CHAPTER NINE

WHISPERING TONGUES

 


I didn't really feel angry until I reached Knucklebones. Between there and the Masquerade I had just felt numb. As my feet touched the pavement, they seemed to be a mile away from me. My fury didn't kick in until I entered the bar. I had expected hard rock from the jukebox there. I needed something loud and fast to distract me from my thoughts.

One of the Cretins must have been in a sentimental mood that night. Instead of Motorhead, a sixties ballad was playing on the jukebox. "I saw you...I saw you comin' back to me..."

That's when I clenched my fists. Despite the gentle music, I could hear a roaring in my ears. I stomped toward the bar and told the bartender, "Gimme a beer."

The bartender sighed. "Jacob, if I've told you once, I've told you..."

"Gimme a beer now."

The bartender saw the look in my eye and instinctively sought out Dan. The leader of the Cretins must have seen the bartender's worried expression because I heard his heavy step as he walked toward me.

I ignored Dan. "Gimme a beer," I said, "or I'll tear this whole place apart."

The bartender looked again at Dan. I don't know what signal Dan gave, but the bartender opened a bottle of Michelob and placed it front of me. I stuck the bottle's neck into my mouth and got down as much beer as I could get in one gulp.

"Rough night?" Dan asked.

I swallowed the beer and said, "Fuck off. And stop playing that shit on the jukebox."

Dan stood next to me for a few seconds, then walked away. After the ballad was over, the Cretins only played rock. And I kept drinking beer.

I was on my fifth (or sixth) bottle of beer when I sensed a familiar presence. Inebriation hadn't dulled my senses so much that I couldn't sense her behind me.

"Dan called you?" I asked without looking at her.

"Your liver did," Diana replied. "It's sending out a SOS."

I sucked more beer out of a bottle. Diana sat on the stool next to mine. She waited for me to talk.

I said, "You knew about Layla and Alexandra, didn't you?"

She hesitated, then said, "I suspected something."

"Hell, everybody suspected something, didn't they?"

"I don't think that everybody..."

"That fucking Coleridge poem. 'Her gentle limbs did she undress/ And lay down in her loveliness.' Shit."

"Well, yes."

"Right in front of my goddamn eyes. But I didn't see it. My male ego couldn't handle it."

"It's not a question of ego. It's a question of love. You love Alexandra intensely." Diana paused, then added, "And she still loves you as much."

"Oh, you think that?"

"I know it. It's just that...she has the same quality of feeling for Layla."

I smacked my bottle down on the counter. "But how? They just met..."

"And how long did you and Alexandra know each other before you..."

"She tried to kill Layla!" I shouted. I could be heard over the rock music and other voices. Everybody turned to look in my direction.

Diana touched my hand. "And why?" she said softly in my ear. "What made her react so strongly?"

A truth managed to push itself into my drunken consciousness. I placed my elbows on the bar and held my head in my hands. The others eventually turned away from me.

"Tell me what happened tonight," Diana said. Even though her voice was gentle, I could hear the cold curiosity of the profiler. I didn't mind, though. At that moment her analytical skills felt like the only thing I could grasp for safety.

So I told her about the Masquerade. After I was done with my story, Diana took a few moments to think. I could sense her shifting this new information in her mind and forming it into a clear picture.

"Jacob," she said, "you have to understand something -- you and Layla are a lot alike. You are both people with strong wills and a need for justice. But you are also different."

"Yeah, I can pee standing up."

"That's not what I mean."

I looked at her. Diana's expression seemed odd to me, and it wasn't just the drink. "What do you mean?" I asked.

"If you understand that, then you'll understand what it means to everyone."

I shook my head. I felt like my brain was bouncing in my skull. "Diana, what are you..."

"Let's go back to the Tunnels."

"I..."

"Let's go back to the Tunnels."

Dan made a good choice in calling for her. I couldn't say no to Miss Bennett. She aided my wobbly ass out of Knucklebones and along the streets. As we headed to the Tunnels, I slurred, "We have a spy."

