It started like it did every morning; a shot of whiskey in my hand and Edith yelling at me about the bills. She goes on and on about the “over dues” and the “final notices”, but I wave her off as I close the door to my office. Bless her heart, she means well, but she knows like I do that if I don’t make another case soon we both will be out in the world looking for work.
Coffee stains and rings from my whiskey glass mar the otherwise perfect mess of papers I’ve got on my desk. To a stranger it might look unorganized, perhaps even disheveled, but then again a stranger isn’t likely to appreciate a well-aged bourbon or my prized collection of imported cigars. A man has his ways, and I have mine, and they include good tobacco.
“Mr. Staten, sir?” Edith’s voice buzzes in from somewhere under the papers on my desk. “There’s someone here to see you.”
I shove a pile of old case files aside to find the intercom.
“Send ‘em in, Edith. Thank you.” I reply, pressing the button. I let it click back into place as I pour myself another finger. I wasn’t expecting company this early. Probably collections. I figure that earns me another drink. It touches my lips as I hear the click of my door opening.
I smell her perfume before I look up. An aroma of lilac and something I couldn’t place, something sour. The scent of a woman with fine taste who knew where to get the expensive stuff, and had the money to buy it. The scent that meant heartache for any man who fell for it.
I look up to see if my guest matches her perfume and my heart skips a beat. She’s beautiful, tall with raven hair, red sultry lips, and a cocktail dress and heels both as orange as a burning sunset. The only thing ordinary about her is the duster she’s wearing to keep out the cold. Trouble on two legs, and she’s staring right at me.
“Excuse me. Mr. Staten?”
Her voice quivers with apprehension, her brow knits under the weight of a concern that’s killing her. Her eyes tell the tale before the words leave her lips. It was a story I was all too familiar with. A story of pain and loss.
“I heard you’re the guy to come to. That you can help me.”
“I might be, doll. Depends on what you need.”
She crosses the threshold and takes a seat in front of my desk. She gathers her purse into her lap as she settles. Her mascara is smeared with tears that stain her cheeks.
“I need to find somebody” she says.
“Then you’ve come to the right place. Finding people is a specialty. Who’s missing? When did you last seem ‘em?”
“My brother. I haven’t seen him in a week.”
“Your brother? I see.” I raise an eyebrow as I open my desk drawer and grab my notebook. “Describe him.”
“He’s tall, has dark hair. Thin.”
“Is it safe to say he looks a lot like you?” I ask, hovering my pencil over the page.
“Yes, we’re twins. The kind where you have one boy and one girl.”
“So, he’s a pretty boy. Can’t be hard to find with all the mugs this city has to offer.”
I can’t help but feel the smirk cross my lips as I begin to sketch this woman into my notebook. The details of her face begging to define themselves through my charcoal etches and hard black lines. The drawing fills in effortlessly, like I had drawn her face before. Not just before, but over and over, like a con practicing his pitch. I’m finished when I realize that I was supposed to be drawing her brother instead of her. I turn the page and scribble an outline of what I guessed him to look like. My beauty watches as my pencil glides over the page, waiting for the questions I have yet to ask.
“What’s his name?”
“Robert. Robert McKinley.”
“Where does he live?”
“Five-thirteen Los Feliz.”
“Where does he work?”
She hesitates. When I place my eyes on her I see her fidgeting with the strap of her purse.
“Miss?” I prod.
“He’s an actor. Well, he’s trying to be, so he works different jobs.”
She gives me a look that explains everything. The poor boy probably moved away young, trying to make a name for himself, only to struggle working odd jobs that paid peanuts compared to the glitz and glory that he surrounded himself with. The family must not have approved and I wondered if anyone else did, as well.
“Did he have any enemies?”
“No.” she replies, surprised at the question.
“No enemies? No one he might have rubbed the wrong way, or maybe someone he owed money to? Even in the family?”
She shakes her head tossing her hair about her shoulders.
“No. He’s the nicest man. Never borrowed money from us. Never missed our Sunday dinner. Until now, that is.”
“I got it.” I finish the details in my notebook and alter my sketch to match them. I draw his face a little more shallow and point out the nose. Given that he didn’t work steadily that Sunday meal was probably the only regular one he had in a given week. I figured that put him somewhere between, say, Clark Gable and Cary Grant.
“Do you know the last job he worked?”
“No, I don’t.” she says as she shakes her head again and looking down. I feel I’m revealing how little she knows about her brother and I bet it is a tough pill to swallow.
“Just a few more questions.”
“Do you have a picture of him?”
She reaches into her purse and pulls out a fold. Mixed between various notes and receipts I spy a few large dollar bills as she leafs through to find what she’s looking for. She pulls out a small and worn photograph and hands it to me.
“Here. This is him about ten years ago. I’m sorry I don’t have a more recent picture.”
“Any picture helps.” I say as I lay it on the page next to my sketch. It doesn’t change my estimation of his appearance so I turn my book to her and show her my work.
“How does this look? Is it accurate?”
“Yes” she gasps. “It looks just like him.”
She reaches out and touches the page, tracing a line along his jaw. I smile to myself, pleased that I got it close enough. I hand her back his photograph.
“Are you an artist, Mr. Staten? You’re really good. You got his personality down and everything.”
“I’m just a Joe who likes details, doll. I just find that having a steady hand and a good eye helps in a lot of things; drawing, shooting, and the occasional game of darts.”
She smiles at me and for a moment I choose to forget why she’s here. I imagine meeting her during a happier time when her stress and fears aren’t so close to her chest. I imagine she is even more beautiful, if that was possible, without the mist in her eyes and the pinch in her forehead.
“And what’s your name?” I ask, turning the notebook back around toward me.
She nods again. I flip back to her sketch and fill in her name.
“Evelyn. If I may call you Evelyn. How should I contact you when I find something or I need to ask you some more questions?”
“Here, let me give you my number” she asks, reaching for the notebook.
I hesitate. It’s a kneejerk reaction. Nothing to hide, and yet it feels so personal with her sketch exposed with all its detail. I keep the pause brief and I hand the notebook and pencil over.
“Oh my.” Her eyes light up when she looks upon her reflection in graphite. It’s her turn to pause while she takes in the artwork. More than enough seconds pass by to give me the sting of a second thought, but I am relieved when she continues.
“You really are good, Mr. Staten” she says, writing her number under her name, “You might want to think about selling your drawings.”
“I’m afraid I’m only as good as my muse. And I’m not so lucky to always have such a beautiful one in front of me.”
She smiles and hands me back my things.
“I hope you are at least half as good at being a gumshoe as you are at being charming.”
“Don’t worry. I’m even better.”
We share a laugh and I’m glad she’s relaxed enough to let it through. A more genuine smile on her suits her.
“Is there anything else you need from me?” she asks, her eyes casting downward.
“Just one thing.”
“What is it?” She looks back to me and flashing me that smile.
I grab my glass and finish my drink, the burn causing me to suck in air between my teeth.
I tell the cabbie to let me off down the street. Five-thirteen Los Feliz doesn’t exist, at least not from the main street. I decide a casual stroll won’t likely draw attention from the local color and would give me time to blend in.
The neighborhood looks like any other part of the valley. It still fights to come back from the depression. While the World War rages on stealing most of the able-bodied youth, the movers and the shakers of Hollywood remain behind. And with them so does their money and influence. The divide is apparent on every corner. The destitute gather and rummage outside the houses and businesses of the elite. Beggars feeding from the trash of movie stars. Towers are erected while the hungry pass by.
One such tower is here, five-eleven Los Feliz, an apartment building with a doorman. Across the street are a few residential lots with gates and fences. Five-fifteen is further down the road on the other side of an alley way that cuts behind the apartments. I wager the place I’m looking for is hidden down that alley. I pull up the collar of my coat and stroll in.
The alley leads me to a service entrance of the apartment building. Nestled along the building’s edge are dumpsters and trash cans that lead to the service door. Fences belonging to the row of houses block off the rest of the alley except for a gate with a mailbox balanced on it. The numbers are worn but read “five-one-three”.
I try the gate but it’s locked. I can’t see beyond it to the other side. A glance back down the alley tells me I wasn’t followed, so it’s out with the pick and I get to work. It takes a second to jimmy it open, but the lock gives way and the gate swings open. As I push it aside and slip into the yard, I’m met by the sight of a house that is long past its prime. It sits heavy under its own weight, bent from years without repair. The yard, if you could call it a yard, is mostly concrete. There’s nothing between me and the front door.
I take my time walking up to the house, being careful to take in my surroundings. I give it a once-over, scanning the windows and back door for any signs of forced entry but I find nothing out of place. There are no lights on inside and everything is quiet. I decide to take my search further.
The door’s unlocked. It slides open with a creak. The room beyond is bathed in black and I can see nothing from the threshold, so I head inside. As I move into the living room I pull out my flashlight from inside my coat and flick it on. The light cuts through the darkness and with it I can start to see the state of the place.
The carpet is torn and pulled up. There are holes in the walls. Chairs and the remains of a couch lie in pieces strewn about the room and a cabinet lies on its side with its drawers tossed around it. The house reeks of mold and mildew but not enough to cover the scent of the backed up pipes.
This is an old mess. The joint must have been tossed months ago. Someone was looking for something, and by the looks of it they didn’t find it. They ended up just trashing the place and destroying anything that I could use to figure out what happened. But, I was sure of one thing. This wasn’t a fight.
I didn’t see any blood, no signs of a struggle or dispute. The door jamb was intact, so they had a way to unlock the door. None of the furniture was out of place, even though most of it was smashed, so I know it wasn’t used to fend off any attackers. Nobody was home when the place was sacked giving me nothing to go on. I would need to come back with my crime scene kit if I wanted to know more.
The light of my flashlight flickers and dies. A buzzing starts in my ears causing an ache in my head.
“You should have left it alone, Staten.”
I whip around to face the voice. Three men stand between me and the door. It’s too dark to make out any of their features other than their long coats and fedoras. But I could make out their guns clear as day.
“You were out,” the middle one says.
“Kill him,” the left one says.
“Hey now. That seems a little brash for breaking and entering, don’t you think?” I say as I put up my hands.
“He might know where it is,” the middle one says. His voice is familiar to me but I can’t quite place it.
“We have our orders,” says the right one, training his weapon on me.
“Wait! He’s right. I know where it is,” I say as I lower my hands, but keeping them in view, “maybe if we all calm down a moment I’ll tell you where you can find it.”
“Speak quickly,” the middle one says, “Where is the device?”
Whatever it was they were looking for, they already knew it wasn’t here. I had to think carefully.
I reach for my weapon I’ve strapped to my side under my coat. I unload a shot at the one on the right as I dive for the overturned cabinet. I count four shots returned before I peak over the top and squeeze off a few of my own. I tag the one on the left and he goes down.
The other two separate, and I lose them in the darkness as they blend into it like shadows. I duck down again and count my shots. I’ve got two left and no time to reload. One of them fires another round splintering my cover. I can’t sit here much longer.
“Give it up, Staten!” says the familiar voice, “you won’t win.”
“I never do,” I say as I lean up to aim at the voice.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a ripple of movement before something slams into me. It knocks the flashlight out of my hands and sends it tumbling across the floor. I fight and kick at the one holding me down, but he has me pinned. His strength surprises me, stapling my wrists to the ground. He’s heavy, much too heavy for his size. I can’t move.
