Agent Mercedes Cortez lost everything to find the kid. She couldn't say where she went wrong, if she went wrong. Things just spiraled out of control so fast, and once the parents died and the chief threw her off the case, as if the kid stopped existing and stopped being kidnapped just because the parents were gone, things spiraled even faster. Her partner was shot in the throat, her apartment blew up, and then she was fired. People seemed to try to kill her every five minutes, most of the time she didn't even know who she was shooting, and it was no surprise when she saw she had been promoted to terrorist in the newspapers, her face over half the front page, warnings to the public combined with a big reward offered for her capture. Dead or alive.
And that's when the visions started.
Cortez drives a stolen car towards a bar where she will find a man with a name screamed out by another man after she shot his intestines to pieces. A crackle of static brushes her ears, just for a split second, and she has time to think I don't have a radio anymore. Then she spots a monster on the street. There's no other word for it, not that occurs to her. A thing in an expensive suit stands on the sidewalk by the traffic light ahead of her, staring at her with bulging bright yellow eyes with cat-slit pupils. It has no nose, no skin, and a smile full of wicked needle teeth stretching from ear to ear. It looks her in the eye, from two hundred feet, from the bright street to the dark inside of her car, and it whispers obscenities in a low growl that sounds close enough for the thing's forked tongue to touch her ear. Accelerating at a steady rate, Cortez readies her gun without a thought.
Maybe it won't work, it probably won't work, but she has to try; there's simply no possible reality where something like this can be allowed to live. But then two men walks up to the thing and stands with it and waits for the green light, and she blinks and then there's three men and no monster, just a man in an expensive, but creased suit and slicked back hair and a weary, end-of-the-day expression, loosening up his tie and watching the lights.
With the noise of the world muted by the pounding of her own heart, Cortez eases back on the accelerator and stops as the light turns red, letting the pedestrians pass, and slides the gun back under her seat. She rubs her eyes and breathes deeply and surprises herself by yawning and tries to remember how long it has been since she slept.
In the next five minutes she drives past fifty people, and three of them turn into monsters with eyes only for her. Disturbing, worrying even, but obviously she's just going crazy. One of them slowly pumps its crotch in her direction and tells her it's going to cut off her tits and make new holes in her for all his cocks. Cortez finds the bar, stops the car directly outside the door and as she stands up she finds herself shrugging, as if trying to shake off something.
But in the bar she finds nothing but humans, and Cortez feels at ease when she sticks the gun in the bartender's face and yells the name 'Jim'. The bartender tries to hide behind his own chin, wide-eyed, mute, terrified, but he points a shaking hand at a table in the back, by the corner, away from the windows. As she walks to the table, the four men sitting there watching her seem to shrink and reel back from her presence, be it from the force of her stride or the menace of her eyes or or some aura of desperation and murder or the stink of her armpits after a long week without a shower, and a part low in her belly relishes their fear, and she shows them her teeth and her gun.
'Mary', says Cortez. Just the one word. One of the men jumps where he sits and stares at Cortez too scared to breathe, his throat trying to work two ways and accomplishing nothing. She leans forward and punches him in the nose with her free hand, her right, not hard enough to make him bleed, just enough to shock him. He spits out an address in another city, unfamiliar to her, so she grabs his ear and yanks him up.
'You're coming with me, Jimmy', she says. 'You gentlemen are forgetting you ever saw me, or him, or else I'm going to come back here and make you eat each others' arms. Are we clear?'
The three men left at the table sit still and nod and say nothing.
Cortez cuffs her prisoner and walks five steps behind him back to the car, where she puts him in the back seat before she gets behind the wheel.
'I'm with you, you know', says Jim. 'I never wanted it to go this far, you're the only one who's in a position who can get the kid free, so I'm with you.'
'You're with me until you make one false move', says Cortez, eyes fixed on the road. 'You're a minor convenience. You're not essential to this operation in any way. Don't waste my time trying to win my sympathies cause it doesn't matter what I think of you.' A monster appears in the headlights, walking a dog by the side of the road, and she shakes her head to clear her vision.
'Alright', says Jim. 'I was just hoping I could get out of the cuffs. My arms feel about ready to fall off.'
'Get used to it', says Cortez. 'I'm going to sleep soon as I find a hiding spot – here we go.' An unmarked dirt road appears and Cortez makes a sharp turn, and soon they're away from the light and the sound of passing cars, hidden deep in layers of branches hanging from the maples and ashes and other trees Cortez can't name. She turns off the engine and in the quiet darkness it seems they're in a world of their own.
