In From the Cold – Ch. 1


In From the Cold

—–

Let me tell you how I died.

It’s an ugly little story.  I imagine you’d need to pass a serious background check, swear allegiance to the U.S. flag, and have a damned good need-to-know before you heard anything about it, officially.

But I don’t worry so much about security regs anymore.  Being dead, and all.  I’ve changed some names for discretion’s sake, that’s all.  There aren’t any innocents to protect.

So here we are.

In any case, this is what happened.

It starts on the porch of a winterworn cabin on an unnamed mountain in West Virginia.  I was leaning on the railing, warming my hands around a mug of hot coffee.  Not great coffee, but the best I could do with the stale Robusta beans I’d bought from the general store over in Joab Gap.  The afternoon air was chilly enough to make me appreciate having the steaming brew in my hands.  It was bitter enough for my taste, at least.

The landline had rung this morning.  An electronic voice informed me that “A package delivery has been scheduled for fifteen-hundred on Saturday.  Please have someone available to receive the delivery.”  CLICK.

Well, they already knew who would be available.  I was the only one who stayed at the cabin.  Aside from the odd grocery run, I didn’t go anywhere much.  It was my responsibility to maintain the grounds and keep the cabin ready for unexpected guests.  So I hung up the dead receiver and got busy doing that.

The cabin had electric heat, but it wasn’t designed for year-round occupancy, so by late autumn the heaters were struggling.  Alone, I usually managed with layered clothing and extra blankets.  But the living room did have an oversized stone fireplace as part of the faux-hunting-lodge décor.  I piled wood and fed the fire throughout the day, until the cabin was pleasantly warm.  The phone message hadn’t hinted at how many guests I could expect, so I opened the other two bedrooms and put fresh sheets on the beds.  Replaced the linens in the bathroom.  Brushed the spiders out of the windowsills.  I even practiced facial expressions while I shaved.  My smiles were a bit stiff, but I thought they would pass.  Close enough for government work, as they say.

Now I was leaning on the weathered porch railing, sipping my coffee and waiting.

Eventually a white cargo van rounded the last curve of the gravel road that snakes up the mountain.  Exactly five minutes to three, by my watch.  A whiff of professionalism that made me feel sloppy.  I hadn’t set an alarm clock in almost two years.  Well, I hadn’t missed any morning formations, either.

The van crunched to a stop in the gravel drive, and the engine rattled to a stop.  The “package” was here.  I set my half-full cup on the railing and started down the steps.

The driver’s door opened, and a man wrapped in a grey topcoat stepped out onto the gravel.  He flipped a wave in my general direction, and I returned a nod.  I’d met Albright on deployment, in one of the hottest cities on the planet, nearly a decade ago.  Back then, he’d shown great enthusiasm for handling reluctant informants.  I felt fairly justified in disliking him.

He didn’t like me because the Company didn’t like me anymore.  It wasn’t personal.

“Hey, how ya’ doin’, old man?  Long time no see.  You get the message?”

“Yes, I got it.”

“Good, good.  Got a weird one for ya’ this time.”  He yanked open the van’s panel door and stood back.

After a moment, a dark-haired woman wearing a red jacket spilled out of the van, followed by a tumble of what looked like the largest snake I’d ever seen.  It took a moment before I realized that she was a demi-human, of a reptile species.

“Madiyan!”  Albright grabbed an arm as she swayed unsteadily, obviously disoriented.  “Shit, I guess it was colder back there than I thought.  Gimme’ a hand here, will ya’?”

I was already moving to take her other arm.  It was the arm of a slender girl, small in the sleeve of her jacket, but it took all our muscle to half-drag the snake-woman up the porch and into the lodge.  She wasn’t dead weight, but she wasn’t helping much.

The warmth of the cabin was a welcome rush.  Albright and I carried her across the living room and stretched her out in front of the fireplace, where she lay still, breathing slowly.  She wasn’t shivering.  I felt her hands and they were corpse-cold.

“Albright, this girl’s severely hypothermic.  She needs to go to a hospital.”

“Nah, she’ll be alright when she warms up.”  He’d gone out and brought back a small suitcase which he dropped on the couch.  “She’s your guest for the weekend.  I’ll be back early Monday to take her to Dulles Airport.  Keep her company ‘till then.  No special instructions.  You should know the drill by now.”

“What the hell is she doing here?  Since when do we work with liminals?”

