By David Farnell, (c) 2000
“So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak
Who ’twas cut thy tongue and ravished thee.”
–Shakespeare, Titus Andonicus
Sometimes, Maria felt that she spent more time in hospitals than out.
Ahmed had been mauled terribly, but he would survive. Severed muscles in his back and ass would keep him bedridden for some time. One lung had been punctured, and he’d lost a lot of blood. In her brief visit, he had joked feebly about how much he hated to sleep on his stomach. He was handling the trauma about as well as could be expected.
Ruth, on the other hand, had withdrawn into a semi-catatonic state. She was in the psychiatric ward; Derek and Maria hadn’t yet gotten permission to visit. Though Ruth hadn’t actually seen him crucified on the wall, what had happened to Jerry had hit her hard. Then seeing the thing stooped over Ahmed, claws dug in and rotten wings beating, getting a good, hard look at the grinning face of the Outside–the face of the universe–had sent her over the edge. Maria had been there herself. She mentally wished Ruth a speedy recovery and got on with business. Later, perhaps, she could help.
She approached Derek in the lounge. He was seated, elbows on knees, staring into space.
“They won’t let us see Ruth yet. They say it’s too early for visitors.”
He nodded, frowning. She sat down across from him.
“Derek.” His eyes rolled up, focused on her; he didn’t move a muscle otherwise. Stone-faced. She couldn’t tell what he thought of her now, but she didn’t think it was good. She took a breath. “Do you want out?”
He thought about it. Slowly shook his head. “Doesn’t matter what I want, does it? The devil wants to get you, he’s gonna get you. Just ’cause you give up doesn’t mean he will.”
He leaned forward and stared her in the eye. “But you want us to follow you into hell, Doe. And the simple truth is, you haven’t earned that kind of trust.”
She looked back at him, thinking, What would Jerry do? Slap him down, or let him in? Jerry, Linus, had been the “Friendly Guy,” the recruiter-on-the-spot, for L Cell. Laura had always been content to leave that up to him–she was never as suave, as cynically manipulative, as he. At the same time, he had cared about every one of them. Perhaps that was how he pulled them in so easily–they knew that, even when he used them up, sacrificing them to the mission, he loved them, deep down. She could barely imagine the demons that haunted his nights.
Anyway, Derek had already seen something from Outside, and read more. With what he’d translated of that Mexican missionary’s journals–before they’d been stolen from the library’s secure room–he’d be putting things together. Better to have him on the inside.
Besides, he’d called her Doe. Nobody’d ever called her that before. She kind of liked it.
“OK. I can’t tell you everything. But after what you’ve seen, I can tell you some of it.” She took his hands, long and slim, much darker than hers. “But know this: The more you know, the deeper in you get. And you never get back out. This knowledge is like a disease. It kills your peace of mind, forever.”
He nodded, as if he’d expected that. “You know, I decided to be a scholar because I thought it would help me find the truth. I grew up in Bumfuck, Louisiana–my grandmama sells love charms and potions, and if you pay her enough she’ll throw grave-dirt on your enemy’s doorstep to give him bad luck. I couldn’t stand that superstitious shit–it was embarrassing. After a while, I decided my uncle, the preacher, was just singing the same song to a different tune. Now, after seeing that…thing, I’ve got to wonder if all those brilliant anthropologists I’ve read, who scientifically categorize and dissect the things my kin believe in–well, I’ve got to wonder if they don’t know half of what my grandmama knows.
“I don’t figure I’ll be getting many good nights’ sleep from now on anyway, Agent Verde. Tell me what you can. Give me the truth.”
It took her a while to find a place to park–Austin had recently been “discovered” by Fortune and Lifestyle and others and had been dubbed the “number one (or two) place to live in America.” Now the roads were gridlocked, the rents skyrocketing. She saw a lot of California plates on the cars, recession refugees. She also saw a lot of bumper stickers on cars with Texas plates, things like “Welcome to Texas–Now Go Home!” It made her smile. Same old Texas.
It was years since she’d been back to Austin. She’d done her undergraduate work here; it had been a great place to be a student. A sort of retirement town for hippies and freaks–at least, that was the impression you got downtown, near the University. The Bubba mentality was present, but warped into strange and delightful new paths by the freaks. It was Texas done in psychedelic colors.
She got out of the car, walking swiftly to get to the pay phone. Late afternoon on Guadelupe saw lots of students strolling, hanging out in the cafes, bookstores, and head shops. She raised an eyebrow at a new sushi bar where her favorite sandwich shop used to be. Beggars, young and old, called out to her–she ignored them.
She had left Derek napping fitfully in a cheap motel room–they would change rooms after nightfall to make it harder for anything seeking them out. She had gotten in about an hour of sleep herself. She felt bone-tired, having had no real sleep since leaving Hawaii. She would have to do something about that soon.
