Black Heart – Chapter I Part V
by Steppen Sawicki
“They could have called me in,” Bryan growled to him. “I wasn’t infirm.”
“You couldn’t have done anything. You’re assuming you would have gotten there in time. And what if you had gone and got possessed too? It could have overtaken you easily with your state.”
“Well, we’ll never know, will we?”
“I know. I was there.”
Bryan stared at him. “You didn’t say you were – ”
“I don’t want to announce it. I don’t want to talk about it. But Rogge wasn’t the only one to die. You would have been mincemeat.”
“Is Andrade’s report that bad?” He tried a broken smile.
“Did it almost get you?”
The elevator dinged, and the doors popped open to reveal a crowd. Three people got off and Bryan got on, grateful to leave the question unanswered. Even if he did get a few stares from the group in the elevator. Celebrity of the night. His achievement felt like nothing now, Hussein’s praise from earlier forgotten.
The conference room Hussein was in was packed. As he came in everyone looked up and the guy standing at the projection of a map of Chicago stopped talking. They probably would have stared silently for some time except that Hussein stood and waved him over. He even had the man next to him stand so that Bryan could sit. He then waved for the speaker to continue, and Bryan had to listen to an in-depth plan of how many Spotters would be at which blocks on the map, according to which demons had cropped up where. It was deathly boring, but he tried his best to listen, thinking Hussein may have wanted him there to hear it. Then a woman discussed numbers of demons in DC, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and on and on. Despite all the sleep he had gotten, Bryan had to suppress yawn after yawn. After what felt like hours but was probably only thirty minutes, Head Coordinator Dover spoke a few parting words and thanked them all. Hussein and Bryan escaped into the hall before anyone could stop either of them.
“It’s good to see you, Bryan.” Hussein clapped a hand on Bryan’s shoulder as they walked. “We need to get with Andrade and go over what exactly happened, and then we’ll have some more meetings.”
Bryan took a good look at him. He was pale, and dark shadows ringed his eyes. “Did you get any sleep today?”
“I think I dozed off for five minutes in a teleconference with DC.” He gave Bryan a smile, but it was thin and exhausted.
“Well now I feel bad for almost falling asleep during that meeting just now.” As soon as the words were out, he regretted them. He was probably supposed to be paying attention to the meeting. Surely Hussein was.
Hussein sighed as if disappointed. “You always were impatient.”
“I mean, I was paying attention – ” The argument sounded hollow even to him.
“Oh? Then how many demons this week in Atlanta?”
“I’m kidding.” He smiled again, easier this time.
They walked a few steps before Bryan asked. “Sir, how many died last night?”
Hussein didn’t answer right away, as if he didn’t want to answer. “Not counting civilians? Three Spotters and five Possessed.”
Bryan’s feet stopped, unable to walk further. Hussein stopped and turned to him. A clerk with an armful of files strolled past them. “How many civilians?”
“Current count is at 160.”
“160?” Bryan’s voice was barely above a whisper.
“Many of the casualties were police officers responding to the scene.”
“Then the Possessed and Spotters?”
“A Possessed went in and failed, so three more were sent in at one time. The fourth was hit later on along with the Spotters.”
“Then who caught it?”
Hussein’s face had been blank up to now, a mask. But now it fell, and he turned away to hide it, started walking down the hall again. “No one. It’s still out there.”
Bryan didn’t move. He only stared at the geometric pattern on the carpet, his mind full of could-have-beens. He could have been there. If he hadn’t gotten injured. If he hadn’t gone to the hotel. If his date hadn’t been a disaster and he hadn’t decided to respond to the general call.
“You did your part last night,” Hussein said.
Bryan looked up with a start. Hussein had walked back to him.
“How many more would have died last night had you not caught the one you did?” Hussein continued. “And you would have died had I let them include you on the call for backup.”
Bryan’s face betrayed his thoughts.
“Yes,” Hussein said. “That was my decision. Hate me for it if you want, but I would make it again. I wasn’t willing to lose you last night.”
“Why? Because then you wouldn’t get to parade me around as the guy that caught…” He trailed off and averted his eyes from Hussein’s own. He hated all these things he was saying today. It wasn’t him.
Hussein studied him silently for too long.
“I didn’t mean,” Bryan said. “I know you…”
“Is it affecting you too much?” Hussein asked. “We can lock it up if the benefits don’t outweigh the risks.”
Bryan thought. He hadn’t felt any imprint of its…mind? But it was certainly affecting him. But was it any worse than the usual? Maybe this was all just the usual.
“I’m just always this ornery,” he said aloud, giving an assured grin. “And anyway there’s too much risk in storing it. It’s not like I’m the first to catch one of these. I can take it.”
Hussein nodded. “All right. But I want you to be honest with yourself, and with me. If you feel yourself slipping, we’ll figure something out.”
Bryan nodded back. He searched again in his head to see if something else was there, focused on the bag at his hip. Nothing, just him.