Chapter 30

Out of His Grasp

⚞H⚟

An unanswered phone call was no reason for alarm. A second fruitless call the next day was concerning. But it was the third day of silence that made Hector come to Wyatt’s apartment. He rang the doorbell, knocked, then unlocked the door with a copy of Wyatt’s key. It paid to be prudent. If his lover was still alright and in one piece, he wouldn’t have to replace the lock.

Hector wiped his feet and closed the front door. 

He looked around. The bed was unmade, there were clothes on it, lying scattered neatly around a square foot of unoccupied space, where a backpack could have been. Drawers were left open. An empty area was also cleared on the tiny desk, but was left vacant.

Wyatt had packed up and left. Hector frowned in confusion. He stepped over to the bathroom to double check. The toothbrush was gone too.

This wasn’t an abduction. His little pet ex-thief geologist had fled without a word.

Hector frowned, looking around the claustrophobic apartment. There were very few plausible explanations for why Ocher would disappear like this, and some of them made Hector feel alarmed for once. Had he been wrong about Wyatt Brooks? Was Ocher really who he seemed to be, or was there never a Wyatt Brooks in the first place? Was it all a ploy, a brilliant lie by an undercover federal agent?

Something caught Hector’s eye. A glint of metal under Ocher’s bed. Hector pulled a box full of keys from under the bed and studied it. Hundreds of keys of all shapes and sizes, old and new. No system, no attempt to categorize, just a pile of keys. Hector turned and looked at an assortment of hourglasses that stood on a shelf near the bed and on the bedside table. 

If Wyatt Brooks was fiction, the FBI was surely getting very creative.

* * *

It had been snowing heavily for the last two days, the rapidly changing wind blasting the waves of snow towards and away from buildings like something enormous breathing in and out. The wind chill and snowstorms chased even the most frost hardy indoors. The streets were empty after dark, only the occasional desperado’s car plowing slowly through the ever growing layer of snow.

Hector sat in the back of his limousine, smoking as he planned out his next steps. First, question all of Ocher’s ties in the city. Second, send someone to his parents to investigate there. Third, have someone look into the ways Ocher could have left the city or even the state.

Hector rubbed the spot between his brows. If he had let a federal agent into his bed and life, he was the biggest fool there ever was. The empire he built stood on trust in the loyalty and competence of his underlings. If he couldn’t trust their best efforts or his own judgement, the Citizens’ success so far had to be nothing but a series of lucky accidents. Hector hated that thought. 

No matter the cost, no matter the effort, he would find Wyatt Brooks. And should his adorable fanboy prove to be a lying snake, Hector promised to himself he would be the one to personally grind Ocher to dust before anyone of his people suffered for this frivolity.

⚞⛐⚟

“Nice place for a thief.”

“You don’t say, Betty! The better part of downtown, a fancy building, top floor. Maybe we chose the wrong line of crime,” Wilma chuckled and rang the doorbell.

A mousy-haired scrawny man half-opened the door. He looked at them with red eyes circled by dark purple. Recognition flashed on his face, but his expression quickly turned from alert back to mopey. “A-are you here to off me?”

“Do you say that to all the girls?” Wilma grinned.

Betty shoved the thief inside and let Wilma through, then closed and locked the door behind her. The scrawny thief looked at them fearfully.

“Nice place!” Wilma whistled, looking at the cosily furnished hallway and peeking her head into the living room. “Betty look, what a gorgeous couch, I think we should get one like this. Is this new?”

As Betty walked into the living room to survey the couch, their host muttered a sad “Yes.”

“Where’d you get it?”

“Bauermann’s. It’s eight streets up North on Coal.”

“Why thank you.” Wilma grinned. “Now, we’re not actually here to inquire about furniture. Rather, we’d like to ask a few things about your buddy Ocher. Like when have you last seen him?”

“Ocher?” The thief looked surprised. “I don’t know… A week ago?”

“How long have you known him?”

“A couple of years.”

“How did you meet him?”

The thief frowned and rubbed his shoulder anxiously. “He botched an attempt to steal a woman’s purse, I helped him escape.”

“Did he often mess up?” Betty asked from the living room.

“Well, yes, somewhat. He isn’t a natural, that’s for sure.” Hunter thought for a moment. “Sometimes he would steal our keys by accident. He sure likes keys.”

“How about climbing things, was he good at that?” Wilma asked.

“Not very much.”

“Did he ever exhibit competence in anything at all outside of geology? Any unusual skills?”

Hunter shook his head, looking uneasy. “Why are you asking all this?”

“Your friend vanished,” Betty said as she returned to the hall.

Hunter’s expression fell. “I… I see…”

“Anything to add?” Wilma asked.

“No.” The thief looked at the floor. “Say… could either of you kill me? Maybe like you killed Craig? Or something else quick and painless? I don’t want to live anymore…”

“Can we take the couch then?” Betty asked.

“Sure…”

Hunter didn’t manage to say anything more. Betty pressed a barrel of her gun to his forehead. Hunter looked at it cross-eyed, shaking with terror. He shrunk and stepped back, pressing his back into the wall.

“N-no. P-please, don’t kill me! I changed my mind,” he squeaked, terrified.

“You’re welcome.” Betty put her gun away.

Hunter flattened against the wall and stood there, frozen in fear.

“Thanks for your cooperation, Mr. Fitzroy, and we hope you enjoy the rest of your well-furnished life.” Wilma waved and headed for the door.

“If you try to kill yourself, I will find you, and I will kill you slowly and very painfully,” Betty said calmly. Then she followed Wilma out and shut the door behind them. 

