The Angels of Martyrdom
Those who educate children well are more to be honored than parents, for these only gave life, those the art of living well.
The simplest act of surrealism is to walk out into the street, gun in hand, and shoot at random.
A single sunbeam is enough to drive away many shadows.
The tyrant dies and his rule is over. The martyr dies and his rule begins.
Night had fallen upon the metropolis quite subtly. The first signs of its approach were a distant orange smeared across the horizon, followed by a livening pink as the sun sank below it. Before long the city had been drenched in darkness, even the starlight blotted out by the lights of the many buildings that called for attention through their windows, and, on the lower levels, the occasional neon sign and streetlamp. A thin fog hugged the ground, shrouding those that walked the streets in a vague mystique. Danger and sin were abundant.
From somewhere within the labyrinth of skyscrapers a siren wailed. A scream pierced the evening from the opposite direction. The homeless huddled together in groups, unwilling to brave the night alone. The accounts of what happened to those who did were too well known. The rich and affluent remained in their penthouses that graced the skyline, quite familiar with the luxuries such a lifestyle permitted. The world outside of their social luncheons and wood-paneled offices did not interest them.
One building in particular rose above the others. Noble Tower was a spectacle to behold, the black onyx exterior a beacon against the gray concrete of its surroundings. The meticulous gothic architecture clung to the past with all its might, refusing to let go and be carried away by the changing times. The man who watched the city from a top-floor balcony was no different.
He could not have been older than twenty-four, and yet he carried a certain agelessness, a worldliness, with him. He had an air of things that had come before; as though he were some bookmark into history. But he spoke not a word as he looked down, those violet eyes attentive to all that occurred below him. Neither smile nor frown rested upon his rounded, young features as his fingers gently rapped the railing.
After a few moments he turned, with a shake of his head, and retreated back into the building, the doors closing behind him. The confines of his office were lit dimly from a few antique lamps that sat in the corners of the room. The bold dark maple desk was carved with the visages of a myriad of creatures from the common housecat to monstrosities that had not been seen by human eye for decades.
As he seated himself behind it, the door from the hall opened slowly and a woman entered. There was an undeniable beauty about her, and yet her manner was strict; militaristic. She froze a few feet into the room, her arm raised, hand to head, in a rigid salute. “Sir,” she began, waiting for his acknowledgement.
The man slowly turned his gaze to her, smiling slightly as he did so. “Ms. Vernassis,” the name rolled from his tongue as at last he spoke. His voice was deep and melodic; knowing and yet not arrogant.
“I’m retiring for the night,” she finished, hand lowering to her side as she stood just as rigidly.
“My dear, you don’t have to inform me of such trivial matters,” he continued to smile. “And yet that does not stop you from doing so every night.”
“Sir, would you rather I didn’t?” she inquired, not an ounce of reproach in her sincere tone. “Whatever pleases you.”
“No, no, it’s actually rather enjoyable to get visitors up here on the occasion. Things can get rather boring, as you can imagine.” The woman seemed on the verge of smiling herself, but repressed the urge.
“You’re dismissed, of course.” He watched her as he said the words. She hesitated for a moment, as though about to say something, but then saluted, turned on heel, and left the room, closing the door. The man inclined his head back slightly, closing his eyes, a pale hand running through his wild black hair. In a time when things were so utterly hectic in his life, it was comforting to know he had someone like that woman by his side.
If things went the way he had arranged, he would be even more grateful for a presence like that in the coming months. Hundreds of feet above the city, the man in the black tower smiled.
The match emitted a sharp hiss, the tip erupting in a bright orange blaze as detective Sky Fraemont dragged it along the rough brick of the wall. He had been waiting outside of Club Odyssey for what seemed like hours, soft brown eyes focused on the entrance, watching patron after patron enter through the velvet ropes. Of course they weren’t really velvet. A lower-rung club like Odyssey couldn’t afford it.
Putting the match to the end of his cigarette, he waited for the tip to glow a hue similar to the flame’s before discarding it. Taking the cigarette from his lips, he exhaled, a cloud of smoke pouring out only to mix with the fog and disappear. He flicked the tip, a small cluster of ashes falling to the ground. Then he saw them.
Four men were making their way toward the building from the opposite side of the street. Chuckling together, they were decked all in leather, sunglasses completing the slick criminal look they were going for. Sky couldn’t help but smirk at their stupidity. Any smart criminal wouldn’t do anything as ridiculous as dressing the part on the streets. It was as good as wearing a neon sign that alerted the police with the merest of glances in their direction. These guys were amateurs; of that he was sure.
When they were almost at the door, Sky moved slowly away from the wall and into view through a gap in the fog, tossing the cigarette aside. Hands in his pockets, he cleared his throat. Three of the four stopped at once and spun around. The remaining one, a short, Japanese man, continued to enter the building. “Hey, buddy,” Sky said, his tone friendly. “That means you, too.” The man froze, hand on the doorknob, his head slowly turning to take in the young detective. Sky’s silver cross shone brilliantly as a moonbeam found its way through the maze of surrounding buildings to strike his chest.
“Yeah,” the man affirmed that it was, in fact, his name. “What of it?”
“Just making sure I don’t kill the wrong guy.” Sky winked at him, hand finding the holster beneath his blue suit jacket, pulling the gun from it and taking aim of Kazui’s head. The other three fumbled for their own guns, though with Sky’s magnum set on his target, they could not open fire. “I recommend you tell your friends to put down their weapons. You’re the only one I want, though I’d be happy to oblige them, as well.”
Kazui nodded nervously to the three men, and their guns were dropped immediately and kicked to the other side of the street. “Are you Kazui Tashima of the Black Dragon organization?” Sky continued. The man nodded. “Why are you here? I thought the Black Dragon was based in Japan. Kyoto, if I’m not mistaken.” Kazui opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. In response, Sky flicked the safety off of his weapon. “I’d answer, if I was you.”
“Well,” said the man, gritting his teeth. “You’re not me.”
Sky’s smile widened, a dangerous look settling over his eyes. “And thank God for that,” he said, the explosion of the bullet being propelled through the barrel of his gun ripping through the night, the small piece of metal burying itself into Kazui’s forehead. The Japanese crime lord sank to the ground, landing with a dull thud. Sky’s smile faltered, a grimace setting over his features as he looked down at the man. “And so ends the Black Dragon.” Without hesitation, his target was switched to one of the three remaining, a kid, tall in stature but probably no older than nineteen. The other two were still frozen, apparently too afraid to move. “I’m guessing one of you knows why the organization is in the city. And if you want to live, you’re going to tell me.”
The kid opened his mouth, but it was a few moments before he could speak. “T-The Gentleman,” he muttered softly.
“Huh?” inquired Sky, an eyebrow raised at his strange response.
“Tashima-san was here to deal with someone called the Gentleman. It was about explosives or s-something.”
“Callahan,” the kid yelled over his shoulder to one of the others. “Get the address out.” Callahan fumbled for an electronic date book in his pocket and within moments seemed to have located the desired information.
“Friday, noon, at the Paradise Café.” Sky nodded. It was Thursday, which gave him plenty of time.
“Your help was appreciated.” Without warning, his finger pressured the trigger just enough and a second shot erupted through the fog. It passed over the kid’s shoulder and struck the date book, knocking it from the other’s hands, sending it crashing to the ground, shattering to pieces. “Now get out of here.”
They did not need to be told twice, scattering into the night. Sky holstered his weapon, casting a last glance toward the dead body lying near the door. He quickly made the sign of the cross on his body and muttered a prayer, as was his ritual with such things, before approaching the body and dragging it from the scene and burying it beneath a pile of trash in one of the many alleys. It was vital if his still-forming plan was to succeed that the world did not learn that Kazui Tashima was dead for some time.
The Gentleman. He’d heard that name referenced a few times around the city and cited in the occasional report, but if what the kid had told him was correct, he was finally going to get to meet the man who had been terrorizing the streets for the past year or so. It made sense that he was somehow part of the grander picture, since he had been the entire reason Sky had taken the case in the first place.
The explosives were a dead giveaway that the Gentleman was involved. The crimes that had been attributed to his name were, for the most part, regarding arson and minor terrorism. Twelve buildings had been destroyed by explosives purchased by the Gentleman, and the police had apparently searched for the man behind the name, though no connection had yet been found. Sky smirked to himself, reveling in the irony of his situation. He had been denied entrance to the police’s official detective program on the grounds of being too young and inexperienced, and yet here he was, a freelance detective with a strong lead on one of the most wanted men in the city.
The sound of distant sirens pulled him from his thoughts. The police had no doubt heard the gunshots, or someone nearby had reported them, and were coming to investigate. If luck was on his side, they wouldn’t find the body for days.
A few blocks away, Sky entered a large, rather unkempt, apartment building. There was no doorman, as usual, the dim light bulbs of the lobby reflecting what light there was against the dented gold paint of metal elevator doors. He approached them, pressing the “Up” button mounted on the wall beside them. Once inside, he waited until the doors closed before selecting his desired floor: 137.
He lived at almost the mid-way point of the building. A few floors higher there was a second entrance, this one with a well-paid doorman, and the security increased drastically. Security wasn’t necessary below. Anyone who lived there was considered better off dead by the landlord.
The elevator started with a low rumble, the boxy frame shaking as it ascended the many floors. Needless to say, this was not the same elevator used by the tenants above floor 200. Sky expected that when this one fell into disrepair he would have to use the stairs. The landlord would never waste his money on hiring someone to fix it. He sighed as he imagined the one hundred and thirty-seven flights of stairs he would need to climb if such a thing were to happen.
There was the softest “ping” to alert the passenger that the elevator had arrived at its destination before the doors were jerked open. Sky stepped into the hallway, dragging his fingers along the wall as he took the short walk to his own apartment door. Pulling the keys from his pocket, he slipped the right one into the doorknob, turned it, and entered.
The apartment was surprisingly well kept. The furniture, though obviously secondhand, was well maintained, and the decorating seemed to have a white, Zen-like quality to it. Slipping off his jacket, Sky placed it over the back of his couch before unclipping the holster from his side, tossing it and the gun onto a nearby end table. Sore after the hours of standing around and waiting for the crime lord, he collapsed into a chair, not even bothering to take off his shoes. He’d had a long night, and besides, he had a meeting in less than a day with the Gentleman, of all people. He’d need his rest.
The next day began with very little event. He woke at roughly 6 o’clock, as he did every day, took a shower and dressed for work. Why he bothered to do so Sky didn’t really know. He had no real job, and thus no real schedule to follow. He supposed it gave him a sense of comfort to have some objective in front of him, even if that objective was ironing a shirt or jogging around the block.
Taking the stairs two at a time he descended onto ground level, spilling out into the chilly morning air of an October Friday. His breath blew before him in small clouds of fog. The colder part of the season was fast approaching, he could tell. There was no one else on the street so early, though it did not look half as forbidding as it did at night. The word “abandoned” could now be exchanged with “peaceful” to describe it. Sticking his hands into the pockets of his tan trench coat, he took off down the sidewalk, heading toward the park.
Caulfield Park was one of the last remaining beauties on the lower levels of the city. For some reason, the rich had not cut funding to the care-taking of this one location, and as a result it held the same splendor it had years ago when the aristocrats themselves picnicked or simply sat among the lush foliage and neatly mowed lawns.
Autumn had applied splashes of paint to the trees, a flaming red bursting through the crinkled brown of the leaves here, some orange-smeared yellow emerging from the woods there. Stiff, delicate examples of the dyed, dead foliage were strewn along the ground, kicking up into small clouds as Sky walked through them on his way down the path that cut through the park.
The benches were empty. Even the homeless respected this as a place of quiet beauty, and so refused to take up residence for the night on one of the hard, wood surfaces so as not to offend it. And then he saw it.
The cathedral rose from the midst of the trees, ancient and beckoning in its majesty. As Sky approached, his eyes were drawn to the stained glass rose window set high on the building’s façade. He had been here many times, and still he could not help but stand in awe at the sight of such a place existing in such a time.
Arriving at the large wooden door, he pushed slightly on its polished surface. There was a soft creak that seemed to echo throughout the hallowed expanse as it opened. Sky stepped inside and the door creaked closed behind him of its own volition.
It took only a few moments for his eyes to become accustomed to the dimly lit interior, but he knew his way well enough to make it to his destination blind. Candles stood on almost all surfaces and even from the walls did their holders protrude. To his right a set of stairs wound their way up into the choir’s balcony, which looked out both onto the entire church one way and through the large window the other. The pews, many in number, faced the front, an aisle allowing his passage through the very middle toward the altar.
Upon reaching it, pausing to make the sign of the cross at the sight of the crucifix, he took a left, heading to a large, wooden booth, the entrance covered by a heavy, velvet cloth. Pushing it aside, he entered. The inside was even darker than the church itself, with only a small bench along the back to sit on. He sat. There was a dull sliding sound of wood on wood as a panel was opened from the booth next to his.
“Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.” Sky closed his eyes as the words left his tongue.
“What is the nature of these sins, my son?” asked the tired voice of the priest from somewhere beside him.
“I’ve killed someone.” Saying it made the gravity of his deed the other night all the more apparent to him. There were a few moments of silence before the priest spoke again.
“Were you in danger yourself?”
“You could hardly call what I was in ‘danger.’” The words rang throughout their confinement, echoing back a few times. The priest sighed.
“What was in another time and place unacceptable can now be viewed as otherwise, my son. The city has built a new set of rules for mankind. We can only live by them or die, both of which are only in regard to God’s plan. I’m sure He would understand the conditions you are forced to live under.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“He will. God understands all things.”
