INDIGO SPRINGS (• Chapter One •)
“You’re going to fall in love today.” It is the first thing Astrid Lethewood says to me. A heartbeat later Patience joins us in the foyer and I nearly believe her.
I’ve seen Patience—on TV, on security feeds—but nothing has prepared me for meeting a demi-goddess. My brain seizes up, my hands get damp, and my mouth dries. I smell popcorn, hear the distant music of a carousel. A tingle of arousal threatens to embarrass me, but that, at least, I am ready for. My jacket, folded over one arm, hangs discreetly over my groin.
Today Patience is curly haired and black, with breasts—I can’t help looking—as firm and curvaceous as if they had been sculpted by Rodin. Her lips are full, her teeth straight, and her brown eyes are luminous and warm. Her skin has the seal-fat sleekness of youth, but she does not look young.
Soon she will look utterly different, if just as devastating.
“Who are you?” she asks, voice full of music.
“My name is Will Forest. I’m—”
“Another of Roche’s inquisitors? When’ll he give up?”
“Don’t be naïve,” I say.
She pops a candy into her mouth, crunching defiantly. “I got nothing to say to you.”
I pull in a breath. The carousel music tinkles on, and my spirits ride along, taking my inner child to the circus. “I’m here to talk to Astrid.”
“Great—another therapist type who thinks he can get through to her.” She puts a protective hand out to Astrid, who is hiding in her shadow. Proximate invisibility, the doctors call it, as if naming the behavior gives them a measure of control. The everyday world of telecommunications and two-hour commutes is crumbling, so they crouch in the surveillance center, labeling Astrid’s every twitch.
Even now she is shrinking against the wall. “Is this when the guards start shooting?”
I glance at the well-armed young women in the corridor. They frown back, probably annoyed that I’m blocking the threshold of the apartment entrance.
Astrid sobs into a clenched fist, and Patience strokes her hair, glaring at me. “Just leave us alone!”
“I’m not here to upset you, but I’m not going away either.” To emphasize the point, I step inside and shut the white door. Steel bolts clunk into place behind it: a vault door sealing us inside. This prison is two hundred feet belowground and surrounded by bedrock. To get here, I have been X-rayed, frisked, fingerprinted, and DNA tested. My identity has been confirmed and reconfirmed so completely that I am almost beginning to doubt it.
“As I said, my name is Will Forest.” I take care to speak to them both. “I’m here to interview Astrid about—”
“Please, Doc, go away.” Patience locks her bewitching eyes on me. “She can’t help you.”
I want to give in, like the others before me, but I hold her gaze, fighting the spell with thoughts of my missing kids. “I’m not a doctor, Patience, and I’m not leaving.”
Astrid stops crying with a hiccup. “Didn’t I show him around the place?”
“Show him the door, sweetie.”
“Why don’t you let her decide?” Opening my suitcase, I bring out a battered, plastic-wrapped paintbrush.
Astrid’s breath catches. She looks at me closely, searching my face. “I’m supposed to believe you’d let me have it back?”
“Cooperation is a two-way street. I don’t expect something for nothing, Astrid.”
She licks her lips. “I need paper. Cards. Playing cards.”
“I’ve brought them.”
“Astrid, you’re not ready,” Patience says.
“How long do you expect us to give her?”
“She’s in shock.”
“Astrid?” I say.
“It was okay, Patience.” She slides to her knees, face raised, eyes locked on the paintbrush.
“Fine.” Throwing up her hands, Patience wafts away.
Astrid begins to hyperventilate. “When are we?”
“You said something about showing me around.”
“I said that?” Her tone is dubious. “Is that today?”
“Do you know how long you’ve been here?”
“We were locked up for about twelve weeks….” Her eyelids flutter; she seems to be counting. “Eight in jail, four here. That’s twelve.”
“That’s right. You were moved here a month ago.”
“The comfy prison.” She shudders.
The apartment is part of an underground military base: a VIP housing unit that got converted to a jail cell when this crisis arose. It comes with false windows, frosted glass alight with phony full-spectrum sunshine.
“You razed your gardens,” Astrid says. “Bird blood, right? If you put tulip bulbs in the front, daffodils—”
“I’m not much for the outdoors these days,” I say.
“The woods aren’t as deep as they seem.” She breaks off, eyes wandering. “Have we…Sahara—”
“It’s all right,” I say, because I’ve watched hundreds of hours of surveillance footage on this pair, and that is what Patience tells her.
Astrid curls away, then bangs her head against the drywall. “Roche sent you down here to screw me over.”
“It’s not like that.” I grasp her shoulders. “You help me, I’ll help you.”
“Help…” She jerks her head again, but I’m holding her away from the wall.
“Let me help you, Astrid.”
She flinches, then seems to calm down. “Want to see the rest of the place?”
She listlessly tours me through the apartment. Every counter, shelf, and tabletop is cluttered with baubles and jewelry, offerings from Patience’s admiring public. The air smells of paint, and the furniture is inexpensive particleboard, two decades out of date. One piece stands out: an oak cabinet that dominates the living room wall.
