Dinner with Derleth

The house is in the nicest part of town, the historic part, set well back away from the street under old-growth trees. The doorbell is discreet, musical. In a few moments, the impressive oaken door opens, and Daniel is looking into the smiling face of a young lady. She’s about twenty-five, blonde, tip to toe professionalism from her expensive heels to her tiny gold earrings. The only jarring note is the black leather collar with a leash ring fastened around her pale throat.

“You must be Daniel,” she says in a pleasantly modulated voice, “welcome to Philadelphia. Please, won’t you come in?”

He’s ushered into a comfortable library. “Would you like something to drink?”

“A beer, please.”

“Samuel Adams, Tsingtao, or Guinness?” she asks.

“Do ya have to ask, luv?”

The young lady smiles, suitably charmed by Daniel’s Irish brogue, and exits the room. The library is wall-to-wall book spines, everything from the classics to reference works on engineering. Despite the comfort that borders on opulence, the room seems rather– boring to Daniel. He can’t quite put a finger on it, but it’s bland, despite the sheer number of books, which should be tantalizing him, like an itch under the skin. He barely has the urge to get up and look around.

The young lady returns with his Guinness. The ale has a lovely head, a sign that it’s been expertly poured. He takes a sip. Wicked.

A man enters through a different door than the girl used. He’s in his mid-fifties, wearing a very urbane sweater and khakis. His hair is silvered blond, cut short on the sides, sleek watch — not a Rolex, shoes that look handmade. Daniel pulls his sleeve down over his Timex and tries not to fidget. The man strides across the room like he’s working circuits at the gym, and extends his hand. “Russ Derleth. You must be Daniel Sullivan. Thanks for coming.”

painting, man on library ladder, reading
Up on the Ladder

They spend the next few minutes in polite small talk, Daniel’s uneventful flight, the weather in Philadelphia, how things are at the Southport House, the innocuous bad habits of their respective Regents. Daniel’s shared this talk with more fellow Knights than he can count, in nearly a hundred Houses across the world. Knights of Saint Christopher travel a lot. But they usually know why they are where they are, and Daniel doesn’t. Not yet.

“So,” he says when he grows too impatient not to ask, “what can I do for ya?”

Russ takes a deep breath, and a deep sadness flickers across his face, but doesn’t settle. “Do you remember Claudia Cross? You met her the last time you were here, oh, seven years ago?”

“Yeah, I remember her. Lovely girl.” Really lovely, truth be told.

“Have you heard from her lately?” Russ asks, leaning forward in his leather armchair.

“No, not for a long time now. I called her a couple of times from the Dublin House, after I went home, but she found another guy, and, well, ya know–”

Russ sighs. “Yes. That was me. We were together until just a few months ago. Then one night she disappeared, I have no idea why–” His voice nearly breaks before he gets it under control. “I haven’t been able to find her.”

“Do ya think she might have had a family emergency? Could she have gone home?”

“No. I called her parents the day after she went missing. They hadn’t seen her. I called again a month ago, and they still didn’t know.” The sadness crosses Russ’s face again, lingers longer this time. “She wasn’t exactly on great terms with her parents. They didn’t approve of our– lifestyle.”

Daniel’s eyes cut to the blonde woman, who has just come in with another Guinness for Daniel, and a glass of orange juice for Russ. He thinks he understands what the problem is with her parents. He reaches for the Guinness, then pauses. He’ll be no help at all if he gets pissed.

“Would you like something else instead, Mr. Sullivan?” the blonde asks discreetly.

“Ahhh, no, this is fine, but may I have a glass of water as well?”

“Sparkling or still?”

Jaysus. “Whatever is fine.” The young lady– Derleth’s slave — leaves to fetch his fancy water, and he turns back to Russ.

Russ shakes his head slowly. “Claudia wouldn’t have gone home to her parents. She was happy here. They gave her nothing but grief, even tried to take her son away from her.”

“She has a child? I didn’t know.”  Claudia has a child? “Why would anyone want to take a boy from his mother?”

“They claimed that she wasn’t a proper influence on the child.”

“But, Jaysus, she’s his mother.”

“That’s what the judge said,” Russell agrees. “Of course, that was after our Regent, Mr. Matheson, brought the full weight of our legal team to bear. He felt, as I did, that the child clearly belonged to us, the only family he had known, and not to his grandparents, whom he had never even met. Ridiculous.”

“So she’s not there.” Daniel thinks hard. The Guinness hasn’t properly lubricated his brain quite yet. “Any other family? Any close friends?”

Russ shakes his head. “She didn’t have any friends who weren’t my friends as well. I’ve asked everyone.”

“Maybe she was snatched.” The thought is alarming, but Daniel knows that it happens. Even in feckin’ America.

“There were no signs of forced entry, and my security system is extensive. There were things missing, a few clothes, Claudia’s purse. There were no valuables missing, all of her jewelry was left behind.”

“The kidnappers might have tricked their way in, left the valuables to confuse you–”

Russ’s smile is wry. “We’re here to kidnap you,” he says, pointing his hand at Daniel like a gun. “So pack a bag, get your purse, and let’s go!”

“All right, you have a point.” Daniel slumps; they’re back to square one. “Was there anything– unusual about the week they disappeared? Did anyone come to the house, anyone out of the ordinary?” He’s reaching, but he doesn’t know what else to ask.

“No,” Russ answers slowly, “nothing that wasn’t routine.” The young lady has placed his water by Daniel’s elbow and is standing in a corner of the room, near the window. He takes a sip out of the glass. It’s a far cry from tap water. He smiles his thanks to her, and asks Russ, “What’s the lady’s name?”

“Jennifer. She’s a lovely girl, and quite bright.” He lowers his voice, and adds, “It’s not the same as it was with Claudia. I miss her.” If the girl by the window hears him, she gives no sign.

Maybe he does miss her, but for a guy that’s asking for help, he’s not being very forthcoming. “Define routine. Can you remember who all was in the house the night that Claudia disappeared?”

Russ pauses, thinks carefully. “Let me think. Myself, Claudia and her son, of course.”

Daniel tries not to fidget. Of course! Who else?

“My housekeeper and groundskeeper, Mr. and Mrs. Berger, had retired to their room over the garage.” Russ thinks some more.  Something doesn’t quite seem right here. If Daniel had been in his place, he would have gone over that night in his mind until every bloody detail came crystal clear. It appears to be the first time Russ has thought of this question. Bloody hell. What’s wrong with this bastard? “The only visitor that day was Stephen Matheson.”

“The Regent of the Philadelphia House.” It’s more of a statement than a question. There aren’t many American chapters of the Knights of Saint Christopher. Any Knight in the country could probably name the Regents of every House.

“Yes.” Russ doesn’t elaborate.

“Have you hired a private detective?”

If Daniel didn’t know better, he’d say Russ has begun to look a bit hostile. He gives Daniel a hard look, and says stiffly, “We thought it best not to get the mundanes involved. There are some in our organization who feel that the prudence and discretion that have served us for centuries are outdated, that the Knights of Saint Christopher should just divulge all of our secrets to the world at large. I am not one of those people.”

He pauses, looks at Daniel sharply. “Would you like to see the pictures I have of Claudia and her son? Perhaps that would help.”

Daniel doesn’t get it. This would help? Actually, more information on whether or not the Regent had noticed anything amiss would help. But Russ goes to a cabinet set into the bookshelves, pulls out a leather folio. It’s a picture album. He opens it to the middle, and slides it across the coffee table to Daniel. The woman in the 5×7 is laughing into the camera, with the large greenish grey eyes and honey brown waves that Daniel remembers. It’s true what they say about never forgetting your first love — he still sees Claudia in his dreams, sometimes. She’s on the beach, one hand resting against a sailboard, the other curled protectively around a sunburnt preschooler. The boy’s ginger hair is ruffled in the breeze, blue-lavender eyes squinted against the sun, freckles showing even through the zinc oxide on his cheeks and nose.

