Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Mark

            Rain poured like piss down onto the streets, funneled by the sharp angles of the steep gables on the slate roofs of Canwick. The water grew foul as it washed up the leavings of horses, dogs, and men.
            Whispering Jim hovered over an overflowing sewer drain, admiring a drowned rat as it rose up and out onto the street. He did, truly, admire it. The rats in this city should have learned long ago to stay out of the sewers, where they would drown by the thousands every time there was a heavy rain. Yet they persisted. There was nothing down there for them other than the fallen shit of a filthy city, but they held to the old ways.
            Whispering Jim held as well. He had been a demon in the previous world, and he would be a demon in the next. Many of his kind had succumbed to redefinition, styling themselves as gods or dark presences, or simple, beast-like monsters. Some had even decided to take the side of these human creatures, abandoning their purpose entirely.
            Whispering Jim knew his purpose.
            He slithered through the air, leaving a faint black mist trailing behind him, penetrating the window that had been left slightly ajar in the mark’s house. There was a secret library in the house. The mark was well-moneyed, though by birth he was only tangentially aristocratic. Parents dead, childless and a bachelor, he was a lonesome individual. He hardly left his house, and when he did, it was usually to visit the graveyard in which his parents had been laid to rest.
            And the library! What remote, distant and dangerous secrets it kept! The mark had no formal training in the arcane, and yet he had certainly spent a fortune to acquire some of the tomes he now possessed. An amateur was good, and a rich amateur better. Now, if he could discover that the mark was a frustrated, rich amateur, it would be the simplest thing.
            Whispering Jim could not believe that he had not noticed the mark before. He had haunted the streets of Canwick for decade now, drawing the humans in, taking that small piece that he desired from each one he targeted. Yet this treasure trove had escaped his vision all along. He was shivering with excitement.
            Midnight, and the mark was sitting in his favorite chair, reading from one of the priceless books. A cup of tea had grown cold and the fire had nearly burnt itself out. Whispering Jim coasted toward him, wrapping one invisible arm made of shadow around the mark’s shoulder.
            “It’s not enough, is it?” he whispered. He knew that the mark could not hear him, and yet the words would get through. That was how it worked. “How many years has it been? And yet, nothing!”
            As if in agreement, the mark slapped the book shut and stood. Whispering Jim cackled to himself. “Yes, let’s go for a walk. To the cemetery.”
            The mark put on his coat and hat, then took his umbrella from the stand and opened the door.
            Whispering Jim drifted out through the window, fluttering to a stop so that he could lean in to the mark’s ear and do his work.
            “The books are useless, aren’t they? You can’t make sense of a single sentence. They must have done that on purpose! To confound you, to make mockery of you.”
            The mark huffed in response, his gait accelerating.
            “No one could simply produce true magic! If it were so simple, everyone would chance upon it eventually. They must have help… truly, they must have help.” For an instant, the mark almost seemed to turn his head. Whispering Jim pulled back. Had he been noticed? It was far too early for that. Still, the man kept walking, perhaps concluding it was nothing of concern.
            “You could call for aid. You must. If you are to succeed in your endeavors, if those who wronged you are to know justice, you must gain mastery over these arcane arts.”
            Nearly half an hour went by as the mark made his midnight march, Jim drifting beside him. They passed only whimpering stray dogs and homeless drunks huddled underneath awnings in a futile attempt to stay dry. There was no light except from the gas streetlamps that lined the boulevard and the occasional illuminated window. The stars could not be seen beyond the thick lair of leaden clouds. Finally, they came to the graveyard. It was time. Whispering Jim flew out in front of the mark and revealed himself.
            “You have the look of a man who could use a friend,” said the living shadow. “I could be of some assistance in that regard,” he said, grinning.
            The man harrumphed and walked past him. Whispering Jim stood perfectly still, shocked at this indifference. He then decided to continue his pursuit. “You do not trust what your eyes see, I know. But I assure you, I am truly here. And I know of your struggles. The strain it is, to untangle the deep mysteries. I am here to help, and I ask only a small price in return.”
            The mark kept walking deeper into the cemetery. He plodded through mud and trampled flowers with no regard for the cleanliness of his clothes.
