There had been another air strike. He could see the retreating line of choppers and B-52's getting smaller from his place on the river bank, watching fire eat up the jungle. The acrid stench of zinc chloride hung in the air, and the canopy was turning into a rainbow of smoke from the colored grenades. It made him think of those flower kids back in the US who were painting their vans, and snorting powder. He shared a look with Victor, who was at his side chewing on a strip of grass.
“I guess we're taking the long way round,” Victor smirked. James nodded and gave a dissatisfied puff on his cigar. In his opinion Nam had become a long, hot, pointless fucking exercise in taking the long way round.
"You ever think about turning your forty-seven in for a pair of spurs?" James asked, jerking his cigar at Victor's rifle. His brother grinned at him through a mask of dirt and blood.
"Nah, there's still plenty of game in these parts, and nobodies done cattle driving for years Jimmy." Victor loped off into the jungle. "It's all trucks and air-drops now."
James nodded, shouldered his rifle, and followed his brother.
A hard rain began to patter, bending the palm fronds down on them like hanging heads. James had to stub out his cigar and stuff it back in his shirt, and they were both soaked down to their socks in minutes. Sometimes he took point, and other times Victor slipped ahead to crouch in the leaf litter and sniff for Viet Cong. The rain came so sharp and hard it felt like needles on his skin, and James grit his teeth against the rising pain. Far off in the jungle, someone was screaming. There was shouting, and gunfire, and the smell of blood saturated the wet air. Victor looked back at him, his lips moving but James couldn't hear him over the roaring in his ears.
He woke up choking on a howl with his claws out. The smell of carnage had been replaced by wood polish and linen, and the sudden change made his head spin. He struggled upright, shredding the sheets a little more as they got tangled up with his claws, and then he bowed over his knees, taking deep breaths.
He stared at the metal coating his claws, and reminded himself where he was. This wasn't seventy-two. Nam was over, and he wasn't going to be killing anyone. Not for a long while, he hoped. He let his claws slide back inside his arms, forcing himself not to shiver at the disturbing, surgical weight of them. He wasn't sure he'd ever get used to that. They used to be natural, and now they felt like instruments, and looking at them made him feel violated.
He told himself he just needed to wash, and wake up with some cold water. Shadows were too easy to morph into memories and a bit of ice from the buckets in his truck would ground him. So he rolled out of bed, and stumbled toward the back of his one room trailer, reaching for the rickety wall like he always did.
Except it wasn't there.
His fingers grasped at empty space and he frowned, wiping sweat from his face while he tried to blink away images of Nam. He sniffed and twitched when he couldn't find the familiar hint of Canadian snow or motor oil. He couldn't smell himself either. Normally his scent was pressing in from every corner of the trailer, but the stench his old laundry was faint and small, and in its place there was open, unused air.
Where the hell was he?
He shuffled forward and a hard edge slammed into his knee, making him stumble and curse as a chair fell over his bare foot.
Okay, he must have gotten a room somewhere along the road. That's why this didn't feel like his truck, and he never wasted money on a hotel unless the plumbing in his trailer had broken down. He'd have to check that in the morning, and he didn't relish spending a day digging through the innards of his septic tank. He finally bumped up against a wall, following it by hand until he reached a light switch and flicked it on. He blinked in the glare, thinking about pulling out his toolbox, and whether he'd need to buy new pipes.
Those mundane worries dropped away when his vision cleared and he got a good look at the room.
Rich oak panels, fancy lamps, and soft rugs hemmed him in, and the hair on his arms rose as he turned round and round. This wasn't the back room of some bar, or a creaky motel inn. This was a god damn suite. That bed would have fit him and Victor with room for a lady and lad between them. He could drown in that bed, it was so huge. There were pillows and blankets spread all over the floor, with a wardrobe big enough to hide ten Vietcong inside, if they squeezed.
What the hell was all this? James looked down at himself and realized he wasn't even wearing his own pants. He plucked at the hem around his bare waist with sweaty fingers. He didn't own any pajamas, useless things, and if he did they sure as hell wouldn't be silk. This was silk wasn't it? It felt smooth enough.
