Around the world, leaders and notorious criminals alike are mysteriously dying. A terrorist group promises a series of deaths within two months. And against the backdrop of the apocalypse, the lives of a small shattered family and a broken soldier are transformed in the bustling city of Atlanta.
Olympia Dorsey is a journalist and mother, with a cynical teenage daughter and an autistic son named Hannibal, all trying to heal from a personal tragedy. Across the street, Ex–Special Forces soldier Terry Nicolas and his wartime unit have reunited Stateside to carry out a risky heist that will not only right a terrible injustice, but also set them up for life—at the cost of their honor. Terry and the family’s visit to an unusual martial arts exhibition brings them into contact with Madame Gupta, a teacher of singular skill who offers not just a way for Terry to tap into mastery beyond his dreams, but also for Hannibal to transcend the limits of his condition. But to see these promises realized, Terry will need to betray those with whom he fought and bled.
Meanwhile, as the death toll gains momentum and society itself teeters on the edge of collapse, Olympia’s fragile clan is placed in jeopardy, and Terry comes to understand the terrible price he must pay to prevent catastrophe.
A broken family struggles to hold itself together against a plot to unleash global genocide in Twelve Days, a paranormal thriller from master storyteller Steven Barnes—available June 27th from Tor Books.
The document, which came to be known as the Dead List, first appeared on December 12, on Web sites hosted by servers in London, New York, Hong Kong, and Johannesburg, paid for with untraceable debit cards registered to false names. Some indications exist that the orders may have originated in Jakarta, but little else of consequence can be determined:
TO THE PEOPLE OF THE WORLD:
For too long you have ignored the teachings of the one true God. He has tired of your ignorance and blasphemy. And as has occurred thrice before, there shall be a mighty Reaping.
So that you might have time to repent your sins, the Reaping will occur in stages, slowly at first, then more rapidly, a righteous tsunami carry ing all corruption before it. Only the Elite will be spared, to continue life in a sterilized world.
In accordance with prophesy, it will happen in this fashion: on December 13, our high holy day, one sinner will die. On the second day, two will perish. Then four, then eight, and then sixteen, doubling every day until the world is cleansed.
Some of these first men and women will be known to the world. Most will not. As all have sinned, none but the Elite will be spared. It is too late to join us. If you are Elite, you know already who you are.
So that the world may know and tremble, the first to die are published below. Some of these names were extracted from the excellent list “The One Hundred Worst Unindicted Criminals,” published in the July edition of the American Rolling Stone magazine. Others are upon a list to follow. And others, for reasons that will be known in due time, are secrets known only to the Elite.
The wicked will be punished. It is so that all may understand and tremble at the terrible justice to come that the despoilers upon this list will be numbered among the first.
One the first day. Two the second. Four the third. Then eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Until our Christmas gift to the world, delivered on December 25— Freedom. You will enjoy the end of days without domination by governments or false religions. On that day, among other sinners, the following will die:
- The bishop of Rome
- The prime minister of England
- The prime minister of Israel
- The president of the Executive Yuan of the People’s Republic of China
- The chairman of the Federal Reserve
- The president of the United States
All other world leaders will follow in turn. All mortal men and women, save the Elite, will follow. There is nothing any of you can do to prevent this. No medi cations, countermea sures, or fortresses can protect you. There is nothing any of you can do to save yourselves, or change the inevitable. This warning is only given so that those who are capable might save their souls with prayer.
5:37 am. PST
The offices of television station XTRB were located in a two-story brick building nestled between a sleepy residential district and a commercial section of Mexico City known as El Corredor. The building had once been a carniceria, rebuilt in the 1990s during an uptick in the Mexican economy, responding to the needs of a society driven more by communication than consumption of albondigas.
The tide of XTRB technicians, artists, and office folk ebbed and flowed at all hours. At first this had seemed a remarkable thing, but in time the formerly sleepy neighborhood had grown to take its renaissance in stride.
Not today. Today the neighborhood was already abuzz, aware that something very special was about to occur.
Former governor of Chihuahua Ramone Quinones, a man not seen in public since his indictment for drug trafficking and murder, was on his way.
Death followed closely behind him.
* * *
Carlos Garcia had been a producer since the day he had learned it paid more than managing a publisher’s ware house, or more specifically since his sister had married the owner of XTRB. As his mother had often told him, “Fortuna favorece a los que se casan de riqueza”: Fortune favors those who marry well.
And of course, their brothers.
Generally, Garcia considered his new position a decided improvement over the old, but today he realized that his ordinarily focused but intense mood could best be described as “flustered,” and that some other emotion lurked just beneath the surface. To his surprise, that emotion seemed to be fear.
As had become his habit in recent months, he vented his anxiety upon Sonia Torres, the tall, slender lovely who anchored the morning talk show. During the seven months of their volcanic affair, it had often seemed to Garcia that her body was a husk filled with live coals. In many ways they were two of a kind. Sonia shared his own fierce ambition, as well as his amorality and political agnosticism, a general disinterest about anything except rungs on the ladder of success. There were times when there seemed nothing of softness or femininity about her at all. In comparison with Teresa, the slack, unresponsive wife who awaited him at home, Sonia was indeed firm. Sinewy. Possessed of that sort of feral strength a man needed to feel, a web of passion drawing him into her fire. At times, the memory was almost more visceral and immediate than he could bear.
But while at work, they could never acknowledge or suggest anything of the passion they had shared. That had been the arrangement when their affair began, and neither of them had ever violated it, regardless of how much he might have yearned to.
