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Angel, Chapter 9: Whom the Foul Fiend Vexes

Categories: Case Histories

By David Farnell, (c) 2000

St. David’s was a chaos of cops and reporters, getting in the way of doctors and nurses and orderlies. Despite there possibly being an order for her arrest out, Maria shoved her way through to Ahmed’s room, trying to look like she belonged there. She got to the room just as two orderlies were wheeling him out, taking him down to the morgue. Special Agent Baxter, looking as gray and shaken as when she had left him hours earlier at Col. Collins’ house, came out after.

“Baxter!” she called out. He looked over, confused; when he saw her, he shut his eyes tight and opened them again, as if he were hoping she was a dream, and would just go away. Then his face set in resolution, and he quickly strode over to her, grabbing her arm and leading her into an empty room, looking back over his shoulder twice.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he whispered harshly to her. He closed the door. “I’m supposed to arrest you!”

“What happened here?”

He swore. “Maybe you can tell me! We got two dead here and one missing. Ahmed Shah, who you just saw getting wheeled away, was a security guard for UT–“

“Yes, I know him. He was working with me.”

Baxter looked at her, brows furrowed. “Friend of yours?”

She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her palms. “Yes. Of brief acquaintance.”

“I’m sorry.” He paused a beat out of respect. “The other deceased is Ed Valdemar, a security guard for this hospital. He was guarding Mr. Shah, actually, Shah being a victim of the serial killer we’re looking for. It looks like the killer came back to finish the job and Valdemar got in the way.”

“What about the missing person?” Linus or Ruth, she thought. Which one of them is dead now?

“We don’t know her name. It was that Asian kid we got out of that…that god-damn house. And, uh, the other victim at the house. She died in the ambulance.”

Maria felt ill, but also relieved. “We need to go over all this together. I can’t believe Collins would come here, right in the thick of things, after we tried to take him down.”

“He’s a nutbar! He might do anything.”

“No, no–you’re wrong there. He’s not crazy, not that way. He knows what he’s doing, and he has a purpose. We’ll have him soon.”

They heard a commotion in the hall, and went out to investigate.

***

Two hours later, Baxter, Maria, and Danny were in a spare conference room together, looking at security-camera tapes from all over the hospital. Baxter had wrangled some time alone with the tapes from the Austin PD; Maria was relieved to find that the APD did not yet know that she was the object of an arrest warrant, but Baxter still wanted her out of sight. He narrated, having already gone over the tapes with the APD.

“OK, here’s the approach to the mental ward–see, that’s the Asian girl there.” They saw the willowy figure walking down the hall, wearing only a patient’s gown. Her hospital-issue underpants flashed through the open back now and then. There were dark splashes on her legs and the gown. She paused, waiting, then glided by the nurse’s station into the wing and off-camera. “I guess she was waiting for the nurse to look the other way, ’cause nobody saw her.” She was holding something, clenched in one hand.

He switched tapes. Later, the relevant portions would be spliced together to view sequentially. “Now here she is, coming down the hall to Ruth Eisenstein’s room.” The girl stood there, looking in through the little window on the door, then raised her hand, which was clenched in a fist. In the black-and-white of the video tape, the hand looked black, like the splashes on her gown. The girl spread her fingers and laid her hand on the door, pressing it there firmly. There were two balls, one between the thumb and forefinger, the other between the pinkie and ring finger. Then she took it away. A black handprint was left there, as if with ink.

“That’s blood?” Danny asked.

“It is. Shah’s, I imagine. It’ll be checked, of course.”

Ruth had been catatonic since seeing the creature descend from the sky and slash Ahmed days before. The audio pickup on the security caught the sounds of her screams from within the room. It sounded as if she would tear her throat apart. The Asian girl walked away, stopping to look directly into the security camera. She was smiling, cruelly. Then she walked off-camera.

“We can’t find any footage that has her leaving the hospital. The mental ward nurses didn’t see her leave the ward, even though they ran right past her to help Eisenstein. She just slipped away. All this happened while we were on the other side of the hospital, seeing to Shah and Valdemar.”

