Somewhere in the streets of a painfully nondescript down, a man with hair that has been spiked out into an oily perversion of a halo strides toward a bank. He walks in, and a middle aged teller halfway down the line turns on the light next to her station and says, “Can I help you?”
The man with the hairy halo, walks up and smiles, lips stretching back to reveal a mouth half-full of rotten teeth. The teller catches a whiff of his breath and forces herself not to recoil.
“I’m here to see the Director. Will you please tell him I’d like to speak with him?”
“I’m sorry sir, but I’m not sure-”
The man with the halo of hair snaps his fingers and something happens in the far recesses of the teller’s brain, and she falls forward dead.
The man turns his attention to the second teller. “Let’s see if you’re more cooperative. I’d like to speak with the Director. Can you tell him-”
Before he can finish the “crack” of a gunshot reverberates through the building, and a splinter edged hole appears in the front of the bank counter.
Again, the man snaps his fingers and again the second teller falls dead. “No I suppose not,” the man says. He looks down at the brown-red splotch spreading through the pants at his right thigh, and decides it probably won’t be fatal. This is good, because he’s grown rather fond of this body. Overhead he sees a camera swivel in his direction. He smiles at it, making sure to show all of his rotting teeth. “You can feel free to send your best men after me if you’d like, but ultimately you’d be wasting your time and their lives. And really. All I want to do is talk.” He leans against the counter and drums his fingers against the wood, his over-long fingernails clacking against the Formica.
The better part of fifteen minutes passes. The man stands there waiting, absolutely still with a wicked gleam in his eyes. At last there is a squeak as a door marked “Cleaning Supplies” opens and the Director steps out. “I understand you want to speak with me?”
“You can tell your guy on the roof across the street to stand down,” the man with the halo hair says. “He won’t get to pull the trigger.”
“If you’re so good you would have been able to stop Mrs. Pennyworth.”
The man waves his hand. “Whatever. I let her shoot me. She would have killed me if I hadn’t messed with her aim a little. Which is really saying something because shooting someone through a quarter inch of solid wood while drawing from the hip is not as easy as it looks in the movies.”
“Why did you let her shoot you?”
“Oh, right. So you’d know what you’re dealing with. Or something. It took you so long to get here I’ve forgotten. And anyway, is that really the question you wanted to ask me?”
“I thought you wanted to talk to me.”
“Ah yes. You have a problem Director. Or rather, you’re going to.”
“I have lots of problems. And if that was your attempt at a threat, you might want to come back when you’ve polished up a bit.”
“Not a threat. A genuine warning from one friend to another. Although…friend might not be quite the word in this situation. Let’s say…a man with a common interest.”
“And that interest is?”
“Keeping the Church of the Broken God from getting into that circle. And don’t ask me “which circle?” because you know exactly which one I’m talking about.”
“What interest does the Church have in any of this?”
“There is…something trapped in the circle, something very old and very dangerous. Not only that, but it’s getting stronger. And the barrier is getting weaker. Given the right push it could break through. The Church knows this. They believe this thing will help them reassemble the pieces of their so-called deity.”
“And will it? Help them I mean?”
“Then why is this my problem?”
“Because, my dear Director, the world will end.”
“Yes, well, thank you for your time, and now if you’re not going to kill me I really have more important things to attend to.”
“More important than the end of the world?”
“Mr Karl, or whatever your real name is. I deal with the end of the world on a daily basis. I have in my control many entities that could end life as we know it. I’m not about to-”
“No. You misunderstand. I am not talking about the destruction of life. I’m talking about everything. And now you’re thinking, ‘The universe? My goodness, there’s nothing that could pull that off,’ but you’re not seeing it right. When this thing breaks through, IF it breaks through, it will result in the complete unraveling of reality. If your terrifying 682 got loose that would be little more than amusing sport to me and my kind. But this? No one wants this.”
“Assuming I believe you-”
“You don’t, but go on.”
“Assuming I believe you,” the Director repeats, “Why us? Why not take care of this problem yourself? You seem capable enough.”
