Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part I, Chapter 6
A confrontation with the creepy agent dudes drives Hasta into a hiding place that might be even creepier, and to a fresh attempt at using her powers.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Hasta stood stock-still, watching Ivan watch the street past her shoulder. “There must be a thousand brown sedans in the city,” she said.
“Sure,” said Ivan, even paler than usual, “but how many of them have two shadowy dudes in old-timey hats inside? No, don’t turn your head.”
She kept her face toward the alley mouth at Ivan’s back. “Does this mean you believe me now?” she said hoarsely. Her back seemed to swarm with ants.
Ivan’s head remained still, but his eyes were tracking slowly from right to left. “Let’s say I’m keeping an open mind. Okay, it’s gone past.”
Hasta let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “Oh, good. I don’t know how much more of this—”
“Um, no, wait. It just stopped. Reverse lights are on.” Ivan licked his lips. “What did Armisted tell you to do?”
Hasta swallowed. “Run. Or hide.”
“Here, take my bike. Ride that way, the way they just came. Go straight home. I’ll meet you there.”
She shook her head, not sure what part of it all she was trying to protest. “But Ivan—”
He pushed his handlebars toward her. “I’ll be fine. If they’re after anyone, it’s you, right?”
“This is insane,” she said. But, feeling very small and vulnerable, Hasta trotted the bike fast down the sidewalk before awkwardly climbing on. The bike wobbled. She had to stand on the pedals because Ivan’s seat was way too high for her.
The sidewalk, thankfully, was empty, and the narrow one-way street was lined on both sides with parked cars. She could be home in a couple of minutes. But at the corner she stood on the brake, torn. She looked back. She could see the red glow of brake lights but not much else.
Was Ivan in danger? If so, she was the one who had dragged him into it, and she didn’t want to be the kind of girl who needed a boy to save her.
“You’re crazy, Hasta,” she told herself, but instead of continuing straight she took a left at the corner. Another left and she was at the opposite end of the alley from where she’d left Ivan. Her calves ached from standing up on the pedals. She took a deep breath and headed up the alley. It was deserted but for four or five milling cats—more cats!—that scattered as she rode through their midst. She tried to pedal slowly enough that the squeaky rear wheel didn’t make a lot of noise.
Hasta coasted to a stop a well back from the street. She leaned the bike against one of the garages on the left. “I am so sick of alleys,” she muttered as she tiptoed toward the sidewalk.
She could hear the rumble of an engine, and before she reached the last garage she could see the tail end of an old brown car stopped in the street to her right, puffing smoky exhaust. Hasta crossed to that side of the alley and poked her head around.
About twenty feet down the sidewalk, two white men in shabby suits and hats had Ivan backed up against the raw plank fence enclosing someone’s yard. The taller and fatter of the two was poking at Ivan’s chest with his forefinger, while his stubby companion glowered up with his arms folded.
The taller one was saying something while Ivan shook his head and tried to answer. Hasta could hear the murmur of their voices but couldn’t make out any words. She cupped a hand to her ear.
“—any quarrels or disputes you might have had with him recently?” the taller man was asking. His voice sounded strangely close to her ear. He spoke like he had rocks in his mouth. It wasn’t quite like hearing a deaf person talk, but it was close. “Any reason you or anyone else might have for wishing him harm?”
“He’s a big bully,” Ivan said. “Plenty of people have reason to wish him harm.”
Were they talking about Bobby Kimball?
The shorter one suddenly lifted his nose into the air, turning his head this way and that as if testing the air for a scent. Hasta jerked back out of sight. She heard slow, slow footsteps move down the sidewalk in her direction. Her mouth went dry. Had he sensed her somehow?
She glanced around. She wasn’t thrilled at the idea of taking refuge in another breezeway. She crept quickly back the way she’d come. The third garage on her side wasn’t a garage at all but more of an old-fashioned carriage house, complete with half-timbered walls, curtained windows, dirt-filled flower boxes, and an iron-banded wooden door. She tried the knob. It didn’t open but did seem to give a little when she twisted it. She looked both ways, caught between the urge to fiddle with the knob or run like crazy. She twisted again.
The knob seemed to give a little more this time. She rattled it and twisted sharply. She felt more than heard a grinding like the broken ends of wrist bones inside the mechanism, and this time the door opened.
“Oh, thank God,” Hasta breathed. She slipped inside and eased the door shut behind her.