“Did she do them, too?” asked Danny.

Baxter was silent, changing tapes instead of answering. “OK, here’s the hall outside Shah’s room. That’s Valdemar.” A youngish white man with a lank mustache stood in the hall, in uniform, looking bored. “And here’s our girl.” The waif came down the hall. She could have been anything between twelve and sixteen, at first glance. But the way she moved, predatory and calculating, made her seem adult. Valdemar did not react at first, even though she was in his field of vision. Then she stood right in front of him, changing her stance. She went from predator to helpless child in the space of a second, and Valdemar jumped, flinching away from her. As if he had just noticed her.

They heard him speak to her: “Hey, kid, you scared me!” Self-deprecatory laughter. “What’s your name?” The girl edged away from him, then ran across the hall and off camera. Valdemar shouted, “Wait!” and pursued her. They heard a door slam, then open and slam again. Baxter paused the tape.

“We found Valdemar in the stairwell. His pants were down around his ankles. The vein between his legs had been sliced open, we think with his own knife. It was missing from his belt, and it was used on Shah later. He had…ejaculated, but we, um, found very little sperm near the body. He had bled out from the wound. There was a lot of blood, but no sign of a struggle. The girl…was apparently kneeling in front of Valdemar, kneeling in the pool of his blood, from the patterns of disturbance.”

“Jesus!” Danny whispered. “She was giving him a blow-job?”

“And murdering him at the same time,” Maria said dryly. “She got him to drop his pants, and she took the knife and cut him while she…did her thing.”

“Damn. And he didn’t notice?” Danny paused, stunned. “That’s some blow-job.”

The others ignored the lame humor; it was the sort of self-defense most cops used now and then to keep from feeling the enormity of the atrocities they dealt with.

Baxter resumed the tape, fast-forwarding it about six minutes. “Here she comes again.” She had blood stains all over her legs and the front of her gown. She carried a folding knife, open, in her right hand. The doorknob to Ahmed’s room slipped a little as she turned it. Then she went into Ahmed’s room.

“Now, there’s no camera in Shah’s room. There was no screaming either, just as there was none with Valdemar. But with Shah, it seems the first wound was to the throat. She surgically cut his larynx so he couldn’t scream. He was probably asleep when she did it. Because he was face-down, due to his earlier injuries, he didn’t choke on his own blood from that. Then she severed his spine, at mid-shoulder, so he was helpless.”

Maria stared at the wall. “Then she sliced his belly open, right? Took out his intestines, and twisted them together.”

Baxter looked at her sadly. “Yes. Kind of like, well, balloon animals.”

“Or like Quechua knot-writing.”

“Like what happened to your partner. The belly wounds would have been painless due to the severed spine, but then she went to work on his face. Took his eyes. We…didn’t find them. They must have been what we saw in her hand in the mental-ward tape. She may have taken them with her.

“Finally, she cut Shah’s throat from ear-to-ear, nearly severing his head.” Baxter sighed. “On the wall, we found this.” He showed them a photo. There was a bloody handprint. Above it was a curious symbol, a pattern that Maria did not recognize, also drawn in blood. It had two writhing, tentacular arms, something like a spiral galaxy but more organic, a variation on the more-familiar Yellow Sign, perhaps. And between them, something smaller, a face. And around it, circling it, a phrase, too small to read.

“That handprint is too big to be hers,” said Danny. “That kid had really small hands. No way it’s hers.”

“I know, ” said Baxter. “The finger and hand-prints for that and the one on Eisenstein’s door don’t match either. But the print there on the wall was made at the same time the girl was in there. We have nothing on tape showing anyone else coming or going, and the windows to that room are not made to open.”

“Shah’s, then?” Danny asked. Maria already knew the answer.

“No, not even close. And not Collins’ either; I did a rush check on that through his military records.”

“You won’t find those prints on file, at least not in this country,” Maria said. Before they could question her on that, she pointed at the smaller design between the hand and its sinuous counterpart. “What’s that?”

