If you haven’t started this story from the beginning, this one won’t make too much sense. I suggest you start here before continuing.
Sarah must have been daydreaming for some time, as her ice ream was long-since melted and entirely inedible. Funny thing was, she couldn’t for the life of her figure out what she had been thinking about. The show? No, she didn’t have her script with her. With the first rehearsal still weeks away, she was far from off book. She’d brought a pen – remembered reaching into the back seat to get it – but had no clue why. She didn’t even bring anything to write on.
Obviously she needed a nap. She was highly aware her mind tended to wander when she was tired, and at the moment she couldn’t even recall sleeping last night, though she must have. Not well enough, clearly.
Sarah stood, tucking the pen into her pocket with one hand and sweeping up her trash with the other. Homeward bound, then.
“I don’t have a plan.” Victor’s humility had turned bitter in Jack’s mind days ago, after the third time he had said it. Now it was just annoying.
Jack had sat, staring at the sliding bookshelf that served as a door between himself and their prisoner, for the better part of four days. The man hadn’t uttered a word, not since he talked with Sarah. Whatever Jack could threaten, he knew Renaud – even in their prisoner’s imagination – could do worse. He knew victor by reputation alone, and Jack had lost his chance to befriend him when he broke his arm.
So Jack leaned back, dropping his hands from under his nose to his lap, knowing he had to at least admit it. “I don’t think we can break him.” Just say it! “Not without….” Victor had to be thinking it too. “Not without Sarah.”
Jack expected something – any kind of reaction at all. But Victor was as insightfully stoic as ever. “You may be right.”
Not a helpful analysis. “Have you spoken with her?”
“No. Kept an eye on her when I get the chance, but only long enough to know she’s safe.”
Jack nodded. He’d done the same, alternating watching the prisoner and the young woman. They’d parked the trailer at a campground that shared a beach with the lake not far from their underwater exit. It made for a subtle and dry way to move between the library and their outside world.
Victor moved into the elaborately carved Victorian couch across from Jack. The older man settled a moment before speaking. “My earliest memories are as a prisoner of war. I waited for decades under an abusive hand with no hope of rescue. I had many opportunities to die, but I didn’t. Because I had a reason to survive. My life in that body wasted away, but I had to find a student – someone to inherit my legacy. Keep the memory of my ancestors alive so that later we might make a difference.”
Jack merely watched the old man as he rambled, waiting for Victor to explain his story.
He must have noticed. “My point is, he’s eating. He’s… surviving. We all know Renaud left him ages ago. What then is he living for?”
“You don’t think he has a family,” Jack started.
Victor waved a hand, unconcerned. “Renaud wouldn’t risk using anyone who would be missed. He manipulates with convictions, not coercion.”
Victor would know. Jack barely stopped himself from voicing the thought aloud. To protect her from being manipulated, Julia’s mentor had discouraged her from pursuing a relationship with jack. Victor insisted that their love would be a liability, even though Jack was a capable student in his own right. He had never forgiven Victor for that, and now that Julia was gone, wasn’t likely to in the future.
Focus. Build a plan. Execute it. Move on to the next task.
Jack missed his mentor desperately. She’d know what to do. There was a good chance the man on the other side of that bookshelf knew where she was. If only they could get that information from him! Unfortunately they needed her wisdom to rescue her.
“Let me out?” Victor asked, interrupting the silence and standing.
Out? He must intend to go in, with the prisoner. “We talked about this, Victor.” it was too risky. Trapping either in there with the prisoner made them too vulnerable. Their prisoner was expendable. Neither Jack nor Victor could claim the same.
“We’re at a stale mate. Something has to change the game.”
Sarah would, Jack knew. She was good with people, and had already tried to make friends with the man. She was the only one with a feasible shot, and Victor had ostracized her days ago.
This was all assuming Victor was right about her, and Jack’s instincts were wrong.
“Getting yourself hurt would certainly do that,” Jack retorted. It’d change the game in the council’s favor.
“I’m not asking for your permission to go in,” Victor responded, hand on the bookshelf, ready to push it open. “I’m asking you to let me out when I’m done.”
Jack didn’t bother protesting again, or even moving from his seat, as he watched Victor descend into the small spare room.
There was about a two-foot drop between the library’s floor and that of the makeshift prison cell. Not more than stepping off a couch, but Victor’s knees still protested the hop down. They’ll surely be equally reluctant to climb back up again. Gravity slid the heavy bookshelf back into place, sealing Victor in with the prisoner in the inky blackness.
