Authors: Aaron Allston
Tags: #Science fiction
From the corner, he looked up at her fourth-story window, saw that it was still lit. She was awake, obviously waiting for him.
The main entrance's outer door was unlocked. Not so with the inner door. He stood there fiddling with his keychain for a couple of minutes before he remembered that she'd taken his key.
Dammit. He'd have to climb the fire escape. On the other hand, she used to like that.
Would that make him a stalker? He frowned over that one. Maybe he'd follow her around until she got scared and got a restraining order and he did something stupid and they made a TV-movie about him. The thought bothered him.
He went around to the 11th Street side of the building and looked up at the fire escape. It seemed higher than usual. There was a car, actually a stretch limo, illegally parked near it, and he debated trying a jump from its roof, but decided that was impolite.
It took him three jumps to catch the bottom of the fire escape, and a greater effort than usual to haul himself up onto its bottom level. He must have gained weight, too, because his exertion set this whole part of the world rocking just like his apartment. He lay there resting while he waited for the world to steady itself.
Below him, three men in dressy long coats came around the corner and headed for the limo. One was an old man, but the second was big like a football player. The third one, the one with the hat worn low and the big, lumpy duffel bag over his shoulder, was so tall that Harris could have reached down and plucked his hat off, so broad that bodybuilders could have bitten small pieces off him for a steroid fix. It was probably a good thing that Harris hadn't left footprints all over their limo.
The old man was saying, "—plenty of time to get to the great lawn, but there's no sense in dilly-dallying." Then they were climbing into the limo, slamming doors, driving off.
Leaving Harris alone.
Resting was nice, but Gaby was still two stories up. He reluctantly rose and began climbing the narrow, shaky metal steps of the fire escape.
Gaby floated up into wakefulness. The side of her face still hurt where
She veered away from thinking about
. This wasn't hard. There was plenty to occupy her attention.
She was folded up in fetal position, wrapped in what felt like heavy linen. The air was so close and warm she found it hard to breathe. She was being jolted up and down, but was up against a hard surface: muscle over bone, someone's back, a very broad back.
back. She was being carried.
She groped around as much as she could—not easy, as she was tightly pinned—and reached over her head. There was a small hole above her, drawn nearly closed by cords; she twisted and looked up through it, seeing nighttime clouds.
She was in a bag. They'd stuffed her into a duffel bag and were carrying her around like so much laundry.
Laundry. Fully awake and furious, she shoved up against the hole and shouted, "Hey! Call the police! I'm being kidnapped! Can anyone hear me?"
didn't slacken his pace, but Gaby felt a sharp knock against the side of her head. It hurt. She stopped shoving; she rubbed where the blow had landed. "Hey!"
It was the old man's voice: "If you make any more noise, Miss Donohue, I'm going to have Adonis here let you out of the bag and punish you. It wants to punish you. It will enjoy doing so."
And she felt a rumbling from the back of the thing carrying her. It sounded like deep, quiet laughter.
Her stomach went cold. Adonis' face—God, what was he? She didn't want to look at that face again. She didn't want to see it turn angry. And she understood, with crystal certainty, that the moves she'd once learned in self-defense class were not going to impress
She sat still.
After another minute of walking, Adonis swung her down. She didn't hit the ground hard, but she landed on a sharp rock hard enough to bruise her rear.
The old man spoke again. "Just relax here for a few minutes and everything will be fine. We don't want to hurt you." His accent sounded strange—as though it were part German, part English.
She said, "Can I ask you something?"
"No. Be silent."
Fuming, she did as she was told.
Harris trotted along the tree-lined footpath and prayed to God he'd heard right. Prayed that Mr. Crenshaw had done as Harris had asked. But Harris had completed almost an entire circuit around Central Park's Great Lawn and had seen nothing but a pair of tough-looking kids who'd eyed him speculatively as he ran past.
When he'd reached Gaby's window on the fire escape, he'd looked in and seen a man in a bathrobe—thin, balding Mr. Crenshaw, Gaby's neighbor—talking on the phone in Gaby's bedroom. Crenshaw looked alarmed as he talked, and hung up almost as soon as Harris spotted him.
