In the Darkness Falling
Chapter 1: The Week That Wouldn't Die!
Author’s Note: I know halfway through a book is a strange time to remember that I might offend some people who actually exist by using their names, but that is what happened the other day when I was working on Chapter 13 of In the Darkness Falling. Having had the thought, I also had the beginnings of a note to assuage any legal responsibility that might be required on my part to assure readers that I have absolutely no idea what these people are really like and made it all up. To that end, I wrote this little piece up. For those of you who like such things, enjoy. For the rest, oh well. We can’t all be legalese junkies. Thank the Gods (every single one of them)!
This book contains characters that are real historical figures from the period in which the book takes place, namely the beginning half of the year 1994. I could have chosen to simply make up names, but the lure of the character named Bill Clinton, with all of his myriad flaws that became apparent to most over time, was irresistible (despite the fact that he never appears in more than a passing fashion in the book). Most of the characters who are historic in nature are not portrayed with any attempt to capture their authentic nature. The best example of this is my portrayal of the Russian Foreign Minister in 1994, Andrey Kozyrev. Being the Internet Age, I am sure I could have found videos to study of Mr. Kozyrev in order to get his accent correct. However, this is a work of fiction, and an alternate universe fiction at that, so I did not feel the need to do that much research into the period. I know, having grown up in Cold War West Germany and paying a lot of attention to what Russian officials in the news said, that many Russians (then and now) in high governmental positions are able to speak English better than a lot of Americans. Mr. Kozyrev, as Foreign Minister, is probably among them. This is my long-winded way of saying that while some names that appear in this work are, or were, real people, their actions and characters were wholly my own creative invention and I apologize if any of them read this work and are offended. I am not going to be sorry enough to change anything they find offensive, but I am sure I will be at least a little sorry about it ... somewhere ... deep down.
Splat! "Eeewww! You have got to be shitting me!"
This was the capper on the week from hell! Literally! As I stood there spitting brains and skull and what passed for blood in Gorgons, I was trying to remember the last time I killed something this messy. I was literally scraping the insides of the Gorgon's skull off my face after a twenty minute fight during which the damned thing managed to slash open my torso and cut the tendon connecting my right thumb to my wrist, making that hand almost useless for the foreseeable future. I was once again going to have to go begging to the Order to get myself patched up because there was no damned way anyone else in my life was going to understand six parallel claw cuts running diagonally across my midriff.
And what the hell was a Gorgon doing in England in the middle of winter anyway?!
Gorgons live in the Med region, and for a reason. Snakes and cold don't go well together. What was this one doing lurking about London, sending out its minions to kidnap pretty young boys from old blue blood families? About the only thing that worked this week was me finding them alive and releasing them into the caring arms of a monk who would see that they got back home with a minimum of questions about me. Then came the hunt for the leader of this little circus and damned if I wasn't shocked all to hell when I spotted the scale in an alley not far from this reeking cesspit of a warehouse. A quick stop to a pay phone for some advice and then a detour to a place that sold high-end sunglasses.
The nicely heated warehouse was in a lovely little spot in London my foster father Eoin, Baron of Spencer, his chief of security Ambrose Devlin, and even Eoin's son William had always warned me not to go into without Eoin-level security or Eoin would be trying to explain all of the dead thugs that would come out of the woodwork to try to grab me. Most of these warehouses were nothing more than huge shells that filled and emptied of cargoes of various legitimacies on a regular basis. The criminals decided what got stored there and the unions decided who worked there and since both intermarried with one another, they were pretty much the same thing. I tracked the scale's owner to one of the more rundown warehouses and quickly disabled the four humans guarding the outside, swiftly opening the side door (in an attempt to keep the chill, foggy, and misting outside evening air where it belonged). I lurked around, taking out two more human guards until I located the Gorgon. There was very little cargo in the warehouse and the lighting was dim, so I could make out very little about her. I donned the new glasses and I was ready.
Until the war hammer I was using splatted her skull like an overripe melon. I was literally covered in the slimy ooze that seemed to serve as her blood. It was an almost rosy syrup consistency and the only consolation was that the damn stuff didn't get in my eyes thanks to the 300£ (pound sterling), high mirror finish, high UV protection shades I picked up before hunting her down.
