whispered, “Not yet little one.” Stephanie’s body went rigid with excitement, her muscles warming from the sudden tension. Stephanie had known her whole life that it should be possible, that it was basically down to stupidity that no one could hear her thoughts, especially when they were so clear.

 

David pushed a slice of meat around his plate, while he listened to Stanwick and Stephanie talking. Everything sounded so special, so full of mystery, but he was finding himself more and more pissed off. He looked at his leg, sullenly, some small thought on the tip of his mind, frustrating, and intangible. He listened to Stephanie’s gleeful exclamation, and it only made him feel more disconnected. There was that thought, peeking out of the shadows again, and it was stronger now; not Déjà vu, but rather a sense memory of another time, another almost mystical experience. He was seven years old the first time he’d had the communion wafer placed on his tongue by a priest, and he had walked down the isle of the church, wondering why he couldn’t feel the mystery of it, asking God guiltily, where was his special feeling? He stared at his arm now, asking that same question.

Suddenly he jumped up from his seat on the couch, rubbing his arms frantically, “Oh shit, shit!”

“What is it David?” West asked calmly.

“I think I just saw one!”

“You saw a leech?” Stephanie asked, jumping up from her lying place on the floor, “Let me see, let me see.”

David held out his arms in front of him, stepping backwards as if he could somehow escape his own flesh, “I can feel them. I can feel them moving under my skin. How do I get them out?”

Stanwick laughed hard, lifting her head off the floor and leaning back on her outstretched arms, “I’m surprised it’s taken this long for you to feel them.”

“It’s horrible! How do I make them stop?” David yelled, his voice raising quickly in pitch.

“Hold still.” Stanwick commanded him, “Stop moving and concentrate.” David continued to pitch backwards though, rubbing his arms, then bending over to rub his legs.

“David, if you just stand still, I’ll tell you exactly how to make them stop.” Stanwick’s words fell on deaf ears, but David quickly ran out of space, his back pressed against the wall of the apartment, his eyes closed tight as he tried to block out everything that was going on around him. In the darkness, he started to see them move, only vague flashes of light at first, but soon there was a vast expanse of blackness, writhing with a million red bodies, pulsing and spiraling into one another, consuming each other, and evolving in shape. He heard Stanwick again, her voice calm and syncopated, “They have answered you David. They have answered your desire. They have answered your need. Now you need to take control and give them purpose.”

In the blackness, David could still see their bodies, yes delving, yes tearing into him, but now they moved with the sound of Stanwick’s voice, and they were no longer chaotic.

“What would you be David? Listen to my voice before you think. The delvers will adapt, they’ll learn whatever purpose you put them to, but not everything is quick with them. Some desires, they will bend themselves to over the course of mere minutes, and yet others will take months, or even years for them to achieve. Think on that, because right now, I can see it in you; you are in a perfect state of awe, and they are waiting for you to make a connection, they are waiting to impress you, and they are desperate for you to impress upon them your want for this life. So what would you be David?”

He tried to open his eyes to look at Stanwick, but he was transfixed on the ocean of slithering bodies, “I don’t get what you’re saying. I’m David Beach. I’m a father. I am an assistant to the undersecretary of …”

“Moron!” Stanwick slapped his forehead with her open palm, “This isn’t, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up.’ I’m not asking you to describe the most miserable path you can think of so you can piss away the rest of your days until you wheel yourself into a retirement home.”

“What then?” David’s face was turning red, crow’s feet spreading from the corners of his eyes as he squeezed them tight, trying to grasp what Stanwick was talking about.

“David, I can’t give you any hints here. This is your choice. If I put an idea into your head, you will resent me when you suddenly realize what you have shut yourself off from. You will be fast, no question, and strong, absolutely, but what else?”

David let his mind melt into itself, darkness folding on darkness. He thought of the woods, the trees at Calvert, and the complete nightmare of trying to navigate the undergrowth at an uncoordinated jogging speed. You will be fast? Strong, fast, and uncoordinated sounded like a recipe for disaster. As clumsy as he was, the ability to avert tragedies of ineptitude was something David had thought a lot about over the years. How could that be improved upon though? He wracked his memory, certain he’d seen, or read something, somewhere that would help him right now. The shapes in the darkness of his mind’s eye shifted, separated, and started to move more quickly, thousands of dark lines moving chaotically, but never touching. Their movements reminded him of something, or rather, they were trying to remind him of something specific.

He smiled as he opened his eyes, and he felt a calmness so deep that it was if he had somehow stepped out of his own skin, escaping the heady cocktail of chemicals and hormones. He watched Stanwick’s lips move, and heard her words, but she was slow now, and as David focused his will, increasing the speed at which he sampled reality, so Stanwick slowed.

“Not a bad choice.”

He heard the words stretched into a long drunken slur, and watched her hand moving from her hip, arcing through the air, the fabric of her blouse rippling slowly as she moved. She was going to slap him. He could see that she was going to slap him, and as he moved himself away from the wall, he felt sluggish, as if he was dragging his limbs through a room filled with molasses. He pushed his head forward, feeling the pressure of the air against his face, its drag on his skin, the weight of his arms still dredging through the thick swirls of nothing behind him. As her hand approached his face, David felt the shift in air pressure, and he flinched, the muscles in the back of his neck tightening, the warmth spreading down the cape to his shoulders. Then the hurt came, starting with a sonic boom, like a deep roll of thunder in his left ear, followed by a burning agony spreading in perfect circular waves from the center of his ear, reaching down to his cheek and wrapping around his head. It occurred to David that the experience would be more bearable at normal speed, and as the thought entered his mind, the sound of Stanwick’s laughter pierced through over the ringing in his ear.

Stanwick stooped her head to make eye contact with David, who was wincing and clutching the side of his face, “You know, I was aiming for your cheek right?”

“That really hurt!” David complained, immediately embarrassed by how whiny he sounded.

“A car crash is a car crash David, no matter how slowly you perceive the passage of time. If you’re surrounded by a ton of metal that is buckling at thirty-five miles per hour, you’re not going to be able to do anything about that unless you’re faster.”

“You said I would be fast.” David spoke calmly, deliberately lowering the timbre of his voice.

“You’re fast, I’m fast, it’s all relative.”

“So what? Now I’m stuck with the ability to experience pain more exquisitely than ever before?”

Stanwick laughed, and turned her back, “No David, what you have experienced there is a fairly low level function for the leeches, triggered by the release of chemicals associated with stress and fight or flight responses. You’ll find something that works for you, don’t worry. In the meantime, I suspect we should push on with your history lesson. The fact that you have left Washington will have caused a stir by now, I’m sure.”

 

[]CHAPTER NINE

The Void Garden

 

Brad Cobb squeezed an avocado judiciously, then rolled it off the palm of his hand and into the cart. He had shitty luck with avocados, but this particular berry was destined for a Cobb salad, and a party of one, so it didn’t matter either way. Every salad was a Cobb salad, and Brad would remind himself of that, no matter how much bacon or pulled pork spilled over the sides of his plate. Cobb worked out though. Most days he’d spend upwards of ten hours on the job, three hours in the gym, an hour at the range, and the rest of his time would be divided between eating, sleeping, and gaming. One of his colleagues had asked Cobb if gaming was a guilty pleasure, and Cobb had explained to him that as a lapsed Roman Catholic, everything was a guilty pleasure. It was partly true. Cobb didn’t make a habit of doing anything he didn’t like doing. His job was a testament to that. When the call came, Cobb walked away from his cart and made his way towards the store’s exit whistling, already happily resigned to the fact that something was going down.

At the office, there were stern faces, and bruised egos. Agents McMahon and Carmichael, two agents working the Beach case were MIA, and this fact had not been picked up on by anyone for over twelve hours. Heads would roll. A drive by had revealed that (contrary to what the low-jack would have them believe,) Beach’s Toyota was not parked outside the Beach residence. An attempt had been made to activate David Beach’s cell phone, and this had failed. A warrant was being sought to activate Stephanie Beach’s phone, but this would likely prove pointless.

This was the shit storm that was thrust upon Cobb, and he smiled inwardly. He opened a manila folder and checked the duty log, noting that McMahon had penciled himself and Agent Carmichael for ‘Clean up and asset retrieval,’ which indicated that they had driven to the Beach residence with the intention of wrapping up what they thought was a dead end. He’d not spent much time talking to either of the agents, but their reputation in the D.C office was impeccable. He hadn’t had any involvement in the Beach case either, and up to now, he could have cared less. Now though? With two field agents, and their mark missing in action, it was starting to look like something Cobb could really sink his teeth into.

 

“I’d been beyond the walls of Allim once before. One of the many privileges of being brought up in the science sector.”

“Into the garden thing?” David asked. West raised a quizzical eyebrow, but David didn’t care; he had made a decision early in life that he would rather look stupid and ask questions, than stay stupid and remain silent. He shrugged, “Look I get it okay, I get that this is a big deal.”

West shook his head, “I’m sorry David, I don’t mind the question, but it shouldn’t be necessary. You’ve been tuned out, which is understandable. There’s a lot to take in, absolutely, but I’m sure you’ll find that if you focus for a moment, you will be able to recall the conversation perfectly.”

David closed his eyes and thought through everything that had been said, “So I’m right … The Void Garden.”

West nodded, watching David roll his eyes and sit back into the couch cushion.

“The first time I visited the Void Garden, I was seven years old, and I was with a group of three hundred students from Arctum. A hundred or so yards from the walls of the city, there was a precipice which overlooked some thousand-foot drop into dense forest, and each child was allowed to stand at the precipice for five seconds before they were hustled back to the wall. If you were brave, professor Pirlek Magren would hold the back of your clothes and allow you to lean over the edge.”

“Did you do it?” Stephanie asked, certain that she knew the answer already.

“I did. It was a breathtaking sight, to be sure. Five seconds of absolute wonder, soaring a thousand feet above the edge of the void garden, then that gnarly hag Magren yanked me out of my reverie.

Stanwick laughed, “Magren wasn’t that bad. She could only have been in her thirties when you had her.”

West nodded, “Honestly she might not be as bad as I remember her. The Matriarchs set me up for thinking that every woman beyond the age of twenty were gnarly hags.”

Stanwick gasped, “How have we never had this conversation? They were just normal women, looking after all of the children of Allim.”

“I was schooled there, but I wasn’t brought up in the divinity Stanwick. From the outside, it was all some huge mystery, and yes honestly, whenever I ventured anywhere near the houses of the divinity, I saw a lot of pretty rough looking women.”

Stanwick bit her lip and rolled her hand with a flourish, “Do go on West. Regale us with your tale of daring do and adventure, and make sure you embellish it with as many chauvinistic motifs and ornamentations as you can.”

West rolled his tongue along the backs of his bottom teeth, composing his thoughts, “On the morning of my execution, the commander of the Dannustine guards explained to me that I would need to keep my arms stiff at my sides, my mouth tightly closed, and I would need to walk stiffly. Penitents, those people who were sacrificed daily in the Zenith Pyres would be trammeled, which means their mouths were sown shut, their arms were sown to their sides, and their legs were sown together from their crotch to their knees.” West noticed that Stephanie’s eyes were filling with tears, so he moved ahead quickly, “Later that day, I woke in a tunnel beneath Arctum, my head hanging between the bodies of two of the Dannustine Guard, the glistening glardium floor reflecting the dim service lights.”

“What’s glardium?” Stephanie asked, a slight quiver in her voice.

“Glardium was the main building material used throughout Allim, an amalgam of glass, granite, and ore. The most important thing about glardium was the silica coating which was applied at the cold end of production. It was almost impossible to scratch glardium, and because of the coating, whenever two glardium surfaces met, an ad-hoc communication network was formed.”

David sat forward quickly, “Whoa there, wait a minute, are you talking about fiber optics?”

West’s nose wrinkled, “Not really. Fiber optic works using the transfer of light. Glardium was a little more advanced than that. Most of the people of Allim didn’t understand how the city worked, and to be honest, even the scientists of Arctum were a little in the dark on the subject.” West sighed, “I’m getting ahead of myself really. I didn’t understand glardium until I left Allim.”

“I’m sorry.” David offered.

“No need to apologize. Where was I?”

“In a tunnel, looking at the glardium floor.” Stephanie piped up, her enthusiasm quickly rebounding.

“Yes, so I’m dragged to the end of the tunnel, and the guards tell me that my stuff should be on the other side of the door. One of them pressed their hand against a plate, the corridor filled with light, and I was tossed out into the void. Fourteen years old, with nothing but a few changes of clothes and a couple of day’s worth of food.”

“And the sticks.” Stanwick added, pointing at West with an extended arm, “Boom!” she blew on the tip of her finger.

“I was getting to that.” West glared at her jestingly, “It took two days to climb down the precipice, and when I reached the bottom, I hadn’t walked forty paces into the dense forest, when I was greeted by the site of the Dannustine crest, flapping in the breeze, clearly marking the site of a camp.”

“The camp?” Stephanie asked, “Crackling’s camp?” She hid her mouth behind her hand to mask her mischievous grin.

West nodded, “Stracklin Tiarsis’ camp, yes. I suppose if I’d set off in any other direction, it might have taken me months to find Stracklin’s camp, but there it was, overgrown, fetid, picked over by wildlife, but more or less intact. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I found the camp. Everything about the landscape bent my will towards that clearing, and I’m sure that the path I took must have been the same route that Stracklin Tiarsis followed on his return to Allim.”

“I spent a few hours rummaging through crates and containers, growing more and more disappointed. There was nothing amongst these artifacts that wasn’t already documented in the archives of Arctum. The great invention was born of Stracklin’s discovery that the glardium rills were facilitated by the presence of microscopic organisms in the water supply which ran under the tech district where the glardium was produced. Fascinating, but nothing I hadn’t already learned. Then, finally, I opened a chest which bore the runes which represented Stracklin’s initials, and in that chest, was a journal. Now mind, there were many of Stracklin’s journals in the archives. I’d read them front to back, numerous times, so I knew as soon as I opened this book that it was unlike the others. Filled with illustrations of hideous creatures here, technical diagrams there, and in the middle, a map, marking the path of the River Dannum, it’s course throughout the void Garden, and through tunnels beneath Allim.”

Stephanie kicked the base of the sofa, and West looked up, “Yes?”

Stephanie shook her head, her eyes wide, “Go on …”

West pointed at his hand, “There, on the map, was a single rune, our word, ‘silinthalis,’ which could alternatively be read as birthright, or origin. I read through the pages slowly, and quickly learned that the illustrations, these abominations of nature all seemed to stem from this point on the Dannum, this silinthalis. It was clear to me that I need to find this point on the river Dannum; the origin of his discovery.”

“The sticks West!” Stanwick reminded him.

“Oh yes, sorry. The other thing I discovered at Stracklin’s base camp, was also directly related to the information I’d been skimming. Two sticks, both fairly bland to look at, but each of their own distinct shape. I’d seen illustrations of them, read references to them, and anecdotal accounts of their existence, and here they were. Two sticks, both of them inscribed with our runes for ice, fire and wind. Weapons.”

 

 

“It didn’t take long to figure the sticks out. Depending on how they were held, one of the sticks would emit a fine focused spray of fire, wind, or ice cold wind, and the other would send out a much broader wave. I honestly don’t think I could have survived in the wilds without them, and at the time I wasn’t sure whether or not Pretchis had known that I’d find them, or if he was banking on me dying.”

David drummed his fingers on the arm of the couch. He would be the first to admit that he was no scientist, but he was certain that these ‘sticks’ were beyond the realms of physics, “I’m sorry but what powered these weapons?”

West leaned over the arm of his seat and poured himself another drink, “David, the sticks were almost completely smooth, and there was no obvious way to open them up. I wasn’t about to try to dismantle them.”

“Oh … Okay.” David responded dubiously.

“However, like I said, I’d read about them extensively. For one thing, when it came to harnessing solar power, the scientists of Allim had made significantly greater advances in efficiency and storage. The weapons benefited from a similar coating to the one used in the manufacture of glardium, and that substance was sufficiently energy efficient to power Allim. If you look at solar cells today, you’ll find that they are pretty pathetic. The glardium rills combined elements of photosynthesis and macro kinesis. The sticks couldn’t sustain a constant stream for more than a few seconds at a time, but for most things you encounter in the wild, let’s be clear, a few seconds of fire is sufficient to make light work of them.”

David flushed a little, folding his hands together in his lap, he offered an apology, but West cut him off, “David, really, you need to stop apologizing. We were advanced. We were sufficiently advanced that some of what we achieved would look like magic to you. There was no magic. Science was our God, our jailer, and our prison. Science peered into the minds of the citizens, and discovered our darkest secrets. Science powered the zenith pyres that engulfed the bodies of the penitents.”

“You know, I saw just last week, there was a show talking about something that looked a lot like those sticks,” Charlene offered, “Was it on the History Chanel, or Discovery? I can’t rightly remember, but there was some famous professor talking about how the Egyptians used something like that to move the stones to build the pyramids. He was talking about how they were helped by aliens, which I’ll be honest, I thought was a touch far-fetched …” she trailed off, hoping that someone else might have caught the show she was talking about.

Stanwick responded with apparently genuine concern, “Charlene, the Egyptians were incredible engineers. The methods used to build the pyramids are well established. Aliens didn’t assist the Egyptians, and neither did they assist the people of Allim.”

Charlene laughed, “I’m not simple child, that’s not what I was suggesting.”

“Oh, you mean …” Stanwick looked at West, then her gaze returned to Charlene, “Us? You’re asking if the Leechborn intervened in human history?” She didn’t wait for Charlene’s answer, “Not in Egypt, no. Hell, we intervened, certainly, but you’ll understand in due course why such intervention was necessary.”

West held up the bottle of Drambuie, “Would anyone like a top up?” he looked at Stephanie who was still sat on the floor near his feet, “Can I get you a drink? Some food?”

Stephanie nodded, “Hot dogs, pizza, squid, spaghetti, burgers, steak.” She checked off on her hand, glaring at her dad lest he attempt to rain on her parade.

West laughed, “Stephanie, you are truly a girl after my own heart.” He glanced around the room, “Can we put this on hold for five minutes? There’s a guy not half a block from here, does the best all beef hot dogs.”

Stanwick pushed herself up off the floor, “I can make a run, there’s no need for you to stop everything.”

West shrugged, “Sure, just make sure you get like 10 with sauerkraut and 10 with everything.” Stanwick licked her lips and closed her eyes “Mmm, sounds good West, but what will everyone else eat?”

West leaned forward, checking out David’s appearance, and noting that he looked slightly emaciated, “David, not even joking here, how many do you think you could put away?”

David hadn’t thought any more about food since the meat and cheese, but now that the question had been tabled for debate, he became aware that he was actually ravenously hungry again, “I mean, I’m sure I could eat five, but that would be gluttonous.”

West shook his head, “There is a risk of glutting the leeches, but you are nowhere near that territory.” He pulled a roll of cash from his pocket and tossed it to Stanwick, “Just surprise us.”

 

 

 

Stephanie paced herself, taking her time to savor her hot dog, enjoying the nuanced mix of flavors. Every bite was a challenge, but she did her best to unhinge her jaw, hoping to get a perfect blend of hot dog, bun, chili, cheese, sauerkraut, jalapeno and onion in each mouthful. She had spilled a little, but when she looked at the adults, she felt proud that she had made less of a mess than any of them. If she thought about it too much, it was a touch disturbing watching the adults eating. Her dad was possibly the worst, trying his darnedest to fit an entire half pound hot dog into his mouth in one go. She had wretched a couple of times, forcing her eyes down to her lap so that she didn’t have to witness the full spectacle, but even the sounds they were making bothered her. Quarter of the way through, she started to hum, closing her eyes, rocking backwards and forwards, unsure if any of the adults were aware of how hideously they were behaving. She had grabbed a can of diet soda from the refrigerator, and she fumbled about in the air in front of her, hoping to find the can, too grossed out to look up. When a dollop of chili dropped on her wrist, she didn’t bother to check where it had come from, she simply wrapped her dog in its tinfoil, and turned around, shuffling behind West’s couch.

Before she had made it half way, she saw the adults making their way back and forth to the kitchen, each of them washing their hands in the sink, or taking drinks for themselves, and she imagined that they must be tucking into their seconds, but Stanwick suddenly knelt in front of her, “You can come out now Stephanie, it’s all safe.”

“The food’s all gone?”

Stanwick smiled, “Mostly. There’s a couple left for later, but I’m sure they’ll get eaten.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes in disbelief. Leaning closer, Stanwick touched Stephanie’s brow affectionately, brushing a couple of strands of hair out of her eyes, “Do you mind if I call you Spiff?”

Silently chewing, Stephanie’s eyes widened, the corners of her mouth giving into a smile. She shook her head a little stiffly, wiping sauce from her mouth on the back of her wrist, “My aunt Han calls me that.”

Stanwick nodded, “I know. Thank you. It’s an honor that you’d let me share that.”

Stephanie wrapped her hot dog again, and shuffled onto her knees, “I wish she was here. Aunt Hannah would be so jealous if she knew we were eating hot dogs. They’re one of her favorites.” She watched Stanwick’s face, and found comfort in the fact that her expression was calm and unwavering. Stanwick told her that she’d see her aunt soon enough, and Stephanie felt sure that she could trust her. Rather than getting to her feet, Stephanie shoved her precious foil cargo under her arm, and pulled herself forward on the smooth floor with the palms of her hands, inching her way around to the front of the couch. Stanwick followed close behind her, and sat next to her on the floor again, resting a hand on Stephanie’s arm

 

Stephanie liked the sound of West’s voice. It seemed to her exactly as it should; deep, in a comforting way, and just gruff enough that she felt safe in his presence. She watched his face as he spoke, completely enthralled by the singular thought, as fantastic as it seemed, and as impossible, that a face could exist for so long, as good as forever, and still display such profound humanity. If it was battle worn, it didn’t show. She couldn’t make out a single scar line, or twisted contour suggestive of previous bone breaks. She knew about those things, about fractures and scars, and that knowledge made her feel somehow special. She knew about humanity too, as well as she could. She’d read about it, and knew what it should look like, and she thought that it was as perfectly represented in West’s face as it could be.

She listened as West talked about the forest, about how easily he had become lost, and about the months it had taken him to find the river again. She tried to forgive him for his descriptions of the animals that he had killed, and the devastation that he wrought as he tramped through the void garden. She loved animals, so forgiveness didn’t come easy to her, but as she smiled at him, imagining his version of eternity, empathizing as best as she could with his struggle, she understood that she was in no position to judge him. She’d read about judgment and compassion, and she was certain that although compassion was more painful, it was also more versatile.

She could sense the excitement building in the rhythm of West’s speech, the gentle acceleration and florid wording. He became more grandiose, sitting up straighter, leaning forward and punctuating his words with emotional gestures of his arms.

“There it was, after months of arduous and desolate exploration …”

“Silinthalis.” Stephanie whispered the word, egging West on, and he didn’t disappoint. He looked right into her eyes, his expression one of wild excitement, repeating the word in a sombre whisper.

“What did you see?”

West blinked, remembering it clearly now, for the first time in more than a century, “Just the river. There was nothing to see but the river.”

Stephanie drunk up the anticipation, her heart beating faster. Her father was a masterful story teller, and he toyed with her in this same way, allowing the most audacious moments of his stories plenty of room to breathe. She sucked her bottom lip, closing her eyes, waiting for the moment to crest.

“The book of Antrusca tells the story of the God King Dannum. Dannum led his tribe through many battles with the other peoples of the continent. One day, he came with his people to gather waters from the great river, and stepping in first to make sure the waters were safe, he came to be overpowered by the current, and his body was swept away before any one of his people was able to save him. For two days and nights, the people mourned by the river banks, searching for his body. On the third day, the people of Dannum’s tribe had completely given up hope, when one of the elders spied upstream, a man walking in the deeps, his arms outstretched, his body cloaked in black.”

The pause, two, three, Stephanie smiled to herself.

“Dannum had returned from the clutches of death, in order that he may lead his people triumphantly from the perils of the void garden. There I was, not at the source of the river but rather the point of Dannum’s true origin. I stepped into the waters, wondering what magic I might feel, but suddenly my body was wracked with pain. It was as if I was on fire, and the waters could do nothing to quell the flames. I thrashed about, sinking under the current, swallowing too much water, unable to see the surface through the black cloud that surrounded me. My feet touched the riverbed, but I didn’t have the strength even to push up to the surface, and eventually, when I could hold out no more to either the instinct to breathe, or the desperate need to escape the pain, I finally inhaled a lung full of water.”

Stephanie sank into her imagination, closing her throat and holding her breath. She desperately wanted to ask him if he died. Moments like this were made to be broken.

“You know what I had become. Washed up on the bank of the river, I think I knew it myself. Everything I had come to suspect about the book of Antrusca, and its account of Dannum’s long reign suggested what I had become. In the days that followed, I threw myself at the void, battling the beasts with my bare hands, ravenously hungry, daring them to challenge me. In the first week, my wildest imaginings were confirmed. I tracked a tiger, following it cautiously, but deliberately upwind, watching as it tasted me in the air. I could tell that it was challenged by the fact that I was stalking so brazenly, but eventually, curiosity won out and it turned, body hunching low, hind quarters swaying to and fro. When it finally pounced, I readied myself and grabbed its paws, feeling the weight of its body crashing against me as we tumbled to the forest floor. Claws dug against the skin of my chest, digging deep, but not quite puncturing. The mouth opened about my throat, closing with that thousand pounds of pressure, so I was certain that my neck would snap. With the warm rotten breath engulfing my face, I let go of the paws, took its mouth in my hands and fought back, prying its teeth from my throat as it scratched at my arms and shoulders, finally drawing blood.”

Did you die? Did you die? The question kept coming to the tip of Stephanie’s tongue now. She rushed to cover her mouth, knowing that she’d gone too far, but too late, she laughed out loud nervously.

“Did you die?”

West laughed, “I died a thousand times. I died every day in the void, or at least I would have if it weren’t for the leeches. So that thought, which had never left me, came to be fully formed. Dannum must have gone through that same rebirth as I had, and in so doing, I began to question, could he have ever died? Could age have consumed him? Or fire? One thing was beyond question though. Somehow, he was still alive, still reigning over Allim, as he always had. He was Dannum, he was Thrasus the Sixth, he was Eyernstan the Benevolent, he was Omaris Kith Thissick, and a hundred other kings, each of them loving the people of Allim to death, loving with a ferocity that would scorch out the darkness. Pretchis couldn’t be allowed to continue. I didn’t know if he could be killed, but I knew that when I returned to the city, I needed to be strong enough to bring an end to his eternal reign.”

Stephanie lifted her hands imploringly, “How could you know?”

“How could I know what?”

“How strong you’d need to be?”

West nodded slowly, “It’s a good question Stephanie. I had no way of knowing, so the only thing I could do was wait until I felt confident in my own strengths.”

“How long did you wait then?”

“Sixteen years.”

Stephanie’s mouth fell open in shock. Somehow the idea of sixteen years spent preparing for one task, was harder for her to grasp than the idea of someone living for thousands of years. She wondered if it was perhaps because it was so much easier to comprehend sixteen years. Seven years had been her eternity so far, so sixteen years was twice eternity. She thought about West’s grasp of eternity, and felt her concept of temporal awareness shut down on itself. Satisfied with her own reasoning in the matter, she gripped Stanwick’s arm in an attempt to ground herself in reality again.

“In time, I came to understand how to will the changes in my body, and the leeches served my every whim. I understood that without the frequent consumption of blood rich food, I would become weak, no matter how much plant protein I ate. By my thirtieth birthday, I had become the alpha predator of a twelve hundred square mile jungle. I could scale sheer rock faces with my bare hands, almost as fast as I could jump down. I could fell a tree with no tools but tooth and nail. Even the beasts of the river Dannum, blessed as they were with the ever giving gift of the leeches, even they cowered in my presence.”

“To the North was an active volcano whose peak was sometimes visible from the tallest buildings of Arctum, but the steeps and slopes were desolate, and North of the volcano, there was only sea. I was the scourge of the void garden, and the animals lowered before me. All that was left to conquer lay to the East, within the walled city. I’d made three attempts over the years at walking the perimeter of the city, completing the trek only once, and for what? To discover that there really was no entrance other than the one below Arctum. So my only option was to either steal my way back through the hallowed halls of Arctum, or to scale the wall.”

“At the tallest point in the West Tertiary, the wall stood at one thousand two hundred feet, and I was determined that this should be where I would enter the city. A month after my thirtieth birthday, I attempted to climb the wall. The surface was almost completely smooth, glardium polished to a sheen, each block twenty-foot-tall with no discernible lip between one block and the next. At first, I imagined that with claws like the Dannustine tigers, I could perhaps drive my fingers with enough force to grip the wall, and I wasn’t completely wrong in that assumption. I made it perhaps twenty feet, each handhold an immense struggle, driving my fingertips into the glardium with enough speed to cause tiny fractures, but twenty feet was enough to realize that the other thousand odd feet would be impossible. I didn’t give up though. I imagined that if the surfaces of my hands and feet were more like those of the lizards of the forest, ridged, covered in tiny hairs, perhaps then I would be able to make better headway.”

Stephanie squeezed Stanwick’s finger before she spoke, “Did you reach the top?”

West looked into Stephanie’s eyes, and suddenly he looked haunted, “No Stephanie. No I did not.”

“How far did you get?”

“I’d guess half way. Wouldn’t you say?” He looked to Stanwick for assistance, and Stephanie wondered why Stanwick might know the answer any better than him.

Stanwick’s eyes narrowed, “You still haven’t?”

West pursed his lips, “Never.”

 

Stanwick’s fingertips, wrapped tight in Stephanie’s small hands formed a million points of contact, a million pathways to the child’s thoughts. It was overwhelming, but she couldn’t stop herself. There was something magical about the way Stephanie’s mind was working. Living vicariously like this, experiencing the world through a child’s eyes, lost in the crazed rush of misfires and revelations was always something special, but there was a peculiarity to Stephanie Beach. It wasn’t that the child seemed wise beyond her years, but there was an inert sense of legacy. When West spoke, Stephanie appeared to be able to empathize with his story, making conceptual leaps with very little context. She bore a seven-year-old’s quest for acknowledgment, searching for a punchline at the end of every rainbow, vying for recognition, but she was sensitive to the timing and rhythm of the conversation. West had spoken one word, “Never,” his admission to Stanwick that even after so long, he still hadn’t been able to face his memory of that fall on the hopper. Stephanie had felt the pain in his word, which was normal, but for a moment, Stanwick could see Stephanie’s examination of that pain, her young imagination rifling through the pains of her own past, imagining if she would have benefited from reliving those tribulations, or if they were best left alone.

Stanwick blinked, trying to shake the moment out of her head, too absorbed, “You made it more than half way.”

West nodded, “After that, I gave up on the idea of climbing the highest point on the wall. I’m not entirely sure why the idea had ever appealed, other than the fact that it presented a challenge. I traveled North, to the point where the wall curved around the boundaries of the Dannustine Palace, then East until I heard the distant bells of the Matriarchs. North of the temples of the Divinity, the wall was only a couple of hundred foot, and it was there that I made my return to the city.”

 

Brad Cobb sat in his car watching patiently for the better part of an hour before Hannah Beach turned up. He watched her make her way to the neighbors front door, where there was a short exchange of words. By the time she reached her own front door, Cobb had made it to the curb in front of the driveway, his bill fold in hand.

“Miss Beach.”

Hannah turned quickly, offering a warm “Oh, hi,” then noticing the FBI credentials in Cobb’s hand, her smile faded, “Can I help you?”

Cobb smiled broadly, offering his hand, “I sure hope so Miss Beach. Agent Brad Cobb, FBI.”

“It’s Hannah.” she shook his hand awkwardly and forced a smile.

“Hannah, do you have any idea of the whereabouts of your brother?”

“I haven’t seen him since this morning. I’ve had classes all day.”

“Oh … but you did see him this morning?”

Hannah thought about it, “I heard him, he was home. Have you tried the house?”

Cobb was good at reading people. Cobb could speak four languages, and he was an accomplished pianist. Cobb wondered why he was thinking about himself in third person. He glanced at his watch as he crossed his right hand over his left to checked his pulse discretely, “Did you notice anything unusual about your brother’s behavior this morning?”

Hannah frowned, and considered lying, but she wasn’t sure what kind of trouble David was in, “Yes. There was a guy.”

“A guy?” 13, 14, he checked his watch.

“A guy. He threw a rock or something at my window.”

Pulse slightly elevated, but within reasonable parameters, Cobb turned his full attention back to Hannah and made a mental note that Miss Beach was cooperative, and forthright. Pretty too. Not relevant, Cobb caught himself, so completely not relevant.

“Do you have any idea who this man was?”

“Kind of.”

“Do you care to elaborate? Anything would be helpful at this juncture.”

“Is David in trouble?”

“Most certainly, but in order to figure out what kind of trouble he’s in, I really need to know a little more about what’s going on.”

Hannah glanced over her shoulder towards the front door, then turned her head slightly further, towards the Bleaker’s house, “Listen, do you want to come inside?”

“Sure, if you don’t mind Hannah, this has already been a long day, and I’m getting the impression that it’s really just starting.”

Hannah’s laugh was stilted, but genuine. She opened the front door, observing the bloody fingerprint on her note on the side table. She kept her cool, “Coffee?”

“Tea if you’ve got it.” Cobb responded, pocketing the note as Hannah walked ahead of him.

“English Breakfast, Darjeeling or Earl Gray?”

Cobb knelt down, rubbing his finger in a muddy footprint, “Do you have a lemon?”

“Sure.” Hannah shouted through from the kitchen.

“Then if you don’t mind the trouble, a cup of Earl Gray with a slice of lemon would be out of this world right now.”

Hannah’s head peeked out from behind the dividing wall, “Out of this world? Really?”

Cobb didn’t look up from the footprint. It looked like it had been made by a flip flop, or a slipper, “I’ve been hitting this little tea room up town recently. They’ve got me hooked on that crap.” He noticed the three circular gaps in the grip pattern, where the rubber strap would pass through the sole. Flip flops it was.

“So this guy … Has David met him before?”

Hannah plugged in the electric kettle, and turned on the coffee maker, spilling grits on the counter with shaking hands, “I doubt it. Honestly, I got kind of a creeper vibe from him. David posts on reddit a lot, and I’m pretty sure this same guy commented on a post of his last night.”

Cobb entered the kitchen, taking off his sports jacket and folding it over his arm, “You’re pretty sure?”

Hannah corrected herself, “I’m certain.”

Cobb thought about the manila folder which currently sat on his desk at the field office, conspicuously lacking any mention of David Beach’s on-line activity.

“You know his reddit user name then?”

Hannah picked a lemon out of a basket under the granite topped island, and pulled a knife from the block by the fridge, “I do indeed.”

Cobb nodded to himself, smiling at the fact that Hannah Beach elected to keep her back turned to him as she sliced the lemon.

“You care to share?”

Hannah thought about David’s posting habits, which were mostly innocuous. What harm could there be really. He certainly hadn’t ever posted anything that would incriminate him. She sucked the lemon juice from her fingers, “Would I be committing an offense if I refused to tell you?”

“No, not at this point, but there’s a possibility that we can help David if he’s in danger.” Hannah still had her back turned to him, “You’d want us to be able to help him right?”

Hannah poured the loose tea into a glass diffuser then set it down in its resting place over the glass kettle, “Could you give me some idea what’s going on first? Is that too much to ask? I’m sure David will be home shortly.”

Cobb brushed his fingers across the granite counter, “Where would your brother be coming home from exactly? I mean, he’s told you that he is persona non grata with undersecretary Carlton right?”

Hannah listened to the electric kettle reach full boil, then click off. She watched the carafe on the coffee maker starting to fill up, her mind on Stephanie now, “He’s probably just gone to pick up Stephanie.”

“From the Bleaker’s right?” Cobb grinned, sure he was on point.

Hannah picked a steel spoon from the drawer beside her, and poured the water from the kettle over the back of the spoon, watching the loose tea shift and bob in the diffuser as the glass kettle filled slowly, “No, I’d imagine he took her to school.”

Cobb’s eyes went to the clock on the wall beside the refrigerator, “Hannah, it’s um … it’s getting on eight.”

Hannah looked at the clock, throwing the spoon on the counter, “Gah, what the fuck David?”

Cobb flinched, taken aback by the sudden outburst. She didn’t know.

“You haven’t seen Stephanie then?”

Hannah picked up the glass kettle, and turned to face Cobb, leaning across the counter as she set the kettle down in front of him. She looked Cobb in the eye as she reached under the counter and pulled a china cup off a hook, sliding it across the counter towards him, “This guy turned up this morning, said he was here to help. I was tired, I really didn’t pay much attention and I went back to sleep for a while.”

“Thank you Hannah,” Cobb offered as he picked up the glass kettle, “So when you woke up?”

Hannah turned her back and took a large mug from a cabinet by the window, pouring herself a coffee, “When I came downstairs, Stephanie was on her own, singing like a banshee, jumping around the couch cushions.”

“No sign of David?”

“His car was still parked out front.”

Cobb’s eyes widened involuntarily, “So you looked outside?”

Hannah took a sip from her coffee and nodded.

“Did you notice any other vehicles?”

Cobb looked kind enough, trustworthy, but then Hannah knew she was shitty when it came to judging people by their looks. She thought he was handsome though, classically handsome, if you were into that kind of thing, which she wasn’t.

“There weren’t any other vehicles no.”

“You’re sure of that?” Cobb eyed the sliced lemon on the counter behind Hannah, hoping she’d take the hint.

“Most of the neighbors garage their cars overnight. Anything parked on the street stands out like a sore thumb. We all enjoy bitching about each other’s house guests.” She noticed that Cobb’s eyes were wandering, and she glanced towards the counter behind her, “Oh shit … Sorry, here.” She passed the plate to Cobb.

“No big white van?” Cobb asked, dropping a lemon slice into his tea.

Hannah squinted, “You don’t squeeze it?”

Cobb shrugged, “Should I?”

Hannah’s nose curled, “It’s up to you dude, I don’t drink that shit. I just figured you’d squeeze the lemon.”

Cobb laughed, sipping the tea gingerly, “I mean, it tastes good. I don’t know that the lemon needs to be any stronger.”

Hannah set her coffee down on the counter, “There has been a van here, every morning. It wasn’t there this morning.”

Cobb’s body rocked back and forth, almost imperceptibly, a subconscious acknowledgment of Hannah’s statement, “Do you remember the markings on the van?” he asked, trying to gauge how observant Hannah was.

Hannah wondered why the van was relevant, but she offered the information willingly, “It was a cleaning company. I’ve talked about them with David. I mean, I asked the Bleakers next door if they’d hired them, because they were kind of parked part way between our drive and theirs, you know? Best any of us could figure, we thought it might be one of the houses on the other side of the street.”

Cobb sipped again, “The van was a FBI ops vehicle.”

Hannah smirked, wondering why the agent had offered that information up.

“Usually, the men operating that vehicle would have checked in, sometime before noon, drop in their duty log, file reports, return equipment to storage, etcetera, etcetera …” Cobb rolled his hand in the air, “That didn’t happen this morning.”

“Oh.”

Hannah’s mind started to race, but with no plausible avenues of thought, her brain missed a gear, and she swallowed the wrong way, coughing and spitting coffee at Cobb. Unflinching, Cobb settled onto one of the tall stools, wiping his face with his sports jacket, “I’ve been assigned to your brother’s case, because two things happened today. Firstly,” Cobb tapped his index finger on the counter, “Two field agents failed to report in, and their vehicle and comms went completely off grid.” He raised his hand with his index finger and middle finger pointing to the ceiling, then he brought his hand down and tapped the two fingers on the counter, “Secondly, your brother goes off grid. His phone, gone. Car, gone.”

Hannah looked worried now, and Cobb knew her fear was genuine, “Now, believe me, those two things; neither of them are easy to achieve. Neither are easy to explain.”

“Not easy for an average person, maybe …” Hannah suggested, smiling nervously.

Cobb laughed, “Given your brother’s skill set, I’m going to go out on a limb and say impossible.”

Hannah frowned, “Then what? You think this guy …”

Cobb rested both of his elbows on the counter. Something about this wasn’t making any sense. He looked at Hannah, “Have you been questioned at any point before now Hannah?”

“I have not.” She cocked her head to the side, wondering why the agent looked so concerned all of a sudden.

“No, I didn’t think you had.” He leaned forward, staring into Hannah’s eyes seriously, eyebrows furrowed, “Tell me Hannah, do you think your brother had any involvement whatsoever in the assassinations?”

Hannah laughed, then sucked her bottom lip, running her fingertip around the rim of her coffee cup. It struck her that Cobb hadn’t made up his mind about this situation. It seemed as if he genuinely wanted her opinion. She held up a finger, and leaving her coffee cup on the counter, she walked into the den. She returned a few seconds later, carrying a laptop, placing it in front of agent Cobb with the lid raised, “Here. This is the fucking mastermind you’re talking about.”

Cobb read the text which ran down the screen in a series of comments, “So David is Shadowcab73?” He pulled a phone out of his pocket and typed a quick note.

Hannah turned the laptop towards herself and flicked into his David’s comment history, “Yes, my brother is the genius behind such deftly worded trolls as,” she pointed to the screen and read aloud, “Suck it ass-hat, Tiernan FTW, exclamation, exclamation.”

Cobb laughed, “Tiernan for the win? So, he’s an ardent enough Tiernan supporter that he’s rallying behind him even in his down time and in complete anonymity?”

Hannah scrolled through the comments, tapping the screen, “Read for yourself. David has been scared witless by this whole thing.”

Cobb read slowly, sipping his tea, but his mind really wasn’t on the screen. He wondered silently why McMahon or Carmichael hadn’t interviewed Hannah Beach? She was level headed, approachable and cooperative, not to mention, a goldmine of information. It made no sense to Cobb that the two lead agents had made no mention of Beach’s on-line activity.

“Hannah, do you mind going back to that original thread?” He watched the screen as Hannah navigated, then, “There, do you mind clicking into our guy’s history?”

Cobb wasn’t particularly surprised to see that ThaneOfTheVoid had no comment history before his replies to David. He made another quick note on his phone, returning it to his pocket. He leaned his weight against the counter, waving his hand to indicate to Hannah that he’d seen enough, “Do you mind answering some more questions? I really want to hit the ground running with this.”

Hannah reached over the counter, to pick up her coffee cup, and Cobb noticed a small tattoo on the side of her midriff. He cocked his head at an angle, but didn’t quite have time to read the cursive text.

Hannah took a large gulp of coffee, then setting her cup down, she looked at Cobb “It says ‘Puri sermonis amator,’”

“Pardon?”

“My tattoo,” Hannah replied, “it’s Latin.”

Cobb smiled, “Terentius right? ‘A lover of pure and simple speech’ …”

Hannah’s smile conveyed her surprise, “Fuckin’ A!”

Cobb laughed as he poured himself more tea, “Ah, the benefits of a classical education.”

“Hans Gruber right? Die Hard …”

Cobb nodded, “Touché. You know, for what Gruber’s classical education was worth, Plutarch said that Alexander wept at Anaxarchus’ discussion of the infinite number or worlds in the universe, because he hadn’t even conquered one.”

Hannah stared at the carafe on the opposite side of the kitchen. She felt highly strung, but she still felt that more coffee would help. It had started to bother her how easily agent Cobb could play to her interests. She wondered if perhaps this was some well-rehearsed ploy to gain her confidence, then she snapped to her senses, remembering that her tattoo had started this aside. David’s paranoia must be starting to rub off, she thought, but then again, it was entirely possible that his paranoia was well warranted.

“Do you mind if I try calling David’s phone?” She asked, a sense of dread mounting in her.

“You can try Hannah, but believe me, when I say his phone’s gone, I mean …”

Hannah sighed, “Oh shit, you could turn it on remotely right?”

Cobb shrugged.

“What about Stephanie’s phone?”

“You could try.”

Hannah pulled her phone out from her back pocket, dialed, listened to the carrier message that the customer was out of reach, then stuffed the phone back in her pocket. She looked at Cobb, her lips pursed.

Cobb’s eyebrows raised, “You’re wondering what we have on you?”

Hannah scrunched up her face, “Kind of, yeah.”

Cobb laughed, “Surprisingly little. Worryingly little.”

Hannah patted the counter as she got up and made her way back to the coffee pot, “Awesome.” She stopped in her tracks and turned to look at Cobb again, “Is it awesome? I mean should I be concerned that I’m not rebellious enough to be worthy of the FBI’s attention?”

“Your street cred is intact. I’ll be writing up a report on our conversation. You will be well documented in our files as of today.”

Hannah gasped mockingly, then poured herself another coffee, “You’re going to find David and Stephanie right?”

“Don’t worry Miss Beach. I’ll bring him in safely.”

 

 

West stood up from the couch and walked over to the window, leaning his arm against the glass as he spoke, “Before my removal from the city, there were only two people who might have called me friends. Truth be told, even those frail bonds were formed on utilitarian and selfish desires. My closest friend Pieterossa, or Petra as she was commonly known, was an adopted daughter of Rornick and Heenar Kith Ergiss. I befriended Petra, because her closest confidant was one Reiner Kith Tiarsis, grandson of Stracklin Kith Tiarsis.”

Stephanie volunteered the first confession that came to mind, “I’m only friends with Kate Midland because she’s friends with Shauna Rae Pritchard, and her dad gets free tickets to the cinema because he works there.”

West watched Stephanie’s blurred reflection in the window, watched the headlights of a car passing through her, “I’m sure many friendships begin that way. In the end though, on the day I was cast into the void garden, theirs had been the only faces I had looked for through the flames of the zenith pyres, and they were the last faces I saw before I lost consciousness.”

“So it was that Petra and Reiner were the only people I could imagine would come to my aid upon my return to Allim. I didn’t imagine that either of them would have strayed from the path laid out for them by Arctum Academy, and it didn’t take much asking around in the science sector to learn that the two had wed their fortunes together.”

“Then something happened, the first time I approached the home of Petra and Reiner Kith Tiarsis.”