“Guest of the Company.  Got frisky with the wrong person, who cashed in a favor.  She’s being deported quick and quiet-like.”  He glanced around the cabin.  “You should be glad to have a visitor.”

I was remembering why I disliked him.  “Anything else I should know?  Does she speak English?”

“Yeah, but she ain’t real chatty.”  Albright turned and headed for the door.  He paused in the open doorway, letting cold air spill into the room, and grinned over his shoulder.  “Don’t get too attached,” he said, and left.

That wasn’t a coded instruction, and it wasn’t a warning.  Just a spiteful reminder that I’d only have around thirty-six hours with this demi-human woman, and then she’d be gone forever.  Barely enough time to learn her name.  Of course, she’d leave without knowing my real name, or anything else about me, really.

Well, there was nothing to be done about that.  Albright got to go back to D.C. and the warmth of society.  I didn’t.  I’d forfeited those privileges when I’d embarrassed the Company.  It didn’t make me like him any more, though.

But thirty-six hours was thirty-six hours, and I needed to keep this woman alive.  I sighed and turned my attention to my “guest.”

Not trusting Albright’s offhand assurance that the half-frozen snake-woman would “be alright”, I crouched down and reached to check her carotid pulse…then jerked back with a curse as her hair suddenly squirmed against my hand.  What I had taken for thick, black curls was apparently a mass of tentacles, or something like them, that were now sluggishly twisting and coiling, seemingly without input from the head they were attached to.

Then she rose.

Standing upright – and I stood up quickly – I’m a few inches over six feet.  She passed that and kept going, and I found myself looking up into glaring red eyes and a gaping mouth with fangs in it.

Snakes don’t bother me, normally, but my primate instincts declared that I was too close to an alarming amount of agitated reptile and dumped adrenaline into my bloodstream anyway.  So I introduced myself to my new guest by stumbling backwards onto the couch.

“Ma’am?”  I offered up a reassuring smile, although I wasn’t sure which of us I was trying to reassure.  “Miss Madiyan?  Are you OK?”

She took ragged breaths as her gaze flicked around the room, then back to me.  She was already sinking down to my eye level.  “Where is this?” she rasped.  “Who are you?  Where is Mr. Albright?”

“I’m Mark Temple, I work with Mr. Albright.  He brought you here to rest until your flight on Monday.  There’s no one else here, just you and me.”

She glanced around again, checking the exits, or maybe looking for the other people that I claimed weren’t here.  Then she pinned me to the couch with those crimson eyes.

“Where.  Am.  I.”

“You’re in a safe place, Miss Madiyan.”

“Safe from whom?”

I didn’t bother answering.  She was wavering, clenching her small fists, and I wasn’t sure she’d be upright much longer.  Abruptly she seemed to feel the fire, and with a last glare at me, turned and reached out to the heat.

I quietly stood and moved away, toward the kitchen.  I didn’t want to crowd her, and it looked like she could use a few moments to compose herself.

I needed a moment, myself.

“Here…this’ll help warm you up.”

The girl didn’t reach for the cup I was holding out, just stared at me unblinking.  After an awkward moment, I swallowed from the cup myself.  “It’s not a café brûlot from Wittamer’s, but it’s honest coffee.  Nothing else.”

She took the cup and flickered a startlingly long tongue across the top, smelling the contents.  Then she took a cautious sip.

Her long body rippled as she drank in the heat.  “Umm,” she said.  “That feels good.”

“I’m glad.  We need to get your core temperature up.  Can I get you a blanket?”

She shook her head.  “I’m ectothermic.  A blanket would be useless.  If anything it would just block the heat from the fire.”

“Ah.  I’m afraid I don’t know much about liminals.  You’re the first one I’ve met in person.”

“Lucky me,” she said tightly.

I stood beside the fireplace, pretending to warm myself but quietly inspecting my “guest”.  She was a lot to take in.  I doubted she was far into her 20’s.  Her English was very good, if not quite native, with a vaguely East-European accent.  Her face had a Mediterranean cast, with a fine, straight nose, but the crimson eyes were obviously inhuman, and the mouth a bit too large.  Her hair was inescapably a mass of dark indigo snakes, sleek and shifting.  The combination might be alluring if she smiled, but I doubted that I’d get to find out.

Her clothes might have come from any American mall:  a bright red Columbia jacket and a short (well, anything would look short on her body) grey sweater-dress.  Below the dress was easily fifteen feet of snake, thicker than a python.  She was coiled loosely in front of the hearth, black and shiny in the firelight, shifting slightly as her muscles loosened.

