Tag: short

New Flashfic: Trooper

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How do you feel if you’re on the losing side of history? A trooper from a familiar franchise comes to the only conclusion he can.

Petrichor.

VX-2068 (Vex, to his squad mates) heard that term when he was off-duty, drinking at a bar off of Kessel. The Tarkin doctrine stated that it was the rule of force (and its corollary, fear) that kept the peace. That required troopers to be aloof, separate. Not Vex’s personal belief, but what could you do about it? Rules were rules. Of course, sometimes, you just had to blow off some steam. You couldn’t help yourself. Sneak off the base, armor off, drink a little, get a little action. In Vex’s experience, for the most part, the brass looked the other way, as long as people weren’t taking too much advantage of the locals. Well… no more than the government allowed, so it kind of varied from post to post.

Petrichor was supposed to be the smell of wet soil after rain.

It’s not that he’d never done rain duty before. It’s just that most of the time it was under armor. There was this time, in this swamp, knee-deep in muck searching for some sort of insurgent leader that had been chased into hiding. Nothing came of it. Last he’d heard, the insurgent leader had been caught back on Coruscant. Or maybe had just died. He wasn’t sure. There was something about it on the news. Big celebrations.

Now… everything was different.

Head on the ground. Helmet cracked from a blow that should have killed him. An improvised local trap—a low-tech stupid indigenous improvised trap—had taken him down. Air flooding in. Dirt in his mouth. Smell of the soil after rain. Petrichor.

His blood tasted coppery and he wondered about that. There were some differences in trooper blood and others. He knew that. Did their blood taste different? Stupid thought. Sitting up was painful. Helmet came off easily and he looked up. The trees surrounding him were, by any aesthetic standard, overwhelmingly beautiful. That wasn’t why he was crying. It was the dull, intermittent booms in the sky, where debris hit the atmosphere and burned. It was the halo of an explosion in the sky, the size of a small moon.

It was seeing all hope die.

Vex was having a hard time wrapping his head around it. The galaxy had been dying 40 years ago. The dream of unity, always a distant hope at best, was breaking apart at the seams. Corporations were inflicting their will on less powerful planets and war was endemic. The Republic served as the galaxy’s policeman, not their savior. It had to reforge itself into a image more fitting for the issues at hand. For the time at hand! It had to come under sterner rule, as the rule of law and the very fabric of Republican society was coming undone.

Vex spit on the ground, dropped the helmet. Listened to the shout of victory echoing across the Valley. Locals. He hated them. He’d seen good men die, friends die, at their hands. And even as he thought that, he knew, deep down, a truth. He wasn’t going to make it off this world. He wasn’t going to make it home.

Home. What was that going to be like? Rule back in the hand of the locals? How were they fit to run anything? Vex understood that they’d evolved there, immigrated there, assimilated there, long before the Republic. But they had no idea how to deal with intergalactic affairs.

That’s what a Senate was for.

Clouds were forming, the result of the particulates from the explosion seeding the sky above. Helmet in hand, Vex headed towards the drop point. Perhaps there was a shuttle there. Perhaps not. But it would get him far enough to be out of immediate danger. Maybe there’d be others who’d made it as well. Maybe they could band together in some remote corner, make a community, live out their lives isolated from this madness. GN-4279 had been interested in gardening. JB-0037 had been studying clean water reclamation from some water farmers. Maybe over time, they could build back a semblance of order, of civilization. Reclaim their place in the universe.

Vex looked down at his helmet, angrily threw it against a tree. It wasn’t fair! It’s not like he’d lived a good life. A fancy life like the senators or governors or even the upper brass. Most people didn’t know that for every 4 soldiers who were on duty, twice that amount were working janitorial services.  A life spent hip-deep in crap or shooting at people he didn’t have a particular problem with. That’s what so many of the locals just didn’t get. It was just a job. Why couldn’t they see that?

Vex wasn’t an idiot. No, not all of the laws were just. Not everyone got fair treatment. But that was simply life. No one guaranteed it would be fair. The locals whining about how the Republicans—and later the Empire—got all of the best perks, like they would have done anything different had they held the reins of power.

