Maria takes Jesus back on her lap and buries her face for a moment in the back of the baby's neck, taking comfort in cuddling the little boy. After several miles of watching the scenery pass, she says, "Did I just dream all that?" A ridiculous question, given what's in the backseat.
You come around a long, curving hill and suddenly there is a small city spread out to the right of the car. Just under the road is a small lake, and past it and well below you are the thousands of dim, uncaring lights of a city night. "I don't think so." He sounds like he's guessing.
She shudders, keeping her eyes forward, not wanting to see dead Sascha even in her peripheral vision. "Great. If you don't understand..." She sighs. "How far are we from Vegas?"
He looks at the speedometer, looks at the city below before another hill rises up to block it from view. "Hours. We're actually not on the best road there -- probably should cut over through Palmdale and go to Victorville and then up." Out of the corner of his eye he looks you over, "First we should stop at the hospital -- have a doctor look at your arm."
With a blink, she looks again at the minor gunshot wound, having forgotten about it in the chaos that followed it. "It's not that bad," she snorts. "Some disinfectant, some gauze..." Obviously, she feels she's had worse.
"Did the bullet pass through the meat?"
"It barely grazed me," she says. "Look, if we stop by the hospital, we'll be there for hours, they'll ask all sorts of questions, they'll probably try and get the cops involved, and god help us if they find..." She jerks her head towards the backseat.
That brings a nod, "Right. Check the glove compartment, there may be a first aid kit."
Of course, now that she's aware of it again, the wound is starting to hurt like a bitch. She starts to reach for the glove compartment with her left hand, then stops and winces, keeping the arm around Jesus while she rummages with her right hand instead.
In the compartment is one of those little travel first-aid kits, along with several translucent brown prescription bottles half full of pills. The kit has gauze and butterfly frets and alcohol and triple antibiotic ointment, the bottles have words like "Tylenol with Codeine" and "Percocet"
Her motions are practiced enough to suggest at least a passing familiarity with this sort of injury. Using her teeth and free hand, she manages to keep Jesus on her lap while cleaning and dressing the wound. Once she's finished, she balls up the trash and sets it aside, closing the kit and putting it back in the glove compartment. She looks at the two bottles and grunts. "I don't think I can dry swallow one of these. We'll need to stop and get something to drink."
It's about five minutes to the next exit, where Mikey pulls off and heads down a long street that goes right up and down several steep hills, rather than winding through them, before coming to a set of railroad tracks. Past the tracks is a big gas station with a quickmart, where Mikey buys several sodas, bottles of water, and some milk and a bottle. 5 minutes after that you're back on the freeway.
Before anything else, Maria pours the milk into the bottle for Jesus. She glances over at you. "Thank you," she says before giving the bottle to him. Opening one of the water bottles, she takes a cautious half of one of the tylenols, putting both bottles back into the glove compartment.
"I wasn't doing anything else tonight anyway." You drive past signs announcing the alphabet backwards, till Mikey pulls off and heads down a town street. Passing shops built along the railroads in the 60s, now gone to pot, you pass through sleeping Palmdale and head out on a narrow 2 lane highway into the Joshua tree filled desert. The moon's gone down, and it's black as the Crying man's soul. "You should sleep."
"What about you? Do you need me to drive at all?" Even as she asks, she's already starting to settle back against the seat, prepared to doze, at least for a little bit.
"No," he says, pulling into the left lane to pass a motorhome, "I've slept -- and I wasn't shot. You sleep, and we'll talk about taking turns when you wake up."
It's perhaps a little eerie how much she trusts you, and how little she's questioning everything that's just happened. Then again, for the former she has little choice, and the latter will most likely change after she's taken a nap. Curling a little on her side she closes her eyes. "Wake me up if you get tired."
Your sleep is a troubled thing. It's never easy to sleep in a car in any situation, and it's made even harder by the images that bubble up out of your mind when you drift. You see your father, bloody, toothless mouth hissing out words, and you see the Crying Man kneeling before a woman in an Aztec head-dress. The woman looks over his shoulder at you, her eyes growing bigger and darker, till they become the sky without stars or moon, and you are falling upwards with nothing to hold onto.
She turns away from the images, body turning in sleep almost enough to dislodge the baby. She murmurs and tries to will the dreams away.
