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The Darker Mask
by L. A. BANKS
Cassandra Hubbard pulled the collar up higher on her puffy down coat and hunched deeper into its warmth to brave the elements. Unforgiving sleet slashed at her face as she hurried to make her train to work, muttering curses as she was jostled and bumped during the usual rush hour mayhem. Another cup of coffee was calling her name. She could barely keep her eyes open at seven a.m. As she descended the slick subway steps, she saw one. A Watcher.
It had slithered between two people and was gone. Now she was awake.
Glancing around and holding on to a post to be sure she wasn't accidentally pushed over the edge of the platform by one of those things that haunted her, she waited. It was always the same. The night before the dreams came, they'd find her.
Oblivious commuters moved up in anticipation of the train. She squeezed her eyes shut and clung tighter to the post, knowing that this was when it could happen. The point of vulnerability.
Perspiration soaked the T-shirt and sweater she wore beneath her coat. Her gloves would slide if she were grabbed. A horrific image of being snatched by the back of her coat, wool gloves snagging against the nickedconcrete, then flung at just the moment the train rumbled into the station pierced her mind. The sensation riddled her body and she fought not to scream in public. Nearly panting, she closed her eyes quickly and then glanced around again, thoroughly paranoid.
The train screeched to a stop. The throng on the platform bustled forward. Cassandra let go of the post and dashed between the doors just as they shut.
No one looked up as she tightly clutched a pole. In Cassandra's eyes, the colors around her were melting and fading gray. Watchers emerged. They peered at her with their dark flickering eyes as their shadow-like, willowy bodies writhed and slithered among the oblivious passengers.
There had never been this many before. Usually just one or two. And they had never been so aggressive as to scare her early in the day. Or in public--despite the fact that no one but she could see them. They would always arrive while she was alone in her barren little apartment or in the Laundromat. Anywhere quiet and confined.
Cassandra began to hyperventilate as the Watchers crawled across the ceiling, along the walls, and wriggled closer to her on the floor. The entire train soon went black.
Cassandra screamed and began thrashing when icy fingers touched her face in the dark. The lights came back on. Blank-faced passengers simply stared at her like she'd lost her mind. She bolted off the train at her stop and ran up the steps, glad to be back in the frigid weather, and then ran three long blocks to her building. By the time she reached the lobby, tears were cascading down her face and she couldn't stop shivering.
"Cold as a witch's tit out there, ain't it, Cas?"
She nodded trying to compose herself as Fred, the lobby security guard, leered at her. Sometimes she wished that she came in with the normal eight-thirty crowd, instead of the earlier shift where she'd most often be in the lobby with him alone. Today was one of those days. All she wanted to do was get upstairs to her desk, but she knew she'd have to endure Fred's advances until the elevator came.
"So, how was the weekend? Do anything good?"
"I did laundry," she muttered, wondering how in the hell had she gotten trapped answering phones at a boring-ass box and paper supply distributor.
"I keep telling you, sweetheart, you can do ole Fred any time." He hoisted up his pants over his rotund belly, making it jiggle as he jumped off the stool and laughed at his own lame joke. "I got something for you."
He continued to laugh; she didn't look at him, but cracked a smile.She'd give him that; he'd baited her good and she'd fallen for the line. Their routine was a ritual.
"Your wife might have a problem with that, though. That's the thing."
"Aw, what she don't know won't hurt her--or me ... or you."
"I'm telling you, I beat laundry any day and can tumble better than any washer or dryer." He rubbed his jowls with a meaty palm. "Would work your little five foot seven stuff into a knot, girl--wit' your pretty brown self. Uh-huh."
"I'll remember that when I'm buying fabric softener."
"That's cold, Cassie. Real cold. Why you treat me like that?"
"Because I haven't had my morning coffee yet, Fred. Have a nice day."
"You, too, beautiful." He blew her a kiss. "I like them new braids you got, too. Bet they hang all down your back almost to your juicy behind."
"Thanks, Fred," she replied flatly. "I'll tell my stylist you approve."
"See, a black woman with an attitude. Why can't a man just give a woman a compliment--y'all so mean! I love you, girl."
"Yeah, okay, Fred. I love you, too ... but, oh, did I mention it before--that I'm so mean because you're so married?"
He laughed and went back to sitting on the stool behind the tiny sign-in desk that he dwarfed. "One day it's me and you, baby."
Cassandra kept her eyes glued to the numbers and waved at him without looking back as the doors opened. Her life was already screwed up enough. What did she need with a beer-bellied, horseshoe-bald, married guy that was almost twice her age? The dental plaque in his mouth alone was enough to send her back into the streets screaming. But at least Fred talked to her. That was her building buddy.
