Root: Part II, Chapter 1
A new villain takes the stage on the battlefield of Chicago’s North Side—one whose chaotic interests may not quite line up with those of Lamm and Kray.
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Part II: The School
A.A. stood and made his awkward excuses to Mr. and Mrs. Clegg. It’s not fair, he thought, letting his clenched smile curdle into a grimace. After all my long, careful work, it just isn’t fair.
He swept through the hospital waiting room past several other quiet clumps of family desperation. In the elevator lobby he stood panting and shaking. Dennis Clegg, one of his toughest minions, out of commission on the same night that Gillian, so bright and full of promise, had gone off the grid? Why not Bobby, who was only a placeholder in the chain? Why not Frida? He could have made do without either of them. Why, on top of Adele and Brand, did he have to lose two more of the strongest links in his chain?
It was chaos, of course—the simple, inscrutable workings of that chaos he so carefully cultivated. But given the timing, A.A. couldn’t help seeing it as universal malevolence of a very personal sort.
A distant detonation of thunder underscored the perception.
A.A. tugged at his thick white beard. What a piece of bad luck this had been, running into Dennis’s everloving parents. What on earth were they doing here? He needed to talk to the kid, not to the weepy, clueless, utterly boring parents.
That they had beaten him to the hospital was perhaps understandable. That they had recognized him was an unpleasant surprise. Most parents, in his experience, could barely remember their kids’s names, let alone the name of one of their kids’ middle school teachers. And since they of course knew him as Dennis’s old math teacher Ken Sunshine, not as Dennis’s extralegal employer A.A., he could scarcely admit that he too was there for some last words with their precious baby before, God forbid, the pig-faced butterball kicked off.
“Gah!” he muttered. He turned in a complete circle, then pushed through the door to an emergency stairwell, hungry for chaos of any sort. He could feel his power ebbing, dented by the Cleggs’ ignorant use of his old name. He needed something he rarely sought—positive reinforcement.
That, and information.
It was cold in the stairwell. A.A. drew his comm window out of the inside breast pocket of his tweed jacket. The windows in this stairwell were little more than vertical slits punched through the whitewashed concrete. They let in the sounds and smells of the weather, but only a narrow spray of the pelting rain itself. He didn’t have an umbrella, which meant his jacket would get soaked when he left. Which was good.
He twirled his finger in front of the comm window, then held the little rectangle to his ear. Thunder roared outside the hospital, and he heard it doubled through the window a moment later.
“We find ourselves rather preoccupied at the moment, A.A.,” said the unmistakable, strangled voice of Kray. “We’ve been more than generous in our communication with you tonight. Why are you bothering us?”
A.A. grinned through gritted teeth. He didn’t like the daemons any more than they liked him, but they tolerated him because his interests seemed to serve theirs. If only they knew.
“Nice to hear your voice again too, you big lug,” A.A. said, and he meant it. He could practically feel his batteries recharging at the use of his truer name. “Now, if I can dispense with the formality of bringing you flowers, I need to pump you for more information.”
“We. Are. Busy,” said Kray. “We’ve already extended you the courtesy of reporting the attack on your recruit, and letting you know where to find him.”
Treat me like dirt, A.A. thought, yanking the window away from his ear and staring at it angrily. He wanted to poke a finger right through it into Kray’s skanky ear. Or spit through it. Or both! Yes, that would be good! A wet willy for the upstanding agent of chaos prevention. Perfect.
But he took a deep breath instead, pacing the small landing, and reminded himself how devastated the daemons and their ilk would be when they realized they had helped him bring about the end of this rotten world. He only hoped he had a chance to see the looks on their faces before it was all over. Wouldn’t that be a poke in the eye!
“Strangely, I find myself at Methodist Hospital this very instant, my good man,” he said, mocking Kray’s diction—or trying to. The daemons seemed impervious to humor and insult in any form. “But oh, his parents are here too, if you can believe it, and, anyway, those crazy doctors took him straight into surgery. Go figure! So, since I can’t ask him, as you so helpfully suggested earlier, may I ask you, pretty please with aspartame on top, to share whatever information you may have on the identity of the person who did this to me?”
“I didn’t realize that you, too, had been dropped from a height,” Kray said in that maddening, mushy cadence of his, and A.A. was forced to consider the notion that they might have senses of humor after all. “We afford you great leeway in your activites, but we can’t do all your legwork for you. We have a witness whose testimony suggests the presence of at least one more of your recruits at the scene.”
The problem with a comm window was that you couldn’t smash it against the wall when you were angry. Instead, A.A. stalked down the stairs to the next landing and back up, down and up. He already knew that Erin had been there. She’d told him as much in the voice mail she’d left on his cell phone while he was on the stupid comm with Kray the first time. She’d been injured in some melee at the Brown Line station on Damen and was in an ambulance on her way to Swedish Covenant with a possible concussion. Swedish Covenant! All that way to a distant hospital when the Brown Line station was literally next door to Ravenswood Medical Center? Why, yes, because her parents had always told her if she had to go to a hospital then specify Swedish Covenant to the ambulance driver because it was the best in the area. And how did he know her parents had told her this? Because she had taken the time to explain that at great length in her voice mail, but hadn’t thought to say a word about who had attacked her!
All pretty funny if you thought about it hard enough. But A.A. was in no mood yet to laugh.
“Listen, Kray,” he said, one hand clamped to the top of his head, “Dennis is not my only child in the hospital. Someone out there is picking off my people, you dig? I hardly have anyone left, so can you put professional jealousy aside for a microsecond and tell me whether or not it was a little Indian girl? And I mean East Indian, not Choctaw, Cherokee, or Chickasaw.”
Kray didn’t speak for a moment. “Wait,” he said. The dislocated patter of rain grew muffled and vanished.
A.A. continued his frenzied treading up and down the stairwell, imagining whole Socratic dialogues flying by in sign language as Kray conferred with his partner. He held the window up to his eye, but all he could see was darkness. He sniffed. Rank, musty, and furry, like the inside of some hobo’s pocket.
Which, of course, was exactly what he was smelling. What else had he expected? This whole accursed world was like that, a window stuffed deep in a lightless pocket, some careless god’s forgotten annoyance. A.A. had known this from the moment he first worked out the true nature of the universe. Even before creatures like Kray and Lamm had confirmed it for him.
A sliding, rustling sound emerged from the comm window as Kray retrieved his end of the connection from his pocket. “We have a proposition for you,” Kray said. A.A. could hear the rain beneath his voice. “It’s about the Indian girl. How would you feel about assisting us in apprehending her?”
A.A. grinned and did a little two-step on the stairs. “Now that,” he said, “is the best offer I’ve had all day.” √
To be continued…
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