By David Farnell, (c) 2000
“Pili hemo`ole, pili pa`a pono“
(“Never separated, firmly united.”)
–Keali`i Reichel, “Kawaipunahele”
The 767-300 banked above Oahu, the passengers on the left side leaning toward the windows to get a clear view of those landmarks that greet nearly every Hawaii-bound traveler–Honolulu, Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head. Maria felt her belly flutter as the plane dipped, a thrill of the familiar fear shooting through her. Just as she always felt a touch of exhilaration at the moment of takeoff, she always experienced a slight dread at the final approach. She’d taken more than fifty flights over the years, but it didn’t matter. She still felt a secret amazement that these huge, ungainly cylinders full of people could fly at all.
Despite her mental discomfort, she smiled and mentally thanked Luke again for getting her on business class. The difference was incredible. She felt like a happy pig, eating decent food and drinking whatever she wanted, watching CNN and recent movies on the fold-out flat-panel screen, listening to Tom Waits on the headphones–comfortable ones, not those horrid stethoscope things the coach passengers had to pay extra for–sinking deeply into her huge reclining chair. Except for the brief stop in Austin to meet Linus and get redirected by Luke, a thirty-minute transfer at Denver, and an annoying three-hour layover at San Francisco, she’d been in the air for about eighteen hours, from New York to here. Yet it was only just going on evening in Hawaii. And she wasn’t finished flying yet. Encrypting and saving the preliminary email report she had written out for Luke and Linus, she shut down and put away her computer, raised her seat back to a fully upright position, and closed her eyes. She couldn’t stand to see the ground rushing up out the window. The rapidly increasing roar of the engines was bad enough.
The plane landed slightly late, and she barely made her connection to Hilo. She was glad she had left her guns with Linus. She could have used her credentials as a federal agent to bring them, but it would have left unnecessary tracks, even using her Dolores Verde alias. And it would have delayed her.
The trip to Hilo took longer than she’d expected; for some reason she had imagined that Oahu was just next to the Big Island, rather than nearly the opposite end of the main chain. The sun was low on the horizon when they landed. She had no checked luggage, just her satchel, and she was outside at the Avis booth within minutes, marveling at the oncoming sunset. It was much cooler than Texas, and she was startled by a light shower despite the almost clear skies.
As she entered the rental car lot, she saw a man with a cane being scolded by the lot attendant. Because of the cane, she at first thought he was old, but he looked up as she came near and she realized he was actually quite young, with Eurasian features, dressed head to toe in black. He had a sheaf of “Lose Weight Now–Ask Me How” advertising flyers tucked under one arm, and the attendant was berating him for distributing them in the lot. As she passed, he raised his free hand in an “OK” sign to a bespectacled eye, looking through the circle at her, then dropping it in one smooth motion. She smiled but otherwise pretended not to notice him, and went to her Taurus. There was a flyer tucked under the windshield wiper. She made out to be annoyed, snatching it out and crumpling it, but dropping it on the seat next to her as she got in. As she drove out of the lot, she passed him again; he limped slightly as he walked. She wished she could offer him a ride, but it would have made the whole subterfuge pointless.
On Kamehameha Avenue, she parked at Ken’s House of Pancakes, taking her satchel, a map, and the flyer in with her. She found a booth with a nearby phone jack, booted to her secure email program, finished her initial report and sent it, receiving two in return: a brief report from Linus on the situation in Austin so far, and a codeset from Luke to decipher the message she’d received in the car lot. Although she had eaten more than her fill on the planes, her body was telling her that it was midnight, so she needed caffeine; she drank iced coffee as she puzzled out the code numbers penciled in the corner of the flyer, written to look like a casual bank-account calculation. As she had guessed, they were directions. She wondered why Luke couldn’t have just sent them instead–the contact she’d come all this way to meet must not even want Luke to know where he lived.