Baxter grimaced. He found another photo and put it in front of her, carefully. “Here. This was drawn using the corner of a sheet, dipped in Shah’s blood.”

It was a face, drawn in blood, quickly but with care and skill. Just a sketch, but very recognizable. The high cheekbones, full upper lip, wavy, shoulder-length hair, the tired eyes. It was her own face. Around it, the words: “La reine en rouge.

***

“Ruth.”

The red-haired librarian finally opened her eyes. Maria had been trying to coax her awake for nearly ten minutes.

“It’s me, Ruth. Dolores.”

Ruth’s eyes were unfocussed. She had been sedated after her hysteria earlier in the morning. She didn’t look directly at Maria. Her voice was slurred and indistinct, and Maria had to ask her to repeat herself.

“Your name’s not D’loriz,” Ruth mumbled, louder.

Maria looked at Danny. Baxter was in the hall, keeping an eye out for the police. She looked back at Ruth. “I know, Ruth. I’m sorry I lied. Do you know my real name?”

Ruth’s head rolled over to the side, her eyes almost focusing on Maria’s face. “Your name’s C’milla. You’re C’milla.”

Danny stiffened in shock at the sound of the name, unexpected. Maria was stunned, too, feeling ice around her heart.

Ruth’s eyes shifted to Danny. “And you…you’re Uoht.” Her voice was rough from the terrible screams she’d voiced earlier. Danny took a step back at her words, frowning in denial. “Ahmed told me. I could…I saw it…in his…eyes….” She broke into wracking sobs, her short body thrashing hard with each breath.

They could not get Ruth to speak further, and soon had to call a nurse to sedate her again.

***

They were in Danny’s truck, driving in the dawn away from the hospital.

“I don’t get it. How could she know about that? Nobody knows about that!” Danny was confused and afraid, and so he was angry.

“Collins,” Maria said, bleakly. Her exhaustion was beginning to crash down on her. Good, she thought. Let it come. “Collins is connected with that world. He knows more about it than we do. I think he knows we were there, caught in it, when we were kids.”

“But, Ruth…”

“He got into my mind once, in his office. He must have gotten into hers, made her think the words came from Ahmed, I don’t know.” She rubbed her face vigorously and then slapped her cheeks sharply three times each, making her eyes water from the pain, but feeling awake for the moment.

Danny looked over at her. “You need some sleep, sis. You can’t keep this up.”

“I know. It’s time. Let’s go to the junkyard.”

***

Cecil let them use his office, bringing in an old Army cot. He didn’t ask them about Derek, or about the equipment they had taken from the green box he maintained, or anything at all. Despite being in the middle of a junkyard, Cecil’s personal space was clean and ordered, except for the ever-present dog hair. Geronimo followed them in, and Maria persuaded Cecil to let the huge dog stay. Danny and Cecil left them alone, settling down with beers in the kitchen, talking dogs and sports and whatnot.

Maria sat on the edge of the cot, scratching Geronimo’s head and ears. He smelled strong but not unpleasant. Doggy. The junkyard did not handle general garbage, only the dead hulks of cars and trucks, and thus rarely gave the dogs anything vile to roll in. They wouldn’t mess with puddles of gas or oil, although she wondered how Cecil kept them from drinking anti-freeze. Geronimo was shedding heavily, though–his wolfish coat was not made for the Central Texas midsummer. They looked at each other, not in the eyes.

“You’ll watch over me?” Maria asked. The dog’s eyes flicked up to hers for a moment, then down again. She smiled and rocked his great head back side to side. “Yeah, you will. Good dog. Good boy.” The dog moved and before she could duck it, dragged his tongue across her face. She laughed. “Thank you.” She wiped her cheek on her shirt sleeve. She stood, taking off her belt and gun and loosening her clothing, taking out her badge and wallet and keys, putting them all on Cecil’s desk, positioning the gun especially to be in easy reach. She removed her shoes and socks, taking off the small automatic she kept in an ankle holster, and massaged her feet for a moment. Then she lay back on the cot.

