Behold what cannot be seen.
The truth of us.
And find the magic.
As I mount the steps to the Chicago Art Institute, the winter wind, called the Hawk by the people of this city, whips the long tails of my coat around my ankles and thrusts icy talons under my dress, greedy for my warmth. Last I was here it was a sweet summer breeze; today it is a harbinger of death.
Ahead, a massive bronze lion stands guard, a snow blanket white on its back. As I close on the beast, a lean man in a black overcoat steps from behind it and eyes me. Then he targets me with a video camera—fear clutches at me; his camera will see through my disguise.
Instead of my “Annie the tourist” glamère, the illusion of freckles and springy red curls I project when among the lessi, he will see the true Annie unmasked, milky white skin and straight brunette tresses.
I snatch the sides of my hood together to shield my face. Who will he tell if he perceives my truself? His tale of my two faces would ripple outward until someone took notice. I can’t let that happen. With so many killed in witch hunts through the centuries, the Clans hide from exposure that could spark a pogrom. Pulling my hood tighter, I trot up the stairsteps.
Please, no trouble.
The lean man’s lips move and the wind carries his words to me. “I think I got one.”
When I glance at him, he jerks the camera away. Bilious yellow-green threads stream through the aura around his head—his actions are a lie in full bloom. He seeks to hide his purpose.
But how can it have anything to do with me? I can’t be known to him, and I have done him no harm.
Besides, today I die.
Above my head, the Hawk tears at a banner strung across the front of the Institute. It announces a 19th Century American Art exhibit. I need to see a painting there—a portrait of Graeme and me done by the extraordinary John Singer Sargent in . . . was it 1874 that we did that? There’s no knowing if I will see Graeme on the “other side,” or even if there is another side, but I want to leave life with the image of that happy time in mind. A last comfort for my soul.
My soul. I have not felt alive in the months since my Graeme was the random victim of a crazed homeless man. I so miss my man’s little-boy-lost vulnerability, the hold-me look that made me want to wrap my arms around him.
But Graeme’s murder wasn’t random, was it?
I was there. I was more than there.
If only I had . . . If only I had not . . . They say pain diminishes with time, but I can testify that the ache of guilt grows until it eats your life.
Today it gets its last bite of mine. After my final look at Graeme, I will surrender to the winter cold and let the eternal chill that I brought upon my husband be the waiter that serves up my just deserts.
But that’s a lie, isn’t it? To die is not my punishment, it is my escape.
When I pass the lean man, he again trains his camera on me. This time the lessi doesn’t bother to pretend that I am not the focus of his interest. Burgundy tendrils of hostility join the nasty green of deception in his aura.
A sense of being prey prickles the back of my neck. I hurry up the steps. He tracks me with the camera, but I don’t think it has caught my face.
A tinny whisper shivers in KB Volmer’s earbud. “Hey, you hear me? I think I got one.” She steps out of the gallery of art by Irish kids. Their stuff didn’t look any better than the crap she’d done as a kid that her mom had taped up on the refrigerator.
Speaking just loudly enough for her collar mic to pick up her words, she says, “Again.”
“It looks like I got one.”
She snaps into focus. There’s only one thing he can be talking about.
The whisper comes. “It’s heading for the entrance.”
KB zings him. “It would be helpful if I knew who this was and where you’re stationed.”
“Schultz, by the lion outside the Michigan Avenue entrance.”
Does Schultz’s voice shake from the cold or from excitement? His words sure as hell send a thrill through KB. She hopes to be the first of the couple-hundred Homeland Security agents staking out museums across the country to catch one of the perps she calls Raiders—she knows in her gut that they are bad guys.
She says, “You’re sure it’s a Raider?”
“Gotta be. Compared to everybody else out here, infrared output looks like a bonfire.”
The thermal imaging cameras Homeland Security has been testing since a terrorist blew up a roomful of Goya masterpieces in Madrid’s Prado National Museum are about to pay off. Things got real exciting the day before when agents at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art spotted two bright infrared “blooms” strolling in—and then lost them in the crowd. KB isn’t going to make that mistake.