So instead of confessing that he wished he had been able to awaken next to her, even once, he barked complaint. “Get that damned shine off your cheeks, Sonia! Damn it! Makeup!” She arched one sculpted eyebrow at him, perhaps believing imperfection impossible for such a golden creature as she. Sonia nodded at the makeup girl who hovered at the side of her chair as she tested her mic, and pored over her prepared statements.
Their director, Manny Vasquez, was a short, skinny guy whose major claim to fame was that, as a boy, he had brought coffee to the great Cantinflas on the set of his last movie, El Barrendero. How many times had they had to listen to that mess! Cabron!
Now, the little man was all nerves. “Have you heard from Quinones?” he asked. “Is this still happening?”
Garcia nodded. “They called me fifteen minutes ago. He’s on the way from Juárez International.”
Vasquez sighed hugely. “I don’t see how we’re going live if—”
Before he could finish, the studio’s double doors opened, and an intern whose name Garcia could never remember popped her head in. “Thirty seconds to convoy!” she said.
Despite his staff’s veneer of professionalism, the excitement was infectious. He sighed. Even the glacial Sonia seemed to ovulate at the very thought of meeting the drug lord. It was true: “El que no transa, no avanza”— loosely: You’re not going anywhere if you don’t cheat. His mother had said that as well, bless her mercenary heart.
Reluctantly, he sidled over to the street-side windows in time to see the black motorcycle procession pulling into the spaces marked off with red cones. A black limousine half the length of the block itself miraculously navigated the turn and slid into the underground garage.
He huffed and ran his fingers through his hair. With one last angry glance at Sonia, Carlos Garcia sprinted for the elevator.
* * *
Twenty-five seconds later the elevator opened on the underground level. Even before the steel slabs parted, Garcia felt the energy wash through the door. Despite his anxiety and thwarted lust for Sonia, he had to admit that XTRB had scored a tremendous coup. Quinones was scheduled to appear in court in just four hours, at ten o’clock. The morning news show created buzz, and Garcia reckoned that Quinones was doing every thing in his power to poison the jury pool, tainting and confusing the narrative that he had abused the privileges of office to enrich himself in the business of narcotraficante. In a moment, the parking garage boiled with bodyguards and assistants. Steel-and Kevlar-reinforced Mercedes-Benz SUVs with deeply tinted windows and police cars driven by off-duty officers crammed the garage. Bulky men with eyes like chips of black ice were positioned like a line of concrete slabs as the limo pulled along the wall, blocking ten parking spaces that had been set aside with red traffic cones.
The engine died. The door of the limo opened and a tall, elegantly handsome man exited.
With all his heart, Garcia yearned to despise Quinones. There were so many reasons to do so. From the crimes he had been accused of, to his hand-tailored Bijan Pakzad suits (identical to one worn by American actor Tom Cruise and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto), to his perfect physical condition (said to be the result of three miles of daily ocean swimming under the view of snipers recruited from the Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales, Mexican Special Forces soldiers. Perfectly competent to deal with rival narco traffickers but Garcia wondered how they were with sharks).
Quinones was perfectly dressed and coiffed, as if he had hosted a dinner party immediately before heading to the studio. The only concession to morning rust was the slight stretch he gave, a twist, almost a preparatory dance motion, as he stepped out of the limousine. His smile bristled with blindingly white teeth, except for one tooth on the left side, which was ever so slightly discolored.
And damned if that didn’t somehow increase his charm.
“Just in time,” Quinones said. The narco lord’s voice was higher, lighter than Carlos Garcia had expected. He took an absurd and childish pleasure in noticing that. He himself possessed a deep, manly voice. One of Quinones’ bodyguards interposed himself between the former governor and the producer, then stepped back when Quinones shook his head and extended his hand. “Mr. Garcia. Good to meet you again.”
“Again… ?” Garcia was taken aback. He had never met the governor.
“Yes.” A secret, perfect smile. “Some years ago. You delivered cartons of books to a signing. This was shortly after I became a councilman.”
Delivered books? A tiny memory wormed its way to conscious awareness. Perhaps fifteen years ago, when Garcia was managing the ware house. An emergency call, extra cartons of first editions needed for an autographing by a councilman who had been married to a film star who had recently lost a battle with cancer. The story of their May-December romance, Quinones nursing the faded beauty through her heroic but ultimately futile struggle. The memoir had sold only moderately well, but had shaped public perception, and represented the beginning of Quinones’ rise. He had inherited her wealth… and that wealth had quite possibly funded his first major heroin purchase. Those profits had funded his expansion into cultivation and refinement.
Or so the rumors declared.
Was the man a gigolo? Garcia had totally forgotten the meeting. Had not read the book. Now he wished he had. The fact that Quinones remembered him, when they could only have possibly met for seconds, was intimidating. He began to reinterpret what he thought he knew about the governor.
In a phalanx, they headed toward the elevator.
* * *
XTRB would have Quinones for twenty minutes only, and ninety seconds of that was already evaporated. Sonia Torres punched the intercom button and announced: “All right! He’s on his way! Every body get ready. Don’t fuck me up!”
The elevator doors opened, and two men the size of double-door refrigerators stepped out, followed by Quinones, strutting like a lord. As if he was ever on the verge of flipping a peso to the peasants. Carlos Garcia, an adequate lover and the toughest producer with whom she had ever worked, was following Quinones like a duckling waddling behind its mother. What in the hell had happened that could transform him from bull to steer in ninety seconds? Madre Dios. The interview had not yet begun, and already she was off balance.
“Ramone Quinones,” he said, extending a cool, flat hand.
“Governor Quinones, I’m so happy you could make it.”
“My plea sure,” he said. His smile was so intimate, so open, as if the two of them had just tumbled out of bed together.“Where would you have me?”
