I'm good now. I promise.
My name is John Wayne Cleaver and I was born in a little town in the middle of nowhere called Clayton. You know those little towns on the side of the road, the ones where you drive through and you don't notice them, or maybe you stop for gas and think, "what a dump, who would ever live here?" Well, I did, for sixteen years. And I wish I could say that it was boring, and that nothing ever happened, and that we lived in a sleepy haze of naive innocence far from the troubles of the modern world, but I can't. I killed people. Not as many as other people, I'll grant you, but that's not much consolation, is it? If someone sat next to you on a bus, held out his hand and said, "Hi, I'm John, I've only killed a couple of people," that wouldn't exactly put your mind at ease. But yes, I've killed, and some of them were demons, true, but some of them were people. That I didn't kill the people personally is beside the point; they are dead because of me. That changes you. You start to look at things differently, at lives and their fragility. It's like we're all Humpty Dumpty, held together by tiny, cracking shells, perched up on a wall like it's no big deal. We think we're invincible, and then one little crack and boom, out comes more blood and guts and screams than you'd ever thought could be inside a single body. And when that blood goes, everything else goes with it-breath, thought, movement. Existence. One minute you're alive and then suddenly you're not.
I used to wonder if it went somewhere. If the thing that used to be your "life" actually left your body and physically went somewhere else. Conservation of matter and energy and all that. But I've seen death, and life doesn't go anywhere, and I think that's because life doesn't exist, not really. Life isn't a thing, it's a condition; we switch it on and we switch it off. For all we talk about taking a life, there's nothing there to take.
But I'm good now. I promise. I've killed, and whatever bloodlust I used to have is sated. I wake up in the morning and I go to my tutor and I go to my counseling and I go to my job with the FBI, helping to track down other killers, and I say the right things and I do the right things and nobody's afraid of me and everything is good. I watch travel shows. I cook. I do logic puzzles to keep myself occupied. And then sometimes at night I go to the butcher shop and I buy the biggest roast they have and I bring it home and I cover the room in plastic and I hack the meat to pieces with a kitchen knife, slashing and ripping and chopping and grunting until there's nothing left but scraps. Then I roll up the plastic, meat and blood and all, and I throw it away and everything is clean and calm again.
Because I'm good now.
* * *
"I love you, John."
I used to think I would have loved to hear Brooke Watson say those words. Now they broke my heart every time. I never thought I had a heart until it was broken. It's hard to see the point of something that only ever causes pain.
"You don't love me," I said, shifting my weight in the uncomfortable hospital chair. We were sitting in the dementia wing of a rest home in a dirty little Midwestern city called Fort Bruce. It was bigger than Clayton, the town where Brooke and I grew up, but that's not saying much. We'd left Clayton almost a year ago, when Brooke was just starting to lose her mind. She'd been getting worse and worse ever since. "Your name is Brooke Watson," I told her, "and you're my friend."
She shook her head. "My name is Nobody."
"Nobody was a demon," I said. "You called her a 'Withered.'"
Her expression grew dark. "The Withered are evil."
I looked out the barred window, seeing the slate-gray sky over the week-old January snow that covered the city like a layer of ash. New snow is clean; old snow is black and coarse and full of dirt and garbage.
I looked back at Brooke. "That's right," I said. "The Withered are evil, and you're not one of them. 'Nobody' was a monster and she possessed you, but she's gone now. She's dead, and you have her memories, but you're not her. You're Brooke." I looked at her, wondering again-for the thousandth time-how to help her. Her mind seemed to come and go like a breeze, ethereal and impossible to predict.
"Possessed" wasn't really the right word for what had happened, but it was close; possession implies a spirit or a ghost, but Brooke was taken over by a physical entity-a monster made of ash and grease, a black sludge that, in her more lucid moments, Brooke called "soulstuff." The demon known as Nobody was made of it and crawled inside her bloodstream and moved her like a puppet. I suppose the best word would be to say that Brooke was "invaded," but honestly, when you're talking about a bodily invasion and using words like "best," things are pretty screwed up and you might as well just not talk about them at all. But that's life in the demon-hunting business, I guess.
Brooke looked over my shoulder, her eyes locked on some distant memory rather than the hospital wall barely ten feet away. Kelly Ishida, the cop on our little team of hunters, had covered the wall with posters of flowers and landscapes, but that seemed almost insulting. Brooke's mind was buried under thousands of years of nightmare memory, from when her mind had merged with that of a demon who'd spent millennia invading body after body, girl after girl, only to inevitably grow disillusioned and kill itself-and the host bodies-over and over. Were some pictures of flowers supposed to make that go away?