Excitement swells in her. Even Schultz sounds tight now; his voice has lost that lame whine—no more bitching about working in the cold, no more muttering that the Raiders haven’t done anything so why the big hunt?
Yeah, they haven’t done anything . . . yet. That’s the way terrorists operate, staying low until it’s time to strike.
They aren’t going to get away with it on KB’s watch.
KB says, “What do you see? Did you look with your eyes?”
“Just a glimpse. Female. Red hair, curly. Tall and slender. Wearing a dress and a long black coat with a hood up. The camera just shows the glow.”
Oh, man, this is it. Reflex sends her hand inside the navy blue blazer. Just beneath the Art Institute logo, her Walther 9mm automatic waits, snug in its holster. Posing as an Institute security guard is perfect cover, but she hates the skirt—it makes her legs look heavy, and putting one on always feels like a demotion. Damn cold in the wind, too.
Her earpiece crackles. Schultz says, “It’s going in.”
Time to saddle up. She says, “I’m headed up to the lobby. All stations, be alert for a tall, slender female that lights up your camera.”
The Institute lobby welcomes me with an expanse of beige marble that prompts admiration for its grandeur, although I would rather see the meadow that once opened here, cloaked with snow in wintertime, its future a summer of green grass and golden flowers. There was a time I walked a deer path through that meadow to the lake beyond that seems as vast as an ocean.
Now the meadow is crushed by the Institute’s massive pile of stone, its future void of life. The lake no longer spills onto a sandy shore but lashes at concrete revetments, its waters the color of metal instead of crystalline blue. My old resentment at the unbridled swarming of the lessi rises in me—but soon it won’t matter anymore, will it?
A voice behind me calls out, “Jimmy! Stop!” A boy of about seven zooms past and glances back, grinning. His foot slips on a spot of melt from tracked-in snow, and I wince at the jagged red-orange burst of pain in his aura when his head slams the marble floor. Oh, poor baby!
Two quick steps and I kneel beside him. His eyes widen, tears spill, and a wail echoes from the marble walls. I cradle his head as I slip my sight under his scalp and locate a growing contusion. Gazing into his eyes, I say, “Shhh. The hurt will stop soon, sweet child.”
Drawing upon the golden streams of lledri energy coursing around me, I send my touch into the wound, stop the bleeding, and clear out the damaged cells. Soon pain nerves quiet and the injury is on the way to healing.
I stroke his hair and the boy stops crying just as his mother drops to her knees beside him. She says, “Are you okay?”
The boy sniffles, glances up at me—I smile—and he nods. The mother says to me, “Thank you.”
“I’m glad I was here.” And I am. A moment’s respite from my black life feels better than I’d like to admit. Blame my nature for that, the urge to help and heal that beats at my core. But this physician can’t heal herself.
I make my way to the cashiers. Having seen the boy fall, I instinctively take care on the slippery floor—and then grimace at the irony. What matters a bruise to a corpse?
I pay my admission and then find a sign for the early American art exhibit that directs me down the long hall that connects to the Institute’s other building.
Heading for the stairs to the main floor, KB aches to break into a trot, but she forces herself to keep to a hurried walk, as near as she can come to the dawdle of a real museum guard. But when she reaches the steps she charges up two at a time, electric with energy as if she goes into combat.
Who’s to say this isn’t combat? The war on terrorism is personal with her, and the enemy can be anywhere, is everywhere. She reaches the top and puts on the brakes. Now, if only Schultz is right about this.
Just ahead of me, a thick-bodied female museum guard bursts into the lobby from a stairway to the lower level. I have never seen an Institute guard hurry—they are usually older people who meander, wearing bemused half-smiles at their good fortune to be paid to spend their days surrounded by treasure.
