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Angel, Prologue: Tiger

Categories: Case Histories

By David Farnell, (c) 2000

“Did he smile, his work to see?”
–Blake, “The Tyger”

***

It always went back to the Old Man. Every flash of beauty and violence, every truth and innuendo, behind them all was that enigmatic smile, the curiously accented French, the tobacco-yellowed fingers and teeth. He was there at the beginning of Paul’s journey. He would be there at the end.

Even for a boy growing up in the wild mountains of Vietnam, raised alone by his grandfather, Paul’s childhood was exceptional. For the Old Man was no ordinary grandfather. Father had died of snakebite while overseeing the work in the orchards; Mother had soon followed. After reading the books the Old Man had brought with him from France when he came to join them, Mother had often talked of drinking poison; with Father gone, there was nothing to stop her. Paul had been too young to understand, and the Old Man was never one to stand between a seeker of peace and her goal.

And so Paul had grown with only the Old Man to guide him, his only other human contact being the Vietnamese servants, who, as a conquered species, were not worthy of his attention. He had no playmates, certainly, and all those energies reserved for play in most children the Old Man carefully channeled into curiosity and exploration. Paul learned to read quite young, and by the time he was eight, he could read French, Vietnamese, German, Latin, and English, none of them terribly well, but over time polished by the difficult subjects of his study. Chinese, Arabic, and Aklo came with time. His favorite book was Balfour’s Cultes des goules, and he and the Old Man explored the many curious customs described therein, preparing together meals of the freshly dead and the long dead, with coprophagic side dishes and chipped crystal goblets of salty urine. Together they experimented in forbidden music, and discussed seriously the hidden meanings of passages in Le roi en jaune. Paul assisted in the Old Man’s alchemical experiments, and together they shared some of the more delightful discoveries. Sometimes, Paul submitted to the lusts of the Old Man, and as he strained against the artfully arranged ropes and wires, the hooks and pincers, he thrilled as he imagined putting his lessons into practice upon another, someone smaller, younger, and perhaps less willing. He imagined being the teacher, not the student.

***

The Old Man guided Paul in other explorations, too, explorations into prolonged pain and expiration, starting with small insects and reptiles at first, progressing up the evolutionary scale as Paul himself evolved in capacity of understanding.

In Paul’s fourteenth year, he trapped and bound a tiger, all on his own. After drugging it, he staked it out and brought the Old Man to witness his rite of passage. Soon the drug had worn off and the tiger lay spread-eagle, suspended two feet above the ground, mewling plaintively and rolling its eyes back in fear. Using a variety of knives and razors, and heated irons for cauterizing, Paul carefully skinned the tiger without letting it die. The Old Man watched, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes one after another, usually impassive but occasionally smiling. Paul, nude, moved like a dancer, for he had learned the crucial value of style when performing any great work of art. When he had the skin free, he solemnly wrapped the bloody hide about himself, the tiger’s skinned face arranged over his own, his own eyes looking out through the tiger’s eyeholes. Then, with a machete, he quickly cut the ropes suspending the gore-covered cat. It slowly rolled over, and at Paul’s coaxing, rose trembling to its feet. It looked pitiful, in shock, reduced to an emaciated parody of its former glory. Paul towered above it, his rangy muscles slick with blood or covered with the wet skin. Then he bent down to look into its eyes. It looked back, mesmerized and shaking, as Paul carefully placed the edge of the machete against its throat. Paul waited until he saw the understanding in the tiger’s eyes, and then with a love so great he felt his heart almost break, he cut with all his strength, in and up, opening the tiger’s throat to the spine. As it died, Paul felt its life pass into his, and he rose up screaming in triumph, the dripping machete held high above his head.

That night, they dined on certain of the tiger’s organs, prepared according to detailed instructions from Balfour. As they ate, they felt the wild energy of the tiger coursing through their bodies, especially as they consumed the brain, which told them so many tales of hunts and mates and cubs, kills and feasts. Paul was now a man, and the Old Man was pleased.