"My name is Lucinda," said Brooke, stating it almost slyly, like she was telling me a secret. "I used to sell flowers in the market, but now I'm stuck in here." She paused a moment and then her eyes fixed on me. "I don't like it in here." A small tear welled up in the corner of her eye, growing bigger and bigger until it spilled over her eyelid and trickled down the side of her face. I watched it roll down her skin, leaving a thin, wet trail. I focused on the tear because it helped me to ignore all the horrible things that surrounded it. Her voice seemed far away and quiet. "Can you get me out of here?"
Here, as I said, was the lockdown wing of the Whiteflower Assisted Living Center. We traveled a lot, following Brooke's patchy memories of various Withered; we'd spent about four months in St. Louis, hunting a demon named Ithho who stole people's fingers, and then nearly seven months in Callister, hunting a demon who could only hear people in pain. "Demon" wasn't really the right word any more than "possessed" was, now that we knew more about what they were-which still wasn't much, frankly, but at least we knew they weren't the typical boogeymen from Catholicism or Judaism or any other big religion. We'd come to Fort Bruce because of an unprecedented two Withered in the same city, and we'd been here about three months, gathering information. And because Fort Bruce didn't have a real mental institution, Brooke was in Whiteflower with a bunch of dementia patients. She was the youngest patient by several decades, but aside from that it was a pretty good fit: her room and the floor were locked, she was under constant surveillance, and the staff was experienced with both memory problems and suicide risks. One of the few things Brooke remembered consistently was killing herself and surviving it tens of thousands of times. Her perception of things was a little screwed up.
"You need to stay here for now," I said. I said it almost every day, no matter how much I hated it. A year ago I wouldn't have said anything-I probably would have just left, if we're being perfectly honest. Being a heartless wallflower had been so much easier than feeling guilty all the time. "You're sick, and they can help you here."
"I'm not sick, I'm Lucinda."
Lucinda was one of the people Nobody had killed over the centuries, and her memories were mingled in with all the others jumbled up in Brooke's head. Dr. Trujillo, our team's psychologist, had counted more than thirty different personalities so far, but he said few of them surfaced more than once. Lucinda had popped up three or four times so far, and I wondered what it was about Brooke's situation here that called that specific girl to mind. Had she been in an institution or a hospital? Few of Nobody's victims were that modern, if we understood her correctly; most were hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. How had Nobody found Lucinda, and where? What had attracted her to the girl's life, and what had eventually caused her to end it?
How did Brooke remember dying?
"Your name is Brooke Watson," I said again. "My name is John Wayne Cleaver." I hesitated, knowing what I wanted to say and not daring to speak it out loud. I sat with my mouth open, struggling with the words, and finally just said them, softly in case Dr. Trujillo was listening. "I'm going to get you out of here-I don't know when, but I promise. Out of this hospital, out of the team, out of everything. We're going to run away."
"Are we going to get married?"
Her words were like an ice pick in my chest, and I shook my head. "No, Brooke, you don't love me."
"I love you more than anything," she said fiercely. "I've loved you for a thousand years-I've loved you since the sun was born and the stars sang songs to wake it up. I love you more than life and breath and body and soul. Do you want me to show-"
"No," I said, trying to calm her. "Just stop. I'll get you out of here, but you have to stop saying that."
"It'll be our secret, then."
"No," I repeated. "It'll be our nothing. You don't love me."
She paused for a moment, studying me with eyes that looked far too old for a seventeen-year-old girl. "I know all about nothing," she said softly. "I'm Nobody."
I sighed. "You and me both, Brooke. You and me both."
* * *
Nathan Gentry tapped his fingers on the conference-room table. "This chick is crazy."
Of all the people on our team, Nathan would be the easiest to kill. Not that I wanted to kill any of them, necessarily, but I had a plan for it in case I needed to. It never hurts to be prepared. Nathan was soft without being fat, an ideal mix of "out of shape" and "uninsulated" that left his vital organs right at the surface, without any muscle or fat to get in the way. For the others I needed a plan, but for Nathan all I'd need was a knife: slash the gut or the legs to slow him down, get in close, and cut his throat. He'd fight, but I'd win. If he was distracted at the time, buried in a book with his earbuds in the way he spent most of his time, it'd be even easier.
