Story by Adam O’Connell/ Illustration by L.A. Spooner
“Another kid has fallen down the rabbit hole, John. You better come in.”
I hung up, taking another slug of whiskey instead.
The phone rang again.
Ignoring it, I searched for a smoke. Trawling through my overflowing ashtray I found a stub with two good drags left in it and lit up. The ringing stopped.
No sooner had the smoke hit my lungs though when it rang again. Growling, I answered.
“God damn it, Jess! I’m retired!”
There was a long pause on the other end, finally Jess said, “John… it’s Stacy. She’s been… abducted.”
A memory of my daughter came to me unbidden. Six years old, playing on the swings. My throat tightened.
“I’ll be right in.”
“Good, John. Tallah is already here. Just make it in safe, ok?”
I hung up without answering, my fingers stiff and painful from squeezing the phone.
Lifting myself from the couch, I kicked aside several leftover fast-food cartons and headed to the bedroom.
Stripping off my stained shorts and vest I reached for my crumpled work suit. Picking it up I stumbled. I wanted to blame it on my bum leg, a gift from China Town five years back, but a wave of vertigo and nausea called me a liar.
Lurching to the bathroom, I splashed water on my face and looked in the mirror.
A thick greasy sheen covered my skin, salt-and-pepper stubble glistened unhealthily. The smell of rank alcohol oozing from my pores. Scared eyes.
Santiago, the chief, wouldn’t let me near the case if she saw me like this.
I got in the shower gargling mouthwash, sluicing my body quickly, the water as hot as I could take it. Despite the heat, I started to shiver, panic for my little girl threatening to unman me, making me want to vomit.
Cheap Chinese food decorated the tub but I managed to keep a grip on my sanity… barely.
Two minutes later I picked up my suit again.
It fit like an old glove. Crumpled, disheveled and probably needing to be thrown out.
I drove to the station mostly without incident. A slow-moving truck lost its wing mirror, a causality of my 120 kph dash through the inner-city.
The driver looked like he had hard feelings but a harder stare and a flash of the badge fixed that.
Jess met me at the entrance. Auburn hair, wrong side of thirty, but still looking better than any teeny-bopper half her age.
“What do we know, Red?” I asked as I pushed open the station door.
She fell into step beside me, “Look, before we go in you should know…”
“Irons! What are you doing here?”
Captain Carlina Santiago stood with her hands on her hips blocking the doorway into the precinct. The sight would have been intimidating if she wasn’t five foot nothing in heels and weighed as much as a wet cat.
“She’s my kid, Chief,” I said simply.
“Yeah, and I sympathize but you’re too close to this. Even if you weren’t you’re a civilian now.”
“For all of three days.”
“Doesn’t matter. Brass will have my ass if they find you on this.”
“Then make sure they don’t find out. Come on, Santiago. You owe me.”
The chief let out a big sigh.
“Alright, Irons you win. Truth is we need you” she said tiredly, “Go to the briefing room. I’ll explain everything in five. Oh and Sands?”
Jess turned towards the Captain hesitantly.
Carlina said, “Go around my back again and I’ll have you on traffic until cars fly. Got it?”
Sands gulped, “Yes, Ma’am.”
Giving a curt nod she turned her back on us and walked in, Jess and I trailing behind.
The precinct looked as it always did an open-plan menagerie.
Harsh flickering florescent bulbs, more bug zapper than illumination, lit the room in an anemic light. Perps and prostitutes sat at chipboard desks either in sullen silence or loudly exaggerating their innocence.
Cops listened or did paperwork, whichever was required, equally indifferent, before slapping on bracelets and escorting them to the holding cells around back.
The one difference was Tallah, my ex-wife, sitting at Bob’s desk. His thick arm around her shoulder as she sobbed into it.
A kindly man might have thought them father and daughter. Both had dark chocolate skin and sharp cheekbones though Bob’s were softened around a layer of fat. Tallah, on the other-hand, looked gaunt, the past hours eating into her flesh like years.