As long as someone saw her and talked to her, they couldn't come. When she wasn't invisible, they had to stay back in the shadows. She kept her body stone rigid as the elevator lumbered up to the seventeenth floor. They were getting so bad now, it seemed, and they might finally come for her at work, her only sanctuary. Sadly, this had been the only place she'd never seen them.
Bolting out of the elevator, Cassandra rushed to her desk, glad that some routines hadn't changed. Joe Schrader, the systems guy, was always in early like her and hunched over a keyboard, and so was Linda Duncan, one of the very harried shipping managers who didn't really speak to anyone civilly before ten o'clock. It didn't matter that they only muttered cursory acknowledgments, her coworkers were warm bodies in the office who would speak to her, if they came.
A thrumming headache pierced her temples but Cassandra relaxed knowing that meant the Watchers were gone. She reached into her desk for an Aleve and swallowed it dry before going to the coffee station.
All she had to do was answer the phones, sort the mail, route people to voicemail. She could do that. All she had to do was make it till lunchtime, and then she could find somewhere to hide and go to sleep. She'd survive till then, had for thirty years.
Unlike her parents.
The Watchers came for her mother in a derelict building where she smoked the rocks that would have killed her eventually anyway. They had come for her father in prison. Guards found him dead in his cell. That would never be Cassandra, not if she could help it. She didn't care what the doctors had said about her sleeping disorders while she was a ward of the Department of Social Services. She didn't give a rat's ass about teachers having a problem with her falling asleep in class. She'd gotten her GED anyway, and had started night classes for a degree in criminology. Right now it was about making sure they didn't get her while she was awake. None of the regulars--normal people--could see what she did.
Cassandra poured steaming black coffee into the huge, ceramic mug that she always kept hidden in her desk, stirring in so much artificial creamer and sugar that it all clumped together on the top making her work hard with a red plastic stirrer to dissolve it.
Sugar and caffeine were paramount to staying alert until it was time to escape. Some of her coworkers bitched about her always using up the stash because she clocked in before them and they offered unwanted advice about the way she fixed her coffee being a health hazard. But that was okay, she liked it like that. The regulars had no idea the things that could really challenge her life, and freakin' artificial creamer and white sugar or caffeine didn't have jack shit on those possibilities.
By eleven thirty, she was practically weaving at her desk. She needed to lie down so badly. Each blink of her eyes felt like sandpaper was scratching her corneas, and if her head bounced and jerked up one more time, she swore she'd get whiplash. The space heater under her desk keeping her legs warm was like a narcotic.
"Gonna need a neck brace and a chiropractor soon, hon," Joe said to her, coming out front and buttoning his coat. "I've gotta get some air. Stormsare screwing with the lines, servers are on the fricking blink, and this weather is making me wanna just go the hell home and climb back in bed to pull the covers over my head."
"I hear ya," Cassandra said, rubbing her palms down her face. "But I thought everybody would be ordering in today because it's so damned cold outside." She let out a healthy yawn and stretched. "Anybody back there ordering? Lemme know, because I'm out at twelve and you know how they always try to make me hang and wait until their lunch comes."
"Screw 'em," Joe said with a shrug. "Ain't your problem."
They both looked at each other. "Unless it's Stan Buckner's lunch," they said in unison.
"Call Stan the man and ask him, then," Joe said, giving her a sympathetic glance. "Or ..."
"Not," Cassandra said with a smirk, gleaning one from Joe.
"Hey, what can he do if you left 'cause you didn't know?" Joe said, shrugging and opening the door that led out to the hall.
She shook her head, about to go back to staring at the same page of the magazine she'd been on for an hour, when she spotted the usual lunch delivery guy, a brother named Saddiq, getting off the elevators. Relief swept through her, straight thug though he was. Seeing Saddiq meant that she wouldn't have to hang around for the managers' lame excuses as to why they couldn't come out and retrieve their own damn food. So she waited, eager, ready to buzz in whoever brought the lunches to the front desk that the managers had ordered so she could jet.
"Yo, got a delivery," Saddiq said, loping toward her carrying several Chinese food takeout bags.
"Cool. Set 'em down, I'll call."
Cassandra studied him as he brought the food to her desk. Tall, basketball lanky, a perpetual scowl set in a dark-ebony, sculpted face--a hoodie hiding half of his handsome, angry features, baggy jeans, black Tims, a huge puff coat that would make any cop on the block wonder if he was carrying a street sweeper beneath it. Intense but weary eyes stared at her.