'You hear this?' says Cortez, chambering a bullet. 'I'm sleeping with my gun in my hand, and I'm wired enough I will probably shoot you if you disturb me in any way, not that I won't shoot you on purpose if you do anything to make me suspicious. Now go to sleep.'
From the back seat comes the small sound of deliberate, measured breathing. Nothing else. He's a fast learner, thinks Cortez, and sleeps. She dreams of smoke and fire, and a voice speaking to her like hot gravel and tightly nested spiders.
And the voice continues when she wakes up with a monster pressing its face and tapping its fingers against the window next to her and the gun jumps up and fires as if by itself and then it's a person with a hole in his face sliding down the car door and Cortez can't hear anything except ringing in her ears but her throat hurts and she closes her mouth. Turning to her passenger she finds him turning into a monster before her and she raises her gun again and pulls the trigger nine tenths of the way before she freezes on the spot, remembering the monsters aren't real, can't be real. She closes her eyes, tightly, and takes some deep breaths, until her heart slows down.
And when she opens her eyes Jim is human again, and trying to crawl backward through the seat, with tears running down his cheeks, and a dark stain between the legs of his jeans.
'Sorry', says Cortez, putting the gun down and starting the car.
'You got problems, man', says Jim, with a shaky voice, as the car rolls over the body.
'Yes', says Cortez. 'But I have nowhere to go. And I'm all she has.' And a mad part of her brain tells her not to say anything about the monsters in case it's real and he's one of them.
'I'm not judging', says Jim, and then no one says anything until Cortez spots a roadblock, big black cars cutting off the road, big men in black uniforms and black automatic weapons checking on the few motorists on the road before letting them through, not even pretending to represent any legal authority. Jim makes a choked noise.
Cortez takes the butt of her gun to the shot-through window and knocks it out with a few gentle taps, sticks the gun out and starts firing. She can see her line of sight as if she was holding the gun to her eyeball, everything is plain and simple and she feels calm as she finds the faces behind the dark visors, one after another, picking them off as fast as her semi-automatic will fire. Five of them drop before the first one hits the ground, and she starts swerving before they raise their guns, and she keeps shooting, killing with every step. Yellow burning eyes flicker on behind two of the helmets, but they fade as the men die where they stand.
A handful of bullets break through the windshield, but none close to her, and she brakes hard, stopping at the far right side of the road, where the only surviving enemies are grouped on her left, where she holds her gun in both hands and fires out of the missing window until all of them are dead, and none of their bullets get closer to her than two or three feet. Then comes another choked sound from the backseat.
'Shit', says Cortez, before she even turns to see Jim bleeding all over the seat of her stolen car. He convulses, arching his back, kicking his legs, and Cortez thinks it's a death spasm before she figures out he's struggling to lie down comfortably with his hands cuffed behind his back.
'Don't move', says Cortez, leaning over to look at him, see where he's hit. There are at least two holes in his right lung, pumping little geysers of pink blood, dark stains spreading over his red shirt. He doesn't have a chance, probably wouldn't have a chance even if there was a doctor close. She puts her hand over his heart, and he blinks and looks her in the eye.
'Listen', says Jim. 'Those guys, I know them. Didn't think they were real but, you got to know, there's more going on here.' He stops and, instead of taking a breath, lies still, with eyes still fixed on Cortez.
'I'm sorry', says Cortez, closing his eyes with her hand. 'It wasn't going to go like this. I didn't mean any of those threats, I mean, I would have done it, but it's not, this isn't who I am.'
She holds the dead man's hand and cries for a bit and then when the car won't move she starts walking, packing as many of the black machineguns under her jacket as she can carry. She has an address and she knows it's on the western side of the city and it's a large house on top of a hill and it can't be that hard to find. She stops at a McDonald's by the side of the road and gets a small bag of burgers and a large soda just by waving her gun around, not even needing to threaten anyone specific.
And after a while her feet hurt and she notices one foot is leaving a bloody track with each step and wonders if she stepped in some glass without noticing, but it doesn't seem to slow her down so she decides to leave it alone. As the sun sets her legs are burning from thigh to ankle and she hasn't seen a single person or a car to steal but she can see the outline of a mansion standing by itself on a height in the distance.
Her mind is a claw, holding a thought in a death grip. Mary Deschain, eight years old. That's the only thing. Cortez doesn't think about anything else, just watches as the men fall before her. Armed guards, more than twenty. Guard dogs, ten or eleven. Somewhere it seems Cortez should feel bad about gunning down simple beasts, but it's either the dogs or Mary.