It was fully dark by the time she pulled onto H11. The land was quite rural, once she got out of Hilo. She enjoyed the mix of Hawaiian and English names for the towns she passed: Keaau, Kukui, Mountain View, Glenwood. She tuned the radio to a local station, listening to music by people whose names she couldn’t easily pronounce: Israel Kamakawiwo`ole, Kealii Reichel, Gabby Pahinui. She was constantly climbing, going up the gentle slope of Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano. She took the exit for Volcano Village, getting lost at first, trying to find the Old Volcano Road. She found and followed the disused road, skirting the border of the national park, the rising moon revealing the alien lavascapes all silvery-black, here smoothly rippled and ridged like the skin of a Giger creation, there shattered into a million black knives, sharper than scalpels. She vaguely remembered a lecture from one of her religion classes, illustrating the ubiquity of urban legends and how they take on local color, of the goddess Pele playing the role of “The Vanishing Hitch-hiker” along the old roads of Hawaii. What had seemed humorous in the classroom brought a chill here.
In fact the chill was not all in her mind. She had climbed high enough that the temperature had dropped into the upper 50s at most. Worried that it would make her sleepy, she resisted turning on the heater, but wished she had brought a jacket. She hadn’t expected to need one, going to Texas in midsummer; here she was in the middle of the Pacific but at mountain altitudes. The road was poorly lit, and she was worried she would miss the landmark for her turnoff, but the abandoned convenience store lurched out of the darkness into the reach of her headlights.
As she turned left onto a country road, away from the border of Volcanoes National Park, she glanced again at the tilted, half-collapsed shop, and felt herself freeze in momentary panic, stomping at the brake in reflex, but missing. Revealed in the pulsing yellow light of her turn signal, she saw an unmistakable human figure, tall and thin, all white, wrapped in a robe. Her mind screamed that it was a trick, that with the next flash of the turn signal it would become a stone, a gas pump, anything but the ghost she had seen. She stared as the car skidded, not turning tightly enough. It was a woman, a Japanese woman in a white kimono, face white as salt, and she smiled at Maria to reveal lava–black teeth, as black as the waterfall of straight jet hair hanging down to her waist, black as the shark-like shining eyes looking right at Maria, tracking her. Then the car went off the road and Maria fought for control, fishtailing slightly as she came to a stop just short of a runoff ditch that would have left her stranded.
Maria looked wildly back at the dead shop, automatically grabbing at her empty belt for her pistol, almost hyperventilating. Nothing. Had she seen it at all? Was her mind, inspired by legends, playing tricks on her? But why a Japanese woman? And in so much detail. It didn’t make any sense–it had nothing to do with the Pele story, or with any of the weirdness she had encountered over her life. Then she noticed her breath fogging in front of her, and her body was wracked by a sudden, deep sense of cold. It was freezing! The temperature had suddenly dropped dramatically, and she saw ice crystals growing on the windshield like fractal amoebas. Her jaw muscles clenched, and she gripped the steering wheel hard and punched the gas, driving for her life down the nameless road.
The cold lasted only moments–she felt the temperature rising, and as soon as her teeth had started chattering, she was warming up. She hunched her shoulders, staring ahead, imagining and dreading that she would see the woman again, hitching a ride. Then Maria jerkily checked her mirror–nothing behind, and nearly wrecked again as she glanced into the back seat, terrified at the thought of seeing a black-smiling passenger there, or curled up on the floor. Nothing. The presence faded, her heartbeat slowed, and she slowed the car, for the road was narrow and twisted often, and had no lights at all. Her rational mind kept trying to convince her that it had all been imaginary, but she knew better than that. She had no idea what it had been, except that it had been real.
The road twisted down, into jungle. The temperature became comfortably cool, and she passed isolated farms, signs indicating coffee plantations. It was almost nine o’clock when she reached the drive she was looking for, marked only by a mailbox supported on a column of iron triangles welded together.
It was a simple ranch house with a large, screened porch at the front. At each corner was a big bush or small tree, about ten feet tall, with long, blade-shaped leaves. She parked and got out, making her movements obvious, avoiding any hint that she might be trying anything dangerous. She saw the front door open as a shadowy figure came out onto the porch, shutting off the hall light to avoid being backlit.
She stood next to the car, looking around, feeling out the setting, then walked forward into the full glare of the security lights. She took a breath and stood with her hands clasped in front of her, waiting.
The shadowy figure came closer, opening the screen door. The lights still made it difficult for her to see him, but he seemed to be middle-aged–he was clearly gray and mostly bald. He stood with his right side turned away, his right hand hidden by his body, his left hand reaching up to adjust his glasses as he peered at her intently. She saw him shake his head, and heard him say something under his breath.
