The Host: Chapter 1

“Ow fuck!”

Owen yanked his bloody finger back from the piece of paper that had wounded it and stuck it in his mouth.

“Buddy, are you still there?” Wendell’s voice, on speakerphone, sounded tinny concern from the cell phone on the desk.

“Yeah I’m here,” Owen replied, “just cut myself on this stupid fucking credit card receipt. You do know how to use a scanner and email, right? This is part of some sadistic plot of yours to slice me slowly to death while simultaneously ridding the world of trees one leaf at a time, right?”

“I’m hearing a bit too much whining and not enough gratitude coming my way, mate. You realize what you’re looking at, yeah? That’s your holy grail right there.” Wendell’s disembodied Britishness sounded more amused than hurt. “Besides, you know you can’t trust email anymore, the Bunnies monitor everything now.”

Owen snickered a little, AcolytesèBible ThumpersèThumper the RabbitèBunnies for Christ. It was funny in that “Oh god, Oh god, if they ever hear that, we’re dead”, kind of way.

“Okay, so I’m looking at a receipt for what looks like two or three weeks at one of Ottawa’s more colourful motels. Dated”, Owen squinted at the small slip of paper, which sat there smugly, clearly gloating at the throbbing in his finger, “shit, this is from 4 days ago!”

“Right you are, sir,” Wendell replied. “She’s probably still there.”

Owen flipped through a couple of pages under the receipt until he came upon a bundle of photos and examined them under the weak light of his desk lamp. He stopped on one depicting a woman’s limp frame being carried through a motel room door by two dark suited men, her feet dragging on the ground behind her, head slumped forward away from the camera.

“None of these give us a face shot. How sure is he that it’s Clarissa?” he asked.

“Dimitri says he’s sure,” Wendell said, impatiently, “for chrissake Owen, it’s her. Dimitri has sat across a dinner table from her countless times. For that matter, so have I. Now are you going to move on this or do you want to spend another two years chasing cheaters and deadbeats, ‘cause that’s not exactly a growth industry anymore. We could all use the reward money from this bitch’s bat of a mother. Also,” Wendell’s tone softened a bit, “I’m sure Felix would like to finally know that her mother is alright.”

“She’s better off without her.” Owen replied, “But you’re right, it would be nice to make this payday. Go buy a cottage somewhere they haven’t heard of Acolytes or the Host.”

“From your lips to God’s ears, mate. Now go back to the receipt, you recognize the name on the card?”

“Gerald Turner” Owen wrinkled his forehead as he thought, names and faces flitting through his head like a million elusive fireflies. “Can’t say it rings any bells. Who is he?”

“Used to be Gary Turner” Wendell replied, “aide to an aide to a secretary of Mayor Tirell? Changed his name and went private sector after that thing with…”

“Shit, yeah” Owen sat quickly upright and opened a webpage on his computer. “He was the one accused of paying off the union boss in that transit fuck up in ’02. Fancy that, Tirell’s old dirty tricks boy shacking up in a hotel with his “disappeared” wife. That’s gonna suck when it gets out. Do we know who the goons are?”

“Looks like just a couple of rent-a-thugs. Dimitri didn’t get any hits on them, but he says one of our pious yet shadowy friends was supervising the whole move.”

Owen sighed and rubbed his right knee. “Don’t you miss the days when Church and State at least pretended to be separate? At least then the halos on the clergy didn’t seem so scuffed.”

“Except for the Catholics, they were always dodgy” Wendell laughed.

“Amen brother. All right, I’ll tie up some loose ends here tonight and get on a plane to Ottawa tomorrow. Can you let Dimitri know that I’ll be in town? I’d like him there to pad the numbers a little.”

“Wish I could, mate. I haven’t heard from that red bastard since I paid him for that package on your desk two days ago. My guess is he’s been busy putting table dancers through school. But I’ll give you a call as soon as I hear from him.”

“Alright then,” Owen replied, “you can reach me on this number for another two days and then I’ll pass you the new one through the usual channels. Thanks for the help, as always. Check’s in the mail.”