Looking down at her still twitching body, I could see where the myths and legends about Gorgons came from. If you ignored the scaly skin, fangs, claws, snakes for hair, and no legs, she had a curvy, sexy bod that would make Hugh Hefner stand to attention. Right before he turned to stone, of course. I put the glasses back on and turned over what remained of her head, squatting gingerly to close her eye lids. This was not Medusa, nor was it Stheno, and I was pretty sure it was not Euryale. Word was that they rarely left the Greek isles. This left me wondering which underling this was and why she was sent here to collect kids.
I was just about to contemplate calling the monks to clean this shit up when my hand and stomach began feeling a hundred times better. Looking at my right hand, I could see the skin knitting and feel the tendon healing. Likewise, when I lifted my shirt the claw marks looked a week old.
"Gorgon blood will do that for you," an amused, rebuking voice said from behind me, tinged slightly with a German accent, the main warehouse door opening wide. The misty, roiling night began spilling into the cavernous space, bringing a chillness to the already warmly damp air that pervaded the musty edifice. "And you would not be so surprised if you studied your work as much as you did your hobbies. Were this an Emberá Chocó tribesman using the secretions of a poison dart frog, you would know what you were dealing with, despite the fact that it is unlikely you will ever need to know that."
I sighed and wondered if this was God's way of tormenting me until I accepted the Fate He had planned for me. "Hello, Karl. What brings you to sunny London?" I inquired with a voice accented upper class Londoner spiced with a remaining hint of Australian as I rose, still looking at my hand in wonder. It was completely healed. I ran the hand over my stomach and smiled up at his long frame. "Vacation?" No Order doctors for me. Yippee!
"Smile all you like, Mädchen. Had she not damaged your right hand, you probably would be either very dead or very sick right now," he informed me direly. He walked over to the corpse and nudged the snake-like tail. "There is a reason we try to teach you what weapon to use fighting various different monsters. Gorgon blood can be either universally curative or highly poisonous. All depends on how and where it is gotten. Had that killing blow come from your right hand, it would have been searing and highly poisonous. As much as you disdain when someone compliments your waifish beauty, I doubt you would care to go through the rest of what little life you would have had from that point looking as if someone had dumped a vat of acid on your face."
I took off the sunglasses and it was then that I notice he was not wearing his usual monk's habit but was instead dressed in faded jeans and a black pullover under a black trench coat. "Are we undercover?" I inquired lightly, with a hint of irritation underneath. He knew I hated it when he (or anyone else, for that matter) scolded me.
That got a genuine smile and a headshake. "No, Liebchen, I was called when you found the boys and left them with Brother Andrew. They were worried you might find yourself wounded and be reluctant to call upon them after you dispatched the Gorgon. So they called me in hopes that a friendly face would make you see reason," he replied sweetly, sparkling gray eyes looking into mine. "They recall you almost lost a hand the last time because you dislike going to them for medical aid following these forays into the Darkness."
I grumbled and kicked the Gorgon irritably, bitterly thanking her dead ass under my breath. "Yeah, well ... if the idiots didn't treat caring for my wounds like a religious experience, maybe I wouldn't get so damn freaked by it! And while you are dispensing with the advice, why don't you tell me what the hell I am going to do with this rotting piece of shit?"
He turned back to the warehouse door he had entered and whistled. Six strapping men with the looks of an Order clean-up crew about them entered. I say the looks because all of them were dressed like Karl. Two of them carried a roll of heavy tarp between them, which they quickly rolled out on the floor of the warehouse. Another held a thick leather bag with heavy buckles which was eased over the remains of the Gorgon's head and securely fastened. They then rolled her body onto the tarp and quickly wrapped up her twelve-foot-long corpse. Unseen from one of the other men appeared canisters of some kind of chemical that they sprayed over every place where they could find blood, mine or hers.
They, of course, were all members of the Order. Or maybe it should be The Order! Whatever. They were kind of like the Roman Catholic Church's version of some of those bastard cousins of the CIA that nobody knows the name of but who do a lot of the intelligence work for which the CIA gets credit (or blame). Most of the people I dealt with were monks, Karl included. As a matter of fact, I was only alive this long because Karl killed the monsters that tried to kill me when I was five, succeeding only in killing my mother before Karl killed them. I forgot all of that until Karl came back into my life when I was thirteen, thanks to a little memory block he put on me at the time. Now, I seem to see him every few months or so, when I find myself in a jam. I think the higher ups in the Order figure that, since I owed him from when I was younger, I would tolerate him easier than some of the local people.