A pragmatic man would say they looked more like siblings and Bob was close to retirement.
I am not a kindly man.
Looking up, Tallah saw me; stumbling out of her chair she grabbed me in a desperate hug.
“Johnny! Johnny, you’ve got to find her! Please! I’m begging you. She’s been gone 8 hours!”
“Wow, wow calm down,” I said enveloping her in my arms, my traitorous nose burying itself in her hair, “We’re going to get her back. Just tell me what happened.”
She took a deep shuddering breath, “Stacey was visiting her grandmother. She was just playing in the yard. When my mum called her for lunch, she was gone!”
I thought how to ask this sensitively but that skill has never been in my wheelhouse, “How do we know she isn’t just missing? That she isn’t just lost in the woods?”
Tallah pulled away from me stricken, looking at me with those big brown eyes I fell in love with now filled with fear.
“They found footprints. Tiny footprints.”
“Fucking gnomes,” hissed Bob, his usual placid demeanour drowned under a sea of hate.
Carlina leaned out of her office and yelled, “Fantasy Squad! Conference room now.”
Tallah looked at me; I kissed her gently on her forehead. Looking into her eyes I said, “I’ll get her back.”
She held my look for a moment, tears mingling with hope, and then gave one final curt nod before turning away. Bob followed me to the conference room saying nothing.
We found our seats in the mostly empty room. Of the twenty available only four were taken, Bob and I took two with Red joining us shortly afterward, silently passing us coffee.
The fourth I didn’t recognize. Young kid, buzz-cut, athletic… had to be a rookie.
Santiago stood on the dais, without preamble she flicked on the overhead projector. A picture of my daughter appeared. Her hair in braids, a goofy smile on her face. My heart clenched painfully
“Stacey Irons, eight years old, has been missing for coming up to nine hours now. Initial patrols believed Stacey to be a lost child but…”
Carlina looked at me not unkindly, then these were found.”
The image flicked to a tiny boot print, a ruler held next to it for scale showed it was an inch long.
“Using the Arkoscope we were able to trace the gnome to a magical portal hidden under the exposed roots of the oldest oak tree in the forest. Stacey’s jacket was found hanging from a root, it is our belief that Stacey followed him inside.”
Red asked, “What do we know about the realm on the other side?”
“Precious little. The drone was only active for six minutes before something disabled it, not a good sign. We do know the air is breathable and the climate temperate.”
The captain hesitated, looking at me, “The drone also picked up that time moves faster there. For us it’s only been nine hours; but for Stacey it’s been eight days.”
Panic threatened to overwhelm me again as I pictured my daughter trapped, in an alien world, for over a week, but I choked it down. I was no good to Stacey if I couldn’t function.
Carlina finished, “We need to move quickly. Any questions?”
The last she said to the room as a whole. No one said anything but the rookie’s hand shot up enthusiastically.
“Yes, Jones?” asked Carlina.
“Err… Chief, I read that missions to new realms require a minimum of six agents with tactical support.”
“Forget anything the academy taught you, Kid. With budget cuts, we’re lucky there’s us four,” said Bob smiling kindly.
“Umm isn’t that… dangerous.”
I chuckled darkly, “Why do you think there’s only four of us left?”
— ♦♦♦ —
We trampled green grass underfoot while thick purple foliage above protected us from the heat of two suns. The trip through the portal had been uneventful. One moment standing in Atlanta, Georgia the next… well wherever the Hell this is.
Jess walked slightly ahead of us peering at her tablet trying to pinpoint the location of the drone’s last signal, getting visibly frustrated.
Technology doesn’t work well in places like this. In another hour the tablet would be useless.
I shifted the iron broadsword on my back as sweat trickled down my spine. The two revolvers, holstered to my hips, loaded with silver, chafed as I walked.
How Bob stands walking around with that huge flamethrower strapped to his back I have no idea, but I’ve been grateful for it more than once. “Hey, uh… Boss” the kid said to me.
Bob chuckled, “Ain’t no ‘boss’ in the unit kid. Just call him, ‘Hey you!’”
