Hoo, boy. These are getting hard now.
Here we go, folks. We're on our way...
"We got a date with a book-loving goat man."
It had only taken the concierge thirty minutes to arrange for the speedboat that they'd been promised would get Arik and Blaze back to the mainland in half the time as the ferry. They'd even been classy enough not to use the phrase "for the low-low price of."
The weather had taken a turn to the ugly. Not stormy—Arik offered up a silent thanks to whichever cranky little fucker ruled the sea and the sky—but dark. Like the sun had just given up and decided to call it a day.
The sea reflected the sky above: gloomy, dark, grumpy. They felt the waves more than they saw them, but they'd been warned of that in advance. One didn't take to crossing the water with a speedboat if one was looking for a comfortable ride. But if they were going to make the meeting at two...
The boat lurched, spent what felt like way too long suspended in the air, then slammed back on to the surface of the water. Arik's stomach jolted in time to the movement.
He'd almost suggested that they cancel. When he'd seen the look flicker through Blaze's eyes—the one that suggested fear that Blaze wouldn't speak of, pain Blaze didn't want Arik to dwell on, and the weight of things too heavy being resettled on Blaze's shoulders—Arik had wanted to say forget it. But it had only taken that single thought for Arik to know it would be wrong.
One didn't need a flashing sign to understand that there was a direction to their story. Short of someone coming up to them on the streets and swinging a live goat directly at their heads, the Universe couldn't make it much more obvious. Today, anyway. Yesterday, Arik hadn't been able to make heads or tails over the liquefying farm animals in his visions. Funny, really, how it had taken so long. But there had been paths to follow and forks in the road to make decisions on, Arik guessed. Perhaps, he was just not a quick man.
Blaze lifted his gaze from where he'd been studying the waves, and caught Arik watching him. He smiled. And Arik's chest bloomed with emotion that was sweeter than candy, and warmer than summer sunlight. They'd made the right choices: no blood, no vomiting. Blaze was whole and perfect, and though Blaze's line of sight had found the dark water yet again, Blaze appeared to be more pensive than upset.
What do you see, Arik wanted to ask, when you study the depths of the water? What memories does the sea dredge up for you? He kept his tongue still, though. It wasn't the time to drag out those kinds of stories. One day when it was all over, he'd ask Blaze to tell him some of it. Not all of it. But some. Maybe.
The command came on the breeze, a whisper for Arik's mind alone, but it didn't come with the shudder that came with the demand to watch. Fear was gone. Purpose was Arik's new master.
In all his life, Arik had done few things he could say he was proud of. He'd been pleased when he'd graduated. He'd been satisfied the day he'd signed the papers to disperse the mortgage on his property and claim it truly and completely as his own. Those kinds of emotions weren't pride, however. Saving Blaze, and Arik no longer had any doubts as to that being his goal, was going to be the most fulfilling moment of his life. And even if the payment for cleansing Blaze's soul was Arik's own short walk off a tall bridge, Arik was going to do it. Three and half centuries of pain were going to end, no matter what the cost.
He watched Blaze move, breathe, shiver against the cooler air... as long as it didn't cost him Blaze. That was the only reparation Arik wasn't willing to offer.
He sent out a prayer—not up, that ridiculous insistence he'd been force-fed that something existed above them had been vanquished, and replaced with the knowledge of a very tangible, very real presence all around them—and he promised, and he swore, and he begged in silence. Because they did listen, those unnamable thems. Something, somewhere, had brought Arik and Blaze together, and somehow, someway, it had led them to this moment.
I was exhausted... Arik closed his eyes and tilted his chin to the sky. Back in the city, that first time we met. The hotel room had been reserved for weeks. There was no reason for the hotel clerk not to find my name in the file. Time had moved so slowly, he'd been frustrated by the wait. Blaze had been standing at his own check-in point – gorgeous, confident, smiling. It had taken Arik a while to notice him.
Hence the delay... Arik breathed deep: sea life, brine, fresh air. Her birth sign had been Aries, that annoying twit of a hotel clerk. The Ram. She'd worn a silver pendant around her neck and when she'd leaned forward to tap the keys, the ram had swung freely.
See me, Arik. Let's get to know each other.
Then coffee: black, hot, perfectly sweetened coffee. Y'all come back now... If Arik had been forced to draw the events at the mini golf course, he'd have put those words in a balloon over the perfectly-repositioned, suddenly-whole, grinning-bastard goat's head. Horrified, mortified, putrefied, and liquefied. Then just as quickly, grinning and gloating, and all put back together again.
Have you noticed me yet? Are you catching on, Arik?
The newscast of barreled, tortured bodies left to rot in their own juices, the tattoo, and the disintegration of a seemingly normal man into a puddle of gore that no one else had noticed washing over their pristine deck shoes and battered sneakers. What else, maybe? How many other little bits of information had slipped past him along the way? While he'd been telling himself to avert his eyes?