"Got an order for a Stan, a Linda, a Mildred, and a Nicole," Saddiq reported. "Total's forty-seven, eighty."
Cassandra depressed the intercom button and repeated what Saddiq had told her, taking the receipt from him. The dragon tattoo that curled over his broad knuckles always intrigued her, but she'd never ask ... he'd never tell. Only, today he looked more tired than usual.
"Night gig kicking your ass?" she said, not sure why.
He just looked at her as though looking through her for a moment. "Yeah." His gaze traveled up and down her body. "Same wit' you?"
She nodded as Mildred came out and collected the lunches, exchanging cash with Saddiq.
"I can go on break now?" Cassandra asked Mildred.
"Sure. Lorna can relieve you, I'll send her out." Mildred spoke without looking at her and went back through the doors.
"I'll see you later," Saddiq murmured in a tone that gave Cassandra pause.
She watched him lope out of the office and through the doors, becoming mesmerized by his fluid stride as the door he'd passed through slowly closed behind him. She saw a sliver of him, enough to see him glance back at her while waiting for the elevator. Was that an innocuous "I'll see you later"--as in next time they order, or was it a "Hey, baby, I'll see you later"? Unfortunately, she didn't have the luxury to dwell on it. She had to find somewhere to close her eyes for a half hour and the storeroom was calling her name. The moment Lorna appeared in the hallway behind her, Cassandra was out of her chair like a shot.
"Dang, you could at least wait till I got to the console," Lorna muttered.
It took everything within Cassandra not to flip Lorna the bird. But she kept walking and yawning. There were advantages to having keys to locked rooms that rarely got used except for excess product overflow and supplies.
Opening the door, she slipped inside the small, cramped space and pushed several boxes together to create a giant L shape that she could recline on. In a moment she would be safe. In a moment, they couldn't get her. Cassandra wiped off the surface of the dusty boxes, and then wiped her hands on the back pockets of her jeans and climbed up. She didn't care if her olive, knobby knit sweater got a little dusty, either. Maybe this time she'd go somewhere tropical where she didn't need boots, a T-shirt, sweater, jeans, a coat, a hat, gloves, muffler, and layers of socks. Her eyelids were so heavy that she couldn't keep them open a moment longer ...
... Then she was gone.
She'd asked for tropical and got Chinatown--but at least it wasn't winter. She shed her sweater and her new, athletic, toned body filled out her neon white tank top and jeans. Even her leather boots looked better. The road salt and slush crud was gone. Color was everywhere. Vibrant, alive, moving. Her hair went from drab ebony to honey brown, and she made a mental note to try that shade when she woke up.
Cassandra smiled and curled her grip around a black, handheld semiautomatic that took shells the diameter of a quarter. The made-up weapon was a gleaming monstrosity; her other hand itched and a Glock nine millimeter filled it. Oh, yeah, time to rock and roll.
She crossed the street with certain authority. She knew there was some bullshit going down. There always was. She immediately heard a young child's muffled cry coming from inside the warehouse next to the restaurant. Then it came from the restaurant.
The street was isolated--plenty of storefronts, but no patrons. She stepped across the threshold of the restaurant. Meals had been abandoned. Fabric banners overhead made the colors dance in the darkened space. Ceiling fans whirled. She could hear food frying, but the cooks had long gone. The sizzle filled her ears as the char of burning food began to sting her nose. Then she saw one scamper by. A Watcher.
Instantly a thin wisp of black-shadow creature darted up a wall and sent a butcher knife whirring toward her. She backflipped out of the way and landed on the table; the blade was thrown with such velocity that it halved the chair.
She pump-sprayed the wall following the nasty little bastard, unloading her nine until it splattered puss-white gunk. It was only then that she realized the whole thing was a trap.
They were everywhere! Under tables, coming out of vents, up and out of the drains. What the fuck--she sprayed the ceiling, the walls, doorways, the front window, shattering glass and dodging scalpel-sharp cutlery. Shrapnel from flying debris ricocheted in a blinding hail. Knives hit the wall as fast as bullet spray but she flipped out of the way, shooting two-handed, using furniture as temporary shields.
Shreds of shadow skins littered the destroyed tables, chairs, and walls. Decimated food and broken dishes and glasses created a razor-sharp mosaic on the tabletops and floor. Puss ran everywhere, the stench enough to make her gag, but she still heard children's wails.
