The Swan And The Snake: Prologue

Yeah, I know his editor.

Each letter was a silent death wish into the depths of the dark night that the woman had not foreseen when she pressed the enter key. She just wanted to be cool, one can imagine. After all, The Flavourful Twilight of The Soul was one of the biggest names in the seedy shadows of the web all of a sudden. Everyone knew it, but no one knew what it was. They knew the writer, Derek Merriman – no one didn’t know Merriman, the recluse, the savant, the magician, the genius, even if they didn’t know Merriman. Shadowman was still making so much bank that a lit reviewer for the New York Times joked that their bestseller list would have to make a Number Zero just to accommodate for his unwavering brilliance.

And yet here is this book, this alleged masterpiece, his magnum opus, and everyone’s talking about it, but no one’s seen it. Dozens of people in a chat room talking about a book that they can’t actually prove the existence of.

And she was about to jump on their bandwagon for kicks.

Next you’ll say you’re one of the 999, someone replied. Liar, the person typed again.

Almost in tandem with the first, someone else implied the same: liar liar pants on fire. no one has a copy of flavourful twilight you know that.

Yeah, I know that, she typed. I never *said* I had one. I’m saying I know the editor. She said she worked for the guy. Kept going on about his eccentric style or whatever. I’m sure if anyone would have a copy of original notes, or know why the book isn’t coming out, it’d be her.

The first responder: Really?

The second responder: stop lyin we dont care. can we just talk about the books we know he wrote?

Back to the first: So you don’t believe that Flavourful Twilight is real?

Back to the second: i believe that if derek fking merriman wrote another book his editor would be a damn fool not to jump on it. so either this chick is a bald-faced liar or this editor really isn’t your friend girl. because if she was your friend she’d fking publish the book.

It wasn’t the only time she’s heard that exact same sentiment online. Every small Merriman fan club forum felt that way – the man could only type gold, and there was no excuse for us not having such a nugget in our possession. It had to be unreal, or too bad to be real, if we can’t see it now.

The truth is, it probably didn’t exist. But the less it did, the more mystique can be built by playing along. Every voice adding to the rumour is a voice propelled to cult idol status, ‘someone who knows’, someone of value in this little underground cabal of readers. And she wanted really badly to be considered valuable.

Merriman was what helped her avoid that fear of being abandoned, after all. No matter how few friends she had or how little her mother kissed her on the forehead, she could pick up a Merriman book and read it cover to cover, then cover to cover again, and feel like she was a part of something, a world only he could open the door to, and that he opened only for her. She never met the man, but she felt more strongly connected to his words than she could to any friend or lover she ever pined for.

So what better way to respect his legacy, she must have thought, than to escape through his words again, even if those words were never truly written?

The second speaker chimed in, after some moments of wordlessness. i heard u can get a copy on the darkweb. Just dam up your privacy settins nice and tight and you can get one of the galley prints from silk road or whatever.

The first speaker, after a few seconds, replied. Yeah, I heard that too.

The girl hadn’t heard of that. But she had committed to her role already. She couldn’t very well back out to ask a question.

I doubt that’s the real deal. How’d they get it? Again, if anyone knows the scoop, it’d be my pal Elise. She had just made the name. It felt like it flowed better than not citing her name at all – what kind of person talks about their friend in any other way than as lovingly as that? In hindsight, the answer came – people who don’t want their friends’ identities swimming around the internet – but why would she care now? There is no Elise. They can do with her name whatever they wish.

The second speaker: yeah whateverrrr talk to us when you have scans of the fkin book then.

Okay, I will. :P. In that moment, she reckoned that credibility can only be had by bluffing as hard as one could, and she was prepared to, at least until her bubble was bound to burst.

She would never see that happen, though.