“Oh yeah, sorry. Umm why isn’t Red carrying a weapon?” he said, indicating the assault rifle he’d been waving around like he was in ‘Nam for the past half-hour.
“Red’s a lore specialist. She is a weapon,” I said.
“You mean she can…”
“We’re here,” Red called out.
While we were talking we had entered a forest. Thick-trunked trees, surrounding us. The mass of vegetation reducing the light of two suns to a dim twilight. Hundreds of luminescent butterflies flittered from tree-to-tree, a neon rainbow.
In the midst of this a giant web, 15 feet of thick sticky tendrils stretched between two trees. The last resting place of our drone.
“Hello, strange mortals.”
My head snapped up searching for the feminine sounding voice. In the hazy light I saw black among the violet leafs. An eight-foot spider nestled in the branches of a webbed tree.
It stared at me and I had to resist the urge to scratch all over.
“We come in peace uh… ma’am,” said Jones, “Have you seen a young girl, like ourselves but umm smaller?”
The creature turned its head to the side, much like a curious dog, and then leaped.
Jones let out a little shriek of panic. He jumped backward and fell onto his butt, furiously backpedaling as the spider landed silently.
“Yes, a smaller of your kind. I did see,” it said calmly.
“Could you direct us?” Jones asked with as much dignity as he could while standing up and dusting off his ass.
“Your young charge is through these woods but no one may pass until they have solved the seven riddles of the Red Queen. I have the first riddle and if you are wise enough to answer it, then you may go deeper and face the riddles proposed by my sisters. However, if you fail…”
“Move,” I said.
The spider turned its attention away from Jones and looked at me perplexed. I guess. It’s hard to tell with mandibles.
It appeared to bristle and said, “I cannot. No one may through pass the Wraith Woods without…”
“My kid has been abducted. I don’t have time for games. Let us pass or I will tear you apart.
The sound of dry, brittle grass being crunched underfoot filled the air. It took me a moment to realize the creature was laughing.
“Mortal, you only live because of the benevolence of me and my sisters we could end you as easily…”
“Cartwright! Burn it!”
Bob stepped forward, pulling the trigger on his flamethrower. A gout of liquid flame shot out, igniting the spider.
Bob pulled the trigger on his flamethrower, a gout of liquid flame igniting the spider.
It screamed a high pitch shriek. Wincing, I heard a loud chittering, like termites eating.
The spider had lied. It had more than six sisters.
As the creature’s still-burning corpse fell to the ground, twitching, dozens more dropped from nearby trees.
“Run!” I yelled, unslinging my broadsword.
Taking my own advice, I sprinted forward, hacking off the leg of a spider as I charged passed.
“That was a sentient species! The academy strictly states that a non-violent approach must be used when dealing with all intelligent life!” Jones called out breathlessly.
An arachnid reared up in front of me, spitting acidic venom in my face. I rolled out of the way, slashing off mandibles as I did so.
“An exception is made for hostiles,” I growled.
“It wasn’t hostile until you attacked it!”
Bob grunted as he shot rolls of flame in a burning arc around the woods, “Kid, look around you. It’s an eight foot spider. What did you think it ate?”
Jones head darted from side-to-side as he ran and he saw what the rest of us had. Shrivelled, humanoid like creatures eviscerated and wrapped in thick tacky webbing attached to trees. Ideal for midnight snacking.
The rookie suddenly looked greener than he actually was but, credit to him, he shut his mouth and raised his rifle. Tight controlled bursts, painting the woods yellow with spider ichor.
Rays of sunlight started to pierce the forest canopy.
“Move! We’re near the end!” I yelled.
A huge weight sent me sprawling through the undergrowth. Thick legs wrapping around my torso. Glistening fangs darting at my face. I dodged. Once, twice. Too close to use my sword.
Dropping it, I drew my revolvers and unloaded both barrels into the creature’s mouth, a pay check’s worth of silver, exploding its cephalothorax. Grabbing my sword I rolled away before I was melted with its venom; and took off towards the light.
