by Christine Morgan
firstname.lastname@example.org / www.christine-morgan.org
Part One – Spare Parts
It had been one fucking funny idea
of a joke.
His sister and her sense of humor.
All because he'd cracked smart one time too many about her other twisted habits. At least when he'd chosen to go cyber, it wasn't because of any perversion or kink. He'd seen actual benefits in it.
They had rebuilt him. Stronger. Faster. Better than before.
Uh-oh, better not even think that or someone would smack him down with a lawsuit. Not that they'd get much. He could barely scrape together the cash to keep himself in oil, Ensure, and anti-freeze.
That was one of just many little side-effects the Frankensteins at Xanatos' creature-shop hadn't fully explained. When he and Hyena had noticed it – their bodies' odd new digestive requirements – they'd been told in the smarmiest of fashions that they should have read the contract.
Fine print. Gets you every time.
And where was his darling sister now? Off somewhere with a high-paying gig, thriving on danger, a globe-trotting assassin. The few times he'd tried to contact her, thinking that there might be something in it for him, she'd brushed him off. Didn't need him anymore, she said. Didn't need anybody.
Jackal made a whirring sound of disgust. The sick bitch. She'd gotten her revenge for all his remarks about her so-called relationship with the Coyote robot. Where and how she'd gotten hold of that behavior chip, he had no idea. Had she been sidelining with the Coalition even then? Or had it just been another prank from the adolescent idiots employed by Xanatos?
His face, what of it remained flesh around the metal plating, burned with the recollection. A stripper. A stripper, for shit's sake! Bumping and grinding – literally, with his gears – on a stage to the tune of "Mr. Roboto." Night after humiliating night. Drunken bimbos waving bills at him. How Hyena must have laughed.
He could hear her laugh, as clearly as if she was right here with him. That shrill, grating screech that had been like a rusty nail even before she'd had her upgrade. This was the thanks he got for sticking with her all those years. It had been the two of them against the world. Ditched by their parents and left to fend for themselves on the streets. Punks. Pickpockets. Thieves. When the heat got too hot, they'd move on, and eventually ended up in Tinsel Town.
That was the sort of thing that should have formed a lifelong bond. They were twins! They'd gotten a lucky break, made it into show biz, become stars! For a brief time, anyway. Stars! Maybe not top-billed, maybe having to play third and fourth banana to Fox and Wolf, but things had finally been going their way. They had the perfect cover for their life of crime. As television crime-fighters, how about that?
And then that had all gone to hell, too. Thanks to Xanatos and his obsession with the gargoyles. Thanks to Fox and her obsession with Xanatos. All of them in jail, and when the chips were down, Fox had abandoned them without so much as a look back. She'd gone as legit as someone like her could. Even Dingo, of all people, had turned over a new leaf.
Wolf, though, had stayed true to himself. Okay, so it had gotten him killed, but …
And Jackal? Once his darling sister had decided he was holding her back, she'd stuck him with that behavior chip and seen to it that he was installed as a stripper in some damned all-male revue.
Ironically, he owed his freedom to the gargoyles. But, since he also owed the loss of about two yards' worth of telescopic supple steel erection to the gargoyles, he was hardly inclined to be charitable. He winced as he relived the moment when Angela's claws had sheared him off, leaving him a mere twelve inches.
And never mind that it was still seven inches more than he'd had to start with, never mind that he'd been throttling that bitch Fox with it at the time. It was the principle of the thing!
The attack had left him a sparking, smoldering, short-circuited and deprogrammed mess. It was years before he'd regained enough of his memory to figure out what went in those puzzling blank spots.
The club's owner, a scary transvestite, hadn't known what to do with him. He … or she … or it … must somehow have thought that he/she/it was going to get hit with the shitstorm for having something like Jackal around.
So, to get rid of the evidence, the insensate cyborg had ended up nailed in a crate and sent UPS back to Xanatos with no return address.
But someone had screwed up the delivery. Lost him.
Xantares was where he'd finally ended up. It was the name of a comic book store, game shop and video arcade in lower Manhattan. The shithead who ran the place realized right away that Jackal wasn't the full-sized, free-standing animatronic robot he'd ordered for his window display.
As it turned out, the freak was into comic books, Star Trek, anime, online arguments over whether Xena or Buffy would be better in bed, and collecting badly drawn pictures of cartoon girls in poses that Walt Disney surely never would have considered.
He was also a huge fan of the Pack. Had life sized cardboard cut-outs of all five of them. Every episode on videotape – including, to Jackal's horror, a bootleg of the never-released musical hour-long special in which the Pack saved Christmas from evil North Pole elf ninjas. The short-lived run of Pack Attack graphic novels. Action figures. Trading cards. Programs from PacKon I and PacKon II, neither of which had been able to afford any of the main actors as guests, but the freak did have an autographed photo of the guy who'd played Dragon Master Alpha in the episode Howling Mad.
So, naturally, the last thing he was about to do was turn Jackal over to anybody. Oh, no. No way. Not when he had the ultimate collectible. He repaired enough of the damage to get Jackal's systems back up and running, disabled the really dangerous ones, figured out the necessary liquid diet, and Jackal spent the years since semi-comatose in a triple-thick Lexan box in the back room.
Where the freak charged like-minded freaks an invitational-basis-only twenty bucks a pop to come in and gawk at him.
They all said what a great robot it was, where had the freak gotten it, Universal Studios? Yeah, the freak replied, from the Pack Attack ride that had been hastily closed after that whole mess with the Pack really turning out to be master criminals.
Ten years. Ten goddamn years Jackal had been the star attraction of this fat freak's pathetic collection. Unable to communicate. Isolated in his systems-shutdown imposed autism. He could hear, could perceive, but couldn't respond. He was a vegetable … a tinned vegetable.
Not that he'd really wanted to respond. Not to these people. No way, no thanks.
His onboard wireless computer link-up had been slow in bringing itself back online, but once it had, he'd been able to catch up on news, popular culture, and everything else that had taken place while he'd been out of it.
Then, last week, the girl had shown up.
It was a rare enough occasion for Jackal to rouse himself somewhat from his angry lethargy.
He hadn't seen many females set foot in the shop. Maybe a dozen in seven years, and most of those had been sublimely bored, rolling their eyes and nagging their boyfriends to hurry up and let's go, let's get out of here, this place stinks like gym socks and stale Doritos. Of the others, there had been a couple skanky Goth chicks, either way too fat or way too thin but with the same miserable-lunatic eyes and the ladder-marks of practice scars on their wrists.
This girl, though, hadn't fit either type. She was small but tough-looking, with a brown ponytail threaded through the back of a BoSox cap and a compact little body with oil-stained, work-roughened hands. She said she'd heard the freak had a robot. Bulled her way into the back room over the freak's protests – not paying her twenty bucks, either – and done a double-take when she saw Jackal in his Lexan box.
The freak had hustled her out of there, probably more by his body odor than by any of his blustering threats. But the girl had thrown a quick, calculating look over her shoulder. Something in that look had both unnerved and interested Jackal.
That night Jackal sat in his box. The lights in the shop were out, the doors locked, the alarm system on, and the freak had retired to his upstairs apartment. The smell of pizza and the sound of girlish voices dubbed into English – "Ooh, don't get too close, Mina, you don't know what those tentacles might do!" – floated down.
The girl, yeah, the girl had gotten him thinking. She hadn't been fooled. She knew who he was, what he was. He didn't know her, had never seen her before, but there was an opportunity here. He was sure of it.
What kind of opportunity, he didn't know. Didn't much care, when you got right down to it. He'd stooped to some pretty mercenary lows in his time. And it wasn't like he owed fuck-all to the freak who ran the store. A steady supply of Ensure and motor oil didn't buy much loyalty. Hell, even as a stripper, he'd earned wages plus tips and gotten to cop some feels on the side.
She'd come back the next day, though she didn't get into the back room that time. Jackal could hear her haranguing the freak. Threatening him. Saying that he had stolen property back there, and did he want a visit from the cops? Did he want a visit from the rightful owner? She knew people, she had connections.
Rightful owner. That rankled like nobody's business.
But the freak, though sounding shaken, didn't give in. He told her that the back room was off-limits, that she'd been trespassing yesterday, that she was lucky he didn't call the cops. That he had the right to refuse service to anybody he damn well pleased, and he wanted her out of his shop.
Who was she? Jackal wondered as he mechanically sipped his can of Ensure. The bland taste – it didn't matter if it was vanilla, chocolate, or even the rare foray into something trendy like mocha-java, it still tasted like chalky milk blended with crap – barely registered. He felt more awake and aware than he had since the last time he'd recharged by plugging into a wall socket.
No more of that, though … the electric recharge had been to power his onboard weaponry, which the freak had been careful to disable. Didn't want his prize possession slicing through the Lexan with a circular saw, or burning through it with lasers.
The days were always long, but this one lasted forever.
So did the next one, and the one after that.
He'd reached the point where he wouldn't even have minded seeing Xanatos' smug face come through the door. At least it would be a change! At least it'd get him out of this fucking box! He'd sign anything. Screw the fine print. Just let him out of here!
But the girl must have been bluffing after all. No cops. No 'rightful owner.' Not even that bland prick Owen Burnett with an army of lawyers at his back.
Jackal sank into a brooding depression. It would have lifted in a flash if he'd been able to kill somebody. Anybody, though his first choice would have been the freak. He entertained himself by trying to think of ways to do it, ways that he hadn't already contemplated lovingly and at length over his captivity.
His systems were self-repairing, that was the thing. They'd taken a serious beating, but recovery however slow was better late than never. He'd tested his limbs when he was sure he was alone, and though sluggish and leaden, they did move.
He thought that, given a few hours and the right set of tools, he might even be able to re-route his weapon circuitry. There was nothing to be done about the missing pieces – what had Angela done with six feet of flexible chromatic dick anyway, taken it as a damn trophy? – but everything else seemed in working order.
The freak spent those few days as nervous as a kid on his first foray to buy beer with a fake ID. He sweated buckets. Probably lost ten pounds from the jitters, which didn't do much to improve the overall atmosphere of the shop.
He talked with his closest … well, Jackal didn't think 'friends' was exactly the right word … with some of the other hopeless losers who hung around the place the most. They suggested moving the box to another location. But, ha-ha on you, fellas, outsmarted yourselves there! The box was too big to move without at least partially disassembling it.
Jackal hoped they'd try. Would they ever be in for a surprise! But the freak was too paranoid. Didn't want Jackal to escape. Didn't want anyone to see and wonder what they were up to, carting something that size down a garbage-strewn alleyway.
"My uncle's got a truck," one of the losers offered. "We back it up to the door, and if anybody asks, we're moving a display case."
"But then where do we put him?" whined the freak. "I've got an investment, here!"
Which was a laugh. He hadn't paid a dime except to construct the Lexan prison, and keep Jackal in nutrients and lubricants. The viewing fees over the years had to have more than made up for any expenses.
"Well, shit, we can't lug that box up to your apartment, and if we could, there's no room for it anyway. There's barely room for you, lard-butt." This from a guy so pale and so scrawny that he looked like an albino stick-bug in a Matrix tee shirt.
"And we'd still have to take the box apart." The speaker eyeballed Jackal in a way that made him feel like cold spiders were scurrying over him. "What if he's more with it than he seems, huh?"
Any of these losers looked like the type who might have been expelled from high school for keeping a "kill list" of the popular boys and girls. This one, with his flat, dead eyes, looked like the only one who ever would have had the balls to act on those impulses.
Jackal had tried to keep his expressions and reactions in check over the years. He didn't want them to ever suspect that he was in fact more 'with it' than he let on. Biding his time was a new thing for Jackal, who had spent most of his life acting first and thinking later.
Witness the business in the pyramid, for example. The notion had popped into his head to shove the Emir out of the way and let the Anubis-spirit take him instead, though he hadn't had the slightest fucking idea what it would do to him. Didn't matter. It was a jackal, it was the jackal, God of the Dead, not too shabby. Shame it hadn't worked out.
But now, for the first time, everything might really depend on subtlety. The old Jackal, and Hyena in any incarnation, would have laughed their asses off. Subtle? Them? Since when?
Since he'd ended up in this damned box!
He fought now to avoid showing any sort of clue that he might be listening to the conversation, or conscious of anything around him. The creepy guy was still staring at him, though. Eyes tight, suspicious. The kind of face that would have looked right at home squinting down the sight of a sniper rifle, or planting a bomb under the bleachers at the Homecoming game.
"He's not," the freak said, arming another freshet of sweat off his pimply forehead. "Told you. He's burnt out. Scrap metal. Brain fried."
"So you say."
"Yeah, so I say."
"Who is this chick, anyway?" the guy with the killer's eyes asked.
"Hell if I know," the freak said.
"Some butch little lesbo," the albino stick-bug said. "I asked her if she wanted to go out, maybe get a burger, and she just laughed."
"Might've had more to do with you being a dickless wonder," scoffed killer-eyes.
"You'd like that, I bet."
"Hey, come off it," the freak protested. "I don't know who she is. Never saw her before. Mouthy, pushy brat, that's all I know. Why?"
"I'm thinking," said the guy with the killer's eyes, "that we could be going about this all wrong. She's the problem, right? Not the Tin Man over there. You're worried about what she'll do."
It didn't seem physically possible for the freak to break out in any more of a sweat, but he managed. They'd need a mop in here soon, if such a thing even existed in this dingy pit. "You … what are you getting at?"
"We make sure she can't cause you any trouble, that's all."
"I don't like this," the fourth kid in the room said, and this one was literally a kid.
Thirteen, if he was a day. Dressed up like Harry-fucking-Potter in a robe with a red and gold badge on the chest and black-rimmed glasses and a temporary lightning-bolt tattoo. Not a bad likeness according to Jackal's files, except that he was pretty sure the boy-wizard wonder was supposed to have black hair and this kid was a carrot-top.
"Who the fuck asked you?" killer-eyes said.
"Look, forget it, okay?" The freak was breathing hard, like he was going to have a stroke or something. Jackal silently rooted for it. "She's not going to try anything. I'm … overreacting, that's all."
"Being paranoid doesn't mean that they aren't out to get you," albino stick-bug said.
They argued it back and forth for another hour, until the Harry Potter wanna-be reminded them that it was almost time for the new episode of Star Trek: Galaxia, and they trooped into the other room. Their conversation changed on the way to lewd speculations as to what sort of costume the Romulan priestess would be painted or shoehorned into this week.
The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Jackal only had the vaguest idea how much time had gone by, but geeks were still geeks.
He wondered, and not for the first time, what they'd do if they knew he had gotten his senses back. The idea was horrible on many levels.
The freak wouldn't let him go, that was for sure. Instead, he'd be more likely to pepper Jackal with the inane sort of questions that only the truly whacked-out nutball fans of the show would think up. Questions about continuity between episodes, stuff that the damned writers didn't even really stop to think about, let alone the actors. Wanting there to be a logical explanation for it all. Like everything was meticulously planned out in advance.
And it wasn't like Jackal could convincingly argue for his own rights. The best he could hope for was to be turned in for his various outstanding warrants. Or to end up back in Xanatos' clutches. Neither of those prospects filled him with enthusiasm.
In the other room, the familiar musical score swelled into a dramatic crescendo. It was loud enough to mask the sudden clack of a lock-release gun from ordinary ears, but to Jackal's supersonic hearing, the noise was as loud as an oak plank falling on a hardwood floor.