The sky turns darker, then brighter, and the dead girl Sascha comes out of the penumbra at the edges of black and grey and takes your hand. Her fingers are cold and dead, and there are signs of vomit around her lips, the purple discoloration of strangulation patching her face. But her eyes are soft and innocent, and her grip does not let you fall.
Maria doesn't know whether to shudder and pull away or to trust in the dead girl. In the end she does a little bit of both, making a low sound in the back of her throat, a negative without words.
The girl smiles at you, then looks over her shoulder, towards the horizon where it is not so dark. "Do not fear. Soon it will all be over. Soon everything will be over. But everything that ends can be born again." Her voice is squeaky, a little girl's voice and the kind that would be mocked by her classmates. But the tone, the cadence, are not that of a little girl -- they are that of the sea, old and knowing and eternal as the waves.
Somehow the idea of everything being over isn't a terribly reassuring one. "What do you mean, 'everything will be over'?" It isn't the sort of thing she'd ask if she were thinking clearly, because she doesn't really want to know. But when does one think clearly in a dream?
The little girl smiles and sings, "Here we go round the prickly pear, the prickly pear, the prickly pear, here we go round the prickly pear at 7 o clock in the morning! That's the way the world ends, you know -- and you'll have to decide if it's a bang or a whimper. It's all in your lap." With that she shakes your arm hard and says, "Wake up! We're here!"
You blink twice before you realize that Jesus is pulling on your hand, gumming your thumb, and it's Mikey's voice saying, "Wake up. We're almost there."
"Huh?" she muzzes, pulling out of the sticky, fuzzy sleep of the half-drugged and uncomfortable. She says something that sounds almost like, "In my lap." Then her eyes blink open. "Wha? Where?" She looks out the window.
Jesus bites down on your thumb semi-hard and then starts to suck on your knuckle. He's all warm, and your shirt and pants are sweaty where he's been sitting against you and blocking off the AC. As your vision unfogs you see that you're headed down Las Vegas Boulevard. The sun is out, if not by a whole lot, and there is a white castle with blue and red towers rising out of the grit of the street around you.
"Jesus." She's not speaking to her brother. "Did you drive all night?" She sits up, shifting Jesus so she gets a little more AC, and starts rubbing at her eyes. She starts at something and turns around to look in the back seat.
Mikey yawns a bit, but stifles it with the back of his hand. "It was only about 4 hours, a little less. You didn't nod off till nearly 4 in the morning. Plus, unless you really have a yen to see Baker there isn't anywhere to stop along the way." He pulls off the main street into a little side entrance of the massive hotel. It looms above you, a castle surrounded by two towering walls -- all of it packed with rooms. Off to your left rises a black pyramid, and to the right a giant circus. But it is in the shadows of the castle that Mikey stops, "Well, that's it. Excalibur."
"Where the king lives," Maria says, turning back to face the front. Why she turned back to the dead girl she doesn't say, but the sleep hasn't quite left her eyes yet. She frowns for a moment. "The... the Knight of Three Swords? Is that what he called himself?"
In the glare off all the white -- cement and plastic, all of it not really white as a dreary off white -- Mikey's tattoos seem almost black against his skin as he rubs his face slowly, massaging it with the heels of his hands. "Yea, I think that was it. Though why the hell you'd have a sword -- let alone three -- in this day and age is way past me." He looks back at Sascha too. "We can't leave her in the car. What do you want to do? Put her in the trunk? Have one of us go in and the other drive around?"
"Do you know who we're looking for?" she asks. "I mean, you're the one who knows about this stuff, right?" With a brief glance back again, she says, "I'd hate to... to stick her in the trunk. That just seems wrong." It's equally apparent that she's not keen on splitting up, either.
"I know my stuff, this is not my stuff. This is deep level shit of an order way beyond my little wading pool." He parks under a palm tree some distance from any other cars. There are plenty around, but the lot is hardly crowded at this hour on a weekday morning. "I have no clue who we're looking for -- a king I guess. If we want to stick her in the trunk we need to find a better spot, someplace out of sight, then come back."
Maria sighs. "Yeah. Yeah, let's do that, I guess." Maria looks down at Jesus for a moment, then gives him a hug, scooting around to change his diaper. "I dreamed about her, you know." She gives a laugh that is more than a little ragged. "She said not to worry because the world was ending. It was --" she pauses, looking at the little boy. "It was in my lap, she said."
