Colin had to go to Thirteenth Floor alone. Bringing anyone with him would be suspicious. This way, he could still appear unaffiliated.
There was no line, but a bouncer blocked the dark doorway anyway.
Colin looked around at the busy street. Green clothing and shamrocks, and cheap glittery hats decorated everything and everyone who passed. Oversized leprechauns danced in front of other bars and clubs. A woman with “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” pasties and a sparkly green skirt that didn’t quite cover her butt cheeks passed with a couple of topless men in green tutus.
“Is there a problem?” the bouncer grumbled. “Haven’t seen you before.”
“I’m new in town.”
“Then I’ll need to see some identification.”
Colin swallowed, wiped his hands on his pants and nodded. He noticed the bucket of sand and the little birdbath near the door. They could have just been decoration, or an ashtray, or they were for elementals to manipulate. He sparked his palm and fire flashed and fizzled out.
“Welcome to Thirteenth Floor.”
The bouncer stepped aside to let Colin through the dark doorway, into an empty bar. A man with a toppled mohawk, thick eyeliner and too many earrings behind the deserted bar counter pointed to a curtain.
Colin went through it, and down a narrow passageway to the real Thirteenth Floor.
Lights flashed and music thumped. Some of the lights came from what appeared to be a wall at first, but was actually a series of cubicles, like glass-walled offices. From one room flashed fire, swirling and exploding around a naked couple who laughed, then vanished. A man took his clothes off and set them into a little cubby hole next to the door and stepped into the next room. He opened his hand to release gold and green confetti, which fluttered around in a tornado around him. A ladder led to the door of the next room, a pool that splashed violently around and pulsed with the music. The darkest room shifted with dirt and plants sprouted and withered among the rocks and soil that moved like water.
Someone pinched Colin and he jumped.
“You’re not wearing green,” the waifish bartender said. She slid back off of the bar.
“First time here?” she asked.
“First shot’s on me, then. Welcome to Thirteenth Floor.”
She slid a glowing red shot toward him. He stared for a second and looked up to ask what it was, but she was busy with another customer at the other end of the bar. He’d probably had worse before.
The shot burned and cooled and tingled, like cinnamon chased with peppermint. Whatever it was, it was strong and sweet. Maybe cinnamon and peppermint. Maybe not. He turned in the stool to watch the playrooms. If Millicent got here before him, she’d have to be in there. There didn’t appear to be any other rooms, besides a single bathroom.
Sure enough, a woman fitting Millicent’s description stepped out of the water room with a man about her age. They took their clothes out of the storage spot and dressed, talking the whole time. For someone who had to be at least sixty years old, Millicent had a very toned body, jet black hair interrupted by only a few white strands on one side, and eerie, hard green eyes that swept the room, even as she smiled and chatted.
“Hey, new meat,” a woman said, sitting next to Colin at the bar. Her green tutu barely disguised the sparkling thong underneath. Her white shirt bore a large, four leaf clover. Her brown eyes looked amused.
“Hi,” Colin answered.
“Thanks for dragging me in there, Millie,” the man said to Millicent as they approached the bar. Up close, Millie looked even older than he originally thought. Tiny lines marked her skin like cobwebs.
“Oh, honey, I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t make you cut loose and enjoy your power for once,” she replied.
The man chuckled. “Power? You are an odd one.”
Colin looked at the girl in the tutu, but he listened to Millie and the man.
“You’re new,” the girl said.
Colin nodded. “You noticed.”
“Nothing odd about it,” Millie said. “You’re my oldest friend, in all the best ways. Come with me, darling.”
“What’s your name?” the girl asked.
“You know I can’t,” said the man. “You shouldn’t even be going. You can’t talk about that in here, you know it’s not safe.”
Millie muttered something that Colin couldn’t hear over the girl asking for his name again.
“What’s your name? Are you waiting for someone or something?” she demanded.
“No, sorry, I’ve just had a really long day.”
“Came to drink your cares away?” she smiled.
The bartender drifted back to Colin. “Pretty good, huh? What did you think?”
“You didn’t let her give you a free shot, did you?” asked Tutu Girl.
The bartender opened her mouth in mock indignation. “Better than the herpes you’ve been giving out.”
Tutu Girl rolled her eyes. “I don’t have herpes, bitch.”
“Whatever you do have, go spread it somewhere else. Give the rest of the Scoobie gang my best. Bye, bitch. You want another, Millie?”
“No, thanks, Sophie,” Millicent responded.
“Sorry Velma was bothering you,” Sophie said to Colin. “Even sorrier if she wasn’t.”
“You’re not friends, I take it?”
“She’s always in here trying to sell some shit or another to my customers. Diet shakes, leggings, candles, racial superiority. Always recruiting for something. She’s like herpes, she always comes back.”
“Herpes never really goes away, dear,” the man with Millicent interjected.
“That so? Something you know from experience, old man?” Sophie smiled sweetly and poured a round of Irish whiskey shots for the bar, and herself.