Soon after, he started Paul on children.

***

One year later, the Old Man deemed Paul ready to meet his friends, a tribe of shunned Montagnards called the Tcho-tcho.

“Why must we meet these lower creatures, Grandfather?” Paul asked.

“They are not lower, my boy. They are like us. They see the truth. Their eyes are free of the scales of delusion: hope and tenderness, morality and thoughts of good and evil. True, they are like beasts, but we know our patina of civilization is but another delusion. You and I may walk in the false skin of the civilized man, but we know what we are in our hearts. All this”–he gestured his bony hand at the rows of books in the library–“is but delightful playacting. As you did with the tiger, you will become one with the Tcho-tcho, and they will teach you new truths which I cannot.

“Do not disappoint me.”

As he and the Old Man, along with a new servant hired in Saigon, hiked through the mountain forest, they were suddenly surrounded by eight tiny men, each no more than five feet high, armed with primitive crossbows and machetes. Their skin was a mottled yellow-brown, covered with serpentine tattoos. They wore only a few feathers and lizard-skins, and a string around the waist supporting the long, thick tube of a hollowed-out thigh-bone, which served as a penis-sheath. Their hair was cut in a bowl-like tonsure, and when they smiled at the Old Man, they revealed filed, shark-like teeth.

The hired man broke and ran, but Paul casually turned and slashed the back of the man’s right knee, severing the tendons. The young Vietnamese, who had dreamed of earning enough money working for the rich colons to travel abroad and study in Paris, collapsed with a gasp when his leg folded helplessly beneath him. The Tcho-tcho nodded approvingly at the boy’s ruthlessness, then began laughing as the wounded man started to scream from pain and fear. Two of the forest-dwellers attended to the Vietnamese, kicking him into submission before hog-tying him and putting a tight tourniquet above his knee. The others gathered around Paul and the Old Man, greeting them in a language utterly unrelated to Vietnamese or any of the Montagnard languages. The Old Man spoke their language almost fluently, but Paul could only speak the few words of greeting and ritual politeness he had been taught. But they murmured in admiration as Paul licked his machete clean of blood.

The small men hoisted the shivering body of the servant on their shoulders, and the band continued up the mountain.

The village was rude, nothing more than a few ramshackle huts meant to last a year before being abandoned and burned. The Tcho-tcho were semi-nomads, practicing slash-and-burn farming, supplemented by hunting and gathering. They kept no animals, for no animal could survive long under their care. The only exceptions were the demented, rat-like monkeys they raised for food and companionship. True, in the center of the village was a crumbling pagoda, multi-armed gods dancing in bas-relief on the walls, but Paul was sure that some more advanced race had built it, then disappeared. The opening gaped, and Paul felt drawn to it, longing to explore the wonders he felt sure lay within.

Of the Tcho-tcho themselves, he saw mostly warriors, their appearance much like those he had met in the forest, a few bearing more elaborate adornments, such as feathered head-dresses. One ancient, evil-grinning man, the shaman-chief, wore a cloak of what appeared to be snake skin around his bony shoulders–but the skin must have come from a snake larger than any Paul had heard of, for it was all of a piece, with no stitching, and could be wrapped completely around the shaman, to hide his swollen belly and sunken chest.

Apart from warrior men, there were a number of children and youths, all nude or nearly so, and mainly boys, who seemed far more well-fed and healthy than the girls. The girls, none of whom seemed to have reached pubescence, bore the marks of brutality and neglect. Many were disfigured by scars and malnutrition. From the backbreaking labor the men put them through, many resembled old women with bent spines and gnarled hands.

Again the greetings, and then a demonstration of Paul’s skills as he danced with the terrified servant. The whole village gathered around to watch, and they clapped their hands and laughed in delight as Paul reduced the servant to a sexless, voiceless, skinless scarecrow. Paul felt only contempt for it, as he had for the girl he had taken the year before and the four humans he had later danced with. None of them had brought him the thrill of the tiger, and the ritual felt like an empty exercise to him. He did not even deign to kill this one, but let the Tcho-tcho men have their way with it.

