Washington D.C., USA
Many consider it cruel for sirens to maintain a parental relationship with their latent children. Because of Morgan le Fay’s geas, latent sirens can’t comprehend what sirens are, and once latent sirens reach puberty, they are as susceptible to the siren spell as any fertile human. Breaking with your children while they are still young enough to recover is widely considered less harmful to their development than sending them away in their early teens. Transitioned siren support groups now meet in every siren city to help you deal with this and other aspects of your transition.
– Sirens: An Overview for the Newly-Transitioned, 3rd ed. (2015), by Mira Bant de Atlantic, p. 109.
Mary decided she didn’t actually care what the neighbors thought and opened the windows of the rooftop conservatory wide. It was a hot, sunny day with barely any breeze. September in D.C. was typically warm, but today was especially humid. She might have been more comfortable keeping the room hermetically-sealed with the climate control carefully set at sixty-eight degrees, but today she needed to feel the world outside. To know that there was a real world out there.
She walked over to the file cabinet in the corner of the overly-bright space. Mary had still been performing when they’d bought the townhouse, and so had decided to turn the rooftop conservatory into her music room. But it had been a long time since she’d really come up here; she’d stopped practicing a couple of years ago when she let her solo work slip completely.
Today though, she wanted to see the sky while she sang. She knew she had to try something other than drinking to help her come to terms with the bombshell of truth Thomas had dropped on her last week.
Why did Mike insist I take personal leave? Mary thought, not for the first time. Everyone needed some structure in life, and the lack of routine was making this whole situation worse. Despite what Mike thought, being busy with the choir wasn’t why she refused to schedule an appointment with the therapist he’d found.
Mary wondered for a moment if she should call work and tell them she’d be back tomorrow. But after taking last week off to handle her latest “family crisis,” she wasn’t sure what she’d say when she got back. Still, she had to do something. Today was the first day since Tuesday that she’d even gotten fully dressed.
And in truth, the only reason she’d done that was because the mage-technician was finally coming to fix the garbage disintegrator this afternoon. That small event and four Advil made all the difference.
“Oh, you’re up there.” Mike’s voice sounded faint against the louder sound of rush-hour traffic wafting up from the street, and Mary listened as Mike started up the stairs.
Mary felt a slight pang of guilt. He was worried about her. She’d told him not to hover; that didn’t help. Today, she wanted to sing; singing would help.
“I’m practicing, Mike,” she called out, hoping he’d just go to work. But Mike kept coming up anyway, pausing when he reached the top of the stairs. Mary didn’t look up from the open drawer, even though she could feel him staring at her, appraising her, wondering if it was safe to leave her home alone.
She paused for a moment, enjoying the uncertainty he felt. Fair penance for making her stay home till she could “sort things out.” But then immediately felt guilty: none of this was his fault, and he was trying to be helpful, as heavy-handed and awkward as it was. Mary sighed and turned around.
God, she had married a handsome man! Honey-dark hair, still, even at fifty-six. Mike had the same solid form that he had when she first met him: blue eyes, framed by heavy eyebrows that made him look Greek, with a strong jaw and broad shoulders. But today, he seemed haggard.
“You haven’t practiced in years,” Mike said, with the look Mary recognized as him testing the air for a lie.
But Mary wasn’t lying. She wasn’t going to jump out the window, and she wasn’t going to drink herself into oblivion after he left for work like she had all week. The disintegrator repairman was coming this afternoon, after all. And she hadn’t spent over three thousand dollars on the platinum service plan just to throw herself out the window when it came time to take advantage of her foresight.
“I feel like singing, Mike,” Mary said and turned back to the file cabinet. She wasn’t being fair to him. “I’m not going to make an appointment with any doctor until I’m ready. I need to sing — I don’t need a therapist.”
Mike didn’t need to be a truth-teller to taste her truth. Mary was done drinking her feelings into numbness; now she just wanted to pretend for a while that everything was still the same. The last thing she wanted to do was talk to some stranger.
She rifled through the hanging files, searching for the piece of music she had been hearing in her mind since she woke up with a pounding head. She wasn’t usually drawn to Mozart, but last night she’d heard a Mozart aria in her dreams: “Vendetta ti chiedo, la chiede il tuo cor!” Over-the-top, of course. But that’s what opera was. And now she was a character in her own opera.
