OK, for those of you who were curious about what I was doing with the SASS (Stupid-Ass Serial Story), here’s the next installment. It’s not as polished as I’d like it to be, and parts of it are infodumpy, but man, I’m sick to death of looking at it and I know that if I don’t post it now, I’ll spend weeks tweaking a word here and a word there instead of moving on with the story.
So be warned. It’s pretty rough reading. I’ll probably head back and re-write parts of it in the future, and I’ll let you know if I change anything substantial instead of just nitpicky wordchoice crap.
The usual disclaimery stuff:
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.
2. No research was done for the writing of this chapter. I’m lazy, yo.
3. Story not guaranteed to be readable. No professional editor has looked at it. For this particular section, not even friends looked at it.
Chapter 2, Part 2
Jennifer didn’t feel much better after talking to Ramzi the Flea.
She considered herself a hard-headed empiricist, a skeptic. What Ramzi had told her opened up a new world, one she was certain couldn’t be real. Demons, gods, angels, spirits. Invisible beings who inhabited worlds nobody could imagine, who remained unseen until they chose to reveal themselves.
Ramzi wasn’t lying. If nothing else, he’d believed, heart and soul, in what he’d said. She had an uncanny knack of picking up on when people were being less than truthful. It was one of the many reasons why she was one of the best agents in the best mercenary operation in the Republic of Texas.
Maybe the wrinkled old bastard had finally gone crazy from all the dust, sand and plastic fumes he’d inhaled over the years. She hoped so. But either way, she now had several unanticipated variables to deal with. She hated unanticipated variables. Almost as much as she hated camels.
As Jennifer neared Nadia’s establishment, she could feel the nausea that had plagued her on and off all day rush back, creeping up her belly and into the back of her throat. The nanobots were letting her know they were unhappy with her. The Agency had injected the critters in her ten years ago, right before an operation in Moscow that had taken place in the middle of January. Thanks to the microscopic fuckers, it was now impossible for her to get an infection, frostbite or hypothermia.
An unanticipated side-effect was how poorly the nanobots reacted when it got hotter than 95 degrees. Nausea was the primary symptom. Jennifer had learned to deal with it. Throw up, drink some fluids, and move onâ€”preferably to a place with air conditioning.
Nadia’s upscale brothel was in sight. Jennifer gave an inner sigh of relief. When she reached the steps, the bull-necked bouncer with the headset nodded at her and held the heavily gilded door open.
Sweet, blessed air conditioning. Few people in Cairo could afford it nowadays, but Nadia could. Jennifer’s nausea abated as the doors closed behind her, though an ominous pressure remained.
There was some public humiliation being conducted in the foyer. A naked man with a black bag over his head was tied in a kneeling position to a whipping post set on a small platform. Justine, a busty, sloe-eyed Frenchwoman, the most expensive of Nadia’s stunningly expensive whores, caned his buttocks, back and legs with a switch as thick around as her thumb. The man’s enormous erection rose from a thicket of graying pubic hair, deep red and aggressive-looking, bobbing with each blow. His moans were almost drowned out by the jeers and laughter of the small crowd gathered around to watch.
Jennifer threaded her way through the people. She braced herself to be grabbed or at least propositioned, but although several customers gave her lingering, appreciative looks, nobody made any attempts to touch her or approach her. The bodyguards scattered along the walls and in the stairwells, the ones who made football linebackers look like underfed puppies, no doubt presented a strong incentive for good behavior.
When she reached the stairs beyond the foyer, she took off the veil and inhaled deeply. She hated wearing them. No matter how thin they were, they made her feel as if she were suffocating. Her nausea eased another notch, though it still wasn’t entirely gone. She took the steps three at a time, impatient to get to her room and not particularly caring if her long strides exposed her ass. It was barely covered by the miserable excuse for a skirt anyway.
Her room was a small but lavishly appointed chamber in the east wing of the building. Deep purple velvet and satin dominated the dÃ©cor, and the bed was a four-poster baroque monstrosity smothered in curlicues and pillows. One of the walls consisted of a giant mirror, but saints be praised, there was no mirror on the ceiling.
She was glad she hadn’t been assigned one of the leather-themed rooms. Those tended to be even more over-the-top.
