“I am fire…I am death!”
– Smaug the Dragon, from The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
i: The Weeping City
A fire the size of a mountain consumed the screaming population of the dream, as it swallowed them in every dream he dreamed.
They perished in an unholy agony, and the ashes left behind were the great cloud hanging over his waking life, too.
“I’m looking for someone,” Philip said through his muffling rain-suit, striving to be heard over the din of the storm.
“Who you lookin’ for?” The eyes watching him through the narrow slit in the metal door were uncompromising, unsympathetic, as if they were much accustomed to refusing the pleas of others.
“I’m looking for Vern.”
There was a pause. The eyes remained unperturbed, perhaps only growing harder. Rain sleeted down, slapping hard on the alley’s floor. Thunder cracked across the dome of the iron sky. “I can’t help you.”
The slit in the metal door slid shut with an angry hiss.
He stood there in the buffeting rain, frantic, uncertain of what to do. He knocked on the door. His fists fell with a disheartening flatness. He pounded harder on the metal. “Hello? Hello! Please, I need to talk to someone. Please.”
He waited and waited, but no answer came from behind the dark door. He stood before it a while longer, shaking in the cold, feeling his despair mounting. He was tired. He was so very tired but knew he wouldn’t sleep that night, if ever again.
Helpless to do anything more, he turned and slipped through the alley toward the labyrinth of the city streets beyond.
The 6th Precinct buzzed with an unusual amount of Monday chatter. Anxiety hung in the air like an electrical charge, fuelling a persistent preoccupation with the televised and online news, at whose centre lay their police force and its recent struggles. The ongoing investigation into the most inexplicable and difficult case in recent memory plagued the detectives and police officers, with seemingly no end in sight, so that the usual routine of processing collared prostitutes, small-time dealers and other, more dangerous offenders carried on while the gossip bug ran like contagion through the precinct.
Detective Kessel rubbed at her bloodshot eyes and turned away from the photographs of victims spread across her desk. She’d been examining them obsessively for hours, as though staring at them alone might wring some clue or truth from the case that had been mystifying her and her partner for the past five years. She clicked off her com-screen, which had been displaying a gallery of those self-same photos like some horrific reflection of the physical evidence at hand. She preferred hard copies, whose tangibility – whose realness – she felt closer to.
She guzzled the remainder of black coffee in her mug and stretched. She would pour herself another cup – her fourth that morning alone – and attack the evidence with clearer eyes. She stood and refilled her mug from the bare-bones coffee and donut station at the rear of the squad room. On her way back to her desk she took a moment to feed the House’s scat-sucker, something she only ever did out of sympathy because nobody else bothered.
She loathed the sight of the things. Every House had one on hand for interrogations deemed red level-significant, their necessity meaning they were kept readily accessible at all times so that they became fixtures of squad room décor, like fish in an aquarium, but hideous suspended in their cylindrical glass containers like immense amniotic fluid-filled test tubes.
“Here’s your disgusting breakfast, Gabrielle,” Kessel said, reaching a hand to the small circular opening on the top of the container and feeding a couple handfuls of powdered nutri-meal through the grill – the flakes stunk like shit and, nose wrinkled, she watched them pepper the surface of the water. The scat-sucker immediately swivelled its eyeless, corpulent pink- and grey-speckled body and sent a half dozen of its pudgy tendrils to slither among the food debris. Seeing the thing spasming in pleasure, and especially hearing the grotesque sucking sounds it made, caused Kessel to grimace and quickly return to her desk. She muttered, “I deserve a raise for being the only one around here brave enough to feed the damn thing.”
Her partner, Clark, watched her from across his cluttered desk adjacent to her own. He said nothing, just sat chewing pensively on a pen. The pouches under his eyes told of his own battle with insomnia since they’d been assigned the case. He closed his eyes, leaning forward with his elbows on the desk and his chin in his hands, but Kessel knew he wouldn’t be dozing.
The tinny voice of the radio, plagued with white noise from the bad weather and the weird electrical language of the Cloud, had ended its song block and had begun playing its thousandth re-airing of the daily news. Kessel tuned in.
“–but the drug has been on the Canadian underground market for a little over five years, and already its reputation has grown to mythical proportions among the general public. Its reported properties are unheard of in other psychotropic drugs, and sounds like the pseudo-scientific lore of pulp fiction stories. But the startling evidence in each of the known cases can’t be denied, and it’s been puzzling researchers since its first appearance.
“Its name is VERNTELLUS, stylized in most fringe literature and newspaper sources in all upper-case characters. The origin of its name is also unknown, although it’s believed that it may be a hybrid of the Norwegian word, vern, or ‘protection’, and the Latin word, tellus, or ‘earth’. The recent–”
Clark let out a long, slow breath, drawing Kessel’s attention. She broke in over the report. “Clark. You want me to shut it off?” She’d grabbed the remote from her desk and was aiming it toward the radio across the room.
Clark, eyes still closed, unmoving from his position, said, “Maybe we need to hear it again.”
Kessel didn’t know how serious he was. She frowned, worrying about her partner. He was taking the case personally, and letting it follow him off-duty. But then they all were. Andersen and Bester, and the Loot, too – and seeing one’s lieutenant overwhelmed by a case meant things had gotten real bad. And this on top of the usual insanity of living under the Cloud. She replaced the remote on her desk, wishing she knew what to say to make things better. Wishing she could finally get some insight into the mystery.
“–drug’s inherent danger lies in the promise it offers that no other drug available on the underground market can: escape in the truest sense of the word, mental and emotional and, some claim, physical. It’s said to be ingested in pill or capsule form, but its ingredients and sources of origin remain unknown. Evidence–”
Kessel looked from the radio speaker to Clark but he hadn’t budged. She knew he felt it like she did: helplessness. Because, quite literally, all leads pursued by the detectives over the months had led nowhere, and everyone knew it.
Clark’s relic Old World desk phone rang. Eyes still closed, he took it from its cradle, listened intently to the receiver pressed to his cauliflowered ear. He hung up. The radio’s voice was immense in the squad room.
“–even more distressing is the remarkable fact that the drug seems to be completely untraceable, because it’s never been physically confiscated. The party or parties responsible for the distribution of the drug remain unknown, a shadowy bogey-man continually eluding the best efforts of the police to–”
Clark opened his eyes and leaned back in his desk chair, his huge body making the chair’s frame squeal. He removed his sear gun from the holster on his hip and aimed it at the radio speaker. Kessel raised an eyebrow. She snagged the remote from her desk and quickly clicked the radio off in mid-sentence.
“Just in the nick of time,” she said. “One less casualty in this whole mess.” And that was just local news, she thought; thankful they’d missed the world news broadcast that preceded the local program, with all of its inevitable coverage of the escalating conflicts in the New Vietnam War and in the Middle East crisis, and of course the ongoing terrorist strikes plaguing the other side of the border.
Clark turned to her, lowering his gun. His expression was equal parts grave and sardonic. “Kessel. We got another one.” He shook his head and holstered his weapon. She felt the same despair in her heart that she saw in the gesture.
“Let’s go,” she said as stoically as she was able, grabbing her coat and rain-suit from the back of her chair and crossing the room toward the door. Clark followed, swinging from his chair with an ease that always impressed her, given his immense size. They donned the protective suits, waiting for the scoop-tube to arrive.
A moment later they were standing inside the rubber-walled tube, being zipped down to the street. Kessel said, “This makes an even two dozen reported Vern victims in the city.” And of course there would be countless numbers who would remain unreported, and forever unknown. And this was on top of nearly the same number of victims across the river in Detroit, which was suffering its own epidemic. It was disturbing in the truest sense of the word.
“It’s fucked,” said Clark as the scoop-tube came to a stop, and its door slid open for them. “But then what isn’t in this town these days?”
What no one knew – least of all Clark – was the degree to which it disturbed her. She hadn’t slept well in months and when she did her dreams were hounded by burning shadows moving inside the matrix of the dream-streets down which she drifted.
Together, they stepped into the rainy street.
The rain turned the reflections of streetlamps and police vehicle’s headlamps into grotesque, shape-shifting smears on the glistening cement. Overhead, the great Cloud stretched everywhere, its belly pulsing with weird green effulgence. The fact that the heavy precipitation fell from the Cloud made it potentially deadly, necessitating the use of the form-fitting bubble-umbrella rain-suits that had become standard issue for citizens.
Clark and Kessel crossed the small lot and climbed the rain-slick steps of the steel fire escape that led to the roof of the downtown transit terminal. They wove among the network of rusted gantries and lattices, their flashlights reflecting from the steel and brick and casting a wavering aura that penetrated into the hungry starless darkness beyond the building.
“I hate these Goddamned things,” Clark said, as his rain-suit scraped the rough brick of the wall hard enough to worry him. He paused to examine its durable plastic fabric and, relieved to see that it hadn’t been punctured, continued warily on his way, muttering under his breath.
Kessel didn’t comment, knowing it would only anger her partner further if she pointed out that his physical size was a major contributing factor to his problem navigating the narrow fire escape – Clark even had to have the House’s Science Division guys tailor-make his B-U to fit his huge, muscular frame.
They climbed onto the puddle-plagued rooftop, ducking beneath the crime scene tape cordoning off the area and passing through the milling police officers sweeping the southern side of the building. There they found the tell-tale signs of the drug-death: the scorched shadow of a person impressed into the wet shingles. The imprint curled upwards along the edge of the figure, and a stagnant burnt smell clung on the thick air, despite the wind. A forensics man was meticulously scraping along the periphery of the shadow with his tool in one hand, and plastic baggie in the other.
