Madhouse, page 24
“Yeah, beautiful. Jesus.” Nothing like a brisk walk around the asylum with the loonies to get your day going.
Gray eyes gleamed at my discomfort. “Too many horror movies when you were young have warped your view of the mental health system.”
Right. Scary movies when I was a kid, that was the problem. Not that the Auphe as a race were raving homicidal maniacs or that Sawney kept on like I was a lunatic-flavored lollipop. That had nothing to do with it. “So we can get into the tunnels there—at Buell Hall.”
It was getting colder and I stuffed my hands in the pockets of my leather jacket. Zipping it up wasn’t an option, not if I wanted easy access to my holster. “And if we go down there and find his nightmare ass, what then? We haven’t had too much luck so far. Guns don’t work. Swords don’t work. Hell, boggles don’t work. Where does that leave us?”
“I’ve been thinking about that. Extensively.” The last of the leaves were beginning to fall in the park and Nik caught one that wafted down in front of him. He turned it over with long, sinewy fingers, then held it up. “What color is it?”
“Red, I guess,” I said, having no idea where he was going with this. “With some orange.”
“No.” He held it up and admired it before letting it drift away. “It’s the color of fire.”
I got it then. “And Sawney’s no fan of fire.”
“No. Being burned at the stake will tend to do that.” Niko didn’t seem too sympathetic. “All we need to do is recreate that.”
“Without the army they had the first time,” I reminded him.
“‘Weary the path that does not challenge,’” he quoted. “Hosea Ballou.”
“‘I like things easy,’” I countered. “Me. Want to write it down? I can repeat it.”
“That won’t be necessary. After twenty years, I do believe I have it.” He tugged at my ponytail. “I have an idea. One I’m surprised you haven’t thought of, but we’ll discuss it later.”
I looked at him warily. “What are we going to discuss now?”
“I want to talk to you about Delilah and the nymph and the others who’ll come after them,” he answered, giving one last tug on my hair as the teasing humor faded from his eyes.
All right, I knew we’d had this particular talk with added stick-Auphe figure illustrations when I was ten. Here’s Cal. Here’s a girl. Here’s their flesh-gnawing baby eating the neighbor’s dog. I didn’t believe Niko was setting up for a repeat performance. I was right.
“You have to be careful.” The wind blew at his hair, but it was tightly secured and it barely ruffled.
“You know I am.” If anyone knew that, it was Nik. If anyone knew what I’d given up to be careful, it was him…and George.
“That’s not what I mean. I know how cautious you are in that respect. I know how much you’ve given up.” There was a strong grip on my shoulder. “I’m talking about the Auphe. They are out there. We haven’t seen them in months, but they will be back. There is no escaping that. You need to watch yourself…if I can’t be there to do it for you.”
There it was, his concern, and it was a valid one. I was on my own more now than I’d been just a year ago. In the past, I was either with my brother or with Robin. Now on occasion I was with those who didn’t have the same loyalty to me as my brother, Promise, and Goodfellow did. Would they have my back like those three if the Auphe came for me?
“I’m growing up, Mom.” I curled my lips and gave him a light punch. “It was bound to happen.”
He stopped walking, but the leaves kept falling. “You’re my brother, Cal. You’re my family. You are my only true family. Do not leave me out of stupidity or carelessness.” Then, as I turned to face him, he said something I only very rarely heard from him. “Please.”
The last time he’d made that request he’d shaken me nearly senseless. He’d been furious, and behind that fury had been concern. This time the situation was less urgent, but the concern was the same.
He had raised me. My brother. I wouldn’t insult him by calling him mother or father, not after the ones I’d had, but he’d filled the roles. Brought up my ass and kicked it when it needed it. Truthfully, he hadn’t kicked it quite as often as it needed it. He was tough, but he knew what my life was. And what it wasn’t—what it could never be. Normal. He’d cut me slack, more than I deserved. I was alive because of him. More importantly, I was sane because of him—no Bloomingdale Insane Asylum for me. Without Niko, I couldn’t have said that with such absolute faith.