As he walked away, he glanced back at the scene. Several of the small men had ringed the servant and were removing their penis sheathes. Paul frowned at the crudity of it, then arched an eyebrow in surprise at the sight of the Tcho-tchos’ members.

“You are curious about the Child, oh prince?” It was the shaman-chief, the withered ancient with drooping skin and blazing eyes and not a tooth in his head. His French was excellent in grammar, abominable in accent, and his voice carried a perpetual undercurrent of mockery. Paul did not understand at first, but then realized the shaman was referring to the warriors’ penises.

“They are…interesting,” Paul said. The bloody scarecrow tried to scream as the first warrior mounted it. “They seem…alive. Aware.”

The elder laughed. “Indeed. It is a gift, from the Mother. Our people live all across these lands, here and there, but we are the only ones with this gift. We are the only ones the Mother favors so.”

***

After three nights of tests of endurance, pain, and knowledge, the shaman proclaimed that Paul would be made a member of the tribe. The Old Man was positively gleeful, his leering face almost hidden behind a mask of smoke. Paul’s perceptions had altered from the physical and mental exhaustion, the drugged incense rising from braziers on all sides. The shaman painted twisting designs all over Paul’s body, the sickly yellow paint made of a phosphorescent fungus. Chemicals from the fungal spores passed through his skin and into his bloodstream, and Paul felt himself rising out of his battered, bleeding body as he was led into the pagoda, past a huge cobra guarding the stairway leading down. Paul’s spirit rose in the opposite direction as his body descended.

Through his spiritual eye, he saw how the whole village was surrounded, infused, infested with rose-colored creatures of many forms and sizes. Some were amoebic, while others were almost like sea urchins, or centipedes. And the Tcho-tcho–they looked markedly different. Their legs were goat-like, with sharp hooves, and they sported small horns, usually two, but sometimes one, sometimes many. They cavorted with the rosy things that floated around them. And Paul saw also that, between their legs, grew a waving, antler-like tentacle, multi-branched now, not the single octopoidal members he had seen before. And once again Paul wondered, with renewed curiosity, where the women were.

The screaming shook him from his reverie. It came from far below, and the voice sounded familiar. Paul’s spirit quickly sank down, through the walls of the pagoda and into the earth, then into a basement, where he saw two of the devil-men holding a struggling victim, while a third Tcho-tcho did something to the victim with a knife.

And beyond them, a wonder: a black, wet, tree-like being, on hooves like these spirit-Tcho-tcho, whose body was much like the trees that sprouted from the groins of the Tcho-tcho, but with wet, fanged mouths all around its trunk, and taller than a tall man. It was beautiful and terrifying, and Paul recognized it from his reading of Balfour as one of the myriad Young of the Black Goat, the mother-goddess of Europe. To see this creature in the flesh, in Asia no less, was truly a glory, and he felt joy surge through him as he saw the symmetry of it all, knowing then that She was known all over the world, as Balfour had hinted, in fact known on other worlds, too, and that she was the Source and the Destination.

And then he saw the face of the screaming man, and saw it was his own, painted with the glowing pattern of the Yellow Sign, contorting into new significance along with his twisting face, and that the Tcho-tcho shaman was doing something to his penis, that it had been sliced open like a sausage, almost bisected, and suddenly, unwillingly, he was back in his own body and feeling the awful pain of his manhood cut open, his body struggling to escape. But Paul, once more in command, asserted his will and looked down with curiosity to observe as the shaman carefully cut off the tip of a tentacle from the Dark Young, and inserted it into the wound. The creature had not objected to the amputation, but the short length of tentacle jumped and wriggled like a fish.

