[AC] Shadestalker #4 - by James Queally
artificecomics at yahoo.co.uk
Sun May 2 17:51:16 PDT 2004
The grey sky morning yawned, spitting down a misting rain upon the
creatures beneath it. The water condensed upon its descent, landing
softly on the ground and communing with the melting snow to form the
wet and distorted substance known as slush. The slush had a love
affair with ice, a common interest for wreaking havoc upon drivers and
pedestrians alike. The winter weather hazards usually remained evenly
dispersed throughout the city, causing mischief and numbness here and
there with no specific target in mind. Reggie Evans could only assume
that they'd had a mood swing as he lifted his body up from another
treacherous patch of ice, the third he had slipped on this morning.
He stood erect once more, shaking the excess snow from himself. He
took his first step and the wet crunch beneath his boot made him
shiver; reminding him of the terrible night he had endured. Reggie had
no regrets about walking out on his bastard father; the man had
crossed too many lines to be forgiven anymore. But now as he stood
shivering on the corner of Mulberry Avenue, he wished he had waited it
out a little longer, perhaps just an hour or two to secure a place to
spend the night. His lack of foresight had left him freezing beneath a
half finished highway overpass with nothing to keep him warm and a
drunken old homeless man for company. The man had been harmless but
Mother Nature had been quite the opposite. He couldn't feel his feet
and it was only a matter of time before the chronic numbness spread to
his hands. He needed a shower and a radiator and thankfully he knew
someplace that he could get both.
He trudged across the sidewalk, trying to maintain his balance as he
traversed another quagmire of ice and potholes. After two near falls
he arrived on the opposite end of the disaster and breathed a sigh of
relief. He had been walking for what felt like forever but was
probably closer to forty-five minutes. Finally, he had reached his
destination. Christina Hall's brick laden two-family house stood
before him, a bastion of light on this otherwise dark day. The black
Chevy four by four that usually occupied the driveway was nowhere in
sight. Reggie smiled, believing he still had some luck left. Harvey
Hall was out at work, which meant Christina was all alone.
While the prospect of an empty house with Christina normally excited
him, that sort of thing was the last item on his mind right now. If
Christina saw him she would have a lot of questions that Reggie would
like to avoid answering. It was still early and Christina would most
likely be sleeping though, so if he could slip in and out she would
never know. He slowly paced around the side of the house, down the
narrow driveway, and into the backyard. As he approached the back door
an ankle deep puddle greeted him. The sub-zero liquid seeped through
his shoes and washed over his ankles and heel. He wanted to scream but
controlled himself long enough to reach the throw rug guarding the
back door. He lifted up the rug to see nothing, but then he reached
for the third tile from the left. It moved with ease and Reggie
produced a single key on a rusting copper ring from the burrow.
Christina had always left it there in case she got locked out. Reggie
slid the key into the lock and turned it, unlatching the deadbolt. He
pushed the door and it made no noise. The hinges stayed muted as
Reggie gave himself enough room to pass through. He halted his motion
for a moment trying to plot his next move. Christina's room was on the
far end of the second floor; the shower was directly across from the
top of the stairwell. Christina was a heavy sleeper, there was no way
that she would hear him. He would be in and out in no time. Reggie
moved ahead, confident with his plan until he reached the base of the
staircase and gazed upon their haphazard shape.
The cracks that appeared in the aging oak reminded Reggie that
Christina's staircase was possibly the loudest in the entire universe.
This was going to be a trick. He quickly removed his shoes to bear
less weight on the frail staircase. He rose up on his tip toes and
began the climb, extending his arms to each side to better distribute
his mass. He looked like one of those maniacs who walked along
tightropes as he ascended. When he reached the second to last step his
breathing became erratic, as if his lungs knew something was about to
go wrong. He pressed down the toes of his left foot on the top step,
and the wood shrieked in agony.
He kicked off the top step and dove into the open bathroom door,
landing quite gracefully on his right knee. Surprisingly he hadn't
made a huge amount of noise and he didn't hear any groans or motions
from the direction of Christina's room. Content with his stealth
movements he quickly removed his clothes and darted for the shower. As
he turned the nozzle all the way left, hot water burst forth from the
showerhead. The room quickly began to fill up with steam but Reggie
didn't even notice. He snatched the soap brick from its resting place
and furiously rubbed it against his skin to remove the grime and filth
that had collected from the previous night's excursions. As the
temperature rose within the shower stall his skin began to unclench.
Tight packs of goose bumps unraveled, returning Reggie's flesh to its
original shape. After a few minutes Reggie was satisfied that he had
cleansed himself thoroughly and he shut off the water. He moved the
plastic curtain left to exit the stall and a cloud of steam proceeded
to leave with him. He quickly put his clothes once more and returned
to the second floor hallway. He stood in place at the top of the
staircase, surveying the noisy oak path once more. He heard the same
shrieking noise as before except that he hadn't moved.
"You know, I've had dreams that start out like this?" a sultry voice
Reggie turned his head right to find the beautiful frame of his
girlfriend Christina Hall. She wore green flannel pajama pants and a
tight pink tee-shirt.
Shit, shit, shit! Thankfully she seemed calm for the most part, so
maybe Reggie could get through this without having to tell her
She glided across the walkway and hugged Reggie, who returned the
embrace. She unburied her head from his chest and looked up into his
"Not that I'm unhappy to see you, Reggie, but why exactly are you
showering in my house at 9:45 in the morning?"
So much for not telling her anything. He ran through his mind for the
least incriminating version of the story but he knew there wasn't one.
