Beyond The Veil Ch. 04byslyc_willie©
"Well . . . maybe," he said with a disarming smile.
The one she returned was genuine. "How do you do that?"
"Make me like you, no matter what."
Kyle shrugged again. "It's a gift." He smiled again, pulled on his cigarette. "How's your boyfriend?"
She smiled back, albeit thinly. "Wanting to know when I'm coming home."
Kyle nodded. "Wish I had an answer for that."
"Yeah. Me too."
"Can I ask you something?"
"What do you tell him? About what you do, I mean."
Faster inhaled, then laughed under her breath. "I don't," she said. "I just ask him not to ask questions."
"And he just accepts that?"
She nodded. "Yeah. Funny enough, he does. I figure he's got his ideas, but . . . he respects me. Truth is, I'm not really used to that. Kind'a freaks me out sometimes."
"I don't doubt," Kyle said. "Still, it has to be nice having someone to go to, someone who's removed from what you do."
Her eyes dipped. "Yeah. It is."
Kyle thought to continue the topic, but changed his mind. Instead, he looked up from the poolside toward the towering edifice of the Chateau de Foix above them. Carefully-placed spotlights hidden amongst the shrubbery of the castle grounds illuminated the walls in a soft, pleasing light which provided the illusion of warmer air than what was blowing over them.
"You, uh, you think you and Xyllah are going long-term?" Faster's voice was almost jarring.
Kyle looked bemused. "No. She wants to go home, after all."
She cocked her head with a wry expression. "You make it sound like 'home' is just a flight across the country or something, and not a whole other freaking world."
Kyle shrugged. "It's apparently been done," he said. "Besides, creatures from her world cross over to ours all the time. There has to be a way to follow them back."
"I guess." Faster's eyes suddenly glittered with excitement. "Be a hell of a ride if we can do it, huh?"
Kyle chuckled with a gleam of his eye. "You'd better get some rest," he suggested, dropping his cigarette into a conical stone receptacle. "Jet lag's already a pain in the ass, but we need to be as clear as we can."
She nodded, now visibly more relaxed and comfortable around her team leader. "Yeah, you're right. 'Night, Bandit."
He chuckled at her use of the nickname she and she alone used for him. "Good night, Faster."
* * * *
The sounds of gentle moaning greeted him as he stepped through the hotel room door. Owing to its construction two centuries before, the hotel's chambers were expectedly narrow and airy, with high ceilings, arched doorways, and large, thick-paned windows. Xyllah's lack of modesty meant the curtains around the windows remained open as she lay nude upon the burgundy-covered bed, casually stroking the sleek pink lips of her sex while watching the room's small television.
"Find something interesting?" Kyle asked with a quick glance to the TV. An obviously foreign-made adult movie was playing, something which involved hirsute Asian women in satanic robes open down the front. They were performing some kind of ritual around a man tied to an iron-framed bed.
"Quite," she responded, bringing her fingers to her lips. She sucked on them for a moment while giving Kyle an unmistakable look of seduction. "I have noticed there is a great variety among humans. Or is the appearance of these women the result of face paint?"
Kyle chuckled, stripping to the waist and taking two bottles of cola to the bed. Xyllah made room for him, accepting one of the bottles with a smile. "No, there are women who look like that," he said. "They're Asian. Northern Chinese, to be more exact."
"How many human races are there?"
"Well, there is only one race," Kyle informed. "But there are hundreds, even thousands, of ethnicities. There must be differences among the Daelvini. I can't imagine you all look alike."
"Very nearly so," she said. "There is some variation in height and body size, but --" she gestured to the television. "-- no such obvious differences as, for instance, between those women and Faster. However, I have never traveled too far from my home. My entire life has been spent in Nal'Katha."
Kyle ran the backs of his fingers along Xyllah's soft, pale cheek. "I'd love to see your mountain," he said, having no wish at the moment to discuss anthropology.
She smiled, settling a hand to his chest, brushing fingers through the soft dark hair. "I hope you will have that chance," she whispered, before tilting her head and licking her lips in invitation.
* * * *
A more relaxed mood existed between the four Veil Society agents the following morning as they navigated the country road away from Foix toward the underground entrance to the Labouiche. Kyle remembered hearing stories of Europe's longest subterranean river when he last visited, but did not have the opportunity at the time to indulge his curiosity. He wished now that his first visit to such a unique attraction was under less foreboding circumstances.
