By David Farnell, (c) 2000
The shower was very hot, making her skin numb, making her sweat and simultaneously washing that sweat away. She felt filthy; she wanted to purge. She scrubbed furiously at her skin, still feeling the tingling sensation of Collins’ touch. She cursed and once pounded the wall of the shower, then worried that she must be scaring Derek, who was waiting for her out in the main part of the motel room.
How had he done it? Some dream-magic? She had been exhausted, too long without real sleep; perhaps that had contributed. She felt again the serpentine writhing pressing against her and had to fight to keep from vomiting. No, can’t let him win, can’t let him dominate me. No showing my belly to this sick FUCK! She pounded the wall again, then laid her head against it. What about Linus? Had Collins pulled something like that with Linus, too? Was that why his guard had been down? It could even have been the same scenario. God. Had Linus been reading the play when he was attacked? His tongue had been used as a bookmark. Had he been unable to resist the allure of the damned play, after his encounter with Collins?
Well, she knew a thing or two herself. Collins might be in for a surprise.
When Maria got out of the shower, she heard her cell phone ringing, or rather, playing a tinny, electronic version of “Only the Lonely.” The phone was set to ring in different tunes depending on the source–Roy Orbison was a signal that it was an important call from Luke. The sound of the phone bell came nearer, and there was a light knock on the door. She cracked it open. It was Derek, looking a little embarrassed; it was obvious he was trying hard to make sure she knew he wasn’t trying to get a look at her. “Phone.”
“Sorry,” she said, taking it from him.
“Um, you OK?”
“Fine, now,” she said. She smiled at him and closed the door.
“What’s up, pendejo?” It was one of their all-clear phrases. “I just about flashed a Friendly.”
“What you do on your own time is your business, Laura. Bad news: you’ve got dogs on your trail.” Luke’s electronically modified voice now sounded like a small child’s.
She almost slammed the wall again. “I knew it. I’ve just gotten back from seeing Collins. He told me he’d checked with some connections and found out that Linus and I aren’t kosher. I don’t think he knows any more than that, but he must have set the dogs on us. Bronsons?”
“Just FBI from the San Antonio Field Office. They don’t seem to have any orders other than bringing you in for questioning–no juju-man involvement as far as I can tell. And I’m reasonably sure they’re not talking to the local police about it–no APBs are out for you, anyway. Probably want to keep it in-house, until they know who you are.”
“Well, I can’t count on that, so I may as well give up on cooperation from the cops. Great. None of these guys are connected with us, are they? No Friendlies?”
“You know I would have alerted you to nearby Friendlies when you went in, and especially now that Linus is hurt.”
“Worth a stab. And what about Linus? We can’t move him.”
“Well, neither can they, for a few days. By then, I should be able to arrange for a snatch team to get him to another hospital, someplace we can protect him better. Just don’t go visit him. Ahmed and Ruth don’t know enough about us to cause any trouble–we’ll have to assess Derek when this is over. Laura, it’s getting hot, and you don’t have enough backup. Give the word and we drop the whole thing.”
“No. Not yet. Collins is up to something; he wouldn’t be coming out of his deep-cover persona unless he was about to make a big move. I’ll be meeting Danny in a couple of hours, and I think with the feds breathing down our necks, I’m going to move up the timetable a bit. Time to visit the green box.”
“Mm. All right. I’ve emailed you the maps of the area around Collins’ house, and the blueprints–no telling how much he’s modified the interior, though. I’ll tell Cecil to expect you.”
“And…Linus checked in with the local FBI station after I went to Hawaii, didn’t he? So he’s met some of these guys. Send me everything you’ve got on them, will you?”
“Sure. What are you thinking?”
“Maybe I can solve our severe Friendly shortage.”
It was early evening, and the jazz band, 8 1/2 Souvenirs, was just fooling around a bit before the main set, getting in tune. She had a booth away from the action, dark, able to keep an eye on the door. Derek was elsewhere, meeting a friend, a woman who’d quit the ROTC program after a run-in with Collins. She hadn’t ever filed a complaint against Collins. Maria wasn’t surprised. She absent-mindedly made patterns on the table from the condensation off her beer bottle, watching the door. Her stomach was clenching up again.
