This latest update is Chapter Four of The Anonymous Knight. Enjoy!
(Hover above the From the Darkest Corners link to see an archive of previous chapters)
While Tanner’s instinct was to stop at Paulie’s on his way home for a stiff drink, he thought it unwise to test Paulie’s patience by bringing a cat to the bar. As a result he stopped back at his apartment building first. Odin seemed tired, no doubt he had used his time well and explored every nook and cranny of the Ivory Tower. His non-eye was at peace.
As Tanner walked down the hallway towards his apartment, Ms. Bond opened her door and exclaimed with delight at seeing Odin in Tanner’s arms.
“Oh, you’re such a dear,” Ms. Bond said. “He does feel a little cooped in, don’t you know?”
She reached out to pet Odin and her hand brushed against Tanner’s arm. A cool breeze and a mild shock ran between the two of them and Tanner’s stomach sank. Was it possible he had never made physical contact with Ms. Bond before this? Then he sensed he had traveled a great distance and was walking a field of war.
Tanner could smell fire and blood, could hear the cries of the dying. But he was alive and strong. He wasn’t even tired. He felt he could continue forever. He drew his sword in front of his face, loved the interaction of light, steel and blood. Tanner could sense that this was his true element, that this was where he thrived and was happiest. He knew that such a sentiment might seem alarming to an objective viewer, but he took solace that his cause was just. When your cause was just even acts of viciousness might be righteous, or so he felt. There could be no doubt that the blood lust was on him, now. He felt immortal.
Tanner could sense that in this vision he witnessed the soul of a man who would not be very impressed by irony. So Tanner could sense the great feeling of dismay when his body shook and he looked down to find the head of a spear poking out from his chest, at the blood draining from his body. This was wrong. This was completely wrong.
He turned around with a roar, ripping the spear from the hands of the enemy. He raised his sword and swung the blade as hard as his muscles would allow, separating the enemy’s head from the sinew of his neck. There was a relief that he had avenged his own death. And then there was a fading black emptiness and a wave of shuddering pain.
Tanner’s jaw dropped as he returned to the present and stared at the pink-frocked Ms. Bond, who seemed embarrassed to her core.
“Oh, dear,” she said, worrying the collar of her robe with her finger. “Oh, dear.”
Odin leapt from Tanner’s arms and ran into Ms. Bond’s apartment. Both Tanner and Ms. Bond looked after the cat as if he had betrayed them.
“I suppose you’d better come in,” Ms. Bond said with a sigh and opened the door wide.
Tanner had never considered himself slow. On the contrary, he’d always held himself in high regard. So he was not very happy with himself. How many times had the CEO instructed him to be careful, to avoid this very possibility? More than once, certainly. More than enough for Tanner to have listened and learned. And yet here he was, mere moments after being reminded doing exactly what he had been encouraged to avoid. Tanner supposed there wasn’t any going back, ever again. There was no escaping the fact that Ms. Bond was another reincarnate. He could only hope that she meant him no harm, that she wasn’t in the camp of the Enemy.
He walked into Ms. Bond’s apartment, but warily. She followed him inside and closed the door.
The interior was much as Tanner had imagined it would be. Frames covered the better part of the wall, most enclosed aged cross-stitched patterns that looked like they hadn’t been viewed since the disco era.
Ms. Bond indicated that Tanner should sit in a rocking chair in the corner of the room and he obliged her. The rocking chair seemed to be sturdily built and recently varnished. Tanner couldn’t help but imagine that Ms. Bond had transitioned rather suddenly and severely from cross-stitching to varnishing. All of the furniture in the apartment appeared to be wooden and all looked remarkably well maintained. It was a stark contrast between the furniture and the stitch-work.
The chair was strangely comfortable, even to Tanner who had not historically liked the feel of rocking chairs, preferring the comfort of the modern day recliner. Wood didn’t have enough give for Tanner’s tastes; it didn’t mold itself quickly enough to comfort.
“Would you like a drink?” Ms. Bond asked.
“Yes,” Tanner replied. “That would be nice.”
Tanner was unfamiliar with the social protocol in such a situation. With your typical December/June social visit a certain amount of tolerance and deference was demanded. The younger party would allow the conversation to be dominated by the older party, regardless of how wandering, aimless or nonsensical that conversation might be. Polite agreement was the rule of the day. These had been the rules Tanner had applied to every previous encounter with Ms. Bond. He wondered whether they still applied. Did the fact that she previously was a bloodthirsty killer change the etiquette, allow him a little more flexibility with the established rules of decorum?