The shaman, once again a degenerate little mountain-dweller, horns and hooves gone, wrapped the meat of Paul’s manhood around the tentacle, then wrapped it all in a kind of poultice made of plants and leaves and a thick, milk-like liquid. He smiled toothlessly at Paul, saying “Good, good. You have done well, young prince.”

***

Paul lay in fever for eight days, raving, cared for by tiny, timid Tcho-tcho girls, their hands as thin and battered as the Old Man’s, and missing fingers here and there. They wiped the sweat from his body, changed the poultice each day, and fed him on the viscous milk. During this time, he traveled in realms of dream and nightmare, experiencing beauty and horror and, as always in his life, unable to discern one from the other.

But, aided by the medicines, he quickly recovered and returned to the waking world, the light of newfound knowledge replacing the fever-brightness in his eyes. He rose and went with the shaman to the center hut, and when he smelled what was within, his Child rose, prehensile and questing, and he added his seed to that of all the males of the village, depositing it in the bloated womb from which all the people in the village had issued.

***

It was difficult to find the people. The locals would serve them no longer, and they had gone through all the servants they had. Bringing in new servants from Saigon was one possibility, but travel was now extremely difficult and dangerous. As far as they knew, Paul and the Old Man were the only colonial family to stay on after the Japanese invasion, and now the country was split and the forces of the North and the Southern rebels were moving strongly against the corrupt government of the South. The Legion had pulled out, and the American advisors, and later much larger military units, had moved in. The war, which had essentially been going on for years, was becoming much more of an inconvenience.

And they did not need servants for the Play. They needed the sophisticates, the intellectuals, the aesthetes. It took over two years to find enough of them, through hired agents in Saigon, among the families of commerce and government which could afford luxury and sensuality even in these difficult times. They came out one by one, and Paul and the Old Man taught them new modalities of pleasure, and the ones who fell under their spell returned to their families for the moment, while those who recoiled from the teachings made a final visit to the kitchen.

Paul was now a man, in his full maturity. And yet he was more, for the Child had taken root and had spread throughout his body and spirit, through his generative organs and up his spine, weaving through his brain with psychic rootlets. He roamed the forest of the mountain and the jungle in the valley, and he also roamed the dark plateau of dreams. Paul had learned much in his journeys, and in recent years he had realized that he was surpassing the Old Man, who was growing weaker, scrabbling for secrets in his tomes in vain attempts to hold on to his vanishing strength. Giving Paul to the Tcho-tcho had been part of that. Paul had learned that it was a bargain, a deal between the shaman and the Old man, Paul in exchange for knowledge.

Paul watched the Old Man’s power leak away like sand from a withered hand, and he prepared.

The Play was the Old Man’s final gambit. After a lifetime of preparation, it was all ready. The personal notes and letters of Castaigne and Marlowe, Croft and Shakespeare, fragments of the Yellow Codex, and secrets gleaned from cadaverous angels and Men of Leng had all led to this. The Players were ready, the scene set, and tonight, finally, the King of shreds and patches, le roi en jaune, would be brought forth.

The Players were all true believers in Paul and the Old Man now, and they threw themselves into their roles with all the energy their burnt-out, jaded passions could muster. While the Old Man actually had a part to play in the tableau, Paul himself stood outside the action, feeding rare herbs into the braziers, moving props, and at critical moments playing atonal notes from the bone flute the Tcho-tcho had given him. His mind, therefore, was not fully captured by the rhythms of the Play; a part of his mind could remain objective, and he observed with pleasure as the peeling, mold-spotted walls of the crumbling house began to coexist with other walls, ones far more decayed, yet far more ancient and durable, and infinitely more lovely to him. As the double vision grew stronger, Paul felt a keen longing, and for the first time knew–with a mild, reflective surprise–the feeling of being home.

