Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Icebound.
Chapter 00 - Foreword (this post)
Chapter 01 - In which Joseph trips a trap or twelve
Chapter 02 - In which Joseph takes a train
Chapter 03 - In which Joseph makes a big call
Chapter 14 - Final
This is Icebound. It's an original novel, written during NaNoWriMo 2010. I held out hope of getting it published for a long time, but I've finally accepted that it's just not viable. It's not due to poor quality, though - no, this is some of my best writing. It's just not marketable to a mainstream audience, so I thought I'd post it here. It's a labour of love on my part; I'm very, very fond of this novel, as I am of all my NaNoWriMo projects. So it's my gift to you, and interestingly, the first thing I'm doing here as section head. More writing? Woo!
I'd just like to mention that even though this is finished, finito, zipped and done, I do still welcome any and all criticism. I love hearing what people think of my writing, and every piece of critique helps me for future projects, because I make sure to take them all on board. Obviously, this will not interfere with Champion Game, which will be returning next week if all goes according to plan.
There are fourteen chapters. I will be posting one a week (Saturdays), which means that this story should conclude on December 29th this year. The story isn't over, even if the novel is. I wasn't going to write the sequel, Icebane, but if there is sufficient demand, I will do so and post it here chapter by chapter, as I write it. So yes. Welcome to Icebound, and enjoy the ride.
Icebound - Chapter 01
In which Joseph trips a trap or twelve
By the time Joseph Hart tripped the eighth booby trap, he was beginning to get annoyed.
A glint of light, the tiniest reflection from a light somewhere behind him, flickered in and out of existence in front of him. Instinctively, he ducked his head, barely evading the strand of razor-sharp wire that came whipping down the hallway at neck height. He could practically hear it whistle as it sliced through the air millimetres from the top of his head. A fresh wave of adrenaline surged through his body, spurring his feet onwards.
Bullets buzzed through the air around him like angry hornets, drilling into walls and floors as Joseph swung around a corner, stumbling on the loose, plush carpet, before taking off again in a random direction. As his foot hit the ground, he heard a soft mechanical click and automatically threw himself to the ground as a wicked-looking blade that would have sliced him in half sheared through the air instead. Joseph hit the ground awkwardly, landing on his shoulder and sending a sharp lance of pain through his arm. He rolled to his feet with some difficulty and took off again.
Yes, he'd deliberately tripped the security alarm on the way out, having done his job with disappointingly little resistance. There was no fun in sneaking in, slitting throats and sneaking out again. It was the thrill of the hunt that made the job worthwhile, and if his prey refused to run, Joseph was forced to take on the role of the hunted himself. So, having broken into the manor house of one Carlos Ramirez and left the erstwhile Senator lying in a pool of his own blood without a sign of security, Joseph had felt a little unfulfilled. After a few quick seconds of searching, he had come across Ramirez's panic button and pressed it quite happily. He had been expecting perhaps a few dozen burly security men, but what he had not foreseen was the multitude of booby traps that had been set to activate at the pressing of the panic button. As a result, Joseph was constantly being slowed down by devices that would have been more at home in an ancient Egyptian tomb than a rich mansion in Central America.
The interior of Casa Ramirez was a veritable labyrinth of opulent, dimly lit hallways, seemingly identical in every way. Joseph had only a vague idea of which way he was supposed to be going. A fresh hail of bullets hammered into the wall beside him as he passed another T-junction without turning. The blood pounding in his ears, he rounded another corner only to be greeted by another blade slashing upwards at his throat. On pure force of instinct, Joseph threw himself backwards, avoiding the blade by a whisker. As he landed on his back, he saw that the blade was actually being wielded by a diminutive black-haired man in a tuxedo. Stepping back, the man blocked Joseph's path forward, sword at the ready. As Joseph got to his feet, his shoulder more painful than ever, he saw the large double doors of the house in the gloom behind his assailant.
“I'm going to have to ask you to move,” Joseph said, drawing his gun from the holster on his belt. Carefully, he eyed up his opponent's weapon. It was a long, narrow sword, more than a metre and a half, and slightly curved backwards. Joseph frowned. The man shook his head.
“I'm afraid I can't do that.” He raised his sword slightly, and Joseph immediately levelled his gun at his head.
“Don't move,” he said flatly. The other man laughed humourlessly.
“Move, don't move. Make up your mind, Romulus.” At the mention of his alias, Joseph made up his mind. He didn't like witnesses who could identify him.
“Tell me your name before I kill you,” he said.
“It's McDougall, but I'm going to have to disagree with you there.”
“I don't think so,” said Joseph, and then shot him in the head. Or at least, he thought he did. The gun discharged, but McDougall wasn't there. By the time the bullet left the barrel, he was already behind Joseph. Joseph ducked, feeling rather than seeing the sword slice through the air above him. McDougall clearly knew exactly how to use the sword he was wielding, and he was impossibly fast with it.
Joseph whirled around and came up firing, letting off two more shots, but the bullets hit only air. McDougall had moved again. In the gloom of the hallway, it was almost impossible to see the diminutive figure. Joseph cursed and leapt out of the way as the sword came cleaving through the air – once, twice, three times. The third swing nicked his coat, tearing a gash in it, but missed the skin beneath. Joseph fired again, but the bullet drilled into the floor where McDougall had been just seconds before.
“Stand still, damn it!” he yelled, aiming another shot. This one clipped McDougall on the shoulder before he could do anything about it, and he dropped the sword, yelling in pain. Joseph grinned, aiming his final round at the small man's head. He paused for a moment, his finger hovering over the trigger.
A round of machine-gun fire shattered the silence, causing Joseph to jump. The bullet went wide. Swearing, Joseph dived past McDougall and made a bolt for the door, bullets humming through the air around him all the way. He dived for the ornate bronze handle, and to his surprise, it turned freely in his hand and the door opened, ejecting him onto the manicured front lawns of Casa Ramirez. The cool night air hit him like a hammer, rushing into his lungs and suffusing him with a strange sort of calm.
Shouts were being raised throughout the grounds, and half a dozen uniformed guards appeared from around the side of the mansion, firing indiscriminately.
“Amateurs,” Joseph muttered dismissively, watching the first round of bullets go so wide that he would have been more worried if they had been aiming for the house. Suddenly, a round buried itself in the gravel by his foot, kicking up a spray of grit. Eyes widening in mild alarm, Joseph dashed off down the garden path.
The wall surrounding the estate was only a couple of metres high. Taking a run up, Joseph vaulted comfortably over it, landing easily on the road outside. After ascertaining that he was alone, Joseph straightened up, brushed the grit off his coat and strolled calmly into the woods that surrounded Casa Ramirez. By the time Ramirez's security charged through the main gate, there was no sign of him. Romulus had disappeared like the wolf that he was.
Dawn was starting to break by the time Joseph reached civilisation. He had been walking for three hours when Cafe Newton appeared on the horizon, little more than a ramshackle tin hut on the side of a dusty highway going from Nowhere to Anywhere.
With no small relief, Joseph banged the door open, filling the cafe's interior with the first rays of morning light. It looked much as it had the last time he had been here, more than a year ago. A dozen or so rickety tables surrounded by untrustworthy-looking chairs were arrayed around the room in a slapdash manner. A grubby blackboard leaning against the counter bore the legend 'Damn Good Coffee – and not much else'. Joseph chuckled. A scungy stick of chalk had never scribbled truer words. And behind the counter . . .
“Joe, m'boy!” Eugene Newton cackled, his wrinkled face splitting into a grin that only had half the teeth it should have. “How's life been treating ye?” Joseph flinched slightly at the old man's familiarity.
“I'm not 'your boy',” he grumbled. “Just coffee today, thanks,” he requested, pointedly ignoring the old man's question.
“Arr, that's mighty cold of ye, Joe,” Eugene sulked, pressing a button on an electric kettle that looked older than its owner. “S'not often ye gets visitors round 'ere, least of all decent chaps like yeself.” The button popped back up cheekily. Eugene frowned and dealt it a hefty whack, then tried again. This time, the device began hissing almost immediately in a vaguely threatening fashion.
“Tech trouble?” Joseph grinned despite himself. The old man was endearing in a strange sort of way.
