Chapter 16: Lost
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby
The formal hearing in San Francisco to close out the demonic Interstate serial killer case is quick and swift. Over the teleconferencing link, Val looks bored. Deecee and Polly both look weak and drawn, and sit beside each other for support. Stan’s already been sent off on another case. And Amelia is set to go on leave; it’s not the lacerations she sustained, but the grief she feels from having lost an agent for the first time. Two agents, if you count Sanderson as well as Keller; Amelia certainly looks at it that way, according to what I’ve heard.
Marge is in a hurry to finish up her responsibilities for returning the demon’s last victims to society, much of the urgency coming from her dislike of Candy Knox. Who, I am surprised, actually is attending this hearing dressed in her dismal Dr. Knox attire. She’s keeping her distance from me, which annoys me. Hey, just because I’m not her sex slave anymore doesn’t make me chopped meat. She ought to be willing to say goodbye in the proper way, in bed.
Val is reading the list of agents and their statuses, the last step in terminating the case. By tradition, the active agents come first, the agents going inactive in some way come second, and the deceased come last. My own name comes up with the uninformative “reassigned,” which is a bit odd; normally Val would state my next assignment. Do I even have one? Or am I to get hauled before a review board? But that wouldn’t be reassignment now, would it?
Val wraps up. “Agent Benjamin Keller, died in the line of duty. Provisional agent Persephone Sanderson . . .” Val suddenly seems at a loss for words, and pauses for several seconds. “Provisional agent Persephone Sanderson, lost.” She looks up at the rest of us, no expression on her face. “Case closed.”
Outside the air is cool and damp from the fog. In other words, it’s a typical San Francisco morning.
I don’t have anywhere to go today. Oh, officially, I should be on a plane back to the branch office, to whatever work Maura has for me, since I have no new assignment of any other kind. That strikes me as about as depressing as this weather. And since technically I’m still on this case today, because we held a meeting on it (even if it was to close it), I decide to stay the day and go home tomorrow.
The rest of the team quietly head off in their separate directions. I don’t really want to talk to them much, and most of them definitely don’t want to talk to me. That’s not too surprising. No one likes to remember they were on a case in which agents die. Though I suspect some of this is personal, as well. So I find myself standing alone on the steps leading down to the street. I hear a noise, and turn around, to find Amelia standing directly behind me. She says to me, “Harry, we have to talk.”
I’m surprised. Amelia hasn’t spoken to me since we were rescued out of that motel room. I figured she’d joined the club that doesn’t like me. But this is more than I want to deal with today, so I shake my head. “I’m too tired, Amelia. I don’t need a lecture. I want to go find a bar and get drunk.”
Amelia looks annoyed and says, “If that’s what it takes, Harry, then come up to my hotel room. There’s a minibar there, and I doubt you’ll find a drink anywhere else this early in the day.”
Rather than resorting to the pathetic and overpriced minibar, Amelia orders room service to bring up a bottle of good bourbon. They’re quick about it, and so we both settle down with a drink at a table by the balcony, so we can look out over the scenery . . . which is still mostly fog.
Now that I can look at her for the first time up close, I see Amelia looks even more worn and tired than I thought she did. So I figure I owe her some sympathy. “I hear you’re taking leave. Sorry to hear it.”
Amelia closes her eyes as if she’s distressed, opens them, and takes a sip of bourbon. “That’s the official story. Between you and me, I may never come back.”
That’s a shock. I tell her, “Other team leaders have lost agents.”
Amelia shakes her head. “I hadn’t. I’m not sure I can face that possibility again.” She takes another sip of bourbon. “But this isn’t what I wanted to talk about, Harry. It’s you. I’m worried for you.”
Considering what Val told me about Amelia’s report on me, I’m not touched, so I reply sarcastically. “You mean you’re having second thoughts about having me fired and neutered?”
That gets Amelia mad. “Goddammit, Val and I have been fighting with Ops over you for days now to keep you from getting fired. You showed that night in the motel that you’re still a good demon fighter. I thought we could persuade Ops to reassign you back to D.C., maybe as an assistant to Stan as a remedial measure, seeing how well you two get along.
“But we failed. The best we could get was to have you sent back to ‘Siberia.’ And you’re on probation. If you don’t shape up within the year, you’ll get bounced for sure. And they’ll be looking for any sign of a slip-up to get rid of you sooner, let me tell you.”
So I’m doomed. I take a big gulp of bourbon, burp, and say to Amelia, “Any other happy news you want to pass along?”
Amelia looks away. Her voice is still angry. “Why I bother with you, Harry, sometimes I wonder. You’ve a talent and you’re a problem, and I’m not sure if the one outweighs the other.” She turns back to look at me. “Yes, I do have one other thing to say to you. Notice the verdict today on Sanderson? ‘Lost?’”
