In From the Cold – Ch. 2


In From the Cold (cont’d)

I must have dozed because grey daylight woke me.  I lay still, listening.  My breath didn’t steam the air for a change, so I knew that Madiyan must have kept the fire burning all night.  If so, she hadn’t had any more sleep than I had.

I climbed out of bed and into my clothes.  It was a luxury to dress in relative warmth, but I was sure we’d be running low on wood.  I layered up for outdoor work.  On my way out I glanced in the mirror.

I looked…faded.  Like an old horse that didn’t go to the racetrack anymore.  I hadn’t paid much attention to my looks since I’d been sent up to this mountain.  It had been a long time since I’d spoken to a young woman, demi-human or otherwise.

But the eyes in the tired face looked more alert than usual.

“Do I know you?” I asked myself.

“Good morning, Miss Madiyan,” I called out as I opened the door.  No sense in startling the girl.

I didn’t spot her until she rose smoothly from behind the couch, close to the hearth where I’d left her.  “Mr. Temple.”

“I hope you got some sleep,” I said, knowing that she hadn’t.  “Would you like some breakfast?  We’ve got bacon and sausage, and I make a pretty good omelette…”

“That…actually sounds good.”

“Omelettes it is,” I nodded, and yawned.  “Just let me fire up the stove.”

Thirty minutes later I brought plates to the table, where Madiyan joined me.  Sleep or not, she looked much improved from the night before.  Her hands still shook a bit, which obviously frustrated her but didn’t surprise me.  A half-frozen human would still be recovering in a hospital bed.

She was visibly hungry, too.  Which made sense…she’d missed at least one, probably two meals yesterday.  Still, she hesitated until I forked a bit of fluffy, rolled egg from each plate and ate it in front of her.  Then she took a cautious bite, and another.

“This is excellent.”

“Well, thank you.” I dug into my own breakfast.  “I threw in some onions and chopped up some sandwich meat I had on hand.  The cheese is cheap cheddar, but it works well with the stronger flavors.”

We ate without speaking for a while.  Eventually I felt eyes on me and glanced up.  In the morning daylight her vertical pupils were much more visible.

“So what happens today, Mr. Temple?”

“Nothing much,” I replied.  “When the temperature warms up a bit I’ll go out and chop wood for the fire.  You should keep resting.”

“Not that I have any other options.”

“There’s not much to do up here, I’m afraid.  You can look through the books in my room if you like.  Old classics and travel books, mostly, but you might find something interesting.”

Madiyan frowned.  “You don’t mind me going in your bedroom?”

I shrugged.  “No secrets for you to find.  Just refold my boxers if you decide to search through them.”

“You needn’t worry.”  She returned to her plate, seemed surprised to find it empty.  “Ah.”

“Do you want more?  I can make you another omelette…”

“No, I’ve had enough.”  Madiyan placed her fork neatly on the plate.  While I took my last bites, she adjusted the fork a few degrees, then a few more.  By the time I finished, she was watching me again.

“Yes?”

“This was…very good,” she said stiffly.  “Thank you for the meal.”

“No problem at all,” I smiled.  “My job is to take care of you, isn’t it?”

Her lips tightened, and she abruptly left the table, returning to her refuge by the fireplace.

I quietly stacked the plates and carried them to the kitchen.

Fifteen minutes later I heard her in the bathroom, throwing everything up.

The mug I’d left on the porch railing had frozen overnight, and the weak morning sunshine hadn’t raised the temperature much.  But swinging an axe warms you, and I’d shed my coat after splitting the first half-dozen lengths of log.  Swinging an axe is more about technique and accuracy than muscles, and I’m lanky enough to get good leverage with my strikes, so the seasoned logs came apart readily.  But I knew we’d need a good-sized pile of wood to keep the fire going overnight.  I didn’t have a better way to keep Madiyan warm, so I buckled down to the job.  I figured I needed the exercise anyway.

My aching shoulders were demanding a break when the back door opened.  I looked up to see the lamia slide out onto the wooden deck above me.

“How are you feeling?” I called up. “You gave me a bit a scare earlier.”

“I’m much better, thank you.”  She looked tired but composed.  “I’m sorry about the food.”

“Not your fault.  Hypothermia is serious business, and your system took a shock yesterday.  Frankly I’m surprised you’re upright.  Speaking of which, isn’t it a bit cool for that jacket?”

She looked down over the railing.  “Ectotherm, remember?”

“Ah, that’s right.”

“The jacket blocks the breeze, that’s all.  But I wanted to be outside for a minute.”

“It’s a nice jacket,” I offered, somewhat lamely.

“Thank you.  It was a…going-away gift.”

Her answer raised questions that I didn’t ask.  I had some ideas already, but I didn’t want to ruin what little rapport we seemed to have built.

