Torchwood Five ~ Episode One: The Brainstem Murders
Hey all. Over the last few months, I've been working away on a number of projects that seem to have grown from tiny fragments of an idea I'd "one day maybe start thinking about writing" into fully fledged stories that I just couldn't hold off on writing anymore. I know I've started a great many stories here in the CEC, none of which have ever seen completion. This story is different from them in one significant regard: the first 'book' in the series is already finished, and I'll be posting a chapter a day for the next week or so - it's not a long one, compared to the others in the series.
I hope everyone enjoys it.
In Year of Our Lord 1879, while journeying through the Scottish moors, Alexandria Victoria - Queen regnant of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and first Empress of India - encountered a vicious beast known as a ‘werewolf’ at the estate of Sir Robert MacLeish. The creature attempted to, and almost succeeded in, passing its own consciousness to the monarch in order to establish itself as ruler of the Empire. The beast was stopped, however, by the heroism and sacrifice of Sir Robert as well as the help of a mysterious stranger known only as ‘the Doctor’.
After being named Sir Doctor of TARDIS for his heroism, Victoria banished the Doctor from the Empire for all eternity. To enforce this exile, as well as to protect the Empire’s borders from other similar phantasmagoria, she also established an institute whose sole purpose was to defend the Empire from extra-terrestrial and para-normal threat. She named this institute in honour of Sir Robert, who died in her defence. She took the name of his Scottish home - the Torchwood Estate - for this new institute. Thus the Torchwood Institute was born.
But Torchwood became far more dangerous than Victoria ever dreamed they could be. In their paranoia and zeal, the Institute became radically aggressive. Shortly before her death, foreseeing a time when Torchwood could ultimately become a greater danger than the enemies they swore to combat, Victoria selected from the few agents she knew she could trust a special taskforce. This taskforce, calling itself Her Majesty’s Protectorate, were assigned to secure and defend a number of Victoria’s own private alien acquisitions, and given specific orders to keep them out of the hands of the Institute itself. They were sent off to the New World, taking the Queen’s property with them. Her Majesty died twenty-nine days later of a brain aneurysm. The year was 1901.
Her Majesty’s Protectorate remained a secret, all-but-inoperative branch of the Institute for one-hundred and seven years. But the Dalek invasion of Earth in Year of Our Lord 2008 forever changed the existence of the branch. Unable to sit idly by and allow the peoples of Canada and the United States of America to suffer at the hands of the invaders, Her Majesty’s Protector Peter Burns, leader of the branch, activated it. Together with Her Majesty’s Protectors Brianna Davison, Claudia Knight, Alain Davies, and Alexander Combs, he authorised the use of Her Majesty’s private acquisitions to combat the alien threat.
Only Davies and Combs survived. After the Daleks were destroyed and the Earth restored, the two journeyed across the continent, searching for a sufficient base of operations from which to maintain an active branch of the Torchwood Institute in North America. They finally came to Queensbridge, British Columbia, where they discovered a wound in the fabric of space, the Universe almost literally ‘bleeding’ through it - a wound whose origins are to this day unknown. Here, they recruited a new team of agents to monitor the Wound, protect the citizens of Queensbridge from the dangers it posed, and await a time where they would be again called upon to defend the human race on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. The year is now 2011; and Torchwood Five stands at the ready.
The Brainstem Murders
~ Prologue ~
An unseasonable chill had settled over the streets of Queensbridge, yet Hubert Cornett walked them naked from the waist up, sweat glistening across his narrow chest and wiry arms. His breathing was laboured as he walked deliberately up the long road, the distant rumbling of traffic muted slightly in the oppressive darkness. The shops and restaurants arrayed along the street had closed hours ago, and would not re-open for hours again. But that was irrelevant to him - it wasn’t shopping or food that had brought him to the streets of Queensbridge tonight.
The sidewalk was dark with drying rain, and the puddles gathered every few metres sloshed sickeningly as Cornett shuffled across the street. His glassy eyes stared blankly forward, his jaw slack and his shoulders drooped. He stumbled slightly as he reached the curb, but he hardly seemed to notice. About ten metres to his left was an alley, set between a dry cleaner’s and a coffee bar, hardly more than a few metres wide. The pale orange light of the street lamp at its mouth did little to illuminate the area, and its gentle humming was not enough to cover a gentle scuffling from within. Cornett shuffled quickly to the edge of the alley, stopping at the threshold and staring unseeingly into the dark.
The sounds were coming from a bundle of what looked like sodden, somewhat mouldy rags - a pile about the size of a man. They stirred slightly, and Cornett’s eyes burned with intensity momentarily before returning to their blank, glazed look. His uneven gait brought him into the alley proper, his breathing become increasingly laboured as he went.
A chilly breeze rippled the air as Cornett stopped, his gaze fixed on the stirring lump of cloth. But there was no pity in his eyes - there seemed to be nothing within them at all as he stumbled clumsily forwards. The pile gave a violent start as Cornett approached, and a very dirty man poked his grubby head out from beneath his rumpled old blanket, drunkenly trying to discern the direction from which he could definitely hear footsteps coming.
“H--Hullo?” he hiccupped, slurring each syllable together so that it was nearly impossible to make out what he was saying. “Who’reyou?”
The stench of old booze and stale tobacco seemed to have no effect on Cornett as he came to a stop only a metre away from the homeless man, curled up in a vain attempt to keep warm. The man tried to speak again, his words tumbling out in nonsensical shapes and fragments of thought.
Cornett took another heavy step forward, his chest puffed out and his breath coming in ragged bursts. His now bloodshot eyes bulged out, and his mouth fell open, revealing grimy, yellowish-brown teeth. His wiry muscles tensed and his spine folded forward, forcing him into an odd bow. His mouth fell open unnaturally wide, and his ragged breathing had turned into a terrifying screech - a screech that turned to a blood-curdling cry of terror that mingled with that of the homeless man now cowering on the damp gravel ground.
As promised, here's the first day's chapter. Enjoy!
~ Chapter I ~
The whole of Queensbridge was closed by nine. Eight, on Sundays. That was why Sara Wallace couldn’t understand why her manager had decided that La Café Grande would do well to become a twenty-four hour establishment, nor could she work out what she had done to deserve the rather dubious ‘honour’ of supervising the night shift. She had long ago resigned herself to the idea of spending the bulk of the prime of her life in a dusty coffee shop, but now having to give up what little social life she had in order to stare at the tile floors for hours on end each night stung deep. “And they’re not even paying me extra for it...” she thought darkly.
“What time is it now?”
Sara rolled her eyes as she looked up from her book and glanced at her watch. “About ten minutes later than the last time you asked,” she answered wearily, returning her attention to the novel in her hands.
“Are you serious?” asked Camryn, her eyes bulging from their sockets. She rubbed her eyes frantically with the palms of her hands and gave a half groan, half growl. “We’ll never be out of here,” she whined.
“It’s only a few more hours,” muttered Sara, not taking her eyes off the page in front of her. Not that she had taken in a word of it in at least a half hour. Her brain felt like mush, and her eyes scanned over the words without retaining a single letter - she had read the same paragraph a dozen times now. “But in about an hour and a half, we’ll start getting the early risers and night shift workers. Sit tight, have another coffee.”
“If I have one more coffee, I’ll start bouncing off the walls...” she complained, turning to gaze out the bay windows at the front - not that there was much to see. The dark street outside was lit by only two streetlights; one was out, and the other stood a good ten feet to the right of the door. The most either of them would see until dawn would be their own reflections - and if there was one thing worse than the lack of pay-rise her new ‘managerial’ position offered, it was having to stare at her depressed, exhausted reflection all night.
They were both silent for a few moments. Then, “What would you think if I got highlights?” Camryn asked suddenly, shifting her head slightly to better view the back of it in her ghostly, slightly distorted reflection.
Sara sighed, absently marking her place as she looked up at the window, tossing the book aside. “I don’t know,” she said non-commitally, glancing unseeingly at her coworker’s reflection. She caught sight of her own, and cringed to herself at the sight of the mid-sized bags forming under her watery blue eyes, still visible beneath the thin layer of makeup she’d applied just hours ago - though it seemed like far longer.
“I’m thinking red...” muttered Camryn, more to herself than anything, lifting great strands of her bright, shoulder-length blonde hair and holding them within an inch of her face. “Or maybe purple. What do you think?”
Sara stifled a giggle, breaking eye contact with her ghostly-pale reflection to stare at Camryn evenly. She forced an expression kindly optimism, but it came out more like one of ever-so-slight amusement. “I think you would look ridiculous with either,” she said, shaking her head.
The girl sighed, tucking her hair back behind her ear, eyeing Sara’s as she did so. “I’d kill to have your hair...” she said enviously. “How do you get it so soft?” she asked, reaching out and fingering Sara’s raven coloured locks.
Sara pulled back as a few strands of her hair were pulled painfully out of their pony-tail and fell into her face. “Just lucky, I guess,” she replied evenly, pushing it out of the way again. She glanced back at her watch again. “I’m going to bring garbages to the back,” she said, more to avoid continuing their embarrassingly girly conversation than out of actual necessity.
“Alright,” Camryn yawned. She stretched her arm across the counter and rest her head on it, her eyes drifting shut.
“Don’t work too hard, now...” muttered Sara as she rose from her stool and lifted the thick black plastic bag out of the trash can between them. Camryn didn’t seem to hear her. Pushing her hair out of her face again, Sara tied a knot in the bag, hoisted it over her shoulder, and carefully navigated around the curved counter towards the doorway at the other end of the small area in the back. The management optimistically called it a ‘kitchen’, but it was really just a large stainless steel sink surrounded by shelves of sugar packets, paper coffee cups with their plastic lids, and a large fridge where they kept the cream and milk. She pushed through the narrow room to the hallway beyond, sighing in frustration when the bag caught itself on the corner of the sink and tore open slightly.
The back hallway itself was lit well enough, but the store room directly off of it, where the evening and night shifts stored their garbage overnight, had only a single dim bulb, hanging from the centre of the room. The darkness was oppressive as Sara stepped into the room, coughing slightly as the stench of the previous shift’s trash assaulted her aural sense. She fumbled for the thin chain hanging off the bulb, finally getting a hold of it only a few inches in front of her face. She tugged on it hard, and the bulb flared into life - only to flicker out a fraction of a second later, hissing softly.
“****...” she muttered, a small bluish-white blur now floating before her. She blinked hard, trying to clear it, stumbling slightly over the sack of garbage at her feet. She reached into her pocket, struggling to get a hold of her cell phone for some semblance of light. A harsh white beam illuminated about a square foot of the floor at her feet, but beyond that all was dark. She hoisted the bag at her feet to the side of the room, then turned to the yellowing sheet of paper taped to the wall beside the door. She fumbled in the dark again, this time for the pen tied haphazardly to a hook on the wall beside her. She hastily scrawled the time and her name near the bottom of the page, then felt her way back towards the door.
A noise, like a crash, sounded from the alleyway outside, beside the shop. Sara stopped, standing stalk still in the pitch darkness as she listened hard. “Probably those damned skunks again,” she said out loud, resuming her blind attempts to find the door.
The air was rent by a terrible, heart-stopping scream from the alley, followed by more crashes and cries that sounded as if they were almost right outside the shop’s back door. Sara froze, her heart in her throat and pumping so hard she could feel it in her eyes, fear scratching at her chest as what sounded like a vicious struggle carried on just metres away. Her mind finally caught up with her senses, and she quickly punched at her phone’s illuminated keyboard: 9-1-1; her phone beeped at her, and wouldn’t dial out - she had no signal.
She swore. She turned the display towards the wall, hastily searching for the door, and found it about a foot away from her hand. She put her weight against it and pushed. The hallway was uncomfortably bright after the total darkness of the storeroom, and she had to squint to keep them open as she moved quickly and stealthily to the back door. She was too short to comfortably see through the peep-hole installed in the thick metal door, so she had to stretch slightly. She couldn’t see a thing, either because it was too dark or the outside end of the peephole was so gummed up with grime and dirt. She pressed her ear against it instead. The struggle seemed to be over already, for she could hear nothing now but the buzzing hum of the fluorescent bulbs over her head. She backed away from the door slowly, distractedly tucking her hair behind her ear again, her mind racing. Should she go into the alley and see if someone needed help? She shuddered in fear at the thought, and dismissed it instantly. She should go back to the front of the store, lock the door, and call the police, she decided. She turned on her heel and marched steadily through the kitchen and into the front.
“Camryn, lock the door, quickly. I’m going t--“
She stopped dead, bile flooding into her mouth and shock hitting her like a blow to the stomach.
Where Camryn had been sitting lay her stool, on it’s side; the counter on which she had been resting was streaked with blood, and on the floor on the other side lay a twisted, mangled, bloody lump of flesh. The stench of blood overwhelmed her, and she spat a mouthful of bile and vomit onto the floor at her feet. Terror pushed its way into her thoughts, sending tears pouring down her face. She stumbled towards the counter, collapsing as she reached the cordless phone. Her fingers felt numb as she dialled haphazardly; she put the phone to her ear, but it wasn’t ringing. It wasn’t doing anything. She reset it, and put it to her ear again. Nothing. She couldn’t get a dial tone. Tears of frustration and panic intermingled with those of fear as she pounded again on the keypad.
A drop of moisture dripped onto her hand from above. The adrenaline pumping through her veins made it feel like a knife wound, and when she looked down at it there was indeed blood running down the back of her hand. She brushed it away in a panic, but nothing swelled up to take its place - and she realised with a jolt that the blood wasn’t hers. Her head snapped up so quickly she felt her neck crack painfully, but the pain was washed away a second later by a flood of terror running through her. A man, the dirtiest, ugliest man she had ever seen, loomed over her, standing on the counter with his legs spread apart and his shoulders hunched over. Blood dripped down his chin in torrents from a set of horribly yellow teeth, stained with blood along with Lord knew what else. Vomit rose in her throat again, but this time a scream beat it to her mouth. She dove sideways, scrambling across the cold tile floor towards the dining room and desperately trying to rise to her feet as she went.
The man hopped down onto the floor behind the counter, his muddy brown eyes fixed hungrily on her. He gave a guttural growl that sent a shiver down her spine. He took a step towards her, shuffling slightly and groaning softly with each step.
