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January 23, 2023

Icarus

By Mel Trent

The man in the dark suit paused and looked around as if he weren't sure where to go. Jack Runner watched the man go through this charade, spot Jack and head his way. Jack finished off the last gulp of his coffee. He couldn't guess who the man was or what he wanted, but he did know it wasn't going to be good. His red light was awfully close that morning.

"Detective Runner?" the man asked when he was standing beside Jack's desk.

Jack looked up.

"My name is Brian Bennett. May I have a moment of your time?"

"I don't have a lot of moments to spare. What do you want?"

Brian sat down in the chair beside Jack's desk. He looked around nervously and said in a low voice, "I want to talk to you about certain projects the Agency has been engaging in."

"You should probably talk to a director, then. I'm just a detective." There was something in the secretive, careful way Brian mentioned these certain projects that made Jack think he was exactly who Brian needed to talk to. He thought about the jump drive in his pocket, filled just that morning with encrypted files on Agency projects with names like Charon, Midas, Pandora and Icarus.

"I need you, not just any detective."

"What for?"

"To do the very thing you've wanted to do to the Agency all your life."

Jack said nothing.

Brian pulled a business card from his pocket and held it out to Jack. Jack didn't take it. Brian put it on the desk. "I already know what these projects are. Or were. I know about your involvement with Icarus."

"Why do you care?"

"Because what the Agency does is disgusting. I've dedicated my life to trying to help the very beings they want to exploit and destroy, including people like you."

"Why?"

"If I don't, who will?" Brian grinned at Jack.

Jack resisted the urge to drag Brian out of the building and tell him to stay the hell away. "I know how you feel about the whole thing, Detective Runner, and I feel I've been remiss not discussing this with you sooner, but -- "

"This isn't exactly a good place to talk about this."

"Of course not. But it was the easiest place to find you. For initial contact anyway. We'll discuss details somewhere else."

"Assuming I'm interested in listening to you. How do I know you're not just as bad as they are?"

"I suppose you don't, but I think you know better."

"I'm not interested."

Brian opened his mouth, clearly surprised by Jack's response.

"I think you should leave now."

"Detective -- "

"Now."

Brian stood up. "Call me if you change your mind."

"I won't."

"You can't do it alone."

"Yes, I can."

Brian left on that note. At least he knew when to quit.

Except Brian hadn't quit. He was biding his time, and they both knew it wouldn't take very long.


Jack left Blinkie's at two AM. He wasn't drunk, much to his dismay. He had gone to the bar with every intention of getting drunk enough to forget the rest of the evening. Instead, he had worked his way slowly through two whiskey sours and couldn't remember the rest of the evening because he'd spent it lost in thought. Unpleasant thought. It was last call before he realized the time had passed.

He didn't want to go home. He wouldn't sleep, and his bed would be empty. Sam was on an assignment out of town. Even if Sam had been there, Jack's thoughts would distract him from the act he would be engaging in to try to distract himself. Drunkenness had seemed like the perfect solution, except that he was so distracted, he couldn't even get drunk.

Brian's visit, although nothing had really happened, had affected Jack more than he expected. For years now, Jack had poked around in the Agency's databases looking for information about Project Icarus. He needed to know what exactly the Agency had done to him, what they had done to Azrael and what they had hoped to get out of the whole thing. For years, he had found very little. There were vague references to Icarus and other projects, and he had always been suspicious of what the Agency was doing to the psychics and demons and other creatures he and his fellow detectives brought in. He knew it wasn't good, but he had no proof.

Then he had found a long-forgotten file in a not-quite-completely purged personnel node of the database. Years ago, Detective Zeke Temple, a cured psychic, had stumbled across files for several Agency projects that, to Zeke's mind, constituted the torture of the subject psychics. Agency psychiatrists had passed off Zeke's recounting of the contents of the files as pure fabrication. Job stress, they had said. They had declared him unfit for duty, booted him out and tried to clean up the mess Zeke had started. It wasn't a thorough clean-up, and they knew that. They just never got around to fixing that.

Jack had tried to find Zeke, but Zeke didn't want to be found. Instead, Jack had poked around for the project files. Only hours before Brian's visit, he'd found what he was looking for. Now the whole thing was in his pocket, including a recording of a brief conversation with Lieutenant Cathy Sanderson when Jack had decided to follow up on Lucy Jade's case.

It had been about a year since Lucy's monster had killed her parents and tried to kill Jack. Lucy had been taken away before Jack could do anything about it. Cathy told him nothing, of course, but maybe nothing's what she knew about it. Cathy would report Jack's inquiry to her boss, and it would go up the chain until it reached whoever was responsible for keeping things like that very quiet. And then the fun would start.

Jack decided to walk. Pale was the kind of city you could walk around at two AM without much trouble. No one wanted to deal with the cold March drizzle. Anyone who was out was heading somewhere quickly. So Jack walked, head down, thinking and not feeling the icy rain on the back of his neck.

"Jack Runner, you're going to die," a voice said.

Jack had no time to react. Someone grabbed his arm, yanked him into a dark alley and slammed him against the wall. A hand in the center of his chest held him there, and another hand slapped something cold and metallic against the left side of his head.

Pain scrabbled up Jack's spine and bunched in the back of his neck. The computer in his head sputtered, blinked and died. His fingertips burned. Something surged along his nerves, chasing the pain. Something huge and unfamiliar but only unfamiliar from long dormancy. Wisps of white coiled around his wrists as he tried to get his hands on his assailant.

