AN EMPTY PLACE, Chapter Six - "Cutting Off The Fat"

Halfway. A necessary surgery. The mountain cold shadow. Memory/no mind. 

This is the part where the band gets together.

Chapter Six - Cutting Off The Fat

Holm breathes in a short wheeze face down on a wood planked floor. His eyes roll beneath the lids in twitching patterns above his wet red cheeks. The rest of him is still as stone. The wood fogs under his breath and reveals the splintered grain of the dark brown boards. His arms shake as the parasite's arms writhe.

He sleeps.

He dreams. He is on a long, unfamiliar beach. The sky is pink like the horizon over a setting sun, but there is no sun. The sand stretches forever in one direction. Far away all around him is a great black wall. It thrums with infinite power, generating the waves of the sea that meet the beach. A salty sea, he knew, the breeze heavy with its particles, filmy on his tongue. He remembers the ghost of a wound: pain in his extremities. He reaches out and feels nothing but air. One leg feels shorter than the other and is difficult to lift to walk. He loses his balance, splashing down in water - the cool surface shocks his skin. A single strand of seaweed floats in from the quiet surf and washes onto his calf. The soft leaves tickle his aching flesh.

His knee is throbbing - maybe he has sprained it or knocked it into something.

Mountain - he sees the smooth face of the mountain wall – all around him – closing in.

He parts the weeds in front of him, tall grasses that itch his cheeks and obscure his sight, his arms weak and incapable. He cannot pass through the weeds. Black ropey vines and plants with gold colored leaves and pink pyramidal flowers obstruct his path.

His path. A tall figure parts the tight trunks of the slick weeds. They squeak and rustle and groan. The figure is twice Holm's size, looming, his whole front covered in a strange shadow. A groan like the howling wind from the bellows of a cave rushes over Holm. It roars and forces him backwards. Why can't he see the figure's face? The greasy leaves of the weeds resist his grasp and he slips further from the figure. The sky is bright red above the tall weeds, the spinning heights of the mountain, where the figure lives.

Holm stops to gaze at the sky, one arm still clinging to the weeds, the other bent in front of him, hand towards the figure as if he wants to touch his face.

He knows that face.

A slit in the sky opens and reveals the sun. A demon eye. A boiling bile spills from its singular orifice into a gray cloud-like debris. Laughter behind him makes Holm snap his head forward again in horror. But the laughter stops . . . the sun is gone . . . a hunger grips him. It overwhelms him and he screams. The weeds come alive. His body crumbles under the entangling life. As it crushes him he hears a roar; water rushing, a great cat calling out . . .

Deep inside. Deeper than the monster.

He dreams.

He wakes to the arms of the parasite flailing against his body. Tad is shaking him. He can barely make her face out in the darkness.

"You were calling out," she says holding his head and smoothing his hair away from his face with her fingers. He strains to look down at the parasite. Though the thing is covered by a heavy blanket it moves in a labored wave, struggling to find an opening.

"For you?" he asks. His voice is a croak - she leans closer.

"No," she says. Holm feels her hesitation, her short breath, and she puts her hands on his arm, "You were saying how sorry you were."

"Oh," he says, distracted. He can't take his eyes off of the restless monster under the covers. He resists grabbing the tentacles and trying to tear them off, "I'm . . . you know . . . sorry about all this."

"Jesus Holm, it's not your fault."

"Not so sure as you're right about that." He smiles, or tries. Something sticky and warm pools beneath him.
"More blood," he says pulling his hand up from the ground to show her. She looks at the stain for a second but then averts her eyes. She clasps his wrist and rests his hand in her lap.

"It's okay," she says smiling weakly, "L- Darling is coming."

He affixes his gaze to her's and blinks. Her face clarifies in the close darkness. Behind her a window covered with torn brown paper lets light speckle the ground and illuminates her head with faint blue morning.

"That's good." He closes his eyes again. He smells the sweetness of his blood but beyond that is a trace of decay, rotting fabric and mold.

An image of a woman tossing white powder over a large quilt – her arm frozen in the movement – her hair tied back – the grass beneath the quilt an impossible neon green - shocks him. It is the smell, the same smell in the dress shop, of old fabric.

A memory?

He pops his eyes open. His stomach curdles. That, or the parasite has somehow found a way into his belly. It slaps around on his torso as if upset at the protestations of his body. Tad turns away from him when the parasite stirs, standing and clutching her chest.

