Trace pushed himself up, quickly set his clothes right, and extended a hand to Lydia, who smiled at the gesture.
He turned his back as she adjusted her clothes too.
“Such a gentleman,” she teased.
He smiled, but she couldn’t see it.
“Thank you for not leering, after…”
He just nodded.
“So many men just stare…”
“I get it; you don’t need to explain.” He remembered the view the king had as she knelt before him…
She nodded, finished dressing. “I’m done.”
He turned around.
“I’m sorry, Lydia. I was…”
“Trace, I swear, if you say ‘weak,’ I’m going to thrash you. We’re not betrothed.”
She laughed, “We’re not even lovers, in the real sense of the word, and we’re certainly not family.
“You were tense, and I…helped you.”
He smiled again, and she returned it.
“So what happens now?”
“You help me solve the murders, and we’ll take it from there.”
She turned it over a moment.
“Who’s the child? What’s his name?”
“Arrick, but he’s asleep by now.”
“We’ll have to wake him up.”
“I wouldn’t; his mother’s a bear of a woman, in temperament. If she thinks you’re up to no good, I warn you, she really will thrash you; I haven’t seen you in action, but if you lock horns with her, unless you use magic, you’re not sure money.”
“Where are you going after work, you know all this stuff?”
She grew peevish from something she sensed he was implying.
“I’m not riffraff, Trace. I have to navigate the back roads sometimes; they’re not savory places. You’re not the only one with an edgy circle of friends and rivals.”
“Fair enough. I didn’t mean anything by it, Lydia. No need to get defensive, at least with me.”
“Forget it; no offense taken. Let’s be on with it.”
“You know this place better than I do.”
“And I know that you’re a mage, and I need not wander creation to find what you can easily summon.”
Trace found his respect for her growing; for a serving girl, she had a bit too much spine, and he found himself wanting to know more about her, but in her reprimand she overlooked one very simple truth, and he teased her with it now.
“But Lydia, you know what he looks like.”
“Oh.” She reddened, and he smiled, and she swatted his arm playfully as she walked out ahead of him.
Lydia knocked, and Arrick’s mother answered, not pleased at the late night interruption.
“Arrick? I’ll not wake him!”
She went to slam the door in their faces, and it didn’t budge.
Hissing, she clutched her wrist at the sudden resistance to the force of pushing it.
Trace moved in, and something in his eyes brought Arrick’s mom to a quivering stillness.
She turned away, leaving the door open so they could see her, and she woke Arrick, who rose quietly, and rubbing his eyes, looked at the stranger standing in the door. The blonde girl next to him he knew from the kitchens. She was kind to him, and snuck him chocolate treats; sometimes he shared them with his mother, but sometimes he didn’t, though he always felt guilty then.
“Arrick, you know what happened tonight at the banquet, right?” Lydia prompted to warm him up to the subject as he continued staring at Trace.
“Yes. The king and queen were killed.”
They were taken aback by how articulate he was for his age.
“You saw who did it, Arrick?”
“No. Their head was covered.”
“Was it a male or female?”
“A female; there was a perfume smell.”
Lydia smiled at that, and as his story unfolded, Trace realized the murderer was far more powerful than he thought.
This was going to be a battle of wills as much as a physical war.
And now there was Lydia to consider as well.
If she still wants to go….
Trace’s lips twisted in a rueful smile, but then he noticed Arrick’s face paled.
There was a perfume smell, and it receded, along with the unnerving weight of the kitchen girl’s subtly threatening stare, which she gave him over the mage’s shoulder.
She would kill him if he told the truth; Arrick didn’t doubt that for a second. In the doing, she would not be kind, and it would not be a treat.
How could he be a mage, and not feel the evil emanating from her? She was standing just over his shoulder.
Arrick grew cautious, and his first instinct was to protect himself and his mother.
“All I saw, sir, is whatever you saw me see in your vision. I didn’t follow whoever it was.”
“That’s fine,” said Trace, not believing it for an instant.
Arrick wondered if she’d seen his knee sticking up; he’d slid on the floor up against the cabinet, and had to bend his knees.
Lydia shifted restlessly.
“It’s late, Trace.”
He spent a moment longer staring at Arrick, then turned to Lydia.
He turned back to Arrick and put his hand out, and Arrick shook it lightly.
“Thanks for your help, Arrick.”
He shrugged as his mother all but stumbled over him to close the door.
“So what happens now,” Lydia said, another nervous smile on her face.
“I’m going home; the royal brats haven’t left yet, so you’ll stay here. Meet me tomorrow, late morning, and we’ll pick it up from there.”
“What if someone comes to kill me later?”
“You can handle yourself, Lydia. Don’t pretend otherwise; there’s more to you than you’re letting me see.”
He walked past her, and left her staring after him, though she said nothing, and didn’t try to catch up to him.
She looked at the closed door once more, her eyes narrowing, and then, smoothing out the frown, she went back to her own place, and went to bed, a knife under the pillow.
