Friday, September 21, 2012

The Man in the Blue Hat

            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)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Sideways Honeypot

            James Tarson bought a cup of coffee at the corner shop. It was a pleasant little shop, and had the feel of a corner store in Ravenfort. Omlos was an amazing city, but often it felt so big that it was hard to find places to slow down and relax. Retrons tended to prefer little cafés, but at least here in Omlos, there was a kind of expectation that you’d grab what you needed and then be on your way. People in this city walked twice the speed of people in other cities.
            He checked his watch. Nascine would be on her rendezvous with Yasik to make sure the meeting went as planned. Nascine presumably thought that Tarson was staying in the hotel all the time. Truthfully, he had been feeling cabin fever after only a couple days. So, when she left on her errands, Tarson would get out to stretch his legs. Nascine had a clockwork precision to her movements, which gave him plenty of leisurely time to go about and get some fresh air.
            The shop was not so much a café – it only had a single table indoors – as it was, well, a shop, but there was a nice little square that had been afforded some benches. Pigeons and squirrels scurried around, as well as people. It was chilly, and there was a slight threat of snow, but it was not altogether unpleasant.
            Tarson flipped through the pages of the Omlos Chronicle as he sipped his coffee – lots of cream, lots of sugar. There was a bit about the remaining tensions down south, and something about the ongoing feud between the President and the Prime Minister. All of this was old news, though, and not all that fascinating. Tarson preferred the science, technology and arcane section. There was a piece about the Sinret Project making some marginal discovery that would probably only mean anything to the scientists who discovered it. The article did note that they had nearly doubled their staff recently, which presumably meant someone with real funds was now backing them.
            He became aware that there was an attractive woman looking at him. She was stunning, in an understated sort of way, wearing tight denim jeans and a jacket that was maybe too thin for the temperature. He light-brown hair was just a bit longer than shoulder-length, and she looked to be twenty, or even in her late teens. She smiled. He smiled back.
            I suppose I’m done with my coffee, thought Tarson.
            He tossed the cup in a bin and folded the newspaper under his arm.
            “Hello,” he tried.
            “Hi,” she said. Tarson laughed on the inside. There was a sort of schoolgirl innocence to her voice. He was nearly giddy.
            He leaned in, perhaps a little too close, but he always thought projecting confidence could smooth these sorts of things. “I couldn’t help but see that you were staring at me.”
            “Staring?” she responded, with mock offense. “I was doing no such thing.”
            “I’m James,” he said.
            “Gwen,” said the woman.
            “Lovely name. Short for Guinevere?” he asked.
            “That’s the one.”
            “Well, Guinevere, you have a fascinating name. And I would love to learn more about it and the person to whom it belongs.”
            “I have a room in the building over there,” she said, and pointed to the other end of the square.
            This is remarkably easier than I would have expected, he thought.
            He followed her into the lobby of a small, but acceptably livable apartment building. They finally climbed the stairs to her room, and she unlocked the door.
            The apartment was completely bare, except for plastic sheeting lining every wall and the floor.