She was in what looked almost like someone’s study. The cold, dark space contained a wooden desk with a computer, a couple of old typewriters, filing cabinets, stacks of paper, a sink and coffee maker, a pair of plastic-draped armchairs, and tall bookshelves that rose toward the shadowy rafters. A thick layer of dust coated it all, and she couldn’t tell if the dry, bony smell she detected so faintly was real or just her imagination. Hasta moved to the window nearest the door. With one finger she opened a slit in the red-checked curtains.
To the right, the shorter man had entered the alley and was walking down the middle of it at a measured pace, chin tilted up. His head swiveled slowly back and forth. Directly across from Hasta, Ivan’s bike leaned against the garage where she’d left it. She felt a stab of fear as the man passed between her and it. Had he seen Ivan pushing it earlier? If he noticed it, would it draw his attention to her hiding place?
Who was he, and what did he want?
Hasta shifted to keep him in sight as he continued along the alley to her left, but he slowed and stopped only one house down. He moved his head as if testing the air.
Hasta looked around the gloomy room. She could see no other door, no avenue of escape should he spot the bike and divine her location. If only she’d hidden it and not left it in plain sight.
But maybe she could still move it. Maybe she could push it, the same way she’d pushed Bobby. At least she could try.
Hasta stared through the window at the bike. She narrowed her eyes; her brow furrowed with fierce thoughts of wishing the ugly old thing somewhere else. She found herself leaning toward the window, forehead aimed at the bike. She squeezed her eyes shut, concentrating for all she was worth.
She opened her eyes again. The bike had not moved.
Hasta leaned close to the window and angled her head to see where the shabby man was. He had continued on his way and was two houses further down, but now he stopped again. His broad back strained the seams of his shiny brown suit. The way his head moved, Hasta was sure he’d turn and come back any moment.
She felt silly and stupid. What made her think she could do this crazy thing?
Hasta steadied herself. She wasn’t crazy, she was pretty sure of that. She hadn’t blacked out and she hadn’t suffered any memory loss. What she remembered happening with Bobby really had happened. She had to believe that.
She stared at the bike again. She tried to remember exactly what she’d done in that breezeway with Bobby. She was cornered, he kept getting closer, they were arguing, he called her a cruel name . . .
And she gave him the middle finger.
Hasta caught her breath. Maybe she hadn’t done it with her mind at all. Maybe she’d pushed him with her finger.
Focusing her gaze on the bike, Hasta raised her middle finger. Now that she was no longer angry, only frightened, the gesture felt silly, distasteful, even vulgar. But that didn’t mean she wouldn’t try it.
She held the curtain open with her left hand while she drew her elbow back and focused her attention on the bike. With a short, sharp thrust she jabbed her finger into the air.
The tip of her finger seemed to break through some invisible barrier, and Hasta would have stumbled forward if she weren’t already bracing herself against the window frame. Her stomach sloshed like she might heave.
But outside, the bicycle was nowhere in sight.
“Yes!” Hasta whispered, feeling a silly grin crease her cheeks despite her nausea. She’d done it! She might need to lean against the wall to keep from falling over, but she had done it.
She shifted to look at the stubby man again. His back was still toward her but his face was raised toward his right shoulder. After a moment he turned and hurried back to the mouth of the alley.
Hasta stayed at the window for a full minute, wondering what had happened, until Ivan hurried into the alley, cheeks red from the cold wind. He kept looking back over his shoulder, as if fearful he might be followed.
Hasta opened the door a crack. “Ivan!” she hissed.
Ivan jumped. “Hasta?” he whispered, eyes wide in his pale face as he turned this way and that.
“In here, in here!” She pushed the door open further and gestured for him to join her.
Ivan glanced back toward the street and then hurried inside. “You just about gave me a heart attack!” he said, sagging against the wall as she closed and bolted the door. “What are you doing in here? You’re supposed to be home.”
“Dude, I came back to help you,” she said. “Are you okay? Are they gone?”
“They rushed off all of a sudden.”
“Do you know what for?” Hasta asked.
Ivan shook his head in evident confusion. “They were talking fast in some kind of sign language, then they just left.”
“I wonder why.” Hasta tapped a fingernail against her front tooth. “Anyway, start at the beginning. What happened after I took off?”
“Well, I waved them down, you know, just to distract them so you could get away.”
“You what? Ivan, you’re crazy. We don’t even know who they are. Now I’m glad I came back.”
“Federal agents is what they said.”
“If those were federal agents, I’m Lady Gaga.”
