Court of Darkness (chapter one): Deal with the Devil
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 20 July 2006, 2:07 pm
Court of Darkness (chapter one): Deal with the Devil
Hank hadn't been this desperate to blend in since his first day of junior high; but now, as then, he was failing miserably. Sitting among the working poor who frequented Finley's Pub, his expensive, expertly tailored suit stuck out like a diamond on black velvet. But Hank hadn't come to sightsee—nobody came to Tethra for that—but rather to close a lucrative business deal. It had been his intention to arrive, smile, shake hands, sign the contract and go straight back home. After spending a week on this run-down planet, however, he could not leave without satisfying his curiosity.
In his many years of traveling man's small corner of the galaxy, Hank found that he could learn the most about a planet by driving through the streets where people actually lived. House architecture, the presence or absence of parks or playgrounds, and the sort of vehicles that sat in driveways were all telltale signs that spoke as clearly as written history. Of all the worlds he had ever visited, none had spoken to him like Tethra. Its statements were loud, eloquent, striking and ominous—like the work of a great artist. But like so many works of art, Tethra's dark colors formed far more questions than answers. And even though the somber masses that populated this planet frightened him, Hank's curiosity had been piqued well past the point of return. He simply had to know why—and that meant a visit to the local pub.
At first, his questions had been ignored or answered with short, polite lies. A naturally quiet man, Hank would have usually left well enough alone, but nearly an hour of steady drinking had removed his fear and caused his tongue to come alive.
"Listen," he said, slapping his hand down on the bar for emphasis, "Don't you people believe in God? Aren't you all good Catholics?" Finley's fell silent as seventeen pairs of eyes fixed on the man who dared question their faith. The bartender leaned against the fake mahogany tabletop and scowled at the stranger.
"You callin' us heathens, mister?"
"No," Hank laughed, "I'm calling you liars!" He took a swig of his beer, and by the time his cup came back down, every man in the room was standing.
"Liars?" The bartender pulled back his sleeves, revealing two large, muscled arms. "And just what is it we've lied about?"
Hank laughed again. "What haven't you lied about? I've never seen people so afraid to tell the truth!" Several men took a step towards the drunken businessman, but the hulking bartender waved them off.
"You've got ten seconds to explain yourself, little man." He grabbed a handful of Hank's expensive shirt and pulled him halfway across the bar. "And if I were you, I'd make it good."
"Fine, fine," Hank said, waving his right hand dismissively, "I take it back. You're not liars. You're all honest, Bible-believin' Christians. Why else would you paint crucifixes all over your houses and wear them around your necks two and three at a time?" All across the bar looks turned from anger to fear. "And I bet the reason every last person in this city is behind locked doors before sundown is to recite their evening prayers, right? But I'm curious; why would religious folk like yourselves build all your houses without a single window? You tryin' to keep God in or the Devil out?" The bartender let go of the expensive shirt and with a single glance, sent the customers back to their drinks and conversations. He sighed and looked straight into Hank's eyes.
"You really want to know, mister?" The question carried a warning that even a drunk could follow. Nevertheless, Hank nodded, and the bartender told story as he always did: in low, dark whispers. By the time he had finished, Hank had the pale, blank stare of someone who had just seen a ghost.
"My God. And, you really believe that?"
"No," the bartender replied; his expression and tone contradicting his words, "I'm sure it's nothing more than lively imaginations and childish fantasies. After all, fear has a way of playing with people's minds. Can I get you another drink?"
Hank's nearly empty glass had been completely forgotten, though gripped tightly, as he listened to the harrowing tale. He downed the last mouthful of the bitter, black beer and handed it to the barkeep. "Yeah, but I'm gonna need something stronger than that." The big man took the glass and let out a humorless, knowing chuckle.
Yeah buddy, they always do.
A thick hood covered David Sagus' eyes, and they had either stuffed earplugs in his ears, or removed his eardrums while he slept. In this hell, both were equally possible. He hung from the wall by his wrists, which would have been painful if he hadn't lost all feeling in them God knows how many days or weeks before. Unfortunately for him, however, the rest of his body retained the ability to feel pain—and something told him that another hellish session was about to begin. What would it be this time? Electrocution? Burning? Another surgery?
