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       The Rook, p.1

           Daniel O'Malley
The Rook

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  Copyright Page

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  For my father, Bill O’Malley, who read to me at bedtime, and my mother, Jeanne O’Malley, who read to me the rest of the time.


  Dear You,

  The body you are wearing used to be mine. The scar on the inner left thigh is there because I fell out of a tree and impaled my leg at the age of nine. The filling in the far left tooth on the top is a result of my avoiding the dentist for four years. But you probably care little about this body’s past. After all, I’m writing this letter for you to read in the future. Perhaps you are wondering why anyone would do such a thing. The answer is both simple and complicated. The simple answer is because I knew it would be necessary.

  The complicated answer could take a little more time.

  Do you know the name of the body you are in? It’s Myfanwy. Myfanwy Alice Thomas. I would say that it’s my name, but you’ve got the body now, so I suppose you’ll be using it. People tend to mangle its pronunciation, but I would like it if you at least knew how to say it. I don’t embrace the traditional Welsh pronunciation, so for me the w is silent and the f is hard. Thus, Miff-un-ee. Simple. In fact, now that I think about it, it rhymes with Tiffany.

  Before I give you the story, there are a few things you should be aware of. First, you are deathly allergic to bee stings. If you get stung and do not take quick action, you will die. I keep those little epinephrine-injector-pen thingies around me, so find one before you need it. There should be one in my purse, one in the glove compartment of the car, and one in pretty much every jacket that you now own. If you get stung, slip the lid off the thing, jam it into your thigh, and inject. You should be fine. I mean, you’ll feel like absolute shit, but you won’t die.

  Apart from that, you have no dietary restrictions, no allergies, and you’re in pretty good shape. There is a tradition of colon cancer in the family, so you should get regular checkups, but nothing has appeared yet. Oh, and you have a terrible head for alcohol. But you probably don’t need to know that yet. You’ve got more important things to worry about.

  Hopefully, you will have my wallet, and along with it all the little plastic cards that are so vital for surviving in today’s electronic world. Driver’s license, credit cards, National Health Service card, library card, and all of them belonging to Myfanwy Thomas. Except for three. And those three are, at the moment, the most important. Tucked away in there you will find an ATM card, a credit card, and a driver’s license in the name of Anne Ryan, a name that will not be linked to you. The personal identification number for all of them is 230500. That’s my birthday, followed by how old you are. You’re a newborn! I would suggest that you withdraw some money from Anne Ryan’s account immediately, go to a hotel, and check in as her.

  You are probably aware of this next part already, since if you are reading this then you have survived several immediate threats, but you are in danger. Just because you are not me does not make you safe. Along with this body, you have inherited certain problems and responsibilities. Go find a safe place, and then open the second letter.



  She stood shivering in the rain, watching the words on the letter dissolve under the downpour. Her hair was dripping, her lips tasted salty, and everything ached. Under the dim light of a nearby lamppost, she had scrabbled through the pockets of her jacket, looking for some sort of clue to who she was, where she was, what was going on. She had found two letters in the inside pocket. The first envelope had been addressed simply To You. The second envelope just had the number 2 written on it.

  She shook her head angrily and stared up at the storm, watching the lightning fork across the sky. She fumbled in another pocket, and her fingers closed on a bulky shape. She pulled it out and looked at a long thin cardboard box that was getting all soggy and losing its shape. Typed on a prescription label was some long chemical term and the name Myfanwy Thomas. She clenched her fingers and felt the firm plastic of the epi-pen, then put the box back in her pocket.

  This is who I am, she thought bitterly. I don’t even get the luxury of not knowing what my name is. I don’t get a chance to start a life. Whoever this Myfanwy Thomas was, she managed to get me into a whole lot of trouble. She sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve. She looked around at the place she was in. Some sort of park. Willows drooped their long tendrils down around the clearing, and she was standing on what used to be a lawn but was rapidly becoming a mud hole. She came to a decision, pulled her feet out of the mire, and stepped carefully over the ring of bodies that were scattered around her. They were all motionless, and all of them were wearing latex gloves.

  She was hugging herself and completely soaked by the time she made it out of the park. Recalling the letter’s warning, she had been wary, scanning her surroundings for any attackers hidden among the trees. Thunder crashed above her, and she flinched away from it. The path brought her out of the park, and she stared at the scene before her. Clearly, the park was in the middle of some sort of residential area—there was a row of Victorian-style houses before her. They were no doubt pretty, she thought grimly, but she wasn’t in the mood to appreciate them as they deserved. There were no lights on in any of the windows, and a cold wind had started blowing. Still, she squinted down to the end of the road and could make out the distant neon glow that promised some sort of business emporium. Sighing, she began to walk that way, shoving her hands into her armpits to stop their shaking.

  An ATM visit and a phone call made from a rather battered phone box later, and she was sitting in the back of a cab being ferried to a five-star hotel. Several times, she looked back, checking to see if any cars were following, and once she asked the cabdriver to make two U-turns. Nothing suspicious happened, although the cabbie gave her some funny looks in the mirror. When they finally arrived at the hotel, she muttered something about a stalker boyfriend, and the driver nodded knowledgeably, his eyes lingering on her face. The hotel-management students who had been saddled with doorman duty on the graveyard shift lived up to their training and didn’t bat an eyelid as they swung open the doors for a soaking-wet woman. She walked through the glorious foyer, leaving a dripping trail on the tiles.