He looks exactly as Daniel did at that age.

“Sweet Jaysus,” Daniel mutters.

“His name is Lucas. Will you help me find them, Daniel?” Russ pleads quietly.

“You love him, dontcha?”

“Yes, I do, even though he’s not mine.” Russ answers.

“Yeah, I know he’s not,” Daniel agrees. “He’s mine.”

ginger man in glasses
Skeptical

It’s difficult for an Irishman to decline hospitality when it’s offered, and so Daniel finds himself following Derleth’s slave as she leads him to the guestroom. Dinner hadn’t been elaborate — Philly cheesesteaks and thick french fries that remind Daniel of the chips back home in Ireland. But it was so good that Russ called Mrs. Berger out of the kitchen to hear Daniel’s compliments. The older woman blushed prettily before heading back to the kitchen to serve dessert. The apple pie had been as tasty as the rest of the meal.

Daniel is glad the evening is over though. The conversation had never lagged; Russ Derleth was an excellent host. But the talk had been excruciatingly polite, generic. It was almost as if the man had an overactive political correctness filter. His after-dinner talk was like his house — bland.

Jennifer shows him where the towels are in the bathroom, where the robe hangs on the back of the door. Daniel expects that she is going to excuse herself with a promise to be near if he needed anything else, but she doesn’t.

Instead, she kneels quietly at his feet. “My Lord has instructed that I am yours for the evening. Anything that you desire,” she dimples, “anything that is in my power to grant you, is yours.”

Daniel is absolutely gobsmacked. “Errrr,” he stutters, “umm, maybe we can talk for a while.” He sits down hard on the side of the bed. Oh, shite. It’s not that he hadn’t been thinking about it, she was lovely, but he was already in a relationship, not exactly free to dally, tempting as it was. Oh, Christ.

She rises and moves to reposition herself at his feet, but he hastily pats the side of the bed next to him, so she sits there instead.

“How long have you lived here with Russ, Jennifer?”

“Just over nine weeks,” she replies, smiling.

“Is your room as nice as this one?” He touches her arm, encouraging her.

“Oh, I don’t sleep in a room of my own, I sleep in Master’s room.” She seems mildly surprised by the question.

“So you sleep with Russ, then,” he says, almost to himself. He’s not sure if he’s disappointed or not. So they are that close. That’s almost indecent. After all, Claudia’s only been gone for less than three feckin’ months…

“Well– not exactly. I sleep on a mat at the foot of his bed. Sometimes he chains me to the end of the bed, but not always. Master and I often do demonstrations for BDSM organizations — he’s very well-respected in the community, and he’s very, very good at what he does.” She looks proud. “If he’s done something that’s made me sore, he lets me sleep in bed with him. It’s much warmer there.” The pink in her cheeks and her earnest tone make her look younger than twenty-five. She’s cute.

“Oh, okay. That’s, uhh, considerate of him.” Daniel tries another question. “So, is Russ your first master?”

“No, actually he’s my second. My previous master didn’t allow me to leave the house. After a while, it started to drive me crazy. Master encourages me to get out, and even take classes.”

“What kind of classes?” Daniel asks. Maybe Derleth was her ticket through college or something.

“Whatever he decides would be best. I’m taking a course in accounting so that I can keep the finances, I’ll be taking a night class in flower arranging next semester. Master said we could look at the catalog soon and choose what I’d be learning next.”

“So you’re not working toward a degree.”

“No,” she frowns, “I just want to learn to serve him better, to make him proud.” She laughs. “If I had wanted to work my way through college, I would have become an intern at my father’s company.”

“This sounds more interesting,” Daniel quips.

She smiles. “Much.”

“I like my job, too,” Daniel says. “Working for the Knights of Saint Christopher is fascinating. I’ve never wanted to be anything else, not even when I was a lad. My father and mother were Knights, as well.”

“Really? I don’t really know much about them. Master works a lot, but he never brings work home with him. What do the Knights of Saint Christopher do?”

“Well, we study parapsychology and cryptozoology and most of the other “fringe sciences”. We try to verify or debunk claims of paranormal events.” Daniel smiles wryly at the dubious woman. “We calm a lot of hysterical people, too.”

“Master never talks about his work with me. When the Regent comes to visit, He always excuses me. Their work is confidential, but you already know that.”

Sure, cases are sensitive, but this amount of secrecy is unusual, at least in Daniel’s experience. Wicked strange.

Jennifer looks down at her hands, twists them in her lap. Here comes something interesting, Daniel thinks.

“Sir?” she asks softly, “I do have a favor to ask of you.”

“Yes?”

“Umm, well, I’ve been with my Lord for nine weeks now, and, well, we don’t… I mean, I don’t think …” She makes a frustrated sound, and blurts, “I haven’t had sex since I’ve come here.” She looks at him very earnestly. “Master has given me to you for the evening. Would you– have sex with me?”

“Ummm,” Daniel hesitates, his eyes rueful.

“You have a girlfriend,” she guesses.

“Well, yes, kinda. I’m sorry.” And he is sorry. Not even Daniel gets offers this good every day. He pauses, takes in her disappointed slump. “Hang on, let me make a phone call.”

“Excuse me, then.” She leaves for the bathroom.

Daniel calls home. Gordon answers on the second ring. “Hello?” His British public school accent is crisp.

“Hi, darlin’.”

“Daniel! So, how was the flight? Did you have dinner with Derleth?” He makes it sound like the title of a mystery novel.

“I did. But I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow, I promise. Right now, I have a question for ya.”

“Well, doesn’t this sound intriguing?”

It takes a bit of explaining, but Daniel’s lover gets the gist of the situation quickly; he doesn’t even try to hide his amusement. Funny, Daniel thought he’d be put out, even angry. Gordon was the jealous one. When they became a couple he was the one that laid out the rules — no other partners unless they share, 100% latex coverage. Daniel had never come close to breaking his word.

“So, let me get this straight, love,” he laughs. “You’ve been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play with someone else’s toy and you’re asking me if that’s acceptable.”

“She’s a person, not a toy– but… yeah.”

“Bloody hell, Daniel! I mean, I appreciate the call, but damnation! Perhaps you had best hang up now and give me a scene report in the morning. Carpe noctem and all that.” With that, Gordon chortles “Ciao!” into the phone and disconnects. Cheeky bugger.

Jaysus, Mary and Joseph. He’s going to have to find a way to tell him about Lucas. Suddenly he misses Gordon more than he thought possible, especially given the circumstances. His throat feels tight. Gordon sounded very far away, like there are oceans separating him from his lover, and not just a few states.

“I love you, Gordon. Goodnight,” he whispers to the dial tone.

When Russ’s slave girl returns from double-checking the bathroom’s readiness for guests, Daniel just smiles at her and crooks his finger. She smiles back broadly and comes to him.

It would have been too hard to sleep alone, anyway.

The Long and Winding Road

Teo is a long way from Detroit, but that’s fine.  Detroit hadn’t been home, either, just a place he’d been for a while.  He stares out the window of the truck cab, into the wilderness, so different from the urban decay he’s accustomed to, yet strangely similar.  The hurricane’s damage didn’t include painted graffiti, just the scribbles of random high-pressure impacts.

On either side of the narrow track, the ditch runs half-full of tannin-black water.  An old track, too, because cypress knees hump up out of the ditch and threaten to take over the road entirely. One of those would blow out a tire.  Most of the trees out here are broken and twisted at the tops, damaged, dead stuff fallen everywhere.  On some of the higher knobs of land, they were sheared off about eight, ten feet from the ground.  There aren’t many signs of civilization, just a few half-ruined fish camps and gas station with capped over pump holes and no roof.

Teobaldo Arkaitz Ridcully Navarre, what have you got yourself into this time?

He glances at the big deer-minotaur creature driving the truck; his crown of antlers nods gently every time they hit a bump.  Tiny is very precise in how he moves his head.  The only reason he could drive this vehicle at all is the sleeper cab provides extra headroom, and even so, the cab was scraped and scarred.  Teo had never seen anything like him before.  That’s happened a lot since he arrived here.