A cry stopped me. It was Red a spider had landed on her back, its jaws reared up to strike. Cartwright and Jones were already on the other side. No time to take a shot.
“Kai-toi!” yelled Red.
Thick black spikes shot out from her body impaling the creature. It spasmed painfully, ichor and poison leaking from a dozen wounds before sliding off dead.
As she stood the spikes retracted. Giving me a nod she raced into the clearing, myself only a footstep behind.
Technology doesn’t work well in places like this. Magic on the other hand…
The heat of the two suns beat down painfully on us. I took in several deep shuddering breaths, doing my best to ignore the searing pain coming from my hip.
A spider’s leg pierced through the treeline but as soon as it felt the sun it let out a hiss and retreated.
Gathering my breath, I saw we stood in front of a large wrought-iron gate, a tall metal fence blocking us from the small grey castle behind it.
Three metallic gargoyles, the size of bulldogs, stood on top of the gate. A faint clocklike ticking coming from their bodies.
“Welcome, Heroes!” called out the central one, “You have defeated the evil Spider Queens of the Wraith Woods. Pass us the Stone of Amorath and we will take you to Brena, the good witch, who will reward you royally.”
“Umm… we don’t have a stone,” said Jones.
The gargoyles looked crestfallen and spoke to each other quietly in a ticking, clocklike tongue. Finally, the middle one spoke again, “Fear not. Journey east until the sun meets the mountains. There, on the highest summit, you will find a wise man. He will…”
“You picking anything up, Red?” I asked, ignoring the gargoyles.
Red pursed her lips, “There’s a lot of magical power coming from the castle. Good chance it’s our perp.”
“Then you will meet the Dread Gorgon. Use the seeds of…” the gargoyle droned on.
“Blow it,” I said.
Jess raised her hands; a mighty blast of wind smashed the gate off its hinges.
The smiles dropped from the gargoyles faces and they hissed as we ran through the gate, towards the castle’s doors.
I heard the sound of clockwork being ratcheted up and half turned to see the monsters giving chase.
“Red, take care of them?”
Nodding Jess turned and raised her hands again, a colossal squall suddenly buffeting the creatures. The strain showed on their faces but slowly they fought through the gale.
“Jones, Cartwright, how are we doing with those doors.”
“It’s barred, could burn through if we had half-an-hour,” Bob yelled.
Looking at the gargoyles we didn’t have half a minute.
“Can you get us through the door, Red?”
“I can’t do two things at once, John!” she yelled back through gritted teeth.
Bullets rattled off the creatures’ metal bodies driving them back.
“Get the door, Red” called out Jones, firing another volley, “I’ll hold them back.”
“I’m going to need a minute, I’m wiped,” said Red.
“I’ll do what I can!”
The kid moved away from the door, firing off bursts as he went. The bullets denting the gargoyles but not putting them out of the air.
With one last volley, he ran towards the castle gardens, the creatures giving chase to their tormentor.
“Alright, Red the Kid’s bought us a minute. You got enough juice back?”
Jess nodded tiredly, a look of concentration on her face as she examined the door.
“It’s magically protected,” she said distractedly, looking at something the rest of us couldn’t see, “force spells won’t work.”
“Can you pick the lock?”
Red nodded slowly, “It’s tricky but I think I can unravel the energies protecting the door. Get me another minute.”
The rattle of machine gun fire came infrequently as the kid went down to his last rounds. He didn’t have long left. A prolonged silence made me think he didn’t have any left.
Then I saw him sprinting, his rifle nowhere in sight, barrelling towards the castle doors. The gargoyles, much dented but no less fierce, snarling after him.
“Open the doors, God damn it!” yelled Jones.
As if by his command, the doors suddenly swung inwards, the four of us diving inside. A quick word from Red slamming them shut.
The four of us took in great gulps of air.
Bob said, “Hey Kid, the academy says it’s a violation to knowingly leave a firearm in an alien realm.”