Clark stood staring at the shape outlined in the shingles, hands on his hips. “This is…insanity. What can do this?”
They stood together, staring at the unfathomable shadow scorched into the rooftop. It was the shape and outline of an adult human body, likely male judging from the build, spread-eagled near the roof’s edge.
“It’s like Hiroshima. It blasts them – burns them – right into the ground. Jesus fucking Christ. No matter how many times I see it I just can’t believe it.”
Kessel said, “It’s almost symbolic. Taking the drug here, on top of the transit building.”
Clark scoffed, spat into the rain. “Yeah, this poor asshole sure got transported to a better place. Goddamn fucking druggies. So desperate they believe every pile of bullshit their dealers feed them.”
Kessel said nothing, only stared at the ashen signature burned into the warped, shingled roof.
Beside them, as if in response to some dark-humoured and perfectly orchestrated cue, an immense city shuttle lifted upwards along the south side of the building from the airway below. Its roar of engines and tail-fire gusted a wind across the rooftop, sending bits of litter fluttering in all directions. Its smell of fire and fuel thickened the air.
The detectives watched it rise over the buildings, and sit on its cushion of fire a moment before orienting itself northwards and drifting across the thundering sky. The faces of passengers in the lit-up windows gawked impassively downwards at the rooftop commotion. The citizens were accustomed to scenes like this. It was one of the many inter-city shuttles taking passengers and freight across the river and into a variety of American townships beyond. The drug had found its way there, too. Their American counterparts had found no concrete evidence of the drug either, though they were reticent in sharing any progress they’d made in their own investigations. It was a rapidly growing embarrassment to the police forces of both cities, and had served to initiate an unspoken-of but growing rivalry – who would crack the case and discover the true properties of the drug.
It saddened Kessel the more she thought about it. She’d grown up with her grandfather’s exciting and virtuous tales of man’s conquering of the moon; her own parents, although never avid followers of such news, had lived through the interstellar breakthroughs of establishing the first U.S. colony there and manned expeditions reaching Mars. Any competition between nations then had been, at least so far as she could discern, for the greater fulfillment of mankind’s potential exploration and expansion among the stars. Now she was part of nothing more significant than a banal competition to solve a criminal case in what everyone around her believed revolved around nothing more than a drug inadvertently leading to violent suicide.
And yet its purported properties spoke to the child in her, who’d grown up with these other, more altruistic missions of humanity. So her hope remained – if any of the drug’s supposed properties were real, wouldn’t that make its discovery and usage the same altruistic goal? Possibly even more important, something the science of today might use to leap forward for the betterment of all?
The wind picked up. Rain continued to lash the city, unleashing the chemical stink seeped into its concrete buildings and garbage-filled alleys, stirring it from the depths of the deadly, polluted river.
Kessel squinted into the sombre sky. “The radio said this rainfall’s a record. There hasn’t been a storm like this in this area, ever. It’s been over a week straight of this. They’re saying it’s likely a result of the Cloud.”
The radio had described the hundreds of rats seen floating in the parks along the riverfront, drowned out of the sewers, as well as a homeless man who’d sought refuge from the cold and rain among the underground network of sewers and drain pipes. The man hadn’t owned a B-U, so his long-term exposure to the elements would likely have caused him irreparable harm besides.
“I saw a drowned dog a couple days ago,” she added, recalling its bloated look, as if it were close to bursting open and disgorging its bellyful of dirty sewage water.
“The city needs a good rain. Maybe it’ll clean up some of the filth out there, even if the rain’s as dangerous as they say.” Clark’s voice was tired. The dark grey pouches under his eyes had become more pronounced, corroborating the evidence of his sagging posture.
“It would take a million-year rain for that to happen, Clark. But I appreciate the sentiment.”
“Maybe someone’s trying to cleanse us,” he said, his voice deadpan with irony.
“Yes, maybe they are,” Kessel said, watching the rain.
“Good luck with that job,” Clark said.
A fresh-faced police officer walked up beside them, his eyes eager behind the mask of his B-U suit. “Vern’s back again, huh?” he said, his eyes held by the signature burned into the roof.
Clark muttered, “Vern’s here to stay, unless we crack this insanity. It’s a fuckin’ drugocalypse out here.” He looked at Kessel, added, “Some smart-ass reporter should use that, make himself famous for being so clever.”
He shoved off through the other loitering officers, shaking his head. Kessel looked after him, saw his burly outline a moment against the sheeting rainfall before he descended out of sight along the fire escape.
When she turned back to the shadow-form in the rooftop she wasn’t only uncertain of what she saw there, but also of how it made her feel.
The dive bar was dimly lit and sparsely populated. Customers – mostly a handful of loners tucked into shadowy booths or seated at the bar with their heads turned down in studied examination of their drinks in front of them – didn’t look his way. Philip sipped his beer at the bar, waiting for the bartender to catch his eye. When the man sidled a little closer to where he sat on his stool to scratch at a small notepad with a pen, Philip cleared his throat.
“Excuse me. Uh…Is…Is Vern here?”
The bartender turned away to wipe the countertop with a rag he grabbed from somewhere beneath the bar. His hand, Philip saw, was mechanized; an ancient model, a relic with its tell-tale unnaturally spasmodic movements. Most people would have upgraded years ago – those who didn’t in this day and age either couldn’t afford the newer models, or else weren’t allowed to make the upgrade. Maybe the man had served time and was thus prohibited from anything other than the most Old World tech-integration. He wondered vaguely whether the limb was a result of some accident, or the more likely possibility of cancer, the city’s most tenacious illness. Maybe it was even a product of the new breed of illness, the super-Diseases that had made their appearance not long after the calamity across the river had sent forth the Cloud to engulf both their city and its city of origin, Detroit.
Philip had actually seen one of them, once, and that brief glimpse had changed him: to know that he lived in a world where such nightmares had been made flesh – possibly been created, by men like himself – this thought had validated the need that already consumed him, to exit the city and the greater, darker world of which it was a tiny insignificant mote. He remembered it now, and shuddered: looking out across the parking lot from his sixth-floor balcony one humid summer night, staring beyond its boundary at the monotony of cars and shuttles traveling into and from the Core, when a movement closer to him drew his attention. Looking down and seeing it, directly below his aerie, moving furtively and with great deliberation close to the face of the brick building: a lurching grey shape the size of a large dog, scuttling on its cluster of legs, a small mushroom-like appendage that may have been its head nearly lost amid the horrid bouquet of limbs like gnarled branches sprouting from its top side.
And then it was gone, disappeared from his sight somewhere below, though its predatory posture and movement had haunted him all that night and many after. He’d retreated indoors, closing and locking the balcony screen door and the heavier glass door, though he doubted either could stop the thing he’d glimpsed hunting in the nocturnal city. He’d gotten as far as picking up the telephone with a mind to reporting the sighting to the police, wondering how he’d explain what he’d seen and how that would sound. This was at a time when such things were only beginning to be reported, and existed more in the realms of pseudo-science and conspiracy theory than reality. So he chose to hang up the phone and suffer the first of several sleepless nights while imagining many-legged things crawling across his ceiling directly over him trembling in his bed.
He shook his head, annoyed at his wandering thoughts. He took a sip of his beer, and then a bigger gulp, before replacing the glass on the bar-top. He eyed the bartender again, gathering his resolve.
“Sir? Excuse me?”
The bartender continued wiping, engrossed in his work with his hand’s subtly herky-jerky rhythm. His heavily pockmarked face betrayed no emotion. His silver hair, tied back in a long greasy ponytail, glistened in the dim orange overhead lights. The man closest to Philip at the bar, and within earshot, slipped from his stool and drifted toward the bathroom to the rear of the room.
Philip stole himself, thinking of his great need, and the immeasurable pain with which he lived every day and that followed him into dreams. He said, “I need to see Vern. Please.”
The bartender looked up. His eyes lingered a second on Philip’s haggard face, seeming to absorb the sight of his bloodshot eyes, the dark pouches beneath them. “Nobody by that name hangs around here. Sorry.”
“I was told I could find him here,” Philip said quickly, excited to have initiated conversation with the reticent man. “And that I might be able to learn where to find the Saint.”
The bartender eyed him coldly. “You were informed wrong.”
“Please, sir, I –”
“This is a rough area. I got a direct line to the cops here.” He pointed to the old-fashion rotary phone hanging on the wall behind the bar, another relic from a bygone era. “I don’t know anyone by that name but you keep askin’, and I start dialin’. I’m a retired Blue-shirt myself. The only reason I ain’t called you in just for askin’ for Vernsy is because I don’t believe in no justice out there no more, so I don’t give that much of a shit either way. But don’t push me. Drink your beer, then get out. Or just get out.”
Philip turned away, stunned, and looked back into his glass. He lifted it to his lips and guzzled the remainder of his beer, tasting nothing, then eased from his stool and hurried through the murky tavern to its side door that let out into the narrow alley.
In the adjacent street he watched a streetdroid drift past, doing its best to suck up the wet mulchy detritus lining the gutters. Its dull, graffiti-spattered hull made him depressed. He thought of its programmed, forlorn circuit of the downtown Core, the people it passed, the garbage it ate in the wee hours when pedestrian traffic was lowest, but for the lost city denizens like himself. It drifted out of view behind a building, the laboured wheezing of its engine lingering on the wet air.
Feeling utterly defeated, Philip turned from the street and, pulling up his collar and fastening the seals of his old B-U suit, slipped down the alley, merging once again with the wall of rain lashing down from the pulsing, iron sky.