I kind of hoped, if the time ever came, that he didn't make it easy.
I wasn't supposed to think about that, obviously. I had rules to keep myself from hurting anybody, rules I'd been following since I was barely seven years old-ever since I'd discovered, with a dead gopher's blood trickling down my hands, that I was different from other people. That I was a sociopath, cut off from the rest of the world, surrounded by normal people but forever and relentlessly alone. I had rules to help keep my most dangerous impulses safely locked away. But I also had a job, and my job was to plan killings. All day, every day, I studied our targets, discovered their weaknesses, and figured out exactly how to kill them. It's a skill set I'm particularly gifted at, but not one that's easy to turn off.
I looked away from Nathan and back at our surveillance photos, forcing myself to focus on the task at hand. The "chick" Nathan thought was crazy was Mary Gardner, and he kind of had a point, though that didn't make me hate him any less. I deflected my hatred into what I hoped was playful teasing.
"Sensitivity training," I reminded him. As government employees we had a lot of sensitivity training, and it had become one of our go-to punchlines for any kind of joke, insult, or banter. I liked having running gags like this because they made it easier for me to know what the others would find funny and what they'd find off-putting. I couldn't always tell on my own.
"Sorry," said Nathan, "this 'woman' is crazy." The cadence of his voice was off, in a pattern I'd come to recognize as frustrated sarcasm. I suppressed a smile, knowing I'd gotten to him.
"That's not what he meant," said Kelly, and her voice had a fair bit of frustration in it as well. "He means that you shouldn't use 'crazy' as an epithet, since John has a mental-health issue too."
Kelly Ishida would be much harder to kill. She'd trained as a cop and worked homicide for six years, according to her file, so she knew how to handle herself. Her file also said that she was twenty-nine years old, but if I'd seen her on the street I would have sworn she was twenty-two. Twenty-three at the oldest. She was about my height, Japanese-American, with long black hair and dark eyes. I also knew that she slept very lightly and kept a gun on her nightstand, neither of which is a sign of a particularly healthy psyche; I assumed it had something to do with the incident that caused her to leave the police force and join our team, but I didn't know for sure yet. The exact details were redacted from her file, but whatever it was had left her with a lot of trust issues. Not as many as she thought, though; she still had me pick up her coffee almost every day. When the time came-if the time came-I could poison her virtually at will.
"Us crazy people have to stick together," I said, still studying the surveillance photos. I had seen something in one of them, and after another moment of thought I slid it across the table to Kelly; trust issues or not, she was an excellent detective. The photo was mostly identical to all our other photos of Mary Gardner-a nurse's uniform, a sweater, and a blue hospital face mask-but this one had a key difference. I tapped an odd shadow in the center. "Look at this bulge by her waist."
Kelly took the photo, examining it closely. "Sweaters do this sometimes, so it's hard to be sure what's under there. You think it's a gun?"
"It's not a hip," I said, "unless she has very weird hips."
"Sensitivity training," said Diana, and I suppressed another smile. Diana Lucas was the only other person on the team who ever joined in my jokes. Not only would killing her be physically hard-she was former military and as tough as a brick-but I'd regret it afterward. We weren't friends, per se, but we got along, united in our shared annoyance with Nathan, if nothing else. Nathan always told her they had to stick together, as the only black people on the team, and I think that annoyed her more than anything else. She'd even punched him once. I sincerely hoped I never had to kill Diana.
I looked back at Kelly. "Compare that photo to this one," I said, sliding another image across the table. "This is an older shot, from a few weeks ago, so she's wearing different clothes and we're seeing it from a different angle. The bulge is still there. It's too consistent to be a random fold in a sweater."
"Maybe," said Kelly. She pulled out magnifying glass-a real live magnifying glass, like an old-timey detective. It was one of Kelly's quirks. I kept waiting for her to pull out a pipe and a Sherlock Holmes hat. "Could be a gun," she said, studying the photo intently. "Do we have any other shots of that side?"
"What's the big deal about a gun?" asked Nathan, watching as I sifted through the photos. "She's some kind of supernatural monster anyway, right? Seems like a gun should be the least of our problems."
"Sensitivity training," I said.
"Oh, come on, what now?" asked Nathan, his voice even more frustrated than before. "We're not allowed to call the monsters monsters anymore? Are we worried about offending them?"
"I was actually warning myself that time," I said, finding another photo and passing it over to Kelly. "I'm about to call you an idiot, and I was saving everyone else the trouble of pointing it out."
