How we think the fight will go
The precogs were in a safe location, somewhere far from anywhere; somewhere land and sea met, the islands like hardened teardrops of the gods. He had a new family now – his wife back, a new child. Not one that was the same as the boy he’d lost, and really, it was better that way. This was a girl, dark-haired and bright-smiled, who danced around the wooden floors like the whole world was but stepping stones to play on. Instead of seeing one boy in another, he saw a girl and a boy beside her, each guiding the other’s steps, on days when memory intertwined with mortal moments, and reality walked hand in hand with fantasy.
It was one of these days, half a dozen years after the Pre-Crime initiative had shut down, that he was watching his girl dance around, through the sunny streams of light in their Cape Cod house as his wife narrated the socked-footed journey with the strings of a piano, that he received a text.
It showed up on his watch, as they always did. But unlike most, this one was from a number he did not know.
Can you see?
A shiver went down his back, as if a cold hand had traveled down the valley of his spine. It’d been years since he’d heard those words. Since those words had taken him down fate’s rabbit hole. Like Orpheus, he’d gone through hell, but unlike the singer, he’d persevered.
But no one made it out of hell twice.
Quickly, more messages shot through the invisible space between them, and landed in his wrist.
I see you …
I see a girl ….
John’s eyes flicked to his daughter. She whipped about the floor in a floating whirl of hair, and, crashing into a lamp with a twirl too happy, clung to the wavering stand and laughed as she steadied it. Her mother laughed too, and that cold hand turned hot, and wrapped around John’s throat.
…In a town called Bon Temps.
The area code on the number was 985. Louisiana.
We need your help, John AndertHEY YOU NEEd to com pick up youre frind. She’s drunk.
And that was how John ended up at a bar and grill named Merlotte’s.
It was a night that rained. And rained and rained, as if all the moisture in the air needed to be reunited with the earth before sunrise. The dark trees around the town were like nothing he’d ever seen. In DC, even in the rain, it was light outside. At the cape, things got dark, but the lights of the house were always there to keep things warm. Here, there was nothing but obsidian in liquid, gas, and foliage form.
Nothing existed beyond his headlights, or rather, until his headlights found it. That didn’t mean there wasn’t a million things bursting to life within his mind to compensate. Colorful things. Deadly things. Interesting or scary things, or both. John was regripping the wheel of his car – the two-seater changed out for a family size some time ago – yet again when lights came over the horizon: the light dome of town, hanging low and shining through the rain. At the right angle, it made sparks of rainbow flow through that liquid black that rushed so hard on its way to the mortal realm.
Welcome to Bon Temps, read the sign on the outskirts. He’d looked into it before he left; had been reviewing audio files through his car’s satellite internet the whole time down here. This was a town with a major infestation of V. A local vampire had shown back up, sent the town’s once-a-week newspaper into a flurry of special editions. Strange disappearances; a string of murders, all of women. That couldn’t have been what Agatha was on the trail of?
He’d smiled at his family, stepped into the next room, shut the door, and immediately called the number that had been texting him.
It picked up with a click, on the third ring.
“Who the HELL is this?” John snapped, before any salutations could be offered and ignored.
“Well hello to you too darlin’.” It was a woman’s voice, the edge of beleaguered, a taste of affronted, and yet not quite strained with tired. “Look, your friend’s tweaking out or something. And it’s only noon. I don’t know if you’ve got work or whatever, but can you come pick her up? Sam Merlotte’s Bar & Grill.”
“Agatha. AGATHA! Can you hear me?!” he shouted, pulling the phone-watch toward him in a futile attempt to better facilitate this.
“WHOA. Whoa. That was my ear,” the woman on the other end said. And faintly, in the background, Agatha’s voice:
“Can you see? Can you hear?”
A pause, and then the strange woman began again. “Uh … yeah. Tweakin. Anyway. Pick her up? Merlotte’s? There’s only so much time till the night rush and well, you can imagine it makes for a hard night when people come IN already drunk.” She gave a single nervous chuckle, which ended in a sigh.