He looked up from the newspaper. A teenage girl, no more than sixteen years old, was smiling nervously down at him from where she stood beside his table. Her dyed platinum hair framed a narrow face. She wore a small skirt, navy stockings, army boots, and a worn leather jacket opened to reveal a Deathray Bradburys t-shirt and a very small pair of breasts. The B-U suit she clutched crumpled in her hands was dripping – evidently she’d been out in the rain for some time. A stale smell, of wet soiled clothes, drifted from her, though her clothes were dry.
“Yes?” Philip said.
“I was wondering – and feel free to tell me to get lost – if I could sit with you, and maybe have your leftover fries?”
She was looking now at his plate, which he’d pushed to the edge of the table for the waitress to pick up. There was a handful of French fries soggy with ketchup, and a small corner of halibut he’d been too full of beer to finish.
“Sure,” he said. “Of course. Help yourself.”
The girl popped herself into the booth across from him. “Thanks.” She began plucking fries from the plate, eating them quickly. He felt awkward, not sure whether to continue reading the newspaper in front of him or talk to the girl. She made the choice for him.
“So what’s your deal?” she said. “I’ve seen you around a few times. Here at the diner, and walking around downtown. You seem like a loner.” She watched him with a candid expression, then added quickly, “That’s cool, though. I’m one too. A loner. As you might be able to tell.”
Philip nodded. “Yes, I am actually. Always have been. I, uh, guess I prefer it that way. How about yourself?”
“Yeah, same here,” the girl said. She’d finished the fries, and was eyeing his half-full glass of cola. He pushed it across the table toward her and she thanked him with a pretty smile.
Watching her down the remaining pop, he said, “So what’s your story?”
“You first,” she said, returning the glass to the table. “You didn’t actually tell me.”
Philip said, “There’s not…There’s not much to say. Not much you’d want to hear, at least. Trust me on that.”
Maybe it was what he’d said or the way he’d said it, but the girl only nodded, accepting this as fact and persisted no more. She said, “Well, me, I’m what they call a teenage runaway. Yup. It’s true. You’re looking at the real deal. A genuine couch-surfing runaway and high school dropout trying to stay away from her fucked-up home – well, ex-home, I guess – and survive until something…better comes along? Something like that? That’s the abbreviated story.”
“What…do you do for money?” He steeled himself, hoping he wasn’t about to meet his first-ever child prostitute. The city was filled with them, human and half-mech both. One could see them every night strutting the downtown’s west-side corners and side streets. The squalid residential areas tucked into the downtown Core’s bosom like cancerous pods were the worst for it. He tensed, feeling the awakening murmur inside of him, the voice of that great furious cleanser of the sullied whom he was trying so desperately to put to sleep forever. Vernsy, where are you?
“I steal when I have to. Pick pockets, pick purses. I broke into some car and shuttle meters before. Usually I freeboot.”
Philip’s relief showed as he unclenched his fingers from where they rested on the tabletop. He saw that she noticed, and was watching his hands with a raised eyebrow.
He said, as nonchalantly as he could manage, “I’m not familiar with the term? Freeboot?” It put him in mind of the pulp stories that he’d read as a boy, featuring the mercenaries of ancient days or of fictionalized future times, making hazardous livings thieving and fighting in the service of rebel armies. Picturing the skinny girl in this role was amusing, but somehow not altogether incomprehensible.
She said, “I jack into computers, steal files, run codes for people who aren’t supposed to have that kind of access. Stuff like that.”
“Where did you learn that skill?”
The girl shrugged dismissively. “My parents are tech designers. Software, hardware. I grew up around that stuff.”
Philip said, “So your parents have done really well for themselves.” He was taken aback – his notion of runaways had always led him to believe they more often than not came from an economically destitute background.
She caught his meaning. “Money’s not everything, as they say.” She scratched a congealed ball of ketchup from the tabletop with a dirty fingernail.
Philip, watching her closely, said, “You’re a smart girl.”
The girl said, “Yeah, I am. My name’s Donna, by the way.”
“Cool. Well, thanks for the fries, man. I’ll let you get back to your paper if you want.”
“No,” he said. “I’m done with it. I was just about to leave anyways.”
“I’ll walk with you?” she said.
Philip shrugged, nodded. As he was slipping his coat on the words came out. “What are you running from?”
Donna eyed him avidly a moment before firing back, “What are you running from?”
“Who said I’m running from anything?”
Donna said, “Your eyes say it.” She gave a disarmingly sympathetic smile, added, “I can tell.”
Philip said, “The same thing as you.” And then the thought occurred to him, and since he had nothing at all to lose from inquiring, he said, “Do you know where I can find VERNTELLUS?”
Donna’s reaction surprised him. “I’m not that good a freebooter. I’ve tried, lots of times, for a few different people. I’ve run codes, tracked dealers. But no luck.”
“Did you – do you – want to meet Vern yourself? Is that why…”
She eyed him queerly. “I don’t want to die, if that’s what you mean. I…I used to want to, but then I ran away. And now it isn’t so bad. It’s not good either, but it’s better. So…I’m not sure I need to see Vern, if he’s going to kill me.”
“What if you knew he wasn’t going to kill you? And that everything you’d ever heard about him was true?”
She watched him evenly, then shrugged and turned to step into the legs of her B-U suit.
He was stunned enough by this personal admission, surprised that a young girl he’d chanced to meet like this was so familiar with the drug at all. But he was completely unprepared for Donna suddenly and without warning bursting into tears. She cried quietly, head bowed before him as she struggled with the rain-repelling suit.
“It’s…It’s okay,” he said, uncertain what else to say or do.
“No,” she said. “It isn’t.”
“No,” he said. “It’s not.”
They stood this way, Donna crying and Philip standing over her and trying to protect her from the eyes of the handful of late-night patrons in the diner. A couple seated at a nearby booth, though, noticed, and were eying him suspiciously.
The woman called toward them, “Is everything okay there?”
“Yes, we’re…we’re fine,” Philip said awkwardly. The woman’s authoritative tone unnerved him. Her voice was husky and deep, vaguely masculine. Her eyes were hard, unafraid. Challenging.
The woman looked at Donna. In a softer voice, she said, “Are you okay, honey?”
“Are you sure? You can tell us.”
Philip was sweating beneath the scrutiny of the man – his grizzled features and hard eyes frightened him nearly as much as the woman’s accusatory tone. He was a big one too, broad in the shoulders and with hands like battering rams resting on the tabletop, both of which gleamed dull silver: mech-hands.
Donna nodded again, more emphatically this time.
“Okay, sugar,” said the woman. “You take care now, okay?” Turning to Philip she said, with as severe a tone as before, “You take care now too, sir.”
“Thank you,” Philip managed, looking to Donna expectantly. She wiped her nose with the back of her coat sleeve, and nodded once, as if signalling that she was prepared to leave.
He led the way to the exit, held the door for her as she pulled the hood of her suit over herself, the whole while feeling the burning gaze of the couple watching him. They slipped into the raining night.
The tires of the cars driving past made loud hissing sounds on the cement. They saw half a dozen drowned rats floating in the gutters, bobbing in the rushing brown-watered current washing into the sewer grates and into the subterranean darkness beneath the streets. The night was continually pierced by thunder murmuring, its voice shuddering within the concrete under their feet and the buildings surrounding them. The sky pulsed its angry green, here, there.
As they walked Philip felt only a brief twinge of warning, as he’d felt earlier while in the diner when he’d managed to quell its presence inside him. Maybe the catalyst had been all their talk of running away from bad things, or perhaps the inquisition-like questioning by the woman and her silent, brooding male partner. In any case he failed now to stifle the thing from where it stirred in his heart. And Philip was displaced, and it was awake inside him again, owning the shell of him completely.
The king fire-bringer was awoken and hungry for cleansing, and the spreading of the fire into every place of sullied innocence there was.
Ten seconds later he was straddling the smart and pretty and terrified teenage runaway, choking her life from her narrowing windpipe and taking her away from all of this. He’d yanked her violently into an alley they were passing and delivered her a vicious and unexpected close-fisted punch in the mouth. And now he was taking her away from all of this. He was giving her the gift of taking her away from all of this. He was telling her one chapter of his story as he took her away from all of this.
“She’s not even mad, Donna,” he said between gritted teeth. “She’s not even angry and doesn’t hate me for what I did. She’s just…with me. Always. Every second of every day. I wake up in the morning and she’s curled up beside me, like I was her dad. She looks at me. She looks at me. I think maybe she just wants what I want. I need the drug, Donna. I need it for her. Do you understand? It’s the only thing I can give her. Until then, what else is there to do but give you what you deserve, too, the only way I can give it to you? I can take you away from all of this, too.”
He saw the ghost-girl staring up at him through the eyes of the dying girl in his hands. He squeezed tighter, feeling Donna’s windpipe bend beneath his dragon-strength. Foamy drool was gathering at the corners of her mouth, her eyes were bulging and filled with terror or delight, he couldn’t decide which and it didn’t matter. Alive or dead he would carry her off and cleanse her in fire the way an innocent girl like she deserved.
Philip chanced to catch sight of a flurry of movement in his peripheral vision; he turned and watched the fight breaking out among the youthful bar-goers on the midnight sidewalk directly at the alley’s mouth thirty feet away; heard their drunken violent words cursing each other as faggots and mechfuckers and cocksuckers; heard the meaty sound of their fists committing violence on each other’s faces; saw their blood streaking their faces and clothes and the sidewalk on which they fell, rolled, struggled with one another; saw one of the men’s arms, exposed through the torn sleeve of his rain-suit, glinting a brilliant silver: a state of the art mech-limb, affordable only to the elitist of the elite. These young men rich from their family’s fortunes, and bored and aggressive and foolish enough to incite bloodshed for fun.
