Bonus story: Father’s Day
Daniel hesitated before the closed door. The innocuous sign hanging from a small colorful hook in the center of the door declared that the room was “In Use” in bold red, blue, and yellow lettered baby blocks. Never before had the sight of the words “Family Room” filled Daniel with a sense of dread, but given the reason for his summons, it wasn’t quite so surprising. The almost twin goons, one on each side of the door and both nearly a head a taller than he and twice as wide, only added to the trepidation settling into his gut.
The goons looked him over and exchanged a weighted, knowing glance. The less slack-jawed and more intelligent of the two gave him a nod. The goon’s expensive Italian suit strained against his tanker truck shoulders when he leaned down and grasped the door knob. He twisted and pushed it open, his deep voice rumbling like a small earthquake in his throat. “Matron Carlyle is expecting you. Go right in, Dr. Gibson.”
Subconsciously straightening the cuffs of his shirt sleeves, Daniel took a breath and crossed the threshold. The room smelled of lavender and chamomile from the sticks of burning incense which occupied various surfaces of the room. A black silk cloth covered an unidentifiable assortment of objects on the center table. Carlyle sat on a small sofa on the other end of the room, her hand idly rocking a small bassinet back and forth. “Dr. Gibson, so good of you to join us.”
As though I had any other choice. The unspoken thought bubbled up as Daniel shifted his weight to a comfortable standing position. He wouldn’t dare sit until invited – or ordered – to do so and it might be sometime. Carlyle liked to keep people standing at her meeting. Anything that emphasized her power and could make the detainee uncomfortable.
“I came as soon as I received your message.” Summons was a far more apt description, but it was all semantics. The Matron called and Daniel juggled his schedule to come. As odd as the locale had seemed to him at the time, it made sense given what he suspected was to be the nature and subject of the meeting. His eyes darted ever so briefly to the bassinet, but from the distance he could see nothing of the few hours old infant girl Daniel knew had to be nestled inside. It made perfect sense to have the impromptu meeting in one of the family rooms of the Maternity Hospital.
“Expedient and flexible, Dr. Gibson. Once again you show yourself to be the man that we hoped you were when we promoted you to your position.” The honey sweetness of Carlyle’s words did not go beneath the surface. She lifted her head and graced him with a cool, detached smile that came nowhere near her eyes. When Daniel failed to give her the satisfaction of squirming, the witch continued. Her attention diverted briefly to the bassinet again, “This little one presents us with something of a conundrum. Have you held her yet, Dr. Gibson?”
Daniel tried to figure out where Carlyle was going and failed miserably. He answered honestly, “Assuming that is Dr. Harris’ newborn, then no, I haven’t held her.” The thought had never occurred to him. Daniel had been present to record and report on the birth, but his interest hadn’t gone beyond that.
“Shocking. My reports led me to believe that your relationship with Harris was rather close. Though given your rather unsettling report on the delivery, I shouldn’t be so surprised.” Carlyle met his gaze again, and her bored into him. “Are you aware of what in your report caused a bit of an upset with myself and the other chairmen?”
Daniel swallowed reflexively. It had the dual effect of working moisture into his mouth and banishing the lump trying to form in his throat. He reminded himself that Carlyle was here alone – with only her muscled goons for show – and that took the edge off of his nerves. There were certainly to be repercussions for his perceived failure to control and monitor Addison Harris, but Daniel had hope that he might only be plagued by nightmares and waking hallucinations for a few days.
“It was a surprise to me as well that Addison – Dr. Harris – had bonded with the child in utero.”
“A surprise?” Carlyle arched a perfectly sculpted eyebrow. “It was your responsibility to be aware of what happened throughout the entirety of Harris’ pregnancy until she turned the child over to Triptych.” Carlyle held up a hand and flicked her fingers at him as though he were nothing more than an annoying bug. “Never mind, that’s beyond us now. I’m here to fix it. You’re going to assist in salvaging what can be salvaged.”
Daniel straightened, a bit of weight lifting from his shoulders. He’d come expecting a strong reprimand. Whatever the woman wanted to fix matters and save him some grief, Daniel would do. Even if it meant leaving the mass squirming and wiggling beneath pink blankets in the bassinet in Carlyle’s hands. Taking Harris’ daughter away would also teach the woman a lesson. I might even enjoy watching her finally realize where her place truly is.
“I’ve met with a few psychics,” Daniel began, “They’ve assured me that the bond can be broken with no lasting damage to the infant. I think -”
“Did I ask you to think?” Within a blink of the eye, Carlyle was on her feet. She stalked toward him, and though she was shorter by more than six inches, her presence dwarfed him. “This is out of your hands, Dr. Gibson. You’re fortunate that we’ve found a suitable recourse to rectify this abysmal failing on your part.”
Carlyle whipped the black cloth from the table. Beneath it lie a silver bowl filled with herbs, two silver bands, and a ceremonial dagger. “Pick up the child and bring her here.”
Something in Daniel resisted, but only briefly. Addison’s daughter was too important to the Chairmen for any real harm to come to her. Too often during Addison’s pregnancy Daniel had been reminded of how difficult it had been to create the embryo that grew in Addison’s womb, and how so many of the others perished because physiologically and psychically the chosen surrogates simply could not handle the fetus.
He crossed the room and lifted the baby from the bassinet. The weight in his arms echoed through him, familiar and haunting. The weight was right, but the color of the blanket was wrong. The curly brown hair trying to worm its way from the knitted yarn cap was wrong. Even the olive complexion was wrong. He had to focus on what was wrong in order to cradle the girl close and carry her to where Carlyle waited.