He hated it but he was going to have to lie to her.
"Sorry baby I didn't meant to wake you..."
"I was out late last night and I got a little drunk with a couple of
my friends. I think I ended up crashing on a park bench. Just wanted
to clean up before I headed home." He flashed her an Oscar worthy
smile and kissed her on the cheek.
She looked skeptical for a moment but then shrugged.
"Well that would explain why you look so tired...are you sure
"Perfectly," he said hoping she'd believe his dishonest ramblings.
"Oh well, don't worry. Daddy won't be home for a while so this can
stay between us." She chuckled and gave him an innocent peck on the
lips that warmed him far more than the shower ever could have.
"C'mon, let me make you some breakfast," she said grabbing his hand
and leading him down the now not so dangerous staircase. This was one
of those times when he swore she was an angel, so innocent, so frail,
and so loving. Despite all the hell he had been through he could only
focus on her for those few minutes. She had that effect on people; she
calmed you down and made you stronger all through the look in her
eyes. Reggie simultaneously thanked God for her and cursed himself for
lying to this blessed creature. He knew in his heart it was necessary,
but he also knew in his heart it was wrong. As they arrived in the
kitchen he sat down and plastered a smile on his face as she began to
prepare their meal. He promised himself that he would keep that smile
on while he was here in this blissful place. He would need to because
in his heart he knew this warm safe haven was a dream and outside its
doors was the harsh reality that he had yet to face.
"The Fine Print"
(White Lies Part I)
by James Queally
Regret and frustration coursed through Nicole Lanza's veins as she
dwelt upon the memory of a fifteen-year-old girl. Innocence embodied
in designer jeans, converse sneakers and a plain tee shirt, the color
arbitrarily changing daily. She recalled Saturday nights that had been
spent on Jane or Allison's bedroom floor, dreaming about guys and
gossiping about their friends at school. The memories made her feel
nostalgic and depressed at the same time. She had always taken those
sleepovers and long phone calls for granted. When she started hanging
out with Kerry and Anthony, she had never imagined the rift that would
begin to form between herself and her old best friends. A warm
September day came into mind from her junior year in high school, the
day when her crumbling ties with Jane and Allison truly collapsed.
Their demise came in the form of a pack of Newports in the front
pocket of Anthony's beautiful leather jacket. As Anthony calmly held
out a cigarette, offering it to Nicole, Jane and Allison approached
from her opposite side. Her two oldest friends froze in place, looks
of distain and contempt overshadowing their usual pleasant
dispositions. Nicole found herself at the first real crossroads of her
young life. To her left lay innocence and a lifeline back to the safe
waters she used to know. To her right was the path of a young girl
destined to grow up too fast, forever intertwined in the late night
antics of a punk rock princess enslaved by alcohol and a low level
thug who's highest aspiration in life was to spray his tag name all
Nicole closed her eyes as the scene played out perfectly in her mind.
She watched her younger self turn right and take the plunge. She
stared in horror as a high school girl took the first step to becoming
an addict to nicotine. She could still hear Jane lightly sobbing as
the first piece of ash rolled off the tip of the cigarette. As the
edges of the cigarette turned black and burned away, a promise between
three starry eyed dreamers on a pink carpet died as well.
Nicole opened her eyes and a found a slight dampness on their lower
corners. She raised an unsteady hand to wipe them away, forcing
herself up from her prone position. The needle in her left arm tugged
hard against its plastic shackles and Nicole was forced back to her
original position. She lay there and stared up at the plain white
ceiling, its surface as blank as the insides of her mind. She searched
for a reason why. A reason why Nicole Lanza, now aged 28, was lying in
a hospital bed alone fighting a losing battle for her life. The search
was a brief one. That one moment in junior year had permanently
isolated her from her best friends and simultaneously chained her to
the purchase of a pack per day. Her new friends had faded over time as
their interest in her waned, disowning her from their scarcely
populated clique without even so much as a word or warning. They
simply disappeared back into the gutters and alleyways from which they
had crawled. Her mother had stopped visiting when the operation had
failed, heartbroken at the prospect of surviving her only daughter.
The last two visits they hadn't even spoken, the middle aged Spanish
woman simply walked into the room and burst into tears. She moaned in
agony and managed to blurt out the occasional plea to God between
sobs, but those were the only sounds from her throat.
Nicole turned her head left to the empty bed besides her, wondering
how long it would be before her own mattress would go unused. She
breathed in, attempting to draw in a long streamline of oxygen but she
began to cough and sputter, her body sending a message that her lungs
could barely keep up the status quo, there was no reason to test their
limits. Cancer had invaded and conquered her lungs, establishing
dominion years ago it now ruled her trachea with an iron fist. It sat
back on a throne of ash and phlegm, smugly watching as oxygen tried to
fight its way in and out of her body.
She rolled her body over and hugged the blankets against her body. She
had no idea what time it was although the circular motion of morning
and night held no relevance to her anyway. She slept, ate scarcely
from the despicable portions given to her, and then cried until she
returned to sleep. She tried to resume her normal cycle of
uselessness, but the light rapping of footsteps against the dry tile
floor interrupted her. She rolled over expecting to see Manny, the
orderly who dropped off her meals each day, standing in the doorway
smiling like an idiot. She didn't recognize the person in the doorway,
but he sure as hell was not Manny. The man moved with an arrogant
grace, his brown trench coat floating around his ankles, acting as an
awning for his scrupulously polished black wingtip shoes. He made his
purpose unclear as he ignored Nicole completely, simply wandering
around the room, staring blankly at the walls and empty bed adjacent
to her. He removed his top hat to reveal long black hair and a face
devoid of facial hair of any kind. His enormous trench coat fell from
his being next, folded in four quarters over the arm of a chair beside
the unoccupied bed. He stood at roughly 6'5", fairly muscular with a
stone-faced expression. He was a truly imposing figure, but his
mysterious aura was starting to irk Nicole more than his physical
"Excuse me," she called out softly. A passerby in the hall way turned
his head into the room but she waved her hand outwards in a shooing
motion. With a confused look he resumed whatever he was doing.
