BY STEVE JENNER
The first time I ever met Veronica Brooks she saved my life and I always kind of liked her for that. Not an angel of mercy type of rescue, I’m sad to say. No tender administering of the kiss of life to my cooling, blue lips or frantic pounding of my unmoving chest to galvanise a stuttering heart. No, just a piece of immaculate timing that left her prone on the floor with a bullet hole in her temple and me crouching behind a pillar with the woman’s handbag in my lap. I wondered as I patiently sifted through her belongings whether she would begrudge me a keepsake from her purse now that she was dead.
Distant sirens convinced me that the sniper would be in retreat and that the encroaching crowd, ashen-faced and wide-eyed at the tragedy, would provide me adequate cover to make my exit too. As I edged towards the forming circle, shaking my head in false outrage as I went, I scoured the four corners of the hall for my doubtless frustrated assassin but located no protruding rifle barrel through the balcony struts and no fleeing figure draped in weapon-concealing attire. What I did see when I looked down was the pale face and mild green eyes of a young woman, still and serene, unconcerned about the hole in her head.
Men in uniform hurtled past as I made my way towards the exit. Museum curators dived in every direction, holding on to unsteady exhibits as armed police burst into their midst to point their weapons in accusatory thrusts. Professionals, I thought, as I slipped through glass doors and out into the cool morning air, were always in such a hurry. Was that what happened with the one earlier who had taken his shot too early and killed Veronica Brooks? I would have to find him and ask. Before I reached down his throat to tear out his heart.
Out on the street, the city odours were stale and noxious but not enough to hide him. For more than thirty seconds I stood by the busy road with my head back and my eyes to the sky. I followed the white jet trails across a pale blue background as I inhaled and listened to the urban roar swelling towards mid-morning crescendo. Through the organic stench I searched until I located the singular scent that I had caught so briefly inside the museum; too late for Veronica Brooks but before the rich aroma of death had masked all but its own bloody reek. Not so far ahead, after all, I thought. My fingers clenched in anticipation.
In a dozen steps, I had zigzagged through the grinding traffic to reach the far side of the street and a set of wrought iron gates which were open and inviting. Grassland lay beyond exuding a hundred hazy perfumes of summer bloom, replacing the sour carbon of endless exhausts. It was surely a blessed relief but if he thought that this profusion of florescence would confuse me then he was gravely mistaken. I had his mark. I knew his signature. The scent of his sweat, not born of exertion but of fear, hung like a miasmic trail through the garden of musks and floral essences ahead. It would grow more rank as I closed upon him. Veronica Brooks and her mild green eyes sprang into my head. She urged me on into relentless pursuit and I kind of liked her for that too.
Along a tarmac path I moved with deceptive speed. Passers-by glimpsed me in motion but only as a blur at the edges of perception and even then, only as an ordinary man in a hurry. Dogs barked occasionally at my heels but most of the world let me pass without objection or opposition. I surged on. The distance between myself and my quarry reduced as the rancid trace of his terror increased a hundred fold. I knew he could feel my approach, sense my fury and the water in his bones would turn to ice as he fled. Blood pulsed through me like a sharp drug as I thundered on.
When I reached the end of the path, the park narrowed to a thin strip of trees and then to a single track which was barred by another set of gates. This time they were closed and locked. I wondered if my prey had accomplished this himself or if he had enlisted help. If it were the latter then the hunt grew more intense. He may now have access to a vehicle and more weapons may be trained upon me at this very moment. I sniffed the air but sensed no tension. Only the ripe smell of agitated bowels and maybe just the salty tang of tears rippled through the breeze. Veronica Brooks smiled her approval so I scaled the metal barrier in careless leaps to continue the chase.
Only when I landed neatly on the other side of the gate did I realise the danger I was in. I felt the bullet graze my arm a fraction of a second after throwing myself to the ground and rolling behind a tree. Another projectile gouged a strip of bark from the trunk inches from my head. A third ploughed up dirt just to my right. For a few seconds, the scent from up ahead changed to a sweet flowing cloud of jubilation that gradually waned as he realised his failure. I wanted to call out to him that not only had he missed his target yet again but had now ensured himself a lingering death. He had fired at me four times now. I would take a finger for each shot.