Odin jumped up on Tanner’s lap and took a while to make himself comfortable, pressing down on Tanner’s thighs in a manner that put Tanner in mind of a butcher working his magic with a meat tenderizer. Odin eventually felt he had worked the territory enough and settled down. Tanner couldn’t help thinking that this would hinder him if flight were necessary, couldn’t help thinking that it was somehow cowardly to even consider the prospect of flight from a woman with what looked like it could possibly be an advanced case of scoliosis.
“Here you go, dear,” Ms. Bond said, returning with two red ochre tea cups on a tray. She handed one to Tanner and he had to disregard the sudden impulsive thought he had that she might be trying to poison him. He smiled politely at her, hoping that the gesture didn’t look as forced as it felt to him. She smiled back to him in much the same way she always had.
She sat down on a hard wooden chair directly across from the rocking chair. Between them was a small oaken reading table and that’s where she placed the tray. She sat down and blew on her tea. Tanner didn’t take his eyes from her as he raised his cup to his lips and tipped the liquid into his mouth. It was all he could do not to spit it out. She had not poured him her standard cup of tea-flavored sugar, but rather straight tequila.
“Oh, dear,” she said, placing a delicate hand over a tight-lined smile. “I guess I should have mentioned that I thought you’d appreciate something a mite bit stronger than tea. All I had was some Jose Cuervo. I hope you don’t mind.”
“It’s fine,” Tanner said, forcing himself to swallow and the liquid heat moved down his throat in a satisfactory way. “It’s fine.”
Tanner was proud of the fact that even though he was clearly rattled, he had still kept his eye on the ball—so to speak. He had never removed his eyes from Ms. Bond. Also, he hadn’t upset Odin enough to unseat him. He placed his free hand down on Odin, glad suddenly to have his unconditional support.
“So,” she started and then paused, sipped from her drink. It took a moment for Tanner to realize that she wasn’t going to complete a thought.
“So,” he replied, feeling more than a little bit foolish.
“How many times have you come back?” she asked.
“Just the once,” Tanner replied.
“Really?” her eyebrow arched in surprise. “This is my fourth time.”
“Oh, my, yes.” She gestured towards his cup. “Drink. Drink. It’ll make you feel better.”
He did, though with not a small amount of reluctance. The truth was, Tanner had never much liked tequila. It had always seemed strange to him, like a drink passing as alcohol on a whim and overdoing it, more a caricature of a drink than a drink itself. But this tequila seemed off even by his standards. He wondered if Ms. Bond had been unable to overcome her instinct to toss in a dash or five of sugar.
“What can you do?” Ms. Bond asked, the question sounding strangely childlike and impulsive to Tanner’s ears. When he didn’t answer she blushed, as if she had been caught asking an embarrassing question. “I’m sorry if it’s seems like I’m prying. I have super skin.”
Tanner coughed politely in his hand. He had to suppress the instinct to share with Ms. Bond that he had never considered advanced wrinkling and liver spots to be a super power. Instead he remained silent.
“It’s true,” Ms. Bond insisted and put down her tea cup. “I’ll show you.”
She walked away and into the kitchen area. Tanner could hear her rummaging through cabinets and talking to herself. There was the sound of utensils being tossed aside. It sounded like an aggressive search.
Tanner was trying his best to get himself in a place where no matter what she brought back with her from her search, no matter what demonstration she might perform, he would be able to accept it in a calm fashion. To this end he preoccupied himself imagining her coming back with the most ridiculous things he could. He imagined her coming back with an anvil as if she was in a cartoon, reconsidered, thought of her coming back with a set of throwing knives, handing them to Tanner, asking him to throw them at her like they were part of a carnival sideshow. Tanner was having a difficult time imagining himself throwing the knives with any degree of accuracy so he was forced to regard his strategy as having limited benefit by the time she actually returned from the kitchen with three items: A rolling pin, a large butane lighter and a pair of goggles.
She set the butane lighter and the rolling pin atop the table and set about putting the goggles on. Tanner couldn’t escape the image of her rolling the wrinkles out of her skin, but that was not her purpose.
