The crowd at the Fairport City Library was thin, and Angie didn’t think it was going to get thicker any time soon. Nobody was eating the homemade muffins the Fairport Ladies Club had made, and the sparse group that had come to see the local poets reading their work was almost embarrassing. They’d been holding their fundraiser for a week now, and the generous donations thus far had been just about enough to cover the cost of keeping the lights on. There had been an interview with the local public radio station, and the local news had done a piece on the library fire and recovery efforts, but they didn’t amount to nearly as much as they needed. And she suspected they never would. The other librarians on duty weren’t even bothering taking questions – they were re-shelving and cleaning the periodicals.
She sat at the computer in the circulation desk and opened up the library website again, for the tenth time that morning. There was her face, smiling in what she knew was a very practiced way. She’d asked them not to put her picture up there, but the other librarian was in the hospital and they thought a pretty face would draw in donations. Sean had been recovering from smoke inhalation since the fire nearly two weeks ago, and wasn’t expected back until the end of the month. He had been either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid, trying to save some of the antique books they had been loaned, and she still wasn’t sure which. What was important, though, was that he was alive.
She looked over at the plywood that had been nailed up to block off the burned-out section of the building. The whole place still smelled of smoke, and there were hundreds of books that they were going to have to get rid of. The fire hadn’t spread nearly as far as it could have, and she was very thankful for that, but the damage was still extensive, and would require a lot of money that the city didn’t have in order to get it fixed up.
A young man came up to the desk and, mercifully, distracted her. “Excuse me,” he said. “Are you going to be open tomorrow?”
She put on her best smile and said, “Of course! Every day, just as always.”
He nodded. “Are you still going to have those musicians here tomorrow?” He gestured over to the jazz quintet that was taking a break in the lobby. Their leader was a friend of hers, and had agreed to come play. He probably expected a better reception, though.
“I’m afraid not,” she said. “They’re today only.”
He nodded again. “Good.” And he walked away, out the front doors.
Angie slumped in her chair. She understood, she really did. The economy was tough, and Fairport was just as hard-hit as any small town. A lot of the people living there needed their money for food and gas, and couldn’t really afford to part with it, even if it was for a good cause. The town council was making sympathetic noises at her, but they barely had any cash to spare either, and the state had already cut library funding as low as they could without getting rid of it altogether. All of that meant that the library was pretty much on its own, and every time she smelled the odor of old smoke or looked at the walled-off section of the building, she wanted to cry.
She didn’t use to be like this, either. As painful as it was to remember, there was a time where she didn’t care about anything. As long as she knew what was hip and trendy and where the best parties were, she wouldn’t have even noticed a library fire. Hell, she probably wouldn’t have even gone into a library unless it was hosting a rave. She’d been shallow and self-absorbed and, well, young.
And then she grew up. It was hard to do, and there were plenty of people willing to stop her from doing it, but she did.
Five years later, thirty pounds heavier and with an old car and a small apartment, she was honestly happier than she’d ever been. The library meant something to her. It was something real.
And now it was in danger of going away.
Angie looked up. There was a very pretty young woman standing at the circulation desk. Old instincts kicked in, and Angie took stock of the woman’s appearance: hair that had been expertly done to fall in dark curls around her shoulders, a simple dove-grey suit with a thin silver chain around her neck, and a dark blue coat that set off her eyes. The faintest scent of perfume drifted from her, something that smelled of spices. “Excuse me,” the woman said again. Her expression was odd, and something about it made Angie’s stomach tighten up.
“Yes, I’m sorry,” Angie said, shaking her head to clear it. “Can I help you?”
“I’m not quite sure how to ask this,” she said, glancing slyly around. “I mean, it seems kind of ridiculous, really. But I saw you on your website and I just have to know…”
Angie felt her gorge rise. Oh no, she thought.
The woman leaned in close to whisper. “Are you Melina Terrano?”
For a brief moment, Angie’s world went white. She wanted to run away. Or hit the woman with something heavy. Either one would have satisfied her immediate short-term impulse, but she still knew that they would cause more trouble than they solved. Impulse control had been one of the hardest lessons for her to learn. But running away was what she really, really wanted to do.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I think you have me mistaken for -”
“Oh. My. God,” the woman said. “It really is you.” She pulled out a phone, and Angie resisted the urge to snatch it from her hand, throw it to the ground and stomp on it. “I’m surprised you don’t remember me,” the woman said as she flipped the phone open. “I covered your DUI after your sixteenth birthday?” She flashed a set of very white teeth, winked, and spoke into the phone. “Yup, it’s her. Come on in.”
A moment later three guys rushed into the library, two with video cameras and one with a shotgun microphone attached to a digital recorder. The woman pulled a small recorder of her own out from her pocket and turned to face the cameras. “This is Shannon Strauss of CeleBeat-dot-com livestreaming you the news of the year!” One of the cameramen moved to get a shot of Angie, who tried to turn her face away. “Five years ago, Melina Terrano – heiress, songwriter, actress, and fashion designer – vanished from her family’s lavish Los Angeles estate. She left only a note for her family, which read, I’m leaving. Don’t look for me.“
Shannon turned, and the other cameraman moved to Angie’s other side. “Today,” the woman went on, “Melina Terrano has finally been found in the backwater town of Fairport, Texas, and CeleBeat-dot-com has the exclusive!” She spun around and thrust the recorder into Angie’s face. “Melina, tell us why you vanished! What brought you here to Fairport? When are you planning to lose that weight?” The woman was grinning broadly, and Angie thought she looked like a cat getting ready to devour something small and helpless.
Which, of course, was just how she felt. What Shannon had said was right: she’d left home to make a new life for herself. After growing up one of the richest and most talked-about girls of the Hollywood elite, she had finally come to the realization that her life – as lavish and privileged as it was – was meaningless. She wasn’t making anything of value. She wasn’t contributing anything to the world. She wasn’t making anyone’s life better. She was just being a self-indulgent child.
It had been a photo shoot for some magazine or another – she didn’t really keep track. She was waiting while they got pictures of her best friend, Audra, whose father made a ridiculous amount of money in real estate back when it had been worth something. A photographer’s assistant had brought Audra a coffee, but it wasn’t what she wanted. A half-caff double espresso latte with a mocha shot and soy milk foam, but without the sprinkling of cinnamon that she always had on top. And Audra just lost it. She screamed at the assistant, threw the coffee all over the backdrop for the photo shoot, knocked over light stands and tripods, and then launched into a twenty-minute tantrum at the photographers, the producers of the shoot, the magazine rep – anyone who came within arms’ reach of her.
Even worse was how everyone tried to placate her, to promise her that things would go better. The assistant was fired on the spot, the lead photographer swore up and down that the destruction of her equipment was no big deal and that Audra was totally justified. The guy from the magazine turned around and started shouting at the photographer, and Audra’s agent joined in, taking his stabs at the magazine rep. When it was all over, Audra just flipped back her long blonde extensions and said, “Whatever. I don’t care.” And then she flounced over to where Melina was sitting and cheerfully announced that it was time to buy shoes.
And a single thought just dropped into Melina’s head, out of nowhere: Wow. What a bitch.
What came on the heels of that thought, of course, what that she probably would have done the same thing. If not worse.
For the next week, she watched the people around her, how they treated her like she was royalty. Dangerous royalty. What she had thought before was love in their eyes now looked like fear. They talked to her, moved around her, as though she were some kind of monster that could get them all killed. Which, in a way, she was. One call from her could probably ruin any one of those people who had devoted their lives to their work. To her.
Eventually, it all became too much. She took some cash, as few clothes as she could, left the note for her family, and took off. She cut her hair short in a bus station bathroom and was out of the state by morning. After that, it had been a long trip before she found Fairport and its library and decided that she’d found a place to settle down.
Five years later and it looked like she hadn’t run far enough.
The reporter was waiting for an answer. A small crowd had gathered around the circulation desk, and some of them were taking pictures with their cell phones. The other librarians and volunteers were with them, staring in shock and fascination.
She knew they wouldn’t believe her if she said she wasn’t who she was. And if she ran again, they’d just find her again. Either way, the were ready to drag her back to her old life, kicking and screaming, and there wasn’t a damned thing she could do about it.
“Yes,” she said quietly. “I’m Melina.” Phone-cameras clicked, beeped and pinged all around her.
Shannon moved next to her so that they were both facing the cameras. “And what do you have to say to your fans out there, Melina? Can you tell us why you ran away?”
Angie just wished she could vanish. Fade away and never be heard from again. She looked around at the crowd, which was finally gathering to a decent size, and nearly laughed. If only we had this many people for the fundraiser, she thought.
That stopped her. She looked at the damaged walls, at the table full of stale baked goods and a jazz group that was now more interested in her than in playing for the crowd, and her other instincts from her old life took hold. The instincts that taught her how to make the best of a bad situation. How to turn any moment to her advantage. How any publicity was good publicity.
How to get whatever she wanted.
Angie smiled brightly, and it was enough of a change that one of the cameramen actually took a step back from her. “Are we live?” she asked Shannon.
Shannon also seemed a little off-guard. “Um, yes we are – we’re livestreaming this right now.”
“Excellent. Come with me!” Angie shook off Shannon’s arm and started walking. She went around the circulation desk and stood in front of the plywood walls that had been put up.
“The reason I left Los Angeles,” she said, “was that I wanted to do something different. Something good for other people.” She looked around at the crowd, which was still taking pictures of her. “I didn’t like who I was back in L.A. So I came here, to Fairport Texas, in order to start over.” She gestured out to the crowd, and the internet cameramen started filming them as well. “I found the people of Fairport to be kind, wonderful people who were down-to-earth, selfless and generous.”
Angie found her style coming back to her as she spoke, and remembered what it was like to grab a crowd and hold on to them. “The people of Fairport gave me more than I deserved,” she said. “Without really knowing it, they turned a spoiled, rich little girl into a real human being.” She felt her eyes welling up. “And I can never thank them enough for that.”
A man out in the crowd yelled, “You’re welcome, Angie!” and a laugh ran through the room.
“Thanks, Roy,” she said, more grateful than ever that she had some help that day.
“I found work here in the library,” she went on, “and it’s a great place. We’ve got all kinds of books, a children’s center, a reading room and a whole bank of computers that anyone in town can use.” She pointed to her left. “Over there is the Study Center, where kids from the high school can come and get tutoring three nights a week.” She pointed to her right. “And over there is the day-care, where moms can leave their kids for a little while so they can get some rest.” She faced the cameras again, her hands clasped in front of her. “This is the heart of Fairport, in many ways.”
Her face turned serious. “But the heart of Fairport is in trouble.” She took a few steps away and let the cameras take in the damaged walls. “About a week ago, we had a terrible fire here, that burned out much of the exhibition room and the floor above. It could have been a lot worse, but the damage was still extensive.”
She stepped in front of the camera and got close. This was the part she didn’t want to do, but knew she had to. It was too close to who she used to be, manipulating people to get what she wanted. But at the same time, it was the only way to make something good out of this whole mess. “The Fairport Library has been holding a fundraiser for the last week. If you can, even the smallest donation would go a long way towards rebuilding the library and making it even better than before.” Shannon was starting to realize what was going on and tried to step in front of Angie, but she held her back with one hand. “Fairportlibrary-dot-com has all the information you’ll need to make a donation.”
Angie stepped closer to the cameras, leaving Shannon behind her. “I really appreciate that you’ve been worried about me,” she said. “And it’s an honor that you’ve spent this long looking. But this is my home now. The library, the people of Fairport – this is where I belong.” She turned back to Shannon and took her gently by the arm. “The best thing you can do for me is to help me get this place fixed up. What do you say, Shannon?” She spun Shannon around so they were both facing the cameras. “Can I count on you and CeleBeat-dot-com to help out and do some real good for some real people?”
Shannon just blinked, and one of the cameramen started grinning madly. After a moment, the woman swallowed hard and said, “Of course, Melina -”
“Angie, Shannon. Angie.”
“Right,” Shannon said. “Angie. We’ll be more than happy to chip in.”
“Good!” Angie said, holding the other woman close. “Thank you all for coming,” she said. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work.” She put on her best smile, the one she used to use for awards shows. “Someone’s gotta keep things running around here!” She slipped past the cameramen into the crowd, and shook hands with people as she went. She thanked them for coming to the library, thanked them for their time and their donations, and made her way to the circulation desk. The phone was ringing on all three lines, but she let them go to voicemail. For right now, she needed to be where she belonged.
From that point, she only answered questions about the library or the fundraiser. Eventually, Shannon and her crew got bored hearing about the local author that was going to come over to sign autographs on Thursday and they left. Slowly, the crowd thinned out again, and Angie was left to finish cataloging returns, a nice, almost Zen-like activity.
At nine o’clock, she closed and locked the doors. The other librarians seemed at ease when she told them to go home, but she thought they were still a little star-struck. Even in a small town like this, the allure of the Hollywood Celebrity was hard to resist.
She checked through the building, turning off lights as she went. Back at the circulation desk, she finally checked the voicemail. Several dozen messages from several dozen people. Agents, fans, old friends she didn’t even remember having. Her parents.
She deleted all but the ones from the city, who were very interested in talking to her, and the one from Sean, who told her to check the donation website.
She did, and smiled. The total was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and she was pretty sure she could get it higher. It would mean re-opening some old connections, true. Admitting who she was, and letting herself play that terrible game again. Now that she wasn’t invisible anymore, she’d have to be careful.
But this time she would be ready. This time, she really did know what she was doing.
Angie left the darkened library and drove home, her mind full of possibilities.
Ezra Reznick stood against the wrought-iron fence, between a couple from Japan who were having their picture taken, and a family of five from somewhere in the Midwest who couldn’t get their littlest to stop screaming for more than half a minute. There were tourists everywhere on Pennsylvania Avenue, along with police, Secret Service agents, and people who actually had jobs to go to, and Ezra wondered again if what he was about to do was a good idea.
The teachers had taken his class off to walk through the Mall, with plans to stop at every major monument that they ran across. From the last time his family had visited, he knew the Washington Death March very well, and had no interest in wearing out the soles of his shoes to go see stuff he could perfectly well see on a postcard. So he hung back and counted on the natural chaos that comes with trying to shepherd a hundred high school students through the city to hide his escape at least for a little while. Even if they did find him, there was nothing they could do that would be worse that what the Secret Service could dish out.
And they would. Of that he was certain. Only if they could catch him, though, and that was the key bit.
He took a breath, held it, and let it out. The black fence was solid and hard, as iron usually is. He rapped his knuckles against it and there was just a dull thud. He flexed his fingers and held them up to the bar again and pushed. This time, his hand went through as though the bar wasn’t even there.