And dreamed of Trace.
His naked back was to her, and she slipped the knife from beneath her pillow…© Alfred W. Smith Jr. 2015
She was in the servants’ quarters, taking comfort from a friend.
“That royal bitch, pouring wine on me!”
“Watch your tongue, Lydia. Tongues wag, and ears are on the walls.”
“I don’t care…”
“You will if the the princess gets wind of it; here, drink this, and hush.”
“Thank you, Gaile.”
“Excuse me,” Trace said.
Gaile jumped, and Lydia spilled a little of her drink; they looked at each other, and Gaile’s frightened eyes had an ‘I-told-you-so’ look in them, and then she gave the man in the doorway a challenging glare.
“I need to speak to Lydia, alone.”
Gaile huffed, looked again at Lydia, who nodded. “I’ll be all right.”
Gaile left. bumping the man’s shoulder as she pushed past him.
He ignored the not-so-subtle assault, and turned his attention to the girl sitting in the chair, wine cup in hand, trying to pretend nothing happened.
“The queen bitch poured wine down my blouse because the king stared at my breasts, sir.”
She gave a bitter laugh. “That only made him stare harder.”
“Call me Trace. And I’m sorry…”
“Why? Have you never been in a castle before? It goes on all the time, the abuse.”
Trace let that pass so he could get to his questions.
“Did anyone taste the wine first?”
“I wouldn’t have brought it out otherwise; yes, the taster did his job.”
“Where can I find him?”
“I…” she gave it some thought. “You’ll probably find him down in the kitchen, rifling through the silver before he leaves.”
“What does he look like?”
She gave that some thought, too.
“Short, round, wide, and pasty; he won’t be hard to spot.
Her brow furrowed as a change of thought came to her.
“Did you speak to the heirs?”
“I did,” Trace said. “They don’t plan to stay.”
“I hope the Council can convince them otherwise; if there’s no kitchen work, I’ll have to resort to…tavern work.”
“Thank you, Lydia.”
“Can I…can I go with you?”
“To find the taster?”
“I can help you with that,” she stood up, put the drink aside, “but I meant…can I come with you, travel with you?”
“We can discuss that on the way.”
She walked with him toward the kitchens, her large blue eyes focused on him with a hint of desperation.
“I can cook, clean your place, mend your clothing, wash…”
“I travel a lot, Lydia, and I don’t hang around nice places with nice people. I’m sure out there somewhere, there’s a price on my head.
“The things I’m involved in are high stakes and gruesome, with supernatural overtones.
“In short, as much as I’d love to have someone to talk to and share ideas with, I’m not someone to be around for the long term.”
“I understand, but-“
“No, Lydia. No, you don’t understand.”
“There he is. Walcroft is his name.”
Walcroft turned, saw the mage walking toward him, and was caught somewhere between frozen and bolting from the room.
Trace incanted a holding spell just as Walcroft decided on flight, and found himself held fast.
“Leave me alone! I didn’t kill them!”
“No one accused you of murder, so there’s no need to run, is there? If you promise to be still, I’ll remove the incant. If you try to run, I’ll bind you again, more thoroughly. Do you understand?”
“I understand, taint.”
“Walcroft doesn’t like magic, Trace.”
“Your kind are a blight on the land, and I would see you all dead, were the crown mine. Our king, gods rest his soul, had the disease of compassion on him, though he was a lusty man; the queen, not so much. She would have made a better ruler, but the law of the land being what it is, would not surrender the throne to a woman.
“Not here to debate the political merits of regicide, friend, I just need the cups they drank from. Where are they?”
Trace was as calm as Walcroft was agitated, and though the smaller man seemed to be spoiling for a fight, he could see that the mage would not indulge him, and something in his tone conveyed that Walcroft better not push the issue.
Trace walked to where they were, and Lydia followed.
He gave a cursory glance behind him, and she gave him a quick, nervous smile.
“Stand behind me.”
The cups were two different temperatures, and he saw the faces of those who used them.
The queen’s cup was hot with rage, and the king’s cool with drunken lust; in the vision, Trace could see the long line of Lydia’s cleavage, the slope of her breasts under the serving blouse drawing the king’s eye like a moth to flame.
There was nothing to be done for it, though he was embarrassed for her.
He could smell the poison in the wine, a bittersweet berry, tart and acrid, and feel it too; it was heating his blood, singeing his hands, and he began to sweat.
He summoned to go further back, and felt the energy drain from him: a blurred face could be seen, walking toward the cups with the bottle of wine, but whoever it was had their eyes covered by the top of the black hood they wore, so he couldn’t see if it was male or female, their hair, or the color of their eyes.
From the angle, he could see no good details, because he was looking up at the cups from underneath. Someone had been hiding there, someone who could see part of the poisoner’s face, though the poisoner couldn’t see them.
He focused on what he could see.
The lips were small, though, the chin not strong, but it was darker, as if the person spent their time in the sun.
It was either a woman or a thin man, which Walcroft was definitely not.
