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THE COUNCIL OF SHADOWS

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER ONE:

 

Ellen Tarnowski ran through the darkness, darkness so thick that the jungle was merely shapes of a deeper black.

Branches flogged at her naked body, ripping and stinging, stinging again as sweat ran down her body in the hot airless night. Rocks cut at her feet, and mud clung. Breath rasped in and out through a mouth gone dry as old leather, though she struggled to keep it even, as years of cross-country running had taught her. Fear made her heart thunder between her ribs, and her hands were outstretched to keep her from running into a tree-trunk. They did nothing when a foot came down on emptiness. With a scream she pitched forward and tumbled down the slope, clutching at bushes that cut her hands and wrenched loose strands of her long yellow hair.

Behind her came a high racking snarl that built up into a great squalling feline screech. There was the rage of hunger in it, and killing-lust, and an appalling hint of laughter.

The tumble ended with a thump that knocked the breath out of her, in a little clearing of waist-high grass and flowers that showed like pale trumpets in the night. Clouds parted above, and great strange colored stars shone like jewels around a pale moon. Ellen pushed herself backward with hands and heels, her eyes going wider.

A tiger flowed down the slope and slunk into the open. It was night-shade itself, striped in black-on-black, its eyes pools of molten sulfur yellow. It snarled like an ivory-fanged saw as it came forward, placing its paws with slow precision. As the teeth showed a voice sounded in Ellen's mind, hatefully familiar, soft-toned and musical.

Hallo, chérie. 'allo, my sweet tasty curvy little blond won-ton dumpling of delight! Let's play now, shall we? Play-play-play!

It came closer, taunting in its sleek fluid grace. Then its muscles rippled beneath the midnight coat as it crouched to spring.

Now, how about a nice cozy scream? Fear first, mousey-girl. Then the agony. Then the blood, your lovely blood...

Ellen did scream as it leapt. Then another streak came through the darkness. The arcs met in midair, and the two huge cats went tumbling over in a blur of striking paws tipped with claws like knives, gleaming fangs and blazing yellow eyes. The newcomer was more massively built, as much like a bear as a cat, tawny-colored, with heavy hulking forelimbs and seven-inch fangs that jutted saber-like below its jaws. The tumble ended with both rearing and hammering at each other in a blurring frenzy of paw-strokes.

Ellen screamed again, this time in rage. A sword lay near her on the ground, its silvery curved blade marked with glyphs that blazed back the moonlight. She snatched it up, darted in and struck a long lashing blow with both hands on the hilt, as if it were a forehand smash in a game of tennis. The black hide of the tiger parted and blood spilled, the red nearly black itself in the night. She struck again and again and again, lost in the hate that possessed her—

And woke.

"Uhhh. Uhhhh. Uhhhh."

She gasped for breath, feeling her sweat soaking the sheet and suddenly turning cold and gelid, eyes blinking in the light of the bedside lamp. Adrian's hand closed on her arm, careful not to make her feel constrained as a hug might.

"You're awake, darling. You're awake. I'm here."

She grabbed him with a sudden convulsive movement, burrowing into the strength and warmth as his arms closed around her gently. The big room had the still darkness that comes an hour before dawn, and she could smell the sea and cool scents of dew and rock through the balcony windows. After a few moments she began to shiver in reaction, her skin turning to goosebumps. Adrian wrapped her in a blanket and pulled her back against him, rocking her slightly as her dry sobs wound down.

"That was a bad one," she said. "Adrian, was that saber-tooth you?"

He nodded, the chin moving against her head. "Yes. I walked into that part of the dream."

Ellen felt dizzy with exhaustion. "Why didn't you kill her?"

"Too risky, my sweet one. That wasn't Adrienne. Adrienne is dead; what you saw in your dream was a memory, a projection, part of your own psyche. Only you could kill it safely. As you killed Adrienne herself. You were very brave, then and now."

Ellen sighed wearily. "I wish killing the memories was as easy," she said. "I just got around my childhood and then I get more trauma dumped on me. Dad goes, Adrienne steps into the all-powerful-nightmare-abuser slot."

"I am so sorry, my darling," Adrian said softly.

