Bzrk, p.21
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       Bzrk, p.21

         Part #1 of BZRK series by Michael Grant
 
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  Imagine a tight-packed army of hooded men. They are so close together the bottoms of their hoods almost touch. And the hoods themselves are pink. Sharp at the top. Cones of waxy pink flesh.

  Imagine within those tight-packed, rough, waxy-pink cones there are things that look like tiny Styrofoam noodles, the floats you might use in a swimming pool. And alongside those segments of tube are short strings of beads. Mardi Gras down amid a serried rank of pink-hooded Klansmen.

  And those noodles and beads are the bacteria that make their home on the tongue.

  It took an effort of will for Nijinsky to send the biots rushing to leap aboard that alien landscape.

  A stab of pain and Nijinsky couldn’t hold in the groan.

  He drew his tongue quickly into his mouth, and his biots were flooded with a gush of pearlescent saliva. The tongue curled at the sides, warping the landscape.

  “He’s awake!”

  “Don’t let him touch you!”

  Nijinsky drew in breath and spit. It was a hurricane-force blast that picked up saliva and biots with it.

  The spittle flew the two and a half feet from Nijinsky’s forward-thrust mouth to Sugar’s stiff blonde hair.

  He felt the biots land as if it were his own legs absorbing the impact.

  “No!” Sugar cried. She began beating at the back of her head.

  The impact actually helped by pressing tall, rough-textured hair trees down toward the scalp.

  “What did you do?” she demanded, turning to rage at Nijinsky.

  “Did it get on you?” one of the thugs cried.

  The smart move, Nijinsky knew, the winning move for them was to shoot him right here, right now. They didn’t do that. Which meant that something was stopping them.

  They didn’t want him dead; they had some other idea in mind, and that knowledge gave him power.

  His biots were racing across the dead leaves of Sugar’s scalp, scurrying through a sort of birch-tree forest.

  Ears, ears, nose. Which way? The nose was the easiest in terms of direct route, but the most dangerous: a sneeze could be deadly. And indeed Sugar now tried to force a sneeze, blew air out of her nose frantically.

  “Pull over. Pull over,” she cried. She pointed to an all-night Duane Reade. “The drugstore. You. Go in there. Get me … um … um, bug spray. And Purelle. Q-tips. Hurry!”

  She kept beating at her head, and indeed the forest was having unusual weather as the trees slammed down, flattened, sprang up again. Then she started scraping at her scalp with her fingernails.

  This was dangerous.

  Nijinsky kept his biots close together. He wanted a single field of view to deal with.

  The trees parted and suddenly, moving with impossible speed, was a fingernail. Sugar kept hers moderately long so that only the fingernail and not the fingertip now tore through spongy scalp skin.

  The nail was a wall of ridged, dead cells, flakes held together by the rough glue of keratin, and over that a translucent layer of clear nail polish that from his perspective seemed as thick as a sheet of ice.

  The edge of the fingernail was like a monstrous plow. It ripped up dead, fallen skin cells as it raced toward the biots. Jump right! The massive plow roared past. But now she was scratching her head like a madwoman. Fingernails everywhere, leaving oozing blood behind, platelets coming up out of the ground and resting in shallow furrows dug by huge claws.

  Nijinsky saw a clearing ahead: the edge of her hairline. She hadn’t started scratching her face, at least not yet, so N1 and N2 bounded along through the last of the hair and out onto her forehead.

  Then: luck!

  A huge bead of sweat, ten times their own height, a tsunami, a crazy bead of liquid containing as much water as a swimming pool oozed up through her skin, shone in the dashboard lights, a drop, poised, quivering, like a skinless grape or a water balloon.

  It would roll. And when it did it would move faster than any biot.

  Nijinsky sent his biots racing toward the sweat drop, and then, rushing down, a second drop was already on the move! It would hit the first drop and join with it and then … almost too late!

  N1 and N2 leapt, hit the side of the mass of water just as surface tension broke and the drop began rushing like a mountain river down toward Sugar’s eyeball.

  Biots spun like socks in the spin cycle.

  “Knock him out!” Sugar yelled, realizing belatedly that it was her only move.

  The butt of a gun smashed into Nijinsky’s head, and with his last draining ounce of consciousness he saw the sweat surf spin his biots through the eyelashes and drop into the familiar comfort of an eyeball.

  A blink and he was both unconscious and safe.

  TWENTY-ONE

  Plath was almost there before she clicked. She looked at Vincent. “Are we going where I think we’re going?”

  He barely spared a second from texting and scrolling through news sites, or whatever it was he was doing. “Yes.”

  Montauk had already shut down for the season. Kids were all back in school. At this time of year it was only the few bargain-hunting old people still around, and they didn’t keep the restaurants open this late.