            Tarson spun around. “Gwen” had shut the door behind her. A very large man with an ornate tapestry of tattoos covering his arms and legs stepped out of another room. He looked like he could tear Tarson’s head off with his bare hands.
            Tarson laughed. All of this was utterly ridiculous. “Gwen” laughed as well, and finally, the Inked Man joined.
            “You made me very, very nervous there, Inky.” He turned back to “Gwen.” “I mean, I knew she was one of us. But when I saw that plastic I almost had a heart attack. Thought I’d somehow managed to fall sideways into a honeypot.”
            The Inked Man shrugged and smiled. “She’s good. Actually, she’s not new. She was out in Reben, but there was a compromise and she had to break her chain. She goes by Nightsong.” Nightsong leaned against the door, her arms folded. She had dropped any of the flirty innocence she had displayed before and now wore a satisfied scowl.
            Tarson turned around. “Oh,” he said, frowning sympathetically. “Condolences.”
            Nightsong shrugged. “I didn’t care much for my superior. He was a loud, lecherous prick. I bet he never suspected he would be my first kill.”
            Tarson waved his hand dismissively at her. “I didn’t mean about your chain. I meant the name. Nightsong? That’s a terrible codename. Just terrible. Sounds like a pseudonym adopted by a teenaged girl who dyes here hair black and pretends to be suicidal to get attention from boys.”
            “I didn’t pick it,” said Nightsong.
            “I should hope not.” Tarson looked around. “This leads me to my next question – well, not so much leads me as much as I have decided to move on to it. Why am I in a butcher room?”
            The Inked Man paced over to the window. “Nightsong here prefers we don’t leave any DNA around. Frankly, I think it’s a bit much, but better safe than sorry, right?”
            “Yes,” said Tarson. “You did miss the ceiling, though. Then again, without blood spray, it’s probably not much of a concern.”
            The Inked Man was stern and serious as usual. “So is there an update?”
            Tarson nodded. “Jaroka met with Yasik himself this morning, and rendez-vous is confirmed. Noon, Café de l’Hesaie.”
            “You got Yasik to go in person?” said Nightsong, skeptically. Good sign. She knows who Yasik is. So many new Agents are completely ignorant.
            “All they told me was that they needed him out of his safe house. I assume they wanted to do a rummage, but that’s off our chain. Not any of our concern.”
            “How’d you get him to go?” asked the Inked Man.
            Tarson scratched his chin. “That would be telling, wouldn’t it?” All told, it wasn’t a story he wanted to revisit. He hated to kill people when they were naked. It made the whole affair take on sexual overtones that he found somewhat revolting. Yasik’s assistant, a woman about his age who was very short, hadn’t had much of a chance to put up a struggle. He had tranquilized her and then made a few small incisions to make it as quick as possible. In and out, it had taken less than ten minutes, and despite Nightsong’s concerns, he never left any DNA behind.
            “So, regarding Jaroka. Do we grab her on the way in to the cafe?” asked Nightsong.
            Tarson shook his head. “Not exactly.”
            The Inked Man looked very concerned. “What are we supposed to do?”
            Tarson smiled. “Well, my superior sent a little information on the wire earlier today. Looks like there’s been a… reconsideration… on the subject of Jaroka. It would seem that her services are no longer required. Bit of a shake-up upstairs if you ask me, but don’t quote me on that. Anyway, that removes any sort of protections that existed, and it appears that our betters feel we’d all be a lot better off in a world that did not include Rosanna Jaroka. ”
            “And Nascine?” asked the Inked Man.
            “Oh, we’re not touching Nascine. Far better to send her back to Retrein with her tail between her legs. Sadly, that also means that I will be leaving once again. It appears that your dear friend and mentor will be spending a lot of time in the Royal Rookery. Arrangements will be made to take care of you two…” he paused, noting their horrified expressions. “I mean, take care of, not, you know…” he gestured to all the plastic sheeting. “Take care of.”
            They both relaxed. Nightsong leaned in slightly. “So what do we do with Jaroka?”
            “Be creative. Best if I don’t know.”
            “All right,” said the Inked Man. “Nightsong, give us a moment, ok?”
            She shrugged and walked over to the other room. The Inked Man leaned in, whispering. “What is this about a shake-up?”
            Tarson shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. You and I are way too low on the totem pole.”
            “I don’t exactly want to wind up in a butcher room myself, you understand?”
            Tarson nodded. “Here’s what you do. You’ve got your own personal funds, right? Make it liquid. Then, you get a name you’ve never used before. You put together some false ID – and don’t use anyone you know. All new people. No connections, no network. You buy yourself a little place in… some place you’ll never tell me. Things start to stink? You drop everything, go start your new life, and hope to hell the House doesn’t find you out.”
            “And how likely is that to work?”
            Tarson laughed. “You wouldn’t stand a chance.” He clapped the Inked Man on the back. “Listen, Inky. If the House wants us dead, we die. No use worrying about it. It either happens or it doesn’t.”
            The Inked Man sighed. “I wish I could share in your serenity.” Then he looked at Tarson again, with the appearance of surprise on his face. “Huh. You’re wearing glasses.”
            Tarson nodded. “Yes?”
            “When have you ever worn glasses?”
            Tarson nodded. “All my life. Bit of an affectation, though. I don’t need them. Just like the look.”
            “So that’s why you’re called Four Eyes?”
            “That’s why they call me Four Eyes.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Thursday, September 6, 2012


