Authors: Damian Huntley
Histories of the Void Garden, Book 1:Pyre of Dreams
A Novel by Damian Huntley
Copyright 2016 DamianHuntley
Published by DamianHuntley at Smashwords
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One - Capitalist Reform
Six- Calvert Cliffs
Seven - Pizza and History
Eight - Saving Mr. Beach
Nine - The Void Garden
Ten -The Hopper
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 theAuthor
For Ryen, becausewithout you I wouldn’t know how to write a grounded happyhuman.
For JeanHuntley, for life, the universe and everything.
For KatieBlackwell, for having the sense to tell me to try harder.
“There is nothing like a dream tocreate the future.”
- Victor Hugo,Les MisérablesCHAPTER ONECapitalistReform
David Beach wasstarting to flag a little. The heat would have been enough to wearhim down, but with the added frustration of his seven-year-olddaughter sitting on his shoulders, pounding incessantly on hischest with her feet, he was beginning to think that even thishistoric event didn’t merit enduring such torture. He gritted histeeth and gazed towards the podium, hoping that the leaders of thefree 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 agroan of exasperation when she responded, “Daaad, I might miss it.’That whine … he only had himself to blame; he recognized his owncorrosive determination in the sing song trail off of her plea.
“Spiff, youdon’t even know what you’re going to see.”
“ThePRESIDENT!” She still occasionally struggled with ‘r’ in president,but she had been practicing, and this time she managed to deliverthe word perfectly, emphasizing her enthusiasm by gently pattingher father’s hair.
David’s eyesrolled and he inhaled slowly, trying to be as happy as he knew heshould be that Stephanie had understood something of the importanceof the day. Still, she was underselling the gravitas somewhat.Today the President of America, along with the fifteen other worldleaders who made up the Economic Unification Council, were meetingin order to sign an accord that promised to change the worldeconomy at its most fundamental level.
It was anagreement that had been thirteen years in the making and David hadplayed a part in its conception. It was only right that he shouldbe within spitting distance of the podium. If you stood on thefifth floor of an apartment building and tried to spit on a passingpedestrian you could probably make the shot, and following thatlogic, David figured that he’d done alright; fifty feet or so fromthe podium might as well be spitting distance.
David worked asan assistant to the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence inPresident Tiernan’s administration. If he was honest with himself,he was only attending the signing ceremony because of hisinvolvement with the Undersecretary. He’d had a sense of impendingdoom about the whole thing for several weeks now, and when thatfeeling had refused to abate, he’d tried to wriggle out ofattending, but Carlton wouldn’t hear of it.
David’s friendsoften referred to him as a conspiracy nut, which was pretty muchall you had to do these days to write off a person’s opinions. TheUndersecretary valued much of what David had to say, even when histhoughts 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 hadto happen. Everyone knew it. A great many people were concernedabout today’s events, but those concerns could never be allowed toimpact on the momentous occasion. The meeting of the EconomicUnification Council and the signing of the act was to signal theend of the old regime; the President might as well have painted abullseye on his chest.
There was a wave ofmotion in the crowd in front of David, an eruption of applause andcheering, but all David could see were the bobbing heads and wavinghands of a few thousand people. He couldn’t even see thebillboard-sized display playing live coverage of the stage. Unseenby David Beach, but watched by the avid eyes of hundreds ofmillions of people around the world, President Allan Tiernan walkedup the short staircase to the stage, followed closely by Russia’sPresident Abakumov, France’s President Loubé and the leaders ofthirteen of the most influential countries in the world. The menand women lined up on the stage, with President Tiernan making forthe central podium, ready to address the nation. Each of thefigures on the podium would have an opportunity to speak directlyto the concerns and needs of their people, but this was PresidentTiernan’s moment, and he steadied himself, licking his lips andlooking down with an air of solemnity.
By somemiracle, a gap opened up in the crowd just large enough for Davidto push forwards a little and catch a glimpse of the giant monitor.David was already grinding his teeth, and as he arched his head tothe 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 wavingconfidently at the world.
One mile away, in aNorth facing room on the eighteenth floor of the Arctum Industriesoffice complex, a lone figure packed ammo into four emptymagazines. After all of the anxieties and tribulations, he wascalm. Nothing could distract him from his goal. He wasn’t about tocommit murder. He had told himself this so many times that he wasalmost convinced the rest of the world would see it that way. Five.338 Lapua Magnum bullets per cartridge. He loaded the firstcartridge into the AWM rifle and checked the sights. There, throughthe glass of the U.S. Optics Scope, almost as clear as the imagedisplayed on the high definition monitor next to him, the manwatched President Tiernan commence his address to the nation.
The shotsthemselves would not be a test of skill, he could make this shotone hundred times out of one hundred and still feel no sense ofachievement. Timing, that might be an issue though. There weresixteen squibs, small explosive charges, mounted at strategicpoints around the precinct and these squibs were set to go off atvery precise times. He knew the squibs had not been discovered bythe Secret Service, or this historic event would not be running onschedule. Speed was absolutely of the essence; sixteen shots firedwithin the space of nine seconds, four AWM rifles mounted on thewindow ledge, and the shots all had to be timed perfectly tocoincide with the sound of squibs firing in close proximity to thestage.
The gunman feltno fear, felt no remorse for what he was about to do, no prideeither. It wasn’t murder. It was just a message.
David had beenwatching the monitor for what felt like an eternity now and he wasstarting to wonder how bored Stephanie must be feeling. StephanieBeach was in her element actually, ecstatic that she was so muchtaller than the people around her, and at the same time, pleasedthat she hadn’t been made to stand. At some point, David wouldexplain to her that she didn’t have to understand the wordmanipulateto be manipulative, but that conversationwouldn’t happen today. Today she would pat her father’s hair withmild elation and grin at the little people around her, all muchshorter than her.
PresidentTiernan placed his hands either side of the podium and focused hisgaze on a distant point in the crowds. Behind him and to eitherside, the other heads of state prepared to deliver the address intheir own languages.
“We speak todayas one voice.” Tiernan lowered his head briefly as the crowdcheered. “We are a voice, not unified by a tragedy, but by ourdesire to forestall tragedy.”
David watchedas the camera panned across the faces on stage, each of them pacingthemselves to match the speed of Tiernan’s speech.
“We are avoice, not of lamentation for the ills of the world, but of hopefor what we have set out today to achieve.” He paused, his eyesmoving slowly about the faces in the crowd, “Economic Unificationhas been a shared dream … An all encompassing passion for those ofus who stand before you today, and we know we share that dream withmany of you, but to those who would seek to silence our voice, asone we ask, where is your shame?”
Cheers eruptedfrom a crowd united, and David stepped to the side as oneenthusiastic onlooker threw his arms in the air in celebration.
“No longer canwe ignore the clamor of the masses, the chant of the ninety-ninepercent when they ask, what gall? Where’s their shame? How darethey? Today, with one voice, we will answer loud and clear, enoughis enough.”
Behind him,President Loubé finished, “ça suffit, comme ça.” Tiernan nodded,“Enough is enough. Today, with the introduction of a unifiedcurrency,” he raised the index finger of his right hand, countingoff, “salary caps, minimum wages and globalized health care …today, we level the playing field, and we say as one, if you don’tlike it, get off the field.”
As the madnessof the crowd set in about him, David didn’t understand what hadhappened at first. He heard a loud crack, somewhere off to his leftand he didn’t react to it, didn’t flinch. He was so intent onwatching the huge LCD display, the close-up image of the presidentsmiling and waving casually. There was something odd there,something about the president’s face. The moment stretched out infront of David, a smear on the camera lens, a long dirty lineappearing on the image, and a flash of dark red there, along thecrooked line. An eternity between David’s brain processing theimage he was seeing, and connecting it to the loud cracking soundsthat he could hear. Then the red was gone almost as quickly as ithad appeared and now the president’s hand was clutching at hisforehead as he stumbled backward. The camera had cut to a widershot now and there were more explosive cracking noises and theother figures on the stage started to stumble and fall over eachother in the commotion.
People aroundDavid pushed and shoved, some of them screaming and pointing at themonitor, other’s pointing to various buildings around the precinct.Stephanie was holding tightly around David’s shoulders and she wasscreaming too. David knew in the back of his mind that he should bedoing something, anything to calm Stephanie or protect her from thepandemonium that was starting to unfold around them, but he wascompletely incapable of action. Something was profoundly wrong withwhat he had just witnessed. He was paralyzed by the thought, no,not even a thought. Just a feeling, an instinct. The hairs on hisarms standing on end, Stephanie’s legs digging into his chest, thethought clattering around his numbed head, a clumsy but untouchableinterloper.
The shots werestill ringing out.
David blinkedhis eyes, trying to focus, trying desperately to see the stage orthe monitor, but the panicking crowd made that impossible.Stephanie was patting her father’s chest, yelling at him to put herdown. She didn’t understand why he wasn’t moving, what was wrongwith him? Why wouldn’t he help her climb down? She was too scaredof being knocked off his shoulders by the people who were runningaround. She would worry about why her father wasn’t moving once shegot to the ground. She eased herself lower down his back, grippingtight with her knees, arms around his neck, then she dropped to theground, stumbling slightly as her feet hit the floor. She tugged ather father’s hand, trying desperately to get his attention. “Dad,c’mon, Daddy … Dad!” She yelled at him, her voice breaking as tearsstarted to flow.
David Beachlooked down at his daughter, and he didn’t know what to do. Hedidn’t really recognize her in that instant. He couldn’t hold on tothe fact that she was his daughter, and she needed him. Realityonly gripped him when he realized that Stephanie was crying. Hebent quickly and scooped her up in his arms, hugging her close tohis chest. He started to try and dodge between the crowds of peopleto make his way toward the stage, unsure of what good it would doif he could reach that destination. Would anyone there allow himclose enough to find out what had happened? Nonetheless, he obeyedhis instincts.
By the time hereached the vicinity of the stage, he could barely hear Stephanie’ssobs over the wail of sirens and announcements being made throughbullhorns. He patted the back of his daughter’s head and kissed herear, “it’ll be alright honey, don’t worry.” He tried to soundreassuring, but his voice trembled as he spoke.
There wasalready a pretty intimidating line of police in riot gearsurrounding the stage. David could see what looked like paramedicsand a number of governmental agents swarming the stage. Heentertained the notion that his White House credentials would gethim closer, but when he arched his head back to see Stephanie’stear-stained face, he thought better of it. What did any of thisreally matter anymore? This was the culmination of all of his worstnightmares. He didn’t feel vindicated in his paranoia. He might beout of a job. The president might be dead, and from the sounds ofgunfire that he had heard, it was possible that more than onecountry would be left in turmoil.CHAPTER TWOCharlene
I could just killthem, West thought to himself, that would put a stop to it easyenough. He gazed vacantly at the television and he imagined thefeeling of his fingers stroking the cold leather arm of the couch.He couldn’t remember the feeling of leather, or cold for thatmatter, these pleasantries long since lost to him. He was slightlymelancholic for such things. Friends too … god knows how manyfriends he’d lost over the years, each of them as distant now ashis sense of touch. He could recall them, friends, leather, placesand all, if he could muster the courage to step up to the hopper,but even that had lost its appeal.
Weary, he castan eye over the images of the riots on the large flat screen, wellaware that if he walked up to the window, he would be able to seethe lunacy unfold in real time on the streets below. This had beenthe state of affairs since the assassination three weeks earlier,but he was distracted and detached from it all, and this feelinghad been building in him for months now, engulfing him.
Hearing hadbecome somewhat of a problem. If he put his mind to it, he used tobe able to hear conversations all over the city. Over the pastyear, he had struggled to restrain that ability, and it had reacheda point where now, it required exhausting feats of his imaginationjust to block out the wall of sound. He would sit in darkness,imagining blazing infernos swallowing the city, or tornadoessweeping through the streets of New York, sucking up the unwittingcitizens as they went about their business. Anything, just to turnoff the infernal babble of humanity.
The neighborshad 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 tocommercials, there in his own shadowy reflection, unkempt, bearded,gaunt and brooding, definitely a terrorist. In another moment, hesaw President Tiernan’s image, accompanied by that same sickeningdiatribe they had been playing over and over; the inaugural ball,the handshakes in front of the white house, and always suchsaccharine headlines, ‘The Nation Remembers President Tiernan: TooYoung to Die.’ He shook his head in disbelief.
These were theend times, sure enough. All portents pointed to it. The bones hadbeen cast. West needed someone. He needed someone who he could makeunderstand. In that moment, West knew what he had to do.
Miss Osterman livedseveral doors down from West, apartment 412. When she heard thegentle knocking at her door she decided that whoever it was wouldgo away if she ignored it. When the knocking was repeated, sherolled her eyes and braced herself, one fragile hand on the arm ofthe cushioned chair, the other hand grasping her dully aching righthip. 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, closingher eyes as the memory of some of those years flowed through her.She sometimes wished that she had been blessed with a little moregrace and dignity along with her advancing years, but Miss Ostermanreconciled herself to the fact that the younger woman in her, theone who would have already made it to the door, was pissed off.
She undid thedeadbolt, pulling the door open a crack, the thick and reassuringchain preventing it from opening further.
Her eyesadjusted to the light in the hallway beyond and she managed to makeout the hulking unruly form of that damned foreigner from down thehall. Definitely a terrorist that one, no doubt about it. She madeto close the door, but his voice rang out, “Miss Osterman I need ahaircut.” His voice was clean, almost practiced, Ford A-type, ApplePie and Elvis American. Not what Miss Osterman had expected, andshe was suddenly aware of the fact that she’d never heard the mantalk, other than the occasional agitated utterance as she hadpassed him in the hallway.
She moved backtowards the opening in the door and peered out, apprehensive butcurious. The man needed a haircut, she was willing to agree withhim on that issue at least, and that small concession wassomething. “So?” she asked. As she watched the man’s face, shethought she could see the suggestion of a smile somewhere amongstall that hair. The man’s hand moved to his beard, fingers movingslowly through the thick bristles, then up over the sandpaperstubble, and into his shaggy fair hair, brushing a few wavy locksout of the way of his eyes as they went. Those eyes. As the manlooked down at her, Miss Osterman saw something vaguely familiar orwelcoming in his eyes.
“So … I hearyou are a girl who can cut hair Miss Osterman.”
Her mouthpuckered up and her eyes narrowed as she broke into a slow and warmlaugh. He certainly sounded wholesome and harmless, possibly a wolfin sheep’s clothing she thought, but possibly just what he appearedto be. Still, he’d called her a “girl,” which certainly won himbrownie points.
“I’m old youknow; I don’t do hair anymore.”
The man smiledbroadly, white teeth beaming through the dirty blond undergrowth ofhair, “I’m sure you’ll find it’s like riding a bike Miss Osterman…”
She frowned andlaughed cynically, her voice breaking up slightly as sheinterrupted him, “Riding a bike would be a slice of misery, whatwith my joints aching the way they are nowadays.”
The man smiledand nodded apologetically, “I meant, it’ll come back to you,” hescratched his beard, smirking, “and let’s be honest, you couldn’tmake it any worse.”
Miss Ostermanwas unsure of herself as she moved her hand to the chain on thedoor, but that hair … that big mop of hair. She had always reveledin a head of hair like that. You could really get to know someoneover a haircut like that.
She led himinto the apartment, making her best effort to walk casually andsteadily, the pain in her hips and knees making the act ratherdifficult. She led him to the den, where her television silentlyplayed the daytime soap operas, the flickering light playing on athousand tiny collected memories; painted shells, paper umbrellas,embroidered fans, Russian dolls, china bulls, all things CharleneOsterman had collected on her travels during her wilder days. Shemomentarily relished the thought that the gentleman might ask aboutthem … about her. A faint smile played on her lips as she rummagedin a side table for her tools.
West enjoyed the soundof Miss Osterman’s voice, the slightly cracked southern lilt, NewYork pouring through those cracks here and there, neither side ofthe Mason-Dixon line conceding much ground. He closed his eyes tothe room as she addressed him, “So, who told you I was ahairdresser hmm? There’s not many around who even know anymore.”West was quiet, hoping to sit out this particular verbal dance, atleast for now. The sound of Miss Osterman rattling and rummagingthrough the drawer, metal on metal, pulled West out of his reverieand he coughed politely, “Oh, you know Miss Osterman, you live in abuilding long enough, you hear things.”
The womanstopped still, thoughtful. She’d lived at Madison and 30th on andoff for most of her life. Her parents had owned an apartment therefrom the 1940s and she had taken it over in 1963 when her parentshad died, too young, her Father from a series of heart attacks, andher Mother only months later, from throat cancer. Her Mother’sdeath had prompted her to spend some time visiting with family onher mother’s side in South Carolina and she’d held on to someinherited land there until the late seventies, but she eventuallysold it for a pittance when the last of her Southern relatives hadpassed away. She started to wonder why her mind had skipped offdown that path, then she remembered the young man’s statement abouthearing things. She supposed he hadn’t meant any offense by it.
Of course shewasn’t a busy body, not at all, she was a concerned citizen, butshe did try to pay attention to the comings and goings of newresidents. Now that she thought about it, although she had heardhis name mentioned often enough, especially over the last couple ofyears, she couldn’t remember when Mr Yestler had taken up residencethere. She shrugged off the thought, having spied her favoritescissors and razor deep in the recesses of the sturdy Edwardiandresser. Plenty of time, she thought as she picked out the finelycrafted scissors, only the bows showing from the neck of the velvetpouch. Nice thick hair, good facial growth, she’d figure him outsoon enough.
Miss Osterman had, forseveral years, run a small salon near Madison Square Park. It hadbeen a tribulation and a joy, often in equal measures, but herregulars had always given her a reason to show up each day. It hadbeen her and Magda Breckon for the most part, Magda always tryingto avoid taking on anything grandiose and complicated, pouncing onthe few gentleman callers they had, because she knew it would makefor an easy half hour. She had been good company, and when Magdaannounced to Charlene Osterman that she would have to part ways, ithad come as a blow. It would be several days before CharleneOsterman would realize quite how serious a blow Magda had struckand by that point it was too late. Magda Breckon had cleaned outCharlene’s account and had left town, never to be seen by CharleneOsterman again.
The comfortableand 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 abeautiful chair.” West smiled as he remarked to Miss Osterman. Hewatched her through the reflection in the large oval mirror mountedon the wall in front of him. He ran his fingers over the softleather arms and patted them, “I love the feel of an old leatherchair; it’s so comforting.” He lied casually.
She ran herfingers through his hair, plying the parting and allowing the longgreasy ringlets to fall in their natural pattern. She should haveoffered to wash it for him she thought, but she didn’t have a washsink, 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 smilebroadened, taking on an almost mischievous countenance, “I’m sure Ican trust your judgment, do whatever you think is necessary to makeme human again.”
Miss Ostermanreturned West’s smile, nodding gently. It had always entertainedher when the chair was taken by someone who had so obviously nothad a haircut in a long while; there was often an air of prideabout them, like they were every hairdresser’s dream. She didn’tkeep a misting bottle around for the express purpose of doing hairanymore, so she moved discretely to the windowsill and picked upthe bottle which she used for misting her window-plants, notconcerned that the water might be stagnant because she did changeit at least twice a week. Stepping in front and to the side ofWest, she placed a hand, palm facing down over his forehead toshield his eyes as she sprayed the water into his hair, then movingaround behind him, she made sure his hair was wet through, withlittle pulses of her finger on the trigger of the plasticbottle.
With his headlowered slightly, West watched the old lady work. Old. West musedon the word, on the degrees of separation such a word could create.Miss Osterman’s features bore many marks of age, true, but Westwouldn’t have described her as old, and he wondered now why theword had even come to his mind. He watched the tendons in herwrists as her fingers clutched the bottle, watched the colorfulskin move subtly over the deep etched veins. He wanted her todiscover him for who he was and he knew that ultimately it wouldn’trequire another word to pass between them, but still, he hoped shewould start to open up and talk. Perhaps she would ask the rightquestions and he would reveal himself before she finished cuttingaway his Clark Kent disguise. Then again … perhaps she wouldn’tknow him after all.
He watched herpurse 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 hisneck and saw that there were already several large clumps of hairlying there, he thought he would have to break the ice again, thepool of conversation had frozen over so quickly, but Miss Ostermanwas already waiting with her icepick.
“Mr Yestler,would you mind telling me about the leeches?”
West blinkedslowly, running the question through his mind a couple of times,trying to figure out if perhaps he had misheard it. A sense ofparanoia hardened his muscles, fingers clamping the arms of thechair with nervous tension. How could she possibly know about theleeches? Had he been made to sit and ponder this question for long,he would have abandoned this social exercise prematurely andreturned to his apartment to hide for a few more days. At leastthat, although maybe he would have simply packed up, and abandonedNew York altogether, write it off as an abortive attempt atassimilating with humanity. Before he had the chance to make up hismind to leave, Miss Osterman spared him the tortuous introversionand elaborated, “When you talk to yourself, when you’re stormingout of the building or through these corridors,” she pulled downthe tip of his ear with one hand and started to carefully snip acontoured line through the hair there, “you mention leeches quitefrequently.”
West’s eyelidsfell closed as he tried to imagine how her fingers felt touchinghis ear. It hadn’t occurred to him that he talked to himself; he’dheard voices for as long as he could remember, it didn’t seempossible that any of the voices were his.
“I’ve heard youoften enough, f’ing leeches this and damnable leeches that. I’vesometimes thought you might be talking about the other inhabitantsof this building to be honest.”
He glanced upat her reflection in the mirror and made eye contact. This probablywasn’t the way West had wanted the conversation to steer. Notrealizing that he talked to himself made it difficult for him torespond to Miss Osterman. Hecouldhave been talking aboutthe residents of the building, but he estimated that playing tothat line of thought wouldn’t be the most endearing tact totake.
“I’ve got somescars on my legs, they bother me sometimes,” West lied, “I had anasty run in with some leeches while I was river swimming upstate afew years back.”
Miss Ostermansmiled a thin lipped acknowledgment and nodded, “I suppose MrYestler, it’s possible that your neighbors have you all wrong. I’dbe the first to admit, I am always worried when I hear you talkingto yourself.”
West sensedthat this honest admission from Miss Osterman deserved to beanswered with an equal show of trust. He grimaced and let his eyesfall to his lap, “Miss Osterman, until just now, I hadn’t realizedthat I talked to myself.”
She pulled thescissors away from his hair and let her arms fall to her sides asshe started to laugh warmly, “Well, it happens to the best of us, Iwouldn’t worry about it. You can call me Charlene by the way.”
West smiledweakly, “and you can call me West.”
“Hippieparents?” she asked, innocently.
“My parentswere scientists, foreign; for them, West was just a word that movedthe air pleasantly.”
“So there issome foreign blood in you?” Charlene asked, reassuring herself thatthis was at least some validation of her suspicion that Mr Yestlerwas potential terrorist material. He smiled at her, brow furrowedslightly, “I’m not honestly sure what kind of blood runs through meanymore. I suppose it could be foreign.”
She had startedcutting in layers at the back of his head, graduated towards acurve that described the arch of his neck, “Well I suppose whateverblood it is, it’s lived in America long enough to be considerednative now?”
West laughedgently and nodded.
She pulled herhands away from the back of his head quickly, “Oh I’m sorry, didthat hurt?”
West wasconfused by Charlene’s question; unable to tell what she had donethat might have hurt him.
“No, no bother,don’t worry about me.” West knew that she couldn’t have cut him; hesuspected she’d tugged his hair with her scissors. She looked calm,her mouth flickering into a smile as she returned to her work.
Charlene leanedin closer as she cut the hair around his neckline, “Were you bornhere?”
“No, I was bornin a town called Allim.”
“Is that nearTexas? California? I haven’t heard of it.”
West smiledbroadly, “It’s not in America.”
Charlenestepped away from him, apparently ignoring his last statement. Shewent over to the sturdy dresser and picked up a small hand mirrorand, bringing it back over to the seat, she moved the mirror aroundbehind 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 smallerreflection. He didn’t care about how his hair looked of course; hecared about the reveal, the casting off of a long worndisguise.
Charlenewatched his eyes closely, looking for approval. There was somethingodd about those eyes. She couldn’t put her finger on it, so she putthe mirror down carefully on the dresser and continued with thecut.
“Have you livedin New York long?” she asked, again pulling sections of hair intouneven lines between her middle and index fingers, cutting a neatline and letting the hair fall back into place.
“I suppose. Itdepends on your frame of reference really.”
She pursed herlips as she glanced at his reflection, “Hmm, well let’s see … Ibought one of the first pressings of the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan onthe day I moved into this apartment on my own. Do you knowDylan?”
West laughedgently, “Not personally, but I do listen to him.”
Charlene noddedand smiled, “Well, I was 18 years old and that record was ‘bout allI played for the first few months after my mother, god bless hersoul, passed away.”
“Well by thatframe of reference, I suppose I’ve lived in New York a good while.”He glanced up at Charlene to gauge her reaction. She was squintingat his scalp, teasing and cutting his hair. She pouted and squintedas she cut a couple of layered sections on the top of his head. “Sowhere else have you lived in the city?” she asked, letting him knowthat she had been paying attention to what he said.
“Since I movedto New York, I’ve mostly lived close by here. I had an apartment inEast Harlem for a couple of years.”
Charlenenodded, “Where else have you lived?”
West closed hiseyes and allowed his memories back in. “I … I … I’ve,” hestammered, unable to focus the flow of time in his mind’s eye. Hesettled on a noncommittal answer, “I’ve seen the world you couldsay.”
CharleneOsterman picked up a fine haired brush from the dresser and brushedhairs from around West’s neckline. “You may have traveled theworld, but I’d wager it’s a while since you’ve had such a smarthaircut.” She laughed gently to herself and picked up the handmirror again to show West her handiwork. West looked at hisreflection earnestly and nodded approval.
“Now,” Charlenetugged gently at his thick beard with her left hand as she reachedover and put the mirror to rest again, “Time to take care ofthis.”
West watched Charleneas she busied herself in her kitchenette, boiling water on thestove, filling a bowl and a jug, adding a little cold water fromthe tap. She brought the jug over first, then the bowl, placingthem with ceremony on the dresser beside her, and then returning tothe side table where she had kept the scissors and razor, shepulled out a long length of leather with a handle on the end and asmall stone. She placed these too on the dresser before she walkedawkwardly out of the room and returned moments later with a shortwhite towel over one arm and a white bar of soap and a brush in herother hand. Placing these on the dresser beside the bowl ofsteaming water, she soaked the towel in the bowl and came and stoodbehind West. “This is hot mind you!” she told West before shepulled his head back gently and placed the damp and steaming hottowel over his face.
Charlene soapedthe water in the jug, rubbing the white bar between her hands inthe hot water, then, having wet the small stone, she went abouthoning the blade of the razor, holding the razor by the shank withher index finger pointing down the spine, moving the bladecarefully over the wet stone. The blade was already well honed, butshe liked to be sure she was working with the optimum conditions.It had been a while since she had performed a straight razor shaveon someone else, even longer since she had performed one onherself, her joint pains making it almost impossible to reach herlegs, never mind taking the risk of using such a dangerousimplement on them.
She picked upthe long strip of leather and taking a metal hoop which wasattached to one end, she hooked it over the handle of the dresser’scentral drawer. She held the wooden handle which was attached tothe other end of the leather strip and she pulled the materialtight and applying light pressure, she ran the blade back and forthwith the sharp edge trailing, stropping the blade. Charlene alwaysfound pleasure in the small details of such tasks.
She picked upthe brush and the bar of soap from the dresser, submerging both inthe jug of already soapy water and she whisked the brush back andforth on the soap, working up a good foamy lather. Placing the soapback on the dresser, she held the brush in her right hand and asshe stepped behind West, she pulled the still warm towel off hisface. 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 backgently, using the brush in her right hand to work up the foamaround his facial hair, cheeks and neck, then she returned thebrush to its place on the dresser and picked up her gleamingrazor.
West allowedhis head to fall forwards slightly, watching Charlene’s face as shestepped up behind him with the razor. That delicate hand, thumb onthe blade, fingers trembling slightly, she brought the blade to theright side of his face, angling it and drawing it in a smoothmotion towards the center of his cheek, then with a second strokeshe moved the blade from his cheek to the side of his mouth. Hewatched her eyes tentatively as she brought the blade down besidethe 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 curveand slight hollow of Charlene Osterman’s cheeks, then he gazed atthe corners of her mouth as she stroked three lines with the bladedown the right side of his neck, all the while holding his skingently taught with her free hand.
There … thereit was, that gentle twist and spasm of the skin at the corner ofCharlene’s mouth. That was what West had been watching … waitingfor. The blade dropped to the floor with a clatter and West closedhis eyes and allowed himself to wade in the half silentreverberations caused by that razor shaped penny hitting the floor.He felt Charlene’s hands fall to his shoulders and start to slidedown to his chest. He gripped her hands gently, but firmly,climbing quickly out of the chair as he ducked from between thehollow of Charlene’s crossed arms, dancing quickly behind her andcatching her before she fell completely into unconsciousness.CHAPTER THREEQuestions
Upon his return toWashington, David Beach had been called in for questioning severaltimes. In the first week, he had felt almost exhilarated to be thecenter of attention; however, as the weeks wore on, it becametedious, the same questions coming up again and again.
“Did youreceive any unusual phone calls in the week leading up to the March10th?”
David’s heavyeyes rolled as he sighed a world weary response, “No, I’veexplained this already, I was on a week-long vacation with mydaughter. The only phone call I received during the entire week,other than from my sister, was from Undersecretary Carlton.”
Sitting acrossfrom David, the agent ran his fingertips across the smooth steelsurface of the table before reaching for his glass of water. Hetook a slow sip from the glass before continuing with hisquestions, “Please Mr Beach, I understand your frustration. We aredoing everything we can to build a thoroughly accurate time-linefor everybody surrounding the key figures of theadministration.”
David chewed afingernail idly, annoyed by a snag that kept catching on the fabricof his sports jacket, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to come off asfrustrated, it just feels like you guys should have some of thisstraight by now.”
Agent McMahondidn’t like David Beach much. He was pulling out every trick in hislimited repertoire of people handling skills to try to demonstrateto Mr Beach that they should be friends in this matter, but when hegot right down to it, McMahon didn’t trust anyone now, and itshowed. He hadn’t offered David any water, but that wasn’ttactical, that was just McMahon. He knew Mr Beach was itching toget out of this interview and pick his daughter up from the crèchefacilities down the hall, and he contemplated needling him aboutthis. It was probably a cheap shot, but he wondered if perhapscheap would steer this conversation in the right direction.
Thinking betterof this, McMahon flicked the side of his glass of water a couple oftimes before continuing, “Mr Beach, we have many notes on what youhave told us about your vacation week. The problem we have is thatsomething isn’t quite tallying up between your statements, and thestatements we have collated from other members of theadministration.”
David Beachleaned slowly towards the table, resting his elbows on the hardsurface and cupping his head in his hands, “You’ve checked my phonerecords?”
“And theycorroborate 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 thathe was missing, some malevolent undertone to the line ofquestioning.
“It’s a matterof timing Mr Beach. As I said, we are trying to build an accuratetime line and your conversation with Undersecretary Carlton bringsinto question statements made by several other members of theDepartment of Defense.”
Agent McMahonleaned back in his chair and stroked his chin, enjoying the roughtexture of his two-day stubble. He wasn’t sure if he’d said toomuch. If this information put David Beach on his back foot, he wasdoing a good job of hiding the fact. On the other hand, if MrBeach’s apparent lack of interest was genuine then McMahon reallydid have a problem.
“Mr Beach, I’msure you’re eager to get back to Sophie …”
“Stephanie.”David corrected him, jaw tightening slightly as he spoke.
“Sorry, ofcourse, Stephanie … If you could just help me by clarifying for meone more time, the exact nature of the conversation that took placebetween you and Undersecretary Carlton, I’ll let you get back toStephanie.”
The two men satlooking at each other across the table, both of them irascible andtired. David really did just want to get out of that room and pickup Stephanie. He closed his eyes and tried to remember the exactwording of his conversation with Carlton. He couldn’t erase theimage of McMahon’s sallow face, his designer stubble, his gelledblond hair, and that image made it exceedingly hard to concentrateon a conversation that took place weeks ago.
“UndersecretaryCarlton wanted me to talk to someone at a company called ArctumIndustries, based out of New York. There had been some concernsraised about security in that building for some reason. He told methat I needed to be discrete in my line of questioning with anyoneI spoke to at Arctum Industries, but that ultimately he needed meto get hold of schematics for the building.”
McMahon frownedand picked up his glass of water again. He sipped, then returnedthe glass to the table, and leaned forward, bringing his chin closeto the table to catch David Beach’s eye line.
“Are you awareMr Beach, that on the afternoon of March sixth, when you apparentlyreceived this call about Arctum Industries from UndersecretaryCarlton, that Undersecretary Carlton was in a meeting with theJoint Chiefs of Staff from 2pm to 4pm?”