On Carlyle’s orders, he rolled up his sleeves and divested the sleepily squirming bundle of her blankets. The sudden change in temperature startled the sleeping baby and she began whimpering in protest. Daniel instinctively hugged her closer to his body, offering his warmth. “Dr. Harris is going to sense -“
“Nothing,” Carlyle cut him off. “She will sleep quite restfully for a few hours more. Even she is vulnerable to the right magics. Now, we begin.”
Daniel watched with detached interest as Carlyle chanted and ground the herbs. The chanting seemed to go on forever, the air in the room growing heavier and warmer. Several times Daniel’s eyes slid closed and he had to stop himself from falling either face forward into the table and the magical accouterments or from dropping the baby in his arms. The sharp, sudden sting of cold steel cutting across and into his palm jerked him quickly back to wakefulness as nothing else could have. He grimaced, gritting his teeth while Carlyle manhandled his hand over the bowl, squeezing out blood as though he were a piece of fruit in a juicer. Addison’s daughter wasn’t quite so quiet when Carlyle gave similar treatment to the soft flesh on the bottom of her foot. The baby released an ear splitting shriek and her tiny limbs flailed in protest. Daniel instinctively drew her close again, rocking her and speaking in soft, soothing tones that his body and mind remembered no matter how hard he tried to forget them.
“Shh, Ashlynn, shh.” It was the first time that Daniel called the newborn by her given name. “It’s all right.” He didn’t know whether or not it was anything of the sort, but a part of him knew that the words were right and the tone even more so. Perhaps some primal part of her craved that reassurance or recognized it because the baby burrowed into him. He had no recollection of the pacifier or how it came to be in his hands, but Ashlynn accepted it hungrily as her little body slowly calmed in his arms.
The disturbance did not affect Carlyle. The witch continued her chanting, grinding the blood and herbs together in the bowl. Daniel focused on keeping the baby calm and quiet in order to distract himself from thoughts of what the witch was doing. He didn’t possess any magical talent, but he knew enough to know that Carlyle was performing blood magic. Blood magic had the potential to be uncontrollable and dangerous. Daniel wanted no parts of it; a part of him longed to just shove Ashlynn back in the bassinet and flee. The logical part however, the part that knew his career – and possibly his existence as he knew it – hinged upon cooperating and not revealing his anxiety to one of the Chairmen, held him there rooted to the floor with the baby girl in his arms.
As Daniel watched, Carlyle took the silver bands and dipped them into the blood and herb mixture. The cadence of her chant changed, growing softer and quieter. The words remained foreign to his ears – some mixture of Latin and Gaelic – but despite that he imagined that he could feel the magic of the words seeping into his body. The slow, quiet cadence spread over him like a blanket, returning that sense of floating lethargy. In his arms, Ashlynn stopped squirming and slowed suckling on the pacifier. Once, then again Daniel’s eyes fell to half-mast then closed and he jerked himself from encroaching sleep. The third time it was the sudden cackling fire that sprang up from the bowl coupled with Carlyle’s enthusiastic near shouting of words.
The witch quickly fastened one of the glowing hot silver chain bracelets around Daniel’s wrist. He braced himself for the burning pain that never came. Rather Daniel was plummeted into a wave of freezing cold that stole his breath and sent him shuddering before disappearing as quickly as it came. He caught his breath and then it came again. Weaker and milder, in sync with the tinier bracelet locking around Ashlynn’s ankle. It wasn’t his shock, his surprise or even his experience; it was milder and out of reach and yet right at his fingertips —
And then gone as though it had never been there at all.
What the hell has the fucking witch done to me? Daniel wanted to demand answers, but the thought stayed unspoken. He was too tired, and too well-trained, to say a word.
“Happy Father’s Day, Dr. Gibson.” The cold, calculating smile returned to the witch’s face. “You have a daughter.”
“What?” The word tumbled past his lips uncontrolled.
“Your blunder has been corrected. Though Harris has a good head start, she’s not the only one bonded to the child. You share that not-so-unique status as well, now.” Carlyle began to clean up the tools of her trade. Her voice carried softly, without emotion as though they were discussing the weather. “Make no mistake, this is not a boon. This is your chance to redeem yourself. You can have as much influence in the child’s life as Harris. Her attachment to the infant now translates as a type of attachment to you. More importantly, to Triptych. Don’t screw this up, or you may very well not get another chance at redemption.”
After Carlyle left, Daniel remained with Ashlynn. He sat in the glider by the window, rocking the baby girl in his arms. He tried to figure out when things had gone south so quickly, and how it was that he just couldn’t bring himself to care very much. It might have been all in his head, but Carlyle’s blood magic was already at work. Where only hours earlier Ashlynn Harris had been a name on paper, Daniel could feel a spark of something for the infant. It was undefined and barely tenable, but it was there. Like that thing you can only glimpse out of the corner of your eyes, Daniel knew that one day he would turn his head and see it clearly.
There wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. Not if he valued his wits, his position and most importantly, his life.
As though sensing his thoughts, Ashlynn stirred and blinked awake. She stared up at him honey and amber eyes full of far more intensity and awareness than a not yet day old infant should have.
“You feel it too, don’t you?” Daniel ran his thumb along the baby’s soft, pink cheek without any conscious decision. “We’re both going to have to get used to it. It looks like you and I are going to be stuck with each other for a very long time.”