“I agree, but you should’ve seen my poker face. I was all like, oh, I thought you guys were cops because this kid named Bobby Kimball stole my wallet. Which maybe was the wrong this to say because they got really weird and were all asking me questions about my relationship with Bobby, what business we have together, had I seen him today, that kind of stuff. Then the short one just kind of walked off down the alley.”
“Looking for me, I think. Hunting.” Hasta could no longer contain herself. She grabbed Ivan by both elbows and shook him. “I did it again, Ivan. Ivan, I did it!”
“Did what?” he said, shrugging free of her grip.
“Your bike! I was totally afraid he’d see your bike and figure out where I was, but I made it disappear.”
“You made my bike what?” Ivan said. He broke away from Hasta, looking around the small room as if his bicycle might be hiding in one of the dusty corners. “H., those were my wheels.”
Hasta filled him in on what she’d figured out. “The secret’s all in the bird,” she concluded.
She raised her middle finger. “Yeah, the bird.”
Ivan flinched, waving his arms. “Well, don’t point it at me!”
“Oops! Sorry.” Hasta tucked her hands in her pockets.
“Er, not that I’m taking your word for it yet,” Ivan said, adjusting his windbreaker.
Hasta pointed at the window. “But—”
“Dispassionate observer, remember? I need evidence.”
“The evidence is right outside,” she said, folding her arms. Disgruntled, she flopped down in one of the armchairs. The plastic covering crackled, and a choking cloud of dust rose around her. She coughed and sprang up again, wiping dusty smears off the back of her jeans. “God. Just look and tell me if you see your bike out there.”
Ivan shrugged. “I’m sorry, but the absence of something is not evidence. Anything could have happened to it.”
“Then please tell me freaky things are not happening left and right.”
Ivan went to the shelves and pulled down a hardcover. “I admit, things are weird, like I’ve been telling you all along. But I still need evidence.” He held out the book. “Here, make this disappear.”
Hasta scowled. “I don’t feel like it.”
“Come on, show me. I want to see.”
She made a frustrated sound deep in her throat. “Ivan, I threw up the first time I did it, and I almost did the second. I’m not eager to—” She saw his eyes narrow at the book in his hands. “Ivan? What is it?”
He turned it around so she could see the picture of the many-headed god on the cover. “Check it out. It’s about Hindu mythology.”
Hasta took it from him. “Vishnu’s Dream,” she read, turning it over and growing cold. “‘Your guide to the four yugas of time, and what they mean for your life—and rebirth.’ Um, like my essay in detention.”
“Everything in here’s about mythology or religion,” Ivan said, scanning the bookshelves. “Wait, no—these are all about war and natural disasters. And here’s a complete set of Maxine Sorrow novels.”
Hasta thrust the book at Ivan. “Of all the random garages in Chicago, I pick this one to hide in? I don’t like this. Put this back and let’s get out of here.”
“You know,” said Ivan, brandishing the book with a wicked gleam in his eye, “if we were in a Maxine Sorrow novel, we’d hang on to this.”
Hasta’s feet were itching to move. “Dude, have you seen my house? And anyway, that book would come back later to bite us. Now put it back and let’s trek before those creepy agent dudes show up again. Or something worse.”
Ivan, she was relieved to note, did not argue.
Kray drove north while Lamm in the passenger seat fixed on the anomalous object. Stop signs were not an issue, as what little traffic there was paused naturally at each intersection to let them pass.
The object was like a sticky thought repeating in Lamm’s head, an itch he could only scratch by laying eyes on the source of the discomfort. From this distance, he could sense only a few of its attributes. He could tell its direction and approximate distance. He could tell its mass was about twenty-three kilograms. And, unlike the anomaly they’d just investigated, he could tell this one was inanimate.
Their street ended at a T intersection. Ahead, a tall wall of gray stone stretched both directions, enclosing charcoal-colored trees that had somehow already shed most of their orange leaves. The sky above loomed woolly and gray.
—It’s in the cemetery? Kray signed.
—Yes, Lamm answered.
Lamm concentrated. He pointed northwest. —Not far, but over the wall.
Kray turned right and drove them around the huge cemetery to its east entrance, passing taxi depots, truck-repair shops, a lumber yard, and a steel fabrication plant. They slowed as they passed through the gate. A landscape of tombstones, monuments, and mausoleums unfurled around them like fields of old teeth.
