By Curtis+DeeAnn Sole-Chen

Mercer's head jerked sideways. She felt the motion of the vehicle before she heard the sound of rushing wind. The tires screeched, and the towncar skidded off the highway. She put one hand on the window to brace herself as they spun full circle and lurched to a halt. The glass felt oddly warm.

"Out!" Selby shouted. "Out of the vehicle! Now!"

The two marshals swung their doors open and jumped out into a humid afternoon. A swirling vortex of light swept down the road toward them, spitting red lightning.

Selby raised his wand and began casting a warding charm. Mercer yanked open the back door and pulled out their passenger. She had one hand on Clay's collar and the other hand on the door when the spell hit them.

Clay, Mercer, and the car materialized in the middle of a flat stone floor inscribed with symbols, surrounded by a perfect circle of gold. A tall, thin man stood outside the circle.

Before Clay could ask where they were, Mercer drew her wand and sent a bolt of energy flying toward the thin man. The missile collided with an invisible dome--an artifact of the containment circle--and shattered.

"Well," the thin man said, "that was easier than I thought."

Mercer pulled out her badge and said, "You just abducted a Federal Marshal, asshole."

Clay decided to keep his mouth shut for now.

"You're just collateral damage, my dear," said the thin man. "My target was the invader."

Mercer kept a poker face. Clay slumped in his seat, half in and half out of the car.

"Oh, yes," the thin man said, addressing Clay, "I can see through the glamours. Straight into your soul--all eight million of them."

Mercer stepped between Clay and the thin man. "If you can read his enchantments, you know his form is impenetrable. Let us go, right now, and we can forget this ever happened."

"Forget?" The thin man raised a hand. A flash of light streaked from his tattooed palm into Mercer's face.

She said something unprintable and stumbled backwards, hitting the car. Clay stood up and grabbed her before she fell down.

"That is what I saw the day it attacked us," the thin man said. "Tell me how I can forget that."

Clay lowered Mercer to the ground. He saw flashes of light under her closed eyelids, no doubt replaying scenes from his own rampage through Manhattan.

"I'll come with you," Clay said, standing up. "Just let her go."

"No!" Mercer said. She groped around blindly, brushing his pant leg with her fingertips. Clay moved away from the car.

"Whatever you're going to do to me, you don't want a witness," he said.

"Of course not," the thin man said. "But I do need a vessel."

Clay froze. "What?"

"My wife is one of the souls you imprisoned four years ago, invader. I can free her now, but she will need a body." The thin man smiled. "As they say, two birds with one stone."

Clay didn't realize he was moving until his fist smashed against the circle barrier.

"Good," the thin man said. "You've been human long enough to appreciate what you're going to lose."

The thin man's palm flashed again, and Clay fell to the ground.

"You don't know what you're doing!" Mercer shouted. "You unseal him and the world ends! Do you hear me?"

The thin man said nothing and walked away.

Mercer groped her way toward the sound of his footsteps. She tried to ignore the thin man's vision as it began again.

A sparking light show. Clay's tiny spacecraft crashing through a neon sign in Times Square. Giant fireball demolishing a storefront.

"Wait!" Mercer shouted as the thin man began chanting. That was never good news. "Don't do this!" She would beg, if that's what it took to get this madman under control.

Clay stepping out of the fireball. His face and body a blackened mess of melting, oozing flesh. People running, mouths open in silent screams. Bodies collapsing outward in a spreading wave, a rainbow of auras torn from them.

"He couldn't stop!" she screamed. "Do you understand? He didn't have control!"

Aura after aura hitting Clay, vanishing, coming faster and faster until he was inexorable motion surrounded by a maelstrom of swirling colored lights and falling bodies.

Mercer forced herself to focus on the details. From this vantage point, the thin man must have been very close to the action. In the back of her mind, Mercer wondered how he had survived when so many others had died.

"You were there!" she screamed, a little truth to sell the lie that would follow. "How can you unleash this on the world again?"

Her hand touched the edge of the barrier, smooth and perfect, nothing for her hastily conjured dispel to grip into.

