Monday, November 4, 2013

The Cold Inside (a serial novel) Ninth Interlude

The Cold Inside
Ninth Interlude
By AL BRUNO III

Friday November 11, 1994

They watched the house from cover, two figures huddling close in the shadows of a warm Arizona night. The lampposts of the cul-de-sac revealed even sidewalks and perfectly manicured lawns; there were no outward signs of life. All the houses had a kind of sameness about them, a conformity of design that made Gawain Wight profoundly uneasy. He had to wonder what life was like in a gated community like this, where everything was monitored and regulated. Had the uniformity seeped into their very psyches? Was that why every house seemed to have a similar style of car parked in the driveway? Was that why every family seemed to have the same number of children? 

The woman beside him shifted slightly. He could sense her whipcord muscles becoming taut. Thalia Blackwell hated waiting, hated countdowns and synchronized operations. In truth her undisciplined streak had made her unsuitable for ordinary law enforcement work but it made her perfect to be one of the Wolves of Project Pharos.

At exactly 1:45 A.M. a power outage plunged the cul-de-sac and the surrounding neighborhood into complete darkness.

A team of five heavily armed Federal Marshals converged on the house in the center of the dead end street. They were the Lambs; they thought they were there on behalf of the State Department to arrest and detain an international fugitive. A fugitive that went by the unlikely alias of ‘Quiver’.

And while that was true but the woman in the house at 1047 Sheard Road was so much more than an illegal immigrant. But the Lambs could never know that, although if any of them came through this unscathed they might one day learn enough to become Wolves themselves.

The Federal Marshals knocked down the door and threw in a flash bang grenade.

The night erupted with noise; the rehearsed and commanding shouts of the Marshals, the frightened barking of neighborhood dogs, the panicked voices of the other residents of Sheard Road.

His partner shifted in place again. Even though they were both in darkness Gawain knew there was a fierce little smile on Thalia’s lips.

Just once… Gawain mused, Just once I’d like to be the one that makes her smile like that.

A rapid staccato of gunfire cut through the noise and the darkness. Gawain whispered, “That’s our cue.”

Thalia was already bounding across the street. There was a flashlight strapped to her AK-47, Special Agent Gawain Wight drew his 9mm, the one he had loaded with special ammunition, and followed.

A Marshall stumbled out of the doorway. His throat and lower jaw had been shot away, his voice was wet blubbering nonsense. Thalia shoved him aside and charged in.

Not good. Not good at all. He stared up at the house, letting his other, keener senses do their work. All he could perceive was foulness, a foulness that stretched from one stratum of existence to the next. Gawain found Thalia in the parlor, her flashlight beam moving between the four dead Federal Marshals.

Thalia hissed “Bitch is armed.”

Gawain moved beside her, “No she’s not. She doesn’t have to be.”

The shots were all to the head. Gawain felt a twinge of guilt. How many did this make? How many Federal agents and local law enforcement officers had died unknowingly in the service of Project Pharos? How many Lambs sent to the slaughter over the last seventy or so years?

“What do you mean?” Thalia whispered.

“Can’t you see? They all shot each other.” Gawain frowned, “She played with their minds. She’s stronger than we thought.”

“She’s like you?”

“She’s nothing like me.”

The two of them started moving again, clearing the hallway and then making their way to the kitchen. Each sweep of the flashlight beam revealed expensive furnishings and decorations but it was all a bit too much; the gaudy excesses of a poor man that had just won the lottery. The kitchen was empty. A quick check revealed there were no pots or pans, no dry goods in any of the cabinets, not a single glass or dish.

Gawain opened the refrigerator door. A row of animal-headed canopic jars stared back at him. He pulled one and out hefted it. Something sloshed inside.

Thalia clucked her tongue “The clock is ticking...”

They didn’t have time for this, Gawain knew that. Police and Fire departments had to be investigating the power outage by now and how many people in the neighborhood were making panicked calls from their car phones? How long before someone got armed and stupid and decided to play hero?

He pulled the lid off the ceramic jar, it was full of fresh milk. Thick red shapes floated in the liquid- was it a trick of the light or were they squirming?

Thalia swung her flashlight beam across the kitchen. “Gawain?”

He was too stunned to reply. It all suddenly made sense to him now.