Jesus grins up at you, then makes a face as you start changing his diaper. Mikey starts the car back up and drives out of the parking lot and away from downtown, leaving the hotels behind. "Yea" is the sum total of his comment about the girl in your dream.
With a shake of her head, Maria leaves the dream behind, for now. After a moment, she risks another question. "How deep do you think it is?" While you're certain she's afraid of the answer, she asks anyway, and even follows it up: "Do you think whoever these people are... they'll understand what he is?" That one leads to an even more frightening question: "Do you think we can trust them?"
While you're talking Mikey runs a red light. He does it on purpose too, you watch him slow down as it turns yellow, the gun the engine and pour through once it's hard red. A pickup has to slam on it's breaks to keep from hitting you, and the angry driver flips you off as you pass, you can see him screaming through his windshield, reaching up to grab the cross that hangs from his rearview mirror and shaking it at you like a club.
"I don't know." Mikey says, presumably in answer to all your questions. His eyes are tense, watching the street and all the mirrors at once as he cuts off down several side streets, moving into the residential areas of the city.
"What the hell was that about?"
As if picking up your tension, Maria slips into the seatbelt and pulls Jesus securely on her lap.
"Just pushing my luck." After a few minutes he eases back, "No cops, thank God. Another 7 for me." Without explaining that he asks, "So, where should we go to put the body in the trunk?"
"Shit, I don't know. I've never been to Vegas before." She chews her lip while she thinks. "Maybe see if we can find an empty level of a parking garage or something?" Then she realizes there isn't much downtown showing outside her window. "I don't know. Just something secluded. Last thing we need is for someone to see us."
As you talk you drive past a Shell station, one with the big automatic car washes. "You mind getting a little wet?"
Maria blinks, then smirks a little. "No. Can probably use a shower anyway." She wrinkles her nose, realizing how long she's been on the run.
"Yea, you do stink." He half grins as he says it, and flips around into the gas-station. Skipping getting gas he goes to the wash and feeds four one dollar bills into the machine, then puts the car in neutral and waits for the conveyer to start you through. "Wait till the big thingies on the side go past the doors -- they'll block the view from behind, and won't take the doors off from going by."
"Yeah, you're a bed of roses too," she retorts, but nods. "This is a pretty fucked up Chinese fire drill," she mutters, setting Jesus off her lap, waiting for the right moment.
The car gets soaked, and then the big washers come by, buffeting the car as they push past -- first on the sides, then on top.
Maria's fingers curl around the doorhandle as the washers roll over the top of the car, her body tensed to spring.
The big flopping heavy fabric strips pass by, and it's time to go.
Maria hops out of the car and opens the back door, reaching in to take out Sascha's body, all the while trying not to think about what she's handling. "Pop the trunk," she calls over the sound of the water, brushing water out of her eyes with her shoulder.
The trunk pops open at exactly the same time you call out, jumping up and inch then opening slowly the rest of the way. The top and side washers get past the end of the car, spinning about a foot past the bumper, and then something clacks, and rather than starting back they just sit there -- spinning.
Maria doesn't question that, laying the little girl in the trunk after a quick look around to make sure the view is blocked. "I'm sorry," she murmurs to the body, water rolling down her cheeks like rain, falling to the girl's battered face. She closes the trunk and goes to jump back in the car.
Mikey is watching the heavy drying brushes spinning, their flying strands closing off the front view as well as the back. You're wet when you get it, though not quite as soaked as you would have guessed -- the spray was only a drizzle while the pads were going past. Mikey doesn't say a word for the two or three minutes it takes the system to reset, and then the brushes come gliding back. A few minutes later the car rolls out the front, powerful airjets blowing the last moisture off the hood and roof.
Her first action back in the car is to try to wring some of the moisture out of her hair onto the floorboard, pushing droplets back from her face. Finally she asks, "Did you do that?" She nods back towards the car wash. "It stopped."
He nods as he pulls back out into the street, heading back towards downtown. "Yea. Karma, you know."
She accepts that much without another question, having at least a vague grasp of how karma works. She keeps wringing out, twisting her shirt next. Finally she stops, and turns to face you directly. "Mikey, how much of all that shit last night did you understand? You ain't said two words since it all ended." Assuming, of course, that it has.