She locked the door behind her, reached into a hidden pouch in her holster and pulled out a silver cube only slightly bigger than the top joint of her thumb. She pressed her right thumb against one of the surfaces until she heard an almost inaudible beep, then slid her nail against a hidden catch. The agent who had trained her on its proper use had shown her the scars; he’d learned the hard way what the consequences were when somebody tried to release the catch without allowing it to verify the thumbprint first. She unfolded the cube until it revealed itself as a cell phone, no more than an eighth of an inch thick. She tapped in the necessary code to turn the power on, then keyed in a long, complicated sequence of numbers to access the secure line. Receiving confirmation on the screen that she was patched in, she held the phone to her ear and said “Father.”
There was a brief silence, then Jennifer heard the phone dialing the number at headquarters. Mr. Williams picked up almost immediately.
“Well?” he barked. “What’d you find out?”
“Karkossian has made his way to Karnak along with the book, sir.”
“Karnak? Why the hell Karnak? There’s nothing there other than that bombed-out casino that used to be a temple.”
Jennifer cleared her throat. She didn’t feel stymied very often, but then, it wasn’t every day that she discovered what she thought was a run-of-the-millâ€”albeit insanely valuableâ€”historical artifact was the repository of all evil. Today was just her lucky day.
“Well, sir, from what I’ve been able to ascertain, it seems that Karkossian has suffered what seems to be a psychotic break with reality, and is attempting to use the book to summon gods. He has headed to Karnak in search of a key that will allegedly help unlock parts of the book that he is unable to access right now.”
Silence and a slight crackle of static.
Then, “Karkossian wants to use the book to summon God.”
“No, sir. Gods, plural.” At that point, Jennifer had to stop and pinch the bridge of her nose. Saying all this out loud was making her cringe. “According to my sources, the book is rumored to have the ability to summon supernatural deities who were captured and trapped during the eleventh century. Karkossian seems to be convinced this is true, and according to my source, he’s determined to release these deities.”
More silence. Jennifer could almost feel waves of consternation and disbelief emanating from Mr. Williams’ lanky frame, thousands of miles away.
“I’m going to get confirmation from a couple of other sources,” she said, to fill the dead air. “But two things are very, very clear right now: Karkossian is insane, and he’s in Karnak.”
Another silence, this one mercifully brief, then “Anyone with Karkossian?”
“From what I’ve been able to ascertain, nobody other than some local thugs, sir. But I’ll spend the next couple of days gathering more information in Cairo and the surrounding area. I have a few of leads I need to check up on.” She didn’t mention that the leads were witch doctors, and one was a demon hunter.
A fucking demon hunter.
“Good. I want you in Karnak as soon as possible. Our client is extremely anxious regain his artifact.”
“I understand, sir. You have my guarantee that this mission will be completed as soon as possible.”
“I have every faith in you. Oh, and Jennifer?”
“I take it you’re at the safe house in the Prostitutes’ Quarter right now?”
Jennifer didn’t like questions with obvious answers, and she liked the sudden change of tone in Mr. Williams’ voice even less. The deliberate casualness meant she was going to get bit in the butt, and not in a fun way.
“Good. Stay there for the duration. Our house in Old Town was compromised early this morning.”
Compromised. Jennifer was a bit surprised at how unsurprised she felt. “Who did it, sir?”
“Bomb residues tested positive for corn DNA, so this looks like a Vegan job. Or it might be one of Karkossian’s agents using Vegan plastique to help throw the scent off. We’ll know more tomorrow. We have agents on the ground right now investigating it. There’s backup at hand should things become more… complicated. Don’t worry about it now, though. Your job is to take care of Karkossian and get that book back. We’ll handle everything else.”
“I expect a detailed report tonight.”
Mr. Williams hung up. Jennifer turned the power off, folded the phone back into its original shape and slipped it into her holster.
She felt tired. No, more than tiredâ€”she felt like she’d gone through a few rounds with the world heavyweight champion. She pinched the bridge of her nose again, then rubbed it. She turned around and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She stopped in shock, and looked closer.
She looked like hell. The bits of her close-cropped hair that weren’t plastered against her skull with sweat were sticking up in cowlicks, and her eyes were huge, wild-looking. She tried to smile, but stopped because it transformed her face from sallow and drawn to something children and dogs wouldâ€”shouldâ€”run away from.