“Take this,” she said with a look of grim determination. She then proceeded to hand the rolling pin to Tanner. “Now be a dear and hit me over the head with this as hard as you can.”
“No,” Tanner said, taken aback. “I’m not going to hit you with a rolling pin.”
“Come on, dear,” she insisted. “You can do it. Just wind up a bit, get a bit of speed going and then right over the head with it.”
Tanner held the rolling pin slackly in his hand but remained seated. Ms. Bond ponderously kneeled in front of him so as to give him greater leverage for the attack. Though it looked like it hurt her joints to do so she proceeded to duck her head forward and closer to Tanner, a complete act of submission that immediately removed any suspicions Tanner might have had that she meant him ill. Tanner laid the rolling pin next to Odin on his lap. Odin felt the rolling pin beside him and gave it a careless glance and noticed that Ms. Bond was quite near to him. He lazily moved forward and licked her forehead. She giggled.
“Stop,” she said, covering her mouth with her hand. “It tickles.”
But Odin kept on licking and Ms. Bond continued to giggle. After a few moments she lurched up off her knees and rose to her feet.
“Fine,” she said, “fine.”
She grabbed the rolling pin and looked at Tanner with her goggle-covered blue eyes. She pointed at him with the rolling pin the way other people would point a finger of accusation. Anything that happened from that moment forward was clearly being placed on Tanner’s shoulders. Before he had the opportunity to object Ms. Bond took a firm grip on the rolling pin and with a ferocity that belied her diminutive stature bashed the rolling pin over her head. Tanner noticed that her eyes remained open right up to the moment of impact. It was hard to do that, to remain steely eyed in the face of physical attack, even when the physical attack was self-inflicted. The rolling pin did not survive the attack but splintered into many pieces, including one that landed in Tanner’s cup of tequila. Ms. Bond seemed none the worse for wear. She tossed what remained of the rolling pin in her hands to the floor. Odin leapt off of Tanner’s lap and moved over to sniff the carcass of the rolling pin. She took off her goggles and tossed them back on the table.
“See, dear?” she said as she sat down across from him. “Super skin.”
“How did you know you could, do . . . that?” Tanner asked, feeling sheepish.
“I found out my first time back,” she said. “I fell off a horse and was run over by a second horse. It wasn’t pleasant but I wasn’t hurt. I got right back up. I wasn’t even scratched.”
She appeared a bit distracted, her brow furrowed with the memory. She picked up the lighter, flipped it open. She flicked the trigger and a six-inch blue flame leapt up and she put her hand directly in the blue.
“I didn’t find out I was flame resistant until my second time back,” she said vaguely, her eyes glassy in recollection. “I could do this all day. I did once. When I found out. They tried to burn me as a witch. Frankly I don’t think my laughing at their efforts really helped relieve the tension. I’m afraid it only confirmed their decision for them. They were very resourceful. They drowned me. See, dear, I know what it’s like to drown. I know the pain of it.
“This is the first time I’ve come back where I haven’t been murdered, the first time I’ve been able to grow old. Lately I’ve begun to wonder if I wouldn’t die of boredom. Some days I feel like I’m playing a game of chicken with the clock. And, let me tell you, dear, a clock is tireless.”
“Could you stop that?” Tanner said, pointing at her hand in the butane flame.
“Oh, is this upsetting you?” she asked and decided her point had been proven. She removed her hand from the lighter and closed the cap.
“Now what?” Tanner asked, but Ms. Bond didn’t answer. The two sat in silence for a time, each just looking at each other, though neither knew what they intended to find. Tanner supposed that was the most natural, human thing they had done since he stepped inside the apartment. He was willing to sit in silence for a while longer. It gave him time to think, time to remind himself to breathe.
“Do you keep catnip in here?” Tanner asked.
Ms. Bond erupted in girlish giggles, covered her mouth again. Tanner wondered why she did that. Did she think she had funny looking teeth? Did she think she had some food stuck in them? He supposed it might be a defensive reaction. After all, when she smiled her mouth was open, the protection her skin provided would lapse.
“No,” she replied. “I just think Odin likes my company. You are gone all day, dear, and he is a social creature. I have plenty of time for him. I enjoy his company.”
“You weren’t sent here, were you?” Tanner asked. “You haven’t been . . . looking after me?”
Ms. Bond pulled a pale shawl over her shoulders and took a deep breath.
