Note #1: While it features no ‘on-screen’ sexual activity or explicit adult situations, this hypnofetish story does contain examples of fictional characters doing illegal, immoral and/or impossible things to other fictional characters. If you are under the age of consent in your community, are disturbed by such concepts, or want sex in your pornography, then for goshsakes stop reading now!
Permission granted to re-post for free to any electronic medium, as long as no one's being charged to view it, and this disclaimer and e-mail address are not removed. It would also be nice if you told me you were posting it.
Copyright me, 2000.
Note #2: This is set in the same universe at ‘Shades of Night Are Falling’, and is dedicated to Lucinda Dickey, wherever she may be.
The tall white-haired man strolled out of the bedroom hallway, back into the large main room of the penthouse. Another party. It was proceeding quite nicely, with several loose-knit clumps of people standing around talking and laughing, some by the wide stone fireplace, others clustered around the currently-silent grand piano. The hired caterers circulated with trays piled high with fingerfood, a lifeflow of blood being smoothly pumped to the party’s extremities. And behind it all, the tinkling classical music discretely trickled from a variety of concealed speakers positioned around the various edges of the room.
The disheveled blonde woman clinging to the tall man’s arm laughed along with the rest of the crowd and then bent to whisper wetly in his ear, gently trying to pull him back down the hall, back into the bedroom. He merely smiled and whispered back to her, ending it by giving her a playful slap on her firm white butt which sent her scurrying cheerfully back to the other guests.
This task completed, he reached into the deep pocket of his velvet dressing gown with one long vein-covered hand and extracted a sleek black remote control, elaborate and covered with a multitude of buttons and tiny read-outs. He tapped it to life and made delicate adjustments, monitoring the social ebb and flow from under his bristling white eyebrows.
There was no obvious change in the room, at least for a moment. Then... gradually... things started to shift. Very subtle, nothing you’d notice if you weren’t looking for it. One of the servers broke from her pattern, came by and handed him a drink, hardly breaking stride. The clusters of guests began to break up, reform themselves in new combinations. The blonde woman joined one of the forming groups, still slightly flushed, and laughing when not nibbling daintily at a canapé. Then the crowds parted, and a different woman was left stranded alone in the very center of the living room, framed by the horseshoe of white leather sofas. She was a top-heavy brunette, a great deal shorter than the blonde and packed into a sleek black dress. She looked around rather forlornly at all the suddenly-turned backs. Then her gaze fell on the man in the dressing gown, and her light brown eyes came sparkling back to life. Like the blonde before her, she came scurrying over. (It was the only word, really...) She absently discarded her glass onto a passing tray, placed both of her hands on his narrow but fairly muscular chest and began rubbing them in absent circles as she spoke.
“Hans! I just wanted to say, what a lovely party! Thank you so much for inviting me!”
“Not at all, Helena. You are having an enjoyable time?”
“Now I am!” She leaned closer, her voice getting a little husky.
“Would you like to have even more fun?”
“Excellent! Go to my bedroom, down there at the end of the hall, sit on the bed, and put on the headphones you find there.” He waggled an admonishing finger. “Do nothing else until I join you. I will be along shortly.”
She immediately disappeared through the indicated door.
He smiled again and started to follow her, then idly changed his mind and drifted over to the glass balcony doors to look out on the city for a moment. As well as he could look at least; it was night and the thick glass mostly reflected the party back at him. There were a few subdued lights scattered around the balcony's plants, however, and he realized someone was standing out there, alone. Tall, and a woman. His smile grew a little wider. Why not have a little extra fun, before getting back to Helena? There were of course speakers out on the balcony, as well as in the apartment... A final quick adjustment to the remote, so no one would come out on the balcony with them, and he stepped out into the cool night air. It was a quite beautiful night; clear and crisp, with a few of the brightest stars visible above the glowing skyscrapers. He took an appreciative breath and walked to the black-clad woman, who stood by the railing, her back to him, her arms apparently clasped before her.
She turned with the easy grace of a panther, and he saw what the unfamiliar woman was really doing with her arms, realized too late the horrible mistake that he had made. She spoke coolly, raising her burden.
“Maestro. I bring you a token of appreciation from one of your greatest fans.”
There was a slashing flicker of reflected light, and this particular party was over.
The low-slung brick building was tucked away on a quiet side street of the city, surrounded by tall trees and thick well-tended hedges. Within, it was dim and filled with numerous turning walls and unexpected alcoves, giving the whole more than a passing resemblance to a gigantic rat maze. It was technically a restaurant, but a casual visitor would have been struck by the fact that there appeared to be very little immediately on offer in the way of actual food.
The building never had casual visitors.