Lamm wondered what mortality was like, what it might mean to have a bed like those here to look forward to at the setting of one’s sun. It would be reassuring, he imagined, to know that one’s labors would someday cease, and that eternal rest would follow. Take, for instance, the first young human they had interrogated that day, Robert Kimball. An enterprising youngster, to be sure, but uncomprehending and angry. The very sort Lamm felt should derive comfort from the knowledge that his many burdens were in no wise permanent.
What occupied Lamm’s mind most, though, was this latest anomaly. Though he sensed it like a bullet lodged under the skin of the world, he was less concerned with the bullet itself than with discovering—and neutralizing—the one who had fired it. Was it the same entity who had sent Robert Kimball skipping across the surface of spacetime to land dazed and confused in a muddy restaurant parking lot? Only time and patience would tell.
Lamm guided Kray back south along the branching blacktop paths. They soon came to a low, open area near the wall, devoid of the elaborate monuments that dominated the ground farther north. Lamm held his palm up. Gravel crunched beneath their tires as Kray slowed to a stop.
—Over there near the wall, Lamm said. —Under the trees.
—Yes, said Kray. —I feel it too.
But as they crossed the moldering ground on foot, Lamm saw a tall gray figure standing at the source of the disturbance, head lowered. Lamm felt no surprise, only a vague trepidation that sharpened as they drew closer. A trio of cats prowled the grass nearby but maintained a respectful distance from the figure.
She did not look up until Kray and Lamm were standing two meters from her across the anomalous object and the grave on which it lay. Taller than either male daemon, she wore a hat and trench coat the color of slate. What was visible of her short hair was dull iron. Behind her, the sky glowed like a dim pearl.
They waited. One did not speak to Axil until spoken to.
—The world is ending, she said at last. —Again. Who knew it would be upon us so soon? Praise Shiva.
She looked up. Her eyes gleamed like steel, and her face shone like a star. Lamm did not flinch, but it was a near thing.
—But the signs I see disquiet me, she said, nodding at the object on the grave. —Something rises to thwart the natural progression of events.
It was a bicycle, orange and rusty, lying on its side. One edge of a pitted marble gravestone jutted between its crankset and front tire. Lamm didn’t need to confer with Kray to mark it as identical to the one Ivan Babich had been pushing before they’d confronted him.
—This is the second incident today on your watch, Axil continued. —If so many other signs did not compete for my attention, I’d pursue this myself. But these are the times we live in, perilous and chaotic. Can I count on you both to quash this outbreak in short order? Kray?
—Of course, Axil, Kray said.
Robert Kimball had been too addled by his translation—not to mention too frightened by his interrogators—to tell them much of any use, but Lamm and Kray had located his car and staked it out. With the bicycle now in front of him, Lamm realized it had no longer been with the Babich boy when he flagged them down. Lamm had been too surprised by the boy’s awareness of their presence to realize that the girl with him must have gone ahead with the bike. Which must mean . . .
—Yes, Axil, he signed hurriedly, looking up at her. —We’ll have results for you soon.
Axil’s steely eyes glowed molten red. —Best do. And don’t plod. Plodding here will mean failure, and failure will give me all the time in the world to oversee your just reward.
She faded abruptly from sight. Lamm breathed a sigh of relief. She was the only member of the chain who could project herself so convincingly from a distance. Lamm and Kray couldn’t do it at all. But that only underscored the seriousness of her threat.
With Axil gone, the three cats rushed over to examine the bicycle. Kray turned to Lamm.
—You have a suspicion?
Lamm nodded. —I do. You?
—The girl, Kray said. —Babich’s friend.
Lamm kicked the bicycle. The cats scattered as the crank gouged the side of the soft gravestone. Now that he’d laid eyes on the anomaly, its wrongness was fading from his mind.
—The girl, he agreed. —Let’s find her.
Kray headed back toward the car, but Lamm had a sudden thought. Carefully he disentangled the bicycle from the grave marker and walked it toward the car. He had never handled one before, and he found pushing it awkward. It was built for someone much taller.
—What are you doing? Kray signed, turning to watch.
Lamm couldn’t speak without letting go of the bike. He worked his mouth instead.
“It might be of use,” he croaked. “Against the girl.”
Kray regarded him through puzzled eyes. Lamm, who had rarely had a creative thought, felt almost embarrassed.
—I think we can fit it in the trunk, Kray said at last.
As they threaded their way through that calm field of sleep, Lamm began to feel something even more unprecedented—excitement. The natural order of things would prevail. Maybe then he could get some rest of his own. √
To be continued…