"Hey-" said Nathan, but I cut him off.
"You're an idiot," I said. "But to be fair you're also new, so maybe you haven't done all the reading yet."
"I've done more reading than anyone in this building," said Nathan. "Or did you forget that I'm literally a doctor of library science?"
Diana rolled her eyes-we couldn't forget Nathan's credentials because he shoved them in our faces every chance he got.
"I'll let you know if any science libraries start bleeding," I said. "Between now and then, apply your research with a little common sense. I assume you read the report on my second contact with a Withered?"
"Of course I did," said Nathan. "That's exactly what I'm talking about. If this woman can turn her hands into claws or whatever, a gun seems like the least of our worries."
I nodded. "So if she has supernatural weapons that make a gun redundant, why does she carry a gun?"
"Not every Withered has claws," said Diana, explaining the line of reasoning more patiently than I was. "Some of them-like the second one John ran into, named Clark Forman-have no apparent means of defense at all, and no superhuman powers beyond whatever basic ... whatever ... that makes them a Withered in the first place. Forman carried a gun specifically because he didn't have any claws. If our information is correct, Mary Gardner drains the health of others to keep herself healthy, which is why she works as a nurse. Nothing about that profile suggests that she has a form of supernatural defense, and if she carries a gun, that only serves to support this analysis."
"Okay, that makes sense," said Nathan. "I'd never thought of it that way."
I nodded. "That's because you're an idiot."
"Seriously," said Nathan, slapping the table, "why do we even put up with this kid? What are you, sixteen?"
"Seventeen years old and mouthy as hell, and we just have to sit here and take it because you're some kind of superpsycho?" He looked at Diana. "Is this out of respect for his abilities as a sociopathic murderer, or because we're all afraid he's going to snap and kill us?"
Nathan was older than I was by a good ten years; much younger than his credentials would suggest, though, because he, like most of the rest of the team, was a bit of a prodigy in his area of expertise. According to his file he had two masters and two doctoral degrees, most of them related to one form of research or another. He knew more about Mediterranean history than anybody I knew, which was especially impressive since one of the people I knew was Brooke/Nobody, who'd lived there for literally centuries. I knew this about Nathan because of his file, but also because he told us constantly, just like he always told us how he'd climbed his way out of the ghetto in Philadelphia, paying his own way through school and earning his first Ph.D. from Harvard before the age of twenty. He had accomplished a lot, and I respected that; what bugged me is that he knew so much about everything, and all he seemed to talk about was himself. How could I not antagonize him for that?
"He's just staring at me," said Nathan.
"He does that," said Diana. "You don't get used to it." As much as I admired Diana, I was always secretly proud that I could unnerve her like that. She'd trained in the USAF Security Forces, one of the only armed services in America that trained women as snipers, and she had been their rising star. She'd been on the team since before I joined, so I wasn't sure of the circumstances; the exact details were redacted from her file, just like Kelly's. To be fair, so were mine-the team knew I'd killed three Withered, and they knew my mom had died in the final attack, but they didn't know how. And they didn't know anything about Marci.
I realized I was gripping the table edge so tightly my fingertips were turning white from the pressure. I couldn't let myself think about Marci anymore. I counted my number pattern, a mental exercise that helped me calm down: one, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen, twenty-one, thirty-four. Deep breath, in and out.
"This is definitely a gun," said Kelly, still hunched over the photos. "That's a good catch, John. I'll call the others."
"What does that tell us for sure, though?" asked Nathan. "She works late hours in a bad part of town; maybe she wants to be able to defend herself without morphing into a monster every time."
"That's entirely possible," said Kelly. "On the other hand, our records say nothing about a concealed weapons permit, and yet she's wearing one in a hospital. That's two laws she's breaking, which seems a little unnecessary for standard self-defense. We've had her under surveillance for weeks and we didn't know anything about this gun until now. That means she really, really wants one, and she really, really doesn't want anyone to know she has it, and those two together seem like a pretty good sign that something weird is going on."
"That's a lot of reallys," I said.
"Sensitivity training," said Nathan. I raised my eyebrow and he scowled. "Everyone else got to say it."
The door to the conference room opened without a knock, and Linda Ostler stepped in: the woman who'd organized our team and the de facto leader of the US government's secret war against the supernatural. Her file listed her as fifty-three, which made her older than even Trujillo, and she had the force of will to back that age up with an aura of hard-won experience and authority. Kelly stood up immediately; some remnant of her training as a cop, I assumed.