Arik breathed a long, slow sigh, attempting to still the clench of panic that squeezed his guts. He hadn't missed anything. He couldn't have. The Universe wouldn't let him. He opened his eyes and watched the shore transform from suggestion to clarity.
The cab was warm, unseen vents huffing heated air, no doubt the benefit of the experienced eye of the driver who'd caught both their shivers as Arik and Blaze sat in the back. Neither man spoke, but Arik didn't blame either of them for that. They were both focused on their own worlds at that moment — the awareness that was sparked in his own head seemed like a visible energy. He almost hated to blink, lest that portion of a second be the one he needed, and the process forced him to miss whatever was being led his way.
Blaze's thoughts were undefinable, unspoken as they were. Was there fear? As Blaze stood at the brink and peeked over the edge? Fear of what was about to take place? Perhaps, even, fear for what lay ahead. For three hundred plus years Blaze had known immortality. Was it terrifying to think that it might be gone? Even with the pain of living it? Change was, after all, still change. Or was Blaze, instead, more terrified of giving in to the hope? Of having to live with the potential of it all being a fool's calling. Got you, Blaze... just kidding... but you should have known better than to believe there was a way out...
Arik's eyes caught the Starbucks sign, and he fought the surge that made him want to tap the driver's shoulder and pull over. There was no time. Best not to leave waiting the man who might be instrumental to their quest.
But damn. He sure could go for a coffee. Just the thought of pulling off the plastic lid and staring into the comforting dark liquid was almost enough to make Arik reconsider. Arik shivered, smiled at the concerned flash of Blaze's gaze, and shifted in his seat. Stupid, really. He'd never had much of a craving for coffee before. It must have been the water — all that dark, swirling water they'd stared at while they crossed the channel. It must have triggered some ridiculous craving. Not even for the taste of the beverage, really. Just to see it. To stare at it. Feel the heat of it on his face.
Probably just a comfort thing.
The radio was low, playing more for the driver than for either him or Blaze. They preferred a stronger beat, be it the lively strings that Blaze insisted were the basis of "real" music, or the rock that Arik liked to move to. Bad eighties hair bands, Blaze would say. And Arik never had the heart to tell him most of it was from the nineties. Time was fluid.
All you have are the memories you'll change... the singer's voice was soft, haunting... In the dark. In the dark.
Arik closed his eyes and drifted. Blaze's hand was warm and heavy in his own. Small hand. Perfect fit. Maybe you were always drowning... and still the singer droned... And you just now realized that you were.
"Gentlemen?" The driver's voice startled Arik's eyes open. It was only then that he realised he'd been sinking into sleep. The thought made him unreasonably angry.
"I believe this is the spot? But I'm not sure..."
Arik's head swivelled toward the home that both the driver and Blaze were already staring at.
"Duh duh duh dun," Arik sang under his breath, and Blaze answered with the requisite two finger snaps. Blaze turned to grin and Arik offered one back.
The house wasn't set as far back off the road as Arik would expect of such a large structure. It made a person wonder if the house had existed before the road itself had. It did, however, have the rod iron gates, butted up against mausoleum-esque pillars that continued absolutely nowhere — a concept Arik never could figure out. He'd often wanted to ask the owners of such things if they were aware that people could merely walk around them, if they understood that the only things they were actually keeping out were cars.
The house was huge, raw, jagged flagstone, with a left-wing arch that had to lead to parking, a right-wing with half a dozen grid-style windows, and a mid section, most likely the main living area of the house, with nothing more than a double-wide door set directly center. Each wing had its own roof line, simple triangles, and each seemed, from Arik's current vantage point, to be as tall as cathedrals. He scanned the front of the property, seeking out the nesting ravens, crouching spider-beasts, or were-dogs that had to be guarding it.
"You know," Arik tilted his head and turned the smile at the driver. "For some reason? I'm pretty damn sure this is the right place."
He dug out his phone to check the time, tsk'ing at the device when it lit. He held it up when Blaze frowned at him. "Cracked the fucking screen."
"That tends to happen when you launch electronics across hotel rooms," Blaze said, lifting an eyebrow.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Arik held out a hand, directing Blaze to the door of the cab. "Consequences are a bitch, aren't they?"
I love you, Arik mouthed at Blaze, as the double-wide oak doors found center, and cut the two of them off from one another. They'd both been led toward the back of the house, through a grand, albeit dusty hallway. But when their guide had lifted a fist to rap on the door of what Arik had coined as "the Library" the moment he saw it—a title he heard spoken in a dark, creepy tone, complete with ominous background music—the man had directed Blaze to a chair that looked far too ancient to be comfortable, and said, "Your assistant may wait out here."
It had been a statement that had prompted a round of trying to communicate with each other through eye-speak, Blaze's expression one of comfort over concern, and Arik doing his best to exude confidence.
For a single second Arik closed his eyes, still facing the doors, and took a breath. This is what we're here for. This is the right path. I've got this.