“How can you be so sure? Would a benevolent god have allowed a city like this to exist in the first place? How do you know?”
“With a great deal of faith and acceptance. God does not manipulate us like puppets on strings. We are allowed to make choices. Every day you and I and the city’s entire population make choices that affect the lives of everyone around us. Some make choices we know to be good. Some make choices purposefully that they know are the wrong ones. And some of us make choices we think to be good, but are, in fact, not. Of the first and third, are either more sinful? No, God respects our right to choose, and it is in this that we may find our beliefs in Him, and through this that we can ask for forgiveness.”
“I’m more worried about the third kind than anything else. A man acting out of spite can be appealed to because he knows there is a right way to go about things. But a man who thinks he is doing the right thing in the first place is less likely to be dissuaded from thinking so by someone he believes to be the enemy.”
“There are some people like that whom you cannot change, my son. The sooner you realize this, the sooner your life can attain some sort of peace.”
Standing from his seat quickly, Sky pushed the curtain aside, preparing his exit. “I may not be able to change them all, father, but I can still sleep at night knowing there are a few I can.” Stepping from the booth, he made his way toward the door once again. There was that familiar creak as it opened and closed, and then Sky was gone.
Remaining as he was, the priest closed his eyes and smiled.
“And we’re on the air in five, four, three, two,” shouted the cameraman above the din of the last-minute scramble at the Channel 9 news station. “One!” The usual entrance montage and music would be playing across millions of TVs around the city while the beautiful woman seated behind the news anchor’s desk straightened her papers, beaming at the camera. About ten seconds passed before she spoke, and when she did, it was with all the optimism of a highly skilled liar.“Good morning, I’m Robyn McPhee,” she began, “And thank you for joining us this Friday morning on October 30.” She paused, tossing her golden hair over her shoulder.
“Tomorrow’s Halloween, and you know what that means. Parties are springing up all over the city, but a word of caution on what would normally be a carefree day. The terrorist activities in the past few months, though showing signs of relenting, have not been stopped entirely. The perpetrators have yet to be apprehended, and there is still the chance of a similar incident occurring, so keep your eyes out for anything suspicious, and don’t hesitate to report anything out of the ordinary.
“On another note, the renowned romance novelist Reichen Falls is releasing his fifth book, ‘The Rose Dance,’ tomorrow. In a surprising move for the rather secretive author, he agreed to an exclusive interview with Channel 9 news, which will be found only here tomorrow evening at 6:30.”
Twenty-seven minutes later, Robyn was just rounding out the broadcast. “So have a safe and happy Halloween, and remember to tune into Channel 9 tomorrow for our exclusive interview with Reichen Falls. This is Robyn McPhee, wishing you a good afternoon.”
She froze in that perpetual smile for an additional ten seconds, as the cameras did a final sweep of the newsroom, before standing, flicking her hair over her shoulder once more. She stretched before walking from behind the desk.
“John,” she called to a bookish, intern-looking man seated behind a row of monitors. “Have any idea what time my interview with Falls is at? And where?”
“Um, I can check,” he said, fingers flying across the keyboard in front of him as he searched for the desired information. “Okay, you’re scheduled to meet him around 10:30-11 at the Paradise Café.” Robyn sighed, taking a few steps to seat herself in one of the swivel chairs by a computer.
“So I have less than half an hour after my broadcast to get across the city just because some writer wants to live it up in the most expensive café in the city?” Rolling her eyes, she stood, making her way to wardrobe.
The train shot haphazardly across tracks suspended hundreds of feet above the city floor. The skyway had been created only twenty or so years before and already it had replaced the subway as the main way to travel. Only those who didn’t put much stock in their lives went below ground anymore.
Robyn sat in one of the hard plastic seats, one leg crossed over the other, her foot kicking impatiently within the stylish heels. Every so often she’d cast a glance down the length of the train car, taking note of the passengers. About five seats ahead there was a couple making what she believed to be obscene public shows of affection. The long time without anyone special in her life, she realized, was making her bitter. Still, she wondered how they could kiss so vigorously when the guy had four lip rings.
Averting her gaze from the unpleasant scene, she caught the eye of a man sitting in the seat across the aisle from her. He was very attractive, if she said so herself, his blue suit tight on his already lean form. His eyes and hair were of a similar soft brown hue, and there was a bulge on the left side of his suit jacket by his waist. It had to be a gun, which meant that the man had to be a cop of some sort.
He smiled at her and, suddenly, embarrassed that she had been caught, Robyn turned her gaze to the window and the passing blur of gray concrete. There was a whining screech as the train came abruptly to a halt. Caught off guard, she turned in the direction of the platform out the window on the man’s side and could make out the Paradise Café. Checking her watch, she saw that it was 10:45. She was just about on time.
Climbing from her seat, Robyn made her way down the aisle, making sure to keep her eyes away from the obscenely kissing couple. They remained in their seats, as she’d expected them to. To her surprise, the handsome cop followed her out, though once on the platform went in an entirely different direction. She supposed this meant police are paid better than she thought.
Those heels of hers clicked along the polished marble of the outside reception area as she cut through a small crowd to the door. Entering, she was greeted by a small, balding man in a tuxedo that looked too big for him. “Hello, Madame,” he smiled. “Table for one?”
“No,” she said, taking a look around the beautiful interior of the building. Every inch was covered in polished wood except for the walls, which were painted a darker crème color. “Actually, I’m here to meet someone. A Mr. Reichen Falls?” The man smiled even more broadly.
“Ah, yes, Mr. Falls,” he breathed, stepping out from behind the front desk. “If you’d follow me please, I shall bring you to him. He is taking his lunch out on the private balcony.”
“Fancy,” she muttered under her breath, taking quick steps to follow the man, who was surprisingly agile. Quickly glancing at the people she passed, Robyn decided that she could never afford to come here on her own volition. These were the top of the social elite the city had to offer. Covered in their furs and expensive designer clothing, they had the spare change to throw around to eat at places like this. Robyn wore designer labels as well, but only what the station bought for her. From what these people spent on their clothing alone she could pay off her apartment’s rent for an eternity.
She hoped Reichen Falls wouldn’t be one of the same stuffy old men she saw sitting inside. Come to think of it, she had never seen an actual picture of the man. The About the Author sections of all his books included only a vague description of him and a list of previous works, but no picture. Whether he was old or young, however, his books had caught on with the myriad housewives and even elitists she saw sitting there now who wanted to live their lives’ fantasies through his cleverly constructed pages. There was something undeniably magnetic about the way he wrote.
Robyn had read one of his books while preparing for the interview, and she had to admit she could not put it down. It was compelling in a way no romance novel she had ever read had been.
The café’s greeter interrupted her thoughts as he stopped by a door near the rear of the restaurant, turning to her as he held the doorknob. “He is out here, Madame,” he said, opening it and letting in a burst of sunlight. Robyn had to close her eyes as she walked out, unprepared by the dim lights inside. She heard the door close behind her.
“Too bright?” she heard the deep voice of a man sounding slightly amused from somewhere before her. “Please, come closer. I’m sitting under an umbrella, so it’s considerably darker over here.” She obliged, tracking him by the sound of his voice as her eyes slowly adjusted to the light. Feeling for a chair, she sat. “Robyn McPhee?” he inquired politely. As she became more accustomed to the sun, she could vaguely make out the form of a man sitting across the small table.
“Yes, that’s me,” she said, smiling. “And I guess that would make you Reichen Falls.”
“Very right,” he smiled as well. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.“ Now Robyn could see the whole figure quite clearly. The first thing that drew her attention was the man’s face. He had a very youthful, clean-shaven appearance, probably somewhere in his mid-twenties, though his features were quite pale and his face long. While he was not poster-boy attractive in the way the cop on the train was, Reichen did seem to have a strange handsomeness to him. His hair was jet black and wavy, almost curly. It was kept as neatly as could be, which still inspired a sense of wildness from it.
But what struck her as the strangest were those eyes of his. They were slightly set back, sitting deeper than his brows and cheekbones, which caused a shadow to fall over them. The color was of a vivid violet and they seemed to look not into her but through her, as though nothing Robyn knew or thought could not be intercepted by them. There was knowingness there, a knowingness that did not fall into presumptuousness. Robyn shivered slightly, though she did not know why.
He was dressed in a gray suit, well tailored to fit his thin build. The deep purple dress shirt highlighted his eyes. He wore no tie, the top two buttons of the shirt left undone. Reichen Falls sat there smiling serenely as Robyn took in his image.
“Satisfied?” he said at last after what must have been a full minute of silence.
“Oh, yes, sorry,” Robyn stuttered, embarrassed for the second time in one day. “The interview. Um, hold on a moment.” She searched through her purse for her phone. The camera crew should have arrived at the same time she did, though they couldn’t have taken the skyway with all their equipment. They were to drive the cameras from the station on the streets below and bring them up by elevator, but their tardiness troubled her. As if in response to her concern, the door onto the balcony opened and out came two men, each carrying a crate of equipment. She waited impatiently as they set up, though Reichen seemed to be quite pleasantly watching the process, genuinely interested.
Around them, the city buzzed about, trains rocketed across their tracks, the bridges that connected the buildings crowded with people. Neither the sun nor the chilled air seemed to bother them in the slightest as they went about their normal days, though Robyn couldn’t say the same for herself as she hugged her light suit jacket tighter around her. In a few minutes, the crew was ready.
Once the camera was rolling, she turned her eyes to Reichen once more, though it was not necessary to do so with her attention, since it had been on him since they met. She smiled boldly and began to speak. “I’m Robyn McPhee here with the famed novelist Reichen Falls. To start, I’d like to ask how old you are, Mr. Falls.”
“Twenty-four,” he said, matter-of-factly, melodic tone ringing through the air like music. His hands rested neatly in his lap. For someone who had no available pictures, he seemed well trained for the camera. “And please, call me Reichen.”
“All right, Reichen,” she continued to smile. “So you’re only twenty-four years old and already you’ve written, what is it, five novels? And four of the five were on the Times’ Best Seller list, your new one included. Do you have any explanation for your success?”
“Does any writer, really?” he chuckled. “There’s a certain degree of talent and practice that goes into it, of that you can be sure. But much more of it comes straight from natural ability. You either have it or you don’t. I suppose I was just one of the lucky ones.”
“So modest, Reichen,” she laughed slightly with him. “But there must be something in your style, something you’re doing that none of your contemporaries are.”
“You bring up an excellent point, Ms. McPhee. There is something that separates me from my contemporaries. It’s the sole fact that I draw on those that have come before me. I use the wisdom of the greats: Dickens, Fitzgerald, Mishima, to help craft my writing.”
“That’s an odd group of ‘greats,’ Reichen. Are you sure that you would class the likes of Dickens with a writer from only the latter part of the last century like Yukio Mishima?”
“Absolutely. Mishima writes with such utterly complex simplicity. I know it’s an oxymoron but that’s the only way to describe it. I have yet to see someone else with that attribute, and the readers of today have all but cast his writing aside on some small, out-of-date bookshelf. You people are all too eager to forget the past.”
There was something Robyn didn’t quite like about the way he said those words: “You people.” It chilled her to the bone. Hastily, she decided to change the subject.
“So, Reichen, are these stories in any way based on actual events in your life?” she asked. “You write about them with such vividness that we readers can’t help but believe you were there to witness them.”
“Ms. McPhee, every writer draws on personal experience to some extent in order to write. As for the specific events, I will neither affirm nor deny their actuality. I’m sure you understand why.”
“Of course. To protect the privacy of those involved, right?”
“Well, that’s part of it. But if I was to say that they actually happened to me, it would defeat the entire purpose of the book. Why do you think people read romance novels in the first place? They want to live their innermost desires through my words. To imagine someone else having already lived them would destroy the illusion.”
“Interesting point. So if you won’t answer that question, how about this one? Is there any lucky lady in the life of the city’s revered novelist?”
“I’m afraid to say there isn’t, at the moment,” he sighed. “Which is to say that I’m open for propositions.” Winking at her, Reichen pushed some of the dark curls from his forehead.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Robyn blushed. What was wrong with her? She never acted like this, and yet gazing into those violet eyes, she forgot where she was for a moment. Breaking from her trance, she shook off the feeling and resumed the interview. “Do you draw any inspiration from the city? Your stories have a wealth of landscapes, but some of them take place in urban areas.”
“Ah, the city,” he sighed deeply. “You can find anything, and I really do mean anything, somewhere in this city. Over the many miles that span it you’ll find a thousand tragic, comedic and even romantic scenes being acted out by the denizens, and in unison. The answer to your question, Ms. McPhee, should be obvious.”
“Well in that case …” Her words were cut short as a beeping played softly from the folds of Reichen’s jacket. Reaching inside, he drew from it a small, digital timepiece. Checking the hour, he looked back at her, those deep eyes apologetic.
“I’m terribly sorry, Ms. McPhee. It seems this interview has come to an end. I would, of course, love to stay and drag this on for hours, as it has been rather enjoyable, but I have another appointment in less than ten minutes, and I have to … prepare for it. I hope you got all you needed.”
“Yes, of course,” Robyn said, slightly startled at the abruptness with which the interview had concluded. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Falls. I mean Reichen.”