Danny came in, five minutes early. Out of uniform, he still looked every inch the uber-cop Texas Ranger. He peered around the gloom and saw her raised beer bottle saluting him. He grinned and strode over.
As he neared, she stood and let herself be swept up in a hug. He towered over her, bigger even than their father had been, filled out over the years. She held him tightly, her face buried in his chest, then stepped away. “You big maroon, you stole all my inches, didn’t you?”
He laughed and sat down. “I left you just enough to get into the FBI, shortie.”
“Kicking ass and taking names. She’s announced her candidacy for City Council.”
“Whoa! I thought she was always a behind-the-scenes player.”
“Stepping out from behind the curtain now. Amazing, huh? Since Dad died, she’s just been full-speed-ahead.”
Maria shook her head. “And we always used to think she was so old-fashioned.”
“She misses you. She’s always talking about how it’s been two years since you came down.”
She grimaced. “You didn’t tell her I’m in Texas, did you?”
“Course not. You told me not to. Kate knows, of course–she answered the phone when you called, after all.”
“Yeah. Did she mind? How is she? And the kids?”
The waitress brought a beer and a fresh basket of chips. There were three kinds of salsa on the table–Maria had already demolished most of the green stuff.
Danny nodded thanks to the waitress and said, “Of course she minds, but she doesn’t say it. You’re my sister. I think she’d like to get to know you sometime, though.”
“I know. I’ve just never…she and I haven’t really found much common ground yet.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “Anyway, the kids are fine. They like the books you send, and they talk about you. ‘When’s Aunt Maria coming?'”
“Oh, jeez–OK, OK, I’ll be there for Raf’s birthday, I promise!”
Danny laughed, then took a drink. “So, what’s it all about?”
She took a deep breath. “It’s not good, Danny boy.”
“Is it that mad slasher? I heard an FBI man got hurt. Friend of yours?”
“Partner. Good friend. He’s messed up for life now.”
“Yeah, I’d heard that. Hard. What about the guy that did it to him? Three victims now? One deceased.”
She nodded. “I, well, I know who did it. But I need some help taking him down.”
He sat back and looked at her, frowning. “Something wrong with the FBI, local cops?”
She took a drink, then looked at the patterns she’d been drawing on the tabletop. She almost laughed at the curves and angles, the intersections that threatened to trap and transport the mind. She swept the bottle across it, destroying the asymmetrical balance, reducing it to insignificance. “Danny, there’s some things we’ve never talked about. Things I’ve kept from you, and we’ve kept from ourselves. But we need to talk about them now. I need you.”
He looked away. She watched his jaw muscle work back and forth. “I’m here for you.” His voice was strained. “I don’t see why you want to be digging up the past, though.”
“I don’t want to. I know you’ve buried it pretty well, but for you to understand this, you’ve got to face it. You’ve got to face what happened…to Loi.”
Danny’s hand slapped the table hard enough to make everything on it jump. Maria paid it no mind, but some other patrons looked over at them. “Just don’t, OK?” he said. His voice was shaky, trying to sound tough. “Just leave that shit alone, all right?”
“No!” He half-rose, then sat down again, still not looking at her. “This is not something I want to talk about.”
“Danny, he’s coming after me.”
Danny closed his eyes and breathed deeply, into the gut, to ground himself. After half a minute, he turned to look at his sister. She couldn’t tell from his face whether he was willing to let her go on or not. Finally, he said, “Let’s go out to the car. Talk alone.”
She dropped some money on the table and they left. Danny’s huge pickup was parked in a restricted zone nearby. Rangers didn’t have issued vehicles–instead, they got an allowance to purchase their own vehicle. Like most Rangers, Danny had spent plenty of his own money customizing his.
The interior was roomy and very comfortable. Danny gripped the wheel and laid his head back on the headrest.
She started right in, almost chanting it. “We went up to the lake, you, me, and Loi.”
“Goddamn it…” he whispered.
“We found a castle made of mud and twigs and stone, and then we went swimming for a while.”
Danny was clenching his jaw again.
“Then you saw something inside the castle. I came over to look, then tried to get closer, and somehow I started dancing.”
