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Authors: Lucius Shepard

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BOOK: The Golden
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He had assumed
that the dummy would only react to an attack, but now, having offered
no attack, staring at that oddly inimical wooden head, at the scarred
body with its faded valentine heart, he knew that he had been wrong,
that some undreamed-of scientific miracle had invested it with deadly
independence. The dummy struck at him, its weirdly articulated joints
lending a mantislike stiffness to its movements, but moving far more
rapidly than any crawling thing, the persistent click and clatter of
its limbs adding a sinister value to its violent intent. It was all
Beheim could do to fend off its attack, let alone mount one of his
own, and as he was driven across the room he thought that the best he
could hope for was that once he had been severely wounded, whatever
regulation governed the dummy would be satisfied and it would desist.
The dummy’s saber notched his shoulder. Sliced his chest. In
desperation, he ducked under the swung blade and grappled with the
thing, his face pressed against the cool, smooth oval of its head;
but it began to shiver and shake, to jerk uncontrollably, and he was
thrown to the floor. He rolled away from a downstroke, came to his
feet, and sprinted toward the pole at the center of the room, hoping
to reach the buttons and switch the dummy off; but it made an
unearthly, ungainly leap, going unbelievably high, that carried it
across the room in time to block his path. It turned to him, its
limbs coordinating in a horrid mechanical rhythm that caused him to
picture a crab stalking along the sea bottom toward some helpless
pulpy victim.

As it confronted
him, its head tipped to the side as if in perplexed study, saber
pointing toward his chest, the grain of the pale brown wood seemed to
contrive an eerie, eyeless face. He could have sworn he sensed a
faint radiation like the presence of personality from the thing, and
he had the feeling it was assessing him in some way, matching his
skills with an array of tactical possibilities. “I yield,”
he said, hoping against all rationality that it would hear him. He
glanced over at Mikolas. Still down. Alexandra had not moved. “Stop,”
he said to the dummy, wondering if it might not respond to a simple
command, a magic word.

The dummy took a
step forward, holding its saber in an unusual high guard up by its
cheek, blade pointing to the ceiling. It stood still a moment, then
initiated a whirling attack, wielding the saber in great circles, at
times aiming slashes at Beheim while its back was turned, moving at
incredible speed. Beheim dove to the floor, tried to cut the wires
attached to its legs, but could not penetrate its defense. He
regained his feet and backed away, unable to do other than protect
himself. He was tiring badly. Each parried blow sent a shock into his
elbows. The sword grew heavy, the grip slick with sweat. He closed
with the dummy a second time and wrenched at its head, its arms,
hoping to tear them off, but was thrown off again before he could do
any real damage.

And then,
without warning, it went limp, hanging from its wires as impotent as
a marionette, head down, sword trailing on the floor. Beheim, who had
been in the process of scrambling to his feet, sagged back. He saw
Alexandra standing by the pole, bashing at the control buttons with a
mace. The children were still sitting in listless poses beneath the
window, their blond hair glowing in a spill of wintry light so
clearly defined it might have been a tilted column of crystal; their
eyes were like smudges in their white faces. Mikolas was crawling
feebly in the direction of the door, leaving a smeared track of blood
as he went. After a bit he stopped crawling and sat there, his legs
tucked beneath him, holding his wounded stomach. With a mighty
effort, Beheim got to his knees. Once he had managed to catch his
breath, he stood, walked over, and kicked Mikolas in the chest,
laying him out flat. Mikolas gasped and closed his eyes. When he
opened them, Beheim stabbed him in the throat, turning the blade to
widen the wound, and then in the groin. He felt tremendous joy well
up inside him. Blood filmed over Mikolas’s lips. He tried to
speak, but the wound in his throat prevented it; he stared at Beheim
with black intensity, and Beheim looked quickly away.

“Enough!”
said Alexandra. “There’s no purpose to this, not unless
you intend to kill him.”

“Now,
there’s an idea!”

“No.”
She closed her long fingers about his wrist; for an instant there
seemed to be a flurry of lights and darks in her eyes. “This
has not helped to ease matters between the Valeas and the de Czeges.
I don’t want it to go any further.”