She cleared her throat and spoke loudly. “Hello, sir. I’ve been asked to come here and speak with you. May I come in?”
Still he stood, unmoving. She felt he was studying her. Then he relaxed, and glanced down at the pistol in his right hand, looking at it almost as if embarrassed. He carefully lowered the hammer and set the safety, then tucked the automatic into his trousers. Stepping onto the stairs and holding the door open for her, he said, “Please come in. You must be tired.”
She walked past him into the porch, she didn’t look closely at him; her eyes were still dazzled from the lights, but she could see he was Asian, with a dark, weather-tanned face. He wasn’t much taller than she. He seemed a bit older than she had first thought, but vital. As she went by, she could feel him watching her closely. She saw a small silk bag suspended from the doorframe, above her head like mistletoe at Christmas.
They went to the living room, turning on lights on the way. He stayed behind her. “Uh, please, have a seat on the couch. Can I get you anything to drink, or eat?” He paused as she sat. “Maria,” he said, hesitatingly. “It is Maria, isn’t it?”
She turned her head slowly to look at him as it started to fall into place. She felt her breath catch, her emotions in turmoil, astonishment and shock mixed with a tentative joy and the remains of the terror she had felt earlier. She looked at him, speechless. Yes, he was twenty-three years older, nearly bald with very short, gray hair, skin wrinkled but not loose. A bit of a gut, but fit. He looked as healthy as he had that day they had met in the Crystal City town square–as the night he had rescued her from a nightmare.
“Hank?” she finally managed. “Oh god, Hank….” She went to him, nearly tripping, and they embraced.
They kept mainly to small talk about her flight until they had their drinks and a plate of what Hank referred to as “pupus,” tidbits of local food, rather like Chinese dim sum. They had their shoes off; Hank had brought her a quilt to ward off the slight chill, and Maria had her legs curled under her on the couch as she sipped at her whisky, the quilt covering her lap.
“So,” Maria ventured, “you seemed surprised to see me. Does that mean you didn’t ask for me to come here?”
Hank chuckled. His voice was a little deeper and rougher than she’d remembered. “I didn’t ask for you. I have been keeping tabs on you, I’ll admit, but I didn’t ask for anyone to come all the way out here. I could’ve just sent in a report through a local operative. It was Alphonse set this thing up.” He chuckled again, this time with a touch of bitterness, shaking his head, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, looking down at the koa-wood coffee table. “That old dog. Using you to try to open up my head. As if it mattered after all these years.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked quietly.
He looked up at her, then reached down next to his chair. “Later. First, your problem.” He picked up a file envelope off the floor and stood, coming over to sit next to her. “I’m retired, as you can imagine, but I keep my hand in. Especially with my old cases, the ones with loose ends floating around.” He pulled out a sheaf of documents and photos. “In 1968 I was with the CIA, and I’d been with Delta Green since just after the end of World War Two, when we re-formed after the OSS was disbanded. Alphonse brought me in then.”
He smiled sidelong at her. “Yes. We weren’t quite so paranoid in those days. Didn’t have to be. Tell me, have you ever met Alphonse?”
She shook her head. “No. I haven’t even met my CO.”
Hank chuckled again. “That’s Luke…even in Delta Green, he’s famous for paranoia. Anyway, Alphonse is a real piece of work. Even back then, when he was at the outer edge of the inner circle, you could tell he had it. He’d draw you in, set you up so whatever he wanted you to do became what you needed to do. He’s a master manipulator, even more so now. Don’t get me wrong–I respect him, and I guess I’d still answer the call if he sent it out, whatever the consequences. But it’s pretty damn hard to like a guy like that.
“Now Fairfield–there was a man you’d follow into hell, just because he was Reggie. A real leader.” Hank shrugged, raised his glass slightly in a toast, and sipped his drink. “I suppose it all amounts to the same thing in the end, and I can’t deny that Alphonse is the better leader for the situation we’re in now. Softly, softly, you know. Anyway, in ’68 it had been a while between ‘green’ ops, for which I was profoundly thankful, when I got a call to go interview a wounded officer. This was just about a year before it all blew up in our faces, but the military was already busy trying to contain the fallout from Tet and My Lai. Lucky for us, those pretty well overshadowed what had happened to this guy’s troops.”
