Chapter 22 – Hess – Iteration 144
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It took close to an hour of awkward silence for Quebec to regain her equilibrium. Zack used the time to reflect on his failures. When Quebec informed him they were leaving for New York that night and started a shower, he found the pen that had failed to pick his lock and wrote a quick letter.

The hours I have spent with you have been the best of my life. I wish I was Hess, but I’m not. Maybe he is still out there somewhere, lost in a rainforest or trapped in the arctic. I need to leave now. If I stay with you, I will only cause you more pain. Remember your promise to stay away from the others.

Zack took the car keys and slipped out of the room. In the parking lot, the key fob identified her rental car for him. He had her Prius on the road before anyone could exit the hotel. Zack forced his mind to stillness as he drove past familiar sights. It wasn’t until he parked at the gas station where he had worked the past five years that his stomach began to churn.

His manager Kelly scowled at him the moment he entered the store. “The hell have you been?”

Zack ignored her, depending on the line of customers at the register to keep her occupied. He punched the digits to Lacey’s cell phone number into the store’s phone and listened to it ring. When it picked up on the fourth ring, just before the voicemail would kick in, there was only breathing on the other side.

“Do you still have Lacey?”

Erik’s voice replied. “She’s been whining about that hand of hers.”

“Are you still willing to release her in exchange for me?”

“Deal’s still on, lover-boy.”

“Then come pick me up. I’m at the gas station.”

“No tricks?”

“No tricks. I’m turning myself in.” He hung up the receiver and went outside to sit at the employee’s break pavilion. His hands shook as he sat on the picnic table. Lacey wants to live and I don’t. Maybe this will make up for the love I could never give her.

Kelly stormed out of the store before Erik arrived. “You better be quitting, because I don’t need the trouble you cause. You miss your shift. You don’t even call. You don’t even answer when I call.”

“I quit, Kelly.”

“Thank God,” she said. “Now get the hell off company property. Check’s in the mail.”

“Just waiting on my ride. This will be the last time you have to see my face.”

Kelly started back towards the store. “There’s something wrong with you.”

The truck he had driven only that morning pulled up before the pavilion. Erik waved him over, eyes steady as an eagle's. “Hop in, Hess.” A quiet expectation had replaced the levity.

Zack circled the truck and climbed into the passenger seat. “All by yourself?”

“The others don't have the stomach for this. I think next Iteration I'll be hunting you solo.” She glanced towards him often as she drove. “I prefer it that way. Might take longer to find you, but I won't have to deal with their rules.”

He remained silent, unable to think of a safe response.

“They think I'm as bad as you,” Erik said. “But all of us have our quirks. Things that draw us world after world. Drake with the science and tech crap. Ingrid and religions. Griff does the migrant worker shtick every time. Serial murders are just another quirk. A useful one. You wouldn't believe how much people reveal about themselves in extreme situations. The rest of you think you learn human nature watching them putz about their routines, but only I discover the truth.

“There is something magical in the moment an individual chooses annihilation over continuation. You can bring them back to the side of sanity, but if they cross the line too many times they are broken forever. This is what I show the Creator. The true reaction of life to its existence. You would be surprised how weak the will to live is in the most fortunate. The downtrodden have so much more fight in them. I think that says something about the nature of these creatures.”

She pulled into the long driveway of the farm, slowing the truck to a crawl. “Why did you return, Hess? What pushed you across that magic line?”

Zack swallowed. “I've always been broken, Erik.”

“We're not like them. Wounds vanish. Even experiences fade into the background. We have too many of them to fixate on any one for long. So what tipped the scales from life to death?”

The game with Bridgette posing as Elza was supposed to hurt me. Maybe I can convinced her to stop hunting Quebec. “Elza doesn't want me anymore. She blames me for what happened to her.”

Erik considered his words. “Did she steal you away from Kerzon just to return your mix tape? I don't believe that, Hess. I think you would do anything to save your woman.”

She laughed. “I used to think I had more in common with you than any of the others. Sure, you saved the people and I killed them, but at heart the two of us were men of action – even when I was a woman. I know better now. Your sympathy with the people turned you against the Creator. I am loyal, Hess. Absolutely and completely loyal. I will never forgive you for your stunt last Iteration.”

The truck pulled to a stop before the barn. Zack nearly collapsed to the ground on his shaky legs when he stepped out of the vehicle. Erik crooked her finger to move him forward. “Now that you are separated from the other woman, the two of us can get on with our relationship. It will be a bit different from what you're used to. More kink, less kissing. And more time in the dark. Lacey told me about your nightlight.”

Zack's pace slowed to a crawl as they neared the barn. Each step forward moved slower and covered less distance. His breath came quickly. “Where is she? You promised to let Lacey go.”

“She's waiting inside the barn, Hess. I'll release her soon as you willingly sit down in your chair and let me tie you up. You're the one dragging things out. Take big boy steps if you want to speed things up.”

Zack gathered his nerve and quickened his pace. They stepped inside the barn, where Lacey sat bound to a sturdy wooden chair, looking ragged. Her face was puffy from dark emotion and retained water. Her pregnant belly rose and fell with her rapid breathing. She started crying when he appeared.

“Things will be better now,” he said, unable to stop the quiver in his voice. “I couldn't figure out a way to save both of us, but you get to go home now. You need to take care of the baby. Understand?” Zack collapsed into the chair beside her.

The other Observers were present, silent in the background. Erik slipped up behind him, pulled one arm over the solid central rung of the ladder-back chair and the other below, then cuffed them together. I’m the only one who doesn’t carry handcuffs, he thought, then laughed hysterically.

“Good boy, Hess. Now let's release Lacey.” Erik stepped around to the front of Zack's wife, picked up a large knife that looked suitable for hacking through a rainforest, and stabbed it through the base of Lacey's jaw up into her head. As Lacey spasmed, the woman named Erik twisted the knife with a savage motion of her wrist and elbow.

Sudden rage seized Zack. “We had a deal!”

Erik pulled the knife free and spit in his face. “You dragged her into this when you escaped. Did you really think I would let her run free after witnessing everything? Be happy I gave her a quick death, Hess. I had a lot worse planned for her. I'll have to find someone else to torture. Maybe Elza. Everyone knows I never cared for the clever little bitch.”

The woman loomed over him with her knife, then jabbed it forward into his face. Zack flinched away a hair too slow. “It doesn't get any darker than not having eyeballs, Hess. I can slice these things out all fucking day.”