“As you
wish then,” he said. “But I refuse to have him hounding
me during the remainder of the investigation. Give me the mace.”

“What are
you going to do?”

“Break his
legs. That should take two or three days to heal.”

Mikolas rolled
away, trying to reach his sword. Beheim hauled him back by his belt
and held him while he thrashed and fumed; a pinkish liquid bubbled
from his throat—the wound was healing quickly.

“What of
his brother?” Alexandra asked. “And what of the rest of
the de Czeges? Their legs will be whole.”

“One of
them, at least, will no longer pose a threat.” Beheim stretched
out a hand to her. “Give it to me.”

“I don’t
trust you,” she said after a pause. “I’ll do it.”

“Don’t
be ridiculous! Go and see to the children.”

“What’s
the use of that? If we take them away from him, they’ll only
return. You know that.”

He continued
holding out his hand, and with obvious reluctance, she passed him the
mace and walked off toward the window where the children were
sitting.

“You
know,” Beheim said to Mikolas without looking him in the eyes,
“I understand you. I used to arrest men like you. Sometimes I
had to kill them. I understand you very well.”

He tapped the
mace lightly against Mikolas’s knee, watched the leg stiffen in
anticipation. Then he raised the mace high and brought it down on the
kneecap with all his strength, shattering bone, smashing the fabric
of the trousers down into a mire of blood and cartilage. A
high-pitched whining escaped from Mikolas’s lips, and he lost
consciousness. Beheim crushed the other kneecap with a second blow
and sat patiently, waiting for him to wake up. Alexandra, he saw, was
kneeling beside the children, ministering in some way to one of them.
Finally Mikolas stirred. His eyes fluttered open. Focused on Beheim.

“Now I’m
going to tell
you
a story,” said Beheim, pushing
Mikolas’s face to the side with the ball of the mace so that he
was unable to use the power of his eyes. “Not so long ago in
Paris there was a maniac who had killed four women with his hands. He
was, as a matter of fact, a man very much like you. A physical
marvel, possessed of inhuman strength. We could see that from the
brutal things he’d done to the bodies. He sent us messages,
laughing at us, challenging us to find him. He boasted that he would
kill anyone who dared come near him. He wrote poems about our
stupidity and mailed them to the newspapers. Eventually we discovered
who he was, but since he lived on the streets, in the sewers, any
dark place that he could dominate with his strength, it was no easy
task to bring him to ground. At long last, however, we managed to
trap him in Montparnasse one night, and we chased him up onto the
rooftops.”

Alexandra came
up beside him and started to speak, but he held up a hand, urging her
to silence. “Just give me a moment,” he said. “I’m
almost finished here.”

Mikolas tried to
turn his head, to look at Alexandra, but Beheim gave him another firm
push with the ball of the mace.

“The
houses in that particular section of Montparnasse are set very close
together,” he went on. “Many of the streets no more than
alleys, the alleys barely wide enough to permit a grown man passage.
The rooftops are like a country all their own, a terrain of odd peaks
and gables and steep slopes, all tiled and slick underfoot even in
dry weather. A dangerous place to hunt so formidable a man as our
maniac. We knew he could not escape us. We had cordoned off an area
of several blocks. Sooner or later we were bound to catch him, either
on the streets or on the rooftops. But we had two concerns. First, we
did not want to take many casualties. If we flooded the rooftops with
men, the maniac would almost certainly be able to kill several of
them. Perhaps more. He would leap upon them from some dark cranny and
rip them apart or throw them off the roof. We would have to be very
cautious. Yet at the same time speed was of the essence, for we
believed that if we did not catch him soon, he would succeed in
breaking into one of the apartments and wreak havoc upon those
dwelling there. Naturally we were attempting to evacuate the
buildings, but at that time of night it was a slow and laborious
process. The chances of our completing it before the maniac decided
to effect entry were negligible, indeed.