“You could call it that,” he said with a wink.
They raised their glasses and drank. Even Millie, who looked at it like there was a spider in it before and after she drank. With her black cardigan and sensible khaki pants, Millie looked more like a cool grandma than a threat to anyone.
Colin felt the familiar burn leave a trail into his stomach, the opposite of the strange glowing drink. His lips tingled.
Sophie smiled, wrinkling the corners of her blue eyes. “Hey, Big Mac! You need a drink?”
Colin turned to see the bouncer heading toward the bar. He whispered something to Sophie and she handed him something from behind the bar. “Just my phone, thanks Soph.”
“I’ll charge you for one of these, but not that one,” Sophie winked when Colin started to ask how much the shot cost. “In the meantime I’ll charge you a question. What’s your affiliation?”
“What do you mean?” Colin practically shouted over the music.
“I mean what group do you belong to?” She leaned on the bar, not quite as far as she had to pinch him, but she crossed her arms and bent low with her face very close to Colin’s. “Don’t tell me you haven’t been bombarded with offers.”
“No,” he said. “I haven’t, really.”
“Millie, you need to stop this, honestly,” the old man said.
Colin tried to focus on Sophie, the willow branch of a bartender.
“You can’t tell me you really believe that old line about being equals, darling. Clearly we aren’t.”
“It’s not about any of that.” The man switched to a harsh whisper. “It’s about right and wrong, Millie. Let’s not do this here.”
“Why Rubert, are you offering to walk me home?”
“Did you walk here?” he asked.
“No, but I did park very far away.”
“Are you gay?” Sophie asked. She held up a hand to dismiss someone who walked up to the bar, apparently expecting to be served.
“I’m sorry,” Colin said. “I have to go. Thanks for the drinks.”
“I didn’t scare you away, did I?” Sophie asked. “Come back, New Guy, I can play nice! What’s up Don, what can I get for you?”
Colin made it out of the bar before Millie and Rupert and he waited for them. Green beads and pieces of costumes littered the street and Colin picked up a hat with built in glasses and a gaudy plastic pot of gold necklace as a sort of disguise while he followed.
“You know that most people on their deathbeds regret the things they didn’t do?” Millie asked.
“Most people on their deathbeds haven’t committed genocide,” Rupert countered.
“All I’m saying is that when I go, I don’t want to have those regrets. Thinking that I could have done more than this bizarre slavery we put ourselves through. It doesn’t make any sense. We both know this. And you know full well that I won’t have been the first to try to do more.”
“Those were almost always accidents,” Rupert hissed. “They weren’t trying to do what you are. They weren’t trying to build a human-free utopia. There has to be another way. This is wrong, Millie. It’s just wrong.”
“What I’ve lived with my entire life is wrong,” she hissed back. “You don’t have to like it, but it is happening. If you try to stop me…”
“If I try to stop you, what?” Rupert asked. “There will be one more casualty? Are you doing this to get the Terrafiers’ attention?”
“I already have their attention. They think that I’m some scattered old lady, like everyone else thought of me. And if you think I won’t have their complete attention and respect after this, you’re more of an old coot than I am.”
“I don’t know what to say, Millie. I don’t think we need to kill an entire population of humans just to clear out some land. We could buy it. We could intimidate them, even enslave them. There are other ways to take over a place.”
“Well, if that’s how you feel, be a dear and sleep on it. I’ll call you in the morning. I depart late tomorrow night. I’d like to take you with me.”
“Look, Millie, I can’t go with you. I won’t tell anyone what you’re doing, but I can’t be part of it.”
Millie sighed. “But I’ll bet you’ll be glad to move to my kingdom once it’s established. I know you won’t tell, Rupert. I’ll call you in the morning, dear.”
“Good night, Millie. I’ll talk to you in the morning.”
Colin leaned against a cool wall, some restaurant with a neon dragon above the door and watched them part ways.
Millie’s heels clacked against concrete and Colin followed. He didn’t have to kill her tonight, he could just follow her and find out more about her plan, if possible. He could decide later. He could sleep on it. He could beg them to send someone else.
He could walk way now.
He followed her for several more blocks, off the crowded street and down residential ones. He stayed back, hoping she wouldn’t hear him and turn around. She didn’t.
He tossed the hat and beads onto the grassy patch of an apartment complex. He wasn’t the first to ditch some St. Patrick’s Day gear there, either.
They ended up at a place that could have been a motel, or an apartment, or an assisted living facility. They entered on the wrong side to see the sign to find out which it was. The dim map he passed, lit by a singly, tiny, dim bulb showed only building shapes and numbers.
He stepped onto someone’s welcome mat when she started to turn around and looked at his phone like he was waiting for a response from the person inside. He raised a hand in greeting when she saw him. She didn’t return the wave. He watched her disappear between buildings and he hurried to catch up.
For an instant, he thought maybe he’d turn the corner and there would be a gun in his face, or something along those lines. Instead, he watched her step through a door and close it.
