V: The Prince
It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious Oscar Wilde
Standing before the rickety shack, no one could think of anything to say. It was a large, poorly constructed abandoned building. The rust-red shingles on the roof had become shattered and many had blown away in the desert winds. The windows were intact, but were dust-covered, preventing anyone from seeing the contents of the inner sanctum. From the front of the building, it appeared to be a huge, angry monster, prepared to devour the souls about to enter.
Porfirio bent down and grabbed a handful of sand, grinding the individual grains between his fingers. He let them slide back to their place in the earth and returned to his standing position.
There is something about this place. He said in English, turning to his companions behind him. Something haunted.
Good, then. Replied Hank, opening the trunk of the sedan and pulling out John's bass. More inspiration.
You expect us to work here? Erika asked, incredulous.
Work? Hank laughed. We're going to live here!
Live here?! Erika cried in disbelief. She had clearly never been outside her comfort zone of a happy lifestyle. But now, oh-so-hopeless, what other choice did she have? She was reliant on her fellow musicians. But mostly, she trusted Hank out of all of them. He seemed the most stable and the most aware of what was going on. He had a plan, or so she wanted to believe.
Sounds good to me. John interrupted, grabbing his bass from Hank. Better than nothing.
See? John understands. Hank said, tossing Porfirio his snare.
Less of an understanding than a true recognition. John sighed. I know what it's like to live in poverty.
Hank looked to Erika with a sneer. She quickly folded her arms insecurely.
Guess Erika isn't familiar with that. Hank said quietly and smugly.
Erika had had enough. She quickly stormed up to the front door, which was peeling its paint off slowly, and kicked the door open, tearing the lock's dead bolt right through the wood doorjamb. The door hit the wall with a loud clash, sending a wave of sawdust up into the air.
Inside, Erika could see the one story building was actually rather large. Halls to either side of her extended into blank oblivion, marked by off white walls and dusty windows. The light flooded in behind her, painting her shadowy silhouette on the wall in front of her, dancing across a line of foreign words written in plain black paint. To her right, she could see a small walk-in closet where the ghostly skeletons of hangars hung from pale white poles. Ignoring this for now, she turned back to her stunned male companions, a look of smug satisfaction smeared across her face.
John leaned over to a speechless Hank.
She's crazy, but I like er. She's got spunk.
Ford opened the door to Travis Hoff's office with two cups of steaming hot coffee, expecting to see Hoff lounging around with his feet up on his desk and smoking a cigarette. Instead, he was shocked to find Hoff's normally smiling face rather serious and buried in a laptop monitor. His fingers clicked away at the keyboard, as if attempting to crush a colony of ants that had wandered there.
Trav, what're you doing? Ford asked, setting one of the foam cups down next to the computer. One of Hoff's exhausted hands grabbed the cup and brought it to his lips, all without ever taking his eyes off the screen. I went to the Oasis yesterday. Hoff said, still not looking away. Talked to the owner. She handed over information regarding the other guests checked in when Montierre was killed.
Man, don't you think you're looking too much into this? Ford asked, obviously concerned. I mean, this case is as good as cold. We got nothin'.
Oh, really? Hoff smirked, waving Ford over to look at the monitor. To Ford's surprise, Hoff had done some good work. Hoff's browser was connected live to MSNBC's southern sister station, and Hoff was now uploading a police sketch of Hank C Bison Gracer that had been accomplished through Midge's description.
Impressive. Ford said, smiling. But we don't know this guy actually did it.
No. Hoff replied, crossing his arms and staring into the sketch. But I'd like to meet this Mr. Gracer and ask him some questions.
Erika slammed the door to her makeshift bedroom in a fit. She hated this place. It was dusty, filthy, and all around unpleasant. It felt as if she was being watched constantly, and her paranoia was beginning to overtake her comfort. She quickly shed her Muse t-shirt and reached for the tan backpack she had been lugging around for the past few days, removing a dark red cotton shirt and pulling it over her shoulders.
