I finished toweling myself dry and wrapped the towel around my waist before I opened the shower curtain. I used my fingers to comb my damp hair away from my face before approaching the mirror.
I could see Rose’s reflection, her hair pressed flat where the back of her head pressed against the other side of the mirror, looking the other way. The mirror in the upstairs bathroom was a part of the pedestal sink, surrounded by florets.
It was an uncomfortable setting, with unfamiliar things in unfamiliar places. Having someone, something like Rose nearby. Strange smells and tastes, with even the water having a taste to it. It was drawn from a local well, according to Rose. I had been forced to use the only shampoo available, and the smell of it was thick and cloying in the humid air of the bathroom.
All of this was helping me to get a sense of why Molly had been so driven to empty shelves and remove pictures from the walls. My grandmother had a presence here, and it was a presence that felt like it could override my own.
Especially when my own presence seemed somewhat limited. When I looked in the mirror, I saw only the bathroom, and I saw Rose, her back turned.
No reflection, using different soaps and shampoo that made me smell different, no longer having the little trinkets and touches I’d surrounded myself with over the past year or two, it all made me feel less like me.
Each of those things had a flip side, seeing a reminder of our grandmother’s work in the mirror, smelling our grandmother’s lavender-scented shampoo and soap, seeing her trinkets and small touches wherever I looked, I felt like she hadn’t quite left. Her presence was still here.
Which it was, kind of. We had stumbled onto one lingering threat. The books my grandmother had written, left untouched, still waited in that study.
How deep did that particular danger run?
“Hey,” I said. “Did you ever share scary stories with Molly and Paige?”
“A little,” Rose answered, without turning around.
“You remember the stories we told about the house? Some made up, some real?”
“Kind of,” she said. “We weren’t all that close. I mean, we were the same ages, give or take a year, but we weren’t friends.”
“Really?” I asked, and there was a note of surprise in my voice that seemed to startle her. She half-turned, caught a glimpse of me, naked but for a towel around my waist, and turned away just as quickly.
I hiked up the towel to be sure I was safe, made sure it was secure, and then said, “It’s fine. I’m decent, and it’s not like we’re not related, right?”
“Right,” she said, but she took her time. I caught her giving me a glance, bottom to top and back again, before she frowned a little.
“Was it that you weren’t friends after grandmother announced the whole ‘granddaughter only’ thing, or-”
“Before,” Rose said.
“Before,” I said, considering the idea. “I considered them good friends. We exchanged emails, we looked forward to seeing each other…”
I trailed off. Rose was already shaking her head. A strand of blond hair had come loose of the pin behind her head.
Rose said, “I know Molly about as well as I knew Callan or Roxanne, which isn’t much at all. Then the ‘granddaughter only’ thing came up, and that was that. We were rivals.”
“It doesn’t upset you that she’s dead?”
“It does!” she said, “Really, it does. But… if you told me Mrs. Niles died, I’d be about as upset. Someone who was a small, peripheral part my life is now gone. It’s sad, it’s a reminder that we’re all very mortal, and there’s obviously a lot more going on besides that, with you as the heir for the property and me as… this.”
“But Molly doesn’t rate much higher than an elderly neighbor who you say hi to if you happen to see her,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” Rose said. “There are nice memories, but there are bad memories too. Over and over, stuff would come up. If we weren’t dealing with a situation, we were reeling from the last one. Ways to weaken me, to take me out of the running, mom and dad sort of keeping it going. It kind of soured all the rest of it.”
“Soured it?,” I said.
She gave me a funny look. “Aunt Irene pulled strings to screw up Paige’s chances of getting into University, and she almost succeeded. Uncle Paul went crazy, Paige went crazy, and we had four straight months where I was genuinely afraid. My car got vandalized, and they emptied a can of orange juice concentrate under a seat. The frozen pulp you mix with two cans of water. By the time I realized what was going on, the smell was so bad I couldn’t drive the car, and no amount of cleaning would make it any better.”
“Doesn’t sound like Paige.”
“That one was Ellie, I’m pretty sure. She made a comment, then alluded to my brake lines, and I basically stopped driving after that. When I think of family, that’s the first thing that comes to mind.”
