Friday, November 15, 2013

Blackroot and Damned Rain

            Barclay took a drag on the blackroot cigarette. The musky odor of the smoke surrounded him as he watched the rain pour down from the awning. It had been raining since the previous morning, and indeed, Barclay had heard that it was raining just about everywhere. He had not received a briefing on it, though, so he filed the information away. Montaso and Kern were out on assignment, so it was just Barclay, Darron, and the Nascine woman.
            His glasses were beginning to fog, so he took them off. He could see decently without them, but they had long ago become a part of his look, and he understood how important appearances could be.
            Darron was growing restless. It had been an error to send Kern out instead of him – frankly, he thought Darron might be better suited to what Kern was doing, and vice versa. Still, Barclay would keep things in line, as he always had. His primary concern was about Nascine.
            Emily Nascine was an accomplished thief, but not a very good intelligence officer. The operation in Omlos proved that. Barclay had not actually heard about Omlos on his end – it was only in preparation for the Nascine operation that he found out.
            He had taken to smoking blackroot to deal with his stomach problems. A man named Fipps who lived in Gensdon swore by it. He was Stag’s Head, which made Barclay a little skeptical, but the blackroot smoke did help with the churning in his stomach.
            The cabin was new. The wood had not been painted, but it was treated with chemicals to keep the rot away. The rain was pretty heavy, and there was a muddy river forming somewhere from the top of the hill and flowing down a little too close for comfort.
            If anything, the rain might make it hard to burn down the cabin when they were ready to move on.
            Ten miles north was the shared space with Retrein. There was a little concrete bunker – something dating back to the Brothers’ War, supposedly – that had the space in the basement. When Nascine was ready, they would send her back through there.
            Barclay took out another cigarette and lit it before tossing the first one into a puddle. The smoke had a pungent, fungal smell. It was not particularly pleasant, but he could feel his nausea settling.
            He preferred the quick assignments. Being on the job for too long made him feel uneasy. It was always best to get it over with in a couple hours. Two days was acceptable. He would never let it show, but when it got longer than that, he started to feel uneasy.
            He had a wife and kids, though they knew him by a different name. Neither that one nor Barclay were his original name, but he’d burned that whole past down long ago.
            Barclay kept four separate identities as a matter of course. There was Barclay, the House Agent, Matterly, the family man, Schmidt, a loner who possessed what he thought of as the “transitional” properties that he would use to transform between the first two identities, and finally there was Spindler. Spindler he had never touched, but he kept up appearances – a bank account, a passport, an address -  as best he could. Spindler was the contingency plan. If something ever went wrong, he would drop everything, go be Schmidt for a day, and then be Spindler for the rest of his life.
            His hope was that the House didn’t know about Spindler, but he could not be sure. One superior, long ago, had joked that “the House always wins,” and Barclay took that as a caveat to any plans he might have made. Still, on the off chance he needed it, and on the off chance it worked, he would be happy that he had put in the effort.
            A particular cough that he had rehearsed with Darron let him know that Nascine was awake. Barclay tossed the cigarette away and went indoors.
            Nascine was pacing, wearing the sweatpants and sweatshirt they’d gotten for her. The dark circles around her eyes gave her a strangely glamorous look, despite the dourness of the setting. He had thought it was make-up at first.
            “When are you guys going to release me?”
            “You’re not a prisoner here, Emily.”
            “But you don’t want me to leave.”
            “We want you to be safe. This can’t happen again.”
            Nascine laughed. “Agreed.”
            “We can’t tip our hand to the Opponents. If they knew that we were the ones who had rescued you, well… it would complicate matters.” Barclay walked over and put a hand on Darron’s shoulder. “Darron here will help you build a story.”
            Darron took his cue and stood up from his chair. “We have some of our own people at a hospital in Knightsgate. They’ll release you from the hospital, claiming that some passers-by called an ambulance for you after pulling you out of the Lockey. If the Opponents, or the Rookery, for that matter, try to check in, they’ll find that there was shoddy record-keeping that day.”
            Nascine stopped pacing. “You want me to lie to the Rookery?”
            “Not lie. We want you to omit a few details. For your protection as well as ours,” said Barclay. “We agree that there is likely an Opponent Agent or Agents within the Rookery. We do not wish to alert them to our presence, you understand.”
            Nascine nodded. Again, as Barclay had surmised, the subtleties of spycraft were not her forte. Given her physique and background, he imagined she would be the ideal person to send on a jewel heist, but the cloak and dagger stuff, not so much. Still, she seemed capable of learning.
            “How do I get back there?” asked Nascine. “And where am I, for that matter?”
            “We’re at an isolated location in Western Narcia.”
            “Yes, Darron will explain how on the way back.”
            “And when will that be?”
            “Can you walk all right?” asked Barclay.
            Nascine looked down at her feet. She flexed them, lifting one leg and then the other. “I think so.”
            “Then you can go whenever you like.”
            Nascine raised her eyebrows. “Just like that?”
            “Just like that,” said Barclay.
            Nascine opened her mouth to speak, but stopped herself.
            “What is it?”
            “I only expected you to want something in return.”
            Barclay shook his head dismissively. “You were drowning, we were watching. We weren’t just going to let you die.”
            Nascine nodded slowly. “Well, thank you. For that. And keeping me safe.”
            “My pleasure,” said Barclay, and gave a polite little nod.
            They waited an hour for the rain to stop, but it was relentless. Eventually, Nascine decided that she was willing to brave the storm, and she and Darron embarked on their journey to the shared space.
            Barclay sat in the cabin alone for a time after that, lighting another Blackroot cigarette.
            The orders had been fulfilled. Nascine was going back to Ravenfort, alive and well. Certainly the Rookery would have its eyes on her, but it was his hope that the Opponents might as well.
            They had had some success in Arizradna, though Barclay was hesitant to declare victory just yet. After all, there were other events going on in Retrein that he could hardly guess at. The situation down south involving the Bone King and the Vastani had not turned out so well, but there were other projects in the works.
            Still, it would not do to think about it all too much. Barclay was down a few rungs of the ladder. He operated out in the field, and preferred to leave the long-term planning to others. But these recent years had been exciting. Finally, there was one great goal that the House was moving toward. Naturally, there would be resistance among those who preferred the status quo, but that sort of agent was an endangered species. For now, Barclay was happy to do his part to purge them from Retrein. And with Nascine released back into that environment, he expected many would drop their guard, and both the House and the Rookery would have one fewer threat to deal with.
            It was totally dark outside by the time that Kern got back. The cabin was illuminated only by an electric lantern.
            Kern looked positively haunted. His skin had gone pale, and the light from the lantern seemed to be too much for him.
            “Nascine is gone. Darron took her there.”
            “I saw…” began Kern. “What was that thing?”
            “Don’t worry about it. It won’t harm you. What did you think of the coffee?”
            Kern shook his head. “Disgusting. Literally painful to drink.” He shivered a little. “And my stomach has been acting up ever since.”
            Barclay pulled out his cigarette pack and shook one out. “Try this. It helps settle it.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)