Penult, Page 2A. Sparrow
Wendell had great lawyers according to Ramon. That didn’t surprise me. A guy like Wendell had access to the best of everything.
After I stopped being able to visit Root, Karla compensated by starting to send me letters by snail mail. She was a Luddite when it came to the internet and social networking. I didn’t hear from her nearly as often as I would have liked, but it was at least once a month. Her letters were less than satisfying. She was cryptic in both expressing her affections and in describing her activities.
She seemed to be moving around a lot. She hinted that she was being followed. I wasn’t sure how much was paranoia and how much was real. In every letter, she begged for me to come see her as soon as I got out. That went without saying.
Time slowed down. Days crept. Hours became interminable. But if nothing else, prison taught me patience, as if my thwarted life had not already been one long lesson in perseverance and delayed gratification. The day I left Coleman Medium, my heart took flight and I practically floated through world. I was brimming with energy. Leaves rustled as I passed and it had nothing to do with the wind.
When the plane touched down, I turned on my phone and was surprised to find a text from Karla, sent from her cousin’s iPhone.
“Cannot come to Fiumicino. Meet me at the special place. Make sure nobody follow you.”
Fiumicino was the name of the airport. But what did she mean by special place? Karla loved living in Rome so she had a lot of special places she had gushed to me about. Did she mean the pews under the alabaster dove in the Basilica? The Trevi fountain? The benches below the columns on the edge of St. Peter’s Square?
I grabbed my only luggage, a day pack, out of the overhead bin and hurried off the plane. The queue for immigration was short. I got through in a flash and made a bee line for a coffee stand and ordered a double espresso.
Despite my cushy digs aboard the plane, I hadn’t slept much. The video unit listed tons of movies I hadn’t seen. A year spent living homeless, wandering the lands of the dead, being held hostage and doing time will do that.
As I sat there taking tiny sugary, bitter sips, a wicked pain punched through my back and into my sternum. I grunted and lurched, spilling the espresso all over myself. Another jab, not as deep, went straight into my belly. It felt like I had been shot, but there was no blood, no puncture wounds.
I knew this pain. The places that hurt were exactly the spots where Junger had got me with his arrows. I had felt aches in those places from time to time, nothing compared to this. These felt as bad as the original injuries.
As I sat there, clutching myself, some blonde lady ambled past and tossed me a glance. She leaned against a support column, alternately staring at me and gazing down at her phone.
The pain subsided, and so I daubed myself dry with a stack of napkins and wiped the spilled coffee off the metal table. I debated whether to replace the precious caffeine I had just abused when I noticed that woman staring at me outright.
I knew she wasn’t checking out my good looks. I was an unshaven, bedraggled mess, my hair a collection of cowlicks, having gone straight to JFK from Rutland, without bothering to check into a hotel. I had tried my best to wash up in the rest room, but there’s only so much you can do with an airport sink.
Even at my best, I’m not exactly handsome. So what was she looking at? Did she mistake me for some celebrity?
My wits were slow, dulled by lack of sleep, but it occurred to me that she might be a threat. I downed the last dribble of coffee and tossed the cup in a bin, darting away, weaving through the crowd, making for the exit.
Who was she? I don’t know, maybe one of Sergei’s people continuing a posthumous vendetta for the deceased drug lord. Or maybe she was one of Wendell’s folks, come either to recruit or assassinate me.
Before I could reach the door, the lady was already there, blocking my way. How did she get there so fast?
She was nicely dressed, wearing a short jacket that complemented her dress. Hazel eyes. Brown with shards of blue and gold. Her makeup was perfect. I prefer a natural look, because so many women apply makeup like they learned it in clown school. But her eyes were nestled in velvet, carefully feathered out to faceted cheekbones and an expanse of pristine, unwrinkled skin. She had strawberry blond hair, so silky it didn’t look real, tied back in a neat ponytail.
I checked for a gun, but her hands were empty and clasped in front of her. She smiled, baring an elegant array of pure white teeth, lined up almost too perfectly.
“Hello James. Please. Come with me. We need have a little talk.”
“Who are you?”
“I am Belinda. Come. Just little talk. We give you ride. It will not take long. We have a nice, cool drink. We chat. Afterwards, we can take you wherever you want to go.”
“Who are you with? You one of Sergei’s people?”
“I know not any Sergei.”
The mention of his name snagged her attention like a baseball bat to the temple. Her hazel eyes burned back at me and studied every pore on my face.
“No. But this is about … his people. Don’t worry. You are safe with us. We mean you no harm. We’re not like them. We’re not … executioners,” she whispered and slowly regained her smile.
I’ve never been good at sensing people’s motivations, but her ease and grace reassured me. I perceived no threat. Maybe like a cow at a slaughterhouse, I followed her out the glass doors to a silver Land Rover waiting in the drop off lane.
The driver wore bulgy mirror shades that made him look like some giant insect. I got into the back next to Belinda. Another man who seemed to materialize out of nowhere hopped in front. We drove for half an hour, deeper into Rome, but not quite to the city core. We pulled down an alley that led into a huge courtyard with gnarled olive trees, manicured gardens and marble fountains.
