Walking into Shadow - Chapter One
A slight breeze blew through the alley, picking up scraps of newspaper and swirling them around the dumpsters in lazy circles. John Wyddian stood on a metal fire escape and watched the papers move in and out of the dim shaft of blue light from the nearby street lights. Above, in the sky, he couldn't see a single star. This deep in Chicago, the sky was a vague dark yellow glow from the city lights, and the moon wasn't out that night. He had not moved for nearly an hour. He merely stood, watching and waiting. The black paint on the fire escape had chipped away in places, and John's hand was on one of the patches of rust. He enjoyed feeling the rough texture along with the smooth feel of the painted areas.
The fire escape looked as if it had been added to the shabby apartment building across the alley long after it had been built. Some of the metal spikes holding it in place had worked their way partly loose. The fire escape he was on was marginally better, but it also looked like a good hard pull would bring it crashing to the ground. The windows of the apartment building were curtained, most of them had no light shining behind them. It was late, John had no idea of how late, but he knew he still had a long time before the sun would rise and he would have to leave. He'd picked this fire escape soon after dark and knew the alley as well as he knew his own house by now.
It was a wide alley and it ended in a dead end at the back of a small strip mall. It was surrounded by an apartment building on one side and an old office building on the other. There were dark windows with venetian blinds on the office building that he was waiting on, with only minimal lights shining inside. There was a dumpster next to the back door of each building. They had been recently emptied, since the lids were all closed. Only they day after they were emptied would they not be stuffed to overflowing, like most of the ones that John was used to seeing in Chicago. He loved parts of this city, but this was not one of them.
He had only come to Hyde Park a few times in the past, and he was here because of a visit he had made eight years ago. Eight years ago, he had put a plan in place, and now it was time to bring it to conclusion. For most people, eight years was a long time to wait for a resolution, but for him, eight years was nothing. John Wyddian was not like most people. He didn't even think of himself as a human being at all. He was over one thousand years old, and what people called a vampire. He saw himself as a failed protector, who had to live a life that magnified his failure so many years ago. He tried not to think about it, since there was nothing he could do to change it, but in his long lifetime, he'd had a lot of time to think about his failures. His life had permitted him to perfect the act of brooding. He turned his thoughts away from dark nights and back to why he was here. He was here for a victim. It didn't matter who the victim was. It only mattered that he killed them here. In this place, at this time. It was a message he needed to send.
He knew how human saw him, and knew that if anyone were to see him waiting on this fire escape, they would not be able to look away. He was tall, over six feet, and had the figure of an old-fashioned body builder. His hair was currently long, almost shoulder length, and he was wearing a pair of black slacks, a black button down shirt and a long trench coat. The black clothing made it hard for him to be spotted, and he liked the feel of the trench coat being blown about in the wind. He even liked the feel of the wind blowing his hair around, which was why he kept it long, even when fashion demanded that it be short.
The alley was deserted, and it had been for as long as John had been waiting. If no one ever showed up, John would be back the next night. It had to be here.
His eyes were now much more powerful than they had been when he was a normal human being, and he used them to scan the alley for any sort of interesting thing to look at. He scanned the articles on the scraps of newspaper that blew around the alley, and it was the same gossip that was always in the paper since man had created the printing press. Some person committed some crime, someone was stealing money from some company and some politician had been caught in a bed he wasn't supposed to be in. John had quit paying attention to all of the little scandals that were called news, since the only thing that ever dictated change was money and power.
It always made him laugh when people would talk about how bad things were now and how good they used to be in the dimly distant past. The past wasn't that good, and he knew because he had been there to see it. For humans, at least, now was a very nice time to be alive. They didn't have to perform backbreaking labor in fields to get their weekly ration of food, they lived beyond the age of 30, relatively few women died in childbirth, there were no plagues, and death was treated as something to be mourned, not a common, everyday occurrence. They even had the ability to choose between despots, a new idea in humans that he had seen. When he was still human, all of these things would have been unbelievable concepts for him.
When he was still human.