The rough man in business attire adjusted his steely gaze so that it
"I was waiting for you to acknowledge me," he said, acidic droplets of
sarcasm hidden in his words.
She was bewildered by his response.
"Acknowledge you? I don't even know who you are or why you're here!"
"I'm simply paying my respects," he said returning his eyes to other
areas of the room.
"Respects?" She asked her voice rising to show her mind's now annoyed
state. "Do you see a dead body in here?"
He looked out into the busy hallway, the visible corner of his mouth
curling into a grin.
"ME!" she screamed.
He raised a finger to his lips, attempting to hush her before she made
too much noise.
"You're in a hospital, are you not, ma'am? There are only three
reasons people come to hospitals, to live, to bleed, or to die. You're
not bleeding and you don't exactly look like you're on the mend."
Nicole rose up quickly, ignoring the pain of the IV needle stabbing
harder into her flesh to keep her grounded. She opened her mouth to
scream but she was interrupted by a familiar voice she couldn't place.
She glanced in the doorframe to see one of the Asian nurses who cared
"Is everything alright Ms. Lanza?"
"No!" she barked. "Please remove this lunatic from my room
The woman adjusted her large horn rimmed glasses and scanned the room.
A nervous complexion slowly spread across her face.
"Ma'am.... There's nobody else in here."
"What are you talking about? Look right there... THERE!" she shrieked
wildly waving her finger where her eerie visitor stood.
Confusion turned to anger on the nurse's face. "Ms. Lanza, this isn't
the psych ward, you have cancer, you're not insane. Please don't play
games with us."
The nurse rushed off into the hallway traffic, ignoring Nicole's
frenzied cries. Defeated she returned her attention to the mystery man
occupying her room.
"Why can't they see you?" she asked, her eyes growing wide with fear
His smile widened and he sat down on the chair holding his coat and
crossing his legs.
"Oh, come now. It's much more fun if you guess." He returned both feet
to the floor and rested his elbows on his knees. Folding his hands
together, he placed them beneath his chin, holding it up like a bony
pedestal. An attentive look transposed itself onto his face.
"Are you a ghost?" she asked, knowing it sounded ridiculous.
"Ghost!" He laughed out loud "How bad has Hollywood scarred you
people? Here's a hint... I'm not a vampire, werewolf, ghost, secret
agent with a cloaking device, or anything stupid like that. Care to
She racked her brain but nothing sensible came to the tip of her
tongue. What comes to visit a depressed, dying woman that nobody else
can see? A solution came to her mind, but she slapped it away
instantly... surely it couldn't be! She didn't even believe in God,
yet now her brain was proposing this answer!
"Are you an angel?" she asked, the innocence of her teenage years
returning to her voice.
"Ah ha! You're getting warmer now lady! You might be right... although
that depends on your definition of the word angel. If by angel you
mean a halo wearing white winged harbinger of peace and goodwill then
you got the wrong guy. However, if by chance you mean an answer to
your prayers... then we're going to have ourselves a lovely little
His ecstasy and her worry collided in each other's eyes. Her sense of
fear faded with each second she stared into his aqua blue pupils.
"The latter," she whispered with a hint of uncertainty in her voice.
"Wonderful," he shouted and clapped his hands together. He gave the
door a stern look and it shut itself and locked.
Ariana Evans stood in the doorframe of her son's bedroom, trying to
figure out why he wasn't laying in bed at this hour of the morning.
Eugene had relayed the story to her the night before, actually
managing to divulge small portions of the plot between curses and
frenzied screams, but his lunatic ravings were not enough to satisfy
her. The problem of her son's disappearance had silenced the angry
words lying in the back of her throat, but Eugene would hear them soon
enough. She knew another confrontation was on the horizon, and she
also knew that Eugene would be the one to spark it. Her husband was
sleeping off a brutal headache at present, so Ariana was left alone to
scour her son's vacant bedroom for memories of days when things
weren't so bad.
She glided to the oak shelves hanging over the head of his twin size
bed. She ran her delicate fingers along the golden outline of a little
league baseball trophy. The small boy swinging at an invisible ball
atop the pedestal reminded her of a muggy summer day five years prior.
Reggie was 11 at the time and had become a local superstar at
shortstop. The season was winding down at that point and Reggie's team
needed one more win to make the playoffs. The name of the team they
were up against that day escaped her, as did the name of the dusty
sandlot where the game was held. All she remembered was that Reggie's
team was up by one in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the
opposition was threatening to score. She clutched the base of the
trophy and the memory became more vivid. There were runners on first
and second and only one out. The batter was a burly looking kid whose
age and membership in the league were questionable. He came to the
plate and swung at the first pitch. The ball crashed into the ground
and took off with the speed of a heat-seeking missile. Everyone in the
dugout groaned, certain that the ball was going to fly right between
the gap dividing second and third base. Everyone except Reggie anyway.