She breezed in out of the late afternoon sunshine, a tall somewhat-stretched woman dressed in silvery gray and sporting a smooth curl of platinum blonde hair. The greeting counter by the front door stood forlorn and unmanned and she strode past it without pause, winding her unerring way through the maze to a certain table which lurked in a particularly secluded corner behind a heavy velvet curtain. The curtain’s lining crinkled subtly as she pushed it aside and stepped into the space beyond.
There was someone there waiting for her; he sat in the shadows which surrounded the spot-lighted table, his square lenses catching twin slivers of that light. He did not rise as she approached, but spoke.
“Yes. Mr. Ganforth, I assume?”
The slivers nodded and she tucked herself into place directly across from him, vanishing into her own set of shadows. She placed her slender briefcase on the padded bench beside her. She did not remove her large wrap-around sunglasses or offer him her hand. Once she had settled herself he continued, very bland.
“I represent an interested party.”
“Yes.” He slid something across to her with the tips of his fingers, and she looked down at the object without touching it. Framed by the neat circle of light, it was a hastily-snapped black and white photograph of two figures standing on a wide doorstep. One wore a dark suit, the other a light-colored one-piece uniform, possibly that of a moving company. The suit-wearer was pointing at something out of the shot, to the left, and he had a percise circle drawn around his face in neat green ink. Her black lenses studied the scene for a moment before rising back to the man across from her. “Does he live here in town? Any possible travel expenses will of course be reflected in the final balance.”
“He’s here. He lives over on the Eastside. His address is on the back.”
She still made no move to pick up the photo.
“What’s the catch?” Spoken without rancor.
Possibly a flicker of annoyed impatience. “I'm only called when there’s a catch. What’s his? What makes him special?”
A long pause. He tapped a thumb against the other fingers of that hand, one at a time, in careful order. Finally...
“It appears that he may have friends in high places.”
“I see. How high?”
“High enough. But not... stratospheric.”
“Soaring with eagles, but not with angels.”
“Very aptly put. Yes.”
“And he presumably isn’t that high himself?” With her hands, she framed the very existence of the photo as part of the question.
“That would appear to be the case, yes.”
“And do these possible friends live here in the city?”
“None have yet made their appearance.”
“Strictly a newcomer, then? None of the local big boys are backing him in any way?”
“To answer in order, yes and no.”
“And he’s already causing ripples, hmm?” She smiled thinly, her lips moving like the edges of a knife collection. She clearly didn’t expect a reply and none was offered. She continued, now in a flat serious tone. “Assuming my usual check out of the target reports clean... realatively speaking... I’ll do it. But he's an unknown quantity. So double the standard fee. Half in advance.”
“Agreed.” No hesitation.
One of her eyebrows may have twitched upward in surprise, ever so microscopically, but with the glasses it was hard to be certain.
“You’ll want the usual proof?” She waved a gloved finger over the photo in a suggestive circular fashion.
“Yes. That will do quite nicely.”
“Any special messages that you wish delivered?”
For the first time in the conversation, he showed a flash of expression; a vaguely perplexed surprise.
“People want such things?”
“Some seem to.”
“Hm.” Professionalism again. “No. No special messages. The money will be in the indicated account by this evening. I await word from you. Good day.” He rose and departed with his own industrially drab briefcase, gray with no trace of silver, leaving her alone with the picture. She again studied it for several moments, forming the neat mental cross-hairs inside the circle of green ink. Beginning the process of turning the figure into nothing but a two-dimensional paper target. Not that she would be using a rifle, of course. If that had been a viable option, she wouldn’t be here right now. Finally, she made a slightly showy flicking gesture and there was a slender pair of padded gold tweezers glistening between her posed fingers. She picked up the photo by one careful corner, glanced almost absently at the green-inked address on the back and slipped the sheet into a particular pocket deep in her briefcase. The pocket crinkled as the curtain had. As she completed this action, a tuxedoed waiter suddenly and discretely appeared around the curtain and deposited a tall frosty glass in front of her on the table, perched fussily on a circular black and white coaster. He departed as unobtrusively as he had come. Everything important stowed away and sealed and strapped down again, she sipped for a time at the tube’s thin misty contents, her face unreadable.
She left the meeting place. Driving back through the city along with the beginnings of the evening’s rush-hour traffic, she abruptly pulled her sleek (but relentlessly non-flashy) car into the parking lot of a nearby convenience store and stepped out in a swirl of coat to use one of the battered pay phones which loitered in one corner of the lot. She deposited no money, simply punched in a long number in one swift memorized burst. She pulled a small item from a pocket and held it between her mouth and the handset. After a couple of rings, someone picked up, his voice sounding slightly scratchy.
“Charles. It’s show time. There is some work for you. Interested?”
The voice cleared up noticibly.
“Always. Whadda need, my love?”
“The usual workup. On this address and any inhabitants, here in town.” She recited the information that had been on the back of the photo.