"Agent Ostler," said Kelly, "I was just about to call you-we've found something new in the Gardner case-"
"Thank you, Ms. Ishida, but I'm afraid it will have to wait. Agent Potash called, and we're moving on Cody French."
"Now?" asked Diana.
"Immediately," said Ostler. "Potash is observing him, and we have reason to believe that our window of opportunity is about to open. If John's analysis is correct, we have about three hours to kill him before that window closes again, possibly for weeks."
"Everybody suit up, then," said Diana, already walking to the door. "I'll meet you at the car in ten." She brushed past Ostler and disappeared down the hall.
Kelly looked at me. "Are you ready for this?"
"I'm jumping for joy."
"Do you need me for anything?" asked Nathan. "I'm not a field agent, but I've been training in firearms and I-"
"Guns won't help on this one," said Kelly. "Diana won't even be much use, unless it goes wrong, at which point having extra people there will only makes things harder." She looked at me. "This one's all John and Potash."
"Then why are you going?" asked Nathan.
She turned back to him, her gaze icy. "I'm going because, unlike you, I am a field agent, and I've actually finishedmy firearms training, and I know exactly how the plan is supposed to go down. We may need you in the future, Mr. Gentry, but until then we need you to stay here." He fell silent, and I followed Kelly and Ostler into the hall.
"He's actually 'Dr.' Gentry," I said, "and it's very rude of you to forget his title. Do you know how hard he had to work for that? He pulled himself out of the ghetto in Philadelphia-"
"Dr. Gentry is a good model of where you could be in a few years, John," said Agent Ostler. "Put your natural intelligence to good use and get a real degree or two."
"And annoy everyone around me."
"You already annoy everyone around you," said Ostler. "At least Nathan doesn't do it on purpose."
I had a plan to kill Ostler, too. I looked forward to it with relish.
* * *
I lived in a small apartment two doors down from a demon named Cody French. Becoming his neighbor had been my idea: we'd come to Fort Bruce to study him, after all, trying to find a way to kill him, and what better way than by interacting with him directly? That was what I'd brought to the team, more than anything else: not so much my expertise as my approach. The US government had been peripherally aware of the demons for decades, just as many other nations over the years had been. But knowing about them and hunting them were two different things. Whatever the Withered were, they were supernatural, and that made them hard to predict, hard to track, and hard to kill. How could you plan for something that had the power to do or even be something completely unexpected? Ostler had inherited an investigation team with a long history of fleeting glimpses and near misses, and meanwhile I'd killed three of the things, all on my own. There wasn't any real trick to it-I planned their deaths the same way I planned my teammates'. Spend time with them, figure out their weak spots, and then push on those weak spots until they die. I make friends with them, and then I kill them.
Being my friend is not, statistically speaking, very safe.
We knew about Cody French the same way we knew about all the other Withered: Brooke told us. Brooke was a childhood friend of mine, the girl next door, and I'd had something of a crush on her for years. I say "something" because sociopaths don't have crushes the way normal people do. Looking back, through the lens of counseling, I can say more accurately that I had an obsessive fixation on the idea of Brooke, an idea that had very little to do with Brooke herself. I'd wanted what Brooke represented-some Platonic ideal of innocence and beauty-not because I wanted to share it but because I wanted to possess it. Not exactly the basis for a stable relationship. She, as it turns out, had a much more normal attraction to me-I almost said "healthy" in that sentence, but that's kind of laughable, isn't it? She'd thought I was nice and asked me out a couple of times, and ended up chained to a chair in a madman's kitchen. She was eventually possessed by a suicidal demon named Nobody. With any hope of a normal life destroyed, she'd joined Ostler's team the same time I did. I don't know what her parents thought she was doing, but I bet they imagined it as a lot more glamorous and heroic than it was.
But even a statement like "she joined the team" wasn't really accurate. I joined the team; Brooke was more of a tool that the team used. She wanted to be more when she was lucid, but honestly, she had several thousand years of suicidal, homicidal, everything-o-cidal monster memories trapped inside of her head. Most days she could barely dress herself.
I told you it's not safe to be my friend.