“Cheers, Owen. Let’s wrap this up then, yeah? I’d like to be setting a disgustingly large drink down on stupendously large bag of money at the end of the week.”

“You and me both, Wen. Take care of yourself.” Owen hung up the phone and sat back in his chair.

Wendell was of course right, on more than one count. If Dimitri was saying he’d found Clarissa, the odds were pretty good it was actually her. In the six months they’d all been looking this was the first time that her name had actually appeared on one of the bi-weekly packages to arrive at Owen’s door. It was also well past time to retire. Private investigation, once a seedy let lucrative profession, had ceased to hold any appeal once more than half of all surveillance cases ended with a dead body instead of a lurid snapshot. It wasn’t the same world anymore.

Owen took a look at his evidence board, at the top a photo of Clarissa from the days before she’d gone out to “buy cigarettes”, her green eyes mischievously peering out from behind fire red bangs. Not for the first time Owen reflected that the shot, taken in front of Major’s Hill Park during the opening day of Tulip Festival, made her look a little like a prettier version of Cousin It. In a flower print dress. He had always teased her about her hair, saying that between her fiery locks, her spattering of bright red freckles, and her fondness for rose printed summer dresses, she looked like nothing so much as a walking tomato. Thankfully Felicity had inherited his blonder, less vegetative appearance, a blessing in retrospect as it gave Owen more certainty that she was, in fact, his daughter.

Under the photo was a hodge podge of newspaper clippings, starting with Clare’s marriage to Ottawa’s Mayor Tirell, less than six months after she’d left him without so much as a Dear John letter, and ending with the news of her disappearing from a City Hall dinner, never to be seen again. After that the news had gotten scarce, sightings of her represented on a world map with red push pins sticking out of locations on four continents.

Owen picked up the credit card receipt and new photos from his desk, and pulled himself to his feet, wincing at the pain in his right knee. He limped over to the board and pinned the new evidence to it feeling, despite the loss of all love and empathy for Clarissa, a twinge of sadness at the contrast between the smiling picture at the top of the board with the shot of the limp body being dragged through a seedy motel door.

Sighing, he bent back over his computer and opened up a new email to his current client, Antonia Jackson.

To: ajackson@rogers.ca

CC:

CCC:

Subject: Out of town

Sorry Ms. Jackson, I’ve been called out of town on old business for the next few days. Please suspend any payments for your husband’s case until you hear back from me. On the plus side, my associates and I are starting to feel that his behaviour hasn’t gone any farther than just the emails and online chats you sent us. He has thus far refused to meet either myself or Wendell for any “consummation” of these dalliances and we think that this is just fantasy indulgement on his part. While I will look further into your situation when I get back, I would suggest having a conversation with him, as this behaviour can’t exactly be called harmless anymore.

If you have any questions before I return, please contact Wendell as he will be touching base with me occasionally over the next few days.

Yours,

Owen Baker

Owen sent the email and then shut down his computer, catching a glimpse of his reflection in the window over his desk as he did so. He looked haggard, worry lines wrinkling skin that, at age thirty four, looked almost a decade older. It may have been a trick of the glare from his desk lamp washing over the glass but Owen also thought he looked balder than he had a couple of months earlier, his once full head of dirty blond hair seeming thinner and hugging his skull in a receding widow’s peak.

Sighing, Owen limped over to the office door and checked his watch.

“Shit.” he said, noting that it was already 11:15.

He had wanted to check in on Felicity before it got too late and had lost track of the time talking to Wendell. He thought about waiting until the morning but decided he’d be too rushed packing so he started down the hall to her room.

Opening Felicity’s door a crack, Owen peered in to watch his daughter sleep for a moment, then walked in. He moved her oversized Pooh bear away from her head, and thought, not for the first time, that thirteen was a little too old to have a room positively packed with stuffed animals. Sitting on the edge of her bed, he gently nudged her shoulder with this hand.

“Felix,” he whispered. “Felix honey, I need you to wake up for a second.”

“Dad”, Felicity propped herself up on her elbows and rubbed her eyes, “what time is it? Is something wrong?”

“Nah kiddo,” Owen said, “everything’s okay. I just wanted to let you know that I’ll be going out of town for a few days.”

“Is it mom?” Felicity was wide awake now, her slightly elfin features wrinkling under a pageboy mop of blond hair.

“It might be, your uncle Wendell thinks they got a lead on her back in Ottawa.”

Felicity sank back into her pillows.

“Well,” she said, “make sure you buy me something pretty.”

Owen smiled. “It’s not your birthday, you know” he said.

Felicity stared up at him, all seriousness, “You’re going on a trip. When you go on a trip, I get a present. Those are the rules.” She closed her eyes and extended her arms up for a hug. “Be safe.”

Owen leaned down and hugged her tight.

“Tell you what, I get home and Jenny tells me you didn’t cause her any trouble, I’ll not only give you a present, I’ll take you to diner at the keg.”

“Deal” she said, “now go away and let me sleep.”

Owen kissed his daughter on the forehead and backed out of the room, shutting the door behind him, the not so princess like sound of her snoring following him down the hall.

Owen quickly popped back into his office and scribbled a note to his daughter’s nanny and then went downstairs to pin it on the basement door.

********

Given that the flight to Ottawa was only forty five minutes, Owen didn’t get a chance to catch up on the sleep he’d lost the night before, his slumber plagued by memories both good and bad of his years with Clarissa. Instead, he tried to entertain himself with the lives of celebrities he didn’t recognize as depicted by the in flight television programming. Fighting to maintain interest in the recently much subdued antics of a certain blonde heiress, he briefly enjoyed the irony of actually missing the days of the cocaine and alcohol fuelled hijinx of the Hollywood elite.

As the plane descended and Owen’s ears popped with the drop in cabin pressure, he clutched his steel bound oak cane in one hand and his carry on bag in the other, preparing, as always, to quickly disembark the plane with as little time as possible spent shuffling claustrophobically through a throng of disoriented and disorganized passengers. He relaxed a little as he took a good look around the cabin and realized that, except for the fat couple two rows over and a gaggle of high school students near the front, coach seating for the 9:15 am flight to Ottawa was almost entirely devoid of passengers.

Twenty minutes later, while waiting for his luggage to appear on the airport’s conveyor belt, Owen noticed the marked similarity between the populations of the plane itself and the airport. Ottawa International was apparently not a destination hotspot midweek as less than fifty people milled around luggage pickup, a good third of them security. Owen grabbed his bag before it swung completely around the belt, denying it the opportunity to disappear forever and started to limp towards the exit when his weekday commuter complacency was shattered by sight of sudden commotion breaking out amongst the security detail. Ignoring the instinct to mind his own business and quickly vacate the suddenly busy premises, Owen slowly made his way towards the duty free section where the security team and most of his fellow travellers were now gathered, from about twenty feet away he started to hear a panicked voice pleading and comprehension sank in. He knew what he was about to see and it dismayed him to know that no one would intervene.

”Please,” it was a woman’s voice, young, “I didn’t do anything wrong. Why are you doing this?”

Owen couldn’t see the owner of the frightened voice but he could make out the source of her fear, standing a full head taller than anyone else gathered around the girl, the Acolyte was an imposing figure even from the back. When he spoke from within his hood his voice carried effortlessly to where Owen was standing, so well in fact that Owen was convinced that he would have heard it from anywhere in the airport.

“There are six hundred and thirteen Laws.” His voice sounded like blocks of granite scraping together, raspy and harsh. “That you have ignored them is not of concern to the Host. That you have involved another in your lawlessness is.”

The security guards formed a ring around the Acolyte and his prey, obscuring Owen’s line of sight to the girl on the ground, but he caught a brief glimpse of dark brown hair and a tear stained face from between the legs of one of the guards.

“Please,” she said again, this time so quiet that Owen had to strain to hear her. “I don’t know what I’ve done. Please, just tell me what I’ve done wrong and I won’t do it again. Please I just….” her voice trailed off and Owen could hear her starting to whimper.

“Six hundred and thirteen laws were given unto man,” the Acolyte’s voice betrayed no emotion as he issued his judgement, “Sandra Jennifer Danforth, you have violated the thirty eighth. You have consulted a medium for guidance. That you did this alone would not have brought our wrath. You are free for now to believe in the word of the Host or not as you see fit. It is the fact that you enticed Jerome William Danforth, your brother and to our knowledge a virtuous man, to join you that has earned you your death.”

With that proclamation the Acolyte bent over the whimpering girl and Owen heard nothing but his muttering. Most of the civilians around the girl began to look away in discomfort, some covering the eyes of their children, but none moved for fear of drawing the eyes of judgement towards themselves. A few though, Owen noticed, a few stared at the sight in front of them with a zealous sheen in their eyes, hands either clasped in prayer or clutching the crucifixes that hung from their necks as they looked on at the fruits of their faith realized in the flesh. Owen thought for a moment of the laugh he and Wendell had shared the night before at the expense of the “bunnies” and felt sick as he realized again that the only ones laughing were those they’d mocked.

Even from his position a few yards away, Owen heard the Acolyte’s knife puncture the girl’s flesh. Someone in the throng let out a moan but the man never stopped his business, Owen could see his arm moving back and forth as he sawed into Sandra’s now lifeless body and he watched from a distance as several people backed away from the scene to avoid getting blood on their shoes.

After what seemed like hours but in reality amounted to less than a minute, the Acolyte stood and sheathed his blade within the depths of his black and blood stained cloak. He rolled up his sleeves and slowly uncurled what looked like scraps of thick parchment from his arms and hands letting them fall to the floor like a snake shedding a dead skin. Then in silence, he bent back over the dead girl and picked up the fruits of his labour, two long strips of wet, bloody skin that had once covered the flesh of her arms. With the precision of a boxer wrapping his hands before a fight, the Acolyte proceeded to fasten first one strip of skin to his left arm then the other to his right, pausing to fasten each one to his own flesh with large safety pins. It wouldn’t dawn on Owen until later that evening while trying to sleep, that the Acolyte hadn’t shown any indication of pain or discomfort while piecing his own skin.

“Go forth and sin no more.” The Acolyte’s voice boomed and echoed off the walls of the airport and then he turned and pushed his way out through the crowd of onlookers.

It took Owen a moment to realize that the man he’d just seen commit state sanctioned murder was striding purposefully in his direction, and, as he quickly tried to shuffle out of the Acolyte’s way, his right hand finally gave out in a sweaty mess and he dropped his cane. As he twisted to catch it, Owen’s knee collapsed under his weight and he fell to the ground, the muffled thud of his flesh obscured by the clanging sound of his cane hitting the floor, the echo of steel on tile reverberating through the hall.

As Owen pulled himself to his feet he looked up to see the Acolyte staring down at him. Owen tried to make out a face under the black hood but it seemed completely lost in shadows, not even the morning sun shining through the airport’s windows giving view to anything resembling human features. They stayed like that a moment, Owen prostate before a man who could kill him on a whim and then the Acolyte quickly moved on, the bottom of his cloak swirling behind him to smack Owen in the face, coating his cheek with the fresh blood of a girl executed for consulting a psychic with her brother.

Owen pulled himself to his feet and wiped his cheek with the sleeve of his leather coat. Letting his gaze travel to the site of the execution he’d just witnessed, he saw that the security guards were already struggling to lift the body of the young woman out of the way. As he limped closer he also noticed that two of the more devout witnesses, whom he’d thought were just kneeling to pray at the site, were actually anointing their forehead with blood from the white tiles.

Quickly, rather than saying something to incur the vocal wrath of the kneeling zealots, Owen turned away from them and hurriedly walked out into the fresh air, the smell of tulips from a planter by the door clashing obscenely with the iron stench of blood still in his nose.

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