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THE IMPERIAL HOTEL1600 BALMOR PLACEBALTIMORE, MARYLANDAPRIL 25, 2:12 PM
“Mom…?” she whispered into the phone. “Mom, I want to come home.”
The girl sat huddled against the headboard of the motel bed. It was scarred with cigarette burns. So was she. Old ones, from before she ran away.
Her words drifted down the telephone lines and only silence came back.
“Mom … are you there…?”
Tears broke and ran down the girl’s face. She was naked. Her clothes were torn because the last john liked to do that. She hurt inside, because he liked that, too. The sheets she’d wrapped around herself after he left felt stiff and coarse, abrading her skin, offering scant protection and no comfort.
“Mom, please,” she begged.
She heard the sucking sound of her mother drawing on a cigarette. A pause, then the long hissing as she blew smoke. It was so vivid that the girl could almost smell the unfiltered Camel.
“We looked for you,” said the voice. It sounded the same. Cold, with a cigarette rasp. “We looked all over for you.”
“I know … I’m sorry…”
“You just up and left.”
“I’m sorry, Mom … but I … I had to.”
“Had to? Bullshit, Holly. All you had to do was act right and you couldn’t even do that,” said her mother. “Why’s that? What’s wrong with you that you couldn’t even try to act like we’re all family.”
“He’s not my father.”
“Yes, he damn well is. Maybe not by blood, but what’s that matter? He raised you. He took care of you. He took care of us both. Who do you think paid for everything you ever had? Your school stuff, your health care. Who do you think bought your birthday presents and gave you that bike for Christmas when you were eight? Who do you think cares so much about us that he does that, even for an ungrateful girl that ain’t even his?”
“And how do you say thanks? You tell lies about him. Who do you think you are to tell lies like that about someone who’s always taken care of you?”
“I didn’t lie,” insisted Holly.
“You always lied. About that, about taking money from my purse. About the drugs.”
“I didn’t lie about him. About what he did.”
“You’re nothing but a little liar. And a junkie … and a whore. God, how are you even my daughter?”
“Mom … please!”
“And then you leave without so much as a goddamn note. You tell all those lies and then you break my heart and you don’t have the respect to even leave a note. Would that have been so much? A note? You could have fucking texted me. But no. Nothing. That’s so like you, Holly. It’s exactly the sort of mean thing you’d do.”
Holly was sobbing now, her tears clinging to the lines of her chin, then losing their purchase and falling onto the soiled sheets. Then suddenly she started to cough. Heavy, deep coughs that vibrated and burned in her throat. Spasms hit her so hard it made her ribs flare with pain, as if someone was punching her.
“Why now?” demanded her mother. “Why are you calling now? No, let me guess. You’re in jail and you need bail money, right? Or are you going to try and trick me into sending you some cash so you can buy—”
The coughing fit battered her, making the room swim. Lights seemed to pop and sizzle in her eyes and there was a buzzing noise in her ears, as if a thousand blowflies were swarming inside her skull. The lights seemed to flare and dim, flare and dim, and each time more of what she saw seemed to be painted in a thin wash of dark red. It was like looking through a red veil that shimmered and jerked.
“Mom,” she cried, when she could catch her breath. “I’m sick.”
“Yeah? Go to the free clinic. They’ll give you all the penicillin you want.”
“No, it’s not that. Please, I’m really sick.” The buzzing in her ears was worse now, blocking out her thoughts. “There’s something wrong with me.”
Her mother laughed. Actually laughed.
Holly wiped her face with the sheet and in the gloom didn’t notice the stain. Not for almost three full seconds. Then she saw it. The tearstains were wrong. So wrong.
They were red.
Such a bright, bright red. Not like the veil that covered her eyes, but the color of …
“Mom…?” whispered Holly. “Oh, God, Mom…”
“He said you can come home,” her mother said, harsh and icy. “But only on the condition that you apologize to him. You have to tell everyone that you were lying about what you said.”
“You need to fill out some papers at the school and with the police to take back everything you said. You understand that? You can’t just say stuff like that and hope it goes away. You hurt him with what you said.”
Blood was running from her nose now, too. She wiped at it with the sheet, terrified by how much there was. Then she felt warmth in her ears, and when she touched them her fingers came away glistening with crimson.
Her mother’s voice droned on and on, telling her of the damage she’d done, the wreckage she’d left behind, the betrayal, the lies, the humiliation.
Holly whispered one last word.
A question. A plea.
Then the pain began and all that came out of her mouth after that was the screams. The red veil seemed to catch fire, and black flowers blossomed in her mind. She bared her teeth, biting the phone, biting at her own hands.
And that’s when a sound came from deep inside her. It wasn’t the blowfly buzz, or even a scream.
When Holly threw back her head and let it loose, it all tore out of her as a howl of pure, unfiltered, unstoppable rage.