"Listen to me, Jack," the man said.

"Who the fuck are you? What did you do?"

"Just listen. You have to stop."

"What the -- "

"Stop poking your nose where it doesn't belong."

Jack said nothing and stopped fighting.

"You're going to die if you don't stop."

"You're Zeke Temple."

"What's left of him, maybe. Doesn't matter. You have to stop."

"The ... I can't ... Azrael ..."

"I know, Jack. Believe me, I know. I'd help you, but I already know it's pointless."

"It's not just about me. All the others -- "

"It's not worth your life."

"They already castrated me. Killing me would be kind."

Zeke backed away from Jack, shaking his head. He walked away with no further words.

Jack's computer came back online, spiking pain though his head and neck. He leaned back against the wall for a moment while the migraine staked its claim, and then he skulked home where he lay in bed and stared at the ceiling until he unwillingly fell asleep.


The argument Jack had with himself went something like this:

Boy Scout Jack (BS, for short) would say, "It's the Right Thing to do. You can't continue to let the Agency do what they're doing. They're torturing and killing innocent human beings. And angels and demons and everything else they can get their hands on. You can stop it. You have to stop it."

Passive Jack (PJ) would retort, "But you can't risk your own life that way. What about Sam? Hell, what about the other detectives? You wanna put them out of jobs? You wanna risk letting Pale succumb to the monsters we keep the city safe from?"

Angry Jack (AJ) would say, quietly, "Fuck the city. Fuck the Agency."

And they'd go round and round. All the arguments had merit, but Indecisive Jack could only squeeze his head between his hands and say, "Shut up, shut up, shut up."


Jack woke up to the buzz of his cell phone. He fumbled for it without opening his eyes, hit what he hoped was the right button and mumbled something into it.

"Morning, beautiful," Sam said.

Jack smiled. "Hey," he said. "When are you coming back?"

"Monday morning."

"And today's what?"

"Saturday. Are you hung over?"

"No."

"You sound disappointed."

"I didn't have a good day yesterday."

"Yeah, I heard."

"You heard?"

"Cathy called me. She said you were asking her about that little girl from last year."

"Follow up isn't allowed?"

"Cathy's a lot more perceptive than you're giving her credit for, Jack. She knows a lot of things about the Agency bother you. She also said you have a visitor yesterday."

"Visitors aren't allowed?"

"Bennett isn't exactly friendly towards the Agency. He used to organize protests, letter writing campaigns, shit like that. All before you were born, but I remember things got pretty ugly right before I joined the Agency."

"I told him to fuck off. I don't trust him. I mean, yeah, I don't like the Agency any more than he does, but there has to be a better way to expose the Agency for what it is. I don't know what that way is, so I'm doing nothing."

"Okay, but you might wanna call Cathy and let her know that. She doesn't know the truth about the Agency's projects."

"I'm not sure any of us know the truth, Sam. That's the problem."

"I know. We'll talk about it more when I get home."

"I love you, Sam."

Sam was quiet for a while, remembering how Jack had begged him never to say those words when they began their relationship some dozen years ago and thinking of the thousands of times one or the other of them had wanted to say it and didn't. Jack's childish fear that those three words triggered disaster had become a habit for both of them. "I love you, too, Jack," Sam said. "I'll see you Monday."

"Yeah."

Except that Jack wasn't so sure there was a Monday in his future.


Jack sat in the kitchen and tried not to think. The generous splashes on whiskey in his coffee had given way to swigging straight from the bottle. He was almost out of cigarettes. His head still ached from whatever Zeke had done to his computer the night before. It wasn't shaping up to be a good weekend.

He spun his cell phone in circles on the table top and stared at the business card in front of him. Jack wondered how Brian knew about the Agency's projects. There had to be more to Brian's organization than the grassroots activism Sam mentioned. The Fraternity wasn't exactly the kind of name you gave to an activist group. Friends of Psychics or something like that, sure, but not the Fraternity. Brian hadn't been talking about stirring the pot until someone snapped and the truth came leaking out. He'd been talking about making the Agency collapse under the weight of its own corruption. You don't do that by whining about human rights violations.

Jack wanted to wait until Sam got back. That was the smart thing to do. Sam had always believed that what the Agency did was in everyone's best interests, but Jack's recounting of what had happened to him and Azrael changed that. The betrayal had hit Sam hard, but there had never been any talk of fighting the Agency. Not serious talk anyway because Sam was afraid of the Agency. He knew what would happen if he tried. Jack knew, too, but he didn't care.

"Why now?" Jack asked himself. "Why wait so fucking long?" He stabbed out his last cigarette and checked the pack just in case he missed one. He hadn't. He crushed the pack and squeezed it for a second before letting it drop to the table. "Fuck it," he said. He picked up his phone and dialed the number on the card.

Brian answered on the first ring. "Detective Runner," he said. "This is a pleasant surprise. I didn't think I'd be hearing from you."

"Cut the bullshit," Jack said. "Let's talk."


Jack sat in a corner at the Ark, his back to the wall and his eyes on the door. He had his computer running a background check on Brian and searching for any information on the Fraternity. On the Fraternity, there was nothing, not even in the Agency's files. On Brian, Jack had a hard time explaining what he found. There were stops and starts in employment records, credit reports, medical records and so on that made no sense. When a birth certificate nearly two hundred years old came up, Jack abruptly killed both searches. Couldn't possibly be the same man, but Jack felt cold all the sudden.