A sharp object sliced into the taught skin above his navel, answering his question and causing his body to convulse in indescribable agony. Strong hands held him still as the instrument cut deeper and deeper. David felt the skin over his stomach being pulled back an instant before mercifully blacking out.
Someone emptied a syringe into his arm, and within seconds the chemical countered the brain's natural defense system and David awoke to a world with a singular reality: pain. Cutting, pulling and ripping continued for endless minutes while he prayed earnestly for death, and cursed his heart for stubbornly refusing to quit. Death was his last hope, but like all other hopes it eluded him in this place. For a moment the surgery stopped and Sagus felt something scratch the skin beside the large abdominal incision—and somehow he knew they were the claws of a rat. He struggled against his captors in vain as the concussive reality hit him like a sledgehammer. Something beyond panic rippled through his brain as someone shoved the struggling animal into his body and began closing his skin over it.
David Sagus woke from the horrible nightmare screaming like a victim in a horror movie. Both hands clutched madly at his stomach as he tried to extract a rat that existed now only in bad dreams and wicked memories. They were memories from the planet Erebus; memories from Hell. Sunlight turned the thin, white curtains over his bedroom window into gold and lit his way as he pulled off his sweat-soaked sheets and stumbled to the bathroom.
As he had for the last several months, he stood motionless in front of the mirror and surveyed the relics of torture. Scars covered his body from head to toe, including a large one on his abdomen. David's pulse began to quicken and both fists clenched until the knuckles turned white. It wasn't the sort of thing you got used to. During recovery, ONI's physicians had offered to remove the souvenirs Thanatos had carved in his flesh, but he had chosen leave them. Without some sort of memorial to the horrors done in that place, Sagus doubted that anyone could accept that it ever happened. Only four men made it off that rock alive, although the first people to lay eyes on David afterward assumed he was dead. He didn't blame then. If he'd seen a six foot two inch man who weighed less than eighty pounds and had empty sockets where his eyes should be, he would've thought the same.
That was six months ago.
Now, he had an excellent new pair of eyes and his body was in better shape than it had ever been. His mind, however, was a different story. During the now legendary events that transpired on the planet Erebus, David had endured more torture than any living man—and that hadn't been the half of his agony. Although he had miraculously come out of the incident with his sanity, the wounds to his mind were deeper and more painful than those to his body; and it now bore scars that no physician could cut away.
A shrill buzz tore him from his thoughts. He walked into the living room to answer the phone and left the mirror behind for another day.
"Lieutenant Sagus?" David unconsciously stood up straighter as he heard Admiral Robert Denning's voice.
"I want you in my office in half an hour."
David rubbed his eyes. "Half an hour? Sir, I live at least forty minutes from the base."
"Then you better get a move on, son." Click.
Thirty-two minutes later, the Admiral's secretary ushered Sagus into his large office and closed the door. David, who wore his Navy dress uniform, snapped a crisp salute. The Admiral gestured towards the chair in front of his desk and frowned.
"Where's your Navy Cross, Lieutenant?"
"At home?" Denning shook his head disapprovingly. "That award is one of the highest honors the UNSC can bestow upon a soldier. Why isn't it on your uniform?"
How could he respond to such a question? Well, sir, I don't wear it because all I really did was get myself captured and most of my rescuers killed? No, he didn't need a lecture about how it hadn't been his fault from yet another person who hadn't been there.
"I'm sorry, sir. I'll make sure to wear it next time."
Denning nodded and leaned back in his chair. "So, how are you doing?"
What a question. "Fine, sir, thank you." The Admiral flipped through a small stack of papers on his desk, more for show that for information.
"Dr. Lowery seems to agree with you. Says here that you passed a psychological evaluation last week with no real problem."
"Sir," David said, keeping his face as stoic as possible, "it's a matter of record that I've never failed such an examination, and that I took one upon returning from Erebus almost six months ago."