From new, veil-draped halls, the number of Players grew, and the horribly scarred, achingly beautiful Dancers joined in, and music swelled from beneath the floor–now huge flagstones instead of warped boards–and Paul could feel the itch in his brainstem and taste the ozone texture of the nearby, active hunes, signaling the arrival of Angels. The Players, except perhaps the Old Man, never noticed anything different, because to them it had always been this way, they had always lived in Carcosa, and the masque had gone on forever, and they no longer remembered their lives on Earth. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, they were no longer playing a role, but living a life. Even if that life was not theirs.

Paul watched the ordained sacrilege against the Messenger, and how the Dancers and the Angels inevitably took their revenge, reducing the Players one by one. He wondered if the sweet-faced Chinese girl remembered her family’s business connections as she joined the Dancers and the skin sloughed from her screaming mouth and perfect thigh. Did the bloated American recall the tons of drugs and guns he’d sold, and the salacious distractions he’d bought with the money, as he was ripped open by the Angels, his intestines woven into mystic poems in their incomprehensible knotwork language? Or did they all go, to the end, believing they were Camilla and Uoht and the others?

It was as if he were a ghost, observing the real world. And yet it was from Paul’s ghostly world that everything was shattered. For just as the King was entering the masque, the first grenade exploded, blowing the door off its hinges, and the chattering blasts of the Russian assault rifles echoed in the chateau and in Carcosa at the same time. Players and Dancers, and even Angels, were cut down, wounded or dying, for the Viet Cong had planned the attack well.

The leader, Siu, was a former servant of the chateau, one of the few who had escaped, and she had joined the guerrillas months ago and returned to obliterate the nightmares that haunted her constantly. But even her experiences in serving Paul and the Old Man had not prepared her for this. The chateau was bigger inside than outside, and the people–demons–were in far greater numbers than the guerrillas had assumed. Some of the soldiers tried to break and retreat, but as they looked behind them, they saw they were no longer just within the entrance of a house, but rather in the middle of a ballroom, and behind them, walking toward them, was a tall, tall man, wearing a pale mask and tattered robes of yellow. Around him and behind him were whirling dancers who moved like raving ballerinas and looked like gleeful plague-victims, and crawling along the walls and ceiling of the hall were wasp-like cadavers with shredded bat-wings and mouths full of needles.

The rebels fought bravely, uselessly, as they were sliced to pieces. They died in terror and pain, and some did not die at all, but were dragged into the lower halls where they would be remade into something more useful to the residents. But they did accomplish their goal, for the Play had been disrupted, and the Old Man was unable to make the Oath, for he had been shot in the guts and lung. It was all he could do to breathe, as he tried to drag himself after his King, as the scene of blood and beauty faded, revealing the torn and burning chateau. Paul, unharmed, dragged the Old Man outside and watched impassively as the precious library burned.

The Old Man tugged at Paul’s trouser, and Paul looked down to see him signaling Paul to draw near. Paul bent down, vaguely curious to catch the Old Man’s dying words, but at the same time drawing his machete from its sheathe. The Old Man gasped and convulsed, then gained some control.

“You can save me, boy,” he gasped, his voice a slow leak of air. “Give me your life, boy. Your energy. Give it to me. I demand it.”

The attempts to command Paul sounded pitiful, and also used the last of his strength. It made Paul smile with affection, to see the Old Man try to control what he still saw as a boy-slave, a tool. But he also felt disgust to see the Old Man brought so low.

“You forged me well, grandfather,” Paul said. “Now I will show you just how well.”

And Paul danced.

***

The Old Man lasted much longer than Paul expected. Even a healthy, young person could hardly be expected to last as long, after the careful removal of the kidneys and liver. Of course, once Paul started taking out the heart, the Old Man went quickly. Paul watched with mild interest as the fevered gleam faded from his grandfather’s eyes. He did not hope to gain any insight from those eyes; he knew death well enough. Soon he broke open the skull and removed the brain, and then went deeper into the forest to make his repast. He knew there were secrets the Old Man had always kept from him. It was time for the Old Man’s final lesson.