He spread out some black-and-white photos, and two reports. Maria studied the pictures, which showed the aftermath of a battle. American troops were spread all over the ground, horribly mutilated. Some were even hanging from trees, suspended by their own entrails. She thought at first it might be from artillery, but she doubted that. The mutilations looked too purposeful. She pushed her pokefish away.
“The officer-in-charge was Lt. Bradley Collins. He hailed from North Carolina. Funny thing was, when I finally got him talking, I thought he sounded a little French. Just a touch. Thought maybe he was Cajun, or his family’d come down from Montreal, or something. It stuck in my mind.”
Maria was glancing through an official report. “No French connection, then?”
“None. Pure WASP. And after he was shipped home, he avoided ever meeting his family. Now, he claimed that the attack was carried out by Montagnards–which word he pronounced perfectly, by the way–and he described further that they were assisted by ‘angels,’ insect-like creatures that came out of the trees. Well, the wounds had already shown that something weird was going on, and this just confirmed it. I sent the report in to Delta Green, and they sent in a team to investigate, which I wasn’t on. They found an abandoned village with an interesting shrine, but that’s about it.” He handed her another report, flipping to the third page. “But look here. They found an old, burnt-out colonial house. It was pretty much a shell, but take a look at this picture.”
He handed it to her. It showed a soldier standing to one side, probably for scale, holding his rifle with the butt on the ground. Centered n the photo was a door, propped up against a charred post. Painted on it was a pale, three-armed symbol that made her gasp audibly, and that awoke an itch at the back of her mind, a vibration that was perhaps always there but easily ignored most of the time.
She looked at Hank. He looked back at her grimly. “You do know it, then. You’ve seen the Yellow Sign.”
She nodded. “When I was a child, when we met…it was painted on the base of each of those figurines. It…seemed to change every time we looked at it. Just a little.”
“Yes, that sounds right. I suppose we still have those things, locked away somewhere. Anyway, I had too much on my plate at the time to look into a guy who’s able to pronounce French words well, so I didn’t follow up on this until after Delta Green was disbanded. The thing was, I suspected that those ‘Montagnards’ had something to do with the operation that brought Delta Green down. Some connection, however oblique. Have you ever heard of Tcho-tchos?”
She shook her head.
“Well, they’re a virtually unknown Asian ethnic group. There’s pockets of them spread out all over Southeast Asia and into the Pacific: Burma, Tibet, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, New Guinea. They go under a variety of names, often pretending to be other ethnic groups little known to the area they’re in. They quickly pick up a reputation for doing anything bad you can think of: kidnapping, murder, cannibalism, worshipping forbidden things. Some anthropologist called them ‘the Jews of Asia,’ because their neighbors always blame them for everything that goes wrong, and periodically try to wipe them out. Thing is, unlike the Jews, there’s a fair amount of hard evidence to support claims that these Tcho-tchos are more than scapegoats. Alphonse himself had a run-in with them, back in his Asia days.” He handed her another report. “And now they’re well established in the land of opportunity. Take a look at who sponsored a lot of families.”
“Bradley Collins. Colonel now.” She saw Collins’ work address and smiled. “University of Texas–Austin? Damn, Hank, you made the connections fast.”
He shrugged. “Alphonse feeds me keywords and I check them against back cases for connections. I’m not the only old cowboy who does it. This rang bells. And we’ve kept an eye on Collins for some years now, waiting for a big slipup, something to justify using precious resources on him. I did some research on that colonial house some time back. There’s no clear record of when it was built or when the family arrived in Vietnam, but it looks like sometime in the 1930s a Philippe Marceau was living there. Later, just before the war in Europe started, his son and daughter-in-law came to join him; they ran a plantation. There’s a record of one child, Paul, born in the ’40s. Rumors that the family practiced witchcraft, consorted with demons–nothing substantiated, of course. They were isolated, kept to themselves, paid off officials come to investigate. They had a lot of money from somewhere, but it sure didn’t come from their plantation. Unless they were growing something a lot more profitable, and illegal, than mangos.
“Anyway, I tried to trace the family back to France. I found that a Philippe Castaigne, alias Marceau and a lot of other names, was being sought for murder and the theft of some valuable books in Paris in 1932. The man he’d killed was an infamous child molester and suspected murderer himself, and had his own little coven of Satanists. Castaigne was never caught.”