David Beachlifted his head from his hands slowly.
McMahoncontinued, slow words, dripping maliciously from thin lips, “Thisinformation has been verified by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, theUndersecretary of Defense included. Everybody present at thatmeeting on the sixth has confirmed, time and again, that no phonecalls were made during the entire two hours. No one left the room.Your phone records confirm that there was a phone call, but beyondthat …”
David Beachthrew up a little in his mouth and then chuckled slightly, wipinghis mouth with the back of his hand. He recalled his protestationsto Stephanie that morning and the pains he went to, trying toexplain to Stephanie that he didn’t want to have breakfast becauseit always gave him indigestion.
“Somethingfunny Mr Beach?”
David shook hishead and shrugged, “I was just thinking about breakfast.”
Agent McMahontried to blink away his frustration. He was really starting to hateDavid Beach.
A tight band of painaround her chest woke Charlene Osterman, but the pain had subsidedby the time she opened her eyes. As she tried to adjust to thelight, she stared up at the sculpted plaster coving around theceiling of her apartment, struggling to remember how she had cometo be lying down on her couch. She felt something brush her handand she reacted with a start, body tensing, pulse racing, she foundshe was unable to move her head because her neck was aching.
The voice camefrom somewhere beside her, soft and reassuring. Several slowbreaths later, she recalled the voice, and what she had been doingbefore she had passed out. She tried to move, “Mr Yestler, I’msorry, I don’t know what came over me.” His hand on her forearm wascomforting rather than restrictive, “Charlene, you don’t have toget up, take your time.”
Something hadhappened, something more than merely passing out, and although shewas unable to put her finger on what exactly it was, she felt hereyes filling with tears. She was overwhelmed by a strange mix ofemotions; fear, loss, melancholy, confusion, all completelyuprooted from context. Her breathing shuddered and she rested hereyelids focusing on how heavy they felt, eyes tracing the subtlewash of shadows. “Did I finish your haircut at least?” she mutteredshakily, still aware of West’s hand on her arm.
She felt hisweight shift, the couch cushion moving under her as he knelt. Hisvoice was close to her ear now, still comforting, still firm,“Charlene, before you look at me, think about what it was that yousaw before you collapsed.”
She wanted todisobey his request, her instincts told her that she should look athim now. She opened her eyes, but it was still uncomfortable tomove her head, and she quickly gave up, closing her eyes again asshe tried to remember. There, in dark recollection, she could seeit, see the reason she had lost control, and in seeing, the fearreturned, 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 againinvoluntarily. 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 inthe chair, or else she had known him, in recollection, in anotherlife, too long ago.
She bit herlip, her fingers touching her cheek, she thought carefully beforeshe spoke, “Mr Yestler, on the side table by the television,there’s a telephone there … do you see it?”
Now that sheunderstood what was happening, she was calm and collected, “MrYestler, I need you to call an ambulance for me, or my doctor; hisnumber is written in the back of the little notebook by thephone.”
“Charlene,you’ll be okay, just take some time to breathe, relax and let yourbody do its job.”
“No.” She spokeclearly, her eyes opening wide, staring at the ceiling, “I amunwell, and I am in need of medical assistance.”
It wasimpossible but she knew him, this ‘Mr Yestler,’ more completelythan she had known any other man. She knew, and the agony she feltwas so palpable that her breathing slowed and her chest achedagain. When he refused to fetch the phone a second time, it onlywent to confirm her suspicion.
The man’s namecame to her easily. Anthony Statham. He had been a dear friend toher, but that had been nearly sixty years ago now. This wasdementia, she was certain of it. She knew she must be talking tosomeone else, merely imagining that she was talking to AnthonyStatham. She licked her lips, trying to remember the name of thehelp who brought her meals and shopping when she was out of sorts.Janice? Patrice? She couldn’t recall, and that was as sure a signas any. She was probably talking nonsense to the poor girl.
Oh God, shethought to herself, what was the hair cut? What had she actuallybeen doing? Janice, or Patrice, or whatever her name was, wouldnever ask her for a haircut. Her fingers formed a barrier over herlips now, her hands shaking; she knew she had to stop herself fromtalking.
“Charlene, youknow who I am. You saw my face; you saw enough of me to know forsure.”
She closed hereyes and gulped back tears, her head filling with the white noiseof 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 DoctorSawyers had frequently reassured her that everyone experiencesforgetfulness. He had even joked with her about it the last timeshe’d mentioned it, “Miss Osterman, you needn’t worry every timeyou forget where you’ve put your keys. Come back to me when you’veforgotten what keys are for.” Of course, she’d thought he wasimpertinent, and had told him as much. She’d always said he haddreadful bedside manner.
She felt herarm 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 herhand. She swallowed uncomfortably, breathless and nauseous, shecould feel her pulse in the veins of her neck.
“Charlene, openyour eyes for me.” The request was soft, not threatening, but shedidn’t know how to open her eyes any more. She felt as if she wouldnever stop crying if she opened them. Her lips parted and she heardher own pathetic gasp and moan, her voice cracking as she tried tospeak, “You … You …”
The room wasdark, the light from the window dull and sunless, illuminating onlyin subdued tones and cutting dark swathes where it was unable toreach. She opened her eyes slowly and he was there, his face pickedout of shadow cut contours. “Anthony?” She spoke the word as anadmission of insanity, surrendering the possibility that she mightbe talking to her care worker. It didn’t matter anymore. She couldonly see his face. If this was dementia, her mind had conjured themost vividly real and heartbreaking memory to taunt her.
She stared athim, reconciling the details of his features against her memory ofAnthony Statham, and she couldn’t discern any flaws in hislikeness. It was him, down to the soft crow’s feet, the Prussianblue irises of his eyes, the slight cleft of his chin, the thickeyebrows.
West looked at thefaded, but ornate fabric of Charlene Osterman’s couch and startedtracing the pattern of floral swirls with the finger of his freehand, trying to imagine what the fabric felt like, trying toremember the softness of fabric. He didn’t want to look atCharlene’s face as she went through this agony. It was a necessarypain, he knew. He would be forgiven for it. Probably. He glancedabout the apartment and noticed a large bromeliad on a plant stand,flowering with a beautiful deep purple cup.
“You can keep aplant alive now,” he whispered, “that’s a miracle in itself.”
Charlene pulledher hand away from West and covered her face with it.
West strokedhis fingers against Charlene’s pearl white hair, wishing that hecould feel it, “I know this doesn’t make sense to you Charlene. Iunderstand that you’re frightened. I’m not going to hurt you andI’m not going to leave your side until you calm down and talk tome.”
Charlene laytrembling, trying to muster the courage to look again at the manwho knelt beside her.
She turned herhead slowly, staring into his deep blue eyes, those eyes she hadn’trecognized when he had come to her door, eyes that she had sworn toherself a thousand times she would never forget.
“Anthony?” shetried the word again, tentatively, unsure how much pain it wouldcause to say that name.
The man shookhis head. “Charlene, my name is West Yestler, although you haveknown me, and the name you knew me by was Anthony Statham.”
Her chestcaught again and a series of shallow breaths gave way to gentlesobs as she pressed the back of her left hand against her eyes. Shefought against her frailty and self-pity, trying her best to soundfirm and certain, “Anthony Statham was the kindest man I have everknown, and he would never have stooped to playing evil tricks onold women.”
West laughedgently, not mocking, “Charlene Osterman was one of the bravestwomen I have known in many years, and she would never deign todescribe anything in such trivial absolutes as good or evil.”
She glared athim firing back quickly, “People change!”
West glancedaround the apartment again before looking back to her, “Seldom dopeople change. You have learned to nurture plants though.”
Charlenecovered her mouth with her hand, unsure how to respond, not becauseshe was disarmed by West’s humor, but because of the specificnature of his taunt. During the brief period in which he had filledher life, her inability to keep even weeds alive had been a runningjoke between Anthony and herself.
She looked athim carefully, observing the minutia of detail; the strong line ofhis jaw, the smooth, blemish free skin of his cheeks, the shortsandy blond hair; every aspect of his being as she remembered him.After so many lonely and bewildering years, the only man CharleneOsterman had ever loved was kneeling beside her. She wondered howthe mysteries of the universe could unravel so quickly and cruellyaround her.
Stephanie Beach wasn’thappy. She’d spent an hour in the crèche playing with a despondentfive-year-old girl named Jennifer. As Stephanie saw it, Jennifer’sproblem was that she didn’t seem to understand how to play with anyof the toys, as if she didn’t have any idea how to react to them.Stephanie had resigned herself to acting out improvised moviescenes with broken action figures on her own for half an hour andher reward for this? She was now strapped in to the booster seat ofthe Toyota and her father appeared to be harboring the expectationthat she would just keep quiet about it.
“I’m on thephone honey, just a minute okay? John, yeah, John it’s David canyou hear me?”
The voice onthe other end of the line was deep and commanding, “David, I’m notsupposed to be talking to you, do you understand?”
David triedagain to motion for Stephanie to be quiet, glancing over hisshoulder sternly as she tried to kick the back of his seat.
“John, I don’tunderstand what’s going on. They seem to think I’m involved in allof this somehow.”
There wassilence on the other end of the line. David didn’t know ifUndersecretary Carlton was being maliciously evasive or justcautious.
“John, do youknow what the hell they’re talking about?”
The quickinhale of breath from the back seat reminded David that he wasn’tsupposed to use the “H” word in front of Stephanie and he mouthed asilent apology to her through the rear view mirror. The voice ofJohn Carlton blared over the car’s speakers, “David, I’m getting alot of flak about this already. You better be damned sure about whoyou talk to from now on, okay?”
“John, they’resaying you didn’t even call me while I was on vacation.”
“David, I’m notgetting into this with you. What you discuss with the FBI is yourbusiness, and it’s sure as shit going to stay that way.”
Stephanie drewin breath again, feigning shock at the mild curse. She would besure to guilt her father about his failure to protect her delicateears 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 incantationcurling the corners of her mouth. She had been struggling throughLes Misérablessince seeing the movie (she would tell anyonewho cared to listen that she was reading it, although mostly, shejumped about the tome, battling with sentences here and there.)Chastisement was a heavy word, with heavy meaning, and she lovedit, at least this week. She patted her back pack contentedly,feeling the edge of the thick volume there, her mind wondering offto the slightly violent fantasy of clobbering that listless waifback at the creche with the full force of French literature.
Back in thecar, safe from Stephanie’s flights of fancy, but facing up to theharsher realities, David’s fingers gripped the steering wheeltightly, “John, I’m heading into the office, I need to talk to youabout this.”
UndersecretaryCarlton coughed to clear his throat, “David, you can’t come intothe office. You need to lawyer up, and make sure whoever you get isdamned good. Make no mistake John, your name is shit around thesehallowed halls right now. You have royally screwed the pooch onthis. Say Hi to Stephanie for me” Stephanie managed to shriek “HiMr Carlton.” From the back seat before the line clicked dead.
West was surprisedwhen 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 leastshe hadn’t been wearing makeup so there were no spider scrawl runsof 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 thefloor behind him.
Charlene wasn’tsure how long it had taken to muster the courage to sit up, and nowthat she found herself facing him, she wasn’t sure what she wantedto say to West. Charlene had often pondered on the possibility ofthis event. No, not this, not facing some unworldly doppelgänger ofa man she once knew. She had thought about what she would say tothe man she knew as Anthony Statham if she ever saw him again.
She had beenbest friends with Anthony Statham for a year, as close as she hadever been to a man, although their relationship had never brokeninto the realms of true physical intimacy. Anthony had been patientin his love, understanding of her timidity and naivety and Charlenecould think of no better way of spending her life than in hiscompany. Then, a month before her mother passed away, Anthony wasgone from her life without a single word of explanation. He had nofamily that she knew of, no friends she could talk to about whathad happened. She had been inconsolable at the time, but the senseof anger and loss was soon swallowed by the emotional turmoil ofher mother’s passing.
When she’dthought of Anthony Statham over the years, she had imagined theanger she would unleash, the hurt and indignation she would vent athim for leaving her, for not understanding that she would be goodenough, better than good enough … too good for him. She had alwaysfelt so cheated, robbed of her opportunity to hate him to his face,and instead she had been forced to spend her years wondering whatshe had done, how she had managed to turn away someone she loved somuch.
“Who are youreally?” when the words finally came, they were effortless and theydid manage to evince a tempered disdain.
“I have gone bymany names throughout my life, although the name I was born to wasWest Yestler and that is the name I hold dearest.”
Charlene closedher eyes and shook her head slowly, already frustrated by theconversation. She felt she had lived long enough to deserve frankdiscourse, not half-truths or lies of omission. She opened her eyesand glared at West, trying to push past her own frailty to portraya mask of no nonsense intimidation, “Your name tells me nothing MrYestler, except that you’re a canny liar. You know what I mean; whoare you really?”
West touchedhis fingertips to his chin, wishing momentarily that he couldremember the feeling of his skin. He had wanted this confrontationfor a long time, to be able to reveal himself to Charlene Ostermancompletely. He looked around her apartment and drew comfort fromher collections of trivialities and treasures.
“Charlene, youwere a child when you met Anthony Statham and he was a man wholoved you, but he was also a man who existed merely as a means toan end. Anthony Statham was a persona I adopted to establishcontact with several people in this great city and that should havebeen the end of him. It was your fault, at least partially yourfault that Anthony Statham became more than a figment of my lonelyimagination.”
Charlene’s bodyrocked gently, a slow and throaty laugh building into a coarsecackle, “Impossible. I knew Anthony Statham nearly seventy yearsago; how in the name of all that is holy do you expect me tobelieve …” she laughed harder and the laughter subsided into a fitof coughing, which she struggled to control. She could barelycontinue, “How the heck …” she coughed again, “How am I supposed tobelieve that you are that same man? You’re barely a manyourself.”
She wasstarting to feel comfortable with her thoughts, confident that thiswas not the onset of the end of her mind. She allowed her thoughtsto stretch their legs and race again, trying to fathom how this manhad worked such a devious trick, or better yet, why? What couldanyone possibly stand to gain from all of this? She had nothing ofworth, no great sum of hoarded wealth to pass on to anyone, andthat thought puzzled her more than anything.
West smiledgently and nodded, “Let me ask you a question Charlene. You werecoughing just now. When was the last time you coughed without yourchest being wracked with pain?”
Charlene easedherself back on the couch, brushing the cushions with her fingers.She glanced at her lap as she thought about the odd question. She’dsuffered from angina for the past year, that much was true. Shetried to remember if it always hurt when she coughed. She glancedover to a small table in the corner of the room, a table on whichsat a small jewelry chest in which she kept her nitroglycerin andbeta blockers. She hadn’t taken her medication today, but usuallyit 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?”
West allowedher time to think about this before he continued.
“I need you torelax Charlene, take some deep breaths and find calm withinyourself.”
She squintedand leaned towards him, “I’m not into any of that meditation crapMr Yestler. Say what you’ve got to say and be done with it; I’m tooold for this verbal dance.”
West stood upand came to sit next to her on the couch, slow and careful, as ifhe was approaching a beast of the wild. Charlene moved slightly toaccommodate him and she arched her head away from him disdainfully,which gave him cause to chuckle gently. “Charlene, I’m not going tohurt you, don’t worry.” He took her hands in his and held them onher lap.
“Charlene, ifyou 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 youwoke just now, you woke because some small change was workingitself in you.”
Charlene triedto back away further on the couch, pressing up against anembroidered cushion behind her, “What kind of a change? What areyou talking about?” Her fear was obvious and West kept hold of herhands gently, rubbing the tendons of her fingers in what he hopedwere comforting circles.
“The firstchange would be in your heart. You have had an obstruction thatcauses angina?”
She noddednervously in response and West continued, “The first change in youwould be in the coronary arteries, where the blockage would beloosened. Within the last few minutes, the muscles of your heartwill have changed, almost imperceptibly to you, but you will noticealready that your pain has subsided.” She pulled her hands awayfrom him and tucked them firmly together on her lap. She didn’tlike what he was saying, and she wished there was a way she couldback out of this altogether, get him to leave her apartment andforget any of this had happened.
West sighed,shoulders heaving a little, prickled by her continued mistrust ofhim. “Charlene, you need to understand right now that any changethat has happened to you will do you no harm. If you were to drinka glass of salty water, you would be sick and your life wouldcontinue as before, except you would probably not suffer any morefrom chest pains.”
“Doctor Sawyerssays I’ll always have chest pains! What have you done? What haveyou given me?” She asked.
“Damned leeches!”Hannah Beach threw a half folded letter on the kitchen table as sheheard the front door close. She glanced at her niece, grimacing andcovering her mouth apologetically, “I’m sorry Spiff … Please don’tever talk like your Aunt Han okay?”
Stephaniefrowned. She had been so excited to embarrass her father, regalingher Aunt with stories of how depraved, and callous he was, and nowshe was more frustrated that her Aunt’s slip up had completelytaken the wind out of her sails. She threw her little back pack onthe floor in contempt, the weight of Jean Valjean’s misery thuddingin satisfying syncopation with her own huff. She was sure if shepictured poor Courgette’s plight, she’d be able to milk thissituation and squeeze out a tear (Cosette … she knew, but sheenjoyed her father’s exasperation every time he had to correcther.) When no tear came, she tried humming a line ofCastle on aCloud, before conceding defeat, growling at her Aunt, andcharging towards her, hugging her tightly around her waist.
David smiled atHannah, shrugging to signal his confusion at Stephanie’s behavior,“So, who’s bleeding you dry now?”
Hannah ran herfingers through Stephanie’s hair, then shook her gently by theshoulders, rocking her in time to her words, “Oh, it’s just themean old Po-Pos.”
Stephanielooked up at her aunt, a slightly vindictive glint in her eyes,“You got another speeding ticket?”
Hannah pushedStephanie away playfully, “Gah, creep, get away from me. I knew Ididn’t like you.” Stephanie’s little hands flung about Hannah’sback again, “You lurve me aunt Hannah. You buy me presents, and youtake me to the library, and you buy me ice cream, and you take meto movies …”
“Creep, creep,creep, creep, creep.” Hannah rocked side to side in a mock attemptat shaking off her niece. Looking up, Hannah noticed that David waspinching the bridge of his nose with his right hand, his left armfolded across his chest. She wasn’t fantastic with body language,but right now, she was pretty sure that David was about to breakdown. She turned Stephanie about, and launched her towards thestormy seas, “Go hug your daddy, creep. He looks like he needsit.”
David laughedfeebly, but then the tears did come. Stephanie stood between thetwo adults, glancing back and forth between them, tears starting towell in her eyes, that heady mixture of confusion and empathybuilding quickly. Hannah stooped close to her, kneeling down, “Youknow what creep? Daddy will be fine. Go watch some T.V while wetalk about miserable grown up stuff, okay?”
Stephanielooked over her shoulder at her father, who forced a smile andnodded, shooing her away with his right hand, his left arm stillwound tight over his chest. Stephanie understood the socialcontract enough to know that she had been released from herobligation.
As he watchedStephanie walk towards the den, David’s tears started to flow morefreely. Hannah walked towards the island in the kitchen, and leanedthe small of her back against the counter. She patted the stoolnext to her, “Get over here David. Whatever it is, it can’t be thatbad.” She watched as his shoulders shuddered when he inhaled … badsign, “Okay, it’s that bad … is it the crap with Tiernan again?” Hewalked over and took his place on the stool beside her, resting hisforehead on the cool slate-topped counter.
“Oh god Hannah.I’m fucked. I’m really fucked.” He sobbed.
Hannah bit herlip and glanced towards the den, patting her brothers backtentatively, “What happened?”
He sucked upthe 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’minvolved in this.”
She was quietlyglad that he wasn’t looking at her. She was nervous, possibly evenscared 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 theassassination of a president, you’d be hog tied and hooded bynow.”
David laughed,and inhaled awkwardly, “Shut up Han, they don’t do that.”
“Oh, I’ve seenthe photos”
David sat upand glared at her seriously, “I can’t go back to work.”
Hannah shookher head and rolled her eyes, “Of course you can … get overyourself.”
David’s mouthfell open, “Get over myself? You think this is me being embarrassedto show my face at work? No Han, I mean, I literally can’t go backto work … Carlton told me I couldn’t even go to the office to talkto him.”
Hannah laughed,her hands covering her mouth, “Shut up!”
“Oh god David …you’re Lee Harvey Oswald.”
He stood upquickly and walked over to the window facing the back yard, handsshaking as he filled the carafe with water from the tap. Coffeewould help. Coffee always helped.
“Oh come onDavid, it’s funny because it’s true.”
David slumpedto the floor with his back against the kitchen cabinets, sobbing,breaths coming in short, ragged, heaving bursts. Hannah finishedher brother’s half-assed attempt at setting off the coffee, thenslumped to the floor beside him. Sure, this was a big deal, but shefelt like David could at least try to make it easy for her tosympathize 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 beentoo young to even acknowledge rationally, but she’d told him, somany times that she felt cold, and kind of nauseated when men criednear her.
“Hell David,what’s the worst that could happen?”
David’s sobbingceased momentarily, and he lifted his chin from its resting placeon his knees, “ … fucking shit, I don’t know Han. Maybe, life inprison … Death penalty?”
Hannah clampedher teeth around her knuckle, and took a slow breath to steady hernerves, “So, I’ll get to keep Spiff, and she’ll grow up a littlebit maladjusted, which, let’s be honest, was definitely on thecards for her anyway.”
David startedlaughing, but this seemed to have little effect on the flow oftears, so Hannah dug deep, and draped an arm over her brother’sshoulder. “Seriously Dave, this is only one of the worst thingsimaginable, definitely not the worst. You’re allowed to feel alittle sorry for yourself, but now you need to pick your sorry assup off the floor, and put on a happy show for Stephanie, or I swearto god, I’m going to beat the living shit out of you.”
With the soundof 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 smilewas crooked, but presentable, “What are you watchingStephanie?”
David laughed alittle and coughed, “A sphincter is what stops you from drowning inthe bath when you let one go.”
Hannah slappedthe back of David’s head playfully, “Don’t listen to your dadSpiff. Let’s look it up okay?” Hannah pushed with her feet, slidingher back up the cabinet, and took Stephanie’s hand as she walkedher back into the den.
David got upoff the floor, and poured himself a coffee. He was glad to be home.He looked out at the back yard and saw the twisted limpingswing-set that longed for attention. He would fix it. Manual laborwould take his mind off everything.
West stood up from thecouch, 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 herneck carefully, tracing a tentative line towards her chest. He knewthat she must be feeling better, and in the long run, that would beall 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 …” Hepicked up the bull, tossing it from hand to hand before holding itout in front of him, “The cow’s stomach has four chambers, therumen, reticulum, omasum, and the abomasum.”
Charlene glaredat him, “Put that down, I’ve had that forty years son.”
West smirking,quickly obeyed, placing the cow back where he found it, amongst themenagerie of ornate fish, and fowl. Charlene continued, “I’ll tellyou 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, andthat’s all I’ve got to say on the matter.”
West waved hishand in the air, clearing the imaginary slate, “No, I’m sorry …What I was trying to say,”
“Say it man,there is no try.”
Charleneslapped her open hand on the couch beside her, “Spit it out. I’meighty-five years old you know; I’ll be in my bloody grave by thetime you’re done.”
West licked hislips involuntarily, “Leeches.”
West nodded,“I’ve given you leeches.”
Charleneslumped back into the comfort of the couch, “Waste of time lad.I’ve had ‘em before, and they did nothing for me …” her eyesnarrowed as a thought seemed to occur to her, “Here, you say yougave me them? You mean you put one in my mouth?”
West shook hishead vehemently, “No, I simply placed one on your chest.”
Charlene’smouth contorted into a disgusted frown as she tried to look down ather chest, wiping the skin feverishly with her hands. “Where’s itnow?”
West pointed afinger at her, “These particular leeches have an ability to passthrough skin and muscle fibers with great ease, and they form astrong neural bond with their hosts.”
“You mean totell 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 washorrified, panicked at the very thought of such a creature movingin her, sucking her blood from within. “Why would you do this tome?” she asked, fear rising in her voice, “Will I die? Is that whatyou want?”
West lookedsympathetic, almost condescendingly so. He had known that she mightreact like this, and he had been prepared for the risk, ready toreason with her, and explain what was happening. Still, he wassurprised that Charlene would imagine he was trying to killher.
Charlene hadstarted to scratch at the skin of her chest, imagining that shecould feel the thing moving, feel it destroying her insides. Westmoved to her quickly, pulling her hands down and holding themstill, “Listen to me,” she struggled to release herself from hisgrip, “Charlene, just listen before you do yourself an injury …”She tried to spit in his face, but her mouth was too dry, herthroat contracting with fear.
“Charlene, thecreature can be killed, and it would do you no harm if it diedright now. A single glass of salt water would drive it out of you,but I need you to listen to me first.”
She rounded hereyes on him furiously, “You’re a pig. You’re a monster, that’s whatyou are. How could you do this to an old lady?” She redoubled hereffort to free herself from his grip, but his hands didn’t give atall.
“Charlene stop,now.” He shouted calmly. She stopped still, clearly terrified ofwhat he would do to her if she didn’t stop struggling.
“Charlene, Iwill never hurt you. If you refuse to listen to me, and insist thatwe end this right now, I’ll understand and I will accept. I askonly that you allow me to explain myself before you judge.”
She leanedforwards, “Oh, you’re a big man, threatening an old lady. ‘Ooh,I’ll never hurt you’ you say, but you know that mentioning hurtputs the thought in my head. I know reverse psychology when I hearit.”
West heaved asigh of frustration, and decided to forge ahead, disregardingCharlene’s fear.
“The creatureinside you has an incredible ability to regenerate its own cells.Not only that, it has the ability to regenerate the cells of itshost. It wants nothing more than for its host to be in perfecthealth, for its host to be the perfect body in which to betransported around the world.”
Charlene wasstony faced, but West thought he might be getting through to her.He smiled, “Want may seem too strong a word to attribute to such acreature and perhaps it is, but these leeches do tap into theirhost’s nervous system and they know intuitively what they must doto keep their host healthy.”
He watched hereyes, watched the subtle changes in her attitude. Her body wasn’tthe tightly wound spring of tension that it had been moments ago.She was trying to understand what he told her, fighting someinternal battle with her thoughts.
“Before youwoke, I placed a single leech on your chest. The first thing it didwas to anesthetize your skin so it wouldn’t hurt you as it cut itslittle entry wound. You didn’t wake up at that point. You probablywoke when the creature had found its bearings within your body andrealized that the greatest risk to its host’s life was acardiovascular blockage. If left to its own devices the creaturewill move through you, traveling through muscle fibers, under skintissue, even through vital organs as it sees fit, and everywhere itgoes, it will try to make you the perfect host. One leech though,there is only so much it can do.”
Charlenefrowned, leaning towards him slightly, “What do you mean?”
“I simply meanthat if you were to be seriously hurt right now, mortally wounded,you would die. You could sustain a wound in the direct vicinity ofthe leech and it would do its best to sustain you and heal you, butultimately, if you walked out in front of a bus …” The skin ofCharlene’s nose wrinkled slightly as her mouth opened. It was toomuch for her to take in, she felt like she was missing somethingimportant in what he was telling her.
West let go ofher hands and smiled, “I want you to try something for me and Iwill leave you alone for today.”
She stilllooked a little scared, though she managed to contain her thoughts,so he continued, “Go about your day, don’t leave the apartmenttoday, don’t tell anyone about our encounter, simply live for todaywith the creature inside you. I promise that if I return to youtomorrow and you feel uncomfortable about it, I will stand by youand comfort you as you drink your glass of salt water and the wholething will be over and done with. Leeches have been usedmedicinally quite frequently throughout history; treat this as oneday of medical testing okay?”
She wrestledwith her thoughts as she looked around the apartment. There weremany little tasks and chores she had avoided because she had knownher chest pains would cause her discomfort. Perhaps this was to behow she would die. Then again, perhaps it wouldn’t be the worstthing in the world to enjoy being busy without that naggingdiscomfort. He was the most perfect double of the man who had lefther so abruptly all those years ago, and surely, if he wanted tokill 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 ofserving a use, “It was Wednesday evening. It was warm outside, andI was visiting one of my favorite bookstores off central park.There was a girl, leaning against a high stacked bookcase at therear of the store, one leg crossed behind the other, hair hangingto one side of her head as she thumbed through the pages of DonQuixote. I walked up to that girl, and I said, ‘Too much sanity maybe madness, and maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as itshould be.’ Then you looked at me for the first time, and you said…”
“Until death itis all life.” As she spoke the words, Charlene frowned, trying towish away the tears, then relinquishing, she wiped her eyes andsmiled at West.
“Is thereanything I need to know? Is there anything I should do?”
West smileddeeply, feeling no small amount of accomplishment, “No Charlene,just don’t go out and don’t accept any visitors.”
“Why? What willhappen?”
West laughed,“Nothing will happen, it’s just a precaution, and one you mayunderstand more fully tomorrow.”
Charlene lookedat the liver spots on her hands, then she looked at West and shefelt a deep sense of melancholy and loneliness, “Promise you’llcome back tomorrow?”
West nodded andleaned forward, “I promise I will return.” He touched a hand gentlyto her cheek and stood, walking to the apartment door. He paused ashe reached the door and turned, “Do you have plenty of food in?” heasked. 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 usuallywould.”
David wasn’t good withtools. He was good at fixing things, identifying problems, but hewas bad with tools. He resented when people called him clumsy, andit especially hurt when it came from Stephanie, a human who wasbasically capable of hurting herself before she’d even climbed outof bed. There was blood on his shirt which had poured quiteabundantly from a wound that went almost clean through the palm ofhis right hand. He had almost passed out when the Phillips-headslipped its target, and when he grabbed the chain of the swing toprevent himself from falling, he’d managed to wrap the plated ironlinks around two of his fingers, nearly breaking them in theprocess.
He was inagony, he was nauseous, and suddenly exhausted. Tentatively, he saton the swing seat, not entirely confident that the job was done. Hecould see Hannah and Stephanie through the sliding glass doors ofthe den, the pair of them hunched over an old tablet computer. Whenhis wife Carol had died, there hadn’t really been much discussionabout moving in with Hannah, she just became a whirlwind ofaffection, and action, and she hadn’t stopped until David andStephanie were completely settled. The house was owned outright bytheir mother, but that didn’t seem to matter anymore. She wasn’tmissing, she still wrote them occasionally, and called once a year,but when Carol had died, it became quite apparent that ValerieBeach didn’t want anything more to do with the unmitigated disasterthat had become her family life.
Avoidingthinking about his mother, he started to back track, searching forwhat it was that had brought him out to the yard in the firstplace. His chest suddenly burned with acid reflux, like a five kiloweight had been dropped on his diaphragm. Tiernan, of course. Howsilly he’d been to think he could escape that mental anguish forfive minutes.
He’d gonethrough it all a thousand times, and he still couldn’t figure outwhat exactly he’d done. There had been no direct accusations yet,that much was true, but the phone call, that one ember of doubtthey kept coming back to seemed poised now to catch, and engulf hisentire world. It was unfair. That’s what was eating him up. Hedidn’t have the first clue as to why the phone call mattered somuch, but they, the royal they, were going to ruin him over it.
David suckedhis bleeding palm and eased himself up from the swing, suddenlyaware of how much the chains were digging into his under-exercisedhips. He walked through the grass towards the sliding doors andmashed his face against the glass, puffing his cheeks out forStephanie’s amusement. Stephanie ran up to the door, grinning fromear to ear as she unlocked it. “Dad, I’ve got over fiftysphincters,” she exclaimed gleefully.
“That explainsa lot honey.” He smiled as he bent down to hug her, but Hannah hadalready leapt up from the floor and grabbed Stephanie from behind,“No, you can’t have her, she’s all mine.” She ran towards the couchand threw Stephanie onto the cushions, in a bundle of gigglinglimbs and hair. Hannah faced David now, her arms spread wide, palmsfacing backwards so she could grab Stephanie if she attempted toget by, “I’ve captured Captain Spiff, and she will not be releaseduntil the human cooks eggs. I demand lots of eggs, and hotsauce.”
Stephaniewrapped her arms around her aunt’s neck, “No, I want soldiers.Demand soldiers.”
Holding ontoStephanie’s wrists, Hannah stood up, “We have revised our demandshuman. Bring us soldiers, and eggs, and the eggs shall be of thekind in which we can dip the soldier’s heads, and bite them off atour pleasure.” Then she stopped abruptly, gasping a little as shesaw the blood on her brother’s shirt.
“Holy sh …” shecaught herself, “… Shish kebab David, you seem to have sprung aleak.” Although her words were light calm, for Stephanie’s sake,her eyes were wide, serious with concern. “Do we need to take youto be repaired?”
David looked athis hand, the skin ragged and painful around the wound, “No, I’llbe fine, we’ll just wrap some gauze, throw some rubbing alcohol onit.”