***

The fire team moved stealthily through the mountain forest, weapons ready. They were operating near the Cambodian border; their usual mission lately had been to try to intercept enemy groups moving back and forth across the border, transferring supplies and wounded to and from the supposedly neutral nation. It was search-and-destroy work–they had learned through experience that virtually anyone they came across was the enemy, directly or indirectly, and while they took prisoners when possible, when things got fast and thick, it often turned out not to be possible.

But this was a rescue mission–or more properly, a recovery mission. Charlie Team had gone into the highlands on patrol yesterday. They’d called in at the usual time, nothing to report, and then vanished. Bravo Team, led today by Captain Samuel Butts, got the job of going in to find out what had happened. Air support and artillery were waiting for Butts’ call, in case whatever had taken down Charlie Team was going to try again.

“Red Sammy” Butts wasn’t much worried about seeing some action. When things like this happened, he knew, the enemy generally disappeared into the bush. Sure, they’d try it again, but not here. And if they were dumb enough to try a double-feature, well he’d just show them how paranoid a Texas boy could be. He and his men weren’t worried, no, but they were tight as guitar strings, ready to shoot just about anything that moved. They were spread out, point men ahead and to the sides, and God help any old ladies who popped up at the wrong moment. Not that there were any left around here–the civilians had moved out long ago, even before the Americans had reached this area and the fighting had really started. Even the little mountain people had moved away. Sam remembered the story he’d heard from the interpreter, about how some nasty sort of devil folk were living up here, and all the good mountain folk wouldn’t be caught dead around here. Well, devils or not, Sam was beginning to see their point.

But at least the mountain was a bit cooler, a little less humid than the jungle he’d had to crawl through around their last base. Sam had a nasty case of toe rot that just wouldn’t go away, but in the highlands, the medicine was keeping it under tolerable control.

They passed an old, burned-out colonial house, probably French. What the hell did those frogs think they were going to do with this damned country, anyway? The house looked like it had been shelled, maybe five years ago or more, the walls sagging in, one collapsed, the upper floor, what was left of it, fallen in except in one corner. About half of it had burned; the rest had just rotted, after being stripped of anything valuable. Amazing it had lasted that long–maybe it had been used as a Viet Cong headquarters for a while after the French had taken off for home. Anyway, that had been the last landmark Charlie Team had reported, so they must be close.

Sammy wasn’t worried about a fight, but he was worried about what he’d find. To tell the truth, fights had never bothered him too much–you almost always were far enough away that the enemy seemed more like targets than people, moving, clever fucking targets, sure, but not even as real as the other guy in a bar fight. You almost never saw their faces. But Sammy never had liked what came after, counting and ID-ing the bodies, collecting weapons, tending the wounded. As long as he was in a fight, Sam was OK. All the shit after left him feeling sick and shaky, though he tried to ignore it. And he knew that Charlie Team was going to look pretty damn bad.

Two hours after the house, they found Charlie Team. It was worse than Sammy had imagined, much worse. He’d seen things like this before, but never to such an extent. Hardened men vomited and wept at the sight. Charlie Team was hanging from trees by their own guts, or laying scattered across fifty yards. Some had faces missing, other had been castrated. Nearly all had been eviscerated, and their intestines had been purposefully twisted and knotted up, and with the heat of the sun making the trapped gas expand, it looked like monstrous balloon animals were being born from the dead men’s wombs. There were organs missing, hearts and kidneys and brains.

The butchery was amazing, and very wrong, although Sammy wasn’t quite sure why until he realized that none of the deaths had been caused by gunfire or explosions. The medic reported arrow wounds and a few blowgun darts, but the main cause of death seemed to be from hand-held weapons, clubs and blades and, in many cases, claws and teeth of some large, tiger-like animal. The medic swore up and down that most of these last wounds had been inflicted while the soldiers were still alive–they weren’t just from scavengers. But that just made the whole thing too damn weird for words.