West looked over his shoulder dramatically, slapping his hands against the window, “The moment I touched the glardium surface of their home I felt it. I heard them. I understood finally what had been so important about Silinthalis, about the river Dannum, about Stracklin Tiarsis’ research. As my hands stroked the wall of their home, it was as if the city spoke to me, nine-million voices whispering, nine-million dreams and memories flooding into me through the glardium rills. Then just as I felt sure I would collapse under the onslaught of so much experience, the voices thinned out, the shrieking storm of thought narrowed to one pure whisper, blowing a chill wind through me. For the first time, I heard the mind of Ahken Kith Tiarsis.”

Stephanie jumped on the couch beside her dad, leaning over the couch back to watch West more closely, “Can you remember what you heard?”

West’s voice lowered, “Ahken was dreaming. I could see it, shadows upon shadows, huge geometric shapes bursting from the darkness. The sounds though …” West opened the window latch and lifted the window wide. The sound of New York filled the room, cars passing by in the streets below, horns sounding occasionally, music thumping from open windows, people laughing, or yelling, and West spread his arms wide, “This was what I heard, through the glardium rills, erupting from that child’s mind.”

Stephanie frowned, “You heard a city?”

West looked suddenly wild, “No Stephanie, not any city. This city. These …” He pointed out into the street, “these were the first sounds I heard from the child of the thirty-thousand year dream. He was dreaming of New York, twenty-first century, as it has come to be, and as it was always destined to be. The longer I held onto the wall, the stronger my connection to Ahken’s dreams became, and although I didn’t understand fully what it was I was seeing, I knew that it wasn’t Allim. So, the first time I saw New York city, walked the streets, gazed through the windows of a department store, heard the cacophony that the void garden was truly capable of, it was all through Ahken, thirty-thousand-years ago. Through Ahken, I could hear the conversations, and even the thoughts of these apparitions of his dreams, and I knew that their world was more complex and vibrant, free of the oppression of Dannum. In my arrogance, I became so sure that night that the quest I had set for myself, that of destroying Pretchis, revealing him as Dannum, usurping his reign, must all come to pass. There was the proof, in this child’s mind. How could it be any other way?”

Stanwick stood up and walked over to the window, leaning her head out into the breeze, “By Ahken’s account, those were truly the first murmurings. No coincidence that West was there. No coincidences in the events that followed either. Everything happened as Dannum must have known it would happen, as he had foreseen it.”

West smiled at Stanwick as he turned to face the others, “I waited three days before I approached the boy. I followed him to the food halls of the West Tertiary, not far from Arctum. There he was, sitting with his best friend, a girl, both of them filling their faces and laughing as if they hadn’t a care in the world. I introduced myself as a fellow scientist and asked if they would mind if I joined them. The girl sticks her chin forward, and says something to the effect of, ‘piss off and get your own food scrubber.’”

Stanwick laughed, “I think that upon examination, you’ll find that what I actually said was, ‘Touch my food and I’ll gut you with your own mandible.’”

West punched her shoulder, “Yes! That was it … god you were a vicious piece of work.”

Stanwick glared at the other three, “You do not want to come between me and steak.”

Giggling, Stephanie ducked behind the couch cushion.

West carried on, “We talked briefly, and I asked Ahken Tiarsis to deliver a message to his parents. We shook on it, and as I held his hand, my path was rewritten. As sure as I’d felt his dream through the walls of his home, in that second or two of contact, I saw more flashes of revelation, glimpses in to the storm that was building in the child’s mind.”

“What I didn’t realize until I’d found my own place to stay in the agricultural district, was that a vital piece of technology had changed during my absence from Allim.”

“Just changed mind you,” Stanwick reminded him, “in fact the changes were wrought only days before West’s return to the city.”

West looked excited, “The bright young minds of Arctum had developed a means of recording the experiences from the hopper. It had become possible for another person using the hopper to walk through your dreams and memories, as if they were their own. It had fast become the most popular means of entertainment, and few people seemed to care about the ethical issues that the technology presented. I understood only too well though. Ahken Tiarsis’ dreams … those glimpses of a future beyond Allim; they would be the key to Dannum’s downfall. Once they could see the world as Ahken could see it in his dreams, they would do everything in their power to bring that vision to fruition.”

“Once I finally contrived to meet with Reiner and Petra, it was in the fields of the agricultural district. Convincing them that I was their long lost friend proved to be difficult enough. Instilling in them a sense of safety, in face of the obvious peril of acknowledging that I was alive and well was also no mean feat. It was Petra’s research group that had gained such amazing ground with the hopper technology. As soon as I explained my discovery of Silinthalis, Petra’s understanding leaped ahead of mine. She understood immediately that Dannum, or Pretchis as she knew him, must have been able to listen to the entire city, merely by touching the walls of the Dannustine Palace. Safe in his bedroom, he must be able to root out those dreamers of dark dreams, those minds bent on insurrection. They made the decision to help me that night, and we talked till dawn. We would wake Ahken, and on the hopper, he would record the dream that I’d witnessed.”

“That’s not exactly how things played out though.” Stanwick commented as she walked over to the side table and took a swig from the liquor bottle, “I had a window seat for the whole spectacle. I’d been living with Ahken and his parents for the better part of a year, a formally adopted member of Kith Tiarsis. I slept in a domicile next to Ahken’s. That morning, I woke before Ahken, watched him throw a fit when his mother tried to drag him out of bed, and I listened to them try to explain to him what was expected of him. I went and joined the adults. I held Ahken’s hand for comfort as he strapped in to the hopper, told him to relax, felt him nearly crush the bones in my fingers as his eyes rolled back, and then I watched the drool pour down his chin as his mouth slumped open. I’ll tell you what … Really, really shitty way to start your day, from everyone’s perspective. He was under for twenty minutes, everyone too afraid to try and pull him out of it, because we were all scientists of Arctum and we knew the risks. Twenty minutes, and what we couldn’t know as we watched him writhe and struggle, was that for every minute he was under, one and a half millennia poured out of him, filling the glardium crystal cube with the future.”

West leaned through the window, raising his voice, “What a future though. The magnificent dream, Somnium Mirificum, the dream of thirty-thousand-years. We spread the dream throughout every home in Allim, and the people rose up, not because it was right, or because they felt any great injustice had been done to them, but because Ahken’s dream showed them how glorious they would all look in their uprising. Most of the people chose to become Leechborn, because they had witnessed for themselves how powerful they would become, how they would crawl the walls of the Dannustine Palace, and give chase to the bastard guards who had marched the people they loved into the zenith pyres. Even the fires of Pompeii pale in comparison to the wrath and havoc that was unleashed by the hunger of the newborn Blood-Brood. Ever hungry, the children of the Delvers tore apart the walls of the city. They were met by Dannum’s brood, his most loyal guards, who we soon learned had stood by him since the birth of Allim, feeding on the penitents, and doing his bidding with ferocity and religious fervor. So the Leechborn Wars began.”

 

David ran his fingers through Stephanie’s hair, and watched as she pulled away from him, desperate to show that she was still awake, “You must be shattered hon. You think you’ve heard enough for tonight?”

“Dad, is this a school night?”

David raised his eyebrows, “Sweetie, you need some sleep, school night or not.”

Stephanie looked imploringly at Stanwick, “Tell him I don’t need to sleep. He’ll listen to you for sure.”

Stanwick laughed, “Spiff, you really should get some sleep. I’ll make sure we wake you up really early, and we will have pizza, or steak, or lobster for breakfast.”

“For real?”

“Absolutely.”

Stephanie jumped off the couch and planted her feet loudly on the hardwood floor, making a meal of every step as she walked towards the bedrooms. She spun suddenly, “How about all three?”

Stanwick shrugged, “If you’re asleep within the next ten minutes, I’ll throw in a rack of ribs.”

Stephanie clasped her hands together, spun on the ball of her foot, and ran into the nearest bedroom, slamming the door shut behind her.

Charlene pointed a finger at Stanwick accusingly, “You’re going to be a bad influence on that child.”

David turned to face Charlene, “Right? I mean, between the steak for breakfast, and the destruction of a civilization, what hope does Stephanie have?”

“And you,” Charlene pointed at David now as she turned to face him “you need to get your head together. I’ve seen you, squirming and fidgeting through the whole story, wondering whether you’ve been cursed or blessed.”

David looked a little taken aback, “Hey now, I didn’t see you contributing.”

“I was listening to what you all were saying. I have questions. I’ve got a lot of questions, but they’re technicalities. I’m not sitting here wondering what the hell it all means.”

Stanwick walked around the front of the couch and sat between the two of them, “What kind of questions Charlene?”

Charlene leaned her back against the arm of the couch, “Have you been back?”

“To Allim?”

Charlene nodded.

“The fall of Allim wasn’t a mere political collapse, or the breakdown of our society. Allim is gone.”

“Oh!” Charlene nodded slowly, “What happened to your brother?”

“Please Charlene, don’t refer to him as my brother. If you’re talking technicalities, sure, I was adopted by Ahken’s family, and Petra has always treat with me as her own, but I am Stanwick Kith Thrass. I discovered my parentage after the fall, when the doors of the archives were thrown open.”

Charlene nodded, “Okay, gotcha … So what happened to Ahken?”

There was an exchange of looks between Stanwick and West, and some unspoken decision seemed to have been reached.

 

“Stephanie sweetie.” David cracked the bedroom door slowly, talking softly.

“I’m not asleep.

Stephanie flicked a switch beside the headboard, and revealed that she had been sitting on top of the covers in the dark.

“What are you doing?”

Pouting, Stephanie folded her arms sullenly, “I want steak for breakfast, but I couldn’t get to sleep.”

David chuckled softly, and sat on the edge of the bed, “I’m glad you’re awake. We all need to head up to West’s apartment. It’s just upstairs.”

Stephanie grinned, “Does this mean I get to stay up longer?”

David rolled his eyes dramatically, “No it does not. West has a spare room that you can sleep in while we talk. I know you’re excited. I am too.”

Stephanie didn’t say anything more on the matter. She jumped off the bed and ran into the den, eager to join the adults again.

[]CHAPTER TEN

The Hopper

 

David felt immediately at ease in West’s apartment. It was similar to the downstairs apartment in many respects, with a long entrance hall, doors leading to rooms on either side, the hall fed into an open plan living area. There were more homely flourishes though, or perhaps it simply felt more lived in. Stephanie had jumped with gleeful abandon onto West’s eighteenth century Chinese bed, staring up at the gold inlaid carvings, “It’s so pretty.”

West nodded, “I spent an entire year watching a man carve those little relief sculptures into the cherry panels.” An entire year in his company, and West couldn’t recall the man’s face.

Stephanie wrapped the blanket around herself and started snoring loudly, “Okay, I’m ready for my beauty sleep, you are dismissed.”

Laughing, West dimmed the light in the room, “Sleep well Princess, we’ll wake you early, and you won’t miss anything, I promise.”

“Yes, yes,” Stephanie yawned, “I take my steak medium rare.”

Closing the bedroom door behind him, West patted David’s back, “Stephanie’s a trip. You must be proud of her.”

“She never fails to amaze me really.”

“What will you have?” West walked towards the kitchen, and threw open the doors of a well-stocked liquor cabinet. David’s eyes roamed, recognizing many of the more familiar drinks by the shape of their bottles, but scrutinizing the less familiar bottles more closely, “Frangelico if you don’t mind.”

“Charlene, what can I get for you?” West called out to her, and not missing a beat she replied, “Irish cream and Sambuca if you’ve got it.”

Stanwick chuckled filthily in recognition of Charlene’s selection.

West reached into the back of the cabinet and pulled out a dark clay jar, tossing it to Stanwick.

Stanwick looked at the bottle and nodded appreciatively, “You’re a beautiful man West.”

Charlene leaned in close to Stanwick trying to make out what West had given her, “What is it?”

“Blood of course!”

Charlene gasped, stepping backwards quickly, but Stanwick reached out and grabbed her wrist, laughing, “I’m just fucking with you Charlene, sorry. This is, if my eyes do not deceive me, eighteenth century Chilean pisco.”

“Peruvian.” West corrected her as he poured Charlene’s drink.

Stanwick traced her fingers along the words which were engraved into the clay.

“What’s pisco?” David asked, taking a sip from his drink.

Stanwick walked into the kitchen and started to rummage through West’s drawers in search of a knife, “Well, if Kipling was to be believed, it is a drink compounded of cherubs’ wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset, and fragments of lost epics by dead masters.” She pushed the knife edge up under the wax seal, easing the cork out slowly. Realizing that both David and Charlene were now staring at her, she explained, “It’s brandy.”

Charlene picked her cocktail up from the kitchen counter, “You all drink a lot.”

West sighed heavily, “Do you feel even slightly tipsy?”

Charlene thought about it for a moment, “Not really, just warm and relaxed.”

West raised his glass and stared at the Kahlua he’d poured himself, “We metabolize alcohol differently. The leeches are perhaps overprotective when it comes to chemicals impacting on higher brain functionality. You will literally leak alcohol before you come close to being black out drunk, and believe me when I say, sweating liquor is not pleasant.”

Stanwick raised her pisco jar, “You can get drunk, if that’s what you want, but you really have to want it, and it won’t last long. Here’s to trying though.” She touched her jar against Charlene’s cocktail glass, then tipped her head back and drunk deeply.

 

West pulled an oak chest away from the wall in the corner of the living room. He pressed his hand against a small framed print of Joos van Craesbeeck’s Temptation of St. Anthony, then he waited as the whole far wall of the apartment slid into a hidden recess. There, the surface which had been hidden behind the wall appeared as if it was a giant television screen, dark and glossy, displaying a shimmering animation of the night’s sky. West thumped the screen with a closed fist, “This is glardium.”

David and Charlene stepped closer, both of them transfixed by the moving luminescent patterns, the sudden pinpoints of brightness on the near black surface drawing the pair closer. A fluorescing cloud of amber, pink and cream flecks would swirl into murky darkness creating an illusion of almost infinite depth, then another arcing spray would erupt on another part of the wall, and spill into intricate dew covered cobwebs.

West traced his fingers along the trail of what looked like a shooting star, “The rills, arteries and tributaries of a once living city. At night, the buildings of Allim put the night’s sky to shame, the walls breathing every word of every thought, the stars carrying your nightmares away, to the somber reaches of the Dannustine Palace, and the aphotic, cancerous sprawl of Pretchis’ mind.”

David touched his hand to the wall, and tried to imagine how West might have felt the first time he heard the slumbering thoughts of Ahken. In the yawning deeps of his mind, David was sure now that he could hear a voice, rambling and disjointed, a deep-seated fear spreading through him. He felt West’s hand on his, “It’s the building David, everybody dreams. Don’t dip your fingers unless you’re ready to fall in.”

Stanwick placed the jar of pisco gently on the floor, and stepped up to the wall, pressing her cheek against the cold surface, spreading her arms wide and stroking the stars with the palms of her hands, “Don’t listen to a word he says. Dive in if you dare.” She reached out and grabbed Charlene’s wrist, pulling her enthusiastically, pressing her palm to the glardium.

West knelt down by the oak chest, opening two latches and lifting the lid. He lifted two small bundles out of the chest and placed them on the floor beside him, then he closed the lid of the chest and pushed it back against the wall in the corner of the room.

“You’re going to play through a recording of my experience of the battle for Allim, the Leechborn Wars, and the Mythologue. Once you get the hang of controlling the hopper, you’ll want to skip a lot, because if you don’t, events will play out in real time, and the recording covers a pretty vast expanse of time.”

Stanwick stroked the back of Charlene’s hand with her fingertips, but she spoke loud enough for David to hear her, “You’re going to understand what the people around you are saying, because West understood, but don’t waste your time talking to anyone in the hopper. They’ll respond, but as soon as you go off script, your brain will fill in the blanks with junk and assumptions, so you’ll basically be talking to yourself.”

Charlene nodded, “So it’s like a dream?”

Stanwick smiled, “I’ve never had your dreams Charlene, but I doubt it.”

Loosening a wide silk cord from one of the bundles, West spread what appeared to be a black blanket on the floor. He stood up and stepped away from the blanket, “It’s going to feel disorienting. The first time on the hopper, it can take anything up to a couple of minutes for your brain to register what’s happening, because the most recent memory will create a sort of feedback loop. It will feel as if nothing has happened, and your instinct will be to step away from the wall. If you can, fight that instinct and rather imagine yourself stepping away from the wall.”

Stanwick whispered in Charlene’s ear, “Seriously, don’t listen to him. Imagine yourself falling through the wall, being swallowed whole in a tidal wave of glardium.”

Charlene was already lost in the rills though, millions of connections forming through the touch of her skin, Stanwick’s voice a distant beckoning amongst a heady cosmos of dreams. When she spoke, she struggled against the echo of her own voice, her speech slurring, “Would I hear this without the leeches?”

She felt Stanwick’s hand on her cheek, pressing her face into the cold vacuum of empty space, “You would feel nothing without the leeches. Time will come when you’ll wonder how you ever felt anything without them.” Stanwick’s voice was inside her head though, not a sound, but a rattling tin reverberation of a thought. She could feel Stanwick’s hand on her back, fingertips stroking the curve of her spine, “Without the tongues of Antrusca to give them voice, their thoughts and dreams are poured forever into the abyss of night.” Charlene opened her eyes, unnerved by Stanwick’s closeness, but when she blinked, she realized now that Stanwick was nowhere near her, rather she was leaning against the wall by David, watching West unwrap a second blanket.

West clapped his hands together, “Okay, you’re both going to need to bare your skin to your shoulders.”

David threw up his hands in protest, “What am I just going to rip the neck open on my t-shirt?” He tugged the fabric about his throat, trying to demonstrate that what West was suggesting was more or less impossible.

Stanwick shook her head, “You could just take it off, you know, like a normal human person might.”

David flushed, uncomfortable with the thought of two women seeing his slovenly physique. He bunched up the material and ripped it with his teeth and hands, pulling it into a ragged cape over his shoulders. He glanced jealously at Charlene, whose outfit was much more accommodating to the task.

West pulled what looked like a chrome neck pillow out of the chest and placed it on the floor. Charlene came over to where he knelt, “Is that it?”

“This is one part. This rests behind your neck, and the flat side attaches to the wall.” He turned the metal to show Charlene the flat backside of the device. “The glardium weave,” he pulled the corner of one of the black cloths, “covers your face, and attaches to the wall. It’s very lightweight, easy to breathe through.”

“I get pretty claustrophobic.” David confessed.

Stanwick raised her hand as if she were about to strike him, and David flinched instinctively, throwing his elbow up in front of his face. Stanwick grabbed his elbow with one hand, and slapped his face with the other, “You aren’t that man now David.” She slapped him again, “You’ve got to stop thinking like that pathetic sap you’ve been your whole life. Just give it up okay? Let the little guys take control of the mother ship.”

David clenched his jaw, obviously, and impotently furious. He knew she was right though. Stanwick hadn’t hurt him, he was just reacting habitually.

Stanwick picked up her jar of pisco and swigged again, “Now, before we begin, Charlene I believe you wanted to know what happened to Ahken?”

“Yes.”

Stanwick licked her lips, sipping again, “You may not recognize him in the hopper. He has changed a great deal over the years, but he has stayed true to his dreams. In march, Ahken Kith Tiarsis was gunned down, right here in New York, by Dr. Julien Beach.”

 

 

Charlene positioned the metal pillow behind her neck as she pressed her back to the wall. She could see David out of the corner of her eye, struggling to find a comfortable position for his device, and she felt sure for a moment that Stanwick was about to slap him again. Without warning, West threw one of the blankets at David’s face, and he became completely still and silent, like a bird plunged into immediate night with a towel around its cage.

Charlene rested her head back, feeling the cool of the metal against the bare skin of her shoulders and the crook of her neck. West stood in front of her now, holding the blanket in front of him. He reached forward, and Charlene could see that the material was quite translucent. He flicked his wrists, opening his fingers, and Charlene felt the silky fabric wrapping about her face.

“How do I start it?” She could see both Stanwick and West through the fabric, surprisingly clearly, “What am I supposed to do? How do I make it work?”

West sat down on the floor, crossing his legs and leaning his weight back on his arms, “It’s going to feel disorienting. The first time on the hopper, it can take anything up to a couple of minutes for your brain to register what’s happening, because the most recent memory will create a sort of feedback loop. It will feel as if nothing has happened, and your instinct will be to step away from the wall. If you can, fight that instinct and rather imagine yourself stepping away from the wall.”

It occurred to Charlene that she’d heard West say this only minutes ago, and thinking about those words, she started to wonder about what she was experiencing. She imagined stepping away from the wall, and she felt the room move about her, even though she was aware of the weight of her body still pressed against the wall. She could hear West’s voice now, although as she looked at him, she could see that his lips weren’t moving.

“The first thing you’ll see is the room you are in right now, with us standing watching you. It’s going to feel like nothing is happening. You’ll probably be able to hear me talking to you at first, although that will depend on how relaxed you are; if you’re feeling comfortable about the experience, your brain might block out auditory input immediately …”

West stopped talking, and Charlene started to laugh, amused by how easy the experience was to control once the floodgates of comprehension had burst. She stepped forwards, and it felt as if she was leaving her body behind her. She turned to look, and sure enough, there she was, face covered in a blanket of stars. She turned to face West and Stanwick, and they both sat motionless, waiting for her to command them, or rather … She bent down close to West, touched his face, apprehensively at first, then once she was confident that he wasn’t about to move, she stroked his cheek and leaned in close enough to see every pore of his skin. It wasn’t like a dream but neither was it like reality; her eyes didn’t lose focus as she moved closer, she could see every detail of West’s skin with absolute clarity, even when she brought her face to within a centimeter of his.

She looked at Stanwick, her still body, motionless eyes, frozen, beautiful. She didn’t dare step closer. She thought about the wall which she was actually stood against, the rills, the leeches, the many ways in which her mind was now opened to the other people in the room with her. Surely, if Stanwick was touching the wall right now, she would know exactly how closely she was being examined by Charlene. No matter, Charlene wasn’t going to test those waters. Instead, she thought about the gunshot, and the bullet tearing into the flesh of David’s leg, and instantly, the room about her transformed, and she found herself standing between Stanwick and David. The music pounding was too much, she thought, and was about to raise her hands to cover her ears when the music was suddenly silenced. She heard the click, and the thunder of the gunshot filling the room. This wasn’t what she had wanted.

The scene reset, gun raised, finger pulling slowly, Charlene leaned close and watched the tendons of Stanwick’s hand flex as the trigger clicked. There was a burst of flame as the bullet left the gun, an almost perfect ring of fire left in the wake. She thought of the Johnny Cash song, and she stepped forward, leaning her face into the glowing halo, waving her hand through the bullet.

Before the bullet moved any further, the floor of the room started to fill up with bodies, blood stained, beaten or worse, dismembered. The fireball faded, pierced by shafts of bright daylight which burst into the room from all sides. She could see the walls of the apartment splitting at their seams, cracking with searing white waves before she became completely overwhelmed and was forced to cover her eyes. When she lowered her arm and peered about her, she found herself standing in a vast courtyard, open to the sky, the distant walls of a building curving about a scene of bloodshed and war on either side of her.

She looked down into a devastated face by her feet, bloodshot eyes staring skyward, gaping mouth bearing bloodied gums and cracked teeth. She wanted to scream, because the whole expanse of the courtyard was filled with such ruination and slaughter. Stanwick was right; this was unlike any dream Charlene had experienced. More stupefying in its gratuitous detail, more hideous in its wanton savagery; the scene around her was so far beyond Charlene’s worst imaginings. And where were the perpetrators? Where were the vile instruments of such annihilation?

Her field of view moved unbidden, and she saw her legs pick themselves up, stepping over a mound of bodies. West’s legs, she checked herself; West’s body moving, West’s eyes seeing. She wondered that it might be easier to stomach if she wasn’t seeing this from West’s perspective, and as the thought occurred to her, West stepped out in front of her and she was freed of that constraint. She watched as West joined a huddle of five other people, three men, and two women. The scene froze as Charlene stopped to try and get a handle on what she was seeing. She experimented a little, directing her mind’s eye, pulling the field of view up as far as it would go and she found that anything beyond West’s line of sight left dark gaps in her vision. She could turn the scene around, and see the landscape behind him, but in the distance, there was inky blackness.

She swooped back down to ground level, and examined the faces of the other members of the group. There was perhaps consternation, or determination, but no signs of guilt there. No hand wringing self-accusation. West looked much the same as he had done in the living room of his apartment a few minutes ago, and Charlene wondered if that was because of her own experience of West, or because he had always looked that way. The other three men had a strange familiarity about their faces, but she wasn’t quite able to put her finger on why that was. She looked at the women now, moving closer to them. Although she appeared to be a good deal younger here, Stanwick’s eyes gave her away, that same piercing turquoise, the almond curve of her eyelids. Her hair was lighter, and she seemed shorter, less muscular, but it was still definitely Stanwick Thrass. The other woman was also strangely familiar, strong features, tall, blond hair tied off in a ponytail, Charlene knew her face, but again, she couldn’t quite place her.

Allowing the scene to recommence Charlene watched as Stanwick stepped towards one of the men, throwing an arm over his shoulder for support as she rolled her ankle, wincing in pain. West spoke, his eyes fixed on Stanwick and the man … no, now that Charlene looked at him, she could see that he was no more than a boy, “Ahken, there’s no more, not out here at least. They’re waiting for us to take the fight to them now. Look!” West pointed to the distant entrance to the courtyard, where Charlene could see that thousands of civilian fighters were pouring in behind them, “This is your army now. If they dwell too long on this scene, they will every one of them lose heart. You need to lead them. They’re here because of you.”

Before he could say another word, it was Stanwick that pulled off from the pack and started running towards the building with breathtaking speed, the boy following immediately after her. Charlene knew the name of the building now as she looked at the dominating architecture, the ornate detailing of the pillars, the undulating forms of beautifully hewn stone. She knew, because West knew. This was the Dannustine Palace, and the courtyard they were standing in was the place that bore daily witness to the zenith pyres.

She moved after the two figures, her vision pulling forward in one smooth motion. She paused to admire the grandiose doorway that Stanwick was about to pass into, Stanwick’s limbs frozen mid flight. Either side of the dark tunnel ahead, thick pillars stood proud, perfect depictions of the musculature of a human calf and shin, veins and all, with immaculately carved leeches, polished to a sheen, climbing, and boring into these stone legs. Charlene took a moment to cast her gaze about the whole courtyard, and she noticed that at the outskirts, towards the gates of the palace, the pillars were quite commonplace, carved in a similar style to the spiraling forms of solomnic pillars, but in succession, as she moved back towards the entrance to the palace, so the pillars grew more ornate and grotesque. These carvings continued into the tunnel, the walls decorated in deep relief sculptures, depicting oddly distorted bodies, marching towards the dark. There, suspended mid-flight, his body poised like a Hellenestic sculpture of athleticism, the boy Ahken, dreamer of the magnificent dream, future President of America, founder of the Economic Unification Council. She felt suddenly overwhelmed with emotion, crying inside, perhaps actually crying beneath the glardium weave veil she wondered, her body thirty-thousand years away, pressed against the wall of West’s apartment. Who would this boy become, in the interim, in parenthesis, in the thirty-thousand year shuffle that would lead to his assassination in New York.

She looked back at West, and understanding that she could only really see what he could see, she felt frustrated that he hadn’t even started to run after the others. She allowed the scene to move, and Stanwick and Ahken were quickly lost in the darkness ahead of her until West reached the entrance of the palace. Light spilled into the scene, and again, Charlene brought the movement almost to a stop, watching the slow symphony of muscle and fabric. She moved deeper into the corridor,where in the half light, two figures moved as one, their feet falling and arms pumping in synchronized rhythm of form. Charlene pushed in closer, moving about them as they ran in mime, their determined faces sinking into the shadows ahead of them. They were beautiful these two, heartbreakingly perfect, cast by the leeches in an idealized frame, each of their bodies at the same time a vehicle, temple, and animal.

In the dark distance, as West started to catch up, Charlene could see now that Ahken and Stanwick were about to be met by two more figures, their pupils glistening, light reflected from some delver woven estimation of tapetum lucidum. West knew … Dannustine Guards, Blood-Brood night hunters prowling, their trap set, two pairs of sparkling deadly emeralds bobbing and weaving. Stanwick leaped forwards, somersaulting and twisting as she went, closing the gap between her and the guards quickly. As she neared them, she tucked her knees up towards her chest, then uncoiled midair, her hands grabbing one of the men by the head, her feet catching either side of the other man’s neck, flooring the two easily with the forward momentum she had gathered. Before the guards had an opportunity to react, Ahken was on one of them, clawing at him, ducking his head out of the way as Stanwick untangled herself and pinned the other one.

For a moment, Charlene was fascinated by the brutality with which the attack happened, but when the men stopped shouting, she had to look away. Ahead there were hundreds of these guards sprinting towards them, every one of them a hungry and primed predator, body’s twitching in the strobe light cast through the flailing forms and the sheer mass of bodies flooding in through the arched entrance behind her. West broke off from the pack and started running towards the walls, effortlessly transitioning into crawling, hand over foot, cunning fingers finding easy purchase on the sculptural decorations, dragging him in writhing fluidity towards the ceiling. The pack followed his lead, every one of them climbing the sculpted surface as easily, faces all ferocity and focus.

 

 

West and Stanwick lay outstretched on the hardwood floor of the apartment, both gazing up at the ceiling.

“How many times have you gone over the events of the fall West?”

West noticed a thin crack in the plaster surface of the ceiling and made a mental note that he should do something about it, “It’s not really something I look back on fondly Stan.”

Stanwick turned her head so that she could see West’s profile as he spoke, “I know it was necessary; of course it was. I made a lot of mistakes.”

Stanwick laughed, “Come on, surely you’ve forgiven yourself by now?”

West caught a glimpse of Stanwick’s smiling face out of the corner of his eye and he smiled, “I’ve forgiven myself, it doesn’t mean I want to relive it.”

Stanwick reached towards him with her hand and nudged his shoulder, “I don’t believe you.”

He smirked, “I’ve relived the year I met you and Ahken twice in its entirety in the last fifty years; I only stopped to eat and sleep occasionally.”

“No shit?”

West nodded silently, still smiling.

Stanwick gazed back up at the ceiling, “It’s a shame Charlene has to skim it … I’m jealous that she’s watching it right now.” She rolled over and leaned forwards, touching the wall, closing her eyes to the apartment, “She’s going to be on this all night. She hasn’t even made it to the bowl yet.”

“Where’s David?”

Stanwick snorted, “David is well and truly skimming. He’s almost through the Mythologue. He’s already witnessed the birth of the destroyer.”

West listened to the shuffling sounds as Stanwick lay back down beside him, “Do you still think of him as Ahken?”

Stanwick stretched her arms over her head, focusing her eyes on a simple silver ring on her left hand, “You know I almost thought I loved him West. Would I have been the only girl in Allim who felt that way?” She knew the question warranted no answer, “Tell me you haven’t loved him and hated him in equal measure. When has he ever been anything other than everything he dreamed of. He’ll always be Ahken, no matter how many incarnations his personality goes through.”

“I’m sure you’ve lived through that year so many times you could recite everything that happened word for word.” West prodded Stanwick as he cast his mind back to a time when she too was idolized by the people of Allim.

“You ass!” Stanwick reached her leg towards him and kicked his ankle playfully, “I was seventeen, I didn’t know what to make of any of it; when the things Ahken saw started to come true, everything was turned on its head. If you hadn’t come onto the scene, do you think things would have played out the same way?”

West shook his head, “I’ve already said Stanwick; I made mistakes. Returning to Allim was a mistake but no one person was responsible for what followed. You know as well as I do that no one would have survived those events if it hadn’t been for the war.”

Stanwick raised herself up on her elbows, watching Charlene’s minuscule muscle spasms as she experienced the events of the final days of Allim from the safety of the hopper, “Do you remember the first time you saw her?”

“Charlene you mean?”

“I know it’s her. I’d have recognized her from her mannerisms alone, even if she wasn’t so fucking perfect.” Harsh words, but there was no bitterness in her voice.

West felt the weight of the room closing in about him. He’d listened to his own lie so many times that he’d almost allowed himself to believe that their meeting had been serendipitous.

“I tried to avoid it you know? I thought I’d be able to spare her.”

Stanwick smiled to herself, remembering the first time she’d seen Charlene, the hours she’d spent watching her, every facet of her face committed to memory an eternity ago, always knowing. She contemplated letting his deceit slide, but she couldn’t stop herself, “Bullshit West. I’m not judging, but stop lying to yourself. And don’t think for a second you can lie to me.”

“I had five of the scourge chasing me, and yes, I knew what was coming, of course I knew. I could have picked another door.”

“That. Right there West. Absolute bullshit.” She rolled onto her side and stared at him, “You were there the same reason I was in London in 73, the same reason Reiner was in Irkutsk in 86, and the same reason Petra was in Paraguay in 54” She lay back down, sinking into the memory of the first time she’d played through the end. Her end.

They had all seen glimpses of what was to come, certainly those who would still be at Ahken’s side when he came into office knew more or less exactly how their destiny would play out. However, for most of Allim’s children, the details, the minutia, the finer points all stopped abruptly at some point in the late 19th century. There was no mystery. The glardium cube had started to reach capacity, hopper tuning out everything except the most important details of the recording. Stanwick was one of the fortunate ones, because she turned up in the bigger picture, hanging around DC while Ahken was on the campaign trail, but certainly, there were gaps in her history. West’s recording crapped out many years earlier, in a bookstore, in New York, his pupils dilating to soak up every detail of the darkness, then expanding further in that instant of recognition. “Too much sanity may be madness, and maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.” Stanwick clenched her teeth as she remembered the first time she’d heard the words and watched the smile form on Charlene’s lips. It had come as a painful life lesson. Avoid spoilers.

 

David had grasped that he could speed up or slow down the pace of events, but he had witnessed everything from West’s perspective, sometimes fighting as rear guard, protecting Stanwick and Ahken from flanking attacks, and at other times, crawling about the ceilings of the palace, so that the world spun nauseatingly, bodies leaping in a topsy-turvy aerial ballet. Once the battle had spilled outside of the walls of the city, David had held out some small hope that it would become easier to deal with the dizziness of it all, but West had a habit of flinging himself into full on brawls, and therein, being tossed brutally about the blood strewn fields. So David skipped a lot, so what? He got the gist. It was a more visceral gist than he had of any battle he’d learned about in school, or from any of the historical dramas he’d seen at the cinema over the years.

The first full on, blood spurting, body twitching, honest to god beheading happened right in front of him, as West wielded what looked like a femur which had been flayed and snapped off in jagged line. David had felt his stomach twist, and he wondered if he vomited in the hopper, would he actually vomit out in the real world. He managed to keep himself together though, at least until he watched another fighter ram the head of what could have been a dog, or perhaps a wolf onto the still writhing body of a man. Sickeningly, the wretched animal picked itself up off the ground seconds later, teeth all pearly white and red all over.

The rolling hills and forests surrounding the north of the city were filled with such monstrosities, lurching and ambling half humans, co joined with whatever beast of the air, land, or water had been unlucky enough to be close at hand when a body part was lost. Men and women, sprinting into battle with their torsos melded and woven into primordial terrors, the likes of which David could never have feared to be even remotely possible.

Where no tree limb, body part, or farming implement could be found to be put to use as a weapon, hands and teeth won out, and David closed his mind to the sights and sounds of West tearing at the throats of his enemies. It seemed inadequate to simply fillet or disembowel an enemy, because such wounds were too easily closed up, wrapped with care, the victim sent back into action by their delvers.

When he could bear no more, David willed for the whole thing to stop, and as abruptly as that, everything vanished from view.

 

After three laps of the empty apartment, panic stealing over him a little, it finally occurred to David that he was still under the thrall of the hopper. He waved his hand in front of his face, trying to grab hold of the material which he knew must be covering him, but he couldn’t feel it.

“Hello? Hey guys, I’m kind of stuck here.” No response.

He thought about his body, concentrated on the weight of his limbs, and tried lifting his hand again, “Seriously, can anyone hear me?” He cursed himself, sure that there must be some simple knack that he wasn’t getting. He imagined clicking his heels together, reciting the incantation to himself, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, no place … Suddenly he was plunged into darkness, and he felt the soft fabric fall from his face. Through half closed eyelids, he could make out that Stanwick was standing in front of him, leaning with one hand against the wall. She shook his shoulder firmly, “Dorothy. Dorothy, dear, It’s Stanwick. Did you sleep well?”

Blearily, David sneered a crooked smile, “No. No I did not. It was a fucking nightmare. I just watched thousands of people slaughtered mercilessly, and you were there,” he glanced towards West, “and you were there.”

West mused, “Do you understand what we’re capable of now? What you’re capable of?”

“Oh sure. You’re monsters.” David pushed off from the wall, forgetting about the metal brace behind his neck, which Stanwick rushed to catch. Jumping out of the way, David touched the wall to steady himself, and for an instant, shivers ran through his body, flashes of Charlene’s emotional state gripping him.

He felt awkward, like a child realizing that they finished an exam before everyone else, wondering if they’d maybe missed something. He looked guiltily at the jumble of cloth and metal in Stanwick’s hands, worrying that perhaps the experience was wasted on him. He tried again to interpret what he’d seen, “I don’t really know how else to say it. I’d love to say that it looked like you all were battling against those monstrosities, but in all honesty, there were freaks everywhere.”

Stanwick started laughing as she wrapped the cloth about the metal, placing it carefully on the floor, “That’s what you got from all of that?”

David shrugged, “I mean, my overwhelming impression? My take home was kind of that, yeah.”

Stanwick looked at West, then at David. She touched David’s arm, felt his turmoil, heard his internal monologue rambling on in embarrassment. She smiled sympathetically, “You’re not wrong David. I mean, not completely wrong anyway. There’s a lot of mythology that has sprung from our existence, racial memories of our presence, sightings of Leechborn in different states of unraveling hunger.”

West lay back down on the floor, staring at the ceiling, “Our abilities know few bounds. What you’ve seen David, you haven’t witnessed the worst of us, or the best, but I’m sure you can start to appreciate what might be possible.”

Stanwick took hold of David’s hands, playfully swinging them from side to side. She could feel it in him, David’s mind flashing briefly to the lurching half humans, “You saw the beasts of the Mythologue David, and I know the dark corner your imagination is shuffling towards, but there’s so much more.”

David shook his hands free of Stanwick’s grip, “You know, perhaps you should lead with the ‘best of.’ A couple of minutes ago, I was standing knee deep in bodies, watching men and women literally trying to eat each other alive, and I’ve gotta say, that doesn’t really instill me with feelings of warmth, or hope. I feel lost. I mean, I feel a little desperate right now. It might just be that this has been a really long day. It’s a lot to take in.”

Stanwick put a hand on his shoulder, and pulling him closer she kissed his cheek, lips soft, breath warm, “Go get some sleep. You can try it again in the morning.” David blinked slowly, his mouth open, then he walked unsteadily towards the bedroom where Stephanie lay sleeping. He scooped Stephanie up in his arm, and let himself out of the apartment without looking back.

 

Charlene crawled along the ceiling reliefs of the corridor, dropping to the floor beside Stanwick and Ahken, pushing savagely through groups of Dannustine guards, bones snapping, blood spraying as faces were mashed into masonry, elbows, or knees. She looked behind and realized that most of these men were up on their feet within moments, but the passageway had become so full of Leechborn that every surface seemed to undulate and sway with the motion of the Leechborn fighters, and she couldn’t imagine that any of the guards would survive.

Ahead in the darkness, everything had come suddenly to a standstill, Stanwick and Ahken rooted to the stone floor facing the hulking forms of fifty or more guards, their backs bent, arms hanging down low, legs ready to spring forwards in attack. Overhead, a flood of civilian fighters clambered across the ceiling and walls, each of them clawing at the carvings, launching forward in perfectly executed bounds. Hundreds, then thousands followed, with muscles pulsing, limbs thrashing in machine like determination, now keeping pace with West, Stanwick and Ahken who had began their advance. Stanwick and West broke into a run, heads tucked towards their chests, the shuffling, grasping noises of the army building overhead to a thunderous roar. With West almost within pouncing distance of them, the guards calmly stood, turned about face, and retreated into the darkness, then all of a sudden they dropped from view.

There was nowhere left to run. The floor of the corridor dropped off only a few feet in front of Stanwick, opening into an expansive bowl shaped room. Seeing the peril they headed towards, West lurched forwards trying to catch the backs of Stanwick and Ahken’s clothes, but they were moving too quickly and all three slid down the sharp incline of the curved inner wall, where an army of thousands awaited their arrival. At first Charlene felt a terror of claustrophobia, the guards rearing up inches from her face, but rather than attacking, this front line of guards fell backwards, pushing against their comrades desperately.

The army of civilian fighters who had been following at a cautious distance now started to pour into the massive room, many of them leaping down into the fray, quickly tackling the guards to the floor. Overhead an army of hundreds clambered hand over hand, still clinging to ornate carvings which covered the entire expanse of the room’s ceiling. When they reached the apex of the room, these combatants started to drop from the ceiling, each of them falling with frightening speed directly onto members of the opposing force.

 

Charlene soared above the crowds and all about her people fought to the death, tearing at each other’s limbs, blood drenched bodies falling to the ground. Detached from West’s perspective, she watched as he and Stanwick cut a swath in front of Ahken, neither one of them deterred by their enemy’s efforts. At the far end of the room, about 100 feet away, she could see a small archway which a group of guards appeared to be huddling about, adopting a protective formation. Before they managed to organize themselves properly, West had marshaled a group of fighters on their position, and had joined them in the act of decimating the guard’s ranks.

Charlene struggled against her instinct, which was to labor over ever detail of the fight; examine every cut and gash in slow motion, watch the rippling skin spill red as the delvers labored to mend their machines of war. She watched West, Stanwick and Ahken lead the charge deeper into the halls of the palace, but the big picture became less and less interesting to her. She was aware. They ran through narrower tunnels, the army followed, and Charlene explored a riotous sky of billowing fabrics, or else her eyes looped slowly about the hills and valleys of pulsing, thrumming muscles. Gradually corralled, the passageways became too close for them to run even two abreast, and Charlene reveled in the proximity, the chaos and calamity of confined limbs.

She had realized that for some time the tunnels had pushed ever deeper into the building, burrowing underground, and when the floor finally leveled off and the ornamentation of the walls gave way to flat seamless slabs, Charlene recognized the smooth surface of glardium that now surrounded them. The moment West’s arms pressed against the cool glittering rills, a surge of babbling and incoherent voices overwhelmed Charlene’s mind. She could hear the fear, taste it on the air, the panic of a thousand souls laid bare, every body tense, sharply aware that their king was close, that he could glean each dark and treacherous thought.

Stanwick took hold of West’s hand, pulling him faster, towards the narrow space ahead, falling through a small doorway. The opening swept into a sprawling space, lit here and there by bright shafts of light cast from deep recesses in the distant roof. Ahead and to either side, there was no discernible end to the space, the floor simply disappearing into a distance engulfed in foreboding blackness. As crowds poured in from the passageway behind, Charlene moved deeper into the space and she became quickly lost in a bewildering clutter.

At first, it looked to Charlene as if the cavern might function as some sort of living quarters. Everywhere she looked, the place was littered with an accumulation of hectic and disorganized objects, as if someone with a profound hording complex had been set free with an unlimited budget and a remit to fill an apparently endless space. Gradually, Charlene started to see a sort of order within the chaos; there was a large bed surrounded by soft furnishings that looked almost inviting and this arrangement was enclosed by several rows of bookshelves which were stacked with an assortment of paraphernalia. In the area to the right stood an army of manikins, each of them clothed in varying styles of Armour and everyday dress, some of them clad in smooth plated metal, others with soft flowing fabrics or animal hides.

To her left, Charlene watched as Ahken walked by the side of a large pool of water, Stanwick always staying fairly close by him. The further Charlene followed them into the space, the more it confounded expectations. There were sculptures and paintings huddled together, strewn amongst disregarded piles of parchments and books on the hard floor. Seating areas bore the signs of heavy wear but had lay abandoned for long enough to have attracted and then been abandoned by enough spiders to be left completely blanketed in cobwebs. Clothes, which Charlene thought must have been ceremonial in function, heavily embroidered and decorative lay folded on tables or simply scattered on the floor amongst the rest of the detritus and decay.

A voice echoed from out of the darkness ahead; cold, harsh and definitely that of a man. It spoke in a mocking tone of a lack of empathy for the scope of human existence and Charlene saw that everyone about her turned their heads frantically, looking for the source of the voice. This was what they had come for; this was the confrontation that they had sought. She felt West’s hatred boiling in her mind, the voice calling out, mocking them. As Stanwick pressed tentatively closer to Ahken, there was a soft clanging noise, and a faint glimmer of light broke the darkness of the cavernous void ahead of them. The glimmer quickly became a shining streak of light which came shrieking directly towards Charlene, a large disk, screaming metal scraping and crashing through the detritus around her, the spinning blade passing directly through the space she occupied. She turned in time to see a decapitated body drop to the floor behind her.

The voice spoke again but Charlene was caught off guard, confused, realizing with a profound fear that the confusion she felt was West’s. The voice spoke directly to her, in a tongue that West had clearly not understood at the time, “Child of the void garden, time will not bring you succor or security. My reign is infinite and my contempt will know no temperance. I am the light at the beginning of your universe, and the darkness that consumes as the worlds drift into my farthest reaches.”

Charlene felt her skin crawl as she heard the words, sure that they were meant for her, but now, the voice ran on again in the foreign tongue, mocking the gathered army for their frailty. There was a mechanical clicking, and a second blade sliced through the air ahead, cutting swiftly through another two bodies in the distance behind Charlene before slamming into a table. As the voice rambled on in guttural growls, Ahken threw Stanwick to the ground as he tucked his body into a neat roll, spreading himself flat to the floor while another blade whistled through the air which only a moment ago had been occupied by his head. Stanwick was on her feet then, jumping high into the air towards the darkness and curving her body into a beautiful somersault as yet another blade soared through the air beneath her.

