Reclaiming her parent’s house from weeks of neglect had left Isobel feeling tired and dirty; but at least it had taken her mind off other things. It wasn’t until the drive home, when she was alone with her thoughts that it all came back to her. The whistle and flap of the garbage bag she had taped over the window seemed to mock her leaving her feeling like she was still nothing more than the clueless, helpless girl she had been in high school.
NO! Isobel squelched the thought as she parked her car and headed into her apartment building. You’re not that girl anymore! Her skin cleared up, she lost some weight, she went to college and she got a real job.
And, the thought was so sweet that it left her smiling to herself as she rode the elevator up to her floor, she got her own place.
Moving out, it was a minor rite of passage for some but for her it was a great shining victory. She had moved out in the middle of a family confrontation. Isobel remembered her mother’s voice, “How do you think you’ll survive out on your own? You don’t know anything! You don’t know how to budget yourself-you blow half your paycheck the day you get it! You don’t know how to do your own laundry! You barely know how to keep house! You’ll be broke and back in a month!”
The going had been rough at first, mostly because she didn’t know anything about budgeting, laundry or keeping house, but she learned. The one month deadline’s passing was marked by a phone call from her father. Isobel had been proud to tell him she was doing fine.
Isobel’s smile fell as she unlocked the door of her apartment and stepped inside. She didn’t remember leaving the TV on. Her nose wrinkled at the smell hanging in the air, an odor she associated with meat gone bad. The door swung to a close behind her.
Her tongue went dry at the sight of the dead body. Disbelief made her vision blur and snap back into focus. Blood pooled and streaked the fabric of the couch, congealing in the gaps between the cushions.
Isobel blinked trying to make the vision disappear but it remained. The eyes were wide and glassy. The lips bloody and grimacing. The top of the skull was gone, leaving nothing but jagged bone and tatters of skin.
Finally she recognized the remains of the half-peeled face.
Her legs failed her and she slumped against the wall. Who had done this? Nick must have come by to try and make up, as he always did. He knew her weakness for surprise visits all too well. What had he found waiting for him?
Galen? Could Galen have done this?
“For what its worth,” a woman stepped out of the kitchen. She was simply gorgeous; it was the kind of easy attractiveness that made Isobel self-conscious. The woman wore a white blouse, it was unbuttoned to the waist and a single bloody thumbprint marred the crisp silk. “His dying thoughts had nothing to do with you. You meant nothing to him.”
She sat down on the recliner and ran her hands through her long hair, “He thought of his mother, typical really.”
A man stepped out of the kitchen, he and the woman made perfect bookends with their cool beauty. “You’ll have to pardon her.” He said, “She ate too fast.”
The woman began to button her blouse with shaky fingers, “Color me chastised.”
“You did this?” Isobel said. “Who are you?”
“Ah.” The man smiled, his teeth were perfect, “My companion is known as Ms. Ginnmett and I am called Mr. Sauno.”
“So formal.” The woman said, “I’m Helen, this is Peirs.”
Their names barely even managed to register, Isobel was too busy wondering what they had planned for her. Again and again her gaze returned to what was left of Nick, “Why did you- How-”
“You shouldn’t concern yourself with such things.” Peirs Sauno said.
“If- if you don’t get out of here I’ll scream.”
“You don’t think he tried screaming?” Helen Ginnmett picked idly at her fingernails, “Where did it get him?”
Where… where is his brain?
Then she remembered Piers Sauno’s words, “You’ll have to pardon her… She ate too fast.”
Isobel began to shake, “What do you want? I’ll give you money, I’ll give you anything you want.”
Mr. Sauno stepped towards Isobel, when she tried to back up he only moved closer showing her there was no way she could make a break for the door, “All we desire is information. Answer one simple question and we will leave. Where is Galen?”
The shivering stopped, Isobel’s mind became reptile calm, “W-who?”
Helen Ginnmett laughed, Mr. Sauno silenced her with a gesture.
Isobel’s hand snaked into her coat pocket, the .22 caliber pistol Cheryl had insisted she take. Where was the safety again?
Piers Sauno frowned, “We know you rescued Galen last night. I’ll give you one more chance. One final chance, tell us where he is.”
“But I don’t know anything. I just gave him a ride.”
“There are rides.” Ms. Ginnmett stood with a wink, “And then there are rides.”
“He’s not here. He left after… he left in the morning.”
Mr. Sauno’s frown deepened, “That sounds like him all right. He got what he wanted and then left.”
Ms. Ginnmett agreed, “You don’t owe him anything. If he said anything, anything at all about where he might be going…”
Isobel played up the edge of panic in her voice, “I’ll do anything you want. Just please don’t hurt me. Please don’t hurt me. I don’t want to die.”