Acting on instinct, Sara threw the cordless phone at him as hard as she could. It hit him square in the face, but he hardly seemed to notice. She scrambled behind her, and her hand found the base of her stool. She wrapped her hand awkwardly around the leg and threw it forward; the throw was lousy, and came short - she had been aiming for his head again, but it hardly made it off the ground and instead impacted with his shins. He tripped over it and threw his arm out to catch himself on the counter. Sara kicked out with her left foot, making a weak impact against his knee but still weakening his stance. She scrambled to her feet as he managed to find his own again, and she turned to run through the kitchen and towards the back door.
She didn’t make it past the stainless steel sink. Another man, this one significantly cleaner and younger, came barrelling towards her - a very large, very dark, and very real gun held in front of him and pointed right at her chest. She screamed. He cannoned into her, pushing her back into the dining room and into the path of the path of her pursuer. She tried to cling onto him and push him in front of her, but he wore a thick leather jacket that was difficult to grab a hold of. He pushed her to the floor, where she hit her head against the tile. The man reached out with his foot to tip over the table under which she had landed. The table fell forwards, barely missing her as it crashed into the tile floor.
Gunfire shattered her eardrums, but was over before she’d even thought to cover her ears - the edges of her vision were beginning to blur, and she couldn’t lift her head much more than an inch or two from the floor. A terrible scream sent a searing pain through her head, which felt as if it were close to splitting in two. The next thing she knew, she saw the outline of the dirty, hairy old man burst out into the street, stumbling and limping down the sidewalk at a speed she couldn’t believe a man in his state could have achieved.
The man in the leather jacket followed him to the door, his weapon still held before him. He ran through the door himself, as if to follow, but after a moment turned back into the shop, cursing. When he spoke it was into his wrist, in an oddly slurred voice that seemed to became worse the harder she tried to listen. “Alain, it’s gotten away, heading north on Acrewood. It’s really moving, I can’t keep up with it.”
She didn’t hear this Alain’s response, but a moment later the man had nodded. He turned to her, and looked at her for a moment in a way that suggested he had forgotten she was there. “We have another problem,” he said, his voice growing distant. “There’s been a witness. She’s not seriously hurt, but if she--“.
He was cut short by the person on the other end of the call. She couldn’t see him anymore - she couldn’t hold her head up. It was beginning to ache more than ever, and she thought she must have a concussion. The man loomed over her, a blurring silhouette whose voice echoed to the point that she couldn’t make out the words. The last thing she remembered was the man’s face hovering over her, the pain in her head, and a gentle bell tinkling off in the distance.
A vehicle pull up abruptly outside, hopping up onto the sidewalk itself in the process. “Ma’am, are you alright?” the man asked. She grumbled softly in response, but couldn’t answer. She was on the edge of consciousness, he knew. Car doors slammed shut just outside, and a moment later the door burst open and two other men filed inside, flanking the one knelt on the floor. One was tall, his hair still thick and rich despite being heavily grey both on the top of his head and on his face. The other was shorter than his fellow by about a head, and wore his hair dark hair long in the back. He wore an ugly expression as he approached the man on the floor, the one in the leather jacket.
“Nice work, Wright,” he said, every syllable dripping with sarcasm. “Real nice. You sure you don’t want to empty a few more clips? The walls still look intact to me.”
“Go to hell, Falk,” said Wright, glaring as he rose to his feet.
“That’s enough,” said the oldest man calmly. He put a hand on Falk’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “Greg: we’ll need to do a quick clean-up operation. Call Conrad in, to give you a hand.”
“There’s a body in the alley out back, too,” interjected Wright. “Homeless, by the look of him, but he may be of some use still.”
“Right,” said Falk. He gave the woman on the floor a brief appraising look before moving off towards the back room, speaking into his wrist as he went.
The older man watched him go for a moment, then sighed heavily as he surveyed the room around him. Wright watched him for a moment, running his hand through his hair. “Alain, I’m sorry,” he said suddenly, before Alain could begin. “I didn’t mean for...”
Alain nodded calmly. “I know, Joshua,” he said gently. “But you were ordered to stand down. You acted alone, without backup. That was reckless.”
Josh nodded, but his face showed resolute stubbornness. “I blocked all communication lines into and out of the store first, so the police wouldn’t stumble in” he said defensively. “I saw a chance, and I took it.”
“And ended up getting one young lady killed, and another very close,” replied Alain pointedly. He clapped him on the shoulder once. “Take the survivor back to the Sanctuary - Xander will want to question her before we wipe her memory. I’ll be back to look her over shortly.”
Joshua nodded. As Alain moved to follow Falk out the back, Joshua bent over, scooped the woman into his arms, and carried her to the waiting vehicle outside.
~ Chapter II ~
The first thing Sara became aware of was the throbbing pain in the back of her head. The second was a stiffness in her shoulders and elbows, and the realisation that her wrists were bound together behind her - she was tied up, by the feel of it to a hard steel chair with a straight back and narrow seat. She tried to open her eyes, but found that it made the pain in her head worse, so she stopped trying. She felt groggy, and couldn’t muster the energy to move despite the discomfort in her behind and the stiffness in her limbs.
A door opened somewhere nearby, and when it was closed another jolt of pain went through her head. She groaned as a metallic scraping sound pierced her head. A harsh voice, male, came from only a few feet in front of her. “Name?” it asked.
Sara grumbled, trying to find her voice - her throat and mouth were completely dry. “Where am I?” she asked hoarsely.
“Name?” demanded the voice again, louder this time.
Sara forced her eyes open, fighting back the urge to cry with the pain. The man in front of her was in his mid twenties, with long-ish black hair and the slightest hint of sideburns at his temples. He sat leaning forward in his chair, his elbows resting on the battered metal table between them. A surge of adrenaline dulled the pain a bit as her memory caught up with her. She sat up straight suddenly, grimacing when the restraints at her wrists tightened as she did so. “Where am I?” she asked, her voice much stronger this time. “Who are you? Where’s Camryn?”
“Camryn is dead,” he replied shortly.
She knew this already, of course, having seen her remains - the image flashed through her mind, making her gag in panic and disgust - with her own eyes. But hearing the words spoken so coldly, so without pity or sadness, struck her like a blow. “What happened? Did you catch the man who killed her?”
“Name?!” he said, louder than ever.
“You can’t treat me like this!” she yelled, pulling at her bonds; they only tightened the harder she tried. “This is police brutality! Untie me, now!”
The officer glared at her, the smallest of smirks crossing his face. “Tell me your name,” he said, more softly this time. “And I’ll think about it.”
She glared at him. She had nothing to hide from the police - she wanted Camryn’s killer caught and put in prison as fast as possible. But rebellion burned in her chest, fuelled by the pain in her wrists and back. “Lawyer,” she said shortly. She leaned back in the chair, forcing a triumphant grin - though she was sure it looked more like a pained grimace than anything.
The man chuckled, shaking his head. He rose, his chair scraping against the floor again. He walked around the table and past her without another glance, and returned through the door from which he had entered.
Sara looked around the room. It looked very much like the interrogation rooms she’d seen in police stations on television before, but for some reason something about it was off. The light overhead was flickering slightly, and seemed far too dim for the Queensbridge police department. The walls were tiled, and had a rather dingy look about them in the half-light. The mirror on the wall to her left, which she knew by instinct was a one-way window, had chipped flakes of white and beige paint along the edges, as if it’d been put up before the room had been painted. The table was at an awkward height, and the far left corner had a stain on it that looked suspiciously like blood.
She’d never known anyone who’d been arrested before, but she didn’t think that this kind of treatment could be normal - and she was positive that it wasn’t legal. “You can’t do this to me!” she shouted angrily, fighting against her restraints again - and again, all she managed to accomplish was a fresh wave of pain to join the rest of it.
She distinctly heard voices on the other side of the two-way mirror. They were raised, agitated, even angry. She wasn’t sure how many people were speaking, but she guessed it had to be at least three - two of them shouted at each other for a moment or two, and another, louder one overcame them both. There was silence for a few seconds, then the door behind her opened once again. She tensed as a set of footsteps approached her from behind. She was ready to kick, thrash, and bite at anything that came next - but to her surprise a pair of hands brushed against her lower arms as the knots at her wrists came lose and her bonds fell loosely to the floor.
“I’m sorry about Greg,” said a man’s voice, this one much calmer and gentler than the first. He moved out from behind her and pulled out the seat across from her. As the light flickered across his face she recognised him as the man from La Café Grande. He removed his jacket and draped it over the back of the chair before sitting down. “My name is Joshua,” he said. “How do you feel?”
She threw him a filthy look before replying. “Really? Good cop/Bad cop?” She laughed darkly and shook her head. “I’m not saying a word to you people. You can’t hold me here, and when I get out of here I promise that each and every officer in this station will be printing resumes by the end of the week.”
The man shook his head slowly. “I’m sorry,” he replied evenly. “But we can hold you here. And though we’d rather not have to, we will if you don’t cooperate.”
“You tied me unconscious to a chair and locked me in an interrogation room!” she yelled, ignoring the effect it had on her growing headache. “My friend was murdered, brutally, and I almost went the same way, and you’re going to hold me here until I ‘cooperate’ with you? Who the hell do you think you are, *******?”
“I told you. I’m Joshua.” He held out his hand across the table. “Joshua Wright.”
She glared at his hand and folded her arms across her chest. “I’m still waiting on that lawyer,” she said shortly.
“There’s no lawyer coming,” replied Joshua simply, retracting his hand and mirroring her position. “We’re not cops, and we can hold you here as long as it takes to get answers.”
“... What do you mean you’re not cops?” she asked, forgetting to inject scorn into the question.
He shrugged. “I mean: we’re not with the police.”
She swallowed, fear tugging at her chest as her anger and scorn dimmed faintly. Had she been kidnapped? What exactly had she stumbled into? “Then who are you?” she asked, her voice cracking. “Where am I?”
Joshua hesitated before answering. “Torchwood,” he said. There was a sound, like something being thrown, from behind the mirror. He cast it a defiant look before turning back to her.
She turned the word over in her head for a moment, but came up with nothing - she didn’t recognise it. “What is that, some sort of private investigation service or something?” she asked.
“Sort of,” he said. “More like... special operations.”
She eyed him suspiciously, taking in his messy blonde hair and the thin layer of stubble stretching across his chin and lip. “Look,” he said, leaning forward again. “We need your cooperation on this. We need to know what you saw and heard tonight. The more you resist us, the harder it’ll be for us to track down your friend’s killer.”
She broke eye contact, staring down at the table. “Where is Camryn?” she asked. “I mean... where... where are her...”
“We have her remains,” he said gently. “We still need to examine them.”
“What about the police?” she asked. “Or do they out-source stuff like this to you guys?”
He laughed. “Don’t worry about the police,” he said. “They’ll be informed of anything they need to know.”
His laughter brought another wave of anger, but she forced it down. He was answering her questions, and she wanted to get as much from him as she could. “And her family? Have they been notified yet?”
He hesitated again. “Not yet,” he said slowly. “We... want to complete our investigation first.”
She looked up at him coldly. Something in his voice told her he was lying to her about why they hadn’t been informed. “So you’re just going to let them worry about her until you’re finished? You’re going to let her mother cry herself to sleep? Her father start drinking again? Her little brother wonder why his sister is never going to come home again?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, and though his voice was defensive his eyes reflected true regret. “But that’s how we do things.”
“Not good enough,” she said in disgust. “They’re her family. You can’t let them feed themselves false hope if she’s dead. They deserve to have some closure.”
“And they’ll get it,” he said. “Tomorrow evening, a body will be found at the Queensbridge Sewage Reclamation Plant. The machinery will have mangled the corpse beyond positive identification, but there will be enough left for dental records to identify it as Camryn Lee-Smith. A note will be found on her computer, saying goodbye and apologising for... what she had to do.”
Sara stared at him, flabbergasted. “Suicide?” she said indignantly. “She was murdered! You can’t do this, it isn’t fair! What about the monster who killed her?”
“We’re working on it,” he said plainly.
She rose from her seat, marching to the one-way glass. “She was murdered!” she screamed. “And you’re just going to let the man who did it walk away?!”
“No, we’re not,” replied Joshua firmly. “We’re doing everything we can to find him - including questioning you about what happened tonight.”
She glared at him, but it was hard to remain cold towards him the longer he looked at her. She rolled her eyes, and returned to the table. “How could I possibly help?” she asked. “I didn’t see the murder. I walked into the room about a minute before you came.”
He nodded, indicating the chair. “You may be more help than you think,” he said.
She paused for a moment, then slowly descended into the chair across the table from him.
“Thank you,” he said. He reached behind him into his jacket and pulled out an old file-folder. She caught a glimpse of an odd, stylised letter ‘T’ on the front before he placed it on the table in front of him and opened it. “Now, what’s your name?”
“Sara,” she said reluctantly. “Sara Wallace.”
“Nice to meet you, Sara Wallace,” he said, turning his gaze to the folder in front of him. He pulled a piece of paper from it and hesitantly slid it towards her. “Just... for the record: is this Camryn Lee-Smith, of 144 Banington Drive?”
Her heart rose to her mouth and was quickly smothered in vomit. The picture showed a young woman who most would have considered fairly pretty were it not for the fact that the left side of her face was missing, leaving only a bloody mass of twisted flesh. She turned away just in time to stop from spraying both the photo and Joshua in sick, instead splattering on the floor beside the table. She panted heavily for a few moments, her eyes closed, trying to force the image out of her head. She straightened, and when she looked back at the table the photo was gone.
“I’m sorry,” said Joshua again, not making eye contact - he was once again digging inside the file-folder.
She shook her head, her eyes closed again. “It’s not your fault,” she replied quietly.
He looked up at her, his eyes rather red and a guilty expression crossing his face. His voice, however, was as strong as ever as he asked: “Where were you when then victim was attacked?”
Sara shrugged. “He must have come in while I was in the back...” she muttered. “I was taking out the trash.”
“Into the alleyway?” he asked.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “The owner doesn’t want us out there after dark. There’s a store room, in the back, that we, uh - the evening and night shifts, I mean - keep our garbages. The morning shift takes them to the dumpsters in the alley after sunup.”
Joshua nodded, making a small note in the folder. “Alright, so you took the trash to the back. Then what?”
“I heard... I dunno what I heard, it... it sounded like someone was going through the dumpster or something. I thought it was just skunks - we have problems with skunks all the time, all the food places in the area do. Then there was...” She paused, closing her eyes as she strained for the details. “There was a scream,” she continued finally. “From the alley. One of those screams that... seems to go on forever, inaide your head. Then there were more sounds... more crashing. I tried to call 9-1-1, but my phone didn’t have service for some reason.”