Sliding on their oily remains and using the momentum of her semi-gunfire, she shot her way to the kitchen, kicking open a basement door, listening for the cries--then it came from outside. She reached down quickly, tossed away her spent Glock, and yanked up her jeans leg to extract a credit card-sized slice of C-4 from her boot. The moment she saw movement in the darkness she tossed it down the blackened staircase, and opened fire, flip-rolling out of the way and through a back window as the building imploded from the basement up.
A truck crashed through the back wall of the warehouse from the inside,and she had mere seconds to roll out of its way. As it barreled past, she sat up in the street, took aim and--
"No!" she heard a male voice, a strangely familiar one, shout. "The kids are in the truck! Hold your fire!"
Cassandra jumped to her feet, looking around for the voice. She sprinted behind the truck then darted through an alley to head it off--anything to get a clear shot at the driver. Then she saw a human form, muscular and male in shape and dressed in black, drop from a building overhang onto the truck's hood. The figure punched through the front windshield. It flung the driver out and over the hood. Whoever that poor bastard was got run over by his own truck. Within seconds, the black figure was behind the wheel and had brought the vehicle to a stop. Cassandra could see the building overhangs filling with writhing shadows. She extracted a fresh clip from her back jeans pocket and slammed it into the bottom of her semi.
"I got your back!" she hollered, running toward the truck. "Twelve o'clock!"
The figure in black flipped out of the hole in the windshield and landed on top of the truck like a cat. He took a Ninja stance, then waited. And so did Cassandra. She couldn't see his face; a black hoodie partially eclipsed it from her view. Then in a blur the building ledges cleared and the protector of the live cargo moved so quickly that all she could see was silver slashes as shadow bodies dropped and screams rent the night. It wasn't until the Watchers backed up to regroup that she saw his weapons of choice: twin daggers with dragon handles. As the Watchers fled to the ledges, she came out shooting, sweeping the street clear until every one of them was gone.
The tall figure in black jumped down off the truck and quickly went to the hatch doors. Cassandra stood back, keeping an eye out for more predators, but allowed her gaze the luxury of trailing down his cat-lean, muscular frame. There was just something about the way the steel cable of sinew worked under his tight, black hoodie jacket ... sweat making it cling to his awesome physique, street lights making what skin she could see glisten. Then he opened the doors.
Frightened doe-eyed little girls huddled together on the floor of the truck with tears streaming down their faces. Some were so young that they sucked their thumbs and were balled up in fetal positions against slightly older children.
"Damn ... ," the hooded man muttered as Cassandra slowly approached.
"It's all right," she said, looking at the stricken faces. "Nobody's gonna hurt you." Her stomach clenched as the bewildered children began to cry.
"Can we wake up now?" one of the older girls whispered. "Please." The hooded man clapped his hands together hard and they disappeared. He turned quickly to stare at Cassandra--who at that moment pointed a gun at his head.
"What did you do with them?" she growled between her teeth. "They were just little girls. None of them old enough!"
"That's why I made them wake up," the man in black replied calmly. "Cas, let me buy you a drink. A sister looks like she needs one."
"How do you know my name, who the hell are you!"
"Black Dragon," he said, unfazed by the weapon or the way she circled him. "Your coworkers might have mentioned your name while they were getting my cash."
She blinked twice, her grip loosening on the weapon. "So you sent the children to the other side ... outside of here ... good ... ."
"Yeah," he said, his eyes raking down her body. "They got pulled here by the Watchers who find sick motherfuckers' fantasies and dreams ... and then fuel them. These children in the truck won't get molested this time. Won't remember what terrified them in their sleep, either. That's how it works. But it seems things have been getting worse. More deranged folk who live their evil shit on the other side means more Watchers. Stronger Watchers. So you and me got to get stronger."
Cassandra couldn't see his face all the way in the shadows but saw the end of a tattoo coiling around his wrist. "Turn your hands over slowly," she said, still suspicious. A black dragon claimed his knuckles. She lowered the weapon. "Saddiq?"
"'Bout time, ma. Damn." He pulled his hoodie off and two large diamond stud earrings sparkled under the streetlights. "You know Stan the man is into kiddie porn, started asking my boss to deliver baby product ... which he smuggles, too. Hey, we hit 'em on this side of the dreamscape, we don't go to prison. He's been living out his fantasies with the kiddies, too, I just found out. Sick fucker went after his own daughter and stepdaughter, ages three and five. Need I say more? It's always something close to you that brings the Watchers. Think back."
"I'd like that drink now," she said, her weapon dangling by her side.
Incredulous, she ignored an apple martini that she was too stupefied to drink, her gaze moving swiftly around the room. But she would have mostassuredly spit out her drink when she spied a younger, brick-house fit version of Fred surrounded by what she could only guess to be rap video hoes. "Oh, shit ..."
