When the police arrived, the victim was still sobbing into the phone. He had a gun to his head. He had locked himself in his closet, where between the shelves of thrift-store jeans and shirts and two janitor uniforms he had hidden images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and any number of Catholic saints. The walls were lined with mirrors. The victim had asked the 911 operator to stay with him on the line. The devil was in his house. The devil was in his house. Please stay. He didn't want to die, but he had seen things. Don't look. Don't look. "Don't look at me!" And as one of the officers smashed open the door he screamed and pulled the trigger and the side of his head vomited brains onto one of the mirrors.
In the bathroom there came a second crack, stumbling upon the heels of the first, and another officer went to see what had made it. Someone trapped in a weighted net had opened the window to the fire escape and now stood frozen, as though if he didn't move he could not be seen. But the officer could see his teeth, gleaming and sharp. He could see his eyes, both of them like the moon with all its craters and suddenly brighter than the sun.
On the plane to Syracuse, Obama had two guards. One was named Stan Miller, a relatively new agent who had the tendency to pace out the things that unsettled him. The other was Drake Dean, maybe ten years older than Stan and with far more experience. He was nonetheless bouncing his leg with what appeared to be apprehension. It was making Obama nervous himself because Dean had already been to the little FBI facility in the Adirondacks with President Bush. Going to this remote area at least once was apparently a presidential duty, but it most certainly wasn't in the job description. Obama supposed that if it were it would seem absurd: the nation's best-kept secret is one man, and as President you must visit him.
Actually, to call James a man was inaccurate according to the file in Obama's lap. He was, as far as Obama could tell, not human at all. It was surreal to read the file and then, surprised by a research development or a quote or needing to rest his eyes, to look up and see the interior of a presidential plane. His life as leader would perhaps become normal after a few more months, and he could content himself with this. But then he would look down again and begin to read and after half a page be jarred into remembering that he was not perusing fiction. This thing was real, an alien for all intents and purposes, or a mutant. It was like stepping into a comic book. Area 51 conspiracy theorists were looking in the wrong place. And wouldn't Fox Mulder love to investigate someone who could make people kill themselves with just his eyes? Obama wouldn't have minded having him around just then.
He was able to reach the facility by car from Syracuse in about two hours. The area was beautiful, green and crisp and perfect for lying to the world, because officially he was meeting with some ecologists (not a total falsehoodhe would be the next day). The facility was built into the side of a mountain and slouched haphazardly over a white-water river. Mist from the water billowed up all around. It was a far cry and quite a step up from Rikers Island, where James had first been held following his capture. But of course someone so dangerous was not allowed outside to experience it.
The head researcher, Dr. Frederick Dawson, came out to meet them. He was wearing a lab-coat, jeans, and hiking boots. He must have been in his forties. He greeted them all with a firm handshake. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. President," he said. "And it's nice to see you again, Mr. Dean. We're all glad you came. Even James is excited to see you, Mr. President. He says you're a man of hope."
Obama raised his eyebrows. "Was he joking?"
Dawson shook his head. "James is very caustic when he jokes, so if he was, the sincerity was out of his character."
And it happened that Obama knew this, because everything about James's character was in his file. It was stunning how much information there was: blood content (no plasma); bone content (no calcium); muscular strength (he made Olympic lifters look pathetic); bite force (618 pounds); and psychological profile (more or less sociopathic). Really all that was missing was his life history, about which he was frustratingly mum. There was no evidence of him ever having existed outside of the file and its thirty-odd year span, but what was there created the complete image of a monster.
"Well, then, I'm honored," Obama said.
"Shall we?" Dawson asked, and he gestured up the rocky path leading to the main doors. "I trust you've read the file."
"Yeah. I'm a bit curious about one thing, though," Obama said. Dawson looked at him expectantly. "It mentions an FBI agent named Damascus Grant, who killed himself in 1982. Did he do it because of James even though it was so long after they met? Can James do that? Haunt a person for so long? All of Grant's transcripts seem to say so."
"Grant," Dawson said, sighing. "I don't know. He died before I was ever involved with this project. But I assume that the person who added his death to the file wanted to imply that it was James's fault."
"He called James an angel," Obama said. He looked up at the facility. They were drawing close and he could hear the sounds of productivity coming from inside. "Did you ever think of that?"
"James calls himself a wolf," Dawson said, and shrugged. "Don't know why. I mean, it's as good as anything. Neutral. Neutrality's important."
"Of course," Obama said.