Buildings collapsing. The Clay maelstrom moving up Broadway, toward more people, trapping more souls.

"Do you think he stopped on his own?" Mercer kept shouting, this time the truth, but so improbable it paved the way for her bluff. "We stopped him!" The aura-light filling her vision was blinding.

The thin man's chanting rose to a crescendo. Mercer jerked her shields in place and felt hastily for Clay. He was not in range of her groping hands. The vision ended. She was spared seeing it again as the thin man's spell crashed into her, permeated her shields, and dragged her under.

Clay heard breaking.

The sound--sensation?--was unfamiliar, nothing he could have imagined. A pressure, psychic, inescapable. It flared into pain, sharp and immediate. He was surprised to find something that hurt more than what he had experienced that day, four years ago.

He felt lost, and afraid, and guilty. He wondered if he was dying. He did not think it unfair; he simply hoped the pain would end quickly.

The next sound Mercer heard was the distinctive thud of fist against flesh, then the crash of falling equipment and shattering glass. She hoped the fall did the thin man some damage.

She groaned and opened her eyes. Her shields were down, her face was buried in Clay's armpit, and her head felt like a demolitions team was dismantling it.

So, she was doing pretty well, considering the thin man had meant to turn her into a vessel for his wife.

Outside the circle, Selby had the thin man cuffed and up against the wall. Six uniforms stomped around the workshop. Selby shoved the thin man at one of them and hurried over to the protective wards.

He rubbed out the intricately marked chalk with one scuffed loafer, stepped over Clay's legs, and knelt beside Mercer.

"You all right?" he said. His breath smelled like cigarettes, old cheese, and last night's whisky.

"Jessica!" the thin man yelled. He was staring at Mercer. "I will find you! No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you!"

He jerked away from the uniform and vanished in a whirlwind of red light.

"Dammit," Mercer said, rubbing her throbbing temples. "I really hate that guy."

"He's sure got a thing for flashy teleports," Selby agreed. "I wonder how many people he had to drain to power that tornado. Takes a lot of juice to suck up a whole car."

"We need to put out an APB," Mercer said.

"Local PD will handle that." Selby pulled Mercer to her feet and slapped her wand into her hand. "We gotta get Special Delivery here to the safehouse."

He jerked a thumb toward Clay. The uniforms were very conspicuously ignoring him.

Mercer bent down and checked Clay's pulse. Strong and steady. Of course. If having his flesh melted right off his bones didn't kill him four years ago, a little stun-blast wasn't going to bother his alien body.

Two of the uniforms popped the lid on a crate in the corner of the room. The unmistakable scent of decomposing flesh rolled over Mercer.

"I guess that answers my question," Selby said, standing up to get a better look. "He drained a crateful."

Mercer flicked her wand to disperse the stench.

"Anyway," Selby pointed at Clay. "What happened to him?"

"Forgot to shield. I'm surprised he's still out, though." She levitated Clay over to the towncar and belted him into the back seat. "Let's get going."

"Uh, about that," Selby said. He scuffed out a few sigils, staining black shoes with yellow chalk. "I used up our teleports getting here."

"All of them?" Mercer said, incredulous. "It's only the fifth of the month!"

Selby nodded, shame-faced. "There were some false trails," he said, "and I had to get backup. Such as it is." He jerked his head toward the local cops, who were clearly excited about the upgrade from crime scene to murder scene.

"Well, crap," Mercer said. She surveyed the workshop. Basement, naturally. The only door was at the top of a flight of stairs. She unbelted Clay. "I guess we'll have to owe the motor pool a vehicle for now."

Clay woke to the sound of screaming.

"You're okay, you're okay!" Mercer shouted. She was leaning over him, hair out of its prim bun for the first time in their acquaintance. The halo of dark, tangled curls seemed at odds with her businesslike demeanor.

Clay blinked and shut his mouth. The screaming stopped.

"You got it together?" Mercer said.

Clay nodded. "I think so." His throat hurt.

"Great," she said, releasing his shoulders. She tried to pull her hair back and grimaced. "Dammit. Should've made Selby wait on that food run. I'm never going fix this rat's nest."

