Blessed are the stingy, for they know how to preserve time and money as well as energy—all precious resources in these damnable times.
Darryl Ridley still remembered the first time he’d heard the bad joke: on late-night television, nine years ago. It was harder to figure when the dumb joke morphed into an actual creed. Hell, for all he knew, it had been around for millennia. Maybe it was humankind’s first Big Belief.
Big or small, the woman in front of him had somehow managed to live by it for the greater part of her thirty-four years. It was just one of many terrible beliefs she held. Darryl was sure he could change her mind about all of them, here and now.
It was just the two of them, standing in the middle of the three-bedroom house she used to share with roommates. Just Darryl and the woman he affectionately called “T,” the first initial of her first name. The reason she’d called in to work sick and invited him over on a Friday afternoon was clear, but he’d accepted the invitation for a very different one.
She was wearing a pale pink chemise and nothing else. She could’ve been wearing a burqa for all he cared. What he wanted from her, he could only find by looking deep into her naked eyes.
He took off his shirt.
T. started to say something but stopped to stare. She was evidently taken by the sight of his bare stomach, chest, and arms. Darryl knew the faint lavenderish skin-tint she’d seen during all their previous intimate moments was deepening, darkening, and becoming more conspicuous. She was speechless, watching his skin modify its tone.
It was all a matter of skillful concentration. Whatever else they were doing inside of him, Darryl had long ago figured out how to make the parasites work for him. He didn’t give a damn about whatever the government’s propagandists said. At a certain point in a relationship, Darryl wanted the woman, or man—whatever the case—to know there was something different about him, something beyond rational explanations, something that could change lives.
“I’m not your lover,” Darryl said as the woman’s eyes slowly rose from his chest to meet his. His irises faded from their usual shade of violet and gradually brightened, approaching the color of wisteria. “I’m more like an angel.”
His corneas twinkled, and the air around his body filled with suspended particles, looking like not-quite-clear raindrops, each of them smaller than a thumbtack.
The drops multiplied. After an uncertain number of them had appeared, they moved, scurrying until gathered into two crescent shapes that hovered just above and behind his shoulders. Before T. could say anything, the crescents unfolded, cascading down and down in waves of intangible watery light. When it was all over, two large, radiant wings featuring various shades of violet extended from Darryl’s back.
The wings burned with a chilled glow. The skin on Darryl’s bare arms, chest, and stomach sparkled with pinpricks of silver.
His would-be lover looked at everything and everywhere except at Darryl’s smiling face. In order to finish the process he started, though, he had to get her to focus on the right target.
“Like all angels,” he said, “I am essentially a messenger.” He extended his hand to her. “I can give you something better than sex, something that can erase all false notions of love from your pretty-pretty head.”
Perhaps entranced more by the sight than the words, the woman stepped forward and placed her hand in his. Darryl drew her closer. With his other hand, he raised her chin until their eyes met; he then twinkled his eyes twice more to establish a psychic link that would make their two minds temporarily one. With confidence, he could now shut his eyelids and finish sharing his message with her through a kiss.
There was a faint buzzing sound when they touched lips. When they separated moments later, viscid strings of saliva kept them connected until Darryl stuck out his tongue, wound the nectarous strings around it, and swallowed them all with a smile.
T. opened her eyes. Darryl knew if everything had gone as intended, she wouldn’t see his smiling face for several seconds. She’d see nothing but a mélange of beautifully strange colors, beyond violet, all of them dancing with, around, and into one another, maybe communicating an otherworldly message to her with their movements.
“Next time you see a clear blue sky,” he said, “don’t think of displaced seas. See it as a symbol of the haven for those escaping Love for Peace.”
Darryl kept his smile as he backed away from her and turned toward the front door; it wasn’t until after he’d turned the knob that he traded it for a different expression.
He bent the light around his body.
It was the last time he’d see the woman. He had nothing more to say to her. There was nothing more he could do for her. It was time for her to move on, live the rest of her celibate life spreading the word, and the word only—pay the act of charity forward. If the loving acts of his teenage years resulted in him contracting the White Fire Virus, the least he could do was use his parasite-given talents to keep others from falling into love’s careless traps.