“Get right on it.”
She had already hung up and was stalking back to the car, pocketing the voice distorter as she did so. The usual collection of idlers as can be in any such parking lot watched her every move, but some deep-rooted sense of self-preservation kept their mouths shut and their feet firmly planted.
She was of course aware of them, but she didn’t think about them as she got back in and drove away, vanishing into the flow of traffic.
She didn’t really have a home, had never had one since she had found herself living the life she now did, but at the moment she spent her nights in an apartment in Hayestown, one of the city’s more prosperous and upscale neighborhoods, sloping up a gentle hill just north of the river which bisected the metropolis while it meandered its looping way to the harbor and the ocean. She could have easily afforded the rent on the building’s penthouse, if she had wanted it; since settling here in this squabbling and divided city, business had been brisk. It was her recently-reaffirmed experience, however, that penthouses and their occupants tended to attract more than their fair share of attention, up to and including the sort of attention which she herself lavished on people. And she had other things to spend her profits on.
A penthouse no, but the apartment was nonetheless high up, and featured a fine view south out over a wide section of the river and its numerous bridges. Back now from her meeting with Ganforth, she stood as she often did on the (relatively small) balcony with another glass of mineral water in her hand and counted off the visible spans from right to left. She had learned that much at least, in her relatively short time here. The Harrowstone, with its many secrets and rumors clustered in its crumbling shadows. The lacy Bridge of Rainbows, so favored by the city's suicides. (No one ever jumped off the Harrowstone...) The more prosaic Anchorplate and 42nd Street crossings, which cleared the visual palate for the looming gothic structure of the Imperial which rose up in its gaudy splendor just as the river turned out of sight to the north, splitting as it did so to go around Mayor’s Island. The numerous yellow-orange banners of the Imperial fluttered in the brisk afternoon breeze. All was as it should be.
Her inventory complete, she dropped her gaze to the wide tree-lined street which ran by the front of the building, twenty-two floors directly below. There was a steady stream of ant-like pedestrians and cars moving back and forth, occasionally flaked with one of the sleek green-and-gold bullets which were the city’s trams. She sipped again and wondered idly how many of those people down there understood the true nature of the world, the way things really worked here in this city and elsewhere. Not many, she supposed. After all, she hadn’t known herself for many years. Far too many years, perhaps, before the insight had finally come to her. You had to rise high up to truly understand, get above the omnipresent fumes and muck, using whatever route that you could find for yourself... either through the front door or the back...
Then she reconsidered, finishing the drink as she did so. Maybe understanding was all too possible on ground level. Things she herself had seen, had done... Her eyes moved yet again, this time to the newspaper laying discarded on the nearby suntable, opened and refolded. The interior headline stood out: Blake Named As New Conductor of City Symphony.
She shrugged off the thoughts and went back inside. Nothing to do now but to wait for Charles to work his magic. And exercise, of course. Always continue to exercise, keeping her edge keen. She slept soundly that night, without dreams.
Charles performed his duties with his customary speed and efficiency, earning his usual cut of the profits. Three days later she was lounging back in the apartment’s one comfortable chair, her long legs crossed on the footrest, with the contents of a fat folder of papers piled in her lap. As she finished with each sheet, it went directly into a whirring electronic shredder crouched by her side.
Charles hadn’t had much trouble with the house itself; its previous owners, an industrialist named Eberhart and his wife, had been quite the movers and shakers in local society until his death of cancer a few months previously, followed by her leaving the city for presumably happier climes. The Times’ society page had covered many parties and gala events at the place over the years, and there were several pictures of various parts of the interior, along with copies from the original blueprints still on file in the city archives. Most important of all, Charles had also driven by twice, once at noon, once at midnight, and snapped the usual spread of photos. All quite through.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the house’s new owner was a slightly different story. There was very little hard information to be had on Mr. “Christopher J. Black”; he had moved to the city from somewhere back east, having left behind a vaguely defined career in importing and exporting which involved a great deal of international travel. Even with his purchase of the Eberharts' old home, his arrival in the city hadn’t made the society pages.
In other words, his was the typical profile of a person who had friends in high places.
He was unmarried, and had no family living in the city. He did not appear to have yet hired any domestic help. His living alone of course made things much easier, as did his seeming absolute lack of a social life; every report indicated that he spent nights at home. A kindred spirit she mused, to a certain extent.
She finished reading, committing to memory that which was important, dismissing the rest. The sterile plastic bag containing the shredded papers and photos went directly into the building’s basement incinerator. Back in her apartment, she logged into the laptop to confirm that the down-payment had been in fact deposited in her account, in a nameless bank located on an equally nameless island, far away. This done, she knelt down on the wide cushion in the middle of the living room, crossed her legs into a limber knot, closed her eyes. Took in a deep breath and felt it trickle back out. Let the cool silence fall, both within and without.