“Are you sure you’re all right, Mary?” Mike asked, taking a few hesitant steps in her direction.
But Mary was too familiar with Mike to fall for his truth-testing gambit. She looked back over her shoulder at him. “I’m as well as I can be, Mike,” Mary said, turning back to the files. “I need to sing now.” She added a little force to her tone, and perhaps that persuaded Mike that she could safely be left alone.
“All right,” he said. “But if you need me — for anything — just call.”
Mary nodded but didn’t turn around. If she gave him an opening, he’d try to comfort her again, and Mary didn’t want a hug. She wanted to sing angry songs. Vengeance songs. Songs of betrayal. Songs of rage. Because this morning when she woke up, Mary decided that she wasn’t going to be sad, she was going to be angry.
The morning flew by. While she hadn’t practiced like this in years, it wasn’t like she hadn’t sung at all — she did direct the choir after all and often sang bits with them when they rehearsed. Still, it was a relief that her voice didn’t seem to have lost as much power as she’d expected. The body was an instrument, and age took its toll on singers, especially out-of-practice singers.
Mary worked on Donna Anna’s Don Giovanni aria well into the afternoon before realizing she needed to eat. Her heels clunked loudly on the uncarpeted stairs as she tromped down to the ground floor. She was glad she’d never been able to pick out a runner because the noise was rather satisfying.
Satisfaction was a much better emotion to feel than despair or even the half-hearted rage she had tried to conjure with her singing. Even if she hadn’t really been able to feel any anger this morning, at least she’d discovered how little of her operatic voice she’d lost. Mary frowned slightly as the thought crossed her mind that her unusual stamina may be a result of her siren ancestry. She felt her stomach churn, hating the idea that she would have to think about her own self differently now that she knew her real family history.
Damn them all, Mary thought, the profanity lingering in her mind as she stomped into the kitchen. She took a glass from the cabinet and opened the freezer to see if, by some miracle, there was any vodka left. Though there was no miracle about it. Vodka wasn’t her first choice, so there was at least an inch or two left in the bottle. Mary poured her drink, then paused.
There was no point in putting the bottle back with almost nothing left. She emptied the rest of it into her glass. At least she hadn’t been reduced to drinking from the bottle. Mary started to toss the empty bottle into the disintegrator when she remembered why the technician was coming in the first place.
“You can’t put glass in a garbage disintegrator,” the Danjou Enterprises customer service representative had lectured.
“I’ve done it before,” Mary countered, feeling oddly defensive. Surely dropping a little glass into the machine couldn’t really cause it to smoke like that?
“Well, glass is made of silica, and putting glass into the disintegrator upsets the silica-salt balance of the machine. Readjusting that requires mage sight, so we’ll have to send a mage-technician, and they’re hard to schedule.”
“I have the platinum service plan—” Mary began, but the representative cut her off.
“The manual clearly explains that you can’t throw any silica-based compounds, especially glass, into the machine, or you void your warranty. Everyone knows silica-salt can’t be enchanted.” The representative’s tone implied that she thought Mary was an idiot.
But Mary had never read the manual. She never read appliance manuals. They reminded her too much of her mother, typing away late at night, supposedly writing appliance manuals on a contract basis. But that, too, had been a lie.
Thinking about Mom had made Mary start to cry. Her mother, supposedly dead for thirty years, was alive. Mary had actually spoken to “Mom” only a few weeks ago when she’d pretended to be the home health aide sent to help Amy.
Her mother, who had missed her Milan premiere, missed her wedding, never even met her grandchildren … was alive and well in Boston, of all places.
This stranger could call herself, “Mom,” all she wanted: real family showed up. And “Mom” hadn’t shown up for her in decades. Mary’s real mother never would have abandoned her. This resurrected “Mom” no longer had any right to call herself that.
But “Mom” had shown up for Amy, and as far as Mary knew, she was still in Amy’s apartment. Worse, Thomas and Cordelia had known Mom was still alive and said nothing. Nothing! For thirty years! And so, Mary had spent the past week crying. Crying, drinking, and throwing up. But at least all her blubbering had made the customer service rep take pity on her, and she’d adjusted the mage-technician’s schedule so they’d be here this afternoon.
