20 _ 2.0
The city walk lay open and abandoned, lined with locally owned businesses. Cement sculpts contained small trees and shrub growth, with small lights gleaming softly beneath the rim of the decorative sidewalk plots. This was the only light and held very faint, the moon hid behind thick clouds; it was nearly upon the full moon.
A figure ducked behind a bench and crept behind a concrete pillar that correlated with a tall building. The shroud darted among the shadows and remained out of direct light; the eyes glinted.
The drop was in this area. No real reason behind it, aside from it being and easy enough location to access and get through. It was in the open more or less – the surrounding region was hills and buildings, and trees – plenty of high ground and vantage points despite the overcast night.
Hai crouched in a narrow pathway that led out of the city walk; a gate blocked the alley off and the bars flush with the high arch prevented the adventurous from climbing through. He moved from the alcove and move alongside the decorative wall, scripted with a dark mural of animals within the local woodlands. He bided and listened, and satisfied with isolation continued. Always avoiding the smolder of light from obscure little sources, he either crawled between tight gaps or slunk along high walls.
There was an open cross section of the city walk that connected to a three additional accesses to business campuses. The center was a covered segment with a high tower, arches entrance – aboe, the clock ticked.
Hai stooped deep beside a thick tree trunk, growing within a small garden of shrubs and gravel. He didn’t enter the center plaza. No light, and no scent. The clock clicked softly beneath the gentle rustle of a breeze; papers flipped loose and wild. The only sign of life was a lump, huddled in a far corner of the center structure.
For half an hour Hai crouched, breath misting. He didn’t budge from his position. He debated relocating several times, climbing out and creeping in from a different direction. Nothing was here.
Somewhere in the dark, he picked up a vibration or flutter. Hai jerked his head back and scouted his immediate surroundings, but missed the flash.
A screech rang out.
Hai tucked down, but his shoulder was clipped. He smelt his blood hit the crisp air, and leapt out of the brush. The assailant screeched; its voice faded out as it sailed off, but it was gaining volume in less than a minute tick. Hai kept track on the steady click of the clock.
Leaves burst out around his shoulders. He dove from the shrubs, and found a sturdy wall for his backside. In the sky, the light caught eyes on the returning voice. It was screaming, shrieking. Hai hissed back and bristled.
The shape took a sharp rise on a brilliant gust of wind. Hai leapt after it, though he knew for certain he couldn’t reach its sudden altitude. The projectile was coming back – actually closed up and plummeted. Hai sprang high again and slashed; he slapped loose feathers. The shape screamed, this time in agony. Or anger.
Hai was already tearing up into the tree. He let his focus cut from the assailant for too long, and it sliced into the brush. Hai managed to get his arm up and take polished talons; he lashed and hissed as blood spilt freely down his shoulder. It held on, flapping wildly. The tangle of branches and leaves prevented either from making a productive effort on the others life, but Hai had the worse end.
Enough was enough, and Hai launched himself out of the tree canopy. He swiped at the flailing feathers, still locked into his arm. The assailant shrieked again and again, until one swipe dislodged it. By that point, Hai’s feet connected with the ground. He tumbled over the cobblestone and came up, his back to the wall of the center plaza construction.
Hai perked as the shrieking irritant gained altitude. He monitored its progress—
An abrupt grasp of the breeze caught his attention. He glanced around, forgetting entirely about his arm and the fluttering feathers still clinging to his coat.
The cold press to his neck sent shivers down his spine. Hai put his arms out, to the ground.
“No need to panic,” the voice, attached to the weapon, announced. It was smooth and rich, with an edge of malice. “I need you where it is suitable.”
Blood pooled beneath Hai’s palm.
“I came for a simple transaction,” Hai prompted. “You’re late.”
“Am I?” the man uttered. “I gave you a time. Never said this was when I’d meet up with you. I appreciate your courtesy.”
The pressure lifted from Hai’s neck. He didn’t move. But he could hear the faint flutter of the man’s coat, and a new voice.
“We have appointments left.”
“I know, I know,” the man responded, lightly. “You did well, better than I expected.” To Hai, he kicked his ankle. “Up.”
Hai kept his arms angled up, hands open. He stood upright and spun to the man. He was dressed in welders garb – thick sleeves, a falconers glove, a coveralls – a large coat enveloped the heavy apron over his waist and thighs. One hand held a pistol, on the man’s gloved arm sat a large bird, with a human looking head – it smirked smugly.
“Ayun,” the man said. “Go see about our exchange.” He swung his arm skyward; the creature – Ayun – took silent flight and vanished into the black above.
“There were agreed artifacts up for exchange,” the man muttered. He kept his weapon steady and set on Hai. “You will entrust me with those items.” When Hai edged his arms down, but hesitated, the man nodded. “Go on.”