Denning smiled. "Relax, Lieutenant; nobody thinks you're crazy. In fact, the Navy is of the opinion that you're ready for active duty—and not a moment too soon. We've got some trouble brewing in one of our colonies and you're name came up. I'm sure you've heard of the planet Tethra."
"What you may not know is that the UNSC gets nearly seventy-five percent of its equipment from Tethra's factories. About the only thing that they don't have is shipyards, and those are due to come on line within the next six months. Without the materials produced on this planet, the UNSC would be crippled—and apparently that's no secret. A small rebel element led by an ex-soldier named O'Carrol has set up an operation in the system."
"How small an element, sir?"
"We believe it to be nothing more than O'Carrol and ten to twenty men. But," he said with grudging admiration, "this rebel captain is smart. Smart enough to take full advantage of being small and hard to locate. Rather than attack the industry itself, O'Carrol has gone after the people in charge. Consequently, the owners have raised the price of their merchandise and investors are threatening pull their money out of the shipyards. And son, I would have a hard time overstating how badly the UNSC wants those yards up and running."
Sagus was impressed. "That is smart, sir."
"By taking out a few lazy, overpaid execs, O'Carrol may do more damage to the UNSC than the rest of the rebels combined."
"But why send me, sir? I'm not a tracker."
"We got word of this a few weeks ago, and when I asked around for a recommendation, one name came up more than any other: ODST Captain Helljumper. He accepted the assignment and said that he wanted to keep it small; just him and one other person. The Captain gave us two choices: either a Spartan named Lexicus or you. Lexicus has already been assigned to a different operation, and so here we are. I know this falls outside your purview as an ONI officer, but after their debacle on Erebus, they didn't argue when we asked for your services."
Sagus could barely believe what he was hearing. "Sir, with all due respect; the only thing I ever did for Helljumper was get his men killed. That's it. On Erebus, I was nothing more than bait. I didn't do anything to earn this man's trust."
"This man is a Captain, Lieutenant Sagus, and you will address him as such. As for the impression you made on him, Helljumper is a highly decorated soldier with an impeccable record, so if you don't mind, I'll take him at his word."
"And what were Captain Helljumper's words, sir?"
"That you are without a doubt the toughest son of a—" Denning's secretary walked into the room carrying two cups of coffee, and the Admiral immediately softened his words. "That you're the toughest son of a gun he's ever served with. And having went over the details of your work on Erebus and Cradle before that, I would have to agree with him."
Sagus shook his head. "But sir, those soldiers—"
"Those soldiers died doing their duty, Lieutenant, plain and simple. If you want to honor their memories, do yours and help Helljumper take down O'Carrol."
"Sir," David said, intentionally changing the subject, "You said that O'Carrol was ex-military. What branch was he in?"
"He happens to be a she. Her full name is Cairren O'Carrol, and we haven't got a clue where she served. We assume she's ex-military because her tactics are so good. Either she had a different name back then, or she worked in your neck of the woods doing something that nobody wants to take credit for."
"Sir, you're telling me that one woman is causing an entire planet to panic? How tough can she be?"
McLoughlin's pub occupied a small corner lot in downtown Lifford; the second largest industrial city on Tethra. Its four black cinderblock walls and faded red sign sat in the center of the bad side of town. Not that Lifford had any good sides. In the back of the darkened tavern, two men spoke in hushed tones. One nodded, almost smiling while the other talked and glanced at his watch every few seconds.
"It sounds good Tommy, but what am supposed to believe? It always sounds good, and last time we lost three men." Tommy Callahan took a drag on his cigarette and shook his head.
"Sean, I can't predict what's going to happen. I'm not a bleedin' fortuneteller, am I? But I do know this information is solid." He looked nervously at his watch. "And it's got a real short shelf-life, so we'd better get moving."
Sean Flannery shook his head. "I dunno. Things go bust this time and she's gonna be angry." He leaned forward and spoke ominously. "Have you ever seen O'Carrol angry, Tommy?" Callahan looked at his watch again, and this time his eyes got wide.
"You know I've never met her, Sean. Look, it's almost nine o'clock."
"Yeah, almost sundown." Sean smiled. "I guess you'd better hurry up and give me a reason to believe you."