When he closed his eyes he could still remember what it had been like, being a young man in the service of the greatest king who ever lived. He had been a knight of the table round under King Arthur Pendragon, whose rule had been so glorious that most people thought of it as myth instead of history. Myth had been attached to it through the years, mostly by the damnedable French who had to make Gwenivere out to be a common whore, but the core of the story was true. Arthur had been King of England, uniting it under one banner, and reigned over a glorious time that lasted for an age. As with all good things, it was far too short. All of his human memories of that time were filled with sunlight until the days when he could no longer bear the sunlight easily.
He opened his eyes and scanned the alley again. There were reflections of the light from the nearby street reflected in the small puddles of filthy water that had collected here and there. Maybe they were right, he thought, remembering the golden spires of Camelot, the past was better in some ways.
He waited, motionless, as he was able to remain for hours on end if need be. He didn't really register the time going by, because he was not here to feed. He didn't need to feed as often as he did when he first turned, but the need still came upon him at least once a week. When the hunger hit, it was as if every second without blood was endless, stretching into painful eternity. He would do anything to make the emptiness and pain go away, which is what first drove him to kill human beings.
When he first entered into his unholy bargain, the thought of killing other human beings for their blood was repulsive. The hunger had driven him to do it and the relief when he finally fed was so great he knew he would never be able to hold out against it.
He had tried to stop drinking blood at various times through the centuries for more reasons than he could remember. He'd never been able to hold out for more than a few weeks. He shuddered as he thought of himself, emaciated, shaking, his skin feeling like it was stuck to his bones as he tried to hold out against his curse. In the years since, he had taken a different view of things. He no longer saw people as individual beings with thoughts, equal to him. There were days, though, when the faces came back to him in his sleep, and he knew that someday he would be called before the Lord to answer. He just hoped the answer would be worthy.
He scanned the various windows on the apartment building across the street, and most of them were dark. Across from him, a man was wandering around in his apartment, putting things into cardboard boxes. A few floors below him a couple was arguing in their apartment. His heightened hearing was able to pick up their discussion, but it didn't interest him. He'd heard couples arguing throughout time and it just didn't interest him anymore. For the people involved it was great drama, but in five years it wouldn't matter. In 50 years the people involved wouldn't matter. In 500 years the building they lived in wouldn't matter, and 500 years after that the country they were in wouldn't matter.
He slumped against the wall and closed his eyes. He was tired, but didn't need sleep. He'd seen too much, lived too long, and was tired of watching the world slowly spin by. None of it mattered any more to him. All that kept him alive was the hunger and the pact he'd made back in the days of Arthur. The pact that had turned him into this blood drinking creature of the night kept him here when he craved the embrace of nothingness and what was beyond. Soon, he thought to himself, maybe this one will be able to set me free. Maybe this time things would be different.
His eyes snapped open as he heard one of the doors down by the alley open. He froze, as still as stone, unbreathing, unmoving, and watching where the sound had come from. He saw a man come out, wearing a T-shirt and sweat pants, carrying a plastic bag filled with garbage The man tossed it in the large dumpster in the alley next to his building and leaned against the wall. John watched as he pulled a cigarette from behind his ear, and lit it.
He watched the man smoke and waited. After two days of waiting, he could let the man have one last cigarette.
* * *
Paul Thomas had no idea why his wife, Jackie was so upset with him. He'd called her and told her that he was going to be home late. It had been a shitty day at work, and he needed to go out with some of his co-workers to blow off some steam. The night started with a stop at the local bar to have a couple of beers and became a full fledged night out. He'd even gotten home before midnight, so the fact that he was sitting at the kitchen table, being told how horrible he was just didn't register. He wished he'd had a few more beers, so that the stuff she was saying didn't hurt so much.
He'd been home for ten minutes before she'd started in, and he thought everything was fine. He'd gotten off the bus, trudged up the stairs and unlocked the door as quiet as he could, so as not to disturb her. All they had eaten at the bar was popcorn and mozzarella sticks, so he really wanted a sandwich. He'd quietly sneaked into the kitchen to throw one together. He turned the light on in the kitchen, and saw that the dishes were at least washed and waiting in the dish drainer to be put away.
The kitchen was small, with a formerly white oven, a yellow, beat-up refrigerator and a small, rust stained sink. It wasn't the Ritz, but it was pretty good for a guy who was working as a janitor for a cleaning service and only had a couple of years in. He opened the fridge, and heard his wife say, "I thought you said you were going to be home right after you had a quick beer. That was around 5, where were you the rest of the time?"