He spotted his jeans tossed over the back of a chair and snatched them up with relief, then pawed through the room until he found his jacket and one familiar shirt. There was a strange traveling bag in the closet, toiletries in the bathroom, and when he looked through the bureau drawers he found neat stacks of jeans and flannel shirts that were exactly his size, but not his. He'd never heard of a hotel that bought you a whole damn wardrobe, even if it gave you complimentary bathrobes. The last thing he knew, he was pulling into a truck stop for the night with snow outside his windshield. Now he was in some swanky hotel that put the Ritz to shame?
He slammed the bureau drawer closed. James hadn't had a black out like this since Alkali, and he was pissed as hell that it could sneak up on him. It made him feel unstable.
He yanked on his boots with angry jerks, and grabbed his wallet, glad to find it was still nestled in his jacket pocket. Then he pressed his ear against the hotel room door and listened. There was a creak of timbers, and the snuffling of a hundred sleeping mouths that always came with a large hotel, but nothing more. So he cautiously pulled open the door and slipped into the corridor beyond.
Step one, was to get back to his truck and get on the road. Step two, figure out where he'd been the last twenty four hours. His lapses were annoying, but not usually so dangerous as this. It was a just a sad left over from the wars and his time in special services and sometimes things got spotty, like Alkali.
He didn't know what happened up there, exactly, but it must have been bad. He remembered getting a call from Stryker. He remembered water and concrete walls, and waking up on the side of a road, naked, with the guts of a dead caribou nearby. His claws had become knives and his skeleton was heavy.
Frankly, James was glad he didn't remember whatever the fuck went down, because he'd felt sort of flimsy afterwards. Like he was a timber board that'd been cracked in two. He fell off the grid and drifted, making fake ID's and working for cash. He'd had a couple run in's with MP's on the border, and once in Calgary when he was working the stampede show, but mostly he stayed clear of the army and one day was just like the next for him. If he sometimes woke up at a bar he didn't recognize, that was fine. That was just the battle fatigue, shell shock, or whatever they were calling it these days.
Putting himself up in a fancy hotel like this was dumb as shit though. It made him a target. The army took desertion seriously, even when you weren't special forces. He might as well wave a flag and stand on a hill with a Bulls-eye on his back. He only hoped he hadn't left his truck far away. Once he was back on the road, he'd worry about why this place had clothing in his size.
All was quiet as James stalked past soft lamps and potted ferns. At the end of the corridor a window looked over some curated grounds, with trees dimmed by nighttime shadows. His sharp eyes picked out a gated entrance, and he guessed by the height that he was on the fourth floor.
He found a staircase and crept down it, but when he heard someone coming he ducked into a doorway on the landing and pressed himself into the shadows. There were two pairs of feet thudding down the stairs, one was so light and quick it had to be a child. So James forced his taught nerves to relax, his claws to stay sheathed and he stepped back onto the stairs.
When the pair rounded the stairwell, James found himself facing a stunning black woman, with white hair and an embroidered bathrobe. She was holding a young girl by the hand and nearly walked right into him, they were going so fast.
He steadied her with a light touch, saying “Whoa, you all okay?”
Best to be polite, and inconspicuous. After all he was just another guest here.
“Logan, what are you doing up?” the woman declared, and James blinked, stunned as his name echoed over the empty stairwell. He took his hands away and backed up from the pair while the woman frowned curiously at him, looking over his jacket, jeans and boots. “Are you all right, Logan?”
James watched her mouth form his name again, like it fell from her lips as often as “please” and “thank you” and “pass the salt.”
Maybe it was nothing. Maybe they'd met in the lobby when he checked in here. If he was still living up in his cabin, and working the lumber yards he might have asked her name. He'd have said “Do I know you?” all casual like and offered to buy her a beer, then confessed he didn't remember her. Not like this though. Fuck if he was going to let anything about his tattered memory slip here. She came forward, leaving the kid hugging a stuffed rabbit on the landing.
“Logan?” she asked, softly.
“I'm good,” he grunted, backing further away. “I'm just checking out,” he elaborated. That was safe enough, he imagined.
“But.” She was looking real worried now. “It's three in morning.”
