The Lonely Sea And The Sands
A distant foghorn moaned its path through curling mist. The low-tide smell of rotting kelp wafted through Southampton's summer streets along the wealthy southern strip of Long Island.
The man and woman lay side by side in the dark bedroom, their hands entwined. Sweat glistened on their bodies as they slept. The woman's ribs showed through taut skin beneath her nightgown. Her arms and legs were lean, almost a teenager's gangly physique. The man wore nothing. His ponderous belly rose and fell as he breathed. A gray cat was curled at the woman's feet.
Night looked darkly through the open window where curtains fluttered and probed, as though seeking the two sleepers. The lights from a low hovair flickered, throwing red strobes across the sleepers' bodies as it cruised by.
Below the window, a chitinous sound rustled vines along the brick wall. The man rolled his head and mumbled in his sleep.
A black tendril crept through the vines, its stubby legs grasping at mortar between bricks, its mouth drawn back to expose circular needle teeth. It swayed, sensing the aroma of human flesh. Miniature yellow flowers sprang open and snapped shut in instinctive anticipation of prey. Chemical secretions from a hollow fang oozed a yellow slime path that melted paint off the windowsill. The tendril slipped inside, avoiding the alarms, and down to the floor.
The cat leaped to her feet, the fur on her back raised, and hissed. The tendril reared, snakelike, and spat a trail of fluid at the cat. She turned, jumped off the bed and took refuge behind a dresser.
Striped by dark and light from the window, the tendril slithered up the bedpost, sniffed the woman's bare leg, and detected an artery. As sharp and delicate as the bite of a vampire bat, the fangs broke through her skin and tapped into the artery. The hollow fang injected its chemical brew into the woman's bloodstream. Satisfied it had its prey, the tendril curled around the woman's thigh.
Close by, hidden in reeds in the sand, the Queen Mother blackroot, thick as a python, waited for her tendril's mix of chemicals to do their work.
The woman sat up, calmly looked around, picked up the brass lamp on the bed stand, lifted it and brought it down on the man's head with the force of a sledgehammer. The man jerked and lay still. Blood gushed from his crushed skull.
The woman stood, picked up the man's body in her frail arms and dumped him outside. Window alarms sounded, but the woman was long gone, carrying her burden in outstretched arms, when a patrol hovair settled on the sand near the front steps.
The tendril, still wrapped around the woman's thigh, still pumping its toxins into her bloodstream, guided her to the Mother branch and down into a deep, dug-out space beneath a Cape Cod rental beach house whose residents were thought to have left for the city on urgent business.
A pile of bones and discarded skin lay in a corner. The chitinous scraping of many blackroots echoed off the floor above as the woman dropped her burden, lay down on cold, wet sand beside the man, took his limp hand in hers, and closed her eyes with a sigh.
The blackroots fed until gorged. One by one they dropped off their meals, where bones showed through sunken skin, and slept, while their bodies grew and produced new tendrils.
"Bristra!" I pushed myself back from the bio-computer and felt my face drain of blood. As the head of an astrobiology team at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, I'd been sent a chemical sample from a crime scene in Southampton for analysis.
"You mean Blackroot?" Sophia leaned down to study the screen and shook her head. "It's Greek to me." She likes that saying, being Greek herself. My dark-haired lifemate, with a mop of curls, exotic slanted eyes, and cheekbones like blades, has a smile that warms me from the toes up. She wasn't smiling now.
"It's the chemical brew from the glands of the animal-plant," I told her.
"But Jules, you destroyed the Mafia lab in Southampton where it was grown to sell."
"Not in time, I'm afraid." I rubbed my eyes. "Not in time. The family must've sold some shoots in town."
I shut down the computer, took out my comlink, and punched in Joe's code. Joe, the former captain in the counter-terrorist force of the W-CIA, was the crusty leader of our team. He was at home in Denver with his wife Abby. When we returned to Earth from Kresthaven and a civil war among my Vegan friend Huff's people, Abby threatened to chain Joe in his den if he came out of retirement one more time for some dangerous, hair-brained mission, especially with his former son in law. That would be me.
"Joe," I said when he answered, "it's Jules."
"I know. What's up? Is planet Earth on the brink of destruction again? I can hear it in your voice."
"Joe, it's Bristra. I didn't get it all. I think it's killing people in Southampton."
"Jesus and Mary, are you sure?"
"It all points to the animal-plant. I'm going out there. I want to requisition our hovair, Sun Sprite. Will you get it released to me?"
"You going alone?"
"I'll take Huff. He's a good backup."
"Why don't you let the police handle it? In case you haven't heard, they solve cases for a living. You can do the consulting from the lab."
"I've got to be there, Joe. I'm more familiar with Bristra than any other human, and I'll have Spirit on my side."
"For Christ's sake, what good's a telepath in another solar system who swears it's against some universal law to help you?"
"Great Mind's Law. Yeah, but Spirit can still advise me. Look, will you get me clearance to take Sun Sprite?"
"On one condition."
Dammit! I thought. Joe doesn't trust me. He thinks I'm reckless to the point of a death wish. I glanced at Sophia and shook my head. "What condition, Joe?"
"You advise the police from their station instead of chasing around after blackroot on your own. Can you do that?"
"Can you do that?"
"C'mon, Joe, I don't know what the situation is out there."
"That's exactly why I want your word that you won't get personally involved."
"Can't do it, Joe."
"I'll hop a flight. Say hello to Abby for me." Damn! I had visited my daughter Lisa, who lived with my former wife, Althea, Joe's daughter, after returning to Earth. But I told her I'd be back the next weekend. Now, that didn't seem likely. "Joe, tell Lisa I can't make it for this weekend, but I'll visit her again just as soon as I can."
I broke the link.