"It was a rough day," he said, grabbing something wrapped in tinfoil and hoping it was edible, "the guys kept saying the night was young, and there was a great game on the TV. I stayed. We had a leak in one of the pipes and spent most of the day hip deep in crap. I figured that if I was able to put up with that for eight hours, I deserve a night out."
"You were going to fill out the forms for the community college tonight. I had everything set up with one of the admission people for tonight. You knew that," she accused.
He stopped opening the tinfoil and started to get mad. He didn't know any such thing. This whole college idea was her. Just as he was about to say something, it hit him.
She was right.
He'd promised her.
He put the tinfoil bundle down and look at the floor, unable to meet Jackie's eyes. When he was able to look up, he saw that they were as cold as he'd ever seen them. He'd screwed up.
"I forgot," he said quietly, defeated before he could even start an argument.
"Dammit," she said, more out of frustration than anger, "Do you want to be mucking out toilets and running a vacuum cleaner your whole life? If you don't get some training, you're going to end up like Carl. Forty years old and telling other people where the spilled sodas are. Maybe you can live with that, but I can't."
"I know," he said, starting to apologize, but she cut him off.
"This has being going on for months. You keep bitching about your job, but when I try to help, you just keep blowing me off."
He knew what was coming next. When they had gotten married, he told her that his job was just for now, and he had big plans for his future. Now, three years later, he was in the same dead-end job, in the same crappy apartment, and no idea what he was going to do with his life yet. He slumped against the wall. He tried to listen to her as she talked about how serious it was, and how she was wasting her youth with him, but all that he could do was keep thinking about he wasn't ever going to make anything of his life. Maybe he forgot about the meeting because he didn't think he was smart enough to go to any kind of college. He barely made it through high school, and knew that college would just be harder.
She stopped talking, and he could tell by the look on her face that anything he would say just wouldn't be good enough. He'd blown it. He looked at her, wearing the faded T-shirt and sweat pants that she normally slept in, and thought about how happy he'd been when he'd finally worked up the nerve to ask her out. He'd said that everything in his life would be fine if he would just have her in his life. Now, four years later, his life still didn't work, and it seemed like she was getting ready to leave him. His stomach felt queasy and his knees felt weak. He needed a cigarette.
He also needed to get out of the apartment, before anything else bad happened.
* * *
John Wyddian shifted his stance, and got ready to leap. He knew that the fall would not harm him, nothing really seemed to harm him since he had become a vampire. He knew that a stake through his heart would damage him so much that he would not be able to recover, fire would also be too much, and prolonged exposure to sun would probably kill him.
The first time he'd figured out that he was nearly unkillable was when he was wandering the countryside after making his bargain. He had fought his bloodlust, hiding in a cave he had found. He had hidden for two days, sleeping during the daylight hours, and sitting in a dark part of the cave, fighting his impulses. The hours had crawled as his body cried out to drink blood, and his mind could just not wrap itself around the idea. It was like cannibalism to him then.
The memory actually caused him to smile sadly at his own innocence. He'd held out until the third night, when he ran from the cave, more animal that thinking being. Outside the cave were a band of travelers who had stopped to see if they could use the cave as shelter. John has been able to smell their blood, and it set his brain on fire. He could no longer think, no longer stop himself as he set upon the people. He couldn't remember anything about them, even though they were his first victims.
He couldn't remember any of his victims, any more than a regular person remembers about the animals they had killed and eaten. They were transient beings, while he had lived for over a thousand years. At that time, though, he thought of himself as human, and the act of drinking and killing drove him part the point of sanity.
He still remembered sitting amidst the carnage he'd created, covered in blood. The shame he felt was as sharp as it had been that night, and he remembered vividly knowing that he couldn't allow himself to live if he had to do this to survive.
Now, his way of looking at the situation was different. In the years since his bargain, he had lost his ability to feel remorse for those he had to kill. To do otherwise would have condemned him to centuries of self-inflicted torture that would not do anyone any good. He no longer cared about the deal he had struck the forces of darkness. He didn't care about the horror his death would release. He only knew he couldn't live with it any more. He ran through the darkness, faster than any animal he'd ever seen, and never getting tired. When he came to one of the cliffs by the ocean, he didn't even slow down as he jumped off into the air.