Ariana remembered her son springing to action the moment the bat and
ball made contact, sprinting right and timing his dive perfectly. The
ball itself seemed surprised as it landed in Reggie's glove. The tiny
shortstop wasted little time flipping the ball up into the second
basemen's hands. Even his fellow fielder seemed shocked as he stood
their dumbfounded with the ball until Reggie screamed, "First!" and
the boy woke up and turned his body left hurling the ball to first
base completing the double play. Both teams and the crowd were
silenced for a moment until the umpire's guttural roar of, "OUT!"
could be heard. Reggie's team exploded out of the dugout lifting him
onto their shoulders chanting his name and shouting incoherent victory
Ariana remembered something else from that day, something nobody else
who was in the general vicinity would have ever noticed. In the crowd
of joyous blue uniforms there was a man in an old brown jacket, jeans,
and a baseball hat. Intertwined between overjoyed coaches and players
was Eugene Evans, desperately searching for his son so he could give
him the hug to end all hugs. It took a few minutes but when the dust
settled a proud father held his victorious son in the air, spinning
him in circles, whispering inaudible words in his ear. What was said
that day between those two was a deeply held secret never conveyed to
Ariana, but she assumed on pretty good authority that it was
Bedsprings and hardwood floors sang in harmony, belting out the alarm
that Eugene was awake. The memory collapsed upon itself, the kind and
loving Eugene that she fell in love with shattered into thousands of
irrecoverable pieces. The shrewd heartless politician took his place.
Ariana quickly let go of the trophy, falling back in shock. All the
emotional pain she had felt over the past few days hit her with the
force of a bullet. She choked back a scream and made a beeline for the
staircase, deciding to get to the kitchen and some coffee before the
cause of her fury saw her.
She had made it through the doorframe and reached the summit of the
staircase when a gruff voice halted her motion.
"What were you doing in there?"
Ariana turned right narrowing her eyes at her husband. He was a
complete mess. His eyes were held in position by enormous black bags
residing on their southern edge. His hair was unkempt, hanging in wily
patches across his scalp. A peach colored gauze strip clung to his
forehead hiding the wound incurred by the butt of a pistol the night
before. This was one of the moments an aspiring politician like Eugene
would not like photographed and thrown into a daily tribunal.
Ariana unlocked her eyes from her alleged lover's and continued her
descent. Eugene continued his futile pursuit of a response.
"I said what were you..."
Ariana spun with such grace that a gymnast would have applauded.
"I heard what you said Eugene!"
The exhaustion and confusion lifted from his complexion and were
replaced by anger. The first shots of another argument destined to
chase its own tail had been fired.
"Then why aren't you providing a response?"
Ariana stared in disbelief, allowing a teardrop to leak from her eye
and splash down onto her bare feet.
"I was remembering, okay, Eugene? I was thinking about when my husband
had a heart, and when he and his son were an inseparable team who
would never give up on each other. I was thinking about nights when I
didn't cry myself to sleep, but when I held you and we told each other
we loved each other. Do you when the last time you said, 'I love you.'
He stood still dumbfounded.
"Neither do I! I mean, God, Eugene... do you even acknowledge my
existence here anymore? This is the only type of conversation we have
anymore, screaming matches! You really have no clue about me; about
anything... Do you know why I work so much, even though you bring in
enough money to support us? Do you know why I don't get home 'til two
am most nights, even though we don't need my overtime pay? It's
because I hate being here! I hate being with you, sleeping next to
you, talking to you, because you live in your own little fucking world
where nothing goes right and you can never be happy!"
The single teardrop had called in reinforcements by now, the wetness
streamed down her face like a monsoon. Eugene looked like a deer in
the headlights of a tractor- trailer.
Ariana thought maybe she'd finally broken through to his conscience,
but the momentary lapse in his fury ceased and Eugene started to
"Then why do you stay here Ariana? Why do you put up with all the
indecency I give you! A roof over your head, food on the table, a
pretty damn good house, some really nice fucking cars and all the damn
jewelry and clothes? Why do you put up with the horrors of living with
Ariana stared in disbelief.
"Eugene, if that's what truly made me happy I'd go out and fuck Hugh
Heffner. I want to be loved and I want to love somebody back. Now that
may have fallen apart between us but something came out of the love we
used to have. That something is called Reggie, our son. You might
remember him since he's the other person you take out all your
aggressions on. But that doesn't matter now because he's gone too.
He's gone and he was the only reason I put up with the horrors of
living with you."
Ariana marched back up the stairs, finally feeling the bravado to do
what she knew had been a long time coming. She shoved her way past the
shell shocked Eugene and didn't stop moving until she reached the top
shelf of her armoire. She started tearing down clothing arbitrarily.
She reached into the base of the adjacent wall closet and tore out a
suitcase from its cavernous holdings. Eugene strode into the room and
clutched his hair while gritting his teeth.
"Oh, I don't fucking believe this."
Ariana didn't even look up from her activities. "Truthfully, Eugene, I
don't really care what you fucking believe. This is it; I'm out of
here. I've had more than I can take of your shit."
Eugene grabbed her wrist, but Ariana wrestled it free. Eugene calmly
placed his hand on her shoulder this time, lowering his voice to a
"Wait... don't I get any last words?"
Ariana froze and turned to her husband
"Make it fast," she muttered.
Eugene breathed in deep and looked his wife in the eyes, capturing her
attention for the moment.