The alley door inched open, admitting an oily, garbagey draft.
Also admitting the girl.
Tough cookie. Brave. He credited her with being clever enough to time her breaking-and-entering so it was unlikely she'd be caught in the act. Freak and friends would be glued to the tube for the next commercial-free hour.
But Jackal still had to question her smarts. If they caught her, it wasn't going to be pretty. And what did she think she could do, anyway? The back door there was a narrow afterthought that would barely let the freak pass through without sucking in, and there was no physical way for her to abscond with the Lexan box. Not alone, not even if she'd brought a whole team of similarly tough, brave, and clever cookies.
She slipped in, wearing a zippered navy blue coverall with yellow piping, high-top sneakers, and the BoSox cap. A tool kit swung at her side and she wore the lock-release gun holstered like a six-shooter, balanced on the other hip by something that looked like a souped-up taser.
Who the holy blue hell was this girl?
Seeing that the coast was relatively clear, she trundled in a collapsible dolly, and parked it next to the Lexan box. She examined the slot in the bottom, through which the freak slid the trays containing Jackal's meals, the screened aperture through which the freak sprayed him down with a solution of hot water and WD-40, and the place where the drain connected to the floor. She then moved to the hinges, oiled them, and studied the padlocked latches.
He thought she might pop them with the lock-release gun, too, but she surprised him by affixing a small wad of white putty to the hasps. A brief puff of smoke, and hey, presto! She undid the padlocks and carefully set them aside. For the first time in he didn't know how long, the side of the box opened.
Here, she froze and waited, one hand on the taser, face grim under the shadow of the cap's bill.
"Captain Sinclair," purred the sultry voice of the Romulan priestess, "I had no idea this was permitted by your prime directive."
Wrinkling her nose, the girl stepped up to the opening and surveyed Jackal, chewing her lip as if trying to figure out the next step.
The swiveling of his red optic receptor in its gold-plated chromatic case caught her attention. He saw it dawn on her. The realization that he could see her, too. That he wasn't some inert piece of machinery.
"You're awake," she said. "You're real."
Jackal didn't answer. He hadn't spoken in so long that he wasn't a hundred percent sure that he could answer. He settled for a curt nod.
This fact apparently changed things. The girl drew back, thinking fast. It was almost funny to see. Her mission had gone from theft to either a rescue or a kidnapping, depending on your point of view, and all at once she didn't seem to know what to make of any of it.
He tested his limbs and found that they moved, though stiffly. While the girl stood there in indecision, he thrust his legs out and wobbled to his feet.
"This isn't how it was supposed to be," she muttered under her breath.
Insert wry, witty remark here, thought Jackal. He still didn't trust his voice. It might come out too loud, alert the freak. He took an experimental step and nearly went flat on his ass.
The girl caught him – she was stronger than she looked, but even so it was a close contest. "Sit down there," she said, pointing to the dolly.
With her help, he was able to lower himself onto the dolly without too much noise. She put the tool kit beside him and hurried the dolly out into the alley.
As his first glimpse of the outside world and open sky in almost a decade, it left something to be desired. He had a view of a thin slice of night between tall, dingy, graffiti-covered buildings, rusty fire escapes, and window boxes where brown leaves straggled. A dumpster overflowed trash bags and yellowed newspapers onto the pavement. A slat-skinny orange cat hissed at them.
There was a beat-to-shit pickup truck in the alley, with a camper cap and cleaner patches on the sides where he guessed that magnetic signs advertising a business would go. When the girl opened the back and helped him in, he found the signs. Colson Brothers Automotive Supply and Repair, they read, over a phone number and website address too scuffed and smudged for him to read.
What the fuck, he wasn't picky.
He got in amid spare parts that looked like they'd been scavenged from a demolition derby. The girl heaved the dolly and took kit in with him. She closed up the back, returned to the rear of Xantares long enough to re-lock the door, and then went around to the driver's side. Nobody else was waiting up front.
The truck might have looked like a piece of crap, but its engine hummed into smooth and powerful life. It drove like a dream. He started to feel better about all this. Whoever she was, she either was or knew one hell of a mechanic. Maybe she could fix him up, and …
And then what?
Never mind, it didn't matter. One thing at a time. The big picture had never been less important.
The windows in the camper cap were very dark, but his full-spectrum senses showed him a city that hadn't changed much. It was still all sirens and horns and yelling and cursing, punctuated by the occasional gunshot or scream.
Ah, New York.
But … what was this? What the hell was this?
Ah, New Jersey?
Fuck! Fuck on toast! She was taking him through the tunnel to the Jersey shore. A double-claustrophobia set in – the camper cap, the arched tile roof of the tunnel. It lasted forever before they finally emerged, and then Jackal lost his bearings completely. His GPS fed him info that meant precisely doodly-squat.
The truck jounced as it left the paved roadways in favor of some sort of gravel track. It jounced over ruts and potholes. Everything in the rear, Jackal included, shook and rattled with a metallic cacophony.
His senses picked up the screeching of gulls, the low hoot of tugboat horns, the rending crunch of metal in a crusher, the smells of rust and axle grease and burning tires. Somewhere, a dog that sounded roughly the size of the Hound of the fucking Baskervilles bellowed endless throaty barks.
A junkyard. He knew it without even levering himself up enough to peer through the dingy window.
The truck paused. Jackal detected an electronic signal, then heard the rumble of an automatic garage door going up. The truck rolled on, into cavernous darkness. It stopped. The door rumbled shut, cutting off the cries of the gulls. The barking of the huge dog became a distant, steady dirge.
Moments later, the girl popped open the rear hatch and looked warily in at Jackal. He returned it, not without some wariness himself. He hadn't much cared for the sounds of that car-crusher. Though why, if someone meant to destroy him, they'd bring him all the way to fucking Jersey … that was beyond him.
"Can you get out of there?" she asked.
He had to crawl, but he made it. Upright again, he looked around.
The interior of the building was all beams and shelves and oil-stained concrete floor. The cleanest area was full of an array of machinery and parts that he couldn't make immediate sense of. Looked like a mad inventor's workshop. The rest of the crap was conventional – junked cars, racks of tools, a grease gun, lifters, lights, coveralls on hooks, heavy welding visors.
"Who are you?" His voice was a rusty squeal.
The girl gulped. Took a deep breath. "I'm K.C.," she said. "K.C. Colson."
His files came up empty. A quick web-search brought him an outdated page for Colson Brothers Automotive, with an address he guessed went with his new surroundings. But the site had last been updated in 2004. He tried her name, and reeled as information flooded his brain.
Now the machinery over in that clean part made sense. Now he understood what those crazy contraptions were. One was a low-slung metal wedge with twin toothy sawblades jutting from the top and a pair of insectile pincers sticking out the back, and "Scarab 2" painted along the sides in raked-back lettering. Another looked like a miniature titanium forklift with dual CO2 canisters, and "3-2-1-Liftoff" beneath a logo of a rocket ship. A third was a hemispherical dome with an antenna rising from its top – the antenna sported a flag that read "Killer Vortex" – and lengths of weighted chain attached around its rim at intervals.
K.C. Colson, one of the rising young stars on the robotic combat circuit. Hell, he'd known about that particular sport/hobby even before his imprisonment, thanks in large part to Hyena's sick interests. Only his sister would have pin-ups of Schwarzenegger-as-Terminator and former world BattleBots champ Vlad the Impaler right alongside her Boris Vallejo beefcake-of-the-month calendar.
Jackal felt a chill that had nothing to do with the admittedly drafty interior of the garage. Maybe he'd never been a whiz in school, but he could put two and two together with the best of them.
"Huh-unh," he said. "Thanks for the rescue and all, toots, but I'm out of here."
It would have been a much better exit line if his legs hadn't chosen that moment to lock up. His step turned into a gantrylike totter. Pinwheeling his arms, Jackal fell headlong into a stack of tires.
He both heard and felt a magnetic clunk. A tingling jolt seized him in a spasm, then passed. He realized that he was sprawled in an undignified position, with the girl standing over him holding a small device that looked like a remote control.
"It's a cybernetic inhibitor," she said, and damned if the little bitch didn't almost sound apologetic. "Scrambles the signals between your organic brain and your inorganic components."
Luckily, his mouth was mostly organic. "What the hell are you up to, as if I didn't know?"
"I need your weapon systems."
"Hey, I wasn't counting on you being conscious!"
"Well, I am." He felt like a horse's ass, still laying on his face in the litter of tires.
"I thought you were … you know, fzzzt."
"No such luck."
She looked honestly distressed, but Jackal wasn't surprised to find that he could dredge up zero sympathy. After all, he was the one she was talking about cannibalizing for parts. Weapon systems, yeah, so she could build her a better bot and finally land one of the top spots in the field instead of always coming in third or fourth.
"Maybe we can work out some sort of deal," she said.
"No deal. You take me apart, sweetheart, and it's murder. Maybe I don't exactly look it, but I'm still human in here."
"Well, as human as you ever were," came another voice. A boy's voice. The redheaded kid in the Harry Potter get-up strolled into Jackal's limited field of vision.
Circuits spun in Jackal's head. How the hell …? The girl had been alone in the truck, he was sure of that. And this kid wasn't old enough to drive. And how had he gotten in without Jackal hearing any doors open?
"But let's face it, Jackal," he went on, smiling an eerily familiar smile. "Even before your upgrade, you were a soulless animal."
"Alex, what's going on?" K.C. demanded. "He wasn't supposed to be awake."
"An unexpected development, to be sure," the kid said.
Alex … red hair … that smile … that smug inflection …
"You're the Xanatos brat!" Jackal blurted.
The boy doffed an imaginary hat and bowed, sweeping his black robes around his legs. "At your service."
"I mean, I know I wanted better weaponry for my 'bots," K.C. said – she was older than the brat by ten or twelve years, but deferred to him like he was the elder of the two. "But … taking them out of a living being is … kind of creepy."
"Nobody's taking anything out of me," Jackal said.
"Big talk." Alex Xanatos' eyes twinkled. "Considering that you can't even move."
"Does your daddy know what you're up to?"
"Why? Planning to tattle on me? I'm sure he'd be very interested to hear from you, Jackal, after all this time."
"Alex, I said –"
"K.C., look, this doesn't change anything. You wanted access to experimental weapons prototypes. Here they are."
"Yeah, but …"
"We had a deal," Alex said. "I provide the cash and the components –" he waved at the prone, helpless Jackal. "You build and drive the 'bot. We both get what we want."
"Some smart plan," Jackal said. "Cannibalize me for parts, is that it? And you think nobody's going to notice? None of the judges, or the other builders and drivers? Weapons this sophisticated?"
"Aren't we full of ourselves," Alex said, rolling his eyes. "Maybe you were state of the art ten years ago, Jackal, but you're an antique now. You should see what my father's people have worked up back in the labs."
"Why me, then?" he shot back. "Why not go right for the top of the line? Why waste your time on a relic like me?"
"You know how my dear papa is," Alex said. "He does love his secrets, his possessiveness, his jealousy. Sure, maybe he'd do it for me, his priceless and precious son and heir, but he'd ask me all these questions and pry into my business. And if Mom got wind of it, well, she'd say I wasn't being brotherly. That I should let it go."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Jackal said.
"Something I think you'd understand. Sibling rivalry."
K.C., meanwhile, had been pacing. "Alex, maybe this really isn't such a good idea. Maybe we should reconsider."
"You want the top 'bot, don't you?"
"You want to show them that it doesn't matter if you're a woman, you can still build and drive better than any of them, don't you? All those years of having them talk down to you and exclude you. Having to put up with their jokes, their come-ons, their put-downs."
She nodded, a light burning in her eyes.
"I know you can do this, K.C.," Alex said. "I want to see you put them all in their place. After everything you've put into it … the time, the money, the blood and sweat and tears … you deserve it, K.C. You deserve to be world champ. I want to see you knock T.J. out of the top spot. But I'm telling you, it's not going to happen without an extra edge. He's got an edge. Boy, does he ever! One that nobody else can compete with, not on ordinary terms. If they knew what he was, what he could do, they'd never allow him in an official match."
Jackal was beyond confused. He scanned his files again and came up blank again. Nothing about Fox and Xanatos having another kid. Just the one, Alexander, the most spoiled little rich boy in the entire country, if not the world. What he was doing here, in some run-down garage on the Jersey shore … sibling rivalry? What the hell was that all about?
He cross-referenced the name "T.J." with the information he'd already dug up on K.C. Colson, and got a big red bingo. T.J. Lawton, heir and CEO to the Cyberbiotics corporation, five-times robotic combat world champion.
But … hadn't Cyberbiotics belonged to Halcyon Renard? And wasn't Halcyon Renard Fox's father? Yeah, that was right. Jackal and Hyena had done some freelance mercenary work for Renard. It hadn't gone as planned, but that was hardly their fault, was it? Another failure to lay at the oversized taloned feet of the gargoyles.
Renard had been in the news a lot over the past few years. Back in 2001 or so, he'd made medical history when some sort of rejuvenation experiment had gotten him out of the wheelchair that had housed his wasting cadaver since the 1970's. He'd enjoyed several years of relatively good health before suffering a fatal stroke in 2007. The funeral had been front-page stuff all the way, the future of the company in doubt, the … the reading of the will …
The reading of the will! Right! Jackal remembered now. Instead of leaving it all to his only daughter, thereby combining the Cyberbiotics and Xanatos Enterprises fortunes into a mega-billions monopoly to which this Alex kid would have been the sole heir, Renard had written Fox out of his will. In favor of the then-unknown T.J. Lawton, whom he claimed was his grandson.
Seems like Fox had been getting a little more than acting auditions back in Hollywood all those years ago! Or maybe it had been a casting-couch kind of thing.
The rationale, which had been explained following the funeral by a deeply shaken Preston Vogel, was that since one of his grandsons was already due to inherit a substantial fortune, Renard had decided to even things out between them by leaving his money to the other one.
Sibling rivalry, indeed.
If he hadn't been in such dire straits, Jackal almost could have grinned. So, the special little prince didn't get everything his way after all, it seemed. Even Alexander Xanatos, the boy who had everything, got jealous. Over something as stupid and insignificant as this.
"That's pretty damn pathetic when you stop to think about it," Jackal said. "With everything you've got. Money, power, gargoyles … but you get your undies in a twist because your bastard big brother is king shit of the remote control killer robots."
"It isn't that," Alex said, but he bristled, and Jackal was privately sure that the nail had gotten hit right on the head.
"You Xanatoses … have to be first … have to think you're so much better than everyone else."
"I am better!" the boy wonder shouted. As he took a step toward Jackal – lying at this angle, the kid looked nine feet tall – a blue-green lightning flickered over his face. It formed a weird fox-head shape, like his mother's tattoo but around both eyes. "And not just because I'm a Xanatos! I'm heir to Avalon! Me!"
Whatever the fuck that meant. Jackal did his best to grin, though he was spooked, and badly spooked. That hadn't been any electronic effect. That had been something a whole lot freakier. "Sure, kid. Sure you are."
K.C. backed off, her gaze switching back and forth like a trapped thing. She hefted a wrench like she had self-defense on the brain. "Hey, Alex … mellow, huh?"