Saddiq nodded and took a slow sip of Hennessy. "Crazy, ain't it? On this side, the dreamscape, Fred is a destroyer. The super bad girls love him. In the real world, his ass is asleep right now at his desk. He won't be here long." Saddiq looked at his platinum Rolex. "But see that cock-diesel mug over there?" He shook his head. "I hope his ass likes what he dreamed up, because he'll be here for a long time."
"Why?" Her eyes were so wide she could feel the corners splitting.
"That's a trucker. Son of a bitch is asleep at the wheel in the real world."
"Oh, shit! We should go wake him up--like you did the girls!"
"Easy, shorty," Saddiq said, and held her arm. "The kids aren't like us. They're supposed to wake up. They're regulars. We never were supposed to. Don't fuck with the man's return to his destiny."
Absolute panic made her chest heave. "What do you mean we were never supposed to wake up? What the hell are you talking about? I'm waking up right now. I'm out. I like being alive, I like--"
"Call me," he said, running the back of his forefinger over her knuckles.
She looked down at his caress and then back up at him.
"Isn't it better here? Do you like there so much?"
"I hate there, but I'm not trying to die."
He nodded. "I feel you."
She took a sip of her drink, her attention split between the hulking truckdriver and Saddiq, praying the man didn't die while she was here.
"I'm going to wake him up. I don't care what you say--his rig could kill innocent people."
Saddiq shrugged. "Do as you please, but then you'll owe him."
"What do you mean I'll owe him?" She stood, but was torn.
"Barge into his awareness, then you'll become a part of his reality, a part of his dreamscape, a part of his thought patterns ... and you don't know that motherfucker from a can of paint."
"I don't know you, either," she snapped, pointing at him. "I heard your name from a two-way chirp between you and your homeboy. Just like you don't know me. Just like I don't know how you know so much about any of this shit."
She moved away from the table, but was amazed at how the bar went still. Everyone was suddenly watching her, their eyes holding deep concern. The bartender shook his head "no" as she approached the man at the fartable keeping company with two Amazon-like blondes. But before she reached him, he jerked convulsively, slumped, and then slowly calmed to stare at everyone glassy-eyed.
Pandemonium broke out in the bar. People cheered and clapped, corks popped as the trucker jumped on top of the table shouting, "I made it!"
Cassandra eased back to her booth and slid into it.
"I gotta go," Saddiq said. "Get educated, baby." He pressed a card into her hand. "Hold on to this when you wake up. I'll see ya tonight ... didn't know how fine you was, or how mad-crazy you could fight till I saw you work out. Thanks for having my back."
The small buzzer alarm in her watch made Cassandra sit up with a start. She jumped off the boxes and yanked the overhead light string and then whirled around, trying to gain her bearings. She patted her body and frantically searched the room. Her sweater was missing. Something cut into her palm. A business card. Tears stung her eyes. It had always been just dreams before. How could a sweater vanish? How could a card be in her hand?
Totally freaked out, she bolted from the storeroom, ran down the hall, ran past the front desk ignoring Lorna. She had to get to her boss, had to leave, and was completely prepared to beg him to let her take the afternoon for an emergency. Barging into Stan Buckner's office like a madwoman, she stopped short as he bristled and thrust his computer screen away from her, face flushed. But he wasn't fast enough. She saw the naked children and almost dry heaved from the panic.
"Hey, you ever heard of knocking! Or better yet, certain ways of conducting yourself in a professional environment?"
"I ... I ... I have to leave, I've got the flu and I'm sick as a dog, I can't stay all day," she stammered, trying to act as though she didn't see anything untoward.
"Then don't bring that crap in here--and tell Lorna to spray your console and headset with Lysol."
"Thanks, Mr. Buckner," she said, whirring around and slamming his door behind her. Just seeing him gave her the chills--killing a person in her dreams was one thing, blowing his head off in real life was way out of her league. What the hell was happening?
Cassandra dashed back down the hall, grabbed her purse and coat, not looking at Lorna, but clutching the card. She was out.
"Hey, where're you going? I know you don't think I'm staying up frontall freakin' afternoon." Lorna stood and put her hands on her narrow hips, swinging her ponytail weave and popping gum.
Cassandra didn't even wait for the elevator, she just jammed the card in her coat pocket, looped her purse over her head, and rushed toward the fire exit. She yanked on her coat, spiraling down, down, down, breaths bursting her lungs--and then she saw them creeping over the rails.