The blade hung there, Stanwick’s hair brushing against the metal surface. Charlene moved closer to Stanwick, the distant details of the room obliterated by blackness as she left West’s viewpoint. The girl looked so serene, suspended upside down, smiling at her own reflection in the surface of the disk. Ahken’s face told a different story altogether; one rife with panic, his eyes fixed on Stanwick’s free floating body. As allowed the scene to unfold slowly, Ahken stumbled to his feet chasing after Stanwick but he was clearly off balance. He tripped, and Charlene watched his mouth contorted in horror as a blade scythed through the air ahead of him, a spray of blood describing a perfect arc, spinning out from the gleaming metal which sliced through the flesh of his shoulder. Wincing, Ahken ducked his head down and sprinted forwards.

Charlene’s attention was pulled to the right of the room, where West watched one of the men who had stood in the gathering in the courtyard of the palace. The man jumped high into the air, spinning a heavy metal bar in front of him, hand over hand. His path was deliberate, quickly covering ground as he bounded towards Ahken and Stanwick to join them in their charge into the darkness.

Stanwick pushed forward, ducking when it was necessary to avoid one of the spinning blades, or instead, flipping her body high into the air as they passed beneath her; it was as if she made game of the situation. Charlene marveled at her fluid movements, her awareness of her surroundings. Leaping from a table edge, Stanwick jumped towards one of the metal disks, spreading her body out straight mid-air so that her feet landed hard on the flat edge of the blade, slamming it to the ground.

West looked behind him, and Charlene could see now that hundreds of people had started to push forwards, all of them mimicking the actions of Stanwick and Ahken, ducking or jumping to safety when necessary, then dashing from cover to cover. Everyone moved in short and erratic bursts of activity, each of them making sure that they didn’t present a static target for more than a couple of seconds at a time.

 

Apparently alerted by the distant clicking and the metallic twang that had accompanied each of the disks launching into the room, West’s attention snapped back towards the man who was flanking right, heading towards Ahken. The man stumbled sideways, narrowly avoiding one of the lethal projectiles, but now Charlene gasped as she watched a second blade span out quickly. The man’s body tipped forwards through the air, his legs arching behind him in a smooth line. Too slow. He hadn’t anticipated the trajectory of the disk, and as his feet swam upwards and his hands tipped towards the floor, the blade cut easily through his wrists, barely missing his head as it traveled on, severing both of his legs above his knees.

A blood curdling scream broke the air to Charlene’s left and she realized that Ahken was now running recklessly towards the fallen man. He fell forward and slid across the floor, lifting the man’s head in his hands and cradling his upper body, hugging him tight. West turned his head; a woman’s hand on his shoulder, another one of those five who had been with them in the courtyard. The woman’s other hand rose to her mouth, but her sobs had already erupted into a scream, and she ran forward, falling to the floor beside the man, moaning a single word repeatedly through her sobs, body convulsing as she pressed her arm to the man’s mouth.

Time stopped, Charlene halting the scene in stunned comprehension. She knew now why the other three in the courtyard had seemed familiar to her. Charlene had only seen the man a couple of times before on television. She hadn’t paid much attention to politics in recent years as there had seemed very little point. She was sure of it now though; the man who lay in Ahken’s arms was the new President of America, Lucas Miller and at his side, pressing her arm to his mouth was First Lady, Petra Miller. Although she couldn’t remember his name for the life of her, there in the air, hovering mid-fall above this bizarre grouping was the man she now recognized to be the deceased Russian President, Anatoly Vsevolod Abakumov.

Charlene stared at each one of them, trying to assure herself that she must be mistaken but the more she stared, the more convinced she was that she was correct. She allowed the action around her to continue now, watching mesmerized as the injured man bit hard into the flesh of Petra Miller’s arm. Now that she had made the connection, Charlene couldn’t separate these people from what she knew of them and it was disturbing to think of this bloodthirsty man, with his eyes rolling back with bloodshot delirium, as the future president of the United States.

Charlene could see that the man’s wounds were knitting together and healing quickly, the leeches taking the energy they needed from the infusion of new blood as he sucked and lapped at the woman’s arm. Ahken stood quickly, agitated and unsettled. He steeled himself, leaning his body forwards as he broke into a sprint and Charlene watched him running towards Stanwick who was at that moment ducking low to avoid another disk which spun wildly awry, scattering the crowds behind them. Stanwick was a couple of feet now from the source of all this mayhem; a large machine with a wide mechanical arm which rotated on a metallic base. The clockwork mechanisms whirred menacingly, but Stanwick managed to slide into a position out of the range of the machine’s firing radius, lashing out, kicking at the machine repeatedly, smashing her feet into the mechanical arm again and again.

Ahken crouched low, swaying to and fro as the machine reared, slinging another disk towards him, and even skewed at an angle by one of Stanwick’s blows, the machine seemed to fire with prescient accuracy. Ahken threw himself forward and the blade skimmed inches from him, traveling the length of his body but never making contact. He was up on his feet quickly and he now joined Stanwick’s efforts, striking repeated blows to the machine with his fists and feet. However, it was Stanwick who struck the disabling blow, her foot connecting perfectly with the metal arm as it swung towards her, the combined speed making for an impact which sent the machine toppling backwards, hissing steam and grinding gears as it went.

 

Hundreds of people now coursed past, sure that the way ahead was now safe, quickly filling the dark expanse. In the distance, far ahead of the crowd, Charlene could see a lone figure retreating, a long shadow trailing behind as light broke the darkness in front of it. Stanwick stooped to pick up one of the metal disks, cradling the serrated teeth in her fingers and reaching out to drag Ahken into action with her free hand. She was faster than Ahken, stronger and certainly more aware of her surroundings, powering quickly through the crowds with Ahken stumbling behind in her wake as she made for the retreating figure. Apparently frustrated by Ahken’s cumbersome and clumsy progress, Stanwick let go of his hand, bounding ahead gracefully, one hand pulsing back and forth at her side, the other angled outward and cradling the disk under her arm.

Charlene couldn’t bear the anticipation, but because West struggled to keep up with the girl, Charlene could neither see, nor imagine any greater detail in the scene before her. Gradually though, as West started to catch up, trailing only a few feet behind Stanwick, Charlene started to be able to make out her surroundings and she could see that not far in front of her, the smooth floors and walls of the vast space gave way to jagged rocks and rubble.

Their prey was not far ahead now; Charlene could make out the slender form of King Pretchis, picking his way through the treacherous terrain, a misty light pouring into the space in front of him. There was now no suggestion of architecture or design to the space, and it became obvious that the building had been constructed around a colossal cave, stalactite forms hanging from the ceiling, boulders and jagged rocks covering the uneven floor.

The mouth of the cave was bathed in a green light, the distant daylight diffused by heavy foliage. The sounds of the army which had been falling behind anyway, were now drowned out completely by a strange, low rumbling sound. Stanwick leaned her body sideways, swinging her arm backwards with the jagged metal disk in hand. Her arm cut through the air in a blur of motion, flinging the blade in a flawless trajectory.

Silhouetted in the hazy opalescent light, the king staggered, the proud profile of his face almost discernible as he cast his gaze back towards them. With the coup de gras whistling through the air behind him, his hands pumping backwards and forwards at his sides, Pretchis’ shadowy form was almost completely lost in the shimmering, emerald white light. A fine spray of red misted the air; his right hand severed cleanly, his thigh ripped open in a jagged line, Pretchis limped on. But now they were close enough to see his planned route of escape. A great waterfall blanketed the mouth of the cave, and with three more crooked strides, arms thrown overhead, body arching into a dive, Pretchis leaped forward, and was carried away in the thunderous waters.

Blackness consumed her vision, and Charlene was left to the confines of her imagination. She opened her eyes, and saw the apartment in front of her, Stanwick and West both still seated on the hardwood floor watching her.

 

Lying next to West on the floor of the apartment, Stanwick ran a finger across his brow. She touched her bare foot against the wall beside Charlene, listening to the cascade of thoughts, “She’s just left the Dannustine Palace.”

Eyes closed, West’s brow furrowed, “She’s not exactly rushing through this.”

“Can you blame her? ”

West conceded with a gentle raise of his eyebrows, feeling the light pressure of Stanwick’s fingertips tracing along the curve of his eyelids; left eye, right eye, then she stroked the bridge of his nose.

“Why have you been avoiding me?”

He didn’t answer.

She laughed and slapped his forehead with her open hand, Don’t pretend that’s not what’s been going on. We were thick as thieves you and me, roaming South America together …” she stroked his hair affectionately, “We took the cure … We had a life. We had fucking Chile!” she sighed, exasperated with her rose tinted memories, “We were comfortable.” She watched his face, sure that she saw some hint of emotion there, “then … poof, you pull a vanishing act.”

Stirring, West stared into her eyes, unsure if there was any sufficient explanation.

“Stanwick, I didn’t know how to find you. I was sick, and I didn’t know how to get well again.”

Stanwick’s mouth fell open in shock, “Shut up!”

“No, seriously. I nearly died in Chile.”

Stanwick shivered, goosebumps raising the tiny hairs of her arms as the thought raced through her mind, “What do you mean? What happened?”

West shrugged, “I think it was malarial fever,” his voice trailed off and he muttered, “I’ve never really been sure.”

Resting her hand on his chest, Stanwick asked, “Why didn’t you just leech straight away?”

He looked scared as his eyes met with hers again, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what was going on. I was losing my mind.”

“How do you mean?”

“When we got separated, I was frantic; I was having dizzy spells, crippling pains and when I slept I had fevered dreams of Allim. I started to wonder if all of my memories were caused by these fevers. I started to forget things; small things at first, names of people, places, that kind of stuff, but it got a lot worse, and suddenly there were vast tracts of history I couldn’t remember. I spent a few nights in a small village in the Chacabuco province and by the time I was well enough to really move around, I had no idea where I’d even seen you last.”

Stanwick was dumbfounded. She had waited for him, of course, but eventually she had began to harbor a petty suspicion that after so many years he’d finally grown sick of the sight of her. She thought she was doing the right thing by allowing him some space, thinking that he would come running to her after a few days. It shook her now to think that West had been seriously ill and she’d just left him to suffer.

“The worst of it was, some of the locals seemed to be convinced that I’d always been there. They knew me by name, told me stories about how I’d worked with some of them, fishing and hunting … Me Stanwick, fishing! Can you imagine? When I finally went out with a couple of them on a boat, it turned out I wasn’t too bad at it and their story started to make more sense than any of my memories. So I spent two years working a skiff, pretty much certain that all of my memories of Allim were psychotic fantasies.”

Stanwick blinked hard, shaking her head, trying to dislodge the mental image of West working as a fisherman, “So how did you recover?”

West closed his eyes and rested his head on the floor, “I kept having these vivid flashbacks of the house in Villarrica. I didn’t know if it was real or not, but the images were so vivid that it reached a point where that house was all I could think about. I bid my farewell to my fishing companions and made my way to Paraguay.”

Stanwick shook her head, “Hold on … I was there West. I stayed at the Palacio for at least a year hoping you would show up.”

West looked up at her smiling, remembering the house they had shared together in Paraguay, their elderly housekeeper who had always managed to make an ordinary mansion feel like a palace.

“When I arrived, Fabiana told me you’d not long since left.”

Stanwick sighed, “You know Fabiana died three days after her ninetieth birthday?”

The corners of West’s mouth turned downward slightly, “We should have made her. She put up with so much crap.”

Stanwick lay her head down on the floor and took hold of West’s hand, “I offered it to her. She told me she’d spent too long looking forward to seeing Eliseo in Heaven. She was polite about it though.”

West chuckled gently, “She probably thought you were mad.”

“She would have had a point.” Stanwick leaned her head forwards and glanced at Charlene, watching the muscles of her legs twitch as her mind walked her through West’s memories

 

Charlene followed West’s army; fearsome and organized as they marched through the collapsed and ruined walls of the city, out into the unknown world beyond. She counted a week of sunrises, and the whole time, the army ran almost ceaselessly, heading towards the mountains in the North. When they reached the foothills of the mountain they camped down, and several hundred of them wandered off scouting, returning later in the evening carrying the bodies of slain animals on which the army feasted.

 

As the sun rose on the eighth day, West led the army in formation, marching in tightly knit lines as they headed up the slopes of the mountain until eventually West called for them to halt. On a ridge forty or fifty yards ahead of the front line, there stood a herd of several hundred horses, all in a clean line with their heads bowed down. There appeared to be no one guarding the horses, no riders, which suggested that they couldn’t pose much of a threat; however, as they started to shuffle slowly forwards from the prow of the ridge, Charlene sensed something off about their gait, the way they swayed as they moved, something peculiar about their stride. She moved as close as West’s memory would allow without her vision blurring and she was able to see that each of the horses bent low on their front legs, pushing their hooves through the rubble and scrubby vegetation, rather than lifting their legs as they walked.

Several men and women who had gathered around West shouted orders to the army. On their command, hundreds of people moved to join the front of the pack, forming a long semicircle, standing shoulder to shoulder, each of them brandishing long blades which they had gathered from the ruins of the Dannustine Palace.

Now the horses advanced more rapidly, still shuffling their hooves forwards, bodies swaying cat like, side to side until finally they came close enough that Charlene was able to make out the truly hideous nature of the beasts. The bodies, legs and hooves were definitely equine; however, the heads which hung stooped in front of the powerful chests were not. Jaws open wide, long prehistoric snouts pointing earthward, the horses each bore the heads of crocodiles, their pointed teeth opalescent and gleaming in the morning light, strands of saliva webbing their mouths.

The animals all at once began to gallop, closing in on West’s front line; heads pushing forwards on their long necks, their break of speed was phenomenal. West barked orders as he knelt in the gravel, bracing himself for the assault and even though Charlene knew that West was alive and well, sitting in an apartment in New York, she couldn’t help feeling terrified for his safety.

As the first of the creatures collided with the army, the sight was brutal. Everywhere, blades hacked and sliced at the animals to no avail; jagged rows of teeth ripped and gnashed at the men and women, several of the fighters lifted bodily of the ground and tossed around like rag dolls, arms still flailing blades at the necks of the animals in a desperate attempt to free themselves. The horse’s bodies reared up, hooves crashing into the chests of men and women as reptilian heads lunged at their prey.

Suddenly knocked to the ground from behind, from West’s perspective Charlene was lying on the ground in the thick of the action, West’s arms scything a circular motion overhead, the smooth blade cutting clean through all four legs of one of the horses. As the body fell towards her, the world span, West’s field of vision swaying wildly as he rolled out of harm’s way. There, in the brief snatches of sky that Charlene was able to see as West shuffled and rolled on the ground, large birds flew overhead, their dark forms all but blotting out the dawn light. West gathered himself onto his haunches, and seizing an opportune moment, with the path around him clear, he leapt from the ground and managed to avoid the snapping jaws of one of the horses which reared up at him as he sailed through the air. Falling back towards the battlefield, West looked skyward in horror and awe. These were not birds which flew overhead; with huge leathery wings beating, arms wielding blades, Charlene could now make out the grotesquely distorted human forms as they soared over the battlefield.

West landed hard with his back arched over one of the horses. A figure swooped down towards him, blade lashing out clumsily overhead and West clambered desperately, clinging to the horse’s partly reptilian neck. The horse kicked up its hind legs, throwing West forward, then with another jolt, West was thrown off, his head crashing against a large boulder as he fell to the ground. His vision faded rapidly, and the last thing Charlene saw were the hooves falling on his chest, the sharp teeth lunging towards his face.

 

 

West and Stanwick both sat up, watching Charlene stir to consciousness. When she pulled the glardium weave from her face, she looked ashen, as if she was about to vomit. She wretched, coughing dryly, but to West’s relief, nothing came up. He jumped to his feet and walked towards her, taking hold of the neck brace and catching her as she fell forward.

She stammered breathlessly, “There … There were horses with,” she breathed heavily, “with heads like …”

West patted her back, “Leechmares. They were one of the first true abominations of the Mythologue.”

She stumbled backwards, but West held her tight, leaning his weight away from her to stop her from falling. Terrified, Charlene’s eyes darted about the features of West’s face, checking that he was okay, “What the hell are they?”

Stanwick stood up calmly and walked over to the couch, “They were King Pretchis’ first attempt at splicing. West had encountered similar animals during his exile in the void, things infused with the blood of the Dannum, but in the days after the fall, Pretchis ran amok, creating all manner of beasts.”

Charlene grimaced, “That’s horrible.”
Stanwick shrugged, “That was nothing. At least the horses couldn’t fly. I take it you saw the winged Leechborn?”

Charlene nodded her head a fraction, unable to talk about what she’d seen.

Stanwick flapped her arms mockingly, “Honestly, they posed more of a psychological threat than anything. You know how much upper body strength it takes to flap an eighteen foot wingspan? By the time you’ve allowed the leeches to spread the bulk of your body weight and bone mass into wings, you’re basically worth shit on a battlefield.”

West rolled his eyes at Stanwick, “They killed hundreds in that first assault; not everyone has the same spatial awareness as you in the heat of battle.”

Stanwick laughed hard, rocking forward, “True that! Some people manage to get themselves trampled by spooked ponies in the first few minutes of a fight.”

Certain that Charlene was steady on her feet, West joined Stanwick on the couch, punching her arm as he sat beside her, “Sure Stanwick, I got trampled by a pony, that’s exactly what happened; the first major battle of the Mythologue, and the man known throughout Allim as the ‘Scourge of the Void’ was bested by a tiny horse.”

Charlene eased herself into a chair, pulling her feet up beneath her, “Wait, what you said just now …”

Stanwick raised her eyebrows, “Tiny horse?”

Charlene glared at her, frustrated, “No, the void.” Charlene tried to recall what it was the voice had said to her in the hopper, “Child of the void garden … It was just something that Pretchis said to me in the …” she felt a flush of embarrassment as she struggled with the new terminology, “the hopper.”

All joviality went from Stanwick’s face as she leaned forward, “Sorry, what? Pretchis spoke to you directly?”

Charlene nodded slowly, unsure if she’d misspoken.

West too looked austerely serious, “Charlene, can you remember exactly what it is you heard?”

She furrowed her brow, stroking her temples as she closed her eyes in concentration, “It was in the palace; he was talking to you all, and I could get the gist of what he was saying, but then he started talking plain English, something about an infinite reign?” West glanced uncomfortably at Stanwick as they waited for Charlene to elaborate.

“Yes … yes, that was it. He said, ‘Child of the void garden, time will not bring you succor,’”

She paused, trying to drag the exact words from her memory, then opening her eyes as the wording came back to her, she continued, “succor or … or security. My reign is infinite and my contempt will know no temperance. I am the light at the beginning of your universe … the darkness that consumes as the worlds drift into my farthest reaches.”

West laughed nervously, “Very peculiar.”

Stanwick stared at West in stunned disbelief, “That’s all you’ve got to say? Peculiar?” She rubbed her arms, chilled by Charlene’s revelation.

West sat back, relaxing his weight into the leather cushions, “It isn’t anomalous Stan.”

Stanwick was wild eyed now, “Pretchis spoke directly to Charlene through the hopper and it’s not anomalous?”

West shook his head, “Charlene was experiencing my memory.”

Stanwick shrugged, “So what?”

“So Pretchis wasn’t talking directly to her, Charlene was hearing my thoughts.”

Doubtful, Stanwick pursed her lips as she looked at West, so he continued, “It was a phrase that I recited in my head, while Pretchis addressed everyone in his grand dormitory. It was something I had read in the archives and it kept going through my mind as Pretchis spoke because I was certain at the time that it must have been Pretchis who had first uttered those words.”

Stanwick breathed out slowly and nodded as she looked at Charlene.

“There was something else I noticed,” Charlene began.

West leaned forwards attentively, “Go on?”

“The people you were with … I’m sure I recognized some of them.”

West nodded, “Ahken’s parents? Lucas and Petra Miller.”

Charlene looked confused, “His parents?”

Stanwick nodded, “Ahken’s parents, and my adoptive parents; Reiner and Petra Kith Tiarsis, aka president and first lady Lucas and Petra Miller.” She laughed, “Make no mistake Charlene, I would not be welcomed into The White House with open arms right now.”

Charlene closed her eyes and tried to commit everything she had heard to memory. Stanwick extended her leg and prodded Charlene’s bare knee, “Don’t stress the small stuff. You’re not going to be tested on any of this.” Charlene smiled and nodded gratefully, “It’s been a long day. I wish I didn’t have so many questions.”

West was sympathetic, “I’d be more concerned if you didn’t have any questions. Please, don’t be afraid to ask anything.”

Stanwick grinned, “Do you mind if I ask you something Charlene?”

Charlene shook her head uncertainly.

Stanwick’s grin broadened, “Have you ever wished you could visit a particular period in history?”

Charlene held her hand to her mouth as she thought about the question. She had never had a great deal of interest in history, but she didn’t want to appear to be ignorant. Mostly she’d learned about American history in school and she’d come to appreciate over the years that a lot of what she’d learned was pretty biased.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t know where to begin.” She looked apologetic, but Stanwick shrugged dismissively, “It’s not a trick question. We’ve seen a lot over the years and I’ve made a lot of recordings on the hopper.” She could see that Charlene was embarrassed and she tried to comfort her, “Hey, it’s not a big deal. If you do think of anything you want to see, just ask.”

West laughed, “Don’t worry Charlene, Stanwick’s life reads like a history of bare knuckle brawls and tribal warfare through the ages; you really aren’t missing much.”

Charlene smiled, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

[]CHAPTER ELEVEN

Spiff

 

David had drifted rapidly in and out of dreams and nightmares, waking occasionally to find Stephanie lying with her foot on his throat, or her hand over his face. He lay staring at the mottled streetlight which shone dully through the fabric of the sheet which he had pulled about his face, trying to block out the unfamiliar surroundings and imagine that he was back home in Washington. He blinked slowly, once, twice, then his eyelids fell heavy and he found himself in the front cab of the van, driving towards Calvert. He could hear the two agents hammering behind him, claw like fingers scraping on metal, but he knew what he had to do. He turned on the radio, trying his best to block out the horror of his situation and the song that played was immediately familiar; the slightly frantic marimba that he heard every school morning, which usually signaled that he only had about fourteen seconds to reach Stephanie’s bedroom before he would be forced to endure Mamma Mia for the thousandth time. He fiddled with the radio, punching at buttons, but every station was the same, and when he tried to turn the damned thing off, the girls still started singing anyway. That’s when he remembered the alarm. Stephanie’s alarm.

He woke with a start, tugging the bed sheet from his face, looking for the source of the alarm. There … Stephanie’s backpack lay on the floor, a couple of feet from the bed. David dug through her things quickly, bleary eyes shying from the light of her phone’s screen. Swipe to snooze. Back to bed.

 

The routine came more easily each time, the weight of tiredness dragging him back into uncharted waters, or even worse, to dark and oft charted depths. Emerging from the darkness, he saw a familiar oak door, an ornate brass handle inviting him to explore further. He felt uneasy, as he had every time he’d stood in front of that door, because he knew that any exploration would lead to disappointment. His father would be busy, his head in a book, or his fingers clacking away at a keyboard. He turned from the door now, crept down the hallway which was too long; much longer than he remembered. The door opened behind him, and he heard the ominous drumming of his father’s fingers on hard wood. He felt the white hot fear in his chest. He’d been here before. He’d dreamed a hundred dreams of his father’s return from death. How had they not realized that he would come back to life? David wanted it, more than anything, even though he blamed his father for his own shortcomings, but not like this. Sometimes in his dreams, his father was healthy and engaging, other times ailing and maniacal, but his visits were always fleeting. He knew that if he turned, he would have to deal with the knowing, the acceptance that his father was back from the dead, only to have him snatched away by his waking. He felt himself choking up, even though he knew that he should be happy.

“David, it’s okay.”

No, he couldn’t face him right now. He ran down the corridor, towards the impossibly distant staircase, covering his ears with his hands in an attempt to block out the voice which was coming from inside his own head. “David, stop and talk to me.” He ran quickly, desperate to escape the sound that he missed so much, his father’s sonorous and commanding voice. “David, come back, please, I need to tell you. There’s so much you need to know!” But the words now became lost in the urgent refrain of music as David ran faster, and suddenly all that he could hear was the music.

Sitting bolt upright, he struggled to pull the sheet away from his face as he looked for the phone a second time. He swiped the screen, and heard a voice coming from the small speaker.

“David?”

“Dad?”

“David, it’s me.”

“Hannah? How did you … Oh Jesus.” He threw the phone on the floor and mashed his bare heel against the glass front several times, but the cracked screen still glowed cheerily. He picked up the phone and bent it in half, clambering for a bedside lamp which he knew must be there. Holding it under the light, he knew that secreted away in a small compartment was a sim card that he had to get at, so he continued to twist the device in his hands, bending and snapping it every way that he could. When he was finally satisfied that he’d thoroughly destroyed it, David sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the shattered remnants of Stephanie’s phone. He knew it was a problem. He wasn’t sure how much of a problem, but he knew enough to be paralyzed by fear. Stephanie stirred, pulling the blanket over her eyes to shield them from the light. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, trying to calm his nerves, “Hey hon, I’m sorry I woke you.”

“Daddy what’s wrong?”

Grimacing at the broken glass and cracked plastic, he lied halfheartedly, “Nothing Spiff.” He turned to face her, “When did you turn on your phone?”

Wide eyes peaked out from under the blanket, “I didn’t dad. You told me I couldn’t.”

He turned away from Stephanie with his eyes closed tight, lay down on the bed and tried to open his imagination to the trouble he might have caused, “I should,” he sighed heavily, his breath heaving in his chest several times, “I should probably go and talk to West.”

“Can I come?”

“Oh, sure. You should probably come too.”

He felt his daughter’s small hand on his shoulder, but rather than comforting him, she pushed him towards the edge of the bed, “It’ll be okay. You’ll see.”

 

Agent Brad Cobb waved his hand in front of the monitor and scrolled through the report from forensic accounting. He found it troubling to look at Dave Beach’s various bank and card statements, not because they showed any unusual activity or signs of unscrupulous behavior, quite the contrary; David Beach was average, almost to the point of absurdity. Cobb could see from the notes in the side margins that the accounts department had held a similar opinion of Mr Beach. Beach didn’t fit the profile of a conspirator to assassination. Up until his sudden flight, every aspect of the investigation thus far had only gone to highlight the fact that Beach was an upright citizen. The only possible exception to this had of course been Beach’s phone conversation of March sixth.

Cobb drummed the edge of the desk with his fingertips. What had gone wrong?

There was nothing in Beach’s history that would suggest he was capable of taking on two field trained agents. Beach had been interviewed by McMahon, so if the two had accidentally crossed paths at Beach’s home it surely wouldn’t have come as a shock, and it seemed unlikely that it could have lead to a violent resolution; certainly not one which would end in Beach’s favor.

He looked up from his monitor as he noticed in the periphery of his vision that someone was approaching from the far end of the office. Agent Danielle Wheatley presented somewhat of a challenge for Cobb’s ability to assume an air of professional detachment, especially at three in the morning. Cobb was already dangerously close to exhausted delirium, and he was sure that Danielle Wheatley, specialist in audio analysis, would tip him over the edge. He never intended to flirt with her. It was never on his agenda, but for some reason, he felt like he came across as a creeper when he was around her. Perhaps it was her height, he wondered; at 6’4, she towered over him, and that fact alone made him feel like a little boy. He stared studiously at his monitor as she approached, and he found himself wondering why she was so disarming. She was never anything other than completely professional, but Cobb still found that she presented an obstacle to professionalism.

“Cobb, you’re on Beach now right?”

Blink, smile, nod, focus on her face, “Yup, reassigned today.”

“The warrant you requested came through for the kids phone. A call went through a couple of minutes ago from Beach’s sister.” Agent Wheatley frowned as she noticed Cobb’s eyes wandering off to a point in space somewhere above her head, “You want to hear the recording?”

Cobb snapped to attention, wide eyes staring at her, “Of course,” he got up from his desk, “Lead the way.”

She walked a few paces ahead of him, leading him to a small office which was tightly packed with equipment. She sat at her station and queued up the recording.

“David.” Cobb recognized Hannah Beach’s voice.

“David, pick up the god damned phone.”

No response from the other end of the line, just some muffled shuffling sounds.

“David you piece of shit, pick up the mother fucking phone.”

Still no response. Cobb sat down beside agent Wheatley and listened to another five minutes of Hannah cursing and screaming before she hung up.

“Is that it?”

Wheatley shook her head, “Nope. She called back straight away.”

She started the second recording. Five seconds of ring tone, then, “David!”

“Dad?”

“David, it’s me.”

“Hannah? How did you … Oh Jesus.” The phone clicked off.

Wheatley smiled, “It’s not much to go on, and the kid’s sim went dead, so I’m figuring Beach smashed the phone.”

Cobb leaned back in the office chair and pushed away from the desk, the wheels rolling across the smooth floor silently.

“Did he say Dad?”

Wheatley nodded.

“I’m pretty sure his dad’s dead.” Cobb mused, “Why the hell would he expect him to be calling?”

Wheatley shrugged, “I have no godly idea. People are weird. Every day man, I tell you, I hear the stupidest shit.”

Cobb laughed, “This is great though Danielle, thanks.”

She shrugged, “Great would have been getting point of origin on the call. Wherever Beach is, there must have been some pretty heavy hardware baffling the signal. Still, it’s a start. I’ve got it down to a small cluster of cell towers in Manhattan.”

Cobb punched the air weakly, half expecting to be met with a fist bump from Wheatley, “I’ll work this up right away. You’re a star Wheatley, I could kiss you.”

She raised her eyebrows, looking doubtful, “No Cobb, you really couldn’t, but thanks for keeping it weird.”

 

“What’s up? You look like shit.”

Stanwick’s words did little to soothe David’s troubled mind. He closed the door behind him and turned away from the others, composing himself, “I’ve made a mistake.”

“What kind of a mistake?” West asked calmly, wondering what damage David could have possibly done in his brief absence.

“I answered Stephanie’s phone.”

There was a long pause before West spoke again, and his voice remained calm, “What have you done with the phone?”

David turned quickly, mouth trembling, “I … I destroyed it, but it was too late. I heard Hannah’s voice, and I’m not sure how long the phone had been turned on.”

West looked confused, “So where was your mistake?”

“I shouldn’t have answered the phone.”

West rolled his eyes, “No, you shouldn’t have had a phone to answer, but that was my mistake, not yours; I should have been explicit in my instructions regarding the phones.”

“But I shouldn’t have answered.” David replied, certain that he was at fault somewhere.

West looked at Stephanie, who was standing beside her father, biting her lip nervously. He knelt in front of her, smiling, “Stephanie Beach, have you ever in your life stayed awake all night?”

“Nope.” She responded truthfully.

West raised his eyebrows, then he pulled out his phone to check the time. Four twenty-five, not bad. News app, happily informing him that the entire world was about to be turned on its head; not great. His eyes, wide with excitement, met with Stephanie’s again, “I have a feeling that this is going to be your first all-nighter, which would make this breakfast time.”

Stephanie grinned from ear to ear, “I get to stay up?”

West nodded, “However, I recall that someone around here had a very specific list of demands regarding breakfast.” He stood up and walked over to Stanwick, handing her his phone, “What say we all take a quick shopping trip, then get this show on the road?”

Stanwick read the headlines on West’s phone, then returned the phone to him, basking in the warm glow of his child-like glee. She had missed him. She leaned past him and gave Stephanie the thumbs up, “Breakfast!”

Stephanie gritted her teeth, bouncing on her heels, growling with excitement.

 

Cobb retraced David Beach’s digital footsteps, clicking back and forth from website to website. Knowing Beach’s Shadowcab73 alter-ego had opened up so many doors Cobb pondered; it was still unnerving to him that McMahon in particular had ignored that trail. Granted, behind many of those newly opened doors, there was a picture of a slightly depressed, aggravated, petty, misanthropic troll, but when Cobb put all of those pictures together, the composite of David Beach was of someone who cared, someone who towed the party line, and above all, someone who believed unwaveringly in the Tiernan administration. He had called Brice Daniels in to assist, delegating the task of liaising with the various website administrators. He was certain that within the past week, one other person must have gone knocking at all of those same doors, and with Brice’s help, there was a chance that this person could be located.

Brice called over from his workstation, “Brad, have you seen this shit?”

Cobb didn’t look up from his monitor, “What?”

Brice pushed away from his desk, beady eyes as wide as they could go, sweaty fingers stroking his clammy forehead, “Cobb, have you got your head up your ass or something? You’re on the web right?”

Cobb scowled, “What do you want me to look at?” He opened a fresh browser window, which defaulted to the browser’s own news page. The news feeds from several sites affiliated with Associated Press were dominated by similar headlines, ‘Tiernan Alive? White House aides and security report sightings of President Allan Tiernan on White House grounds.’ Agence France-presse affiliates were leading with ‘Présidence contestée : Président Loube retourne Palais de l’Elysée.’ Cobb clicked feverishly to Reuters affiliates, and read that former Prime Minister Arthur White had arrived unceremoniously at Downing Street.

Cobb stood up from his desk and pointed at agent Daniels, “Quit fucking around Brice.”

“What?”

Cobb laughed heartily, “Really, you had me there for a moment. Elaborate. Genius really, but the joke’s over okay?”

Brice shook his head slowly, “Brad, this has nothing to do with me. It’s the real deal.”

“Jesus Daniels, I don’t have time for your shit, I’m supposed to hit the ground running with this.”

Brice laughed, “Brad, just look.” He pointed towards one of the large flat screens at the far end of the room which silently displayed the feed from CNN. There, Brad Cobb could just make out the headline which was emblazoned across the bottom of the screen, ‘Breaking news: White House security staff claim President Allan Tiernan is alive and well.’ Brice changed channel to Russia Today, which showed footage of crowds gathering at the Kremlin, the footer feed declaring, ‘Prime Minister Zhenechka Tamirov welcomes President Abakumov!’

Cobb collapsed back into his chair, massaging his temples with both hands he tried to fight off the tension which he was sure could break into a fully fledged headache at any moment. He kicked his keyboard away in contempt, “How is AP out in front of this before us? What the hell are we even doing here hmm?” He stood up again and walked over to Brice’s workstation, “If Tiernan is alive, who the hell am I chasing?”

Brice was indifferent, “Until we are told this is no longer an active investigation, the news doesn’t effect anything.”

Cobb paced, fingers working slow circles, feeling the skin of his forehead move against his skull, “We still have an attempted assassination.”

“Exactly.” Brice agreed, “and on that note,” he pointed at the in-box on his monitor, “two site admins have just granted raw access logs. If I can convince another three of the smaller sites to buckle, I’m sure I can get a fix on our man.”

“How long?”

Brice shrugged, “If the right people are awake, fifteen, twenty minutes perhaps? Failing that, we’re looking at four hours or so … I’d guess eight thirty?”

Cobb nodded, “I’ll get on to New York field office, arrange entry clearance.”

 

Ahken Kith Tiarsis did not typically allow much time for introspection. He didn’t often have cause to ask what ‘it’ was all about, because throughout most of history, there had been ample evidence that it was about him. The good parts at least. Whenever his inner monologue did take over, he thought of himself as Alan Tiernan. It was healthier that way. Ahken Tiarsis had existed as a role he had played for many years, but hadn’t he played many such roles? In private, his parents, still referred to him as Ahken and he knew that it was their wonderfully petulant way of trying to keep him ‘on the level’ and ‘down to earth’. They still thought of him as their child, and it appalled him that they were capable of such base and human thoughts. He used the term ‘parents’ loosely, because it was convenient, but it was preposterous to him that such a relationship should hold any validity beyond that.

As his father paced the floor of the oval office, Tiernan wondered when he had really stopped thinking of him as a father figure. The process had been gradual, starting with his earliest understanding of his father’s fallibility; a rationalization and acknowledgment of the many mistakes his father had made. His first meeting with West was a turning point, certainly. Never before had he met a man who was more powerful, more in touch with the world than his father. Perhaps this was the reason he still felt such a burning desire to know what West was doing.

He gazed at the woven carpet, the patriotic iconography, the trappings of the presidential office and he felt his impatience grow to a shivering fever pitch. “David Beach has fled Washington.” He looked up and made eye contact with his father, “Is it Julien Beach? Did he come to his son’s aid?”

“I don’t think so.”

Tiernan’s eyes fell back to the carpet, “Then you think it’s West?”

Lucas Miller shifted his weight uneasily, taking a step back from his son, “Ahken, two FBI agents were taken out of action, both Blood-Brood, both hand picked by you. They called me a little under an hour ago … I called you, then I called the others. Agent Carmichael informed me that their assailant offered extreme unction, before introducing himself rather grandiosely as the grounds keeper of the void garden.”

“Where are they now?”

“They’re heading back to report in. After they left, Hicks sent me a text to say the FBI picked up a call from Hannah Beach, and preliminary traces indicate that David is in New York. That information marries up rather well with Carmichael’s other tidbit.”

“Which was?”

“An exotic car with New York plates was parked outside the Beach’s residence.”

“I take it you’ve tasked a squad from Arctum?”

Lucas Miller exhaled slowly, “The DC Bureau has been handling this investigation so far. They don’t have an exact location on Beach yet, but if we just let them do their jobs, we can have an infill squad from Arctum meet up with them.”

Tiernan’s voice came softer now, and more menacing for its stillness, “You should have killed David Beach at the first opportunity. This is your failing.”

“We needed to know if he was in league with Julien.”

Tiernan brushed his hands over the smooth surface of the desk, “Why? What does that matter? I told you in March that whether or not Julien had involved his son, killing David would only further the narrative.”

Lucas Miller stood motionless, mesmerized by his son’s lack of humanity. Of course, there had never been a moral compass. His son had been brought up with the teachings of Antrusca, narrow and clear, allowing no room for questions of faith. Antrusca’s word was science, fact and law. When Allim fell, Ahken had turned to his own dream, the Somnium Mirificum to guide him, but there was no morality there. For Ahken, the events of the great dream became his covenant, and any attempt to pervert the dream was heresy. His son had never needed him, because he had lived beyond the scope of morality. He stared into his son’s cold blue eyes, “What narrative? The dream is over Ahken. There is no narrative anymore. You’re just marching towards damnation, and you’re bent upon taking the whole bloody world with you.”

“How do you not understand this ? Hmm?” Sitting calmly behind the desk, Tiernan continued, “We have been delivered to them so that they may worship. The dream ended with the world in our hands, the children of the delvers enthroned, the bastards of the void bent to our desires. We’ve watched for eons as they refined and whittled away at their philosophies, ever searching for a Saviour who could lead them, ever grasping at straw gods. Why were we delivered upon this time if not to be raised up?” He licked his lips, savoring his father’s turmoil, “How perfect, that we should be returned to them. How righteous shall be our rule. That narrative father. The only narrative that doesn’t make calamity of so long a life.”

Lucas Miller watched as his son’s eyes took on a glassy, forlorn look to them. He couldn’t help but wonder if this was mere manipulation on his part. Even if he believed in Ahken wholly, he knew that he must challenge his reasoning. Without someone standing as an advocate for the devil, he was certain that his son had the capacity to believe unswervingly in his own place in the universe, “You’re not a god Ahken. You’re barely even a man. You’re blind to the devastation that will be wrought by your ambitions. You think that the people of this world are so easily swayed in their faith, because you’ve never had faith in anything but yourself.”

Allan Tiernan leaned into the chair back, smiling dryly, “You aren’t responsible.”

“Pardon?”

Tiernan smirked, malice whistling white noise in his ears, “You think you’ve created a monster, and you’re forgetting that I was a monster of my own making, many times over. I am as I have ever been. My redemption will come in their salvation.” His eyebrows arched impishly as he watched his father make to leave the office, heading towards the impromptu conference which had been called for White house correspondents, “Prepare my way father. Today is born a new pantheon.”

 

 

Stephanie Beach dragged Stanwick in tow, her hand trailing out behind her as her feet slapped short, fast footsteps. Stephanie didn’t know where she was going, but north on Madison Avenue seemed as good a bet as any in her search for a deli. Her eyes passed quickly over the glowing sign for a 7-Eleven, dubious that their hallowed cooler cabinets would be home to anything resembling a good cut of steak. Onward she marched, fueled by a delirious third wind, sniffing the air in some vague hope that she’d be led like a cartoon dog on the trail of an enticing scent.

West felt disinclined to mention that they were walking away from several fine grocery stores; his mind was filled with the bleary morning chatter of the city, the voices of a million world weary souls dragging themselves into action. He wondered how much longer it would be before their world was turned entirely on its head. For some of them it had already began. He heard Tiernan’s name on the wind, felt the growing buzz of hearts awakening to the possibility that there was something magical in their world, something spiritual beyond the scope of their overburdened imaginings. He was thrilled. He knew that Stanwick felt that same quickening, her heart pounding with the first distant shots of the battle.

Their fearless little leader headed west on 36th, then south on 5th avenue. Charlene called ahead to Stanwick, alerting her to the presence of a deli on the far side of the street, and with a gentle tug in the right direction Stanwick guided Stephanie’s attention to her mark. With wide clean windows boasting deliciously stocked cooler cabinets, and nestled as it was between two cheap gift shops which catered to clueless tourists, ‘9th Street on 5th’ seemed completely misplaced. West shopped there often enough, and was given to wonder which city had lost it’s beautiful 9th Street deli, because he knew it certainly wasn’t Manhattan.

 

“Can you believe this shit?”

The deli clerk didn’t turn away from the flat screen when the door chimes alerted him to customers. However, the sound of a child’s feet slapping excitedly across the tiled floor did give him pause, “Pardon my French,” he turned his head slightly, eyes still riveted on the news reporter, “but this is some nutso way to start the day.”

West stopped at the counter by the door, watching the worker as he waved his hand, long fingers fidgeting carefully as he summoned up a dizzying array of smaller images, rows of news stations all broadcasting the same image; President Lucas Miller standing behind a small podium, an American flag hanging behind him on the left of each little screen. West took hold of Stanwick’s shoulder as she made to walk past him, and she came to a standstill, with Charlene and David both huddling beside her. All eyes on the TV, the worker pointed to one of the small images, and it filled the screen now.

“Do you folks mind?” He finally turned to see who had graced his establishment with their presence. He leaned over the counter, squinting at West, “Ho ho holy crap… Rapunzel no more.”

West shook his head, “You mean Rasputin?”

The clerk looked at West like he was a moron, “Rapunzel dummy… chick with all the hair. Who the fuck are you talking about?” He leaned further across the counter, “I’m just shitting you bro.” He offered a hand of friendship which West accepted gladly. Pleasantries exchanged, the clerk’s eyes flitted impatiently in the direction of the TV. West nodded, feigning indifference.

“Don’t mind us.”

Raising his hand with his palm facing the ceiling, the worker turned up the volume of the TV until Lucas Miller’s voice filled the store.

“ … Members of the House of Representatives and fellow Americans, thank you for your patience, your courage and your faith this morning. As a nation, we find ourselves in an unusual position today. Barely has any one of us had time to come to terms with our grieving over the loss of President Tiernan, a man who filled each one of us with a passioned sense of hope … hope for America’s future … hope for the growing spirit of cooperation between the nations of the world. Barely have we begun to understand how to take those first steps towards healing, as a nation. We have all looked for sense … for peace in the aftermath of a tragedy which has effected every man, woman and child on this planet.” He paused, resting both hands on the podium as he allowed his words to ferment in the minds of his listeners.

“Our nation awoke this morning, as if from a dream of mourning a loved one; we awoke to confusion and questions. We are not alone. Fifteen other nations awoke from that same dream …”

He paused again, his eyes unwavering as he looked at the array of cameras.

“There have been events throughout the history of our nation that have given rise to insidious whisperings of conspiracy and subterfuge. If, for reasons of national security, an administration is unable to disclose all of the information available to them pertaining to a matter of public significance, there will always be people who fill those gaps in understanding with that hateful utterance, ‘conspiracy’. As I stand before you today, I intend to put paid to any such talk about President Allan Tiernan and his administration.” Now, he made sure he took some time to look directly into the lenses of each of the network broadcast cameras, “On March 10th, Sixteen of the world’s presidents and prime ministers were assassinated by what we now believe to have been one man acting alone. On this day … .”

President Miller bowed his head, readying himself before looking back to the cameras, “On this day, those sixteen men and women, each of them taken from their people before their time … Each one of them has returned to their people; returned from whence it is not in my power to say. Let this be a matter for theological discourse … Let this be a subject for philosophical debate. My fellow citizens, in years to come do not discuss these events in hushed and conspiratorial tones, rather remember today’s events as a rebirth, a renaissance of consciousness. On this day …” He raised his right hand from the podium and started to emphasize his words with strong gestures, “Your president … President Allan Tiernan … has been returned to you …”

 

The deli clerk waved the TV into silence, muttering to himself, “They can keep him, wherever he’s been.”

West laughed, “You weren’t a fan?”

The man pulled on his waist band as he turned, “Nah, he don’t give a rats ass about the little man, ‘n Miller’s no different.” He picked up a bottle of disinfectant and wiped down the counter in front of him as he talked, “I ain’t no Wall Street economist, but I sure as shit know that one world currency malarkey don’t wash.”

Stanwick smiled and nodded, patting West’s back as she followed Charlene and David down one of the small isles of groceries. West hitched his thumb towards the cooler cabinets, “Your steaks fresh in?”

“Four O’clock delivery bro. What kind of establishment do you think I’m running here huh?”

West smirked, “I don’t come here because you’re cheap, that’s for sure.”

The man nodded in the direction of the isles, “Family?”

“Of sorts.”

“Say no more. Who’d have ‘em eh?”

West smirked as he tried to recall some small detail about the clerk he’d met numerous times before, “How’s your better half?”

The man rolled his eyes, “You’re looking at it, and you god damn know it. My lunatic alter ego is out window shopping with her rat bastard sister.”

“Well, as long as it’s window shopping right?” West laughed.

“Yeah, except her whole family thinks window shopping is where you go out and buy every piece of crap you see in the window.”

West tilted his head towards the isles, “With those words of wisdom in mind …”

The man nodded knowingly, “Yeah bud, you go keep ‘em in check.”

 

They waited until they were out on the street, groceries in hand, before any of them broached the subject of the news broadcast. Charlene, who had been fighting the urge to grab West by his shoulders and shake an explanation out of him, somehow managed to subdue herself and ask in a rushed whisper, “Does someone mind explaining what we just saw in there?”