He was just one man, but it was clear as day he was doing a much better job at curtailing the spread than those who got paid for it.
The consensus among US government officials and other interested parties was that there was no need for the general public to know the skin of Virus-carriers was not only hypersensitive to the properties of light but many of the infected could also, within a very limited range of their bodies, manipulate the properties of light, bending it and other forms of electromagnetic radiation to their will. They weren’t gods; they were humans. Very sick humans. Most chose seclusion over attention-grabbing antics. Regardless, government researchers and doctors and the officials they advised all figured general ignorance was the best policy until they themselves could figure out just how all these electromagnetic tricks were being performed. So what if the more vocal and flamboyant carriers of the Virus made no secret of their true condition and what they could do? They were sick, in body and in mind. Incurable. Not to be believed or trusted. And most often, such types ended up being shot, or “disappeared.”
Even more amazing than some of the beyond-belief abilities many of the carriers displayed was the fact most people seemed to buy into the Heartland Security Agency’s propaganda campaign: what credulous witnesses saw was nothing more than random acts of generic magic. The success of the campaign had the related-but-inverse effect of people not heeding the warnings about contracting and spreading the Virus. After all, it affected less than .002% of the people on the planet, so it was really nothing to worry about. But those who worried least were those most at risk. As a clever Heartland Security official once described them, the biggest risk-takers were “those young men and women unwise enough to make promises of undying love to one another, and dumb enough to make haste to seal those promises with quick moments of nude stupidity.”
Some carriers spread it before realizing they even had it, before experiencing the seizures that could send their broken minds to a place worse than Hell. The White Fire Virus wasn’t the deadliest sexually transmitted disease, but it was the most worrisome. Those who knew all about it knew to be concerned. And some turned their concerns into creativity.
Darryl didn’t believe himself to be a literal angel, but thanks to the Virus, he could pretend well enough and long enough in order to drive his special message home.
He and T. had dated for about five weeks. When he first saw her in the nightclub, she was chatting happily with girlfriends about her engagement to someone Darryl knew to be an unrepentant philanderer. Darryl had a low opinion of the man, and he had an even lower opinion of the wonderful idea T. had conjured to make sure her husband-to-be stayed loyal and settled: she’d have him get her pregnant, before the wedding. The husband would just have to stay loyal with a baby on the way. It was an idea Darryl had overheard T. express to friends over the third round of appletinis. Sitting halfway across the room, he hadn’t been able to tell if she was serious. It was such an atrocious idea, but it had been spoken by someone Darryl had figured to be a desperate thirty-something; there was a fifty-fifty chance she’d make a serious attempt to carry out the plan. So Darryl had introduced himself, right then, using every talent available to him to charm her. Soon the engagement was broken.
Since that first night in a crowded watering hole, the two of them had dined at some of the area’s most intimate restaurants. They’d been on several private boat rides. They’d gone horseback riding. They’d been to the aquarium and even the zoo. They had done everything but what most American lovers say is the highest expression of love. Darryl knew T. had wanted to since day one. Today she thought she’d finally have her way.
Darryl hated having to do it. Even though he did it to prevent the world from dipping deeper into an abyss filled with tainted relationships, deranged parents, and unwanted, unhappy children, he hated it. Making the very thought of lovemaking repulsive in the minds of those who otherwise wouldn’t act responsibly, knowing he was stealing from their lives all future moments of joy that were experienced during sex, none of it was easy for Darryl. Adhering to the second half of the Diamond Rule—“Spare None”—was the nastiest part of the business. But he accepted it. After all, he deserved to live the life that a former life of recklessness had created for him. Golden Rules were for a golden age. This time and place demanded a new philosophy.
Darryl wouldn’t put his shirt back on until he’d gotten a few more blocks away, closer to where he’d parked his Miata. He did, however, refasten his watches to his wrists. He’d almost forgotten about them, stuffed in his pants pockets. It was against IAI regulations for Watcher agents to remove them for any extended period of time. “Only when showering” was the actual instruction. But in Darryl’s mind, charity work trumped these regulations. The work was delicate, requiring his complete attention. He couldn’t let an incoming message snap his concentration and ruin the process. And it seemed the messages were more and more frequent these days.