Alexander got himself under control with a visible effort. The St. Elmo's Fire winked out, leaving only the troubled eyes of any teen, looking coldly down at Jackal.
"You shut up," he said, his lower lip stuck out in a sullen pout. "Nobody asked you, anyway. You're property, that's all."
"Stolen property," Jackal said.
"Bet your dad would have something to say about that."
"He isn't going to know. No one is going to know. Just me, and K.C."
"Oh, so that's it," Jackal said. "It's enough for you to see your brother beaten, whether he knows you had anything to do with it or not? You just can't let anyone else be good at something, can you, kid? I bet you tried, too. I bet you can't steer an RC car, let alone handle a 'bot in a fight. And it just burns your ass that he can, doesn't it?"
"I said, shut up!" The kid's hand flashed out in a pinching gesture, and bands of force flew from his fingers. Jackal could see them on a wavelength not visible to the human eye, and he could sure feel them as they formed a vise-like clamp over his mouth.
"Mmmf!" he said through his nose.
"Alex, I really think we better forget this whole thing," K.C. said.
"No," Alex said. "We're going to stick to the plan. Don't let him get to you."
"But what about your dad? Technically, those cybernetics still are his property. I don't want to get in trouble."
"Let me deal with that, if it happens. You just do what you do best."
He waved, and Jackal tried to shout as he felt more bands of force – magic, it had to be magic, since he wasn't getting any tech readings – wrapped around his body and lifted him from the pile of old tires. The garage revolved around him as Alex floated him to a long workbench, and lowered him onto it. Jackal had time to see a row of tools laid out with surgical precision. Drills, circular saws, pliers, an acetylene torch.
"You're sure?" K.C. asked.
"Okay, but …"
"Don't you believe in Ultibot?"
"You know I do!"
"And don't you want to see the looks on their faces when you go through the entire competition lineup like a whirlwind?"
"Want to put T.J. in his place and bring home the reward?"
"Yeah, I do, I really do, Alex."
"Then let's get to it."
She slipped a heavy apron over her coveralls and donned a welder's mask. "Still, I mean, cutting into him while he's alive, while he can talk …"
"It won't hurt him. You're just removing the cybernetics. I'll take care of the rest of him."
"What do you mean by that?" she asked, mirroring a panic that Jackal shared. "Take care of him?"
"I mean take care of him," Alex said. "What did you think I meant, kill him?"
"Jeez, K.C. Give me some credit. I'm not a murderer."
"What will happen to him, though? When we remove the cybernetics? Look at the diagnostic specs, Alex. The wiring goes all through him."
"So there won't be much left. A one-eyed torso. He'll survive."
"It seems cruel."
"But think," he said, eyes alight with a devilish gleam, "of the weaponry, K.C. Of a 'bot like no other. Of the trophy!"
A hesitant smile replaced the girl's dubious frown. "A 'bot like no other."
"Okay, Alex. Okay." She picked up a drill.
Jackal tried to scream, tried to fight his way free, but the bonds that held him to the table and secured his mouth shut were stronger than any chains. He heard the high-pitched whine of the drill getting up to speed, felt the whisper of its breeze as K.C. lowered it toward his head.
"That was amazing. Seriously amazing."
He meant it. The admiration in his voice was totally sincere.
No hint of sore-loserdom, either. Or envy, or pique.
"Um … thanks," K.C. said.
She shifted the trophy to her other arm. It was a heavy thing, a Dali-esque conglomeration of bolts, springs, and screws all fused together, gold-plated, and mounted on a hexagonal base of black-enameled titanium. With her now-freed right hand, she awkwardly accepted T.J.'s handshake.
"One fantastic 'bot," he said. "How'd you do it?"
"Well, you know," she said. Feeling all flustered. Was she blushing? Was that going to show up on the cameras? "We've all got our secrets."
"Isn't that the truth," he said, and laughed.
"Mr. Lawton, if you're quite finished here –"
"What's the hurry?" T.J. asked, barely glancing at the other man.
K.C. couldn't help taking a bit longer of a glance. Talk about looking out of place. Three-piece suit, black as an undertaker's, with a wine-red tie impeccably knotted. Perfectly groomed silver-black hair. Ice-blue eyes behind archaic steel-rimmed spectacles. Ramrod straight posture and expression as white and impassive as that of a marble bust.
The contrast between Vogel and his employer was nothing short of jarring. T.J., whom K.C. had never seen up this close, might have been the second-richest man in the country, but he sure didn't dress the part.
His jeans looked like they'd been dragged from California to New York behind a semi, and his tee shirt was so smudged with oily handprints that the Cyberbiotics logo was all but obscured. A toolbelt rode as easily on his trim hips as a gunbelt might have on a gunslinger of the old west. His reddish-brown hair was long, tied back with a rawhide cord. He needed a shave … or maybe he didn't. Maybe that scruffy look was just right for him.
What in the world was she thinking?
Confetti and balloons rained down on them, and the crowd in the stands was still cheering, roaring, clapping. Below in the arena, T.J.'s assistants were hoisting the still-smoking wreckage of his 'bot out of the Pit of Defeat, while Ultibot sat proudly in the Victor's Circle.
"Give it up for the world champion, Ultibot!" the emcee crowed in a delirious good humor.
It had come down to the two of them in the finals. She had watched T.J.'s every match like a hawk and still couldn't figure out exactly how he did it. He drove like he was one with his machine. If not for the slight edge given to her by her new and improved enhanced weaponry, and that one lucky break at a crucial moment ...
"So, where's the party?" T.J. asked.
"Victory party. You are having one, aren't you?"
"I … hadn't thought that far ahead."
"No plans, then?"
"I guess not."
"How about dinner?"
She looked at him, startled. "Dinner?"
"But I just … aren't you …?"
"Mad?" He laughed. "Are you kidding me? After a great fight like that, how could I be mad? Hey, right now I'm just trying to figure out how to hire you onto my team."
"Did we learn something tonight?"
She ruffled his hair, something she hadn't done in ages. He started to twist away, then resigned himself to it with a sigh.
"I wanted him to be mad," he said.
"I know, honey."
"How come he never gets mad, Mom? I mean, never! I've got you and Dad, I've got my magic, I've got Patricia, I've got the clan, I've got everything! Why isn't he jealous of me?"
"Why does it matter so much?" She smiled impishly at him. "Everyone else in the world is, aren't they?"
"It's not the same."
"And think about it, Alex. He doesn't know you were behind this. He doesn't know you helped K.C. out."
"You think I should tell him?" he asked hopefully. "You think that'd do the trick?"
"No, honey. I think you should just let it go. It's enough to be who you are. You don't have to rub his nose in it. After all, you are brothers."
"Sort of," she said, and chuckled. "Close enough from where I'm sitting."
"Was I a real boogersnot?"
"Yes, Alexander, you were."
He mulled it over. "Yeah. I guess I was."
"But, if you look at it another way, you did a very nice thing here."
"I did? What?"
Fox pointed to the television, a hail of confetti swirling around K.C. and T.J. "I have to say, I was beginning to wonder if he'd ever find the right person. But, thanks to you and your interference, Alex, I think that maybe he finally has."
Part Two – Renewal
She was poised above him, her weight
taken by the smooth strength of her calves and her balance maintained by
her tail as, with excruciating slowness she lowered her body onto his.
The mist coated her golden skin, lending it the hue and texture of some
exotic rain-forest flower. Her white hair fell in damp ringlets. Her eyes
simmered with the ruby-red of her growing passion.
He rumbled in his throat at the sensation of being taken completely into her warmth. His head pressed into the soft loamy floor as his hips pushed up, seeking to seat his length more fully into her.
Delilah's claws dug into the soft nap of his chest fur. She sped up her pace, long legs flexing and relaxing. He reached for the golden glory of her breasts, so full, the rosy nipples drawn into hard little peaks from excitement. When he touched them, she fanned her wings to half-extension, and the tip of her tail crept along the inside of his thigh.
Her scent was all around him, musk and damp leather and the exotic tang of humanity. He breathed deeply of it, nostrils flaring.
Their rhythm lost its smoothness as she began to buck and writhe and twist atop him, grinding her loins down onto his, urging him to respond with harder and wilder thrusts. Her tail slid higher, curled, and his bestial roar mingled with her keening cry as they shuddered together in climax.
When the last of the tremors had faded, Delilah folded herself gracefully down onto his chest and rested her head on his shoulder. She purred as his large, furry hand stroked her back, and her wings lay over them both like a cape.
Samson burrowed his face into her hair and held her close. Almost twenty years they'd been together, and he still couldn't believe his incredible good luck. To be here, with a woman like this in his arms … it was beyond any dream.
Then again, to be alive at all was beyond any dream.
By rights, he should have been dead long ago. Dead before he'd ever truly had a chance to live. As a teenager, he had had his share of fantasies, but in his case he had never truly expected to have a chance to live out even the most mundane of them. If someone had told him he'd end up here …
It was even worth having to share.
He told himself not to think about it. If he thought about it, he might ask. And if he asked, Delilah would answer. She'd tell him the truth, simply because it would never occur to her to lie.
Enough to know that she loved him. If she cared for Hudson, too, well, that was only reasonable and natural. Hudson was the father of her children. Her hatchlings. She was mostly gargoyle, with a bit of human DNA. Not half-and-half like Elektra, or Amber. While he, Samson, was part human and part australopithicus.
They wouldn't have been genetically compatible, not without complicated test-tube manipulation. There would have been no way of knowing what that would do to any theoretical offspring. It wasn't worth the risk.
He remembered how she had come to him, tearful, the results of the genetic workup in hand. Dr. Masters had been as gentle as he could in breaking the news, but she had so hoped for hatchlings. And he'd wanted her to have them. Never mind if they were his or not.
So, with his blessing, she'd gone to Hudson. The gargoyle elder had been the only unattached male in Goliath's clan, and Delilah hadn't felt right about turning to her fellow clones. They were more like her brothers, and her kid brothers at that, their mental and emotional development lagging behind hers.
Samson tried to look at it the most positive possible way. He admired Hudson, and thought that it was only fair Hudson should have a chance to pass his genes down to the next generation. The only concern had been whether or not the elder was still virile enough to get the job done.
Talk about your unfounded worries! Delilah hadn't told him the details, but something had certainly worked. She'd broken all known clan records by laying an unheard-of four eggs in a single breeding season. Was it any wonder that Hudson had gone around with a certain swagger thereafter?
But it hadn't been until the hatching that the rest of the clan realized what had happened. Until then, they must have just thought that Samson was responsible. That notion had been disabused when Aramis simply burst out of his shell, and the dual row of nubs poking through the fine buff-colored down of his hair had proclaimed his parentage for all to see. He and his brothers were the closest things to triplets that the clan had ever known, and their sister D'Artagna turned out to be the very image of Delilah in miniature.
Samson didn't see them often, the hatchlings. They lived at the castle, in the rookery with their extended family of siblings. It was the way Delilah wanted it, and he didn't blame her. The Labyrinth had become a sadder place after Maggie died.
Sad or not, it was his home. He had spent years getting his room just the way he liked it. Though underground, in the warren of tunnels and catacombs beneath the city, it was a convincing illusion of a redwood forest.
The walls were painted with eye-fooling murals that stretched away in false perspective. Fake tree-trunks rose from the spongy floor toward a vaulted ceiling, where another mural gave the impression of towering height. Realistic moss, ferns and bushes made up the rest of the foliage. Hidden misters and air circulators kept the atmosphere continually cool and damp, and hidden speakers provided a soundtrack of wind sighing through the boughs, the distant noise of the surf, and the rustle and call of unseen animals and birds.
His bed, where he now lay with Delilah cuddled comfortably on his chest, was a sunken pit of fragrant moss. A stump within easy reach served as a tabletop, where he'd placed a dish of fruit and nuts. He cracked a walnut in his broad, flat teeth and plucked the meat out, feeding it to Delilah. She smiled and snuggled against him.
"Don't fall asleep there," he murmured. "It'll be dawn soon."
"Spoil the sport," she said, and stretched from head to tail-tip in a way that tempted him all over again. But they didn't have time, and he knew from past experience how awkward it was to be caught in a compromising position with a gargoyle when the sun came up.
He settled for squeezing her admirably firm rump and kissing her on the ear. She retaliated with a suggestive coiling of her tail, but Samson laughed and shook his head and sat up. Delilah rested for a moment on his lap, then arose. How he loved to watch her, the fluid movements as she got into her clothes – the only thing better was watching the fluid movements as she got out of them.
"I am being at the castle tonight," she said.
Perfect command of English was something she had never quite mastered, but he didn't mind. It was cute, the way she talked. Everybody thought so, and he suspected that was why Delilah had never applied herself all that diligently to correcting her speech.
"Yes, I know," he said.
"You are being welcome to come," she said. "Always welcome."
"And be the only one without wings?" he joked.
He had lived up there for a few years, after the Quarrymen had attacked the Labyrinth and killed five innocent people, and Elisa Maza had convinced her brother that the mutates' presence there would be a magnet for more such trouble later on. And the castle residents had been a great help later, after Maggie's death, when the twins needed more care and attention than their distraught father could provide. But living there there had never really been comfortable for the mutates; Samson's body seemed designed for roaming great distances, such as the vast network of tunnels in the underground Labyrinth, and he'd often felt cramped within the confines of the castle. And Talon just had too many hard feelings for Xanatos, even after all these years. Eventually, and for the best, they'd come back to their real home. Talon, the twins, Claw, Samson, and Delilah. They'd lost Fang to treachery, the clones to Demona, and Maggie to Devil's Night. The rest of them had clung to each other like living life rafts.
Now, though, Samson thought that they were drifting apart. Claw had never been right in the head, and a fight with Jericho had left him in a coma. He'd been revived by one of those psychic kids Ebon and Gabriel had rescued from the Institute, a little boy named Julian, but even healed, he'd been melancholy, right up until the day that he'd just vanished, leaving only a crudely written note that asked them not to worry about him; they hadn't heard from or of him ever since. Talon's mood swung between gloomy and angry, though he tried to be the best parent that Tom and Dee could wish. The twins were willful teenagers, testing their limits and planning for a future that had nothing to do with living in the sewers.
And with Delilah spending five or six nights a week up at the castle …
Dressed, she checked the clock and stepped up onto the perch he'd had made just for her. Putting her on a pedestal, he teased. When she turned to stone, she looked like the statue of some Amazonian goddess, the kind of thing that a treasure-hunter might discover while exploring the uncharted wilds in search of a fabled lost city.
Samson gnawed an apple down to the core and then went to the corner of the room, where cleverly-designed plumbing made a shower that looked like a cascade falling into a clear forest pool. He washed, then spent an hour grooming the dark-brown fur that covered his entire body.
He was left with a huge wad of it caught in the teeth of the comb. Frowning, he studied all that he could see of himself. No bald patches, but the fur did seem thinner. And it was the wrong time of year for it. He was used to his coat fluctuating in the summer and winter months.
It was probably nothing.
Samson woke to pain so great that
at first all he could do was lie there on the floor of his makeshift forest
and wait to see if he was going to die.
It ate into his joints like acid. When he tried to move, the acid turned to white-hot flame. He gritted his teeth but that was no good – even his teeth hurt! The pressure in his jaw was agony.
A mewling noise escaped him. No one was there to hear. The recorded wind, waves, and birdsong continued, undisturbed.
