The laughter was getting louder, heading Vesta’s way.
She had just managed to cram herself and the baby into a garbage bin under a countertop in galley of the boat. She huddled between unforgiving metal walls in a cold puddle that smelled of rotting, moldy refuse and sea water. The icy dampness had already soaked through her clothes to her skin. But she was barely aware of any of it, barely aware of anything but the laughter, coming closer and closer.
It meant the baby would be dead soon, and probably Vesta, too; Impure didn’t kill their own kind unless provoked, but protecting Citizens was more than enough of an excuse.
She had no idea why she had taken the baby from its dead mother.
She had no idea why she hadn’t killed the baby, herself.
Pressed against her breast, the baby was quiet and still, so much so that Vesta had a wave of panic that she’d inadvertently smothered it to death.
Maybe that would be a more humane death, anyway, she thought.
Barely daring to move, barely able to move, she glanced down at the tiny bundle. She could just make out the baby’s face.
It looked pale and wan in the dim light, eyes closed.
She blinked at it, trying to make out more of the baby’s features. She thought she saw the almost transparent, veined eyelids flutter. Then the baby drew up her small fist. It was still clutching the amber stone pendant, and the baby brought it to her rosebud mouth, touching it as if to kiss it. Vesta felt a wash of relief.
Vesta had given the babe the necklace to play with, with the vain hope that it would keep her quiet. But it had.
Sleep, little one, she told it silently. Sleep away this nightmare.
She was, Vesta thought, a beautiful babe, classically Aurumian, with such delicate features and flawless golden skin, and a silky thatch of black curls. But more than just beautiful. It was as if she glowed.
And she was utterly untouched by any of the hallmark signs of the Impure.
She was still so young, though. Perhaps she would start showing signs eventually.
This had to be why, Vesta thought, she felt no impulse to kill to her. What other reason could there be? The rage, the urges to hurt and to destroy, had already become difficult to suppress within a couple of days into the voyage. Then when the killing began, she thought she might start killing, too, caught up in the frenzied screams and the other Impure’s laughter.
She had wanted to start laughing, too, laughing and killing.
It was the madness Nathanael had told her about, the madness she had seen bloom in him like an ugly, monstrous weed, the madness she witnessed in her uncle, Calius, and in the other Impure who roamed the Valley of Aur. And, of course, she was witnessing it now in Theresia, the other Impure on board, who was laughing because she’d killed nearly everyone, laughing because she wanted to kill more.
But for some reason, this babe had calmed Vesta’s madness, the urge to kill. She found that she could think more clearly. She could even remember who, what she had been before she began transforming.
She was Vesta, one of the cursed in the cursed House of Eles, the House of Amber. She had been fleeing her destiny, that or trying to find it. Nathanael. Her beloved. Her life. Or her death.
Months ago, he’d been captured along with a handful of other Impure and taken across the ocean.
She’d hoped to find him at the end of her journey.
She should have known she’d only find a pre-emptive death on the way there.
The girl, Natalia, the babe’s mother, had been amongst the other Citizens who’d come aboard the old, patched-up boat to make the dangerous crossing to America. From the little Vesta had gleaned from talk amongst the Citizens, this babe, this perfect, precious baby, had been born of a forbidden union, a tale of star-crossed lovers, and Natalia had foolishly dreamed of a less blighted future for herself and her child. The babe’s father had remained on Aur. The other Citizens on board told Natalia he was a coward.
But they were wrong. Stupid Citizens. Natalia should have stayed on Aur with her lover.
If she had, she’d still be alive.
The dream, the fantasy had ended for all of the Citizens, destroyed in violence.
Ironically, they’d been so close to their destination, just off the shores of the United States. The slaughter had begun only in the last couple of hours.
The door to the galley smashed open just then, bringing with it fresh salty sea air and the metallic smell of blood and torn flesh. Vesta heard Theresia’s surprisingly lithe footsteps as she flew into the room, heard her laugh again, a gurgling noise that sounded almost like she was drowning.