“Breakfast.” Offered Stephanie, rather unhelpfully.

Stanwick huddled one of the grocery bags under her arm, and slung her other arm over Charlene’s shoulder, “What you just witnessed my dear, was the first manic misfires of the Tiernan – Miller propaganda machine, lurching into action in an attempt to get out in front of a problem.”

Charlene leaned away from Stanwick’s embrace slightly, “What problem?”

Stanwick frowned, “Well, us of course.”

David staggered as he started to walk backwards so that he could face the others, “That quickly? Because of my phone call?”

West looked dubious, “No, I would imagine that something else has spooked them into action. Possibly just your flight from Washington David, but more likely the fact that two progeny of the void were attacked in the process.”

West’s explanation disturbed David – the fact that he had not used the phrase ‘attacked and killed,’ suggested to him that there was a real possibility that the men that he’d driven off a cliff hadn’t drowned in the back of the van. Perhaps West had known that they wouldn’t die. He watched his daughter, skipping along without a care in the world, and he felt overcome with guilt that he’d even brought her with him. He turned his back on the others and scowled at the pavement as he walked, “We aren’t safe are we?”

West watched as Stephanie sidestepped towards her father and took his hand in hers. The truth was that everyone was safe except for Stephanie. He picked up his pace until he was walking alongside David, “I’d say we have perhaps a couple of hours to get our affairs in order. Possibly less. But first, an army marches on its stomach, so we eat.”

 

Brad Cobb stood slack jawed and motionless, his eyes flicking from one screen to the next as the various news stories broke around the world. He barely noticed the two agents as they filed in through the heavy door to the right of the banks of monitors. The two men made for the executive assistant director’s office, paying no attention to the pandemonium that was buzzing about the FBI headquarters.

McMahon knocked politely, but opened the door without waiting for a welcome.

The man behind the desk got to his feet slowly, towering slightly over McMahon and Carmichael. He pointed towards the outer office and grinned, “This your doing?”

Agent Carmichael rolled his bottom lip under his top teeth, acknowledging his culpability with a slight lilt of his head. He had been stationed with Albert Hicks through various government agencies, in all manner of clandestine posts, and he had always played the part of second fiddle to Albert’s conductor, mostly willingly. Albert was long lived, mild mannered, and even by Tiernan’s standards, methodically vicious. Carmichael and McMahon agreed on few things, but they were both quick to acknowledge that Albert Hicks was a good man to have between you and the almighty.

“You’ve spoken to Miller then?” Hicks asked, unsure whether or not it had been solely his text message which had stirred Miller into action.

As much as he respected him, McMahon still struggled to keep a straight face around Albert. It didn’t help that the timbre of his voice was unnervingly thin and boyish, like it had never quite finished breaking. Albert could have changed his voice it if he’d wanted of course, and that bothered McMahon even more. Why would a man with Albert Hicks’ history not choose to do something about his peewee voice? His teeth too; yellowed, gnarly stumps of cracked candy, offering a paltry barrier against that sharp tongue of his. Why wouldn’t he just fix himself McMahon wondered. After so long in his company, he had come to the conclusion that Albert Hicks chose to be exactly as he was for the simple reason that it wrong footed people. He noticed now that Hicks was still waiting for a reply, and he snapped out of his disgusted reverie, “We stopped off at a coffee shop and used their phone to call Miller on the way here.”

Hicks scratched his scalp, running his murderous little hands through a thick black head of hair as he tried to imagine how McMahon’s conversation with Miller had played out. “Brad Cobb’s on this now. He’s got David Beach’s twenty , and he’s pulling together a team to head up a grab in New York.”

McMahon’s head bobbed in vacant contemplation, “Who’s Cobb?”

Hicks shrugged, “He’s a good man. Unfortunately, he’s pulled together most of the loose ends the two of you left dangling.” He scratched his forehead and inhaled slowly, always paying attention to those subtle affectations, “I’m not putting you back on lead, but I’ll make sure you’re on Cobb’s roster.” He looked out onto the floor and saw Cobb now, “I’m not sure who else has David Beach’s back, but you’ve both witnessed what West is capable of.” His eyes wandered from McMahon to Carmichael, unconvinced that either of them understood fully what he studiously avoiding saying, “Just don’t leave any loose ends.”

 

 

 

Charlene opened the door to her own apartment and stepped over the threshold cautiously, all at once feeling like this was a stranger’s home. Having spent only a handful of hours in West’s apartments, she looked about her own, and wondered why she had allowed it to become a shrine to her past. There had been a point, surely, when she had stopped imagining a future for herself. She looked over her shoulder and touched the back of Stanwick’s hand with her fingertips, “Excuse the …” she stumbled over her words, because mess really wasn’t the word for it; decay might have been more appropriate, but it would suggest more squalor than was actually present. She allowed her sentence to trail off, and the hording and detritus to speak for itself. She had lived her life.

Charlene had suggested that she should take care of her hair while the others prepared breakfast. Stanwick politely offered to help, and when Charlene vouched that she’d dyed her own hair many times over the years, and would be quite comfortable going it alone, Stanwick had insisted that she go along with her. She didn’t want to alarm Charlene, but she couldn’t get her mind off the fact that they were only a short drive from Arctum Industries. It was possible that they would have a couple of hours to prepare for the road, but it was equally likely that an army or Tiernan’s Blood-Bastards would turn up at their door at any minute.

As Charlene sorted through the bags of shopping, Stanwick slumped into the comfort of one of the fabric sofa cushions. On the side table closest to her, there was a color photograph set in an overly ornate brass frame; a woman sat on a porch swing, resting her head against an up-stretched arm. It wasn’t easy to make out if the woman was smiling, or squinting in the sunlight, but she looked at ease in her surroundings. Stanwick held the photo up over her shoulder, “Is this you?”

Charlene didn’t have to look up from what she was doing to know which photograph Stanwick was pouring over, “That’s me alright, the only picture I have of me on my family’s farm holding in South Carolina.” She pulled the dye out of its bag and stepped closer to the couch, brushing her fingertips over the cold metal of the frame, “It was taken just after my Aunt Carina passed. I went down to organize the sale of the estate. Young agent who was photographing the property was kind enough to take that and send it on to me.”

Stanwick set the photograph back on the side table, and resisted the urge to rummage further. She turned, resting her head on the couch back, “Were you close to your family?”

“Close enough to know better than to be around them.”

Stanwick smiled, and nodded towards the box of dye in Charlene’s hand, “Do you mind if I keep you company at least?”

Charlene shook the box and pried open the lid as she walked towards the bathroom, “So long as you don’t get under my feet, you are more than welcome.”

 

 

West poured a few drops of oil onto the cast iron pan and watched the smoke rise into brushed steel vent which hung over the hob, “And how would madame like her steak?”

Stephanie shuffled forward on the tall stool, leaning over the counter, “Juicy!”

David helped himself to the coffee which had just finished brewing, “Blackened with a hot red center usually, although she sometimes gets a bit squeamish if it’s too rare.”

“Do not!” Stephanie protested, lifting off the stool and leaning to the side so that she could see what West was doing.

West turned the steaks over in the glass bowl one more time, making sure they were all seasoned well, then he picked them out one at a time and laid them out in the pan. Stephanie clapped her hands together, cherishing the sizzling sound and the smell of oregano and garlic that quickly filled the kitchen, “Are we having baked potatoes too?”

West set the timer on the hob, then spun quickly to face Stephanie, “Baked potato for breakfast? Are you mad?”

Stephanie giggled, “It’s the same as hash browns.”

“It’s not too different,” West conceded, “but we don’t have time to cook them.”

Stephanie moaned as she slid even further forward on the counter, “Dad always cooks baked potato with steaks.”

West glared at David indignantly, “My good man, why was the chef not informed of the proper dining etiquette required by madame?”

David rolled his eyes, “Spiff, you usually leave more than half the potato anyway.”

Stephanie pouted jokingly and slid back onto the stool, then she confided in West, “I’m only little. Daddy usually cooks humongous potatoes.”

West pointed over his shoulder with his plastic spatula, “Those are some humongous steaks madame. I’m sure you will not find your breakfast wanting,” he looked at the timer on the hob, “six minutes okay?”

David hugged Stephanie and whispered, “Go wash your hands stinker.” She sighed and climbed down off the stool awkwardly, “Where are the restrooms chef?”

West pointed to the hallway, “By the front door, on your right.”

Stephanie held her hands out in front of her and shook her right hand, shuffling her feet dejectedly as she went.

 

West leaned his weight against the kitchen counter, flipping the steaks casually as the buzzer sounded. He reset the timer and turned to face David, “She’s not safe.”

David’s face twisted in disbelief, “What … What do you mean she’s not safe?”

“I mean that even with you as you are now, even with Stanwick and myself at her side, we can’t protect her from what’s coming.”

David’s eyes glassed over, his hand covering his mouth. His fingers shook visibly as his words bubbled in a panicked froth, “She has to be safe. You brought us here. You have to be able to protect her, for god’s sake.”

West stepped around the counter and came to David’s side, resting his hand on David’s neck, “She has to be turned. You understand that don’t you?”

David stopped breathing, his hands stilled by the momentum of West’s words, “Turned?”

“She has to become one of us. It’s the only way she can be safe.” He could feel the fear, David’s pulse thick and strong under his fingers, “Even as one of us, a child as young as Stephanie is at grave risk, but she will be strong.”

David looked towards the hallway, half expecting to see his daughter there, “I can’t make this decision. It’s too much. I can’t bring her into this.”

West’s hands went to David’s cheeks, holding him firmly “Your father made this decision. Your father took this decision out of your hands years ago. The moment your family became involved in our world, your fates were unwritten. Stephanie was born into this. It’s her birthright as much as it is yours.”

David’s eyes were wild now, “How can you say that?” He tried to shake his head, but West’s hands were tight, and he was left gasping in his frustration, “How can you ask me to do this to her?”

West pressed his forehead to David’s, “You misunderstand me. I’m not asking you to make a decision. I’m telling you what has to be done. Your father has started a war. More than that … your father has made gods of our kind. There will be many who refuse to believe it, because religion is pervasive, and it is belief, and it is a way of life that can’t be swayed by the resurrection of another man’s god, but Lucas Miller’s words today said it all. ‘Let this be a subject for philosophical debate … remember today’s events as a rebirth, a renaissance of consciousness.’ What exactly do you think he was talking about David?”

West let go of David’s face and returned to the hob, plating the steaks as if nothing had passed between them, “The power grab has been going on for decades, and we have all lived too long in the shadow of the great dream to think we could change that.”

David turned his head to the sound of the bathroom door clattering as Stephanie slammed it shut behind her. He wiped his eyes on the back of his wrist, and he breathed in deeply, “You ready hon?”

Stephanie smiled innocently, “I was born ready.”

 

Brad Cobb shook agent Carmichael’s hand as he shielded his eyes from the helicopter’s downdraft, “Brad Cobb. I suppose I should thank you.”

Carmichael shook his head in deference, yelling over the whining engine, “Hicks told us you’ve done some great work Cobb.” He patted agent McMahon’s back, “You always worry some bright spark’s going to show you up as a phony right?” He laughed, but McMahon shrugged him off, “Yeah, nice work on that Cobb.”

Cobb looked back and flashed a smile at Danielle Wheatley who had already staked her place in the rear cab, “I’m sure you already know Agent Wheatley.” He climbed in and took his place beside her, waiting for the other two men to climb in and buckle up before he continued, “Between Wheatley and Daniels, I’m not sure I deserve any credit.”

McMahon shouted as he pulled on his headset, “Agent Wheatley … You worked comms on the Salt Lake cell with us a few months back right?”

Danielle Wheatley slapped the side of her headset, “No need to shout about it.”

Carmichael yelled back, “Don’t be so modest Danielle! We would have been literally lost without you.”

She shook her head and pointed at her ears, her voice coming calmly through the relative quiet of the headsets, “You don’t need to yell.” She looked down at the tablet on her lap and adjusted the volume levels on the other agents microphones, “Is this it?” she looked to Brad Cobb for confirmation.

“Affirmative. We’re grouping with three from NYFO when we touch down.”

Danielle nodded, pulling up the updated roster from the case file, “I’m pushing their dossiers to you as we speak.”

Cobb pulled his cell phone from his pocket and started to thumb through the contents of the three dossiers. He handed his phone off to Carmichael, “You two worked with any of them?”

Carmichael held the phone out to agent McMahon and allowed him to flick through the screens. McMahon avoided making eye contact with Carmichael as his voice came over the headset, “We’ve worked with them. They’re thorough.”

Cobb smiled inwardly, confident that he was working with a strong team. He patted the roof of the cab to signal to the pilot that they were all ready, then he allowed his head to fall back into the padded seat back as the helicopter lurched into motion. He loved his job.

 

Charlene pulled a polythene cap over her wet hair and rinsed out the bath, “Twenty minutes.”

Stanwick set the timer on her watch, “You know, this will probably be the last time you need to dye your hair.”

Charlene laughed as she tossed her gloves into the waste basket by the sink, “You clearly don’t know me.” She checked herself in the mirror, and satisfied that she hadn’t spilled any dye on her blouse, she picked up a towel from the wall rack and headed out of the bathroom, “I’m pretty sure I’ll be changing my hair as often as I change my face, now that I can.”

Stanwick stood up from the tiled floor and followed her host, “It’s not as easy as all that. Even that first regression takes most people a long time. It’s impressive that you’ve found your face so quickly.”

Charlene tutted, “Hush now.”

Stanwick watched as Charlene headed towards the bedroom, “Seriously Charlene, it’s no disservice to you, but I’d be surprised if you can alter yourself that easily.”

Charlene turned as she opened her bedroom door, her eyes narrowing in concentration, focusing on Stanwick’s face. To Stanwick’s shock, she could see the contours of Charlene’s cheeks change subtly, her brow line altering, the bows of her lips filling out just a little until she looked unnervingly familiar. Stanwick folded her arms, her mouth falling open as she stared at a woman who could now easily pass as her twin, “Well shit.”

Charlene grinned, “Indeed.” She stepped into the bedroom and threw open her closet doors, “Now dear sister, this is something you probably can help me with.”

Stanwick followed her inside and sat on the edge of the bed, “I hate to break it to you Charlene, but as much as I’d enjoy watching you throw yourself into the brink in a turquoise dress, you might want to dig out something more practical.”

Charlene looked at the small stained rings on Stanwick’s knees, the remnants of her first meeting with David and she imagined that slipping in David’s vomit with bare legs would have been a low point. She turned back to the wardrobe and started throwing dresses, skirts and blouses on the bed beside Stanwick, “You know the last time I fit a pant suite?”

“Nineteen ninety something…” Stanwick tried, trailing off awkwardly.

“Bitch!” Charlene turned on Stanwick suddenly, joining in her laughter. “You know I don’t have anything quite that,” she pointed to Stanwick’s pants, “functional.” She threw Stanwick’s word back at her, raising her eyebrows in riposte.

“Here, let me look.” Stanwick stood up from the bed and shouldered past Charlene, who stepped aside, jumping past the pile of clothes on the bed and slumping into the comfort of the blanket. She leaned her head into a fat pillow and watched Stanwick clatter through the hangers, “Good luck in there.”

“Don’t worry,” Stanwick started to pull some of the clothes off their hangers, “I think I already hit the jackpot. There appears to be some sort of secret portal to the seventies in here.” Stanwick stepped away from the doors with several pairs of faded jeans slung over her left arm. She dropped the pile on the edge of the bed and walked towards the other side of the bedroom, “Try some of those on. You want something with plenty of movement okay?”

Charlene sighed and saluted as she clambered out of her comfortable nest, “Your wish is my command.” She fished out her new lingerie from the shopping and hid behind the wardrobe door, “Excuse me.”

“You want me to …” she pointed towards the bedroom door, but Charlene held a hand out and twirled it in the air. Stanwick turned her back to Charlene, leaned against the wall and she listened to her shuffle out of her clothes.

“You should throw the rest in a case or something if you have one.”

Charlene grunted as she pulled a navy blue blouse on over her head, “We’ll be leaving that soon?”

“We should have left already, but needs must.”

Charlene buttoned the front of the jeans and pulled up their awkward little zipper, “You can turn around now.”

Stanwick smiled approvingly, “You look like you’re ready for a Led Zeppelin concert.”

“I wish.”

“Okay, now drop and give me twenty.”

Charlene looked dubious, “You’re kidding right?

“You have to make sure you can move in them … jumping jacks at least.”

Charlene laughed and jumped up and down on the spot a few times, throwing her arms and legs out to the sides, “Satisfied? Plenty of movement for you?”

Stanwick’s eyes widened, “You’ll thank me later.” She glanced at the wardrobe, “What about shoes?”

Charlene knelt down and pushed her hands into the depths of the wardrobe’s bottom, rummaging through the cluttered pile of foot-ware that had amassed over the years. Going by touch alone, she judged the strata until near the bottom of the pile she felt the aged rubber and cloth, pulling out a pair of slightly battered looking converse. She held them out triumphantly, “The shoe for all seasons.”

“Except rain, or really anything involving water.”

Charlene pouted, “So I don’t need to worry about bullets, or nightmare crossbreeds, but wet feet are a serious hazard?”

Stanwick pushed the clothes aside and returned to her seat on the edge of the bed, “Honestly you can go barefoot for all I care.”

Charlene looked for a moment as if she was seriously considering the possibility, but eventually she turned back to the wardrobe and started rummaging again. She pushed aside mounds of orthopedic shoes, slippers, clogs and moccasins, finally dredging up a couple of pairs of thigh highs and ankle boots. Stanwick extended a foot towards the ankle boots, nudging them towards Charlene.

“You know,” Charlene began, arching her knee so that she could pull on one of the boots, “I’m pretty sure I was wearing these boots in that photo.”

“The one from the farm?”

Charlene grunted as she laced up the boot, “Mhmm. I definitely wore them to Carina’s funeral. I remember looking down at my feet at the graveside and thinking how ashamed Carina would have been. ‘Clod hoppers are not appropriate attire for a church,’ she’d have said. Bless her soul.”

“You believe in the soul?”

Charlene paused, holding the other boot to her chest in contemplation, “You know, if you’d asked me a couple of days ago, I’d have said no for certain.”

“What’s changed?”

“Everything. I mean, I’ve got nothing but questions now.” She pushed her foot into the other boot and laced it up, “I used to live in a world where dead presidents stayed dead.” She pushed herself up off the floor, shoving the other boots out of her way with her feet, “There, how do I look?”

Stanwick grimaced, “Honestly, it’s a little creepy that you still look like me.”

Charlene grabbed the cupboard door to check herself in the mirror. She squinted at her features, and summoned the best mental image she could of her own face. It was odd, she thought, that she was never actually going to look completely like herself again, but rather she would be an approximation of a memory. Close enough she thought, pushing the door aside and presenting herself for Stanwick’s appraisal again.

“Much better.” Stanwick smiled, glancing at her watch, “Six minutes left.”

 

Savoring every mouthful, chewing slowly, closing her eyes and humming, Stephanie hadn’t made it half way through her meal by the time West started to clear up after David and himself. She pulled her plate close, wrapping a protective arm around it, concerned that West might not realize that she hadn’t finished eating. Even if she hadn’t been cherishing the food though, Stephanie wouldn’t have had time to finish the meal, because she was deeply contemplative. She had noticed small exchanges of glances between her dad and West. She had noticed it while they ate their meal, and she was still aware of it while they busied themselves about the kitchen. Something was clearly up with them, and she was sure that it concerned her

Stephanie had been told that she had a propensity towards imagining that everything was about her. Propensity. She allowed the word to canter proudly about her brain, parading itself in front of lesser words. Not long before Christmas, Stephanie had overheard her father discussing her Christmas presents with Aunt Hannah, and this had occasioned her aunt to explain that not everything was about her. Whether or not she had a propensity for it, Stephanie knew some things were definitely about her.

The door to the apartment rattled, and Stephanie looked up from her plate expectantly. Torn between her desire to be social, and the best steak she had ever eaten, she was forced to greet Stanwick and Charlene with a mumbled mouthful.

“Well hello Stephanie.” Charlene twirled on the hard wood floor, booted feet clapping less than dainty footsteps, “What do you think of my new look?”

Stephanie turned in her chair and leaned over its back; pointing her fork towards her own head, she tried not to open her mouth as she grinned her approval of Charlene’s hair. She chewed quickly, trying to gulp down her food as she made to stand up from her chair.

“Stephanie Beach! What do you say?” Her dad’s voice froze her in her tracks.

She swallowed hard, and a little out of breath she asked politely, “Please may I leave the table?”

David leaned over the kitchen counter to examine her plate, “You may not leave the table. Finish your meal.”

“But I’m full!”

David looked about for support, but West walked straight past him, oblivious, his eyes fixed on Charlene.

“You like?” Charlene batted her eyelids as she tossed her hair from side to side, “I think I could pass as human now.”

“You definitely look more at ease with yourself.” West agreed.

Unable to contain herself any longer, Stephanie got up from the table and ran to Charlene’s side, “Can I touch it?”

“Sure you can.” Charlene laughed, crouching down to the child’s level. Stephanie wiped her greasy hands on her own top and stroked Charlene’s head, “It’s so lovely and smooth.”

“That’s because I always finish my meals.”

“Is not!” Stephanie protested.

“Is so.”

“You see Stephanie? It’s for your own good.” David called over from the kitchen as he placed the last of the plates in the drying rack.

Stanwick glared at Stephanie in jest, “You better have left some for us!”

“We did.” She looked up at West, “We did right?”

Before West could answer, Stanwick lunged forward and picked Stephanie up easily, running with her towards the couch in the living room, “You can’t have any more. It’s all for me.”

“Stop it!” Stephanie giggled, clawing at the soft couch cushions as she tried to escape.

“Nope, you’re going to keep me company until my steak is on the table, ready for me to eat.”

Stephanie gave up easily and leaned back against her captor, resting her hands on Stanwick’s wrists, “Those two are up to something.” She whispered.

“Who?” Stanwick joined in Stephanie’s conspiratorial tone.

“Dad and West. They were talking about me, I’m sure they were.”

Stanwick could well imagine the conversation that must have taken place. They needed to move. West knew what had to be done. She took Stephanie’s hands in hers and closed her eyes, looking for the child’s unspoken voice. She knew the thought would be there, a hand set in motion against the tide of time. Stephanie was on the outside of something magical, something otherworldly and she wanted in. Stanwick could could feel it, on the tip of her tongue, the question in waiting.

Say it.

Stephanie’s lips moved gently, unspeaking, her eyes shut slow.

Say it.

Stephanie gripped Stanwick’s hand tightly, suddenly too afraid to open her mouth.

It’s time.

“Dad.”

“What’s up hon?” He asked, walking over from the kitchen.

“I’m scared.”

David stared at Stanwick, her turquoise eyes wide and expectant, “What are you afraid of Spiff?”

Stephanie couldn’t say the words that were forming inside her head. She knew they weren’t her own, and she didn’t need them. She thought about the morning school run with her father. David wasn’t reckless, but sometimes he was rushed. He’d backed into the Bleaker’s trash can a couple of times, almost ran over their cat once. It had become a running joke for Stephanie to yell at him, “Look out for the cat!” as he was reversing. When he drove aggressively, Stephanie would yell melodramatically from the back seat, “Daddy, I’m too young to die, I’m too young to die.”

David looked into Stephanie’s eyes now, and he thought he saw a smile forming. She blinked imploringly, “I’m too young to die.”

David laughed through his tears. She was right of course. He suspected Stanwick’s coercion, but he felt no malice. It was right. If his stupidity had brought them to impending disaster, then he had forfeit his claim to sound parenting. When he stared back into Stanwick’s eyes, he could see that she was sympathetic; she managed to convey her empathy with scarce a change to her expression, but it was there. He opened his arms and waved Stephanie to come over to him, and she jumped up from Stanwick’s lap without hesitation.

 

 

 

“Your breakfast is served.” West set the plates down for Charlene and Stanwick and left the two to their reverie. He walked past David and Stephanie, seating himself on the couch close by them.

“David.”

David hugged his daughter tighter, closing his eyes against West’s words.

“David, do you need to talk to Stephanie alone?”

David felt Stephanie’s cheek press against his, “It’s okay dad. I understand.”

“Will it hurt?” David sniffed, adjusting his hold on Stephanie, then setting her down on her feet beside him.

“Did it hurt you?” West asked calmly.

“I was shot in the leg. I presume there’s an easier way?”

West nodded, “Yes, there’s an easier way for Stephanie.” He stood up and walked back to the kitchen. He poured a glass of water, then took something from the fridge before returning to the sofa. He handed the glass of water to Stephanie, then he held out a glass phial, swirling its contents gently, “Stephanie, you see those little black dots?”

Stephanie leaned close, and examined the phial. She could see that there were a good number inky black pellets moving through the clear liquid, “Is that them?” she asked, a little incredulously.

“They’re tiny aren’t they?” West asked, smiling, “They’re just babies, but they will grow quickly.” He saw the look of disgust as it swept across Stephanie’s face, “How do they …” She looked at the glass of water in her hand, then her fearful eyes met with his, “How do they get inside me?”

West’s nose wrinkled apologetically, “I think you’ve already guessed.”

“Yuck!” She placed the glass of water on the floor beside her and took a large step backwards, “Beach out!”

West laughed, “It’s no worse than tapioca.”

“I hate tapioca.” She tugged at her father’s arm imploringly, “Why can’t they just shoot me?”

David patted the back of her head, “I’m not sure I need to dignify that with an answer Spiff.”

Stephanie took the phial from West’s hand and swirled its contents with dismay. It wasn’t like tapioca. When the clear liquid stopped its sloshing, the black dots continued to move of their own volition. She picked up the glass of water from the floor and handed it back to West along with the phial, “Well this pretty much sucks.”

West nodded, “I know.”

 

Charlene was surprised at her own appetite. She looked at her own empty plate, then her eyes wandered greedily towards Stanwick’s, which still boasted a good amount of untouched meat. The fork wavered back and forth in her hand. She could pounce, and have a meal of it before Stanwick even knew what had hit her. Perhaps. She breathed in heavily, blinking, horrified that the thought had even crossed her mind. She looked up from the plate and realized that Stanwick was sitting staring at her.

“I wasn’t …”

Stanwick didn’t look convinced, “Take it. Your need is clearly greater.”

“You sure?”

Stanwick pushed her plate across the table, “It’s honestly a pleasure to watch you eat.”

Charlene cut off a chunk from the steak and lifted it towards her mouth, salivating in anticipation, then somewhere a few feet to her left, Stephanie started to wretch, very audibly.

 

[]CHAPTER TWELVE

Fighting Shadows

 

Brad Cobb could see the two vans already parked up and the agents from the New York office walking towards the helicopter as it touched down. He was greeted by one of the agents as he disembarked. The man shouted over the wining engine, “Agent Middleton.” Firm grip, stocky man, late twenties, slicked back dark hair, Carl Middleton nodded and smiled broadly. Cobb returned the smile, bowing his head into the wind and yelling his response, “Agent Carmichael informs me you’ve all had the opportunity of working together?”

Middleton nodded, “You need help with anything?”

Cobb watched the other agents disembark, “No, we’re all good.”

Middleton gave him the thumbs up, then led the way back towards the vans.

Cobb looked expectantly around the new faces.

“Agent Clements,” the man stepped towards Cobb, made a fumbled attempt at fist bumps, followed by an awkward right hand to right handed shake. Had he not read Simon Clements dossier, which gave his age as thirty-two, Cobb would have guessed at early to mid forties. Clements’ rapidly receding and prematurely graying hairline could well be forgiven for trying to escape his thick and wiry eyebrows.

“Agent Myson,” soft hands, forceful shake, tied back blond hair; Phillipa Myson was thirty-seven years old and attractive enough that Cobb felt immediately uncomfortable. He mentally reprimanded himself for fawning over the only other woman in the group, but she returned his smile, either not noticing his overly enthusiastic greeting, or to Cobb’s relief, playing it off professionally.

 

Cobb stepped back so that he could include all of the agents as he spoke, “Agent Wheatley will be comms in the lead vehicle with myself and agents McMahon and Carmichael.

Carl Middleton shrugged, “We’re up to speed. Got the updated brief a few minutes ago. You’ve narrowed the sweep down to one apartment block at Madison and 30th?”

Cobb nodded, “I know this goes without saying, but stay sharp; whoever we are dealing with managed to blindside two armed agents yesterday.” Carmichael stared stoically at a patch of concrete, choosing to ignore Cobb’s statement.

Phillipa Myson spoke up, “This all seems a bit heavy handed, especially as we are now talking about a botched job at worst. I mean, Why wasn’t this just handed over to NYFO?”

Clements chimed in, “Right, I mean, all this shit about Tiernan this morning, it kind of feels like you guys down in DC are behind the curve.”

Not enthusiastic about being put on the defensive, Cobb’s shoulders slumped. “Honestly? We don’t have a good handle on what we’re dealing with here. I’d love to tell you that this is one guy working alone and that this will be an easy take down, but there is enough evidence to suggest that this could be a previously unknown terrorist cell … If this blows up, I’m confident that NYFO will put as many people on this as is necessary.”

Myson nodded, “I can call it in and have a team on standby.”

Cobb really hoped that Brice Daniels had his facts straight; he was going to look pretty stupid if it turned out he’d brought even a handful of the New York Field Office out on a wild goose chase.

 

No matter how many times his work brought him to New York, Brad Cobb couldn’t help feeling like a tourist there. It wasn’t as if DC was hicksville, but he could never get over the sheer scale of Manhattan and he usually spent his first couple of hours in the city feeling emotionally moved by it all. As Agent Carmichael steered the van onto 1st Avenue, heading towards the building complex which housed the headquarters of the United Nations, Cobb gazed down the length of 42nd Street, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Chrysler Building. He was no expert in either art or architecture, but he knew what he liked and he liked the Chrysler enough to have learned a little about Art Deco. The silvery stainless-steel spire of the building came into view and Cobb’s spirits were immediately lifted by the sun motif which built in swag like layers towards the needle. Form over function; Cobb smirked as the phrase flitted through his mind. As the monolithic form of the Trump World Tower loomed overhead on the West side of the street, Cobb’s pulse started to race. They didn’t have far to travel.

 

Stephanie walked slowly towards the couch, her head spinning. Even the smallest movement made her stomach lurch, and caused her to wretch again, narrowly avoiding vomiting the glass of water and its vile contents on the hard wood floor. The exertion of trying so hard to steady her stomach had left her dizzy. She felt her father’s hand at her back, heard his frantic words spoken through the soft tin echo chamber of oxygen starvation. She closed her eyes tight and held onto the arm of the couch. A woman’s voice, Stanwick’s she guessed, apparently chiding her father, then her deft hands draping over Stephanie’s shoulder, pulling her onto her lap.

“Breathe, in through your nose, out through your mouth.”

Stephanie tried to lift her head, sure that she’d be okay, but the darkness whirled around her heavy eyelids. She felt Stanwick’s Cool fingertips on her forehead, stroking, but at the same time, pressing her head back gently, “Don’t try to get up yet. Take your time.” Stephanie gave up her resistance and laid still, trying to block out all thoughts of the little black pellets she’d swallowed. It was impossible. With her eyes closed, all she could see was an ocean of ink black dots, and she was at a loss to steady her seasick stomach against those waves. She opened her eyes wide, covering her mouth with her hand, “It’s coming!” she managed to blurt out, “Let me up.”

Stanwick stood up from the couch, gathering Stephanie in her arms and running with her to the bathroom. She managed to pull Stephanie’s hair back and kick up the toilet lid at the same time, but Stephanie vomited on the floor anyway, a small pool of mostly clear water splashing around the base of the toilet. Stanwick stepped back and set Stephanie down carefully on a thick pile rug by the shower, propping her back against the glass screen.

“Well Stephanie, the good news is, that was all water.”

Stephanie groaned, “What’s the bad news?”

“Did I say there was any bad news?” Stanwick grabbed a towel from a wall rack and mopped up the little puddle, “Do you feel a bit better now that you’ve been sick?”

Stephanie breathed deeply and closed her eyes again, “I do!”

Stanwick slumped down on the floor beside her and smiled at David who was leaning against the door frame with West and Charlene at his back.

“All good news here dad. Your daughter is fine.”

 

All of Cobb’s reverence for the city, all of his awe had subsided by the time he entered the foyer of the old apartment block on Madison and 30th. He followed Agent Carmichael towards the back of the lobby and stood aside as Carmichael took the time to display their credentials to the doorman. Once Carmichael was finished, Cobb handed the doorman a tablet which was open to the contact sheet. He pointed at the photographs of David and Stephanie Beach, “We are trying to locate this man and his daughter.”

The doorman held the screen closer to his face and squinted, “Can’t say I’ve seen ‘em.”

Carmichael tried on several expressions before settling with a vaguely distrusting grimace, “I’m sorry, you haven’t seen them, or you’ve seen them, but you can’t say?

Cobb stepped forward quickly, eager to diffuse the tense atmosphere, “Haha, I’m sorry, you’ll have to pardon my colleague. I’m sure you’ll have no objections if we canvas the residents?”

Steely faced, the doorman handed the tablet back to Agent Carmichael, “Go right ahead.” He nodded towards the staircase.

Cobb turned to face the other agents, “Middleton, Clements, Myson, head up to tenth and work down, we’ll work up from ground and meet in the middle.” While the other three agents headed towards the small elevator, Cobb made for the stairwell and began his ascent to the first floor, two stairs at a time.

 

By the time they’d reached the fourth floor, they had the rap and tap procedure down to a fine art. Cobb knocked at the first door while Carmichael and McMahon moved on. A balding, obese and heavily tattooed man answered the door to Cobb; he clearly wasn’t one of their suspects so Cobb opened with the apology.

“I’m sorry for taking up your time,” He flashed his FBI credentials and continued, holding out a printed copy of the contact sheet with photographs of David and Stephanie Beach, “We are currently trying to locate the people pictured here. Have you seen either of these individuals?”

The man grunted and shook his head. Cobb flashed an insincere smile, “Sorry to bother you. If you do happen to see either of the people pictured here, please call the FBI at this number …” he handed the man a card, “We would urge you not attempt to approach them or alert them in any way. Have a nice day.”

Carmichael had a no show at 412 and moved on past agent McMahon who was struggling in conversation with an elderly Chinese gentleman. Cobb leapfrogged to apartment 414. The door was pulled open in small jerking motions by a boy who could have been no older than four.

“Good morning, is your mommy or daddy home?”

The boy shook his head and pressed his knuckles into bleary eyes.

Cobb heard Daniel Wheatley’s voice in his ear, “What the heck is wrong with people?” He knelt down, “Do you have a babysitter?”

The boy shook his head and his lip quivered as if he was about to cry. Cobb held out his open hand, “It’s okay, don’t worry, you’re not in trouble.” Wheatley’s voice again, “I should call this in to protective services.”

“Do you know where your mommy or daddy are?” Cobb tried again, now eager to curtail Wheatley’s social outrage.

“Daddy’s in bed.” The boy managed, pointing an awkward scrawny arm back towards the depths of the apartment.

Cobb smiled, “Okay, there’s no need to wake him. You have a nice day.” The child’s brow furrowed as his small hand pushed the door shut on Cobb.

 

West held up his hands to silence the others. He ushered Charlene and David into the bathroom, and motioned for Stanwick to join him in the hallway. Closing the bathroom door gently, he walked a little way down the hall and entered his bedroom, leaving Stanwick on her own.

Stanwick walked quietly back towards the living room and waited.

Footsteps. Knock.

Stanwick walked back down the length of the hallway and opened the door, raising her eyebrows in feigned surprise.

“I’m sorry for taking up your time,”

Stanwick shrugged, “Don’t worry, I have plenty.”

Cobb floundered, distracted by being pulled off-script. He held out his badge, but Stanwick shrugged it off, pointing towards the crisp white lettering emblazoned across the front of his chest, “FBI right?” She took the piece of paper from Cobb’s hand before he was able to launch back into his spiel.

“Aw, she’s cute. What’s she done to get on the FBI shit list?”

Cobb raised his eyebrows as Stanwick looked up at him demurely, “I’m not at liberty to discuss the nature of our investigation mam. Do you recognize either of the people pictured here?” She noticed Cobb’s helmet-mounted tactical Camera and tilted her head, allowing her hair to fall in front of her face, “I’m sorry … I don’t recall seeing them around, I just moved in recently though.”

Cobb reached forward to retrieve the paper from the woman. His hand paused in the air between them, a short click of static sounding off in his ear piece, Daniel Wheatley’s voice, steady but urgent, “Agent Cobb, we have a positive ID on your current mark. Stanwick Thrass … card-carrying member of the GOP. She attended several rallies which Beach would have been present for. I can’t confirm the Beach connection, no record of his attendance at the events, but Undersecretary Carlton was present so it’s a safe assumption that Beach attended.”

Cobb moved closer to Stanwick, tilting his head so that he could see the page. He pointed at the image of David Beach, “How about this man, are you sure you don’t recognize him?”

She held the paper closer to her face, pretending to examine the picture more carefully, “Should I?”

Cobb heard Agent Middleton’s voice in his ear now, “Keep her talking, we’ll be with you in less than a minute.” Cobb was bemused by what he heard. He hadn’t requested backup. Whether or not this woman had ever been in the same room as David Beach, he didn’t think she posed a threat and certainly not such a threat that it would warrant the support of three additional agents.

West’s voice called out from inside the apartment, “Who is it hon?”

“Sweetie, you should get a load of this, it’s only the frickin FBI.”

“Jesus hon, do you think they could gimme a minute, I don’t even got my pants on in here.”

Cobb wiped the back of his hand across his forehead, mopping away a little of the perspiration that had built up under the heat of his helmet, “Actually mam, I’m boiling in this getup, do you mind if I step inside for a glass of water?”

West came into view behind Stanwick, wiping his hands on his pants before leaning towards Cobb, “Good afternoon sir, what can I do you for?”

His rifle held to his chest, Cobb shook West’s still damp and oddly limp hand, craning his neck to try and get a better view of the apartment’s interior.

“You want to come in?” West stepped aside and welcomed agent Cobb into his apartment, pushing the door to behind him.

“There some kind of trouble?” West asked, stepping past Cobb and making his way towards the kitchen.

“No trouble,” Cobb hoped, “we’re just on the look out for these two.” He followed West towards the kitchen and laid the contact sheet down on the counter.

Wheatley again, “Cobb, I’m patching your camera through to everyone now.”

West poured a glass of water and handed it off to the agent as he picked up the sheet of paper. His eyes traced over the photos of Stephanie and David. No trouble. Not anymore. He listened, not to the footsteps in the hallway, or the distant voices of the city, but to Agent Cobb’s breathing, his heartbeat, the movement of his muscles, the particular rumblings of his gut. Even through the ballistic padding, West could hear that Cobb wasn’t one of them.

McMahon’s voice now, “Agent Cobb, proceed with caution. The guy you’re looking at is the same asshole who attacked us yesterday.”

Wheatley came back quickly, “Affirmative McMahon. I’ve got a probable match on West Yestler… I …” she paused, “I’ve got nothing. There’s no rap sheet on this guy, but he’s in the database, so there has to be a reason.”

There was a knock at the front door. Cobb looked over his shoulder, glancing self-consciously at Stanwick. He spoke openly, casting his eyes towards the ceiling, pacing in a confined circle in an attempt to avoid eye contact with his hosts, “Agent Middleton, have you completed your surveillance of the upper floors?” The voice in his ear was abrupt, “Cobb, cut the shit and open the door.” Cobb looked at Stanwick and smiled nervously, “That’s a negative Agent McMahon, I’m nearly done in here. Catch up with you in a minute.” This time, Middleton’s voice in his ear actually sounded vicious, “Agent Cobb, clear for breach in ten …”

Nine, Middleton’s voice continued. Cobb’s eyes flitted about the room nervously, his finger’s crawling over the surface of his weapon, searching for the M4’s safety. He placed the glass of water on the counter behind him, but his hand was met by West’s. With a firm tug, West spun him easily, opening up his stance with his free arm and lifting the rifle in a smooth motion so that the strap slipped off over Cobb’s head. Eight, too quickly the woman closed in on him, sweeping his legs and grabbing him by the chest, throwing him easily over the back of the couch so that his head landed near the large pedestal desk.

Seven, West stood over him, stripping the M4 down, tossing the magazine to the floor, pumping the charging handle rapidly, his hands a blur of motion as, six, he popped the awkward locking pins and threw the stock and barrel to opposite sides of the room.

Five, Cobb lifted his head up off the floor and started to prop himself up on his elbows, but West shook his head knowingly, pointing to the floor, mouthing the word ‘down’.

 

Four, Cobb watched as the two figures moved out of sight. With his head lowered to the floor, he could see their feet through the gap under the couch, both of them crouching by the wall at the end of the hallway.

 

Three, he shuffled backward, towards the far corner of the apartment, unholstering his pistol and trying to steady his shaking hands by holding his right arm against the floor.

 

Two, Middleton’s countdown was all but drowned out by Agent Wheatley’s voice, “Hostiles sited in cover, South East, agent Cobb in cover, South West corner.”

 

One, Cobb inhaled slowly and aimed down the Glock’s iron-sights, ready to let off a round into the male target’s torso.

“Breach,” Cobb heard the first half of the word, but the rest was lost in the small explosion, the breaching charge blowing the lock and door handle into the apartment.

 

Agent Middleton peered through the doorway, looking down the length of the hall. With no sight of the hostiles, he nodded to Agent Myson and the two of them moved silently, stepping carefully across the threshold, pressing their backs against opposite walls. Carmichael and McMahon followed, both of them taking the right-hand wall, creeping behind Agent Myson while Clements held back by the door, his rifle primed, the stock tucked comfortably into his shoulder.

Philippa Myson saw it first; a shadow passing through the space at the end of the hall, the light from the windows flickering momentarily. She felt the weight of her fingertip on the trigger, but she hesitated, feeling a cold air pass over her body. The hallway darkened again, but this time it was no fleeting shadow; it took form and rose up beyond the expanse of the room, sharp edges forking down from where the ceiling had been. She tried to inch forward, but ash gray smoke rings reached towards her, roping around her feet and neck, holding her against the wall. She could hear the slow thumping of McMahon and Carmichael’s rifles, the machines grinding laboriously, but she was certain that their bullets made it no further than the black beyond. The floor rose, a billowing charcoal tongue, curling at the edges as it pulled away from the amorphous walls. The darkness swallowed, contracting about them, cancerous serpentine strings of saliva obliterating all visibility and hope.

“What the hell’s going on in there? Why aren’t you moving?”

Myson gasped her relief, holding on to the sanity of Agent Wheatley’s words in her ear. It pained her to open her mouth, her jaw rigid, the muscles of her neck fighting against her own words, “Are… you not… seeing this?”

The voice that answered wasn’t Wheatley. Where there had been shadow and smoke, now a tar-like slurry slapped and gurgled the words, echoing in the cavernous pit that surrounded the agents, “I see all. You offer your hands to the service of a false god. Your tongues pronounce his lies. Lay down your arms and repent, or answer for his blasphemy.”

With immense effort Middleton stepped forward, leaning against the wall, feeling his way with both hands. He could barely make out the forms of the other agents, but he signaled for them to move with him. Myson felt Carmichael’s hands on her back, urging her forward. She willed her legs, pushing her right foot slowly, desperately.

Now the voice came as a chill and thunderous blast of wind, roaring all about them.

“This is the hour of Ahken’s folly; see his Blood-Bastards offer themselves unto my mouth. The first to fall,” deeper the voice pounded, “first to bleed.”

Myson felt the weight of her upper body dragging her to the floor, her legs too weak to support her. She reached out, afraid of what would happen if she didn’t wrench herself through this despair. Suddenly there were hands at her throat, dragging her up from the floor. She lashed out desperately, kicking and punching at the shades that moved about her. Connecting with something, she squeezed instinctively, digging in her fingers, writhing with as much energy as she could muster. When she could do no more, she fell back to the ground, or perhaps the ground rose up to catch her because she could no longer be sure. She could scarcely see her own hands raking at the floor, but there beside her, she caught sight of Agent Carmichael, his empty eyes staring at nothing.

 

Danielle Wheatley was hesitant to leave the comfort of the van. She’d watched the feed from Clements’ tactical camera as the other agents had stumbled into the apartment like drunks on a merry-go-round; what she had seen hadn’t filled her with confidence. Then she had spoken to Myson, who had started spouting off dire esoteric omens. The situation was not inviting, but she couldn’t call for backup, at least not officially. She considered leaving, which would only be slightly worse than staying in the van. Her options weighed, she climbed through to the rear cab, took a rifle and a sidearm from the lockup, and dragged the heavy door open.

When she reached the apartment, Clements was standing in the doorway, one arm resting nonchalantly against the door-frame, the other holding his rifle steady.

“Clements, I’m on your six.”

Clements didn’t budge an inch. Wheatley tucked in behind him, checking his view from the AR screen in the corner of her visor.

“Has there been any movement?”

She thought she noticed Clement’s head shaking, but he still didn’t move from his position. She nudged him, and his body listed forward, his arm still cocked out to the side like a waxwork high-fiving no one in particular. Wheatley lunged forward and grabbed the back of his jacket, ramming her feet against the sides of the door to stop herself from toppling into the hallway with him. She dragged him back into the corridor, undid his helmet and pulled his visor down towards his neck. His eyes were non responsive.

What had they all seen?

 

Stanwick listened to the sound of her own breathing, blocking out the cacophony which was engulfing the apartment about her. The chaos was beautiful, but she could drown in it if she allowed herself to swim too long. She clutched West’s hand tightly, feeling his frenzy; he was lost in the same dark mire as the agents, tumbling in dread and delusion, but as much as she wanted to help him, Stanwick couldn’t afford to divide her attentions. She wasn’t even sure how she’d managed to project this nightmare into the apartment in the first place.

A tall man with graying hair, leaned cautiously out of the cover of the hallway, only a couple of feet from where Stanwick crouched. She closed her eyes and focused her thoughts on the space where he stood, cloaking herself in hell and dancing around him.