She thumped her fist against his back in weak anger. "Not your fault! You didn't do it!"

Then she was too tired to speak, but too shivering-taut to sleep. Adrian laid her down, stripped off the sopping sheets, and began kneading the muscles along her spine with strong expert fingers. There were muted clicks as things adjusted and relaxed; then he covered her again and brought a glass.

"Drink," he said. "You need to hydrate and get your blood-sugar up."

It was sweet lemonade; the landlady of the pensione kept a carafe of it in their rooms, squeezed each day from the grove that surrounded the building. She drank it gratefully and lay back in his embrace, cocooned in the blankets.

"Sleep, darling, sleep. I will watch over you."

 

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"Urrgggh," she said.

Ellen knuckled at her eyes. Adrian waited until she'd blinked them clear before sitting down on the edge of the bed. Bright sunlight spilled through the louvers of the bedroom window, falling over the hatched tile floor and cream-colored stucco of the walls and the tumbled linen of the bedding. She sighed and leaned her head against the flat muscle of his shoulder, like hard living rubber under the soft fine-grained olive skin.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"I am sorry that you have the dreams," he said. "I'm glad that I can help."

"Oh, brother, do you ever!" she said, and sighed. "It can't be much fun, being on honeymoon with someone who wakes up screaming every five or six days, and... well, you know, freezes up sometimes."

He chuckled. "Anyone else would be catatonic, or dead, or mad beyond help after six months as my sister's prisoner. You are a very strong person, my love."

Ellen laughed too, ruefully, stretching, aware that she smelled a little of stale fear-sweat.

"I'm sort of a stinky person right now. I'll go shower."

"And I will see to breakfast," he said.

God, he's tactful, she thought—right now she wasn't in the mood for a shower à deux, something they often enjoyed.

But then again, he's telepathic. Men keep saying women expect them to read their minds. It's a little odd being married to one who really can do it.

Adrian was usually fairly tactful about reading her actual thoughts, but apparently he couldn't help picking up her feelings. The really important thing was that he cared about them, too, but actually knowing for a fact what they were made him feel marvelously sensitive.

The hot water leached tension out of her muscles; she let it cascade over her face and sighed.

A new life, she thought. After a near-death experience... I donít really miss my old one. In the old one, I didnít have Adrian. But I do miss being normal, the way I was back in Santa Fe. Funky artsie normal, at least. I wonder whatís happening back there? Have they forgotten me already? How did they react when I just... vanished?

 

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The Santa Fe fire department were turning off their hoses; dank steam rose into the night, and chilly water dripped from the buildings to either side where they'd sprayed to keep the flames from spreading; there was a blank wall across the street. It was high-desert winter, cold, dry, moonlight visible on the white peaks of the Sangres floating off to the north. No city stink, which he liked; there were only sixty thousand people in what passed for New Mexicoís capital city.

Capital large town, maybe, Eric Salvador thought.

"So what made it burn down, hey?" he asked the investigator from the Fire Marshal's office.

"Arson," she said to the detective. "And it burned up."

"Yeah, arson. Some specifics would be nice, Alice," he said.

"That's the thing. I can't find any reason it should have burned. None of the usual indicators. It just did."

"Very much."

He ducked under the yellow Police tape, a stocky man of thirty or so with a mustache and a blue jowl who'd put on a few pounds lately, not many, not enough to hide his hard outlines, with his coarse black hair still in a high-and-tight. There was a deep scar across one olive cheek, and he rubbed at it with a thumb; it hurt a little sometimes, where the flying metal of the IED had cracked the bone. The scar ran down under his mustache, giving a bit of a quirk to his mouth.

"One thing I can tell you," the investigator said. "This thing burned hot."

"Heavy accelerants? I can't smell anything." "Right, gasoline or diesel you usually can. But damned if I can prove it yet, maybe with the lab work... I'd say yes, though. I've never seen anything like it. It's as if it wanted to burn."

"Alice... "

"You know Iím not superstitious. But there's no sign it started in one place and spread. Everything capable of combining with oxygen just went up all at once, whoosh. The cutlery melted, and that's a lot hotter than your typical house fire."

