Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part I, Chapter 13
With her back almost literally against the wall, Hasta at long last meets her pursuers and begins to learn just how dangerous they are.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Hasta’s head jerked up toward the sound of Ivan’s shouts. He was running down the bleachers and pointing at the closest gate. She looked the other way and saw the two dark figures, one tall, one short, arms and legs pistoning.
“This way! Run!” Ivan yelled.
She did, and Juan did too.
“Halt!” shouted a voice like broken glass.
She glanced over her shoulder. Juan was just pulling past her. Ten yards back were two dark figures, one tall, one short, their arms and legs pistoning.
Ivan was the first one through the half-open chain-link gate. Juan zipped between the bleachers and a brick equipment shed to slam through after him. The gate rattled as its lower corner scraped across the concrete. Caroming through the opening, Juan stumbled to one knee.
Hasta, five steps behind him, looked back. The tall detective, reaching for something inside his flapping jacket, was nearly upon her. She couldn’t see his face in the shadow of his hat, only two glowing eyes.
“Hasta!” Juan screamed.
Whirling, Hasta drew her arm back, middle finger raised high. The detective reversed direction so fast he nearly slipped. He dived out of sight around the corner of the equipment shed. The short one appeared from around the bleachers just as Hasta jabbed. His arms flailed as he too skidded to a stop and dived for cover.
Juan had gained his feet again. Hasta pushed through the gate after him.
“Halt!” called that same marbly voice. “You are a violator, and you are required to surrender!”
Juan veered left and started north toward the growling nighttime traffic of Foster Avenue. East, across a hundred yards of open grass, lay the high school. Ivan was already headed there, and Principal Armisted’s words came back to her: The school is your refuge.
“No, Juan!” Hasta shouted. “This way!”
Behind her the gate rattled. She ran as hard as she could. Her lungs burned and her side ached, but she didn’t stop.
“Halt!” cried that awkward-sounding voice. “You are required to surrender!”
Halfway to the school, Hasta risked another quick glance over her shoulder. The tall detective was twenty yards behind her, the short one farther back. The tall one’s arm was extended toward her, holding some small object. Hasta planted her feet and whirled, middle finger extended. Both detectives threw themselves flat on the grass, making arcane gestures in front of their heads. Both somehow kept their hats on.
Hasta turned again and kept running.
“You are a violator and must surrender!” The voice was starting to sound perturbed.
The faculty lot behind the school was empty except for two driver’s ed cars. Juan was already diving behind one by the time Hasta’s feet touched asphalt. Ivan was at the back wall of the school, running his hands over a pair of double doors.
When Hasta reached the car, she looked back one more time. The tall detective had pulled up short about fifteen yards from the parking lot, peering at the object in his hand. The short one stopped beside him and tried to get a look at it.
Juan popped out and tugged Hasta’s elbow. “Get down!”
Hasta shrugged out of his grip, and took a few steps away from the car. “Hang on. This is weird.”
She raised her hand to her eye and scoped the detectives. The tall one had what looked like a wafer-thin piece of smoked glass about the size of a playing card in his hand. He held it delicately by the edges, and he seemed to be watching Hasta through it. The short one stood on tiptoe to see through it.
But that wasn’t the oddest part. Everything else was sharp and clear, but through her circled hand she couldn’t make out the faces beneath the brims of the hats. All she could see were two gray blurs.
Creeped out, Hasta joined Juan behind the car. Ivan rushed over to them.
“Those doors have no handles on the outside,” he said. “We’ll have to go around the south side of the school if we want to get in.”
“What are they doing out there?” Hasta, peering out to watch the detectives watch them. “Why did they stop?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Ivan said. His face looked ashen under the security lighting. “I just want to get out of here.”
“I agree,” Juan said.
“Hang on,” said Hasta. “The school’s a refuge. That’s what Principal Armisted told me. I think she meant there’s a line around it these guys can’t cross.”
She stood up and started walking across the parking lot toward the south end of the school.
“What are you doing?” Ivan hissed.