A moment later, Brian walked into the Ark. He walked over to Jack's table, smiling. "I can't tell you how pleased I am that -- "

"Shut up, Bennett," Jack said. "Sit down."

Brian took off his coat and sat. He brushed melting snowflakes from his hair.

Jack waited for Brian to try another fake pleasantry, but Brian said nothing. "How do you know about Project Icarus?" Jack asked.

"We have a vested -- "

"How do you know?"

"I can't answer that question. Our methods are unique and must be protected."

It's magic, Jack thought. Has to be some kind of magic. "If you want me to trust you, you're gonna have to be a little more forthcoming."

"I know about Project Icarus and all the Agency's 'projects' -- " He made quotes in the air with his fingers -- "because we make it our business to keep tabs on certain ... abilities, let's say."

"Psychics."

"Among other. Like you."

"What d'you mean?"

"You're not psychic. You're something entirely different."

Jack looked down at his pack of cigarettes.

"You don't even know what you are, do you? That's sad. And it's the Agency's fault."

Brian still hadn't answered Jack's question, so Jack decided to move on. "Why does the Fraternity care?"

"We protect our own."

"You're doing a piss poor job of it."

"We can't save them all, especially if we want to keep ourselves safe."

"So you cherry pick the lives you save?"

"It's not an ideal situation, I grant you."

"Why come to me now? What do you want me to do?"

"You've done almost by accident the thing we've never been able to do. You have the files. You have the proof we need to take the Agency down for good."

They paused the conversation when the barista came over with a fresh cup of coffee for Jack. Brian ordered a cup of Earl Grey. Once Brian had his tea, they picked up the conversation again.

"You're incredibly talented and immensely powerful, even hobbled as you are, and I truly believe that if you were to work with the Fraternity, we could accomplish our goals."

"They won't let me go that easily."

"No, but that's why taking them down is so important."

"They could kill me."

"They'll never kill you."

Jack sipped his coffee. He was ready for the conversation to be over.

Brian wasn't done, though. "I understand you had a conversation with Zeke Temple last night."

Jack looked at Brian and neither confirmed nor denied the statement.

"He used a magnet, by the way, to disable your computer. I can do something similar on a permanent basis. If you join us, that is."

Jack pulled a cigarette from the pack and studied the flecks on tobacco at its tip.

"I tried to recruit him years ago."

"Why'd he turn you down?"

"He didn't."

Jack didn't ask what had happened to Zeke. He already knew.

"He's trying to protect you. Mistakes were made back then that won't be made now. We were hasty and careless. We won't let you face the Agency without your full power. If you say yes now, I can disable your computer right now."

"I need to think about this." Jack stood up and headed for the door.

"Are you worried about Detective Winston, perhaps? Other friends in the Agency? The Fraternity is perfectly willing to bring them on board as well. I know full well that Detective Winston would do anything you asked of him."

"I need to think."


The messy snowfall was turning over to rain. Jack walked and argued with himself.

BS said, "You might not be able to trust Bennett, but having the Fraternity on your side could be a good thing. You don't have to work alone. You shouldn't work alone. Do the Right Thing. Say yes."

PJ had nothing to say. It was no longer a choice between action and inaction; it was a matter of how to act.

AJ's stance hadn't changed. "Fuck the Agency. Fuck Pale. Fuck Bennett and his fucking Fraternity."

Indecisive, Jack realized he had wandered to Baymont Asylum. He stood on the sidewalk, staring up at its gloomy façade and trying not to notice the crumbling Gothic hulk of St. Gregory's Cathedral beside Baymont. "Fuck the Right Thing," he said and went inside.

Between the front door and the lobby, there was an iron gate. Behind the gate, a chubby old man in a security guard uniform sat on a stool reading a newspaper. He looked up when Jack came in, and his face lost all color.

"Hey, Mickey," Jack said.

"What are you doing here?" Mickey asked.

"I need to talk to Dr. Carmichael."

"She's not here, Jack. Get lost."

"Bullshit. She's always here."

"Go away, Jack."

"It's an emergency. Why the hell else would I show up here on a Saturday? Something's wrong with my computer."

Mickey hesitated.

"Call her before I rip this fucking gate off its fucking hinges, Mickey. I'm serious."

This was far from a threat; it was more a desperate plea, but Mickey looked terrified anyway. "Okay," he said. "Calm down." He plucked a phone off the wall and punched a button. "Yeah, Dr. Carmichael? You've got a visitor. Jack Runner. Says he's having hardware issues." Mickey glanced nervously at Jack. "Okay, thanks." He hung up the phone and stood up to unlock the gate. "She'll be right down."

"She doesn't trust me to find my way on my own?"

"She isn't stupid, Jack." Mickey opened the gate, and Jack stepped into the lobby. "Neither are you. I hope you know what you're doing."

"I'm not doing anything."

Mickey went back to his stool and his newspaper.

Jack hadn't seen Dr. Marion Carmichael since she had violated his skull. He had always found her an ugly, leering scarecrow of a woman. Her eyes were dull and sunken, and her fingers were like needles. She looked worse now, hunching into old age and working her fleshless hands like a fly. Jack felt nauseous as she came towards him. The concern on her face was genuine, at least; he had to give her that. (And AJ said, "Fuck her.")