“Castaigne,” Maria murmured. “That’s a familiar name.”
“Yes, there was an American by that name, who claimed to be the true King of America back in the 1920s. He died in an asylum. Guess what his favorite play was.”
“The King in Yellow.” Maria shook her head.
“Sharp girl. That was back when you could still find copies of it without a great deal of trouble–real ones, not the fakes you find in the New Age section these days. Most people put Castaigne down as one of the lesser-known kooks of American history, but he has a very interesting story. That can wait for later, though. It’s the French branch of the family we’re concerned with.”
“But what about Collins? Do you think this Castaigne or Marceau did some sort of…mind swap with him?”
“Maybe. I could get you access to see reports on that very thing, two old ops that I know of dealing with some sort of mental transference. Or something even more disturbing. This is a report an op in New York–you may have come across word of it, since you live there. Creatures living in the tunnels, eating dead bodies–maybe taking live prey, too. Here’s a short paper on them by Grant Emerson. He’s a Friendly, a professor of microbiology and genetics.”
“Yes, I met him once.” She scanned the reports. “And I’ve heard about the things under Manhattan. I’ve heard…they can change shape. But only after eating the person they want to impersonate.” She looked up from the pages. “Is that what you think happened to Collins?”
“I think there’s a good chance of it. OK, play this scenario: Philippe, or his son, or more likely his grandson is the survivor of some attack on the house by the North Vietnamese, or just some accident–or maybe he just figured it was time to get out of Vietnam. With his local Tcho-tcho friends and some help from the Outside, they take out a wandering American patrol, and our man switches minds or eats the CO, then gets ‘rescued’ and eventually gets sent back to the States. There, he avoids his family, goes academic but stays with the military, and eventually secures a plum job as an ROTC prof. Meanwhile, he’s forging connections to help bring his old friends over from Cambodia, where they went after abandoning their village.”
“But now, after all these years keeping his head down, he’s gone active. Why? There must be something worth risking his cover for.”
“Well, your partner in Austin has probably already found this by now; it didn’t take me much looking to dig it up. A few weeks ago the Perry-Castaneda Library acquired a possible copy of the original French King in Yellow. It was being kept in the Special Collections Room, and although the university was keeping quiet about it in case it turned out to be a fake like so many others, there was a rumor that it was the real thing. Perhaps he wanted it badly enough to kill.”
“And, he’s a Castaigne.” Maria looked disturbed.
Hank shrugged. “Likely. It would fit, anyway. And that means he might be trying to do something with it, much like that bastard who…tried to do something to you and your brother,” he hesitated, “and your friend.”
Maria looked down, the memories bringing sadness and loss. Hank took her hand in his own; she squeezed his and looked at him. “You saved our lives, Hank. Thank you.” She paused, looking at his face, holding his hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, “about your friend. If I’d known how to get him back….”
“Shh,” she said, gripping his hand tighter. “I know.” She looked down at the documents. “Well, so we’re probably dealing with someone who knows what he’s doing. I’d better call Linus to warn him, and send a fuller report by email.”
“I’ve already got a summary on my computer. That’ll save you time.”
“Thank you.” She realized she was still holding his hand. It felt very natural to do so–somehow that made her nervous. She let go to pick up and sort the files. Hank settled back, looking thoughtful. “I’d…I’d better get to it then.”
“Of course. And then you’d better get some sleep. It’s past midnight.”
She looked at her watch, surprised. “But, what about your story? Whatever it was Alphonse sent me here for?”
He waved a hand dismissively. “That’s waited fifty-five years. It can wait for tomorrow. Come on, I’ll show you your room. And you can use the secure line in my office.”
She woke suddenly, her heart pounding. It was nearly 4:00 a.m. She’d thought she would be completely unable to sleep after the evening’s revelations. As it was, she’d only barely been able to finish the report before taking a shower and crawling into the big guestroom bed. She’d left the window open to bring in the fresh, flower-scented air, and relied on the heavy quilt to keep her warm. The window had another of those silk bags suspended from the frame.