I couldn’t imagine giving up that independence. We were supposed to connect as we interacted, but I could only feel the differences between us getting more pronounced.
She continued, oblivious, “Those are the memories I have, which didn’t really happen, apparently. But they’re part of what make me me, whatever I am, and so I don’t have any lingering fondness for the extended family, real memories or fake.”
I nodded. “I remember sharing the stories about the house, even seeking them out, so I had tidbits to share on future visits. We’d laugh, be suitably horrified, and whatever else. Paige and Molly had it easier, because they had siblings to tap for stories. But it’s like… I could tell them how our great grandfather was a robber baron, kind of?”
There was no recognition on Rose’s face.
“He ruthlessly cut out the competition, scared people, beat them, stole from them, up until the day he hired a few goons to go beat someone up and they got caught. He ran and came to Canada, where was approached by a widow, our great grandmother. Grandmother Rose’s parents.”
“I didn’t hear that one.”
“The letter she wrote us told us that bastards tend to do better as husbands in this family than the gentlemen do. So I can’t help but think… how far back does this business with the demons and devils go? There’s a bit of bloody history tied to this family and this house. Was grandmother the first to go down that road, or has it been at play from the beginning?”
“I don’t know,” Rose said. “I don’t want it to be a big thing, because our bloodline is apparently in a kind of debt, and I don’t want to be in debt to anything like that.”
No longer comfortable with the topic, I bent down and rummaged in the cabinet beneath the sink for basic toiletries. One drawer revealed a narrow can of shaving cream with a woman’s silhouette on it. It had been there for so long it refused to budge when I tried to lift it. Further back was a plastic packet of the cheapest disposable razors around, pink.
I opted to shave anyways, tearing the can off the bottom of the drawer. Sure enough, the razor nicked me no less than five times. They had been there for so long that temperature had bent the blades.
I preferred to bleed and be clean-shaven over the alternative. Without a reflection to go by, I had to be meticulous.
It was disconcerting to see Rose standing there, studying me, when I tried to look to see if I’d missed a spot. I ran my hand over my face, searching for the roughness of scruff, then washed my face to get rid of the remainder.
“Bit of shaving cream at the back there,” Rose said, pointing to the nape of her neck.
I fixed it.
“Putting the more dangerous stuff aside, we should get to studying,” she said.
“Know what we’re up against,” I said, while drying my face. I tended to the small cuts, but it didn’t make much of a difference, with the cut already on my cheekbone.
“Exactly. Having information can’t do any harm, can it? How were you as a student?”
“Horrible,” I said. I could see her face fall.
“But I can do this. I have a good memory. I struggled at school because I don’t have a lot of patience.”
“How far did you get in Essentials?”
“The introduction,” I said, preparing my toothbrush. I’d managed some before fatigue caught up with me, and I’d napped. I’d woken, mid-afternoon, and decided to shower to clear my head. I didn’t function that well when I was grimy and unshaven.
“Only? I’m nearly done,” she replied.
I looked up at her in surprise.
“Apparently I don’t sleep,” she said, and she sounded somewhat distant, even disconnected. “I don’t get hungry. I don’t really breathe. I barely have a heartbeat.”
“You were up all night reading?”
“More or less. My focus sucks right now, because I still feel drained from earlier, but I read where I could, then wandered, looked over the library, trying to get a sense of what books are there. Or at least the books the mirror’s facing.”
I nodded, toothbrush in my mouth. On a level, I was glad I had an excuse to stay silent. I was bothered, that she was ahead of me, that she would likely stay ahead of me, without a need for sleep.
How could I even articulate that? On a level, I wanted us to be on the same page, so we could cooperate, play ideas off each other.
On another level, well… All of the most foolish and brutish Others have been captured, slain, consumed, driven off, or tricked away. Recognize all Others for what they are, and know that they, by a process of elimination two thousand and six hundred years in the making, are cunning by nature, they are slave to those who are, or they were made to be cunning to better serve in their duties. Wit is the greatest defense and the sharpest weapon, on battlefields such as these.
Essentials, chapter one, the introduction, on Others. Laying down the ground rules, the most basic stuff we needed to know. Others were liars.