And they were not wrong! At least Karl seemed to be able to forget why it was me killing Gorgons in dingy warehouses in neighborhoods tough guys stay out of instead of some other lucky soul.
"Dame Alice, will you accompany us back to the abbey?" one of them asked politely, his accent a fine upper-class English, eyeing the bloody clothes and still dripping war hammer. "Your clothes need to be burned and the weapon cleaned most thoroughly. And you were wounded."
"Gorgon blood from the right side, Piers," Karl muttered obscurely. Then he nodded to the war hammer hanging limply from my left hand. "You could douse that and her shoes, though. It looks enough like a sledge that she can carry it about, despite it looking odd that someone so scrawny waves it about like a broomstick. And I am sure her foster father would not appreciate what old Gorgon blood would do to the carpets when she gets home."
The disguised monk snorted even as he held out a meaty hand for my hammer. "He won't like what this crap will do much either! Make sure you swish through a puddle or three on your way home, Miss, or you will bleach footprints on Lord Spencer's very nice carpeting!" he warned as he sprayed the entire length of the weapon with the chemical, making me frown at him direly. "Not to worry, Miss, it doesn't have nearly the effect on leather as it does on cloth. Just make sure to clean and oil it well when you get home and then wipe it down and it should be fine." With that, he handed me back the hammer and then motioned for me to lift my feet. He sprayed my leather boots down just as well as he had the hammer and then nodded to me again before rejoining the crew by the wrapped Gorgon corpse. They each grabbed a handhold and heaved, lifting the body up to their shoulders and began marching out of the warehouse.
Karl eyed me as if inspecting me and then looked over at the departing monks. My warm red jacket and the cream silk blouse beneath it were slashed across the midriff, bloody and exposing a lot of blood-smeared skin. The black jeans I was wearing, however, hid the blood that had run down my abdomen very nicely. The jacket and blouse both had blood at the right cuff, where the blood from my once-wounded hand had bled rather profusely. "Brother Jaime, your coat if you would, before you leave?" he called just as they were about to exit the warehouse.
We watched as he kept one hand on the corpse and slithered out of his coat with the other and then repeated with the other hand, dropping it on the ground behind him as they left. "Just make sure I get it back, Karl! The abbot is getting tired of replacing my clothes for being ruined in the line of duty."
Karl jogged over to get it, laughingly tossing back at the monk, "Tell the Right Reverend that my Lady of Spencer needed it so she would not be detained on the Underground on her way home. I am sure the condition of the Gorgon's head will be more than enough proof. And if it isn't, I am sure my Lady is good for a replacement."
Much hilarity ensued as I irritably shrugged out of my ruined jacket and into the overcoat. Karl gave the jacket to one of the other monks to burn and they left. Brother Jaime was a squat, dwarf-like man who only stood a hand or so over a meter and a half but was almost that wide in pure bulky muscle. In other words, his coat swallowed me, despite it not dragging on the grimy floor. I looked like I had put on my dad's coat by mistake.
And of course that thought stilled me.
It had been a while since I thought about daddy. I tried not to. It was too hard.
Even more than five years after being forcefully (though somewhat voluntarily) separated and assuming the identity of Dame Alice Spencer-Killdare, niece to Sir Eoin, Baron Spencer, Peer of the Realm and Member of the House of Lords, it was hard. Eoin and my entire foster family have been great about hiding me and helping me adjust to a very strange change in identity, but it just isn't the same as having my father around. I know I probably romanticize the past like most people do, looking back with dreamy-eyed nostalgia on times that were not nearly as perfect as we "remember," but he was still my dad. Even if he was gone almost as much as, if not more than, he was there in my life.
And then, of course, there is probably a bit of defensiveness towards my father in those feelings. Compared to my life now, life with daddy really can't compare, if I was being honest. Eoin was nearly always there for me, if only because he was an English nobleman living off a family fortune made before there was a United States of America. His time is idly spent managing his fortune from home, visiting his fencing club, and occasionally taking temporary appointments from the Foreign Secretary to put out fires overseas, none of which takes more than a few weeks and only rarely requires him to be gone longer than a few days. Especially nowadays. His specialty is Soviet-American Relations and one half of that equation is gone now. It is usually only when Boris Yeltsin finds himself in trouble with finances or Bill Clinton (or both) that Eoin is called these days.