This guard is younger than the norm. Thirtyish. Broad-shouldered. Short black hair. Like the thin man outside, her aura also radiates the yellow-green of dishonesty. And she too carries a video camera. A museum guard with a video camera? The woman sends her gaze prowling through the lobby.
Is she linked to the man out front? Did he see my truself with his camera and report my deception to her?
Shaking my head at my paranoia, I aim for the hallway lined with exhibits of medieval armor that look like little metal men.
My former father-in-law is much like them—short of stature and iron-hard. I wonder if Drago’s venom toward me has lessened in the last year. Though why should it? I led his son to his death, did I not?
Taking a deep, cleansing breath, I force myself to narrow my focus to this moment; Drago will have to find some other target for his rage and bitterness, and I’m sure that he will.
A tall figure in a long black coat, a hood hanging down the back, strides past KB. Curly red hair, a youngish woman, heading down the hall with the knights. KB follows.
She aims her thermal camera. A bright glow flares in the viewfinder. Gotcha! She hustles after her quarry. She wants to run, but doesn’t want to alarm her target.
When the woman gets close to the end of the hallway, she glances back and then increases her speed.
So does KB.
The guard moves toward me, leaning forward as if she runs even though she walks. Is she after me?
Nonsense, Annie. No lessi has known of our existence for centuries, and no word has come of a breach in our concealment. There will be no return of the persecution that took so many clan lives.
Unless I am exposed here.
My back tightens as if expecting a blow.
A sign directs me through the Sculpture Court to the second level. I need to thwart the guard’s unwanted attention, so after I turn the corner from the hallway I change my glamère to the regal dignity of a white-haired society matron I once chatted with in Brussels. Now the museum guard won’t know me.
I decide not to change the appearance of my clothing so there’s no risk of an accidental touch revealing that the reality does not match the perception. When my childhood playmates and I practiced our glamères, we longed to change our bodies to become real wolves and pumas, or, my favorite, a pony. To our regret, our true forms persisted underneath our deceptions. We were stuck with being human, no matter what our seemingly magical abilities were.
I stroll past a bronze replica of the Abraham Lincoln memorial statue in Washington. It captures the man’s strength, but not his wit. How his dark eyes had twinkled, what mischief his quick, playful mind had devised.
How like the lessi to kill the best among them.
After the woman rounds the corner, KB stretches her legs to close the gap.
She says to her collar microphone, “I am in pursuit of a suspect, a real hot spot in my camera. Schultz, move inside and guard the Michigan Avenue doors. Use the camera on people leaving.” She’ll need evidence later. “Did you record this one coming in?”
His “damn” answers her question. She says, “Don’t forget to record if you see something. Bailey, you on the Columbus Drive exit?”
KB would know Bailey’s voice anywhere, deep and full of the rhythms of Chicago’s black south side. She says, “Yeah. I got the doors.” A pause, then, “This really it?”
“Looks like. Be on the lookout for a tall, skinny female, long hooded coat over long dress.” Might be smart to have backup. “Martinez, where are you?”
He whispers, “Second level, main building. They got a painting with a locomotive steaming out of a fireplace. Weird.”
“Get moving to the other side. I’ll locate the subject, then we’ll take ’er.”
“Okay. But what’s the big deal about these hot people? They don’t do nothin’ but go to museums.”
“Are you walking or talking?”
“Walking. I’m walking. Jeez.”
KB passes a suit of armor and feels a connection with the soldier who had worn the iron uniform. Like him, she’s a protector with a mission to stand between her country and evil. She’s vowed to do anything to carry it out. She touches her pistol again.
She can’t hold back a tight little grin.
After I climb the stairs to the exhibit, I look down. The female guard rushes into the Sculpture Court. She peers at the people there.
She can look all she wants, she’ll never see the real Annie. Now I can visit Graeme in peace. That’s all I want—to see his face, and then find solace within winter’s chill grasp.
Movement on the second level catches KB’s eye—someone tall in a black coat entering the American art exhibit.
She pounds up the stairs.