The sun had almost set behind the green hills, the last of the long red rays just slanting in through the thick tinted glass of the balcony doors. It was finally time. Every nerve thrumming now, she rose from the cushion in one smooth movement and walked to the bedroom, past the sparse futon to the closet which contained her personal darkness. She pulled off the blonde wig and arranged it on the waiting metallic head sculpture. Added the sunglasses, revealing her cool brown eyes. She tested the top of her skull with a sliding palm. Her tight fuzz of dark hair prickled under her skin. For some assignments, she shaved it off entirely, but tonight it somehow didn’t seem appropriate. She removed her casual gray-on-gray garments and moved to the bathroom. She sponged herself meticulously with the unscented soap and the water from the special bottles which stood in a squat bulky row along one wall. She dabbed the drops of clinging oinment in the usual places, traced the sickly green runes on the backs of her hands and her ankles, finishing with the larger one looped carefully around her belly button. Last of all, she slipped herself into the tight grey-black suit, all one piece, one arching limb at a time. When she was done, the attached mask and hood still hung loosely behind her neck, giving the impression of a more prosaic headcover.
Only then did she pad in the soft but gripping shoes to the massive metal and oak cabinet which filled one corner of the bedroom, the one truly solid and permanent-looking piece of furniture in the entire apartment. She spun the waiting row of brass knobs, one by one, right to left, and they turned with a series of polished and oilled clicks. Around and around, back and forth, and finally the cabinet’s single door opened with a slight clunk, like an airplane's depressurization.
Inside, the scabbard hung from the attached belt against the mottled emerald velvet, The strap looped over two polished wooden pegs. She stroked the slick ancient leather for a moment and twitched a smile. She took the scabbard, and the scabbard’s contents, from the cabinet and the door swung shut again. She did not put on the object she held, but kept it in a single-handed grip, letting the belt coil snake-like around her fingers and palm. She left the apartment.
She drove through the city in her now nearly-invisible car, keeping strictly to the speed limit, obeying all rules and ordinences. The nocturnal carnival was getting into full swing and the police had their usual night full of more-pressing problems ahead of them, but it never paid to take chances. The scabbard was tucked under the seat next to her, out of sight but very close at hand if needed. She passed other cars, including one police cruiser painted with the same color scheme as the trams, with possibly a slightly more authoritarian edge to it all. Seeing the snarling vehicle slide past in the opposite direction, she remembered for a moment a night in which she had killed four policemen in another city, years ago and half a continent away now. There had been so much blood that night, splattering lines of severed red, as the four men fell apart in quick succession. No... Three men, and one woman. Police officers, then, not men. She couldn't even remember now if any of them had been her target...
The proper neighborhood. The proper street. She pulled the car to a silent stop in one of the numerous patches of shadows which filled the spaces between the scattered streetlights. She slipped on her hood and mask, and then her night-vision goggles. She hesitated for a small second before snapping up the scabbard and getting out of the car, which automatically locked itself behind her. The belt slipped snugly into place around her waist, and she tightened it down, the black buckles clicking soundlessly into place.
Across the street. Down the street, staying in the shadows.
Now beside the high iron fence, she studied the scene. The target house stood very gloomy and silent. There appeared to be no lights burning anywhere in the structure, except maybe far back behind a single ground floor window. As Charles’ sets of reconnaissance photos had indicated, there were several stacks of building material piled in the mansion’s wide driveway, along with a enormous and quite ordinary Dumpster partially filled with scraps and hauled-out waste; Mr. Black was having a great deal of remodeling work done, with a variety of contractors being brought in from all over the city, some of them quite... specialized. She had toyed briefly with the idea of just disguising herself as a worker and going in during broad daylight, possibly with some implement dipped in an appropriately slow-acting poison, but then somehow it had seemed inappropriate. Night was better. The thing waiting in the scabbard was better. And she needed her proof in any event, for Mr. Ganforth’s Interested Party.
No obvious signs of a mundane security system, and people with friends in high places often didn’t bother with such things, sometimes to their own arrogent detriment. Still, she would proceed assuming that there was one; it was the sensible thing to do and she held no particular love of killing policemen, despite her history of it.
She held no particular love of killing anyone, except... except...
There was no gate across the driveway, but after a single glance she didn’t avail herself of the opening, instead going up and over the half-repaired fence in a single quick swarm, carefully slithering over and around the spikes on top. She landed on the other side with the smallest of thuds.
The shrubbery was somewhat tangled and overgrown; evidently the new owner hadn’t hired any exterior help, either... She threaded her way along without bending a branch or setting a single leaf to rustling.