"Well," Marion said. "Jack Runner. What a surprise."

"Yeah. Sorry. I ... I didn't think I should wait," Jack said.

"No, of course not." She took his elbow, needle fingers digging through his skin and muscles and scraping his bones. "Come up to my office. I'm sure we can get this sorted out in no time."

They headed up the stairs to the second floor. Not quite half way up, Jack heard a weak voice crying out his name. He stopped and looked down.

"What is it, Jack?" Marion asked.

"Someone called my name."

"There's no one here, Jack."

"Jack, help me!" the voice screamed.

It was Azrael's voice; Jack was sure of it, and he knew Marion had heard it, too. There was no way she hadn't heard it, but she refused to acknowledge it, hoping that Jack would attribute it to a glitch in his computer. It made him think of the last time he saw Azrael -- two orderlies had dragged Az away while Dr. Tobin and Dr. Henry held Jack back. That was only hours before Marion had cut his head open to install the computer. If he had noticed the syringe full of tranquillizer in Dr. Tobin's hand, he could have torn the place apart then.

"Jack," Marion said.

He looked up. She gestured for him to follow her. Impotent and angry, he followed.

Once in her office, which didn't appear to have changed at all since Jack had last been there, she guided him to a chair and seated herself behind the desk.

"Now," she said, pulling up his medical records on her computer. "What kind of trouble are you having?"

"Zeke Temple used a magnet to shut the computer down for a few minutes last night. Five minutes at the most."

Marion's needles froze above her keyboard. She didn't look at Jack.

Jack's heart was lurching along in his chest, and tension was tightening around his head, teasing a migraine. He rubbed his left temple. "It seems okay now, but for a few minutes, I was actually normal."

"Jack, you must understand that you are very ill." Marion spoke in slow, measured tones. Each word seemed to be exactly the same length and have exactly the same weight. "Without the computer to regulate your brain waves and the medications -- "

"I didn't need medication before you raped my mind."

"Please, Jack."

Jack stood up and lit a cigarette. Marion watched him as he began to pace.

"Zeke Temple isn't well either," Marion said when Jack didn't go on. "Surely you realize that."

"I know all about him."

"Perhaps you need to speak with Dr. Tobin."

"Fuck Dr. Tobin."

Marion blinked.

Jack sat down again and took a long, deep drag on his cigarette.

Marion dumped paperclips from a shallow glass dish and handed the dish to Jack.

"Thanks," Jack said. "Sorry."

"It's perfectly all right. What you experienced can be very distressing."

"You know what else distresses me?"

"What's that?"

"Project Pandora."

Marion was silent. Light fled from her eyes, and her mouth set into an ugly, stony twist.

Jack stabbed his cigarette out and dropped the dish on Marion's desk. "Project Pandora," he said again. "A young girl with the ability to make her fictional monsters real. All she ever wanted to do was write stories. Her parents discouraged her. She had to rely on her school librarian. In secret. I did everything I could to save Lucy, but I failed and you tried to turn her into a weapon."

"I ... I have no idea what you're talking about."

"What about Project Charon? The young man who was a psychopomp?"

"I don't -- "

"Yeah, you don't know what I'm talking about. How about Project Icarus? You can't deny that one. That was me."

"Why are you here, Jack? What do you want?"

"I don't know. Maybe I want you to tell me I'm wrong about all this. I can almost understand why you'd want to experiment. We know so little about this thing you call the psychic disease. And me and Lucy, we could have been extremely dangerous if you hadn't cured us. But the psychopomp? He could take spirits to wherever they belonged, out of Pale and away from all you normal people. And there's never much choice involved. I had to be your lab rat or risk getting killed later. Or worse. At least I'm alive, right?"

"It was never our intention to hurt you."

"But you did. You turned off what I was, and you made me believe you killed Azrael. I had to believe that, or I would have tried to find him. You couldn't have that, could you?"

"I think you're suffering from a nervous breakdown. I'm calling Dr. Tobin." Marion picked up the phone.

Jack stood up and grabbed the phone out of her hand. She flinched.

Jack wanted to smash the phone into Marion's head and keep smashing until her skull opened up and he could smash her brain. He would ask her how it felt. He was pretty sure she wouldn't find the experience all that enjoyable. He would have to get out of her office soon. He wasn't even sure why he was there. He took a deep breath and tried to calm down. "I don't need Dr. Tobin," he said. "I need you to stop lying to me."

"I'm not the evil scientist you think I am, Jack."

"That doesn't absolve you."

"You know, Henry wanted to stop the whole thing. He figured out what was going on between you and Azrael, and he cared about you, about both of you. He knew you'd end up getting hurt. Lance agreed with him. I thought I could cure you both, but they were right, of course. We submitted eight proposals to end the experiment over the years, and every single one of them was rejected."

Jack put the phone down on its base, gently, as if it were made of delicate glass.

Marion put her hand on his. "Let it go, Jack."

"Who authorizes the experiments?"

"Even if I told you, you couldn't get to them."

"Is it the head of the Agency?"

"No. But you never thought it was, did you?"

"Azrael isn't dead, is he?"

"No." Marion tightened her grip, needles digging into the underside of Jack's wrist. "Jack. Let it go."

Jack pulled his hand away from hers and left Baymont.