Stephanielaughed and then whispered in her aunt’s ear, “You were going tosay shit.”
Hannah’s eyeswidened further, and she sucked her lip to prevent herself fromlaughing, but she decided to say nothing, just this once.
Opening the cupboardunder the granite topped island, David pulled out a heavy bottomedpan, and took it to the sink. He set the water running, but whenthe weight of the water caused his hand to spasm, he realized hewas going to have to attend to his wound before cooking. Stephaniehad already taken her place at the island, pulling herself up ontoone of the tall stools, and he could see the anticipation etchedacross her face. He asked Hannah if she would mind taking over thecooking duties while he fixed himself up, and she grumbled herconsent, “What is the point of hostage demands if we have to carrythem out ourselves?”
By the timehe’d cleaned the wound, applied antiseptic, and taped up the gauze,he returned to the kitchen to the sight of steam rising from thepot of boiling water, and the sound of some unrecognizable girlband streaming from the ceiling mounted speakers.
“How long havethey been in?”
Hannah pointedat the old fashioned egg timer on the counter, which looked abouthalf done, “Maybe a minute and a half? Maybe seventy thousandgrains of sand? Maybe Spiff forgot to turn it over when the eggswent in, so maybe the soldiers are going in dry,”
Hannah was alittle disappointed that the euphemism didn’t get much of a riseout of David, but she knew he must still be stressing, so she triedagain, “Spiff, how do you like your soldiers?”
“Almost black.”Stephanie answered innocently, but that was enough to set Hannahoff, laughing at her own set up, “Me too hon. But you know whatthey say …”
David almostchoked on his laughter, “Don’t you dare Hannah!”
Hannah feignedoffense, glaring at her brother, “They say that burnt toast iscarcinogenic.”
Stephanie spunround to look at her aunt, “Really?”
Hannah wrinkledher nose in sympathy with Stephanie’s shock, “They sure do.”
“I’ll settlefor soft and white then.” Stephanie responded, then watched inconfusion as her aunt ran out of the kitchen.
“What’s wrongwith aunt Han?”
David laughed,and started towards the bread bin when the phone rang. Davidignored it. The phone rang off, then immediately started ringingagain. David made towards it, but it clicked off again. When itstarted ringing a third time, Stephanie ran and picked up the phonefrom its base unit on the side table.
“This is theBeach residence, Stephanie speaking, how can I help you?”
A voice on theother end of the line asked condescendingly if her Daddy was homeand on autopilot, Stephanie responded, “No, my Dad is out at thegrocery store, can I take a message?” The line clicked dead andStephanie hung up the phone.
David felthimself welling up with emotion. There were so many reasons heloved his daughter.CHAPTER FOURShadowcab
West leaned againstthe window, one arm on the glass, his head resting against hisforearm. He could see a burning car in the street, but whoever hadset the fire had already moved on to other acts of mindlessvandalism. He understood that people were angry; the whole worldwas in turmoil, but it distressed him when people vented theirfrustrations in such misdirected and futile acts.
The politicallandscape had never much interested him, because it nearly alwaysplayed out as expected. The onward march of the great dream,Somnium Mirificum, that endless self-fulfilling prophecy. Except itwasn’t endless, which was part of the problem. He couldn’t pretendhe saw the assassination coming. It wasn’t surprising, but itcertainly wasn’t written in the stars. It had heightened hisawareness of the fact that he’d been out of touch with most of thekey players for far too long. The few people he knew how to contactwere on the wrong side of the fence. He was starting to feeluncomfortable with himself, cringing at his cowardice every time hesaw his own reflection. As much as he understood, even afterlooking at this thing for a few weeks, there were still thingsabout the Tiernan incident that made no sense.
David Beach had beenhis first stumbling block. From what West could tell, Beach was analmost depressingly mundane member of Tiernan’s staff. His father,an author of little note, had died when David was young. West wasunable to find a copy of Doctor Julien Beach’s only published work,but he had found a couple of mentions of him in the digitalarchives of academic reviews, and both of these suggested that thedoctor had been widely regarded as a laughing stock by the time hedied, completely shunned by academia. His bookThe KingsMosaicwas described in one article as a rambling mess, focusedloosely on the supposed links between modern day politicians,various royal families and their ancestors. There was something tothat of course, but without a copy of the book, West could makelittle more of it. If David had followed his father’s work, itwould go some way towards helping to explain his fascination withconspiracy theories, which was all well and good, but it didn’thelp West with the issue at hand.
He’d tried tolook at it from the FBI’s perspective, but West just couldn’tunderstand why Beach had become a target. The reports of one agentMcMahon described his concerns that Mr Beach had been snooping intofiles relating to Arctum Industries immediately prior to the eventsof March 10th. That could only be a bad thing, but on its own, itdidn’t seem particularly damning. McMahon’s report also didn’tactually evidence this, so as far as West was concerned, McMahonwas tiptoeing into the realms of hearsay. Beach had beeninterviewed by McMahon a couple of times, and prior to that, he’dalso spoken at great length to an agent Carmichael. Going by thetranscripts, these interviews were almost singularly focused on aphone call which occurred on March 6th. The FBI appeared to befumbling in the dark on this one, and they had apparently stumbledout of that particular closet, clutching onto the fact that thephone call hadn’t come from the Undersecretary of Defense forIntelligence. There was no audio transcript of the call, which wasprobably the most miraculous discovery West had made so far.Someone must have lost their job over that one …
A large solidmahogany pedestal desk stood several feet from the Eastern wall ofthe living room. There was sufficient space to access both sides ofthe desk, which was often necessary as it boasted nine drawers tothe front, and three drawers and two cupboards to the rear. Thedesk was ornate, but not obscenely so, and West treasured it almostas much as his bed.
He walked overto the desk and seated himself facing the eastern wall, unlockingthe large central drawer and removing the tablet that was nestledaway there. West refused to rule out the possibility that the FBIreally weren’t interested in finding anything genuine on Beach. Whybother, if they could simply cut and paste him into a fiction?There were things, obvious things about Beach, which weren’tmentioned anywhere in their files. Notably, David Beach was afrequent visitor of on-line conspiracy newsgroups, and redditsubs.
West had beenfollowing a comment thread for several days now, and he couldn’thelp but chuckle when he read Beach’s latest entry,
[–]Shadowcab73 2 points 21 minutesago
My sisterthinks I’m the next LHO. Yeah, I laughed too. I’m probably going toget down-voted to shit for this, but I feel like March 10th was onebig grassy knoll. Look at my history. No one can say I have been asupporter of such theories as those surrounding the assassinationof President Kennedy. God knows, in my position, I could notconsider myself to be fit for purpose or sufficiently patriotic ifI fostered such beliefs. In light of this, it pains me to say thatmy current treatment at the hands of the authorities is unbecoming,and furthermore, I believe that their behavior is highly suggestiveof the possibility that, in the absence of a true suspect in thecase of the assassination of President Tiernan, the powers that beare trying to scapegoat me. If anything happens to me, you read ithere first - I would never knowingly participate in any act thatwould endanger the lives of any other human, let alone a member ofthe presidency under which I have served as a dedicated and loyalmember of staff.
West logged in andreplied to Beach’s post,
I would like tooffer my assistance, and I can only hope that you are not toostubborn to accept it. I’m well versed in the circumstancessurrounding your case.
West satstaring at the message, wondering if he should say more.Eventually, his finger tapped the save button on screen, and hefelt 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 thathis daughter had been lying to him on the phone. She sounded young.West was impressed. The girl obviously had a natural talent forsubterfuge, but he was pretty sure he could figure out a way pastthe masterful call screening.
Left alone, Charlenehad sat in the dark of her living room. She watched the dust motes,swirling and spinning their merry dance through the few grayingslats of light which punctuated the darkness. She would pucker herlips, blowing into the stream, and she would imagine that thebillowing dust was really plumes of smoke, blown by her deadmother, or father, always there, just out of sight. She wasn’treligious, but she spoke to them sometimes. Funny that you couldcarry a person wholesale in your head, she thought. It was neverreally them, but then, who was? You never knew but as much of aperson as they knew of themselves, or at least that’s what herDaddy had said. Well, he was too young to know. Hadn’t broken fortywhen his heart gave out. She watched her mother blow a mote ringinto the light.
There were toomany thoughts, and every time she made to move one of her limbs,her brain was completely shut down by the overload. Could she feelit? Her stomach would rumble, or else she would get a twinge ofpain in one of her joints, and she’d be momentarily convinced thatit must be the little creature, but then the feeling would subsideand her thoughts would swing wildly back to her youth, back to theheartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heirto.
Graduallythough, something had changed in her. It was as specific as that;she knew it wasn’t a process of rationalization, because she didn’tknow where to begin with her thoughts. Something in her changed. Itwasn’t a spasm, a pain, or an uncomfortable movement; it was aparadigm shift brought on without the effort of deep introvertedthought. In a moment, clarity broke through the din, and itoccurred to her that she had nothing to lose in the scenario shewas faced with. She went about most of her days doing whatever shecould to avoid pain or discomfort. She didn’t have anything, evensomething trivial which she looked forward to on a day to daybasis. She had no relatives, or anyone she cared about even enoughto mention them in a letter, let alone a will. A year ago she hadspoken to a weaselly looking man from a small firm of lawyers, andshe had managed to figure out that if she left her worldlypossessions to anyone, she would be doing them a disservice.
By the timeCharlene had realized the sense of relief brought on byrelinquishing the burden of worry, she was already on her feet.
Now there wasonly 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 almoststopped her dead in her tracks. She went to the kitchenette andstarted to fix herself a ham sandwich, then thought better of itand ate the ham on its own, putting the bread back in thecupboard.
She threw awaythe packaging from the ham and as she was bending over, she noticeda jar of chunky peanut butter on the counter. She undid the lidravenously, and taking a spoon from the top drawer beside the sink,she plunged it deep into the jar, scooping out a good desert spoonfull of peanut butter. She didn’t usually eat peanut butter; hercare worker brought her a jar every week when she visited, andCharlene 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 ofthe spoon rested against the roof of her mouth.
She washed thespoon 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 newsof the riots and unrest around the world. She finally found astation which was playing an exercise video created by a nowdeceased celebrity fitness instructor. Charlene was curious. It hadbeen a few years since she’d been able to exercise, although untilher seventy-fifth birthday she had kept up a daily routine ofjumping jacks and stretches. She started to mimic the motions ofthe on-screen instructor, reaching her right hand down her thightowards her knee, then her left hand to her left knee. She reachedup towards the ceiling fan and arched her back, and she almost fellover, excruciating pain coursing through her external and internalabdominal oblique muscles. She didn’t know the names of the musclesin her lower back, so she collapsed into her armchair cursing heraching back as a whole.
She lungedforward in the chair, feeling something move in her stomach, thenagain, in her back. She reached her arm behind her and she couldfeel a small lump there, moving. She would have been scared, shewould have screamed in fear were it not for the fact that she feltthe pain in her back start to subside almost immediately. She bither lip, patted the little lump in her back and sat back carefully,hoping she wouldn’t squash it. It felt not entirely unlike she wassitting on a massage chair. The late great instructor urged her to‘work those muscles,’ and Charlene Osterman directed her thoughtssomewhat guiltily towards the lump in her back, muttering softly,“Yes, go on, work ‘em.”
West refreshed thebrowser window on his tablet and saw that there was still noresponse to his message to shadowcab73. He picked up the phone andpaced the floor, mentally preparing himself for Stephanie Beach,determined that she would not best him again. Having routed thecall through several voice over I.P. services, he heard the ringtone and managed to confine his amusement to a smile when he heardthe girl’s well-rehearsed welcome message, “This is the Beachresidence, Stephanie speaking, how may I help you?”
“Hi Stephanie,I’m so glad I got through to the right person.” West affected themost amiable tone of voice he could muster, “My name’s Tony Stathamand I’m delighted to inform you that you’ve won a very specialprize from Manermanam Games.” West offered a silent prayer, wishingthat the child would try and repeat the company name, but there wasnothing but the sound of slightly nasal breathing, then faintwhisper before Stephanie Beach finally responded excitedly, “Ihave?”
West winced alittle, disarmed by the sound of Stephanie’s unassuming excitement,but he continued, “You have. You’ve been selected as the luckywinner of our on-line supermarket sweep.” West listened calmly toStephanie’s gleeful exclamation, her hurried repetition of thenews, presumably to her father. West hoped that this wouldn’t blowhis window of opportunity, but then he heard her excited breath onthe other end of the line, and took his cue to talk again, “I justneed to talk to your father for a couple of minutes so we can givehim all the details you’ll need to claim your prize.”
West leanedagainst the wall and smiled inwardly, listening to the muffled popsand clicks as Stephanie handed the phone to her father, “DavidBeach 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 callingat the most inappropriate times, preying on people’s goodnature,”
“Mr Beach, it’simportant that you don’t hang up the phone.”
“Oh sure it is,we’ve won another fantastic grand prize that I never signed up forhuh? You should be ashamed of yourself, getting a little girl’shopes up like that. What do I have to do this time? Come down tothe Motel 6 and listen to you wax lyrical about a set of miracleknives?”
West closed hiseyes and he sighed, David’s tirade still brewing in his ear. Hethought he perceived a momentary lull, and was about to starttalking when Beach kicked off again, “Oh, please say it’s a timeshare in the middle of some uninhabitable hell hole, I was justsaying how much I needed one of those. Honest to God man, you’reall I fucking need today, you know that? I’m at my whit’s end withshits, and backstabbing…” The sound became muffled, “Honestly Han,I’m just sick of it … I left the room…” West could hear a woman’svoice on the other end of the line, calm, patient, then David’sresponse, “Okay, I’m sorry, I’ll take it out back.”
Again, Westtried to seize this opportunity, “Mr Beach, I really must speak toyou, it’s about…”
“Screw youbuddy. You guys just don’t know when to let the fuck up do you? Youdon’t know when the button’s been pushed do you? Well you pushed itman. Is that what you were waiting to hear? You pushed the buttonand it’s not going to be un-pushed. You want to talk to me? Man upand come to the fucking house if my daughter’s won this grandprize, okay? Just pick up your sorry ass and make the effortinstead of butting in to my evening, prick.”
The line wentdead.
West slumpedinto the comfort of his leather sofa and lay back. It wasn’t as ifhe had any real time invested in David Beach, but the FBI wereputting all of their eggs into that basket case. He got up from thesofa and sat at the desk, glaring at the dejected phone, wishing itall manner of ill will. He shook his head in disgust, allowing hiseyes to drift to the screen of his tablet. He knew David Beachwasn’t being held for questioning and he also knew that thingsweren’t likely to change by the morning. Even over an encryptedline, what had he expected to accomplish in the course of a singlephone call? Beach was right … He just needed to get up off his ass,and make the effort.
It took David a whileto calm down. He paced the flagstones of the back yard, not walkingas far as the screen door to the den, because he didn’t want Hannahor Stephanie to see him so worked up. Eventually, he stepped backinto the kitchen and made himself a coffee, sipping slowly,breathing meditatively.
Stephaniepouted, and then growled when David explained that she hadn’treally won a competition. She wasn’t convinced by his explanationthat there was no such thing as a ‘free lunch,’ even after he hadelaborated on this, offering up that the free lunch was a metaphor.After some coaxing, she had eventually curled up beside Hannah onthe couch, and had started to read aloud fromLesMisérables, much to Hannah’s dismay. Hannah was impressed,perhaps even a little jealous that Stephanie’s interest in the bookhadn’t waned, but as she was studying for her masters in history,she struggled to contain her desire to complain about the lack ofhistoricity. She was surprised when she heard Stephanie read aloudthe singular thought that she herself repeated ad infinitum.
“’She must be abig girl now; she is seven years old; she is quite a young lady; Icall her Cosette, but her name is really Euphrasie …’”
Yes, Hannahthought to herself, she is seven years old, don’t be such abitch.
David stretchedout on the floor of the den and stared blankly at the screen of hislaptop. The sound of the air conditioner was enough to distract himfrom the dulcet tones of his daughter’s reading, but there wasstill too much noise in his head to really pay attention to any ofthe websites he visited. After clicking idly through a few tech andentertainment sites, David finally succumbed to the inevitable andlogged on to reddit. He read the most recent messages several timesover, and the noise seemed gradually to die away, till all he couldhear was his heart pounding in his chest.
[–]ThaneOfTheVoid 1 point 2 hours ago
I would like tooffer my assistance, and I can only hope that you are not toostubborn to accept it. I’m well versed in the circumstancessurrounding your case.Edit: By the way, your phone manner is dreadful.
Charlene woke upslumped over in her armchair, breathing in through her teethruefully, anticipating the pain in her lower back, and across thearch of her shoulders. The pain didn’t come. She felt relaxed andrefreshed, which was unusual. Hesitantly at first, she pressed herhands into the arms of the chair, pushing her weight forward, thenshe stood up and stretched, reaching her hands up over her head. Nodiscomfort. “Son of a bitch,” she whispered, licking her lips,running her fingertips down the base of the spine as she arched herback.
She walked tothe bathroom and turned on both taps at the sink below the vanityunit. She bent her head over the ceramic sink, and cupped both ofher hands under the pooling water, splashing a little on her face.She blinked a couple of times, splashed again, then she stood upand looked at herself in the mirrored door of the vanity.
Her eyes werestill foggy with sleep, so she bent over again, repeating theexercise of splashing her eyes, but this time she took care to rubher eyes gently with the warm water, running the pads of herfingers along her eyelids. She stood once more and looked at herreflection. She squinted and leaned closer to the mirror. Shelooked at the tube of toothpaste which lay next to the cold watertap on the sink and she read the ingredients. “Son of a bitch!” shedeclared, dropping the toothpaste tube into the sink.
She lifted hereyes to her reflection and smiled, but the corners of her mouthfell, nose wrinkled in bemusement as she examined her face moreclosely. There were lines there, sure enough, where there had beenlines for many years; creases at the edges of her eyes which randown towards her cheeks, and more creases by the edges of hermouth, 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, theillusion was complete.
She wiped thecondensation from the mirror with her forearm and leaned in,examining her eyes closely. The irises were not hers, not her ownnear-mahogany brown eyes. Now she saw her mother’s eyes; green withflecks of brown; staring at her, blinking with her, looking to thesides suspiciously. The particular slant of her eyelids, the depthof the crease over her eyes and the arch of her eyebrows was wrong.Everything was beautiful; yes, her mother had been beautiful, buteverything was so completely wrong. Her nose; the arch morepronounced, her nostrils thinner, the creases of her cheeks boredeeper 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 wasnotched with her tongue, and there, the bow grew deeper, her lipsfilling out. Her lips, not her mother’s. The arch of her noserippled, and she could hear it as much as she could see the change,like water dislodging from her ear, the crackling sound of thecartilage moving. The irises of her eyes began to be shot throughwith dark beams, each one filling out the strands of green, blue,and gray; subtle flecks all now lost in dark lakes of umber. Hereyes. 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 fearsometransformation. Laugh lines no more, for the woman who stared backat her meant business.
“Well now,there’s a thing!” She watched the young girl’s mouth, forgettingherself, admiring her bloom of youth. Then she looked away, luredby the siren’s call from the living room. Another long dead fitnessinstructor beckoned for her to join.CHAPTER FIVEDC
West booked a 9pmflight 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, andhe arrived at check-in with enough time to relax while enjoying anhour of meandering, and people watching at the departure gate. Theflight wasn’t fully booked so he was able to enjoy the shortjourney with the luxury of two seats to himself.
In Washington,West took a taxi from the airport into downtown D.C. and asked thedriver to drop him at the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania. TheWillard wasn’t close to David Beach’s home, but it was a short walkfrom a private parking deck which housed one of West’s cars. Hechecked 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 themorning, West checked out, walked the two blocks to 14th Street NW,and keyed into the parking garage. West had made a habit of keepinga couple of car to hand in most major cities. Licensing, taxes, tagrenewals, roadworthy tests and other such administrative headacheshad made this particular habit almost impossible until he had founda small company based out of Iowa who were happy to take care ofthose intricacies on his behalf. It was a vulnerability of sorts,but it was a minor consideration for the luxury it affordedhim.
He pulled a keyout of his pocket and hammered it into the awkward old lock of his69 Mustang Boss, resting his case in the passenger’s seat. He hadbuilt the Boss’s engine himself, hand machining parts rather than3d printing; however, the engine was sufficiently powerful thatdesigning and fabricating specialized tires for the car had alsobeen a necessity.
Every time heheard the deep throaty roar, it brought a smile to West’s face, butthe streets of D.C made him feel like a caged animal. He drove upNew York Avenue, heading toward 34th Street and pulled into a smallhousing development, coming to a stop one block from the Beach’shouse in Brentwood at five thirty.
It was apleasant neighborhood, with tree lined streets and houses built ina modest variety of styles. West climbed out of the car quietly,closing the door with a gentle push. No longer the caged beast, nowhe scanned his surroundings for possible threats. Not many thingscould pose a real threat to West, but not many, was too many, andthat thought was never far from his mind. He walked toward DavidBeach’s house slowly, stopping beside a large oak tree. He leanedagainst the tree and stood silently watching the cars in front ofthe house. There should be something there, some movement, someindication …
He was onlystanding there for a few minutes when he heard the low rumble of avan’s engine as it pulled around the corner. The advertising decalson the van boasted the “Best cleaning service in Maryland” and Westwasn’t surprised to see the van roll past him and park on theopposite side of the street, fifteen yards from the Beach’s home.He was even less surprised to see two men of average stature exitthe front cab of the van, both glancing furtively about the street,both paying particular attention to the cream sided double garagedthree bed townhouse. The two men climbed into the back cab of thevan and closed the door behind them.
Stephanie couldn’tsleep, which was always the case if she was awoken by the firstlight of day. She would pull the blankets about her head, leaving alittle tunnel to the outside world so she could breathe, and she’dlie with her eyes closed, concentrating as hard as she could on notthinking about anything. It never worked. Once she’d accepted thatshe wasn’t going back to sleep, the morning seemed to open up in avast array of possibilities, and usually, overwhelmed by choice,Stephanie would resort to the familiar.
She was partway through this ritual, pulling the first breaths of outside airthrough her blanket snorkel, when she heard coughing from the nextroom. Brow wrinkled with determination, she climbed carefully outof her bed, tiptoed to the bedroom door, and pulling the brasshandle down slowly, she whipped the door open in a smooth motion,making sure she didn’t slam the door handle into the wall. She tookwide steps past her dad’s bedroom door, determined not to wake him.Her Aunt Hannah’s door was an altogether trickier affair, usuallybooby trapped with clothes hanging on noisy hangers on the back ofher door, but Stephanie was ready for this, and only opened thedoor far enough that she could squeeze through the gap, but not sofar as to bump the jangling clothes against the tall dresser behindthe door.
Hannah woke with thesmell of strawberry lip-gloss, wafted into her face by the laboredbreathing of Stephanie, who had either been running laps, or hadbeen trying really hard not to breathe.
“Spiff, I’mreally sorry, but if the big fat hand hasn’t made it past six, I’mgoing to have to kill you.”
“There’s no bigfat hand.”
“You know whatI mean.”
Stephaniepressed the button to wake up her aunt’s phone on the bedsidetable, and saw that it was a little before twenty till six. Sheburied her face in the pillow, and mumbled something.
Hannah nudgedher shoulder gently, “What did you say?”
Scared eyespeaked out from the safety of the pillow, “Aww shish kebab,”
Hannah gasped,“Stephanie Beach!”
“I said shishkebab!”
“You know whatit means. What time is it anyway?”
Stephaniechecked again, “It’s five twenty-seven, and plus forty-twoseconds.”
Hannah groanedand pulled the blanket over her face, “Run away little girl!”
Stephaniejumped out of bed and ran out of the room as delicately as shecould. Muscle memory kicking in as she reached the hallway, sheskipped over several squeaky floorboards so as not to wake her dad,then crept downstairs, using the banisters to take the weight outof her steps. She ran through the kitchen into the den, and issuedthe command, “TV on, volume mute.” It had taken her a while to getused to the correct inflection to use with voice commands, despiteher dad’s insistence that it worked perfectly, there was definitelya knack. She lay on the floor, waving her hand listlessly in theair in front of her, conducting her own symphony of colors andshapes until she found what she was looking for. She made abeckoning motion with her fingers, the conductor asking for thatlittle bit more from the timpani drums, the volume raising on theTV, as the rolling deeps of the ocean, and the tattered French flagfilled the screen. Stephanie leaned back on her elbows, ready tosink into:
“1815, Twentysix years after the start of the French Revolution …”
Before thestring section was able to strike up its first note, Stephanie’sattention was torn from the screen by the sound of a car pulling upoutside. She heard a car door slam shut, and she ran over to thecouch so that she could stand on the cushions, leaning over theback of the couch, watching the street through the large frontwindow. She pried open the blinds, trying to make out which oftheir neighbors was returning from work at this early hour, but alittle way down the street, she caught sight of a man standingunder a tree. He was quite motionless, just staring at the back ofthat same cleaning truck she’d seen outside of the house this pastcouple of weeks. She watched as he shifted his weight, pushing offfrom the tree, long slow steps through the shadows, the sound ofthe waves and the symphony orchestra crashing about him, hismovements fell oddly into syncopation with the yells of the slaves.Stephanie smiled at the coincidence, then suddenly, as Jean Valjeansung the first notes of his song, the man turned to face her,looking at her, even through the blinds, she was sure of it. Frombehind her, Jean Valjean sang his warning to her, “Look down,” andshe did, breathing rapidly, shivers running down her spine as sheallowed herself to get carried away with the serendipity, listeningto 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!” shegrabbed a couch cushion, and bravely peaked through the blindsagain, but now the man was gone. When the phone rang, she mashedher face into the cushion and screamed a little.
West placed his phoneback in his pocket and tapped the side of the van with an openpalm. When no response came from within, he leaned his back againstthe van, and crouched, curling his fingers under the van’s sill. Helifted the van slowly, cleanly, just far enough that he could hearthings tumble about inside, then he bent his knees, touching thetires to the floor, so very gently. West had expected the FBI, andit had cost him very little time, and only a couple of thousanddollars, to ensure that he was the only person with a working cellphone. It was almost disappointing that the agents didn’t call forback up. The doors didn’t burst open in a flurry of motion. Theside paneling of the van didn’t erupt in a thousand smoking metalflowers while agents with itchy trigger fingers fired blindly.
Hearing hadbecome somewhat of a problem for West, but it had its uses, andright now he could hear two heartbeats, calm and steady, and hecould hear another thing; subtler, more delicate … that unusualflutter, the silent yearning of a thousand mouths, so desperate tomake their hosts perfect, the perfect machine, the perfectvessel.
He stepped awayfrom the van, calmly, backing onto the short grass.
“Can AgentsCarmichael and McMahon come out to play today?” West spoke thewords softly, and in response, he heard the soft clicking ofuseless 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, andthe response from inside the van was unmistakable. West could tasteit on the air, that heady mix of adrenocorticotropic hormone,cortisol, and epinephrine … fear, and anger, in almost equaldoses.
The rear doorof the van opened slowly, and the two men stepped out onto thestreet, weapons holstered, hands held with palms facing forward atwaist height. This signal, their welcoming of hand to hand combatwas an empty gesture; each of the three men knew there would be noexchange of gunfire. West didn’t move, offered no countersign, nogenuflection, no kowtow.
“We have noquarrel.” The man on the right spoke. West recognized him from hisfile as agent Carmichael, forty-two years old, single,Episcopalian, of Irish descent, and a recent transfer from Jerseyto the D.C field office. Except for the fact that he hadtransferred from Jersey, none of this was true, of course, but itadded flavor to West’s perception of the man behind which themonster lurked. West thought of Sun Tzu, know other, know self,hundred battles without danger. Recently, he’ had to acknowledgethat he was struggling a little with his self-awareness, but by SunTzu’s math, this meant that he should have at least a fifty fiftychance of coming through this little fracas unscathed.
McMahon raisedhis eyes to the morning sky, “Their concerns are not our concernsfriend. Leave us in peace, and go about your business.”
West narrowedhis 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 isa possibility that your making was not of your own volition. Youhave chosen names which suggest Gaelic ancestry, so perhaps you areSentinel of Aífe, or else of Bé Chuille, or possibly you’re TuathaDé Danann? It’s of little consequence … It could be that yourchosen names are merely an affectation. Whatever is true of yourancestry, on this day, you walk in to battle with unsoundreasoning, a dogmatic and uneducated adhesion to a woefully corruptmorality, and an entirely misplaced confidence. Their concerns arethe only concern.” West spread his arms to indicate the surroundinghouses. “Their needs are our needs. To carry yourself withoutconcern for others, you are completely without self. Opinions canchange, and the defects of thought can be untaught, but you havechosen your side. You were born of the Void Garden, and of yourunmaking, I shall fertilize the Void Garden. I was once herscourge; I am now her groundsman.” He grinned malevolently, andlowered his voice, almost to that of a growl, “We’re painting theroses red.” He watched Carmichael and McMahon’s expressions,wondering who would be rattled more by his words. McMahon.
West leaptacross the space between them, mouth aiming at no particulartarget, but finding a hold on McMahon’s left eye socket, digging inquite firmly to the curve of bone which formed his left eyebrow. Hewrapped his arms around the man’s neck, swinging his legs to theleft so that McMahon’s neck twisted almost to the point ofsnapping. Alarmed by agent McMahon’s screams, and suddenly aware ofthe trajectory on which West’s feet seemed to be traveling,Carmichael stumbled backwards, but his action came too late, and hefelt a sharp blow to the back of his head. His arms flailed at theair in front of him, hoping to catch the assailant’s legs, but hewas disoriented. By the time he’d managed to work out where the manhad landed, there was already a blur of motion from below, a handpunching up towards him with disgusting certainty, thrusting intohis rib cage, bending the costal cartilage and shattering hissternum. Carmichael realized before his head hit the ground that hecouldn’t breathe, and that McMahon would be dead before he couldattempt to come to his aid. He clutched his chest, and allowed hishead to roll to the side as he watched McMahon stumble cautiouslyabout the grass, body low, legs wide, arms forward.
West now hadhis legs wrapped around McMahon’s neck, trying to choke him. Fromhis position in the grass, all that Carmichael could see was West’shands gripping McMahon’s left calf, an unusual sight, butCarmichael was unable to move his head to see what was happeningfurther up this slithering totem of flesh, and he gazed on inimpotent horror, as thumbs and fingers pushed through fabric, intomuscle fiber, and presumably, only stopping when the hands hadgrasped bone. He had closed his eyes, but the soft crunching soundconfirmed his suspicion.
When he openedhis eyes again, McMahon’s body was nowhere to be seen. His breathcaught finally, and he inhaled, pushing himself over in the grass.There, by the van, the attacker stood, blood dripping from hisface, his hands, and smeared across his chest. Carmichael got tohis feet carefully, his gaze fixed on the man, desperate not to betaken unaware again.
“It doesn’thave to be like this.” His words were ragged, still struggling tobreathe deeply.
West walkedforward, surefooted, calm, “You will have a chance. Just a ghost ofa chance mind you, but that’s all we ever have really.”
Carmichaeldidn’t see it coming, and couldn’t understand how he had beenbested, but he felt consciousness slip away quickly, as somewherein the distance, a voice spoke softly to him, familiar words, “Paxhuic dómui.” Peace to this house.
West draggedagent Carmichael into the rear cabin of the van and lay him next toMcMahon. At least Carmichael was a clean take down. Neither of themen were dead yet, but their bodies were in a race against time,and odds were not in their favor. He undressed, wiping his facewith his shirt, spitting on the fabric and doing his best to cleanoff the blood. He did the same with his hands, and realized that hereally wasn’t getting anywhere with the blood, so he tossed theshirt on the metal floor. He stripped Carmichael of his clothes,careful not to get any blood on them as he tried them on. They werea tight fit everywhere except the waistline, which although notideal, West could cope with.
He went aboutthe van now, systematically removing every type of hard drive,recording media, or transmitting device. The hard drives andrecording media, he placed in a gym bag he’d found convenientlysitting behind the driver’s seat, and the transmitting devices, hecrushed and broke, either with his hands, or under foot.
Once he wassatisfied that there was nothing left of use, he stepped out of thevan, and closed the doors on the devastation, removing the phonefrom his pocket, and navigating to redial.
Stephanie had onlyjust managed to regain her composure, but as Jean Valjean marchedtowards the camera, veins almost managing to claw free of hisforehead, the phone rang again. Stephanie inhaled quickly, her eyesdarting to the phone, but after two rings, she hid it under thecouch cushion, and allowed her eyes to return to the safety of thescreen, where a leaf traveled up into the clouds. The phone rangoff, then started up again immediately.
She took a deepbreath, then pushed her hand under the cushion.
“This is theBeach Residence …” the voice on the other end of the line cut heroff, “Yes, good morning Stephanie Beach, it’s so good to hear yourvoice again. I spoke to you, and your father last night regardingyour prize, and I’m afraid he was rather short with me.”