“Like ye wouldn't believe,” Eugene muttered sourly, limping around the counter towards Joseph. “Sit down an' make yeself comfortable.” Joseph selected a chair that didn't seem to be threatening to collapse beneath his weight and settled himself into it. Eugene sat down opposite him and leaned forward.
“Ye alright, Joe?” he asked, concern filling his crinkled brown eyes. “Ye're not lookin' so good.”
Joseph's brow crinkled. “I don't know what you're on about, Eugene. Is there something on my face?” Eugene shook his head sadly.
“It's in yer eyes, boy,” he said. “Them's tired eyes, them. Ye've seen too much dark'n not near enough o' the light.”
“You're talking in riddles, you old geezer,” Joseph laughed, but then caught himself and lowered his head.
“That may be,” the old man said seriously, “but ye know ye've got the answers, boy.” At that moment, the kettle let out a shrieking whistle, and Joseph jumped. Muttering to himself, Eugene levered himself out of his chair and hobbled over to the counter. There was silence as he poured two cups of coffee – one for Joseph and one for himself.
Joseph glanced around the walls. This was very much a family establishment. Most of the decorations were framed photographs of Eugene and his family. The oldest ones featured a wife and two young sons smiling next to a much younger Eugene, whereas some of the newer ones showed the same two sons grown up with families and children of their own.
Noticing Joseph's gaze, Eugene commented, “Been two years since I saw any of 'em. The boys've been good t'me since Hilda passed on, but they've had t'move on now. Freddie's up in Old Detroit or somethin', an' Jerry's off down Terra del Fuego, I think. I get phone calls every now'n again, 'course, but they can't afford t'be helpin' out here, not with families of their own an' all. This ol' cafe can't support more'n one or two.” Slowly, he made his way back to the table, handing Joseph a chipped white mug full of steaming coffee. Joseph inhaled the aroma gratefully, letting the warm, comforting scent wash over him. Instantly, the fatigue of the night fell away and he sighed with relief.
“You really do make the best coffee in the world, Eugene,” he commented, taking a sip. It was rich and just a little sweet – perfect. Eugene laughed wheezily.
“Ye're a great flatterer, Joe, ye know that?” Joseph harrumphed and bowed his head over his mug. Eugene's laughter died, and he became serious.
“What brings ye to this neck of the woods, Joe?” he asked quietly. “Ye've only been through here twice or thrice, and it's always somethin' important. I doubt ye're here on holiday.” Joseph remained quiet for a few seconds.
“Have you heard of Carlos Ramirez?” he said at length. Eugene's eyes widened.
“I did. How did you hear about it so fast?”
“Was on the radio not a quarter of'n hour ago. Some big shebang down at Casa Ramirez, armed intruders . . . said someone popped the bugger off and made a break for it. Never'd've dreamed it'd be ye, though!” He paused and stared off into space as if thinking very seriously about the issue.
“Upset?” Joseph inquired.
“Nah, not me, Joe. Him's a nasty piece of work, he is.”
“Was,” Joseph corrected him. “Evidently, someone else thought so too and decided everyone'd be better off without him. Either that, or one of his political rivals was sick of him getting in the way. Whatever the case, there was a sizable price on his head.”
“Still bounty hunting, then, eh?” Eugene sighed and shook his head, then took a gulp of coffee. “One of these days, it's gonna catch up with ye.”
“Bounty hunter is such a strong term,” Joseph mused. “I prefer to call it 'opportunism'.” Eugene cackled madly.
“Whatever ye call it, boy, it'll get ye one day, mark my words on that'n. I knew a kid once what fancied himself a mercenary – wanted t'work as a hired gun. He did alright, too – fer a few years. One day, though, he just disappeared. Nobody knows where he went, but they say he got done in by someone whose brother he'd assassinated or somethin' like that.” Eugene shook his head regretfully. “Nice kid, that'un. Ye remind me of him, ye know. Name of Sharpe, if I remember right. He used to drop by here after a job in the area, himself, not unlike ye. Always ready for a chat, even if'n he didn't let on – again, not unlike yeself.”
“I don't plan on getting 'done in' any time soon,” Joseph promised. “I've been playing this game for eight years now, and I'm going to keep playing it until my body gets sick of it.”
“It's up to ye, boy,” Eugene shrugged. “I can't tell ye how t'live yer life, natch, but I'm just askin' ye t'think about it. S'all.”
“Thanks, Eugene,” said Joseph quietly. “I will.”
“So!” said Eugene brightly. “Where are ye off to now, eh? South? North? Overseas?”
“I'm thinking back up to New York for a while – there ought to be some good marks going on up there. Oh, but I've got to circle back south and pick up the bounty for Ramirez first, though.”
“Don't let them catch ye, boy!” Eugene warned. “Ramirez had powerful friends, and they'll be out hunting for the feller what done him in.” Joseph snorted.
“Powerful friends? They couldn't do anything for him while he was alive, and I'm not worried about them now. I'll go cross-country if I have to, then I'll bus back up north.”
“Look, Joe, when ye're back up north, do me a favour, will ye?” Eugene asked earnestly, leaning forward so that his eyes were just inches from Joseph's. Joseph cocked his head quizzically. “Keep on the right side of the law for a while, ye hear? Hunt down some mafia bosses or somethin' like that, just bring in the marks what don't get ye into more trouble than ye're in already.”
Joseph sighed. “You may be right, Eugene.” Standing up abruptly, he drained his coffee and dropped a fifty-dollar note on the table. “Keep the change.” Without another word, he turned and headed for the door.
“Nice t'see ye, Joe m'boy,” Eugene called after him. “Make sure t'drop by some other time, ye hear? Old Eugene likes yer company – God knows I get little enough of it here.”
“I'll come back,” Joseph promised as he shut the door behind him.
I'll do no such thing, he swore to himself as he walked back the way he had come. He liked Eugene's company too – a little too much for his liking. Having people worried about you was always a bad thing. Having people to worry about was even worse.
Not five minutes after leaving Cafe Newton, Joseph's phone rang. It was a no-nonsense ringtone – one that actually sounded like a ringing phone rather than the latest vapid pop song to pollute the airwaves. Joseph glanced at the caller ID, but it was little more than a habit. Only one man had this number. Flicking the phone open, Joseph greeted the caller enthusiastically.
“Victor! How are you? Been a while, huh?” Joseph's younger brother Victor was a professor of biology at Ilium University in what had once been Italy. Something special must be going on to warrant a phone call from all the way across the world, Joseph reasoned.
“Sure has, Joseph. Look, I'll get right to the point here.” Joseph's eyes narrowed. Victor sounded strained, on edge. He could picture his brother in his mind's eye, glancing nervously over his shoulder as he clutched the phone to his ear. There was a barely distinguishable catch to his voice that worried Joseph slightly.
“I need your help, Joseph. I'm onto something big, and I can't deal with this by myself, but you're the only one I can trust with this. I need you to come to Rome.”
“Of course,” Joseph agreed without a moment's hesitation. For Victor, he'd go to the ends of the earth, but he wasn't going to tell his brother that. And besides, something about Victor's tone had set him on edge as well; he wanted to make sure his brother was alright. “I'll call in a favour and be on my way as soon as I can.” There was a slight pause.
“Thanks, Joseph,” said Victor quietly. “Let me know when you're going to arrive, and I'll meet you off the plane.”
“Will do.” Joseph hung up, more confused than ever. Just what was Victor playing at this time?
The two brothers had always been close – or rather, as close as they could afford to be. They had grown up together during the horrific period of war known as the Disintegration, raised by their father. Victor had shown marvellous academic skill from a young age, so that when their father died when Joseph was just fourteen, Victor was able to secure a scholarship at a boarding school. Joseph, on the other hand . . .
I wasn't so lucky, he thought wryly. Joseph had had to work to support himself for several years until he finally fell into the mercenary business at the tender age of eighteen. He wasn't bitter, though. He had kept in touch with Victor as much as he possibly could without putting both of them at risk. While Joseph was a high-profile international criminal of sorts, Victor's image was squeaky clean, and Joseph planned to keep it that way. For this reason, he tried to keep his two personas – Joseph Hart and 'Romulus' – separate. One was a brother, one a felon.
