Warning: This is the last chapter. There will be death and destruction. I will say no more.
Chapter 36: Departure
We met before the week was out. Dick came to me in my office after lab on Friday. There was a polite tap on my door and he leaned in. "Do you have a few minutes?" He took the seat opposite my desk.
"I mentioned to Ben that he might have the chance to attend the Paracelsus award ceremony. He was excited about the possibility." I tried not to imagine that.
"We had several things to discuss, but perhaps most importantly, he told me that he knows about you."
That I wouldn't attend the ceremony? I hadn't discussed that with everyone but Dick, though Grossman might have guessed from my reaction to his mention of 'acceptance speeches.'
I must have looked blank. He went on, "he knows who you are."
"What?" I heard myself say. I wasn't sure where my stomach was located at the moment. Had he been investigating me? Checking on my shoddy references? Listening in on my conversations with Dick?
Dick read my look. "He wasn't trying to find out, but when Canutsipem was talking to you about your scar being snakebite, he just realized it. Look, back when your, uh, death came out in the papers, I was shocked. Ben saw me very upset, and I told him that I knew you and that we had corresponded for years. When you showed up a few months later he might have had a vague suspicion, but with the snakebite? Well."
Damn it all. I couldn't even be angry at Dick. He had thought me dead at the time, so why shouldn't he tell Grossman about me? I couldn't be angry at Grossman, more was the pity. No, I could only be angry with myself. I was the one who reached out to someone who knew my past and my name. Of course the secret wouldn't hold. I had been a fool to think it could. I must have been going off the rails to write to Dick. Still, as idiotic as it was, where would I be now if I hadn't? On the run, or more likely, in the belly of the skin. Even if the letter had been ill-advised, I had needed to get out.
"He doesn't want to compromise you or make you feel at risk in any way. He says he's willing to enter a Good Faith or a vow if you want."
I should have jumped at the offer, I supposed, but somehow the thought of entering into another vow left me feeling exhausted and a bit ill. I shook my head.
"He won't say your name. I know you two don't always get along, which is why he asked me to, uh, translate for him again, but you can trust him. I've known him for years. He respects you a great deal and he wouldn't do anything to hurt you."
He was probably right. I couldn't imagine Grossman vengefully exposing me.
"I can't stay, Dick. I have to get out." I hadn't planned the words, but once they were out, I knew I was right. It wasn't just Grossman. If my article in Potions Monthly had been nothing more than that, an obscure article in a research journal, that would have been acceptable. But the Paracelsus Prize was news. Aberforth knew the name Cyril Ramson; if he heard of the award and my name together with Stoltz Research Labs, he would have my location. I had to get out.
Dick sighed. "I can't exactly say that I'm surprised. I am sorry though. I'd ask you to think it over if I didn't know you better than that." He sat in silence for a moment. I wondered if he was thinking of some consequence for my breaking the year-contract.
"You know, when I was younger, I used to spend years out there," he waved vaguely at the jungle beyond the lab grounds. "The hardest part always was coming back. One of my donors would usually want to throw me some awful dinner party as soon as I stepped out of the trees." He laughed. "I think they assumed I must be starved for company. Anyway, it was always torture. Sitting still in some elegant dining room, trying to keep track of all the conversations bouncing off the walls, smiling polite people all around. And their questions! 'What was it like, Dr. Stoltz?' 'How wonderful that you can teach the Indians!' 'Aren't you glad to be back to civilization?' I never knew what to say. I'd escape as soon as I could and find some pocket of forest to explore, or lock myself away somewhere alone and label samples for weeks on end until I could finally bear to be around other people. Sometimes it just took a week, sometimes it took almost a month.
"You've been in your own kind of jungle for years, Cyril. Not as nice and peaceful as mine. Whatever you need to do now, to bring yourself back, I think you should do it. Even if it means not being around other people for a while. What will you do?"
"I don't know, Dick."