Stephaniesighed her relief, “He’s average, he says he’s average anyway. Hecan’t help his height.”
“No, sorry,short tempered, he lost his temper.”
“Oh … yeah.”Stephanie’s focus returned to the screen in frustration, lipsyncing to the mute singers. No free lunch … no free lunch.
“Do you mindputting him on the phone, there’s something I need to discuss withhim urgently.”
On autopilot,Stephanie spoke the words she’d been just about to lip sync, “Atthe end of the day …” she tried to think of an appropriate followthrough, “He just doesn’t want to talk to you. You could … Isuppose you could send him an email or something … He hasemail.”
“Miss Beach,this is a matter of life and death!”
“Dun … Dun …Duuunnnn …” Stephanie responded mockingly, in a sing song tone, asif she’d expected this. “Everything is.”
There wasdumbfounded silence on the other end of the line, then finally, anequally dumbfounded, “Pardon?”
“Everything iseither life, or death. There isn’t another thing, like not life, ordeath … there’s just them.” She breathed slowly for effect, mucuscatching in the back of her throat, then she repeated her keythesis, “Everything is either life, or death.” She hung up thephone, satisfied that her philosophical observation would give thesalesman something to think about.
West stompedthe grass in the shadows at the side of the house. He pondered thechild’s words while he listened to the sounds of the house. She wasright of course. Everything was about life, except the bits whichwere 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 ofStephanie Beach.
It wasn’t alwayspossible to tell a person’s sex just by the sound of theirbreathing, but West was pretty sure he had the somnolent rumblingspegged. He picked a pebble up from the ground, and threw it at thewindow frame. He waited a while, and when there was no response, hetried again. A woman’s face appeared at the window, and West triedhis best to hide behind a marginata bush, which provided less thanadequate coverage. The window opened, and Hannah Beach held herhand over her eyes to shield them from the rising morning sun.
“Are youfucking kidding me? I can see you dick head.” She waved, and thebush rustled its awkward response. “Yeah you! You better be aboutto propose to me or I’m gonna ram that fucking bush up …” Weststepped out from behind the bush, waving his hands insurrender.
“Absolutely.I’ll marry you, if you’d just fetch your brother for me.”
Hannah frownedin disgust, “Pervert.”
The windowslammed shut, and West was about to look for something else tothrow, when another window opened.
“Mr Beach, Ispoke to you last night … I took up your offer, dragged my ass downhere.”
The windowstarted to close, “Mr Beach, it’s about the assassination. I canhelp.” West could still see David Beach’s distorted and shadowyform, standing at the window, so he forged ahead, “David, I knowyou 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’lljust come down and talk to me.”
Half a minutepassed, before the window opened again, “I’m coming down.”
David leaned againstthe door frame, peering tentatively through the glass panel at theside of the door. He couldn’t make out much, except for the samecleaning van that had been parked there for several days now, andthe sight of it made his hackles rise. Homeowners weren’t permittedto park commercial vehicles in the neighborhood. Even the worsthouse clean couldn’t require that much attention. This, thoughtDavid … this was why this neighborhood was going to hell in a handbasket.
He opened thedoor, and stepped out onto the front step, closing the door gentlybehind him. Standing in the shadow of the Bleaker’s cherry blossom,David could make out the man whom he had spied from his bedroomwindow. The same man who had apparently phoned the night before.The same creep who had messaged him on reddit. As the man startedto walk towards him, David felt his own unease rise through hisbody, tightening his chest, drying his throat. David steppedbackwards, stumbling over the single raised concrete step as heretreated toward the safety of his front door. He tried to turnaround to open the door, but too quickly he felt West’s hand on hisshoulder and he shuddered with the shock of it, the hairs of hisarms prickling.
“Mr Beach, Ineed to talk to you and in order to do so, we need to get away fromyour house for a few minutes.”
David turnedabruptly, pushing the man’s hand away, “What are you going to do tome? I haven’t done anything for God’s sake.” The sound of his ownvoice, high pitched and faltering, came as a surprise to David. Hehadn’t had many physical altercations, and in the calmer recessesof his mind, he liked to think that he could handle himself.Perhaps he needed to reassess.
West took afirm hold of David’s shoulders with both hands, and this onlyserved to further panic David, who had already started to writheand jostle against his grip. Focusing, slowing his breathing, Westreigned himself in, concentrating on his strength before slappingDavid’s cheek with the back of his hand. Wide eyed, a picture ofveracious fury, West glared at David. “Calm down man. Do you seethe van behind me?”
“Up until acouple of minutes ago, there were two FBI agents camped out in thatvan monitoring your home.”
David frowned,“There were?”
Unable to widenhis eyes any further, West resorted to raising his eyebrows,nodding slowly.
“Where are theynow?” David asked cautiously.
“To tell youthe truth, they’re still in there, but they are no longermonitoring your house.”
David openedhis mouth, then closed it again, then made another attempt,“Why?”
West bit hisbottom lip, and exhaled through his nose, “Mr Beach, they arefunctionally incapacitated. They will stay like that for some time,but we don’t have all day.” David’s nose wrinkled in confusion, butWest pushed on, “The point is, we can’t talk in your home, thereare almost certainly monitoring devices in there, and I don’t havethe time or equipment to check for them.” West started walking downthe street away from David’s house.
“I can’t leaveStephanie alone!”
West turned tolook at him, “There’s a woman in there.”
“Yes my sister,but I need to keep an eye on Stephanie”
West guessedthat Beach just didn’t want to be alone with him, but he knew therewould be little mileage in humiliating him on this issue. “Fine, isthere somewhere we can talk?”
David nodded,“We’ll go out back, in the yard. I doubt they’d put any monitoringequipment out there.”
West waspensive, eyes traveling over the cracks in the pavement. He glancedat the van and thought about agents Carmichael and McMahon. Helooked back towards David and nodded, “Lead the way.”
David sat on one ofthe swing seats, watching Stephanie in the den. She had protestedthat she wanted to come play in the yard, but David had insistedthat this was grown up stuff.
“Mr … I’msorry, I don’t recall your name.”
West stoodfacing David, legs apart, arms crossed, straight faced, “My name isWest Yestler, although I didn’t actually get a chance to tell youthat last night. After our little talk, I was inclined towardsleaving you in your mire, to flail and fester in your own shit.Your situation is … odd. Good odd, but odd nonetheless. Still, Iwasn’t sure you would be entirely worth taking a risk on, becauseright now, you are one of most dangerous men in the world. To talkto I mean. Obviously.”
David lookedhurt, “What do you mean obviously? I could be dangerous.”
In the rat runsand oubliettes of his mind, West was heartened by David’s bravado,although his face did not portray even a hint of this. “David, I’vethought a lot about what I would say to you. There were somequestions I had, certainly, but for the most part, they have beenanswered simply by seeing you. I think two questions will suffice.Others may arise, but now, I need you to tell me two things.” Davidnodded, slack jawed wonder, swinging slowly, allowing his feet totrail in the mulch.
“When youreceived the phone call on march sixth, did the impostor tell youwhat to do with any information you discovered about Arctum?”
A lump caughtin the back of David’s throat, because of the word impostor, andbecause this question had never been raised during his FBIinterviews. When he recovered from that thought, another occurredto David immediately, “I don’t know you. For all I know, you’repart of the investigation! I’m a government employee. Discussing mypredicament would involve divulging highly confidentialinformation.”
West watchedDavid’s legs swing out in front of him, “David, assume, forargument’s sake, that I know everything about your situation.Assume that I’m privy to the fact that you’ve been pulled in forquestioning eight times in the past month, that you have been askedthe same questions repeatedly, and that you are not responsible forany of the assassinations which took place on March tenth. Now,within those parameters, tell me, what did the impostor ask you todo with the information they requested.”
David plowedthe mulch with the balls of his feet, leaning his upper arms in tothe chains. “They didn’t tell me what they wanted me to do with theinformation.”
“Now David,tell me, what did you actually find on Arctum?”
David broughtthe swing to a stop, and stared into West’s eyes. He suddenly feltsick to his stomach, as the true absurdity of his situation hit himlike a clown car. With less than four days to go till the meetingof the EUC, and marooned as David had been, in a vacation housewith only a phone, he had found nothing about Arctum. He’d placed afew phone calls to planning, code, and records offices in New York,and he had actually called the building management company who wereresponsible for the upkeep of Arctum’s massive office complex, buthe had soon resigned himself to the fact that he wasn’t going to beable to get anything solid. He was on vacation. He’d been pissed atCarlton for even trying to call in a favor during his vacationtime.
“You know!” Hecould see it in West’s face, although nothing had changed there, noemotion, not even eye movement, but it was there. “You know that Ididn’t find anything. How? Why haven’t they asked me this? What thefuck is going on with my life?” David wiped his eyes with the backof his hand, slipping forward on the swing seat so the chain dugpainfully into his armpit. West walked behind the swing set, andstarted to push David gently, the palms of his hands landingbetween David’s shoulder blades on the back swing, then launchinghim away.
“Your life MrBeach, has become inextricably entangled with the day to dayenterprises, industries, and affairs of angels and demons, the feyand the foe, the gods and the monsters of this world.” He continuedto push David, his voice raising and lowering in pitch, as if thewords were a lullaby, “Agents Carmichael and McMahon occupy a worldwithin … an underworld, a subclass. You’ve written about thesethings, and talked about them, but you have never even come closeto describing the true magnitude of that other world. You nurture afascination with conspiracy. I know, you read about the Templars,the Freemasons, and the Illuminati, and you post your commentsabout the moon landing, and JFK.” He pushed David a little harder,stepping back to allow for the larger back swing, “Well here youare, finally in the belly of the beast David. You’re being devouredalready, and you didn’t even notice the mouth closing behind you.You didn’t see the light emptying out of your world. Your sistercompared you to Lee Harvey Oswald, and in some respects, thecomparison is an apt one, because there was a very single mindedattention to that man; however, he was found and arrested quickly,and murdered in plain view of the whole world. You’ve beenquestioned and monitored, and yet your name hasn’t come up once inthe news, not because of your role within the government, butbecause they don’t know whether or not you were involved. Theydon’t know David. Do you understand how important that is?”
David couldn’tspeak. He was embarrassed to admit to himself that he didn’t reallyunderstand, certainly not in that moment. He was too afraid to jumpup from the swing seat, even though everything in him said thatthis was exactly what he should do. The voice went on, soft Dopplerof doom, waves of insanity drowning out David’s capacity forreason, “I had thought at first that perhaps this was all part ofTiernan’s grand plan. Beyond De Somnio Mirifico, we can not knowhis designs for the world. It has become increasingly obvious thatyou represent an unknown quantity for them, something that liesbeyond the scope of any plans of theirs. You are in gravedanger.”
David felt theman’s hands on the small of his back, slowing the motion of theswing, 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 iseverywhere about you now. They will kill you without question orhesitation, and what is more, they will kill everyone you holddear, and their wrath will not be born of malice, but of ignorance.In the van out front, Agents Carmichael and McMahon are not deadand it’s only a matter of time before they wake. Upon waking, theiractions will be swift and unyielding, so you must steel yourselfagainst questions of morality, or hesitations of the heart. Theywill murder you, they will murder your daughter, and they willerase every piece of evidence that you were ever part of thisworld. 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 thatoverlook the Chesapeake Bay?”
And Davidlistened, while West’s hands pushed him deeper into the belly ofthe beast.
Charlene was awakewith the sound of the first birds. She hadn’t been woken by themorning chorus for the longest time and it brought a smile to herface. She had slept above the covers, the unbearable heat of theeiderdown making it impossible to fall into a heavy sleep. She satup and stretched her arms and felt a dull, but pleasant acherunning through the muscles in her shoulders and upper back. Sheswung her legs over the side of her Edwardian four post bed andfelt the deep pile of the rug against the balls of her feet and hertoes.
Her parents,both of them had visited her dreams, and as the memory returned toher, she felt a moment’s melancholy. She had spent the nightweaving in and out of events throughout her life, in a way that shehadn’t experienced in years, and now that she was awake, it seemedalmost sad to have to come away from all those cherished memories,even if experienced in that surreal mist of sleep.
She relaxed hershoulders, lowering her hands slowly, pausing to look at them, andshe was fascinated and shaken by what she saw. She pulled her legsback onto the bed, and lay face down staring at her hands and armsup close, marveling at the millions of intricate changes that hadbeen wrought through the night. She had grown familiar with thepits and valleys of veins and tendons over the years, the littlewhorls and wrinkles, the liver spots and calluses. She had workedeight years in a munitions plant, hands yellowing with oxides asshe coughed up bile and evil every night. She had learned her wayaround a car engine when lack of money or a good man hadnecessitated it. Her hands bore no evidence, no mark of these smallbattles now, no sign of the callused palms of a woman who hadlugged mail sacks in a depot for a year, listening to the coarseand curse laden ramblings of the other postal workers.
Where were thewhite lines of fibrous tissue, the scars which had run the lengthof her arms after her car crash in seventy-six? Those scars had runa more disastrous path across her body, the zigzag line drawn inflesh by the car door as it ripped and dragged across the skin ofher chest. Charlene hunched up now on her elbows and pulled backthe neckline of her long nightgown, and she sobbed deeply with aninsane mixture of joy and confusion as she examined the pure,smooth skin.
When hungerfinally drove her from the confines of her bed, Charlene walked tothe kitchenette and looked in dismay at her refrigerator which wasalmost completely bereft of food. She had eaten a lot the daybefore, she knew that, but she hadn’t realized quite how much. Shewas desperately hungry now though, her stomach turning in knots.She thought about what West had told her the day before, hissuggestion that she shouldn’t leave the apartment. How much harmcould it really do to nip out and get some food? She walked to thebathroom to freshen up and at the first sight of her reflection inthe mirror, she was reminded of the story of Narcissus, the hunterwho was so enamored of his own reflection that he died gazing athimself in a pool. She was sure that if she didn’t leave theapartment to find food, she would certainly fall to a similar fate.Even though she knew the answer, she still wondered how she couldhave been so affected over the course of one afternoon and onenight of restless dreams.
The bathroomhad been fitted some years ago with a walk in shower, her jointstoo weak for getting in and out of the bathtub, but she had keptthe bath as well. Even though the bathroom was barely large enoughto accommodate both, she just couldn’t bear to part with the largecopper bath which had been part of the makeup of the apartmentsince 1973. She eyed the bathtub now with an excited intake ofbreath.
“Double dareyou, you old ninny.” She spoke the words aloud, as an incantationto give her courage and then she walked to the bathtub and turnedthe stainless steel knob with the ivory crest embossed with a black‘H’. She allowed her lace embroidered nightie to fall to the floorof the bathroom, although it would take more than an incantation tosummon the courage to look at herself fully yet. She leaned overthe tub, picking up the chain attached to the plastic plug,allowing the plug to dangle into position and fall into place inits hole. As the hot water washed against her arm, she noticed asmall bulge beneath the skin and it appeared to move towards theheat. Higher up her arm, a second bulge raised briefly under theskin of her forearm and it too moved. She sat on the side of thebath, holding herself steady with her left hand on the enameledrim.
Where themuscles of her left arm tensed, her attention was drawn now to theripple of three more small bulging shapes moving beneath the skinand she watched as the skin of her arm seemed to pucker inslightly, being sucked subdermally by … What? Not that she wouldundo this magic, but there had been one leech and West had assuredher 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 howcomplete it would be? These were questions she didn’t know theanswers to, but looking at what was happening to her body, she hadlittle doubt; that single leech had somehow reproduced.
She felt thewarmth coming up from the bathtub behind her and she leaned overand twisted the cold tap on full blast for a few seconds, thenstanding and leaning over the bath, she plunged her arm into thehot water and swirled it about before turning off both taps. Onlythen, as she climbed into the bath, did she allow herself to lookfully and unabashed at her body. For sure, she thought as she laydown, this was not her body. She grinned, bent her knees andallowed her head to submerge in the delicious heat of thewater.
For the first twomiles of the drive to Calvert, it was conspicuously clear thatDavid had never driven a van. Curbing the rear wheel at everycorner, then over correcting and veering into the middle of theroad, David was certain that he would be pulled over if he happenedto pass a traffic cop. The cleaning supplies rattling around in theback of the van did nothing to help his nerves. Cleaning supplieshe told himself, repeating the words over and over. Cleaningsupplies … not unconscious FBI agents. Certainly not dark denizensof a heretofore unknown place of torment. Thump, crash went thebrooms. David wiped the sweat from his forehead and rolled down thewindow, glancing at both side mirrors as he flipped on the turnsignal.
David had beento Calvert Cliffs a couple of times before, fossil hunting withStephanie. He had been hesitant to contradict West, but he was surethat his plan would be pretty much impossible. West’s instructionscame with dire warnings that Carmichael and McMahon’s shift changewas at eleven. He drove up and down a long stretch of Solomon’sIsland Road, convinced he hadn’t gone far enough, when he finallysaw the turn off for the neighborhood West had mentioned. Sureenough, there were several houses on plots of land with well-keptlawns, each of which presented a good runway from which to launch avan. He pulled up against the curb, turned off the engine, and satlooking out over the bay. The waters were calm, and the sun, stilllow on the horizon, bathed the bay in a warm glow. David couldalmost imagine that everything was right with the world.
Then he heardit … a distinctive squeaking sound behind him, accompanied by thegentlest rocking motion. He couldn’t move. At the periphery of hissenses, he was aware of the sound of air rushing past his ears,aware of his white knuckles, aware of the pulse of his bloodflowing through his fingertips, clasped tight on the steeringwheel. Squeak … that particular noise, rubber, or flesh, and eitherway, horrifying. Squeak … His heart hammered through muscle andbone, a repetitive deafening thud, and he knew that if it could,his heart would leap free of its cage and slam onto theaccelerator. Then thud, directly behind his head, so loud thatDavid screamed, his right hand grabbing the key, turning it in theignition, his right foot slamming down hard on the accelerator ashis scream became a guttural yell.
He looked atthe 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 hita tree every time. Thudding behind him, hammering, the sound of amale voice, yelling bloody murder, wishing hell’s wrath anddamnation on him. The van lurched, and David’s chest slammedagainst the steering wheel, his head snapping forward sharply.Focus. He managed to keep the accelerator floored, his eyes fixingon a gap. He held the wheel with his left hand, and reaching out tohis right, he felt for the tool chest. The cool metal handlegrasped hard, he heaved the toolkit off the seat, felt its sharpedge scraping down his shin, felt it’s crushing weight tumblingover his foot, but none of that mattered. Focus. He took his eyesoff the gap in the trees, and quickly caught site of the dashinstruments. Thirty, thirty-two, he knew he had to jump now. Theyelling, two voices now in chorus, four fists hammering andpounding the metal behind his head, as his left hand reached forthe 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 likeevery part of him hit the dirt and grass with equal force. He hadbroken everything. Definitely everything. He managed to open hiseyes in time to see the van clip one of the trees, then tip ontotwo 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 checkthat the thing was sinking.
Then clearerthoughts came to him. He had to move, had to get out of there. OhGod, those sounds. The shouting, and pounding. He’d just killed.Actually killed two men. Then an even darker thought tore throughhis body, and with that thought, David Beach was on his feet, andhe could feel no pain.
The sun had juststarted to peek over the horizon as West was leaving the capital.He took it steady, trying to relax into the road, taking in thebeauty of the silhouetted buildings, the warm morning glow rendereda deep burgundy by the Boss’s tinted windows. He announced hisinstructions to the entertainment system, “Audio please, Mozart,Die Zauberflöte, full volume.” He held his breath as his mindfilled with a world of associations, each measure precious, theentry of ever instrument impacting on his temperament.
It feltappropriate to listen to an opera with such masonic overtones as heleft Washington. He had made many lasting and importantacquaintances through his involvement with the Freemasons over theyears. With a running time of two and a half hours, The MagicFlute, and by extension, the memories of so many people who hadcome and gone from his life, would accompany West for most of histravel time. With the studious use of his radar scanner, his ownrather canny senses, and a top speed of two hundred and fifteenmiles per hour, he would reach the outskirts of Wilmington Delawarejust as the Queen of the Night sung her aria, “Der Hölle Rachekocht in meinem Herzen” (“The Vengeance of Hell boils in myheart”).
The Queen ofthe Night … West thought about Charlene Osterman and what wondersthe night may have worked on her. Charlene had been beautiful whenhe’d first met her, but young, much too young. She had knownnothing of the world, yet she was fascinated with everything, andher thirst for knowledge and experience was intoxicating. Thedecision to remove himself from her life had been an easy one. Hisrespect for life was absolute, and he had understood that hiscontinued presence in her life would have destroyed her.
If he’d learnedanything 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 varioushardships that she had undergone, but he felt no desire tointercede. Every acquaintance was for West, a test of patience.
That Charlene Ostermanhad survived to the age of eighty-five was impressive, consideringthe car crash, the financial ruination, the tornadoes and floodsshe’d experienced in Louisiana and Florida. He thought about howshe’d looked the night before, her body a manuscript ofmisadventure and hardship, but beyond all of that, experience, realexperience. Had he stayed in her life, she would have barely knownmore than the tragic loss of her parents; everything else wouldhave been a hedonistic whirlwind … probably. Probably was enoughfor West. Charlene Osterman was a woman who had survived lifewithout any unfair advantages and that was far more intoxicating toWest than the curiosity and excitement of a young girl growing upin New York.
Charlene sat onthe edge of her bed, towel tucked in on itself around her chest,thin gray hair hanging damp over her shoulders. She gazed at thetall dresser. The mirror there almost full length, bore the imageof something awesome. What had she become? She stood, allowed thetowel to fall away, and tears came quickly. She couldn’t take itin. She staggered forward, the wind taken out of her body by theshock of what she saw. Her hand punched forward as she tried tosteady herself, the mirror cobwebbing out in fracture lines beneathher knuckles. She gasped, wincing in anticipation, but there was noblood, and only a mild twinge of pain. She felt the adrenalinerush, felt it in her face, a rising heat, a stinging warmth, andshe moved, still unsteady, arms shaking. She stood up straight, andfaced the mirror. No, this was wrong, worse … what in damnation wasshe 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 inexasperated fury, “Change!”
And it was thatsimple. The heat, the prickling, the subtle pulling of muscles, thesickening popping sound in her ears. The skin filled out,tightened, returned to that beautiful, youthful form. She wassuddenly giddy, incredulous at how easy it was. What had West givenher? She laughed, smacking the shattered mirror, offering a highfive to the girl in the mirror. Girl. She laughed out loud at theabsurdity, shaking the glass shrapnel from her palm. The only thingwrong with that girl was her hair, limp and gray. She could dosomething about her hair though, and she knew she would have to.Not possible yet … he’d told her she couldn’t leave, and althoughshe had boxes of hair dye somewhere about the apartment, she knewthat the tint would be oxidized and useless.
Behind the girlin the mirror, there was a wardrobe full of clothes that had servedCharlene well over the years. She’d kept many of her dresses,blouses and skirts from her younger days, some due to nostalgia andothers due to laziness. She stood up from the bed and walked overto the wardrobe, where she quickly put her hand on a knee lengthbright turquoise chiffon dress. She had last worn the dress whenshe’d been in her forties and she was certain that she could pullit off now. She closed the door, allowed the towel to fall andpulled the dress on over her head. She ran her fingers thoughtfullyover the lace trimmed neckline and smiled at the young woman in themirror. The woman smiled back.
Underwear andstockings turned out to be a little more problematic. Nostalgia andlaziness only went so far when it came to the preservation ofclothes. She opened her lingerie drawer and pulled out a large pairof white satin panties, which were as close to flattering as shecould hope for. The drawer beneath the lingerie held her winteraccoutrements, hats, scarfs, shawls and gloves. She pulled out acream wool hat and walked back over to the wardrobe, pulling it onand checking her reflection to make sure she had tucked her hairunder the thick crocheted rim. With her gray hair hidden, if she’dbeen asked to guess the age of the woman who looked back at her nowfrom the mirror, she would have guessed thirty, thirty-fivetops
She sat on thevelvet cushioned chair in front of her dresser and placed hermakeup bag on the table beside her, ready for her ritual of makeupapplication. She couldn’t help but laugh a little as she lookedthrough the bag, realizing that all she would need was a littleeyeliner and a touch of lipstick.
Blood had started togather and congeal at the cuffs of David’s shirt sleeves, bothhands bleeding sufficiently that David felt sure he would diebefore he reached civilization. To be sure, Calvert Cliffs statepark was not entirely uncivilized, but what of it? David hadn’tlaid eyes on a forest trail, car park, or a power plant, and everytime he fell (which was happening a lot,) his knees, hands, shins,elbows, or more often than not, all four would scrape agonizinglyinto a sharp edge. He had cried for some time, breath rasping inhis throat, manly groans and grunts terrifying any nearby wildlife.When his self-pity had subsided, it had quickly dawned on Davidthat mind numbing panic had been a more situationally appropriatereaction, and on cue, punctuated by a full bodily fall, panic hadreturned, and now seemed to hold a permanent sway over his mentalstate. He was convinced that agents Carmichael and McMahon must begiving chase now. West had made it clear that the van needed tosink, and that the men needed to drown in salt water. Which wasanother thing. David wasn’t convinced that the Chesapeake even hadsalt water this far inland. No, if that’s what it took to killthese men, David knew that he was unequivocally screwed.
His only solacewas that he was confident of his directional sense. No matter howmany times this confidence had proved to be entirely misplaced, beit in malls, city centers, amusement parks, or his workplace, hisinternal compass remained nevertheless, an unwavering bastion ofhope for David. He always knew where he was going, no matter howwrong he was. He was clinging to that very thought, looking up andtrying to calculate the angles of trajectory of the shafts of lightwhich were now piercing through the trees, when he caught his anklein a knotted tree root, and fell sideways, pain screaming out fromhis ankle before he’d even hit the floor. He screamed an expletive,his voice so torn, chest so tight, that what came out was anincomprehensible shriek of vowels and consonants, ending unusuallyon a plosive as his lungs seized up and his lips closed fast. Heclosed his eyes, and when he opened them again he was vaguely awareof the notion that some time had passed.
He jolted intoaction, teeth gritted in anticipation of pain as he clambered tohis 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. Behindhim, somewhere close by, he heard a twig snapping, and a rustle ofleaves. The sound of the second, larger limb cracking might just aswell have been a starter pistol. David was running now, every stepan agony, but eyes fixed on the forest floor, there was adetermined clarity to his movements. Branches or twigs would whipat his skin, and he’d push forward, unflinching. His feet skimmingclose to his backside, hands pulsing forward and back, pistonsforcing forward an unlikely, and shambling machine. He could hearfootsteps pounding the dirt, not his, but right on top of him,thudding in his head, and every breath he took was a gasping pleafor mercy. He couldn’t look back, he knew that if he did, he’d fallagain. He had learned that much about himself this morning. Heimagined his epitaph after they scraped his mangled corpse from theleaves and detritus of the forest floor, David Beach: Not agazelle.
He listened tothe thumping, never losing distance, never gaining on him. Why werethey toying with him? He was sure that if they wanted to, theycould pounce at any moment. He could do this. He could keep runninguntil they decided to kill him. Then a switch flipped in David’smind, and like an acquaintance who had been reaming off facts,waiting for the recognition to dawn, the fear became suddenlymundane in its familiarity. He’d felt it before, this panic … veryspecifically this exact state of panic, when he was twelve. Thecircumstances 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 ofanecdotal evidence, the running, the pounding sound, the fear, thedetermination, it was the urination that had finally clickedeverything into place in David’s repressed memories.
In thedistance, there, a break in the tree line, and a clean horizontalplank, no jagged edges, no limbs or twigs. A fence, which meanthumanity. Surely the FBI, even a demented homicidal agent ofdarkness acting under the guise of the FBI wouldn’t kill him infront of early bird campers? And now he was a gazelle, for sure,graceful, limbs acting in synchronous beauty, chin forward, bodylight as the air. Far from the fence, he leapt, safe in theknowledge that he was this creature of the woods, this testament tothe human form, and speed. Over the fence to safety. In theperiphery of this steely beast like vision, there was a car, no, acamper van. Yes, safety. Then his foot caught. Then the world spun,and David died.
He was sure he’ddied.
Why did the footstepsstill 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 abeanie, then as his irises contracted, more detail emerged from thedarkness, the stubbly cheeks, full beard, the shoulder straps.
“Fuck dude, youtook a tumble. You lost?”
Still thepounding, relentless footsteps filling his head, David lookedabout, panicked, glancing back to the trees, trying to pick out themen in the shadows there. Nothing. Then the thumping slowed.Nothing? He shielded his eyes with his arm, squinting. Nothing.Just his heartbeat.
The stranger hadhelped David to his feet, asked him if he needed a ride, and wasclearly crestfallen when David insisted that he only drive him tothe nearest main street. He was desperate to help, the goodSamaritan in him, itching for a fix, but this was all he was goingto get. He wanted to be able to post before and after pictures,showing the amazing transformation, from torn up tramp toupstanding citizen, but David was going to deprive him that joy. Alittle begrudgingly, the stranger pulled over, then he jumped outeagerly, and ran around to the passenger side of the van to helpDavid with the door.
“It’s Phil, andyou’re more than welcome. I just wish there was more that I coulddo for you.”
David thankedPhil again. He had lost his phone somewhere on the run, butmiraculously, somehow, he’d managed not to lose his wallet. It hadonly been a two-minute drive to the main road, but David couldn’tquite express how thankful he was to the stranger, and he went tooffer him money.
“Please, putthat away, it’s nothing.” He reached into his jacket pocket andhanded David his phone.
David leaned upagainst the side of the van, and glanced at the screen, whichcurrently displayed a photo of a golden lab puppy with a daisyhanging from the corner of its mouth.
“Oh shit,sorry, here,” Phil took the phone back off him, “Let me unlockthat.”
David smiledgratefully, “You mind if I look up the number for a taxi?”
“I’ve got Uber,and Lyft on there.”
David shook hishead, “I’d rather not.”
Phil shrugged,“Double tap man, I’ve got most of the local companies on speeddial.”
David nodded,impressed with his own turn of fortune more than Phil’s disasterpreparedness plan.
“You never knowright?” Phil’s eyebrows raised in slightly smug pride.
David agreed,you really didn’t. He told the operator for Delta Cabba that he’dbe walking towards the city on, he looked at Phil, who whispered,“Saint Leonard Road.”
“Saint LeonardRoad,” David repeated. The operator asked where he would beheading, and David was about to offer his home address when hethought better of it, “Yeah, just to the town center at PrinceFrederick.”
He handed thephone back to Phil, “You’re a brick man, seriously. Lifesaver.”
“I could driveyou to Prince Frederick!”
“I’ve got tomake this trip on my own Phil. I really appreciate the offerthough.”
Phil put a handon David’s shoulder, and withdrew it quickly when David let out aninvoluntary groan. “Any time bro.” He grimaced as his eyes pouredover the devastation that was David’s state of dress, “Seriouslythough, what the heck happened to you?”
David raisedhis 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 thensomeone would probably make me kill you.” Phil laughed, thenlooking at the dark patch surrounding David’s crotch, he stoppedlaughing, and started coughing.
“Look, Simonwas it?”
“Look Simon,I’ve got a ton of clothes in the back here,” he patted the vantwice, “Let me fix you up.”David sighed, not sure he could trust reality any longer, “No, no,I’m fine.”
Phil punchedthe side of the van, “Simon, man, you are so not alright. You’rethe most badly fucked up sight I’ve seen in a long time, and I do alot of really stupid things, I mean … I’ve seen some really twistedindividuals. Take some clothes. It is the very least I can do.”
David pushedhimself upright, hands on his knees, flashing a ruined smile at hisnew friend Phil, “Never look a gift horse.”
Phil, who hadmanaged to live thirty-six years without hearing the expression,frowned, “Nope, never look a gift horse.” When in Rome, he thoughtto himself as he walked around to the back of the van.
Now dressed inkhaki shorts, a green ringer, and flip flops, David waved to Philas he pulled away. He started down the road in the oppositedirection, and had only been walking for two minutes when he sawthe taxi, the cartoon font DC encircled by the times roman ‘DeltaCabba’. David waved, and limped out into the road, making sure hecaught the driver’s attention. The driver passed him, signaling,then performed a clean U-turn and pulled up next to David. Thepassenger side window slid down smoothly, “Where to?” the voicefrom inside the cab called out, unexpectedly gruff anddemanding.
“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 drivertipped his head back slightly in acknowledgment that this was thecorrect response.
The cab driver watchedDavid hunker down suspiciously in the back seat.
David caughtsite of the driver’s face through the rear-view mirror. The man’sexpression was one of sarcastic entertainment rather than genuineinterest.
“If you gotta’know, I’m having an affair with a girl in Port Republic, but I’vegot family out this way too.”
The cab ownerlooked impressed, “That how come you’re all beat up?”