Lydia wiped his brow with a cool cloth, looked at his hands, and hissed in apprehension.
“They’ll heal,” said Trace.
She looked at him.
“They always do.”
He could see the fright in her eyes, see the things he’d told her about him sinking in as she watched the scars begin to recede and disappear..
“There was someone here, hiding under the counter, and someone in a hooded robe who poisoned the wine. Whoever was under the counter saw part of their face.
“Do any children hang around here, looking for scraps?”
She was finally able to tear her gaze away from his hands.
“It’s not encouraged, but we have a few adventurous ones willing to risk Kiyo’s wooden paddle on their backside.”
“The head cook?”
“The Giantess, we call her, but not to her face.”
“It’s late. I’ll need a place to stay.”
“I’ll make a room up for you.”
She walked past him, but he put his hand on her arm, and shook his head.
“It can’t be here.”
She sighed, took a step into his space.
“I have to come with you, Trace. There’s no future for me here, and I don’t want to be a whore.”
“Please don’t abandon me.”
“I’ll have to think-“
She kissed him, and he gently pushed her back.
“That’s not going to work.”
“Trace, it’s all over you; you need someone.”
She kissed him again.
“Stop it, Lydia.”
She stepped back, looked up into his eyes.
“You stop me,” she said, moving in once more.
He could have; he even wanted to…
But he didn’t.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr. 2015
Arlun encounters a fellow traveler, and the journey changes…
In the early afternoon, Echo felt the cool grass under her bare feet, and her white diaphanous dress barely hid her charms for modesty.
She gazed about in amazement, looking for Time, who’d manifested himself to her in the form of a sculptor, and barely pushed her through time before Death’s gory scythe claimed their lives.
Can time be killed?
She dismissed the thought; it was enough that she was free from the rocks that imprisoned her in her grief all those centuries ago.
The gods had long ago abandoned the region, and her, and the rains had stopped, leaving the land to change to desert, and her alone inside her stony dungeon; she no longer had the luxury of even repeating the words of someone else, and her loneliness crushed her spirit as she slept, and woke to silence, and slept again, in a cycle of living death.
And then the netherworld travelers happened to stop in front of her.
And now she was here.
Breathing in the fresh clean scent of the forest, even in its pungency, made her shiver with pleasure at life once more. She wanted to kiss Time again; his scent had stirred her, but he’d hidden himself.
Maybe there will be…time…for that later. Her mischievous thought brought a smile to her lips when she heard someone rushing through the woods in her direction.
Before she could hide, the figure emerged; it was her King, flushed, panting, and looking over his shoulder as if a wild boar pursued him.
She took the knee before him, and he paused a moment in front of her.
She stood. “You do me honor, lord.”
“I would, had I time.” He smiled at her with lust, but time was of the essence, and he’d sated himself elsewhere.
“How may I serve you?”
“Juno pursues me for my dalliances with some of your sisters. I would that you use your skills of conversation to detain her while I escape until she calms down.”
“I am at your service, Majesty.”
“There’s a good nymph.” His hand cupped her cheek in a mix of paternal affection and a lion testing the softness of the skin of its next kill.
There was a rustling behind them, and Echo wanted to laugh as Jupiter bolted like a frightened deer into the woods to escape Juno’s wrath.
The scent of lilac wafted in the air, and Echo walked toward the blooming bush, and gathered some in her hands, letting the scent wash over her, as Juno came from the same direction as Jupiter, her eyes sparking with fury, her nails digging into her palms.
She spied the nymph by the lilac, and rushed over to her.
“Did Jupiter pass through here? Tell me, and don’t you dare lie!”
“To lie to my Queen is to die. I only just arrived, smelling the lilac in the air, and wished to gather some for my bath. Would my Queen like some for her own?”
“No. Thank you. Did you see Jupiter?”
“I did not, my queen. I would run to hide, for I am but in this faerie cloth, and the King is potent in his lust…”
Juno’s eyes flashed.
“…so my sisters say, my queen. He has not taken me to bed, nor would I go, for we are friends, you and I, are we not?”
Her voice softened.
“I have sat at your feet, and eaten from your hand. I live at your pleasure, and die at your command, and my queen has been most gracious not to seek my death. I would not risk such by bedding your lord and husband, though he grow angry with me, and threaten my life.
“So again, I would not lie to you; I did not see my king pass this way.”
Some of Juno’s steam began to dissipate as her gaze scanned helplessly around the woods; it seemed he’d eluded her once again, and her eyes began to shine with welling tears.
“Come, my friend,” Echo smiled, and held out her hand, “come smell the lilacs in full bloom. I will lace some through your hair, along with flowers of white and gold. We will look for them together, and when I am done, my King will be enchanted by you once more, and bring you his heart, cloven in repentance, for you and you alone.”
Juno sighed. “Oh, Echo. Dear, sweet, kind Echo, you are ever my solace, ever my friend.”
“I’ve no other desire, my Queen.”
Echo surreptitiously cast about for Time once more, but he was not present.
