Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Crow's Nest

            The Omlos field office was relatively comfortable. Narcia had historically been fairly friendly to Retrein – which made their relationship unique among all the Ganlean nations. Still, the sad thing about intelligence work was that you had to keep secrets from your friends as well as your enemies, so “The Crow’s Nest,” as it was called, still required its thieves to go through a fair amount of rigmarole before they could get in.
            There was a field office in each of the major Narcian cities – the Crow’s Nest in Omlos, the Bat’s Cave in Reben, the Bee Hive in Carathon, the Wolf’s Den in Gensdon, and finally Lock & Key in the capital, Entraht.
            The Receiver was a squat man, bespectacled, and mostly bald. Nascine, who would be living under the alias of “Valerie Justinian,” and her communications officer, who was going by “James Tarson,” checked in with him.
            “Where’s Kilarny?”
            “Out. She’s buying groceries.”
            Nascine nodded. She and Tarson went upstairs. There was a small apartment there, enough for a few people to live in relative comfort. Both she and Tarson went for the teakettle instinctively. Tarson stepped back, allowing her to turn the stove on.
            “So who is she?”
            “Her name is Jaroka, Rosanna Jaroka. She’s an assassin who works primarily with the Stag’s Head Cult. She was implicated in the bombing that happened two years ago that killed the Bone King’s Ambassador down in Entraht.”
            “I thought that turned out to be the Machinists?”
            Nascine nodded. The incident had caused a lot of strife between Narcia and the Bone King, resulting in even a few military skirmishes along the border. For now things had quieted down to a degree, but the whole world had been watching in terror, hoping that the cease-fire would hold.
            “Yes, the evidence does seem to point toward the Machinists, but the Rookery has evidence suggesting that Jaroka and her associates were contracted to kill the ambassador as well.”
            “Seems like one hell of a coincidence. Two assassination attempts at the same time against the same person?”
            “That’s what we thought. The Stag’s Head wouldn’t have much to gain from killing the ambassador. They don’t have much love for the Bone King, but then, they don’t have much love for anything other than that dead god they worship.”
            “On the other hand, what did the Machinists have to gain?”
            “Nothing. Same as the Stag’s Head.”
            Tarson furrowed his brow. The whistle on the kettle began to blow. Nascine poured a cup for each of them. He sat on the sofa, one leg folded under the other. “Two religious organizations, hiring assassins. So what do we want with Jaroka?”
            “Well, she’s a wanted criminal, and she’s from Retrein.”
            “I would guess it’s more.”
            Nascine took a sip of her tea. It was like life flowing back into her after the exhaustion of travel. “Go on.”
            “Queen Elona herself gave you the mission, so there’s a unique element in play. You said Jaroka usually works for the Stag’s Head?”
            “But if both of these attempts were planned for the same day, that would seem to imply that whoever was actually behind the assassination had a hand in both. Was the ambassador holding any sort of public event?”
            “It was the day they ordained the new Priestess of Kerahn, but that was earlier in the day. No, he was killed within the embassy.”
            “It’s subtle. Plausible enough that two groups would choose to kill him on the same day, but these are both religiously motivated groups. They’d want it to be public – a demonstration.”
            Nascine smiled. “They did blow up an embassy.”
            Tarson took a sip of tea. “True, but they could have killed him some other way, while the cameras were rolling. Incidentally, ow. I just burned my tongue.”
            Nascine smirked. Tarson had a certain charm to him – guilelessness that was fairly uncommon in most of the thieves she knew. Then again, this was his first assignment. “He was a walking skeleton. Maybe a bomb was the only way they could be sure to kill him,” she said.
            Tarson got up. “No, wait, think about it. This was all a very, very subtle operation. The ambassador gets killed in a way that looks very much like it’s religiously motivated. The killers set up one bluff – the Stag’s Head, to make the second bluff look like the real thing.”
            “You don’t think the Machinists were behind it?”
            “It’s the country’s second most popular religion. I’m not ruling out that some Machinists might have been involved, but if you ask me, I think it’s more of a smoke screen.”
            “It would seem that Queen Elona agrees with you.”
            “She does?” He thought it over for a few seconds. “Of course she does. What would have happened if the Stag’s Head was convicted in the general consensus? Maybe the Bone King would have cracked down on them, but more likely it would have just been written off as the acts of terrorists who can’t be controlled. But you saw what happened – Narcia almost went to war with the wastes. A much bigger effect, and probably the intended one.”