When he landed, he was unharmed. He lay on the sand by the ocean and wept tears of blood for his lost humanity. Finally, when he could no longer cry, he stood up and walked away, never again to feel sorry for his victims. If he would have had one, he would have placed a tombstone at the base of the cliff he'd jumped from. He had leapt as a human and landed as a vampire.
His mind returned to the present, and he watched the man finish the last drag of his cigarette. The man inhaled, held the smoke for a couple of seconds, savoring it. Then, he flicked the cigarette into one of the many puddles in the alley. It hit the water and sizzled as it went out. Even from the top of the fire escape, John could smell the man's breath, a mixture of smoke and bad dental hygiene. He watched as the man picked up the garbage bag and walked over to the open dumpster.
It was time to strike.
* * *
Paul had grabbed the garbage from the trash can and carried it out as he told his wife that he was going for a smoke. She told him that she didn't know if she'd be there when he got back. He shook his head and had quietly said, "I know."
As he trudged down the dirty, uncarpeted stairs, he felt as defeated as he'd ever been. It was all crashing down around him, and there was nothing he could do. He'd spent the last few years just running in place, and now the one thing that made his life bearable was slipping away. He trudged down the stairs, wondering what would happen if he just didn't come back.
He thought about it as he went down the four flights to the ground level. His car was just three blocks away at his parking garage, his ATM and credit cards were in his wallet. He had no idea how much money he had in his bank account, but it had to be enough to drive for a couple of days. He could just go, never looking back, never calling, and set up a brand new life somewhere else. Vegas was always a good place for people who didn't want to deal with their past, and he'd always heard that there were a lot of jobs in Colorado, if a guy didn't mind working hard. He smiled when he realized that these were just the first two options, and he could have a vast new world ahead of him.
Anything had to be better than this. When he got to the bottom floor, he pulled a cigarette out of his front shirt pocket and put it in his mouth. It would be so nice to light it up when he got outside, and just enjoy a good smoke. He pushed his way out the back door and stepped into the alley. He set the garbage bag down and pulled out his lighter.
The glow of the lighter's flame lit the small alcove he waited in, and he thought he could see something in the alley that just didn't look right. He saw a large, dark lump across the alley, crumpled against the back door of the Frusen Glasen. He took a quick drag from his cigarette and picked up the garbage bag. He tossed it in the open dumpster as he walked by and stared at the form as he moved. It didn't move, which was really odd. Normally, when a homeless person would sleep in the alley, he could see that they were breathing. The slow, steady movement would make him glad that no matter how bad his life got, he could always sleep inside, out of the rain, where people wouldn't see him.
When he got closer, he was sure that it was a person, but they weren't dressed like to normal homeless person. Homeless people normally had layer after layer of clothing, even when it was hot out. This person, on the other hand, was just dressed in night clothes. Some kind of lounge pants and a black T-shirt. When he got closer, he also noticed that the person was laying on the ground at a weird angle.
He stopped when he saw blood.
The person's neck was ripped to shreds, with blood all over his clothing and in a pool on the ground around him. Sadly, the first thing that popped into Paul's head was that he was going to have to go back up to his apartment to call the police, and his dreams of driving away into the night were gone.
* * *
John Wyddian knew that having his home on the top floor of a skyscraper was a cliché, but when he looked out the window and saw the lights of Chicago from downtown to the far suburbs, he just didn't care. Besides, he felt stereotypes had to have some sort of basis in reality, and he didn't mind being the template for this one. The floor was divided into a number of different sections. He had partitioned off one corner as his living area, with his favorite pieces of furniture he'd acquired over the centuries. There was second area that he used for his business purposes, a small handful of companies that generated money with minimal supervision. Finally, there was an area where he conducted the business of The Family.
He was in a large room in the final section, which almost looked like a darkened boardroom, flipping through screens on the most advanced laptop computer available when the phone next to him rang. He touched a button on the phone and said in a deep, slightly annoyed voice, "Yes."
A female voice came over state of the art speakers attached to the phone system, "I need an explanation."
"For what?" John said, looking at a map of Chicago with a faint overlay of green lines that didn't seem to have anything to do with the streets. They all seemed to either go through parks, or next to water sources. He was tracing one of the lines that went from Hyde Park out of the city to the northwest.