Come to think of it, some of those locals did hold spots of power. Just a few of them, sure, but enough of them that Vex had seen them on Senate broadcasts. Wasn’t that proof that anyone could make it if they tried? All of that was well past his pay grade, though, so no matter who bitched about it, his life wouldn’t be any different. Just a trooper, working for a government, that was now seeing his world fall apart.

It just wasn’t fair!

The armor was pressing in on him. He was tired and it was heavy. He’d been in it all of his life.

What would he be without it?

What the hell would he be if he was no longer white?

No shuttle ahead. Others though. Not sure on what side. Not really certain if it mattered anymore.

Slowly, bit by bit, Vex started removing his armor and went to join them.

Categories: Flash Fiction, Intersections Tags: Tags: , ,

In Ice, She Sleeps

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So one day I’m in this discussion about how the prince in Cinderella is obviously under the effect of fairy magic and why didn’t his parents figure that out? That inspired me to look a little deeper into fairy tales and start teasing out some deeper thread. With that said, enjoy:

Ω

That day was so clear to her. It marked the beginning of an end, though she didn’t hold that idea at the time. No… instead she felt she was in the bloom of her power; the blush of spring. Hair sun-kissed, cheeks rose-red, eyes like calm pools. He called her Beauty but she was no fool. She knew that all things could be lost with time. No, she was just herself. As beautiful as a rose. As thorned as a briar. She smiled, perfect teeth concealing a perfect tongue and she laughed, wholly and delightfully. That name she would take for her own… rose-red, briar rose; Rose.

She had been with the heir to this land some time ago, not too long past, and she was still flush from their encounter. At the end of their too brief rendezvous, he had gifted her with a bouquet of unique, magnificent thorned blooms from his mother’s garden. His tribute to her name and nature. Holding them close, she found that spot by the river she remembered from her youth, down the path that led to the hill and the People that lived beneath it. Dark and strange and faithful People. Memories from a lifetime ago. But it was a good memory and, above all, safe, so she lay there, happily exhausted by the day and she let herself drift off to sleep on a patch of soft black earth within the sound of the bubbling water.

She dreamed, restless, unexpected.

Of long ago times and far thrown futures. Her hand flung out from her as she dreamed, thorn ripped, and the flowers scattered. Three drops of blood fell to the earth from a torn thumb.  And in her swollen sleep, she whispered “Skin like snow, lips like blood, hair like night.”

The ones that live under the ground and in the trees and in the water and in the good clean earth heard her. They blessed her and the words she had spoken.

Rose found herself that day with child.

‡ ‡ ‡

She had decided the child would be born alone, as was the old way, out deep in the forest, where the roots of life itself ran deep and her grunts and sounds could not be heard by her people. In customs of ancient times, her family would be waiting a short ways off to aid her after the birth and protect her should anything go wrong. But her father had died young and her mother… she didn’t talk about her mother anymore. Rose believed in herself, in her strength, in the knowledge of the forest because of her time with the people under the Hill, her cousins and aunts and uncle not by birth but by need.

So here she was, her and her swollen belly and the child inside her straining to be released, to come into the world.

The child’s head crowned as a great cat appeared at the edge of the glen. It scented the blood and, in the way that cat-kind can do, it allowed its pleasure to be known. Food was near. The cat’s opinion, of course. The child’s mother had another notion. Rose snarled, both in pain and in frustration. She saw the cat fully, knew its intent. She would not give up, this close to bringing her daughter in the world. And then she laughed. That laugh that only the mad truly understand. She howled, much to the cat’s irritation.

Her howl was answered.

A pack of wolves drawn by blood and curiosity came to see what the fuss was about. At first they challenged the cat. A meal was to be had. This meal would be theirs. Or not, if the risk was too much. Snarls were met with ears bared back, a warning hiss, and teeth bared. The great cat was not here to play with some feral things. She wanted her food and she wanted it now. Rose howled again and the first among the pack came out, old and experienced. He sniffed the air again. He growled but it was different this time. This person he recognized. She was not a meal. She was kin. She was birthing.

She would be protected.