“I saw the figurines inside, but then I slipped and brought the whole thing down–“
Danny looked to be in physical pain, grimacing to hold something in. Maria, too, felt the pain in her stomach as she tried to choke it out.
“–and I was stabbed in the chest by a spear held by one of the figurines. It’s still…still inside me, Danny. The spear tip is still there.”
Danny was breathing rapidly now, his face red and sweat-slicked.
“Later, we sat around the fire, and we were joined by a man–“
“NO!” Danny cursed and pounded the steering wheel. Tears started down his face. “Stop it!”
“His face was melted by disease, and he sent us to the castle….”
“Among the figurines, come to life.” She, too, was crying now, though it didn’t come into her voice. “And I was Camilla, and you were Uoht, and Loi was Thale.”
Danny stopped struggling, his shoulders slumping as he listened and wept. He hid his face with his hands. His body twitched and shivered as his most deeply buried dreams clawed their way out.
“And above us were things that rustled and crawled, but we never dared to look up. And we knew the end was coming, but we smiled and drank anyway. And then we found a way out, you and I–we danced our way out. But we left…we left Loi behind…”
Her voice finally broke, and she began sobbing, unable to start speaking again. She fumblingly reached out to him, catching his wrist, and he turned to her, and for a moment through the tears his face was Uoht’s, the skin a delicate peach, the hair long and deeper black than anything human, and she saw in his violet eyes the same recognition. And though some part of her leapt away in terror at the transformation, a stronger part moved her to him, and they embraced, their curiously long hands caressing each other, comforting, and when they found each other’s mouth, their ardent kisses did not balk at any familial propriety. It was only their great sadness and a dim spark of another remembered life that stopped them from expressing their love and loneliness more fully, and they slowly withdrew and saw that they were, after all, only pitiful, guilt-ridden, lumpen creatures, clumsy-handed and dark, though not without a crude beauty. In shame, they looked away from each other.
There was no clear point at which they remembered themselves fully, only a quiet transition during which they became more and more Maria and Daniel. There was no moment of shock at what they’d almost done, just a strengthening disquiet as they remembered that it was a crime, a line that if crossed could trap them forever behind beautiful, doomed masks. It was a long time before Maria spoke again.
“Then, a man came. He killed the…the bad man, and freed us, but Loi was lost.” She shuddered. “That man was doing what I’m doing now. That…monster wasn’t the only one. I’m a hunter now, but I’m also being hunted.”
She looked at Danny. He had his head propped against the window, sweating freely, eyes staring at the distance. His frown was very deep.
He laid one hand on the seat between them, palm up, still not looking at her. She took his hand. They sat at opposite ends of the truck’s cab, holding hands.
Finally, Danny said one word: “OK.”
The junkyard had a high cyclone fence topped with loops of rusty razor wire. The gate was festooned with signs proclaiming dire warnings to any who would dare to enter without permission. Some, like the “Achtung! Minen!” sign, were obviously farcical, but the multiple warnings about dogs were clearly serious. Five threatening shapes, some lean, others massively solid, loped to and fro along the base of the fence, pacing, looking for an opportunity to get at the intruders on the other side.
Derek looked decidedly uncomfortable. “That does not look good, Doe. I never much liked dogs, and these are definitely not friendly.”
Maria ignored Danny’s quizzical look over the diminutive, and said, “Cecil’s OK. He’ll control them.”
At the wheel, Danny shrugged and tapped the horn in three short bursts, then a long one, then three short ones again, as Maria had told him to do. Then he said, “So, ‘Dolores,’ how well do you know this Cecil?”
“Actually, I’ve never met him. But he comes highly recommended.”
Derek sighed. “Woooonderful. Did you notice the swastika on that sign there? You know, the kind of guys who own places like this usually don’t much like guys like me.” He looked the two of them up and down. “And y’all aren’t looking too Aryan yourselves.”
“He knows we’re coming, he knows what we look like, and he’s OK with it. Relax.” Maria was feeling snappish from lack of sleep and emotional upheaval. She told herself to follow her own advice.
Derek kept looking at Danny and Maria. “You know, I could almost swear you two were family.”