Insanity claimed her. She bolted to the twelfth floor door but it was locked. Screaming, she began to head back up the stairwell, only to find the walls covered with sneering creatures. No weapon on her and a perilous drop down to the lobby level, she huddled in a corner shrieking at the tops of her lungs. Before the first icy claw could grab her it evaporated, and then all the shadows receded quickly. The eleventh floor door burst open and Fred the security guard huffed through it.
"Cassandra! Cassandra!" he bellowed, rushing up the steps, his chubby frame jiggling.
She flew into his arms and hugged him sobbing. "You saw them! You know they're real!"
"Shuusssh, shuusssh," he said rubbing her back, gun in hand. "It's all right, baby. They won't be messing with you now. I got a lot of them before I woke up. You need to go see Doc."
She sat in the Columbia University Center for Sleep Disturbances with her coat on hiding her purse, hands trembling, eyes bloodshot, and clutching the card that Saddiq had given her. When the nurse ushered her back to Dr. Rehnquist's office, she froze. He stood up from behind his desk, his calm brown eyes and brunette hair and every feature of his face a dead ringer for the bartender in the dreamscape. She began slowly backing away.
"Cassandra Hubbard, at least please sit down and learn about this amazing gift."
She stood by the door.
"Some of us are stronger than the others."
"I don't wanna die," she whispered.
"You don't have to ... only those who can't go back and forth, and they choose that outcome, not me or anyone else. Some need the fix, like a drug. Their self-esteem requires it, and they can't ever be sure they'll have the dream. So," he said with a philosophical sigh, "some opt for a permanent solution while in their sleep. It's tragic. But you're so much stronger than that. You, like me, can traverse the dreamscape at will. How did you get my card?"
"Saddiq." She hugged herself, feeling slightly faint. "He pressed it in my hand at the bar."
The doctor rounded the desk slowly, his expression holding repressed excitement. "What bar?" he whispered.
"The one you bartend."
For a moment he just looked at her. "While you were asleep?" He swallowed hard, his eyes briefly filling with tears that burned away. "You brought it through the dreamscape?"
"I lost my sweater over there," she said in a thick murmur, her voice quavering. She began rocking as she spoke. "And he gave me this--I have to understand what's going on ... what's been chasing me all my life. How come all these people around me know about this other dimension--even Fred?" Growing frantic, she searched the doctor's face for answers. "Why me, what do they want? Why Saddiq? What the hell is this shit!" she said, finally losing it and shouting.
"Close the door," the doctor said, his gaze locked with hers. "Saddiq lost his only brother--Hassan was thrown over the train tracks seconds before a subway train pulled into the station ... just like you lost your parents, and Fred lost his sister. Everyone we've found who can phase in and out of the dreamscape, at will, has this connection. Loss and death. But we've never seen you--and those like you--actually bring tangible items back from the dreamscape. We also learned, quite by accident, that there's a viral, energy element on that side of consciousness that needs policing."
"The Watchers." Cassandra's eyes widened as her voice dipped low in horror.
"Yes. We need people like you and Saddiq to keep those nasty little creatures that come out of nightmares at bay. As you noticed from the demise of your own parents, those insidious elementals can cause great harm. Only dream knights, as I like to call them, can exterminate them in both the waking and sleeping states of consciousness. That's what we need you--"
Growing paranoid, she folded the card away into her pocket.
"Researchers," the doctor said calmly.
"I don't know much, but sounds like something the government would like to get their hands on ... people's heads. Suck out their dreams. Make 'em kill at will without a trace. Wouldn't be to save little kids, or to prevent major catastrophes, would it?"
"While I'll honestly tell you that this does have definite military application, this is way too important as far as technological breakthroughs to--"
From nowhere she drew a huge, silver automatic. "I'm out," she said quietly, glimpsing the shadows beginning to crawl from beneath his desk.
She opened the door, reaching for it blindly and slipped out, then turned and ran. Halfway down the hallway, barrel-chested orderlies brandishing Uzis blocked her escape. She backed into a room, shot out the window, and jumped, her coat billowing out behind her the five stories to the ground. She silently landed on one foot and one knee, then got up and ran ... .
"Miss Hubbard, Miss Hubbard," a soothing female voice said. "The doctor can see you now."
Cassandra's eyes snapped open. No gun-toting orderlies, no Watchers. Perspiration soaked her. "I ... I have to go to the ladies' room. Okay?"
The nurse gave her a questioning look, and Cassandra stared deeply into her eyes. Then it hit her like a ton of bricks, the recognition clear--the nurse was one of the blondes sitting with the truckdriver, plying him with meds masquerading as drinks. The doctor, playing bartender psychologist, was the one that was probably working for the military and testing different outcomes. She had to get out of there, had to find Saddiq.