At first, she had needed special music, incense, and body movements along with a chant to get her mind into the proper state to descend into the Dreamlands. Now, she needed only the chant and some breathing exercises she’d learned from a lunatic sage out on the West Coast. She let her hand fall over the side of the cot, and felt Geronimo move his head up under it, letting her know he was there.

In her exhaustion, it didn’t take long.

She felt herself sink into the cot, going down, right through the thin, hard mattress and springs. She never felt herself hit the floor–it was gone before she got there. She drifted down through black, peaceful clouds, feeling her energy return, knowing that she was coming to her truest home. Or at least the one dearest to her heart, if not the truest.

She feared what her ex-husband had said was right: She’d been lying so long, she wouldn’t know truth if it bit her in the ass.

She felt a hard mattress under her, and relaxed into it for a moment, smelling the familiar air, musty and salt-laden, before she opened her eyes to shadows and dusk. She sat up in her room at the Slithy Tove, fumbled for the box of lucifers, and lit the simple oil lamp. She sneezed. The room was dusty, but then Dylath Leen was a dusty city. Filthy place, really, dangerous and full of evil intrigue, but she loved it. It reminded her of New York as it dreams of being. The most cosmopolitan and worldly place in the Dreamlands. She stood and, deciding her transformed clothing was totally inappropriate, searched through the heavy wardrobe, the left side. Doc’s clothes were on the right. They were somewhat less dusty and mildew-smelling than hers, so she knew he had been here recently, but probably some time ago nonetheless. Too bad.

She pulled on her usual accouterments: close-fitting trousers, a silk blouse, a leather jacket that hung to mid-thigh for light protection, boots, greaves, and bracers. A wide belt supported her light scimitar and heavy, solid Bowie knife; she slipped a dagger into her boot-sheath. She clipped a bag to her belt and slung another, larger one over her shoulder. Drawing on a black hooded cloak over it all–and hoping that the all-covering black cloak was still the fashion in Dylath Leen–she extinguished the lamp, took her key from the table, and unlocked the door to venture into the hall.

She almost bumped into a sailor with globules of hard-looking yellow skin on his face; whether it was natural to him or he was suffering from a disease she could not tell. He flinched away from her in shock, staring at her, then beyond her into the dark room, his muddy eyes round in wonder. Perhaps he had lived in the inn for months or even years, with the door to room 23 locked and never opening, and now emerged a mysterious woman, scowling at him with a well-practiced “Mind your own damn business” expression that was the standard greeting among the citizens of this dark port city. Maria almost laughed, but managed to hold her face firm and glare him down from any annoying questions, finally encouraging him to move along with a none-too-subtle fingering of the hilt of her scimitar.

She locked the door again and went downstairs to the common room, where the conversation dipped but did not quite stop, and she felt the indirect looks from the inn’s guests.

“Mistress Jhansi!” She turned at the friendly hail, using the name she was known by in this city. It was the owner of the Slithy Tove, tall and thin and, despite the centuries he had kept his inn, youthful. There were those who claimed that the Slithy Tove had been here longer than the towers of Dylath Leen, but few credited it.

“Master Alam, it is good to see you again. It’s been much too long.” She grabbed his elbows as he did hers, and they smiled broadly and touched foreheads, closing eyes as they did, the contact lying between an handshake and a kiss on the scale of intimacy..

“Indeed, my mistress, indeed it has. Your friend, the doctor, came through here some months ago, but it has been, well, years since we have seen you. I hope things are well with you.”

She smiled sadly. “Not so well, Master Alam. But perhaps I can change that. If I could draw some funds from my lockbox?”

“Of course, of course!”

Within minutes, after turning down a meal, she was out on the narrow, dark streets of the black city. Although it was not yet full night, the closely spaced basalt towers created zones of impenetrable shade even at high noon, and street lamps were a rarity. Only the well-armed or foolish went out after dark. Maria reached into her belt pouch and took out a jar of unguent as she walked, smearing it like kohl on her eyelids while muttering a phrase in a croaking, batrachian language. Soon, the darkness lightened, as her eyes seemed to pull in more of the ambient starlight than before. With this advantage she avoided several possibly unpleasant encounters simply by seeing trouble before it saw her, and stepping into deeper gloom to wait until it passed. She hoped to keep her sword in its sheath on this journey.