The mandispensed with the illusion of driving and glanced over hisshoulder, pointing, “You know, your cuts and bumps, you get them onaccount of your nocturnal indiscretions?”
David laughedpainfully, “Sure, sure. I’ve taken some flak for it, but what’s aguy to do right?”
“Right, right.”This guy, the cab owner nodded … affair my ass.
The rest of thethankfully short drive went by in stony silence until the carwheezed to a stop on the main strip of Prince Frederic. “That’ll betwenty-two sixty.” David was outraged, but smiled, and handed overthirty, “Keep the change.
He wasn’t sure whyPrince Frederic had come to mind, but he put it down to hunger.He’d eaten at an Outback Steakhouse there, once upon a time, whenhe was a child, and Hannah had been barely grown enough to beseated at the table. It was one of those odd memories that hadetched permanently into his repertoire, and for the most trivial ofreasons. Nonetheless, there it was in his mind’s eye, a vividwindow into an incident that would hold no sway or relevance everagain. As he looked at the store fronts, trying to figure out ifone of the stores would let him use their phone, he rubbed hismind’s eye. Salt. That was how that particular evening had becomeso indelibly etched. Excited by everything on the menu, he hadordered a rack of ribs, and a side that was mostly an onion, butlooked kind of like someone had battered and deep fried achrysanthemum. When the meal was brought out, David had proceededto reach across the condiments in the middle of the table and spoonwhat he assumed to be salt over everything, then he had sat tearyeyed, grimacing, too embarrassed to tell anyone that he’d ruinedhis meal with sugar.
Well, that wasall behind him now. Here he was, a grown man, back in town, and hewalked towards a coffee shop, a smile forming as it occurred to himthat he always read the packets now, even in a coffee shop, wherethey would all be sugar, or sweetener of some sort.
“Do you mind ifI use your phone?”
The girl behindthe counter, teenage, red haired, tattoos peeking out from herneckline and under the cuffs of both short shirt sleeves, tiltedher head sideways, eyes wide, mouth falling open. She scratched hershoulder, and David was pretty sure she managed to sneak a quicksniff of her armpit as she did so. “You gotta buy something.”
David nodded,“I’ll take a coffee.”
The girlpointed at the large blackboard which hung on the back wall, butDavid now couldn’t take his eyes off the girl’s mouth. She had theworst teeth. How, he wondered, does an individual allow that tohappen inside their mouth?
“You gonna’order something, or what?”
David drummedthe counter with his fingertips, “I’ll have a large Americano, withfour shots of espresso and room for cream.”
The girl’ssmile was hostile as she walked towards the large Italian madeespresso machine. David waved to her, and then pointed towards thephone, which sat at the end of the counter. The girl raised anostril and looked away in acknowledgment, downcast eyes managingto convey a hostility of such specificity that David shuddered. Ashe walked to the end of the counter, he noticed that conveniently(at least for patrons of the store,) there were business cards forseveral taxi companies arranged in neat piles beside the phone. Ashe picked a card, more or less at random, he watched the red head,half convinced she would spit in his coffee.
“Yes, hi, Iwonder if you could send a taxi right now?” The man on the otherend of the line mumbled something that David couldn’t make out, andDavid asked his pardon.
“I said …” hesung, stretching the word ‘said’ into a little aria of exasperationat the indignity of having to repeat a sentence, “We’ve got yourcurrent location in the system, we just need to know where you’reheading.”
“I need anaddress sir.”
David gave theman an address, someone from Stephanie’s carpool group, but hismind had already checked out of the conversation. The red head hadsneezed over his cup before placing the lid on, nice and tight.
“What’s yourname kid?” David heard the words come out of his own mouth, andcould do nothing to change that this had happened. They’re outthere now, he thought, let them go … In his mouth brain, he hadsounded like an old school detective, about to drill a suspect. Inhis actual brain, he realized immediately that he sounded like anasshole.
The girlflicked her head, which had no effect as her hair was tied up in aponytail, “Brook.”
“BabblingBrook.” David responded, aware that this only served to compoundhis apparent personality deficit.
“No. JustBrook.” The girl smiled awkwardly now, flashing all of heryellowing teeth in their full horror.
David stared ather mouth for too long, “Brook, I’m sorry but I’m going to have toask you to fix me another coffee.”
He noddedtowards the waxed cardboard cup which sat on the counter betweenthem, “Because Brook, as much as I’ve grown to like you in the pastcouple of minutes, and that’s a whole heck of a lot, I am not yetready to swap spit with you.”
Brook’s mouthopened wide, her lower lip curling over her bottom teeth (thankgod), 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’reimagining for me.”
Brook hid herhead behind the glistening chrome machinery, blushing.
As he watched the taxipull up outside, David began to suspect that feigning sleep wouldbe implausible. The taxi was a 2010 Honda Accord, a fine car in itsday to be sure, but as far as this taxi was concerned, today wasclearly not its day.
“Sorry I tookso long getting here, had to gas the bitch up.” The driver leanedtowards the open passenger window, morning sun gleaming on hisbalding head. David hated the driver, immediately, from his thickjawed unshaven and pock marked face, right down to his ripped, andgod he hoped … coffee stained jeans.
“It’s all goodmy man.” David lied, hating himself for his half-assed attempt atcamaraderie.
“You been outpartying bro?”
David openedthe rear passenger side door and climbed in apprehensively,pondering on the unfortunate series of catastrophes which wouldhave led to his mother stooping low enough from grace to fornicatewith this fuckwit’s father. “Something like that br ...” He managedto stop himself before he finished uttering the loathsomeappellation “bro” and he ended instead on a weak, “yeah …”
The driverturned in his seat and faced David, “So?”
David wasconfused, until he realized that the driver must have either notbeen told by the dispatch office, or had already forgotten whereDavid was heading.
The driverturned up the radio which was tuned to a talk station, and craninghis neck over the headrest slightly, he asked David if he minded.David muttered his unenthusiastic approval.
The voices ofthree brash and opinionated pseudo-intellectuals hammered out aheated debate over the succession and appointment of PresidentLucas Miller and what it meant for America.
“What do youthink to Miller Bro?” The driver watched David through the rearview mirror, clearly awaiting a response. West had warned Davidabout the danger of revealing anything about his identity, so Davidoffered a noncommittal, “He seems okay, I honestly don’t pay enoughattention to politics.”
Of course,David had been on first name terms with the then Vice PresidentLucas Miller and his wife, now First Lady Petra Miller. What wasthere to say about Miller? As far as David was concerned, he wasreally a carbon copy of Allan Tiernan. He even looked like he couldhave been family.
“Man, I’m notinto politics either, for real. I mostly listen to this shit forthe sports desk.”
“Right.” Sportswas a topic that David felt inadequately equipped to discuss. Hedidn’t follow any teams, he didn’t watch many games and he knewthis made him difficult for a lot of guys to relate to. The driverseemed to be perceptive enough at least to pick up on David’s lackof gusto for sport, focusing his eyes on the road ahead, apparentlylistening to the radio show.
Garry Watzchekwasn’t listening to the radio, he was rifling through his mentalindex cards, trying to find a more appropriate opening gambit totry on with his passenger, “You read much?” he ventured.
David lickedhis lips and thought about deflecting the offer of conversationagain, thinking to himself that literature might turn out to be thelesser of evils when it came to making conversation with thisloathsome prick. He wrinkled his nose and rubbed his brow slightly,bracing himself for the worst, “Yeah I read some …”
Garry Watzcheksmiled inwardly as he navigated the car along Solomons Island Road.He had a pretty good knack for breaking down people’s barriers andhe was pleased with himself that this guy had only taken him …what, three minutes?
“So what kindof stuff do you read?”
David watchedthe trees race by as his breath fogged up the window, “I read a lotof factual stuff, books on physics, history, things like that.”
Garry noddedhis approval, “Physics man, that’s some heavy reading right?”
“You read anyof Fenyman’s books?” Garry mentally patted his own back, confidentthat his passenger would warm to him now. In the back seat, Davidbit his knuckle discretely, wishing that the driver had been ahistory buff. The name Fenyman was familiar to David, but he wasn’tsure what he had written. He tried bluffing, “Yeah, he’s quite thecharacter.”
Garry laughedand nodded, “He really knows how to make that shit relatableright?”
David smiled atthe driver as he caught him glancing back at him through themirror. He made a mental note that he should look up the nameFenyman when he got home.
“Dude, I waslike four years old when Fenyman died. I actually frickin criedwhen my dad told me he was dead. Can you believe that shit?”
David shook hishead. The idea that the cab driver could be moved to tears by thedeath of an author seemed surreal and jarring. He was starting tofeel guilty over his conceited attitude towards the man.
The drivercontinued, “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 Iguess you’d call it.”
David’s feelingof 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 redheadhad handed him a napkin along with his coffee, and as he pulled itout, he saw that she had written down her phone number, scrawledher name, and left him three yellow toothed kisses.
XxxCHAPTER SEVENPizza andHistory
West made good time,arriving in New York by ten a.m. He had hoped to get back in timeto catch Charlene Osterman waking, but it had been worth putting ina little extra time with David Beach to make sure he was left withclear instructions. When he got to the apartment block, he headedtowards the stairwell, but he was stopped in his tracks thedoorman.
“Hey there,wait up… wait a minute sir.” He heaved out of his comfortable seat,“Could I ask who you’re here to see?”
The doormansquinted, resting an amiable hand on West’s shoulder, “Westie? Holyshit man, I didn’t recognize you without your Rasputin getup.”
West laughed,“Rasputin? That what you think of me?”
“Son, I ain’tsaying nothing ‘bout your way with the ladies, but you been rockingthat Tsarina screwing, Grizzly Adams mess for long as I canremember.”
West nodded hisacknowledgment, “What can I say? I’m coming out of my shell.”
Larry’s eyeswidened ponderously, “Well good for you.”
West smiled,“Listen Larry, about that… I’m expecting company; a guy and hisdaughter. I’m putting them up in 210.”
West opened thedoor to the stairwell, but then turned as an afterthought occurredto him, “Expect the unexpected. The guy, he’s in trouble.”
Larry settledback into his chair, “You in trouble?”
West took the stairsand dropped his case off at his apartment, changing into a pair ofdark jeans, a slogan laden t-shirt and a black sweater beforemaking his way down the hall to Charlene’s apartment. He knocked onthe door gently.
Inside theapartment, Charlene had been sitting on the floor of thekitchenette, rocking back and forth, staring at the emptyrefrigerator. She was only vaguely aware of a sound somewhere atthe periphery of her senses. By the third set of knocks, Charlenepicked herself up from the floor, rocking forward onto the palms ofher hands and pushing up. She walked to the door apprehensively andstood looking at it, waiting for something to happen. When theknock came again, she spoke up, “Who is it?””
West leanedclose to the door and whispered, “It’s West.” He heard the rotatinglock cylinder of the deadbolt and the door opened. Charlene leanedan arm up against the door and rested her head against it,adjusting the cream wool hat with her free hand. “You want to goget some breakfast?” she asked, her voice slow and husky. West’shand went unbidden to his mouth, touching his lips, fishing forwords. West recognized the woman who stood before him, knew it washer, understood that she bore many of the same characteristics of agirl he had known once. Here was Charlene Osterman, no longer thehopeful and naive girl he had left without a word, or the woman hehad watched from a distance as her features became etched with ageand her energy waned. This was wrong, it wasn’t supposed to happenlike this. He had expected Charlene to be pleased with the relieffrom pain brought about by the presence of the leech. Not thisthough … When he finally spoke to her, the only thing he couldthink to say was, “Charlene, I’m sorry.”
She smiledcoyly, her hand sliding down the door and pushing it open further,“Mr Yestler, buy me breakfast and all will be forgiven.”
West movedtowards the threshold of the door and leaned towards her, “I don’tunderstand how this has happened. One leech shouldn’t …” Charleneraised her left hand and put a finger to his lips, offering hersuggestion, “Perhaps it was a girl leech?” West shook his head,“They’re hermaphrodites, but …”
Charlene took astep closer and West backed away. Her smile broadened as shereached out and touched the side of his face, “Really West, foodfirst, questions later.”
West nodded andclosed his eyes for a moment, inhaling slowly, mastering his nervesbefore he looked at her again, “You’ll need to cover up then.”
“I’m sorry? I’meighty-five years old, I can damn well make up my own mind how Idress, thank you very much.” She replied in a mockingly petulanttone.
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 anyantihistamine pills?”
Charlene shookher head, “I don’t suffer from any allergies.”
West nodded,“Let me run next door, I’ll be back in a second.” Charlene was leftstanding in the doorway, and she leaned against the door frame,watching West hurry off down the hall. When he returned, he wasbrandishing a small blister pack of pills, “You need to take one ofthese.” Charlene took the packet from his hand, read the label andasked, “Why antihistamine?”
“You mightexperience a slightly adverse reaction to the sun, a form of SolarUrticaria. Apparently there are certain antibodies in blood thatthe leeches aren’t able to reproduce. Antihistamine does a prettygood job of keeping it at bay.”
Charlene rolledher eyes and pressed a finger into one of the small plasticbubbles, pushing the pill through the paper before throwing it intoher mouth casually. Food is food, she thought, and besides, if theleeches hadn’t killed her, what harm could an antihistamine pilldo.
As they traversed thestairs of the apartment building, Charlene asked West what SolarUrticaria was and he explained that it was basically a skinirritation brought on by the sun, “As I remember it, my firstexperience of it was pretty excruciating, but it didn’t last verylong.”
“When was thisfirst experience?” Charlene asked, grinning widely as she took thestairs two at a time.
West raised aneyebrow as he glanced at her, “Food first, questions later.”
They walked outinto the street and Charlene immediately felt the heat rise in theskin of her arms and legs. She thought that perhaps this was theskin irritation West was referring to. It wasn’t painful, certainlyno more unpleasant than the hot flashes she’d experienced with theonset of menopause. She had never taken antihistamine and shewasn’t sure how quickly they would work, but she guessed that thesmall pill probably wasn’t even taking the edge off anything shewas feeling right now, so if this was the worst of it, she wasn’tgoing to worry too much about the “excruciating” skinirritation.
West looked upand down Madison Avenue and asked Charlene where she would like toeat.
“Well, there’sa little pizzeria on Park, which always looks quite charming, and Imust have passed it a hundred times … You know, I haven’t had pizzain years.”
West laughed,“Pizza for breakfast?”
She frowned,“You did this to me! I’ve been eating like a sparrow since I wassixty-eight. I cleaned out my entire refrigerator yesterday. Evendrank the bloody ketchup.”
West took herarm in his and started walking down Thirtieth Street towards ParkAvenue, “Oh, I understand, don’t worry. It takes a lot of food togo from eighty-five to thirty in eighteen hours.”
She looked athim 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 bringtheir host to whatever physical state they are most comfortablewith.”
Charlene’sQuestion gave West pause, “The delvers?”
“Yes sir,”Charlene reiterated, “what are the delvers?”
West nodded,and continued walking, “Delvers … that is apparently the nom dejour for the Leeches, at least in the common anglicized parlance.”He glanced at Charlene, who nodded. He continued walking, “I’veseen men and women in their eighties who didn’t change at all atfirst because they were comfortable with how they looked. The mostviolent and unexpected changes are often wrought in children orteenagers, because their self-image is usually so far removed fromthe expectations of the people in their lives. Nothing is set instone though.”
West had losthis audience though. Charlene was distracted by how much of thesurrounding city she was able to see. Her distance vision had beenfailing for several years now and the streets of New York hadbecome a smudgy landscape of gray for the most part. As she lookedabout her now, Charlene could see every brick, every piece ofsculpted stone ornamentation, every steel strut and lintel, and shewas overwhelmed by the beauty of her city. This was New York as shehadn’t seen it since her sixties and it was so full of intricatesplendor. They reached the corner of Thirtieth and Park andCharlene pulled West’s arm gently in the direction of thepizzeria.
For West, NewYork was something else altogether. He saw the majesticallyoverreaching buildings as the culmination of a lifetime of wonderand discovery, a world he had waited for, a child’s vision he hadbelieved in. When he occasionally used the hopper, he still foundit 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 thedoorway of the little restaurant.
“Table for two?” Thehost patted the podium in front of him, repeating the words overand over. Calas Gabris was Greek, and three days after receivinghis work permit, he had landed his first job in New York.Convincing the owner of ‘The Moon Hits Your Eye’ that he wasItalian did not require the level of commitment that he brought tothe table, but Calas didn’t half ass anything. In just two days, hehad watched Roberto Benigni’s 1999 Oscar acceptance speech over twohundred times. That was preparation. That was dedication.Interviews and press junkets with the director too, he’d seen themall now, and he was ready. The first customer to grace his palmwith a crisp folded twenty, he would grin widely, and tell them,“Ah, he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity’ssunrise,” or perhaps, “I feel like now, to dive in this ocean ofgenerosity.” He knew, one of these lunch shifts, his moment wouldcome.
The bell rangover the door, and he looked up from the pristine seating chart,“Ah, welcome, welcome. Here, I find a seat for you. You will havean incredible meal, incredible, just come … come with me.” His handmotions, the gait of his feet, both well-rehearsed impersonationsof a Benigni interview from 2009. He ran his long fingers brushingthrough his impressive, thick black hair as he led them to abooth.
“I assure youwe have, le migliori pizze in città, that is, how you would say,the best pizzas in the town.”
Hearing thehost’s bold proclamation, West and Charlene both started laughingpolitely. This wasn’t the city in which to lay stake to such aclaim lightly.
The hostnodded, smiling and bowing to them, “Your waiter, he will be overin un minuto. You will enjoy, I assure you. Have a fantasticmeal.”
West smirked,picking a menu out of its holder on the table. He glanced atCharlene, “Good choice, very authentic.”
Charlene notedthat the pizzas were numbered, and put the menu aside, “We’re inNew York, don’t you know everything is authentic here?” There was adryness, a bite to her tone that West wasn’t sure he liked. Helooked 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’thurry up.” Her voice rose towards the end of the sentence, clearlyvying for attention. In response, a tall, somewhat frail lookingboy sped across the restaurant, almost falling on Charlene as hereached 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 pretenseof caring about the authenticity of any given diner’sexperience.
Charlene shookher head and pointed a finger at him, “You can start me off with anumber three, a number five, and a number ten, each of them sixteeninch, each of them thin crust, and if there’s an anchovy anywherein sight, woe betide you.”
Gavin tappedhis notepad with the tip of his pencil, “A number ten with noanchovies is just a Margherita.”
Charlene smiledviciously, “What number’s a Margherita Gavin?”
“Margherita isa one.” Gavin, couldn’t help his eyes; the roll had become soinvoluntary by the age of eighteen, that during arguments with hismother, or his sister, he almost never saw the ground.
Charlene shookher 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 sinkingin when he came towards the finish line and met up with Charlene’senraged glare. He swallowed hard, “So that’s a one, a three, a fivewith no anchovies…”
Charlenegrabbed the menu and looked at the number five.
“Gavin, do youthink perhaps we should start again?”
The whites ofhis eyes showing, Gavin nodded, performing a circular motion withhis right shoulder and tapping the pad nervously.
West clappedhis hands together, “Gavin, good man, just ask them to cook up oneof everything. I’ll pay for them all, and you can run along outsideand drum up some interest, how does that sound?”
“I’ll have tocheck with my manager.”
West nodded,passing both menus back to the boy. He leaned towards Charleneconspiratorially, pointing his bread knife at Gavin, “Managementmaterial written all over him that one, you mark my words.” The twoof them sat, watching the silent drama play out between the boy andhis manager, then Gavin scampered back to their table, blushing,bottom lip trembling, “Mr O’Keefe would like to extend hisgratitude.”
West waved atthe man who stood by the bar. The manager returned the gesture witha hearty smile.
West placed hishand on Gavin’s, palming him a bill roll which he imagined would besufficient to cover the meal, “And Gavin, I’ll take two pints ofthe pale ale, and …” he looked at Charlene expectantly.
“Oh,” Shechuckled, “Just bring us one of everything, and we’ll see how wemanage eh?”
West grinnedwidely. Touché.
“So West,” Charlenebegan, emphasizing his name caustically, “what am I?”
West leanedback into the leather padded seat, crossing his hands behind hishead, “Is there something different about you?” He squinted,feigning confusion. When Charlene failed to respond to hisattempted levity he started to answer her question,” There are athousand names for what you are becoming.”
Charlene rolledher bottom lip backwards and forwards between her teeth, andtutted, “I’m not going to accept any more vagueness or avoidance MrYestler. I’m willing to concede that so far, I’m not disappointedwith the result of your little experiment, but that good will onlystretches so far. I want to know what’s going on.”
West shrugged,“I’m not being vague, not deliberately at least. There is a myriadof specific terms used throughout the different cultures of theworld, each describing a learned behavior, a physical trait, aspecific eccentricity of muscle memory. Some of these terms werearrived at over centuries of observation, while others were more orless representative of the desperate scrabble of a frightenedpeople attempting to put a name to their nightmares.” He smiledpolitely and leaned away from the table as Gavin returned with atray full of drinks and two bowls, one containing olives, the otherspilling over with bread. Gavin set the tray down on the table andwandered off before West or Charlene had a chance to comment.
West picked uphis pale ale and sipped the white froth, then returned the glass tothe table, holding it between his hands. Charlene opted for a clearglass, 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 quietbut angry whisper, “I mean it mister, if you don’t start makingsense of all this for me, I’m going to walk out of this place andforget I ever met you.”
“Charlene,there is too much, even if we sat and ate two of everything on themenu, and talked into the wee hours of the morning, we wouldn’tscratch the surface of describing what it is you are becoming. Notreally. You want a simple all-encompassing word, or phrase, thenyou are Leechborn, Leechkith, a Child of the Delvers, Dannum’sseed, a daughter of the blood of the river Dannum, Blood Thief,Ever-Hunger, Blood-Brood, spawn of Antrusca. Those are but ahandful of the terms used in the Anglicized modern vernacular todescribe generally, any individual who has become host to theleeches. If I dip my toes in the waters of specificity, describingone such as yourself … that is, one who was not born of Allim, thenyou would be termed a progeny of the void, Chosen of theSecond-Kingdom, Freeblood, Hated of Pretchis, Ahken’s folly,Blood-Bastard, Seeded Second-Realmer.”
Charlene blewbubbles into her lemonade, then returned the glass to the table andmoved on to a beer. She was starting to appreciate what he hadmeant. She’d managed to retain almost nothing of what West hadsaid, but a couple of words had stood out in her mind. She nodded,kissing the side of the cool glass, feeling the condensation on herlip, then she tipped her head back and drank the glass dry, gaspingas she came up for air.
West smiled,“Dannum was the first king of Allim, my home country.”
“And Pretchis?Who’s that?”
West’s smilefaltered, “Pretchis was the reigning king when my country fell toruin.”
Charlenenoticed that Gavin was returning to the table, accompanied by twoother waiters, each of the three lanky teenagers carrying their owntray with several pizzas a piece. They pulled a table closer to theseated couple, laying the pizzas out in a circle.
Gavin leanedcasually against the table, “Can I bring you anything else? Blackpepper? 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 longfor the restaurant to fill up around them, and Charlene quicklyfound herself absorbed in the bizarre tapestry of conversation thatunfolded around her. She was bewildered, suddenly aware that shewas able to concentrate on the things that West had mentioned,replaying them in her head, yet at the same time she could discernthe separate conversational strands of thirty other people. Shepicked up a couple of slices of pepperoni pizza, and she ate themslowly, closing her eyes, simply allowing her brain to wade throughthe whirls and eddies in the vibrant sea of dialogs, both internaland external.
When she openedher eyes, and reached for another slice, she noticed that West wasjust sitting, watching her, not paying any attention to the roomaround them.
“Do you want meto go on?”
Charlene shookher head, holding out her hand as she swallowed a mouthful ofpeppers and cheese. She wiped her mouth with a napkin, and took aswig from another glass of beer, “Why did you leave me?”
He wasn’t surewhy he hadn’t anticipated that question, and now that he wasconfronted with it, West wondered why she hadn’t asked sooner. Itstill felt awkward to say it, even though he knew he had beenabsolutely right in his actions. He looked at the table, at thedamp rings that had been left by those glasses which were in play,“Charlene, you were a child. I mean no disrespect to the girl thatyou were, but you know. I mean to say, you’ve lived enough to knowthat any relationship that we could have had would …” He looked upfrom the table and realized that Charlene’s body was rocking withsilent laugher.
“I’meighty-five years old, you ninny. I understand well enough. I meantyesterday … What was so important that you had to leave meyesterday.”
West pinchedthe skin of his forehead between his thumb and fingers, frustratedwith his own arrogance. Of course she understood. “There’s a mannamed David Beach. He’s a governmental peon, and he has becomeentangled in the investigation into the assassination of PresidentTiernan.”
Charleneglanced around the room, trying to put faces to some of theconversations she could hear. She rolled her hand in the air,indicating to West that he should keep talking, but she had becomemore interested in what Shauna was telling her mother. Who wasShauna? By the front window, under the impotent neon sign, Charlenesaw lips that synchronized with the conversation, a strawberryblond, freckled teenager, pouring her heart out to a mother who wasalmost perversely callous, and nonchalant. While West rattled onabout this Washington peon, Shauna cried, trying with everything inher to explain to her mother, that what she was experiencing wasnormal, that it didn’t mean she was a freak, that it wasn’t aphase, wasn’t a choice, wasn’t wrong. Charlene turned her headback, watched West’s lips, and heard Shauna’s voice, this teenager,on the brink of an apocalyptic change in her relationship with hermother. When his lips stopped moving, Charlene’s mind went aboutuntangling the cascading cacophony of West’s words. Beach couldn’thave committed the assassination, couldn’t have been involved, hewas low hanging fruit. There had been something else, somethingthat had almost pulled her interest back from Shauna’s emotionalrenaissance. FBI men, a van, cleaning service …
Charlene pushedback from the table, mouth wide, her voice a rapid whisper, “Youkilled them?”
David was relievedwhen the taxi pulled into his neighborhood. He paid, tippinggenerously, then climbed out of the car and immediately collapsedonto the sidewalk, clutching his leg. The driver’s window slid downwith a mechanical whir, “You okay?”
“It’s nothing …just pins and needles.” David lied, waving the driver off. Hewaited for the car to pull out of sight before he attempted to getup. It took several minutes of limping and hopping before herounded the corner onto the home stretch. Hannah’s car was gone.Panicked, he shuffled into an uncomfortable, lopsided jog, handsout in front of him as he tried to steady himself. Once he reachedthe house, he threw his weight against the front door, fumbling toget the keys into the lock. He collapsed through the door andlumped his weight unsteadily against an insubstantial side tablenext to the door. Squinting through pain, he balled up his fistagainst the hard surface of the table, and realized that his handwas clutching a note written in Hannah’s angry chicken scratch.
‘David, youtotal dick. Spiff with Bleakers. WTF is wrong with you. Late forDarowiscki again. Dick.’
If the tonehadn’t been sufficient, David would have known Hannah’s state ofmind merely by the fact that she’d actually gone through the paperseveral times with her pen. He shouted for Stephanie, just in case,then when no reply came, he hobbled up the staircase, one stair ata time, each one as painful as the last. He sat on the edge of hisbed, grunting and spitting as he pulled off the khaki shorts andt-shirt, kicking the flip flops across the room in the process.There was blood on the shorts. Blood on the green ringer too. Notgood, but he knew that he needed to move. He went to the bathroom,chugged back a couple of Motrin, and Acetaminophen, splashing waterinto his mouth, red water dripping from his hand onto the whiteporcelain. He stifled a sob, and returned to the bedroom, throwinga couple of pairs of pants, a couple of tops, some underwear andsocks into a duffel bag, before setting about the terrifying choreof dressing himself again. Once dressed, he pulled down twosuitcases from on top of his wardrobe, tipped the contents of theduffel into one, and emptied half of the contents of his wardrobe,almost filling both.
Donald and JulieBleaker weren’t elderly, but they had plunged into their sixtieswith unbridled abandon. They now seemed to be in some sort of madscramble to pass go, collect their two hundred dollars, and settlein to a daily routine of sucking boiled sweets while yelling at thekids in the neighborhood. Every time David spoke to Don nowadays,Don would adopt a sombre tone of voice, talking with thiscondescending assumed wisdom of age. Time and again, Don and Juliehad made it abundantly clear that they didn’t approve of David’slifestyle, his parenting skills, or his yard work. It was just whothey were though, and at least their disdain was not reservedexclusively for those outside of the Bleaker household. Julie wouldroutinely talk about her husband with caustic sarcasm, pantomimingto anyone who cared to listen (and many who didn’t) the whisperingof completely audible insults from behind the barrier of her plumphand, while her husband flushed with dismay and embarrassment.
David pulledthe screen door aside and knocked on the front door with heavyfist, and heavier heart, but moments later, that weight was liftedwhen the front door was flung open by Stephanie. She ran throughthe doorway, threw her arms around his back, pressed her headagainst his stomach, and yelled, “Daddy, you look terrible.”
David laughed,grimacing at a pain which coursed through his body, seemingly fromeverywhere simultaneously.
“Thanks hon.”He patted his daughter’s back, his eyes gravitating naturallytowards Don’s stern expression as he arrived in the hallway behindStephanie. Miserable prick, thought David, but the words that cameout were more congenial, “And you Don, thank you. I really can’tthank you enough.”
“Mhmm. Hannahcalled the school, gave them some cock and bull story about thisone being ill.”
He nodded hishead towards Stephanie, “Truancy is no laughing matter Dave.” Hiseyes flickered, jumping about David’s clothes, his hands, hismussed up hair, then he continued. “I guess you’ve got a lot onyour plate.” He waited awkwardly for David to talk, then in asofter tone, he offered, “Look, any time. Stephanie’s nobother.”
David smiledappreciatively, and hugged his daughter tighter, “Thanks Don.”
The moment thedoor closed on Don Bleaker, David patted Stephanie’s shoulder,“Pack a back pack honey, we’re going on a road trip.” She glancedover her shoulder, squinting with dumbfounded glee.
“Where are wegoing?”
David thoughtabout New York, the madness of the assassination, the crowdscrushing in about them.
“It’s asurprise … Go!”
Stephanielaunched herself at the staircase, and made straight for her room.By the time she’d finished packing her little back pack, she wasbouncing off the walls. She didn’t want to say anything, too afraidto ask her father what was going on, because that might burst thismagical bubble that seemed to be growing around her. She pulled thestraps of her backpack over her shoulders, and felt the weight ofher hard backedLes Misérablespressing against the small ofher back. She looked at the pile of clothes on her bed.
Within seconds,her father appeared at the bedroom door looking panicked.
“You okay?What’s wrong?”
Stephaniepointed at the clothes, “I can’t fit any more.”
David nodded,smoothed his hair back, then nodded again, swooping towards the bedand bundling all of Stephanie’s clothes in his arms, “I’ll handlethese, just make sure you’ve got your toothbrush, and yourinhaler.”
Within minutes,David was throwing his duffel bag and Stephanie’s backpack into theback of the Toyota. He leaned against the back of the car, waitingfor Stephanie to finish up inside. His head was starting to throbnow, pain spearing sharply around the front of his skull, as if histemples were being crushed. He leaned into the back of the car,pushing his chin over the rear seats, straining to see the clock onthe dashboard. Four hours before he could take any more painkillers. He climbed back out of the tailgate, just in time to hearStephanie close the front door of the house behind her. Davidreached up to close the tailgate, the pain coursing through hisbody forcing him to close his eyes for a long second.
His handsaching as he grasped the wheel, his right ankle in agony as heapplied pressure to the accelerator, David pulled out of thedriveway and set off towards New York.
The pain kept Davidalert for the most part, and when the pain took over his senses,the driving assists prevented him from rear ending anyone. A coupleof times, he had nodded his head at stop lights, and woken up in apanic, mind twisted from a surreal dream, hands lashing outdesperately, while his foot mashed at the brake-pedal. Once hereached the interstate, he sharpened up, embracing every ache andpain, eyes flicking from car to car, rising paranoia fueling hishazard perception.
They werecoming up on exit twelve on I95 when Stephanie’s voice piped upfrom the back seat.
David felt animmediate sense of relief at the thought of some brief respite fromtension.
“No. I reallywant tacos dad.”
Stephanie’sobvious exasperation brought a smile to David’s face.
David didn’t have todrive 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 toeither David or Stephanie. They had eaten from some trulyunwholesome taco stands over the years, and had rarely beendisappointed. He sat Stephanie at a table with six hard tacos, sixsoft tacos, and drinks, then asked one of the servers if theyminded watching her while he used the restrooms. By the time he gotback to the table, Stephanie had already eaten two soft tacos, andwas gleefully raising a hard taco to her mouth, sour cream andsalsa dripping down her chin.
“StephanieBeach, you’re a disgrace.”