"So who's this guy we're going to meet, doc?" Victor asked as he drove. Yahoo had provided adequate directions, but Victor was a conscientious driver, knowing all too well that driving in the country is never as simple as Internet directions typically indicated.
"Eugene Garbeau," Kyle responded, feeling a quick wave of melancholic nostalgia as he uttered the name. "He was the guide we hired to take us to the cave where Max Keller died . . ." He pursed his lips, then corrected himself. "Apparently died."
"He lives, vialor," came Xyllah's voice from the back seat.
"Anyway," Kyle continued. "Garbeau was the last person I saw before we went into the cave. If anyone saw anything before the collapse, it would be him."
"What do you think he saw?" Faster asked.
"Maybe nothing," the team leader admitted. "Or maybe a murderer."
* * * *
The entrance to Labouiche consisted of a gaping hole in white rock at the shallow end of a ravine, surrounded by perennial undergrowth. With the grass of the nearby countryside swaying like the flags of invisible pixies, the place possessed an almost magical feel to it. The maw in the rock was like the mouth of Gaea herself, inviting any and all to enter at their own risk.
The small parking area was only half full, Kyle noticed as they left the van and headed down the short trail to the river. The majority of the vehicles sported French, Spanish, and German tags. There was one from the UK, and only one from the States.
A minimal booth stood beside the narrow river's edge, which spanned perhaps half a dozen meters before it flowed into the depths of the cave. Floating atop the water beside a simple pier, three large wooden barges awaited service. A handful of tourists stood idly by, smoking cigarettes, talking, joking, listening to iPods or playing PSPs. Kyle was thankful there were no young children amongst the patrons.
Victor purchased the tickets for the four of them while Kyle, Xyllah and Faster did their best to look like just another group of tourists. The team leader was glad he had cautioned Xyllah to be more conservative in her dress; wearing a leather bikini and thigh-high boots in forty-degree weather would have garnered them unwanted attention. Still, the elfin woman looked uncomfortable in her jacket and slim-fitting jeans.
"How can you not find such clothing restrictive?" the Daelvini asked of Faster.
"You get used to it," the brunette replied with an amused look. "Besides, the right clothes can accentuate certain assets."
Xyllah frowned. "By hiding them?"
Faster shrugged. "Not exactly," she said. "See, you show just enough to make them want to see more."
"I do not understand," Xyllah admitted. "Would it not make matters simpler to show all you have to offer?"
"Sounds good to me," Victor piped up as he approached. He held four printed receipts. "All set for the tunnel of love?"
Faster chuckled, regarding the entrance to the underground river. "You know, now that you mention it . . . ."
"What is the 'tunnel of love?'" Xyllah asked, then brightened. "Are we going to engage in a sexual ceremony?"
Her question resulted in a blush from Faster and a mild coughing fit from the stocky ex-soldier. Kyle slipped his arm around the elfin woman's shoulders and guided her toward the waiting barges. "I hate to burst your bubble, but no."
* * * *
To say he was perturbed by the absence of the man they had come to find would be an understatement for Dr. Kyle Perrin. While their tour guide, Jean, prattled in French about the majestic limestone formations and "ancient, cryptic" stone age drawings, Kyle barely listened. He wondered if Eugene Garbeau had been warned, perhaps by the bartender from the evening before. Scenarios regarding more creative ways of interrogating the Frenchman occupied Kyle's thoughts while the others around him took in the sights.
The underground river made the boat rock as the guide pushed it along with a thick, stout pole. Stalactites hung from the ceiling, glistening wetly and catching the radiance of cleverly-placed spotlights. Now and then, rock landings interrupted the otherwise water-smoothed walls, and it was at such landings that faded old wall paintings could be seen. The other tourists murmured in interest upon looking at them. Kyle did not have to look to know they were typical for the region, and dated between ten and fifteen thousands years old.
"Are you not enjoying this?" Xyllah whispered, jarring the team leader from his reverie. "Personally, I find this all very romantic."
Kyle arched a brow. "It's almost freezing in here, and we're surrounded by other people."
Her dark eyes glittered. "As I said . . ." she trailed off with a seductive nibble.
"Hey, uh, love birds," Victor interjected from behind them. "Hate to interrupt, but it looks like we got company."