Looking down at himself, he was shocked to see great drifts of hair outlining the place where he lay. His skin showed through in patches. He looked … threadbare. Like he was molting.
He forced himself to sit up, and leaned against the stump with his breath ripping in and out of his lungs like barbed wire. Just that simple effort left him weak and trembling, and feeling like he was about to throw up. His mouth was dry, his tongue parched. His lips were split, and stung when he moved them.
What was this? He'd been feeling under the weather for a few days now, but this was … this was …
This was familiar.
Too familiar, and, he'd thought, long behind him.
"No," Samson moaned. "No, it can't be, please, oh, no!"
Pain in his joints. Like a rusty hacksaw. His arms and legs wanted to contort into a defensive fetal position. His knuckles and wrists looked bunched, strange.
He had felt this way before, but not for almost twenty years. Not since his madman of a father had saved him. Kidnapped him, killed his mother, injected him against his will and with no explanation … but saved him.
The disease had come on him very young, a crippling bone cancer for which there had been no cure, no treatment. His life had been a fog of medication that could only take the jagged edge off the pain that had tried to consume his entire body. Every movement was torture, every dream a mockery.
Samuel, as he'd been known then, had wanted to die. What was the good of being kept alive in such a state? He had even discussed it with his mother and stepfather, and the three of them had agreed. A final trip to Disneyland, and then they would help him end it. They might go to jail for it, but both of them had been willing to make that sacrifice to let Samuel finally be at peace.
And then along had come his birth father, whom Samuel hadn't seen in years and had only the barest memories of. Anton Sevarius had stolen him from the Happiest Place on Earth, determined to save his life at any cost.
His desperate act had worked … but now the pain was back. Digging into Samson like fishhooks, like cruel nails. Eating at him.
He heard himself panting, sounding like an animal caught in a vicious steel trap. Everything else was pushed out of his mind by one driving thought. To see his father. To get an answer.
Samson made it to the door. Here, his redwood paradise ended and the true nature of the Labyrinth became clear. Dreary concrete, pipes, drains in the floor, stark lighting from florescent tubes, living areas made homey as possible by cast-off furniture and donations.
The denizens of the undercity were homeless people given a safe haven by Talon, a home where no one was subject to shakedowns and assaults. They were cleaner than many street people, better fed, and their eyes did not have the look of dull hopelessness. There were fewer alcoholics here, fewer crazies, more families. The children went to school, and the adults held what jobs they could, and meals were often a communal event.
As Samson lurched past, they stared at him but no one dared approach. He was a fixture down here, a known friend, a jovial giant who always had time to play with the kids, but today, no one went near him. He became aware that he was groaning with every step, and shedding more fur, and dragging himself along like a zombie.
"Samson!" Talon hurried up to him, stopped just short of touching him. "You look … what's the matter?"
"Have to … get … castle," he panted. "See … Sevarius."
The wrong thing to say. A dark look filled Talon's panther-gold eyes. But Samson didn't care. He could see Dee and Tom, the former all long thin cheetah-legs, the latter just growing into a broad set of shoulders, rushing toward him.
"Sevarius!" snarled Talon.
"Something … something's wrong with me."
"I'll go get him, Dad," Dee volunteered.
"But, Dad, we have to –"
"We'll take him. All three of us. Tom, get the van."
"I get to drive!" the boy crowed.
"Why do you always get to drive?" his sister demanded. "I'll race you for it! First one there can drive!"
She was off like a shot, wings tucked flat and head held low as she streaked off into the shadowy passageways. Tom roared indignation and took off after her, but his stockier body was no match for her speed.
Samson saw all this, but it went skating across the surface of his mind without leaving any impression. He was being eaten alive by the pain, as if his own bones had grown jaws to bite, to rend. His legs buckled and he would have pitched face-first to the concrete if Talon hadn't caught him. The fresh burst of agony at being touched was bad, but falling would have been worse.
"What is it?" Talon asked. "What did he do to you?"
"Not … not that … haven't seen him … need to … need help."
"Come on." Slinging one of Samson's arms around his neck, Talon proceeded to nearly carry him toward the underground parking area. A few of the Labyrinth dwellers ventured cautiously near. "LeRoy, call my sister Elisa. Her private number. Tell her we're bringing Samson to the castle, and that son of a bitch Sevarius better be ready give us some answers."
The twins were fighting when Talon and Samson reached the van. Tom had the keys, and Dee was leaping up as he held them over her head.
"No fair, Tom, I was here first!"
"Both of you, in the back," barked their father. "Fold down the seats. He'll need to lie down. I want you to make sure he doesn't roll around. I'll drive."
Dee made a disgusted sound, but they both sprang to obey. Within minutes – though to Samson it seemed like it took them all day – they had folded down the seats and gotten him arranged in the back of the van. Talon climbed behind the wheel. The vehicle got moving with a jolt that drew a strangled moan from him. Tom and Dee knelt over him, both looking awfully young and unsure.
"Is he going to die?" Tom asked.
"Don't even say that!" Dee shot back.
"But look at him."
Samson could see his ghostly reflection in the window-glass, and didn't blame Tom for his skepticism. His face was gaunt, his eyes huge and hollow. Their normal green-gold color was milky, clouded. A sticky pus ran from the corners of his eyes. His cheekbones, brow and chin looked too prominent, as if the skin had pulled drum-tight.
The powerful muscles that had been such a welcome change now hung from his bones like heavy dough. His arms had contracted, bending up against his chest so that his gnarled and lumpy hands were cradled against his sternum. He could feel the rapid skittering thump of his heart. His knees were bent, too, and before long he'd be folded into a fetal position. His shoulders had hunched up against his ears and his chin was tucked down to his collarbones.
His only clear thought was to be glad it was daylight. Glad that Delilah, who was up at the castle, would be deep in stone sleep and unable to see him like this.
Everything went grey for a while after that. The next thing he knew, the side door was open and he heard Elisa Maza's aghast voice, asking Talon what had happened. Samson opened one eye with difficulty and saw her, Elisa, who sounded so like Delilah and even looked a little bit like her, thanks to Thailog's cosmetic DNA tinkering. She had probably been asleep. Her grey-streaked black hair was disheveled and she was in sweats. But her eyes were sharp and alert.
"We don't know," Talon said. "Only that he's in terrible pain."
"I can see that much for myself."
"What about Sevarius?"
"She's waiting in one of the labs."
Elisa beckoned, and a couple of flunkies appeared with a gurney. They transferred Samson to it with a minimum of jostling, but it still felt as if his bones were broken glass being ground to shards inside him.
"She … shit, I am never going to get used to that," Talon muttered.
The elevator rose so fast that the humans winced as their ears popped from the pressure change. Samson, with his larger sinus passages, wasn't bothered by things like that. Of course, even if he had been, it would have been overwhelmed by the larger and more immediate torment of his limbs and joints.
Maybe it was the beast in him that let him withdraw from the pain. Maybe a strictly human being couldn't do it. He'd never been able to before. But as the numbers on the display panel changed, Samson found himself floating away.
Or maybe he was just dying.
He felt detached from himself, though still aware as they rolled him down a well-lit hall and into a large room full of woefully familiar medical equipment. In the middle of it all was a wheelchair-bound figure who bore no resemblance to anyone Samson had ever been.
The figure was a woman of Indian descent, once beautiful but now wizened and shrunken like something unearthed from a millennia-old tomb. A crone, a hag, with lank yellowish-ivory-grey hair and one side of her disfigured face clenched into a knot. Her sticklike limbs were encased in a light but strong framework of metal alloys that allowed her to rise and walk like a department store mannequin brought to a strange half-life. She wore a blindingly white lab coat.
A nylon cervical collar held her head upright, and set into its base was a speaker that translated the inarticulate garble of her slurred speech into coldly robotic but clear words.
"Put him on the table and get out of my way."
"What's the matter with him?" Talon asked, not giving ground. His scent was suddenly sharp with fear – he never showed it, and would have hated it had he known that Samson could smell it on him. "Damn you, Sevarius, if this is some plot of yours –"
"Spare me the theatrics," the woman said. "I've done nothing to him. Apart, that is, from the original modification."
"Like that wasn't enough," Elisa said, glowering.
"He'd be dust in his grave by now if I hadn't." A cool stab as a needle slid in, and Sevarius hung a bag of some sort of liquid on a rack over Samson's left arm.
Sevarius preferred to go by his original name, though this body his brilliant, demented mind now inhabited had been born under the moniker of Sabra Indrani. The essence of Ms. Indrani, in turn, had jumped ship for the android gargoyle Godiva fifteen years before and was currently living it up as the nation's premiere sexpot. She owned a casino in Las Vegas, and last Christmas had performed the hottest-yet rendition of "Santa, Baby" in front of a stunned assembly of world leaders.
"Now, did you come here to nag me or let me work?" Sevarius added.
The brittle hands moved slowly but deliberately, affixing electrodes and other sensors to Samson's body. The hair loss had accelerated to the point that no shaving was necessary.
"If this is your idea of planned obsolescence, or insurance," Talon grumbled, allowing Elisa to lead him out of the way. "I'm going to –"
"Kill me?" Sevarius inquired. "What, again?"
"No brain tape this time."
"True, true. But I would have thought you'd learn by now, my dear Talon, that you'll never be rid of Anton Sevarius that easily."
Elisa made a face. "Yeah, yeah, the clone ranger, we know all about it."
"It appears that the degenerative bone disease was only knocked into remission by the mutagenic process," Sevarius said, examining the readout screen. "A lengthy remission, granted, but the cancer cells were not entirely eradicated and they have begun an accelerated recurrence. A last dash, as it were. And as a result, his body is rejecting the supplemental genetic material."
"The Bigfoot genes," Talon said.
"Yes, yes, if you must, the Bigfoot genes," Sevarius said. He gave Elisa a sour look. "Do you remember all those years ago when I petitioned our noble, ever-so-generous employer to allow me to pursue research into the healing powers of young Julian?"
"Yeah, and he told you to shove it," Elisa said. "He knew you were only interested in it for yourself, for that body."
"Small-minded buffoons," sniffed Sevarius. "If I had that information now, or access to the source, we wouldn't be having this problem."
"Well, we don't," Elisa said. "So it's a moot point, isn't it?"
"Absolutely. I only wanted to make sure I got my chance to say I told you so."
"What does this mean, you're going to stand here and let him die because Xanatos got in your way fifteen years ago?" Talon's fur bristled, and little sparks of static electricity snapped from his fingertips.
"If you can't get that under control, you're going to have to leave this room," Sevarius said. "There's sensitive equipment in here. And no, I have no intention of letting him die. He is, need I remind you, my son."
Samson did have to acknowledge that analgesics had leapt forward in the years since he'd last experienced this degree of pain. Whatever was in the IV that trickled into his veins had reduced the bone-sawing broken glass agony to a low throb. He felt pleasantly drowsy, though still wide awake. It was as if his mind was a helium balloon, attached by a swaying tether to the rest of him.
He floated that way for an unknown
length of time, aware of periods of relative clarity and periods of dark
blankness. Of important discussions, and decisions being made around him.
Of Delilah, his beautiful golden angel, hovering over him and telling him that she would always love him, always, no matter what. Of her lifting her children one by one so that he could see their dear little faces, and D'Artagna poking him in the eye with one inquisitive finger.
Of threats and harsh words.
If you blow this, Sevarius, I'll …
Trust you as far as I can throw a piano, Sevarius …
Hunt you to the ends of the earth if we have to …
And then a long and dreamless silence.
When sensation returned, confusion
came with it.
And the argument was still going on.
No, this was a different argument. An unknown voice insisted, "Hey, these are the coordinates, the ones you gave me, anyway."
"Are you suggesting that my memory is at fault here?" came Sevarius' icy reply. "I am telling you, this is the wrong place."
"This is where you told me to come."
"But there's nothing here! Where is the installation? The research facility?"
"Maybe you did remember wrong –"
"How dare you!"
"Look, lady, I just work here."
"A situation which can be adjusted," Sevarius said.
The scents … the sounds …
Samson opened his eyes. He was on his back, and when his initial efforts to move proved fruitless he understood that he was strapped in place. The curved roof and overhead luggage compartments told him he was in a small plane, the monitoring medical equipment around him told him that he was still all wired up. But the door was open, and through it he could see the most wonderful shades of green …
He breathed in. The air was cool and moist, foggy, tinged with salt and rich earth and dense vegetation.
This was the world he'd tried to duplicate in his chamber in the Labyrinth, and seeing it now only made him realize what a poor imitation it had been.
"There should be," Sevarius was saying in the loud and slow tones reserved for speaking with foreigners and fools, "a research facility."
"I brought you where you told me to bring you," the pilot responded. "But there's nothing here. You must have given me the wrong coordinates."
"I tell you, I did no such thing."
Familiar. It was all so familiar …
Yes, this was the place. He could feel it. A calling to him, a calling in his bones, in his blood. He wanted to pull out the wires and the needles and answer that call.
He had been here before. The trees. The mountains. The cave. This was where it had been done. Where his father had saved his life, at the cost of his essential humanity. But that was all right. He had never really blamed Sevarius for it, not like Talon and the other mutates had.
Outside the plane, his father was rapidly losing what fragile hold he had on his temper. He was ranting to the pilot, who was becoming more defensive in return, and if Sevarius had been a man or even a whole woman instead of a withered husk in a mechanized exoskeleton, Samson thought that the pilot might well have thrown a punch.
The pain still lurked, but the thrill of being here made it seem less important. Samson wanted to walk in the woods, wanted to feel genuine earth between his wide, splayed toes. He wanted to drink from a free-flowing stream, and burrow out a cozy den.
Sevarius stalked back into the plane and saw Samson's open eyes. Half of her mouth twisted in what was probably meant to be a smile, but looked more like a grimace.
"It'll be a while longer, I'm afraid," she said. "This idiot that Xanatos hired can't follow a simple set of coordinates."
"No," Samson said. "This is right. This is the place."
"You're very ill," his father told him dismissively. "But don't let it trouble you. I'll soon have this sorted out."
She got out a wireless laptop and was soon scrolling through menus. "All right, this isn't funny. What have they done? It should be right here, should be listed right here. Let's see what the 'search' function has to say. No matches found? How can there be no matches found? If nothing else, all of my original notes should be on here …"
"It's gone," Samson said.
"Rubbish. They think they're so clever … all right, forget the proper classification term. I'll type in 'Bigfoot' and see what I get."
Her fingers clattered briefly on the keyboard. The computer beeped.
Samson barely listened to his father's mutterings. He could hear the living forest. It was … like music. Like singing. A low and haunting song. Like the communication of whales. Eerie. Calling to him.
His kind. That was what he was hearing. His own kind.
"I do not believe this!" Sevarius said, banging her fist on the curved wall. It must have hurt, but she showed no indication. "That's my research, damn them! Damn them! If they think they can get away with this …"
Singing to him. Inviting him.
The pilot poked his head in. "We were lucky this clearing was big enough to land in –"
"That's because, you imbecile, it used to be a landing strip!"
"And we've got plenty of room to take off, but if we don't get going soon, we'll be spending the night here. The solar cells aren't collecting well with this cloud cover. It'll leach off whatever energy we've got left to keep all your equipment running all night."
"We aren't going anywhere. Not without a fresh source of australopithicus DNA."
