From Ceremonials, which is an album I can loop for a full day and never want to skip a single track.
Not having any posts lined up in the to-be-posted queue.
At least, I don't have any on this site...
"Terms & Conditions" was an awesome experiment to see if I could hold myself to a writing schedule, and by gum, it worked. Having to stay ahead of my own game of providing a set amount of content on a daily basis was a great experience for me. And starting April 05, I'm going to keep doing it at my new site, Mileage May Vary. T&C is already cross-posted there (complete with a handy-dandy chapter list), and the first section of my next project, "Weavers", is loaded and in the queue. It will update on Tuesdays and Fridays, and should run through the end of the year. I'm super excited about it.
I'll still be posting here when I get the urge -- I've gotta have someplace to stick my complaints about the weather and videos of other people's cats. But the main show will be at the new place. Again, new content starts with a double update on April 5th! I'm looking forward to seeing you there.
So Marko -- you all know Marko, right? -- he totally has a book out! On the Kindle whatsit!
Here's his announcement!
And here's the link to buy the book!
And here's his Twitter feed, because he's awesome and definitely needs more people partaking of anything of his with words on it. Plus sometimes he posts pictures of his dogs and that's always fun.
It took a minute of silence for it to sink in that my heart rate was starting to return to normal, that my hip was cold and achy from digging into the bare floor, that a whiff of acrid dust was tickling my nose and encouraging me to sneeze.
That I wasn’t actually dead.
The ringing in my ears lingered like a handprint after a hard slap. I uncurled in stages, measuring each movement, waiting for a word or the scrape of a shoe to tell me I shouldn’t bother getting up. I had one foot under me and was working on the other when a tearing, crumpling, popping noise ripped through the room and brought a flood of cold sunshine with it.
I hit the floor and rolled, popping up behind one of the support beams. My knife was in my hand and open before I took another breath. Someone was tearing the paper off the window, using both hands to pull it down in long strips, transparent tape breaking away from the glass like velcro.
Once again, the silhouette was unmistakable. It was Ben, letting in the light.
I crouched down lower.
My eyes adjusted slowly, and I took in the scene in pieces. White was sprawled flat on his back, arms flung out to either side, the front of his shirt and jacket a dark, wet mess. His gun was missing. A foot or two beyond him was a crumpled pile of arms and legs in a suit suspiciously similar to Parker’s. The gas cans were where I’d last seen them, waiting by the door. And Michael was propped against a beam with his knees drawn up, clutching his arm just below the shoulder and bleeding through his sleeve. His head drooped forward, his eyes closed, his breathing shallow.
Ben pulled down the last of the paper, compacted it into a ball and tossed it aside. The back of his flannel shirt was snagged on a snub-nosed revolver holstered inside his belt. He moved toward Michael, and I tightened my grip on the knife. If I timed it right -- if through some miracle I got the jump on him -- I could take him down. Get closer, Rachel. Quietly. He hadn’t yet noticed me. Just a foot or two closer. There was nothing in my way; Parker and White were dead.
Parker and White are dead.
Ben took a knee beside Michael and began inspecting his wounded arm.
Parker and White are dead, and we are not.
I steadied myself, put the knife away and stood up.
Ben turned my way, unhurried and unsurprised, with the look most people give to someone who’s arrived to lunch a minute later than expected. The little lines at the corners of his eyes deepened, just a tiny bit. It was the only outward sign he ever gave that he was smiling. “You can come out,” he said, and turned his attention back to Michael. “I’m on your side.”
When I was fourteen, I fell off a ladder and broke my arm in two places. While my mother filled out the paperwork at the emergency room, my dad cradled me like a kindergartner and let me squeeze his hand when the pain rushed in. Of everything that happened that day, the thing I remember most is feeling the bones of his fingers grinding against each other inside my fist. Five years later, when my older brother happened to mention the incident, it occurred to me for the first time that my dad had probably been in some serious pain himself. The entire time he hadn’t made a sound.
I mention this because I was now in the position to pay it forward, and it was harder to be stoic than thought I would be. Michael and I sat crosslegged with our jackets folded into pillows beneath us, arranged face-to-face, close enough that he could lean forward and support himself on my shoulder. His right hand was wrapped tight around mine, our arms bridging the narrow gap between us. He had his shirt off so Ben could work, but that wasn’t why he shivered.