The pack charged across the glen, meeting the cat halfway. Its heft was more than them; it was older and more powerful. But they were determined and tenacious to the point of stupidity. Back and forth, so close, at times a hair’s width away from the cat’s prey. The next moment, almost back to the forest.  Rose sobbed with effort. Her cries grew louder until they overwhelmed even the sound of the fight. Then a new sound burst through the air. Young, robust, vibrant. Skin like snow, hair like the night. Her child in the world.

The first among the pack watched as a strange claw the color of his stormy eyes flew through the air and embedded itself in the cat’s neck. Surprised, the cat stumbled back and then forward, slumping down for the final time. The youngest ones in the pack, still jumpy from the fight, nipped at the corpse, ripping at the fur looking for meat or a fight.  The first looked to Rose and there she was, baby on her breast, fingers frozen in the same place as when they’d thrown the knife. The two stared at each other for a while, then the first chuffed, and signaled for the pack to leave. They left her in peace, dragging the meat towards the woods. The loss of the knife was worth it.

Snow White had been born.

Rose felt it swell in her and tears fell. She was a Lady now. The land accepted her as kin and blood and her lord waited for her, impatiently, at home.

She left joyfully, her daughter sleeping close to her heart.

‡ ‡ ‡

Something was wrong.

There was a chill in the air, in a land where in living memory people only remembered summer.

Rose’s child had grown to be a wonder, a dream made flesh. She had an impact on all who knew her but none more than her father, the crowned lord of the land, and her mother, the lady of the land. There were gifts in abundance at her home, for Snow White’s birthright, for her mother to commemorate her trials, for her father in exchange for a promise to keep and protect them until Snow came of age.

Among the gifts provided were ones from the Children of the River. Tall and fair and as enchanting as a summer sunset, they had given several to the lady Rose, among them a comb that would tease out bad thoughts, a set of leather lacings that tied themselves, a set of charms that would bring only beauty to the eye, and finally Rose’s favorite gift: the silver bowl. The bowl was, more often than not, her constant companion. In quiet times it would show her reflection. In others, the spirits of the land talked to her. So many of them were ones she was familiar with, from her youth. Robust and full of life and whimsy. It took her more than a week to find one that embodied the chill that lurked at the edges.

“Lonely spirit, mirrored there, is the world not full and fair?” she asked.

“Lovely lady, kind and cruel, as your troth fades, so fails the world.”

The tones in which it delivered the news was heartbreaking. Her troth—her loyalty and her fidelity—was the core of her very being. It was reflected in her face, in her looks. Her looks… She gazed at her reflection in the bowl.

Didn’t she look tired?

The effect startled her and she took time to contemplate it. The lines she hadn’t noticed before. The shadows underneath her eyes. Her hair, losing its color. The frown at the corner of her mouth. When had she lost faith in the world?

She did not feel like a cruel person. How could she be seen as cruel?

No. She had never lost her faith in the world. She understood that now.

Her faith had been taken from her.

There was something she never told anyone about her daughter. She loved her fiercely, as any mother, but the truth was–and it was a truth she turned over and over each night—quite often she didn’t like her daughter.

They were opposite in composition. Rose was always full of exuberance, opening her home to revels and celebrations, fiercely dedicated to the health of the people of her lands. Snow, on the other hand was quiet and focused. Her eyes were sharp and clear and incisive and a single word could cut the conversation to the bone. It was not pleasant arguing with Snow, and Snow’s sporadic blustery angers were already the things of legend.

Snow was not a bad person. She was simply different. And there was nothing her mother could do about it. Often Rose prayed it was a phase Snow would outgrow. But she also understand that might never be the case. It was frustrating but not important.

Until now.

Those who took care of the land reflected the land and the land reflected them. If the family was divided… the land could die.

Rose’s attention to the problem grew with a deadly focus. It did not take long for her to confirm what the spirit had touched upon. As her daughter grew in vigor, her own strength failed. Her husband, her lord, would not listen to her, even when the leaves themselves began to change color from brilliant green to other less savory hues.

When his health began to fail, she knew what she would have to do.

She resisted it for so long. She combed her hair with the magic comb, removing the thoughts time and again until the comb itself dripped with poisonous intentions. It made no difference.