She seemed content to drop the subject.  “What is this place, anyway?”

“The campsite, you mean?”  I sat on a stump, stretching my back.  “Used to be a ‘wilderness retreat’, built by a couple of enterprising hipsters.  Must have thought that stressed-out D.C. workers would fall over themselves to spend a weekend at a data-free hideaway.  Didn’t count on smartphone addictions, I guess.  Bank sent it to auction about a decade ago.  I’m sure it’s owned by a shell corporation now, but I couldn’t tell you the name.”  I shrugged.  “Not something I ever needed to know.”

“And what is it used for now?” she asked.

“It’s…” I gave her a redacted version.  “…sort of a place where we help people disappear, usually on their way in or out of the United States.  Like you.”

“And like you?”

I was supposed to lie.  For some reason I didn’t.  “Yes, you could say that.”

“A place where people go to disappear,” she mused, looking out at the surrounding mountains.

“You know, Mr. Temple?  I’ve been in a cage ever since I came to this country.”

I leaned on my axe and listened.

“First I was trapped in a rowhouse in the city, surrounded by concrete and the smell of cars.  Now I’m trapped here.”  She pointed at the mountains.  “It should feel open and relaxing.  But it’s just another kind of cage.

“And now I’m supposed to disappear.”

Abruptly she turned back to the cabin door.  “I’m cold.”

I was too…I’d sat long enough for the sweat to start drying, chilling my skin.

So after she went inside, I picked up the axe and got back to work.

Madiyan didn’t offer to carry in any firewood, but I didn’t really expect her to.

I finished stacking the split lengths beside the fireplace before the brief November sun settled behind the trees.  After cleaning myself up, I offered Madiyan a late lunch that she didn’t want.  Rather than eating a meal in front of her, I brought us a crude charcuterie of deli meats and cheese, along with a fresh pot of coffee.  We settled in front of the fire while I munched and she nibbled.

After a while, she spoke.  “There’s nothing in your room.”

“I told you I didn’t have any secrets.”

Madiyan shook her head.  “Not what I meant.  You have no personal mementos or decorations.  Just a few books and clothes.  Not even any family pictures.  I think that’s odd.”

“I don’t really have any family left.  My parents have passed.  No brothers or sisters.”

“You never married?”

“Once.  For a while.”

“Did your partner also ‘pass’?”

I looked toward the flames, or maybe the ashes.  “No, she just changed her mind.”

The lamia frowned.  “I thought your people mated for life.”

“No.  We only say we do.”

“I don’t understand your nation’s relationship traditions.”

“Neither do I.”  I looked over at her.  “Why so curious about me?  Still trying to figure out your ‘kidnapper’?”

Madiyan’s face hardened.  “I’m interested in which lies you choose to tell me.”

I chuckled.  “I doubt that you’re telling the truth about yourself, either.”

She didn’t deny that.  “So there’s no point in talking.”

“Well, it passes the time.”

We watched the fire in silence while I debated how many rules I felt like breaking.

What the hell.  She’d be gone in the morning anyway, and I couldn’t really get in more trouble.

“OK, I’ll make a deal with you.  Instead of lying to each other, we can spend the evening sharing what we think about each other.  Most of it’ll be wrong, but it ought to be amusing.  You said I’m with the CIA, so I’d like to hear the rest of my story from you.”

She looked at me thoughtfully.  “Very well.  I accept your offer.  You begin.”

“OK,” I grinned.  “I think I know who you are.”

Madiyan tilted her head and watched me.

“I kept trying to figure out how a liminal got entangled with government people.  Albright’s kind of government people, I mean.  They’re not involved with the Exchange Program, at least as far as I know.  And a foreign visitor violating the cultural exchange laws wouldn’t be a national security issue.  So you being here didn’t make sense from the beginning.

“But Albright mentioned that somebody ‘cashed in a favor’.  Which meant that somebody in the government was involved, somebody powerful enough to have influence with…whoever Albright works for.”

“CIA.”

“Not necessarily,” I objected.  “But let’s go with that.  Now, the press is all over the Exchange Program, so a high-level official being involved with a liminal would either be highly secretive, or a major news story.  As it turns out, I believe it’s both.

“There’s no television up here but I do read the newspapers.  And about six months ago, there were several articles – heated editorials, mostly – about one of our senators, a strong supporter of the Interspecies Exchange Law, signing himself and his wife up for the homestay program.  I wouldn’t have paid much attention to it except that Senator Ruskin sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“Well, supposedly the Senator asked the mainstream press to respect his homestay’s privacy, and they liked him well enough to cooperate.  Apparently his security was good enough to keep the paparazzi away.  So her name and pictures never appeared in the papers.

“But I think she’s a lamia – sorry, a medusa – and her name is Madiyan.”

