Author Matthew B.J. Delaney imagines a future where climate change has divided society. You can read an excerpt of his new novel, Black Rain, below. Read Delaney’s interview with Nexus Media here.
The security men had advised against it. Or at least Greeley had. But Greeley advised against most things. Like taking walks, sitting by open windows, and eating in restaurants. He’d be against meltwater, Synthate shopping, and visiting pleasure parlors, if he thought anyone would pay attention. The secret to getting along with Greeley was to listen to his advice, nod, then do whatever it was you planned on doing. Only do it when he wasn’t looking.
Greeley wasn’t looking now, so Martin Reynolds slid his hand around Betsy’s waist.
“Don’t!” Her hand met his. “You’ll crush my wings.”
“I’m sorry, my angel.”
Her wings were little lacy ones, extending out from the back of her tightly fitted white dress. Reynolds slid his arm down the side of his wife’s thigh instead. The big clock on the wall chimed eleven, barely audible over the sound of the band.
What Greeley had advised against was Seeks. A silly game, really, Reynolds thought. An adult version of hide-and-seek. One that rich people played at the lavish parties Bruce Livingston had been throwing inside his Fifth Avenue mansion for years.
Reynolds had known Livingston since undergrad. Livingston had gone on to become a senator, while Reynolds had become a molecular geneticist specializing in DNA recombinant nanotechnology for Genico Industries, a job description that made most people fake calls on their syncs just to avoid small talk with him.
Livingston addressed the crowd. “In a few moments we’ll start the Seeks. At the stroke of eleven thirty, half of you will be given twenty minutes to hide anywhere on these premises. The other half will then be given the opportunity to find those hidden. Last couple not found wins a six-month-long domestic Synthate lease. Now, each couple received a card in an envelope at the door, so please open it now.”
Betsy opened her purse and produced the white envelope. Slipping her finger under the flap, she tore it open. A red letter H was printed on the card inside.
“Looks like we’ll be hiding.”
Reynolds was used to Livingston’s idea of entertaining. Once the ballroom had been the scene of a female bodybuilding contest. Another time, a hundred little people had reenacted the Battle of Hastings. The columns claimed that not a single invitation had ever been refused. Nor was any member of the media ever allowed to attend.
Tonight, the forty people standing around created that fantastic, almost surreal environment produced by only the most opulent costume balls. An African warrior stood by the bar talking with Al Capone and a NASA astronaut while Hermes danced the waltz with Mother Teresa around and around the floor.
It was absurd, really, which was why Reynolds wore only his old green hospital scrubs, untouched since he’d been a resident.
The clock neared 11:30.
Livingston was traditionally referred to as old mao. And more than that, he was old, political mao, which, before the Chinese currency crisis, would have been old
money. Which was the best kind. He had access to more touch bucks in one finger than entire honeycomb blocks of the conurb.
“We’ll head for the library,” Betsy whispered. “I know a place we can hide. It’s where Livingston takes those young female interns he enjoys mentoring.”
“Who told you that?” Reynolds asked.
“The senator’s wife.”
Reynolds looked around the room again. He had the uncomfortable feeling he was being watched. And he was right. In the corner stood a man in a long black robe. His face was covered by a leather plague mask with a long, protruding nose and two perfectly round black eyes.
The masked figure turned toward Reynolds. Reynolds looked quickly away.
The clock sounded the half hour. A cheer rose from the partygoers and the band struck up a brisk rag. Greeley headed out the door toward the front lawn. Henry VIII and Cleopatra and the others headed for the hallways and hiding places beyond the ballroom.
“Good luck, everyone!” Livingston called out. “Let the Seeking begin!”
Betsy took her husband’s hand and led him toward the rear of the ballroom. She checked her watch. “Twenty minutes to get ourselves in place. Let’s hurry.”
They left the ballroom and quickly made their way down a long hall. Reynolds glimpsed strange sights as they passed rooms. Wyatt Earp and a Catholic schoolgirl trying to squeeze inside a closet. A clanking knight and a French maid pushing themselves underneath a bed. Husband and wife reached the foot of a wide staircase and immediately headed up. Betsy seemed to know exactly where she was going. After a bit more walking, they came to an abrupt stop.
They stood before a beautiful library. A marble fireplace was cut into the wall on their left, the stone glowing from the light cast by two red-shaded lamps. An Oriental rug, its background the same faded rust color as the bindings of the books (actual paper, what a novelty!) covered the floor. Windows looked down on the Central Park contaminant dome. And reflecting the room’s interior was an enormous mirror on the back wall framed in heavy gilded wood.