What was Rose, if not an Other? New enough she wasn’t bound by the old rules that forbade lying and mandated oaths, but still an Other. Not of mortals or the mortal’s world.
“I’m glad you’re up,” she said. “Three hours alone in this house was too much. I don’t know how I’m going to get through a whole night. Dealing with being what I am.”
For all that time had done to heal her weariness, it had made her emotions more pronounced.
In my case… well, it would have been easier to say if any emotion was showing if I could see myself.
“I really like your tattoos,” she said. She fumbled for words for a second, which caught me off guard. “I’m… actually envious. I couldn’t pull that off, but it’s the sort of thing I’d get if I could.”
I looked down. Small birds perched on tree branches, in pale grays, whites and yellows, against a backdrop of reds, in watercolor hues. “Thank you.”
Were we similar in some respects? In tastes?
Or was this a manipulation from a cunning Other? What was there to guarantee that she was really me, with one not-so-small change?
I left the bathroom, making my way down to the living room.
“I take it you didn’t get to chapter eight,” she said, reflected in one of the glass picture frames along the stairwell.
“Take a look,” she said. Or it was all she could say, before there weren’t any surfaces for her to communicate through. I made my way into the living room, and saw her there, waiting for me, in the mirror I’d taken from the bathroom. The book lay on the coffee table.
Essentials, chapter eight. Dangers a practitioner faces.
I pulled on pants under the towel as I leaned over the book, reading the headings aloud. “Being forsworn, betrayal within the coven, betrayal by familiars, covens, crusades, death, demesnes, execution, exquirere…”
I did, picking up the book to better flip through it. “Lords, loss of implements, loss of sight, loss of soul…”
“Towards the end.”
“I’m not patient enough for that. Give me a letter? Or, better yet, point me to the section you want to talk about?”
“W. Witch hunters.”
I flipped through until I found it. “‘Witch hunters are markedly different from inquisitors. Where an inquisitor is organized by an outside party, the witch hunter is in the employ of practitioners or Others. Oft used to guard a Lord’s power, maintain a balance or hunt down rogue parties. Witch Hunters do not use faith or innocence as tools, but use gifts provided by those they serve, alongside the protections the uninitiated enjoy, as well as the ability to circumvent defenses that would ward off practitioners and Others.'”
Rose was looking at me, expectantly.
“I’m not sure I follow your line of thought.”
“I want to see if you reach the same conclusion I do,” she said.
“You’re thinking of that pair of siblings we saw. The ones who were getting all geared up to come after us.”
“I’m less focused on them than on the path.” she said.
I thought for a minute. “Yeah, I’m not reaching the same conclusion as you, I don’t think.”
She looked a little agitated, nervous. “I think we can go this route. Avoid getting into the ugliest stuff, the books on demons and whatever else. If witch hunters and inquisitors can survive this sort of thing, maybe we can too.”
“Borrowing power instead of using it?”
She nodded, too much, too quickly. She was talking faster. “Kind of. Not getting in the thick of this. We learn what we need to learn in order to survive. We circumvent this whole situation.”
“While meeting her demands? Getting a familiar, getting a tool, carving out a little world for ourselves? Rose, I get what you’re going for, I almost get why, but that’s not going to work.”
With that, I seemed to have upset her.
Rose leaned closer to the mirror, “Why not? We can do it, while avoiding everything else. We need workarounds.”
“I get that, but the most basic, number one step? The one I’m supposed to use to awaken myself… there’s a cost associated with it. I give up the ability to lie. What that one guy said in the vision? There’s always a price. Become a Witch Hunter, and you face obligations.”
Rose was getting more into it as she argued. “We can minimize the effect. Follow the letter of the law, instead of the spirit. We get a familiar, but we go with the smallest, weakest spirit possible, something small, that won’t demand anything of consequence or challenge us. We pick an inoffensive tool. Carve out the smallest possible piece of land for our demesnes. That only leaves us the problem of some reading, which is a good idea anyways, and getting married.”
“And the debt? We’re supposed to clear the debt. How do we do that if we handicap ourselves?”
“If that’s the one problem we have, I think we can find a way around it with some research.”