            Ana was relaxing on the beach. None of her dreams took her by surprise anymore, it seemed. Still, despite her realization that it was all in her imagination, she found the chair very comfortable. The waves came in gently, and the brilliant red sunset was not too bright. Despite the fact that she knew Karin was, in real life, sleeping mere inches from her, Ana felt totally alone.
            It was a nice feeling.
            The waves were coming in, closer and closer, but she knew, somehow, that the water was no danger to her.
            The faceless man was standing there now. Hilariously, he was now wearing a pair of bathing trunks. She had half a mind to smear some zinc sun-block on the spot in the middle of his non-existent face where his nose should have been.
            “Are you sure you don’t want to come back to the cabana? The waves are getting larger.” The faceless man had a soft, yet masculine voice. It made her feel very comfortable because it sounded exactly like her brother Arthur, who she still missed.
            “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it. I’ve drowned before. The trick is you’ve got to know the right people. A lot of people come out into the ocean thinking it’s about your skills or your dedication. But no, it’s all about connections.”
            The faceless man shrugged. He ran back, away from the ocean. Ana remained. She wondered if her two-piece bathing suit was too revealing, but then reminded herself that the man had no eyes with which to see her.
            There was rain now. Hard, sizzling rain that pricked like needles when it fell on her, and had a revolting smell of rot and old coffee. She knew that it had this smell, yet she was somehow able to separate the sensation from the understanding of it.
            She then became aware of the fact that she was not, as it happened, alone at the beach. Several chairs were lined up, one after another, each with an umbrella that somehow still didn’t manage to catch the acid rain pouring from the sky. On each chair, there was a draugr, desiccated and emaciated, each with his own drink in a hollowed-out coconut.
            One of them, the nearest on her right, turned to look at her – a jerky, pained movement – and raised his cup to her health.
            The sea began to boil. There was no sunset anymore, just the eldritch glow of the Aurora. There was something in the icy water that had now begun to lap up around her chair. The waves seemed to reach out, grabbing at her legs.
            The waves are filled with draugar.
            The massive thing in the water was coming nearer, and the water swelled above it as it surfaced. Ana scrambled backward, attempting to get away from the abomination that was coming for her, but beyond her tiny island of a beach chair, there was only black, grasping water.
            Finally, the water flowed away, and she saw what had emerged.
            He was a short man, probably in his late forties. He was bald on the top of his head, but had messy tufts of dark hair on either side above the ears. He had glossy glasses and puffed out red cheeks that made it look as if he were always laughing too hard.
            He stepped toward her and held out a lollipop.
            “You’ve been a very brave little girl, Ana.”

            She woke suddenly. It was still dark, and Karin had rolled over, wrapping her arm around Ana’s shoulder. Ana considered attempting to go back to sleep, but her sleepiness had broken for now. She carefully slipped out of her girlfriend’s embrace and went downstairs to read, either until she could fall asleep again or it was time to go to work.

            It was still practically night when she went into work. The stars were still visible up above, and every breeze was like a knife in the lungs. The lights were on in the office, though, and she knew there was at least some activity going on.
            She entered and went to open the door to the bullpen, only to have it slam into her hand.
            “Fuck!” she yelled, pulling back her hand in pain.
            Sydow was on the other side. “Sweeney, shit, sorry. Can’t talk.”
            She watched as Sydow, Balgar, and Monhansen filed out, all of them dark and serious. “Where are you going?”
            “Riverbend. Yalton’s calling for reinforcements.”
            “I’m coming,” said Ana.
            They ran out. Balgar hopped into the driver’s seat of one of the electric squadcarts and the rest of them piled in. The drive only took about two minutes. They remained silent, and all that could be heard was the wail of the cart’s sirens. Ana could smell Monhansen’s morning glass of mead on her breath. Ana had always found Monhansen’s habit charmingly traditional, but now she worried that it would impair her abilities.
            It was not hard to figure out where to go. There was a steady drumbeat of gunfire coming from the west, out in Riverbend, the neighborhood closest to the forest.
            “How long since…?” she asked.
            “Ten minutes at the outside,” said Sydow. He checked his gun, pulled out the clip, then put it back, satisfied.
            When they arrived, they could see the house was on fire. It was a fairly normal house – two floors, a little front yard. Yalton was slouched up against the fence. She wasn’t moving.
            There were little high-pitched pings as the bullets started to strike the cart. The four enforcers got out and took cover behind it.
            “Shit! God damn shit!” cried Sydow as he stooped down as low as he could. “How many are there?”
            Monhansen took a deep breath and then said a silent prayer and peeked around the corner, ducking back when the gunfire began again. “I only saw one gunman, but no guarantees.
            “How’s Yalton?”
            “No idea. Couldn’t get a good look.”
            One of the bullets hit the cart’s tire, and it sunk suddenly to one corner.
            Ana could hear a groaning sound coming from the other side of the cart. “Yalton? You still with us?”
            The response was just another pained groan. “We need to get her out of the line of fire.”
            Sydow shook his head. “No, that’s crazy. We need…”
            Balgar was already on it. He had his radio out and was making the call. “This is Port O’James enforcement calling the Colonial Militia. Request assistance. Over.”
            Ana heard Yalton again. “…help…. Please…”
            “That’s her. She’s wounded. Give me some cover.”
            Sydow snapped around, only realizing what Ana was going to do as she was doing it. “Ashtor’s Blood, damn this fucking…” he turned around and fired several shots up at the house.
            Ana crawled over, attempting to remain obscured by the fence as best as possible. When she got there, she could see that Yalton had been hit. There was a wound down in her stomach. She’d had the presence of mind to clamp her hand down on the wound, but she was growing pale. They would need to resolve things here quickly.
            The front door of the house crashed open. Another man was standing there with a pistol on his hand. Unlike the man up on the second floor who was shooting out the window, this one seemed to take no precautions at all to protect himself. He fired at the car. Ana pulled her own gun out and ducked out from behind the fencepost to fire at this new threat just as he let loose a veritable barrage, emptying his pistol’s clip in a single arc.
            She fired once, just as the man was attempting to reload his pistol, and struck him in the head. The man dropped, lifeless.
            The fire had clearly been burning inside for a while, because in a sudden belching crash, the roof caved in, and the windows of the second floor exploded outward.