“Someone’s been paying my rent,” she answered. “I don’t know who. I don’t know why. I supposed they just felt sorry for an old spinster. I guess you think I’m a silly old woman, not wondering about a thing like that. Sometimes I think I’m a silly old woman. But I wasn’t given any instructions, if that’s what you mean. I can’t answer for their intentions.”
Tanner believed her, believed in her inherent goodness. He was troubled about the invisible hand that had placed Ms. Bond so near to him for so long. He hoped that this was one of the measures the CEO had taken to protect Tanner. He supposed he could find out pretty easily.
“May I have a pen and some paper?” he asked and Ms. Bond fetched them for him. He pursed his lips and put pen to paper.
Merlin is aware of her and pays for her apartment, though even he does not know the role she will play in the events to come. You need a drink quite badly. You should go to a bar.
Tanner felt like he couldn’t write anymore. Did his ability drain him? Did it burn calories like physical exertion? He was curious, but tired. He was intellectually and emotionally exhausted. The pad was right about one thing; he desperately needed a drink. Not the tequila. The thought of drinking any more of the tequila made him feel queasy. He looked down at the pad of paper. It seemed even his own hand chose to be opaque about upcoming events. He felt a little bit betrayed, felt strange for feeling betrayed by himself when he sincerely wanted to help himself.
“What is it?” Ms. Bond asked as Tanner rose from the rocking chair, took the lighter and set the piece of paper on fire. He was going to start following some of the recommendations the CEO had discussed.
“Is it okay if I leave Odin with you tonight?” he asked.
“Of course, dear,” she replied. “Anytime. You know that.”
“Yes,” Tanner said. He had gotten used to things changing so much that it seemed strange when some things stayed exactly the same. It was a perverse thought. “Would you like to come to work with me? I think you should. I think you’re meant to.”
“But what about Odin?” Ms. Bond asked and Tanner felt like laughing. What a strangely normal consideration to have in a time like this. It heartened him to no end. “No problem. He’ll be coming with us.”
“Okay then,” Ms. Bond said, as if this was nothing more than him asking her for a recipe. “We’ll leave at six thirty then?”
Tanner nodded. Of course she knew when he went to work. He had seen her at the door watching him, hadn’t he? It was possible to see that in a sinister light, but Tanner suspected that she was still just a nosy old woman. Not everything can be part of some giant scheme. Could it?
“I think I need a stiff drink,” Tanner said, rising.
“But, dear,” Ms. Bond objected. “You haven’t finished your tequila.”
Tanner fished from his cup part of what used to be a fully functional rolling pin. It was about three inches long and bore more resemblance to a toothpick than anything else.
“It’s a little too oaky for my tastes,” Tanner said, causing Ms. Bond to cover up her mouth again. He hoped he would get used to her doing that. He found it disconcerting. “Until tomorrow then.”
“I’ll see you bright and early,” she replied and Tanner left.
By the time Tanner had made it to Paulie’s, the four stools at the bar were occupied. There was the older man with the twitchy eye sitting in the first stool, drinking his standard gin and tonic. Beside him was the middle-aged woman with the beige pant-suit and the plastic surgery that made her look perpetually surprised and doll-like. She always drank Bloody Marys. The third stool was occupied by the guy who looked like he was twelve, complete with teenage acne and a taste for Michelob Light. The last of the bar stools was filled by the substantial cheeks of the fat man who never cut his hair or cleaned his fingernails. He drank Scotch, the same as Tanner. Tanner would have to sit in a booth. This was a spot of bad luck, went against Tanner’s preferences, but he supposed it couldn’t be helped. He tapped at the bar and Paulie looked at him, raised an index finger indicating that Tanner should wait for a moment. Tanner acknowledged this and moved to a booth to wait. He didn’t have to wait long.
A man of average height and plain appearance placed a Scotch in front of Tanner. Tanner was surprised. He had no idea that Paulie believed in hiring staff. It’s not as if the bar was ever overrun with patrons. Even on this night when Tanner couldn’t get a seat at the bar, only two of the booths were occupied, his and Johnny’s. Tanner found it particularly difficult to believe Paulie would hire a man and have him work in a three-piece suit or that he would encourage said employee to slide into the booth across from the patron after depositing the patron’s drink in front of him. And yet there Tanner was, staring across the booth at the man in a three-piece suit who had just delivered his drink. The man was staring at Tanner intently with just the vaguest suggestion of a tight-lined smile on his face. Tanner searched the face, was struck that there was something familiar about it.
