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Another Start



Another Start Hello. H-hello? Hello! Hi… Hello!!! Okay… who are you? An endlessly riveting dilemma. Who are you? Um, I’m Doug. That’s not what I meant. I— I know who you are. But do you? I think I’ve spent enough time in my head to know that. You think a lot of things. What does that even mean? Why do you keep clinging so desperately? Okay, I don’t know who you are or what you want, but just leave me alone, alri— Your pain. Why do you hold it so close? Doesn’t it hurt you? Oh, I see what this is. More hallucinations, right? What are you, some kind of spooky nightmare shrink? I’m a lot of things. But I don’t really matter. It’s you who fascinates me. So tell me, Douglas Bailey: why do you hang onto your pain? And why the fuck would I tell you that? Because I’ve forgotten. Forgotten what? My pain? No one knows my damage, and no one ever has. I have. Who are you? Not important. Stop smiling, you bastard! Who—? Doug nearly bolted upright in bed, the sheets soaked in sweat, hands gripping the comforter so tightly that the fabric creaked under his nails. He let his head fall back down on the pillow as he tried to catch his breath. A dream, just a dream, nothing more. He’d been having them nearly every night since he’d gone Looney Tunes, but none of them had ever been… quite like that. The body next to him adjusted at his movement, and he clutched her a little tighter for fear she would just disappear. She opened her large eyes and gazed beyond his and into his head. “Bad dreams?” Jilli asked, and he nodded, not able to force anything from his mouth. And then she was gone, just like that. A fragment of what could have been. Jilli was dead, and he was alone. No one had been in this bed with him except his regrets. Wait, he corrected himself, he wasn’t entirely alone. Kei was occupying the other bed in this dingy motel room, rolling over at that very moment. She probably wasn’t plagued by endless nightmares. In fact, she almost looked to be smugly enjoying her peaceful slumber at his expense. It had been a month since she’d sauntered into his hospital room and flipped his world over, for the umpteenth time in the last few months, and he was becoming less and less hopeful that she would uphold her end of their deal. “What?” she asked suddenly, and he realized that he’d been staring through her for the last minute. Doug blinked a few times, trying to knock his head back to the right frequency. His dreams often fucked him up a little. As her face came back into focus he nearly flinched. It was still uncomfortable seeing her wearing the face of a girl he’d last seen dead on the asphalt. But as she explained it, daemons needed to take the bodies of others to achieve a physical form, and dead ones offered no resistance. He finally managed to tear his gaze away and looked over to the badly faded mountain landscape framed on the far wall. “Nothing,” he grunted finally. “Just…” “Getting antsy?” she finished for him. She had a bad habit of doing that, as if his words were too slow for her, like she had places to be. Where those places were, if they even existed, he could only guess. “I figured tracking down Abigail and killing the bitch wouldn’t take this long.” Kei snorted. “Everything takes longer than you think it should. She’s a slippery eel, but you forget who you’ve made a deal with.” “You never seem to let me.” “Hey!” she frowned, throwing a pillow at him. “This isn’t some kind of word of honor thing. As soon as we, heh, sealed the deal, it’s set in stone. We will find her, and when we do, you’ll get to kill her.” Doug sat forward, a thought occurring to him again. “I still don’t understand why you won’t tell me what you want me to help you with once this is all over.” “Because,” she leaned forward as well, shrinking the space between them. “It’s a fun surprise.” “Fun for you maybe,” he huffed to himself. “Luckily,” she continued, “it seems your waiting is over. I have a lead.” Doug’s eyes narrowed. “When did this happen? Who gave it to you?” “Late last night, and none of your business,” she grinned, and kept on talking before he could continue. “She’s hunting for pieces of something called ‘the Truth’ that those little friends of your from the Adelaide’s incident apparently destroyed. My contact knows where one is, and guaranteed that that’s the one she’s gunning for.” “How could this ‘contact’ know for sure?” “He has his methods,” Kei shrugged. She was gloating, she loved the fact that she had all the answers and could lead him along like a dog on a leash. He could see it in her eyes, and he hated it. It made his hands shake even more than they already did. Her grin only broadened as she watched him squirm. “Now if we want to beat her there we’ll have to hurry. So pack your shit and let’s hit the trail.” “Just like that you want me to hop in a car with some strange woman wearing a dead girl’s meatsuit to some unspecified location?” “Yes,” she nodded. “In fact, if you don’t want to break our deal, you will. Quick-like.” Kei bounded towards the bathroom. “We’re leaving in twenty. Be ready.” As the door shut behind her, Doug had to clench his fists to keep them from shaking so hard it hurt. That had gotten a little better at least, the shaking came and went, usually only getting bad when he was angry. One thing, unfortunately, hadn’t changed.