An all-consuming fear crept slowly into Tommy's expression. He hadn't been out past sundown in almost eight years. "I give you my word! Now stop stalling and take me to her!"
"Why can't you just give me the information?"
Tommy's face twisted with impatience. "Don't worry yourself about that, and don't think that I'm bluffing. I either deal with O'Carrol directly or I walk. You used to trust me, you know."
"Yeah, but that was before we got burned." As much as Flannery enjoyed watching Callahan suffer, it really was getting late, and the safe house was on the other side of the city. "Okay, we'll do it your way. But God be my witness, if you're not telling the truth you'll be dealin' with the Devil 'fore the night is through. Are you telling me the truth, Tommy?"
"Then let's go." Sean stood and tossed some money on the table as Tommy took a final drag on his cigarette before snuffing it out in a clover-shaped tray. "If we hurry, we might even make it before dark."
They walked out into the cold dusk air, pulling their windbreakers tight across their bodies. Flannery jumped into a small rust-colored car, grabbed a black hood out of the glove compartment and tossed it to the frightened informant. "Put that on and lay down in the back. And Tommy," he pulled a small automatic out of his jacket and chambered a round. "No peeking."
Twenty-minutes of lying in the backseat was almost more than Callahan could bear. Numerous times he almost peeked—not to see where they were going, but rather to see if it was still light out—but remembered the gun in Sean's hand and decided against it. The car finally came to a stop and he heard the sound of a large, overhead door shutting behind them.
Flannery pulled the hood off his head and Tommy immediately sat up to search for signs of daylight. But all he could see was the inside of a small, windowless garage.
At least there are no windows. "D-did we make it, Sean?"
"Make it here before sundown."
"Tommy my boy," Sean chuckled with a wry smile, "you don't want to know."
If the garage was small, the building that held it was anything but. They passed through at least a dozen doors before arriving at a room guarded by a short, blonde man in his early twenties. Smiling ear to ear, the man walked up and, to Tommy's surprise, gave Sean a big hug.
"Goodness, I thought they'd gotten you this time for sure!"
"Just runnin' a little late. Is she in a good mood?"
Connor chuckled. "Is she ever in a good mood? Well," he said, turning serious, "let's just say that I'm glad it's not me goin' in there with the stoolie. But what were you expectin' Sean, with the anniversary being tomorrow and all? I hope your friend has somethin' useful for her, because if she doesn't kill one of them well-to-do murderers tomorrow," the wide smile returned to his face, "she might just shoot one of us. Who knows, Sean; she might be in there plannin' your wake." Flannery chuckled and started walking towards the door, but Connor grabbed his shoulder.
"You've already frisked him, then?"
"Oh yeah, thanks." Flannery shoved Tommy against the wall, kicked his legs apart and began to search. "What the—" he exclaimed, as he found something hidden in Tommy's crotch—the place a man puts weapons he doesn't want found. "Connor!"
The guard grabbed a handful of Callahan's hair and yanked it back so hard that it almost turned loose of his skull. A cold, sharp blade pressed painfully against his throat as Sean pulled down his pants with a single yank and a small pistol clanked to the ground. Flannery picked up the weapon and waved it before Tommy's frightened eyes.
"I thought you weren't lying to me!" A ham-sized fist closed around the informant's neck like a vice and pinned him against the wall.
"Sean, please! I wasn't—" Flannery smashed the pistol into Tommy's face with a sickening thud, splitting his lip wide open and knocking out several teeth.
"Don't tell me what you weren't doin'!" Pulling the frightened man so close that their noses almost touched, he spoke through clenched teeth. "Tell O'Carrol."
Callahan coughed, spraying blood and teeth all over the floor as the two men opened the large, white door and tossed him into the room. Trying to focus through the pain, Tommy looked up and saw a red-haired woman sitting on a green couch, looking at what appeared to be a photo album. She sat the album on a small table next to her, stood to her feet—and his heart nearly stopped.