⚞H⚟ 

Hector sat at his desk, his fingers steepled. Before him, Wilma and Betty sat in leather armchairs. The women just finished their report. It had, as always, mostly been Wilma talking.

As expected, Wyatt’s persona was well-established in the town. There was no doubt most of what Hector had already known of his life was true. He did go to study geology, he did thieve. The question was, wasn’t he perhaps recruited by a federal agency sometime during his studies? Could that be the real reason to drop out and pursue a life of crime? Was the thieving just a cover? Was it all a scheme to get close to him?

Hector sighed and picked up a cigar from his case.

“So, ladies, what do you think? Are we dealing with a fed or a confused young adult?”

“Let’s look at the facts, boss,” Wilma said. “He is a mediocre thief, clumsy at times, not the greatest athlete out there, according to his accomplice. And yet he scaled the fence and the walls of your house without much trouble. He avoided detection by the patrols, but got plainly caught on the security camera. A strange mix of competence and incompetence. Why was he unusually stealthy that night? If he’s a bumbling mediocrity in front of the people that he — as you suspect — might be fooling for years, why would he suddenly betray his act on the most important occasion, just before meeting you, his target?”

Hector frowned. “It did catch my attention that he was acting boldly and with determination on that night, all the way until he was caught. The dichotomy was what got me curious initially.”

“But if he were truly a fed, why would he wait all this time? Why leave so suddenly and draw suspicion? Why put the lives of civilians in danger by causing all this commotion?”

“We don’t think he’s a fed, boss,” Betty summarized.

Hector sighed. “Then why would he run?”

“Well, what’s the news from his hometown?” Wilma asked.

“Nothing much.” Hector lit his cigar. “His parents aren’t involved or aware. He hasn’t shown up there since Thanksgiving. Wherever he fled, it wasn’t home.” Hector puffed out smoke and rested his forehead on his hands. “I don’t understand why he would run anywhere if he weren’t a fed.”

“Maybe he’s mental,” Betty suggested.

Hector looked up at her wearily. “What makes you say that?”

“He’s a kleptomaniac. Obsessed with keys.”

“And?”

“Mania likes company.” Betty shrugged. “He could have run away on an impulse.”

Hector shook his head. “No. I don’t think so. He didn’t strike me as mentally unstable. Not more than the average person.” He thought for a moment. “But I will consider this possibility. It’s much better than him being a fed.”

“He’s not a fed,” Betty said.

“I’d like to believe that too,” Hector echoed. “But I won’t rest until I find him and hear his version. So our search continues.”

“Yes, boss,” the women said in unison.

They would investigate the car rentals, the bus stations, the airport, the harbor. Try to find where he had gone. But it was beginning to look grim. Fortunately, there was a last resort. But that would be a dangerous gamble. Measures had to be taken first. And it was almost Christmas Eve. What poor timing on Wyatt’s part to disappear like this right before the family holiday.

* * *

“I wasn’t expecting a pony or anything, but don’t you think I’m still not that old to just be getting an envelope for Christmas?” Junior complained, turning the fancy green-red envelope in his hands. “Not to sound ungrateful, but it’s kind of a downgrade compared to last year.”

“How rude, Zack,” Rose scolded him jokingly, then went over to Hector to smooch him on the cheek, “Thank you very much, uncle!”

Taylor tore his envelope open and pulled the tickets and reservations out. “Thanks, uncle.” He skimmed through the text. “I don’t think I could go, however… I have other plans. Perhaps someone else would like to go with these two.”

Junior gave the blond a skeptical look and opened his own envelope. His eyes grew round. “D-dad, that’s… tickets to Disney World!”

”Wow! Really?” Rose opened her own, looking at the papers in disbelief. Then she grew a bit uncertain. “Oh… but did you ask my parents, uncle?”

“Yes,” Hector assured her. “They’re fine with this.” He turned to Taylor. “I’m sorry I miscalculated, Taylor. I thought you would be more eager.”

Taylor shrugged. “It’s fine. It’s the thought that counts. Thanks a lot, uncle.” He extended the envelope to Rose. “Maybe a sibling or a friend of yours would like to tag along.” 

Hector let the children sort it out. He sat down and began opening his own presents. Nothing about his demeanour betrayed any trace of worry. The trip to Disney World was a convenient way to get the children out of town and out of harm’s way. Strange, unpleasant events were unfolding in New Coalport. In the morning there were noticeable tremors that defied the seismic history of the region. This holiday season was also proving unusually violent, with domestic abuse and passion crime rates suddenly skyrocketing for no apparent reason — it was all over the news. Hector had a bad feeling about all of it. He needed to send his boy and Rose as far away as possible without drawing suspicion.

Hector did not let any of his concerns show on his face as he carefully tore the packing paper on one of his gifts. This one from Rose.

”How do you like it, uncle?” Rose asked.

Hector pulled the garment out of its packaging. It was a huge sweater with a Christmas tree taking up most of the front, the bottom being littered with colorfully wrapped presents. 

“I’ve been working on it since last Christmas. You’d mentioned back then you like these novelty kitschy sweaters.”

“Thanks a lot, Rose,” Hector laughed and half-hugged the girl. “This is perfect for the occasion. I must put it on at once.”

She watched him take his suit jacket off and pull the sweater on. The girl was clearly a bit nervous about whether or not it would fit. It did. She grinned, delighted. Hector looked down at his festive clothing.

“It’s a veritable work of art. I think I might frame it between Christmases. It has to be preserved”

Rose chuckled.

Hector returned to his presents. Taylor’s gift turned out to be a bronze statuette of Ares.