The other one approaches and stands over us, his gun aimed at my head.
“You never learn, you know that?” the familiar one says. “I used to admire that about you, your doggedness. Then I realized it wasn’t bravery, it was stupidity.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.”
“No, I’m sorry. I should have figured it out sooner. Before this.”
“Can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought that very same thought.”
“Kill him,” orders the one pinning me down, “we have our orders.”
“So we do,” the other agrees.
The flash of the muzzle blinds me. The man on top of me relaxes and falls to the floor. I feel myself being pulled up and so I follow the motion and stand trying to see through the haze in my eyes. The dark man backs up, holstering his weapon.
“Who are you?” I ask over the ringing in my ears.
“Someone you knew, when we both had other lives.” He picks up my revolver and flashlight. “There’s not much time to explain. In a few moments they’ll take what’s left of me. You need to find the device.”
“What device? What the hell’s going on?”
“Find the device, Staten. End the war.” He hands me my gun, but holds on to the flashlight turning it on. The light splashes over me before he turns it on to the man he killed. The body is gone, only a stain on the carpet in the shape of a man’s remains.
“What the f-“
“Tell my wife… Tell Sandy I love her.” He shoves the flashlight into my hands and backs away. He hunches and grabs his head.
I turn the flashlight on him and I finally see why I couldn’t make these guys out before. His skin, his clothes, all of him is black and slick like oil. The light reflects off him like a puddle in the street.
“GO!” he yells, and then screams as he falls to his knees, clutching his head. I back up but I can’t look away as his skin -his whole form- begins to bubble and boil. He cries in pain as his face contorts and shifts, the skin making waves over his cheeks and forehead. He draws his gun and points it at me.
I run out through the door and into the yard. I’m four steps outside when I hear a gunshot and his cries stop.
Suddenly it’s quiet.
I call the number Evelyn wrote in my notebook. It connects me to a lounge that calls itself “The Angel’s Share”. The lady on the line tells me that everyone is looking for Evelyn and, good news, she’s performing tonight. She gives me the address and tells me to bring a friend.
I arrive just in time for the midnight show, as I’m told as I walk through the door. The smell of cigarettes and liquor hang in the air making a buffer you almost have to push through to get into the lobby. The band plays its tune over the din of the crowd. People group up at the bar and down in the viewer’s pit in front of the stage. It’s lit just enough.
I order a couple fingers of whiskey from the barkeep, minding the “two drinks minimum” sign hanging on the wall. He doesn’t ask me if I wanted it neat or on the rocks. I take note of it but raise no objections when he slides me the drink. He was quick, and that counts. Enough for a tip.
The lights drop to almost nothing and the crowd falls silent. Everyone’s eyes turn to the stage. A collective breath is held and I can feel a static in the air. The spotlight shines down to a microphone in the center of the stage and the band starts to play. It’s a somber song, heavy with string bass and light on the keys. I put an elbow on the bar and throw back my drink, and I wait to see Evelyn.
The spotlight shifts to the edge of the stage and a shimmering orange splashes into view. A velvet gown, cut and fitted perfectly, slowly reveals itself as Evelyn emerges. She floats across the stage as if walking on air. She smiles for the crowd as she moves with a sultry measure, a reward for their unbroken attention. She caresses the microphone and tips it toward her lips. The blood red paint parts and she starts to sing.
“All that remains,” she croons, “are the strangers. They welcome you, who use you, you who lose your sanity for the sake of smoke.”
I’ve never heard this song before, yet it felt familiar. Her words paint a picture of men surrounded in smoke, slowly losing themselves in the pursuit of more. She speaks of them as if they are strangers to themselves, lost and without a light to bring them around. She sings as if she knows them, perhaps always knew them, even as they no longer know themselves. She’s helpless, as though she is watching it all happen, warning some newcomer of a danger she herself is entwined.
The audience is enraptured, and I admit to myself that I am lost in her voice as well. Even as the tone of the song becomes darker she sings it with such grace that I forget for a moment the danger that I, and maybe we all, are in. I leave the melody to play in my ears as she pushes the climax of the song.
“Let them in.” She lingers on the syllables. “Let them in. Take a deep breath, and let me in.”
The song finishes and the audience gives Evelyn her praise. They are polite, matching the subdued atmosphere of the song and the lounge as a whole. She waits for them only a moment before the band begins her next song. This one is more lively, a modern jazz tune in the vein of Ella Fitzgerald. Her voice is pitch perfect.
I wave the barkeep down for my second drink. More of the same with the same service coming along with it. It’s just the two of us here now with everyone down into the pit, so I figure now’s a good time for a few questions. He bears with me through my inquiry, handling me in such a way that I guess he’s used to hearing men talk of Evelyn. His answers are short, concise, practiced. Always leading to entice me to another night at the lounge. He circles around any question I ask. I get nothing useful.
Evelyn finishes a set of four songs before thanking the crowd and adjourning backstage. The band returns to their house music and the lounge finds itself awash in competing conversations once again. I slip away from the bar and make my way toward the backstage hallway where I’m stopped by a mountain of a man.
“No access” he says, looking somewhere beyond me as if he didn’t want acknowledge I was here. He must be used to this, too.
“She’s expecting me.”
“Sure she is.”
“Look buddy, I know how this goes better than you do. Just tell her I’m here to see her and let’s save everyone some time.”
He finally looks at me and sizes me up. He places his hands on his hips and crooks a smirk at me.
“And you are?”
He lingers on my name for a moment and then gestures to someone down the hallway who replaces him at the door. The mountain then disappears into the back. A few moments later he returns.
“He’s cool” he says to his partner before looking to me. “Come on.”
The other man steps aside and lets me through. I find myself weaving through a corridor that’s much too narrow that eventually spills out in to prep area for the stage. Props, instruments, and stage decorations litter the room and the back wall is lined with lighted mirrors for costume checks. Most of these are covered in dust or show signs of neglect and misuse. At one time this might have been the staging area for a full theatre production, but now it only serves as storage space for memories of a happier era. I’m led past the debris and brought to a door with a worn impression of a star on its face. The mountain opens it and allows me through, closing it behind me.
This is the star’s greenroom, and it looks the part. Masks and posters from old performances patch up the walls, old costume pieces dress up wire frames shaped like armless and legless women, and the floor is scattered by a few woven rugs whose colors have faded with time. A folding screen wall decorated in once finely detailed oriental patterns stands in front of an oaken vanity, blocking most of it from view. Through it I see the silhouette of a woman, her naked curves accented by the light.
“Mr. Staten?” she asks through the filter.
“Evelyn. Quite the set you had there. I had no idea you were a singer.”
“Oh, I hope you enjoyed it Mr. Staten.” She slips on a dress, covering her form and flattening out the definition of her shadow. “They’re new songs. I’ve been writing them for a while. They’re still a little rough, but I wanted to try them.”
“The audience seemed to like it.”
“Good, I’m glad.” She steps out from behind the screen and smiles at me. She switched out her elegant gown for a more relaxed day dress, keeping to the orange hues that suit her so well, though far less bright. She hinges on her bare toes to reach up and hang the gown on a peg near the vanity.
“So performance runs in the family, I take it?” I ask. My eyes take her in but a flash of darkness in my mind keeps me on track.
“No,” she gives a halfhearted laugh, “just Robert and me. Our parents were from a different time. Different values. They thought prohibition would save the country.”
“I mean a different kind of performance, Ms. McKinley.” I put it on the nose, and her momentary look of confusion pushes me further. “I went to the address you gave me. No one has lived there for months. And with the welcoming committee, I would think you were trying to set me up.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I think you do. They were expecting me and they nearly had me.”
“Mr. Staten, I don’t th-“ I don’t allow her to finish her thought. I pull my revolver and the sight of it stops her in her tracks.
“I think it’s time you tell me what’s really going on.”
Her hands raise and her eyes lock on to mine. I sense the pain behind them like I had when we met, but I press my point.
“Quickly now” I say.
“I’m sorry. It was the only way to get you to understand. You never would have believed me if I had just told you.”
“Told me what?”
“That they exist. The dark ones. The strangers.”
“So you know. Who are they and what do they want with me?” I ask with my gun.
“Dick, please… I’ll explain, just…just put that away.” Her eyes water and her body starts to tremble. Her pain is real, there’s no doubt.
“You sent me to die, Evelyn. I think it’s best for both of us if I keep a little insurance that you don’t get your wish.”
“What? No!” She gasps and shakes her head. “Dick, I would nev-“
“Then tell me why.”
“Because you told me to.”
“This isn’t the first time we’ve been through this.”
The darkness flashes in my mind again and a pain jabs me deep at the base of my skull. I see Evelyn’s face surrounded by the oil and smoke. It blocks out everything but her. She’s screaming at me. She’s crying and reaching for me. Then the oil tears her image apart.
I clutch my head and stagger back. The room is suddenly in a tumble and I can’t keep my balance. Evelyn is at my side in an instant, her body presses against me. She pulls the gun from my hand, but she doesn’t turn it on me. She sets it down. Her arms instead wrap around my shoulders and pull me in as close as she can manage. She stables me, relaxes me.
“Who…who are you?” I ask, forcing through the pain in my head.
“Dick,” she whispers, her lips upon my ear, “I’m your wife.”
“No, that’s impossible!” I push Evelyn away. She pulls back in resistance. Her arms reach for me even as I stumble away.
“It’s true,” she says. “Dick, you have to believe me. Think hard, you’ll remember. Think!”
The headache worsens and I cover my eyes. I can’t think straight. Something is searing in my mind and fills it with fire, and I can only recall the last few days before everything becomes black and fills with pain. I can see Evelyn’s face, but I can’t tell if it’s because I’m thinking of her now or if it really is some memory. When I try to push past it the pain becomes excruciating. If what she is saying is true, something’s blocking it. I can’t see it.
I wish I could.
But the pain, the pain will kill me.
“You hated the crowds,” she says, “but you weren’t going to lose your first case. You wouldn’t let him get away.”
I strained to look at her. Her eyes tried to show me what she was seeing.
“You tracked him to Coney Island,” she continues, “and to the diner I was working at. You questioned my boss until he told you he was hiding out in the back room. When you busted through the door you found him holding me hostage with a gun to my head. I was so scared, but somehow- somehow I knew you were going to save me.”
“I shot him,” I say. I remember his face. And the jerking of his head as my bullet ripped through it.
“Yeah. One shot. Do you remember what you said to me after that?”
Was there someone else there? I dig deeper into my memory. I remember the case. I remember seeing the murders he committed. I remember him fleeing from his apartment when my unit raided the place. I remember him shooting at us and hitting one of the squad. And I remember chasing him to Child’s diner.
We were alone, two men in a standoff. I was just the faster shot.
“Stop it.” I say and I turn for the door. Evelyn grabs my arm.
“What did you say to me after you shot him?” she pushes.
“You’re lying, Evelyn. There was no one else there.” I try to shake her off my arm. I try to force her out of my mind.
“Then how do I know, Dick? How could I know that you shot him dead?”
“It was a shooting. At Coney Island. Everyone knew.”
“What did you say to me?” This was a command more than a question. I stop and look at her and like a habit my mouth opens before I know what was going to come out of it. My temples immediately begin to burn again.
“What are you talking about?” I say as I try to not focus on the pain.