No, I wouldn’t convince her that way. Better to get to the root of this problem, first. “Where does the witch hunting factor in?”
“We figure out how they protect themselves, and we do the same things. They have sponsors, sources of energy and tools. So do we. Kind of. It’s what we inherited.”
“I don’t want to shoot you down…” I started.
“You don’t need to.”
“I know what you’re feeling. I felt a bit of it, when I saw the escape clause in the contract, if we wanted to back out of this. That there was a way out. Except I think this is a trap too, in a different way.”
“No, Blake. We can do this, we just need to do it safely.”
“I don’t think this is a situation where we can do things in half measures. We can’t be half-heir and half-witch hunter.”
“What’s the alternative? You really want to do this? Follow the path grandmother set before us, making infernal bargains to deal with our enemies, while somehow trying to get out of debt with whoever our ancestors got in debt with?”
I stood, making my way to the kitchen. “I’m not saying I want to deal with devils or any of that. I’m saying I don’t want to pay a price like the one we pay for ‘awakening’, if we’re not going to use what we paid for.”
She spoke to me from the toaster. “I get a say in this, you know.”
I moved through the kitchen, looking for something easy to make foodwise. Bonus points if it didn’t leave me feeling like crap afterward. In the heat of the conversation, I was making more noise than necessary with the cupboards and drawers. “You get a say, but it’s ultimately me making the decision and paying the consequences, isn’t it?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of attached to you, metaphysically. You die, I’m going to be a goner too.”
“You think. Either way, I’m the one who got injured,” I said. “I’m the one who has stitches in my hand and a cut on my face.”
“At least you’re alive,” she retorted.
We were interrupted by a pounding series of knocks on the door. Rose turned her head so quickly that the loose strands of hair flew out to either side.
I remained where I was, staring at the door.
The knocking repeated.
“Whatever this is,” I said, “I might need help.”
She took her time responding.
A third set of knocks, harder than last two others.
“Like I said,” Rose told me, “We’re attached to each other. I’ll back you up. Go.”
I grabbed a t-shirt from the backpack and pulled it on as I approached the door, stopping to peek out through the glass at the side.
Relief hit me in a wave, even in the moment my heart sank.
As the door opened, I saw two men in uniform.
One of them was very familiar. I’d glimpsed him in the odd dream I’d seen, just before meeting Rose.
The other man spoke first. “I’m RCMP officer Pat Macguin. This is Chief of Police Laird Behaim.”
“Hi,” I said, guarded.
“Would you give me your name, please?” Laird Behaim asked me. He had an intense gaze. Pale blue eyes to go with very dark, straight hair, just starting to gray at the sideburns.
I’d seen him in the vision. The man with the pocketwatch at the table with all of the blonde women. I needed a moment to get my mental footing. I searched for a response “Um.”
“It’s not a hard answer to give,” the RCMP officer said.
“I just woke up from a nap, a little bit ago,” I said. “Sorry. I’m a little muddled.”
“Your name?” he asked.
There was no dodging the question. “Blake Thorburn.”
Laird Demill raised his eyebrows. “Paul’s son? No, wait, that would be…”
“Peter. He’s my cousin. My dad is-”
“Bradley Thorburn, by process of elimination. Yes.”
The RCMP gave Laird a look.
“I’m fairly familiar with his family,” Laird said.
“You’re alone, Mr. Thorburn?”
“Only person in the house,” I said.
“You’re injured,” the RCMP officer said, to me, “A cut on your cheek? Can I ask what happened?”
The sudden change of direction caught me off guard. It didn’t help that this Laird guy was staring at me, studying me while the officer quizzed me. He would be weighing my answers.
There was a danger here. I felt a chill, and it wasn’t just the cold air from outside.
I couldn’t get arrested, or I’d get dragged out of the house, far from any protection it afforded.
But this man, here, Laird Behaim, was an enemy. Would I be worse off if he realized I wasn’t yet ‘awakened’?
I couldn’t get caught in a lie, and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to look like I was trying to word things too carefully.
“Car broke down by the side of the highway. I tried to take a shortcut through the woods, because I could have been hit in the highway. Something cut me.”
