352: Stepping Up

Cowdrey had a lantern in his hand. I guess he couldn’t see in the dark, although I’m not sure if that’s a vampire ability or not. It would probably also have helped if he had eyes.

Not that he didn’t have all the normal facial features you associate with a face, only his were drawn on — Cowdrey was a large wooden doll.

His head was completely round making him look like a smiley face emoji. Never a frown with Cowdrey around; not unless you ripped his head off and put it back upside down.

“What the fuck are you supposed to be?” I asked.

He raised a gloved hand and knocked on the side of his pine head, presumably for luck. It made a hollow sound.

“This isn’t really me.”

“No shit.”

He tilted his head, but it was hard to read any sort of emotion from him with the large smile painted (literally) across his face.

“I don’t want to be here, Colin. I don’t like dealing with the outside world, I don’t like being around people. They annoy me intensely.”

“So you  send out this puppet to stand in for you?”

“In point of fact, yes.”

Never have to leave your house, always in attendance when invited. It was kind of brilliant. In fact, it was the sort of solution I would have gone for, if I had a house or were ever invited anywhere.

“Are the other three the same? Can I get one?”

“Yes, and if you wish, it can be arranged. Once you accomplish this task, you would be welcome to join us on the Council. One more person — one more useful person — would mean less work for the rest of us. The thing you have to believe, if nothing else, is that we really do not enjoy having to deal with any of this.”

It was weird talking to someone when their lips weren’t moving and their head was a block of wood.

“Well, that sounds great, but you could take care of it yourselves, as distasteful as you find it to mix with the rabble and riff-raff. I can only assume my involvement is a means to an end. My end, most likely.”

I sat up on the bed. There was no one else in the cabin, so much for my expert bodyguard.

“How did you get in here? I would have thought Biadet would have spotted you.”

“We have our ways. You don’t trust me, do you?”

“I don’t trust me, why the fuck would I trust you?”

“There’s no need to be afraid. We mean you no harm.”

When someone tells you not to worry about something, that’s the time to start worrying, I’ve always found. It’s like when they say, ‘If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.” Because no one ever got fucked over for something they never did, right?

The problem is never what you yourself have done, it’s always about what the other person is going to try to pin on you. Sure, if everything goes according to plan, we all share the spoils of victory, but if it goes wrong, do we all share the blame? Not bloody likely.

That’s the thing about social intercourse, someone’s always going to get fucked.

“I don’t think you want to harm me,” I said. “I don’t see you as the sadistic types.”

“Thank you,” said Cowdrey.

“I haven’t finished yet,” I said. “My problem is that if things go in an unfavourable direction and sacrifices have to be made for the good of the whole, then last one in, first one out, if you get my drift.”

“Yes,” said Cowdrey, “I see. You think you will make the ideal sacrificial lamb.”

“It would be different if we shared some kind of ultimate goal. If we were all willing to die for the cause, throwing me under the bus would be worth it. I would probably throw myself under the bus, have a statue in the town square, Good Guy Colin. But I don’t believe in some greater good. One bunch of jerks in charge is more or less the same as another, as far as I’m concerned. You have to make a much better pitch if you want me to buy what you’re selling.”

I thought my point of view was pretty reasonable. I wasn’t trying to stop them doing whatever it was they felt was important for the future of the planet, I just wasn’t going to chip in. I stopped donating to charities once I realised they weren’t actually helping anyone apart from their board of directors. “We have to offer top-level salaries if we want to attract the best people,” they say. Well, the top people you recruited have achieved fuck all, so maybe offer less money and give them a bonus after they cure cancer and end homelessness.

Give what you can to a guy in the street if you think he needs it, chuck in a few quid if there’s some major disaster that requires emergency funds in a fucked part of the world, and never ever buy a charity song put together by a bunch of famous people.

“It must be nice to be in your position,” said Cowdrey. He didn’t say it in a passive-aggressive manner, he sighed gently like he really did envy me. “To be able to walk away from any sort of complication you’d rather not be involved with. Not all of us are so lucky.”

