A quarter mile out from the hospital, Wendell pulled off the highway and into the sprawling parking lot of a SuperaMart store.
It was one of the tricks of the confidence trade: the vast sea of cars in one of those parking lots at peak times was a hive of comings and goings with shoppers hurrying to and from their cars, less lucky drivers circling fruitlessly to find a space, and absolutely everyone too absorbed in their own doings to notice anyone else’s.
There were cameras trained on the lot, yes, but they were up so high they couldn’t tell what was going on inside a car. And even then, they were meant to record break-ins and accidents that the store might be liable for, not the sort of legerdemain Wendell practiced.
On a good day, and if he was alone, he’d been known to perform a complete costume change in a parking lot like that one, entirely inside the car. Drive in one man, drive out another.
He was already wearing most of the persona he was using for this job. And he wasn’t alone either.
Coyote was sitting next to him in the passenger seat of the rental sedan. The outfit they picked out for her was a green and white striped sweater with slightly too long and stretched out sleeves and loose, light gray yoga pants. It made her look younger and by extension, more vulnerable than she really was.
She would be trading those clothes in for a hospital gown almost immediately, but first impressions were what stuck.
Wendell opened the center console and took out what looked like a glasses case and weighed about as much as a brick of comparable size. Undoing the latched allowed the case to open on its own on whisper bearings to reveal a pair of contact lenses, resting one edge in a kind of thin, gold-plated bracket.
“Why did you wait until we were almost there to put those in?” Coyote asked, leaning over to gaze curiously.
“Because,“ Wendell slipped aside the cover to another compartment inside the case and took out a bottle of eye drops. “You have about three hours after you put these in before they start to irritate the cornea. I’m maximizing how long I can have them in once you get there.”
Coyote made a dismissive noise and turned to look out the window at a mother of four leading her little parade of kids from the car to the store. “I’ve seen video screen contacts that last much longer than that.”
He smirked. “You’ve never seen any like these. Those connect to an app that goes on your palmtop and the computer does all the heavy lifting. Problem is, the wireless signal is leaky as hell and easy to detect.”
Leaning his head back, he applied the eye drops as he continued to speak. “These are state of the art: featuring an on-board, organic nano-computer with a secure internet connection that piggybacks off local wireless. They’re virtually undetectable unless someone’s actively looking for them just like the freckle-cam.”
A sly smile crept across Coyote’s features, ruining the illusion of vulnerability, “You charged everything to World Spider, didn’t you?”
Wendell laughed. “Cams and comms alone are costing Anansi over a twenty million. Serves him right for disappearing on us.” With the eye drops in, Wendell put the contacts themselves in, using the rearview mirror to aid him.
Blinking a few times to make sure they were seated, he closed the case and slipped it under the driver’s seat. “Now, are you clear on what your role is?”
Every bit the teenager she looked, Coyote let loose a sigh that spoke volumes of just how tired and annoyed she was at being asked. “For the last time yes. I have an anxiety disorder and spook at ever slight noise. This has a chance of triggering my powers, which is bad ever everyone around. Okay? I get it. I even read everything you gave me about what I have.”
She scowled, “What I don’t understand is the name you gave me. Are you serious with that?”
“Incredibly so.” said Wendell. “Marble Pass has this psych ward for descendants because they’re remote, not because they’re on the cutting edge of culture and sophistication. People out here, they’re not so much racist as they have an expectation. If you fulfill that expectation, they just nod and go on with what they’re doing. Go against it and they get a lot more attentive.”
“You are aware that not every people in the First Nations have the same naming pattern, right? My name is Ida Lane, not Tigerlilly.”
Wendell shrugged. “I know that. They don’t. And that’s what we’re going to give them. That’s what a con is: confidence. You figure out what they want, then give them exactly that while you take what you’re after.”
Coyote slumped in her seat. “I hate this.”
“Actually, if you’re going to cry, that would be good. Your make-up’s too perfect for a girl scared of her own shadow that’s just been on a four hour drive to a place she doesn’t recognize.”
She gave him a withering look, but mustered up fat, rolling crocodile tears because she knew he was right. “I really hate this.”
Stacy Khan sat behind the reception desk in the foyer of the Rochester Psionic Mental Health and Wellness Center in her customary position; leaned back in her chair reading a book on her tablet.