Which, if you wanted to be really pedantic about it, it wasn’t.
Ezra had no idea how he did what he did. The first time he’d managed it was when he was eleven and his drunk stepfather thought it would be a good idea to lock him in a closet for spilling a beer. Ezra had yelled and screamed and pounded on the door until he he just fell right through it. Like a ghost.
It happened again about a week later as he slipped from the crushing arms of Otto Dunnigan, the resident bully at Ravensbrook Elementary, and a third time when that selfsame bully tried to shove him into a locker and he fell through into the classroom on the other side. Clearly, something strange was going on. And for a boy who grew up stealing comic books from the local drugstore, he was pretty sure he knew what it was.
He experimented, trying to make his new talent work without being furious or in mortal danger. And he couldn’t.
Several bloody noses and a few visits to his school counselor later, he was beginning to wonder if he had imagined everything. If maybe he was going to end up being the crazy kid in the school, the one who walked into walls and muttered about how it worked before, dammit.
In the end, it was his science teacher who convinced him. Mr. Tebow, teaching them about atoms and electrons and other things that none of the kids would ever need to know about when they grew up, said something that caught Ezra’s ear.
“Matter,” he’d said, rapping his knuckles on the desk, “is mostly empty space. It seems solid enough, but in reality, there’s more nothing in this desk than there is something.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a golf ball. “If the nucleus of an atom were the size of this ball, the nearest electron would be almost a mile away. And in between here and there?” He bounced the ball on the floor once and caught it. “Nothing at all.”
Nothing. That word hung in Ezra’s head. Nothing. Lots of nothing.
He looked down at his desk and tried to imagine all the nothing that was in there. In between the atoms, between the electrons and the nuclei – nothing. He raised his hand, and Mr. Tebow looked a little startled before he called on him. “If there’s mostly nothing, how come we can touch things?”
His science teacher grinned broadly and said, “An excellent question, Ezra!” He then started drawing pictures of atoms on the board, explaining about electrical charges and how they came in positives and negatives. He went to the supply closet and brought out a stick on a base, put it on his desk and started floating magnets on it, north-to-north and south-to-south. It was the happiest Ezra had seen his science teacher in a long time, and he tried to pay attention.
About a minute before the bell rang, Mr. Tebow said, “And that’s why we can touch things, Ezra.” He picked up the golf ball and tossed it to Ezra, who caught it. “Your electrons won’t go past the electrons in that golf ball. If they could, then, well, – you wouldn’t be able to catch it.” The bell rang and everyone filed out. Ezra sat at his desk while the other kids ran to lunch, just pressing his finger on the desktop.
Mr. Tebow walked over, books and papers in his arms. “Thank you, Ezra,” he said. “Your question was really very good. Keep it up.” He smiled and left, and Ezra felt a little grin of his own crawl across his face. Empty space, he thought. He stared at the desk and his finger. And he had pushed.
Now, in front of the White House, he was ready. He pulled his baseball cap down low and put on a large pair of dark sunglasses. He took a few more deep breaths, closed his eyes, and took a step forward.
There was shouting from the street almost before he’d taken three steps. He opened his eyes and looked behind him – the fence was still there, along with a group of gawping tourists. He grinned and shoved his hands in his pockets. He whistled as he walked casually across the North Lawn towards the White House.
Moments later, there were three men in black uniforms barreling towards him. They looked like football players and were shouting at him to stop and get on the ground. Ezra felt his mouth dry up, and for a moment felt his feet settle on the close-cropped grass. He focused – this would be a very bad time to lose control – and kept walking. Whistling was a bit of a challenge, though.
One of the men dove at him, his arms stretched out to catch him at the waist, and wend right through. Ezra didn’t look back, but kept going through the fountain at a casual, almost touristy pace. The other two reached for his shoulders and grabbed handfuls of nothing at all. Ezra did his best not to laugh as they yelled into their radios for backup.
He had looked at floor plans online, and knew where he wanted to go. After all, if he was going to just walk into the White House, there was really only one room you had to see. He kept the West Wing in his sights and made a straight line for it.
A group of men in suits ran out to block his way and stood with guns drawn. An older man held up his hands. “Stop right there, son,” he said. “I’m -”
Ezra didn’t know who he was and didn’t really care. He walked right through him and kept on his way.
The first wall that he walked through led to a small office with a very surprised young woman on the phone. She yelled out to someone in the hall, who tried to block the door and failed. Ezra turned left down the corridor and headed towards the small suite of offices that surrounded the one he wanted to see.
The White House was in a panic. There were Secret Service agents filling the corridor, and none of them were able to touch him. They were barking orders in strong, authoritative voices that he just pretended were his father’s and ignored. He kept walking. An older woman stood in the doorway of the President’s secretary’s office, her arms crossed. “Young man,” she said. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”
Ezra stopped and looked up at her. She was really trying hard, even he could see that. “I’m visiting the President,” he said. And stepped forward.
She screamed when he walked through her, but he didn’t look back. He was a little startled when a stapler flew through his head and bounced off the wall, but he kept his focus on the simple white door in front of him. Nothing fancy or elaborate about it. Just a door. And on the other side of that door was the most powerful man in the world. A man who was supposed to represent the hopes and dreams of millions around the world. For the first time, Ezra wondered what he’d say when he saw him. He grimaced. The rest of the plan had been meticulously planned out, but somehow he’d avoided thinking about that.
He shrugged. He was a bright kid, he knew that. He’d think of something.
Ezra stepped through the door and entered the Oval Office.
It was just like he’d seen on TV. Paintings on the walls and elegant, uncomfortable-looking furniture. He stepped onto the carpet, pale gray and blue, with the giant eagle in the center. There were bookcases with carefully displayed books and gifts from other nations, and a bust of some guy with a huge mustache and tiny glasses on an antique desk. In front of the tall windows at one end, in between a pair of flags, was the biggest desk he’d ever seen, made from wood so dark it seemed almost black.
There was no one else in the room but him.
“The hell?” he said. He looked around, but he was alone in the Oval Office. “Aww, man,” he said, his shoulders slumping. “This sucks.”
“He’s in Indonesia.” The woman he’d walked through before was standing in the doorway, looking like she was trying very hard not to be angry. “And even if he weren’t, do you really think the Secret Service would have let him stay here?” She took a few steps in and closed the door. “You didn’t really think this through, did you?”
She was right. If this had been a movie, the Secret Service probably would have picked up the President like a football and carried him off to some bunker or other where no one – ghost-kid or otherwise – would be able to find him until he was meant to be found. All the panic that Ezra had caused would be nothing compared to what it would have been like if the President were actually in the house.
“No,” he finally said. “I guess I didn’t.”
She seemed a little more at ease, and took another step towards him. “And you probably don’t have a plan for getting out of here either, do you?” She smiled, and right there he decided he wasn’t going to like her. The woman was pretty enough, but there was a gleam in her eyes. She looked like one of those kids in school who knew they had you where they wanted you. Those jocks who made you buy lunch for them, or the girls who pretended to be friends just long enough for you to embarrass yourself. The fact that she was right again didn’t make any difference. This woman would bully him if she could.
“No,” he said again. “I didn’t.” He looked about the office again and did his best to look completely bored by it. “I guess it all wasn’t worth it, really.”
She nodded. “Now, why don’t you tell me your name and we can get this unpleasantness sorted out.” She reached out a hand to him.
Ezra stared at it for a moment. “No,” he said. “I don’t think I will.” He wasn’t sure if what he was about to try would actually work, but he sure couldn’t make things worse. He waved at her, said “Buh-bye, lady,” and dropped through the floor.
He found himself in a cafeteria, surrounded by more very large men who looked very surprised at his appearance. As they started reaching for their guns, he dropped through the floor again. This time he found himself in a service tunnel, empty and dark, lit every few feet by dim lights. For the first time, he let his feet settle to the floor, and he leaned against the cold concrete wall. His heart was racing, and he was just noticing it now. “Holy shit,” he whispered. “Ho. Ly. Shit.”
He started laughing. He knew that he still had to get out, and he still wasn’t sure how he was going to manage that, but that wasn’t important. He had done it. He had walked into the White Frikkin’ House, and hadn’t gotten caught. Anything else ought to be a cakewalk.
He let his laughter die down, took off his sunglasses and wiped his eyes. There was a whole new world open to him now, and he was going to have as much fun in it as he could.
As he walked down the tunnel, he started making new plans.
Maybe the Pentagon.
Starlight Moonwhispers sat among her people in the middle of the Goldwell oil company’s lavish New York City headquarters and looked around the lobby. There were sleeping bags strewn about, small gas stoves to boil water and cook with, and a poetry reading going on near the elevator bank. Mothers were nursing small children, and older kids were running about the marble hall, chasing each other and laughing.
About a hundred people had, like Starlight, barricaded themselves in the lobby in order to protest the oil company’s continued operations. They had been there for six days straight and had refused all offers by the company to come to some sort of compromise. Starlight Moonwhispers had led them all here. She had told them of her visions, her clarity – that if they made a stand in this place, at this time, they would set in motion a revolution that would free their Mother Gaia from human bondage. The local TV stations had been running her videotape all week:
…and it is only when we accept what we are, we human beings, that we will truly know the love that our Mother, Gaia, has for us. She wants us to thrive and be well, to live in peace and harmony with all nature. But the work of evil that Goldwell and other greedy, anti-life corporations do is what ultimately keeps us from knowing Gaia’s love. They rape our Mother with their oil rigs and wells. They suck the life out of Her and burn it into the air, fouling Her precious lungs with the burned filth of Her own body. Is it any wonder that we have earthquakes devastating cities? Is it any wonder that we have floods wiping away homes? Is it any wonder that the Earth Herself is rising up against us? No, it is not.
But our group, the Heart of the Earth, is committed to putting humanity on the right track. We will not leave this place until Goldwell and its vampire brethren dismantle their operations and commit their resources to the development of clean, renewable power that shows our Mother Earth the gratitude that She deserves….
The media had been in and around the occupied lobby for nearly as long as Starlight’s group had, and she was not shy about giving interviews. Every time she was on camera, she repeated her message and made sure she was heard.
The police waited outside the building, waiting for word from the executives at Goldwell. Their CEO had gone on The Biff Browley Hour and said that he was curious to see how long they’d stick around. “Frankly, we do everything off a cloud network right now,” he said. “We could probably run the company from Starbucks if we wanted to. So as long as they stay entertaining, I say let ‘em have their fun.”
A young girl, no more than fifteen, approached Starlight nervously. She had taken to dressing like her leader – long, flowing clothes that were made only from natural fibers, without any leather or animal products. Her dark hair twinkled with little beads, and she went barefoot everywhere. She smelled of patchouli. “Starlight,” she said. “Some of us were wondering…” The girl looked nervous, and Starlight tried to recall her name. Something about moss, maybe? “Some of us were wondering if you were going to have another of your sacred meditations today.”
A few times a week, Starlight Moonwhispers meditated. When she came out of her meditations, she told of the Spirit of Gaia, an entity that communicated with her on an astral level, soul-to-soul. She spoke of this spirit as uplifting, empowering, but terribly, terribly weak all at the same time. It was pale and thin and frail, but there was an inner strength that Starlight could see through her enlightened eyes. Since she started doing the meditations – and coming back from them with inspiration for the group – others had been asking to meditate with her, to learn from her how to experience a oneness with the Great Mother herself.
Starlight smiled and brushed a long lock of red hair from her eyes. “Of course, sister,” she said. She stood up, smoothing down her flowing skirts. “Brothers and sisters!” she called out, and her melodic voice rang through the lobby. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked to her. Some with curiosity, others with awe. Her visions had assembled them here. They had brought them to the houses of the powerful, and now they would guide them further.
“I plan to embark on another spiritual journey soon,” she said, “and all who wish to join me are welcome.” She spread her arms wide, letting the hand-made shawl hang from her shoulders. “Let us all experience the oneness that is unity with our Great Mother!” The crowd started to applaud, and some of them followed as she stepped over backpacks and sleeping bags to get to her preferred meditation spot, a landing on the staircase that went up to the second floor. She had a meditation pillow set up and a glass of purified water. She arranged her skirts around her and pulled her hair into a long ponytail. As she did so a few other people gathered around on the landing, sitting cross-legged in spots of their own.
When she was ready, Starlight looked at each one of them in turn. “We are all connected,” she said. “The pure energy of Mother Earth is in all of us, and we are in Her. Calm your mind, focus on the light of true love, and seek a oneness with our Great Mother.” She sat with her back straight and her fingertips touching, and then closed her eyes. A moment later, she began to chant the mantra that she had been given from the fragile, yet strong spirit of her planet. “Ommm Muuuummmm Annamummmm…..” The others started chanting with her, all of them familiar with the sacred words that she had brought back for them.
In her own peaceful and warm darkness, Starlight chanted and focused on the words and her breathing. She focused on making it to that place inside her that was a white light, a shining and incorruptible place in her heart. After some amount of time, she was aware that she couldn’t hear herself chanting anymore, and took it for a good sign. Soon, the darkness would be pierced by light, and she would once again commune with the spirit of Earth.
She always looked forward to these meetings, but feared them as well. The spirit she saw – it was ill. Fragile. In great pain. What if one day she came here, and that spirit was gone? What if it had died, or left, abandoning humanity to the whims of an unforgiving world? Starlight was vaguely aware that she had shuddered at the thought, and that was when she felt something new.
It felt like she had just dropped from a great height, and she screamed, not sure if she was only screaming in her head or out loud. Whatever it was, she screamed as she fell through the darkness, moving but not moving, and not at all sure how she knew that she was moving in the first place. There was no wind rushing up to greet her, nothing she could see. But she knew she was falling, and she dreaded what would happen when she stopped.
And then she did. Again, without knowing why or how she knew. And when she stopped, her vision began to clear and the darkness burned away as if it were a late-morning fog.
There was metal under her bare feet, and the smell of oil in the air. Great towering machines vanished in the darkness above her, and ruddy light slipped through the cracks between them. The sound of things moving – huge, metal sounds – assaulted her ears, and she cried out against the grinding and the thumping and the sound of parts sliding against each other and squealing in protest. It was a factory. Huge and impersonal and horrible, and Starlight felt sick to her stomach. “Hello?” she said. “I… I don’t think I’m supposed to be here!”
Starlight yelped and spun around. The woman standing behind her was short and muscular and holding a large wrench. She brushed a curl of hair out of her eyes and glared at Starlight. “What’re you doing here?” she asked.