“Why not?” I asked. “What’s stopping you?”

“As smart as you are, what you haven’t yet grasped about life is that eventually there will come a time when you have something worth losing. You will have no choice but to get involved, even if the odds are against you. Take me. I truly lost all faith in humanity once I arrived in this world. No matter how sincerely I tried to help others, as soon as they had the chance to better their own prospects at my expense, they took it. Not even a moment’s hesitation, in most cases.”

“You aren’t really winning me over,” I said.

“That is not my intention. I would just like you to understand the plight of one such as myself. To understand others is a good thing, I feel. It makes it easier to defend yourself against them, no?”

The smile was as fixed as ever, but there was maybe a little sadness to it.

“Sure, as long as what you understand isn’t a tissue of lies designed to confuse the shit out of you.”

“I agree. But in my case, I took my talents and off I went. If they didn’t appreciate me, they could carry on without me. They, of course, didn’t even notice I was gone. Which was all for the best. I created a life for myself, made friends with people of no real standing. It seems the harder the life you live, the less time you have for treating others poorly. I even married.”

“Congratulations,” I said. “Any kids?”

“As I’m sure you already know, we are unable to have children, thanks to the elf, but there are other ways to have a family. This world, much like ours, has its poverty and cruelty. There are children without homes, without parents, who need looking after.”

“You started an orphanage? The Vampire Home for Lost Children, very wholesome.”

“I did not start an orphanage.” Can a dummy grit its teeth? Sounded like this one could. “And I have an issue with the sunlight, that does not make me Dracula.”

“Wait, if this isn’t you and you aren’t really here, why do you have a problem appearing in the day? Does whatever happen to the doll happen to you?”

This would make the whole mannequin-projection concept a much less enviable proposition. A poxy proxy.

“To be able to use my gifts, I must make certain allowances for my frailties. You will learn this as your own abilities mature. There is no unfettered journey to the mountain’s summit. You too will be required to give up something if you wish to attain the highest peak.”

“Or I could not bother trying to reach the top of the mountain,” I said.

“I doubt that will be your choice, but we shall see. In any case, I gained a family, one who showed some affection towards me. I don’t believe it was anything more than gratitude for my help, but it was more than I had experienced in my whole life, and I have grown accustomed to it. So you see, I now have a vested interest in the fate of this world. If your friends continue on this path, they will destroy everything in order to return home.”

“So they are trying to go back,” I said.

“We believe that to be the case.”

“And you don’t think Peter’s behind it?

“He may have given them the idea, and the means, but as we told you before, there is nothing he can do now.”

“Okay, but I still don’t see what any of this has to do with me. You have people you care about, great. It’s important to you that life carries on, wonderful. Me? I can take it or leave it. And what you don’t seem to have understood, is that your tales of a rich family life only compound the problem. When it comes down to it, when you’re faced with a choice between keeping your word to me or doing what’s best for your adopted kids, which will you choose?”

“That’s a very unlikely specific situation,” said Cowdrey.

“You’d be surprised. When it feels like you have a good enough reason, you’ll cut me adrift with no guilt and no remorse. It had to be done, what else could I do, my hands were tied. All together now — If only there had been another way....

“We don’t want to lose you, Colin.” He said it with great sincerity, which not many emojis can get away with. “You have already done things no one has come close to. You spoke with the elf. You convinced her to do as you asked.”

“Hernande isn’t going to listen to me. That was a one-off.”

“She had refused to speak to any of us, no Visitor has even managed an audience with her. She hates us all, but not you. That alone makes you of huge value to us. We would not cut you adrift.”

“Nice words,” I said, “but that’s all they are. What guarantees can you offer me? Because good intentions are worth sweet FA in my book. What can you give me to show you’re willing to put my needs ahead of yours? I don’t accept cheques.”

It was the kind of ultimatum a guy like me doesn’t make usually. In fact, you only make a proposal that one-sided when you want the other person to turn you down.