“Much obliged,” he said, pushing out his chair and standing suddenly. At this moment a woman walked from the far corner of the balcony. Whether she had been there the whole time or if she had just arrived Robyn could not tell, though she was quite sure she had at least glanced in that direction during the interview and seen no one. The woman was beautiful, but it was a more severe type of beauty, natural and not vain. She moved in a brisk fashion, never making a motion that did not need to be made, and yet flowing gracefully to Reichen’s side nonetheless.
He nodded to her and she went to the door, opening it for him. Turning to leave, Reichen looked back over his shoulder one last time, offering a smile to Robyn. “I certainly hope we’ll meet again. My people have a way to contact you?”
“Yes, and if you have trouble you can just call the station.”
“Wonderful. Until we meet again, in that case.” He entered the café, the woman following closely as she closed the door behind them. So that was Reichen Falls, Robyn thought. He had certainly confounded her expectations. There was something different about that man that she could not quite put her finger on; a coldness that penetrated the noon sun’s warmth and managed to make her feel at once uncomfortable and enthralled. It was a magnetism she could neither explain nor deny, and she was looking forward to feeling it again.
Shaking off the mood of stunned complacence he had put her in, she turned to her crew, the dominance within her resurfacing. “Where were you with that camera? When I ask for you to be here at 10:30, I don’t expect you to show up at 11:15.”
“Sorry, Ms. McPhee,” the cameraman muttered sheepishly. That was how she liked it: in control again.
“Don’t let it happen in the future. You made me miss out on fifteen minutes of prime interview time, and another slip up like that might just wind you up on the streets. Or worse, it could be the end of my career.” He nodded. “Now pack up the equipment. We’ve got to get back to put this thing together.”
Turning to look over the railing, she shuddered, the last few layers of atmospheric ice thrown from her shoulders. Peering into the colossal array of mile-high concrete, Robyn could not help but wonder what Reichen’s other engagement had been.
Sky’s brown eyes darted nervously to the clock hanging from the outside wall of the skyway train station as he adjusted his dark green tie. The day was bright but otherwise chilly, and while delving into thoughts about the attractive blonde he had seen on the train helped to pass the time, it had done little for the cold. He knew he had seen her before, but just where is what he could not put together.
In any case, it had been roughly an hour since he had arrived at the Paradise Café, his meeting due to start soon. He had thought it unwise to enter the building before the appointed time, and so had taken up a post right outside to watch for any sort of suspicious activity. He hoped that the Gentleman and Kazui Tashima had not met before, because if they had, it would take only the slightest of glances to tell the man that Sky was not him, or even one of his meekly mannered subordinates.
Sighing, he decided that this was as good a time as any. He stood, approaching the front entrance when, to his surprise, it opened before him and out walked the woman from the train. Followed by two cameramen, she regarded him with a sort of bemused expression before moving on. So, that had been Robyn McPhee, anchorwoman for the most celebrated news network.
The realization came to him suddenly, the combined effect of the cameramen and the hours he had spent watching her on TV. Sky had received much of the information from television news that helped in his unofficial detective work. While the media loved to embellish and add meat to what bony fact they had, the truth was there if you could look deep enough. In fact, he had taken on this case by watching.
An aged dowager calling herself the Marquise de Versailles, an odd name for a woman living in the midst of such a city, had gone on the air and made a public plea to anyone willing to listen. She had asked for the apprehending of this shadowed figure that was referred to as the Gentleman, and had offered a king’s ransom to whoever went through with it. Why she had done this was obvious.
For the past year or so, the Gentleman had been directly or indirectly linked to assaults on every new building constructed that reached above the skyway. The result was a handful of charred steel and concrete structures scattered about the area, both unsafe and inhospitable. The Marquise had boasted of the creation of her new building, the Marion Hotel, being the tallest in the city. Completed in mid-October, it rivaled even Noble Tower for that title, though the latter still had about a hundred feet on it. Still the old woman pressed on, claiming that additions added in the next few months would bring her pride and joy higher than the onyx behemoth.
Sky had answered her call soon after hearing about it, and she had seemed more than delighted to have received at least one response. “Hello, is this the Marquise de Versailles?” he had inquired when a woman picked up.
“Hold on one moment,” the woman, Sky supposed was the maid, said as she went to get her mistress. There were a few moments of silence before an older voice began.
“This is the Marquise,” she said, her tone possessing all the arrogance and authority decades of an aristocracy installed. “May I ask what your business is in calling me here?”
“I’m actually answering your TV spot. You said you needed some help.”
“Oh yes, you’re talking about that. And can I ask for your name?”
“Sky … Fraemont,” she repeated slowly, and he knew she was writing it down. “Well, Mr. Fraemont, do you have any idea how you can deal with this problem of mine?”
“You mean the Gentleman?”
“Yes, him. A simply dreadful individual,” she said, as though she were personally acquainted with the man. “When the safety of my building is in question, there is no expense to be spared.”
“I understand,” Sky muttered. “I can’t say my price will be astronomical. I’m actually a private investigator. Unofficially.”
“So you aren’t with the police?” she sounded let down. The Marquise had obviously been expecting someone a bit more credentialed.
“No, I work on my own,” he responded. “I applied for the detective’s equivalent to a driver’s license a year ago, but they thought I was too young and inexperienced, so I wasn’t admitted.” Maybe he shouldn’t have said that.
“I see,” she muttered softly, the disappointment building in her voice. But she obviously had no other choice. “Very well then. How soon can you be on the case?”
And so he had taken the job that day, barely a week ago. Hacking into the police files had been no problem, and he’d found the arrival date of a certain arms dealer, Kazui Tashima, buried within. Now here he was, standing on the threshold of what he hoped would be the last leap of the mission to stop the Gentleman and get paid. It didn’t sound so epic when he thought of it in those terms.
Entering the café, he made his way to the main desk. The short, balding man who sat there smiled eagerly up at him.
“Good day, sir. A table for one?” Suddenly, it struck him. How exactly was he going to get into this meeting with the Gentleman? Surely there was no table reserved under that name, and Sky had no clue what his real name was. Even if he did, it didn’t seem likely that the Gentleman would use that, either.
“I’m … uh …” Sky began, but was cut short when he sensed a presence at his side.
“He’s with me.” The female voice that came next was of strict precision, forceful but not brutish. Taking a sidelong glance, Sky got a good look at whoever it was. Her dark brown hair extended to about the middle of her back, cascading down her shoulders in rivulets. Her eyes were of the same color, and her pink hued lips were drawn into a straight, expressionless line. Her visage was of beauty, wild in its origins and yet seemingly tamed. Dressed in a knee-length maroon skirt and white blouse, she was a sight to behold. The man, however, drew back at her emergence, nervously twitching as he gave his stuttered response.
“Of course, Ms. Vernassis. My apologizes.”
“No need to apologize, sir,” she smiled, though there was no warmth contained in it. Turning to Sky, she addressed him for the first time. “You’re with Mr. Tashima, I assume?” He merely nodded. “Please, follow me.” Turning briskly, she cut across the room, navigating her way through the small tables that lined the floor. Dazed for a moment, Sky followed.
Instead of heading toward normal tables, she weaved her way to the back of the building. The door she stopped beside had the letters “V.I.P.” inscribed fancily on the paneled oak. Looking back to make sure he was with her, she opened it, stepping in first herself and then holding the door for him. Sky entered cautiously, taking in his surroundings.
The room was very dimly lit, walls lined with the same paneled oak the door had been constructed from. They meshed so well together, in fact, that once the door was closed, Sky could not tell where it had been. A single lamp was in the corner nearest him, its heavy shade casting shadows across the small room. Clasping her hands patiently before her, the woman waited by the door.
Taking a step tentatively forward, it was in one of those shadows that Sky saw him. A large chair was set against the far wall, and in it sat a man. One leg was crossed over the other; his thin, apparently youthful form seemed to be at ease with the current situation. Sky could not make out his face through the shadows, but he seemed to know somehow that the man was smiling.
“Welcome,” rang those dulcet notes from the darkness. “I was expecting to meet with Mr. Tashima. Care to explain why he’s not with you?” Shocked by his forwardness, Sky responded after a few moments.
“He wasn’t able to make it.”
“Well I know that, obviously,” the man chuckled. “What I am asking is why.”
“He’s sick.” Sky could have kicked himself. That had to have been the dumbest answer he could possibly have come up with, and it just happened to be the one he used.
“Perhaps his mother should have written him a note then.” The voice was now without laughter, but there was still a hint of humor embedded somewhere in there. “There’s really no reason to continue this charade. I know who you are, Sky Fraemont.” Sky gulped, hard. “I knew it the instant one of my associates saw you waiting outside for almost an hour. Background checks aren’t very hard to do, when you have a face.”
Sky had certainly expected the truth to come out eventually; he knew the Gentleman was no fool. But he had expected it to take a while longer than it had. Damn. “And you’re the Gentleman.” It was less a question than a statement, his last card to play.
“I am.” Was that pride in his voice? “So, Sky Fraemont, what is your business with me, exactly? Detective skills for hire, I was told. Surely no one is investigating me, of all people. What could they possibly stand to gain from that?”
“Just … shut up,” Sky barked, slightly shaken about what the man knew, and how quickly he had learned it.
“You’re under arrest.” Without another moment’s hesitation, he pulled the gun from its holster beneath his blue suit jacket, cocking the hammer back and putting his shaking finger on the trigger. It was aimed at the Gentleman’s head. He didn’t even flinch.
“Don’t be an idiot, Sky,” he said softly. There was that laughter again, not audible this time but permeating the very atmosphere of the confrontation. “You and I both know that you don’t have the authority to make an arrest. Your alliance with the official police force is nonexistent.” He paused for a moment before muttering, “Nice tie, by the way.”
Sky’s eyes flickered down to his chest for just a moment, taking in the green of the line that made its way down the center of his shirt, before looking back. “Thanks,” he grunted, hand never swaying from the aim it held. The man’s compliment caught him off guard, and he smiled slightly. So that must be why they called him the Gentleman. “I may not have the authority to arrest you, but I can sure as hell blow your head onto that fancy wall behind you. It’ll cost a bundle to clean up, I bet.”
At this the man’s own smile intensified. “You’ve met Ms. Vernassis?” Sky nodded, finally remembering the woman who waited along the wall behind him. “If you so much as pressured that trigger a fraction more than you already have, she would have made a hole clear through your skull. I could say your death would be painless, but I would be lying.” There was the dull click of another cocked hammer behind him. Turning with alarm, Sky’s head narrowly avoided colliding with the barrel of the gun that was held not ten inches from his head. Apparently during the conversation, Ms. Vernassis had moved quietly forward, unholstered her weapon from wherever it was, and taken him as a silent hostage. He hadn’t heard any of it. “Are we on the same page now?” Sky didn’t even bother nodding this time.
“So tell me,” the Gentleman went on. “What did happen to Kazui Tashima?”
“I killed him.”
“No,” he breathed, as though he’d just been given the latest gossip. “Well I suppose it was inevitable, eventually. And now here’s a question that’s just as inevitable. Who hired you?” Sky remained silent. Even if he was going to die there, he wouldn’t give up his honor by ratting on his employer. He could at least die with some dignity that way. After a few moments of this, the Gentleman picked up again. “Don’t tell me. It was the Marquise de Versailles. Was it?” Another silence. “It was?” Far from anger, there seemed to be a certain giddiness in his tone. It made Sky oddly more comfortable, more relaxed. “The old hag,” he muttered. “I suppose she thinks it’s all about her. The older generations tend to think that.”
He seemed to pause for a moment, considering something. At the same time, Sky contemplated the figure before him that he had just become acquainted with that afternoon. He had expected the Gentleman to be different; some old man, slightly mad from his years. But he was anything but that. In fact, had the situation been different, he would have actually enjoyed the man’s company. There was something about him that pulled Sky in, made him want to know more. And there was something else, too.
He was pulled from his thoughts as the Gentleman continued. “Well my plans didn’t include her before, but since she seems so eager, I suppose I can fit her in. I hear her hotel has its grand opening dinner tonight. What a coincidence.” Sky’s hold tightened on his weapon, and he heard another click from behind him, no doubt the safety being taken off Ms. Vernassis’ own. The Gentleman wagged his finger at Sky slyly, relishing every moment of it.
“Now, now, you mustn’t be too hasty. It would only get you killed, and what would that accomplish?” Uncrossing his legs, he stood slowly, moving slightly from the obscurity of shadows.
When his face came into view, Sky could only think a single word: beauty. He was beautiful, in an entirely unconventional sense of the word. His purple eyes were oddly dark in comparison to the light conversation they’d been having, and his hair was somewhat wild in a black curled, messy way. It almost reminded him of the statues in Greece of the gods, that hair. Through the eyes, however, Sky could almost see a second persona, a more serious Gentleman; a deadly serious Gentleman. His features were pale and slightly rounded, face long, and his smile was cold and laugh-less. And yet that magnetism still existed.
He moved to Sky, unafraid in his tightly tailored gray suit and purple shirt that matched his eyes so well. He obviously wore no bulletproof equipment. Taking the gun from Sky’s hand, he tossed it to the floor, the dull thud it made being the only sound in the small room.
“I’m not going to kill you, Sky,” he said softly, bringing his face within two inches of his captive’s. As their eyes locked, Sky noticed his scent was floral. He didn’t know flowers so well, but he assumed it was rose essence.
“No, there wouldn’t be any fun to be had in that. And besides, I kind of like you. But still, I can’t have you following me after our meeting here. We’ll meet again, I’m sure. And when we do, please, by all means, call me Reichen.” With those words he directed his attention to the woman behind Sky and nodded.