John scrunched his (borrowed) eyes shut; looking to the door and, finding no one calling for him, gave himself another moment of calm. The piano music started up again from whatever break it had taken, and the sound of it washed over him.
Can you hear it?
He let the piano’s notes slide through him, and it helped return him to calm. He took a breath, and sighed it out. “Merlotte’s. Where’s that?”
“Corner of 1st and Main. Can’t miss it, it’s, ya know, the only coffee joint in town other than the Starbucks.”
Now that was odd. “Okay, but WHAT town?”
“Is that … in Virginia?”
She laughed. “Hon, we don’t got lot a virgins around here. It’s in Lousiana, duh. Aren’t you? How fast can you get here?”
“WHAT? But it’s NOON, fella!”
“Yeah, and I’m in DC,” he nearly snarled, shaking the phone, all delicate piano notes fled from his consciousness. The digital hologram display shook appropriately, and popped up a cartoonish little shake-warning animation. “Just keep her there, don’t let anyone get to her. No one. This is of national importance. Tell me you understand this directive.”
There was a pause, and then, “I ain’t no soldier, hon – ”
“You’re a coffee shop barista. You can throw a thing of coffee on anyone that comes near, can’t you?”
“Oh I can do worse than that, Mister Mystery.”
“All right. See that it’s done. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Keep her safe. And, her name’s Agatha.”
“Well, that answers that at least,” the girl sighed into the phone. “And you? Who’re you?”
“John And … retti. John Andretti.”
“Well, you race on down here John, and look for Sookie, kay? Don’t forget now. We got vampires round these parts so’s best not to leave girls just lyin’ around.” And with that, the phone hung up.
He figured the feds would have spent more time researching a place to put the precogs, but perhaps the town’s problems were out of the way. A larger town was nearby, a better one, and several small enclaves as well. There were plenty of other places for the precogs to go for necessities – if the government didn’t just bring them in. He hadn’t been privy to the situation, only that it was safe, remote. But the thing about “out of the way” was that other people, like bats echo-locating, seemed to find holes in the map and wander through them like the places themselves were calling to them in their loneliness.
Or perhaps it was a hungry call, luring in prey. One never did know, in places like this.
The bar itself was nothing much – a brick-and-mortar building in a town of brick-and-mortar buildings, the notable thing about this one being that every car in town seemed to be parked outside it. And they were all junkers, gas-run heaps of rusting steel from last century. John pulled up to the back, having to manually drive for once. Gravel tinked off his undercarriage as he went through the parking lot, little anti-gravity bombs with high-pitched detonations to contrast the deep voice of the rain.
He locked his car and didn’t bother with an umbrella. His coat was wet by the time he rounded the building and was in the light of the stained glass arches that framed the front door. A warm light was inside, and the sound of voices. For a moment he just stood on the steps like an unwanted dark wanderer coming to call, and then took a breath. It was warm, and forced his lungs against his ribcage. He was ready for this. He was.
The inside of the place was crowded with tables and happy, blue-collar faces lined with weary years, even if half the patrons were fairly young. The walls were covered with signs and animal heads and objects that could be weapons if need be. Beer steins littered the tables, a pool ball clacked, and with each step he took, another table fell silent – as if he were Death spreading a plague over their vocal chords.
Within moments, John was standing in a completely silent bar, every pair of eyes in the place fixed upon him. He held their gazes, one by one, wondering how many of their eyes were the pairs they were born with.
“Is there a girl named Sookie here?” he asked the crowd, a little more hesitantly than he’d have liked.
The softer faces looked to each other, while the meaner continued to stare. Finally, a dark-skinned waitress with sleek black curls raised her eyebrows both dubiously and warningly, and with annoyance slowly pointed to the kitchen door. “If it’s about the weird girl, she’s in there.”
He frowned, looked her up and down to figure out where that peculiar emotional combination was emanating from, then shook his head and simply followed her advice. “Thank you.” He nodded and crossed the floor.