A gray pall distills throughout the room. Two rooms, in fact, as Holm realizes he lies under an archway separating the space. The largest room is in front of him where his naked feet are stretched towards a wooden counter in the center. Littered over it are decrepit clothes collecting dust and insect carapaces. 

Circular racks surround the counter, some bare but others are adorned with dresses in plastic bags, pants on hangars, shirts and skirts hung over the upper bar. Tad browses through these and lifts a bagged garment off of the rack. She tears the plastic in two from the neck down, revealing the dress beneath.

She turns towards a mirror with a long clear swath in the dust, wiped clean not so long ago. The dress is faded emerald with a floral trim around a low cut neck line. The skirt rests just above Tad's knee as she layers it over her body and looks at herself in the mirror. A lump forms in his chest. Not from his strength of feeling, but something else . . . 

"It would look nice on you," he says. She tilts her head in indecision, and then shakes it.

"No, it's something that my grandmother would wear."


"He's right. You should take it."

The voice came from behind Holm - he tries to strain his head around and scurries to sit up. But the parasite does not let him; squeezing the breath out of him as its many limbs contract around his abdomen.

He meant to say, "Who are you?" but all that came out was a painful wheeze like rope fraying over rock. She rises from a hidden set of stairs accompanied by a cold wind. There is the knock of heels ascending stone.
Tad drops the dress and slides to Holm's side. She cradles his head in her lap staring down the woman down as she steps out of the back room. Her heel disturbs a cloud of dust on the floor. She towers over them, a placid expression on her face, her hands in her gray suit jacket's pockets. Her thick brown hair and square face is slick with sweat, her shirt soaked and ribs visible.

"So you're the one who called me," she says crossing her arms.

"Are you L- Darling?" Tad bumps Holm's head slightly as her right hand slips under her coat. He guesses she considers using the gun. The lump in his throat hurt and he wanted to spit.

"Yes. This is the trouble, I suppose?" Darling nods at the shapes that move beneath the blanket, "I'm surprised he hasn't bled to death."

"He stopped bleeding after a while. I thought he would run out . . . of blood, I mean."

"Right." Darling moves to the window. The light had redoubled since he awoke and he assumes it is the sun: gold and warm in mid-morning. He thinks he feels it, too, as he watches her. She stands still for a long time, the sweat on her heavy brow evaporating under the exposure, her hair curling as it dries.

Slowly Tad relaxes and takes her hand out of her coat. She whispers:

"What is she doing?"

As if in response Darling throws her hands at the window and tears away the paper. Sunlight floods in a beam around where they huddle on the floor. Holm blinks to withstand the sudden, blinding influx.

"Take off the blanket," she says, "Let me see it."

Tad pulls the cover down, but Holm touches her hand.

"Sit me up please."

"Are you sure?" she says. He shimmies onto his ass and he corrals the parasite between his legs. The thing is easier to handle bundled in his arms. He takes a deep, labored breath, and at once flings the blanket aside.
Darling lifts her eyebrow at the slathering thing. Then she looks at Holm, anchoring him in her gaze, but her words are for Tad, "How do you know this man?"

Immediately he senses the tension return to Tad's body.

"I-," she stumbles. Holm doesn't know how he would answer it himself. She collects herself, though, and stands up with her hands on her hips, "I met him on the road. What does it matter?"


"I don't know. Two days ago. I haven't slept."

"You said you met another man."

"That's right. A man in a mask."

Holm coughs trying again to dislodge the heavy lump in his throat and blood spurts out. It runs down the back of Tad's jacket and over his cheek and neck. Darling's expression does not change. Tad is by his side again, turning him so he won't choke on the blood.

"He's so bad, lady, why won't you help him?" she says.

"I can see that," says Darling, stepping a little closer to get a better look at the crawling thing, "But that man you met is missing. Can I trust you?"

"Missing?" Holm says wiping away spit mixed with blood from his mouth, his beard stained pink, "It's my fault."

"What do you mean?" she says leaning toward him, compelling him to answer. But Tad interrupts using the corner of the rough blanket to clean blood from his chest.

"He means the hunters probably got him. They were after Holm when we met. But I don't think that makes it his fault. They're dangerous – one of them got Holm with a knife. You can see what happened." Tad glances at the parasite and shudders.

"Hunters?" Darling whispers, staggering, and Holm tries to reach out to the woman over the tentacles, but she recovers and kneels next to him, "And you saw these hunters?" Her voice is hushed. 

"Yes," Tad says tersely tapping the toe of her boot on the floor. "What's your point?"