Starlight tried to gather herself. “Well, I’m…” She couldn’t finish. She knew what she wanted to say – that she was in the middle of a mystical astral journey to see the spirit of Gaia, but somehow she’d gotten lost – but as she thought about it, she looked at this woman and, for the first time, realized how ridiculous that sounded. “I’m lost,” she said, looking down at the metal catwalk she was standing on.
The woman rolled her eyes and nodded. “You’d have to be,” she said. “Follow me.” Without waiting to see if Starlight would follow, the woman turned and walked away. She led Starlight to what looked like a massive master control room. Pipes stretched about everywhere – some of them steaming, others with frost all along their length. Where there weren’t pipes, there were great, oily gears, turning at a steady pace. Nearer the floor were huge ovens that blazed white-hot and fed their heat to boilers that must have been twenty feet high. The noise was indescribable, but Starlight found she could still hear the woman when she talked.
“Okay,” the woman said, standing by a nest of levers and buttons. “Tell me where you were going when you got lost. Let’s see if we can’t help you find your way back.”
Starlight wrung her hands. “Well,” she said. “I was meditating with my brothers and sisters, and trying to contact the spirit of Mother Earth so that I could commune with her some more.”
The woman held up a grease-covered hand. “Waitaminit,” she said. “You were trying to contact who?”
“The spirit of Mother Earth,” Starlight said. “Gaia.” She smiled and twirled her finger in her beaded necklace. This was familiar territory. “I have been communing with Her for several years now. When I meditate, she comes to me and I feel the great pain that we humans have inflicted on her.” To her credit, tears began to well up in her eyes. “She’s in such pain and so fragile,” she said, her voice beginning to crack. “I just wish I could do more!”
The woman just stared at her for a moment. Then she put her hands on her belly and laughed. Her laughter rang around the factory, bouncing off pipes and walls and coming back to her. She laughed so hard that she nudged one of the levers, sending a boiler up a little hotter and turning a small set of gears a little faster. When she noticed, she was still laughing and wiping tears from her eyes, but she adjusted the lever back to where it was.
“Oh, that was good,” she said to Starlight. “Seriously, that was really funny. Good work.” She reached out to pat Starlight on the arm, but the other woman shrank back.
“I hate to tell you this, kid,” she said, “but you haven’t been communing with anyone.” She tossed the wrench in the air, flipped it and caught it. “Maybe the inside of your own head, but that’s it.” She reached up and started adjusting a pipe fitting.
Starlight stared at her. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Kid,” the woman said. “I mean you made it all up. It was a dream or a hallucination or something.” She gave the pipe another twist and faced her again. “Good news, though. If you wanted to commune with the spirit of the Earth then, well, now’s your chance.” She shoved the wrench into a loop on her stained jeans. “What do you want?”
The truth of it took a while to sink in, but eventually Starlight said, “You’re the Earth Spirit?” The other woman nodded. “You’re Mother Gaia?”
She shrugged. “That name sounds a little pretentious, but sure. Mother Gaia. Whatever works.”
“But that can’t be,” Starlight said. “You’re not…” She looked around. “This isn’t… You can’t be!”
“Yeah, well, I am,” Gaia said. “So what did you want that was so important you had to come down here and bug me?” She gestured to the lever that she’d bumped. “You just inadvertently caused an earthquake, by the way” she said. “Hope you didn’t know anyone in Peru.”
“No!” Starlight said. “This is all wrong!”
Gaia crossed her arms and leaned up against a steam pipe that was wider across than she was. “Why? Because I’m not all frail and fragile?”
“Well… Well, yes,” Starlight said. Her confusion was fogging her thinking. “I mean, we’ve done so much damage to the Earth with our strip mines and oil rigs and pollution – I just thought…”
She stopped as Gaia stepped closer, seeming to examine her face in minute detail. After a minute, the other woman’s eyes went wide and she leaned back. “Oh,” she said. “I get it now – you’re a human, aren’t you?
“Yes!” Starlight said. “And I’m trying to undo the horrible, horrible damage that we’ve done over the years.”
Gaia smiled, reached out and patted her on the shoulder with a grease-stained hand. “That’s adorable,” she said. “Go home.”
“You heard me,” she said. She gestured around to the vast machinery around her. “Do I look like I’m in any trouble?” she asked.
“But.. but the ozone layer! And global warming!”
Gaia sighed and took Starlight by the arm. “I’m gonna show you something,” she said. “You ready?” Starlight nodded, because if she had spoken she almost certainly would have said “No.”
A moment later, they were standing on a vast plain of ice, with wind howling past them, scouring the surface. The sky was cold and clear, and there was nothing but ice and sky anywhere in sight. Starlight rubbed her arms, but then realized she wasn’t actually cold. She turned to Gaia for an explanation.
“Everything was like this,” Gaia said, and she spoke softly. Even with the howling wind, Starlight could still hear her. “From one pole to the other, the world was a great snowball.” She looked over at Starlight. “For five million years, nothing but ice, wind and more ice.” She took Starlight’s hand, and the scene changed again.
The ice was replaced with land, and the air stank of rot and death. Starlight looked at her feet, and found that she was standing on the husks of great and strange insects, the likes of which she’d never seen before. The air around them was still and quiet.
“The third great dying,” Gaia said. “I nearly lost everything – from the land and the sea alike.” She reached down and picked up one of the dead insects. “So many wonderful things vanished, never to be seen again.” Her voice caught as she dropped it back onto the ground. “You have no idea what it was like then,” she said.
Starlight tried to find something living in that wasteland. She couldn’t. “How did this happen?” she whispered.
Gaia shrugged. “Things happen,” she said. “The universe is a tough place.” She patted Starlight on the arm. “C’mon, human,” she said. “One more.”
There was a dinosaur only a few feet away, stumbling across ash-covered ground, and Starlight’s hands flew to her mouth in shock. It was a towering tyrannosaurus, one of the largest hunters the world had ever known. And it was very clearly dying. Its great, pebbly skin was covered in open sores and lesions, bleeding through the coat of ash. Its ribs protruded from its chest, and Starlight could see nearly every bone in its body.
Without a sound, the great dinosaur stopped walking, fell over, and died.
Gaia went to it and ran her hand over the rough, ashen skin. “I really liked these guys,” she said. She looked back at Starlight. “Nearly two hundred million years, the dinosaurs were it. They ran the food chain.” She patted it and stepped back. “Then a meteor, a few volcanoes and…” She gestured around. When she looked over at Starlight, the girl was on the verge of tears, trying not to look at the dead dinosaur. “C’mon,” Gaia said. “Let’s get out of here.”
They were back in the factory, and Starlight was crying. “What were those things?” she said. “Why did you show them to me?”
Gaia sat on a tall wooden stool that had appeared in front of the control station. “Girl, you humans haven’t even begun to live. You’ve been around what – two hundred thousand years? If I’m being generous?” She laughed, and it was a dark laugh. “You really don’t know anything about the universe yet. Wait until you’ve been around half as long as… as cockroaches.” The smile that blossomed on her face was warm and genuine. “Wonderful critters, my cockroaches,” she said.
“Point is, the planet got turned into a snowball: it survived. Nearly every living thing got wiped out: it survived. It got slammed by a huge damn rock: it survived.” She stood up and lifted Starlight’s chin in her hand. “The Earth doesn’t need you to save it,” Gaia said. “It’ll do just fine with or without you.”
Starlight sniffled. “But what about the ozone?” she asked. “The sea levels rising? Global warming?”
Gaia shrugged. “We’ll adapt,” she said. “That’s the game. You kids have lived in a time of relative peace and tranquility, and you think this is how it’s always been.” She laughed. “Well, you’re so wrong about that, I don’t even know where to begin.” Her smile faded. “Point is, the planet will adapt. Life will adapt.” She sat back down again. “Although, if we’re being honest, you probably won’t.”
“Humans are delicate,” Gaia said. “Too much change, and you won’t be around much longer as a species. Which would be pretty pathetic if you ask me – I mean, even rats have been around for about five million, so if you don’t have a problem not outlasting rats?” She shrugged again. “Knock yourselves out.” She stood up again, reached up, and tapped a dial. “If you need to fight for something, don’t fight for me.” She grinned. “I’m a big girl. Fight for your species.”
Starlight opened her mouth to speak and found that she couldn’t. Gaia had one hand on a lever and the other held up. “I’m afraid that’s all the time we have,” she said. “Good luck to you.”
She pulled the lever, and Starlight’s eyes snapped open.
The people on the landing were still sitting, still mediating. One or two of them had fallen asleep and tipped over. Everyone else in the lobby was still going about the business of the occupation.
Her feet unsteady, Starlight stood up, and the young woman who had approached her before looked up from her meditations. “Sister!” the girl said, and everyone else opened their eyes and looked up at her. The young girl came over and took Starlight’s hands. “Sister,” she said again. “Did you have a revelation?”
Starlight looked around at all the people in the lobby and wasn’t sure what she was doing there. They looked so alien to her. So small and so fragile.
She shook her head and said, “Yes.” She brushed the hair back from her face and stood up straight. “Get me a video camera,” she said. “It’s time to adjust our message.”
As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two or three characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.
When I got to the “Earth” section of this month’s project, I knew I wanted to revisit Evelyn Pierce – first seen as a minor character in Interviews on Day 36, and later as a main character in A Friend in Need, which was Day 38. Her ability to talk to and – one day – control plants made her a natural for this section.
Tanner Quan wasn’t going to be in this story at all – I had come up with a different government agent when I realized that I already had one. And a pretty entertaining one at that. Tanner showed up in the three-part series Special Agent Khrys Ferro on days 133-135. The bagpipes were definitely his idea.
The desert was empty and vicious and bright. The sun hung in the sky, a tiny, brilliant point in a cloudless expanse of blue. Heat rose from the hard-packed floor in waves, and the air itself did everything it could to suck the water from the bones of any creature lucky enough to try and traverse it. There was no wind, no sound at all. Just an endless, dry, hot silence.
A wheezing pickup truck trundled around the hard pack and shrubbery, sending up a plume of dust behind it. It was filthy, covered in road grime from a trip of hundreds of miles, and it looked tiny in the vast emptiness of the desert.
The house it was driving to was weatherbeaten and small, but solid, built up against a cliff face where the sun wouldn’t touch it. An array of solar panels soaked in the sunlight about fifty feet away, and the house had its own filthy truck parked in front of it. A dirt road stretched from its front door all the way to the nearest state road, a good ten miles away. The pickup pulled in, sat for a moment, and then the engine shuddered to a stop.
The driver was small and slight, a man of Asian descent who had dressed wisely for the desert. He had on dark glasses and carried a briefcase, and took a deep breath before he walked up to the faded, sand-blown front door and knocked.
A minute later, the door opened into darkness. A young woman stepped out, dressed in a tank-top and shorts, with a bandanna holding back green hair. She looked the man up and down. “Yeah?” she said.
The man put on a bright smile. “Ms. Evelyn Pierce?” he said.
She slammed the door, nearly crushing his foot.
He nodded to himself. He’d expected this, or at least something very much like it. He went back to the truck, opened the passenger side door, and took out a battery-powered CD player, a folding chair, and a large hardcover book. He brought them closer to the house, in the shade of the cliff, opened the chair and sat down. He put the CD player on the ground, turned on the power and set the volume as high as it could go. He hit the “repeat” button and then “play,” and settled down to read his book.
A moment later, the brash, weedy sound of bagpipes filled the formerly quiet desert afternoon. A bone-chilling rendition of “Amazing Grace” was the first track, and to Evelyn’s credit she made it all the way through the “Skye Boat Song” and halfway to the end of “The Blue Bells of Scotland” before she burst out of her front door with a large handgun.
“Get the hell off my land!” she growled.
The man didn’t look up from his book, but casually paused the CD player and then turned a page. “Sorry, Ms. Pierce,” he said. “No can do.”
She lifted the gun and pointed it at him. “You do know that Arizona has some pretty loose castle laws, mister? I don’t think it would be too hard for me to convince a judge you were a threat to a young girl living out here by herself.”
The man turned another page. “Probably not,” he said. He reached into his shirt and pulled out a gleaming golden badge on a chain. “Shoot a federal agent, though, and no one will give a damn about your…” He glanced over at her house and then up at her. “Castle.”
Evelyn’s eyes narrowed, and she held the gun up a heartbeat longer. Then she let it drop. “You have a warrant?” she said with a sigh.
The man closed his book and put it on the chair when he stood up. “That’s not what I’m here for,” he said. “I’m here to talk to you, and ask if you would be willing to do your country a favor.” He spread his arms wide in a show of innocence. “That’s it.”
She thought for a moment. “What’s in it for me?” she asked.
“Ms. Pierce,” he said. “What ever happened to ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’?”
“Before my time,” she said. “Make your pitch and get the hell out of here.”
He shrugged and picked up the briefcase. “Mind if we do this inside?” he asked. “It’s a little toasty out here.”
She stared at him and then shrugged. “What the hell,” she said. She started to turn, but then stopped. “Is that shirt cotton?” she asked.
His face passed through a moment of puzzlement, but then he smiled. “No,” he said. “Linen. Will that be a problem?”
Evelyn shrugged. “We’ll see. Come on in.”
The inside of the house was cool and dark, and stretched back into the cliff face. It was sparsely decorated, with some throw rugs and bookshelves, and the occasional bit of bric-a-brac wherever she could fit it. He peered back as far as he could see, but she stepped in front of him. “Are we going to do this?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said. He put the briefcase down on the coffee table and took a place on the sofa. “For starters,” he said, “my name is Tanner Quan. I’m an agent with the Department of National Security.” She didn’t say anything, but just crossed one leg over the other and gripped the arms of her chair. “I followed a very long and tangled investigation to find you, Ms. Pierce.” He popped open the briefcase and noticed that she flinched a little. He started taking out manila folders and laying them on the table. “We don’t know a whole lot about you, I’ll be honest,” he said, “but what we do know is very interesting indeed.”
“Like what?” she asked quietly through a clenched jaw.
“Well…” He picked up a folder and began to flip through it. “We know that you dropped off the grid about a year ago and moved out here. Prior to that you were living with your folks in Scottsdale.” He turned a page. “Before that, you were living in Ravensbrook, Illinois of all places.” He glanced up. “Interesting little town, that.”
“I didn’t think so,” she said.
Tanner shrugged. “You were sixteen. No one’s hometown is interesting when they’re sixteen.” He put down the folder and leaned forward. “We found out, of course, why you had to leave Ravensbrook.” He arched an eyebrow. “Rachael Decker?”
Evelyn stood up and grabbed her head. “I want you out,” she said. She flung a hand to the door. “Out. NOW!”
