The Carstle rumbled South on Highway 680. In the driver’s seat, Philo worried about Indra and what kind of shape she’d be in when they found her. Across from him in the passenger seat, J.D. was quiet. Behind them, Axel and Alex sat on the refrigerator box that Philo had converted into a shelter for Lost Randoms.
On the San Mateo Bridge, the twins started climbing around inside the Carstle, opening trapdoors and poking their heads out of the tops of the various towers and cranking down windows to look out at the various mechanical details of the Carstle. The wind kept shifting and whipping around. Several times Philo grabbed his hat to keep it from going out the drivers’ side window.
Just West of the San Mateo Bridge there were two overpasses with fifteen-foot clearance, so Philo twisted in his seat and yelled back to the twins, “Doors closed and heads down, guys! Overpass ahead!”
They got under the overpasses without a hitch, got on Highway 101 and headed North. But they hadn’t gotten past the airport yet when J.D. sat up in her seat, staring ahead of them. “Oh … wow … ” she said.
“What up?” Philo asked her.
“Something … over there … ” and J.D pointed north, toward the SOMA district and the downtown. “It’s like a dream storm, only… I …. ” As they drove north, J.D. tried several times to explain the feeling of Aphrodite Rising, but she couldn’t do it.
They got off the Highway at fourth street, took Mission Street across to second, and turned south, heading toward South Park. J.D’s eyes had gone glassy.
It had been hard to find a proper pilot for the helicopter. A complete numbskull would have been nice, since he’d be unlikely to be affected (or for that matter noticed) by the target. But Dover wouldn’t be able to calm a complete numbskull down if and when he had to pull out the rifle, either.
So he’d picked the pilot who had love in his life and a happy family at home. If he didn’t share in the need for love and the loneliness, Aphrodite wouldn’t likely notice him.
And he’d also picked the oldest and most mechanically unreliable helicopter available, precisely because its mechanical problems had made it the focus of more care and work than all the others, had made it far better shelter. It was the same reason why so many art cars were built around vehicles that had mechanical problems, and why so many of the builders had such a record of picking lemons to buy, although the vast majority of them didn’t realize it.
So here he was, riding into danger in the most unreliable helicopter he could find, sitting next to the man who’d be most sorely missed by his family should the mission fail. Dover shook his head. It really was a nasty business when the people you had to use were good.
They circled high, and Dover looked down at the police cars converging on the scene, then dropped down rapidly, so the pilot could switch on his PA and give his announcement:
“This is an unlawful assembly. You do not have a
parade permit and the crowd is blocking several
streets. Please go back to your homes. I repeat,
please go back to your homes. This is an unlawful
assembly. If you do not disperse and get off the
public streets, the police will disperse this
assembly in ten minutes.”
Then the Helicopter gained some altitude again. Dover knew the announcement had been completely ignored by the crowd. But the announcement had to be made, or the pilot would never carry through with the next part of Dover’s plan. As for Dover, although he could feel Aphrodite Rising better than most of them could, he knew what he had to do, and he held firmly to his purpose.
As Philo, J.D, and the twins approached South Park on Second Street, their way was blocked by a solid crowd of people, spilling out of the park and across the road. “Looks like we may have to foot it from here, guys,” Philo said.
But Axel and Alex popped open the side door and walked around to the front of the Carstle. Axel took up a position in front of the right fender, and Alex in front of the left fender, and Axel looked back at Philo and made a beckoning gesture and the twins began to walk forward.
It was slow going, but Philo inched the Carstle forward through the crowd. Alex and Axel were being very polite to people as they asked them to get out of the way. Axel was tipping his teacozy hat to thank them, and Alex was doing formal Japanese-style bows, but of course they were being polite in a language that none of the crowd understood. There was some kind of helicopter overhead; maybe a lot of people were just assuming that they hadn’t heard the twins properly because of the noise. But however it worked, Philo kept driving. If they could get the Carstle close enough for Indra to see, it would be reminder of her life as Indra.
As they turned the corner and came in view of Aphrodite though, J.D. jumped out the passenger door and ran forward through the crowd. Goddamn and confound it, she was Lost again, Philo knew it.
Axel turned around with a questioning look, then seeing Philo wave him forward, he galloped off into the crowd after her. The Carstle came to a halt as the milling crowd stopped giving way. Philo hopped out the Drivers’ side door and started working his way closer on foot.
There’s pretty much just one way to take out a Goddess, Dover thought. First, you have to take out Her people, the people whose need and desire shapes Her into whatever She is. But you don’t have to kill them. You just have to do something that takes all their minds off that need and desire, all at once. And as the ten minutes expired, the police at the upwind periphery of the crowd started lobbing tear gas canisters. That would do it.
He watched Her through his binoculars as the people started going down in coughing crying fits. He saw a look of surprise cross Her face, then pain. She shouted, a raw sound lost to him in the noise of the helicopter. And slowly, as Her people went down, She went down. Eddies of tear gas drifted like fog across the crowd, momentarily thick enough that he lost sight of Her.