Back home–long before he got out of the sarcobox in Detroit–the zoomorph population was strictly regulated, engineered, contained.  The sheer biological diversity of the “accidental” zoomorphs here is a bit overwhelming; it was like being at a mad scientist’s ball.  He knows he didn’t have the whole story before they sent him here.  He knew he’d been lied to outright by the authorities who put him in the sarcobox.  Give a guy half the picture, out-of-date, politically-doctored– dress him in a paper jumpsuit, irrigate him with chemicals that burned through his veins, seal him in a metal box, and send him off into what was still, essentially, the unknown.  They said it would be a two-way trip, but he is beginning to suspect they lied. Big surprise.

He still hadn’t been prepared by the sheer scope of the disasters here.  Classified technology leaking into the soil of this world, creating life that was never meant to be here.  Human beings, signing on to front for black market bug labs.  

Joshua captured bugs in Detroit and took them apart. Joshua’s friend Fozzie did the same down here.  They both had people who’d been pulled back out of bugs.  The rescued ex-bugs danced around to music, any music, and yelled at each other like brain-damaged children.  They seemed to enjoy themselves, anyway, and he was certain that is more than the bugs did. Or perhaps bugged brains were so overloaded with feel-good chemistry that they felt pretty happy all the time, even when they were killing people.  Maybe especially when they were killing people.

“Who in their right mind would grow out bugs?” Teo demands, staring at the empty cement walls of just such a place, suddenly furious.  The place was solid enough, it’d stayed together during the storm.  Tiny and Barret hadn’t been worried about squatters, just strode right into the building.

Tiny makes signs.  Barret interprets them, while he sets up his midi keyboard and his mikes to record the weird echoes and sounds in the lab, and smiles.  “Dumb shits.  Guys who want to sell bug troops and drugs for lots of cold hard cash.”

He watches Barret for a moment.  Barret is human, Teo thinks wryly, although you had to wonder about him, a professional musician.  The man is a found-sound junkie, composing his own stuff, fingers doing keyboards on his thighs.  Every time they stopped to fuel up, he gets out his midi gear and crammed new inventions into the on-board memory, while Teo fought with the fuel pump to get the rig fueled up again.  Barret was in his own little world once he got those headphones on.

“I’m going to look at the filters on the sarcobox pumps,” Teo says.  “You’ll be all right here?”

Barret just waves vaguely.

He checks the filters, latches the locks on the pump casings.  Tiny’s enormous clawed hands make questioning gestures.  Teo shakes his head.  “Nothing.  The filter screens were removed.  We could probably scrape samples from the walls of the pump, but it looks like they hosed it all down with some sterilant.”  He wipes his hands with alcohol hand wipes from the packet he carried in his hip pocket, just in case.  He’d caught enough viral and bacterial stuff in his first couple of months here, thank you very much. 

Tiny gravely accepts a few hand wipes from Teo.  Tiny had torn open the pump shed door for him, made it look easy.  The zoomorph’s hands have short dense black fur up the back of the hand past the wrist.  The nails are thick, claw-like, more like an Old World monkey, almost black.  It takes a while for Tiny to clean his hands adequately, scrubbing the wipe through the fur.

“Let’s go,” Teo says to Barret past the fat studio earphones.

“But those chirping high-frequency sounds, they’re some sort of modulated station-recognition signal, I have to see what the high-end filters pick up–” Barret complains.

Tiny’s hands go around Barret’s neck completely.  Barret doesn’t seem to mind the indignity of being pushed toward the truck.

Back in the cab, Tiny pulls off the cut-up trucker’s cap. Just behind the big mobile ink-black furry ear, wires hang from the base of his horns.  He has bald spots with little military-style headphones stuck on with some kind of putty.  The power supply is tied to the base of both horns. Teo had wondered where Tiny was getting all the intelligence that allowed him to avoid trouble all the way from Detroit to South Louisiana.  The cap’s logo is a silly ad for some local company’s diaper rash ointment.  It doesn’t go with the formidable horned presence, which might be why Tiny wears it.  Or maybe just because it shades his eyes nicely.

The antennas on Tiny’s truck make an interesting collection by themselves.  There’s a lot of oddly kludged-up electronic gear wired into Tiny’s truck dash.  More of it is attached to weapons racked in the ranks of clips over their heads, on either side of the ladder up to the sleeper compartment.  Teo almost wants to poke through the mess, see what it was and how it works.  But Teo’s specialty is behavioral sciences, not the hard stuff.  He might mess something up by handling it wrong. 

Barret looks quite content, watching the swamp go by. He and Tiny are happy as clams listening to Barret humming tunelessly, working out some kind of African poly-rhythm on his knees. Barrett doesn’t need the radio on, and Tiny likes it quiet, both sound waves and electronically.  Barret explains that Tiny and his equipment could hear better over the truck’s own noise.

Teo thinks about eating.  They’re down two picnic coolers already, they’ve just cracked open the third one of four.  Tiny eats a whole lot.  Mostly fast-food salads and barbecued veggie-burgers–and those couldn’t be easy to track down out here–but a lot of it. What do the herbivore zoomorphs do at barbecues, claim vegetarianism, or just stay away from the fire pit?  Can Tiny even digest meat?  There are so many questions he itched to ask.

The truck jolts through some tight turns and up a grade.  Tiny makes more signs.

“He says we need to cross a few hairy patches in the road, where the hurricane washed out the road.  They haven’t really had time to repair the damage, hell, don’t know if they ever will.”  Barret shrugs as if it’s not really important.  “Also, there’s bug signal off north of where we’re going, he might need to drop us off at the turnoff and go help out.  He says the next bit is bumpy.”

“He made five signs,” Teo says.

“Uh-huh.  I talk more than he does.”  Barret’s head nods happily, fingers keyboarding the air.

“I’ll hang on,” Teo says dryly.

More signs, when the track winding around hummocks of sheared-off trees allows it.

“He wants to know what you’re looking for.” Barret’s head bops around from the truck’s movement, off-time.

Teo blinks at them both.  “Didn’t Fozzie tell you anything?”

“Just get you where you’re going,” Barret grins, long curly hair flying as the truck lurches to avoid a nasty set of cypress knees. 

“I don’t even know where that is,” Teo says.

“Very Taoist, man,” Barret says, and whoops as they lurched across the first two wash-outs.  Teo distinctly remembered being told that Barret was a Julliard graduate, that he was famous in some circles. But Barret looked like he belonged here in the swamp, loopy grin and all.  “But I guess DA and Fozzie know where you’re supposed to go.”

Teo throws a look at him.  He’s never heard anybody give Doctor Alexander a nickname. He likes it.

There’s an annoyed grunt from the sleeper part of the cab, and Doctor Alexander’s voice floats down.  “What the hell was that?” He shoves his head over the side, his hair in wild disarray and pillow creases embellishing his face.  He looks groggy; he’s been sleeping ever since they crossed the border into Indiana.

“Road construction,” he informs DA.

The doctor squints out the forward upper windows and grunts stoically.

“Hurricane style,” Teo says, staring at heaps of spoil cleared from the trail, at trees sheared off at the level of the truck’s windows.  “What, a Category Five storm?”

Barrett nods.  His gaze goes remote, remembering.  “You shoulda heard it.  Harmonics, man.  Singing in your bones, that storm talking to you for days.”

Tiny’s ears go back, and he points at his forehead, lips curling up in a grimace.  Tiny had incisors like a baboon, at odds with the stag body. He didn’t smile often, either.

“Did you have hearing damage?” Dr. Alexander asks.

Barrett nods.  “Just a little bit at the higher frequencies, when I got it tested.  I got off easy.”

Tiny makes an impatient chuffing noise and taps his chest, flicks a finger sign.

“Oh yeah, me too–being alive still beats the alternatives.”  Barrett grins at Tiny.