He stood with her. “Ms. Pierce, please. I’m sorry if you’re upset, but -” Tanner stopped talking as his shirt began to writhe and twist on him. It bunched up, wrapping itself around his chest, and started to squeeze. As it did, thin green shoots emerged, which blossomed into pale blue flowers. He grabbed at it, pulling and trying to get it off.
Evelyn was on her knees, holding her head in her hands and muttering to herself. “No, no, no,” she said. “Not this again, no…”
“Please. Evelyn,” Tanner wheezed. “You can stop this.” He tried to cough, but the linen pulled tighter around his chest and began to creep up to his throat. “You can stop this,” he said again, his last word ending in a gurgle.
Evelyn picked up her head, and her eyes had gone a bright emerald green. She looked over at his shirt, and it fell away in pieces, dropping to the floor. The shoots it had produced dried and withered, and Evelyn whimpered a bit as they did. Tanner pushed the shirt away with his foot and stared at Evelyn. “Are you… Are you okay?” he asked once he’d caught his breath.
She looked up at him and nodded. Her eyes were a normal green now, matching the hair that was coming out of her ponytail. “That was close,” Tanner said as she got up and went back to the chair. “Good thing the underwear’s silk.” He grinned, but she didn’t even notice. He sat down again.
“Ms. Pierce, I know what you can do.” He glanced down at the shirt and rubbed his bare arms. “I mean, I knew it before I came here. And I’m sorry that it’s difficult to live with.”
“Difficult?” she asked. “Why do you think I live out here, where there’s almost no plants?” She looked up at him, eyes shining. “I can hear them,” she said. “All the time, I can hear them. And they know that I hear them and they want to… to help me.” A laugh escaped her, almost a sob. “Help,” she said.
“We have people, Ms. Pierce. People who can help you.” He took a breath. “If you help us.”
“And why should I help you?” she asked. “What do you know?”
“You’d be surprised, Ms. Pierce,” he said. He took another folder from the briefcase, this one marked with a red stripe down one side. “Have you heard of Papaver demensum?” He dropped a glossy photograph on the table. It showed a flower, like a poppy but bigger. Its petals were dead black, with a corpse-white center, all perched atop a slender, pale stem.
She picked it up, looked at it for a moment and then shrugged. “No,” she said. “Should I have?”
“It was worth a shot,” he said. “This is the Madness Poppy. It’s a whole new cultivar out of Peru, just starting to reach the U.S. and it’s a nasty piece of work.”
Evelyn sat back in her chair. “How nasty?” she said.
“Well over five hundred beds filled with coma patients up and down the border.” He shuddered. “They just lie there,” he said, “with their eyes open, looking at… something. No idea what it is, but when the screaming starts…” He rubbed his arms again. “It’s not like anything you’ve ever heard before.”
Evelyn looked at him for a while and then got up. She came back a minute later with a sweatshirt. “Here,” she says. “You look about my size.”
He looked at it and shrugged. “Maybe so,” he said. He pulled it on, and it was a little short in the sleeves. He smiled at her and slid them up before he went on. “We’re intercepting the plants as they come across the border, but they’re like no poppy we’ve ever seen. They grow fast, they’re ridiculously low-maintenance, and the profit margin is enormous.” He looked up at her again. “Better than meth, and that’s without all the explosion hazard.”
Evelyn picked up the picture again and then looked back at Tanner. “I still don’t know what you expect me to do,” she said. “I mean, if you wanted them to grow faster, I think I could manage that. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what you want.”
He smiled and shook his head. “They grow plenty fast on their own,” he said. “What we need you to do is to… change them. See if you can convince them to produce less of whatever it is that makes them so potent. Tweak the DNA and just…” He waved a hand about aimlessly. “Out-evolve them.”
Evelyn stared at him for a moment. “Are you kidding me?” she said. She stood up and grabbed a scrap of his shirt from the floor. “I can barely control what I do with those things!” She flung it at him and shook her head. “No,” she said. “I’m not what you think I am.” She opened the door to blazing sunlight and stood by it. “You need to find somebody else. I can’t do this.”
Tanner stood up. “Ms. Pierce,” he said. “Like I said, we have people who’ve got some experience helping people… like you.”
“There are no people like me,” she said.
“Oh, but there are,” he replied, that bright smile working its way out again. “You’d be surprised.” He stood up and put his hands in his pockets. “Some with more troubles than you, believe me.”
She glanced at him for a moment and then looked away.
“You really think they can help me?” she said softly after a while.
He went to her and put a hand on her shoulder. “I know they can,” he said. “With a little work, you can live a normal life again. Somewhere that isn’t…” He looked around. “That isn’t here.”
They stood there for a moment, the breeze from the desert bringing sand in over the threshold. Finally she nodded. “Okay,” she said. “But if I get everyone killed, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Tanner took his hand back. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We do this sort of thing all the time.”
I was surrounded by mimes.
The Estervale Civic Center was packed to the walls with mimes from all over the world. There were booths set up to display the latest in mime costuming, props, and makeup; mimes of international renown selling autographed head shots for twenty bucks a pop, and hundreds of people – mimes and mime wanna-bes alike – wandering through the convention center, toting giant bags full of stuff that they’d probably throw away the moment they got home. People came dressed as their favorite mimes and posed for pictures to put up on the Internet, and a couple of guys were done up to look like birthday clowns, just for the shock value.
I didn’t care about any of that. I was there to catch a killer.
People were filing in to the Great Hall for the convention’s keynote panel entitled “The Sad Clown: Emotional Perspectives on Post-Modern Mimery,” whatever all that meant. Three of the world’s greatest mimes were going to lead a discussion on the main stage.
Yes, mimes can, in fact, talk. They just choose not to.
Raul Jiminez-Péron from Spain was slated to lead the discussion, along with his colleagues Michel LeMarch from France and Hiroyuki Hasugawa from Japan. The talk was scheduled to begin in fifteen minutes, and there were hundreds of suspects filing in as I watched. Any one of them could have been the Mime Killer, a man who harbored such a hatred of mimes that he had embarked on a killing spree. Ten performers had died in the last year, and the city was getting tired of taking the blame.
The police presence at the conference was strong. There were uniformed officers patrolling the building, outside and in, and plenty of plainclothes guys like me. If anyone made a move, we’d know about it. This place was going to be our honeypot. No one with a need to kill mimes would be able to pass this up.
But what really gave us the advantage was my golem. I gave it a fresh coat of face paint and a change of costume and put it backstage to watch the crowd. So far, the golem had been useful. True, the police department had already received dozens of complaints from all kinds of official magical organizations, who were affronted and appalled that I would “create life,” as they saw it. Fortunately, the mayor’s office had promised to shield us from the worst of it if the golem worked out, and I honestly didn’t care what they thought anymore. I watched people walk in, and then I ducked in through the backstage door to join the golem and the chief.
For once, he didn’t have his mouth full of gum. I took a sniff to see if he’d been smoking again. “This had better work,” he said. “We’re taking a big chance with this many people.”
I nodded. “He’ll be here, chief. We just have to wait for him to make his move.”
The chief tapped the golem’s chest, and it made a dull thumping sound. “Can’t your flowerpot here find him?”
I shook my head. The golem had brought me to the killer’s house, which brought us here. But no matter how I commanded it, the golem didn’t seem to be able to bring me to the killer himself. Honestly, after all the time I’d spent with it so far, I don’t think I understand how it works any better than I did when I made it. And if I had known what it would be when I made it, I might have agreed with those people who thought it was an abomination.
The golem just kept getting more… real. Maybe it was just obeying the Words I’d put in its head as far as it could, maybe there was something else going on. I really had no idea, but I was already starting to worry about what we’d do with the thing when this case was over.
The lights in the hall dimmed, and the audience quieted down right away. The emcee, a well-known TV mime named Lucas Allbridge, took the stage to eager and polite applause. He thanked the audience for coming, made a few jokes about how he really shouldn’t run off at the mouth, and then introduced the panelists. I watched the golem, and it watched the crowd.
I didn’t really follow the discussion. The bits I did hear didn’t make much sense to me – the meta-re-imagining of the role of the negative in anthro-centric performance modes and all that. The peace and quiet were beginning to bother me, though. Everything said that the killer should be there. Everything pointed right to this place, this time.
That sinking feeling hit me again. Was this guy really this clever? That he’d send us on some crazy chase while he runs around free as a bird? I imagined him coming home to find the door smashed, a dent in his desk and the convention flyer missing. He probably put two and two together and figured out that we knew what he was up to, so he stayed away. Stayed at home to plan his next hit while we twiddled our thumbs and watched mimes discuss mimery.
But could he really do it? That bedroom wasn’t the den of someone interested in killing mimes – it was the den of someone obsessed with killing mimes. And here was the mother lode, the greatest concentration of mimes for hundreds of miles around. Would the man who owned that room really be able to stay away?
A tiny red light answered my question.
I saw it about a second before he golem did. The darkness underneath the Spanish mime’s chair turned a dim, pulsing red. I bent down to get a better view, but the golem was already on its way. The audience murmured as it walked on stage and then started shouting as it lifted Raul Jiminez-Péron bodily from his chair and pushed him away. The other two mimes stood – Hasugawa moved to help his colleague while LeMarch started shouting at the golem in rapid French.
He stopped, however, when the golem turned the chair over and ripped the tape off a small radio receiver that was stuck into what looked like half a pound of modeling clay. A small red light was blinking on the receiver.
“All right,” I shouted, holding my badge as high in the air as I could. The men on the stage were already starting to scramble off, and the people in the first few rows were just beginning to guess what it was the golem held. “I need everyone to move away from the stage in an orderly -”
The explosion was deafening.
I was thrown twenty feet, skidding on my back. My ears hurt like hell, and everything sounded like I had my head wrapped in layers and layers of wet wool. I could hear shouting, and something that sounded like drumbeats, like strong hits on a snare drum. I opened my eyes and staggered to my feet, gun drawn. My vision was bleary, but what I saw was impossible to mistake. A man in a mime outfit was standing over the fallen golem, shooting it and screaming.
I pointed my gun at him and fired. I missed, but got his attention. “Police!” I wondered absently where the other officers were.
He responded by lifting his gun and taking a shot at me, yelling something as he did so. He would have had me dead if the golem hadn’t saved my life.
Its hand – cracked and broken and missing two fingers – darted out and grabbed the gunman’s leg, pulling him off-balance. The gunman fell to the ground and emptied his weapon into he golem’s face, sending little chips flying and tiny clouds of white dust into the air. Still, the golem wasn’t stopped. It stood up, still holding the killer by the ankle, and I got my first good look at the damage that had been done.
The golem had used its body as a shield and absorbed as much of the blast as it could. From its collar to its groin, half its torso was just… gone. The only thing holding it up was the clay of its back, and yet it stood as tall as it ever had. It lifted the gunman high in the air and squeezed its hand. The gunman screamed, and I knew my hearing was coming back because I heard that just fine. With its other hand, the golem took the gun. Casually, without even looking at it, the golem crushed the gun one-handed and threw it over its shoulder. It looked at the screaming gunman, and then it turned its ruined face towards me.
The paint was gone. A jagged crack ran across its face, from jaw to ear, and the remaining eye was shattered and crumbling. But still, it looked at me. It looked at me as if to ask what I wanted to do with this man. This thing. This living being that had less regard for life and law than a creature made from dust and clay only a week ago. The golem looked at me. And waited.
The other officers were pouring into the auditorium, shouting orders and all-clears, but the golem heard me anyway. “Golem,” I said. “Put him down. Gently.”
The golem didn’t have eyebrows – not unless I painted them back on – but I’m pretty sure it cocked one at me before it let the gunman down to the splintered stage floor. The guy was crying and holding his ankle, and begging for mercy in between promises to destroy the abomination. And I wasn’t sure if he meant the golem or me.
Mercy. I was too tired to banter with a crazy man. I let one of the other officers do the litany this time and I watched them take him away, struggling and screaming. “Golem,” I said. “You did good work.”
I was answered by a great, shattering thud behind me and I spun around.
The golem’s body had finally given in to the damage done, and I cursed myself for not seeing it coming. I had used cheap clay, and that much C4 is not something you can shrug off, golem or no. I ran to its side, and a groan escaped me when I saw it.
The head had cracked open and lay shattered on the boards, leaving only a small piece that would be recognizable as its face. There, in the dust and pottery shards, were the Words that I had put into its head. The paper I had written them on was fragile and brittle, the sigils were faded and gray. Great power had come through those words somehow, and they crumbled to dust in my fingers.
I knelt in the shattered remnants of my golem until the chief came over and put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s over, Zoltaire,” he said quietly. “Your golem worked. No one died.” He patted me and I shrugged has hand off with a wordless grunt. “Whatever,” he said. “Back to the station. There’s paperwork to do.” I smelled spearmint and I wanted to stand up and punch him.
Before I left the convention center, I made sure that every last speck of dust, every tiny piece of clay was collected from that stage. I brought it all back to the station and shut myself in my workshop for days. I reconstituted the clay, dug into my my bank account to pay for some of the good stuff to mix it in with, and didn’t sleep until I had built it a new body. Then I went back to the library and cursed out those harpy librarians again to re-build the sigils. I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t want to admit what I wanted. It felt stupid, getting this upset about a golem, a made thing, for crying out loud! It was no more alive than a car or a cell phone or a chair. I knew that.
But I didn’t care. I just wanted it – him – back.
The chief came down and offered to let me go on leave for a while, but I didn’t listen. I shut him and all the other officers out of my workshop while I kept at it.
Finally, after days, I was done. I was exhausted, I was starving, and I stank, but I was done. I had the body. I had the Words. I knew what I wanted.
I was ready.
The ritual was the same as before. I had to cleanse. I took a quick shower with that herbal soap, then came back to the office and dropped onto the sofa to meditate. I tried every visualization technique I could think of to calm my mind – ocean waves, a flower bud opening, a mountain stream gurgling past me – but nothing worked. So I got up, went to the golem, and started the ritual. I threw the Words into its head, rubbed my hands together and started walking around it. I chanted, quickly, quietly, through teeth clenched in frustration at how long this was taking. I chanted the Words and tried to pour everything I had into them. I lost track of time and who I was and what I was doing.
And then I passed out.
When I woke up and got off the floor, I looked at the table.
The golem lay there, inert. Not moving, not wanting to move. There was nothing there but clay.
I slumped down in the corner and wept. Part of me was astounded, amazed that I would be crying over a golem. A golem, of all things. The rest of me just wheeled around and punched that part of me in the mouth until it shut up. I stayed there for a while, at least until the pain broke and I could stand up again. I didn’t look at it as I left.
The chief gave me two weeks. He told me that the International Mime Union would be willing to take the failed replacement off our hands. They wanted to display it as a sign of their gratitude for saving so many of their members’ lives. They said that they didn’t know how to repay me or the department for all that we had done, and that they would honor the memory of the golem forever.