"I'll give you the grand tour," Dawson said as they reached the doors. "James's humble, secret abode." There was, however, not much to show. The Adirondack Research Facility for Unexplained Phenomena, or ARFUP, was established in 1977 just within the boundaries of Adirondack Park. It was a tiny place that had been thrown together to study James when he came onto the scene in 1976. There was a chemistry lab and a medical room and a room with optometry equipment. There was a hallway, a janitor's closet, a kitchen, an exercise room, a lounge for the staff (of which there were twelve members), and an interrogation room with a recording booth behind a one-way mirror. Around a corner at the end of the hall, hanging over a precipice with supports clutching the rocks, was James's room.
The other inmates called him Voodoo. The ones in the cells across the hall from his were all afraid of him. He was scrawny compared to them, those Black Pearls and Young Sinners who cut each other during the day and shot each other at night. Of course they were not afraid of Voodoo's Mediterranean skin, which in the beginning they wanted to slice and scar. Deep, dark veins outlining his muscles were the only signals of any physical strength he might possess. But when he looked over at them from between the bars, no one had the courage to stand their ground. If they happened to be looking out and saw those pale moon eyes they would quickly turn away and some of them would even whimper as they did so. They told the officers they wanted to be moved. They told them that at night, the one across the hall melted into the shadows and disappeared, that in the morning the stench of death was so thick that it burrowed into their clothes like desperate mice.
The officers said, "No, you fuckers, that's just you. That's the smell of what you did."
Only one inmate was moved; after staring too long into Voodoo's cell he came down with a fever and started ramming his head against the walls. That was when the others started covering their eyes, as though their fingers could make a cage more protective than metal.
In the lounge, Dawson poured them thin coffee. "So the way this will work is pretty simple," he said. "Jack, my assistant, will have James taken into the interrogation room, and he'll set him up there. Then we'll get the all-clear and you and your boys can go in. You'll have to wear the glasses, of course." He opened a drawer and held up three pairs. Obama took one. Miller and Dean did so as well. Obama turned the glasses over in his hand and ran his fingers along the mirrored rims, along the solar-powered lights imbedded in the sides. He put them on and blinked a few times; then he laughed.
"This will take some getting used to," he said.
It was the light that bothered everyone the first few times. It cascaded through the edges of the lenses and created too much glare, too much of a reflection, so that most of what one saw was one's own eyes.
"You plan on coming here often, Mr. President?" Dawson asked hopefully. The only other president to come to see James more than once had been Bill Clinton, who did so because he found him "interesting and not frightening in the least." James did have his gentlemanly moments sometimes, but they only lasted so long, and his relationship with Clinton had ended disastrously for the administration. But Dawson knew that Obama would not take off his glasses; he had read the report, and security had been increased anyway. Perhaps something fruitful would come this time.
"It depends on how the interview goes," Obama said.
"Then let's hope it goes well," Dawson said, and raised his coffee mug.
"You must be Barack Obama," James said. "You're less gray in the pictures."
Obama smiled slightly. "And you look better down there?" Behind him, Dean and Miller laughed.
James snorted at them and looked down at himself. "I'd get up and shake your hand, but..." He tugged at the chains attached to the sleeves of the straitjacket holding him to the floor. He was sitting in a metal chair at the interrogation table.
"It's all right," Obama said, and sat down. "I'm happy to meet you anyway." He leaned forward to put his elbow on the table and his chin in his hand. He saw James's eyes through the reflection of his own, white ones lined with gray and shot with it, pupils as sharp as obsidian without the shine. But his nose and mouth were covered by a muzzle that had gills along the sides. It rendered him unreadable below the brow and cast him in the light of Hannibal Lecter.
James's eyebrows said he was smirking, so Obama said, "I've read your file. It's impressive. It's extensive. It says you're not human."
James threw his head back and laughed. The sound ripped through the room and every surface seemed to tremble and glow.
"What's so funny about that?" Obama asked. "What are you, huh? If you're human you should say so."
"You know you sound crazy, saying that," James said smugly.
Obama said nothing.
"No, I'm not human," James said. He rolled his eyes. "You people are idiots if you can't figure that out. I am a wolf."
Obama leaned back. "What exactly do you mean by that? Are you saying you're a werewolf?"
"No!" James snapped. "I said wolf. One syllable."
"You don't look like a wolf to me," Obama said.
James started laughing again. "Then clearly I'm wrong. Did you know that every president since Jimmy Carter has sat with me here? Asking me the same question. 'What are you, James?' So pointless in a country afraid to torture someone who bleeds black blood. I am a wolf." He shrugged. "That's all you need to know."
