May 14, 1993
Al Bruno III
Like most soldiers, Cenobia's life was made up of long periods of monotony, punctuated by the occasional moment or terror or confusion. Unlike most soldiers, the battleground Cenobia fought for was the world itself. At least that's what the Monarchs told her and she wasn't about to question them. They didn't like to be questioned, or disobeyed for that matter. Orders were orders and orders had brought her here, to an abandoned hotel in south Troy, New York. The place was a murder scene no less; tatters of yellow police tape still fluttered in the breeze.
Cenobia sat on a grimy sawhorse with her back to the decrepit building. With one eye she kept watch for her target, with the other watched the flickering screen of a GameBoy. Playing Super Mario Brothers always soothed her nerves. It worried her that her target had chosen a place like this for their first meeting. Did he suspect? Was he planning an ambush? If he was it was doomed to failure, her superiors had drilled every fact and rumor about the building into her head. They had somehow procured a set of the original blueprints and made her memorize them floor by floor. She knew every hiding place, every potential hazard.
There could be no margin of error tonight. She wondered idly what her target really thought he could accomplish by opposing the Monarchs. Was he like the Vlodek? Trying to regain the political influence they had long ago lost? Or was he like the members of the Greater Eastern Council, ready and willing to screw over everyone and anyone just to get a little more power? Perhaps, Cenobia wondered, perhaps he was like she had been before her 're-education'. Perhaps he too hated anything that he couldn't understand, anything that was different.
Thankfully, the Monarchs had cleansed her of her sins and given her a new purpose in life. They had reinvented her.
Unsteady, low-pitched whistling roused her from her thoughts and from Super Mario's improbable world of giant mushrooms and monster turtles. Her target was coming, strolling non-chalantly though one of the city's worst neighborhoods. Cenobia's superiors had showed her dozens of photographs and sketches, she had never met him but she knew his every expression. Her target was short with brown, curly close-cropped hair and dark, malevolent eyes.
He was calling himself Jason Magwier these days, but he had had many aliases over the years- Clive Bastable, August Zabladowski, Noah, Percy Kent-Smith and of course the Hanged Man. That last nom de plume was a reference to the twelfth tarot card in the deck - an image of a man hung by his feet. It represented a person who would sacrifice everything for knowledge.
Switching off the Gameboy, she slipped it into the pocket of her long winter coat. It was a little too hot for a coat like this, but it kept the shoulder holster she wore well hidden. Standing up, Cenobia took a moment to get into character. Her target waved excitedly to her; she raised a hand in reply. She waited until he was within striking distance before she gave the password, "The Cause is all."
"All for the Cause." he smiled and bowed slightly, "Cenobia DeVries I presume."
"It's an honor to finally meet you sir."
"Please call me Jason."
"Jason it is then."
"You come highly recommended." he stepped past her and stared up at the ruined hotel, "The Monarchs want you almost as badly as they want me."
"I only wish I could do more." she flushed with guilt at the memory of her transgressions.
The Hanged Man spun on his heel and darted towards her. Panicked Cenobia flinched for her gun but then thought better of it. Her target whispered conspiratorially in her ear, "They're vulnerable. More vulnerable than they know."
"And with your help the Cause can only grow stronger." he smiled, turned back around and plunged into the hotel's dark interior. Cenobia followed him.
It took her eyes only a few seconds to adjust to the lack of light; her senses were so much more acute now- a gift from the Monarchs. The floor was thick with dirt and debris. She knew that the Monarchs had suffered a great defeat here almost forty years ago, she just didn't know how. Her superiors didn't like to talk about their defeats. She searched for answers in the blistered ceiling and the cracked uneven floorboards but found nothing. Not a single clue. Towards the stairs was a trio of fading chalk outlines, each one depicting a body, its limbs splayed. Her target stood between them, "He's a killer, that's all he knows. Can I trust him? Should I help him?"
"Who do you mean?" Cenobia drew closer.
"He did this with his bare hands. With his bare hands! If I help him achieve his heart's desire won't it just make him more bloodthirsty? Can I risk more innocent lives?"
"Will helping him aid the Cause?"