That was another reason why he had resolved to steer well clear of Cafe Newton in future. People that knew both sides of him for what they were could be dangerous.
Deciding he could always pick the bounty up at a later date – or if he couldn't, it was no big deal – Joseph turned on his heel and marched north again. He needed a plane.
Of course, Romulus, one of the most feared and wanted hired killers in the world, could hardly stroll into Mexico City Airport and book a flight to Rome. This posed a problem for Joseph, but not a serious one. After half an hour's walk, he came across an ancient train station. A cracked, crumbling bulletin board out the front proclaimed that the Intercontinental Express stopped at the station twice a week – on Mondays and Fridays. Checking his watch, Joseph ascertained that it was, in fact, eight fifteen on Monday morning. Yanking strands of creeping vine away, Joseph discovered that the train was due at eleven thirty.
Glancing around the dilapidated station, Joseph began to have doubts about whether the express would actually even bother stopping. The tracks themselves looked perfectly functional, but that was about it. The platform felt like it might collapse beneath his feet at any second, and Joseph found himself treading even more lightly than usual as he explored it. There were three ticket windows in the wall on the platform, all traces of the glass or plastic that might have separated the ticket-sellers from their customers long gone. He didnt suppose it mattered, because there wasn't a sign of human life anywhere.
The strangest thing about the station, however, was that the whole edifice seemed to have been constructed from burnt stone. The consistency of the walls was somewhere between granite and charcoal, crumbly and as black as night. When Joseph absently kicked a low wall, a section of it collapsed. He thought at first that the black colour might simply be soot, layered upon the building by years of coal-burning trains chugging through the station, but when he examined one of the broken shards of stone, he saw that it was that strange black colour all the way through.
Abruptly, a wave of cold air swept over Joseph, making him shiver – or at least, that was what it felt like at first. It did not die away like a gust of wind, but rather intensified, growing stronger and stronger. The strangest thing, though, was that it seemed to chill Joseph's insides, piercing through his long coat and sending a wave of ice through his body. He gasped in surprise and pain and dropped to his knees at the intensity of it, clutching his stomach, where it seemed to be concentrated.
Beads of sweat broke out on his brow as he struggled with the frigid energy that was threatening to engulf him. Joseph gritted his teeth and tried to fight it, but how did you fight something you couldn't see? He was used to pain – it came with the job to a certain extent – but never before had he had to deal with pain that he could not discern the source of.
Slowly, the icy tendrils snaked their way through his body and into his head. He could feel the edges of his vision going white as his head began to spin. Then there was a spike of agony that pierced his skull – like the brain freeze from eating ice cream too fast, only amplified by a million times and shooting all the way through the upper half of his body.
Joseph screamed. The agony wracked his body as he fell to the ground, fighting to stay conscious. He couldn't see, couldn't hear – his body was refusing to listen to him, attempting only to shut itself down to avoid further punishment.
Eventually, Joseph could fight it no longer. With a sort of relief, he released his grip on reality and fell into whiteness.
Icebound - Chapter 02
In Which Joseph takes a train
Joseph tasted blood. Lifting his head from the cold black stone with difficulty, he groaned and opened his eyes with great effort. His vision was fuzzy and blurred, and his whole body ached. With a groan of effort, he dragged himself into a sitting position, blinking furiously. Every inch of his body was filled with a dull scream of pain, but it was nothing compared to what he had experienced before he blacked out.
Gradually, the world came back into focus. He was sitting on the platform, clutching his aching head. Slowly, carefully, he got to his feet. As soon as he did so, his head started spinning, sending waves of nausea through his stomach. Retching, Joseph staggered to the edge of the platform and vomited onto the rails below.
A cold tinkle of laughter rang in his ears. You're getting in over your head, Joseph. The voice seemed to come from inside his head. It was simultaneously delicate and harsh, and as cold as ice. Joseph shuddered.
“What?” he slurred, once more attempting to stand upright, this time with a little more success. “Who are you?”
I am one that does not bear questioning, little hero. There was a dangerous edge to the voice now, as if it was unused to being challenged.
“What do you want?” he tried, his mind racing. There was no logical explanation for what was happening to him. He drew his gun, but there was nothing to aim it at, and he felt a little foolish for thinking that there might have been. Joseph wasn't, as a general rule, a believer in the supernatural, but there was little he could come up with in the way of an explanation. How did you shoot something that wasn't there? Then he frowned as a thought stopped him. “And what do you mean by 'hero'?”
Today, I come only to bear a warning. If you seek to aid your brother, you will only become entangled in events that are beyond your comprehension. You will fall prey to the darkness, for your strength is such that you cannot resist even the slightest of forces. What you just experienced is a mere taste of the suffering that you will face. I give you a choice, Joseph. Turn your back now, and live, or forge onward and face a fate worse than death. Joseph clenched his fists.
“I don't know who you are, but you obviously don't know me that well! I don't know what this has to do with Victor, but I'm not giving up on him now!” Not after hearing that, at least, he added silently.
Oh, dear, said the voice. It sounded faintly amused. I appear only to have encouraged you. No matter. If you are truly dedicated to your path -
“Of course I am!” Joseph insisted.
Without even knowing where it will take you? Joseph started. It was true. He didn't know what Victor wanted, but there was clearly some link between his mysterious goal and the voice in Joseph's head. Victor was clearly in danger as well, perhaps even more so than Joseph.
I see, mused the voice. Perhaps you are stronger than I thought, or mayhap simply foolish. In either case, I can see that your mind is set on this issue. I will leave you to continue with your rash course of action. But should you ever forget my warning, I leave you with a reminder.
A small section of Joseph's upper arm burned with cold fire. Taken by surprise, he sucked air through his clenched teeth. This time, though, the pain died almost instantly. Curious, he pulled off his coat and rolled up his sleeve to inspect his arm.
A small, turquoise blue diamond had been scorched into his skin like a tattoo. Free of any ornamentation, it looked as if it could have been there for years. It was about four centimetres long and two wide, positioned just below his shoulder. There didn't seem to be anything to gain from wondering about it now, however, so Joseph pulled his overcoat back on and took a deep breath.
The whole situation was decidely bizarre. Sudden floods of ice-cold agony, voices speaking to him from inside his own head, and now mysteriously appearing tattoos. Joseph had spent eight years living in a world where cold lead and steel were the only reality; he had never seen anything like this, and his mind was refusing to grasp it.
Joseph was distracted by a slight rumbling in the distance. It must have been going on for a while, yet he only just noticed it as the Intercontinental Express came steaming into view from behind a small hill to the south. With a jump, Joseph checked his watch. It was, in fact, one minute to eleven. How long had he been unconscious? He waved to try and catch the express' attention, but it was already slowing down. He stepped back from the rails as the train came chugging through, a refreshing reminder that he was still in touch with reality. Joseph breathed in the suffocating yet reassuring scent of iron and smoke gratefully.
“Heading north, friend?” came a cheery inquiry from the carriage that had stopped directly in front of Joseph. He glanced sharply around at the door to see a fresh-faced young man in a poorly ironed conductor's uniform leaning out of it with a grin on his face, shouting over the noise of the train.
“Yes, up to New York City,” Joseph shouted back. “What's passage?” The conductor whistled.
“Long way, friend. These days, that'll be five hundred or more to go all the way.”
“I don't have a problem with that,” Joseph said, stepping onto the carriage.
“Right you are, then!” the conductor replied cheerily, waving a green flag out of the door before slamming it shut behind him.
Joseph took in the interior of the carriage as the train slowly began to move again. It was old, clearly, with peeling paint on the walls and stuffing escaping the chipped, splintered wooden seats. The windows were grimy and cracked, and there was a suspicious-looking black stain on the wall opposite the door.
Nevertheless, Joseph sat down on a bench at random and handed the conductor a large wad of notes. While the young man counted out the fare, Joseph closed his eyes for a few seconds. A ferocious snowstorm whirled behind his closed eyelids, but when he tried to focus on it, it disappeared.
“Say, do I know you from somewhere?” the conductor was saying. Joseph opened his eyes and glared at him.
“I don't believe we've met,” he said levelly. If the conductor recognised him, he could be in trouble.