She turned away from the mirror, disturbed by what it showed her, and walked to one of the paintings in the room, a convincing replica of a Degas ballerina. She paused at arm’s length and pressed her right thumb lightly against the tip of the dancer’s left shoe. A thin beam of light appeared from the depths of the ruffled skirt and scanned her right eye. After a few seconds, there was a soft click and whirr, and the whole thing swung open on silent hinges, revealing the titanium alloy plates that backed the painting and a recessed space within the walls.
The safe was filled with her laptop and assorted useful things, including a few handy gadgets that had been outlawed by the 2068 revisions to the Geneva Conventions. She grabbed her laptop, swung the safe door shut and made her way to the bed.
Just as she settled into a comfortable position and connected to the network via satellite, she realized that the inevitable had finally caught up with her.
She made it to the bathroom just in time. She gagged, then choked; her body seized up and turned inside-out. The acrid taste of bile and partially-digested food brought involuntary tears to her eyes.
She was surprised there wasn’t any blood when she looked down; fuck knows it had hurt badly enough. She flushed but didn’t have enough energy to get back on her feet, so she chose to stare into the swirl of water instead. She silently counted the number of Egyptian missions she’d completed for the agency in the eleven years she had been on its official rolls.
Twelve missions. Twelve blood-soaked, sweat-drenched, nausea-filled missions, with her ass constantly getting nipped at by the goddamn camels in the goddamn cities. The missions in the more remote areas weren’t much better. She did more mental tallying. Two narrow escapes from pissed-off hippopotamuses, another even more narrow escape from a pissed-off leopard, one capsized boat in crocodile-infested waters, and countless run-ins with assorted criminals and vermin who thought a woman traveling alone would be easy prey.
Twelve missions in eleven years. She suspected that the agency deliberately chose her, not only because of her fluency in the regional dialects and her connections to Ramzi and the Prostitutes’ Quarter, but to test her mental and emotional resiliency. The agency excelled at breaking people down so they could build them back up again. They did it as often as they had to, until they had molded the agents just the way they wanted them.
Jennifer wasn’t quite sure which stage they were at with her. She’d lost track.
All she knew was, this particular mission was pushing her closer to the breaking point than any other she could remember.
She was still too tired to move, so she leaned her forehead against the seat, the cold plastic a shock, then a balm on her aching head, and thought about her earlier encounter with Ramzi.
He inspired nothing in her other than mild contempt. She’d made peace with that particular demon years ago. She kept waiting for him to remember, for something about herâ€”her voice, maybe, or a mannerismâ€”to trigger some sort of recognition in him. But nothing ever did. She didn’t know why she expected the old sumbitch to recognize her. The last time he saw her that he knew of, she’d been a tow-headed, chubby eight-year-old. She had grown and stretched beyond all recognition now, her hair a dark reddish-brown. She didn’t even bother speaking Arabic with him.
For some reason, it made her feel as if she were exerting a form of power over him, forcing him to speak English with her.
She sat up with a slight grunt, and forced herself to admit what she’d tried to avoid thinking ever since this mission had started: lodging at a whorehouse resurrected memories she’d much rather leave buried. Unfortunately, with the other safe house blown to shit, the only place in Cairo she could be reasonably sure was secure was a brothel.
The irony was more than a little bitter.
Then, there was Karkossian. She knew she’d have to kill him this time. She couldn’t afford to let him go.
Knowing she had to kill the first and only man she’d ever been in love with put her in a real shitty mood.
Jennifer touched her stomach, running her fingers over it gently, as if it were a safe she was about to crack, and leaned over the toilet experimentally. Nothing. She felt a bit shaky, but it seemed as if the nanobots were back in charity with her. She got to her feet, knees popping, feeling old for the first time in her life.
She had a report to send. And then she’d allow herself a nap. Just a short one.
She couldn’t stop crying, and Kamilah was getting angry with her. It didn’t help that Kamilah herself was on the verge of tears, too, though she was trying to hide it.
“Look at you, crying like a little baby! Stop it! Do you want people to think you’re a baby who cries for no reason? You’re a big girl. Stop crying. Stop. Stop it. You don’t want to look ugly for the uncles.”
At the mention of the uncles, she howled even harder.
“If you don’t stop crying, I’ll have to give you that medicine again,” Kamilah said.