She interrupted my contemplation with a question.  “What’s a Wittamer’s?”

“Hmm?  Ah…” I eased myself down on the couch, at a careful distance.  “Wittamer’s is a lovely pâtisserie on the Grand Sablon in Belgium.  Wonderful chocolats…wretched waiters, if they think you’re an American.”

“I assume that they didn’t think you were an American?”

I smiled at the fire.  “They did not.  L’habit ne fait pas le moine, n’est-ce pas?

“I don’t speak French,” she said.

“It means, roughly, that outer appearances can be deceptive.  My French was good enough that I could pass for European.  Basic politeness helps, too.”

“I’m sure it does.  What were you doing in Belgium?”

“Business,” I shrugged. “Working in sales for a clothing importer.  Dull work, but I did enjoy spending time overseas.”  Time to change the subject.  “How about you?  Forgive my ignorance, but all I know about liminals is what I read in the news.  You’re a lamia, right?”

“Obviously,” she nodded. “Medusa tribe, to be accurate.”

“Ah.  That explains the…hair-snakes.”

Plekti.

“I’m sorry?”

“They’re called plekti.”  They’re not snakes.  I’m not a snake.”

“My mistake.  Is that Greek?”

“No.”

We watched the fire for a while.

“So what are you doing in the United States?”

“Being deported, apparently.”

I sighed.  “That’s not what I meant.  I know that the UN has started an international exchange program with the liminal nations.  Are you part of that?”

She appraised me with inhuman eyes.  “I am here with the Cultural Exchange Program, yes.”

“Why did you decide on coming to the United States?  I know the Exchange Program is controversial here.  Certain people don’t think we should be welcoming liminal species into society.”  I shook my head.  “Yet another way for politicians to turn us against each other.”

She nodded.  “I’ve studied American politics for years.  I’m very aware of how liminals are discussed in your legislative debates.”

“Really?  How did you get interested in that?”

“How could I not be?  America is the most powerful economic entity in the world, and the single biggest influence over the international interspecies exchange laws.  I don’t pretend to understand all the issues that drive your election cycles, but I would be naïve not to recognize the importance of those political decisions to me and my people.  It’s literally a matter of life and death for the lamia nation.”

“How’s that?  I don’t think we’re planning to invade your homeland.”

The snake-girl frowned at me.  “How much do you know about the Interspecies Exchange Laws?”

“Almost nothing,” I admitted.

She shifted on her coils to face me, apparently preparing to explain the finer points of interspecies politics.  If she’d been wearing glasses she would have adjusted them.  I didn’t mind; I’d rather have her talking than silently glaring at me, and a political lecture was better than listening to the cabin creak at me.

What I got, however, wasn’t exactly boring.

“Mr. …what did you say your name was?”

“Temple.  Mark Temple.”

“Yes.  Well, Mr. Temple.  You may have heard that lamia – along with several other types of liminals – are a gynomorphic species.  We give birth only to female children.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “That sounds…problematic.”

Madiyan nodded.  “There are certain disadvantages.  Not least of which is a lack of genetic diversity in a small population.  And we are a small population, Mr. Temple…keep that in mind.

“We are also xenosexual, which means that we depend on males from another species to reproduce.  Human males in our case.  That solves the genetic diversity problem, but means that lamia are dependent upon access to human men to preserve our race.

“Traditionally, any man that we could seduce, capture, or, in many cases, rescue from the sea, would be taken as a mate.  Human legends have not treated us kindly for this, even though many men chose to stay with us rather than return to their homes.  We do not kill and devour men, Mr. Temple.  Any more than I can turn you to stone with my eyes.”

“Thank goodness for that.”

She didn’t smile back.  “We were never numerous, but we survived.  But that ended three years ago, with the Interspecies Exchange Law.  Lamia can no longer capture men without facing punishment from the international community.  So we have very few husbands.  And not enough children.  Our birthrate has fallen well below replacement numbers.”

“I would think you would have plenty of volunteers, now that the world knows you exist?”

Madiyan shook her head.  “The new legislation created an immigration bureaucracy that is…burdensome, to put it mildly.  Partly as a compromise with conservative elements in several countries, including the United States.  And, erotic fantasies aside, not many men actually want to give up their familiar lifestyles and families to move to an island of lamia.”

“No, I imagine that would be quite a culture shock.”  I stood up to add wood to the fire and arrange it with the poker.  She waited while I settled back on the couch.