"What?"

"In the Tunnels. Bradbury has a spy."

Diana paused, then said, "Are you sure?"

"Got it from an impitch...impreacha...got it from a good source."

"Well...I'll tell Father."

"You do that."

She eventually guided my staggering body back to the Tunnels. As we walked through Below in our weird Siamese twin act, we passed by Robert. Judging from his dirty overalls and the hammer in his hand, he had just gotten back from a late-night building job.

With a frown he said, "Is he drunk?"

"Yes," Diana said.

Robert shook his head. "Disgraceful. When is he going to..."

"Shut up, Robert."

I have rarely heard Diana get snappish like that. Robert looked stunned. As for me, I had to smile. Because, y'know, I had gotten sick of Robert's disapproval. Yes, I fucked up two months ago. But how long was I supposed to be judged for that? Didn't I try to make amends? Hadn't I been willing to give up my life and my freedom for the sake of protecting Robert, his son, everybody in the tunnels? Piss off, Robert. Go hammer something. If Layla could forgive me...

Layla.

I pulled away from Diana so I could vomit against a tunnel wall. As she patted my back, I cursed myself for going to Knucklebones with Mouse and Jamie. But how was I supposed to know that I had met a rival for Alexandra's heart? What kind of world was this when a simple decision could make your life so complicated? Goddamn destiny. Goddamn dyke bitches...

I finished puking. Diana practically carried me over the final steps to my chambers. She lowered me to my bed and pushed my legs onto the mattress. I looked up at her and said --

"Why couldn't I have met someone like you? Or Catherine?"

"Because you met Alexandra. Now go to sleep."

My body assented before my mind did. Past the darkness of my closed eyes I could hear Diana walk to the doorway. She paused there before walking away from my chambers.

Images of Layla and Alexandra flashed in my drifting mind. Alexandra attacking Layla, then dancing with her. Alexandra jumping upon me in lust, then showing no awareness of me. Layla holding a knife on me. The two of them stopping on a street...

Then the tower of 817 5th Avenue blocked my view of them. I could see Edward looking down upon me from the very top of the building. I saw him sitting at a curved table with the Nobles. I heard the laughter of a defeated foe.

Voices echoed through the Tunnels. I remembered strange little comments, odd phrases, words carrying a meaning that I hadn't fully comprehended. For one brief moment I saw a larger truth.

I looked away from the truth, immediately forgetting what it was. I was convinced that I had already learned everything I had to know.

But I hadn't. Revelations hid themselves from me and waited to pounce.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

I had been stabbed two months ago. Waking up after that had been less difficult than waking up with a hangover. I started to open my eyes, but I remembered the things that had started me drinking. Plus, my brain didn't feel completely functional yet.

So I decided to go back to sleep, but then some force -- my conscience or my body or both -- shoved me back toward the world. For a long time, I was pushed back and forth. I eventually decided to side with the morning and opened my eyes.

She was sitting on a chair before my bed. Her face was exposed. So were her scaly hands. She looked at me with sympathy.

I spent a minute just lying on the bed and looking back at her. Then I said in a rough voice --

"What do you want, Alexandra? What do you really want?"

She took a breath, then said "That is a question I've been asking myself since I met you. Or perhaps the question was there all along, and I'm just finally paying attention to it."

I groaned and rubbed my eyes. "Enough with the riddles..."

"Very well. You want to know if I choose you or Layla as a lover."

I uncovered my eyes.

"It's not a question of choice for me," Layla said. "I love you both equally. I need both of you equally. I want to share my world with both of you."

"Ah. I see."

"Do you?"

"Yeah. You're a real modern New York gal. You should have been on Sex and the City."

"I am a child of my times. And I am a child of the past, and of the future." Alexandra held out a hand. Even though the rest of her body was still, her hand trembled. "The world is converging on me. I must either take control..." She clenched her hand, then slowly opened it. "...or allow myself to be washed away."

She lowered her hand to her lap. "I need someone at my side, no matter what I choose. I need a person whom I love and trust." She paused, then said, "I need two people."