"The reasons we can't have those days anymore are simple, and contrary
to what you may think they aren't all my fault. You seem to have this
perception of me that I'm a monster and I like seeing the pain and
heartache that hangs over this house, but I don't. I'm sorry if I
don't cope well with the fact that my son has been arrested twice, I'm
sorry if I don't respond in the perfect paternal manner, but I'm only
human. The point is that this is who I am, Ariana. It's too late at
this point in my life for me to change who I am. I'm sorry if you
can't accept that."
Ariana looked into her husband's eyes and truly felt sorrow at how
wrong he was. She resumed her duties, quickly shoving the last pair of
socks into the black handled suitcase and then slammed it down, moving
the latch into position. She once again pushed past Eugene, calling
out too him as she disappeared from sight.
"It's never too late to change, honey... change happens all the time.
It's part of life, it's growing." She smirked as she opened the front
door. "Maybe I've just grown to big for this house."
Car engines roared along the streets below Ren Yamagishi's four-room
apartment. Children screamed incoherently about trivial matters, the
only words holding any value being "he started it". The clichéd
excuses echoed off the pristine walls of the hallway. Their irritating
cries were intercepted by moans of pleasure at an inexcusably loud
decibel level. Ren recognized the orgasmic bursts of Mrs. Matheson,
one pair of the noisy couple who made sleep impossible on this floor.
While these noises tested the limits of Ren's restraint, they were a
welcome distraction from the one sound he most feared. He gave the red
Nokia lying peacefully on his coffee table a disapproving glance, as
if it were an unwelcome houseguest. Only one man knew the necessary 12
digits to reach him via that device, and Ren knew it was a pretty safe
bet that said man would not be in a pleasant mood when he did call. A
mechanical beep startled him. Thankfully the noise was emanating from
his kitchen and not his phone. Ren scowled, aggravated by his own
paranoia. He recognized the chiming noise as the timer on his
microwave. He rose and made his way to the relatively bland kitchen.
Plain white chairs, unflattering marble countertops and an assortment
of unwashed dishes greeted him as he entered the room. Ren did not
desire simplicity, but he could not garner the funds to decorate his
apartment with more than a few expensive looking knockoff Italian
chairs in his foyer. The rest of his space was filled with ordinary
items found in any working class shmuck's possession.
Ren turned his attention away from his average lifestyle and to the
source of the noise. He found kettle upon his stove steaming, the
black liquid inside bubbling at the brim, crying out to him for an
escape. He grabbed the handle regardless of its effects on his hand
and poured the fresh coffee into a white mug with some half-hearted
poem written on the side of it. He loathed the drivel on the side of
the cup. Ren had always had a quiet love for literature and had taken
a shine to writing his own haiku's every now and then. His hatred for
the lack of talent or effort between the lines of the soulless verse
as well as jealousy at the lack of recognition for his own work had
congealed and formed into one mass aversion to these forms of poetry.
The steady flow of caffeine into the back of his throat washed away
the anguished thoughts of literary fame. The static cry of a cell
phone eliminated any pipe dreams Ren held of a quiet afternoon. He
walked back to the living room, placing the scalding black substance
down on the table. He raised the phone to his ear, hoping that somehow
it would ward away the call. When the receiver was level with his ear
the phone screamed out in another disjointed hymn, and Ren had no
choice but to answer the call.
Kozu's firm voice was there at an instant.
"Good day, Kozu-san."
"Today is many things, Ren, but good is not one of them."
"I'm sorry, sir."
The exchange was quick, as if rehearsed for a sitcom. A pause for
breathing was given and then the conversation resumed as if it had
"Sorry? What exactly are you sorry for, Ren? Maybe it's the fact that
Eugene Evans is still alive? Maybe it's the fact that your recruit
hasn't checked in and has probably run so far off that he's in Chicago
Ren didn't respond.
"Or..." Kozu said clearing his throat before his voice erupted into a
scream, "Or..." he continued in a lower tone, "... maybe you're sorry
that you gave away our only samples of Fuel, which are now in the
hands of some punk kid whose name I don't even know!"
Ren heard heavy footfalls in the hallway. Two men walking parallel to
each other from the eastern approach to his door, their shoes were
heavy, most likely a durable but elegant wingtip. He knew what was
"Get up and answer the door," Kozu spoke with authority.
He rose and didn't even bother looking through the peephole. Two burly
men in black business suits with white shirts entered. Their ties were
on vacation allowing, Ren to get a view of their open collar button
and absence of neck. One of them held a silver oblong item in his
Kozu kept talking, directing his symphony without effort.
"Now, Ren, I know you aren't a full fledged Yakuza, but I'm going let
the rules apply for you anyway."
The two men grabbed Ren by his shoulders; he offered no resistance.
They sat him down on the aging couch adjacent to his coffee table and
forced both his hands down flat onto the wood surface. The muscleman
on his left took the phone from his hands, pressing it to his ear with
no concern for the cartilage residing there.
"Now which hand did you give the Fuel case to your assassin in?"
"The right," he spoke without doubt. His voice did not falter as he
refused to show fear or cry for these goons.
"Good then that narrows it down to five." The man on the left pushed
Ren's left hand away, allowing it to hang limp at his side.
"Now then... cutting off the pinky is a sign of honor that you don't
deserve.... So that leaves us with four."
Ren obediently folded his pinky under his knuckle.
"Taking your thumb is too cruel an endeavor even for myself....
Three," Kozu spat.
"Are you wearing a ring?" he asked with something resembling humor in
his voice. Ren felt sick inside imagining Kozu sadistically enjoying
"No," Kozu said, his mind drifting to the tiny purple amethyst in his
"Do you ever wear a ring?"
"No," he said, blatantly lying.