“Then just tell us.”
“Just don’t hurt me. I won’t go to the police, I swear I don’t know anything.”
Mr. Sauno spoke like a parent trying to calm a hysterical child, “No one else has to get hurt, just tell us where he is.”
A familiar voice interrupted them “Leave her alone.”
Galen stood in the open doorway, looking like a movie hero come to rescue his damsel in distress.
Mr. Sauno nodded, “There you are. I thought we’d lost you to the Hanged Man and his sycophants.”
Both intruders were moving towards Galen now, Isobel suddenly beneath their concern.
“Just let her go.” Galen said, “She has nothing to do with this.”
Ms. Ginnmett laughed “If she has nothing to do with this then why did you come back?”
“You’re tensing up there Galen.” Piers Sauno said, ” We can’t have that.”
Galen raised his hands, “Let’s all calm down here. The Monarchs need me.”
“That does explain why you’re still alive doesn’t it?”
His hands. Isobel realized, What happened to the cuts on his hands? They’re gone.
A pair of synchronized snaps drew Isobel’s attention from Galen back to the intruders. Slender lengths of white metal had emerged from beneath the flesh at the back of their wrists. They looked sharp as knives.
Ms. Ginnmett said “Time to pay the piper our little Dauphin.”
“Dauphin!” Mr. Sauno smiled thinly, “You are a treasure Helen.”
Galen said, “Get out of here Isobel.”
“Yes.” Mr. Sauno nodded towards her, “Run if you want. We’ll catch up to you later.”
“May as well.” Ms. Ginnmett frowned thoughtfully, “You’re never going to get that safety deposit back. ”
“You going to come quietly Galen? The Monarchs are anxious.” Mr. Sauno drew back his arm, the edge of the blade shimmered.
What am I going to do? Isobel thought. How could she every truly escape this? Who could protect her from the likes of Helen Ginnmett and Piers Sauno. If nothing else she was most likely going to find herself a murder suspect by the morning. Isobel was cornered and she knew it.
Besides, Galen was here, she couldn’t lose him again. She wouldn’t.
“Listen-” Galen began again, “We’re all on the same side here-”
“Stay away from him!” Isobel tore out the inside of her pocket as she drew the gun. She let her aim waver between Nick’s murderers.
“Oh heavens.” Ms. Ginnmett’s voice was deadpan “She’s got a gun.”
A look of annoyance creased Mr. Sauno’s face, “What’s one more body then?”
He lunged for her. Galen tried to get between them but only managed to knock Mr. Sauno’s first slash wide of the mark. Isobel stumbled backwards and fired. The first bullet grazed his shoulder, the second missed him completely.
The stinging sensation seemed distant at first. Isobel was too preoccupied with the ringing of her ears. Then she looked down at the back of her forearm. A deep diagonal wound had been cut into the meat of it. Already her sleeve was soaked with blood. The pain reached her then and it flowered. Isobel tightened her grip on the gun and sat up, trying to get her bearings.
Ms. Ginnmett was at tussling on the floor with Galen, her breathing was even, her expression full of detached determination. There was a sour chemical smell in the air like cleaning products and burnt plastic. Mr. Sauno grabbed hold of her gun hand. Isobel saw the wound she had given him but it was all wrong. The blood was watery and the color of mustard, the bone was dull and blue gray.
What are they?
“No gun license but I should have suspected.” Mr. Sauno said, “Now why don’t you-”
“Get away from me!” Isobel fired three shots into Mr. Sauno’s leg. There was a hissing sound and his knee buckled. He slashed at her again as he went down cutting deep into her side. Pain swallowed her senses.
A cracking sound filled the air as Galen had bent both of Ms. Ginnmett’s arms back at an impossible angle.
“Oh damnit.” She said.
Isobel wondered how many of her neighbors were dialing 911.
Mr. Sauno dove at her, catching her in a clumsy tackle. The chemical smell was overpowering up close, it left her eyes watering.
What are they?
Then Galen was on Mr. Sauno’s back, straddling him. “Enough!” He pulled at the man’s head and twisted his until there was a metallic snap.
Ms. Ginmett got to her feet again and Isobel fired the last few bullets in a blind panic. The first bullet did nothing more than punch a hole in the wall, the remaining caught Ms. Ginmett in the chest and face. Globs of orange fluid and clumps of rubbery flesh spattered the walls, revealing sinews of copper and bones the color of a hospital floor.
Somehow Mr. Sauno was still talking, still grabbing at Galen, “Ungrateful-”
It was all too much now, Galen or no Galen. Isobel ran from the apartment shoving her way past the neighbors gathering in the hallway. She ran down the stairs taking the steps two and three at a time until she was out of the building.