He lifted his chin, opened his eyes, and turned to face the room. A fire had been set in the hearth, but it did nothing to dispel the dampness of the room. A man stood beside a desk that appeared heavy enough to require an entire moving team to budge it; Mr. Ţapul, Arik had to assume. He'd been expecting ancient, dried-up and frail, imagination adding inches-long whiskers to further the goat persona. Instead, Arik found himself mildly surprised by the attractive, dark-haired, olive-skinned, somewhere-on-either-side-of-fifty man who waited for him.
Arik stepped forward, years of experience settling the mandatory statements and questions of his trade in place, opened his mouth to speak, and startled both of them with, "Who are you?"
"I'm..." Ţapul frowned, cocked his head to one side. "I am the man you are here to try and talk me out of my request to liquidate my investments into cash, I believe."
Silence settled in the wake of the man's reply. Arik's gaze trailed over the room: books, by the thousands, lining shelves and piled on corners, resting under glass, spread open and begging to be read.
"And you," Ţapul said when the silence got too heavy, "are the man that once his speech is exhausted and he realises the futility of his attempts, will give me the papers I need to sign and start the process to—"
Arik snorted, and lifted his eyes to catch and hold Ţapul's questioning gaze. "I could care fuck about your request. You want your money, you can have it. For that matter, you tell me what I need to know and I'll fly back to the office and FedEx you the goddamn check myself."
"I'm not sure I understand?" Ţapul leaned back against his desk and crossed his arms over his chest in a decidedly defensive gesture.
He probably thinks I'm insane.
"You are," something seemed to whisper back.
"Ţapul," Arik prompted. "Romanian, yes? Means goat, if I've been advised correctly." He paused, chuckling dryly. "And I have been."
The age in Ţapul's face became more apparent as his frown deepened. "And?"
"Also a historian, European to be specific. I would have to assume that means you know quite a bit about the Roma."
Distaste darkened Ţapul's eyes and twisted his lips. "Are you asking me if I'm familiar with Gypsy fairy-tales, young man? Because I have a Romanian background? Should I ask you if can fill me in on the mating dance of the Big Foot? As you are so very obviously American. Perhaps even which rifle would be the best to use. And why you'll still be holding said rifle in your cold, clenched fingers after your death? Have a conversation on hamburgers and super-sized sodas? Or should we drop the stereotyping and get back to busi—"
Arik held up his right hand, palm out. "Look, I get the 'we don't talk about this shit' shit. And if that's what your game is, this whole 'you're an outsider and I'm going to pretend I don't know what you're talking about,' then just let me reassure you on something right now: I have fucking need. And I know you're the person who can help me with this need. So, please, if I can just give you some background, I'm sure you'll—"
"Get yourself into some trouble with a gypsy did you?" The sarcasm that dripped off Ţapul's tongue would have been potent enough to poison an entire family at one sitting. "Fancy yourself to be cursed, do you?"
"No." Arik made his voice as cold as his stare. "I do not."
"Writing a novel, then? Do you figure—"
"I have seen a disembodied limb find its source and reattach," Arik said, his bold tone belying the clenching in his belly. He stepped forward yet again. "I have watched dead blood, black blood, drip from the holes of a vital young man. My heart has broken while I've watched him writhe with internal turmoil that no being should ever know."
A flicker of interest sparked in Ţapul's eyes. It was an ember that fueled Arik's bravery. "And if you're asking yourself 'Why me?' then let me fill you in on a little secret. I've known your name since before I knew what it meant. I've seen your face in my dreams." An exaggeration, a lie, really. Arik didn't care. Ţapul hadn't stopped him from talking. That meant something. If nothing else, it meant Arik could continue. "What I'm telling you is that I'm supposed to be here, and you're supposed to help me, and lest you end up on the wrong side of your own damn horror-story ending, you're going to damn well help me for no other reason than something out there is insisting that you must."
Arik paused, gauging reaction. "I don't need to tell you what kind of consequences you might end up facing if you piss off these forces."
Ţapul smiled the tiniest of smiles and lifted an eyebrow. "Did you just threaten to curse me?"
Arik lowered his eyes and shook his head. "No, sir." He shrugged. "I won't have to."
Ţapul laughed out loud, and shifted his weight to perch on the corner of the desk. "You're adorable." He lifted a hand, twirled it. "Crazy. But adorable."
"And you're gorgeous." Arik smiled. "Frustrating. But gorgeous. And not the only Romanian I've thought those words about. Must be a cultural thing."
"And this is the woman who is causing you grief?"
Arik snorted. "Man. But he causes me no grief. That emotion is all for him, unfortunately."
"You don't." Arik turned back to the door. "But you will."
He tugged the doors apart, and Blaze all but tumbled into the room. Arik laughed, Blaze grinned, and Arik heard Ţapul rise from his spot on the desk.
"Mr. Ţapul," Arik caught Blaze's hand, and pulled him closer. "This is Blaze. Blaze, meet our Goat Man."
To be continued...
Until next time!
Tune in next week for more.