"Don't play games with me, Wyddian," the voice said, so clear that the woman on the other end of the line might just as well have been in the room talking to him, "you took a victim in...that place. You know what that will do."
"Yes, I do. What I do not understand is why that is a concern of yours."
"Because it shows that you are going to play with that mystic cowboy again. He'll know what you've done, and he will feel that he has to look into it. If he looks into it, you could get him involved in family business again. That would be bad for all of us."
She didn't state it, but John knew what she was referring to. A few years previously (John couldn't remember how many) one of the younger members of the family had decided that he wanted to move up in the ranks of power. Evan didn't want to put in the time to climb the ranks by merit.
He didn't want to do it the way others had, by proving themselves or aiding the family, he was going to do it by two means. The first was to pollute the "ley lines," which were channels of power that even John didn't quite grasp fully. Most of the texts he'd studied said that they were rivers of energy that flowed around the planet, but John suspected that there was a simpler, more fundamental explanation. People who were sensitive to psychic phenomena tended to live near them, and where they intersected was usually a place where either animals or people lived in abundance. The second was to try and attack Janus Trelane, who John had declared off limits after their Chicago encounter. It was an act of defiance that could not be tolerated.
Evan was going to pollute the line with himself as the focus, possibly boosting his natural power. His plan was to use this power to force John from power. He felt that if he did this, as well as show that he could destroy the one man members of The Family felt that John was afraid of, he could consolidate power and assume control of The Family. Both of those events would have ruined John's long-term plans, so he was able to alert Janus to Evan's operations in Janus's home city of St. Paul, Minnesota. Janus was able to defeat Evan, but he also saw through John's manipulations.
That had surprised John, and made the respect he had for Trelane grow. He had already figured that when Trelane's innate abilities were brought out, he might be able to aid John in his long-term goals, but this made him think that Trelane might be the one to complete them.
Janus had gotten a second boon from him, by proving that John had manipulated him into doing a favor for him. The first had been when he had awakened Janus's abilities. While Janus thought that he had done something important by getting an agreement from him, John knew better. It was all part of his long-term goal, and it served him better to have Janus think that he'd had a hard won victory.
In the time since he'd triggered Janus's mystic abilities, he'd watched as Janus went from a young man who couldn't control what he was capable of, to one of the most self-assured mystics in a long time John wished to think about. Janus still didn't know the extent of his abilities, and that would be working in John's favor.
His mind returned to the conversation, which he now felt was a minor annoyance, and said, "I am the head of The Family, aren't I?"
"Yes," came the strained reply.
"And I am the first of the cursed, aren't I?"
"Yes," again, but with more strain. John could almost see her jaw clench. She would always run her fingers through her red hair when she was upset, getting the few loose stands out of her face when she did it. He smiled at causing her frustration despite himself.
"I have kept the family secret and growing for longer than any nation has been in existence. I have kept my own council as the head of the family before your ancestors knew that the world was round, and you are presuming to treat me as an inferior who needs to be reminded of his place?" he paused, relishing the silence.
"I created you and brought you into this life. It would be nothing for me to remove you from it. All that you have is due to me, and all that I ask is that you follow my edicts without question. I understand your apprehension, and if you feel you need to talk to others of your station about how the old man doesn't know what he's doing, feel free. However, when dealing with me, you will do so in the only manner which I allow. Complete and total obedience with no questions. Am I clear on this?"
There was silence on the line, and John imagined that she was silently cursing both his imperial manner and her own act of disrespect. When she spoke, her voice was lower, almost feral, "I meant no disrespect, or to question you. I merely wondered if you had thought of the consequences of this action. Here in England, we have had two of our number discovered and killed."
"I know of them. Believe me when I tell you that I know of every loss. I am not putting The Family at risk, if that is what you think. This is my affair, and that is all I will say about it."
"I understand," he heard her say, and he knew that his quick dismissal galled her. He, however, didn't want to waste any more of his time discussing his agenda with her. He directed her to fill him in on the two who had been discovered and what actions she was taking to prevent it from happening again.