“Where were you at four o’clock this morning?”
“Sleeping, I think. I kind of woke up early, so I’m not sure. Can I ask what this is about?”
“In a minute. Can anyone or anything confirm your location?”
“Joel Monte, my landlord and friend. I woke him up to borrow his car, maybe around five. He’s going to be upset, the car broke down and I had to leave it behind. I haven’t even had time to think about getting a tow, if it hasn’t been towed already.”
“You said. His number?”
I gave it. The RCMP officer glanced at the chief of police, who walked down the stairs, phone up to his ear.
“That’s a different area code than the one in Jacob’s Bell. You woke up early, borrowed a car from your landlord at an unholy hour, and decided to drive to another town to visit…”
Laird was nearby, in earshot. I wasn’t sure the RCMP officer was safe, either. “My cousin Molly inherited this place. She isn’t here. I’m not sure where she is.”
“You can understand where I’m a little confused about this sequence of events,” he said. He sounded unimpressed. “Why?”
There was no good answer to give. “Can I ask what this is about?”
“Answer my question, first.” He wasn’t playing ball.
Damn it. What was I supposed to say? I didn’t have time to think.
When in doubt… honesty.
“The car broke down, and coming here seemed like it was less hassle overall. Molly wasn’t here. I thought I should stick around.”
“Which doesn’t explain why you were driving in the first place.”
“It sounds stupid. I had a bad dream. I decided to go for a drive, get away.”
He gave me a look that conveyed a whole idea. ‘That does sound stupid‘. But he was too polite to say it out loud. The inconsistency of my actions, he must have thought I was on drugs.
Laird returned to the porch. The look he gave me, too calm, too casual, made me shiver.
“Landlord confirms the time,” he said. “And a car was found on the side of the highway.”
I jammed my hands in the pockets, where the cold was starting to numb my fingers. “If you visit the sandwich shop at the rest stop, just a little up the road from where the car was picked up, the manager and a middle aged blonde woman can confirm. She gave me a ride here.”
“We’ll check,” the RCMP officer said.
“What’s this about?” I asked. I knew, but I wasn’t supposed to know.
“Can we step inside?” Laird asked. “You look cold.”
“Not without a warrant,” I said. Better to seem unfriendly and overly emotional than risk letting an enemy inside safe territory. “What’s this about?”
The RCMP officer answered, “Molly Walker, the owner of this house, was found mauled in the woods.”
If I’d harbored any concerns about seeming too blasé, they were gone in the instant I heard those words. “M-mauled?”
“Brutally attacked by a human, if the tracks are any indication,” the officer said. “We’re not offering any particular details at this point.”
“I- uh,” I said. I stopped, then tried to start again, but the words didn’t escape my mouth. It didn’t help that I didn’t know what to say.
I’d known, but to hear it like this, from very human sources, minus all of the mystic crap?
“You what?” the RCMP officer asked me.
“She has family in town. They moved to be closer to our grandmother.”
“We know. We’ve spoken with them,” the officer said. “They pointed us here. We’d like to come inside and see if there’s anything that could explain the attack.”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Irene Walker gave us permission to investigate the premises.”
Which meant letting this Laird Behaim person into the house.
“It- no. It’s not her call,” I said. “I’m sorry. I can give you the number of the lawyer. The way I understand it, the house would pass on to me, if Molly was dead. It’s my property, it’s my say. Not without a warrant.”
“This isn’t reflecting well on you, Mr. Thorburn,” the RCMP officer said.
“I know,” I said. My mouth was dry, and my eyes were tearing up from the cold and the recent announcement. “Yeah. I- I’m sorry. I need time to process the news, and I’m not going to make good calls, as tired and confused as I am. It’s better if you talk to the lawyer.”
“Mr. Beasley?” Laird asked.
“Mr. Beasley, right,” I said.
“I’m familiar with him,” he said. When the RCMP officer looked in his direction, he said, “There’s a great deal of concern over this house, in local circles. The town is booming with the addition of the train station and the proximity to Toronto, property prices are soaring, and the amount of good land that can be bought is somewhat limited, due to certain geographical concerns rooted in this property. The last time I paid any attention to the money, this property was worth twenty million dollars.”