The sound of a vehicle engine coughing into life made my heart sink. He would be difficult although not impossible to track if he put too much ground between us. I could not risk the possibility that the growling motor was no more than a ruse to lure me out so I shuffled forward into the deep shadow of the tree to await an opportunity. The engine revved angrily a few times as if in challenge and then finally, I heard the gears engage before the crackle of tyres skidding on gravel indicated the car’s hasty departure. I leaped to my feet and skulked silently forward but only the unmistakable aroma of mocking triumph still hung in the air. Veronica Brooks tutted in my ear and I didn’t like her for that much.
I watched the clouds of dust rise in the wake of the vehicle as it sped away and considered my best course of action. To pursue on foot would be wearisome and tedious. Nevertheless, as no other form of transport immediately presented itself, it would be necessary to give chase at running pace. I started out at a loping sort of jog which ate up the ground but was no match for my quarry’s tireless combustion. I inhaled deeply of the air as I ran. It was bitter and tasted of corruption but always, in amongst the vapours, was the telltale strand of growing dread. For all of his bullets and bravado, this killer’s nightmare was well upon him.
I found the car abandoned after only three miles. A quick look inside told me two things. My assassin may be adequately skilled with a firearm but certainly no mechanic. Some part of the vehicle’s innards had expired from excessive use causing it to overheat and stop; a problem to which he could apparently find no solution other than flight. The idea was pleasing to me. I also detected a second scent; one which bonded and coiled with the creature that I trailed as it led me back into the city. There were two of them now. I ground my teeth and moved in.
There was no longer any need for haste. I tempered my murderous instincts with caution as I had no wish to fall victim to yet another ambush. Blood pounded in my veins as my mouth grew dry but I steadied myself with the thought that somewhere up ahead, two men were sick with mounting terror. The concentration of their odours told me so. I wondered; if Veronica Brooks were here to experience such powerful anticipation, would she thrill to it as eagerly as I? A not-so-mild flash of green eyes just behind my own left me in no doubt.
Through a maze of side streets I kept up my pursuit. The miles I had lost whilst chasing the car were no longer of consequence as my stealthy yet rapid advance had cut down the deficit in minutes. At the corner of the next narrow junction, I sank into a crouch before whipping my head around the brickwork for a careful reconnoitre then quickly pulling it back again to avoid any gunfire. No lethal projectiles came my way but the sight of two men running together only a hundred or so yards down the road almost overbalanced me with excitement. It is easy to become rash on such occasions so I regulated my breathing to just vigorous.
From my vantage point I watched them cross the road and enter a building that I didn’t recognise. My knowledge of the city was hardly encyclopaedic and this particular district had held little attraction for me in the past. I waited until there was a lull in the traffic and then sprinted across the street to stop a few doors down from where they had entered. Several more edgy steps sideways and I was at the large wooden portal through which my prey had disappeared. I examined the brass lettering on the wall beside the entrance and didn’t like what I saw.
I was also irritated to discover that the intensity of the men’s scent had diluted to a less profound horror. As if the edifice in which they were hiding was somehow a filter for their fear and even a refuge for the killers of innocent women. I read the sign again. It was an urban church of secular design and home to no denomination of which I had ever heard. The notion revolted me. If they planned to claim sanctuary here they would find that no pagan litany would prove a deterrent to my brand of inquisition.
It took only a few seconds to find the rear entrance and just a few more to deem it impenetrable. A church with bars across the windows and a deadbolt on the door surely had something to hide and I intended to find out what it was. My focus had not changed. Blood would soon be spilt in generous quantities but my senses were now alert to new possibilities. Perhaps someone here could explain the attempt on my life and the subsequent destruction of Veronica Brooks. It was unlikely that the perpetrator himself would have the time or a tongue to do it.
My curiosity was piqued as was my anger. A murderer and his accomplice taunting me with their smug conviction that one such as I might recognise their asylum. My laughter rumbled on like the growl of a hungry tiger. It was a simple matter to scale the side of the building by way of the single drainpipe that ran from top to bottom. I peered in through two more windows on the way up but heavy drapes prevented me from viewing anything other than more iron bars.
When I reached the rooftop which was mercifully flat, I was surprised to find that the fortifications did not extend to the skylight. I paused for a moment to sniff the air but sensed only confusion without intent. No sign of life was apparent in the room below so I easily detached the glass from its frame and let myself drop inside. The several rolls and shimmies that I performed upon landing proved unnecessary as all was still and quiet. In amongst the dusty aromas of antiquated furniture and musty carpets that filled the chamber, I detected an unpleasant undercurrent seeping up from below that was as sinister as it was familiar. People had died in this building. Lots of them.