“Take us down a little,” he shouted to the pilot, getting out his rifle. “I think I see our killer, and he’s getting away!” Fortunately he believed that shooting the killer was the right thing to do – which meant, just now, that the pilot did too.
The pilot, scanning the crowd intently, dropped the helicopter down to about three hundred feet. The prop wash knocked the mist away and a perfect shot at the still form of the Goddess suddenly materialized in his telescope sights — and was just as suddenly blocked by a skinny Latino in a silk shirt, kneeling over her. Dover swore under his breath.
The helicopter lurched, and Dover swore again. But then he felt what was going on with the pilot, and he twisted in his seat to face him. The pilot giggled, reached down, and turned off the motor. Then Dover watched as the pilot took the ignition key out of the slot, threw it out the window, and giggled again. It wasn’t too hard to figure out. The killer had really been there. The pilot had been looking for him. And the killer had tripped on the pilot.
And if the way to take out a Goddess is to take her people down with pain, that’s not the way to take down the kind of creature that feeds on pain. Dover cursed himself for an idiot. Plan C was a bust.
It was going to be a hard landing.
Axel had just spotted J.D. when white blossoms of tear gas started blooming in the crowd. She was standing at the edge of the crowd, trying to work closer to the Goddess, shouting, “Help me! Save me! I don’t want to die this way!”
She’d never see the gas coming. Axel took a deep breath, grabbed J.D. by the collar of her coat, swung her into his arms and started making his way back to the Carstle, amid the choking and dry heaves of a thousand people. His eyes ran, but as long as he didn’t breathe it in, he could keep his legs pumping. But he was running himself out of breath, and fast.
Axel couldn’t see the Carstle for the tears in his eyes and the ever-increasing white mist, but he knew exactly where his brother was, so he kept running.
Philo was flailing through the crowd towards Aphrodite when the tear gas hit. He was making more progress than J.D. had because he was using his hands and elbows to forcibly make paths through the crowd. He was taking a deep breath to shout “Coming through” when a wave of white mist rolled over him from behind. Philo doubled over coughing and heaved his lunch onto the sidewalk.
He tried to suck in a breath to get up again. That was a mistake, and his guts clenched harder. For a moment he thought he was done, but when everything else drained out of him, one thought remained. That was Indra up there and she needed help. He opened his streaming eyes and saw the base of a tree and somebody’s backpack wiggling in front of him. Somebody’s backpack, and somebody’s water bottle hanging from a loop on it. Somebody was still attached to the backpack, but Philo reached out and stole the water bottle.
He splashed water on his face and then pulled the hatband off his oversized hat and stuffed it into the neck of the bottle. It was hard to do because he could barely see and every few seconds his guts would clench again. Then he put the wet silk in his mouth and pulled himself up, hand over hand, using the tree. Stars flashed in front of his eyes from the effort, but he finally got upright, covered his mouth with the cloth, and breathed a thin breath of air through it. His eyes and throat still hurt like hell, but it seemed to help the breathing, and he got his bearings again and headed for the platform Indra had been on.
He couldn’t run anymore. He could barely walk. The white mist clung to the ground like wisps of fog, and he couldn’t see more than about fifteen feet. But the flashing stars kept getting worse, because he wasn’t really getting enough air. Finally a fit of coughing forced him to his knees. He couldn’t walk any more. His guts clenched again but all that came of him was the water he’d swallowed from the bottle. By this time there wasn’t really anything left to lose. But that was Indra up there. So Philo began to crawl.
He reached the platform in a haze of pain, flashing stars in his vision again as he levered himself over its edge. Finally he found Indra, lying inert where the power of the Goddess had left her.
Suddenly, the air was clear and moving, a cold draft coming down out of the sky with a roaring noise. Philo didn’t know where it came from. But he took one deep lungful of air, forced an arm under Indra, and levered them both upright against one of the pillars as he heard a crashing noise behind him. Suddenly there was no more helicopter noise, just a whirring of rotors spinning down, and he realized that the helicopter had crashed. He turned to look at it but the tears in his eyes made it a bleary, off-kilter blur. It was on the ground at a crazy angle; one side of its landing gear had folded under the weight of its impact. The propwash, he realized numbly, had been what brought the clear air down from the sky.
But then the white mist was closing in again. “Madre Dios,” he said, taking a deep breath before it got there.
He stood in the mist, his eyes closed, his skin starting to burn in the harsh chemical fog. He had a breath. A good lungful of air. He might not be able to get another. But he couldn’t see the Carstle, and he had to get Indra out. “Alex!” he yelled. “Honk the horn, Alex! I have to find you!” He dragged Indra off the edge of the platform, his ears straining for the sound of the horn. His eyes he closed against the corrosive mist.
That was why he didn’t see Connor Ames step out of the mist, smile at him, and kick him hard right in the pit of the stomach. Philo crumpled to the ground, still holding Indra so she collapsed on top of him. Ames twisted one hand roughly into Philo’s collar, grabbed Indra by one arm, and dragged them into the mist.
This is one chapter of The Hook, a novel which is being published serially on this site. This page links to all chapters so far serialized.
The complete novel is available from Amazon.