“It’s worth more now,” I said.
“I imagine. A great many locals are very interested,” Laird said, his eyes fixed on me. “Mr. Beasley has been handling the bulk of the disputes for the family. I know him. With your permission, I’ll talk to him and see what we can’t figure out.”
“Please do” the RCMP officer said.
“I’d like to have a moment to talk to Mr. Thorburn here, if that’s alright. If he’s telling the truth and he has inherited the property, I wouldn’t mind the chance to talk this through with him.”
The RCMP officer didn’t seem happy with that. “You’re aware of the time constraints?”
“Of course. I’ll talk to Mr. Thorburn, then the lawyer, and we can meet for dinner? I’ll fill you in.”
The RCMP officer took that in. “Alright. I need to make some calls. Call me when you’re done.”
Together, we watched the RCMP officer trudge away through the snow, his boots squeaking. When he was gone, Laird withdrew a pocketwatch from his coat. He popped it open, looked, and then closed it, holding it in one hand.
“I admit, thought it was a girl, here.”
“No,” I responded. “I’m just as surprised to be here as you are to see me here.”
“Well, if it helps, I think you’re innocent,” he said.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Here’s the honest truth; I wasn’t lying when I said I wanted to discuss things with you.”
“You’re a pretty honest guy, huh?” I asked.
Stupid. Stupid question.
“I suspect you and I both know why,” he said. “Can we do away with pretense?”
I sighed. “Sure.”
“I believe you’re innocent because I know who killed Molly Walker.”
“Who?” I asked. I was getting colder, now.
He only shook his head. “I can’t say. It will probably go unsolved, the media will report it, but it won’t be sensationalized. Good officers will most likely put in a genuine, honest effort and find nothing.”
“Doesn’t this kind of conflict with the oath you swore, when entering office? Or are you faking the police thing?”
He smiled. “Rest assured, I studied for my position, I earned it, and I’ve maintained it in good conscience. I’d rather talk about you. Would you be up for a walk?”
“A walk?” I asked.
“If you’re worried, I can promise you my protection for as long as you’re in my company, I’ll take you somewhere where we can talk, then bring you back, as safe as I can manage it.”
“Which is how safe?” I asked. “I don’t know what your protection is worth.”
“You’re thinking I’ve limited myself somehow?” he asked, clearly amused.
“I’m thinking anything is possible.”
“If positions were reversed, I would trust my own daughters, who I care about deeply, to the care of someone of equivalent power.”
“This isn’t a trick?” I asked.
His smile faltered a little. “This line of questioning is getting a touch grating.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“This is not a trick,” he said. “My primary aim here is to find out who you are. You’re an unknown quantity in a very delicate ecosystem. But we can talk about that more after. I suspect you’ll gain more information than you give up.”
“Right this minute, with everything that’s happening, I’d rather be safe and warm than have information,” I said. “A bit of time to grieve might be nice.”
“What if I offered to help streamline matters on the legal front? You’ll be safer and warmer here than in a prison cell, awaiting a trial,” he said.
I considered the idea.
“I’d find that a little more tempting,” I admitted.
“If you’re interested, I’ll wait while you get your coat and whatever else you deem necessary.”
“Give me a minute,” I said. I shut the door.
I made my way to the living room.
“Don’t,” Rose said.
“It’s answers,” I said.
“It’s dangerous,” she responded. “We can go the safe route. Like I was saying before. There’s too much we don’t know.”
I found my jacket. “We’ve skimmed the little black book. Behaim… they’re one of the covens.”
“There’s a better word than coven, but sure. They’re a local institution, maybe the oldest here. All the more reason to stay.”
“He’ll fix the legal situation, which is maybe the biggest concern right now. I don’t know if we can do anything against ordinary people, if the cops decide to kick down the door.”
“Blake! I don’t get a say?”
“You do,” I said. “But… you were saying how you were going kind of crazy, alone? I’m going to lose it if I’m cooped up. I have to keep moving. I had to before I left home, and it only got reinforced after. If there’s an opportunity to stretch my legs and get answers, while preserving my sanity, I’m going to take it.”