The door clicked open to my touch but there was no one in the passage outside to witness the trespass. Despite the convenience of my unobserved access, my impatience was gnawing at me. I fine tuned my olfactory keenness to pierce the dense presence of death everywhere to locate my own pair of killers who were taking shelter somewhere below. Their scents in this charnel house were like a sour breath on a wind of decay. Veronica Brooks wrinkled her nose and I knew how she felt.
A movement down the hall caught my eye. The ugly snub mouth of a revolver poked around the corner but I did not wait to identify its owner. In three strides I was upon him, tearing the weapon from his fist along with three fingers. He opened his mouth to cry out but the sound never arrived; issuing instead from the foaming gap in his throat which I had provided for him. I let the body slump to the floor. More men were coming. As I slunk away to choose my ground, the rush coursed through me in a cascade of adrenalin. I sniggered. The first kill of the day always juiced me.
Two men in dark suits ran up the stairs to block my passage. They stopped. Took aim. Weapons were discharged. They missed. I didn’t. The smell of blood was making my head spin. I charged forward. Down the stairs, two at a time. More men, more blood. No time even to take a breath. I burst through a set of double doors where I knew the killers waited. My assassin cried out in terror as I swept messily through the line of men assigned to protect him. Nothing could keep me from taking his heart. The trembling accomplice was sinking to his knees in silent prayer.
After all that chasing and climbing, I should have just laid waste to the place and everyone in it. Instead, I took the assassin’s rifle and used it to bar the doors and frustrate further intrusion. Then I delivered a ferocious blow to the grovelling assistant to quieten his snivelling. In the end, as it was always going to be, the murderer of Veronica Brooks and I stood a few feet apart; he with his deadly weapon out of reach, me with mine at my fingertips. I recalled my earlier desire to remove some of his integral parts and unusually for me, curbed my enthusiasm. It would not last long.
“Why did you take a shot at me?” I asked, not unreasonably.
“You fool! You just don’t understand, do you?” was his rather rude reply.
“You killed an innocent woman,” I continued calmly.
“Innocent? You wish,” quipped the assassin who had recovered some of his poise even though his odour was still steeped in vinegar.
I considered his remark for a moment but decided the analysis would take far too long and so crushed four of his fingers instead. They were mine to take. I had promised myself his tongue too but that would be counterproductive under the circumstances. When he had stopped screaming, I asked the question again. It was not the first time someone had indicated their aversion to me by hiring a killer to do his dirty work but it was the only time an innocent had died in my place. Veronica Brooks approved of my methods, I was sure.
“You have six fingers left. Tell me!”
“Five! Now tell me!”
I thought that I was the fastest guy in town; certainly in the room, but a man with only five working fingers, it seems, is still pretty quick on his feet, especially with me all over him. When my killer suddenly burst into life and ran toward me with his bleeding hands flapping in my face, I admit that it took me by surprise. I even staggered backwards over a chair as a result. It only delayed me a few seconds but it was enough.
An unsuspected door in the wall was hanging open when I finally turned around and the reek of pure panic radiated from the corridor beyond. A secret passage! Ha! My day was complete. Into the darkness I plunged. I didn’t need to see where I was going to follow the man. The ripe aroma, or should I say bouquet, of perspiration was a sweet trail for a connoisseur like me. Ten steps ahead. Then left. Five more paces. Down stairs. Through another door. How did he open it with ruined fingers? A pungent shadow, just up ahead. I pounced.
It really was a day full of surprises. The room into which I had crashed was empty and cold. Well, not quite empty. The assassin that I had been pursuing all day long lay supine on the floor with a golden dagger protruding from his chest. Life vacated his body as I watched; his scent curdling as he breathed his last. I scanned every surface for another false panel but no exit was immediately evident. When the door slammed shut behind me and an electronic lock clicked into place, I silently cursed my impatience and shook my head in frustration.
Alright. Time to go to work. The killer’s body provided no clues except one. I was sure he could not have stabbed himself with his mangled hands and certainly no one had passed me in the passageway. So, somewhere in this apparently featureless room was another sneaky portal that had only recently been used. I took in a deep breath but no singular aroma reached me other than that of death which was flooding the chamber with its corruption. Growling my dislike of confinement, I struck out at the door a few times and immediately felt better.