That threat finally stopped her wailing, although her breath still hitched and hiccupped. Tears streamed down her face, hot and slippery, and she didn’t know how to make them stop.
Two nights ago, one of the uncles had sat her on his lap and rubbed her all over her back, and then all over her front, and then the smelly place down there. It was more than any other uncle had tried to do. She’d been frozen by an odd sort of fear, fists clenched against her sides, remembering Ramzi’s threats of a beating if she didn’t allow the uncles to do whatever they wanted.
When the uncle finally left, she’d started crying, though she didn’t know why. She couldn’t stop, and when Ramzi tried to take her to show her to another uncle, she had fought against his grip, thrashing and clawing at him.
He had wrestled her to the ground, sitting on her chest while Kamilah, face tight with anger and some other unidentifiable emotion, forced the most foul-tasting medicine down her throat.
The medicine had made her feel strange. She wasn’t sleeping, but everything felt dream-like. She wasn’t able to move very fast, and she wasn’t able to talk at all. She didn’t even care when the uncles touched her. Hours afterwards, she had thrown up, over and over again.
Seeing the uncles was bad, but seeing the uncles after taking the medicine was worse.
Kamilah grabbed a wad of tissues from the never-ending store tucked under her bra strap and briskly scrubbed at the tears. Once Kamilah was done with the face, she held the tissues under her nose. “Blow your nose,” Kamilah said, voice abrupt but not angry.
She dutifully blew into the wad of damp paper. Her tears finally slowed, then trickled to a stop. She wasn’t sure she would ever be able to cry again.
“This is the last uncle you will have to see,” Kamilah said.
“For tonight?” she asked dully.
“No. This is the last uncle. After this one, Ramzi will decide which House to send you to.”
“Oh.” She didn’t know what to say. A rock gathered and settled in her stomach, but the sensation was distant, almost as if Kamilah had given her more of the medicine.
A few minutes later, she was led into Ramzi’s back office. Towers of boxes loomed over her, and she wished she could step behind one of the stacks, close her eyes and turn invisibleâ€”or, better yet, disappear completely.
The last uncle leaned back on Ramzi’s worn leather chair, one leg crossed over the other. He was a tall, handsome Ingleezi man, with grey hair streaking his temples. He was dressed in a dark suit and a buttoned-up shirt, despite the heat. A gold watch gleamed on his wrist, and he wore black leather shoes so shiny, she could see a distorted reflection of her face in them.
She stopped a distance away from him, reluctant to get any closer. He didn’t seem to care; he simply sat there and stared at her for the longest time.
“Come,” he finally said in Arabic, and she jumped at the sudden sound. He gestured with his hand. She walked up to him as slowly as she could, counting off the steps in her head. He didn’t seem angry at her deliberate delay; if anything, he looked amused.
When she was by his side, he sat up, uncrossed his legs and leaned forward. He reached out and touched her face, gently stroking her cheeks.
“Have you been crying?” he asked.
“Are you going to start crying again?”
“No,” she whispered.
He smiled. “Too bad.”
The rock in her stomach grew, but she felt confused. She thought crying was a bad thing. Only babies and crazy people cried for no reason like she’d been doing.
The man gave her a lot of the same instructions the other uncles had given her, asking her to turn around, raise her arms, bend over, lift her skirt. Then the dreaded words came:
“Come, sit on my lap.”
Her fists clenched, her body stiffened, but she climbed onto his lap and sat there, trying to imagine she was one of those wooden dummies she’d seen on television. She was a block of wood. She could feel nothing.
He didn’t hurt her. Not yet. He petted her hair, stroked her shoulders and back, ran his hand up and down her arms. She held still, biting her lip.
A block of wood, a block of wood, a block of wood…
His hands reached her legs, fondling her ankles and calves. They moved higher with each stroke. When he reached the smelly place between her thighs, she started trembling, and couldn’t stop. He noticed it, and wound one of his arms around her middle and yanked her close to him. The rock in her stomach grew, and grew. He was petting all around the outside of the smelly place, and it was awful; if he didn’t stop soon, she was going to scream and then puke all over his shiny black shoes.
He took his hand away, and she breathed a silent sigh of relief. From the corner of her eye, she saw him put a finger, in his mouth and suck on it, the one he’d been stroking her with, and she wrinkled her nose in startled disgust. Then, before she quite knew what was happening, he had reached under her skirt, pulled her panties off and shoved the finger inside her.