 

Wheatley felt the weight of Clement’s body shift in her hand as his feet kicked out against the tile floor. Suddenly his arms were thrashing, fingers reaching out for something of substance, gloved hands slapping the plastered wall to his left. Wheatley still couldn’t see what Clements was reacting so violently to, but whatever it was had roused him from a kind of catatonic trance into a series of savage spasmodic gestural movements. He jerked free of Wheatley’s hand and she watched in dismay as her little canary faltered, flapped and staggered into the fray, falling towards, then attacking the other agents.

Ducking low, Wheatley exited cover and pushed hard left around the edge of the wall. Her sight blurred immediately, but even as the daylight about her was swallowed, her shoulder connected with something hard and her hands tangled up in loose fabric. Collapsing on whoever had been waiting there for her, she felt fingers pushing up under her helmet, into her hair, grabbing tight; she wondered to what end until she felt her head pulled back, the sharp warmth at her neck, the cloying confusion raveling all that was left of her senses. Wild, sea-green, splashes of foaming white, Danielle glimpsed the eye of the storm that would be her ruination. Giving in a little, breathing in a thrumming bubbling gasp, she stroked her right hand slowly down the length of her body and un-holstered.

With two shots fired, Wheatley couldn’t breathe, the air too thin. Her first thought was that perhaps in her confusion she had shot herself – punctured a lung or something. She felt her body lifted, the weight of her head arching her neck, her right arm lolling towards the floor as the gun slipped her grip, clattering away. Her helmet fell away too, the strap tangling in her tattered hair. She opened her eyes as best she could, watching the topsy-turvy room swaying to and fro, and as her head tilted further she felt her airways closing completely. A limp and useless rag-doll, she was tossed amongst the other bodies in the middle of the room, her face barely an inch from Carmichael’s. She opened her mouth, tried to breath in, and failing that, tried to breath out. Carmichael’s upside-down face, suddenly flecked with her blood, now stirred into motion, his eyelids twitching and his lips twisting in disgust. He squinted, getting a fix on the wreckage that had just landed in front of him.

“It’s your neck.”

Wheatley frowned, listening to the footsteps circling them.

“There’s a hole in your neck.” Carmichael grumbled, unsure of who could hear him. Certain that he had armed Wheatley with enough information, he rolled slowly onto his back, checking his peripheral vision. He felt strong now, unburdened by whatever thrall had put him out of action. With his hands flat to the floor, he stretched his legs, arched his back off the ground and sprung forward. No sooner was he on his feet than Stanwick’s foot caught him clean across the jaw and he fell to one knee.

“Stay down.”

Even spat in disdain, her words were a balm. Carmichael looked up, knowing that he would be unable to look away from her until she struck him down harder.

“You found him then?” he asked.

Her fiendish smile was still too inviting. On the floor about him the others were stirring now, Stanwick’s spell apparently ended. Carmichael allowed himself to look into her eyes, “You’re outnumbered.” He tried.

Her smile softened by degrees, tinged at the edges with pity. He watched as she stepped on McMahon’s wrist with one foot, her other foot pressing his face to the floor.

“You remember none of my words?”

There were times when her words were all Carmichael could remember.

“Confidence in numbers belies doubt in self.” She stepped off McMahon’s face, kicking an arm out from beneath Philippa Myson’s struggling body.

 

The frustration; Myson’s mandible rocking side to side, molar’s grinding. Frustration sufficient to bolster her resolve. She reached up, grabbing Stanwick’s knee tightly, pulling herself forward. Head cocked to one side, Phillipa opened her mouth as wide as she could manage, jerking hard on Stanwick’s knee, buckling her leg so that she could get a good mouth-hold. Stanwick tried to step backwards, reviled by the sight of Myson, but she stumbled, loosing her footing.

Checking Wheatley, who’s neck had started to close over, Carmichael pushed forwards again, eying Stanwick’s midriff and landing his thick skull perfectly on target. He knew he’d knocked the wind out of her, and she went down easily, dragging him and Myson with her as she went. He landed a couple of good punches before her first knee to his stomach. Then again, too quickly, her knee in his stomach and her fingers in his face. That was enough; he wanted to get off her, but he had invited her wrath, and Myson’s frenzied form beneath him made things no easier. He only hoped that Myson was managing to do some damage.

Stirred by one of Stanwick’s stray limbs, Clements scrambled out of her way, watching Phillipa Myson’s tortuous attempt at rodeoing the beast. Clements’ hands found their way to a rifle; he fired a couple of rounds, both of which landed in the side of Myson’s face from what he could tell. Unable to land a clean shot, he gave up and laid down suppressive fire. No sooner had he fired off a few short bursts, than he felt strong hands gripping the front of his jacket.

West lifted Clements clean off the ground, tucking his left ankle behind Clements legs, pitching him easily towards one of the large windows. Myson had quickly let loose Stanwick’s leg, and recovered Clement’s rifle, firing at the new assailant’s back. Bullets from Myson’s rifle tore into the muscles of West’s leg and lower back as Clements’ face hammered into the window. Grabbing the back of his hair, West slammed his head into the glass a couple more times until the window shattered. He was focused now. He spun Clements about once more, his body becoming a convenient bullet sponge for Myson’s itchy trigger finger, then with one last heave, West threw him through the window, his limbs flailing as his body sailed out of view.

 

As he surveyed the damage that had been caused within the first few moments of the other agents entering the apartment, Cobb felt nauseated and dizzy. He wanted to survive. His breathing had become erratic and fear stalked rampant through the corridors of his mind. How could he get out of this place alive if he couldn’t breathe? He trained his weapon on the woman, who seemed to be a more immediate threat to the other agents. He squeezed the trigger with fast calm pulses of his finger, his aim sure, his arm planted securely on the wooden floor; when Stanwick failed to fall to the ground in the hail of bullets, Cobb told himself that he must have missed. He squeezed the trigger again, letting out a high pitched yell as he realized that agent Myson had now thrown herself at the woman, her body moving directly into his line of fire.

He couldn’t have missed, he knew that now; the fine dust of shredded material which plumed from the back of Myson’s vest confirmed it and the blanket of self loathing came so quickly over Cobb that his vision darkened under its weight. The thoughts flashed through his mind … colleague … shot in the back … paperwork … tribunal … As the weapon fell to the floor in front of him, he wasn’t even sure the thoughts had come in that order, which made it all the worse. As he finally caught up with the reality of what he was seeing, he gasped in relief; Myson had pinned the woman and was now laying into her, punching her repeatedly. Myson was fine; either that or she was psychotic and battle crazed, working through the pain. Above all, Cobb was starting to realize that the scene which was unfolding was miraculous.

He crawled forward, still hugging the wall, and now he could see that Agents Carmichael and Middleton were both coming to Myson’s aid. He had imagined that the three would now set about restraining the woman, but instead, the two men both joined in Myson’s attack, kicking and punching her. How she managed to keep fighting back, Cobb could only wonder in horror, but fight she did, grabbing at Carmichael’s leg with one hand, dragging him to the floor, swinging her other elbow into Myson’s face as she struggled to pin her. Myson tried several times to throw a leg around the woman’s neck, and on her last attempt her flailing foot kicked one of the rifles within Cobb’s reach. He stretched his hand out timidly, his furtive eyes scanning for threats. He had the strap under his fingertip when his eyes met with West’s. More to the point, he was aware that West’s eyes had met with his own. Holding Agent McMahon’s neck in one hand, West stooped to the floor to pick something up, then as he stood, his arm went back and whatever it was he’d picked up, hit Cobb clean between the eyes.

In a drowse, Cobb felt the liquid trickle down his face. His head throbbing, he knew it must be blood. It tasted pleasant though. Much too pleasant to be blood. As he drifted in and out of consciousness, snatches of delirious dreams tugged at him and begged him to stay under, to give in to the blackness. It felt as if the fight had been spilling about him, undulating and ravaging the apartment around him for hours. As best he could, he kept his eyes turned towards the middle of the room, opening them only when the sounds of scraping, snarling, biting and thumping forced his curiosity over the edge. What he saw in those moments; none of it made sense.

He drifted into black and saw a vast expanse of blood soaked fields, bodies strewn all around him. Surely this was the reality he would face if he allowed himself to surface? He saw the faces of every agent he had ever worked with, smashed and bloodied, their limbs sprawled at awkward and sickening angles. He woke, but kept his eyes closed as the bile raised in his throat; two people, maybe more, right next to him, trying to kill each other, he couldn’t afford to make a sound as he swallowed the burning stomach acids back down.

His left eye was closest to the ground and he chanced opening it to a tiny slit, his eyelashes blurring his vision just enough to give a soft focus to the terror; McMahon was there, only a couple of feet from his face and he seemed to be trying to bite a chunk out of the woman’s cheek. It couldn’t be real, he told himself. What would it mean if that was real?

He allowed himself to slip back into the darkness, his silent sobs giving way to a pulsing light. In the light, in that bright space in the darkness of his mind, a woman, blond and sleek, knelt on the sand beside him. He felt a sharp pain in his arm, a jabbing sensation, like the woman was prodding him with something.

“What the f … ?” Cobb began, but the woman cut him off, “shh, shh. Relax. It’s just Occam’s Razor.”

Instantly, he knew who his angelic guardian was. He understood that rationally, he should know, if only because this was his adrenal black out, but still, he was proud that he’d managed to get a mental fix on something. He opened his eyes and looked up into the angelic face of Jodie Foster, but of course he had known it would be her. Occam’s Razor my ass he thought … He mouthed the words back at her as she offered her words of wisdom, “All things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one.”

He shook his head, trying to brush her hand away, “That’s bullshit. No explanation for the things I’ve seen.”

She prodded him again, pushing the point of the blade in just enough to sting. “Occam’s Razor …” her voice started to fade and Cobb felt himself drifting away from her, “What if all things aren’t equal? Huh Jodie? When are things ever equal in this life?”

As the half light of the apartment filtered into his consciousness, he heard her one more time, “The simplest … explanation…”

Then it was Agent McMahon’s face that shifted into his field of view; eyes closed, blood pouring from several open wounds on his forehead and cheeks. Cobb wanted to close his eyes again and just wait for the trauma unit to turn up. Something odd was happening though. There … right there on the landscape of McMahon’s body, small movements; not the blood rolling down his cheek, or the gentle raising and lowering of his chest that would suggest life. Cobb wished that was what he saw. He wished like he couldn’t remember wishing … no, like six year old Brad, wishing for a Cringer action figure for Christmas; Brad Cobb wished now that what he was seeing was a trick of the light, clouds moving across the sun, neutrinos reflected from a gas cloud bouncing back through the cosmos.

As he watched the deep cut which ran from McMahon’s hair line down to his right eyebrow, Cobb felt that same disappointment he’d felt as a child. No, this was worse. Then, it had meant that Santa didn’t read too well, or didn’t think he deserved a plastic tiger. Now, the rapidly healing wounds on McMahon’s face meant something much more sinister.

Occam’s Razor … Cobb could almost see the good angel Jodie kneeling over McMahon, pointing the gleaming blade at the bloodied face.

 

“He’s not dead.”

The sound of the woman’s voice froze every function of Cobb’s brain and fixed his limbs taut.

“Of course he’s not. When was the last time you killed a Blood-Bastard with a few punches?”

The woman sighed, “This one.”

With the gentle prod of Stanwick’s foot, Cobb started to shake violently, “Please, I didn’t know, I …”

West knelt over Cobb’s chest and pinned his hands to the floor too easily, “Shut up man! Just shut up and stop begging.”

Cobb looked up into the turbulent depths of West’s eyes, expecting to see anger or hatred, but instead, written in the curvature of his eyebrows, he saw sympathy, or at least pity.

“Give him the cure.” West seemed to indicate McMahon with a nod of his head. The cure? Cobb felt the panic mount again; what did that mean? Was she about to kill McMahon?

“You have it on you?” Stanwick asked casually.

West let go of Cobb’s right hand, raising his eyebrows in an unspoken warning, then he appeared to reach into the back pocket of his pants. He threw a small phial of liquid to Stanwick and held down Cobb’s hand again.

 

Unseen by agent Cobb, Stanwick knelt over McMahon, with the weight of her knees on his arms, she waited. She watched as the wounds of his face healed completely, as she felt the bones of his rib cage, those bones she had shattered with her knees a few minutes before, knit together and become whole once more. Only when she was sure that he was healthy enough to survive did she part his lips with her fingers, spilling the contents of the phial into his open mouth. She threw the empty phial to the side and closed McMahon’s mouth shut, massaging his throat with her fingertips and lifting his head forward. McMahon wouldn’t wake for a while, and when he did, he would pose no threat to them.

Cobb turned his head as much as he dared, “Is she poisoning him?”

West slapped Cobb’s right cheek gently, “Look at me.”

Cobb closed his mouth tight, and looked straight up at West, frightened that he was about to administer this ‘cure,’ but West still looked calm and pitying.

“You have a choice, and you need to think about this before you answer.”

Cobb’s eyes opened wide in anticipation.

“What’s your name?”

“Cobb … Brad Cobb.”

West spoke quickly now, “Brad, there is no evil here. There are merely decisions and consequences. For actions to be defined as evil, there needs to be a context, do you agree?”

“Y …” Cobb couldn’t even get out the word. “You’ve killed them.”

“Your colleagues are fine. Temporarily trashed, absolutely, but they’ll recover. You have no context and I’m not about to tell you the people you are working with are evil. I’m no judge or arbiter, but I can tell you this; you are working for the betterment of a cause that is morally ambiguous.”

Stanwick stood beside West now, looking down at Cobb, “West, you’re being way too polite about this. Tiernan’s not evil in the biblical sense, but he is a self serving dick.”

Cobb’s derisory laugh was involuntary.

West raised his eyebrows reproachfully, “You have something to say?”

Cobb licked his lips and swallowed, desperate not to antagonize the two any further, “He’s a politician right? I haven’t seen many who weren’t self serving pricks.”

West smiled warmly, “Which brings us back to your choice Mr Cobb …”

Cobb wanted to retreat into the depths of his imagination once more. Whatever the choice was, he would let his starlet guardian decide.

West let go of Cobb’s hands and stood over him, “Brad, either you are with us, or you are against us.” He held out his arms, as if to suggest that Cobb should observe the chaos of the destroyed apartment, “Which is it to be?”

Stanwick cleared her throat, and West suddenly became aware that she had been tapping her foot impatiently. He cast his eyes in her direction and noted the bemused expression with which she was regarding him, “What? What’s wrong?”

She shrugged, “Is this the way of it now? You just recruit everyone who stumbles into your path?”

West looked crestfallen, obviously needled by her remark. She bit her lip, “If you really think it’s necessary, fine.”

“We don’t have time for this Stan. Either we leave a path of destruction with new found enemies frothing in our wake, or else, yes, we recruit everyone who is willing to join us.” Stanwick nodded and offered Brad Cobb a hand, helping him to his feet. She brushed his shoulders off, “Well Brad, there you have it. Either I kill you now or we leave this place, dragging you into our merry little shit storm. Do you know which way your bread’s buttered?”

In the distance, Cobb could make out the sound of sirens, no doubt drawn by the fallen body on the streets below, or perhaps even by the sounds of gunfire. He tried not to look expectant, but he could tell from the woman’s expression that he was an open book right now.

“Don’t think they’re going to save you man … Death, or the company of madmen. Rescue by NYPD is not an option.”

Now that he was on his feet, Cobb had a chance to look at the bodies of the other agents. They didn’t look dead. They weren’t exactly lively, but he was willing to concede that they might not be deceased.

West walked over to the window and watched the first of the squad cars pulling up.

“You’re coming with us.” He stormed away from the window, stepping through the mess of bodies, walking the length of the hallway. He stopped at his bedroom door and knocked.

“It’s time.”

 

 

There were already six police officers in the lobby of the apartment building and they started to look twitchy when the elevator pinged to announce its arrival. Two agents stepped out, jostling a handcuffed man.

“Agent Brad Cobb.” Cobb dropped the handle of a suitcase which he was dragging behind him and reached into his jacket to pull his ID.

One of the police officers stepped forwards, glancing at Cobb’s ID, “Your boy on the street’s lucky to be alive.”

The other agent glanced towards the building’s front doors, “He’s on his feet?”

“No, he’s unresponsive, but he’s breathing. Paramedics are en-route.”

Cobb nodded his head, jostling David Beach, “You wouldn’t think he’d be capable. It’s a mess up there.”

The officer floundered between confusion and disgust, then he noticed the other two agents coming from the stairwell, one of them holding a young child at their side. He looked at David Beach again, “Just him?”

Cobb nodded.

“Jesus, how many of you did it take to bring him down? He buzzed?”

Cobb kicked the suitcase behind him, “Four suitcases full of the shit, but as far as I can tell he’s clean.”

The officer lowered his head, trying to look into David’s eyes, “Nah man, he’s tweakin’.”

Cobb shrugged, “We’ll see when we get the bloods back.”

The officer stepped aside, “I suppose this is all over to the feds now?”

Cobb shrugged, “Some kind of mess upstairs. Make of it what you will. We have our hands full.” He yanked his prisoner’s arm once more, smiling broadly.

 

[]CHAPTER THIRTEEN

On the Road

 

As Allan Tiernan walked up to the small podium, he wished he had broken from tradition and installed a grandiose pulpit in the White House press room. It would have been more befitting the occasion. The glaring staccato of the flashes from all of the cameras frustrated him, but he knew that their presence was a necessary evil. His return to the role of president of the United States should be one of the most documented events in recorded history. Not all eyes would be on him of course. Throughout the world, all of the announcements would happen at the same time, and in fact Tiernan had agreed that America’s central and West coast audiences would take a hit rather than pulling the timing on China and Japan’s announcements.

Although early indications were that the American people were in a state of elated awe, Tiernan knew that things were not going as peaceably for his fellow conspirators. Moments before he’d stepped into the press office, he’d word from his father that there were riots and talks of military intervention in both Bulgaria and Romania. It was of little consequence to Tiernan. He knew that once the full impact of the day’s events had an opportunity to reverberate around the world, there would be such a tide of emotion that nothing would be able to stop him.

 

Tiernan scanned the crowded room and picked out the camera of one of the major networks, allowing himself a genial smile straight into the lens. But he waited. The applause died down and he waited. Men and women shuffled papers, recording equipment, clothes against seat backs, and still Tiernan waited. He touched his palm against the top corner of the podium, gazing at his fingernails which curled thereunder. Then the room was silent.

“No parent should live to watch their children die. No parent should live to see the scorched and ruined skies of their ambitions choke the very air that their children breath. No parent should live to see their children scurry and pick through the ruined corpses of cities lain bare by the wanton selfish hedonism of their forebears. No parent should be made to watch, hands tied behind their backs by bureaucrats as their children’s souls are crushed under the weight of jobless, hopeless, helpless lives. No child should live to see their future sold for a song, futures stolen from the hands that built them, torn from the hands of parents that toiled their whole lives under false promises as politicians and bankers grow fat and bloated on the milk of the land.”

There was a quiet babble from around the room, reporters moving their mouths almost silently as each of their commentaries were recorded by vocal chord and lip-synch transmission.

Tiernan waited for the silence to blanket the room again before he spoke, “The system doesn’t work. We all know it. Politicians on the take know it … Parents working sixty plus hour weeks to put food on the table know it. Mom and pop store owners have been feeling it for years. Factory workers the whole world over sweating blood so we can all have our televisions, our phones, our computers, our clothes … they sure as heck know it. Millions of children around the world, dying of dysentery, malaria, starvation and every form of depredation known to humankind … They know it, and they feel the effects of the world’s inequity before they draw their first breath.”

“I stood before you on March 10th of this year, with fifteen leaders of the free world, prepared to take this country forward in a commitment to political reform and a radical re-evaluation of the global economy. I experienced something on that day which may take years to fully explain; a spiritual metamorphosis which was shared with those world leaders. I have learned something from that experience, something vital and urgent. I have an understanding now that those reforms which had been previously proposed, fell far short of what is necessary to take this world into the twenty-second century of the modern era.”

Tiernan worked the room as he spoke, making sure he gave each news network an occasional glance, a nod of the head or a wagging finger of emphasis. He didn’t look down at all, he had no notes to work from and no TelePrompter. He’d known for years now what he would say and he’d rehearsed these moments down to every lick of the lips, every blink of his eyes.

“We have limped through the last two hundred years with a system which was fundamentally flawed from its inception and which was itself founded on a network of inequities, immoral practices and loopholes. The ownership of land, the distribution of wealth …” He thumped his fist down on the podium, “All the while, the promise that the meek shall inherit the earth, uttered as if it will be a permanent salve to centuries of hurt, or better still, a barrier between the meek and those whose needs they service.”

“All about you, there are politic men and women, saying the right words, campaigning on lies, kissing your hands and then returning to their old ways. It’s such a common thing that it’s really a profound absurdity that any of you put up with it. It’s an abusive relationship; one partner wishing that the abuse would end, wishing they could believe their partner’s words this time. Every four years they tell you that things will change this time … this time it will be better. None of us presume that you don’t know the wool that has been pulled over your eyes. You have spent your entire lives carding, pulling twining and weaving the very fabric of that wool.”

He stopped again, listening to the growing hubbub.

“I believe that there is an intrinsic value to all things. Supply and demand has become part of that value, but it is an illusory and manipulative mechanic. When faced with the reality of supply and demand, none of us really mature beyond infancy. If we are told that we can have something, but not quite yet, not until we have saved, not until the next paycheck, not until it’s ready to hit the market, not until the supply chain has caught up; when we are told those things, we want it now, whatever it is. I’m not just talking about you, the citizens, I’m referring to we the people. The governments of the world have acted like spoiled children, hording things they can’t truly claim to own, craving things that they have no right to, demanding things they can’t wait for.”

“Let me ask you a question … I know that this isn’t a gathering of the world’s greatest minds, but these are things we all think upon from time to time. If I know that there is only five grams of gold left in the world, what value should I put on those five grams? How much money would be enough money? How would I quantify that?”

The question was greeted with stunned faces and silence, but Tiernan waited patiently. “I understand why you would think that’s a rhetorical question. Believe me it’s not … Any volunteers.”

A female reporter, young, spectacled, short hair, raised a shaking hand and as a microphone boom was lowered towards her, she offered, “It should go in a museum.”

Tiernan nodded, “Possibly. Certainly I would say if we don’t know what to do with it, we should not squander it. No price should be high enough. Do we agree?” he dominated the cameras again, eyes darting deliberately from one to the next, “Why then, once we understood that the worlds resources were finite, why did no one step forwards and shout ‘stop the madness?’” Many of the people closest to the podium started as Tiernan shouted the words. “We’ve got enough oil to last a good while, but it’s finite. In terms of the lifetime of mankind, we’ve got the equivalent of that five grams of gold. Really, it’s all we’ve ever had. Conservatively, mankind reached modernity about two hundred thousand years ago. We really started, I mean started earnestly using oil to power even the most unnecessary venture or flight of fancy in the past couple of centuries and boy have we used a lot of it.”

Tiernan lowered his head and stared at his hands as he spread his fingers out on the podium. His father’s warning played over in his mind briefly and he tried to push it to a dark corner. He was sure, he’d always been sure that he was on the correct course.

“Our sense of urgency is inextricably linked to that ominous chant we hear in the back of our minds, ‘four score years and ten’. Each of us has a desire to achieve everything we can, experience everything there is to experience in that short span of time we are alloted on this earth. I’m standing here today to tell each of you that there is more. We can not continue as a species to act as if we have an inexhaustible stockpile of resources. Not while we still call Earth our only home… Humanity may walk the earth for another four million years if we are lucky, but we will not walk with our heads held high if we continue to crave and consume and waste.”

He lifted his head and gazed about the room, making eye contact with reporters and camera operators, “I’m going to go out on a limb here and risk sounding crazy. I was elected on a campaign promise of capital reform, and that was a commitment that was to be held up and honored the whole world over, led by the sixteen nations of the Economic Unification Council. Today, here and in those fellow nations; Russia, Germany, France, England, Palestine, China, Japan, Israel, Poland, Switzerland, Mexico, Canada, South Korea, Iran and Iraq, we, the chosen leaders of the EUC are united in our message that we were wrong.” He thumped the desk and shook his head slowly. “Income caps are not enough. Reduced military spending is not enough. Tightening the purse strings, balancing the books, leveling the playing field, debt forgiveness.. It’s all very catchy, but it all falls far short of what is right and what is necessary.”

The room was almost silent, no clothes rustled, no lips moved, all eyes were on Tiernan as he held out his hand and pointed his index finger, sweeping from camera lens to camera lens. From somewhere in the huddle of reporters, someone muttered the word that was perhaps on everyone’s lips, “Communist.”

Tiernan shrugged it off, “You want it all, and you aren’t to be blamed; we …” he swept his hand back to indicate the handful of politicians who stood to the sides of the podium and around the room, “We gain from your insatiable greed. You’ve been brought up greedy, you’ve been brought up impatient and I’m not going to tell you that you’re to blame.” He glanced down at the podium again, and lowered his hand to rest on the cool wood, “But I’m not going to enable you either.”

 

Stanwick turned off the radio and batted away Cobb’s hand as he reached instinctively to turn it back on.

“Jesus, I was listening to that. This might be one of the biggest…”

“Blah, blah. Shut the fuck up or I’ll kill you right now. I won’t even pull over to do it, I’ll just keep driving and choke you to death in your seat.”

Cobb turned to look at her and immediately thought better of firing back a response.

“Honestly Brad, you’re going to be sick to the back teeth of hearing that shit by the time they get through analyzing everything the self serving dick has to say.”

He muttered something under his breath and scuffed his feet on the floor of the foot well, drumming his fingers on the Pontiac’s door paneling.

“Brad, you’ll have to speak up, I’m a little hard of patience” Stanwick took her right hand off the steering wheel and backhanded the side of his head to add emphasis to the word ‘patience’.

Cobb gritted his teeth and stared at the miles of arrow straight road which lay ahead of them. “I said, you don’t even know what that self serving dick has to say.”

Looking up into the rear view mirror, Stanwick could see David following closely, his eyes watching the Pontiac attentively. He was struggling to get to grips with West’s retro-fitted Chevelle, throwing the rear end out whenever he attempted to overtake. She glanced at Cobb and smiled inwardly. He looked so uncomfortable in David Beach’s clothes, but they couldn’t very well have him running about in his uniform, so they had made do with a quick change in the back seat of Beach’s Toyota while David had cleared out his glove box.

“You’re wrong, FYI.” Stanwick’s words were calm and quiet.

Cobb chanced a glimpse of her eyes through their reflection in the rear view, and he was only now, breathtakingly aware of how stunning her eyes were. If he’d been in a more tranquil situation, Cobb would have allowed himself the admission that Stanwick Thrass was the most beautiful woman he’d met in real life. The situation wasn’t tranquil. He clenched his teeth and told himself repeatedly that she was as ugly as her personality; evil, bitchy, snarky and another dose of evil.

“What am I wrong about?” the words came out with a touch more sarcasm than he had intended and he flinched at the sound of his own voice, convinced that his words would be followed by another smack upside the head.

Stanwick licked her lips, then bit them, apparently holding back a torrent of frustration. She was no slave to her emotions, her shows, tells, facial ticks and shifts of posture were calculated to elicit a response and control the emotions of those around her. She enjoyed those verbal and postural games, because they kept her rooted her in her humanity.

She loved watching Cobb, a grown man, a trained killer, shifting awkwardly simply because she’d licked her lips. Of course, there was more to it than that. She knew that. She knew Cobb had been in that apartment and had probably seen what she was capable of in the heat of combat. She knew that his sense of emasculation must have been profound. He was her bitch and it made her smile inwardly. Outwardly, she glared at him through the mirror.

“You’re wrong about the speech, I know exactly what Tiernan was about to say. I’ve heard it a thousand times.”

Cobb didn’t want to give her the satisfaction that would surely come with his curiosity. He suspected she would elaborate anyway; he’d only spent an hour in her company and so far, unbidden, she’d told him about the bit jobs she’d worked for various broadsheets, following Tiernan on his campaign trail, she’d told him about her distrust of the government agencies, and she had threatened to talk over Tiernan’s speech to chit chat about her cars (plural). He leaned forward and reached into the foot well, taking a bag of beef jerky from the plastic bag they had picked up from the gas station before getting onto I-78. He took a piece before proffering the bag to Stanwick who took a handful, dropping the pieces onto her lap, “Thanks Brad.” She smiled, “Keep me fed and you might survive.”

 

They were a couple of miles further down the road when Cobb gave in to his curiosity. He’d stole the occasional glance of Stanwick as she’d chewed and gnawed her way through most of the jerky in her lap. He had eventually come to the conclusion that she cared more about eating than about the political turmoil or the dire situation she was apparently involved in.

“So … Miss Thrass..”

“Stanwick, or Stan, whatever. Definitely not Miss Thrass.”

Cobb smirked, “Okay, Stanwick it is. What about Tiernan’s speech?”

“Oh God, really? We’ve got eight hours to kill and you want to get into that right away?”

“I just missed the punchline of the most important presidential address in my lifetime because apparently you’ve already heard it … You’ve got to give me something here.”

Stanwick turned to look at him for a moment, confident that the straight road wasn’t about to throw her any surprises, “Okay Brad, but then I want something from you in return.”

She looked back at the road and grinned, trying to think of something shocking to demand of him. Cobb nodded, “Fair enough.”

Stanwick rolled down the window and spat a piece of gristle into the wind before starting, “There’s a prophecy …”

Cobb laughed, “Cut the shit.”

“I swear to God boy, I’m out of jerky and you’re going to question the very first thing I say?”

“Sorry, sorry … Jesus!” Cobb reached down and picked out a fresh bag of teriyaki jerky, quickly tearing into it and pouring some into Stanwick’s lap. She had to turn her head to look out of the window in order to hide her smile which was broad, warm and genuine.

“Many years ago, and I mean that in the geological sense … many, many years ago, a prophetic vision was recorded on a device which allowed the vision to be viewed by many. The device was the product of a civilization which had reached a pinnacle of technological advancement which has only been bettered by modern civilization during the past century, and even then, we are talking about a very marginal lead.”

Cobb rested his head back and closed his eyes, trying to block out the image of Stanwick smashing his colleague’s head against the wall of the apartment. He had hoped, briefly, that these people had saved him from something. Perhaps, he had reasoned, he had thrown in with the right crowd. What went down at the apartment, it was clear that his colleagues were not what they appeared to be. So okay, none of these people were in a straight cut situation, but he was particularly unsettled by that deceit. This was really something else. Whatever cult Stanwick was involved in, it was obvious that he’d made a mistake. Some powerful shit they were selling Cobb thought; that a woman this strong could be brainwashed into believing this crap. He already understood that these people were dangerous, but he was starting to think that they might be more than merely dangerous; they might also be mentally unstable.

“There was an almost immediate realization that the vision accurately predicted the events that were happening in that country.”

Cobb nodded calmly.

Stanwick pursed her lips, watching Cobb’s hands fidgeting in his lap. “To cut a long story short, Tiernan’s speech today forms part of the final days predicted by that prophetic vision. Okay?”

Cobb opened his eyes sharply, aware that Stanwick’s last words were spoken in a caustic tone.

She shook her head, “I’m sorry, it’s just that I know there’s no point in going over all of this with you right now. You’re not going to get it, it’s going to freak you out and you’re going to spend eight hours wondering how the hell you get away from these nut jobs …”

Cobb laughed awkwardly, “No …” he sighed, “Yes, possibly.”

Stanwick picked a couple of pieces of jerky from her lap and crammed them into her mouth, chewing them down before continuing, “You will get your answers, it will make sense to you, but that’s not going to happen right now. If you really want something to give you a grounding in the reality you’re in, open the glove box.”

Cobb followed her suggestion.

“Okay, see in there, there’s a zip-lock with a book in it? Get that out.”

Cobb reached forward and took the bag from the glove box.”

“Okay, be careful, there’s only a couple of copies of that in the world, but that one is mine. It was hand written in the fifteenth century and it’s really only a synopsis of the vision, but it’s a start.”
Cobb stared blankly at the letters which were embossed into the dark material of the binding, unable to understand the language he saw.

Stanwick sighed, “Shit, I’m sorry, my mistake. Yeah, you’re going to have to wait till we get to my humble abode, unless you can read Latin?”

Cobb shrugged, “I’m fluent in five languages, but I passed up on Latin. It didn’t seem likely that I’d need it as frequently as Mandarin.”

Stanwick gunned the accelerator to overtake an eighteen wheeler, “Sucks to be you.”

 

“I can’t believe it.”

Stephanie threw her bare feet up on the high dashboard, an act which required her to push herself forward in the seat to reach, her head slumping down so that the seat belt tugged at her chin, “Sup?”

David slammed his fist on the steering wheel, inadvertently sounding the horn which elicited a giggle from Stephanie.

“Did you understand any of that speech?”

“What speech?”

“On the radio just now. The president’s speech.” David looked sidelong at his daughter and decided not to comment on how ridiculously uncomfortable she looked, “were you even listening to it?”

Preoccupied by an experiment she was carrying out, Stephanie had been too busy to pay much attention to the radio. Biting her hand and watching how quickly her skin regained its color may not garner the attention of the Nobel Prize committee, nevertheless Stephanie considered the research to be worthwhile. She had an objective frame of reference for her experiment; she knew that normally it would bring tears to her eyes if she bit her skin with her canines hard enough that their points left dark dents. She’d managed to draw blood not long after they got onto the interstate. Not only had she not cried, but the blood had vanished from her skin almost as quickly as it had appeared, along with the mark left by her teeth.

She allowed part of her brain to engage with her father’s question. “The president doesn’t like money. I think he said we don’t need money any more.”

David smirked, impressed, “That’s a good part of what he was saying.”

“I thought we were in a re …” she rifled through her stores of vocab while she bit into her hand again, “a regression.”

David corrected her, “A recession. That’s true, we have been. The President is suggesting that the way out of the global recession is to forget about money entirely. Clean slate. Eradicate money.”

“So what happens to my piggy bank?”

David looked glum, “It would mean your money would be no good any more, you’d have to do something for your country to get the things you want.”

Stephanie crossed her feet, clicking her toes thoughtfully, “You don’t like money though right?”

“That’s different.”

“How?”

“I’ve never said we should just scrap it, starting tomorrow, just pretend like it never existed.”

Stephanie reached into the leg-well behind her seat and searched blindly for a bag of chips, “What the heck can I even do?”

Following Stanwick’s lead, David tucked the Chevelle in front of the eighteen wheeler, “What can you do about what?”

“What do I do if I want stuff and they won’t take my piggy bank. I don’t even know how to do anything.”

David laughed, “You’ll be okay. You know I doubt they’ll even let this happen.”

Giving up on the chips, Stephanie rolled her eyes and bit into her palm, sucking up her saliva, content that her father had exhausted the topic. She watched the little rivulets of blood flow down the creases and folds as she flexed her hand.

 

 

West was soothed by the scratchy voice of the talk radio presenter. He’d listened to her for years and he regarded her show as a bastion of common sense and balanced discussion.

“Well Tom, I’d like to hear your take on this.”

The wavering tone, the slight southern inflection; West thought to himself that if he could select a surrogate Grandmother, she would be perfect.

“Well Diane, religious transformation or no, I want whatever he’s been smoking.”

“Right?” Diane laughed softly.

The man continued, “It’s certainly not constitutional. I mean, I’m sure that what he’s proposing is reason enough for impeachment, certainly a vote of no confidence.”
The woman coughed away from the microphone as her laughter got the better of her, “Right, right… I think impeachment would require an act of treason …”

The man spoke over her, “President Ford defined a legitimate cause for impeachment as being whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

Another male voice cut in, “But that’s the million dollar question right now isn’t it? I mean, perhaps Tiernan knows something we don’t. I’m not sure he would go into this thing not thinking he had a majority house behind him?”

Diane spoke, “I’m not sure if President Tiernan has had an opportunity to canvas opinion on the hill; he’s only just returned from Valhalla or wherever he’s been hanging out, hasn’t he?”

Both of the men started laughing, then the first man, Tom, picked up the thread, “Right Diane … I’m not sure how much of this I’m buying really. I mean, there’s no way he’s naive enough to be suggesting that money really is the root of all evils?”

Diane croaked, “There’ll be plenty of people saying that President Tiernan is the root of all evil after today.”

 

West thumbed the volume rocker on the Boss’s steering column and the voices dropped to a barely audible murmur.

“We’re out of snacks already.”Charlene yelled over the ear-splitting roar of the engine. She dropped the brown paper bag into the tiny space behind West’s seat. “Theres just no accounting for how hungry you can get sitting in a car doing sweet F A.”

“I doubt it will be long before we need to stop again. Honestly this car will be the biggest problem. The mileage is for shit.”

Charlene shook her fists in the air triumphantly, “Yey for shitty mileage. What the H E double hockey stick’s with you guys and shitty old cars anyway?” West sat in stony silence, watching the road. She looked at the radio thoughtfully, “Did y’all know that this was coming…”

West’s brow furrowed, “Tiernan attempting to abolish currency?”

“All of this.”

“I know it’s a shallow basis for a friendship, but when you know that a person has a seemingly infinite lifetime to better themselves, it’s easy to be lost in that hope. Even though the Somnium Mirificum ended with Tiernan as the ruler of a great nation, all bets were off for what he would do next. Really, it was questionable if the great dream ended because of some global calamity, or Tiernan’s death. Such questions were debated for centuries. People have fought and died for their belief that Tiernan’s vision would lead to a beautiful future, even when none of us knew what lay beyond the great dream.” He took his eyes off the road to look at Charlene, his expression almost apologetic, “This…” he pointed at the radio, “We didn’t know this was coming no.”

Charlene nodded then opened her mouth and drew a breath.

“Go on?” West prompted her, aware that she was holding back a question.

“Listening to what he actually said, it doesn’t sound all bad really?”

West grinned widely, his eyebrows arching as he kept his eyes focused on the rear end of his precious Chevelle.

“No money, everyone with their place in society, production increased, unhindered by lack of funds, the world can set its sights on ever greater projects. I can seen how some of it sounds innocuous. Money is just an abstraction though, and a useful one at that. Of course, there are only sixteen nations in the EUC, and this plan is a huge fuck you to the rest of the world.”

Charlene tapped the window control on her door panel, allowing the window to slide down a couple of inches.

“Then there’s the whole religion issue,” West continued.

“How do you mean?”

“The symbolism of the world leaders risen from the dead. It’s a ghoulish and divisive move. In two days, they’ve managed to create a dialog that will pit the world against itself.”

 

 

Allan Tiernan stood in front of a large table, faced by the members of his cabinet.

“President, with all due respect, you do realize you’ve just committed political suicide.”

Tiernan’s expression conveyed little emotion. In an ideal world, he would have appointed a cabinet made up solely of Leechkith. He would have settled for Second Realmers. In the end, he had been left with no choice but to nominate Joe Faraday to the post of Secretary of the Treasury. The man had paid his dues and risen through the party ranks at the same time as Tiernan, and it had been impossible to even imply that any other man would be suitable for the roll.

“Secretary Faraday,” Tiernan waited until he was sure that Faraday was looking at him before he continued to talk, “you are not capable of paying me the respect I am due. I’m going to try not to hold that against you. As for political suicide, I’m sure you’ll find that The Senate is rather more accommodating than you would give them credit for.”

Joseph Faraday knew that of all the members of the executive branch, his position was the one which was most threatened by the speech Tiernan had delivered. His sense of betrayal was so profound that he felt physically sick, his hand resting on his stomach in an attempt to focus his mental efforts on maintaining his composure. “The Senate will laugh you out of the White House, assuming the vice president doesn’t call for a vote of no confidence.”

Tiernan glanced at his father and smirked,“Vice President Miller, would you like to answer Secretary Faraday’s concerns?”

“Certainly President Tiernan.” Lucas Miller stood up and started to walk around the table, making sure that he made eye contact with each of the officers of the executive branch as he went, “You will all appreciate that it was my intention to follow the course set in motion by President Tiernan prior to the events of March tenth. I’ve spoken with many of you about how those ends would be achieved, but I doubt any one of you would have suggested that I was more apt for the role than my predecessor. I have absolute confidence in President Tiernan’s ability to marshal this country’s resources and lead the people of the United States.”

Tiernan stood behind Secretary Faraday and rested his hands on his shoulders in a show of condescension which Faraday found emasculating, “Don’t fret so much Joe, this doesn’t mean you’re out of a job. Really. You should embrace this change. The people hate you, more than they hate me. You’re the bearer of bad tidings; that’s how they see you. Grim fucking reaper and champion of austerity. You did some fine work on capital reforms, but you’ve got to know that it isn’t enough. Working along side Administrator Burton, Secretary Pope and Secretary Wilson the scope of your role becomes vastly more interesting.”

 

Administrator Gloria Burton had been a controversial appointment in the early days of Tiernan’s administration. Coming fresh from a position as CEO of one of the major oil corporations, many members of the press and some bleeding heart liberals had painted her as an inappropriate candidate for the position of Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, but the Senate had confirmed her role with an overwhelming majority. It wasn’t widely acknowledged by the press that Gloria had held a position at the EPA and had moved only briefly into the oil industry in order to oversee the introduction of some stringent checks and measures. That was the nature of the press corps though and Gloria had weathered the storm admirably. Although her work as Administrator of the EPA often required her to work closely with Secretary Wilson (Secretary of Agriculture) and Secretary Pope (Secretary of the Interior), she had never had much recourse to consult with Secretary Faraday.

At the President’s mention of her name, she lifted her eyes towards Faraday and tried to imagine a less trustworthy bedfellow.

“President Tiernan, how exactly do you envisage that working?”

Tiernan lifted his hands from Faraday’s shoulders and crossed his arms, “I will leave it to the four of you to hammer out the finer details, but my thinking was that Secretary Faraday would, with the assistance of an advisory committee, oversee the distribution and allocation of exhaustible resources. You understand that I’m not suggesting that the three of you will be Secretary Faraday’s babysitters, but in such a role, it will of course be necessary for Joe to work closely with the EPA and the departments of agriculture and the interior.”

Gloria leaned back in her chair and smiled warmly at Tiernan. It was a cruel game that he played, but she took pleasure in the fact that it was Faraday who was being played.

As the discussion went on, feathers were ruffled and voices were raised, but overall Lucas Miller was surprised at how little resistance his son was met with. He’d had his concerns over the past few years and indeed, had voiced them repeatedly, but Tiernan’s stock response had always been, “Friends close, enemies closer father … You taught me that.”

The first few times he’d heard his son pipe out the adage, he’d been quick to point out that wherever the lesson had come from, it hadn’t been from him. He’d given up arguing the point once he realized that Ahken genuinely seemed to have convinced himself that he spoke the truth. Lucas thought that it was part and parcel with the persona Ahken had built for himself in the early 2000s. He hated Allan Tiernan vehemently, but he loved his son and although he had some resentments and many reservations, he appreciated that the character Ahken had worked so hard to create was pivotal to his ambitions.

Enemies closer … Lucas watched how Ahken dealt with each of the secretaries of the cabinet and he had to hand it to him; ensuring that there was a Leechborn majority in the senate had taken years to achieve, but it looked as if it would actually pay off. Those few party members who could have been considered enemies had either been bought off, or else had been appointed cabinet positions.

 

As the discussions wound inexorably towards the issue of money, or rather Ahken’s determination to abolish the American currency, Lucas Miller felt a feint vibration in his breast pocket and so he discretely moved his hand to his pocket and glanced at the short message that had illuminated the screen of his tablet.

‘NYFO & DCFO have take heavy casualties. Beach evaded capture, aided by West Yestler and Stanwick Thrass.”

He felt the sudden desire for steak; he would need the energy to deal with Ahken’s inevitable tantrum. As the tablet slid back into the silk lining of his suit jacket, Lucas Miller could only smile as he tried to imagine Stanwick Thrass and West Yestler decimating the Leechborn agents who had been dispatched to locate David Beach. In fury or in friendship, they were beautiful.

 

Stanwick turned on her indicator, signaling to David Beach that she was about to pull off the interstate. They hadn’t yet made it to Harrisburg, which was less than half the distance they needed to cover and already Brad was complaining that he needed to use the facilities. He’d refused to piss into a bottle in front of her, which she’d found endearing rather than frustrating. She made it clear to him that when they made it to the rest stop, West would be accompanying him to the restroom and he would certainly be murdered in the most fetid manner if he tried anything.

Cobb quipped suggestively, “If you’re so concerned, why don’t you tag along?”

In the shallower and entirely more base recesses of her mind, she’d admonished herself for the fleeting thought that she would gladly accompany him to the restrooms. Pleasantly distracted, Stanwick clipped the curb as she took the exit ramp, letting go of the wheel as she keeled to the side. Her hand fell on Cobb’s lap and remained there until she was able to let off the accelerator. Cobb looked away, blushing, scanning the surroundings for something, anything to comment on. His eyes were drawn towards a dark plume of smoke which rose into the sky a short way down the road. He could see, probably a few hundred yards beyond the gas station and the conveniences, several fire engines were pulled up alongside a small strip mall.

“What the hell? That’s nuts. Looks like a pretty bad fire down there.” He pointed ahead, eager to demonstrate that this was not a pathetic attempt at detracting attention from his embarrassment.

Stanwick flicked her hair back and cut across the road into the parking lot of the gas station, pulling up by one of the twelve pumps.

“A fire Brad?” She looked away from the smoke, waiting for Cobb to turn back around in his seat, “Fire is predictable. Expect to see a lot more of that.”

“What, you think that was deliberate?”

Stanwick smiled and shot a small wave of her hand at Stephanie who was leaning her head out of the Chevelle’s window as they drove past.

“What do you think Brad? The president has just announced that money is useless; what would you do if you weren’t busy being kidnapped?”

He laughed as she opened the her door and unfastened her seatbelt, “Is that what this is? Kidnapping?”

She smiled demurely, “Have you decided you’re here of your own volition?”

“I guess not. I mean, I was given a choice. Death or …”

“Kidnapping it is then.”