It took a few minutes to test the stones for anomalous echoes. I started off with a series of innocuous taps, hoping to locate the escape route quickly but soon I was thumping the walls soundly with my fists as my anxiety increased. Despite my earlier eagerness to catch up with my prey, enforced incarceration with his draining corpse was not part of the plan. Eventually, more by luck than judgment, a cunningly concealed entrance revealed itself to my probing and I was away once again.
Away indeed, but to where? Veronica Brooks had been avenged albeit not by me. The scents ahead of me were not threatening and after seeing the abject surrender of the accomplice, his fate could be left up to others too. Only one question remained. Who was behind the attack? Why hire an assassin to do the job? What was going on in this church? Three questions then. And I did not have an answer to any of them. I pressed on until I reached daylight.
It was a relief and a disappointment to be outside again. True, I was away from the oppressive constriction of decay and free also from the prison that had held me for several unendurable minutes. But the whole affair had largely taken place around me with my own involvement being less than impressive. That was quite clearly unacceptable so there was only one thing for it. I was going back in and to Hell with the tradesman’s entrance.
In the end, no wood required splintering, no locks needed to be sprung. A disappointment in many ways. I pushed at the front door. It swung inwards in noiseless invitation. Should have thought of this before. Lights flickered on as I moved along a narrow passage. Unsuspected technology at work. When the floor creaked with encouraging age, I recovered my composure and surged on. Considering the day I was having, I shouldn’t have been shocked by what was waiting in the next room.
The first thing that caught my eye was me. Lots of me, actually. Portraits, several statues, likenesses in gold and bronze on elaborate plinths. All unquestionably important pieces. Every one a stylised representation of me from my valiant youth right up to the mature version. I stood still and allowed my ego to be massaged while the rest of me searched for evidence of purpose. The bloodstained altar in the middle of the room held any number of troubling possibilities. I glanced over at a particularly unflattering oil painting of me scowling like a wolf and thought that it could quite easily have been rendered in the last few minutes.
“You are displeased with something?” a voice enquired from behind me.
I spun around to see that a man and a woman had entered the chamber. I was less than impressed to see the whining accomplice had recovered his backbone but startled at the charismatic scent of his ravishing companion. Flaming red hair. Wild emerald eyes. Scant room for a hundred curves in a figure-hugging dress. She had my attention already and so far had only spoken five words. Now what was it she had said? Displeased? Well, we shall see. First things first.
“The assassin is dead!” I shouted at the cringing man who had edged in behind his new and more palatable ally.
“As he should be,” the woman replied calmly.
I stopped still. Now I know that I hadn’t really been on top of things all day and perhaps the fragrance of this exotic creature had seeped too deeply into my skin but I had thought all along that I was the victim here. Veronica Brooks sniffed her contempt but I didn’t care. This dazzling woman was belittling my efforts. Standing in a room full of images with my face may do wonders for the self-esteem but my mind was spinning as questions once again outnumbered answers. Time to stand my ground.
“What is this place?” I asked, sweeping my hand around at the room full of tributes.
Her eyes sparkled mischievously. “I’m surprised at you. Surely you recognise a shrine when you see it. You have a very loyal following, you know.”
No, I did not know. This was certainly news to me as everyone I had encountered so far had either tried to shoot me, lay their hands upon me or lock me up. In my confusion, I resorted to levity.
“You mean I have a fan club?”
“A bit more than that. These people venerate you. To them, you are a vengeful god.”
Them, not us? Interesting.
The sallow accomplice was nodding and bowing in such an irritatingly obsequious manner that I considered buffeting him again to relieve my tension. In contrast, the woman seemed to have set herself apart from the fawning creature and was watching me intently. Not in reverent adoration, I have to say, but more like a predator. I was acquainted with the expression. It was my own. Could it be that in this house of death and devotion, a serpent lurked? Let’s hope so, things had got dull in the last few minutes.
“Why did you kill the assassin?” I asked her.
“Revenge,” she answered simply.
“Not for me.” I knew this instinctively.
“No. Not this one either.”
She could shift like greased lightning, I’ll give her that. In a blinding series of moves, she cut to the side, took up the accomplice from his knees to his tiptoes and shook him viciously like a lioness with her kill. I heard his neck break. She flung him aside so violently that I heard the rest of his bones splinter too. It occurred to me somewhat belatedly that I could no longer distinguish her scent from the rest of the death in the room.
“You seem to be disposing of all my tormentors,” I ventured lightly.
“Actually, not all,” she replied cryptically and then began to pace.