The FBI became involved because the inmate in the cell a kitty-corner from Voodoo's sharpened the end of his toothbrush. Back behind his bars, while an officer was passing, he tried to gouge out his own eyes. The officer managed to stop him before there was too much blood, but another would forever remember looking up from a floor below and seeing Voodoo in a shaft of light. The shadows slid beneath his cheekbones like shark teeth. His black hair was shadow. And even in the bright orange jumpsuit, he looked like a man as formless and deadly as toxic smoke. Suddenly that guard understood and ran to find the warden.
It was discovered that the volume of strange occurrences which had recently taken hold of Rikers, more violent and animalistic than they had ever been before, had all come from interaction with Voodoo. This was true even if what had transpired had just been a brief glance. The wife of an officer who had committed suicide said her husband had been raving about the man on the moon. Neil Armstrong, she had asked, and he had said no, no, the one who's got the moon in him. The one who pulls on blood like it's the ocean. The one who's a riptide all his own. Then she had said please don't please get down baby please. But he'd kicked the chair from underneath him and by the time she'd gotten a knife to cut him down it was too late. When she was telling the story to Damascus that was when she started to cry and he had no choice but to send her away. He had been called by the families of the inmates who had rammed their heads against the walls and tried to blind themselves. He was the one who, upon shaking Voodoo's cuffed hand, was only surprised at the intensity of his gaze. They sat down across from one another at an interrogation table and Voodoo's officer fled to the corner with his hand on his gun.
Damascus turned on his tape recorder and Voodoo smiled first at him and then at the one-way mirror. "April second, 1976," Damascus said. "Rikers Island, New York. Inmate number 13126, nicknamed Voodoo by the other inmates but apparently without a given name." He paused for a moment, then said somewhat awkwardly, "I'm Special Agent Damascus Grant, Voodoo. Do you have something that you prefer I call you by?"
"A 'given name,' perhaps, Damascus?" Voodoo said. He slouched forward and had a gruff voice much bigger than himself.
Damascus cleared his throat. "Sure," he said. "Why not?"
"You know my father lived in Syria for some time," Voodoo said. "In Damascus." He narrowed his eyes.
"And what was his name?" Damascus asked.
"Augustus," Voodoo said. "Augustus Steel Fermiano. But don't bother to look him up. You won't find him anywhere. Not him. Not me."
"And who are you, Mr. Fermiano?"
Voodoo spat out a laugh. "James Augustus Steel."
Damascus thought for a few moments and then said to the tape recorder, "It will be noted that prisoner number 13126 is named in a taxonomic style such as that found in parts of eastern Africa, although his name is distinctly Indo-European in etymology." To Voodoo, who was appraising him, "You immigrated here?"
He leaned back and sneered, "You could say that."
Damascus said, "That doesn't help me, Mr. Steel."
Voodoo leaned forward again. He tapped the table and bared his teeth. "Would you like to know a secret?" he said.
"Anything you tell me will not remain in confidence," Damascus said.
"Yes it will," Voodoo said.
Damascus Grant - Grant
James Steel - Steel
Sean McAvoy (warden) SM
Grant: Anything you tell me will not remain in confidence.
Steel: Yes it will.
(Pause. Grant grips the edge of the table.)
SM: Are you all right, Agent Grant?
Grant: (nodding) Fine. A dizzy spell is all.
Steel: (smiling) Careful. Did you eat today?
Grant: Yes, thank you. (releasing the table) Tell me, Mr. Steel...
Steel: Call me James.
Grant: James. How old are you?
Grant: (taking notes) Where were you born? (pause) James?
Steel: (angry) How should I know?
Grant: (putting out his hand) Easy. I didn't mean to offend. Do you know the first place you lived? (pause) James, this is a question you need to answer.
Steel: It wasn't Russia, if that's what you're afraid of. (pause) Rome, I remember.
Grant: Classy. Do you speak Italian?
Steel: Italian. And Arabic, too. But Rome's a shit-hole. Just like this place.
Steel: The world. And you people make it this way.
Grant: What do you mean? Who?
Steel: Does it matter? You don't see (strong emphasis on "see"). That's what light is for. That's what light...
(Grant grips the edge of the table again and stands up. He takes a few steps and stumbles.)
SM: (concerned) Agent Grant. Are you all right?
Grant: (cradling his head) I... I need to lie down.
19:31 April 2 1976
It was the first tape, the first transcription, in a file more than thirty years thick. Obama thought of it now.
"Damascus," he said.
James's eyes immediately sharpened. "Excuse me?"
"What about him?"
"I was hoping you could tell me."
James said nothing.
"Did he ever find out what you are?"