She sat on the edge of the barren mattress the boys had taken from a nearby recycling plant and sighed. She missed home. It had been about a week now since she and her mother left Crest, Washington. She had everything she knew back there: friends, school, and all her belongings. Why again had she agreed to go with Hank? What had he promised that made her so eager to run off into the desert and write music? Perhaps it was the promise of a new beginning; an opportunity to leave her capitalistic foundations behind her and begin again. Tabula Rasa.
There came a knock at her door. Erika lifted her head and stared at the chipping green paint peeling off the door.
Who is it? she asked petulantly, sniffling away.
It's me. Came the accented reply. Porfirio.
Go away. She replied plainly, but the door opened at a crawl. She didn't have a lock, anyway.
I said, go away. Erika repeated slowly, assuming Porfirio didn't have a good enough grip on English.
Porfirio ignored her and walked in, dressed in a white tank top that revealed his muscled, tan physique. His arms, toned from years of drumming, were crossed over his chest. His normally dark brown eyes were closed, hiding the innocent look they often reflected.
Hey! Erika shouted, waving at her unwanted guest. Did you hear me?
I heard you. Porfirio said calmly, leaning against the wall and lifting his leg to set the bottom side of his dirty foot on the wall. I'm just not listening.
Well, can't you take a hint? Erika inquired, hugging a smelly dark green pillow.
I can. He replied simply. But your mood is bad.
Erika looked at Porfirio with a sense of confusion. His English was a bit slow, but he seemed to understand her. She sniffed curtly.
So what? she snorted. What business was it of his?
So I'm worried. Porfirio said. Everyone has bad days.
Bad days? Erika spouted. This isn't just a bad day, kid.
Don't call me kid. I'm sixteen.
Oh, well excuse me. Erika scoffed.
But really, you're upset. Why?
What do you care?
Even if I'm the only one Porfirio let his statement fade off. Erika perked up. Even if he was the only one
Well, it's likeI'm out here alone, you know?
You're not alone. Porfirio replied, opening his strong brown eyes. I'm here.
That's not what I meant. I mean, I'm kind of isolated in my head. I know Hank and John and stuff are here, but I feel kind of alone in all of this. There's only four of us, but
I understand. Porfirio nodded, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. Back in the barrio, papa would tell us that we must look out for each other. Because if we don't, the bad guys win.
The bad guys? Erika sniffled. Bad guys don't make you feel alone.
Not what I'm saying. Loneliness is only until you find someone to talk to. And what are we doing?
Talking. Erika said quietly, curling into a tight ball.
So tell me, Porfirio begged. Why are you out here with us?
Well, my mom died in this motel a few miles away, and
And Hank was there to comfort me, but I mean, he really didn't say much. I just kind of felt attracted to him.
You like him, yes?
Not like that. He had thisthis comfortable feeling about him. He's so out there, you know? He's got this unknown knowledge in his head.
Yeah. Porfirio agreed. When I went into the car back in town and he came in a little later, I felt like he knew what was going on. He knew about how I'm not sure about God.
It's like he can read broken people.
We're not cars. People don't break.
Not like cars, no. Erika said, looking at the blank walls all around her. They break like hearts do. Inside. And maybe Hank can see that. Maybe he can put them back together.
He carries body-glue?
Something like that, maybe. Erika nodded slowly. He can see what makes people hurt inside.
Apprehension gripped Charlie's heart as he raced up the steps. Honestly, this was no time to be hesitant. The clock was ticking. How long before the darkness enveloped his beloved hometown? How much time did he have to make everything right again?
The short stone walkway up to the front step of Amber Fordyce's home in Franklin, Georgia felt like a mile. Charlie could only hope Kingston had been correct in his address. How awkward would it be to be at the wrong house? Not to mention the valuable time wasted on a false lead
Before he knew it, Charlie was already standing in front of the plain wood door, hand prepped to ring the doorbell. He didn't really want to, but he did. The bell rang a small familiar tune. For a moment, Charlie felt no one was going to answer. But then he heard the clatter of feet on hardwood floor and a second later, the door swung open.