They spent the afternoon together, and Echo chattered away; her knowledge of the woods and all therein was extensive, her curiosity about matters royal always favored Juno’s views, and as the sun wheeled to the chariot house, they gathered the lilac, the yellow posy, blue periwinkle and daisy, and Echo wreathed them round, and crowned Juno, saying she was now a nymph, and had to stay in the forest where Echo could teach her all there was to know.
Juno laughed, and Echo laughed with her, not like her.
And so the afternoon went, until they came to a clearing, and sleeping by the base of a tree, was Jupiter.
Both women stopped in their tracks, and gazed upon the sleeping man, clothed only in a loincloth, his royal vestments left wherever the pool was that he’d indulged himself.
Juno turned to Echo, who in trying not to reveal anything, revealed her guilt.
Slowly, Juno took off the crown of flowers, and her arm flashed, and she caught the nymph across the cheek, knocking her to the ground in a spray of blood and blossoms, her dress now immodestly gathered about her as she scuttled along the ground as Juno bore down on her.
Then Juno stopped, remembering she was queen, and shuddered with unspent energy as she pointed at the nymph, her extended hand alight with power…
Echo closed her eyes, Time forgotten, reliving the horror of the day of Juno’s curse, unable to scream, or plead, or move, she lay like a newborn babe before a ravening wolf, and suddenly Juno shimmered, and stood still, immobile as Gorgons’ men, yet not of stone.
Time stepped from the woods, and at first Echo was uncomprehending; then she began to realize what had taken place, and slowly, she got to her feet, and walked over to him.
He’d aged more, his rounded frame now thinning, his beard, neat and trimmed, salt and pepper, was now ragged, stained and unkempt.
His eyes, sharp and keen when he sculpted (for she’d looked deep into them as he cut her out), were now almost rheumy to the point where she wondered if he was blind.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
“This is my gift to you,” his voice rasped in her ears.
“You’re giving me back my voice?” Her eyes welled up in wonder.
“It is better to die than to never speak your own words,” said Time.
Echo was overwhelmed.
“What will happen to them?” her gaze took in Juno and Jupiter.
“She will strike him with the bolt that’s meant for you, and he will lose his ability to charm your sisters to his bed.”
Echo ran to him, embraced him, ironically now speechless with gratitude.
She looked into his eyes, and saw the light go out; he was truly blind now.
Death had his shroud; he didn’t bother to tell her he would not make it back to save himself.
He’d answered her question now: Time could be killed or saved, redeemed or spent.
She found that she had a choice to make, and with her heart quailing inside her, she made it.
© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.
All rights reserved
We found a vacant flyer, white with red stripes. It looked like a flying candy cane.
“Me? Why me?”
“But you guys call me Ed.”
“It’s just a nickname.”
“I’ll change it officially before I ride in this; it’s ugly,” she said. “We’ll attract attention we don’t want, and people will make fun of us. Well, you.”
We waited until another one came in, dark blue, clean lines, driven by a bureaucratic drone, who looked us over as if we were beetles on a pincushion before wiping his travel program from the hologram key map.
She programmed the key with our map, and the flyer whirred to life.
“How’d you two meet?” Ed asked.
“Candace? I met her in high school.”
“I didn’t mean Candace.”
“If you don’t want to tell me, it’s okay.”
“I don’t. Not now.”
“You miss her, don’t you?”
“Now we’re talking about Candace?”
“Just making sure. Every day, Ed. They didn’t have to shoot up the neighborhood to find me.”
“They were sending you a message.”
“They killed my neighbors, innocent people. Children died. What was the message in that?”
She was quiet a moment, then she said “They’d do anything to anyone to get to you.”
“I didn’t consider myself that important.”
“Well, you were wrong.”
“No,” I said, struggling against the rise in my voice, “I wasn’t. They made me that important. It wasn’t the worth the show of violence and power. I’m going to find out who did it, and why, and then I’ll take care of it.”
“And after that?”
“I don’t expect to live ‘after that.’
“So how does Lliya fit in?”
“I’m going to ask for her help; the squad will be in Nanjasi looking for Steele’s key; it might be related, it might not. I don’t know what part I play; it seems pointless for them to go through all that and then summarily suspend me.
“Something’s going on, and since I don’t have the squad’s resources, I’m going to need Lliya.”
“Can you trust her?”
I chuckled with a grim humor. “In this context, I don’t know; I guess I’ll find out.”
What I’d loved about Candace was that she wasn’t part of any of this; there were times I wanted to include her, and sometimes I’d start to, but she’d put her finger to my lips to stop me; and she was right, because if she ever became a part of it, we were both in danger, and she was my refuge.
If I defiled her with my knowledge of the world’s maggot- filled underbelly, I’d have no place to go to get clean and sane again.
It was a quiet Sunday afternoon, and she was rubbing my shoulders, humming softly to herself.
“What’s that song?” I asked.
“I don’t know; I remember my mother humming it sometimes when she was in the kitchen.”