“My grandfather is gonna make that,” Astrid explains.
“I thought he was an accountant.”
“He took up woodworking after he retired. Terrible at it—made Ma a rocking chair that almost killed her. Tips too far, falls, hits her head.”
“Ouch.” Evelyn Lethewood has mentioned the incident too; it happened when she was a teenager.
Astrid leans a damp cheek against the varnished wood. “Colonel Roach takes this out of Ma’s garage for me.”
“I asked him to.”
“Yes.” She’s mentioned the cabinet in her ramblings, even searching for it in the spot it now occupies.
“You’re a regular Santa Claus, aren’t you?”
“I meant it as a show of good faith.”
“It’s all happening.” Her hand drifts out, settling on my briefcase. “It’s finally Will day, isn’t it?”
“It’s the sixth of September.”
She starts to weep, tugging her hair. “Will day, Jackson day, fire, quake day, cutthroats, boomsday. Blood on the paintings, painted spatters across the walls…”
Patience peers through a doorway, arching her brows in challenge. “Making out okay, Santa?”
“I’m fine.” I rap my knuckles on Astrid’s cabinet, drawing her attention. “Only things my granddad ever made were model airplanes and bad wine.”
She sniffles. “Think you can trade with me? I’ll bare my soul for treats, like a dog?”
“I thought you’d like to have something familiar around, that’s all.”
“Thinking of my welfare.” Her eyes narrow. “I know about you.”
“You’re divorcing, I know that.”
“Am I supposed to believe you’re psychic? Patience could have gone through my office.”
“Right, Patience. I’m small potatoes, right? The side issue. The material witness.”
Her mouth tightens. “You have two kids and a pit bull, which is funny because you don’t like dogs.”
The words bring up gooseflesh on my neck. “My son Carson wanted a puppy. I’m a soft touch.”
She scoffs. “You’re here to break me open.”
“Astrid, all I want is to talk.”
“Gull dropping mussels onto rocks, that’s you. Cracking shells, getting the meat. Break everything open.”
“Astrid, I know you’ve been through a traumatic—”
“I’m not insane.”
“Then you’ve no excuse for not cooperating.” I will coax the truth from this raving, damaged woman. I need to learn how Patience became a shape-changing beauty, how she defies locks and assassins by turning to mist and drifting through walls and bullets, rocks and people.
I’m here to find out how Astrid, a landscape gardener who never finished high school, came to possess a collection of objects we can only label as mystical, despite our science and rationality.
Most important, I’m supposed to learn how Astrid’s childhood friend, Sahara Knax, took those mystical items and used them to create an eco-terrorist cult with half a million devoted followers. I need to discover Sahara’s weaknesses, anything that will tell my panicked government how to fight as her numbers grow, as she unleashes monsters into the seas and forests, as she forces us to napalm U.S. territory to destroy the infestations. Her actions grow more dangerous daily, and our attempts to locate her have failed. Astrid may be our only hope.
“The grumbles are so loud,” Astrid says, “I can’t remember when things happen. So much compressed magic…”
“You want to make things right, don’t you?”
She clutches my arm. “You had an accident last month. A contaminated blue jay attacked your car.”
I rasp my tongue over my lips, remembering the eagle-sized bird pecking holes in my windshield.
“That’s when you killed off your yard.”
Caroline had vanished with our kids just days earlier. I’d shot the bird, then pulled up the garden and, in a rage, burned it. Instead of telling Astrid this, I say: “Lots of people are sterilizing their gardens.”
With a defeated sigh, she leads me to the kitchen, where Patience is sorting tea bags. “Santa Claus drinks coffee,” Astrid says.
“We don’t have coffee.”
“It’s okay, tea’s fine.”
Patience holds up a bag of Darjeeling. “You don’t look military.”
“Are you asking what I do for a living?”
“Yeah,” Astrid says. “This is the part where you tell us.”
“You don’t already know?”
“Patience asked, not me.”
“I’m no psychic,” Patience says, crunching another candy as she dangles the tea bag. The swing of her wrist is hypnotic; I nod to show Darjeeling is fine.
“I’m a crisis negotiator for the Portland city police,” I say.
“Hostage haggler. Same as Roach.” Astrid’s voice is flat with dislike. I remember anew she has been charged with kidnapping and murder.
“Civilian rather than military, but essentially yes, the same as Colonel Roche. We went to school together.”
Patience runs hot tap water into a stoneware teapot to warm it. “So you’re a cop and a shrink?”
“If you like.”
Dreamily, Astrid says: “He was at the sewer outflow before they firebombed it. He got some of Sahara’s converts to come out.”
“Does that make you uncomfortable, Astrid?”
She eyes me like a stalking cat, ready to pounce. “You don’t make me uncomfortable, Santa.”
“I’d prefer it if you’d call me Will.”
“Would I, won’t I, will I?” Another predatory glance. “Okay…Will it is.”
The kettle shrieks and Patience puts a tray together. Sugar, cream, three cups. “You sure about this, sweetie?”