He listened, paying the bare minimum of attention to her report. He was following the ley line on the map he had on his computer. He tracked it to Minneapolis and leaned back in his chair. She talked about mundane aspects of The Family's business interests, low risk businesses like paper manufacturing and printing presses. After she discusses the financial aspect, she gave a rundown of the factions that were developing among the members of The Family who lived in England. There were some who felt that they should capitalize on the current popularity of vampires by investing in entertainment companies, but they were quickly squelched. While their kind was popular in media, it was only in fiction that they were thought well of. John did not need to tell the stories again of the few times those of The Family let people know that their were wolves among the sheep. Their low profile is what gave them their freedom and power, and he would never again reconsider changing that.
He turned his attention back to the phone when he heard her clipped voice say, "We have two candidates for turning to replace the two we lost. I am asking for formal permission to bring them over into The Family."
John mulled it over for a split second, which was longer than he normally did. He prided himself on having an answer before the question was completely asked. "Permission denied," he said.
He didn't want to suffer through another bout of her questioning his decisions while denying that she was questioning him, so he said, "If that is all of your business, I have other reports to receive."
The strain in her voice wasn't even masked when she said, "I have no other business."
"Good," he said, and touched the button on the phone, cutting her off. He had ten other reports to get through, and he had no interest in listening to any of them. As he waited for the next call, he walked to the window and looked out on the lights as they stretched as far as his enhanced eyes could see. He smiled and said softly, "There are some things that are better now."
* * *
Harry Winters stared at the ceiling and listened to his ex-wife sleeping beside him. When he'd woken up this morning, he thought that it would be a typical Friday. He dressed for the day in his typical attire, a pair of almost clean blue jeans, a faded shirt he got free at a movie preview and a light flannel shirt he wore like a jacket. Since it was Friday, and there was a chance that he might go out after work, he shaved, making it three times he'd done so since Sunday morning. He planned out his day while smearing some crème cheese on a bagel on his way out the door. He planned to show up at work late, read the latest e-mail on his favorite bands and TV shows, take a long lunch and spend the rest of the afternoon trying to get an extension on his deadline. The first two things on his list were accomplished with minimal fuss, but as he was getting ready to go to lunch, one of the copy boys dropped by his desk and told him he had a visitor.
"So," Harry had said, sitting back down in his chair and bringing up the screen saver on his computer so that his co-workers couldn't see what he was not working on, "have them come by my desk."
The copy boy couldn't have been more that 19 years old, and had close cropped blonde hair and a fresh, empty expression on his face that told Harry he'd never ever had a real problem in his life. He spoke in a halting manner, probably because they always told the copy boys and temps that Harry was insane. He didn't much care what they told anyone, as long as they left him alone. "I was told to tell you that she's waiting in the big conference room."
The only time they ever had him meet anyone in a conference room was when it was his ex-wife, Annie. Harry worked as a writer for the Midnight Star, a weekly tabloid that specialized in UFO sightings, diets that would let you lose 50 pounds in a month and stories about Janus Trelane's mystic adventures. An observer wouldn't be able to tell it from the office building they were housed in. It was a large building in the heart of downtown Atlanta, and the offices of the paper were on the 15th Floor. It looked like any sort of cubicle farm, with a receptionist, a bank of offices the took up all of the available window space, and inner group of rooms that were used as meeting rooms, and short gray walled cubicles all around.
Harry's cubicle was like most of the others, with a couple of squat, gray file cabinets against a wall, a monstrous computer on his desk, and various papers and files scattered on the desk so that he couldn't actually see any part of the desk itself. He grabbed his Day Planner, since he knew he would need to think of some excuse to get out of the room. As he walked, he set his watch alarm to go off in ten minutes. He also saw that word must have traveled at the speed of e-mail, since people were popping their heads up from their computers to watch him take the long walk.
The meeting room itself was nondescript, with a couple of boring abstract paintings on the wall he hadn't paid attention to since the first time he was in the room. He had been trying to stay awake in a staff meeting where two editors were arguing over who got the front page that week. He had studied the paintings for the entire meeting, trying to figure out it the person who painted each one knew that their work and inspiration was going to be hung in an office building and ignored until they were replaced with a new color scheme. Harry always remembered that meeting in particular because it was how he knew that he would do everything in his power to avoid all meetings, even if it meant calling in sick.