Victor pulled out a “clapper” – a disc-shaped battery-operated light, turned on by touch or clapping – and pushed the gadget once, illuminating the room. Like the halls outside the library, wet red clay packed the edges of this room, and little else. The white light looked cool, almost metallic by comparison.
Like most of Renaud’s students, the young man across from Victor looked like him. Victor assumed it was a sense of vanity, going back at least the three-hundred or so years he had known him. The young man across from Victor was sitting in the corner, legs outstretched and crossed, hands folded placidly in his lap, eyes closed. With the light, he opened one eye, spied Victor, and closed it again.
Easier to keep your mouth shut, to dissociate in a situation like this, if you didn’t look at your interrogator, Victor knew. Renaud had taught him that. It was a long time ago, but clearly he had shared that wisdom with this student too.
“Hello,” Victor tried.
He couldn’t blame him, not really. Not when Victor himself had behaved the exact same way days ago, when he had been at the mercy of Renaud and Tekina.
“My name’s Victor,” he offered again. It wasn’t sharing anything the prisoner didn’t already know. Instead, he hoped it would be an attempt at peace to get the conversation started.
When Victor had first been a prisoner of war, he had been cooperative. Talkative. Trying and eventually finding someone to pass his legacy on to.
This was different. A waiting game.
“Renaud isn’t coming for you. He doesn’t care about you.”
A knowing smile. Finally a reaction, at least! He didn’t know how to interpret it, but still looked at the gesture as a success.
“You think he does?” he asked, genuinely curious.
The smile faded back into blankness.
Victor needed their prisoner to see him as an ally. Cautiously, he stepped forward. When the young man failed to react, Victor gathered his courage and sat next to him. If Jack were able to witness this, Victor expected him to throw a fit, to scream at him to stay away, safely out of reach. He’d be right. It was a stupid move, and Victor knew that even as his palm hit the damp ground.. Still, Jack’s methods hadn’t worked.
No reaction, at least.
“Renaud used to be a good man. Before all this survival-of-the-fittest nonsense. He cherished his students. He’d go to every length to find any who went missing and bring them home again.” That was before he’d met Tekina. Renaud may be the powerhouse on the council, but she was the corrupter. The worst he’d been before her was simply sexist, refusing to even consider a female student. That was common for that era, though. Renaud had always chosen based on his students’ skill sets. Someone who could add to his legacy in some way, not just carry it on. “Why did he choose you?” Victor wondered aloud.
Suddenly the young man shifted in his chosen corner.
Reflexively Victor’s arm went up, ready to block any incoming blow at his throat or head.
But it wasn’t the feared strike Victor had been anticipating. Simply an adjustment, or at worst a test, just to see how Victor reacted.
“We don’t have to talk about him,” Victor tried again, eager to get the young man’s mind off his reaction. “I’m more interested in you.”
“Okay. What if I guessed? I think you’re –”
“You’re a traitor.” The whispered words were almost inaudible, but Victor caught them.
A traitor? It was true, in a way. A traitor to the council. But Victor chose to believe it was that group of people that had turned against him. He was the loyal one. They were wrong. He would still stand for what was right, even if it meant standing alone.
Victor had to keep him talking. “A traitor? Why do you say that?”
The prisoner was back to pretending he’d said nothing at all. Even still, those three words had told Victor plenty: that this young man didn’t – would never – respect him enough to speak openly and honestly with him.
This was a bust, and a waste of time to be in here.
Jack could tell by the knock alone that Victor’s attempt at conversation had been as successful as the rest. The look on the mentor’s face as Jack lifted him out confirmed it.
“Admit it,” Jack insisted before Victor could say anything. “We need Sarah to break him.”
“No.” The usually amiable man had been firm on that point for days.
“She’s our best chance –”
“She’s not who you think she is!” He couldn’t really believe that. Could he?
“Maybe if you let me talk to her, I could figure that out for myself!”
“She played us once already. I’m not going to let her get you. I promised Luanne if anything ever happened to her –” Victor was supposed to look after him. He knew.
“That’s what she wants you to think!”
Even arguing with Victor was impossible. “You’re wrong.” It was all Jack could think to say.
Victor grabbed both Jack’s shoulders, forcing him to meet his gaze. “Look, I’m sorry. But trust me on this. Please.”
“Maybe we can just talk to her. See what she knows. She doesn’t have to come down here, or see the prisoner.” It’d give Jack a chance to hear her side of the story, if nothing else.
Fine. He’d come with another, even more foolhardy plan while Victor was with the prisoner. Perhaps now was the time to voice it. “Then I propose a new idea. We could –” he knew as he spoke that were Jack an observer in the room instead of the one pitching the idea, he’d object – “we could let Renaud find me. Then we can get my mentor’s thoughts.” Assuming she was conscious. Luanne’s was an opinion Jack knew Victor trusted above all others.