“I will give you this.” He held out a small wooden sphere. It had a smiley face painted on it, the same as the one on the big wooden sphere he was using as a head.

“Bit of a low bid, isn’t it?” I said.

“There is something you learn as a parent, or at least, I did. You can’t love someone and control them at the same time. Even with children, it makes no sense to show them the way. First, you have to find out where they want to go, and then your only job is to help them get there. Which often means doing absolutely nothing apart from getting out of the way.” He held the sphere out again. “My life is connected to it.”

I took it from him. “So what? Hurting others doesn’t stop me getting hurt.”

“I know you value vulnerability. This is mine. If you die, this will give you your life back, by taking mine.”

An extra life? That would be very useful, if it were real.

“That doesn’t prove—” The sphere began to glow.

“Use your ability,” said Cowdrey. “See for yourself.”

I did as he suggested. Once I was out of my body, the sphere took on a whole new appearance. There was a single vine from it to Cowdrey’s now immobile puppet. It was unlike any vine I had ever seen, throbbing with power I could feel from where I floated. The sphere itself was awash in a kaleidoscope of prismatic light. It changed colour and shifted shape. I didn’t have proof that what he said was true, but I believed him. There was something very fragile about the sphere, and yet incredibly powerful. It was life in a ball.

I returned to the normal world and put the ball in one of my numerous pockets. “I’ll think about it. Do the others know about this?”

“It has nothing to do with them. When you find the thing worth living for,” he said, “it isn’t others you become willing to sacrifice, it’s yourself.”

Cowdrey went to the door and opened it. He paused to look back at me and then left, closing the door behind him.

I lay back down on the bed. “I’m sure I locked that door.”

“I unlocked it,” said Biadet. She was lying on the bed next to me. It was a very narrow bed, so how she managed to slip in without me noticing, I couldn’t tell you.

“Why?” I asked her.

“He asked me.”

I felt like my security detail needed some extra training. Which reminded me.

“Where’s Laney, by the way.” I hadn’t seen her on the beach and had assumed she was already on board, but there had been no sign of her.

“You expected her to be here, in your room, at night, alone? She is that kind of girl, I suppose.”

“So are you,” I pointed out.

“I’m here on official business.” She lifted one leg and pointed her shoeless foot at the ceiling. “The princess is still on the island. No one told her we were leaving.”

The idea of sailing off and leaving Laney behind did hold a certain appeal. “Do you think she’d come after us?”

“She would swim across the sea to punch you in the face,” said Biadet.

“Might still be worth it,” I said. Biadet sat upright. “What?”

“Something is coming.”

“Something bad?”

She gave me a wry look. “No, presents and candy.” She jumped off the bed and disappeared through the door. And I mean through the door. I felt obliged to follow her, opening the door first.

I made my way to the deck, following the noise. Everyone was gathered, the whole crew, all staring up at the night sky. There was a glowing ball streaking towards us like a comet.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It seems someone has decided to make sure of your non-involvement,” said Biadet.

“Never fear,” said a bedraggled and sopping wet Laney as she clambered over the ship’s rail after swimming here from the island and climbing up the side. “I will protect you.” She pulled out her sword, sloshing more water everywhere.

“Against that?” I asked.

“Of course. We’ve dealt with worse, haven’t we, you miserable squirt?”

“That was a long time ago,” said Biadet. She pulled out a stick about as tall as she was, I have no idea from where.

Laney stopped. She looked at Biadet, then down at Biadet’s shoeless feet, then at me, then back to Biadet. Her eyes glowed, and not in a good way. “What have you two been doing?”

“Um, fiery ball of death,” I said, pointing in case which fiery ball wasn’t clear.

“Yes.” Laney gave me a look that said there would be words later.  “A little room, gentlemen,” she said to the sailors, “this will be messy.” And then she did something that almost made me feel sorry for the fiery ball of death. She raised her free hand and beckoned it to come closer.

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