"Then why do you care?" she tried to sound comforting, but she couldn't shake the strange feeling that she was in danger. Cenobia cursed herself for letting the Hanged Man set the terms of their meeting, "What he does is his business not yours."
He gazed at her, his dark eyes churning, "If I give a madman a loaded weapon am I not responsible for the mayhem he causes?"
"If it furthers the Cause isn't it worth it? Isn't a handful of lives a fair exchange for the world?"
With a frown and a shrug her target led her to the stairwell. Cenobia followed, "Why are we here? I thought you were going to make me a member of the Cause?"
"Consider this your rite of indoctrination." he pulled a flashlight from the pocket of his leather jacket and began trudging up the shadowy stairs. "You don't understand enough yet, but I think you will soon."
I understand more than you ever could! She thought hotly, I understand that when the Monarchs are finished with you they'll pick you apart atom by atom just for fun!
They walked in silence for a time, she knew she would have to make her move soon, but there was information she needed- and the Splinter. She dared not come back without that. She reached into her coat and closed her hand around the handle of her revolver.
"So tell me..." The Hanged Man paused on the steps and swung the flashlight around, dazzling her, "How did you first discover the existence of the Monarchs?"
"Don't you already know that?"
"I was a customs officer at the Miami airport. That was back in the eighties."
"Yes." she replied incredulously. She held her hand up, trying to filter out the flashlight's glare, "A lot of drugs come through there. The smugglers would do just about anything to get them past the gate. They'd wrap little packages of heroin up in condoms and swallow them, stash cocaine in a baby's diaper..."
Her target tsked under his breath.
"One day I saw a pair of coffins being offloaded from a private Learjet. The bottom of one of them was leaking onto the tarmac, like a car leaking oil. No one else paid it any attention except for me. You kind of develop a sense of these things after a while and I knew that there were no bodies in those coffins." she felt an unexpected wave of nostalgia at the memories or her old job, her old life. She lived to serve the Monarchs but sometimes she would give anything to be back in that time and place again.
As she spoke the flashlight beam wandered off her and began tracing lazy patterns on the cobwebbed ceiling and rotting walls, rats and roaches scattered before the light. For a moment the circle of illumination hovered on a trio of ruts dug deep into the plaster, they looked like claw-marks.
"And then what?"
"I ordered the coffins seized and searched. The paperwork said that they were the remains of an employee of the Trinity Advance Corporation and her spouse."
"TRIAD..." he said distantly.
"Yes. TRIAD owned an Island out in the Caribbean and apparently there had been some kind of insurrection-"
"Kristina and Peter Miller."
"The death certificates were for names were Kristina and Peter Miller." the Hanged Man swung the flashlight around and shone it under his chin. The shadows it cast made his face seem skull-like
"How did you-" Cenobia started.
Her target's only answer was a Cheshire-like grin, "Please go on."
"When we opened the coffins, there were no bodies Just trashbags full of worms." She spoke slowly, half-expecting him to interrupt at every sentence, "Stubby-inch long things. They didn't look like any kind of worm I'd ever seen before."
"What did you suspect?"
"I don't know what I suspected. All I knew was that they were violating a dozen or so customs laws. I ordered the coffins and their contents impounded. Ten minutes later I'm getting a call from the Attorney General telling me to back off and let the 'biological samples' through."
"Did you?" he swung the flashlight beam back around again, making fresh spots dance before her eyes.
"You know better. I let them go through but I slipped a few of the worms into an evidence bag and sent them down to Quantico." The longer this story went on the less nostalgic she felt. The past was the past, why should she go dredging it up now? "The samples disappeared on the way there -along with all paperwork. I found myself demoted for failing to follow procedures. All within a week of intercepting those damn coffins.
"That just made me madder. I started doing a little digging into the TRIAD Corporation during my off hours. For the last forty years they had been one of the top medical and pharmaceutical research firms in the world but within the last ten years they had begun to finance other, less mainstream, types of research. Like on life after death and psychic powers."
"You must have found that very intriguing."
"Infuriating is more like it. Every time I found an informant they clamed up, data disappeared with no explanation, records I needed couldn't be found. Then internal affairs suddenly starts sniffing around my door. Something about bribes and drugs."