            That seemed to be the climax. The shooting stopped, and whoever had been on the top floor shooting at them seemed to have been crushed. The ambulance was on its way, and after they had done a sweep around the house, they were finally satisfied that the threat had ended.
            Balgar looked up at the house. “Anyone call the fire department yet?”
            The enforcers all looked at each other.
            Balgar shrugged. “Guess I ought to do that.”
            The ambulance was there shockingly soon, and they were already loading Yalton up when Ana finally decided to take a look at the man she had shot. She approached him slowly. Truthfully, she knew that she had been fully justified in her use of force. It would mean paperwork, true, but somehow, the feeling of remorse she would have expected from shooting a man dead seemed hesitant to arrive.
            When she found him, she realized this was a fully appropriate reaction. This was no man, but a draugr. His skin had grown tight and waxy, and even some of his bones were beginning to protrude out of his skin. She had seen draugar before, back on the Ostrich, and had no trouble identifying him as such.
            Yet there was something different about this one. His eyes were not icy blue, but inky black. And there was some kind of black liquid coming from the wound in his head, as well as an older gash on the forehead.
            The wind slowed, and she caught a whiff.
            It’s the faceless man’s coffee, from the dreams.
            She bent down, looking at the substance dripping from the draugr’s head. Immediately she got a headache from the scent. She stood back up as Sydow approached.
            “Put him down with one shot. Well done. I’ve heard of draugar taking whole clips without so much as a stumble.” He looked down at the corpse. “Holy shit.” Sydow clapped his hand to his forehead.  “I know this guy. He’s… uh… Vymer. That’s his name. Something Vymer. He’s one of the militia patrollers who went missing. Holy crap.”
            “He was raised by them?” she asked.
            “Hey Balgar!” yelled Sydow. “Get on the horn to Ranger-Captain Lisenrush. We’ve got something for her.”
            Ana looked down at Vymer. He’d seemed like such a monster, spraying bullets everywhere, coming out of the burning house like a demon emerging from the bowels of the earth. Yet now, despite the horror of his condition, she saw the human being he had once been.
            He was dead long before you shot him. She thought. It was still a disturbing notion – that she had pulled a trigger, and something that was once a man stopped moving forever.
            And that was when she looked up and saw the faceless man.
            He was standing nearly two blocks away, where the road ended and the forest began. From that distance, he seemed small, yet she was very clearly aware that he was not meant to be there. The faceless man was not supposed to exist outside of her dreams. Yet here he was.
            “Sydow, look…”
            “Sweeney, how are you feeling?” There was a chilly calm in his voice as he spoke, the opposite of his usual excitable bluster. She turned to look back at him and found that his eyes were wide with shock.
            “I’m fine. Do you see that…” she turned back to the faceless man, but he had gone.
            “Are you sure you’re fine?” Sydow took a step backward. His knees were bent, and his arms were slightly raised, as if he expected to need to use them soon.
            “Yes, I’m fine. What is it?”
            Sydow gestured for her to look down. She did.
            There was a bullet hole in her chest.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)