“Thanks, Taylor, I love it. This is going on my desk.” Hector turned the figurine around in his hands, pleasantly surprised. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Junior glaring at the young Whalesong. Hector felt a hint of amusement, the boy probably felt Taylor’s gift outdid his. Hector put the statuette aside and opened the next gift. Judging by how Junior minced forward that one was from him. Ties.

“These are matching,” the boy said quickly. “For you and Wyatt, for when you go to parties or something. I tried to come up with something cool, but-”

“I love them,” Hector said with a smile. “I’m sure Wyatt will as well. His wardrobe is woefully underpopulated by ties.”

“Say, why isn’t he here with you? I know it’s a bit early, but I figured…”

“He’s gone to celebrate with his parents,” Hector lied readily. 

“Ah.” Junior nodded. “Makes sense. I’d just hoped after missing out on Thanksgiving he would spend Christmas with us, but I can’t blame him, I’d hate the thought of my old Dad celebrating Christmas alone.”

“I’m not that old,” Hector said with a grin, feeling genuinely touched and amused, despite the underlying current of grim unease that came with Wyatt’s absence.

“Say, Dad, we just discussed the extra ticket with Rose and caught Barney making puppy eyes at us, turns out he really wants to go. And we don’t have any other ideas. So can we take him as the third?”

Hector looked up to discover his bodyguard looking mildly embarrassed, standing cornered by Rose and Junior. “Well… That sounds like a great idea actually. A responsible adult to make sure you go easy on the candy.”

All three of them grinned so wide, Hector instantly knew the candy-limiting thing wasn’t going to work out. He sighed and shook his head with a smile. He glanced at Taylor, who stood to the side, staring out the window like a dog waiting to be let out. The youth seemed oddly distant, wistful even. “My-my…” Hector said softly. “I think I know what other plans Taylor might have this holiday season.”

Whalesong spun around, looking at him wide-eyed.

“Who’s the lucky girl?” Hector asked.

Taylor frowned. “I’d rather not tell. My father wouldn’t approve.”

Hector arched an eyebrow. “He isn’t here. But no pressure. You clearly can’t wait to go to her, so I won’t hold you up any longer. Happy Holidays to you both and have a good time.”

Taylor looked a little uncomfortable, but wished everyone a Merry Christmas and made himself scarce. Junior looked like he had just received another present. Hector shook his head. Kids…

There was one more gift addressed to him. Hector unwrapped it. A box of cigars. He looked up to find Barney watching him with his usual look of loyal adoration.

“Thanks Barney, I will certainly enjoy these. I hope you’ll have fun in Disney World.”

“I sure will, boss. Thanks a lot,” Barney said with intense feeling. Then he was swarmed by the children who needed to swiftly make plans, since their trip began the next afternoon.

While the kids were still discussing the trip, Siggy called to wish them all a Merry X-mas. He sounded angry when he heard that Taylor had paid a visit and had already left. Siggy did not have much to say after the exchange of wishes, and Hector did not pry.

With the children no longer paying attention to him and no more calls coming, Hector quickly lost most of the holiday spirit. He had one more present waiting for him downstairs, but he would have to wait for the children to leave before he went to the basement. There was still no news of where Wyatt could have gone and seemingly no prospect of finding out in any normal way. As soon as the children were safely away in Florida, it would be time to turn to the less conventional measures. Hector tapped his fingers on the armrest of his armchair, starting a silent countdown.

Rose left early, careful not to be late for the Christmas festivities with her own family, but Junior decided to stay until night. So it was just the two of them. For several hours Hector forgot all about Wyatt. It was just his son and him, just like their first Christmas together fifteen years ago, when Junior was a chubby toddler waddling across the floor in a game of very half-hearted tag with his dad. Back then Hector was an exhausted single father scrambling up the city’s food chain. Now he owned the place. But his boy was as precious to him now as he was back then. Hector smiled as they looked through the family photos together. Junior’s first bicycle, his first day at school, the multitude of photographs of Junior, Rose and Taylor at various games. Taylor sure did grow quicker than most kids. Not only did he catch up to Rose and Junior during pre-school, he’d managed to outgrow them too. He sure was always big for his age.

“You two have grown distant from Taylor over the years,” Hector noted.

“Yeah, cause he kept beating us up,” Junior grumbled.

“Perhaps he just loved roughhousing and didn’t know his own strength.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“One day you’ll look back on it all and laugh.”

Junior shook his head. “Sorry, Dad, I know you really want us to be best buddies like Uncle Siggy and you, but it just isn’t happening. Uncle Siggy is cool, Taylor is a violent nutjob.”

Hector sighed. “Very well, maybe it’s still too early for that. I’d thought you would have forgiven his sandbox crimes.”

“Sandbox?! He-” Junior opened and closed his mouth a few times in outrage, then frowned and shook his head. “Whatever.”

Hector studied him for a moment, but did not prod further. If Junior wanted to tell him something, he would. It was Hector’s policy to let the boy solve his own problems as much as possible. After a moment the tense atmosphere faded, and they went back to the album, reminiscing, laughing and having a merry time.

An hour after midnight Junior had Barney drive him home. Hector watched them go and went to the basement. There was a recently caught police mole and a gift-wrapped baseball bat. Wilma and Betty sure knew how to help him take the edge off.

⚞☆⚟

Luke was taking some leftovers out of the fridge, trying to figure out the best combination for lunch. He paused when he heard the sound of an engine outside. He walked over to one of the boarded-up windows and watched as a car stopped in front of the tenement. Luke stared at it uneasily. None of El’s people ever came by car.