"Do you want my contacts in Chicago? Or you could use my apartment in Arkham if you like; I'm not there very often."
"I think I need to find my own place." I remembered looking at my map when I was on the run from the skin and seeing the vastness of the country in front of me. I had to be able to find a safe place somewhere.
"Well, do you want to keep working on the repeat process?"
I stared at him. "I can't stay here, I –"
"So? I don't see why you can't work on it remotely. If you want to break your contract, we'll have to talk about it, but I don't see any reason we couldn't bend it a bit, if we both agree on the changes. You can go on leave until you're settled, and then work remotely. Come up with proposals and variants, and we'll do the testing here.
I nodded slowly.
"I want you to keep working for me Cyril. What I don't want…" He sighed again. "I don't want you to disappear. I'm going to ask you to stay in contact with me. You don't have to tell me where you are, but it's always a bad sign when you cut off contact. I don't want you to do that again. I need to hear from you sometimes. Just to know you're alive."
I didn't want to look at him.
"Will you do that? I don't want to go through another year like last year. Please, Cyril."
He smiled. "Letters. We will have our letters again." He held out his hand and we shook on it.
There was paperwork, piles of it. There was the receipt of the Paracelsus prize, setting up an account and filling out impossible tax forms in Portuguese, and adjusting my contract with Dick. It all left me with a headache and little brainpower left to work on the repeating element, but it hardly mattered. I was fairly convinced that I was on the wrong track and I would have to rethink my whole approach. Perhaps a break would be good after all, until I could think of a new direction.
My decision was reinforced by the interview requests that began to trickle in to the lab from various research journals. I had Dick turn them down on my behalf, but I knew reporters. It was only a matter of time before someone decided to turn up unannounced and try their luck. I stepped up my plans to leave.
I made my announcement in lab the next afternoon. "(This avenue of approach on a repeating element is a dead-end. Beginning at the end of next week, I will be taking a leave to examine other possibilities.)" There was silence.
"(That is what I just said, Miss Hilberto.)"
Even Park seemed unexcited, for once. Grossman had a guilty look. Good.
"(You couldn't work on it here?)" he asked.
"(No. Don't look so worried. You'll all have your recommendations before the end of the program.)"
That ended discussion, or so I thought, until Dick found me a day later and told me that the RAs were planning a 'surprise' going away party.
"I thought it would be better not to be a real surprise. Not after last time."
"Dick, I don't want it."
"It's not my plan. If you really don't want it, you'll have to tell them."
Somehow, though, when they all filed into lab the next day sharing secret smiles amongst themselves, I couldn't. Well, it would have been betraying Dick's confidence, for one thing. I lasted out three days. Finally I couldn't stand their looks anymore and snapped: "whatever you're going to do, just do it!"
"Uh…. What do you mean?" said Grossman, doing a terrible job of trying to look innocent. I just glared at him.
The next day, they sprung their 'surprise.' I allowed myself to be dragged into the lounge room during break. There was a paper 'Best Wishes' banner, a spread of food and drink that looked fairly decent, and a thankfully small group of people. Aside from my own RAs, there was Dick, Henrique and UIi. I wondered if Dick had a hand in limiting the guest list.
"Uh, surprise?" said Grossman.
He laughed and poured me a glass of champagne. Maybe I could manage to hold on to this one. The others already had their glasses.
"On behalf of your RAs," began Grossman officially, "we're very sorry that your experiment didn't achieve anything of importance. Nevertheless, we think this is offset by the relaxed and friendly working environment –"
"Shut up, Grossman."
"- so what we're trying to say is: you should have some food and drinks and open some presents." Presents?
Glasses were clinked all around and a mercifully small pile of wrapped parcels appeared. I would just have to get it over with.
The first was a joint gift of two books from Paola and Mata, a new edition of Frazier's Theory of Magic, revised and expanded by Campbell, and the controversial new work by Gently, Holistic Magic Theory, that attempted to link quantum string theory to the working of magic.
