Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Childhood's End - Chapter 12

Rowena's eyes flew open; sunlight flooded her world until her eyes adjusted, slowly allowing the silhouette next to her to come into focus. Mark was sitting on a chair next to her bed, the .22 lazily sprawled on his lap.

"I think you need an alarm system," he said, matter-of-fact-ly. "I mean, a siren, a dog, potato chips on the floor - something like that."
"Still trying to teach me?" she said, rising from beneath the blanket - and reaching for the .45 she'd stashed under it.
"I'm still your teacher. Unless you just wanted to get some sleep before you skip town..."
"No. I'm staying."
"Good. Then get dressed, something nice. It's Sunday, after all."

He rose from the chair and made his way over to the kitchen, intent on fixing coffee. Rowena drew the Colt from under the blanket and stashed it in the nightstand, then darted off towards the bathroom.


Despite Rowena's protests to the contrary, Mark declared her pale blue dress "pretty"; Rowena found that she had an easier time getting her mind off yesterday's adventures by exploiting the full range of clothing available to her. It was one of those rare, delicate things intended for springtime in Milano, baring some back while keeping a strong lock on her chest, and the hemline settled just a bit above her knees. Accounting for NYC's rather colder climate, she matched it with a cream-colored cardigan and a pair of pennyloafers. There was but one further concession to practicality, a long leather coat that would cover her entire dress when closed; there was little else that could fight off the windchill quite like it.

Of course, it also provided a convenient way for Rowena to hide her shoulder holster.

To Rowena's surprise, the car did not head East or South; instead Mark took her over the George Washington Bridge, weaving through the usual heavy traffic with an air of effortlessness that only came to the Big Apple's long-term residents. After spending a month on Manhattan and Staten Island, even the trace amounts of nature in Fort Lee were a welcome change for Brandon's daughter; she soaked up the green and the brown with her big hazel eyes. New Jersey - the Garden State; Rowena had heard that, quite ironically, New Jersey was home to the largest number of Superfund sites, contaminated land that required intervention from the government to get cleaned up. Probably not the right location for a spontaneous picnic.

The car pulled to a stop on a gravel driveway next to a rickety wooden building; Rowena surveyed the landscape and spotted nothing besides the road they'd come on and an impossibly white fence in the distance. Slowly, Rowena's grey matter began to put the puzzle together: this was a church, and if it hadn't been for the light shining through one of the windows, she would've called it abandoned. Behind her, Mark opened the trunk of his car and dropped his coat into it, beckoning to Rowena to do the same. She did, then followed Mark's gaze and let the gun follow the coat. The Enforcer nodded, then withdrew a duffel bag, closed the trunk and locked it. Out here, the wind wasn't as harsh as in the city, more of a slight chill that danced over her skin. With no coat or Kevlar vest, she felt a bit lonely and vulnerable; alive.

They entered, Mark leading the way; Rowena couldn't make out the faint trace of his body armor beneath the shirt, and began to seriously contemplate the possibility that he'd come here completely unarmed. Inside, the wood panelling had given way to the ravages of time, and the pews were empty; the light she'd seen from outside came from a bewildering array of candles gathered around the cross. This particular Jesus looked all the more suffering from the decay of the statue, but there was dignity in his features, and she recalled a stray line from a poem.

Bloodied, but unbowed.

"Where's the priest?" she asked.
"He'll be along shortly," he replied, dipped his hand into the holy water and made the sign of the cross. "In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."

With a heavy sigh, Mark moved through the pews and approached the cross; before he reached it, he fell to one knee and bowed his head. Rowena held her breath and listened as he whispered.

Peccantem me quotidie, et non me poenitentem,
Timor mortis conturbat me
Quia in inferno nulla est redemptio.
Miserere mei, Deus, et salva me.

Salva nos, Rowena thought, though she didn't care to repeat the prayer. Behind her, the door opened to admit a young man with fire-red hair; a quick glance revealed that he wore the collar, so she figured that he was the third man of this party and bowed her head respectfully.

"Hello, Marcus," the young priest called out; Mark rose in response and walked towards him, embracing him with a smile. "I see you've brought a friend."
"Yes, a student of mine. Introduce yourself, kid."

The priest turned to her; she shook his outstretched hand.