            “So it would seem. But who would benefit from such a thing?”
            Tarson opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it. “I have no idea.”
            “Exactly,” said Nascine. “But if we’re going to find out, we probably want to talk to the only living person involved in the assassination attempt”
            Nascine was about to reply when the receiver trotted up the stairs. He was out of breath by the time he reached the top. “Sorry to interrupt.”
            Nascine put her mug down. “What is it?”
            “You should leave. Soon. It’s Kilarny.”
            “What about her?”
            “She’s dead.”

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Black Bars

            With only the faint illumination of the ghost light, Milton struggled to stay awake. He kept an eye on the Faceless Man, but he kept his ear to the wall. He’d spent some time making a mental map of the facility based on the footsteps he’d heard, and while the Shabby Man always came from somewhere in the cavernous space that the Faceless Man occupied, Gold Tooth and The Thin Woman would sometimes come from a corridor that apparently ran behind his cell.
            He clutched the knife hilt hard. It was not much, all said. But it was something solid. The Diplomat had always seemed like something out of a dream. Even the mug of that horrific
            coffee seemed to fade in his memory, as if he had never truly grasped it, had never truly felt it run down his throat, scraping and cutting as if he had been drinking liquid sharpness. Memories could deceive, but now he held a real, solid blade in his hand. It only occurred to him now that, aside from the walls and floor, they’d given him nothing to touch while he was in this cell.
            He hadn’t eaten in weeks. He supposed they were injecting nutrients directly into his bloodstream along with all of the drugs.
            If this knife wasn’t real, then… well, it wasn’t worth considering. If he could not trust his tactile sense now, in the moment, there was no longer any reason to believe anything at all.
            Reality took a leap of faith, and the knife in his hand represented that. He only hoped he had the strength to wield it. Hours passed. Milton’s body was at rest, even as he stood. His breaths were shallow, but sufficient.
            And then, the wait was over, as if he had only been standing there a moment. The light overhead flicked on, brilliantly bright, yet somehow, Milton kept his eyes open. In a few seconds, the room came back into focus. His heart was pounding.
            The door swung open. Now was the time.
            In a horizontal arc, he brought the knife around, burying it in Gold Tooth’s chest, just above the ribs. The impact shuddered along his arms. They had grown thin, and his bones ached.
            Gold Tooth’s eyes were wide in shock. Milton came around again, yanking the knife out and plunging it again into the torturer’s chest, this time lower, nearer the heart. It made a horrible sound, and Gold Tooth shuddered as his legs gave out. He crumpled into a bizarre, misshapen kneeling position.
            Milton stepped over the body and made his way out of the cell. The floor was cold, rough concrete. Every step was a heavy impact, and his feet seemed to scream out in pain, but for the moment he pushed the pain aside.
            To his right, the room opened up. He had not realized it, but the cell had been in the corner of the cavernous room with the ghost light. He took one step in that direction, but remembered that that was where the Faceless Man was. Terrified as he was – that the Faceless Man would finally take him, that the cell had been the only thing keeping him safe – he looked around the corner.
            The Faceless Man was gone.
            A shiver ran through Milton’s entire body. He took another step out into the cavernous room. The ghost light was flickering. Each time the room went black, Milton could see a grim, skeletal grin. He had no idea where in the room the grin was, but he could feel it there, in the dark.
            There was no time. Horror was the enemy here – the desperate moment before the animal chooses to fight or to fly. From the cavernous room, he chose to fly.
            He returned, left of the door where Gold Tooth’s grotesque corpse lay. Milton did not spare a second glance. He stepped into the next corridor. The knife left a drop of blood with every pace. Sometimes it splashed onto his foot, sometimes to the floor.
            He opened another door – it seemed there was nothing but doors and hallways here. A desk sat in the room he found. Milton rifled through the contents. There were files, and stacks of paper everywhere. And on a coat rack, there was the Shabby Man’s suit jacket.
            So this was the Shabby Man’s office. So close. He had been so nearby, all this time. The Shabby Man’s notebooks were stacked on the right side of the desk. Milton picked one up – never dropping the knife – and flipped through it.
            The pages were a series of black bars. Milton looked closely. There wasn’t any sort of text-like scribble beneath the black. It appeared as if he had merely drawn black bars on every line.