"Bigfoot" Sevarius nearly shrieked. "All right? Bigfoot, Bigfoot, fucking Bigfoot! The missing link!"
The pilot recoiled. "I thought there was no such thing."
"No such …" Sevarius sputtered, then thrust a shaking stick of a finger at Samson. "Then what is he? Well, if you're so smart? Explain that. I happen to know for a fact that there are such things, because otherwise I would have had the very devil of a time grafting their genetic material into my son!"
"I thought he was a bear-mutate or something."
"You what? You thought?" Sevarius threw her hands skyward. "Will wonders never cease! Behold, verily the lame shall walk, the blind shall see, and the idiotic shall think!"
"You are nuts, aren't you?"
"Oh, and who was it that advanced that theory? The good Ms. Maza? Her ungrateful brother? My ungrateful brother? Or is it just general company scuttlebutt?"
"Okay, we're getting out of here."
"The hell we are."
"Hey," the pilot said. "I don't want this guy's death on my conscience, no matter what he is."
"His life, his death, and what he is are my responsibility, not yours. You'll do as you're told. And I'm telling you that we are not leaving until we've either found the facility, or gotten some other access to the material that I need."
"Yes, if you like, Bigfoot DNA."
"But there is nothing here," the pilot said, and now he was using that slow, careful, overly loud speech.
"Don't you take that tone with me, young man."
Samson let his mind float away again. He wanted to follow the singing. It was … eerie, yes, eerie … but beautiful.
How much of it was dream? How much
of it was real?
He didn't know.
What mattered was that the pain was gone.
Not just at low ebb. Entirely gone.
His limbs felt straight and strong. His joints moved without so much as a twinge.
More, it was as though a clear mountain stream flowed through him. Refreshing. Renewing. Washing away every ache, every sorrow, every misery.
The singing permeated him. It was honey and sweet berry juice and water so cold, so clean, that it purified everything that it touched.
Samson felt warm, soft hands on him. Soothing hands. Unfamiliar but soothing. Not the clinical, evaluating hands of his father in any guise. Not the loving three-fingered hands of his dear Delilah. Stranger-hands, but gentle. Soothing.
At one point it seemed to him that he looked up into green-gold eyes, into a face of dark skin and lush dark-brown hair. Or was it his own face? His reflection? No … the features were not his own.
A voice spoke to him, and though he did not know the words, he understood.
Rest … rest. All will be well. Rest.
Technically, it was beyond her
jurisdiction. Technically, it was something for the county sheriff's office
But Hippolyta had never been much of a one for technicalities. Besides, she could get there far easier than any deputies could. They'd have to get a helicopter, and expend valuable resources on what might turn out to be nothing.
Or it might turn out to be something.
There hadn't been any flight plans submitted for the area. That usually meant someone up to no good. The legalization of marijuana in the state of California had been welcomed with open arms by the many and various growers in the Emerald Triangle, but it had brought problems of a new sort. Now that anyone could grow their own, those who'd depended on the illegal income had turned to other sources. Ones that were nowhere near as benign.
Sometimes, those people tried a little private-plane smuggling. Sometimes, they ran into bad luck. The air currents along this stretch of the coast, between the shore and the mountains, were tricky. Even Hippolyta, who had spent years mastering them and had a gargoyle's innate sense of flight, was occasionally fooled. An inexperienced pilot could easily encounter problems.
And a drug-running pilot unfortunate enough to make an emergency or crash landing in her territory … well, those kinds of people often found that their troubles were only just beginning.
She banked on a steep updraft, the night mist whipping apart on the leading edges of her wings. The moon was high enough to let her pick out details of the landscape, the fog having not yet thickened enough to obscure her vision.
It was a relief, too, to get away from Trinity Bay. The town was in the middle of planning a celebration in honor of the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of its founding. Bay Days 1865-2015, and there would be historic tours of the mill and the old homes of the logging barons, a museum exhibit set up in the town hall showcasing photographs and artifacts from a century and half ago, a week-long festival of local music and dramatics, bake sales, craft sales, and a carnival set up in the school parking lot. The members of the Historical Society expected upwards of ten thousand visitors over the week.
One headache after another for the police department, and most of all for their celebrity chief of police. She knew that her lofty title really was an honorific only. She couldn't function as a real chief, not when she spent the daylight hours perched atop the town hall in a warrior's stance and frozen in stone. Nyx Dansbourne really served as the chief in that regard, attending what meetings and business needed an official presence.
But by night, Hippolyta devoted herself entirely to the town and its surrounding area. This was her home, the community that had embraced her even before gargoyles became truly popular. They had taken her in, welcomed her, and if her methods were unorthodox-bordering-on-vigilantism, well, most of the time they welcomed that, too.
She spotted a glint of silvery fuselage. So it was true … they did have a downed plane.
The initial report had come in a few days ago, and it had been queer enough to get her attention. A strangely-worded thing, that report. Requesting that agencies in the northern California region please be alert for any unidentified aircraft in the vicinity, and to render what assistance the passengers might require, but nothing about the type of aircraft, the business of the passengers, or anything specific.
Then, yesterday, a para-glider called in to say he'd seen something. So, here she was.
And here it was. A small plane, but a fancy one. With vertical take-off and landing capabilities. No private little puddle-jumper, this. It could have been a scaled-down version of a corporate jet.
Not crashed, either. Intact, with no damage to the surrounding landscape that she could see.
Hippolyta circled, alert for any signs of danger or signals for help.
The plane merely sat there. As if it had landed and everyone aboard had disembarked and gone on a picnic.
She glided lower, checking that her bow and arrows were within convenient reach in case it should turn out to be some sort of trap. She knew that she was none too popular with the criminal element within her protectorate. There weren't many of them, but she'd been shot at more than once.
No hail of gunfire. No voices. Nothing.
But here was something amiss … the plane's side door was standing wide open. And here was something else … a crumpled whiteness that could have been a sheet.
Lower still, and an errant breeze wafted up to her with the smell of decomposition.
Perhaps not a picnic then, after all.
She backwinged and landed on top of the downed plane, bow drawn and arrow nocked. She had a gun, of course, every police officer was issued one, but she still favored her old standby. It was far simpler to incapacitate without killing, if that was her goal, with an arrow rather than a bullet. Bullets tended to be so nasty! Even a shot to the leg could blow the limb apart and result in death from shock and blood loss. Arrows avoided that mess, and if she did need to kill, a shot to the heart always did the trick.
The source of the smell became apparent. A body lay at the edge of the clearing where the plane had landed. Thick shrubs had concealed it from above, and on closer inspection she saw that it looked to have been hurriedly, and only partially, buried. As if someone had done a haphazard job of kicking loose dirt over the corpse.
Adult male. In a flight suit, with goggles on a strap hanging around his neck. He'd been dead for several days, approximately since the time that the odd little request had come over the wires. About the time that someone had realized that the plane had gone missing?
Hippolyta was no forensics expert, but she was huntress enough to immediately see that the man had died from a broken neck and a crushed skull. As if … yes, as if he'd been flung by a bucking horse, or other beast, and collided head-first with the trunk of that tree. Some strands of his hair still clung to the bark.
An empty holster at his belt … the butt of a gun protruding from beneath what she could see of the body.
The way he'd been covered, too … the earth gouged raw around him and spills of it strewn over the body. Like an animal trying to hide something. Like a cat, scratching dirt over the remains of a kill.
There were no large cats around Trinity Bay. No wild bucking broncos, either. Not much in the way of large animals of any sort, except for the coastal elk. And while coastal elk might throw anyone fool enough to try riding them, they didn't seem the sort of creature to linger long enough to paw a makeshift grave.
One kind of creature, though … well, there was one kind of creature who called these woods home that might be both strong enough to do that kind of damage, and conscientious enough – or guilt-ridden enough – to try and cover up the deed.
Her heart sank.
Not a death. They couldn't be responsible for a death. It had to be an accident. But even as an accident, it presented a massive problem.
She sniffed the air, but of course any other scents were masked by the reek of rotting flesh.
Turning to the plane, she saw right away from this new angle that it had taken a beating after all. The underside of the engine compartment was bashed and mangled, trailing cables and wires like loops of gut. That would not have happened in any crash. The wrenched-off panel had been tossed aside and lay there like a crushed metal flower.
Ducking her head, she went under the wing and peered inside. Her brow ridges shot up as she surveyed the interior. Not at all what she was expecting, which had been luxury seating and entertainment consoles. Instead, she saw a modified hospital bed and an array of medical equipment, some of the functions of which she could only guess at.
The cockpit controls had been hammered into uselessness. No one had been able to put in a call for help by those means. A quick canvass of the cabin turned up a satellite phone reduced to splinters of high-tech plastic and circuitry.
According to Nyx, there had once been a top-secret government think-tank out here. A survivalist shelter, complete with its own generators, ten years' worth of food and fresh water, air purifiers, and the works.
"See, Poly, when I was a kid," Nyx had told her, "we were all sure that it was going to be World War III. Someone was going to push The Button, thousands of missiles were going to fly, and there'd be nothing left of the world but a glowing cinder in space. Almost everyone would die in the blast. The survivors would wish they had. Nuclear winter, fallout, radioactive mutants, starvation, cannibalism, giant cockroaches rising from the ashes –"
"And you truly believed this to be the impending fate of the world?" she had asked. "How did you humans let it come to such a point?"
"One thing leads to another," Nyx had said with a shrug. "I can get you some books and movies about it if you want."
"Why would I want?"
"Fair enough. But the thing is, Poly, nobody worries about that now. The Cold War is over."
"You called something that would have melted the very earth a 'cold' war?"
"It's a long story. Anyway, now it's killer viruses and bacteriological warfare we worry about. By the time we realized what was going on was more than your ordinary epidemic, it'd be too late for any bomb-shelter type line of defense. The contagion would have already spread too far, and anyone trying to run for a shelter would take the risk of bringing the virus along with them. So, there isn't much of a need for those kinds of hideaways anymore."
"Humanity continually amazes me," Hippolyta had said.
She searched the interior of the plane, trying to guess how many passengers there had been. No flight plan, no manifest. A medical transport … with someone aboard who was either sick or injured … flying to a hospital for a treatment or a transplant, perhaps? But there should have been documentation.
The pilot was dead. Where, then, were the doctors, nurses, patient?
Had they fled into the woods? Found the old government installation and taken refuge there? Why the silence? Why the secrecy?
Or had those responsible for the pilot's death also been responsible for more? She hadn't ventured further into the woods. There might be more bodies. Or captives.
The last thing she wanted was an incident. A discovery. They had finally put all that foolishness behind them, though there would always be a few holdouts in the region who continued to believe. To dredge up that whole business again would bring exactly the wrong sort of interest to Trinity Bay.
Hippolyta climbed again to the roof of the plane and took to the air. She did not know this area, and the forest had quickly reclaimed the works of man, but it was still a simple enough matter to detect unnaturally regular lines in the greenery, where foliage had overgrown man-made structures.
It certainly didn't look like her idea of what a 'bomb shelter' should. It was more like a cluster of buildings, perhaps connected by tubular above-ground tunnels at one time. And it had been disturbed. She saw several places where ferns and vines had been torn away, revealing windows bereft of glass, doorways, walls.
Her bow held at the ready, she landed and listened. Sniffed again. No odor of decay, but she did smell smoke, and burnt food. Soup? Stew?
She slipped inside, not liking the place. It felt too closed-in, and had an aura to it that spoke to her of evil deeds. In truth, it put her too much in mind of the Coalition's secret base, where she'd been held prisoner until she had agreed to join their team.
Yes, this was one of those places. Or had been. It was abandoned now. Abandoned … but for the smell of smoke, and burnt food. Her nose led her onward, and then she saw the low flicker of dying firelight. She heard unhealthy, wheezing breaths. Someone sleeping.
A door was most of the way shut, open only a few inches for ventilation. She pushed it wider with her tail, and swung her bow in an arc.
The only person in the room was an old woman, swaddled in a silvery space-age blanket designed to trap and maximize body heat. If Hippolyta hadn't heard for herself the woman's breathing, and seen the rise and fall of the thin chest, she would have assumed she'd just run across another corpse.
The draft caused by the opening door made the embers flare. The old woman twitched and awoke. Her gaze fell upon Hippolyta.
Hippolyta was used to one of three general reactions when someone beheld her for the first time. Horrified shock – eek, a gargoyle! Keen interest sometimes mixed with envy or lust – cool, a gargoyle! Hostility – a gargoyle, get it! She expected the first one from this woman, but it wasn't what she got.
"So, a gargoyle," the old woman said in a voice no more human than that of a computer. It seemed to issue from a speaker set into a collar at the base of her throat. She levered herself laboriously into a sitting position. The blanket fell away to show that her limbs were held in a metal cage that somehow moved for her. "An undiscovered clan, or just another Avalonian refugee?"
"You know of Avalon?" Hippolyta blurted.
The woman sighed. "It figures. By the look of you, though, you aren't close kin to Goliath or any of his clan."
"You know Goliath?! And his clan?"
"Yes, yes, I know Goliath and his clan. In greater genetic detail than they'd like. Who are you, girl?"
"Hippolyta." She regained her wits and composure. "Night-chief of police of Trinity Bay."
"I am not."
"Well, that's a new one. I am Doctor Anton Sevarius."
Her brow ridge furrowed. "You are?"
But that was wrong … that couldn't be. She had known Anton Sevarius, or at least one aspect of him. A young and brilliant scientist, he had either heroically saved or fiendishly duplicated the life of her former friend and almost-lover, Daniel Harmond.
"What are you doing here? Did they send you to find us?"
"We received word that there might be a lost plane in the vicinity. Only the barest of details, quite mysterious. I elected to glide over and see for myself. I found the plane, and the body of what I presume was the pilot, and sought here for any other survivors."
"And Samson? Did you find him?"
Hippolyta shook her head. "Only you and the pilot. Who is Samson?"
Sevarius got slowly and shakily to her feet. Hippolyta could not disguise the pity and disgust she felt at the sight of the misshapen wretch. She could in no way see any likeness to the Sevarius she'd met.
"Do you know what this place is?"
"A government installation, once," she said. "I was told that it had been closed, and cleaned out."
"Lucky for me, they left a few things behind. But do you know what they did here?"
"Nothing good, I am certain."
The inhuman collar let out a cackle. "Been on the receiving end of a few experiments, have you? Well, you are a perfect specimen. Amazingly fit, even for a gargoyle. The females I've examined haven't half of your muscle development."
"I am not yours to examine, old woman."
"Testy, aren't we? Fear not. I'm not here to make a study of you. Merely a professional observation. Tell me, what do you know about australopithicus?"
Feeling suddenly put on the spot, Hippolyta hazarded a guess. "The … um … the southern lights?"
The collar cackled again. "That's the Aurora Australis. Australopithicus is more commonly known by other terms, such as Sasquatch, Yeti, or …" here she shuddered, "Bigfoot."
"Ah," Hippolyta said. She had gone from being on the spot to being on thin ice. "There is a history of such legends in this part of the country. Many reported sightings, photographs, films, and casts of tracks."
"Yes. The man who had shot the most famous of the films, which had until then withstood all scientific dissection, died several years ago and his heirs then chose to reveal that the film had been faked."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Lies. The Illuminati leaned on them and pressured or bribed them into making that admission. Just as they did in the case of Loch Ness."