After threading a labyrinth of streets, losing her way more than once, she arrived at a well-lit sign, the lantern over it armored against the stones thrown by gangs of feral, photophobic children who sought to keep the streets dark to their own advantage. “Mike’s Place,” it read, and had on it the silhouette of a dancing couple, wearing clothing that must have seemed odd to the locals, but was familiar to Maria, if only from old, sepia photos and period movies. She yanked on the chain, hearing the familiar bell clang within.

An eyeslit slammed open, two bright eyes peering out suspiciously. She could hear faint music coming out of the slit. She pushed back her hood and grinned; the slit slammed shut again and the door flew open, to a bellow of “Jhansi! Come in, girl!” and powerful arms around her, embracing her tightly.

“Well met, Singh!” she said, laughing as the hirsute man’s beard tickled her ear. She hugged him back fiercely. He held her at arm’s length to admire her. She saw he was wearing his crimson turban above his merry eyes. “Is this a special occasion, Singh?” she asked.

“Of course, my dear!” he boomed. “You are here, so it is special!” Then he sobered, somewhat. “I’m telling the truth, little Jhansi–the boss told me you were coming.”

Maria frowned at this news. “Really. Well, then who told him?”

“That I do not know. But from the look on his face, I don’t think it was someone the boss likes very much.” Singh’s deep voice rumbled dangerously, and he rested his hand on the grip of his overlarge tulwar. “Listen, Jhansi, if you got trouble, I’m your man. You just say the word.”

She smiled and patted his massive chest. “I know, friend. There’s no one in this city I’d rather have beside me in a fight.” She looked toward the inner door, through which she could hear the faint music. “I suppose I’d better go see what’s up.”

“Yes, good. But Jhansi,” he called out to her as she turned, “be careful, girl.” She saw his face was serious, his eyes concerned. “I think you already got trouble and this is just more of the same, no?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”

She went through the door, the cool, free-form jazz filling the air. It was just early-evening practice–the hard-core crowd wouldn’t be in until later, and then the joint would really start hopping. The band-leader, a beautiful old-young man with blond hair and soulful eyes, played heartbreak and joy out of his trumpet. It sounded like a variation of “Blame It on My Youth,” but she wasn’t sure–jazz was Doc’s thing, not hers. She gave her sword, cloak, and jacket to the cheery hat-check girl. The staff bustled about, trying to look busy with the light crowd; Maria smiled at some that she knew and returned their greetings, scanning the crowd to try to guess how many were Dreamers like herself, until she spotted the club’s owner at a far corner table. He had just finished talking to a man in a Dylath Leen cloak and looked over at her, worry crinkling his eyes and forehead.

As she walked swiftly to him, Maria mused on what she had said to Singh, about there being no one in the city she’d rather have with her in battle. The statement was technically belied by the curious nature of the club, which was not really in Dylath Leen. It was not really in any city in the Dreamlands, or anywhere else, for that matter. She could go out through the same door she had come in by, and end up on another continent, in a sleepy town full of cats. Or even in another Realm altogether. She and Doc had gone through the basement to get into the Underworld once, something she hoped not to repeat anytime soon. Mike’s Place was a Realm unto itself, carved out the very stuff of the Dreamlands by its owner.

One of these days, she was going to have to remember to ask who Mike was.

Skyler Farnsworth rose and held out his hands to her as she approached, smiling but still looking unhappy. He was a small, elegant man, silver-haired but with a youthful, handsome face. They embraced, and he kissed her cheek. “Maria, it’s good to see you. How are you?” His voice had a cultured New York accent that made her feel at home.

They sat. “Not so good, Sky. I need your help.”