Danny laughed. Maria, sandwiched between them, cut off what promised to be a clever comeback. “There he is.”
The rental van’s headlights picked out a figure as lean and stooped as some of his slat-sided hounds, weaving between stacks of crushed and uncrushed vehicles. Cecil seemed tiny at first, but it was the scale, as he was flanked by a quartet of dogs larger than any of the others. Huge dogs: an imperious black-and-grey harlequin Great Dane with one uncropped floppy ear, the other a ragged stump, lost in a fight from the look of it; a squat black mastiff with pink battle scars all over its muzzle; and two monsters that looked like Alsatians, but were much too big. The larger of the two might have outweighed the Great Dane. These last two had the look of Alphas, male and female; the Dane and the mastiff followed them like favored knights supporting their liege lords, staring down the peasant soldiers who crowded around yet kept their distance, whining for attention from the royalty.
But the king was Cecil. A fragile-looking stick figure, probably over six feet tall if he ever straightened up, swamped in filthy, baggy coveralls and an oversized gimme cap, Cecil would have been a pitiful sight without his retinue. With them surrounding him, the beasts licking his hands as he towered above them, staring at the intruders, Cecil clearly held the power of life and death in his realm, and knew it quite clearly.
He stared into the van’s window, though he couldn’t possibly see through it with the headlights glaring in his eyes. He didn’t seem to notice. Without looking at them, he gave the blessing of his touch to the beasts, then moved to open the gate. As he slid it out of the way, none of the dogs crossed the line separating their territory from the outside world, though they looked hungrily out at the unexplored territory. Then Cecil strode out to the van, and the four largest dogs, his elite guard, followed him across the gate’s threshold, leaving behind the lesser dogs. The large ones spread out into a line-abreast formation, then two went to each side of the van.
On the passenger’s side, the Dane rose up and planted his huge pads on the door and looked in through the window, letting loose a single, glass-shaking bark. The window was splattered with spittle and Derek, whose face was just inches from the dog’s, jumped. “Shit!”
Cecil came around to the driver’s side and tapped on the window. His face looked somewhere between forty and a hundred forty. Danny rolled it down. Cecil said, “Can I help you?” His deep Texas drawl made it come out as “C’n ah hep ya?” But there was no hint of servility in the question.
Danny glanced at Maria, then said, “Lucas sent us.”
“Uh-huh. Right, then, y’all get on outta the van. An’ open up this here side door, too.”
Danny stepped outside, then Maria followed. Derek hesitated, but at Maria’s reassuring “Come on,” joined them, sliding across the bench seat to exit through the driver’s door and avoid being alone with the Great Dane on the other side of the vehicle. The dogs watched them closely. Danny opened the door to the back part of the van, and Cecil looked inside, apparently suspicious that there might be a SWAT team back there. He nodded satisfaction at the empty compartment.
“OK, y’all drive in an’ I’ll shut the gate. Then follow me.”
The green box was another van, sitting on its rims and buried under other rusted-out hulks so that only its windowless rear doors were exposed. The Texas license plate was dangling from one corner by a twisted wire; it read “PAG1005.” It matched with what Luke had told her. She got out the key Luke had posted to her
Danny was trying to make friends with the larger of the two super-Shepherds. The dog looked up at Cecil, who shrugged, then looked back at Danny and slowly shoved its snout into his offered hand. Danny chuckled and, squatting down, scratched the dog’s ears and petted its head. “Timber shepherd?” he asked Cecil.
“Yep.” Despite the short answer, the dog-talk seemed to warm Cecil up. He lit a cigarette. “Well, I ain’t supposed to see what’s in that van, so I’ll take my leave now. Y’all just hit the horn when you’re ready to go. Geronimo here looks like he’s taken to you–I guess nobody’ll mind if he sticks around.” With that, he left, all of the dogs except Geronimo following him.
Derek visibly relaxed as they slipped away. Danny was still petting the huge dog while Maria tried to get the stiff lock to turn. Derek nodded at the dog. “And what’s a timber shepherd?”
“Cross between a German Shepherd and a timber wolf. Often ends up bigger than either, and smart as hell. They can be unstable, though, especially if they aren’t bred really carefully. This guy seems fine, though, but I wouldn’t let him around the kids until I got to know him better.”