Or maybe she was just choking on the blood in her throat from her most recent kills.
Bottles and cookware crashed to the floor in a jangling din, cabinets were flung open and contents knocked out and thrown against the walls, all just for the sake of breaking things.
Fragments of pottery and glass hit the metal lid of the bin Vesta hid inside of, causing it to move on its swinging hinge.
She held the baby closer to her, her eyes on the edges of the lid as the light seesawed in, wondering when they’d be discovered.
It seemed a matter of when, not if.
She wondered if this extra hour with the baby really made a difference in the end.
Death was the only end.
Vesta unconsciously drew up one of her hands and felt for the lesion on the back of her neck, one of the first signs she was transforming.
She registered a startled shock above the fear and anticipation already pouring through her.
For the lesion was no longer there.
There was only smooth skin wet from perspiration.
She thought she heard Theresia come close to the bin, pausing.
But then she moved on.
Something was burning.
Spices, too, rich, aromatic spices that had been spilled on the floor, smells that reminded Vesta of her early childhood, of the warm kitchen, of her mother baking spice cake with drizzles of icing on it.
The memory quickly disintegrated into ashes before the horror of the ever-demanding present.
Now she heard the fire nearby eating away at something, crackling, popping, smoking, and thought she could feel the heat rising, growing, coming at them in hot waves, feel the smoke crowding into the already confined space and eating up the air around her.
She wasn’t sure which was worse, dying in the fire or being discovered by Theresia and having the babe taken from her.
Or becoming consumed by the rage and killing the babe herself. It was still possible, wasn’t it?
But the lesion was gone.
The madness was gone.
The air was becoming heavier and hot, and it sounded like the fire was now spreading around them.
Something heavy crashed to the floor, maybe a chair or part of the cabinets, and, somewhere nearby, the Impure uttered a sharp note of pain.
Vesta wasn’t sure if she heard Theresia’s footsteps leave the galley or not.
All she knew was that she had chosen death by fire for the baby and herself.
She closed her eyes as she felt a wave of heat and smoke envelop them.
She thought of Nathanael with an aching sense of loss.
Foolish. She’d been just as foolish as the Citizens.
Good-bye, my beloved.
An odd sense of peace filled her as she drew the baby closer to her.
She wondered if this was what death was supposed to feel like.
Thirty-one Years Later.
“Ms. Chen,” I said again, stepping directly in front of her. “It’s Edith Brown. Dr. Edith Brown.”
Unlike me, she’d been hard to miss. I’d spotted her right away, standing just outside the security area that led to all the boarding gates, looking more like a fashionista than an administrator.
She was just as I remembered her from the Pediatrics conference a couple of months ago, a lot better-dressed and better-looking than almost everyone else. And very aware of it.
She was probably a handful of years younger than me, in her late 20s, I thought, though she had perfected an ageless sophistication that was years ahead of me.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that she had the kind of body pencil skirts and stilettos were made for. I, on the other hand, didn’t even have the right equipment, having never gotten past looking like a spindly teenager, even at thirty-one years of age.
Not that I tried to do much. Becoming a doctor had been my major attempt. I’d been delusional enough to once think if I helped people they’d notice me. See me.
“You were waiting for me,” I prompted Elaine now.
“Oh. Dr. Brown?” Elaine said, blinking at me.
Yes. That’s me. Thanks for meeting me at the airport.”
Her eyes flickered over me, attempting to focus, a slight frown of confusion creasing her brow behind her carefully made-up face, before her face smoothed into a determinedly solicitous expression.
“Of course. Dr. Brown,” she replied, her lips lifting into a smile that was almost sincere-looking. “I trust your flight was pleasant?”
“Yes, thank you,” I told her with a matching smile.
Actually, as far as airplane flights went, mine had been really good. The Aurel Foundation had spared no expense, flying me out first class to their interview.