More hand-waving from their driver. “He’s taking a shortcut, we’ll be there in maybe fifteen minutes.  He says they’re getting the fence open for us so Tiny can keep going through the far side of the compound and head north.  Kind of a rolling stop to drop us off, I guess,”  Barrett translates. They hump down another steep rocky slope and spider delicately up another steep rise, with Tiny gunning the engine and clutching the transmission precisely, just so.  Barret gets that listening look that said he was interested in the growling strain on the engine.

The fence that they had to drive through was an enormous palisade of welded iron fencing, dead saplings, and wire mesh woven together among broken but live trees into an amazing random mess, enlivened here and there by scorch marks.

Tiny leans out the open window and taps a gong-like sequence of percussive noises off the outer shell of the truck door.

A voice from the trees replies distantly, in an Indian accent, “Hey, Tiny, we have you on the gate log, please now drive in.”  A big wad of fence starts sliding open  They drive in sedately along a rather badly-graded track, pull in at a low clutter of temporary buildings.

“Okay, we’re outta here,” Barret says, climbing out.  He pauses long enough to salute Tiny, who nods back. Teo wearily stumbles down after him, hearing Alexander’s heavy breath behind him, hauling down his bags. Like a bucket brigade they unload the rest of the medical boxes of gear from the trailer.  Doctor Alexander unfolds a tarp and ropes it down over the boxes where the stack sits on the gravel drive.  Then Tiny waves, and jumps up–literally–into the cab.  The truck revs into motion, departing by a different exit.

Looks like they’re in for a hike; Teo stops to adjust the straps on his pack, hoping to make it feel lighter.

Doctor Alexander is already moving up the path towards Bayou Rainette. The place is alive with buzzing and chirping insects; their noise merely accentuating the quiet. Teo feels himself duck when something big flips past his face and flies erratically across the clearing.

“Are you used to the creepy crawlies around here?” Teo asks.

Barret falls into step beside him.  “It’s the roaches and the beetles that get to me, you want the truth.  The snakes generally run away, if you give ’em a chance to.”  

Snakes. If what Teo had heard was right, there are some snakes here that don’t run.  Aggressive rattlers, cottonmouths.  And some of the zoomorphs, too.

There hadn’t been any genuine Kiplings at the community in Detroit.  When DA had come back to Detroit to pick up the rest of his research equipment, he’d mentioned the nagas to Teo in passing.  Teo was careful not to reveal his interest to DA; the doctor was sharp and would ask questions that Teo wasn’t comfortable answering.  Not yet, maybe never.  But Teo gets the impression that there were not one, but two of them down here; surely that was a good sign.  After a year of being on World 2, Teo was finally making progress toward his goal.

Look Who the Cat Dragged In

The huge discount store is doing a brisk business, even for a weekday.  The overcast sky has a weird greenish tint — not the dangerous color that presages a bad storm, just a thick humidity that tints everything a strange hue.  Frog and Lucas are still inside, debating the merits of various Hot Wheels.  Auntie had grinned at the two younger adults and suggested that they go outside to the car and wait while she and Lucas conduct their business.  Grace isn’t sure if Auntie was planning to buy Lucas some extravagant toy that she didn’t want Grace to protest, or if she just expects to come outside to find the two of them making out in the back seat of her sedan.  But she and Hal aren’t kissing, they’re talking.  Hal has just informed her that he’s been browsing the website for the Beacon Hill Academy, the BDSM training facility that she used to help Russell Derleth run.

“Nice pictures,” Hal says.  His voice is dry, and Grace wonders if he’s upset, jealous.  It doesn’t look like it, at least not in the odd light of the parking lot.  “I was wonderin’ if I could get one of my hacker friends to go in, get some information for us.  I need to know more about “Daddy Max” and how to stop him.”  Daddy Max is Russell’s online persona.

Grace turns to him.  “What do you want to know, Ogimaa?  His real name?  His street address?  Bank account numbers?  Business accounts?  Social security number?  Shoe size?  Tailor?”  She can feel herself grinning at the last one.  “I could get his medical records, if you think that’d help.”  She pulls a face.  “Actually, I don’t think he even has the password to access his own medical records.  Now that is just sad.”

Hal just gapes at her.

“Personal assistant, don’t leave home without one,” she says, with a straight face.

“You weren’t kiddin’,” Hal says, grinning.  “Baby, you are so awesome, I could just kiss you.”

She holds up a slim hand.  “You haven’t seen anything yet.  It’s been awhile since I got into those accounts, he might have gotten somebody to work on them and alter the passwords.  However…” She smiles, “… because he was worried a few months ago about security, I built myself some extra backdoors, just in case somebody pirated his accounts.  Now, why he was worried about that, I have no idea.  Can’t think why I didn’t ask, it’d make a huge difference what kind of threat you were trying to defend against, but I just… didn’t ask him.  It just wasn’t done, you see?”

Hal chuckles.  “Did the guy even have to wipe his own ass?”

Grace gives him a pointed look.  “Hey, even I have hard limits.  There is no way I would have been doing anything like that for him.  Now, you, on the other hand?  We could negotiate, if you like.”

Hal snorts.  “Ahhhh, I ‘preciate the sentiment, but that’s okay.”

She’s laughing when Hal kisses her.  This is one of those big, lingering, thorough kisses that take your whole body to do it right.  Investigating her tonsils, as he puts it.  It’s nice, but nausea has been growing inside of Grace ever since they started talking about Russell.  Maybe it’s just the strange greenish light, but she pulls away after a moment to catch her breath.

That’s when she looks toward the front of the store, to see Auntie Frog plow into Lucas.  Her son is clutching a plastic bag that is really way too big to be decent, standing still as a statue, staring hard.  The look on his face makes Grace panic.  It’s shocked, and curious, and pleased, in a way that is really not– right.  He’s not staring into space.  He’s staring at a figure leaning against the side of the store.  The bag slips from his hands and falls to the sidewalk.  He absently touches the notch of his throat, prods it as if it’s sore.

Grace follows his stare, sees the man in the black duster turn towards Lucas.  His hair is longish, red even in the strange light.  His profile is crisp as ever, like that on a coin.

“Daniel!” Grace can hear herself making a strangled little sound that meant to be a scream but never makes it that far.   Her hand reaches out to Hal.

Hal is already outside, halfway down the row of cars, running flat out, hair streaming.  Aunt Frog has dropped her bags and put both hands down on Lucas’s shoulders, firmly, and she’s glaring up at the stranger with grim eyes.  Grace is coming out of the car when she hears Aunt Frog say, “State your business, Mister, or leave us alone.”

The man barely looks her way; his eyes seemed filled with the boy.  “Lucas.”  Daniel holds up both hands, empty.  “I mean no harm, to you or my son, I swear it.”  His Irish lilt is noticeable, but not too strong, not uncultured at all.

“Your son?” Aunt Frog says.  “Then why do you come reeking of those people who would take away this sweet boy and turn him into a monster?”

“A monster?” Daniel asks. The man looks confused.

Hal comes charging up — it makes Daniel jump a little, and spin to face him defensively.  “You stink of bug,” Hal says, flatly.  “You stayed in a place that reeks of bug people.”

What are you talking about?” Daniel says, clearly bewildered.  “What the bloody hell is a ‘bug’?”

“Daniel,” Grace says, feeling more weary than days of very hard work at Pen’s house have ever made her.  “If Russell Derleth is still alive by the time you get back to his house to report, I would be very surprised.”

“Why, is he dying or something?”  Then he takes a closer look at the woman who’s just spoken to him.

Claudia?” he asks, incredulous all over again.

Grace glares at Daniel impatiently.  “Did you think I wouldn’t be with him?”  She hovers near Lucas.

“Open your coat,” Hal demands.

“Or what?” Daniel says.