"Rowena Logan."
"A pleasure to meet you. I'm Father Tallkirk. Has Marcus been gentle with you?"
"Not at all."
"It's good to know he hasn't gone soft, then. Do you know why we're here?"
"It's Sunday."
"Your sense of timing is excellent. Yes, that would be the day where people go to church. This is a church, we are people, all proceeds according to His plan."
"Tallkirk's Umbrella," Mark added by way of explanation. "I saved his life back in 93, he's been saving my soul ever since. I brought him into the fold last year."
"Terrifying as it is, even secret agents need someone to tell them that they're doing alright. Not that Marcus ever confesses..."
"Then why are we here?" Rowena asked, raising an eyebrow.
"To bask in His glory, of course. And so that I can take this" - Tallkirk grabbed the duffel from Mark and slung it over his shoulder - "and take it to the people who need it."
"What's in the bag?"
"You haven't told her?" Tallkirk asked Mark, who shrugged. "It's not my place to say. Until next week," the priest added, then walked back out the way he came. A small gust of wind blew in through a broken window, making the candles flicker, and Marcus stole another longing look at the cross.

"What's the lesson today?" Rowena asked. Mark ripped himself from the sight of the statue and turned to face her, some sort of emotion playing under the surface of his skin.
"It gets to you," he said, and that was that.

As they walked out, Rowena let her shoes drift over the wooden floor, almost stripping them off a few times but thinking better of it. Tallkirk was gone as silently as he'd come, leaving the two of them alone.

"A man could disappear here," she said.
"They'd never find him," Mark replied. "But we have work to do."
"I thought we'd cover some more close combat, but...I don't know. Doesn't have to be right now. Anything on your mind, kid?"
"...is that a swing set?"

She wandered off, pennyloafers clicking over the gravel as she approached a small playground behind the church. She thought it rather macabre that the whole thing was just to the other side of a cemetery, but it didn't matter to her; detachededly curious, she stepped onto the playground and sat down on the swing, making the old chains creak as they remembered how to move. Mark followed, his eyes darting around for danger he knew wasn't there until he settled down on the swing next to Rowena, straining both chains and frame close to the limits of their endurance.

"Deep revelations?" he asked.
"Just enjoying the quiet for a bit," she said, swinging a bit. "We had one like that in Rome. Less rust, though."
"I can't believe 'nox managed to cram playtime into your schedule."
"I hated the swing at home, though."
"...I fell off. Broke my arm."

Mark laughed out loud. Rowena frowned and punched him in the side; he got up from his swing and circled around the set, looking over towards the church and the car.

"That's not funny."
"I'm just not seeing it. I imagine you shouted at the ground, told your arm to unbreak itself, pronto. I've been there, I'm like Jackie Chan when it comes to broken bones. I did it all and every time I can't wait to get moving again."
"But I'm ambidexterous. I could write, I could shoot...but that damn swing."
"So you got back on it and tamed the bronco?"
"Nope. I got home one day and the swing set was gone."
"...so you're making peace here?"
"In a sense. Heh, you know..."
"Would you mind giving me a push?"
"That's your father's job, kid."
"...just do it. Please."

For a few more swings, Rowena felt young.


It was noon when Rowena got back to her loft; she locked the door behind her, kicked off the loafers and sauntered over to the kitchen countertop, picking a takeaway menu from the fridge as she passed. Mmh, Albanian, she thought as she browsed the offerings. Her left hand shot out towards the remote, switching the entertainment center to radio mode. After a few seconds, the heavy thumps of R&B filled the room; Rowena roller her eyes, then slipped the remote's buttons toward the next channel, pausing when she hit some acid jazz that struck her fancy. She dialed down the volume, then picked up the phone and dialed the number on the menu. It felt like she hadn't eaten well for a week, and she fully intended to correct this oversight.

On the rooftop opposite her loft, there was a man. No, there was a man, and he had a rifle. Carefully, he aimed the gun at the only window of Rowena's loft, then flicked a switch. A small LED flickered to life, signifying that an invisible laser beam was now bouncing off the glass. In sync with that, a small digital recorder started its work.

This was going to be one of those days for Matt Moody.


Anonymous said...

Still reading. Still enjoying. We'll talk when I get away from this soul-rotting dial-up.

Valentina said...

Good contrast in moods.
Nice to see a less rapacious Mark paying attention to his residual humanity.
Not that I'm one to talk. =]

I liked the swing set. Yeah, the student informs the mentor even as the mentor sculpts the student.

And I knew the moody-dude was a complication. It's a hard lesson, but if Mr/Mrs. Maybe Right happens to waltz in "spontaneously" it's probably a set-up of some kind.
True, blue romantic love is the biggest culture hoax there is.

Hmm. Was I ever young or did I never grow up? I can't even recall my "blooding," there was so much violence in my life from day 1 that no early episode of it's worth preserving.

If your audience muses aloud, you've done quite well. =]