  The house itself was past what town there was. Down a winding private road. Gray shingles and black shakes on the roof, and pane windows, two full stories and rooms up there under the dramatically steep roof. A rich person’s house, no question about that. The nearest neighbors were out of sight behind a bluff. The ocean was right there down a path through grass-tufted dunes. You could hear it sighing and sweeping, and you could smell the salt.

  Plath knew the house, having spent many weeks there growing up. Not every summer, but most of them. And the occasional spring or fall jaunt to take advantage of a sunny weekend.

  Vincent had a key, but some sense of decorum caused him to hand it to Plath. She opened the door.

  “Do you know the security code?” Vincent asked her.

  She punched it into the keypad.

  All of this was of course observed by Keats and Wilkes.

  “Now can we just call her Sadie?” Wilkes asked.

  “No,” Vincent snapped. He didn’t like this. He didn’t like what all of this was doing to his carefully constructed secrecy. “Get inside. This is a safe house. We’ll be here until we figure out whether it’s okay to return to the city.”

  “Lock up behind me. Two people awake at all times.” This was from Caligula, who didn’t sound as if he thought that was a mere suggestion. He went back out to the car and came back with a shotgun slung over each shoulder. He tossed one to Vincent. He handed the other to Wilkes.

  “What about me?” Keats asked.

  Caligula made a wry smile. “I only have two with me. And I know Vincent will pull a trigger.” He cast a sidelong look at Vincent and said, “Vincent is a regular Scipio. And I know this little bitch,” indicating Wilkes, “is nuts. You, sonny? We’ll see about you.”

  Vincent pulled Caligula aside, actually grabbing his arm. A hush fell as something very dangerous, a soft, slow danger, like a purring tiger, passed between the two men. Vincent let go of Caligula’s arm.

  “There’s a police report of an abduction at a club in Tribeca where Nijinsky goes sometimes,” Vincent said.

  Caligula nodded. “Does he know this location?”

  “No. This is on my list, not on his.”

  “That’s good.”

  “What are you going to do?”

  “I’m going to bring the dot-head chick in. Nijinsky won’t be coming.”

  “We’re not abandoning Jin.”

  “Yes. We are,” Caligula said, and walked away.

  “Fuck that!” Wilkes yelled after him. But the door closed and he was gone. She turned to Vincent. “We’re not leaving Jin to those people.”

  “We’re doing what—”

  “We’re not leaving Jin just because some killer in a goddamned velvet hat says to!”

  Plath wondered whether now, finally, Vincent would lose his cool. No.
“Do you know where they have him, Wilkes? Because I don’t. Maybe if I did? But I don’t.”

  “Get hold of Lear, tell him—”

  “He knows.” Vincent waited to hear anything else Wilkes might have to say. But she had apparently used up all her outrage. “Find rooms. Wilkes, you and I will take the first watch. Keats? There’s a small basement room. Take Dr. Violet down there. Lock the door. Bring me the key.”

  Plath’s choice of room was easy: her own. Getting there was the hard part because she had to walk by the master suite, where her parents had been, back, back so long ago.

  And Stone’s room was next door.

  Plath did not allow herself to open the door to see and hear the emptiness of her parents’ bedroom. But she did open the door to Stone’s room and stood there, leaning in slightly without letting her feet cross the threshold.

  It was professionally decorated with Montauk-appropriate themes of sailboats and dunes, sandals and kites. Only the faintest sense of Stone as an individual showed: a Frisbee on the desk, a huge stuffed white rabbit wearing a woot! T-shirt, a single framed picture of Stone and … and Sadie, definitely not Plath, when he was maybe ten and she was a sadly dorky-looking seven. The picture had been taken right here on the beach. On the wall was a framed replica of an old-style gold record: the Rolling Stones’ Beast of Burden. It was an inside joke between them, the idea that Stone as the heir apparent was the beast of burden.

  “I don’t know what room to go to.” Keats, just a foot away. He’d come up unnoticed. How long had he been standing there? How long had she?

  “My room,” she said. “I can’t sleep there alone.”

  She crossed the hallway to her own room. She snapped on the light and did not see what she expected. Her room was just as she’d left it when she’d last been here. Was it two summers ago? No, not that long. And somehow, it was all unchanged. But if she had changed, how could her room still be the same?

  Her bed was made. Her window shades were open to the sea. Posters of Against Me and the Methadones. Books, actual old-style, physical books, filled a couple of small shelves. Knickknacks. Beach kitsch, all displayed to achieve maximum ironic effect. A basket with half a dozen bathing suits, mix-and-match tops and bottoms. A framed, autographed picture of Christopher Hitchens hung next to a framed, autographed picture of Tim Armstrong. A Ramones beach towel. That made her smile.

  Keats stepped in and looked carefully around, noting details, nodding to himself every now and then.

  “Well?” she asked him.

  “You used to be Wilkes,” he said.

  The observation was so surprising her jaw actually dropped open. She looked around, saw it as he was seeing it, and laughed. “Huh. I was just thinking how alien it all feels.”