She told him of Collins, of the stolen books and what had happened to her partner, of the flying alien horror (Sky broke in to identify it as something called a byakhee) and what they had found at Collins’ home, finally telling him of the hospital and the symbols painted on the wall of Ahmed’s room, and what Ruth had said to them. Sky was shaking his head and looking at her with astonished, sad eyes. “Maria, I always knew you were something special. Unfortunately, so do other people.”

“You think he’s planning to try for the throne, then?” she asked.

“Well, it seems the most obvious assumption. And it seems he wants you beside him.”

She slammed her palm on the table, almost upsetting her drink. “Why me?”

“Maria, you know very well that you’re a Shaper. Here, you can do things that took me decades to master–and you’ve been able to do that almost since you came here. You can very nearly do the same in the waking world…well, you could if you applied yourself. Carcosa, too. Like the Dreamlands, it’s malleable, vulnerable to manipulation by people like us. Dangerous, certainly, but less dangerous to you. As you found out.”

She sighed, shaking away the memories of her childhood sojourn to that dreadful place. “So, then, any ideas on how I can stop him?”

Sky shook his head. “A few, but it depends on whether he’s taken the Oath. Sounds to me like he’s knowledgeable enough to have done it. And whether he’s on home territory now. But then, if he’s gone to ground, maybe you can just wait him out.”

“No,” she said, compressing her lips together. “He knows I have to go to him. I have to stop him, even if he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He’ll just keep killing people otherwise, and he’ll continue to focus on those important to me. And if he does know what he’s doing…”

Sky looked down. “Yeah. Imperial America.” He sighed.

They stayed silent for a while, until Maria took a drink and asked, “So who’s keeping tabs on my movements, Sky?”

He grimaced and looked for a moment as if he would spit on the floor. Then he looked Maria in the eye and said one word through clenched teeth: “Alzis.”

Maria dropped her glass; it was heavy and stout and did not break when it hit the floor. She looked away in shock, her mouth open, suddenly breathing quickly and shallowly. A clinical part of her mind identified her reaction as a classic fight-or-flight response. She tried to compose herself, but was physically unable to speak for nearly a minute.

Sky reached across the table and took her hand, watching her in sorrow; she gripped back hard. A smartly dressed waitress retrieved the glass from the floor, wiped away the spilled liquor, and disappeared, while another replaced the drink before Maria was able to find her voice. “Jesus,” she finally croaked out.

“I’m sorry, Maria. I tried to tell his messenger to piss off, but these guys are persistent. You know I won’t allow riff-raff like that in here, but if they decided to take me down, I wouldn’t last long. They’d pop this Realm like a soap bubble. I had to pass along the message.”

“What…what message?” She grew angry that her voice was shaking.

“He just said he wants to speak with you.” Sky leaned forward, holding her hand more tightly. “Maria, forget about it. Just turn your back on it. It wasn’t a demand. You have a choice.”

“No, Sky…no, he only asks to see you when he knows you have no choice. Oh God…” She drank half her glass in one gulp, grimacing at the burning taste. She grew angry at how the memories of her last meeting with Alzis broke her down so easily. “What the hell does he want?! I settled my debt with him. Paid him back and more.” She pulled her hand from Sky’s and wiped her eyes with it.

“Then walk away from it. You…I don’t think you need him, Maria. You can do this without his help.”

She finished her drink, looking at the table. The lines along the sides of her mouth deepened, foreshadowing a near-future middle age. They sat in silence for some time, until the tension got to her. She leaned her elbows on the table, said “Shit” very flatly and deliberately, and looked at Sky. She knew that Alzis wouldn’t contact her unless he had crucial information, and that to ignore him would result in disaster. That listening to him would only result in a different disaster made her feel sick and hollow. “Which door?”

Sky’s face fell at her question; she thought he must be disappointed in her, but trying to hide it. He jerked his chin toward the back of the club and said “Over there.” As she got up, he laid his hand on her arm. “Maria, please. I have contacts everywhere. We can do this…”

“If you get between Alzis and what he wants, Sky, everything you’ve built is going to come crashing down.” She bent down and kissed him softly, an initially brief kiss that ended up lasting longer than she’d intended. She whispered in his ear, “I’ll be all right. You’ll see.” When she straightened up, she saw his blue eyes filling with tears. He looked away, and she went to the door.

