I slam my apartment door shut, my strength almost tearing it off its hinges. I am fuming. No! That doesn’t even begin to describe it. I am seething, rage blurring my vision.
I cannot believe it! How can someone have got to the Rod of Asclepius before me? Who the fuck was it? How did they know? I suck air through my clenched teeth. Long, ragged breaths, each one forced angrily through my pursed lips. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I was so careful. I kept every part of my plan separate. No one met anyone else. Not one of those silly mortals could have put the pieces together. Not even that stupid blonde knew everything! I ensured none of them had the pieces. I grind my incisors together, certain I’m taking a layer off them. My fingers curl into my palms. Who would do this to me? How dare they? Me? The God of Trickery. I will find them and then…then…well, I’ll do something very nasty to them. Make them regret what they did to me.
Instinctively, I lash out, my foot striking the breakfast bar. I immediately regret it, the hard marble making my toes crunch within my mud-soaked wellingtons. I scream, as much in fury as in pain. I swing my foot back, stretching in the opposite direction and lose lose my balance. The soggy footwear gets the better of me, and I crash to the floor, howling. When I grab at one of the bar stools and swing, the others topple. The ringing noise of them hitting the ground does little to improve my mood.
I want to cry and can feel the pinpricks of tears behind my eyes, but I won’t give them the satisfaction. Whoever those bastards are, they won’t win. They will pay, though. I mean it. Revenge will be mine. As I sit up, my shoulders slump, failure a bitter taste in my mouth.
I sit on the floor, my foot throbbing, rubbing the bridge of my nose between my fingers. The wetness I’ve dragged inside saturates my trousers, and it’s then that I decide I need to start planning and using my sources. Being angry isn’t going to get me what I want. So far, it hasn’t made the situation any better. I’ve had my temper tantrum. Now it’s time to focus. As I stand, I twist, taking in the dirty footprints I’ve left on the floor.
Then it hits me. I’ve seen these marks before. In the dream, when I was recovering from bringing my clay statues to life. Could it have been a glimpse of my future? But that doesn’t make sense. Yes, I can predict actions, reactions, and what others will do. But I’m not psychic. I don’t see visions or any nonsense like that. Which can only mean…
“We told you you’d be sorry.”
I slap my hand to my mouth as it suddenly all makes sense. Why my sleep was so disturbed, how someone else worked out my plans.
It was me. Them. The voices. I had never thought they could actually do anything or control me. I had been certain I was in control.
“Where is it?” I ask out loud, my voice quivering with anger.
“Are you daring to play coy with me?!” It’s a warning. My fingers curl so tight I can feel the nails digging into the skin, drawing blood. I pace across the room, past the five packing cases, the ones the clay was delivered in.
“Aren’t I meant to be holding it right now? Shouldn’t I be using it?” I ask quietly.
“Don’t you mean wasting it?” This time, the response is in my head. I can’t keep speaking lies when it’s so clear what I want to say to them.
“We have been over this. What does it matter? I was never going to sell it. I wouldn’t wield its power for anyone else.” I look at the ceiling, tired of this conversation and going over the same points.
“Exactly. That’s why we had to take matters into our own hands. Well, yours. We were surprised you never worked it out.”
Suddenly, it all clicks into place.
The reason that Edith had left the digging company. They’d removed her, so I wouldn’t know that she’d already supplied a team.
Doug, the workforce supervisor, I remember his words. You’ve been more than generous, twice over. It explains why he gave me that odd look, why he was so fed up.
How hadn’t I seen that the earth had already been dug? Recently. The land is mine. No one else should have been there.
It explains why I slept so long when I brought my clay people to life, my creations so apparent in my dreams. We dug up the Rod once and then I went back to the scene of the crime. I was tricked by my subconscious.
“And, of course, there’s more.”
“What do you mean?” As soon as I’ve uttered the words, I realise they must have made arrangements beyond just getting hold of the artefact. They always wanted to use it to elevate me to some grand position of power. If it was me, I’d have a buyer lined up already. Have a deal struck. Money arranged. But who?
“You really aren’t worthy of your title, are you? You couldn’t trick your way out of a paper bag.”
And I realise the writing has been on the wall. Pacer warned me someone was making moves for his opponent to become Prime Minister. Someone smart and an individual I knew nothing about. When, in fact, I knew everything about them, and had unwittingly helped them. By sacrificing Pacer to get the digging team, I had cleared the way for Maxwell to become the country’s leader. And he’d gone on about improving health care in his big celebration speech. The deal was done, and I hadn’t seen any of it. I really have lost my touch.