A kitchen door was like a ship’s threshold: one didn’t cross it without permission, no matter how much of the deck you could see from shore. So he hung back, checking out the place. A tall black man with eyeshadow and a build that was right out of the army – and matched his pants – hummed to himself as he wiggled his hips in a particularly feminine fashion, and turned the burgers with an artisan’s smile and practiced ease. A plain-looking blond girl in a half-apron was crouched at a minifridge, pulling out bottles and stacking them on top of it. As he watched them work, taking it all in, the grill’s steam wafted over to John. The rumble of voices returned one by one, stroking at his back.
“Uh … Hello,” he said, when the girl, who appeared to be another waitress, came to the door.
“Just a sec, I gotta get these out,” she whispered, hushed and haggard, and pushed by him. She fluttered to a few tables, dispensed the bottles with a wave and a joke and a smile, and then came back to him, wiping the condensation off on her apron.
“You John?” she asked, stopping beside him and looking him up and down. He raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“So that’s what DC people look like,” she gave a happy, freckle-splattered grin, her eyes lingering on his hair. “Not so bad as I was led to believe.”
“Uh … thanks?”
She waved him in and John followed after her, into the heavy heat. “Here,” she said, stopped across from the minifridge.
Agatha sat on the floor between two moveable tables, not unlike a kid in a blanket fort. She had her back against the wall and her legs tucked up loosely underneath her, and was rolling a bottle of ketchup in front of her, an idle distraction.
“Welcome, John,” she said, without looking up.
For a second, he was eminently grateful she hadn’t said his full name; he didn’t want to get caught up explaining anything messy. They thought she was drunk, or high, or missing a few pieces, and really, that was all he needed them to think.
As he bent down, Sookie gave him a curious stare from over her shoulder.
“It’s getting kinda messy already,” she said.
“What?” John asked, pausing and turning to her.
“Oh, nothing! I was talking to Lafayette!” She grinned, and flashed him a smile. “I need to clean up soon’s I get the chance, eh?”
“Lafayette’s a she by the way,” the girl named Sookie began, leaning over him. “You big city boys can understand that, right? He likes to be called she.” She said the last bit like a gradeschool teacher, just in case he couldn’t wrap his mind around the concept.
“Oh I think the big city boy can handle that I don’t just like to be called she, I am She. Like Queen Sheba, with a capital Q and a capital S.”
“Sure, whatever. Not a big deal.”
John waved his hand and crouched before Agatha, to the sound of Sookie and Lafayette murmuring private satisfaction into a public policy, the way only small-town people could. He patted Agatha over quickly, checking for injuries. She seemed unharmed – no bruising or spots she was favoring. She also had hair now, blond and wavy and down to her chin. She looked like a whole ‘nother girl, a girl out of a fairy tale, and her soft smile and far-seeing gray eyes had an equally angelic quality to them.
She looked a little mussed, but quite happy really. She was covered in makeup though, glammed up like a Texan beauty queen with bigger hair than he thought possible, and he wasn’t sure if he should consider that an assault or not.
“Who put this makeup on you?” he asked, all other thoughts going out the window. It was something he’d said to his daughter on occasion, with the exact same ready-to-scold paternal tone.
“Was a slow morning, and the girls were bored,” the cook said, pouring some sauce on the grill and making it sizzle aggressively.
“She seemed to like it though, it calmed her down,” Sookie said, looking over them from behind.
“Gentle hands draw gentle fates,” Agatha added, like a bubbling spring.
John bent down and held her cheeks with both hands, trying not to stare at the red lipstick glossy in the artificial light. “Where are the twins? Are they all right?”
She grinned, a cherubic smile that made her cheeks pert to the point that her gentle waves of hair nearly bounced off of them. “The boys cannot drive. Their heads are always in books. I can’t drive either. It’s dangerous.” She tapped her head, eyes glinting.
John’s grip fell onto her shoulders and tightened, a protective reflex that came along with his frown. “Then, how did you get here?”
“A deer, John.”
“You rode a deer?”
“I told you she’s a little off,” Sookie interjected, so helpfully. There was a pause, and then she said, “You her ‘Dear John’ then? We got a good cocktail for that….”
John found himself stopping yet again and giving her a queer look. “A … cocktail. Really.”