Ben sat back on his heels, frowned at gouge on the outside of Michael’s arm, and took a bottle of rubbing alcohol from the bag of first aid supplies beside him. “This is going to hurt like hell,” he said, wetting down some gauze pads and laying them on a towel. “You’re lucky it just grazed you.” A plastic packet came out of the bag next. A needle and some kind of medical thread came out of the packet. Neither of us looked too closely at it. “Remind yourself of that for the next few minutes. And try not to squirm.”
He worked quickly, with the smooth, competent motions of someone who had done this many times before. Michael sat tight, his face burrowed into my collarbone, taking deep, even breaths and counting to eight on the exhales. The wound was closed and bandaged inside of five minutes. Ben jabbed an auto-inject syringe into the fold of flesh above Michael’s hip, tied the arm into a sling and went to put away his gear somewhere outside.
And that left the two of us alone, in the quiet, in the chill, in the settled dust. It smelled like gunpowder and cleaning supplies and blood.
It smelled like the van.
Michael began to relax as the painkiller had its way with him, loosening his grip and letting the circulation return to my throbbing fingers. I bent forward and took his weight, arranging my shoulder beneath his chest, locking us together like two branches in a bonfire. His back moved slowly as he breathed, ribs expanding and retreating beneath lean muscles and a pale, freckled shroud of skin.
“I’m sorry,” he said, so soft and muffled by my shirt that I almost missed that he’d spoken at all. I tried to rock back on my hips to look at him, but the weight of him kept me close, in the center. “Really. I am so, so sorry.”
“This isn’t -- ” I looked around for the right words, better words than the ones I had, and came up empty. “It’s not your fault your dad is -- you know. Him.”
“Rachel, he wanted me to -- ” He started shaking, little earthquakes traveling from his bones to mine. “What kind of -- what kind of father -- and with you, he knows that I -- ”
“Stop talking,” I said in his ear. I slid my arm under his and wrapped my hand around the nape of his neck, feeling his heartbeat under my palm. “Talking makes the meds wear off faster.”
The tremors faded into irregular aftershocks. “I should have seen this coming,” he said. “When Parker sent me out -- I shouldn’t have come to get you. I should have just let you sleep.”
“I don’t th-think... ” The shaking wasn’t only on his side. He was falling apart, and I couldn’t pull myself together. “I don’t think it would have made much difference, in the long run.”
“Stop saying that.” The dust was making my eyes water. The thudding ache in the center of my chest had no external cause. Excess adrenaline made my voice drop to an unsteady whisper. “Sometimes I wish I never met you.”
Michael’s hand tightened again around mine, briefly, just shy of painful. “I don’t.”
“Hey.” The door swung open and Ben stuck his head inside. “Whatever you’re doing, do it outside. This place burns in five.”
There was one more envelope waiting for each of us. Inside was a full set of ID -- driver’s license, birth certificate, the works -- and about five thousand dollars in cash. “Had these made when I heard what they were up to,” Ben told me. “Papers are clean, should be enough to get you started. Stay off the evening news and you should be fine for at least a month. But I recommend you get moving before then.”
Michael, sitting in the back of the van with his legs hanging out over the bumper, pinned his envelope between his knees and tried to open it one-handed. After two feeble tries he gave up and handed it to me. “Screw it. You do it,” he said, slurring and glassy-eyed. Carefully easing himself further into the van, he lay down on the nasty carpeting. “This stuff, this stuff is great. This stuff is the cat’s tits.” Rearranging his sling to accommodate his prone position, he put his good arm behind his head and closed his eyes. “Wake me up when the fire starts... ”
Don’t hit him; he’s injured. I turned to Ben. “Is there anything else you can tell us -- ”
Michael muttered something more about feline mammary glands.
“ -- you can tell me before we split up?” I asked. “Places to avoid, people to contact, anything like that?”
“Not really.” Ben stared at Michael with a mixture of pity and amusement. “Stay out of trouble. Use your skills. I’ve seen you work; I know you’re good for this.”
“Will AGATE -- ”
“Not for a while. And stay on top of his stitches. You will want to stay away from hospitals.”
I made sure both envelopes were closed tight and tucked them under Michael’s leg for safekeeping. “What about you?”
“You get to pick your employer when you’re good at what I do. And I’m good at what I do.” I looked for the crinkle around his eyes, but didn’t see it. “I’ve got something for you. Stay here.”
Ben’s pick-up was originally parked in a neighboring lot; he’d moved it next to the van while I helped Michael put his clothes back on and stagger out to the van. With little fanfare, he lifted a grey and red backpack out of the cab and handed it to me. “Go bag,” he said. “In case you didn’t bring yours. There’s some extra supplies there, and a couple phone numbers. Only call them if you really need to.” He slammed the cab door and tossed me a set of keys. “You can use these for a while.”
