Author's Note: I was planning to get back to Goliath and Elisa with this one, but with the Hawkins family crisis and all the accompanying players fresh in the readers' minds, I thought it better to release this one sooner (plus, this story had already been plotted out and partially started). This is a tangential story designed to fill in most of the gaps of Todd Hawkins' history and help answer a lot of questions raised. But, as always, more questions will be brought up so please be patient, everything will be answered in due time. #92 will be a Goliath/Elisa story, promise.
91 - "Immemorial: A Companion to Complications and Investigations"
"Man...cannot learn to forget, but hangs on the past: however far or fast he runs, that chain runs with him."
- Friedrich NietzscheNovember 11th, 1982
Leaning back in his chair, Joseph Hawkins watched as Abel waited out the recently installed vending machine pour another cup of coffee, then grab the cup, savor the wisp of steam, and cautiously test his lips across the rim of the Styrofoam.
It was a ritual he had, and bizarre as it was it seemed to allow the clutter of a day's information to resettle itself in his head, perfectly and impeccably organized.
Abel Sykes walked back to his desk butted up against his partner's, and strategically placed his coffee between the glossies of a corpse, taken from every conceivable angle. "So, another body."
"One shot to the head." answered Joseph as he examined a close-up of the actual entry wound. Near the temple, the bullet-hole was small, clean and spatterless, proving the gun barrel was right up against the skin, and with the accompanying bruise on the back of the head, the victim wasn't conscious to resist. "Execution style."
"As with the other two."
"Medical examiner pulled this out of the body." Joseph pulled out a Ziploc baggie with a single bullet inside. "Glock nine millimeter. Standard bureau issue."
Sykes took the bag, and examined the bullet through the clear plastic, hazel eyes narrow, methodical and glinting gold under fluorescent lights. "Very standard, very numerous, very common. It could have been anyone."
"True, but it's the third body this month, killed with the same type of gun, and in the same style. It's another link in the chain that leads back to our own government."
Abel grabbed for the third victim's personnel file, rather scarce. Like the first two, he was U.S. government. "All three of them were government officials?"
"Low-ranking government officials, but officials nonetheless." Joseph replied, leaning back into his chair and folding his arms behind his head. "They don't seem high-profile enough to warrant an execution like this. So, the question is, what makes them important enough to be killed."
"Someone obviously wanted them out of the way."
Eyebrows went up. "What for?" he pressed. "I've been trying to get as much information on the three victims as possible, but all but the most conventional files have been suddenly classified, which makes whatever their purpose a little more significant. Hell," he waved a hand over the desk, "I was lucky to get these photos. I've sent inquiries in to see if I can at least get a peek at them for any kind of correlation, but it's like I've either been purposely ignored or blocked at every turn."
Abel watched from over the open file Joseph lean on his desk in frustration. He saw the fatigue drawn clearly on his features, aging him a good ten years. "Go home, Joe, go be with your family."
"What time is it?"
"Late." He gathered the files into one hand and waved them in front of his partner's eyes. "And you can let this go for at least one night."
Joseph smiled at his friend, stood up and clapped him on the shoulder once, then twice, and reached for the coat slung across the back of his chair. "Goodnight, Abel."
"Goodnight, Joe. And don't forget about Mulcahy's party on Wednesday."
"I don't feel much like celebrating." he yelled back to his partner as he neared the elevator doors.
Abel smiled, knowing what would ultimately persuade him. "It'll be good for Rose."
A pause, the chime of the arriving elevator cab, the swish of the doors, and then, "We'll be there."
"Why have all the records been sealed? Why can't I get access?"
He was leading a brisk pace, intent on getting to his office and hoping the agent would take the hint at both his speed and how unconcerned he was trying to be. "This case has been classified, agent Hawkins. The investigation has been taken over by another more 'concerned' division."
Forced to chase the assistant director down the hall, Joseph was still relentless. "We're the FBI! Who the hell gets jurisdiction over us?"
"The CIA, and the White House."
Joseph slowed. He was understandably taken aback, especially with the cases leading that high, but he knew it only meant it was farther-reaching than he realized, and more dangerous than he ever imagined.
The director stopped and turned to one of his best men, an agent who easily led the promotional race for the coveted title of Special Agent in Charge. "Let it go, Hawkins." he said, a command veiled somewhere within the unusually softer tone. "It's out of our hands now."
"Is this a cover-up? Because it smells like bullshit."
"Hawkins, what the hell did I just say?!" he barked.
Joseph wandered closer, his eyes so dead-set on his superior the older man could feel it against his chest. "For me to forget about the murders of three innocent, government employees. For me not to do my job to protect the innocent and any other employee who may be at risk. For me to sit on my ass and not do a damned thing–"
"That's enough, agent!" The corridor echoed with the ADIC's yell, and a few agents looked up from their office windows to see what had spurred the growl. "Get this through your head. As of now, this case is over. Understand?"
Begrudgingly, Joseph answered, "Yes, sir."
The files both in his hand and littering the surface of the desk were nearly impossible to differentiate between. All the same sickly tan, if it weren't for the printed labels across the top the sharply suited man flipping through their contents, if not already intimate, would be hard-pressed to tell them apart. He himself was a nameless underling, one of millions littering every large corporation and government office across the hemisphere.
The latest file caught his eye, an inquiry by an FBI agent into several recent murders that seemed a little too inquisitive. "Our operative was a little sloppy." he remarked, peering over the cardboard rim of the file folder. "He left breadcrumbs. A goddamned trail."
"Which doesn't necessarily mean it will lead anywhere." a voice answered from beyond the darkened rim, where the muted lamplight couldn't quite reach.
"Mr. Hawkins is getting close."
"Once in a while, an agent or some other administrative stooge always gets close. They never make it farther than that." A flash of liquid bronze, the telltale clink of glass on glass, the owner had poured himself a tumbler of brandy and seemed quite content to remain in the cover of shadow. "They can never imagine the extent to what they've stumbled on."
There was expectation in the underling's eyes, and a troubled expression to match.
The shadowed form saw it, reflecting from the sable gaze across the room. "You worry."
"We've watched best-laid plans ruined by administrative stooges. He's an insurgent, your typical maverick hero, and rumors from our plants in the Manhattan bureau say he's already risked his career just to further the case, and still, he's pursuing it behind the assistant director's back."
"Then vanish him." he assured his companion, and watched him visibly relax with the order. "For safety's sake, of course. And have our new friends deal with him before they catch the boat back to Europe. Permanently."
"Are you sure?" he asked, somewhat incredulously.
"A test of loyalty."
The underling closed the file and placed it with the others. "Loyalty." he echoed. "They're already proving...rebellious."
The apparition laughed, and the light caught a small, gold, triangular pin on the left side of his jacket collar. "They're gargoyles, my young colleague, they are not a breed to be ordered around by an inferior species."
"Then why are we entrusting them with something one of our own men could easily handle?"
"I want to see just how hard we can push them before they'll push back, and just how far they'll go to protect their clans."
Of all the wild colors between them, the darkness seemed to comfortably cling to their winged forms, disguising them within the canopy of trees alongside a long section of highway. Some stood, others hunched at the ready, but all of them had their gazes trained on that black strip of asphalt.
The creatures were restless, and cold, even with thick hide evolved to handle harsh winters and wings mantled to ward off most of the downpour.
Summer and fall were meeting head on just off the coast of Manhattan; rain had turned to intermittent sleet and distant veins of lightning streaked forebodingly through the clouds, stirring a mixture of weather patterns that roared sub-harmonically and churned above the horizon.
One, tall and blond-haired, thinned his eyes into the viscera of night, then, heard talons scuff the ground behind him. His cloaked wings ruffled with the familiar scent.
"I am sick of this..." a rose female muttered off his left shoulder. "The favors our masters force upon us now include murder? I never thought our leader would condone such a thing."
"He didn't." he said quietly. "I did."
The male didn't see the surprise ripple through his mate's features, but the slight movement from her strutless wings releasing from around her collarbone was enough to eddy the wind and enlighten him as to her reaction.
"You?" she breathed in disbelief.
He turned; her jaguar eyes, like diamond, shone through the biting rain so intensely he nearly lost the nerve to continue with what he felt he must. But he carried more on his shoulders than she, being outside the hierarchy of the united clans, could ever imagine. Through his own perhaps preemptive reasoning, the hard decisions had become his to make with his leader's old age and subsequent debility impairing their clans' defenses, and all the sacrifices that followed were his to live with. "The sooner we kill them, the sooner we shall be left alone." he explained coldly, far too coldly for him.