Whatever Jack decided, it wouldn't end well. He knew that. He would live through it -- the red light was close but not that close -- but whatever came next was going to be unpleasant. He was okay with that. What kept him from calling Brian as soon as he left Baymont was the thought of Sam and his family, especially his oldest nephew who was almost certainly psychic. It was the thought of his friends, the few he had, and even fellow detectives he didn't particularly like. He would not be responsible for destroying their way of life. Then there were all the ones he had tried to protect and tried to help. Like the hellhound puppy and Cecil Ulsh.

Like Lucy Jade.

Like Azrael.

Like himself.

The ones he hadn't been able to protect.

Jack wandered, hardly paying attention to the places he ended up, not realizing he was saying goodbye.

He ended his wandering in the cemetery where his grandmother's ashes rested in a wooden box inside an airtight steel slot in a plaster wall behind a bronze rectangle bearing her name and the years that bracketed her life. He sat on a bench and stared at his cell phone. The voices that had been arguing in his head were silent. He was on his own.

The air in the space beside him prickled. "I wish you'd listened to me all those years ago," his grandmother's ghost said. Through the haze of medications and computer altered brain waves, her voice was barely a whisper. He didn't bother to look at her; he wouldn't have seen her.

"Yeah, me, too," he said.

"I tried to tell you what you were. If you'd known -- "

"If I'd known, I doubt the Agency would have given me the chance they did."

Grandma sighed. "They never could figure you out."

"They didn't know what they were looking for. I think they got the onmyoji part, but there's more than that."

"There are kitsune in our bloodline, and the fox spirit's power is more evident in you than it ever was in any of your ancestors."

Jack would have laughed at the revelation that he wasn't wholly human if he hadn't been so despondent over the rest of his situation. "I don't know what to do."

"I think you do."

"Dr. Carmichael's called someone by now. They'll have to do something about me. I could always just give myself up."

"Bullshit."

"I could run and hide like Temple did. I could run to the Fraternity, make them responsible for keeping me alive."

"That's bullshit, too."

"I want someone to tell me I'm wrong."

Jack felt the prickle of Grandma's touch on his arm, and then the air was empty again. He covered his face with his hands and leaned forward to put his elbows on his knees. He sat like that for a moment, holding his breath, waiting for tears or another ghost or Zeke Temple, but he was utterly alone.

He lit a cigarette and dialed Brian's number.

Brian answered on the first ring. "Hello, Detective Runner," he said. "Or will it be Brother Runner now?"

"I'm at the cemetery," Jack said and hung up.

Brian arrived less than ten minutes later. He sat down beside Jack. "So," he said.

"Guess you heard I talked to Dr. Carmichael," Jack said.

Brian nodded. "How'd that go?"

Jack didn't answer.

"She may not know anything."

"She knows enough. She knows of the projects even if she doesn't know the details."

"I'm pretty certain the doctors are low-ranking pawns in the matter."

"But they're the ones who -- "

"Jack." Brian put his hand on Jack's knee.

Jack found the gesture a little too friendly and glared at Brian until Brian moved his hand.

"Jack, the doctors aren't making the decisions. We gain nothing by stopping them. What we want is the top of the food chain."

"She told me it's not the head of the Agency who gives the orders. It's someone or something higher than that."

Brian looked genuinely frightened for a moment. Up until that point, his fear had been the healthy variety, the kind that acknowledged the danger and dealt with it. He didn't seem to know what to do with Jack's information. "What's higher than the head of the Agency?" he asked.

"I don't know."

"Well. No matter. It's taken years to get this far. We're patient."

"Yeah, you don't seem to have to worry about dying."

"Stumbled across one of my old birth certificates?"

"Among other interesting inconsistencies."

"I was born in 1900 if you must know the truth."

"I don't."

"The Fraternity is far older than I am. So is the Agency. Under different names, of course."

"Here's the thing, Bennett. I do have to worry about dying, and I have to worry about it a hell of a lot sooner than I'd like."

"What are you ... oh. That red glare ..."

"My own personal stoplight."

"How long until you reach it?"

"Less than ten years. I'm not sure."

"I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do for you."

"Sure there is. You let me find out who or what actually runs the Agency and stop it."

"Of course. That's -- "

"On my own time. Shut down my computer, give me the resources I need and then get the hell out of my way. If I don't live long enough to finish it, I can promise you there won't be much left for you to have to clean up."

Brian mulled it over silently. If he suspected Jack of ulterior motives, he dismissed the suspicion. After a while, he took a small oblong piece of polished wood from his pocket. "Are you absolutely sure about this? Because there's no going back."

"I'm sure."

Brian got up and stood in front of Jack. Jack looked at the piece of wood in Brian's hand. "Yes, it's a magic wand. Snicker if you must."

"It's a little ..."

"Phallic?"

"Yeah."

"Did you ever think that perhaps the shape is no accident, that it represents virility and raw organic power? Think about that the next time you and Sam make love."

"His magic wand is bigger."

"Jack."

"Sorry. I had to."

"Whatever. This is going to hurt, okay? A lot. And you're going to need to let all the drugs cycle out of your system. So when I'm done, you need to go home and rest. If you need anything for pain, try whiskey and a cold pack. Are you ready?"

"I'm ready."

Brian touched the magic wand to the left side of Jack's head and began to whisper an incantation. For a second, nothing happened, and then suddenly, Jack felt as if his entire body had exploded.