"What about my needs? Should I have to share you with someone else?"

"I may ask you to do more than that, Jacob."

She left the chair and slowly settled onto the bed with me. I was tempted to push her away, but I couldn't move. Just as with a common snake, I didn't dare look away from her face. Only this snake had come with love instead of venom. And her skin was warm instead of cold.

I kept my arms to myself, but she curled her arms around the back of my neck. I could feel her breasts through her blouse and against my chest.

"What did you think of last night?" she asked.

"Why do you care?" My voice was soft. I couldn't sound bitter. "You acted like I wasn't there."

"You weren't. You were so removed from what the event represented that you could have been in another city."

"And what did it represent?"

"Power. You don't want it."

"Everybody wants power."

"No. Not you. When my father offered you Crown's position, you had to be forced into accepting it."

"That wasn't power. I would have just been your father's lackey."

"A lackey of my father would still be more powerful than the rulers of many nations."

"Maybe. I just don't...Alexandra, what are you getting at?"

"What if I could make you truly powerful? Not as a lackey, but as the advisor to a queen?"

Of all the Alexandras I had met in the past few days, this was the one who startled me the most. When I first saw her, she was a girl hiding in the darkness of a club. Now my weakened brain was trying to accept the possibility that she could be so much more. I raised myself on my elbow. She kept her hands on my neck.

"What is going on in the Tower?" I asked. "What are you doing there?"

"I told you that the High Tower could become the true ruling body of the world. All it would need is a push in that direction. I'm going to push it."

I fell back to the mattress, my face now level with Alexandra's gentle expression. "You...you're going to..."

"Everything is in place. I only have to give the word, and the Tower will change from a shelter to a government."

"A secret government."

"Yes. For awhile."

I remembered the words of the Billionaire. "You've got some of the Nobles on your side, don't you?"

"The ones I need. The ones who will accept the change. The ones who have secretly desired it."

"And what happens to the ones who don't?"

"The world will no more miss them than Masilela."

I rolled onto my back and looked up at the ceiling. I was silent for a few moments, then asked, "How long have you been planning this?"

"Since September 11, 2001. I could have used my father's power to stop that attack...and so much else. I decided that I would take that power for myself. Slowly and carefully I devised a plan that could change the Tower. My gift showed me which strings I could pull and which people I could use. The question is -- could I do what was necessary for the plan?"

"You mean, could you kill?"

"I didn't know that -- not until Crown."

I looked toward her. I could see traces of regret in her face, but only traces.

"So I was just an excuse."

"Of course not. I truly wanted to protect you. I also knew that I would need you."

I cleared my throat. "To hold your hand while you take over the world."

"I have allies in the Tower...but no companion. No one who will care for me, no one who will stay at my side for my own sake. You were my only choice."

"Until now..."

Alexandra closed her eyes. "Yes."

"Tell me -- in your vision of Layla killing me, what else did you see?"

"I saw...me standing next to her. I have my hands wrapped around her hands as she points a gun at you. I'm not trying to stop her. I'm helping her aim."

"That's why..." I paused a few seconds. "...you went crazy. You weren't mad at Layla. You were mad at yourself."

"It's a shocking thing to know you could kill somebody that you love."

"Yeah. It is."

She opened her eyes. She reached down and lightly grasped one of my hands. She carried my limp hand up to her own neck and laid it there.

"You could kill me right now," she said.

"I don't want to live in a world controlled by the Tower."

"I know. When I first came to the Tunnels, I hoped that I might learn otherwise."

I smiled slightly. "You came here to pick my brain."

She pressed my fingers tighter against her neck. Her pulse throbbed under my touch. "I have no desire to be a lonely queen," she said.

"But you don't need me for companionship anymore. You have Layla."

"She is a lot like you, Jacob. The one difference is -- she can gladly accept power. She wants it."

"So I'm out of the picture."

"No. Even if you don't help me hold the reins of power, I still need you."