The sexual implication was obvious, and she hated the voice in her head that answered: here. There. Wherever you want. Whenever you want.
Oh my God.
What she said was, “ We’re set up in studio three. Follow me, please.” As they walked, she contrived to brush the back of his hand with hers. The resulting spark was more than static electricity, she was quite certain.
She smiled up at him. He was tall enough that she had to look up to meet his eyes, even in heels. She liked that. “You have a flair for the dramatic, sir.”
“Essential in my line of work,” he said. Was he about to confess? Where was the damned camera? She fumbled out a question. “As… ?”
“A politician, of course.”
A trap. A joke. He was toying with her. She suspected that much of life was a game to him. The room was filled with assistants, and assistants to assistants.
“Every one in their places! One minute!”
Quinones was not the sexiest man Torres had ever met, but he came disturbingly close. She protected her sense of attraction with emotional ice, a tactic that had worked in the past, and one with which he was probably very familiar indeed.
“So glad you could join us, Governor.”
“How could I stay away? I wished to see if you were as charming in person as you are on the television.”
Very nice. Standard flirtation response. “And?”
“I am seriously considering hiring you to read me the news every morning.” She wanted to ignore that, but when a man reputed to be worth over twelve billion pesos mentions employment, it was wise to pay attention. She felt the skin beneath her collar heating up, and in case her face was flushing, engaged in enough paper-shuffling to conceal it.
“Thirty seconds!” her assistant said.
Torres settled into the canvas chair emblazoned with her name. “I’ve been told to confine myself to the approved questions.” For a moment the query, which might have seemed utterly innocent, or even conciliatory, triggered something else in Quinones. Anger perhaps. Or fear?
“And,” she continued carefully, “just before I came on, I was informed of a death threat against you. Do you mind if we discuss that?”
“I heard of this list.” Annoyance tightened his voice. “The pope is also to be found upon it. Ordinarily I would be amused to be mentioned in such august company, but this is a bad joke, and the height of poor taste. We may speak of this after we conclude our interview.”
“But not on the air?”
He smiled. “That might be best.”
The makeup girl hovered around him, a hummingbird seeking nectar. He touched her arm. “Making me less hideous?”
She flushed at the contact and giggled.
Torres had to admire Quinones’ skill. He used his sex appeal as she did, and she had met few men who were as facile at that as the average woman. Such confidence stirred curiosity within her, triggering a warm, soft sensation between her thighs. Despite her control, she began to imagine the two of them together in bed. Wondering about the touches, tastes, rhythms, and scents.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven— stand by. And… we are live.” The monitors buzzed, and the titles scrolled.
Their announcer spoke, a ghostly voice booming from the corners of the studio. “Welcome to This Week, coming to you live to night from Mexico City. And now our host, Angelina ‘Sonia’ Torres!”
The monitors cut to Torres. She flipped the switch in her head, conjuring a brilliant smile. “Welcome to This Week. On this morning’s live broadcast, we have a very special guest, former governor Ramone Quinones of Chihuahua. Governor, the first question I have is: you’ve been notoriously private since you left office. Why, after so long, have you finally agreed to be interviewed?”
What ever momentary discomfort he had experienced had flown. “Ms. Torres, as you know, certain legal matters will soon commence. I thought that it would be best to give my side of the story.”
Something within her blossomed, warming. This was one of the greatest moments of her career. Torres barely noticed as the cameramen jockeyed about to find the right angles. “You won’t be tried in the court of public opinion, sir.”
“True. But I still want to present my story in my way, in my own time.”
“Then please,” she said. “Tell us your view of the charges.”
“Let’s have camera two,” the director whispered in her earpiece. Instantly, she adjusted her profile.
“As we know,” Quinones began, “the narcotics industry has long been a cause of friction between Mexico and the United States. When progress doesn’t match what ever is demanded in the editorial sections of their failing newspapers, when inept response to domestic catastrophes or the latest bedroom scandals necessitates a distraction, they need a… I believe the term is ‘fall guy.’ ”
She had anticipated that comment. “So you are maintaining total innocence?”
“Oh, no,” he said. “I’m guilty.” A pause for effect. “Guilty of accepting donations for my children’s charity. Guilty of paving roads and building bridges in flood-ravaged sections of rural Chihuahua.”
She wanted to laugh, but despite her doubts, he remained seductively sincere. “Governor…” she began, but he soldiered on.
“And guilty of having old friends who are rumored, rumored only I must insist, to be involved in narcotraficante. These three things: money, works, and associations, are all that some norteamericano journalists have to accuse me of being a notorious man.”
She decided to split hairs. The questions on her sheet were specific to his conflict with the Mexican legal system, but where the district attorney had limited authority to speculate upon things he could not prove, a journalist could go quite a bit further.
“What of the murders?”
He almost smiled. Almost. But the expression was concealed beneath a put-upon air. With irritation, Sonia realized that she was the one who had stepped into a trap.
“Our friends north of the border love their chemical entertainments. And are willing to pay almost any amount to obtain them. That amount of gold attracts greedy men. And where there is greed, violence often follows. It is I, and the citizens who entrusted me with their governance, who feel insulted that so much of this has happened in our state. But these men, these…”
He paused, shaking his fingers as if suffering a cramp. “Excuse me,” he said. Something different had crept into his voice. Unless she was mistaken, he was being au then tic now, the play-games over. Had her question touched something she hadn’t anticipated? Excitement percolated. A predatory hunger within her, some relic of a once keen journalistic instinct shook itself to wakefulness and bared its teeth.
