Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here. Part 5 is here. Part 6 is here. Part 7 is here. Part 8 is here. Part 9 is here. Part 10 is here. Part 11 is here. Part 12 is here. Part 13 is here. Part 14 is here. Part 15 is here.
We returned to the mall, this time scoring a spot in the underground parking garage. Hopefully, we wouldn't find a SWAT team when we left this time.
We walked with silent determination to the storefront that Joseph and I had visited just this morning. The doors were locked and the windows were still covered. Mercy put her ear to the door and Joseph and I held our breaths while she listened.
“I hear voices,” she whispered. “It sounds really muffled though. They are probably in the back.”
“So how do we get to them?” Joseph asked.
Mercy and Joseph both turned to me. That's what I get for being the idea person.
I rocked back on my heels and considered the situation. We couldn't just knock and expect to be let in, or even answered. There was no telling who was there or what kind of secret meeting they might be having.
My gaze wondered around, landing briefly on the woman and little boy getting a giant hot pretzel from the soft pretzel place. I mentally licked my lips. I love pretzels.
My eyes flicked to one side as an employee for the shoe store next door began pulling displays inside in preparation of closing time. I pulled out my phone to check the time. The mall would shut down in ten minutes.
I glanced to the other side and saw another mall employee, a big guy in a referee shirt, coming out of a tiny hallway next to Keith's storefront. My eyes flicked over to the next store, a women's lingerie shop. I wondered if the employee worked there. Not likely.
He probably worked at the sporting goods store several storefronts down. But then, why was he coming from that hallway? The hallway must lead to a back area with storage and employee areas and access to several storefronts and...
“Ha!” I barked out a laugh as I turned my attention to the little hallway.
I glanced around and gestured Joseph and Mercy to follow me. I quickly walked into the long, dark hallway and jogged to the door at the end. I sent out a plea and a push of energy and tried the door. It opened. I could tell by the way it pushed open that the latching mechanism hadn't caught completely.
We moved through the door and looked around. It was a hallway going left and right with doors along on both sides. The doors were all labeled with a letter-number designation.
I caught Joseph and Mercy's attention. “Move like we belong and know where we are going. If we do something wrong, just keep going like it ain't no thing.”
They nodded and I took a deep breath. I turned down the hallway in the direction of Keith's storefront and stopped in front of the first door. It was most likely the back door into the space. I reached for the handle and tried the latch.
It rattled, loudly, but didn't turn.
I dropped my hand and moved on to the next door. I grabbed the handle and felt a jolt of surprise go through me as the handle turned itself in my hand.
I swallowed a scream and jerked my hand back. I stepped back in time to see the door swing in.
A young man appeared in designer jeans and a t-shirt that I recognized from the window of one of the over-priced stores we had passed on our way in. He did a double-take when he saw us, but then flashed a quick smile and stepped out into the hallway. He headed further down the hallway and turned where an exit sign hung from the ceiling.
At least a dozen other people followed the first young man. Men and women, late teens to mid-twenties, even a few I would guess at being in their 30s. Some wore business casual, some had on torn, dirty jeans. Several looked like they were modeling for college brochures, young and a little preppy.
One young man looked like a walking stereotype for Computer Science. He actually had a white plastic pocket protector. I didn't think they still made those.
Mercy, Joseph and I just watched, wide-eyed, as all these people filed out. No one said a word. They just stepped out of the door, glanced our way, and walked to the exit. It was really creepy.
Finally, the last person stepped out, glanced at us and walked away, letting the door close behind her. Mercy jumped forward and caught the door with her hand before it could latch. Joseph and I both let out huge sighs of relief, then chuckled at each other.
Mercy grabbed the door and slowly pushed it open, holding it for us. I peered into the darkness. Joseph was so close behind me, I could feel the warmth of his body on my back. I glanced back to see Mercy on Joseph's tail just as close.
We slowly walked into the dark room, letting the door close quietly behind us. We paused a moment to let our eyes adjust. I grabbed Joseph's hand to help us stay together in the dark.
We walked carefully through the room, and I hoped it was as clear a path as our brief glimpse in the light from the hallway and the dim light in the room now showed. We moved towards the source of the light - a door into what seemed to be a hallway and another door opposite the hall into what looked like a small meeting room. We could hear muffled voices drifting out of the room.