“I’m more worried about him being around me right now.”
“Got it!” Maria said. With a loud groan, the wreck’s door opened. “Daniel, get me that maglite out of the van.” A moment later, he handed the heavy, black flashlight to her; she turned it on and climbed into the green box.
Danny poked his head in to look around. “Damn!” There were at least a dozen long arms stacked against the walls, wrapped in heavy, grease-smeared plastic. Although difficult to make out, they were obviously a mix of assault rifles, submachine guns, and shotguns. At the far end of the van were stacked metal footlockers and other less-recognizable bundles.
“Bingo,” Maria said. “Let’s take what we need and load it up. I want to get some sleep.”
The motel room had two single beds, so they took it in shifts, Danny volunteering to take the lion’s share of the watch, seeing as how the other two looked ragged from exhaustion. Even so, Maria got little sleep; she felt too keyed up, and Derek’s nightmare-inspired moans didn’t help. Finally, around 3 a.m., she cursed and got up and sent Danny to bed, spending the rest of the dark hours checking the equipment, making reports to Luke, and then hopping onto her favorite chat boards, for which she had a dozen unique identities, all masks, behind which she could find freedom as someone else, something else, unbounded by accidents of birth and fate. She played at being a predatory buxom blonde, playfully teasing her admirers and vamping at will. Switching to another chat, she became a tweedy male professor, bearded, hair going thin, devoted family man, loving wife and three kids.
A pack of lies, all, but no different from what she lived every day. At least in that virtual world, everyone expected to be lied to. And she had friends there.
After the sun came up, she took a heavy shower, ending it with as much cold water as she could stand, and feeling somewhat rejuvenated, joined the waking men. In stale clothes, they went out to breakfast at the nearby Denny’s.
Around mouthfuls of egg and French toast, Danny quietly said, “So, what’s the plan?”
Maria looked at both of them, looking expectantly back at her. She felt the weight on her shoulders increase. Jerry had usually taken charge with the Friendlies, leaving her comfortably in the background, where she could just focus on the job. Keeping her voice low, but conversational, she said, “Tonight, we make a scouting run on his home. It’s in the countryside, a bit of a compound, unfortunately. We’ll see what we can see, then regroup and get some more rest. Then, tomorrow night, Derek and I will go in.”
Derek nodded solemnly at that, but Danny looked surprised. “What about me?”
“You’re Zeppo on this one. That means you keep overwatch, listen in on the radio, keep us informed if anyone starts coming up our backsides, and crash the gates to extract us if it goes bad. Someone has to do it, and you’ve got the least direct experience with what this fucker can do. Derek’s got less combat experience, but he knows what we’re going up against, and that counts for more.” She kept her voice steady and firm, and looked him hard in the eye while saying it. Danny started to object, and she pointed a finger at him. “Don’t go macho on me. This is the best way. I want all of us getting out of this alive. And maybe we’ll get lucky and be able to put you in a good sniping position.”
Danny relaxed his shoulders but still looked put out. “Whatever. You expecting to use those guns?”
She looked over at Derek, then down at her food. “We’ll see.”
“Ma–uh, Dolores, you’re not going to just assassinate this guy, are you?” Danny sounded unbelieving.
Derek spoke up softly. “I prefer ‘put down,’ myself. Like a rabid dog.”
Danny looked at Derek, then back at Maria. “Jesus. I’m…I’m a cop. And so are you! I’m supposed to arrest people like you.”
“That’s another reason why you’re not going in,” Maria said. “You’d hesitate when the time came. Listen, I don’t blame you. You haven’t seen the elephant yet. But you will. And when you do, you’ll curse me for taking you there, but you’ll understand.”
The scouting went well. Collins’ property was in a woodsy area, bordering a campground, so they bought camping gear and appropriate clothes to give a plausible cover to any police who challenged their right to be there. It was not an easy place to find; you had to know what to look for or you’d be unlikely to come across it.