She tipped herhand, trying to angle the taco so that she could take a bite,spilling half of its contents onto the plate in the process. Shenodded, rocking back and forth, giggling cheese and black beansinto her hand.
“Good!” sheexclaimed, giving a messy thumbs up.
David sat down,plating himself a couple of soft tacos, taking a long swig of hisdrink.
“You knowyou’ll get a stomach ache if you eat too fast.”
Stephanieglowered, “Daddy, I never get stomach aches.”
David nodded.She did, although she had a willfully short memory for suchthings.
“Where are wegoing?”
“I told you,it’s a surprise.”
“We’re going toNew York aren’t we?”
David wipedsalsa from his mouth with the back of his hand, “It’s asurprise.”
Stephanieshrugged, “The way we’re going, I wouldn’t be surprised if we endedup in New York.”
David laughedwarmly, dropping his taco onto the plate in front of him. He couldhear Hannah sometimes when Stephanie talked, probably more thanhimself. She was sharp, and he knew that he often didn’t give herenough credit for just how much attention she paid to what wasgoing on around her.
“Okay, we’regoing to New York. You okay with that?”
“Sure. HotDogs, pizza, spaghetti, squids, steak and burgers.” Stephaniechecked off an imaginary shopping list on her fingers, grinning alettuce and tomato smile. “Why isn’t Aunt Hannah coming withus?”
David leanedforward, slumping his head against his hand, “Honey, there’s somethings I’m not going to have answers for okay? You know I’d tellyou if I could, but I don’t know everything at the minute. There’sa lot of things going on.”
Stephanie feltthe confusion filling her eyes. Confusion did that sometimes, likesadness, or too much laughter. A mouthful of cheese and overcookedbeef brought clarity.
“You didn’ttell me about New York.”
“Last time wewere in New York, a lot of bad things happened.”
Stephanieshrugged, “That was pretty pacific.”
“Specific?”David asked, correcting her.
“Are we goingto see the president again?”
“Can I have hotdogs, and steak?”
Stephaniesmiled and forced a small fistful of taco past her teeth.
Stanwick Thrass satalone in her Pontiac watching the entrance to the taco dive. Shedidn’t know where David Beach was heading, but she had a good ideawhat had prompted him to bolt so suddenly. She hadn’t been watchinghim as closely as she should have. She’d arrived in time to see himdrive off in the surveillance van that morning, which had struckher as particularly bizarre. Physically Beach was a pretty averageguy, and there was no way he could have had the wherewithal todispose of two federal agents, at least not without waking theneighbors, and certainly not agents Carmichael and McMahon.Stanwick had watched those two, almost as much as she’d watchedBeach recently, although she’d known of them for much longer. Shewondered if perhaps she should have taken more time with them, butthey weren’t her responsibility, not now, if they ever hadbeen.
She hadn’tfollowed Beach, because she knew he’d return to his home, althoughshe was surprised to see him turn up almost three hours later,limping, and wrecked. She supposed now that he was heading to NewYork. He was definitely on the right path, and she couldn’t figureout where else he could be heading. New York … As she watched theentrance to the restaurant, waiting for Dave to come out trailinghis daughter behind him, she wondered if he was even dumber thanshe’d given him credit for. He certainly wasn’t cut from the samecloth as his father.
Charlene held twoboxes up for West’s inspection, “Which one?”
West raised ahand and tapped the glossy lid of the box bearing the title “EbonyForest.”
Charlene readthe description of the dye, which suggested that it would give herhair a complete beauty makeover, with visible glimmer and highshine. She knew hair dye, or at least she used to, but it had beena long time since her hair had been anything but silvery white andshe was concerned that going so dark would be too dramatic achange.
“Really? Youthink I could pull this off?”
West couldn’ttell the difference between the two shades of hair dye, so heshrugged and nodded in response, “Of course you can, have you seenyourself recently?”
Charlene smiledand returned the box marked “Midnight Rogue” to the shelf, “Youknow, I was naturally a redhead …”
West’s browfurrowed as he tried to cast his memory back so many years, “Youwere?”
Charlene smiledat him and raised an eyebrow as she walked down the aisle towardsthe checkouts, “I was. I always suited darker hair though. It wasstill a little outrageous to dye your hair when I was a teenager. Inever would have admitted to it at the time. It was something‘loose’ girls did.”
She put the boxdown on the counter and looked towards West, batting her eyelidscoquettishly. He smiled, pulled a hundred-dollar bill out of hispocket and handed it to the cashier.
“You gotanything smaller?” she asked sullenly.
West rolled hiseyes, “If you can crack a smile you can keep the change.”
The girlgrinned and raised her eyebrows, “For real?”
“Sure,” Westreplied, “You honestly deserve it more than me. I don’t work oneday in twenty.”
West didn’twait to see her response, he took Charlene’s hand in his and headedout of the store.
“Is that true?”Charlene asked, tugging West’s arm in the direction of a lingeriestore she had spotted.
“It dependswhat you call work really.”
Charlenepointed to the lingerie shop, “Do you mind if I step in here? Mywardrobe leaves a lot to be desired.”
West laughedpolitely, “You want me to wait out here?”
“No, if you’renot embarrassed. I haven’t taken any pleasure in shopping forlingerie for quite a while though, so I don’t intend to berushed.”
West knew thatit would be some time before David would arrive in New York, evenif he didn’t make any rest stops. He opened the door for Charlene,and followed her into the store, “Take as much time as youneed.”
Charlene was offeredassistance immediately by two of the three female store clerks, andfor once, she was quite relieved to have the help. She informedthem that she hadn’t been fitted for a bra recently, and yes, shewould like to be fitted. She was noncommittal on the issue ofcleavage, and she would accept their guidance. One of the girlsreached behind Charlene’s back and brought a nylon measuring tapearound her front, taking the measurement under her breasts, thenreaching her hands back she lifted the tape and took themeasurement around her bust line. The girl stepped back and smiled,“Okay sweetie, you’re a thirty-two B. Is that close to what you’rewearing right now?”
Charlenetouched the girls arm, “Dear, thirty-two is about how many years itis since I paid any heed to this sort of thing.” The girl smiledawkwardly and glanced towards the other assistant. Charlene caughttheir interaction just in time to laugh it off, as if she was justtoying with them. The girl smiled more naturally, and tried not tolook at West as she asked Charlene, “Now are you looking forsomething sexy, or just day to day wear … casual sort ofthing?”
Charleneshrugged, “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 greatconspiracy, “I suppose I ought to get a mix. I’ve just had a majorwardrobe clear out …”
“I could dowith that myself … pare everything down to like, a capsulewardrobe.” 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 inthe store which was stocked wall to ceiling with racks of bra andpantie sets.
West hung back,and the second assistant took a couple of steps towards him, “Isthere anything you want to look at while you’re here? We have awide selection of colognes … Or perfumes for your lady friendperhaps?”
West strokedhis chin, wishing he could remember the feeling of his stubble,certain it was a sensation he had enjoyed, “I don’t know, I don’ttend to bother with cologne.”
“Would you liketo look at what we’ve got? There might be something that takes yourfancy?” The girl was polite, not too pushy, and West thought thatshe at least deserved his attention, even if he didn’t intend uponbuying anything. He smiled and walked towards her, and she gladlytook the cue to lead him towards the token men’s section. Shepicked a small clear glass bottle from one of the shelves, alongwith a tester card. She pumped the spray action, wafting the cardin the air for a second as she explained to West, “This is one ofour newer colognes, ‘Coiled Tryst.’ It’s infused with artemisia,cumin and bergamot,” she held it towards West’s nose, “there’s anundercurrent of orris and sandalwood. This is probably our mostpopular cologne at the moment.”
West sniffedand closed his eyes. He knew better than to allow himself to becarried away by scent memory. Sandalwood held so many associationsfor him and it was this scent which stood out most prominently tohim. He opened his eyes and nodded approvingly.
“You like ithuh? Like I say … real popular at the minute. We’ve got it onspecial too, so if you buy anything above three ounces, you get thematching face lotion.”
West tried toimagine what misfortune might prompt him to need face lotion. Onthe other hand, the girl was doing her job, and doing it well, sohe figured he might as well buy a four-ounce bottle. Coiled Tryst,he thought to himself, toying with the letters in his mind … cityoldster … dirty closet …
The girlstepped behind the till and rang up the transaction, “That’ll beone hundred and twenty-six eighty with tax.”
West reachedinto his pocket and pulled out his money clip. Handing a couple ofbills over to the girl he smirked, “Tried … costly.” The girllooked confused by his non sequitur, so West elaborated, “Youremployers obviously have a sense of irony. Coiled Tryst is ananagram of tried costly.”
The girl smiledas she put the cologne into a small paper bag and reached into abasket to get one of the little tubes of face lotion, “You know Idoubt they were being ironic, Tryst is one of the cheaper cologneswe sell.”
West returnedto browsing the colognes, boxes of men’s briefs, boxers, y-frontsand socks. He spent forty minutes in this activity before henoticed Charlene walking towards the cashier’s desk, her arms ladenwith a multitude of items. West took great pleasure from seeing howhappy all of this made Charlene. He watched the cashier ring up thepurchases and he kept an eye on the dollar total, counting offhundred dollar bills from his clip.
“That’ll be sixoh five ninety-six.”
West put downseven crisp hundred dollar bills, and looping the corded nylonhandles around his index finger, he picked up the three small bagsinto which the other assistant had neatly placed the clothes fromthe glass counter top.
The assistantstarted to count out change from the register, but West waved hisfree hand in the air, “Please, keep the change, you girls have beenwonderful.” He nodded his head towards Charlene, “Look at the smileon her face; that’s worth every penny.”
West was surehe heard one of the girls mutter the word ‘chauvinist’ as the doorclosed behind them.CHAPTER EIGHTSaving Mr.Beach
David Beach didn’tenjoy Manhattan traffic, and to be experiencing it again set hisnerves on edge. He’d had a narrow miss crossing 35th at DyerAvenue, narrow enough that he was pretty sure that the car behindhim had been clipped by oncoming traffic, although neither partystopped to exchange details. As Mr Yestler had instructed, hefinally pulled into the parking lot on 30th, his hands trembling tothe extent that he almost dropped the keys in the process ofhanding them off to the valet. David lugged two large suitcases outof the trunk, and looked Stephanie over to make sure she had herback pack. He checked his pocket for the apartment key which he hadbeen given that morning, and having assured himself that the keywas safely located, he thanked the valet and took the parkingticket from him.
With hislimping gate, David kept tilting one of the suitcases onto onewheel, almost tipping it over with each step. The going wasawkward, and painful, but he located apartment building as soon ashe and Stephanie stepped out of the parking deck. Stephanie clungto his arm, rather unhelpfully as he found a gap in the traffic andlunged across the street.
Once inside theapartment building, Stephanie let go of her dad’s arm, running asmall lap of the foyer, brushing her fingers against the brass mailslots as she made her second circuit. David reigned her in, noddingapologetically at the doorman, then made his way to thestairwell.
The doormanlooked quizzical, “Westie’s place right?” The doorman waited for alook of comprehension which never came, “Yestler’s place?” he triedagain.
Stephaniecurtsied elaborately, “Madam Stephanie Beach, at your service.”
The doormanlooked at Stephanie, “Does Madam Beach have ID?”
“Nu uh.” Shelooked at her father hopefully.
David droppedthe handle of the suitcase, allowing it to tip over against thewall as he pulled out his wallet, handing it over.”
“Second floor,first on your left.”
David draggedthe suitcases slowly up the stairs, panting and moaning slightly,spurred on not in the least by Stephanie’s giggles. She huffed andmoaned mockingly, “It’s too far daddy, carry me, carry me.” Davidcollapsed against the wall, halfway up the first flight, bloodyhands wiping his sweating brow. Stephanie pursed her lips andlooked genuinely apologetic.
David fussed with thekey, allowing one of the suitcases to fall over as he slid the keyinto the lock. He dragged one suitcase into the small entrance halland went back into the main hall for the other. Stephanie pushedpast impatiently, running into the wonderland of hardwood floors,tall walls, high ceilings and modern furniture, kicking off hershoes so she could pretend to ice skate around the room.
Stephanie slidonto her belly and pushed herself along the polished floor with herfeet, “Oh Papa, it’s delightful, can we move here forever?”
David rolledhis eyes and stepped past her into the living area. It was … hestruggled to find a word, before settling on agreement withStephanie. Delightful. It wasn’t that the apartment was ornatelyfurnished, but it was so impeccably tasteful that David felt almostembarrassed to be standing there. The galley style kitchen area wasdecked out with marble counter tops, embedded with fossils, cleanlycut and polished. The appliances bore no grubby fingerprints orfood 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 notoverbearing. He wandered down a hallway and glanced into each ofthe two bedrooms, and marveled at the fact that each of them boreking sized beds with en-suit bathrooms.
When hereturned to the living room, Stephanie had already turned on thecolossal television.
Stephanieflipped over sullenly on the soft fabric of the couch, “Butdad!”
“Dad!” Shelooked crestfallen, but David shook his head sternly.
He stood infront of the screen, waving his hand as the movie covers flowed by.The occasion called for something special.
“That one.”Stephanie yelled as she sawHello Dollyflash past.
David looked athis daughter with mock disgust, “You never, never make it throughthat movie.”
“What happensin the end?”
Stephanielooked up to the ceiling, searching for an answer, “They all livehappily ever after.”
Still watchingStephanie, he waved his hand to push past the title.
David glancedback at the screen.
Stephanie gaveher two thumbs up and lay her head back into the couch cushionsexpectantly.
David noddedhis approval and pointed at the screen. Even in her absence,Hannah’s influence on his daughter was warmly appreciated. Thatthought flashed through David’s mind as his head hit the floor, buthe was unconscious by the time Stephanie started screaming.
Stanwick Thrasshad held back in traffic, then pulled up behind some constructionworkers, watching from a distance as David and Stephanie Beach leftthe parking lot. She watched patiently as they headed towards theintersection of 30th and Madison. She pulled out into traffic andraced to the intersection just in time to see them enter anapartment block on Madison.
Once she wassure of where they had headed, Stanwick took a circuitous route,doubling back to the parking lot on 30th. She pulled into the lotand cranked the hand break on, leaving the engine idling while sheclimbed out hurriedly to survey what damage had been done to herbeloved Pontiac in the side on collision. “Piece of shit!” shehissed, leaning down to stroke the buckled metal and the foot-longscratch which coursed through the paintwork. She bit her knuckleand punched the car furiously, admonishing herself for not payingmore attention. She held onto the rear bumper and took a deepbreath, trying to reassure herself that keeping pace with Beach hadbeen 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 morefrustrating.
The valetattendant approached apprehensively, “Can I help you mam?”
“Do your skillsextend to body work?”
The valetgrimaced as he surveyed the damaged rear wing and wheel arch, “Nomam, I’m sorry. I can do my best to clean and buff the scratch, butit looks like you took quite a ding there. Are you okay?”
Stanwick smiledvacantly, “Oh I’ll be fine, thanks for asking though.”
“You need me topark her up for you?” the man asked, sounding rather too cheerfulfor Stanwick’s liking.
“Sure, thanks.”She took the ticket from the valet and walked down the ramp towardsthe pedestrian exit. She made her way down 30th towards theapartments, eager to perform some elementary reconnaissance on thelayout of the building. Once she was certain that the only entranceto the apartments was on Madison, she scanned the surroundings andnoticed a small café on the opposite side of the street, withwindow seats the entrance.
She ordered anAmericano, found a well situated seat and tried her best to switchoff her busy thoughts. She took a sip of coffee and allowed hergaze to drift down the street to the intersection. A handsomecouple caught her attention as they walked slowly around the cornerfrom 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 newromance; the two walking with linked arms, him carrying theshopping, her with a spring in her step. Cute outfit though … notself-consciously retro. She was surprised to see the couple walk upthe couple of steps to the apartment building, then as they reachedthe top step, the man turned, and Stanwick’s coffee spilled acrossthe table in front of her. A concerned waiter ran to the table, “Iseverything okay?”
Stanwickcouldn’t take her eyes off the apartment entrance, the blue dressslipping through the doorway, “Oh no. No!”
“Sorry?” thewaiter started to mop up the spilled coffee.
“The Thane ofthe Void. My North, my South, my East … My West.”
The waiterperked up, “Four Weddings and a Funeral right?”
Stanwick spunquickly in her seat to face the waiter. She pushed a wad of moneyinto his hand before storming towards the exit, “Buy an education.”The yelled response didn’t play out as nonchalantly as Stanwickwould have liked.
West heard thechild’s screams as soon as he opened the door to the stairwell. Hecalled out to the doorman, “Larry, did my guests arrive?”
Before Charlenecould ask what was wrong, West had already rounded the corner ofthe first flight of stairs. The door to apartment 210 was wideopen, and as he entered the hallway, West could already see DavidBeach sprawled out on the hardwood floor, Stephanie kneeling overhim sobbing.
“Stephanie,stand back.” West commanded as gently as he could manage.
“What’s wrongwith him? What’s wrong with him?” Stephanie cried, turning toCharlene for an answer. Charlene dropped her shopping on the floor,ran forward and hugged the child, picking her up and stroking theback of her head, “He’s going to be okay sweetie, don’t fret.”
Crouching downbeside him, West slapped David’s face firmly. David didn’t stir.West shook David’s shoulders and slapped him again as Charlenestepped backwards slowly, whispering calming words into Stephanie’sear.
“Why’s heslapping daddy?”
“Hush now, he’sjust asleep. West’s trying to wake him up.”
West turnedDavid’s head and noticed a pronounced dark vein on his neck. Heripped David’s shirt easily, but just then, David started to coughand lift his head forwards.
“What’s whatnow?” He mumbled, watching West’s face loom overhead, “Hey. Heybuddy. What you doing?” David sounded delirious, words slurreddrunkenly together.
“You’re dying.”West informed him urgently.
Stephaniescreamed and tried to push away from Charlene, but Charlene huggedher tighter, “Stephanie, he’s going to be fine, it’s just anexpression.”
David’s eyesrolled, “I’m dying? Oh God … I’m dying.”
Charlenecouldn’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 ofthe couches. The man vomited on himself, then slumped back into thecushions.
West turned tolook at Charlene and mouthed the words slowly, “He’s dying.”
Stanwick Thrass stoodin the foyer of the apartment building, tracing her fingertips overthe nameplates of the mail slots. West Yestler, Dannum’s secondson, here in New York. She scanned another row. West Yestler, Thaneof the Void, Master of the Fall, living in obscurity on 30th andMadison. Her finger found the mail slot. She spoke the words, outloud, paraphrasing the label slightly, “West fucking Yestler.”
“He’ll be up in210. Some kind of ruckus up there.”
Larry looked upfrom his paper, “Westie … I’m pretty sure he’ll be up in 210 ifthat’s who you’re looking for.”
Westie …Ahken’s Bane, Destroyer of Allim, Herald of De Somnio Mirifico.
“You mind if Ihead up there?
“Not sure to behonest.”
Larry shrugged,“That fool’s handy with a knife lady. Saved my life once. Youbetter hope you ain’t a foe.”
Stanwick noddedappreciatively and made for the stairs.
As she approached thedoor of apartment 210, Stanwick could hear a commotion coming frominside. 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’sfine. Daddy’s just fine.”
She recognizedBeach’s voice, even drunk, even muffled by the door. She suddenlyfelt stupid, like she’d been missing something that should havebeen obvious for a long time. Of course Beach was working withWest; how else would someone like him be able to pull off theassassination? Then clear as a bell, a voice which came from muchcloser to the door, “Stephanie, your dad is very unwell, but I canhelp him. He is dying, but with my help he will not die. I canguarantee it … okay?”
Stanwickhammered on the door, her fists raining a fast series of blows.There was silence from within for several moments, then the slurredvoice of David Beach, “You … you gonna get that?” She hammeredagain, punching the door now, slapping it with the flats of herhands, kicking it repeatedly. She could hear a child screaming,sobbing, then the sobbing became hushed, mumbled angst mushed intofabric, and the door handle turned slowly.
There,unchanged, yet somehow inconstant, a bolt of lightning in a worldof eternal darkness, there he was; her West, the Sire of the SecondKingdom. Her punch landed squarely in the center of his face withenough force to throw him several feet, where he landed flat out.She walked slowly into the apartment and stood over him.
He lifted hishead and smiled full beam.
“West!” Sheyelled the word, then glanced menacingly at Charlene, who appearedto be considering some sort of intervention. Charlene backed up astep in acknowledgment, and Stanwick’s gaze returned to West.
“West Yestler …a mailbox label! What the fuck?” West started to laugh, butStanwick Thrass continued, “What? You think it’s funny? The wholeworld moves into the digital age and somehow you manage to avoidme? Phone directories, government databases, social networks, andyou remain elusive. I spend a century looking for you, trying tocontact you, wishing like some forlorn child that you’d even spareme a moment of thought, hoping beyond all hopes that you’d contactme! Then this?” She pointed at Charlene, “Strolling through NewYork without a care in the world, belle of the frickin ball on yourarm?”
Charlene wavedmeekly, “Charlene Osterman. Charmed to meet you, I’m sure.”
Stanwick lookedmore carefully at Charlene now. She was beautiful, she conceded.She had that certain glow about her. Stanwick lowered her head, hereyes meeting with West’s once more, “You … You made her?”
“No, I mean …”Stanwick closed her eyes and composed her thoughts, “When? When didyou make her?” She bit her lip and waited for a wave of burningmelancholy, but her anger subsided quickly. She smiled at West, herlongest living friend, “How long did you wait?”
Stanwick walkedover to Charlene slowly, her palms outstretched, her eyes soft, hersmile heartfelt. Stephanie nestled her face against Charlene’s neckas the woman approached.
“Stanwick KithThrass. Charmed to meet you.” She touched Charlene’s arm gently,feeling the warmth of her skin, watching for the telltale ripplethere, the delvers protecting their carriage.
“Hello!” DavidBeach spoke up, waving a tired hand, “David Beach. Dying overhere!”
Frustrated bythe interruption, Stanwick’s hand fell from Charlene’s arm as shewalked over to the couch.
“David Beach.Your name, and your actions precede you.”
“Wha?” Davidmanaged, coughing and gripping at his chest with aching hands.
“Tiernan,struck down in plain daylight, shunted from his pedestal by anoffice grunt. None of us could have imagined that the dream wouldend with such ignominy.”
West got upfrom the floor and came quickly to Stanwick’s side, “Stanwick,Beach had nothing to do with the assassinations.”
She ignored thewords, kneeling on the floor in front of David Beach, “Tell themDavid. Tell them how you and your father masterminded this. Tellthem how you helped him take down the would be Emperor of theVoid.”
David shook hishead slowly, lolling from side to side, “Dad’s a cock. Daddied.”
Stanwickgrabbed the front of David’s shirt, shaking him bodily, “Tell them!Tell them how your father stole the seed of Dannum.” She glanced upat West, “Don’t pretend you weren’t involved in this.”
West knelt ather side, “Stan, you’ve lost your mind. Julien Beach died yearsago. David doesn’t know a thing about the assassination.”
David stuck outhis tongue, slowly, biting it as he spoke, “Dying here.”
West took holdof 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 tocut himself all over, and he has some badly infected wounds, soit’s spread fast. He’s done.”
“You honestlythink he wasn’t involved in the assassination?”
West’s wordsthundered, “I know he wasn’t.”
“How do youknow?”
West sighed,“Here, take his hand.”
Stanwick tookcommand of David’s clammy palm, extending a finger to his wrist,feeling his pulse. West was right about one thing at least; withoutintervention, David was about to die. He could die, she thought; itwouldn’t really change anything, and eventually she’d learn thetruth of his involvement. West wanted him alive. She glanced at thechild who still clung nervously to Charlene’s side. Of course thechild wanted him alive. She lowered her head in an attempt to makeeye contact with David, “Hey, David … David” She snapped herfingers in front of his face, and his eyelids raised slowly,“Huh?”
“David, we cansave your life, but you’re going to become one of us.”
“A dick?” Davidchuckled slowly, his breath catching in his throat. “Hoth …” hetried again, “Hothpital.” David chewed his tongue again, eyeswandering about the room.
Stanwick stoodup, and pulled something from her pocket. She looked at Charlene,“Cover her ears.”
“The child.Cover the child’s ears.”
Charlene’s browfurrowed in confusion, but she clamped her hands over Stephanie’sears. Stanwick’s stern expression flickered into a smile as hereyes locked on West’s, “He needs this bad. He needs it fast.”
West offered noresistance.
Glancing aboutthe ceiling, Stanwick spoke firmly, “Music please, album AchtungBaby, volume full.”
She listened tothe three seconds of chiming that signaled the start ofZooStation, then she counted off thirteen bars of sliding guitarsand drums. Bar fourteen, she raised a handgun in front of her. Barfifteen, as the song entered full swing, she fired a shot intoDavid Beach’s leg, the sound masked by the first thud of the kickdrum. David Beach’s scream was joined by the self-proclaimedbeautiful voice, not that Stanwick was inclined to disagree withBono.
“Fix him.” Sheyelled at West.
“This was yourchoice!”
David’s handlashed out as he groaned in agony, trying to grab West’s arm.
“He has adaughter! Fix him, or he’ll bleed out before the chorus.”
West lookedgenuinely panicked, which was not something Stanwick was used to.“I’ve got nothing Stanwick.” West yelled over the music.
“You promisedhis daughter you’d save him!”
Dumbfounded,West shook his head, “At my apartment Stanwick! I have nothinghere!”
Stanwickreached into the inner pocket of her jacket and pulled out a metalflask, but scared of what new hell she was about to unleash on him,David clambered up from the couch, blood gushing out from betweenhis fingers. He fell backwards over the couch’s low back, vomitingas he went. Stanwick threw herself after him, her pant kneesslipping in David’s bile as she hit the hardwood floor. She gagged,dry heaving as she spilled the contents of the metal flask onto hisfresh wound, then she watched his writhing form spiral out ofcontrol, an eerie death spasm break dance, and Bono sang on, ‘readyto duck, I’m ready to dive, I’m ready to say I’m glad to bealive.”
David feltnumbness at first, as if the lower half of his body was beingthrown about the floor without his will. For brief moments when hemanaged to open his eyes, the room span wildly, then the pain camecrashing through the wall of numbness, like a fire spreadingthrough his body. He closed his eyes against the pain, his mindclosing down quickly.
Stanwickgrinned self-satisfaction as the multi tracked heavenly choirheralded the birth of another Progeny of the Void. She pickedherself up off the floor, and walked over to Charlene, who haddanced with Stephanie towards the kitchen in an attempt to shieldher from the madness. Taking Stephanie from her arms, Stanwickswung her on her hip with one arm, and pointed at the speakers,“Listen child.”
And Stephanieheard the voices, ‘Hey baby, hey baby, it’s alright, it’salright.”
When consciousnessreturned, David lay still on the floor, breathing heavily, aware ofthe weight of his limbs as his body pulsed with pains and shocks.He could hear Stephanie’s voice, soothing, telling him again andagain that he was going to be okay, that the nice lady had fixedhim. In the darkness, he could see her standing there still,looming over him, gun raised. Nice lady. He tried to respond toStephanie, but his jaw felt tight, his lips unyielding. His skincrawled as if there were insects moving all over his body, then thefeeling would change, and he was sure that someone was scrubbinghim all over with wire wool. He wanted to ask them to stop, but hecould only manage a repetitive “Mmm, mmm, mmm.” Freezing fingertipsstroked his brow, then Stephanie’s voice, “Dad, I can see it! I cansee you fixing up. Open your eyes.” Slits of harsh light, broken byvague shadows.
Stanwick nudgedBeach’s leg with her foot, “Come on lazy legs, up and at ‘em.”
Charlene foldedher arms across her chest sternly, “You just shot the man!”
Stanwick didn’ttake her eyes off the leg wound, which was now barely visible, “Hewas going to die Charlene.”
“You didn’thave to shoot him.”
Stanwicklaughed, “You rarelyhaveto shoot anyone, but when theopportunity presents itself …”
West steppedaway from the group, heading towards the kitchen, “Charlene, pay noattention. Stanwick’s not as callous as she makes out.” Feigningshock, Stanwick looked at Charlene, “Oh, no, I’m not being callous.Great big open wound like that gives the little shits somethingclear to work with, focuses the mind.”
“The leeches?”Charlene asked, and Stanwick nodded and shrugged a noncommittalresponse.
West returnedfrom the kitchen with a small stack of glass tumblers and a bottleof Drambuie. Handing each of the women a glass while keeping onefor himself, he reaffirmed Stanwick’s claim, “She’s not wrongCharlene. David was fading fast.”
Stephaniesuddenly bounced into motion, rocking back and forward on herhaunches, “He smiled.” She patted her father’s head, “Wake up lazylegs. Up and at ‘em.”
Charlene rolledher eyes in dismay at how quickly Stanwick’s influence had rubbedoff on the girl. She watched West filling the woman’s tumbler, andshe suddenly found herself wondering where she stood. There wasclearly a connection between West and Stanwick, and Charlene wassurprised at her own jealousy. Yes, that was the feeling, painfulanger, bubbling to the surface, a tightness in her chest. Stanwickstepped towards her and leaned her glass in to chink againstCharlene’s. Their knuckles touched for a moment, Stanwick’s eyeslocking onto Charlene’s. She smiled slyly, “Down girl.”
“I’m Sorry?”Charlene asked, stepping back involuntarily, her calves pushing upagainst the couch.
Stanwick took asip from her drink, allowing the sweet liquor to warm her throat,“I can hear you gritting your teeth Charlene. I can see the veinsstanding proud of your temples. I can hear the unspoken word asyour tongue clicks about inside your little mouth. Such a harshword, but a personal favorite.”
Charlene madeto speak up in her own defense, but Stanwick raised her glass tosilence her, “Down. Girl.” She spoke the command softly now, thenlowered her head conspiratorially, closing the distance betweenCharlene and her, “I love West. I’ve always loved West, but spend athousand lifetimes in someone’s company, and love takes on adifferent meaning. West would not wait seventy years for anyone,certainly not at any time in my recollection. I can’t tell you heloves you, but I can tell you that he’s fascinated with you, and inthat fascination, he has found joy.”
West tilted hisglass towards Charlene’s and smiled warmly, “She’s not wrong.”
From smiling tositting upright took David another ten minutes, and by that time hehad managed to speak a few strenuous sentences, while the othersbusied themselves with drinks, and cleaning up his blood and vomit.Stephanie sat by him, holding his hand, or stroking his brow, onlymoving when it was necessitated by busy dishcloths and towels. Oncethe pain had subsided, he had felt the steady and gradualprogression of his strength returning, and as he sat up, fullyalert, Stephanie’s arms wrapped tightly about his neck, which tohis 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’tknow if you’ve been here long enough to see, but the fridge isstocked fresh with meats and cheeses.
David stared atthe glass for a moment, sniffed it, then sipped apprehensively, “Wehad really just got here, when … What happened to me?”
Stephanie stoodup and twirled on one foot, “Stanwick fixed you up.”
David looked upat the two women, unsure now which one had shot him,“Stanwick?”
A woman steppedforward, finishing her second glass and setting it on the end tableby the couch. Seeing her properly for the first time, David figuredthat 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 inmovies,) thought that she looked like she could be an assassin, inher well fitted leather jacket and tight jeans.
Stanwick couldsee what West meant about Beach. She had been following him sinceMarch, reading so much into his every move, listening to thetranscripts of his interviews with a steely cynicism, but now thatshe was in the same room as him, she could sense something abouthim. She’d brought him into their world, and she would have to takeownership of that act now, but she could feel it, exuding fromevery mannerism; an overwhelming goofiness.
“You don’t knowanything about your father do you?”
She watchedWest as he walked from the kitchen carrying a plate of food forDavid. Dismayed, she stopped him in his tracks, “Tell me, please …Tell me that you’ve brought David here because of Julien?”
That same dumblook on West’s face. Stanwick sighed heavily.
“Theassassination? Dr.Julien Beach, the Prometheus of the new world,stealing the gift of life from the waters of Dannum?”
West looked atBeach, hoping that he would be able to elaborate, but Beachshrugged, “Dad was a …"
“Cock?”Stanwick cut him off, “Yeah, I got that.” She picked up theDrambuie and poured herself another glass.
“Did you evenread his book?”
David stuffed acouple of slices of pastrami into his mouth, then answered whilechewing, “No, I never really got a chance.” He sucked his fingersbefore continuing, “Someone bought up pretty much every copy, andthere was never a second print run.”
Stanwicknodded, “The Kings Mosaic. It’s a fascinating read. Dr.JulienBeach’s attempt to lay bare a global conspiracy of shadowy figureswho he believed appeared time and again throughout the pages ofhistorical texts. If he’d been slightly less astute in hisobservations, it would still have made some people veryuncomfortable. Unfortunately, he spent the final five chaptersdiscussing the rise of a political family, who at the time, had notyet garnered much national attention, but he remained convincedthat this was all about to change.”