Her order stabs into my mind and a fire blazes in my sinuses. My eyes go dark. I stifle a wince of agony between my teeth.
I’m compelled to answer, but the pressure in my head is building and threatening to pop. The scene of that man’s death in the diner replays over and over, but now something is different. Someone is there. We were not alone.
A girl was there. Dark hair, youthful face, blood splattered across her cheek.
A girl was there. Crying her deep blue eyes, twisting her red painted lips.
A girl was there.
And I said something to her.
“Please…” Evelyn’s tears ran her mascara now, just as it did then.
And then it was clear.
An explosion shakes the room. Muffled, the sounds of gunfire and screaming puncture the air. Evelyn and I are thrown to the ground as the far wall takes an impact from the other side. Smoke erupts from under the door. I quickly regain my footing and grab my gun from the table, instinctively covering Evelyn by placing myself between her and the commotion.
“We have to get out of here,” Evelyn yells over the ringing in our ears. “They won’t be kept back for long.”
She rushes for the tattered rug and pulls it up revealing a trapdoor. She fingers for the hidden latch and pops it up. She grabs it with both hands and pulls.
“Hurry,” she barks.
I watch the smoke under the dressing room door for any signs of movement as I stow my gun and step backwards to join her. She swings the trapdoor open and hesitates only a second before dropping down into the tunnel. Grabbing her shoes from next to the dresser, I jump in after her.
She locks the trapdoor from the underside. The smoke is thick, amplifying the shadows and compressing the already tight corridor. I at once feel confined, there are two paths before us but both terminate in a total void giving me no obvious prompt to move forward. Evelyn’s hand finds my arm and she tugs giving me a direction. I have no choice but to follow.
“What is this? Why is there smoke?” I ask, tapping Evelyn on the side with her shoes. She takes them and slips them on without missing a step.
“This is a stage tunnel. Back that way it opens up under the stage so actors can get on and off without being seen. The smoke must be coming from there.”
“And this way?”
“It heads out to the street. Hopefully they don’t know about it. They shouldn’t. They haven’t taken anyone who knows.”
“Who are they? What’s going on?”
Evelyn slows her pace. I feel her grip on my arm tighten.
“You call them ‘the strangers’,” she says. “We don’t know where they came from, but we know what they want. They have been systematically taking people, people who know things, run things, and brainwashing them. Re-inserting them. They are preparing things for when they take over. They want slaves.”
“Why are they after me?”
“You were the first to resist. You can see them for what they really are. You began the resistance.”
She turns toward me, her hands cupping my face.
“You’re the reason they haven’t won, yet. You’re the reason we’re still free.”
“I don’t feel free.” I grab her wrists and pull her hands away. “I feel like a mouse after some cheese. From the moment you came into my office I have been chasing your leads, and I don’t know any more now than I did then.”
She sighs, sensing my frustration.
“This was easier the first time.”
“I don’t remember ever being easy.”
“You don’t remember anything,” she laughs lightly, despite herself.
I let go of her wrists and her hands move to my shoulders. I swear for a moment I can remember her touching me like this in some previous life, but I shake off the thought and focus on the moment.
“Come on,” I say, slipping past her and taking her by the hand, “we’ll talk when we’re somewhere sa-”
Blinding light surrounds us. Before I can react we’re both on the ground, thrown by the force of an explosion just above us. The brick of the corridor scatters in all directions and rains down on us like hail. I roll, looking for Evelyn and pull myself on her when something grabs my ankle and rips me away. Stricken deaf, Evelyn’s screams are replaced by a high-pitched whine as I am dragged at high speed through the rubble. I can read her lips, she’s screaming my name. And then she is too far away.
I twist to look at what has me. Black, long like a snake, an oily appendage grips my leg with a terrifying strength. With all my will I try kick it free, but it coils around my leg tighter and thrashes me against the ground. With a sudden snap it pulls me up in the air wracking my body and sending my vision into a spin. I’m hoisted over the street and rising higher with every second. I reach for my gun but find the holster empty.
The momentum slows. The tentacle stops retracting and I can lift myself up to see its source. My breath is caught in my throat as I see the thing that’s got me.
All I see is black.
When you are left alone with your thoughts they have a habit of turning on you. Like looking through an old dirty mirror you begin to see all the grime that has accumulated in your life. Most of the time it’s your decisions that haunt you. I’m used to that, the feeling of regret that helps you grip your glass just a bit tighter with each drink. What bothered me now was all that was missing. Emotions without memories. Anger and regret without knowing why.
Evelyn’s revelation started a flood in my mind. Answers now came in images I don’t understand. Memories rush by, one after the other. I see the oily faces of Strangers as I pass by them in the streets in some memory from before all this started. There was one, maybe two in the crowd, trying to blend in, avoiding my eye contact. Then there’s more of them as I see a rally for some local politician in the park. He is like them, and he preaches his politics up on the bandstand while his fellows whisper in the ears of the untainted. Then there’s a tumble of faces. People I know. Colleagues, acquaintances, friends. I see some as they turn, their oily faces twisting in a new hatred directed at me. I see others as corpses on the ground. And I see myself, falling to my knees while clutching a man with a hole in his chest with one hand a gun in my other. I see his last breath leave him.
I awake in a shock as a scream breaks through my unconscious. My eyes struggle to adjust to the light, and as I try to bring my hand up to shield them I find it bound to my chair. I try to reach over with my other hand only to find it locked in place as well. My leg hurts, the bindings digging into the swelled flesh. The glare recedes enough for me to see a door closing muffling the screams behind it, and a figure crosses in front of me as it walks to the other side of the room.
“Wakey, wakey, Dick.”
Chief Detective Watts. I’d know that crooked bastard’s voice anywhere.
“Watts, you son of a bitch.” My instinct dictates I try to strangle the man, but my bindings object.
“Calm down, Dick,” Watts says as he pulls a chair over and sets it across from me, “that’s no way to greet an old friend.”
He sits down. I can see him clearly now. The taint of the Strangers is all over him, his exposed skin running with their trademark oil. He wears his shirt loose, a button or two at the top undone. He’s strapped with a handgun at his side as if he is still on the force. He grins at me. I can only stare him down in return.
“I suppose from your point of view we have a lot of catching up to do,” he continues, “it’s been, what, ten years since you last remember seeing me?”
I know he’s leading me. With what Evelyn said, and my own jumbled record of events, I figure it best to keep my mouth shut. He watches me for the moment, but when I don’t respond he lets his grin drop.
“Maybe not,” he says. “Maybe this time around you feel the lapses in your memories.” He cocks his head as he inches closer, looking over my face and head as if the answer is under my skin. “Or maybe we finally found your sweet spot and all you can remember is my name.”
“I remember what you did, Watts. I remember finding you with that little girl.” I snarled as I said it. His eyes finally meet mine as I go on. “I remember tearing the shit out of you like you did her. How could I forget?”
Watts frowns and stands up.
“It was the second best day of my life,” I hiss.
“Do you remember the first?”
“Aside from seeing you locked up to rot?”
“Do you remember the happiest day of your life, Dick,” Watts forces. With one question he reasserts his dominance.
My mind recoils from the dissonance. I at once feel a moment of great joy, but also the pang of having no memory associated with it. My confidence drains, and as it does so Watts hovers closer.
“I was there, you know. I was at your wedding.” Watts sneers as he disappears behind me. He reaches above my head and for the first time I notice a metal semi-circle contraption mounted to a mechanical arm just above me. “Evelyn was a sight to see, looking so elegant in her dress. You weren’t half-bad, yourself.” He adjusts the bundle of wires and gears over my head. “All those years on the force together I never saw you nervous. Not even on your first day, fresh from New York, from beat cop to detective.” He pulls the contraption downward, the bowl hovering just over my head. “No, never nervous, until the moment you saw her. I remember it like it was yesterday.” He comes close to my ear. “It’s a shame you never will.”
I rear my head back and snap at him with my teeth, my rage surprising us both in its suddenness. It’s a useless effort, however, as he remains well out of reach. He only laughs at my attempt.
“Tell you what, Dick, I’m not completely heartless,” he says as he comes around front again. “I’m going to do you a favor. You see, it was my idea that we play this little game with you.”
“A simple game,” he says as he walks across the room to the other side. A series of toggle-switches is bolted in next to a panel of dials and gauges and a large throw-switch. He flicks a few of the switches and the room gives off a low buzz. “We catch you, we erase your memory, we let you go. And then when it seems like you are just about to put things back together, we do it all over again.”
“How’s that a game?”
“Well, we do let you go.” He flips another switch, I hear the device above me sizzle. “Give you a fighting chance.”
“Why? What do you gain by doing this to me?”
“Gain?” He adjusts a dial. “Do you have any idea how satisfying it is to me to fry your noodle over and over again? I can’t wait until it all pays off.”
I remain silent as he continues to fiddle with the dials. He flips another switch and the sound of gears adds itself to the symphony of industrial noise.
“Aren’t you going to ask about that?” he asks as he reaches for the throw-switch.
“I have a feeling you’ve already told me before.”
“I have, but I like saying it.”
“Fine. I’ll bite. What’s the payoff, then?”
He grins as his fist clamps on the switch.
“I’ll get to see you break.”
He flips the switch. Every muscle I have seizes. An electric current bolts its way through my flesh and I lose control of my body. Through broken bits of vision I alternate between seeing the room and seeing nothing at all. At first I can’t even process it, but then the machine begins to do its work and my thoughts start congealing like so much spilled blood.
A smattering of new images appear, bridging connections to the bits I already had and closing the gaps that still remained. Suddenly I can now remember my wedding and the white dress Evelyn wore. I remember my last tour as a beat cop in New York before landing my detective’s badge and having to move to L.A. I remember leaving the force to start my own private practice. And I remember why, too. I remember Watts getting released on some technicality, making all my work to bring him down worthless.
The machine brought back the all the pieces of my life, lining them up in a neat little row. I could feel it processing them, sorting them, picking out the most vivid and powerful memories and bringing them up to the forefront of my mind. My honeymoon with Evelyn, drunk and in the rain, and never happier. And then without warning, it’s gone. The first time I kissed her, putting her coat around her shoulders surrounded by the snow. Then it’s gone. The first time we met, at Child’s Diner, the blood on her face. And then…
Watts is still talking. I can’t understand him, but he’s still talking. The bastard, child molesting, disgraced detective is still talking, and by the sound of it he’s gloating. His voice begins to pierce through the buzz as I hone my hatred of the man and focus on it. I need to get out of this chair and I can only think of one way to do it, but I’m going to need his help. Luckily the machine brought up just what I needed to get it.
“Hey Watts, I- I think you need to try- a little harder,” I grunt through my teeth, “I can still- still remember your- pathetic face- at the trial.” I strain to breathe between my words. “I still- I still remember how I, a- a rookie, put the great Chief Detective Watts b-behind bars.”
“Just relax, Dick,” Watts croons, “Soon this will all be like a dream. Just like before.”
“Aw, w- what’s wrong, Watts? D- didn’t like the company? Cellmates didn’t p- play nice?”
“Just give in,” Watts says, “stop struggling.”
“They g- gave it to you like you did that little g- girl.”
“You shut your mouth,” Watts warns.
“Hard. Right in the-“
“Enough!” Watts throws the switch and crosses the room in an instant, fist across my jaw like a jackhammer.
“You shut your mouth, you son of a bitch,” he says, slamming into my face again.