Across the yard. She came to the side of the house, among the flourishing rosebushs and positioned next to a darkened window. She examined the latter minutely. It turned out there was a security system ringing the panes, a fairly high-end model with which she was quite familar. From an invisible pocket, she produced a thin black square. She slid something with her thumb and a pair of leads popped out, attached to wires. Connected to the proper points in the windowframe, the square throbbed a confirmation against the hand that held it. The alarm was bypassed.
A few moments more and she was inside the house.
Maybe the chamber would be a dining room someday, but for now it was empty except for her and some fellow shadows. She crossed to the door, checked for more alarms, squirted a couple of quick drops of oil into its hinges, and cracked it open. Beyond as expected was a hallway, lined with more doors except in a couple of places where they had been removed, presumably for repair. She oriented herself, looking at the floor-plan inside her head. Down that hallway, up a flight of stairs, down another hallway... she did these things, avoiding the squeaky boards, ducking under the scattered seeing-eye beams. Here and there she passed through the odors of sawdust and wood glue and draped plastic tarps, construction smells.
Without incident she came to the tall wooden door of the master bedroom, or what she was hoping was still the master bedroom. The door was standing open a crack, and she slipped inside, her hand on the hilt.
Immediately she saw that she was going to have do some more searching. Except for some high curtained windows, there was nothing in the wide room except for an enormous crate sitting all alone in the very middle of the elaborate wooden floor. The container was made of sturdy planks of some light yellow wood and covered with incomprehensibly squiggling black stencils. (Except in one place, where she could clearly see ‘THIS END UP’, accompanied by a large arrow. The arrow, surprisingly enough, pointed in the appropriate direction.) From the doorway, Umbra studied the crate carefully. Something about it bothered her, and it took a moment for her to realize what it was.
There were numerous round air-holes punched in the side...
The top of the crate blew off in one quick blast, trailing shrieking ripped-out nails. It spun several times through the air before clattering hollowly but loudly to rest on the floorboards, the neat square of nails now pointing upward. In the resulting space above the crate, a blonde head popped into view, shutter-clicking a pair of bright violet eyes and darting a razor-keen gaze back and forth with sharply controlled jerks. It saw her, penetrated the shadows. Two hands flipped into view, a complete set of oddly long and narrow fingers latching over and onto the side of the crate nearest her. The head spoke, her (yes, her...) voice rippling and sweet and possibly slightly sad.
“Run, Lady Umbra. Run while you can. Run far away.”
Umbra almost did exactly that. The woman knew her name. In this instant everything had changed. The target had known she was coming. Knew that she was here.
Either she had been set up by someone, or he indeed had friends in very high places. Or worst of all, he lived in high places himself.
But she would worry about that later. And she didn’t run. She didn’t give up on the assignment. Not yet. Never act in panic. Never let your glands do your thinking for you, because unless and until that moment where you are swinging your final stroke, ending all things in a bright red line, they are stupid useless things and will get you killed.
Also, never ever turn your back on an enemy.
She began to wordlessly back out of the room, very slow, never taking her eyes off of the other woman. Her hands made smooth movements and for the first time that night, the sword was out of the scabbard, fitting perfectly in her grasp and sticking wetly in place, the unwavering quicksilver tip pointing at the crate and its occupant. The weapon made a thin red and green screaming sound as it came out, a joyous scream of anticipation.
The feathered woman jumped out of her crate, scattering long whispy strands of... something or other... as she did so. It was a high inhuman flip, arching up and over and back down. Unlike the lid before her, she landed absolutely without sound and gracefully snapped her tiny frame back erect, her limbs akimbo, her fingers splayed. She was covered from neck to feet with masses of golden feathers, which should have made her look harmless, ridiculous. Instead, she smiled and her teeth and eyes glittered even more brightly and she became perhaps the most terrifying thing that Umbra had ever seen. For a moment the intruder was a tiny mouse, nailed to the ground, nakedly exposed in the middle of a field and looking up as some wide-winged golden raptor came swooping, screaming, down out of a pitiless blue sky. Then she snapped out of it, and continued her careful withdrawal, watching how the other woman moved, judging her speed...
The bird-woman was on top of Umbra almost before she was aware what was happening, a stuttering series of gold images, overlapped and getting bigger and bigger... At the last second the sword came slicing around and the feathered figure was gone again, dodging with the same blurred speed, slashing with one curled hand. Umbra felt the tough polysynthetic weave of her suit’s shoulder rip apart like tissue paper, blood well up from the neatly matched set of razor cuts. The cuts burned for a moment, then she shrugged the wound off, adding the pain to the collection she kept locked away. She was a mass of scar tissue already.
The woman was back, but didn’t land a blow this time; Umbra knew her measure now and the sword flashed again, shrieking mostly through empty air but again forcing her back. Half of a golden feather spun to earth, unnoticed by either combatant. The gold woman vaulted through the open door of a nearby room, disappearing from view. For the tiniest of split-seconds, Umbra hesitated, then followed the humming sword-point into the new room. While every second was now particularly precious, the bird-woman had to be dealt with or contained before any real retreat or search for the main target could begin. Never turn your back...
