Billy Davison wakes up reluctantly.
His bedroom ceiling slowly comes into focus as his brain tries to engage. He’s always suffered from grogginess when waking up—something Phyllis never gets tired of teasing him about—and this time is no different. The problem is compounded by how long and hard he and the rest of his team have been pushing themselves. This was supposed to have been his first full night of sleep in days, and now he’s awake.
Why is he awake?
A few seconds later he realizes that he’s hearing a doorbell. His doorbell. Someone is ringing his doorbell. He groans, forces himself to sit up, and tries to figure out who would be ringing his doorbell at…
What time is it?
He rubs his eyes, glances out the window and realizes it’s still dark. He frowns and turns to the digital clock sitting on his nightstand.
Three in the morning?
Fatigue leaves quickly, replaced by a surge of adrenaline brought on by alarm.
Nobody would ring his doorbell at 3AM. If Jason needed to talk to him, he’d use the company phone—they’re not allowed to turn it off for precisely that reason. Phyllis wouldn’t drop by at 3AM. Nobody he knows would drop by at 3AM. And nobody conducting any legitimate business would knock on his door at 3AM.
The only possible legitimate explanation would be that it was a police officer canvassing the neighborhood after a crime was committed. It’s possible, but it isn’t likely. There’s a reason Billy chooses to live where he does.
Instincts and paranoia snap into alignment. Billy gets up, grabs the go-bag he keeps under his bed, and heads for his bedroom window.
The window pane opens silently—he spent a great deal of time sanding down the inner frame and kept the moving parts well oiled to make certain it would—and he steps out onto his roof. He winces as his bare foot comes down on a half-exposed nail head, but he says nothing. He reaches through his window, finds the button for the silent alarm set just to the left of the window pane, and presses it firmly. It vibrates once—the police have been called. Ignoring the soreness in his foot, he crouches low and creeps his way across the roof to the other side.
Sight lines are critical here, and that’s the other reason Billy chose his neighborhood: most of the houses have Gambrel roofs, making them look like oversized barns. It’s a stupid design for New York, considering how much it snows in the winter, but most of the original houses on the block still have them. The different slopes on the roof give him a little more cover than he’d otherwise have as he creeps along the top. Whoever is ringing his doorbell hasn’t stopped, and if the doorbell-ringer has spotters they don’t seem to have seen him.
Billy reaches the edge of his roof, holds his breath, and jumps. He reaches his neighbor’s roof easily—and, more importantly, soundlessly—and he moves a little more quickly along to the next house, and then the next, and then the next. At the fourth house he stops roof-hopping, and instead climbs down an old dogwood tree, letting go halfway down to drop into a crouch in his neighbor’s backyard.
It’s his least favorite part of the exit strategy so far—the tree is slender, and the branches rustle as he descends—but it’s done. Quickly, he slips on the pair of swimming shoes dangling from his go-bag, then runs the length of his neighbor’s backyard and vaults over the fence into the yard beyond.
He runs, zig-zagging through different yards in the neighborhood, always placing himself farther and farther away from his house. Finally the neighborhoods come to an end, and he steps out into a cluster of shops.
New York may be the City That Never Sleeps, but parts of it are sluggish at 3AM. Most of the shops are closed, almost all of the streets are deserted. Billy feels exposed—he’s not exactly dressed to fit in, even if there were people about, but the lack of people makes him entirely too easy to spot. He ducks down an alley the first chance he gets, dredging up in his mind the many maps he’s memorized, choosing alleys that aren’t dead ends, trying to put as many buildings as possible between himself and the main roads. He walks this way for an hour until he finally gets to a Staten Island Railway station.
Riding the train then becomes his least favorite part of his exit strategy, as he is forced to sit in one place in a lighted train, moving between cars at each stop, wondering if that actually makes any difference. He begins to relax a little when he makes it to the ferry, but the trip from the St. George Ferry Terminal to the Whitehall Terminal at South Ferry is the most excruciating twenty five minutes of his life. It’s not until he steps off the ferry and into Lower Manhattan that he finally allows himself to relax.
A few subway stops later and he’s downtown, where he finally manages to put the last of his fear to rest. There are people here. It’s not the throngs of people you see in the day, but there are enough people to make anyone trying to find him reluctant to do anything overtly. He unslings his go-bag and reaches into the top, fishing around until his hands close on the burner phone he has stuffed away.
He pulls the phone out of his bag, slinging the bag back over his shoulder as he walks down the street, feeling comforted by the neon signs of stores selling overpriced electronics interspersed with stores selling overpriced greasy food. He debates whether to call Jason or Phyllis, and ultimately decides on Phyllis.
I’ll have to explain less. Phyllis will be able to call Jason after, and then—
He never sees the large man cross his path, and is completely unprepared for the way the man doesn’t give an inch when they collide. It’s almost like crashing into a brick wall, and as Billy grunts in surprise he feels the phone slip through his fingers and shatter as it hits the concrete.
“Hey, watch where you’re—”
His words die on his lips as the large man grips Billy’s shoulder. It’s an uncomfortably tight grip, though not painful. Not yet.