“Yeah. It’s Will day, Patience.”
“If you say so. Want to set up by the couch?”
“I think that’s what we do.” Astrid pushes at her curls, flashing the mangled cartilage of her right ear. “It’s hard…so much going on. Tuna and bullets and gates of brambles—”
“Let’s try, all right?” With that, Patience leads us back the way we came. As she passes me, she whispers a threat: “Don’t you mess her up worse than she already is.”
The living room’s lack of a TV gives it a Victorian aura. Photographs cover the walls—snapshots of Astrid’s parents and missing stepbrother. Four couches sit facing one another in a box.
Roche tried to keep the personal touches out of the suite, but Patience kept telling the media that she and Astrid were being kept in a barren subterranean hole. Her fans raised a hue and cry. Finally Roche allowed the bric-a-brac and Patience resumed her public campaign against Sahara. Without her broadcasts, the Alchemite cult would be even larger.
Astrid slumps on a grass-green chaise. I sit on a matching love seat and pull out my digital recorder.
She scowls. “Apartment’s bugged.”
“It can go out of sight if you like.”
“Doesn’t matter. The cards?”
“Will these do?” I hand over a bulging manila envelope stuffed with greeting cards, playing cards, and a Tarot.
“Perfect. Are you really going to give me my chantment?”
“Of course.” I pass her the paintbrush.
“Oh, thank you, thank you,” she murmurs, rolling it between her fingers. I imagine how Roche and the others upstairs in Security must be tensing up. But her gratitude and relief seem sincere.
She holds the brush to her cheek, eyes glistening. “You took a chance, bringing it here.”
My gut clenches. Roche hadn’t wanted to hand over the paintbrush. It’s magical, he’d said. What if she uses it to change you into a frog, like the Clumber boy?
I’d brushed the objection aside, producing the transcripts of Astrid’s ramblings. “Can’t think,” she’d said hundreds of times. “Need the brush, Jackson day, fortune cards.”
“Will day” too appears repeatedly. Maybe it’s arrogance, but I knew she’d been saying my name.
Turn you to a frog, like the Clumber boy. It doesn’t seem so funny now.
“Are you going to show me what it does?” I ask.
“Yes.” Astrid pulls her hair up, knotting the curls atop her head. She pins them into place with the paintbrush handle. Her hands drop to the table…and as they do, they change. The fingers become longer and wider, while the nails take on the flat, fibrous texture of paintbrush bristles.
She says, “Relax. Nothing terrible happens today.”
“Is that so?” I turn her hand palm-up, running my finger over the bristles of her thumbnail.
She draws back, aloof as a cat, and digs out a ten of hearts. “The cards help me keep track of things…things to come?”
“I’d like to talk about the past six months.”
Ghosts of dimples dent her cheeks. “Past, future…it’s all the same.”
“Tell me about the magic—when and why things started to change.”
“That’s two different questions.” Patience tosses a couple of high-calorie protein bars onto the tray. Then she serves the tea. “What exactly do you want to know?”
How to change it back. “Let’s start with Sahara.”
“That’s two questions too.” Astrid cups her palms above the surface of the ten of hearts. The red ink fades, leaving it blank. Then a bead of brown paint wells from the stiff paper, like a minuscule drop of blood coaxed from a pinpricked finger. It streaks across the card, outlining a dilapidated car. Astrid watches it raptly. Me, I burn my mouth, slurping too-hot tea in a sip that becomes a gasp.
“Not what you expected?” Patience laughs.
“On the fifteenth of April, Mark Clumber told Sahara he’d been cheating on her,” Astrid says, eyes locked on the card as if she’s reading text. “He confessed, then took off for a few hours—to give her space. Sahara packed her bags the second he was gone. She took his car and cat, half their money, and drove west. She was eighty miles out of Boston before Mark slunk back, looking for forgiveness.”
“She just left?”
“When someone hurts Sahara, she cuts them out of her heart forever. Ask Mark.”
“Mark’s beyond speech,” Patience says sharply. The Clumber boy is in one of the compound’s other apartments, suffering from severe alchemical contamination.
“Beyond speech,” Astrid murmurs. “Sahara would be pleased.”
I can believe it. Sahara routinely attacks Alchemites who leave her cult, not to mention police who oppose her and reporters who question her claim to be a goddess.
On the playing card, brown paint colors in the outline of the car. Wispy strokes of black sketch a cat on its rear dashboard. Brushstrokes from an invisible brush; the hairs on my arms stand up.
“So Sahara isn’t particularly forgiving?”
Astrid doesn’t contradict me. “She called from Billings and asked if she could stay at my house.”
She means the home she inherited from her father, I know, on Mascer Lane in Indigo Springs, at the epicenter of the alchemical spill. “And you said yes?”
“I said she could stay forever if she wanted.”
“What did she say?”
On the card, dots of green brighten the cat’s eyes. “She said I’d have to make life pretty goddamned interesting if I was going to keep her around.”
INDIGO SPRINGS Copyright © 2009 by Alyx Dellamonica