“I’m sure you were told about all of this before I arrived.”

“They don’t tell me much about my guests.  I don’t get why you’d risk ruining Senator Ruskin, though.  He’s the strongest supporter liminals have in D.C.”

“David never touched me,” she said quickly.  “He was always a perfect gentleman.”

“Then who…?”

She took her time answering, but I guess she still assumed that I was playing dumb.

“Senator Ruskin has a very nice home for entertaining, and a number of bipartisan friendships,” she said. “Matt McCallister, for instance, is a frequent visitor.”

Senator McCallister?  ‘Monster-fighter’ McCallister?  The senator who got re-elected by promising to repeal the American Interspecies Exchange laws?  You’re telling me that he seduced you?”

Madiyan met my incredulous gaze.  “Men always want to conquer what they hate, Mr. Temple.  Or what they fear.  Lamia understand the nature of men very well.”

I blinked.  “You mean you seduced him?”

“You think it impossible?”

I was rapidly re-assessing my young guest’s abilities.  “No, I see how you could do it.  But why?  Totally aside from the legal violations, why in the world would you be attracted to him?”

Her plekti squirmed, partially obscuring her face.  “Many lamia join the Exchange Program hoping to find husbands for our villages.  And wealth and power are attractive traits.  I don’t believe that is unique to lamia.”

“Point taken.  But seriously, you can’t have thought that he would leave his wife for you.”

“I would have been perfectly willing to share him.”

“I guarantee that she wouldn’t.”

She half-shrugged.  “Humans are strangely possessive about their mates.”

“Very much so, especially in political marriages.  She might not love the guy but she damn sure wants to hang on to his wealth and power.  Which wouldn’t last very long if word got out that he’d been frolicking with lamia girls.  His constituency is very religious.  And liminals don’t appear in their Bibles.”

“So he mentioned,” she said.  “Afterwards.”

I leaned back on the couch.  “Well, things make a bit more sense now.  McCallister might be able to call in a favor, and it’s certainly a secret he’d want to keep.  Seems like overkill, though.  If rumors came out in the press he’d just deny everything, accuse the liberal media, and portray himself as a victim of some weird conspiracy.  His voters would eat it up.”

I smiled over at my guest.  “In any case, that’s my story about Madiyan the medusa.  And now I know who you actually are.”

If my cleverness had impressed her, she didn’t show it.  “Some of that’s true.  You’re wrong about the important parts.  But I’m sure you’d been told much of it before I arrived.  Hadn’t you…Mr. […]?”

The name she called me wasn’t “Temple”.

Years ago – let’s call it a working vacation – I did some night swimming off Les Andalouses.  I hadn’t had enough drinks to enjoy the beach festivities, and needed to get away from noise and nonsense for a while.  It felt fine to push through the warm water, working my muscles and feeling clean and strong and bold, out under the stars.  Right up until a heavy splash reminded me that big, invisible things were moving in the darkness beneath me, and I was a long way from shore.  The water didn’t feel so warm anymore.

Madiyan’s question had been a splash of cold water and I realized that I had gotten dangerously chatty with an exotic young woman.  I’d been out of the field for years, and isolated for too many months, and I’d dropped my guard.  It happens but it can be a lethal mistake in my business.  I needed to tighten up in a hurry and figure out what dark waters I was swimming in.  And with whom.

All I said was, “That’s not my name.”

“I think it was, though.” Her inhuman eyes were focused on mine.  “Because I remember reading news reports, from a few years ago, about a man in Brussels being arrested for shooting two men during a street fight.  Except he wasn’t actually Belgian.  He turned out to be an American, in the country illegally, pretending to be a Belgian businessman.  Of course having a gun was illegal, too.  There was a public uproar.”  She kept watching my reactions.  “Then the American government got involved.  Apparently ‘Mr. […]’ worked for them.  Or rather, was employed by a private security firm that was contracted to the government.  Brussels denied knowing anything about him, and Washington specifically denied that the CIA was involved in any way.

“I found the story fascinating.  Washington wanted the man transferred to their embassy.  The Belgian press was raging about American spies and the Justice Minister was insistent that the prisoner be tried for murder.  Other NATO countries were starting to express opinions.  And then…”  She shrugged.  “He disappeared from jail.  A few weeks later the American president rather indiscreetly mentioned that he was back in America.  Diplomatic complaints were exchanged, and then the scandal just faded away.  A few European journalists tried to find out who or where ‘Mr. […]’ was, but it was like he’d never existed.  Or…had been hidden away someplace to be forgotten.”

I shook my head.  “Why is someone your age, from an entirely different country, even paying attention to these things?”

“I’m a student of American politics, remember?  I had just started seriously following international news when this scandal developed.  I could hardly avoid reading about it.”