And so Eoin is ever-present in my life and I have not seen my father in three years and not gotten so much as a phone call or letter in thirteen months. When the Wall fell in 1989, my father, a Sergeant-Major in Military Intelligence, wound up being jerked out of Turkey and sent to Bolivia, then Uruguay, and finally Panama all within the space of a year and a half. When Saddam got ambitious in 1990, I got to see my dad when Eoin arranged a brief reunion at Heathrow Airport as daddy was passing through from Panama on his way back to Turkey. I got a very brief phone call a year later and a hastily scribbled letter nine months after that informing me that he was going on a long-term assignment somewhere in the Middle East. That was the last time I heard from my father. It was also the reason a certain colonel, now a retired general, was still on my People To Kill List. He was a large part of why I was Eoin's niece and not my father's daughter. I may have been marked for death pretty much since birth (certainly since my mother was murdered when I was five), but it was my father's colonel who made hiding within the Army using my birth name impossible.
Now I was Dame Alice Spencer-Killdare, rich orphaned heiress from Australia, knight of the realm, and niece of Lord Spencer. I was already a grade ahead in American schools when I assumed Eoin's dead niece's identity. When I finally got caught up to the demanding standards of the Academy of the House of Hanover, the private school Eoin's family has sent its scions to for generations, the headmaster wound up jumping me another grade in my second year there. This meant that I graduated the Hanoverian Academy when I was fifteen. Oxford, Cambridge, and dozens of other universities in the Kingdom and on the Continent were all clamoring for me to attend their prestigious institutions. I eventually decided to follow my "cousin" and foster brother William to Oxford. I was in my second year of study towards a degree in international studies and law. The reason I was lurking around London and not back at school was the term had not started yet and we were still on winter break.
Which is how I wound up with time and opportunity to hunt down the person or thing responsible for kidnapping the children of some of Eoin's friends and colleagues and the brothers of a couple of my old classmates from Hanover. The more I heard about it, the more I was convinced there was something not-human behind the whole thing, leading me to this grimy warehouse. Looking up at Karl, I cursed myself for being a busybody.
He looked back down at me with an enigmatic smile and a raised brow. "We should probably leave before someone finds the guards," he suggested lightly, rubbing a hand over his bald head. "Even your talent for prevarication might be strained by six bodies, all bearing blunt force trauma injuries matching your hammer."
I shot him an impudent grin. "You mean to tell me your minions do not have the area sealed off? Besides, if the Order's barristers couldn't get me off, Eoin made sure I retained the best criminal and civil attorneys money could buy when he had me file for emancipation when I graduated Hanover," I informed him seriously. "He wanted to be sure I could act for myself when required and that I had the legal team necessary to protect me when I found myself in trouble."
"Wise of him."
I shrugged. "That doesn't mean we should trouble the barristers at this late hour. I believe you said something about the Underground?"
We walked the two kilometers to the nearest tube station and Karl and I caught the last train of the night into Chelsea. By the time we got off at the station in Chelsea and climbed the stairs to street level, the misty night had switched back to a chill drizzle that quickly washed away the last traces of the chemicals the monk sprayed on my boots and war hammer. Karl walked me through the neighborhood to my street. He was as soaked as I was but he simply bent and kissed my forehead before turning around. I watched him flag down a taxi before heading home.
I scaled the stone wall that surrounded Eoin's townhouse and vaulted the iron fence topping it to avoid waking everyone up by buzzing to be let in the gate. Despite my consideration, however, George was standing with the door held politely open by the time I climbed the stairs. If I didn't know better, I would swear George was psychic. Even for an English butler, his ability to anticipate even my tendency to be unpredictable was uncanny.
"Good evening, Dame Alice," George said, his voice neutral and incurious. George never seemed to bother with why I often came home at odd hours, in odd states of disrepair. He just went with the flow, helping me do what was necessary to clean up after a night of ... extracurricular activities. "Will I need to be lighting the incinerator this evening?"
I gave him a gratefully wry smile and nodded. "Unfortunately, George."
"Any bandaging needed, madam?"
"No, I am whole this time," I replied happily, climbing the last stair and walking into the foyer. I handed him Brother Jaime's coat, leaned my hammer against the door, and bent to take off my boots.
"Madam, I thought you said no bandaging," he said in a disappointedly accusatory tone, pointedly looking at the six bloody slices to my blouse and the blood on my right sleeve.
