Black Heart – Chapter I Part IV
by Steppen Sawicki
The Office’s name is just a placeholder for now, much as I like the acronym it creates.
His cell rang, waking him. He had left it in his coat pocket, and he had to stumble over to the chair he had tossed the coat onto. He fished the phone out and answered without looking at who it was.
“’Ello,” he murmured.
“Bryan, it’s Hussein. Did I wake you?”
Bryan straightened up as if Hussein had walked into the room. “Naw – no, sir.”
“Of course I did. I had to check on you though. Are you okay?”
“Yes, just a bit murky still. I’ll be fine by tomorrow…” He noticed the dim light of morning was seeping through the curtains and amended “tonight. Are you still at work?”
“It couldn’t be helped. First Andrade’s report and then… Well, you’ll find out tomorrow.”
“Do you need me in now?”
“No, I want you to rest.” Hussein paused, and when he spoke again his voice was hushed. “It was very dangerous, what you went through. You didn’t sleep with it near you?”
“No, sir.” Bryan glanced at his bag, where he had dropped it in the hall just inside his door. Far away as could be.
“Good. If it speaks, don’t listen to it.”
“So they do speak?”
“Not all of them, but it’s been known to happen. Just be careful when you carry it tonight.” He paused again, as if in thought. “Tell me what happened.”
Bryan told him, only omitting how he had thrown up his guts at the end. It was strange to tell the story, separated from it now. Clinical.
“You did well,” Hussein said when he was done. “You kept your head. Had you panicked it could have destroyed you.”
Bryan knew what he really meant when he said destroyed. Destroyed was just easier to say. But even as he was chilled by the connotation he was buoyed by the praise. “Well, I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was a regular demon, just stronger.”
“In a way that’s what they are. But there’ll be plenty of time for all that in tonight’s meetings. Go back to sleep. We’ll want to see you in the Office first thing.”
“Yes, sir.” He hung up, feeling better from the short conversation. That was probably why Hussein had called – even knowing he would be asleep – to make him feel better. He hoped that wasn’t the only reason for the praise.
He wasn’t sure he would be able to fall back to sleep, so he sat back down in front of the tv. Next thing he knew, he was waking up. It was 3 pm, so he had some time. He put together a large dinner-breakfast and ate it ravenously, wondering why he hadn’t eaten anything after the phone call. Once he was done he assessed himself: his thoughts were clear, lighting wasn’t giving him a headache, his pulse was higher than normal but close enough to normal. He couldn’t expect to be a hundred percent so soon, but he was good. The long day’s sleep had helped. He glanced at the bag by the door, and gave it the middle finger before taking a shower.
He rode the elevated to the Office, watching out the window as the buildings grew taller and denser. As the ride dragged on, he thought he could feel some imprint of a mind from the bag tucked next to him under his arm.
If it speaks, don’t listen to it.
If it could speak, surely it did have a mind? Moreso than the regular demon that just wanted to eat. Or was he just imagining things, looking for something he expected to find? He hadn’t touched the card itself since showing it to Andrade. He probably should have; he would have to hold it up in front of a room full of people and it might make a fool of him. He should have prepared. Would he have to make a speech?
He got off at Madison/Wabash and walked the three blocks to the unassuming building. “Office of Demonic Defense” was printed in block letters on the glass doors, but other than that nothing differentiated it from any other building in the area. A decent Indian restaurant sat a few doors down, and some attorneys were above that, a bank was down and across the street. People walked the sidewalks unaware that anything other than a paper-pushing office was behind and above those doors.
Well, that wasn’t that far off really.
The first indication that something was different today was the reporters that approached him as soon as they saw him steering towards the doors. They hounded after him, shouting vague questions about what his thoughts were, but couldn’t follow as he ducked inside. He clipped his ID to his lapel and nodded to security as he set his bag on the strip. He felt a moment of anxiety as it slipped through the x-ray as if it would vanish for being out of his sight for a moment, and stepped through the metal detector.
“Hi Jones,” he said to the metal detector guy as he stepped through, even as he kept an eye on the x-ray. “Something going down?”
Jones shook his head. “You’re about to find out.”
Bryan looked at him. “Cryptic.”
“Sorry man, if I were to tell you the whole deal, I’d hold up the line.”
Bryan frowned but nodded, grabbing his bag and ironically feeling more secure for it. Part of the whole deal was probably about him anyway, and Jones just didn’t know it yet.
He rode the elevator, pressed in by people getting on and off at every other floor. They kept bumping against his bag even as much as he tried to hold it against him, and he growled under his breath every time it happened. He got off on the eighteenth floor and almost immediately heard his name shouted.
He rolled his eyes as he turned, but was relieved to find it was only Cameron approaching him down the hall. There was no mistaking the flat-top, that ridiculous multicolored neon jacket, and the pair of massive headphones wrapped around his neck.
“Business casual, I see,” Bryan grasped his hand and gave him a slap on the back, and Cam drew him in for a bear hug as if they hadn’t seen each other for months.
“We can’t all wear these sloppy ties all the time,” Cam said, pointing to Bryan’s loosely knotted tie. “How are you?”
“So you know?” Bryan smiled thinly, sliding his keycard and opening the door.
“Man, everyone knows. Have you heard about – ”
“Ivers!” This was practically screamed from a group of women – Jen, Jill, Jess, and Missy – standing outside their cubicles, who all turned their attention on him. Jess ran up to him ahead of the others.
“Are you okay?” she asked him, as if she had just witnessed him getting hit by a truck.
“I’m fine,” he said, his smiled fading as he noticed Jen and Missy were both crying. This commotion wasn’t just about him. “What’s going on?”
“Rogge’s dead,” Missy burst out, which sent fresh tears down Jen’s cheeks.
Jess took him aside, away from the other three, and Cam followed. “Late last night,” she explained. “The police had to take her down.”
“But I didn’t hear she was off or anything,” Bryan said.
“It was something else,” Cam said, suddenly serious. “I mean, something worse, like what you caught.”
“But,” Jess broke in, “much worse.”
“Worse than a beta?” Bryan said, angered by the news. “They must be exaggerating. Most people haven’t seen a beta.”
“No, I talked to Rubina. She was the Spotter, and she’s half-mad for what she saw.”
“He said, she said,” Bryan spat.
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Her eyes widened as she remembered something. “Have you spoken to Hussein yet?”
“I was on my way there.”
“He’s not in his office. He’s in a meeting, room A-4. I’m sure he’ll want to see you there.”
“How would you know?”
“Chill, man,” Cam spoke up.
But Jess only put a hand on Bryan’s shoulder. She was used to it. She was a liaison for communication between the Office suits and the Spotters and Possessed. She saw a lot of Possessed through her cubicle.
“Take it easy,” she said. “We’re all reacting differently.”
Bryan took a deep breath and nodded, unable to look her in the eye. Then he turned to head back to the elevators. Cam followed him.