West watchedDavid’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. Ibought four thousand copies in some vague hope that he hadn’talready drawn too much attention.”
David pulledhis daughter closer, hugging her more for his own comfort thanhers, “What are you saying? Do you mean my Dad’s book was the realdeal? He wasn’t just a conspiracy nut?”
Stanwicklaughed, “Julien Beach was a genius. Or an idiot, I’m still notreally clear on that yet, but either way, yes, his book was, as yousay, the real deal.”
West slumpedinto the cushions of a single seated sofa, facing Stanwick. Itoccurred to him that he should have spent a lot more time trying tolocate a copy of Julien Beach’s work. He sipped his drinkthoughtfully, staring into Stanwick’s deep turquoise eyes, “JulienBeach was onto Tiernan?”
“Yes.” Her lipsbarely parted, her head tipped forward slightly.
“Prometheus … Itake it you mean that he found someone’s cache of leeches?”
Stanwick shookher head almost imperceptibly, and her eyes widened, igniting withexcitement, “Our numbers have now been joined by a true thirdgenerations West. Beach found the source.”
Still holdingonto Stephanie, David Beach stood up easily, giving no thoughtwhatsoever to the fact that this was an achievement in itself. Hewalked around the couches and stood in the middle of the livingroom, lowering Stephanie to her feet. He spread his arms, sloshingsome of his drink on the hardwood floor in the process, “What thehell are the two of you even talking about? I mean, what did heuncover?”
Stephanie slumpedagainst her dad, a little bleary eyed, but desperate to payattention to the adults. She had insisted that David lay his leg upon the couch so that she could see the bullet hole in his pants,and now she tugged idly at the frayed cloth, silently marveling atthe fact that her father was alive. If she could have placed herhand on a pin, she would have jabbed her father’s leg to see if hecould feel it, but she figured that asking for a pin would looksuspicious.
Stanwick satcross legged on the floor, gazing idly at Charlene, who sat pressedup against the cushions at the end of the couch, trying her best toignore David’s foot, “How much has West told you?”
Charleneshrugged, “He rambled off some names while I ate pizza.”
West held up ahand defensively, “Oh hang on a minute, I went into that situationfully prepared … I just didn’t get a chance to bust out this badboy.” He leaned forward, and pulled his sweater off, allowing it todrop on the floor beside the couch. There, emblazoned across hist-shirt, the other’s struggled to read the small white text as Westpulled the material tight:
‘I survived thecollapse of Allim, the Leechborn Wars, the terrors of theMythologue, the discovery of the new world, the building of stonehenges, the birthing pains of every major religion, the rise of theEgyptian empire, the building of the Pyramids, the desertion ofJericho, the deluge, the burning of Alexandria, the rise and fallof the Roman empire, the battle of Hastings, the crusades, thebubonic plague, the Spanish Inquisition, the great fire of London,the Crimean war, the first and second world wars AND Jojo’s 54ozsteak night challenge, and all I’ve got to show for it is thisstupid t-shirt’
Stanwick blinked,trying to cleanse her eyes of the experience, but she saw out ofthe corner of her eye that Stephanie had sat forwards attentively,pushing her dad’s leg off the couch. The child raised anenthusiastic hand, and West nodded towards her, “Questions?”
Stephanieinhaled, “What are leechboraws?”
West lookeddown at his tee-shirt and pulled the material so he could trace thewords with the finger of his free hand, “That’s Leechborn Wars.” Hespoke the words slowly and somewhat condescendingly.
Stephaniesighed, a little exasperated, “Sorry mister …?”
Stephanie’squestion hung in the air, waiting for West to introduce himselfproperly, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m West Yestler,” he nodded his headtowards Charlene, “and this is my friend Charlene Osterman. You cancall me West.”
Stephaniepatted her knees triumphantly, “West … that’s a funny name. West,what are Leech born?”
“We are.” Westreplied. He watched her face work its way through varying levels ofconfusion while he waited patiently for her to ask her nextquestion.
“You are?” sheasked.
“She is?”Stephanie asked, pointing to Stanwick, who nodded, smilingkindly.
“You are?” Sheasked Charlene, who shrugged, glancing at West, “I guess so.”
“And now, yourfather is also.” West added, raising his eyebrows slightly.
Stephanie spunquickly, looking at David, who looked concerned, “I … I’m whatnow?” David stuttered into alertness, leaning forwards on the couchso that he could see past Stephanie.
“Leechborn,Leechkith, Blood Thief, Ever-Hunger,” West started, but he stoppedwhen he noticed that Charlene was pointing at him repeatedly, vyingfor Stanwick’s attention, “See? Like that,” she called out, “listof names.”
Stanwicklaughed. She leaned back on her arms, tossing her hair back overher 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’sAllim?”
West sat backand poured himself another drink,
“A long timeago, there was a country called Allim …"
“Is that nearFrance?” Stephanie asked, hoping that she would be able to forgesome mental connection with the familiar. Stanwick respondedquickly, “It wasn’t too far from the South Pole, but it was prettywarm back then.” West exchanged glances with Stanwick, nodding aslow and uncertain affirmation, which convinced no one exceptDavid, who was still trying to digest the word Leechborn.
West continued,“As far back as our histories record it, Allim was defined by thewalls which surrounded the capital city. Beyond the walls, was theworld which we knew as the Void Garden, and within the walls, thepeople of Allim lived peacefully, protected by the watchful gaze ofthe ancestors of King Dannum, the country’s founder.”
Stephanieraised her hand, and waited for West’s patient nod of approval,“Why did they build walls?”
“The followersof Dannum built the walls to protect the people of Allim from thevoid garden.”
“Near the SouthPole?” Stephanie asked.
West smiled,narrowing his eyes, “Near it, relatively speaking.” Stephaniepursed her lips, convinced that West was being evasive, butchoosing to remain silent on the matter. Pick your battles she toldherself, a phrase she had often heard her aunt use when she spoketo her father.
“So,” Westcontinued, “Dannum sat, as the self-proclaimed God amongst men,King of the walled city, the tale of his long life and the futureof Allim laid out in the pages ofThe Book of Antrusca.”Hewatched 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 KingDannum to set forth the histories.”
Stanwick tookoff her leather jacket and motioned for Stephanie to come and sitin front of her. Stephanie grimaced, but when Stanwick smiled andwaved her over a second time, the child pushed herself off the edgeof the couch and shoved with her hands, sliding across the hardwoodfloor until she came to a rest, sitting on her haunches, staringtimidly at Stanwick’s smooth skin,
Stanwick tookStephanie’s hands in her own, stroking the backs with her thumbs,feeling the child’s tendons budge gently beneath the skin, “When Iwas a little girl, I was raised in the houses of the MatriarchalDivinity, as were all of the daughters of Allim.”
Stanwicknodded, her turquoise eyes pouring over the details of the child’sface.
“Every girl wastaken to the houses of the Divinity on the day they were born.”
“No boysthere?” Stephanie asked, thinking that this sounded like a prettygreat idea.
“No, there wereboys too. Boys orphaned by disease, starvation, or dark thoughtswere brought up by the wet nurses and sisters of the MatriarchalDivinity, and all boys of the agricultural, or tech sectors wouldcome to the houses of the Divinity for schooling, but they wouldreturn to their parents in the evening.”
Stephanielooked down at her hands in thought, and when she looked up, shestared into Stanwick’s eyes, and Stanwick could see that she was onthe verge of tears, “So if I’d been born in Allim, I wouldn’t livewith my dad and Aunt Han?”
“No, you wouldhave been brought up in a house of a million sisters, each one ofthem dear to you. When you reached the age of fourteen, you wouldhave been sent to live in the Ag, Tech, or Science Sectors.”
Stephanieinhaled a little raggedly, a single tear spilling from the cornerof her eye, “I don’t want to live in Allim.”
Stanwicklaughed, dropping Stephanie’s hands and hugging her gently, “Nobodylives in Allim anymore Stephanie, don’t worry.” Stephanie turnedher head, feeling her cheek brush against the silk of Stanwick’sblouse. She looked at West, and read the words again, ‘I survivedthe collapse of Allim,’ and a smile formed on her lips, “When didAllim collapse?”
“Aboutthirty-thousand years ago.”
Spoken softly,Stanwick’s words washed over Stephanie, “but you said you were inthe,” she paused, preparing the words in her head, “Matriarchaldivinity.”
Stanwick ranher fingers through Stephanie’s hair, “I am Leechborn Stephanie,hated by Pretchis, the last king of Allim, kissed by the tongues ofAntrusca; the leeches that live within me, ever hungry, thieves ofblood, delvers of the flesh. The leeches are the seeds of the riverDannum, the river named for Allim’s first king, and I am a child ofthe blood of the river Dannum.”
“And now dad istoo?”
Stephanieconsidered the information, spinning the words into webs, trying toimagine being hated by a king, picturing a wide river overflowingwith leeches. She glanced at the tee-shirt again, but rememberedWest’s words before she saw them, “The Leechborn Wars … Is that howyour country ended?”
“The fall ofAllim was caused by someone like your grandfather, a little toocurious, and a little too smart for their own good.”
Stephaniesighed, “I never met my grandpa.”
“That my dear,is something even your dad wouldn’t be able to say for sure.”
Stephanie satup straight, looking Stanwick in the eye, “What do you mean?”
Stanwick’s eyeswidened, the full turquoise irises showing, “Well, it goes back tothe great secret that he stumbled upon, like West before him.”
David sat toattention now too, his hands on his knees, “My father died beforeStephanie was even born, what the hell are you talking about?”
Stanwick lookedat West in disbelief, then at Charlene, “You understand don’tyou?”
Charleneblushed a little, embarrassed at being put on the spot and unsureif she’d missed something important, “I mean, I get that his dad’salive …"
David stood upabruptly, pacing the floor, “I don’t understand this. I don’tunderstand any of this. Will someone please explain what the fuckis going on?” He looked at Stephanie suddenly, his lips pursedtightly, but she let him off the hook with an exasperated shrug ofher shoulders, “Dad, the leeches fixed you. The leeches are fromthe river of Dannum, and grandpa found them.” She turned to look atStanwick, “Right?”
Stanwickgrinned at David Beach, allowing the weight of Stephanie’s words tosink in fully, “It seems that his genius skipped a generation, butyes Stephanie, your grandpa found out about the leeches.”
West picked upthe bottle of Drambuie from the side table and offered Davidanother glass, “David, relax, have a drink, eat some food, and letme explain.”
West sat back into thecouch cushions and closed his eyes, “I was fourteen the first timeI met King Pretchis the 289th king of Allim. I recognized him ofcourse. I’d seen his face in public transmissions, but I was in noposition to appreciate who the man was until my first meeting withhim. Pretchis was a little older than he appeared to be, I mean tolook at him, I would have guessed he was in his late fifties andyet he had held court for most of our lives, so he was certainlyolder. When I met him though, I realized that this man, this face …somewhere in the back of my mind, this face transcended thesuperficial 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 thenose, these features cropped up again and again in the archives ofAllim, in illustrations of the great figures from our history. Ifyou had asked an artist to render a likeness of Dannum, there youwould have the face of Pretchis.’
Stanwicklaughed, “You want to explain how you came to meet the king?”
West licked hislips, trying his best to stir his recollection, “I was broughtbefore Pretchis, because I’d been skim reading.”
Stephanie’snose wrinkled, “You mean, like when you read a few words from eachparagraph of a book?”
West opened hiseyes, “Not quite. You see, there were great stores of knowledgeheld in the archives of the scientific academy of Arctum. It was animmense privilege to be given access to the archives, and there wasa very clear protocol dictating how the archives were to beread.”
Stephanie shookher head in disbelief, “There were rules for reading?”
West nodded,“Certainly. Many libraries even now have very explicit guidelinesfor handling precious books. In the archives, you had to inform theadministrators exactly what it was that you intended to research,and they would provide you with an index log which granted youaccess to specific files in the archives. Once you had located yourfile, you could only read one page at a time.”
Stephanie laydown on the floor with her head resting on her arms, “So how couldyou skim read?”
West smiledmischievously, “There was a device, common to every home in Allim.it was referred to with an initialism made up of our wordsdescribing the parts of the brain. In modern parlance, the acronymwould 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 perfectdetail, with the ability to abstract an out of body experience, orto 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 realexperience that you’d lived. Skimming the archives was madepossible 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 outsideof the normal scope of time. The brain would kick into a muchhigher gear, so something that would appear to take an hour in thehopper might only take a couple of minutes of real time.”
David clappedhis hands together, “Oh God, that’s awesome. So you were flickingthrough the information in the archives, then reading them at yourleisure in this device?”
“Do you nothave one here?” Stanwick asked West, “I’m sure everyone would loveto try it out later.”
West replied,“I’ve got two; not here, but upstairs sure.”
Stephanielooked at her dad, grinning from ear to ear, “Can you imagine?”
David smiled atWest uncertainly, “Why aren’t these things in the news?”
“David, youhave to understand, there’s been a war waging between two factionsfrom Allim, and it’s a war that’s lasted for the entirety of humanhistory. The two sides have always been in agreement over onething; we will never share the technology of Allim with the rest ofhumankind. Our society wasn’t ready for it. Our society found waysto abuse it, and none of us harbors even the remotest hope thatanother society would have reacted to our technology differently.By the time of the fall, Allim was in many respects more advancedthan civilization is currently. We hadn’t managed to escape theplanet’s atmosphere, but there are a great many things that youtake for granted now which were also commonplace then.”
Stanwick rolledonto 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 thehopper, people might have taken a different view on thedissemination of our technology. One would have to be very wary ofwhom one made such an argument with, and that in presenting such anargument, one would be inviting oneself to a full scale brawl. Ifor one, would never suggest such a thing.”
Unable tocontain her thoughts any longer, Stephanie asked West, “What wereyou reading?”
West set hishead back down and closed his eyes again, “It started with readingabout the hopper, and the research that led to the creation of thatdevice. It may sound pretty stupid, but I suppose it comes down tothe fact that I was convinced that using the hopper, I could find away to alter reality with my mind. It started with the death of myparents, and a desperate desire to bring them back … As crass as itsounds, that childish ambition was the reason I started to visitthe archives, but I was a keen enough student to learn quickly thatmy desire was beyond the scope of science or technology, at leastat that time. In reading about the hopper, I learned about thedevice’s inventor, Stracklin Kith Tiarsis. Reading about Stracklinled to more important discoveries.”
Stephanie satup again, too engrossed to lie still, “What was it? What did youdiscover?”
“For one, Idiscovered that Allim had not always been peaceful. We lived in asociety without weapons, and without a language of warfare.Granted, if you want to harm, or even kill a man, even the mostinnocuous household item can be put to the task, but to the best ofcommon knowledge, no item was made in Allim with the sole purposeof causing harm to another human.”
Charleneinterjected, “Pff … You all were pretty naive.”
West satupright, turning to Charlene, “How do you figure?”
Charlenelaughed, “You don’t get to a place where nobody feels safe flickingthrough the pages of a book, not unless you’ve broken a few fingersalong the way.”
West relaxedagain, “We were naive! We were scared, and naive. I couldn’t tellanyone about my discovery, because it ran contrary to the teachingsof the book of Antrusca … Heresy.” West held up a finger, marking apoint in the air, “Not the only culture ever to come to theconclusion that heresy should be punishable by death; however, theKings of Allim were certainly some of the most ardent adherents tosuch thinking. Eventually, I was caught skimming the archives, Iwas brought before King Pretchis, and suddenly, my reading gavebirth to another revelation. Pretchis’ likeness to the archetype ofDannum went far beyond a casual similarity.”
West heard thehush sound of fabric on the hardwood floor, and he looked up todiscover that Stephanie had sidled closer to him. Sitting by hisfeet now, she asked, “Did Pretchis know what you’d discovered?”
“Actually no,at least, he certainly didn’t give that impression. Pretchis seemedto know only as much as my index logs revealed, that I’d beenreading about Stracklin Kith Tiarsis, and his field work outside ofthe walls of Allim.”
“In the voidgarden?” Stephanie asked enthusiastically.
West touchedhis nose with the tip of his index finger, “Correct. King Pretchisexplained that I was one of only four people that now knew thetruth about the work of Allim’s greatest mind, and as Pretchishimself was one of the four, and the other two were his closestadvisers, he needed me for a very special task.”
“What did hewant you to do?”
West laughed ashe sat forward on the couch again, “He told me that I was to leaveAllim, find the base camp that Stracklin Tiarsis had established inthe void garden, and learn as much as I could about whatever it wasthat had led to Stracklin’s greatest invention.”
“Oh God!”Stephanie inhaled deeply, covering her eyes with her hands, “Did helet you take any friends?”
“No, in fact hetold me that because I had officially been arrested, the Dannustineguards would make a show of publicly executing me.”
Stephanieslumped onto the floor dramatically, gurgling while she clutchedher throat, “You had to play dead?”
West nudged herwith his foot, “There wasn’t really much pretending. I was given adrug which put me to sleep.”
Stephanie layon the floor now, pressing her arm against her forehead. She wavedher legs about, feeling her feet swaying lazily as she mulled overeverything she’d heard, then suddenly she kicked the floor, andlifted her head, rambling excitedly, “Pretchis, Dannum, Pretchis,Dannum!”
West looked atStanwick, and the two exchanged knowing smiles.
“Go onStephanie …" Stanwick suggested.
Stephanieturned over and stared at the ceiling, sure that her suddenepiphany was correct, “King Pretchis was King Dannum! Because ofthe leeches right?”
Stanwick laydown on the floor, with her head next to Stephanie’s, “Right.”
Stephanie shuther eyes tight, her mind buzzing with a thousand thoughts. I wantit, she thought to herself, I want to be a frickin Leechborn. Shefelt Stanwick’s head move beside her, then felt her breath as shewhispered, “Not yet little one.” Stephanie’s body went rigid withexcitement, her muscles warming from the sudden tension. Stephaniehad known her whole life that it should be possible, that it wasbasically down to stupidity that no one could hear her thoughts,especially when they were so clear.
David pushed a sliceof meat around his plate, while he listened to Stanwick andStephanie talking. Everything sounded so special, so full ofmystery, but he was finding himself more and more pissed off. Helooked at his leg, sullenly, some small thought on the tip of hismind, frustrating, and intangible. He listened to Stephanie’sgleeful exclamation, and it only made him feel more disconnected.There was that thought, peeking out of the shadows again, and itwas stronger now; not Déjà vu, but rather a sense memory of anothertime, another almost mystical experience. He was seven years oldthe first time he’d had the communion wafer placed on his tongue bya priest, and he had walked down the isle of the church, wonderingwhy he couldn’t feel the mystery of it, asking God guiltily, wherewas his special feeling? He stared at his arm now, asking that samequestion.
Suddenly hejumped up from his seat on the couch, rubbing his arms frantically,“Oh shit, shit!”
“What is itDavid?” West asked calmly.
“I think I justsaw one!”
“You saw aleech?” Stephanie asked, jumping up from her lying place on thefloor, “Let me see, let me see.”
David held outhis arms in front of him, stepping backwards as if he could somehowescape his own flesh, “I can feel them. I can feel them movingunder my skin. How do I get them out?”
Stanwicklaughed hard, lifting her head off the floor and leaning back onher outstretched arms, “I’m surprised it’s taken this long for youto feel them.”
“It’s horrible!How do I make them stop?” David yelled, his voice raising quicklyin pitch.
“Hold still.”Stanwick commanded him, “Stop moving and concentrate.” Davidcontinued to pitch backwards though, rubbing his arms, then bendingover to rub his legs.
“David, if youjust stand still, I’ll tell you exactly how to make them stop.”Stanwick’s words fell on deaf ears, but David quickly ran out ofspace, his back pressed against the wall of the apartment, his eyesclosed tight as he tried to block out everything that was going onaround him. In the darkness, he started to see them move, onlyvague flashes of light at first, but soon there was a vast expanseof blackness, writhing with a million red bodies, pulsing andspiraling into one another, consuming each other, and evolving inshape. He heard Stanwick again, her voice calm and syncopated,“They have answered you David. They have answered your desire. Theyhave answered your need. Now you need to take control and give thempurpose.”
In theblackness, David could still see their bodies, yes delving, yestearing into him, but now they moved with the sound of Stanwick’svoice, and they were no longer chaotic.
“What would yoube David? Listen to my voice before you think. The delvers willadapt, they’ll learn whatever purpose you put them to, but noteverything is quick with them. Some desires, they will bendthemselves to over the course of mere minutes, and yet others willtake 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 stateof awe, and they are waiting for you to make a connection, they arewaiting to impress you, and they are desperate for you to impressupon them your want for this life. So what would you be David?”
He tried toopen his eyes to look at Stanwick, but he was transfixed on theocean of slithering bodies, “I don’t get what you’re saying. I’mDavid Beach. I’m a father. I am an assistant to the undersecretaryof …"
“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 todescribe the most miserable path you can think of so you can pissaway the rest of your days until you wheel yourself into aretirement home.”
“What then?”David’s face was turning red, crow’s feet spreading from thecorners of his eyes as he squeezed them tight, trying to grasp whatStanwick was talking about.
“David, I can’tgive you any hints here. This is your choice. If I put an idea intoyour head, you will resent me when you suddenly realize what youhave shut yourself off from. You will be fast, no question, andstrong, absolutely, but what else?”
David let hismind melt into itself, darkness folding on darkness. He thought ofthe woods, the trees at Calvert, and the complete nightmare oftrying to navigate the undergrowth at an uncoordinated joggingspeed. You will be fast? Strong, fast, and uncoordinated soundedlike a recipe for disaster. As clumsy as he was, the ability toavert tragedies of ineptitude was something David had thought a lotabout over the years. How could that be improved upon though? Hewracked his memory, certain he’d seen, or read something, somewherethat would help him right now. The shapes in the darkness of hismind’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 weretrying to remind him of something specific.
He smiled as heopened his eyes, and he felt a calmness so deep that it was if hehad somehow stepped out of his own skin, escaping the headycocktail of chemicals and hormones. He watched Stanwick’s lipsmove, and heard her words, but she was slow now, and as Davidfocused his will, increasing the speed at which he sampled reality,so Stanwick slowed.
“Not a badchoice.”
He heard thewords stretched into a long drunken slur, and watched her handmoving from her hip, arcing through the air, the fabric of herblouse rippling slowly as she moved. She was going to slap him. Hecould see that she was going to slap him, and as he moved himselfaway from the wall, he felt sluggish, as if he was dragging hislimbs through a room filled with molasses. He pushed his headforward, feeling the pressure of the air against his face, its dragon his skin, the weight of his arms still dredging through thethick swirls of nothing behind him. As her hand approached hisface, David felt the shift in air pressure, and he flinched, themuscles in the back of his neck tightening, the warmth spreadingdown the cape to his shoulders. Then the hurt came, starting with asonic boom, like a deep roll of thunder in his left ear, followedby a burning agony spreading in perfect circular waves from thecenter of his ear, reaching down to his cheek and wrapping aroundhis head. It occurred to David that the experience would be morebearable at normal speed, and as the thought entered his mind, thesound of Stanwick’s laughter pierced through over the ringing inhis ear.
Stanwickstooped her head to make eye contact with David, who was wincingand clutching the side of his face, “You know, I was aiming foryour cheek right?”
“That reallyhurt!” David complained, immediately embarrassed by how whiny hesounded.
“A car crash isa car crash David, no matter how slowly you perceive the passage oftime. If you’re surrounded by a ton of metal that is buckling atthirty-five miles per hour, you’re not going to be able to doanything about that unless you’re faster.”
“You said Iwould be fast.” David spoke calmly, deliberately lowering thetimbre of his voice.
“You’re fast,I’m fast, it’s all relative.”
“So what? NowI’m stuck with the ability to experience pain more exquisitely thanever before?”
Stanwicklaughed, and turned her back, “No David, what you have experiencedthere is a fairly low level function for the leeches, triggered bythe release of chemicals associated with stress and fight or flightresponses. You’ll find something that works for you, don’t worry.In the meantime, I suspect we should push on with your historylesson. The fact that you have left Washington will have caused astir by now, I’m sure.”
CHAPTER NINEThe VoidGarden
Brad Cobb squeezed anavocado judiciously, then rolled it off the palm of his hand andinto the cart. He had shitty luck with avocados, but thisparticular 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, andBrad would remind himself of that, no matter how much bacon orpulled pork spilled over the sides of his plate. Cobb worked outthough. Most days he’d spend upwards of ten hours on the job, threehours in the gym, an hour at the range, and the rest of his timewould be divided between eating, sleeping, and gaming. One of hiscolleagues had asked Cobb if gaming was a guilty pleasure, and Cobbhad explained to him that as a lapsed Roman Catholic, everythingwas a guilty pleasure. It was partly true. Cobb didn’t make a habitof doing anything he didn’t like doing. His job was a testament tothat. When the call came, Cobb walked away from his cart and madehis way towards the store’s exit whistling, already happilyresigned to the fact that something was going down.
At the office,there were stern faces, and bruised egos. Agents McMahon andCarmichael, two agents working the Beach case were MIA, and thisfact had not been picked up on by anyone for over twelve hours.Heads would roll. A drive by had revealed that (contrary to whatthe low-jack would have them believe,) Beach’s Toyota was notparked outside the Beach residence. An attempt had been made toactivate David Beach’s cell phone, and this had failed. A warrantwas being sought to activate Stephanie Beach’s phone, but thiswould likely prove pointless.
This was theshit storm that was thrust upon Cobb, and he smiled inwardly. Heopened a manila folder and checked the duty log, noting thatMcMahon had penciled himself and Agent Carmichael for ‘Clean up andasset retrieval,’ which indicated that they had driven to the Beachresidence with the intention of wrapping up what they thought was adead 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’thad any involvement in the Beach case either, and up to now, hecould have cared less. Now though? With two field agents, and theirmark missing in action, it was starting to look like something Cobbcould really sink his teeth into.
“I’d beenbeyond the walls of Allim once before. One of the many privilegesof being brought up in the science sector.”
“Into thegarden thing?” David asked. West raised a quizzical eyebrow, butDavid didn’t care; he had made a decision early in life that hewould rather look stupid and ask questions, than stay stupid andremain silent. He shrugged, “Look I get it okay, I get that this isa big deal.”
West shook hishead, “I’m sorry David, I don’t mind the question, but it shouldn’tbe necessary. You’ve been tuned out, which is understandable.There’s a lot to take in, absolutely, but I’m sure you’ll find thatif you focus for a moment, you will be able to recall theconversation perfectly.”
David closedhis eyes and thought through everything that had been said, “So I’mright … The Void Garden.”
West nodded,watching David roll his eyes and sit back into the couchcushion.
“The first timeI visited the Void Garden, I was seven years old, and I was with agroup of three hundred students from Arctum. A hundred or so yardsfrom the walls of the city, there was a precipice which overlookedsome thousand-foot drop into dense forest, and each child wasallowed to stand at the precipice for five seconds before they werehustled back to the wall. If you were brave, professor PirlekMagren would hold the back of your clothes and allow you to leanover the edge.”
“Did you doit?” Stephanie asked, certain that she knew the answer already.
“I did. It wasa breathtaking sight, to be sure. Five seconds of absolute wonder,soaring a thousand feet above the edge of the void garden, thenthat gnarly hag Magren yanked me out of my reverie.
Stanwicklaughed, “Magren wasn’t that bad. She could only have been in herthirties when you had her.”
West nodded,“Honestly she might not be as bad as I remember her. The Matriarchsset me up for thinking that every woman beyond the age of twentywere gnarly hags.”
Stanwickgasped, “How have we never had this conversation? They were justnormal women, looking after all of the children of Allim.”
“I was schooledthere, but I wasn’t brought up in the divinity Stanwick. From theoutside, it was all some huge mystery, and yes honestly, whenever Iventured anywhere near the houses of the divinity, I saw a lot ofpretty rough looking women.”
Stanwick bither lip and rolled her hand with a flourish, “Do go on West. Regaleus with your tale of daring do and adventure, and make sure youembellish it with as many chauvinistic motifs and ornamentations asyou can.”
West rolled histongue along the backs of his bottom teeth, composing his thoughts,“On the morning of my execution, the commander of the Dannustineguards explained to me that I would need to keep my arms stiff atmy sides, my mouth tightly closed, and I would need to walkstiffly. Penitents, those people who were sacrificed daily in theZenith Pyres would be trammeled, which means their mouths were sownshut, their arms were sown to their sides, and their legs were sowntogether from their crotch to their knees.” West noticed thatStephanie’s eyes were filling with tears, so he moved aheadquickly, “Later that day, I woke in a tunnel beneath Arctum, myhead hanging between the bodies of two of the Dannustine Guard, theglistening glardium floor reflecting the dim service lights.”
“What’sglardium?” Stephanie asked, a slight quiver in her voice.
“Glardium wasthe main building material used throughout Allim, an amalgam ofglass, granite, and ore. The most important thing about glardiumwas the silica coating which was applied at the cold end ofproduction. It was almost impossible to scratch glardium, andbecause of the coating, whenever two glardium surfaces met, anad-hoc communication network was formed.”
David satforward quickly, “Whoa there, wait a minute, are you talking aboutfiber optics?”
West’s nosewrinkled, “Not really. Fiber optic works using the transfer oflight. Glardium was a little more advanced than that. Most of thepeople of Allim didn’t understand how the city worked, and to behonest, even the scientists of Arctum were a little in the dark onthe subject.” West sighed, “I’m getting ahead of myself really. Ididn’t understand glardium until I left Allim.”
“I’m sorry.”David offered.
“No need toapologize. Where was I?”
“In a tunnel,looking at the glardium floor.” Stephanie piped up, her enthusiasmquickly rebounding.
“Yes, so I’mdragged to the end of the tunnel, and the guards tell me that mystuff should be on the other side of the door. One of them pressedtheir hand against a plate, the corridor filled with light, and Iwas tossed out into the void. Fourteen years old, with nothing buta few changes of clothes and a couple of day’s worth of food.”
“And thesticks.” Stanwick added, pointing at West with an extended arm,“Boom!” she blew on the tip of her finger.
“I was gettingto that.” West glared at her jestingly, “It took two days to climbdown the precipice, and when I reached the bottom, I hadn’t walkedforty paces into the dense forest, when I was greeted by the siteof the Dannustine crest, flapping in the breeze, clearly markingthe site of a camp.”
“The camp?”Stephanie asked, “Crackling’s camp?” She hid her mouth behind herhand to mask her mischievous grin.
West nodded,“Stracklin Tiarsis’ camp, yes. I suppose if I’d set off in anyother direction, it might have taken me months to find Stracklin’scamp, but there it was, overgrown, fetid, picked over by wildlife,but more or less intact. I don’t think it was a coincidence that Ifound the camp. Everything about the landscape bent my will towardsthat clearing, and I’m sure that the path I took must have been thesame route that Stracklin Tiarsis followed on his return toAllim.”
“I spent a fewhours rummaging through crates and containers, growing more andmore disappointed. There was nothing amongst these artifacts thatwasn’t already documented in the archives of Arctum. The greatinvention was born of Stracklin’s discovery that the glardium rillswere facilitated by the presence of microscopic organisms in thewater supply which ran under the tech district where the glardiumwas produced. Fascinating, but nothing I hadn’t already learned.Then, finally, I opened a chest which bore the runes whichrepresented 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 Iopened this book that it was unlike the others. Filled withillustrations 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 beneathAllim.”
Stephaniekicked the base of the sofa, and West looked up, “Yes?”
Stephanie shookher head, her eyes wide, “Go on …"
West pointed athis hand, “There, on the map, was a single rune, our word,‘silinthalis,’ which could alternatively be read as birthright, ororigin. I read through the pages slowly, and quickly learned thatthe illustrations, these abominations of nature all seemed to stemfrom this point on the Dannum, this silinthalis. It was clear to methat I need to find this point on the river Dannum; the origin ofhis discovery.”
“The sticksWest!” Stanwick reminded him.
“Oh yes, sorry.The other thing I discovered at Stracklin’s base camp, was alsodirectly 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, andanecdotal accounts of their existence, and here they were. Twosticks, both of them inscribed with our runes for ice, fire andwind. Weapons.”
“It didn’t take longto figure the sticks out. Depending on how they were held, one ofthe sticks would emit a fine focused spray of fire, wind, or icecold wind, and the other would send out a much broader wave. Ihonestly don’t think I could have survived in the wilds withoutthem, and at the time I wasn’t sure whether or not Pretchis hadknown that I’d find them, or if he was banking on me dying.”
David drummedhis fingers on the arm of the couch. He would be the first to admitthat he was no scientist, but he was certain that these ‘sticks’were beyond the realms of physics, “I’m sorry but what poweredthese weapons?”
West leanedover the arm of his seat and poured himself another drink, “David,the sticks were almost completely smooth, and there was no obviousway to open them up. I wasn’t about to try to dismantle them.”
“Oh … Okay.”David responded dubiously.