“I didn’t mean it like that!” she squealed in alarm, taking a step back and blushing.
“Ooh, Gurl, we got a sharp one,” Lafayette teased.
John shook his head and returned his attention to the precog. What the hell was he gonna do when his daughter was that age? Heaven help them all….
Agatha wavered back and forth a bit, frowning, only to smile with a far-off look in her eye from some remembered bliss. “Followed deer. Many deer. Very interesting, very pretty.”
He was certain she wasn’t talking about the physical parts of the deer.
“Couldn’t tell ya what kind of off she is, though,” the young woman behind him concluded. “But, I’m glad you’re here, Johnny on the Cocktail Spot or not – she seems to do worse with lots of people around, and the after dinner rush is comin’ up.”
“Y … yes, you’re right,” John raised to his feet, drawing Agatha up with him by the hands, only to pause for a second based on what she said.
Hands. Drawing. The future. What is she trying to tell me? Maybe there’s an artist in this town …? One responsible for the disappearances?
Regardless, he shook his head, wrapped a protective arm around her shoulder, and pulled her close. “Thank you for your help,” John announced to everyone in the room, but mostly the waitress. Together, he and Agatha made their way forward, clung together lest she have trouble walking, like he remembered. She seemed to be doing all right for now though, able to support herself without jerking movement and holding the ketchup bottle like a favored stuffed toy; the time away from the Temple seemed to have made her much more in-tune with earthly living. Still, she leaned against him like a sleepy drunk, and looked around dreamily like one too, humming some tune he didn’t know – the same one the cook had been.
But as he was about to go through the door, Sookie’s hand shot out and barred his way. Her palm slapped audibly against the grease-slicked wooden frame. “You need to pay her bill.”
“Her bill?” When he looked to Agatha, all he saw was the top of her head; she was watching the cook as he flipped burgers on the open plate grill, as if she were divining from the flames.
“Yeah, she’s been here for over a day, we couldn’t very well let her go hungry.”
“And tip your waitress,” the cook said. “The amount you would pay a babysitter for a weekend. A babysitter of adults.”
John frowned, but nodded and dug into his pocket. “Ah, yeah. Sure. How much was it?”
“About thirty-five, for three meals. Forty should cover it with tax, if you got it. You can pay it to Roy,” she pointed over to the man at the bar, visible through the kitchen’s cut-out window. “Plus whatever tip you’re gonna.”
Agatha’s arms squeezed him reassuringly, but it did nothing to help the sound of the vicious flames just behind him. John dug into his pocket and handed her a stack of twenties from his wallet. “There. Are we good?”
She folded up the bills with a smile and stuck them in her apron pocket, leaving the doorway free to get through. “Oh yes, we’re good I do think.” She shot Lafayette a grin with wiggling eyebrows and the cook chuckled, raising the burger turner as a tip of the hat.
“Thank you very much for your service by the way, but now I will be going – ” John tried to push by her, but her arm came up again, bumping into his chest. She stared up into his eyes with a sudden harshness.
Behind them, the cookbell dinged like a chime of epiphany.
“And now I’d like you to explain something,” she said.
A cold laced down John’s skin and wiped his thoughts clean, and it culminated in the ball of his stomach dropping just after. It wasn’t that this girl was physically imposing, but that there were a lot of roughnecks between him and the door, and retreat was through a very big man (woman) and his (her) fire. He swallowed hard, and waited.
“What’s …” her voice came out slow, like she was testing her words as she said them “…goin’ on in her head?” Sookie tipped her chin toward Agatha, who, he could feel against his arm, tipped her head in response. “I … keep getting these flashes of … terrible crimes, you know.”
The sound of the flames had stopped. All John could hear was his heartbeat, without a single thought going through his mind.
“She says they’re … murders,” the cook said, lowly. John could hear the cook woman coming up behind him, and he tightened his free hand into a fist.
“What do you mean,” John said, squaring his shoulders and utterly failing at sounding innocent.
