June 3rd, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Carlotta
“I told you, everyone wants to be a hero.”
There was the metal snap of a bolt turning, and then the door opened. The one who pushed it open was still looking back at the manager from the front desk, who wore a smile so desperately; Jill could see the grimace right through it. The manager nodded quickly and backed away, the ring of motel master keys clattering, his eyes darting to the end of the gun in the Slight Twice King’s hand.
In the other hand, the Slight Twice King still held his smartphone.
He was occupied talking at it.
“And everyone wants a hero,” he went on. “I told you there was nothing to worry about. People boast, but they’re really just a bunch of pansies. They’re all scared, so they talk. It’s all loneliness. They just talk and talk, like yelling fire in a public building, then standing around arguing about the sprinklers. Talking and not acting. Can you tell me why everyone is so lonely? So lonely, ‘cause I don’t know why they get like that. I’m not lonely. I have people around me all the time….”
Jill stood at the window, clutching the heavy curtain in one hand, her eyes wide. She glanced left at Pastor, unconscious on the bed. She glanced at the phone book, still open, and Fred’s pack with his ax still strapped to the back of it, just out of sight. The hatchet was missing. She tried to think.
The Slight Twice King tapped the door and it fell shut. He stepped further into the room. He glanced at the mirror over the dresser, then back at the open closet where coats hung. He even eyed Pastor’s discarded outer clothes on the floor. He smiled a frog’s smile. It was the mischievous, impish kind of smile some grandfather might wear at a joke, but nothing was funny.
Jill wondered if she could reach the ax. She looked at the gun. She still didn’t know how to tell when a safety was on or off. That didn’t matter, another part of her argued. No gun would be best, and any gun was worst. Forget the spectrum in between.
Oh good, the practical bits in her mind were still working, she thought dizzily. Maybe they’d keep her alive again.
He held the face of his phone to his lapel and let that smile stretch out of amphibian and into the realm of the lizard. “On vacation?” he asked. He put the barrel of the gun to his lips for just a second, as if telling her to hush. “I won’t tell if you don’t.” Then he wheezed a laugh and pushed his phone into a pocket.
He lowered the gun and she dared to breathe, until he looked over at Pastor and cocked his head.
She stared at the bed like it suddenly held a stranger but, no, she couldn’t act like that. That was pure fear. It had to make sense.
“We’re on a trip,” she said quickly. “For the summer.”
He looked about, swaying as he rolled his eyes first here, then there. “Sketchy.”
“It’s only affordable,” she explained. She didn’t look at Fred’s pack again, didn’t dare draw attention to illogical iron or extra luggage in the room. “I’m surprised you can stand it.”
“I’m very adaptable,” he said. “That’s what people say about me, very adaptable, a fish outta water that grew legs, that’s my way every time.” He looked in the mirror again. “What is this, glass?”
She frowned because the question made no sense within the universe he was weaving. There was usually more repetition than that.
“I… don’t know,” she said honestly.
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I don’t know why it would, but it’s been some time. How are you? How’s your lovely family? Your brothers, did they pass with flying colors? And your sister, is she back for break?”
Jill floundered. A glance out the window gave her an out. “Why is it dark?”
“It’s generally dark this time of day,” he said, in his pendulum way of talking. “I mean, not always. The sun and the moon, they move around and stuff like that, but it’s dark now, so obviously it’s dark some of the time.”
She fought the urge to shake her head. Catching everything he said was like trying to follow a card trick from a carousel. She hadn’t wanted this. She’d wanted to get away. She hadn’t thought he’d follow. She’d hoped he wouldn’t even bother coming back…
“Like just the other day, it was sunny, so sunny, I was wondering what was up with the sun. Next thing you know, it rains…”
Jill glanced at Pastor again. He hadn’t moved.
“You’ve come all the way out here,” she said slowly. “Are you looking for something?”
“Some help, just some help.” He took a step backward and looked around the motel room. There was an appraising look about him. He dug one hand into his trouser pocket. “You don’t want to be a hero, do you?”
It was like the breath in her lungs had turned to ice; she couldn’t exhale. The question was so on point and yet so offhand. She couldn’t make heads or tails of it. She thought of Rose then, and her eyes went back to Pastor. She wanted to shudder, then reminded herself you couldn’t look afraid. You couldn’t know there was a mask, not where they could see you. If you let them be frightening, they’d enjoy it more than the game…
She tuned into his aura again. He was… smug. And what else?