Joseph kicked something that skittered along the floor. The noise sounded obscenely loud and we all froze, waiting for the voices to come for us.
In the back of my head, a little voice popped up. Why were we sneaking around? We were here to talk to Keith, and he was very likely one of the people in the room across the hall. Why didn't we just walk in and announce ourselves?
That was a valid point, I thought, continuing my careful walk across the room. But we might stumble on some information this way.
Oh, the little voice said, starting to annoy me. It wasn't that we didn't want to get caught, it was that we wanted a chance to eavesdrop first.
I sighed silently. I hated admitting that my intentions were less than straightforward, but this opportunity was just too good to pass up.
We continued sneaking up to the room, reaching the door to the hallway without incident. I crouched down, listening carefully to the voices in the other room, two distinct voices now. One voice was high-pitched and feminine, the other lower-pitched.
Joseph crouched down beside me, and Mercy stood, guard-like, over us. I stretched tendrils of energy into the other room, tasting the mood.
I quickly recognized Keith's voice as the deeper one. I swallowed my fear when I realized that the female voice was Muriel. I could sense there was a third person in the room as well.
“If you don't believe in the cause, you don't have to stay with us,” Keith said, his voice the same smooth showman's voice that he'd used during the earlier event. There was an oily feel to his energy. “There’s nothing keeping you here but your own choice.”
“It's not that I don’t believe, Keith,” Muriel said, a pleading note to her voice. “I'm just saying that… Well, I’ve learned that some of the myths don't back up what you’ve been telling us. I just want to know why.”
There was a pause. A slight squeak of shoes on linoleum indicated that someone was walking. Maybe pacing?
“There's always going to be misinformation when you are dealing with tyrants,” Keith said. “And, don’t be fooled. We are dealing with centuries-old tyrants.”
Keith paused before continuing in a softer tone. “Do you think Odin would allow information – information that actually proves him wrong – to be passed on for centuries? No. He wouldn't. We have been given the truth that has been destroyed, truth that has been hidden, truth that most people will never know. We have been entrusted with the destiny of all mankind.”
“But how do we know that this new information, that what we've been told is the truth, really is the truth?” Muriel asked. I silently praised her clever question. “How do we know which is the real destiny? And who is the real tyrant?”
Keith laughed. “Who else would be the tyrant than Odin? Who else would be trying to control how things end?”
Muriel was silent for a long moment before she responded. “I - I don't know.”
I waited for Muriel to continue questioning, but Keith spoke instead. “Sit down, have a cup of coffee.”
The sound of a chair being dragged across linoleum echoed in the empty space. “I realize you've been struggling with these doubts,” Keith continued. “And that's a good thing. It means you are growing past the level of blind acceptance. You are nearly ready to fully embrace this destiny, and accept your part in it.”
I could feel Muriel's energy drop. Her confidence was broken down and she didn't have the energy or passion to fight Keith's spin on the situation. I realized that we should move now, or we would lose Muriel to Keith's propaganda, possibly for good this time.
I stood up and strode into the other room, Joseph and Mercy at my back. I caught the surprised look on Keith's face and bit back a smile as he struggled to hide it. I glanced around the room and noticed the older, military looking man sitting at the table and staring at us with narrowed eyes.
My eyebrows went up. I wouldn’t have guessed that the third was this guy, but I quickly understood why Jada didn’t like him. He was putting off an odd vibe, sitting calmly with his right ankle propped up on his left knee and a can of soda in his hand.
“What about telling us who's giving you this 'truth' that you’re calling destiny?” I said, pushing our advantage of having surprised him.
Keith frowned and took a step back. “I cannot reveal the name.”
“Because you don't know?” Joseph asked, pressing forward at my side. “Or because no one would believe you?”
“Or because it's just you making shit up?” I added. “Must be nice to have your life funded by the people you've conned with your line.”
I realized I'd made a mistake in my assumptions when Keith's shoulders relaxed and he smiled. He shook his head and tsked.
“Nicola,” he drawled out my name. “You've grown so bitter and cynical. It's sad that you don’t have something like what we have here, our purpose, something to live for.”
I smirked. “I have Ella,” I reminded him quietly.
He blanched and seemed to stumble for a split second. I frowned and filed that away. I hadn't expected his reaction to be so... obvious.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the older man drop his foot and shift forward in his chair.