There was no place Danny could just park the van and keep an eye on the property, but they were able to get him up on a ridge where he could scan the road and the house reasonably well, and be only about five minutes’ run from the van. Then Maria and Derek hiked around, carrying only concealable weapons, getting used to the lay of the land and figuring ways in and out of the property. It wouldn’t be easy, but it didn’t look as hard as they’d feared. The woods would make a stealthy approach possible, up to the wall; then it would get tough. There were guards, at least two, spelling each other at patrolling the grounds. They carried no obvious weapons, but Danny reported that they kept M-16s nearby–he’d seen the guards check them. After reaching Danny’s vantage point and checking through the binoculars, Derek recognized them.
“Shit, I know those guys. Collins’ little brown-nosers, bad boys, always lording it over the newbies. Collins has a regular little cabal in the ROTC, and to join, you’ve got to be a real sadistic fuck. That, and worship the Colonel.” He paused. “Never thought that would be literal worship until now.”
“Believe it,” Maria said. “Collins has got a serious God complex. So, how many are in this little cabal?”
“Maybe six,” he said. “He’s probably got most or all of them coming out here to watch the place, now he knows someone’s gunning for him.”
Later, well after dark, after they had practiced getting around with the old Soviet military IR headsets, they were prepping to leave. Maria wanted to rest up and thoroughly plan before hitting the place the next night.
“Hold it,” Danny radioed them. “Car coming along the road.” Their van was far enough off the road that it wouldn’t be seen, but they froze anyway. Just in case.
“It’s through the gate and pulling up to the house. Two men getting out, and someone…it’s a woman, or girl…oh, shit, she’s struggling.”
Derek used the radio. “What does she look like?” He sounded scared.
“I’m using the infrared scope–I can’t see well enough. Short hair. They’ve got her inside.”
Derek looked at Maria, eyes desperate. “That might be Amy. My friend. Maybe somebody saw us talking yesterday.”
Maria thought hard, her stomach clenching. Then she decided, and her belly relaxed. No choice, really. “We’re going in.”
Danny called in. “You sure about that, kid? We’re not ready; we don’t have a serious plan.”
“I know. But if we walk away now, and tomorrow we hit the place and find that girl’s body, I don’t think any of us is going to be able to look in a mirror again.”
“OK, I’m with you on that. Coming down.”
While Danny rushed down to the van to retrieve the M-14 sniper rifle, Maria and Derek strapped on Kevlar vests and stuffed ammo magazines into pouches. Derek carried a Chinese-made AK-47; Maria chose the H&K submachine gun, a weapon she’d had plenty of training on. When Danny arrived, they quickly threw a half-assed plan together, argued, agreed, and got going.
Danny went back to the lookout point. Maria and Derek moved fast down the road until they got within sight of the gate, then slowed and crept forward. They’d made a quick pass near here earlier, and hadn’t spotted any motion-detectors. No lights flashed on at their approach; the gate remained dark. Maria scuttled up to the gate, and stuck a blob of plastique on the lock. It already had a radio fuse in it, and when she got clear, she got out the detonator, the size of a TV remote, turned the key, and pressed the button. The crack of the explosion made them jump, even though they’d expected it, and then they were sprinting through the gate, separating, each heading for a different tree for cover, expecting a guard to kill them at any moment, thinking what a stupid plan it really was.
And then they noticed the headlights coming up behind them. Danny’s voice in their ears, on the radio, “Car coming! Tunnel-visioned on you, didn’t see it–” and then the car was through the gate at high speed, skidding to a halt, four doors opening almost simultaneously and four men in dark windbreakers with big yellow “FBI” letters on the back, two of them carrying shotguns, the others drawing pistols and searching out Maria and Derek, shouting “Freeze! Don’t move! Drop your weapons!”
Before they could decide whether to comply, the shooting started.
The driver took a 3-shot burst in the torso, and the Feds went to dirt. Maria felt a cloud of buckshot pass nearby–she felt it move her hair–but she was turning and firing on the ROTC boy who was firing on them, ignoring her fellow agents and their attempts to kill her. They were sharp–they saw what she was doing and reassessed the situation and figured out where the enemy fire was coming from. And in no time, the shooting was over.