“So you came over here to learn about American politics and culture,” I said.  “And, I suppose, to be an ambassador of sorts for your people.  How has that gone?  Has it been a productive visit?”

“Parts of it,” she said.  “Not this part, obviously.”

I grimaced.  “I’m sorry you had a rough ride up.  Albright’s a jackass.  But I’ll do my best to keep you comfortable while you’re here.  Are you warming up OK?”

She stared at me, with those strange red eyes.

“Who are you, really, Mr. Temple?  Mr. Albright is obviously some kind of secret government agent, most likely CIA, and you work with him, so you’re probably CIA too.”  She abruptly turned back to the fire.  “I don’t know why I’m asking.  You’re going to lie to me anyway.”

Well, I had to, at least a little bit.  “I can’t speak to Mr. Albright, but I’m a private contractor, hired to look after this cabin and grounds.  I’m not in the CIA and I don’t work for the U.S. government.  I wish I did…they’re supposed to have excellent health insurance.”

She snorted.  “You’re not just a caretaker.”

“As far as you’re concerned, I am.  I’m here to take care of you for a few days and send you on your way home.  Does it really matter who I work for?”

“I have a vested interest in learning about my kidnappers.”

I frowned at that.  “I haven’t kidnapped you.”

“Really?” She folded her arms and stared at me. “So if I went to the door you’d just let me leave?”

I waved at the door.  “It’s not locked.  I don’t know where you could go, though.”

“Take me to the nearest town.”

“I’m afraid you wouldn’t fit in my car.”

“Then give me my phone.  Mr. Albright took it.”

“He didn’t give it to me.  Not that it would do you any good up here.”

She frowned.  “Why not?”

“We’re inside the edge of Sugar Grove’s ‘quiet zone’.  You’d never get a connection.”

She considered that for a moment.  “I know there’s some means of communication up here.”

“…the cabin does have a landline,” I admitted.  She’d see the phone in the kitchen eventually.

She nodded.  “Then call me a transport.  Or let me call my CEP Coordinator.”

After an awkward pause, I sighed.  “I can’t do that for you, Miss Madiyan.”

Her lips tightened.  It wasn’t a smile.  “As I thought,” she said.  And turned back to the fire.

Neither of us said much after that, just sat and watched firewood burn until the afternoon light was completely gone from the cabin’s windows.

Finally I rose, and stretched.  “Are you going to want some dinner?”

She shook her head, causing her hair-snakes to writhe restlessly.

“I’ve got some steaks and sandwich fixings, nothing gourmet but it’s food.”

“I’m not hungry,” she said flatly.

“Alright, I won’t force you to eat.”  I added a last log to the fire.  “The largest guest room is there, if you want it, although it won’t be as warm as this.”

“I’ll stay here by the fire, thank you.”

I nodded.  “That’s fine.  There’s the kitchen, if you change your mind about a snack.  If you need anything during the night just knock on my door.  I won’t mind if you wake me up.”

She didn’t say anything, and I couldn’t think of anything else to say.  So I left her there by the fire, fixed myself a sandwich, and shut my bedroom door behind me.

I never took my sleeping pills when I hosted guests at the cabin.  Some of the guests were…unpredictable people.  So that night I lay in bed, staring at the cracked ceiling and listening to Madiyan move around the cabin.  She was clumsy with the fire tools at first, but she quieted down with practice.  Doors quietly opened and closed, and water ran in the bathroom a couple of times.  At one point I heard her voice in the kitchen as she tried to use the phone.  Without the dialing code she might as well have been talking to the toaster.

Most of my “guests” weren’t particularly sympathetic:  outbound spies who were being quietly exchanged, or defectors who would be settling in the United States.  Sometimes heavily-guarded men whose names would never appear on a flight manifest, anywhere.

Madiyan didn’t seem to belong to that murky world.  By all appearances she was just a tourist who had gotten in legal trouble and was being sent home.  But then, how had she ended up in a very unofficial government safehouse?  People like Albright and me have our uses, but we don’t make good babysitters.  As she’d already experienced.  Her being here made no sense.

It bothered me.

I stared at the ceiling and tried to analyze the odd bits of information.  My brain felt like an old, rusted machine that hadn’t been used for a few years.  I thought about a young woman slowly freezing in the back of Albright’s van, and something scraped in the back of my mind, where my anger used to be.

A rusty gear in my head strained and clicked into place.

I didn’t sleep much that night.

To be continued…

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