“Do I know you?” he asked the man.
The man just continued to smile at him. The plain looking man was in his late twenties by Tanner’s estimation, had what looked to be an expensive haircut for his chestnut brown hair. He had an average build and a nose that was shaped like a ski-slope. Tanner had a difficult time pinning down exactly what was familiar about him. Ordinarily Tanner would have abandoned the table and the stranger, walked out of the bar. But, damn it, he needed this drink, wanted it to be here at Paulie’s, which had up until now been his sanctuary.
“Do I know you?” he repeated.
The man nodded and then did the strangest thing. He grabbed Tanner’s hands in his own, held them for a moment. The stranger had soft hands. Tanner hadn’t looked at his hands. If he had, Tanner would have noticed the long manicured nails, the purple nail polish. They were a woman’s hands. Tanner’s eyes lifted from the woman’s hands back to the face. It was a man’s face. But the eyes, how had he not noticed the eyes? They were exceptional.
“What the fuck,” he exclaimed. “Reggie?”
The stranger put a finger to their mouth and Tanner looked around. The four patrons at the bar were staring at him, as was Paulie. Paulie was shaking his head slowly, wondering if Tanner was getting to be a problem, wondering whether he’d have to ban him from coming back. Tanner mouthed an apology to Paulie and everyone turned back to the bar. Tanner looked at the next booth and saw that Johnny had not been disturbed by his outburst.
“Reggie?” Tanner repeated, sotto voce.
The stranger nodded. Tanner took another look, prepared to abash himself for his poor skills of observation. Yet as he looked he could see only two things that might have drawn his attention, the eyes and the hands. Nothing else was similar at all. There weren’t curves where there should be curves and there was an Adam’s apple where one hadn’t been before. He’d heard of people being able to change their appearance with make-up and other artificial means, but this was beyond the pale.
“Act natural,” the stranger instructed Tanner, the voice Reggie’s. “The whole reason for me looking like this is to avoid upsetting people.”
“You’re upsetting me,” Tanner muttered, downed his Scotch.
Reggie giggled. Even that was deeply disturbing, hearing a woman’s light laughter coming out of a man’s mouth. The only thing that reassured Tanner was that Reggie was still holding his hands and he wasn’t fading into any middle distance, wasn’t taking a strange journey into someone else’s past. He was there, centered in his own body, experiencing his own life’s events—bizarre as those events may be. Tanner had almost convinced himself that this turn of events was unrelated to any epic struggle between Good and Evil when the hands that covered his began to change shape.
Tanner watched the nails recede, return to a natural nail color. The soft hands hardened, calluses developed as he watched; the fingers lengthened and darkened in color. Tanner drew his hands away as the other pair of hands completed their metamorphosis. He tried to drink more Scotch, but his glass was empty. He chewed on the ice cube that remained. He tapped twice on the table, decided that two taps wouldn’t be nearly enough and proceeded to tap some more. He only stopped when Paulie came over and handed him a full bottle of Scotch and two glasses.
“Thanks,” he said quickly and filled both glasses, drained them both, refilled them. “Thanks.”
“You okay, kid?” Paulie asked, looking back and forth between the two people in the booth, his eyes registering no recognition when they looked upon Reggie.
“I’m fine. Thanks,” Tanner was able to say as he refilled the glasses. Paulie looked like he wanted to say more, but didn’t. He shrugged his shoulders and returned to the bar. When Tanner and Reggie were alone he looked into those exceptional eyes and asked, “Who are you?”
“I’m Reggie,” the man with a woman’s voice replied. “Surprise!”
Tanner couldn’t help feeling that some higher power was testing him. It seemed every time he allowed himself to broaden his perspective to encompass new material, each time thinking that certainly things can’t get much further off the beaten path than this, something new crept into his life. Fortunately the substance and taste of Scotch had not changed, had remained constant for him. He drank hard. He had never understood alcoholism before, but the picture was beginning to become clearer to him.
“So what are you?” he asked, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “Man? Woman? Hermaphrodite? Transvestite?”
“Does it matter?” Reggie answered, pouring Scotch into the other glass. “Would it make any difference? I’m still Reggie.”