“I was saying. These men try to cast me as a villain in a drama they… they themselves…”
He blinked, flinched as if dealing with a sharp blow to the stomach, and shook his head hard, twice. His eyes were unfocused. Quinones cursed and tore off his microphone, stood up to stretch his left leg. He wasn’t looking at her, or at anything at all. Was the man sampling his own supply? Had he come to the studio high, for God’s sake?
“Governor? Are you—”
“I can’t… something…” His words died in a scream. “My head!” His teeth clamped on his tongue, and in an instant his lips were painted crimson. Fingers tensed into claws and he clapped his palms to his temples, howling pain.
Groaning, Quinones arched backward. The cables in the sides of his neck bunched and crawled, and his cheeks grew gaunt as those Olympic sprinters straining to the finish line, just membranes stretched across a bare skull.
The ex-governor screamed again, then straightened a final time and collapsed. He curled onto one shuddering side like a weeping child.
Torres ignored her director’s voice, or the uproar surrounding her and stood, tottering unsteadily. Sound and sight dissolved in her fog.
Quinones’ bodyguards rushed to him, rolled him over… and then sprang back in horror. His mouth stretched wide in a silent scream. His spine arched violently, a circus contortionist viewed in a fun-house mirror. His fingers splayed and then tensed into tight, clumsy fists. The governor’s muscles knotted and strained, producing muffled cracking sounds, like wooden slats splintering under pressure. Blood seeped from the cuffs of his perfectly tailored Bijan Pakzad pants.
Torres’ vision swam, then swirled, and she collapsed to the ground beside him.
6:15 am. EST
By the time her alarm’s insistent burr fluttered the morning air, Olympia Dorsey was already awake.
In fact, she had been awake for almost five minutes. She liked waking up before the hostile alarm clock reminded her that another day was upon them.
She groaned, remembering the days, not so long before, when she had possessed the time and energy for dancing until dawn, or more recently, scaling the Atlanta Rocks! climbing wall three times a week. Olympia wondered if she would ever again have such luxury. Or such a sinewy, toned body. So much had changed in the last three years, including the most obvious. The most painful.
Raoul was gone. For three years now, his absence had been more concrete than most of her waking reality.
Wasn’t she supposed to be healing by now? Didn’t Dr. Phil say that after a year, such loss began to recede from immediate consciousness, replaced by new concerns?
Instead, the loss was something her mind returned to again and again, like the tip of her tongue searching out the site of a recent extraction. Something precious had been ripped bleeding from her life, and there was no replacing it.
She rolled, yawning, out of bed, and shuffled downstairs. Olympia planned to turn on the coffee, treasuring the last few moments of peace before family became her primary concern.
No… not minutes. Because eight-year-old Hannibal stood there in the kitchen already dressed in a favorite red Avengers T-shirt and jeans, waiting for her. He was small for his age, with coppery skin and tightly curled hair. His body hadn’t quite caught up with the size of his head, lending him a babyish aspect that broke her heart anew every god damned day.
Even though he didn’t look directly at her, the corners of his mouth turned up in a smile that warmed her darkest moods. His eyes were as darkly choco late as her own skin, and shone even in dim light. God help her, she loved him more than anything in the world. Mothers weren’t supposed to favor children, but that was how she felt, and she prayed that his sister, Nicki, could somehow understand.
Hannibal needed her more.
She hoped he hadn’t been standing there all night, counting cracks in the ceiling or leaves on the artificial plants.
He was drawing again, using the dining room table as an easel, and sheets of butcher paper as his canvas. She didn’t know why he loved to draw houses, mansions, office buildings, apartments… anywhere people lived or worked. Hannibal drew the houses, erased or crossed them out, then drew again as if trying to perfect an image he held in memory, always frustrated, but never stymied. She did not know which was closer to the truth. Hannibal rarely spoke, so she had precious little access to his inner world.
Always the same rough design, although it had grown more refined over the years. By the time he put one of the drawings aside, they sometimes had so many wings and floors that they resembled images from the book Gormenghast. He had done this since he was five, with pencils, paint, crayons, and pens, and at this point all she could do was smile.
Her son… their son… was the center of her life, and God bless Nicki for understanding and not throwing a snit as so many other teenagers might have done. Why does Hannibal get all the attention? Nobody gives a damn about me, or cares if I live or die…
Not Nicki. Never Nicki, thank God.
Hani shuffled toward her, his eyes cast down toward the ground, as if searching for dropped coins. Usually this didn’t cause him to bounce into walls—in fact, she wondered how he avoided that, so oblivious to environments he sometimes seemed. He took small steps, flapping his hands like the wings of a flightless bird. When he finally looked up a tiny smile warmed his face, the expression he almost always wore, unless displaying the pouted frown that so easily tore her heart.
“Hi, baby,” she said. “Got words for Mommy?” Mommy loves to hear anything you have to say. Anything at all.
She hoped he couldn’t hear the pain in her voice. He deserved better than that. Much, much better.
But as always, he did not speak to her— more… at her, without meeting her eyes. He rarely looked directly into her face, seemed more comfortable looking at a spot a few degrees to the left or right of whoever he was addressing. “Oatmeal. Want oatmeal. And cartoons.”
He moved his gaze to stare up at the wall as he spoke, as if distracted by a ghost. “With nuts.”
Cartoons with nuts. That should be easy.
Oh, and oatmeal.
She kissed his cheek, and he wiggled away from her. That stung, but Olympia tried not to see it as a personal rejection. “I love you, too, hon. We have a good life.”
Was that wrong? To assume that he was thinking something he had not said? To answer questions he had never asked? Almost as if he understood her yearning, he reached out with one arm and hugged her without looking at her, as if the contact was an obligation, not a comfort.
Once, his hugs had been different. He had clung to her with full body, showering her with small, warm kisses. He had done that for Raoul as well.