A smoky grunt turned silver in the autumn night; the female, among the small, vigilant band, wasn't quite sure what killing an innocuous human brood would guarantee their clan. "You know as well as I do we will never be left alone as long as they hold our own lives over our heads."
"Then tell me what else I should do."
"It is not my place." Through the flurries between them, layering ice on their wings and clothes, they met their gaze. "You yourself must make that decision."
He closed his eyes, and weighed the options again as he already had a thousand times. But as always with an introspective pass through his thoughts, the conclusion was the same.
"We are killing innocents." She played the Devil's Advocate rather well, her words stinging worse than the cold, brewing winds.
"There are...there are no innocents any longer, my love."
"I wish I could believe that."
He sighed, but the force behind the breath made more a low-octave grunt than any other sound. "Four humans for several clans of more than five hundred."
"This is murder–"
"This is survival!" Eyes illumined against the darkness, and he turned to the huddled group now enthralled by their Second and de-facto leader flaring his gaze. His Scandinavian accent had never been so severe, and though already prominent amongst this country's communal, edgeless brogue, it'd surfaced with a heady bite. "The Illuminati has the power and resources to completely destroy us and wipe everything we hold dear away with a single stroke!"
His mate gave him an injured look from in-between wet strands. "I have already lost everything dear to me."
He sighed, kneading his ridges, "Our egg..."
"Could be construed as a means to revenge."
"This is not vengeance."
The bitter memory of losing her only egg twenty years ago was still as fresh as an open wound, and she knew he carried the pain as well. But right now, it was as if he was trying to convince himself. "Then tell me you do not take any pleasure in this."
He shook his head. "I take none. I carry this on my shoulders alone, beloved." he whispered, conceded, and in doing so, accepted his fate as the catalyst to death. "I made the decision, and I shall live with it..."
Staring into the knotted tension she observed moving under thick flesh, muscles folding atop each other, she reached out for the glaze of copper, but hesitated just before reaching the surface.
"Där er en annan bil komme." the thin, claw-winged lookout announced.
His mate pulled her hand away and the Second reacted, turning his head sharply to the road in the midst of the driving, frozen rain. One vehicle out of an intermittent few that had earlier traveled this particular section of road was making its way towards them. "It's them."
"How do you know?" the female inquired.
He tapped the device imbedded in his ear. His mate studied closer the curled wire hooked over the crest of his pointed ear, and running closely against his neck. "Our benefactors have assured me as such. Climb the trees, take to the air."
"Sarah was remarkably well-behaved tonight."
"Sarah's the quiet one, it's Todd I was worried about, especially the way they kept feeding him those chocolates."
A crack of a smile appeared within the dark bristle of his goatee, and laughter soon followed. Joseph filled the entire vehicle with a sharp chuckle, "Oh he's fine, I gave him some of my wine and he calmed right down. Kid can't hold his liquor."
"Joseph." Rose said pointedly, and only fed his laughter. "How many glasses did you have anyway?"
"Glass. And I didn't even finish that." He passed her a glance, and those gray eyes offered a steel glint of sincerity. "You know I'd never risk the kids."
She didn't have to agree, at least not verbally; if there was anything besides his work he was committed to, it was his family. "Bureau office parties." she then muttered, in half a derisive tone. "I wonder why I even go."
"Because you like Mulcahy's wife, because she wanted to see the baby and wanted you to see their new riverside house that came with her husband's promotion, and because you wanted out of that loft. You've been cooped up there for six months."
She smiled. It was nice to get out for a while, even if it meant bringing the children. "Perhaps," she started, joining in the fun, "we could slip Todd a good, strong Merlot whenever he refuses to go to bed."
He laughed again, but his mirth quickly trailed off, and the quiet chatter between their children resumed as the only sounds within the car's interior.
She was watching him and even now, could see the faint threads of reflection crease his forehead. He was still mulling over that case, the murders, the potential connections to the FBI and the danger she thought it presented. He spared the party-goers the brunt of it for tonight, but Rose knew Joseph wasn't one to back down, a trait that eventually won him the first date from a moderately uninterested young Sociology major fresh out of graduation from New York State, and as a new mother she worried he may be delving too deeply into something that could inevitably backlash.
But her husband was the tireless pursuer of justice, a rare thing in today's disenchanted society, something that went hand in hand with the diamond adorning her finger she was still getting used to five years into their marriage, and something she knew she had to live with.
She turned and looked into the backseat, where Todd, still awake even near midnight, was dangling a few fingers over his baby sister's carseat. Rose could see tiny hands grabbing at her brother and hear Sarah's contented gurgle, and couldn't help but be drawn into a rare moment of camaraderie between her two children with Todd's inclination for jealousy ever since the baby was born.
"Did you see that?"
Rose turned her attention back to her husband. "See what?"
"A shadow...just outside the windshield..."
She followed his exploratory gaze, and found nothing but the same fast-approaching glitter of rain streaming towards them and dancing along the steel planes of the car. "I hate this street sometimes." she whispered, staring out through the side window and, through the park's trees, into the placid, black marble surface of the Hudson river. "It looks so different at night, and the houses are so far away."
"Fastest route home."
"It's strange, it just seems so desolate–"
Something heavy suddenly hit the car. The unexpected weight shifted the center of gravity and it fishtailed and swerved over the line before Joseph was able to take control.
"What the hell?!"
"Joseph!" Rose could see dark, humanoid forms crawling across the hood, well dressed among the night and driving sleet. They made sounds she'd never heard before, guttural, ghostly, wailing, and she swore she'd seen glowing eyes in the side mirror, but thought it was lightning, or a trick of light with the excess of adrenaline. "Who are they?!"
They were pounding on the panels, and the noise was deafening. It was scare tactics, pure and simple, and unwarranted to a helpless family at the mercy of slick roads and the vulnerability of their children.
But what kind of men would attack and cling to a speeding car?
Something tore through the roof above the front seat. Knives. No, with a moment of clarity through the blanket of blinding, paralyzing dread, it was a hand, peeling through the layers of steel, insulation and upholstery. Talons. These weren't men, they were monsters.
As Joseph tried to keep control over the burdened vehicle, Rose cast wide, fearful eyes into the backseat. Todd was close to tears as something tried to claw its way through the spider-web mesh of a broken window, snarling, and hungry. He took refuge from the ravenous hand by huddling over Sarah's carseat. "Oh god..."
Her children, no matter what damage was being done to the car, denting metal, shattering glass, her eyes never left her children.
"It's okay, sweetie, it's okay!" She struggled with the seatbelt, the damned seatbelt. She couldn't get it off to reach for Todd.
Sarah was crying.
There was so much noise.
She couldn't reach Todd.
The damned seatbelt.
Joseph was grunting, struggling to keep control with strong, alien arms trying to wrench him from the car through the open window. He was driving one-handed, the icy road beneath them swerving the car from side to side with the added weight on the roof. He cried out, and pulled his arm back in; it'd been gashed from wrist to elbow. Bleeding profusely, the skin nearly shredded from the bone, he cradled his dead appendage to his stomach.
"I can't keep control!" he screamed in response. Something loomed in the conic beam of the headlights. "Get your head down!"
He lost control. The car pitched, skidded off the asphalt, slid into the guardrail and broke through. Metal tore, a horrible moan as rivets between the barriers popped under the weight and force and the car went into a terrifying flip and roll.
Joseph grabbed for his wife. Her fingers grazed against his, before, impact, and they were violently pulled apart.
The car went up, then down and hit the base of the small cliff with enough force to nearly render it in two, shearing the steel frame almost perfectly between the front and rear doors.
From above, they watched the vehicle's two severed halves tumble from the momentum and shed parts as they rolled, broke apart and eventually came to a stop.
The gargoyles wore mixed expressions, shock, fear, revulsion, one near the back refused to even look at what had resulted in a total loss of instinctual control; they had betrayed an ancient, congenital doctrine.
The lookout settled to the tufts of grass at the bank's edge, and seemed to flick his head towards the wreckage and quickly spreading gasoline-fueled fire; he was testing the air for any sign of human flesh. "De er död, min Andra. De må vara bort."