Standing there before him was one of the prettiest girls he had ever laid eyes upon. She was probably just a few inches shorter than him, but what she lacked in height, she made up for in sheer beauty. She had shoulder length, dark as dark can get brown hair that ran it way around her well-sculpted face, noted by a pair of large, gorgeous brown eyes and pale lips that seemed to glow in the late afternoon sun. Her somewhat thin frame still gave host to some deadly curves that snaked under a green-yellow shirt depicting the famous Oscar the Grouch', and past a pair of dark blue jeans that covered a pair of legs that seemed to stretch forever. Charlie was dumbfounded.
Can I help you? the girl asked, parting her lips to speak in the voice of an angel.
I-uh Charlie stuttered, his hormones going absolutely nuts.
Um? the girl smiled uneasily, expecting Charlie to be another creep trying to pick her up.
Uh, is this the home of Amber Fordyce? Charlie finally managed to squeeze out.
Yes, speaking. Amber replied sweetly, trying to hide her apprehension.
Hi, I'm Charlie. I knew your brother, Anson.
Yeah, and honestly, this is a long story, but I was wondering if you knew where he was?
This was unexpected for Amber. She hadn't heard from her brother since their parents' divorce. She took a quick look around before beckoning Charlie to enter with one finger. Charlie, still slightly shaken, entered the Fordyce home.
Inside the living room, Charlie felt a sense of warmth. The Fordyce home had that down-home country feel to it, with a nice fireplace to one side and a large cabinet, host to an extravagant television. A long mantle stood above it, hosting a number of family photos and individual snapshots.
Charlie suddenly felt his leg be assaulted by an unseen predator. The warm mouth full of teeth wrapped about his ankle and bit down hard, breaking the first layer of skin, but doing no real damage. Charlie cried out and looked down, feeling the creature bumping against his upper thigh.
There, smiling stupidly with its mouth on Charlie's leg, was a rather small for its breed St. Bernard.
Down, Condor! Amber ordered, pointing at the dog, who quickly let go of Charlie and sat down, staring up at her with big brown eyes.
Jesus. Charlie muttered, sitting on the nearby leather sofa. He's a beast.
Sorry about Condor. He's kind of brutal towards new people. Amber sighed, sitting down next to Charlie. Anyway, you said you were looking for my brother?
Yes. Charlie replied. He has something I need. He left our hometown a few weeks ago and disappeared.
Does our mom know?
Idon't think she cares.
Amber bit her bottom lip uncomfortably.
Oh. Well, I'm sure he's somewhere.
But where is my question. Charlie replied softly, digging around in his pockets. He returned with the note Anson had left in Harmony Hill. He left this.
Amber eagerly took the note, sniffling in melancholy feeling, and read aloud: To the damned: I have seen the true face of this vile town and I realize its true nature. The depraved souls left behind here shall be the only remnant of the black hole that has engulfed my home, my life, and my righteousness. I must flee from this place, should I ever wish to retain my charity. All hope has gone from this place, and I feel I must go with it. I have taken the ankh, perhaps the last piece of holy scripture left here. Bibles mean nothing to a man without hope. Damned be all who reside in the pit of Harmony Hill.
She then paused. The silence in the room was even felt by Condor, who strolled over to Amber and licked her knee tentatively. She suddenly turned to Charlie, her eyes wide open.
Losing all hope is freedom. She whispered.
What? Charlie sputtered, in the same hoarse whisper as Amber.
Losing all hope is freedom. Perdere ogni speranza la libert. It's the family motto.
Yes. Back in Italy, every family in the villa had a motto. Ours was losing all hope is freedom'. Unorthodox, but Nonno carried it from his father, and him from his father for generations back. It came from the Medici family's bastardized cousins, the Fordicciana. They sought to assist the Albizzi in defeating the Medici for political control. While they failed, the Fordicciana continued to thrive in the countryside as couriers and farmers, until Nanno moved to America and settled in our old house, the Casa Stregata.