"Where are his clothes?" Darling snaps as she roughly grabs Holm's head between her hands.

Her fingers are powerful, ice cold, and irresistible, and she uses her thumbs to pry up his eyelids. Their faces nearly touch as her eyes bore into his – as if excavating some buried truth. "Look up," she directs. Tad drops his clothes next to Darling and she releases him in order to scrounge through his pockets. The lump grows in his chest again.

No more blood, he thinks, willing it so.

He tries to recall the marks, the symbols. Why do they elude him now? He looks at the parasite, mostly still, except for an aberrant twitch as if dreaming, or like a fish flopping in search of water.

"So. Your name is Holm Aegis?" She speaks his name like a species of animal. She looks at the ID card, next to the Autoterm access card and the mem-stick she has pulled out on to the floor. It is different now - glossy black like volcanic stone. She touches the corner of the card and it transforms in ripples like rain in water, revealing the logo of Hundun Company. She picks it up gently between her thumb and pointer finger, "Do you know what this means? Are you aware of how much trouble you are in?"

"Well-" He pauses and gulps back the wicked snag in his chest gurgling with blood and phlegm. He looks at the floor, at his only possessions in the world, and notices something is missing. The photograph. The picture of the boy in shadow. He steals a glance at Tad whose hand clutches something tightly at her side.

She must have the picture. She must think there is a reason to keep it a secret.

He continues softly, almost in a whisper, hoping Darling has not noticed his shifting attention, "Trouble? I was beginning to get the impression I was born to trouble, what with my new friend here, the cats, the helicopters, those hunters . . ." He means to continue but his voice cracks. His lips are wet again. And again Darling is in his pockets as if she knows something is missing. The old wool coat is torn and bloody like a fresh skinned pelt; there is no place for anything to be hidden.

But Darling produces an object he had almost forgotten about: a long, slender, symmetrical knife - hilt-less handle flush with the blade forming one continuous shape. At once he knows it is his.

His athame.

"Oh!" Holm gasps as he reaches out for the knife - his arm snaking out without thought.

Where has it been? 

Darling smiles and pulls away easily like a scolding mother. 

"You know what this is?" She holds it out flat in her palm, offering it to him. He takes it carefully, two fingers outstretched to touch the cold metal of the blade, considering its weight, turning it over in his hand. The parasite hisses and slithers over his thigh as he claims it.

"I . . . I took it from Gen, the hunter," he says, remembering the night he awoke. Black blobs stream over his vision like welling tears. Trimmed in gold and pink. He closes his eyes but the forms remain. Shapes he recognizes . . . 

"The hunter Gen is from another place, a place we call the shales. He probably stole this from you, and you took it back."

"Probably?" He holds the blade with its point down and throbs against his hand in a constant rhythm. The colors take new shapes. The seeds . . . the marks . . . signs.

Names in a cluttered, still indecipherable language.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Tad scoffs, though she is pale with fear.

"It means they are trying to take Holm from this world. I don't know what he has done to bring the shalewalkers here, but it can't be good. I have had reports . . ." Darling trails off and looks around the shop, into the shadowy corners, as if expecting the whole place to come crashing down at any moment. 

"And what is that knife? I've never seen it before," accuses Tad.

"It's an athame. It's how we focus our power, an instrument of the Talus."

Holm is comforted by the blade in his hand. He feels open. 

Alive . . .

He remembers something. Words he once knew. He speaks them under his breath - barely understanding them. His arm again moves without incitement.

The dagger orbits his body in a wide circle, leaving his hand to complete the circuit when his arm cannot continue. Tad gasps, rings of shock darkening her wide eyes. Her fist shoots up to her neck anxiously. The edge of the crumpled photo slips out between her fingers. Darling does not notice.
"Good," she says as the athame completes its circle, taking off her coat and flinging it to the floor.

"We can begin."


Asleep yet aware all at once, a hum dominates him, a vibrant tide that laps over him for a thousand years, he feels nothing of his body and only the insistence of the world. Although his eyes are not open he observes the woman working on him. The other woman stands far away in the darkness surrounded by needling doubts and transparent fear. If he was capable of evincing any of these feelings he would sympathize totally. Instead he attempts to flex his hands, contracting his extremities to determine whether he maintains control, but the muscles do not respond. The boundaries of his body are as indeterminate as the drift of snow on a mountain.

Still: something tingles in his center, foreign warmth that accentuates the obliterating hum.