Sure enough, he felt a sensation on the pulse of his right wrist before he could even open the driver’s side door. Someone at the Isaac-Abraham Institution was signaling him. Darryl touched his index and middle fingers to the watch’s face. After a few seconds, he intuited the message: He was to meet his partner in Arlington; Robert might have found a missing girl, and he needed help with the recovery.
Darryl made himself visible, slid into his car, and sped off. It would take him fifteen to twenty-five minutes to get there, depending on traffic—and the message was a Level 4, second highest priority—so he figured he didn’t have time to make a detour to his apartment to arm himself. He hoped his usual accessories wouldn’t be necessary.
When he got within a good walking distance of the target site, he parked his car on an adjoining street and strolled toward the general spot where he was to meet his partner. Since he wasn’t exactly sure where Robert was, he wanted Robert to see him, but to all others he wanted to appear nonchalant, as if he was just out for some exercise or fresh air.
Darryl didn’t look up. He instead looked all around him to ensure no one was watching before he made himself invisible. He then looked and saw Robert a few dozen feet above him, sitting on the stout branch of a tree.
Him and trees…With his brown skin, the nappy black hair flecked with rusty-red hairs, and his penchant for dressing in dark jeans and never-bright T-shirts, Robert barely had to put much effort into twisting the light around his body to blend in. Darryl could tell that his T-shirt today was actually a red-wine color even though Robert was making it appear more like a black coffee. His ever-present black windbreaker hung on a branch, patches of it invisible, the rest appearing as leaves. Nice trick, for a show-off.
Darryl concentrated, twisting the electromagnetic radiation around his own body, and climbed up to the branch liked a winged cat.
“Glad you could make it,” Robert said as Darryl crouched down beside him. “Thought I’d have to go treasure-hunting alone.”
“I had an appointment.” Darryl exchanged his invisibility for tree-leaf camouflage.
“Not with a therapist, I’m guessing,” Robert said, “unless maybe it was a massage therapist?”
Darryl narrowed his eyes.
“Sorry,” Robert said. “I know how much your oh-so-great charity work means to you, and how much you think it means to the world, but—”
“Just shut up, Goldner. Tell me what we’ve got.”
“That blue house over there. See it?”
“I can see fine.”
“Adam thinks there’s a strong possibility the girl we’re looking for is somewhere inside.”
“Which girl?” Darryl asked. “There’re about twenty on our list now.”
Robert crooked an eyebrow. “Marie-Lydia McGillis.”
Darryl gave him a blank look.
“From Spencer, Virginia,” Robert said. “The redhead on all those videos.”
It took a few seconds for it to come together for him—but only a few. “The high school.”
Darryl thought about the lost opportunity of making that detour on the way over. “Shit.”
“Adam says not to hurt her,” Robert said.
“But it looks like maybe you got the message ahead of time, showing up without your bow. And your corresq, too, I assume.”
Darryl thought about the accessories he usually carried on special recoveries, those situations where there was a strong possibility the lost child might be held captive by a few dangerous types who didn’t want the child to be found.
“I came here straight from where I was,” he said. “I didn’t have time to pick them up.”
Robert laughed. “You wear two watches and still can’t manage your time.”
“I can manage just fine with my bare hands.”
“Sure hope so.”
“Did you case the place?”
“I got into the yard, tried to peek inside. I couldn’t x-ray the walls. Looks like the window blinds are turned just a bit, letting in a small amount of light, but I couldn’t see through them either.”
“Losing your touch?” Darryl asked.
“I almost lost my patience and went in without you.”
“But Adam told you to wait.”
“Adam didn’t have to tell me a damn thing,” Robert said. “There’s something strange about this. It looks suburban-normal on the outside, but I can’t see through the façade, at any range. The place seems designed like a clubhouse for The Infinite Definite. I’m not stupid enough to go into something like that alone, not if I don’t have to. One foot inside and I could be lost in a box of melted crayons.”