It was hard enough to catch a scent with this wind, especially in the midst of a fire chemically fed and sparking deep within the crux an oddly mystifying emerald blue, and the Second knew the young gargoyle was hoping they'd died in the crash, if only to save them from further staining their hands with blood. "Humans are more resilient then you could ever imagine."
A larger male stepped up to the ridge. "Then we go down," he said in broken, unpracticed, mournful English, "and ensure."
"No," decreed the Second, "stay here."
He extended his wings and threw himself towards the bottom of the shallow ravine, a natural, sloping dip in the landscape, using the warm currents extending upwards from the fire to easily direct himself to a location where the flames had yet to reach. He landed, and examined the breeze with a flare of his nostrils, wading through the remains towards the lone scent not yet obliterated by the pungent fumes.
A woman, hurled from the car, lay motionless and almost completely hidden within a haphazard circle of wreckage. His bronze skin hauntingly incandescing, he made his way across the small clearing, moved several of the flaming pieces to gain access and stood over the prone human with claws at the ready.
Her neck, it would be the quickest, most humane way to finish her if she weren't already dead.
Between the long tendrils of hair matted by the rain and her own blood, lashes fluttered on high cheekbones, a sign of life. She opened her eyes and the gargoyle was stricken.
"...j...j-joseph...?" she asked the apparition with fluid-filled lungs.
The Second leaned down and stroked the mane from an attractive visage (for a human), roamed his talons along her cheek, over the sharp edge of her jaw and along her neck, drawing trails in the fresh blood as he gripped his hand around her throat.
One quick motion and her spinal cord would sever, but something ultimately held him back when face to face, flesh to flesh with someone who never should have been his enemy. He jumped away from her as if she'd caught fire, seeing a warped reflection in the pools of her eyes. "This is not our way." He ran the dark liquid of human blood between his thumb and the edge of his forefinger, feeling the warmth trickle into the runnels of his palm. "This is not our way."
Had someone been standing over her?
Or was it the blow to the head on impact that created false images in her mind and a phantom caress about her neck.
Rose stirred, tasted blood, and moved her fingers across rough earth. She was surprised for a moment at the odd feeling across her fingertips, a euphoric disorientation from being thrown from the car hung over her like a blanket blinding her senses.
A hand clenched against a mound of dirt turned sludge, the sting of gasoline hit her and her senses cleared.
She turned, lifted up and looked back at the twisted, burning chunk of automobile that had carried her down the hill. The seatbelt that had kept her from helping her children had finally snapped at the force of the collision, and she had the red marks across her stomach and chest to prove it.
Her head swimming, her skin starting to blister from the intense heat, she struggled to crawl away from the lapping flames and look for any sign of her family.
The Second, from a short distance watched her progress as she attempted to move, but her will far exceeded a physical strength that had nothing left to give and she lost consciousness.
Like coming out from a bad dream, Joseph woke into the upheaval of rational thought and a coughing fit, dislodging the blood from his throat. Something heavy weighed on his chest, constricting his breathing and, now glaringly mindful of his wounded left arm, used his right to roll the torn panel off of him and stared headlong into utter bedlam.
The car, uncleanly dissected, and on fire. He rubbed a hand over his forehead slick with blood and tried to remember. Everything was so damned muddled...
Rose, his children, things on the car, hitting the rail, the ground, and then, darkness.
They were attacked, and he knew the reason; he'd gotten too close to something. One of the higher-ups, one of the orchestrators of the recent murders he was investigating had sent some kind of mercenaries to shut him up. But they couldn't have been common men. Looking at his arm and the gouges torn through his flesh in an unmistakable four-fingered pattern, it was something more.
The arm was dead weight, and almost completely numb, and in addition to the numerous gashes he may have a sprained ankle from where the car's firewall collapsed against his legs. But despite his injuries he attempted a search with blood-veiled, blurry vision, a futile one by the look of the remains of their car. He couldn't even get close to most of the wreckage, the heat too intense, and anyone still unfortunate enough to be trapped inside would have been incinerated.
He choked back a sob. "Bastards...!" he howled, and sank to his knees, falling into fresh, liquid ground.
But, in the midst of death and his own suffocating misery, a small cry made its way through the amaranthine roar of burning steel and Joseph snapped his head towards the faint, strangled sound. Ignoring the excruciating pain of his injuries, he hobbled towards the wail however weak it may be and gasped at the source.
It was Sarah, still swaddled in her blanket. She was drenched, lying in a puddle and screaming herself raw.
Joseph threw his body towards the squalling bundle, nearly fell on top of her as his wounded arm gave out and murmured gently as best he could with a mouthful of blood. "...ssshhhh...sshhh..." It didn't do much to quiet the baby but at least she was alive, most likely thrown from her carseat. He picked her up, brushed the debris from her face and huddled her to his chest to ward off the cold. She was dead-chilled, and her breathing was dangerously labored. "No...no, angel..." he begged of his daughter, frantically, desperately. "Keep breathing. Come on...please, baby, keep breathing..."
No matter how much he pleaded, each of Sarah's breaths was weaker than the last, and her crying, as much as it pained him to hear, was dying away. He slipped a finger into her mouth to check for any obstruction, but the damage was clearly lower down than he could reach, either in the esophagus or her lungs and artificial respiration wouldn't do a damned thing if she stopped breathing. The nearest home was a mile off, but he wondered if it was worth the risk considering what had happened tonight.
He stood, putting his weight on his good foot, and, before turning, caught something that looked as if it was standing in the very center of the fire.
Through the distortion of flame an outline emerged, and the firelight, for an inconceivable moment, had lit up anthropoid features that proved it not an animal and not quite human as well. "What the hell...?"
It hadn't seen him. It flared appendages on either side of an impressive frame, wings, and vanished quickly, as if it had become part of the inferno itself.
Joseph stared for an instant before trudging off into the coppice of trees lining the clearing, trailing spattered blood and intent on saving his daughter.
The Second ran through the flames and towards the hillside, quickly bounding up the embankment with his claws embedding in the grassy soil and rejoined the small band of creatures waiting expectantly for his return. But without a word or explanation, he walked through them and didn't stop until a ways off, near the edge of the road.
He remained silent in the gentle song of rain across the pavement, as did the clan.
"What of the humans?" his mate whispered.
"I could only find one." he embellished, eyes low and nearly hidden underneath the dripping precipice of bone. True, he found one, but didn't really search further for the others he'd seen through the vehicle's windows. "I let her live."
A small hand ran the length of her mate's trembling shoulder, near the unbound plume. "You were not wrong to spare them, beloved."
"I spared the mother, the father and children could still be dead. Perished in the flames."
"Then what stopped you?"
"I looked into her eyes, and saw the reflection of a savage...and I will not allow the Illuminati transform us into monstrosities."
The wiry lookout looked over the devastation below one last time and slinked towards the Second, cautious in his approach. "Utom vad vilja den Belysningen tänka?"
He whirled on the young one and roared, "I do not care what they think!!"
The larger male stood behind, mindful of the blood-soaked hand reflexively clenching and unclenching at his leader's side. "You cared enough to kill." he argued.
"I did, and it was a mistake."
"We must care, or the clans could suffer. You said yourself."
"We have done what they asked, we have helped to slaughter a feeble, human family that posed such an urgent threat!" he snorted self-deprecatingly, his eyes aflame in white. "I have now killed for them once, I will not do so again!!"
His mate watched the glow from his eyes burn to its brightest peak and then, recede as he calmed himself under the precipitation dripping from the canopy of trees. "What do we do now?"
The rage was bleeding away, allowing clarity of thought. "We go home." he sighed, taking a moment to peer over the orange inferno below the twisted guardrail. His doing, his choice, and may he suffer for it. "The ship will be leaving soon."
One by one, the clan leapt into the branches of the tallest tree, using them as stepping-stones and scaling the trunk with their talons, until they reached the best height to take off from and caught the easterly bound wind.
"We've got survivors!!"
Thirty-five minutes later, the accident site was swarming with rescue personnel, ambulances, fire trucks and a few scattered spectators who just happened to be driving past. Firemen battled the flames while emergency medical crews scoured the wreckage, and a larger fragment of the car's rear quarter-panel had yielded a survivor.
A female EMT scooped a young boy into her arms, rescued from a den of metal that assuredly would've been a tomb. Todd was wide-eyed, silent, and darting his head around, trying to make sense of the chaos short-circuiting any lucid response. "Lucky little thing," she said to her partner, who ran his gloved fingers through the child's hair to examine for cuts, "he barely has a scratch."
