Saturday, August 2, 2008

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Special Delivery

Compass was in a breathless, frozen bubble as she and the man across from her shared appraising looks. The librarian, the books, the deepening gloom outside the windows, none of it registered as she studied his face and found pieces of her own. Now that she had a chance to see him up close and know him for who he was, the familial connection was undeniable: the ridge of his eyebrows, the line of his jaw, the spacing of his eyes were simply older, blunter versions of the ones she saw in the mirror each morning.

“I’m your pa,” he said, with a hint of, was that, wonder?

“So I hear.” Compass said back, in a voice pitched a perfect octave above his.

“You look a bit like me.” He reached across the table and took her chin in one of his big hands, gently turned her face from side to side.

It was the unexpected contact that jolted Compass into realizing several things simultaneously: first, she had every reason to believe that this man could and would hurt or kill her in pursuit of what he wanted. Two, what he wanted was humming slightly in the backpack slung over her chair, and three, they were now alone in one of the deeper, darker corners of the library. She let him study her face, even hold her chin while she concentrated on breathing evenly and remembering where the nearest exit was.

“I do look a bit like you,” she said, and realized she was talking in some weird father-whisperer voice, trying to keep him calm.

He lightly tapped her forehead with one big finger. “That’s all me, there, that intellectual brow.” He smiled. His smile was a bit lopsided like someone at the tail end of a bout of Bell’s palsy.

“Mina’s not exactly into intellectual pursuits, that’s true.”

Oliver laughed out loud. No one hushed him, which sent a small jolt of electric fear through Compass. They were down here alone. As if she needed further verification, the lights at the far end of the floor flickered and went dark. Then the next set, one row closer. Compass began gathering up her papers, trying to keep the covers and spines of the books where Oliver couldn’t see them. The next set of lights flickered, extinguished. Only a few rows to go, and Oliver hadn’t moved at all.

“You’ve got the emerald then, have you?”

“Do I look sick?” Compass stood, slowly, in a manner of one who is preparing to leave, in the normal fashion, at closing time. Her head and heart wanted her to scramble, grabbing and stuffing before running hell-bent and screaming to the nearest exit. She forced herself to act as one who is unalarmed. Another row of lights went dark. Only four rows left and they’d be down here in the pitch black.

“You don’t believe in that old curse, do you?” He pronounced it “awd.”

“Mina’s dying.”

“I know, lass, I know. Does that explain your field of study, then?” He picked up one of the books, studied the name on the spine. “Lift the curse, save her life?”

Compass shrugged. “Mina’s too mean to die; she doesn’t need my help.”

“Heh. Stash her away with Ginny and Arthur, it’s a wonder she’s not dead already.”

“What, from all that healthy food?” Another light went out. With all the nonchalance she could muster, Compass took her backpack from the back of her chair, started for the elevators. They were, of course, out of order. Compass could just see the priggish satisfaction of the librarian as she wrote the “Out of Order” sign that would likely get Compass killed. She could only hope she left a big, bloody mess on the stairs that that cow would have to clean up. Compass clutched a couple of very heavy books to her chest. She didn’t know what books they were, but she hoped they could stop a knife or deliver a blow, if necessary.

Oliver followed her, even held the door to the stairwell open for her. All seemed so stupidly normal, but Compass knew it was a dumbshow. They were like puppets, unable to stop themselves from playing out the scenes they’d been written. She hesitated the briefest of moments before plunging into the cold, ugly, cement staircase she hoped would bring her up to light and safety. Behind them, the last of the lights went out and the library basement went dark as a tomb.

The stairs were lit with those buzzing fluorescents Compass remembered from her grade school gym. She climbed upwards, her father close and panting slightly behind her, the emerald vibrating lightly against the small of her back.

“I think your phone’s ringing, there,” said her father.

That would explain the vibrating. She’d turned it back on a bit ago to order a pizza for take away—a pizza she now had no faith she’d get to eat. Dilemma, then: stop on the stairs, increasing the time she’d spend alone and vulnerable with Oliver, but get a measure of safety from the presence of another person, even if they were just on the phone? Or ignore it and continue up, hoping to reach actual, physically present people, that much sooner?

A hand grabbed her backpack from behind, pulled her to a stop. “I’ll be needing the emerald back, Compass.”

“I don’t have it.”

