Authors: Marcus Sakey
The Blade Itself At the City’s Edge Good People The Amateurs
Published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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Printed in the United States of America Set in Sabon
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“There is no future without an identity to claim it, or to be obligated to it. There are no caging norms. In its very precariousness the state is pure and free.”
e was naked and cold,
stiff with it, his veins ice and frost. Muscles carved hard, skin rippled with goose bumps, tendons drawn tight, body scraped and shivering. Something rolled over his legs, velvet soft and shocking. He gasped and pulled seawater into his lungs, the salt scouring his throat. Gagging, he pushed forward, scrabbling at dark stones. The ocean tugged, but he fought the last ragged feet crawling like a child.
As the wave receded it drew pebbles rattling across one another like bones, like dice, like static. A seagull shrieked its loneliness.
His lungs burned, and he leaned on his elbows and retched, liquid pouring in ropes from his open mouth, salt water and stomach acid. A lot, and then less, and finally he could spit the last drops, suck in quick shallow lungfuls of air that smelled of rotting fish.
In. Cough it out. There. There.
His hands weren’t his. Paler than milk and trembling with a panicky violence. He couldn’t make them stop. He’d never been so cold.
What was he doing here?
Like waking from sleepwalking, he couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. The cold was filling him, killing him, and if he wanted to live he had to move.
He rolled onto his side. An apocalyptic beach, water frothing beneath a shivering sky, wind a steady howl over the shoals, whipping the saw grass to strain its roots. Not another person as far as he could see.
Had to move. His muscles screamed. He staggered upright and tried a tentative step. His thoughts were signals banged down frozen wires; after an eon his legs responded. His feet were bloody.
One step. Another. The wind a lash against his dripping skin. The beach sloped hard upward. Each step brought muscles a little more under his control. The motion warming them, oh god, warming them to razors and nails and blood gone acid. He concentrated on breathing, each inhale a marker. Make it to the next one. Five more. Don’t quit until twenty. Goddamn you, breathe.
The boulders the ocean had broken to pebbles gave way to those it hadn’t yet, broad stones with moss marking the leeward side, spaced with pools of dark water where spiny things waited. He stumbled from one rock to the next until he reached the top.
As lonely and blasted a stretch of earth as any he’d seen. Black rocks and foaming sea and sky marked only by the passage of birds. No. Wait.
He blinked, tried to focus. Two thin dirt tracks led to a splotch of color, a boxy shape. A car. Legs cramping. Breath shallow. He couldn’t force his lungs to take. To draw enough. Air. The shivering easing. Bad sign. His feet tangled and he fell. Inches from his eyes, pale grass spotted and marked by the appetite of insects. The ground wasn’t so bad. Almost soft. Easy now. Easy to go.
Crawl. Elbows scraping. Knees. Forearms going blue. Blueberries, blue water, blue eyes.
He reached the trunk, pulled himself up, the metal burning cold. Slouched his way to the door and bent stiff fingers around the handle.
The door opened. He maneuvered around it and fell into the smell of leather. His legs wouldn’t move. It took both arms to pull them in, one at a time. Gripping the burnished handle, he yanked the door shut. The wind’s laughter died.
Instead of a key there was a push-button start. He slapped at it, missed, slapped again. The engine roared to life.
The man turned the heat all the way up and collapsed against the seat.
A soft time. Warm air making his body ache and tingle and finally ease. For a while the man stared at the ceiling, head lolled back. Content to watch the drifting spots in his eyes. Tiny floating things that he could only see when he didn’t try to look at them. He didn’t think about where he was, or why, or who the car belonged to and when they might return, or whether they would be happy to find a naked man dripping on the leather seats.
Just cowered like an animal in his den, the doors locked and heat blasting.
After a long time—how long he had no idea—he felt himself coming back. Surfacing like he was waking from a nap. Words and questions swirling leaves from an October tree, tossed and spinning and never touching the ground.
Gasoline. That was one. Gasoline. What did . . .
Oh. He straightened, rubbed at his eyes. His muscles weak and languid. The fuel gauge read almost empty. He shut off the engine.
So. Where was he?
The car was gorgeous. A BMW according to the logo in the steering wheel, with gauges like an airplane cockpit. The seats were leather, the trim brushed aluminum, and the dash had a computer display. But the thing was a mess. Socks and a pair of Nikes rested on the floorboards on his side; the passenger seat was buried in maps and take-out bags and soda cups and empty blister packs of ephedrine and gas station receipts and a worn U.S. road atlas and a fifth of Jack Daniel’s with an inch left in it.
He opened the whiskey, swallowed half the remainder in a gulp. It burned in the best possible way.
