- Chill -
The heating grate below the towering building was usually a comfort, Keith thought blearily. Usually, warm air from the internal systems of the building rose out in clouds from the metal grill near the bus stop, but tonight the air seemed barely to touch his numb limbs. He couldn't feel his toes, or his feet either. He had stumbled this far down the long black icy wind tunnel of Albert Street, but his knees had folded here, and he had sat down heavily, trying to pull into an even smaller ball inside his two sweaters and two jackets, feet feeling dead, plastic-wrapped inside his boots. There was no use trying to walk on to the shelter, he thought. Shelter was closed. The nearest one. Closed ages ago.
The wind howled past him, and he could hear the voices in it, telling him what he already knew. That the man in the suit that he'd seen in the shelter, the one who'd looked right through him, had been part of it, part of the whole plan. That, he'd known; he'd had a bad feeling about the man, and about the inspectors who came after him, and the doors had closed then. They wanted him out of there, they wanted him out on the street because the satellites could see him there, they could watch him. He knew that. He knew that it was cold here watching the young people and the rich people stand huddled in the bus stop, stamping their feet and breathing steam from their noses. Their clothes so pointless against this weather, little girls in little skirts, because they were on their way to warm buses and beds. That he, Keith, was going to freeze soon, under the eyes of those kids who he could hear now talking about him, saying things, horrible things. He knew they were talking about him. He muttered against them to himself, too cold to talk back to them.
He got up, slowly, painfully, his joints aching at being asked to bend in the stiff brittle air, the chill seeped in as far as the cartilage, he thought, stiffening it, cracking, it was crystallising. Better to try to beg a spare ticket from someone getting off the #2, get on, try to make it across town, maybe the shelter there was open. He shuffled over to the bus stop, ready to ask for change, a spare ticket, something, and then he stopped, staring, unable to move any closer. One of the people at the stop, watching him hungrily, that person there by the street, that person, had no steam coming from his mouth.
The person lazily lit a cigarette, and there was steam then, and Keith took a step back, suddenly afraid, and the eyes met him and he felt despair, turned away, wanting to curl up on the grate below the tall glass building that was pumping out no heat he could feel. He turned to the glass walls, looking at the reflections. Then something flared up in his mind, some kind of determination, and he jumped up, shouting, staring at the space where the person's reflection should have been. He shouted, he threatened, and as the person walked away and the other people at the stop stared, he stood, desperate, in the middle of the tiled courtyard of the massive black building, and howled rage at something he couldn't understand.
Someone lifted a cell phone from a purse to call the police.
"God damn," Yancey Tyndall said, coming into the office for the Paranormal Studies Department of Ottawa University. "They call this March?" She was wrapped in a huge sheepskin coat, her mittened hands buried in the pockets, and her cheeks were flushed redder than her hair from the cold. There were beads of water on her scarf where her condensed breath had frozen for a minute, then thawed in the indoor air.
"In like a lion," Ryan Thomas said, from the greenish glow of the computer screen - he was on a hard-core programming kick these days and had been writing code in monochrome, claiming to be getting back to the 'purity' of DOS. Yancey took off her coat and small packed lines of snow that had found their way into the creases of her coat scattered onto the floor near the door and began to dissolve. She pulled off the headband she'd been wearing over her ears.
"This isn't just in like a lion," she said, shaking snow off of it. "This is an evil time loop. We're doomed to repeat February forever and ever. Foreveruary." She hung the coat up. "I'm freezing. The bus was twenty minutes late at my stop, can you believe it? Is there coffee?"
"Yeah," Ryan said, turning away from the computer. "Or - I could help warm you up," he added.
Yancey raised an eyebrow. "Ryan. In the office? For shame," she said archly. Then she grinned and went to the coffee machine, pouring a cup into a mug with bright green shamrocks all over it. "I take it it's just us in here then?" Ryan nodded. Yancey folded herself into one of the chairs with her cup and kicked off her boots. "Where are they?"
Ryan hooked a thumb at the calendar on the wall. "She's indisposed today," he said, a little uncomfortably. "I'd guess they're together." Yancey glanced at the calendar too.
"Oh," she said, subdued for about half a second. Then she reached back to set her mug on the corner of a deck, kicked her legs over the arm of the chair, and leaned over to rummage in her bag. Pulling out a stack of student papers, she folded back a title page and pulled a pen out of her unruly bun of brilliant red and indomitably curly hair. "Second-years," she said. "Are they dense, has school finally numbed the last of their wits, or is it the personal eccentricities of this particular professor?"
"Maybe a combination of factors," Ryan volunteered without looking over from his screen. He was typing.