So Brooke's job was to comb through Nobody's memory for every scrap of Withered-related information she could find, and once we put together enough of the pieces we'd move to their city, trying to be as quiet and unobtrusive as we could, and set up a temporary office. We interfaced with the police, using Kelly as a liaison, but mostly we kept to ourselves-the mind-wrecking secret that the world was infested with supernatural monsters was not the kind of thing people took to easily, and we'd found it was simpler to work in the shadows than to try to train a different police force in Withered-hunting tactics every few months. We'd settle in, start our surveillance, and then it was my turn: Brooke found the Withered, but I was the one who figured out how to kill them. Albert Potash did most of the actual killing, with Diana as backup, and Kelly, Nathan, and Dr. Trujillo helped out with whatever else we needed.
I probably need to explain how the Withered work. We still didn't know exactly where they came from-Brooke's memory was selective, to say the least-but somehow each of them gave something up in return for greater power. The first one I'd ever met, my neighbor Bill Crowley, had no identity of his own-no face, no body-but he could steal the bodies of others. He'd lived for centuries, for millennia really, hopping from body to body, sometimes as a king, sometimes worshipped as a god, but eventually just hanging out in Clayton, trying to get by. I think they got tired after so long, after seeing so much and being so constantly on the fringes of the world. They never really belonged anywhere, and I can tell you that gets old fast, and I'm only seventeen. To spend thousands of years not belonging ... it's no wonder Cody French ended up in a one-bedroom hole with a ragged old dog and a dead-end job. Whatever zeal he'd once had, whatever ambition, had run out ages ago.
Cody couldn't sleep. It's not that he didn't need to, he literally couldn't do it, not with sleeping pills or even pummeling himself unconscious, and I was fairly certain he'd taken both to a dangerous extreme at various points in his life. Think about that for a minute: all the other Withered were falling apart at the mental seams after so much relentless existence, but they'd only been awake for, on an average human sleep schedule, two thirds of it. Cody had experienced every minute of every hour of every day, day after day after year after century. What do you do with all that time? How do you not go insane? Cody had chosen books, and he was one of the most well-read people I'd ever known, but that can get you only so far. He'd filled the rest of his time with drinking, using alcohol to create a mindless stupor that wasn't exactly sleep, but filled a similar role. It helped him to forget, to relax, to turn off his brain for just a few precious minutes here and there.
And sometimes he took it a little farther.
"He's knocking on your door, Cleaver," said a voice on the radio. Albert Potash-I'd guess you'd call him our team's muscle-was not a patient man. I enjoyed pushing Nathan's buttons, but Potash I just tried to avoid altogether. I had no idea how to kill him.
"We're coming as fast as we can," said Kelly, keeping her hands firmly on the wheel. "The roads are icy. Keep your shirt on."
Cody French was a hard man to hurt: he had the reflexes of a wild animal, a mind that never relaxed, and the combat training of a man who'd spent thousands of years trying to find something to do with his time. On top of that he had a shocking level of regeneration, having passed our "speed-bump test" with flying colors. That test was more or less what it sounded like: the second step of every hunt we went on, after we'd picked up some basic information about who the target was and how they worked, was to hit them with a car. If that took care of them, easy peasy; if not, we dug in for the long haul and tried to find a way around their supernatural healing. Our second week in Fort Bruce, Potash had run a red light in a diesel trailer and broadsided Cody French's car while the Withered was on his way to work. The car was totaled and the inside was covered with blood, but Cody had been essentially unharmed when they pulled him from the wreck-he'd healed before the bystanders had even been able to reach him. So we needed something more personalized, and we spent a long time studying him from afar, looking for a weakness. And then Cody asked his neighbor, the quiet, unassuming John Cleaver, to watch his dog for a few hours.
Just hours? That dog spent all day alone sometimes, so what could a few hours possibly matter? Sure, he had a girl there, but he had girls all the time. Why was this time different? Turned out that girl landed in county lockup a few days later, raving and delusional, though with no signs of outward abuse. That's the kind of thing that sets off all our alarm bells. Animals made me nervous in general, and under any other circumstance I would never have even touched his dog-I'd hurt some animals very badly as a child and I had rules to keep myself away from any similar temptations-but this was my in, so I'd smiled and nodded and said yes, and Cody had introduced me to his basset hound, named Boy Dog-and no, I have no idea why anyone would choose such a stupid name. Cody only laughed when I asked him. I petted Boy Dog as calmly as I could, played the friendly neighbor, and stepped into the life of a damaged monster. Over the course of the next month or so I'd figured it out: When Cody French's life got too bad, when he just couldn't stand being awake anymore and all he wanted was a rest, he'd pick up a girl-usually a hooker, someone desperate and already a little shady-and take them back to his apartment and pour everything he had into them. Not his memories, but his awareness. The part of his brain that could never turn off, that could never stop or slow down for even a second, he dumped into someone else. Then he slept, and she went mad.