“She never told you what it was?”
“I never asked. Why?”
“I don’t know; just seemed to me you would know something about it.”
She stopped rubbing. “Why is it so important to you that I know about it?”
I shook my head, “It’s not, babe. Forget I said anything.”
She resumed. “It’s that mind of yours.” Her voice deepened, mocking me. ’All data must be analyzed and re-analyzed.’ Really Warren, it’s a pain in the anal-ize.”
“Ha, you have jokes.”
She sighed, “No, just one; a big one, right between my hands.”
I reached back and pulled her into my lap as she squealed and laughed.
“I’ll put a big one between your hands.”
She wriggled her rump on my lap, and her voice grew husky as she drew close.
“Oh, yeah? Big talk, big man. Back it up.”
“I think that’s your part,” I said, slipping my hand inside her blouse.
And then she kissed me, and time went away.
“Warr, you listening?”
“Put the shields on; it’s starting to rain.”
I put the shields on, and the rain slipped off around them, keeping thing visible.
The afternoon was turning into evening.
“You’re going to have to go pack for Nanjasi soon, right?”
“Not taking much. I’m a girl, but not a girly- girl, otherwise I would’ve flown in that candy cane and talked your ear off about how pretty it looked.”
“You thought it looked like a candy cane too?”
“Yep.” She pointed. “There’s her place,” she said. “No lights on.”
“You know her haunts.” Again, not a question.
“I doubt I know them all, but we’ll try what I know first.”
We split up; Ed walked one side of the street, and I walked the other.
It was dark when we finally found Lliya; she was in an aging bistro, peeling, spotted paint, dank upholstery, long past its prime, which made it great for clandestine meetings, and hiding. She was sipping something fancy and expensive from what looked like a ceramic thimble.
I signaled Ed, and she waved goodbye, mouthed the words, ‘Be careful,’ opened her coat like a flasher and smiled.
I returned it, shaking my head.
She closed the coat, turned up the collar against the drizzle, and started walking back.
I slid into the seat across from Lliya. She never looked up.
“Want a cup of this?”
“Does it come in a larger size?”
She shrugged. “What are you doing here?”
“Came to ask you a few questions.”
She sighed, looked up then. “I’ll save you the trouble: I didn’t set you up; you were happy with Candace, you were out of the life, you were out of mine, and I missed you, but not enough to do that.
“I don’t know why they took you, but if I had to guess, it was because out of all your squad, you’d worked everything. I don’t think sometimes you realize how long you’ve been at this.
“Surveillance, tech, infantry, sniper, impalement, martial arts; you’re a government agency wet dream. You’re not just a jack of all trades; you’re actually good at all of them.”
Kriley did say I was the best all around; still didn’t explain how I got caught.
“Any ideas who?”
“I know you’re thinking inside job; could be my people too. They didn’t send me after your squad. I came after you.”
“Why risk it, Lliya?”
“You’re an ass, Warr. Why do you think?”
“May I take your order sir?”
I’d been so focused on Lliya I didn’t see the waitress walk up.
“Is the food still good here?”
“They still have waitresses.”
“Something strong, with something broiled.”
The waitress smiled, her menu for savages at the ready: “Bourbon and steak?”
“I like you.”
“How do you want the steak?”
“Like a satisfied woman: well-done.”
Lliya sputtered out some of her droplet, and went into a coughing fit.
The waitress blushed and flounced away.
“My god, how did you ever get Candace to marry you with lines like that?”
“I didn’t use lines like that on Candace.”
She sobered. “I’m sorry, Warr. I didn’t mean…”
“S’okay, Lliya. Drop it. We’re good.”
She gave us a minute to make sure I meant it. I did.
“Listen to me, okay? She can’t be a distraction, and it’s my fault for bringing her up. You know how I feel about you, but we’re on opposite sides here. You had a choice to make, and you did, and I stayed away.
“It seems that circumstances are putting us back together, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. If it comes down to it, Warr, you know I’ll kill you, and I know you’ll kill me. We’ll hate it, and we’ll mourn inside, and move on, but there’s no question whether or not we’d carry it out.”
Her voice took on a note of wistfulness.
“That’s what would’ve made us great, but it’s also what makes us impossible.”
“Our devotion. It’s misdirected: it could’ve been for each other, but now it’s for what we do.”
“You didn’t have to be on the opposite side.”
“I didn’t choose it; I needed a job. We had history, and Kriley didn’t like it.”
“Sometimes I wish I had; he would’ve left us alone.”
I looked at her.
“No, he never made a pass. Seriously, could you imagine?”
“Anyway,” she finished the liquid in her thimble, “it doesn’t matter now, does it? What do you need from me?”
I sat back, breaking the intangible tension.
“Well you’re right; I’m thinking it was inside, I just don’t know if it’s mine or yours. If it’s mine, I need someone from the outside looking in. I want you to shadow me, see if anything looks out of the ordinary, anybody I can’t see.
