I woke in a pool of my own blood, the gun still clutched within my hand. Above me, the sky was a cold and lifeless gray, and around me I heard the keening and rattling of the wind. It howled down the narrow alleyway, scouring the ground for trash and grit and hurling them into the air, a stinging, scourging force of nature in the city. Pop cans clattered across the chipped, uneven brick, coated with a grime that had lasted for an untold count of years, and rats scurried from one bag to the next, clambering over and amongst the refuse. I turned my head to look around, and it was then I recognized the place that I had come to rest.
As I stood the wind whipped back my coat, its icy tendrils battering my shirt and writhing around my chest. They clawed against my skin and penetrated, reaching deep into my bones with mindless, numbing cold. My heart convulsed, stricken by the chill, and I shuddered, feeling as though someone must be walking on my grave.
I tumbled the clip out of the gun and shucked the cold brass into my hand, counting until I reached eight. My hands shook, and sweat trickled down my brow. Two shots. She had fired two shots, and I had slept right through it. The bullets clinked together as I dumped them in my belt-pouch. The sound of falling, dripping water was deafening in the silence.
After a time, the stillness penetrated me. I sank to my knees and ran my hands along the ground. The stone was smooth and wet, slick with moss and algae, poor footing but excellent breeding ground for all manner of germ-ridden beasts. Glinting eyes in the darkness answered my suspicions. I reached for my gun to ward them off, but some instinct warned me not to fire. I realized whatever had taken Sophia was not afraid of bullets. I let my gun rasp back into its holster with my hands now firm and steady, if covered with filth of unknown origin. The shell casings reflected the light of my headlamp, distorting it into an oval. I sealed them into an evidence bag and pocketed it for safekeeping.
The door swung open with an echoing boom that rattled down the hallway beyond and back throughout the entry chamber. Torches which had sprung alive at the door’s opening now flickered in the draft, barely staying lit. I put my crowbar back and stepped inside. A chill ran up my spine.
Beyond the firelight’s dim glow, only the beam of my headlamp illuminated the dusty darkness. Skeletons and discarded implements of battle adorned the passageway like the macabre decorations of a Halloween long past and fain forgotten. Upon the walls there lay an arch of torches like the heralds of arrival in this ancient place. We walked beneath them with a rapid step.
The forest air was moist and pungent, smelling strongly of the good, damp earth which underlay it. Above me droplets fell from dripping trees, glinting brightly in the sunlight of midmorning. A cool breeze swept between the conifers, rustling branches and sending shimmering waterfalls of light cascading to the ground. I felt it kiss my skin with tenderness no human being could ever match, and deep within me something stirred, awakening an ancient longing for the source.
Ahead of me the trail dissolved into a clearing. As I came up to it I caught a flash of color in the corner of my eye, a scrap of cloth snagged on a branch where it had torn free from its owner’s garment. I recognized it as the same pink that Sophia had been wearing, and wondered how she had managed to lose her hoodie. I cast an eye around, thinking she must have dropped it, then realized that her shirt had been visible with its longer hem. I tucked the scrap of fabric into the pocket of my cargoes.
I took a long, slow draw of cigarette smoke, holding it deep within my lungs before exhaling it into the cool morning air. The sky was a clear and brilliant blue, and as the tendrils wreathed around my head they dissipated and dissolved into the ether, vanishing from all perception like the mists of some ephemeral slumber. I took the cigarette from my mouth and breathed deeply of the cool, clean air. Before me, mountains loomed as timeless and impenetrable as the Earth itself, the standing testament of Mother Nature’s ancient glory. I beheld the vista that had dominated over all the landscape since before the race of man had walked the Earth, and in my heart the wild call of some primeval nature shuddered into life. I felt my neck hairs prickle with a feeling that I could not shake. This was a raw and wild land.
I stepped towards Sophia and examined her. Neither of us spoke; she glared at me through tears of fear and frustration and I ran my eyes lingeringly over her body. She was beautiful, and helpless. I felt my blood grow hot within my veins, a throbbing pulse that forced my breath to ragged gasps. My every muscle tensed in pure anticipation. Slowly, like a beast of prey about to throw its body forward in a violent, deadly pounce, I crept towards her. I could hear the cadence of her breath, a panicked, shallow rhythm born of terror at her utter inability to sway her fate, and as I leaned my body over hers and let my hand caress the smooth, soft skin above her breast, I heard her gasp in pleasure and surprise.