Jack woke up in his apartment. He couldn't remember leaving the cemetery. For a moment, he couldn't remember why he had gone there, but it all came back with the pain that surged through his head.

It took Jack another minute or so to realize that he wasn't in bed. He had probably been on the couch at some point, but now he was on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. It was dark, and there was a cold, pale hand patting his cheek.

He sat up. The ghost hand hovered in front of him, index finger crooked into a crude question mark. He reached out but hesitated to touch it. Her, rather. He had always suspected it was a woman's hand. He could see that clearly now. The stump of her wrist was ragged, shredded muscles and tendons hanging like frayed ribbons, the bones chewed as if by steel jaws. Her fingernails were short and neat, and there was no sign of trauma but her ravaged wrist.

He grasped her fingers. Faint shimmers of white outlined the rest of the woman. She was young, pretty and slightly plump. Her hair was in short tight curls, but it was impossible to tell what color her hair or her eyes had been. She was all ghostly monochrome now. She smiled sadly at him. "Hello, Jack," she said.

"Hi."

"It's nice to finally be able to talk to you. I'm Audra."

"How did you lose your hand?"

"This building was a textile factory in the 1920s. I was working a press, and one day the fabric stuck. I pulled. It pulled back. It happened so fast I hardly felt it. I thought it was just a little cut until I saw all the blood. I died before they could get a doctor. They never did find my hand."

Audra's shape wavered, and Jack winced at the pain that spiked through his head. Her grip on his hand tightened.

"Take it easy, Jack. You're not well."

"I'm fine. I haven't felt this good in years."

Audra frowned.

"I can see all of you."

The spike of pain slammed further down into the back of Jack's neck and shoulders. He let go of Audra's hand to try to squeeze the pain away. When he looked up again, she was gone.

Jack staggered to his bed and slept soundly until morning.


Jack dumped his pills into the toilet. One annoying amber bottle and safety cap at a time, he poured out anti-hallucinogens, anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, anti-Jacks. He hesitated to dump the migraine pills, but after a second of consideration, those went, too. He felt absurdly happy when he flushed the toilet and watched the pills swirl away.

Brian called while Jack sat in the kitchen drinking coffee and watching the snow. "How are you feeling?" Brian asked.

"Fine," Jack said. "Like I'm really awake for the first time in I don't know how long."

"Good. I was worried. You reacted a bit stronger that I expected."

"I don't really remember what happened."

"You didn't miss much, honestly. It was like you were extremely drunk. I had to take you back to your apartment."

"Thanks for that."

"You're welcome. Did you dump the medications?"

"Every single last fucking one."

"Good, good. Now listen, Jack, you might feel just fine right now, but you still have traces of the medication in your system. Once that starts to wear off, it's probably going to hurt. I wouldn't recommend going anywhere today."

"I'll be fine."

"If you need anything, call me. And I mean anything."

"I have plenty of whiskey, coffee and cigarettes. I think I'll be okay."

"Jack, I mean it. Anything."

Jack said nothing for a moment. It sounded to him like Brian knew he was up to something. Brian knew better than to try to stop him, so he had resorted to almost begging.

"Jack?"

"Yeah, sorry. I'm okay, really."

"All right. I'll call you tomorrow."

"Okay."

Jack hung up and turned his attention to the snow. He wondered why Brian didn't try harder to prevent what was coming. Maybe Brian just wanted to see how far Jack was willing to go. Maybe that had been the Fraternity's plan all along.

"Fuck it," Jack said. It was too late for any of it to matter.


After a couple more cigarettes, one more cup of coffee and a quick shower, Jack called Sam.

"Did you call Cathy?" Sam asked.

"No," Jack said. "Sam ..."

"What's wrong?"

"Sam, I'm sorry."

"What -- "

"I'm sorry. I can't wait for the right time or a better plan. I just -- "

"Jack, what are you doing?"

"I know where Azrael is, and I can't sit here waiting while he's locked up like that."

"Don't. Whatever it is you're about to do, don't. Please. I'm coming back now. Wait for me, Jack. Please."

Jack could hear the sounds of Sam throwing his things into his bag and hear the panic in Sam's quickened breathing. "I'm sorry."

"Just wait for me, Jack. Please. I want to -- "

"You can't help me, Sam. I know you want to. I wish you could. You know, I tried to pretend this was about the big picture, all the tortured psychics and demons and angels, but it's not. It's about me. Me and Azrael. I don't give a fuck about the rest of it. I never did."

"That's not true."

"I'm sorry, Sam."

"Jack ..."

"I love you."

"I love you, too. Just please wait for me."

Jack hung up and tossed his phone on the bed. He rubbed tears out of his eyes. It would be nice to wait for Sam, to have Sam hold him and try to talk some sense into him. When his phone began buzzing again, he left his apartment and headed for Baymont Asylum.


Storm clouds crouched over Pale. The big, gentle snowflakes of the morning were gone, and a thick curtain of white was descending. Jack stood across the street from Baymont, but his attention was on St. Gregory's. The portal he had been forced to open in the cathedral basement was still there, not closed but ineffectively blocked. It would take nothing at all to shove aside the Agency's stop-gaps and send Azrael home. As much as he didn't want to let Azrael go again, there was no other way to keep Azrael safe.