It was three now, and the window was one-to-four. They had better show up. So stupid that such an expensive machine could be ruined just because you threw a glass bottle into it. Well now that Amy was a mage, she’d probably be able to explain it to her.
Not that Mary cared. She finished her drink and put the glass in the dishwater. Mary didn’t want to care about anything. The taste of vodka was bitter on her tongue, but Mary didn’t feel it. She should have just gotten a bottle of water.
Sirens. Mages. Curses. ‘Not Mom’s fault,’ Thomas had claimed. No one’s fault. It didn’t matter if there was no one was to blame; Mary was sick of being sad, and the vodka wasn’t helping her get to the point of blissful numbness it had before. If she had to feel something, she wanted to feel angry. Anger would be a nice change.
If only composers wrote angry arias for sopranos. Instead, they wrote them for tenors who’d been tricked into believing their innocent lovers had betrayed them. But Mary didn’t want tortured operatic plots. The truth was simple: her mother had abandoned her. Abandoned her and Amy to be with Thomas and Cordelia instead. The songs written for abandoned sopranos were songs of despair, not rage. And while that might be more realistic, Mary didn’t want to feel like this anymore.
Her heels clicked loudly on the wood floor as she climbed back up the four flights to her conservatory. She didn’t usually put on shoes when she wasn’t planning to go out, but then she didn’t usually practice arias like she was still performing. Getting fully dressed made her seem less depressed, though. Fake it till you make it, Mary supposed.
She puffed a little at the top of the stairs, looking out the windows before opening the bottle of water she’d brought up. You couldn’t see the whole city from here — there were lots of buildings in D.C. taller than their townhouse — but they had a corner lot, and the light was brilliant.
Mary didn’t even feel the vodka anymore. She must have built up too much of a tolerance over the past week. Something she should perhaps worry about, but instead, she just walked over to her file cabinet of music to find a lied to fit her mood. If arias wouldn’t suit, she’d find a German song. German always sounded a little angry.
She flipped through the files rapidly, searching for something that wasn’t love or madness or despair. Her hand hesitated. There was a sheet pushed in between the hanging files, quite out of order. She’d performed it in high school: Die Lorelei. Another story song, another song that didn’t fit her mood. But her hand hesitated: she hated disorder. She could at least put it in the correct folder.
Die Lorelei. An 1820s Hesse poem about a siren indifferently combing her hair as she reaped destruction. The music didn’t fit her mood. Or maybe it did — she’d have to sing it to find out.
She sat down at the upright piano near the open window. Mary knew it was stupid to leave the window open — bad for the instrument — but she liked the connection to the outdoors. She hadn’t sung this song in such a long time that she played the melody through twice before trying to sing it. The A-flat above middle C stuck a bit. I’ll need to get the piano tuner in as well, she thought before starting to sing.
Mary’s full focus was gradually drawn into the song. It had never been her favorite tune, but the melodic line was sure. She stood up, clipping the music onto the stand in front of the open window, in case a breeze miraculously arose.
“Sie kämt es mit goldenem Kämme / Und singt ein Lied dabei / Das hat eine wundersame / Gewaltige Melodei!”
Mary’s voice was strong, her tone more substantial than when she’d first sung the lied at sixteen. Her song carried over the street noises below, and the few passersby not on their cellphones paused for a brief moment as they walked down the block, before moving more slowly on their way. Who was the siren singing the violent melody now? Mary thought.
Below, the blond woman in flip-flops with a bright yellow rubber bag slung across her shoulder stood at the door to Mary’s townhouse, listening.
That morning, Mike was torn between leaving and staying. He wanted to go because watching Mary tear herself apart had become unbearable. She wouldn’t see any of the doctors he’d found for her, wouldn’t talk to him, wouldn’t speak to the kids. The only thing she’d done for the past week was drink.
But today she was singing. And Mike wasn’t totally sure whether her change in behavior meant that she was getting herself back together, but it had to be better than what she’d been doing before.
He’d listened to Mary’s half-truths, sure she didn’t even consciously realize that she wasn’t being completely honest, then pretended to leave, waiting for at least twenty minutes until he heard her start to practice. Just to make sure.