“Nah, must be just my imagination. Name's Eric, and I'll be your conductor today. And tomorrow too, most likely, not to mention however many more days it takes to get to where you're going.”
“You mean you don't know?” Joseph asked, slightly perturbed.
“Haven't a clue. Been working this line for four years, and I'm never quite sure where I am. Might be about four days to New York, or it might be a week and a half. Doesn't help that the train's never going the same speed, so it turns up at every station at a different time of day every circuit.”
“But you were right on time just there,” Joseph reasoned. “The sign out front of the station said eleven, and here we are.” Eric chortled.
“Well, that's dandy, innit? Anyway, it annoys the hell out of some people wanting to catch the train. That's why we cut down to one passenger carriage per engine. The rest are all cargo. We service the whole route from Santiago down south to Anchorage up north.”
“I see,” Joseph said. He wasn't terribly interested in the workings of the Intercontinental Express. “So we get there when we get there, do we?”
“Pretty much, yep.”
“Alright. Got a recent newspaper or something?”
“Well, we picked up today's Mexico at the last major junction. It's all in Spanish, though.”
“That's unusual. I thought everyone had given up on other languages.”
“Eh, Mexico's trying to set off some big revival or something, or so I hear.” From the way his eyes lit up, Eric seemed to be quite interested in the subject, so Joseph cut him off before he could launch into a long-winded discussion.
“I see. Anyway, get me the Mexico. I'll see what I can decipher.”
It came as no real surprise to Joseph when the front page of the Mexico was dominated by a large colour photograph of Casa Ramirez, cordoned off and surrounded by parked police cars. He supposed they would be on the lookout for him now, after the small fellow with the sword had recognised him. That hadn't been part of the plan. Perhaps going to Rome for a while would be a good idea after all.
That just brought up more questions, though, he realised as he gave up on the Mexico and folded the paper away. The voice in his head had seemed to want him to ignore Victor's plea and stay in the Americas, though for what reason, Joseph could not fathom. It didn't really help that he had no idea who the voice belonged to or how they got themselves into his head. Thinking about it just made his head hurt. Sighing, Joseph decided to worry about the voice if and when it appeared again. As he settled himself in for a long ride, his shoulder began to ache slightly.
About a week later, give or take a day or two – Joseph had lost count himself, and he understood Eric a little better for it – the Intercontinental Express chugged into New York. Not wishing to take his chances being recognised at Madison Square Garden, Joseph got off a few stops earlier, just outside the city proper, and took a cab around to Brooklyn. He had picked up a few English periodicals along the way, and it would appear that the price on his head was now higher than ever.
Joseph sighed regretfully as the cab wound its way through one of New York's infamous traffic jams. While he was eager to get to Rome, Joseph was a little miffed that he hadn't been able to collect the bounty from Ramirez's wealthy enemy back down in Central America. It would have helped offset the bounty on his head a little.
Joseph was headed for the house of Marshall White IV. Not only was White the Representative for the New York Area at the North American District Government, he owed Joseph a lot of favours. While generally keeping his nose clean, White had, over the years, found cause to have several of his opponents eliminated. As a result, Joseph knew him quite well, and often used him as a valuable source of highly classified information – White was more than willing to sell secrets as long as they weren't traced back to him.
When he reached White's house, an elaborate three-storey town house just south of where the Brooklyn Bridge used to end, Joseph slipped down a side alley, vaulted over the fence and knocked on the back door. It was answered by one of White's maids, who recognised him instantly and showed him through to White's office.
Marshall White IV was a tall, elegant man with short white hair and a matching moustache. He wasn't particularly large, but there was a certain presence about him that made him seem seven feet tall.
“Romulus,” he said levelly, standing to greet Joseph as he entered the office, “it's been quite some time.”
“So it has,” Joseph said. “I'm in no mood for idle chitchat, Representative, so I'm going to get straight to the point. You are in possession of a private jet capable of trans-Atlantic flights. I am in need of passage to Rome.”
“Now see here, Romulus, you can't simply demand such things!” White protested.
“Remember the scandal of seventy-nine?” Joseph interrupted. “I don't imagine you'd be in the position you're in now if that had come out.”
“I had nothing to do with that, and you know it!”
“I know that, and you know that. But if those doctored papers had come out like O'Reilly planned, nobody would have taken your word on it.”
“I already paid you for that job!” White insisted.
“I should imagine no price should be too high for your reputation, Representative. And besides, all I'm asking is to borrow your plane for a couple of days.” Joseph knew that White would cave. It wasn't that the Representative honestly didn't want to let Joseph use his jet – it was just that Marshall White IV was a man who always liked to appear in control of the situation, and didn't enjoy giving anything up without a fight. Joseph had learned that fairly quickly after meeting the man.
As predicted, White sighed and spread his hands. “All right, Joseph. You win. I'll get Nancy to take you out to the airfield in the car. But you'll owe me for this!” he warned. Joseph rolled his eyes inwardly.
“Whatever you say, Representative,” he said.
“Yes,” mumbled White, sitting down and glaring at his desk in a clear gesture of dismissal. “Whatever I say. That sounds nice. Hmm, yes.” Shaking his head, Joseph stepped out of the office.
Nancy, it turned out, was another of White's maids. She was also a very aggressive driver. White's sleek black limousine pelted through Brooklyn's potholed streets at well over the speed limit, skidding and screeching in and out of traffic going both directions, missing certain death by mere millimetres on several occasions, eliciting blaring horns and shaken fists from the other motorists at every turn.
As Nancy yanked on the handbrake, executing a hairpin turn in heavy traffic at more than ninety kilometres an hour, Joseph subconsciously tightened his seatbelt, peering worriedly out of the tinted windows.
“Must you drive so fast?” he asked in between daredevil manoeuvres. Nancy glanced across at him, her green eyes wide and uncomprehending, brown curls bouncing as the car traversed a particularly pothole-riddled stretch of road.
“Whatever do you mean by that?” she inquired, tilting her head to one side.
“Never mind,” Joseph said hurriedly, “just keep your eyes on the road, please!”
With a slight 'ah' of surprise, Nancy turned her attention forward again just in time to swing the car wildly out of the path of a large truck barrelling towards them head on. They missed it by a hair, but Nancy seemed unfazed, although Joseph was now fearing for his life. He made a silent decision to keep his mouth shut until they were out of the city.
“So why do you feel the need to drive like a maniac?” he asked fifteen minutes later, when he felt it was safe – or at the very least, not life-endangering – to distract Nancy from the road a little. They were speeding along a deserted country road between dilapidated-looking rows of hedges at nearly a hundred and fifty kilometres per hour.
“I don't know what you mean,” the brunette insisted. “Master White always insists upon being driven everywhere in a great hurry, but I always take the greatest care.”
“Are you quite sure about that?” Joseph asked doubtfully. “I was sure I was going to die for a while there.”
“Don't be silly,” she laughed. “You'll get to the airfield in one piece.” Just seconds later, there was a bang and the car spun out of control, crashing through a fence and into a ditch on the side of the road.
Joseph's world rocked. His head hit the roof of the car and he swore. When the car came to rest, it was tilted at an uncomfortable angle. Nancy was moaning in the driver's seat, bleeding slightly from a gash in her head, but she seemed to be stable. She was breathing, at least.
“You okay?” Joseph queried. Nancy opened her eyes slowly.
“I think so,” she mumbled, wriggling around in the driver's seat. “I think I'm upside down, though.” She giggled inanely. “Feels funny.”
“Wait there,” Joseph told her. Foremost in his mind was ascertaining the cause of the loss of control. Joseph wasn't quite willing to put it down to Nancy's manic driving, although he had to admit that there was a strong case for it.
With some difficulty, seeing as it was almost directly above him, Joseph managed to lever the passenger door open and climb out. The cause of the crash was instantly obvious – a spike strip laid across the road. Had they stumbled into a police chase?
Yet within seconds, Joseph realised that this was not the case. Three men dressed in black appeared from nowhere, one aiming a handgun at him. Carefully, Joseph raised his hands above his head.
“Can I help you, gentlemen?” he asked politely. The one holding the gun laughed. He was tall and lean, with a sharp, angular face and high cheekbones.