The phone was already ringing before she got there. A young Hispanic guy with a Van Dyke beard and enough piercings to pick up radio signals had drifted over and was about to lift the receiver, a puzzled look on his face. She slid in front of him and intercepted it, flashing him a smile. “Sorry, it’s for me.”
>>Hello, is Michelle there?<<
“No, I’m sorry, she’s not here right now. This is Laura–can I help you?”
>>Good to hear your voice again, Laura.<< As always, Luke’s voice was electronically modified. He tried out new settings every time; on this call, he sounded like Bobby Kennedy crossed with John Wayne. The electronics couldn’t take care of Luke’s Boston accent, yet, but Maria was sure he was working on it. She could hear all sorts of echoes and clicks as the call was bounced around and scrambled to make it all but impossible to trace or intercept. >>Why did you request real-time communication?<<
The pierced guy was still hanging around, his puzzled look slowly changing to a semi-macho come-on. Maria held the phone away and said, “Excuse me. This is a private call.”
The guy looked back at his slacker friends, who were egging him on, then turned to her with what he surely considered a winning smile. Maria sighed. “Hey, fuck off, OK? I’m not in the mood for games.” His face darkened, and for a moment she thought he was going to try something macho, but then he saw the look in her eyes and the way she was standing. He and his buddies moved on, muttering.
“Sorry, Luke. Local color.”
>>No problem. What’s up?<<
“You know. I am rapidly running out of backup here. Linus and two of the three Friendlies are out. Send me some help.”
>>I told you by email, Laura–we’re having a situation right now.<<
>>I don’t want to burden you. You have enough to deal with.<<
“Damn right I do. I’m alone, Luke! I’m gonna to turn up dead tomorrow, and you won’t even know for sure who did it. Divert some resources, get me a couple of combat-qualified Friendlies, something.”
>>I’m sorry, Laura. You’ll have to recruit on-site. I know I’m letting you down, but really, I can’t get hold of any resources like that just now.<<
“Fine. I’ll take that as permission, then. I’ve had a talk with Derek Williams–he demanded to know more, so I told him. The Outside, our place in the universe, that kind of thing.”
>>Oh. Well, I trust your judgement as always.<<
Maria snorted at that.
>>And his knowledge of us?<<
“Level 2: We’re a secret agency of monster-hunters with a government-issued license to kill. Obscure, poor funding, so we won’t expect money from us. I can tell he doesn’t fully buy it, but he’s willing to let it slide for now.”
>>OK. What else?<<
“I need someone in law-enforcement. Williams is in ROTC, so he knows one end of a gun from the other, but I need someone who can fight and who has a grasp of procedure, so we can break the rules the right way. And it should be someone who’s met the Enemy before.”
>>Sounds like you’ve already chosen someone.<<
“Yeah. Um, there’s really no one among the local police force who’s suitable. So…I called my brother.”
Silence. >>Are you sure that’s a good idea, Laura?<<
“No. I’m sure it’s a bad idea, really, but I can’t think of anything else. He’s coming up from San Antonio tonight. Unless you can offer me a better choice?”
A pause. >>Right now, no. You’re right–you have no choice. But I will get a cell out to you as soon as possible. Assuming you don’t finish the job first.<<
“Well, maybe I’ll do that before Daniel gets here. I’m going over to Collins’ office right now.”
>>You can’t gun him down in public, Laura.<<
“Unfortunately true. But it’s time to have a talk, feel him out. Anyway, he has to be expecting another visit from the FBI, after his attack on Linus. There’s no point in hiding my face from him–his servant must have gotten a good look at me. I’ll just play dumb; he doesn’t know that I know who he is.”
>>Do you? Be careful Laura.<<
“If I were a careful person, I wouldn’t be working for you, would I? Be seeing you.”
“And how may I help the FBI today, Agent Verde?”
Lt. Colonel Bradley Collins, Professor of Military Science, leaned back in his chair, a catty smile playing across his sensuous lips. Maria could tell that she was providing him with great amusement. She kept her face as neutral as possible and looked past him, through his window. His office in the AROTC Center in Steinham Hall had a good view, across the East Mall and taking in the UT Tower. Maria looked at it, thinking of Charles Whitman up there in 1966–what had he been thinking as he prepared to erase the lives of strangers in the streets below?
“I’m sorry, Professor. I must admit, I’m a little distracted by the smell.” More than that, she could feel a growing pressure in her chest–her constant companion stirring.
His smile became thinner. His face was square and solid, heavily angled and highly expressive. She found him strangely attractive and repellant in equal measures. She imagined he must have some ardent admirers among his more impressionable students.
