Friday, January 25, 2013

Tooth and Claw: Words and Shadows, part two

Prologue, Words and Shadows, part one

                She spots Vernon after disembarking and turns in his direction without breaking her brisk stride.  Vernon spots her easily:  despite her black suit, she walks with the casual assurance of an experienced martial artist.
                “Vernon Christopher,” he says as she approaches, extending his hand.
                “Jones Kelly,” she replies, taking his hand and shaking it.
                “Any baggage to claim,” he asks.
                “No,” she says, adjusting the carry-on hanging from her shoulder.

                The Hunters leave the airport in Vernon’s car, a dark gray Lincoln.  Vernon takes an instant disliking to his new partner – something he can’t quite place about her eyes.  He studies her in small glimpses while looking this way and that as he navigates through the traffic.  Then he spots it:  as Jones tucks a lock of her shoulder-length black hair behind her ear, he sees a thin silvery scar encircling her left wrist.  As she folds her hands back in her lap, the scar is hidden by the cuff of her sleeve.  But now that he knows what to look for, it is unmistakable:  her hands don’t quite match.  Her left hand is the tiniest shade paler, the fingers a little more bony.  It’s a very good match, but not perfect.
                Vernon had heard of this before, but today was the first time he had seen it with his own eyes.  Hunters were garden variety homo sapiens, driven by vengeance or principle to war against the supernatural forces that threatened human civilization.  But the Hunters had one crippling disadvantage, which was that they had not gained dark powers by sacrificing their humanity.  Some seriously misguided Hunters (by Vernon’s judgment) had taken it upon themselves to even the odds by sacrificing their humanity in bits and pieces, to gain small amounts of the very tainting power they fought against.  Vernon found this to be the very height of hypocrisy and self-delusion – one does not extinguish the enemy by becoming the enemy.  Act like the enemy, when necessary; think like the enemy, when planning; infiltrate the enemy, when possible; but to become the enemy was to lose sight of why you were fighting in the first place.  It was worse, in a way, than simply joining the enemy outright.  At least the bloodsuckers and the dogs and the rest of them had the honest conviction to go all-out.  These monstrous abominations, no matter their technical proficiency, try to straddle the fence and just end up getting crushed in the middle.
               But that was long-term thinking, for the end of the war when Jones Kelly and her ilk would be cast down into damnation with the rest of the impure souls.  Today, Vernon had a job to do, and he would ally with this enemy of his enemy so long as it was useful to him and did not compromise his own soul.  And God willing, the day would soon come when he could make good on this temporary compromise by dealing with the Jones Kellys of the world in his own way, God’s way:  with righteous smiting.
                Vernon hides his thoughts as he and Jones review their plan of action.  He does not let his disgust creep into his voice, and he swallows the sour saliva that presages vomit without grimacing.  He has a job to do.