“You already have, Romulus. It was ever so kind of you to crash like that. Seriously, it makes my job a lot easier. I'm afraid I'm going to have to kill you now, though.”
Joseph grimaced. “See, now, there's a problem here. I don't take kindly to people trying to kill me. Dying isn't really high on my list of things to do before I die, and I . . . wait.” He paused. “Never mind. At any rate, I don't plan on cooperating.”
“You have no choice, Romulus,” said the man again, putting a mocking stress on Joseph's assumed alias. He pulled the trigger on his handgun, but Joseph was already moving. The bullet missed him by centimetres as he rolled and drew his own gun, coming up firing. Two bullets went wide, but the third clipped the gun in the surprised black-clad man's hand, sending it spinning into the field beyond. The man cursed and drew a knife from his belt.
“Get him!” he hissed, and the two other men threw themselves at Joseph. Without time to bring his gun around, Joseph dropped to the ground, kicking one man in the chest as he did so and avoiding the lunge of the other. Realising the importance of continued movement, Joseph spun and came up again, bringing his fist down against the back of the second man's head as he stumbled past, trying to regain his footing. He staggered and fell. Joseph stepped back and observed the two for a second, ever aware of the knife-wielding man who was now behind his back. They were clumsy fighters, he observed as they came in for a second pass. Their movements were sluggish and unrefined. They overextended with every movement.
Joseph fired two bullets. One found its mark, drilling into an exposed temple and felling its mark immediately. The other went wild, slamming into the second man's shoulder, causing him to fall to the ground, screaming. Dispassionately, Joseph stood over him, planted one foot on his hapless opponent's chest, and shot him between the eyes.
As he holstered his now-empty handgun, Joseph felt a blunt impact in the small of his back, knocking him to his knees. Using the momentum of the fall, he swung his leg around in a long, sweeping kick, connecting with the knife-wielding man's legs with a satisfying impact. The two of them went down in a tangle of limbs. Joseph managed to writhe on top of the other man and attempted to wrestle the knife off him; attempting to reach for his own would be suicide. The knife hovered between their faces, a gleaming point of metal shaking just inches from Joseph's eyes, mesmerising him.
With a strength far beyond what Joseph thought such a wiry body could have possessed, his opponent thrust Joseph off him, sending him rolling across the road, away from the car. Leaping to his feet, he pursued Joseph with the knife outstretched. Joseph groaned. He had landed on his shoulder again, and his arm didn't seem to be listening to him properly for some reason. Before he could attempt to stand up, the knife-wielding man suddenly leapt on him and pinned him to the ground. The back of Joseph's head hit the tarmac, and he saw stars. Dizzied, he was having trouble making out his opponent's face, even as it leant close to his own with a cruel grin on it.
“I've dreamed of this moment for years, Romulus,” he hissed, bringing the knife up close to Joseph's throat. “The biggest game in the business, landed by a little fisherman like me. Little old Rufus Carter. I've been trying to track you down for years, and this was the perfect opportunity.”
“You going to try and talk me to death?” Joseph mumbled groggily. With a vicious snarl, Carter spat in his face. Joseph flinched.
“I always hated you, even though I never met you. You and your stupid 'lone wolf' ideals. So arrogant. But now look where that's got you!” The knife's blade nicked Joseph's neck, drawing blood. Both men were breathing heavily now, Joseph from fear and adrenaline, Carter out of excitement. Dizzy as he was, Joseph couldn't see any angle of escape. The strange man had him pinned him pinned down with a knife at his throat.
“The great Romulus,” Carter hissed maliciously, licking his lips. “You're going to die as you lived – alone. How does that make you feel?” He giggled madly. “Goodbye, Romulus!”
Carter's eyes bulged. For a moment, his whole body went rigid, and then collapsed on top of Joseph like a puppet with its strings cut, gasping, ragged breaths escaping his mouth. Joseph shoved the limp body off him and sat up, rubbing the back of his head. In front of him stood Nancy – breathing heavily, bleeding from the head, but grinning as she pulled the knife from Carter's neck and stowed it away in a pocket after wiping the blood off on a corner of her skirt.
Breathing heavily, Joseph nodded approvingly. “Nice . . . nice job,” he panted, getting to his feet.
“I don't like being forgotten about,” she pouted, kicking Carter's motionless body.
“Perhaps – just this once – it wasn't such a bad thing,” Joseph suggested. “Is your head alright?”
“It'll be fine. It's just a scratch, but head wounds bleed a lot.”
“I suppose you're right,” he agreed, pulling himself to his feet. “But what do we do now? I don't imagine it'd be possible to get that car out of the ditch, now, would it?” The car had tipped almost completely onto its side, and was firmly stuck down a metre-deep ditch, tangled in fencing wire and brambles.
“Not likely,” Nancy said wryly, “but it's no biggie. The airfield's only another twenty minutes or so if we walk.”
“Are you sure you can walk?” Joseph asked doubtfully.
“Yep!” she said cheerily, turning and limping on the way they had been going before the crash. “Come on, what are you waiting for?”
Joseph shook his head in amazement. “How are you even alive?” he wondered aloud before following her unsteadily.
As it turned out, it took them more than half an hour to reach the airfield, thanks to Nancy's limp. When they arrived, they were immediately accosted by a paramedic, who Joseph was sure would have had them stretchered onto the jet if Nancy hadn't waved him away. Joseph was thankful for the provided painkillers, though; his head was still aching something awful.
The jet was a relatively large craft, easily big enough to take sixty or more passengers – or at least, it would have been if it had been outfitted like a conventional passenger aircraft. The bowed walls and small, round windows aside, the interior of the jet could have been a luxury hotel. Richly carpeted and furnished with the most elegant, comfortable-looking movables, the entire space seemed to emit a warm glow.
Joseph had barely stepped on board when the engines started. White, it appeared, had even had the presence of mind to phone ahead and order his staff to have the plane prepared for takeoff. Joseph picked an armchair and sank into it blissfully, fiddling with the knob on the side to lower the back of the seat. To his surprise, Nancy dropped herself into a chair facing his and began flicking through a copy of the New York Times.
“You're coming too?” he asked with some surprise, noting that her head had been firmly bandaged.
“Of course!” she exclaimed, peering at him over the top of the Times. “You can't have imagined I'd let you go off on your own, now, could you?”
“Um . . . yes?” Joseph tried blankly. “I'm taking a trip to Rome for personal reasons. Why shouldn't I go on my own?” Nancy tutted at this.
“I don't think so, Mister Romulus. You attract trouble like an open rubbish skip attracts stray cats, if you'll pardon the analogy. Wherever you are is sure to be more interesting than waiting on the Representative twenty-four seven. And besides, I have to make sure you don't run off and get yourself killed. Master White regards you as a significant asset, you realise.” She smiled innocently at him, and for a split second, Joseph was vividly reminded of the Nancy that drove a knife into Rufus Carter's neck less than an hour previously. The image of her confident smile then flashed across his mind, but was gone just as quickly.
“And the Representative is okay with this?”
“Pfft, he won't care!” said Nancy dismissively. “Do you know how many people he has working for him at that house of his? There's at least fifteen, but I can never tell exactly how many because they all keep disappearing and reappearing all the time!”
“The Representative seems somewhat . . . absent-minded,” Joseph remarked carefully. Nancy giggled.
“Damn right he is. The public don't know, but he's getting a bit senile in his old age. He just sort of alternately blusters and mumbles his way through life. It's kind of sad, really, but what can you do?”
Joseph thought about this for a minute. “Still, that doesn't mean you can just run off and leave him. In any case, how long do you plan on following me?”
“Oh, I don't know,” she said airily. “Until I feel like going back, I guess.” With that, she returned her attention to the Times.
Must be nice to be so carefree, Joseph thought. Seeing that she would not be discouraged – at least not at the moment – Joseph sighed and closed his eyes as the jet began taxiing onto the runway.
Can you do it, Joseph?
You will be tested. If you seek to aid your brother, you will never be the same again. Knowing this, are you still willing to take this risk?
Very well. Let this serve as a final warning. If you truly are committed to this foolishness, I will not stop you.
“Why do you keep trying to warn me away?”
You are not strong enough for this.
“How can you say that? I don't even know what I'm getting into.”