He drives for a good ten minutes without answering, "A little. Very little. It was... well, it's something that I'd theorized could happen, but didn't think actually would. It's one of those things..." He sighs and stops, then starts over, "You know anything about chaos theory?"
Maria snorts, turning a bit to face forward. "Heard of it, used to shelve books on it. Come on, I barely finished high school. I know about any of that shit. I just know it's some really complex stuff."
He grunts at that, then laughs, "Hell, you're smart enough to know when you don't know -- that's better than most. Okay, what I'm trying to say is this, life is probability, like flipping a coin. Half the time it comes up heads, half the time it comes up tails, right? Well, maybe not -- sometimes it comes up edge, or rolls under the couch so you can't see what it came up. Last night it didn't come up at all. Someone tossed a fucking big coin up, and it didn't come down heads, didn't come down tails, didn't even come down edge -- it just sat there in the air, turning over and over and over and not coming down. We think life is all heads and tails cause that's what we see most of the time. We know it could be edge, but we forget about that part. No one's ever seen a coin not come down though, so we think it can't happen. It can though -- it's just not very probable."
"And we kept flipping with it, is that it?" Maria warms to the subject, drawn to the analogy. She pauses, then adds. "When we took her, it was like something ended. That's why we got back here. Something got resolved that was fucked up when we found the car wreck."
"Yea. Maybe. There were three cars though, and in the end one. I think when you shot the guy at the store, and then we stopped the guy from running with his daughter we did something -- like kept the coin from being flipped at all. Then, since it wasn't flipped, we came back down -- on edge maybe, but down."
Maria blinks. "Fuck. Fuck me. They were the same. I thought they were triplets or somethin' at the time, but they weren't. It's like.." She frowns, trying to formulate the concept with her limited education and vocabulary. "I dunno, like he was... he was on three paths? And somethin' happened to make them all cross at once, and we got sucked into fixing it." She's not quite satisified with that, but it's as close as she can get.
He nods, face profiled against the black pyramid as you pass it. "Yea, I think so. We just slipped through the cracks where probability become improbablity." With that you're driving up to the Excalibur again. This time Mikey goes into one of the side parking garages. "So much for last night -- what do we do now? I've only been here a couple times, and I don't know no king."
Maria frowns thoughtfully, trying to remember her father's dying words. "We find the sword in the stone. From there, I don't know."
Opening the door and getting one foot out, Mikey pauses. "Isn't Excalibur the sword in the stone?"
"Well yeah. I mean..." She sighs, frustrated. "I dunno." She looks around at the castle-like building. "I guess maybe I was figuring there was a... a statue of it or something inside. It's one of the things Dad mentioned, before he died."
Maria adds, "He mentioned the sword in the stone /and/ Excalibur. Separate. Or maybe they were the same thing, I dunno."
The car door closes behind him as he gets out, brushing out his clothes and running his fingers through his hair. "Fuck, we look like hell. You've got blood on your shirt and stuff." He pulls off the sweater he was wearing and tosses it to you, "Put that on -- it'll cover the blood."
"Thanks." Maria stands Jesus up next to her long enough to pull the sweater on, trying to fingercomb her damp hair. That done, she tries to wipe the worst of the smudges from Jesus's face, limited to the use of her thumb and some spit, in true maternal style.
Jesus puts up with it, though several times he tries to bite your fingers when they get too close to his mouth. Mikey waits till you're done, then heads into the hotel.
Maria picks the baby up and follows Mikey, feeling horribly out of place and trying to look as inconspicuous as she can.
Your footfalls echo through the parking garage, and you have to take an elevator down to the entrance. Across a u shaped drive up you go, a couple cabs loitering even at this hour, and then in through a wide set of doors. The first thing that greets your eyes is the casino, slot junkies sitting on their stools and pulling the robot arms, late night poker games that have long since become early morning poker games populated with bag-eyed, smoked out men with weariness and desperation showing on their faces, and a group of Japanese women circulating from game to game like hummingbirds testing a feeder.
Vegas in the morning doesn't smell anything like victory. About three steps in, Maria realizes she doesn't look so out of place after all. A quick glance makes her look like nothing more than a gambler coming off an all-nighter -- which in a way is what she is. She leans close to your ear and murmurs, "Did you say you had a way to sorta... I dunno, feel if somebody's doing something weird nearby?"