"The dog's with another neighbor," said Potash. "How close are you?"
"Five minutes at the most," said Kelly, "unless you want us to die in a car accident on our way there."
"The dog's not part of the plan anyway," I said. "Better to have it somewhere else, so I'm free to move around."
Potash's voice crackled on the radio. "This girl looks younger than you are."
"Probably a runaway," said Kelly. "Someone who won't go to the cops, and who doesn't have anyone taking care of her. Twenty bucks says she's already got a drug problem, so her hallucinations won't look out of place if anyone looks too deep at her case."
Diana spoke up from the back seat. "If we take him out fast, can we save her?"
The car was silent.
"I don't know," I said at last. "I don't know exactly how he works. Killing him might end the transfer early, or it might make it permanent."
"So then we're damning her with the same curse he has?" asked Diana. "What good does that do?"
"She can't transfer it to anyone else," I said, "and she can't live forever."
"Better to just kill her in the same hit," said Potash.
"Absolutely not," said Kelly. "Better to take her into custody and observe her-maybe she'll be fine."
"She won't be," I said.
"And you don't care about her?" asked Diana.
I stared out the windows, the world flying by as Kelly sped through the city, and clenched my hands in a fist while I recited my number sequence: one, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen. Dr. Trujillo would be so proud. I took a deep breath and thought about Diana's question again, more calmly this time. I turned her words back on her: "What good would caring do?"
"This entire thing is your plan," said Diana. "You couldn't find any way of hurting him without also destroying an innocent girl?"
"It's not like I'm happy about it-"
"But you're not sad about it either," said Diana. "We're about to straight up ruin someone's life, all in the interest of killing someone else, and you don't care the least, tiny bit about either one of them."
"What good would that do?" I asked again. This was my plan, like she said, and I'd thought it through from every possible angle. Caring about the target could get us all killed, and going in soft to avoid collateral damage could be just as dangerous. "He can recover from damage faster than we can deal it," I said, "which means we have to deal a hard, precise blow that he can't recover from. That means cutting his head off, and that means we have to get him while he's incapacitated, and that means we have to wait until after he starts the transfer. It's the only time he can't defend himself. We have to do this, and we have to do it this way, and I could spend my energy being sad about that or I could spend it making sure it works, and that we get him, and that after this one last girl he never hurts anyone else again."
Diana growled. "Normal people don't just turn off their human nature every time it gets inconvenient-"
"Sucks to be them, then," I said.
"We don't need to argue about this right now," said Kelly. "Sometimes you have to turn off your empathy to get the job done-I learned it in the force, you learned it in the military, John learned it ... I shudder to think where John learned it. Let's just get the job done."
A limp body in a bathtub full of blood. A broken mirror. A burning car and a twisting scream.
Twenty-one. Thirty-four. Fifty-five. Eighty-nine. One hundred forty-four.
Turn it all off and don't feel anything.
"It's about time," said Potash, spotting us from his window as Kelly pulled into the apartment parking lot. There were two rows of buildings and a parking lot between them, with crumbling, open-air walkways, and stairs leading up to the apartments. It was winter, and the curbs were crusted with dirty, jagged ice. Kelly pulled to a stop behind the high, cinder block wall around the Dumpster, concealing us from anyone who might be looking out of Cody French's window. Diana got out without a word, carrying the duffel with her disassembled rifle. "Give Diana five minutes to get in place," said Potash, on the radio, "and meet me at the door."
"Three minutes," said Diana, her whisper barely audible on the shared frequency. "How incompetent do you think I am?"
"Radio silence," said Kelly. "Go."
We all had our jobs and we'd gone over them a dozen times at the rented office space, getting ready for this exact situation whenever the opportunity appeared. Kelly would stay in the parking lot, her badge in hand, ready to deal with any questions or nosy neighbors. Ideally we wouldn't need her at all. Diana would be perched in the other apartment we'd rented, directly across from Cody's, with her rifle aimed and ready to shoot anyone who chased us out his door. Ideally we wouldn't need her either. I had a stolen key to Cody's door, and as the one who'd planned the hit, it was my job to observe the situation and make the call to proceed or pull out. I'd go in, make sure he was as helpless as we needed, and then ...