The driver was groaning on the ground; he’d taken the bullets in the back, and although Maria could see now that he had a vest on, she doubted it was rated to stop rifle rounds. Another agent, a roundish, blond man with a face that might be pleasant in other circumstances, pointed a shotgun at her. “I said drop your weapon!”
Maria had the gun pointing down, but she didn’t drop it. “There are more of them. They’ve got a girl in there, a kid, and they’re going to kill her. We’re here to stop it!”
“Who are you!? ID yourself and don’t give me any bull about being FBI, ’cause I know you aren’t.”
That was when the girl screamed, and even from inside the house there was no mistaking that she was in fear of her life.
Maria looked at the man, imploring. “You’re Baxter, right? Come on, man, we’ll work it out afterwards. We’ve got to get in there now.” From the other side of the car, she heard Derek call out, “Please, God, listen to her!”
Baxter studied her face. “You tell me who you are, first. Who are you with?”
She felt on a cusp. She knew he’d be able to ID her eventually, anyway. And he wouldn’t take any bullshit right now. She stepped up to him, speaking quietly so no one else would hear. “Special Agent Maria Villanueva.” She saw a light of recognition in his eyes. Fame, even minor fame, has its uses. “Working in an interagency task force that must remain nameless. Our orders are to apprehend Colonel Collins. He is the serial slasher.” The girl screamed again. Maria stared into his eyes, boring in.
One of Baxter’s men was keeping Derek covered, while the other was calling in the situation to the local police. They’d already wrestled the wounded driver into the back seat of the car. The third scream did it; Baxter ordered his men forward to hit the house, leaving Maria and Derek behind. They looked at each other, and Maria signalled with a head toss that they should go forward, too.
The Feds were trying to kick the door in when Maria rushed up and planted another plastique bomb on it, just below the handle. As soon as the door was blown, more gunfire came out of the smoke, but after a quick exchange, it was over: another young student down, nobody on their side hurt. The Feds seemed to be trying to ignore Derek and Maria, as if they hoped these anomalies would just go away. They weren’t supposed to have heavily armed unknowns at their backs, and it was very uncomfortable.
Perhaps that was why the tall agent didn’t notice the woman with the knife until she was all over him. She’d slipped out of the kitchen and she was just on him, the wet-meat noise of the knife slicing into him, machinegun fast, neither of them making a sound themselves as the FBI man tried to twist around to shoot her, and it was Derek who took her out, running up to shoot her in the face at close range so as not to hit the agent, and before he shot her, Maria saw that the girl recognized Derek and smiled at him. A smile that said, You’re next.
The girl went down, and the FBI man swayed for a second and then fell, too. Baxter was helping him, but it was obvious that the man was going to bleed out and there was nothing they could do. The floor was just covered with blood. And then the screaming again, from upstairs, and the other FBI man was running up when his feet went through the stairs, and he screamed like a pig in a slaughterhouse, dropping his shotgun.
Maria started up the stairs to help him, thinking of pungi stakes and other Viet Cong traps, when the man got pulled down into the hole in the stairs, up to his belt line. Then he really started shrieking, and jerked back and forth as if something were cutting into him below the stairs. Maria cursed and jumped off the stairs, then turned and sprayed the door to the closet under the stairs, keeping it low. The jerking stopped, and they heard something rapidly move off and up, something in the closet, under the stairs, going up along the bottom of the steps, claws loudly thunking into the wood as it went. It went as fast as a man could run.
Baxter rushed over and Maria pointed with her chin at the door. Baxter opened it and jumped back, but nothing shot or leapt at them, and when she saw what was left of the FBI agent’s lower half, the huge flaps of meat hanging off his legs, the blood pouring out of his shredded groin like water out of a bag, she just went numb all over, and she knew she was over the edge now; nothing was going to affect her until much later, when she would need Doc very, very badly, but for now, she was cool.
Baxter cursed in astonishment at the ruin of his coworker’s body, and then saw the passage upstairs and made to go in, but Maria grabbed his arm and pointed up the stairs. “No way you want to go in there. Up there, and watch for traps.”
She went first, cautiously. Then Baxter, and then Derek. They edged around the body in the stairs, already drained white, and Maria felt another step that seemed weak; she pointed to it and hopped over. She was focused; she could feel an almost-radar sense around her, and her focus squeezed the fear aside.