I swung the backpack over one shoulder and caught the keys against my chest. “The truck?”
He shook his head. “Parker’s car.”
“Oh.” Ew. Then: “Why are you doing all this?” He just stood there, so I rephrased. “How do I know I can trust you?”
The heavy backpack threatened to pull me over to one side. I rocked back and forth on the balls of my feet, hands in my pockets, and said, “Okay.”
He made a motion like he wanted to shake my hand, then changed his mind and took out his lighter instead. “Time to go clean up.” He clapped me on the shoulder as he passed. “Take care, Rachel.”
“You too.” I picked up the second backpack and humped it onto my empty shoulder. Michael woke up when I nudged his knee with mine. “Time to go.”
He lifted his head and blinked at me. “Give me half an hour.”
“No deal.” I waited for him to roll over and get to his feet, using the van’s frame for leverage. “We’re all set up. You can sleep in the car.”
“Where... ” He shook his head, swayed on his feet and tried again. “Where are we going?”
Ben was busy spreading gas on the floor around Parker and White; he didn’t notice when we looked his way. “I don’t know, exactly,” I said. The keys to the sedan sat hard and sharp inside my fist. The spring sun was warm on the back of my neck, and the air in my throat was like clear liquor, flavorless and burning and smooth. I hadn’t felt this awake in months. I wanted to go home and get my cat. “But I know I’m driving.”
Tom Siddell makes a living doing what he loves, because a year ago he quit his job to focus full-time on making Gunnerkrigg Court. He is Living The Dream. If you haven't ever checked out GC, you definitely should; it is an awesome comic for many reasons.
Also I have this shirt from the comic's store and it is super comfy.
17. Come To Terms
Michael hesitated, then took the envelope from White. It was unmarked. He turned it over, looked at both sides, weighed it in his hand, frowned thoughtfully. “This is sealed,” he said. His glasses flashed briefly, the sign of a sidelong glance in my direction. “I don’t have anything to open it with.”
I pounced. “I do!” I called, proud that I kept the quaver out of my voice. Parker’s eyebrows went up. White paused with his hand inside his jacket. I pulled my little folding knife from my pocket and waved it above my head. “See! Just like Ben taught me.”
Parker and White exchanged a look. Ben looked almost amused -- or maybe proud? Or bored. I could never really tell with him.
“Great!” Michael practically leapt away from the others and was at my side in a second. “Thanks!” Then, in my ear as he took the knife from me: “He knows.”
“No shit,” I whispered back. I wanted to grab the front of his jacket, to hold on, to climb up onto his back like a cramped swimmer drowning a lifeguard. “Get me out of here.”
“I’m working on it.” He opened the envelope without looking, scanning the back of the store while he slashed and tore at the thick paper. “I don’t really have a lot of good options right now.”
“Make some, then. That’s your job.”
“That’s your job.”
“You will need to read your instructions once they’re open,” Parker reminded him. “The light is much better by the windows.”
“It’s fine over here,” Michael called over his shoulder. That was a lie; we were inches apart and we could barely see each other’s faces. He folded the knife shut in his palm and slipped it into my front pocket. “You’re probably going to need this before we’re done today.”
I snuck a peek over his shoulder. “Ben looks antsy,” I told him. “You’d better go back before things get stupid. Stupider.” A tremor started in my legs and climbed through my stomach and up into my throat before I could squelch it. I felt very small. “Just get me out of h-here. I wanna go home.”
“I know.” Michael closed his eyes and rested his forehead against mine. The metal frames of his glasses made little indents just above my eyebrows. Behind them, he was solid and warm and alive. “Me too.”
“Enough.” Parker motioned to White, who drew a pistol. “Michael, you will step away from her. Now.”
This was getting tiresome, like a dream that waits until you’re nearly at your destination before putting you back where you started. Michael tensed and turned slowly around, hands at shoulder height. “Parker, you are making a mistake -- ”
“My only mistake is that I didn’t deal with this sooner, but your father insisted on a thorough investigation before he would allow me to act.” Parker pivoted on his heel, turning in sync to follow Michael as he crossed the room. “Your sister and the polyglot were easy enough, but for Houston -- ”
“Stop calling me that! ”
“Given her knowledge and your behavior, we decided to err on the side of caution.”
I started to cry. I couldn’t help it.
Michael threw away the envelope and reached into his jacket pocket. “If you think I’m going to stand here and let your proxies kill another one of my team, you’re dead wrong,” he promised, drawing his own weapon and pointing it at White. “Now tell him to stand down!”