"Are you saying," Hippolyta said cautiously, "that you believe these creatures to be real?"
"Oh, that is very good coming from a gargoyle," Sevarius said. "Spare me the conspiracy two-step. I happen to be the world's foremost xenobiologist, after all."
Hippolyta inclined her head. "Forgiveness."
"Granted. Now, tell me what you know about australopithicus."
Samson opened his eyes and this
time they stayed that way, telling him that the information he'd been receiving
from his other senses was in fact reality and not some bizarre dream after
A rough cave ceiling stretched above him, forming a vaulted dome split here and there to admit misty shafts of pale light and hanging tendrils of green. The walls of the cavern had been smoothed in places and marked with streaks of color – charcoal, red and yellow in wide swaths and handprints.
He rested in a hollow in the earth that had been filled with dried grasses and soft mosses and fragrant herbs. A blanket of tied-together fern fronds covered him. Near at hand was a chunk of wood shaped into a sort of platter, and a hollowed stone bowl. Fruit, berries, and mushrooms sat on the platter. The bowl was brimming with clear water.
Sitting up was still beyond him, but Samson found that he could turn his head and survey the interior of the cave. No fire, but the light from the opening was more than enough to show him several figures crouched nearby.
Five of them. Their green-gold gazes were uniformly and unblinkingly fixed on him. Their fur was shaggy, in hues of brown ranging from dark to nearly blond, and they wore no clothing.
They stirred as he looked at them. The nearest rose from her crouch and approached, making low crooning noises to show that she meant him no harm. But he knew that already. She helped him to sit up, propping his back on a section of log she rolled into position behind him.
It was enough to dizzy him, but when that wave had passed he realized that the pain that had gnawed into his bones was gone. Though weak, he felt revitalized and oddly rested. As if he'd awakened from a refreshing nap to face a bright new day.
He looked at the others again. Five of them, the oldest with russet fur that was turning grey at the muzzle and temples and down the back. The youngest was smaller than Dee, an adolescent.
All of them were females. He knew it by their scent.
The dark one dipped her fingers in the bowl and then brought them to his lips. Startled, he gasped, and sucked in cool water. She repeated it, helping him to drink, until he shook his head and carefully lifted the bowl to sip from it. At her urging, he ate as well. The fruit was of a small and wild variety, and he devoured it eagerly. He hesitated over the mushrooms, but reasoned that if they had wanted to harm him, they wouldn't have bothered to help him.
Where was his father, though? And the pilot, the plane? How had he gotten here? He remembered nothing, had no idea how much time had gone by. All he knew was that he felt clean and whole and safe.
And that, for now, was enough.
He ate. When the dark brown female took up some sort of spiny pinecone to groom him, Samson didn't object. Later, as he dozed, he became aware that she curled up against him and slept at his side.
"Oh, great," Nyx Dansbourne said.
"So what are we going to do? We can't look the other way, Poly. Kidnapping
is bad enough, but if they've killed somebody …"
"I do not doubt it was in self-defense. The man had a gun. Or even an accident … they have so few encounters with humans, and often do not know their own strength."
"That's not the point. The point is that a guy is dead, an expensive plane is junked, and another guy is missing. And then there's this Sevarius … if it really is Sevarius. I'm still not clear on that part."
"Nor am I," Hippolyta said.
"And what about the rest of her story? Is that possible?"
Thinking of Hellcat, and Hyena, and the necrivores, and everything else strange she had seen in this world since setting sail from Avalon's shores, Hippolyta could only shrug.
"I think," she said, "that first I must speak to Oruulu. I'll find out their truth of the tale. Sevarius has implied that if we can help recover her son, the rest can be …"
"What, glossed over? That sucks, Poly. That's not why we're in this line of work. Cover-ups are for the feds."
"Even we must acknowledge that sometimes a diffused version of events is best," Hippolyta said. "Recall Dark Hollow."
Nyx scowled, but Hippolyta knew that arrow had struck near the mark. Trinity Bay was not a town quite like other places. Odd things happened here, things that the greater world might not understand.
"I will speak to Oruulu," Hippolyta said.
But she was not to do it that night, for all of the woman called Sevarius' ill-tempered fretting. Too many other matters demanded her attention, as the Bay Days celebration loomed. It was not until the following night that she was able to slip away, and glide the night into the deep woods and rocky terrain toward the eastern edge of the township.
Here, the foothills of the mountains were wild and untamed, visited only by the hardiest of hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. Hippolyta, however, had been here before.
She touched down in a clearing well below the tribe's cave, in a spot where a creek widened into a pool. On foot, and with her bow slung at her back so as to appear non-aggressive, she ascended over the tumbled stone terrain.
She passed the deep crevice where the tribe disposed of their dead by wrapping the bodies well in wet bark and leaves that dried and hardened into cocoons, then dropped them into the narrow depth of rock. The inaccessibility of the site made it unlikely-bordering-on-impossible that anyone would ever find those remains and thus have the skeletal proof of the existence of their race.
Yet they had not afforded anything beyond the most rudimentary of burials to the pilot. Because they did not view humans as kin of their kind? They were kin, she knew, far closer than gargoyles were to either.
Her advance was both slow and deliberately noisy to alert them to her arrival. Hippolyta felt their wary eyes upon her before she saw them. She raised her arms, showing the gift she had brought. A basket of fruits exotic to the tribe – oranges, pineapples, grapes, bananas.
Haeruu, the stooped and grey elder, came out to meet her and accepted the offering. Soon, Hippolyta was ushered into the cave and surrounded by the tribe. Little Ainuu, motherly Nuura, jovial Luul, and Oruulu, who set herself before Hippolyta with a defiant tilt to her jaw.
Beyond them, resting against a fallen log with his fur brushed and shining and his eyes clear with good health, was Sevarius' missing mutate. He jumped when he saw her.
"Delilah?" he cried, and scrambled upright. Then he frowned. "No … you're not Delilah. Your skin, your hair, I thought …"
Gesturing for him to hold on a moment, Hippolyta turned to Oruulu. She had learned their speech, what of it there was. A language more like song, all flowing vowels and no harsh consonants; they could none of them come even close to properly pronouncing her name. It simply did not fit their mouths.
Yes, Oruulu confirmed. She had killed the human male. She hadn't meant to, but the sudden loud bang of the gun, the stink of its smoke, and the pain as its spit-metal – she showed Hippolyta a healed scar on her shoulder where the fur had not yet grown back – had so startled and frightened her that the deed was done almost before she'd known it. Her arm had swung, and the strength of her blow had sent the man flying, and his head, and the tree, and Oruulu regretted it terribly.
And yes, Haeruu said when Oruulu fell silent, they had taken Samson. They'd sensed him, thought him to be one of their own kind. Long ago, Haeruu said, that bad place had been where others of their tribe had been held captive and suffered horrible fates. They had feared that the humans meant to start the evil again, and they could not stand by and do nothing.
Especially, Luul added, when they knew that it was a male in such trouble. The last of their males, Nuura's mate, had died from the spit-metal of a human gun. The tribe needed a male. They needed young. It was their very future at stake.
The expression on Samson's face as he comprehended what they were saying was most comical. Hippolyta could not help but to grin. His eyes had gone so very wide, and his throat worked as though he had something lodged in his gullet.
"They … they want me to …?"
So, Oruulu said, she understood that it had been wrong to kill, and wrong to damage the fly-metal, but she had believed herself to be helping one of her own kind, and acting in the best interests of the tribe. And if Hippolyta thought otherwise, well, much as Oruulu respected the she-gargoyle, it would have to be a challenge if Hippolyta meant to take Samson away.
She tried to explain his circumstances – not entirely of their race, but partly human – as best as she herself understood it. Sickly, besides. But she had no sooner begun than Haeruu snorted and the others scoffed. Sickly? He had been, yes, living among humans and their pollution and their chemical-dosed food. A deeper sickness too, granted, but one of which they had already shown his body how to heal itself.
As for the other matter, what of it? He was the only male, and it was close enough. Close enough. The welfare and survival of the tribe must come first.
They would only need to keep him a few years, just to make sure that the young thrived. Then, Oruulu said, they would be willing to let him leave if that was still his wish.
Too, Luul said with a low humming purr, he was certainly handsome enough to excuse any other deficiencies.
Hippolyta acknowledged that she understood their stance, and asked if she could speak with him. Oruulu grudgingly gave permission, but all five of the females watched like hawks as she crossed the cave and bent to one knee beside Samson's sleeping-place.
"You know that they mean to keep you," she said. "And for what intent."
He nodded slowly, dubiously.
"I am here on behalf of the woman Sevarius, who calls herself your father." She still wasn't entirely clear on that point, but Samson nodded again, this time in apparent relief.
"My father, yes. She's all right?"
"As well as can be," Hippolyta said. "And likely in a far better frame of mind when she hears that you are physically well."
"They … they taught me to reach down in myself," Samson said. "The things they can do are just amazing. Regulation of metabolism, body temperature, healing … they showed me how I could make my bones repair themselves."
"An ancient and wise people," she said. "Peaceful by nature, but set in their ways."
"Peaceful? Oruulu wants to fight you if you try to take me out of here."
He looked her over. "You'd kill her. I mean, she's quick and she's strong, but you …"
"It is what I am trained to do," she agreed. "But I would not wish to. She has made this challenge."
"She didn't mean to hurt anyone. They've only tried to help me."
"And for that, in thanks, you are willing to remain here and play the stud?"
It was hard to tell, but she thought that he might be blushing. He avoided her gaze. "I … I have a mate. Delilah. She's beautiful. A gargoyle. White-haired and golden. But we're not ... we couldn't … she needed a second mate, a gargoyle mate, so that she could have hatchlings."
"You are not fertile with her. So she has offspring, but you have none. And here, with the tribe, you have your chance."
"I don't mean it like that …"
"But it is only fair."
"I love Delilah!" he said. "She loves me, too. I know she also cares for Hudson, but she says that she and I are true mates, and that nothing can ever change what we feel for each other."
"Yet here you are, obliged in thanks to the tribe who saved your life. A tribe, all females, who desire you and want you to sire their young." She smiled. "And you would not want to see me fight Oruulu, bringing more violence and pain."
"Yeah," he said.
"Well, if your Delilah spoke true, now is the time to find out."
"I am not going to negotiate,"
Sevarius said. "It is my right as his father. Complain all you wish, Ms.
Gargoyle Chief of Police, but I am staying right here until I've seen these
grandchildren for myself."
"The tribe will not let you study their young," Hippolyta said.
"We'll see about that."
"And are you not needed in New York?"
"Hah. They'll be happy to be rid of me. My son is here, and therefore this is where I am staying. Besides, once I'm permitted to visit him –" here, Sevarius gave her a baleful look, as if it was her doing that Oruulu would not let anyone else, let alone Samson's father, come to the cave, "—I hope to learn more about these innate abilities of theirs. You cannot possibly expect me to pass up such an opportunity."
"But what are we to do with you?" she exclaimed. "Here, in Trinity Bay?"
"It is not your concern."
"Dragon's blood it isn't! Everything that I know of you, Sevarius –"
"No experiments," she said, crossing her heart with one withered hand. "No cloning the townsfolk, no mutations. Consider me on sabbatical."
Hippolyta lowered her brow ridge into her hand and groaned. "Is there no way to convince you otherwise?"
"Nothing you'd find acceptable," Sevarius said. "I'm afraid that you're stuck with me. But you have my word. I'll be on my very best behavior."
"Somehow," Hippolyta said, "that's what worries me the most."
Part Three: Hill People
"Get up, Raylene-girl. Get up,
now. It can't be s'bad as all that."
The old woman's voice was cracked but kindly, underscored by the ceaseless creak of her rocker and the click-click of knitting needles. The engine had died away into the twilight stillness that lay over the valley like a mist.
Raylene choked back her sobs and wiped her tear-streaked face. She sat up. Looked down at her dress. Felt the tears threaten again.
Her best dress. Sunday-best, for the long walk to the little church down in the hollow. Now it was so torn and dirty that it could have passed for one of her other dresses. Her good shoes were scuffed. One of them had come off and lay a ways away, upside-down.
But 'Meliar was right. It wasn't so bad as all that. She wasn't hurt. Scratched up some, and she'd come up bruised where they'd knocked her about, but that was all. Hadn't none of them even tried, not seriously anyhow, to get her wash-faded underpants off.
She'd been scared, though. Scared that that they would. Scared of what they'd do next time.
A warning, Buster had said. Consider this time a warning.
And 'Meliar just went on rocking and knitting. She couldn't see the yarn, but that didn't stop a nice sweater from taking shape all the same. Pretty, it was. A nice blue that Raylene had picked out, buying the yarn from the egg-money. Thinking how pretty she'd be in it when she wore it to town this fall.
Who knew where they'd be, come fall?
"Don't let it fret you none, girl," 'Meliar said, the needles clicking, clicking. "We ain't going nowhere. Leave my home? I'd like to see the day."
Eerie, how 'Meliar sometimes seemed to be hearing Raylene's thoughts. It was part of her gift, or at least that was what people in these parts always said. You want to beware old 'Meliar Ellis, she's got the visions. Nobody much went to her unless they were desperate to know. Most preferred not to know, and hang onto their useless hopes.
Raylene got up and brushed at the leaves that stuck to her torn dress. If 'Meliar knew so much, why hadn't she known that Buster was coming? Why hadn't she said anything?
"Because it wouldn't have changed nothing," 'Meliar said. "Knowing don't change what will be. All's it have done is worry you for no good. I knew they wasn't going to hurt you. That Buster McGill, he's all talk, that one."
"Then how do you know he won't be back? He's going to make you go, 'Meliar. He means to have this spot of land. He's got him the money, he's got him the papers. We'll be turned out of here and then where will we go?"
She was fixing up to cry again and sternly scolded herself. Buster and his men hadn't done anything worse than push her around a little, and pull at her clothes. And even Sunday-best, this dress wasn't that far from the rag-bag anyway. It was nothing worse than what Paw used to do. It was nothing at all compared to what Paw had wanted to do.
But that was why she'd left Maw and Paw and the littluns and come to live here. 'Meliar's shack wasn't much, just two rooms with water from a pump and what television the outdated old satellite dish could pick up, but Raylene wouldn't have gone back to Paw's trailer for anything, even if it was a double-wide with a new washer and dryer and microwave and all.
She liked to think that part of it was just neighborly duty, too. Someone had to take care of 'Meliar, living up here all alone since Johnny Ellis had died and their son Jimmy went to jail. It wasn't right. An old woman, an old blind woman, on her own. She'd needed someone to do for her, and Raylene was glad of the change.
"Buster McGill ain't turning no one out of noplace," 'Meliar said. She spoke confidently, but Raylene had the sudden feeling that this wasn't any prophecy. This was only what they called 'wishful thinking.'
The shadows lengthened, turning the hills a deep purple and the valley into a pool of black, where lights twinkled like fallen stars. Lots of lights. Lots more than there had been even just a few years ago, when Raylene had been a tiny girl. City folk had gotten a hunger for the country. Wanted to 'get away from it all,' so they'd gone and built their houses and then other city folk had come in and built their stores, and before you knew it, Vicker's Glen was just like all the other places. They hadn't 'gotten away from it' at all. They'd just brung it right along with them.