The last thing he felt was the butt of her gun on the back of his head as he crumpled to the ground. It all went black after that.
Robyn looked from the window beside her, peering out onto the city at night. Lights twinkled from the surrounding buildings as they usually did, but they looked so much more mysterious from so high. Seated in a restaurant on nearly the top floor of the Hotel Marion, she was dining with a friend from work, Ted Barrone. The sounds of metal tinkling against china and the soft chatter of a hundred conversations surrounded them.
Ted had been attracted to Robyn since they had first met at the news station, she knew. Just that day he had finally gotten the nerve to ask her out on a formal date, and having been still caught up in Reichen Falls’ aftereffect, she had agreed. Now the two of them were locked together as Ted tried to liven the night with daring accounts of riding the skyway at night and walking the streets below after dark. Robyn suspected he was lying about the latter. There was no way a man like Ted would have the courage to do that.
“What did you think of the newest ratings?” he asked her eagerly, referring to the ratings of their news hour.
“Oh, they’re fine. The same as usual, actually.” She could tell he was hard-pressed to make conversation, which made her consider why she had accepted his proposal in the first place. Then she remembered: Reichen.
All afternoon she had been thinking of that one man. Never before had someone pulled her in so violently and completely like that, and apparently with no effort at all. She imagined him sitting across from her at the table instead of Ted. There was no way that even a moment could be boring in his presence.
Their empty plates sat before them; they’d eaten a while ago. She cast a look at the remnants of the shrimp and pasta in hers. The hotel had just opened, and already the food was outrageously priced. She supposed that was what she had to expect, and since the station wasn’t covering her bill, she was on her own. She hoped Ted would pay. It was the least he could do. Flicking her blonde hair over her shoulder, she put on some of her natural charm to speed up the process.
“Ted, I’m feeling really tired,” she sighed. “Do you think maybe you can take me back to my place?” She left that open to interpretation. Let him think he’s lucky.
“Oh, sure,” he started, cut short from whatever boring tirade he’d been going on. He stood and went to the back of her chair, pulling it out. Dabbing her lips with the napkin on her lap one more time, she placed it over her dish before standing. She led the way to the front desk, where the greeter watched them suspiciously.
“So sorry,” she smiled. “We just couldn’t wait any longer for the check. Table eleven?” She waited as the man pulled their tab onto his computer.
“One hundred and eighty dollars.” The number dropped like a ton of bricks. Pouting, Robyn turned hopefully to Ted. His mouth was slightly agape, astounded at the price, though he closed it immediately when he noticed her watching.
“Of course,” he stuttered, taking his credit card from his wallet and handing it to the other man, who promptly slid it through his machine. When all was checked out, they were met with another employee with their coats and ushered from the restaurant. Once in the hall, Robyn looked back to her date, smiling.
“Thank you, Ted. I don’t know what I’d have done without you.” Actually, she did. She would probably have enjoyed her evening. But he chuckled and put his arm over her shoulders. Robyn cringed, but did nothing to remove it. After all, he’d earned that much by paying.
The elevator ride down to the skyway level was surprisingly fast, and as they stepped back into the hallway, a shocking dilemma struck Robyn. Whatever was she going to do with Ted? She didn’t actually want him to escort her home. And there was no way in hell she was going to his place. As if to pressure her even further, he spoke.
“So?” he asked as they exited into the cold autumn night air of the skyway station. “Where are we off to?” Luckily she never had to answer that question. That’s when the debris started to fall.
“More champagne, Madame?” the waiter asked the Marquise de Versailles. She nodded, taking the fine crystal glass he offered with a withered hand and waited as he poured some of the bubbly liquid into it. The old woman sat in the midst of all the masquerade festivities of her grand celebration, her heavily cushioned chair rising up like a thrown to survey her party.
“Good evening, Marquise,” a masked couple offered her with a bow. She nodded to them, a few of the huge ostrich feathers attached to her hat slipping to fall over her face. Brushing them away, she took a sip of her drink. The Marion Hotel had taken a fortune and three years to build, but in her eyes it had all been worth it to hold as party like this where the people acknowledged her so graciously as the hostess.
Furthermore, it would be her lasting contribution to the city. She would be remembered through it for centuries perhaps. What she wanted more than anything was to be remembered. And everything was running so smoothly that the Marquise didn’t see any reason she wouldn’t be. Then she remembered.
She had hoped against hope that her detective had been able to apprehend the Gentleman before the party began, but she had received nothing even as much as a simple telephone call from him, so she could only assume that he was so far unsuccessful. What had his name been? Ah yes, Sky. A terrible, commoner’s name in her opinion. It was quite plain, too.
“Anything to eat, Madame?” asked another waiter as he passed her, carrying a plate of food. She nodded, taking a morsel from the wide array and popping it greedily into her mouth. The ostrich feathers fell into her eyes again as she was startled by the clock striking nine. Whisking them back over her head, she thought for a moment. Nine o’clock meant the fireworks would be starting soon.
The crowning of any building was never complete without fireworks, as far as the Marquise was concerned. Looking around at the glittering gold of the room, from floor to ceiling and back again, she smiled a weak, crooked smile. This was all hers, and would be her children’s after her, and so on for as long as the building stood.
Taking her cane from where it leaned on the chair beside her, she stood and slowly made her way to a glass door that led to the balcony. There another chair awaited her, prepared for her to be seated and comfortable as she watched the sparks fly above her. And they had already started.
As she sat, the Marquise could make out the red, green and blue designs in the sky that lit the city for seconds at a time as though it were day. There went one screaming upward, only to explode into a thousand glowing pieces when it reached a certain altitude. Another shot crazily across its path, dividing into two jets of sparks that fell lazily back down to Earth. And there, not far off, she could see one shot seemingly from the top of Noble Tower. It was the brightest of them all, propelled by orange flame, driving it higher and higher into the air.
When it reached a certain height it seemed to freeze for a moment, hanging on a whim and not exploding like the rest had. No, quite the contrary. This one tipped back down and began to fall. It spiraled through the air to the cheers and applause of the others watching. The Marquise knew otherwise. Never had a firework come this close to the city in her ninety-seven years of watching them. Never.
The scream of the jets seemed to overpower the screams of the people as they too realized something was wrong. Not only was the rocket heading back down, it was coming right toward the hotel. A firework exploding overhead lit the scene of panic. Men and women clambered over each other on the other balconies, thinking that perhaps it would help them to evade the oncoming missile, as that was what it was.
The Marquise threw herself from her chair, grabbing her cane as she hobbled back toward the door. Her attendants had already left her. Perhaps if she could just get inside, everything would be all right. The walls of her great fortress would protect her. If she could only get inside.
As the scream of the jets reached a deafening roar there was a great flash, an orange explosion, and the Marquise de Versailles knew no more.
Darkness shrouded him for the most part as he sat on the top-floor balcony of Noble Tower, save for the occasional firework that lit the night sky. But Reichen’s attention was not toward them. No, it was directed on the building that rose just a few stories short of his own halfway across the city. The Marion Hotel had been an annoyance all throughout its construction, and he was quite pleased to be met with a chance to put an end to it.
The missile had been fired from the rooftop as he had instructed, and he had watched with glee as it spiraled first up and then down, crashing into the hotel’s own rooftop. The impact had flattened the top three floors, sending a tumble of rock and rubble down to the streets below. There was something ironic about using the Marquise’s own fireworks display to conceal the harbinger of her death.
Ms. Vernassis had joined him near the end, standing silently behind his chair, arms folded. Her expression was blank, so he could not tell if she enjoyed it as he had. Regardless, he was glad she had decided to come. Raising his glass of red wine to the moon, he smiled as he brought the brim to his lips, allowing some of the rich liquid to slide onto his tongue and then down his throat. It tasted quite good, especially when he had such a success on his hands.
“Congratulations, sir,” Ms. Vernassis said softly, frozen in her position. She had refused the wine when he had offered her some.
“Why, thank you,” he responded shortly, closing his eyes as he breathed in the night air. Carried along the breeze he could smell whiffs of smoke here and there. Standing suddenly, Reichen placed his glass on a small table beside his chair before turning and reentering his office. Ms. Vernassis followed close behind him, closing the door to the balcony. “No,” he muttered absentmindedly. “Leave it open, for now. I like the scent.” She knew he meant that of the fire, and opened the doors again compliantly.
“Thank you for this afternoon,” he added airily. “You and I acted in perfect harmony at the meeting. One would believe we rehearsed beforehand.” He smiled, and for the first time, so did she. And then his mind wandered to Sky.
The young detective intrigued him as no one else had before. It might have been his obstinate arrogance; his refusal to quit even when he was so obviously beaten. But Reichen believed it was something else; something far more primal. He smiled at the thought of it. Yes, he would have to arrange another meeting sometime soon.
“You can go now, if you’d like,” he almost whispered as he sat behind that great mahogany desk and leaned his head back, closing his eyes in restful contemplation. Ms. Vernassis nodded.
“Good night, sir.” Within moments, she had left the room. Sirens echoed from the streets below somewhere off in the city, no doubt headed to the flaming hotel which was now nearing collapse. There was nothing that could be done for it, of that Reichen was sure. A gust of wind ruffled his hair slightly as it blew in through the open door.
Then there was the reporter as well, Robyn McPhee. She had peaked his interest in a more conversational way. Her self-reliance led him to believe she would make a great debater and conversationalist, if she could just get past whatever schoolgirl crush he was sure she had on him. He might give her a call, too. And there were other buildings reaching completion in the coming weeks. If his objective was to be fulfilled, he could not become idle in that area of his life for any amount of time. The past would resurface as planned if he had anything to do about it.
Reichen sighed deeply, opening his eyes and turning his gaze out toward the stars visible from the balcony door. With so many things to do, this was going to be one turbulent autumn for him. He could hardly wait.
It was pitch black in the room. Or perhaps it was just that Sky had yet to open his eyes and take a look around. He tried. Nothing changed. So it was pitch black in the room. He was seated on the floor and so he stood, slowly, taking into account all the sounds around him. There were none. Reaching to his right, he felt the cold surface of a wall press against his hand. So at least he had his bearings.
He began to move sluggishly, sliding his hand along the wall so he had some sort of reference point. He felt almost drunk as he went, as though the passage of time did not directly apply to his motions. Maybe they didn’t. Who was he to argue? His footsteps sounded against the hard floor, somewhat muffled by the time they reached his ears. And then from behind him, he heard it.
“Sky, your father’s going out for a bit again. I want the table set and the dishes washed before he gets back, please, dear.” It was the voice of his mother, so long since he’d heard it and yet so fresh in his memory that there was no mistaking it. A few moments later, he heard it again. Frozen in place, he listened. “Get away from the windows, Sky! Just do what I tell you!” Then her voice sounded once more, weaker, raspier this time. “Run, love. Run.” Mouth wide, Sky remained as he was until the voice screamed. “Run!”
He did. As though he were a child again on that day, he ran as if all of the old nightmares and dangers were biting at his heels. He ran until it hurt to run. Even then he trudged on, hand ever keeping contact with the wall so he did not stray too far from it and lose his way. Finally he stopped, breathing heavily, his free hand bracing itself on his knee as he bent over.
This time the voice came from up ahead. It was one he had heard much more recently, and when the words reached his ears, he felt that familiar chill run down his spine. He was not afraid, not exactly. He was enthralled, in awe. All the while that rose scent wafted through the air, seeping into his nostrils and intoxicating him all the more. “We’ll meet again, I’m sure. And when we do, please, by all means, call me Reichen.” Sky tried to back up, but felt a new wall press against his back that stood where he’d just come from. There was no escape.
He could almost swear he felt the presence of the man looming somewhere close to his face before Sky woke up in his apartment in a cold sweat, his heart racing. Rolling over on the hard mattress, he tried to go back to sleep.
Robyn climbed the stairs, two at a time, ignoring the pain in her leg that traveled up through her body with every step. Her mind kept flashing to the previous night. She could have easily been crushed by falling rubble if it hadn’t been for a quick, probably unintentional reflex by Ted, who in trying to get himself out of harm’s way pushed her along with him. She’d hurt her ankle in the process, but the tradeoff seemed pretty fair.
And there she was at the news studio, on time as though nothing had happened. The interview had no doubt been prepared by the editors over the course of the morning, and all she had to do was film a quick intro, then she was off for a bit, on “sick leave.” She needed some time of her own.
Almost kicking in the door as she entered, she took a look around the room, pushing a few strands of blond hair from her eyes. “Phil?” she called to one of the cameramen. “Is everything set? I’m kind of short on time, so the fastest we can do this, the better.” He nodded to her and motioned for the swivel chair placed in the middle of a fairly simple set. Perfect, she thought, heels resounding through the almost empty room as she went to take a seat.
“Do you know everything you’re going to say?” Phil asked, still fine-tuning the camera. She waved a few index cards in his direction.
“Just memorizing the last few lines. I’m ready whenever you are.”
“That would be now,” he smiled, backing away from the lens and holding out his hand. “I’ll take those.” Robyn tossed him the cards and he caught them neatly, pocketing them as he moved back to the camera, his finger ready to turn it on at a moment’s notice. “Okay, we’re recording in five, four, three ... ” He counted the last two on his fingers before switching it on.
“Good evening, and a happy Halloween to you all,” she beamed a few seconds after she saw the red light go on. “Yesterday I had the unique pleasure of holding an exclusive interview with the world-renowned romance novelist, Reichen Falls. This is the first interview held with the author, and Channel 9 news was selected specifically by him for the opportunity. Without further delay, on to this rare, brief glimpse into the background, mind, and personality of a man who makes a living playing to your heart’s desires.” Frozen in that smile for a couple more moments, she released it once the red light went out.