The building had been a little two-story apartment house, one up and one down. This wasn't far off Canyon Road and the strip of galleries and close to the Acequia Madre, the ancient irrigation canal, which meant it had been fairly expensive. But not close enough to be real adobe, which in Santa Fe meant old and pricey. Brown stucco pseudo-pueblo-Spanish style originally over frame, like nearly everything in town that stayed on the right side of the building code.

Alice had worked with him before. She was a bit older than he—mid-thirties—and always looked tired, her blond hair short and disorderly. He liked the way she never let a detail slip by, no matter how hard she had to work at it.

"Santa Fe , where prestige is a mud house on a dirt road," she quoted. "So it's not likely an insurance torch. Not enough money here."

"Yeah. I couldn't afford this place ceither. When it was still there. Youíre right, it must have gone up like a match-head."

There wasn't enough left to tell any more details. There was a heavy wet-ash smell where bits and blackened pieces rested on the scorched concrete pad of the foundation. He blinked again. That smell, and the way the bullets had chewed at the mud brick below the window flecking bits of adobe into his face. The way his armor had chafed, the fear as he made himself jerk up over the sill and aim the M-4, laying the red dot, the instant when the mouj had stared at him wide-eyed just before the burst tracked across his body in a row of black-red dots and made him dance like a jointed doll...

"Eric?" Alice said, jarring him out of the memory.

"Sorry," he said. "Deep thought."

She spared him any offensive sympathy and he nodded to her in silent gratitude, still feeling a little shaky. Got to get over this. I can have flashbacks later.

"Let me have the workup when you can," he said.

Of course, when I was on the rockpile I said I'd deal with it later, when it wouldn't screw the mission. This is later, I suppose.

"I'll zap it to your notepad," Alice said. "I've got to get some more samples now."

He turned away. Cesar Martinez was talking to the Lopez family, minus the three children who were with some neighbor or relative; the couple were sitting in one of the emergency vans, and someone had given them Styrofoam cups of coffee. His own nose twitched at the smell, though what he really wanted was a drink. Or a cigarette. He suppressed both urges and listened to his partner's gentle voice, calm and sympathetic. He was a hotshot, he'd go far, he was good at making people want to help him, soothing them, never stepping on what they had to say.

"I was going to go back in. They were gone, and I was going to go back in and then—"

Caesar made a sympathetic noise. "You were having dinner when the man forced you out of the house?"

"Takeout Chinese, from Chow's," the wife said. Her husband took up the thread:

"And this man came in. He had a gun... a gun like a shotgun, but smaller, like a pistol," Anthony Lopez said. "It still looked pretty damn big. So was he."

He chuckled, and Salvador's opinion of him went up. It was never easy for civilians when reality crashed into what they thought had been their lives.

"How could you tell it was a shotgun?"

"Two barrels. Looked like tunnels."

"And the man?"

"He was older than me—fifty, sixty, gray hair cut short, but he was moving fast. He had blue eyes, fair, sort of tanned skin but you could tell he was pink underneath?"

"Anglo, but weathered?"
"Right. And he was dressed all in black, black leather. And he shouted at us, just go, go, go, get out, run, keep running. We did."

"Exactly the right thing to do," Caesar said.

"But I was going to go back. Then it burned..." he whispered. "If I had—"

You'd be dead, Salvador thought. On the other hand, if the guy hadn't run you all out, you'd all be dead. There's something screwy here. Arsonists don't care who gets hurt and they certainly don't risk getting made to warn people.

Mrs. Lopez spoke again. "There was a younger man outside, when we ran out. He didn't do anything. He just stood there, with his hands in the air, almost like he was high or something. And there was a, a van or a truck over there."

She pointed to the wall of the compound across the street from what had been her house. Salvador made a note to see if they could get tire-tracks.

"When we were across the street the younger man sort of, oh, collapsed. The older man with the gun, the one in black, helped him over to the van, not carrying him but nearly, sort of dragging him and putting him in the back seat. Then they drove off."

Caesar tapped at his notepad and called up the face-sketch program.

"The younger man looked like this?" he began, and patiently ran them through the process of adjustment.