            “You are suspicious. You have heard of such deals and you fear that you would have a certain, shall we say, buyer’s remorse? I can assure you that I have put kings on thrones and have brought prosperity to many who remain happy with their deal to this day. Do you know of King Leron, or Nisatha, the Akozona of the Arizradna? Both have had dealings with me, and their legacies speak for themselves.”
            The mark just kept walking, passing into an areas where many trees were growing. Whispering Jim swirled through the air, the heavy winds tearing at his body of fog, only for them to reform when there was a lull.
            “Mortal, I do not think you yet understand. I will have what I want. That part is not up for negotiation. The question is how we arrange things. You could profit from this transaction, or you could merely find yourself in no better place for all the trouble I will cause. And I can assure you, there will be a lot of trouble.”
            The mark finally turned to Whispering Jim, acknowledging his presence with eye contact only. There was no cooperation in this man’s face, wreathed with wild grey hair and a massive beard.
            “You mortal fool,” exclaimed Whispering Jim, finally frustrated and ready to make the hard sell. “I have dealt with high priests and kings. I am older than this entire universe! I WILL have your soul! How could you possibly think to defy me?”
            “I know your name, demon!” bellowed the mark.
            And that was when Whispering Jim realized he was standing inside a circle of willow saplings, each in a patch of fresh dirt that was dark with absorbed rain.
            The wild-haired man pulled out a small book from his coat pocket and opened it, beginning to read. “By the circle of life, I entrap this spirit of death. By blood come from blood, and dust returned to dust, I bind thee, demon, to eternal service in my name. Whispering Jim, as you are called, I call upon your true name: Nar’shastakala’xin! Be forever bound by my command!”
            With that, out of nowhere, Cold Iron shackles appeared around Whispering Jim’s wrists.
            “What?” Whispering Jim looked down at the shackles, then up at the man, then back down. “What?” he cried out, close to a whimper.
            “Word of advice,” said the warlock. “Con men make the easiest marks.” He smiled smugly. “Now come along, you stupid fuck. We’ve got work to do.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Sunday, October 28, 2012


            The room was cold. The concrete floor did not seem to be insulated from the outside, and it was still winter. She shivered in the lightweight blue prisoner’s jumpsuit they’d given her. The clothing was little more than a set of pajamas.
            She had not even known that the militia had this building out in the woods. She had heard about Far Watch Outpost, but she had always assumed it was little more than a camp. She did not expect the fortified bunker that she had been taken to.
            Her heart was still not beating. Ana's fingers and toes felt icy with the lack of circulation. The biting pain in her stomach was still there, but she had grown used to it. At the very least, they had given her a bed, though they had not provided any sort of blanket. Still, she attempted to spend her time there, not disturbing the wound.
            Would it heal, though? She knew as much as the average person about how the body worked, and that wounds would heal if they were properly sewn up and disinfected. In most people, there was a constant flow of blood, which brought all the nutrients to build new cells and the platelets and such that helped to plug up the leaks. She did not appear to have that luxury.
            It had been twenty-two hours since her heart had stopped. Surely that was enough time for the body to begin to decay. She at first tried to imagine what would happen to her, but soon decided it was not a thought that would lend her any comfort.
            I have got to get the blood flowing again.
            She hit herself in the chest, hard. It did not seem to have an effect. She was exhausted. Sleep called to her, and lying on her back, it was very difficult to resist. Yet at the same time, whenever she felt herself drifting off, she was confronted with the twin nightmares – that she would fall asleep and never wake up, dying the rest of the way, or that she would awaken, but this time as one of those foul, decayed things like the ones she had seen with Harrick in the hold of the ship on that day that had changed everything.
            Where was Harrick? She felt ashamed to even think of him. He had been her mentor, she his confidant. She imagined he felt betrayed, discovering that the brightest up and comer in the department was an unnatural abomination.
            Then her thoughts turned to Karin. All Ana could imagine was the horror that she would be going through, realizing that she had been having sex with a draugr all this time.
            Everyone in my life has fallen into this nightmare.