Betsy walked over to the mirror. First she inspected the trim, then she cupped her hands against the glass and tried to peer through it.
“What are you doing?” Reynolds asked. “It’s not fluxglass?”
“Give me a minute.”
When the competitive spirit seized Betsy, small talk was of little interest. A black remote sat on a nearby chair. On a whim, Reynolds pressed the power button. The wall clicked and the mirror slid outward. Betsy took hold of the frame and the whole piece swung into the room like a giant door.
Beyond the mirror was a small room with a bed, lamp, and a wooden bureau. A bottle of wine sat on the bureau, which made Reynolds think Betsy might have had this planned from the beginning. She was a very resourceful woman at times.
He slid out his father’s old Glock handgun from the pancake holster attached to his belt. He placed the gun on the bureau.
She raised her eyebrows. “Still afraid?”
She kissed him hard. Her hands wrapped around his back. He was still afraid. But the gun was more magic amulet than useful tool. He doubted he could actually pull the
trigger. But he liked the feel of the metal against his skin. The weight of it on his belt. He hoped just having the weapon was enough to keep away whatever was out there.
Whatever they might send for him when the time came.
A single window looked down on the dark expanse of the rear garden. There Greeley burned a smoke stick as two shapes moved quickly past him, a billowing white ghost accompanied by a witch, her face painted green.
The library clock chimed midnight.
“Well, let the games begin,” his wife whispered.
The mirror door was still open, showing the view into the rest of the library and the hallway at the far end.
“Shouldn’t we be closing that?” Reynolds had the remote in his hands.
“By all means.”
She took hold of the mirror and slowly swung it shut. There was a click as the frame locked into place, sealing them inside the small room. The glass was one-way reflective, allowing them to look out into the library and see anyone approaching. Without the remote, no one could get into the room short of breaking the glass.
Through the one-way panel, Reynolds watched the empty library. Next to him, Betsy’s wings glittered and sparkled as she moved about the room. The clock chimed a final time, after which the sound slowed into a long dying tone before finally rolling out altogether. Then silence. Now, somewhere below, the Seekers would be coming for them.
Reynolds experienced an instant of stomach butterflies, like the giddy excitement of kids at play. The feeling was similar to another, more adult sensation he’d experienced many times in the presence of women, except that dose of excitement usually happened a good foot or so below his stomach. Betsy must have intuited this, because she was looking at him, her hip cocked slightly forward.
Reynolds’s heart skipped with surprise. Someone was staring at them.
Betsy frowned. “What is it?”
“Someone’s out there.”
It was the man in the plague mask. He stood in the doorway of the library, eyeholes directed at their hiding place. Reynolds reminded himself that the fellow couldn’t see them through the mirror. Betsy appeared to have come to the same conclusion.
She moved closer to Reynolds. The bells on her wings jingled. “Just ignore him.”
He allowed his gaze to flick back at the mirror. The man was still there, head cocked to the side. Listening.
“Shh, shh,” Reynolds whispered, grabbing hold of his wife, keeping her costume still.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, looking vaguely annoyed.
“I think he’s listening.”
She pulled herself away, straightening her dress. “Who is he?”
“I saw him downstairs.”
“The mirror is closed, right?”
“Yes . . .”
“So who cares? Let him listen. He can’t get in here, anyway.”
His wife had always been the adventurous one. Reynolds went to the window and looked out again. The garden stretched before him, glowing in the moonlight. Greeley had vanished. Then from the darkness came a sharp, piercing cry.
Betsy grabbed his arm tight. “What was that?”
He knew what they’d heard had been a scream.
But had the sound been real? Livingston might be up to some kind of trick. Turn out the lights, then try to scare everyone. Exactly his idea of a joke. On the other hand, the scream had struck him as authentic. So either Livingston had brought in a very motivated and talented actor for the part, or . . . or what?
Or, Reynolds thought, it was genuine. In which case . . .
From the other side of the mirror, out in the library, came a dull thump. He turned quickly from the window and looked through the mirror. The plague doctor had vanished, but Reynolds had seen something move. Gone in an instant behind the doorframe, beyond their line of sight. But in that moment, Reynolds had registered two feet, limp, dragging as someone out of sight pulled along the body of their owner. Something that caught the light had congealed on the floor, there at the rug’s edge. Reynolds pressed his face against the glass and strained to see.
Was that blood?
“What is it?” Betsy asked. “What do you see?”