“Yes,” I said. “Come with, as much as you can. I wouldn’t mind the backup.”
I pulled on my coat, then rummaged in the closet to get a new scarf and hat. There were two that were plain enough to wear. The nurse’s?
I stepped across the threshold, half-convinced I’d get shot or something equivalent. When I didn’t, I carefully locked the door. I stood there, hand still on the handle.
“You promise to smooth over the legal issues?”
“I’ll make this as stress free for you as I can. Nobody will enter the house, if I can help it, which I can. I promise you this.”
“The house is safe?” I asked.
He sighed. “You don’t know very much, do you?”
“I’m a fast learner, but not as much as I’d like to know.”
“I assure you, the house is safe. I don’t know of anyone who could or would damage the house or property. If it was that easy, we would have removed it already.”
I turned, joining him in walking down the long, snow-covered driveway.
“Let me cut to the chase. I’d like to talk about a hypothetical scenario with you,” he said.
“Sure,” I said.
“Global politics, if you don’t mind?”
“I don’t really mind.”
“In this scenario, we’ve got a situation involving a number of countries. If you will, there’s America. I’m rather interested in America for the purpose of this discussion, but that’s just me. Powerful, perhaps overly proud, large, keepers of the peace.”
I glanced at his uniform. “Sure.”
“Then a European country. I would say they are very traditional, seductive, beautiful, very prone to holding grudges. More history, more set in their ways.”
I thought of the blonde women I’d seen at the table with him. “I can picture it.”
“There are others. Imagine a small, very old, and somewhat backwards nation. We’d then have a broad swathe of nature with very few settlements, as well as a very vibrant country that has just come into an inexplicable amount of wealth, which is liable to burn out quickly on its excess. As well as other bit players who shouldn’t be ignored, but who aren’t of import in our discussion, here.”
I tried to put faces to the descriptions, but it wasn’t easy. Perhaps the man in the twisted tower, with the talking dog, for the latter? The girl with the checkered scarf… If I went by process of elimination…
“I’m picturing an aboriginal woman,” I said.
“I can imagine such a woman leading this very old nation, yes.”
“A young woman, in heavy clothing, with a rabbit, in the middle of the uninhabited, natural setting?”
“Mm. Quite right.”
“And… a long haired young man, for the wealthy country.”
“If I were to add to this scenario, where would you fit a teenaged girl with a checkered scarf?”
He frowned, “I’m at a loss.”
“So am I,” I said. The girl who had been talking to the Other, with the face that stretched.
He thought for a second, nodding and smiling a greeting at someone who apparently recognized him in passing. When we were clear, he said, “Ah. Someone who intruded on important meetings, perhaps. A new arrival to the scene.”
“Is that so?”
“Too new and too small to be a serious threat. Self deluding, even, dealing in things she doesn’t fully understand. A complicated situation. I’d call her a terrorist before I called her a local power.”
“Fair enough. Can we call her Maggie, or is that mucking up the metaphor?”
“We could call her that. Maggie Holt, I believe.”
He took in a deep breath, opened his watch, then closed it, without looking at it. “In this imagined scenario, we have a country in, say, our equivalent of South America. This hypothetical country is unpredictable, has a history of being aggressive, and it just so happens they are the only one in this imagined scenario who have nuclear weapons at their disposal.”
Nuclear weapons. It seemed an apt descriptor for the books I’d seen. Dangerous to handle, dangerous to use. Once they were brought to the table, everyone would lose.
“In this little story, the dictator died, and a successor was assassinated in short order, let’s say. Now another one has taken the helm, and nobody is entirely sure what type of person the young man is… which is very concerning, considering the weapons he has at his fingertips. He could be reckless, he could be mild mannered, he could be a merchant, a politician, or a student, but he’s an unknown quality, and appearances can be deceiving.”
“I can picture that,” I said.
“Should this small southern nation cease to be a concern, everyone else profits, and the nukes being removed from the picture is only a small part of that. The other countries would be elevated to a new age… and the country who is most powerful will take the helm, quite possibly forever.”
If Hillsglade House was the small country… Jacob’s Bell the region…
“Is it so important?” I asked. “The… resources or whatever you’d gain? A few acres?”