“Nice metaphor.” Darryl squinted at the house, trying hard as he could to see through the walls and windows. He was within range to use his ability, but it just wasn’t working for him. Most interesting thing he saw was a scrawl on the front door, in the center of the wreath: a clumsy-looking “W” and two dots, written in blood with a finger. Some kind of gang tag, probably. Unfamiliar. He assumed very dangerous.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Darryl said. “It’s best we do this together.”
If it were a clubhouse for the Virus-infected terrorists known as The Infinite Definite, Darryl knew if either he or Robert went in alone, there’d be no chance of making it back out alive. He again regretted coming unarmed.
“No assistance from the badges or feds, huh?”
“Nah,” Robert said. “Better things to do at the moment. Besides, you know the boys in blue-n-black wouldn’t do anything but bust in with voices blarin’ and guns blazin’, putting the girl in even more danger. That’s why we’re getting first crack, to get in unseen and unheard. See what we can see, do what we can do.”
“Don’t worry about that. Peter’s got us covered.” Robert flexed the muscles in his arms. “Ready?”
“To get lost in a box of melted wax and colors?” Darryl said with a grin. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
The two turned themselves invisible and left the tree. Darryl adjusted his vision so he could still see Robert as they approached the house. They walked slowly, trying to detect any signs of life or movement inside. Darryl also kept a lookout for passersby, but only as an afterthought. The streets and yards had been empty of cars and people since his arrival.
As they walked up the driveway, Darryl used his hands to signal he was going to circle around to the backyard and Robert should stay up front; they’d communicate via their left-wristwatches until they were ready to make their presence known to others. Most important, once they made themselves visible, they were to keep their facial features blurred, for misidentification purposes.
Robert waved at Darryl and positioned himself at the edge of the front yard so he’d have a full view of the front of the house. Darryl went to find a similar position in the back.
Rounding the side corner and scaling the fence, Darryl took in the small backyard’s beautiful landscaping. He’d seen a fraction of it from his vantage point in the tree, but now, standing in the freshly cut grass and steps away from the well-tended flower garden, he was even more impressed. One would think that it was late June rather than the eve of autumn. All of the flowers were in full bloom. Darryl wondered at all of the work put into it, and at all the work put into erecting the eight-foot-high vertical fence, a custom-designed structure marking the boundaries between neighbors’ properties, a wooden obstruction preventing anyone from entering or seeing the pretty, well-kept yard without an invitation. Pity. He agreed the careless shouldn’t be allowed to trample upon a beautiful scene, but he also believed everyone had a fundamental right to bear witness to pure beauty.
He looked at the house. He still wasn’t able to see past the walls, or even through the vertical blinds on the other side of the patio’s glass door, but he could now hear sounds. Nothing distinct, but he at least knew the house wasn’t empty. He touched the screen on his left-wristwatch, communicating the information to his partner. Robert signaled back that something was about to come out of the garage.
Darryl itched to circle back around and meet the threat with him head-on, but he couldn’t risk leaving the back unguarded. He didn’t want to risk having something escape with the treasure.
He touched his watch and sent Robert a message that he should neutralize whatever threat emerged from the garage then use it as an entry point into the house; as long as the garage remained closed, however, he should maintain his position. Darryl would find a quiet way in from the back.
He wasn’t sure if Robert had gotten the entire message. Before he finished sending it, Darryl heard voices from the front of the house: Robert’s and the voices of two others. It wasn’t friendly conversation or innocuous banter. They were fighting.
Darryl muttered a curse as he dropped his invisibility and picked up two of the larger bricks edging the flower garden. One after the other, he threw them at the patio’s door. The glass shattered, and he rushed on through, parting the door’s blinds with his eyes wide open, looking for the girl, and ready to attack anything that made a move against her or him.
He’d burst into the kitchen. Empty. Darryl didn’t move three steps, though, before someone came in from the next room.
The man began to yell something in a foreign language; Darryl didn’t want to wait for the translation. He squinted, concentrating a large amount of infrared radiation in the area of the man’s face. The man screamed and ducked down. Darryl hopped onto the kitchen table, stepped, and jumped again, kicking the burned man in the head on his way down to the floor. He punched and kicked him again before moving into the next room.