"Well then we've found our target," Kozu said and he hung up abruptly.
After a few seconds of an uneasy silence a different ring echoed
throughout the room. One of the nameless musclemen picked up his own
phone, placed it to his ear, nodded and hung up.
The man disappeared into Ren's kitchen as he flipped the hatch on the
Motorola shut. His momentary absence allowed an uneasy calm to settle
on the room. The burly figure returned with an old wooden cutting
board that Ren didn't remember purchasing, and a brutal looking steak
knife. He placed both down on the table before Ren and nodded.
"Do it," he grumbled.
Ren sighed, deciding to simply accept the inevitable. He allowed the
wicked blade to hover over his ring finger, deciding on a place to
cut. He grimaced and shut his eyes as he allowed the blade to plummet
to its target. He opened his eyes to see his fingertip rolling off the
table and too the floor, where it landed right side up and stood erect
like a toy soldier. Without ever breaking their eternal silence the
two men arose and walked out of the room. Ren bit his lower lip hard
as he watched the trail of blood staining his table trickle over the
edge and onto his rug. He stared at the doorway through clenched teeth
before he heard the footsteps disappear. Once certain that he was
alone, Ren began to sob lightly as he looked for something to close
the wound with.
Angel...why...Angel... thank you, God, thank you thank you so much I'm
Coda was bored of listening to the woman's hysterical mental
ramblings. His face remained in an expressionless state when in truth
Nicole's frail convictions made him sick inside. It only took a
thirty-second scan through her mind to know that the inside of a
church was a foreign land to her. Worse off than that, she prided
herself on being an atheist, she made it a point of conversation
anywhere she went. Thank God, thank God... The blasphemous words gave
Coda the dreadful urge to leap from his seat and strangle every last
inch of life out of the bitch. Sadly he couldn't do that just yet, she
served a purpose. He silently scratched murder off of his agenda.
It was bad enough that the woman's newfound faith was based solely off
the potential of her own personal gain, but now she called out to
"God", the universal phrase for a higher power, a limitless entity
that reigned as the good-natured king over all his creations. The poor
woman couldn't even begin to comprehend the name she was invoking.
Coda pushed away all the theological and spiritual hurdles because, in
truth, he had staged the same rant at least six times in the hallway
en route to Ms. Lanza's room. He had come to the conclusion that human
theology was a warped and misconstrued system that was totally beyond
"So.... So how can you help me?" Nicole whispered to him.
There it was again. That damn self-indulgent attitude. Coda despised
it; he loathed the human beings' endless will to survive past their
allotted time. His mind screamed as the word angel traced itself
through her brain again. She knew nothing of angels. Angel, agent,
harbinger, doom bringer, life-giver, he knew he was so much more than
any word could contain. She, however, saw him as nothing more than a
simple means to a pleasant end.
"How can I help you? You're certainly not the hesitant type," he said,
chuckling to stifle his disgust.
Her reply was only a blank, eager stare.
He sighed and shook his head violently. As his long black hair
unfurled and drifted softly to his back she admired his outfit. She
took a mental note that his trench coat and semi-business attire
caused him to resemble a private eye from a long cancelled television
program. All this knowledge leapt from her brain to his mind an
instant. Telepathy had been a fun little trick he'd learned in his
time here. He returned his eyes to hers and continued.
"I can help you by getting you out of here. I can help you by curing
you of your ills. I can help you by returning you to your
broken-hearted mother. I can do a myriad of things that would please
you. But the important question isn't can I do it. The question is
"But... why wouldn't you? You obviously have some extraordinary
abilities, why not use them to help people?"
"Because this is the real world, love, not some cookie-cutter Saturday
morning cartoon show. Out here, power only corrupts."
"You're certainly a pessimist," she retorted.
"And you're certainly in no position to criticize me, if you want me
to help you."
Her defiant gaze quickly melted, and she bowed her head in shame.
Coda smiled at her gentle submission.
"Better... now let's get back on topic shall we?"
"The question still remains will I help you. Maybe..." he cocked his
right eyebrow, intrigued by something silently plodding about his
head, "...maybe you should tell me why I should help you."
She bit her lower lip, nervousness overwhelming her being. She opened
her mouth to speak but the words retreated back down her throat. She
silently pondered how best to tug his heartstrings.
"I made bad choices growing up. Choices I've regretted since the
moment I met them. It's too late to repair most of the breaches now,
but I was hoping for a second chance, at least with my mother.
She's... she's heartbroken and it's killing her to see me die. I made
her a promise as a little girl that I'd be there to hold her hand when
she was passing away. I need you to help me keep that promise, I need
you to keep me alive long enough for that at least. Can you do that?"
Coda hid his smile; he always enjoyed listening to the ramblings of
the desperate, the destitute, and the lowly. She would have done
anything he wanted at that point, but he had kept it simple. He didn't
need to degrade and enslave every person he came across to let them
know who was in control. He decided to let this victory be a quiet
He rose up and slowly walked to her bedside, grasping her hand firmly.
"Nicole Lanza," he said in his most innocent voice, "you will keep
A blinding white light filled the room, engulfing everything
surrounding the two in its aura. Coda smiled as the energy flowed from
his hands into her body.
And so it begins, he thought to himself as Nicole Lanza's life changed
Reggie's voice echoed against the aging walls of St. Agnes church,
producing a resounding chime as the sound waves passed through the
cavernous pipe organ that stood guard atop the balcony. As Reggie's
shoes scraped against the scarred tile floor he caught site of the
place where he had fallen to his near death a mere two nights ago. His
body was outlined by indents in the already massacred flooring. Reggie
sauntered along the center aisle of the church calling out the
priest's name again. As if he rehearsed his entrance, McKinley
appeared with an eerie reminiscence of there last meeting. Reggie was
in no hurry to relive that experience.