"None that I can find." the man agreed.
"He was still strapped into his seat when it came loose from the frame, and was completely buried under it. We almost didn't find him." She grabbed a blanket from the open end of the ambulance and wrapped it around him, hoping to calm the violent shivers wracking his tiny body. "God, he's shaking."
Using a small flashlight, the male EMT peeled back the boy's eyelid and tested for pupil dilation. "He's in shock..." He looked over to a stretcher being loaded into another ambulance, and the woman beneath the bandages being intubated to help her breathe through the fluid congesting her chest. "But his mother's in worse shape."
Slim fingers worked their way across Todd's smudged brow, wiping away soot with a caress so familiar to the boy but so distant, almost vague. He looked at the woman holding him and still, just stared with those clouded eyes.
Around the side of the ambulance, the male EMT noticed a pair of dark-suited men surveying the accident sight, trawling through the smoldering remains like a pair of sharks on a blood trail. "Hey...who're the spooks?"
"Gotta be the FBI." she sighed.
"What the hell are they doing here?"
"I don't know. Come on, let's get him loaded."
"Her name is Rose Hawkins. Hawkins, Hawkins. Early thirties, long, dark brown hair, wavy...are you sure? Well, check again!! No record...all right, all right thank you." Joseph hung up the phone and leaned for support against the curled-edge Formica counter surface.
He'd spent all day on the telephone, searching for his wife and son, but every hospital, clinic and shelter on the entire island of Manhattan all gave the same response: they had no record of anyone matching the name or description.
Returning to the accident site a while later had yielded more questions than answers, and because he didn't want to expose himself he could only watch from the distant park woods as a lone CSI team and a few unidentifiable agents surveyed the charred remains of their vehicle. Whether Rose and Todd had survived or not, they, or their bodies, had already been taken from the accident site.
And now, in a motel that had seen better days but took cash and asked no questions of its patrons, agent Joseph Hawkins hid from the world with his ailing baby daughter.
He flipped further through the phonebook, but found as he turned over another worn, yellow sheet he'd already exhausted almost every avenue left to him but one, and he wouldn't accept that. A short, forceful breath, he moved a drift of long hair from the side of his face and returned to the beginning of the listing for hospitals.
But, as the endless newsprint started to blur and the guard started to drop, he thought he should try to risk getting in touch with Abel.
"A fatal car accident last night has claimed four lives."
The television an odd creature comfort on the edge of his awareness, he'd left it on to have some kind of conversational drone in the background to fill the silence. Joseph turned out of curiosity, and the faint hope he could find some information.
"An accident late last night on Henry Hudson Parkway has left an entire family dead." the anchor announced, in the impassive tone trained to its proficient best. "FBI agent Joseph Hawkins, his wife and their two young children were killed when their car skidded off the road and through the guardrail near the lower half of Riverside Park. Investigators at the scene say the car flipped three times and rolled down a forty foot embankment, breaking apart and catching fire."
He stopped breathing.
"While several bodies, that of Hawkins and his infant daughter, are assumed to have been completely destroyed by the fire's incredible heat, his wife died on route to the hospital and his three-year-old son was later pronounced dead."
Nothing registered; it felt like his nervous system had just shut down, anesthetizing the rest of his body to any kind of sensation. Then, if his mind was coherent enough to realize, he laughed, letting a short, uproarious, throbbing bark into the small room as a prelude to the feeling returning to his extremities. Joseph stumbled back and eventually into the wall, hit, and the sudden impact jarred him from his disbelief.
He turned against the painted surface, and started sobbing.
That's why he couldn't find them; he never checked the morgue. He'd refused to give up hope that they'd survived and had avoided the gruesome task.
All the pain, all the rage, everything was released and channeled into a fist that, first, lightly pounded on the drywall, then, grew in force until he was striking the surface so hard the entire wall trembled. He continued punching, screaming, the material giving way under his clenched hand until the last punch went right through.
He pulled out his hand, the knuckles torn, bleeding and heavily dusted in powdered gypsum, and stared at the red, threadlike lines oozing down his forearm, distractedly intrigued, until a cry so much like before alerted him to his roommate.
He hurried to quiet the squalling makeshift cradle in the middle of the bed and found he was about to comfort his daughter with a heavily bleeding hand. Wrapping a towel around his hand and knotting it, he plucked Sarah from the pillows and hugged her to his chest. "Sssshhhhh...it's all right."
He just held her, crying into her blanket.
Fifteen minutes passed, cold tears met warm flesh and Joseph noticed her forehead was still hot as the feeling returned to his skin; she was running a fever that hadn't gone down since early this morning. She was sick and not getting any better, and he wondered if his efforts last night were even worth the attempt.
He'd made it to the first house he found and hammered on the basement door without any consideration to the owner's comfort or the hinges on which the door rested. The lights were off, everything locked, if anything they were either sleeping or gone for the night. Sarah's breathing barely audible, her body limp, he took a step back and kicked in the door then rummaged through the dark home until stumbling across a bathroom. Laying Sarah on the counter, he ripped open the medicine cabinet, frenetically raked his hands through the contents, and grabbed rubbing alcohol, cotton swabs, scissors and, the best of what was available, a tampon.
He ripped open the tampon's plastic wrapper and pulled it apart to gain access to the small plastic tube, then took the scissors and pressed the dull edge of one of the blades to his forefinger to use as a makeshift scalpel.
He hesitated, at slicing into his prone baby girl, until the gravity of the situation forced his hand. He cut a slit low on her throat, almost near her collarbone, and quickly inserted the cylinder, packing the open fissure with alcohol-soaked cotton swabs to sterilize the wound and stop the bleeding.
He could hear the faint, gurgling strum of air through the plastic tube and sighed, nearly collapsing in relief. Sarah kicked, mewled, and resumed an erratic but life-sustaining rhythm of breathing. She was stable but still having trouble, and he needed to risk his exposure by getting her to a hospital.
So, he hotwired the Jimmy in the garage and sped off towards Roosevelt hospital.
Carrying Sarah in a small bundle, stormcloud eyes wary underneath the hat he'd found in the house, he slipped in through a side door avoiding the main entrance, slid up behind the first idle physician he saw and, grabbing her arm, dragged her from the administrative desk.
"Help her, please." he implored.
She was surprised to be nearly manhandled by a hooded man with improvised bandages who'd looked, frankly, like he'd just been through hell. But his demeanor and clothing screamed discretion and with a child at stake she didn't argue, only pulled him towards an empty bed and pulled the curtain.
The physician had drained the fluid in Sarah's lungs and trachea, "she was nearly choking to death,", remarked on the lateral thinking Joseph had used to save her life, "I'm impressed, she would have died if you hadn't acted so quickly," and given her an antibiotic shot, one of an intended many, "it could be the onset of pneumonia."
But Joseph had turned his attention away, beyond the half-drawn privacy curtain to a doctor being questioned by two suited men. They flashed their badges, FBI, and then asked the physician about a man matching his description and perhaps a child of six months. But he didn't recognize them, and in his paranoia run obsessively rampant, he didn't think of why they were searching for a man and his daughter supposedly having perished in a fire but knew he couldn't afford to trust anyone. "Is she all right?" Joseph inquired of the doctor, the tone insistent.
"For now," she replied, turning around to dispose of the syringe, "but I want to run some further tests. She was exposed to the cold and water and it can have some dangerous consequences especially for an...infant..." She'd turned and found the father and his daughter gone. "Mr. Smith...?"
And now, Joseph gently coddled her, stroking the dark wisps of hair he knew would one day bloom like her mother's. "It's all right, sweetie, daddy's here." he whispered with a raw voice. "Daddy will always be here..."
His eyes blurring, he blinked and moved them, and they somehow wandered of their own accord towards the small round table and chairs that adorned every motel/hotel room, and the collection of drawings from a just-above-average skill that could have been great with applied practice. They were all of that creature rising from the flames; the details were rough but the overall shape, the horns, wings, wide-shouldered proportions, were enough to make the thing appear as if it was going to leap from the paper.
"...An accident late last night on Henry Hudson Parkway has left four dead. FBI agent Joseph Hawkins, his wife and their two young children were killed when their car skidded off the road and through the guardrail..."