So? Charlie asked condescendingly, hoping this long story was going somewhere.
So, Charliethat's the only place I can remember having the motto painted on its walls.
The distant buzz of the television gave the caf a natural, busy small towns feel. The tea foaming at the rims of the cup gave rise to the fragrance wafting about the room, dancing between chairs and skirting over tables and wrapping customers in its warm embrace.
Hank sat in silence, eyes closed, listening to the white noise and ambient sensations coursing through his veins. The caffeine would hit him soon enough. And then the end of his world would begin. Let the rush come in and let the love seep out.
John stirred his now-cream colored coffee tentatively. Hank had chosen tea over coffee, but the caffeine rush would hit him all the same. It was just a matter of time now
So, what is it we're doing here? John asked hesitantly, looking out the lime-encrusted windows into a relatively empty street. An occasional newspaper fluttered by, blowing the past away and leaving room for the future.
What do you mean? Hank asked, taking another sip of his tea. We're making music.
No, I mean the real reason.
John sat boldfaced, staring across the table into Hank's distant eyes. Real reason.
Hank froze. He hadn't expected this confrontation. John seemed to understand. He had a grip on what was truly going on. Perhaps somewhere in his drug addled brain, an invisible connection had been made to God. The divine knowledge of a man's mission to salvation had become apparent. Hank was trapped.
Very well. Hank sighed, leaning back uncomfortably in his chair, which creaked oddly. I think you deserve truth. I'm here to save the area. Save it from something dark.
Ohreally? John asked with a raised eyebrow. And what is this something dark?'
It's something indescribable. Let's just say I've seen it destroy another town.
Okay, not to say that's vague and ridiculous John began, sipping his coffee. But that's vague and ridiculous.
Hank sighed heavily.
You don't understand. He said. There's thisthis dark cloud hanging over certain places. My old town was devoured by this sudden burst of immoral sensation. I'm fairly concerned it's beyond saving, but I think I can help this place.
Well, there we go. John nodded. That's all it needed. I think I'm getting you, here. The internal evil of people consumed your home.
Not only my home. My life, my love, my humanity.
It was at that very moment that the two heard a man from the front yell to the bartender Turn it up, Paul. I want to hear this!
Hank and John turned in their seats, severely interested in what was going on. Paul the bartender quickly grabbed the nearby remote and turned up the volume on the TV, which was displaying an obvious news program.
Imperial Country Police are in search of a new suspect in the Oasis Motel murder. Police sketch artists have drawn up an eyewitness's description.
A sketch flashed up on screen. To Hank's utter Chagrin, it was a near perfect sketch of himself. He looked away, still listening.
Police ask if anyone has any information on one Hank Gracer, they are to call this number.
Hank looked across the table at John, who had begun to grin knowingly at Hank. That damned cocky smile, Hank thought. So this is how the journey ends. Hank sighed.
Go ahead. Call. He whispered, looking down at the table in shame.
Why would I? John asked. It all makes sense now.
Hank sat up, utterly confused. John's arrogant grin had faded into and understanding smile.
This is how you do things. Necessity. The ends justify the means. Machiavelli. You killed Erika's mother, in order to obtain her trust. That phrase you're always sayingwhat was it? Losing hope is freedom or something like that? It's your virtue. Your philosophy. She lost all hope when her mother died. I lost all hope when my addiction became my life. And Porfirio
When his God died.
Hank's eyes darkened. John knew it all. He had known all along. Hank was prepared for the inevitable. The trial would be harsh.
But I understand your life. John continued. I'm not going to ruin everything you've worked so hard for.
Hank sat up straight, staring into John's evil eyes.
John lowered his head and looked to his arm, draped in a gray long sleeve shirt. Gently, he pulled the sleeve up and over his upper wrist, revealing two straight tally tattoos.
Because I have sins, too.