Hai unzipped his coat. He wore a hoody beneath it, with pockets for his hands. “An audio device.” He plucked out the machine. “And a notebook. The audio needs ear phones.”
“Do you have any on you?”
Hai shook his head. He held the item in one hand, and extended his fist to the man. Carefully. “Do I get a name?” Hai probed. “I know the name of your accomplice.”
“Phineus,” the man grinned. He snatched the items from Hai’s hands. “Yours would be John?”
Phineus dug into the front pocket of his apron, and brought out a flashlight. He holstered his pistol, and flipped through the notebook. “This looks authentic. Ayun. Let him have it.”
And let him have it Ayun did. The creature smashed into Hai from behind, the two toppled forward – feathers flying, wings flapping, a page spiraling midair.
“I’m sorry, you’re smaller than you look.”
“Get off me.” Hai shoved the bird off his back. He clutched the files one handed, and managed to recapture the loose paper before it escaped. “I could’ve torn your tail feathers out.”
“No you couldn’t.” Ayun hopped away. At Phineus’ lowered arm, it leapt onto the glove and gripped tight. Once Phineus was upright and stable, Ayun began preening the long, ebony tail feathers.
“Our business is complete?” Hai tucked the folder into his waistband, and backed away.
“In a hurry, are you?” Phineus brought the pistol forth. His teeth glittered in the moonless depth of the night.
“The night is late, and I have other engagements to attend.” Hai stood in the center of the arch into the central plaza, waiting. Phineus looked about ready to put a bullet in him anyway.
After a full minute of chewing time and nothing said, Phineus finally gestured. Hai spun and walked away; he made certain to put a solid barrier between himself and the man, and keep the barrier there.
Two miles away, in a secluded and rundown little neighborhood with yards made of weeds and trees reduced to cracked tinder; Alegra sat in the car dozing. Soft tunes played on the radio, repeat songs. She was mostly watching the clock. Three hours gone. She looked out across the visible homes and the dark windows – not a creature was stirring, not even a—
“Drive.” The door latch cracked, and Hai threw himself into the backseat.
“How’d it go?” Alegra cranked the engine up and put the gear into drive.
“I’ll feel better when we get out of the city.” Hai slipped the folder from his coat, and tucked it under the passenger seat. He spent a few seconds dusting feathers out of his coat, and tugged his arm out of his coat sleeve. Briefly, he examined the ugly ravels of his hoody sleeve; he since stopped bleeding and healed, but….
Hai curled down against the door, with his arm cradled in his lap. Alegra glanced at him from the mirror when she stopped. A nearby streetlamp cast lemon translucence across his grow, his scalp glistened with dark colors. She wanted to ask what happened, but he was already sleeping.
“Again,” she muttered, to herself. “All he does is sleep. All YOU do is sleep! What is your deal!”
Time became lost and merged as she drove, with only her thoughts to occupy the gaps between cities and small towns. Alegra had no direction, and supposed it didn’t matter; in fact, she didn’t care. Driving was becoming a null that stole her away from the reality of her life. Sometimes, she forgot the car was a rental provided by a man named Enoch Kistler. Was there even an expiration they should be worried about? They passed through checkpoints along the way, but none of the officers in the stations seemed perturbed or gave the vehicle a second glance. Waved them through. She was glad Hai was so bundled down – it hid the butchery of his body.
Alegra was more along the lines of nodding off than lost in her own thoughts; she didn’t hear Hai behind her until he spoke – causing her to jolt and swerve on the busy road.
“God,” she hissed, after stabilizing. She honked back at the other drivers when they blared horns; though, they were justified for being peeved off. “Why do you do that?”
“The truck stop. Exit twelve-B.” Hai directed his hand towards the aggressive traffic, and the Exit ramps along the freeway. Lights glittered in the distance – shops, restaurants, hotels – the sun was already rising. “I need to make a phone call.”
“Got your papers?” Alegra touched her sight upon his blood smeared arm; frazzled gauze and bandages visible through the streamers of the sleeve.
“And I want to make a phone call.”
Behind Alegra, Hai rummaged around. She exited on twelve-B, and navigated through the gentle roads towards a large warehouse building. The parking-lot was extensive, a section specified for semis and large tractor trailers. At the sound of ripping, she glanced back while stopped at a red light. She wasn’t surprised by Hai slicing through the shoulder seam of his hoody.
“This’ll take me some time,” he offered. “They should be serving a hot breakfast.” Hai slipped up his magical wad of regenerating cash, and dug out a few tens.
Alegra noted – as she accepted the bills – that the bandages covering his arm were aged, stained and torn but mostly intact. That was the same arm he chewed through weeks before, she was certain. But she made no comment. Just took the money, and navigated into the parking zone for private vehicles.