“I don’t know,” Reynolds replied. Then he surprised himself by saying, “But stay here. I’m going to go look.”
Did I really just say that? Martin Reynolds by no means considered himself brave. He’d flushed a rabid raccoon out from underneath their porch with a 7-iron once last summer, but this was a far cry from that. Any other time, he would have stayed safely hidden with his wife behind the mirror. But something about the feel of his wife against him had gotten Reynolds’s testosterone going and he suddenly felt that most dangerous of all male emotions, the need to prove something.
The Glock sat silent on the bureau, its black metal bursting with the possibility of violence. He thought of sliding it back into his holster, but he was a coward at heart. And cowards did stupid things when it came to guns. He didn’t want to shoot someone accidently, some poor domestic Synthate or, even worse, one of the other guests. Better to run than fight. That was his way.
Reynolds pressed the remote and the mirror swung slowly open, an effect akin to breaking a seal. Suddenly he could hear all the lower-register noises that had been inaudible inside the sealed room. The tick of the clock in the library. The hum of the lamp. And in the far distance, he heard a door slam.
“Stay here. Keep quiet,” Reynolds said. “I’ll be back.”
Unarmed, he stepped out into the library. The room was empty. Behind him, the mirror swung back into place. Now nothing but his own reflection showed in the glass. Betsy was suddenly invisible. Pausing, he listened. Nothing. He peeked around the door. The hall was empty in both directions.
Turning his attention to the floor, he saw a dark streak along the carpet. He bent and touched the stain. His fingers came away red. Blood. No doubt. He remembered the man in the mask. And the feet being dragged. He should call the police.
But Livingston was a strange man. The entire evening might be just an elaborate bit of theater. If Livingston knew where the Reynoldses were hiding, he could have
staged a series of scenes on the other side of the mirror, intending to frighten his old college buddy. Such actions seemed implausible and made no sense, but Reynolds wouldn’t put it past him.
The bloodstains streaked down the hall before turning right and disappearing around a corner. If Livingston was playing a trick, he was certainly going to a lot of effort. And if Livingston was trying to frighten his guest, it was starting to work. Reynolds’s heart thumped rather painfully in his chest while a slow chill crept the length of his neck. Suddenly he was aware of how alone he felt in the big old house. But he pushed forward, not wanting to give Livingston the satisfaction of winning whatever little game he was playing.
“I’ll track you down, old friend,” Reynolds said to himself as he began following the wet stains. “We’ll see how this turns out.”
Blood streaks wound back and forth along the carpet like the marks of a snake over sand. At the end of the hall, he turned and tracked them to the end of a second corridor. There was no sign of other Seekers.
The streaks proceeded on and on. The blood pooled on marble floors and beaded on parquet. Livingston was ruining parts of his house with this little joke.
Then the streaks disappeared.
The marks led to large, closed double doors, vanishing beneath them. End of the line. A single beam of light shone through the keyhole below the brass knob. Quietly, Reynolds crept up to the door and placed his ear against it. From inside he heard footsteps. Livingston, I’ve got you now. Slowly he lowered himself into a crouch, then put his eye against the keyhole and peered inside.
It wasn’t Livingston.
The room was a study. Bookshelves lined a back wall, against which a shadow suddenly fell. A man stood, his arm upraised. Reynolds followed the source of the light. A lamp on an end table. The plague doctor was there, blocking the light from the lamp. He held a long, curving sickle. Greeley was there, too. The security man lay half propped up on the wall, the red stains ending at him, blood pooled all around his body. The sickle was lacquered in dripping blood. The costumed figure looked down at Greeley’s body, tapping the sickle against his leg until blood seeped into the fabric of his robe.
Reynolds fell forward slightly, in shock. His forehead hit the doorknob and the metal rattled. The plague doctor spun toward the sound. Listening and still tapping the sickle against his leg, he moved toward the door.
Reynolds pulled back from the keyhole. He had a strange urge to stand in place. Wait for the double doors to open and see what came out. Or at least bend down before the keyhole again, his rational side telling him to make sure he’d really seen what he’d seen and that the whole thing wasn’t just some fantastical delusion wrought by the circumstances. No. There was a better solution.
Turn and run.
He headed back down the way he’d come. Behind him he heard the telltale sound of doors opening, then footsteps behind across the marble floor. He ignored what he heard. Ignored the hideous evidence of somebody chasing him. Keep moving. Now the final stretch was in front of him. He moved quickly, his pursuer climbing the stairs after him.