It all began with an outbreak of Necrotizing Fasciitis in Pensacola that left all five members of the Taylor family dead. The Center for Disease Control did all they could to get ahead of the situation but once they realized that the bacteria behind the infection hadn’t been seen by the modern world in over five thousand years Project Pharos stepped in.

Good detective work with just a dash of psychic intrusion revealed that the patriarch of the family Devin Taylor had somehow caught the infection during a one night stand. Even on his deathbed- his family lost to him, his fingers, eyes and manhood rotted away- he still described that single encounter with a hushed reverence. The woman had told him her name was ‘Quiver’.

No one in the CDC or Project Pharos had any idea how the bacteria jumped from Devin to his wife and three children but everyone breathed a sigh of relief when it looked like the outbreak died with them.

A few weeks later there was a fresh outbreak in Fayette, Alabama that left three roommates dead. The pattern of small, monthly outbreaks moved along the southern United States; the only common thread in all of it, aside from the centuries old bacteria, was the woman named Quiver.

But no one they interviewed could agree on what Quiver looked like.

This isn’t for her. She’s making ready… Nesting. We’re almost too late. Gawain realized.

“Where are you?” Thalia’s voice was a panicked whisper.

“What are you talking about?” Gawain hissed back. “I’m right here.”

Thalia trained her flashlight on him. Her voice trailed off into an alarmed shout.

Oh no! Gawain dove for cover as she opened fire.

A stream of bullets raked across the room. Chips of metal, wood and plastic filled the air. The canopic jars shattered, spilling sour milk and thrashing, tadpole-like shapes. Gawain crawled behind the breakfast nook, “Thalia!” He shouted, “You have to listen to me!”

Her only answer was more gunfire, shrapnel grazed his scalp and hands.

I won’t shoot back. He thought. That’s what Quiver wants.

Despite the fluttering in his chest and the blood thudding in his ears Gawain forced himself to relax. He felt his body go limp and give way around him. His spirit form recoiled at the loathsomeness that permeated the house but he forced his awareness to spread out, to find the source of the contamination.

There she is. The garage. Swollen. Ready to burst.

He returned to his body in time to see Thalia standing over him. “I killed you already.” She screamed, “I killed you already!”

“Thalia…” He said groggily, “…please…”

“What did you call me?” She shoved the muzzle of the AK-47 into his face. The glare of the flashlight beam dazzled Gawain. He heard a car engine revving. Thalia’s voice was rough with hysteria, “You didn’t ask. You took.”

There was no time to be clever or gentle. Gawain lashed out with his mind.

Thalia collapsed. Gawain struggled to his feet, praying that her body would right itself naturally and her heart would only skip a handful of beats. A weaker person, someone old or very young, would be dead already but Thalia had a chance. More of a chance than she would have had if he had shot her with an incendiary round.

The automatic garage door began to open.

Gawain ran for the front door, his knees wobbled and he had to steady himself against the wall. An attack like that always took a lot out of him. 

He got out the doorway in time to see a black compact car backing out the driveway at high speed. It crashed into the mailbox as it turned. His first glance at the driver was a nauseating double image; one moment a beautiful woman, with dark hair and pale, luxurious skin, then the next an oleaginous shape with flesh the color of rancid fruit and eyes that brimmed with unspeakable knowledge. Back and forth, back and forth, monster to maiden over and over again.

Quiver’s gaze threatened to send Gawain’s mind headlong into madness, he felt the world start to fall away around him. Suddenly he could feel his sons standing nearby. They demanded he turn and look at them, that he answer for their fates; one mad, one dead and the third teetering on the precipice.

Before Gawain could loose himself completely to their curses and accusations he fired.

The figments receded back into memories. When his vision cleared Gawain saw the car was burning. A shape was thrashing in the heart of the billowing black smoke, it screeched in a language no human had heard for centuries.

Originally he had intended the phosphorous rounds for Quiver but they had worked just as well on the car’s gas tank. Everywhere people were peering out of their houses but with a single shout and wave of his gun Gawain drove them back inside.

He could hear the sirens now. This was going to take weeks to straighten out and cover up. The urge to go back and check on Thalia pulled at him but he had to finish this. Gawain reloaded his 9mm and drew closer, watching the shape in the car as its struggles and mewlings became weaker and weaker. It would be dead in moments but just in case Gawain put a few more rounds into it.



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