A man got out from the driver’s seat. He was tall and solidly built, wearing an open winter jacket with a grey sweater under it. He did not appear cold even though the weather was downright arctic earlier this morning. Luke watched him warily. He had not met this man before, but there was something familiar about him. Something about his face made Luke afraid.

The stranger scanned the boarded up windows and stopped on the one where Luke stood, even though he couldn’t have possibly seen him. Luke stepped away from the window, shaken. 

He did not know the man, but there was something in his eyes. In his small, deep-set, dark eyes. They reminded Luke of Betty’s eyes. This man had to be with the Citizens. A loud knock came, and Luke hurried towards the front door.

He got to the door just as Penny was coming up to it too.

“It’s for me, I think,” Luke said, his heart pounding. “Please, let me handle this.”

Penny looked at him questioningly. “Ok, suit yourself. If you need help, we’re right behind you.”

“Thank you,” Luke said. He watched Penny go, then opened the door.

The man beyond the door looked down at Luke, daylight pouring in from behind him, and Luke could swear his small eyes glinted like that of a wild animal.

“Good day. You must be Luke.”

“I am. Good day,” Luke said. His hands balled into fists, anticipation of a confrontation making his body strain with tension.

“I am here to ask for your assistance.”

Ask? Luke frowned. It wasn’t the ultimatum he had expected. But it changed nothing. He wasn’t going to be a useful tool for the bloodthirsty gang anymore. The Citizens had spilled enough blood with his help. He wasn’t going to let them spill more.

“I don’t help the Citizens anymore,” Luke said. “And if one of you tries to harm my friends to force me, I will use my curse to protect them, even if it kills me.”

The man’s eyebrows rose. He studied Luke for a long moment. “An interesting presumption. What makes you think I am with the Citizens?”

Luke stared at the man suspiciously. Then he recognised him. He’d seen that face before, on TV. This was Hector Viteri. The businessman philanthropist who was always there cutting ribbons on the screen, opening schools and hospitals and raining money on charities. A prideful show of benevolence, but not one Luke could disregard. He grew very red on the face.

“Oh, Mr. Viteri, I am sorry… I, ah, I well…”

“And here I thought I was getting too much attention in the press.” Hector Viteri smiled faintly. “As for the matter of my appeal, do not fret, it is nothing criminal. I’d like to ask for your help in a personal matter.”

Luke let himself relax. “What kind of personal matter?”

“Someone dear to me has gone missing. I’ve thrown all I have at this matter, but so far I’ve had no luck finding him. All the conventional solutions have failed. This is why I am here.”

“Don’t misunderstand me, but what if that person doesn’t want to be found?” Luke asked, speaking from experience.

“I just want to talk and make sure he is safe. If he wants to be left alone, I will let him go.”

Luke frowned and looked away. It suddenly made through to him they were talking of a man. Wasn’t there something on the news about Hector Viteri coming out as gay? Luke didn’t approve, but who was he to judge either? One had to care a lot to come to him for help, knowing what his curse could do. Or did he? Luke looked back up into Hector Viteri’s small intelligent eyes.

“Have you heard how dangerous my assistance can be?”

“I will take that risk.”

Luke thought of bringing up the matter of his curse not being there anymore, the lie that had been told to the Citizens, but he felt this man would sniff a lie out before he even put it into words. Something about Hector Viteri made him uneasy. Perhaps it was the fact that Luke had accidentally accused him of associating with the Citizens — maybe it was guilt. Luke shifted restlessly.

“I don’t want your death on my conscience,” Luke said.

“Don’t worry, I can keep us safe. I’ve been in the war.”

“Who is the missing person?” Luke asked just to stall the time.

“He’s my lover.”

Luke hesitated. 

The richly dressed man in front of him was trying his best not to show just how tired and worried he was, but Luke could see it in his eyes.

“Name your price,” the man said. “Money won’t be an issue. Nor will favors. I have plenty of strings I can pull. If you are troubled by the underworld, I can help ensure that never happens again.”

“No, it’s not the reward. I’m just worried we could hurt not just ourselves, but also innocent bystanders.”

“I promise I will keep us and the general public safe.” The man looked dead serious. “Please, help me find him.”

Luke wanted to argue, but found himself unable to. Or rather reluctant. There was something about the man that made Luke feel he would keep his word. Even on something so improbable.

Luke sighed and nodded. 

* * *

Luke quickly gathered a few belongings into his bag, most importantly making sure he packed David Mance’s IDs. Mr. Viteri had said those could be important. 

Penny sat on his own bed watching Luke pack.

“You sure about this, Luke?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Luke paused. He wanted to say that this was important, that lives were at stake. But they would be even more at stake if he went on the search with Viteri. Yet with every second he felt more and more strongly that he could not refuse to go. This was somehow the most important task he had ever received. He knew it in his bones, but couldn’t tell why. Maybe it was because this was the first time he was about to genuinely help someone with the use of his curse. Maybe after this it would just go away.

“I think this might lift my curse.”

“Huh,” Penny said. “Well, I guess it’s a worthy gamble.”

“I don’t gamble.”

“Looks a lot like gambling to me.”

“The man I’m helping promised he can keep everyone safe.”

“Oh yeah?” Penny snorted and went to look out of the boarded up window. He stood staring outside silently for a longer while. “Maybe he can…” he muttered.

“See you later, Penny.” Luke grabbed his bag and left the room. As he walked down the corridor, he studied the small leather satchel that El had previously given him to store his talisman should the need to use his curse arise. How had he known? Right, he was a god. He probably knew all along this would happen. Luke felt hopeful. This felt right.

He came outside and got into the backseat of the car. Mr. Viteri looked at him in the rearview mirror. “Ready?”