Back when Raoul was still alive.
* * *
Nicki was awake when Olympia opened the door to her room. The thirteen-year-old knelt on the edge of her bed, staring out through her window, down at the common grass area shared by all the Foothill Village condominiums. A rectangle of manicured green, a basketball court. Behind a gated wall, a swimming pool and spa. So much more than she’d had as a girl, living in the concrete wasteland of Miami’s Liberty City.
“Almost time for school,” Olympia said. She peered over Nicki’s shoulder to share the view. Nicki was five years older than Hani chronologically, a thousand miles from him mentally.
Nicki still wore her hair in braids, still had her baby fat, but Raoul’s Seminole cheekbones already lent her face an arrestingly exotic flavor. Even with minimum care, her long dark hair was lustrous, much straighter than Olympia’s own tight and wiry curls. Even her wire-rimmed glasses just made her more appealing. Her daughter was going to be a knockout.
“What’s going on out there?” Olympia asked, already knowing what had captured Nicki’s attention.
Her daughter was focused on the neighbor across the street. If Harry Belafonte and Eartha Kitt had spawned an athletic love child, he might have looked like Terry Nicolas. Fortyish, six feet tall, he seemed to glide as if wearing invisible ice skates.
At the moment, Terry was crouched down on the basketball court, flexing through his morning body-weight exercises. Even before daylight hit the grass he was usually out there, bending and stretching his legs and torso into patterns that resembled nothing so much as a cross between break dancing and a solo game of Twister. On other occasions, he imitated Cirque du Soleil, balancing on his forearms, palms flat on the ground with elbows tucked tightly into his sides, shaven head close to the ground, pushing his legs and trunk off the ground in apparent defiance of gravity, holding that impossible position for sixty seconds or more.
What ever he was doing, it kept his body looking like an action figure woven of knotted rope. Not an ounce of excess fat dappled his frame. Scars, yes, a fascinating variety of puckered ridges and pale valleys… but no flab, as she remembered… viscerally.
Viscerally. That was the word, and she fought a blush as the memory swept her in dizzying waves.
She had first encountered Terry fifteen months ago, at a Foothill Village barbecue mixer. Hannibal had run breakneck into him, almost bouncing off into the empty swimming pool. With reflexes that would have shamed a tennis pro, Terry had scooped Hani out of the air and deposited the boy lightly on his feet.
Hannibal had just giggled, unfazed by his brush with disaster. Terry had patted Hani’s curling hair, and smiled dazzlingly at her. The impact of that smile was like Yo-Yo Ma strumming a cello string in her tummy.
He had asked her to coffee, and then wrangled her to Mongolian barbecue, speaking of life (Olympia’s adventures growing up in Miami, her father an impoverished civil rights lawyer. Terry’s on army bases around the world with his constantly reassigned father), dead siblings (Olympia’s preemie older sister, dead weeks after birth. Terry’s younger brother, victim of a hit-and-run at the age of thirteen), and shared love of cinema (they both loved Poitier’s In the Heat of the Night and Lady Sings the Blues, Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, as well as Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird. Go figure), all the time carefully ignoring their growing mutual awareness of each other’s bodies. One October night he had kissed her, so sweetly she thought she was dreaming. She had surprised herself by kissing him back and then leading him, hand in warm hand, to her bed. Their lovemaking had been exquisite, a revelation of sensual hungers she’d feared she’d buried with Raoul. Banked but not extinguished, when fanned those fires had burned so very, very brightly…
She didn’t know where things between them might have gone. How far.
But within days of their first date, she had begun to feel an odd panic, a fluttering in her gut almost like mild food poisoning. He’s lying about something. I can feel it. See it when his eyes shift away when he talks about that “consultant” job of his. About his relationship with his roommate, Mark. Bisexual? Drug dealer? There’s a secret here. Be wary. Keep your mind on your family, not this foolishness.
She recognized that voice instantly: her mother’s. Gone but hardly forgotten. Terry had lost both his parents as well, one of the bonds they had shared.
That is, if stories of his childhood had been true. If any of it had been true.
If Hani hadn’t responded to Terry with such an evident, naked hunger for male attention, the entire misadventure might have been less devastating. No. There was nothing that could have diminished the pain. Terry had been a wonderfully visceral reminder that life flowed on. And then he was gone, and that was just the way it was.
“Come on. We have to get moving.”
Nicki nodded and rolled off her bed. “Need to feed Pax.” Olympia smiled at that thought. They shared a backyard with the houses on either side, and their right-hand neighbors, the Haleys, had once again gone on an extended Christmas Royal Caribbean cruise and left their lovable doofus of a dalmatian-spotted Great Dane in the Dorseys’ care. This was the third year they’d pulled that disappearing act, and Olympia was getting irritated.
Nicki, on the other hand, loved walking, grooming, and feeding Pax, and Paxie loved her, so Olympia tended to keep her irritation to herself.
In her nightgown, Nicki’s strong, slender body reminded Olympia of her own early teenage years. Ample hips, slightly thick waist, and only a promise of the spectacular figure that had exploded by seventeen.
Olympia had yet to have that talk with her daughter, but suspected Nicki knew enough to figure out what had happened between her mother and the handsome neighbor, and accepted it with a wisdom informed by the Internet generation’s infinite access to imagery.
“Down in five, Mom,” she said, and Olympia knew that her daughter’s word was good.
Unlike Raoul, who had promised to stay with them forever.
Shilo Middle School was generally only eight minutes away from Olympia’s Foothill Village driveway, but this morning she spent another minute dawdling before pulling out. Terry was heading back to 906 Market, across the street from her own three-bedroom, and Olympia hoped that he would saunter past them without comment or notice. If she pulled out he’d be forced to acknowledge her and…
But no, damn it. He waved and smiled, and Hani waved back, although Nicki sat like a stone.