Cocaine shook her head from the corner of the room, as if disapproving of the woman who was now wearing her face. As soon as he looked directly at her, however, she disappeared. They hadn’t talked since that one time that he didn’t like to think about, but they were always there now, just at the edge of his vision. He knew they were hallucinations, but try telling them that. He’d been seeing a lot of things that weren’t there, usually only when he was half-asleep. It scared him more than he wanted to admit. But he hadn’t completely lost touch with reality. Not yet, anyway. And now, if Kei really did have a lead, he could finally put his brain to thinking about something that didn’t make him want to vomit: killing Abigail. Countless visions of how he would do it had swept through his head over the past month. They kept him company when the night was dark and lonely and Conscience wouldn’t stop staring at him. He’d put a gun to her head and pull the trigger and watch her brains splatter against the wall. He’d make it slow, cut her open slowly with a knife and rearrange her insides the way she undoubtedly would have done to him had he stuck around. He’d strap her to an electric chair and see how she liked a taste of her own medicine, and this time, no one would be there to save her. The only thing that remained the same were the words. Every time, he made her say the exact same thing, one more time, those words that echoed over and over again in his mind, like an unfinished melody. “Hey! Yoo-hoo, space case? I know your brain’s eroded but come on, we’re leaving.” Doug blinked a few times, trying to clear his head. With some effort, he forced himself to stand, and grabbed the backpack which contained his few remaining belongings. Despite the heat of the day he felt a chill. Conscience was breathing on the back of his neck. ~~ o ~~ Hmm… Fascinating. Uh, hello? His name is Niko Borozov, son of Mikhail Borozov, and heir to the family… business. That’s right, and who the hell are you? Not the life I would have chosen. But there’s a certain hint of… nobility to it. Hey, buddy, you know I can hear you, right? He’s afraid. Curious. Of what? His future? His past? Or… ah, of course. Afraid of himself. What the hell is this?