            And then there was Sydow. Two men had been forced to hold him back as Ana was led away from the hospital. Even when it was laid out for him to see, he still fought for her. Nick Sydow was very dear to her, even if she could never feel about him the way she suspected he felt for her. In a sense, she felt the worst about Nick. With the others – her friends, the other officers – she could believe that they were only feeling betrayed. She knew that Nick had blinded himself out of misguided loyalty.
            He’s more loyal to you than yourself, she thought.
            Suddenly, the need to sleep vanished. In an instant, she was wide awake, though she had no idea why. It was as if the dull blues of the starlight bouncing off the snow had been traded for harsh, pure whites.
            She stood up, the wound screaming, yet it felt distant – a low priority. Something was going on outside. Her cell was in the basement, and the one window was high up at ground level. She could hear someone speaking, but there was something odd about it.
            “Yes, I do. Yes, I know it’s clear. The Clock Tower was destroyed long ago. Yes, back when Altonin was destroyed. The hold burned, and the refugees with it. Yes. Yes. I understand. We are one in the machine.”
            There was another voice. Ana could make out three sets of combat boots through the window. They were actually quite near to her cell, yet she had perhaps had her fill of fear for the day, so she did not shy away.
            “We are one in the machine.”
            A third voice: “We are one in the machine.”
            The phrase caught her. It was somehow familiar. Wasn’t it one of the mantras those Machinists liked to spout? Yet this did not sound like the cheerful chants of proselytizing devotees. It sounded monotonous and thoughtless, without any hint of fervor.
            Then she realized that she could smell the faceless man’s coffee.
            It was just as it had been in the dream - a scent of burning plastic and battery acid, of coffee that was not coffee. She had not drunk it - someone or something had told her she did not have to - but the smell was enough to remember it by. She realized now that she had been looking at the faceless man all along – or at least his shoes. He was standing between the militia members. Judging from the orientation of the shoes, he was looking (or would be, if he had eyes,) right at Ana’s window.
            She staggered back. Weakness seemed to shoot outward from her chest, and she found that it was a struggle just to stand. Was her dead heart finally catching up with her?
            Or maybe the faceless man is Death, coming to take me away.
            She stumbled backward, falling and landing on her rear end hard. She sprawled on the concrete floor, looking up at the pattern of shadows cast by the three militia men, but not the faceless man. The faceless man cast no shadow.
            You need to get your heart beating again.
            She was breathing very hard now. Her chest had seized up and even moving her arm was like lifting a boulder. But boulder or not, she still brought it up and slammed her fist down on her chest.
            Beat! she screamed silently to herself.
            She could feel a bruise forming in her chest – one that would never heal if she did not succeed.
            She brought her fist down again, this time with so much force that she suspected one of her fingers might be broken. It was agony, but she refused to give up with the foul scent of acidic death wafting through the air.
            Beat, by all the gods, beat, damn you!
            Once more, her fist crashed down on her chest, and then she squeezed a muscle she had never thought about squeezing before.
            Thunder. Blood gushed through her arteries. It was as if a wildfire had blown through her entire being. She felt as if she could breathe flames.
            Du-dum. Du-dum. Du-dum. The sound was like a timpani being pounded inside her chest, through her head, and along every limb.
            She fought to get a single deep breath. Her lungs were shuddering, and all she could hear was the pounding rhythm of her heart. She realized that the shuddering feeling going through her core was laughter. She was laughing uncontrollably.
            When she finally gained enough composure to get herself up, she looked out the window. Only one of the militia guards was still there. And the faceless man was nowhere to be seen.
            Then the pain came back to her. She looked down and saw that the front of her shirt had a red stain spreading on it.
            “I’m bleeding,” she said to no one in particular. She never thought she would be so happy to say so.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mrs. Turner

            Milton woke up in a hospital bed. There was bright sunlight pouring in through the window, and unlike most hospitals he had visited, there was a pleasant smell of herbs and flowers. Nothing around him seemed unclean, yet the carved stones hanging on the walls and the rich, patterned curtains made the place feel unlike any hospital he had visited before.
