His Other Face
by Loren W. Cooper
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Night had long since drawn the icy curtains over another short winter day by the time Sara nailed down her last meeting, ascertaining only that a certain fence-sitting senator planned to remain firmly planted until he had a distinctly better offer from one side or the other. She had seen his like too often to feel more than a tired resentment as she wound the conversation to a close, then made her way out of his office and into the street.
She had wondered about Richard off and on all day, but she had heard nothing from him or the police. She resolved to call the station and see if he had actually reported what he’d seen or if he had merely been appeasing her.
The chill wind had effectively cleared the streets of pedestrians. Traffic was sparse at best at that hour. Sara found herself walking the long blocks back to her car in unusual solitude. She walked briskly but, having already been jumped from an alley once that week, with even more attention to her surroundings than usual.
An explosion of flapping wings startled Sara, and a large yellow dog burst out of the shadowy mouth of an alleyway less than fifteen feet from where she stood, running hard. A mixed flock of birds rose from the same alley. Sara stared. She’d never seen that before, a mix of crows and smaller birds flying together in one chaotic mass. She drew in a deep breath, laughing nervously to herself. Richard had her spooked.
She hesitated when she saw darkness pooling out of the mouth of the alley. Something gleamed at the edge of that darkness, catching her attention as she eased forward. She saw no one waiting to leap out upon her, so she approached slowly, until she could make out something metallic lying at the edge of the shadows.
She reached down, closing her fingers over the cold, smooth surface of the ring, and looked up the mouth of the alley as she straightened. Closer now, she could smell a metallic, earthy scent rising on the night air. Standing in proximity and with more time, she saw that what had looked like pooling darkness was a dark fluid. Trails snaked through the fluid, the tracks of the dog and the birds, perhaps.
She thought first of motor oil, though her nose told her otherwise, the air carrying not the heavy petroleum weight of oil, but a smell much sharper, metallic, with an acrid tinge of sweat mixing with a sewer scent of voided bowels. She knew that smell. She knew what death smelled like, fresh and open on the street. Then she saw the leg sticking out from behind a dumpster. Richard’s story came back to her with shattering force. She knew that the darkness had to be blood.
Fear closed her throat. She ran. She didn’t want to see the face on the body behind the dumpster. She didn’t want to know if Richard had come too close to his Pulitzer. She hurled herself away from the mouth of the alley with all the desperate speed of any frightened animal.
Echoes chased her through the empty streets until a passing car stunned her with its mundane normality. Incongruity slowed her, and for a savage moment she desired nothing more than to drag the unaware driver from the refuge of his car and show him how insane the world could become without the consent or even the knowledge of the people living in it.
Cold burned her hand. She looked down at the ring she had seized reflexively as the panic had come upon her. Richard’s lost evidence, here again at the site of another killing. It glowed in the dim light falling from the street lamps as if it were burning with an icy inner flame. Shiny and smooth and heavy, the outer surface of the ring curved in organic folds, worn and polished by hands and time, leaving Sara with the impression that the ring had been grown rather than carved.
Four faces stared back at her on the wide band, large enough for a big man’s finger. Stylized forms of winged lions separated the faces. All of the faces were masculine and bearded: two displayed the clean lines of a man in his prime; two clearly traced the weathered features of aged men. The portrayals were alike enough to have been the same face, or the faces of twins, but one young face had features written in stern lines, while the other was laughing. The older faces seemed darker, the stern lines of one face evolved to a harsh anger, and the laughter of the second face twisted by pain and disappointment.
The work of it haunted her. She would not have been surprised to see the eyes in any face twitch and blink. Worse, the faces called to her memory. Something in those sleeping faces caught her. She knew those men, or at least knew the features under the masks.
Lights flashed. A horn sounded. Startled, Sara looked up and around in sudden fear. A car pulled away from the curb, out of the quiet cross-street, and into the heavier traffic of the boulevard. Sara looked back down at the ring in her hand, but the moment had fled. The image had slipped through the fingers of her memory. The thought that had been teasing at the edges of recognition escaped her grasp.