"(Have you read this?)" asked Paola.
"(No, I haven't had a chance.)" I had been a bit preoccupied last year when it was released. I did remember hearing reports of the Academie de Belfort burning it in protest. I didn't know if it had any merit, but it would probably be entertaining at the very least.
I was stopped from flipping over the cover to take a look by Mata pressing a very small parcel on me. "(It's nothing,)" He said. It really wasn't; it was an empty cigarette packet. "(Done, poof, gone.)"
There was nothing to say to that but "(thank you.)"
Park's gift was next, a flat wooden box stamped with the word 'Pullman.' It wasn't possible… but there they were, five Pullman knives. There was a Subtle, an Allegorical, an Ambiguous, a Double-Entendre, and an Explicit. They were the very best. Shit, it must have cost him a fortune.
I had to thank him, but he beat me to it, bobbing his head with a huge grin on his face; "thank you, yes, thank you!"
"Damn it," said Grossman, "mine's crap compared to that."
"I would expect nothing else, Grossman."
His soft parcel revealed a black shirt. I lifted it up. It was stamped 'North Coast Brewing Company Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout.' In the center of the shirt was a reproduction of the famous muggle photo of the mad monk himself in the middle of casting legilimency. Shit.
"There's something on the back…"
I turned the shirt around to read 'Never Say Die' in large letters. I was going to have to kill him.
Fortunately for Grossman, a clanging erupted from the lab grounds.
"The sock wards!" said Dick.
"The what?" asked Grossman.
Dick and I looked at each other. The skin was gone, so what could be disturbing our sock traps?
"I'll go take a look," said Dick, "you stay here."
"No," I said.
He sighed and we both went out the side door to the lab grounds. The rest trooped after us. We saw the intruder as we hurried around the back of the lab building. It was a diminutive man dressed in khakis with innumerable pockets and wearing a pith helmet. His face was dominated by a long red nose and flowing white moustaches. He was waving one of my socks at the rustling undergrowth.
"Ezra?" called Dick.
"What?" I said.
"That's Professor Wormburg, the old head of the magical creatures division, he's been out on an expedition," said Grossman. "He's got a… he's got… it's…"
I looked back to see what could have finally shut up Grossman. A head the size of a wheelbarrow had emerged from the trees, followed by a long sinuous body. Its eyes were like polished marble. Huge tusks curved out of its mouth like obsidian sacrificial knives. Its scales looked like gold and turquoise one second, then became as misty and changeable as a rainbow. A crest of emerald feathers rose on its head, sending up sparks of electricity. As it swam through the air, it made a noise like a five-hundred pan-pipe orchestra battling a rabid llama.
Professor Wormburg tossed it my sock, which it snapped out of the air and swallowed in one.
"Dick, I appear to have run out of snacks. Do you have any tasty tidbits handy?" called the professor.
"Anguista pinnata," muttered Dick. The feathered serpent of the Amazon, of course, he found it after all. It flew in a spiral, a figure-eight, and a complicated pattern of a circular calendar foretelling the end of the world.
"I believe he's still a bit peckish," called the professor.
It was mesmerizing. I forced my eyes away. Henrique was spinning with delight, his wandering spider swaying on top of his fez. The RAs were looking at the serpent in wonder. "(He's beautiful,)" said Paola.
"Dick?" said the professor.
"Ah, there's a spread in the lounge," began Dick, finally getting hold of himself.
It was too late. The serpent had decided to find his own food. His feathers puffed and settled, releasing clouds of mist that rose into the trees. He reared up out of his spiraling dance and launched an elegant swooping dive.
"No, you don't want to eat that!" yelled Grossman. The serpent ignored him, as should any intelligent beast. Its head hit the piranha pool in a plume of water, and there was a brief final crunching.