There was a knock on her apartment door, three quick raps. The woman closed her laptop and got up from her desk to answer it. In the corner of her eye she glanced the flickering light of her alarm clock; it was eleven forty-six, and she rarely got visitors at all, especially not at this hour. She was current on her rent, for the most part, and her landlady wouldn’t get up at minutes to midnight to harass her about coming up short when she had perfect daylight hours to do so. For a moment, she pondered who would be interested in talking to her this late at night, but she cast the thought aside.

“Hello?” A voice called out from behind the door, knocking it again thrice in succession.

“I’m comin’, I’m comin’.” She turned and pulled every lock on her door and pulled it open a crack. “How may I help you?”

“Are you Arlene Sanchez?” A pale girl, short – maybe four-feet-ten-inches, but she wasn’t sure, she was bad with averaging heights like that – stood before her in a tailored navy blue suit. The girl ran her black-gloved right hand along her tie, silken, red with thin dark bars running across it horizontally. There was a tie pin, but she couldn’t make out the thing, only that it was round, but not perfectly so.

“Uh, yeah. Who are you?”

“I would like to come in and discuss something with you,” the girl said. “It’s a matter of incredible importance.”

“’I would like to come in’ is not a Christian name. Can we talk about this where you are?”

“I’m afraid not, Miss Sanchez. Please, may I come in?”

Arlene paused for a moment. The girl looked like she couldn’t be over thirteen or fourteen, but certainly didn’t act like it. She never saw the girl in this apartment building before; and if she really wasn’t from around here, she had no right being out in the kind of neighbourhood they were in at this hour. “What’s your game, little girl?”

“Not little. Not girl. I’m coming in.” She kicked the door with the back of her heel, knocking Arlene back enough for the girl to come inside quickly and kick it back shut. “I’m sorry, but it’s absolutely important, and I don’t have much time to waste.”

“What the fuck?” Arlene braced against the crowded bookshelf behind her to avoid from tumbling down, then straightened herself. “You have no right simply barging into people’s apartments like-”

The Flavourful Twilight of The Soul. I’ve come to talk about that.”

Arlene froze. She didn’t know what to think of that. Was the jig already so embarrassingly up that someone came to rub it in her face, in living colour, the very moment she closed her laptop?

“Is it fair to say,” the girl said, “that you know where to get a copy?”

“That’s what you came here for?” Arlene walked slowly to her computer, her eyes still on the girl. “If you just give me a few days I may be able to get something for you-”

“From your editor friend, right? Elise?”

“Uh… this is some joke, right? You set this up before you got here, didn’t you? To see who’d take the bait?”

“I didn’t set anything up, Miss Sanchez. You know that.” The girl reached for a metal folding chair leaning against the wall – Arlene had several, and a folding table as well, as a makeshift dining room in the case of impromptu company – and opened it to sit. “I follow the chat rooms, the forums, comment sections here and there. I was in the area. Imagined I’d check this hunch first.”

“… Hunch?” Arlene dropped into her own chair.

“In hindsight, I just came to punish you, I reckon. But we’ll get to that once you be honest.” The girl folded her legs, placing her palms slowly on her lap. “So, the editor’s last name. What is it?”

Arlene said nothing. She gazed at the girl, transfixed, a bit confused. Very confused, rather.

“I said what’s the girl’s last name? Elise what?”

“Uh-”

“In fact, don’t bother. You see, no one named Elise has ever worked at Harbinger Publishing. Not before Derek Merriman’s first book, not during his success, and not after his seclusion – so why’d you make one up?”

Arlene was dumbstruck. A battle waged in her head to fess up or keep the lie going, but she didn’t know who this girl was or why she was here.

“So, I’ll be direct. I came to pick up a copy of the book, much like everyone else. You should be only a little bit glad that you don’t have one. But I’m not sure if I can trust that to be true. Can I?”

“I… I don’t have one.” Arlene could barely find her voice. “I just… was playing along, I guess. The book’s not real. Just forget it. Make fun of me, whatever. Just forget it.”

“Oh, the book’s not real?” The girl’s voice rose just a bit.