You have no idea how true your words are.
“Who are you? Why are you inside my head?”
I am one who sees all and knows more.
“I don't trust you.”
How wise. Trust is a dangerous thing, and your utter lack of it is the only thing that may see you through the trials ahead.
“You sound like you know what's going to happen.”
Very observant of you. I already told you – I see all, and know more still.
“Then tell me, if you're so knowledgeable.”
It is forbidden. And at any rate, I would not want to if I could.
“You're not being very helpful, you know.”
I am not here to be helpful. I am here to advise you to turn back.
“I don't think so.”
As you wish. For your sake, I pray you are not as weak as you seem.
Icebound - Chapter 03
In which Joseph makes a big call
Joseph woke with a start, almost leaping forward out of his chair and colliding with Nancy, who, it appeared, had been about to stick a feather duster in his ear. When Joseph surged forward with a gasp, she froze guiltily. Joseph glared at her.
“Can I help you with something, or did you just miss a bit of dust behind my head?” he challenged her. Nancy laughed nervously, attempting to hide the offending implement behind her back. At some point during the flight, she had changed out of her uniform into a black skirt and a green blouse, and she looked a lot more comfortable for it.
“Ah . . . we've arrived,” she said.
“Good,” said Joseph absently, suddenly remembering the conversation he had been having in his sleep. He wasn't really willing to take the voice in his head for granted – after all, it wasn't every day something as bizarre as that happened – but the way he saw it, he didn't really have terribly much of a choice. He didn't like rumours of the supernatural; they went against everything he'd ever known. Even so, he was forced to admit that something strange was going on. He didn't think even the government, with their mysterious levels of advanced technology – leftovers from before the Disintegration – were capable of beaming voices directly into people's heads. He'd heard rumours, but there had been no mention of anything like this.
Deciding once again to worry about the voice later, Joseph rose from his armchair and was heading towards the door when a worrying thought struck him.
“They won't ask me to check in, will they?” he asked Nancy.
“Don't worry about it, Mister Romulus,” she reassured him, flouncing down the stairs ahead of him. Joseph noticed that she was still limping slightly. “They know Master White's jet, so they'll let us through without too much hassle.”
“I see,” Joseph said, then added as an afterthought, “Call me Joseph. 'Mister Romulus' makes me feel old.”
Nancy turned and winked at him. “Right you are, Joseph. Say, you wouldn't mind if I called you Joey, would you?”
“I can assure you that I most definitely would mind,” Joseph grumbled. “Either call me Joseph or I'll put up with Mister Romulus.”
“Aww, alright. You're no fun.”
Joseph had called his brother from White's airfield, and as promised, Victor was waiting in the arrivals terminal when Joseph and Nancy slipped through a side entrance beside the main sliding glass door that the regular passengers used. Joseph had trouble finding him in the crowd at first; there were hundreds of people bustling in all directions. Babies screamed, children played tag in between the legs of the adults and arriving passengers called out to friends and relatives in loud voices.
It took Joseph a minute or two to spot Victor hovering by a payphone near the doors, glancing nervously around. Grasping the bewildered Nancy by the arm, Joseph forged a path through the crowd towards him, hunching his shoulders and lowering his head as he did so. Even with the risk of airport security – lax though it generally was – nullified, Joseph knew he wasn't out of the woods yet.
When Victor spotted Joseph coming towards him, he rushed forward to greet him eagerly. “Joseph!” he exclaimed, pumping his hand energetically and clapping him on the back. “I'm so glad you came!”
Joseph pulled his brother into a quick bear hug before releasing him and holding him at arm's length, studying him intently.
“You've changed,” he said gruffly. “It's been five years. Damn it, I thought you might have stopped growing by now.” Victor, at twenty-four, was now almost as tall as Joseph. He had, thankfully, not chosen to wear his lab coat to the airport, favouring instead a navy-blue pinstriped suit. His black hair was cropped short, and his face seemed just a little thinner than it had been the last time the two had seen each other.
“You haven't changed a bit,” Victor countered. “I do wish you'd cut that hair, though. You look so scruffy like that.” Laughing, Joseph pulled a rubber band from his pocket and tied his shoulder-length hair back into a rough ponytail.
“Better?” he asked. Victor smiled. Joseph noted the way his brother's cheek was just a fraction tighter than it should have been. He was genuinely pleased to see his brother, Joseph could tell, but there was definitely something bothering him.
“Good. Do you have a car here? I imagine there's lots you'll want to talk about in private.”
“Yeah, I've got it parked just out the front. But first . . . who's this?” Joseph had almost forgotten about Nancy. She was standing just behind Joseph, still staring around at the crowd with a strange expression on her face that Joseph couldn't quite place.
“Oh, this is Nancy. She works for the man whose plane I borrowed to get here, so she's under my care until I get it back to him,” he lied blithely. He could hardly tell Victor that she'd bullied him into letting her come along. Victor frowned.
“I don't know, Joseph. Can you trust her?”
Joseph shrugged. “Beats me. Seems we're going to have to, though, at least to a certain extent.”
“All right. Come on, the car's this way,” Victor said, reluctantly leading the pair of them outside.
Once they were in the car, Joseph asked, “So what exactly is so important that you had to drag your big brother halfway across the world for it? Need help with your homework?”
“Something like that,” Victor said evasively, glancing nervously at Nancy in the back seat, who stared back with wide, guileless eyes. “See, I think I'm onto something – something big, but I need to take a field trip in order to see for myself. The thing is . . .”
“Let me guess. This field trip's gonna take you to some god-forsaken pit in the middle of nowhere, deep in one of the most inhospitable locales on the face of the planet, and you, like any sane man, would fear for your life stepping in there alone.”
“You're good, you know that?” Victor said, shaking his head in disbelief as he navigated his way out of the airport and onto the highway. “That's exactly it.”
“So hire bodyguards. Unless you're so broke right now that you can't afford to, of course?”
“That's not the issue here, Joseph. Teaching at university level pays quite well – there are a surprising number of wealthy families tucked away in Rome with children that want to be scientists. No, money's not a problem. I need you for this. Like I said, I think I'm onto something big here, and you're the only person in the world that I can trust with it. I've already shaken half a dozen people planted in my department. You've got to help me out here!”
Joseph's brow creased. Something was definitely at odds with Victor at the moment, and he was beginning to guess what it might be. Whatever it was that Victor was doing, there were people who wanted it for themselves. While Joseph had no idea what kind of secret project Victor was working on – he might have been cataloguing rare butterflies of the Far East for all he knew – he was aware that Victor was hardly one for chasing rainbows. His brother was far smarter than he was, and Joseph could tell that Victor wouldn't have called him all the way out to Rome lightly.
“I'll help you, Victor. Of course I will,” Joseph agreed. Even as he spoke, though, he was forcibly reminded of the cold, icy voice that had been speaking to him since Central America. If you seek to aid your brother, you will never be the same again. He had to ignore it, though. If anything, it only made him more determined to help. Joseph had a sneaking suspicion that Victor might be dealing with something that he didn't fully comprehend.
“Thank you,” said Victor, his voice tinged with barely concealed relief. “I don't know what I would have done if you'd said no.”
“What reason could I possibly have to refuse?” Joseph replied, stubbornly ignoring the little corner of his mind that was reminding him of the dire, yet vague, promises made by the voice in his head.
“I'm not going to lie to you, Joseph,” Victor said seriously. “This is going to be crazy dangerous, even for you. I hear you've made quite a name for yourself in the underworld, but seriously, this is going to be pernicious. What I mean is, we have an almost zero chance of survival on this.”
Joseph's eyes narrowed. “You're not generally one for taking risks, Victor. Why is this time so different?”
“I can't impress on you just how important this is to me, Joseph!” Victor exclaimed, waving one hand in the air while he navigated the lanes of the Roman highway. “If this comes through, it'll change the world! There's no risk too big for a payoff like that.”
Joseph fell silent, digesting his brother's declaration. This was a little unusual for the normally conservative Victor. The brother that Joseph remembered from five years ago was serious and unwilling to push himself or others. Even while they were growing up, Victor had always been a quiet, shy boy whose idea of risk at age twelve was attempting a university level maths question. While Joseph had been relatively outgoing and streetwise, Victor had stayed inside with his textbooks.