“I’ll be careful. I promise.” I said it with that same faith and I meant it. For Nik, there wasn’t much I wouldn’t do. Shit, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do.
“Good.” He walked on, the leaves seeming to drift with him. “I’m glad banging your head against a trailer wasn’t necessary this time.”
“You’re all about the love, Cyrano. Don’t let anyone tell you different.” I grinned.
Boggle, it turned out, disagreed with that.
It took a while to cross the park and through the particular grouping of trees to arrive at the clearing that held Boggle’s home. The boglets were in the trees all around us. Their orange eyes blended in with the last of the leaves. Their muddy hides were also good camouflage against the bark of limbs and trunks. They were completely quiet, the only sound the occasional flake of mud tumbling down to the ground, and only Niko was ninja enough to hear something like that.
But at least I spotted the eyes and smelled them. That saved me a punishing swat and fifteen blocks extended onto our daily run. “What are they doing?” I asked quietly.
“Guarding their mother,” he answered as softly, not bothering to look up at them or draw his katana. I had the odd feeling he didn’t want to insult them by “spotting” them. “They’re honorable children.”
He was right, in both respects. When we reached the mud at the edge of the water, they flowed, after leaping from tree to tree, down the trees to surround us. Still in silence, they stalked back and forth, keeping between us and the pit. “We apologize,” Niko said, raising his voice this time, “for the harm done to your mother.”
The silence ended and the growling started. A pack of gators with longer legs and arms, more agile, smarter, and far more pissed off than your average swamp dweller. “I don’t think they accept.” I pulled the Eagle. “And you sounded really sincere to me.”
I didn’t blame them for being less than forgiving. I didn’t think boggles loved or liked or had any emotions besides “hungry now” and “bright-shiny.” But even without what we might consider affection, Boggle had raised her children, fed them, kept them alive. As boggles went, I thought she probably qualified as a good mom. And we’d sent her back to them skinned alive. If someone had done that to my family, done that to Niko, inadvertently or not, I wouldn’t have been too goddamn happy myself.
“Boggle.” Niko swung his blade lazily in the air, sketching a silver line in the metaphorical sand. Do not cross. “We don’t want to engage in violence. We only wish to see that you’re recovering and find out if you learned anything about Sawney while doing battle with him.” Ever the practical one, Niko, mixing compassion with curiosity.
There was a moment when I thought his words weren’t going to mean a damn thing—to the smaller boggles or the larger one. The boglets were slithering closer and the thick crust of mud remained unmoving. It looked like someone was going to have to go down, and, half-grown kiddies or not, it wasn’t going to be Nik or me. I aimed the Eagle and put pressure on the trigger.
“Leg?” Niko murmured.
“Do my best,” I muttered back. Mary Poppins with a gun, that was me. If a spoonful of sugar didn’t do the trick, a legful of lead just might.
That’s when Boggle finally came up for air. One clawed hand thrust up through the mud and water, then the other. Using the edge of the solid ground, she pulled herself up through the thickened surface. Mud coated her pe
Sawney—he had done that. It was good to keep that in mind. If anyone was to blame, it was him. Boggle had been paid, she’d agreed to the task and the price. She had understood the dangers. I lowered the gun. “Look, kiddies. Mom’s up. Let’s everybody calm down.”
The orange eyes were dulled, but there was still a spark behind the film—a murderous gleam that made her offspring seem like a litter of playful pups. “You. You come here. You dare.”
“We were concerned.” Niko’s grip had firmed on his sword. “Remember that Sawney is the one that did this to you, not us.”
He was echoing my thoughts, but Boggle didn’t seem to buy it. She came on to solid ground; slowly, but she came. The boglets gathered momentarily, growling and hissing, then scattered. “I am hurt. I will not heal for many days. Many that I cannot hunt, because of the Redcap.” The gums were mottled an unhealthy gray with the black, but the teeth were the same as they’d been before. Impressive. “Because of you.”