 

“Daniel, please, we’ll explain why we have good reasons to be cautious,” Grace says.  She reaches down, and Lucas clutches her hand in one fist, and his bag in the other.  He stares up at the stranger in the long black coat.  Aunt Frog still has a firm grip on his shoulders, too.

“I’ve seen some of the culchies out there with shotguns–“

“What on earth is a culchy?” Grace asks.

“Ummm, locals.  Country folk.” Daniel shrugs.

She nods her understanding.

“I’d welcome dose guys,” Hal says.  “Dey know what dey’re shootin’ at.  Either open yer coat–and yer shirt, for good measure–or yer in a worlda trouble.”

“Who are these people, Claudia?” Daniel asks.

“My family.”

Auntie Frog says then, “You know, dis could attract a lot of attention, and I’m plum starved, and my feet’re killing me.  Now, ya can come along ta a nice place ta eat, and we can sit and talk like regular people, or we can tell ya some real horror stories  in a hurry.  Without a word spoken, okay?  Picture’s worth a thousand words, all dat?”

“Sweet Jaysus and Mary, you’re Haroldine Stalks Fish, the potter,” Daniel says then.

“Yes, I have dat honor.  And dis is my nephew, Hal Two Horses.  And dis is Hal’s girl, Grace.  But it looks like you mighta met already.  Now, ya know, ya do smell a bit like folks we have reason to mistrust considerably, to dah point I wouldn’t send you back to them on a bet, knowing what they do to people in the dead of the night.  If I were you, in fact, I’d make tracks in the opposite direction.  Now, if you want to find out more, you can come along and talk with us.  Or you can just make tracks.  If you’re coming along, you can show us what’s under the coat.  We purely dislike coats like that.  I hope you never have to find out why personally.”

He opens the coat slowly.  The clothes underneath are casual, but nice, as if he knows what looks good on him.  Maybe a little too pricey for local standards, but he’ll get good service.  There is an inner pocket, with something long and thin inside.  The pocket looks custom.  What’s inside is perhaps a foot and a half long, and about two fingers wide.  He doesn’t seem to be carrying a firearm of any kind.

“Well, you came armed, didn’t you?” Aunt Frog says.  “If you reach for that, we will know you have what they call unfriendly intentions, is that clear?”

“Now the shirt,” Hal says.

Daniel raises an eyebrow at Grace.  “Your man there is a bit paranoid, isn’t he now?” Daniel says, glancing toward people who are exiting the store.  He smiles, makes a light careful wave of his hand, and keeps his hands well away from the narrow custom pocket while he unbuttons shirt buttons down the front as if he’s got too hot in the humidity, a stranger who isn’t used to such warm weather.  He has that sleek look of somebody who’s properly groomed for all occasions, who works out, who gets his hair cut by a good stylist.

Nothing at all like the ragged long hair of the coppery guy glaring at him.

“Not paranoid,” Hal says, “We’re survivors.”

“You don’t say,” Daniel says mildly.  “Okay?”

“Okay,” Hal says, and everybody stands down just slightly.

Daniel flaps the tails of his shirt gently, fanning himself, and starts buttoning it up.  Gotta give him points for style, maintaining his cover while people exiting the store are looking at him.  Then he smiles at Aunt Frog, and he says, “Pleased to meet you, dear lady.  My name is Daniel Sullivan.  I would love to hear more about all this.  Where would you like to eat?”

“Well, how are you on pancake houses?” Aunt Frog says.

“Oh Mom, pancakes and jam for lunch!” Lucas says then, looking up at them.

Grace blinks down tears.  “Okay, today you can have pancakes and jam for lunch,” she says.

“Logistics,” Daniel says then, gently.  “I have a rental car, but if you’re worried about being traced, I’d be happy to leave it here.”

“Because it’s a piece of junk from Hark’s Hunk of Junk rental lot?” Hal says, rudely. 

“Exactly,” Daniel says, smiling.  “And, Jaysus, Mary, and Joseph,  it stinks to high heaven..”

Hal opens his mouth, glances at Lucas, and shuts it again.  “Well, that’s an unhappy piece of news.  We’ll explain later.  Not here.  Let’s get out of here.  Lucas, you got your bag?  You need help carrying that?”

Lucas shakes his head violently.

Grace opens her mouth, looking from the bag to Aunt Frog, who says, “Nope, don’t even ask.”

Daniel looks at the bag and smiles.  If anything inclines Grace to think he might have good intentions, that is it.  That’s the first hint.

“Well then,” Daniel says, looking at Aunt Frog’s rather battered car.  He’s retrieved his suitcase and carry-on from his rental car — a Lexus.  He did so cautiously, looking around casually while the others stay away a good long distance from it.  His things won’t fit in the trunk, which is weighed down with bags of clay and boxes of bisqueware for a class.  The springs are struggling already.  “Ms. Two Horses, I am honored to share your pottermobile.”

She laughs.  “Just watch out for smears of that ferrous clay on the seats, that stuff stains your clothes something fierce.”  He winces a little. 

Grace sits in the front, with Lucas and his rather large knobbly bag on her lap, in the front passenger seat.  Aunt Frog drives.

Hal sits in the back behind Aunt Frog, strongly turned in his seat to face Daniel.  After some silent considerations, they have him seated on the passenger side behind Grace.

Aunt Frog drives serenely, about twenty miles an hour slower than the posted speed limits, cruising along in rather overloaded-spring glory.

“Welcome to the swamp,” Hal says, and Grace is turned enough she can see his eyes are dark and angry and the irises have consumed the eye, as if he’s about to shoot off into dog-shape.  Grace is just trying to keep her breathing under control.  She wishes she were sitting next to Hal so she could pet him.

“You’re a pan-were,” Daniel says quietly.  “I can feel–“

“Yes,” Hal says.  “And believe me when I say, we have reason to fear the kind of people who gave you that car, and the place you stayed, and probably who gave you the job to find Grace and Lucas.  Nobody human would send either of them back to Russell.  We’re gonna talk a little first–and not in a way that might scare Lucas, so don’t go getting excited–and then I’ll show you a few things you really aren’t gonna like one bit.”

“I’ll have a light lunch,” Daniel says, with a grim little smile.

Hal turns his head a degree.  “Take a loop here, would you?  Drive down that second street on the right.  Let’s show you what kind of stuff we’re talking about.”

At a bend of the street that loops out into the woods, there are several cars sitting abandoned on the side of the road.  One of them looks burned out.  All of them have holes, like bullet-holes, dotted along smashed-in sides.

“Those are not from bullets,” Daniel says after a moment, frowning.

“Bugs,” Lucas says clearly.  He points.  “They have arms, with bumps on them.   The arms come out of their tummies like, whoa, so fast.  They run fast, too.”

Hal closes his eyes a moment, rests his head in one hand.  “Yes, Lucas has seen it.  We all have.”

“You have to wash real quick if the juice hits you,” Lucas says.  “Mom says it burns.”

“It does,” Hal says.  “Lucas, make sure you get away first, then wash, right?”

“Yes, sir,” Lucas says.  “Wow, the one that trashed that car was a big one. You think that was a mantis one, maybe?”

Hal nods.

“Where do they come from?” Daniel asks.

He looks at Daniel, steadily, consideringly.  “The people we’re talking about have a nasty habit of kidnapping people they don’t think anybody will miss.  They take them out to some of those illegal black market labs out in the swamp, barbed wire complexes with machine gun emplacements like prisons.  And then they make them into… bug troops.  Creatures who do what they’re told. Some of them don’t look human at all, depending on what their job is. Some of them look very human, until they need to do something… like that.” and he gestures at the last car, as they roll away from it down the street, without ever stopping.

“Bloody hell, you’re havin’ me on,” Daniel breathes.

“No, we’re not,” Grace says.  “Not even a little bit.  We all wish we were.”

“Lucas, tell Daniel what bugs look like, will you?” Grace says then.  “The regular ones, not all the special ones.”