Joshua nodded, as if hearing what he’d expected. “Go on.”
“I tried to look through the peep-hole in the back door, but it was too dark. So I went back to the front to call the police from the landline. I told Camryn to lock the front door, and that’s when--“
She stopped abruptly, but Joshua didn’t push her for more. “It’s okay,” he said bracingly. “You’re doing fine. You got to the front, and Camryn was dead. Did you still try to call the police?”
“Wouldn’t you have?” she asked incredulously. “But the landline wouldn’t work either - I couldn’t even get a dial tone. And that’s when the... man, the man who killed Camryn, attacked me. I tried to fight him off, but he... he wouldn’t stop coming. I threw the phone at him, a stool... he just kept coming. So I ran. I was going to go through the back alley and try to find another open store, to call for help. That’s when you showed up.”
He nodded, finishing another note in his folder. “The back alley wasn’t safe anyway. There was another body, and I didn’t have time to clear the area before I heard you scream from inside.” He sighed, then looked at her with warmth. “I’m sorry you had to go through this,” he said. He pulled another sheet from his folder and held it against his chest. “I need to show you another photo, this one of the victim in the back alley.”
She nodded, bracing herself for another gruesome image. But when he lay it in front of her, it wasn’t as terrible as she had expected. The man’s eyes and mouth were open, and his teeth and lips were covered in blood, but his face was intact. The blank, staring grey eyes unsettled her, as if they were staring into her soul. She suppressed a shudder and she looked away after a moment.
“Do you recognise this man?” asked Joshua.
She wracked her brains for a moment. “No,” she said. “No, I’ve never seen him before.”
Joshua put the photo back into the folder and closed it. The stylised ‘T’ lay just above his folded hands, and she stared at it as he spoke.
“I’m sorry you had to go through all this,” he said again. “I need to give this to my boss, but after that I can take you home.”
She nodded, her eyes fixed on the folder on the table. “Why did he kill them?” she asked weakly, before she could stop herself.
“I don’t know,” he replied after a moment. “We have a few ideas, but... nothing concrete.”
“Why aren’t the police involved? Why are you investigating this instead of them?”
He pulled the folder from the table and slid it into the inside pocket of his jacket again. “We have a special interest in the case,” he said evasively.
“What kind of interest?” she asked. “He’s just a psychopath - unless you guys are specialists with these kinds of killers? Are you RCMP or something? CSIS?”
“We’re an independent agency,” he answered evasively. “Apart from the government, outside the purview of the city’s police. We investigate events and incidents of... unusual origin.”
She furrowed her brow. “What exactly does that mean?”
He gazed at her seriously for a moment, but didn’t answer her. “I’ll turn in my report, then I’ll be back to take you home. Sit tight, alright?”
“Well wait a minute!” she said, twisting in her chair to keep him in view. He turned to look at her from the open door, then disappeared behind it.
He returned within a few minutes, accompanied by an elderly man with thick grey hair, a bushy beard, and a warm smile.
“Hello,” he said, taking her hand in both of his. “I’m Dr. Davies - please, call me Alain.”
She gave Joshua a furtive look before smiling at Alain. “Sara,” she said, nodding. “I hope you’re here to give me something for this damned headache,” she laughed, impulsively massaging her temples with her free hand.
He smiled kindly, reaching into his pocket and withdrawing a small bottle. He popped the bottle open and tipped its contents into his hand: two pills, a smooth red one that she knew immediately was Tylenol, and a smaller, circular blue one she didn’t recognise. “Take the Tylenol first,” he instructed. “Then the blue one fifteen minutes later: it will help you sleep.”
“I don’t think sleep will be a problem,” she said.
“Take it anyway,” he said. “You have a mild concussion, and we want to make sure you sleep alright.”
She nodded, popped the red pill into her mouth and slipped the blue into her pocket. “Thanks,” she said.
Alain nodded, shook her hand once more, then turned and left the room.
“Let’s get going,” said Joshua, holding the door open for her.
When she stepped into the hallway, she looked the way the doctor had gone, but he had already disappeared behind a large metal door only a few feet to her right. Joshua guided her to the left, however, down a long, narrow corridor lined with rough yellowish stones. The lighting in here was about as bad as in the interrogation room, but had a much different effect: instead of feeling cold and lonely, the rough stone and dim light created a sense of warmth harshly at odds with the silver gun-handle Sara could see tucked into the back of Joshua’s pants.
They reached another door, this one also metal. Joshua pulled it open slowly, the hinges grinding slightly. The room beyond was a typically sized two vehicle garage, the vast majority of which was occupied by a full-sized black van and a black sedan - an Accord, she guessed. Joshua walked around the van to the passenger’s side of the sedan and opened the door for her obligingly.
“I don’t remember the last time a man opened my car door for me,” she quipped, crouching into the car. He smirked down at her as he closed it behind her, then walked around the front to the driver’s side.
He reversed out of the garage through a door Sara hadn’t seen while in the garage and that hadn’t made a sound it opened. The area immediately surrounding them was pitch dark, but Joshua navigated comfortably through what appeared to be a long tunnel between the garage and the street beyond. When they reached the partially lit street, Sara realised with a jolt that they were driving down a street she knew well - Albany Street, the main road running through downtown Queensbridge.
“Where am I taking you?” asked Joshua as he pulled up to a red light.
“Turn left,” she replied distractedly, turning in her seat to try to catch a glimpse of the building they had just come from. “I’m in the Villageview Apartments, on Lexington.”
It was no use. The crowded storefronts of the downtown core masked even the alley/driveway they had come from.
A pale green light in the distance promised to bring dawn shortly, and she glanced down at the clock in the dashboard - it was after 5:30. As the traffic light shifted to green and the van began moving again, Sara felt tired for the first time.
Joshua seemed to have read her thoughts. “Alain says you should be fine to go to bed by 6:00. If I were you, I’d take that second pill now, so you can crash when you get home.”
“I don’t think I’ll need any help crashing...” she muttered tiredly, grinning. “I could fall asleep here.”
“Doctor’s orders,” he replied. “It can’t hurt.”
“Alright,” she sighed, pushing herself up awkwardly in her seat, the better to reach into her pocket and fish out the pill.
She rolled it around in her palm for a few seconds, gazing at it in the half darkness. It was oddly cool to the touch, as if it had been refrigerated recently, despite having been in her pants pocket for a number of minutes. She popped it into her mouth. It seemed to grow colder after she closed her mouth, and it fizzed slightly after she swallowed. Her tongue felt oddly wet.
Josh, who’d been watching her silently, gave a single nod of satisfaction.
They were silent for a moment. Then: “So that man...” said Sara slowly. “The one who killed Camryn, and the man in the alley; were you following him?”
He glanced sidelong at her as he made a right turn. “All night, yeah,” he said after a moment. “Three of us had been tracking him from dusk. We lost track of him once he reached the downtown core, but we caught up with him a few hours later: there was an energy spike in the alley behind your shop - the homeless man’s murder, we suspect. I...” he stopped, his voice etched with apology. “I violated orders and went after him alone. He saw me coming, and tried to hide in the shop itself.”
She stared at him. “So--“
”Yeah,” he said, cutting her off. “It’s my fault that Camryn’s dead.”
She turned to look out the front window, not really seeing it.
“I’m... you have no idea how sorry I am, Ms. Wallace,” he said. “And I promise you that we will find the man, or creature, that killed her.”
She nodded. Not looking at him. “It’s Sara,” she said. “Ms. Wallace makes me sound like an old maid. I’m not old yet.”
“Alright... Sara. I’m sorry.”
She sighed, and shook her head. “Stop apologising,” she muttered. She’d tried to be angry with him, with Davies, witg their ‘independent agency’. But so far, the only person she’d managed to stay angry with had been the cold, uncaring beast whom she’d regained consciousness to. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “There was nothing keeping Camryn and I safe in there anyway. He may have killed us both if you hadn’t shown up.”
He nodded agreement, but his face was still an unbroken mask of regret. She looked at him levelly, and said: “You saved my life, Joshua.”
He didn’t answer. “Villageview Apartments,” he said suddenly, slowing the vehicle to a stop.
She realised with a start that they had reached the end of Lexington Street, where the building in which she lived stood. Joshua undid his seatbelt and got out of the car as she did, and fell into step beside her.
“Thanks for the lift,” she said, turning to face him at the door to the building.
“Any time,” he said. He stood with his hands folded behind him, watching her almost expectantly.
“Well... goodnight,” she said, thinking longingly of the soft, warm bed just upstairs and wishing desperately to crawl into it.
He nodded, still watching her intently. Her eyes began to droop, and she thought she could feel her limbs starting to go numb. “I guess I’m more tired than I thought...” she muttered, laughing softly.
He grinned, taking the key from her hand and unlocking the door himself. “Must be,” he said.
She didn’t even remember crossing the threshold. For the second time in as many hours, she felt the world around her grow dim as she fell into unconsciousness, Joshua Wright deftly lifting her into his arms.
~ Chapter III ~
The inside of her eyelids were glowing a faint orangish red, and her face felt comfortably warm. The smell of herbal tea pushed a similar warmness through her chest, and she sighed contentedly. She pushed herself up on her elbow slightly, and was rewarded immediately by the scream of her cramped muscles. A moment later she realised why she was so sore - she’d fallen asleep on the couch again. The gentle tinkling of spoon on mug poked at the back of her eyes, and she grimaced.
She jumped, pulling the blanket draped around her shoulders up to her chin at the exact moment that she realised she was wearing a proper shirt anyway. The sun continued the poking the noises from the kitchen had begun, and this reminded her how stupid it was of her to have not been alarmed by them - she lived alone; if she wasn’t making tea, nobody should have been.
“Hello?” she called, knowing just after she said it that this too had been stupid.
A man stepped out of the kitchen, smiling warmly at her. He was carrying a large mug - one of her mugs - in front of him, from which she could smell her favourite herbal tea as he placed it gently on the table by her head. “Good morning,” he said. “How’d you sleep?”
She shifted backwards on the couch towards the other end, not taking her eyes off him.
He furrowed his brow. “Are you okay?”
“Who the hell are you?” she demanded. “What are you doing in my apartment?”
He watched her uncertainly. “You... don’t remember?”
He nodded, rubbing his eyes and looking for the world as if a great fear had come true. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised...” he muttered. “Alright, uhm... hi, then, I guess. I’m Joshua. We met last night at La Café Grande. Remember?”
She shook her head, but even as she did so images began to form in her mind: herself reading in the shop; an almost-empty pot of coffee steaming slightly on the burner; a man’s laugh that seemed to come from nowhere... Nothing else would come, about this man or anything else from the previous night. Her head hurt the more she tried to recall details.
“I... don’t know,” she said. “I don’t... seem to remember much of anything from last night.”
He nodded, taking a seat on the opposite end of the couch. “Not surprising,” he said again. “You took quite a fall. You scared me for a while, I’ll tell you that much.”
She felt slightly sick to her stomach, and leaned forward, putting her head between her knees. “What do you mean, a fall?” she asked. “I don’t remember falling.”
“That’s because you hit your head,” he said, lifting the still-steaming mug from the table beside him and passing it to her. “Here, I thought you’d want something when you woke up. I looked for coffee, but...”
She made a face as she took the mug. “Can’t stand the stuff,” she said. “It’s bad enough I have to work with it, I don’t want the filth here too.”
He laughed, leaning back in his seat. “How are you feeling?” he asked after a moment, his voice concerned.
She shrugged. “Alright, I guess. A bit... lost, I guess. What exactly happened?”
“Well, you were at work last night,” he said. That much she knew - she’d been dreading the return to work for her entire mid-week weekend. “I came in around... 3:30, I guess it was. I was pulling a late shift myself.” When she looked at him confusedly, he clarified: “I work at the legal clinic a few streets over.”
She nodded, more images forming in her mind. Her reading again, this time tossing the book to the counter after a few moments; the door opening with a gentle tinkling sound; him, in a battered leather jacket, leaning on the counter and squinting up at the order boards.
“I think I remember...” she muttered. It was all a bit foggy and distant, more like a story someone had told her than an actual memory. “I was angry... at you, I think. Something you said, or...?”
He shook his head. “Not me, no - your coworker. Carly, or Cassy...”
“Camryn,” she corrected.
“That’s it, yeah. You were upset with her because she didn’t show for her shift. Wasn’t answering her phone, either, you said.”
She nodded again, more pictures forming on the edge of her memory. “Right...” she muttered. “God I hate that shift... working it alone makes it about a million times worse.”
“Well, that’s why I stuck around for a bit,” he said, smiling at her. “You just sounded like you needed someone to talk to. I can sympathise with that.”
“So... when exactly did this fall happen?”
He moved forward in his seat. “Well, you went into the back to take out the trash.”
“Yeah,” she said, her face in her free hand. “The bag ripped open.”
He nodded. “You slipped, and smacked the side of your head against something - the fridge, would be my guess.”
She felt nauseous again as the memory formed in the distance again. She took a sip of the tea, and it both calmed her stomach and eased the tension in her chest she hadn’t realised she’d been carrying.
Josh was continuing with his retelling. “You called out as you fell. I asked if you were alright, but you didn’t answer. So I followed you into the back, and there you were. There was no blood, so I didn’t think you needed an ambulance. I just took you home.”
“How did you know where I lived?” she asked.
“You were more or less lucid for a few minutes,” he replied evenly. “You told me to call your boss, let her know you were leaving, and why.” He reached into his pocket and fished out a cell phone - her cell phone. He tossed it onto the cushion between them. “She said she wants to talk to you when you’re feeling up to it. Just to make sure you’re alright.”
She pulled the phone towards her, pulling up the call history. There it was: 4:13am, a call to Moira Schiffer’s home phone. “I’ll bet she was pissed...”
He frowned. “Didn’t sound like it. More worried than anything - though I don’t know if she’s more worried that you hit your head, or that you had to be taken home by a strange man,” he added, smirking.
The picture seemed to become more solid in her mind. She could clearly envision herself, sitting behind the counter on her hard metal stool, leaning forward on the counter and laughing at something or other he had said; tossing his empty coffee cup into the trash and realising grimly that she’d need to change the bag and take this one to the back; tugging on it as it caught on the corner of the sink, as it always does; cursing under her breath as the bag ripped; marching back towards the front to find another one to double bag it... and she remembered a number of emotions and sensations as well, stronger than any of the images - panic, shock, pain, most likely from the fall.