“Come on, Watts,” I spit back. “You knew you weren’t half the man you were on the outside. Such a fucking disappointment, too. Didn’t even put up a fight. In fact, I bet you asked for the sugar.”
“You don’t know me, Staten!” He punches me in the face again, the pain radiates from my cheek as the inside of my mouth is gashed against my teeth. “You don’t know what it was like in there!” A fourth and a fifth strike at my face and he’s quickly degraded into pummeling me. He hits me with such force it knocks me against the chair, testing the limits of my bindings. With each strike he strains them and they loosen. More than that, he’s too focused on rearranging my face to notice.
As soon as I feel my wrist slip enough I wait for his next blow. My eye starts to swell, but I’m long past feeling any pain from his attacks, so it’s easy to wait for the right one.
“I did what I had to do, Staten! What I had to do!”
He throws another punch and I slip out of my restraint. With his body committed to the act he can’t stop me as I grab his wrist and force it into the back of the chair. I hear his knuckles crack against the metal and feel his arm buckle. His balance is lost, and he throws his other arm back in desperation to stay upright. His loose shirt is within my reach and I grab for it and pull. All of his momentum shifts, and he beings to trip over his own legs. With as much of a yank I could muster, I pull his neck toward me and lob my head forward. As my forehead smashes into his face I feel his teeth give way. He crumples at my feet.
I pull his gun from his holster and cock back the hammer. He looks at me with a daze in his eyes.
“Wish I could regret this,” I mutter, leveling the barrel against his temple. He slumps backward, a fear in his eyes as all of the possible outcomes flash across his face. He hesitates pondering between running, pleading, or attacking as evidenced by his eyes. He reaches for the gun. I pull the trigger.
“But I don’t.”
Watts’ body slumps before me, his head split from the point-blank shot. The room is silenced from the noise, my ears nearly as deaf as my eyes are blind. I know I won’t be alone for long, so I don’t hesitate to drop the gun and free my limbs from their bindings.
Once free I turn Watts over and check him for anything useful. I find his old badge, and for a brief moment I remember my time back on the force with him. They weren’t great times in particular, but I can recall the comradery of us on the detective’s unit. I’m about to scorn Watts one last time on his pretentiousness in keeping the badge after his disgrace when I realize that I, too, am lost in the memory. I shake it from my head and pocket the badge.
I relieve Watts of his holster and strap it around myself, stowing his gun. He’s got nothing else of value save a cigarette and some matches, the latter of which find their way into my pocket as well. As I lay him out and prepare to leave, I see the oil in his skin begin to bubble. I pull away as his skin sizzles, and the black begins to froth and foam, coating his body in a viscous ooze. His form buckles and caves in on itself, as if hollowed out from within. The oil continues to burn him like acid until there is nothing left of him but a stain burned into the brick floor.
I look around the room. The switches and gauges of the machine mean nothing to me, and I see little use in trying to figure them out. The contraption hums, I notice, as my hearing begins to return. And over it I can hear the cries of others somewhere outside the room. I step over toward the door and I slowly pull it open.
The cries double in volume as the seal breaks. I’m greeted with a long brick hallway with doors lining both sides. They are identical to this one except for the numbers painted on each one. Mine is twenty-four. There’s a light at the end of the hallway, over an unmarked door, and the numbers descend toward it. As I edge out of the room and into the hall, I can begin to make out some of the voices. A few are distinct, men and women both screaming out in agony, a few pleading for mercy. Some are just screaming. Others crying. The rest blending together in a mix of broken noise. Only room twenty-five appears to be silent.
I hear a click, and a lock unlatch. At the far end of the hall the unmarked door opens. I reach out and try the knob on twenty-five, and at its slightest give I slip through the crack and close the door behind me. I find myself in a room matching the one I had just left, except this one had no machine built into it. Instead, it was rigged with a curtain hanging from a track in the ceiling and was stocked with shelves full of bowels and linens, unchanged from its original purpose, a surgical suite. In the center of the room an operating table is bolted to the floor, and on it a mountain of a man is strapped securely in place. His head popping up as he hears the door close.
“Dick?” the club bouncer says, a look of relief in his eyes, “Oh thank god, Dick. Get me out of here.”
“Shhh…” I caution as I cross the room toward him. “Someone’s in the halls. Stay quiet.”
I look over his restraints, lengths of leather and buckles. I tug on one, but it doesn’t loosen.
“I thought they had you for good this time,” he says, “how did you get out? Was that gunshot you?”
“Hey, what’s your name?”
He hesitates, stricken by the question.
“Listen Jimmy, stay quiet. With any luck they won’t come looking for me in here, okay?”
“You don’t remember me.” His head lays back down on the gurney. “Just like last time.”
“It doesn’t matter if I do or don’t, does it? I hear I keep coming back for more, so maybe this is something I can’t let go no matter how many times they take it all away from me.”
I hear the voices of two men as they come closer. Their footsteps stop outside the door. I tap Jimmy on the arm, signaling to him where I’m headed, and then turn to slip behind the curtain. I steady my breathing as I hear the door open and the two men enter.
They step into the room and close the door. I hear the click of hard-soled shoes travel the brick as they approach Jimmy. I see his head come up to look at the men as they get closer.
“Jimmy McIntire,” one says, coming around between me and Jimmy, but staying just out of my line of sight, “bodyguard to Evelyn McKinley, am I right?”
Jimmy remains silent.
“Also known as Evelyn Staten.”
There’s a pause from the man as his partner crowds the gurney from the other side. I catch a glimpse of him and recognize the oil on him instantly.
“So, Jimmy, we know who you and Evelyn really are. You are Dick’s right hand man, third in command of the resistance. Do you know why we are talking with you, instead of just killing you?”
Right hand man? Was he pretending to not know me at the club?
“Because we know that you would rather carry out your duty than let Evelyn, or anyone else, come to harm. And that’s exactly what’ll happen if you don’t help us.”
“Help you? If you know so much about me, then you know I’ll never help you.”
The second man raises his hands and shows he’s holding a glass jar. Something small flitters inside of it, glowing with a color I almost can’t see but concentrating to a core of a deep black. It looks like a butterfly without its wings.
“The Collective has seen it fit to give you a choice. If you surrender willingly, you will become one of us. You will tell us where Evelyn and the others are hiding, and you will save their lives and countless others from dying in this silly resistance. Or…”
The man trails off, but Jimmy doesn’t give a reaction.
“Or we turn you anyway, and your mind will forever be tormented by the Collective as you are shown every last one of the people you care about dying, forced to relive every scream and every death, until you break, knowing that all their suffering is on your shoulders.”
Jimmy flinches, and I get the sense that he knows they aren’t lying. Still, he remains silently defiant.
“So be it.”
The second man opens up the jar and reaches in, pulling the bug out with a pinch. Jimmy’s eyes dart to it and he starts to struggle against the straps, but the first man grabs his head and forces his face toward me, exposing his ear. Jimmy’s eyes lock on to me as they hover the bug over him. As if in anticipation, the wingless butterfly flares its colorless aura.
“Remember Jimmy, it’ll be better if you just give in.”
They drop the bug into his ear and Jimmy screams through gritted teeth as it digs its way down. I hear his flesh be torn and hear his skull crack as the bug burrows. In a moment I can’t see the glow anymore, and instead the veins of Jimmy's ear begins to run with oil.
The door slams open and I hear the rush of many voices and footsteps passing by it.
“Biggs, Wedge. Watts is dead and Staten’s missing. Let’s go” commands a voice from the hall.
The man lets go of Jimmy’s head and leans in close to him.
“We’ll be back, Jimmy. Be ready to talk.”
“Fuck you,” Jimmy grunts through his clenched teeth.
The men turn and leave the room. With the door closed their movements are quickly lost within the sounds of commotion, and I emerge from my hiding place. I run to Jimmy’s side and pull at the strap on his arm, releasing it.
“No, go. Get out of here,” he says, as he grabs the side of this head, struggling against the parasite.
“Jimmy, I didn’t know. I didn’t remember.” I look at his face, the oil pushes its way through his veins but he manages to keep it slow somehow.
“Dick! Get Evelyn and get gone. Once this thing gets in my brain it’ll know where she’s hiding. It’ll know everything.” He winces and I hear another bite from inside his head.
“I don’t know where she is.”
“You can find her. You always find her.” Jimmy screams again as the oil begins to reach across his forehead and dig into his eyes. “They can’t break you, Dick. They don’t know why, but they can’t. You need to get out of here and save them.”
“How? They’re swarming the place. I’ve got five bullets left and any one of them will bring them all running.”
“Give me your gun.”
I look at him. The oil has almost completely taken over his face, but his eyes stay steady. He holds out his hand.
“We both know what it means if I hand it over.”
“You’ll have your distraction. Slip out.”
I nod and pull the gun, laying it in his hand. He doesn’t take it up right away, instead he merely holds it. I free his legs from the gurney and unlatch his other arm, taking it to help him on his feet. Once he steadies, he pushes me away.
With labored steps he slowly approaches the door and places his hand on it. He takes a deep breath, this mountain of a man growing in size with the last ounce of will he can muster.
He opens the door and fires two shots.
Jimmy is riddled with bullets. The return shots are instant, and he’s quickly pummeled with ballistics as the agents address the new threat. Even with the holes in his chest and arms leaking blood and oil, the mountain staggers forward increasingly edging into a run. Before they could process what was happening, Jimmy crushes one man under foot and is squeezing the life out of another.
My window is small, but the distraction Jimmy is providing is indispensable. The hallway empties in seconds as Jimmy makes his way beyond the unmarked door and the beehive swarms after him, shouting and shooting in a vain attempt to end the rampage. Whether it was rage or duty empowering Jimmy I couldn’t question, but no doubt the thing in his head was giving him the power to keep fighting.
I make my way into the now empty hallway and approach the unmarked door. Beyond lies a lobby of some kind, a flat open space with little occupying it. On the other side I see a pair of double-doors. As my view of the room widens I can make out a reception desk. It’s bare and unused.
The commotion is a mile away as I enter the lobby. I cross the space and place my ear to the doors and listen, but nothing gives itself away on the other side. Pushing just enough to crack the seal, I peer around the edge into the adjoining room. A body lies on the floor, his skin already melting away, marring the otherwise smooth floor. I take his gun and move on.
Beyond the lobby door I’m directed by the hall to enter the main atrium. It funnels toward the hospital entrance, through which I can see the street. On either side of me are more double-doors, one reading “Observation” and the other “Administration”. The blood streaking across the door to the observation rooms tell me that Jimmy went that way. As much as I’d like to join him, or do the smart thing and get the hell out of this place altogether, my gut tells me to head through administration.
The doors give. Checkerboard-tile floors spread down another hallway, broken by more rooms. They’re offices, with glass walls and empty desks. Papers litter the unused spaces. I hesitate and begin to question my choice when my head starts to buzz. It feels almost mechanical, and it brings a sort of pressure behind my eyes and in my ears. I continue on for a few feet, stopped again by a painful pop releasing some of the tension in my head. Still, I’m drawn forward and the buzzing increases.
Before I could react, my knees slam into the floor and I grip my head. The buzzing reaches a fever-pitch and whitewashes my senses with frequencies that cause my ears to dribble blood. Vertigo surrounds me and I feel like I’m on a two-seater plane after a particularly hard night of whiskey chasers, only the pain is like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I’m sure I’m screaming, but I can neither hear nor feel it. The strain in my jaw is my only indicator.
