The Perfect Metaphor – by Phil Huston
Caswell was down on one knee, sand drifting through his fingers when the dog stuck its wet nose in his ear, pulled him out of his reverie. He put his arm around its neck for an instant before it was gone, barking birds off the Juliette Simone.
“Saw the video. Christ, man.”
“It’s just sand, Kirklin. It has no form, no stasis.” Cas picked up another handful, opened his hand and let it drift from his palm, between his fingers, watched the breeze scatter it. “The wind tosses it into the air, drops it somewhere new. Where the wind stops, the ocean takes over. Look around. The kids over there, the dog, you, me. Our footprints disappear. As far as the sand is concerned where we were never was.” He brushed his hands, straightened. “Sand retains nothing, has no intention. But it’s always in motion. Always in the moment. A perfect metaphor, a perfect vehicle for thought. Good or evil.”
“Dust in the wind. Appropriate. But a bit derivative, eh?” He put one hand on Caswell’s shoulder, waved backhanded at the ground with the other. “This was where he blew?”
“Yeah. You’d never know.” He stared out past the Juliette into the cold fog that hugged the shore. “This was rage, Kirklin. Not the sea breeze, not sand drifting like a thought through a footprint that was never there, not the predictability of the tide. Pure rage.”
“The evil thoughts and nothing footprints of a mad man?”
“Or woman. We have another body.” He shifted his gaze to the Juliette. “Letting it run through the system, but I know it’s ours. Body was wrapped in a French flag, so the terrorist boys wanted first go. Inside two hours they knew what the victim had for breakfast in 1993. All that deep background eliminated the body from any sphere of theirs, but the free research sent it straight back to Shona’s missing persons ‘psychic witness’ Evelyn. They didn’t see it, a male day nurse for a government house of nutters. Of no consequence to them, and the bloody elephant in the room for the office of secrets best kept. Too bad they don’t talk to each other.” He stared at the ground where Aqualung had been, raised his eyes to his friend. “The DNA from this ship of the damned tells the story of a hundred years of victims with familial ties. We’re going to have to clean her out. It’ll be a circus if I make it official. Can you still manage footprints in the sand?”
“I was born invisible. Like me, the ministry of secrets and lies have no doubt hacked the Doc’s camera since your visit to the Tower. I can fix that for as long as we need to get the job done.” He dropped a black cigarette butt, ground it out in the sand. “Your young associates won’t like it. Being usurped and shoved aside.”
“I’ll tell them they’d like it less if whatever happened where we’re standing happens again with them in the madness’s crosshairs.”
“I can’t find the proper words, at the moment, to express my gratitude for being deemed expendable.”
“You’re getting old. Pretend you’re looking for your glasses in the morning. You’ll find them.” He took the frisbee from Kirkland’s hand, sailed it long and low for the setter. “I’ll have a dog again. When I retire.”
“If we live that long I’ll help you look for one. You’re free to borrow mine.”
“She needs a bath.”
“Settled, then. I’ll pick her up tomorrow.”
Caswell watched from the bed of Kirklin’s farm truck as the X5 without light turned a wide arc and backed in next to him. “I told you two to stay away, Shona. Now bugger off.”
Kylie hopped from the passenger side of the SUV. “And you told me we were a team. I know how I want the bones bagged. You bugger off if there’s buggering off done.”
“The camera went offline and sent me an alarm notice. Dunning and the secrets keepers rarely check it. I get notices about that as well. It had to be you.” She nodded past him. “Or your friend.” She pulled the surgical mask up from under her chin and over her nose, grabbed a handful of thick trash bags from the open hatch. Shona exited the driver’s side and did the same. She caught Caswell’s eye, raised her eyebrows and shrugged.
“I’ll pick. Shona will archive, you will bag and tag. Grab the bags, Caswell, we don’t have all night.”
Kirklin hung back, grabbed the back of Caswell’s jacket. “Truth told they know what they’re doing and you’re padding your CV?”
“Something like that. Stay up here, keep them alive from this end for me. I don’t come back in an hour, call for reinforcements.”
“There’s a Viagra joke in that I’m going to leave alone.”
“We’re the Viagra jokes, Kirklin.”
Caswell wiped the sweat from his face with his shirt tail and was ready to chalk it up to age and exertion when he noticed his two younger partners had shed their jackets and were dripping sweat as well.