"For what? To stand around and look pretty? To listen to you read..."

Alexandra grabbed me by the shirt and yanked me closer to her. In her eyes were two equally intense emotions of fury and desperation.

"I need you," she hissed. "I will always need you." It was the angriest declaration of love I had ever heard. I could only stare back at her with my mouth gaping.

She gradually relaxed her grip and softened her face. "And," she sighed, "I will always need Layla as well. If I choose not to take over the Tower, I hope she will stay with me."

"You mean...you haven't decided?"

"Layla has balanced the two sides for me. I can no longer use personal reasons to make a choice. I have to ask, 'Will the world be better if I choose to take control?'" She raised a hand to silence my response. "I know how you feel, Jacob. I know how Layla feels. Now I must think on the question."

So there it was. I had found out Alexandra's secret. I finally knew what she was planning. Layla and I had affected her as much as we could. Now all we could do was stand back and see what...

I sat up quickly. "Shit!"

"What is it?"

"Your father knows about Layla. The Tower knows..."

She placed her fingers on my mouth. "Shhhh. It's all right. Yes, my father knows about Layla. In fact, she's with him right now."

"Eh?"

"No one will harm her. Not as long as she's with me."

"But what about you? What if the Nobles -- the Nobles not on your side -- what if they find out what you're considering?"

"They likely know already. But they wouldn't dare to make a move against me. They would know that I have planned for everything."

"Would they really?"

She looked straight at me. Her red eyes were hard. "I've already made it clear. Even in death, I could bring them down."

I had no doubt about it, so the Nobles wouldn't have doubted it, either. "What about your father?" I asked. "Which side is he on?"

The hardness turned to sadness. "My father is a man of tradition. He would keep the High Tower as it has been for centuries."

"He's told me that he has been tempted to do otherwise."

"Tempted, yes. But never enough. And he never will be."

"So, if you go ahead with your coup..."

"He will live -- only powerless. He is, after all, my father."

"Yeah," I said slowly. "He is."

Alexandra sat up in bed so that our faces were even. "I once asked if you saw me as a monster," she said. "Now I'm asking that question again."

"I think...that you have a way of looking at the world far different than mine or anyone else's. I think that you are the strangest person I have ever met." I hesitated, then added, "I'm also still very much in love with you."

"So you won't kill me?"

"Christ, Alexandra..."

She touched my cheek. "This is why I need you -- to tell me that I'm not a monster."

I took her hand and kissed her palm. Then I reached out and cupped one of her breasts. She sucked in her breath and held it for as long as I touched her.

I eventually lowered my hand. Touching her there was a strange gesture on my part, but it also felt like the right thing to do. Alexandra seemed to agree.

She released her breath and said, "Let's go see my father."

"Okay."

We left the bed and my chambers. As we headed for the exit, Alexandra began to cover her face once more. Dwellers watched us as we passed. They gave no greetings. They showed none of the good spirit with which they had first greeted Alexandra. There was now fear in her eyes. It wasn't just the after-effects of her poetry reading. They knew that something had changed about her. Her stride had none of the caution of before. She walked like she expected people to get out of her way.

One person didn't. He was waiting for us at the exit. By the time we reached there, Alexandra's face was hidden again.

She walked up to the large figure in her path. I stood a few steps behind them.

"Where are you going?" my father asked.

"To where I live," she replied.

"I see."

The two beasts looked at each other. One was slender, one was immense. One looked down at the world from a height of power, the other from below in the catacombs.

Alexandra touched my father's arm. "I will not harm you, Jacob, or anyone in the Tunnels."

"What we promise...and what we actually do...are often different things."

"So, we should never make promises?"

"We should know our hearts, and the consequences of our actions."

"I know both of those."

"Then you have achieved more wisdom than most people do in a lifetime."

Father turned and pulled a lever. The wall moved to one side. Alexandra stared at him through her black glasses, then moved through the entrance. I followed her.

Alexandra looked back at Father. His face was unreadable as he closed the entrance.


Continued in Chapter 10