"Had you ever taken a bribe?"
"Never!" she said, suddenly defensive. How had this happened? She was supposed to be interrogating him, finding out his secrets! Still though she told him the story, it was almost as though she had to, "I wasn't on the take. If you say you stand for something, in my book you better well stand for it. I was just about at the end of my rope with this TRIAD nonsense when I got a call from the CEO of the company, a Mr. Kriely."
Incredibly the Hanged Man began to sing faintly;
"I laughed and shook his hand, and made my way back home
I searched for form and land, for years and years I roamed
I gazed a gazely stare at all the millions here
We must have died along, a long long time ago"
"What was that for?"
"It's a song. By David Bowie." Her target pointed the flashlight beam at her feet; "He's still my favorite, after all this time. Now please go on."
Cenobia clenched her hands into fists, there was an angry buzzing in her brain, "You ready know all of this already why am I-"
"Sorry. I just had to be sure." he turned and started heading back up the stairs.
"Sure of what?" she raced up the steps after him.
"Not much further." He called back jauntily, "Only a dozen flights until the top floor. I keep the Splinter hidden there."
"What?" The man must be either mad or an imbecile! To hide it here, in a dilapidated old hotel that the Monarchs had once used for a beachhead? The Splinter was an object capable of unraveling the secrets about the constitution of ultimate infinity, the juxtaposition of dimensions and the position of the known cosmos of time and space in the unending chain of linked cosmos atoms which made up the immediate super-cosmos of curves, angles and material and semi material electronic organization! At least that's what her superiors told her.
"I keep the Splinter hidden here, it's safer. I call it The Purloined Letter stratagem."
A few floors later they took a break. The Hanged Man was winded; he pulled a paisley-colored handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his brow... I don't remember the building being this tall."
Thanks to the generosity of the Monarchs Cenobia didn't get winded that easily, but she pretended to be tired just the same. The less her target expected the better, "When was the last time you were here?"
"I've never been here before."
"You just said-"
"No. What I said was that I don't remember the building being this tall. I didn't say I'd ever been here before."
"You're not making any sense!"
The Hanged Man had lost interest in the verbal sparring again, he arced the flashlight's glare past her to a pile of rubble near her feet. Something glinted within it. He gave the circle of light a waggle, "Cenobia... could you see what that is please?"
This was it. If her target was going to make a move against her it would be now. She tensed as she reached down into the pile of wood, plaster and cloth. Her trembling fingers wrapped around something leathery. She drew it out.
The stairwell went black as The Hanged Man screamed and dropped the flashlight, "Take it away! Take it away!"
The gas mask was dark and streamlined, it looked almost bestial with its snout-like mouthpiece and broad, dark tinted eyepieces. Why would her target be so scared of a piece of Army surplus?
He cowered on the steps, his hands were coving his eyes "Please... get rid of it."
Cenobia briefly considered using the mask to torment some answers out of him but that wasn't within the parameters of her orders; she was to gain his confidence, get the Splinter and capture him using the least force necessary. The Monarchs wanted him for themselves. Rumor had it they were already squabbling over which of them would have first crack at him. She threw the mask down the steps, into the darkness.
"Is it gone?"
He stood and shook himself all over, like a dog trying to dry itself. "I hate those things."
Cenobia retrieved the flashlight and handed it back to him, "Gas masks?"
"It's better you didn't know. Hell I wish I didn't know. Of course technically speaking I may not know and I just may think that I know. You know?" the Hanged Man started up the stairs again, taking them two at a time.
A little while later they found themselves at the top floor stairwell. There was a skeleton in the corner, its was dressed in rags, Cenobia could see that the bones of the neck and ribs had been shattered. Her target prodded it with his foot, "Well bless my buttons. You weren't kidding John were you?"
"The man who killed this poor soul here."
"She pointed to the skeleton, "Who was this? Who did John kill?"
"An insufferable little know-it-all. A man so preoccupied with battling the Monarchs that he lost the woman he loved." the Hanged Man switched off the flashlight, "He won't be missed."