Kyle looked over his shoulder, past the others in the barge and the guide droning in his practiced monologue. A good fifteen yards or so behind was another barge, this one empty save for the solitary driver. Even with the dark light and the distance between them, Kyle was certain the blonde-haired head belonged to the man they sought.
"Imagine that," he muttered.
"Yep," said Victor with a slight nod. "I'm guessing he got tipped off by his bartender buddy."
"Which I expected," Kyle said. "So long as he showed up, that's all I was concerned with."
"So what are we supposed to do?" Faster asked. "Jump boats?"
Kyle turned back, silent in contemplation. Ahead, he spied a rather broad landing, to which had been attached a small, rickety wooden pier. The barge was already slowing, ostensibly in preparation for a stop. "No, I don't think it'll be that difficult."
Within minutes, the barge indeed floated to a stop along the pier, with Jean jumping out to secure a soggy, heavy coil of rope to a post on the barge. The tourists disembarked under their guide's urging, as the skinny Frenchman lugged an old plastic chest onto the pier. In French, then German and finally English, he offered bottled water, Coca-Cola, and various snacks for a couple of euros each.
But as the tourists begrudgingly sampled their guide's wares while listening to yet more flowery description of wall paintings and the various "strange and unusual" creatures which lived in the river, Kyle faced the arrival of the second barge. Closer now, Kyle's assumption as to the identity of the second man was confirmed. With a slight flutter of anxiety in his chest, he approached the second boat driver, indicating for his team to remain behind.
"Eugene Garbeau, je crois?" Kyle asked, offering a hand as the man stood upon the listing barge. He paused before accepting the helping hand and stepping onto the pier.
"Oui, mon nom est Garbeau," he confirmed, eyes narrowed as he searched Kyle's face. "You're the American. You look familiar."
"You have a good memory, then, since it's been ten years."
The Frenchman's eyes became more suspicious. "It appears I could say the same of you."
Kyle met the man's eyes squarely. "I assume you know why I wish to speak with you, then."
Garbeau shrugged. "Do you want a tour guide?" he asked casually. "My rates have increased, just so you know; I recently purchased a new car."
Kyle stared, gritting his teeth at the man's flippant response. "Ten years ago, a man I revere more than my own father was killed in a cave-in that you took us to. I want to know what you saw."
Garbeau's eyes flickered away, revealing his nervousness. "What could I see? I was all the way down the hill."
"No. You weren't." Kyle insinuated himself closer, and despite the fact that the Frenchman was a little taller, he seemed to almost cower beneath the anthropologist. "Allow me to remind you of the scene: you took me and Max Keller – he was the older man, a little thick in the middle, glasses, grey hair, khaki shirt – all the way to the entrance of the cave. Your car was a little blue Peugeot with dents and scratches all over it, parked maybe a hundred feet away. I watched you smoke a cigarette before we went inside. Then . . . ."
Kyle leaned even closer, speaking in an insidious whisper. "Then, someone set off an explosive. A bomb. Right above the cave on the hillside. Someone tried to kill us both, but I survived. And I find it hard to believe you did not see anything, unless you had been told by someone to leave before it happened."
Garbeau swallowed thickly, glancing around quickly as if seeking support. Some of the tourists looked toward the two men, wondering what was going on, but having the presence of mind to keep their distance. Victor, Faster and Xyllah seemed on alert, the first two watching all around while Xyllah was more concerned with the actions of her leader and lover.
"If you care to know," Garbeau finally said in response. "It is because of me that you are still alive."
"You dragged me from the cave, then?"
The Frenchman nodded. "I heard . . . I heard the rumble, then the shouting . . . it was all I could do to get you free."
Kyle fought down his anger, reminding himself he had to remain focused and level-headed. "Do you know who did it?"
Garbeau trembled, and for the first time looked to Kyle with a fearful expression. "You do not understand," he whispered. "I have family. A sister, two nieces and a nephew, parents, friends--"
"They threatened to harm them if you told?"
Somberly, the man nodded. "I am very sorry, but I cannot give you the answers you want."
Kyle thought for a moment, breathing in deeply. He cast a quick look to his team, registering their inquisitive expressions. A cautionary gesture of his right hand told them he was still in control of the conversation; he did not need them just yet.
"Do you think they still watch you?"
Garbeau nodded slowly. "Yes. Because of that, I think I must l--"
"So what makes you think, because you're talking to me now, they haven't already assumed you would tell me everything?"