            “Good morning, sir,” said a young doctor, very tall, with glasses and a slight hesitation in his voice that suggested he was foreign-born, probably from Angoranna given his dark skin tone and dark red, straight hair. “You fell. Do you remember this?” Milton’s arm was in a cast, and he had a bandage on his head. He could not feel his right leg.
            “Yes, I remember,” said Milton. He reflected on the fact that he was just as foreign-born as this guy, though for whatever reason the Narcian and Arizradna accents were nearly indistinguishable. “Is my leg…?
            “We have it anesthetized at the moment. You suffered a compound fracture. We were forced to perform surgery to re-insert the bone, but you appear to be healing at a high rate.”
            “How long have I been here?” Milton’s voice was surprisingly strong. He’d woken up with a froggier voice than this before.
            “Three days,” said the doctor, though he pronounced “days” as “dace,” which confirmed Angoranna as his country of origin. “You appear to have jumped out of a window at the Maize-House Hotel, landing on the roof of the Moshiel Culinary School. In the fall, you suffered the leg injury, as well as a series of small fractures in your arm and a small wound on the side of your head.”
            “A small wound? But I was out for three days.”
            “Yes, you were anesthetized while we performed medical incantations to ensure the leg healed up nicely.”
            “Incantaions? Oh, right.” He was in Arizradna, where they seemed to think magic could be used in everything. He hoped they had a spell to fix brain damage, just in case the “small wound” was a bit bigger than it looked.
            “So what’s the prognosis, doctor…”
            “Ah, yes. Doctor Alwahi, but you can call me Vindur. The prognosis is very good. There is just one thing, Mr. Zweibel…”
            “Mr. Who?”
            “Mr. Zweibel. That is you, is it not?”
            Milton shook his head, which hurt. “No, I don’t know anyone by the name of Zweibel.”
            “Um,” said the doctor, who took another look at his chart. Yes, this was a new doctor. He seemed to panic easily. “Your room at the hotel was registered to a Bernard Zweibel, from Carathon, Narcia.”
            “That is not my name. I’m…” and then he remembered the dead woman in his bed back home, and thought again about letting the doctor know who he was. “Mark Turner. From Omlos.”
            Doctor Alwahi frowned and wrote down the name on his clipboard. “Right, well, regardless of your name, do you remember why you jumped out of the window?”
            He did very distinctly. The man in the blue hat who was not really a man at all had tried to kill him. Something about the House. He remembered that the man was in black and white. “You know, it was the craziest thing. I’d never believe it if I heard it myself. I tripped over a shoe. You’d be shocked how dangerous it can be to just leave things lying around near a floor-length window.”
            Doctor Alwahi looked skeptical. “We have counselors here at the hospital. If there is something wrong, you can talk to them about whatever you want.”
            “Why would I need to…? Oh, no I think you misunderstand. I really did trip on a shoe. “ He tried to sell the befuddlement. Of course he realized, maybe even when he was mid-air, that people would think he had tried to kill himself (actually, at that time, he was worried that people would think he had killed himself,) but explaining to this doctor, even in a place so nonchalant about the supernatural as Arizradna, that a colorless monster with a gaping maw of razor-sharp teeth had been trying to kill him seemed like a great way to get sent to a mental ward.
            For the next half hour or so, Doctor Alwahi did a basic check up, taking Milton’s pulse and listening to his breathing. He checked the bandages and appeared to like what he was seeing underneath. They were both somewhat quiet at that point. Milton was hard at work constructing the fiction of Mark Turner while he was attempting to just seem like a tourist with a tendency to trip over shoes.
            “Well, everything looks good. Doctor Grosin will be here at noon to do run a few more tests. Nothing invasive, she’s just going to check out that bump on the head.”
            Alwahi, who Milton very much doubted he would ever be calling Vindur, opened the door, almost bumping into a nurse. “Oh, excuse me…”
            “Can he see anyone? His wife is here.”
            “Uh, yes. I think that would be all right.”
            And then a woman in her mid-to-late twenties came in. She had long, light brown hair and was a little on the short side. She practically ran over to Milton’s bed and gave him a wet kiss. “Oh, Mark. Thank Kerahn you’re all right.” She turned to Alwahi. “He is all right, isn’t he? He’s going to be ok?” She seemed on the verge of tears.