Clay sat up. He opened his mouth to comment on her impressive hairstyle.

A voice screamed, "What's happening? What's happening!" Clay held up his hands and turned them in front of his face, as if he had never seen them before. "Noooo!"

"All right, that's enough!" Mercer barked. She grabbed Clay's shoulders and pushed him against the headboard, hard.

Selby burst through the door of the motel room, wand held high, white paper bag clutched in his other hand. "Mercer! Talk to me!"

"I don't know what's happening!" she shouted back.

Clay summoned all his will and shut his mouth again. The screaming stopped. He blinked, and tears ran down his cheeks. His breath hitched in a sob.

"What the hell?" Selby holstered his wand and dropped the bag of fast food on the table.

Clay closed his eyes. Mercer maintained her grip on his shoulders. He took a deep breath and willed the tears to stop.

His hands came up and slapped ineffectually at Mercer's arms.

"Stop it! Now!" she said. "You're okay. We've got you." She shook Clay's shoulders for emphasis. His head hit the wall and bounced.

Clay willed his hands back down and curled his fingers tight around the bedsheets. He pressed his lips closed and concentrated on taking control of his body.

"Freak," Selby said. Clay heard a chair creaking, then paper rustling. "Maybe it's low blood sugar. Alien wanna burger?"

Clay opened his eyes. The proffered sandwich loomed in his vision. He stomach jerked. "I'm a vegetarian," he said.

Selby shrugged and took a bite of the burger.

Mercer frowned. "Since when are you vegetarian?"

"Oh, shit," Clay said. He looked at his hands, still clutching the sheets. He relaxed one. It jerked up and started batting at Mercer's arm.

The churning in his stomach turned to ice as he reasserted control and dragged his hand back down.

"That wasn't me," he said. "There's someone else in here."

"Okay, let me get this straight," Mercer said. "You think the thin man's ritual worked, but not on me." She'd gotten her hair under control and felt more comfortable, if not less skeptical.

"It couldn't work on you," Clay said. "Your body already has you in it."

"Okay, fine," Mercer said. "So you're telling me his wife is in your body instead of mine?"

"Jessica. Yes." Clay nodded. "I can feel her in here."

"See, now, that's not possible. If this woman can't be in my body because I'm already in it, she can't be in your body either. Your body's got you in it."

Clay sighed. "You want me to let her start screaming again? I'm not human. Maybe that makes a difference."

"You'd think she'd be done by now," Selby said. "It's been almost an hour." He was methodically finishing off the last of the hamburgers. Mercer hadn't wanted any, and Clay's fun, new vegetarian side had gotten hysterical at the prospect of consuming meat. The box of tissues Mercer had put on the bed was now half empty.

Clay grimaced. "She's pretty shaken up."

Mercer shook her head. "I've seen some messed-up stuff, but this takes the prize," she said. "So this Jessica doesn't know anything about what happened?"

Clay shook his head. "How could she?" he said. His heel started drumming against the front of the couch. "The last thing she saw was me emerging from the wreckage of my lifepod, after your government shot it down."

Mercer grimaced. "It was a mistake. I could wish that hadn't happened," she muttered. She felt a pang every time someone mentioned the Manhattan Incident. "Eight million dead." Clay wasn't worth the trade, even if she couldn't blame him--shouldn't blame him.

Clay sighed. "Eight million and four," he said, "and they're not dead. They're imprisoned. Inside me."

"Yeah, yeah, you're a jail." Selby said. "We've heard it before. So just let everyone out of their cells already, and we can all go home." He worked a fingernail between his teeth to dislodge a bit of gristle. "We could all do with a little less hiding out in cheap motels, eating crappy food, and sleeping in uncomfortable beds, just so we can find you a new holding facility." He sighed. "And then move you again two or three months later, after the locals find out and start protesting again."

"You know I can't let them go." Clay ran a hand through his hair. "Until tonight, I thought they'd all be with me until I died."

The hand shook and spread out in front of his face again. This Jessica--if she was real--must be a little surprised to see how hairy her knuckles were. Clay dragged the hand back into his lap.