“Are you sure about this, Victor?” he asked. “You're not rushing into this without thinking, are you?
“Of course not! This has been my life for the last four years, Joseph, and it's finally coming to a head! And . . .” He paused, then continued more seriously, “It's not just that I need you to help me, Joseph. I want you there when it all comes to fruition. You're the only family I have, and that's something special to me.”
In the back seat, Nancy giggled. “Ah, brotherly love.” She shrank away from Joseph's icy glare. “Not – not that that's a bad thing, of course,” she amended quickly.
“All right, Victor,” Joseph said with a strange sense of finality that he couldn't quite explain, “I'll come with you. Where are we going?”
“We can talk details back at the lab,” Victor said. They spent the rest of the drive in mutual silence, Joseph trying to shake the sickening feeling of unease that was growing gradually more acute.
Ilium University stood about ten kilometres out of the city proper, an enormous complex built entirely from beautiful red brick. The main building had evidently been a castle at some point in its life – or was a replica of one – with soaring buttresses, magnificent scrolling towers and gigantic wooden double doors in a large, blocky gatehouse. However, Victor drove them up past the castle to a much smaller building that, despite its size, was no less of an architectural marvel.
As they approached, Joseph realised that it was not a small building at all. In truth, it was an exceedingly large one that happened to be dwarfed by its neighbour.
“You were a student here when I saw you last,” he noted as the car crunched to a stop on the sunny gravel driveway. “Didn't take you long to get a teaching job, did it?”
“I've been lecturing here since not long after I finished my Bachelor's, and they're letting me take my Masters simultaneously, so it all works out wonderfully.”
“I see,” lied Joseph, to whom Victor's sentence might as well have been gibberish for all the sense it made. Joseph had never had much of an education; the boys' father had taught them himself, but Victor was the only one who had shown any real aptitude for academia. Joseph, on the other hand, had killed his first man before his twentieth birthday.
'The lab', as it turned out, was Victor's office, a surprisingly spacious area that was still a little cramped with three people in it. Victor ushered them in, shooed them into chairs and shut and locked the door behind them. He then took his own seat behind the desk and started tapping away on the keyboard. Joseph glanced around the room. It was almost ridiculously tidy. The walls were lined with shelves full of cardboard files, all neatly labelled and alphabetised. The desk was white, fresh and dust-free, and there were no empty coffee mugs or blunted pencils lying around to betray the fact that the office was in fact in use.
“I've collected all my research on here,” Victor informed him, plugging a large, bulky metal flash drive into his hard drive. “I do keep several copies locked away, though, in case this one's stolen or destroyed.” Joseph noted that Victor hadn't mentioned losing the flash drive. Then again, he reasoned, Victor was probably obsessive compulsive enough to know exactly where everything he had ever touched was at any given point in time. Losing belongings wasn't a very Victor-ish thing to do – it never had been.
Victor continued clattering away on his keyboard while he talked. “We're going to the Amazon Jungle,” he said. “An area that used to be called Brazil.” Joseph swore loudly. Victor and Nancy both glanced at him in alarm.
“I hate that place,” muttered Joseph. “Full of mosquitoes. Sorry. Go on.”
“Anyway, there's not really much to say. I can't really tell you too much – for reasons that I assure you will become clear later – but I can say that it will involve much hiking, much jungle-walking, and a fair amount of spelunking.”
“Fantastic,” Joseph grumbled. “Hiking I can handle, but I don't do jungles or caves well. I'm a man of the urban jungle, if anything, and caves, well . . . They always bothered me for some reason.”
“I'm fine with jungles and caves!” Nancy piped up helpfully.
“Ah, yes,” murmured Victor. “That's the other issue at hand here: what to do with you?”
“Well, I'm coming along, of course!” she said brightly. “I couldn't let you go off and have all the fun without me, right? At any rate, I'll be helpful!”
Victor kneaded his brows with his fingertips. “Will she?” he asked Joseph a little despairingly. “I don't mean to be rude, miss, but look at you. You hardly seem suited for cross-country trekking.”
“She's capable,” Joseph said reluctantly. Why am I standing up for her? he wondered. “She's saved my life once already. I can't speak for her physical abilities, but she's tough.”
“Aww, that's so sweet of you,” Nancy cooed mockingly, although he could tell she was secretly pleased. “If you're worried about how I'll hold up in the Amazon, it'll be fine. You don't get to be a maid-cum-driver-cum-bodyguard for a District Representative these days without being some kind of special, after all.”
“You never told me about the bodyguard bit,” Joseph accused.
“You never asked,” she said teasingly, sticking her tongue out at him.
“All right, I'm sold on that count,” Victor sighed. “If you two would kindly stop flirting for a minute, we can get on with this. Next question: can we trust her?”
“Not a bit,” said Joseph instantly.
“Hey!” Nancy squeaked indignantly. “You just admitted that I saved your life!”
“That means nothing,” said Joseph. The words of the strange voice came back to him yet again: Trust is a dangerous thing, and your utter lack of it is the only thing that may see you through the trials ahead. He wasn't really willing to take the word of a nameless, faceless, openly hostile voice that may or may not have actually existed, but . . . he had to admit that it was good advice. He turned to Victor.
“I say we let her come along,” he declared. Victor looked puzzled, and Nancy's mouth dropped open.
“B-but,” she stammered in confusion, “y-you just said that . . . what?”
Joseph smiled. “I said we shouldn't trust you. Trusting you and letting you tag along for the ride are two completely different things,” he explained. Nancy folded her arms with a hmph and stuck her nose in the air.
“Well, I still don't think it makes sense,” she said firmly.
“How old are you, six?” Joseph said disbelievingly. He shook his head dismissively. “Ah, never mind you. Victor, what do you say?” Victor leant on the desk with his fingers steepled in front of his downturned head. He didn't speak for several seconds. Finally, he took a deep breath.
“Very well,” he said. “She comes with us. But the second it looks like she might try something, I'm expecting you to kill her.” A shiver ran down Joseph's spine at Victor's words, and for a second, he couldn't speak.
“What?” he asked quietly, staring at Victor, not quite believing what he had just heard. “You want me to consider . . . killing Nancy?” The hapless girl in question was glancing back and forth at the two of them with wide, shocked eyes.
“Only if absolutely necessary, I assure you,” Victor said, his mouth twisting slightly as if the words tasted unpleasant. “Wasn't it you who said we shouldn't trust her?”
Joseph shook his head in astonishment. “I know that, Vic,” he said, “but there's a difference between not trusting people and being bloody paranoid.”
“It's not a question of paranoia,” said Victor firmly. “It's a question of security. There are those who would have my research – and its rewards – for themselves, and there are others still who would have me dead rather than see the results. My life is unimportant at this stage, but I must see this through to the end. You have to understand that, Joseph! I'm taking a huge risk just by letting her come along – hell, letting her know where we're going might have been the most idiotic thing I've ever done!”
“Maybe it would help if you damn well told me what this 'research' of yours is!” Joseph said loudly, feeling a slight stirring of anger beginning to rise amongst the disbelief. “We could be chasing fairies with butterfly nets, for all I know, and I'm beginning to wonder just what you've gotten yourself into if it's made you go this mad!” he shouted.
“This is no madness, Joseph,” Victor countered levelly, spreading his hands flat on the desk, the picture of calm. “This is a man chasing his dream – a dream which is now achievable! But to that end, I am afraid, I must remain silent on the very intention of our quest. I am sorry.”
Joseph let himself deflate slightly, rubbing his temples with his fingers. “So what you're trying to say is this: that you can't tell us what your goal is because doing so jeopardises said goal? I'm not buying it, Victor, but I'll go along with it for one reason – because it's you. If anyone else had dragged me up on something like this, I'd have walked out of his office by now, I'll tell you that for free. I'll tell you something else, too. I can't imagine I could find any reason to kill Nancy, but listen. If such a case does arise,” he said, leaning forward so he could stare directly into his younger brother's eyes, “you can damn well kill her yourself, because I won't lay a finger on her.”