... and then I wouldn't kill him. Potash, with a stainless-steel machete, would wait for my signal and take off Cody's head in one clean stroke.
I could feel that machete in my hand, feel the grip and the heft and the sudden, perfect resistance as it severed the spine. This was my plan. I'd practiced it a hundred times in my head. A thousand times. Sometimes in my head I had to kill the girl, too. You never knew what complications might arise.
But I never got to do it for real.
I got out of the car and walked to the stairs, pulling the key from my back pocket. Albert Potash timed it perfectly, arriving at the door from the other direction exactly as I got there. He was an older man, lean and fit, his graying hair still trimmed to the short, military cut his kind never seemed to let go. I didn't know exactly where he'd gotten his training, but he was some kind of ex-special forces supersoldier, the kind of man a government creates, uses, and then denies all knowledge of forever. I wasn't surprised, when I'd looked in his file, to find it completely empty. I'd spent my short life dreaming of death, of ending one life after another, stabbing and choking and poisoning and more. He'd spent his life actually doing it. I hated him passionately.
I raised my key to the lock, but he stopped me with a sudden gesture, listening to something I couldn't hear. After a moment he looked back at me again, rolling his hand to signal me to hurry. I unlocked the door in a rush, pushing it open as soon as the bolt scraped free of the frame, and stepped inside. Potash moved in behind me, silent as a ghost, pulling the machete from its black vinyl sheath so quickly I didn't even see him do it-it was covered one second and gleaming faintly in the dim light the next.
The front room was dark, the windows covered with blankets, and I could hear the noise now: a muffled grunting, like someone was struggling to speak. The layout of the apartment was essentially the same as mine: a small living room with an attached kitchen, which is where we stood now; a short hallway that led to two closed doors, with a bathroom on the left and bedroom on the right. I pointed to the bedroom door, and Potash stepped forward silently. He rested his hand on the doorknob, paused a moment, then quietly pushed it open.
The room beyond wasn't a den of horrors. No bodies hung from the ceiling, no eyes peered out from cracks in the wall. There was a simple wooden bed with a thin mattress, and Cody asleep facedown in the middle. Nearby, on the floor, bound and gagged and tied to the bedpost, was a teenage girl. I estimated her to be about fifteen years old, fully clothed, eyes haggard, but wide awake and terrified.
"Listen to me," said Potash firmly, crouching down beside her. "I can't untie you yet, but I need to know what's happened here. Did this man bring you in?"
The girl squeezed her eyes shut, shaking her head violently.
Potash glanced at me. "Is she saying no or is she already crazy?"
"He gave her his supernatural awareness," I whispered. "She could hear us outside before we even unlocked the door; it probably sounds like you're screaming in her ear." I lowered my voice to the barest breath. "We're here to help you. Did this man bring you here?"
She calmed and, after a moment, she nodded.
"Did he drug you?"
She stared at me, probably trying to decide how much trouble she'd get into for answering. She apparently decided it was worth it, and nodded.
"We good to go?" asked Potash.
"She's moved the bed almost eight inches," I said, pointing at the depressions the bed legs had left in the carpet. "If her struggling hasn't woken him up, nothing we do is going to."
"This feels too easy," he said, but I didn't answer. If you do it right, it's always easy. This was the great and dreadful end of everything I did, the paradox that made my life one long, successful hell. Months to find a weakness, more months to exploit it, endless nights of planning and practice, building up and building up until that one, perfectly executed strike that I don't even get to make. Potash walked to the bed, aimed his machete, and cut off Cody's head. The demon's eyes snapped open, his mouth gaping in a caricature of speech, but it was too late. The bright red blood pumping from his neck turned to black, greasy ash, and his body crumbled to nothing. The girl screamed, but it wasn't enough. It was never enough. There was no danger, no thrill, no visceralthunk as the machete vibrated in my hands.
Months of built-up tension and nothing to release it.
"It's done," said Potash in his radio, breaking the silence now that the job was done. He wiped his blade on the blanket and looked at the girl, passed out by his feet. "The runaway fainted, so I guess she isn't stuck with Withered senses forever."
"Get her out here," said Kelly. "I'll take her to a hospital while you and John go through the house."
Standard procedure: we go through the house, looking for anything we can find that might give us a hint about other Withered. Finish one hunt and get started on the next one, building more anticipation. I held my hands in tight fists, pushing out the blood until my knuckles were white as bone.
No rest for the wicked.
Copyright © 2015 by Dan Wells