“It would at least make it easier to refer to you in the third person,” Tanner said, his voice weak, his argument specious. “For instance, someone could say of me, That Tanner is a really great guy; he really has his shit together. Now, how would someone express that about you, Reggie? That Reggie is a really great . . . person; Reggie really has Reggie’s shit together. It’s cumbersome.”
“I can see that,” Reggie replied, but didn’t answer him.
Tanner supposed it might be small of him to wonder when there seemed to be bigger questions to ask about the situation, like how was it possible to change your body’s shape at whim? No, Tanner, supposed he’d received multiple potential answers for that. Reggie could be a sorcerer; Reggie could have an ability. Another question was, who was Reggie working for?
“I suppose if I were to be one or the other,” Reggie answered, “I would be a woman. But that’s more a matter of choice than equipment, if you take my meaning. If it will make it easier for you, you can consider me a woman. I think I’d like that.”
Tanner took a look at Reggie, at her Adam’s apple and strong, manly hands and wondered how it was that he was supposed to consider her a woman. Perhaps it would help if he closed his eyes. He did so. He still had problems. But he supposed he would deal with them. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes.
“Do you work for us or them?” he asked.
“Such a black and white world view,” Reggie commented. “I don’t work for Merlin, but I don’t work for Morgan, either. They may see this in terms of a dichotomy, but there are other interested parties. I represent one of those parties.”
“You owe me one straight answer,” Tanner reminded her.
“I told you I’m a woman.”
“You told me I could consider you a woman,” Tanner corrected. “That’s hardly what I’d call a straightforward answer.”
Reggie smiled and her face became fuzzy around the edges, sort of blurred and shapeless, like clay preparing to be molded. As Tanner watched her facial features rearranged themselves. Eyes drifted outward, ears inched their way upwards, wrinkles and lines appeared where none existed before. Whiskers grew out and a white beard formed. When everything had settled it was an entirely new face confronting Tanner, that of a man in his sixties, Bohemian. He looked grandfatherly and kind. Tanner didn’t recognize him though there was something about him that was oddly familiar.
“Holy shit!” he heard from over his shoulder and saw Johnny’s face creeping above the back of the booth. He was pointing at Reggie’s new face, having clearly seen the transformation himself. “Holy shit!”
The patrons returned their gaze to the booths. Tanner quickly saw that Reggie had rearranged her face to appear like the plain man, so when the five parties at the bar looked over they saw two men sitting calmly in one booth and Johnny breaking into hysterics over in the next booth over, his ¾ shot of alcohol completely forgotten.
Johnny had suddenly found himself stone cold sober for the first time in a really long while. It didn’t take him long to remember that the sober world frightened him to no end. It upset him more than words could express that the sober world could so easily intrude on his cocoon of alcoholism. If alcohol couldn’t keep the curse of clear-headedness from him, what good was it?
Johnny turned to the other patrons, saw their expressions, saw the pity on the faces. There was nothing quite so terrifying to Johnny as the prospect of having thrust upon him pity from the pitiful, charity from the charitable or religion from the religious. And that’s all he saw in the five faces. He wanted none of it. And he certainly didn’t want to stay in a bar where people’s faces changed. That would be too much.
Johnny looked around himself in the booth. There was nothing there that was really his, nothing that he couldn’t leave behind. He left the booth, gave one last salute to Paulie and left the establishment, never to return. The patrons turned back towards the bar. An era had ended just as it has begun, to the muted salute of glasses being refilled at the bar.
Tanner was just as preoccupied as the rest of them. If he had known, he would have wanted to give Johnny a send-off, made some kind of acknowledgement of his leaving. Tanner believed that the Paulie’s bar experience changed on a fundamental level the moment the career alcoholic left the building. Paulie would argue that his bar fundamentally changed the day a woman with exceptional eyes walked into the bar. Tanner could see that perspective as well.
Her eyes were exceptional. And fixed in her face. Tanner had noticed that. The other features had been malleable, changed shape, color, consistency and location. The eyes had moved, but they had remained essentially unchanged. He wondered if it was part of her ability or a show of vanity. It was something to consider.
“So,” Tanner spoke to Reggie, “that was your straight-forward answer?”
Reggie nodded, ran her finger around the edge of the glass, made a low humming sound that Tanner found soothing. It reminded him of the low humming a parent might make at the end of a lullaby when they suspect the infant is beginning to fade into sleep. It was a reassuring sound, a sound that told him that maybe things would work out for the best in the end.