"Personally, I'm inclined to think it's the professor in this case," Yancey said. "Who assigns a paper asking students to invent a myth and then analyse it? Here, decide what your conclusion is and then invent the reasoning that gets you there. What does this teach anyone about the real world?"
"It tells me you're doing two TA positions," Ryan said. "And you could just dump this guy and stick with Professor Park."
"He's writing me a recommendation," Yancey said, airily. "He thinks I'm 'extraordinarily gifted.'"
"You mean he thinks you're cute."
Ryan shrugged, and Yancey reached back for her coffee again with a sigh. For a while nothing was said. Ryan clicked on the keyboard; Yancey chewed absently on a strand of hair and turned pages. Occasionally she would chuckle and read something out to Ryan, or sigh in exasperation and underline something in stark blue pen.
After a while, she laid the papers down on her knee, shifted position, and stretched. "I hate marking."
"Want to go for lunch?" Ryan asked.
"It's so cold out there."
"They were talking about cancelling classes," Ryan said. "If it goes down any further."
"Really?" Yancey asked, eyes wide. "Wow. Wouldn't that be great?"
"I don't know," Ryan said. "We'd probably still have to come in. Things to do."
"Yeah. Doctor Park never sleeps. I'm convinced of it."
"He's really some kind of zombie."
Yancey shivered. "Don't even suggest it. What if it was true?"
"It's not." Ryan yawned. "Want to go for lunch?" he asked again.
"Sure, why not?" Yancey said, dropping the papers and swinging her legs off the arm of the chair. "Do we really want to leave campus?"
"You want to eat cafeteria food?" Ryan retorted.
"It's cold . . ." Yancey complained, but picked up her coat. "The Earl?"
On their way out, Yancey stopped to look at a photocopied notice on a bulletin board. "Would you look at this?" she said. Ryan peered at the sign. It was a call for a meeting to protest tuition hikes. "They're raising them again?" Yancey shook her head. "I'm broke as it is."
"Hm," Ryan answered noncommittally. He shoved his hands in his pockets, looking around the hallway.
"Don't you ever worry?" she asked as they kept walking. She glanced across at him in time to catch a small half grin, just on its way out.
"Well, it bugs me. I'm living on scholarships and grants and loans and it's barely enough."
"Not to mention two TA jobs," Ryan added helpfully.
"Right. Two TA jobs. Although if I hex Professor Curtis, which I would really like to do, I'll be back down to one."
"We could ask Professor Park for a raise," Ryan said vaguely.
"Right," Yancey answered him dryly. "You think the university's going to give him any more money to pay for what we do? We're lucky to have an office."
"Oo," Ryan said. "Yeah." Then he brightened. "We could always get people to pay us."
"Pay us?" Yancey stifled a laugh. "What people?"
Ryan stuffed his hands further in his pockets. "Well," he said. "There were those people with the haunted apartment . . ." He shrugged. "And there was that girl that was killed by the vampire and we investigated. We could get paid to get rid of ghosts and figure out why people are seeing great big black dogs near the canal and, you know, maybe kill vampires and stuff. Deal with bridge trolls."
Yancey looked at him, scepticism written broadly on her face. "People don't really pay people to kill vampires. That's only in John Carpenter movies. There's no market for it."
"Maybe there is," Ryan said. "We'd have it cornered, I bet. Nobody else in the business."
"I don't want to fight any more vampires. I don't even want to meet any more vampires."
"Doesn't have to be vampires . . ." Ryan protested. "Just that kind of thing. We'd be like detectives." His eyes lit up at the thought. "Like Indiana Jones. Or the X-Files."
"Right. Those, Ryan, are fiction." Yancey said, but it was good-natured.
"I'm fiction," Ryan said, almost sulkily. Yancey grinned at him, and suddenly leaned over and kissed him on the forehead.
" I think it's nuts." She grinned. "But hey, we're nuts. We're the paranormal research lab. You have to be nuts."
"Or paranormal," Ryan said.
"Preferably both," Yancey answered him, and Ryan chuckled.
The wind struck them as soon as they walked out of the building, a cold, cutting wind that drove through the seams of their coats and lashed the blood into Yancey's cheeks in moments. "Ew!" she said, hunching against the blast. They pulled their limbs as far in as they could, trying to stay small in the face of the cold, and their breath steamed up into the icy air as they walked toward the Market. The streets were bound with snow, the cars tentative, the drifts between the road and sidewalk over knee high. They could hear the high whistling noise of the cars' fanbelts in the frigid air. "Global warming, my ass," Yancey said bitterly as they picked their way across a ridge that had remained unploughed.