“Yeah. This place got a problem with early check out?” James challenged her.
“Logan what is--”
“Miss Ro,” The child interrupted them with a whine, squeezing her bunny, which was losing cotton out it's ass. “I really hafta go.”
The girl did a funny little dance on the steps, like she was trying to hold something in, and though he didn't catch a whiff of urine, James saw her eyes flash an eery bright green.
“You better go then,” James nodded, hiding his relief at the easy distraction. “Don't wanna have an accident.”
The little girl nodded violently, bouncing on her toes like she was about to explode. That weird green light sizzled across her irises again and the woman made quick shushing sounds as she began herding the girl down the stairs away from James, saying “It's all right Petra. It's not far, just hold on.” Before she rounded the corner on the next landing though she called over her shoulder. “Logan, would you stay up here for a minute? We won't be long.”
Then she disappeared and James considered his escape. There was too much weird crap going on for him to stick around when he couldn't remember how he got here.
He listened to their pattering steps, and then continued down, trying to keep the sound of his boots on the wooden stairs as quite as possible. He kept far enough behind that the woman wouldn't see him if she happened to glance up, and it was slow going, but James was determined to get out of the front door without being harassed. When he'd reached the second landing though, he heard a third set of feet, heavier then the woman or child.
“Storm,” a man's voiced echoed up the stairs. “Do you need help? I heard Petra yelling--”
“It's all right, we still have time, I'm just going to take her outside,” the woman, replied. Who called themselves Storm, James thought with a snort. Was she one of those new hippies, with butterflies tattoos, spouting astrological signs and reading palms?
“Right,” the man answered her. “I'll get the hose.”
“No,” Storm countered over the child's growing whine. “Scott, we have another problem, Logan is--”
“Damn it, what's he done now,” the man interrupted, and the curse sounded so polite. Like when he said damn, he meant to say biscuits, or fudge. The “what's he done now,” was more disturbing, and James stopped to listen with hands on the banister.
“He's out,” Storm said, then paused as if she was trying to be delicate about something. James bristled at the insinuation he was a dog that had got out of it's shed and a cold feeling seeped out of his bones into his veins.
“And?” the man, Scott, prodded.
“I don't think he should alone like this, and neither does the professor.”
“Storm, you know how much I respect the professor, but Logan's always pacing at odd hours, and trying to talk makes him more crass than usual. So unless he's pissing in the ferns--.”
“I think we should just leave it until the morning,” the man finished.
“Well he isn't just pacing,” Storm insisted. “Not like usual. He was dressed and acting... different.”
“Different how?” Scott suddenly sounded more serious and much more awake. It seemed Storm had caught his attention. She'd caught James's as well and his fingers tightened on the wood railing.
“I'm not sure. He said some odds things, and there was something in his voice that just didn't sound right.”
“Are you sure he was awake?”
“Well, he's never sleep walked before.”
“That we know of,” Scott retorted.
“He seemed lucid enough,” Storm argued, and James began to feel a little surreal as he listened to the creepy conversation, like that time he binged on acid and woke up with his nose in the carpet of a rented pad in San Francisco. He'd never looked a lava lamp the same way again.
“Miss Ro!” the little girl interrupted and James winced at the strain in her high voice. “I'm gonna go, I can't hold it!”
“Scott,” Storm pleaded.
“Right. You take Petra, I'll handle Logan. The last thing we need tonight is him wandering outside in a stupor.” Scott's voice sounded resigned and the noise of heavy feet began thudding up the stairs toward James, who stood rooted to the landing.
The words “sleep-walking” and “lucid” were stilling ringing in his ears, and his grip on the railing had turned painful when the man James assumed was Scott appeared below him.
James stared and thought, hell, he looks like a Cherry. Maybe it was the white face, clean shaven chin, or the baby blue pajamas. The red sunglasses threw him a bit, but Cherry still had that stiff, over responsible look of someone who'd gotten their first command. He reminded James of a corporal, back in the 2nd Canadian Division who used to walk up and down the trenches at night with a clipboard, counting his men and docking them for undone collars and tarnished buttons.