THE PIERDMS SPECIAL PROJECTS OFFICESAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIAAPRIL 25, 2:13 PM
I just got back from a dirty little piece of business in San Antonio and wasn’t looking for more trouble. I’d gone down there as a gunslinger-on-loan from the DMS to intercept a bunch of cartel mules that were bringing in something nasty through a series of underground tunnels. Not drugs this time. No, these cats had containers filled with live mosquitoes carrying a very nasty new strain of the Zika virus. We tried to make it a clean arrest, but a couple of the bad guys decided to play it stupid rather than smart. That’s something I’ve never understood. What’s the worst that could happen to them if they surrendered? A few years in prison? Deportation? Better than being dead, which hurts more and lasts a long time.
We yelled at them, told them to drop their weapons, told them that they had no chance. They drew on us. We put them down. It was all very loud and nasty.
And, oh yeah, the transport containers? Not bulletproof. So we had to use flame units to incinerate everything in the tunnels. Even the few bad guys who, by then, were trying to surrender—they all died. Some quickly, some very badly.
I carried the sound of those screams with me all the way home. I knew it would be stored in that special place in my mind where the worst things I’ve experienced are placed on display in well-lighted niches. Ready for me to look at when I think I’m too happy.
My secretary, Lydia Rose, was waiting for me when I got off the elevator. She is a lovely woman. Short, round, with masses of black hair and the brightest smile in California. She took one look at my face and her smile dimmed perceptibly.
“Was it bad, Joe?”
“It could have gone better,” I said.
Ghost was with me. He’d been shampooed, too, but he smelled like smoked dog.
Lydia Rose glanced up at me. “You probably don’t want to hear this, then, but Mr. Church wants you to call. He says it’s something important.”
“Of course it is,” I said. “The ass is probably about to fall off the world and everyone else but me is smart enough to screen their calls.”
“Should I set up the call?”
I sighed. “Sure.”
Ghost gave me a pitying look and trotted into my office. Lydia Rose asked, “Is Junie back yet?”
My live-in lover, Junie Flynn, was in some remote village in the Brazilian rain forest on a joint World Health Organization and FreeTech venture intended to improve water purity. Hepatitis A started going wild down there a year ago, and Junie’s researchers had come up with some spiffy new method of purifying river and rain water. The technology was part of the vast body of research and development conducted for decidedly non-humanitarian purposes by some of the groups we’ve torn down. Funny how something made to destroy can be spun around and used for the common good. That’s what FreeTech is. Junie runs it, along with Alexander Chismer—Toys—formerly a bad guy who’s now trying to save his soul by saving the world—and a dedicated staff of scientists and developers. The downside—or, perhaps the selfish side—of this is that she’s away. A lot. The Brazil trip was supposed to be two weeks long, but we were already into the second month.
“No, she’s damn well not,” I grumped, and slammed my office door.
A moment later I heard Lydia Rose yell, “Well, don’t take it out on the whole damn world!”
My phone rang. Outside the window I could see the beautiful sand and beautiful surf under the beautiful sun and knew with absolute certainty that I wasn’t going to be enjoying any of it. I answered with great reluctance.
“What’s your operational status?” asked Church. No “Hello,” no “Good job in San Antonio. Thanks for saving the world.” That’s Church.
“I’d like to get drunk and eat too many fish tacos.”
“Get them to go,” he said. “I need you on a plane to Prague.”
“Why do I want to go to Prague?”
Church said, “Do you remember the sewers of Paris? Remember what you went there to destroy?”
“Yes, and I’m pretty sure I actually did destroy it.”
“Life is full of ugly surprises, Captain. It’s surfaced again in Prague. Same technology, or perhaps the next generation of it.” He explained the situation to me. It started with a case that I seemed to be handling on the installment plan. It happens like that sometimes. You think you closed the file on something and it turns out there’s more to do. Either the case is bigger or you missed something or someone comes along and tries to resurrect it. There’s a saying that evil never dies; it merely waits and grows stronger in the dark. I used to think stuff like that was poetic claptrap. I’ve since come to realize the unfortunate wisdom in old adages.
Church told me that a team of agents working for Barrier, the British counterpart of the DMS, caught wind of something while they were in the Czech Republic working on another case. They couldn’t stop their own operation, so they handed it off to us.
“Jesus,” I said.
“Go to Prague,” he said.
“I don’t have a team on deck,” I said. “Top and Bunny are still out scouting for recruits. Triton and Boardwalk Teams are out on gigs. Unless you want me to take my secretary, I’ll have to do this alone.”
“Call a friend,” said Church, and hung up.
I set the phone down, got up, and looked out at the beautiful spring day. Call a friend. Church was famous for his “friends in the industry,” a catchall label to describe key people whose knowledge and qualities he trusted. I had my own friends, as he well knew. He hadn’t named a name, but he didn’t have to.
I took out my cell phone, punched in a number, leaned my forehead against the cool glass, and waited for her to answer.
“Hello, Joseph,” she said after the third ring.
Copyright © 2017 by Jonathan Maberry