Gravity seemed to have become a weak thing, only a suggestion, rather than an incontrovertible law. His body was still and immaterial. Instead, he found himself focusing on a little spider web in the upper corner of the room. The spider walked carefully over her little construction project. A proud homeowner, that little bug. She took such fastidious care, creating her little spiral.
“Do you understand the charges as I have described them?”
He nodded. It was odd to think of this as a case of crime and law enforcement. He had never thought of himself a criminal. He was a soldier. Or no, that wasn’t it.
He was an Agent of the House, nothing more.
It was surprisingly civil. He supposed he had Nascine and Tartin to thank for that. They were thieves, a profession that still held with it some degree of gentility. Not every facet of the Rookery was so kind. In a way, he was lucky. Rather than being tossed into some dark room and left to starve and go mad, he was instead in a room lit with bright fluorescents with an enforcement officer taking him through the necessary bureaucracies.
Of course now he had to consider what the House would do. An Agent inside the Rookery? That had surely been useful, but he wondered how useful it would be to have an Agent inside a national prison, not to mention one who already exposed as an Agent.
The ramifications were vast. The House had been reduced to a conspiracy theory within the mind of the general public. The various intelligence services did a decent job of playing their cards close to the chest, but he suspected most of them had been in accord. While some clearly had an idea, he had to guess that among the “minor leagues” like Arkos Province’s Covert Intelligence Office and the North East Colony’s quaintly named Port Security Service, belief in the House might get you transferred to a basement office with nothing but file boxes and disused computer equipment to keep you company.
And there he was, living proof that it was all real. His capture had been far too public, too ostentatious, and far too many people had been involved. Some might still not believe, but anyone who knew the game would have figured it out. He would go down in history as one of the House’s biggest failures. And the House wasn’t supposed to have a history.
Things would probably end with a shiv to the back. He did not want to imagine the sensation, but he had to remind himself that such a thing was not only possible, but probable.
His hair had gotten long – he hadn’t had a cut since Narcia – and so he swept it back from his forehead.
“Sir?” said the officer. “Time to go.”
Sir. That was odd. A strangely polite way to refer to an Agent of the House. Maybe it was just a standard sort of thing. A civilized country with a civilized system to make sure everyone felt right and properly civilized.
In the absence of a given name (Four Eyes had learned years ago to really think of himself truly as Four Eyes and allow the name his parents had given him to recede back into his portfolio of aliases) they were using the false one that he had used in Narcia. James Tarson. It was better than John Doe, at least. He wouldn’t mind using this name for now. If he was terribly lucky and managed to escape, he might ditch the name and take up something else and retire to some island in the Sagrean Sea.
Chris Thatch was a burned bridge. He had stolen that name from a dead man, but now that the man had been discovered, it had been restored. Chris Thatch would be buried in a cemetery rather than Murleg’s Bog. “James Tarson” bore him no ill will. Perhaps putting a spirit to rest, if that is what one accomplishes with burial rites, could even be seen a small consolation in all of this.
The truth of the matter is that as an Agent of the House, he had great respect for the Rookery and the institutions of Retrein, as well as Narcia. In his mind, the House did not count the people or governments of the world as adversaries. They were assets to be carefully managed. He had dropped the Retron accent, though the voice he spoke with now was not the one he remembered having before he had been given this assignment. It had lost its regionalism from the small, coastal town in northeastern Narcia where he had grown up, with its wharf and driftwood shacks all with peeling paint. Now his voice had flattened into a general Narcian dialect that had kind of melted into the Arizi one to become the least distinctive in the world.
If this change to his voice was intentional, it could only be subconsciously so, but it did suit his purposes.
And what are those?
He brushed this thought aside.
He would be questioned, but he doubted he would be tortured. The Retrons were regressive in myriad ways but even the shadiest parts of the Rookery had ceded their worst brutalities to the more attractive virtue of result. Six Coins had told him that the Other Side sometimes dabbled in it, though Sir Roderick Candel (they had long ago dispensed with the pretense of anonymity) was prone to exaggerate the deficiencies of his adversaries.
But with a couple of honorable thieves like Tartin and Nascine taking charge of this case, Tarson took some consolation that his treatment would be practical and dispassionate. Certainly he would be questioned. They would offer him deals and Tarson knew that he would have to work hard not to betray the House. But until this sabotage, he had been an exemplary Agent. He was confident in his skills. He could very well be ejected from the House roster, such as it was, but he would not betray them. That would be foolish and invite a bullet to the back of the head, but oddly, Tarson felt that this was not his primary motivation. The truth of the matter was that he was proud of his work. The House was the thing. It was the single greatest endeavor in the history of the world. When the shock of his discovery had worn off, he was sure that he would mourn his fall from grace, but if called for, he would give his life for the House.