“ ’Erry!” Hani yelled. Olympia gave up and backed out, so that their Kia pulled up parallel to Terry. It was cold, but perspiration glistened on his arms, and his cutoff sweatshirt was dappled with wet spots. He made pistols of his fingers and fired shots through the back window. Hani giggled as if he’d never seen anything so funny in all his young life.
Then Terry’s eyes met hers, and his hands relaxed. Although nothing save kindness lived in his dark brown eyes, she could barely meet them.
Correction—while she could see nothing but kindness in his eyes. But…she felt something more, as if he was somehow focused beyond her. Saw through her, or this place, and this time, to something else. You don’t want to see what I’ve seen, those eyes seemed to say. What I see.
I saw it… so that civilians like you don’t have to.
“Olympia,” he said.
His voice was friendly-neutral, but she sensed that it required enormous effort to keep it in check.
Holding back what? Or was that just more wishful thinking?
“Terry,” she replied. A game. Tit for tat. Childish, fun, sad in an odd way. She received an answering nod in return. Olympia accelerated away before she could embarrass herself.
* * *
In the backseat, Nicki tickled and teased Hannibal, who was lashed into his safety restraint. Georgia law did not require an eight-year-old to use a booster seat, but Hani was small for his age and she had no wish to give any Smyrna cop an excuse to pull her over.
As she waited in Shiloh’s drop-off queue, Olympia watched through the rearview mirror, disliking the flash of jealousy she felt when Hannibal whispered in his sister’s ear.
Some of the time she was sure that the whispers were nonsense, perhaps a favorite poem like “Jabberwocky” or “Eletelephony” or G. Nolste Trinité’s classic “The Chaos”:
Dearest creature in creation
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse…
Hani loved the tongue-twisting rhymes. They calmed and thrilled him. Nicki wouldn’t give a clue as to which of their favorites she was engaged in, claiming secrecy was part of a deal she’d made with her brother. But at times she was certain that they actually talked to each other, in a way that he never did with her, or so far as she knew, anyone else in the entire world.
Nicki adored her brother, smothered him in a cocoon of hugs and kisses. He seemed to be more receptive to Nicki’s affections than her own. His hand slipped reluctantly out of his sister’s as she opened the rear passenger door, blew Mom a kiss, and sprinted off.
Jealousy is a thing of small parts and intimate imaginings. Instantly, Olympia was ashamed of herself and grateful to her daughter for providing a bit of the stability they might have enjoyed in another, better life. Her daughter ran lightly along the line of cars, long dark braids bouncing on her shoulders, graceful as a gazelle. As she vanished into the school, Olympia felt her heart surge with love so power ful it was like being tumbled by a wave. Her vision wavered, and she wiped the back of her hand across her eyes before continuing on.
The Golden Dream community center was another five minutes away through commuter traffic, tucked in the back of a shopping complex dominated by a Best Buy electronics superstore and a Wells Fargo bank. She passed two ethnic eateries, a sports uniform shop, a dry cleaner, and a storefront called Caskets ‘n’ More. On numerous occasions her reporter’s instinct had prodded her to investigate, but she had never quite managed to do so.
She pulled her three-year-old silver Kia Soul into a space between a brown station wagon and a white Mercedes SUV plastered with a faded Obama bumper sticker glued down over an even more faded Hillary for President banner. Hani didn’t need to be coaxed from the car, thank God. He loved this place. Somehow it lured him “out of himself” more than any other school ever had.
Crackling techno-pop music bounced across the parking lot as they approached, hand in hand. The center hosted classes on dance, yoga, and martial arts, as well as— miracle of miracles— a licensed K through sixth grade private school with a sliding payment scale. She knew that the center was one of many Golden Dream centers in a dozen countries, and one of… nine, she thought. Yes, nine. Nine in the continental United States. Olympia knew that they believed in a “common thread” of spiritual truth running through all world religions. And also, thank God, in something called neurodiversity. They accepted every one.
She’d fallen in love with the center the moment she’d walked through the door. Maria Cortez, a blogger who worked with her at CNS, had first mentioned the Golden Dream centers, in connection with a story about fringe spiritual groups in the Bible Belt.
Whatever their beliefs, they didn’t try to proselytize, and despite their robes and blissful smiles seemed pretty harmless.
It sounded too good to be true—an affordable, state-accredited private school that didn’t stigmatize kids like Hannibal. When she’d first walked through the door Olympia had been joyously bombarded with the sights and sounds of happy children bounding and kicking and tumbling and twisting like little circus acrobats. From the first moment, Hannibal had been transfixed. And that was all she’d needed to see.
After talking to the director she went to the back room and saw kids hooked to LCD video screens by sensor bands attached to foreheads and fingertips.
Her first question of course, had been: what is all of this? The reply had been like a double espresso on a cold morning: the Golden Dream was testing children, and they reassured her that unlike the world in general, or even her own family, they hadn’t the slightest inclination to hold her responsible for Hani’s condition.
The number of children diagnosed with autism and ADD was skyrocketing, but Olympia was assured this was primarily due to improved diagnostic procedures, not an increase in the number of such children per thousand. Attention deficit disorder was a mental issue, and could be likened to conflicting computer programs causing crashes and slowdowns of a CPU. But the autism spectrum was a matter of external communication. A problem in social interaction. More like a breakdown between the CPU and the monitor or speakers or camera. Perhaps Hani’s internal world was simply more interesting to him, with outsiders reduced to no more than unwelcome intrusions.