“My options are limited. It’s true, I have some power, but I can only be in one place at a time. You on the other hand, have vast resources at your disposal. It’s your JOB to save the world. And you’ve gotten very good at it. Now is not the time to take a vacation. Can I trust you to act on this intelligence?”
“You’re the mind reader. You tell me.”
“You’re wondering what my angle is. If I’m playing you. And I am. But I am also telling the truth.”
“The truth,” the Director echoes softly.
“Yes,” Karl replies, and rises to leave.
The Director tries to move and finds his limbs are frozen. Out of the corner of his eye he watches as Karl walks calmly from the room.
Somewhere in a nearby city Vinny is sitting in a Waffle House wolfing down a large order of hash browns “All the Way”, topped with chili and garnished with Ranch dressing from a foil pouch.
He’d thought it would be difficult to find food since he had no money, but with the Traveler lighting the way, the woman working behind the counter took one look at him and demanded that he sit down and take something to eat, money or no.
He eats, shoveling the food into his mouth with a fork, looking over his shoulder between each bite. Each moment he expects Foundation goons to come bursting in to drag him back to his cell, but that doesn’t happen. And the longer it doesn’t happen the more worried Vinny becomes. Because he knows these men are perfectly capable of hunting him down no matter where he hides; in his mind he sees the Director’s smile and he can’t shake the feeling that somehow he’s being played.
He’s full before the food is gone, and he realizes that his months of fasting have shrunk his stomach. He wonders if jumping right into eating solid food after such a long time with nothing is bad for him, but by now it’s too late, so he shrugs it off. He thanks the woman profusely, harboring a gnawing guilt about how the Traveler has used her. He leaves the Waffle House and starts walking, thinking. The wind picks up and bites into his skin. He’s not dressed for this weather, not used to it. He doesn’t need a map to know he’s a long way from home.
Home. He turns the word over and over in his mind and finds it strangely hollow. He tries to find something in his heart that binds him to the place. He thinks of his apartment, all the stuff in it, probably now thrown out or sold at auction. He gets nothing.
His job, the run-down gas station he worked at for years? Nada.
Family? What family? He feels a twinge of something when he thinks of Angie, but even that is hollow, because she’s gone, dead because of him. And Frog…well Frog is all that’s left, and who knows where he’s at?
He sits on a bus bench, resting his back against some lawyer’s phone number, and before long a car pulls up and an old man rolls down the window and asks, “You need a ride sonny?”
The voice is strained, unnatural. It take’s Vincent a moment to realize what’s happening.
“No,” Vincent says. “Thanks.”
A second vehicle rolls up less than a minute later, this time a pickup truck being driven by a woman in a business suit. “Can I take you somewhere?” she asks. Again the strained voice, the panicked look behind the eyes.
Vinny shakes his head. “I’m indwelled by a supernatural being that’s older than human civilization,” he tells her. “He’s messing with your mind. Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t be such a child Vinny,” the Traveler says with the woman’s voice. “You have to get moving.”
Vincent smiles without humor. “It’s okay,” he says. “I’ll wait.”
“Frog could be getting close to the circle at this very moment,” the woman says.
“Seriously,” Vincent says, “Stop screwing around with her.”
“I could force you to do as I wish,” the woman says, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes now.
Vincent shrugs and folds his arms across his chest. “Go for it,” he says. “No? Nothing? Don’t make me doubt your resolve. Because if you’re-”
And then the woman has a knife in her hand and she’s pressing it to her neck and she says, “Don’t make me do this Vinny. I’d really rather not make you watch anyone else die. But this is important. Think of Frog. Think of the world, overrun with things like Karl, with things like me. Is that what you want?” And she starts to press the knife into her neck.
Vinny throws up his hands, “Whoa, okay, you win. Just…you know, take it easy.”
He opens the door to the truck’s cab and the woman stares straight ahead and puts it in drive.
You don’t have to be so difficult, Vinny, the Traveler whispers in his head as the truck moves forward. I’m not the bad guy in this story.
Vincent scowls. “Coulda fooled me.”