“That plan is even worse.” Victor let go of his shoulders, moving past Jack and into the open area.
“We don’t have to find her that way,” Jack pointed out. “They’d bring me straight to her.” For their own purposes, they both knew. “She may even be conscious, have a plan. She’d just need my help to execute it. We could get out together.” In two bodies or one.
“She’d agree with me that your plan is as ill-prepared as it is reckless.” Victor wasn’t even looking at Jack now, instead intent on finding another water bottle.
“And our current actions aren’t ill-prepared?” Jack asked. “These are the options, Victor. Playing into Sarah’s hands or playing into Renaud’s. Your ideas of neither have gotten us nowhere.”
“We keep trying.” There was a finality to his voice that announced he was not to be argued with.
Screw him. Finding Sarah wasn’t hard. “I’m talking to her. If you want to come, be my guest.”
Sarah shoved the last of the shoe boxes into their new home on the shelves, impatiently waiting out the last few minutes of her shift. She had a date with Paul tonight, and a new dress to suit. She liked him. He was fun. Charisma came hand-in-hand with theater people and the rest of her friends, but he was great on stage and sincerely wanted to get to know her.
It was karaoke night at one of the local bars – normally a miserable experience for anyone with half an ear – but theater people all flooded a different place once a month or so. Since they all practiced singing regularly – most since their childhoods – it became unique and fun.
All the more enjoyable to go with Paul.
A small burning, like coals smoldering in the bottom of her lungs, cut through her thoughts, announcing to her that she’d been holding her breath again. She’d only noticed herself doing that the last couple days, and had no idea why. Regardless, she opened her throat with a half-yawn to get the air moving again.
Only this time it didn’t. The burning continued to rise, but her throat had locked up. Panic matched the fire in her lungs as they swelled, but the rest of her refused to obey. Sarah clutched the lip of the shelf, trying to remain calm as much as maintain her balance as her body fought itself for air.
What was happening? Something had gone wrong in her in the last couple of weeks. First she was forgetting large spans of time – had apparently agreed to coffee with Paul, though she couldn’t remember it – and now this. The aching in her chest as her lungs were squeezed by some fiery demon hand was unrelenting.
Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Cool conditioned air dove back into her lungs, and she welcomed every molecule. She didn’t know who to thank, only that she was grateful to breathe again. Opening her throat morphed itself into a proper yawn this time, and one caught by her manager.
“Go home, Sarah.” The older woman’s words was like music to her ears.
“You’ve only got a few minutes left on your shift, right? We’re slow, and I see you yawning over there.” Her head nodded toward the break room. “Go on. I’ll see you Tuesday.”
Jack was surprised to see Sarah leave her apartment and get into someone else’s car. After all the fuss she made about driving herself before, she even let her chauffeur open her door for her. Those heels announced to Jack and the rest of the world that she didn’t expect any threats to chase her tonight. But in that dress, she would definitely stand out.
“He doesn’t look like Renaud’s type, at least,” Victor commented from the passenger seat next to him.
Jack had been too busy watching Sarah to notice her driver. He glanced at the man, who had dirty blonde hair, which he flicked as he rounded the front of the car. He was well-built, but seemingly unaware of his surroundings. Jack watched the man move as he pulled the driver’s side door open. Elbow out, not down. Not a martial artist, then. Dancer, more than likely, if the little Jack knew about Sarah and her friends was any indication.
“He’s leaving her alone,” Victor mentioned as the car in their sights started up.
“He’s driving,” Jack felt compelled to state the obvious. Ready to follow Sarah, Jack started his truck too.
“I meant Renaud.” Victor was probably trying to reinforce his theory that Sarah had allied with the enemy.
Jack wasn’t so convinced. “There could be any number of reasons she’s being left alone.”
The car turned right onto the main road. Jack waited to make sure no one else was keeping tabs on her before he pulled up and turned too. With the obvious lack of awareness from Dancer Boy, Jack had no trouble following them.
“You having a student makes you a threat. Keeping her uninvolved cripples us and empowers them.”
“She doesn’t want to be involved. Not with us.” It was true. Sarah had proven herself more than capable of finding Victor twice in one day, then four days of nothing.
“Then we strike a deal with her. She helps us this once, and we never bother her again.”
“And if she doesn’t agree?” Victor asked, more to point out a flaw in his plan than get an answer, Jack knew. The answer was that they would agree not to bother her again. No incentive to cooperate.
“Okay, she helps us, and we find the mind-wiping technology she wants. Reset back to normality.”