Mercer drew her wand. "Okay, storytime's over," she said. "Can we go back to being law enforcement for a minute?" She drew a rectangle on the table in front of her. A few quick taps, and she had a working screen. "Clay. Give me the wife's last name."

"Corning," he said.

The records search didn't take long. Mercer and Selby had full access to all of the federal government's Manhattan Incident files, just in case something happened with Clay.

"Jessica Corning," Mercer read off the screen. "Taken at 8th and Broadway. Husband, Thomas Evander Corning, occult lecturer at Columbia University." She swept her hand over the table to bring up his records. "Six fingers on his left hand. Well, that explains how he thought he could wave a wand and free his wife."

Selby grunted. "Yeah, I hear you grow a seventh and you can fly."

Mercer turned away from the screen and looked at Clay. He was crying again. Or she--Jessica--was crying. Mercer sighed and rubbed her forehead. At least they were being quiet about it now.

The earlier hysterical screaming had left Mercer desperate to slap someone. She wouldn't go to pieces like that if she found out she was dead. Or trapped. Whatever.

Hysterics were a waste of precious resources. Mercer had been on duty when her fiance died in a car wreck. She'd kept it together until she finished out her day, and got home. It wouldn't have done anyone any good for her to fall apart on the job. People's lives depended on her being rock solid.

Mercer shook her head to clear it and waved the screen closed.

Across the table, Selby tapped his wrist. "So we've got an ID on our perp. And it's after six o'clock. Celebratory beverages for everyone!"

Mercer shook her head. "Bad guys to catch, partner," she said. "You remember those, right?"

"Whatever," Selby said. "I'm clocking out. Bad guys can wait until tomorrow."

"Not really," Clay said. He rubbed his cheeks and blew his nose. "She finally cried herself to sleep."

Mercer pinched the bridge of her nose. "You're going to drop another bombshell on us."

Clay looked rueful. "Yes," he said. "Remember how I said Thomas Corning's ritual couldn't work on you, because you were already in your body?"

"Yeah," Mercer said, in her most reasonable tone, "and then I pointed out that you're full of crap because you're just as much in your body as I am in mine."

"Exactly," Clay said. "Jessica shouldn't be in here with me. I'm trying to--to keep quiet for her, but it takes a lot of self-control." He made a frustrated gesture. "And I keep, keep... slipping."

"I'm sorry," Mercer said. She could tell that he was trying his best to explain, but it still sounded like he was full of crap. "I don't understand what you're saying."

"Me neither," Selby said.

Clay sighed. "The bad guy can't wait," he said. "We need to find him and let Jessica say her goodbyes before I fall asleep."

"Okay, that doesn't make any sense," Mercer said, exasperated. "You were damned well asleep when we dragged you in here!"

"Not asleep," Clay said. "We were both... I don't know how to describe it. Struggling for control, maybe. My body didn't know how to deal with both of us being in here." He wadded up the used tissues and threw them in the trash. "I'm... hosting her now, but I won't be able to concentrate on being welcoming when I fall asleep. I'll just throw her right out, as a reflex."

"Then what?" Mercer said.

"Then she dies," Clay said. "People can't survive without their bodies."

Mercer and Selby stared at each other for a moment.

"Can you communicate with her?" Mercer asked.

Clay blinked. Apparently, it hadn't even occurred to him to try. "I--I think so, yes."

"Then you and Mrs. Corning need to talk."

It didn't take long for Clay to figure out how to communicate with Jessica. He simply had to ease up his control a little, just enough for her will to bob up to the surface of their shared space. Convincing her to listen took a little longer.

Clay remembered the encounter for Jessica, playing it back like a show--spell vortex, red lightning; Mercer, him, and the car in the containment circle; the thin man gloating.

Tom would never do that, Jessica thought at Clay.

I'm sorry, but I'm remembering it exactly as it happened, Clay thought back. Do you want to see it again?

No. I believe this is what you remember, Jessica thought. But people get confused. I don't believe what you remember is what really happened.

"She doesn't believe me," Clay said, opening his eyes.