            “Yes, we expect to be able to release him in a couple days.”
            She sighed deeply. “Thank you doctor. Thank you so much.” She kneeled down next to Milton and held his left had tightly. “You scared me so much, Mark. Never do that again.”
            Milton attempted to play along, though he was not sure why he was doing so. “Never again, I promise. It was not exactly a fun experience.”
            The woman laughed nervously, as if she was holding back tears. “Could I have a few minutes with my husband alone?”
            Alwahi looked to the nurse, then said “Sure. Doctor Grosin will be here in about two hours.” He closed the door.
            Immediately, the woman dropped the act. “You scared the shit out of all of us, Jack.”
            “I take it you’re with the House?”
            “I’m Dust, though you can call me Tessa if you want.” She put down her handbag and walked over to the window.
            “Ok, Dust, I’m Jack Milton, but I would imagine you already know a lot more about me than I do about you.”
            “You would imagine correctly. How’s the leg? Must hurt like hell.”
            “Actually, they’ve got it totally numbed.” Then something occurred to him. “Hey, how the hell did you know to call me Mark? I literally made that up about one minute beforehand.”
            Tessa yanked a small wire out of the curtains. “Because we bugged your room. We couldn’t be sure he wasn’t going to come after you to finish the job.”
            “’He’ being the guy with the blue suit?”
            Tessa looked incredulous. “Blue suit? That’s what you took away from that guy?”
            “Well, that and the teeth.”
            “His name is Aragoth. He’s one of the Lost Ones. I’ll put together a briefing for you when we get out of here.”
            “So you’re taking me somewhere?”
            “And do I have a choice in this matter?”
            “Nope,” and Tessa gave him a shit-eating grin. Despite himself, Milton found it endearing.
            “So where are we going?”
            Tessa pulled a small, brass device out of her handbag and held it up to her face to get a better look as she made some adjustments. “Towatki. Next town over, just a little under a track away. I have something of a safehouse there. At the least it’s where all my stuff is.” She put the device back in the bag, its purpose still a mystery to Milton. “Oh by the way, I told them that the reason the room was under Zweibel was a sex thing. Role-playing, you know. If it comes up again, just in case.”
            “Um, sure.”
            “Best to be consistent, you know.”
            “Ok, and what is Mark Turner’s wife’s name?”
            Milton burst out laughing. “You’re joking, right?”
            “Who names… well, anyone Belinda?”
            “Fuck you!” said Tessa. She put the device back into her handbag, pausing momentarily, as if she were lost in thought. “Besides, Mark Turner will cease to exist as soon as we get you out of here, along with his adoring wife, so it doesn’t really matter what her name is.”
            “Whatever you say, Belinda.”

            Three days later, Milton was on a train in a private compartment with Tessa Olanis. It appeared those Arizradna doctors knew what they were doing, as Milton was able to walk comfortably for the first time since he had been shot in the knee.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Saturday, October 20, 2012


            The Inked Man had a gold chain he wore around his neck. It was a small thing, and hardly remarkable. There was an eight-pointed Star of Kerahn that hung from it. Such outward displays of faith were generally thought tacky by even the most devout within the Temple of Kerahn, but it was the one thing he allowed to link himself to his former life.
            The House had provided for him. He’d proven useful to them. Generally, there is a subconscious assumption in most people that one’s intelligence is inversely proportional to the care one puts into one’s physique, and that a massive tower of brawn like the Inked Man must, inevitably, be the dumb muscle.
            The Inked Man had never killed anyone. The closest he had ever gotten was taking clean-up duty. He had no illusions about the House. He knew exactly what kind of things they did, but as of yet, he’d never been asked to actually commit an act of violence as part of his duties.
            The House was smart about its Agents. They knew there were certain lines he would be uncomfortable crossing, and they used him accordingly.
            Before he was the Inked Man, he was Charlie Oren. The star necklace reminded him that he still was. The House provided him a stipend, which was actually somewhat rare. Most Agents, as he was given to understand, were unpaid. They joined for a different reason, and in fact, he would be lying if he denied that this was the main reason he’d joined as well: being an Agent of the House made you part of the most powerful thing in the world. It gave you a secret that set you apart from the rest of humanity. The House had been controlling events for untold ages, and to know that meant you could not simply return to the mundane life from before.