Ben rolled his eyes and stepped outside, letting in a brief flash of grey sunlight behind him. The closing door pushed a slice of cold air through the room, making the hanging wires sway gently and raising goosebumps under my collar and inside my sleeves.
White stayed where he was, eyeing Michael up and down, smirking as he compared his heavy, .45-caliber brick to Michael’s palm-sized .380. They seemed to circle each other without moving, sizing each other up like wolves in the wild, looking for weak spots. “Try it, boy,” White said, talking through his teeth. “You’ve made my job a lot harder than it has to be over the past year.”
“I could say the same.”
“Quiet, both of you,” Parker said. “Michael, listen very carefully: Mr. White is here to serve as my protection in the field. That is his only function.”
Michael kept his eyes on White. “So?”
“So,” Parker said. “Unlike you, he does not step outside the parameters of his specific assignment. He will only take action against immediate threats to my person. Your colleague does not currently present such a threat.”
Michael adjusted his footing so he could watch Parker and White at the same time. “Why are you telling me this?” he asked, his arms beginning to shake. He’d been rigidly holding his stance for close to a minute. White was still rock steady. “I don’t understand.”
“If you’d done what I told you and read what was in that envelope, you would.”
“The -- ” Michael looked down at the envelope, then up at Parker.
Then over at me.
His face went slack, and his hands dropped to his sides.
“And the penny drops,” Parker said softly. Somehow, in that cluttered space, it echoed. “White’s not the only one here with a gun.”
Not like this. I found myself on my knees, ragged sobs half-swallowed, half-smothered by my hands pressed tight across my mouth.
“Was this... ” Michael pulled off his glasses with his free hand and pressed the heel of his palm between his eyes. “Tell me that this was your idea, Parker.”
“I -- ” For half a second, the first time I’d ever seen it happen, Parker hesitated.
“Tell me. Please.” Michael’s naked blue eyes gleamed unusually bright in the half-light. “Tell me this wasn’t his idea.” His voice was strangled and rough. “Please.”
Parker clasped his hands behind his back and rocked forward slightly on his toes. “I’m sorry,” he said, looking out the papered-over window. “I can’t.”
Ben chose that moment to walk back in, a five-gallon can of gasoline in each hand. He set them down beside the door, adjusted his sleeves, and resumed his earlier position. Damn him, he knew.
Michael stared at the hateful cubes of red plastic, his jaw working, his index finger perfectly straight along the short barrel of the .380.
“For when you’ve finished the assignment,” Parker said, returning his attention to his employer’s son. “This location is a typical haunt for junkies and bored adolescents with a penchant for setting things on fire. There will be little inquiry.”
Michael slowly tapped the muzzle of the pistol against his leg, then shook his head and put his glasses back. “No.”
The rounded lines of Parker’s unsmiling face hardened into sharp angles. “You will not be given another chance, Michael. I strongly urge you to reconsider.”
Michael moved the pistol from his side, still pointed at the floor, and wrapped his left hand around his right to steady his grip. “I said no.”
White advanced, aiming at the center of Michael’s chest. Parker took a step to the side to make way for him. “There is no coming back from this decision. This is your last chance.”
“I heard you the first time,” Michael replied, facing Parker but watching me. In quick, short motions he ejected the magazine, cleared the chamber and threw the little gun away. It skipped across the concrete like a stone on water. “And I said no.”
Parker pursed his lips. He looked more exasperated than anything. “Very well,” he sighed, and made a small gesture. “Two bodies, then.”
Ben reached for something in the small of his back and barked, “Parker!”
The glowsticks had spent themselves and faded into the dark. In that crowded, lonely space, beneath the sudden roar of gunfire, I curled up on the floor with my arms around my head and utterly failed to stop myself from screaming.
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As the car approached, my breakfast broke formation and made a run for the exits. It returned to its position under protest. The open envelope dropped from my hand, forgotten. “Oh hell,” I whispered. “What now?”
Michael turned his head and spoke in my ear without taking his eyes off the approaching sedan. “The van,” he said hoarsely, and grabbed my hand and started to run. “Get to the van!”
We sprinted, our sneakers slapping in counterpoint on the cracked pavement, the cold spring air burning inside my nose. Thirty yards might as well have been a hundred; their vehicle approached faster than we could cover the distance to ours. Michael dug the key out of his front pocket, swearing breathlessly when he fumbled and almost dropped it. I skidded around the back end, bounced off the rear quarter panel and crouched by the bumper while he wrangled with the lock. It stuck; the cylinder wouldn’t turn. “Come on,” he pleaded, and slammed his palm against the door. “Come on!”