“And cut,” Phil sighed, eye still to the lens as he watched the playback. “How’s it looking on the monitors?” he yelled back into the windowed room behind him that looked onto the set. A man wearing thick earphones gave him the thumbs-up. “Well, Ms. McPhee, looks like you’re free to go.”
“Thanks, Phil,” she winked at him, hopping off the chair only to land on her injured leg. She moaned as she clutched at her seat, trying to support herself as she caught her breath.
“Are you alright? That doesn’t look too good.” Phil approached, looking concerned.
“It’s nothing. Just tripped getting out of bed this morning,” she forced a chuckle. She had expected that Ted would have spread the story of him practically saving her life around the station by now, but thankfully that didn’t seem to be the case. “I’m fine. I’ll see you in about a week, okay?”
“Great. Have a nice break.” He went back to fiddling with the camera as she limped past him and reentered the stairway.
Despite her traumatic event the night before, Reichen Falls still weighed heavily on her mind. She simply couldn’t get him out of her thoughts, no matter what. There had been something in those eyes that had inspired her in a way she didn’t understand, and every time her thoughts would slip into idle contemplation they would resurface, seemingly staring right into her again.
But she made another attempt at pushing it to the back as she began to plan the rest of her day. Having so much free time suddenly surprised her. The pressures of being a news anchor had been tremendous, and finally having a clear schedule for a while to do what she wanted left her, surprisingly, without anything to do. Her social life had been abandoned long ago, and having no real friends out of the workplace, there was no one to tag along with. But she was hungry, so maybe that’s where she would start.
The stairway opened onto a landing outside, which held a platform for the skyway trains. One seemed to be nearing just then, the squeal of metal on metal reaching her ears even from that far (a good quarter-mile away). She moved carefully over the platform where a small line had formed, and waited patiently. Meanwhile, her mind raced over her list of possible dining locations that were within a lower price range. As the train came to a screeching halt before them, she followed the line of people inside and took one of the only empty seats. The doors closed shakily, and then they were off, hurtling past buildings in a blur.
If she remembered correctly, there was a nice, small sushi place somewhere near the next stop. That place would do well. It was a cozy family-run establishment, and as a result the prices were kept reasonable and the tourists and lunch crowds were kept at bay. She really needed a quiet place.
As soon as they came to the next platform she was on her feet and out the doors almost before they had fully opened. Half limping, she made her way to an elevator that would take her down the ground level. All the best, low-priced places to eat were down there. She had to wait for an elevator to be freed up, and then when one appeared she stepped inside, followed closely by a man in a black suit. Elevator customs were so strange. There was some unwritten law that you couldn’t look at the person in there with you, and as a result, the two simply stared at the metal doors as they closed and then the elevator hurtled downward.
About forty seconds later, they opened again onto the lower street. This time of day it bustled with people. There were vendors selling whatever they had managed to get their hands on the day before; women standing suspiciously outside of heavily shuttered buildings winking at the occasional male passerby; and a score of other people with various occupations expected to be found in any part of that world long-forgotten by the law.
Robyn stepped briskly through the crowds, shaking her head at a few vendors trying to peddle cheap goods on her, until she came to a small building façade that must have been white at some point but had been turned a dull gray from perpetual smog. A small, red neon sign read, “Good Sush amily Atmosphere.” Originally it had obviously spewed the message “Good Sushi, Family Atmosphere” onto the street to draw in customers, but like so many things down there, it had been broken and never fixed.
She pushed open the door to the tinkle of a bell as she did so, and stepped inside. A small Japanese woman reading a newspaper as she leaned against the counter looked up, and seeing Robyn, tossed her paper down and took up a small pad from beside it, walking haughtily toward her, forcing a smile. Robyn took a seat at one of the small, lantern-lit tables.
“Hello,” the woman greeted her, pulling a pen from her apron. “Any idea what you want today?” Robyn glanced at the menu, but already had something in mind.
“Yeah, I’d like the chicken and fried vegetables, please,” she smiled back, handing the woman her now closed menu. The hostess took it before yelling back into the kitchen, while scribbling onto the pad. “Tori niku! Yasai itame!” Then she looked back to Robyn. “Anything else? To drink?”
“Your food should be ready in a bit,” she said quickly as she returned to her newspaper. So much for the family atmosphere. Robyn glanced at her watch. Great. All that, the getting there and the ordering, had taken only about half an hour. If time continued to pass so slowly, she’d be bored out of her mind within one day.
Glancing out of the small, dusty window, past the glowing neon sign, she saw a black-suited man stop at the door. He threw it open roughly, and entered with his hands in his pockets, not even bothering to look in Robyn’s direction as he approached the counter, taking a seat on one of the stools. As he passed, she realized he was the same man who had accompanied her in the elevator down to the street. He looked much younger from so close, maybe around nineteen. Barely even a man. He also seemed to be of Japanese descent, like the hostess, which made sense when he spoke.
“Hello, Mama,” he smiled at the woman, propping one foot up on an empty stool.
“Put your shoes on the floor!” she snapped back at him, whacking his foot from where it rested. “You don’t want customers thinking we spread dirt around this place like it’s nothing. Then where will all the customers be?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he waved her off, but heeded her words, leaving his feet to dangle an inch or two above the ground. “What’s to eat?”
“You want to eat?!” she almost screamed at him, her shrill voice betraying the hints of an accent she had obviously tried to cover over the years. “You stay away from here for weeks at a time doing God knows what, and every now and then you wander back in here asking for something to eat?! Ridiculous …”
“Dekiagari!” came the yell from the kitchen.
“Oh, hello,” he nodded slightly in greeting. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know anyone else was here.” He almost leapt from his seat, taking long strides to her table and holding out his hand, which she took, shaking it once before letting go. “I’m Kento. Mihama’s the last name, not like anyone ever uses it.”
“Yeah, that‘s me. Where do you work?” He seemed to falter as the question was fired his way, but luckily he didn’t have to answer, because just then his mother burst through the swinging doors, carrying a tray of steaming food. Placing it down on Robyn’s table, she glared in Kento’s direction.
“Sit down,” she barked, and he did so immediately. She took the plate with chicken and vegetables over rice and slid it before Robyn, and almost hurled a heaping plate of chicken teriyaki and rice at her son. “Eat.” Again, he responded by following her order immediately. “Everything good?” she asked more kindly to Robyn.
“Yes, everything’s fine. Thank you.” The woman nodded and then headed back into the kitchen. “Your mother seems to worry about you a bit,” she said finally to Kento between bites of food.
“She worries too much about everything,” he answered vaguely, not even looking up from his plate. “Every time I come home I have to deal with another sermon.”
“But she cares,” Robyn countered. “If she didn’t care, I don’t think she’d say anything.”
“She cares? Wonderful. And what good does that do me? She only gets in the way.”
“Yeah, but does she have something legitimate to worry about? It may not be my place to give you advice on this, but try to see things from her perspective.”
“Damn right it’s not your place.” He finally looked up at her, those dark brown eyes burning. “You don’t know anything.”
“Alright,” she said simply, taking her eyes from him and gazing back out the window as she continued to eat. There was a prolonged silence before he spoke again.
“It’s not like I do what I do to make her nervous. It’s because I have to.”
“What is it you do?” she asked casually, still looking out the window.
“You’d be surprised,” he muttered, going back to his food. “The past year has made me grow up more than I could have imagined. I’m no kid anymore. I wish I was.”
“Okay.” She really didn’t know anything else to say. “So what’s the problem then?”
“It started out fine,” he shrugged. “I really didn’t have to do much. Just a few small robberies. I got put in jail a few times, but they got me out right away every time. Day by day, the assignments got bigger and bigger. Everything from arson to bodyguard jobs. I was supposed to be on bodyguard assignment a few nights ago for this big shot from Kyoto, but I backed out that afternoon. Turns out the guy was shot by some detective or something, and the guys assigned to him got away. But when the organization rounded them up, they were all put to death as cowards. That could have been me.”
“Looks like luck’s on your side,” she offered to break the ensuing silence.
“Looks like it, huh? But that’s how things have been for the past few months. I’m on assignments most nights, and I don’t get back until morning. I can’t come back here that late, or early, depending on how you look at it, so I stay at friends’ houses. Mama worries, and I think she suspects something’s going on, but she’s not sure. I don’t want to hurt her, but at the same time, I’m afraid for my own life. I don’t really expect you to understand.”
“I don’t,” she admitted. “But I have some idea of what you mean. So, why are you telling me all this? I’m in the news business, you know. What’s to stop me from blowing this story wide?”
“Frankly, I don’t care,” he shrugged again. “But you don’t seem like the kind of person who would do that. You seem too … innocent?”
“You’d be surprised,” she smiled. He finished his meal and pushed the plate to the side.
“Alright, this may sound like a weird proposition, since we just met and all, and from what I’ve told you about myself,” he began timidly. “But would you be interested in going for a coffee or something with me this afternoon?” Robyn looked back to him, seeing not the face of a criminal but that of a young man in the wrong place at the wrong time just asking for a second chance.
“Sure.” How could she refuse? He would be far more interesting than Ted, anyway.
“Great,” his wide smile broke through as he stood, taking his plate and walking toward the kitchen. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. I just want to talk to Mama, and it’ll give you some time to finish your food. Then we’ll go.” Robyn smiled as well. So it looked like her time off wouldn’t be so boring after all.
Sky’s “office” was hardly what you could call a real professional workspace. It was actually just a room in his apartment where he had put his desk, a computer, and a small filing cabinet. There were two phone lines, one for his personal life and the other for his work. Unfortunately, Sky smirked, it was the latter which rang much more. Ever since his reputation as a private detective had begun to rise over the past few years, it had been ringing at least a few times each day, which was saying something for a small operation like the one he ran. Most of the time they were just small jobs, like a feud between divorced couples, but every now and then he got something bigger like a burglary or homicide investigation.
He sat there now at the desk, going over a few papers under the light of an un-shaded desk lamp. Light jazz played softly in the background. It tended to help him think. Sighing, he rubbed his eyelids and then turned to the next paper in the folder. There must have been about a hundred in there, all having to do with one of the Gentleman’s, or Reichen’s, activities over the past year. A lot of it was smalltime smuggling and gang-affiliated stuff, but about every month or so one or more buildings would be destroyed, and almost directly linked to his alias. It was almost like he had left the trail back to him there so clearly on purpose.
There had to be some link. As it stood, it looked like the buildings were chosen at random every month, with no real reasoning behind it. Among the destroyed were office buildings, the new huge shopping tower, apartment complexes, skyscrapers and others. None had any political importance, so that was certainly out of the picture. None even had a real economic impact on the city. So what was he after?
Sky leaned back in his chair and stretched, glancing out the window. The sunlight was pretty bright around the afternoon, glinting off the smooth, black stone of Noble Tower.
Then it hit him.
Leaning back over his papers, Sky looked one by one through the building specifics of each target, noting the buildings’ heights. Then he wheeled the chair over to his computer, searching through the city zoning website. Exactly as he’d suspected. All of the buildings were over a very specific height, with only about a hundred feet to spare from case to case. Then he searched the data on Noble Tower. It was just narrowly in that range. So why hadn’t it been a target? The tower was easily the tallest structure still standing in the city, and no doubt it would attract a terrorist’s attention. Which left really only one conclusion: it had to be where the terrorist resided.
From what he had seen from Reichen, he seemed like a man perfectly capable of living in an upscale tower like that. It almost strangely seemed to suit him. Searching through even more information, it seemed like there was very little known about the tower. Built only about a decade ago by Martin Fitzgerald, supposedly no one lived in it, and it was kept as an “architectural relic” owned by an anonymous party. It was worth a try, anyway, checking it out. Sky switched off the computer and put the papers back into their folder. Pulling on his suit jacket and slipping a pack of cigarettes into the pocket, he made for the door, snatching up his holstered gun from the counter as he walked by it. Before he was out the door it was secured beneath the jacket, invisible to those who looked but weighing heavily on Sky’s shoulder, making him feel more at ease.
As he took the elevator up to the skyway, he went over the case in his head. So he had met with Reichen the other day, but hadn’t been killed when it seemed very easily within the man’s power to do so. Why had that been? It didn’t fit Reichen’s character, or what he knew of it so far, to leave an end untied, but then again, neither did leaving his trail in plain view for any to follow. Sky gave it a mental shrug. There was something about Reichen that was unlike any criminal he had ever heard of, never mind come across. The man’s very persona was alluring, in some unexplainable way. It seemed to draw Sky in, made him persist when the case could easily be closed as unsolved and he could be done with it.
The doors pinged slightly as they slid open onto the immaculate upper-floor lobby, and he was outside in no time. It was another crisp, breezy day, and pulling his jacket tighter around him he stepped into the skyway train, grabbing hold of one of the bars that ran along the ceiling. The train lurched forward as the doors shut behind him, slowly at first, and then picked up speed as autumn sunlight gleamed from the windows of buildings it passed, reflecting on the faces of the bored passengers. They went straight past the Channel 9 news building, then the Paradise Café, right into the heart of the city. Shooting straight past Noble Tower, the train stopped at a platform a few blocks away. No trains stopped at the tower itself. There wasn’t even a platform for them to do so.