Sophia looked somber. "I guess that let's out lunch at the All-Mock Cafe. Supper too. We'd better go home and pack a bag."
"That sounds familiar. You should call Huff. He'll want to pack some candy bars." She winked.
I knew better than to argue, but I tried anyway. "Can I talk you out of this one? I don't know what we'll be up against out there."
She slipped on her jacket. "Even in summer, it gets cold on the beach at night." She handed me my jacket. "I wonder if we should take our dive gear?"
"Bristra could be spreading like wildfire."
"Then we should probably take fire extinguishers, too."
I let out a breath and put on my jacket.
We had both decided that if our relationship was going to work, neither of us would try to change the other.
"What's that line from the poem that you like, dear?" she asked.
Dear always meant I was in trouble. "'I could not love thee dear so much--'"
"No, the one that goes 'Love is not not love which alters when it alterations finds'."
I opened the door for her. "Oh, that one."
The woman strolled through the doors of Saturday Twilight Bar and Grill in Southampton with a sway of hips beneath a short, black skirt and a click of heels that caught men's attention and turned their heads from drinks. She scanned the bar, wafting the sweet aroma of a heady perfume. Her face was round with the softness of youth. Her pursed lips were rose-bud red. Her rouged cheeks reflected the flush in the heat of sex. Her golden hair, a shade found only in a bottle, fell in soft layers that caressed her bare shoulders. A dream doll she seemed, poised on the threshold of womanhood, tremulous, yet longing to explore the exotic secrets of a sexual life.
Or so it seemed to the men who were primed to grant her wish. No one noticed the vacant look in her eyes, the fixed stare half hidden by heavily mascaraed lashes.
The woman chose her partner, an older man, broad, flabby, with a paunch that hung over his belt, and obviously drunk. Her low-cut red sweater stretched with the weight of heavy breasts as she sat beside him, leaned on the bar, and spread her lips in a smile without warmth. The man grinned widely, as though his ship had just come in.
Other men shook their heads and returned to their drinks.
"You can never tell," one man commented, "what some women see in some men."
"What're you drinking, doll?" the chosen partner asked in a slurred voice.
"Double scotch," she purred. "Won't you join me?"
The man chuckled and ordered two drinks. "I'm sure hoping to."
The woman's drink lay untouched; the man's glass was empty as they left the bar, arm in arm.
"We appreciate you're coming out here, Mr. Rammis." Captain Mike Alonzo of the Southampton Police Force took a photo from his desk drawer.
"Just Jules," I said.
"OK, then just Mike. You realize the Mafia out here probably has a contract out on you? They're not exactly pleased that you blew up their Bristra lab and part of their villa with it."
"I'll try to keep a low profile."
"The lower the better. Try not to make it six feet under." Mike studied the photo and knitted his bushy brows. "The missing man's name is Charlie Ferrera. We call him Charlie Tuna." He pushed the photo of a stocky gray-haired man across his desk. "He's an electrician here in town. His wife, Angela, says he often stays out all night...gets calls when the lights go out in a home, she says." Mike smirked. "I'll bet the lights go out when he gets there. She says he always calls her in the morning."
I picked up the photo. "This time he didn't call?"
"It's not the first time. A few years back, he went out for a loaf of bread and was gone for six months."
"Where was the bakery?"
Mike chuckled. "Guess it was across the Atlantic. He hopped a freighter from Orient Point to God knows where."
"You think that's what he might've done yesterday?"
"No, I don't. Charlie's a diabetic now. He needs his shots and Angela's special cooking. No more pasta by the pound."
I sat on the edge of Mike's desk. "Where was he last seen?"
"The Saturday Twilight Bar. Josh, the bartender, said he left with a real looker, young enough to be his great granddaughter. You ask me, more like a hooker. She didn't sound familiar by Josh's description. Maybe new in town. You know, here for the tourist season and the summer beach crowd."
"I'll try to get in touch with Charlie. Can I keep the photo?"
"Sure. You figure on doing it with that telepath thing you do?"
"I'm going to try, but I'm not promising results." I didn't tell him that I never contacted a person before just from a photo. In the past, I've needed to search out their familiar brain patterns from previous encounters or had them tell me who they were. I studied the photo. "I'll give it my best shot."
Mike relaxed back in his chair, all five feet seven or so inches of his frame, and ran his hands through thinning, black hair. "How'd you learn to do that stuff?"
I shook my head. "You can't learn it. You're either born with it or not. But if you have it, it can be developed."
"That's a real gift you got there, kid."
"Sometimes." I slipped the photo into my shirt pocket. "And sometimes a curse."
The day was sultry, with a storm brewing in dark clouds to the west. The distant sea, seen between colorful store fronts and vacation homes, reflected a white sky in its leaden surface. But the streets were crowded with people in a holiday mood who weren't about to let a storm interfere with their fun. The smell of hot popcorn and frying hamburgers wafted from fast-food windows as I walked toward the beach.
Sophia, Huff and I had taken a commercial liner to Montauk Spaceport, then rented an aircar for the trip to Southampton. While I met with Captain Alonzo, they'd gone to lunch together.
I stopped for a mockburger, fries, and a container of real coffee, and headed toward the beach and the crime-scene house.
A group of teenaged girls eating French fries and hotdogs whistled as they passed me.
"Hey, Blondie," one called with a full mouth, "doing anything tonight? We'll be partying on the beach."
"You're invited, blue eyes," another said and giggled. "I just love the long, lean look."
"And a nice tuches," a third one commented and they all laughed, spewing pieces of hotdog rolls.
"No, thanks." I shook my head, felt my cheeks flush, and continued walking.
An older couple, strolling by, glanced at me and chuckled. "It's what you get for being such a handsome goy," the woman said with a thick Jewish accent. "But you could use a haircut, bubbala," she called back as they passed.