"Back so soon, Reggie?" the old man asked with a hint of arrogance in
"What can I say? Near-death experiences just draw me to this place."
Reggie avoided eye contact with the man who honestly terrified him as
he pointlessly ran his hand along one of the aging pew heads.
"Do tell," the clergymen asked with a false anticipation.
"Why should I? I have the feeling you already know. You knew about my
house and my family anyway." Reggie stopped his aimless motions and
shot a direct glance at the old man.
"Just how in the hell did you do that?"
The priest folded his hands together.
"There are certain... benefits from being in the employ of the
Reggie returned his eyes to the floor.
"Like what?" he asked half sarcastically, half fearing the priest's
"Oh, prophetic visions, voices in my dreams, He has his ways of
keeping me updated on any important occurrences in your life, Reggie."
Reggie stepped away from the pew and joined Father McKinley on the
altar. When they stood barely a breath apart Reggie spoke again,
bringing himself face to face with his enigmatic mentor.
"Well then you know that my best friend tried to shoot me last night,
you know that my father almost died, and you know that the only thing
that prevented both those things from happening are these abilities
that I supposedly have."
Father McKinley stepped back, confused by Reggie's anger.
"And this makes you angry?"
Now it was Reggie's turn to step back bewildered.
"No, this makes me confused, scared and frustrated. My life was spared
last night by something beyond my control. Something that should
rightfully be under my control. I have a very distinct feeling that
you, being the vast library of supernatural knowledge that you are,
might have a clue as to how I can control these... these..."
"Powers?" McKinley interjected.
Reggie stood silent, his youthful bravado retreating back to its
dwelling place in his chest.
"Yes," he conceded.
"Is that all you're here for, Reggie? A crash course in the art of
Reggie half nodded.
Father McKinley sighed and walked away from Reggie, brushing his hand
against the marble lectern as he walked in the direction of the far
"What exactly are you doing?" Reggie asked.
As if on command, McKinley spun on his heel, swiftly flicking his
right wrist and fully extending his fingers. A white ellipse formed on
his hand and burst forward on course for Reggie's chest. Reggie threw
his head back and uselessly blocked with his forearms, hoping to
somehow stop the ball of energy. His knee-jerk reaction accomplished
nothing, and when he unclenched his eyelids he found the white ball's
radiance fading as it hung in a black wall of shadow that enshrouded
the area from his chest to the floor.
"Rule #1," McKinley began, speaking with the authority of a drill
instructor. "My powers are intertwined with yours. I can't use them
unless you're in the vicinity, and I can't use them to harm you and
vice-versa." McKinley waved a hand in the direction of the oblong
shadow that held the white ellipse captive. "If we try to attack each
other something of that nature will stop us from doing so."
Reggie nodded, paying the clergyman strict attention.
McKinley paced along the maroon carpeting of the altar and continued
"Rule #2, your powers are quite different from mine. As you can see I
can fire and bend light into projectiles and beams. You however, as
you may have deduced last night, have the uncanny ability to bend
shadow into solid forms with your mind."
Reggie wasn't too surprised by this development. "So that explains the
staff and the shield."
McKinley smiled. "Staffs and shields are child's play, Reggie. You can
bend shadow into any shape you can imagine. When properly developed,
you will be quite worthy of the title champion."
Reggie's shoulders slumped at the mention of the word "champion". He
had been so overwhelmed by all the surrounding circumstances during
their first encounter that McKinley's prophecies had been no more than
an afterthought. Now their true weight was revealed.
"Champion?" was the only response he could muster.
Father McKinley's face was stained with regret, conveying that he
hadn't intended to say the word.
"Don't worry about that now, Reggie, everything will come unveiled in
An uneasy silence was born between teacher and student. For a few
minutes neither spoke, they scarcely moved. Reggie studied the man now
in charge of his destiny. A frail old priest at a church that Reggie
had always looked upon with contempt was now possibly his staunchest
ally left. In 48 hours the rules had changed all around Reggie, no
friends, no family, no home....
Lovely, Reggie thought. The reality hadn't even occurred to him, but
after being showered and warmed he had little desire to return to his
dwelling place underneath the 46th street overpass. Father McKinley,
in a move that went far beyond coincidental, spoke.
"So I'm assuming you'll need a place to stay now?"
Reggie went to ask how he knew that, but the man's previous oration on
visions came to mind and vanquished the question. Reggie quietly
"Well," hesitation plagued his voice, "there is an open room in the
rectory if you..."
"No," Reggie burst, shocked at the punctuality of his response. He
quickly regrouped his social graces and spoke again, "I mean thank you
Father but I'm sure I can find..."
"No, I understand," The old man said, shuffling towards the back of
the altar. "I guess I'll see you around then?"
Reggie agreed and turned around to leave. As he took his first step
his conscience and his brain got the better of him.
This dude is lonely, offering you a place to stay... and your marching
off to sleep in a pile of piss and slush again? C'mon Reggie, don't be
Reggie fought off his better judgment and advanced towards the exit.
"No," Reggie growled.
"N...Maybe," he whispered.
Piss and Slush, or an actual bed!
"Son of a bitch," he muttered.
Reggie slowly turned and caught Father McKinley sinking off into the
farthest reaches of the altar.
"McKinley!" he screamed with the same pitch as when he first entered.