With an urchin-like grin, I slid my sleeve up to show a perfectly healthy arm and then patted my stomach. "It is all fixed already, George. I lucked out tonight."
He gave me a lofty butler glare while raking his eyes over me once more, looking for other signs of injury. "As you say, madam. Does this mean that problem Lord Spencer had me discuss with you is fixed?"
"Yes, George. Everybody is back home and those who did it got what they deserve," I assured him vaguely. George knew there was more to me than meets the eye but he did not know the details and seemingly did not want to know. He took it on faith that Eoin and I were not lying to him and would tell him what he needed to know. As a butler, he took it as given that we would have secrets and that what we told him (and what he discovered himself) were things to be held in confidence.
"That is good to hear, madam. Your uncle wished me to beg his pardon but the American Ambassador called him to the embassy. He requested I tell you that he probably will not be home until sometime tomorrow morning," George informed me in his stiff manner as he shook out the coat and watched me peel the knee-high leather boots off my legs. "Will those need cleaning, madam?"
"Unfortunately, George," was my weary reply. "I will take care of them after I shower the muck from myself."
George frowned down at me, sniffing disdainfully. "I will take care of them while you shower the muck from yourself, madam. Leave the hammer as well. I shall oil and wipe it before I return it to the armory. The cook will have something warm for you to eat by the time you finish cleaning up and changing clothes. Leave the items destined for the incinerator outside the lavatory. I will collect them."
"Thank you, George," I replied with a weary but grateful smile. I left my things in George's capable hands and shuffled off to the bathroom with a side trip to my room to gather clothing.
When I got to the bathroom and saw the huge marble tub calling out to me, I decided a long soak would be ever so much better. So after quickly rinsing the grime from my weary body in the shower, I filled the tub and sank down into the near-scalding water with a bone-deep, utterly exhausted sigh. I felt much better than I had any right to and I probably owed it to the snake-haired bitch who was snatching up blue-blooded kids for reasons I was still not understanding. She probably could have been persuaded to tell me, but during our little disagreement in the warehouse it was plain that the only language she spoke was Greek. My mind kept worrying at it like a dog chasing its tail until I fell asleep.
The tub was freezing cold when I started awake at a discreet knock on the door. "Madam, you probably should not sleep in the tub without a lifeguard," George advised in his stuffy English butler voice before shuffling off to bed himself.
I pulled the plug on the tub and turned the shower back on, scrubbing myself down thoroughly before washing my hair and getting out. I wrapped a fluffy cotton towel around me and got another to dry my shoulder-length auburn hair now liberally streaked with sun-bleached blonde streaks. When I first got to the U. K. my hair was dyed blonde in hopes that I could assume my new identity as Eoin's orphaned niece without too many questions and certainly nobody connecting Alice Spencer-Killdare to Alexandra McKiernan. Unfortunately, I found that the blonde hair made me look a little too much like Twiggy, a British supermodel and actress. As I progressed through puberty, the resemblance between my leanly muscled body when covered with clothing to hide those muscles and Twiggy's supermodel body normally featured to show off her rail-thin frame became even more pronounced. By the time I was into my second year at the Hanoverian Academy, I finally had enough and let my natural color fade in. Much to my surprise, it was no longer the dark reddish-brown, almost black I remembered but the fine auburn my mother had, only streaked with golden highlights from my time spent outside at Eoin's country estate. Much as I thought I was rather plain and unfeminine-looking, I have to say being mistaken for Twiggy's daughter and finding out my hair was actually this gorgeous sun-streaked shade was an ego boost at a time when I needed it.
I dried my hair, ran a comb through it, and pulled on my shorts and t-shirt for bed. My brain was wandering off on tangents and I couldn't decide whether to use my last two days of vacation to chase down why a Gorgon was in London in mid-winter kidnapping rich little boys or spend them vegging out here in Eoin's townhouse before heading back to Oxford.
The cook had indeed left something for me to eat in the kitchen, a steaming plate of roast beef slices swimming in gravy with potatoes and carrots. On a plate next to that was a soft, still-warm loaf of bread. I went through the meal like a starving Ethiopian, chasing it down with a cold glass of milk. After putting my dishes in the sink for the cooks to take care of in the morning, my limbs were quickly turning to lead and gravity seemed to be rapidly increasing beneath my eyelids. I shuffled upstairs to my room and collapsed into bed, barely having the wherewithal to drag the comforter over me before I was gone.