The rear tire on the passenger’s side abruptly developed a hole and deflated.
We froze, giving our brains time to identify the short, loud, distinctive sound that had accompanied this sudden change of situation. I saw Michael turn pale.
Another shot cracked and echoed across the parking lot, and this time it was the front tire that blew out. Peeking around the bumper, I saw a standing figure silhouetted on the shared roof of the abandoned shops. Average height; broad shoulders; short, vaguely military haircut. When he saw us looking, he lowered the rifle, walked to the back edge of the roof and dropped out of sight.
I didn’t know why I was surprised. Ben had been Parker’s man from the beginning; why would it be different now?
The sedan pulled neatly into a parking space two rows away from ours. The engine cut off and White stepped out, followed by Parker. They conferred for a moment, then approached, reaching us at the same time Ben appeared around the end of the strip mall. He had left his rifle behind. I stood up behind Michael’s shoulder and tried to look like I wasn’t hiding.
Michael said, “Parker.”
“Michael.” Parker had the slightly annoyed look of one whose plans have been pushed forward without permission, and who was now required to act when he had been planning to rest for a few hours. “Shall we go inside?”
At the storefront, Parker paused and used his foot to pin down one of the blank sheets now blowing away from the discarded manila envelope. “I wish you had followed the given instructions, Houston,” he observed, and lifted his shoe, letting the breeze take the paper to the end of the sidewalk. “We have had to make adjustments to account for this less... remote location. Still,” he continued while Ben worked at the lock on the papered-over door, “I suppose this site is as good as any other. Michael, after you.”
Ben held the door while the four of us filed inside, then stepped in and pulled it shut behind him. The rasp of the turning deadbolt sounded loud in the rests between our footsteps.
In the light that filtered through the gaps in the brown paper, I could just see bare steel supports and sagging cables above a concrete floor. I found myself herded toward the dark back half of the gutted space, until all I could make out were fuzzy shapes and fuzzier shadows. “Stop,” White muttered, wrapping his cold hand around my arm to arrest my progress and turn me to face the windows. He took two glowsticks from inside his jacket, cracked them, and dropped them at my feet. “Stay here.”
“What is this?” Michael demanded as White rejoined the others. The distance between them and me was less than twenty yards; I could hear them clearly. “Why are you following us?” He wheeled on Ben, standing in front of the door with his feet apart and his arms crossed. “And you! Where the hell did you come from all of a sudden?” When he got no answer, he went back to Parker and White. “Somebody tell me what is going on right now, or I swear I’m calling -- ”
“-- your father?” Parker checked his fingernails and smiled primly at Michael. “Young man, who do you think gave the order for this little meeting?”
Michael’s mouth dropped open half an inch, then snapped shut.
“Now.” Parker clasped his hands behind his back, like a school official addressing a truculent student. “Eleven months ago, a field team under your leadership received an assignment which, in a deliberate act of defiance, it did not complete. This caused immense damage to the company’s reputation and general esprit de corps.” He paused in case Michael wished to deny this, then continued. “Complicating your case is the fact that I was forced to dispatch another team in order to complete the assignment to the client’s specifications, which resulted in the death of one of your subordinates. And furthermore -- ”
“None of this is news to me,” Michael said, hot and quiet and angry. He put his hand in his jacket pocket. “Get to the point.”
Parker was not amused, but neither was he perturbed by the interruption. “Furthermore,” he rocked forward slightly on his toes when he said this, “your behavior since then has fallen short of the high standards set by your employer; namely, in the area of openness and the sharing of information. You knowingly withheld vital intelligence, specifically as pertains to one of your colleagues and their knowledge of certain details about the incident.”
Oh dear God. Outlined as high as my knees in sick, chemical yellow, the bones and tattered flesh of the building’s carcass crowded around me, a claustrophobic jumble of scrap and plastic and steel. To move anywhere would be a blind, noisy process. It would be slow. It would be undignified. It would be futile. I couldn’t even be sure there was a back door to get to.
At a nod from Parker, White produced a red envelope. He held it out to Michael. “We sometimes create duplicates of particularly sensitive files, in case the original is destroyed or lost due to mistake or misadventure,” Parker explained. “Or deliberately left behind somewhere, such as in the assignee’s vehicle. Since we are face-to-face, there is no need to follow the usual protocols.” He tilted his head down just enough to transform his stoic, superior gaze into a menacing glower. “Open it.”