And some, like Buster McGill, were more than happy to take their money. Some, like Buster McGill, bought up land that had fallen in arrears for back taxes, and sold it to city developers, and before you could shake a stick, there went a bunch of new brick houses with yards and VR hookups and golf courses and big fences around the whole thing.
He had his eye on the Ellis land now. Prime hillside real estate, he called it. Up here where people used to live six or seven to a shack, whole families in one or two rooms while their hounds and pigs crawled under the porches to sleep. Instead, there'd be some rich city family with no more than two kids, mostly just one and sometimes none at all, in fancy ten-room computerized houses.
'Meliar wouldn't sell to him, and didn't that ever stick in Buster McGill's craw. Every week, it seemed like, he'd try to talk to 'Meliar at church. Him with some new offer – not only would he pay top dollar, but he'd find her a new place to live, a fine condominium with other folks her own age and a nurse and all. Every time, 'Meliar told him no.
Today, she'd not just told him no, but turned her grey-filmed eyes right on his and said that he may as well save his breath. That she'd been born up on that hill, had been courted by three husbands on that hill, had birthed her nine children on that hill, had buried all three husbands and six of her children on that hill. And that it was on that hill she meant to die herself, and be buried. And if Buster McGill wasn't content to wait that long, he could march himself straight to Hell and try bargaining for real estate with Old Scratch.
The reverend had been scandalized, and Buster's face went beet red and swelled up fit to bust. But others had laughed. Even Paw had laughed, that unforgettable donkey-bray, though his eyes had been fixed on Raylene the whole time. He knew that if 'Meliar sold to Buster, Raylene would have no choice but to come home to her family. He knew that when 'Meliar died, same thing. He could wait. That was what his eyes told her. He could wait to do his duty by his oldest girl.
She shuddered at the recollection.
"Don't take on so," 'Meliar said. She smiled, revealing all three of her teeth. "Haven't I told you that you're free of him?"
"Yes, but …"
"But nothing, girl. I'm coming over starved. How about a jelly sandwich? I think we've got some of Abby Hooper's fine blackcurrant jelly left."
Raylene went into the shack, which was pin-neat despite its shabbiness. Gifts from local folk who sought and appreciated 'Meliar's wisdom made it homey. Rag rugs, enough homemade quilts to keep the old brass bed warm on even the howlingest-cold winter night, preserves, pies, candles. Nothing store-bought, nothing machine-made. That was the way 'Meliar liked it.
She'd told Raylene often enough that she would have been just as happy to do without the electricity. But Johnny, her last husband, had been a regular bear for his baseball games and news reports. And besides, the lines on their big spidery silver poles marched right near the house anyway.
As she made sandwiches, she admired the view out the window. It was beautiful, and she knew why Buster was so keen to get his hands on the property. He could charge twice or three times for a house on the hill as what he could for a house down in the valley. From up here, when the weather was clear, you could see practically forever.
'Meliar had stopped rocking and stopped knitting by the time Raylene came back out with the sandwiches piled on a tin plate. For a heart-stuttering moment, the girl was sure that the old woman had up and died on her. The busy hands lay slack on the heaped blue yarn, and 'Meliar's mouth hung open. A thin pearly ribbon of drool fell from her chin.
A hundred thoughts went buzzing through Raylene. Grief and fear were chief among them.
She swallowed. Her throat had come over all dry. "'Meliar?"
Dead. Jesus help us, she really was dead. Nothing now stopping Buster McGill from taking the land. Nothing now keeping Raylene from having to go home to her Maw and Paw, where Paw thought it was his rightful responsibility to 'ready' her for a husband and Maw could shunt the caring for the littluns back on her and give herself more time to drink Scooter Partridge's best 'shine.
But then 'Meliar made a snoring, snuffling sound. She smacked her lips. "Raylene? You there, girl?"
"Right here," Raylene said through inexpressible belief.
Not dead after all. Sleeping?
Or something else?
"Had me a vision just now," 'Meliar said. "You shouldn't take on so about Buster McGill. He only thought to put a fright on you, and show me how him and his bully-boys were set to play tough. But don't you fret. Buster McGill, he's going to get what's coming to him. My Beau, he's coming home."
Her sight was long gone, but her other senses were sharp as ever, and upon smelling the blackcurrant jelly and fresh bread, she reached out. Raylene put a sandwich into her hand. 'Meliar chomped into it with relish, her few teeth and gums chewing for all they were worth.
Raylene, meanwhile, was too stunned to say a word. She didn't know what she would have said, anyway. Beau, coming home? Beau Ellis? That was flat-out impossible. Nobody in these parts had heard a peep about him since the county had come and took him away.
Locked him up, that was what she'd always heard. Not the first local boy to end up behind bars, but surely the first to end up in a canvas coat what buckled up the back. And him not even a teenager at the time.
It had been long before Raylene had been born, all that. By the time she'd started school, Beau Ellis was legend. All the bigger boys and girls used to tease the littluns how Beau was going to get them if they didn't watch out.
She didn't even know what it was he'd actually done. Oh, she'd grown up hearing all about what he was s'posed to have done, everything from biting the heads off live chickens to showing himself to some little girls to killing all nine of the Granges with an axe.
A shiver twisted her body as she remembered, quite vividly, Marcy-Jane McGill – Buster's baby sister and just as spoiled as month-old milk – telling how they'd found Beau Ellis naked and covered with blood, squatting on a heap of bones from vagrants and hitchhikers and kids as what he'd stolen by sneaking in their windows late at night.
"My boy," 'Meliar said, as she resumed rocking. "My boy, Raylene, my baby boy's coming home to me. He's going to set everything right. Just you wait and see if he don't."
"That numbskull old crone is standing
in the way of what we both want," Buster McGill said, over beers out back
of Sparky's. "If'n we work together, Al, we can both walk away from this
The plank wall was thrumming from the live band just on the other side, and Buster had to nearly shout to make himself heard. He had his top collar button undone and his tie yanked askew, and his shirtsleeves rolled to the elbows, but he still didn't looked like one of the boys. Not dressed up like that. Not jawing back here in the wild-weeds with Al Perkins, who wore biballs over a flannel shirt so threadbare it was no longer possible to tell what colors made up its plaid.
Al didn't care about none of that. "What about m'girl?" he asked. "What about Raylene?"
"A prime example of what I'm saying," Buster said, swigging down the last of his beer and crumpling the can. He tossed it indifferently onto a heap of similarly crushed empties. Sparky had them hauled away to be recycled every month or so, and by then there was always purt near a truckload.
"What, exactly, are you saying?" Al pressed.
"Pretty gal, your Raylene. Takes some after her mother."
Beaming a little at this, Al hitched his thumbs in the straps of his biballs. "Yup, that she does. She was coming over nice and ripe before she took off to go live with old 'Meliar."
"Bet you were looking forward to breaking her in." Buster leered. "Me and the boys, we got a good look the other day. Ruined her best dress, I'm sorry to say. A fine piece of woman like that, she deserves better."
"That's what I kept telling her," Al said. "With a little education, you know, and some proper training and experience, she'd make a right fine wife. Always was a hard worker, good with the kids. But do you know what she did, the wildcat, when I tried to do what was right by her? Clawed me like an animal and spit in my face."
Buster clucked his tongue. "And you put up with that, Al?"
His face immediately darkening, Al popped the top on a new can and drained most of it in a single gurgling chug. He belched loud enough to momentarily drown out the band. "Hell, no … I got m'belt and strapped the sass out of her. Was meaning to finish the lesson next day, but when I got home from work there weren't nothing but a note for her maw, saying where she'd gone and why."
"That's no way for a girl to behave," Buster said. "Be hard to marry her off, with a temper like that."
"Aww, she'll gentle," Al said. "She'll cool off and come home, or that old bat will up and die and then she'll have no other choice. Not like anybody else would take her in."
"The way I see it," Buster said, drumming his fingers thoughtfully on his own new can, "it's 'Meliar Ellis who's the problem. Putting all sorts of ideas in your girl's head, I shouldn't wonder."
Al's glower deepened.
"And you know what men are like around here," Buster went on. "Still superstitious, most of them. They're already saying your Raylene, she's going to take right over where 'Meliar leaves off. Seeing omens and all. I don't know what kind of magic 'Meliar used to catch herself all those husbands, but somehow I don't expect Raylene to have that kind of luck."
"I won't have no gal of mine growing up to be the damn town witch," Al said.
"Then you better put a stop to it, before it's too late. Tell you what, Al. We can help each other out here. I been thinking, since my Laura-Beth run off with that salesman – a traveling salesman in this day and age, Jesus wept! – that I could do with a new wife around the house. My kids are all grown and gone, and good riddance for the most part. They're all just hoping I'll die young so they can start in on their inheritance. It'd serve them up right for me to start a new family."
"What are you saying, now, Buster?" Al's eyes had taken on a crafty look.
"Just what it sounds like. I'm willing to marry your Raylene. Once she was proper gentled, like you said, and gotten away from 'Meliar. If you went to see her, maybe meet her in the woods when she's on her way to do the shopping, you could give her a good talking-to … and whatever else."
The crafty look got craftier. "I like what I'm hearing. Go on."
"While you're taking care of that, I'll go up and have me some more words with old 'Meliar. I think she'll come 'round to my way of thinking. Or, who knows?" Buster popped, drank, and uttered a more decorous belch against the back of his hand. "She's none too young, 'Meliar Ellis. This kind of strain's none too good for the heart. She's blind, and she's careless, too. Getting forgetful. Why, she's apt to burn that shack of hers right to the ground one of these days. But I can't carry on any sort of business with her while your Raylene is around."
"And I can't do for Raylene what needs to be done with 'Meliar giving me the old evil eye," Al said. He frowned. "But I been hearing strange talk around town. I guess 'Meliar told Abby Hooper that she's expecting her boy back."
"Who, Jimmy? I don't think so, Al. Jimmy Ellis ain't even up for parole for another six years."
"No, t'other one. The crazy one. Beau."
"They don't give parole from the loony bin," Buster said. "Even if they did, what would come of it? Halfwit deaf-mute retard, that's all that boy ever was. Nothing for us to trouble ourselves over. 'Sides, if you ask me, there's nothing but bunk to all these visions and omens and whatnot."
"Yeah, I s'pose you're right," Al said.
"You just concentrate on your sweet gal Raylene." Buster clapped him on the back. "Leave the rest to me. What do you say?"
"And you'll marry her? After, I mean? Once she's been humbled and taught proper?"
"It'd be my pleasure. Why, we'd be family then, and you know I always try to do best by my kin."
"Then I say we've got us a deal."
Some of the ladies from the church
had organized a charity drive, and much as it pained Raylene's pride to
take the charity of others, she couldn't deny that it was mighty nice to
have so many fine new clothes. Some of them were nearly new, with labels
from stores she'd only heard about on television.
She thought that she even looked presentable enough to see about trying to get a job. It was a longshot, for sure, her with no diploma yet or anything, but she knew that some high-school kids worked, and she sure could do with the money. She'd help out with 'Meliar's bills and groceries, and put the rest away to make a little nest egg for herself. Then, when she had enough, she'd buy herself a bus ticket and –
Paw's voice cut through her big-city daydreams like the snap of a whip. Or a belt. She flinched and turned and there he was, coming out of the trees with thunderclouds on his brow.
"You been disobedient, girl," he said, shaking his head. "Sore disobedient. I've looked t'other way but that's all over now. You're gonna learn what a girl hereabouts needs to learn."
"No," she said, the word jerked from her on an alarmed gust of breath. "It ain't right, Paw. It ain't that way in the real world!"
"I've found you a husband who thinks otherwise," Paw said. "He wants him a good wife. That means I need to teach you. That's how it is, Raylene. That's how it's always been."
"No!" She nearly screamed it this time, startling a flock of birds up from the bushes. They wheeled, scolding, and streaked off into the fading blue sky.
Paw was strong, but he was slow. Raylene figured she could outrun him if she had to. Back up the hill. To the shack. He wouldn't come after her, not there. He was too afraid of 'Meliar putting a hex on him.
She darted left, meaning to go around him. But she had forgotten the shoes, the new fancy shoes she'd been so proud of. They slipped on the grass and she went to one knee. Before she could get up, Paw tackled her.
They rolled over the uneven ground and fetched up hard in a gully, against a fallen log grown soft and spongy with rot. Spores burst from shelf-mushrooms. A trio of kit foxes sprang out and scattered.
He was on her, pressing her into the ground so that she could not get her breath. His own breathing was ragged and harsh as he yanked at the button of her slacks. A sleeve of her blouse ripped clean away, leaving her with threads hanging at the shoulder and a cloth bracelet at the wrist.
A deer, out of nowhere, bounded right at them and leaped straight over. It seemed to hang effortlessly in the air for longer than was possible, long enough for Raylene to see her own stark terror mirrored in the doe's wide brown eyes. Even Paw stopped in his frenzied groping to rear back in astonishment.
"What the blue hell!" he exclaimed. "What spooked her, I wonder?"
Then, with a shrug to show it didn't much matter – everyone knew there was nothing more dangerous than feral dogs 'round these parts anymore – he seized the front of Raylene's blouse and tore it all the way open. His eyes gleamed at the sight of her new bra, all lacy, what had made her feel like a real city-lady when she'd put it on. His grimy hands squeezed her breasts.
Raylene shrieked, a shriek that by rights would have been heard all across the valley, but just then the revving of an engine and the blatting of a horn shattered the hillside quiet. A truck, Buster McGill's by the sound, was speeding up the winding dirt road toward 'Meliar's shack. Men hooted and laughed. A gunshot cracked, and there was a thud as the deer, caught in mid-spring, was slapped gracelessly out of this life.
Terror for 'Meliar, and anger for the deer, spurred Raylene to a burst of strength. She balled up her fist and punched Paw in the nose just as he leaned down to try and slobber a kiss onto her lips. He reared back again, blood already spurting, and bellowed. She bucked her body, trying to throw him off, but he was too heavy. He slammed her down again.
"Uppity little bitch, aintcha?" Paw snarled. "Not no more, I'll see to that!"
He clubbed her in the side of the head and she went limp, conscious but dazed, looking blurrily up at him as he broke the front-hook of her bra.
Then something happened to his head.
She didn't see what. It was there, and then it wasn't.
And it was raining.
Hot red rain, dousing her.
Paw toppled slowly over to the side. His hands left smeary trails in the red rain as they slid off her chest. He collapsed against the sloped side of the gully. He kicked at the muddy red earth. A horrible stink rose up on a spluttering noise from inside his biballs.
Raylene scrabbled away from him, not sure what had happened but only knowing it was bad. His fingers clutched at the waistband of her slacks and dragged them partway down her hips. She screamed, struck at him, and lost her balance. As she fell, she saw that she was going to fall on him, and thrust out her arms. Her palm came down where his face would have been, if he'd still had one. Warm, sticky, awful wetness splashed up.
She fought free, a mindless thing now. When someone grabbed her and tried to pull her out, she lunged away from the strange hands and bolted up the hill, crying 'Meliar's name over and over, hearing the rough laughter and shouts, smelling the smoke from the burning shack, sure that it was already far too late.
'Meliar listened to them come,
rocking in the black, rocking with her deft fingers moving as she knitted.