The driver hopped out and opened my door. Belinda opened her own door and made her way around the back and took my hand. She led me down a cobbled walk that led through the gardens into an open portico. A huge room, like a stripped down hotel lobby, devoid of any wall decoration, not even a painting or a clock, yawned before us. The ceilings had to be twenty feet high.
We sat beside a glass table on some weird looking chairs—asymmetric leather strapping on a metal frame. They were easy on the bones, supporting me in all the right places.
A warm, dry breeze wafted in from the garden, raising goose pimples on my neck. A woman in a maid’s uniform brought us a tray with two cappuccinos and some cookies that looked like slices of squashed toast. They tasted like licorice.
I could run, if I had to. The stone wall hemming in the garden certainly looked climbable. And Belinda was a petite woman, wiry perhaps, but no match for a freaked out James Moody. I’m not saying the situation was freaking me out, but if it did, I had options.
Eyes down, Belinda tapped away on her smartphone. She seemed in no hurry to get started, but I was getting antsy.
“So … uh … who do you work for?”
“Work?” She smiled. “This is not work. I am volunteer. All of us … we are all … volunteer. Some sugar in your cappuccino? Yes?”
“Um … would you have any water or soda or something? I’m kind of thirsty.”
“Roberta? Portargli un po ‘di Orangina per favore.”
So they brought a tall glass of what tasted like carbonated orange juice over crushed ice.
“You like the ice?” she said. “I should have asked. But most Americans take the—”
“Ice is good,” I said. In fact it was great. The cold drink was just what I needed.
“Are you with some kind of religious organization? The Vatican, maybe? Or … the Sedevacantists?”
“Vaticano? No.” She giggled. “We are … independent. And I can’t say we are exactly … religious. We don’t need what you call faith. We believe what is plain and real before our eyes.”
“Well, isn’t that how things always look �
� to the faithful?”
“We are different. You cannot call us Christian or Muslim or Jew. It is beyond that. And I think you know exactly what I mean. You have been there. You have seen these things. You are simply playing coy.”
“Doesn’t mean I know much of anything,” I said. “Half of what I saw, I couldn’t explain.”
“It is rare for a living person to be given a glimpse … of what is to come. Those who see don’t usually return to share their visions.”
“How do you know where I’ve been?”
“The Frelsi people do not recruit those who have not seen the other side. They keep their secrets from plain souls. You must have seen the Liminality … at least once or twice.”
Her eyes were laughing at me, but she kept her mouth scrunched.
“We … volunteer … also have privilege … to know … of the existences to come. The proper order of existence. Those who stay in the place you call Frelsi are … how you say? Abomination. They do not belong there. Just as those … creatures … those … wastrels … some call Dusters. They too do not belong in that realm. No one belong on surface of Liminality but those who are chosen for Penult. The rest of the land must stay sterile, devoid of life. This is what the makers intended. But it has become contaminated with plants and bugs and souls who do not belong there. We, the Friends of Penult, are devote to restore natural order.”
“Life … what you know as life … living things … is reserved for … here … this realm … and for some higher realm where it can be properly steward and appreciate. But the Liminality is old. Perhaps it is beginning to show its age, cracking and crumbling at the seams. We … the Friends … we just want to restore it to … the way it should be. Its proper function. Seal the rifts. Put everything back in its place.”
“What is this Penult place?”
She sighed deeply. “A higher realm. Not the highest, but it stays beyond Liminality, beyond even Tartaros and Tzoah Rotakhat. Far above Abaddon and Lethe and the Deeps. Penult exist to keep order in the lower realms.”
“So Penult is kinda like … Heaven?”
“Goodness no! Not … Heaven.” Her eyes descended to the floor tiles. “Heaven is a place certainly we all aspire to, but it … it is unattainable … to most. It is a … a mystery. Access is denied those who dwell in the after lands.” She looked up, eyes widening. “But Penult is almost a Heaven. It is certainly a place worth striving for. We like to think of it as like stepping stone.”
“Like … Purgatory?”
“No. Nothing like that. We need no purification or atonement. But all of this is nothing you should worry about yet. You are young. You have life to live. You should live it.”
“I intend to.”
“That is good. That is what we want to hear. And I want you to assure us that you will stay away from these so-called Frelsians.”
“Don’t worry. I want nothing to do with them.”
“But you have something of theirs, yes? A small, black card?”
I felt flushed and defensive for a second. Was she going to take away my magic credit card?
“They tried to recruit me to … kill … for them. They gave me that card and … well, I’ve been using it.”
“When was last time they contact you?”
“It’s been months,” I said. “Since before I went to prison.”
“Good. Keep it that way.”
“Honestly. I have no interest in them. They tried to recruit me. I refused. They gave me money and stuff. But I can’t do it. I can’t kill people.”
“What you say rings true,” said Belinda. “We find no trail of homicide in your path. No parade of convenient and tidy expirations. So … keep it up. Stay out of realms in which you do not belong. Have no contact with Frelsians. And … we will leave you be. Keep the card, too. Use it. It is linked to bank account in the Cayman Island. Go ahead. Leech away. Spend, spend, spend. Deplete their accounts. Although, that would be difficult for a hundred people with little black cards. Their wealth is enormous.”