He spun an expensive pen between his fingers. “Ah, yes. A cat got in here a couple of months back, I’m afraid. University campuses are simply infested with them, you know–besotted young men always giving kittens to their lady-loves, who then abandon the poor things come summer vacation. People feed them; I favor the law of the jungle, myself. Anyway, it must have slipped in through an open window and then been unable to find its way out. Trapped in here the whole weekend. Poor thing got frightened and ran aroundspraying everything. I’ve had the cleaners in several times, but I imagine the smell will linger for the next several decades. It was a tragedy, really–I had no choice but to throw out some very rare books.”
“Well, now that you mention books–“
“Ah, yes! I’ve heard about Agent Smalls’ misfortunes. I do hope he will recover fully?” Collins’ smile was verging on a sneer.
Maria looked hard into his hard eyes and spoke carefully and coldly. “They’re reconstructing his eyelids from the skin of his fingertips. His tongue will always be a numb lump of meat in his mouth, and he’ll never be able to eat regular food because he’s lost half his digestive tract.” And that’s nothing to what I’ll do to you when the time comes, you bastard.
“Well, I suppose, in the service of our country, these things sometimes do happen, unfortunately. But tell me, have you found the books you were looking for?”
She stood and walked over to his bookshelves, scanning titles to avoid looking at him. Her stomach felt knotted up. The further she stood from him, the weaker the smell became. It was just something in the background, perhaps not even noticeable if one wasn’t sniffing for it. It did not smell like cat piss–more like something spoiled, rancid. Mayonnaise, maybe. “The books are still missing.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. However, as I told Agent Smalls, I know nothing about it.”
“But you did request access to the Special Collections room, specifically to view Le roi en jaune and De la marca amariya a few days before the robbery.”
He rose and came toward her. The smell grew slightly stronger. “Come now, Agent Verde, you don’t seriously think I tore the steel door off the Special Collections room with my bare hands, do you?”
“No, I don’t think you did it. However, it is curious, isn’t it? And you were the last person to check out the English translation of that play, The King in Yellow, before it disappeared from the library last year.” She let him approach her, felt his presence behind her. The pressure in her breastbone was becoming intense.
“Very curious, indeed.” He reached past her to seize a gray fuzz of dust from the shelf, his fingers delicately balling it up. When he opened his fingers, the dust was gone. His breath tickled her ear. “For example, I am quite curious about you, Agent Verde. You see, I have some connections in the intelligence community, and after my conversation with Agent Smalls, I did some checking. Just out of…curiosity.”
She tensed, but did not flinch, as he lay his hands on her shoulders. She closed her eyes. Her breath came tremulously. Collins whispered huskily, “They tell me that there is no Special Agent Alan Smalls. And no Special Agent Dolores Verde. Some faked computer records, yes, but I never trust machines. And so I have to wonder, just why are you interested in these books?”
His hands radiated an oily warmth through her light suit jacket, gently directing her to lean forward. Her vision swimming, she did so, gripping the bookshelf for support. The warmth quickly spread through her body. One of his hands slowly slithered through her thick hair, then grasped it, easing her head back, while the other slipped under her arm to cup her breast. She made a small sound in her throat as his hips nestled into her buttocks–whether it was a sound of fear or pleasure, she could not afterwards say. His lips made a snail-trail along her throat, and his voice buzzed as he whispered to her, “Tell me, have you seen the Yellow Sign?”
She felt something pushing against her skirt, writhing, snake-like. Alive. Aware. She heard a voice of memory, of her training, from some locked-away, terrified part of her mind: “Look at your hands.” The sane part of her mind thrashed beneath a heavy, water-soaked blanket of suffocating surrender. So much easier to let go, to let the inevitable happen. “Look at your hands.”
Shut up. This feels…good? Monstrous? Whatever…it feels. Her clothes, melting away, veil-thin now, insubstantial, barely blocking the abominable pleasures she was about to experience. Oh, yes…
“Look at your hands.” Experience…and then death. Yes, but it feels goooood…
Her entire body jerked, and she found herself in the chair. Collins was sitting behind the desk, leaning back, elbows on the chair’s arms, fingers together. She thought perhaps his eyes had opened at the same time as hers. There was a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead.
He looked at her for a moment, his face expressionless. Then he cleared his throat and said, “Well then, Agent Verde…will there be any more questions?”
Her sense of dislocation was profound. She could still feel his hands on her, the thing, writhing…she put one hand to her neck, wiping it. Was that moisture? Her heart was beating hard and fast. She fought to gain control–she felt like vomiting.
She tried to stand slowly, but stumbled and almost knocked the chair over. “No, no more questions.” She fought to keep her voice under control. Her right hand moved toward her gun.
Collins smiled, amused again. “Well. I really do hope to see you again, Dolores.”
At the sound of her middle name, from her father’s favorite West Texas ghost story, she stopped the trembling, put aside the fear. She straightened out of a defensive posture and forced herself to look him in the eyes, focusing cold rage and contempt on him, her head high, staring him down. His cat-like smile flickered and lost a measure of its confidence.
She smiled, cold and predatory. Then she turned and left.