I’m pushed past the point that I can take and I panic as I feel the need to bolt. I struggle to stand, but my legs are not my own. They barely acknowledge my commands and flail about uselessly. Needing to get away as fast as I can, I roll to the floor and reach out, palming the tile to pull myself forward, each hand over the last. I have no idea where I’m going. I have even less idea how I’d get there.
The pressure pulses. My arms give way.
The pressure pulses again and my head feels like it’s going to split.
And then nothing.
In an instant it all vanishes. My head is silent, the pain - gone. I open my eyes and see the end of the hallway before me and my blood on the ground. As I return to my feet and stand, I can see everything around me ripple as if the world is printed on water. The hard edges and angles of the office rooms now seem fuzzy, almost incongruent. They don’t line up. They don’t make sense.
A blue pinpoint of light eeks its way through the undulating wall, peeking out when the ripple is at its lowest. The light is hard, stable, fixed. It is the only thing in this ethereal world that seems solid. As I come closer to get a better look, the pinpoint expands. The closer I get, the more it glows, until standing just before it I am bathed in its light. I reach out for it and touch it.
The light envelops me, surrounding me in warmth. The source remains, as if the light and its emitter are two separate objects in space, the space in between which I now occupy. Through the source I can see islands of stone that appear to float over a sea of oil. Black butterflies flutter around on wings of cellophane. They swarm over one island in particular, the largest of the butterflies hovering over a strange altar.
The island drifts closer, or my view floats toward it, and I can begin to make out that the altar is the back of an old oak chair, the features of it worn with time and corrupted as it’s covered in oily drips. The largest butterfly draws closer to whatever sits in the chair, thin black lines growing from its body and reaching toward the chair. As if responding by my desire to see my vision moves again, swinging around behind the butterfly. I watch as its thread-like lines extrude toward the man in the chair.
Unknowingly old, a lone man sits locked into the chair. His body is encased in oil. What hair remains is white with age, matching the only detail of his pupil-less, cataract-filled eyes. His skin is sunken and pale, he is malnourished. If not for his slow labored breathing I would not know if he was even alive.
The butterfly’s threads converge on the man’s forehead. He winces at the touch and then seizes, his head shaking violently and his mouth foaming. A point of light emerges from his skull and the butterfly’s threads surround it, pulling on its edges, coaxing it bigger and bigger. When it’s large enough a dozen smaller butterflies dart toward the light and fly into it one by one, disappearing from view. When it seems like the man can’t take any more of the stress, the butterfly releases him and the portal shuts.
Finished with the poor soul the large butterfly pulls away, tearing out its threads that are still glued to the man’s forehead, and flies out of view. Several smaller ones swarm the face of the man, tearing the threads from his skin and shoving them down his throat. Oily jelly is oozed into his mouth until he coughs on it, and then they too abandon him. He is left alone to rest until they need him again.
I will my point of view to hone in on him. The details of his face become clearer to me. His eyes, still rolled to the back of his head, remain open. His lips are chapped, and there is evidence of wounds long since healed and reopened over and over all over his face. He coughs again, spitting out the substance that blocks his breathing, reacting purely by reflex.
Suddenly my vision is locked on his face, zoomed to his eyes. It shudders, rumbling out of control. The buzzing returns bringing with it its pain, but this time it doesn’t cloud my view and I can’t look away. I’m held in torment as I’m forced to watch his lifeless eyes seize again, then slowly slide downward as his pupils roll toward me. He somehow locks eyes with me, focused despite his convulsions. His mouth trembles, his bitten tongue fighting his teeth.
“The device! Close the gate!”
All I see is black.
“Wake up, honey.”
My head hurts. It’s becoming usual. But, Evelyn’s voice carries through the pain.
“Come on, we’ve got to get ready.”
I open my eyes and look around our bedroom. It must still be early, our room is awash in muted grays and shadows. I rub my eyes and toss back the covers. I feel numb as I stand.
“You must have had a rough night. You’re still dressed.”
I look over myself. I’m wearing my patrol uniform. It looks a little roughed up, but still has all the creases and folds ironed in by Evelyn.
“I guess I must have,” I say as I follow the voice. Evelyn sounds like she is in the living room, so I stumble in that direction. I turn the corner out of the bedroom and head down the hall.
The kitchen opens up to my left. Black and white tile. Sterile. Not my choice, and not Evelyn’s either, but our options were limited trying to find an apartment on a cop’s salary. Might have been easier if Evelyn could find work. If anyone could find work during the Depression.
I enter it, expecting to see some coffee in the maker, or some eggs cooked on the stove. All I see is a clean kitchen.
“You want some coffee, love?” I ask, sending my voice over my shoulder to the living room.
“Come on, we’ve got to get out of here,” she responds.
I shrug, giving up on the idea. I suppose we’ll get some on the way.
I enter into the living room and am greeted by more darkness. The curtains are pulled open revealing a multi-paned window, easily the best feature of the apartment, and I can see that it’s raining. Evelyn sits on the couch in front of the window, her back to me, packing clothes into a suitcase on the coffee table, the orange of her blouse barely visible in the shadows.
“Where are we going, again?” I ask, walking up and leaning on the back of the couch.
“Your detective’s exam is today,” she says, still packing, “it’s time to move.”
“My exam? Well, shit, I should change. Look presentable.”
“There’s no time,” she says, gently patting the next item into the suitcase, “you have a lot to do and not much time to do it.”
“Hm, I suppose so,” I mumble, a twinge developing behind my eyes, “but let’s make some time to stop and get coffee. I’m going to need it.”
Evelyn takes yet another item of clothing, folds it neatly, and places it into the suitcase. It’s full.
“You’re going to need more than that,” she says. Lightning crashes outside the window, sending pulses of light into the room and bathing it in white. For a second, everything’s reversed, all that was black is now white, and all that was white is now black. Like the negatives you get when you develop a roll of film. When the light ends, Evelyn is at the window looking out.
“What do you mean?” I ask, walking around the couch and coming up behind her.
“Lives are at stake,” she says.
“Now you’re being dramatic.” I place my hands on her shoulders, she is cold to the touch.
“This is where everything turns,” she says, “this is the day that you start everything.”
“What are you talking about,” I ask, confused.
She turns. I step back, breath caught in my throat. Evelyn looks at me with darkness in her eyes, a blackness that resembles oil.
“Today is the day you get everything you wanted. Watts is in jail, you pass your exam, and you land your detective’s badge.”
I stare at her eyes, the oil seeping from them, spreading into the veins around them.
“Do you remember?” she asks. “You were so confident you told me to pack things up. No more apartment. We’d have a house soon.”
“Yeah, I remember,” I say, watching Evelyn’s face as the oil digs into her cheeks and crests her nose. The twinge behind my eyes reminds me of itself, getting stronger.
Lightning flashes again, and again the world is a negative. In this moment I see Evelyn as I’ve always seen her, radiant and full of a natural beauty that tugs at me every time I see her. But then the light fades, and her beauty is replaced by a shadow and a scowl, as the oil flows even further.
“Evelyn, what’s wrong? I thought you’d be happy,” I ask, hearing myself say the words, unsure why I’d ask them.
“Think, Dick. What’s the most important thing in the world to you?”
“You,” I respond without hesitation. She meets the words with a laugh.
“No, honey, that’s not true.”
“Of course it is. Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Because you couldn’t remember me.”
“What are yo-”
“Every time your mind is wiped, you forget me. You forget all of us. All we’ve accomplished, all of it. You don’t even remember what you’ve done. But, do you know what you do remember?”
I am shocked by her words, and step back again. My confusion is now a bundle of pain joining the one behind my eyes. The oil now stretches across her neck, tracing her veins into her shoulders.
“What’s so important to you that, no matter what happens to you, you always pick yourself up off the floor to keep doing?”
She steps forward.
“I always come back for you, Evelyn,” I say, fumbling over the words.
“You know that’s not true.” She steps toward me again.
“I-I don’t… Evelyn, help me.”
“What’s in your heart, Dick? Why do you keep going? Through the pain, the suffering? Why do you fight?”
Evelyn is now mostly oil. It oozes and swirls over her skin, draining the color out of her blouse and spilling onto the floor at her feet. As she steps, she leaves shoe prints on the floor, tar that settles and bubbles.
“Stop it. Stop this,” I command, steeling myself and barring her with my arm, my other hand reaching for my holster.
“That’s it, Dick. Deny me. Threaten me. Point the gun and shoot me. Remove me from your life and your memories.”
“I don’t want to hurt you, Evelyn, please just stop.”
“The world depends on you, Dick. I can never stop. None of us can. What’s left of us, anyway. And we need you to lead us.”
The oil from her chest now bleeds over onto my arm. It’s cold, and I can feel it eating its way through my clothes.
“But you won’t lead us. You won’t remember us. You let us go so easily. You let them kill us, consume us, become us. And you do nothing. Why? What’s more important than us?”
The walls of the apartment breathe, oozing out oil from some invisible pores as they swell. The oil pools all around me and begins to fill the living room. The pain has now reached a pitch in my head, a humming and buzzing that struggles to burrow its way out of my eyes. That’s when I hear it; a mechanical sound churns in my head. The sound of small gears twisting in an unseen device. The sound is loud, encompassing everything, resonating through my skull. It’s the source of my pain.
“There are only two things in this world I’ll never give up, Evelyn,” I say as I push into her harder, letting the oil crawl its way up my arm and over my shoulder.
“Tell me.” The oil’s in her mouth, on her teeth.
I grab her and pull her in, pressing her against me as hard as I can. The oil attacks me, rising off of her and stabbing down at me with blades shaped from itself. They dig into my body, latching me to her, but I still hold on to her.
“Tell me,” she growls, the oil forming fangs and sharp edges over her teeth.
“I don’t think so, but I’ll give you a hint.”
I kiss her. With a passion that I could muster, with every ounce of love I feel for her I kiss her. The oil stabs me deeper, it’s blades reaching my insides. The gears in my head turning in their warning song. Despite this, I kiss her and I don’t let go.
A warmth begins to wash over me. At first it feels like my blood was released out of my wounds, but when I open my eyes, Evelyn, my Evelyn, stands before me. She’s smiling. Her orange lipstick smeared. Her arms around me.
The apartment is bright, it’s a sunny morning. I smell coffee. The pain’s gone.
She kisses me, and then places her head on my chest.
“I knew it,” she says, her arms clutching me harder.
“You know how stubborn I am,” I say.
“I know,” she says, taking in a deep breath.
She looks up at me, a look of determination forming in her eyes.
“I need you to do one more thing for me, love,” she says, a smirk crossing her lips.
I wake with a start. The pain in my sides from my dream stabbing seems all too real as I push it away and try to remember where I am. Debris from the ceiling is falling around me and I hear the echo of an explosion buffeting through the halls, the beginning of the sound lost somewhere before my consciousness. My vision clears some and I can see the checkerboard tile below me. I push myself up from the floor as another boom rocks through the building. It’s not an explosion after all; it sounds like something is tearing through the ground and the foundation begins to shake.