He was leaning towards her slightly, trying to look into her eyes. “You look alright to me...” he said quietly. “You had me worried for a while. I thought about just dropping you off in bed and leaving a note, but... you were pretty out of it. So I stuck around, woke you every half hour... and I didn’t think you’d want to wake up alone, with an aching body and no memory of the night before.”
She laughed softly. “Good thinking,” she said, taking another sip of tea. “Well, I guess I owe you one...”
He waved her thanks aside. “Don’t worry about it. I’m just glad I was there, or you may’ve lay there until the morning shift came in.”
“Morning... what time is it?” she asked, looking around the room despite knowing that she still hadn’t put a clock of any sort in the room.
He glanced down at his watch. “Just after 10:00,” he said.
“I should get changed then,” she said, rising. She turned to him expectantly.
To his credit, he caught the hint. “Alright,” he said, also standing. “I should get going anyway, I could use some sleep myself.”
“Good, good,” she said, nodding. She headed towards the front door, unbolting it and sliding the chain-lock loose. He was behind her in a few strides, stepping around her as she pulled the door open.
“Thanks again, for everything,” she said, as he stepped into the hallway beyond.
“Not a problem,” he said, smiling. “Do you, uh... do you need anything? I could run down to a corner store for you, if you want, or...”
“No, it’s okay. I think I just need a shower and some fresh clothes.”
He nodded, looking slightly put out. “Alright. Well, then... goodbye.”
“Bye,” she said to his retreating back.
She pushed the door closed and slid the chain lock in place, resting her head on the back of the door and her eyes closed tight and a small sense of regret tugging at her chest. “At least he knows where you work,” she told herself, straightening, pulling her shirt off over her head and stumbling slightly towards the bathroom.
The shop looked as it always did, and still carried for Sara the same sense of mingled dread and morbid optimism. It was significantly busier than it was during any of Sara’s shifts, of course - it was now after 11:30, and a long lineup zig-zagged gently from the front counter to the glass front doors. The smell of coffee combined with the somewhat musty scent of damp clothing, and the steady undertone of conversation blended peacefully with the gentle rain sprinkling the window and sidewalk outside. She nodded in perfunctory greeting to the middle-aged man directly in front of her as she joined the lineup, leaning slightly to the right to try and catch a glimpse of who was working this morning.
The girl working the cash register smiled at her as she came to the head of the line. “Hey Sara,” she said, in a voice dripping with a forced and sickly sweetness.
“Hi Leanne,” she replied, lifting her purse onto the counter. “I’m here to see Moira, she should be expecting me.”
“Sure hun.” She turned her head over her shoulder, and before Sara could stop her called out at the top of her lungs: “Moira, Sara’s here to see you!”
“Thanks, Leanne...” said Sara, cringing. She nodded in response to Leanne’s overly-cheerful smile before turning from the counter and heading towards the only empty table in the shop - the one closest to the end of the counter, and thus the one most often disturbed by the cashiers running to the kitchen/storeroom for supplies. She didn’t have long to wait, thankfully; after a moment or two the bulky frame of Moira Schiffer, owner and manager of La Café Grande, came sideways through the kitchen, wriggled herself around the counter, and squeezed into the chair across the table from Sara.
“Good morning dear,” she said kindly. “How are you feeling? Can I get you anything?”
“I’m fine, Moira,” she said truthfully. “I was just told you wanted me to check in, so here I am.”
Moira smiled warmly, but the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes, which still looked concerned and were scanning her face delicately.
“Really, I’m fine!” said Sara, smiling despite herself. “Honestly, Moira, a few Tylenol and I can even manage the headache.”
Moira nodded, but leaned forward conspiratorially. “That’s not quite what I was concerned about, dear,” she said plainly.
Sara furrowed her brow. “Then what...?”
Moira gave an impatient sigh. “It’s not every night I get a call from a strange man claiming he needs to take one of my supervisors home,” she said, given her a pointed look. “I was concerned, that’s all.”
“Well, you have nothing to be worried about,” Sara replied. “He made me tea, filled me in on what happened, and left when I asked him to. He was a perfect gentleman.”
Moira narrowed her eyes disbelievingly. “Really?” she said.
“Really,” replied Sara bracingly. Then, smirking reluctantly: “Actually, he was a nice guy. Kind of cute, too.”
Moira smirked, and playfully smacked Sara on the hand. “You be good, young lady,” she said reproachfully.
The lineup dwindled as they talked, Moira asking probing questions about the previous night despite Sara’s insistence that she couldn’t remember a thing. By the time she seemed to reluctantly accept that she wasn’t going to learn anything exciting other than Sara’s second-hand telling of the story, there were only a handful of people left in the shop.
Leanne came over to the table just as the conversation was beginning to lull. “Moira, I have a woman on the phone, asking to speak to a manager. She sounds pretty upset.”
“Oh dear,” sighed Moira, lifting herself out of her seat. “I’ll talk to him.” She patted Sara’s hand again. “You take it easy for the next few days, dear. I don’t want to see you here for work until Monday evening, you hear?”
Sara nodded, inwardly rolling her eyes. “Alright. Thanks Moira. Oh, Moira,” she said, calling the owner back. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard from Camryn? I texted her this morning, but she hasn’t answered.”
Moira looked questioningly at Leanne, who shook her head. “Sorry dear,” replied Moira.
Sara nodded in thanks, and pulled out her own phone. She searched through her phonebook for a moment, found the number, and hit the call button.
A few rings later, Camryn’s voice answered in a cheerful, high-pitched voice. “Hey, you’ve got Camryn. Sorry I can’t answer - leave a message!”
Camryn sat on a stiff metal stool with no backrest, leaning on the front counter and lifting her hair into her face. “I’m thinking red...” she was saying. “Or maybe purple. What do you think?”
Sara shook her head as the unbidden memory was shattered by the sound of the answering machine’s beep. She struggled for a moment to label it properly, but found the more she tried the harder it became. “Hi, Cam, it’s Sara. Call me when you can. Thanks.”
Leanne sidled into Moira’s vacated seat, and fixed Sara with an expectant stare. “Alright, spill it,” she said.
“... spill what?” asked Sara as she stuffed her phone back into her purse.
“You know,” she replied, rolling her eyes and smirking. “Tell me about this guy who took you home last night.”
Sara ran a hand through her still-damp hair. “There’s really nothing to tell, Leanne,” she said.
“Well, did anything... you know, happen?”
She fixed her with an incredulous look. “I was unconscious all night, Leanne,” she answered. “No, nothing happened.”
“Oh...” she replied, looking thoroughly disappointed. “Well, did you at least give him your number?”
Sara closed her eyes and shook her head in amazement. “You’re unbelievable,” she said.
“Oh come on, don’t be such a prude.”
“No, I didn’t give him my number,” she sighed, with a twinge of regret.
Leanne gave her a sympathetic look. “Oh sweetie...” she said condescendingly.
“He didn’t give me his, either!” she said, not really sure why she felt so defensive about it. “Besides, why do you even care?”
Leanne shrugged. “I just want you to meet a guy, that’s all. How long has it been since you went out?”
“None of your business,” she spat, aware that she sounded like a child. The fact was, she couldn’t even remember exactly the last time she’d had a date of any kind - she’d been on the night shift for almost a month now, so it was that long at least. She rose from her seat and slung her purse over her shoulder. “I need to get going, Leanne, I have a few... errands... to run...”
Her voice trailed off as she glanced out the front window. A bus idled at the corner stop just up the street, the driver heading straight for the shop with the collar of his jacket turned up against the rain. But it was the ad along the side of the bus that caught her attention. It was an ad she’d seen countless times before, of course; the kind of ad that she had never really had a need to remember for any reason. An average looking man was giving her a blank, frozen smile from the centre of the panel, with the words ‘Hubert Cornett, Realtor’ stretched across his chest.
She was sitting in a cold, dimly lit room. A large photo was slid across the table towards her, showing a man lying face-up on a cold metal table, with his eyes wide open and staring blankly up at her. She felt panic, anxiety, confusion, and curiosity all at once, mingled with a faint sense of nausea.
“Do you recognise this man?” asked a man’s voice.
She searched her mind frantically, trying to recall the face and place a name to it, but she came up empty. “No,” she said. “No, I’ve never seen him before.”
“Sara, are you okay?” asked Leanne.
She realised with a start that she was leaning heavily on the chair beside her now, her knees weak and a dull pain throbbing in the back of her head. “Yeah...” she muttered. “Yeah, just felt a bit dizzy for a second...”
“Maybe you should go to a hospital after all,” said Leanne concernedly, holding Sara by the arm and rubbing her back gently. “You look like you could faint any second.”
Sara shook her head, still staring at the man on the bus ad. It was the same man - the same blank, staring eyes that seemed just as unsettling coming across the bustling street as they did in the flickering light of a random and forgotten memory.
“I’m fine,” she said at last, tearing her eyes from the window and turning to look at Leanne. “I haven’t eaten today, that’s all. I’m going to head home.”
Leanne looked ready to object, but Sara pulled away from her before she got the chance. “I’ll see you later,” she said, absently navigating through the shop and towards the heavy glass front doors. The driver of the bus had reached the door seconds before her and held it open for her, but she was too lost in her thoughts and fragmented memories to thank him.
She was marching down a long, narrow corridor lined with chipped yellowing stones. A man was walking in front of her, the handle of a gun sticking out of the back of his pants. He stepped out of the dim, flicking light and into shadow, holding open a large steel door. She stepped through the door into a large room with concrete walls, ceiling and floor. A massive black van loomed in front of her. She turned to face the man behind her--
Another wave of pain stabbed at the back of her head, and she stumbled slightly, feeling nauseous. A few pedestrians walking past gave her anxious, some even offended, looks and stalked past her, one of them muttering something about drunks as he went. She found she didn’t care enough to respond - and anyway, before she could--
The streets of downtown Queensbridge slid smoothly past her. She was sitting in a comfortable leather chair on the passenger’s side of a mid-sized sedan, sure - though she couldn’t imagine why - that it was the first comfortable seat she’d had in hours.
“It’s Sara,” she said, her voice echoing in her own head. “Ms. Wallace makes me sound like an old maid. I’m not old yet.”
“Alright...” said a man’s voice from the driver’s seat. She didn’t turn to look at him. “Sara. I’m sorry.”
She sighed, and shook her head. “Stop apologising,” she muttered. “It’s not your fault...”
As she rounded the corner, the bus pulled up alongside her, driving through a puddle as it went and splashing the ground at her feet. It was pulling away fast, but those cold grey eyes seemed to follow her as it splashed past her.
“Do you recognise this man?”
“No. No, I’ve never seen him before.”
~ Chapter IV ~
The rain began to fall in earnest as Sara reached her street, and by the time she’d dashed up the sidewalk to her building, her coat and shoes were soaked through and her hair lay plastered to her forehead. She pushed it out of her eyes as she reached the front door, digging through her purse and, after a few frantic moments, found her keys. In one fluid motion she stabbed the key into the lock, twisted, and pulled the door open.
She stepped over the threshold, cursing her landlord for keeping the air conditioning on despite the weather as a blast of cold air knocked the wind out of her. She climbed the stairs hurriedly, already attempting to peel off her jacket by the time she reached her own front door. It still hung off her right arm as she pushed the door open, and she shook it off roughly as she stepped through the door and into the warmth of her apartment. She left it lying on the floor, tossed her keys onto the small table lying behind the door, and collapsed onto the couch. She lay face up, the ache in her back challenged only by the one in her head. She gazed blankly at the stuccoed ceiling, her eyes unfocussed, trying to feel the Tylenol overcoming the dull throbbing of her body.
Hubert Cornett stared back at her, frozen in her mind’s eye - dead, she now realised; resting atop a cold stainless steel table, unaware of the camera lens being forced into his face and flashing into his empty eyes. Why she was seeing a photograph of his corpse in her mind, though, she had no idea. Could it be that she was remembering a forgotten dream? She’d certainly seen the bus ad before, she realised. She must have; it was plastered on busses and benches all over Queensbridge. But she’d never consciously looked - she rented, what would she need with a realtor? Could his face have popped up in a dream that she was only now remembering?
Her home phone began ringing from the kitchen, making her jump. For a moment she considered letting it ring, until she realised with a jolt that it could be Camryn. She pulled herself up, but too quickly; her vision swam as her blood pressure dropped, and she had to take a moment to steady herself. She hurried into the kitchen and picked up the phone mid-ring.
“Hi, Sara, it’s just me.” It was Moira.
“Hey, Moira,” answered Sara, deflating like a balloon with a leak. “What’s up?”
“Well, Leanne told me you were looking ill when you left. I’m just calling to make sure you’re alright.”
“I’m fine, Moira,” she replied exasperatedly. “Stop worrying. I just needed something to eat, is all.”
“Alright, dear. Sorry to bother you.”
“It’s fine,” sighed Sara. Then: “I don’t suppose Camryn’s called you yet?”
“No word from her yet, no. I’ve left her a message.”
“So have I. If you hear from her, could you let me know? It’s not like her to just not show up for a shift.”
“You’ll be the first to know. Take care, dear.”
The line went dead, and she hung up. She stared at the phone for a minute, her mind a million miles away.
No, not a million miles. More like twelve feet. She marched back into the living room purposefully, bent down next to the bookshelf on the far wall, and pulled the phonebook out from under a stack of magazines. She rifled through the business directory until she found the real estate section, then scanned the half dozen or so pages until she found what she was looking for: Hubert Cornett, Realtor. The same face looked back at her as on the bus ad, but she determinedly avoided meeting its eyes. Instead, she found the office’s phone number, printed in large red letters in the bottom right-hand side of a mid-sized square panel on the page. She turned on her heel and stalked back into the kitchen, her eyes glued to the page in front of her. She deftly lifted the receiver and absently punched in the number.
As she counted three rings, she realised she had no idea what she was going to say when someone answered, and a bored female voice picked up the other end of the line before she’d worked it out.
“Hubert Cornett’s office, Burnice speaking. How may I help you?”
“Uh... hi,” stammered Sara. “Could I speak to Mr. Cornett, please?” she asked tentatively.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Cornett isn’t in today,” replied Burnice. “May I take a message?”
“Do you expect him in tomorrow, maybe?”
“Unfortunately I don’t have that information,” said Burnice. “May I take a message?” she asked again.