Darryl paused and surveyed the room’s furniture. He spotted all the closed and open entrances, saw a bright wide-screen television displaying hardcore pornography, and counted up to three agitated men before the one closest to him took a swing. Darryl grabbed the fist, caught the elbow, and swung the man into the wall. He then swung the man back the other way and released his hold, hoping he’d collide with the other two.
One of the men stopped to shove his oncoming pal out of his way. Darryl pointed two fingers at the other one and flicked his wrist, snapping his fingers. A bright flash of light appeared, momentarily blinding and stopping the man. Darryl rushed forward and punched him on both sides of his jaw before repositioning his body to kick the next man closest to him in the stomach.
A door slammed in another part of the house. Darryl figured there’d been at least one other person in the room who’d escaped through the open entranceway before he had a chance to spot him, and now that person had escaped…Outside, through the front door? Inside, holed up in the room with the lost girl Darryl and Robert had come for? Wherever, Darryl had to get to him quickly.
He ignored the man coming from the kitchen behind him, the man he first attacked. He pushed aside the others who were still standing in front of him and rushed for the open entrance. He couldn’t get out.
Darryl felt an intense burning sensation on the back of his neck and stumbled. He realized what had hit him—a taste of his own infrared medicine—before a fist hit him in the back of the head. He went down to a knee and translated himself into invisibility. No luck. His attackers could still see him. They surrounded him, burning, punching, scratching, and kicking him. After delivering a few swift kicks, one of them ran into the kitchen.
An Infinite-Definite clubhouse, Darryl thought as he withstood it all. Spot on. He hated it when Robert’s instincts were correct. He hated it even more when his junior partner saved him.
Darryl didn’t see it, but he heard the hollers and screams of his attackers. He opened his eyes to find Robert standing in front of him, reaching down with an open hand.
“Bet you wish you’d brought your corresq now,” Robert said.
Darryl thought of the flat, six-inch circle composed of hard metal and designed so that a talented Virus-carrier could use it like a short-range boomerang. He knew the corresq would’ve been helpful but only said, “I would’ve gotten them. Just another second.” He got back to his feet without assistance.
“Can’t afford to waste any seconds,” Robert said. “We’ve got a whole house to search.”
Darryl looked at the other men in the room. All were lying prostrate on the floor or leaning against furniture, holding their eyes.
“What about the guys you met outside?”
“Dealt with,” Robert said. “Come on.” He rushed out of the room.
Darryl began to follow, but the man who’d run into the kitchen ran back out, shouting in an incomprehensible language, brandishing a knife and a brick. Darryl couldn’t get out of the way fast enough.
He grunted when the jagged, heavy object hit him in the shoulder. Darryl winced and instinctually brought his free hand up to cover the area of impact. He’d no time to think to defend himself before the man lunged at him—but there was time for Robert to direct a beam of light from the television into the knife wielder’s eyes. In mid-lunge, the man tripped and stabbed himself in the arm.
“C’mon!” Robert said as he rushed out of the room again. “There’re more in here—find ’em, blind ’em!”
Darryl hated it when Robert shouted instructions at him. That wasn’t the junior partner’s role. But Darryl knew telling him that would do no good; he’d have to reassert his authority by bold actions alone.
Darryl hurried out of the room and stopped behind his partner. They stood in front of the next big obstacle.
A pool table sat in the middle of the room, overlaid with a strange-textured cloth. Scattered billiards resembling giant marbles were on top of it. On the right-hand side of the room was a large mirror, covering more than half of the wall. On the left-hand side were the front door, another door that presumably led to a coat closet, and a halfway open door that led to the laundry room and the garage. On the other side of the pool table, directly opposite them, was a darkened hallway containing the doors to the rest of the house’s rooms.
Darryl knew Robert had hesitated not because of the pool table, but to adjust his sight so he could peer down the blackened corridor with utmost clarity after counting all corners, intuitionally measuring all angles. Robert, the mathematically gifted genius; it was his habit. Darryl didn’t know how Robert did it, but he knew now wasn’t the time to ask. He instead put his vision to use finding the answer to a minor puzzle.