The man lifted his face slowly, pained eyes searching for mercy in Kyle's stoic features. "That is why I must go--"
"It may be too late," Kyle insisted. "In fact, if I was them, I wouldn't take the chance. I'd assume you've already spilled the beans, and the first chance I got, I'd try to silence you."
Alarm and anxiety instantly flooded the man's face. "I am leaving, now!"
Swiftly, Kyle grabbed the man's jacket and jerked him close, making Garbeau stumble due to the strength of Kyle's enchanted limb. "No, you are going to tell me what you know," he hissed. "Because, if you're a dead man already, you have nothing to lose."
The Frenchman's jaw worked, mouth gaping, as he struggled to find the words to say. But the words would never come, replaced as they were by an abrupt explosion of pink-red ichor from his open mouth. It took Kyle a moment to understand that the man was dead; once-living eyes turned glassy and blank, while lips trickled blood, gore, and flecks of bone from the impact of the bullet in the back of the man's head. Kyle did not even register the fact that his own face was now decorated with spots of blood.
"Shooter!" cried Victor, snapping a pistol into his hand as he dropped to one knee. Behind him, tourists screamed and gasped, falling and stumbling against an ancient painted cave wall.
"Got him!" harped Faster, both her gleaming chrome pistols in hand, aimed back along the winding underground river, toward a shadowed boat floating against the tunnel wall. A single figure could be seen scrambling to pull the cord on the motor.
Kyle let Garbeau's body fall into the barge from which he had stepped, and leapt in with it. He jerked the revolver free from his coat and squatted for cover in the barge. "Aim for the motor!" he barked. "I want him alive!"
"No prob," responded Victor, as both he and Faster unleashed their weapons. The resulting cacophony echoed in the tunnel, painfully assaulting the ears of all within. More screams and curses erupted from the tourists, save for one lone teenaged boy who continued the game upon his PSP in blissful ignorance.
Looking to the frozen expression of pain and shock upon Garbeau's face, Kyle passed a hand over the man's eyes, closing them. "Sometimes, I hate it when I'm right," he muttered.
"Man in the water!" Victor yelled, rising from his position.
Kyle looked, seeing the smoking, sparking ruin of the motor on the distant boat. As well, he could see the flailing arms of a figure paddling away in the dark, cold river. "Come on!" he ordered, sheathing his weapon and taking up the heavy wooden pole. In short order, the rest of the team joined him in the boat. Kyle passed the pole to the stronger arms of Victor, while Faster and Xyllah pushed the barge away from the pier, trying to turn it about.
"Kyle!" shouted Xyllah. "I can--"
"Then do it!"
The Daelvini needed no further encouragement to begin a practiced series of movements with her arms and hands. She intoned under her breath, muttering a quick succession of arcane phrases. Within a moment of her finishing, the barge suddenly bucked and turned, as if guided by an invisible hand.
"Shit!" cursed Victor, stumbling back in the boat as it shot through the water with all the speed of a competition raceboat. Thick waves splayed behind them in a dramatic wake as the barge powered back toward daylight. At the fore stood Kyle, once more with weapon brandished, leaning into the wind.
"There he is!" barked the team leader, indicating a dark-garbed figure running up the slope from the river tunnel's opening. He leveled his revolver, snapped off a single round. But with the bobbing of the boat, the bullet fell wide of its mark. A second round shattered against a small rock just past the man's right leg. For the briefest sliver of a moment, their prey glanced back, revealing a pock-marked face indicative of adult acne. The hard eyes and features belied a sense of purpose and determination matched only by those he read upon Kyle.
But then the man was gone, reaching a scratched and dented Peugeot upon the lot and throwing the door open. Kyle thought to fire again, but his only target was the man's head and shoulders. Too much chance of killing the man rather than wounding him . . . .
"Damn it," cursed the team leader under his breath as the barge bumped against the shore. Setting his jaw, he watched the little car leave a wake of dust and gravel as it sped up toward the road. Lips pursed and head bowed, he pushed open the cylinder of the revolver and shook the shells out into his hand. He dropped the empty ones into a pocket on his coat and reload the weapon, adding fresh rounds from a different pocket.
"Pretty serious Bogart there, doc," Victor commented, stepping up beside Kyle. "Soon as we start talking to the guy--"
"Yeah. Convenient, wasn't it?"
The former solder grunted. "Like the hands on a fuckin' clock."