~ 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.