by Lloyd Montgomery
Clio walked into the bar, hiding her discomfort; her robes and cloak held tightly together. Trying to act calm, she avoided brushing too close to any of the… people in this place. The patrons did the same for her. Like oil and water in the same vessel, neither wanting to mix with the other. As she sauntered by, outcasts from a hundred societies and a dozen types—soldiers, madmen, displaced natives; the Apaches, mercenaries, and gypsies of the centuries—quieted down and watched her go past, trying not to stare too obviously; aroused and wary at the same time.
This was not her usual haunt, but the one she sought was here. Unless on an assignment, he was always here. Give him that, she thought, he never starts trouble. Someone always has to ask him first. Usually some fool like me.
She spotted him at the bar, perched on a stool, staring moodily at a tall glass of amber liquid held before him.
“Azrael,” she started, walking up behind him.
“That name,” he snapped, “is out of date. Try another.”
“Coyote then?” she asked, trying to maintain her calm. She was unused to being corrected in dive bars.
He laughed, a short sharp bark, “Not quite. Try again.”
Her patience broke, “You tell me then.” Anger helped, it made her feel like she fit in better.
“Call me Vali, here and now.”
“Vali then, its been a while.” Two Hell’s Angels, circa 1970, made room for her at the bar.
He seemed disappointed to see her, “Lady. You shouldn’t be here. Those who come to this place are hardly in need of inspiration.” Then he changed the subject, “To what do I owe this honor?” He switched tracks again and gestured to the bartender, “A drink for the lady, Morty. Ice water and lemon.” Very nearly an insult. The shadow behind the bar moved to comply.
She chose to ignore it, “I’m looking for you, of course.” A corporal from La Legion E’trangere, about 1876, still wearing his Kepi Blanc gave her the eye and raised his glass. She ignored him.
“I’m flattered, but…” he joked.
“Hardly that. Your services are needed again.”
Sigh, “They always are. Above, Below, or In Between.” It was half a statement and half a question.
“Earth has a problem.”
Snort, “It has problems uncountable, always has, always will. Tell Michael or Samedi, they actually enjoy that disgusting shithole.” He took a long drink, trying to wash away memories.
“This problem requires a certain subtlety that they do not possess.” She seemed embarrassed, “Besides, neither of them is exactly… neutral… are they?”
He stopped. An eyebrow rose. “Say on.”
“A High Civilization madman, what they call a serial killer. He is already walking hand-in-hand with the Darkness, even if he doesn’t consciously acknowledge it.”
“A dime a dozen, there and then. What makes this one special?” He was trying very hard not to be interested.
“I don’t know, I was not told the details. Only that he must be stopped and normal channels would be… inadequate.” She looked down, looked back at him, “Restrictions have been imposed, making it, in my opinion, impossible to stop him. Because of certain arrangements between certain Powers there can be no direct tampering.” She tried to keep the bitter irony out of her voice but failed.
“Lady, you shouldn’t involve yourself in such tawdry goings on, doesn’t Riasanovsky need you right now? Or Shelby Foote?” he asked, almost sadly.
“Do not mock me, Fixer.” Despite the power in her voice he seemed unmoved. “This has to be done and it is going to be difficult. Due to the involvement of the Powers I have mentioned your interference can only be minimal.”
Repeat snort, “Provided I’m actually stupid enough to take the job.” He took another drink and said, “Define minimal.”
She knew right then, she had him, he was hooked. One cannot deny one’s nature.
“You only get three indirect moves against him.”
“Three, eh? Is there a time limit, plus or minus?” He idly spun a bottlecap on the bar.
“None, but with only three tries you cannot succeed.”
“If you are so sure of that, why even ask for my help?”
“I have studied him, he will not break. His will is too strong,” she continued, ignoring his question.
He laughed, a quiet chuckle, “Oh, ye of little faith.”
“You cannot just stop him, he must be destroyed.”
“A minor problem; if he can be stopped he can be killed.” He ordered another drink.
“This one is different, you haven’t seen him. I have. I have looked inside this one, he is beyond evil.” She wanted to scream at him, hit him, call him out. He had no idea what he was dealing with.
“I don’t need to, everyone has a weakness,” he said with that same monolithic calm. “In the end, it’s all the same.”
“What can you possibly use against him?”
He held up a fist, “At the right opportunity: Curiosity, Honesty and…” he opened his hand, slowly, one finger at a time, “Pride, I think.” He seemed amused by the concept.
“Can you bring it off with just those?”