“She can read minds, our adorable little starlet Sookie here,” the cook said, stopping an inch behind him. John could see her shadow over his shoulder, as it fell onto the waitress blocking the door. Sookie, on the other hand, had her weight to one side, but was anything but reclining. “Which is a secret everyone in town knows so it’s not somethin’ that’ll give you any lev’rage round here. But …”
“We’ve the Sherriff here, bumblin’ guy but he’s an honest type,” Sookie nodded back toward the bar, through the cut-out window. The man was watching them over a burger plate, his eyes never leaving them.
“Certainly big enough to break poor little people like you in half,” the cook added in his ear, lightly.
“And I told him I keep hearin’ thangs, from her. Deadly thangs. Bad thangs. Thangs no one should ever have to hear. And they keep sayin a name – John, John Anderton. Now I reckon, that’s you, fella.”
John set his jaw, his grip on Agatha clenching and unclenching. “It’s not what you think.”
“Oh, but it’s somethin’ all right,” Sookie finished for him. “If nothin’ else, you’ve used an Andretti’s name in vain, and that ain’t kosher.”
“Mixed metaphors aside,” the cook said, voice deepening and the tinges of femininity momentarily tucked away, “we thought it best not to let you get home too quick, lest somethin’ be found there, ya hear?”
As a shiver went down his spine and Agatha’s hand clutched into his side, the girl named Sookie stared straight into his replacement eyes with a smug grin. She opened her mouth, and like slow-motion, he heard her rattle off his address.
Time snapped back to him all at once, and the rush washed away all reason with it, like debris lost in a flood. Words exploded out of him, violently. “You sent cops to my house?” He shouted. His wife going through that mess again, and his daughter, terrified out of her wits, his good name in the papers again – “I am a cop, goddammit!”
In a whirl he had let go of Agatha, flown forward, and grabbed the waitress by the collar. He pushed her through the doorway, sending her airborne for a couple seconds before she crashed into a table.
The whole room went silent. Every head stopped what it was doing and stared while a few plates clattered to the ground. It took excruciating seconds for the last one to settle, rolling around and around on its rim.
“Well I never!” Sookie rolled off the table and stomped on the offending plate to silence it. With a shocked huff of indignation, she wiped wet lettuce and ketchup from where it stuck to her thigh.
From around the doorframe to the kitchen, Agatha peered, clinging to it like a child. Behind her, the army-looking cook patted her on the head, and then stepped through the door, cracking her knuckles. “Don’t worry sweetheart, we won’t let him hurt you. But you …”
John turned to her, keeping his back to the nearest wall and the rest of the room – with its now-standing figures – in sight. The nearest window he could dive out of was at the bar’s front, some three or four tables away, and while he could have jumped over them fairly well and made a quick escape, Agatha was another matter all together. Still, it seemed they wouldn’t hurt her.
“You should know better’n anyone that bad cops get away with the most shit. That’s why we don’ tolerate them down here,” the cook said, taking her favored fighting stance.
And just like that, John Anderton found himself in Louisiana with a scrawny, ketchup-smeared waitress on one side, a big burly cook on the other, and both of them with upturned fists, aimed at him.
“You gotta be kidding me. Look, this – this is all a mistake,” John shouted quickly, raising his hands.
The crowd did not seem likely to believe him. Even if it did, the smiles looked wanting of entertainment. The entertainment of a foreigner’s bruising.
From around the doorframe, Agatha’s response was to roll a bottle of ketchup toward the crowd, as if that might, somehow, appease them.
The bottle’s ta-thunk, ta-thunk, ta-thunk was as steady as a heartbeat, and the only sound that filled the room beyond the thunderous rain on the steel roof. It was as if everyone were holding their breaths, and then, from a spot somewhere along the wall, came a weasely-looking yokel’s hiss.
“Fight, fight ….”
“Shuddup, idiot,” the first waitress said, whapping him in the back of the head with her order book.
Yet, within five seconds, they were all doing it. As his two antagonists inched closer, the voices had joined the sound of raindrops on the roof and were coursing through the dimly lit assembly like a chanted prayer.
“Keep an eye on the girl!” Sookie said suddenly, her last word coming out just as he whipped his head to the precog.