Mercer pinched the bridge of her nose. She'd been doing that a lot today. Clay wondered if she had a headache.

"Listen, we're trying to help you," Mercer said. "You know we're Federal Marshals, right? Do you know what that means?"

You're some kind of cops, right? Jessica thought.

"She says you're police," Clay said.

"Close enough," Mercer said. "Have you ever seen police testify in court?"

Not in person, Jessica thought, but I've seen lots of shows.

Clay nodded. "But only on remote," he said.

Mercer shrugged. "There's a lot wrong with remote shows, but they usually get the testifying right." She pulled out her wand and drew a glowing circle on the wall. "My partner and I are going to show you exactly what happened this morning."

"I already did that," Clay said.

Mercer waved a shushing hand at him. "I'm not talking to you."

Selby grunted. "You weren't under oath," he said to Clay, pulling the Book out of his pocket. "We will be. Ask her if that's good enough."

Maybe, Jessica thought. Do they really burn if they lie, like on the shows?

"Yep," Selby said, when the message was relayed. "If we're liars, we'll be instant masses of oozing pustules." He grinned. "But I ain't been oozy yet, in court or out of it."

"Just hold up the Book," Mercer said.

The two Marshals swore to show the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, may their bodies bear witness and pay the price for falsehood. Then they waved their wands at the circle in the wall.

Clay watched the scene unfold with fascination. He hadn't known that the towncar went off the road because the asphalt had cracked open, or that the car had landed on an active spell circle. Similarly, he hadn't noticed the mole on the thin man's lip--or that the thin man was either very ill, or slowly starving to death.

He laughed a little, involuntarily, at Selby's expression when his first teleportation took him onto a driving range, where he had to evade a hail of golf balls, but sobered at the sound of the thin man's chanted words. Clay knew he deserved such hatred, but that didn't make it any easier to hear.

When it was over, Clay thought, Do you believe us now?

Yes, Jessica thought. I recognized the core ritual, even if he lost me in the modulations. She seemed stunned. That woman was lucky she had such strong shields. A normal person would have gone out like a candle. Then, after a pause:  Oh, Tom. All those people...

A rush of sorrow passed through Clay. He couldn't tell if it was his own emotion or Jessica's.

What do you mean? Clay thought. The ritual would have killed Mercer?

He felt Jessica's puzzlement as she thought, Of course. Two humans can't occupy the same body. If Tom wanted her to be a vessel for me, he needed to pour her out first.

"What's going on in there, spaceman?" Selby asked.

Clay opened his eyes. Mercer and Selby were staring at him. Clay still wasn't very good with human expressions, but he was pretty sure Selby was faking concern.

"Is it possible for a human body to be alive," Clay said, "But for the mind to be dead? Or gone?"

Mercer and Selby glanced at each other. Mercer said, "Why are you asking this?"

In his head, Jessica thought, Of course it's possible! We call it being brain-dead.

Clay shrugged. "Jessica thinks Thomas Corning was trying to make you brain-dead, Mercer, so he could put his wife into your body."

Mercer shook her head. "I don't know why you ask us questions when you already know the answer," she said.

"Doesn't matter!" Selby said. "We got ourselves a plan." He rubbed his hands together. "First, we find a brain-dead patient in a local hospital."

"I hate this already," Mercer said. "How are we--"

"Shut up and listen for once," Selby said. "We dump Mrs. Corning into this body. She sends the call out into the aether, we wait for Tommy boy to show up, slap some no-magic cuffs on him, and then it's drinks all around!"

"Slow down," Mercer said. "You forgot that Corning thinks I'm Jessica."

Selby waved a dismissive hand. "We put you by her bedside or something," he said. "Have her tell you what to say, you know, personal stuff only his wife would know. It'll work out."

Mercer pursed her lips. "Seems thin."

Jessica thought, Why do they think I would help them throw my husband in jail?

Well, he did try to kill one of them, Clay thought, and he probably killed everyone in that crate. People go to jail for that kind of thing.

You're not in jail, Jessica thought, and you're more of a monster than Tom could ever be. I won't help. Tell them!