Sky sauntered out, hands in his pockets as he headed through the gusts of wind as it blew between the nearby buildings. Behind him he heard the train shoot on down the skyway track. So from the looks of things, he would need to take the elevator down to the street, and then find an entrance to the tower there. Seemed simple enough. Within a few minutes he felt his feet on the solid pavement as he exited an elevator, soft brown eyes peering around him. Three blocks away he saw the solid, black foundations of Noble Tower, and started off in that direction.
He wondered what would happen when he tried to get in. Would they recognize him and correct the error of letting him live? Would he be able to get in and meet with Reichen, or even someone else associated with his dealings? He found that very unlikely.
His thoughts were stopped abruptly when he found himself at a large, stone-framed, oak door. Looking around for a bell or a buzzer, he found none, so instead he simply knocked. The oak was so thick he doubted anything could be heard from the inside, but then he heard a mechanical buzz from above. Looking up he saw a small camera mounted on the top of the doorframe, which had panned down to him and seemed to be zooming in. A few moments later, the door creaked open.
There stood Ms. Vernassis, the woman who had been with Reichen at the café. So this was the right place, after all. Her beautiful features were tilted slightly toward Sky, waiting for him to speak, hands on the hips of her black dress skirt. The matching suit jacket fit her to the smallest measurements.
“Hi … uh …” he muttered, not really knowing what to say. His hand itched to hold the gun hidden beneath his dark blue jacket, to feel safe in the touch of cold metal. “I’m here to see … Reichen?”
A small smile twitched from the corner of her lips. “Are you?” she asked brightly, her own brown eyes never leaving his for a moment. “What business do you have with him?”
How could he have not thought this far ahead? “I … I’m interested in joining his organization.” What else was he supposed to say?
“Um …” Sky stalled, looking around him as though he was making sure it was all clear to speak. “You know, the organization.”
“The only organization here is of Mr. Falls and myself. You know, Mr. Fraemont, you’re actually pretty bad at your job.”
“What?” he asked as though confused, heart hammering away in his chest. “I don’t …”
“My advice?” she said, her finger slipped beneath her suit jacket, obviously clenching a gun hidden behind it. “Stay out of Mr. Falls’ affairs. Otherwise you’re just going to get hurt. A nice boy like you must have something better to do than meddle with other people’s business.” Her smile was sickening.
“But, I’m not …” Ms. Vernassis held up a hand to stop him from speaking as she retrieved a small phone from her jacket pocket which had been buzzing for a few seconds. Putting it to her ear, she spoke softly.
“Yes, sir? Yes, that’s him.” Her eyes glanced at Sky for a moment. “Are you sure? Very well, sir.” Clicking the phone shut and returning it to her pocket, she sighed. “It seems I was wrong. Mr. Falls will see you now. Please follow me.” Sky entered and she shut the door behind him, then turned and moved down the hall, heels resounding on the polished stone floors. The inside of the tower was just as ornate as the exterior. Though all he could see was a narrow door-lined hall leading to a last set of metal elevator doors, the space was dripping of opulence. The way the stone was carved reminded Sky of the gothic churches of Europe, and the ceiling was painted to look like the night sky, strewn with a myriad of hidden creatures that had never been seen before by human eyes.
When they arrived at the elevator, the doors opened almost automatically and Ms. Vernassis entered promptly, turning to watch Sky as he did the same. There was silence as they rose, and Sky couldn’t even feel any sort of movement, and then the doors opened without warning onto a similar hallway as the one below. Ms. Vernassis started out again immediately, stopping by one of the doors along it and knocking. Then, hand on the knob as she turned it, the door opened and she stood to the side as Sky entered past her.
There were no windows. That was the first thing he noticed about the room. The walls were lined with bookshelves, all of them filled, and the only light came from a dimly burning fireplace, before which were two armchairs. The scent of roses permeated the air. He could just make out the head of a man with unruly black hair facing the flames in one of them.
“I knew you’d be back eventually,” the man said. Reichen Falls. “But this is … sooner than expected. At least a bit.” Still turned to the fireplace, he motioned to the chair beside him. “Sit.”
Sky stepped carefully over to the chair and sat down. He noticed he’d begun to sweat.
“So, what do you plan to do, Sky Fraemont?” Reichen asked earnestly. Peering over at him, Sky could see that he was smiling, those youthful features flickering in the firelight as his old eyes, the usual violet appearing black from the glare, held no emotion. “You made it all the way here, and do you even have a plan?”
“Then it’s obvious you didn’t come here to attempt an arrest. So why, then, did you go through all the trouble to track me down?”
The more he thought about it, the more Sky realized he didn’t really know. “I want …” Sky began, searching his mind for a reason. Then it came to him. “I want to know why. Why all this? All the destruction and intrigue. Why go through all this trouble for something that, as far as I can tell, yields no results?” Reichen’s smile widened.
“You want to know why? That’s a fairly complicated question, I’m sure you can imagine. Do you have time?” Sky nodded.
“Good.” Reichen took a breath, the smile gone from his face.
“All of us have a past. All of us, no matter if we know it or not. What we do with it is up to us. I was born twenty-four years ago. That’s all I know. I don’t know the location; I don’t know to whom. All I know is that I was, well, born. I grew up in an orphanage for the first ten years of my life in this very city. Orphanages, no matter what anyone says about them, are a horrible existence, Sky. The children that grow up there do so without purpose or any conception of self-worth. They are the disregarded and forgotten, and their well-being and future rest entirely on the chance that someone will come along and grab them up. Luckily, that’s precisely what happened to me at the age of ten.
“A rich architect, Martin Fitzgerald, adopted me that year. He had always wanted a child, and after his wife had died without giving him one, he had no desire to marry again. I was given the best education after that point, reading the finest authors and studying under the city’s best professors. Fitzgerald even taught me his favorite pastime: fencing. We would practice for hours each day, never tiring, despite his old age. The man was around seventy. He was truly a wonder, though, Sky. He built this tower around us now.
“Anyway, I began to seriously study to be a novelist around the age of twenty. For this I needed to leave the city for a while, and during this period, Fitzgerald’s health drastically declined. He got to the point very quickly where he couldn’t even do the simplest of tasks by himself. A year later, he died.”
Reichen paused for a few moments before going on. Sky was now watching the dancing flames, listening intently.
“I was still out of the city when this happened. No sooner had he passed away, then do you know what the city zoning department wanted to do? They made plans to destroy this building. It was of no use to them, they said, and could serve no practical purpose. The man was dead, and that was that. Why keep it? As soon as I heard this, I rushed back,” said Reichen. “It turned out that Fitzgerald had left everything to me. The zoning department has already known this, but hadn’t bothered mentioning it in the hopes that, once the wrecking ball got going, there wouldn’t be anything to do about it. I stopped the destruction at once. But this didn’t change what the event had done to me.
“You see, Sky, this city has a past. Martin Fitzgerald was part of that past. For people like me, who don’t know where they came from or why they’re there, discovery of a past can be the most important thing in our lives, and is never taken lightly. It appalled me that this city would disregard its history, its past, so easily, as though it were nothing. A new office building was needed somewhere, and that looked like the most profitable spot. A man’s history was going to be wiped out for an office building.” Sky nodded, and Reichen continued. The fire was getting lower.
“You can imagine how angry I was. Later that year, I heard that the office building was going to be built in another location, and that in spite of my decision not to allow Noble Tower to be destroyed, they were going to build it higher. Was I just supposed to stand by and let the history of the man who’d saved me from a life of monotony and meaninglessness get spat on like that. I couldn’t.
“The day the building was completed, there was a party for the zoning executives held inside. I knew what to do. I paid for the help of a few area large-scale gang efforts, and in the middle of the party that day an explosion went off on each floor. Hours later, it fell.
“What was I supposed to do? My life had purpose only because Fitzgerald chose to give it some. How could the history of a man so great be disregarded in favor of making a few extra bucks?”
“But so many deaths, so much carnage,” Sky said softly, looking back to the fire. “All of this just from that one stem? I can’t understand how you can justify it.”
“Can’t you, Sky?” Reichen smiled, shifting slightly in his chair to get a better view of his guest. “I did my own research as well. Your mother and father were murdered by a robber attempting to storm your first-floor apartment when you were a child. Knowing that you could never track down that criminal from so many years ago, hadn’t you chosen to enter the police field to bring other criminals who could commit similar crimes to justice?”
“Something like that,” he muttered. Sky had tried not to think about the murder for years. Only his dream from the night before had dredged it up in his memory.
“And when the police force wouldn’t allow you to sign on due to your age and training, you went ahead and became a private detective, didn’t you? In fact, what you’re doing here now stems from the very same source. So it’s not all that different from my situation.”
“Yeah, but …” He was unable to explain himself. “Some things can be forgiven, and some can’t.”
“Save that talk for church, Sky,” Reichen smiled. “God is dead in this room. But then again, you visit that church in the park, don’t you? Every few days, to make your confession. But confessing won’t help you any. Not with the world falling apart around you.”
“How did you know?” Sky asked, eyes wide.
“I know everything about you, Sky. I know everywhere you go, everything you do. I made sure of that before I brought you here.”
“Brought me here?”
“Brought you here. Who do you think made sure those papers on this case found their way to your office? Did you stop to check the return address and notice that, well, there was none?”
“Yeah, but I assumed …”
“Never assume,” Reichen cut him off. “Never assume.”
“But how did you …” The beeping coming from Reichen’s pocket stopped his words. Pulling a small, electronic watch from it, the host frowned, turned it off, and then pocketed it.
“It seems I have some business to attend to. You’ll have to excuse me.” Standing, he took one more look at Sky, smiling warmly. “It was a pleasure talking to you, Sky. I hope we can do it again in the future. Ms. Vernassis will show you out.” Then, turning on heel, he was gone from the room. Only that floral scent lingered.
“Yeah,” Sky sighed to no one in particular as he stood, seeing Ms. Vernassis waiting readily at the door. “We’ll do it again sometime.”
The café they’d chosen paled in comparison to the Paradise Café. It was barely a small room, with a few tables outside. But it was a quiet place, and that was exactly what Robyn wanted. She and Kento were sitting outside at one of the tables, sipping a cup of coffee each. Neither was really speaking. They just watched the people stroll by and the city go about its business. It was relaxing, to say the least.
“So what’s it like, working at a news station?” Kento broke the near-silence. He turned to her, taking another sip of his coffee. It was starting to get lukewarm. Seeing this, and hoping it would add on to her eventual tip, the waitress hurried over and filled the cup to the brim again.
“Nothing special, honestly,” Robyn shrugged. “It’s like any other job. I get there in the morning, go over the stories for the day, spend some time in makeup, then I’m on. After that, I usually have the rest of the day to myself, despite a few specials they have me do once in a while. But yeah, it’s certainly not Hollywood or anything.”
“I’ve always wanted to be in movies,” he smiled. “Ever since I was young, that’s what I saw myself doing in the future. To a kid, you know, nothing really seems too far to reach. In my mind, when I grow up, I’d just show my face to some famous director and I’d be the next big action star like that.” He snapped his fingers to emphasize the last word.
“So what happened?” Robyn asked, placing her cup on the table.
“One thing led to another,” he sighed. “My friends all left the area, one by one, and I was left alone. I needed something to be a part of. I felt, I don’t know, vulnerable without one. You know what happened after that. The Black Dragon Organization showed up, and I jumped onboard.”
“I don’t really see why not,” she took another sip. “You don’t have to worry about me saying anything.”
“I know that,” he beamed at her. “For some reason, Robyn, I feel like I can tell you anything. I don’t know why, and maybe it’s stupid of me to feel that way, but I do.”
“I’m glad.” Now he had her smiling, too.
“But I still have that hope,” he continued. “One day, I’m going to take a plane or something to Hollywood, and I’m going to land a big movie deal. I’ll bring my mom and dad, too. She won’t have to worry about me then, right? You never know, she might actually be proud of me.” He chuckled lightly.
“I’m sure she’s proud of you already,” Robyn offered. “In her own way, at least.” Kento ignored this.
“What do you think would happen if I quit the organization?” he asked softly, eyes focused on the blank façade of the building across the street.
“I don’t really know,” Robyn responded slowly, thinking about it. “Has anyone tried it before?”
“That’s the thing. No one has. There seems to be this general air in the field that backing out is not an option, but no one’s tried it yet. As far as I know, it’s perfectly fine. But what if it’s not? What if I ask and they do something? If I’ve learned one thing from all of this, it’s that there are some decisions you can’t take back. Once you say something, there’s no return from it. Your words are etched in stone in this business.”
“I’d say it wouldn’t hurt to try, but I think you pretty much explained that it would,” she sighed. Kento nodded. It was starting to get dark. They both looked at their watches. Almost six o’clock. The time had really flown by.
“Hey, I should get going,” Kento said, standing suddenly. “I’m supposed to be on assignment tonight. Nothing major, just some goods transportation jobs. But it was really fun. Really. I haven’t had a good talk like this since, well, years ago. Maybe … we can meet again tomorrow?” Robyn ran down her list of responsibilities quickly in her head. Empty.
“Sure,” she smiled, standing as well and slinging her pocketbook over her shoulder. “Here again?”
“Yeah, here. Okay, I have to run, really. Sorry for the rush, but I shouldn’t be late. Oh, and be careful with that leg.”
“Huh?” she drew a blank.
“Your leg,” he responded. “You’ve been limping, so you must have hurt it. Try to stay off it tonight, okay? And take your time getting here tomorrow. Around noon, we’ll do it. I’ll see yuh!” He turned and jogged off down the street. In a few moments he was lost in the crowd.