 

Although West’s Mustang was the only vehicle which was close to running on empty, West, Stanwick and David each fueled their vehicles as the other members of the party headed into the large gas station. A burger bar, simply titled ‘Jim’s Joint’ had been built into the far side of the convenience store and as there was no clear line of separation between the restaurant and the shop floor, the scent of fried foods which greeted them was, although not entirely wholesome, at least sickeningly enticing. It was too much for Stephanie who, ignoring David’s feeble protestation, headed straight for the counter, looking over imploringly at the other adults. David touched Charlene’s shoulder to get her attention, “Do the eh … the leeches give a shit what we eat?”

Charlene shrugged, “I’m new to this too. I can tell you, I ate pretty much everything in my Frigidaire yesterday, ketchup included. I mean, they seemed fine with hot-dogs and steak. If everything West and Stanwick have told me is true, I seriously doubt they’ve spent their lives calorie counting.”

David gave an awkward smile and asked Charlene if she wanted a burger.

“Sure, make it a meal.” She looked at Cobb who was browsing a rack filled with candy bars. Realizing she’d already forgotten his name, she called over to him, “Hey, mister … Hey!”

He looked up quizzically, “Yeah?”

“You want anything from the burger joint?” She looked back at the advertising hoarding and realized why the word ‘joint’ had suddenly bubbled to the surface of her vocabulary.

Cobb shook his head, grimacing and rubbing his stomach, “I’ve eaten so much crap already today.” His hand still on his stomach, he was suddenly very conscious of the reason they had taken this unscheduled stop in the first place. He looked around for the sign for the restroom, then, having located it over to the right of the register, he looked through the window at the gas pumps to see if Stanwick or West were heading in yet.

It looked to Cobb as if West was done gassing up, but he was now standing chatting idly with Stanwick. In spite of Stanwick’s dire warning, Cobb was starting to wonder if he should chance heading to the restroom on his own when a tall bulky man with a shaved head, torn denim jacket and shit-kicker boots shouldered past him, his arms laden with potato chips and a twenty-four pack of Grolsch.

A black girl who was stood behind the register waved her hand and called after the man, “Excuse me sir, I think you forgot to pay for your those.”

The guy barely glanced over his shoulder, “Screw you lady, the president says I don’t gotta pay for shit.”

Undaunted by his size, Cobb grabbed the shoulder of the denim jacket, “Buddy, quit being a jackass and pay the woman.”

With surprising swiftness, the skinhead threw his haul onto the floor and thrust back his left elbow, catching Cobb’s jaw with a dirty blow. Cobb stumbled backwards into the shelving behind him and fell to the floor. He had time to admire the sheen of the man’s calf high boot as it connected with his stomach. This one kick turned out to be as much as Cobb’s bladder could take. The flood of warmth which seeped into his pant leg was as relieving as it was humiliating. So great was the mixture of pain and release that his eyes were half closed as the torrent of blood spattered his face. It was this second spray of warm liquid splashing his mouth and chin that confused Cobb. Mortified by the thought that perhaps he had managed to piss clean through his pants, Cobb started to shuffle backwards on the floor. The cashier’s scream that alerted him to the fact that something much more disturbing was going down than the sight of a grown man wetting himself.

 

West threw his shoulder at the door and was surprised to see that even though the hulking man’s body was shoved across the floor by the force of this, it still wasn’t enough to stir Stephanie Beach from her frenzied attack. He stepped over the man’s legs and headed towards the cashier, ignoring Cobb’s unflattering state and clinging to the hope that Charlene would have the sense to deal with the child. The cashier was hidden from view, but the sound of her screaming sobs told West that she hadn’t moved from behind the counter. He thought it would be a small blessing if the owners of this outfit were cheap enough not to have a panic button installed. An absence of closed circuit cameras would be a wish too far and with that in mind, he walked with his head lowered as he rounded the counter.

Pushing through the door, Stanwick quickly made for Charlene, tugging her sleeve and pointing towards the burger bar, “How many?” she whispered.

“God, I don’t know. David and Stephanie both wanted one, and I could eat, but Cobb said he was fine.”

Stanwick’s mouth opened in stunned silence. At crossed purposes, she struggled to unravel her question from Charlene’s answer. She tried again, “How many staff?”

Charlene laughed nervously, then pursed her lips, “I have no idea.” She followed quickly behind Stanwick as she ran towards the restaurant section, Stanwick jumping the counter swiftly and tackling two employees to the ground with as much delicacy as she could manage. She held her hands over their mouths, “Don’t move, don’t scream and do not think for a second that I won’t kill you both if you screw up.”

There was a thin, pale skinned and bespectacled boy pinned under Stanwick’s left knee and a red headed girl of average build and slightly above average looks struggling under the weight of her right leg. Stanwick looked up at Charlene who was hovering awkwardly by an ice cream machine, “Check the back!”

As Charlene stalked off between the deep fryers and broilers, Stanwick’s eyes darted quickly between the two youths, “I bet the sexual tension in this place is unbearable huh?” She grinned devilishly, looking into the girl’s eyes, “How do you keep your hands off him huh?” She could see that they were both scared witless and her attempt at breaking the ice was not receiving the best reception, “Perhaps I shouldn’t start these things with death threats?”

The boy’s eyes widened and started to well with tears, so Stanwick tried again, “Listen, both of you, this is all a huge mistake okay? No one else is going to get hurt. The skin-head kind of looks like he’s a goner but you guys will be just dandy. You really need to pull yourselves together for me though. Do you think you can do that?”

Both heads nodded fearfully.

“Good.” She looked at the girl who seemed to be the calmer of the two, “Now can you tell me, is there anyone else working besides the cashier?”

The girl shook her head as much as Stanwick’s hand would allow.

“Okay, can either of you show me where the security cameras feed to?”

The girl’s brow furrowed, but the boy’s head nodded barely perceptibly.

“Great. I’m going to let the two of you stand, okay? Then you’re going to take me to wherever we need to go, so I can disable the recordings. Understood?”

She lifted her hands from their mouths slowly and the boy stammered, “Yes m … Yes Mam.”

 

West had struggled to calm the cashier. She had watched a seven-year-old girl chew into a man’s neck and she apparently wasn’t prepared to let go of that thought peaceably. West had looked about the space behind the counter and had found nothing that would render the girl unconscious without risking lasting damage. He was hesitant to gag her, but every time he took his hand from her mouth she screamed. He yelled aloud, “Stanwick, is there anyone else here?”

Stanwick didn’t respond, but he heard Charlene’s voice yelling from a distance, “There’s two in the burger bar, then there’s the dead guy and us.”

West grimaced as the girl squirmed beneath his grip, “This one’s a screamer, but if everything else is under control, we could probably get back on the road and just let her scream it out.”

Suddenly Charlene was leaning over the counter above him, “Staci, with an I.”

West was confused by her statement, but Charlene waved a hand over the counter, pointing “There’s a name tag, there on the floor next to you … I presume it’s hers.”

The girl looked threatened, her eyes narrowing as her brow knitted. Charlene thought about the way in which Stanwick had handled the other two in Jim’s Joint and she addressed Staci directly, “Hey, Staci, take some deep, slow breaths. Close your eyes if you have to.”

Staci closed her eyes and started crying more heavily, breathing erratically.

“Deep breaths Staci, concentrate on breathing slowly.”

Staci’s inhale came in three short bursts, each one wheezing and shaky, then when she exhaled, her lips closed and made a raspberry sound as spit sprayed in small bubbles into the air in front of her.

Charlene stifled a laugh, then looking at West she brought her hands to her mouth and pulled them away in a pantomime exaggeration, hoping he would understand that she wanted him to let go of the girl. Charlene wasn’t sure of her own strength, and as West pulled his hands away from Staci’s face, Charlene punched her lightly on the jaw, hoping Staci would collapse in a heap. In response, Staci’s mouth fell wide open and the sound which issued forth from her was almost sufficient to shake the building’s foundations. Charlene tried a second time, punching Staci with enough force that the girl was lifted from her position on the floor, over West’s legs and into the collapsed heap that Charlene had been aiming for with her first punch.

West was dumbfounded, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I could have managed that. I was just scared I’d cause her brain damage or something.”

Charlene gasped, “Can that happen?”

West looked dismayed, “Are you serious? Sure, it can happen from a lot less than a punch from the likes us.”

Charlene stared at Staci who lay still on the floor, breathing slowly, “Do you think she’ll be alright?”

West stretched his arms forward and touched Charlene’s shoulders with his hands, “She’ll be fine, I’m sure.”

 

It had taken Brad Cobb a couple of minutes to find anything of use to his predicament. When he noticed the swim shorts hanging at the end of an aisle filled with motor oil, bulbs and air fresheners, he had wondered why a gas station so far from the ocean would stock such an item. Still, he reasoned, swim shorts were better than urine soaked pants. He looked down at the pants he was wearing, and remembered; at least they weren’t his pants. He was half way through the process of changing into the shorts when he heard Stanwick’s whistle from the end of the aisle.

“Nice legs Brad …”

He felt his face flush with color as he struggled to pull the shorts up, the netting catching on his feet. She was just standing there watching him as he stumbled against the shelving.

“You need some help?”

He turned so that his rear faced her, “No … no I’m fine, thanks.”

Stanwick saw that out on the forecourt, another two cars had just pulled up to the pumps, “Guys, we need to get it together now!”

David stood by the door, holding Stephanie’s head close to his side. He looked at the limp lump of skin-head on the floor.

“I think he’s still breathing.”

Stanwick grinned, “Marvelous. Not even a day out the gate and it looks like Stephanie might have sired her first Blood-Bastard.”

David grimaced as she looked at the pool of blood by Stephanie’s feet, “What do you mean?”

“She got her teeth in good David, it’s possible that some of the leeches made the transfer from her saliva. He might just be on his last legs though. I wouldn’t over think it. Either way, we have to leave him and hope for the best.”

David stroked Stephanie’s hair reassuringly and looked out onto the forecourt.

From behind the counter, West called over to Stanwick, “What about the other two?”

“I told them to stay in the back office for five minutes, then dial 911 and notify the dispatcher that a seven-year-old child mauled a guy who was trying to make off without paying.”

West looked uneasy, “Was that wise?”

Stanwick laughed, “I’m sure you’d rather we just bundle everyone into the cars in some vague hope that we can convince them everything will be just fine and dandy. We have to leave now, we don’t have time to go over the finer nuances of my logic.”

West nodded, slapped two hundred dollars on the counter top and then threw a small wad of notes onto Staci’s lap so that she would have something to smile about when she awoke. As he walked towards the exit, West imagined the gas station exploding in a ball of flames, wiping away all of the DNA, fingerprints and bad decisions in one glorious blast; any thought to block out the voices. He knew the Jim’s Joint employees had made the call already. He just hoped they would be on the road before the police showed up.

[]CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Compound Fracture

 

It felt to Stephanie as if the sirens had been following right behind them for an eternity. The thought of being separated from her parents had been frightening, even though she was already starting to feel comfortable in the presence of Charlene and West. Now, hunkered down in the rear seats of the Boss, she was certain that she was going to die or they were going to be arrested. Her head bumped hard against the passenger door and she was forced to revise her thinking; they were definitely going to die.

As far as she was concerned, her immanent demise was West’s fault. Yes, attacking the man may have been an ill conceived plan on her part, but it had been West who had convinced her father that she would be safer with him, because he had the only car that stood any chance in a high speed pursuit.

She heard the rapid thudding overhead which had faded in and out of earshot a few times. Against David’s wishes, she’d seen enough t.v. shows to know you can’t outrun the helicopter. Every time she’d watched those police camera programs, she’d thought, “Yeah, but what if …” and every time, well, almost every time the result was catastrophic.

“Stephanie, how are you doing back there?”

West’s voice was calm, happy almost.

Stephanie hadn’t realized she was crying until she attempted to reply, and could only manage a ragged, “Are we going to die?”

Charlene reached back and clutched Stephanie’s small clammy hand in hers, “We’re fine sweetheart, don’t worry.”
Stephanie heard the whisper, even over the sirens and the thudding of the helicopter, and the Boss’s engine roar, “We are going to be fine right?”

West patted Charlene’s knee, shouting over the din, “Just focus on your skull and your heart.”

“What?” Charlene asked, desperately trying to sound calm for Stephanie’s sake.

“We should be fine,” West replied, “but in the event of a crash, your skull and your heart are the only things to worry about; as long as they survive, you’ll be fine.”
Charlene squeezed Stephanie’s hand tighter, “Did you get that Stephanie?”

 

West weaved in and out of traffic with gentle nudges of the steering wheel, his reactions considerably more in tune than those of the average dashboard camera quarry. The helicopter was a concern, but he guessed that if the traffic opened up ahead of them, the helicopter wouldn’t be an issue. He knew the roads of America like the backs of his hand, and in West’s case, this was not a hollow metaphor. Still, he thought as he clipped the front bumper of a police Charger with his tail end, it wasn’t obvious how he was going to make it to the parking lot of the public library in Mechanicsburg without leaving an incredibly conspicuous trail.

Mechanicsburg had been an arbitrary choice for a meeting place. It wasn’t far off the interstate and he had been convinced he would be able to lose the police and make it there for three in the afternoon. The pursuit had so far not been particularly easy, taking him off the interstate twice in an attempt to shake the police. He took his eyes off the road ahead for a moment, checking the time on the car’s console; twenty miles in six minutes. Well with no traffic, the Boss could definitely do it, but that was hardly the point. Charlene’s involuntary scream drew his attention back to the road just in time for him to tuck the car in front of an eighteen wheeler, narrowly missing a Cruiser which was dawdling at a pedestrian pace in the fast lane.

West had developed theories over the years about the type of people who drove certain car brands, but eventually, he’d come to the conclusion that most drivers were simply ass holes. This experience was doing little to dissuade him from that opinion. A marked Tahoe came into view in the driver side window and he could see a police officer in the window, hand pointing towards the shoulder of the interstate, his voice issuing from unseen loudspeakers, “Pull over!”

Spotting an opening in the traffic ahead of him, West floored the accelerator and shouted, “Stephanie, I need you to get off the floor, get into a seat, and fasten your seatbelt. It’s just a precaution, but it is necessary.”

If this opening developed into a good clean stretch, he would loose the two Tahoe and the Chargers quickly. If he could keep his driving clean for eighteen miles, he could plausibly build up a lead of several miles on the helicopter by the time he reached the exit ramp.

In less than a minute, he could see the chopper falling away in his side mirrors. This was good, it meant that the police weren’t pursuing in a particularly high caliber helicopter, or that the wind was on his side. Within two-minutes, the helicopter had become a barely visible spec in the mirror. Three minutes, with only a couple of easy passes on the road and the pursuing vehicles were nowhere to be seen.

“Up ahead West … cars either side of the road.” Charlene’s fingers gripped his thigh as she spoke, but West was oblivious to her touch, “There might be spike strips?”

“Stingers.” Stephanie yelled from the back seat, correcting Charlene.

West nodded, “We can handle stingers. The tires are self healing.”

As they approached roadblock, West could see that two of the cars were pulling onto the road to form a blockade. He tried to calculate the variables that were weighing in on their predicament. The Boss was a masterpiece, and he was proud of it. It took something pretty special for West to feel that sense of achievement. Still, there was a blockade, and even given the wonderful advantage conveyed by his hand built engine, the Boss just couldn’t fly. Shame, thought West as he cut the steering wheel to the left. When they hit the grass embankment in the middle of the interstate, they were traveling at a steady pace of two hundred and seventeen miles per hour.

 

The car had flipped four times before West became too disoriented to keep track of what was happening. There was no traffic in the oncoming lane, which was a blessing, but the front end of the Mustang Boss tore through the barrier on the far side of the road with enough force to sheer the chassis immediately before the cockpit, the engine block tearing away with the bulk of the front bodywork. The car continued to somersault, still traveling over one hundred miles per hour without the engine. The passenger side collided with a tree, altering the spin of the car and slowing it considerably.

When it finally touched down again, the rear end of the car hit the forest floor with enough force to cut a twelve foot trench through the mud, bracken and foliage, collapsing the passenger door and a large part of the roof. They came to a rest in the middle of a heavily wooded area, rocking back and forth before the Boss creaked and moaned its final death rattle.

 

Stephanie’s breathing was shallow and wheezing. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew that breathing was a good sign. It hurt to breathe though, not like asthma, although the couple of times she’d had attacks they had been very unpleasant. This felt more like someone was turning a knife in her side every time she inhaled.

She opened her eyes and was dismayed by the fact that she couldn’t see anything. As she let her eyes adjust to the light, dismay turned to horror. She could sense that there was light, vague dark shapes moving against a glowing field, but she couldn’t see anything. She opened her mouth to shout for help; the sound was distant and muffled. She wondered momentarily if this was due to the fact that she was struggling to vocalize because of her restricted breathing, but the realization dawned quickly that all of the sounds she could make out were muffled and distant. With her mouth open, she felt her stomach twist in knots and the bile rise in her throat, but unable to move, she began to choke on her vomit. She didn’t believe in hell, but sometimes she’d tried to imagine it. She longed for that now; that imagined vision of fire and brimstone would surely have been more bearable.

 

“Pull it.”

“It’s going to rip her hand off!”

“What do you not understand about what we are? Pull it!”

Charlene yanked on the twisted car door which was pinning Stephanie’s arm beneath it. The creaking sound of metal formed a grotesque counterpoint to the sound of crunching and tearing which Charlene could still make out over the cacophony of noises and she gagged as she suddenly saw the child’s face with bloody vomit dripping from the side of her mouth.

West kicked the front seat out of the way, bolts shearing from the body of the car effortlessly. He stooped into the wreck and pushed an arm under Stephanie’s head and down her back with a fluid motion, lifting her with the rigid support of his locked joints and tight muscles. With his free hand, he ripped the front passenger seat away from Stephanie’s legs and then cradled them as he pulled her slowly away from the crumpled rear of the car.

Stephanie was destroyed, eyes recognizable as such only because of their positioning, the sides of her skull caved in such a way that he could see her jaw bones jutting through the skin of her cheek.

“She’s …” Charlene started, hurrying around the wreckage to be by Stephanie’s side.

“She is Leechborn Charlene. She is Leechborn and she listened to me and she will live.”

Looking at the child, Charlene couldn’t imagine, even given the things that she had witnessed and the changes she had undergone herself, she couldn’t fathom what force of nature could bring Stephanie from the brink.

 

With great effort, West bit into the flesh of his arm and tried to remember the need, the controlling force that would bring the leeches out of the wound. The ripped flesh healed almost as quickly as he had bitten. He stared at Stephanie’s face and tried to imagine David, the devastation and despair that would pull his world apart if he was to return to him now. The thought solid and fixed in his mind, again he tore at the flesh of his arm and again, the wound healed, the skin pulling inward and knitting together perfectly.

“What’s wrong? What are you trying to do?” Charlene asked, frenetic, desperate to help, but at a complete loss as to what she could do.

West felt the child’s body convulse and saw the veins of her forehead bulge as she coughed up more of the deep red vomit. And it was there; the thought, the desperation, the memory that had been lost to him for more than a century. He watched the flesh of his arm, the bulge, the ripple of movement, then he opened his mouth wide and bit, flesh, leech and blood, spitting the unsavory mess onto the side of Stephanie’s skull. She was Leechborn, yes, he could see that she had survived where others would have died, but survival wasn’t enough now. He needed her to be fighting fit and he needed it to happen now. The sirens were distant, but they were there. He looked about, trying to get some sort of bearing on their position, but the trees were thick enough that he was unable to see the road.

His words were forceful and commanding, “Charlene, pull up as much of the leaves and bracken as you can and cover the car. Do it quickly.” He watched the adult leech at work on Stephanie’s skull, the skin already taut over the bone, the rips and cuts sealing, the bones being broken down quickly and rebuilt. It had been many years since he’d seen a one so beautifully wrecked as she; beautiful because she would be whole again, beautiful because in her ruination, West could bare witness to all that they were, their ability to endure, the absolute resilience of his kind. Almost unaware he was doing it, West tore at the flesh of his other wrist, fluting his lips as he sent the life giver, the Delver of Allim, the Tongue of Antrusca, licking away the blood, swallowing the pain, rebuilding its new host body.

 

 

 

A thousand images, all at once and all of a one. Stephanie let her eyelids fall, her head rocking against West’s chest as he ran. She tried again, allowing the light in, eyelids parting slowly; a thousand thousand images, a million hues with depths of tonal saturation varying so wildly that it was like seeing the world through a kaleidoscope viewed through a prism viewed through a migraine induced hallucination.

“West?”

Unseen by Stephanie, West smiled. Her recovery had taken a matter of minutes, scarcely enough time for the police to have made it off the exit ramp, let alone time for them to figure out where the Boss’s cockpit had finally landed.

“Yes?”

“I can’t see properly.”

West stood still for a moment, Charlene coming to a halt a few steps behind him, thankful for the brief respite.

“Open your eyes.”

Stephanie blinked apprehensively, utterly bewildered by the shifting myriad of colors and shapes.

“Well, Stephanie … I can honestly say that’s something I’ve never seen before.”

Charlene rested a hand on his shoulder and looked down at Stephanie’s face, gasping as she looked into the child’s eyes.

“What? What’s wrong?”

West hugged her a little closer to his chest, “Nothing is wrong, don’t panic. It’s just that, for some reason, the leeches have decided that right now you would benefit from having compound lens irises.”

Stephanie kicked the term around in her mind, trying to find an image to connect it with. She knew she had heard it before.

“Like a fly?”

“Yup.”

She smiled and stuck her tongue out, opening her eyes wider.

“I can’t see though.”

Her smile melted all of the tension in Charlene’s body, so palpable was her relief that Stephanie wasn’t going to fold under the stress of this new experience. She found it hard to look away from such an unworldly sight. There were still the whites of her eyes, not bloodshot, but rather more pearlescent than they should be, then, raised fractionally more from the eye’s orb than a normal iris and bearing no pupil, Stephanie’s lenses flickered a thousand shades of green and blue.

West started to move again, “Keep looking Stephanie. It may take your brain a little while to adjust. If it’s too much for you though, I would imagine that if you close your eyes and concentrate on seeing normally again, the leeches will put you right. It’s just a guess though. I can’t tell you how to take control of the leeches; they think they know what’s best for you and they’re usually right.”

Stephanie kept her eyes wide open, imagining that she was staring up at the place where West’s face would be, “I want to see. I mean, I want to see what it’s like.”

 

As Charlene rummaged through the bag she’d salvaged from the car wreck and passed her another handful of teriyaki jerky, Stephanie closed her left eye and concentrated on trying to interpret the information she received from her right eye. There was too much to see, so many separate fields of vision. She was aware of movement, thousands of facets of light swirling and twitching in an ocean of darkness. There were moments, fractions of moments when she thought she could make out a canopy of leaves, but then the leaves would dissolve into a whirling torrential sky of dazzlingly bright stars. She closed her right eye, then opening her left she looked from side to side. A cluster of bright moving shapes started to resolve and her concentration became so focused that her breathing slowed almost to a standstill. She could see West’s face, but not as she’d ever seen it, not as she’d seen anything in her life.

From her perspective, the curve of his chin and lips presented a lavish landscape of detail, each pore visible as a crevice, each wrinkle a deeply etched ravine. She could see the distance from the tip of every stubbly hair to the concave pit in which it was embedded, yet at the same time, she was able to see her own eyelashes and the tiny flecks of dust which alighted on them. More than that, there was a depth to the air; colors flowing from West’s mouth and nostrils as he breathed, eddies and whirls of blues and reds describing the contoured movements of the air currents. When she again opened her right eye, it took all of her reserves of concentration, but she found gradually that she was able to align the overlapping images presented by the two independent groups of lenses. The resulting image was such a complex and rich vista that she was emotionally shaken. She wondered, with all of the bitter sweet melancholy that her seven years allowed her, why she had never seen the world in all its beauty.

Oblivious to Stephanie’s epiphany, West and Charlene reached the edge of the wooded area and stood together looking out at the quiet, small-town subdivision in front of them. The sirens were still within earshot, but there was no sign of immanent danger, so West took the lead, and they ran.

 

 

Cobb sat alone in the Pontiac. He watched Stanwick leaning her head into the passenger window of the Chevelle. He contemplated making a brake for one of the stores down the road, imagining that he could ask to use a phone, but he kept coming to the same question; who would he call? It wasn’t obvious that he could trust Stanwick, or any of the others, but they had trusted him enough to bring him along, which had to stand for something. He had trusted his colleagues. He had trusted the members of the New York Field Office, but his trust had been misplaced. No, making a call, trying to run; those weren’t real options, not at least until he really understood these people.

He looked at the clock. Three fifteen. Stanwick had asked him to stay in the car because she was going to try and calm David’s fears. She didn’t need to explain, it was understandable that David would be feeling pretty frenetic, waiting for his daughter’s return. On the drive to Mechanicsburg, he’d tried to ask Stanwick about what had happened in the gas station. He’d been a mess, but he had still been with it enough to know what he’d seen. Stephanie was feral, crazed and she’d taken down a grown man with brutal ease. He glanced again at the store, and checked off another sound reason for not making a run for it.

Cobb closed his eyes and let his memories drift and tumble. He had never been naive about the work he performed with the Bureau. The public perception was that there were gray areas, and activities that crossed lines. He’d listened with gritted teeth over the years as the press talked about the stripping of civil liberties and unconstitutional behavior. It had always been his understanding that it was not part of his job to cross lines. It was his job to ensure that the lines were real, perceived, and adhered to by those who stood on the wrong side of those lines. Where were the lines now? Had anyone on his team been on the straight?

He opened his eyes and saw that Stanwick was walking back towards the car. ‘Know yourself and not your enemies, you win some, you lose some,’ he thought, then he looked down at the swim shorts he was still wearing and he wondered what Sun Tzu would have to say about this situation.

 

“What have you got to smile about?”

Stanwick’s voice was cutting, but her eyes told a softer story.

“Have you read Sun Tzu?”

“No, but I did read the first one, which is supposedly a much more upbeat affair.”

Cobb laughed, “The Art Of War …”

Stanwick raised her eyebrows and patted his arm condescendingly.

“I was just wondering how he finished the equation, ‘know not your enemy or yourself’.”

Stanwick smirked, “It translates roughly to the modern vernacular as, ‘you’re screwed.’ I paraphrase of course, but he would have approved of the translation.”

Cobb’s hands fretted over the hem of his borrowed shorts, attempting to provide better coverage for his legs. He’d been on the losing side in the apartment, but he’d survived, then the girl had saved him at the gas station. He wondered, did that mean by default that he knew himself better than he realized? Who was he to question the wisdom of the ancients?

“How is David holding up?”

Stanwick shrugged, “He’s panicky. He needn’t worry. West is late, but he’s not that late.”

She watched Cobb’s eyes as he glanced at the clock and she was pleased to note that he seemed concerned.

“You know Brad, the time could be put to better use.” Her right hand went to his left knee, stroking playfully. Cobb coughed and shuffled awkwardly, nowhere for him to go. Stanwick smiled as she moved her fingers under the loose fitting synthetic material.

“Knock it off!” Cobb’s voice came as a high pitched plea, his cheeks reddening immediately. He tried again, talking in a gruff and commanding voice “I mean, knock it off.” .

Stanwick sighed and pushed her head back against the car seat, pulling her hand away as she reached into the back seat for the food.

“You’re no use to me anyway,” she muttered bitterly, “I’d just break you.”

Cobb had never been broken. He looked out of the passenger side window in a failed attempt at stopping the flow of images that rushed through his mind. He wanted someone to break him.

 

“I can see them all around us, people walking and running, then they disappear.”

“There’s only us here,” West assured her again, “but I have no way of guessing what you’re seeing Stephanie, I’ve never known this happen to any other Leechborn.” Stephanie walked between Charlene and West, holding onto their hands and swinging their arms as she went.

“Do you think it could be ghosts?” Stephanie asked, curious rather than scared. As soon as West had set her down to walk, she had started to see them and thought nothing of it at first, assuming the neighborhood was simply bustling with activity. When a girl had ran out into the street in front of her and then vanished, Stephanie was more taken aback by the fact that neither West or Charlene seemed to notice.

West laughed, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but who knows? You’re sure it’s not just the shape of those swirls of air you were talking about?”

“No!” she replied defiantly, “They’re different. It’s definitely people. I can see them walking around, then they disappear.”
Charlene squeezed her hand, “Are you scared of ghosts?”

“I don’t know. Are they scary?”

Charlene looked towards the end of the street they were crossing, the sound of a car engine drawing her attention to a police patrol heading away from them, “I don’t believe in them either Stephanie, but you’re a good girl; I would think even if that is what you’re seeing, you’ve got nothing to be scared of.”

Stephanie waved Charlene’s arm harder in acknowledgment of her words of comfort.

West led them towards a long curving country road which wound out of the neighborhood they were passing through. He quickly found a break in the hedges and pushed through so that the three of them could walk in the fields while still allowing them to follow the course of the road into Mechanicsburg. Stephanie pulled hard on West and Charlene’s hands, swinging herself forward, then suddenly she yelled, “Stop!” and as she did, she dropped her weight and planted her feet firmly in the soil.

“What? What is it?” West asked, worrying that perhaps Stephanie had noticed something that he’d missed.

Stephanie squinted, trying to sift through all of the information that her eyes conveyed to her brain. She could see the pollen, spinning and drifting on the warm breeze, the shifting beams of light which formed many colored curtains in the air and … yes, there in front of them, she imagined that she could see three figures walking off ahead of them. It wasn’t imagined though, she knew it wasn’t. She watched the middle of the three figures swinging between the other two, watched the vortexes and rivulets of air affected by the small figure’s movements. Moments ago, she had decided to start walking, then she had made a conscious decision to change her mind. The moment she had stopped, the three figures had walked off ahead, the little girl marching her ridiculous strident steps. Her ghost. Or perhaps she was that Stephanie’s ghost. She felt oddly melancholic as she watched the shimmering apparition skipping and hopping towards a different future.

“I’m scared West.”

West bent over slightly and held her shoulders, “What are you scared of?”

“It’s us … everywhere.That’s what I’m seeing. It’s just us.”

West frowned, not sure that he understood what she meant by this, but still more concerned that he understood only too well.

“What do you mean?”

Everywhere she looked, she saw West and Charlene, fighting, running, walking hand in hand, sobbing, hugging. Sometimes, she could see herself with them and yet if she tilted her head at a different angle, she could see only West and Charlene. Gasping, she covered her eyes, “I think I might have died.”

West hugged her gently, “You’re fine Stephanie, I can assure you, you’re alive and well.”

She opened her eyes and saw the lone, ghostly images of West and Charlene walking away in the milky translucent fog of images, “No, the other me … I can see you and Charlene walking along without me.”

West patted the back of her head softly, “Stephanie, that’s just the nature of reality. At any given moment, any one of us could be taken. Life is precious. The fact that you exist at all is the result of an overwhelming run of luck. Besides, perhaps the other you just didn’t get in the car with us in the first place.”

Stephanie pressed her face against West’s neck and tried to block out the thought of a world without her in it. It was a struggle for her young mind because now she had witnessed such a world, she knew it was all around her.

 

Allan Tiernan waved the television into silence. He’d seen as much as he could bring himself to watch. Once the car had left the interstate, he knew there was little likelihood that the Pennsylvania Police Department would locate West. It had to be West who was involved in the pursuit. The others in the car were of little significance to him; if they lived or died, it would have no bearing on coming events. He had watched some of the news coverage of the scene at the gas station and there had been a lot of talk about the fact that the man who had been found in apparently critical condition, now appeared to be in full health, but the reports were inconclusive, anchormen clutching at straws. The couple of networks which were still running with the story were playing the same footage over and over again, and most of the networks had gone back to discussing the nation’s most important story, the burning topic; Tiernan’s return to office.

“Ahken.”

His mother’s voice.

“Ahken, look at me.”

Petra had stepped into the room silently and had stood long enough to watch most of the news reports.

“Car bombs and suicide bombs confirmed at seven American embassies. Reports of mass looting throughout America, Russia, France … need I go on?” she waited for her son’s response, but none came, “Military maneuvers in eighty three of the none EUC countries suggest they are preparing for open war. I spoke to President Loubé a short while ago, and he said that the situation in Paris, Tours, Orleans and Le Mans warrants military intervention.”

Tiernan stared off into space vacantly, feigning boredom, “Spare me Petra. You know that these are acceptable losses; with this degree of change wrought, the collateral damage will be heavy, but not unbearable.”

Petra smiled sweetly, “You want to be remembered for this? You think future generations will look back on the calamitous beginnings of their world, freed of the shackles of economic imbalance, stripped of their right to religious freedom …”

“That’s the point though,” Tiernan talked over his mother, “I have no wish to be remembered, because that implies that I will, at some point in the future, fall from the forefront of public consciousness. Who would dethrone me? I am reborn, chosen, plucked from the jaws of death by the very hand of God! Who would dare to question such a ruler? If they’re so desperate to cling to their obsolete economic heritage, their outmoded belief systems, then they will perish on the battlefield.”

Petra clapped her hands together, “Brilliant Ahken, you seem to have thought of everything.”

“You think I haven’t?”

“I think you’re underestimating your enemies. I’m not sure you even believe you have any.”

Tiernan leaned his chair back onto two legs, folding his hands behind his head, a picture of smug, self-satisfaction, “And you mother, would you consider yourself an enemy?”

“I’ve tried not to hate you. It’s the best I can manage.”

Through his laughter, Tiernan looked genuinely surprised, “You mean you’d like to stand in outright enmity, but you’re scared that this might all play out in my favor.”

Petra walked towards the door, and with her fingers on the handle, she paused. She didn’t turn to look at her son, because the very sight of him was fueling her frustration, “Was there more?”

Her question hung in the air. She imagined that Tiernan was waiting for her attention, which she would not give.

Finally Tiernan caved, “More what?”

“More to the dream. More than what the rest of us saw?”

Tiernan’s chair rocked forwards, and he kicked his feet out to steady himself, “This again? You’re still buying into West’s line of bullshit?”

“Why shouldn’t I? After all of this time, you’re still buying your own line of bullshit. At the end of it all, you believe in yourself.”

Lost deeply in though, Tiernan barely noticed the door slamming in Petra’s wake. Eventually, he became aware of the crushing silence, that single poisonous thought skittering through in the corners, just out of sight. West’s bullshit.

 

It didn’t take Charlene long to spot a convenience store. It had been West’s idea to pick up some sunglasses for Stephanie, who had suggested that she would be compliant as long as they had bright red frames. Charlene had been surprised at the store’s inventory, which included such rare delights as rubber chickens, coloring books, mechanical toys and a tall spinning rack of sunglasses which stood alongside the shelves of magazines. Although Stephanie had no real clue what color the rims were due to the ever shifting spectrum of colors her eyes now sensed, which she hadn’t yet mastered, the pattern of hearts which ran down the legs of the glasses didn’t offend her sensibilities too much and there were black rubberized sun guards at the sides of the lenses, which she approved of entirely. Importantly, the lenses were almost completely black.

“We should only be a few blocks from them now.” West gave Stephanie’s hand a little squeeze and watched the corners of her mouth lift as her smile broadened. He marveled at how resilient she was. Stephanie had quickly eaten through the bag of provisions which Charlene had been carrying and West was certain that if she wasn’t already desperately hungry, she soon would be.

“I haven’t seen any police cars around.” Charlene commented cheerily.

West glanced up and down the street,“I doubt we’ll see much trouble from the police, at least for now.”

 

David squinted at the reflection in the side mirror, his attention piqued by the sight of two adults and a small child crossing the street, heading in the direction of the library. He knew at once, the particular double step spring in each footfall, the swing of the arms; everything about the child’s gait told him it was Stephanie. He fumbled for the door handle, not wanting to take his eyes of the reflection.

Stephanie ran and hugged her father tightly as he stepped out of the car. He picked her up and spun with her, “Had me worried for a minute there Spiff. Glad they brought you back in one piece.” He set her down on the ground, and was about to remove the bright red sunglasses so he could look into Stephanie’s eyes, when he caught sight of West who was waving his arms in dissent.

“What’s wrong?”

West pointed to the Chevelle, “Charlene and I need to ride with you, we had to ditch the car.”

Frustrated with West’s avoidance, David tried again, “What’s wrong with Stephanie?”

Stephanie sighed, “Daddy I’m fine. The sun was giving me a headache.”

David glanced up at the overcast sky and although he was dubious, he was too relieved that Stephanie was back at his side to start questioning her deceit.

West walked over to Stanwick’s Pontiac as she wound down the window, “Hey, I’ll be riding with David the rest of the way.”

“What happened?”

“Wrecked the car, nearly killed the kid, I’ll explain later. Just head off in a couple of minutes and we’ll follow.”

He didn’t wait for Stanwick’s reply, he walked over to the Chevelle and leaned into the open driver’s side door. He turned to David, “You should get up back with Stephanie, I’ll drive.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me up front … you know … get to know each other a bit better; I make a great wingman.”

West raised his eyebrows, “No, I’m sure I know you plenty good. Move it.”

 

[]CHAPTER FIFTEEN

The Kings Mosaic

 

General Julius Singer closed the video conference and offered a silent prayer to The Father of Greatness. He had always thought of Tiernan as one who was born of darkness; although his upbringing taught that the human body and the Earth were both battlegrounds for the contentious forces of darkness and light and he imagined that there could be no greater human embodiment of the Demon of Greed than that which presented itself in the form of President Tiernan. Julius had for many years now tried to steel himself with the conviction that he was one who was in possession of the true knowledge of the source of light trapped within the human body and as such, he had allowed himself to rise to a position of power within Tiernan’s regime.

Singer wasn’t delusional. Centuries ago, he had watched his parents murdered for their heretical beliefs and he had escaped a similar fate only because he had ran like a coward and denied his devout religious upbringing at every turn. He had reasoned, what good is a light once it is extinguished? He asked himself that question so many times, allowing a little more darkness in with each asking. The light was there though, deep within him, surrounded by darkness, yes, but still burning.

“Allow the darkness to live in you so that you may evermore foster the light in others.”

Hadn’t those been the words spoken to him by Tiernan all those years ago? Manipulative from the outset.

Now Tiernan was asking him to lead thirty-thousand troops into a campaign that was the product of several years of planning. During the tactical discussions, it had never been certain which of the Eastern European states would provide the most resistance to the Economic Unification Council, but it seemed likely at least that most resistance would come from that part of the world. As it turned out, it was going to be necessary to push fifteen thousand troops through Turkey, towards Bulgaria, Serbia and Bucharest, while another fifteen thousand would push up through Iran and into Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. From there, if it was necessary, they would lend support to President Anatoly Abakumov’s forces, although it was predicted that once the world saw how serious the EUC was, resistance would quickly falter.

 

Five years earlier, when the medical supplies had started to arrive with instructions for a new wave of inoculations, Julius had made it his duty to administer every last shot, and each time, as the needle sent forth the Delvers of Allim, he would utter those words as a prayer. “Allow the darkness to live in you so that you may evermore foster the light in others.” Sometimes the words echoed internally, his tongue moving against the roof of his mouth, occasionally he would mutter them under his breath as he reached for a new phial. Thirty-thousand troops stationed in the Persian Gulf and Julius had blessed each of them in turn over the course of several days.

Only a handful of troops had complained or questioned, even though many harbored doubts about this new wonder drug which would provide protection against influenza, measles, rubella, tetanus, yellow fever, hepatitis and typhoid to name but a few of the purported benefits. A small pamphlet was given to each soldier, explaining that it would be necessary to take antihistamines once a day, even if they had previously experienced poor reactions to such medication. The pamphlets also outlined some of the possible side effects; increased appetite and insomnia, but word soon traveled throughout the base that those side effects could scarcely be measured against the benefits.

 

Every attempt had been made by Julius to mitigate against the risk of the soldiers realizing the full extent of the protection offered by the leeches. It had never been stated by Tiernan specifically, but it had been Julius’s understanding that this was the way it was to be. Still, given the nature of the training that these men and women endured, it was inevitable that sooner or later, one of them would sustain what would otherwise have been a life threatening injury. It was equally inevitable that the particular someone would be private first class Sally Berger.

Singer had been surprised that Sally Berger had lasted out her first year of service. She had spent three weeks out of her fourteen months in the infirmary and those had been three hard earned weeks. When Julius had read the report of the latest incident, he had understood that the situation was starting to stray beyond the bounds of his control.

Sally Berger had somehow managed to allow her legs to come between the drop gate of a flat bed truck and the concrete wall of a loading bay. There had been eight witnesses to the event and all of them were certain that it would spell the end of private first class Berger’s career; the compression wound was clearly catastrophic and Sally had passed out cold. By the time the closest medic had reached the loading bay, Sally was up on her feet again. Granted, she was waddling drunkenly and she looked like she’d been on hunger strike for weeks, but she was up, and that was enough to give the most hardened of witnesses the chills.

 

“My report is accurate and succinct General Singer and there’s seven soldiers who will back me up on every word of it.”
Julius had folded his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair, “Lieutenant Cruft, I am not questioning the veracity of your report. Far from it … What I’m suggesting is that for the sake of the morale and sanity of these men and women, you need to find a rational explanation for what you saw.”

“General Singer, this isn’t the only incident that requires such liberal rationalizations. There’s been a lot happening out there that you may or may not be aware of. The term ‘close call’ is becoming somewhat of a joke around here to tell you the truth.”

Julius waited, expecting Lieutenant Cruft to elaborate. When it had become obvious that Cruft wanted Julius to fulfill his part of the social contract by responding, Julius had winced at the thought of coaxing the conversation any further forward.

“Lieutenant Cruft, you’re an intelligent man … surely you’ve formulated some conclusions about what’s going on?”

“General Singer, that’s rather the point isn’t it? Without direction or real information to go on, some very fanciful conclusions are being drawn in the collective consciousness. I’ve seen a tendency … and it’s growing rapidly among the troops mind you … this tendency towards carelessness and hedonism. I’ve got to be honest with you Julius, I worry about it more every day. It’s as if they think they’re indestructible. Someone’s going to end up dead.”

 

When he’d spoken to President Tiernan about the situation, the response had been typically callous, “Julius, they are an army of Blood-Bastards. The best we could have hoped for is that they would not fully understand the extent of their power until war was upon us. That time is coming. Enlighten your army, illuminate them, bring them into the fold. I fear that some of the men and women under your command will be beyond enlightenment and in those cases, you need look no further than your own family history for the preferred method of containment; if any of them dare utter a word to their families, extinguish the flame.”

 

That had been three years ago. Of course, there had been a few stories here and there, syndicated news feeds, blog posts and the like, questioning the unsurpassed safety record. Eventually, it had been necessary for Julius to fabricate some reports of deaths, accidents and dismissals. He was proud of the fact that complete containment of the truth had only taken the deaths of three families, forty six civilians all told. He didn’t lose sleep over it. He rarely slept anyway. Julius scanned over the mapping software and carefully drew three lines on the screen with his index finger … Let the darkness in.

 

Stanwick’s estate in the mountains of central West Virginia sat at the edge of twenty acres of beautifully landscaped lawns and gardens. It wasn’t something she would talk about, but she had built the house without the assistance of contractors or construction workers, lovingly pouring the concrete, transporting and setting every stone, lifting and placing each of the enormous oak beams and fitting every pipe and electrical socket on her own. The result was a thirteen thousand square foot ranch with spacious rooms and breathtaking views, and it was an accomplishment she was quietly pleased with. During a bleak and lonely year, it had taken her mind off West and that had been the goal; the home was a bonus.

She’d never entertained guests there, even though she had built four spacious bedrooms and a guest house. As she had watched the weary travelers cross the threshold of her domain, she supposed she had always known it would come to this; not that it was foretold, but she knew there had been a reason she’d built big.

 

Walking slowly into the vast lounge, Stephanie removed her sunglasses and allowed her eyes to adjust to the fantastic and sometimes disturbing flow of colors and shapes. She stepped aside for Cobb, who staggered backwards, visibly shocked at the sight of her eyes, but Stephanie was too entranced by the ghostly images of Cobb’s other reactions to even care. She focused on a version of him that knelt in front of her and tried to brush her hair away from her eyes, clearly captivated. She wished it wasn’t so difficult to filter out these visions, but it was overwhelmingly beautiful, being able to see every facet of a person’s presence, the multitude of ways a person like Cobb could react to something so simple. She had waited an hour into the ride from Mechanicsburg before she’d allowed her father to see her eyes. David had smiled thinly, and told her that he was just so happy that she was alive, while all about him, his ghosts belied his feelings.

 

With Charlene’s assistance, Stanwick carried a couple of bottles of liquor and a few packs of sodas over to a large seating area which faced the two huge glass panels which served as the corner of the house, and as a glorious viewing wall. The distant lights of a small town in the valley met with the canopy of stars at a point on the horizon, so that it was hard to tell where the earth ended and the skies began. The six travelers each poured drinks and found seats in the comfort of this spacious living room.

Stanwick took a slug of coffee liquor and began by addressing Brad Cobb.

“I’m sure the rest of us are holding up okay, but what about you Brad?”

He sipped at a small glass of coconut rum and wondered when was the last time he’d had a sweet liquor. His eyes roamed from the grand staircase which dominated the rear end of the building’s entrance. He looked out at the stars and tried to find a constellation he recognized but soon gave up, admitting to himself that he’d never been all that into astronomy.

“Brad?” Stanwick tried again.

He didn’t want to answer her. He’d listened to her for hours, recounting the history of a nation called Allim; their wars, their kings, their religion and science. It was an epic and emotionally charged tale that Stanwick had spun and he understood that in telling, she was allowing him into some kind of great mystery, but now she was coming to it; the big question. What she hadn’t done was try to press upon him a sense of where she or West really stood in the grand scheme, who’s side they were on, what they really stood for. He’d been with the bureau for long enough to know that such questions were often irrelevant, but right now, he needed some sort of tether to reality and Stanwick hadn’t provided that.

“Brad!”

He looked at her across the room, stared into her eyes, wondering the whole while if she would kill him if he didn’t respond.

“What? What do you want to know?

Stanwick looked offended, “Do you need to sleep, or have you had enough time to figure yourself out?”

Cobb laughed nervously, “I’m sorry, it’s just a lot to take in.”