Mary hadn’t used the conservatory for solo practice since Alicia had gone to college, and she’d let her various performance engagements dwindle. When the kids went off to school, most people picked up hobbies or volunteer work. They filled the void of a child-free house with a dog, or started playing golf on the weekends … They didn’t wind stuff down. But Mary had dropped everything except her actual job with the choir.
Mike berated himself silently. Discovering the truth about her family’s lies might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but Mary had been bending under some weight for a while. He should have known something was wrong when she stopped serving as the cantor at mass.
But she’s singing again today. That’s got to be a good thing, Mike thought, biting his hangnail as he listened to Mary begin the aria. His heart skipped a beat at the purity of her tone. She may not have practiced in several years, but her voice could still grab him. His cell buzzed in his pocket, and he shook himself out of his reverie.
“Hey, Christine. What’s up?” Mike asked as he stepped out the door. By now, his assistant was used to him skipping the preliminaries. As a truth-teller, he didn’t lie and avoided social pleasantries as a general matter.
“Ms. Watkins wants to see you when you get in. She had me tell Jerry to go ahead with the deposition without you,” Christine said directly in response. She’d worked with Mike long enough to know how much small talk grated on his ears.
Mike’s heart sank. Shortly after truth-telling the Danjou elder for Major General Hayden last year, his boss had started getting requests for Mike’s secondment. At the time, Hayden had told Mike that he wanted him on his staff permanently, but Mike never imagined the general would be this persistent.
Unlike General Hayden, the Department of Justice needed Mike to read truth daily: they were always interviewing witnesses and investigating the truth behind crimes. They’d been prepping for weeks on today’s deposition of the key witness in their high-profile antitrust case. But Hayden hadn’t given up in the face of the DOJ’s opposition.
Mike’s boss had already promised to make him available to Hayden upon request, but the general had been clear that the promise of a free resource wouldn’t be enough. He said he wanted Mike full-time and wasn’t taking no for an answer. The fact that today’s deposition was going forward without Mike probably meant that the general had finally gotten his way.
“Okay, Christine. I’m on my way now.”
“I’ll let her know … and Mike, I’m sorry.”
“You wanted to see me,” Mike confirmed after his boss waved him into her office.
Ann Marie Watkins was wearing a yellow blouse today. The color was a bright contrast to the dim light and set off her dark skin and eyes. The U.S. Attorney was well-regarded at the DOJ, and Mike felt personally indebted to her for her willingness to battle government bureaucracy to get him transferred to her team. She’d won the battle with the CIA, but the look in her eyes told him she’d lost the fight with the DoD.
“Sit down.” Watkins gestured to the chair that wasn’t covered in file folders. After Mike sat, she shook her head.
“I’m sorry, Mike. There’s nothing more I can do.” Lie.
Mike ignored the sour taste of her white lie; he wouldn’t expect her to call in every favor she had just for him. She’d done enough already.
“I appreciate everything you’ve done. Major General Hayden wants what he wants, I suppose. I just can’t imagine I’ll be as useful at the Pentagon as I am here.”
Mike knew he’d helped Hayden enormously last year. The Danjou elder hadn’t wanted to reveal anything — especially not her enclave’s failure to capture the Brazilian pivot. If Mike hadn’t been there to read her truth, Elder Hilda wouldn’t have said anything about it, and General Hayden would still be wondering what information the government’s mage allies were withholding.
Still, that meeting seemed like an anomaly to Mike. He doubted Hayden was having many discussions like that one.
“It’s not just Hayden who wants you, Mike.” Watkins’ tone was serious. “I may have done you a disservice by explaining how valuable you were to us. I’m afraid I stirred up things better left buried.” Truth.
“What do you mean?” Mike asked.
“You’re being transferred to Major General Hayden’s staff. Which is what you expected and what we were trying to avoid, I know. But the more I resisted, the more the general started poking around, and I got a few calls from the FBI and the CIA. They want you back, Mike. You’re quite popular.” Watkins injected her tone with some levity, but Mike was far from amused; he felt his heart rate speed up.