“Go fuck yourself, Cartwright,” wheezed the kid.
We chuckled between gasps, slowly helping each other up.
“Where to?” asked Bob.
“There’s a strong source of magic a hundred yards to the west,” said Red with the same glazed look in her eyes she had at the door, “It’s a person. Pretty sure she’s our kidnapper.”
“Then that’s where we’re going,” I said, taking the lead.
We headed westwards down a long hallway. The thick granite stones shrouded in thick animal-skin rugs, the walls draped in colorful tapestries.
Each told a story. A woman with dark hair bathing in a stream, a unicorn watching her. The same woman standing atop the body of a slain dragon, its rich crimson dripping from her sword.
Dozens of them decorated the hallway all the way down to a set of open double doors. Stepping through, we saw her in the flesh.
She stood in a cavernous room, next to a large golden throne, gleaming with jewels. My daughter sat on the throne.
“Daddy!” she cried, her face lighting up when she saw me.
A choked sob escaped my throat.
I ran to her, all caution gone, sweeping her into my arms, she grinned up at me.
“Hey Daddy, I’ve missed you! I’ve been here ages!”
“That’s great, Honey. It’s time to go home to Mummy now.”
“Oh,” she said, “I can’t go home, Daddy. I’m the Queen.”
“She’s right, Noble Sir. Your daughter is the chosen one. Stacey will defeat the evil Lord Malika and lead this kingdom into a golden age!” the witch said exultantly.
She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Snow white skin with blood red lips, framed in ebony dark hair. Cerulean eyes. I didn’t trust her.
“Lady, I don’t give a damn. You took my kid. You’re lucky I don’t put holes in you.”
I saw the others had taken position around the witch, weapons ready.
Her mouth made a little moue of disappointment, “You wound me, Sir. I may have guided her here but I did not force her.”
“Yeah, in my world we call that grooming. Come on, Stacey.”
“But, Daddy. I need to stay here! I need to help these people. Like you do at work. Can’t you and Mummy come live here?”
The witch lady smiled at me triumphantly.
“Doll,” I sighed, “Are you a great general?”
“What’s a general?” Stacey asked.
“It’s someone really good at fighting wars.”
“Are you some kind of weapon’s expert?”
Stacey laughed, “No, silly.”
I smiled at her, “Do you have a strong grasp of diplomacy or understand the workings of macroeconomics vs microeconomics?”
“I don’t know those words.”
“That’s ok, Honey. I only have a rough idea myself. Point is, don’t you think an adult would be better at being queen?”
“Well… I guess so. Maybe I could come back when I’m older? Then I could help.”
“That sounds like a great idea, Darling.”
“No! Your Highness, we need you now! Lord Malika grows stronger by the day! You are the Golden Child, only you can save us.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it is written in the sacred scrolls that when a child of two worlds walks the Wraith Woods on the eclipse of the three moons…”
“Blah, blah, blah. Your world, you sort it out.”
“No! You will not leave here!” she raised her arms already filling with magical energy.
“Really? You’re going to kill the Golden Child’s father? Risk her life in the cross-fire?”
Stacey grabbed my trouser leg looking frightened.
The witch sighed, the magic vanishing.
“Take her,” she said disheartened.
Bob came forward and swept Stacey up, making her giggle. Taking point he walked out of the chamber, Red and Jones flanking him. I went last, my eyes on the witch.
As I was about to cross the threshold she said, “This isn’t over, Man of Iron. It is her destiny to return. I will be back for her.”
“I don’t believe in fairy tales,” I said and shot her in the head.
— ♦♦♦ —
Clemency By Chantal Boudreau, Art by Roger Betka
Next week we’ll feature a follow up story to “Amnesty” by Chantal Boudreau. This one is titled “Clemency”. The first story was published back on April 9, 2017. It’s the origin story of a young woman who finds power within herself that she never knew existed. “Clemency” finds this young woman aiding others by using her powers. But will she be forced to go over the line? You can only find out by reading “Clemency” next week.