Dana arrived in the office that afternoon. Her appearance was greeted with a slight look of apprehension from Ryan, but she seemed to ignore it. She looked tired. There were dark circles under her eyes, she was even paler than usual, and her mouse-brown hair had simply been pulled back away from her face and tied there - it looked rough, as though she hadn't actually brushed it that morning. Yancey felt kind of sorry for her - she seemed to put herself through hell every full moon. And talking about it usually got Dana into a murderous mood. Still, she looked up as Dana pulled off her coat, and said, "Hey, Dana, how are you doing?"
Dana had been eating a bagel, and she was holding it in her teeth to free her hands so she could take off her coat. She hung the coat, grabbed the bagel, swallowed, and said, shortly, "Fine." She took another bite of the bagel, and kicked off her boots. "Never fucking better."
"Where's Professor Park?" Ryan asked. Dana swallowed again.
"Got a call. Something from the police. I think he's at the morgue."
"The morgue?" Yancey asked, looking up.
"Yeah." Dana walked over to her desk, dropped her bag on the chair, and went to the coffee machine. Pouring a cup, she asked, "Is there any milk?"
"Think so," Ryan answered. "In the fridge."
"Milk?" Yancey asked. "You drink it black, don't you?"
"Not always," Dana said, pulling open the small bar fridge, bending to rummage through it. She straightened with the milk and two wrapped slices of leftover pizza. "Whose is this? Do you want it?" she asked.
"Nah. Go nuts," Yancey said, a little bemusedly.
Dana nodded, poured milk into her coffee and went back to her desk, pulling her chair out and into its usual back-to-the-wall, facing-doors-and-windows position. Finishing the bagel and starting into the cold pizza, she pulled her CD case out, started setting up her laptop.
They settled in to work. Dana seemed preoccupied, which didn't surprise Yancey. She was starting to get used to the pattern. Every month, Dana seemed to get a new surge of energy into an already grim, tenacious determination to find some kind of cure for her curse. Today she didn't speak much, but Yancey noticed her chewing on the edges of her fingers, absently, as she worked on her projects. She occasionally scribbled notes down in a book that she always kept in her bag when it wasn't open, and which Yancey knew had some kind of warding spell, if a rudimentary one, laid on it, to try to keep it from the eyes of others. She got up after a while and pulled open the refrigerator again, standing for a moment staring into the virtually empty space. "Damn it," she said. "I don't get it. I'm still hungry."
Yancey weighed the wisdom of saying it, and pointed out, "Well, you had a rough night last night, right?"
Dana, still staring into the refrigerator, shrugged. "Probably. Don't remember." Yancey was startled for a moment at the frankness of it - Dana usually tried to ignore her 'condition', and had a tendency to snarl at Yancey for bringing it up, even obliquely. This time Dana was just looking into the refrigerator, and had answered offhand, abstractedly, without the defences. But then she shot a look at Yancey, and it was clear she wanted to cover for the unguarded moment. "No. I don't know." She closed the refrigerator door and dug in her pockets. "I just want something to eat. I'm going to the store. Anyone want anything?"
"I'm okay," Yancey said. "Ryan and I just ate."
"Chocolate milk," Ryan said, handing over a couple of coins.
When Dana had gone, Yancey went over to Ryan's chair. "She's in a bad mood."
"I didn't notice a difference," Ryan said, and then gave Yancey an apologetic look. "Sorry, but it's a full moon. She'll be like this for days. She makes me really nervous."
"No, there's something else going on," Yancey said.
"At least she's hungry," Ryan said then, with a little smile. "Means she didn't eat anybody last night."
"Don't even joke about that."
The phone rang, and Ryan spun around to answer it. "It's your dime." No one had ever been able to convince him that he should answer with the name of the department or even with a simple "Hello," and Yancey supposed she should be glad he hadn't gone with something more along the lines of a deeply intoned, Lurch-like, "You rang?"
"Hey," Ryan was saying. "Sure, what do you need?" He looked puzzled, listening. "Oo."
Yancey watched with a little interest; Ryan was listening with the phone propped on his shoulder, and starting to shut down the screen he'd been working on. "Right . . ." he said. "Oo. Gross. Right - well, the firewall'll be hell but I think I'm good for it." Yancey grinned. She liked watching Ryan hack. It was one of the things he was genuinely good at. "Kay. Yeah, she's here . . . no, getting food or something . . . grumpy, what else is new?" He glanced at Yancey. "Sure. See you then." As he hung up, his face started assuming a look of concentration.
"Hacking, are we?" Yancey asked him, hoping to get him before he got to work and became inarticulate.
"Yeah," Ryan said, with a happy grin. "The city coroner's office. Official evidence records. Whee."
"That was Doctor Park, then?"
"Yup," Ryan said, switching his regular glasses for the pair of wraparound Ray-Bans he wore when he thought he was being a cybercowboy. "He was at the morgue. He says he'll come in later on, he wants to get us thinking on this thing."