The top story door swung open, a pair of kerosene lanterns lit the wide room. The inner and outer walls had crumbled away long ago, revealing the blunted, shadowy skyline of south Troy. Knots of electrical wiring hung like vines from the gutted ceiling, they swung to and fro with every breeze that passed through the upper floor. At the far side of the room there was a worn looking stone platform, it was adorned with dark rubies and gold. Her target stepped into the room, Cenobia followed.
The door swung to a close behind her. There was another man standing there; he was ruddy complexioned and wore thick, round-framed glasses. For some reason he was wearing surgical scrubs. "Is this her?" he asked.
"Cenobia, this is Pexley."
"Is this her?"
"Yes." the Hanged Man replied somewhat sadly.
"What's going on?" Cenobia drew her gun and trained it on her target's gut, "I came here in good faith."
"You came here under the orders of the Monarchs." he replied.
Pexley crossed behind her to stand beside her target "You're sure aren't you?"
"When you shine the light in her eyes you can tell." he clicked the flashlight back on shone it in her face, "Her pupils are segmented."
With a grimace of anger she fired the pistol, leaving her target holding a ruin of wires and plastic where there had once been a flashlight. So, all the stories and the meandering, it was just a game was it? He honestly thought he could toy with her, a servant of the Monarchs, and get away with it? "The Splinter. I want it. Now."
Pexley raised his hands and retreated to the stone platform, "Well I'll just leave you two to work this out..."
"Stay right where you are Pexley Aldorus of Shartok's Circle." she ordered.
He froze in place, "Magwier, you do know what you're doing don't you?"
"I hope not." he grinned.
Cenobia stepped closer to her target, "The Splinter. Where is it?"
"I'm sorry this happened to you. You were a brave and valiant-"
"Tell me where the Splinter is or I'll blow you damn kneecap off."
He shrugged, "In the jacket pocket of skeleton on the landing."
"You." she gestured towards Pexley, "Go get it and come right back here."
Hands still raised, he obeyed but as he walked past her he commented, "I would like to assure you madam that I am strictly the hired help in this endeavor. I in no way hold any allegiance to this man or his Cause."
The Hanged Man offered her an apologetic shrug, "It's so hard to find good help these days."
"On your knees." she hissed.
Her target got onto his knees, "There may still be a chance I can help you."
"It won't work Hanged Man, the Monarchs have shown me the truth."
"The truth? And what might the truth be?"
"They're our future. The evolutionary destiny of the human race. They're reaching back into the past to aid us." she spoke in a matter-of-fact tone.
"Pure hokum! They must have given your brain a serious scrambling for you to believe that."
"You will see them in all their glory before you die."
He rolled his eyes, "Be still my heart."
Cringing Pexley returned to the room, all he had in his hand was a yellowed envelope. "I'm so sorry but it seems as though someone else has absconded with the Splinter. I did find this note however. It's addressed to you Cenobia." he offered it to her.
The angry buzzing was back now, she felt as though there was a nest of hornets loose in her skull. "Read it." she gestured with the gun.
The envelope practically crumbed away to dust as Pexley tore it open, the slip of paper inside was the color of velum. "It says... Sorry Cenobia but the Splinter isn't to be toyed with by the likes of either you or the Monarchs. I spirited it away from here decades ago..."
The buzzing reached a fevered pitch, blood leaked from her tearducts. The Hanged Man was grinning at her. Still playing games was he? She vowed to wipe that grin off his face for all time. The Monarchs would still get him, he'd just be missing his teeth, and his eyes and his balls.
Oblivious to all this Pexley continued to read, "...I also regret to inform you that since you have been compromised the Cause will not be needing your services. Sincerely yours, Jason Magwier... Ps. Jared Now!"
A sudden motion to her left drew Cenobia's attention. She turned, weapon raised to fire. A flurry of silver eyes and milk-white flesh blinded her. When her vision cleared again she found her arm had been severed at the elbow. Numbed with disbelief she could only gape at the snarl of torn skin and jutting bone.
"I don't mean to hurt you." The Hanged Man said as the creature rounded on Cenobia and brought her down, "But hurting you hurts the Monarchs and I can't let them win. Not this time, the stakes are too high."