                “Stephen Baxter?”
                 A knot forms in Stephen’s stomach.  Did I smell like pot yesterday?  Did they nail my dealer?  Did I screw some pooch at work?  A zillion possibilities race through his head in a fraction of a second, all trying to explain the suits on his front porch in the middle of Saturday afternoon.
                Stephen Baxter nods with a calculated (and hopefully natural, please let it look natural) look of innocent confusion on his face, and says, “Yes?”
                “I’m Special Agent Greene,” the man says.  “This is Special Agent Browne.”  The woman nods.  “We’re with the Department of Homeland Security.”  Each of the agents produces a blue-on-white ID, which Stephen takes care to examine with only cursory scrutiny.
                OK, they’re not DEA.  But why the fuck am I on a list with the DHS?  Stephen asks, “What can I do for you,” trying not to sound too relieved.
                “We’d like to ask you some questions,” Agent Browne says.
                “I gathered that,” Stephen replies with a boyish smile.  “I was hoping for more specifics.”
                She asks, “Can we come in?”
                Stephen looks out at the sky, and says, “It’s a nice day.  We can chat on my porch.”  He steps outside and closes the door behind himself, leading the agents over to the plastic table and chairs opposite his porch swing.
                The agents glance at each other, then Agent Greene says, “It’s a bit hot out today,” adjusting his tie.
                “Yeah,” Stephen agrees.  “I hear Arizona gets like that in the summer.  But don’t worry.  It’s a dry heat.”
                Agent Greene frowns, his brow wrinkling beneath his close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, but Agent Browne returns Stephen’s wry grin.  “This isn’t exactly a matter for public knowledge,” Greene says slowly.
                “And I’ve got two DHS agents on my front porch on a Saturday.  I think I’ll stay in public sight when I’m with you two.”  He returns Agent Greene’s steely glare.  “No offense.”
                “None taken,” Browne says after a moment.  “And I don’t see anyone in earshot.  So we’ll enjoy the weather.”  She nods to Greene and takes a seat opposite Stephen.  Greene sits between the two of them.
                “Glad to hear it,” Stephen says.  “I can duck inside real quick to get you something to drink,” he offers.  And to clear the bong off my living room table, he thinks.  “That is, if I’m not under arrest.”
                “Some water would be nice,” the empty-handed Agent Browne says, hands folded in her lap.  “Thank you.”
                “Ice?”
                “No, thanks.”
                “And you, Agent Greene?”
                “Nothing, thanks,” he responds as he opens his briefcase on the table.
                Stephen returns one water-pouring, bong-hiding minute later and joins the agents at his table.  He sets a tall glass of water down in front of Agent Browne, and she thanks him.  He sits down opposite her once again, and asks, “To business, then?”
                Agent Greene puts a small pile of photos – color, not the clichéd black and white – on the table in front of Stephen, and says, “We’d like to ask you about this man.  William Williamson.”
                “Willy?”  Stephen looks through the photos:  Willy crossing a street.  Willy jogging out in the desert.  Willy walking down a sidewalk.  Willy drinking at P T’s.  Willy drinking at P T’s with Stephen.  “Well, I see you guys have done your homework.  What’s he done?”
                “We’re not sure,” Agent Browne says.  “Mostly being places he’s not supposed to be.  We were hoping you could give us some more details.”
                Stephen finishes reviewing the photos and organizes them on the table before speaking.  “I wish I could help you.  I mean, I drank with the guy at P T’s on Friday nights, I’m a regular there, and he started showing up back in… oh, I wanna say April or May.  But I haven’t seen the guy in like a month.”
                “Did he say anything strange when you last saw him,” Agent Greene asks.
                “He said he found the Lord.”
                Agent Greene nods.  “Could you be more specific?”
                “Well, I went into P T’s, I saw Willy at the bar with just a glass of water.  I asked him how it was going, he said he found the Lord.  We shot the shit a little, but there wasn’t much to talk about after that.  I mean, I’m not exactly what you’d call a ‘believer.’  He said he quit drinking and probably wouldn’t be seeing very much of me.  That’s kind of all there is.”
                “I see,” Agent Greene says, nodding again.  “And do you have any idea what might have provoked his sudden conversion?”
                “I didn’t ask.  To be honest, I wasn’t really interested.  Religion’s kind of a conversation-stopper for me, but I wasn’t gonna try to talk him out of it or anything.”
                Agent Browne shifts in her chair, leaning forward to take a sip of water.  “How did you meet Mr. Williamson,” she asks.
                “Well,” Stephen begins, leaning back and tapping his chin, “It was at the Homolovi Ruins.  I’m a ranger there.  I was giving a tour, and this guy showed up.  He asked a lot of questions about the Hopi, he was really interested in them.  A couple weeks later, he showed up at P T’s, and then he briefly became a regular there himself.  Turns out he works at some gym in town.  We weren’t ever really more than drinking buddies, though.”
                Agent Greene takes the photos back, and replaces them with another set.  “Did you ever see him with this woman?  Uma Stoneburner.”
                Stephen looks through the pictures:  the woman is tall, leanly muscled like Willy (who had reminded Stephen of a bearded Aryan Bruce Lee), with ambiguously brown skin and a mess of short, straight brown hair on her head.  Every photo of her is outside.  “No,” Stephen says, shaking his head.  “She doesn’t look familiar at all.”  The second-to-last photo is of Willy and this Uma lady standing together in the shadow of a building at night; the last is of the two of them, speaking with a tall and fearsomely built black man with dreadlocks and a wild beard.  “Who’s this guy?”
                “Samuel Carter,” Greene says.  “He owns the gym where Willy works.  You’ve never seen him with either of these folks?”
                “Nope,” Stephen says, organizing the second set of photos before handing them back to Agent Greene.  “Willy never talked much about his work.  Really, I just asked him where he worked, and he said, ‘A gym.’  I asked him how it was, he said he’d been more bored for less money before.  We mostly just talked about the environment, conservation, humanity’s place in the natural order, that sort of thing.  He struck me as kind of an urban hippie – I mean, he was down with the whole ‘civilization’ thing, but really in-touch his wild side.  That kind of a guy.”
                The agents exchange what Stephen takes for a knowing look.
                “I’m sorry,” Stephen says after a moment, “But what is this all about?”
                Agent Browne asks, “Have you seen the news of the murders that began ten days ago?”
                “You think Willy’s connected to that?”
                “We’re not sure,” Agent Browne clarifies.  “We’re just following up on a possible lead.”
                “But – three sets of murders in two nights – and you guys are freakin’ DHS – you think this is some kind of domestic terrorist plot or some shit?”
                Agent Browne takes another sip of water and looks around before speaking again.  A few cars have passed by, but nobody else is outside at the moment.  “Again, we’re not sure.  But the whole story hasn’t made it through the media.  In fact, the murders have continued – and escalated.  More every night.  There’s been a press blackout, and it’s become a federal matter.  What I’m telling you is classified, you understand:  strictly need-to-know.  But as someone with a connection to a possible suspect, you’re being given some details that aren’t available to the public, in the hopes that it could help with the case.”  Stephen concentrates on not letting his jaw drop open as he listens.  Agent Browne continues, speaking more slowly now:  “We have reason to believe that this may be part of something larger.  It might be some new form of domestic terrorism, it might be some kind of religious cult.  The fact that Mr. Williamson said he ‘found the Lord’ before distancing himself from a friend and suddenly altering his habits could point to the latter, so any details you can think of would help us to pursue this line of investigation.”
                Despite his efforts, Stephen’s mouth now hung slack.  To think that his friend could have joined a cult and become some kind of killer – it was too much.  “What’s linking Willy to this?  I mean, suddenly coming down with religion is weird, at least it seems so to me, but it happens.  How is Willy possibly connected here?”
                Agent Greene says, “After the press blackout, the crime scenes were placed under 24-hour surveillance.  Mr. Williamson and his two friends, as well as two other adult males, have all been spotted near three of those crime scenes.  We don’t know of any business they’d have there, and there might be a legitimate explanation to exonerate them – but still, you have to admit that it’s awful suspicious for a man to be seen around the scenes of several crimes that haven’t been reported in the media.”
                “Yeah.  No, yeah,” Stephen stammers.  “That’s – that’s really fuckin’ weird.  Pardon my French.  But – and, really, I would help you guys out if I could – I just don’t know the guy that well.  And again, I haven’t seen him in like a month.  I wish I could help.  I just – I can’t think of anything that would help one way or the other.  I’m sorry.”
                “It’s all right,” says Agent Browne.  “You’ve been cooperative, and we greatly appreciate that.”
                Agent Greene takes out a business card before closing his briefcase and hands it to Stephen.  “You’ve been helpful in narrowing down the search.  If Mr. Williamson has in fact joined some kind of cult, that might just be the lead we need to close this case.”
                Stephen looks at the card.  It reads, “U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  Dale Greene, Special Agent,” and lists an office address and various phone numbers.  “Do you really think this could be some kind of crazy cult murder thing?  Like with that Jim Jones guy, or those Hale-Bopp suicides?  I mean, what kind of cult would make you kill your own family?”
                “Hard to say,” Agent Browne says as the three of them stand to their feet.  “Religion can bring people together, but it can also be very divisive.  Even Jesus said, ‘If any man comes to me, and does not hate his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.’  Luke fourteen.”
                “Jesus,” Stephen says.
                “If you think of anything later that might be of help, give us a call,” Agent Greene says, suddenly terse.  “But if Mr. Williamson tries to contact you, consider him very dangerous, and get in touch with us immediately.”
                “Yeah,” Stephen says, still dazed from the recent revelations.  “Yeah, I’ll do that.”  He looks at the card again before pocketing it, shakes hands with the agents, and bids them a good day.  He watches from his porch as they climb into a dark gray Lincoln and pull of down the street.  Stephen stares after them for several minutes, letting his thoughts swirl and percolate and finally settle.
                At last, he shakes off the jibblies with a shudder and a groan.  He breathes deep, turns around, and heads back into his house.  It is, after all, his day off – and accordingly, he has some very important pot to smoke, and some very important faces to own.