All our best intentions were fast heading down the tubes. We could retreat, but she could follow, as could the brood. We would have to hurt someone, most likely kill someone. It wasn’t what we wanted, but it looked like that’s what we were going to get. “Boggle,” I said, “don’t do this, okay? Just fucking don’t.” I’d almost said Boggy. I’d almost forgotten for a second this wasn’t our old boggle.
She lowered her head, chuffing a humid breath and ripping the earth to deep furrows with random strokes of her claws. “Can’t hunt. Can’t hunt.”
Food wasn’t the problem. The kids were capable of bringing in all the muggers needed. They were old enough and big enough, but, as I’d thought before, this boggle wasn’t like the last. She wanted to hunt, needed to hunt, and in her eyes we’d screwed that up for her. Temporarily certainly. And right now, she was tempted to deny that fate with us.
The hand flexed again and more dirt flew. “Can’t hunt.” It was said mournfully this time, and she deflated as the eyes shifted from my gun to Nik’s sword. The puffing of muddy scales settled and she decreased in size by a third, not that she wasn’t still huge. “Cannot hunt. Cannot roam. Cannot be.”
Now I really did feel like shit.
“You will heal,” Niko said. “You will hunt again.”
Her homicidal mood shifting, Boggle settled onto the ground. “He cannot suffer enough. Never enough.”
“I think you’d be surprised how much we can make him suffer.” Niko lowered his blade in slow, wary increments. “He was burned at the stake once. We’ll make him wish for that day again.”
The orange eyes burned with sudden clarity through the clouded lens. “He cannot be killed. Cannot.”
“We will kill Sawney,” Niko countered with certainty. “That, I promise you.”
Then he told her how.
Niko’s promise and the information turned out to be enough for Boggle. We ended up walking away. I had my suspicions there was more to it than actual forgiveness, faith, and goodwill. I thought that Boggle didn’t want to lose one or more of her children. Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter. We walked away and no boglets had to die, and that was a good day.
We hadn’t learned anything new about Sawney, but that had been a long shot anyway. Boggle had roamed the tunnels separate from us, looking for him, but nothing had caught her attention other than a few bodies floating in the water. I didn’t ask what she’d done with them, if anything. They were dead already. No one except Boggle who could use what was left of them. It sucked for them and their families, but there you go.
On the way back, we discussed Robin and came to the conclusion that if we didn’t catch whoever was after him in the act, we were up the creek. I’d thought it was possible the guy hit by the train might’ve been the only one behind it all, but from the way Ishiah was pushing the puck, it now seemed less likely. With the Sawney situation, Robin’s problem couldn’t have come at a worse time. He also couldn’t have picked a worse time to be a stubborn asshole about it, but that was Goodfellow for you.
Ishiah had said Robin had done something not quite ethical in the past. No surprise, right? But from the way he had said that, from the way Robin refused to talk about it, not ethical, in reality, probably didn’t begin to cover it. Not for the retribution it had put into motion. We didn’t even know how long ago whatever had happened had taken place.
I did know it was a mess, and if we hadn’t needed him fighting with us so badly, I’d have been tempted to leave him at Promise’s with Ishiah to keep an eye on him. But we needed everyone we could get. Hell, I planned on asking Ishiah if he’d close the bar for a night and take on Sawney with us. And if he could bring another peri or two with him, that would be fan-frigging-tastic.
It didn’t turn out that way.
“No,” he said in flat refusal. “I’m sorry.”
He didn’t sound sorry as he stood behind the bar, arms folded and looking a little too much like Niko for my peace of mind. Now that I’d had the thought, it was a done deal. I couldn’t unthink it, and I had no desire to be roaming around Goodfellow’s subconscious cravings, sexual or otherwise. None at all.
“I thought you wanted to help Robin,” I demanded. I’d stopped by the bar as Niko went on to check out that idea he’d had regarding Sawney. It was a good idea, damn good. Here was hoping it worked.
“I do want to help Goodfellow with his problem from the past, but Sawney Beane is not that problem. I have to prioritize.”