“Yes.”

“It will probably be a little less dangerous if I get us out of town first.”

“That’s a very good idea,” Luke agreed eagerly. “Tell me when I should, ehm… set loose my curse.”

“Sure,” Hector said and turned the keys in the ignition.

They drove through the snow-strewn city without any trouble, then on an empty rural road, Hector glanced in the rearview mirror and said, “Ready when you are.”

Making sure the man was not looking, Luke pulled on the string around his neck, producing the talisman from under numerous layers of clothing. Warily, he took the artifact off, put it into the satchel and hung that around his neck instead.

“It is done,” Luke said.

A truck appeared in the distance, coming over a hill. Luke saw Hector’s grip on the steering wheel tighten. There was nowhere to turn, no way to get far enough away from the oncoming truck to keep it out of the curse’s range. 

“I can, ah, undo it, I mean, turn my curse off,” Luke suggested anxiously. “I’ll turn it back on when we pass the truck.”

“No,” Hector said sternly. “We’ll be fine. Sit tight.”

Luke gripped onto the seat in front of him, watching in dread as the truck drew closer.

The car phone rang. Hector picked it up and handed it to Luke. “Please, hold it to my ear, so I can use both hands to drive.”

Luke complied.

“Sir, we’ve got a lead,” a woman’s voice spoke from the receiver. “Brooks boarded a flight to Paris from New York. The ticket agent remembered his name and confirmed it was him.”

Hector frowned. “Are you absolutely certain it was him?”

“Yes, the girl remembered him well. She’d known another Wyatt Brooks in highschool, so they had chatted as she checked that it wasn’t her guy.”

Hector glanced at Luke’s reflection in the rearview mirror. “Very well, we’re going to Paris, get me two tickets…” 

The truck was almost upon them. And as it approached it swerved out of control, leaving its lane and rushing straight at them. Hector stepped hard on the gas, making Luke sink into the back seat. They avoided the truck by mere inches. 

Luke stared in terror in front of himself. He’d been on a number of these unpleasant rides with Wilma and Betty, and never before had he felt a car accelerate like that. Perhaps it was a very expensive car. He glanced in the rear window and was relieved to see the truck safely stopped in the field off the road. The driver got out on shaky legs, but seemed mostly unhurt.

“Uhm, Luke, phone, please.”

Luke noticed he had dropped the receiver and quickly lifted it back to Hector’s ear.

“Are you ok, sir?” the voice asked Hector from the receiver.

“Yes. And I still need those tickets, the sooner the better. One for me and one for a Mister…”

“David Mance,” Luke said reluctantly.

Hector repeated the name. He told the person on the other side to have his luggage ready at the local airport. Another car appeared on the road ahead of them. It began to swing right and left erratically. Hector sped past it when it swung in the opposite direction.

“On second thought, I want a private jet for this flight. No matter the cost.”

Luke breathed out a sigh of relief when he saw the car behind them come to a stop safely. When Hector was done talking on the phone, Luke looked at him warily. “Thank you for not taking me on a normal flight. I would hate to drag hundreds to the bottom of the ocean with us.”

“You won’t get me killed, don’t worry,” Hector assured him. “I haven’t gone through a war and a divorce to die by a mere accident.”

Luke snorted despite himself. He leaned back against the back seat and tried to relax as Hector took onto the hazards of the curse one after another without so much as flinching.

* * *

Estelle Bonheur sat down at the counter of the crowded ticket office in the Charles de Gaulle airport. Alexis had to leave early due to a horrible migraine, and Estelle had been called in to replace her. And that was fortunate for the remaining staff, because the day turned out to be an unusually busy one. Estelle surveyed the crowded office and smiled brightly at the first man in her line, a tall handsome American with a peculiar goatee. He did not know a word of French, but he was good-looking enough that she quietly forgave him.

“I am sorry to take up your time with an odd request, but I am looking for a missing family member who travelled through this airport four days ago.” The American showed her a photograph of a young man with light brown hair and amber eyes. “Do you know who was in the office on December 22nd and could have come in contact with this man?”

“Mais oui, Monsieur! I sold a ticket to Egypt to this man four days ago. Are you a relative of his? He was acting very odd.”

The American looked surprised, she couldn’t blame him, that was quite a coincidence that he bumped into her like this. “In what way was his behavior odd?” the man asked.

“Ah, well, first he wanted a ticket to Iraq, but I told him travel to Iraq was ill-advised at this time with the war ongoing. Then he wanted to go to Syria, which is also not the safest tourist destination right now. Since he said he wanted to see the desert, I told him to go to Egypt instead. So he got a ticket to Egypt. He was very dispassionate all the time, almost as if he was… in a trance I guess,” Estelle added quietly, pleased when the American leaned closer to listen.

“Thank you so much,” the man said, looking into her eyes.

“Would you like to purchase a ticket to Egypt too?”

The man hesitated, looking uneasily behind himself. He turned back to Estelle with a tired expression. “Yes, two tickets to the next flight to the same destination, please.”

Estelle nodded.

The destination was Cairo and it turned out there were still two tickets for a flight in just two hours — someone had called in and cancelled a reservation just as they talked. When all was said and done, the American thanked her profusely and walked out, followed by a poorly dressed blond companion who had waited in the corner. Another ticket agent leaned over to Estelle.

“The big guy’s the one who landed the private jet an hour ago after his pilot got a seizure.”

“No way,” Estelle gaped after the American. “What happened to the pilot?”

“He’s been taken to the hospital.”