Robyn thought it was time she got back up to her apartment anyway. The streets were starting to clear out, which meant that things weren’t going to be too safe down there for too much longer. She made her way to the nearest public elevator.
Within a few minutes, she was back up to the middle level of the city and waiting in line again for a skyway train. They were crowded as usual at this time of day, so she had a while to linger around for the next one. Kento surfaced again and again in her mind, just as Reichen Falls had the day before. He was very attractive; she knew that for sure. So young, too, to have gotten involved in something like organized crime. The young man was so nice to talk to, also. A very relaxed atmosphere. She was actually looking forward to meeting him again the next day.
Don’t get ahead of yourself, Robyn, she chided herself. He’s five years younger than you. She laughed at the idea of even thinking there was a chance of a relationship there. No, theirs would be a simple, if unconventional, friendship. She was fine with that. She didn’t have so many friends anymore, in any case. Maybe she could even help him. With her job, she had a lot of access to information. Maybe she could help him get out of his situation. Well, at least that would give her something to research and pass the rest of the evening with.
There was a roar as the train neared and then screeched to a halt. Robyn boarded with the rest of the line, took a seat, and then shot off toward home.
The next morning Sky awoke in his apartment to the sound of a light rain on his windows. It was nothing much, and it wouldn’t get in the way of what he had planned for the day. The night before, he had made arrangements to meet with a friend of his, Luke. Roughly around the age of forty, the man had connections to nearly ever criminal organization in the area. Sky had heard reports that the Black Dragon Organization was still present in the city, even after he had successfully taken down its leader, and Luke seemed like the right guy to go to for answers.
He got out of bed and stretched before lighting a cigarette. It was a bad habit, smoking so early in the morning, but he needed it to calm his nerves. For some reason, the rain only made them worse. He took a few puffs before going to the small kitchenette and pouring himself a glass of orange juice. Orange juice and a cigarette? Not very consistent.
Turning on the TV, he could see through a light film of static the face of Reichen Falls. The news was recapping an interview with him that had been on the day before. He turned up the volume, but all he could hear was white noise, so he turned it off pretty soon after.
Sky spent a few hours on the computer and with his limited amount of files catching up on his research for other cases. Going through three cups of coffee, he actually got a lot done before ten o’clock, then decided it was time to get going. He dressed quickly in one of his usual blue suits, secured his gun holster, locked the door and got going.
Luke had a bar just a few blocks away, and anyone who was anyone in the world of crime eventually showed his or her face there. That was how Luke got to know as much as he knew. They would brag about their stories and plans to him as he served them drinks, and he would pretend to listen innocently, all the while remembering each and every word they said. He’d helped Sky on quite a few cases that way, with the information he’d gathered, and Sky was grateful.
Taking the stairs down to the street, since the elevator was still, unsurprisingly, not fixed, he entered the fine mist of a rain, hands in his pockets, and trudged along, head down, ignoring everything and everyone around him. The kind of people who made the street their place of business wouldn’t let a little rain bother them, and they were out in normal force, with the usual marketing intensity. “Orphanages, no matter what anyone says about them, are a miserable existence,” Reichen had said. Wasn’t the same true about life down there on the street? There was no real meaning to any of it, really.
Before he knew it, Sky was already at the bar. He pushed open the loose wooden door and stepped inside the dimly lit establishment. Cigarette smoke filled the air, and some light blues was playing from a speaker hidden somewhere. In his attempt to make the place look a little classier, Luke had installed a number of stained-glass lamps, but most of them had been broken during the occasional barroom brawl, and the ones that remained cast blood-red and acid-green light here and there, consuming half the place in shadow.
It was empty so early, though, and Luke himself stood behind the counter, restocking the shelves with his best liquor. He looked up when the door opened. “Sky,” he smiled, bearing a few broken teeth. “Long time no see, eh, kid?” Sky nodded and approached the bar, sliding onto one of the stools.
“A vodka, please, straight up,” he mumbled.
“This early?” Luke asked, already pouring it.
“I have the feeling I’m going to need it,” Sky smiled now, looking up at his old friend.
“Uh oh, you have another rough case?”
“Yeah,” he nodded, taking the glass from Luke and placing it on the counter before him. “I think I need your help on this one.“
“You think so?” Luke laughed. “I should tell you, there haven’t been that many people coming in here lately. Seems like someone found out they had a rat on their hands, if you know what I mean.”
“Still,” Sky shrugged. “I thought maybe you’d know something.”
“Cigarette?” Luke offered one.
“No thanks, I have my own,” he answered. Luke nodded and lit up, sucking the air through his mouth and letting it pour from his nostrils. Smoking that way had started as a trick to intimidate his opponents in his younger years, but had become a habit.
“So what do you need to know?” he inquired nonchalantly.
“You hear of the Black Dragon?” Luke seemed to think for a minute, then nodded again.
“Yeah, they’ve been real active around here for the past … year, I think? They’re from Japan. Tokyo or something, I don’t know. But their boss was killed a few days ago, or so the members that have come in here claim.”
“Yeah, I know that. The guy cost me a bullet that was worth a couple cents more than he was,” Sky smiled roguishly.
“That was your work?” Luke asked, surprised. “You’re really moving up, kid. Anyway, they’re on the payroll of some city big shot. He calls himself the Gentleman. Nobody knows who he really is, but his name’s pretty much a shadow down here that seems to stretch to every corner of the system, if you know what I mean.”
“You’re pretty popular, eh? So the Black Dragon’s involved in mainly arms theft and money laundering, but lately I’ve been hearing some stuff about small terrorist actions. Like that building, the hotel or whatever, that was destroyed two days ago. That was them.”
“Thanks for the history lesson, Luke, but do you have any idea what the group has in mind next?” Sky was beginning to get a little impatient. The door opened and a man entered the bar, taking a seat at a corner table. A few seconds later, two others entered, taking seats across the room. Luke’s morning customers were starting to show up.
“Yeah, yeah,” Luke mumbled. “I’m getting to that. Last night this guy comes in. Pretty young, I’d say around nineteen or twenty. He’d just gotten off work and says they’ve been shipping whole crates of explosives across the city. You know that government building just finished downtown? He figured that was going to be the next target.”
“I see,” Sky muttered. “And you’re sure that’s what you heard?”
“Absolutely,” he nodded. Noticing that he hadn’t touched his drink, Sky lifted the small glass to his lips, tilted his head back and downed it in one gulp. Putting it back on the counter, he slid the glass to Luke.
“Looks like I have some work to do, then.”
“You aren’t thinking of going against them now, are you? Sure, you took down one guy, and he was a big deal, I know, but your chances aren’t so good against the whole organization.”
“Just trying to make the world a little safer,” Sky replied, sliding off the stool.
“You know, if you go against them, that means you’re going against that guy, the Gentleman. He’s no pushover, if what I hear is true.”
“He’s only human. Like you and me. Maybe even a little less so.” He turned to go.
“Sky, wait,” Luke called after him. He fumbled under the counter for something as Sky turned back, then placed a palm-sized, smooth black metal ball with a small piece of metal coming out of one end onto the table. “If you’re going to challenge the Gentleman, it’s best to fight fire with fire.”
“A grenade?” Sky smiled. “Don’t you think that’s going a little overboard to protect a dump like this?” Luke shrugged.
“I brought this thing and told myself that if anyone ever tried to take me down, I was going to take this whole place and them down with me,” he laughed. “I was young, then. People do a lot of idealistic, stupid things when they’re young. Think it all means something.”
“Thanks,” Sky said, taking the grenade into his hand and pocketing it.”
“You be careful, kid,” Luke threw him a look of genuine concern.
“Don’t worry about me, old man. But I have to go.” He turned and walked to the door.
“Where are you going?” he heard the bartender yell curiously from behind him.
“You know me, Luke,” Sky smirked. Swinging the door open, he walked into the rain. It seemed to be coming down harder now. “I’ve got to go pray.”
The rubber mannequin was sliced easily in two across the middle as the German-made schläger blade cut cleanly through it, leaving not a hint of the material on the finely polished steel. Reichen continued the cut, turning on one foot and planting the other one slowly so the sword passed through one more dummy, this one at the neck. The head fell to the floor, bouncing a few feet away before coming to a rest.
He then brought the weapon up, turning it to point at himself, and then pushed it through the space between arm and waist, impaling the last dummy behind him and twisting the sword, jerking it out roughly as he spun to face the final victim, cutting diagonally through the collarbone of the already wounded practice target until he reached the center of the abdomen. Dressed in his gray suit and purple shirt as he had been at the café, Reichen had barely broken a sweat.
Sliding the blade free, he walked to the corner of the long, well-lit room and took the scabbard that rested against the wall, sheathing it. Seeing that he was done, Ms. Vernassis cleared her way through gently from her position by the door, alerting him of her presence. She had arrived during his training session, but had chosen not to interrupt. He was something wondrous when in action, anyway, and she had been in no way bored.
“Ms. Vernassis,” he smiled, sword still in hand.
“Sir,” she nodded, keeping her features as expressionless as always. “It seems the detective, Mr. Fraemont, is up to more. One of our associates overheard him and a local bar owner discussing the Black Dragon’s future plans, and the attack on the government building came up. When Sky left, it seemed as though he was heading for a confrontation.”
“Is that so?” he mused, turning her words over in his head. So Sky had decided not to lay still and accept things as they were. He was somewhat dismayed that even after telling his story to him, the young man was still not convinced of the purity of his cause. He sighed. “Then, as much as it pains me to say, you know what has to be done.”
“I’ll deal with him, sir,” she nodded.
“No, no,” Reichen shook his head. “I’ll deal with him myself.”
“But sir, a direct conflict is bound to be dangerous.”
“I certainly hope so,” he scoffed, a dangerous glint in those violet eyes. “I’ve been stuck in this tower for far too long. It’s about time I got out and actually did something for myself, right? My main error all this time has been relying on others to do my work.”
“I understand, sir,” Ms. Vernassis bowed slightly.
“You’ll take care of the boy, then? The one with the Black Dragon Organization? It seems he’s been talking. I don’t want this to continue, as you can imagine it might spoil everything.”
“Of course, Mr. Falls. He’ll be tracked and eliminated.” The two were silent for a moment. Then Reichen was in motion again. Carrying his sword with him, he approached the door, going almost past her before he stopped, turning to the woman. Gently, but alarming nonetheless, he put a hand to her cheek, gazing into her eyes. After a few seconds, she calmed down a bit, relaxing to his touch, though her heart beat twice as fast as usual. The scent of roses was intoxicating.
“Take care of yourself, Cassandra,” he almost whispered, for the first time using her first name. She shuddered. Then his hand was gone and he had passed her, moving into the hall and then out of sight.
“You, too, Mr. Falls,” she whispered to the empty room. “Please, don’t leave me alone.”
Robyn kept her beige umbrella over her head as she made her way down the same street she and Kento had visited the day before. It was raining heavily, more so than it had been when she left her apartment. Despite the fact that she was headed toward a café, she held a steaming cup of coffee in her free hand, taking a few sips here and there.
She was tremendously tired, having stayed up into the late hours of the night looking up what she could about gangs and street crime organizations. Anything that she thought could help Kento she had printed out and now lay in a folder nestled under her arm. Ignoring her slight fatigue, since the caffeine was already beginning to lift that, she was in a fairly good mood.
According to what she’d read, people around Kento’s age got into his kind of trouble all the time, and it was a fairly simple matter to get out of it for most. All he would need to do was make it clear to the organization that he was done. There could not be a doubt left in their mind, or a reason to contact him. He would also need to assure them that in leaving the organization, he was not about to run to the authorities or compromise their security. It was all about trust.
All right, she thought. So maybe it’s not so simple. But it can be done. And that’s the most important thing here. It can be done. She smiled, having assured herself, and quickened her pace, ignoring the pain in her ankle. She was already late. The aftereffect of staying up so late was that she had overslept that morning, and had to hurry over everything as she got ready. But the café was in sight now and so she slowed down again.
Kento poked his head out from the overhang of the building, catching sight of her and waving. Robyn smiled, waving back while trying to keep her umbrella steady. When she was almost within twenty feet of the café, she heard it.
The sound of an explosion came from the other side of the street. It took her a few moments to realize what had happened, and already people were scattering, leaving a block radius around the scene. When she looked back at him, Kento was slumped against the glass window, clutching at his chest. She rushed to his side, and then he saw her.
Across the pavement on the other side of the road stood a woman, pistol in hand, her other arm hanging down limply at her side. She was beautiful, the woman she had seen at the Paradise Café during the interview with Reichen Falls. She met Robyn’s gaze with an expression of neither pity nor malice, and simply turned, making her way back down the street. A sad world it was, Robyn realized when no one stopped her. She herself was frozen to the spot. Then she remembered Kento.
She pulled his hand gently away from his wound, and saw the blood immediately. There was a lot of it, flowing freely now that no pressure was being applied to it. She pressed her own hand against it, feeling the warm liquid seeping through her fingers; his life slipping away every second. “Kento, can you hear me?!” she yelled into his ear.
“Of course I can,” he smiled weakly. “You’re not even a foot away.”
“How’s the pain?” she asked.
“How do you think?” he grunted, face contorting for a moment in anguish, but it passed quickly. He bit his bottom lip at another surge.