"I really have to go," Cassandra said more calmly, playing along.
"It's right down the hall," the nurse said, her tone skeptical. "And, why don't you let me hang up your coat?"
"No, that's okay--it's cold in here," Cassandra said. Then she spun. "Oh, damn! I gotta feed the meter, too. Be right back."
She ran like someone was chasing her, down the hall, down the steps, out into the ancient ivy-walled campus, then jumped in front of the first cab she saw to stop it.
"You crazy?" the cabbie shouted.
"Yeah, my sister's having a baby--gimme a break and take me to her job." She flashed a wad of cash, and the cabbie begrudgingly accepted her as a fare.
Cassandra's leg wouldn't stop bouncing the whole ride back across midtown to the Chinese food place where she knew Saddiq worked. She paid her fare, jumped out and ran inside to the takeout counter, shoving herself to the front of the line.
"I'm not ordering, just looking for someone," she told disgruntled customers. "Yo, is Saddiq here?" she yelled, trying to get someone's attention in the back.
"On a delivery, lady," a fry chef hollered.
"Where? I need to find him now."
"You wait till he come back; we don't get into no personal shit up in here!"
A busboy passed her with a load of garbage-strewn dishes in his tub. "Yo, sis, be cool up on the man's gig, feel me? Damn."
Cassandra followed the busboy. "Tell me where he went?" She grabbed his arm, not caring that he was twice her size and had a keloided bicep tattoo that looked like it was etched in prison. "It's a matter of life or death. Hit him on his two-way. I don't care. Just tell him Cassandra from the box company has an urgent message for him."
The busboy looked both ways, and kept clearing tables so his bosses didn't take notice. He dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "I ain't know it was all like dat--who's trying to do a drive-by on my boy?"
Her mind scavenged whatever she could, looking both ways like a thief to camouflage not having a legit answer. "Po-Po," she finally said, knowing that would be enough to get her to Saddiq.
The busboy nodded. "You go wait over by the chairs like you're ordering. I'll hit my boy on the chirp and let him know. Good looking out, sis."
She nodded, too rattled to do more and found a menu, not reading it but watching. Soon the busboy came back to her and handed her a slip of paper listing an address.
"He said he'll meet you in the lobby."
The pair exchanged a nod and she was gone.
Cassandra hurried the six blocks to the building, arriving nearly out of breath. Saddiq was waiting for her in the lobby, pacing.
"You came up on my job, sis? It better be real important, yo. I'm serious. I don't even know you like that."
She dug in her coat pocket and showed him the card. Her voice was low and lethal, her eyes hard. "Black Dragon--what the fuck you mean you don't know me like that?"
He looked at her, and then looked at the card, all the hardened street scowl slowly melting away. "You work for Dr. Rehnquist?"
"No," she said between her teeth, shoving the card back into her pocket. "You don't remember?" She walked closer to him. "Take me to a hotel room. Now."
He looked at her with a sheepish grin then ran his tongue over his bottom lip as he slid his palm across his jaw, considering. It was the first time outside the dream that she'd seen his perfect, white teeth.
"Damn, I mean, all this time I been delivering grub up to the boxcompany ... I ain't know it was like that, fine as you are, but, uh, I'm down. Gonna have to tell the job--"
"Listen," she hissed in a fierce whisper. "I want you to get in the bed with me and go to sleep."
"Say what? You trippin', shorty ...'cause if I--"
"At lunchtime, you went to sleep in between runs while waiting on them to pack orders, dozed in the chair, right? You saved a cargo of young children ... I mean the Black Dragon did. I was there, shooting my ass off, and you dropped down off a building, and ..."
She watched him walk away and then come back to her, his expression stricken.
"Rehnquist send you here to fuck with my head? Huh?" Saddiq leaned down into her face. "I didn't push my brother off that damned platform, and I already did my bid. I'm out, I'm clean--"
"I know," she said quietly, touching the center of his chest through his coat. "I know. So does Rehnquist. But he gives you meds, right ... so you don't remember."
Saddiq looked away.
"Don't take the meds this afternoon. Come to a hotel with me and fall asleep. You can't go back to your apartment and I can't go back to mine. They're after us. We can do something that only a few people can do--I know it. Something isn't right with the doctor. I went there today and fell asleep in the waiting room and the Watchers ... they came out of nowhere in his office, all around him."