The silence in the circle is total; a drained pitcher thirsting for the company of its past contents. He begs for sound as the emptiness itself is an unbearable wail. But he is like the water: watching the pitcher as it falls. Watching the woman as she works.

He is above himself, away from her but contained by the walls of the circle, held by intertwined threads, one from his forehead, blue like a corpse vein, and one from the woman whose elbows and shoulders are exercising their work over his torso.

Shalebound, it comes to him out of the void.

Her hands are on him but he cannot feel them. She operates with precision. He doesn't understand the procedure.

A green glow bright as a jungle leaf brightens and fades with her breath. The muscles of her back contract in steady exertion. She takes his limp hands in hers and rubs them. She looks at the grit underneath his nails, the dried skin between his fingers, and the small cuts and bruises that riddle his flesh. Now he saw his hands are stiff and white, frozen into scooping claws; he isn't breathing. But he doesn't feel dead. From here, in the circle, he feels nothing. Not even the lack of feeling.

Are you dead? A familiar voice.

A memory comes clear and true: a breeze, the sweet pungency of flowers, and the prick of grass on skin. The smell was like a syrup over his senses. His flesh warm and burnt by the bright blinding sun that pinned him down. Someone came between the glaring sun and a shadow fell over Holm's face. The shape was contracted by white beams of light, the outline blurred and fuzzy. A cool hand touched his face. Soft fingertips caressed his smooth cheek. Her other hand held a pink flower like a spire. He can almost see her face - then it evaporates before he can bring it into focus - and he is back in the dress shop with a bloody hole in his stomach.

Darling's hands are covered in a slick sheath of black liquid. In one hand she holds a slender knife, and as he snaps back into the circle, she severs in a surgical stroke a long tentacle that struggles against her grip. Without a second look she tosses the member to the floor where it lands with a slap. The other tentacles are infuriated, coiling around her wrists, and she struggles against them. Her hands shake with effort as she slashes again. Another arm is divorced from the thing's body.

Its body. His body.

He fears the monster is a part of him and that the woman will dig into his entrails and find them fused inextricably with him. The fluid courses from his wound out into an oily black pool. He hears her voice as if from behind a thick plate of glass:

"I think I can get the whole infection." 

"Will he die?" Even quieter, like the sound of falling dust, Tad's voice cracks. The pain is on him. He snaps back to his body and screams like a siren, reverberating in the circle and echoing endlessly in his ears. 

In a blink: a bedroom. A blanket with patchwork panels. One panel has a bird perched in stillness on a branch of brown yarn. A picture on the nightstand is turned face down. In the corner of the room is a bird cage covered with a yellow cloth. The boy's head rests on the pillow, wisps of brown hair ruffling as he tosses and whines in sleep, a dark mark of sweat when he moves. Holm approaches softly, careful not to let the floorboards creak as he enters, he knows the boy will wake up otherwise. At the side of the bed he reaches out, scooping the boy - blankets and all - into his arms, lifting him in a gentle cradle. But there is nothing but the blanket. The room is bare. It was always an empty place. The yellow cloth falls from the bird cage and he sees the body of the dead bird rotting in torn newspaper. Its tiny feet poke like sticks in the air.

He snaps back.

Darling is speaking to him:

"You're blocked somehow. I can't read you." She pulls her hands away from Holm's temples, leaving a cold emptiness behind. He is wearing a new pair of brown pants. The parasite is gone. 

Tad sits near the dress rack, folding the green dress into a tight ball before stuffing it into her duffel. The gun is in front of her on the floor. The remains of the parasite lay shriveled and limp in a pool of black blood, but he still feels it crawling out of him, exploring his skin. He puts his hand on his stomach and a white flap of new flesh.

"I did a fantastic job, Aegis, don't worry about it," says Darling, who washes her hands in a pail of soapy water. 

"But how?"

"I saw it all go down and I couldn't tell you," Tad says, her voice still weak with emotion. Her hands shake as she stands and replaces the gun in her coat. Behind her on the large counter a half dozen candles burn. The world outside the window is dark again and the torn paper covering flutters in a cool breeze. 

Darling's face – she did not look like the same woman. Her features were thinner, her hair light and straight, her eyes green and strong. 

"A mask?" Holm asks as she passes him a new plain buttoned shirt.

"That's right. A little more advanced than what the acolyte's use." She had changed her clothes too: a dark maroon shirt with long sleeves pulled tight over her slight frame, dark pants loose at the ankles, and fitted black athletic shoes.

"You didn't trust us," he says. He smiles, knowing how little he trusted her. 