“I'm not bitter,” I continued. “Just because I don't buy what you're selling? That's not bitter, that's having half a brain.”
Joseph jumped in. “And you didn't answer the question. Why can't you tell us the name of your source?”
Keith swallowed, his eyes flickering over to the older man for a second. “My source has worked long and hard to provide humankind with the opportunity to break free of Odin’s control. His name is... unimportant.”
“Him?” I said. “That narrows it down a bit.”
I watched Keith squirm as I took my time to consider the information. “Loki is probably bound by now, so it wouldn't be him. Besides, he starts Ragnarok after being triggered in some way, and we are talking triggers here, aren't we?”
I smiled when Keith's eyes narrowed. “I'm not telling you who it is,” he growled. “I won’t ruin more than two thousand years worth of planning.”
“Two thousand years, huh?” I narrowed my eyes while Keith swallowed nervously. “So not a mortal, then.”
The older man stood up, his movements slow and steady, and took a step forward. “You have no idea what you are getting yourself into.”
I shrugged. “It doesn't matter,” I said. “Whoever he is, he’s a coward. He won't take responsibility for what he is doing.”
Keith fumed. “He is taking responsibility for the entire world! He is gathering his flock and will save those who have followed him. Those who have helped him complete his task!”
I laughed. “And do what? Be dead somewhere?”
Keith stepped forward in a rage. The older man put a hand on Keith’s shoulder to stop him. “He will take humanity to paradise! We will live forever in his light!”
I looked at Joseph and raised my eyebrow in a silent question. He nodded.
“Alrighty then,” I said. “So you are in this for the whole life everlasting thing, then?”
Keith shook his head, shrugging off the older man’s hand. “No. I don't expect to make it that far.” He relaxed his posture and lifted his chin. “I will be part of his army, sacrificing myself for the better world.”
I cocked my eyebrow. This was starting to remind me of our talk with Muriel a few days ago.
“And that means no living forever?” Joseph asked. “Why would you choose to do that?”
Keith shrugged. “I get my payment in other ways.”
“Such as...?” Joseph pressed.
Keith clenched his jaw. “Such as...” He paused, glancing from the older man to Muriel. He seemed to be wrestling with something.
Muriel caught his look and narrowed her eyes. “Don't worry about pissing me off. We are past that already.”
She stood up. “If you can't answer questions around me because of what I might think, that means I won't like the answers. And when those answers are about whether you are a goddamn con man...”
She kicked at the chair she'd been sitting in sending it sliding across the floor. “You know, I don't think I wanna hear this shit anymore. In fact, I'm done with this. You guys fight amongst yourselves.”
Muriel strode out the door, flinging off Mercy's hand when she tried to catch Muriel's arm. I shook my head at Joseph’s questioning look. I recognized that mood from our childhood, and Muriel wasn’t in the mood to listen to anyone right now.
Keith whispered in the older man’s ear, and the older man stared at each of us for a moment before following Muriel out the door. A few seconds after they disappeared from view, we heard the door to the back hallway thud twice as it closed.
We all exchanged looks, then turned back to Keith. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Happy?” he said. “I was helping her get her life together. I was helping her find purpose.”
I snorted. “Better living through tithing? Really?”
He narrowed his eyes at me. “What do you want to hear? That I want the power? That I need the money? Is that the kind of person you want me to be? Would it help you deal if I was just a monster?”
I snarled silently. I wasn’t here for what I wanted. That ship had long since sailed. What I wanted from Keith was the space to pretend he didn’t exist anymore. But his actions were creating a chain reaction right through my life. The only thing left that he could offer me was the truth.
I pulled up the energy of dark goddesses and gave him a look of dominance and power. I felt my eyes shift, becoming ever so slightly more angled and cat-like. I could feel my throat change, too, feeling almost clogged or full. When I spoke, my voice was deeper with a slight vibrato. “I want the truth.”
Keith's eyes twitched slightly, but I knew he wouldn't fight the impulse to answer me.
“That is the truth. I need the money. I want the money. And I want what I was promised. I will gladly pay the price for it with my life.”
I released the energy and stared down my nose at him for a long moment. He shifted a little, as if he regretted admitting it. To his credit, though, he didn't try to take it back.
I finally sniffed at him in disgust. “Once a schmuck...”
I turned on my heel and walked out the door.