It might have been the blood that drew him out of his own blood-spell. He recoiled from the sight of it, recognising the malicious place it came from, and collapsed backwards from the prostrate girl. When he looked at her then he saw only her innocence, and the terror in her eyes. Her dark, bruised throat behind the crumpled rain-suit appalled him, and the lingering memory of his physical contact with her on his burning hands made him feel sick. Nauseous, he turned away and tore open the mask of his rain-suit just in time: he vomited violently into the garbage and weeds bursting up through cracks in the concrete. His vision swam chaotically, his ears rang with the river of his blood pounding through his angry veins, and with the shouts of the young fighting men on the street, and with the laboured, wheezing breathing of Donna beside him.
He watched her and through his tears saw her sitting up, blood on her mouth, coughing phlegm inside of her suit, watching him with those moon-sized eyes of fear.
“I’m sorry, Donna,” he said. “This isn’t the way I’m supposed to help you. I’m so sorry. You don’t know how sorry. But I’m going to be better. I promise you that. And then I’ll help us both. I’ll find you, and I’ll help us both.”
Miraculously, Donna, staring at him with wide eyes, gulping air hungrily, crying, gave him a gift: she nodded, easing the shame in his heart, and confirming that he’d been correct about her, that they were alike in a very profound way. They were members of the same tribe. He wept, and stood on violently shaking legs to stagger down the alley, deeper into the darkness where – for now, until he redeemed himself – he belonged.
At least the girl was still alive after having met the dragon that slept inside his heart. This was the only thing Philip could feel good about, though it was a small consolation. The promise he’d given Donna gave him the strength to renew his search for the Saint, and ask of him what so many others asked, but only few ever received.
Occasionally the city coughed up a sliver of good fortune.
It was pure luck that Donna, stumbling down the sidewalk without looking where she was going, collided with the woman outside of the pawn shop on the street’s corner a few blocks down from the diner.
She couldn’t see clearly through her tears and the rain-smeared shield of her B-U suit but recognized the voice of the woman from the diner. “Hey, slow down. You’re okay.” Her hands on Donna’s shoulders were unyielding but somehow motherly. Donna relinquished herself to her emotions and, wrapping her arms around the woman, wept with abandon.
The smack of rain pelting down hard on the cement was loud in her ears.
“It’s okay, sugar,” said the woman, louder than the rain. “We’ll go someplace warm and out of the storm, and you can tell me all about it, okay?”
Donna nodded, blinking her eyes hard, wishing she could properly wipe her tears away but unable because of her cumbersome B-U suit. Taking the woman’s offered hand, they hurried off together through the downpour.
As they walked, the woman said, “What’s your name, honey?”
“Nice to meet you again, Donna. I remember you from earlier tonight, at the diner. My name’s Johanna.”
Another sketchy trash bar, another fruitless conversation with a reticent bartender.
Philip crouched in his lonely booth, sucking on his bottle of piss-tasting beer and wondering what to do, when a woman slid into the booth beside him. The old leather cushions wheezed beneath her supple buttocks. The open neckline of her dress showed off her huge breasts. Her narrowed eyes were conspiratorial as she leaned into him.
She said, “I overheard you earlier. You want to see V? I know where he is. And I know where the Saint is.”
Her smile was suspicious but Philip, of course, had nothing else in his bleak world to which he might cling. He smiled back, uncertain but hopeful.
“You do? Please, I’ll do anything if you– ”
“Information, of course, costs,” she said, her desirable smile never once leaving her face.
“Of course,” he said. “Of course.”
She laughed. “You know, you’re kind of sexy, in a weird sort of way. It’ll cost you a little more but we could go upstairs. Ronnie’s got rooms for rent? Real cheap? I’ve been serviced and re-fitted…”
He’d heard of mech-upgraded prostitutes but never thought he’d meet one, let alone be propositioned by one. His initial curiosity about her mechanized sex grew quickly to a deep revulsion toward the world at large, and the ways of that world he was frighteningly familiar with.
You wouldn’t want me like that – dragons eat stupid worthless cunt-whores like you for lunch. We eat them then spit you out and burn you up with our fire and then devour your burning shitty fucking remains all over again. There’s no other way to cleanse a whore.
He thought these thoughts but, holding on to the remaining shreds of decency in himself, politely refused her advances. “Thank you, but I really can’t. I’m just…I’m all fucked up. That’s why I need to…to see Vern. To meet with the Saint as soon as possible. You understand?”
“What’s your name?” she said.
“Ain’t I hot enough for you, Phil?” she said teasingly.
I could burn you to shitty dirty smoking fucking bits: that would be the only way to clean up someone like you.
“You’re very attractive, yes.”
“Yes I am, Phil. It’s gonna cost you double for saying no to Mary-Ann MacTavish. I’m pretty damn famous in this part of the Core. Double, and a Harry Chinger waiting for me when I get back from polishing my chrome.” She laughed her practiced laugh, and excused herself, taking her time crossing the smoky-aired room for the restroom.
When she returned to the table ten minutes later, she found an elastic-bound wad of bills resting on the cushion where she’d sat and the illegal vodka-lizard blood cocktail she’d requested waiting on the table.
“Is this enough?” Philip said, knowing that it was. It was a good chunk of his meagre savings, but she was a common whore, after all.
“Enough for me,” she said mysteriously and, tucking the wad of bills into her small leather purse, raised her glass to her lips. She watched him steadily as she drained its contents in several efficient gulps. Replacing the glass on the table, she stood without a word and led him through the bar to the rear door. Once outside she continued wordlessly across the small parking lot, and then down a dark street, past rows of sleeping brownstone tenements. She wasn’t wearing a rain-suit, but then most prostitutes didn’t bother with them – they ruined their sex-appeal, and the average whore didn’t give too much thought to her health or future. Turning down an alley, she led them to the rear lot of a squat, unmarked building. She motioned to a brown metal door. “That door. In the early morning. Be here. Because it’ll be a different door the next day. It’s never the same door twice.”
He nodded, staring at the door, eager and afraid.
She left him there with, “You’ll never know what you missed,” and a coy smile he found both repulsive and strangely inviting. He watched her saunter off down the alley, the clacking of her heels sending sharp echoes rebounding from the surrounding walls. He imagined he saw a halo of fire encircling the whore, but when he blinked it was gone, and only the whore remained.
He had nowhere to go – home no longer felt like home to him – so he curled up alongside the opposite building, among the stiff weeds and wet newspaper pages stirring in the wind, preparing to wait out another endless night. Above him, he watched as a rat nimbly crossed the length of a sagging cable strung between the buildings, like a trapeze artist with no hopeful destination at all.
He was stumbling through the choking smoke. His eyes watered, his breath laboured as he sucked in the burning air, the ashes.
Then he was parting the curtain of the smoke and he saw her: a young child of no more than five years, crying where she knelt on the concrete floor in the centre of a ring of fire. Seeing him, she screamed.
His dream-self felt a helpless anger like heat boiling inside himself.
He looked again and saw the girl and she was on fire.
“Smaug!” she wailed, pointing her little finger at him. “Smaug!”
It came from him, he realized – the fire spouted from his mouth in a geyser that enveloped the shrieking child.
Within seconds she was obliterated.
Her screams remained behind, haunting the air, haunting his cranium where they would reverberate infinitely long after he woke from the dream.
He stirred and through frost-crusted eyelids saw that a line had formed. Six people waited alongside the adjacent building, huddled close for shelter beneath the narrow, rusted overhang: the first clearly a prostitute, with the tell-tale furtive eyes and cocky posture of her trade, as if she were spotlighted on a runway and ignoring the jeers of a bellicose audience, despite her ragged outfit of shapeless grey jogging pants and old runners; the next a business man-type, dapper in his trench coat and polished leather dress shoes; then a small Asian woman in a faded purple winter coat, blonde-dyed hair obscuring her features; another streetwalker, this one made up like the gaudily-dressed whores in 1980s movies about big-city street gangs, in faux leather mini-skirt, bright red high-heels and lipstick to match; a teenaged boy with baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, hands shoved in the pockets of his tattered jeans, shuffling his booted feet anxiously in the cold air, he the only one among them without the protection of an umbrella-bubble; and finally, a bent old woman, in her mid-60s or older, her toque and scarf and mittens doing little to help the cold, barren look in her eyes as she stared fervently at the brown metal door before which they were lined up, as if willing it to open.
When Philip creaked to a standing posture and accidentally disturbed the lid of a garbage can, it was this little woman who turned at the noise and called to him in a wavering voice. “Don’t worry, sir. We know you were here first, camping out here overnight. You’re first in line.”
She received no argument from any of the others gathered there. Their sympathetic expressions baffled him. How had she – how had they all – known that he was here in this lonely A.M. alley to see the mythical Saint? That he wasn’t simply a homeless person – there were so many in the downtown Core – or a drunk sleeping off a long night at the bar? Was it something in his face, the same thing he saw clearly in each of their faces? Or merely his presence among them at such an early hour and in such a remote nook of the city?
“Thank you,” he said, straining his sleep-draggled, croaking voice to be heard over the wind.
He limped over to them, shaking from the cold that seemed to have seeped its way into the marrow of his bones. He took his place in line, stunned at this tangible proof that the Saint – and the myth of the escape he could provide – was real.