“And you thought of this just because I mentioned a Belgian coffee shop?”

“I don’t think I’ve heard anything interesting about Belgium since then,” she admitted.  “So.  Are you the murderous ‘Mr. […]’?”

“No.  And I can’t confirm or deny anything you’ve read in the press.”

She nodded, as if I’d answered in the affirmative.  “How many men have you killed?”

I didn’t quite crush my coffee mug, but I did growl.  “That’s a hell of a question,”

“More than two then,” she said, eyes widening.  “Quite the professional.”

It took a moment for my shoulders to unclench.  “Miss Madiyan.  I don’t much care who you think I am.  But I never killed anyone who wasn’t trying to kill me, or the soldier next to me.”  That much was true.  “I had nothing to do with bringing you here, and I’m sorry if you’re angry about it.  You’re leaving in the morning, and you never have to think about me again.  But in the meantime, you’re being rude.”  I didn’t sound very pleasant myself.  “If you think I’m some dangerous operator, why are you trying so hard to piss me off?”

Madiyan held my gaze for a long moment, then looked away. “I don’t believe it will change your orders.”

“Orders?  What orders?  I was told to keep you company until tomorrow morning.  Which hasn’t been as much fun as you might think.”  I stood up and stretched.  “I’ve had no sleep and I need more coffee.  Hand me your cup and I’ll refill it.”

“I…shouldn’t.”

“You’ve had nothing else today and you need the hydration.  The caffeine won’t hurt you, there’s not…”

The rusty gears in my head clicked another notch.  Maybe the anger was loosening them up.

“I’ll be damned.  You’re pregnant.”

Madiyan stared at me.  “Why are you pretending you didn’t know that, Mr. Temple?”

“What?  Nobody told me anything.  But…”

Click.

“…now the secrecy actually makes sense, your being sent up here, the Company getting involved.  This would be a political earthquake.” I shook my head.  “You’re carrying proof that the most anti-Interspecies Exchange politician in the United States – maybe in the world – violated the treaty and had sex…no, cheated on his wife, with a liminal woman.  And it won’t matter how much he denies it.  You’ve got his DNA.”

Click.

“Once that baby is born, you’ll own a U.S. senator.”

She almost smiled.  “Correction, Mr. Temple:  my nation will own a U.S. senator.”

Click, click, click.

“This wasn’t an accident, was it?  You planned the whole thing.  You weren’t trying to catch him as a husband for your village.  You’re a damned honey trap!”

“I don’t know what a ‘honey trap’ is, although I can guess from the context.  But yes, this was a way to protect the Interspecies Exchange Act while my people integrate with the human world.  Before we die out completely.”  She turned back to the fire.  “Aren’t you clever.”

I didn’t feel clever.  I’d just stumbled into a covert influence operation by a foreign national targeting the U.S. government.  Plus a cover-up orchestrated by a U.S. Senator to conceal his own criminal involvement.  All of which Madiyan had assumed I already knew about.

A swirl of the old cloak-and-dagger adrenaline rushed through my head, along with a bunch of thoughts about loyalties…

Click,

…including how a certain Senator might display his gratitude if an unfortunate accident happened while this girl was vanished away here in the cold mountains, completely isolated, alone with me…

…and CLICK.

Well, damn.

“No wonder you’re afraid of me.  You think I was assigned to murder you.”

Madiyan kept staring into the fire.

“Maddie.”  I very gently reached for her hand.  “You’re safe up here with me.  I don’t have any orders to hurt you, and I wouldn’t do it if I did.  That’s not how the Company does business, anyway.”  Well, usually.  “Albright will take you to the plane in the morning, and you’ll be on your way back home.”

She didn’t pull away.  Her hand finally felt healthy, almost warm.

“No wonder you didn’t sleep last night.”

She slowly turned to face me.  “You’ve been kind to me, Mr. Temple, but that doesn’t mean anything.”  Firelight flickered in her eyes.  “But logically, you could have killed me yesterday, while I was weak.  Or drugged me with food.  Or…just not built a fire.”

I kept holding her hand, because she let me.  “I’m not going to hurt you.  Nothing’s going to hurt you while you’re here.  I promise.”

“I…believe you.  To a point,” she said.

“Good.  Besides, you could probably beat me in a fight.”

She straightened to match my height.  “I’m sure I could, if you attacked me empty-handed.  If you had a gun, though…”

“Well, there’s no guns here, and I’m too tired to attack you. Probably should let you go to bed, though. You’ve got an early morning tomorrow.” I let go of her hand and stood up. “Are you still comfortable with the couch?”

She nodded.  “It’s warm here.”

“Then good night, Miss Madiyan.  Sleep well.”

“Good night, Mr. Temple.”

I took myself off to bed.

To be continued…

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