"No. An adept doesn't just disappear like you did. He doesn't have demons growing out of him. You still remember nothing? Alright, well . . . pretty soon we can start putting the pieces together."

He pinches the buttons through the holes on his shirt, eager to cover the smooth hairless skin on his belly. "About me? What has happened to me?" He dreads the darkness of his memory, like a drunk who has lost the hours after midnight. When he glimpses images of his past – a flash of pink flowers, a scent of powder – he breaks the surface of grief – its depths unknowable. 

"We'll know more when we can access this," Darling pops the mem-stick from her pocket, "Whatever is going on, whatever you've been through, you managed to keep this. It must be important."

"I-" Holm starts to confess the existence of the strange photograph, but Tad interrupts him.

"I already showed it to her. I thought you might die." 

"It's alright," he says rolling to his side and stifling a grunt. The pain is gone but his bones are stiff and unresponsive. He plants himself on his hands and knees as a foundation to stand up. Tad helps him by hoisting him under his arm. "What does it mean?" he asks Darling.

"I don't know." She turns her attention to Tad, encouraging her with a nod.

"I told her why I was here, too. Why I came to find her," she says looking at the floor where her boots touch the edge of the black pool of filth left from the operation. Chunks of discarded flesh soak within its confines. She tries to continue, stopping and starting again when she is more sure of herself, "I'm sorry I couldn't tell you before. I was sworn to secrecy. Everybody is depending on me back home . . . my people. I had to be careful."

"There was no reason to trust me. I still don't entirely," he says.

"It's this sickness," Tad swallows hard and she keeps her eyes averted, "We're being exterminated because we won't fold. The plague comes from the Cord, so when we took the energy, siphoned it off, it got into everything. Everyone."

"You took it?"

"We need power like anyone else. To grow food in the wasted soil, to clean the water, you name it. To survive."

Darling touches Tad's shoulder to comfort her, but her eyes are on Holm, "You're lucky she found you. I think you were assigned to the case by Hundun."

He clears his throat, his heart beating shivers in his chest for Tad, "A case? Like a detective?" Darling hands the beaten photograph to him and he replaces it in his pocket unfolded, though he refuses to look at it. 

"Something like that. Listen, there's an Autoterm not far from here. We can access the stick's data there. I'll tell you what I can on the way." She whips her blazer on and abruptly turns towards the basement door.

Walking is more difficult than he anticipated. His leg hurt now where the bear trap had wounded him, and Tad helps him with a shoulder to lean on. Hobbling down through the cellar they pass a stockpile of old mannequins, androgynous shapes without faces, plastic bodies dissected with various limbs missing. Darling waits until they emerge on the deserted street before she speaks, and then only in a hushed whisper that is as determined as it is quiet. His head begins to pound, the whirling symbols he'd once thought of as just random marks rise up more complete and legible in his mind. The ravaged scraps of his memory are contained somehow far away in the deep recesses as if at the back of a massive cave inaccessible to exploration. It takes him all his will to ignore the symbols and listen to what Darling has to say.

She tells him about the Talus; some kind of energy source that the generators run on, and how the Paternach took control of it a long time ago back when the mountains fell from the sky and the world changed forever. 
She tells him about a silent war deep underground where the Talus lay, bound and penetrated by The Cord, isolated from the world. How Hundun had rescued a nascent plant from the Talus rock, infused with its power, which ceased to grow after it was cut away. She tells of how through its energy they can access the other world, the place beyond called the shales. They call that plant the root. Tad's hands grow clammy and start to shake at its mention.

Darling hesitates to continue when they turn a corner onto a busy thoroughfare. Cars inch along their wide ivory lanes. Men in long coats dodge brashly through the streets. Women walk in pairs huddled together underneath the vivid awnings of the store fronts, and high above are impossibly tall white and blue buildings that look like glaciers turned upright. Wrapped among all of these, binding them together as if in a single life force, is the Cord, humming and warming the night with damp electric atmosphere. The three step closer to each other, Tad wrapping Holm's arm around her shoulder and leaning into him with her head near his chest so that they are bound together like the buildings. Darling turns up the collar on her blazer. She makes a strange move with her hand over her face as they hit a shadow from a street lamp, just now buzzing on, and the mask is applied. It happens with slight twitches of skin as subtle strokes of the magick paint over her features, molding with little touches her whole visage. The thick dark hair returns like a flower opening up from its bud. Gone are the green eyes for the blue. 

"Warn us when you do that again, will you?" Tad says watching the transformation. 