I steady myself and head toward the door. The support beams of the office are sliding out of place, causing the door to swing open and separate from its frame. The floor in front of me is being similarly warped, some immense pressure is building underneath the foundation and is pushing upward everything on top of it. Passing through the door and back into the atrium I can once again see the street outside. It churns and rises like a wave as something passes underneath the pavement. The strangers outside are tossed aside by the swell. Though the glass windows and doors of the atrium shatter from the movement, my exit remains blocked by the oily men that are quickly returning to their feet.
I head back toward Observation, but before I can reach the doors they are shaken from their fame and the hallway beyond collapses. This corner of the hospital buckles as the upper floors collapse down upon the empty space, the pillars in the walls splintering like toothpicks and filling the air with concrete dust. The ceiling begins to slide in this direction, and I’m already bolting the other way when beds and other medical equipment spill out to join the rubble.
My options drop down to only one. I need to get out of this collapsing building and the only way I see is through the broken windows and into the path of the strangers outside. I break into a run and make a line straight for them.
The strangers notice me and begin to holler and point, training their weapons on me and firing off shots. I duck as I run, but I count it as a blessing that they haven’t hit me yet. I’m a moving target, but I’m also the only one they’re aiming at, so I pull my weapon and fire a few back to scatter them. A few jump out of the way, but more are notified of the exchange and join in. The building shudders again and I lose my footing and stagger. I’m close enough to the window, so I plant my feet and prepare to lunge.
Something huge, black, unrolls across the front of the building blocking the windows from the outside. It’s a tentacle, massive and made of oil, and it splits the sidewalk as its weight bears down on it. I skid to a stop before the appendage, watching it contract and grip the edge of the building.
The cracking and groaning of metal and concrete punctuates the air as the hospital above me is stressed and pulled. The floors stop falling and instead rise and move away as another black tentacle rips them off their supports and flings the top half of the building into the streets. Fresh open air, accompanied by dust and shards of building materials, flush over me as I’m left standing exposed to the strangers. As if waiting for the creature to decide its next impulse, we all freeze and wait. The tentacle that held a half city block of hospital is poised high over my head threatening to come down on me.
A rat-tat-tat of Tommy-gun fire bursts through the haze. A dozen or more guns begin firing from alley ways and windows of buildings streets away. Strangers are pelted by gunfire as they are caught off guard by the attack, and they scramble to to locate the sources and return fire. The tentacles are also peppered with bullets and they turn away, coiling upon themselves as they retract into the breached earth from where they came.
I join the attack, firing at the closest strangers I can still see. I empty my weapon into a couple of them and throw it at a third as I dive for a fresh gun dropped by one of the killed. Taking cover against some overturned ruins I squeeze off a few shots, but the assault of the Tommy-guns more than thins out the crowd. The surprise offensive is effective, it’s not long before the last of the strangers fall to the concrete. Bodies surround me as the dust clears, quickly bubbling away into pools of oil.
There’s a deafening silence now that the gunfire and shouting has stopped. I’m left as the only body still intact by my unknown saviors. Knowing that I was not the target, or rather assuming that they want me alive if I am the target, I stand and toss my empty weapon to the ground.
I catch movement in the alleyways down the street. No more than twenty men and women, dressed in worn clothes and patches made from fatigues from the War, enter the streets from neighboring buildings, their weapons held at the ready as they move. They cover ground quickly, sweeping in and finishing off any strangers still alive as they clear a path toward me. They stop just short, making sure the way is safe. One of them, a man in his later years with a gray mane and steel eyes, stares at me for a moment. I concentrate on his face, his familiar features converging in my mind. I settle on a name.
“Charlie”, I say, nodding to the man. He nods in return before gesturing back to someone in the back. It’s a signal, and as a response I see movement again in the distance. A woman, her clothes simple and battle-torn, emerges from an alleyway just outside of the battlefield. She is flanked by two others as she rushes closer, her raven hair streaming behind her barely contained by an orange length of cloth tied around it.
Charlie hands me his Tommy. I take it with gratitude as he re-arms himself with a handgun, but my attention remains on Evelyn as she now dashes toward me. Within moments she collides with me, hugging me with all her might.
“Oh my god, Dick, you’re alive!” she says as she buries her head in my neck. I smell weapon grease on her and can see she’s dirty from fighting.
“Not for their lack of trying,” I start, “Watts tried to fry my brain.”
“Watts? Watts was here?” she asks. “How? Why?”
“It was always Watts. Every time. He always threw the switch.”
I look out over the assembly of resistance fighters and begin to find more names that fit the faces. Giles, John, Chuck, Nancy… Familiar names and familiar people that I fought with. An entire war struck from my mind is slowly starting to find its way back in, filling in a past I could never have imagined.
“How is that possible?” Evelyn asks, unnerved, thinking. “The portals opened here first. The device is somewhere here. Why would they pull in someone from your past on the other side of the country?”
“I don’t know, it’s all still a little hazy, but I’m remembering.” I turn toward the ruins of the hospital. “He fucked up this time. I got the machine to fix me, I think. Before I blew his head off.”
Evelyn watches me for a moment, searching my face.
“Good”, she says with a small nod.
“They almost had me, though. If it wasn’t for-” I suddenly remember, and I leap over rubble and debris looking for him. “Jimmy!”
Evelyn follows, as do a few others. She’s with me as I clear the outer edge of the hospital and hobble over the fallen floors that now cover what was once Observation. I stop with a lurch as I realize I am standing where I last saw him. As I look out over the spread of wreckage I make out a large body surrounded by the outlines of strangers. Jimmy lies surrounded by what’s left of the enemies he killed in his last act to protect me.
Evelyn catches my eye-line and gasps. We both descend as fast as we can and rush to his side. He lies face down, in a pool of blood and oil, with too many holes in his back and shoulders than I can count. I kneel and reach for him, turning him over to reveal his face. One eye is open, half a mouth locked in a clench of rage, but the rest of his face is gone as the black has bubbled away with it what it had taken of him. My friend lies dead at my side. I feel a swell of sorrow for him as I begin to remember him; the memories of times before the wipes stitching together a timeline and a history.
“Jimmy”, Evelyn says with breath caught in her throat. She reaches out and closes his eye.
We give him a moment of silence. It was not enough, but the gentle urging of the Charlie reminds us that we’re not safe here. I order them to gather Jimmy up and to start heading back. I don’t follow as they begin to move out.
“Dick? Come on, let’s go”, Evelyn says, pain in her voice.
“I know where the device is”, I state flatly. The statement stops solid Evelyn and everyone else who was close enough to hear me.
“Where?”, she asks.
I look at her, searching her eyes for a chance that I was wrong.
“I don’t understand. What do you mean?”
She watches me as I gather my thoughts. We’ve made it back to the hideout, a walled-off section of abandoned tunnels under Los Angeles’ old dilapidated heart. It’s densely packed with crates and carts, scrapped cars, and makeshift living spaces. What it’s missing is people. It’s nearly deserted with a scant few remaining, my rescue party making up the most of them.
This feels real to me. There’s a quality to this setting, the grime and the smell of motor oil, that feels more real to me than anything else I’ve experienced so far. It’s a feeling that should be grounding me to this moment, anchoring me to the now, but all it’s doing is calling into question everything I know about the last few weeks.
Evelyn’s confusion is understandable. I’m not sure of it myself. My recollection of events, the sum of my memories, is scattered at best. It’s always been in times like these, when my focus is off and my leads thin, that I trust my gut instinct. And, my gut’s been screaming at me since my confrontation with Watts.
“When Watts was gloating over me, he told me that they had caught me before. That it was a game to him, one that the strangers allowed him to play.”
“A game? Maybe to him, the sadistic bastard.” Evelyn remarks as she scowls. I could taste the contempt in her voice.
“If they’ve caught me before, if they’ve had me in that machine and played with my mind before, why have they never turned me?”
“They tried, early on,” Evelyn begins. “When the portals first opened there was mass panic. Though we couldn’t see what was happening, people began to change and turn on each other. It washed out like an epidemic. It seemed like a disease.”
“I think… I remember.” The fog of my memory around the event slowly clears and I can place myself back in my office, watching the rioting surge through the streets outside my window.
“Yeah, ground zero, actually,” Evelyn continues, “you were lucky you were inside. You called me, told me to close the club. Said that something is coming and not to trust anyone not already there.”
“What happened after that?”
“I don’t know. I closed the club, Jimmy barred the doors. It wasn’t long before we heard the screams outside. The doors held and we boxed ourselves up in the tunnels for good measure, but all we could do was wait for some sign it was safe again. Then I heard you pounding on the alleyway door.”
“I don’t remember this,” I grunt, frustrated.
“When we let you in you were a wreck. You were going on and on about butterflies and oil, about how the portals spilled with ichor that also flowed in the veins of the tainted. We thought you went crazy, but you had this sort of determination in your eyes that said you knew exactly what you were talking about.”
My mind gathers nothing more as I listen. Fragments of emotions and shadows, but nothing more.
“I asked you what you meant and that’s when you told me they had you. That an old man had you.”
“And old man? What old man?”
“You called him a stranger, the first time you used that word when talking about them. ‘A strange man from a strange place, a stranger’ is how you said it. You never described him to me, but you did say he had a name.”
“Tell me,” I beg, desperately clinging at wisps of memory.
In a sudden flash of darkness I am rendered blind. I feel myself sinking as if I was dropped into an endless sea. I feel the water wash over me as I descend, the changing pressures pushing and dragging all over my body. Colors begin to come, dark and murky and barely distinguishable from the blackness all around, but slowly tendrils of blue and purple coalesce at random in my field of view.
I become aware that I am not feeling panicked. I’m calm. Maybe even at peace. I’m warm, enveloped. Feeling no pain. And I hear nothing except the edges of some barely noticeable chanting. Then, just as sudden, I’m aware that I’ve always heard this chanting. I have never unheard it.
I am unable to know the passing of time, but a building sense of urgency begins to take form in the front of my mind. It whispers to me of some great peril I’m needed for. Something that I need to do. It swirls and twists around a sound, a word familiar to me from the endless chanting, yet so foreign that I can’t place it. I feel the urge to speak it, but no sounds emanate from me. So I force myself to think it. Think it out loud.
I see in the distance, through the watery haze, spheres of sepia and white. They hang like far-off beacons of light, dotting across the emptiness like stars in the night sky, only so far few of them to notice before. As I form the word in my head again they shift, grow larger. As I say it again for a third time, they surge. They are moving toward me, banishing the darkness with their halos of ivory hues as they approach.
In them I see movement. Unfocused and diffused, obscured by the light, I can barely make out the shapes that shift within the globes. As they grow nearer I can start to see that the shapes are humanoid in some cases, landscapes or architecture in others. They become sharper as they grow, the entity of each consuming nearly all of my view in any one glance, until I can finally see what’s living inside them. In one I see myself and Evelyn, her in her wedding dress and me in a rented tux, standing before an altar. In another I see the moment when I pulled the trigger and killed Evelyn’s would-be murderer. In a third I see myself, pouring a shot of whiskey into my favorite tumbler as I pontificate about some plan of action to my rag-tag band of resistance fighters.
I realize I am in my own mind. I’m in the empty spaces between my memories which lie separate from one another. I see ones that I was aware of and others that I had lost. Each it’s own moment of time contained in a sphere of light. Some reach out with clouds of hazy light to each other, creating tenuous bonds. Others float disconnected and alone. They move in a long arc around me, at first seemingly orbiting me. But I soon realize it’s something much larger behind me that they are all circling. As I list and turn I come to see it, a massive sphere unlike the others. It’s oily, iridescent, bubbly. It is in every way the equal to the black oil I’ve seen so much, the oil that infects and destroys the wills of all who are tainted with it. Equal in all ways except one: this oil is made of light.