She took a deep breath, screwed her eyes shut, and turned the handle. As she opened the door, she opened her eyes, and felt the atmosphere shift around her. Before her, she saw the same plain, red-carpeted office she had met Alzis in before–yes, that was the same stain on the carpet. She looked back over her shoulder. Normally when going through the doors from Mike’s Place, the club would remain until one had gone through the door and let it close behind. But behind her, she saw the landing of the first sub-level beneath Club Apocalypse. The jazz had disappeared like a breeze, and had been replaced by a wild bass throbbing from the club above. Was she still in the Dreamlands? Or had she somehow been transported to the real New York?

“Come in, Agent Laura.”

She shuddered at his voice, pleasant though it was. It carried bad associations for her. She turned and walked into the room, letting the door close in its own. Alzis stepped out of the shadows to meet her in the middle of the room. There was no desk, no chairs. They stood facing each other. Alzis wore, as usual, impeccably tailored but out-of-date and mismatched jacket, trousers, and vest. His hair fell boyishly over his forehead, and his smile would be charming to anyone unfamiliar with him. Maria tried to keep her face neutral.

He looked Maria up and down, smiling appreciatively. “Love your dress, Maria dear.” She looked at herself and suppressed a gasp. She was wearing a short-skirted, close-fitting blue dress, with stockings and low heels. She glared at him. “Cut it out, Alzis. Quit playing games and tell me what you want.”

“What I want? We’ll get to that in due time. First, what you want, Agent Verde.” He put his hands in his pockets, smiling at her. “You want to stop a serial killer and a dangerous adept who can’t be stopped by the regular cops, or even, quite frankly, by you. You want revenge for what he did to your friends and the other victims. You want to figure out what happened to you when you were thirteen and what it’s got to do with what’s happening now…hey, I just realized that was twenty-three years ago. Neat.” He laughed shortly. “And much, much more. But let’s keep focused on the project before us.”

He looked her up and down again, smiling. Maria concentrated and performed something akin to the opening move in Yang-style tai chi. She felt the clothing shift over her body, returning to the outfit she was wearing when she came in, knives and all. It took hardly any effort. She smiled, knowing now that she was still in the Dreamlands and therefore in her element. It gave her a measure of confidence, even though she knew Alzis could still easily destroy her.

Alzis smiled. “You know, sweet Jhansi, you have the potential to be a player if you wanted. Dump this Delta Green crap and come work for me. I’ll teach you how to do stuff you never dreamt of, in the real world. Forget about Collins or whatever his name is. He’s strictly small-time. Even if he does get the Throne–and he’ll probably screw it up–what does that matter to people like us?

“Actually,” he smiled, “it would make things easier for you. Once he gets the Throne, a Carcosa-on-Earth becomes very likely, and then you’ll simply thrive.” He leaned in closer. “You’re a Dancer, Doe.” She winced at his use of the nickname only Derek had used. “But not the usual kind, mindless and half alive and responding to nothing more than the will of the Vibe. You still have your soul. You could do a lot in Carcosa. Even depose a king.”

She stared at him. “Just tell me how to kill him, Alzis. Tell me that and tell me your price so I can get out of here.”

He smiled. And he told her.

***

She woke on Cecil’s army cot, feeling Geronimo’s heavy head resting on her stomach. She petted him, staring at the ceiling for a while. She almost cried, but didn’t. Her heart felt stony within her. She could hear Cecil and Danny still talking in the kitchen. It had only been a few minutes since she fell asleep. So she fell asleep again, this time to a sleep of no dreams.

When she awoke, she felt as if she had slept too long. Geronimo was curled up on the floor; he looked like he had been asleep too, but was now looking up at her. She sat up slowly and put her things back on, pausing to stretch stiff muscles. From the look of the sunlight, it must have been late afternoon.