"I showed him himself," James said, "and he knew it."
"And is that what a wolf does?" Obama asked, leaning forward. "I've heard that the wolves are our brothers, that they are what humans should be. Is that the kind of wolf you are?"
James snarled and tried to stand. The chains snapped taut and then trembled with his rage. "I am not your brother!"
Obama stood up and allowed himself to tower. "Are you sure? You know, you have such tremendous power and such a cocky attitude. Why not just get out of here?"
James sat slowly down again.
"You told Dr. Dawson that you thought I am a man of hope. Why don't you explain that to me? Why don't you show me who I really am with those eyes of yours? Or am I to just take your word secondhand from a human?"
James snarled and strained again. "If you'd take those damned glasses off then I'd show you!" he shouted. "But what's there to show a soul as pure as yours anyway, brother?"
Damascus sat on the edge of the chair with his elbows on his knees and his hands tightly clasped. He kept dragging his fingers through his hair like his skull was itching, and he seemed unable to keep his gaze on one thing for more than a moment. He winced, as though ashamed, from eye contact with the psychologist, and yet he sought for it anyway, as though his shame might save him.
The psychologist had not used his knowledge in a doctor-patient setting for years, not since he had become a Special Agent himself, but he knew that what the Supervisory was asking from him went against the tenuous bond created in such settings. The Supervisory wanted the psychologist to make Damascus talk, and to make his talk specific. They gave him guiding questions based on what they had noticed in the two weeks since Damascus's assignment at Rikers. What happened to him, exactly? What did he see? What did he feel? They had to explain to the psychologist the context so he wouldn't be surprised by answers to questions that seemed so generic.
When they called him in and he sat down in front of the Supervisory's desk, one of the Supervisory's men closed the door. The psychologist was shown the mugshots of a man who was labeled as James Augustus Steel. Steel had shaggy black hair and tan skin. He smiled haughtily for the camera, but the smile did not reach his eyes, which reminded the psychologist of flash bulbs.
"This is the individual we took from Rikers two weeks ago," said the Supervisory. "He claims to be named James Augustus Steel, and he claims that his father's name is or was Augustus Steel Fermiano. As Special Agent Damascus Grant noted in what report he was able to give, this is a non-traditional taxonomic structure. Now, it hasn't been very long and we're still searching, but so far we've found no records for either father or son having ever existed in the United States. We're going to send out a request to Rome for help tomorrow, since Steel claims to have lived there as a child."
"And what does this have to do with me?" the psychologist asked, because at that moment he was still a Special Agent and a Special Agent only.
"Steel did something to Grant," said the Supervisory. "We'd like to know what, but neither will talk." He took the mugshots and put them in a manila folder that already had some papers in it. He handed the folder to the psychologist. "You're the most qualified person to deal with this and keep it secret. Get Grant to talk, write down what he says, give us your interpretations."
The psychologist tried to protest, tried to explain that it wasn't that simple, that he could not treat a patient as though he were being subjected to an interrogation. But the Supervisory merely pointed at the folder and said, "You can, and you will."
So there he was. There they were.
Damascus looked up at him and rubbed his hands together. "So," he said. "What exactly do they want me to tell you? Something about James?"
Damascus smiled but didn't offer anything.
"They want me to force you," the psychologist said, "but I won't."
"No one's been forcing me," Damascus said. "I just don't want to." He squinted at the overhead light. "I don't."
The psychologist gestured to the standing lamp. "I can turn that on instead, if you like."
"I'd appreciate that," said Damascus, and when the lighting was dimmer he sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Thank you," he said.
"Not a problem," said the psychologist. He held up his notepad. "Do you mind if I ask you some questions? You don't have to answer them if you don't want to."
"Why don't you want to talk?"
"Ha," Damascus said, then let the silence bleed. After about a minute he scratched the back of his neck and said hesitantly, "I mean, I originally went to Rikers to see what was going on with those inmates. The ones who kept freaking out. I don't want people to think I'm like them. Freaking out."
"But you're not."
Damascus glanced at him and then away.
"You think you're freaking out?"
He shook his head.
"Okay," the psychologist said. "In your professional opinion, Agent Grant, what happened at Rikers?"
Damascus shrugged. "He freaks people out. It's understandable."
Damascus looked at him like he was insane. "Have you seen his eyes? I mean, have you really seen his eyes?"
"What about them? Are they the things that scare people?"
Damascus brought his hand to his mouth and began to chew on the knuckle of his thumb. "They," he started, then went back to chewing. "They show you things."
"What kinds of things?"