“Steele Industries has their own trackers on me; they’re good, but not as good as you, and they’ll be gone with nothing to report in a few days.”
“Wouldn’t Ed be better for this?”
“Don’t know, because I can’t use her. And if it’s on my side that would tip them off that I knew, though Ed is hard to track, and I think she’d do it. Anyway, they’re going to Nanjasi without me. I’ve been suspended for getting caught; the suits at Steele say I’m a liability.”
“The suits at Steele are wrong.”
“Kriley tried to say that, but they weren’t interested. Will you do it?”
The waitress came back with the bourbon.
“Should you be drinking?”
“Question is, shouldn’t you?”
She considered it.
“What the hell.” With that, she answered both questions.
I poured some into her thimble, but she took the glass from my hand.
“On the rocks ruins it,” she said.
“I didn’t want you taking advantage of me.”
She smiled. “We both know I can do that whenever I want.”
I reached over and brushed a strand from her eyes, my thumb brushing her temple, and she wanted to lean into my hand, and I saw the effort not to; I put my hand back on the table, and it was a little colder where her cheek would’ve touched.
“That’s what would’ve made us great, but it’s also what makes us impossible.”
She lifted the glass in a silent toast, and I lifted the thimble, and we drank.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
March 3rd 2014
All rights reserved
My name is Warren, an unassuming name, but you’d be wrong to make assumptions: They call me Warr, because it’s all I’m good at making. And I’m really, really good.
1: The room was stifling, rank with the scent of tangy sweat. Flies crawled through my blood, biting, sipping, itching, but I couldn’t scratch with my hands tied behind my back. My lips and nose were swollen from the blows, and it was hard to breathe around the stifling, stinking gag to get air through my mouth.
The goon had his fingernails pressing into a leg wound, and I snarled, muffling through the gag, tensing against the bonds. “Tell us.” The goon pressed harder. I couldn’t help it, and cried out in pain. He let up, and the relative relief was welcome. We all sat breathing for a time. Sweat trickled into the wounds they’d inflicted, burning.
Telling began to seem like a good idea, but if I did, my squad was all dead, and I was hard pressed to believe these guys would really let me go. Goon took the gag off, looked in my eyes, and grabbed me by the neck, not squeezing, just holding it in his meaty, sweaty hand like a set of keys. The thin man sitting in the chair behind him cleaned his glasses on his tie, looking at me.
“I will ask you one more time. Your life is forfeit if you remain silent, and we will find your squad and kill them all the same.” Somehow, I managed to find a bubble of saliva to help me speak.
“Then why do you need me to tell you?” My voice croaked from my dry throat.
“To save us the time of searching, of course.” “Go to hell.” “You first.” The goon looked in my eyes and head butted me. The stars were beautiful, but the room went dark and I saw them fade like a child’s innocence.
2: When I woke up, the goon and the mastermind were on the floor, surrounded by areolas of blood, and in the chair sat the most lethal, beautiful woman I ever met, trimming her nails, expertly, with the point of a really big knife. Lliya, at times my nemesis, at others, my lover, and sometimes both simultaneously. I had no idea which one was going to kill me, and sometimes, I didn’t think I’d care.
The gag was out, but I was still tied up.
“Good morning, handsome.”
“Interesting. I thought you’d say ‘Thank you, gorgeous.’”
She stood, walked over to me; I actually felt a little sliver of fear. Looking into my eyes, she put her hand with cool fingers and light pressure, capable of anything, on my swollen cheek
“Thank you, gorgeous.”
She slinked behind me, untied my wrists, knelt, untied my ankles, her mouth close to my crotch, with a small smile on her lips.
She smiled up at me, undoing the last of the knots. Her smile dazzled, her eyes sparkled with erotic mischief.
“My dear Warr, you know I only keep you alive so I can kill you myself. But not like this. Not sporting, and all that crap.” “I agree.” She rubbed my wrists, bringing the stinging tingle of circulation back, then I took care of my ankles.
“Get up, darling.”
She wrinkled her nose. “You stink.”
“Yes, but not at my job.”
She looked back at the dead goon and the mastermind, then back at me, the point of her knife slowly twirling at the corner of her smirking mouth.
3: It took some time for the swelling to go down. Lliya tried to stay, but that was too volatile a situation. I still remember the kiss she gave me when she left.
Captain Kriley and some of the guys came to see me, debrief me over what the squad accomplished without me, and razzed me hard for getting caught, but praised me for not cracking under the beating I took.
“We’re gonna beat your ass for getting caught, but we’ll wait til you heal.”
“You had to go the bathroom again, didn’t you?”
“Your face still looks like a catcher’s mitt.”
And on it went. I tried not to laugh, because it hurt my ribs, but they had no mercy. Soon, Kriley dismissed them all, sat across from me all serious like.
“Yeah.” He sat back, steepled his hands, “I’m beginning to wonder if we should’ve recruited her instead.”
“Me too. She said I stunk at my job.”
“You did get caught.”
“First time, Captain.”