He asked, “Well, do you? A hero? Is that what you want?”
Jill let herself feel confused. It was the most honest emotion. “I’m not good at that kind of thing,” she admitted.
“You don’t have a destiny? A gift? Something no one else has?”
She shook her head. “I’m normal.”
“Ah, you’re too hard on yourself.”
“Really, I’m not a hero,” she insisted.
The stolen paternal smile again. “They’re all waiting for one,” he said quietly. He glanced at the mirror again with that odd look of uncertainty, like his own reflection was someone else. He took another step backwards, but his aura still filled all the corners of the room. “They all know the pattern. It’s like two sides of the same coin.”
Again, she thought of Rose. Why was she thinking of Rose? Why not? But why?
“Except there are many types of coins aren’t there? Some don’t even have tails or heads…”
“Who’s waiting?” she asked.
He glanced back at footsteps in the hallway. Jill felt her eyes move without her permission to the door, then to Pastor. The King shrugged off the sound as it passed.
“Everyone,” he said. “Isn’t it perfect?”
“I wish I understood what you mean,” she said.
“You will, oh, you will,” he said with a twitching little nod. “It’ll be obvious. See you and me, we see eye to eye. I can tell. It’s why I’m here.”
This was going to be more than she could take, Jill thought. She was nothing like a King of the Fair Folk—West, East or whatever the direction. She was mortal and human, and he still held that gun.
She didn’t have to answer. There were footsteps again, and they distracted him. He turned. She thought of the ax, but just as quickly he’d turned back. That white grin of perfect incisors was suddenly beaming at her.
“Well,” he said. Then suddenly what she feared happened and he’d grabbed her arm. He’d crossed the room in less than an instant. “Let’s give them a show, shall we, love?”
When the door banged open, she was suddenly pulled around against his chest, pinned by his arm. The cold, final metal of a gun barrel was at her temple.
“Hello, Rosalinda Thorne!” he declared.
Jill stared. Rose stared back, her eyes wide, her mouth dropped in sudden horror. She clutched one hand around what must have been the silver coin. Jill wondered if she’d seen the long black cars. She must have run all the way up the stairs, but why had they let her? And where was Fred?
Jill hated herself for that last thought.
“Rosalinda Thorne,” the Slight Twice King repeated. “You know, with a name like that, I expected something far more impressive.”
“Please don’t shoot her,” said Rose.
“What makes you think I’m going to shoot her?” asked the King. “Did I say I was going to shoot her? I think what I said was your name. So why would you think that I would shoot her when I know your name? Have you done something wrong, Ms. Thorne? Do you think you should be punished? What are you hiding?”
Rose was breathing hard. She didn’t look at Pastor again. Instead, she looked at Jill and shook her head.
“Rose,” Jill whimpered. Dammit, dammit, dammit! Was this all Jill was good for after all? Was that what he’d meant? At least, if there had been a chance to stay alive—but at least her parents, her siblings, they’d be left alone, wouldn’t they? Maybe he’d forget about them, maybe…
Rose was doing something strange. She was staring, yes, and looking flustered, and yet something in her face was odd somehow, like her eyes weren’t following the show. And she kept twitching the fingers on her open hand. First one, then another, strange little motions and then, incongruous to the conversation at hand, a nod.
Jill pushed away and the King turned the gun on the door without complaint. Rose was on the ground before the first shot fired across the walkway, and then Fred was there, the small hatchet now raised, now loosed, his long arm stretched out, the iron head whirling end over end over end, then into the far wall, splintering plaster and plywood. The King laughed as he tottered into the dresser to dodge it. He clapped his hands mildly around the gun as he settled.
“Now there’s a hero,” he said. He pointed one thick finger at Fred. “There’s just what they’re looking for. It’s so easy to find.”
Jill lay on the floor, listening for the pounding feet that meant soldiers were on their way up, to catch and execute anyone who’d attack the King—
The air went still.
Jill noticed no footsteps were coming.
Then she looked up and noticed Pastor.
At least, it couldn’t have been anyone else.