I followed her with my eyes as she paraded in lithe steps before me. I could usually learn all I needed to know from pheromones but this one was a mystery. Any personal aroma she might have exuded was now distorted within the cloud of hostility that flowed about her. I wondered if she could detect the doubt that was washing over me right now. She began speaking again which gave me hope. The talkers always got distracted.
“The assassin was not after you. But he did kill my sister who was. You did not sense her threat because the fool pointing the gun caught your attention. Three more steps and she would have torn out your throat.”
So, I groaned inwardly, Veronica Brooks was a killer. My killer. I knew there was something about her that I didn’t like. I suppose the knife that I found in her handbag should have been a bit of a clue but what with the sniper’s scent and all, I really wasn’t thinking straight. Anyway, I like to think that I see the best in people. Veronica Brooks’ sister was clearly a capable sort and had apparently not yet completed her explanation.
“This is a vile place,” she spat. “Many of our kind have died here to satisfy the needs of these pathetic creatures and their evil worship. It is time that their object of adoration was finally expunged from this world.”
Expunged? That didn’t sound good. And what did she mean by “our kind”? Surely she didn’t think we were related. Several courses of action sprung to mind but I decided upon the path of least resistance. Ask her. I put on my most misunderstood expression and attempted to appeal to her better nature. Her basilisk smile was not encouraging.
“Help me out here,” I implored. “Who are you?”
“You don’t know us but we know you,” she snarled. “The barbarians who infest this building slaughter innocents in your name. They murder your brethren. There aren’t very many of us left. In fact, now that my sister has departed, only you and I are left in this city.”
I was about to describe my admittedly unusual lineage and being, up until now, its solitary surviving member when it occurred to me that she either already knew or didn’t really care. My sad story of abandonment and neglect would not move her. The years of struggle with my unnatural self could not scratch her surface. When she threw herself at me with teeth and nails bared, it was clear that my sensitive nature had failed to move her and the time for chitchat was over.
I would like to say that her fevered attack was gracefully repelled and decorum was restored, quickly and quietly. I would like to say that the blood she drew, my blood, yes, my blood, was a lucky shot and that my response was measured and restrained. In fact, the first dozen slicing arcs from a whirlwind of limbs were so ferocious that I was obliged to take several steps backwards to parry the onslaught. I was a blur of defensive co-ordination as she darted around the room until fatigue finally gripped her and I made my move.
In between two murderous blows towards head and heart, I slipped inside her guard to take a lethal grip on her throat. Before she could lash out in response, I drove forward at breakneck speed to collide with the stone wall; a move that resulted in a sickening crunch. Not too sickening, I considered, as it wasn’t me making first contact. Her eyes glazed, the tension in her muscles drained away as she slumped semi-conscious into my arms. I was alert for deception but no inside jabs sneaked through.
Despite the abrasions that criss-crossed my face and hands, my composure remained intact which certainly saved my assailant’s life as self-control was not usually high on my list of attributes. But I was intrigued. Could this fiery and fascinating woman be “my kind”? I glanced up at a portrait on the wall and into cold green eyes. My eyes. And the cool, olivine stare of Veronica Brooks flickered once again in my memory. A relation? A sister? Did I mention that I always kind of liked her?
I relaxed my grip. She gulped in air. Slowly, energy restored her and I felt her body tense for action. My hand stroked her forehead. She rose in agitation then fell back. My pressure at her throat stilled her violence. I noticed from the corner of my eye that our altercation had overturned a number of oil lamps and a considerable conflagration was now in progress. Time to leave. But what to do with this exquisite creature who may or may not be my only living relative?
If I took her with me, I would be responsible for her. Possibly, she might eventually restrain herself and tell me of our history; of our kind. Or, she may blame me for everything and renew her frenzied attempts on my life at the first available opportunity. Of course, if I left her behind to burn, my troubles would be over. My new family; all gone. A difficult decision which would require all of my renowned compassion and empathy. With flames at my heels, I acted for the best.
I ripped my way through the door she had locked and raced out into the passageway. In seconds, I had reached the front door and stepped casually out on to the street where the first plumes of smoke were already mixing with the city exhausts. On the heated breeze, I caught just a hint of burning flesh and recognised its taint as similar to my own. As I walked away from the crumbling building, I considered how close I had come to no longer being alone in the world.
Ah well, easy come, easy go.
Veronica Brooks cursed my name as I strode away but I still kind of liked her for all that.