  “Yeah. Well, things changed, didn’t they? All this craziness, it has a way of, I guess, pushing everything in a different direction. Maybe before all this started happening Wilkes was some little Catholic schoolgirl wearing a plaid frock with her hair in pigtails.”

  “Somehow I doubt that,” Plath said.

  “That’s a big bed.”

  “I thrash in my sleep.”

  “I noticed. The other night. But on that narrow bed the thrashing potential was limited. One could thrash in this bed.”

  “Are we talking about having sex?” Plath asked.

  “I don’t know,” he admitted wearily.

  “You want to,” she said flatly.

  “I thought I had you fooled.”

  “There are certain signs …”

  “It seems weird not to, I guess. Have sex, I mean. I’ve been inside your brain. You’ve been inside mine. It’s not as if there’s anyone to yell ‘for shame!’ at us.”

  “No,” she agreed. “The only thing stopping me …” She fell silent, not sure how to explain.

  “You don’t want to do it just because you’re scared and we’re thrown together. You don’t want your first time to be—”

  “How do you know it would be my first time?” she snapped.

  He shrugged. “Just a feeling, I guess.”

  She mirrored his shrug. “Yeah, well … I guess I was hoping for something more than a desperate terror-grope. For my first time.”

  “So, you’re a romantic,” he deadpanned.

  She smiled, and liked him a great deal right then. “That’s me, a romantic.” She went to her bookshelves and tilted her head to look through the titles. Then, realizing he wasn’t buying that distracted act, leaned back against the little student desk and said, “To tell you the truth, Keats, I am seriously messed up. I don’t think I’m showing it. I know I’m not letting myself feel it. I’m kind of just crushing it down inside me. But it doesn’t feel good. It feels like I’m ignoring a tumor or something. Like I’m just pretending and looking away. And …”

  She ran out of words then.

  Keats nodded slowly, taking time to put all of that away in his memory. Then he said, “Well, you’re certainly not going to get me to have sex with you now.”

  “Rain check?” she asked.

  “Let’s get some sleep.”

  They turned off the lights and lay together again. This time the bed was wide enough that they did not need to touch. But their hands reached out, and their fingers twined together.

  “Keats?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Are you inside me?”

  “Well, that’s not a question any boy wants a girl to ask.”

  “Keats.”

  He was quiet for a bit, then said, “Yes. Little K2 is currently checking on his basket-weaving work.”

  “Okay. Thanks. But shut him down and go to sleep.” And then, still later. “But that’s all right? You wouldn’t ever … I mean, I know what Vincent said. You aren’t wiring me. That’s not why I feel this way, right?”

  “On the lives of everyone I love: no.”

  But after that their hands did not touch.

  Nijinsky woke up no longer in the limo. He woke up in two places at once. One was a garage. Not one of those big, underground garages, a standard two-car garage of the sort you might find in any upscale suburb. There was only space for one car, actually, because the other half was filled with children’s bikes, boxes of Christmas ornaments, power tools.

  The other place Nijinsky woke was just under an eyelid. He recognized the terrain. It was not his first time squeezed between eyelid and eye.

  Nijinsky was seated. He had no choice in the matter. He was tied, hands behind his back, stretched around a wooden dining room chair, ankles tied to the legs.

  Sugar Lebowski stood before him, dripping wet, wearing different clothes than she’d had on before. This was her home, Nijinsky realized, somewhere out on Long Island or in Jersey. Which meant that he was not going to leave this place alive. Or at least not without a brain filled with wire.

  There was a twitching station, too. More primitive than what he would have expected. It wasn’t the high-tech marvel BZRK had been led to expect of AFGC, more like an Aeron chair with a clunky computer parked alongside; wires, a pair of gloves attached to the chair with bungee cord, and a forty-two-inch monitor propped atop a rickety occasional table.

  Obviously a jury-rigged portable model.

  The two thugs were not there. But a young man with fly-away blond hair was. He must have been in his early twenties. European, Nijinsky concluded, assessing the clothing brands and choices.

  Sugar didn’t waste any time. She grabbed a rusty golf club, a nine iron, and swung it level, straight into Nijinsky’s shoulder. Which hurt like hell. Almost made him forget the throbbing at the back of his neck and the goose egg growing under his hairline.

  It was an interesting choice. A shoulder hit like that.

  Nijinsky sent his biots racing.

  “What’s your name?” Lebowski asked. Before he had a chance to answer she swung downward and smashed the golf club into his thigh.

  Which nearly made Nijinsky swoon from pain.

  But was also an interes
ting choice.

  “Tell me your name!”

  “Santino Corleone,” he answered.

  “That’s very cute. Funny, you don’t look Italian.”

  “You’re very observant.”

  She smashed the club down on his shoulder again. It hurt, but it had started to go numb from the earlier blow.

  “Careful, you don’t want to hit my face,” he gasped. “You’ve got very strict instructions not to hurt my face.”

 
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