Mikey is looking around, watching people go in and out of the doors, and checking out a map near the edge of the casino that shows the layout of the whole hotel. "Not really. Sometimes you catch signs, but it's not like radar. Plus, this is Vegas -- someone is always doing something weird." He points to a set of double doors to your right, where there is a sign saying "The Albino Lion Will Guess Your Age!"
Maria sighs. "So nothing, huh? Well.. we could walk around..." Maria gives a half-grin. "Or I could walk up to someone who works here and ask them where the king is."
"Yea, or maybe we could ask the albino lion." He snorts, "Stay here a sec, I'll wander and see if anything catches my eye."
Maria frowns a little, but nods, shifting Jesus to her other hip and looks around as unabashed as any tourist around, taking in the cheesy medieval theme with wide-eyed curiosity.
A few minutes after Mikey walks off a big man in a steel-grey suit comes out of the room with the ad for the age-telling albino lion. He walks out of the door and past you, then stops and comes back to you. He looks down at you from nearly a foot and a half up, sea-grey eyes looking down at you slightly dubious. "Maria?" He's wearing a security badge on his lapel, it says "Owen Rheged, Chief of Security."
Maria doesn't answer to her name right away, too surprised and too cautious. Instead she asks, "Is there a problem, sir?" She surreptitously eyes around the large man for Mikey, half-hoping Jesus will pipe up with an ever helpful "Good!" or "Bad!"
Jesus does indeed pipe up. He points at the room the man came out of and says, "Lion."
Owen looks at Jesus and nods, very seriously, "Yes, there is. He's my lion." He then looks up at you and almost smiles, his face just a tad too serious to make the full expression. "There are a lot of problems, and I'm sure you know more about most of them than I do. I'm to ask you to come with me, there is someone who would very much like to speak with you."
Maria's eyes are still too wary. "I'm here with somebody," she says. "I have to wait for them to come back, else they'll get worried. I can't just disappear." Still no denial or confirmation, although she senses at this point that that's moot.
"Don't worry about Mr. Mamakeola Mili, Boris will bring him along eventually." He watches you very seriously for a moment, eyes calm and still, "I know it's hard to stop running Maria, but I swear on my honor that no harm will come to you here."
Maria looks back at the man, her eyes as troubled as his are still. Honor isn't something she takes lightly, and the tone of the man's words give her little choice. "All right," she finally says, holding tight to her little brother. "We'll come with you."
"This way, ma'am." He gestures past the doors with the lion sign, and leads you through the room. There is, at the front of the room, a giant white lion lazing about on the stage. It has a chain and a collar, but as you walk past you notice that the chain isn't actually attached to anything. Past the stage is a door leading to a short hallway, and then to an elevator. Owen takes a key from his pocket and uses it to key the elevator, which opens to admit you. There is only one button on the inside, and he presses it, making the doors close. It's a long ride up, and Owen doesn't speak the whole way.
Maria rests her chin on Jesus's shoulder, holding the baby high enough up that his little head is almost higher than hers. She doesn't feel inclined to speak either, feeling a little out of her depth with such an obvious authority figure. Suddenly a question occurs to her, and she asks, "Who are you taking me to?"
A moment after you speak the elevator stops, and the doors open. Owen looks at you and this time he really does smile, though it's a small smile. "The King, of course." With that he leads you down a hall lined with teak and floored with marble, his footsteps ringing across the hard surface. Coming to a large oak door he steps to the side, pulls open the door, and gestures you in.
"Of course," Maria murmurs, a trace of smartassery in her tired voice. After the door opens, she sighs, and after a glance at Jesus, she walks through.
The room you walk into is not very large, but it is quite fine. The walls are dark wood, and the floors are light stone. Before a large fireplace lies a bearskin rug, and on the rug stand the King. He does not wear a crown, and he does not have a scepter or a robe -- he wears a grey suit quite similar to Owen's, though he does have a purple tie. He turns as you enter, and it is from his face that you know that he is King. It is not the hair, once blond and now going grey, nor is it the piercing blue eyes. It is something altogether different and more, a sense of power and strength. The only thing you can think to compare it to is the terror of when the Crying Man was on your heels, but this is the opposite, a quiet and abiding strength that is the equal of that fear. In a deep, smooth voice he says, "Welcome Maria, and welcome Jesus. I am Arthur, and you are safe here."
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