            The money was not for him. There was a friend, back then, who he had hooked up with on one stupid, drunken night, and the result was a child. He’d been selfish and stupid, and said some very bad things and neglected to do what he should have done. He’d fallen in with criminals and peddlers. The friend, to make a long story short, did not want him raising the child with her.
            It was a poor fatherhood, but he saw little choice.
            Regardless, he hardly thought that the mother would be any more approving of his current lifestyle than his previous one. This thought occurred to him as Nightsong pulled a latex glove onto her hand, tight, before opening the case containing the rifle with which she intended to kill Jaroka. Immediately after Jaroka was confirmed dead, Nightsong would scrub the barrel, using a special powder that Four Eyes had acquired, which should leave the metal scored and brittle. The rifle would then be broken down and its various parts would be either incinerated or melted by a number of means. All the Inked Man had to do was let Nightsong know when Jaroka was coming, and receive the remains of the weapon for further disposal.
            “What have I told you about the target?” asked the Inked Man. Nightsong was calibrating the scope now.
            “Jaroka? Not a huge amount. Some sort of wetworks person for the Stag’s Head?”
            The Inked Man nodded. “You won’t see me shed any tears.”
            “Anything big I’d know about?”
            “Mostly in Retrein. Heard she blew up an entire train car to get to her target once.”
            Nightsong frowned as she drew the curtains to obscure as much of the room as possible. “Not exactly surgical precision.”
            The Inked Man shrugged. “It’s the Stag’s Head. They’re all about theatrics. They would have died out ages ago if there weren’t so damned many of them.”
            “We’re not exactly being subtle either, are we?” She smirked.
            “It’s a calculated risk. Jaroka has more enemies than just us. If the Rookery’s coming to take her in, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to allege they really just wanted her dead.”
            “Except they would know.”
            The Inked Man nodded. “We show our cards to the Rookery and thus we hide them from everyone else. Make no mistake, Nightsong. The Retrons and the Narcians get along fine, but the Rookery and Narcian Intelligence are bitter rivals. I doubt the Narcians would be all that pleased that Queen Elona is giving amnesty to a terrorist. They’ll probably be happier thinking the Retrons killed her.”
            “The House moves in mysterious ways,” said Nightsong.

            Nascine sat at the table. Her heart was beating louder than she thought possible. It was a difficult thing, to sit in the middle of a shooting gallery. She prayed that Jaroka would not change her mind and put a bullet through her head for her trouble. The Queen wanted her taken in alive, but that did not mean she was not dangerous.
            In truth, Nascine imagined she would detest Jaroka, the murderer and terrorist that she was. But it was a question of the greater good, and if it meant getting dirt on the House, it was probably worth it. Besides, she doubted very much that Jaroka would only have to answer a few questions and then be let loose.
            The way Nascine saw it, there were three reasons to catch a criminal. One was to allow for retribution – a sort of catharsis for the public. The second was to attempt to help the criminal, to rehabilitate them and make them into a productive member of society. The third one, and the one that Nascine really thought the most practical, was to simply remove a danger, to contain someone who could do harm to others. Jaroka certainly qualified.
            She checked the time. Jaroka would be here in only two minutes. She hoped that Jaroka was not the kind of woman to be late to such an important meeting.
            When the waitress came by to take her order, she nearly had a heart attack. “Black Tea, Canwick Style, please,” she said, aware of the tremor in her voice. She tried to think of Tartin and what he had told her all those years ago, but then she began to think of the Offices out in the Sarona Desert.
            The day she’d gotten this assignment, she had been bringing a sketch made by a woman down in Carathon that was just like the faceless men Tartin had described. It was a strange line of thought to fall in to – the whole ordeal had been forgotten during her time in Omlos, but she wondered if it was something she should look into some more.
            Then it occurred to her that Jaroka was late.
            Certain allowances must be made, but if Jaroka was off by more than two minutes, Nascine would leave and not look back.