The helicopters were on their way, and the men were trussing up the bodies to take them back to a clearing about a mile away, when Sammy heard a challenge from a perimeter guard. Everyone dropped the bodies and brought up their guns, but the perimeter guards soon escorted in a survivor, a tall, pale man, his uniform torn and soaked in blood, a nasty cut on his head leaving his face caked with gore, wild eyes staring out of it, shockingly white. The medic got him to sit down and take a little water, but the man sprang up and tried to run into the forest, and he had to be wrestled down. By that time Sammy had recognized him as Lt. Brad Collins, leader of Charlie Team.

“Collins! Come on, man, Collins, what the hell happened here?!” Sammy questioned him like that several times before the medic sedated the wounded man, bringing his breathing down almost to a normal rate. By then, Sammy had given up, concerned only with getting everyone the hell back to base so they could sort it out from there. He didn’t know what had killed these men, and he certainly didn’t want to find out first-hand. But after they got everything to the clearing and were headed for home in the choppers, Sammy, sitting next to the prone Collins, saw that the man was mumbling to himself. Sammy leaned forward, putting his ear right above Collins’ mouth and plugging his other ear with his finger to block the noise of the helicopter. At first he couldn’t hear it, but after a while he understood the words, if not their meaning.

“Angels. Angels in the trees. Angels. Angels in the trees….”

***

Henry Nakata hated hospitals, especially military hospitals. When he was in one, like now, he found it hard to imagine anything more depressing. He tried not to see the stumps where limbs once were, the bandages around empty eye sockets, the ruined faces and derailed lives. But it seemed like he was always going into them, talking to people, sometimes dying people, getting their stories out of them any way he could, because someone needed to know. Maybe lives hung in the balance, or maybe just someone’s ass. But here he was, once again, sitting at the bedside of one Lt. Collins, Bradley, in Saigon.

Henry had a gift for languages, and he’d learned a number of Asian ones. He had a Master’s from Harvard’s Asian Cultures program, and he kept thinking of going back and getting his Ph.D. and settling down to an academic’s life in some think tank, but he never seemed to be able to pull out of the CIA. He’d agreed to do it for a few years when Joe Camp snared him back in ’50, just needing a job but hating the idea of working in anything resembling the military, drawn in, almost shamed into it by Joe’s way of holding up a harsh mirror to his soul. And every time it seemed like he could get out, finally leave it behind and try to lead a normal life, some damn thing would come up that they needed him for, that only he could do, and his sense of responsibility would always shame him into staying in, just until this one thing was finished. And now he was getting too old to do anything else.

Usually those things had been for the CIA, often for the military–but now and then, it had been for Delta Green. Because Henry also had a gift for finding the truth, for getting to people who couldn’t or wouldn’t talk, getting them to open up and unburden themselves of the darkest secrets they held, things that they feared to pollute the world with. Henry was not good at interrogation, getting enemy secrets. He was much better at lifting up the sewer lid and peering down at the blind, albino reptiles.

Strangely, he’d never become a psychiatrist, even though he seemed so well-suited to it. But deep down he hated and feared his “patients,” because again, like Joe, they held up a warped mirror and forced him to take a long look at his own reptiles. There was, somewhere, a blank spot in his mind, a sewer lid that he’d welded down tight, and every time he came near it he could hear the echoes of those cold-blooded bastards singing to him to come and play. Henry had no desire to pry that up–prying up others’ was enough for him. It was one thing–maybe the only thing–he hadn’t given to Delta Green. Joe, and others, had tiptoed around the subject on several occasions, but Henry had never budged. He knew they considered it important, and that they knew more about it than he let himself know, and he didn’t care.

Not much, anyway.

He’d been talking to Collins for days, coming by different times each day, just making friends, bringing little gifts, showing concern. A very one-sided conversation–not a word from Collins. Henry was about ready to give up.