No matter that the flight attendant forgot to offer me the complimentary mimosa or overlooked me when she was handing out headsets. The huge leather seat I sat in sure beat being crushed beside someone who didn’t quite fit the dimensions of the economy section seat, or someone who had neglected to take a shower for the last month, or in front of a kicking, tantruming child with remarkably strong legs.
After finally getting a complimentary headset I’d passed the time watching a really bad movie on my personal video screen. There was some child crying, but way off in the economy seating.
“Have you any other luggage?” Elaine asked presently, her eyes glancing down at the weekender bag and the work satchel I had with me.
“No, this is it.”
I, too, glanced down at the bags and also the wool overcoat draped over my arm, a coat good for snowy Ann Arbor, Michigan, and completely wrong for rainy Portland, Oregon. I hadn’t even thought to bring an umbrella.
“Very good,” Elaine was saying with an uninterested nod, her eyes already gone from my bags and coat and moving on to the next matter. “We have a car waiting just outside the baggage area. May I assist you in carrying anything?”
“Oh, no, I’m fine,” I said, shifting my things in my arms.
“Then it’s this way. Please follow me.”
She led me along the carpeted way and down the escalators to the baggage claim area. People seemed to part before her.
I trailed slightly behind with my bag, satchel, and bulky coat, watching with some fascination how masterfully Elaine walked in her high heels, and rather feeling like I was her porter rather than her guest.
The car waiting for us at the curb was a grand luxury sedan befitting a celebrity red carpet event, only there was no carpet rolled out for us. But there was a driver in a dark suit who’d already opened the back door for us. He took my luggage and coat from me with swift efficiency.
His hand brushed mine as he took my things away; I don’t know why the thought of it even registered.
In the next moment I found myself amidst buttery leather seats beside Elaine, the door closed on us.
I caught a whiff of the perfume she was wearing in the confined space. It had a musky, exotic quality, smelling of what could only be described as sex appeal and power.
It was a little too strong.
As the car pulled away from the curb, Elaine began talking by rote. She started off with the motions of apologizing that the Aurel Foundation was located two hours away, just outside the Portland metropolitan area in the coastal mountains, but I would soon see it was worth the trip.
She handed me an orientation packet as she spoke, advising me that I might wish to review it now, and to please feel free to ask her any questions.
“Thank you,” I said politely.
I opened the substantial packet in my lap, a black leather portfolio filled with glossy booklets describing the “unique community setting,” “state-of-the-art facilities,” and “multidisciplinary, collegial environment.”
My hand was tingling slightly where the driver touched it.
Glancing up, I could only see the back of his dark, close-cropped hair. I also saw what looked to be scarring that formed an extensive, disjointed pattern over his scalp and disappeared into the collar of his suit.
He drove well, his hands resting lightly on the steering wheel, long-fingered, capable-looking hands. He maneuvered the big car smoothly onto the road, effortlessly merging into traffic.
I absently rubbed the spot on my hand as I looked back down and turned a page.
I made my way through the booklets, which were pretty superficial, full of clichéd self-aggrandizing and lots of nice pictures. The Foundation looked like a picture postcard town from the past – or a Hollywood film set – rather than a medical center. It was nestled up in the mountains, lost in a time warp.
After my perusal of all the booklets, I did my best to come up with interviewee-type questions to ask Elaine that I wasn’t already planning on asking Calius Argens. I was about to launch into something when I met the driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
It looked like he was staring at me, as if he actually saw me.
Then his gaze shifted back to the road. The scarring, I noticed from what I saw of his reflection in the mirror, covered his face, too.
Then he was staring at me again.
His eyes were a light brown, almost amber.
My hand absently reached for the amber pendant around my neck because it was the same color as his eyes. The pendant was a smooth, oval stone, reddish brown in color, with a curious twisted black filament trapped inside, set in sterling silver and attached to a silver chain. It had been around my neck when I’d been found as a baby. For no good reason, I always assumed it had belonged to my unknown mother. I always wore it.