Salvador stared, fascinated as always, watching the image shift, slowly morphing and changing and then switching into something that only an expert could tell from a photograph of a living person. He knew that in the old days you'd had to use a sketch artist for this, but now it was automatic. It would even check the final result against the databases with a face-recognition subsystem. When they'd given all the help they could Caesar went on:

"Thank you, thank you both. We may have to talk to you again later."

He blew out a sigh and turned and leaned back against the end of the van, looking at the notepad in his hand. Salvador prompted him:

"Their stories were consistent?"

"Yeah, jefe. Right from the start, it wasn't just listening to each other and editing the memory."

He touched the screen. "OK, sequence: when Mrs. Lopez got home with the kids, around five, Ellen Tarnowski's car, she's the upper floor tenant, was there. Mr. Lopez, the husband, got home a little later and noticed it too. Because she's usually not back from work by then."

"They friends with her?"

"They know her to talk to, just in passing. Said she was nice, but they didn't have much in common."

The senior detective grunted and looked at his notepad, tapping for information; Mr. and Mrs. Lopez were a mid-level State government functionary and a dental hygienist respectively. Ellen Tarnowski...

Works at Hans & Demarcio Galleries. OK, artsie. God knows we've got enough of them around here.

There were three hundred odd galleries in Santa Fe, plus every other diner and taco joint had original artwork on the walls and on sale. Half the waiters and checkout clerks in town were aspiring artists of one sort or another, too, like the would-be actors in LA. She looked out at him, a picture from some website or maybe the DMV: blond, mid-twenties, full red lips, short straight nose, high cheekbones, wide blue eyes. Something in those eyes too, an odd look. Kind of haunted. The figure below...

"Jesus."

"Just what I said. Anyway, she comes downstairs just after Mr. Lopez arrives. Mrs. Lopez looks out the kitchen window and notices her because she's wearing—"

He checked his notes again.

"—a white silk sheath dress and a wrap. She knew it was Tarnowski's best fancy-occasion dress from a chat they'd had months ago. Another woman was with her. About Tarnowski's age, but shorter, slim, olive complexion or a tan, long dark hair, dark eyes..."

"Really going to stand out in this town."

"Si, though if she's going around with la Tarnowski she will! I got a composite on her too, but it's not as definite. Mrs. Lopez said her clothes looked really expensive, and she was wearing a tanzanite necklace."

"What the fuck's tanzanite?"

The other thing we have hundreds of is jewelry stores.

"Like sapphire, but expensive. Here's what she looked like."

He showed a picture. The face was triangular, smiling slightly, framed by long straight black hair. Attractive too, but...

Reminds me of that mink I handled once when I was young and stupid and trying to impress. Pretty, and it bit like a bastard. Took three stiches and a tetanus shot and the girl laughed every time she saw me—remembered me hopping around screaming.

"I don't think she's Latina, somehow," he said aloud, as his fingers caressed the slight scar at the base of his right thumb.

"Yeah, me too, but I can't put my finger on why. Incidentally let's do a side-by-side with the composite on the man they saw standing still outside, when the old goatsucker with the gun ran them out past him. The one he shoved into the back seat later."

Salvador's eyebrows went up as the pictures showed together. "Are they sure that's not the same person? It's an easy mistake to make, in the dark, with the right clothes."

His partner nodded; it was, surprisingly so under some circumstances.

"Looks a lot like Dark Mystery Woman, ey? But it was a guy, very certainly. Wearing a dark zippered jacket open with a T underneath. Mrs. Lopez said he looked real fit. Not bulked up but someone who worked out a lot. She got a better look at him than at the woman, they went right by. Nothing from the databases on either of them, by the way, but look at this."

His fingers moved on the screen, and the two images slid until they were superimposed. Then he tapped a function box.

"OK, the little machine thinks they're relatives," Salvador said. "I could have figured that out."

"But could you have said it was a ninety-three percent chance?"

"Sure. I just say: It's a ninety-three percent chance. Or in old-fashioned human language, certainemente. OK, back up to what Mystery Woman was doing earlier. She and Tarnowski get in Tarnowski's car and drive off around five thirty, a few minutes earlier?"