I shrug, which curiously reminds me of Sanderson. “Yeah. So?”
Amelia grimaces, stands up, and goes over to the window. While looking out, she says to me, “The initial assumption was that Sanderson died in her confrontation with the demon. There was no trace of her or the demon, and there hasn’t been any trace of her since, at least not that anyone’s announcing, but that’s not unusual in supernatural deaths.” Amelia turns around to look at me. “But it didn’t make sense, and we’re the proof of it, Harry. How are your broken legs feeling these days?”
I dismiss the idea. “I must have imagined that.”
Amelia comes over, pulls out a chair, and sits down so we’re only a foot apart from each other. “No, you didn’t. The medics didn’t believe you at first. It wasn’t until they did a deep magical inspection at my orders that they realized the truth. I was savaged by a demon, but I have no scars on my back. None. You not only had your legs broken, your left femur was shattered, your spinal cord severed, and broken ribs penetrated your heart and both lungs. You couldn’t have survived with those injuries. And yet somehow that was all fixed before we were found, so that the only evidence was some residual magic in our bodies. Same for Stan and Polly: no sign of demons taking them over except some residual magic that wasn’t demonic. It wasn’t the tooth fairy that did these things.”
“You’re saying Sanderson is alive?”
“Then where is she?” Amelia throws up her hands. “No, I’m afraid it’s something much worse. Something’s happened in the time since that night at the motel, something so bad that no one wants to talk about, something that’s shaken up Olivia. She’s cut Val out of whatever it is completely, and ordered that verdict on Sanderson over Val’s stiff opposition. You know what the verdict ‘lost’ means, Harry?”
“Sanderson vanished,” I reply.
“No. That’s what it’s meant to sound like. But it’s really a polite way of saying that the agent in question has become corrupted and is now our enemy. And the verdict ‘lost’ carries an automatic death sentence: kill on sight. Val thinks Olivia has evidence that Sanderson has become a dark power, and has organized a team to track her down and kill her.”
I think about it. I didn’t really like Sanderson, though towards the end I was hoping to bed her. But apart from my feelings, I can’t wish such a fate on her, either to have become a dark power or to be killed. Those are ugly fates. There’s nothing I can do about it, though, so I dismiss the matter. “Too bad, but how does this affect me, Amelia?”
Amelia leans forward and looks me directly in the eye. “You’re the one who went to hell with Sanderson, Harry. You’re the one who spoke to Abigail Lane and heard about Sanderson becoming a dark power. You’re the one she spent the last day of her life with. And she may have saved your life. People are going to wonder if there’s a still a connection between you two. And they may try to use you because of it.”
“But I don’t have any special connection to Sanderson, Amelia. None. Nothing.”
Amelia sits back in her chair and eyes me bleakly. “Doesn’t matter, Harry. People will think you do. So watch your step, because others will definitely be watching you.”
The social scene for straight males is supposed to be great in San Francisco. It looks to be true. And after the hearing and Amelia’s ominous warning, I could use sleeping with some young, nubile stranger. There are a lot of them on the dance floor at this club, a lot of hot sexy girls who could use some of my loving. And while they all say they just want to dance, for now, there are hints that they may be willing to go home with me later.
It’s after my fourth trip to the bar that I meet up with this attractive woman on the dance floor. She really seems to be enjoying dancing with me, willing to get up all close. We finish the dance and she hugs me and whispers in my ear, “Let’s go someplace and fuck like animals.”
I’m a bit surprised by her language, but not too much so. After all, my sexuality is enough to send any real woman into heat. So I take her hand and we push our way through the crowd to the door and head outside.
I come to in an alley kneeling on the pavement. My clothes and skin are soaked from the rain that’s still falling. My head aches. So does my right arm and my knees.
I stand up, with some difficulty, and check my pockets. My wallet, phone, and keys are all there and nothing’s missing. So I wasn’t mugged in order to be robbed.
I check my magical field. There is the problem. My shields are down. And judging from how my head hurts magically, someone, some other magician, was plundering my brain. And either he was sloppy, or didn’t know what he was looking for, or tried to conceal what he was up to, because the magical residue seems to be all over my mind.
I correct myself. Not ‘he,’ ‘she.’ This is probably the work of the woman I was dancing with, or a confederate of hers. I realize I cannot recall a single feature of her face or body. No doubt she erased them from my memory before she finished with me. And I was drunk enough and stupid enough not to check to see if she was a magician before I agreed to come away from the club with her.
Sorry, Amelia. You were right. Unless it’s an unlikely coincidence, someone’s hunting Sanderson. They found me. And I’ve screwed up again.
End of chapter sixteen