When she first started, she’d been a nervous wreck. After all, the Rochester Center was the premier mental health facility for descendants (the name predated the rise of the new terminology, but Stacy was with the times enough to have changed her lexicon quickly); from everyday folks with powers who just needed therapy, to people with serve disabilities, either coupled with or caused by their powers, to actual violent psychotics who lashed out with their powers.
The possible dangers of the job had been stressed to her many, many times during the application process. There as a reinforced lead room directly behind where she was sitting that she could dive into and seal if things got too dangerous.
But after a year and a half on the desk, she’d come to feel that it was the best job possible. The Center got twenty odd visitors at its absolute busiest, and the most dangerous patients were usually brought in sedated and then treated far below ground and far, far away from Stacy’s desk.
In the lulls, she was largely unsupervised and free to spend her time at ‘work’ surfing the internet, reading, or playing games on her tablet.
Her peaceful reading time was interrupted by the gentle, muffled squeak of the outer set of automatic doors opening. She looked up to see two people coming in through the atrium. With a deft gesture on her touch screen, she banished the ebook to an inactive state and brought up the appointment list for the Center.
There it was, highlighted in green: One o’clock – Dr. Gene Cobbworthy, Patient Admittance NV-Vo.
‘NV’ meant Non-Violent; a good thing. ‘Vo’ meant Volatile; a patient whose powers were not fully under their control and potentially dangerous. That was less of a good thing, and made Stacy wish she’d thought to read the schedule earlier and called in sick.
As good as the good days on the job were, the bad days were very bad. Two months ago, a Volatile patient had thrown up at the desk, the chemical his gut produced when upset eating through the wood in seconds and throwing the spatter giving Stacy hives for days afterward.
“Afternoon.” said the man Stacy assumed was Dr. Cobbworthy. He had a forgettable face, and looked to like he was trying to make up for the lack of personality here with a garish orange and white tie. Though he looked no older than thirty, his clothes were slightly worn and not at all fitted.
Stacy knew this type; the crusaders who took their patients as causes and did everything possible for them even if it ran them ragged and left them poor.
A single glance to his side confirmed that. The girl looked to be fifteen or sixteen and Stacy guessed she was Native American. Her eyes were fixed on the floor. One arm was wrapped across her body to clutch the opposite bicep as if she were hugging herself, and her make-up was running from crying.
The crusader type had a special place in Stacy’s heart, so she gave Dr. Cobbworthy a genuine smile as she said, “Good afternoon. Dr. Cobbworthy, right? You had an appointment to admit a patient?”
Dr. Cobbworthy nodded. “It should all be there. This is Miss Jane Bravestar.”
Definitely Native American, thought Stacy, who hadn’t met an actual native n her life.
The doctor quickly held up a hand, as if expecting Stacy to try and greet the patient directly. Stacy was too well trained for that, but she didn’t take offense; better safe than melted. “I’ve been treating her for eighteen months for social anxiety disorder and sleep terrors, complicated by her abilities.”
Stacy opened the file as she was expected to and couldn’t help but skim over the section that listed the patient’s power. She was not disappointed: ‘Patient’s involuntary vocalizations can create damaging shockwaves.’ She wondered what counted as ‘involuntary’.
“Yes, of course, Doctor. I see everything is in order her. They’ve prepared Room B312 in the secure ward. I’ll have some orderlies come up to bring you there and help get Miss Bravestar settled, and by then, Dr. O’Brien and Dr. Mueller will be back from lunch and I can send for you.”
Dr. Cobbworthy seemed to consider this, but looked sidelong at Jane, who was shuffling back and forth nervously. “Can we make that just one orderly? It’s been a very long trip and I don’t want her overwhelmed.”
Delighted in the care he was showing for the girl, Stacy nodded enthusiastically. “Of course. And… will you be remaining here to treat her? I can get the paperwork started with security if so…”
“I am.” The doctor said with a small, self conscious smile. “Her family has been like a second family to me and its the least I can do to make sure that Ja… Miss Bravestar is well taken care of. Besides, I would have very real concerns about another psychologist trying to earn her trust without me there to ease the transition.”
Stacy’s heart was close to melting. “That’s so wonderful off you. If there’s anything I can do to make settling in easier, please let me know.”
Dr. Cobbworthy inclined his head to her. “Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Wendell is still a terrible person.” Susan said. She settled back in the seat of her own rental car, drumming her fingers on the dashboard. All the while, she watched the only entrance to the diner parking lot she was staked out in.