For some reason, it seems just because of the weight of her footsteps, a fire starts as she makes her way through the building.
None of the people she kills are monsters, and she thinks maybe that crazy stress whatever thing is over now. She doesn't even feel tired anymore, and the pain is gone.
Eventually nothing more moves and Cortez feels like shes waking up, standing in a hallway with two very hot guns in her hands, breathing heavily, fading fire in her head. The pain comes back, fresh pain in every part of her body and older pain, her partner's brains in her face, all the blood she spilled, all the bridges she burned, and for what? Mary, of course, it's all worth it for Mary, but she hates that she doesn't know what's going on, why someone so powerful would want a little girl lost, or dead.
But, she reminds herself, it's an academic question. As long as she keeps moving, keeps hidden, the next country over is just a few hours' drive away, they'll go there, get a fresh start.
Mary waits in a bedroom, just one of dozens lining the hallways on the upper floors, distinguished only by a locked door. Cortez kicks in the door and finds her sitting on the side of the bed, looking pale and haunted.
'You're free now, Mary', says Cortez. It's not true, it may never be true, but it's best if Mary thinks it is, just for a moment. 'They're all dead. You're free. Will you come with me?'
'Okay', says Mary, less than enthusiastic. She jumps down on the floor with little spring in her step. 'Can I pack some stuff?'
'Of course', says Cortez. 'Only don't take all day. The cops could be on the way. And there's a fire downstairs.' She reloads her gun, the gun she had hoped she could drop about now and never pick up again.
'Where are we going?' says Mary, swinging a pink backpack on her shoulder. 'Aren't you a cop?'
'No', says Cortez, navigating down the stairs and around the fire to the courtyard, outside. 'I'm just Mercedes. Things have gone, well, it's really bad.'
'I know about my parents, they told me.'
'Yeah. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry, but that's just the start of it. There's people, someone who, I mean, you're in danger, Mary.' Cortez talks as she looks around the parking lot for an unlocked car, finds one with the keys in the engine. 'The way these things are supposed to work, you should go to a state orphanage, maybe foster parents if you're lucky, but I'm scared if you show up in the system anywhere, they'll come for you. I can't stop them, the things they've done, they're too powerful to be stopped. You understand what I'm telling you?'
'Uh huh', grunts Mary. 'I knew it wasn't going to get all better. But where can we go?'
'We go over the border', says Cortez. 'Lie low, stay below the radar. We, it'll be like an adventure, just you and me.' A monster drives past in the other direction and Cortez flinches, averting her eyes from its leering stare. And when the adrenaline subsides she pulls over by the side of the road, and she walks out on the moonlit prairie on stumbling legs, followed by Mary, until she finds a noticeable depression. Maybe not deep enough to actually let them lie down out of sight from the road, but she lies down anyway, or even falls down.
'I really, really have to sleep', says Cortez. 'Just a little. I've not slept much this week. Feels like a year. Will you be okay?'
'I packed a blanket', says Mary, pulling a shapeless bundle from her backpack. She lies down on the packed dirt next to Cortez and spreads the blanket over both of them. It covers most of Cortez' torso, and she smiles, and then all of a sudden the sun is rising and Mary is lying face down on her chest.
'Good morning', says Cortez, quietly, not sure if the girl's awake.
'Are you like my new mommy?' says Mary.
'If you want, yeah', says Cortez, petting Mary's head 'You can, we're going to have to hide, you should call me mom anyway, when there's people listening. If they think we're mother and daughter we look less suspicious, you know?'
'Yeah.' Mary raises her head, rubs her eyes with her fists. 'We're going to have to pretend. Can I use your real name now, though, before the game starts?'
'Sure you can', says Cortez. 'We'll need new names too, we have to make something up, better use my name while I still have it. I'm Agent Mercedes Cortez. My partner used to call me Mercy.'
'Hi, Mercy', says Mary, reaching her hands around Cortez' neck. 'Thank you so much. For saving me.'
Cortez holds her tight and pretends like nothing is wrong when she feels the child changing in her arms. The skin turns hot, melts away, the mouth grows wide and its fangs prickle her neck, the forked tongue darts out to lick her blood, the voice sinks and twists, and while she's sure Mary is really talking about how grateful she is, and how sad, and how scared, and other important things she should really listen to, all Cortez can hear is the rattling low whisper of the monster, promising her hurt and torture, promising it will be there every time they are alone.
And Cortez holds the thing in Mary's clothes and strokes its hair and doesn't want to open her eyes.