That sounded like some kind of action movie, not real life, Estelle thought, bewildered. And the American had looked like the typical Hollywood action hero. What a strange day! But the line at the ticket office was long, and it was time to take another client. Estelle quickly forgot about the odd encounter.

⚞☆⚟

Luke once more found himself in the back of a car. Driving in Cairo proved to be even more terrifying than in New Coalport. At first he thought the mayhem around them was the result of his curse, but the guide that sat at the front by Hector’s side said it was only a little wilder than usual. There were cars and camels and horses, and dozens of people walking fearlessly through the middle of the street. Luke had not heard as much honking in a year in Coalport as he did now on the way from the Cairo airport to the location of the westmost police outpost that had a helipad.

Their companion and guide was a local policeman. One of the batch that showed up to apprehend the unfortunate knife-brandishing lunatic that had attempted to hijack their plane. Hector had twisted the would-be hijacker’s arm and held him down for the remainder of the flight, after which he passed him over to the police. This feat combined with generous handouts of American dollars made the Western visitor an instant friend of the law enforcement. So now they were going to take him for a little private helicopter tour over the desert as he had requested.

It was mind-boggling to Luke that Hector could still drive so well, especially in the unfolding chaos and the baking heat. Luke himself was nodding off, despite his constant terror of a fiery collision and death. Hector had drunk several coffees before sitting down at the wheel. But how much longer could he keep going? And how far would they have to go?

The helipad proved to be just a flat bit of land in a fenced off area, but there was a helicopter on it as promised. Luke really didn’t want to fly again just yet, but he could see the determination in Hector’s eyes.

The helicopter almost dropped moments after takeoff, but managed to rise again. Their police friend swore in fluent English, and said it had to be an atmospheric phenomenon of some sort. Hector just nodded grimly.

Soon they were flying over the desert, and Luke couldn’t stop staring outside, surprisingly not terrified by the height, but instead awed by the vast desert before them and the majesty of the pyramids. He had never thought he would see these things live. The last twenty four hours were completely bizarre, but he had a feeling they were close. The missing man had to be somewhere on that golden expanse. Somewhere within reach…

“There.” Hector pointed towards a black dot standing out on the yellow sand.

“It’s not good for the chopper to land in the desert. But for you, friend, I will make an exception.” The pilot took the helicopter down towards their target.

Luke glanced towards Hector. The man’s eyes were affixed on the tiny speck of a human figure down below, further away from Cairo than anyone should venture on foot. The helicopter landed in a flurry of dust. Hector waited for a moment for it to settle, then he jumped out and headed straight for the lonely figure that stared back at him in shock with wide-open amber eyes.

⚞⚿⚟

When Wyatt saw a silhouette coming towards him among the clouds of swirling sand, he knew instantly who that was. Just like he had feared, there was no running from this man. Hector found him even here. Here… where was here? He looked wildly around and regretted it, because when he looked ahead again, the man was almost upon him. No. It was no man. It was a beast. Wyatt took a frantic step back, then another one and another. One step too many, he realized as he felt himself tripping over a small dune and collapsing onto the sand. He slid down a little, then tried to get back to his feet in a panic.

Hector stalked towards him silently. He stepped over the dune with ease. Seeing that, Wyatt abandoned the attempts to get up and frantically crawled backwards, but Hector was already upon him. Wyatt stared at him in wide-eyed terror as the man bowed down and… offered him a hand.

“Why are you here, Wyatt?”

Wyatt’s feet desperately kicked the sand as he tried to put more distance between them. He shook his head, as if that could stop Hector. He’d never felt such sheer primal fear as he did now, lying there in Hector’s gigantic shadow. No… he had felt it before… that night on the island. 

“Why do you think I’m here?!” He shouted at the man towering above him as he finally managed to scramble to his feet, scattering sand all around and still backing away. “What other escape was there from this life you chained me in?! It was not how it was supposed to be! Not at all… It was all wrong, I didn’t know what to do… You held me prisoner. Did you find that entertaining?! That island…” Wyatt shook his head again, still walking back, his arms in front of him like he was trying to keep Hector away or was afraid of a coming blow. The man before him was an abomination, a beast that would stop at nothing to tear his whole world apart. “T-there was nothing I could do on that island… I should have tried to stop you, I was supposed to… but I was scared to land in one of those body bags with no legs and arms… Scared that my parents, that my friends would too! I should have never let you capture me, never got lost in this life…” Wyatt appeared disoriented, unhinged, and yet he kept yelling at Hector as tears of desperation streaked down his dusty face. “Don’t you understand I needed to get away from you somehow?! I needed to go somewhere I could remember, I mean, somewhere I could forget! No… yes… No! I don’t know! But that’s why I’m here! And why are you here?! I told you not to search for me! Did you find me to kill me?! Have you killed all my loved ones already, i-is that why you’re here — to finish it? Again?!”

Hector remained silent, until he was done talking. “Please, calm down, Wyatt. Your friends and family are fine. You’re safe. But clearly very confused. You didn’t tell me you were going anywhere, not to mention that you didn’t want to be followed.”

“What do you mean, I didn’t tell you?! I left you a note! It’s… it’s right here!” He fished a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and waved it in front of Hector. Then he realized just what he was looking at. If the note was here, he couldn’t have left it for Hector. He must have taken it by accident while he was packing. “Shit.” He swore, sobbing.

“Well…” Hector sighed. “That explains the empty space on your desk. Now, please, calm down and talk to me. You almost got me thinking you were a fed, but that’s nonsense, isn’t it? But if that’s not the case, then why did you run?” Hector extended a hand towards him again.