A warmth – a good and un-violent warmth – came over him, and helped to stave off the cold that had corrupted his body through the long, raining night.
The wait in the relentless rainfall was a long one, numbing Philip so that he’d nearly fallen asleep standing propped against the brick wall. The sound of the metal door creaking open jolted him to alertness.
He stared at the immense man outlined in its dark mouth, wearing a dark red suit jacket encrusted with glittering rhinestones that looked like it had been borrowed from some long-distant glam era. Philip saw from his jerky movements that he was a fakeman, and an older model. His face, though partially hidden in the gloomy interior of the building, betrayed the tell-tale un-human quality of a full-mech, somewhere between the unembellished features of a department store mannequin and a child’s vision of what a mechanized man should look like.
The fakeman looked down the alley in both directions before silently beckoning to Philip with a large, ring-festooned hand.
Philip followed him into the warm darkness, and the others filed in behind him. Then the door to the outside world closed and they were locked inside the kingdom of the Saint.
ii: Shadow Promises
“There was a riot at Pile Prison across the river yesterday.”
Kessel’s words hung heavy on the air of the squad room. Clark looked from the report on his desk. It was late. The House was empty but for them, and the scat-sucker gurgling moodily inside its tank.
“I heard. A dozen inmates died, and two guards. They got it cleared up fast though.”
“Do you know what started it?”
He eyed her, an anxious look in his face.
“One of the inmates – a death row man – claimed another prisoner had VERNTELLUS, and was holding back from sharing it with him.”
Outside, a departing pair of police cruisers filled the night with the cacophony of their sirens. It sounded somehow cataclysmic to the detectives staring wordlessly at each other across their desks.
“There was no one there. The building was empty.”
Clark’s voice was filled with awe. He and Kessel were sitting in the cruiser, examining the building alongside which they were parked.
Indeed, the entire warehouse had looked as though it had lain deserted for decades: the carpet of dust, thick and undisturbed; the abandoned crates and desks and chairs; the wooden floors collapsed from age in certain sections; its upper floors crumbling and home to nesting pigeons; the whole gutted look of the place, another husk deadening the rapidly declining downtown Core.
They’d pulled back the hoods of their rain-suits, and the metallic clamour of precipitation on the vehicle roof fell louder without the muting fabric. Clark rolled down the window, lit a cigarette and sucked on it hungrily, exhaling smoke into the night. “I don’t know who this Saint guy is, or how he just disappears completely from hideouts we get complete and total confirmation on, from multiple sources, no less. It just…I can’t figure it.”
“I don’t get it either, Clark. It makes no sense. It’s like he’s always just one step ahead of us. It’s been like this from the beginning.”
Kessel felt comforted knowing that the desperation so evident in her voice would be construed by her partner as stemming from her instinctually investigative nature. He would never guess her more personal desire – her need – to know the truth about the drug.
Clark understood something of the distress he heard in her voice though. “Johanna…” he said, and then only looked at her helplessly.
Kessel laughed. “You’ve never called me that, Clark. Stop it. I know things are dire when you start calling me by my first name.”
He chuckled too, retrieved his paper coffee cup from its holder under the dashboard radio, then tossed the nub of the cigarette into the street. “Sorry Kessel. I just…It just feels so…This whole case…” He gestured through the rain-washed windshield, taking in the dark street before them. “I’ve never seen anything like this. And I’ve been on the job a long time. Too long. But this is different. This is…I’m not sure I’ll ever figure it out. I’m not sure anyone can. The evidence is there in every burned outline of every druggie we find, but…what could do that? And all the claims about Vern actually taking users to…another place…”
He drifted off, shaking his head and looking helpless. “I just wish I could get my hands on the scumbag who first invented this shit, or who brought it over here from wherever it started.” He clamped his palms together with a loud ringing sound that startled Kessel in the close space of the car. Clark had been a boxer during his younger, pre-mech-upgrade years, and a top contender in the city’s welterweight division. More than a few collars had gone down hard and fast from those big scarred steel hands when resisting arrest on the streets. Something in the gesture of bravado now, though, saddened her. Maybe its futility in the face of whatever it truly was going on in the city. Maybe the helpless look of her partner huddled in the cruiser and unable to grapple this epic and elusive thing with those hands.
Kessel said nothing. She kept the fact to herself, that she felt some festering thing that she could only liken to familiarity – closeness – to this otherwise inexplicable, ongoing case.
Clark pulled her from her reverie.
She followed his line of vision. A figure was furtively vacating the building via the unmarked side exit and turning down the adjacent alley.
“Where the hell did he come from?” Kessel breathed. “We combed every inch of the place.”
“I guess we need a finer-toothed comb.”
They donned their rain-hoods and slipped into the rain, jogging down the alley after the man. They trailed him through the piss-smelling staircase of the parking garage, the echoes of his footsteps bouncing down the stairwell and helping to stifle their stealthy pursuit. A moment later and a metallic bang told them the suspect had exited through one of the heavy steel doors that gave access to a lot.
Peering through the glass window of the fourth-floor door, they saw the man approaching a car midway across the lot. He saw them though and, in panic, bolted for another stairwell on the opposite side of the floor. They raced in pursuit, and a moment later found the door leading onto the garage’s roof, broken and askew on its rusty hinges, banging in the wind.
They saw the man at the opposite end, near the edge. He seemed to be scrutinizing something in his hands by the orange light thrown by the rooftop lampposts.
“I got this,” Kessel said, padding ahead of Clark, her sear gun drawn on the man. “Don’t move! Put down the drug, now!”
The man’s eyes were frantic. He was crying. His hands shook violently.
“Sir,” Kessel said in as measured a voice as she could. “We know what you’re holding. Drop the drug and put your hands in the air. You don’t want to do this.”
The man stared at her, eyes astonished. “But I do. But I have to.”
He had his rain-hood thrown back, and Kessel could see the collar of his shirt beneath, the tie knotted at his throat. Lawyer or accountant or techware man, she thought.
“Sir,” she said. “Give me the drug.”
The man stood shaking, crying.
Clark’s hard whisper came in her ear. “Take out his leg if you have to. We need him alive to talk. And we’ll finally have hard evidence.”
The man raised his hand, trembling, as if with a great strain, toward his open mouth.
“Stop!” Kessel said, walking closer.
But she didn’t shoot her gun, and take out the man’s leg and save his life. She’d been trying to fathom what the man needed so badly to escape from that he was willing to swallow a drug with such unknown and instantly deadly properties. She was thinking of what it felt like to be so lost – so powerless to quell the pain inside of you – that this seemingly magical and dangerous drug called to you so loudly.
The man clamped his hand to his open mouth, and let himself fall backwards from the lip of the parking garage. The detectives watched his descent into the open air between the building on which they stood and the neighbouring warehouse, helpless.
Lightning flashed, radiation pulses pulsed, thunder boomed.
The detectives scuttled and splashed across the rain-drowned rooftop to the edge of the garage.
“You didn’t fire,” Clark said.
“No,” Kessel answered.
They were staring down into the chasm between buildings. The wind was circulating a large and dense cloud of ashes like dark confetti. The air around them was thick with it. Ashes floated everywhere, cindering particles that clung to their rain-slick B-U suits.
The wind soon dissipated the debris, but both detectives had seen it with their own eyes: among the chaos of ashes, the distinct burning outline of a man’s body silhouetted in the roiling raining air, making a slow, languid descent to stain the dismal alley darkness below like an effigy.
The room was black as pitch but for the cone of orange light spotlighting the imposing figure seated on its simple foldable steel chair, and the two fakemen guards standing silent sentinel on either side of him.
Philip, alone in the chamber while the other people waited in an adjacent anteroom for their own private audience, trembled.
“Are you the Saint?” he asked, knowing as he stared at the purple velvet-robed man reposing before him, that he of course was. The snow-white hair, combed back to reveal the high forehead, the glinting blue eyes like ice; the stoic, unperturbed expression beholding him as he prepared to tell his tale, make his request, grovel if he needed to – of course this was he.
“I have what you want,” the Saint said by way of answer.
“I don’t want it. I need it.”
The Saint watched him evenly, unmoved by Philip’s plaintive appeal. Certainly he heard the same from many others, Philip reasoned. The Saint said, “I’m not sure you understand…the nature of the thing you seek.”
“It…VERNTELLUS…provides an escape. I…need that.”
“What you fail to understand is this – VERNTELLUS, so far as anyone knows, physically removes you – erases you – from the here and now, and transports you, physically…elsewhere. This other place is completely unknown to us. No one knows for certain what happens to the user, namely where V takes a person, or what it does to them physically and mentally and psychically during the journey. Non-believers claim it’s suicide, which of course can be a virtue unto itself. Whether it would be an agonizing demise, none can say.”
“What do you believe?”
“I’ve never taken VERNTELLUS, have I? I’ve never taken it, though I value its permanent place on my person. But I’ve seen its effect. I’ve witnessed it many times. One moment the user is here, and the next, upon digesting it…they’re gone. There is no sound, no sound of pain, no evidence of death. Only an inexplicable light, and their shadows – their signatures – left behind to mark the last place they stood in the world.”
Hopeful, suddenly desperate to find some connection between himself and the Saint, Philip said, “Do you keep Vern on you, for yourself? Maybe if you did something like I did, so if the pain gets unbearable and you–”
“Don’t ever presume you know me,” the Saint said with quiet, measured fury. “Don’t ever do that, and I’ll give you the courtesy of not trying to figure you out either. The fact remains: the drug, as you erroneously call it, is in the truest, most unfathomable sense of the word, a gateway. To where we don’t know. It’s the hope in where it may lead that keeps me in business, and keeps men like you grovelling at my feet.”