She smiled broadly. Those teeth. So many and so perfect.
“Okay then. Is that all? Can I go now?”
“First, you should know the consequence of going against our wish. We Friends of Penult are not only advisor, we are also enforcer. If you go against our wish, we can take you down; send you to your destiny before your time. Do you understand what I am saying?”
Those hazel eyes, so warm a moment ago, had turned downright chilly.
“Yes. I got you. Can I go now?”
She reached out and touched my chest exactly where Junger’s arrow had punctured it. A searing pain bore through me and I crumpled to my knees.
“Yes, you may go. But remember. You are marked. You cannot hide from us.”
I picked myself up off the floor, gasping.
“Would you like Franco to bring you somewhere?”
“No thanks. I can get there on my own.”
I rose from the table. What had been a plain white cocktail napkin was now a spray of bright green gingko leaves. I don’t even remember transforming them. Belinda noticed them and gave me the weirdest look. I turned and bolted out the door, heading for the garden gate. I did not look back.
Chapter 3: Excursion
I charged out of that fancy compound having no idea where I was. All I knew was that it was some residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Rome. The buildings here looked pretty upmarket, though there was tons of graffiti. I kept on walking until I came to an area that was more commercial with dress shops and delis. At a busy intersection I managed through some awkward pantomiming to hail a cab.
I hated the idea of blowing my ample but limited cash on a taxi ride but I was in a hurry. Karla was waiting for me at her special place, the identity and location of which, I still wasn’t completely sure about. I wish she had her own phone instead of borrowing her cousin’s. It would have made things so much easier.
As the cab careened through the back streets, I had time to reflect on what had just happened. Were these the people who had been following Karla? I don’t know why they would be so interested in us, or why they wanted me to stay away from Wendell. Maybe they were just purists who didn’t want anyone to tamper with the natural order of the Liminality?
It surprised me how little they knew about me. Belinda saw me as some guy with a little black card who was being courted by Wendell’s guild of friendly assassins. All she cared was that I stayed the hell away from them.
She mentioned nothing of my exploits in the afterlife: busting out of Root, raiding Frelsi, cruising the Singularity, taking down the Horus. I would have thought by now my name would have gotten around.
Maybe I was a little too full of myself. The afterlife was an enormous place, populated by hundreds of generations of souls, many more talented and powerful than I could ever hope to become. Why should I expect her to know about some kid named James Moody?
Penult sounded not much different from Frelsi. Another bunch of surface dwellers broken out of Root. Angel wannabes. Folks trying to pretend they were somehow more special than everybody else, living in yet another facsimile of Heaven.
I had nothing to worry about from their so-called ‘Friends.’ I had no intentions of working for Wendell. I don’t even think Wendell had any interest in me anymore. He didn’t strike me as the vindictive type, unlike Sergei. Wendell was all business. He knew when to cut his losses and walk away.
It irked me that the Friends were able to track my purchases on that little black card. That meant Wendell could do the same. But if I refrained from using the card in Rome until we were ready to leave, that would keep us one step ahead. As long as we kept moving, we would be fine.
If Karla and I could agree on a place to settle down, we could withdraw a big cash advance someplace far from our destination, travel there incognito, and then burn the damned thing once we got there.
For now, though, I was not quite ready to give it up. I was hooke
d on the purchasing power it brought us. Not having to worry about money was a huge convenience. It made everything so easy. Hungry? Pick a restaurant. Any restaurant. Tired? Any comfy hotel will do, no matter how expensive.
I let the driver take me into central Rome and drop me downtown near the Coliseum. That wasn’t anywhere near where I planned to meet Karla, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Even before I left the states, she had warned me to be careful.
Karla had intended to stay with her cousin Franca in Rome the whole time I was in prison, one of the ‘black sheep’ from her father’s warped Sedevacantist perspective. To me she sounded like one of the few normal people in that clan of weirdoes and religious fanatics.
She didn’t stay put for long. It only took a few days for her to realizing that someone was tracking her. She didn’t know who and didn’t care to find out. She bounced between Italy and the UK because her sister Isobel was still missing and she suspected that her dad’s sect might have something to do with it. I don’t know how she managed it because she didn’t have much money. I had a feeling that most nights she slept on the streets.
She assured me that she knew how to take care of herself. Not to worry. She had a handle on the situation.
But unlike me, she had been making regular excursions to Root. That alone told me something about the state of her mind.
Karla’s letters were terse, unsentimental and devoid of detail. She sounded pretty down on life, but I could tell that she still cared for me. She would remind me to eat well and warn me not to pick fights with the other prisoners.
She kept begging me to come see her in the Liminality. And I did on occasion during my first few months in jail, but once I reached the mid-point of my sentence my visitations ceased.
Once I began counting down the days, I got too pumped knowing I’d be getting out soon and completely lost the ability to transition. If she had stopped writing me that might have cooled my jets enough to drag me back under, but I never told her that. Those letters fueled my hopes.
I kept telling her not to worry about seeing me in the Liminality. She should be looking forward to our imminent reunion in ‘real’ life. Surely, our future together in the living world would be better. How could it not be?