Wyatt flinched away from it. “W-what? Seriously? I’m not a fed! I-I just couldn’t live like this anymore, fearing for my life every single day! I-I felt trapped, I didn’t know what to do… Running as far as I could seemed like the only way… but looks like there was nowhere to hide from you, just like I thought!”

“If you’re not a fed, then why are you afraid for your life?!” Hector took a step closer. He too looked really confused by now. “Why did you feel ‘trapped’? I thought you were happy with me. I thought we were in love.”

Wyatt took another step back, blinking back more angry tears. Why? He was asking him why? He had taken him captive, bound him into shackles of fear, claimed him against his will and thwarted his duty. Wyatt was about to scream all the answers at the top of his lungs, but these words in his head were not his. Suddenly he hesitated. Hector had come all this way, but clearly he still didn’t understand. Telling him now meant sealing his fate, but when else could he tell him? 

“Do you still care about me?” Wyatt asked, wiping away the tears, and leaving muddy smears on his face.

Hector nodded.

“And if I tell you why, will you promise to leave me be? Will you leave everyone dear to me be?”

Hector looked at him sadly. “Of course, darling. As long as you promise not to act against me and mine as well, I promise.”

Wyatt looked him right in the eyes and took a deep breath. Then he let it out together with his confession. “I’m not your fan and I never was.”

“What?” Hector stared at him in confusion.

“I’ve never been your fan!” Wyatt repeated louder. “That night you caught me? I sleepwalked into your bedroom. I can’t climb walls awake, but I somehow did in my sleep, I don’t know how or why! What I knew was that you would have never believed me, so I came up with a lie. And I’ve lived it as long as I could, but I… I just can’t anymore!”

Hector watched him wide-eyed. He wasn’t angry, but he didn’t appear heart-broken either, instead his look was somewhat vacant. He frowned, looked away in thought, then covered his eyes with a hand and rubbed his brow. 

“You’re right. I wouldn’t have believed that.” He let his hand drop and looked Wyatt in the eyes. Suddenly he looked very tired. “So it was all a lie? Our relationship? Everything? You were just saving your skin?”

“I tried to! I didn’t really manage, though, did I?!”

Hector looked down, regret clear on his face. He shook his head and covered his eyes again.

Meanwhile, Wyatt continued, his voice breaking. “I thought if I pretended long enough for you to actually like me, then I would figure out how to part ways, have my life back. That’s what Zack thought too. But then you paid my debts, you got me back into university, and I knew I couldn’t just walk away anymore. How could I ever explain it to you?”

“You just did, Wyatt. You didn’t need to go to Cairo to do it either, but I don’t blame you. It makes sense now.” Hector shook his head again. “If you don’t want to be with me, so be it. I… I’m not going to force you.” Hector balled his hand into a fist and shook it angrily. “Damn it, I didn’t mean to force you! If you want to be rid of me, fine! You’re free!” Hector gestured angrily, but there was no threat about him, only frustration and bitterness. “Just drop this circus and let’s go home.”

Wyatt shook his head rapidly, sudden anger flashing in his eyes. “No. You drop it! I’m not going anywhere with you. I came here for a reason.” He knew he did, the reason was calling him, burning him from the inside out, but if he had to name it right now, he wouldn’t manage. It lingered just beyond his grasp, just outside his understanding as he took yet another step back. “You’re just a monster who loves to kill and destroy, delighting in violence and pain. Stop pretending you’re someone else.” He said, feeling a sudden need to run, but also to stop Hector somehow, prevent him from hurting others, from wreaking havoc and ruin. He was terrified and brave, he was weak but strong, frail but invincible. He was… he was so confused. “I don’t want to go with you. Just leave me here.”

Hector watched him silently with pain in his eyes. He turned around and walked away, heading to the helicopter. He grabbed something from there and came half-way back. He tossed a big bottle of mineral water at Wyatt’s feet. Then he looked at him one last time and turned away, returning to the helicopter.

Wyatt sank to the ground, as he watched Hector turn his back on him a second time and leave him behind. He had told Hector the truth. He had told him what he felt needed to be said. But why had he felt the need to say those things? Did he really still think Hector just that, a monster?

At his own request Hector was now leaving him alone in the desert, miles away from the city. But then why did he feel like he was the one letting Hector go, allowing him slip out of his grasp, when he had him right where he wanted him? Why did it feel like he was a fool to be doing this? Like he should be taking some action instead. Doing something he had come here to do. 

Wyatt shook his head. Hector’s question still rang in his ears. Why was he here? He could not remember the reason…

As the helicopter rose into the air in the clouds of dust, Wyatt just knelt there, letting his hands drop into the sand. He let his fingers sink into it, find comfort in it as tears streamed down his cheeks. But the comfort wasn’t coming. Some connection was missing. He felt helpless, useless, ready to give up, to break down. Maybe he should do that. Just give up and die here. Start anew. Maybe then things would get better. No… he would fail again anyway, like he always did. Why would he think these things even? Dying couldn’t help. It was just going to make him dead… suddenly his fingers touched something smooth, and his eyes widened.

Like a man lost at sea looking for something to cling to, he gripped onto it and dug it out from the sand. It was a golden mask and it was calling out to him. It beckoned him to look through its eyes and to finally see. See everything that he had been blind to. 

He put it on, and as he did, it melted into his skin, it became one with his being. The missing pieces finally snapped into their places.

And then he knew. He knew everything.

⚞☆⚟

“So… what did he say? Does he need help?” Luke asked, feeling a strong and sudden need to know. It was none of his business, and yet…

“No. You were right. He didn’t want to be found. He won’t be coming back with us.” Hector didn’t look him in the eye. Instead he told the pilot to take them back to the city, or better even — straight to the airport. Another handful of American dollars sealed the deal.