She walked into the kitchen; finding no one, she checked the living room, from which she heard the sound of a TV. Cecil and Danny were there. And so was Derek. He stood when she came in, looking at her warily, as if he expected her to lash out at him for bailing out. Instead she quickly walked over to him and hugged him hard. “I’m sorry about Ahmed,” she said into his shoulder. She felt him tense up, and knew he was fighting tears. She waited until it was past. “Are you back?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m with you all the way, Doe. Just tell me what you want me to do.” They let go and stepped back from each other.

Cecil had shut off the TV and left the room while they’d had their little moment, so there was a chair for Maria now. Danny spoke first. “While you were sleeping, I got a call from Luke. When he heard you were out of it, he told me not to wake you under any circumstances, and he gave me some news.”

“Luke spoke to you? It looks like you’re really in, Danny.”

“Yeah, I’m just thrilled. Anyway, Luke says he followed up on something you picked up in Hawaii. He confirmed that Collins has been pulling strings to help a Cambodian refugee group called the Chiu Chow or Swatownese into the country–he says that it’s an assumed name and they are no relation to the actual Chinese Chiu Chow…whatever. Anyway, one family of them settled here in Austin and owns a bunch of businesses in a strip mall up on North Lamar. Luke suggests that Collins may be there.”

Maria looked at both of them. “OK, then. Let’s get ready to roll.”

***

It was dusk by the time they got going. As they crossed the river on Congress Avenue Bridge, they saw the bat-watchers lining the pedestrian walks. The bats swarmed out as the sun set, the little Mexican free-tails hardly noticeable close up, but congealing into a huge, inky mass in the distance. They would eat tons of flying insects before returning at dawn to the bridge, or to numerous other roosts around the city, including hundreds, if not thousands, of homemade “bat boxes” enthusiasts mounted on the sides of their homes.

The bats mainly flew out to the east, away from the setting sun. Looking over the other side of the bridge, Maria saw Austin’s only Government Lethal Chamber, next to Buford Tower. For a moment she felt puzzled, thinking there was supposed to be a gazebo there…but that was crazy. The Lethal Chamber had been in operation since it had opened in the mid-twenties.

The strip mall was on North Lamar Boulevard near Fairfield Drive. They drove past twice, scouting it out, noting the new cars in the parking lot of the dilapidated restaurant, one of the few businesses that seemed to be operating. There was an Asian supermarket, a pawn shop, and a martial-arts dojo in the mall; two other shops had their windows boarded up. Graffiti gang signs were everywhere, some of them wholly unfamiliar to Danny or Maria, more sinuous and organic than the usual sharply zig-zagging tags. The cars in the parking lot–expensive, tasteful, safe vehicles–did not fit the neighborhood. They parked two blocks down and discussed what to do.

“This is a major highway,” Danny said after a quick scouting mission on foot. “The backside is like a concrete bunker, and the fire-escape doors are very illegally blocked by big garbage bins. The loading dock has a big steel shutter over it. The only way we can get in quick is through the front, and we can’t just assault the place guns blazing–there would be dozens of witnesses from the highway. The cops would be here in minutes and we would all be severely screwed.”

Maria was concerned about the cars. Two more had arrived and disgorged well-dressed, upper-class passengers. “Something’s happening tonight. I think it’s going down tonight. We’ve got to disrupt it. I think it’s already started.” She sounded scared.

“What are you talking about, Doe?” Danny had taken to calling her by Derek’s diminution of her alias.

She could feel the Vibe, deep in her breastbone, the tiny piece of metal throbbing and seeming to grow. Yes, it was tonight. It was now. Her voice was cold. “We’ll blow the loading dock and go in through there. Guns blazing. Assume everyone here is with Collins–they’re all victims in a way, but that doesn’t mean we’re here to rescue them. We’re here to stop him and anyone who gets in our way is an enemy. Whatever you do, just get me to Collins. I need a face-to-face with him if we’re going to stop him.”

Danny and Derek looked at each other, then at her. “But…”

“No time for explanations. Just do as I say. This is it. Our last chance.”

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