"One of the guys he knows in the RCMP called him up. They brought in a stiff last night. Homeless guy, apparently. No ID. They were trying to figure out cause of death. The Professor came in to help out with the autopsy, cause the guy was found dead down on Albert, no sign of ODs or anything, and no sign of hypothermia. Except when they got him open, there were ice crystals in his heart. Weird, eh?"
Yancey cocked her head at him. "In his heart?"
"Yup. Apparently there were witnesses. He started shouting at thin air, screaming at something or other, and then he keeled over dead. When they got him to the morgue . . ." He shrugged. "Ice in his heart. Rest of him just fine. Aside from being a probably crazy, alcoholic homeless guy who was outside last night when it was minus thirty." He reached into a drawer of his desk for an MD player. "I'm supposed to see if I can look up any related cases. . ." He slipped the tiny, sparkling earphones into his ears, and Yancey sighed. She wasn't going to get any more out of Ryan for a while. She let him dive in.
Dana came back in, carrying a plastic shopping bag, and Yancey relayed what Ryan had told her. "No other flesh frozen. But crystals in his heart," Dana repeated. "Well, that's definitely scientifically improbable."
"Yeah, you could say that," Yancey said.
"Any idea what could have happened?"
"Well," Yancey said thoughtfully, "I doubt the Snow Queen got to him."
"The Snow Queen?" Dana asked, puzzled, and Yancey rolled her eyes.
"Honest to God, didn't you read any fairytales when you were a kid?" she said in exasperation. Meeting Dana's expression, she gave up. "Just - don't answer that."
Ryan went to class a little later, and Dana vanished to the library, and Yancey was left in the office. She turned on the radio, got tired of the voices, put a Pogues CD in the player instead. She didn't feel like working, she was tired of coffee, but she had an hour or so before her mythology and gender class. She paced in the room, got up to look out the window. In the empty courtyard below their office, the wind was gusting little spirals of snow into the air, polishing nubbly patches of ice crust. The trees looked brittle and frail, and the sky was a steady, chill blue, the colour of air with all the water frozen out of it. She could hear the wind whistling past the air vents and windows and ducts of the building, and even though it was warm in the office, she shivered. This country, she thought, can kill you, no matter how civilised you think you are.
There was something in the air, she thought. An unpleasant feeling, something in the way the weather had locked everything down, the cold descending like an immobilising force on the city. It felt, somehow, not malevolent, but threatening. Like a prowling animal that made no moral decisions. She thought for a second, and then went back to her desk, sitting down, trying to concentrate. She rested her forehead against her hands, elbows on her table, fingers running into the front wave of her hair, closed her eyes, but the uneasy feeling continued, and after a few minutes she was simply nervous, uncomfortable, and she jumped when the door opened and Doctor Park came in.
"Shit," she said, breathlessly. "You scared me."
"Sorry," Doctor Park said, shutting the door and hanging his coat by the door. He turned to look at her, crisp and precise as ever. "Is there anything wrong?"
"Depends on your definition," Yancey said. "Maybe." She sighed.
'Well, Dana's wandering around growling at everybody, but other than that we're fine." Doctor Park sighed.
"She had a particularly difficult time last night. I may have to replace my cellar doors."
Yancey's eyes widened. "That bad, huh?" Doctor Park nodded and walked to the door of his private office.
"Did Ryan come up with anything yet?" he said, one hand on the doorframe.
"Not yet," Yancey said. "He had to go to class. Do you know anything else about this dead guy?"
"No," Doctor Park said. "It's puzzling." He looked into his office, then came back out. "What would you say would cause a man's heart to freeze when the rest of him was just fine?"
Yancey shook her head. "No idea. I'm going to try to do some research after class, this afternoon. What's the official story?"
Doctor Park's mouth curled in half a smile. "Well, they had to say hypothermia, didn't they?"
"Who was he?"
"We traced his fingerprints. His name was Keith Robie, he was 47 years old, no fixed address, apparently a usual customer at homeless shelters all over the area. He was a drifter; they said he was suffering from schizophrenia, he was treated a few years ago. They were trying to find his family when I left. There's nothing too strange about his record, for someone in his situation."
"No history of anything weird happening in his family, then."
"We don't know," Doctor Park said. "There could be, but I doubt we'll get anything out of his family, if they ever find them."
Yancey sat back in her chair, playing with one of the curls that had, inevitably, escaped the bun, absently. "This is really bizarre," she said.
"It is," Doctor Park said.
"I mean even for us."
Doctor Park nodded.
"So we have to figure it out," she said, brightly.
"That's the spirit," he said, and vanished into his office.
*natch, to be continued*
© Kathryn Hunt, 2004