The room had a pair of tables buttressed together with a ring of uncomfortable chairs encircled around it. Annie was sitting in the head chair, and had a smart leather folder in front of her.
If he didn't hate her so much, he would be able to admit that she was still attractive. She looked young, but she always had. She was petite, and dressed in a smart business-like blazer with a long skirt. Her blonde hair was short and straight, with bangs long enough to be tucked behind her ears. She had an angry look on her face that he knew very well.
"You've got to do something with your life," or "If you don't stop drinking, I'm leaving," or "I'm not putting up with this any more," were the phrases that normally came out of her mouth when she had this face on.
"I'm going to put up with your crap any more," she said, and Harry patted himself on the back for being so close. She reached into her folder and pulled out a paperback book. She threw it in front of him and continued, "Why did you think you could get away with this?"
"With what?" Harry said innocently. He looked at the book and it was his quickie paperback that had come out in late July through the newspaper mail order business. It was mostly a collection of the stories about Janus Trelane that he'd written for the Midnight Star, rewritten for a paperback book audience instead of the tabloid audience. It had done reasonably well, but he didn't make much money, since it was owned by the tabloid. He and Janus had only gotten twenty five cents per copy sold to split, which he thought was a raw deal for a $7.99 paperback.
"Don't hand me that crap. Part of the divorce agreement was that I get a cut of any project you write that has to do with the time we were married. You met this Trelane guy when we were married, therefor, I get half of the profits from your book."
Harry cursed his lawyer under his breath, and Annie above his breath, "You've got to be fucking kidding me." He paused, waiting to see if she would crack. She didn't. He should have known better. She'd tracked him down more times than he was able to remember, and never let go when his money was involved.
When he was sure she wasn't going to say anything, he broke the uncomfortable silence, "I met him in Chicago, but if you notice, there's nothing about that in there. When I lost my job at the Tribune, you left, remember? All of these stories are from AFTER that time. You weren't there, ergo, you get two things from this book: Jack and Shit. By the way, Jack left town."
"I had hoped that you would take care of this before we had to go to court, but I should have known better."
"I had hoped you would let me get on with my life after 8 years of torture. You realize that you've now made my life a living hell four times as long as we were married? Not counting the living hell of being married to you, of course."
"Married to me?!?" she said, standing up, "You got off light. I was married to the biggest slacker loser on the planet. You toss away a good job to work at this tabloid and chase ghosts and you expected me to put with it?"
"What?" Harry said, confused, "you're still upset about a career choice I made eight years ago? Why are you even wasting mental energy on that? I haven't thought about it for ages. I lost my job, I found a new one. Sure, I'm not working for TIME like I thought I would be by this age, but you settle after a while. I settled for comfort, and you won't even let me have that. What did I do to make you this angry? You are still mad that I chose survival over your dream for my brilliant career!"
"You're damn right I am. I didn't want to move to Atlanta. I didn't want to see you work for a paper where fact checking is making sure that you got the computer to put the Jesus in tortilla at the right angle."
"Ok, first we use real pictures in MY articles, and second, why won't you answer my question about what I did to make you spend the last eight years hounding me?"
There was a knock at the door, and they both yelled in unison, "What the hell do you want?"
A voice from the other side of the door said, "You two need to either pipe down or speak up. We can hear you, but we can't make out what you're saying."
Harry slumped back in the chair he'd claimed as his own and said, "I give up. If you're going to beat me up over something I did eight years ago, and attempt to keep me from making enough money to afford new T-shirts, there's nothing I can do. Take me to court. Hell, take me to the cleaners, just leave me alone. I don't understand why you just can't decide that we have gone our separate ways, and let me waste my life here in the lap of extravagance."
"Do you really mean that?" she said, sitting back down in her chair.
"Yes," Harry said, "every time you show up, you pound my lifestyle and attach more of my wages. It's a little dance we do. I try to stop you, you get a lawyer, and my pro-bono lawyer tells me to settle and hope that next time you'll try to get on with your life. You just never do. You keep at it."
"No," she said, most of the anger out of her voice, "you really want to know why I was so mad about you moving here."