I did something reckless for me: I smiled at the driver.
He didn’t smile back, or at least his eyes, all I really saw of him, didn’t seem to smile.
Swing and a miss, I thought, my heart thudding unexpectedly.
I felt myself blushing as if I were a silly schoolgirl.
I dropped my hand from the pendant and quickly turned my head to ask Elaine a question, the first that came to mind, if all the staff lived in the “unique community setting,” or if some of them commuted from Portland or elsewhere.
She gave me the long version of an answer, about how everyone lived on the grounds because there was no reason to leave. The Foundation community had everything anyone could possibly want. Oh, and more.
“It seems rather like a resort or small town,” I said after she finished her spiel, either that or some sort of posh prison , I added to myself.
“Yes, it does have a quaint, small town feel to it,” Elaine acknowledged without apparent irony. “At the same time it’s amazingly cosmopolitan with all that’s going on at the Foundation. I’m an L.A. girl, but I haven’t missed it. Not for a second. To be around such great minds is incredible. So stimulating. It’s impossible to experience that kind of ambience anywhere else in the world.”
The driver was watching me again with those unsmiling eyes.
Then I felt Elaine looking at me, too, looking from me to the driver. A small crease in her brow formed, then washed out in the next instant.
“This is James, Dr. Argens’ chauffeur, by the way,” she said. “He’s very good with his hands, aren’t you, James?”
It almost sounded like sexual innuendo, the way she said it.
James didn’t reply.
“James isn’t much of a conversationalist,” Elaine added for his benefit, I think, not mine, because she was still looking at the back of his head as if willing him to glance back.
Elaine continued to look at him. It seemed as if she’d forgotten I was there. Not that this was anything particularly unusual or new.
I decided to remind Elaine of my presence by asking a question about the ancillary staff. This strategy seemed to work. Elaine shifted her gaze back to my general direction and responded with scripted sentences.
I asked about the medical record keeping technology, the laboratory facilities, and some other questions that came to mind, and Elaine assured me that the Foundation was perfect in every conceivable way.
Somewhere in the midst of this, I noticed James was looking back at me yet again through the rearview mirror, as if he couldn’t keep his eyes from me despite himself. I raised my brows inquiringly this time.
He looked away.
It’d be funny if it weren’t so puzzling.
Beside me, after concluding her latest speech, Elaine cleared her throat slightly, the frown between her brow reappearing. Her eyes were narrowed, boring a laser beam at James, one he didn’t appear to feel, as she caught him looking my way again. Then she reached forward to tap one of her fingers on his shoulder. Her fingernails were long and manicured, painted a glossy dark red, the color of old blood.
“James,” she said, attempting a slight, provocative smile, though it was lost on him because he didn’t look round, “that reminds me. There’s something I’ll need you to take a look at when we get back. I’ll come and see you about it.”
“As you wish, Ms. Chen,” he replied after a moment in a surprisingly flat, emotionless voice, with maybe a slight accent I couldn’t identify.
She withdrew her hand and leaned back into the seat, complacently folding her hands on her lap. There was a slight satisfied smile curving on her red lips as she turned my way.
I had to suppress the impulse to laugh, biting my lip.
I had a tendency to inadvertently bring out people’s insecurities, but jealousy, especially over a guy, was a completely new one for me.
When she couldn’t quite focus on me, the smile faltered, and she dropped her gaze and studied her manicured nails.
I averted my own face and looked out my window. I watched as we traveled over the long, curving stretch of freeway, which was bordered by tall fir trees and the grey sides of buildings. It was nearly noon, and there was a heavy cloud cover that darkened the day and dulled the colors. At least it wasn’t raining at that moment, though rain was in the forecast.
Elaine asked presently, as if remembering her job, “Do you have you any other questions, Dr. Brown?”
I turned from the view, the unrelenting grey, and looked back down at the glossy brochures in my lap and came up with more questions, this time regarding the clinical population and what my role as a clinician would be. She replied promptly, quoting the brochures more-or-less.