“No, that’s okay. I’ll try again later.”
“Very well. Have a nice day, ma’am.”
Sara fiddled absently with the phone as she hung up, staring unseeingly out the window into the steely sky. The image of Cornett lying face-up in front of her persisted in her mind, and she felt the familiar wave of sickness that seemed to accompany it. She turned back to the phone book in front of her, flipping through the pages until she came to the bulk of the book, which was the home phone numbers of almost everyone in the Queensbridge area. She found the ‘C’ section, and began scanning it. She found a list of ‘Cornett’s rather easily - there were almost a quarter page of them. Luckily, though, only five of them were listed as ‘H Cornett’, and only one as simply ‘Cornett’. She placed her finger beneath the first name, picked up the phone again, and started dialling.
The first H Cornett was Herbert, a single father in Queensbridge’s south end. The second were an old couple named Hannah and Archibald; Hannah invited Sara over for dinner to meet her youngest son, an invitation she politely refused. The third turned out to not belong to a Cornett at all anymore, but a rather grouchy man named Colin Heightsman who was apparently quite sick and tired of people calling him in search of a woman, apparently named Helga, with the surname Cornett. No one, not even an answering machine, picked up at the fourth number, and Sara underlined the address in the phone book with a red pen. The fifth call also went unanswered, but the machine informed her that she had ‘almost reached a member of the Cornett family’, of whom neither Harmon, Cathy, John, Daryl, nor Bud could come to the phone. The final number, which had been listed as just ‘Cornett’, was answered by a lady who evidently spoke almost no English, who Sara was able to learn after almost ten minutes of struggling to remember as much of her high school French as she could was named Madelaine.
She realised, as she hung up the phone and re-read the underlined address in front of her, that there was nothing saying that this was the address of Hubert Cornett. He could still be at any of the other numbers, conceivably. What if he was married, and their entry in the book was under the wife’s name? He could have moved; her phone book was at least two years old now, and at least one of the Cornetts had changed their phone number since it’d been published. He could even be at an unlisted number, for all she knew - people who worked in the business world often did, to avoid clients calling them at home. Her own father had done it, so why couldn’t Hubert Cornett as well?
Even as this thought crossed her mind, she was walking through the kitchen and into the living room. Her coat still lay on the floor, but she didn’t bother grabbing it - it was still soaked through from the rain, which thankfully had let up while she’d been on the phone anyway. She snatched up her purse from the floor, grabbed her keys as she approached the door, and stepped into the cold hallway with a determined expression.
It was still drizzling a little as she got into her old white Civic, but settled again as she pulled slowly out of the parking lot and into the street. She hated driving, all the better considering she couldn’t afford gas very often. She preferred walking whenever she could, and sometimes ended up taking a bus if she needed to. But the address she’d marked in the phone book, which sat open on the seat next to her, was not only on the other end of the city, too far to walk, but also wasn’t close enough to any bus route she was familiar with for her liking; she knew of the neighbourhood, even though she’d only set foot in the area once before. It wasn’t one she’d choose to walk through for any length of time without the nearby shelter of a vehicle with locking doors.
As she drove through the neighbourhoods surrounding her destination, she realised how unlikely an area it was to find a realtor, particularly one who could afford bus ads and quarter-page advertisements in the phone book. The houses on either side of her looked run-down and dilapidated, too old to be attractive but not yet old enough to be considered historical. Many of them had flaking or fading paint, rotting wooden porches and stairs, and a good portion of them had no visible house numbers. The road signs in the area had been vandalised repeatedly, to the point where she’d yet to pass a stop sign on which the word ‘stop’ had been legible. She passed a number of small groups of people sheltering on front porches, eyeing her suspiciously as she passed by, many forming tighter circles as if to hide behind each other.
Her destination loomed ahead of her: a six story apartment building with the name ‘Baden Terraces’ stamped in curvy black letters next to the entrance, with the address underneath. She pulled to a stop a the curb, and glanced down at the book beside her. The address was the same. She returned her attention to the road, and slowly pulled away from the curb, heading towards the building’s narrow driveway.
A horn went off just behind her, and she stopped dead, her heart pounding. A full sized black van came barrelling past her, making a wide and erratic left turn around her into the driveway. She couldn’t make out the driver through the tinted windows, but she swore at them anyway, hoping they were watching. The van pulled up to the building’s front door and spun on its tires, turning to show the passenger doors on the vehicle’s right side. The doors burst open, and three men came bursting out the side doors while another jumped out of the front passenger’s side. The driver joined them a moment later, and marched purposefully up to the one who’d gotten out of the passenger door. The five of them spoke heatedly for a moment. Then, as one, they each reached down to their waists and drew out a gun.
She forced the car into gear and pulled forward as the armed men began walking around the front of the van towards the entrance to the building. As she grew closer, she was able to discern their appearances better. The one who’d apparently been driving wore a black knee-length jacket, and wore his dark hair pulled back. The passenger was an older man, probably in his mid forties, with a rough brown beard. One of the backseat passengers appeared older than any of his companions, judging by his bushy white beard; the other two were in their early to mid twenties.
One of them was Joshua.
“No, I’ve never seen him before.”
Joshua nodded, sliding the photo into the folder in front of him. “I’m sorry you had to go through all this,” he said, closing the folder and folding his hands over it. “I need to give this to my boss, but after that I can take you home.”
She stared at the folder beneath his hands, emblazoned with a stylised letter ‘T’ in black ink.
A jolt of pain shot through her head.
The black van stood before her, taking up almost her entire field of view. She turned to face Joshua, who led her around the van to the passenger side door of a much smaller black sedan. Joshua opened the door and held it for her.
“I don’t remember the last time a man opened my car door for me,” she said as she bent into the door. Joshua grinned at her as he pushed it closed behind her, then walked around the front of the car to the driver’s side.
Another shot of pain. She closed her eyes, shaking her head in an effort to clear it. Joshua had shown her the picture of Cornett? He couldn’t have - she’d never seen him before today, she was sure of it; hadn’t she decided that the image of Cornett had been from a dream? She looked up again as the backs of the men disappeared into the apartment building, guns held before them. She grabbed her purse and launched herself out of the car, running as quickly and quietly as she could around the van and into the building after them. She was sure now more than ever that this was the right address, though she couldn’t exactly work out a reason for Joshua to be here, much less armed and accompanied by four other men.
In the time it’d taken her to cross the parking lot, the group had disappeared. There were only two ways they could have gone: down the ground floor hallway, or up the rickety stairs that looked as if they passed right above the apartments on the right-hand side of the hallway. She leaned into the hall, but saw and heard nothing. She mounted the stairs, trying to keep as quiet as she could. The stairs betrayed her, however, creaking ominously on every other step. She reached the second floor, and performed the same test: the entire hallway was visible from where she stood, but she could see no trace of Joshua or the others. She continued up the staircase, pausing momentarily every time a step groaned under her weight.
As she made the third floor, she heard voices floating down the hall. A door stood ajar halfway down the corridor, and she approached it slowly. A single voice was speaking, one she didn’t recognise.
“Greg, Conrad, check the bedroom. Alain and Joshua, the bathroom.”
She leaned around the doorframe and peered into the room beyond. A faint smell of rotting meat wafted over her, and she fought the urge to cough. The bare-looking living room joined was lined on the front wall by a dingy kitchen. To the left of this was a door made of rotting wood that presumably led to the bathroom. She couldn’t make out what was on the other side of the living room, but she assumed it was the bedroom. Four of the men had disappeared from view, while one stood with his back to the front door. Sara could make out the beginnings of a bald spot, and theorised that he was the man who’d been in the passenger seat in the van downstairs. He kept a firm grip on the gun with his left hand, but he held it as his side rather than at the ready. Sara edged into the room, trying the best she could to keep quiet even though she knew there was no way she would be able to look around without at least one of the five men noticing her.
“Xander, five o’clock!”
The voice had come from the direction of the bedroom. One of the two men who’d been ordered to it stood framed in the doorway, his gun drawn and pointed straight at Sara’s face. The man in the living room turned on the spot, his own weapon held at the ready.
“What the hell are you doing here?” asked the man in the bedroom as he stepped towards her slowly. A man who couldn’t have been any older than twenty came up behind him, looking uncertainly from the man in front of him to the one in the living room, who appeared to be the leader. “What’s going on here?” he asked.
Sara swallowed, unable to take her eyes of the barrel pointed at her nose. “I must... have the wrong apartment...” she lied desperately, backing slowly towards the door again. “I’m sorry, I--“
This voice was Joshua’s. He came from the bathroom, his gun at the ready as well.
She lay on the hard tile floor of the cafe’s serving area, backing away in a panic from a tall, disgustingly dirty man who loomed over her, blood staining his teeth, mouth, and chin. She reached behind her, grabbed hold of the stool she’d been sitting on not two minutes ago, and flung it as hard as she could. The man stumbled, and she used the extra few seconds to scramble to her feet and run full-pelt into the kitchen towards the back door.
She was thrown bodily back into the front by an arm clad in a leather jacket. She fell back to the floor, her head hitting the floor sending stars bursting in her vision. She looked up at the man who’d thrown her, who now kicked out and knocked the table above her onto its side, blocking both her vision and her body. She looked up at his face as he turned towards the man by the counter, opening fire...
Opening fire with the very same gun that he was now lowering to his belt. “She’s no threat,” he was saying, taking a few steps towards her. The other three men exchanged glances. The older one, Xander, lowered his weapon. The younger one hesitated a moment, then did the same; the man behind him had never drawn his.
“The hell she isn’t,” he said angrily. “You were supposed to wipe her memory, Wright. She shouldn’t be here.”
“Wipe my... hold on, what are you peop--“
”I did, Greg,” spat Joshua. “But you know full well that the Format doesn’t always hold.”
Before Greg could reply, a man appeared behind Joshua and spoke to the room at large. “I’ve found something,” he said. “You’ll want to see this, Xander.”
Joshua stepped aside as Xander marched across the room and passed him into the bathroom, followed closely Greg, who threw Joshua and filthy look before stepping in after him. Sara stepped in behind Joshua, unable to get into the room itself; she settled for standing on her toes in the doorframe, the better to get a look at where they had gathered. The smell of decay must have been coming from here, because it grew almost unbearably strong as she reached the threshold.
“What the hell are they?” asked the youngest man, the one who’d entered the living room unarmed.
No one seemed able to answer him. Quite right, thought Sara, who wasn’t able to make sense of the question. The bathroom was incredibly small. The toilet stood in the far left corner, with the sink immediately to its right. The rest of the room was taken up by one of the filthiest bathtubs Sara had ever seen. The tiles were coming off the walls on all three sides, and the shower fixture had been ripped away completely, leaving only the tap. There was no shower curtain. The tub itself was lined with a thick layer of grime that seemed to be moving in places.
She peered closer; it was moving. What she had taken to be grime or mould was actually a layer of creatures she’d never seen before. They looked like dull, greyish-brown starfish, each of them barely a centimetre long. They seemed to wriggle continuously, pulsating up and down.
“I’ll need to examine them back at Torchwood,” the bearded one said.
Xander nodded. “Take as many samples as you think you’ll need.” He turned towards the door, and everyone poured out of the room to make way for him. “Conrad, I know initial scans came up empty, but I’d like a more thorough check for non-terrestrial technology, just to be safe.” The youngest man nodded and hurried out the front door, presumably to their vehicle for equipment. Xander turned his attention to Greg. “Take our guest home, and Format her memory again. We can’t have any of this getting out.”
“Wait a minute,” interrupted Sara. “What do yo mean, ‘format’ my memory again? Have you messed with my memories before? Are the flashbacks I’ve been having your fault?”
“Come with me,” said Greg, taking her arm and steering her towards the door.
“Get off me!” she hissed, pulling her arm out of his grasp and backing away from him. “What the hell is going on here? Who are you people?”
“Come with me, and I’ll explain on the way,” said Greg, moving towards her again.
“Name?!” he shouted, his brow furrowed in anger.
“You can’t treat me like this!” she yelled, struggling against bonds at her wrists. “This is police brutality! Untie me, now!”
Falk glared at her, his frown warping into a twisted smile. “Tell me your name,” he said, more softly this time. “And I’ll think about it.”
Sara felt her knees shake, and collapsed to the floor as the pain in her head began to throb again. “What’s... happening...?” she whimpered, closing her eyes tight against the pain. She felt an irrational sense of panic clawing in her chest, and her eyes burned as she fought back tears. “What’s happening to me? Please... help me...”
A pair of strong, warm hands were on her at once, gently lifting her from her crouching position and lowering her to the floor on her back. “It’s alright, you’re fine.”
“Alain...” she whispered. She had no idea where the name came from, but she knew it was the right one. “Alain, help me... it hurts!”
Alain looked up to Xander, who stood over the pair of them. “Her system is rejecting the Format. She needs to be deprogrammed, quickly, or her brain could shut down completely.”
“Can you do that now, or on the way to her home?” asked Greg.
Alain shook his head. “No. I need to take her back to Torchwood.”
“Alright,” said Xander grimly, nodding. “We’ll take her back with us. Get her down to the van. Greg, Joshua, you go as well. We’ll leave once--“
When they would leave, however, he never got a chance to say. A terrible screech erupted from the doorway, and all four men turned as one towards it with their weapons raised. Alain sat crouched on one knee at Sara's side, his pistol held protectively over her. She pushed herself up onto her elbows and followed his gaze towards the door.
A man stood there, his filthy hair matted and tangled, his eyes bulging. His mouth was stretched unnaturally wide and his scream seemed to fill the entire room, even the space occupied by people or objects; the furniture and kitchen countertop seemed to quiver, and Sara could almost feel every cell of her body crying out in shock and pain as the scream tore through her. Her head felt as if it were near to exploding with pain.
The man stepped forward, and gunfire joined his scream. He stumbled slightly but kept coming. The closer he got to the five of them clustered in the living room, the wider the gunshots became - no doubt the men behind the guns were experiencing the same blurred vision and disorientation that Sara felt spreading through her as the attacker’s scream continued to pierce their heads. The man reached out towards Alain’s hand and forced it to the side, the fingernails digging into flesh and drawing thin streamlets of blood. Alain dropped his weapon, his face contorted with pain. His attacker leaned forward, his mouth stretching to its unnatural length, the shriek reaching a fevered pitch...