I didn’t care.
I took the two weeks and spent most of them indoors, in bed, with the lights off.
After a while, though, I couldn’t stand to be cooped up inside anymore. I put on a jacket and headed out, squinting into the sunlight. The air smelled fresh, but that was probably just because I’d been indoors for days on end. The people looked happy, but that was probably just because I was a miserable sad sack.
The park nearby was quiet, as always. I bought some bread at the corner store, found a bench by the tiny duck pond, and went to feed some ducks.
While I sat there, I noticed motion out of the corner of my eye. A white flash. I glanced over, and my breath caught for a moment. It was a mime. A little guy, walking smoothly through the park, soon followed by another, who was pretending to be tied to the first by an invisible rope. I heard something from my other side and turned around – three more mimes, making their way towards me and the pond. Soon, there were ten. And then twenty, all coming towards me, and my heart was beating to break through my chest. The only thing I could think of was how I had given up my gun at the police station, and that after all this time, this was how it would end.
They stopped some ways from me, and lined up around the pond. There were enough of them that they went all the way around it and off to the sides. All of them, staring at me with white, unreadable faces and graceful, unpredictable poses.
Then, in a wave as fluid and as perfect as any on water, they bowed. The one closest to my left started it, and the bow traveled through the crowd, passing from one mime to another, all the way around the duck pond until it reached the mime to my right. They had their floppy hats and berets off, heads hanging low to the ground. And then, left to right, they stood again, one after the other.
Without a word, the mimes left. Each by his or her own way, as though there had never been a group there, but that they had all come there by random, unknowable coincidence. In moments, they were gone, and I was once again alone with the ducks.
The sadness was gone, though. Something in the mimes had taken it from me and replaced it with warmth. With… gratitude.
I sat back on the bench and turned my face towards the sun, breathing easy for the first time in days. There would be work to do tomorrow.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Seriously, I had no idea this would go on as long as it did. I meant it to be a nice, tight 1,500 word piece for Worth1000.com, and it just… didn’t want to stop. So thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it.
There was a crowd by the fountain in the middle of Blue River Park, watching a mime. Every now and then they would applaud or laugh, and there was the occasional tinkle of coins as people showed their appreciation in a more tangible way. The mime would walk against the wind or pretend to climb a rope or stumble and fall and roll around, and the people just ate it up.
I stood at the edge of the crowd, glaring at each and every one of them.
The plug in my ear vibrated and I tapped it with a finger. “Yeah?”
I could hear him chewing gum as he spoke, and my stomach turned. “Nothing yet, chief. I think we’re making enough money that we can buy some better coffee for the station, though.”
“Dammit, Zoltaire, it’s been a week! I thought your golem-mime-thing was supposed to lure the killer out of the woodwork!”
I looked over at it. The mime was pretending to pull flowers from a little girl’s hair, and the child was shrieking with laughter. I don’t know how it knew how to do that, to be honest. I just wanted to make something that looked like a mime to solve some murders. A little clay, some Words, and a week later, it was entertaining small children left and right. Whatever I had made, it was starting to creep me out, and I hoped that the Mime Killer would strike so that we could put all this behind us.
“I’m sure it’ll happen, Chief. Just make sure the boys are ready when it does.” I tapped the plug again and disconnected. I sat and watched my mime perform for a crowd that was slowly growing bigger. They clapped at all of his – its – antics and moves, and I even found myself chuckling once or twice. Then I reminded myself: that thing wasn’t human and never would be. It would keep walking against the wind until I told it to stop, and if I wanted it to perform until the end of time then it would.
The sun was dropping towards the trees and I sighed. I tapped the plug in the other ear and said, “Golem. Finish your act and return to base.”
It pulled one more rose out of the little girl’s hair and mocked bone-deep sorrow at their tragic yet inevitable parting, then turned to the rest of the crowd and took a bow. Everyone applauded heartily, throwing more coins into its hat. With luck I’d be able to treat the guys in my department to donuts in the morning.
Suddenly, the golem stood straight upright, it’s expression hard and cold, and quickly started scanning the crowd. The people who had been applauding stopped instantly and started to back away. This wasn’t the friendly mime that they had come to see – this was clearly something else, and whatever it was it scared the hell out of them.
I made my way through the crowd to the golem and tried to look where it was looking. As I did, I noticed a hole that had been made in its head, near the temple. Flakes of clay still fell out when it moved. The killer had finally taken his shot.
My eyes hit on a man who was walking swiftly away from the scene, trying his best to look inconspicuous. “Golem!” I yelled. “Get him!”
The golem burst into a run, its heavy clay feet pounding on the pavement. It ran like a freight train – unstoppable and deceptively fast. The man he was chasing heard the thunder of its footsteps and took off in a run of his own, but there was no contest. Within seconds, the golem had him on the ground, hands clamped together in an unbreakable grip.
I caught up a few moments later, breathing heavy and holding my side.
Hey, I’m a thaumaturge. We’re not famous for our physical fitness.
“You have the right,” I wheezed, “to remain silent.” My heart was pounding in my ears, and it took a few breaths before I was able to say the litany all the way through. “You say anything, you better damn well believe we’ll use it, so if you have a lawyer, get one,” I swallowed hard. “Got it?”
The man’s eyes were pinned to the golem’s cold, unchanging face. “I didn’t do anything,” he said. “Get this… this thing off me!”
“Sure you didn’t,” I said. “Golem. Let him up.” The golem stood, hauling the man to his feet. I started to pat the guy down, and right away I had a sinking feeling. There was no weapon. “Where’d you throw it?” I asked, trying to sound as casual as I could.
“Throw what? What are you talking about?”
I wanted to smack him. “The gun! Where did you throw the gun?”
“I don’t have a gun,” he babbled. “I hate guns, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
That sinking feeling was getting deeper. Just looking at the golem’s damage, I knew a couple of things. The shooter had to be using a heavy caliber weapon, probably from close range – there weren’t a lot of good spots for a sniper to sit. And secondly, if they did, then they’d be using a silencer, so as to blend in with the applause of the crowd. That meant I was looking for a pretty sizable weapon, and I didn’t see anything like that on the run over.
And there sure as hell wasn’t anything like that on his person.
“Why did you run?” I asked him. The man didn’t answer, but just looked at the golem. It lifted the guy off his feet, and a large wet stain spread across the front of his pants. I sighed. “Golem. Put him down.”
The golem hesitated. Just for a moment, and no one else would have noticed. But I did.
Slowly, it set the man on his feet. He promptly fell to the pavement. I handed him a business card. “Here,” I said. “For the cleaning. My apologies, sir.” I reached out to help him up, but he shrank back. “Fine,” I said. “Golem. Come with me.” I walked away without looking back, and a moment later I heard its heavy footsteps behind me.
I brought it back to the station, pulled out the bullet and patched up the damage. Then the chief spent a good half hour hauling my ass over the coals for the screw-up in the park. His main concern was that we’d blown our cover, which I thought was nonsense. The thing was a mime, for gods’ sake – a quick paint job, new clothes, and no one would ever know.
But I did agree that what we were doing wasn’t working out. If the golem had been a real mime, it would have been dead and the killer would have escaped scot free. We needed a new plan.
It was right there that I had my idea. I almost didn’t want to think about it at first, it was that weird. If I thought about it at all, there was a chance that I’d actually think it could work, and if I really thought it could work, then there would probably be nothing but disappointment when it didn’t. But it felt like inspiration, a bolt from the blue.
So what did I have to lose?
I went back to my office and got the bullet that I’d pulled from the golem’s head. “Golem,” I said. It sat up from the table where I had left it. “Hand.” It reached its hand out and I dropped the bullet into it. The golem looked down at the bullet and then back at me. “Find the person who shot this,” I said.
There was no real reason it should have worked. Golems aren’t bloodhounds. They don’t work by sympathetic magic the way a voodoo doll does. They operate on a whole different plane of thaumaturgy, one of life forces and animation and intention. Nevertheless, the golem got to its feet and immediately started walking, bullet in hand. I grabbed my jacket and followed it. I wanted to yell as I passed the chief’s office – tell him I had a lead and I was going to finish the job once and for all. But if the golem decided to walk me straight into the middle of the Blue River Pond, well… I can only stand so much humiliation in one day.
The golem took a relentless course due east from the station. It navigated streets without a pause, stopping at crosswalks and only crossing on the green. “Who told you to do that?” I wheezed as I followed it. I wanted to tell it to slow the hell down, but for all I knew that might have ruined the whole thing. Anybody in its way moved to the side right quick – a tall, slender mime, with footsteps that thundered and a concentrated stare that made it look like it could walk through a brick wall. Which it may very well have.
I followed it for nearly an hour as we made our way to one of the more residential neighborhoods. Oak Hollow had been the preferred borough for grandparents and young yuppie couples from time immemorial, and the neat lawns and well-trimmed shrubbery made the whole place look more like the set for a TV show than a place where people actually lived. The golem strode through the neighborhood, setting more than a few curtains a-twitching, and then finally, blessedly, stopped.
The house it was staring at was a small blue one-story, with some dead flower beds and peeling paint. It was the worst-maintained house on its street, and it looked like the owner had just given up. I looked over at the golem. “This is it?” I asked. It didn’t reply. “You sure?”
This time the golem did reply – by walking right up to the front door and smacking it with the flat of its hand. The door flew off its hinges, spinning back into the dim recesses of the living room, and landed halfway in the kitchen. “Oh, that’s not good,” I said as the golem walked straight into the house, the bullet still gripped in its hand. “We’re supposed to get a warrant, you stupid pile of -” I finished my sentence with an inarticulate growl and followed it into the house, drawing my gun as I did so. I felt goosebumps when I entered the house and hollered “POLICE!” There wasn’t anything magical involved – just years and years of police procedure. The thought of investigating a place without a warrant was just… wrong.
I suppose I could say I was following lost property. Yeah, that would have to do.
There was no answer to my shout, so I called it again. Still, silence. The golem went upstairs, and I followed with my gun at the ready. It stopped a few steps into a small bedroom, and I felt the blood drain from my face when I went in.
The walls were covered with photographs, paintings, drawings, sketches – of mimes. Hundreds of black and white faces stared out at me from all directions, and it was all I could do not to run from the room screaming in terror. There were newspaper articles stuck to the wall, in classic serial-killer fashion, and they were all meticulously highlighted and underlined. Each one, as near as I could tell, was a story about a mime. New mimes debuting on the circuit. Veteran mimes retiring. Avant-garde mimes trying out new and controversial material.
Walking with the wind or something. Damned if I know.
In one special section of this Wall of Mimery, there was a corkboard with several glossy photographs pinned to it. The photos had clearly been taken from a stealth location, but they all showed the faces of the mimes clearly and distinctly. Except for the large red X that covered them. Upon closer inspection, I was pretty sure that these were the mimes that he had killed. The rest of them surrounded me, covering the walls nearly completely. I scanned the faces, and sure enough – there was the golem. It was a photo from a few days ago, when it had been performing in front of city hall. The golem almost looked like it was smiling in this picture, as it reached out a hand to a young woman.
A loud THUD behind me shook me back to attention, and I spun around. The golem had slammed its hand down on the desk, leaving the bullet sitting there on top of some scattered papers. It stood there, staring down at the desk, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say it was excited. There had been no change in the way it moved or stood – it was stock-still, without any of those countless unconscious movements that humans make. But the way it was staring, it seemed to be ready to dash off again.
I looked at the papers on the desk. Most of them were handwritten notes, varying from simple reminders to buy bread and ammunition, all the way to tightly-scrawled screeds about mimes and the horrors they inflicted on society. I picked one up and started to read it:
By their very actions, the mimes are simulacra of reality, fakers and frauds who deny the reality of our reality, a world in which we must all live. They paint their faces a dead white, for they are the dead, the haunted, the living ghosts of our subconscious desire for simplicity and for a way to face the world in a way that makes sense to our simple, sheeplike minds. Those of us who protest, who fight, who see the world for what it is, we are the ones they mock. They mock us with their invisible boxes and their walking against the wind and vanishing down stairs that aren’t there – YOU’RE JUST CROUCHING DOWN YOU FRAUDS WE KNOW HOW IT’S DONE! They see us and they know how we struggle. But they are the agents of the Absurd, the carriers of the cosmic joke of which we are all the punchlines, and until they are gone, until the mimes are wiped from the earth, I cannot have peace, fight the fight against the forces that truly control our world and enslave us all.
I looked up at the golem, which was still staring down at the desk. “This guy’s nuts,” I said.
The golem stabbed a finger down onto the desktop, nearly punching a hole through the wood. It had pinned down a printed flyer, one that was done up on nice glossy paper. When I saw the title, I wasn’t sure if I should jump for joy or throw up. Instead, I clapped the golem on its rock-hard arm. “Good police work,” I said. The golem didn’t reply, of course, but it did seem to stand a little straighter.
I took out my phone and dialed the station. The chief answered, and I started talking before he could take a breath. “There’s a convention,” I said. “All mimes, all the time.” I looked down at the glossy flyer, which was advertising the first ever Estervale International Mime Conference. Mimes from all over the world, all in one place to talk about the craft. “I guarantee he’ll be there.”
I closed the phone and looked up at the golem. “Think you can find him?” I asked.
The golem turned its head with deliberate slowness and looked at me. Its white, ceramic expression and its glassy, dead eyes never changed. But I was pretty sure it smiled.
TO BE CONCLUDED! (I hope)
The chief himself came down to my basement office to get me to make an indestructible mime.
“You want me to what?” I asked him.
“You heard me,” he said.
“Yeah, I heard you. I just thought maybe I heard you wrong, is all. You want me to make, what – a mime golem?”
“An indestructible one, that’s right.” He stood there with his hands on his hips and his jaw furiously working over a wad of gum.
Someone had been killing mimes, you see.
The newspapers were having good fun with it, of course, and even the head of the Estervale city council was caught cracking a “silent but deadly” joke when he thought the microphones were off. But mimes or not, they were still citizens, and it was the job of the police to find and stop this killer.
All the evidence thus far had been that the killer liked to work up close. Several mimes had been stabbed, a few poisoned – two had been shot, presumably with a silencer. So what we needed was a decoy, someone that could be a target without being vulnerable. We could set it up to attract the killer’s attention and then nab him in the act.
And so the job of creating the indestructible mime fell to me, the department’s resident thaumaturge. I tried to hold on to my temper by shuffling some papers around, but it was quickly clear that it wasn’t going to work. I dropped a packet of intra-departmental forms into a drawer and slammed it shut.