Philip felt sick again. His knees shook, and his stomach lurched. He was so close and yet he remained helpless. He bit his quivering lip, watching the concrete floor in silence.
He ventured, “Where…does it come from?”
The Saint said, “I don’t know. No one knows where the gift of VERNTELLUS came from. One day no one knew of it, the next it was in the world, and labelled by the men who craved it and those who decried it as a drug, a term sorely inefficient in defining it. I’m but a causeway between here and where VERNTELLUS leads, wherever that may be.”
Philip nodded. He swallowed, found it difficult, his mouth was so dry.
The Saint said, “More practically speaking, are you able to afford VERNTELLUS?” He was looking Philip up and down with a close scrutiny that said he was accustomed to appraising men in exactly this way.
With great effort Philip straightened his shoulders and spoke with conviction. “Yes. I will have the money – any amount of money – for when I meet with you again.”
An amused twinkle shone in the man’s narrowed eyes. “Will you? Really?”
“Tell me how much and I’ll meet with you tomorrow.”
The Saint told him how much.
The price was very, very high.
iii: The Humanity Cure
“– latest attack from what witnesses claim was one of the so-called super-Diseases believed to have resulted from the Cloud and its atomic and experimental energy effects. The victim, 48-year-old Wallace Tremblay, has been taken to Downtown Metro Hospital where he’s receiving emergency mech-replacement surgery. Fortunately for Tremblay, the bites he received were restricted to a single area on his body – his right arm – making a mech-limb procedure a potentially much more successful one. Residents of the Core should take note: the assailant fled the scene when police arrived and has yet to be found. Officials have yet to confirm the identity of the attacker, but have said that he – or it, as many are arguing the case could be – should be considered extremely dangerous.
In other news, seven more local disappearances and/or deaths associated with the use of VERNTELLUS have been reported in the past twenty-four hours.
The remains of four of the victims were found in their homes, making identification somewhat easier. The remaining three individuals were discovered out of doors, including a homeless man, Ronald Durley, who was identified by witnesses who saw him taking VERNTELLUS in a vacant field abutting a supermarket. He was spoken of fondly by volunteers at the downtown mission and soup kitchen run out of the United Way church. The identities of the two remaining victims remain unknown, though based on examination of their signatures, police believe one was male and the other female.
Brian Dixon, Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University, believes the prevalence of VERNTELLUS is a sign of a much greater condition in society. “The rise in disappearances/deaths associated with the drug is reaching epidemic proportions. That says a lot about the mass psychology at work here, that so many people have turned to something that promises not only death via suicide, but a reputed tangible escape from the reality they know, an end –”
Clark clicked off the television set with dread in his heart.
He was sitting smoking a cigarette in his underwear, a glass of whiskey in his hand. The coffee table in front of him held the un-capped bottle of his morning anti-rad meds. He hadn’t taken this first of the day’s doses yet, though he knew he should so he could get the pill’s side-effects over and done with: the nausea and the vertigo and the shitting his guts out. This morning ritual that made him want to pulverize his alarm clock when it brayed at him at 5:00 billion A.M., and plunge back down into the solace of sleep, even though his sleep had been a troubled place for some time now.
He didn’t want to go to work today. For the first time in his life he believed he’d chosen the wrong profession. He should have worked harder at boxing, got a better trainer, someone who would have pushed him harder, challenged him to up his game and take on tougher fighters in the days leading up to his final fateful match against the all-mech that had almost killed him in his bid to make it to the coveted Moon Fighters League. At least in the ring he’d had opponents he could fight with his hands.
But he would go to work. He would go to work and do what good he could, like his partner always did. Kessel likely didn’t know how much he admired her dedication to the job, how often of late he’d looked to her persistence as inspiration to crawl out of his bed and enter the new day waiting outside his door, with all of its charred ghosts haunting the streets. The drug-dead, as well as the other ghosts he’d been seeing more and more, whatever they were – hallucinations? Visions? Products of his long-term exposure living under the chemical shadow of the Cloud? – those fleeting spectres hovering in alleys and against the faces of buildings, shimmering and coalescing into people and creatures and objects that were there one moment, until he blinked them away in the next.
Or were they real? He lived in a city that was home to rain that burned like fire, and atomically mutated fauna, and walking murdering super-Diseases (things couldn’t get any Goddamn worse and weirder than that, he figured), and a Cloud as big and unknowable as Judgment Day hanging over it all – were his ghosts any less real than the other horrors he saw every day?
It was nothing new, of course, but the thought never failed to boggle his mind, that the population of the city had risen so dramatically in the years since the Cloud had initially driven so many away that it now surpassed its pre-Cloud numbers. Increasing numbers of immigrants were coming to the city all the time – often illegally – seeking VERNELLUS, from places as removed from one another as Japan and the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Knowledge of the drug had spread to all corners of the globe and, given its alleged properties, attributed to it a mythical status that extended to enshroud the city itself. The result was that many saw its place of origin as a new Mecca, and made the pilgrimage to procure the drug, something that said a great deal about the radically diminishing quality of life all throughout the world.
He swallowed his remaining whiskey and refilled his glass by the light of the lightning-crossed, green-pulsing sky outside his apartment window. He had time for one more before facing the madness that had infected his city.
Philip stood in the rain-flooded alley, staring at the bag in his hands, with the pistol nestled inside. The bank was directly around the corner of the alley to the west. He was going to stride in as bold as a man could be and get as much money as he possibly could, and then lose himself in the maze of alleys and side streets and rooftops of the Core. He’d emptied his savings but needed more. He had no other option left to him. If it didn’t work out the way he planned, and bank security or the police or God Himself cornered him, well, he had the pistol in the bag to take himself out with. He feared death, but feared life more. He feared the dragon sleeping inside him and, so much more than this, he feared it waking again and razing another innocent from the wicked Earth.
He removed the pistol from the paper bag, afraid of its weight and the death it held inside its chambers. It was an Old World model he’d purchased illegally from a pawn shop owner several weeks before, their transaction taking place in a storeroom after hours. He knew nothing about guns and paid the man the sum he’d wanted, knowing that he very well might have been getting scammed. But desperation urged him, and he’d left the shop through its back door with the gun tucked inside of his jeans and a new determination in his heart: he was committed now. He’d gone this far, and was that much closer to securing his escape from the misery he lived with day in and day out. He sucked in a trembling breath, heedless of the rain drenching him where he’d left his rain-hood pulled back. He cleared his thoughts and was focused on the task at hand. Success in one form or another would be his, and that was that.
He stopped, heart smashing.
“Don’t move. I’m armed. Put the bag down and your hands in the air where I can see them.”
The voice carried loudly and clearly through the tumult of the rain smacking the pavement and the thunder murmuring in the clouds.
“I said: Put. Your. Hands. In. The. Air. Now!”
Helpless, thoughts reeling, thinking of a young girl turned to a blackened skeleton by the old dragon’s infernal breath, he dropped the bag and gun and raised his hands slowly on the air. He would never be free of the fire smouldering in his heart. It would burn him up from the inside. He felt tears welling in his eyes.
“I’ve been following you tonight.”
He’d heard the unseen voice before, though he couldn’t place it. He stood motionless, teeth chattering in the icy air, the footsteps of his invisible assailant coming toward him. The tip of a gun pressed into the small of his back.
Her voice came loud in his ear. “I believe it, Philip. There is more than what you’ve known. There has to be. Here. Take it. Go away from here. But take her, too. If you really have good in your heart, then take her away from her memories, too, like you promised her.”
The small deadly pressure in his back was gone. He listened to the sound of footsteps receding quickly down the length of the alley. He turned, but there was no one there, only he and the rats and the rain. He saw the bundle sitting on the pavement. A dark, unmarked satchel. He lifted it in his quivering hands. It was heavy. He opened it and by the uncertain light of the single streetlight infiltrating the dark alley looked inside.
He stared and stared, no longer feeling the rain whipping down on him, unaware that for the first time in many years, he was smiling.
It was a different building – an abandoned automotive garage – but the same lost-eyed people milling at its back door. Philip had received the coded message that morning, with the location and meeting-time, and had rushed there to find several others already waiting.
A fakeman – different from any of the former fakemen he’d seen last time – appeared in the doorway, beckoning them inside with a silent gesture.
Twenty minutes later Philip was ushered into an area of the garage where another makeshift meeting room had been set up. A series of battery-powered industrial flashlights had been slung along a cable stretched the length of the garage, and illuminated the imperial figure of the purple-robed Saint seated on the rusty chassis of a derelict car, like a mechanical patient abandoned by its surgeons mid-operation. He was once again flanked by monstrous fakemen towering into the shadowy recesses, their telling eyes burning a cold blue in the gloom.
Philip had kept his appointment, and stood shuddering before them.
The Saint looked with undisguised surprise at the bundles of cash strewn on the floor before him, spilling from the opened mouth of the satchel. Still watching the money, he spoke to Philip waiting politely before him.
“This looks like a fairly sizeable sum you’ve brought me,” the Saint said, sounding as though he actually thought very little of it.
Philip said, “It was the most…I could get. I could get more…”
But of course he knew he couldn’t get any more. He’d lost what courage he’d had when preparing to rob the bank, and he could expect no more miraculous help from mysterious strangers.
When the Saint said nothing, Philip said, “The news this morning said they found a hooker V’d away. And recently there was a homeless man, an elderly homeless man. These people – they couldn’t have had any money at all, let alone enough to pay you the price you ask for Vern. Why did you help them?” He immediately regretted the accusatory tone in which he’d said it, but could do nothing about it now.