Sara kicked out blindly, and felt her foot connect with bone. The alien scream stopped instantly, changing to a high pitched wail of pain. The merciful silence pushed itself into her mind, wiping the pain that had been building throughout her body almost instantly. She opened her eyes and saw that their attacker was clutching his forehead and looking dazed. She kicked out again, this time able to aim her attack. She hit him square in the nose, and felt it give under her foot. Blood rained down on her, but she ignored it and lashed out with her foot yet again, this time sending her target sprawling onto his back. Gunfire penetrated the temporary silence, but it was too late; the man had scrambled to his feet and bolted out the door, howling in pain.
She collapsed onto her back, her head mercifully cushioned by the dusty carpet beneath her. Alain sat next to her, clutching at his wrist but smiling down at her in gratitude. She couldn’t make out the faces of the others, all of whom were standing rather than kneeling - her vision was blurring again, and the longer she watched even Alain’s face began to blur. She tried to speak, but her voice had abandoned her. Someone was speaking, but she couldn’t tell who it was or what they were saying. She felt two pairs of hands lift her from the ground, and gave no resistance as she was carried from the room.
This story was so gripping--and utterly creepy--that I tore through chapters in between watching Sesame Street clips and that video of "Take On Me" from A-Ha to get rid of the jitters before beginning the next installment! I'm lucky it wasn't completely dark when I read it, too!
Keep up the fantastic work! Do you roleplay, by any chance?
By the way, when I read the part about half of Camryn's face being MISSING, my stomach lurched. I was reminded of "Amnesia: The Dark Descent", a new release from Fractional Games, in which you can't look at the monsters too long or you'll go crazy. There's a part in that game where it talks about "heads split down the middle..." Shiver!
There's a good chance I won't be around during the day tomorrow - Thanksgiving weekend. So I'm posting tomorrow's chapter tonight.
~ Chapter V ~
The sounds of muted conversation slowly penetrated the fog of unconsciousness, and Sara was distantly aware that she had, for what she worked out to be the third time in under twenty-four hours, lost consciousness. Every muscle in her body felt stiff, but she registered after a moment that that’s all they felt - she was no longer victim to the constant pain in her head, back, and limbs. She realised her throat was dry as a bone, and began coughing immediately.
The sound drew the attention of the faded voices, which halted instantly. She struggled to open her eyes and found three men standing over her: Joshua, Alain, and Xander. She tried to sit up, but Alain gently held her down.
“It’s alright, you’re fine,” he said softly. “You may feel a little stiff for a while, but you should altogether feel a bit better.”
She nodded, coughing again slightly. “Can I get some water?” she asked.
Joshua had a glass ready, and handed it to her. “How do you feel?” he asked.
She drained half the glass, then handed it back to him. “Fine, I guess,” she said slowly, casting her gaze around the room. Every surface, even the walls and ceiling, were of unblemished stainless steel apart from the tile floor and a tall set of thin glass doors on the far side of the room, through which she could just see a yellowish stone corridor. Standing in front of the doors were the other two men from the apartment: the one she’d heard called Conrad, and the one named Greg, who’d bound her to her chair on her first visit.
“Hang on...” she muttered. “I--“
”Your memory has been unblocked,” said Alain. “The Formatted memories were conflicting with your real ones, and had to be cleared. I was afraid for a moment you’d slipped into a coma, but I managed to get you back here in time.”
“What do you mean, ‘formatted memories’?” she asked.
“The memories I implanted in your mind this morning,” answered Joshua. “To replace and suppress the memory of what you saw at work last night.”
She cast about for a moment, doing a quick mental inventory of her memories. She did indeed find a number of images and ideas that Joshua had apparently attempted to suppress: the attack on the café and Camryn’s death, her battle with the creature, her interrogation by first Greg and then Joshua... and a pair of pills handed to her by Alain after her interrogation.
She sat up properly and swung her legs over the end of the table. “You drugged me,” she said at last, with a hint of indignation.
Joshua nodded, looking apologetic. “It’s called Format. It suppresses short term memory, and leaves the mind in an open, impressionable state. It lets us wipe out and replace the memories of witnesses.”
“Witnesses to what?” she demanded. “What exactly did I witness last night? What the hell is going on?”
Greg, who’d been leaning against the room’s glass doors with his arms folded across his chest, stood straight and slowly moved towards the table. “You tell us,” he said. “What happened last night at the café?”
“What, you wipe your own memory too?” she asked scathingly. “I already told you what I saw, and Joshua was there for most of it. But there’s something else going on here, isn’t there? Who are you people?”
“Her Majesty’s Protectorate,” said Xander, speaking for the first time. “Torchwood Five.”
One of the words jumped out at her. “Yeah, Josh said that already, the ‘Torchwood’ bit,” she said, more of her memory coming flooding back. “He said you’re some sort of ‘independent agency’. That you were outside government control, apart from the QBDP. Who do you work for then, the military? Are you some sort of private contractors?”
Xander exchanged a meaningful look with Alain, who shrugged. Xander did the same, then folded his arms. “Alright, Ms. Wallace. Torchwood is a secret agency established by Her Majesty Queen Victoria in 1879 to monitor and defend against extra-terrestrial threats to the citizens of the British Empire.”
She stared back at him, then burst into a laugh despite herself. “Extra-terrestrial,” she repeated mockingly. “You mean aliens?”
He nodded silently.
She continued to stare at him, but he said nothing. The laughter died in her chest, and her smile began to fade. “You’re kidding, right?” she asked.
“How else would you explain the attack last night?” asked Greg. “Or the world’s kids chanting warnings and pointing to the sky last year? Planet Earth travelling thousands of light years across space into a horde of talking garbage cans a few years ago?”
“If you’re supposed to protect people from those kinds of things, how come you didn’t? I mean... Camryn, okay, Joshua tried; he was just too late. Fine. But those other things, the... the kids, the... Daleks... why didn’t you do anything then?”
They were silent for a moment; Joshua, Greg, and Conrad exchanged looks with each other, while Xander went white and Alain simple stared into space. It was him who answered her: “We try, Sara,” he said quietly. “But sometimes, we just can’t do enough. Even we have to rely on someone else sometimes. Even if that means we lose people.”
She heard the sadness in his voice, and for a moment he appeared as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. She looked away, and addressed her next question to the floor by Conrad’s feet. “So what about now - this... creature, the one that killed Camryn? What is it?”
Xander shrugged again. “We don’t know for sure,” he said. “We have a theory, though. Alain?”
Alain nodded, then marched over to the other side of the room, where a number of large drawers lined the wall. Sara watched them apprehensively, already sure of what they were. Sure enough, when Alain walked up to one in particular and pulled it open, a long table slid out from the wall, on top of which lay the colourless, lifeless body of Hubert Cornett. His eyes were closed now, and she realised for the first time that were it not for the cold pallor of his skin he might have been handsome.
“This was Hubert Cornett, from whose east-Queensbridge apartment we’ve just come. He was killed last night, presumably by the same creature that killed your friend Camryn.”
She lifted herself off the table and moved slowly towards him, with Xander following close behind her. At the edge of the table she stopped, her jaw clenched determinedly against a wave of disgust and revulsion. She gazed silently at the lifeless face, her eyes steadily unfocussing, until she was able to force herself to see it for what it was, instead of what it used to be.
“How did he die?” she asked quietly.
He was silent for a moment, then said: “His occipital and temporal lobes suffered extreme trauma. Essentially, the bottom of his brain received a strong physical blow.”
She furrowed her brow, trying in her head to picture what kind of hit could damage the bottom someone’s brain. “That’s... not possible, is it? What kind of attack would...?”
Alain looked up at her, his face grim. “I believe that Cornett’s death was the work of an alien life form that had taken residence at the base of his skull. It appears to have fed on the amino acids and neuropeptides of his brain, or at least used them in some form - Cornett’s body was nearly drained of them, particularly serotonin.”
“It... it ate his brains?”
Alain shrugged. “Not precisely, but accurate enough in its own way. The injuries to the brain, as well as the bruising of the deeper tissues at the base of the skull, indicate that the creature forced its way out of his body last night, killing him in the process. But we found no evidence of the creature in the alley last night.”
Sara understood. “It had moved into that homeless man instead,” she said. “Like a... a hermit crab. It’s a parasite.”
“We think so,” said Xander, nodding. “We’ve been following a number of similarly mysterious deaths for a number of weeks now. We’ve been watching Cornett, unsure whether he was a suspect or a potential victim, for four days now. His behaviour had become increasingly erratic. Alain, Greg, and Joshua were pursuing him last night when Joshua violated orders and chased it into the alley, where it was forced to change hosts quickly. It tried to hide, thinking it could throw us off its trail now that it was in a new host.”
She nodded - she was able to work out what had happened now. She had heard the creature abandon Cornett in favour of a new host. While she hesitated in the back room, unsure what to do, it must have gone around to the front, entered the store, and murdered Camryn while she had been stretching to peek into the peephole in near-total darkness. If she had been more decisive, if she had known the right thing to do without hesitating, she may have been able to save Camryn somehow. Tears welled up in her eyes, but she forced them down.
“Why did it kill Camryn? If it was trying to hide, committing a violent murder only a block away from where it had last seen you wasn’t exactly brilliant. It could have just... acted like normal. Tried to blend in.”
“We’re not sure what degree of control the creature has over the host,” explained Alain. “It may be complete physical control; or it could be as simple as suggestive thought, something as easily dismissed as a food craving. It could have been that the host was trying to find help.”
“And when Camryn didn’t know what to do, he killed her?” she asked, disbelieve etching every syllable.
“The creature likely introduced urges and compulsions far too powerful for the host to ignore,” Alain in his maddeningly calm baritone. “Instincts such as fear, hunting, possibly even reproduction could have lead to the attack. We may never know for sure.”
“And what about those things you found in Cornett’s apartment?” she asked. “That didn’t look like any mildew I’ve ever seen.”
“We haven’t had a chance to analyse them yet,” said Xander.
“But they’re likely a source of food,” supplemented Alain. “My initial scans show they have remarkably high levels of serotonin in their systems. They could be an emergency food supply of some sort.”
“Alien power bars,” laughed Greg.
Alain shrugged again. “We can’t know more until I’ve had a chance to take a proper look at them.”
Xander nodded. “That’s your next priority. Set your scans on automatic,” he ordered before turning towards the three men standing quietly behind him. “Conrad, I want you to take a few of Alain’s samples and set up some scans of your own. It might give us more than just a medical picture of their make-up,” he said. “When you’re done that, you’ll join myself and Greg. We’ll be investigating another of Cornett’s unsold properties.”
Conrad nodded understanding before rushing through the tall glass doors and disappearing down the hallway. Greg gave Sara a small smile before following him. Joshua stepped forward. “What about me?” he asked.
Xander turned to him with his eyes narrowed slightly. “You’re going to take Ms. Wallace home and Format her memory again.”
Sara whipped around to face him. “Wait, what?” she spluttered. “But... you can’t! Your drug almost made me a vegetable once, you can’t just say ‘oops, try again’!”
Xander folded his arms. “Well we can’t very well let you keep your memory of what you saw, can we?”
“Why not?” demanded Sara. “I give you my word that I’ll never tell anyone.” Xander laughed mirthlessly and turned to leave the room. She turned to Alain. “Please, tell him - you’re the one who said it almost put me into a coma the first time. Are you really just going to let him dose me again?”
Alain gazed at her silently for a moment. “I recommend a stronger dose this time,” he said slowly, breaking eye contact and turning to his computer readouts. “She seems to have a natural resistance.”
Sara gaped at him, then looked to Joshua. “Are you just going to let them drug me again? A normal dose almost made me comatose; a stronger dose could kill me!”
“Alain knows what he’s doing,” said Joshua quietly. “Sara, please... there are two ways to Format someone. Don’t make us do it the hard way.”
She glared at him, her hands bunched into fists at her sides. “Fine,” she said through gritted teeth. “Take me home then, *******.”
“So where are we headed?” asked Greg as he climbed into the passenger seat of the van.
“An old warehouse about a mile north of town,” answered Conrad, pulling his seatbelt across his chest in the back seat before tugging a laptop out from the case on the seat next to him.
“And what’s so special about this old warehouse?” Greg demanded, as Xander pulled open the driver’s side door and clambered into his own seat.
“It was on Cornett’s list of unsold properties for nearly a year and a half,” replied Conrad. “And before that, it had been abandoned for three. He picked it up dirt cheap, but never made any effort to repair it or bring it up to code.”
“Do we know what we’ll find there?”
It was Xander who answered him this time. “We never do,” he reminded him. “But if the creature was mining its host’s life for resources, this warehouse would be the perfect place to hide any of its technology or information from prying human eyes - weapons, computers, possibly a ship it arrived in.”
“We’ve never found a ship before,” piped up Davies. “Do we expect to this time?”
Xander pushed the van into reverse and barrelled backwards through the pitch-dark driveway and into the street. “We can always hope,” he replied shortly.
Great chapter! Sara seems like a quick study, though, and like she could keep a secret. If I were Joshua, I would have asked Sara if she would like to be temporarily recruited instead of Formatted again. It wouldn't be the Torchwood Six, but even detectives in the most popular of novels had their contacts. Maybe Sara could keep a look out for any people or animals who acted suspicious--like the creature did. Anyhoo, I can't wait to see what happens next!
Well, to be entirely fair the decision isn't up to Joshua; he's not the leader of the branch, Xander is. But then, the story's not over yet. You may be pleasantly surprised. ;D
Anyway, here's today's chapter - the penultimate chapter of the first novel, as a matter of fact. :D This one's a bit longer than the others - as near as I can tell, just beneath the forum's maximum limit. :xp: But I don't see that as a bad thing - especially not since the previous chapter was so relatively short.
Anyway, here it is. Enjoy.
~ Chapter VI ~
Ten minutes later, the van peeled up a long street lined on either side by rusting metal warehouses. At Conrad’s word, Xander stomped hard on the brake and they pulled to an abrupt stop in front of a nondescript warehouse near the end of the street.
“What do we do if the creature itself is here?” asked Conrad, somewhat fearfully.
“Shoot to kill,” said Greg shortly, pulling his gun from his belt and checking the ammunition clip. “Aim for the head and don’t hold back.”
Xander gave Greg an even, almost warning look before turning to Conrad. “From what we’ve seen so far, the creature makes the host resistant to gunfire; with any luck, though, it will still be injured from our last encounter.”
“What if it also boosts the host’s healing capabilities too?” interjected Greg.
