There is one rule, and one rule only. It isn’t even a rule, really; it’s more like sacred counsel. A sage nugget of higher wisdom, hard-won and heavy, like an ancient stone carving nestled deep in the inner garden, lost under the old growth canopy, and faint like soft shadows in early morning mist. One squints and cranes and blinks away the slumber, pining for a glimpse of movement. Nothing. Summer days will favor the flowers instead, obscuring the mottled greens and the granite. But it’s there for a reason—for the long view back, and the memories of winter; cool vision under color; unblinking amidst the fog and the burn-off and the sweet summer swelter. Blossom and fragrance may come and go, but the stone gnome owns the place. Stoic and cold and silent and strange; every day it glowers at the gardener, demanding attention and a reckoning. One crosses the carving only rarely, and never without consequence. You must not be discovered.
Martha was perched at the upstairs study window, which offered a wide granite sill and several flowering cacti. Beautiful from a distance, stolid and prickly as all hell, she liked to think that she and they had something in common. She wondered that they might somehow retain a deep, damp, glorious interior, lost within leathery flesh and beholden to nothing outside. Maybe in midst of drought, they might sample the sweet swill of water on the wind; perhaps they could smell the madding morning squall, coming on like summer sex, anticipating every droplet and thunderclap. To drink deeply from the dry Earth and the Santa Ana; to sense and shudder and rejoice in the bliss of a passing oasis—this was hope, and yearning, and life itself. Mostly, though, it was all just hoary dry dirt; bleak and blank and utterly unforgiving; surface cracks and prickly pears and hot rocks underneath. Hell, yes, they had plenty in common.
He coaxes the chair into rough shape and empties his pockets on the remnants of the seat. It’s standard butler fare, more or less; a wallet, a handkerchief, a Swiss army knife, a book of matches…and a Beretta. Sixteen rounds, thirteen in the magazine, one in the chamber, and two in the ninja. He’s got three hundred bucks and an Amex Platinum to bribe the Grim Reaper, and a Pennsylvania driver’s license to identify the remains when that goes badly. Ouch. Does anybody ever look at these things? The DMV can make anybody look like a member of the John Birch Society. Then there’s the pocket watch, the bifocals, and the pin in his foot. Down here, the pocket watch is a kind of punishment; the thing’s got no bling, and luminescent coral is like emerald green on Prozac; it’s fine as far as it goes, but it won’t last nearly long enough. And if he ends up needing that pin, well, maybe he’ll just go ahead and bribe the Grim Reaper with his pistol instead. Other than that, it’s just his clothing and his devastating good looks. Everybody seems to like his clothing.
She might have betrayed nothing at all if he hadn’t already set her off, and that was a strange bit of good fortune. But visions of rough and unwelcome mergers deep under the library had followed him up the stairs like there’s not supposed to be an odd number larger than one, and sure, everybody loves a nice ass, but nobody in this town cares if you’re smart except maybe Dr. Akin and the Army recruiters, and everybody knows they both prefer something other than ovulating women. Damaged goods is the one way she’s like everybody else around here. It’s no wonder she wears her hair short.
The woman’s eyes are steely, but not harsh, like an off-hours politician pleading with the spouse. It’s an interesting combination. She’s taller and younger than Martha. Height can be a useful commodity in elite circles. It implies power without perspicacity—a Neanderthal nod to the hierarchy of sheer size—as if the big dog really is the big dog, and God help the primate who reaches for a leash. The white suit is an interesting choice; it’s spectacular and svelte, but not a traditional power suit at all. Nobody wears white in board rooms or chambers—those bastards all have blood on their hands, and they know better. Nor does it favor the ecclesiastic; Versace resembles vestments like a wedding dress resembles a chastity belt, and everybody knows a Mattson meet and greet isn’t exactly matrimony and mazeltov. No, white like that betrays more than power—it wreaks of something more sinister.
It’s amazing what Mortalfolk won’t see. They won’t see that deep digs make Earth burdens. They reckon they own things when it’s the other way ’round, clear as moonlight. They think they get sick terrible for no reason, like the Sky God done it, like they had no hand in it, like Earthblood is supposed to be good for the body, ‘stead a cool creek water. They build and they bruise and they burn and they dig, and the mountain tears up like a coal scrape hurts, or one-a the young uns comes at your skirts too hard, ’cause nobody taught him how to handle a whore. Some are just dumb as a rock, but mostly they’s just asleep, walkin’ through the world like one of them machines, same thing over and over, makin’ a mess and blowin’ off steam. But there’s nothing for it. Mortalfolk won’t learn.
Five feet of crystalline attention bridges the space between them, and Alex studies the cobra. Black garb, head to toe; short hair; a waif. Probably an astronomical metabolism; sinewy power and a hundred pounds soaking wet; her body mass index is in the nether regions, and the door blast indicates she’s trained the fast-twitch musculature to match her natural talents. She’s come in overland at night, so she’s been working; right now she’s pure adrenaline and arrogant bad attitude, but she’ll tire physically before the sun rises. This is a rapier thrust gig: get in, get out, everybody gets hurt.
High in the foothills of the Appalachian Plateau, a hundred acres of arable land lay fresh and fallow, just as it had for decades. The surrounding mountains had long ago begun the work of reclaiming meadow clover with sapling underbrush and amber pine pitch. The cathedral valley rolled out of a serpentine rift that shouldered a heavily-bouldered stream, rich in brook trout and the soft white noise of water over rock. Bliss and gurgle and windblown hayfields fronted the blue-green timber, inviting even the old mountain men to simply stop for a moment and breathe, lost in wistful repose, conjuring old images of young flesh and soft grass and the pungent perfume of sweet nothings whispered swift upon the ear.