"Things about you. From your life. Things he can't know. Things he doesn't know, and I don't even think he cares whether or not he knows. He just... yanks them out of you and then leaves you with them. Puts them on the table like a body you have to identify."
"What, you mean like a mind reader?"
Damascus laughed. "This sounds really shitty," he said, "but I've been thinking that James is an angel. Some kind of fucking angel."
James was shouting. Dawson had never heard him shout before, and in a brief moment of terror he thought the mirror would break. James's voice vibrated through his bones and made his teeth chatter. It was the sound of a wolf snarling, and it proved more than anything else that James was not a man.
Obama took a step back. Behind him Dean and Miller drew their guns and had them trained on James before he had finished a few words. There was a moment during which no one moved, and then, silently, Dawson set the amount of anesthetic gas James's muzzle would release. There was a click on the scientists' side of the mirror and a low-toned beep. James gave a little start and looked down his nose as the gills slid shut. Dawson recognized panic as it began to set in and thought the hyperventilation would serve to spread the anesthetic as quickly as possible.
Suddenly James turned to the mirror and tried to leap towards it. The chains held him and wrenched at his shoulders, but the straitjacket tore at the neck and before he fell his chair toppled. He glared up at the mirror and let out a strangled noise as though he were in pain. Dawson was almost tempted to take off his glasses, just to understand. But James's eyelids were flickering, and then they closed and he relaxed. Even the chains sighed.
"You can put your guns down," Dawson said into the microphone. Dean glanced at him and Dawson saw the fear in his face. "Really," he continued. "He won't get up." But only when Obama held up his hand and straightened his tie did his guards back down.
"You can leave the room now if you like, Mr. President," Dawson said. Obama still had his fingers at his throat. He stared at James for a few seconds and then nodded quickly.
"Would you like some more coffee, Mr. President?" Dawson asked when they were in the lounge and James had been taken back to his room.
Obama shook his head. "No, I think I'm done." He sounded angry and he held himself stiffly.
"What did you think?" Dawson asked. "Will you be coming back?"
Obama said slowly, "If he were a dog I'd tell you to put him out of his misery. It isn't right to keep him here like this."
"So tell us what to do with him," Dawson said. "A decent amount of money goes into this every year."
Obama scratched his chin. "I don't know," he said. "I'd like to talk with him again."
"Okay," Dawson said. "We can do that."
"And I want your people to look into wolves."
Obama went to look out the window. The sun had burnt away much of the mist that had been climbing the mountainside. "He's using them as a symbol. Something cultural, maybe. He's trying to tell us something about himself by saying he's a wolf, he's a wolf. What's the symbol of a wolf? I want you to look into that."
"Of course, sir," Dawson said. "We can do that, too."
James opens his eyes and is met first with darkness, then with the blue light of a piece of the moon. He gets his hands beneath him and presses himself up. He feels the chain around his neck and the handcuffs around his wrists and nearly roars. He slams his back against the padding on the wall and feels himself sink. From there he sees a tall wolf standing across the room, spindly like a spider. The wolf has eyes like thunderheads and black fur streaked with gray.
"For a while there I thought you'd finally lost it," the wolf says.
"Don't you have work to do, Sköll?" James asks, narrowing his eyes.
"Tonight my work is here," Sköll says, and licks his lips.
James knows that he should feel relief, happiness even. But instead he fills again with rage. "Thirty years you let me rot here!" he shouts.
Sköll grins. "For a purpose," he says. "We had to wait. And what are they going to do when I release you? Tell the world they knew about you all along? Everyone will be so happy. Ha! You'll always be a secret. But it was only a few days ago that we found the girl anyway."
"Then get me out of here," James says. "It's time she learned about us."
"That's the problem," Sköll says. "Another wolf has already found her. A wolf of day. It was an accident, but it works too well in the Lord of Day's favor. And it was how we learned about the girl in the first place."
"Shit," James says. "So what do we do?" It's difficult to muster up the correct emotions. It seems remote after so much time, all this business of protecting the integrity of souls.
"I have it taken care of. That wolf will be coming to you. You deal with him and then go after the girl. But for now you stay here."
James says nothing. He does not trust himself to speak.
"Don't worry," Sköll says. "Soon it will be time for the impure to die. And in that drama you will play a large part. Just a few more months. In the meantime, enjoy yourself talking to this new president. He seems quite smart, and much less threatening than the last one." He grins again and disappears.
For a while James sits in the dark and wonders what he will do with freedom. He has, after all, spent more than half his life in chains. He thinks, and then decides, that the first thing he will do is kill the researchers and destroy their labs.