He soon solved it. The walls were lined with a foil-like material, which was what had prevented him and Robert from seeing through from outside. The window blinds were lined with it, too. Yes, it was definitely an Infinite-Definite clubhouse. The foil-like material probably also explained how, despite the low level of light in the house, he, Robert, and the Virus-infected kidnappers were able to manipulate light almost as skillfully as they would’ve been able to if they were outside in the sun.
“I count four doors,” Robert said. “Can’t see beyond them.”
“Of course,” Darryl responded. “Foiled.”
The two began to make their way around either side of the pool table.
“Careful,” Darryl said. “Assume each room has at least three hostiles. You know how they like to pack up a house with too many.”
Robert grimaced. “You smell that?”
Darryl started to reply, but the room suddenly lit up.
He looked toward the ceiling above the table and, before flinching and averting his sight, saw that what at first glance appeared to be an out-of-place disco ball was now a bright, checkered globe. Half of the sphere’s squares were mirrors, while the other half were multicolored windows allowing light from the high intensity bulbs inside to shine through. The pool table’s surface material and the mirror on the wall helped create the thin-air appearance of amorphous, undulating blobs of light, widespread throughout the room.
Darryl and Robert both cursed at the onslaught of heat and lights—the fulfillment of the half-serious prophecy spoken back up in the tree. It wasn’t quite melted wax, but there were plenty of colors, and the experience was hellish.
Both agents screamed when the intangible blobs touched their bare arms, necks, and faces. On impact, Darryl felt and saw patches of his skin burning, bubbling, peeling off, detaching from his body to float off into the air and evaporate. It was no less painful for being an illusion.
Notwithstanding all the confusion, they were too well trained to stay still and succumb to it.
Robert ducked under the pool table.
Darryl clenched his teeth and withstood the searing radiation as he made his way through the colorful storm, searching for a switch that would shut off the globe. He made it to the opening of the dark hallway, only to fall back again when one of the doors opened and—almost in a blur—a teenage girl spun out and into the hall, bounced off the walls, and kicked him in the face and stomach.
Darryl was forced back against the edge of the pool table. He was preparing to push himself forward when the girl smacked him, twirled, kicked him in the knee, and whirled away, out of his reach, while he grunted and snatched at her.
The girl grabbed a pool cue from the rack in the corner of the room as Darryl saw someone else coming out of the same hallway door. No time to determine the age, gender, or danger before he saw the more immediate threat—the girl swinging her cue down at his head.
Darryl couldn’t duck. He could only try to catch the cue with his hand. He grunted when the wood smacked his palm. He made a much louder sound when the boy who’d emerged from the hallway’s door planted the tip of his steel-toed boot into Darryl’s chest with a swift kick.
The boy and the girl shouted as if they were at a sporting event. Darryl suppressed a mild urge to shout for Robert’s help. Not today. And definitely not for two little brats.
The boy drew his foot back for another kick. Darryl released the pool cue and lunged at him. Caught off-balance on one leg, the boy did little as Darryl pushed him, forcing his back against the corner where the room met the hallway. The boy screeched in pain. Darryl wanted to make him screech again, but he spent the next moment spinning to the left, out of the way of the stick-swinging girl.
He stopped in the darkened, narrow hallway and stood facing the grimacing, sloe-eyed teenager who guarded its entrance. Over the girl’s shoulder, he saw the four punks from the TV room entering the poolroom. Apparently they’d all recovered at the same time, or maybe they’d waited until they were all rested and ready to jump their quarry at once. Whichever, he had to get back out there to help his partner. And he had to do something about this girl in front of him. As usual, time was not an ally.
Darryl neither blinked nor saw the starting action, but he did see the reaction of the girl shouting in surprise and stumbling forward. She came one step into the hallway but was blocked from entering thanks to the size of the pool cue. It seemed Robert had come out from under the near side of the pool table and shoved the girl from behind before she could turn around to see him. Darryl didn’t hesitate to take advantage of her temporary disorientation.