“So we can flush out some criminal mime-murderer? That’s why you want me to create an abomination in the eye of God?”
“That’s right,” he said, switching the wad of gum from right cheek to left.
“You realize I could lose my license over this.”
He waved my objection away. “You’re doing this under the authority of the mayor. You’ll be fine.”
“But what if -”
“Gripe all you like, Zoltaire,” he said, pulling yet another piece of gum from the package in his pocket. “I’m not about to let the media keep using my department as its butt-boy.” He jammed it into his cheek. “Get to work.”
So. I made a golem out of clay, and I painted it to look like a mime.
Creating life technically falls under the heading of “forbidden” uses of magic and other eldrich energies, and I suppose if you were being really liberal with your definition of “life” then you’d be right. I’d be a monster. The regional bureau would be within their rights to revoke my license to practice thaumaturgy. They might even tar and feather me, for old times’ sake. But look: a golem? I don’t know if I’d exactly call that “life.”
Golems are usually made of clay – not even good clay, in this instance. The good clay is expensive, and I’m just trying to make it by on a police department budget which, as the chief will tell you often and at great length, is never enough. This was stuff I managed to beg, borrow and steal from wherever I could. This was slag clay, elementary art-school clay. Wednesday night at the senior center clay. So if I was really trying to create a living thing, I sure as hell would have splurged on the good stuff. Marble or granite or something.
I will say this for clay, though – it’s easy to work with. All I had to do was make a plaster mold of some mannequin parts and then just go from there. Before I knew it, I had my golem, and it looked human.
Well, human-ish. Close enough, anyway. Not the Uncanny Valley, but I could see it from there.
After that, it was just a matter of making sure he’d fit in. The problem with that was that it was a kind of dull grey-brown color, something you don’t usually see on people who aren’t zombies. Fortunately, however, the problem I was trying to solve also presented me with its solution.
We contacted the local union of mimes and clowns and told them that we needed a costume as part of our investigations. They were so happy to finally be taken seriously that they sent over boxes of old mime gear – half a hundred striped shirts and pairs of stretchy black pants. Lots of floppy hats and dance shoes and just buckets of face paint and makeup. It was enough to make a good man cry.
I asked the folks up at Records to send me pictures of the dead mimes, so I could use their faces as reference. As it turned out, I didn’t really need to. The picture that my brain provided when I thought “Mime” was almost preternaturally accurate: white face, black-rimmed eyes, and black lipstick done up in a frowny-face. I even put in a teardrop coming from its left eye to sell the illusion.
A floppy hat and some white gloves and it was all ready. Looking at it, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t human. Except for the fact that it wasn’t breathing, and probably would’ve cracked into a hundred pieces if you hit it real good with a hammer. It was good to go, except for that one last thing.
Or, as my lawyers would rather I say, “The thaumaturgically-inspired simulacrum of life.”
Animating a golem hasn’t changed since the first golem was made. In the beginning, God made a little clay doll, said the Word, and there was Adam, ready to get up and start naming things. Every golem since Adam has been made on pretty much the same principle, except that our Words aren’t nearly as powerful as God’s Word. Human Words are annoyingly vague, and you have to choose them very, very carefully or bad things will result.
I had the clay. All I needed now were the Words.
If I could have, I would have just written, “Oy. Wake up and fight crime,” but that wouldn’t have worked. You need Words, not words, and the only way to get those is to make them yourself. So I headed on out to the Barrowmill Academy library and started pulling everything I could find on sigilcraft. There were some really heavy-duty texts there, the ones that all the graduate students at the school use, and a few that were more popular reading, for the serious amateur who wants to make his pretty doodles actually do something.
Then there are the books for the pros. These are the ones that you can’t check out. They’re in a special room all by themselves, dark and quiet and lit by softly glowing crystals, and guarded by three ancient librarians who never sleep. The book I wanted was the Liber Sermonium Potentibus, and it looked just as scary as the title made it sound. A heavy black cover, bound in the skin of something that probably never saw daylight. The pages were brittle and old, the writing a blood-brown that skipped and leaked across the page. I flipped to the index and took out my notebook and pen.
Well, my notebook, anyway. The pen flew through the air and smacked into the withered paw of one of the unsleeping Librarians, who opened her beaklike mouth and said, “NO WRITING!” Her voice crawled up and down my spine.
I took out my badge. Yeah, I’m not a beat cop or anything like that, but I still get a badge, which is more useful than you’d think. It’s a sigil in and of itself, and a pretty powerful one. “I’m with the police,” I said, holding it in front of her watery white eyes. “I need that book for a case I’m working on.” The Librarian studied the badge for a good long while, time I could have been using to figure out how to animate the golem. She whispered under her breath and I had to fight the urge to scratch every square inch of skin. Finally she looked at me and said, “Mark not the book.”
Slowly, carefully, I took the pen from her hand. “No worries,” I said. “Your book is perfectly safe.” And I meant it, too. I heard that someone went over one of their books – from the general catalog, mind you, not one of these down here – with a highlighter pen, and the next time anyone saw him again it was eight months later and he was screaming at subway trains in his underwear.
To make the sigils, I had to know exactly what I wanted the golem to do and why I wanted it to do it. That alone took a couple of hours. Then I needed to know who the golem had to think it was, and that was even harder. There are no ancient sigils for “mime artist,” after all. For good reason.
After hours of work and nearly every page in my notebook, I had them. Seven complicated little sigils that, when put into the golem’s head, would make it what we needed it to be. An indestructible mime-slash-cop.
I went back to my office. By now, it was getting late. I stashed the Words in my safe and crashed out on the sofa in the break room.
The next day I awoke to crappy coffee and stale donuts from the day before. I went up to the cafe on the corner for a real breakfast, and caught the morning headline: another mime had been killed. His delicate scarf had been twisted around his neck until he asphyxiated. I shook my head and took a bite of a cherry danish. Hell of a way to go. But all it meant that it was more important than before to get this thing wrapped up and done.
I brought my coffee back to work with me, got the Words out of the safe, and settled in for another long day.
Since nothing in magic can ever be simple, it’s not enough to just pop the top off and drop the Words in. You have to prepare yourself, mentally and physically, for the process. I brought my white robe to the showers, scrubbed down with an herbal soap that was made with the fat of sacrificial lambs, and anointed myself with oil that had been blessed by a magus I knew from back in college. My colleagues tried not to laugh, but I knew what they were all thinking, the jerks.
Back in my office, I sat on the floor and meditated for a while, trying to keep my mind focused on what I was about to do. Laws or no laws, I was bringing something into the world that wasn’t there before, and that took some concentration and, of course, a little bit of humility. Deep breaths in and out, repeat as necessary.
Finally, it was time. I took the top off the golem’s head and very gingerly placed the Words inside. I felt a kind of electric charge building up in there, and pulled my hand out as quickly as I could. I replaced its cranium and started walking around the golem in a clockwise direction, chanting over and over again the Words that I had put in its head. I soon began to sweat and to lose sight of where I was and what I was doing. The golem was the only thing in the world that I could see right now, the only thing that even came close to being real. I wasn’t sure how long I walked, or even who I was anymore.
Suddenly, without a noise, the golem sat up.
I nearly crapped my robe. I rolled to the ground, the Words still coming out of my mouth, and I had to force myself to stop talking. My legs still wanted to move, and I grabbed them and curled into a ball for a few minutes until I was sure I could stand up and stand still. I was breathing heavily and had to mop my brow dry a few times.
It was downright eerie. It sat there, staring at me with these unblinking glass eyes. With its makeup and costume and that stupid floppy hat, it should have looked funny, but there was nothing funny about the still, unmoving form. I moved to walk around it, and its head followed me, the neck making a slight scraping noise as it turned. I continued around the table, and its head continued to follow, three hundred and sixty degrees. I shuddered when I stopped. “You’re gonna have to not do that,” I muttered. The golem didn’t respond. It just watched me as I went to my phone and called the chief down to my office.
When he came in, the golem’s attention snapped to him. I swear I saw him jump, but he’ll never admit to it. “Good gods,” he said through a mouthful of gum. “Is that it?”
I nodded. “That’s it,” I said. “Our very own golem mime.”
We both stared at it for a while, and the golem tried to watch us both. Then the chief said, “Make it do something. It’s starting to annoy me, just sitting there. Watching us.”
“Okay,” I said. I cleared my throat. “Golem. Stand up.”
Without hesitation, the golem stood. It was taller than I thought it would be, having a good eight inches on both of us. “Golem,” I said. “Invisible box.”
The golem reached up and placed its hands flat out in front of it. It started to feel around the edges of an invisible box, trying to see where the walls ended, where the ceiling came down. It patted the walls and even bounced its shoulder off, which got a chuckle from the chief. As it performed, something weird seemed to happen.
It seemed to gain a bit of life. The frozen clay face began to look more panicky, more frantic as it realized that it was trapped inside a prison it couldn’t see. Now, I know I was probably just projecting onto the thing, like I do when I think my dog looks guilty for having stolen food. But for that moment, it really looked like it was a real, living thing.
I wasn’t sure how to deal with that.
“Golem. Stop.” The golem froze in mid-panic and stood up straight. Any semblance of life or emotion vanished from its face in a flash.
“Hell,” the chief said. He walked around it as I had done, but the golem kept its dull, lifeless eyes on me. “Does it do anything else?” the chief asked.
“As long as it’s within the parameters of the Words, sure,” I said. “Anything relating to being a mime or stopping a killer. After that, you’re outta luck.”
The chief grunted as he returned to my side. “All right,” he said. “Looks good.” He took the pack of gum from his pocket and shook out another stick. “Get it prepped. We’ll plant an article in the paper advertising an up-and-coming new mime, and see if we can catch a murderer.” He patted the golem on the shoulder, stuck the gum in his mouth, and walked out of my office.
I sighed. “Looks like you’re going right into action,” I said. “Golem. Lie down.” It did as I instructed, but didn’t close its eyes. It just watched me. I could have ordered it to close its eyes, but I had a feeling like it would still be watching me anyway. Somehow.
I sat down at my desk to do paperwork – creating life or not, there was always paperwork – and thought about what we’d do with the golem once it was out in the world.
Somehow, I didn’t think it would end well.
Oscar stripped wires under the bright light of his workbench and cursed the kids today. They had no discipline, no drive. They didn’t know the value of hard work or what it took to make something of themselves.
He turned off the TV so he could concentrate. It was election season, and the jackass running to stay in the White House was getting on his nerves. The man had done everything in his power to screw up the country, and now he was asking for another four years? Oscar shook his head in disbelief just thinking about it.
He took up the soldering iron and secured the wires on the circuitboard with the precision of an artist. The wires stretched away from the box in three different directions – to the battery pack, to the radio receiver, and to the electronic trigger. A ribbon cable connected the voice recognition chip to his computer, which was waiting for input. He’d tested everything out and was meticulous in hunting down bugs and problems. He’d had a vision, a plan of action that he saw through from the very beginning, and didn’t give up at the first sign of a problem. The end result was that by God, when Oscar Lembrick wanted someone blown up, he got blown up good and hard.
Ever since the good old days of the anarchists, there had always been a place for the bomber, mad or otherwise. In the old days they had the most primitive of grenades, where you had to light the fuse, throw and run, and pray that it blew up after it left your hand and not before. And as silly as those things were, they worked. A grenade set the world on the path to World War I. Bombers were the boogeymen of their age, long before there were mindless Communist hordes. They were messy and imprecise, true, but they got the job done. Sometimes you needed a delicate precision instrument, and sometimes you needed a big goddamn hammer.
And there was no bigger hammer than Oscar.
When he was young, Oscar discovered he had a love of seeing things explode. He was an avid fan of the Storybreakers show, which revolved around the premise that there was no explosion too big to put on TV, and soon found himself looking for ways to do what they did, only at home – in direct disregard of their pre-show warning. He bought fireworks from roadside stands and made low-power explosives from instructions on the internet. While other kids languished in their air-conditioned homes playing their video games, he was out past the woods, strapping his own tiny bombs to old toys to see what would happen when he set them off.
Unlike other childhood fascinations, this one stayed with him as he grew up, and it made the course of his life crystal clear. He studied chemistry and physics, learning about reactions both slow and fast. He began to lurk in some of the more disreputable sections of the internet, looking for people who knew more about explosives than he did and quizzing them as best he could without scaring them away. The art of destruction became a passion for him, and it wasn’t long before he graduated to the major leagues.
His first true bombing was a biker bar a few miles out of his hometown. The Crow’s Nest was where the scum of the earth came to drink and wind themselves up for some real violence. The townsfolk could hear the roar of their motorcycles as they came in along the main boulevard, and that was the signal to get off the streets and hope they would pass through without wreaking havoc. Even at their most gentle, the barbarians who made the Crow’s Nest their home would cause thousands of dollars of damage, and the police had neither the will nor the means to take them out.
Oscar, on the other hand, had both.
A few well-placed pipe bombs, and the Crow’s Nest was reduced to a smoking ruin. Of the fifty-three people inside, five were alive when the ambulance showed up, and two of them didn’t even make it to the hospital. There was an investigation, of course, but nobody looked too hard. These were not people whose deaths made the world a dimmer and less wonderful place to live in. As far as the authorities were concerned – unofficially, of course – someone had done them a favor, and if he wanted to remain anonymous, well, they would have to live with that.
Oscar’s career took off from there. Over the years he made better contacts and pulled bigger jobs, always aimed at people whose deaths would be considered a public good. Still, he managed to pull off some spectacular blasts. He blew out a soon-to-open casino in Vegas for a bitter son of the Nardozzi family, angry at his father cutting him out of the vast criminal network they managed. The blast effectively dismantled the family organization in an instant, leaving the son to finish the job.
He’d done a bomb in Germany, taking out the headquarters of the Weisshammer neo-Nazi group, and lent his expertise in Baghdad against a cell of insurgents there who thought that their goat-corpse I.E.D.s were actually clever. The money he made allowed him to move to a more isolated location and buy better supplies. As the years passed, his internet colleagues began to call him the Good Guy Bomber, the man who made sure that the bad guys were well and truly eliminated. He wasn’t entirely sure how that happened, but it was better than blowing up women and children by a long shot.
After years of explosions, he was able to retire. He took the money he’d made, bought a few dozen acres of land out in the middle of nowhere and decided that he was going to live the quiet life. Maybe take up a less dangerous hobby, now that he was getting older and his hands weren’t as steady as they’d been when he was in his twenties. He would make fireworks, maybe, something that could still bring in a little honest money. He could leave the troubles of the world behind him – the people losing their jobs, the economy slowly circling the drain, the poison in the air and the water. It would just be him and his ranch and the occasional experiment with fuel oil and fertilizer.