Cherry was climbing the stairs, and padding forward like James was a claymore that might go off in his face. The red glasses looked eery in the dim light and James could see his own face distorted in their reflection, bulging and twisted like a bad copy of himself.
“Logan,” Scott began in a polite, careful voice.
“Yeah?” James croaked, grasping for words. They seemed to help because when he spoke Cherry's mouth twitched into a more genuine, if irritated, smile.
“Another late night?” he asked.
“Yeah,” James nodded vaguely. Late was understatement. Weird as shit would be better. Who were these people? How did they know him? Maybe he was still dreaming and this was a figment, brought on by too much driving and too little sleep.
“I don't suppose, whatever this is, you could keep it inside until morning,” Cherry said sliding his hand up the banister.
“No,” James murmured still staring at his red reflection, which was getting bigger the closer Scott came. What happened to his hair? he didn't remember chopping it that short since Normandy. Victor had laughed, and said he looked like a skunk bear.
“Okay,” Scott said, carefully reaching out. “Well, why don't we take a walk then.”
James breath hitched. A German officer once told him to “take a walk,” like that. They forced him and Victor and a dozen other prisoners to march through the snow into the treeline behind their camp, and then shot them. He and Victor spent the night lying in the snow, freezing, and pretending to be dead while the Germans smoked cigarettes and dug shallow graves.
“Xavier will be back from DC tomorrow...” Scott was saying, as he covered the last inch between them and laid a hand on James shoulder.
It was the hand that did it. Suddenly James had no interest in why these people knew his name, or talked about him sleep walking. He just wanted to be outside. He wanted to see the sky. His body said "run," and he obeyed, just like when he was a child following Victor into the woods. “Run, Jimmy. Keep on running, and don't look back” Victor had said, and James never did. The instinct was ground into his soul by his brothers voice.
He threw off Scott's hand, grabbed the man by the throat and shoved him into the wall, snarling. “Listen up Cherry, I don't know who you are, or what sick game you people are running here, but I'm gonna tell you the same thing I told the last government dog who came sniffing around my door. I'm not interested. You get me?”
“Cherry?” the boy scout choked, and James tightened his fist, cutting off the man's air.
“Shut-up. I'm done. I was done in Nigeria, and I ain't going back. You people can shovel your own shit.”
Then he slammed his fist into Cherry's nose. The sunglasses fell off and he crumbled to the floor with a surprised yell, eyes screwed shut and clutching his face while blood spurted between his fingers. James kicked the guy's head into the wall before Scott could make another noise and left him slumped on the landing, with his nose staining the fancy carpet.
James took the rest of the stairs two at time. He didn't bother trying to hide. Cover was blown anyway, if he'd ever had it, and he just ran, following the faint smell of engines until, after several wrong turns, he staggered into a large garage.
He could hear lots of feet pounding up and down the halls now, and knew he'd have to book it, but he didn't see his truck anywhere. He ducked through rows of expensive Cadillacs, and around a silver Porche, but his trusty, beat-up trailer was nowhere to be found, and his heart began to sink the longer he looked.
When he heard feet outside the garage door he ducked under the shadow of a motorcycle. A strange voice was calling his name, and for a moment it seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, leaving a weird itch in the back of his head. James ignored it and stayed still, and as soon as the voice gave up and left to search elsewhere, he was up and running again.
He hated leaving his trailer, but needs must, and he didn't need anyone calling the cops with a stolen license plate number, so he left the other cars and bikes where they were and went on foot, creeping outside where he could smell dew and grass. There were lights blazing from the windows now. James was reminded of the farmers torches, bobbing in the woods while shouting men hunted down him and Victor.
Then somewhere behind the mansion a green flash lit up the lawn in a brilliant display, and James's startled like he'd been stuck with a cattle prod. When the light died away he took a chance and dashed across a black basketball court, slid under a hedge and ran to the gate at the end of the drive in an all out sprint. He climbed the high wall and heaved himself onto the other side, before dropping to the road with a crunch of his boots. A narrow lane twisted off into the night and James took a quick gamble, before heading left.
He passed an iron sign reading 1407 Graymalkin lane without much thought and followed the road at a steady lope.