“However, likeI said, I’d read about them extensively. For one thing, when itcame to harnessing solar power, the scientists of Allim had madesignificantly greater advances in efficiency and storage. Theweapons benefited from a similar coating to the one used in themanufacture of glardium, and that substance was sufficiently energyefficient to power Allim. If you look at solar cells today, you’llfind that they are pretty pathetic. The glardium rills combinedelements of photosynthesis and macro kinesis. The sticks couldn’tsustain 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, afew seconds of fire is sufficient to make light work of them.”
David flushed alittle, folding his hands together in his lap, he offered anapology, but West cut him off, “David, really, you need to stopapologizing. We were advanced. We were sufficiently advanced thatsome of what we achieved would look like magic to you. There was nomagic. Science was our God, our jailer, and our prison. Sciencepeered into the minds of the citizens, and discovered our darkestsecrets. Science powered the zenith pyres that engulfed the bodiesof the penitents.”
“You know, Isaw just last week, there was a show talking about something thatlooked a lot like those sticks,” Charlene offered, “Was it on theHistory Chanel, or Discovery? I can’t rightly remember, but therewas some famous professor talking about how the Egyptians usedsomething like that to move the stones to build the pyramids. Hewas talking about how they were helped by aliens, which I’ll behonest, I thought was a touch far-fetched …" she trailed off,hoping that someone else might have caught the show she was talkingabout.
Stanwickresponded with apparently genuine concern, “Charlene, the Egyptianswere incredible engineers. The methods used to build the pyramidsare well established. Aliens didn’t assist the Egyptians, andneither did they assist the people of Allim.”
Charlenelaughed, “I’m not simple child, that’s not what I wassuggesting.”
“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, weintervened, certainly, but you’ll understand in due course why suchintervention was necessary.”
West held upthe bottle of Drambuie, “Would anyone like a top up?” he looked atStephanie who was still sat on the floor near his feet, “Can I getyou a drink? Some food?”
Stephanienodded, “Hot dogs, pizza, squid, spaghetti, burgers, steak.” Shechecked off on her hand, glaring at her dad lest he attempt to rainon her parade.
West laughed,“Stephanie, you are truly a girl after my own heart.” He glancedaround the room, “Can we put this on hold for five minutes? There’sa guy not half a block from here, does the best all beef hotdogs.”
Stanwick pushedherself up off the floor, “I can make a run, there’s no need foryou to stop everything.”
West shrugged,“Sure, just make sure you get like 10 with sauerkraut and 10 witheverything.” Stanwick licked her lips and closed her eyes “Mmm,sounds good West, but what will everyone else eat?”
West leanedforward, checking out David’s appearance, and noting that he lookedslightly emaciated, “David, not even joking here, how many do youthink you could put away?”
David hadn’tthought any more about food since the meat and cheese, but now thatthe question had been tabled for debate, he became aware that hewas actually ravenously hungry again, “I mean, I’m sure I could eatfive, but that would be gluttonous.”
West shook hishead, “There is a risk of glutting the leeches, but you are nowherenear that territory.” He pulled a roll of cash from his pocket andtossed it to Stanwick, “Just surprise us.”
Stephanie pacedherself, taking her time to savor her hot dog, enjoying the nuancedmix of flavors. Every bite was a challenge, but she did her best tounhinge her jaw, hoping to get a perfect blend of hot dog, bun,chili, cheese, sauerkraut, jalapeno and onion in each mouthful. Shehad spilled a little, but when she looked at the adults, she feltproud that she had made less of a mess than any of them. If shethought about it too much, it was a touch disturbing watching theadults eating. Her dad was possibly the worst, trying his darnedestto fit an entire half pound hot dog into his mouth in one go. Shehad wretched a couple of times, forcing her eyes down to her lap sothat she didn’t have to witness the full spectacle, but even thesounds they were making bothered her. Quarter of the way through,she started to hum, closing her eyes, rocking backwards andforwards, unsure if any of the adults were aware of how hideouslythey were behaving. She had grabbed a can of diet soda from therefrigerator, and she fumbled about in the air in front of her,hoping to find the can, too grossed out to look up. When a dollopof chili dropped on her wrist, she didn’t bother to check where ithad come from, she simply wrapped her dog in its tinfoil, andturned around, shuffling behind West’s couch.
Before she hadmade it half way, she saw the adults making their way back andforth to the kitchen, each of them washing their hands in the sink,or taking drinks for themselves, and she imagined that they must betucking into their seconds, but Stanwick suddenly knelt in front ofher, “You can come out now Stephanie, it’s all safe.”
“The food’s allgone?”
Stanwicksmiled, “Mostly. There’s a couple left for later, but I’m surethey’ll get eaten.”
Stephanierolled her eyes in disbelief. Leaning closer, Stanwick touchedStephanie’s brow affectionately, brushing a couple of strands ofhair out of her eyes, “Do you mind if I call you Spiff?”
Silentlychewing, Stephanie’s eyes widened, the corners of her mouth givinginto a smile. She shook her head a little stiffly, wiping saucefrom her mouth on the back of her wrist, “My aunt Han calls methat.”
Stanwicknodded, “I know. Thank you. It’s an honor that you’d let me sharethat.”
Stephaniewrapped her hot dog again, and shuffled onto her knees, “I wish shewas here. Aunt Hannah would be so jealous if she knew we wereeating hot dogs. They’re one of her favorites.” She watchedStanwick’s face, and found comfort in the fact that her expressionwas calm and unwavering. Stanwick told her that she’d see her auntsoon enough, and Stephanie felt sure that she could trust her.Rather than getting to her feet, Stephanie shoved her precious foilcargo under her arm, and pulled herself forward on the smooth floorwith the palms of her hands, inching her way around to the front ofthe couch. Stanwick followed close behind her, and sat next to heron the floor again, resting a hand on Stephanie’s arm
Stephanie liked thesound 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 inhis presence. She watched his face as he spoke, completelyenthralled by the singular thought, as fantastic as it seemed, andas impossible, that a face could exist for so long, as good asforever, and still display such profound humanity. If it was battleworn, it didn’t show. She couldn’t make out a single scar line, ortwisted contour suggestive of previous bone breaks. She knew aboutthose things, about fractures and scars, and that knowledge madeher feel somehow special. She knew about humanity too, as well asshe 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 faceas it could be.
She listened asWest talked about the forest, about how easily he had become lost,and about the months it had taken him to find the river again. Shetried to forgive him for his descriptions of the animals that hehad killed, and the devastation that he wrought as he trampedthrough the void garden. She loved animals, so forgiveness didn’tcome easy to her, but as she smiled at him, imagining his versionof eternity, empathizing as best as she could with his struggle,she understood that she was in no position to judge him. She’d readabout judgment and compassion, and she was certain that althoughcompassion was more painful, it was also more versatile.
She could sensethe excitement building in the rhythm of West’s speech, the gentleacceleration and florid wording. He became more grandiose, sittingup straighter, leaning forward and punctuating his words withemotional 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’tdisappoint. He looked right into her eyes, his expression one ofwild excitement, repeating the word in a sombre whisper.
“What did yousee?”
West blinked,remembering it clearly now, for the first time in more than acentury, “Just the river. There was nothing to see but theriver.”
Stephanie drunkup the anticipation, her heart beating faster. Her father was amasterful story teller, and he toyed with her in this same way,allowing the most audacious moments of his stories plenty of roomto breathe. She sucked her bottom lip, closing her eyes, waitingfor the moment to crest.
“The book ofAntrusca tells the story of the God King Dannum. Dannum led histribe through many battles with the other peoples of the continent.One day, he came with his people to gather waters from the greatriver, and stepping in first to make sure the waters were safe, hecame to be overpowered by the current, and his body was swept awaybefore any one of his people was able to save him. For two days andnights, the people mourned by the river banks, searching for hisbody. On the third day, the people of Dannum’s tribe had completelygiven up hope, when one of the elders spied upstream, a man walkingin the deeps, his arms outstretched, his body cloaked inblack.”
The pause, two,three, Stephanie smiled to herself.
“Dannum hadreturned from the clutches of death, in order that he may lead hispeople triumphantly from the perils of the void garden. There Iwas, not at the source of the river but rather the point ofDannum’s true origin. I stepped into the waters, wondering whatmagic I might feel, but suddenly my body was wracked with pain. Itwas as if I was on fire, and the waters could do nothing to quellthe flames. I thrashed about, sinking under the current, swallowingtoo much water, unable to see the surface through the black cloudthat surrounded me. My feet touched the riverbed, but I didn’t havethe strength even to push up to the surface, and eventually, when Icould hold out no more to either the instinct to breathe, or thedesperate need to escape the pain, I finally inhaled a lung full ofwater.”
Stephanie sankinto her imagination, closing her throat and holding her breath.She desperately wanted to ask him if he died. Moments like thiswere made to be broken.
“You know whatI had become. Washed up on the bank of the river, I think I knew itmyself. Everything I had come to suspect about the book ofAntrusca, and its account of Dannum’s long reign suggested what Ihad become. In the days that followed, I threw myself at the void,battling the beasts with my bare hands, ravenously hungry, daringthem to challenge me. In the first week, my wildest imaginings wereconfirmed. I tracked a tiger, following it cautiously, butdeliberately upwind, watching as it tasted me in the air. I couldtell that it was challenged by the fact that I was stalking sobrazenly, but eventually, curiosity won out and it turned, bodyhunching low, hind quarters swaying to and fro. When it finallypounced, I readied myself and grabbed its paws, feeling the weightof its body crashing against me as we tumbled to the forest floor.Claws dug against the skin of my chest, digging deep, but not quitepuncturing. The mouth opened about my throat, closing with thatthousand pounds of pressure, so I was certain that my neck wouldsnap. With the warm rotten breath engulfing my face, I let go ofthe paws, took its mouth in my hands and fought back, prying itsteeth 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’stongue now. She rushed to cover her mouth, knowing that she’d gonetoo far, but too late, she laughed out loud nervously.
West laughed,“I died a thousand times. I died every day in the void, or at leastI would have if it weren’t for the leeches. So that thought, whichhad never left me, came to be fully formed. Dannum must have gonethrough that same rebirth as I had, and in so doing, I began toquestion, could he have ever died? Could age have consumed him? Orfire? One thing was beyond question though. Somehow, he was stillalive, still reigning over Allim, as he always had. He was Dannum,he was Thrasus the Sixth, he was Eyernstan the Benevolent, he wasOmaris Kith Thissick, and a hundred other kings, each of themloving the people of Allim to death, loving with a ferocity thatwould scorch out the darkness. Pretchis couldn’t be allowed tocontinue. I didn’t know if he could be killed, but I knew that whenI returned to the city, I needed to be strong enough to bring anend to his eternal reign.”
Stephanielifted her hands imploringly, “How could you know?”
“How could Iknow what?”
“How strongyou’d need to be?”
West noddedslowly, “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 myown strengths.”
“How long didyou wait then?”
Stephanie’smouth fell open in shock. Somehow the idea of sixteen years spentpreparing for one task, was harder for her to grasp than the ideaof someone living for thousands of years. She wondered if it wasperhaps because it was so much easier to comprehend sixteen years.Seven years had been her eternity so far, so sixteen years wastwice eternity. She thought about West’s grasp of eternity, andfelt her concept of temporal awareness shut down on itself.Satisfied with her own reasoning in the matter, she grippedStanwick’s arm in an attempt to ground herself in realityagain.
“In time, Icame to understand how to will the changes in my body, and theleeches served my every whim. I understood that without thefrequent consumption of blood rich food, I would become weak, nomatter how much plant protein I ate. By my thirtieth birthday, Ihad become the alpha predator of a twelve hundred square milejungle. I could scale sheer rock faces with my bare hands, almostas fast as I could jump down. I could fell a tree with no tools buttooth and nail. Even the beasts of the river Dannum, blessed asthey were with the ever giving gift of the leeches, even theycowered in my presence.”
“To the Northwas an active volcano whose peak was sometimes visible from thetallest buildings of Arctum, but the steeps and slopes weredesolate, and North of the volcano, there was only sea. I was thescourge of the void garden, and the animals lowered before me. Allthat was left to conquer lay to the East, within the walled city.I’d made three attempts over the years at walking the perimeter ofthe city, completing the trek only once, and for what? To discoverthat there really was no entrance other than the one below Arctum.So my only option was to either steal my way back through thehallowed halls of Arctum, or to scale the wall.”
“At the tallestpoint in the West Tertiary, the wall stood at one thousand twohundred feet, and I was determined that this should be where Iwould enter the city. A month after my thirtieth birthday, Iattempted to climb the wall. The surface was almost completelysmooth, glardium polished to a sheen, each block twenty-foot-tallwith no discernible lip between one block and the next. At first, Iimagined that with claws like the Dannustine tigers, I couldperhaps drive my fingers with enough force to grip the wall, and Iwasn’t completely wrong in that assumption. I made it perhapstwenty feet, each handhold an immense struggle, driving myfingertips into the glardium with enough speed to cause tinyfractures, but twenty feet was enough to realize that the otherthousand odd feet would be impossible. I didn’t give up though. Iimagined that if the surfaces of my hands and feet were more likethose of the lizards of the forest, ridged, covered in tiny hairs,perhaps then I would be able to make better headway.”
Stephaniesqueezed Stanwick’s finger before she spoke, “Did you reach thetop?”
West lookedinto Stephanie’s eyes, and suddenly he looked haunted, “NoStephanie. No I did not.”
“How far didyou get?”
“I’d guess halfway. Wouldn’t you say?” He looked to Stanwick for assistance, andStephanie wondered why Stanwick might know the answer any betterthan him.
Stanwick’s eyesnarrowed, “You still haven’t?”
West pursed hislips, “Never.”
Stanwick’s fingertips,wrapped tight in Stephanie’s small hands formed a million points ofcontact, a million pathways to the child’s thoughts. It wasoverwhelming, but she couldn’t stop herself. There was somethingmagical about the way Stephanie’s mind was working. Livingvicariously like this, experiencing the world through a child’seyes, lost in the crazed rush of misfires and revelations wasalways something special, but there was a peculiarity to StephanieBeach. It wasn’t that the child seemed wise beyond her years, butthere was an inert sense of legacy. When West spoke, Stephanieappeared to be able to empathize with his story, making conceptualleaps with very little context. She bore a seven-year-old's questfor acknowledgment, searching for a punchline at the end of everyrainbow, vying for recognition, but she was sensitive to the timingand rhythm of the conversation. West had spoken one word, “Never,”his admission to Stanwick that even after so long, he still hadn’tbeen able to face his memory of that fall on the hopper. Stephaniehad felt the pain in his word, which was normal, but for a moment,Stanwick could see Stephanie’s examination of that pain, her youngimagination rifling through the pains of her own past, imagining ifshe would have benefited from reliving those tribulations, or ifthey were best left alone.
Stanwickblinked, 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 onthe wall. I’m not entirely sure why the idea had ever appealed,other than the fact that it presented a challenge. I traveledNorth, to the point where the wall curved around the boundaries ofthe Dannustine Palace, then East until I heard the distant bells ofthe Matriarchs. North of the temples of the Divinity, the wall wasonly a couple of hundred foot, and it was there that I made myreturn to the city.”
Brad Cobb sat in hiscar watching patiently for the better part of an hour before HannahBeach turned up. He watched her make her way to the neighbors frontdoor, where there was a short exchange of words. By the time shereached her own front door, Cobb had made it to the curb in frontof the driveway, his bill fold in hand.
Hannah turnedquickly, offering a warm “Oh, hi,” then noticing the FBIcredentials in Cobb’s hand, her smile faded, “Can I help you?”
Cobb smiledbroadly, offering his hand, “I sure hope so Miss Beach. Agent BradCobb, FBI.”
“It’s Hannah.”she shook his hand awkwardly and forced a smile.
“Hannah, do youhave any idea of the whereabouts of your brother?”
“I haven’t seenhim since this morning. I’ve had classes all day.”
“Oh … but youdid see him this morning?”
Hannah thoughtabout it, “I heard him, he was home. Have you tried the house?”
Cobb was goodat reading people. Cobb could speak four languages, and he was anaccomplished pianist. Cobb wondered why he was thinking abouthimself in third person. He glanced at his watch as he crossed hisright hand over his left to checked his pulse discretely, “Did younotice anything unusual about your brother’s behavior thismorning?”
Hannah frowned,and considered lying, but she wasn’t sure what kind of troubleDavid was in, “Yes. There was a guy.”
“A guy?” 13,14, he checked his watch.
“A guy. Hethrew a rock or something at my window.”
Pulse slightlyelevated, but within reasonable parameters, Cobb turned his fullattention back to Hannah and made a mental note that Miss Beach wascooperative, and forthright. Pretty too. Not relevant, Cobb caughthimself, so completely not relevant.
“Do you haveany idea who this man was?”
“Do you care toelaborate? Anything would be helpful at this juncture.”
“Is David introuble?”
“Mostcertainly, 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 glancedover her shoulder towards the front door, then turned her headslightly further, towards the Bleaker’s house, “Listen, do you wantto come inside?”
“Sure, if youdon’t mind Hannah, this has already been a long day, and I’mgetting the impression that it’s really just starting.”
Hannah’s laughwas stilted, but genuine. She opened the front door, observing thebloody fingerprint on her note on the side table. She kept hercool, “Coffee?”
“Tea if you’vegot it.” Cobb responded, pocketing the note as Hannah walked aheadof him.
“EnglishBreakfast, Darjeeling or Earl Gray?”
Cobb kneltdown, rubbing his finger in a muddy footprint, “Do you have alemon?”
“Sure.” Hannahshouted through from the kitchen.
“Then if youdon’t mind the trouble, a cup of Earl Gray with a slice of lemonwould be out of this world right now.”
Hannah’s headpeeked out from behind the dividing wall, “Out of this world?Really?”
Cobb didn’tlook up from the footprint. It looked like it had been made by aflip flop, or a slipper, “I’ve been hitting this little tea room uptown recently. They’ve got me hooked on that crap.” He noticed thethree circular gaps in the grip pattern, where the rubber strapwould pass through the sole. Flip flops it was.
“So this guy …Has David met him before?”
Hannah pluggedin the electric kettle, and turned on the coffee maker, spillinggrits on the counter with shaking hands, “I doubt it. Honestly, Igot 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 lastnight.”
Cobb enteredthe kitchen, taking off his sports jacket and folding it over hisarm, “You’re pretty sure?”
Hannahcorrected herself, “I’m certain.”
Cobb thoughtabout the manila folder which currently sat on his desk at thefield office, conspicuously lacking any mention of David Beach’son-line activity.
“You know hisreddit user name then?”
Hannah picked alemon out of a basket under the granite topped island, and pulled aknife from the block by the fridge, “I do indeed.”
Cobb nodded tohimself, smiling at the fact that Hannah Beach elected to keep herback turned to him as she sliced the lemon.
“You care toshare?”
Hannah thoughtabout David’s posting habits, which were mostly innocuous. Whatharm could there be really. He certainly hadn’t ever postedanything that would incriminate him. She sucked the lemon juicefrom her fingers, “Would I be committing an offense if I refused totell you?”
“No, not atthis point, but there’s a possibility that we can help David ifhe’s in danger.” Hannah still had her back turned to him, “You’dwant us to be able to help him right?”
Hannah pouredthe loose tea into a glass diffuser then set it down in its restingplace over the glass kettle, “Could you give me some idea what’sgoing on first? Is that too much to ask? I’m sure David will behome shortly.”
Cobb brushedhis fingers across the granite counter, “Where would your brotherbe coming home from exactly? I mean, he’s told you that he ispersona non grata with undersecretary Carlton right?”
Hannah listenedto the electric kettle reach full boil, then click off. She watchedthe carafe on the coffee maker starting to fill up, her mind onStephanie now, “He’s probably just gone to pick up Stephanie.”
“From theBleaker’s right?” Cobb grinned, sure he was on point.
Hannah picked asteel spoon from the drawer beside her, and poured the water fromthe kettle over the back of the spoon, watching the loose tea shiftand bob in the diffuser as the glass kettle filled slowly, “No, I’dimagine he took her to school.”
Cobb’s eyeswent to the clock on the wall beside the refrigerator, “Hannah,it’s um … it’s getting on eight.”
Hannah lookedat the clock, throwing the spoon on the counter, “Gah, what thefuck David?”
Cobb flinched,taken aback by the sudden outburst. She didn’t know.
“You haven’tseen Stephanie then?”
Hannah pickedup the glass kettle, and turned to face Cobb, leaning across thecounter as she set the kettle down in front of him. She looked Cobbin the eye as she reached under the counter and pulled a china cupoff a hook, sliding it across the counter towards him, “This guyturned up this morning, said he was here to help. I was tired, Ireally didn’t pay much attention and I went back to sleep for awhile.”
“Thank youHannah,” Cobb offered as he picked up the glass kettle, “So whenyou woke up?”
Hannah turnedher back and took a large mug from a cabinet by the window, pouringherself a coffee, “When I came downstairs, Stephanie was on herown, singing like a banshee, jumping around the couchcushions.”
“No sign ofDavid?”
“His car wasstill parked out front.”
Cobb’s eyeswidened involuntarily, “So you looked outside?”
Hannah took asip from her coffee and nodded.
“Did you noticeany other vehicles?”
Cobb lookedkind enough, trustworthy, but then Hannah knew she was shitty whenit came to judging people by their looks. She thought he washandsome though, classically handsome, if you were into that kindof thing, which she wasn’t.
“There weren’tany other vehicles no.”
“You’re sure ofthat?” Cobb eyed the sliced lemon on the counter behind Hannah,hoping she’d take the hint.
“Most of theneighbors garage their cars overnight. Anything parked on thestreet stands out like a sore thumb. We all enjoy bitching abouteach other’s house guests.” She noticed that Cobb’s eyes werewandering, and she glanced towards the counter behind her, “Oh shit… Sorry, here.” She passed the plate to Cobb.
“No big whitevan?” Cobb asked, dropping a lemon slice into his tea.
Hannahsquinted, “You don’t squeeze it?”
Cobb shrugged,“Should I?”
Hannah’s nosecurled, “It’s up to you dude, I don’t drink that shit. I justfigured you’d squeeze the lemon.”
Cobb laughed,sipping the tea gingerly, “I mean, it tastes good. I don’t knowthat the lemon needs to be any stronger.”
Hannah set hercoffee down on the counter, “There has been a van here, everymorning. It wasn’t there this morning.”
Cobb’s bodyrocked back and forth, almost imperceptibly, a subconsciousacknowledgment of Hannah’s statement, “Do you remember the markingson the van?” he asked, trying to gauge how observant Hannahwas.
Hannah wonderedwhy the van was relevant, but she offered the informationwillingly, “It was a cleaning company. I’ve talked about them withDavid. I mean, I asked the Bleakers next door if they’d hired them,because they were kind of parked part way between our drive andtheirs, you know? Best any of us could figure, we thought it mightbe one of the houses on the other side of the street.”
Cobb sippedagain, “The van was a FBI ops vehicle.”
Hannah smirked,wondering why the agent had offered that information up.
“Usually, themen operating that vehicle would have checked in, sometime beforenoon, drop in their duty log, file reports, return equipment tostorage, etcetera, etcetera …” Cobb rolled his hand in the air,“That didn’t happen this morning.”
Hannah’s mindstarted to race, but with no plausible avenues of thought, herbrain missed a gear, and she swallowed the wrong way, coughing andspitting coffee at Cobb. Unflinching, Cobb settled onto one of thetall stools, wiping his face with his sports jacket, “I’ve beenassigned to your brother’s case, because two things happened today.Firstly,” Cobb tapped his index finger on the counter, “Two fieldagents failed to report in, and their vehicle and comms wentcompletely off grid.” He raised his hand with his index finger andmiddle finger pointing to the ceiling, then he brought his handdown and tapped the two fingers on the counter, “Secondly, yourbrother goes off grid. His phone, gone. Car, gone.”
Hannah lookedworried now, and Cobb knew her fear was genuine, “Now, believe me,those two things; neither of them are easy to achieve. Neither areeasy to explain.”
“Not easy foran average person, maybe …” Hannah suggested, smilingnervously.
Cobb laughed,“Given your brother’s skill set, I’m going to go out on a limb andsay impossible.”
Hannah frowned,“Then what? You think this guy …”
Cobb restedboth of his elbows on the counter. Something about this wasn’tmaking any sense. He looked at Hannah, “Have you been questioned atany point before now Hannah?”
“I have not.”She cocked her head to the side, wondering why the agent looked soconcerned all of a sudden.
“No, I didn’tthink you had.” He leaned forward, staring into Hannah’s eyesseriously, eyebrows furrowed, “Tell me Hannah, do you think yourbrother had any involvement whatsoever in the assassinations?”
Hannah laughed,then sucked her bottom lip, running her fingertip around the rim ofher coffee cup. It struck her that Cobb hadn’t made up his mindabout this situation. It seemed as if he genuinely wanted heropinion. She held up a finger, and leaving her coffee cup on thecounter, she walked into the den. She returned a few seconds later,carrying a laptop, placing it in front of agent Cobb with the lidraised, “Here. This is the fucking mastermind you’re talkingabout.”
Cobb read thetext which ran down the screen in a series of comments, “So Davidis Shadowcab73?” He pulled a phone out of his pocket and typed aquick note.
Hannah turnedthe laptop towards herself and flicked into his David’s commenthistory, “Yes, my brother is the genius behind such deftly wordedtrolls as,” she pointed to the screen and read aloud, “Suck itass-hat, Tiernan FTW, exclamation, exclamation.”
Cobb laughed,“Tiernan for the win? So, he’s an ardent enough Tiernan supporterthat he’s rallying behind him even in his down time and in completeanonymity?”
Hannah scrolledthrough the comments, tapping the screen, “Read for yourself. Davidhas been scared witless by this whole thing.”
Cobb readslowly, sipping his tea, but his mind really wasn’t on the screen.He wondered silently why McMahon or Carmichael hadn’t interviewedHannah Beach? She was level headed, approachable and cooperative,not to mention, a goldmine of information. It made no sense to Cobbthat the two lead agents had made no mention of Beach’s on-lineactivity.
“Hannah, do youmind going back to that original thread?” He watched the screen asHannah navigated, then, “There, do you mind clicking into our guy’shistory?”
Cobb wasn’tparticularly surprised to see that ThaneOfTheVoid had no commenthistory before his replies to David. He made another quick note onhis phone, returning it to his pocket. He leaned his weight againstthe counter, waving his hand to indicate to Hannah that he’d seenenough, “Do you mind answering some more questions? I really wantto hit the ground running with this.”
Hannah reachedover the counter, to pick up her coffee cup, and Cobb noticed asmall tattoo on the side of her midriff. He cocked his head at anangle, but didn’t quite have time to read the cursive text.
Hannah took alarge gulp of coffee, then setting her cup down, she looked at Cobb“It says ‘Puri sermonis amator,’”
“My tattoo,”Hannah replied, “it’s Latin.”
Cobb smiled,“Terentius right? ‘A lover of pure and simple speech’ …”
Hannah’s smileconveyed her surprise, “Fuckin’ A!”
Cobb laughed ashe poured himself more tea, “Ah, the benefits of a classicaleducation.”
“Hans Gruberright? Die Hard …”
Cobb nodded,“Touché. You know, for what Gruber’s classical education was worth,Plutarch said that Alexander wept at Anaxarchus’ discussion of theinfinite number or worlds in the universe, because he hadn’t evenconquered one.”
Hannah staredat the carafe on the opposite side of the kitchen. She felt highlystrung, but she still felt that more coffee would help. It hadstarted to bother her how easily agent Cobb could play to herinterests. She wondered if perhaps this was some well-rehearsedploy to gain her confidence, then she snapped to her senses,remembering that her tattoo had started this aside. David’sparanoia must be starting to rub off, she thought, but then again,it was entirely possible that his paranoia was well warranted.
“Do you mind ifI try calling David’s phone?” She asked, a sense of dread mountingin her.
“You can tryHannah, but believe me, when I say his phone’s gone, I mean …”
Hannah sighed,“Oh shit, you could turn it on remotely right?”
“What aboutStephanie’s phone?”
Hannah pulledher phone out from her back pocket, dialed, listened to the carriermessage that the customer was out of reach, then stuffed the phoneback in her pocket. She looked at Cobb, her lips pursed.
Cobb’s eyebrowsraised, “You’re wondering what we have on you?”
Hannahscrunched up her face, “Kind of, yeah.”
Cobb laughed,“Surprisingly little. Worryingly little.”
Hannah pattedthe 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 Cobbagain, “Is it awesome? I mean should I be concerned that I’m notrebellious enough to be worthy of the FBI’s attention?”
“Your streetcred is intact. I’ll be writing up a report on our conversation.You will be well documented in our files as of today.”
Hannah gaspedmockingly, then poured herself another coffee, “You’re going tofind David and Stephanie right?”
“Don’t worryMiss Beach. I’ll bring him in safely.”
West stood up from thecouch and walked over to the window, leaning his arm against theglass as he spoke, “Before my removal from the city, there wereonly two people who might have called me friends. Truth be told,even those frail bonds were formed on utilitarian and selfishdesires. My closest friend Pieterossa, or Petra as she was commonlyknown, was an adopted daughter of Rornick and Heenar Kith Ergiss. Ibefriended Petra, because her closest confidant was one Reiner KithTiarsis, grandson of Stracklin Kith Tiarsis.”
Stephanievolunteered the first confession that came to mind, “I’m onlyfriends with Kate Midland because she’s friends with Shauna RaePritchard, and her dad gets free tickets to the cinema because heworks there.”
West watchedStephanie’s blurred reflection in the window, watched theheadlights of a car passing through her, “I’m sure many friendshipsbegin that way. In the end though, on the day I was cast into thevoid garden, theirs had been the only faces I had looked forthrough the flames of the zenith pyres, and they were the lastfaces I saw before I lost consciousness.”
“So it was thatPetra and Reiner were the only people I could imagine would come tomy aid upon my return to Allim. I didn’t imagine that either ofthem would have strayed from the path laid out for them by ArctumAcademy, and it didn’t take much asking around in the sciencesector to learn that the two had wed their fortunes together.”
“Then somethinghappened, the first time I approached the home of Petra and ReinerKith Tiarsis.”
West lookedover his shoulder dramatically, slapping his hands against thewindow, “The moment I touched the glardium surface of their home Ifelt it. I heard them. I understood finally what had been soimportant about Silinthalis, about the river Dannum, aboutStracklin Tiarsis’ research. As my hands stroked the wall of theirhome, it was as if the city spoke to me, nine-million voiceswhispering, nine-million dreams and memories flooding into methrough the glardium rills. Then just as I felt sure I wouldcollapse under the onslaught of so much experience, the voicesthinned out, the shrieking storm of thought narrowed to one purewhisper, blowing a chill wind through me. For the first time, Iheard the mind of Ahken Kith Tiarsis.”
Stephaniejumped on the couch beside her dad, leaning over the couch back towatch West more closely, “Can you remember what you heard?”
West’s voicelowered, “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. Thesound of New York filled the room, cars passing by in the streetsbelow, horns sounding occasionally, music thumping from openwindows, people laughing, or yelling, and West spread his armswide, “This was what I heard, through the glardium rills, eruptingfrom that child’s mind.”
Stephaniefrowned, “You heard a city?”
West lookedsuddenly wild, “No Stephanie, not any city. This city. These …” Hepointed out into the street, “these were the first sounds I heardfrom the child of the thirty-thousand year dream. He was dreamingof New York, twenty-first century, as it has come to be, and as itwas always destined to be. The longer I held onto the wall, thestronger my connection to Ahken’s dreams became, and although Ididn’t understand fully what it was I was seeing, I knew that itwasn’t Allim. So, the first time I saw New York city, walked thestreets, gazed through the windows of a department store, heard thecacophony that the void garden was truly capable of, it was allthrough Ahken, thirty-thousand-years ago. Through Ahken, I couldhear the conversations, and even the thoughts of these apparitionsof his dreams, and I knew that their world was more complex andvibrant, free of the oppression of Dannum. In my arrogance, Ibecame so sure that night that the quest I had set for myself, thatof destroying Pretchis, revealing him as Dannum, usurping hisreign, must all come to pass. There was the proof, in this child’smind. How could it be any other way?”
Stanwick stoodup and walked over to the window, leaning her head out into thebreeze, “By Ahken’s account, those were truly the first murmurings.No coincidence that West was there. No coincidences in the eventsthat followed either. Everything happened as Dannum must have knownit would happen, as he had foreseen it.”
West smiled atStanwick as he turned to face the others, “I waited three daysbefore I approached the boy. I followed him to the food halls ofthe West Tertiary, not far from Arctum. There he was, sitting withhis best friend, a girl, both of them filling their faces andlaughing as if they hadn’t a care in the world. I introduced myselfas a fellow scientist and asked if they would mind if I joinedthem. The girl sticks her chin forward, and says something to theeffect of, ‘piss off and get your own food scrubber.’”