That lasted just about six months. There are some things you can’t walk away from, and blowing up the bastards seemed to be one of them.
This job was a little different from the others he’d done in his professional days. No one was paying him for it, and no one had asked him to do it. He was doing it pro bono, because it had to be done, and because none of the punk-ass kids these days were able to get it right. The news was full of stories about the most recent event, a blast that had gone off in a shopping mall and killed ten people. Ten people except for the one that they were trying to get to. What’s more, the morons were dumb enough to put their bomb-making video up on some website, so they were all in cuffs within hours of the blast while the sonofabitch they were trying to take out walked away looking like a martyr.
He tapped a few keys on the computer and fired up the voice-recognition program. When it was ready, he pulled the microphone close, cleared his throat and said, “My fellow Americans.” The wave-form on the screen blinked blue and then a steady green. He said it a few more times at different speeds and pitches and tones until the program had it down cold. Then he did the same with “God bless the United States of America.”
Those two phrases would go into the activation chip, which would fit snugly into the microphone casing he’d bought. The head of the microphone would be a shaped charge packed with C4. Getting the microphone up onto the lectern would be the trickiest part, but the moment that man spoke either of those phrases, he would soon be missing a head, and the country could go about electing someone who wasn’t actively trying to run it into ruin.
Oscar smiled grimly. He’d taken out a lot of people in his time, but this would be his first president. If he succeeded, he would probably be found. This wasn’t taking out a bunch of scumbag bikers. The authorities wouldn’t just shrug it off and close the case. His name would go down in infamy.
He turned the TV on again, where the man he was going to kill was giving a medal to another man who had admitted to stealing billions from pension funds and retirement accounts. The next guy in line had barely escaped being convicted of selling military electronics on the black market. The President himself was under investigation for taking bribes from three industrial lobbying groups to cut regulations back to the point where rivers were starting to catch fire again. In four short years, everything had gone bad. Everything had gone wrong.
Oscar smiled grimly and started to assemble the bomb.
He could live with that.
“Carl, no you don’t.”
“I do! Seriously, Annie, I do!”
Annie sighed and slammed her pencil down on her desk. The teacher looked up from the front of the classroom and raised an eyebrow – they were supposed to be reading silently, not arguing with each other. Annie ducked her head in apology and the teacher went back to writing. She flipped back to the page she had been reading so she could get back into the story. This lasted about three minutes before Carl leaned over and slid a note onto her desk.
She stared at it and sighed. Her friends had told her that the new kid was weird, that she shouldn’t have anything to do with him. They had already started their special brand of high school harassment on him: whispers in the hall, lying to him about classes or where rooms were in the building, that sort of thing. They hadn’t started beating him yet, but she could see that coming on the horizon.
He seemed kind of weird, true. He dressed like he’d never heard of co-ordination and wore an old fedora that he said his grandfather had given him. He was an absolute catastrophe in gym class, he did his summer reading report on a twelve-issue comic book maxiseries that no one else had read and went into great detail about how universe-shaking it was. With PowerPoint.
Still, he was cute, in a nerdy way, and he was relentlessly upbeat. Annie just didn’t get it, but he came to school in a good mood every day, really seemed to enjoy his classes, and at the end of the day he was just as cheerful as he was when he arrived. In her experience as a teenager, that wasn’t just bizarre – that was downright alien. But as alien as it was, she found herself wanting to be nice to this poor, weird kid, and took the time to introduce herself and welcome him to Ravensbrook High.
Then he started talking about his dragon, and Annie saw the rest of her high school career going down in flames.
She picked up the note and slowly unfolded it, glancing up at the teacher. When she saw it, she sighed and put her head on her desk:
I really do have a dragon. Do you want to see it?
[ ] Yes
[ ] No
[ ] Maybe (please elaborate)
This was the third day he’d asked, and she had said in the nicest way she knew that she thought he was insane. she’d laughed it off and argued it away and outright dismissed it, but it seemed like no matter how she tried, there he was. And he wanted her to believe in his dragon.
Maybe that was it. He wanted her to believe him, and he was so sure that she would if only she gave him a chance. It was crazy, of course. There were no dragons and never had been, and even if there were, why would one be living with him? Why not on some mountaintop somewhere, with a giant pile of gold? Or a small country with a few extra virgins?
But he didn’t seem crazy. Excited, eager, a little baffled that she wouldn’t even entertain the notion, maybe. Somehow, for whatever reason, Annie found herself checking the little “Yes” box. She wrote down below, Don’t think that I believe you. I’m just doing this so you’ll stop bugging me about it. Keeping an eye on the teacher, she slid the note over to his desk. She felt her shoulders tighten up as he unfolded it and read it.
Carl managed to keep quiet for about an eighth of a second before crying out, “YES!” this earned him a stern rebuke from the teacher, and by this time everyone was looking at him. At them. Annie put her head down on her desk again and wonder what she had done to deserve this.
They agreed that she would come to his house at four, and then she made him promise not to talk to her again for the rest of the day. He seemed almost gleeful when he agreed, and Annie set about making sure no one else knew.
That, of course, wasn’t going to happen.
Becky was the first one to find her, and certainly not the last. “So,” she said, and the insinuation was clear in her voice, “You’re going with weird kid now?” She clucked her tongue, opened her locker and shook her head. “Never would have expected it of you, Annie.”
Annie counted to five, but that didn’t work, so she just slammed her locker shut. “I’m just humoring him so he’ll stop bugging me,” she growled.
“Oh, of course,” Becky said, batting her eyelashes. She patted Annie on the shoulder gently. “Good luck with that.” She flashed a patently artificial smile and flounced away. Annie tried not to think of how she wanted to just grab that pretty brown ponytail and throw her against the wall and -
Annie took a deep breath. This wasn’t helping. She opened the locker again and grabbed her iPod. Skipping biology class would give her a chance to cool off, so she headed to the library and found a quiet place where no one would come looking for her.
After school, she made her way to Carl’s house slowly. His family had moved into an older housing development that was within walking distance of the school, which meant they had some money. Maybe the dragon’s gold, she thought, and that got her the first smile of a very long day. The houses were much nicer than hers, and she was starting to feel a little underdressed just walking around there.
When she rang the bell, Carl’s mother opened it and got about halfway through saying, “Oh, you must be Annie,” when there was a thunder of footsteps and Carl practically shoved her out of the way. “Annie!” he said, breathless. “You’re here!”
“Yeah,” Annie said. “I’m here.” She avoided looking at him and pretended to be very interested in the shrubbery around the front yard. “So, are you gonna show me that dragon of yours or what?”
Carl looked to his mother, who rolled her eyes. “Carl Andrew Stockman,” she said, “what do we do when we have a guest?”
He seemed to think for a moment. “Offer a drink?”
“Offer a drink, yes.” She opened the door a little wider, inviting Annie in. and then walked ahead to the kitchen.
The house looked barely lived-in. She knew Carl had been coming to school for about two months, but from the emptiness of, well, everything, it looked like they didn’t expect to stay for long. The walls were mostly unadorned, and there were still cardboard boxes in the corner of the kitchen. The whole house had an un-lived-in feel to it that made her uncomfortable, and it was worse when Carl’s mother had to check three different cupboards before she found the glasses.
“Sorry the place is in such a state,” she said. “We’re a little slow to unpack.” She smiled as she put a glass of fruit juice down on the kitchen counter. “Something to eat?” she asked, looking at the two of them. “Snacks?”
Carl was practically vibrating. “Mom, Annie’s here to see the dragon, okay?” He sounded like he was begging with her, and she didn’t seem at all bothered. Annie wondered how often they had conversations like this. “Can we go? Please?”
There was that moment of thought, and then she threw up her hands. “Oh, go ahead,” she said. “Have fun with your dragon.”
Carl leaped up and grabbed Annie by the hand, dragging her to the back door. “Okay,” he said. He glanced out the window. “He’s out there, but I don’t want you to freak out or anything, okay?” He looked at her intently. “He’s really nice. Really.”
“Okay,” Annie said, not quite sure what else would work.
He grinned broadly and opened the door, leading her out to the backyard. He stood on the porch and gestured proudly out to the backyard. “Well?” he said. “What do you think?”
What she thought was that Carl was, in fact, insane.
The backyard was empty. The grass was overlong and needed to be mowed. There were some flowers in the middle, poor faded things that huddled together in a tiny patch of mulch. The whole yard was bordered by tall, scraggly hedges that just blocked out the other houses. And that was it.
She looked out at the yard and back at Carl. Then out in the yard again. “I’m leaving,” she said. She turned around and opened the door back into the house.
“NO!” Carl yelled, and he grabbed at her arm. She pulled it away, her anger rising at him. She had trusted him, taken his crazy seriously enough, and now he shows her his stupid empty backyard? She wanted to snap at him, to yell at him. To hit him, even. He looked furious at her, that she would try to walk away, and all that cute nerdiness seemed to slip right off him. “No!” he said again. “You made a promise!”
“A promise?” she said. “Look out there, Carl! There’s nothing there! Your crappy yard is empty – no dragon, no nothing!”
He looked from her to the yard, and for a moment he seemed genuinely puzzled. He looked out again, and said, “But he’s right there!”
“No, Carl,” she said. “He isn’t.” She crossed her arms, not sure if going for the door again was a good idea.
He seemed to think for a moment, and then burst into laughter. “I get it now!” he said.
“You mean you realize there’s no dragon?” she asked.
“No, no,” he said. He lifted a finger and pointed out into the yard. “He’s shy!”
She blinked. “Shy?”
“Shy! He’s never met you before, he doesn’t know anything about you – he’s shy! So he’s made it so only I can see him!”
Annie stared at him for a moment. “You’re kidding me,” she said.
He shook his head. “He really doesn’t get out a lot,” he said. “He stays in the yard, or maybe in the garage.” He turned and cupped his hands around his mouth. “You don’t have to hide!” he yelled. He waited for a moment and then laughed again, looking over at Annie to see if she was laughing too.
“What?” he said. “Don’t you get it?”
“His joke! ‘Monkey doesn’t see!’ It’s great!” He started laughing again until he realized that she wasn’t laughing with him. “What?”
Annie sighed. “Let me guess,” she said. “You’re the only one who can hear him. Right?”
He shook his head and looked disappointed. “Oh, now that’s just ridiculous,” he said. “You’re being silly!” he shouted out into the yard. He shrugged and looked back at her. “Like I said. Shy.” He waggled a finger out at the yard like he was chastising his dragon.
Annie wasn’t sure if he was trying to pull one over on her or if he was completely insane. If he was trying to trick her, then it was an awfully long game, and he wouldn’t gain anything from it. In fact, once she went back to school and told everyone what happened, his chances of ever having a normal high school life would be effectively zero. If he was insane… She thought that night explain a lot, actually. The cheerfulness, the intensity. The dragon.
If he was insane, then all she could do was humor him. She just wasn’t sure yet.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s assume there’s a dragon.”
“Okay, okay,” she said, holding up her hands. “If there’s a dragon out there, then…” She gestured out to the lawn. “Look at the grass.”
He looked. “What about it?” he asked.
“Well,” she said, “a dragon is a big creature. If there was a dragon out there, it would be trampling the grass down. But yours is all sticking up.” She crossed her arms over her chest and tried not to look smug. “And it needs a mowing, too.”
He stared out for a moment and then back at her. “Well,” he said, “you’d be right if he wasn’t floating.”
She blinked. “Floating?”
He nodded. “Yeah. He floats, because of all the hot air he’s got inside.”
Annie narrowed her eyes at him for a moment, and then said, “Ah!” She grinned widely. “My dad has these infrared glasses he got from a catalog. I can get those, put them on and take a look! If he’s full of hot air, then he should light up like crazy!”
Her smugness drained away as he shook his head. “For one,” he said, “if he doesn’t want you to see him, you won’t see him. And even if that worked, it wouldn’t matter. Dragons are room temperature.”
That was too much. “You’re saying that your fire-breathing dragon is room temperature?” He nodded. “That’s nuts!”
“No,” he said. “They have to hold in all their heat so they can fly, spit fire, all that. So from the outside, they look cold – none of their heat escapes.”
Annie leaned on the deck railing. “And if I run out there and try to grab him?”
“He’ll probably just move away, yeah,” Carl said, starting to figure out where her logic was going.
She sighed and stared out at the yard. At this point, she wished there was a dragon out there, just so the crazy would stop. But stare as she might, she couldn’t make it appear, and she was beginning to get the feeling that she’d walked into a very weird and not-funny joke. Somehow, perhaps, this was his way of striking back for the teasing and the problems everyone was giving him at school. Maybe he thought that somehow this would get him some kind of weird respect, for having pulled a prank so far. Annie felt her temper rising again, and she wanted to stand up and yell at him for treating her like she was one of them. Like she had been one of the people making his life miserable instead of being the only person to show him any kind of kindness.
Instead, she looked up at the sky. It was starting to get dark. She stood up straight, took a deep breath, and said, “Carl, I have to go home.”
“What?” He looked up at the sky. “No, you – you can have dinner here! My dad is away, and mom always makes too much when he’s on a trip.” He started to move to the door. “It won’t be a problem, I promise!”
“No, Carl, I…” Her mind raced for an excuse. “I have to get home. My aunt is coming over tonight. It’s Friday – she comes over every Friday for family dinner.” She rolled her eyes and shrugged, trying to sell the lie. Her aunt lived in Winter Falls, and hadn’t visited in years. “It’s totally boring and everything, but she’ll give me hell if I don’t go.”
Carl looked deflated. “Oh,” he said. “Okay, I guess.” He looked out at the darkening lawn, then back at her. “You really can’t see him?” he asked. Annie shook her head. “Okay.” He looked down, and then brightened. “Maybe I can talk to him,” he said. “See if he’ll come around!”
“Maybe I can convince him to show himself to you! Are you busy tomorrow?” He grinned up at her, bouncing on his toes.
She wanted to say yes, to make up another visit or another relative, anything to put an end to this. The longer she went along, the worse it would be when he finally gave in and told her that he’d been messing with her the whole time. She’d look like even more of an idiot if she humored him, and she knew it… but a new thought blossomed in her mind. Okay, she thought. You want to take this to another level? Fine. I can do that.
“Tomorrow?” she said, smiling sweetly. She dropped the smile as quickly as she could, as it was probably suspicious. “Sure. I’ll come over in the morning. Okay?”
Carl showed her out through their curiously empty house and stood at the door until she was out of sight. As she walked her bicycle around the corner, she took out her phone and started sending texts. If that was how he wanted to play, then she would show him what happened when you tried to make Annie Deaver look like an idiot.