“They’re kinda like zombies.  They look like people, but they stare funny, and they don’t talk.  Callie says they eat people’s faces, and she saw some really bad stuff, but she says they’re all bags and blobs of smelly goo inside that’s taking over the human parts they started with.  Callie said they kinda collapse if the bags get cut open.  I dunno. I just saw them running.  They get these long arms , like the legs on crabs, but not pinchers, with the hard bumps that smush things and make holes when they hit.  And they bite.  They spit stinky stuff that burns.  Their legs look kinda human, but they can unfold and get taller on some of them, like the mantis ones. Those have an energy beam thingie too.  Umm, their hair starts falling out.  Ummmm….the bug parts are kinda weird, they break off funny, like eggs do, all hollow or something.  We think some of them can grow back arms that break off, but we don’t know for sure.  And when you take out all those bug parts, I guess it’s really hard on them, and the people are really, really stupid after that.”

“There are pictures, we’ll show you later,” Hal says dryly.  “Lucas is accurate in his observations.”

“These– these illegal installations must be enormous, to support a lab that can generate implanted growth tanks of that sort,” Daniel says.  “You couldn’t possibly hide it!  It must show up on aerial photographs!”

“Oh yeah, it does.  Local authorities know it,” Hal says.  “The same labs make all kinds of interesting chemical distillations, if you catch my drift.  Lots of dirty, dirty money.  Lots of toxins dumped out willynilly, wherever it’s convenient.  Lots of stray releases of the kind of injection germs used to mod the genetics, just spew it out into the environment.  We get lots of wild zoomorphs, like me.  I can show you the figures on the local mortality and morbidity figures, the underweight babies, the childhood cancers–it just goes on and on.  Blame it all on poverty and lack of local medical care, which certainly doesn’t help.  Seems one of the reasons they picked this area–you’ll love this, Grace, just found this out from some of the Back Forty dudes pokin’ around places he wasn’t supposed to be lookin’–is how compatible a lot of the locals are with existing bug troop samples.  Lots of military folks were recruited from here, the original bug troops were built off local boys and girls, and they’re still coming back to get more.  Only they don’t ask.  They just take people away.”

Grace has seen him give these same facts to other people. Quiet or impassioned, shouting, coolly logical, all different moods, whatever he thinks will reach and touch the person he’s trying to persuade.  “I’ll send it to you, just look at the numbers!” he will say, the eternal cry of the community organizer.

“What’s a zoomorph?” Daniel asks.  “I’m not familiar with that term, exactly.”

“You guys ready?” Hal says.

“Go for it,” Grace says quietly.

Hal lowers his head.  When he looks up again, his eyes lack whites.  Ears crawl along his skin, and he blinks, and he’s a large black dog with the same long hair he had as a man.  Then he makes a sound in his throat, and Grace reaches past the seats and strokes his muzzle.  He licks her hand.  Then he shakes his head again, and he’s leaning back in the seat, hair flung about wildly, with his teeth gritted.  His nostrils flare.  “That,” he said, “is the quietest change I’ve ever managed to do.”

“Just glad you didn’t do the horse in my back seat, my poor car would bottom out completely,” Aunt Frog says placidly.

“You’re getting much better,” Grace comments, “all that practice is paying off.”

Daniel looks at her, and then at Hal.  “How many shapes do you have?” 

“Four,” Grace answers.  “Of course, you’re not surprised.  Why would you be?  But… his changes aren’t a result of a hereditary condition, or… any manipulation of natural energy.  It’s not a natural thing at all.”

“A zoomorph is an animal person, whether they can change shape or not.  Some of us were constructed by military labs, like you’d build a tank from parts–“

“Like Mister Dance, he’s a kinda snake guy–” Lucas says.

“Yes, and some of us are wild mutations, or maybe damaged from stray lab releases–“

“Like Miss Estelle, she’s a bird lady, she was just born that way,” Lucas assures Daniel.

“–and some of us are a mishmash of parts that were modded onto a kidnapped person by black market labs using stolen military tech, something like the bug people.  We are at odds with the bugs because they have no free will, and they are commanded by people who give no one free will,” Hal says.  “And when you stank of them, we had to begin off the assumption you were one of their tools.  They have some people who operate quite freely because they just like the money, you know.” 

“I understand,” Daniel says.  He looks sick, sweating under the black denim duster.

“It’s not magic, like that thing in your pocket, at all,” Grace says impatiently.  “It’s science.  Brutal, hard-core, difficult, and expensive bio-gen-eng stuff.  They use the drug sales to pay for it.  We think — some of us think, anyway — that the bugs themselves have become self-regulating.  They’re starting to run their own show and tell whatever they like to their commanders, while they build to suit their own agenda.  And the black market labs don’t care as long as the money keeps coming in.”

“That’s sick,” Daniel chokes.  He puts his head in his hands, rubbing his temples like the world has stopped spinning on its axis.

“That’s reality,” Grace replies gently.

Then Lucas says, “Mom, you said it was wicked hard to do, making the bugs, right?  Would magic be a good way to stop them?”

Daniel looks at his son.  “Do you have magic?”

Lucas looks at him coolly.  “I don’t know what you call magic.  Uncle Russell used to want me to do all these boring exercises.  It’s much more fun playing music.”

Daniel smiles a bit,  like he agrees.  He looks at Grace.

Grace says, “Why do you think we ran away, Daniel?  The Philadelphia Regent of your damned Knights wanted Russell to give up my son to him, personally, and — and make him into some kind of — tool. It sounded like he wanted to sell him.”

“That’s impossible,” Daniel says, “he’s a child.”

“The Regent was telling Russell he would take my son the very next morning.  Permanently.  Somewhere in Canada or Alaska.  He kept talking about putting him in heavy clothes.  I think a nice long look at the business finance accounts would shock you terribly, I truly believe it would.”

Daniel stares at her.  Then at Hal.  And last of all, at Lucas.

“It’d be boring, going on a trip with that guy,” Lucas says.  “That guy, the Regent? He always talked at me like I was a baby.  He wanted me to do things over and over, like he didn’t believe it the first time.  I mean, it stops working when you get bored, you know?”

“Does it?” Daniel says softly.

Lucas says, frowning, “I think magic might work against the bugs, don’t you?”

Aunt Frog pulls the car around into a parking space.  “All right, children, it’s time for a little flapjack reality shock here.”

“Yay, pancakes!” Lucas hollers, totally diverted.

“Amen,” Aunt Frog says.  “Let’s pour a little maple syrup on the drama, right?”

Lucas races her to the front door, giggling.  Actually, they’re both giggling.

“Why didn’t you tell me that you were pregnant?” Daniel asks Grace, in a very tight, very controlled voice, once Lucas is out of earshot.

“What would you have done if I had told you?” she asks right back.

“I– I would have done the right thing…”

“So you would have married me when I was barely out of high school, and we would have been divorced before our fifth anniversary.”  Grace feels about as sad and tired as she ever has in her life.  “Let’s face it, Daniel, you’re hardly my type anymore.”

“True, we are different people than we were back then.  It wouldn’t have gone over well.”  He considers, then asks, “Would it help if I offered to get Lucas and you out of this– war zone?”

“And Aunt Frog–Haroldine– and Aunt Penelope, and Estelle, and Pen, and his kids– where do you stop rescuing?” Grace asks.  “You can’t save us all.”  She sees his eyes flicker at “us”, but he says nothing.  Perhaps he realizes his offer is futile.

 

Then they’re at the door, and Aunt Frog makes Lucas leave his bag at a table while he goes off with Hal to the men’s room.  Lucas is chattering and waving his arms.  Daniel’s eye follows the boy’s red hair silently.

When he looks down, Aunt Frog says, “Have a seat.  We got a minute for questions dat might upset Lucas.”

“How bad is it?” Daniel says.