“Unlikely,” said Alain dismissively. “From what I’ve been able to tell from the bodies of its previous hosts, it doesn’t exactly make them resistant to gunfire so much as it increases the body’s threshold for pain. The host body can be nearly dead, and it wouldn’t know it. It will fight on until its last breath.”
“So, again, aim for the head,” said Greg.
Conrad gave him a cold look before sliding across his seat and throwing open the side door; Alain followed just behind him, and Xander climbed out of the driver’s seat and onto the pavement outside.
They emerged into a gentle misting rain that seemed to deaden all sound around them. When Xander spoke, his voice was oddly hushed. “Conrad, what can you tell us about the layout of the building?”
“There are three doors,” he answered promptly. “One facing us now, one around the left-hand corner, and the other around the back. The back door leads into a corridor, lined with offices and storage areas. Eight rooms in all. There’s another door at each end of the corridor leading into the main warehouse area; there’s a staircase along our right side, against the wall with no door. It leads up to a series of catwalks and maintenance ducts near ceiling, and there’s another staircase somewhere along there which leads to the roof.”
“Alright: Conrad, go with Alain to the back door and clear the corridor and offices. Greg, take the front door here and make your way to the catwalks. I’ll move around to the left and take the side door.” They all nodded understanding. “Alright. Let’s move.”
As the four men moved to surround the building, a lone figure watched them from just behind the nearest door. His pale blue eyes shone somewhat in the misty light, but the expression on his filthy face was blank behind his matted beard.
Three more figures appeared behind him, all of them with the same blank, staring expression. They seemed to hold back somewhat, as if they were afraid of the light sneaking in through the cracked-open door. They all had traces of dried blood around their mouths, and stared patiently at the creature in front of them.
A single guttural grunt seemed to be all they needed to hear. They turned suddenly, moving more like animals than people, each growling darkly as they moved into the shadows along the edge of the room.
Josh gazed resolutely out the windshield, focussing on the sound of the wipers as they shifted the rain from his field of vision.
Sara cursed in frustration. “Joshua, listen to me!” she was saying loudly. “You can’t do this!”
“Do up your seatbelt,” he snapped, ignoring her.
“Let me out of the damned car. You can just let me go home on my own. You don’t have to drug me.”
I have to,” he said quietly. “It’s too dangerous to let you remember what you’ve seen.”
She snorted derisively. “Even if I wanted to tell someone about Torchwood, and what I’ve seen, who would believe me? There are already plenty of conspiracy theories out there, what’s one more? You can’t tell me Torchwood have never been involved in any before, if you were really set up almost a hundred and fifty years ago.”
“Look, it’s not just to protect us, you know,” said Josh angrily. “It’s for your own good too. Let’s say you’re right, and we leave your memory intact, and you go on with your life clutching to the secret of our existence. What if you say something, anything, even the smallest thing, that gets to the wrong ears? What if someone, some kind of alien criminal or threat, hears that you know something about Queensbridge’s source of defence? They could capture you, torture you, even kill you just to get to us.”
“You’re being ridiculous, Josh,” she huffed. “You know I’m right. You said it yourself, that I’m no threat to Torchwood. You’re just afraid to stand up to Xander or Greg. You’re acting like a coward.”
He bristled slightly, but replied evenly: “It’s for your own good.”
“You don’t believe that.”
He didn’t answer.
“If it wasn’t for me, you guys could be dead - who was it that beat back that creature at Cornett’s apartment?”
Joshua shook his head. “You got lucky - we all did.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that you owe me. If I hadn’t been there, or had passed out, that thing and its little friends could have killed you.”
He began to roll his eyes, but snapped them off the road and over to her instead. “What do you mean, ‘its little friends’?” he asked.
She folded her arms and sat back in her seat. “Those things, in the bathroom. They didn’t look like food to me.”
He shook his head again. “Well, Alain disagrees.”
“Just think about it!” she said hotly. “It wouldn’t make sense. You said you’ve been following this stream of killings for weeks now.”
She rolled her eyes, wondering if he was being intentionally slow. “So it obviously has no problem finding hosts to sustain itself, does it? So why would it come back to an old host’s home to scrounge for emergency supplies?”
“How should I know?” he asked, shrugging. “I don't pretend to understand the way alien minds work.”
She groaned in exasperation. If he hadn't been driving, she'd have grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. “Joshua, would you please think?” she screamed. “You're being stubborn for the sake of it! There's only one reason I can think of for an animal - any animal - to go back to a den it knows has been compromised.”
He looked suddenly uneasy. “You don’t think those things were...”
“Hatchlings,” she finished. “Yeah, I do. Why else would it have tried to kill us? Over a meal or two of emergency rations? It wouldn't, it doesn't make sense - but it would have tried to kill us if it thought it was defending its children.”
He nodded slowly, returning his gaze to the road. “And if those things are its offspring...” he muttered. “****. We took almost a dozen of them back to the lab with us.”
“You took hostages,” Sara said simply. “So it tried to kill us.”
“And if it tried once, it’s bound to try again.” He brought his wrist to his mouth and shouted into it. “Xander, this is Josh. Stop what you’re doing, now. We got it wrong, those things we found aren’t food - they’re offspring.” There was no reply. “Xander, are you there?”
Joshua cursed. He looked over at Sara. “What would you say to one more trip before I take you home?” he asked.
She reached behind her, smiling, and grabbed her seatbelt. “I’ve got all day.”
Xander stepped out of the rain and into the cavernous warehouse, dimly lit by short, wide windows near the ceiling. The main chamber seemed to be nearly empty save for a series of thick, widely spaced concrete pillars. The walls were lined by the odd pile of debris or equipment, all of them covered by thick blue tarps, some of them torn in places. Across the room he could just make out Alain steadily mounting the staircase against the far wall. They met each other’s gaze and exchanged silent nods; Alain continued as quietly as possible up the rickety metal stairs, and Xander moved off to his left towards the nearest door which, according to Conrad’s report, led to the back hallway.
By the time he reached the doorway, Greg had reached the catwalks and was visible only as a silhouette against the harsh grey light pouring in from the windows. Conrad and Alain had evidently split up to clear the rooms along the corridor - Conrad appeared a short distance away, his weapon held steady before him. He whirled it around to face Xander, then lowered it as he registered recognition. “All clear,” he said. “But there’s something wrong here, Xander. I found more of those things we saw at Cornett’s. They were in every room on my way down the hall. There are thousands of them here, easily.”
“Take a few more samples, just to be safe,” ordered Xander. “We may be able to learn something about--“
He was cut short by the sounds of gunfire down the other end of the hallway. With a quick gesture he ordered Conrad to return down the hallway and indicated that he would go around the other side through the main chamber. Conrad sprinted down the hall as instructed, and Xander pushed back through the door and into the warehouse.
The room was now flooded with people, at least four dozen of them, all of them shuffling slowly forward. Most were moving towards both himself and the door at the other side of the room, but a large group were also moving towards the bottom of the staircase up which Greg had disappeared moments before. The gunfire was coming from the other end of the chamber, where Alain stood beneath the frame of the open door. His shots were soon joined by Conrad’s; Conrad provided cover fire while Alain burst from the doorway and moved swiftly along the edge of the wall. He was firing on the group just ahead of him, who would reach the steps before he did. After a moment, Xander realised what he was doing - he was pushing them back, try to clear a path for Greg, who had just appeared on the staircase with his own weapon drawn, to get through to safety.
Xander began firing himself, moving sideways along the back wall towards the other doorway, which Alain and Greg were already moving towards at the same time. When they were within earshot, Xander shouted at them to press forward - if they were forced out the side or back doors, they would have a much harder time getting back around the outside of the building to get to the van. Greg stepped furthest forward, forming the point of triangular attack as the four of them pressed towards the door through which Xander had come not minutes before.
They managed to make it past the staircase before a sudden movement overhead caught Xander’s eye. Before he had a chance to call out it was on top of them: one of the creature’s had dropped down from the catwalk above and landed right on top of them. Conrad went sprawling backwards, but managed to hold on to his weapon; Xander opened fire blindly, and heard Alain’s gun going off as well. But the creature ignored them, and lunged instead towards Greg, who's back had been turned and who alone hadn’t noticed its arrival. The creature jumped onto his back, its mouth open in a silent screech of rage and its teeth heading straight for the back of Greg’s neck. But it had overestimated the distance between them, and instead of landing squarely on Greg’s back the pair of them went sprawling forward. Greg managed to twist and land on his shoulder rather than on his head, which probably saved his life - the creature’s weight came down on him a fraction of a second later. He threw his hand forwards, aiming the butt of his weapon at the creature’s face.
His attack met with its target, but the creature was unphased. It lunged forward again, its teeth digging into Greg’s shoulder. The others opened fire on it as one, and it broke its hold on Greg and rolled forward towards its allies, blood covering its face and hands.
“Fall back!” shouted Xander. Conrad began to move steadily backwards, maintaining fire. Xander did the same as Alain rushed forward towards Greg, heaved him up by his unwounded shoulder, and began dragging him awkwardly back towards the corridor behind them.
Outside, a black sedan tore down the street and hurled around the warehouse, coming to a halt at the side of the building. Sara was out of the car almost before it’d stopped moving, and Joshua didn’t even bother turning off the engine before jumping out himself. They could clearly hear the sounds of gunshots from inside, and Joshua drew his own gun.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked as Sara made to follow him towards the warehouse.
“With you, to help!” she said incredulously.
“Really? You carrying a pistol in your purse that I don’t know about? Tell you what, though; pull the car around beside the van - we may need to make a quick getaway, and we can’t all pile into the van; takes too long. Don’t block her in.”
“Then what?” she asked. “Just wait for you to come back outside?”
“That’s right,” said Josh. He gave her a gentle shove towards the car. “Go, now!”
Alain, half dragging Greg behind him, had already made the shelter of the hallway, and Xander hoped he had enough sense to try to get outside rather than take shelter in any of the offices along the corridor. He let off two more rounds, then chanced a look behind him. A small line of the creatures had broken off from the main group and were heading towards the hallway in pursuit of Greg and Alain. Xander turned to face them, and squeezed off another few rounds in their direction, hoping to draw their attention. It was no good. He fired again; once, twice, three times - and on the fourth, his gun gave an ominous click. He futilely squeezed the trigger a few more times before looking around hopelessly.
The staircase was only a few metres away. Xander shouted to get Conrad’s attention, then indicated that they should move up. Conrad nodded, backing slowly towards the staircase. Xander reached to Conrad’s waist as he passed, pulled an ammunition clip from his belt, and exchanged it for his own.
Conrad had already started up the staircase, and once his boss had began his own ascent it became harder for him to get a clear shot. He hesitated for a moment, then turned and ran full pelt towards the summit. Once there, he looked down again in time to see another figure, barely discernable in the twilight down below, come marching into the room from the side door. A swooping sensation rose in his stomach as the figure opened fire on the creature’s from behind, and he realised it must be Joshua. The creatures paused, and in their hesitation Xander managed to make it to the top of the stairs. Standing on the other side of the staircase, he too opened fire on the creatures below.
Unsure what to do, the creatures began to wail indistinctly. Xander yelled down to Joshua, who bolted across the room, giving the cluster of creatures a wide berth, and bounded up the stairs to join them.
“The things we found at Cornett’s, they’re not food,” he said without preamble. “They’re offspring. The creature was protecting its young, and now it’s the young’s turn.”
“There are more of them here, too,” replied Conrad. “Thousands of them, lining the walls of the offices downstairs.”
Joshua nodded grimly. “Makes sense. Where are Alain and Greg?”
“Downstairs. Greg’s been injured. We need to get down there, give them some cover - I’ve run out of ammo once, so Alain can’t be far off, and Greg dropped his gun when he was attacked.”
Joshua nodded understanding. “If we can get them outside, Sara’s waiting with the van and the car for a quick getaway.” He turned to head back down the staircase - only to find his path blocked by the creatures, who seemed to have regained their persistence and begun pursuing the three of them upwards.
“The roof!” shouted Xander, leading the way down the catwalk. Conrad followed right behind him and Joshua took up the rear, letting off a few rounds as the first of the creatures reached the top of the staircase.
Sara sat in the driver’s seat of the car, her heart in her mouth and her mind spinning. The sound of gunfire seemed to have died down, but there was still no sign of Joshua or any of the others. She got out of the car and looked over the roof towards the building, but she couldn’t see anything. She swore in impatience and panic. “Come on Josh, where the hell are you...?”
Just as she said it, she caught sight of movement on the roof of the warehouse. She looked upwards, moving around the van to avoid it obstructing her view.
Joshua, Xander, and Conrad were standing with their backs to her, steadily moving backwards towards the edge. She couldn’t see what they were looking at, but she could see that their weapons were drawn and they were firing at whatever it was - and she could see that Alain and Greg weren’t with them. She swore again, and launched herself back into the car. She scrambled around in the glove compartment, looking for some kind of weapon. There was nothing. She felt tears of frustration well up in her eyes, but she forced them back as she pulled herself out of the car and ran, full speed, into the warehouse.
She hesitated at the doorway, but the warehouse itself appeared to be empty. She looked around hopelessly for a moment, then spotted two doors on the side wall. She threw a cautious glance at the metal catwalks above her that must have ultimately led to the roof, but they were abandoned. She could hear gunfire from above, followed by shouts and screams - but she couldn’t tell if they were friend or foe. After another second’s hesitation, she bolted across the room and towards the door nearest her. She expected to be attacked at any second, imaging in her mind’s eye the man from Cornett’s apartment appearing from the shadows and launching himself at her and tearing her apart the same way he’d murdered Camryn. But there was nothing - she reached the door unscathed and still quite alone. She pushed through it and almost stumbled over Alain, who was kneeling near Greg’s head and nursing a nasty gash in Greg’s shoulder. Sara forced herself to look away from the wound and at Alain instead.
“Are you alright?” she asked, falling to her knees at Greg’s feet.
Alain nodded distractedly. “Where are the others?”
“The roof. I saw them from outside. They were firing like crazy, but nothing seems to stop these things...”
Alain nodded again. “The creature makes the host body almost impervious to pain, and ignorant of injury. They’ll march forward for as long as they possibly can, regardless of injury. If the body can possibly function, they’ll carry on.”
“How, though?” asked Sara.
“I don’t know, exactly,” answered Alain. “It could be heightened adrenaline, or decay of the pain centres of the brain. I honestly don’t know.”