Afraid of failing. Afraid of hubris. Afraid of killing a friend by his incompetence. Again. Alright, that’s it. Come on out here where I can see you, you piece of shit. I’ll show you something to be afraid of! Is it time? No, not yet. The plot is not far enough along. I’m gonna find you, you son of a bitch! And when I do, I— Niko fell out of bed, falling onto the floor with a rather pathetic thump. It took him a solid minute to untangle himself from the sheets, and glance blearily up at the alarm clock on the table. 8:30. His meeting was in an hour. Time to get up. Bleh, he shook his head, trying to clear the post nightmare numbness that had settled behind his eyes. That was what it had been. Wow, he hadn’t had a true nightmare in a long time; at least, if you didn’t count the delirium from his time in the hospital. Slowly, he got to his feet, flopped the comforter back onto the bed, and went over to open the curtain. Ah yes, the crème de la crème of alley views. The worn brick wall of the next building over stared him smack in the face. Lovely. But this apartment wasn’t so bad. It was pretty central to the neighborhood of his general business, and the nicest one in this particular building. Cowell had given him a special deal on it. Not that he really needed it, his business had blossomed since the Adelaide’s Incident. But it was still savvy to save the money if he could. He’d had to move out of the house on Williams Street. It felt too much like Lila. And this was more convenient anyway. A large part of his clientele felt more at home in an out of the way pub than a nice, suburban neighborhood, and it helped with his image anyway. He needed all the help he could get on that front. Niko was young, which made people underestimate him. And, looking in the mirror as he did now to brush his teeth and gel his hair, even though he looked a little more gaunt now, especially with the eye patch, he still had an undeniable baby face. Sighing, he gave up. He was eighteen. If it hadn’t gone away by now it probably never would. Might as well stick him in a cartoon and call him Baby Face Magoo. Oh well, nothing much he could really do about it. Niko stumbled into the small kitchen and pressed the button on the coffee maker before heading back to his room to get dressed. It was a hot summer day, and for this occasion he didn’t want to be overdressed, so he ditched his usual suit jacket in favor of a simple, white button-down with the sleeves rolled up. Classy, but not overdone. Careful not to spill any—he’d done that one too many times—he downed a cup of crappy, burnt-tasting coffee, and walked out the door. It was showtime. Every morning he had to pass the door that still had a hint of a bloodstain on the carpet around it. The police investigation had closed a long time ago, and of course they found nothing. Cowell had made sure of that. He had no idea what Cowell’s motives had been, since the two of them hadn’t even been acquainted back then. That daemon always seemed to know too much for his own good. Niko didn’t like it, because now he owed him something. He didn’t like to be in debt to people whose motives were a mystery to him. But he glanced back at the bloodstain to remind himself, as he did every morning, to be careful who he trusted. Niko didn’t have Lila to watch his back anymore. He needed to outmaneuver his enemies long before they got to him. He had some powerful friends, of course. Cindy or Marcell, or now maybe even Mike, could be called in for bombast or intimidation if need be. But they weren’t always available—Cindy and Marcell were going to be gone most of the summer, for instance, and Mike was nearly impossible to get ahold of—and he couldn’t count on them to think like a bodyguard. And he’d never have another one of those again. No one could replace Lila. Trooping down the musty stairs, Niko swung a hard left and opened the interior door to the Smiling Goat. It was a good place for meetings. Somewhat classy, but not pretentious. Quiet, out of the way, and the bartender on duty could double as an extra pair of eyes. His clients were not often known for their honesty. The pub was slightly eerie this early in the morning. Too still. Niko’s steps were muffled as he crept over to the bar. Luckily, he only had to wait a minute for something to happen. Hair sticking in every direction, still rubbing sleep from his eyes, Tommy slumped through the dark curtain that led to the back rooms and waved drowsily to Niko. He’d been crashing in said back rooms of the Smiling Goat ever since the Atlanteans had borrowed his wagon. Niko didn’t understand why he didn’t just rent one of the apartments, he was certainly making enough—Niko might have sneaked a peak at the books while Cowell wasn’t looking. Probably it would ruin his whole gypsy vagabond lifestyle. There was another reason, of course—started with ‘C’ and rhymed with ‘bowel’—but it really wasn’t any of Niko’s business what Cindy’s brother did in the dark. If he had known Tommy a little better he may have been able to express his disapproval with this particular character. Cowell was a shady fuck, and Niko didn’t trust him any further than he could throw him. “Morning,” Tommy said, yawning as he reached up to pull his hair back into its usual stubby ponytail. “Heard you got a meeting, huh?” “Yeah, in a few minutes.”

“Damn,” Tommy sighed. “And here I was hoping to sleep in this morning. But, I guess somebody has to keep an eye on you.” “Cowell can’t do it?” Narrowing his eyes, Tommy seemed almost a little worried. “He left this morning, said he’d be back in a day or two. It was really weird though, he kept muttering something about some lady needing his protection. I don’t know. So I’m here.” “Lady, the same one that was in here last night?” “Nah, that was an old daemon friend. This was something else.” “That’s strange, even for Cowell.” “Not really. This is him we’re talking about.” Niko shrugged. He was curious; he got the distinct feeling that Tommy had more insight than he was letting on. But he let it drop. He had more pressing things to worry about than a loony bartender. Like this meeting today. It was a small thing, some coterie or other wanting to get in on the soul business. But every connection made his operation just a little bit bigger. So he treated every one like it was the President of the United States coming to buy a magic wand that shoots nukes: with both the utmost respect, and the utmost caution. “Hey Tommy,” he began, “you got any of those fancy mints left?” Glancing to and fro behind the bar, it took Tommy a minute to find them in his state of half-delirium. “Um… Oh, yeah.” He passed the small bowl to Niko. “Thanks.” Back to planning. Here’s how this was going to go down. Stand as they entered, keep stance wide, open but firm. Shake their hands, making sure to shake the big man’s first, and offer a drink. Do not under any circumstances offer mints, that could be taken as an insult. Simply leave them on a table that he would lead them to after a few minutes of small talk. Then business. That’s usually how things went down, a song and dance that Niko had done many times. But he still liked to go over it in his head. 9:30 exactly. Any minute now. Remember the plan. Don’t fuck it up. He couldn’t help sitting forward in anticipation a little as the door of the pub began to swing open. Here it was. Ready for it. Begin in three, two, o… But all carefully laid plans flew right out the window the second the man took a step inside, and Niko very nearly hit the carpet. It was his father.

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