Luke looked down at the lone man standing in the middle of the desert. Suddenly he saw a whip of sand lash out high up at the helicopter, barely missing them.

Luke blinked in confusion, but as swiftly as the strange shape rose, it fell and vanished from sight. Luke clutched the pouch with his talisman, afraid the unusual effect was part of his curse. He quickly retrieved the talisman and put it around his neck. The rest of their flight back was completely uneventful.

⚞⚿⚟

Fool! Weak piteous fool to have let this happen! He had the beast exactly where he wanted it, he had it follow him to where he was at his strongest, where he was surrounded by his element, and then he just let it go! All because of this scared idiot that prattled on about lies and relationships instead of focusing on what was truly important. Getting the beast back into its cage. And finally redeeming his failings.

The gold glinted under his skin as the guardian looked up at the helicopter, now just a black dot in the sky, too far for him to reach. The whips of sand around him lashed the desert in frustration. The beast got away, and he was here, bound to a body. He searched the feeble human mind and found a name. Wyatt. No, he was no Wyatt. He sifted through the muddy stream of worthless mortal thoughts and found another name. Ocher. That one seemed more fitting. Almost accurate for a being created out of rocks and sand such as him. It would do.

The beast made a mistake of leaving him alive. It clearly enjoyed toying with him too much for its own good. But it didn’t yet seem to understand that he had awoken, and that gave him the upper hand. 

The Guardian – concept sketches

So many cycles they had danced around each other like celestial bodies. The beast and its keeper. The prisoner and its jailer. So many lives just out of each other’s reach or awareness. But now they would finally align. More than that, they would collide. And once again he would serve his purpose. He would cage the beast and turn the key, and he would guard its prison until the end of time, just the way he was always meant to. It would never run away again.

But first, of course, he had to find it. Luckily, he knew where it’d ran off to. He wasn’t yet sure why the cosmic horror had taken on a human shape and kept wearing it for so long, but it made things easier. In this form the beast was more territorial than ever, and while it was going to be its undoing, for Ocher it was a welcome change. He did not know how much time had passed since then, but he still remembered the wild chase he had given the beast at the beginning of it all. 

He was not too proud of how it had all transpired. Weary with keeping his eternal vigil, he had shut his eyes for just a moment, only to find that the beast had been ready and waiting. In that brief moment of his weakness and inattention, somehow it had stolen the key and broken out of its cage. Bound by duty, the guardian followed the beast as it ran rampant through the galaxies, taking on a myriad of different shapes. Unable to keep its pace he dispersed and clung to the raging black abomination like a layer of golden sand, trying to contain its ever-shifting form within his own being. That way they passed together between the stars, through different worlds and different times, until at last the beast had dragged him with it into this strange reality, where he had become trapped in an endless cycle of life and death. The beast had left its mark on this world and its history, but it had not yet destroyed it. That was unlike it, but it changed nothing. Ocher’s objective remained the same. He was to find the beast and the key that it had stolen. Good that he’d already dealt with the latter.

Or did he now?

The guardian frowned, looking at his hands. The sun reflected from the golden streaks that ran through them. He could have sworn he had the key with him just now, but his palms were empty. He took off the backpack and threw all of its contents out into the sand. Clothes, a wallet, a toothbrush, an empty bottle, a Walkman, a journal. Keys! He fished them out of the sand and scrutinized them intently. No… none of these was the one. How did it happen? The key seemed to be so near him just minutes ago when he awoke from oblivion, but now it was out of his reach again. Why? Had he just imagined it, dreamt that he had it, while in reality he never really found it after the beast had stolen it? Or did he manage to obtain it and then left it behind in Wyatt’s apartment like a complete fool?

Ocher turned towards Cairo and started making his way back, leaving the backpack behind. He stepped over the big bottle of mineral water that the beast had thrown there and continued on his way. Then, on second thought, he turned back around. He picked up the bottle, opened it, sniffed it and drank for a long time. He packed it into the backpack, along with all the other belongings, this time around leaving nothing behind.

* * *

The guardian sat in the hotel room, preparing. He looked through the frail human memories again and found some useful information. He connected that to the glints and flashes from his previous incarnations. It wasn’t easy. It was like a puzzle, pieces scattered here and there. He had met the beast before, during the other lives they had lived in this realm. He had been slain by it on many occasions. But they had never come quite this close and for so long and he had never been this awake. This life was his chance to finally recapture the beast, but he had to think it through first. His consciousness was a mess, full of useless human concepts, and he felt the sudden need to bring order to this chaos. He needed to organize his thoughts, to structure and to classify, he needed to… to write things down. The guardian turned the backpack over again and spilled its contents on the bed together with desert sand. Wyatt’s journal still had a lot of empty pages, and it felt pleasant and useful to put facts down on paper. It gave him clarity. Helped him… make sense of things.

It appears that the nameless beast had… named itself. It goes by Hector now. It seems it had for a while. In every life, perhaps? Will have to investigate.

I must have left the key back home. Possibly in the box under the bed. This could be seen as a blunder on my part, but in fact it is merely an oversight caused by the flawed influence of being incarnate. Thus I must forgive myself, as I do not currently know whether I can operate beyond the bounds of this body, and I dare not try. Not yet at least.

The guardian wrote for a while longer. When he was done, he regarded the pages in satisfaction and shut the journal. He decided he was ready to buy the plane tickets now… He did not have enough money left, but this incarnation of his had some skills up its sleeve that would provide him with that money at the expense of other mortals. Or… maybe he could use the credit card so foolishly given to him by the beast itself.