"You can see 'em, too?" Saddiq whispered, raking his fingers across his hoodie so hard that it peeled back showing the immaculate, zigzag cornrow pattern of his hair.
"Yes," Cassandra said. "Over on the other side you told me to get educated. On this side, I'm gonna tell you to do the same."
Saddiq nodded. "Sho' you right."
"Tell me about Fred ... the security guard in our building." She looked up at Saddiq.
"Don't know him, really. Brother seems cool. He's in the program. Had a loss, like everybody does who's in it. Used to be a CO up at Riker's, but had to come out from the stress. He was the only one, other than you, who saw 'em."
"He was up there with you at Riker's?" She shook her head. "Sent you to Rehnquist, right?"
"Yeah," Saddiq said slowly.
"Just like he was the only one who heard me screaming in the fire escape when the Watchers came right after I woke up." She folded her arms over her chest. "I smell a setup. Scared us right toward Rehnquist."
"For what, though? Who wants to live like a got-damned freak? I hate this shit--I want somebody to cure it!" Saddiq's voice was low and intense, and his eyes had a desperate quality to them as they searched her face. "That's why I was going to Doc. He's the only one who believed what I saw, the only one who ... I want it to stop."
"I do, too, but there's a reason beyond just being bleeding heart helpful that he's doing these studies." She held Saddiq's arms, her voice frantic as she tried to get him to understand. "Think about it, man. Think. Rehnquist has been dipping into people's heads, and in dreams you can be whatever you want ... you don't have to be fat, bald, old, slow--whatever. You can fly, do any amazing shit you want. Your imagination is the limit. But none of his other experiments have been able to do what you and I did."
Hope wafted through her as Saddiq's expression became less defensive.
"Rehnquist must be looking for more people who can see them. These 'researchers' are surely manipulating the energy of nightmares. Just like they do with the fantasies that make us superheroes on the other side. But listen, Saddiq, what if they can't control the nightmares as carefully as they can normal fantasies? And maybe that's what we're for, you feel me? I'm serious ... maybe we're the cleaners, the safety valve, when nightmares get out of hand and all that negative energy breeds more Watchers." Cassandra produced the business card for Saddiq again. "Remember this? I left my sweater on the other side; you gave me a business card to the doctor's office, which I brought through to the real world side. See? We have the power to bring things back and forth from the dreamscape to reality and vice-versa! Others don't have that power. It was all over the doctor's face and he as much as said so during my chair nap."
"Aw'ight, so what? How you get paid from that shit, sis? Why would a big money cat worry about dreams and psycho shit? What's in it for him?"
Cassandra wiped her palms down her face. "Imagine the possibilities if they controlled someone with our powers on the other side. A super-assassin or commando, who could kill anyone, do whatever madness they wanted--in dreamtime. Then that assassin wakes, and is untraceable, untrackable." She pressed the card into his palm to make him feel it and to drive home her point. "This could have been a piece of C-4 left at an embassy, a courthouse, the home of a foreign head of state ... by the Black Dragon."
"Oh ... shit ..."
She nodded. "We have got to get out of here, find a place to sleep, and--"
"Hit the fucking bar."
No, she didn't know this man from a can of paint, but didn't have to. As far as she was concerned, they were partners for life on the run. He had no family and she sure didn't. If they could bring things through the dreamscape, that meant they could imagine cash, phony IDs, and whatever else was necessary to live on the edge, to live anonymously, and to live well doing so.
Soon they might learn how to just wake up in the right place and at the right time, always in a new country before being discovered. As long as they were around each other, the Watchers backed off. But they could still feel them--lurking, measuring their chance to strike. Then it would be time to drift off and snuff some really bad shit.
Cassandra had long gotten over her squeamishness about dropping a worthless piece of shit or twisted, murdering bitch on the other side. It had never bothered Saddiq at all. Her old boss Stan the child molester was one of the first to die.
Saddiq looked at his platinum Rolex, turned off the alarm, and stared out the window of the Ritz Carlton, London. "Baby," he said, stroking her back, allowing his fingers to play against her damp skin. "I think we need to get out of here. We've been asleep for almost ten hours. Got a bad vibe."
She nodded and kissed his chest, dozing, a black dragon tattoo now gracing her knuckles and twinning up her wrist. "Let's go somewhere warm this time, though."
Didn't matter. They could go anywhere they dreamed. A lonely, pristine beach in Thailand, Trinidad at Carnival. Those monsters, the Watchers, died by the thousands on the other side, and the evil scum who spawned and fed them would never wake up, safe and snug in their beds ... .
Copyright © 2008 by Gary Phillips and Christopher Chambers