As Reynolds entered the library, he slipped open his sync. The mirror beckoned at the far end and he sprinted for it. He pulled hard on the gilded frame. Nothing happened. He pulled again in a panic. His sync slipped from his hand and skipped across the floor. The mirror was still tight shut. The footsteps in the hall were loud now, the terrifying figure getting closer and closer. Dear God. The pounding of Reynolds’s heart seemed to him as loud as the approaching footfalls.
All at once the mirror slid open and his wife’s hand pulled him into the secret room. The mirror shut behind him and locked. There in the darkness, trying to control his breath, his heart continued to ripple painfully. He turned and looked out through the glass, back into the library.
“Jesus, what happened?” Betsy hissed. “What’s wrong?”
Reynolds shook his head. “Quiet. He’s coming.”
He kept his eye on the library’s doorway. Watching. Watching.
Then a figure appeared. The terribly long nose, the black eyes of the plague doctor. He stopped for a moment in the doorway, then turned and kept walking, disappearing from view. What was happening in Reynolds’s chest felt like a heart attack. But then the pain dropped so hard into his stomach he felt he was going to be sick.
“Who was that?” Betsy asked, her eyes wide and scared.
“Call the police.” Reynolds’s voice wavered and Betsy froze. “I dropped my sync. Call the police now!”
She looked around, thoroughly frightened by the tone of his voice. Obediently she dialed the numbers. “Where’s yours?”
Reynolds looked out and saw his sync on the library floor. He stared hard at it, attempting to somehow will it back into his possession. Betsy handed her sync to Reynolds. The operator’s voice picked up after the second ring, curt and impersonal.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
Forced to speak, Reynolds breathed deeply and tried to gather his words. “We need help, there’s someone here, there’s a man, trying to kill us. I’m at 578 Fifth Avenue, the townhouse, fifth floor.”
“You need the police?”
“Yes . . . please . . . right away . . .”
“Stay on the line, sir,” the operator responded.
Betsy pressed hard against Reynolds, her mouth very small and tight as she stared at something through the glass and into the room beyond.
“What is it?” Reynolds asked.
Reynolds knew they had come for him. They had found out about his work. He had done his best to keep it secret, but he had always known this moment would come. He had just hoped it wouldn’t be when he was with Betsy. Reynolds reached into his waistband. They had left him no choice.
The 911 operator came back on the line. “Are you there, sir?”
“Yes.” Reynolds whispered. “There’s been a murder. He’s here now. I’m looking at him.”
“Where are you and your wife hiding?”
Reynolds opened his mouth to respond, then a warning flashed in his mind. Something was not right. “What did you say?”
“Where in the house are you and your wife hiding?”
My wife. I never told the operator I was with my wife. His mind moved sluggishly. The voice on the sync. Someone who had seen him at the party with his wife. Someone who knew who he was. Someone who couldn’t be a 911 operator.
“Why do you want to know where we’re hiding?” Reynolds asked.
Reynolds felt suddenly calm.
There would be no more waiting. No more secrets.
He lifted the old Glock 9mm handgun from the bureau. The weapon felt strange in his hands. Betsy stared at him, her eyes wide. “What are you doing with that?”
“They found me out.”
“Who found you out?”
“Who do you think?” Reynolds tried to remember how to flick off the safety on the weapon.
“Oh God. Where is it?”
“Hidden,” Reynolds said. “Safe for now.”
In the library, the masked figure stopped and stared down at Reynolds’s sync. Slowly he bent down, picked it up, and inspected the screen. He pressed the device with his thumb, then seemed to wait.
Reynolds suddenly knew what the man was waiting for, but he was too slow to react. In his hand, Betsy’s sync came alive and a shrill ring filled the small space. The man’s head slowly swiveled toward the sound as Reynolds’s sync fell from his fingers.
He approached the mirror and stared at it. Up close, Reynolds could see flecks of blood on the leather mask. Only feet from them, the man ran the point of the sickle over the glass. His wife pressed herself against Reynolds again. The little bells on her wings tinkled. The blade on the mirror screeched. Reynolds’s adrenaline surged as his focus narrowed to a single smudge on the unblemished glass. A fingerprint. His own that he had left behind.
The man in the mask saw the mark at the same time. The movement of the blade stopped. Slowly, he lifted the sickle, then the blade hissed down. The glass shattered and the man stepped through the broken frame, gripping the blade in his hand.
Reynolds closed his eyes, his finger tightening on the trigger, and fired.
© 2016 Matthew B.J. Delaney, Reprinted with permission from 47North
This story is made available by Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.