“Dah only reason we don’t look like some of them war zones all over, if you want my opinion, is because the bugs want civilian supplies ta keep flowing normally, it’s cheaper,” Aunt Frog says.  “Another way of putting it, crudely, would be don’t shit where you eat.  Dey export deir war of conquest plenty of other places, a’course.  Hal can show you pictures, reports, choke you on printouts and websites and whatall, and you give him half a chance, he’ll be in your offices recruiting your bosses along with you, if they ain’t already corrupted beyond stopping.”

“You have been warned,” Grace says, finding it in her to smile.

“Can anything be done to stop them?”  Daniel grimaces.  “That is, assumin’ you can figure out who ‘they’ even are.”

Grace nods.  “There’s always hope.”

“I know.  But what has been effective so far?”  Daniel is shifting into trouble-shooting mode.  It reminds Grace of Hal, a little bit. “This is shite, so what can we do to fix it?”

“I was hoping you’d ask that question.” Grace quips.  Things are looking up.  Auntie Frog smiles like she’s half smitten with the Irishman.  Grace knows all about the Dublin charm.  “We can take a look at Russell’s accounts, and figure out what to do from there.  Hal has a hacker friend.”

“Or three, or four, or maybe more sometimes,” says Aunt Frog, rolling her eyes.  “The way they go through the soda pop, you’d think it was a herd of them.”

“What works?  Shuttin’ off deir supplies works,” Aunt Frog growls.  “Hal has lists of what dose labs import all dah time.  Things like micron water filters, gear like dat.  And chemicals.  Stop ’em from getting potassium nitrate, for instance, and suddenly we have a month or two where nobody goes missing.  Get it coming in on the docks again down in NOLA, and all of a sudden Terrebonne Parish has a dozen people who don’t show up for church one morning, and Montegut Elementary School has ten kids gone, and so on.  Hal recruited a coupla folks in a position to keep track of dah losses, compile dah lists of abduction victims.”

Grace leans forward.  “I believe Matheson was investing in some of the companies who front for the labs.  Hal has compiled lists of the corporations, and they match up to the lists of some of the donations that Russell was having me make.  I noticed the names, you see, and I noticed some I recognized on Hal’s lists.  Of course, at the time I looked them up, according to the guidelines of the stock investing classes I’ve had, and I warned Russell that these might be high-yield but it was pushing his portfolio toward the high-risk end of things.  They had a terrible record, all short-term shell-game ephemerals.  He just said it was important, and told me to complete the transactions.”

Aunt Frog grunts.  “He’d probably like havin’ bug people do all his chores for him, never argue back, never ask questions, nothin’.  Course, if they explode tryin’ to kill ya, it could get nasty.”

Grace nods at Daniel.  “I think you may want to call somebody to go out and make sure Russell is still alive, I was perfectly serious.  Once they have control of the money, they don’t need him anymore.  Be discreet.”

“I’ll do that,” he says, looking at her, and he gets up, taking his coat with him.  “When the waitress gets here, it’s coffee for me.”

Hal and Lucas and the large plastic bag crowd in beside Grace.  “What’s he callin’ for?”

Grace looks at her son, who is grinning into the bag.  She still has no idea what the indulgence in there actually is.  Then she looks at Hal.  “Sending somebody discreet to check if Russ is still okay.”

Hal nods.  “They may need him to testify.”

Grace looks at Hal.  Something frozen and frightened inside her melts, and she leans across and kisses him.  “Thank you,” she murmurs.

Aunt Frog grins at them, and turns, looking around.  She starts chatting with the waitress, nodding over local news, explaining that purty Irish guy out there is by way of being a distant cousin of Grace’s, and he wants his coffee.

When Daniel finishes his phone call, he heads for the men’s room.  When he returns from that, he looks a little greenish, but better.

Aunt Frog and Grace both look at him.  Hal sighs, and casts a long, watchful gaze at the parking lot, squinting out the window nearby.

“Bad news?” Grace says, bracing herself.

He nods.  “Hal, I would like to go through the records you offered and make copies of whatever you feel comfortable sharing with my superiors.  It would help to make video interviews of anybody who’s willing to talk on-camera about their experiences.  I would like to set things right, and I would like to get other people who are trustworthy to help us do it.  I’ll go home and talk to my Regent as soon as we have some hard evidence to show.”

“Trustworthy the way Russ was?” Hal says dryly.

“Oh, he was, within his limits,” Grace exclaims.  “He just–” and she looks at her son, and falls silent.  She knows Lucas heard her, and he will ask about it later.

“I can’t believe that Derleth has been acting the maggot like this.” Daniel groans. “He’s a right tosser, that one is.  And Matheson?  I don’t even have words for that one.”

The Errand

Keisha cursed under her breath as the steering wheel fought her grip. An entire day of rain followed by an entire day of sunshine had turned Rainette Road into something treacherous, baked ruts like the swell of a riptide. It doesn’t help that it’s getting dark. Not a single street light out here.

 

 “So you wanna drive any?” she asked her travel companion.

 

“Only if you don’t want to.  It seems like you’re doing a fine job.”  Grace wrinkled her nose.  “But it has to be hard on the shoulder sockets.”

 

“Huh.” Keisha had to admit the woman was right.  She didn’t think the slender woman would be able to handle much of it, in fact. “How much more of this before the big road, you know?”

 

“At the speed we’re going, only a couple of minutes.” Grace winced as her head banged the roof of the truck, even though she was wearing the seat belt.  “That is if we aren’t swallowed up by a gigantic rut. Once we get onto Bayou Sale Road, it’s smooth as silk — real pavement.”

 

“Okay.” Keisha grunted and wrenched the wheel about, as the truck tried to slew sideways. “Enough talking, okay?” She needed to watch the road, not talk. But an hour later, the tires thrumming smoothly on graded asphalt, she was still driving and not talking. The other woman sat composed in the passenger seat, unfidgeting and unworried. Shit, Keisha was worried; “Don’t this bother you?” she demanded.

 

Grace looked up, her eyes wide.  “Doesn’t what bother me?”

 

“We get sent to hellandgone for something maybe ain’t even there when we find the place. That Tee Pom, wasn’t even sure the name, damn. Your man supposed to be the boss, right?”

 

“Well, yes.  But being the boss doesn’t mean he’s omniscient.  He’s trusting us to be smart enough to figure it out.”  She slants a sympathetic smile toward Keisha.  “I’m sorry if it’s ticking you off, though.”

 

“Nah, it’s cool.”

 

“Of course, nobody is omniscient, unless they’re a badly-written character in a book or movie.”  She tilts her head, pushing a long strand of wavy hair out of her face.  “Or maybe a space alien from one of my son’s bedtime stories.  But I do think that we’re smart enough to figure this out.  May I see those directions?  You’re already driving, after all.” She took the wad of folded paper that Keisha slid across the seat to her, unfolding and smoothing them out.

 

“Okay, we’re in luck.  This is Hal’s handwriting; he must have been the one who took the call.”  She squints at the makeshift map.  “Okay, “PR57” is the Parish road we’re on now.  “4pt” is… oh, that must be Four Point Road.”  Her startled eyes fly up to Keisha’s face, and then she starts to smile.  “I’ve been to Four Point Road before.  There’s a whole bunch of houses out there, all in a row.  Hal calls it the suburbs.”  She points. “See where the road takes a right?  Take a hard left there, where it says Parish Road 67.”

 

“Damn, that’s pretty good!” Keisha grinned widely. “You can be my navigator anytime. Hell, you’d even get paid if you worked for me.” She pauses. “I just want to know why you let him call all the shots like that. Like he’s god or something. Ain’t no man god, girlfriend.”

 

Grace’s laugh is loud and amused enough to startle Keisha a little.  “No, he’s not a god.  He doesn’t even think he is, which is rather enlightened of him.”  Her voice drops lower as she settles.  “But our relationship works for us.  He leads and I follow.”

 

“All the time like that? What if you got something better than he got?”

 

“If I know something he doesn’t, I let him know.  Usually, he just leaves me to do whatever it is, but sometimes he wants me to show him, and then he does it.”  She shrugs.  “It might be hard for a lot of people to understand, but I really just don’t need to be in charge.  I’d rather leave it for the people who really want to lead.”  Her eyes are frank.  “Don’t Seung and Peach usually feel more comfortable when you lead and they follow?”

