He stood on Sister Superior, the large monolithic rock edifice that jutted from the roiling Irish Sea in the vague likeness of a habited nun. The moon was full. Through the strong lenses of the military binoculars, he could see the pockmarks of the planet that hung placidly over him, like a sleeping face.
The great net of stars stretched over the black emptiness of space like Earth's shield from the colder and frightening things that lay beyond. They weren't doing their job, he thought bitterly, shivering in the hard whipping wind. The cold and the fright – as well as the guilt – were worming their way through the dark patches between the balls of fire and straight into his soul.
It had been over three years since the Taiwan incident, over three years since he lost everything: his job, his self-respect, his best friend. It was ridiculous for him to be taking it so hard. He knew that he should be getting on with his life, finding himself a new job, a new principle, reestablishing his honor for the sake of the family name, instead of camping out for an interminable amount of time on some godforsaken fishermen's village on the beachhead. Waiting for the boy who had promised him he would be back.
I shouldn't have left him, the thought spiraled around in his head and plunged into the stomach. I should have left Minerva to Kong and done my duty. I could have taken that bomb and ran with it. I shouldn't have let him go. Should have, would have, could have. He could beat himself up as much as he wanted and it wouldn't change anything.
His cell phone vibrated gently in his pocket. As always, the feeling sent a chill of fearful hope down his broad back. It could be him. It might be. Lowering the binoculars and allowing them to dangle from the cord around his neck, he dug the matte black phone from the depths of his pocket and stared hard at the caller ID. Butler, Juliet, the readout said coldly and with no feeling whatsoever for the large man's lurching heart.
He sighed as a wave of disappointment washed over him again and brought the phone to his ear, pressing the delicate Talk button with one massive thumb. "Hello," he grunted, attempting and failing to keep the agony from his deep bass tones.
"Hello, bro. Just wondering what you were up to tonight," Juliet's voice was tinny in his ear, the false note of cheer inserted into her words painfully obvious. "I was just watching a grudge match on the TV and wondered if you were doing the same."
"You know what I'm doing," her brother said dully, glancing out at the ocean.
Juliet sighed, and there was a long silence. "Dom. He's not coming back," she said finally, gently, as though the cruelty of her words could possibly be alleviated by a softer voice.
"You're wrong, Juliet," Butler insisted. "Artemis has never broken a promise yet. If I just wait long enough . . ."
"You've been waiting three years," Juliet's voice was rising, frustration evident. "How do you know he's even alive? I'm sorry to be so brutal," she talked over the beginnings of an objection, "but I'm worried about you. Mrs. Fowl talked to me, told me that you were talking about . . . fairies."
Butler swallowed his indignation and anger. Juliet had never recovered from the mind wipe, and so of course she couldn't be blamed for taking his references to the People as proof he had gone mad with guilt. It was what they all thought. As far as they knew, Artemis had been abducted while in Taiwan on a school trip to Tai Pei 101. His parents had given him up for dead a year ago when the ransom demand they expected failed to come. Juliet had as well. Everybody had, except Butler.
But they didn't know the whole story. They didn't know about the demons, about Billy Kong and Minerva Paridezo, about Limbo . . . "There are such things as fairies, sister," he said calmly. "You just don't remember them because they mindwiped you. Artemis said that some stimuli . . ."
Juliet hiccupped a sob into the phone. "Oh, Dom," she gulped. "Please, come back to the manor where we can be together? Mr. Fowl knows specialists. He can help you!"
"No," he said firmly. How many times must he refuse his sister's offers before she finally stopped asking him? "I'm staying here and I'm waiting for Artemis." Before he had to listen to Juliet try to convince him otherwise, he shut off the phone.
Staring at the phone, Butler ran over his sister's words. "How do you know he's even alive?" she had asked. It was a ridiculous question. He had been with the boy since the night of his birth. He had never been away from him for more than a week in the fourteen years of his principle's life. He knew more about Artemis than did his own parents: while Angeline was suffering from trauma and Artemis Senior was lost in the Arctic, he had taken over the role of parent and guardian. Out of anyone in the whole world, he would be the one to know if Artemis were dead. He would feel it, an emptiness even greater than the one that currently had his insides in a stranglehold.
Scrolling down the list of contacts on his phone, he came across Artemis's number. He had not taken it off his speed dial. He didn't have the heart to do it. Like Artemis keeping the news channels running in the den all those years he was looking for his father, Butler felt as though deleting the number would be locking the door on hope.
Call me, Butler willed his absentee principle, giving the familiar number a stare that would have sent any sentient creature into panic. But the numbers just stared right back, placid, unfazed. So he selected Fowl, Artemis II, and put the tiny speaker to his ear, and held his breath.
"Hello, Butler," said the answering machine in achingly familiar tones. It was a secure line, one only Butler knew the number to. Of course the answering machine would use his name. "Obviously you've caught me at a bad time. I'm probably in school, doing some ridiculous algorithm the teachers seem to think is challenging. Or else I am in the counselor's office." Butler pretended for a moment that Artemis was actually at Saint Bartleby's, and then caught himself, wondering if maybe he had actually cracked. The voice continued. "I'll call you back as soon as I am able. Of course, I don't think I need to tell you to leave a message after the tone, now, do I?"
The tone beeeeped in Butler's ear. He considered leaving a message, but the boy's inbox had probably been filled within the first week with people trying to contact him. Whatever messages were sent now would just hover around the landlines for a moment and then vanish into space. Like Artemis.
As he put the phone back into his pocket, Butler realized he had never felt more completely helpless. If it had been a tangible enemy, a visible mortal threat, he could have attacked it, run full tilt at it, strangled it, knocked it out, tranquilized it, killed it. But nothing in his arsenal could do anything about the guilt or the grief. They were beyond him, they were two foes Madame Ko had never bothered to teach him how to defeat. All he could do was stand here on this piece of rock with his binoculars and watch and wait. And hope.
With a heavy sigh, he picked up his binoculars a second time, placed them against his face, and stared out as far as he possibly could. A wall of water, away to the east, rose and swelled up into a miniature tsunami and fell back to the ocean. And then everything was quiet again.