Harry felt like he'd stepped through a mirror into the Twilight Zone. She asked a question that wasn't about how much money he was hiding from him, and he didn't know how to react. He went over his end of the conversation, which was mostly frustration and anger vented at her, and tried to see what he'd said different this time, and couldn't think of anything. Admittedly, he wasn't paying much attention when he had spouted off. He figured he should follow her lead, and pray that he said something else that would keep her from getting her hands on his $6,300 that the novel had added to his paycheck so far. "Yeah, I really want to know," he said, puzzled but ready to leap on anything that looked like a way out of the argument.
"I'm not going to talk about it here," she said, "let's hit that bar on the ground floor."
Harry, still trying to figure out how he got to the Bizarro World where everything was the opposite of his logical reality, agreed.
They spent a good six hours at the bar, and Harry made sure that he didn't drink anything that would get him drunk enough to tell the truth. Still, time spent in a bar was always better than time spent at work, so it wasn't a complete waste of a work day.
At first they were very tentative, just talking superficially, but amicably. By the end of the first hour, Annie had had a couple of drinks and was talking about how she had wanted to hurt him for giving up on his career. She thought that if she pounded him hard enough, he would get mad and try to get back into legitimate journalism.
Harry didn't know how much of it he bought, but he knew that he believed her when she had said she was mad at him. The rest he thought might just be the booze talking, or a line of bullshit that even she bought. He told her about the few times he'd tried to get back into straight journalism and how each met with crashing failure. One time in Janus's home town about two years after Chicago, he'd tried to land a story at the Chicago Tribune and was told in no uncertain terms that they would shut down before they would allow him back in their pages. Since then he'd pitched a few articles, made a couple of sales to small press magazines under pen names, and fallen back on a steady salary at the Midnight Star.
He'd written a lot of crap that he made up at four in the morning to be sure, but the stories about his trips around the country with Janus were all true. That's why he was so happy about the book. It was the first time in years he'd been able to write without having to gear the story to people waiting in line to buy a box of tissues and frozen pizza. Sales through the paper's mail order department had been strong, and now the paperback was actually in bookstores. He didn't know how it was doing there, since it had only been a couple of weeks but he kept being told that sales were stronger than anticipated.
By the end of the fifth hour, Annie had gotten weepy, talking about how she'd wasted her life trying to get even with him. The highlight of the last hour Harry and her were in the bar was when she gave a long monologue about her failures in the romance department, and how she kept picking men who would either self-destruct or have no goals at all. Harry feigned interest, but by the time she was done, he had completely sobered up and just wanted to go home.
When he tried to leave, she asked him for a hug. The hug turned into a kiss, which turned into a ride to his apartment when she couldn't remember what hotel she was at.
Harry could feel a major headache start up as he looked over and saw her sleeping next to him. He hated that he hadn't been able to tell her to sleep on the couch. He hated that he hadn't been able to sleep on the couch. He hated that it had been so natural and easy. The thing he hated most of all was that in the morning, he would have to deal with the fallout of about thirty minutes of comfort and pleasure.
If he would have been sitting at his desk, he would have started beating his head on the desktop, but since he wasn't, he just closed his eyes and muttered the word, "stupid" over and over as if it were his mantra.
Just as he was thinking of going into the kitchen, having a quick beer and a quicker shot of something harder, the phone rang. He stumbled out of bed, and ran into he hallway, where he'd left the cordless phone. He picked it up, frantically looking for the button to answer the call before it rang again and disturbed Annie's sleep. The longer she slept, the longer he could go without dealing with the mess he was in. The thought that if he had had any brains at all he would have gone to her hotel so he could sneak out flashed through his head as he answered it, trying to keep his voice down. "Hello," he hissed.
"Harry, it's Gar at the paper," came to male voice on the other end of the phone. Gar was a reporter who'd been there as long as anyone could remember, and actually remembered when the paper did a lot of actual reporting. Of course, it was car crashes and gangland slaying reporting but there were facts in that sort of thing. He still seemed to have a pipeline into information that amazed Harry. Harry thought it was funny that Gar was whispering too, as if he was in the room with him. Gar continued, asking, "Is this a bad time?"
"My ex-wife is passed out drunk in the next room, what do you think?"
"I think it's nothing compared to this," Gar said. Then he told Harry about the death in Chicago, and all the fears Harry had about his ex-wife were gone, melted away in the face of real terror.