Now she could feel the cold penetrating even the quilt. She was sure it never got this cold naturally in Hawaii, at this altitude. She slid out of the bed, seeing her breath condensing in front of her face. Weapons…she opened the drawer by her bed and saw the reassuring black shape of a Mag-light. She picked it up–it was almost cold enough to hurt. She knew intellectually that it would probably be useless, but having its bone-powdering heaviness in her hand made her feel better. She was fighting a shiver reflex, standing there in only a t-shirt and old running shorts. She found a sweater in a dresser drawer and quickly pulled it on. It was much too large for her, but it helped.
She left the room quietly, placing her feet carefully, purposefully to make no noise. In her mind, she told herself she was the hunter, not the hunted–she was stalking her prey. She wouldn’t let the panic that had taken hold of her on the road earlier rise up again. Her mind raced with thoughts of how best to fight this…whatever it was. Heat? Maybe there was something in the kitchen she could use.
There was someone in the living room. Hank stood in a robe, facing away from her, looking out the window. She saw a patch of fog on the window in front of his mouth pulse, growing larger, then smaller, then larger again. He raised his land and placed it against the window, as if wishing to touch something on the other side.
Maria crept nearer, moving easier now on the thick carpet. She could see something outside, a white figure. Yes, it was the same woman, she was sure…but as soon as she saw it, it faded back into the surrounding foliage. The spell of cold lifted, too–she could immediately feel the room getting warmer.
Hank turned around. His face looked sad and tired, for a moment before he saw her a few feet away from him, in a defensive posture, holding a club. Then his eyes widened in surprise. Maria relaxed, lowering the flashlight to her side, but still watching him warily.
“Hank, what was that?”
Hank sagged a little, then ran his hand over his head. “That,” he said, resigned, “was my secret. My ghost.” He went to the couch and sat down heavily. “My wife.”
She almost dropped the flashlight. “What?!”
Hank sighed and looked at her, his eyes begging for understanding. “This is the thing I never told Alphonse about, a case we never cleared up. My first Delta Green op, before I knew what Delta Green was. At first, I couldn’t remember what happened. Hell, it was more than twenty years before I remembered. And after that…well, I guess I just wanted to keep something for myself.”
Maria sat down near him, the flashlight in her lap. “Tell me.”
He told her of the aftermath of the war, in Tokyo, and of Farnsworth, the OSS agent working for P Division. They had gone up to Hokkaido, supposedly to help the residents of a village under assault by bandits. Hank had been the interpreter; their guide was a woman from the town, Setsuko. It had turned out to be a trap.
“Setsuko was…some kind of avatar, an extension of a very powerful Outside force that expresses itself through cold. I think. I don’t really know anything for sure. She, or the force, had killed or transformed the villagers into cannibalistic, frostbitten things. They attacked us.” He paused, his hands clasped together. “I was the only survivor, and only because she spared me. I…I don’t really know why. She told me she wanted to make me into something like her, more than the monsters those poor people had become. But in the end, she let me go. And she did something to me to make me forget.
“Ten years later I was in the Agency, and in Delta Green. I mostly just did translation work, like during the war. I know a lot of languages. I met a woman, Yukiko, in Waikiki.” He shook his head. “Yukiko means ‘snow child.’ It’s a very common name. The same kanji can be pronounced ‘Setsuko,’ with the same meaning.”
“You married her.”
“I didn’t remember! I swear.” He was silent for a moment. “She seemed human enough. We had three lovely children together, and they’re all just fine, pretty much. Nothing to indicate they’re half demon, anyway. After they grew up, and she had left, well we sort of became estranged for a while, but it’s OK now.”
“Hold on. She left?”
Sigh. “About ten years after we married, I started having dreams of that op on Hokkaido. They got clearer and clearer. J–sorry, Alphonse had been involved in that, and he had interviewed me several times, trying to find out what exactly had happened. And now here it was, coming back. Well, one night I looked at my wife and I knew who she was. And she saw I knew. She…changed. Became the monster, the ghost-thing. She was going to kill me, or change me. And I had my gun–I was going to do my best to kill her, though I’m sure it wouldn’t have done any good. But, we heard one of the kids crying, from the cold, you know? And…I guess she just couldn’t do it. She left.”
“You’re saying there was some sense of humanity in her?” Maria sounded doubtful.