The room beyond the door was empty. The woman was gone already.
But it wasn’t empty. Someone new was there, standing alone as the bird-woman’s crate had stood, but skinny and gnarled and wrapped in odd shadows...
No. Not a person at all. No body heat. No pulses of red, begging to severed... It was some kind of rediculous wooden(?) statue, holding a crude spear in one hand, and in the other a
With a slice of howling panicky rage, the sword went spinning its way out of her grasp, tumbling away into darkness and silence, not even seeming to hit the ground. She looked down at her empty hands in absolutely bafflement, her reflexes suddenly reduced to smoking rubble. What? Where? There was a noise and she lifted her head again, her hands and arms still spread. Parts of the statue were being moved the horrific crimson-eyed thing lurking in its hand was looking at her
Umbra came to, groggily. Normally after sleep she came awake all at once, instantly fully alert and aware after a night without dreams. Now she had to struggle to reclaim consciousness, fight up out of a clinging red-eyed swamp of grinning nightmares, remember where she was, what had happened... She was sprawled on a hard stone floor. Things started coming back, reluctantly piecing themselves together in jagged runny flashes. She was in ‘Black’s’ mansion. She was still alive. She slowly propped herself up on her arms and studied her surroundings, her legs splayed out behind her, dead weight. Her goggles were gone, and her mask and hood had been pulled back again. The new room, like all the others before it (except except except oh god except??!!) was mostly empty, just a few cardboard moving boxes scattered around. The taste of the air, a half-felt weight overhead, gave the impression that she was underground, in the mansion’s basement presumably, but there was nothing concrete to back this sensation up apart from the room’s lack of windows. She looked more carefully, things still shifting back into position. Some temporary lights had been haphazardly strung overhead on a thick black wire, and beneath their glow several somethings had been lightly sketched on the circular stone walls in gray chalk, large half-familiar shapes. Squatting directly under one of these shapes, her back up against the wall, was crouched the golden-feathered woman, and Umbra felt a surge of angerpanic that came and built and went in a few seconds. The woman sat with her skinny arms wrapped around her legs, and she looked at Umbra over her own knife-blade knees, intent and unblinking, an odd combination of anticipation, sorrow, and a smug ‘I TOLD you that you should have run, you silly little twit’. A thin collar of iridescent metal was around her neck, and attached to it was a fine silver chain, almost a thread, running to a heavy iron ring sunk deep in the wall. Umbra looked at that chain and the oddest sense of serene confidence trickled over her. It wasn’t small at all. It was massive, bigger and sturdier and older than the anchor chain on an ocean liner, and Lorelei couldn’t break it. Only one thing in the universe could do that.
And then that thing was there. He was there. There was a pair of shoes in front of Umbra on the stone floor, narrow and black and slightly scuffed at the toes. For a moment, she flickeringly wondered how she had known the bird-woman’s name, but then she just stared at the shoes, unable to look away, unable to blink. She could only feel her head move in one direction: up. Up the trouser legs, up the dark suit and subdued red (redredredandgreenslices) tie, up...
To his face.
To his eyes. Black. His
She tried to spring her body into action, to send her slivers of sharp poison zipping into that blackness, slash, cut, garrote, send the red flowing...
Instead, she screamed. For the first (?was it the first?) time in her life she screamed in absolute horror, emptying her lungs down to the last particle of air, finally trailing off into twitching sobs. He politely waited until she had fallen mostly silent, then spoke. His voice was rich and mellow, sliding deep into her ears in the same way that chilled aged wine slides down your throat. She shuddered as it sauvely coiled itself around her brain like a snake sliding through fresh bamboo sprouts, bending, breaking... snapping....
“Hello, Ms. Umbra... isn’t it? I’ve already heard a great deal about you in the short time that I’ve been here in town, and to be honest, I’m actually a bit flattered that you were sent here looking for me. After all, I’m really not...” He cut himself off. “But that doesn’t matter now. You’re here. And I think that we have a place here for a woman of your many talents.” She shook her head silently, twitched it really, not breaking contact with his eyes. He sighed sadly and then was looming over her, positioning ten cool pale fingertips across her fuzzy skull. She screamed again, louder than before, and no sound came. The noise simply echoed around inside her skull, round and round. Slowly fading to silence. Again he patiently waited until she was done. Ten points of burning pleasure. Ten points of exquisite, orgasm-inducing pain. Filling her, but still feeble and thin compared to... something she had just experienced.... somewhere... red eyes grinning at her... He continued, mercifully disrupting her desperate attempts not to think about certain things... “We have a place for you. And you are going to fill it. Do you understand, my dear?”