He drew some of the abundant light from the pool room into the hall, gathered it in his palm, and then forced it forward, straight at the girl’s face. She screamed at the impact and dropped her cue. She was infected all right; an attack like that would’ve inflicted temporary blindness on an uninfected person, but no pain. When the girl brought both hands up to her face, Darryl grabbed one of her arms and pulled her back into the hall with him. Before turning his back to the poolroom, he saw Robert had hopped on top of the table and was fending off the four punks surrounding it. Darryl would join him soon. First things first.
He twisted the girl’s arms behind her and pushed her chest-first up against the wall, making sure her face was turned away from the bright playroom.
“You want to be the one who cooperates and walks away relatively unharmed?” Darryl asked.
Before she could say anything, the boy in battle boots got back to his feet and rushed at them. Darryl squinted and concentrated, hitting the boy in multiple spots on his face, neck, and arms with bundles of infrared radiation. The boy fell to the floor, burned and unconscious.
“It won’t be him,” Darryl said. “Or the vermin who’re trying to hurt my friend out there. We’re going to take them down. Hard. Find out what secrets you-all’ve been hiding. You’re the only one who’s being given a choice.”
“Get out of our fuckin’ house…” The girl managed one complete sentence between grunting and struggling.
“You lose your right to being left alone when you go after others—”
“Didn’t go after nothin’…You ’tacked us!”
“Take precious property that doesn’t belong to you,” Darryl continued, “keeping children from their proper guardians—”
“Our parents live here!”
Her words surprised him, but before asking any questions about her story, Darryl needed to know the ending to another.
“I’m not talking about you,” he said. “I want to know where the redhead is. Marie-Lydia. I also want to know what you people—”
“What fuckin’ redhead?” the girl said.
He’d heard the shout. Robert needed him. Now. But he couldn’t let the girl go free. She’d attack him again, no question. He had no choice. She was at least sixteen, seventeen years old. Practically an adult. She could take it.
“You had your chance.”
Darryl put his hand on just the right spot of the girl’s neck and twisted his wrist. She collapsed, unconscious.
Darryl rushed into the poolroom and assessed the situation. The four thugs still had the table surrounded. Three of them were armed with pool cues. The fourth—the self-stuck pig—was wielding the same large knife. Robert was holding his own, jumping from one spot on the table to the next, trying to avoid the rolling billiards and, with less success, trying to avoid the swinging sticks. He was clearly having trouble keeping his senses and balance under control while in the thick of all the colorful globs.
An average person might regard the disco ball’s lightshow as a welcome or even necessary aid for dancing and partying, but to almost any victim of the Virus, the radiation-shower could be nothing less than plain torture. Robert wouldn’t last much longer. Darryl saw the tear in his pants and the gash underneath. He knew what had triggered Robert’s call for help. With no bow and no corresq, Darryl also needed help.
He took a deep breath, pulled off his T-shirt, and entered the lightshow.
As expected, Darryl’s hypersensitive bare skin reacted to the exposure. The parasites inhabiting the upper layers of his skin were thrown into frenzy. For them, it was feeding time. Darryl concentrated and did what he could to keep them under control, trying his best to stay conscious as he used every inch of bare skin to manipulate the radiation that was violating him. Indigo pools of liquid-light gathered in his pores as most of the hairs on his skin seemed to stiffen and self-ignite. It felt as if the hairs were burning themselves out and laying down the remains in the indigo pools, and from the mixture, from the pores emerged a glistening substance, a viscous perspiration that tingled and burned his skin as it changed the skin’s appearance, its texture, seeming to convert Darryl’s epidermis into a thin shell, even as that shell—he felt—began to crack.
Despite the excruciating pain, Darryl was in control.
He extended his hands and redirected a good portion of the light beaming down from the sphere above. As the spinning ball used the bits and pieces of the environment to produce confounding blobs of color, Darryl used the light to combine all of the amorphous blobs and then divide them, creating intangible puppets, allies that looked more-or-less like him and were alive enough to move at his direction and engage two of Robert’s attackers.