Joseph felt a hand on his arm and glanced across at Nancy, startled. She gazed back at him seriously, and when she spoke, there was a slight catch in her voice. “It's alright, Joseph. Your brother has every right to be suspicious of me, as do you. Let's just leave it at that.”
Taking a deep breath, Joseph sat back in his chair with a creak, cupping his face in his hands. “All right,” he said, his voice a little muffled. “All right. Now, please, can we pretend that this conversation never happened?”
Victor nodded, and Nancy patted him reassuringly on the arm. For some reason, the latter gesture was the more helpful to Joseph. The argument had left a bitter taste in his mouth, and something else was nagging at him, something he couldn't quite place.
“Then it's settled,” said Victor with finality, refusing to meet Joseph's eyes. “I've already made arrangements, so we'll leave for the Amazon basin tomorrow afternoon. If there's anything personal you need to stock up on for the trip, I suggest you do that today.”
“I could use a few more rounds,” Joseph muttered, flicking open the belt pouch where he kept his handgun ammunition and rummaging through it with his index finger. “I'm running low. Do you know anyone around here that does that sort of thing?”
“Joseph, do I seem like the type of person who'd know something like that?” Victor snapped.
“I was joking,” Joseph said. He hadn't been, of course. He'd simply forgotten who he was talking to. Victor wasn't a resident of the dangerous world Joseph called home, although if things kept going as they were, he'd be paying a visit fairly soon. “I'll go find it myself, then find a hotel for the night. When do you want me back here tomorrow?”
Victor seemed a little taken aback. “You'll need to turn up by eleven if we want to get things done in time. Shall I call you a cab?”
“If you don't mind.” Joseph stood abruptly and headed for the door. “Come on, Nancy,” he said without looking back. “I'm sure Victor doesn't want you . . . bothering him.” With that, he unlocked the door and strode out of Victor's office without looking back, Nancy trailing in his wake, clearly back in full ditz mode.
“You don't have to pretend to be so innocent,” he told her as he set a brisk pace towards the entrance. “Victor's a clever man. Don't insult his intelligence.”
“I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about,” she said, glancing up at him with wide eyes. So very green, he noticed.
“Stop doing that,” he grumbled, looking away from her and focusing on where he was going.
“Doing what?” she asked, puzzled.
Joseph found his man in a seedy little back-street shop in one of the scungiest, grubbiest districts of Rome. And that was saying something, Joseph mused as he stepped around another putrid greenish-brown puddle. He had heard tales of the glory and beauty of Rome, but from what he had seen so far, he was not impressed. The city was nothing more than a labyrinth of filth and poverty, not unlike his hometown of New York. Rome was something different again, though. While the denizens of New York were, on the whole, proud to be what they were and relatively happy, the Romans that Joseph encountered while wending his way through the labyrinth had been little more than shuffling zombies, keeping their heads down as they passed and refusing to speak to him. There was an air of gloom pervading the grimy streets that made Joseph shudder.
“Do you get the feeling we're not wanted?” Nancy remarked as she skipped daintily around the stagnant puddles.
“I get the feeling that nobody is wanted,” Joseph said drily. “These people are . . . strange. I've never been to Europe before, but I heard the Disintegration hit worse here than it did anywhere else. Sound right to you?”
“Why are you asking me?” Nancy asked. “Do I look like a history textbook to you?”
“You look more like one than I do, at any rate,” Joseph commented. “I never got any education after age fourteen.”
“Oh?” said Nancy curiously. “And why's that?”
“That was when my father died,” Joseph said.
“Ah,” said Nancy, then fell silent.
“It wasn't long after my fourteenth birthday. In just a couple of months, I'll have gone half of my entire life without him. You stop being upset fairly quickly.”
“I know,” she said quietly; so quietly, in fact, that he could not be entirely sure whether she had actually said anything at all.
“This is the place,” Joseph announced, thankful for the distraction. It was a small, dirty-looking shop with a badly drawn shotgun painted on the inside of the window. There was a large, cracked board hanging over the door at an odd angle with a few scraps of peeling, faded red paint hanging limply from it. It might have once borne the shop's name or some kind of legend, but it was well illegible by now.
Joseph pushed the door open confidently and stepped into the shop's gloomy interior. Everything about the tiny room in which he found himself reeked of old age, including the shaggy-haired, wizened old man behind the crooked counter. Joseph wasted no time, pulling his favourite handgun from his belt and placing it on the counter.
“Four dozen,” he said sharply. The old man reached out and picked up the gun, hands shaking. He inspected it closely, running his hands carefully over every inch of the weapon. Then he nodded, grunted, and handed it back to Joseph before disappearing through a door behind the counter. Joseph replaced the gun at his side, nodding in satisfaction.
A couple of minutes later, the old man hobbled out of the door again, carrying several small boxes, which he placed onto the counter. Opening one of them, he took out a shiny bronze bullet and handed it to Joseph for approval. Joseph took it and examined it.
“Perfect,” he said. “How much?”
“For four dozen? Two hundred and sixty.” The old man's voice was scratchy, as if he was unused to using it.
“That's absurd!” Nancy burst out, but Joseph cut her off with a sharp wave of his hand.
“That sounds reasonable,” he said, counting out notes and handing them to the old man. He then picked up all the boxes from the counter and strode out of the shop, leaving Nancy to follow him, still raging.
“It's daylight robbery, that's what it is!” she protested indignantly. “There's no way charging two hundred and sixty for forty-eight bullets makes any sense whatsoever!”
“It's fine,” Joseph said, stowing the boxes away inside his coat.
“No, it's not fine! It's ridiculous!” she continued. Joseph sighed and quickened his pace. Nancy jogged after him. “And you, as well! How could you agree to pay that much?”
Joseph stopped suddenly and turned to glare at her. “Three points, Nancy. One: why do you care so much? It's not your money I'm spending. Two: even though he did overcharge me, it wasn't as much as you might think. Those are quality bullets for a quality gun, and are hard to come by anywhere in the world. We've been to seven firearm dealers this afternoon, Nancy. Seven, and not one of them stocked them. Three: the poor man probably barely makes enough money to feed himself. I might be a cold-hearted mercenary, but I'm not a monster. Overcharging like that is the only way people like him survive!” Turning back the way he had been going, Joseph marched off again. After a few seconds, he glanced back over his shoulder and saw that Nancy was still standing in the middle of the street, looking at her toes. Perplexed, Joseph went back to stand in front of her.
“I . . . guess I didn't think of it that way,” she said in a small voice. “I'm sorry.”
“Damn it, girl, liven up,” Joseph growled. “You're no fun when you're sulking. I didn't mean to get mad with you.” Why am I the one apologising? he wondered absently as he clapped her on the shoulder. Nancy looked up and smiled.
“I was beginning to worry about you,” she said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I only knew you by reputation before, you see,” she explained, “and the rumours were pretty terrible. That you were a heartless man who killed everyone who got in his way, that you enjoyed barbecuing cats for fun -”
Joseph snorted. “Barbecuing cats? Where the hell did they get that idea from?”
Nancy shook her head. “See, I don't know. People made you out to be some kind of awful, twisted human being, and even after meeting you, I couldn't be sure they weren't right. Just today, though . . .” She trailed off, looking up at the slowly dimming sky.
“What?” Joseph asked, feeling a little uncomfortable.
“Today, when I saw you arguing with your brother, and just now . . . it made you seem much more human, I think.”
“And I wasn't before?” Joseph was bewildered.
“Like I said, before I didn't know what you were. You were an unknown – just another bounty hunter with a bit more attitude than the rest. I wasn't working for the Representative when you last came to visit, but the others told me about you.”
“I bet they were complimentary.”
“Oh, hardly. They had one of the other girls convinced that you ate souls at one point, I think.”
“That sounds like Romulus,” he said wryly.
“Yes, it does,” Nancy agreed, “but it doesn't sound at all like Joseph Hart.” Punching him on the shoulder, she skipped around him and on down the street. “Come on, let's go get a cab and find a hotel. I'm tired.”
Joseph didn't move for a good ten seconds, staring after her with a wondering expression on his face. He had to admit that, despite his own philosophy of ignoring everybody else in the world, he was starting to warm to the girl.
As he started after her at a jog, a cool tinkle of laughter trickled through his mind, sending an unpleasant shiver throughout his body.