At the start of each day, place a new patch on a part of your body between the neck and the waist. Put the patch on a new spot each day to lessen skin irritation. Do not use for a period longer than eight weeks. In case of mild rash, remove patch and relocated it. In case of a more severe rash, consult your family doctor.
Henry DeMontfort sighed, removed the protective film from the large nicotine patch, and applied it to his left bicep. He didn't dare to expect the relaxing rush that came with his cigarettes, and indeed, the only sensation the patch provided was a slight but noticeable itch. He leaned back on his hard-backed chair with a grunt, and slowly rubbed his temples. His headache was coming back.
"Sir? You have a visitor."
Looking up, DeMontfort was met with the visage of Lieutenant Hammersmith, his second-in-command. The young man's face bore their usual stoic expression, slightly twisted around the huge, jagged scar that dominated his right cheek.
"I do not wish to be disturbed, Lieutenant. Tell them to come back in an hour." A sudden throb in his head made DeMontfort winch. "In fact, tell them to come back tomorrow."
"It's Salah Zairi, sir," said Hammersmith in that unsettling soft voice of his. "He says you'll see him."
Salah. The name invoked many conflicting emotions in DeMontfort, and memories. The snarl of the vicious young man he first met more than twenty-five years prior, the tempered steel of the man the Initiative made of him. The infuriately patient tone he always used during their long theological debates and his hard grip on DeMontfort’s shoulder as he pulled him away from a burning inferno DeMontfort had every intention of leaping into. The harsh words that passed between them since, and the harsher deeds both men committed in the name of their faith.
DeMontfort really couldn't deal with the man now, not the way things were going. The last three months have been absolutely catastrophic for Project Malleus and for DeMontfort's personal position in the Horizon Initiative as well. A combination of tactical blunders, acts of zeal that bordered on lunacy on the part of some of his subordinates, and some rather poor choices of his own left Project Malleus hanging on the brink, and the last thing he needed was Salah's recrimination on top of all that. Still, he and the man had too much history for DeMontfort to refuse to meet him, a fact Salah apparently knew perfectly well.
"Let him in."
The lieutenant nodded and left, returning moments later with a dark, sharply featured man, maybe ten years DeMontfort's junior. A familiar face, yet also that of a stranger. DeMontfort rose from his seat, and offered the man his hand. After hesitating a moment, Salah took it.
Despite expecting this, the coldness in the man's voice stung.
"Please, have a seat. I'm sure it's been quite the drive here."
"Thank you, I'll stand."
"Suit yourself, I suppose."
DeMontfort sank back into his seat, absent-mindedly scratching at his nicotine patch. He really needed a smoke. Salah stood glaring at him from across his desk, apparently satisfied in letting him guess the reason for his unexpected visit. Sadly, DeMontfort had no trouble figuring that out.
"This is about that clock-idol of yours, isn't it?"
Abruptly, Salah's cool expression melted away, and became distorted with rage. "It was so much more than that, Henry!" A pained look flashed over the younger man's face, and he sank down to the seat opposite DeMontfort, as if suddenly exhausted.
"It could have… it could have saved us. It was divine, Henry, I heard its voice. His Voice."
"That's blasphemy, Salah. You of all people should know better."
"You weren't there, Henry. You didn't hear it. This was no machinist idol. It could have told us so much." With that, a spark of his former anger rekindled in Salah's eyes. "And thanks to your men, no one will hear it ever again."
DeMontfort looked at the man's hard-lined face, and found that he didn't have much to say to that. Rashid and his men did indeed break protocol in destroying the idol when they did. Project Malleus never got a proper chance to examine it before deciding its fate, and it was this sort of rash action that led them to the sordid position they were in now in the first place. He could never admit that to Salah, of course. "What do you want me to say, Salah?"
"That you won't let something this like happen again! That you put a leash on those mad dogs you call operatives! Forget the Voice, Henry, There were women, children and elderly there. There was a time when the mere thought of doing something like that would have appalled you, and now you and your Wolves are practically experts in it. What happened to you, Henry?"
This time, it was DeMontfort's turn to feel anger bubbling up his throat like liquid lead. "You know very well what happened, Salah. You were there."
Salah turned his eyes away. "This has to stop, Henry. For your sake, if not for the Initiative’s. You're losing yourself, and you'll take us all with you."
The pain in DeMontfort head returned, and it brought friends. He could have dismissed Salah then and there, act like everything was business as usual, but he knew that the time for that has passed. So, he decided on an unusual tactic for him these last few years. Total honesty.
"The last few months have been bad, Salah. My men and I did some things that shouldn't have been done. I know you and I had our differences when it came to the way the Initiative runs its business, but even you have to admit our occasional ruthlessness was vital to its survival. And up until the last few months, I had never once doubted that what we were doing was right, that it was God's work. Something changed in us, Salah. Something broke." It felt strangely liberating to finally admit it, not only to Salah, but to himself.
"Then do something about it, Henry. It's not too late."
"I will. I have taken measures, Salah, and some things are going to change around here. I suspect I'm not the only one who'll make sure of that."
DeMontfort grimaced. "Pack of elderly vultures that they are."
"You know that's not fair. What happened wasn't their fault. Wasn't yours either."
DeMontfort dismissed this with a wave. "Regardless, it will be taken care of, Salah, you have my word. I owe you this much, at least. I owe them that much, certainly."
For the first time since he entered, there was a hint of a smile in Salah's expression. "You almost sound like your old self, Henry."
"Bah, I hope not. I couldn't stand being that miserable fop again. It was bad enough being him once. There was one other thing I wanted to talk to you about while you're here-"
DeMontort was interrupted by the sound of Salah's cellphone, which DeMontfort was surprised to hear had Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture as its ring tone. He was about to made a snide comment about it, when he saw Salah going deathly pale. "What happened, Salah? Was that the Tribunal? Cult uprising? Is it the Children again? Answer me, man!"
"Mary-Ann… she went into labor…" with a flash of realization, Salah grabbed his coat and almost tripped over the chair in his haste to make it to the door.
"Salah, hold a second!"
Salah did stop, though obviously only with a great reluctance. "Whatever Initiative business you want to discuss, Henry, it will have to wait. I'm not going to-"
"It's not that. Just give me a moment."
DeMontfort rummaged around in his desk drawer and after a short search produced two items, which he handed to Salah. One was an old leather-bound copy of Erasmus of Rotterdam's Education of a Christian Prince. The other was a bright blue stuffed rabbit.
"For Mary-Ann and the baby. I'm sorry I missed the wedding, Salah. You know how those things are."
Salah nodded, gave DeMontfort a quick pat on the shoulder, and bolted out, rabbit and book tucked under his armpit. DeMontfort shook his head, scratched at his arm again and, after a short argument with himself, removed the nicotine patch. Instead, he drew a cigarette from his sliver case and lit it, savoring the small rush of relaxation it offered, before sitting back down at his desk.
There was work to be done.