“I don’t know. Maybe she imitated a human for so long, it became a habit with her. Maybe she was human once, and having a family reawakened old emotions. Anyway, she didn’t hurt us. But she’s appeared to me several times since. Especially since the kids grew up.” He looked at Maria. “I think she’s coming to take me away now. To change me.”
“What’s stopping her?”
“Well, I suppose she’s weakened by being so near the equator. Also, this house is protected. Old wards, Japanese and Hawaiian. The ti plants at each corner of the house, the bags of salt over each opening, other things. But she’s getting closer. I think it won’t be long now. And I don’t think there’s anywhere I can go to escape her.”
Maria took his hands in both of hers. “What will you do?”
Hank smiled grimly. “Better not to talk about that. Let’s just say that I’m not going to be joining the ranks of the enemy.” He winked.
She guessed his meaning, and looked down in consternation. The “.45-caliber retirement plan, self-administered” was an option many agents had to consider at some point. Hank took one of his hands from hers, touching the hair hanging at the side of her face. “Hey, don’t worry about me. I’ll be all right.”
She looked at him, upset. “I just don’t like don’t like hearing talk like that. I’ve…most of my life I’ve been thinking about you, wondering who you are, why you did what you did. I guess you’ve been a kind of mythic figure for me. After I was brought in, I figured you must be part of Delta Green, but I never tried to find out. And now I’ve met you, and learned all these things about you, and…shit.” She looked away, angry at the tears forming, embarrassed. “I might never see you again.” She stood and walked to the window, gripping her elbows. She turned to him, almost shouting, “Why didn’t you contact me? You said you kept track of me. You sent that card to me once. You were thinking about me, too.”
He spread his hands. “I was worried that…I was going through a bad stretch in the years after that night. I was worried I’d do you more harm than good.”
She came back and sat next to him on the sofa. “God, Hank, I would have done anything to have someone to talk to about it. There was no one, not even my brother. I almost died from it–I almost followed Loi a dozen times. You and I, we could’ve helped each other.” She sighed. It felt right when he put his arms around her; she leaned into him, resting her head on his chest.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He seemed as if he would say more, but he thought better of it, just holding her instead. She relaxed against him, her hands on his arms, his cheek on her head. Comfortable, they sat that way for some time, as the sky outside the window lightened with the false dawn. They heard a clock signal the half-hour.
Maria stirred slightly. “Hank?”
“We could sit here like this and watch the sun rise together, and that would be really nice. But…we don’t have much time.”
They looked at each other, Hank looking a little puzzled, Maria a little nervous. Then almost without thinking they kissed, long but gently. Maria slipped her arms around his back–Hank cupped her face in his hands. When they pulled back, looking at each other, they were smiling.
“Uh, Maria, I think at this point I’m required to remind you that I’m old enough to be your grandfather.”
She laughed for a moment, low in her throat. “I’m thirty-six, Hank; I think I can handle it.”
“Well, I’m not sure I can.” They stood and started walking toward Hank’s bedroom, holding hands. “My will is on the middle desk drawer, just in case.” They laughed together.
“Thank you. You were wonderful.”
“Old age and treachery. And you make me feel like I’m sixty again.”
Laughter, then a pause. “The sun’s already up.”
“When’s your flight?”
“A little after noon.”
“You sure you can’t stay another day?”
“I wish I could.”
Sigh. “Well, then, we’ll just have to make the most of the time we have.”
Shifting, laughter. “Are you sure…WOW!”
Later. “My god, where do you get the energy?”
“I’ve been celibate for more than ten years. I have plenty built up.”
“Uh, let’s have some breakfast first. I think another time would kill me…come to think of it, that would be a good way to go.”
She was over the Pacific, winging her way back to Texas, before she took off the orchid lei Hank had bought for her at the airport. She kissed a sweet-smelling flower before putting the lei in a plastic bag, tying it and placing it carefully in the bin above her. As she got out her computer, she was trying to think of how to squeeze in a trip to Hawaii within the next few months. Then she booted her email program and, using the phone set into the seatback in front of her, did a quick email check.
There was an urgent message from Luke. Linus had been badly injured. She spent the rest of the flight studying and restudying Linus’ early reports, Hank’s information, everything Luke could give her on Collins and anyone else involved. And when her eyes became too tired and dry to read, she stared out the window at the black sky above the black ocean.