Thank God the Golden Dream center had welcomed her son, and had immediately done every thing possible to provide him with a happy, healthy space. The space was cavernous, large enough to hold two RadioShacks and a Tastee-Freez. She wondered if the recession had had at least one blessing associated with it: making a resource like this affordable on a single mother’s bud get. The front room was jigsaw-matted front to back, with a narrow walkway around the edges leading back to a door in a pastel-blue wall. The walls were arrayed with weapons and odd pointy tools, as well as framed photos, posters, and drawings, many obviously by the students themselves.
One of the instructors, a slender man with broad shoulders and a flat stomach, was totally engaged with a chunky kid whaling on a heavy bag with clumsy, enthusiastically swivel-hipped tae kwon do kicks.
“That’s it,” the instructor said. “Fade back, get your distance. There’s a sweet spot in every technique. Have to figure your timing and…” He suddenly noticed her, snapping his head around. “Ms. Dorsey!”
“Yes?” Olympia asked.
“Your group is meeting in room B.” His high, pale forehead glistened with perspiration, as if he had been demonstrating a moment before she walked in. He pointed toward a door at the room’s far end.
Unable to remember his name, she nodded a generic thanks. Pass through the door and you entered a maze of cubicle classrooms, each aswirl with its own joyous frenzy, some teaching language arts, some math on computer-linked Smart Boards, and others practicing various gymnastics or dance drills.
Hand clasping hand, mother and son entered a tiled hall, and continued on past three more doors. Through the door’s window, Olympia could spy on adults chanting and stretching as instructors in gold-fringed uniforms paced between their rows. The third door opened to a smaller martial arts room, where six children were tying themselves into pretzels.
Releasing her hand, Hani giggled, then howled with laughter and scrambled into a series of rolls and leaps over and around a carefully designed obstacle course constructed of blue matting. All of this was observed and guided by the head instructor, a shaven-headed, smooth-skinned Asian named Mr. Ling.
“I still have a hard time understanding why you provide so much service to your students.” Ling could have been anywhere between thirty and sixty. She smiled to herself: the “black don’t crack” axiom was nothing compared to some of the Chinese or Vietnamese she had known. “Only six of them… you can’t be making much money.”
Ling smiled. “Not every thing is about money, ma’am.”
“No,” Olympia said. “Not every thing. Nice to hear someone say that.”
“It is good to find mutual needs satisfied, ma’am.” Ling’s voice, fractional bow, and patient expression possessed a pleasant combination of Asian formality and Southern gentility. “We have ancient methods for healing and strengthening mind and body, but westerners are quite pragmatic. We believe what we can see. Our task is to demonstrate the value of our methods.”
“Well, Hannibal loves it here.”
“I assure you, the feeling is mutual.” Ling sighed with what seemed deep satisfaction. “For most of these children, we’re using rhythmic entrainment, bilateral motion to stimulate cognitive development, teaching them to focus… every thing we’ve spoken of…”
Ling consider for a moment. “But we may be moving Hannibal from this group.”
Her stomach clinched. She realized she was bracing for the talk that would shake her from her denial that Hannibal could thrive anywhere. Ever. “Why?”
“We’ve completed his tests, ma’am.”
She froze. Then whispered: “I think that he’s had enough tests, thank you.” A firestorm erupted in her gut. I thought you people were less judgmental…
Ling touched her arm gently. “No, you don’t understand. We’re not criticizing Hannibal. Just the opposite. We think he is… extraordinary.”
Despite his soothing tones, something inside her bared its teeth. “He’s been called ‘special’ before.”
“Have you ever heard the term ‘indigo child’?”
She gnawed at her lower lip. “No…”
Ling smiled again. “The world is a living thing, ma’am. And it responds to challenges, just as nature evolves new species when the environment changes. We believe that children like Hannibal are part of that response. They are… special. And we will eventually learn how to nurture their new abilities.”
Despite her initial chill, she found her interest piqued. “How?”
“We have a center north of here,” he said, “in the mountains. Very lovely.” He clapped his hands, as if delighted by a sudden thought. “You should go! I’ve spoken with our head instructor about it.”
“About this class?” Olympia asked.
“About your son. Some children need to focus— that seems to be the issue with ADD. But we believe autistic children are focusing just fine.” He grinned.“But not upon the things we wish they’d focus on. Much of the theory suggests that they are unresponsive. We believe that, to the contrary, they are too responsive, too sensitive, and in essence learn to trip a mental ‘cir cuit breaker’ to disengage with that intensity. They retreat to a safe place where the input can be managed. Hannibal has tested highly on some special mea sure ments we have devised. Madame has already heard of these results, and is very interested.”
“Who?” she asked. “Madame?”
“Madame Gupta.” His eyes widened with evangelical fervor.“Our guru and inspiration. You’ll be able to speak with her yourself. She’s coming here for a demonstration.”
“Martial arts? A woman?” Her memory scanned back over the poster-heavy walls, recalling a framed photo of a bronze-skinned, fierce, smiling Amazon in overlapping meditative and martial poses. Very, very feminine features, her fierceness unlike some of the macho MMA women she’d seen, virtually men with breasts. This was different, someone who looked as deadly as a leopard, but still every inch a woman. Her African blood was clear but there was something else, something more exotic. South Asian? Sri Lankan? At first Olympia had found the apparent contrast between femininity and warrior aspect puzzling, but in time it had simply faded into the background.
Could that be the “Madame” he referred to?
Ling smiled. “It is either a new world, or a very old one. Some of the greatest masters were women. But the martial arts are the merest splinter of her skills.” A sudden thought brightened him. “You are encouraged to invite a friend, if you know someone interested in such things. The demonstration is rare, and not open to the public… but each member, or parent, can bring one guest. Hannibal’s father, perhaps?”