"I have to put the mask on," says the new Darling, smiling, "Out on the streets the Contractors have a permanent surveillance grid up and running. Every second of every minute. And there's a standing kill order for terrorists."

"I imagine that's us." Holm smirks.

"In more ways than one." Tad is humorless. Darling furrows her brow and glances to the other side of the street. He looks too, but can see nothing but a lamp post and its light, and three tall dark windows of a Bank Two branch. She continues, speaking as much into her jacket as to Holm. 

"The root is here, in the AC."

"Can't we just go and get it?" he says as if that solved the matter. Tad squeezes his arm.

"It's not that easy," Darling's voice implies total rejection of the idea.

"She told me while you were unconscious," Tad whispers, "Maybe it's too late. Holm, she said the root is dying."

"What about the Talus itself? And what about the disease, can it be cured?"

The women are silent. He wishes, as the sharp night air stresses the warmth of Tad's body, that he could situate himself coherently in the events that were unfolding. With his left arm free from Tad's embrace he keeps his hand on the photograph in his pocket. His fingers caress its surface, one side polished and fine besides the accumulated grit from his adventures, the other side rough like brick.

The Autoterm is a storefront revealed by a large single-paned window that opens into the common space. It's lit by two rows of lights set in a metal fixture hanging down from the paneled ceiling. That, and the sea-green glow of the monitors. The computers are situated on three oval counters in groups of six. Darling led them across the street. On entering they see the place is empty save two thin men on the outer two counters.
Darling still carries Holm's ID and the Autoterm access card. She gives the first back to Holm and inserts the other into the counter mounted card swipe. The slot is clogged with dust from disuse and she needed to scrape away some of the gunk with the edge of the card. She explains that adepts do not have their sequence registered with the computer labs, or with any gridded entity, since they could be traced by the Paternach. 

He leans over Darling's shoulder as she sits at the terminal. Tad kneels between the counter top and Darling's seat. She operates the board very quickly and the words and images are hard to read, though Holm doesn't think he would understand in any case. Just as his eyes start to glaze over Tad exclaims, "Oh! This is something, right?"

"Probably," Darling says flatly.

"What is it?" asks Holm.

"It's a large file. Probably stolen. It has some markers that indicate the file originates from Heles Mining, which is a Paternach subsidiary."

"Do you think I stole it?"

"Almost certainly. Here, I'm printing it out."

Strange, he thought. He feels no connection between that person, a thief, and himself. He smiles though, warmed that his action, this other person that was him, had been valuable to his friends. He is glad he took those risks. Now he didn't have a choice; the risk was a condition of his living, likely as a consequence of this past life. The symbols burned bright in his brain as the ancient printer shot a ream of paper from its perch by the wall. 

"Here we go," Darling says pointing at some tiny digits on the screen.

"What is it?" Holm squints but succeeds only in blurring the pixels on the screen.

"Well, another file, this one called "bblind.vyd", it's encrypted but . . ." A moment passes before Darling continues, "That's a street name. I can't open it but I'm sure it's a map. Billy Blind Street is in southwest sector four." This last bit she says quietly, as if trying to keep it to herself.

"So?" Tad is confused, to say nothing of Holm who folds the other file in his hands as it spews out unevenly shrugging in ignorance at Darling's discovery. But the information has some significance and her breath sharpens. She folds her fingers together and cracks her knuckles in a quick snap. 

"I have to leave you now. Things are converging quickly." Her voice confirms the shift of attitude, of the need for haste.

"What about these papers?" he pleads.

"I'll take them with me, read them over on the way to the greenhouse." She is already pulling the ream of half-folded, half-crumpled papers from his arms before he can react.

"Hold on-" Tad says, holding her hands out as if to block the agent.

"I'll call you when we can meet."

"But what do we do now?" She twists away as Darling speeds to the door. Darling hesitates but she implacably refuses to turn to face them. The two thin men cease clacking away on their boards and look up at them as if the interlopers had just arrived. 

"Tad." He approaches her and puts his hand on her shoulder. She shrugs it away. 

"No, I won't be kept in the dark!" Her neck tenses as she fights back tears. When he speaks it is with a quiet severity that is new to him:

"She knows what she's doing. We can take care of ourselves."


Darling opens the door and finally looks at them. She is smiling but he can't tell if it's forced or not. She says, "Head for Billy Blind Street," and as the door closes behind her she stuffs the file between her body and her blazer, steals a glance down the street, and is gone.


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