Tarson was led to the car. His driver, a man in his late 30s, he guessed, was wearing a charcoal suit. The driver glanced at the man who would be riding shotgun, who seemed a bit younger. The glance looked nervous.
Yes, you lucky guys get to transport the big bad House Agent.
The submachine gun made a visible bulge in the second man’s jacket. It was some comfort to know that this gun was probably meant to protect Tarson, rather than kill him, at least as long as he didn’t try to run.
The car was unmarked, though anyone looking closely would be able to guess that the black vehicle was enforcement. But then, most people didn’t.
So much of his craft was based on the idea that people generally didn’t think much of what they saw. In another life, it seemed, he had simply put on a jumpsuit – not with any patches or labels or anything, just a dark blue jumpsuit, taken a ladder and gone up and removed the fuses from a traffic light in Entraht. No one stopped him. The drivers simply adjusted to the malfunctioning municipal equipment. He hadn’t even been sure that the House needed to slow traffic in that intersection. He suspected Six Coins had just wanted to demonstrate a principle, as this was very early in Four Eyes’ service.
Had Tarson been looking at the newspaper on the stand next to where their car had stopped rather than the rather attractive, somewhat androgynous woman selling coffee from the stand, he would have seen the following headline:
“RAS Councilman Dead in Traffic Accident” with Six Coins’ face half-visible above the fold.
What he did notice, however, was that the identical black car in front of them turned right. The car that he was in turned left and then the identical black car behind them turned right.
He watched the other cars disappear around a corner. Perhaps this was not so surprising. Transporting a House Agent, the Rookery surely would expect someone to be watching. Putting him in the middle car was sort of the obvious choice, but he had to go somewhere. He was unaware of who would be watching him – probably no one he had ever met – but he was certain someone was, or at least was trying to do so.
He wondered if he would ever be in the loop again. Probably not. Not much use for a captured spy after all, at least not much use for his friends. The Rookery would treat him like he was worth his weight in gold. There was something vaguely delightful about that, though again that was perhaps just a consolation.
His downfall had been engineered. He was certain now that the message: “there’s a hole dug up in Murleg’s Bog” had been sent not by an ally but by an enemy. They had discovered the location of Thatch’s body and relocated it in a place where…
How could they have known that Tartin and Nascine would be there?
The world was a strange place, with magic, gods, and demons walking the land. But ultimately, even the most powerful beings were just individuals, making their way in a universe that cared only that everyone follow physical laws – whether they be mundane or arcane. Tarson did not believe in fate, and he did not believe that some greater force had put Tartin and Nascine in that house to punish him for his sins.
Thus he believed there to be two possibilities:
The first was dumb luck. Coincidences happen, and on a long enough timeline, every possible scenario will eventually occur. But that was not satisfying. Tartin and Nascine had come there independently, so that made it even more unlikely.
The second possibility was that their arrival, just like his own, had been choreographed by his enemy. Every trick, every miraculous feat of coordination between anonymous parties that the House was known for - the enemy would be capable of that as well.
What troubled him was that if they had been able to pull this off against him, they were clearly winning.
They were taking a tunnel south. The R4, it looked like. Tarson admonished himself for letting his attention drop. The tunnel was brightly lit with electric light, taking them south through the tall hills at the edge of Ravenfort.
Tarson’s hands were cuffed to a faux-leather loop in the back of the car. The loop was attached by a chain to the frame of the car.
Hope we don’t get into an accident, Tarson thought, bitterly.
They emerged from the tunnel into a torrent of rain. They were traveling at highway speeds now, and the windshield wipers beat back and forth, their metronomic rhythm providing accompaniment to the rain.
They hadn’t told Tarson which prison he would be staying in, but he suspected it would be Hexley, a small, secure facility that specialized in keeping magically-capable prisoners. Aside from a handful of tricks, he didn’t really consider himself an arcanist, but Tarson supposed it would be the most secure facility.
And they may have been thinking about keeping people out just as much as they were thinking of keeping him in.
He had driven this road countless times, but there was something profoundly different about driving down a road versus riding in the back seat with ones hands cuffed to a faux-leather loop.
It would be hours until they got there, but Tarson resolved not to fall asleep. He would sleep once he was in his cell, where there was relative safety.
After an hour, the driver exited the highway, turning down Hemwick Road, which led into a dense forest and presumably to a place called Hemwick, which Tarson had never heard of.
“Where are you going, Chambers?” asked the man riding shotgun.
“We’re transferring the prisoner to another vehicle outside of Hemwick.”
“I wasn’t briefed on a vehicle transfer.”
