The room is small, run down, and mostly empty. The hardwood floors are cracked and rough, faded wallpaper peels away from the walls to reveal chipped plaster beneath, and a single window, heavily curtained, sits above an old radiator that badly needs bleeding. The room is dark: the only light comes from the gap between the heavy window curtains and the window itself, splashing red neon over the top of the hissing, spitting radiator and onto the floor.
The sounds of the city—car horns, people shouting, occasional blasts of music—can be heard beyond the window. The world outside is full of noisy, frenetic life… but the room, and all the others like it in this building, is dark.
The silence ends in fits and starts. First, the faint sound of footsteps, then the sound of keys jingling, then the scratching of a lock being turned. Somewhere below the room a door bangs open, and heavy footsteps stomp onto old, creaking floors. For a moment the sounds of the outside world are louder, then they fade back to their original levels as a door bangs closed. A deadbolt turns (muffled clack) then footsteps thump down a hallway.
A door opens—not below, this time, but behind—and hinges squeak in protest. Footsteps grow louder—two distinct pairs can now be heard—as they grow ever closer to the room. Keys jingle again. Another lock rattles. A door opens.
The voice isn’t harsh, but the tone of command is unmistakable. The door closes, another deadbolt slides shut.
Footsteps again, growing even louder.
The door to the room swings open. A light switch clicks on, and a single lightbulb flickers to life overhead. The light is dim—probably not bright enough to comfortably read a book—but it lights the room enough to show how stark it truly is. The only furniture in the room is a straight-backed wooden chair sitting with its back against one of the walls, with a small wooden table to its left.
Special Agent Oliver Nuzzo steps into the room, wiping sweat off his face with a damp handkerchief, and steps to one side.
Again his voice is full of command, hard and unbending, completely at odds with his soft, round features.
Captain Clive Darius, dressed in a cheap two-piece suit, stained dress shirt, and no tie, walks into the center of the room and stops. He stands still, staring vacantly at the far wall. He’s not standing at attention, he’s simply… standing. Waiting.
Agent Nuzzo closes the door behind them, stomps over to the window, and carefully pulls back a corner of the curtain to peer outside. He nods once, satisfied, then gestures to the chair. Darius immediately walks over to the chair and sits, back straight, hands on his knees, staring straight ahead. His eyes barely blink.
Nuzzo stares at Darius, momentarily ignoring the sweat pouring down his face. Then he reaches into his right trenchcoat pocket and pulls out a small, plain wooden box, about the size of a box for a wedding ring. He flips open the top, never taking his eyes off Darius, then sets it down on the table. Inside the box is a tiny black stone, cut into the shape of a pyramid, strange symbols etched into each side.
Darius doesn’t react to the item next to the table, but something happens. The room grows colder; white breath emerges from the older man’s nostrils. Even Nuzzo shivers once, though he still dabs sweat from his face with his handkerchief.
“Well Darius, let me tell you something. You should be real happy you’re not here right now.” A twisting smirk curls to life on Nuzzo’s face as he speaks. “This place… well. I’ve seen better.”
Nuzzo peers through the curtains again.
“Could be worse, of course. It should be, if you ask me, after the way you managed to screw up the way you did. You brought this on yourself. Chew on that for a while.”
Nuzzo pulls the curtain away from the edge of the window, just a little, giving him a clearer view of the street below.
“It’ll be safe at least. CDC evacuated the whole building. You probably heard about it, actually—man disappears, wife and kid die of some weird disease, the whole building empties out because there’s no way that disease could have come into New York City without it being manufactured. You know, the ‘Bioterror cell in New York’ stories they were going on about, right after the Forrest attack? Yeah, that was here. The chance of anyone dropping by is slim to none. And if they do…”
Nuzzo glances at Darius, his smirk deepening into a sneer.
“Well, that’ll be the perfect cover story for what happens next.”
The handkerchief is soaking wet at this point. Nuzzo looks at it, grunts in annoyance, and puts it in his left pocket. A clean, dry handkerchief emerges seconds later from his right, and Nuzzo runs it over his face and the back of his neck.
“Hold on a minute.”
Nuzzo stumps out of the room, muttering under his breath, then returns carrying a folding chair. He sets it up in front of the table, turning it sideways, then plops down heavily in the seat. The metal creaks slightly as he leans back. His right arm rests on the table, hand hanging over the edge, as his left presses the handkerchief against his forehead.
“That fed is a real pain in the ass.”
He glances down at the small stone pyramid resting in the ring box and frowns.
“It’s a little too late for excuses, Darius. It’s not my problem, and apparently my boss doesn’t care.”
He cocks his head to one side as if listening.
“Cry me a river. You signed on with eyes open. All this—all of it—was explained to you right at the very beginning. And you signed your name on the dotted line anyway. Please tell me I don’t need to arrange to have someone remind you of that more explicitly.”
He waits a moment more, then laughs—a hollow, humorless, mocking laugh. “What you thought at the time is not my problem, Darius. If I had a nickel for every greedy bastard who thought all the clauses and stipulations were mumbo jumbo because ‘of course magic isn’t real’ I promise you I wouldn’t be spending all my time in this bullshit body, babysitting yours. Stop complaining.”
He sighs, tilts his head back, then both hands press the handkerchief against his forehead. Rivulets of sweat fall down the side of his face, leaving trails just under his ears.
“This… bullshit… body…” He repeats the words a few times, like a mantra, before lapsing into silence with a sigh.
For a few minutes the room is still. Then Nuzzo stirs, and stares down at the tiny stone pyramid in contempt.
“It’s supposed to hurt.”
He cocks his head to one side again.
“Quit sniveling, Darius. The pain is part of the price. They gave you one job, and instead of doing that you panicked and tried to pull rank on one of your own who was working with the Feds. Metahuman Feds. And one of them can tell when you’re lying.”
Nuzzo stands, walks into the middle of the room, then whirls back to face the table. “I don’t even know what you were thinking.” His voice shakes with contempt. “I was told you were one of the smart ones. That you had potential. But when things got bad you panicked, and then you made things worse. So yeah, Darius. It’s supposed to hurt.”
He advances on the table slowly, the menace in his voice hardening with each step.
“It’s supposed to hurt because you’ve felt untouchable for too long. It’s supposed to hurt because you got lazy, and it put us at risk. It’s supposed to hurt because they shoved me into this useless bag of meat so that someone they trust can keep an eye on you all day. It’s supposed to hurt so that if you manage to do what you’re told, and are ever reunited with your useless bag of meat some day, you will never, ever take what you have for granted, ever again.”
Nuzzo’s breathing is ragged, his hands shake with barely-controlled rage. His handkerchief is soaked through—again—and he balls it up in his left fist, shoving it deep into his trenchcoat pocket. By the time he produces a new one, his breathing and hands are steady.
“You should look on the bright side.” He presses his handkerchief to his forehead as he sits back in the folding chair. “You’re not dead. Honest, if it was my call they would have found you hanging in your bedroom, with a note apologizing to your ex-wife. Someone over my head thinks you can still be useful to us, so they gave you the chance to step up. This is your chance. Step up.”
He lowers the handkerchief and glares darkly at the stone. “And stop complaining that it hurts. At this point you want it to hurt. There’s only one alternative, and I know you don’t want that.”
He stares at the stone in silence for a moment, then grunts in satisfaction. He resumes his former position—head back, eyes closed—and unfolds the handkerchief so it covers his entire face.
“This bullshit body,” he whispers.