The electric icebox in Milton’s room was constantly restocked by the hotel staff. It had been ten days now that he had stayed here, and he was worried that he was growing too comfortable. It was probably not too wise to keep accepting the Diplomat’s generosity, especially as he had not seen the man since their one face to face meeting.
The hotel room gave him the opportunity to delay the obvious problem staring him down: that he would have to deal with the problems back home, and find some way to explain how he had gotten where he was.
A woman had been shot to death in his bed with his own gun. And he had been missing for months. Milton had always had a certain amount of faith in the notion that the truth will out, and that the innocent will be vindicated. He had to believe this to do his job. He knew he was innocent, yet from an objective position, he knew what people would think.
It occurred to him that if enforcement had any idea he was in Arizradna, the local police force would probably come after him. Arizradna and Narcia had always been too far from each other to be close allies, but their relationship had always been a friendly one. This extended to extradition, except in very rare cases.
On the other hand, the longer he waited out here, the guiltier he would appear. Perhaps. He had spent his life on the other side of the law. It was hard to wrap one’s head around being wanted.
Senjib had left town. He had moved on to a place called Towatki to the west, which Milton understood to be slightly closer to the big cities. The djinni’s departure had left Milton somewhat depressed and isolated. He still went down to spend most of the day in the bazaar, or watching street performers, or reading the paper in cafes, but without a friend, these actions held little weight.
“Are you from Sardok?” asked a dark-haired woman with wide green eyes and the red skin of the locals. She had interrupted him right as he was about to take the first bite of the burrito the waiter had finally brought him. Milton turned to her.
“No, Narcia actually. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, my friend and I had a bet.” She pointed out her friend, a dark-skinned man wearing a blue suit and hat.
“Did you win?”
The woman frowned. “No.” Then she flashed a toothy grin. “I’m Adia.”
He shook her hand. “Jack. Nice to meet you.”
She took a seat next to him. Truthfully, he was actually quite hungry, but it seemed like it would be impolite to stuff one’s face full of food after a pretty woman had just sat down at the table. “So, Jack the Narcian. What brings you to Harisha?”
“I’m on vacation.”
Adia began to fiddle with the unused cutlery on Milton’s table. “Oh? What do you do?”
Milton scratched his chin. He could not really call it stubble anymore. It was really more of a beard at this point. “I’m between jobs.”
“That’s good. It’s good to be between things. Transitions, moving from one thing to the next.” Milton could smell the alcohol on her breath. It reeked of desperation. And everything else told him she was crazy, which would probably explain the desperation.
Milton finally gave in and took a bite of the burrito. It was heavenly, stuffed with seasoned chicken and drenched in smoky sauce. When he had swallowed, he said “So, Adia, what do you do?”
She rolled her head on her shoulders, a childlike gesture that perhaps she meant to seem flirtatious, but it only put him off. “I walk a lot. And I paint a bit. I’m not very good, but I like to do it anyway.”
Oh Gods, thought Milton. It’s one of these people.
Then Milton caught something he had not noticed before. Adia kept looking back to her friend. Her head-in-the-clouds act was good, but he could see the eyes dart back to the man in the blue hat.
Milton put down his fork. “Who is that man you’re with?”
Adia seemed confused for a moment. “Oh, him? He’s not my boyfriend, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
It wasn’t. Milton turned around to look at the man, but he was gone.
“That’s weird. He said he wanted to buy you a drink. I thought you looked like you were from Sardok, and so I thought that even if you were gay I’d have a better chance with you. You know, ‘cause the Sardok are kind of homophobic. No offense.”
Milton chose not to bother unpacking all that insanity. “What was the man’s name?”
“Wait, but you aren’t Sardok… so… huh?”
“You said he was your friend.”
“I just met him like an hour ago.”
Milton took one last bite of his food and tossed the money on the table. “Sorry, I have to go.”
He rushed back into the hotel room. The place had been ransacked. The icebox was overturned, and even some of the floorboards had been pulled up. Milton went into the bedroom. The dresser had actually been hacked apart with what looked like an axe, and the mattress had been cut open, spilling out its stuffing everywhere.
Milton ran back into the kitchen.
That wasn’t there before.
There was a cocktail glass sitting on the counter with a vibrant green liquid inside and a stick of cinnamon protruding from it.
“I wanted to buy you a drink, Jack,” said the man in blue. He was somehow standing in the doorway, despite Milton’s certainty that not only had the door not opened, but it had been locked. “You’re not going to take me up on that?”
Milton froze, staring at the intruder. Getting a better look at him, he was very short, and the bright blue hat and lounge suit seemed to glow against his rather dark skin. He sounded like a fellow Narcian, but there were strange little variations that suggested to Milton that the accent was faked.
“Jack, I had heard you were more of a loquacious sort. What is it? Do you find it easier to talk to the Diplomat?”
Milton scanned the counter briefly. There had been a knife there, but it had been taken. “So, I take it you’re with the House?”
The man scoffed. “The House is dead, Jack. Or at the very least it is on life support. If you think the Diplomat can protect you from us, you are gravely mistaken.”
“You’re the ones who kidnapped me.”
The man with the blue hat smiled. “That was an outsourced job. Believe me, our representative was not happy in the least with how things turned out.”
“The faceless man?”
The man in the blue hat seemed mildly surprised. “You could see him? That must have been the Diplomat’s doing.”
Milton tried to determine if the man was holding a weapon underneath his clothes, but the suit was loose fitting. He could be keeping an assault rifle in there. Then, after a long, close look, he realized something. The man was not simply dark-skinned. His skin was charcoal-grey. Other than the blindingly blue suit and hat, the man had no pigmentation whatsoever. Also, his teeth were just a little too sharp.
“So who are you, specifically?” asked Milton. He had almost said “what” instead of “who.”
The man in the blue hat shook his head, smiling cruelly.
“You do know I have no idea where that woman is. Ok, you tortured me for… months.”
“We know that. They were asking the wrong questions.”
“So what do you want from me?”
The man in the blue hat grinned. There were too many teeth there. Then, without warning, he leapt, his hands now revealed to be claws, and his gaping maw with rows and rows of razor-sharp teeth stretched to inhuman size. Milton did not hesitate, dodging this first assault and then running back to the bedroom, as the thing that had been the man in the blue hat bounded behind him.
No time to… and he did not, in fact, hesitate. Before the thought had even passed through his mind, Milton dove through the bedroom window.
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)