They were random sketches, but the number and sheer intensity in which they'd been produced proved a more disconcerting origin, borne from an obsession with this creature that wouldn't leave his thoughts, his dreams, sharing his every waking reflection with that of his family.
"...While several bodies, that of Hawkins and his infant daughter, are assumed to have been completely destroyed by the fire's incredible heat, his wife died on route to the hospital and his three-year-old son was later pronounced dead..."
Something new burned in his tear-filled gaze. "Daddy will always be here."
"We finally got a name. Todd Matthew Hawkins."
"Why couldn't we find anything on him?"
"Because the kid hasn't said a word since we brought him in. Doctors say it's shock, and some kind of traumatic memory loss. Besides, we couldn't find any records on him at all. No fingerprint matches, dental records, nothing. It's like he came from out of nowhere."
"They were killed in the same car crash."
The woman shook her head, bobbing the tendrils that brushed against her shoulders and put a hand over her mouth. She'd seen every kind of family tragedy a hundred times over in her work, but it never got easier, especially when children were left orphaned.
Her companion, a fellow social worker, turned and looked into the living quarters of the children's home where Todd had been temporarily entrusted by the state, but he knew it could quickly become permanent. Beds lined the cavernous room on either side, and at the very end, near the windows a small boy sat staring into the sky beyond. "He's forgotten almost everything but his first name. That crash must have been terrifying enough for him to lock everything away."
She found the richness of his sable hair glowing under the sunlight, and wondered aloud, "Where'd we get the name?"
"Sewn into his pants." he chuckled. "Almost missed it."
"Well, maybe it'll all come back to him in time." she said, but deep down thought her optimism futile.
They walked off, down the hall and past a shadow that looked, if one took the time, remarkably human. A thin man made his way from an empty corridor, made sure the path was clear by lifting the brim of his Yankees baseball cap from his eyes and slinked his way towards the window.
A phone attached to the wall allowed him a direct line to his office without letting the young boy alone in the living quarters from his sight. He plucked the receiver from its cradle, dialed and held the phone between his shoulder and the side of his head. "Yeah, Melissa? Get me Perry, quickly."
After a slight pause, a voice picked up the other end of the line.
"Boss, it's me, Fitz. Where am I? In the children's home on Eighth Avenue, and let me tell you, security is lousy here."
He had to hold the phone a few inches away from his ear with the onslaught coming through the opposite end.
"Jesus...do you want to yell at me, or do you want front-page material?" he snapped back, darting a cautious gaze on both sides of the hall, his voice carrying. "Yes, it's solid, and I'd like to point out my instincts were dead right. You know that so-called 'accident' on the Henry Hudson three days ago, the one where the FBI agent and his entire family were killed? Well, guess what, I've found a survivor."
Chewing on the butt-end of a cigar down to the last inch, the editor read over the fresh print of his publication and the front-page story he still had reservations about even after the paper had gone to print. Even now, though reduced to an itch at the back of his neck, his instincts were a quiet, omnipresent whisper. "You're sure about this?"
Someone lean, proud and with a stubble-fringed smirk stood in front of the desk. "Look, I told you, I overheard the social workers. It's reliable, and it's gold. The kid's the only survivor from a suspected contract killing."
"I still find that hard to believe. They said it was a car accident."
"My source at the FBI bureau caught the rumor that says otherwise, the vehicle was attacked and forced off the road. And he also watched one of the agents tear out of the bureau like it was on fire as soon as he heard the kid was alive."
A thick eyebrow lifted over a gaze keen on his reporter. The man had a sloped brow, and vaguely catlike features in the fact he weighed maybe a hundred and ten and his face took on the tenuous shape of his skull. "And let me guess, you want to run with it."
"As soon as I can gather some more information, boss."
"There won't be any more information." Abel Sykes stormed into the chief editor's office kicking the door, already slightly ajar, open and hard enough for it to hit the wall-stop and shudder in the recoil. "This story is officially over."
"What?" the reporter coughed out, and turned, and through the office window's blinds found his desk and files being ransacked by a cadre of suits. They were confiscating anything relating to Todd. "Hey, what the hell are you doing?!"
Abel braced a hand into the reporter's chest as he tried to get past him, and held up the newspaper he'd been slipped at his desk in the bureau. The headline Child Survives Suspected Murder, the story beneath revealing Todd's survival, had incensed him enough to gather enough agents to arrest the entire compliment of employees and thunder into the building. "Are you the idiot who got this story? James Fitzgerald?"
"It's a free country, pal. And yes, I wrote it."
He clutched a hand around the man's collar, and yanked him close; he'd never abused the power of his employment and the shadowy, enigmatic air the FBI had gained as a reputation among the conspiracy buffs, but this was different. "This boy doesn't exist. Period." Abel hissed. "And if I hear you even thinking about bringing this up again, I'll make you disappear. And I'm the FBI, I can do it legally."
"Well, the story's already out as you can obviously see." Fitzgerald shot back, defending his report and unknowingly instigating an agent at the raw edge of his patience. "Right now, half of Manhattan is reading about how that kid survived."
Shoving him away in disgust, Abel eyed the editor. "Keep a leash on your employee, or I'll slap an injunction on this place and shut it down."
"I can, and god help me I will." Abel crumpled the newspaper and shoved it in his pocket. "Is everything relating to your story in your files and desk?"
The reporter crossed his arms and spit, "Fuck you."
Perry relaxed into his chair and butted out his cigar in an ashtray on his desk. Freedom of speech was one thing, having his newspaper shut down by one insolent man for a lost cause was another. "Answer the agent."
"What?" Fitzgerald turned in disbelief.
"Just," he shook an open hand in the air, "answer the agent, Fitz."
He implored with a wide gaze and a jaw hung low off of his head, until, seeing his editor wouldn't budge, answered resentfully from over his shoulder, "Yes."
Abel swept a uncompromising glare across Fitzgerald's own and slipped out of the office, overseeing the other agents gathering any evidence they could. Stragglers on the edges of the bullpen, including a few rival reporters with smiles gone flagrantly unconcealed from over the cubicle dividers, watched as Fitzgerald's desk and filing cabinet were practically dissected for any scrap of relevant information.
"This all seems kind of pointless, Sykes." a voice rang out from the rabble, and Abel narrowed it down to an agent resting on a banker's box full of files. "The kid's been exposed."
He nodded, and rubbed his brow; he'd been up for days and it was taking its toll. "I know, but it was never Todd they were after." Abel replied. "The man they wanted is dead, along with his wife and daughter."
"Then why the raid?"
"If anything, I don't want him living in a glass jar."
He arrived back at the bureau, ready to collapse into his chair and if need be, sleep here overnight. But before he could even reach the tiny, aging sanctuary of his desk; before he could slump into that chair with that same annoying squeak; before he could just rest, brood and reflect and at the very least dwell for a moment on the murder of his best friend, he'd been summoned into a meeting with the assistant director.
Abel turned the knob and slowly entered the office. Across from him the director stood at the far windows, entranced by something in the traffic below, where Broadway Street was just starting to glow, blaring and roaring in the daily routine. "You wanted to see me?"
"Sit down, please."
He took a seat at the large desk with an audible sigh of relief of getting off his feet, and was forced to wait for the explanation of why he was here with half-lidded eyes.
"I'm sorry I have to be the one to tell you this, agent Sykes..."
The ADIC turned, one side of his face haunting illuminated by the fading, titian light, and the other obscured by the darkness. "Were you aware of your partner's extracurricular activities?"
Not in the mood for games, Abel insisted as courteously as he could manage. "What are you getting at?"
A breath was released, one that told of weariness and disbelief. "Agent Joseph Hawkins has officially been charged with several counts of drug-trafficking, bribery, and leaking confidential documents to overseas interests."
His partner and friend had just been killed, and now this. Like a punch to the gut, Abel reacted in kind, "What?!"
A folder slid the length of the desk towards the agent. "The evidence has come down from Washington, where they'd taken over the case of the three dead officials. They think Hawkins was so determined to solve those murders because he was involved with them in betraying his own country for a lucrative payoff."
Abel growled, "Bullshit!" before he even got a look at the alleged evidence. He grabbed the folder, tore it open and started leafing through pictures, crime scene reports and documents conveniently unclassified in order the pad the accusing file folder to the bursting point. As much as Joseph had wanted to prove the murders were linked to the FBI, these records in turn told of his involvement, with large sums of money recently deposited into a private bank account with his name attached as the sole owner. And it was nearly impossible to either confirm or deny this considering all of the Hawkins' family's records and accounts had been sealed and stripped of any monetary value by a faceless higher-up. With every piece of evidence he went through another clenched line appeared in his face. "These records are falsified. They must be."