A slow nod, “He’ll break. I’ll need my first moves for partial influence on two others, retroactively.” He sipped at his drink.
“Which two?” She picked up hers as well, just for something to do with her hands, she didn’t even like water with lemon.
“The honest one and the curious one, of course. In addition, I’ll need one tie.”
“You cannot use it on the target.”
“I won’t need to.” That annoying smile crept back onto his face.
She shook her head, “Better than you have tried and failed. Don’t you understand? Raguel turned the job down on these terms.”
“Really? Who were the others? The ones who tried and failed.” He seemed only idly curious.
“Shiro and Ajax.”
“Good people, but if this were Hollywood those two would be described as ‘action-adventure’ stars. Rather lacking in a certain sense of finesse.”
“Have you no sense of dignity? They are Heroes; they do not fail.” I have lost my touch, she thought. He doesn’t understand the gravity of this situation.
“Tell it to your sister, Calliope.” For the first time he turned and looked at her, “Would you send a soldier to do a spy’s job? Or worse, a warrior to do a soldier’s?” He reached out and gently touched her face, “No? Then watch and remember, little sister. Watch and remember.”
* * *
Ahhh, welcome back to the twenty-first century. Hasn’t changed much really, has it? Not the important stuff… Computers and cable television; the Information Age. Well, well, well… This has some possibilities, doesn’t it?
Let’s start with curiosity, then. Shall we?
* * *
Richard Franklin Holmes was born in rural Mississippi, the youngest of five. His father was an auto mechanic, his mother worked at a laundry. His family had lived in the same town for going on two hundred years. His reasons for leaving home and joining the Navy hadn’t been the usual ones, given his background—a young black man from a deep-south town. Prejudice wasn’t a problem, ignorance was. His ignorance. The news was just too slow. Things didn’t happen fast enough. He wanted to know what else was going on out in the world and he wanted to know as it happened. He had been born with an insatiable desire to learn, to find out. As a Navy communications specialist things were great, they paid him to collect information. For him CNN and the World Wide Web were signs of Wisdom direct from the Almighty. He did his twenty years in the military and decided, on a whim, to retire to New York City. If you want to know what’s going on, what better place to find out?
He got a job as a bartender (what better way to learn about people?) and rented a small apartment. His many new friends and neighbors smiled and shook their heads over his computer fixation, his down-south accent, and the fact that he read five different daily newspapers, plus USA Today, front-to-back. But what the hell, you could do worse than having an ex-Navy Master Chief for a neighbor.
* * *
Moving right along. My compliments to Diogenes—like he said, all we need now is an honest man. Not necessarily a rare thing, but let’s put him in a place where it will do some good.
* * *
Daniel Carlos Ricardi, second generation New Yorker by way of dirt-floor-and-adobe-walls San Salvador, became a police officer because it seemed like the right thing to do. Even as a Latino kid growing up in NYC, he had always felt an affinity for the cops, rather than the gangs that he saw opposing them. His parents—Dad, a city subway worker, and Mom, a housewife raising three kids—had done their best to instill a sense of morality and honesty in all their children. Danny got it young, though. It was a no-brainer for him. In every group there were some that were better than the rest. Even if there were good cops and bad cops, the good cops had the high ground. They could rise above their background and upbringing. Barrio, urban ghetto, even the lower-middle-class neighborhood Danny grew up in. You could become a cop, then you could become a good cop; after that you were flying above the rest. It didn’t have to be just a job, it could be a calling.
His father helped him fill out the financial aid forms; Mom and Dad helped pay the bills. Two years and one Associates degree in Criminal Justice later, Danny Ricardi, an ethnic minority in an organization that welcomed such (if only to fill out a quota), got the job he always wanted.
* * *
Invoke a tie between these two. Mr. Holmes, meet Mr. Ricardi. Mr. Ricardi, this is Mr. Holmes. Play nice.
Now, lets dance.
* * *
It looked like the FDNY was going to get the fire under control before it burned down much more than the block. Just another random gangsta-related arson in the Big Apple. The two men, one older and more worldly-wise, the other younger and more street-smart, watched the flames.
The policeman looked at the bartender.
“Good job calling this in, sir,” he said. “Any slower and we’d be watching a square mile go up.”
“God, what a mess.” The bartender shook his head. “I thought I left the AKs and soda-bottles fulla gas back in the Med.”
“Coulda been a whole lot worse, you hadn’t called us.” Ricardi was surprised, this old boy was actually upset. Most New Yorkers had thicker skin.