"Mystery Woman was driving. Tarnowski looked shaky." Caesar consulted his notes. "Yeah, Mrs. Lopez said Tarnowski looked like she was going to fall over, maybe sick, the other one helped her into the car."

"That's two people who have to be helped into cars. This smells."

"And then two and a half hours later someone runs in waving a sawed-off shotgun, while Mystery Woman's brother or cousin or whatever was standing outside ignoring everything and talking to himself in a strange language—"

"Strange language?"

"They just heard a few words. Not English, not Spanish, and not anything they recognized. He talks in the strange language, falls, goatsucker-with-the-gun gives him a hand, they drive off, and then the place just happened to burn down a few minutes later."

Salvador sighed and turned up the collar of his coat; it was dark, and cold.

"I need a drink. But get an APB out on Ellen Tarnowski and flag her name with municipal services and the hospitals statewide. Also the old gringo with the sawed-off shotgun, use the face-recognition protocol for surveillance cameras. We can get him on a reckless-endangerment charge, trespassing, uttering threats, suspicion of arson, bad breath, whatever."

"Si, and littering. The Mystery Woman and the Mystery Man too?"

"Yeah, why not? Let them all do a perp walk and we can apologize later."

He sat down on the tailgate and began doggedly prodding at the screen. The first thing tomorrow he'd start tracing Tarnowski's life. So far nobody had died, and he'd like to keep it that way. The employer was a good first place.

In the meantime, he could try and get some sleep. He snorted quietly to himself. After dredging up this many memories, much chance there was of that.

 

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Dream.

Eric Salvador always knew it was a dream; he just couldn't affect it or get out of it or do anything except watch and smell and taste and feel an overwhelming sick dread as it unfolded. There hadn't really been a burned-out MRAP at the end of the village street by the mosque. That had been somewhere else, that little shithole outside Kandahar he'd seen on his first tour, and it had only been there one day. It was a composite of all the bads, building up to the Big Bad itself.

A couple of other things are right for the day, he thought.

The way Olsen flicked the little Raven surveillance drone into the air, and the buzz of its engine as it climbed to circle above them, and the dopy little smiley-face button with fangs he'd glued to the nose of the Corps' thirty-five thousand dollar toy airplane. He'd tried to put little fake Hellfire missiles under the wings, too, and Gunny had torn him a new asshole about it. The way the translator was sweating and his eyes were flicking here and there, and you wondered if it was just the heat or generalized fear or if he knew something he wasn't saying.

Christ, I've had this fucking nightmare so many times I'm starting to sound like a movie critic.

Smith always went into the door of the compound the same way, the way he really had. Regulation, the two of them plastered on either side, Jackson taking out the lock on the gate with a doorknocker round, whump-boom, the warped old planks smacking inward as the slug blew the rusty lock into the courtyard, Smith following, his M-4 tucked into his shoulder and Jackson on his heels.

The explosion was always silent. Silent, slo-mo, the flames leaking around the fragments of wood and the two men flying and just enough time to realize Oh, shit, this is a bad one before a giant's hand picked him up and threw him backward until there was the impact and the pain.

Only this time was different. This time something walked out of the fire to where he lay with the broken ends of his ribs grating under the body armor that had saved his life.

The shape twisted and its wrongness made him want to scream out the bloody foam in his lungs, but the eyes were flecked yellow. And the voice slithered into his ears:

"Who's been a naughty boy, then?"

He began to sink into the dry dusty earth, and it flowed into mouth and nose and eyes, the dust of ages and of empires.

"Naughty!"

"Christ!"

He lay panting in the darkness, smelling his own sweat and waiting to be sure he was awake—sometimes he dreamed he was, and then the whole thing started cycling through his head again. It was blurring away already, details fracturing like sunlight through a drop of water. His hand groped for the cigarettes on the bedside, and then remembered he'd stopped.

"Go back to sleep," he told himself. "Dreaming's no worse than remembering, anyway."

Christ.

"I wonder where Tarnowski is?"

He didnít really want to know; kidnap victims usually didnít end up anywhere good;

 

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Copyright © 2010-2011 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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