He unsteepled his hands, put them in his lap. “True, but sometimes, once is all you need. There’s guys don’t come back from once. You know that. So what should we do now?”
“Let me go after her.”
“What does she know, you need to go after her?”
“Nothing. I like the curve of her backside.”
“You can go all puppy-dog about it on your time. I’m not asking again.”
“She knows who’s behind the killing.”
“And you know this how? She told you?”
“She set it up.”
“And you know this how?”
“The little man in the wide tie told me. Somehow, she knew we were here, tipped him. I was blindsided,” I touched the swelling behind my ear, “and they got me. The rest of the squad went on without me.”
“Your feelings hurt?”
“Captain, I’m just running the facts by you.”
“Sorry. No more busting your chops. But those aren’t facts. Yet.”
I nodded. “If she knew we were here, how come she didn’t know where we went? She could’ve followed us herself and taken care of it. We never would’ve saw her, or known she was there.”
“Part of the reason I want to go after her.”
“She’s long gone, and we got better things to do.”
He let that sink in, then got up to leave. “Leave it alone, Warr. She’ll mess you up in the head, if she hasn’t already.”
That ship had sailed a long time ago, but I didn’t bother telling him that.
“Feel better,” he said, and walked out.
Maybe I should start at the beginning.
4: Flash! I remember glass breaking and the sound of copters, keen and fast, flying low over the neighborhood, and the sound of rapid shooting. Flash! My wife ran to the window to see what was happening.
Flash! In an instant she became a pile of molten skin, boiling blood, and bone shards, her head plopping on the bed beside me, looking at me with a question in her bloody, sightless eyes.
Flash! Men in black uniforms and helmets with black visors hitting me with sticks and boots and fists.
Flash! They carried me out, but as I was losing consciousness, I registered it all. People were screaming and running. The confusion was deliberate, and unnecessary. I would have gone quietly had they knocked. Women and children were lying prone in the streets, bleeding out, their husbands’ bodies vainly over them in a futile gesture of protection, family blood mingling in eternal rivulets of unison.
Flash! Tubes in and out, fluids flowing to and fro, in me, out of me, cycling through again, and men in white robes, outside of the plexiglass tank that contained me, talking in hushed tones about what I was to become. I heard them. Every word, but I never told them.
Flash! Tests, chemicals, more tests, more chemicals, straining against tight bonds, pushing, pushing, until they ripped free, and more men in black with sticks came for me. They say seven of them died before they found the tranquilizer that saw me behind thicker plexiglass. I had no idea where I was, or why. I had no clue why they wanted to turn me into a killing machine, but in the end now, it doesn’t matter. Now, they are the ones I hunt.
5: I’d lived in a quiet neighborhood, with good neighbors (mostly), and a good wife. We had no children, because I was mostly on the move, and never knew if I was coming home. I wouldn’t have liked it if Candace left, but I would have understood. She didn’t, and I loved her all the more for it.
We often went to the countryside on weekends, to a cabin I’d built there for us, our little hideaway, where we let ourselves air out the tensions of the week, and left our inhibitions in the car. I liked the mountains that took the sunset into their valleys, liked the silent, circling hawks, majestic in their flying, lethal in their descent. I liked the way the grass rippled like green water when the wind blew across it. I liked that Candace wanted to share it with me. I liked to think that we were happy, before she died.
And then, I didn’t think anymore, about anything that wasn’t my mission: find the insufferable bastards that blew her head off, or die trying.
Back on the job, still a little bruised up, but I was gonna hurt someone if I didn’t get out of that hospital bed. It was nothing a ballerina couldn’t endure. I was debriefed: we did not find what we were looking for, so we had to keep looking, except now it would involve traveling, which we all hated, so everyone was gonna have an attitude about finding it.
Kriley suspected that Llya tipped them off, but I knew it wasn’t the kind of thing she’d do, even though she lived to destroy us. Sometimes, even your enemies had codes of honor they wouldn’t break. And that meant that it was somewhere here, on the squad, working close, with access to plans and supplies, maps and computers, spy equipment, and weaponry.
It was shaping up to be a fun time.
I sighed, sipped coffee, looked at the clock, put the double frame pictures of Candice in the top drawer, sipped some more coffee, watched the clock some more, turning it over. Who could it be? Why would they do it? Money? Too simple, but simple may have been enough.
Revenge? Ambition? Jealousy? Too many questions would lead to me getting paranoid and shifty, and if someone else was thinking about this, I might be the one under scrutiny. I breathed deep to slow everything down, and reviewed what I knew of these guys in my head.
Kriley was by the book, and only by the book. His frustration with the job we did was mostly tied to the fact that everyone else, me included, was only loosely affiliated with the book. We cut corners and took shortcuts and risks, even when it came back to bite us. There wasn’t always time for the book, though Captain Kriley always insisted there was.