“It was need-to-know. Consider this your briefing, Rykes.”
Tarson’s heart began to pound. Chambers was selling it decently, perhaps enough to fool a glorified cop, But Tarson could see the subtle signs of nervousness, of deception. There was a slight quiver to the man’s eyebrow, and his hand was gripping the steering wheel just a little to tight. Something was about to go down.
He could say something, but how likely was it that Rykes would believe him?
And if you don’t tell him, you’re going to get murdered in the woods.
“The driver is planning to kill us,” said Tarson.
Almost instantly, Rykes turned back to him. “Shut the fuck up.”
“Listen, Rykes, is it? I can tell when someone is lying. The reason you weren’t briefed on this is because it’s not part of the plan.”
Now he turned around, and Tarson’s face exploded in pain as Ryke’s heavy fist connected with it.
Oh fuck you man, I was trying to save your life, Tarson bitterly thought to himself. Though to be fair, Ryke’s survival was secondary to his own. Tarson decided it was time to come up with an idea, and soon.
But they had only been on this road for minutes when they pulled onto an unpaved forest path. This was it. This was where they were going to do it.
He thought about how he could use the cuffs. Maybe he could get them around a neck? If he could get the submachine gun, that would be ideal. He tried to decide if Chambers looked like the type to hesitate. He wouldn’t gloat – he was far too nervous to gloat and frankly, most people preferred to get over with this sort of thing as quickly as they could, but sometimes they would hesitate if they weren’t sure they were up to it. Tarson prayed that Chambers was the sort of person that pulled an adhesive bandage off slowly and gradually. If he was quick and efficient it would make escape practically impossible.
They came to a stop.
The road had come to an end in front of a tiny barn made of corrugated steel. There was another car there, a grey sedan. There were three men standing next to it. Two were in black masks to match the rest of their clothes, openly carrying submachine guns. The third was a very tall man who was mostly bald and bespectacled, wearing a grey suit and smoking what looked like a blackroot cigarette.
“Ok, let me talk to him,” said Chambers.
The driver got out of the car and walked up to the man smoking the cigarette. Tarson could only just hear what they were saying.
“Ok, I have him.”
“I can see that.”
The man took a drag. “Outside Damana.”
“That’s across the ocean.”
“She is there.”
“Ok, whatever. You’ll let her go now?”
“We need to confirm it’s him.”
Rykes had heard it too, and in an act of self-destructive anger, he was already pulling out his gun. Tarson cringed as he waited for the men in the black masks to open fire tearing the car and their bodies apart. “Chambers you piece of-“
There was a thunderous bang and the sound of shattering glass as the passenger window imploded and Rykes’s blood sprayed across the front seat of the car. There was a fourth man, also in a black mask, standing there with a pistol.
“Fuck!” yelled Chambers.
The man who had shot Rykes shaded his eyes and looked in the rear window at Taron. “Confirmed, it’s him,” said the man.
Tarson was so transfixed by Rykes’ blood gushing out of the exit wound in his head that he nearly had a heart attack when he heard the second shot. Now he looked up and saw Chambers’ lifeless body collapsing out of view.
How’s that plan coming, Four Eyes? asked his own cruelly sarcastic voice in his head.
The rear door on the driver’s side opened and a fifth man leaned over, brandishing a combat knife.
Tarson pulled away, squirming, his mind howling with animal terror. The knife sliced through the faux-leather loop and he popped free. He wriggled over onto the front seat and thrust himself out through the still-open car door. He hit the muddy ground on his back and attempted to roll himself into a position where he could stand.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Chambers’ dead eyes staring at him. A white-hot streak of panic shot through his consciousness. He got one knee under himself and pushed up.
Only for everything to go dark.
For a moment he thought he was dead, but then he found that a membrane of thick cloth was entering his mouth each time he breathed in. He felt strong arms wrap around him, but he fought back, elbowing someone in what he imagined was the gut.
He tried to run, but then one of those strong arms pulled him down. He landed on his back, and the arms started to pull him by the wrists. His shoulders screamed in agony as he was dragged like an animal going to the slaughterhouse, his clothes totally soaked in mud and his breathing inhibited by the thick cloth of the bag they had put over his head.
Wet mud gave way to dry, cold and rough cement, and the faint light that made it through the bag was now gone. His pants were caught on the surface of the floor, and soon they were down around his ankles. The cement gave way to something smooth, like linoleum.
Then, the ground moved down. An elevator.
And then the sound of rain outside disappeared. They dragged him along smoother concrete and then they dropped him.
He heard their footsteps receding and then he could not hear them anymore.
Around him, there was only darkness. And there was silence like he had never heard before.
“Hello?” he said, a whisper he had intended as a shout.
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2017)