“Someone call an ambulance!” she screamed to the people as they passed. The threat of a gun gone, they had eerily resumed daily life. “This man needs an ambulance immediately!” No one listened. Searching through her purse, she grabbed her cell phone and dialed 911. “Hang on, Kento,” she murmured, reapplying pressure to his chest. Her folder of papers was scattered across the street, soaked now in rain.
“Hello, 911 Emergency,” said the calm voice of a faceless woman.
“Hello?!” Robyn had to fight to lower her voice. “This is Robyn McPhee. I’m calling from ... ”
“We’ve tracked your call, Ms. McPhee,” the voice replied coolly. “What’s the problem?”
“I’m with a man. He’s been shot. No one’s giving any help, and I need an ambulance right now. He’s losing a lot of blood and I don’t know what to do. Please help,” she sobbed.
“The area you’re in will take a while for an ambulance to reach, ma’am.” No emotion whatsoever. “If you were at the skyway level or above, that would be a different matter, but as things stand ... ” Robyn hung up.
“They don’t care,” mumbled Kento, a trail of blood dribbling down his chin. “Everything takes money now. I don’t have it, so why would they care?”
“That’s crap,” Robyn burst out. “They’re going to be here. They tracked the call. There’ll be an ambulance here in no time.”
“Yeah, in no time,” he repeated, absentmindedly. “You know, somehow I always knew this would happen. I don’t know how, but I always knew …” When she felt his head fall back, she knew he was dead without even having to take his pulse.
Looking down at his face, Robyn could see nothing but youth and opportunity. Why hadn’t the Black Dragon recruiters seen this as well? Why hadn’t they dissuaded him from joining? That was the only human thing to do. It was what she would have done, so it must be the only human thing to do.
She stroked his hair and wiped the blood from his face with her finger. She would need to tell his mother.
The great wooden door creaked noisily as Sky entered the church, the cathedral. Its immense structure had beckoned to him as he had walked the park in silence, and when he reached it, he realized that he was almost soaked. He shook himself and a few stray droplets splattered on the cold stone floor. The door shut with a muffled thud behind him.
The rain was intensifying outside, and he could hear it pounding on the roof. But the inside was dry, lit by the rows of candles that lined the pews and the rest in cold blue light that flowed through the stained glass windows. He had always found it odd that the priest took the time to light the candles, even though barely anyone came. That was faith, he supposed. Sighing, he dipped his finger into the small dish of holy water beside the entrance and made the sign of the cross on his body.
Sky walked toward the confessional, dripping water here and there as he went. Then, pushing the thick burgundy curtain aside, he ducked in and took a seat. There was shuffling outside as the priest entered the other box.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” Sky spoke softly.
“And of what nature are these sins?” came the response.
“I fear I may have to kill again.”
“So you haven’t gone through with it yet?”
“No,” he shook his head. “But I’ve set myself on a path that I can’t stray from.”
“A very religious notion. What makes you think you’re stuck on this path?”
“I know I am,” Sky muttered. “When I started this work, when I took up this job, I told myself that whatever came along that was a danger to the people around me, something that I could do, I would do it. Even if I couldn’t, I promised myself I’d try.” He could smell the rain mixing with incense burning within the church.
“And you cannot deviate? Even if the task at hand is so overwhelming? Even if it defies all other reason?”
“No, I can’t,” he said. “I’m sorry, Father.”
“Don’t be,” the voice seemed to be smiling. “Don’t you see, Mr. Fraemont? Now you finally understand.” Mr. Fraemont? He had just leapt from the confessional as he heard the sickening crack of the wooden wall exploding inward. Landing on his hands and knees outside, he turned just in time to see a blade, plunged through the wall from the priest’s confessional into his, being wrenched back. In another moment, the curtains were thrown out of the way and Reichen Falls stepped out, sword in hand. He wore a black trench coat over his suit, the remnants of rain visible on his shoulders. Those violet eyes smirked down at him, almost condescending. “Hello again, Sky.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth then he lunged forward, sword arcing over his head to slice down at the nearly prostrate detective. Sky rolled out of the way just in time, drawing his gun from the holster beneath his jacket as he did so. He heard the metal strike the stone floor behind him. Seeing him with the gun, Reichen leapt behind the confessional as Sky fired a few shots after him. They struck the solid wood, splintering jagged holes in the surface. Footsteps echoed in the wide expanse as Reichen moved on, but Sky couldn’t see where he went.
“What happened to the priest?” Sky yelled to the emptiness.
“He’s moved on to his paradise,” Reichen’s voice laughed. The echo made it impossible to trace the location it had come from. Sky swore to himself. “But I thought I’d let you go through with your confession, anyway. I told you, Sky, God is dead. I have just as much right to judge as anyone else.”
“You bastard,” he growled through clenched teeth, scurrying to the wall, his gun held ready, moving cautiously.
“But you, Sky,” Reichen continued. “You can’t judge until you accept the truth for what it is. You and I are one in the same. True, we have different motivations and different goals, but the ways we go about attaining those goals are quite similar. We will allow nothing to stand in our way. Nothing.” Another echo of footsteps, this time they came from higher up. There was only one place he could be.
Sky rushed to the stairway that led up to the choir landing. Waiting at the bottom, he turned quickly behind him to make sure he wasn’t being followed. His gun faced emptiness. Hand on the railing, he started to ascend, stepping slowly and to the sides of the steps to prevent the stairs from creaking. “But now we’ve reached a problem. Two people as similar as you and I cannot exist together when our interests overlap like this. It’s a shame. We could have learned from one another. I truly believe that.”
Sky was about halfway up the steps, remaining completely silent. “But that’s the way of this city. I reached where I stand today by chance, and by chance I must destroy the one person who might have been able to truly understand me.” He was almost at the landing. “If God is really out there somewhere, clinging to life, he must have quite a sick sense of humor. The world is quickly decaying, Sky. You should have started to build, but it‘s too late for that now. You‘re just going to have to decay with it.”
Sky’s foot stepped onto the polished wooden landing as the last word rolled from Reichen’s tongue. He saw the man there, standing with his back to the biggest stained glass window in the building, depicting in nearly graphic detail the Crucifixion. The two stood there motionless for a moment, Reichen’s sword glinting in the blue light and Sky’s hand still resting on the railing. But only for a moment.
Springing to life, Reichen leapt forward, blade slashing across at Sky’s gut. He stumbled back out of Reichen’s range, gun rising as he did so and fired two shots at his assailant, both missing by about a foot and impacting the stonewall behind him.
Sky sidestepped, coming between Reichen and the window so that the novelist’s features were etched clearly in the light. His lips were curled in the hint of a smile, and his sword struck Sky’s gun, pushing it so it aimed up at the ceiling and holding it there, the next few shots firing away harmlessly. His free hand also went to the broad side of his blade, applying even more pressure in an attempt to turn its aim on Sky himself. He didn’t notice, however, that the pinky finger of that hand landed right over the gun barrel.
Sky fired one more shot, and blood sprayed for a moment from the stump where the finger used to be. The force of impact threw Reichen’s arm back, and he screamed an almost inhuman scream, amplified by the echo. His arm then slumped limply to his side, apparently nearly dislocated from the wild movement. Now his visage was contorted in a bestial snarl as Sky pressured the trigger of his gun again and again, only hearing empty clicks. He was out of bullets.
Taking the opportunity, Reichen drew back his sword arm, swiping at the gun. It flew from Sky’s hand, and a slash appeared on his wrist where the blade had grazed him. It was all over. But instead of running him through with the sword, Reichen took a step closer, his voice much deeper, the calm tone that it had held before replaced with an almost psychotic glee. “Behold how the old conquers the new,” he sneered, his free hand going straight for Sky’s throat, grabbing him and lifting him into the air. Blood from his missing finger dripped down Sky’s shirt. “Now, Sky, fly with your angels.”
“Reichen Falls,” Sky spat back as he tried to rip free of the man’s iron grasp.
“Go to hell.” Reichen laughed wildly as he threw Sky backward, straight toward the stained glass window. Hand going to his pocket, shards cascaded around Sky as he passed through it. He didn’t even hear the crash. All he saw was the face of his enemy as he felt the weight of that cold metal ball in his hand. Pulling out the pin, he tossed it back in through the window as he began his descent toward rain-soaked ground. If Reichen even saw it roll past him, there would be no time to react.
Right before Sky hit the grass he saw what looked like a small sun erupting from the second floor of the cathedral. It grew in size, erupting with a cloud of debris, until it stretched out over him, then slowly dissipated, leaving only smoke being pierced by the rain. Then Sky’s back struck the ground, and he lost consciousness.
The crowd gathering in the hall of the city university’s chapel was of a somber appearance, all dressed in black, some even weeping as they strode inside and took their seats. Afternoon sunlight streamed in through the high windows, and the flower-laden memorial that stood at the head of the room held a single picture of the famous, young novelist, his youthful features knowingly smiling out at the sea of faces.
A detective, his broken body supported by a single crutch, hobbled inside, taking the occasional drag on a cigarette. “Excuse me, sir,” an usher moved to him and spoke in a hushed voice. “You shouldn’t be smoking in here.” The young man glared at him and the usher backed away. Sky Fraemont took his seat.
Damn you, Reichen, he thought to himself. Even in death it has to be so elaborate. The doors to the hall closed quietly, and like a wave, silence passed over all inside, and attention was turned to the front of the room. The dean of the university stood before them now, head bowed in visible, perhaps forced, sadness. “It grieves me to be here today,” he began. “Because to be here means that we must acknowledge in passing a young member of the literary community. Barely a week ago, Reichen Falls, the renowned romance novelist, passed away in a supposed terrorist action in the middle of this very city. I had a few words prepared myself, but it seems as though he had his eulogy written and prepared by himself years before this tragic event. Fitting, for a writer to come up with his own eulogy. I would now like to invite Ms. Cassandra Vernassis, Reichen Falls’ private secretary, up to the podium to read his last words to us all.”
He nodded to a woman in the front row who soon stood. The dean took his own seat facing the assembly. Ms. Vernassis’s usual beauty was subdued today, hair falling down her back and lips colored a light pink. From the audience, Robyn McPhee’s eyes burned holes in her. Facing the crowd, she shuffled her papers, took one look around, and then began to read.
“So you came,” her voice not betraying a single tremble. “I always wondered if my life would be sufficient to warrant a large funeral after my death. Apparently, to some extent, it was. So since it was my novels that drew you to me, it seems only fitting that we should part with one last story.”
Ms. Vernassis took a pause.
“Once there was a boy who wanted nothing more than to have a story to tell. He had come into the world without a past or a visible future. The other boys and girls all had their compiled adventures; a repertoire of tales to use whenever the occasion arose. But the boy had none.
“One day, however, he met a man who gave him the chance he’d been looking for. The man took him out of his boring life and showed him a world he had never even known existed. He sent the boy on a journey, and from this journey the boy gathered a myriad of stories and experiences, and couldn’t wait to return and tell the old man. But before he could, the old man died.
“Returning immediately, he grieved for the loss, and stored his tales on a shelf for one day when they would become useful again. Over time, this boy too became a man, and decided to make a living telling his stories. But no matter what he did, he could never tell the one most important to him. The journey itself was his greatest tale, but he kept it to himself. There was no one worth telling anymore.
“Years later, the man could not keep the story on his shelf anymore. He wanted to spread it to the world, so they could learn from it; both about him and about themselves. He knew that if he was just to relate this simple lesson, it could have the power to change people’s lives. He searched for a way to do so, and when he finally did, it was too late. All of the other stories from his life had caught up to him, and no one wanted to hear that particular story anymore. Perhaps they never did. Even to those he forced to listen it made no sense.
“But quite apart from being angry, he was relieved at having told it. Perhaps the point of a story like that, he thought, is to impart some lesson only after the fact. And so he left the world quietly to ponder his message.” The faces of the guests were puzzled. What did all of this have to do with anything?
Ms. Vernassis ignored them and went on.
“We each have our stories to tell, like the boy. We all search for our own private listener, who will pay attention and comprehend what we have to say. To each of us our lives are of the utmost importance, and convey some greater meaning and message. I understand now that this is not always the case. What we believe to have meaning may, in reality, have none. And what we think is meaningless may contain the greatest lessons of all.
“And so it is our responsibility to discern the meaning from the chaos, and sometimes learn from the street-walking messiahs rather than the self-proclaimed professors. Meaning can be found in even the most senseless of tragedies. I leave you with those last words, and wish you all luck on your own personal quests for understanding.”
Ms. Vernassis looked up again, folding the paper in half. That was it. Undetectable to all, a lone tear rolled slowly down her cheek.
Sky sat in the university courtyard long after the memorial had let out, smoking his tenth cigarette that day. His crutch resting on the stone bench, those light brown eyes peered up at the cloudless blue sky as it gradually was mixed with the orange of sunset. “You’ve got it wrong, for once,” he shook his head slowly, speaking into oblivion. “I understood what you were saying perfectly. I knew it was true.”
A light gust of wind was his own reply. “I just didn’t like what I heard. What I think you suggested was a world without hope. But didn’t you realize it was only that way because that’s how we made it? It’s easier to destroy than create. Why couldn’t you follow your own advice and start building?” A few leaves scraped across the cobblestone courtyard. He sighed, pulling himself to his feet with the help of his crutch.“Maybe you did get it across to them at the end,” he whispered to the leaves. “Maybe they’ll take the ball and run with it. But if they don’t, I’ll always be there, Reichen. That’s one thing you can be sure of.” Flicking the cigarette to the ground, he put it out with his crutch, and left the courtyard. Only the leaves remained behind.
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