Darryl manipulated his zombified beings of light toward the knife-wielder and the closest stick-swinger. The former was too obsessed with trying to draw blood to notice anything, but the man with the cue turned and swung twice at the projected hologram, without effect. Not being as stupid as he first appeared, the stick-swinger soon gave up on the puppet and went after the string-puller himself. The man color-shifted his appearance to blend into his surroundings and make himself harder to see. He too was a Virus-carrier, and before he got close enough to swing at Darryl, the man sent forth a burst of infrared radiation to burn and disorient him—successfully—seconds before tagging Darryl on the arm with the stiff wooden stick. Darryl hollered and lost the concentration to control his marionettes. He tried to counterattack, but his sloppy punches only swept the air as the pool cue tagged him twice more.
Darryl was facing an enemy he couldn’t quite see, but he did see Robert reach down, scoop up the nine-ball, and fastball it in his direction. The ball pegged the stick-swinger in the back of the head; he lost his camouflage as he fell face-forward. Darryl hit the man with an uppercut and didn’t wait to see him hit the floor; he rushed forward to take out the man with the knife.
Darryl grabbed the wrist of the hand holding the blade and twisted it as violently as he could to make the man drop his weapon. He then grabbed the forearm that was inches away from the stabbed shoulder, brought it behind the man’s back, and jerked it up as he rammed the man’s forehead against the pool table’s edge.
The odds were evened. Two against two.
Darryl punched his chosen opponent into unconscious submission while Robert found his way off the table by hitting his attacker with a few billiard balls. On level ground with his enemy, Robert wrestled the man down to the floor and put him to sleep with an expertly applied hold. Darryl found the light switch to shut off the mirror ball.
The two stood for a moment and surveyed their work, attempting to catch their breath before moving on.
“Why didn’t the ones who attacked you in the garage come back?” Darryl asked. “You didn’t—”
“Tied them up with a rubber hose,” Robert replied. “Just a man and a woman. Got them by surprise. Went down easy.”
Darryl stepped back into the hallway; Robert was two steps behind him. He surveyed the room with the open door while Robert surveyed the room across from it.
Darryl saw nothing but a bedroom oversupplied with electronic equipment, most of it still in boxes. Robert had found nothing but an empty bathroom.
They moved on to the next door and found another bedroom, also messy with electronic equipment.
Darryl twisted the knob on the door to the final room. It was locked.
“Break it down?” Robert asked.
“I’ve got it.” Darryl started fidgeting with his belt buckle. He pulled out what appeared to be a short metal pin and inserted it into the keyhole.
“A key?” Robert asked.
“A tool,” Darryl said. “Special metal. Ask Zel about it.”
He jiggled the tool and the knob and, within seconds, the knob turned.
Both agents tensed and readied themselves, prepared to face head-on whatever had holed itself up in the room.
They weren’t prepared.
There would’ve been no way to prepare themselves for the sight of the girl—in torn, burned, and blood-stained clothing—strapped to a bed surrounded by video equipment.
She didn’t see them enter. She hadn’t seen anything for some time.
Darryl saw she was asleep, in a deep sleep, but not dead. He recognized the girl as the same one from the videos, those all-too-popular videos recorded at a Spencer, Virginia high school and illegally available to those willing to visit, pay, look, and play in the pits of the blackest holes in cyberspace.
Yes, the tip had been right, but something was all wrong. She didn’t have red hair. She wasn’t chubby. She was a few years older than the fifteen-year-old girl they thought they’d find.
“She’s alive,” Darryl said.
“But it’s the other girl,” Robert said. “Right movies, wrong star.”
“Yeah. Contact The Burrow. Tell Adam what happened, and what we found. Get the proper authorities out here. Quick.”
Robert touched the face of the watch on his right wrist as Darryl turned to walk back down the hall.
The defeated remained motionless on the billiard room floor, but no telling when some of them could come to. Before tying them up, Darryl decided it would be a good idea to first check on the two Robert had secured. It was possible they could’ve gotten free or, worse, called for backup. Darryl wanted to make sure they were still down and out.
Near the entranceway to the TV room, he noticed for the first time an odd smell. Probably the smell Robert had mentioned earlier, before the disco ball of pain had been switched on. Darryl looked around until his eyes stopped on the coat closet near the front door. He tried to see through the closet’s door, but couldn’t. He had to open it in order to find the decapitated woman, and the bound and gagged child in whose lap her head rested.
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