“I’m a widow,” she said, too quickly.
“I’m sorry,” Ling said, chagrined by his faux pas.
She paused. She did know someone interested in such things, didn’t she? Wouldn’t it be a neighborly gesture to…
Damn, who was she kidding? “ There may be… someone else,” she blurted out. “A friend.”
“Well.” Ling’s smile returned. “Why not bring him. Her?”
Ling gave a shallow, apologetic bow. “Political correctness in the twenty-first century. Whichever it is. You would both be welcome.” Ling seemed to read her mood. “And Hannibal, of course. By all means, please bring him.”
He looked over at her son, who was already playing with a set of blocks. And… constructing another building, perhaps thinking of the two-dimensional one at home.
Was that a better world he was assembling, one saw-edged block at a time? A happier, healthier world? She wished she knew, and simultaneously dreaded the answer, what ever it might be.
Hannibal dreamed, awake…
A thousand rooms, a hundred halls. It was his, all his, and every thing within it was the result of his daily efforts. He couldn’t remember when he had begun the Game. There may not have been a beginning. It might have always been under construction. And that meant it might never end, and that was good, because it was the safe place, the happy place.
Hannibal was alone, as he had always been alone in here, which was good. That was safe. Alone, there was no one to leave you. No one to tell you what to do (which he often just ignored, anyway).
In the Game, there was nothing but learning and playing and remembering.
Every room had exactly ten objects in it: here, a yellow Pikachu statue, a Michael Jackson poster, a miniature blue electric guitar, a stuffed piranha fish, an Ultimate Spider-Man graphic novel, a DVD of a movie about a Saint Bernard, a bottle of dried watermelon seeds, a blank slate, a pink wig, and a Christmas card from an imaginary friend. Every object bristled with ten hooks. Every corridor had ten rooms. Every wing had ten floors. Every floor had ten corridors.
Every day things happened, opportunities to learn, and he remembered every thing, every thing, and stored them all in their places. Nicki’s morning kiss on a branch of a Christmas tree, next to a gymnastics cartwheel learned yesterday. A SpongeBob joke about pancakes reflected in an ornament next to a crazy slide Pax did across a waxed floor. Funny! If there was something unusually interesting, or something that he needed to know, he could return to it later, find the wing and floor and corridor and room and object on which he had placed the memory, and experience it once again.
He could not share this with Mommy. Wished he could share it with Nicki. Nicki, a warm and loving shape, a happy smile and adoring eyes, strong arms holding him close. His very first memory, the foundation on which all others rested.
Her smile was so strong, like looking into the sun, that he could not long withstand its focus, had to look away.
Touch had grown almost as bad. It felt as if he had no flesh, no bones, only raw bundles of nerves. He heard the way the doctors talked about him. They used phrases like “theory of mind,” which seemed to mean that he saw other people as costumes, as bags of skin with nothing inside them. They said it right in front of him, as if he weren’t there, talked about how he didn’t understand people, couldn’t understand how they felt.
It made him want to laugh and cry, but he was afraid that if he started, he would be unable to stop. They thought he understood and felt too little. The opposite was true. Every thing threatened to overwhelm him, and he needed a place to be safe.
That was the Game.
Always he had been alone there, but lately, he had begun to wonder if that was still true. There were signs, small signs, that something in the Game was changing. It was most obvious in certain dreams. When he slept most deeply, so deeply that he had trouble awakening in the morning. In those times, he walked the Game and fell into memories of curling on the couch watching Phineas and Ferb and Power Rangers, or splashing in the pool with Nicki, or riding their neighbors’ Great Dane, Pax. He was almost too big to do that now. Pax chuffed and labored but still put up with him, so it was all good.
A few times, potted plants had appeared in the halls, plants he could not remember placing. And through the windows (he almost never peered out the windows. He didn’t care what was out there) odd trees had become visible. Palm trees, things that might grow in Florida.
The last time Hannibal played, he had seen his daddy standing at the end of a corridor. Handsome Daddy, still wearing his paramedic’s uniform, still waving and smiling at the son he loved. That was normal, and had happened many times.
But this was different. In the eighth room on the seventh floor of the third wing, a teddy bear sat on a white wooden chair. And on the third of ten hooks on that bear’s belt, there was a memory of the time he and Nicki and Mom and Dad had seen Finding Nemo. He could go into the bear, and inside it were rooms, and floors, and hooks, and in the totality lived every image, every word of every moment of that movie. He could play them forward and backward, take them to the big television room and watch them, surrounded by his toys, and all the friends he had never had.
But the last time he was there, a leafy green shrub of some kind was growing through the floor, like a sprig of grass pushing up through a concrete sidewalk. That wasn’t the only strangeness: a little girl had slipped in as well. He did not recognize her. Had never seen her before. She was darker than he, but a little strange, her face thin. Pretty. She sat watching the movie. Something about her posture made him think she was very sad, but she turned and smiled at him.
He was surprised to see her in his special place, but sat away from her, eating popcorn one kernel at a time and watching out of the corner of his eye.
Once, she turned and smiled at him. He liked her smile.
He told her that his name was Hannibal. She said her name was Indra, and that she was something called a Siddhi. He had no idea what the word “Siddhi” meant.
When he awakened, he knew that somehow she was still there in his mind. Sometimes when he went back he could not find her, but sometimes footprints indented the rugs, or some of his toys had been moved.
He would find her. Would find Indra, the Siddhi girl who played with his things. And then…
Odd. He wasn’t sure what he’d do.
And in its own way, that was fun as well.
Excerpted from Twelve Days © 2017 by Steven Barnes