According to Wendell’s financial snooping, the fake Dr. Mueller ate lunch there every day, along with two other members of the cult who had been inserted into the Rochester Center; his ‘nurse’, Rochelle Campos, and the night janitor, Herman Boyd.
Mueller and Campos were already inside, she was just waiting on Boyd.
“Normally, I’d agree,” said Tommy over her comm. She could hear the boredom in his voice. His part in the scam was done until the next phase of it and he was left in the RV with Flo doing god knew what. “But he didn’t lead her on or anything, he just made himself sound like a sincere guy.”
“Except he isn’t a sincere guy and that act’s got that poor woman all twitterpated.” Susan took a sip of her coffee, placed the cup back in the cup holder, and then rechecked her purse to make sure she had everything she needed.
Tommy made a small, uncertain noise. “As long as he doesn’t use this is pretense to date her, I don’t see this as so bad.”
“You think he wouldn’t if he thought it might help?” Terrell asked over the comms. “Trust me, I know the type: he’d ruin her life if it brought the con off the right way.”
“I can hear you, you know.” Wendell muttered under his breath, though he still used the voice he used for the ‘Dr. Cobbworthy’ character.
“And you’re being observed by security cams, so don’t break character again, got it?” said Terrell. “If you do, say absolutely nothing.”
Tommy broke it by snorting.
Susan did too, but composed herself quickly. Satisfied that she had everything she needed, including both phones, she closed the purse. When she looked up, she spied the blue hatchback she’d been waiting for pulling in.
“Okay guys, Boyd’s here.” She groaned, unsure of herself. “This is why Coyote needs to be out here. I’m not a soft touch.”
“Just do it like Wendell and I showed you.” Terrell said in a calming voice. “Big distraction, all eyes go one way, you go the other. Then it’s one smooth motion. People usually don’t notice motion unless it starts and stops. Do it smoothly and they won’t pick up on you.”
This didn’t do much for Susan’s nerves. Taking long, slow breaths, she shouldered the purse and made to get out of her car. “Says the guy that’s been doing this since he was a teenager. Criminally speaking, I’m just dumb muscle. I can act a little, but that’s it.”
“Sorry.” said Terrell. “It’s all hands on deck and we couldn’t very well have Tommy do it; he’s not a criminal of any sort.”
Susan heard Tommy huff. “Why are you saying that like it’s a bad thing?”
If Terrell was going to give a smart response, he was quickly distracted from it. “There we go. Neighbor lady just pulled out of her driveway. No one’s got eyes on the house from where I’m sitting and no one is at home. Judgment call: I’m going. Got my kit, the saw and the stuff. Wish me luck.”
Thousands of miles away and thirty-thousand feet up, Anansi shifted uncomfortably in his seat aboard a trans-Atlantic flight.
He could have taken an orbital shot and landed in Topeka in two hours, but he chose the slower method to give hm time to think.
The meeting with Lilith hadn’t helped. In fact, it only raised more questions; questions irrelevant to the problem at hand. There were far more beings like him returned to the world than he imagined and the problematic thing about it was that there was a definite and deliberate pattern to who was coming back.
Why were the tricksters and lorekeepers returning and no one else? Was someone or something causing them to return? Or were they barring all others from doing the same?
That, he decided, was a matter for another time. For if the Adversarial Force gained control over Jerry Galloway’s powers, that was The End. He’d seen that future. It was the reason he gathered his Seven and set before them the task of rescuing the boy and foiling the plot of the Force.
Now he knew that help would not be coming. It was just him and his Seven against one of the unspeakable evils of the Old World.
Being a creature of the narrative, The Spider didn’t fear overwhelming odds and superior power. Stories were full of those odds being rejected. What did bother hm was just how far he’d been willing to go: right up to the ultimate misstep, breaking character.
It made sense to him before the others questioned him. In a struggle against a great evil, in the darkest hour, the story needed a sacrifice; a heroic and ultimately self-destructive turn that made the final victory possible.
Anansi’s plan had been to sacrifice himself; his integrity, philosophy, and morality; and unleash Aidan the strigoi on Jerry should the Adversarial Force appear to be on the verge of taking him. Even in the best case scenario, Anansi would have murdered the boy and the vampire. In the worst, he would have murdered only the boy, leaving the deadly vampire alive, well, and prepared for a homicidal rampage.
It had seemed a small price to pay to do what was necessary and save the world.
But now The Spider was armed with perspective born from both his homecoming and meeting with Lilith.
Now he was ready to save the world without sacrifice.
To Be Continued…
Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.
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