  The impeccably dressed and coiffed desk clerk (at three in the morning! What kind of monstrous automaton was this woman?) politely stifled a yawn and barely widened her eyes when the person who hesitantly identified herself as Anne Ryan checked in without a reservation or luggage. A bellboy did a poor job of appearing awake, but he managed to guide her to her room and work the key-card thing for her. She neglected to tip him but assumed that her shattered appearance might earn her some forgiveness on that score.

  She stripped and rejected a bath on the rationale that she might fall asleep in the water and drown in some flower-scented oblivion. Instead, she showered. She saw massive bruises blossoming on her body. She gasped in pain when she crouched down to pick up the soap, then finished the shower, wrapped herself in a big fluffy robe, and staggered out into the bedroom. She caught movement out of the corner of her eye, and she stared at the stranger in the mirror.

  She looked automatically at the face, which was dominated by two nasty black eyes. Bloody hell, she thought. No wonder the cabdriver bought my story
about an abusive boyfriend. It looked as if she had taken two hard blows to the eyes, and the whites were bloodshot from tears. Her lips were raw red and burned roughly when she licked them. “Someone tried to kick the living shit out of you,” she said to the girl in the mirror. The face that looked back was narrow, and although it was not beautiful, it was not ugly. I am nondescript, she thought. Nondescript features with shoulder-length dark hair. Hmm. She opened the robe and looked critically at her body.

  Lots of adjectives beginning with the letter S are appropriate here, she thought grimly. Short. Scrawny. Small breasts. Skinned knees (although presumably those were only temporary). She remembered something from the letter and felt along the inside of her left thigh. A small hard scar. From falling out of a tree and impaling this leg at the age of nine, she thought. Her body was not particularly fit-looking but seemed blessedly free of cellulite. Shaved legs. A conservative and recent bikini wax. More bruises had risen to the surface, but they didn’t conceal the fact that she was not possessed of an especially sexy body. I think I could do better, she thought. I won’t be able to hit the level of Hot, but I might be able to manage Cute. If I have a big enough budget. Or at least some makeup to work with.

  Her gaze moved from her body to the reflection of the room behind her. There it was, a huge bed with big fluffy pillows, a very soft-looking blanket, and white sheets so crisp they could be used to sculpt something. It was almost exactly what she needed. If only there was a… there was! A welcome mint on the pillow! Well, if there was a welcome mint, then the bed was probably worth staggering across that massively wide carpet to get to. The carpet was soft, and she could have collapsed on it easily, but the thought of the welcome mint was enough to impel her forward. Dragging her feet, she hobbled over and managed to fall asleep without choking to death on her mint.

  She had confusing dreams, although later, when she woke up, she wondered if they were confusing simply because the people she’d dreamed about were from pre-amnesia times. But even while she was in the dreams, she was confused. She was kissing someone, but she couldn’t see him. All she could do was feel him, and shiver. And when his tongue stretched down her throat, she didn’t panic.

  Then she was sitting down to afternoon tea in a room full of ferns with a black-and-white-tile floor. The air was hot and wet, and an elderly lady dressed in Victorian clothes sat across from her. The lady sipped thoughtfully from her teacup and stared at her with cool chocolate eyes.

  “Good evening, Myfanwy. I apologize for disturbing your sleep, but I felt obliged to thank you.”

  “Thank me?”

  “Myfanwy, don’t think I don’t understand what you have done for me,” the lady said coldly. “I dislike being in your debt, but thanks to you, a threat to me and my family has been disposed of. If it should happen that I can ever return the favor, I suppose I am obliged to do so, tiresome as that may be. Tea?” She poured Myfanwy a cup, and drank from her own cup. Myfanwy hesitantly tried a sip, and found herself enjoying it.

  “It’s delicious,” she said politely.

  “Thank you” came the distracted reply. The woman was looking around her curiously. “Are you all right? There’s something strange…” She trailed off and peered at Myfanwy thoughtfully. “Your mind is different. Something has happened to you; it’s almost as if—” She stood up abruptly, knocking over her chair, which dissolved into vapor, and backed away from the table. The plants writhed, drawing in around her. “Who are you? I can’t understand it. You are not Rook Thomas, and yet you are!”

  “Myfanwy Thomas lost her memory,” the younger woman said levelly with that strange detachment that comes in dreams. “I’m what woke up.”

  “You’re in her body,” said the lady slowly.

  “Yes,” Myfanwy said reluctantly.

  “How inconvenient,” said the old lady with a sigh. “A rook with no memory of who she is.” There was a pause. “Bugger.”

  “Sorry,” Myfanwy said, then felt ridiculous for apologizing.

  “Yes, well. Give me a moment. I need to think.” The older woman paced for a few minutes, pausing periodically to smell the flowers. “Unfortunately, young lady, I don’t have time to ponder all the factors here. I have problems of my own, and I can’t actively help you, here or in the waking world. Any unusual movements on my part would put us both in danger.”