Not a sweater this time, no, but a nice warm scarf. A welcome-home present
for her boy. Her Beau, the baby of the bunch. Always special, he'd been,
The truck roared up. The men in it hollered. Keeping their courage up with liquor and big talk. Thinking that as she couldn't see them, she wouldn't know who they were. But she knew, oh, yes. She'd known likely before they even knew themselves.
"I tried to be reasonable with you, old woman," Buster McGill said. "Why you insist on living up here, no better than a beggar, when you could have had a nice cozy place in town, is beyond me."
"Lots of things are beyond you, Buster," she said. "Common decency, for one. And you boys! For shame!" She raised her voice. "Eddie Jacks, Leon Pearsons, Nate Wyland … Horace Hooper, if your mother had any idea you were running with this bunch, it'd right enough make her weep."
She sensed their shame and uncertainty, their fear at having their names spill from her cracked old lips like beads on a string.
"Never mind that," Buster barked. "She ain't seen you, and that gal of hers ain't going to see you either."
"Don't none of us need to," 'Meliar said, still rocking serenely. "He does."
"God?" sneered Buster.
"My boy. Beau. He's come home to me."
"That's a load of horse apples. I'll give you one more chance, 'Meliar. Sell me your land. Fifty thousand. I've got the papers right here. Fifty thousand and that place in town I promised you."
"Keep your place in town and your dirty money," she said, hearing the others ripple and stir at the mention of such a sum. "I ain't leaving."
"I'm warning you –"
"I know, you're gonna burn me out. Poor 'Meliar Ellis, blind and feeble, left her woodstove door open and a coal must've jumped out and set the place alight. Ain't that what you're planning to say? And who'd catch you, eh, Buster? When your cousin is the chief of po-lice and your son-in-law is the fire marshal?"
Unhappy mutterings greeted this, but Buster must've glared them down something fierce, because the mutterings subsided. 'Meliar's sharp ears heard high, thin cries. Raylene, calling her name. She'd heard the girl's shrieks earlier, and knew that Raylene had come to no real harm. She couldn't say as much for Raylene's good-for-nothing paw, though.
"You had every chance," Buster said. The porch step groaned under his weight. She felt his shadow blot the sunlight as he loomed over her. "But you had to go and cross me, didn't you? Now look what you've done."
"Better run while you still can, Buster," she said, her tone mild. "Won't make no difference, though. It's too late for you already. Was too late for you when you woke up this morning."
"Don't go giving me your omens," he said.
"Horace, you'll live if you go right now," 'Meliar called. "It'd plain break my heart to have to tell your momma you died, but if you stay, that's just what I'll have to do."
"Shut the hell up!" She smelled gasoline, heard the flick of Buster's Zippo. "Move your asses, you worthless bags of shit!"
She heard them piling out of the truck. Horace – he had a club foot, what the doctors had done their best to fix but still left him wearing a clumpy shoe – faltered behind the others.
"Now, Horace, or there ain't no use running at all," 'Meliar said, and Buster slapped her hard across the face. Then glass smashed as he elbowed out one of her windows and tossed his homemade firebomb through. A baking wave of heat rushed out right away.
"Jeezum, Buster, don't really burn her place down!" cried Horace Hooper in a child's scared voice.
And then, praise God, she heard him break and run, his uneven clumping footsteps receding down the road. The others jeered after him and one – Eddie Jacks, it was – triggered off a few shots into the air.
The chickens were all in a flutter, dashing this way and that and clucking for all they were worth. Eddie turned his gun on them. The other men ran around the house, bashing in more windows, throwing in more firebombs. 'Meliar turned her seamed old face up to Buster's shadow, and smiled.
"What are you –" he began, and then his words cut off in a strangled scream.
Beau was here. Her boy had come home.
"Oh, my dear God!" croaked Buster.
"What is it? Buster, what is it?" Eddie squealed.
Bedlam, that was what it was, 'Meliar thought as they went purely crazy from their terror. Shots rang out, men gabbled, bodies flew through the smoky air. Someone – Nate – stumbled past blubbering and begging, and then there was a swish and a tearing sound and a wet splash and sizzle on the shack's burning walls, and a loose, meaty tumble as he went sprawling. Eddie's gun exploded, probably taking most of his hands with it, and before he could do more than get started on a really good set of screams, his voice went all bubbly and trailed off in an agonized moan.
"No," Buster said. "No, please."
Leon Pearsons took off after the Hooper boy, but he didn't get far. There was a brisk snapping noise, a whiff of a smell like a close lightning strike, and then nothing.
"'Meliar, call him off," Buster whimpered. "I'll go. I'll never bother you again. Swear to God."
The porch step groaned again. Buster scrabbled at 'Meliar's thin legs.
"Please! Please, 'Meliar!"
She shook her sightless head at him sadly. "I tried to warn you off."
"No! Ah! Jesus! No!"
He was hauled away from her. She felt his fingertips pinch at the hem of her dress, then slip loose.
"'Meliar, stop him! Please!"
The sound was like a dog savaging an overcooked chicken. Buster's shrill cry ended in a gurgle. 'Meliar heard bits of him striking the porch. One hit her ankle and she grimaced in distaste.
But then Buster McGill was gone. Several minutes passed, minutes in which she heard Beau moving around inside the house, beating at the flames. The porch creaked as he returned to her. She reached out one trembling hand as he knelt beside her. She touched his head, and drew it against her scant bosom with a contented sigh.
"Here's my boy," she crooned. "Here's my good boy, finally come home."
Raylene ran as fast as she could
up the hill, but it wasn't very fast. She hurt all over from her struggles
with Paw, and her whole mind felt bruised from whatever had happened, there
at the end.
All she knew for sure was that Paw was dead. And her nice new clothes were wrecked. Blouse gone, bra hanging in pieces, that bracelet of sleeve on her wrist. And she was covered, just covered, in blood and dirt and muck.
Someone pelted past her, moving down the hill and down the road at a heedless headlong plunge that Raylene figured was sure to end in disaster. She had time to recognize Horace Hooper, his hair standing on end like a porky-pine and his eyes about popping out of his face.
He ran like the very devils of Hell was nipping at his heels. If he saw Raylene at all, he gave no sign. His mouth and throat twisted like he was trying to yell, or thought that he already was.
Deep painful stitches sank into her legs. She forced herself onward anyway, hearing the most God-awful ruckus coming from 'Meliar's place. People screaming and she didn't know whatall else.
Maybe she should have been going the other way. Horace, who was known for being easily led but not especially for being a fool, might have him the right idea.
But 'Meliar was her friend, and had taken her in when no one else would.
She reached the clearing, and the first thing she noticed was that the shack wasn't a goner. Some smoke still puffed around it but it wasn't burnt up.
Buster McGill's truck was parked so as to block her view from the rest of the yard. It wasn't until she came around it that her feet stumbled her to a halt and she had to steady herself on the hood.
More blood. Gallons of it. Great gaudy splashes of it. And bodies. Bodies gutted like fish, though not near so cleanly. Rent open like burlap sacks, and all their innards fallen out in sloppy heaps already growing a green and black buzz of flies.
It was a massacree, just like the old-timers talked about from the olden days.
'Meliar was on the porch, rocking and singing a lullaby. Something was up there with her. Raylene stared. She thought about how everyone in the valley knew that 'Meliar Ellis had visions and could cast hexes, and because of this they called her a witch even though she didn't do other witchy stuff.
Except maybe 'Meliar did. Maybe she had conjured something up to take care of Buster and his cronies. It was the only explanation Raylene could think of.
She could see the thing on the porch better than she wanted to.
"Raylene!" 'Meliar called. "Come on up here, girl, and say hello to my boy. Beau, you wouldn't know Raylene. She hadn't even been born when you went away."
It turned its head toward her. Sniffed the air. The slits of its pupils narrowed down to fine lines in the sunlight.
"Now, stop that," 'Meliar said, rubbing the furry, black-striped head. "Raylene's a good girl and a friend."
Raylene tottered a few steps on legs that felt like wood. "'Meliar … 'Meliar, what is it?"
"This here's my son. They done changed him some, but a momma knows. A momma knows, don't she, Beau?"
The thing crouched beside the rocker rose up. It towered. Bigger than any man Raylene had ever seen. Even bigger than the circus strongman who'd come to the fair last fall. Huge and packed with muscle, and all of it covered by a thick orange tiger-stripe pelt going grey around the ears and muzzle.
It stood on queerly bent hind legs, a tiger shaped like a man, wearing a belt and shorts like a man but no other clothes. From the thing's back grew two giant bat wings. Its eyes were gold. Its clawed hands were soaked with blood, and more blood speckled its chest.
"That can't be, 'Meliar. It … it ain't human."
The tiger-eyes glinted like it understood her, and Raylene quailed back against Buster's truck.
"They hurt him something terrible," 'Meliar said, nodding. "First they took him away from his momma, all on account of how he couldn't never talk and they all thought he was wrong in the head. Locked him up in one of those crazy-places, where he got beat on and treated worse'n a dog. Then this doctor comes, making all sorts of promises to get my Beau out of there if'n he'll agree to be in a 'speriment. Promised to help him, but that there doctor should have been the one locked in the crazy-place. Look what he did to my boy."
"Somebody … somebody did that to him?"
"Well, girl, what else would you think? That I conjured up a demon?"
Raylene blushed and looked down.
"Shot him up with needles," 'Meliar went on, stroking the furry elbow. "Injected him with their wicked brew and changed him. And then that doctor, he didn't keep none of his promises. Didn't let Beau out."
Against her better judgment, Raylene moved closer. She was searching for any real sign of humanity in that tiger-man. His hackles raised, baring long sharp teeth, and she stopped short again.
"But he escaped, praise God," 'Meliar said. "Him and some others like him, helped by them gargoyle-critters you hear about on the news. Up the big city, you know, New York. That ain't no place for a good country boy like my Beau, not never. But he figured that he got nowhere else to go, and that he'd be best off with his own kind."
She'd seen gargoyles on television, and now that she thought about it, that kind of was what Beau looked like, with the big wings and all. "But he ain't stone," she said. "It's broad daylight, 'Meliar, and he ain't stone."
"Girl," 'Meliar said, as if Raylene might be daft. "They didn't go making him into no gargoyle. He's as flesh and blood as ever he was. He just got his blood mixed up some, with that from bats, tigers, and … what was it, Beau? Eels, the 'lectric kind from down in South America or someplace."
"Oh," said Raylene, who honestly had no idea what else to say.
"He's had him a hard road, my Beau. Trusting folks only to get betrayed, having to live in the sewers, finally making him some real friends but then getting knocked so bad in the head he near died. He don't remember that part so good. Only that a little boy come along and helped him, woke him up again. But not long after that, the folks that he'd been living with come into real hard times; people killed, one of them this real sweet gal whose husband was their leader and left her babies without a momma, poor dears. After that, their poppa, he just lost heart. Beau tried to do right by his poor friends, but some hurts just go too deep for healing... And more and more, he was hearing the hills calling him home. So once the littluns was old enough for schooling and doing fine, he came home."
"And he … you," Raylene said, addressing the tiger-man, "did this? All of this?"
His head bobbed.
"I know what you're thinking, girl," 'Meliar said. "You're thinking he's dangerous, and how'm I going to control him."
"They're torn to pieces, 'Meliar! You can't see them but I can, and they're all over the yard!"
"But he didn't hurt me, and he didn't hurt you."
"Paw," she gasped. "You killed him?"
Again, the grim bob of the head.
"Saved your life," 'Meliar said. "Funny thing is, before, Beau never harmed a soul. They took him away and locked him up, but he weren't never crazy. Just … just different, is all. I guess maybe now he's learned that the only way to deal with some men is by fighting. They would have killed me, Raylene, and burned my house, and killed you, too. Buster McGill, he may have promised your paw that he meant to marry you –"
Raylene automatically looked at what was left of Buster, and gagged.
"—but he weren't going to. Him and his boys, they planned themselves a celebration with you, and then it'd be shallow graves for the both of us. Buster'd go spinning some yarn about how he paid us off and we moved away, and he'd see to it that enough other folks got their pockets lined, and nobody would ever dare question him."
"Now they're all dead, though," she said. "What are we going to do? Someone'll come looking. Horace Hooper, he got away."
'Meliar nodded. "I sent him away. He'll tell everyone 'bout this, and won't nobody ever bother us again. They won't want to risk tangling with Beau. Maybe he ain't so young, maybe he been gone a long while … near thirty years, right, Beau? But you can see he ain't nobody to mess with even now."
"Your maw will be better off and you know it. So will those littluns of hers. We look out for our own in this valley, Raylene. Plenty of us never did truck with Buster bringing all them city-folk here. I know you're thinking that this can't just blow over, not with five men dead, but you have to believe me when I tell you that's just the way it'll be. Ain't nobody wants the state po-lice sniffing around here. Too many folks got secrets of their own, if you follow."
"I s'pose I do," Raylene said.
She wanted to believe that this was 'Meliar's foresight speaking, or even just a store of good old-fashioned country wisdom. Either way, it had the ring of truth to her ears. Wasn't much of an anybody who lived in the valley who'd want that kind of attention.
Too many families like her own, where paws and big brothers did whatever they durn well pleased with girls even younger than Raylene. Too many like the Partridges, who didn't just sell moonshine anymore but maryjane and worse drugs. Too many husbands who'd killed straying wives and said they up and run off with traveling salesmen, when they were really dead down some old well. Too many pretty babies sold to childless rich folks. No sir, nobody wanted their lives looked at too close-like.
"But I reckon," she added, feeling like she might cry, "that now Beau's come home, you don't need me here no more."
"Come here, girl," 'Meliar said.
Raylene mounted the porch steps. Beau had crouched down again and was cleaning the blood off his claws. Not with rough swipes of his tongue, like a cat would, but with an old rag, and making a face as he did it. She just had to grin. He was kinda cute, really.
"You saying you want to go back to your maw?"
"Not 'specially. I like it up here."
"Well, I like having you up here. Beau, he's good at fixing things. He could have this shack fixed up right smart, maybe build on a new room or two, isn't that right, son?"
Beau's lower jaw dropped in an approximation of a smile.
"He's a fine hunter, too, and I don't doubt but he'll do a grand job keeping the varmints at bay," 'Meliar went on. "But I don't 'spect he can cook, or clean, or sew all that well."
The tiger face looked frankly horrified at the suggestion. It was the very way Raylene's little brothers looked if you so much as hinted they might make their own lunches or put patches on the knees of their own jeans.
"And I'll still be needing someone to walk with me to church, and run errands down to the market," 'Meliar said. "The less anybody really sees of Beau, the better. Keep up the mystery and all, and that just won't do if they have him strolling into Colson's store to buy yarn. Plus, who'd take care of the chickens? He'd right scare the feathers off them."
"You mean … you're saying I can stay?" Raylene asked with a rising glad hope.
"I couldn't do without you," 'Meliar said. She held out one withered stick-bunch of a hand to Raylene, and the other to Beau. They took them gingerly. "Either one of you."
They stayed like that for a few minutes, hearing nothing but the drone of flies and the usual hillside noises. Raylene thought that she saw a wily look about old 'Meliar, and wondered what it was she was up to now. But 'Meliar only released them, and clapped her hands briskly.
"Now," she said, "we'd best get this mess cleared up before dinner!"
January 2004 / email@example.com / www.christine-morgan.org