Harris knocked on the window, and Crenshaw went from his usual sunless color to nearly true white. Then the man recognized Harris. He threw open the window and started babbling.
"Someone took her, a really huge son of a bitch. Her door's all over the living room. Thank God they didn't see me. I've called the police . . . "
Something like an electrical current jolted Harris. All of a sudden he had a hard time breathing. On the other hand, he didn't feel drunk anymore.
He told Mr. Crenshaw what he'd heard the old man say. "Call the police again, tell them what I saw." Then he ran back down the fire escape.
Now, as he reached the footpath opposite the Met, the point where he'd started his circuit of the Great Lawn, he had no illusions that he wasn't drunk. Keeping his balance while he ran was an interesting effort, and whenever he stood still, his surroundings spun slowly counterclockwise. At least he was alert.
No sign of the three guys or Gaby. Maybe the old man was talking about the really great lawn he had in front of his house in Queens or something. Harris cursed and turned off the footpath, crossing through a fringe of trees onto the grass of the Great Lawn itself. It spread out before him, a featureless plain of darkness.
Please, God, let him find Gaby. And if he couldn't find her right away, please give him a mugger. Someone he could beat and beat in order to release the howling fear and rage he felt building inside him.
As he was making his second crossing of the lawn he saw them. Three reverse silhouettes off in the darkness, given away by their tan coats. He turned their way and trotted as quietly as he could. In his jeans, jeans jacket, and dark shirt, he thought maybe he wouldn't be spotted too fast.
When he was a few yards away he was sure it was them, and he could see the duffel bag resting on the ground several yards from them. It lay on a line of white rocks twenty feet long.
He was confused. A second line crossed the first at right angles in the middle. The two lines were surrounded by a circle of more white rocks.
X Marks the Spot. Under other circumstances, he would have laughed.
The three men were huddled, talking, just outside the circle of stones, and still hadn't seen him. He picked up speed, saw the old man notice his presence and turn.
He came up off his jumping foot and brought the same leg up before him in extension—a flying side kick he could tell was picture-perfect. It took the biggest man in the side and the impact jarred Harris from foot to gut.
The huge man felt as though he were made of skin stretched over Jell-O, but he still fell over backwards, hissing out a gasp of air. Harris hit the ground hard but scrambled up instantly. "Gaby?"
The bag said, "Harris?" and her arm reached out of it.
The old man merely said, "Mine." He took a step toward Harris and reached under his coat.
Harris saw the glint of the gun's slide in the moonlight. He threw a hard block, cracking his forearm into the older man's wrist, and the pistol went flying into the darkness.
The old man stepped back, grabbing at his wrist and frowning. "Phipps, I need this young man removed. Adonis, get up."
"Gaby, get the hell out of here!"
The man with the football player's build stood his ground and pulled something out from under his armpit.
Harris felt fear clutching at him, but he charged and side-kicked just as Phipps got his revolver out into the open. His kick connected, driving the man's arm hard into his chest, cracking something, knocking the man clean off his feet.
The gun dropped, but Phipps sat up and scrabbled around for it with his good arm. Harris stepped forward again and rotated through a spinning side kick, straight out of tournament demonstrations, and felt a satisfying crack as his foot connected. Phipps flopped back hard, his head banging on the ground.
Harris almost grinned. From the opening bell to the knockout, one point five seconds. Not bad for a drunk loser. He bent over, grabbed up Phipps' revolver, and swung it around to aim.
The huge man's gloved hand clamped on the barrel and yanked. The gun fired into nothingness and came out of Harris' grip, stinging his hand. The huge man flung it off into the darkness. With his free hand, he pulled his hat away from his head and looked down at Harris. Moonlight illuminated his face.
With his build, he couldn't be old. But his skin, cinnamon brown, hung in packed layers of wrinkles like earthworms laid lengthwise. No mouth or ears were discernible, but there were eyes, animal's eyes, deep in the mass of wrinkles. Harris took an involuntary step back, looking for the sign, the seam that proved this was a mask.