The Saint turned his penetrating gaze on him. “I may be a business man, but I’m also a compassionate man. When I see a need that runs so deep that it’s killing the very heart of the person begging me for my help, well…I may not be a saint, but I won’t turn away someone withering away with a pain that I know all too well myself. This is why all of my agents that you’ve seen here are mech-men.”
He gestured to the two stoic guards flanking him on either side – they loomed over Philip, eyeing him unwaveringly and without emotion, and he suddenly understood the truth in the Saint’s words about these mech-engineered men. “All my friends wished for a better place, and so I gave it to them. They were my friends. My family. They believed in a better place than here. I would have done anything for them.”
Philip stared at the Saint, taken aback, and awed. He said, “Then…Then you are a saint, truly.”
“I’m a man,” the Saint said. “I’ve tried to be a good one.”
Philip and the Saint watched one another without words. Rainfall beat a savage clatter onto the roof of the garage. Thunder pealed a booming din that echoed in the huge open space.
“And that brings us to this moment, doesn’t it?” said the Saint from his spartan throne. “There remains one final step for our transaction to take place. I need not reiterate to you that VERNTELLUS is an extremely valuable commodity, and so its scarcity is high, even to myself.” He paused, letting his words sink in, his eyes focused on the money before him. “The last time we spoke you’d told me that you needed it. Prove to me now your need of VERNTELLUS – truly, that you’re worthy of the salvation it brings – and it will be yours.”
He had rehearsed the words countless times. There was only way to tell the tale: truthfully, with every shred of beauty and ugliness the truth held.
Philip told him.
In exacting detail, he described where and how he’d saved each of the three people.
The first a young woman he’d known from his administrative job at the border control office. They’d gone on a few friendly lunch dates together and once, via email, she’d divulged to him the secret of her father’s abusive ways, her mother’s blind eye to crimes committed in her household. Eighteen years lived in secrecy and shame until she’d been old enough to escape the house as an adult embarking on a career path, at which point she realized that though escape from the house had been possible, any true escape was impossible because the demons to which she’d been exposed couldn’t be exorcised by physical distance and detachment.
Philip had gone to her straightaway, answering the awakened need in him to help her the only way he was able, and saved her by bludgeoning her into a better oblivion than the haunted life she’d known. He’d used a hammer he’d taken down from a peg in his garage and hidden in the sleeve of his winter coat, killing her mercifully with the first blow, but hitting her repeatedly in the skull to make certain she was gone. He’d wept throughout it, and long afterwards too, once she’d been buried in the moist soil beneath the viaduct with its railway line thirty feet above.
He told of the second, only two months following the first: a shrunken little elderly man who’d given him the kindness of his smile when Philip sat dejected on a bus stop seat following a long and tedious day of dealing with cold and angry people at the tunnel border station. Beginning with mere small talk, the old man confessed to him during the bus ride that his wife had been murdered earlier that year in a home burglary gone much too far, and that the criminal had yet to be caught, and that he missed her very much and couldn’t get used to her absence. Smiling his sad smile, he’d advised Philip that he should savour the time he had with the loved ones in his life, because one never knew when life would take them away forever. Something inside Philip ached at the pain he saw in the man’s gentle gaze, which he recognized as his own, and he’d known before the bus spit them out at their stop that he had to save him. Philip held the elderly man’s arm and helped him cross the street adjacent to the bus depot, and then dragged him behind the boarded-up convenience store to throttle the gentle life from his scrawny throat. Looking down on him, Philip had been glad to see the hint of a smile creasing the man’s weathered, wrinkled features. And then he cried for the man, who’d been made to suffer so, and he cried for the guilt eating away inside himself like a cancer. What right had he to judge who fled from this wicked life?
He then told of the third, and this was the most difficult to tell of, because she was the one true ghost that lived inside of himself: the young girl, whose name he’d never learned, but whom he’d been fated to find weeping in the rain inside the colourful tangles of a jungle gym only three weeks before while he’d been hurrying homeward following some errands. She’d been cradling a hardcover book to her chest – The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. An ancient book, a classic beloved by many, which he remembered having read for school when he was a boy. The school on whose property the playground was located was a hulking mass of brown brick in the distance, to which the girl pointed, crying, as she explained herself and the tears streaming from her eyes; she couldn’t tell her mother and father because they would never believe her, or worse still, they might blame her, about her teacher, Mr. Morris, and the things he’d been doing with her after school since before Christmas; the ever-jovial second grade teacher loved by staff and students alike, who’d started touching her in a way that had always felt wrong to her and that she’d hoped and prayed would stop if she wished for it hard enough. The child’s last words before she gave herself up to a renewed fit of sobbing would stay with Philip: I want Smaug to come and burn Mr. Morris up.
And Philip, imagining the life ahead for this poor damaged child, had acted without thought, but in acquiescence to the certainty of his heart’s command. And he delivered the child one terrific blow to the head that had killed her instantly, followed by several more blows to make certain she was passed away from evil forever. He waited there with her until dark fell, and then carried her in his arms across the field to the alley along which his backyard opened. He dug her a deep hole there, and placed her gently into it, and it was then, while tidying her wrinkled clothes so that she would look pretty in her internment, that he saw the scars: all across her forearms were deep scratches, some old and faded with time, but many new and bright red and deeply scabbed. He pictured this poor child marking herself like this, as he knew some people did in order to deal with great trauma, and his heart ached anew. And he’d went inside his garage to retrieve the blowtorch, with which he razed the scars and made the girl pure and virginal again. Philip may not have been able to conjure the storybook dragon of the child’s fantasy to destroy the acts of her torturer, but its fire could cleanse her body.
Each of these three people needed to be freed. The world was too dark a place to contain creatures so good, so fragile and ill-equipped to live in such savage times. And there were so many other good people suffering in the world who needed the salvation he could give them.
Philip’s voice echoed in the black garage.
“It wasn’t me that did those things. Physically, yes, it was me. My hands holding the hammer and blowtorch. My hands delivering the blows. But something got into me. It got deep inside, and took me over, and I want to be cured of it. It was the world that got inside me. I want to be cured of the world. I want to be cleansed of it. I need the drug. I’ll give you anything for it. I need to be freed.”
He finished his appeal: He“The world infected me. It’s inside me now. I almost took another just yesterday. I wanted to do it for the same reason I did it to the others – for good. To free her, from all of this. But I know that this isn’t the way to do it. There has to be a better way, and a better place. I need to leave, and go away to that place, where I can be better than I was, and the best I can be. I want to take this one with me, to make amends for the things I’ve done wrong before. I want her to be happy, and free of the memories that haunt her. I don’t need to be forgiven – I need to be freed, of the things I had to do, of the things I’ll have to do again if I keep on living in this cruel world.”
The dragon’s apocalyptic fire needs to be drowned, or the haunted and good people will burn again, and again, and again.
The Saint watched him a moment with emotionless eyes. A subtle whirring emanated from somewhere within his body and sounded loud in the stillness, as if gears and cogs were working hard to process the information received through Philip’s confession. He removed a small canister from somewhere inside his voluminous robes. Its silver skin shimmered in the sodium light. He twisted the canister with both hands, turning either end in opposing directions. A soft hissing sound issued from the cylinder as a small aperture opened in its hull. Philip saw where the Saint’s robe had fallen down the length of his forearm, glimpsed the glint of metal skin; an unsheathed mechanized arm. And he knew then that the Saint was a mechanized man – a fakeman; and he knew that the man himself had went away, for his own reasons, and left the gift of this simulacra behind to help in this world.
“It’s yours,” said the spirit of the Saint. “May it quiet your memories.”
Philip was unable to thank him through the ecstasy of his weeping sending emphatic echoes throughout the garage.
The late-night diner was reliably quiet.
Donna, ignored as always by the young cashier absorbed in her telephone conversation, sidled up beside the woman tapping away at her handheld computer. She waited politely until the woman noticed her.
“Yes? Can I help you?”
“Hi, miss,” she said. “Sorry to bother you. I was just wondering, if you don’t mind – and feel free to tell me to get lost – if I could maybe have your leftover sandwich bits on your plate.”
When the woman only eyed her in a combination of disbelief and disdain, Donna added, “I’m really hungry.”
The woman simply shrugged and went back to her computer.
Mean bitch, Donna thought, grabbing the remnants of the wrap from her plate and shuffling towards the rear of the diner. Out of habit she stopped beside the corkboard, eyeing the ads for part-time menial jobs and other, more sketchy communications. Something caught her eye. Her name, written in bright red marker on a small piece of paper torn from a larger page and half-obscured by a job posting for a dishwasher at a nearby Korean restaurant. She read the handwritten message beneath her name with surprise and fear and excitement and wonder. She read it again and again and again.
It made her feel special. No one had ever written her a letter before.
She touched the necklace of bruises encircling her throat, and without hesitation left the diner and slipped into the storming night streets. She was so bewitched by the spell of the letter that she didn’t notice the rain touching her bare face, her rain-hood flapping behind her as she hurried on her way.
This latest stakeout had turned out a wash.
They’d been watching the targeted building from their rooftop aerie for hours, but it had been quiet as the grave all night, its windows dark and sleeping. This fruitless vigil filled Clark with a steadily growing futility and despair – what was the point of this difficult job they did without respite or results? He grunted, settled into the siding-sheathed wall of the rooftop electrical shed against which he was leaning.