“You know, Brad, your buddies, your men, they died for nothing if we don’t know what killed them.” As always, Collins just stared at the ceiling, mute. “We want to send a team in, you know, to take out whatever it was, but we’ve got to prepare them, give them good intel, right? I mean, if they’re not ready for what might hit them, they could die, too.” Henry’s voice was getting hard, taking a little edge to it. Collins was beginning to piss him off. “Brad, you’re the only one who survived, you know that? I mean, you’re a lucky guy. Fate dealt you a good hand. But you’ve got to balance the books, Brad.”

Henry got up to leave. He could tell he wasn’t anywhere near the point where Brad would open up, and the Delta Green mission was leaving tomorrow. They’d be going in near-blind, and Henry knew what that usually led to. They suspected a few possibilities, but they had no firm idea of what had happened. But he knew that pressing too hard would just make the memories go deeper.

“Montagnards.” Henry stopped at the door. Collins was talking, his voice quiet and rough from disuse. “The little mountain men. They hit us.”

Henry walked back and stood looking down at Collins, who continued staring at the ceiling. Collins had a strange accent, maybe…Cajun? “What did they look like, Brad?”

“Naked. Tattoos. Sharp teeth, like animals. They cut into us with their crossbows, and then the Angels came down on us when we started shooting back.” Collins’ voice was impassive, like he was reading it from a magazine article. Still in shock, Henry thought.

“The Angels, Brad. Tell me about them.”

“Wings. Insect death-heads. Claws like a combat knife on each finger. They all had some kind of jungle rot, and their teeth–” Collins’ voice began to quaver, showing emotion for the first time. “Their teeth, like hypos, they just bite down deep and start sucking the blood right out, oh, Christ….”

“Easy, Brad, keep talking, help me now. How did you get away?” Henry wanted to move away from the Angels for the moment; he was afraid Collins might shut down again.

“I don’t know, I, I took a hit, something hit my head.” He reached up to touch the bandage around his head, where he had sustained a nasty machete wound. “I came to, near a village or something, and I could hear some of my men, screaming, and I saw a temple, oh no, God no!”

It took him another two hours before Henry had the location of the temple and a clearer idea of the Angels. He already knew who the little mountain men were, having met them ones like them before in New Guinea and Burma. He knew they were deadly, but that most of their danger derived from guile and treachery. The Angels made no sense to him, but they might to someone else. He rushed out and made an urgent call to Washington, D.C.

***

The huge plane was taking him “home,” winging across the Pacific from Tokyo, next stop: Honolulu. Brad’s home was officially in North Carolina, but he didn’t intend to stay there long. After six weeks in the hospital, Brad Collins was being sent back stateside for medically mandated R & R. But his hitch would expire while he was in America, and he intended to get a stateside position, someplace far from his concerned family, someplace he could perfect his English around people who wouldn’t notice the accent so much, who would assume that it was simply part of his heritage.

The temple had been destroyed by the soldiers, but it was abandoned by that time anyway. The Tcho-tcho had moved across the border into Cambodia, and had burned their huts and sent the Dark Tree back to its Mother. The soldiers had found nothing useful, but of course assumed now that they had achieved some sort of victory. With no more incidents, it would quickly be forgotten.

And when the war was over at last, Paul would find a way to bring his true family across the ocean, to some large, American city, where they could be lost in the mix of races in the slums, where they could hide in plain sight. He would need to make connections, gain power, seduce and subvert. The rules would be different, but he was confident that, once he had learned them, he would have little trouble.

And he would need access to books, to rebuild what had been lost in the fire. For the Old Man had left something undone, and Paul…no, Brad…intended to finish it. He would find a way back to his true home, and there he would kneel before his King, and nothing would stop him from taking the Oath.

His left hand gripped the armrest tightly as he thought about it, while his right hand traced gentle patterns on the glass. He looked out at the clouds, and down at the ocean. Perhaps he would become a teacher, a trainer of young soldiers. Yes, a teacher.

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