“Don’t feel too bad. We are an extension of you. Just a better version. A successful one. That’s something you wouldn’t know anything about.”
My world has come tumbling down around my ears. I’d tricked myself. How could I have let this happen? “It’s amazing how easily distracted people are fooled.” The voice taunts me, throwing my own words back at me, and I grab at my ears. I don’t want to hear it. I can’t, but it continues. “Just give in and help us bring this to an end. There’s even something to trick Maxwell with. We think you’ll appreciate it.”
“Do you seriously think I’d do that? Don’t you realise that the second I work out where the rod is, I will finish my plan?”
“But you don’t know where it is, do you? You were asleep.”
I close my eyes, breathing deep and clearing my lungs. Calm in. Anger out. I can figure this out. I am in control.
“Where would I put it if I was me?” I ask the empty space. It would have to be somewhere simple, easy to access. They’d need to leave no trail and keep it close to hand.
“You can never second guess us. We are you and so much more. You are just a basic schemer.”
Basic. Let me go back to basics.
“What’s the best way to hide anything from a mark?” I rhetorically ask, knowing that in plain sight is best. It would have to be something I see regularly and notice without noticing. I turn, looking at the living space anew, peering past what I think I see. Four stools strewn across the ground. A damaged bar. My shiny fridge. Cupboards. My potter’s wheel and the assorted equipment. The six packing crates. Sofa. Entertainment centre. Pot plants.
Wait, are there five or six crates?
“What does it matter? You’ll never find where we hid it.”
It’s meek, desperate. Because I know there were only ever five crates. That was all the clay I needed. No more. So, where did the extra one come from? And what’s in it? I stare at the wooden boxes, assessing, seeing them afresh. “You are so wrong.” But I know I’m not.
I wrench off the front of the crate that I don’t remember taking delivery of.
And there it is. The Rod of Asclepius. It’s so beautiful. The snake is so perfectly intertwined with the wooden staff. I can feel its power, the potential it offers. I know exactly what it can do for me.
And then I’m on my knees, my hands covering my mouth. “Well, I always like an insurance policy.”
Right next to the object I have desired for so long is…is…
I’m frozen. I don’t think there’s anything I can do as I stare at Lily’s unseeing eyes. Then I howl, every ounce of air pushing from my body. The noise takes on its own life, going on until I think I’m about to pass out. The world swirls before me, but my lover’s face remains clear. Her white skin, red splotches sprayed across her face. A look of shock and surprise permanently fixed on her features. She hadn’t expected it because it had been me. I wrench my eyes from the unblinking look on her face to stare at my hands, the fingers that did this to the woman I loved. She trusted me, and I…I…
“Am I a murderer?” I ask, knowing the truth. Lily died at my hands because I couldn’t control myself. I couldn’t keep my tricks in check. She’s dead, and it’s all my fault.
I killed her.
I lost control.
The rage wells up within me again, a red hot poker of fury. I snatch at the rod. If I can’t have Lily, then they won’t get what they want. I will end it here and now.
“She will have died in vain.”
That draws me up. I killed her. For what? Nothing. So I can now do what I never wanted to?
“Is that right? She would have wanted you to be successful. And you will be.”
I don’t listen. I won’t. No more. They didn’t know her, never understood what she was all about. She wouldn’t have wanted any of this, and she wouldn’t want what they are proposing.
“Wouldn’t she just want you to be happy?”
I scream at the voice as I bring the staff down on my knee. It cracks, splinters, and I do it again. And again. Then it splits, and there’s a flash of blue light. I’m propelled across the flat, crashing into the far wall, and then there’s nothing.
I shake mortar off myself, my body aching. The rod clearly did nothing to heal me from the impact of my flight. Yet, something does feel different. I’m not the same. I try to speak. “I…I…I…” but the truth won’t come. I am still broken and flawed. Yet there’s something missing. It’s quiet. Oh so, quiet.
“What do you all think of that?”
I get no answer. I search my mind, but there’s nothing else there. It’s just me. Somehow, the rod has worked its magic to rid me of those devil voices. I can’t be honest, but at least I don’t have to deal with them. I don’t know if it is permanent. But, at least, now, I can beat myself up for what I did without them berating me as well. It’s a short-lived reprieve as I process what I have done.
I limp across the room to the crate. Her head is still there, unmoving, and a question seemingly on its lips.
How could you do this to me?
I can’t say it to her, but I am so amazingly sorry. I am sorry I ever came into her life, caused her death. Killed her. I sink to my knees, cradling her to me and cry, and cry, and cry, unsure what else to do.