“Agatha! Meet me at the car!”
But the mind-reading waitress was already coming at him. She swung an iced-coffee glass so large she could barely get her hand around it straight at his face; he caught it just as he looked away from Agatha, and the blur erupted in ice and brown streaming over his face. Without stopping to think, he forced his eyes shut and lunged forward.
Both of them crashed back into the table full of upturned plates and glasses, the girl on the bottom. She let out a whoosh of breath and kicked out, but he held her down against whatever broken shards she had fallen on – until his unbalance caught up with him and he rolled off the table like a cut marionette, hitting all the ugly angles of a chair on the way down.
Existence for a moment was a clattering of sharp angles against his body, a throbbing headache, and a hand dragging him up by the back of the collar. For the strangest moment he thought the wetness all over his face and down his neck was the rain – that he was outside, and somehow he was flying. But it struck him, as he looked down at the floor hovering a foot below his feet, that it might be blood – and still that he was flying.
The chants and shouts of the gallery were thrumming through him when the cook hauled him over her head with two enormous hands, and the momentum of weightlessness began. John reached out for anything he could find, but there was nothing. Just empty air and the sound of rain. His heart in his throat, it flashed through his mind that bars were very, very bad places to be thrown. There were a hundred fixtures upon which you could break your neck or get a piece of glass to the carotid; he’d seen it enough times as a cop.
Time marched on. And the sound of his mob execution was –
He was falling – in fact, they were both falling. The big woman struck the ground, and John struck her, landing with an elbow to the windpipe. As he looked around, confused, his foot kicked an errant glass ketchup bottle, which tumbled away gleefully into the crowd.
“Oh my god, Lafayette, are you all right?!” Sookie gasped through a groan, and rushed to the cook’s side.
The crowd was silent once again, waiting, watching. John rolled away, and just as Sookie got to her knees, he intercepted her.
John wrenched her head back by the hair, which elicited a startled cry. “What am I thinking now?” he demanded through gritted teeth, shaking her.
He stumbled to his feet and into the kitchen, where no one was currently lying in wait. Sookie kicked and hollered, shouting obscenities and grabbing up a burger turner when she had the chance. The town sheriff, the manager, and the entire crowd followed them into the bottleneck, but John kept the girl up as a shield – as terrible as it made him feel to do it.
“I am not too small to be a proper shield, you ass!” Sookie shrieked, indignant. “And that hurts, let go! Let GO!” She flailed wildly with the turner, but only managed to make causalities of innocent spice shakers.
John’s back hit the trash door. “Don’t come after me,” he said, feeling the heat of the night beyond against his skin. His hand tightened in her hair, making tears come. “Do you understand me?!”
As the crowd came to a halt, hands help up in the entire spectrum from placating to menacing, the sound of rain flooded over him, suddenly intense.
“John,” came Agatha’s tender voice, her hands smoothing over both sides of neck and cooling them. She had opened the door, and appeared from beyond it. “Gentle hands draw gentle fates.”
She whispered it to him, and one hand slid down, to squeeze his shoulder. “Let’s go.”
John gave Sookie a last shake and tossed her into the crowd. He whipped around the door and promptly threw the dumpster in front of it, and a plethora of boxes to trip over besides.
As the light from the stained-glass windows painted the ground and cast rainbows through the Louisiana-evening raindrops, John and Agatha ran to the car, door automatically opening to accept them. Perhaps she knew where this would end, but the only thing he knew was that this had only just begun.
Predicted Winner: John Anderton
NOTE: THIS MATCH ENDS ON Friday, March 14, 2014, AT 12:00 PM, EST
Editor’s Note: Thalia Sutton is a longtime writer at Unbound Worlds.com, and a freelance editor of Fantasy for the adult market. She is working on her first novel(s), and a Peter Pan-based comic set to go live in April. She can be found on Twitter at @ComedyMusing.
Cage Match fans: We are looking forward to hearing your responses! If possible, please abstain from including potential spoilers about the books in your comments (and if you need spoilers to make your case, start your comments with: “SPOILER ALERT!”