“It can’t be. A Merriman book everyone knows about but can’t find? It’s, it’s a hoax or something, a marketing thing -”

“The book’s not real?! The book’s not fucking real? So what, is Shadowman a fairy tale then?” Her shouting made Arlene jump backwards, out of her computer chair and onto the floor, the upturned furniture’s wheels rolling slowly in the air.

The girl got up and dashed toward her, already on bent knee beside her body, her own face above the girl’s face. Something small glinted in her hand at Arlene’s neck as the moonlight and the light of the city outside hit it, but Arlene couldn’t make out its shape. “You can tell any other blind fool whatever you wish. But not me. I will not tolerate another fucking lie out of your mouth, do you understand?”

Arlene tried to nod, but not so much as to feel the discomforting cold of the thing in the girl’s hand against her neck.

“Okay, good. So, have you ever seen a copy of The Flavourful Twilight of The Soul?”

“No…” Arlene croaked. “N-no, I haven’t. I didn’t know it was a -”

“Shut up till I ask you something else.” The girl stayed there afterward, hovering over her head, pausing long from any other questions, simply looking deep into Arlene’s eyes with fearsome judgment.

“So, one more time.” Suddenly, the light left the corner of Arlene’s eye, and something sharp and cold plunged deep into the skin of her hand. She cried out, but the girl put her free hand over her lips, stifling the noise as she twisted quickly a whole quarter-turn. “What is Elise’s last name?”

“There is no Elise! You said! There is no Elise! I made her up!” Arlene squealed through the girl’s fingers. “Please! What the fuck is going on?!”

The girl pulled the thing out of her hand, and the pain would persist. Arlene backed into a corner, clutching her bleeding hand close to her chest, as far away from her, but still not too far that she could not reach, and the girl grabbed her hair and looked her in the eyes once more. “Don’t scream,” the girl in the suit said. “So you know no Elise?”

“I know no Elise! I swear!”

“And this Elise… she didn’t come to you in a dream?”

“A dream… no. I swear. I made her up. Out of thin air.”

“Don’t lie to me,” the girl in the suit said, softly, almost comfortingly, still glaring fiercely.

“I’m not lying. Honest. Just don’t hurt me. Please. It’s just a -”

Don’t say it’s just a fucking book,” the girl said, and Arlene fell suddenly silent, stiff, her eyes fixed on the girl’s face. “So. Don’t lie to me.”

Arlene Sanchez just sat there, unmoving, her eyes on the girl as she continued.

“Miss Sanchez, what colour is the door?”

“M-my… my door?“ she glanced over her shoulder at the apartment door. She took it far too much for granted to recall its colour at will, but she could see it clearly enough in the halflight of the moon through the window, enough to jog her memory. “It’s white – off-white. Off-white.”

“Good. Thank you.”

And it was with those words that the girl in the suit thrust her knife through Arlene’s neck, far too suddenly for her to react.

“I am going to tell you the truth, Miss Sanchez,” she whispered in her ear, the blood rolling down onto Arlene’s white shirt as she withdrew her blade. “The book is real. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Someone thought it would be a brilliant idea to share that which should not be shared, and now people have it. And you were doing a good job of making sure people didn’t know, really, but one day you’d want to know yourself, so I can’t allow you to stay. Maybe, when you get where you’re going, you will understand.”

Arlene gurgled in resistance, fighting hard enough to make a sound, not audible enough, but made anyway, and surely still important: “Why?”

“I can’t tell you,” the girl said, getting up, dusting her pants with her hands, and looking over at the bookshelf. A spine stood out to her, and she walked over slowly, stepping over Arlene’s foot to get there. “You have Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony. I haven’t read this one yet… do you mind if I borrow it?”

Arlene’s eyes widened in both the horror of the last moment and the confusion of the present one.

“Oh, right,” the girl said, walking toward the door. “Who am I kidding? Of course you don’t mind.”

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