Stephanie watched Cobb with growing interest. Of everyone in the room, he was the greatest source of entertainment for her. Although she knew he was sitting on the couch beside West, she could see different colors flash across the surface of his body, areas of red around his armpits and crotch, flashes of red across his face and knuckles and dancing through these areas of red there would be sudden pulses of blues and grays. When these storms of color were at their strongest, a ghostly image of Cobb would get up from the couch and walk towards the door, or else it would fall prostrate at Stanwick’s feet or walk to the side table to pour another drink. Indecisiveness was beauty to her now, each moral quandary and weakness of character opening up a myriad of vaguely human shaped portals to alternate futures.

Cobb sipped the rum and coughed, the sugar and alcohol producing catarrh in his throat.

“When I was a kid,” he looked at Stephanie, “Probably ‘bout your age, my uncle, Norman … he was a violinist and a carpenter, beautiful man, gentle and kind to a fault; He used to take me out to his shop and show me how to work wood. Mostly it was slow and careful work with chisels, rasps and sandpaper. We made some real simple things together, toy cars and the like.”

He took another sip of coconut rum and continued, staring at the glass, “When he developed cancer, my parents tried to explain to me that Norman was going to go away, that he didn’t want to, but he would have to. They told me that when he went, he would still be able to see me and he’d look out for me, but I wouldn’t see him ever again and I spent a lot of time thinking about that, forever … you know? Watching people you’d loved and cared for, forever, not being able to do anything for them but watch. I grew used to the smell of his place when he got worse; he had a catheter and the place always kind of stunk of urine, but I found it comforting because it meant he was still ticking, you know?”

“When he couldn’t walk anymore, he lay in bed and read all of my comics and he’d greet me every time I walked in, ‘Hello Asterix’ and I’d say, ‘Hello Obelix’ and I’d be proud that he’d shared something I loved.”

“Last time I saw him, he was on a hospital bed and he still smiled at me. He was dying … only a few hours away from dying and God knows the pain he was going through, but he smiled for me … Jesus.” Cobb sniffed and wiped his face with his sleeve, “He smiled ‘cos he knew that I needed to see him smiling. He could barely move his lips, they were all dry and cracked, but still something, you know … colors like mother of pearl, all blues, pinks, yellows. I told him that I loved him and when I was walking out of the room, he said, ‘goodbye Asetrix’ and I said ‘goodbye Obelix’.” Cobb looked up from the glass and looked at everyone in the room with his reddened and tear filled eyes, “I don’t even know why I’m telling you this.” He blinked, wiping his eyes again as he tried to fight back the tears.

“When he died, I couldn’t believe that he was gone. I talked to him every day, just lying there on my bed, talking like he was in the room with me because that’s what I’d been told. I was full of that idea, full to the brim with it; that he could see me, that he watched out for me and heard me, heard my prayers.”

He drank the last of his glass and as he did so, Stephanie bit her lip in anticipation, entranced by the change in him; the colors settled, the ghosting images all coalesced and solidified into one true and calm man, treasuring his earliest memory of pain.

“That’s what I don’t understand right now …”

Stanwick looked confused, “What?”

“How could you let him die? How could you let anyone die?”

West got up from the couch and walked over to the large windows. He leaned against the glass and looked at the thousands of street lamps and stars, clusters of lights surrounded by pools of darkness, “Stanwick, you did tell Brad our history?”

Stanwick sighed, “West, I did the best anyone could do while dividing their attentions between driving and eating an obscene amount of jerky and potato chips. I think the grandeur of history is somewhat butchered when the orator is attempting to suck chunks of beef out of their gums.” She looked at Brad and seeing his reddened and tear stained face, thought better of voicing her doubts about whether or not he had even believed any of what she’d told him.

Still gazing out at the lights of the town, West stretched his arm up over his head, drumming the side of his almost empty glass with his fingers, “Brad, what you’re suggesting is that we have some sort of moral obligation to lift humankind out of the despair and anguish that is associated with mortality. Certainly, we need numbers and we need them quickly. Hell, if there was an ethically sound way of bringing the entire population of West Virginia into our ranks overnight, I’d do it. This isn’t about elitism or protecting some grand secret society.”

Stanwick lifted her index finger from the side of her own glass, pointing at Cobb, “We can do something about you for a start, if you want it.”

Cobb was taken aback by what appeared to be a casual proposal, “It’s that simple?”

“It’s that simple Brad. You and I can go downstairs, and it will all be over in minutes.”

“Will it hurt?”

“It’s really gross.” Stephanie volunteered, “I puked, but it didn’t hurt.”

Stanwick got up from her seat and addressed the others, “Make yourselves at home. My room is the double doors at the top of the stairs, but everything else is up for grabs.”

Taking his hand in hers, she led Cobb to the grand staircase.

 

 

 

David had thrown what few belongings they had with them in the corner of the room and slumped onto the bed, motioning for Stephanie to join him.

“I’m not tired.”

David sighed, “Spiff, I understand that, but we all need to take some time away from each other.”

Stephanie sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the interweaving patterns of the fibers which made up the cotton comforter. It didn’t help that she could see a version of herself standing by the window, another skipping out of the room, not to mention all of the variant forms of her father’s image. Staring at the comforter grounded her in something static and that was, well … comforting.

“Do your eyes bother you?”

She didn’t chance looking up at her David, “No. A little maybe, but only a very little.”

David wondered if he could somehow force himself to see what Stephanie saw, but he wasn’t sure how to take control of such fine changes. So far, he had played a passive role in his relationship with the leeches, mostly because he was scared of getting things wrong. He had a sudden vision of trying to master their skills, only to find the skin of his eyelids knit shut completely. Such thoughts panicked him sufficiently that he couldn’t bring herself to try anything. Distracted, she listened he wandered into the bathroom and splashed water on his face, whistling to himself tunelessly as he went about his nightly grooming rituals.

Stephanie lay face down, mushing her face into the cotton. But the darkness wouldn’t come, because she was everywhere.

 

Cobb stood by the emperor sized bed which was dwarfed by the large open spaces of the master bedroom. He didn’t feel any different … a little ill perhaps. From everything Stanwick had told him, he had a vague understanding of what was happening inside his body, and he had expected it to feel … He thought of all the superhero movies he’d watched growing up, until he eventually found the word that he was looking for; special. As he had watched the leeches burrow into the flesh of his arms and chest, he had expected a blinding epiphany, a surge of power, a rebirth, but instead, he’d felt kind of queasy.

Stanwick tapped his shin with her outstretched foot, smiling seductively, “It’s better than this Brad, don’t worry about it.”

He frowned, puzzled as to how she had put her finger on exactly what he was feeling. He asked the question apprehensively, almost embarrassed at the words which came out, “Can you read my thoughts?”

Stanwick’s hand went to his hip, pulling him closer to her, “No,” she lied, “but I’ve been here a thousand times before. You aren’t bouncing off the walls with excitement, so it figures that it’s the other.”

“Other what?” Cobb asked.

“The other reaction. It’s always the same, either elation and discovery or mild frustration and impatience; a sense of anticlimax.”

Cobb returned her smile, “I suppose it’s comforting to know that I’m not different.”

Stanwick’s other hand brushed his shoulder, then stroked the curve of his neck, running down his spine, “I suppose I can see how that would be comforting … I am sure we could figure out a way to make you even more comfortable.”

Her raised eyebrows. The softness of her voice and the closeness of her body each conspired to melt his tension to the extent that he almost fell over his own feet as he moved stepped backwards. Stanwick’s lips parted as she smiled, her hand supporting his back easily and pulling him towards her again.

“Brad, I could give you something to help with your nerves if you want, but I’m not sure you’ll want to forget tonight.”

He became very aware of his hands, dead weight dangling uselessly at his sides. It had been a while since he’d shared in any kind of physical intimacy with a woman. There was his dentist of course, but that was a very one sided relationship. He snapped to, trying to block out the visual of the dentist’s office when he realized that his idle hands had set about doing the devil’s work of their own accord, the index finger of each hand stroking tremulously over the curve of Stanwick’s hips. She leaned in closer and touched her lips to his, gently, her right hand pressing on the small of his back while her left hand stroked the back of his neck, her fingers pushing up into his hair. From out of nowhere, Cobb heard faint applause and cheering, followed by the refrain of a gently strumming guitar, and finally, the unmistakable voice of Elvis, singing soulfully that he wished he was in the land of cotton.

“God damn.” Stanwick pulled away suddenly, allowing Cobb to collapse onto the bed behind him.

It had taken her moment to remember the significance of the particular alert she’d set on her phone, because it had been one of the first thing’s she’d done after purchasing the phone, which had been more than a year ago. The king.

 

West and Charlene were still sitting in the lounge when Stanwick came pell-mell, running back downstairs. She paused on the bottom step and pushed the alert from her phone to the home network. Over the fireplace at the far end of the lounge, a huge mirror suddenly erupted into life, with several news stations.

“Forty seven.” She yelled, her hand shaking as she brushed her hair away from her face.

 

Kassidi Stein was flustered, and unusually for her, it showed. She fanned her face and giggled, pursing her lips and shaking her head “I am so, so sorry.”

She looked off camera in the hopes that one of the producers would be able to offer assistance, “Is this for real? You guys are pranking me right?”

Her co-anchor, looked into the camera and shrugged, “Well folks, Kassidi appears to be experiencing some, uh … technical difficulties right now.” He looked at Kassidi and grinned, “You want me to get this?”

Kassidi ducked behind the news desk laughing uncontrollably, then she peaked her head back into view of the camera, “This is really happening? Shut up.”

Prompted by one of the producers, she looked over to the other side of the set and saw an unmistakable silhouette. She gripped the edge of the desk and tried to regain her composure, then breathing in deeply, with quavering voice, she read the auto-cue, “It’s our…” She corrected herself, glaring comically at her co-anchor, “It’s my real, real pleasure to welcome our special, surprise guest,” deep breath, “Action hero, super hero,” she covered her eyes with her hands, index fingers wiping under her eyes, spiraling into full-fledged dorkgasm, and failing completely to annunciate their guest’s name.

Co-anchor Gill Hibbert threw up his hands in despair and finished for her, glancing off camera, “Sam, I’ve got to apologize, but there’s no studio audience, so this is going to be a smidge anti-climactic.” He looked back to the camera, “Surprise guest, Sam Cushing.”

Off camera, the floor-crew applauded and wolf-whistled as the British superstar walked onto the set, waving and smiling in the direction of the cameras. By the time he made it to his seat, Kassidi Stein had finally mustered the courage to walk around the front of the desk so she could shake his hand, a gesture which she managed to bate and switch into an over-enthusiastic hug. Sam was more than Kassidi had bargained for. He picked her up off her feet and wrangled her onto his knee as he sat in the seat they had provided for him. She kicked her ankles, then grinning at the camera, she jumped up, running back to the safety of her own seat.

“Sam. Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam.”

“Kassidi.” He nodded, smiling warmly, licking his lips as he reached across the desk to shake hands with Gill Hibbert.

Kassidi Stein looked at her tablet, reading the prompts which had been flashing up for her, but she was still too flustered to read them, so she continued off script.

“How on earth? How did they get you here?”

His shoulders bobbed up and down as if he was still stifling laughter. He wasn’t, but his eyes and mouth told that same lie. Settling back into his chair, his posture opened up, “I came of my own accord.”

“For my birthday?” Kassidi’s eyes wide with child like glee.

Sam Cushing pouted apologetically, “It’s your birthday?”

She couldn’t even. She took a sip of water and tried her best not to drool into her own lap.

“Happy birthday Kassidi. I’d have brought a present if I’d known.

Gill Hibbert laughed, “You make up for the rest of us not buying her anything Sam.”

“They didn’t get you anything?”

Kassidi slammed her glass of water down on the desk a little too hard, “They did too. Just ignore him.”

Sam nodded, folding his hands on his lap, “I’ve heard it’s the best policy.”

With the sound of her producer screaming in her ear, Kassidi’s attention was drawn momentarily to the auto-cue, “So Sam, to what do we owe the pleasure?”

Sam Cushing held a quizzical hand up, “Well, no surprise, I’m here to promote a new film I’m working on.”

Kassidi gave a little fist pump, cheering silently.

“It’s based on a book called ‘The Kings Mosaic.’”

Kassidi repeated the title, “The Kings Mosaic … Should I be embarrassed? I don’t think I’ve heard of that one.”

Sam waved off her concern, “No, no. It’s really not a book most people have heard of, but it’s a book that’s really close to me.”

Gill Hibbert shuffled in his seat, “You mind telling us a little bit about it Sam?

“Not at all. It’s a book about a pretty vast conspiracy to cover up the identities of a certain group of individuals who have been lurking in the shadows throughout human history.”

Kassidi looked enthusiastic, “Templars, Illuminati, that kind of thing?”

Sam laughed, “Not entirely. I mean, this is more like,” he paused, looking for a better example, “Let’s say that President Tiernan was actually way older than he looks.”

“How old are we talking?” Kassidi asked, attempting to buy into the conceit.

“Much, much older. Like, let’s say President Tiernan is thousands of years old.”

Kassidi shrugged, “Okay…”

Sam continued, “And let’s say that all of the leaders involved in the Economic Unification Council are just as old, sort of all playing in the background of human affairs for centuries.”

Kassidi laughed, “How have I not read this book?”

Gill Hibbert’s nose wrinkled, “I’ve got to be honest, this does not sound like my cup of tea Sam. Can I ask, why this book in particular?”

Sam raised his hand, “Mea culpa.”

“You wrote it?” Hibbert leaned back in his seat, shocked.

Kassidi could barely contain her excitement, “Oh my gosh. How did you slip this one past everyone?”

“Well, to start with, I wrote the book twenty years ago.”

Gill snorted, “You can’t have been more than ten years old then?”

“Unless…” Sam waived a finger in the air.

Kassidi quickly shuffled all of the pieces in her brain, mentally scribbled out the obvious answer, then blurted out, “You’re one of them!”

Sam fired rock-star fingers at his new best friend.

 

 

Stanwick had the phone in her hand, finger poised over the redial. Calling in to the station was proving to be ridiculously frustrating.

“You’ve got to admit, it was a stroke of genius.” She pointed at the screen, “Asshole has certainly played Tiernan at his own game.”

Charlene was almost afraid to ask, “It is Beach isn’t it?”

West nodded, “Pretty sure.”

“Should we not get David down here?”

West’s eyes lowered, “Stan, can you record the last fifteen minutes? Charlene’s right; David and Stephanie deserve to see this.”

Stanwick barked a command at the TV, then stabbed at her phone’s screen again, “Why the hell is it so hard to get through?”

“Are you kidding?” West asked, “You saw how she nerded out over him. I would imagine half of the women in America are trying to get through to the station right now.” He thought about the many films he’d watched with Cushing in starring roles, “Possibly even more men.”

Stanwick looked up from the phone, her face contorted in confusion, “Really?”

West threw up his hands defensively, “I’m a fan, what can I say?”

“You watch that shit?” She hit redial again.

“You don’t?”

“How do you find the time?”

“We literally have all the time in the world. Until this week, I’ve made a habit of watching at least two movies per day,” Stanwick held up a finger, eyes wide with anticipation. She waved her hand in the air, giddily.

“FVTRX, this is Paul, you’re wanting to talk to Sam Cushing?”

 

Stanwick was dubious about Paul’s abilities to take a message, and even more doubtful that she’d be put through while Sam Cushing was still on air. Now that David had joined them, she walked away from the others so they could turn the volume back up on the TV. She could still hear him, answering a lot of fluff questions from fans, and occasional convoluted and confused queries from conspiracy theorists. Once she was put into the hold queue, she realized she could hear the audio from the broadcast over the phone, and because the TV broadcast appeared to be on a ten second delay, this quickly became confusing, so she left the huge entrance area altogether and walked into a private study.

She sat down into a recliner and pushed her back into it so that the mechanism triggered. She eyed the bookcase which ran the length of the room, and noticed a shelf which held thirty copies of Dr. Beach’s book. She pulled her legs back in and grabbed a copy off the shelf, then launched herself back into the comfort of the recliner, thumbing through the pages.

There was a click on the phone line, “Miss Thrass, you’re the next caller.”

 

David stood a couple of feet from the huge TV screen, rocking back and forth on the spot. The man on the screen certainly wasn’t the father he remembered. More worryingly, he had watched Sam Cushing’s films. All of them. Several of them with overly gratuitous sex scenes. It was all too much for him to contemplate.

“I’ve got to call Hannah.”

Cobb swallowed hard, trying to quickly force down a fistful of jerky, “You can’t. Her phone’s bugged.” He swallowed again, “Your sister’s a real classy lady by the way.”

David grunted, “I don’t see what difference it’s going to make calling her.”

He spun around excited, pointing back at the screen. West nodded, gently mocking David’s childlike enthusiasm, pointing at the screen, smiling open mouthed.

 

“Hello caller.”

“Hi Kassidi, long time viewer, first time caller.”

“Stanwick, am I saying that right?”

Stanwick chuckled politely, “No ma’am, silent W”

“I’m so sorry. Hi Stanwick. You’re on the air, and you’ve got a question for Sam?”

“Hi Sam.” Stanwick sparkled, “Such a fan of your work.”

Sam smiled at the camera, “That’s so kind.”

“So I’ve got a copy of your book here, and in chapter fourteen, A Family to Fear, you talk about Allan Tiernan, Lucas Miller and Petra Miller. Specifically, you make a lot of very compelling connections between those three and a large number of families going back over six hundred years.”

Sam Cushing leaned forward, smiling straight into the camera, the fingers of his hands meshing together gleefully,

“You talk about the lengths that you went to to follow paper trails, from banking records to forged birth certificates and university credentials, and I have to say, your research is flawless.”

On screen, Kassidi Stein clapped her hands together, “This is amazing stuff caller. I’m going to have to rush you to your question.”

Cushing waved his hand, “No no Kass, please. It’s really so rare that I get to talk to anyone who is a fan of my written work.” His smile thinned by degrees and he leaned his elbows onto his knees, “I wonder if the caller minds if I ask her a question?”

“Of course not Sam.” Stanwick’s voice bubbled with enthusiasm.

“So you were on the campaign trail with Tiernan right?”

“Um, yes I was.”

Confused, Kassidi reached across the desk, “You know the caller?”

Sam threw his head back, running his fingers through his designer buzz-cut. He turned to look at his host, contemplating how best to answer, “No I don’t know her personally Kass, but I’ve been aware of her for some time. Like I say, not many people got a chance to read my book.” He looked back at the Camera, “Caller, as a fan, perhaps you’d be able to shed some light on why the book reached such a small audience?”

“Well Sam, it kind of read like a death wish. It was like you were deliberately calling out every one of the most dangerous people in the world, and revealing all of their dirty little secrets. At that particular point in time, concerned parties took it as their duty to protect you from yourself.”

Kassidi Stein looked crestfallen, “Hang on, I’m so confused. You’re saying this is true? I mean this is all a publicity stunt for your film right?”

Sam mused, “It would be a pretty good stunt right?” looking back into the camera, he pitched continued, “So Stanwick, that was then … Where do you stand now? I mean, what do you think about President Tiernan’s reappearance on the political scene? It’s been a crazy forty eight hours right?”

“Listen Sam, you’re a dangerous man, but you should know that if you want to go toe to toe with Tiernan, there’s a lot of people have your back. Next time you’re in West Virginia, you should stop by the Stupins Institute. Maybe my brother can come along for the party.”

 

When Stanwick walked back into the living room, all eyes were on her.

Bemused, West came to meet her, “Ballsy move. There’s six of us, including one child and three completely unseasoned fighters, and you just called out Tiernan. What’s the Stupins Institute?”

“Business address.” She threw her arms open wide, “Welcome to the Stupins Institute, registered 1905.”

 

 

The troops were prepared for anything, but they had been led to expect moderate civilian resistance. Singer had spoken to President Stathopolous who made it abundantly clear that any attempts at approaching Bulgaria by way of the Aegean would be looked upon as an open declaration of war against Greece. Skirting North of Istanbul, moving the majority of the troops across Cubuklu Bay via the Mehmet Bridge would still take them through heavily populated areas of course, but it struck Julius as being preferable to crossing the Bosphorus bridge and riding defiantly through the heart of the city with a convoy of fifteen thousand.

How many armies had been gored on Istanbul’s Golden Horns he wondered. If they could avoid engaging any civilians on the Antolian side of the city, Julius was certain things would be easy going from there on in.

It was after six in the morning as the convoy broke off on the Northbound stretch of the E80. The sun had already cast out a luxurious blanket from the East and would be behind them as the road curved back towards the city. Red sky in the morning, thought Julius; not an abundance of shepherds in the Maslak district … plenty of skyscrapers.

He was certain that even without the protection afforded by his dark companions, he would have taken the lead vehicle; he had fought in twelve major conflicts, had led the assault in nine of these and had survived unscathed. It had been several centuries since he had born a wound deep enough to force him to look upon the delvers of Allim, though they were rarely far from the front of his mind. He couldn’t begin to fathom how many men he had seen pulled back from the brink by the leeches, each of them victims of their own stupidity, and each seemingly addicted to the sight of their tiny saviors. He understood that addiction too well. He had witnessed men fall slowly into madness, waiting for the next advance, hunkered down, entrenched, bored to the point of delirium, hacking away at their own flesh just for the feel of the miracle, a glimpse of the darkness.

Traffic on the bridge was slowing as the lead pair of vehicles made their approach. By the time the front twenty had reached the bridge’s center, traffic had halted completely,the arcs of the thick steel suspension cables reaching their lowest point about 20 meters in front of Julius’s humvee. Julius turned his body, resting his arm against the seat back so he could address the four passengers, “We need recon. All of you, out. Remember, we’re already conspicuous enough, we don’t need to alarm anyone.” He turned to the driver, “Corporal Cartwright, call in sit rep, then keep comms open. If traffic starts to move again, move on our position.”

 

They kept to the side of the road where possible, but Julius quickly noted that cars were actually pulling out of the line of traffic, the drivers going so far as to push their vehicles up against the barrier which ran along the side of the road in an effort to halt their progress. Julius hopped the barrier guessing that taking to the narrow pedestrian path would make things easier, but the sound of several car doors slamming alerted him to the fact that drivers and passengers alike were exiting their cars and forming an impromptu blockade ahead of them.

“The fuck are they doing?” Sergeant Bickersley’s voice grated on Julius. He stopped and rested a hand on the railing.

“Sergeant, you are a killing machine. This situation does not get ugly unless you make it ugly. If these people lay hands on you, you turn the other cheek. If one of these people raises arms against you, you turn the other cheek. If you take a bullet to the cheek, what do you do Bickersley?”

Bickersley’s dark skin hid the flush of color well, but his eyes were downcast with embarrassment. He knew the answer that Singer was expecting, but he couldn’t fathom his reasoning.

Julius narrowed his eyes reproachfully, his nostrils flaring, “We were expected. Don’t know how, don’t much care. They’re clearly expecting Tiernan’s attack dogs. We will act with absolute decorum and humility. Do I make myself clear?”

Bickersley pulled his weapon close to his chest and raised his chin proudly, “Affirmative sir.”

As he pushed forward, Julius wondered how much easier this would be if the soldiers were fully aware of what they had become. He strode towards a man who stood at the front of the crowd that had gathered before them. The man was tall, muscular, a thick dark mustache accentuating the sombre curve of his mouth as he sneered at Julius. Julius addressed the man in perfect Turkish dialect, “Friend, we have a common enemy and my troops seek passage, not hostility.”

The man struggled to talk over the babble of the crowd. After a couple of abortive attempts at yelling his response, he leaned in close to Julius, shouting more or less directly into his ear, “We’re a peace loving people. We stand behind our President. Our President has spoken out against the Economic Unification Council. We stand here in defense of those countries who would oppose America and its role in the E.U.C.”

Julius closed his eyes in thought, frustrated by the man’s rational response. He turned his body and gestured towards the long line of military vehicles, “I have a convoy of fifteen thousand troops. Turning these vehicles around on this bridge is not an option.”

The man stepped back a pace and spread his arms, “You will find it much easier than moving forwards.”

Julius saw no point in arguing. The man was of course right. Leading the others back to the convoy, he pulled his satellite phone out of his breast pocket and thumbed through the contact list, searching for the listing for the American Embassy in Ankara. He selected the personal number for the U.S. Consulate General who was based out of Istanbul. He stepped away from the humvee as the other men climbed into their seats. The phone rang several times before the call was answered.

“General Singer? To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Julius dispensed with formalities, “Paul, I’ve got rather a large ask, but you can consider your debt answered in full if you can pull it off.”

“Nothing I could do will erase my debt to you.”

Julius laughed, “We’ll see.” He paused, wrestling with his conscience. If there was another way of resolving things, he couldn’t see it.

“Paul, I need you to stage a joint attack on the embassy in Ankara and on your own residence. It needs to look like the attack was carried out by the Turkish Military and I need it to look good … clean if possible, dirty if necessary.”

He listened to the Consulate General breathing steadily on the other end of the line and he was quietly pleased that the request had not yet been met with derisory laughter. Paul was a good man who had accepted a dark secret in a time of dire need, and Julius knew that this was a filthy way of calling in that debt.

“How soon?”

“This morning. Now if possible.”

Silence.

“Paul, I …”

The Consulate General spoke over him, “Julius, old friend, I will need a few hours, but it will be done.”

Julius glanced at the group of pedestrians who had gathered outside their vehicles and he tried to imagine this ending peacefully.

“Give Mary-Elizabeth my love.”

“Julius, her every breath is your love.”

 

Stephanie had never dreamed before that night, or at least that’s how she would come to remember it. It had taken her a while to drift off, and when she finally did, she found herself still surrounded by the insane visual cacophony that she’d experienced throughout that day. She dreamed that she had woken up the next day, dismayed and exhausted by her own decisions and their ramifications, each thought branching off and dancing into the unknown, another life lived. If she looked hard enough, she could see into one of those lives, their joys and sorrows, and always through everything, their wonder and elation at their chance for life.

In those first moments of dreaming, it became a guiding philosophy for her, that the more options she could think of, the greater the possibility that somewhere out there she was getting it right.

She dreamed of herself flourishing in this new world of possibility, the world positively teaming with an ever growing populace of decisions, made and unmade. She learned that without acting on merely on impulse, she could watch.

With that early epiphany, the pace of the dream changed. Recalling the words that West had spoken to her father, she dreamed of the war that her grandfather had started. She had little knowledge of war, but her imagination was bursting with what war could be. More than that, she knew that they could help. The delvers. The tongues of Antrusca. And to her bidding, the delvers bent, traveling through her cerebral veins, feeding her need.

She watched the days unfold and the thousand ways that everything that she loved could be lost; the decisions of her newfound companions weaving through one another; a hell on earth riddled with the pathways trodden by the unsung heroes of battles lost. A new day dawned though, and again the world was replete with their victorious siblings and offspring, and there was no other possibility. When she looked back through the channels and streams, she could see so clearly that there was no future without her in it.

Still further, she saw a world beyond the coming war, where their gift broke free of the shadows, and the choice would be forever each person’s birthright, Tiernan’s greatest legacy, the gift he guarded so jealously.

So the night raged on, a thousand minds, dreaming a seemingly infinite cosmos of dreams.

 

The humvee was thick with heat, such that every breath had become a labour. The crowds had barely stirred with the noise of the distant explosion, but the plume of black smoke rising in North West was Julius Singer’s cue. Grabbing the bullhorn from the floor of the cabin behind his seat, he opened the passenger door and stepped out. He was careful to aim his rifle over the water, firing a short spray of bullets between the bridge’s steel struts. Bringing the bullhorn to his lips, he strode towards the crowd which had quickly become panicked and skittish.

Although he had struggled to adapt to the shifting Turkish language after the 1930s, he had spent enough time in the country to become fluid again, to the extent that he now struggled to recall some of the Arabic phrases to which he had become so accustomed and which had been supplanted by newly created terms or replaced with re-introduced Ottoman Turkish words. His love for the country and for the people had spanned centuries. This wasn’t a fight he wanted to be a part of, but these people had put themselves between him and the necessary fight. He watched the dark cloud rising from what must now be the ruin of the consulate buildings and he swallowed back his emotion.

“My friends, Istanbul is too beautiful to bear witness to the coming conflict. Previous wars, occupations and advancements have woven a this magnificent tapestry of cultures that you enjoy, but make no mistake; to be part of this war is to touch a burning taper to that heritage. Your military has made a brazen statement against America today, burning bridges that have been long in the making. Look there,” he pointed towards the smoke clouds, “The residences of the U.S. Consulate General burn at the hands of your leaders. This was an act of defiance and solidarity with those countries opposed to the E.U.C, maybe, but the administration of President Tiernan has already declared this as an open act of war. In this, your country has pitted you, innocent and peaceable citizens, against the might of the U.S. military.”

He paced back and forth, slowly making up ground between himself and the crowds, “I lead an army that does not yet know its own strength and I will not make a name for myself here. Do not allow this to be the birthplace of the new war. Do not let my army cut their teeth here.”

He watched apprehensively, hoping for some sign that the crowds were weakening in their resolve, but no such sign came. Two men broke from the pack and moved towards an aging ford truck which had been abandoned by its owner. Julius was disturbed by their smiles. He wondered if he had missed something, some vital sign in the surroundings. As the two men stepped to opposite ends of the truck, Julius stepped back instinctively, the darkness consuming him, a hundred voices calling to him, castigating him for his stupidity. Arrogance. He understood it now that he was confronted with it. That was the skulking creature lingering at the edges of his conscience. He had allowed himself to imagine that the deck was stacked in his favor, but now, too easily, too gracefully, the men bent with their knees and lifted the truck as if it were a fiberglass set dressing. When the truck landed, roof to roof atop the lead humvee, the bullhorn dropped unceremoniously from Julius’s hands and he ran, head bowed slightly, torso leaning forward, heart thumping with the rush of chemicals released by the leeches.

With the force of the first impact, Julius felt his body tumble through the air, his head landing hard against the guard railing at the side of the bridge and through the ringing numbness, he watched one of the two men fall towards the sea. Hanging on at the edge of consciousness, Julius wondered how many of the men and women amongst the crowd were Leechborn. Was there enough for an ambush, or were there only a few scattered here and there? He heaved the second man’s leg off his chest, which freed up his head enough so that he was able to get a better look at their situation. The silhouetted forms climbing the steel cables hand over hand provided all of the information he needed.

There was a faint beeping, somewhere behind his head. He reached a hand back and picked up the sat-phone.

“Not a good time.

Tiernan’s voice, “You’re needed back home.”

“Impossible.”

Looking Eastward, he could see the soldiers starting to pour out of their vehicles or taking up positions at mounted gun turrets. Little use the turrets would be, although he hoped it wouldn’t take the troops long to realize that clean head-shots could still be effective.

“Julius, there’s a situation here. How soon can you extract?”

“Extraction is not an option. If we could, it would be disastrous, but I’m telling you point blank, there is no way we can extract.”

A wave of nausea hit him as the man next to him started to move again. He tried to pull himself up. The man swept his legs from under him before he had time to react, and just as suddenly, the man was on top of him. He tucked his chin towards his chest, trying to protect his neck, but hands moved to his shoulders, lifting his body forward and slamming his head back against the railings.

There was no sense of control, the man was moving too quickly for Julius to make any conscious effort to command the leeches. Julius knew that in dire circumstances, it was best that way. They knew what to do.

 

Sergeant Bickersley’s legs writhed back and forth, feeling the metal give a little more with each thrust. He was desperate now. The air was thick with acrid fumes. He knew it was only a matter of time until the humvee’s engine blew. That, or more worryingly, the Truck’s engine, which he figured must be more or less directly on top of him. He couldn’t tell if the others had managed to free themselves, but from the nightmare of gunfire and yelling, he understood that being free of the wreck would not be the end of his troubles. There was very little room for him to move his head and although his left arm was unobstructed, his right arm was trapped between the door and a buckled section of the humvee’s roof. Through the torn fabric of his jacket, he could see that the skin of his arm was rippling with movement, as if his muscles were convulsing, but he could also make out that there was an odd sheen to his skin, more pearlescent than sweat.

He closed his eyes, focusing his efforts on his legs, pushing once more, then pulling his knees upwards, his feet wedging tight against the seat. One more kick, then … The explosion tore through his senses, the flash of light burning bright in his retina, even through closed eyelids. His body folded awkwardly as he was blown through the passenger door, metal and burning debris covering him where he fell at the roadside. He tried to roll, but he was unable to achieve any leverage with his right leg so he pushed with his right arm, heaving his upper body out from under the flaming detritus. The fire was everywhere about him, no matter how he turned, he was unable to escape it. His vision recovering from the blast, he caught sight of his clothes, fire rippling across the surface of the fabric. He started to tear at them, fingers ripping and clawing at the cloth in frenzied terror.

When the woman’s foot made contact with his stomach, he thought at first that she was trying to help him, he even attempted to shout his thanks, although what escaped his lips was a tortured gasp. The second kick was absolutely clear in its message, connecting with his chest with enough force to crack several of his ribs. He wasn’t ready for the third kick, and he could feel that he was losing his battle with the fire. He rolled blindly, hoping that he was moving away from his assailant, but instead he felt his arm wrapping awkwardly around a leg. He heard her scream as she fell and he clambered desperately over her body, unsure of what he could possibly do now that he was on top of her. Her fingers were grasping at his arms, her teeth clamping down on his shoulder, the crushing pain in his chest prevented him from responding with any vigor. Then she was screaming and he couldn’t understand why, but he wrapped his arms around her as tightly as he could manage.

Her strength was tremendous. He felt her struggle to her feet, even with him clawing at her, his hands in her hair and digging into the flesh of her back. Opening his eyes, he could see the plume of flames rising from their bodies and he understood now why she continued to scream. Then he was falling, wind buffeting him as she tried to prise him off her body. As the water swallowed him and blackness engulfed his senses, he felt her fingers loosen finally.

 

 

Unable to listen to any more, Tiernan threw his phone at the wall. There were a great number of Second Realmers and Blood-Bastards on home soil, but Julian’s army would have been something altogether different. His best option now would be Arctum, but they presented their own problem. They needed leadership.

He watched the drone reconnaissance of the Stupins Institute. There were no building plans on file. The best guess was that there were only a handful of people in the complex, but without building plans there was no real way of knowing what they would be facing.

With a small militia from Arctum, he felt confident that he could drive home the right message. It felt right though, that he should lead the charge.

 

Stephanie felt the weight over her eyelids and the bridge of her nose, felt the touch of soft fingertips on the skin of her face. She opened her eyes slowly, bracing herself for what the world would bring.

Stanwick spoke gently, “Your dad’s downstairs with the others. They’ve been up all night, fretting.”

“They shouldn’t fret.” The room filled so quickly with thoughts.

Stanwick continued to stroke the child’s forehead, “You saw it didn’t you?”

Stephanie nodded.

“Follow me,” Stanwick whispered, “All of you.”

 

 

Down the grand staircase, Stephanie’s finger’s slalomed lazily down the length of the banister, her stick finger skier hotdogging it off the banister’s end as she jumped off the final step to the ground floor. She paused for a moment where the banister arose from the floor to carry on its winding ways deeper into the house. Her fingers rocked back and forth, the skier preparing to launch. It was a good run, zigzagging, knuckles juddering as the skier contended with imagined moguls, then feet spread wide, one knee bent, down to the first basement level.

Lost in her game, Stephanie wasn’t aware how many levels they had descended by the time the banister’s graceful curve finally offered an unforeseen obstacle for the skier, the thick wood alighting briefly on the palm of a hand which had been carved from Frosterley Marble, the polished limestone fingers reaching up from the floor to stroke the banister’s underside, the oak seemingly melting into the floor as it followed the form the wrist. Stanwick stopped, allowing Stephanie to stroke the cool marble.

“It’s lovely.” She looked up at Stanwick, knowing, “You made it.”

Stanwick smiled, and it dawned on Stephanie that it was just Stanwick, and that here, there was just her.

“I can see!” She bounced up and down on the balls of her feet, shaking Stanwick’s hands.

Stanwick laughed with her, feeling the child’s joy so fully, understanding that her elation was complex and multi-faceted. Because Stephanie was well aware that her eyes had not suddenly healed; rather she could see clearly because through everything, through all of the opportunities, the trillions of evolutionary successes and ancestral happy accidents that had to happen for her to get there; through it all, being there, right there, right then, holding Stanwick’s hand was an inevitability.

 

The distant walls shone with the light of the universe, distant galaxies spiraling, exploding, colliding, all wending their way through the infinite. Stephanie let loose Stanwick’s hand, running to the immense walls of glardium.

“Wait,” Stanwick called after her, “Don’t touch the walls just yet.”

Stephanie ran back to her side and held her hand, trusting.

“It’s dazzling, but it’s not stars Stephanie. It’s not the universe.”

Stephanie didn’t speak her reply. She didn’t have to. The heaviness, the sheer weight of emotion Stanwick felt massing in her eyes, her chest tightening as it hadn’t in more than a century, because she knew that she was wrong.

And now, so many feelings that Stanwick had lived without. Suddenly afraid, because she had been so wrong about something that she’d known throughout all of her long years. Scared to allow Stephanie to use the hopper, because she realized that she had never understood it. Not really.

Then Stephanie’s small fingers squeezed hers, and everything was still.

Stanwick was ready. She walked on until they reached the middle of the wall, where the chest sat waiting. Stanwick traced her finger along the chest’s lid and it opened silently. She took out the glardium weave and the neck brace, placing them on the floor, then she stroked a small glistening strip on the floor and the recording bank rose with a soft whispered sibilant.

She led Stephanie to the wall, turning her around with a gentle push of the hand.

“Lean back… that’s it.”

Stephanie closed her eyes and smiled.

“In a moment, I want you to think about what you dreamed last night. Remember it. Let it pour out of you.”

Stephanie spread out her fingers and eased her hands backwards slowly, dipping her fingers into the farthest reaches of time, and as Stanwick laid the glardium weave over her face, Stephanie’s heart stopped.

A minute passed between each beat, and Stanwick held her own hand to the wall, feeling the future pouring out of the child. A heart beating in cosmological time, a hundred lifetimes lived between each contraction of those small muscles.

 

In the darkness, when she dreamed no more, Stephanie felt his breath, and the screaming began.

 

Panicked, Stanwick pulled the glardium from Stephanie’s face, her hand steadying the neck brace, then dropping it to the floor with the cloth. She sat cross legged, cradling Stephanie, her index finger mopping the little trail of blood which had dripped from her nose. She knew Stephanie’s dread. She’d felt it herself. She’d felt that dread for so long, but it was necessary. She had always known it was necessary.

As Stephanie stirred, Stanwick hugged her close, stroking the back of her head, fingers pulling carefully and lovingly through her hair.

“You felt it.” Stanwick asked.

“Yes.”

“You understood?”

“Yes.”

“I didn’t mean for you to see that.”

Stephanie squeezed tight, and her perfect blue eyes met with Stanwick’s.

“Don’t lie to yourself.”

Stanwick let go of the child, shattered, and ashamed, because she had seen her first glimpse of the woman that Stephanie would one day become.

 

[]CHAPTER SIXTEEN

In the Beginning

 

Hannah Beach hadn’t moved away from the TV for sixteen hours. It had been by chance that she’d caught the news report about the chase. When she’d seen that brief glimpse of Stephanie’s face, a couple of frames caught by one of the patrol car’s dashboard cams, Hannah had sat down, her whole body shaking, and she hadn’t been able to get up since then.

Every time it looked as if there was nothing more to report, no more news on the subject, she’d pick up the thread on another station. More salacious headlines.

 

Girl killed in police chase related to gas station murder.

 

Gas station survivor reveals all: Feral wolf child on gas stop rampage.

 

Mechanicsburg PA Police Patrols report no bodies found at scene of crash.

 

Then of course, later in the evening, she had read the footer feed. Sam Cushing announces plans to write and direct self penned epic “The Kings Mosaic”. When the full significance of Cushing’s interview dawned on her, she threw up in her mouth. To say that she was feeling emotionally scarred would have been such a feat of understatement. She was the fucking English Patient of emotional scarring.

 

As the morning dawned, she was beginning to appreciate the way David’s mind worked, because jumping from one station to the next, she could see that all of the stories were connected, although none of the reporters joined the dots, because they couldn’t, because the man told them that joining the dots wasn’t allowed. She had been up way too long. Oh, she had looked up the Stupins Institute, because of course there was more to that. No one had bought the book. Who did that bitch think she was? So when the news feed had pinged up it’s cheery little message that the national guard were assaulting the cult leader of a heretofore unheard of cult in West Virginia, Hannah was on it.

 

The shelling had started at nine in the morning, and Hannah had cried, horrified at the possibility that she was correct, that her Spiff was there, that her brother was there, but the alternative was worse. The thought that they had died in a police chase was impossible. She couldn’t process it. So she watched the shaky footage of the shelling, the walls of the building crumbling, the drone strike systematically dismantling the regal building.

The military vehicles had rolled in at nine thirty, their slow procession lead by a group of probably four or five hundred foot soldiers. The drone followed the troops, never showing their faces, pulling in tighter on the building.

Nine thirty-six and seventeen seconds. Hannah paused the DVR, because there, in the boiling rubble, stood a little girl, perfectly unharmed, and all about her billowed a dress of glardium weave. Frame by frame, Hannah watched as the child was lifted up on the back of a great beast of the void, Dannum, Pretchis … everything in between. Her Stephanie, her Spiff, the star cloaked Princess of the Infinite.

 

###

 

Now read on for a preview of the second book in the series.

 

h1>{color:#000;}.

A preview of the first chapter of:

h1>{color:#000;}.

Histories of the Void Garden, Book 2:

Princess of the Infinite

 

A novel by Damian Huntley

Copyright 2016 Damian Huntley, all rights reserved

PROLOGUE

CHILE 1894

 

She had felt such despair at first. So much time lost looking for West, because the world had come to feel truly empty without him. She had traveled to their home, convinced that if she could reach out far enough, she would hear him. She pulled down the glardium wall and lay naked on the rills, pleading to the delvers to make her a channel for only his voice.

She existed without time, losing track of the days, the months she spent, her body wasting away. When the darkness finally awakened in her mind, it came as a manifestation of her worst dread. Not West’s voice. A voice she had heard in all of her bleakest hours. Dannum, Pretchis, and everything in between. His wordless utterances inside her in the night, his tongue scraping at the walls of her will, drawing her into herself, closing her off from reality.

 

She journeyed North, joining a small whaling vessel in the waters off the coast of Concepcion, disembarking at Arica. From Arica, she forged into the Andes on foot, every fiber of her being thrumming with his call. She was wretched, because she was beyond her own command, a husk bent around his desire. She climbed with bleeding fingers, the delvers screaming for sustenance. When she eventually stopped, it was because there was nowhere to go. No energy to go back, and only a sheer fall into the blackness ahead.

There was no choice to be made except that which he desired. If there was anything to recount from the fall, all of it was lost on Stanwick. Nothing but pain. A few seconds of falling, then something cracked, but she would be too disoriented to tell what part of her body. More falling, then some jagged edifice would rip open the skin of her hip. She would tumble on rocks, and instinctively catch a finger hold, only to hang for a minute before falling yet again.

 

When she hit the ground, she was conscious, but barely; enough to imagine that the final hundred feet of the drop had managed to pulverize and crush the last couple of bones. Beyond that, her grip on reality managed to find a whole new cave system to fall into all on its own. The darkness took on a different hue, moved without any obvious cause. She could see no light, but she could see that her nightmare had edges. It had substance.

 

His words scratched in the flesh of arterial walls, only in the language of the delvers. Nerves firing, neurons chittering too fast for her to comprehend, Dannum spoke to the drivers, the engineers. The vehicle was damaged goods. They knew it. She had neglected herself, neglected them. So they obeyed him, burrowing through her, shredding her, then knitting the surface of her flesh to his immense form.

As he moved through the network of caves, his body fed her, his little parasite, ever hungry, selling her memories for a meal. Such a warm meal though, his blood boiling. In time, when she was whole again, he would allow her to see, but it would be many years till she would be whole again. So much for him to see, through her. So many lives lived.

He moved mountains, drinking in the air of the new world, led by her memories, for the light of Dannum shone bright on all that was seen, and shone black on all that was unseen, and within and without his light, time knew not its bounds, or so it was written. He had been a different God then; Jealous and pernicious, but he was such because his people were a proud and learned people. Beyond Allim, he had become so much more than Dannum. In humbler minds, he had learned humility. In minds deeply routed in the spirit, manna or soul, he had learned compassion.

 

Onward, to amber waves of grain. What new lessons could be gleaned from this new born nation?

 

He had seen the place, in her memories, in the minds of the delvers, … he knew it well once he arrived, because he had always known, since his first dream. And he dug down. Waiting. Waiting for the child.

 

 

 

 

h1>{color:#000;}.

ONE

THE ELEVENTH HOUR

 

 

“She’s sleeping?” David cooed softly, unable to tell if Stephanie’s blanket was moving. Stanwick walked over to the bed, resting a hand on the child’s forehead. She opened her own mind up to Stephanie, just for a moment. She wished that she hadn’t.

“Yes, she’s sleeping.” Stanwick’s smile flickered, “We should leave her be. I’ll set sentry alarms. I really need to show the rest of you around the house.”

David waited by the open bedroom door. Watching Stanwick stroke his daughter’s head, kiss her goodnight, he felt safe.

Stanwick led David back downstairs to the living room, “Come on, all of you. Time for the grand tour.”

 

West rubbed his arms, his eyes narrowing as he grimaced in the blue-white light. Behind the clear wall, as far back as he could see, small shoots unfurled their little leafy hands, heads of broccoli and cabbage peaked unassumingly over the edges of gel filled containers and all manner of greens and grains blanketed shelves which were stacked several stories high with new growth, basking in the life-giving glow of their own dedicated lamps.

“You going off grid?” Cobb pondered, shielding his face from the special lamps.

“Not me.” Stanwick replied, still marching on, leading the others into the depths of her home.

The farming complex was a permanently unfinished work of art. When it was first built, she had taken regular deliveries from farmers far and wide, paying over the odds for wagon loads of feed, cattle, grain, whatever they could send. She had worked the many acres of land above ground, but it was never enough. She bought out farm holdings, kept on the laborers, made sure they were well compensated. In recent years, she’d managed to implement a high level of automation, always fine tuning the process. A few years ago, she had invested in a number of emerging technologies, and with the development of those new tech sectors, the Stupins Institute had suddenly flourished from glorified storage facility, to state of the art repository of horticultural diversity.