At once I’m pulled into the giant sphere and am bathed in light. When my eyes adjust, I find myself standing in a mirror of the world I had envisioned before. Islands of glass float over a sea of light. Golden butterflies flutter around on wings of wax. They swarm over one island in particular, the largest of the butterflies hovering over a strange altar. Yet, the altar is not an old oak chair, it’s a throne of crystal. And in it sits an unknowingly old man, not bound against his will and on the verge of death, but with one leg crossed and petting the largest butterfly while watching me with a smile.
“Welcome Dick. It’s been a while.”
I step forward. My movements feel free and grounded.
“Are you Nycrama?” I ask, as the butterflies swoop and dart around me, seemingly curious of my presence.
“No, I am merely a shard. A byproduct. I am more you than I am him.”
“Then who is he?”
The old man stands, sliding an arm around my shoulder to turn me around and face the expanse of the world. In the distance I see a thousand more islands dotting across the sky. Yet, the light of this world isn’t infinite, and at the deepest edges just before the darkness of my mind I can see the oil churning over this sphere. And in it I see shapes, tentacles forming for brief moments before returning to formlessness.
“Nycrama is not for you to understand. He is vast and old. An Elder God, disgraced and banished. He is beyond dimension.”
“God?” I ask, incredulously. “Don’t tell me I believe in some cult nonsense now.”
“Elder god, Dick,” the old man continues, “and he doesn’t need you to believe in anything. He only wants to be released, and for that he needs slaves.”
He points out into the sea and some distance out a mass of golden tentacles rise and wring.
“Besides, we both know you’ve experienced enough to give it some stock.”
I turn to the man.
“Then who are you, and why are we here?”
“You’re infected, Dick. You’ve got a strain of what you call the oil in you. You’ve been infected for some time, why do you think you can see the strangers? And me? I’m one of the Collective, meant to oversee your fall into our control.”
“So I’ve finally failed. I’m lost.” My heart sinks and I pull away from the old man. My thoughts, naturally, turn toward Evelyn.
“No. The opposite, really.” He comes to my side again, gesturing to the edge of the sea at our feet. He commands the oil to rise and form a shape, vaguely spherical and lumpy, resembling a crude model of a human brain.
“In order to channel the power of Nycrama the Collective uses an aid, a machine forged in his exiled dimension, that siphons their life off in order to fuel itself. It’s purpose is to make copies of itself and infest others with his zombifying essense. Only the strong and devoted of the Collective can use their will and command the machines until they eventually are killed by them, but everyone who is infected has one, even you.” He turns his hand and the brain shifts, bubbling out a new form that takes shape as he continues. “You see these machines as, in your words, wingless butterflies.”
I look to him in shock, and then to the butterflies that surround us.
“Something went wrong,” he continues, “everyone resists, but you… You changed it, somehow. Into this.” He gestures to the whole of the place.
“How? And why?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Which means you don’t, and you likely never will. But it’s not important to know, and it doesn’t stop you from using it to your advantage. I’ve kept you intact through all the attacks and attempts to convert you, but now it’s time for you to use us to fight back. You need to take control of this place.”
He leaves me and walks back to the crystal throne, stopping to the side of it and gesturing to the seat.
“Sit, Dick. There’s one last thing to do here.”
I follow. The throne, as uncomfortable and unforgiving its hard edges appear, softens and shines somewhat as I get near. As I sit, I feel accustomed to it, welcomed by it. I feel more powerful within it. As if reacting to me, the throne shines more brightly as I accept it.
The old man walks out some distance before me and turns to me, his long thin body the only contrast to everything around him. He sets his eyes upon me, determined.
“By your mind this machine can wipe away the taint of the strangers, but it won’t come freely. It will take from you your very life-force in order to do it. You will have to weigh what that cost means to you if you want to purge your world. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Good. Then your first act needs to be purging me from yourself.”
“What?” I hesitate full stop. The throne loses all light.
“I am a shard, Dick, a thorn in your mind. I am of the Collective. Even though I am cut off from them and changed in this place, I am still a taint. You cannot be whole with me in here. Use your power, erase me. Take control.”
“H…how?” I grip the armrests of the throne, its light reactivates, but shifts with uncertainty. The old man smiles.
“Come now, Dick. You already know.”
I watch the old man and focus on him, and then on my fear and confusion. I focus on the throne and my own hands that dig into it. Feeling all my trepidation and unease welling up inside me, I wish it all away. The throne responds, the light grows steady, and the butterflies pitch themselves into a frenzied tornado around me.
I raise a hand and point at the old man. I will him to be drained. By my command the largest butterfly descend on him, thudding into his chest and wrapping it’s string-like arms around him. A flurry of smaller butterflies joins it, surrounding him and wrapping him in a cocoon of waxy tendrils. Encased the old man is locked into place, unable to move, but he doesn’t struggle. His eyes remain locked on mine.
“Thank you.” I say. Then I will him to be gone.
The largest butterfly exudes more waxy threads that cover the old man’s forehead. Where they touch his skin color drains from him. As they drip and coat his face, he begins to wither and flake. His cocoon buckles, quickly reinforced by the smaller butterflies, but his body disintegrates from inside caving in upon itself. Within a moment his skin is gone and underneath is golden oil that seeps through the cracks of the cocoon and oozes onto the glass surface, reflecting the light like captured sunshine. The butterflies disengage and scatter and the wax crumbles. He is gone.
The oil of his remains glows with an intensity not matched anywhere else in this place. It’s a void of light that begins to expand and consume the glass it’s on. It quickly spreads, eating the entire edge of my landmass in seconds. But, as I watch it destroy this world I remain in my chair.
I watch as it expands outwards pulling into it the golden sea, which spills and froths as it falls into the unknown void. The oily sphere that encapsulates everything is dissolved upon contact, the shell dissolving into streams before being engulfed. The light then pours out into the dark emptiness of the beyond and sucks in the very darkness itself and the spheres of my memories that are bound in it. Everything that is tumbles into the light until at last I am all that remains. Alone, surrounded by nothing, I stand and lean forward. I fall into the light.
* * *
“Dick!” Evelyn’s voice snaps me from my stupor. “Dick! Get up! They found us!”
Gunshots ring out, echoing through the concrete tunnels and bringing me back to this place. I’m on the floor, on my chest, but I’m able to see my surroundings and I’m free of the usual confusion that accompanies one my mental trips. I watch as the flurry of activity unfolds around me.
Jumping over me are fighters of my resistance, armed and firing at something down one of the tunnels. Evelyn, narrowly missed by a shot near her head, pulls away and grabs a Tommy Gun. On one knee she returns fire. Her shots are precise, practiced. I remember, clearly, the months training her over the course of the war, a memory I didn’t have until now.
She barks out orders and the fighters fan out. They fire in more controlled pulses now, heeding her commands. They advance forward, inch by inch, lighting up the hallways with their fire. They begin to push back the invaders, keeping them pinned inside the tunnels, and dropping any who step out. Evelyn overturns some crates and creates a defensive line for our fighters to shoot from.
But we are unprepared. Clips empty too soon, guns jam from overheating. Several fighters are hit and fall to the ground. From behind us new shots are fired, screaming over our heads and through our ranks. The attack comes from all sides, now. We’re boxed in and they’ve cut us off from our supplies.
Evelyn orders to fall back. They retreat to me, surround me, as entities begin to spill forth from the darkened tunnels. Strangers, dozens of them, file in from all unblocked exits. There’s quickly too many of them to possibly thin out. Shoulder to shoulder the fighters encircle me, but their wills break. Weapons lower. All but Evelyn resign to their coming fates.
I get to a knee. I expect pain behind my eyes but only find it in my joints. I slowly rise, my hand on Evelyn’s shoulder. She looks to me, tears in her eyes, as she lowers her weapon. She thinks she has failed me. Failed us.
I push past her and put her behind me. One of the strangers in the lead raises a hand and gives a signal which stops their encroachment. He stares me down, as do they all. He smiles a smug smile as he lowers his gun. I don’t recognize him, but his eyes tell me he knows me. They all do. The Collective spared no detail to them, and I’m sure they all know our faces better than they know their own. And this one could not be more proud to have caught us cornered, a prize for his masters.
“Ah, Staten, it seems we’ve finally cornered the grea-”
“Yeah, no,” I cut him off.
I will them all gone. Golden butterflies pour forth from me, swarming and blinding the strangers. The buzz of their presence deafens the wild shots of the stranger’s guns as they try to shoot them out of the air, only earning a butterfly’s waxy embrace on each of their faces. The strangers flail and fight, but the bugs slide along their cheeks and into their ears. Frantic, they pull and tear at their own flesh trying to get them out, but soon fall into nothing but convulsions. The black oil drains from their faces, replaced by my golden iridescence. It’s one oil for another, but they each succumb all the same and as they do I feel my consciousness expand into each one of them. I feel each of their anguish and suffering. I will all of their pain gone.
I collapse as blood gushes from my nose and ears onto the concrete. Pain, so familiar and yet so unlike anything I have felt before spreads across my body. It’s excruciating, a white hot burning in my brain and lungs, a thousand needles in my joins and muscles, and I can’t stop myself from yelling out. Evelyn is at my side in an instant, holding me and pulling me up, tearing at her clothes to make scraps to sop the blood from my face. Her eyes reflect both the relief and horror of the moments past as she steadies me. My fighters are dumbfounded.
“Dick… What the hell… Are you okay? What was that?” Evelyn begs for answers, but my gaze returns to the strangers as I reach my feet. She pauses and turns to follow my eyes, seeing them start to stand up. I know she can’t see what I see, a small army of golden soldiers, but she can see they are in no hurry to re-arm themselves.
“Dick? What…” She begins to ask again, but I look at her with a confidence I had lost so long ago.
“I’ll tell you everything,” I start, nodding to my new companions and watching their confusion subside, “and after that I think we should plan our next move.”
“What…what do you have in mind?” She smiles, half in disbelief and the rest in relief.
“I think you should put on one last show, my dear.”
I finally have answers to give. Answers to who we are fighting in this war, and answers to why we must. I have answers to explain how the strangers work, and I can explain why I can turn them. I now know what they were doing to me, trying to do to me, by frying my mind over and over again. I see why they tried erasing my memories.
And I know the old man was right. The answers to what I don’t know aren’t important. Not because if I knew them, they would turn the tide of battle, but because knowing them I might make a different choice. A choice I knew I had made some time ago, but didn’t know when I’d act on it. Now, it’s time.
That old man, the one in my head, looked like someone. I had fashioned him to look like the man in my first vision, the old man bound by the butterflies who told me to find the device. It was a subconscious choice, just like the world of gold and light was and how I see the machines working like butterflies. They are choices I made without realizing it, choices meant to give meaning to what I was seeing and experiencing. Perhaps even the visions themselves were all in my head, a means of my mind trying to protect itself and work out my situation. But, then again, maybe not. Maybe it’s all been real, and I’ve rationalized it in order to cope.
That old man—both of them— was me.
I will eventually be that old man, bound in the chair. I will eventually, despite my power, be caught.