As she paused on that thought, staring at the ring in her hand, the light of the streetlamps caught on the folds of its cold sculpting, and a blaze kindled within the faces, and the metal burned in her hand, filling her palm with a smoky, living light. As if that light called to a similar fire within her, a living flame rose up in her, wrapped in smoke, roaring with power. In the heart of that power, she thought she heard a voice calling to her, but she could not make out the words.
She swayed. The intensity faded as quickly as it had arisen. Sara caught her balance as the moment collapsed around her, swallowing the scream that rose in her throat as the light faded as quickly as it had come. The cold weight of the ring lay heavy in her hand.
The stale air, heavy with the smell of wet stone and wrapped in gasoline fumes and oppressive decay, wrapped around her. She knew those streets. She had been in the District over five years. She knew the smells, the sounds. She knew the signboards, knew the weight of the seasons in summer and winter, in oppressing heat and killing snow. She knew the Seven-Eleven on the corner. She knew the cracked yellow lens of the third streetlight down. She knew the street in front of it down to the patch that the city had a practice of renewing every other year.
But the world had suddenly tilted. In that moment of smoke and fire she felt something larger, something older, a weight of the world coiling under her feet and rolling above her in the wet depths of the heavens.
She had been touched by something she had no words to describe. That brief instant nearly crushed her with her own insignificance.
The hand holding the ring fell to her side. She took a quick furtive look around, but saw no one watching. She thrust the ring into her pocket and took a shuddering breath. What had just happened? She had been thrown out of the boundaries that make the world comprehensible. She should, she knew, call the police. She should seek the shelter of the authorities. Give them evidence. Make a report. Her mind knocked against the hard pieces of all she should do.
She suddenly had an unwanted insight into Richard’s strange behavior, his seeming instability. What did sanity mean in an insane world? How much had he seen that he could not tell her?
She had thought that she had been here before. She had seen the world turned upside down in an instant of insanity. She’d seen death in all its uncaring cruelty, but this... this was something else again, a thing for which she had no name, no language that could describe what had touched her.
She knew then that no one else would be able to help her. The police, witnesses, family, no one could imagine the things she had seen; this would be a license to declare her genuinely crazy. She shuddered. Forced treatment, the inside of a hospital with locks on the doors, growing gradually more and more disconnected from the currents of the outside world... She wouldn’t risk that. She’d caught a glimpse of that world once, and she wanted no more part of it.
What pushes someone to such a place as D.C., to such as a role as a lobbyist? Could be the smell of money. Could be something else. Could be passion. Could be conscience. Or it could be everyone else’s reaction to passion and conscience. Sara remembered the averted eyes, the hunched shoulders, the nervous smiles, the “look at that crazy woman” comments. It was a shame. Everybody agreed. But what could you do? You make your peace, you move on.
Not enough to go on, ma’am. We’re sorry, but there’s only so much we can do. People have jobs to do, lady. Other crimes to solve. Lives to live. Let go of the past, Sara, don’t you know that it’s killing you, this fixation on the death of some kid you didn’t even know? It’s dragging you down, tearing you up. What about therapy? Jean knows this really good doctor. He works with people who are... troubled. You were there, I know. I know how hard it must have been to see that. Here’s a pill for depression, another for obsession. Are you listening Sara?
No. Are you?
She brought herself back to her old determination. She had made her way alone before; she could make her way alone now. Even with the world turned upside down. She turned toward her parking place, running to something known and sane and stable. When she reached the car, she threw herself inside it as into a refuge, locking the door before starting the engine and fleeing back to the security of hearth and home, where she might do her best to ignore the fire and darkness still dancing in her soul, the weight of the ring in her pocket like a loadstone freighted with all the weight of the world.
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Copyright © 2018 by Loren W. Cooper