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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

What Darkness Lurks

Rani landed on the pavement with a jarring thud and spent the next minute or two trying to get her breath back, stop shaking, and not kick her own ass for losing it in front of her friends and that goddamned kid. “I hate this fucking job,” she wheezed rhetorically, pressing the heels of her hands into her stinging eyes. Rani was a tough cookie and more than a little jaded, but every once in a while there was still something that kicked the legs out from under her. She guessed there probably always would be.

“I was wondering why you did it,” commented a child’s voice. Rani sat up in a hurry. “Touching victims, I mean; touching alien monsters, abused children, crime scenes... touching criminals.” He was sitting on top of a gray dumpster, his short legs free-swinging. “Almost like you’re looking for something. Are you trying to reassure yourself there’s worse things out there than the things you’ve been through, Rani, or is it something more than that? Are you trying to recapture some long-ago moment of pure terror, back before we stopped expecting anything better from these streets?”

“Johnny?” she said.

“Don’t sound so surprised. I’m not just another St. Augustine wannabe, you know.” He hopped down from the dumpster. “I got game.”

“But what are you--” Rani shook her head. “What do you want from me?” she asked, more sharply.

“Be a little more paranoid, Rani?” John Tucson rolled his brown eyes. “I’m an impression of a nine-year-old left behind in the Hotel. I don’t have an agenda. I’m an actor in your play, just like everyone else around here. Once you return to the mortal world, that’s all you’ll be here too.”

“Damn me, but I wish Marty Hu was here to make one of his moronic thespian jokes,” Rani muttered. “Look, Johnny, or whatever you really are-- I may be mortal, but I’m not an idiot. I’ve got my share of issues, but I’ve seen what it looks like in here when some of those take shape, and you ain’t it. So I don’t know whether it’s you who wants something out of me, or me, or some fairy in lalaland, but somebody wants something out of me, or you wouldn’t be here.”

“You’re pretty smart for a girl.” Johnny grinned his shit-eating grin.

“So spill it, pudge.”

“Want to know something we don’t tell most people who come through here? You all, every single one of you, already know in your hearts what’s going on. The whole “what, huh, I don’t understand, what is this place?” routine is one big defense mechanism. Even the wisest people who ever walked Ataniel play dumb in here. It’s like they think if they act like they don’t know what we’re talking about, maybe they can pretend the conflicts in their heart weren’t there before we started playing our silly fairy games, or at least didn’t matter to them much.” The boy looked at her intently. “Whattaya think, Rani, you wanna break the mold?”

“What,” she said, “tell you the conflicts in my heart?”

“Just the most important one.”

“Ends and means,” said Rani. “I work my ass off to do things that Vickie Fucking Dare can do better in her sleep. I’ve been thinking about going to the dark side and using some very ugly methods to make a real difference. Still torn.”

“Wow,” said Tucson, impressed. “Smart and honest.”

“You going to ask me to marry you now, Johnny?”

“No,” he said. “To kill me.”

Her jaw fell open of its own accord. “I... what?”

“It’s okay,” he said kindly. “You got further than most souls do before doing that.”

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