The serpent pulled itself into a contented coil over the empty pool. It made a noise like a mariachi band falling down the steps of Chichen Itza. It opened its mouth and a cascade of sparks emerged, followed by a cloud of mist smelling of ozone, chocolate, cinnamon, and ghost peppers. "(Spicy!)" said Mata. It settled its head with a purring rumble.
"But, but…" stammered Grossman, "the piranhas, they'll eat him from the inside!"
"Oh, no," said Henrique calmly. "He will not be harmed. He is a god."
The serpent seemed to agree by lazily waving its plumed tail and summoning a small raincloud to pour water over itself, the grounds, and us, of course.
We pressed around the wrecked fence of the former piranha pool. "(So beautiful,)" said Paola. She couldn't resist touching a scale through the mesh, even though she got a sharp shock in return.
"You said you have some snacks?" said Wormburg. "If you don't mind, I think I should gather them now for when he wakes up."
We all sloshed back to the lounge. Wormburg claimed all the sausages and cold cuts for his charge, while we ate the cheese and fruit that was left. All the attention was on Wormburg now, which was a relief. Dick was asking about his partner on the expedition, Mr. Flanders.
"Oh, we ran into his Lost City of the Crystal Skull. Yes, very interesting place. It had the most fascinating poison frogs. Well, Mr. Flanders was going to go on with me, but then he discovered a doorway to another plane of consciousness in the Temple of the Moon."
"He took it, and didn't come out again?"
"Oh, not to worry. He popped his head back out to go on without him, that the plane of consciousness would let him back out at Berkeley."
Grossman snorted. "Of course it would."
"Well, I ran into that beauty three months later and started to bring it back, but my supplies finally ran out when we reached the Rio Negro. Just made it back in time to bring him in."
I wasn't sure that 'bring him in' was the best description. If anything, the serpent was deigning to grace us with his presence. At least until the snacks ran out.
Wormburg was ready to go back out with his sausages, and the rest crowded after him. Uli pulled me aside from the rush.
"I have nothing for you but my best wishes. So! I give you good luck and the best of everything." She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek and followed the others out. Well, very interesting. I followed after.
In the short time we had been gone, the raincloud had dumped enough water to create a small lake between the lab building and the greenhouses. The serpent was awake and, well, playing. It romped in the water, plunging in and out in graceful arcs, shooting up suddenly to snap at passing birds, and dragging its tail to send up plumes of spray.
Across the lake, some shapes were emerging from the arid house: Professor Aruego and the herbology RAs. Professor Aruego was swinging her cane in the air and the RAs were waving across at us. On our side of the lake, Valeria and the alchemy section had appeared from somewhere. Treehorn helped himself to a sausage.
"Hey hands off!" said Wormburg. It didn't seem to matter; the serpent wasn't interested, no matter how much Wormburg waved his sausages in the air. Finally he gave up and we turned it into a picnic on the wet grass, eating the sausages and drinking champagne while we watched the serpent frolic. Park clapped and cheered at every leap, soon joined by the other RAs.
When the setting sun turned the raincloud pink, the serpent began to circle in the water, faster and faster, spiraling towards the center of the pool. When it reached the center, with nowhere else to go, it started up, whirling like a tornado, silvery and sparkling, the water following in a huge waterspout. The cloud above it was whirling too, growing enormously tall and lit crimson by the sun. The serpent disappeared into the cloud with a flash of heat lightning and the sound of crashing brass gongs and a gamelan orchestra going up in flames, followed by a happy purring rumble.
We sat in stunned silence as the cloud broke apart in shreds to show nothing but empty sky and glorious sunset. What had been a lake in front of us was now a muddy waste. The herbology RAs were picking their way across to join us on the lab side.
"(Just look at our test plots!)" said Professor Aruego angrily.
"(We'll replant, Bruna, that's all,)" said Dick. Wormburg was still looking up at the sky, lost. Dick addressed him: "so, we'll be seeing a groundbreaking monograph in a few months?"