Her composure seemed at once to leave her as I slid my left arm behind her and my right to her own wrist, drawing her into a tight embrace. She fought me, and I unlocked the cuff, pinning her wrist to the table. She struggled, and I chastised her.
“We’ll take him by surprise,” Maria said. “He may already know that we’re twins, but since Sophia’s going in it shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll be set up with a fifty-cal suppressor some two hundred yards away, on this rooftop across the quad. I’ll have a thermal scope, so don’t worry about giving me a line of sight. I can see the whole office. If he balks, I’ll put a round into his arm, make him easier to take. Once he’s out of the picture the SWAT team will come in and secure the area. Any questions?”
I shook my head, fastening my handcuffs around Sophia’s wrists. I drew my tranq gun and pressed it into her back.
“Hit me,” she said.
“Hit me,” she repeated. “Nice and hard. It has to look like you knocked me out.”
I reached for my Model 29, but the cold press of a Glock in my side stopped me. I slowly put my hands back on the table, letting out a sigh. I knew when I was beat.
The dame reached into my pockets and inside my jacket, putting my Model 29 and 1911A on the table along with the tranq gun the doctor had given me. Taking the clips out, she tossed them to her sister, leaving the empty weapons on the table. Sophia strode over and retrieved the doctor’s tranq gun. She studied it carefully.
“Recognize the craftsmanship, Jerry?” she asked, and he nodded.
“Doctor Noire. I’d heard legends, but I’ve never seen any evidence to back them up. Until now, that is.”
“Mordred Phain is his real name, or at least as real as we can tell. We don’t know anything about his background.”
“Then why does he think you’re after him?” I asked. She looked at me in surprise, and her tone was one of utter incredulity.
“You spoke with him?”
I followed her into the bedroom, thrown off by her sudden shift in demeanor. One minute she had been vulnerable, broken; the next confident and self-assured, as though the pain I had put her through was nothing more than a minor inconvenience. I wasn’t sure what that meant. One, she could have been playing me from the beginning, aiming to use me as a tool to help her find her sister. Two, I’d done serious mental and emotional damage, and she was just good at hiding it. Probably unhealthy. The third and last option was that she was somehow able to get over being tortured; perhaps she had been trained to withstand high amounts of pain and was just incredibly resilient. I hoped it was the third option. In spite of the fact that I was gunning for her sister, I still reckoned I would rather work together with Agent Blanchez than I would with Doctor Phain. The man gave me the shivers.
She sat on the bed and drew her knees up to her chest – a posture that I recognized as subconsciously defensive. She felt threatened and perhaps vulnerable. That would make sense. She was a young woman and I was an older and much more experienced man. Although she said she was CIA, that didn’t mean she was a veteran. For all I knew, she could be on her first mission. In fact, I found it likely that her superiors had no idea she was here, or else were choosing to ignore her little venture. Either that or she was playing me. I decided to reserve judgement.
I woke at 11:14 and checked on the girl. Finding her still out cold, I roved downstairs for a sandwich and a cup of joe, then took a smoke to clear my head. Sitting down with the crossword and a glass of scotch, I began to think.
The doc had no idea that I had the girl. He’d probably expect it to take a day or two for me to track her down and catch her, at the very least. He’d probably also expect me to hide her once I had her, but as long as I was inside of his predictions, I’d have time to work with. Not a lot, mind you, but perhaps enough to get the girl to talk. If she’d been following Phain, it seemed likely she might have intel on him that I could use to my advantage. I wondered how I might be able to do it.
As I was finishing the crossword, I heard movement upstairs and decided to pay the girl a visit. Perhaps I could entice her to talk with a little bit of careful persuasion. If not, well, I had other methods. The doc might have started this, but I intended to finish it, one way or another. I climbed the stairs to the bedroom and went in, drawing the tranquilizer gun as I strode across to the closet.