The tall detective stayed in place but, after a brief burst of sign language, the short detective moved south, staying even with Hasta but maintaining a constant distance from her.
Hasta stopped, and the detective stopped too. With her naked eye she could make out the craggy features of the face beneath the hat brim. His green eyes stayed locked on hers.
Ivan trotted over to join her in a half-crouch. “Let’s go, H.,” he said.
But though every instinct in her body told her to run fast and far, she wanted some answers. “You two watch the other guy,” she said. “I’m going to have a word this one.”
“It’s not like I’m unarmed,” she hissed, holding her middle finger up close to her chest. “Now go!”
Hasta walked slowly toward the short detective. He stood waiting on the grass, shoulders hunched, hands hanging loosely at his sides. She stopped at the edge of the parking lot, which she judged was near enough.
“There are easier ways to get a date, you know,” she said. “Oh, but they shut down that part of Craigslist.”
“So you are the elusive Hasta V.?” the man said. “I suppose such churlishness was inevitable, given your obvious criminality.”
It took all of Hasta’s will to stand her ground. Watching him from the carriage-house window, she hadn’t appreciated just how ugly he was. His face was as wide and lumpy as a rock, with pebbled skin that reminded her of acne scarring. His nose was bulbous, his mouth a wide, fleshy crevice that curled in a dopey smile. He hadn’t shaved in days, and what she could see of his hair seemed to have been razor-chopped by a drunken barber. His brown suit was stained and threadbare, his hat battered, his tie horrendous. He looked like a crude brute.
But what belied this impression were his eyes. They gleamed a deep green, practically glowing in the darkness. Alight with glittering intelligence, those eyes seemed to measure but not dismiss her. That and the man’s courtly diction, delivered through a mouth that didn’t seem to work right, made her more afraid than his appearance did.
“Who are you?” Hasta demanded. “Why are you after us?”
The man’s face barely moved when he spoke. “We pursue only you, though your associates should know they keep dangerous company.”
“But why? What have I done? Who are you?”
“We are federal agents.”
Hasta’s legs felt like water. “You are not,” she said, pointing accusingly. “Who are you really? What are you?”
The detective betrayed no emotion. “I am the one who will soon capture you and bring your lawlessness to an end. You are a violator and must surrender.”
“And you can’t get within, what—fifty feet of the school?” she said, indicating the space between them. “What is it, a restraining order? Are you some kind of child molester?”
The detective bared his teeth, perhaps attempting to smile. “You realize, of course, that you’ve trapped yourself inside this perimeter.”
“We’ll see,” Hasta said.
“Our patience is so great you might profitably regard it as infinite. You cannot outrun us. We will always catch up. But in any event, we will have you soon.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Experience. We always apprehend our quarry in the end.”
“Huh,” said Hasta, trying to sound unimpressed though in truth she was chilled to the bone. “At least tell me what I’ve done. I’m not aware of breaking any laws.”
“You violate the natural order of things.”
“The natural order of things? What does that even mean?”
The detective’s glowing eyes narrowed. “Unauthorized spacial translations violate the natural order. We believe you are responsible for at least four today.”
“How can I break a law I’ve never even heard of?”
“Ignorance is no defense,” the detective said. “However atrophied your moral sense, it must tell you that certain acts of which you physically are capable are nonetheless morally wrong.”
“I didn’t ask for this,” Hasta said. “I don’t know how it works. I don’t even know how it happened to me.”
“That is immaterial. We still must apprehend you and restore the natural order of things.”
The unjustness burned like hot embers in Hasta’s chest. “Wouldn’t finding out how I got this ability do more to preserve your precious natural order than whatever punishment you have in mind? If there something’s wrong, then I’m only a symptom.”
“You are a violator, and you’re required to surrender.”
Hasta blew out her breath, close to losing her temper. “How is that fair? I’m the victim here!”
“If a baby has its finger on the trigger of a gun, questions of fairness, innocence, ignorance, or victimhood do not enter into the debate. The only questions are ones of consequence, and intervention.”
“You might take the gun away, but you don’t arrest the baby.”