            Her eyes became sharp, searching ever window for the flash of a sniper scope. It was pretty futile – the square was surrounded by buildings with large, glossy windows, and light shone off of all of them. Had Yasik really thought this meeting through?
            The waitress came by again, this time appearing behind Nascine so quickly that she jumped. “Dear lord! Do you have to go sneaking about like that?” her accent nearly broke there, and the waitress seemed more shocked by her reaction than Nascine had been at her appearance.
            “I’m sorry. I just wanted to give you this. Someone left this for you.” She handed Nascine a crisp white envelope. Nascine tore it open, ever mindful that this act could be the moment her killer was waiting for.
            There was a handwritten note. It read:
            “Please, forgive the theatrics. Jaroka is not coming. I could not pass up the opportunity that she presented to give us some insight into the workings of the House. Your performance as a decoy is essential to this operation. Once we’ve gotten what we need out of her, we’ll be sure to sent the relevant data over to the Rookery.”
            Nascine sighed, exasperated, but read on.
            “On a personal note, I do apologize sincerely that you have risked life and limb to track down and take in this woman, and must return with nothing to show for it. I know that Kilarny died, and I have lost a friend and coworker as well in this pursuit. We can only hope that it is all worth it.”
            “Lest you think that all your efforts have been for naught, I will give you this bit of information for your troubles: there is a House mole in the Rookery. We do not know who it is, but if you can track this man or woman down, you’ll have far more answers than you would get out of Rosanna Jaroka.”
            “Oh, and enjoy the wine. My treat.”
            The waitress presented Nascine with a fine Hesaian bluewine.
            “Cheers,” she said, and poured herself a glass.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Bedside Manner

            They had made Sydow wait elsewhere, even as he insisted that he ride with her.  The hospital had sent another ambulance, as the first had already gotten most of the way with Yalton on board. There was flurry of activity. The paramedics were shouting.
            “I’m all right,” she said. Her voice was extremely weak, but other than the biting pain in her stomach, the rest of her felt truly fine.
            “AED, now!” yelled the one who seemed to be in charge. He was well-built and serious, with close-cropped dark hair.
            Another paramedic, this one a woman roughly Ana’s age, tore open her shirt and pressed cold metal paddles to her chest.
            “Wait, please!” she tried to say, but even she could barely hear herself.
            The paramedic holding the paddles, clearly the rookie of the two, looked up at her boss. “Um… Ryan?”
            Ryan shouted. “Do it! Clear!”
            And then Ana felt a jolt go through everything. It wasn’t even painful. Instead, it was as if something else had taken control of her body for an instnat. There was something odd and familiar to it.
            “Ow!” she yelled.
            This seemed to finally get Ryan’s attention.
            The two paramedics looked at each other, their faces turning ghostly white.

            The local anesthetic was enough to make the surgery totally painless. She could hear them saying something about keeping her conscious due to some condition she had. That terrified her more than anything. More than the blazing house, or Vymer’s dead, murderous expression.
            She had no idea what the condition could be. She worried it was brain damage.
            Surely if it were brain damage, I wouldn’t think I had brain damage, right?
            She found her thoughts turning to the beach in her dreams. In the dream-logic, the water had been comfortable, yet she was also sure it had been frigidly cold.
            She was in a hospital bed now. She had her own room. The room was surprisingly spare, and the door remained closed at all times. She looked for a remote control for the television, but that had apparently been removed as well. All there was beyond her bed was a desk with a chair, a trashcan, and a few examination instruments on a rack on the wall. Out the window, she could see only leaden grey clouds above and a faint blue glow of distant, obscured sunlight.
            It occurred to her that this was one of those important moments in her life. She dreaded such moments, usually. Even the positive ones, like when she made detective only a few months earlier, had been imbued with a kind of heavy weight, the constant march of time, burying the past farther and farther behind her. The day she’d stopped speaking with her parents had been one of the harder of these moments. The day she’d found out Arthur had died was probably the worst. This moment, though, was agony. She knew there was something wrong with her, something that could change her entire life. Knowing this, and yet not knowing any of the specifics, it was like standing over a precipice, about to jump.