Something clawed at the blocks from the other side of the portal. Azrael's brother, probably, or something Ramiel had set to guard the portal. Jack would have to deal with Ramiel when he opened the portal, but he didn't think that would be a problem. Ramiel still blamed Jack for everything, but that was only because Ramiel didn't know the truth.

Baymont was empty except for its inmates. Jack had called Mickey from a pay phone down the street and told him to get out. Mickey hadn't asked questions, only did as he was told. Marion wasn't there; neither were any of the other doctors. That was disappointing. Jack had wanted them to see what he was going to do and to know he wasn't going to stop until he found out who was ordering the experiments. Oh well. He would get the point across anyway.

He crossed the street to the narrow alley between the asylum and the church. The side door into Baymont was locked. He put his hand on the doorknob, and the doorknob and lock rusted to powder. He stepped into the dark hallway to the clamor of the inmates. They knew he was there, and they knew what he had come for.

The rooms of the ground floor inmate wing were unoccupied but for empty beds and inert equipment. This was where they had kept him. There were no locks on the doors here. They tried to pretend these rooms were for patients, not prisoners. Jack didn't see much difference between the two.

Room by room, Jack destroyed the equipment. The shikigami ran from his hands like water through cracks in a dam. They snaked into the machines and made metal blossom like flowers. The machines smoked and sparked. Alarms began to sound. Jack didn't care. Let them come, he thought. Let them try to stop me.

He almost couldn't keep his shikigami under control. The freedom was intoxicating. The power itself was a burden; it kept him apart, made people hate and fear him. But to be free ... it was almost too much. He would have been happy to lose control, but he had a purpose. He could let go when he was done.

One level below the ground floor, the rooms were more like cells. The windowless doors were locked. Frightened creatures, some human, some not, yanked at the doors and cried for help. Others cowered in corners. Jack tore the doors out of their frames. Tiles on the walls exploded as he passed. The linoleum floor buckled in his wake.

"Jack!" someone yelled, running towards him from a burst cell. "Jack, Jack, Jack!"

Jack turned. He recognized the boy, an ancient gargoyle who had once perched in the murky eaves of St. Gregory's, bound in human form as punishment for falling in love with a young nun, but he couldn't remember the boy's name.

"Jack, wait! What are you doing?"

"Get out of here before they show up and put you back in your cage."

"Let me help you."

"No. Just leave."

Upstairs, there was shouting and gunfire. The gargoyle flinched.

"Get out," Jack said.

"Fuck," the gargoyle said and ran.

It was getting hard to think. He couldn't remember how he knew the gargoyle. Had that been an official case? Something he'd done on his own? Jack's memory was slowly fading into a white haze. Had the rooms on this level actually been occupied? He wasn't sure, but it didn't matter.

He knew what was happening. The medications weren't completely out of his system, and his mind was far too atrophied to handle the amount of power he was pushing through it. It might be a temporary effect; it might not be. He could probably save himself a lot of pain if he stopped, but he had no intention of stopping.

He went down one more level, ripping apart the stairs behind him. This level was darker and quieter. The locked doors were heavy, a handful of them soldered shut. The prisoners moaned and wept and howled. Jack pulled the doors down, but nothing came out.

In one room, Jack found Lucy Jade. She had been catatonic when the Agency had taken her from her home. Now she was a vegetable, hooked up to machines that lived for her. Small monsters of Lucy's making huddled around her bed.

Jack tore apart the life support machines. When he walked out of the room, he had tears in his eyes but couldn't remember what he had found inside or why it would make him cry.

Azrael was in a cell at the end of the hallway. He crouched against the back wall with his arms over his head. He looked up and lurched to his feet when Jack stepped into the cell. "Jack," he said. Tears traced pale lines down his dirty face.

Jack almost didn't recognize Azrael. Azrael was too thin, too pale. His eyes nearly lifeless, and his once beautiful ivory wings were dirty and drooping. Jack said nothing and moved forward to take Azrael in his arms.

The flash of light came first. It was like a lightning strike inches in front of his eyes. The pain that exploded down the left side of his head on the heels of the flash was like nothing he had ever felt. His worst migraine was mild in comparison. The pain tore through his neck and shoulders. He was dimly aware of a rush of vertigo and nausea. He felt his body hit the floor, but the impact was distant. He heard nothing but the screaming of his blood in his ears and felt nothing but the hammering pain in his head. In the aftermath of the flare, he was blind. He tried to move and couldn't. He blinked and succeeded in revealing the silhouette of a woman standing over him.

"I'm terribly disappointed, Detective Runner," she said. "You had so much potential."

She leaned towards him with something in her hand. He had a moment to recognize her -- the woman who had recruited him when he was twelve -- and then she touched the left side of his head, and everything was gone.


Jack woke up so slowly that he didn't notice at first that he was awake. He heard a soft web of nonsensical sounds. He understood that he was hearing many different sounds running together, but he couldn't pull them apart. Still, he listened for a long time, waiting for something to make sense.

Then he noticed the thirst. His mouth was so dry that it felt like someone had swabbed his tongue and lips with glue. There was nothing he could do about it. He couldn't move, or rather he couldn't figure out how to move, and for a while, he wasn't even sure he had a body.

After that, he started to notice light. It was very dim, as if there were a heavy, semi-translucent screen between him and the light. Of course there was. His eyelids. It took him a minute to get his eyelids out of the way, and he wasn't sure he liked what he saw.