“When things develop to a certain point, it takes on a different tone. Population, wealth, whatever else, they attract attention from everyone. With the current status quo, our little world here is small enough to be left alone. Understand, our little metaphor here falls apart when we cease talking about the area that falls within, say, a thousand kilometers around us. I could start talking about other planets with their own drama and politics, if I really wanted to maintain the narrative, but those thing really aren’t our focus.”
“I understand,” I said. I also understood that the ‘metaphor’ was making it very easy for him to outright lie, but that was a given.
“When our little world here grows, everyone with an established power base can ride the cresting wave. Prestige, fortune, status, with others visiting, or attempting to get in while the going is good, and paying a good price to do so.”
“Alright,” I said. “I’m starting to get a sense of this.”
“The trouble is, when the road block,” he half-turned to gesture back at the house, “Is removed, and when things start developing, there will be a very small window of opportunity in which one of the local powers I just described might take the helm. If one doesn’t, it’s liable to be a more distant entity, and it’s likely to be someone we couldn’t hope to stand up to.”
Halfway across the world… in this analogy… someone from outside Jacob’s Bell? Another, greater power.
The families here were small in the grand scheme of it all, and before the city grew and drew attention, they wanted to solidify their positions.
He opened his pocketwatch, then closed it without looking down, like a nervous tic, then continued. “America rather likes the status quo, and if we were to see this small hypothetical country fall right now, it would be bad for America. America wouldn’t take power, nor would the European country. It would be left to the newcomer, with all of his wealth, excess, and arrogance.”
I thought of what I’d read. The warning to stay out of the north end. “This hypothetical wealthy country wouldn’t happen to be to the north?”
“Yes, to the north, Mr. Thorburn. I would like to see the small southern entity with the proverbial nukes be a very stable, calm, country for the time being. America would protect it, and things would be very calm and very peaceful for long enough that the wealthy newcomer might fade in his glory.”
“So it isn’t really friendship, is it? It’s… buying time. Then there’s nothing to stop America from crushing the little country.”
“It would be a temporary alliance, I’m afraid. I don’t believe there’s a way around it.”
“What if the nukes were… given up to greater authorities?”
“Who would you trust to handle such things? The southern country and any country that received these goods would, in this scenario, become immediate targets, because nukes that are changing hands are far, far more dangerous than nukes that are sitting idle in one place.”
“What if the nukes were destroyed? In exchange for certain concessions, to protect the southern country?”
“Impossible. In this scenario, I’d describe it as radiation. Ugly elements would be let loose. Elements that are contained so long as the nukes are intact, you understand. If it’s even possible to destroy those things. The person who put the things together was very, very conscientious.”
“They can’t be given away, because they’re too dangerous. They can’t be destroyed, because they’re too dangerous,” I said.
“In the best case scenario for our hypothetical little world,” he said, “our little southern country remains dormant for some time, and is cleanly, quickly wiped out of existence, in a matter of weeks, months or years. I’m sorry.”
Analogy aside, he wasn’t sugarcoating it. Somehow that made me feel better. I had my hands jammed in my coat pockets, and I kept them there, but I pressed my arms tighter against my body. “The nukes?”
“The nukes are left where they are and everything is paved over, with numerous measures taken to ensure it remains that way.”
I felt cold, and I wasn’t sure how much of it was the fact that I’d stood in the open doorway for long enough to let it soak into me, and how much was emotion and physical reaction.
We walked on for a bit. People greeted ‘Chief Behaim’ as they passed him on the sidewalk. He greeted them warmly in turn.
“No consideration to the poor bastard who didn’t even want to take over?” I asked.
“I suspect the poor bastard is as good as dead already,” Laird Behaim said. “I am sorry. If it helps, I don’t think I’ll enjoy the part I play in it.”
He sounded sorry.
“Would you like a coffee, Mr. Thorburn?” Chief Behaim offered.
I looked for a mirror and found one, meeting Rose’s gaze. I still felt numb, cold, a little less like a complete person than before. Slowly, surely, this situation was chipping away at me. A little warmth in the form of good coffee would go a long way.
“Sure. Please,” I said.