He actually said it. Prioritize. An insane mass murderer, unknown assassins, creatures with wings, a man with genes far more demon than angel, talking birds, talking mummies, dead wolves, revenant after revenant, skinned boggles, and he actually had the stones to say prioritize.
I was…well, hell, not to be repetitive…boggled.
“But you can have the night off,” he added politely. “I’ll consider it a personal day. Your check will, of course, be docked.”
Forget boggled, now I was just pissed.
“Sawney could kill Robin as easily as whoever’s after him. So you’re saying you’ll be okay with that?” I leaned across the bar to emphasize the accusation.
“Priorities,” he said, unmoved, “and I also have a prior commitment. Not that that’s any business of yours.” Thick dark brows lowered. “I would think that you would be more concerned about preparing for the battle than berating your employer. And if you keep mutilating the customers, you won’t have one of those for much longer.”
I managed to leave without taking a swing at him, but it was a near thing. As Ishiah had a temper every bit as bad as mine, he would’ve swung back. He might look like a Nordic version of Niko, but there the resemblance ended. No matter how long-lived Ish might be, he was hell on wheels. He might be the most moral son of a bitch in the city, according to Robin, but right now, he wasn’t any damn help.
That would turn out to be a theme of the day.
Delilah turned out to be unavailable, per Promise. In other words, she couldn’t find her with a bloodhound—her or any other wolves willing to go up against Sawney again. Boggle was down for the count and Nushi was, as he’d said, a healer, not a fighter. Once again it was down to the four of us. Four against countless pseudo corpses and one genuine corpse returned to life, bringing his scythe and a hunger that couldn’t be sated.
Two…no, three students now, and one maintenance man. I knew better than to think that would feed all of Sawney’s new clan. They hunted some on campus, but I knew they were bringing home more bacon than that. Using Columbia as a central location and the asylum tunnels as home, they were bringing them in more than groups of two and three. Revenants had a hunger to almost match that of Sawney. Hunger to hunger, obedience and madness, a large clan of sheer starvation and raving insanity…
Four of us against that. Why the hell not?
“Don’t forget th
We stood just inside the front doors of Buell Hall—an empty Buell Hall thanks to Dr. Nushi. He’d cooked up a fumigation for a rat infestation scheme that had kept the place locked up for the day and now the night. He’d claimed he’d seen a few of Mickey’s wayward cousins at a recent speech to the premed club and they couldn’t close down the place fast enough.
“There’s nothing like a head shot to distract a guy, I’ll give you that,” I said. “Just don’t forget how fast he is. I’ll do my best, but…” I gave a shrug and a cold grin. “At least I can promise to hit part of him. He might be able to walk around with a fist-sized hole in him, but I’d like to see him do it with sixteen or so of them.”
“Always the optimist.” He slapped me lightly on the back. “You restore my faith in the human condition.”
I didn’t bother to open my mouth on that one. One comment on how I was only half of the human condition would get me a painful nerve pinch. I let it go. “I try,” I snorted, hefting the Eagle. I had a handful of extra clips on me, this time all explosive rounds. Revenants, Sawney, I didn’t care which I blew apart tonight.
“You do realize I’m still in utter agony, a virtual cripple that you’ve dragged to near certain death.” Robin was immaculate in copper shirt and brown slacks. His sword’s hilt was chased with matching copper and small emeralds. It was a beautiful and graceful creation, but that didn’t make the edge of the blade any less deadly. I wondered what excuse he’d given Seraglio to pack that up and bring it to Promise’s apartment. Showing off his weapons collection maybe. That would work. Living as a human car salesman didn’t stop “Rob Fellows” from being one helluva show-off.
“Yes, when you attempted to sexually assault my cleaning lady, your pain and suffering was abundantly clear.” Promise’s heather eyes narrowed and focused on a small gold hoop decorated with one tiny emerald drop that hung from Robin’s ear. “Is that my earring you are wearing?”
by Rob Thurman / Science Fiction & Fantasy / Mystery & Thrillers / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes