Episode One: So Marks the End – Part Three

A Vicious Turn

The day dawned grey and soaking.  The streets shimmered silver as car tires sloshed through puddles.  Rain pattered on the colourful umbrellas bobbing up the roadside.  Marius rubbed at his chest and stepped away from the hotel window.  The curtains swayed behind him, blocking the dismal day from view.

Ronan’s phone call woke him earlier than he wanted.  Marius took his time in getting ready.  The heat of the shower worked miracles in relaxing the stress from the muscles across his back and shoulders.  Meanwhile, the mini coffee maker managed to sputter out his guarantee for heartburn into a waiting plastic cup.  Marius drank the coffee without sugar, cream, or complaint.  The bitterness provided the perfect start to a day that promised to be anything but good.

A familiar black car pulled up to the curb just as Marius reached the bottom of the stairs.  He drew in a steadying breath and pulled the car door open.  Ronan’s warm smile greeted Marius as he settled himself in the car.

“Good morning,” Ronan said.  “Did you manage to get any sleep?”

“Yeah, eventually did.”  Marius didn’t bother to return the greeting.  He didn’t share the sentiment.  “You taking me home?”

“If that is what you want,” Ronan said.  The car pulled out into the flow of cars streaming along the street.  “I will not force you to see anything you rather not.”

The memory of emergency lights and sirens surfaced swiftly in his mind.  Last night’s discovery haunted him.  The still face of his wife as he held her hand in the ambulance was an image he could never forget.  The emergency attendant told him not to move the towels and blankets from her.  Experience in similar situations made sure he listened.  His years as an intelligence agent never prepared him to deal with this situation on such a personal level.  Sharalyn was dead and Issy was missing.

Being left devoid of the people he loved wasn’t the greeting he expected on arriving home.  He expected his wife’s warm smile and arms flung tight around him. He expected excited kisses from his little girl and her happy chatter about all the things he missed.

Marius sniffed once, rubbing his nose briefly against his sleeve. “I need to see.”

Conversation lagged between them.  Marius did nothing to fix the situation, his gaze locked on the rain beyond the car window.  Ronan didn’t interrupt the silence until they were on the highway.

“Do you have any other family in the area?”

Marius blinked at the question, turning his head to peer at Ronan a long moment.  “Yeah, I do,” Marius said.  “My sister lives downtown.”

“Think she will let you stay with her?”  Ronan asked.

“Probably.”  Marius’ eyes narrowed with suspicion.  “Why?”

Ronan started with a shrug.  “A couple of reasons.”  The car swayed to the right as Ronan guided them around the long curve of the highway exit nearest Marius’ house.  “First one being that you are grieving.  Having the company of someone that cares about you nearby may prove beneficial.”

Marius nodded.  “And the next reason?”

“It may be a while before you can have your house back,” Ronan said.

The car moved through the streets of the quiet Burnaby neighborhood Marius lived in.  Rows of pruned yards and high fences marked one home from the next.  The area was older and bordered by a forested park.  The houses all appeared different unlike the newer developments.

Marius sighed.  His gaze strayed to the left as they passed the grey stucco and painted wood of Mr. Harris’ house.  A light glowed in the wide living room window facing the street.  Marius’ house was the corner lot.  Parked along the gravel shoulder in front of his house were two black work vans.  A person wearing a hazard suit came out of his front door to collect a container from one of the vehicles.

Marius turned an alarmed look on Ronan.  “You been here today?”

“I have.”  Ronan guided the car into the single parking spot on the driveway his earlier departure had left open for him now.  He turned off the car and pocketed the keys.  “I barely slept at all.”

“What the hell did you find?  Why are those people wearing hazard suits?  In my house?”  Marius’ voice deepened with the flurry of questions.

Ronan reached around to snag the umbrella off the back seat.  “Interesting things.  The ink continued to move as we-”

“The ink?”  Marius shoved the door open.  “That strange shit you were telling me about last night?”

Ronan nodded, easing his door open.  “Yes, the shit, as you say.”  He grinned as if enjoying the opportunity to curse.

They emerged into the rain, car doors thumping shut in unison.  Marius clenched his hands at his sides, that heat of anger rising up the back of his neck.  Ronan kept delaying.  The lack of information was driving him crazy.  Marius rounded on Ronan as the man came to stand next to him, the umbrella in his hand like a makeshift cane.  Marius’ heated comments stalled on his tongue as he forgot his frustration in favour of staring at Ronan.

The rain pounded moisture into coats and slacks, soaking Marius’ tied back box braids.  Ronan smiled warmly, gesturing them forward up the walkway before starting that way himself.  Marius’ head canted to one side, observing how the raindrops slithered along Ronan’s hair.  The poker straight strands didn’t absorb the rain at all.  The droplets slid smoothly down the length of his sable hair to where it disappeared beneath the collar of the trench coat Ronan wore.  The fabric of the coat absorbed the water.  Marius stowed away the peculiarity and followed Ronan up the front walk.

“Try not to touch anything.”  Ronan let them into the house, pausing to wipe his feet on the door mat.

Marius grumbled his acknowledgement.  He hesitated on the front porch, needing to take in a steadying breath before forcing himself to step over the threshold. The hallway rug sat rolled up in the corner near the door leaving the hardwood floor exposed to the tromp of shoes and boots.  Ronan hung the umbrella on a coat hook, then led the way down the hall.

Marius’ pace slowed a few feet down the hallway, his eyes widening on the sight of the marks carved into the plaster of the wall.  The gouges spread further than any paw could manage.  The marks tugged on the analytical part of his mind.  They gave him an excuse to push back his emotions and observe as he might any other crime scene.  Marius lifted his hand to gauge the sprawl of his fingers at their widest in comparison to the gouges.

“Almost human,” Ronan said.  He returned to stand at Marius’ side.  “But what man has talons for fingers?  They’d have to be as sharp as an eagle, possibly hooked like that as well.”

Marius whistled low, easing forwards a pace to reach up towards one of the claw marks.  Ronan caught his wrist a moment before the pad of his finger might have touched the wall.

“I said do not touch.”  Ronan cast him a sidelong look. The expression reminded Marius of the scolding looks his mother used to give him as a child.  Ronan let him go. Marius retracted his hand.

“What about this ink?”  Marius asked.

“The ink moved, as we suspected it might.  Large puddles had gathered at the windows and doors overnight.  Some of the liquid painted entire walls in shifting black fluid,” Ronan said.  “Since then, it continues to move.  This ink is attracted to people.”

Marius arched a curious eyebrow.  His gaze swept over the floor and walls around them.  “And the shit’s dangerous?”  The pair continued down the hall into the kitchen.  “Why?”

“Yes, the advisement is to not come into direct contact with the ink.  A member of our hazardous material team found that out for us,” Ronan said.  “The substance spreads, Marius, over anything it touches.  It nearly drowned her right there in the hallway.  The team managed to corner the majority of the ink in the living room for the time being.”

The explanation turned his stomach.  Marius frowned and busied himself with peering around the kitchen.  An unrecognizable gloom hung in the room.  The cream walls less sunlit and the terra cotta tiles duller than Marius remembered.  An unwashed cereal bowl with a small spoon sat on the kitchen counter next to the sink.  Marius exhaled upon seeing it.  A pained expression gripped his features as thoughts of his daughter crept to mind.

“The woman alright?”  Marius rubbed at his chest, dragging his eyes from the abandoned bowl towards Ronan.

“She is alive,” Ronan said.  “Come upstairs.  You can collect some belongings you may want to have.  The house will be off limits for a couple of months.”

“Couple of months?”  Marius asked.  The ache in his chest gurgled and burned.

“Yes, seems most likely,” Ronan said.  Marius followed him up the narrow back stairs toward the second floor. A shadow crept along the ceiling overhead, pooling in the crack near the wall.  “I have no idea really how long it will take to not just study the ink, but clean it up as well.  Do you get along with your sister?”

Marius nodded, “Yeah, she’s like an old shoe that occasionally gives you a blister.”

“Sir? We’re ready to move the sample.”  A woman’s voice called after them.

“Wait.”  Marius halted on the stairs to level Ronan with a hard look.  “What sample? You’re able to take samples of this shit, Ronan?  Is that even safe?”

“Oh yes, excellent, thank you.”  Ronan said, loud enough for the woman to hear.  “I’ll be right there.” Ronan turned a bright smile on Marius, then continued up the steps, his voice returning to a casual volume. “Yes, we did.  We used all the proper precautions when handling potentially harmful substances, Marius. I suggest you wait upstairs while I deal with that.  Collect your things and whatnot.”

“Like hell.  I’m no wallflower.”

Ronan paused at the top of the stairs to eye Marius over a shoulder.  “Yes, I did not take us to be at party or that you are the least bit shy.  Quite the opposite, in fact.”  Marius was treated to another of Ronan’s fabulous smiles.  His hands balled into fists at his side. Marius had little choice but to follow Ronan down the hall.

And down the mouse ran.” A stray whisper of air brushed against Marius’ cheek. The shadows scattered across the ceiling, skittering for the room that Ronan opened the door to.

A stuffed rabbit laid on the hall floor not far from the doorway.  Marius’ gaze locked onto the toy, lingering there until he had little choice but to look away on stepping into his bedroom.  Ronan remained just inside the entrance, letting Marius have his space.

Marius swallowed hard.  A sensation he had never experienced before crept up his spine as if a million spidery fingers plucked at fragile strings, uprooting them and coating them in misery.  In but a breath, the poorly woven web Marius had balled his emotions into came undone.

“Think I’m going to sit this one out after all, Ronan.” Marius’ voice cracked mid sentence.

“Of course, Marius.  I will come check if you are ready once the sample is secure.”  Ronan started to say something more, then thought better of it.  Closing the door, he left Marius alone.

Their bedroom smelled of her.  The floral scent clung readily to everything; their bed, her scarves hung along the side of the vanity, his housecoat on the back of the door.  The guys at work often ribbed him for arriving smelling like his wife.  Marius’ answer had always been a satisfied smile.

And now he was a stranger.  A stranger in the place he had longed to be every night he spent abroad.  His hand swept across the surface of the vanity, sending the various boxes and bottles crashing to the floor.  Guilt swiftly overwhelmed the hot spike of anger.  Marius crouched to collect his wife’s jewelry box from the floor.  He tucked the few items she kept in the box back inside and set it on the vanity in its proper place.

A discarded segment of wood near the dresser caught Marius’ eye.  His shoes crunched against broken glass as he moved over to pick up part of a picture frame.  He recognized the paint on the wood.  The searching look he sent to the top of the dresser confirmed he held the remnants of the family picture they had taken when they moved into the house two years ago.

Anger surged in him again. There was no sensible reason for the picture to have been stolen.  Marius flung the broken frame away.  The wood clattered against the window sill.  The noise was satisfying until he made the mistake of looking that way.

Champagne carpet held colors.  Black marked the window frame and a rust brown stained the floor, splattered from the base of the wall beneath the window out over the carpet.  Marius’ face crumpled, a ragged sob hitching in his throat as he sank to his knees in the middle of the room.  As he lowered his head to meet the rise of his hands, Marius thought he heard someone whisper, “The night will swallow you.”

“I’m sorry, Sharrie.” Marius wept openly against the press of his palms against his face.  His voice cracked on the words, reducing him to a broken whisper.  “I’m so sorry.”

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