Now that it wasn’t killing him, the world outside had a kind of desolate beauty. Lonely, though. Other than the narrow two-track the car was parked on, there was no sign of people in either direction. And while he hadn’t been fully conscious the whole time, he hadn’t seen anyone since he’d climbed into the car.
So then . . .
How had he gotten here?
Where the fuck was here and what was he doing in it?
Calm. Don’t panic. You’re safe. Just think about what happened. How you ended up here. You . . . you . . .
He closed his eyes, jammed them tight. Opened them again.
Nothing had changed. Had he been drinking? Drugged?
Retrace your steps. You were . . .
You were . . .
It was like that terrible moment he sometimes had waking up in a strange environment, in the dark of a friend’s living room, or in a hotel, that period where his brain hadn’t yet come online and everything was automatic, just panic and readiness and fear, the tension of waiting for certainty to click, for normalcy to fall like a warm blanket. That moment always passed. It passed, and he remembered where he was and what he was doing there.
He set the whiskey down, gripped the steering wheel with both hands.
Outside, the wind whistled. The trees looked like they’d been on fire, dark black trunks spreading to broad limbs marked by a handful of stubborn orange and yellow leaves, the last embers.
Okay. Something must have happened. An after-effect of hypothermia, some kind of shock. Don’t force it. Tease it. Coax it out. Like the floaters in your eyes, you can’t drag this front and center. Come at it sideways.
Your brain seems to work. Use it. Where are you?
A rocky beach. Cold. He could taste the salt on his lips, knew this was an ocean. Which one?
The question was crazy, but he worked it anyway. Let one thing lead to the next. The dashboard clock read 7:42. The sun was just a brighter shade of gray above the waves, but it was higher than before. Which made it morning, which made that east, which made this the Atlantic. Assuming he was still in the United States. Yes. The road atlas.
Okay. The Atlantic. And cold and rocky and sparsely inhabited. Maine, maybe?
Why not. Roll with that. “This is Maine.” His voice cracked. He coughed, then continued. “I’m in a BMW. It’s morning.”
A bank envelope was curled in the cup holder. Inside was a stack of twenties, several hundred dollars. Under the envelope there was something silver that turned out to be a stainless steel Rolex Daytona. Nice watch. Very nice watch.
What else? He leaned over to open the glove box. There was an owner’s manual, a key ring with a BMW clicker, three pens, a pack of Altoids, a sealed box of ephedrine, and a large black gun.
He stared. An owner’s manual, a key ring with a BMW clicker, three pens, a pack of Altoids, a sealed box of ephedrine, and a large black gun. A semiautomatic, he noticed, then wondered how he could know that and not remember where he had been before he woke up on the beach. Or worse, even his own—
Stop. Don’t go there. If you don’t face it, maybe it’s not true.
He stepped out. The wind whipped his naked body, and his skin tightened into goose bumps. His balls tried to retract into his belly. He stepped gingerly to the back of the car on bloody toes.
Would there be a body in there? Handcuffed and shot in the head, maybe, or rolled in a carpet, hair and boots spilling out.
No: it held only jumper cables and a plastic shopping bag with a red bull’s-eye on it. He opened the bag. A pair of designer jeans, a white undershirt with pits stained yellow, crumpled boxer briefs, wadded-up socks. Someone’s laundry.
He looked around again. In for a penny.
He shook out the underwear, stepped into it. The jeans were soft and worn, expensive looking. Too fancy for Target, and dirty to boot. Maybe the Target purchases had been a change of clothes. He wriggled into the shirt then slammed the trunk. Climbed back in the car, the air inside wonderful, stiflingly warm. The sour smell of feet rose as he wriggled into the sneakers.
Then he sat and stared out the window.
How had he known that red bull’s-eye was the Target logo? How had he known the watch was a Rolex? Or that Jack Daniel’s was whiskey, and that he liked whiskey?
How was it that he knew the BMW key fob had an RFID chip that activated the push button start, knew Maine was in the northeast, could identify the symptoms of hypothermia, could glance at a stack of twenties and know it was several hundred dollars— he could do all of that, but he couldn’t remember his own goddamn—
He reached for the owner’s manual in the glove box, careful not to touch the gun. The book was bound in black leather. Inside the front cover was a registration card and proof of insurance. Both in the name of Daniel Hayes, resident of 6723 Wandermere Road, Malibu, California.
He climbed out of the car, walked to the back. California plates.
Who wandered away from a ninety-thousand-dollar car and left the key in the glove box? Where would they go in the middle of nowhere?
And the clothes. The shoes fit. The jeans felt familiar.
Calling yourself Daniel Hayes is a start. Try it on, just like the jeans.
Daniel got back in the car, put on his watch, then cranked the ignition and pulled away.