She added, “I’m sure Dr. Argens will discuss the particulars of the role he has in mind for you,” a shadow of the frown returning as her eyes drifted over me. She seemed be searching for what Dr. Argens could possibly have in mind for me, and failing to find it.
That made two of us.
“Yes, I look forward to that,” I said to her.
“I’m sure Dr. Argens has a reason,” Elaine said, probably more to herself than to me.
Eventually, Elaine started to talk about herself; it was as if once I gave her the opportunity the floodgates opened. I learned that she had been with Calius Argens for some five years now and she had an MBA from a prestigious business graduate program, “graduating with top honors.”
“In fact, I left behind a promising position in cooperate business to work with Dr. Argens. Of course, he wanted to assure me that the official title, ‘executive secretary’, was a misnomer, since I serve as his eyes and ears to the Foundation. I’m more his chief operations officer, if you will.” She paused, smoothing her already smooth, sleek hair. “As you can imagine, Dr. Argens is often tied up in his surgical duties and relies on me to see to the daily administrative functioning of the Foundation. He often jokes that he has no idea how he managed without me.”
But it was clearly no joke to her, I thought. She believed it – in herself – like a religion, or at least wanted me to.
Next she assured me that she felt it was important to remain “personally involved in recruiting,” This was why, she didn’t quite say but implied heavily, she’d been sent on this menial errand of picking me up at the airport. She didn’t want me to think it was because she was only a secretary.
So in addition to misplaced sexual jealousy, she was also really insecure about her professional status.
“The Aurel Foundation,” she continued after a meaningful pause, “is fast becoming one of the premier research institutions, and certainly the only one systematically addressing orphan genetic diseases. As you are no doubt aware, this has led to some major breakthroughs in understanding and treating other, more common genetic diseases, so the Foundation can reach not only the few but the many.”
I listened – or half-listened – as she continued on and on, basically rehashing what was in the brochures, what I had read about on their website, and what was commonly known. I wondered for the hundredth or thousandth time why Dr. Argens and the Aurel Foundation were interested in me. I was only a few years out of my general pediatrics residency, and I was a clinician, not a researcher. At most, I had a paper trail showing I was a competent but somehow forgettable or not particularly well-liked doctor.
The only things out of the ordinary I could even think of were two cases I’d peripherally been involved with, a teenager, Melinda, a year and a half ago. And Danny.
But neither of their miraculous recoveries had anything to do me.
What had been remarkable to me at the time was they’d been able to see me. Like James.
I saw that he was looking at me again.
Elaine apparently didn’t miss it, either, dropping her professional demeanor and saying irritably, “James, you seem to find Dr. Brown a fascinating study. You’ll make her uncomfortable,” and she said to me in an apologetic, patronizing voice, “James, I’m afraid, can sometimes forget his manners. It doesn’t mean anything. As you can see, he’s had problems. He’s been employed by Dr. Argens for – what – how long has it been, James? Over a decade. Before that, James was a patient of Dr. Argens.” She paused meaningfully. “I hope, James, that you’re watching the road.”
He didn’t reply. He didn’t seem at all fazed by Elaine’s comments and kept his eyes on the road. I was probably more fazed by the comments than he was.
It made me think that I was doing way too good a job bringing out Elaine’s insecurities. Usually, I didn’t interact with people any more than I could help it for this very reason.
I glanced at my watch.
This will be a long hour ahead of me, I thought.
I did my best to redirect the conversation.
I worried that I’d exhaust all the questions remotely relevant to the job I was interviewing for before we arrived at our destination, and I didn’t think it was possible to keep Elaine talking indefinitely about how smart and savvy she was.
Luckily, Elaine, most apologetically, of course, had to take some important phone calls, which took up a substantial amount of time.
As we began making their way up into the coastal mountain range, I hoped that the cell phone coverage wouldn’t be lost.
A miracle, I thought. A true miracle.