“I didn’t recognize the face,” he told her. “Was it your boss?”
“Yes,” Reggie replied. “You would like him. His preferred reaction to the unknown is quiet observation, too.”
“I’m going to guess you’re not going to tell me any more about him.”
“You’re very perceptive,” Reggie answered.
That was an evasion if Tanner had ever heard one. And he’d heard quite a few. He tried to etch the old kind man’s face in his memory so that if a time should come where he and this other interested party were in the same room . . . Tanner would have to work on what would happen under those circumstances. He’d need to know the man’s motivations, need to know if he was friend or foe. He wasn’t sure how he’d figure that out, but Tanner believed that ultimately he would.
In fact he was flushed with enthusiasm and optimism, a sure sign that the Scotch was finally hitting him. It was about time.
“We don’t want to pressure you,” Reggie said. “We just want you to know that we are here. I’m here to help you, no strings.”
There were always strings, all the more when someone volunteers the information that there weren’t any strings. But it was still possible she was being sincere. Tanner pulled out a pen and grabbed a damp napkin. It wasn’t a perfect canvas for his art, but it would have to do under the circumstances.
“No,” Reggie said quietly and forcefully, ripping the napkin from him and sticking it in her breast pocket. “It’s not safe for you to do that anymore. Not even here. There may be détente right now, but that’s no reason to be careless.”
She knew what he could do. She had known before Tanner even knew. She had known when he had left the note on the bar yesterday. How had she known? Tanner was afraid to voice his thoughts. Did everyone know more than he did? Tanner made a decision. From this point forward he would do everything he could to ensure that he would not be caught flat-footed again. He would begin when he returned to his apartment. He would grab a pad of paper and write all night if that’s what it would take.
In the meantime he would remain tight-lipped. He would no longer give out more information than he received. He would be a cipher.
“Don’t pout,” Reggie said, clearly confusing Tanner-as-cipher with Tanner-as-spoiled-child. “I’m to make myself available to you, whenever you need me. It doesn’t matter if you tell Merlin or not; that will be up to you.”
“How do I find you?” he asked. “If I find you, how will I know it’s you?”
“I’ll find you,” Reggie said with a smile that seemed as unsubstantial as dust on the horizon. When the dust settled her lips were rich, full and red. “And I’ll do this.” She leaned forward across the booth and planted a long warm kiss, slid her tongue deep into Tanner’s mouth. He didn’t resist. He hoped that Paulie wasn’t looking as this sort of thing was certain to upset him.
When Tanner left the bar he wasn’t certain why the world seemed to be spinning. Was it because he had had too much to drink? Was it because his world was descending quickly down a spiral staircase of impossibility? Was it because of the kiss? Tanner couldn’t decide. But the world was spinning. Of that he was certain.
It took him several tries to get his key into the lock; it seemed to keep moving at the last moment on him. Tricky lock. Tricky door. But he wouldn’t let a little thing like a cunning door get in his way. Tanner remembered his purpose, knew that he had only moments to achieve it before he passed out.
He stepped inside and turned on the light. The apartment seemed alien to him, as if it belonged to someone else. It took him a few moments to convince himself he was in the right apartment. But he was and everything was where it should be, where he had left it earlier. Odin wasn’t there, but hadn’t Tanner left him at Ms. Bond’s? He seemed certain he had.
Tanner sat at his desk, pulled out a ream of paper, took out several sheets and wrote on the top of the first: The Knights of the Round Table. To the right of these words he wrote: Name, Age, Profession, Location. And then he proceeded to write. When he finished he had a list of over two-hundred names on several pages. At the bottom was his own.
Sir Andrew of Guthrie, it read, Tanner Roy, 28, Author of Truths, Ivory Tower. Sir Andrew of Guthrie. The name meant nothing to him. Most of the names meant nothing to him. Only sporadically did he see a name that had survived to Mallory: Sir Lancelot Du Lac, Sir Galahad, Sir Bedivere, Sir Gawain, and some others. Beside the name Bedivere was the name of Ms. Bond. Bedivere was the one that legend said threw Excalibur into the lake, the one the CEO had referred to so blithely as some moron. He wondered how the CEO would react when Tanner brought the moron into the Ivory Tower.