"Oh, yes, yes!" he said, coming back to the present.
The RAs were chatting excitedly and casting drying charms on each other as we trickled back into the lounge. I was subdued. I couldn't quite imagine another day here going through the motions, not after that.
Dick and Professor Wormburg disappeared into his office. I went back to my flat, well, Wormburg's flat really, and packed. A couple of hours later, everything shrunken and stowed in my bag, I knocked on Dick's office door.
When he opened it, breath smelling of cachaca, I could hardly recognize the place. Crates, boxes and muddy bags covered the floor. Photos of the feathered serpent and myriad other fantastic creatures were spread across the desk and stuck haphazardly to the walls. Professor Wormburg was there, carefully separating the pages of a sodden field journal, his pink scalp shining under Dick's desk lamp.
"Cyril, come in! Ezra is just getting sorted out."
"No, thank you. The flat is cleared."
"What? Have a seat." He moved a crate of plaster-cast animal tracks to the floor so I had a place to sit.
"Professor Wormburg's flat is cleared," I said again.
Professor Wormburg noted me for the first time. "Oh, now, I didn't mean to shove you out!"
Dick chimed in: "Cyril, don't be ridiculous. Ezra will be staying here. He's taking the couch until he can make other arrangements. That flat is yours."
"No, it's time for me to go. Come on, Dick, you couldn't top that send-off."
He sighed. "Why don't you use my flat in Arkham for a few days until you know where you're headed?"
"All right. I don't like to think of you heading out with no place to go, that's all."
Professor Wormburg butted in. "You don't have a place to stay? I can't push you out on the streets!"
"Ezra, if he won't listen to me –"
"He won't?" I wished they wouldn't talk about me as if I weren't there. "Then he can take my tent, at least." He addressed me, finally: "listen, it's already packed, it's in fairly good condition, weatherproof. No, I insist." He pushed a shrink-sack bundle into my hand. "It's self-pitching. You'll see; goes up in a snap." Dear lord, was I really going to be camping after all?
"Yes, Ezra, good idea. Take it, Cyril." I took it. It wouldn't hurt to have it, just as a backup. I didn't know where I was going, after all; I only knew that I had to get out.
"You're going, fine, I can see that." He came around the desk and grabbed my hand.
"I'm serious about that promise, Cyril. Letters, I will have your letters."
"You'll have them." We shook on it. Dick hung on to my hand a moment longer.
"Best of everything. Take care of yourself, and whenever you're ready, you know you have a position here." I nodded and he gave my hand a final shake.
The vanishing cabinet loomed in front of me. I stepped in and closed myself into the darkness.
A/N: Well, folks, there we are. I can't tell how amazing and encouraging it's been to have such wonderful readers and reviewers. As an author, it's such a special thrill to see people reading and enjoying your story. Thank you all for reading and sticking with me through to the end of the journey. I really love to hear what you think, so feel free to leave a review or send me a note. A special thank you to my anonymous reviewers; I'm always sorry that I can't send you personal responses and thanks, so this will have to do. A very special thank you to Notwolf and Wolfwillow for your in-depth comments and steady encouragement! Everyone, go check out their stories, they are fantastic.
If you haven't already read it, my first story, The Clear Cut, is a sequel to the New Skin. It begins roughly one and a half years after the end of this story. Though it stands on its own, you will recognize some familiar characters. It's a special treat for any Dick lovers out there.
I am hard at work on the third story in this series. However, it will be a while before I have it to the stage where I can begin posting. It will be roughly nine months… December 2012… I know, I know! It's far too long! It's completely unacceptable. As a consolation, I have a few one-shots planned that I will be posting every few months to tide you over. If you want to be notified when the next stories go up, feel free to add me to your author alerts. I'll also be posting updates on my profile.
The feathered serpent who appears in this chapter is not the great Quetzalcoatl himself, of course, but a distant cousin.
RIP, piranhas, rest in pieces. You will be missed.