Clay didn't bother to tell her that he'd be in jail again soon enough. He opened his eyes and said, "She doesn't want to help you."

Mercer looked at Clay, then over at Selby. "You want to handle this one?" she asked.

"Okay," Selby said, all sweet reasonableness. "Way I see it, the only way Jessica comes out of this alive is if we find a body and pour her into it."

He stepped in close and stared directly into Clay's eyes. "But if you don't want to help us, lady," he said, "that's okay, you just say the word."

Clay suppressed a shiver as all pretense of good humor drained out of Selby's face.

"But you should know, if you do say that word," Selby said, "we can't keep Clay-face awake forever. And, well, there's no guarantee you'll still be here when he wakes up."

Clay stood over the small form in the hospital bed. "She's so young," he said.

"Life's tragic for young and old alike," Mercer said. She touched a strand of the dead girl's pale hair and felt an unwanted flash of sympathy for her family. When they donated their daughter's body, they didn't know that it would be up and walking around without her.

"What happened to her?" Clay asked.

Mercer let go of the hair and told herself to pull it together.

"It doesn't matter," she snapped. "Do your mojo and decant Jessica into this empty vessel."

"That's just it," Clay said. "I don't know what to do." He glanced at Selby and added, "Neither does Jessica."

"We could try that armpit thing," Selby said.

Mercer hoped her own face didn't mirror Clay's look of incredulity as she looked at Selby. "What are you talking about?"

Selby pointed at Clay. "You know," he said, "like in the workshop. I'm not thinking you jammed your face into ET's armpit of your own free will."

Mercer shook her head. "Just touch her, okay?" she said to Clay. "If that doesn't work, then we'll try the armpit thing."

Mercer and Jessica held hands, both chanting, "I'm alive, Tom. Please come find me." Mercer's voice was strong, Jessica's weak.

Across the bed, Selby looked bored. Clay knew that expression. He'd seen it often enough. Behind him, one policeman lay in the room's other bed, disguised as another patient, while other police played visitors. They looked bored, too. Clay wondered if that was the normal expression for a hospital vigil.

Jessica broke off. "I'm sorry," she said. "I just need a drink of water." Her hands shook as she picked up the cup.

Mercer helped hold the straw steady as Jessica took a sip. "Take your time," she said. "You're doing fine."

Clay thought the girl's body looked more frail and bloodless when occupied by Jessica than when it was empty and immobile on the bed. He also saw an unusual expression on Mercer's face, one he hadn't seen before. Perhaps it was sympathy, or pity? Clay couldn't tell. It was so difficult to read human expressions.

Jessica said, "I feel terrible, luring Tom in like this." Her voice was thin. "He must have been out of his mind with grief."

Mercer put the glass back on the table and patted Jessica's bony hand. "Maybe so," she said. "We can ask the judge to take that into consideration. A mitigating circumstance."

Clay noted that Mercer didn't specify who would ask the judge for leniency, just that someone could. In his experience, Mercer wasn't inclined toward sympathy. She glanced his way, and Clay felt unsettled by the look in her eyes. He let the curtain fall closed.

The women picked up the chant again. Long minutes passed. Jessica's voice got weaker, and the water breaks more frequent.

Selby's voice broke in. "I think we're going to have to call it for tonight," he said. "It's almost two. You've been chanting for hours."

Mercer sighed sharply. Any words she might have said next were swallowed by a clap of thunder and a rush of wind.

After that, everyone was shouting at once. Clay couldn't follow any words in particular, but Mercer sounded angry.

The policeman in bed jumped up and shoved Clay to the ground. "Stay here!" the policeman yelled. His companions ripped down the screening curtain on their way to the other side of the room.

Clay saw Mercer and Thomas Corning standing against the far wall. He held Jessica slumped in one arm, wand pressed up against her throat. Selby and the other policemen had their wands out. Everyone but Selby was yelling.

Selby was chanting. After a few seconds, he shouted, "Done! No magic in this room!"

Mercer drove her elbow into Thomas Corning's solar plexus. The thin man collapsed to his knees. One of the policemen leaped to catch Jessica as she fell.

The room fell silent, except for Thomas Corning's wheezy gasps.