He scanned the list of names and noticed one had an additional note written beside it: Sir Lawrence D’Avalon, Theodore Van Dyke, 50, Clerk, Topeka, Kansas. You should recruit him first.
Tanner looked at the name for a second and then jotted down an additional note beside the name: the Faith Healer. Tanner was surprised at that, feared that he was going to be working with some sort of charlatan with televangelistic tendencies. He put down his pen. He had intended to write more, had intended to create an extensive list of the entire court of Camelot, but felt that this was all he needed. But he knew he couldn’t be careless. He put the papers in his desk drawer and locked it, stuck the key underneath his pillow.
Pillow. That seemed an inviting word to Tanner. If you said it softly to yourself over and over it almost seemed a lullaby. Strange that he should think about lullabies again. Strange, he thought, his last before his eyelids became incredibly heavy and he descended into the comfort of sleep.
Tanner was disconcerted by how often he was having the dream now. He supposed it must be some side effect from the contact he was having with other reincarnates. So he went through the motions, stared down at his reflection in the moat, saw the familiar face that wasn’t really his, but who he used to be, Sir Andrew of Guthrie. He walked into the courtyard where the people awaited him, including the king and queen. This was the Arthur and Guinevere from legend; he wished he could see their faces. He heard the raised voices of his new comrades. He saw the adoring stares of the ladies.
But there was something else he sensed, something he had never sensed before. One of the ladies staring at him was different than the others. He didn’t know how, he could just sense an otherness, an intensity in the glare, that didn’t exist for the others. He instinctively knew that this glare was coming from someone other than the fair lady who had such a vital role later in his dream. He tried to turn his head, center on the invading glare, but before he could focus he was hurtled further into the dream.
His eyes slid off the side of the woman in the tower, caught a sense of motion as she dropped her favor down. His eyes continued to follow the favor, his body drifted on the bridge towards his inevitable doom. But now, as he reached the edge he sensed that the person from before was on the bridge with him. The glaring woman was there, close to him. How could he have never noticed it before? He fell over the edge and out of the corner of his eye he saw a cobalt blue dress and a hand reaching towards him. It was the woman. Was she grabbing for him? Had she pushed him, helped him on his way over? He couldn’t tell; he just fell. The water beckoned to him, welcomed him like a lover. He died again.
He woke healthy and hale, wondering why it was that his apartment was shaking. It took him a moment to collect his thoughts and arrive at the conclusion that either Ms. Bond was knocking on his door or the police were trying to break it open. Tanner reserved judgment on which scenario he would prefer.
“Yes, yes,” he called out as he put on his robe. “I’m coming.”
The pounding did not stop and Tanner thought he might have heard the sound of splintering wood. He immediately called to mind the image of Ms. Bond shattering her rolling pin over her head and hurried his steps.
“Oh, hi, dear,” Ms. Bond said with saccharine sweetness as he opened the door and studied it. The wood hadn’t splintered, but there was a hand shaped divot in the front of it. Tanner looked at Ms. Bond, his face all enraged incredulity. “Well, I’m sorry, dear. I’m afraid I’ve never had much patience for doors.”
When Tanner didn’t respond Ms. Bond soldiered on, “Anyway, I know it’s early, but I was going out for my morning walk and I noticed this note attached to your door. I’m afraid it’s rather sinister.”
Tanner rubbed his eyes and took a look at the paper. It read:
We know who you are and we know where you live. Think on that and know that you continue as you are because we allow you to continue. Do not regard us as enemies, despite what others might have told you. When the time is right you will come to us and we will talk. Until then we urge you not to make any decisions that you might regret later.
The note was unsigned. Tanner read it a second time, just in case he had made some mistake. Alas, the text remained unchanged.
“Do you remember when things used to be normal?” he asked Ms. Bond.
“Dear,” she replied drawing her pink shawl tightly around her, “It’s been several lifetimes since things have been normal for me.”
“Fair enough,” Tanner replied, removing the paper from his door, “I guess I should take this to work with me today.”
“And I’ll take mine!” Ms. Bond exclaimed, hand over mouth. “It’ll be like we’re twins!”
And with that she moved in a quick turn that made her pink scarf and robe billow around her, giving her the aspect of an old pink parasol being twisted gently in place. Tanner continued to stare at the space she had so recently occupied and couldn’t escape the churning feeling in his stomach that told him that he hadn’t any concept of what twists and turns fate had in store for him.