A glance at Victor told Jack the old man was looking out the other window. “That device is no service to anyone.” The words were half in whisper, as if to himself instead of Jack.
“It’s what she wants,” he argued.
“Perfecting it is not likely to be a high priority for Symon. Even if they have, she’ll still experience the traumas. Her mind won’t know what to do with it. It’ll hollow her mind less obviously, but it’ll be worse in the end.”
“It’s your fault her mind is broken in the first place,” Jack reminded him. Had he not linked to her outside that coffee shop, they wouldn’t be in this mess now. Then again, they wouldn’t have found the library without her, nor gotten Victor back from the clutches of Renaud.
Victor was silent the rest of the drive.
“Hey! You guys made it!”
“Of course we did!” Sarah returned the avalanche of hugs as they came. These people – some from past shows, and a handful from the next – were her family at least as much as her own blood. True, they brought with them as much drama as a Thanksgiving dinner, but with at least as much alcohol and singing, not to mention more joy, these monthly karaoke parties were always something to look forward to. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world!”
Paul had left her side for the bar, and called back to her. “Sarah! Beer?” he asked, pointing a finger at the empty space between him and the lit wall of liqueur. He didn’t drink, she knew – purity of body, purity of soul, he’d once told her – which made him not only a great DD, but often the best singer by the time the night was over.
“A choco-tini?” Sarah called back. He raised an eyebrow, but nodded. Why not? She’d had a rough week, and was ready to party with friends.
“Hey! Vikki’s about to start,” Norm called out.
An understandable hush fell across the revelry. Vikki was a life-long veteran of the theater, and had likely performed every song on that list at one point or another. Now, she was a mom to the cast of every show Sarah had shared with her, and had the respect of everyone in the room.
The reverent silence didn’t last long, however, and soon the crowd was roaring with laughter at Vikki’s rendition of “The Worst Pies in London.”
As Sarah applauded, a heavy hand fell on her shoulder, making her jump in her seat. Must be Paul. Sooner than expected, Sarah turned, ready to accept her drink and ease his burden so he could sit next to her.
It wasn’t Paul. “I need you to come with me,” the stranger said. Though his words were obviously addressed at her, his eyes were scanning the backs of heads and faces of her friends.
“Excuse me?” she asked. Did she know him? She didn’t recognize him, but having been on a lot of stages, frequent theater-goers might recognize her. “Do we know each other?”
Annoyance soaked the glance he shot her before he looked toward the bar this time. “Come on, Sarah. We don’t have time for your games.” A slight British accent. In this small town, she’d remember that.
Unfortunately she didn’t have the authority kick him out of the bar. Sarah stood now, facing him properly with her chair between them. “Look. It’s a public place –”
“Which is why I’m suggesting we talk outside,” the stranger finished for her. Who did he think he was, coming in and expecting to get her alone in the dark? Did he really think she was that stupid?
Paul came up to her then, handing her her glass and sipping red juice from his own plastic cup. “Who’s this?” he asked.
“We’re old friends,” the stranger insisted.
“I’ve never seen this man before in my life,” Sarah corrected. Were she on her own, she’d probably not argue, but instead find some way to talk herself out of the situation. But Paul was here, and she warmed to think she didn’t have to.
“I think it’s time for you to go,” Paul told the stranger, setting down the cup as he stepped between the man and the table.
“Look, we know each other.” The stranger looked down, clearly searching his memory. In that moment, Sarah could read the sincerity in him. He believed everything he was saying. Deranged, then, though she noticed no other indicators of the sort. “Your dad doesn’t like cake, so every year for his birthday, he puts a candle in his pancakes. Okay?”
How could he possibly know that? “Are you stalking me?”
“Out.” The sound from Paul was half speech, half bark.
“Enough games, Sarah.” The stranger reached around the chair between them, hand aimed at her shoulder or upper arm.
Apparently that was the trigger that set Paul off. Fist aloft, her friend lunged forward, and before Sarah knew it, a crunch split the air.
A sudden quiet doused the patrons at the bar – her friends – as Paul stepped away, hand shaking freely in the air. His movements revealed the stranger, who had his hand across his nose – blood easily seeping through the fingers – and a fire in his eyes.
“Out,” Sarah repeated Paul’s order, highly aware that her entire group of friends stood behind her on this, ready to defend her. She would not be the easy prey this man hoped she was.
The stranger noticed them too. He let his hand fall away, revealing a wall of red staining his lip. “Fine.” He shot a glance at her, spat a mouthful of blood onto the bar floor, and walked away, muttering swearwords to himself.
No one moved again until he was gone, out the front door he had come through.