He was in a narrow bed in a small room. There was a single window on the wall to his left, a door on the right and nothing in front of him. His arms were lying uselessly at his sides. On the middle finger of his left hand was a fat piece of beige plastic. White surgical tape held a tube to the back of his hand. The tube led to a bag of fluid hanging above his head. He didn't bother to try to read the label on the bag. He was pretty sure all these things meant he was in a hospital, although he had no idea how he had ended up there.

Presently, someone realized he was awake. A nurse came in, checked the machine that beeped in time with his heart, checked the bag of fluid, smiled and went away. A doctor came and asked questions. Most of them were easy. Do you know your name, do you know what year it is, who's the president. Jack answered those without hesitation, but he couldn't fathom the reason he was being asked such silly things.

"Do you remember what happened to you?" the doctor asked.

Jack thought about it. He remembered that it had been snowing when he woke up and then he had gotten a horrible headache. There was nothing before or after that. "No," he said.

"You had a stroke."

Jack rubbed absently at his left temple.

The doctor continued. "The computer that regulates your brain waves crashed, and it was offline long enough for the psychic disorder to try to reassert itself. When that happened, your brain couldn't deal with such a sudden change."

"I think I forgot to take my medications."

"That likely contributed to the reassertion of the disease. Right now, it looks like your memory is the only thing seriously affected. That could be temporary, and other issues could pop up. All we can do now is wait. I do think your prognosis is excellent, though."

Jack wasn't sure he agreed.


Visitors came and went. In between the rounds of nurses and the doctor, Jack's parents, his brother and nephews, other family members and various co-workers whose names and faces were indistinct blurs in his memory all passed through his room in a miasma of concern and wishes for a quick recovery. He was mostly okay with not remembering his co-workers. He remembered his family, despite the fact that vast swaths of his childhood were gone or were so fragmented he couldn't make sense of them. Details were unimportant, though. He remembered what counted.

Work, on the other hand, remained lost to him. He was a detective with the Agency. He tracked down ghosts and monsters and psychics and kept the city safe from those threats. That was all he knew, and it felt wrong.

When Sam showed up, Jack had no idea who he was, but he thought Sam was the most beautiful man he had ever seen. He was completely entranced by Sam's pretty green eyes, the wrinkles around them and his smile. But when Sam leaned down to kiss him, Jack shied away. Sam looked absolutely shattered.

"I'm sorry," Jack said, unknowingly echoing one of the last things he had said to Sam. "I don't remember you."

Sam's eyes were glassy with tears. "I'm Sam," he said.

"Sam ..." The name sounded familiar, tasted familiar in Jack's mouth. He tried to remember something, anything. Fragmented scenes came to him. An unexpected kiss in a car after Jack had done ... what? Something stupid. Then ... then ... Sam's bedroom? Or was that somewhere else? Someone else? He put his hands against Sam's cheeks and pulled Sam closer. He closed his eyes. It hurt that there was so little of Sam in his memory, but it felt right to have Sam this close to him. He felt safe. "Sam," he whispered.

"I love you, Jack," Sam said.

They kissed, and Jack really hoped that he loved Sam, too, and that he would eventually remember Sam the way Sam remembered him.

"Do you remember anything about the day you had the stroke?" Sam asked.

"That it was snowing and I had a headache," Jack said.

"That's all?"

"That's all."

Sam chewed his lip and looked worried.

"Were you there?"

"No."

"But you know something."

"Do you remember Brian Bennett?"

Jack shook his head.

"Azrael?"

That name made Jack's head ache as if whoever it belonged to was inside his head, pounding on his skull. Brief images flickered through his mind -- a dingy basement, soft ivory feathers, a boy's face, the awkwardness of a first kiss. Jack felt in no way connected to those images. They could have been scenes from a movie. "No, but ... I should, shouldn't I?"

"Maybe it's better if you don't."

Jack wasn't sure about that. He needed to know what had happened and what those names were supposed to mean. "Sam, I need -- "

"No." Sam shook his head. "Not right now, Jack."

"Is it that bad?"

Sam said nothing.

"Sam."

"I can't. Not now. Maybe I'll write you a letter and tell you everything."

"Why write a letter? Just tell me."

"I'm not even supposed to be here right now. I can't. I've been ... they forced me to retire, and they're moving me to some shithole in Virginia. I can't tell you where. I can't give you my phone number."

"Why? I don't -- "

"Because you knew things you weren't supposed to know, and you told me everything. I'm lucky they gave me the option of retiring. Jack, no matter what happens to you after this, don't ever forget that the Agency is terrified of you."

Jack couldn't understand that. Why would anyone, let alone an entire organization, be afraid of him? What had he known that was that devastating? Or was it more than knowledge?

"I have to go," Sam said. "I love you. Don't forget that either."

When Jack closed his eyes to kiss Sam goodbye, a red light loomed in his vision. It was close, and he wondered if he would ever figure out what he had done and known to get so close to the end of his road.

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-05-23
1 Reader Comments
Anonymous
05/27/2011
01:09:39 AM
Poor Jack. You've been so cruel to him over the years! The implacable city of Pale, Jack's mental incarceration that leaves his heart empty, the hope that holds little hope in Sam ... all the Jack Runner stories have made me love him, and admire the craft that makes him and his world so accessible. Good job, Mel.
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