“One more thing,” Hai hummed, before Alegra could disembark. He tugged on her shoulder. “Can I have this coat?”
“What?” Alegra slammed the car door shut, and leaned back on the seat. “Have? You just wrecked yours.”
“Not my fault. I can’t go in there all torn up, but we can pick up a replacements here. For both of us.”
“No. It’s a woman’s. You’ll look… weird.”
“Like I care?” Hai scrubbed his face with his palm. “I’ll go inside, but I’ll look hella suspicious. Once I hit the light, it’ll be obvious I’m covered in blood and the cops will get called or something—” He shut up when Alegra shoved the coat into his face. “Thank —"
“I hate you!” Alegra climbed out of the car and slammed the door. It smelt like him anyway; since that night they camped out far off the roadside, during that period when Hai was sick. She used his other coat as a blanket.
Alegra took her time in the bathroom. Stood in front of the mirror and splashed her face with warm water; used the cheap soap from the dispenser to clean her face. She looked like hell.
Why was she still doing this? Why didn’t she just take the rental, and go off somewhere on her own? Decry wouldn’t come after her; she was confident they wouldn’t care, she was too far beyond them - beyond her own personal sanity.
They were more likely to come after her, while she was with Hai.
The key for the car was still in her pocket.
Alegra got a breakfast to go and left the truck stop. She didn’t bother with a coat; it completely slipped her mind until she stepped outside in the frigid air.
“That’s cruel. Why would you say that?”
Hai didn’t seem bothered by the weather. In fact, he looked freshly showered and dressed. He wore a completely new coat, new pants – the size tape was still plastered to his pants leg. He looked good in blue jeans.
“You could hear me out. Start to finish. No-no, it didn’t happen like that.” Hai glimpsed Alegra as she marched by; she didn’t meet his eyes. “I don’t normally lie over the phone. Please?” He pulled the earpiece away and gawked. The dial tone buzzed through loud and clear. With a sigh, Hai hung up and began dialing again.
Alegra slipped into the car without an upwards glance. He was preoccupied. She shoved the key into the ignition and started the engine. Carefully, she shifted gears and pulled out. Hai gave her a sharp look as she spun the steering wheel, and moved the vehicle from the parking zone. He didn’t follow.
She half expected him to race up behind the car. Smash through the rear window and clamber in – a bloody wreck. Nightmare incarnate.
Nothing. Her departure was uneventful. Almost disappointing.
Alegra sipped her coffee, and dug into the Styrofoam box containing her breakfast meal – bacon, eggs, fried potatoes, and little sausages. She cranked up the heat and weaved into the bright light of dawn break; the sky misty, the distant mountains gleamed with miles and miles of fresh dew. It could be a chapter from a fairytale.
Where would she go? Alegra cast a glance into the backseat. Nothing visible out the window, but a cluttered road of traffic and dimming lights. The map would be on the floorboard or she’d pick up a new one. She still had money left over. Enough for a meal and a tank of gas; the price of the freedom bundle. Liberation felt surreal and forign.
She rolled down a few windows. Not all the way, but a crack, to let in some crisp moist air, and drive out the claustrophobic scent of copper and dread.
Within an hour she was far beyond the city, and winding her way into a mountainous region. Alone. She cranked the radio up and listened to upbeat classical tunes, something that contrasted her mood. Every few minutes she checked the back window, assured herself that nothing was there but the usual roll of traffic. Unhurried exodus toward occupation or pleasantries.
Alegra’s eyes drooped. She hadn’t slept since the day before – a full seventeen hours. It was dangerous to keep on like this, on an unsteady road with deep drops on every turn. Yet she pushed on; there was nowhere to stop here.
Around noon she rolled into a small touristy town, integrated with the forest and trees. The neighborhoods sat straight and typical slate wall homes, with colorful trim and quant little yards; the businesses and town square catered to trendy log styles and stained wood. It was picturesque, something found on a postcard in a curio shop.
She pulled into a small motel lot and paid for a room.
“What town is this?” Alegra yawned, to the receptionist. She didn’t mean to yawn, it just happened.
Alegra didn’t bother unpacking or anything. She shut herself in the room, propped a chair against the door and double bolted the door. She dropped onto the bed and lost herself to the sleep and dreams. Hai was there, as he always was. A nightmarish premonition that stood over her, judging her ill intent and actions.
With her failing strength she fought and resisted. Alegra shot him through the head, watched him stagger, drop, and die. In her home, on her carpet. It was impossible to fight off what was already dead.
The life dragged out of her body, same as it did every time she slept and dreamt of him. She should have died. She was supposed to die. Gunshots rang loud and clear, like Sunday bells chasing demons away. That morning she survived, and not a day passed she didn’t think of what might’ve been.
- Characters and content © 2017 Tempus Willow.