Sara was only half listening. Her eyes had fallen on the gun on the floor at Alain’s side. “What if you could hit the creature itself, instead of just shooting at the host?”
“That would be wonderful, yes, but the creature lives at the base of the brain. It’s impossible to attack it directly at a distance.”
“Not impossible,” she said, reaching across Greg’s prone figure and snatching the gun from the floor. “Will he be alright?” she asked.
“He’s lost a lot of blood, but if I can get him back to Torchwood, he’ll be just fine - even if I could get him back to the van, he’d stand a better chance; I have emergency supplies there.”
“The warehouse is clear. I just crossed it from the van myself. All the creatures must be on the roof. Can you get him back alright by yourself?”
“I think so, yes, but... where are you going?”
She rose to her feet, Greg’s gun feeling cold and surprisingly heavy in her hand. “To find the others. I have an idea. Go, quickly, before they decide to split up and look for you.”
As Alain half dragged, half carried Greg across the warehouse towards the vehicles outside, Sara marched up the staircase against the wall. She felt remarkably calm as she made the top of the stairs and almost instantly saw the path that would lead her up further and onto the roof. She could still hear what sounded like three guns, but their fire was becoming more frenzied. She launched down the catwalk and bounded up another, shorter staircase and into the fresh, misty air of the room. She didn’t have to look far to find the others - they stood to her right, facing her, though she wasn’t sure they’d seen her. She ducked back behind the door as a stray bullet hit the pavement a few feet in front of her. She steeled her resolve, gripped the gun firmly in her hand, and took a deep breath.
Time seemed to slow as she pushed out from behind the cover of the doorway and into the open. Without a moment’s hesitation, she began pulling the trigger wildly, and felt the gun force her arms upwards and back as she did so. A few of the creatures seemed to stumble forwards, then turn their blank gaze onto her. As more of them came to a halt and turned towards her, the others realised she was there. She pulled the trigger again; her shots went wide, but they drew the attention of more of the creatures; one of her bullets lodged itself in the neck of a creature still shuffling towards Conrad, and it went down in a scream of pain.
She felt a rush of pride mingled with excitement - she had been right. “Aim for the back of the neck!” she screamed, continuing to fire aimlessly at the small crowd slowly shuffling towards her now, instead.
They seemed to waist no time. Sara threw herself to the ground as the three of them opened fire, this time aiming for the exposed necks of the creatures now facing away from them.
One of them hit home, and a tall woman with lank brown hair let out a scream of pain before falling forward. The creatures nearest her let out similar cries, stumbling slightly in their march. One of these took a shot himself, and more of them screamed. As more went down to Torchwood’s weapons, even more seemed to stumble and call out in anguish. The three men began claiming ground as their opponents fell one by one, succumbing to each other’s pain and collapsing regardless of whether or not they were shot.
Within seconds, it was over. The sound of gunfire ceased, and silence pressed in on her ears. She looked up as the three of them reached her, Joshua bending down to help her up.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“I’m fine, thanks to you guys,” she said. She looked to Xander. “Alain and Greg made it out, they’re at the van now. Alain says Greg lost a lot of blood, but that he should be alright.”
“How did you know where to hit them?” asked Conrad.
“They live near the base of the host’s brain, remember? Shoot it in the head, or the back of the neck, and you hit the creature instead of just the host.”
Xander smiled. “Well done,” he said gratefully. “Conrad, go with Joshua downstairs, and gather the creature’s offspring. We’ll need to... contain them.”
Joshua smiled at Sara before leading the way back towards the door. Xander turned back to Sara. “Torchwood Five owes you a debt of gratitude, Ms. Wallace,” he said. “You saved our skins today. Thank you.”
Sara nodded, smiling. “You still want to drug me, or are you going to let me go?” she asked.
He smirked back. “I think we can work something out.”
Bravo, monsieur! This is such an EPIC WIN that I hope I do just as well when I write my next installment of "Runs Like Clockwork". Also, I'm waiting for the next chapter, "Vanishing Act", with bated breath. I have latched onto this story like one of your creatures latches on to its victim's brain stem. *evil chuckle*
Actually, there's one more chapter in this book first; I'll post it either tonight or tomorrow, and then post Vanishing Act maybe a week or two later. Most likely closer to two, but we'll see.
I'm glad you're enjoying it so far, though. :D
Here it is: the final chapter of The Brainstem Murders. I'll have Vanishing Act ready for posting fairly soon, so stay tuned.
~ Chapter VII ~
The day’s rain finally seemed to have ended. The steel grey clouds that had smothered the sky since dawn were breaking up, finally letting the sun peek through as it set. The ride back to Torchwood was quiet and much more sedate than the trip out to the warehouse. Sara rode back in the sedan with Joshua, and the rest of the team took the van. For the first while Sara expected Josh to take her home, but was surprised to see that he followed the van all the way downtown. As they neared the centre of Albany street, both vehicles turned to the right, driving straight towards a thick stone wall - and ending up going right through it. The van was swallowed by darkness ahead of them, not even its tail lights visible.
She looked questioningly to Joshua, who laughed. “A little something we’ve been holding onto for Her Majesty for a few decades,” he said.
“So the wall is... what, a hologram or something?”
“You could say that,” he replied. “It’s a thin illusion, though. It needs to be projected onto total darkness - any light from behind shows through.”
She turned in her seat and saw, to her amazement, that she could still faintly make out the street beyond the image of the stone wall.
The van suddenly became visible again in front of them, and Joshua pulled gently to the left-hand side of the Torchwood garage. Xander and Conrad were already out of the van, and Alain was helping an unsteady Greg climb out as well. They moved through a large metal door in the side of the room, and she realised with a start that Joshua was already out of the car and heading for it as well. She scrambled with her seatbelt and rushed after him.
The stone corridor seemed shorter this time, despite how slow the group was moving behind Alain, who was helping Greg remain upright. She eyed the metal door on her right warily, remembering her last visit to this hallway and hoping she wasn’t going to end up going through it again. Joshua caught her eye and grinned, as if he knew what she was thinking, and shook his head gently.
Alain finally pushed open the door in front of them, and they stepped into the room beyond. Joshua stood to the side of the door, waiting for her.
“After you,” he said, still smirking.
She hesitated for a moment, then stepped across the threshold into a whole other world.
She’d stepped into a high, circular stone arcade with a series of tall, pointed archways running every three or four feet. The arcade surrounded a massive, brightly lit room floored in what looked like battered marble. She followed Conrad through the nearest archway into the main chamber, her eyes travelling upwards to the vaulted stone ceiling thirty feet above. A squat stone pillar sat in the middle of the room, easily six feet wide and nearly ten high, ringed by a wide stone desk at waist height. Above that, flat computer monitors dotted its surface, showing strings of numbers, diagrams of objects she didn’t recognise, and walls of minuscule text.
Joshua stepped up beside her, his hands behind his back. “Welcome to Torchwood Five,” he said, still grinning broadly. He pointed after the others, who had moved across the room through another archway slightly to her right, down another much wider and shorter hallway at the end of which she could just make out a pair of glass doors. She followed them, Joshua right behind her.
They stepped into the cool, sterile air of the medical bay, where Alain was lifting Greg onto one of the stainless steel examination tables. Joshua urged her forward with a hand at the small of her back, and she stepped further into the room and stood next to Conrad.
“You’ll be fine,” said Alain confidently, speaking to Greg. “I just want to take another proper look at your shoulder. The creature may have provided the host with a venom that I’ll need to treat, but I don’t think it’s likely.”
Greg nodded. “What about the other creatures, the infants at the warehouse?”
“They’re dead,” said Conrad. “All of them, as far as I could tell. I have some samples in the van.”
“How?” asked Greg.
Conrad shrugged, but Alain had an answer: “I expect they died with the adult creatures. Judging from what Xander told me of what happened on the roof, it sounds to me as if they shared some form of limited group consciousness, or a psychic bond. They certainly seemed to react to the death of one of its kind nearby. The deaths of the adults on the roof was likely too great a shock for the infants.”
“We’ll go back tomorrow, and collect what’s left of them,” said Xander. “Just in case. And...” he turned to Sara. “Camryn Lee-Smith’s family are now aware of her death. We’ve seen that it’s ruled an accident, not suicide.”
Sara nodded, gratitude welling in her chest. “Thank you,” she said quietly.
He nodded, then spoke again to the room at large. “As for the rest of the victims - the hosts we fought at the warehouse - we’ll need to gather them and bring them back here for processing. We’ll have our hands full over the next while, staging appropriate deaths for each of them.”
The team nodded as one. Xander, satisfied, turned to Joshua. “Josh, come with me for a moment, please.” The two of them left the room, Conrad following them. Greg looked blearily up at Sara and smiled. “Alain here filled me in on what went down after I was attacked,” he said. “I hear you did a bang-up job helping Alain get my unconscious ass out of there, and your work on the roof. Thanks. I don’t think any of us would still be here if it weren’t for you.”
She smiled back. “Don’t mention it,” she said. “Just promise me one thing: you’ll let Joshua do the interrogating from now on, alright? You’re really terrible at it.”
He laughed, even though it seemed to hurt. “I thought tying you up was a nice touch,” he said. “And it was fun.”
“Pig,” she muttered, smirking as she looked to Alain. “So, any idea if Xander plans on having me drugged again?” she asked him.
“No, not this time,” replied Xander, the glass doors swinging silently shut behind him as he and Joshua returned. “After what happened last time, and because of your help this afternoon, I think we can bend the rules a little bit. Just this once.”
“Thank you,” she said, breaking into a smile.
“Mr. Wright will take you home,” he said. “I have logs to write, and you’re undoubtedly ready to get some rest. Thank you again, Ms. Wallace.” With that, he stepped from the room and disappeared.
Joshua held the door open for her. “Come on. Let’s get you home.”
The drive across Queensbridge was equally as quiet as their journey to Torchwood. By the time they pulled up in front of the Villageview apartments, the sun had broken completely free of the day’s cloud cover and was well on its way to setting. They walked slowly up the paved walkway from the street to the front doors.
“You could have parked in the lot,” she said, speaking for the first time since they left Torchwood. “Maybe come upstairs for a bit, have something to eat...”
He smiled, but shook his head. “I wouldn’t have time anyway,” he said. “I’ve gotta get back, we still have a lot of work to do to contain this. It’s not over yet - you just got to see the exciting parts.”
She nodded sadly, feeling slightly let down. “Well, I guess I’d better let you go, then.”
“Yeah,” he said, making no effort to move back towards the car. “We’ll need to head back to the warehouse, to clean up what’s left of both the parasites and the hosts. That’s a few hours’ work right there.”
She sighed. “Sounds like a blast...” she said.
“You bet,” he replied, smirking. “Then we’ll need to identify each host - that can be a pain in the ass, believe me. And once we’ve worked out who's who, we have to learn enough about them to stage a death.” She was about to interject, but he seemed to sense it and cut her off: “We’ll try to make as many accidents as possible. We’ve even managed to attach an extra victim to a known serial killer before, on rare occassions.”
She ran a hand through her hair. “Alright. Well... maybe I’ll see you around, then,” she said. “Say goodbye to Alain for me. And Xander, and Conrad...”
“What about Greg?” asked Joshua. “Wasn’t he a delight? You’re not going to miss him?”
She smirked. “Alright, yeah, him too. I owe you all a lot.”
He shrugged. “It’s our job. It’s us who owe you, actually - without you, we’d probably have been in it pretty deep. We wouldn’t have all made it out of Cornett’s apartment, much less the warehouse, if it hadn’t been for your help.”
She looked back towards the sedan for no real reason. “I didn’t just mean for saving my life,” she said. “Though there is that. No, I meant...” she struggled for a moment. How could she possibly convey to him what the past day had meant to her? What they’d done to her life?
“The last twenty-four hours...” she began slowly. “Have been incredible. I mean, the past four, five years of my life have been... they’ve been terrible. Dull, aimless... lonely. I’ve been wandering since I finished high school - I even took an extra year, because I didn’t know how to move on. Where to go, what to do... But today! Today was... it was like a dream. An insane, terrifying, painful dream. I’ve seen things that I never imagined were possible. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see my life the same way again. And I owe that to you. To all of you.”
He nodded, smiling. He opened his mouth, closed it, then tried again. “There are worse jobs to have, for sure,” he said finally.
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t I know it...” she muttered. “But at least now, while I’m sitting in that damned stool and starring through my own reflection, pouring coffee for strangers... at least now, I know that that’s not all there is. That somewhere out there is something better.”
A frustrated look crossed his face. “You don’t really want to go back to that coffee shop, do you?” he asked incredulously. “Pouring coffee, stirring sugar, dragging garbage bags...?”
She shook her head, a tad resentful of his condescending tone - it was bad enough she had to go back without him mocking her for it. “No,” she said defensively. “But I won’t be there for long anymore. Before, sure, I probably wouldn’t have made an effort to get out, or find anything different. Anything better. But I don’t think I’ll have a choice now.”
He folded his arms and leaned against the door. “What do you think you’ll do, then?” he asked her.
She shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said honestly. “I still have no idea, really. I’ll probably end up going off to university. Don’t know what for yet, but... I’ll think of something. It might take me a while, but I’ll come up with something - after today, I think just about anything I do will be a bit of a come down, you know?”
He grinned. “Well, we wouldn’t want that, would we?”
She had pulled her keys from her purse and had them halfway to the lock before she really registered what he’d said. “What do you mean?” she asked.
His grin widened. “I had a talk with Xander. Normally, he’s not big on letting witnesses go free without a dose of Format. There are unique exceptions, though.”
She narrowed her eyes, trying and failing to follow his point. “You’re not saying you have to drug me after all, are you?” she asked, panicking slightly.
“No, no, not at all,” he said quickly. “That would make if difficult for you to come into work every day, don’t you think?”
She dropped her keys, but made no effort to either catch them or pick them up. “Are you... offering me a job?” she asked, hardly daring to believe it.
“If you want one.”
She starred at him, her head spinning. “You mean... work for Torchwood?”
“I mean work for Torchwood” he said. “There’s all sorts of things out there you can’t even imagine. The things you saw today? That’s just the start. There’s more.” His eyes burned with intensity and his voice was heavy. “How’d you like to do this sort of thing every day?”
She inhaled, standing straight and meeting his intense gaze evenly. “When can I start?” she asked.
He smiled, and knelt down to retrieve her keys. He handed them to her, then gestured back towards the car parked on the street. “Like I said: we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
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