"I know how you feel, Sykes, but why would they try to implicate him?" the director posed, the question valid even in its offhanded manner. "Especially after his death."
"To obscure the truth, and justify sealing and vanishing the Hawkins' family records." Abel stuffed the contents back inside the folder without a care to any manner of organization and slapped the cover closed. "Someone didn't just want to kill him, they wanted him either completely destroyed or totally erased."
Five days unconscious had allowed her mind to play, resulting in feverish dreams as bits and pieces of the accident fused into one long, winding labyrinth of pain, fire, misshapen assailants and a chilling tendency to repeat over and over again.
Then, suddenly, she woke and the hallucination playing like a broken record shattered. Her eyes adjusted and cleared; tiles on the ceiling.
It looked like a hospital, but a little sparse in the equipment she expected to see. There were more machines around her when she gave birth to Sarah. She rolled her head over the pillow to the side and found, surprisingly, her husband's partner there, slumped across the chair; unshaven, rings under his eyes, hair just beginning to recede unkempt, he looked like hell. "Abel...?"
Abel shot his head up, "...it's about time..." and greeted her with a relieved smile, which quickly fell with the impending task he'd taken upon himself to perform. "Hello, Rose." he managed and got up, slowly walking to the side of her crudely fashioned hospital bed.
"Where am I?"
"Safehouse...? Why?" Her eyes took a quick, more detailed scan of her surroundings, and the empty room was more than a little disheartening when noticing her husband or children weren't there. "Where's Joseph? Where are my children?"
Abel sighed. What could he say? How could he tell her of half her family's gruesome death, let alone breach the subject? "Rose..."
"Abel, where are they?" She touched several tentative fingers to the bandage around her forehead. "The accident..."
He was stammering, Abel Sykes the logical machine of a man never stammered. And something in his eyes, reflecting from the ghostly honey-hued irises had told her more than she needed. "Oh god...oh god no..."
"I'm so sorry, Rose."
Tears ran the length of high cheekbones and over the shivering line of her jaw, and she burrowed into the sheets and blankets as if to escape the world. A groan escaped, traveling on an extended breath.
"We haven't found their bodies but...they were most likely completely destroyed by the heat of the fire."
There was a weight on her chest that felt as if it was going to force her ribs into her lungs and crush her heart in between; she couldn't breathe. She wasn't even aware of the sound of her own sobs in her devastation, but, a single realization doubling as a last hope went on like a light. "Todd...? What about Todd?"
"Alive." he whispered, yet even the good fortune of Todd's survival had its dark side. There was undeserved guilt on his features. "Unfortunately he was taken before I could get to him. I didn't hear about the accident until it was too late."
"Let me see him," she said urgently, "I need to see him."
Her eyes flared, and a muffled, choked voice suddenly thundered. "Why the hell not?!"
"You would be exposing yourself." Abel replied, and his seemingly icy reply was struggling, if not barely succeeding, to conceal a torrent of pent-up emotion. "Todd was placed under the supervision of another agent, and his survival was leaked before I could place any curb on the expected media result. The first story stated your entire family was killed, but a reporter found Todd and spread the word in a subsequent article that hit every newspaper stand on the island just last evening. I've already taken care of everything, there won't be any more stories on him but I fear the damage has already bee–"
"Damnit, Abel, LET ME SEE MY SON!!!"
He stood firm against the inferno that was a defensive mother. "No."
Rose shot up from her reclining position and tried to get out of the bed, but Abel quickly restrained her, strong hands against her arms and shoulders. She struggled against him, but her injuries and subsequent recovery had depleted her strength and she was pushed back against her pillows, all with a mad, tigress glare fixed on the agent.
"Whoever tried to kill you may come back to finish the job if you expose yourself." he forced his words, hoping something would sink in. "Everyone but the attending physicians think you died on the way to the hospital, and if you truly care about your son, you won't expose him as well."
"He could be in danger." she wheezed, her breath trembling against every change in pitch.
"He's not. Either they don't know he's alive or they don't care enough to kill him."
"That's not very reassuring..."
"He barely remembers anything, Rose, he..." Abel stumbled over what should have been a simple explanation. "He might not even remember you."
Her body relaxed, going limp under strong hands that held her in place and Rose leaned back into her bed, her face a pallid cast of shock and her gaze slowly falling to eventually land in her lap.
"He's not a threat to anyone, and that will keep him alive." Abel continued. "But if he's being watched, whoever killed Joseph may be using him as bait. For you."
"Can't you bring him to me?"
"We'd just end up creating a trail straight towards you."
She had to wipe her eyes or risk going blind from the tears that just wouldn't stop; cheek to chin they made two unbroken trails snaking down towards the collar of her hospital gown. "Then what...what do I do...?"
"Leave, Rose, get out. Go somewhere safe."
"Leave?" she repeated an inconceivable thought. "I can't leave, I can't leave my son."
"You have to." Abel insisted. "I don't know how long I can keep you hidden."
"Don't make me force you."
"I swear to god, Abel, you're going to need the entire FBI to keep me from my son!"
The grip on her arm tightened, so much so she winced, but Abel wasn't about to let up. "Whoever wanted Joe dead has already ransacked your home, taken almost everything you owned and either sealed or completely erased any record of your existence!! And now they've laid charges against him."
"What...?" she gasped.
"He's been posthumously branded a criminal, drug-trafficking, bribery, selling confidential documents, and that means you're an accessory. You could be charged with aiding and abetting."
Rose was quick to defend, "That's not true! He never–"
"I know." Abel held up a hand. "Someone's set him up and done a pretty good job of it. Your attackers hit you fast, proficiently and disappeared, just like all traces of your very existence. This is bigger than any of us realize and I won't let you risk Todd's life, or your own." The hand dropped, and the agent watched her features unclench and crumble into despair and what seemed a quasi-acceptance, but it could just be the fact she was numb. "Your son is safer without any tangible ties to his family, and you're both safe if you remain dead."
"Can I just see him...please, Abel, I'm begging you, just let me see him again." She gripped a hand into the sleeve of his shirt, desperately grasping the material between her fingers. "Just one more time..."
She sat impatiently on the couch as Abel hooked up the television and Beta-max video recorder, compulsively rubbing her hands together and itching at her bandages. In lieu of reuniting her with her son, Abel had promised a recent recording of an interview between Todd and a social worker and the only thing keeping her from seeing it was his infuriatingly slow process of connecting the machines together.
"Okay," he announced and stood back, much to Rose's relief, "here it is."
She leaned forward as the video recorder ground to work, and static abruptly gave way to the image of her son at one end of a table. At the other end, the unnamed social worker was a shadow at the very edge of the picture; the camera was obviously set up behind his right shoulder and centered on Todd.
Rose's next breath was a shudder, and she looked as if she was going to reach through the screen for her boy. He appeared nervous; the room was austere in its decoration if any, and it reminded her of an interrogation.
He'd never looked so small.
"Todd, I'm going to ask you a few questions, okay?"
A pause followed, and then, the young boy in the focus of the frame answered. "'kay."
"Can you tell me anything about the car crash?"
He blinked, and Todd slowly shook his head back and forth, increasing in speed until the next question asked.
"Nothing at all?"
"Do you remember anything about that night?"
The social worker flipped over a page, and laced his fingers together over the paper with lines of text unintelligible with the slightly grainy picture. "What's your mommy's name?"
Todd went to answer, but nothing came. He couldn't find any kind of reply, and just stared at his interviewer looking guilty in the fact he didn't know.
"What does your mommy look like?"
An internal struggle played out on young features. Rose could see him working through the scattered remnants of his memory as best he could, but those big, haunted eyes proved little had been left behind.
"You don't know? The color of her hair, her eyes?"
She threw up a hand to muffle the impending sob. He was so close and yet, gone, and seemed altogether a different child; he'd forgotten her, he'd forgotten her. "Turn it off..."
"TURN IT OFF!!!"
Abel wordlessly complied and hit the stop button, turned off the television and threw the room into complete and utter silence. He could barely stand to watch the bandaged woman weep into both hands cupped over her mouth, but at least now she was beginning to see things from a recurrently but necessarily cold perspective. "I'm so sorry."