Major General Hayden and the Defense Department was one thing — they were bureaucrats — military bureaucrats — but bureaucrats nevertheless. The CIA and FBI teams he’d worked with had been field agents. They’d been on the front lines of protecting the country. By the end, his job had become too hands-on.
“I’m not going back,” Mike said stiffly.
“That’s what I told them,” Watkins replied. Truth. “In fact, I told them that you’d quit government service altogether before being assigned to any CIA projects and that you even have an unusual term in your DOJ contract that allows you to refuse any FBI assignment.”
Mike felt a rush of relief at the lemony taste of Ann Marie’s astringent truth. She’d done what she could for him.
“Hayden says he needs you, and he’s got the pull to make it happen. This won’t be like it was before, Mike,” Watkins said gently.
The DOJ had rescued him from a dark place when he’d left the CIA. Mike hadn’t told Ann Marie why he needed out, of course. That was confidential, but he thought she’d put two-and-two together.
“I don’t understand why Hayden wants me on his staff so badly.” Mike shook his head. “I mean, I know he doesn’t have a ton of interviews that he wants me to sit through. Having me just wait around at the Pentagon is a waste of time and money.”
“Do you really think the military cares all that much about time and money? An efficient military is an oxymoron. You’re a valuable asset. After that Danjou meeting, they must have realized they were going to need you again at some point. Having you work for someone else means you may not be immediately available when they call. So, they’re willing to pay you to do nothing until they need you.”
“What a waste,” he said, the sour taste of his boss’ exaggeration mingling with his own disgust.
“Christ, Mike!” Ann Marie shook her head, surprised at his naiveté. “Ninety percent of the military’s job is to sit on their asses and wait for some shit to blow up somewhere. We pay a fortune in tax dollars just to make sure they’re available when we need them. It can’t be a huge shock that they want you to just sit around.”
Mike grumbled at the truth of that. “I hate sitting around.”
“Come on, you know half the depositions we have you sit in on are just to make the subject sweat. And I got Hayden to promise that if we really needed you, and you were available, we could borrow you. He owes us that, at least.”
Ann Marie was trying to make him feel better. She had always been a supporter.
“Is my contract just transferring over, or do they want to renegotiate?” Mike asked.
“Your call, but I’d advise you to stick with the contract you have. It took a lot of wrangling to get approval for the non-standard provisions. You could try to hold out for more money, but you’re already at the max of our pay scale, and those kinds of negotiations could leave you twiddling your thumbs for a while. Remember how long it took us.” Watkins smiled.
For a moment, Mike wondered if that wouldn’t be best. He could spend time with Mary while they worked out the details. But then, last week she’d reacted so badly when he took a personal day, it might be counterproductive. Stop hovering, she’d said with bite, then proceeded to down a quarter bottle of bourbon in all of ten minutes.
But today she’d started singing again.
“So what’s the story? When is this all taking place?” Mike asked.
“The contract transfer is effective immediately. You could delay it if you want to renegotiate …” Watkins let her voice trail off in a question. When Mike shook his head, she continued briskly.
“Well, after you pack up your office and say goodbye to the team, I want to take you to lunch.”
“You don’t have to do that—” Mike started to say, but his boss held up her hand to stop him.
“You have a lot of friends here, and I really wish we could keep you, but …” Ann Marie shrugged, then her face drew into a serious expression. “You know you can call me, Mike. Anytime.”
Mike felt a lot better about this change. If he even got a hint that this assignment was going to be a repeat of his last one with the CIA, Ann Marie Watkins would have his back. And with that assurance, Mike thought he might just be able to make the transition work.
By the time he was done passing by everyone’s offices, he’d eaten through most of his Tums and was actually eager to leave. Out of the frying pan, Mike thought as he left the building.
Mike decided it was a good sign that Lieutenant Steve Allen came down to the front desk to meet him personally, instead of having one of the duty officers walk him through security.
“Good to see you again, Mike,” Lieutenant Allen said, shaking his hand. Steve Allen was several inches taller than Mike, with close-cropped hair and light brown eyes. The younger man managed to convey warmth despite the pristine creases of his uniform and straight posture.