"Remember me?" Mercer pulled out her badge. "You just took your own wife hostage, asshole."

Thomas Corning looked up from his kneeling position on the floor. "Jessica?" His voice was a choked gasp.

The policeman had Jessica cradled in his arms. She reached down to touch her husband's hair. Clay strained to hear her response. "I'm alive, Tom. You found me. Just like you promised."

Thomas Corning grabbed her hand. "You wouldn't believe what I've gone through. What I've had to do!"

Jessica didn't respond at first. Her voice was almost inaudible as she said, "I don't feel well."

The face she turned toward the light made the girl's pale hair look dark. Her lips were blue.

"You!" Mercer pointed at the nearest policeman. "Get some help!" He gulped and ran out of the room.

Jessica was back on her bed. Thomas Corning still had hold of her hand. He was sobbing. "No! Not yet! I just got you back!"

Clay couldn't hear her response. She reached a shaking hand up to touch his face.

"I love you, too," Thomas Corning said. His voice quavered. "I promise. I will."

The doctors stampeded in with their carts and their wands and pushed everyone out of the room.

Local police wanted to take Corning away immediately, while Jessica was still fighting for her life. Mercer put a stop to that in the hallway outside the waiting room.

"You want to have a pissing contest over jurisdiction? Now?" she said to the detective who'd swaggered into the hospital not five minutes ago.

"The guy's a murderer," said the detective. "I got twelve bodies in a crate he needs to answer for."

"And he will. But not right now," she said. "Do you understand what just happened here?"

"Look, it's nice that you're taking his feelings into consideration," the detective said, "but under the circumstances--"

"Stop." Mercer held up a hand. "Let me explain what the circumstances are.

"One, Thomas Corning cast a spell that freed a Manhattan Incident victim. Two, whether she lives or dies, said victim got to say goodbye to her family.

"And, three, we believe we can repeat the process."

The detective's mouth hung open. Mercer kept quiet and watched as his eyes slowly widened.

"Exactly," she said. "Now let's give the man time to keep his promise to his dying wife and tell us how to do it again, okay, detective?"

The policeman nodded and walked away. Mercer strode back around the corner to check on Jessica and saw the doctors shuffling out of her room.

Mercer ran over to a doctor and grabbed his shoulder. She opened her mouth, but his eyes answered her question before she could ask. He shook his head.

"I'm surprised she lasted as long as she did," the doctor said.

Mercer nodded and let him go.

She went into the women's bathroom. After making sure nobody else was in there, she slumped against the wall and wept.

She wept for Jessica, whose most intimate memories and emotions had flowed through Mercer as they chanted together. She wept for her fiance, who had died thinking Mercer was dragging her feet on setting a wedding date, who never knew how much she wanted to grow old with him. She wept for herself, because she had never gotten to say goodbye, and never would.

But this was the life she'd chosen. And she could still save others from needless pain and suffering.

She caught her breath and raised her wand to remove the evidence of her tears.

When Mercer got back to the waiting room, Corning was sobbing in the arms of the hospital grief counselor. The woman patted his back and made soothing noises. Mercer walked past them.

Clay and Selby sat on the other side of the room. Selby saw Mercer's look. He nodded and held up the Book.

"You got it?" she asked, taking the chair next to Clay.

"Yeah." Selby held up the Book again. "Didn't you see my elaborate pantomime?"

Mercer ignored him and looked at Clay. His eyes were red, like he'd been crying too. "Can you do it?"

Clay nodded. "Yes. If someone close to the victim can serve as a focus for the ritual," he said. "But I'm not sure what good it will do if they're all just going to die like Jessica did."

"She got to say goodbye." Mercer willed her eyes to stay dry. "That's more than a lot of people get."

Selby helped Clay to his feet. "Just think," he said, "you do this ritual another eight million times, and you might get off with time served."

The sun was coming up as they walked to the rental car. Mercer breathed in the cool morning air. It looked like it was going to be a beautiful day.

Originally published on Curious Fictions, 2019.

Defeated by Curtis+DeeAnn Sole-Chen is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

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