The next morning at ten thirty, Annie showed up at Carl’s house carrying a duffel bag. His mother opened the door again, a bandanna tied around her head and paint-stained clothes on. “Oh, yes, Annie!” she said. “Carl’s been waiting for you. He’s out in the back.” She let Annie into the house, and she went back to her painting. Annie hefted the bag onto her shoulder and checked the time on her phone. Another five minutes and she’d be ready to show Carl just what being embarrassed and humiliated meant.
He was in the yard, fixing his bicycle, and he stood up when he saw her. “Annie!” he cried. “I think I can get him to show himself!” He wiped his hands on his jeans and ran over as she came down into the yard. “I talked and talked to him, and I convinced him that you really are a good person. So, all he wants is an apology for being mean yesterday and he’ll let you see him!” Carl looked up at her expectantly, and then glanced down at the duffel bag. “What’s in there?” he asked.
“Well,” Annie said. “I was thinking about your dragon last night, actually.” She put the bag on the grass. “He can make himself invisible and talk inside people’s heads. He can hide his heat and float around, and all that is really cool.” She bent down and unzipped the bag. “But there was one more thing I wanted to try. Just to, you know, satisfy my curiosity.” She glanced around. “Can you tell me where he is right now?”
“Sure,” Carl said. He pointed to an empty space a couple of yards to her right. “He’s over there. What’re you gonna -”
He didn’t get to finish his sentence before she stood up, pulling a large water rifle from the bag. As she did so, she shouted, “NOW!” and a dozen kids from school erupted from behind the hedges, all of them armed with water guns and all of them yelling at the top of their lungs. As one, they began to shoot. Annie fired into the empty area first, and some of the kids joined her, but most of them just shot at Carl, soaking him in water that had been dyed different colors. Soon there were streams of blue and red and virulent green water flying through the air, accompanied by the cruel laughter of Carl’s classmates.
Worst of all was Annie’s laugh. It was high and shrill and mean in his ears, and he could see her face even as he tried to block the sharp sprays of water that were trying to hit everywhere they could. She looked happy, for the first time since he’d met her, but it wasn’t a good kind of happiness. It wasn’t the happiness he’d had in mind for her when he invited her over. It was the happiness of cruelty. Of anger. Just like all the other kids in school, it seemed that Annie was happy to tear him down just because he wasn’t like the rest of them. Carl sank to his knees under the onslaught of water and put his arms down, just letting them hit him where they wanted. He’d tried, and he’d lost. Just like all the other times and other schools.
It was a few moments before he realized that the water had stopped, and so had the shouting. All the kids were staring at something behind Carl, their faces white and slack with a mixture of terror and amazement. Carl turned around and looked up.
The dragon was hovering in the air behind him, dripping a dozen colors of water and glaring at the children with glowing cobalt eyes. Its iridescent silver scales glimmered wetly in the morning sun as it floated so very impossibly for a creature the size of an SUV. It stuck its head out on a long, sinuous neck, past Carl, and raised itself to look down on the small crowd of terrified teenagers. The dragon’s nostrils flared, and two wisps of grey-black smoke started to swirl upwards past the rest of its head. It made no sound as it moved, but the way the light came off it, and the way its eyes glowed, it should have sounded like metal uncoiling, like a furnace just about to roar into flame.
The dragon looked at each of them in turn and then slowly, carefully, it opened its great, fanged mouth.
“Run,” it said, and its voice was like an avalanche.
The kids scattered, flying back through the hedges as fast as their feet could carry them. All except for Annie, who was backing up slowly, her eyes never leaving the dragon’s. It came closer, more smoke escaping its nose and its mouth, and a low rumble started in the back of its throat.
Carl could barely hear her speak when her mouth started to move. After a moment, he realized she was saying, “It’s real. It’s real. It’s really real.”
The dragon chuckled, and said, “Yes. It is.” It snorted, and two jets of flame touched the grass right in front of her, instantly burning down to the soil. She jumped back, but never took her eyes off the great and terrible monster. “Now, woman-child,” the dragon said. “I will not tell you again.” It inhaled deeply, its chest expanding like a bellows. In the depths of its gaping, blackened mouth, a roar was coming. It was low, and it sounded far away, but it was the roar of firestorm that was ready to burn the world. Ahead of that roar, the dragon said again: “Run.”
This time Annie ran. The great gout of fire that blasted forth from the dragon’s mouth barely missed her before she could pass through the hedges and escape with her life.
The dragon chuckled and then watched as Carl walked, slump-shouldered, to get the garden hose. He came back and sprayed down the bits of burning lawn and hedge, and then turned to the dragon. “Did you really have to do that?”
“They were not worthy of you,” the dragon said, its eyes softening. “You deserve better.”
Carl nodded. He’d heard that before, too. “I guess this means we’re going to have to move again,” he said.
The dragon let go of the earth and lifted back into the air, its expression one of unconcern for the social damage it had just done. Carl sighed and walked with heavy steps back into the house. His mother was going to be furious.
This story was inspired by Carl Sagan’s excellent “Dragon in my Garage” essay that was part of his book The Demon-Haunted World, long considered an indispensable book on skepticism. I have, of course, taken certain liberties with it in the name of fiction, but I’m very nearly certain he would forgive me. The characters are, of course, named for him and his wife, Ann Druyan. No actual resemblance intended, of course, unless Ms. Druyan has enjoyed reading this story, in which case, OMYGOD – HI!!!!
There was no pleasure in burning.
Sean ran a finger along the seam of two small metal plates, and where he touched, the metal grew hot and glowed a dull orange. The plates fused together, and he smoothed out the molten metal with his hand.
Burning, the way Sean saw it, was uncontrolled. It was chaos and destruction. It was the death of reason and the triumph of superstition. It had its place, to be sure – the world depended on burning things in one way or another – but he’d long ago decided that it had no place in his work.
He took a thumb-thick metal bar in his hands and heated it until it became malleable. Deftly, carefully, he bent the bar back on itself into a gentle curve. He took the heat out, and then put the bar down on his workbench.
The pieces looked like junk – some bars of steel and copper, sheets of aluminum, recycled bits and ends that he’d picked up at a junkyard. A dismantled bicycle. A bed frame, even some old steel cans. He’d learned to mold them and shape them and put them together with the special power of his hands, whatever it was.
He stepped back and rubbed his chin. He still wasn’t sure what this one would turn out to be. It was starting to look kind of like an angel. Whatever it ended up being, it would probably go up on his online store, and it would probably sell.
He worked for another hour until his stomach started to growl. He put the parts back on the bench and covered it with a canvas tarp, turned out the lights and went inside. The fridge was filled with leftovers, many of them from the same meal. He’d gotten into the habit of cooking massive amounts of a dish he liked and then eating it all week. This week was a spicy chicken dish, heavy with potatoes and pasta. He held his hands over it, and within moments the sauce was bubbling and steaming.
A hot meal, some TV, a little time on the Internet, and his day was finally done. He went to bed warm and satisfied with a day off well-spent.
He got to the library early the next morning and took a quick look around. The Fairport City library wasn’t the biggest in town, but it had the honor of being the oldest. Beautiful wooden bookshelves and cabinets held thousands of volumes. The floors were hardwood, covered by beautifully-patterned runners to keep the noise down. Windows with thick, irregular panes let the weak sunlight in. Everything about the library bespoke age and silence and wisdom, and many people had worked very hard to make sure it stayed that way, from the labyrinthine stacks of fiction, poetry and art books on the second floor to the vast collection of nonfiction and reference on the first. There were reading rooms and study halls, window nooks and quiet recesses that overlooked the nearby botanical gardens.
In the center of the library was their event center, a large octagonal room where they held readings from famous authors, book group discussions, the occasional elementary school play or a string quartet recital.
This week, the room was given over to a traveling display – antique books from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There were Bibles that had been handed down for generations, political treatises and journals from some of the greatest minds of the era. The centerpiece was the handwritten journal of Thomas Jefferson, written in the weeks and months before the Colonies separated from England. It contained both his private thoughts on life and his role in it, as well as some vivid descriptions of the people and events that surrounded that turbulent era in history.
Sean walked through the room, taking a good long look at everything that was on display. When they were installing the exhibit, he got to hold the journal in his own hands. True, he was wearing latex gloves and was only allowed to turn the pages with a thin plastic spatula, but the thrill was still there. He was holding something in his hands that had once been in the hands of one of the greatest thinkers in history. Even now, just looking at it through the glass of the display case, he felt his heart speed up.
The library opened at eight, and there was no rush. The usual contingent of retirees and parents who used the library as a place to get out of the house for a while, and a few students from the nearby university who came to hang out someplace that wasn’t on campus. An elementary school class came by to look up dinosaurs, and a retired couple spent a lot of time asking questions about language learning and what resources the library had for that. A few people came for the special exhibition, but on the whole it was not the most popular room in the library that day. By the time Angie came in around midday, there wasn’t much for them to do.
“Jefferson would be disappointed,” she said.
Sean shrugged. “Probably. If he were here, though, I think he’d be too busy plotting the overthrow of the government to care.” That came out cynical, he thought. But, then, it was meant to be. And the cynicism usually wore off as long as he didn’t go through periodicals too often.
Sean ate lunch in the breakroom behind the circulation desk while Angie handled the lunchtime rush of a men’s book club and a couple of Jeffersonians. He was rinsing out his plastic container when he was jarred by the high, shrill wail of the fire alarm. “Shit,” he said, dropping everything. He dashed out to the circulation desk, where Angie was staring at the fire map on the computer screen. They both stared at the flashing zones on the plan, and she turned to him.
“The Jefferson,” she whispered.
Sean put his hand on her shoulder. “Okay,” he said. “Fire department should be on its way. Start getting everyone out.” He looked over towards the event room, where smoke was already starting to drift out. “I’ll take care of this.”
“What? Sean, no, we have to get -”
“I’ve got it, Angie.” He put on his best grin “Don’t worry. I’ll be out in no time.” Without waiting for a response, he dashed out from behind the desk and ran for the display room.
The smoke was getting thicker, and he wished he had brought a wet cloth. Instead, he heated up the air around him, drawing up clearer air from the floor and giving himself a thin bubble that he could breathe. The door to the event room was hot, but he pushed it open to reveal an inferno.
Every wall was in flames, as though the fire had started everywhere at once. Displays were burning brightly, and hundreds of years of history were charring and shriveling. There wasn’t much time.
Sean walked into the flaming room, trying to concentrate on the fire. It was everywhere at once, and much larger than he’d ever had to deal with before, but if there was one person in the world who could stop this kind of thing, it would have to be him. He closed his eyes, but could still somehow see the heat blossom in front of him. Every fire had a heart, glowing white-hot and angry. He took a deep breath of increasingly bad air and reached out with his senses to tame the fires. He reached his arms out to them, and the flames leaped to his hands as though they were alive. The fire began to spiral around him, into him, as though it was going home. He felt the flames dance on his skin and char his clothes, play in his hair and on his fingertips and tongue. He opened his mouth and his heart, and the fire plunged into his body.
Sean fell to his knees in the smoking, dim room. He took great heaving breaths that turned into coughs so loud that he almost didn’t notice the slow clapping that had begun behind him.
When he looked around, there was a tall blonde man leaning against a wall. He looked like he could have been any of the library’s patrons – perhaps a young person who was looking for a job or studying for his Masters. He was wearing a small portable breathing unit and a mask, and had a bulging satchel hanging from his shoulder. “Bravo,” he said in a muffled voice. He stripped the mask off and his face crinkled at the smell. “Man, that stinks,” he said. He stood in front of Sean, hands on his hips and smiled. “I didn’t know there was anyone like you around here. Would’ve tried something different otherwise.”
Sean looked up at him and stood up slowly. He vaguely noticed that his clothes were badly burned, whereas the other man seemed untouched. “Who are you?” Sean asked in a husky, hushed voice.
That man’s eyes were blue, but bloodshot from the smoke. “Me? I’m just a friendly neighborhood thief, here to make a little money.” He patted the satchel. “I know a guy with a whole lot of cash to burn -” He winked. “This guy really wanted the Jefferson, and whatever else I could get my hands on.” He gestured around to the charred and blackened shelves. “I figured this would keep people busy long enough for me to get out.” He took a few steps towards the door. “Then you showed up.”
While the other man talked, Sean heard sirens approaching. Fire, certainly. Maybe police. They’d catch this guy if he could keep him talking. “Why fire?” he asked. “Why burn all these books?” The question came out laced with venom. The actual burning of the exhibit room was bad enough, but the thought that the whole library could have gone up in flames was just beginning to hit him, and the fury was leaking out.
“It’s what I’m good at,” the man said. He held out a hand and ran his fingers along the wall to a bookshelf. Where his fingers touched, the wall burst into flames. Sean looked at him, incredulous. “Yeah,” the man said with a smile as he re-seated the mask. “Turns out you’re not the only firebug in town.” He tossed a few fireballs around the room and once again, the display room was ablaze. The man might have said something else, but if he did, it was lost in the roar of the fire. He gave a two-fingered salute, patted the bag at his side, and strolled out through the flames as though they were a summer breeze.
Sean took a few steps to run after him, but then remembered where he was. He was surrounded by fire, and even with the fire department here, it would do even more damage to the library. And that was to say nothing of what the water and smoke would do. He coughed as the smoke started to get to him, and tried to clear his head. He had to have it in him to put out the flames again, no matter what it took.
He dropped to the floor and put his hands flat on the smoking wood. He could feel the heat now, and tried not to panic. He tried to feel the heat and the flames, feel how the air was thrown into turbulent chaos and the smoke lifted up to the ceiling. He reached out and felt for the way the fuel and the heat reacted and combusted in a runaway reaction that would devour everything it could. He felt the destruction, and the rage that lay underneath it.
Sean clenched his jaw and called to the flames again, as he head before. They were more reluctant this time, more insistent on having their own way. Through his teeth, he began to yell, a low, wordless sound that was something between a battle cry and a sob, and when he tilted his head back and howled, the flames obeyed. They rushed and roared across the floor to him, flying around him in a cyclone of light and heat before soaking into his skin. He felt the flames in his joints, burning away at his skin and his bones, and the cry cut off as he dropped to the floor, exhausted and unconscious.
Around him, the display room smoked and cracked, but the fire was out. He would be found by the firemen and EMTs, who would call his survival a “miracle.” And perhaps, in its own roundabout way, it was.
When he woke up in the hospital, his first thought was that there was someone like him out there.
No, he thought. He’s nothing like me. He kept the other man’s face in his mind and tried to recall as much as he could.
This man was someone he needed to find, and as soon as he was allowed to leave, that would be the first thing he did.