“A
compelling problem, don’t you agree? Seemingly one without a
happy solution.” Beheim nudged Mikolas with the mace. “I
wonder how you would have solved it. You would have burned the whole
damned area down, I’d imagine. You see, men like you are not
accustomed to operating under constraints. They believe that such
constraints are enfeebling, that men like me who suffer them are
witlings, easy prey. But they’re wrong to believe that. Those
constraints breed a certain type of canny strength that is often the
downfall of men like you, men who put their faith in willfulness and
brute force.”

He noticed
Alexandra staring at him and, annoyed, said, “What is it? Where
are the children?”

“Both the
boys are dead,” she said tonelessly. “The girl . . .
perhaps she will live. I’ve sent her on an errand. She’ll
be in good hands.”

He glanced at
the two blond, still forms seated beneath the window. Their deaths
seemed almost irrelevant to the loathing he felt for Mikolas, to add
no more than a thin wash of color to his emotions, and he thought now
that this was because he had long since given up on them. And yet
knowing that they were dead changed him in one way, making him less
interested in confiding in Mikolas, more eager to get on with things.

“I’m
not going to tell you the rest of my story,” he said to
Mikolas. “Though perhaps I should tell you how it ended. We did
not lose a single man, and ten minutes after I went alone onto the
rooftops, the maniac took his own life.” He bent close to
Mikolas, keeping his head still with the mace. “I’m not
afraid of you,” he whispered. “I want you to come after
me. That is, if you’re man enough. If you think you can face me
without running to your brother for assistance. I’m sure you’ll
be tempted to turn what is essentially a personal matter into a feud
with the Agenors, but consider what that says about the caliber of
your manhood. Frankly I don’t think it’s in you to engage
in a conflict that you’re not absolutely certain of winning.
You’re a coward, a bully. And not such a formidable bully at
that. You couldn’t kill me here, on your own ground, and
anywhere else it’s going to be easy for me. I’ll be
waiting.”

He pushed
himself up to his feet and sent the mace skittering across the floor
into a far corner, and with Alexandra in tow, he left Mikolas to his
hatred and his pain.

As they walked
along a corridor that led away from the gray room, Alexandra kept
looking expectantly at him, and finally she said, “Aren’t
you going to tell me?”

“Tell you
what?”

“What
happened on the rooftops of Montparnasse. With you and the maniac.
I’m curious how you managed it.”

In one of the
rooms nearby a clock was tolling midnight; from the distance came
terrified shouts, wild laughter, then a tinny clangor, and the
convergence of these sounds, their hollow resonance and dark
specificity, reawakened Beheim to the alien immensity of his
environment. Alexandra’s face, despite its loveliness, its
openness, struck him as being a devious contrivance, as threatening
and perplexing as the blank wooden face of the fencing dummy. Secrets
flashed and darted in the shifting currents of her green irises. Give
nothing away, he thought. Show the world a face empty of everything
except that which they want to believe of you. He felt suddenly,
disastrously weary, exhausted by the poisons of fatigue and
adrenaline. He wanted to rest, to stop his thoughts from spinning in
their unstable orbits.

“No,”
he told her. “Not for now, anyway.”

Chapter
Nine

S
everal levels beneath the room where they had fought with Mikolas,
they found a large unoccupied chamber with whitewashed walls and
plaster angels that flowed from the molding in the corners of the
ceiling, their grave, contemplative faces seeming to guarantee the
sanctity of the space they overlooked; it was furnished with two
overstuffed chairs, a chest of drawers, and the wreck of an ebony
bed, one of its legs broken, its tented canopy half-collapsed, that
was big enough and sufficiently morbid in design—the frieze on
the headboard depicted a crowd of tormented faces—to serve as a
funeral barge. Two lanterns hung from the ceiling; when lit, they
burned with a pale constant flame. They wedged the chest of drawers
beneath the bed, succeeding thereby in placing the mattress on more
or less even keel, and once this was done, Beheim stripped off his
bloody shirt, stretched out, and closed his eyes. Alexandra, however,
went pacing about the room, and after five minutes or so had passed
and she continued to pace, Beheim propped himself up on an elbow and
asked what was troubling her.

“I’m
not troubled,” she said. “Just a little nervous. I’m
always a little nervous.”

“Are you
worried that the de Czeges will come after us tonight?”

BOOK: The Golden
12.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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