"He's forgotten me..." she murmured. "My own son has forgotten me."
"They don't know if the memory loss is permanent or not, but right now, the fact he has absolutely no incriminating information will keep him alive." Abel walked over and settled to one knee in front of her. "Tell me, Rose, what would be better for him now?"
"He's all I have left." She met his gaze, and her determination had been set in viridian stone. "I don't care if he doesn't remember me, I can't leave him."
"We have absolutely no way to disprove the evidence against Joe." he added. "Apparently, from the agents I've spoken to the CIA's in an absolute uproar over the documents he supposedly leaked, and they're coming down hard on anyone with any kind of association and being considered an accomplice."
"You?" she said concernedly, realizing how much Abel had to lose.
He rubbed an affectionate hand on her forearm and formed a weak smile. "I've already been informed I'm to testify in front of a judiciary committee, but it's not me they're after so I suppose I'll be given the FBI equivalent of a slap on the wrist. But even if you were able to convince the CIA Joe was innocent, you'd be playing into the hands of whoever tried to kill your husband. They mean to draw you out in order to testify for him." Kind eyes turned hard, turned serious, reflecting even in the weak light. "And damnit, Rose, if I have to I'll arrest you myself. I'll throw you in a cell to protect that boy who has a chance to live a life, even if it isn't with you."
"So I'm damned no matter what I do..."
"The plane will take you straight to Charles de Gaulle. From there, you can go wherever you wish."
"As long as it's not here."
Abel shrugged his shoulders. Seeing Rose off at a private airfield, where a small leer-jet was being refueled and checked over just outside of the hangar, for the time being they had taken refuge within from the cold weather. A gust of wind blew through the open hangar door and ruffled her hair; she'd cut it short, shearing the long tress to a plain, camouflaging style just above her shoulders.
She smoothed it self-consciously, unaccustomed to the weightlessness and the breeze on a bare neck.
"Here," he said, handing her a black carry-on bag complete with strap, "I was able to save a few things."
Rose, surprised, took the bag and started rooting through it. Besides a few and simple necessities, welcome in the fact she'd completely forgotten to pack anything like them, a glint of something caught her eye. "Abel, this is..."
"It's everything Joe kept in either his desk or the bureau's vault." he explained, watching as she examined a locket's gold chain draped between her fingers. "I got to them before anyone else could."
"I thought they'd taken everything." Her grandmother's locket, a photo album, Joseph's service revolver, and her engagement ring among others, it was perhaps the last few remnants left of an entire family. She was grateful, but even these small, paltry traces served as a bitter reminder of how much she'd lost. "Thank you," she choked out, "for everything you've done."
The agent responded with an anemic grin, all he could manage.
"Joseph is..." Rose stopped as abruptly as she'd started, and corrected herself; she wasn't used to speaking about her husband in the past tense. "Was, was," she growled in correction, "completely innocent of the charges, Abel. I don't care what they say."
"I know." he nodded. "But whoever wanted Joe dead were so afraid of being exposed they've decided to destroy his life and subjugate those of everyone around him in order to keep everything completely in their control."
An odd expression appeared. The forensics team had never found any remains of Joseph or Sarah, and in the back of her mind where she refused to accept the truth, that faint glimmer of hope kept her from completely breaking down. "Do you think...do you think they're doing this because they think he may have survived?"
But Abel Sykes was a realist, and he didn't want her to drown herself in the dangerous hope of a miraculous survival. He slowly shook his head. "Rose..."
"I know," she let out a desolate laugh, "fanciful dreams."
"They're just...covering all their bases. Trying to shroud the man he was in false accusations to damage any kind of investigation into his death. They're using the CIA to bully any potential supporters, and it's working, everyone's so afraid of reprisal..."
"They're unwilling to fight for him."
"You and I and everyone he worked with know the truth. And that will last far longer than these bogus charges."
She drew a long breath in through her nose, let it out and they both turned to see the pilot waving from out of the plane's hatch. They were ready to take off. "Do me a favor."
"Watch over Todd for me, Abel," she implored, "please."
He tipped his head forward. "I promise."
Rose donned her sunglasses, pulled up the collar of her jacket and walked off onto the tarmac with Abel watching every step. One of the flight-crew stood at the plane's door as she ascended the narrow, movable stairway, took one look back before entering into the fuselage, and then stepped inside.
Hands in his pockets, Abel would stand there until the plane taxied out, took off and vanished into the silver haze of the looming winter weather.
His hair a full six inches longer, his beard grown in and darkly quilled, he walked the dusty streets in a crowd that would conceal and practically swallow anyone, even fair skin against the adumbral hue of a desert race. A momentary lapse gave him wonder why he'd traveled so far on someone's word, but he'd nothing left to anchor him to the States.
His home had been cleaned out, his records sealed, his bank accounts closed and drained of their funds; someone had wiped away his entire life less than a week after the accident.
Thus he left that very day upon hearing the news of his family's death, with baby Sarah in tow, hiding out under assumed names, moving from place to place and using what little cash he could scrape together from odd jobs that afforded any sort of anonymity.
He was branded, postmortem, a criminal by his own government (it was a shock finding that in the newspaper) and faced either time in jail or death by a faceless enemy which, in turn, spurred his hunt for any kind of information on the creatures that had attacked him.
Now he found himself halfway across the world entrenched within a relentless, clammy heat.
A single, cautious inquiry had led to several more, a succession of scholars, professors and shamans of varying reputations; most got him an odd look and a chuckle, but a few formed a chain all the way across the North Atlantic to Cairo, Egypt, and the last had awarded him a piece of paper with a single name and accompanying address scrawled in crude English.
Joseph emerged from the crowd and stood in front of a restaurant matching the number and street, not the best place for a clandestine meeting.
Escaping the midday sun under an awning leading into the restaurant packed with the lunch crowd, Joseph wiped his brow, slowed in front of the air conditioner and strolled purposely through the tables towards the kitchen area. A young woman at the cashier desk looked up as he approached, and she greeted him as any other customer, with kind, almond eyes and a smile.
Joseph looked around before speaking, "I'm here to see a Rania El-Marai."
The smile noticeably ebbed. "Follow me."
She guided him through the kitchen, and he swore it was hotter here than under in the sun outside, especially with the air full of steam and eye-watering spices, and the cooks barely noticed as he squeezed his way behind them. She ended at a doorway draped with an extraordinarily and intricately embroidered blanket across the top edge of the frame as the only barrier, and stepped aside. "My grandmother is waiting for you."
"Thank you." Joseph pulled back the blanket and noticed a cool wind emanating from the darkness. He slipped in and had to blink several times to adjust his sight to the soft illumination. In front of him, sitting at a small table complete with a pitcher of water and accompanying glass, an old woman sorted a full deck of oversized cards, a few of the upturned with Egyptian deities serving as the major Arcana. Tarot cards.
She was a small, shriveled, frail little thing, looking as if the slightest gust of wind could break her in half. Hair he'd guessed once pitch black had turned entirely to gray, silver almost, braided, and resting across her shoulder. "You must be hot." she said, her eyes still down. "Please, have some water."
He sat across from her, took the pitcher, poured himself a glass and savored the cool sting of water down his throat. "You must be Rania."
A card was overturned, the Devil, and she lingered on the symbolism before looking up. "I am."
With Joseph's discerning eye he thought her a little over ninety with every line from every year etched into her face, but the gaze as she studied his every movement no matter how subtle or unassuming was as sharp as steel. And glowing without aid from the corner lamp.
"You seek information, stranger."
"Yes." he answered, refreshed, and a little unsettled at how her voice seemed hollow but trying not to let it show. It must have been the room; there didn't seem to be any windows, just a clutter of antiquity in the decorative vein of her nation state. "I was told you know of many things...beyond what most of humanity would write off as simple myth."
"I am versed in many things, yes."
"Good, because I've been searching for a long time."
"Then why is there uncertainty in your voice?"
"Because I'm not sure you'll still think me sane after what I'm about to tell you, or better yet, show you."
"Then by all means," she said, wrinkles pulling back to flaunt an honest smile, "show me, and let me determine for myself your sanity."