In the hall at the top of the stairs, there were three doors. Maria threw one open under Baxter’s cover; it was a bathroom, and proved to be empty. Then Baxter threw another open, and when he saw the shape in chains, hanging in the moonlight from the window, he stepped right into Maria’s line of fire and walked into the room. She shouted out a warning, but he was already staggering back as the thing swung down from the ceiling, and she saw the blue glow limning it and felt the itch in her brain. She fired over Baxter’s head, but he saved himself with a shotgun blast that just caught it and made it miss him, and then another and another. And when he took a step toward it, Maria shouted again, but it had already grabbed his leg, and as its fillet-knife claws darted toward Baxter’s belly, Derek put half a clip into it and just blew it to pieces.
They were all half deaf, and could only hear Baxter’s repeated “Oh God oh God oh God oh God oh God” as if underwater. Maria checked him quickly and saw that, aside from a minor wound on the leg, he was all right. Then she heard Derek shouting, cursing, and she saw the girl on the floor, dead, her head actually severed, with a big bush machete lying next to the body. She had been a young black woman, and from Derek’s reaction, must have been the Amy he’d referred to. Maria looked over at the body hanging from the ceiling; she couldn’t tell if it was male or female, but the things that had been done to it nearly got through her shield of numbness, and the she saw its head loll to one side, and she had to restrain herself from killing it, telling herself it was no monster, just another victim, someone who’d been brought here days or weeks before, and still alive. Perhaps better off dead.
The window was open. Perhaps Collins had left that way, leaving one victim alive so they would be slowed down.
The banging from the closet brought them back around, and Derek covered the door while Maria broke the lock and opened it. The sight of the young Asian girl falling out was like redemption. Someone to rescue. She was nude, handcuffed, and ball-gagged, and she had some knife wounds across her ribs. When they got the gag off her, she began hyperventilating. It was difficult to check the rest of the house after that, but Maria and Derek moved fast and found little. The other missing book was still missing. As was Collins.
As they lowered the mutilated victim, Derek started crying, and Maria almost joined him. All sexual characteristics had been removed, the wounds cauterised, but Maria thought it was a young man. His brown eyes fixed on hers, beautiful eyes floating in a ruined, noseless, lipless, skinless face. She told him, “It’ll be all right. We’re going to take care of you. You’re safe now.” Lies, again. So many lies.
Danny reported the police on their way, and Maria crouched by Baxter. She had to shake him to snap him out of his fugue. “The police are coming. You’re going to get us through and out of here, and you’re going to take care of these people. I will be in touch with you soon. You are to tell no one who I am. Officially, you are still chasing down the ‘fake FBI agent.'”
Baxter was so stunned that he just agreed, and pulled himself together just enough to make it work. Derek left the AK-47 in the house; it wouldn’t pass muster as an FBI weapon. They got the surviving victims into an ambulance, and then Maria and Derek slipped away and met Danny in the woods.
At 3 a.m., they sat at a table in the Magnolia Cafe, iced teas before them, not looking at each other. They didn’t talk for a long time.
Finally, Derek stirred. He cleared his throat, and gave every sign he wanted to say something. Maria looked at him, waiting. Finally, he spoke up, in a voice husky and barely audible. “I’m out. I’m outta here. I’m sorry, Doe, I just can’t do this shit…”
Maria reached over to take his hand, but Derek flinched away from her touch, still not looking at her. “Derek…”
“No, I’m gone.”
She tasted ashes and looked away. “We’re safer together.”
“I don’t think so. Sorry.” He got up, and he left. She couldn’t watch him go.
Beside her, Danny shifted. Staring into her tea, Maria said, “Get on home, Danny. It’s over.”
“Screw that.” Danny sounded as if he wanted to agree with her, but he fought against it. “What you said was right. From what you’ve told me, this guy has us marked, and he’s going to keep after us until we’re dead.”
“He probably doesn’t know about you, and I’ll be OK.”
“I wish I could believe that. But I was with you in the beginning, and you got us out. I’m with you to the end, kid.”
“You still don’t know…”
That was when the phone rang. Roy Orbison again. She reached for the cell phone.