The detective bared his teeth again. “Who said anything about arresting you?”
Hasta shuddered with a deep, deep cold. “You try anything,” she said, “and what’s to stop me from spatially translating you into Lake Michigan?”
The detective’s terrifying grin widened. “One,” he said, “you’re facing the wrong direction. Two—Dennis Clegg.”
The name struck Hasta like a knife in the gut. She couldn’t seem to get a breath.
“You don’t like hearing that name,” the detective said. “And no wonder. When I found him, the poor child was very nearly dead. Two broken legs, internal hemorrhaging, cranial fractures, and who knows what else. He must have dropped twenty or thirty feet to the pavement.”
Hasta crossed her arms tightly. “It was self-defense!” she said, sick at heart. “I didn’t have a choice!”
The detective’s hands twitched at his sides like he was itching for a duel. “Now you may begin to understand our position.”
Hasta wanted so badly to flip him, but her guilt over Dennis held her back. Instead she spun away and marched back toward the school. Ivan and Juan were no longer visible, and neither was the taller detective.
“You are a violator,” the detective called out, “and you are required to surrender.”
Time to find the boys and get inside.
Hugging herself, she hurried around the corner to the darkened south side of the school. There was no door there, so she kept walking around to the Damen Avenue side. The skin between her shoulder blades prickled.
Ivan and Juan were approaching from the north along the front of the school. She rushed to meet them. “You guys okay?” she asked breathlessly.
“We’re fine,” Ivan whispered. “We followed the tall dude. He kept his distance from us all around the north side of the school, but he’s, um . . .” He glanced at Juan, who shrugged. “He’s pulling these big black squares out of nowhere and hanging them in midair out beyond each corner of the building.” He pointed toward the street. “I think he’s on his way to do the next one.”
Hasta glanced that way. Beyond the school’s front lawn, she could see the tall detective shambling along the sidewalk past the shuttered military recruitment kiosk. “Any clue what the squares are for?”
“No idea,” said Juan.
The shorter detective was scurrying north along the sidewalk toward his partner. The two of them stopped to confer in sign language.
“We should go inside,” Ivan said. His foot tapped spasmodically. “We’re sitting ducks out here.”
“See if you guys can open the front door,” Hasta said. The taller detective was now continuing south while the shorter one turned up the school’s front walk. “I think the munchkin wants another word.”
The detective stopped. Hasta walked to within twenty feet of him and stood with her chin lifted.
“This is but a temporary impasse,” he said. His head swiveled slowly back and forth. “We will apprehend you soon enough.”
“We’ll see how temporary it is,” Hasta said, reminded of the way he’d searched the alley for her that afternoon, and the way he’d gone rushing off when she flipped Ivan’s bicycle. “You’ve been tracking us by the things we flip. You can sense where they land, can’t you? We’ll remember that from now on.”
The detective gave her for the first time what appeared to be a genuine smile. Even his creepy green eyes softened. He drew something out of his pocket and held it up for her to see. A wooden block carved with the letter A. “Would you like this back?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “But I would like to know if you found Bobby Kimball.”
The detective shrugged and tossed the block into the grass. “Mr. Kimball was dazed when we found him. His memory was somewhat hazy. Now—” He crooked his finger at her and stared at a spot about a foot in front of him. “—Hasta Veeramachaneni. I’m confirming your insight into our methods for one reason only—so you will recognize how certain we are to capture you, and how foolish you are to believe otherwise.”
“Keep telling yourself that,” Hasta said. She turned and walked back to the front steps. Ivan and Juan were waiting there with one of the heavy front doors propped open. She waved to the detective as lightning flashed behind him. “If you need us tonight,” she said, “you know where to find us.”
The detective cocked his head, looking puzzled. He raised his hand. His palm was coated with what looked like dried blood. “The natural order of things will prevail, Hasta Veeramachaneni.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance like a slow stampede of monsters. Fat drops of rain began pattering to the ground. Hasta raised her middle finger in casual salute and closed the door behind her. √
END OF PART I