On the way to the general’s office, the lieutenant took the time to introduce him to various people on the “Arabian Team,” which was an unexpected courtesy. When you were a contractor instead of a regular employee, the federal workers sometimes treated you like a visitor, or worse, a trained monkey. But so far, General Hayden’s staff had been relatively welcoming.
“We’re the guys who manage the cluster-fuck that is inter-agency, inter-departmental cooperation on Arabian security, Mike,” Lieutenant Allen said as he walked him down the hall to the general’s office. “Project Hurricane is one of the toughest assignments at the Pentagon right now. Not that I’m biased or anything,” he added with a wry grin.
But Steve Allen was telling the truth, at least as he saw it. The crisp taste of that, along with his easy manner, gave Mike hope that this transfer might work out.
Steve nodded at the woman seated at a desk outside the General’s door.
“The general’s expecting you,” she said, before pushing a button on the phone. “Mr. Arnold is here to see you, general,” she said, then looked at Mike. “Go ahead.”
The general’s office was much larger than Ann Marie’s, with a bookcase to the right of the door and a rather threadbare green couch on the left. Mike wondered if General Hayden slept in his office; the worn edges of the armrest looked like it had taken that kind of use for years. The general was walking around his desk when Mike came in.
“Mike, we’re glad to have you aboard!” Major General Hayden’s face looked warm beneath his buzz-cut silver hair. “I had to get the White House involved to get your contract transferred over, but I know you won’t disappoint.” Truth.
That was a surprise. Mike knew the general would have needed some senior pull to counteract Ann Marie’s influence, but he hadn’t expected the President’s staff to be involved.
“I’ll do my best, sir,” Mike answered.
“After you helped us out last year with our Danjou allies, I knew we needed you full time.” Lie.
The burnt taste of Hayden’s partial lie didn’t bother Mike as much as the oddity of it.
“You don’t consider the Danjou our allies, then, sir?” he asked.
Hayden smiled a self-satisfied grin and pointed his finger at Mike. “And that’s why we need you, Mike. None of the truth-tellers in the armed services have your sensitivity. And believe me, before I went to the White House, I tried all of them out.” Hayden’s expression turned suddenly serious. “None of them could detect that level of nuance. And as you’ll soon learn, the Danjou are as much our adversaries as our allies. But come, sit down.”
General Hayden directed Mike to take one of the chairs in front of his desk while he moved around to sit behind it.
“Now, we don’t stand on formality … much,” the general said. “But we do require absolute discretion. You had Top Secret clearance already, but Project Hurricane is SAP, that is to say, a Special Access Program. Less than a dozen people have access to all the information you’ll be getting, and you should consider everything that goes on here at a Category One clearance level.” Truth.
Some of the terminology flew over his head, but Mike caught the gist: whatever they were working on here was super-secret. Good God, what have I gotten into now, he thought.
“But before we can officially welcome you aboard, we have to deal with a few concerns raised by the Australia Team. I want you to know that I have absolutely no doubt that you can be trusted with the kind of sensitive information we deal with here. I’ve already spoken to Javier Rodriguez and Chris Adams — everyone agrees that your integrity is unquestionable.” Truth.
The hot cider taste of the general’s absolute trust was warm, but Mike would have been more surprised if Hayden hadn’t expressed such confidence after talking to those two. He’d worked for the CIA and FBI for almost twenty-five years before moving to the DOJ. All his former colleagues would have ample reason to vouch for him, but Javier and Chris were especially well-regarded.
“General, I promise you that your confidence is not misplaced. But if there are any concerns that others have, I’m more than happy to go back to the DOJ,” Mike said.
“You’re not getting rid of us that easily,” Hayden said. “No, I’ll just need you to speak with our counterparts who focus on Australia. They’ve brought in Captain Carol Jackson to observe.”
Mike raised an eyebrow. Carol was one of the few truth-tellers in the military. Truth-tellers were a small community in any event, and he’d known Carol ever since she moved to D.C.
“I’ve known Captain Jackson for years, sir. I assume that personal knowledge won’t present a conflict of interest?” Mike asked.
“It’s been waived. After you’ve worked for the government long enough, you realize that everyone knows everyone. They’re waiting for you in Room 11B. Once we get the okay from them, we’ll be able to get you started. And I’ve got a lot planned for this week.”