He followed the wall to the side of the unit and crouched under the window he assumed was hers. The light on the path beside him flickered. His heart gave a squeeze. He couldn’t tell if it was him that made the light do that, or if it was some kind of coincidence.
“Hey,” Millie said quietly.
Colin felt the tingle when the light flickered this time. He put a shaking hand to the wall to steady himself.
“Send the car,” she continued. “I’ve got a plane to catch. Three hours, so do hurry. No, Rupert’s not coming. I won’t be gone too long, dear, I’ve made worse trips than a weekend in Paris alone before. All I need is the car and someone to carry my bags.”
The curtains swished open above him and Colin suddenly understood how a deer facing an oncoming car felt.
“Thanks, dear. I’ll call you the moment I arrive. And the moment I check into the hotel. And the moment I wake up in the morning. You do spoil your old auntie. Thank you, dear.”
Colin let his breath out in a tiny stream, so his heart wouldn’t fall out of his mouth. He drew a slow breath and rose slightly to peek through the inner lace curtains. Millicent shook a snowglobe and started at it for a moment before it burst and the water inside flew around the room.
Approaching footsteps forced Colin back into a deep crouch. He cut his arm on one of the thick shrubs, but didn’t utter a sound.
A circle of light from a flashlight slid back and forth over the ground, lazily swung by a man in a security shirt. Colin managed to resist the urge to bolt, but he panicked at the sight of the light headed toward him and he felt that tingle.
“Ow, shit!” The flashlight clattered out of the security guard’s hand onto the ground. “Cheap ass flashlights. Damn near burned me.”
The guard bent down, and if he looked up, he would have seen Colin huddled between the scrawny trunks of some dense shrubs outside of an old lady’s window. The guard picked up the flashlight carefully before turning back the way he’d come from.
Colin felt like he was drowning when he tried to breathe. The light’s in Millie’s apartment dimmed and brightened while Colin struggled with what he had to do.
“Well, my darling,” Millie said. “Mommy is going to build a new home and be free. You should be free as well.”
Colin started to rise again, to see who or what Millie was talking to, but a flash of a bright yellow bird stopped him. Millie’s arm, with the bright bird on her finger, exited the window. Colin pressed himself against the wall and stopped breathing completely.
The lights inside went out.
“What is going on?” Millie asked. “Is someone out there?”
Her arm and the bird disappeared, and the lace curtains opened wide.
If he didn’t act now, the driver would arrive and it would be too late. Then again, he could just prevent her from getting on the plane, couldn’t he? He froze in place, undecided whether to leave his position and try to get away or to hope she never looked down.
He heard her approach the window again, heard her dry palm scrape the ledge of the window as she leaned on it. Again, she asked, “Is someone there?”
Then, louder than anything he’d ever heard in his entire life, he heard the quiet cock of a pistol.
The tingle took over his entire body. It consumed him and controlled him. He tried to hold onto any of the thoughts racing through him. He thought of Stone Mary, of Callie, of the sound of fixtures popping inside. He tried to think about the donut man, about Andreus, about how Carmel felt in his arms. He tried to think of Isaac’s lessons, of the concrete bags in his arms. Nothing stuck. He couldn’t focus and the world seemed out of focus, too, like he was blacking out for moments at a time. He didn’t leave the spot, and nothing really changed, but he knew there were flashes missing.
He didn’t stop until he’d sunk completely to the ground, with both hands over his mouth as if suffocating himself would stop anything.
She was going to wipe out an entire population. Was she really going to do it in Paris?
One life to save thousands.
More like one life to save his.
He heard the wheels of a car pulling into the parking lot around the corner and it was all he needed to break the spell. He ran away from the window, leaving a trail of extinguished street lamps behind him; he ran until his legs didn’t feel real and they gave out. He threw himself into a ditch, where some abandoned produce boxes broke his fall.
His breath came ragged and loud for a long time while he tried to hold onto his consciousness again, tried to focus on anything to keep him grounded. The smell of a burned room and a burned body clung to the insides of his nostrils. Pins and needles prickled over his skin like he’d slept badly on every body part and the blood was just coming back into it.
Under it all, under all of the pain and the horror and the creeping thoughts that he could have wiped out so many more people than just the one, was a feeling almost too horrific to acknowledge. He balled up his fists and slammed them into the ground. He wanted anything else to cling to, any other feeling, or face. Why couldn’t he focus on Mary? His fists bled from hitting rocks and old broken glass, but he kept hitting the ground. Why couldn’t he focus on the pain he should be feeling? Why did he have to have this creeping, disgusting feeling? He stood, and started to walk, in the ditch, until he returned to the street, now busy with partiers leaving every club, some of them looking as bad as he must, not a single one paying attention to him. Not a single one knowing what he was feeling, or how much he hated it.
He felt the same way he’d felt after his first week on the farm. Pleasantly tired, with the promise of increased strength later.