            “All right, Detective Sweeney, we’ve got to teach you that cheese is supposed to be filled with holes, not people.” The doctor walked in carrying a clipboard and wearing a white coat. He was a little on the short side, with fat, puffy cheeks and glasses, and longish hair parted in the middle so that it flowed down either side of his head.
            “Um, yes. I suppose I forgot that.” Her voice had returned, though her throat was dry and there was a croaky quality to the sound.
            The doctor smiled. “I’m Doctor Keckley,” he extended his hand. Ana shook it. “You’ve had quite the rough day.”
            “What time is it?”
            “About two in the afternoon, though you wouldn’t think it looking outside. Do you mind if I call you Ana?”
            “That’s fine.”
            “Ok. How are you feeling, Ana? Is there still pain?”
            She thought about it. “Only a little.”
            “Ok,” he said. He remained cheery in his disposition, but that “ok” sounded more to her like a concerned “hm.” “All right, I’m just going to take your pulse here, if that’s all right.”
            “Fine with me,” she said.
            He put a pressure cuff on her arm and put his stethoscope in his ears. The pressure was a little uncomfortable. “When was the last time you went to the doctor, Ana?”
            Ana grimaced in embarrassment. “Not for a long time.”
            “How long?”
            “Like… seven years, I think.”
            Doctor Keckley frowned in disappointment. “That’s not good.”
            “My parents used to take me to a guy with a private practice. Doctor Meldi was his name.”
            Keckley moved the stethoscope around. “Meldi? Not familiar with that name.”
            “He lived in Lindersvar.”
            “Lindersvar? That’s down by Port Sang, right?”
            She nodded.
            “Bit of a trek, don’t you think?”
            Ana shrugged. “I never thought about it.”
            Keckley undid the cuff. “Right, well, this confirms what Doctor Onas told me. I’m just going to want to run one more test to be sure.”
            “Sure about what?”
            Keckley pulled the chair out from the desk and sat in it. “Neither Doctor Onas nor I can find a pulse on you. Your heart does not appear to be beating at all.”
            Ana nodded at first, but then when the words sunk in, she looked up at Keckley, confused. “That’s impossible.”
            Keckley nodded. “That’s what I said to Doctor Onas.”
            Ana put two fingers up to her wrist. She couldn’t feel anything. She put them up to her neck. Still nothing. She put her hand on her chest, but beyond her breath, there was no movement underneath.
            “But how am I alive?” she asked.
            Keckley took a deep breath. “We’re working on that.”
            Then there was a loud banging on the door. Keckley called back. “I’m with a patient right now.”
            From the other side, Sydow yelled to the doctor. “We have a problem. I need to talk to Detective Sweeney.”
            Keckley frowned. He turned back to Ana. She nodded in approval. “All right. Come in.”
            Sydow walked in. He was somewhat short of breath, and looked extremely worried. “Ana, are you all right?”
            She shrugged and nodded. “All things considered.”
            “Can you move?”
            Keckley shook his head. “No, she can’t.”
            “What is it, Nick?”
            “Ranger-Captain Lisenrush. She’s on her way.”
            “Is there no way we can get you out of here?”
            Keckley furiously shook his head. “Absolutely not. My patient is recovering from a gunshot wound. She is in no state to go running about.”
            Sydow sunk, exasperated. “I just… we have to…”
            But then they heard the marching boots along the hallway. There was no request for admittance this time. The door was flung open and two militia men with very large guns marched into the room.
            “What the fuck is this?” yelled Doctor Keckley.
            That was when Lisenrush walked in. She was an imposing woman, over six feet tall and defined with lean, wiry muscle. “Doctor, I am taking this… thing into my custody.”
            “Like hell you are,” said Keckley.
            Sydow stepped over. “You have no jurisdiction over an enforcement officer. She is under our custody, not the Militia’s.”
            Lisenrush turned to gaze contemptuously at Sydow. “Under the Midwinter Resolution, the Militia has full authority to detain and dispose of all draugar, possessors, wights, stitches, and any other dangerous undead entities, creatures, or constructs that pose a threat to the Colony.”
            “What has that got to do with it?” asked Sydow, his voice cracking slightly.
            She pointed to Ana. “That is not a person. It’s a draugr.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)