            Milton picked up the previous notebook and flipped through it. It was the same. As was the one before that. Finally, with the fourth most recent book, Milton found a series of entries:
            “He refuses to tell us what he knows. He is a liar! How dare the fucking piece of shit keep lying to us? Smiler will break him. Soon, Smiler will break him.”
            “Needler’s dosing me. She wants me dead. I…” and then the handwriting seemed to shift, becoming wilder, taking up multiple lines on the page and overlapping with the earlier text: “LOOK AT IT! LOOK AT IT! IT’S RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU!” and then the text returned to the earlier, ordered style. “We never should have come here. Who are these people? Needler’s been turned. I know that. The little bitch.”
            “It’s done. Barclay will have to understand. She went insane down here. She could have compromised the entire operation. Yet, sometimes…” and the script changed again. “YOU SEE IT! YOU ARE WRITING THIS RIGHT NOW! LOOK AT IT! RUN! RUN OR IT WILL TAKE YOU!” and then back to the old script: “I still see her. In the shadows. She taunts me. She should have died. No one could survive that. I made sure. But she’s here. I know it. Perhaps I’ll have to kill my…” but the line at the bottom of the letter Y went all the way down the page. Milton flipped to the next page. This was where the black bars had begun.
            Milton put the notebook down. He opened the drawers hoping to find a gun, but had no luck. He left the office.
            Down another corridor, he found the Thin Woman. She was hanging from her neck, which was broken. The rope was hanging from a hook on a wall. He couldn’t be certain she had been killed by hanging, or if she had simply been left there.
            He was unable to feel fear at the sight. He could see a shining piece of metal hanging from her pocket. It was a ring of keys. He yanked it out. There were several keys there, none of them labeled, but one of them seemed more modern, somehow – the design of the key’s head, it didn’t matter.
            He followed the path before him – there didn’t seem to be a choice in direction other than to turn around and go back the way he came. Finally, he came to an opening into a dark room.
            It was the cavernous room. He’d gone in one big semi-circle.
            He fumbled along the wall. Surely there was some kind of light. The light was always bright during Question Time. After a few moments, he found it. The room was flooded with brightness. Somehow, in the light, it seemed smaller. The Faceless Man was still nowhere to be seen. But the room was not empty.
            The Shabby Man was standing with his back to the room, up against a large, industrial-looking door. It was a freight elevator. The Shabby Man – well, actually, not so shabby, given his clean, navy blue suit – was hunched over, his arms pulled tight to his sides, and his legs bent. He seemed to be convulsing, shivering.
            Milton approached him, the knife ready in his hand. He crossed the room swiftly – so quick that he surprised himself. He stopped when he was about a yard away from the Shabby Man.
            Mitlon’s interrogator turned. His eyes went to the knife, and then to Milton again. The thing that was so disturbing, when Milton saw the Shabby Man’s face, was that there was nothing exactly “wrong” about it. He didn’t even look tired. He didn’t look crazed, or delirious. The Shabby Man just stared back at him with still, quiet eyes.
            It was quick. Right across the throat. As the Shabby Man’s body fell, for the first time since he had picked up the knife, Milton felt drawn back into reality. There was a man – a living, breathing man – whose blood was now seeping out onto the rough concrete. It stained Milton’s bare feet.
            The modern key worked, and the elevator opened to him. Milton rode up, directing the elevator to the highest floor. In retrospect, Milton realized that as horrific as it might have been, he should have stripped the Shabby Man and taken the clothes. He was still wearing only the boxer shorts he’d had when they first took him. He had no idea how long he’d been inside, but they couldn’t be all that far from Reben, up in the mountains. Even if it were summer, it might still be cold. But he could never go back down there. He would never, ever return to this place if he could help it.
            The elevator doors opened, and he was in a well-lit lobby. For a moment, he panicked, realizing there could be any number of people here who would stop him. These fears quickly subsided. The lobby was empty. He walked, the drips from his knife and his feet leaving a bloody trail behind him, to the huge double-doors. He pulled with all his might, and the doors opened before him.
            But there were no mountains here. He was nowhere near Reben. He couldn’t even be in Narcia. It was impossible. They’d brought him here over rocks and snow and ice, only hours away from his home in Reben. Now, he was blasted with a hot, dry wind, and he had to shield his eyes against a brilliant, burning sun.
            Before him lay the Sarona Desert.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)