It’s easy to explain; this power takes a lot out of me to use. I can’t always rely upon it. I won’t always be able to call upon it. I could turn the tide of this war by sacrificing myself a little each time we come across a pack of strangers, growing our numbers and taking our world back little by little. But, eventually, I’ll fail. My soldiers might fall, my body might get too weak, maybe I’ll lose something so important that I stop fighting.
I explain everything to Evelyn. She listens patiently while I work it all through out loud. She relies on my descriptions, having never seen a vision or the stranger’s oil for herself, and urges me to continue when I hesitate or stall. She struggles to believe most of it, but she believes I believe it which is enough for her. She has her own questions that come and go as I ramble on, and soon it becomes clear to her that most of those questions are also just as unimportant as my own. In the end, she agrees. It’s our next few choices that matter the most.
“I don’t know if I can do it,” she says, taking my hand into hers and holding as tight as she can.
“Yes, you can,” I assure her, “you can and you will. It’s the only way.”
“I don’t want to,” she says as she stares at our hands.
“You won’t be alone. I’ll be with you. Always.” A tear streaks down her cheek, the drop falling upon our hands.
“Are you sure it’ll work?” she asks.
“No, but have I ever been wrong?”
“If I said ‘yes’ would you believe it?” she smiles.
“Come on, we have work to do.”
Turning and facing my new army, I prepare to speak.
“Gentlemen. Ladies. I know you have more questions than answers. I know you how you feel…”
As they hear me they gather, the gilded and non-gilded alike.
“You are cold now. The voices that were in your heads, guiding your thoughts and actions, they are gone now. For some of you, this is a relief. For others, the terrible truth of what you have done is sinking in.”
I sense some of them pulling away from me, but I continue.
“You are not judged here. You were not in control. The Collective found ways to force each and every one of you into the doing the things you have done, even those who were never under their control. They took your friends. They took your families. They took everyone you ever cared about and trusted and twisted them. Many of them died. Some trying to escape them and their control, others while defending you. And some by your own hands.”
I grip Evelyn’s hand.
“But no more. I have released you—replaced their control with mine. Their voices are erased, and now you only hear mine. But, I will not control you. I will not force you. Each and every one of you has a choice to make, and the only thing I am going to do is make you choose it.”
I step back to be shoulder-to-shoulder with Evelyn.
“Those of you who want to fight, we will be leaving soon. We will need your help running a plan that might not work. Your lives may be lost and lost on a plan I cooked up while talking to a man in my head. But I know hearing that is no more crazy to you than knowing something that fancies itself a god was using your mind for its purposes. You have seen crazy. You have seen the impossible. We ask that you stay with us a bit longer and help us do something so crazy and impossible that even the Collective won’t know what to do.
“Those of you who want to go your own way, I understand. You are tired. You need time to cope with what has happened to you. You need time to talk to your own demons and come to your agreements and compromises. Maybe you’ll come back to us later, and if you do, we’ll welcome you. But, for now, no one will stop you if you believe your path lies somewhere else. You have already done enough, no one can question that. The choice is yours.”
Evelyn hugs me, burying her head in my neck. I hold her back and close my eyes, wishing one of my powers was to also make moments like these last forever. It lasts a little while before a voice from the crowd breaks the silence.
“I’m with you, Dick,” Charlie says.
“Me, too,” says another.
“Yeah, count me in.”, “We’re behind you.”, “Let’s do this.” The voices gathered. While some remained silent, more and more of them sounded off their support. In the end, out of the two or so dozen people here, only three opted out. They gathered their supplies and went on their way.
“Well, everyone,” Evelyn starts, “let’s get this done. We’re going to clear out The Angel’s Share and put on a show.”
* * *
With the help of our group, it’s not too difficult to clear the remains of The Angel’s Share and get the stage in working order. Either the Collective isn’t aware of where their lost men are, or they are too afraid to challenge us just yet, but our work goes uninterrupted. A strange as it is to shore up a blasted out stage in the middle of a war zone, the group didn’t complain. In fact, they were relieved, the feeling washing through them and covering me. They knew things would get hairy soon enough, but right now the work was different, and some even thought, wholesome.
All that remained usable of the theater was the stage and backstage. The walls on either side and the whole of the lounge that preceded it was blown out and smashed into rubble. We cleared the debris away from the front to let any would-be audience in and piled it in the back to protect the backstage as much as we could. The curtains, burned and smoke-damaged, still hung from the stage’s supports. All in all, it looked to me what I imagined the open-world stages of Europe to look like, only with a whole lot less polish.
Soon enough the work is done. We earn a night’s rest under the ruined roof of the backstage. The group takes their turns standing watch, but Evelyn and I lay together all night. Neither of us sleep much, but for her, this was harder. She clutches me all through the night. Occasionally she cries softly, and when she wasn’t crying she was kissing me all over. Sometimes she just lies there quietly. But, she never lets me go. When the light begins to brighten the sky, she clings even tighter until she builds up enough resolve to finally let go. When she does we rise and prepare.
In the rubble were a stage-sword and the remains of her orange dress. Though mostly intact, the dress had suffered burns across the legs and stomach. Rather than cut the holes into more flattering shapes or trim off the burnt fabric, Evelyn opts to wear it as is. It’s a statement, she says. When she puts it on, I’m taken by her beauty once again, almost as though it was the first time I’d seen her perform. Through the muck and grime, the burnt dress and tattered hair, she was beautiful.
“This is how I know you will always fight,” I say as I watch her getting ready.
“I love you,” she says, pausing briefly.
“I love you, too.”
The stage-sword, on the other hand, was nearly unusable as it was. Cracked down the length of the blade, it had to be repaired. Using some of the stones and pieces of metal that lay among the ruins it was an easy enough repair, but I made sure it was as sharp as I could get it. With some help, the blade was made battle-ready, and I affixed it to my belt.
With everything in order, it was time to gather our audience. Even though the Collective hadn't advanced on us, I wasn't nieve enough to believe that they weren't watching. If they understood the rules of my abilities better than I did, I was willing to bet that they wouldn't chance to take me on before I strained myself enough to render my abilities useless. A few massive tentacles would have done the trick, for sure, but that wasn't their style. They spent years infiltrating and subverting our society to ensure their control when they decided to move. They took their time to learn our weaknesses and what drives us. And now, retaking The Angel's Share? They needed to know what we were doing. They needed to understand why.
We would do this in a classical manner. Lanterns set with foil to act as spotlights, members of our group to hum and sing as an orchestra, and several to act as criers. Taking to the heaps of rubble to either side of the stage they stood and called out. "Come see the final performance of The Angel's Share," they say. "See Evelyn's farewell performance!" "One night only, with a special guest!" And, I made sure they said something else in order to entice our honored guests. "The Collective will want to see this, a show they will never forget!"
As predicted the Collective's scouts made themselves known, coming down into view. As the strangers gathered, they were beckoned in. Their curiosity is second only to their arrogance, and as I had planned, they did not hesitate to send strangers in to see what we were up to. As the area before the stage filled out with the expendable footsoldiers of the Collective, my fighters retreated backstage and remained out of sight. It wasn't long before we had a sizable audience.
"Biggest The Angel's Share ever had," remarks Evelyn from just beyond the curtain.
It was time. From backstage, the chorus started. Humming and thrumming a beat, they sing with it a beautiful melody. It was one of Evelyn's older tunes, one that the singers knew from before the war. It rings through the debris on a light rhythm and sparks feelings of nostalgia and warmth from the golden army. Only, Evelyn prepared new words for this performance.
As the song grew in intensity and more of the group joined in, Evelyn begins singing from her spot backstage.
"It's been long down this long and lonely road," she sang.
"Where the dust's in my eyes and my bones grow old.
Down the line is a city of my dreams.
An oasis in the desert, not what it seems."
Evelyn emerges onto the stage. Her orange dress shimmering as best it can from the reflected lantern light. She sways in a slow dance, a dance for one that yearns to be a dance for two. As she reaches the center of the stage, her voice once again rises.
"But this place doesn't know me,
And in turn, it doesn't fear me,
Because this is a jewel in the night,
And when the sun comes down, there will be a fight."
That is my queue. I have never been one to dance, and there was only one that I knew with any sort of rhythm or style to it. As I enter the stage, I turn and slide my step until I reach Evelyn, and with a smooth motion I take her, turn her, and swing her over my hip. We begin a tango, and I am the aggressor, pushing her back toward the edge of the stage while she fights me back in time to the song.
"Oh, Emmanuel," she sings, "you find me here among the dead,
You fight, you strike, and you fight in their stead.
As the battle rages on your fury fills you, and you engage,
This poor oasis cannot stand against our dance of rage."
Our tango mimics a violent fight, and the music turns to a darker note.
"You cannot stand up to me, oh poor Emmanuel,
For you are right, and you must send me to hell.
You cannot stab the heart of the one you love, my dear,
You're doomed to forever hear my whispers in your ear."
We turn and break from each other, and I recoil from Evelyn's stage-attack. Our tango brings her back into power, and me against the other side of the stage. As she bears down upon me, I unsheath the stage-sword and swing it at her. She sways back, and I forward with her until we switch once again. Our dance reconnects back in the middle of the stage, and we struggle over the blade. The beat changes and grows fast. A staccato of notes punctuating her next words.
"Why do we fight, my love Emmanuel," Evelyn sings over the crescendo.
"Why must you follow my plague of death?
Surely you must know this is inevitable, my love Emmanuel,
I will tear from you everything with your last breath."
Evelyn tears the sword from my hand and spins, connecting the blunt of the blade against my face and sending me to my knees in the middle of the stage. As I kneel, I stare out over the crowd and meet with as many eyes of the strangers as I can before I choose one to stare down.
"Why do we fight, my love Emmanuel," Evelyn sings, fighting the tears that are now struggling to escape from her eyes.
"Why must you follow my plague of death?"
Her words are getting caught in her throat, she is choking between each of the lines.
"Surely you must know this is inevitable, my love Emmanuel,
I will tear from you everything with your last breath..."
Evelyn swings the sword, and the sharp edge cuts through my skin. The world tilts suddenly, and as my head falls from my neck, I can see the shock setting in among the crowd.
I cannot breathe. There is nothing more to do. As my vision begins to darken my head is lifted and turned, and the last thing I see is my Evelyn before it all becomes black.
* * *
Dick was perfect.
In life, he gave me hope. He saved my life. He taught me how to save others. He always looked out for us. He took chances if it meant saving a life, and he never second-guessed his choices. To him, it was more important to try, to give your all to the idea of being good, to save who you could, than it was to be recognized for it. And he paid the price for this.
Dick never stopped giving me the tools to survive. He was there to talk me through being held hostage. It was him that encouraged me to sing. It was always him making sure that I knew I could get through everything that scared me, that hurt me, or wanted me dead. And for my strength, all he wanted in return was for me to love him. And I do. I will never stop.
This is why I never gave up on him. Why we could never give up on him.
Dick was perfect, and he knew that was going to cost us everything. He knew his luck couldn't last forever. He knew his choices had consequences, even this one. He knew that his story had to end if ours was to have a chance to even begin.
In death, Dick gave us the greatest weapon he ever could. As I raise his head over the crowd, I can finally see it. The oil that infects them. The strands of wax that connects them. I see the confusion in their eyes as they wonder if all of this was just our grand way of surrendering.
They were not prepared for the shower of light that came next.