“I guess so.” He wiped the soot off on his pants and held out a hand, “Richard Holmes, I bartend nights down the street at Casey’s. Call me Rick.”
The cop shook the offered hand, “Danny Ricardi, DC to my friends. Casey’s, eh? I might stop in some night. Got a transfer to day shift coming up.”
Each was surprised to see honesty on the face of the other.
“I’ll save you a seat.”
“Save me a Rolling Rock and I’ll be there.”
* * *
Hello, Dead Man. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. Shh… Pay no attention to me. I’m not here. Now that you have arrived the stage is set, the cast is all assembled, the curtain rises on our little drama. All we need from you is one oh-so-tiny little slip. Just a wee bit of that deadly sin, Pride.
I don’t even have to cheat, do I? You’re going to do it all by yourself.
* * *
“Evening to you, sir. What can I get you tonight?”
“Double Jamesons, on the rocks.” Irish over ice. Heathen, Rick thought to himself.
“Coming right up, haven’t seen you for a few weeks. Been traveling again?”
A slow smile, “Yeah, been… visiting my nieces out west. Thanks.”
“Family is always a good thing. I talk to mine all the time, on the phone or the net.” Hmm. Has a lot of nieces, he mentioned two others last month. What did he say their names were? Rick wondered.
“It’s not the same as seeing them face to face, though. Another.”
“Oh, I agree, never is. How are they then?” Rick asked, pouring a second Jamesons.
“Little Chastity and Hope? They’re fine, just fine. They were so glad to see me.”
Rick excused himself from the bar, approached the pool table, and cornered one of its patrons. “DC, you remember the names of those two little girls that got killed a few days ago? Or where it was?”
“Odd topic of conversation, Chief. But yeah, FBI put out an all-points on it. Lemme think…” Danny brightened, “Benefits of a Catholic upbringing, they had biblical sounding names… Hope and Charity?”
“Close enough, where was it?”
“Indiana, they were from South Bend… bodies were found in… Plymouth, I think. Feds are chapped, looks like the Ice-Cream Man hit again. Thirty-plus underage girls tagged and bagged, last count. Sick bastard.”
“What were the names of the two before that?” Rick almost pleaded, share this demon with me.
“Damned if I know.”
“Think. Think hard, man.”
DC started to sober up, remembering a night a couple of years ago, when a few blocks of New York almost burned to the ground, but didn’t. He was willing to give the Chief the benefit of the doubt. If Rick was this intense it must be important.
Danny rifled his memory for names and places and times.
“Carrie-Ann and Daphne… I think. Same MO. Out of Philly, last month… So, do I win the Sixty-four Thousand Dollar Question, man?”
“I think we both just won…” Rick the bartender started talking about his last customer to Danny the policeman.
* * *
Gentlemen, take a bow. You have done well. Don’t forget me, for I surely will remember you both. Perhaps we’ll meet again.
* * *
At another bar, Clio walked through the doors and looked around. She found him sitting in the same spot, playing Fan-Tan with a couple of Boxers.
“Is it done?”
“Police are kicking down his door even as we speak. Temporally speaking, of course. He’ll confess to over forty murders. All of them children under the age of twelve.” He picked up his drink and took a long pull, “Then he’ll die. Lethal injection.”
He gestured to the bartender, a man-sized patch of something you couldn’t look at, to get the lady a drink.
She looked at the bottle of beer in front of her, it said Mort Subité on the label. She tried to figure out the joke she knew was implied.
They were quiet for a while, then, “Vali, can I ask you a question?” To throw him off she took a drink. It tasted like peaches.
“Feel free, we’re in a bar. Talk is cheap.”
“I’ve been checking into your background…”
“Naughty, naughty, little sister. Do I look through your dirty laundry?” He seemed more amused than upset.
“So, ask me to deny my nature. Did I tell you to stop being a meddling bastard?”
“Touché,” he conceded the point.
“No one I talked to, and I mean no one, can remember a time when you weren’t here. You have changed faces and aspects so many times I couldn’t keep track. When I mentioned your name, Inanna just laughed at me. Chronos even tells me he can remember when you were female. Provided he wasn’t lying just to confuse an upstart like me.” She gave him her best vulnerable female look, all big brown eyes and Cupid’s-bow lips, just in case he wasn’t immune.
“And your point is?” It didn’t seem to work, though he looked away and downed half his pint, fast.
“Eventually everyone takes a side. How come you haven’t?” She made sure she was icy calm now, not sending any signals when she said it. A true question demanding a true answer.
“Not my style. Besides, even the Good Guys need a Bad Guy occasionally.”