Colanto was stand-up too, but too eager to get home to his live-in girlfriend. If she was hoping for wife-hood, she’d be waiting forever. He tended to ditch overtime, and wouldn’t volunteer or take on extra if it wasn’t a direct order. He was a great shot though, and you could rely on him to take it when he needed to, and sometimes when he didn’t, just to expedite things. He was the obvious choice, and in this job, you never overlook the obvious, because very often, that’s what they wanted you to overlook.
Arlo was older, more settled, had seen his share of firefights, and knew what it took to survive. He was still rugged and broad, if a little more gray, but that only gave him more of an aura of authority, which he was not shy about wielding. I would be the most disappointed if it was Arlo who leaked.
Duncan, “Dark Horse” we called him, the quiet one, was the least likely. He never said much, didn’t seem to have a blink reflex, and had an unnerving intensity to be absolutely still, settling in like a big cat on the hunt, seemingly lifeless, blending in, until he was ready to strike.
The results were always lethal, and none of it fazed him. If it was him, he’d give me the most trouble, only because he was such an ex factor.
Lastly there was Eberdine, affectionately called Ed, the lone female on the squad.
She had cinnamon skin, sea-green eyes, and a body that promised heaven, and could send you there in a heartbeat with a blow, a blade, or a bullet to the temple.
She was the smallest, and perhaps, skill for skill, the most covert among us, hiding in places you wouldn’t think to look, coming back to you with information you swore was confidential, and knew there were no witnesses. She enjoyed it. “Keeps me sharp,” she always said. If she was the leak,
I was going to have a hard time catching her, and who knew how long that would take.
Tonight, He said, one of you will betray me. I learned that somewhere. It was heavy with foreshadow, simple and fearful, with a heartfelt agony of broken trust behind it, a sense of inevitability, and unmatched bravery in the way the victim stayed the course.
6: The conference room was big, manfully appointed, and too cold from the canned air that blew threw the inconspicuous vents overhead. The large monitor in the front of the room held the image of man with his face in deep shadow, track lighting glinting off the silver letters on the marbled black granite wall behind him:
“Were we compromised?” Shadow-face asked. “No sir,” Kriley answered. “Commander Warren didn’t break, but we didn’t find what we were looking for.”
He didn’t exactly throw me under the bus, he just kind of tossed me underhand. “Commander Warren. What have you to say for yourself?”
“I’m….sorry?” The squad chuckled, but Shadow-face wasn’t amused.
“Yes,” he said, “you are.”
That brought an even bigger chuckle; first Lliya, now Shadow-face. I had to learn not set myself up.
“The mission, sir?” Kriley said, mercifully switching the conversation back to its original purpose.
Shadow-face sat silently for a moment or two. “You will proceed to Nanjasi, sans Commander Warren.”
“He is suspended, effective immediately. He compromised the safety of the squad, and has become a liability.”
“But sir,” said Kriley, “he’s one of our best all around tactics operatives; I could really use him in the field. Would you reconsider, sir?”
“I already have,” said Shadow-face. “I was going to fire him, effective immediately. Meeting adjourned, Captain. You and the rest of the squad will leave for Nanjasi first light. Sans Commander Warren. “Am I clear?”
Kriley’s jaw twitched with the unsaid.
The monitor winked out. He looked at me. “You’re on vacation. Where will you go?”
“I’ve always wanted to see…Nanjasi.”
“You think this guy was born yesterday? He’s probably already got tails on you.” Kriley was right.
“And no,” he said, “you will not spot them, and no again, you will not shake them.” Right again.
“You done with your vote of confidence?”
I left, but I didn’t go home. Not right away. Not for awhile. I went to find Lliya, but I didn’t go after her. Not directly.
“Ed, where would a woman go if she didn’t want to be found?”
“Well, certainly not the bedroom.”
I flashed a phony smile, nodded. “Good. Now where?”
“Shopping, a chick flick, lesbo book store, feminist AA meeting. Why do you wanna know?”
“I’m looking for a woman.”
“Not in that way.” “Well, now I’m insulted.”
“Hey, you said not the bedroom…”
She arched a playful eyebrow: “It’s not the only room…”
“Come on, now.” I pleaded, chuckling.
“Okay, okay,” she was smiling herself. “She doesn’t want to be found?”
“Women don’t disappear not to be found; they wouldn’t go off to a cabin somewhere in East Loserville to get away from the Mister. They go somewhere to think, to calm down, to get past the emotions.”
“Where would that be?”
“A park, a coffee shop, somewhere public where she could be alone among people, because she’s afraid she’ll act out if she’s wrong upstairs. So there’s someone there to call for help.
“Indeed,” she said. “Glad to hear it. Know where to start?”
I thought about it.“No.”
“Should I come with? I’ll ditch you when we’ve found her.”
“Sure. Thanks. Why’s your name so damn weird?”
“I changed it to Eberdine. It was actually weirder.”
She laughed at my expression. “Let’s go find your killer girlfriend.”
“Well, when you put it that way…”
We walked, arm in arm, off to start my vacation, looking for a woman that didn’t want to be found.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
2014 All rights reserved