“Yes, sir. I understand now.” The last of the tangled red (and green ugly putrid clinging green) threads inside her head snapped. His voice squeezed her mind, tighter and tighter. Her mouth was calm, polite, professional. Her arms, still holding her up, twitched a little. Her eyes leaked tears. When was the last time she had cried?
“Good girl. But since you did come here planning to kill me, you’re going to have to be punished. For a time, at least.”
He shifted his left hand, placed it gently around her throat. Only five ice-picks were now stabbing into her brain, burning black and icy clean.
“Sing... um... ‘Clementine’, my dear.”
“In a cavern... in a canyon... excavating... for a mine... was a miner... forty niner... and his daughter Clementine...” She had always had an excellent singing voice. She suddenly remembered that she had once dreamed of being a singer... Why had she let that get away? Why... “Oh, my darling.... oh, my darling.... Oh, my darling Clementine...” Her voice echoed around the room slowly, sweetly. Flashing a glance out of the corner of one misting eye, she could see Lorelei smiling dreamily and bobbing her head to the music. “You are lost... and gone forever... Dreadful sorry, Clementine...”
“Light she was... and like a fairy... And her shoes... were number nine...” Something was gently tightening inside her throat as it had already wrapped itself around her brain, sticky and warm and muffling. She could still breath quite normally, but her words were beginning to fade, grow softer and softer, shrink in on themselves... “Herring boxes... without topses... Sandals were for Clementine....”
“Oh, my darling... Oh, my darling... oh my darling...” The words stopped but she continued to move her lips, staring up at him, spinning free, no tanglements now, and falling deeper and deeper into his wonderful, awful eyes. Finally...
“You may stop now.” Her lips fell back together, and he took his hands away. The ice-picks casually withdrew, leaving their freezing hot holes behind, holes that begged to be filled again. She stayed very still, waiting for further orders. Maybe if she pleased him, he would touch her again. Just for a moment. That was all she asked.
He turned and picked up an object from the top of a nearby mover’s box. It was a painfully long moment before Umbra recognized it. It had been... it had been the sword that killed people. Long ago. It was now just another piece of his property. Like Lorelei. Like her.
But then maybe it wasn’t like them. The weapon seemed to quiver and buck in his hands, buzzing angrily. He gave a couple of small grunts of concentration through gritted teeth. He stared intently down at the polished strip of metal he held level on his up-turned palms, his eyes moving as if he was reading line after line of invisible text. At one point his thin black eyebrows cocked in surprise, and he shifted his head to Umbra as if to ask a question. She stared back. Instead of speaking, he turned back to his own staring, looking now at the green jewel in the pommel. She looked at it as well, trying to think about something, a thought that refused to form... His hands and arms shifted slightly. The buzzing rose louder for a moment, a swarm of stinging bees inside her head... There was a snap. The glow inside the jewel gave a single distinct flicker and the two women jerked in perfect unison, then were still again. He smiled and turned back to Umbra.
“There. That’s better.” And he was right, as he was always right. Something inside her was suddenly incredibly, rapturously better, unclogged and flowing clean, scrubbing out all the slime and residue. “Here you are, my dear. I imagine that you can put this to more productive use than I.” He held out the weapon to her. Part of her wanted nothing more than to reject his gift, beg him not to force it on her, but she took it, sitting up, shifting her weight off of her arms and trembling when their fingers brushed against each other for a second. The sword was back in her hand, and something odd was happening. It rested differently in her hand now, still snug and well-crafted, but somehow less perfect, less... sticky... than before. And more importantly, the holes, the cracks... they were still in her head and would always be there when he wasn’t touching her, but... holding the sword... holding his sword... they started partially filling in, filling with cool, soothing masses of cobwebs spun by clouds of benign spiders. Not red. Not green. Pearly gray, flaked maybe here and there with specks of silver and black. She smiled a little under her tear-stained eyes, watching the intricate patterns form. Two pieces of his property, fitting almost perfectly together and thus becoming more useful to him. What could be more beautiful? He thoughtfully let her enjoy the moment, then went on. “We’ll order you some suitable attire in the morning, and show you your duties. I’m afraid that they will be rather arduous at times, but... if all goes well... you won’t have to kill any more people.”
The last sentence seemed to hang high inside her mind for a moment, then blazed across her mental sky like exploding fireworks, sparking diamond letters each a mile high:
I Don’t Have To Kill Any More People. Andrea Joyce Haines screamed the words in silent triumph, not sure who she was directing them at, but whoever it was screamed wordlessly back at her, not in matching triumph but in absolute impotent rage, a thin red line of rage, dripping green corruption but sealed safely behind thick cool sheets of glass, a vaguely quaint museum exhibit... He interrupted her thoughts again. “But in any event, I’m sure you won’t disappoint me.” An oddly ceremonial pause. “You won’t disappoint me, now, will you, Andrea?”