                “I didn’t appreciate that crack about the Lord,” Vernon says as he starts his car.
                “What?”  Jones looks at him incredulously for a moment.  “It wasn’t a crack,” she explains, looking to the road ahead.  “I was just pointing out that even well-respected religious figures can say things that take on an ominous cast, in the right light.”
                “Don’t bullshit me, Jones,” he says, raising his voice.  “You quoted him out of context to make a shit point.  Even the Devil can quote scripture to suit his purposes.”
                “So you’re calling me the Devil, now?”
                “Well, you go around tossing out Bible verses at inappropriate times, a guy could get the wrong idea.”
                “Fuck’s sake, Vernon, I was a religious studies major in college.  I could’ve quoted the Bhagavad Gita, if I thought he knew it.  You’re taking this way too personally.”
                “All right,” Vernon says, flexing his fingers on the steering wheel, “Maybe I am.  I guess,” he takes a deep breath to calm himself, “I think you might see more clearly if you spent less time studying false religions, and more time on the word of God.”
                “If you say so,” Jones says with a shrug, turning to look out the window.
                “You also might not be so detached if your body was whole.  It’s a temple, you know, and it ought to be a suitable dwelling for the Lord.  How do you expect him to work through you, if you go about defiling it?”
                Jones is agape.  “Is that what this is about?  Is that what you think this is about?  Vernon, I don’t do this work for God, or any other higher power:  I do it to keep the people of my country safe.  I do it so law-abiding citizens like Stephen can sleep easy at night.  And if that means making a few sacrifices to get the upper hand against the sort of criminals we face, then I make them gladly.  And if you think a few surgeries make me less than human, then I know some disabled vets and Paralympic athletes you should talk to.”
                Vernon bites his tongue and calms his nerves.  She’s clearly too far gone; her face is turned away from the light.  She has chosen the wisdom of the world over the wisdom of God, wrapped her heart in a cloak of hollow words and empty shadows.  When her time comes, the light of God will strip away her sophistry and hypocrisy, and she will burn like the rest.  In the meantime, he must ally himself with the enemy of his enemy, and trust that God will work through him as he sees fit.  So for now, he lets her think she has won.  Any further discussion on the matter will only serve to put more strain on their working relationship.
                And Vernon has a job to do.

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