“Last bag, Shown. Torso fifty-three.” Kylie wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Hotter than bloody hell in here.” She absently leaned her hand against the Juliette’s hull and found it cool to the touch. “You would think, as hot as it is in here, that there would be some transference. Like if the sun was heating this old piece of iron.” She looked down and the sand was glowing an angry orange-red. She lifted one foot and the bottom of her trainer pulled away like it was covered in hot sidewalk chewing gum. Shona screamed, rocked back on her heels.
“Out.” Cas handed Kylie the bag, spun her around and shoved her through the hatch in one motion. “Up the stairs. Take the bag. Get out.” He turned back, grabbed Shona around the waist and threw her over his shoulder. He ripped her beach slippers off with his free hand and they burst into flames when they hit the sand. She screamed again and pounded his back when she saw the thick, hard rubber soles of Caswell’s work boots start to pool under his feet in the sand that had begun to run as liquid glass.
Shona sat in the open hatch of the X5, stared at the surf where Caswell, his pants rolled up to his knees, had gone to stand. “I wouldn’t have feet now, if not for him.” Shona nodded slightly toward the beach. “That’s two.”
“Two?” Kylie, barefoot like Shona, was examining what was left of her trainers.
“I looked up your archives on the Henry the Eighth’s headless wives case. He said in the press conference you saved his life and netted the killer.”
“He said that because I’d have got the sack if I fucked up again.” She rubbed the balls of her feet, glanced off at Cas in the surf. “I netted the killer, and would have wound up dead as Henry’s ninth if Cas hadn’t known I’d do something he’d warned me off. Can you imagine if we’d done this alone, like you planned?”
“Do you think he knew?”
“Who knows? We act like he didn’t and he’ll never say. Last time I fall for your girl’s world we do it better alone speech.” She grinned at Kylie. “And the last time I wear comfortable shoes on this one.”
“Can’t say I won’t make that speech again,” Kylie grinned back. “This is the last time I wear expensive comfortable shoes on this one.” She frowned at her trainers and bagged them. “Where’s Caswell’s friend?”
“Somewhere he can see and can’t be seen. He needs to surface, though. Soon. We need his truck to haul the bones and Caswell back from cooling his toes.”
“Who is he?”
“I was told Kirklin is what 007 wanted to be when he grew up. Caswell says he’s the most dangerous man any of us will ever meet. And the only reason that Kirklin’s retired and still alive is the secrets keepers don’t know where his box of secrets is.”
“That sounds so mellodramatic. Like an overacted black and white film full of off-handed bikini sexism and fake karate chops.”
“We didn’t have computer driven special effects back then.” They both jumped out of the X5 when Kirklin materialized leaning on the hatch door frame. “Tell us where the bones are going. Cas and I will be along.”
Kirklin and Caswell bounced down the road in the old truck in silence. Ten minutes and a mile away, Kirklin held his hand out the window and pressed a button on what looked like a keyless entry fob. His phone on the seat next to him lit up with live video from the Juliette. “We’ll be on CCTV in the parking lot at the hospital where your baby Doc’s lab is. This won’t be a secret long. I heard fifty-three from both rooms, based on skulls?”
“How did you hear that?”
“The same way I heard them plotting to do it on their own. Your singing smart ass doctor isn’t the only one with tricks up her sleeve. One pin head piezo and the entire ship is a microphone. Enough power and it’s a giant speaker. I wonder how much of your banshee was real, and how much help it had.” He tossed the fob into a door-less glove box. “What’s your real plan with the bones?”
“Pressure. They have to give us the information on the test subjects and responsible crew from the Juliette that they’re sitting on. Doc catalogs the DNA, Shona crosses it with missing and living relatives, we quietly return the bones to the families for ‘closure.’ Or it’s a hundred-year serial killing spree spawned by the Crown’s miscreant boffins playing loose with their ethics and chemistry kits.”
“That’s the best bit. When they know it’s their asses and you get to squeeze them, watch them squirm.” Kirklin slowed, navigated a narrow, wooden bridge. “So that was some or your angry sand tonight, eh?”
“The sand grains on the steps were tiny, glowing balls, Kirklin. The steel itself was the same forty degrees as outside. Everywhere underfoot it was molten glass. None of it has made sense so far.”
“Madness seldom does. Your toes okay?”
“I thought steel toed boots were a safe bet.” He snort laughed, put a bare foot on the dash. “The tops of my toes feel like a long day in the sun, and a good pair of boots are done in. I’ll live.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.” Kirklin took both hands off the wheel, lit one of his black cigarettes. “Here I was all set to enjoy my retirement.”
“You’re a piss poor liar.” Cas grabbed the steering wheel with his right hand. “And a worse driver.”
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