Forcing forward for a moment the thought of disappointing him, she had the sudden nearly overwhelming impulse to curl up in a tight tiny ball around his sword and die, crumble herself to tiny pieces. She shook her head violently, her eyes very wide. Then the pain melted away and the joy already bubbling back up in her soul again.
“Good. And I’m sure that we will be able to lift your punishment in no time at all. You can find your own room, I trust?”
Andrea nodded, more sedately this time, smiling only on the inside now, as was proper to her position.
“Very well. Good night, my dear.” She started to rise. “Oh... of course. How thoughtless of me. Wait a moment.” She obediently settled back. “Let’s get that shoulder patched up first.” He picked up more things from the box where the sword had been laying; antisceptic, white pads, medical tape. Her suit had been ripped enough that he had easy access, squirting and sponging and taping. His simple touch was far better medicine than all the rest, and the cuts had felt oddly sterile even before he had worked on her. Finally he stepped back and smiled. “There we go. That should heal up nicely. Now off you go.”
She rose, curtsied, and left the room, turning her back on him, his sword hanging loosely in one hand. One of the many things the spiders were building inside her head was an even more detailed map of the house, with the path to her waiting bed (a real bed, with a warm blanket and a soft pillow, no more stinking futons...) glowing straight and black. So wonderfully black...
She didn’t see or hear him blow out a sigh of relief behind her, nor mop his high brow briefly with his pure white handkerchief, but he did these things nonetheless.
Two voices, deep in a darkened room, surrounded by runes hacked into the walls and filled with melted bloodsilver.
“Our friend failed, I see?” No anger, particularly.
“Yes. Do you wish me to arrange something a bit more aggressive? Unleash the Hounds, perhaps?”
“No. Not just yet.”
“But... every day that you wait, his defenses will grow stronger. He’s busy digging in, you know. Eventually, even the Hounds will have a hard-”
A sharp cutting-off gesture, laced with smoke. “I’m well aware of that. But our new friend... somehow interests me. And that is something that anyone in this wretched incestuous little hamlet has failed to do in quite some time. There is somehow... both more and less to him than meets the eye. We will wait for now, and study him, and see what he does with himself. See just who his friends really are. Perhaps in time send him another little test...”
“‘Another’ little test? Then she was...”
“Of course, my silly boy. Haven’t you realized yet, that everything in life is a test? That life itself is a test?”
A thick chuckle.
“No. You don’t see at all. Which is one of the reasons why I love you so. Now give us a kiss, and run along. And if our new bestest friend does anything interesting...”
“You’ll be the first to know. As always.”
The short skinny man shambled out of the bedroom, through the living room and into the kitchen. The late morning sun battered against the closed venetian blinds, turning the room into a dark seedy cave. He stretched a little and listened to his spine’s feeble snaps of protest. The fridge was looking a bit bare when he opened it; but assuming all had gone well, that would be corrected soon enough. He snagged the last can of tomato juice and wandered back into the living room, sipping.
He stopped and swallowed the current mouthful with a hard gulp. The low coffee table was in its usual place in front of the threadbare sofa, but something had changed. Usually the table was stacked high with compressed layers of debris, a towering heap that would have set any passing archeologist to quivering and drooling. This morning, it had been swept absolutely clear and there was no corresponding pile on the already-cluttered floor.
Carefully positioned in the exact middle of the coffee table was a large, fat, manila envelope. He kept very still and studied the object carefully, going over the possibilities in his mind. A bomb? Maybe. It was a risk of his profession which he had always accepted. But probably not. At least not just a bomb. A bomb in and of itself would have been attached to his car’s gas pedal, or the door to his apartment. Whatever else this was, it was also a message to him. From who? He took another absent swallow.
He toyed with the idea of just collecting his few important possessions and clearing out of the apartment, not looking back. Finally he put the idea aside, along with the can of juice, and approached the table, walking slowly on the balls of his bare feet. The thing was just an envelope, with something written across it in black ink, firm flowing strokes. Umbra had been careful to the point of paranoia about such things, but he still recognized her official handwriting; he had seen it once or twice. She had let him see it once or twice, in case of just such an emergency, probably.
Emergency. He had read the message.
Charles. Run away. Run far away.
He picked up the envelope, undid the cheap metal clasp and flipped the flap open. The thickly-bundled edges of the green bills stared mutely back at him. Time seemed to stand still.
Twenty minutes later, he was driving towards the city limits, the envelope beside him on the other seat, the rest of his important things tossed haphazardly into the back of his battered magenta van. As he drove, behind his mirrored sunglasses, his face was drawn and grim, and his hairy knuckles turned white as they gripped the steering wheel.
To be continued?
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