“I know you do. I was just behind you when you got it. Another half hour, and I’d’ve had it instead of you.” His voice still seemed quite…normal. But his eyes narrowed, and there was an unpleasantness in the deep lines of his face.

“I need it to save Mina.”

“It’s what’s killing her. How do you reckon that’s going to work?”

“I can reverse the curse.”

“The disease is already in her. Getting rid of the curse won’t change that. It’s too late.”

“Then I’ll sell it and use the money to-” The words sounded foolish in her own ears. She sounded like a child, hoping that Santa would save her Christmas. Oliver joined her on the same stair, his big body forcing her against the wall.

“I’ll be needing that emerald, Compass.” There was no mistaking the malice in his voice now.

There was no reason to keep it and every reason to hand it over. Oliver kept pushing himself into her space, and now the heavy books she was carrying were crushed up against her chest and threatening to slide to the floor. She gripped them tighter, wanting something between herself and her perversion of a father.

“I’ll have to Fed Ex it to you. It’s at home.” Pressed up against the wall like this, she could feel the emerald digging into her back. Her phone started to vibrate again, and Compass wondered where the hell the impatient cow of a librarian had gone. Surely it was now closing time for real. The thought of being trapped in the library overnight with Oliver sent her over the edge of her control. She began shoving back, desperate to get away from him.

With both hands, he gripped her shoulders and shoved her quite hard against the wall. “I’ll be needing that emerald.”

“What for? You want to commit suicide, sleeping pills would hurt less.” The pressure on her shoulders intensified, making it harder to hold the heavy books.

“I don’t believe in the curse.” Suddenly his face was much too close to hers, his eyes a flint gray, the heavy brow ridge they shared thuggish and thick with anger.

“Bullshit,” she said, and her voice shook only a little. “You left it with Mina all these years because you knew it would kill her, not you.”

“Mina’s suffering and dying was a grand bonus, I’ll give you that. But I had the rock under my control all the time.”

“The nanny.”

“The ninny, more like. Feel in love with you, she did, though she was supposed to be in love with me. Runs off with my emerald and hides it. I’m ready to have it back now.”

“Why now?”

“Quit stalling, little girl. Let’s see some green.” With his hands around the tops of her upper arms, Oliver began to lift his daughter off the ground. It was an impressive display of strength, but Compass barely had time to register it before she realized he was preparing to throw her down the stairs. Old, long, cement stairs, with enough force, she’d be dead before she got to the bottom. The books she still clutched started again to slide. This time she let them, even gave them a good push in the right directions.

When the first of the heavy books hit Oliver’s foot, the spine turned just so for maximum pointiness, Compass registered two things: one, there was a satisfying cracking noise she hoped was a bone, and two, the hands holding her were gone. She started to push and shove past him, frantic not to lose her window of advantage. Oliver grabbed at her with one hand, still bent at the waist to rub at his bruised foot with the other. The backpack began sliding off her shoulder, so Compass let it fall into her hand. In a moment of divine inspiration, she decided if Oliver wanted the emerald, he could have it. Upside the head. With as much strength as she had left, she grabbed wad of backpack in her fist and swung.

The emerald caught him in the left temple and launched him into the air. The world shifted to slow motion as Compass watched, almost dispassionately, her father pivot, grab for purchase, miss, and fly backward into the void. She was up and out so fast, she nearly missed the wet crunch of impact that came up the darkening stairs. The librarian was standing at the light controls, tersely flicking them off. The stairwell door banged into the wall, rebounding from Compass’s desperate push, and the librarian jumped and let out a little scream.

“Good lord!” She put one hand to her chest, the other still on the last switch that remained in the on position. “I had no idea there was anyone still here. Are you the last one out?”

The door to the stairwell remained open, and Compass stood with her back to the void. No sound came up behind her.

“I am, yes,” she said, and walked past the librarian to light and safety. Her phone buzzed again, but she ignored it, wanting only as much distance as possible between herself and the unthinkable mess she’d left in that stairwell. Later that night, she’d find a voicemail from Oliver, a thin, harsh whisper delivering threats from hell.

When the library opened again on Monday, two days later, the librarian found a great deal of blood, but no body. Oliver had gotten away.


Ash said...

That was intense! I can't wait to read what happens next!

Ash said...

Hmmmm - it's a rainy day. I wish I had something good to read. Hint, hint!