“You do farmers markets?” Cobb tried again, tapping the glass. He saw Stanwick’s face reflected there, her expression bordering on murderous.

Charlene leaned over the edge of the gantry, her stomach lurching when she realized how far down the complex extended, “Joking aside, you got enough down here to feed the five thousand, and then some.”

Stanwick shuddered at the thought.

“You should install an elevator.” David suggested, in what he felt sure was a helpful tone. He watched as mechanical arms busied themselves, pruning, planting and harvesting. Surely an elevator wouldn’t have been beyond Stanwick’s ability.

“We could just jump down though, right?” Cobb asked, “I mean, is that not what this is about? We’re like indestructible now aren’t we?”

“The fall wouldn’t kill you necessarily,” Stanwick replied, her tone flat, “but without sustenance … if you were weak enough and immobilized, you could die.”

Cobb sighed, then an instinct took him and he acted upon it. Mounting the thin handrail, he started to jog along the precarious beam, light footed, hands in his pockets. The downward spiral of the walkway, the smooth metal of the railing and the dim lighting all conspired against him, but Cobb felt completely surefooted. He picked up his pace, jumping a few feet through the air between strides, tapping the gantry above him with outstretched arms. He ran a few more paces, then rolled forward, tucking his head towards his chest, lifting up on his hands and walking hand over hand.

“Come on David,” Cobb yelled, his voice echoing through the chamber, “Show me what you’re made of.”

David leaned over the handrail and thought better of it, but then he felt a hand at the small of his back and Charlene whispered in his ear, “I bet we can give him a run for his money.”

The two of them climbed up onto the metal bar slowly, cautiously and as Stanwick and West watched, they took their first timid steps. David shuffled his feet, easing the ball of one foot forward, dragging the heel of his trailing foot, his arms out to the sides, his heart pounding in his throat. He watched Charlene, his eyes on her torso, her careful but steady motions. She seemed calm, and David took comfort from her stillness, centering himself on her motions. Following Charlene’s lead, he took one large step, then another, then Charlene turned about and David panicked, his hip swaying out away from the walkway. Charlene was there for him, closing the gap between them with a graceful leap, grabbing hold of his hands tightly. Punctuated by Cobb’s occasional whoops and hollers, Charlene started to hum, then sing gently, broadening her steps, pulling David slowly out of his comfort zone.

Stanwick started walking again, “I do despair.”

West walked by her side, watching David’s left foot crossing smoothly behind his right, “What’s up?”

Stanwick pointed at Charlene, “Between you and me, we’ve sired a couple of half-baked losers.”

Charlene back-stepped rhythmically, holding David’s fingers loosely as her hips swayed, “Hey I heard that.”

“Yeah, you were meant to. Loser.”

“What’s your problem?” West asked, confused.

“She’s trying to pull a Johnny Castle.”

“A what?”

“Dirty Dancing … Johnny Castle … Do you not hear her singing?”

West laughed raucously, amused by how offended Stanwick appeared to be.

Cobb’s footsteps clattered on the metal as he ran back up towards them, “It’s like a labyrinth down there. How long did it take you to dig this place out?”

“I want to say a day, but honestly, I was kind of out of it. It’s a long story.”

West leaned over the railing, “There’s still a way to go.” He sensed her hesitancy, “You want to give us the short version?”

She began, “Chile, eighteen ninety four…”

 

Quarter of an hour later, Stanwick stood in front of a huge metal wall.

“He’s in there?” West’s face was expressionless, which Stanwick read as carefully contained fury. She nodded, holding her hand out towards the glass panel in the center of the door.

Charlene cleared her throat, “Just to be clear now, it’s not going to attack us right?”

Stanwick nodded again, “He’s not on lock down, but we are safe. He’s quite singular in his desire.”

Cobb stepped back slowly, “How big are we talking here?”

“If he’s anything like the thing we saw on the hopper, I have no comparable frame of reference,” David offered, “but shit is about to get real.”

Cobb shrugged, “Like Kaiju big? Godzilla?”

West nodded, “Something like that.”

Cobb tried to grasp the idea of being able to eat as much as he wanted, his excitement growing, “So how does something even get to be that big?”

Charlene pointed back down the hallway they had just passed through, “You noticed the food right?”

Cobb pressed his point, convinced he had one, “Yes, I saw the food, but I eat all the Cobb salad in the world, I’m not going to grow up to be a big strong boy, I’m going to explode.”

“Mmm,” West chimed in, “Nope, you would take on whatever form you decided to take.”

Cobb looked dubious, “So I could eat a couple of tons of lettuce and take the form of a fennec fox?”

Stanwick’s hand dropped to her side, “You’re being obtuse.”

“No, I’m just trying to understand.”

West thought about his question, “You couldn’t do it in a day…”

“That’s not necessarily true,” Stanwick interrupted, “It’s quite possible for a host to command the leeches to consume them almost wholly. They work fast.”

West waved his hands, trying to wipe away Stanwick’s comment, “Now who’s being obtuse? That’s not normal.”

Stanwick laughed, her frustration clearly mounting, “It’s possible though. He’s trying to understand, and I would say that eating a couple of tons of lettuce and become a fennec fox is preposterous, but not impossible. The more pertinent question would be whether or not you’d want to?”

Cobb frowned, “Why wouldn’t I want to? Fennec foxes are awesome.”

Stanwick tapped her head, “Cognitive scaling. It’s a headache.”

West nodded in agreement, “The loss of neurons and glial cells is a delicate matter, so any rearrangement of your brain structure is dicey. Handle with care.”

Stanwick looked to Charlene and David, “Any more questions, or are we ready to do this?” Without waiting for an answer, she slammed her hand onto the glass plate in the center of the wall.

 

The metal wall slid into the floor swiftly, silent except for a satisfying thud once it’s upper edge became flush with the floor. Stanwick led the way, tiny lights in the floor illuminating no more than a perimeter extending a couple of feet all around her.

David nudged Charlene, “How are we going to see anything?”

Stanwick answered, “There’s nothing to see. It’s better this way, believe me.”

Charlene kept her eye on West’s legs, following closely. She thought it was odd that it had come to this, that she should be following him into the darkness, when really she knew so little about him. They hadn’t spent much time alone, so there had been no real opportunity, not with everything that had been going on. A lifetime yes, of course; he could have dropped in on her life at any point, but he must have had things to do. His trick had been a cruel one though really. Turning up and robbing her of her opportunity for death, when she had been so close. She’d had enough time. She had lived her life without him, and she had been ready for it to end, merely counting off the passing days. She knew what lay ahead of them, out of sight, stalking them. She should run, into his embrace, let Dannum consume her. Then Dannum’s laughter hissed in her ear.

Charlene looked at the others, but none of them seemed to have heard anything. “Hated of Pretchis, child of the void …” And she felt like a little girl, running through an empty house trying to hit all of the light switches to avert a tragedy, except the dread was worse now, because there were no light switches. “You can run, but I am everywhere, and I am all.”

She reached forward for West’s shoulder, attempting to rouse his attention, but West was always a step away, always just out of reach. Dannum continued, his voice the sound of mirrors breaking and cracks in the pavement, all full of empty promises of heartache and despair, “The Thane of the Void; that’s who you reach for? See him now, ever a step too far. Time will bring no succor. The Thane will always be beyond your grasp.”

With her stomach knotted, Charlene ran forward, fingernails scratching busily at her arms, the leeches raising to the surface. She wanted somehow to reach inside herself and remove him – to drag Dannum’s words out of her body and eradicate every trace.

 

David had felt the warm gentle kiss on his cheek the moment the lights had illuminated his first footstep. The lights had dimmed, and he had yelled out in fear, or at least he had tried to, his tongue stopped by the kiss. The voice was soft, almost loving, but the words were calculating and destructive, “David, a name that speaks of regal greatness. In others.” The arms around him, holding him close, fingers tight in his hair, the mouth at his ear, “How then does it come to be spoken of the Blood-Bastard who sold his daughter’s future for his own safety? David Beach, the son of a thief. Damned his beloved Stephanie to this life outside of life. Ignoble beginnings for the father of she who’s reign will be anointed in the blood of the new Mythologue.”

David moved his head until he felt his chin touching his chest, then he stamped his feet, watching for the small array of lights.

 

Cobb heard the voice. “Last Chosen of the Second Kingdom.” The words dry and coarse, seething with disdain.

“Nope.” Cobb managed to yell the word. “Shut the fuck up. La, la, la…” he didn’t stop. Even with his mouth wrapped with the black tongue of Dannum, Cobb thrashed his head, humming as loudly as he could manage. The words rambled on, but Cobb imagined a world full of food, waiting for him to dive in and glut his ravenous appetite. He’d pace himself though – because cognitive scaling, whatever the crap Stanwick had warned him about, and he’d become a colossus, stomping on cars and picking his teeth with trees.

“You hunger for power…” the voice tried again, saccharine sweet with promise.

Cobb couldn’t answer, he mumbled and hummed, then speech failing, he imagined the words spelled out on a giant neon sign, written in garish blue neon, “Buffet King.”

Then out of the blackness, Stanwick’s hand in his. Her laughter filling the air about him, “You’re coping better than David.” She pointed to David who was walking along beside Cobb, stamping his feet as if he was trying to put out a fire, the little pools of light flashing everywhere he stepped.

 

When Charlene finally felt Dannum loosen his hold on her consciousness, the five of them were stood in a line, their pools of light merged into one. Stanwick tapped the floor in front of her with the ball of her foot, and the five were lowered on the section of floor on which they stood, the light from the room below illuminating a brief glimpse of teeth. Too many teeth.

 

West watched the platform raise back towards the ceiling, thick hydraulic arms wheezing softly, “Why are we here?”

The room Stanwick had led them to was large, but contained no immediately apparent furniture or fixtures, save for a windowless metal door. The walls, ceiling and floors all shimmered with the light of glardium rills, but this bio luminescence was the only illumination.

Stanwick stepped towards the metal door, then turned to face the others, “David, when we checked in on Stephanie, I… I saw a glimpse of what she was dreaming.”

“How?” David asked, a little confused. He had been right there, and he could remember no real exchange between the two of them except for Stanwick stroking Stephanie’s forehead.

“It doesn’t matter how,” Stanwick continued, “What matters is what I saw. What she allowed me to see.”

West’s eyes were wide. He took a step towards Stanwick, lowering his head. The question hadn’t formed on his lips when Stanwick answered.

“Yes. She’s dreaming. All I saw was a flash, but whatever is going on in Stephanie’s brain, it is…” Her lip quivered, and she drew in a quick breath, steadying herself. “What I saw, it was so brief, but it was clear was that you were all through there.” Stanwick pointed to the door, “It’s a barracks of sorts; arms, armor, ammo.”

West pointed towards the ceiling, “Hell of a guard dog.”

Stanwick laughed, her tension easing significantly, “This is certainly the safest place to be.”

David waited for her to add some sort of addendum to her statement, but when none came, he was unable to contain himself, “Then why the hell is my daughter a mile above us in a fucking bedroom?”

Stanwick pouted apologetically, “Because she wasn’t here.”

“When?” David yelled.

“In her dream David. In that brief glimpse I saw, she wasn’t here with you, and neither was I.”

West recoiled, “You’re staying up there with the child?”

David reared on West now, “She has a name. She’s not just some kooky little kid with freaky eyes.” He punched the wall, tearing up immediately.

“She isn’t supposed to be here.” Stanwick’s tone was firm, but she didn’t rise to anger, “There is a battle, and her part in it is up there.”

David sneered, “Oh that’s great.” Stanwick came towards him, trying to comfort him, but he backed away, “No, seriously. It’s marvelous. There’s a war coming to us, right here, because you invited them, and now you’re saying that it’s going to be you and my seven year old daughter on the front line?”

Stanwick pointed towards the hatch that had lowered them into the room, “Me, your seven year old daughter, and Dannum, the first and last king of Allim, one of the true beasts of the Mythologue.”

 

 

Throughout most of the flight, Tiernan stared at a photograph of a Mexican athlete he’d kept in his billfold for the past couple of years. It wasn’t strictly necessary, but having a point of focus helped. He made a couple of calls from his father’s cell-phone; first to Prime Minister Arthur White in the UK, then to President Xiao Hong Zhuang in China. Neither of the premier’s had been able to offer any concrete promises, and both had implied that it was an impertinence that he would even suggest that their problems were any less pressing. He had been tempted to throw Lucas’s phone out of the helicopter’s window.

Lucas Miller eyed his phone, watching his son’s twitchy hands,“You don’t think Arctum will be enough?”

“Two things. Firstly, it’s not about winning some pissing match, it’s about sending a message to the world that this is how we will deal with anyone who opposes this administration. Secondly, are you fucking joking Lucas? Why would Stanwick throw down the gauntlet if she wasn’t ready? When have you ever known her to miscalculate her strength?”

He looked out of the window and attempted to catch a glimpse of the hangers of Arctum’s advanced training facility. Nestled in dense woodland outside of Shippensburg PA, from the air, there was hardly anything worth looking at. “I’m telling you,” he continued, the muscles of his face filling out as he focused his energy on the photo, “Arctum may be able to provide a battalion, but there’s no way of knowing what that little bitch has up her sleeve.”

Miller rested his head back into the leather padding, and turned the volume down on his headset. His son’s voice had such a way of sawing through to the bone when he was anxious. And Tiernan was clearly anxious. Miller had already resigned himself to the thought that his son would order him back to the hill as soon as they landed. Through everything, no matter how many times he had served at his sons side, the little shit still resented his presence on the battlefield.

 

The helicopter touched down hard, bounced, then touched down again gently. Tiernan leaned forward in his seat, “Father, I need you back in DC. The cabinet’s in turmoil. At the very least, Jo Faraday is ready to call for a vote of no confidence.”

Miller raised his eyebrows, “I’m pretty sure you talked him down. The meeting went well. You underestimate your ability to persuade.”

Tiernan looked unsure, “I really feel like it would be beneficial to have you back there.”

“Why did you even bring me?”

Glancing up from the photo of the athlete, Tiernan smiled and tossed his father’s phone back into his hands. He stepped out onto the pad wearing the body and face of Paulo. Some of the body. He would need food. His people in Arctum knew him no matter how he showed up. There were a number of faces that he wore. Paulo was one of his favorites.

 

Arctum, and by extension, the employees of Arctum usually kept a low profile. If they were officially sanctioned, or even if they were accidentally sired by a member of Arctum staff, newborn Blood-Bastards would usually train at the Shippensbug base – the ringer. The New York facility was mostly dedicated to research and development, administration and outreach. Arctum had many other training facilities throughout the world, but at some point, everyone passed through the ringer.

Tiernan was greeted at the pad by Wyatt Mosier (nee Toan Kith Mansur) a man who had fought beside Tiernan on the battlefield of the Leechborn Wars and the Mythologue. He towered over Tiernan. His facial scars which he had worn proudly since his first combat in Allim still glistened black on his naturally dark skin. He didn’t smile.

“Lieutenant Mosier.” Tiernan offered his hand in friendship.

“Ahken, cut to the chase, and let’s dispense with the new world bullshit. It’s Toan. It has always been Toan. You might like to parade around with the face of a prettier man, but I will always be as you find me. You want to address me by rank, then it’s Kith Mansur, First Tier, East Tirtiary. I’m sure we’d both prefer if you stick with Toan.”

Tiernan smiled, “Would you prefer us to revert to the mother tongue also?”

Toan cracked a thin lipped smile, “I’ve had enough of your mother’s tongue to last me a lifetime.” He laughed, leaning in to hug Tiernan, “How is Petra?”

Tiernan grunted under the weight of Toan’s arms, “You know my mother; same as ever.”

“She’ll always have a place in my heart. Constant. Unyielding.” Toan tilted his head towards the deep blue glass wall of the nearest bunker, “Should we head down? I’ve pulled together a strong battalion. Very few young bloods in their number.”

Tiernan nodded and the two men walked together, Tiernan taking two paces for Toan’s one, “I should probably eat something.”

Toan agreed, “We’ll stop by the mess hall on twelve. You look like you need a good thirty pounds?” He pressed his hand against the blue glass and a previously invisible seam in the wall parted to welcome them in.

Tiernan walked up to the security clerk’s desk, smiling amiably at the woman who sat behind the bulletproof screen. A needle pushed out from the surface of the desk. Tiernan slammed his hand down on the needle, then listened to the mechanical hum of the centrifuge and he waited for …

“Good to see you President Tiernan,” the woman offered rigidly, “here’s your badge.”

A blue glass panel to the right of the security desk slid aside and Toan led Tiernan towards the elevator at the back of the bunker.

Tiernan glanced at Toan’s chest, then his eyes wandered up in the direction of his face as the elevator door pinged charmingly, “We need to be wheels down in a few hours. I’m not sure there’s enough time to bulk out thirty pounds, brief the men, gear up and load out.”

Toan leaned away from Tiernan, “You should talk less around the men. You’re trying too hard.” He eyed the number twelve on the small graphic of the building’s floor-plan and waited for the elevator to announce the destination in her somehow distractingly alluring voice, “Mess halls one through six and maintenance. Floor twelve.”

 

Tiernan sat hunched over the metal topped table, biting each egg in half before swallowing it down. Between eggs, he chugged half-heartedly from a pitcher which contained a delicious mix of whey protein, blended nuts, greens, cottage cheese and raw ground beef.

Toan leaned his head on his knuckles, elbows on the table, all the time watching for that telltale sneer of disdain that he often saw on Tiernan’s face. Three thousand lifetimes, and Tiernan still felt like he was different. Toan had talked to him about it many times over the years, hoping to get some magnificent profundity from great man. Tiernan had admitted that he had a bias that was difficult to shake at first and that other things went beyond actual bias, becoming social ticks or spasms of muscle memory. Toan had, on many such occasions, expressed his opinion that Tiernan was full of shit. He never backed down from the conversation though, which Toan respected.

“There’s really nothing on file for this Stupins Institute. No building plans, no code inspections, nothing from the utilities companies.” Toan talked to himself, not caring if Tiernan listened,” I’ve had a team skimming the rills, looking specifically at the vicinity of the building, scanning over the past century and a half. There’s a gap which coincides almost completely with the largest gap in Thrass’s record. Then the building just appears fully formed in 1906. Best guess is Thrass built it.”

Tiernan took a pause from the eggs and looked up. He thought about berating the man, but there really wasn’t time. He was doing his job. Actually, Tiernan thought as he stuffed another egg into his mouth, Toan wasn’t even doing his job right now; he was going above the call of duty. He was attempting to bore the leader of the free world into a stupor while watching him cram eggs into his face… “so by the time we touch down,” Toan continued, “there should be very little to see”

Tiernan grinned broadly, egg whites creating the illusion of a confusing abundance of teeth, “You realize you’re going to have to go through all of this again in a minute?” He glanced at the bowl of eggs and the two pitchers of shake he still had left to drink, “You want to shut up and help me finish this? Seems a shame to waste it.”

 

Stephanie felt the weight over her eyelids and the bridge of her nose, felt the touch of soft fingertips on the skin of her face.

 

“Follow me,” Stanwick whispered, “All of you.”

 

Down the grand staircase, Stephanie’s finger’s slalomed.

 

“In a moment, I want you to think about what you dreamed last night. Remember it. Let it pour out of you.”

 

A minute between heartbeats, a hundred lifetimes lived between.

 

In the sweet, heady rush of infinity, Stephanie felt him … saw the breadth of his reign.

 

“I didn’t mean for you to see that.”

“Don’t lie to yourself.” Stephanie replied.

 

“Whats wrong?” Stephanie’s nose wrinkled, her lips pursed to form a perfect bow. She bowed her head, touching Stanwick’s chin with her small fingers. She hadn’t really meant the words. Not how they had sounded. She wished she could take them back.

Somewhere she hadn’t said them.

Somewhere she would never say a word that would cause Stanwick pain.

It was a subtle shift. Stephanie saw it first as a play on light; the vanishing traces of ghosting images, with Stanwick’s bent over form twirling and pirouetting, each one of a hundred reactions dancing through phases of uncertainty, illuminated by a cluster of stars that never came to be. Then there was one, and Stephanie could see the change in Stanwick. She looked into her eyes and she knew. She knew that she had caused a change, because there, kneeling in front of her was a version of Stanwick who had never heard those hurtful words.

Not a shadow. Really her, like looking glass Alice had stepped through and left a universe of possibilities in her wake.

Stanwick hugged her, squeezing her tightly, shattered and afraid, because as she held her, she could see her first glimpse of the woman that Stephanie might become.

Stanwick gasped, “What just happened?”

Stephanie squinted, a lie of omission forming on the tip of her tongue. Knowing full well, she asked Stanwick, “What do you mean?”

Stanwick took the child’s hands in hers, “I just felt something. Something I’ve never felt before.”

As she felt the whispers of the delvers through Stephanie’s velvet soft palms, she started to see what the child had achieved. It was monumental. Unthinkable.

“Stephanie,”Stanwick spoke slowly, gently, “You can’t do that.”

Stephanie smiled and waited for Stanwick to return her smile. She blinked, her smile falling slowly. It wasn’t a game.

“I don’t understand what you did.” Stanwick continued, careful of her words, because she meant them, “I’m scared for you, because I should know. I’ve been around enough.” She looked at the wall behind Stephanie, the universe flashing past, and she felt so confused, “I should know it all by now Stephanie, and I don’t. I don’t understand what you did just now, and I’m not sure anyone else in the world would understand. But it’s not a game.”

Stephanie smiled. Just a step ahead. It was all she needed to be.

Stanwick closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, Stephanie saw such fury, unlike anything she’d ever seen from her dad or aunt Han. She pouted, pearl blue eyes glistening with tears, “I’m sorry. I don’t realize I’m doing it.”

Stanwick shook Stephanie’s hands gently, “Don’t lie to yourself.” The words ricocheted around her head and her hands fell quickly to her sides. She wanted it so badly. It made her feel sick to her stomach. She tried again, marshaling her thoughts.

“You can control it?”

Stephanie nodded, then her head shook slowly, “I’m not sure.”

Stanwick took up her hands once more, “You must. At least until you understand it fully. I’ll help you.”

Stephanie thought about everything she had seen in her dream. There was too much. Unfathomable things she had witnessed, but she knew that Stanwick was right. She would always help her.

“Your eyes,” Stanwick leaned closer, “it looks like they’re healed.”

Stephanie shrugged, “They’re better.” She struggled to articulate what she meant, “I can see more. There’s less … It’s less fuzzy. There’s more to see.” Then she heard the call, the tongues twisting inside, “He’s waiting.”

 

Stanwick led her into the chamber, following a different path to that which she’d followed with the others. The twinkling lights spread out further with each footstep, glowing brighter by the second. Her mind reeled with the thrill of it; the thought of seeing him again, in all his horror and glory. She reached her hand out, touching the wall in just the right place.

Stephanie blinked, mesmerized, and one of Dannum’s immense eyes blinked in response. The slick rustling sound of his eyelid unfurling sending shivers down her spine. She laughed, then as the head moved, her laugher gave way to a squeal of fright. “Holy shish kebabs,” she whispered, running towards the head, reaching her fingers towards what she supposed in better light might pass as a lip. She had imagined she would be able to see him. Not like this. All of him. Now that she stood face to … well … mouth she guessed, it was clear to her that she’d have to stand a long way from him to actually see anything.

She looked at Stanwick, “Does he,” then realizing how impolite she was being, her eyes returned to the beast, “Do you bite?”

Dannum’s mind moved slowly, unpracticed. He had waited so long.

Stephanie smiled, leaning her head to one side, “You better bite. There’s an army coming.”

Stanwick stroked her fingers across a plate of metal on the floor, and a large chest lifted slowly to her touch.

When she had first started to build around Dannum, she had his voice in her head constantly. It was something that she grew oddly attached to. He was the most dreadful inner monologue. The voice that told her that he could devour the world while she took her lunch. The voice that told her he knew her every thought. That was rarely a convenient thing to hear, but she grew to love it. When he went silent, it was devastating, but she knew that there must be a way to hear him again. He had mouths. Two to be precise, but he never used them for talking.

She had drawn the silk from his delvers, and it had proved so much easier. With the silk of the delvers, she wove a blanket of glardium, large enough that she could sleep on his back, and cover herself, falling away into his memories, losing herself.

She pulled the glardium out of the chest and called over to Stephanie.

“You will hear him better with this.”

Stephanie ran her finger over the material, drawing a shooting star, “Is it a dress?”

Stanwick looked apologetic, “It’s just a blanket, but if we wrap it right …”

Stephanie took a corner of the weave in her hand and spun on the spot, wrapping herself up tight, “Look! I’m a caterpillar.”

“You’re going to become a butterfly then I suppose?”

“Mhmm.” She opened up the blanket and flapped the cloth, her arms spread wide.

Stanwick looked away, feeling herself well up with emotion. She chanced another look at her little butterfly, but it was too much. She choked up, laughing at how wonderfully silly she was. The girl Spiff. She wished she could stay like that forever. Dannum breathed in slowly, the sound of his lungs expanding, creaking muscles, skin tightening like so much stretched leather.

Stephanie inhaled, still flapping slowly, “It’s so warm in here.”

Stanwick nodded, “Dannum is warm blooded. Very warm blooded.”

“Can I touch him?” She looked into his eye, squinting, screwing up her face, “Can I touch you?”

“We need to get you up there.” Stanwick pointed towards the mountainous body.

“I can’t climb.” Stephanie confessed.

Stanwick shook her head, “There’s nothing you can’t do Spiff.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes, “Help me up. I’m serious. I suck at climbing.”

Then seventy foot of neck creaked and groaned into life, two lips pursed carefully about the glardium weave, and Stephanie was hoisted onto the back of the Beast of the Void.

 

“You’re bigger than I imagined.” Her voice quavered.

“I am nothing.”

Stephanie tilted back her head under the cloth and tried to mimic what she heard, her throat hurting as she reached for the correct guttural and glottal acrobatics, “I am Stephanie.” Dissatisfied, she tried again, gurgling the words, “I am nothing.” She wiped her drool on the back of her hand.

Two heads breathed out together, the muscles of his back arching over Stephanie’s head, “You are … the unwritten path. You are the celestial plan for those without hope. Once, they would say that when a soul passed, a star would be born. In the undrawn, in the unknown, such a star may be.”

She lay down flat, pressing her ear to his strangely smooth skin. Parts of him were smooth at least. She guessed that overall, he was anything but smooth, but right where she lay, he was smooth. She waited for him to elaborate on his proclamation, pretty pleased with where he was going with it.

“Go on …”

“You will be hailed. They will exalt you. Stephanie, the Princess of the Infinite.”

She giggled, “Shut up.”

He went on, “I dreamed once, and in that dream I saw a single thread. You see the tapestry. You know the warp and weft of it. I saw one thread and thought myself a god. How strange it must feel to see so much more.”

She moved her cheek, stretching her hands out, wishing that he could see her dream.

“Guard your dream young princess. For now I will be your guard, but I grow weary of this form. Too long with thoughts that ebb and flow with the tides. My blood boils for one man’s downfall.”

Stephanie patted her hand gently. She shouted to Stanwick, “You coming up?”

Her voice responded from somewhere far below, “Dannum is not a horse Spiff.”

 

Tiernan ached for this. It had been more than a century since he had encountered real combat. There was so much energy. Most of the troops had chosen to forgo any concession to the fact that there would be cameras watching. The most fearsome of them twitched and jostled, their ferocious teeth on display, their eyes wild with hunger, their musculature barely constrained by the ballistic armor. Those were the Blood-Bastards who had stalked people’s nightmares for centuries gone, giving rise to wild tales and dreaded titles. Tiernan always reveled in the glory of a good title.

He watched the soldiers load onto the three li-jet heavy transports. With two armored transports on-board each aircraft, it would be cramped, but having the support of the .50 caliber machine guns would be a comfort. He stepped onto the tail ramp of the lead vehicle and walked down the narrow isle between the troops. There was no rallying cry. Toan had been exacting in the brief. No prisoners. No survivors.

 

The walls of the chamber began to tremor as Dannum moved, the huge ceiling canopy folding up on itself, the tunnel above barely visible to Stephanie’s eyes. The beast reared up and Stephanie tumbled backwards into Stanwick’s arms, but Stanwick was ready with her fingers dug deep into the flesh Dannum’s back, the leeches bonding her to him. Two house sized claws reached up, grappling with the coarse stone of the tunnel. Stephanie felt the rush of air warm air on her face as he lifted, dragging himself upwards.

“We’re going to wreck the house?” Stephanie shrieked, half excited, half petrified by the thought of the house collapsing on them.

“We’re not directly under the house. This passage curves back on itself.” Stanwick spoke close to Stephanie’s ear.

So much dust and debris fell on the two riders as Dannum’s giant claws scraped at the stone, carving long furrows as they went. Stephanie coughed, squeezing her eyes tightly shut, “I can’t breathe.”

“Don’t then.” Stanwick yelled, “Let the delvers do their work. Just close your mouth.”

She tried. She closed her mouth and hummed, so desperate to burst into song now that she had the tune to little people in her head. Even knowing that she should be able to go without breathing, she couldn’t convince herself, so she wrapped the glardium tight around her face. She could see enough through the cloth, the tunnel above swaying wildly as she was jostled and jolted by the motion of Dannum’s muscles. The beast turned, clinging easily to the roof of the cave as it transitioned towards a flat passage. Stephanie slipped, her hands thrashing wildly for a finger hold as her body dangled. She managed to grasp hold of Stanwick’s neck, clinging tightly, pressing her cloth covered face against the back of Stanwick’s head.

Dannum corkscrewed about the tunnel until he was upright, barreling with great speed now. Stephanie swung wildly out to the side, her arms stronger than she had realized. She adjusted her grip, but her fingers somehow found their way to Stanwick’s mouth. She couldn’t let go, so she held on fast, one hand at Stanwick’s neck, the other with her fingers hooked over Stanwick’s bottom teeth. She could hear Stanwick’s laughter over her own scream, then finally her body smacked down onto the surface of Dannum’s back.

When the beast finally came to rest, Stephanie rested her head on Stanwick’s back and let out an exhausted whimper.

“I’m sorry.”

Stanwick released her grip and turned to face the child, “What are you sorry for?”

Stephanie laughed and wiped her fingers on the glardium, “I had my fingers in your mouth.”

“Oh that.” Stanwick raised her eyebrows, “You couldn’t help it. He’s fast.”

Stephanie nodded, “He’s scary. I’m glad he’s on our side.”

Stanwick pointed down the length of his body, “See his wings?”

Gasping, Stephanie leaned over and craned her neck.

“I don’t see them”

Stanwick shuffled closer to Stephanie, leaning their heads together and pointing at the long flap of leathery hide, “He can’t really fly with them, but when you see him with his wings spread wide, that’s scary.”

 

 

West had been a little surprised when he’d heard Stanwick use the word barracks. The thought of Stanwick stocking up with armaments and ammo was ludicrous. When he had opened the door to the next room, her words had started to make sense. The space read more like a more bizarre wing of a natural history museum. They were greeted by the sight of two long lines of skeletal animals, their bones pieced together in odd assemblages. He walked over to the nearest, stroking the tiger skull, his fingertips dipping over the curve of the frontal lobe, into the orbit. The skull sat atop the skeletal torso of a great ape, but the bones of the ape’s arms terminated in long hooked claws.

“Tasteful.” Charlene commented, a little appalled by what she saw.

“They’re not real.” West replied, “They’re casts.”

Walking towards a strange human-deer hybrid, David’s face screwed up in confusion “What’s the point?”

“Think of them as muses.” West suggested. He looked around, searching for the cooler cabinets he knew must be there somewhere. ‘Hithnatan eth durro’ he thought – muses and meat. In the great battlefields of the Mythologue, that was how barracks were stocked. He caught sight of them between the tree trunk bones of a mammoth; the side walls of the room lined with walk-in coolers.

Cobb stalked off further into the room, his eyes drawn to a large feline body which had been merged with a bull’s skull, “Stanwick makes these?”

West pulled open one of the cooler’s, “I don’t know. Probably. It’s a lost art.”

Cobb laughed, “Some things are meant to be lost.” He ran his hands over the bull’s horns, “So muses for what?”

Charlene remembered her first morning with the leeches. The fitness instructor, the bathroom mirror and all of the changes she had undergone. She stared at the tiger skull which West had touched. She had seen at least some small part of a battle of the Mythologue on the hopper. She moved closer, leaning in so that she could examine the teeth and the elongated jaw. Even the size of the skull didn’t seem like it would be too much of a challenge. No, she understood what West meant. The delvers understood. She pushed her jaw forward, feeling her lower canine teeth pressing into the flesh of her upper lip.

West returned to the center of the room, heaving a large carcass in his wake. He dropped it on the floor in between the two rows of skeletal abominations, “You know that fennec fox you were talking about?”

Cobb smiled broadly.

“Well,” West went on, “These muses are like your fennec fox.” He pointed towards the mammoth skeleton, “There’s nothing in this room that is beyond you.” He walked over to another muse, patting the thing on the spinal column, “The only thing that stands between you in your current form, and Cobb the bear headed antelope, is time and food.” He shoved the carcass with the toe of his shoe, “I don’t know how much time we have, but the pantry is full.”

David’s nostrils flared as he looked at the meat, “I can’t eat that.”

West shrugged, “There’s other food in there. Shelves full of bratwurst, cooked chickens and cheeses.”

Charlene turned to face the others and opened her mouth, holding up her hands.

David froze rigid. Charlene’s face was wrong. He tried to articulate the thought, but he kept coming back to the same word. Just wrong. Her mouth was pushed forward, her teeth showing under lips spread too thin. She had spent little thought on her nose, which was still essentially a nose, but the cartilage of the bridge had extended with her mouth, so her nostrils were pushed wide. That mouth though. David couldn’t take his eyes off her teeth. He looked at the tiger skull and realized that her teeth were sharper, coming to dagger like points. All of them. Then he noticed her hands, or rather, he saw that her hands had become something much more frightening than her teeth. They weren’t remotely human, or even vaguely feline. Two large hook like claws extended several inches beyond where David imagined her fingers would have come to.

“Roar.” She tried to shout the word, but it was almost impossible to properly annunciate the rhotic consonant, so it just came out as a protracted ‘yaw’.

West clapped his hands together in elation,“There.” He patted Cobb’s back, “You see now? The muses.” He looked at Charlene’s body, which had understandably lost some of its mass. He walked over and hugged her, her claws digging awkwardly into his back, “Now you need to eat.”

 

Stephanie felt the change in Dannum, the heat rising, the muscles of his back flexing. He could hear them, somewhere up there. She felt his want. She saw it; the disembodied manifestation of his desire, moving out ahead of him with reckless abandon. But he waited, because through the child, he could see. Patience was its own reward. He beheld as each impulsive form bled on the unseen battlefield of an unwoven world. Patience. When the drone strikes started above them, cracks crazed the walls around them, the earth groaning worryingly. Patience.

“Does time really speed up when you get older?” Stephanie asked, because she knew that if anyone could answer, it would be Stanwick.

Stanwick stroked the debris out of Stephanie’s hair, “Time is whatever you make of it.”

Surprised by her answer, Stephanie glanced over her shoulder, “Aunt Hannah says the same thing.”

“She must be pretty smart then.”

Stephanie nodded, “Super smart.”

The tunnel shook again, rubble tumbling about Dannum’s claws far below.

“I wish Aunt Han was here.” Stephanie admitted, knuckling her eyes as she blinked away the dust. Before Stanwick could answer, Stephanie went on, “I know she couldn’t be here. I mean, I haven’t seen her. I don’t think she ever came along with us.”

Stanwick smiled, “It’s not really safe here.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes, “We’re fine.” She patted a scaly outcrop of Dannum’s back, then leaned on her side, resting her head. Listening to the rolling thunder of the drone strikes, Stephanie closed her eyes, “Are you married?”

“Well Stephanie, that is a complicated question.”

“Um, I don’t think so.” Stephanie corrected her, certain that she understood at least this much about the workings of the world.

Stanwick thought about the many vows she had made and broken. There was no easy way to explain it to a seven year old, so she settled for a half truth, “I’m not married any more, no.”

Stephanie sighed, satisfied that she was in the company of wisdom, “I don’t think I’ll ever get married.”

 

For twenty minutes their conversation meandered, punctuated by the thunderous noise of the drone strikes above. So many important questions. Favorite colors, books, films, princesses, food. Stanwick enjoyed answering. It was a rare opportunity to chisel herself in stone for that one moment in time, defined by a child’s perspective. When the bombing pattern seemed to reach a crescendo, Stephanie sat upright and handed the glardium weave to Stanwick, then held her arms over her head, “It’s time.”

Stanwick nodded, “So it is.” She wrapped the cloth about Stephanie, around her waist twice, allowing some of the material to drop in swags before collecting both ends of the train up and passing it up over her shoulders. She pulled the two ends of the cloth around Stephanie’s neck, then she pulled the rest of the material down Stephanie’s back, tucking it through the loop she had made about her waist.

Stephanie’s arms fell down to her sides. She thanked Stanwick, and hugged her, then the two of them crouched low, holding tight onto whatever handholds they could find in Dannum’s tough skin.

 

Dannum reared up, clawing at the rock overhead. There wasn’t far to climb. He bored a hole all about him, careful of his precious cargo. He would guard the child, and her dream. Up through soil, pushing forward now, towards the sounds of the engines and footsteps. Up through the ruins of the house, scooping aside tons of masonry with each claw.

Leveling off, he raised up on his rear haunches, waiting, because Dannum had seen. This was supposed to be Tiernan’s moment. This was the start of Tiernan’s great war against humanity, and out off the ashes, the birth of a true religion for the masses. Worship him and be spared. Tiernan had given them all a spectacle to behold; a resurrection for the modern age. Well, Dannum could hardly blame him for that. He had learned from the best. Born of Allim, raised on the book of Antrusca, Tiernan had grown up with that image of resurrection, but sure, hadn’t everyone? Even Dannum had grown up with a belief in the rebirth of the Lonorren, the architect of continents, and before Lonorren there was Yuntannan, and on and on. These people were no different. Resurrection was nothing new to them.

Time to give them something new.

 

Stephanie watched, detached from the reality which lay before her, because it was only a fragment of what there was to see. She felt Dannum’s consciousness, his bristling awareness of this new world. She felt the ground beneath him and the cool of the soil as his claws dug their colossal trenches. He heard something overhead, but Stephanie looked up to the sky and saw nothing. In that moment, there was such a surge of malevolent joy from Dannum. Malevolence wasn’t an emotion that Stephanie was familiar with. It rose in her, warm and absorbing, and in an attempt to expunge that new feeling from her range of emotion, she thought about Hannah, and she smiled.

Get up.

Dannum heard her command, but still he waited.

 

On Toan’s order, the battalion broke off into platoons of thirty, men and women marching in tight regimented groups. He was front and center and proud of it. He didn’t believe in leading from the rear. If he moved, his soldiers would follow. If he died, there were another forty men and women who had fought on the fields of the Mythologue and each of them were more than ready to step up. Dying didn’t seem likely. The estate was thoroughly demolished. They had hit the site so hard with the drone strikes that it had started to feel like an earthquake. Now, there was just rubble.

His platoon crossed a line of shrubs which bordered what was left of the driveway. His heart began to race, then a couple of seconds later he started to feel unsteady on his feet, his eye-line keeling off to one side, the horizon tilting. He reached out and grabbed the shoulder of the woman to his left, Lieutenant Kadalynn Royse. She held her right hand up towards her face, then pointed towards the ruins with her index finger.

Toan followed the line of her finger, and he saw. Just a glimpse. The solitary child standing in the wreck. Then either side of her, perhaps forty foot apart, the two heads lifted up from the ruins, one all scales and teeth, the other flashing a razor sharp beak, its large wide eyes facing forwards, piercing black set in rings of gold. He lost sight of the child, hidden by the hulking mass as the beast finally pushed up, out of the ground. There was the answer; the heart racing, the unease, the distant dread. There was the earthquake, the nightmare, the threat of oblivion. The beast unfurled its wings and the wind was so strong that the outermost platoons struggled to stay on their feet.

 

It was unthinkable. He wondered if Tiernan had known, but he supposed that even he wouldn’t have been stupid enough to bring so small a force to bear on a beast of the void. They had a platoon, Six .50 caliber machine gunners and the drones. He looked down the line towards Tiernan’s platoon, and saw that Tiernan was running across the lawn towards him. Clearly he hadn’t known. There was a gust of wind, the beast rearing up further, pushing out of the rubble with its hind legs, then it lunged forward, its front claws slamming into the earth not forty foot from the front line of the platoons.

The earth split, the driveway cracking and buckling. These were surefooted men and women, and many of them stumbled. Tiernan hurdled over a jagged ramp of concrete, sliding to home in front of Toan.

“We need to leave.” Toan yelled.

Tiernan shook his head, his eyes filled with fury, “There’s cameras on us. We need to take out its legs, feast on his carcass and pickle his fucking heads in brine.” He looked behind him, “How did she get her hands on a beast of the void?”

Toan unhooked his satellite phone from his hip, called in the orders to the rear gunners. He grabbed Tiernan’s arm before he had a chance to return to his platoon, “Did you see the girl?”

“Girl? You saw Stanwick?”

Toan shook his head, “Up there,” He pointed, “There’s a little girl, riding him.”

Tiernan laughed. “The tongues are wagging. Little shits messing with your head, remember?”

He didn’t watch Tiernan return to his troops. His eyes were back on the beast. He remembered. En masse, the delvers communicated more directly with the minds of their hosts. That girl though; he was sure she was real. He hadn’t even seen her until Lieutenant Royse had pointed her out.

He heard the machine gunners open fire, all six of them aiming for the front left leg, up near the torso. Suddenly the air was filled with the sound of screaming. Toan thought at first that perhaps this was the chatter of the tongues, the beast lashing out with visions of despair. A spray of blood hit him, boiling hot, molten, pouring easily through the fabric of his uniform, eating into the skin of his chest and neck. His instinct was to dive to the ground and roll, but this only served to spread the burning mess further so that his whole upper body roared with the painful fires.

Kadalynn picked up Toan by his legs and dragged him backwards, retreating with the majority of the front line, but the machine gun fire continued, and an arterial gush of the beast’s blood caught her on her legs. With the noise and force of a landslide, the beast lunged forward, its reptilian head jabbing fast, mouth wide, one of it’s teeth shearing cleanly through the body of the soldier to Kadalynn’s left. She dropped Toan and dove towards towards the girl’s torso. Kadalynn’s legs seared with agony and her instinct was to feast on the girl, but the bitch cried for help. Can’t eat a comrade when they’re crying for aid. She grabbed the girl’s hand and made towards Toan. There was a strong breeze, the snap of jaws, a whimper, and her load was suddenly too light. She threw the severed arm down-field, grabbed Toan, and ran as hard as she could, hoping that she could feed them both before more trouble came.

 

Tiernan’s platoon faired no better. Three of his front line had gone down with the first hit of blood, the scalding clots hitting them full in the face. They had choked and thrashed about, then in three quick thrusts, their bodies were lanced through and scooped up by the beak of the beast’s birdlike head. The head cocked back on its long neck, and the bodies tumbled to their end. It was so fast. That was what bothered Tiernan more than anything. He remembered the Mythologue. When it came to the beasts of the void, he had a very different perspective from most members of the battalion. He had been one of the worst beasts himself. He had been mighty, cunning and ravenous, but he couldn’t have been that fast.

 

Stephanie looked through Dannum’s eyes, and Dannum looked through hers. Always a step ahead. He could see the soldiers movements before they had even thought of them, and he was there with his beak, or his teeth. Stephanie closed her eyes to it as best she could, but that didn’t stop his torrential emotions, his wave of euphoria as he swallowed, or his horrendous hunger for wrath when he bled. She looked beyond, because she had to; past the now, seeing the retreats, the fades, the advances of each platoon. Dannum quietened. This was better. Her way.

With the chatter and wagging of a million tongues, he unleashed Stephanie’s vision, flooding the minds of the soldiers with a sea of possibilities, ghosts of themselves writhing and tangling with one another. Not even the strongest and oldest of them could withstand his thrall. With the soldiers blinded by their own uncertainty and panic, Dannum beat his wings, pouncing forward, soaring over their heads.

When he landed, the ruined fields burst apart beneath the heavily armored Blood-Bastards, the rear half of the battalion lost in the chasm which opened up around them, the rest of them tumbling fast towards that same dire drop. Dannum roared and shrieked, his spit sloshing and foaming as he rammed the armored personnel carriers, hammering his giant claws down, driving the vehicles into the dirt. He turned about, each footstep heard and felt for many miles around. His blood boiled for one man. He knew Tiernan’s mind, the creaking of millennial gears, the clicking cogs of centuries of arrogance, but even with his raptorous eyes Dannum saw nothing.

Stanwick stood up and helped Stephanie to her feet. She led her towards the trough between Dannum’s shoulders and she pointed towards the abyss that he had created, “Now, we go down.”

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

h1>{color:#000;}.

Damian Huntley is a science fiction author based in County Durham, England where he lives with his wife and two cats, Schrödinger and Cat Stevens.

 

 

 

h1>{color:#000;}.

CONNECT WITH DAMIAN HUNTLEY

 

 

Website: www.damianhuntley.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/damianhuntleyauthor


Histories of the Void Garden, Book 1: Pyre of Dreams

When an event watched by the entire world ends with the assassination of sixteen world leaders, David Beach’s worst nightmare is just beginning. With a seven-year-old daughter to worry about, David finds himself the only suspect in the investigation into this global tragedy, and with no one to turn to, he’s all too willing to accept the help from any corner. When help comes, it comes with a cost. Both David and his daughter are dragged deeper into a world of dark secrets which have been kept from the world for centuries. Is David willing to pay the ultimate price for his freedom?

  • ISBN: 9781311676450
  • Author: Damian Huntley
  • Published: 2016-05-30 13:35:33
  • Words: 125712
Histories of the Void Garden, Book 1: Pyre of Dreams Histories of the Void Garden, Book 1: Pyre of Dreams