The invasion was startling; the pain, even more so. She screamed and pushed against the arm holding her down, but he was bigger than her, stronger than her; the arm didn’t give way. And as she squirmed and fought, she moved down just as the hand between her legs moved up. It impaled her against his finger even harder.
The burst of pain was electric. She bellowed. Something deep within her mind snapped, almost like a restraint she had never known was there. She flailed, then grabbed the arm that was wrapped around her middle, grabbed on to it tight and flexed as hard as she could, and felt something within her flex as well. His arm broke with a sharp crack, as easily as a dry stick of wood, and now it was his turn to scream.
She scrambled off his lap and threw him on the floor; he weighed no more than a doll. He lay there, nursing his broken arm, eyes streaming with the pain. His mouth formed words she couldn’t hear above the roaring in her ears and she launched herself at him, going for the throat, tearing at gristle and flesh, and then she realized she was screaming unintelligible words in a guttural language she didn’t know.
Blood rained down on the both of them in the storage room.
Jennifer opened her eyes. She was breathing hard. Her arms and hands throbbed. Something tickled her nose, and she sneezed. She looked down.
She’d torn apart one of the pillows on her bed, her fingers still curled in claws and digging into the filling.
Another nightmare, another dead pillow. She was a menace to bedding everywhere.
She unkinked her fingers, flexing them and wincing a little at the ache. She pushed the tattered velvet and goosedown off her, then sat up, head feeling thick, the knot of unshed tears and trapped screams a hard weight in her throat.
The dream was an old one. The man changed from time to time. Sometimes it was one of the pimps, other times it was the man who had bought her at the House of Budding Flowers. No matter how they started out, they always ended the same way: with her tearing the man’s throat out and screaming words in an ugly, unknown language.
As far as she could remember, none of the pimps had stuck anything in her while checking her over. That would’ve damaged the goods, so to speak. Most of them had limited their touching to quick, almost impersonal examinations, like a woman examining a dubious leg of lamb at the market.
She thought of how one of the pimps had grabbed her arm, pinched at it and made disapproving noises about how plump she was. It didn’t occur to her until years later that he was haggling with Ramzi, which amused her. So much for the fatted calf.
Her memories of what had happened at the House of Budding Flowers were chaotic at best, and always had been. Only discrete snapshots and sensations were left, but there was no continuity to the pictures. It was as if somebody had taken a box of photographs, discarded half of the pile and then jumbled the rest up hopelessly. She remembered the smell of his breath, rank with alcohol and cigar smoke. She remembered what it had felt like for him to lick at her neck. She didn’t remember everything he did to her. She didn’t remember what his hands felt like.
She would never, as long as she lived, forget his face, his blunt, even features. She remembered how unexpectedly kind his smile had been, not at all sinister, which had given her hope at first. She learned fast enough what lay behind that gentle smile. Eventually, she’d passed out from the pain.
When she woke up, he was a naked, torn heap, blood streaking the walls and pooling on the floor. Mr. Williams stood over the body, dressed entirely in black, stocking mask drawn back from his long, lean face and a smoking gun in his hands.
He’d looked at her for the longest time, cool grey eyes assessing her, and she’d stared right back, feeling blank, resigned. After a few minutes, he’d wrapped her in a blanket, picked her up and carried her out the window with him. A guard along the wall had noticed the strange man and his unusual burden, but Mr. Williams had dispatched him with quiet efficiency.
He hadn’t said a single word through the whole ordeal. She wouldn’t have been able to talk back, anyway. All the screaming had broken her voice, and for days afterwards, she was unable to speak above a hoarse squeak.
Jennifer rubbed her eyes and kicked herself free of the covers. She glanced at the clock and did a double-take. She’d slept for almost twelve hours.
She never slept for that long. And now she was running late.
She hopped out of bed and padded to the bathroom. As she washed her face, she stopped again and stared at her reflection. Really, she looked awful. Her pale skin looked almost green under the lights, and her face…something was odd about her face.
She squinted and leaned closer to the mirror, trying to figure out what exactly was wrong.
Her reflection smiled at her, mouth filled with needle-like teeth.
She recoiled and stepped back, but too late. Her reflection reached out, grabbed her wrist in a crushing grip, and pulled.