The best word to describe the man’s face is “nondescript.” He is physically very large, at least six inches taller than Billy, and heavyset in a way that suggests power over obesity, but his features aren’t very distinguishing. What Billy notices more than anything else is the way his mind seems to recoil from noticing anything about the man at all, other than his well-tailored suit and bowler hat. Billy has been trained to notice details, and each time he tries to choose one—color of skin, color of eyes, color of hair, anything—his brain slides away from it.
“Hey.” Billy tries to pull away from the man. The grip holding him in place doesn’t tighten—the large man doesn’t appear to react in any way at all—but he can’t get free. “Hey, look, I don’t want any—”
The voice, thin and high-spirited, comes from directly behind him. Billy twists, trying to see, but he can’t turn far enough.
“Oh, don’t bother, Mister Davison, allow me to oblige.”
Another man, a little on the short side and very thin, steps into view. He and the large man are dressed identically—pinstripe suit, bowler hat—and Billy finds he is, like the large man, difficult to pin down on any other details. There are only two additional features that stand out in Billy’s mind: a wide, gleaming smile, and razor-sharp eyes.
The smaller man stops, standing a foot to the right and a few feet behind the larger man, allowing Billy to face him directly. He bows, sweeping his hat off his head in a grandiose manner.
“Mister Davison.” The man’s voice is cheerful, positively brimming with manic energy. “Allow me to congratulate you on a game well played. A game well played, sir. And I mean that with every sincerity.”
He straightens, then begins to clap his hands vigorously, beaming. Billy almost believes the man is applauding him, which is ludicrous.
“So you were the one ringing my front door?” Talking is pretty much the only thing Billy can do at the moment. He scans the streets, and notices to his alarm that they are empty. There were plenty of people moments ago. He was staring straight at a group of drunk college students while he was fishing out his phone…
The applause stops. “Quite so, quite so.”
No people on the street, so Billy scans the stores. The lights are still on, but all the buildings he can look into appear empty. No customers at the counters, nobody managing the cash registers. He looks around more blatantly this time, confusion showing on his face.
“What’s going on?”
“Change,” the smaller man says. “It can be disorienting when the world around you is suddenly not what you thought it was, when it becomes something you were certain it could never be. Change. It kills the strong, it topples the powerful. It destroys civilizations. It’s disorienting. It’s unavoidable. And, most of all, it is quite often unfair.”
The way he says the word, the intensity in his eyes when he says it, causes Billy to shiver against his will.
“Unfair to so many. Unfair to the weak and strong alike. And tonight, Mister Davison, I’m afraid it will be terribly unfair to you.”
They are only words, but Billy feels their weight. He knows what that weight means.
“You’re going to kill me.”
The small man nods once. “You’ve done nothing to deserve it. I want you to know that. You are a well-sculpted tool, and from all I know about you—from all I’ve seen from you, tonight—what is about to happen to you is a tragic waste of ability.”
“Then don’t waste it,” Billy says. “I could work for you instead.”
“This is not that kind of situation,” the small man says. “Though I don’t begrudge you making the attempt.”
Billy goes through the possible scenarios in his head, trying to figure out how this scenario fits into everything going on in his life. He settles on the one he likes least.
“You’re from Farraday City.”
A look of pure delight crosses the small man’s face, and his grin widens so far it looks as if his face has split in two. “Wonderful,” he breathes. “Absolutely wonderful.”
Billy nods slowly. He looks at the large man, who doesn’t appear to be paying any attention to the exchange at all. “You can let go of me,” he says. “I won’t run.”
Immediately the man’s grip loosens; his arm falls to his side.
Blood and pain rush through Billy’s right shoulder. He massages it with his left hand. “And the rest of my team?”
“We have no interest in them,” the smaller man says. “Only you.”
“Lucky me.” Billy stops massaging his shoulder. There’s no point.
“Certainly not,” the small man says, tilting his head to one side as he considers Billy carefully. “Oh, that was humor. Humor in the face of death. Admirable. Well, I can promise you one thing, William Davison. Your gift—your reward, for having impressed me as you have—is that it will be quick. And it will be painless.”
“I’ll believe it when I—”
His words die on his lips. He dies on the street.
The small man stares down at the corpse of Billy Davison, a look of almost-regret on his face. He sighs softly, a long, slow exhalation of breath. “That’s the last of them,” he says. “We have our fifth.”
The large man says nothing.
“Well.” The small man straightens. “I believe it’s time to go home, my friend. We’ve been away too long. This city galls me—so much potential, so little of it used. Shall we?”
With that he turns and strides down the sidewalk, the larger man in tow, leaving the corpse to molder, crumpled against the curb. Five steps later the small man stops.
“Oh, that my head were a spring of water!” the small man says. “And my eyes, a fountain of tears!”
The sounds of people return. First a low babble, like a faraway stream, but it grows louder, the roar greater, the sounds swelling into an ocean of life that crashes into the briefly empty street. And in that moment, in that final crash, there is a much smaller sound: the faintest splash of flesh dissolving into water, running along the curb until it falls into the sewer through a nearby grate.
The returning world barely notices the damp clothes lying crumpled by the street.