Hesitant, Joseph swallowed and reached into his shirt. He pulled out several pieces of paper twice folded, unwrapped them and uneasily laid them out for the woman to see. There were more times than several in his search for information he'd been regarded with ill-placed humor or branded a pitiable man driven by the loss of his family and something to blame it all upon, and thus, he was cautious in every subsequent dealing.
The woman's mesmeric gaze resonated with a dim spark of recognition. "Ah," her pinkie fingernail, longer than the rest, traced the graphite contour of the creature he'd drawn and a few of those lines in her forehead compressed, "you say your encounter with this creature was in New York?"
"There are not very many of these in the United States you know, Americans can be quick to judge harshly and even quicker to act." Her eyes, slightly milky, flicked up. "No offense."
"None taken." he quickly waved it off, hoping she held the answer. "So you know what these things are?"
There was fire in his voice, no more prevalent then when referring to his attackers. "They are an ancient race, they are gargoyles." she revealed, and the foreigner's sterling eyes smoldered at, at last, a name to go with his demons. "Protectors."
"They attacked my family, killed them."
"I find that hard to believe."
Joseph quickly reached his left arm over the table and pulled back the sleeve. There were four distinct lines of dead flesh curling across his entire forearm, starting from the outside of his wrist and continuing in a corkscrew path to the underside of his elbow. "Is this hard to believe?! Is this proof enough of those things and their viciousness?!"
The old woman ran a hand over the vaguely patterned scars and, almost indiscernibly, made a faint, illuminative sound.
"They attacked us, tore through our car, tried to grab at my children and ran us off the road!"
"Gargoyles are vigilant creatures, recluses, some clans are even xenophobic to the point of fanaticism. They justifiably fear destruction at the hands of humans, so I am confused at why they would attack a family in the middle of one of the most populated areas in the world."
"How can you defend them?!" his voice raised towards a holler, trembling along every steadily ascending change in pitch, but the woman didn't flinch. "How can you so easily dismiss what I went through?! What I lost a year ago?!"
"I do not. Those scars," a nod of her head towards his arm indicated the disfigurement, "are indeed from a gargoyle's talons. And I am truly sorry for your loss, but you cannot assign blame to an entire species."
Joseph pulled his arm back and calmed his breathing. He was fuming, that memory of fire and blood having festered for a year and a half in the deepest recesses of his soul. He'd nurtured the hatred to keep him going, kept it close, kept it fed, kept it as the driving force, besides Sarah, to prevent him from putting a bullet through his brain.
Rania found before her a man struggling to keep his anger under control and find a suitable outlet to slake his thirst for revenge, but feared it might lead him down a dark road he himself wasn't prepared for. "There has been so much hatred in the world because one race blamed another, battles over religion, territory, humans must not wage war with their cousin creatures, or there will be grave consequences."
"I've had the fortune of observing these creatures, there are several small clans in Egypt and they are not monsters."
His fingers clenching into the tablecloth, Joseph suddenly shot up and headed for the exit. "Thank you for the information, I believe I've found what I'm looking for."
"You are on a path of destruction, Mr. Hawkins," she called to him just before he made it through the door, holding up a card for him to see, "you risk your soul."
Joseph quickly turned and peered at the card, and most strikingly of all, the symbol of death in the engraved form of Anubis. He knew a little of the Tarot, having come across stranger cases in his time at the FBI, and knew the death card signified endings, but not necessarily shocking and disruptive ones. When death appeared it almost always signified a major change in one's life, sometimes disruptive and unexpected, and sometimes a breath of fresh air, clearing away obstacles and allowing one to surge forward. It seemed...appropriate, giving up one life for another. "I don't want to raise my daughter in a world shared with such monstrosities," he vowed, "and if it means losing my soul to keep her safe, so be it."
She watched him sweep away the blanket and disappear back into the commotion of the kitchen, and then, placed the card to the table.
Paris was exquisite.
Milan, Greece, every exotic city and village in the farthest reaches had its own unique share of charisma and history and she tried for the life of her to enjoy it all. But, every bustling community, whether it be gleaming steel or old world architecture or wooden shanties knitted together by the edge of a river, they were empty.
Matching her soul, her eyes, the vacant expression she'd often wear, she was aching, for Todd, for that last survivor of her family. The distance from the States, at first, alleviated the pain, but every child of every descent and nationality she came across was a dead-ringer whether it was only a small piece of him; and now, a boy outside her hotel helping to sell flowers with his mother had offered her a Vanda Miss Joaquim in full bloom with eyes as heather gray as her son's.
She ran through the lobby and a full compliment of tourists, and didn't stop until she reached her door.
As far as she'd run and roam the world, the ache grew deeper, stronger, and she'd even contemplated climbing to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and throwing herself off into a surprised French motorist's hood the first week she was there. It was slowly catching up with her until, at last, in her Singapore hotel room amongst the gold and lace trim, the uneaten room service meals and the view of a metropolis similar to Manhattan, Rose struggled to breathe while cradled in the bed-sheets.
Almost two years, she couldn't be away from him any longer.
Risking imprisonment or death, a day later she'd boarded a flight bound for New York, white-knuckled and looking over her shoulder the entire way.
"We're happy to have you, Rose, it's been difficult with so few of us."
She smiled, honest emotion behind the simple gesture rather than the artificial facade she'd forced upon the world for the past year and a half. Even with the falsified records she'd provided and an entirely new persona she tried to wear as comfortably as the nun's robe, this just seemed...right. "I'm glad I could help."
"Well, I'll introduce you to the children. I'm sure almost all of them will welcome you."
Rose turned and caught a hint of something less than holy flicker across the older woman's stout features. "Almost all of them?"
"There's one who...well..." She tailed off, stopped, and replaced her arms under the folds of her habit. There was a racket unseen and sourced somewhere within one of the halls, and it sounded, to Rose at least, like a tornado had been let into the building. The mother superior however simply sighed, threw up her eyes and mouthed a prayer under her breath. "Brace yourself."
The storm grew close and, swiftly reducing to the form of a young child, rounded the corner at a breakneck pace and hit Rose head on. He was thrown to the ground as the falsely robed nun barely stood her ground, and resettled to keep her balance.
"Unhff!" the boy cried as he hit the floor, and stared up at the obstacle in his path as he rubbed his backside. "Hey!"
"Mr. Hawkins, what did I tell you about running in the halls?!"
Todd didn't seem to heed the mother superior, and gray eyes sized up the new addition to the staff and eventually narrowed. "Who're you?"
Rose was stunned, not so much by the collision but by the boy that so comfortably wore her baby son's features twisted by a scowl. How could this child have grown so much in less than two years?
As he shot her a defiant leer, she in turn smiled down on him as only a mother could. "Hello, Todd Matthew."
The case, with no witnesses, no evidence to the contrary, and most importantly, no one of any consequence to defend the name of Joseph Hawkins besides a few friends from the FBI, was eventually closed and quietly retired to a shelf somewhere in an unnamed document cache. It'd literally disappeared just as everyone and everything else had.
Abel had been indeed called in front of a judiciary committee and grilled for three hours for any kind of information relating to his late partner that could incriminate him. He gave none, and stood up for Joseph as best he could against a group that, unbeknownst to him, were simply marionettes putting on a show much like any representative from the CIA. Through his testimony it was clear he wasn't involved and released.
The slap on the wrist was a subtle but damaging one, as Abel's promotion was held back ten years longer than it should have been. A respected agent when partnered with Joseph, his career and reputation took a considerable blow and for a long time he was never really called on for the high profile cases, let alone those of any significance. His partners revolved in and out, and it took him a while to get back where he was, eventually making Special Agent in Charge with his sheer empty-eyed dedication.
He was unaware of Rose playing the part of a volunteer, having come back to the U.S. and helping to raise Todd in the children's home. A few close calls, but Rose had skillfully avoided him until the fire five years later that had scarred her, and she moved away into a self-imposed seclusion.
He was unaware of Joseph scouring the world for any information relating to the gargoyle species, caring for an ailing Sarah while gathering a small, scattered following of those who shared a hatred equivalent to his, or those who simply feared a potential threat to the entire human race. Twenty years would yield incredible progress and an eventual transformation into the successor to the Quarrymen.
And Abel simply lived his life and watched over Todd from a respectable distance, and eventually, as the young Hawkins grew up and self-sufficient, slowly receded from his life. Until the inevitability of the ironic circles in which every life was led, they'd be reunited, all because a young, blond, rose-colored gargoyle crashed through Todd's bathroom window.