 

“Well Peach, she’s a cat.” Keisha says matter of factly. “She’s smart like a human, but she ain’t really human. She got to be taken care of. Seung, though, that boy… ” She stops consideringly. “I don’t know why he does that. He just always did wait on my word man, even when he had just gone and killed my partner right in front of me. One shot, boom– My buddy is dead, and then this man was asking me for orders, I swear… So, I got no problem with it, really. Got in the habit.”

Grace nods, as if she understands.  “Some people are just more comfortable with that.  I can teach a class, lead an expedition, give a presentation, but I’m more comfortable if I’m ordered to do it, especially if it’s something that I’m not comfortable doing.”  She peers out the windshield.  “Okay, it says to go past this little cluster of houses, another mile down the road.  It is dark as the pits of Hell down here.”

 

“So you just wait for someone to come along and order you around?” 

 

“Oh, no, not at all.  I have to find someone worth listening to, first.  If I’m a stronger person than my partner, things don’t work out the way they should.  But Hal, he’s strong, and he’s smart, and he has a plan.  So I’ve chosen to follow him.”

 

“I hear you. I gotta be stronger than my boy, all the time. He always testing me. But… you know he could take me down if he really wanted to, and I swear it seems like he really don’t know. Sometimes I wonder about that. Gets a little crazy sometime, like having a tiger for a pet, could take my head off if it wanted to. hell, I bet Peach could. Why they don’t, I don’t know.”

 

Grace smooths the map down, stares at it again.  “I wasn’t there, but it seems to me that Seung offered to follow you.  You didn’t have to allow it.”  She looks up again, and smiles.  “But you did.”

 

“Huh.”  Keisha cocks her head at the thought. “Guess I grabbed it with both my fists, dawg– what the fuck?” Her arm comes across Grace’s chest as the truck skids to a stop. There is no more road. Ahead of them lies a short strip of seagrass and marsh, dimly lit by the crescent moon.

 

“Well,” Grace says drily.  “No more road, just water.”

 

“Tell me about it. What’s the directions say now?”

 

“Ummm, we’re looking for a blue house on the north side of…  oh.”  She points out across the water, to a small hummock.  A house is perched precariously atop the speck of land, a floodlight on a pole standing above it.  The house is blue. “I think that’s it.”

 

The women step out of the truck, and Grace notices how very easily Keisha takes the front position as they walk down the dark path, how wary and poised she is.

 

“Hal give you any directions here, babe?” Keisha hisses over her shoulder.

 

“Yes, he said something about a boat.” 

 

Just then, Keisha stubs her toe on the prow of a small aluminum rowboat hidden in grasses, and the watercraft makes a loud bong that makes Keisha wince.

 

Grace says softly, “Let me get in first, please.  I can’t swim, and I don’t like water much.”  Grace shudders, but she waits for Keisha to gesture toward the boat before approaching it.

 

“Guess this the one, huh?” Keisha reaches out to hand Grace into the little craft. “Got yourself settled?”

 

“Yup.”  She’s quick enough, although her tension shows in the way she grips the sides of the little craft.

 

Grace can feel the sand scrape under the keel for a moment and hear Keisha’s panting breath as she runs it into the water.  it’s a short row to the island; the woman is all sea-captain, and Grace makes a note that Keisha really misses the open water. Her white teeth shine in the half-light with her open smile.

 

She ties it up neatly, too, and hops out to hand Grace out onto the short dock.  All is quiet, except for the buzzing of the floodlight and the soft chugging of a generator somewhere nearby.  Not a sound, even though a lot of boats are tied up under the floodlight, enough for a whole damn party are tocking against each other, all sizes. “What the fuck, man– anyone supposed to be here?”

 

“Hey! We’re here!” Grace shouts at the top of her lungs, and finally allows her pent-up laughter to spill over as Keisha whirls around to stare at her in shock. And then she whirls around again, as the lights come on in the house and the door opens, spilling light and laughter and sound and people onto the jetty. “Happy birthday, Keisha!” Grace snorts, just before she doubles up with laughter and nearly falls into that water she doesn’t like too well.

 

“Aaww man…shit, that’s.. okay.” Keisha shakes her head, but Grace is learning her expressions and can see her pleasure.  “Damn.”  She draws a breath and starts into the crowd. “Hey, Grace– thanks.”

 

Grace just smiles, as if bringing someone pleasure is the best thing she could ever hope to do.  “You’re welcome, Keisha.”

 

“Stop that,” Keisha says grinning. “You know what I mean. You know a lot about that shit, glad I got a chance to hear some of it. You mind if we talk some more, another day?”

 

Grace doesn’t bother to answer, because Keisha is striding up to the door, hollering for her boy.

Vehemence

“…or the people with flippers instead of feet,” Grace snarls. “Or the people that are bug-bit and don’t have two brain cells to rub together, or have diminished capacity because they’re animals some of the time, or have tails protruding from their backs, or are fucking biological weapons in your stupid fucking war! They’re people, goddammit!”

Teo captures the finger that she’s been stabbing at him, folds it gently back into her palm, and holds it there. “I know, I know, I was wrong. I apologize.” They both stare down at his hand engulfing hers for a very long time.

====================

100 word drabble

Tiny Bugs Can Be Bad, Too

Teo coughs himself awake, kicks off the light cotton blanket, and pads barefoot to the floating clinic’s bathroom. Even through the disorientation of waking suddenly in the dark, he isn’t disoriented. Barefoot in the bathroom in the middle of the night in the Fall? He sure as hell isn’t in Detroit. When he flicks on the bathroom light, he cringes at his reflection in the mirror, then deliberately leans forward to take a good look.

He’s okay. The pale skin that stretches over his cheekbones is a healthy pink. Hell, he’s even gotten a few more freckles. His greenish-brown eyes are deep and clear and track well. He’s fine. He flicks off the light with an impatient snort.

He will never forget what he and DA jokingly call his Winter of Discontent. They turned him out of the sarcobox into a bitterly chilly and damp Michigan October; he had nearly died after traveling for years longer than the technicians had planned. That’s how he had met Doctor Alexander.

Rounds and rounds of IV meds, tests, and physical therapy later, he caught his first cold. Then it was bronchitis, then pneumonia, then he almost died again. Similar as the two places are, this world seemed to have three times as many little bugs: viruses and bacteria, and tiny beasties to make your life miserable.

And now he’s in a different place, and he’s catching something. Dammit. He ducks to clear the doorway of the tiny bathroom — no, not a bathroom, a head — makes his way past the tidy double row of bunks and down the steep metal stairs. DA isn’t upstairs in the clinic’s living quarters, but that’s hardly a surprise. That asshole never sleeps, and never gets sick, either.

The sound of keyboarding wafts up the stairs, so Teo knows where to look. He starts coughing again before he gets there. DA is at his research station, the glow from the screen lighting his pale, narrow face and his restless, spidery hands. Teo looks far healthier than he does.

“Catching cold?” DA asks, still tapping away at the computer. “Well, you know what to do. I’ll order some Cipro just in case, since we haven’t any at the clinic here.”

“I’m just wondering what’s next. Bubonic plague, I suppose. Haven’t had that, yet.” Teo ducks through the door to go drink a cup of tea or three.

DA never even stops typing. “Mumps.”

Stars wheel as Teo forgets to duck and cracks his forehead against the door frame that’s built more like a hatch than a proper door. Mumps? “I thought you immunized me against that.”

“I did,” DA laughs. “What sort of a moron do you take me for?” Then Teo sees his flying hands falter. He mutters softly, “Although I wonder… what sort of things could we catch from you?”

Teo grins. “Be careful, or I’ll come over there and breathe my alien germs on you.” Then he turns back toward the galley and a hot cup of tea, and DA recommences his reports.