  “Don’t you owe me a debt?” asked Myfanwy. “Thomas helped you.”

  “You are not Thomas!” the lady snapped in irritation.

  “I don’t think she’s going to be coming around to collect,” Myfanwy said dryly. The elderly lady subsided.

  “A good point. But the best I can do is keep your secret. I will not move against you nor tell anyone what has happened to you. Everything else will be up to you.”

  “That’s it?” Myfanwy asked incredulously.

  “It’s more than you realize, and it could make all the difference. Now, I must go, and you had better wake up.” The plants around them writhed again, and began to withdraw. Darkness flowed down from the glass ceiling above them.

  “Now, wait a just second,” said Myfanwy, and the lady looked startled. She raised an eyebrow, and the spreading darkness paused above their heads. “You’re not going to be any more helpful?”

  “No,” the elderly lady said with some surprise. Once again, she was sitting at the table. “You are very definitely not Myfanwy Thomas,” she remarked as she poured herself a fresh cup of tea. “Good evening.”

  “Good evening,” said Myfanwy. The lady raised an eyebrow again, and Myfanwy felt herself blushing. Clearly she was supposed to say something else, and a vague recollection floated up—a tiny scrap of dying memory. “Good evening… my lady?” The lady nodded approvingly.

  “Well, apparently you have not forgotten everything.”

  She woke up and fumbled by the side of the bed for the light switch. The clock told her that it was seven in the morning. Though she was exhausted, there was no chance she would be getting back to sleep. There were simply too many questions rushing through her head. What was the deal with the dreams? Should she be taking them seriously?

  It seemed a trifle unfair to place any more importance on the conversational dream than she did on the tongue-kissing dream. However, the conversational dream had been incredibly vivid. Did she believe that the dreams were subconscious messages? She was vaguely inclined to dismiss them as her brain’s sieving through the garbage of her thoughts while she slept, but she wasn’t really sure.

  And who was this Myfanwy Thomas person anyway? A rook? Wasn’t that some kind of bird? Clearly the dream could be discounted, since she was not a bird. The lack of feathers, she thought wryly, was just one indicator. As it was, she had no idea about anything. How old was she? Was she married? No rings on any fingers; no incriminating tan lines. Was she employed? She hadn’t thought to check the balance in the accounts earlier. She’d been too occupied with not freezing to death. Did she have family? Friends? With a sigh and then a few grunts of pain, she rolled out of her comfy bed and trudged gingerly over to the table where she’d thrown her jacket. Her scabbed knees hurt when she bent down, and her chest ached if she breathed too deeply. She was about to empty the pockets when her eye fell on the phone and the menu.

  “Hello, this is room five-five-three.”

  “Yes, good morning, Ms. Ryan,” said a polished and mercifully nonperky voice. “What can I do for you?”

  “Ooh, I would like to order some breakfast. Could I get a pot of coffee, some blueberry pancakes, some orange juice, some wheat toast, some marmalade, and two raw steaks?”

  Astonishingly, there was no stunned pause; the voice on the other end cheerfully agreed to send it all up.

  “I need the steaks for my eyes; I had an accident,” she felt the need to explain.

  “Of course, Ms. Ryan, we’ll be up soon.”

  She also asked if the hotel could quickly launder her only set of clothes, and the voice on the phone promised to dispatch a person imm
ediately to pick them up.

  “Thank you,” she said as she looked out the window. The storm had passed overnight, and the sky was now cloudless. After a few minutes she wandered over to the doors that led to the balcony. She was about to open them when there was a discreet knock at the door. Remember, she thought, someone beat the hell out of you, and someone is still after you. She peeked through the peephole and saw that it was a diffident young fellow in a hotel uniform with an empty laundry bag. She eyed the crumpled and damp trail of clothing leading to the bathroom and dismissed her paranoia. I’m willing to risk it for the sake of clean clothes. She opened the door, thanked the young man, and, flushing, hurriedly gathered up her bedraggled garments and dropped them into the waiting bag. Then, feeling guilty about the porter she hadn’t tipped the previous night, she lavishly overtipped him.

  She was watching the morning news and marveling at the lack of items about corpses in a park when breakfast arrived and was laid out carefully for her, prompting another disproportionate tip. She sat down, fished in the jacket pockets, and pulled out the envelope neatly labeled 2. Just looking at it made her feel mildly irritated with the woman who’d written it, the woman who’d put her in this situation. I’ll look at it in a sec, she decided. Once I’ve had some coffee. She set it to one side, took out her wallet, and nibbled some toast as she looked through the cards. There were two driver’s licenses, one of which confirmed that she was indeed Myfanwy Alice Thomas. The address given triggered no memories at all, although she was intrigued to note that it appeared to be a house rather than a flat. It identified her hair as brown, her eyes as blue, and her age as thirty-one. She looked at her picture with disfavor. Ordinary features, pale, with independent-minded eyebrows.

  The wallet also contained several credit and ATM cards and a little hand-scribbled note that said I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but you’re not really the kind of person who wears your heart in your wallet.

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