But the mouth opened. It was too large and wide to belong to any human. No man or woman possessed a forest of sharklike teeth like those. This was no mask. It twisted into a smile.
The Smile mocked him.
Gaby shoved her way out of the bag and looked around frantically. No one was paying her any attention.
Just yards away was the broad back of Adonis. The big . . . thing . . . was moving away from her. Toward Harris.
He looked scared. No wonder. He was looking right into Adonis' face. But he dropped into his tae kwon do stance and shouted, "Gaby, run!"
Gaby scrambled to her feet and hesitated. She couldn't just run out on Harris. But, no, if she could get over to the street, maybe she could flag down a cop. That's what everybody needed just now. She turned and bolted.
Right into the old man's arms.
He grabbed her almost tenderly, but he was a lot stronger than an elderly businessman should be. "You can't leave," he said, calmly, persuasively. "It's only half a minute until—"
." She kneed him in the balls.
His testicles seemed to have been in good working order; he bent over with a grunt of surprise and pain, but he didn't let go. She kneed him again, then slammed the edge of her heel down across his ankle. This time he did let go, staggering to one side. She ran.
One last glance for Harris. He was still up, his body angling back as he directed a kick against Adonis' knee. She heard the crack of the impact but wasn't surprised when Adonis didn't fall or react to the blow. Harris wobbled from the exertion but was still fast enough to elude Adonis' quick return blow.
Then Gaby got up to speed and raced toward the concealment of the trees.
Harris heard her go but kept his eye on his opponent. The thing called Adonis was big and fast, and the sharp bits on the ends of its wrinkled fingers looked suspiciously like
. . . and Harris was still drunk. He had to stay focused, now more than in any match he'd ever fought.
Harris backed away, staying just outside the thing's easy range, and circled around his opponent. Adonis came at him again, swinging a paw as big as a tennis racquet; Harris danced backward, saw how his opponent's too-energetic swings were pulling him off balance. Another missed slash with those claws, and Harris darted in, planting a hard side kick into Adonis' gut. He scrambled back before Adonis could recover. Adonis' mockery of a face twisted in something like pain. So it
Movement in his peripheral vision: the old man was up, his face a mask of anger; he limped in the direction Gaby had fled. But he was moving so slowly there was little chance he'd catch her. At least he wasn't groping for his pistol.
Adonis slashed again, swinging wide. Harris stepped in, launching the same kick he'd succeeded with a second ago, and saw too late that the Adonis' maneuver was a feint; as Harris' heel connected hard with Adonis' gut, the big thing's left paw sliced across his kicking leg.
Harris felt fire flash across the back of his thigh, felt claws rip through his flesh as if through cloth. Almost blinded by the sudden pain, he staggered back, away from his opponent. He regained his balance and touched the injury with his hand.
His palm came away covered with blood. The gash was long, maybe deep as well, and probably fatal if he stood around bleeding while he fought the thing that had made it.
As his vision cleared, he saw that he'd backed onto the circle of stones, and that his kick had actually taken Adonis off its feet again.
Then the world started to change.
Impossibly, the high-rise buildings on the far side of Central Park West began to grow, stretching taller but growing no thinner, curving like bowed legs. Harris gaped at the optical illusion, momentarily forgetting the clawed thing on the ground in front of him. The buildings rose as tall as the Empire State Building, and taller. The trees in the middle distance were growing, too, tall as redwoods.
Adonis stood up in front of him—and oh, God, the thing with the inhuman face was now twice the height of a man, now three times, still growing, and striding closer and closer to the circle of stones, looming over Harris, leering down at him.
Vertigo seized him. He swayed back from Adonis, struggling to keep his balance, tasting bile in his mouth—
Then the world popped.
It was as if he'd been in a giant soap-bubble that magnified the appearance of everything outside it, and suddenly the bubble burst. Harris' ears popped, his vision swam as everything in it swayed and changed, and he fell over backwards on sharp white rocks. They ground into his spine and shoulder blades.