The rain had awoken a thick fog that rose around midnight and now hung like a great pall over the city everywhere they looked. Through its rolling tendrils the lights of the buildings and streetlamps were extinguished, or were blighted to dim embers fighting a useless effort to push back the darkness. Only the sky’s intermittent belches of green radiation filtered through vividly, amorphous, monstrous.
Clark shivered inside of his rain-suit. “It looks…spooky. Don’t it?” He watched the fog apprehensively, thinking of the spectre he’d seen only the night before while staring out across the city from his bedroom window: a weird, luminous red smoke in the shape of a bird that blew slowly on the wind, bewitching his eye; drifting to a place directly across from his window, and then plummeting straight down, as though it had weight to it, to hit the concrete of the street six floors below with a concussive thunder that trembled the walls around him.
It had taken him a minute, but he’d convinced himself the noise was just the coincidence of a thunder-clap coinciding with a real bird happening to drop dead right in front of him. It was easier to swallow that pill than the idea of yet another vision fucking with him.
A moment passed, of rain beating down relentlessly, thunder cracking the endless spine of the invisible sky. An airdroid drifted past close by, the wheezing of its labouring motor audible through the roar of the storm as it went about its duty of inhaling the deadly carbons in the air. Most believed their efforts fruitless, yet the city continued sanctioning production of the machines, another pointless expenditure for tax payers.
Kessel’s voice came to him sounding far away in the fog, even though she was directly around the corner of the shed looking out across the building’s opposite side. “Oh, there are ghosts out there, Clark. The city’s filled with them.”
And the thought was suddenly there in her head: I once killed a perp out of hatred, not duty.
She let the memory overcome her, and take her away to be relived, as she so often did. The man had been on the lam since his conviction, a pedophile she’d succeeded in tracking through the underworld network of crackhouse and juice-pit informants and hookers often tapped by the detectives. She’d cornered the son-of-a-bitch in the backyard of a west-side ghetto project two years before; with no one around but she and the man and the wicked, wicked spirit of that man whose evil she’d known herself as a young child. That ghost had never left her. And the trapped perp had raised his hands in the air, giving himself up with a look of surrender and shame in his face; and she’d raised her sear gun and burned him five times in the chest; and she’d stood over the man and watched his life bleed from his destroyed body and still it hadn’t been enough vengeance for the little girl she’d lost in her youth; so she burned him again and again and again; and still it hadn’t been enough vengeance to quiet the haunting voice of her memory.
She planted a gun in the dead man’s hand. It had gone down officially on record as a case of self-defence, but had been the coldest of cold-blooded murder.
Kessel trembled, biting her lip. Around her, the fog swirled comfortingly dense.
Clark peered around the corner of the shed to see his partner staring out across the fog-shrouded streets. The lost look in her eyes where she sat huddled, her rain-suit’s hood shrouding and casting her narrow cheeks in shadowy relief, only made him more uneasy. He wasn’t sure what to say. He was better at hitting things – hitting people – with his steel fists than talking things through with them. He looked away from her, saying nothing.
They sat watching the storm- and fog-besieged city, the mist curling around them and between them and everywhere else they could see, with nothing more to say.
He’d been waiting in the alley since dusk. He was soaked through to the skin, having left his B-U suit at home – he no longer needed its protection from the chemical rain. He shook violently from the cold. He would have waited another hundred nights to atone for what he’d almost done. He huddled closer to the wall among his nest of sodden cardboard boxes and rusty garbage cans, watching the street at the opposite end of the alley.
The pill was small but its weight in his palm had startled him. He could barely hold it, and was forced to clamp his other hand beneath it in order to hold it, and even then he struggled with it. Sweat broke out on his brow when he’d handled it, grimacing with the effort. He’d felt his muscles straining, and a kink awaken and stab in his abdomen. He felt its weight now as a comfort nestled inside the pocket of his coat. He checked the alley but it was empty. He wrapped his arms around himself to help stave off the chill, but it was hopeless. He would wait for her.
He looked up and she was there. Donna, the teen urchin, haunting the alley as if she’d materialized there from another place. She hovered anxiously in place, moth-like and fragile between the immense dark brick faces of the walls towering above them. Her rain-hood was thrown back. By the streetlight’s glow he made out the circle of blue and purple and black bruises around her throat. It hurt him to see.
Her voice came again, small and uncertain. “I found the note you left for me, on the corkboard at the diner. Telling me to come here tonight. Is it true? Did you find what you were looking for? Did you find…Vern?”
Philip smiled at her. “An…An angel helped me. She gave me the money for it.”
Donna remembered the kind woman’s husky but soothing voice, the motherly comfort of her arms around her in the cold rain. She thought about how she’d shared her story with this woman, feeling able to divulge everything about the dark story of her life to her like she’d never felt able to share it with anyone before. Maybe it had been the fact that she was a police officer – a real-life detective, who’d seen who knew how many dark and sad things – that had convinced Donna. Or maybe it had been the understanding in her eyes.
She said, “I know.”
Philip retrieved the pills from his pocket. “I have one for you too,” he called to her. “I didn’t know where to find you, so I left the note at the diner. I knew you’d go there sooner or later because you told me you always went there, asking for food. I asked the Saint for two pills. I told him about you and that you were also running away, from the same things I’m running away from. And the Saint…he really is a saint. He gave me this, to give to you. If you want it. If you truly need it.”
Donna came forward, splashing through the muddy puddles and scattering rats and railers with her steps. She paused, watching him warily. “You won’t hurt me again?”
Philip said, “No one will ever hurt you again, Donna.”
She held out her hand.
“Be careful. It’s heavy. Unimaginably heavy.”
She said, “I…I know. Somehow I knew it would be. I always imagined it that way. I’m ready.”
He placed the capsule in her hand. She cupped both hands together and had difficulty keeping them aloft. She shook with the effort, though she was smiling widely as she struggled. Philip marvelled at that smile, so free.
Around them, the city shook in the throes of the thunder and rain, the sound of giants delivering each other blows as they battled for a kingdom in the sky. He thought of the angel that had given him the gift of the money to purchase his escape from all of this, and from the memories of the world that had invaded his heart and made him into a different man than he’d once been. He thought of the ghost of the playground girl he’d saved, and thought, I’ll see you soon, darling. We’re going to be free of all this now, and I know I’ll see you again, in the better place. I know it.
With great effort, two-handed, Philip lifted the impossibly heavy capsule toward his mouth. Sweat broke out on his brow when he handled it. He grimaced with the effort. He smiled at Donna. She was still smiling, too, as she struggled to raise the capsule to her mouth.
Philip placed the pill, slowly and with great reverence, on his quivering tongue. He heard a voice in his head, felt it like a candle sputtering into life and throwing back the darkness in a stifling, windowless room. That room was him. The voice was the ghost of the child, and her voice was full of joy.
Thank you, dragon.
Thank you, Smaug.
The early morning alley was ablaze with the frantic lightshow of police vehicles’ headlamps. The rain hadn’t abated – it came down in a deluge, whipping the buildings and streets and the police officers and detectives in their rain-suits. It brought up the fetid stink of the city, which hung in a miasma over the streets.
The two detectives stood staring at the scorched concrete.
There were three bodies outlined there: an adult’s body (likely male, judging from its height and general build); a young adult or teenager’s body, possibly that of a girl, based on her body size; and, in a much more faint outline, as though the signature had been burned into the concrete long before the others and been faded with time and the elements: a small child’s.
A family, Kessel thought.
“This city,” Clark seethed, scanning the bleak landscape of the alley with his flashlight, illuminating the overflowing garbage cans, the ugly brick facades of the enclosing buildings, these decades-old witnesses to countless clandestine and illicit meetings and crimes. A great rage had awoken in him at his feeling of helplessness. “There’s a cult of lunatic fakemen out there who believe they’re better than humans. Last summer we had a self-proclaimed avenging angel serial-killing his way down in the history books. We got baby killers and child murderers and child prostitution and rapists and criminally insane robbing banks with weapons as heavy-duty as the Goddamned army uses. If the rumours are true, we even got walking diseases on the streets, like something out of a loony’s batshit nightmare. This city, this Cloud-cursed city…”
He trailed off, shaking his head, eyes lost as he stared at the raining, pulsing sky.
These were only a few of the department’s cases of the past year, and the year was young.
“The city is the world,” Kessel said, echoing the Loot’s words, his oft-spoken refrain like a condemnation of everything they knew, in their city and beyond. Like a prophecy, of what lied waiting tomorrow.
Clark exhaled loudly, breath steaming the mask of his rain-suit. “And now this.” He scuffed the fire-tattooed pavement with his shoe. “What kind of a fucked-up drug does this to a person? Coke don’t do it, meth and heroin and crocodile can’t touch this. Goddamn juice can’t even do it. And it even gets kids. Kids. It’s wicked and unnatural and unknowable and…evil. Evil is what it Goddamn is.”
“Maybe it’s something else.”
Kessel’s words startled him. He turned to her, eyed her quizzically. “What the hell does that mean? What else could it be?”
She walked off, leaving him staring after her, and wondering.
The morning stayed dismal and grey. In the afternoon, for the first time in a very long time the sun fought its way out of the clouds like a miracle, briefly throwing light into all the corners of the city.
But before long the darkness came back.
The sun there held a new kind of fire, benign and welcome.
The waters there cooled his memories, made them easier to bear.
The woman detective had been right:
There was more than what he’d known.
Now he knew peace.
He smiled, basking in the light.
He looked forward to thanking her when next they met.
For now, though, he would celebrate the peace with his new daughters.