At six-foot three, Sean had towered over Tommy, but the woman who stood before him was nearly a head taller than Sean Flannery. Thin and lanky, she was slightly hunched and had her long, orange hair tied up in a checkered blue bandana. She looked to be in her forties, but her face was wrinkled up in a perpetual scowl that made her age hard to guess. Bright, green eyes glared from her freckled complexion with an almost supernatural intensity. To his relief, they were momentarily fixed on the other two men.
"Finally," she said with a voice that would make a wicked witch envious. "You two gonna stand there all night? Get outta here!"
"Yes, ma'am," Sean said with a reverent nod, and then handed her the gun. It looked like a toy in her huge hands. "Just so you know, he was hiding that in his crotch."
"Fine, now I know! Now get out before I use it on the both of you! Go!"
The underlings scurried out of the room, and Tommy no longer felt relieved.
Cairren O'Carrol looked down with disgust. "Get up!" Momentarily forgetting the pain in his mouth, he jumped to his feet and scurried to the couch like a scolded child. She tossed the small gun into his lap. "Is that yours?" Tommy tried to look up, but found her gaze impossible to endure.
"They sent you to kill me?" she said, as if making the most absurd statement of her life. "What an insult."
"No! I came here to—"
"Pick up the gun!"
"Are you deaf?" she roared, "I said pick up the gun!"
Tommy looked up as if facing the gallows. "But I d-didn't want to! They threatened to kill me!"
"You were paid, weren't you?" The terrified informant's lips moved soundlessly. "Then do your job and pick—it—up!"
When it was first put to him, it had seemed like a good deal. They offered him enough money to last a lifetime, and all he had to do was kill a woman. But now Tommy had lost all taste for being an assassin, and even though she stood before him unarmed, he had no doubt that reaching for that gun would be the last thing he ever did.
Grunting with disgust, O'Carrol snatched the weapon from his lap and hurled it across the room and through two layers of drywall. And then, to his amazement, she spoke in a voice that was almost friendly. "I'm told you're a believer, Thomas Callahan. Is that true?"
"You're one of them that doesn't go out after sundown, right?" He nodded, and for the first time saw a smile form on her face. "Sean!" she yelled, without taking her eyes off Tommy. "Get in here!" It didn't take more than a second.
"Is it dark yet?"
Sean looked at his watch. "Well, it's almost nine-thirty, so—"
"I didn't ask for the time! Is it dark or not?"
"Yes, it is."
"I'm guessing he's got some guilt that needs reckoning with," she grabbed Tommy by an arm and tossed him at Sean's feet, "so lock him outside and let him deal with the Devil!" Tommy jumped as if electrocuted.
"No! No!" he screamed as Connor appeared at the door and they began dragging him through the house. "Please! Oh God, No! Stop! Stop!" But they didn't stop, and Tommy dissolved into hysterics; clawing, biting and screeching like an animal. A door opened and he felt cool air hit his face. Strong hands shoved him outside, and as he lay on the cold ground he heard several deadbolts turn.
Since Tethra had no moon, its nights held a darkness that no one on Earth would understand. And although he was in the middle of a city, there were no lights on the streets and no windows to shine a warm glow from within. Tommy could see nothing. Too frightened to move, he sat down on the concrete and tried to calm himself down. After all, he was alive, wasn't he? And after what he had just tried to do, that was something of a miracle. His breathing evened out, and after a few minutes he felt almost protected by the impenetrable blanket of darkness around him.
And then he heard it.
He had heard it before, eight years ago—the last time he had stayed out after dark. But houses had windows then, and he had been able to find his way back. But now—
There it was again, a little closer than before. Tommy's chest seemed to tighten, making it nearly impossible to breathe. Had he been such a bad person? Hadn't he done some good in his life? Sure, he had helped the wealthy during the plague, but hadn't everyone? Did he deserve to die? As if in answer, the sound that had haunted his nightmares for most of a decade came from his right—and this time it was so close that the hair on his neck stood straight up. Why hadn't he picked up the gun? Then, at the very least, he would be dead instead of outside. He felt something rub against his right arm and panic seized his brain. Jumping to his feet, he ran blindly through the darkness—but he didn't get far. As it turned out, Thomas Colin Callahan was guilty after all.
Judging from the screams, in fact, he was very guilty indeed.