The old man froze in position.
"Yes?" he asked, his ears twitching awaiting Reggie's response.
Reggie sighed and continued, hoping the news stories about priest were
"How about that room?"
"I don't know how Ms. Lanza..." the bewildered Dr. Frakes spoke as if
he didn't believe his own words "... but your cancer has gone into
remission." The words stunned the white clad men and women surrounding
her bed, the men and women who were certain that Nicole Lanza would be
dead within two weeks and replaced by another doomed patient. Dr.
Frakes continued to speak medical blasphemy.
"Your cancer had spread too far, I don't think this has ever happened
before" he turned his head to his colleagues who simply nodded.
" I mean after all the tests, all the failed attempts to cut this off,
nothing short of the hand of God could have saved your life."
Nicole Lanza simply smiled at the doctors. They didn't know how right
they were. She rolled over purring in delight, taking comfort in the
derelict bed sheets for the first time since her arrival at St.
Vincent's Hospital. The doctors continued their incessant murmurings,
trying to discover just how this seemingly dead woman was slated to
walk out of here in 12 hours, but Nicole didn't care. She closed her
eyes and dreamed of second chances. She could almost smell a home
cooked meal waiting in the kitchen of her mother's apartment. She
could feel the smooth edges of the marble countertops; she could taste
food and drink that wasn't tainted by the scent of death and sorrow
all around her. She heard the footsteps of a small army moving away
from her, and she deduced that the detachment of specialists had given
up trying to figure out how she had been saved but rather be thankful
for it. The endless curiosity of man had always fascinated Nicole. She
was shocked by the doctors' lack of compassion and jubilance at her
recovery and their need to dissect and prod about the miracle. It was
as if her health wasn't enough to please them, as if they needed a
blueprint as to how and why to make it truly a remarkable achievement.
A new, lighter echo of footsteps resonated through the room. The sound
reverberated into her ears and Nicole sprang up too see the smiling
face of her mother in the doorframe. Immediately after her anonymous
savior had vacated the premises Nicole had frantically dialed her
mother's phone number to tell her the news. The old woman had come
down here as fast as she could, which wasn't very fast at all, but
that didn't matter to Nicole. Words were left unsaid as she slowly
glided across the room to hug her daughter. Their silent embrace was
the best thing Nicole had felt in nearly two years. For the first time
in so long she was truly happy. Her mother let go for a second and
kissed her on the forehead. Tears of joy rolled down her face, falling
perfectly into the aged wrinkles of her face, traveling along them
like streams. Nicole went to speak but her mother raised a gentle
finger to her lips.
"I don't care how or why," she whispered and they both turned to look
out into the moonlit city. Nicole pressed her hand against the cold
glass, as close as she had been to the brisk night air for the longest
"Tomorrow," she whispered, her own tears now cascading down her face
"Yes, Nicole, tomorrow we can start again." They clutched each other's
hands and they stared into a beautiful full moon. Nicole found herself
drawn to its glow, hypnotized by its beautiful aura. The white light
was so familiar, so much like before.
She turned back into the room and to her bemusement she saw the man,
her savior, standing in the corner. A menacing look crossed his face.
Her mother's joyful expression collapsed as the color ran dry from
"What's wrong, Nicole?" her mother asked, but the words fell on deaf
ears. Thunder clapped outside the window and a rain began to fall,
first gentle like children's footsteps. Then the sky opened up with
all its fury and the rain raced down at a newfound velocity. The rain
attacked the window, ramming it with futile hopes of breaking through.
Nicole pressed back against her bed; she knew something was terribly
"Consider your promise kept," the man hissed from the corner and
vanished into seemingly thin air. Nicole's mother screamed, she
extended a shaking finger at her daughter and backed away slowly.
Nicole looked down and saw a white aura surrounding her as she began
to float in the air. The IV needle ripped from her flesh, scarring her
left arm. Her body became erect as her arms and legs spread eagle.
Every hair stood on end, Nicole felt as if the room were spinning;
early symptoms of vertigo began to set in. She looked around her and
noticed the bed and the IV pole experiencing similar circumstances to
her own. They too were floating. Nicole stared at the IV pole
curiously as it began to spin in place and then turn itself 90
degrees. From its new position it became a deadly projectile rather
than a medical tool. In the hallway she heard screaming, orderlies and
nurses trying to break into the room and stop the phenomenon within.
Nicole wished they would, but for some reason they couldn't open the
door. A wooden chair cleverly propped beneath the door was the source
of their dilemma. Nicole looked back at her mother, who looked
absolutely terrified and on the verge of a heart attack. She pressed
herself against the far wall still screaming, her pitch was lower, she
had probably weakened her vocal chords as a result of the non-stop
screaming. Nicole looked besides her and saw the IV pole begin to
shake violently and lurch forwards. She looked back between it and her
mother and as she imagined the situation it happened. The metal shaft
flew forwards, impaling the Old Spanish woman through the torso. Bone
and blood exploded out from her chest in a myriad of directions.
"NOOOOOOOOOOO!" Nicole shrieked as she ran forwards. She arrived
beside her mother and clutched her hand. As blood bubbled up through
the woman's throat she tried to speak but coughs came forth instead of
words. She mouthed the phrase, "I love you" and then the moaned in
agony. Nicole's screams were useless, her flood of tears in vain. She
simply knelt and sobbed as her mother's spirit slipped from her body.
She watched her mother's eyes close for the final time and looked
down, knowing she'd kept her promise and wishing it hadn't come to
fruition so soon.
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