She couldn’t see that she had a choice.

Snow White had to die.

‡ ‡ ‡

It had been some time since she bled on her own, so she took a knife to her palm and raised it to the wind. The moon was a silent sliver overhead. She had shed her clothing at the edge of the glen to let the world know she was there.

She howled.

And they answered.

She was shocked to see him at the edge of the forest. When she’d last seen him, at the birth of her child, he was old, first among his pack. But now he was younger, an adult full in his years. Somewhere in that time, he had adopted two legs and the body of a man. A horned mask covered his face but his stormy eyes and his pack-mates, now older, gave him away.

She made her demands. He did not approve and he made it known.

But she was Briar Rose. She was the lady of the lands. She would not let her words go unanswered.

For the land to live, Snow White must be taken to the far part of the forest, where life was rooted deepest and she must die.

She heard a deep snarl come from his chest but she silenced it. With tears, she showed that the burden of this rested on her just as heavily as on him. And in the end, he gave in. She let him go.

The deed would be done.

‡ ‡ ‡

Her daughter disappeared the next day.

On her bed the next night, the Huntsman left a gift to remind her of what she had done.

A heart. Snow’s heart.

It reminded her of an innocent doe.

She cried for a week and none could staunch her pain. And then she was done with tears forever.

‡ ‡ ‡

Her husband was dying.

The world was dying.

Despite her sacrifice, nothing had changed.

Finally, she returned to the bowl. It had been an age since she’d used it and her friends, those spirits who had filled her with laughter and humor, were gone or hidden or lost.

The answer they gave to her queries was the same. It led her to only one conclusion. Snow White was still alive. Whether the Huntsman had betrayed Rose or not made no difference. Somehow, Snow had made her way to the People Under the Hill, her relatives and her aunts and uncles.

It was… frustrating, to say the least, that those same relatives had not bothered to mention this to Rose.

Snow was living currently with the dun men, who mined and crafted and worked metals and jewels for the people. It seemed to be a comfortable arrangement but it was obvious that with her still alive, her influence on the land was still spreading. The dun men, by tradition, would not interfere.

The leaves were falling, and Rose was prepared to sacrifice anything to save them. An exchange of years off her life for the land could likely bring summer again. Giving up her time wasn’t quite enough, though. She had to fool her daughter and for that, she needed to change her appearance. Rose used simple mummer’s art to disguise herself and her voice. Playing the part of the wandering trader, she gifted her daughter with the magical laces.  Her hands shaking—what a relief and a horror to see her daughter so strong, so vigorous—she helped lace her daughter into a new vest… and then quietly commanded the laces to bind her. She fled as her daughter reached out for help, death swiftly approaching.

It would have worked. It should have worked. But later Rose found out that the dun men had been driven from their mine. Knockers pounding on the walls, making it unsafe. So they came home early for lunch and they found Snow not breathing. They cut the laces with a fish boning knife and brought her back.

The dun men were no fools. They knew something unseemly had happened and foul magic had deliberately entered their home. They hunted the forest for the wandering traveler but could not find her. Rose had covered her tracks well. They did not tell Snow that the actions of the lacing was intentional. Life went on, for Snow at least. The world was still dying.

‡ ‡ ‡

The next time, Rose waited until Snow went to market. While the dun men protecting Snow were distracted by apples ripe for the cidering, she appealed to Snow’s vanity and presented her with a comb, the same comb that the Lady filled with her poisonous intentions. Stunned by its lethal beauty, Snow traded for it and walked off with it in her hair. She barely made the edge of the market before the tines of the comb pierced her scalp and the poison sank deep into her.

The dun men returned her to their home as quick as they could. They pulled the comb from her head and treated her feverish state with unusual mushrooms, herbs and hot stones. Some returned to the market, suspicious, but they found no vendors selling combs.

This time they prepared. They gifted Snow with charms to protect her from magical attack. In their foolish pride, as hosts, they didn’t tell her how close she’d come to death. They were confident in their skills. That proved to be a mistake.

‡ ‡ ‡

Snow was out walking the forest when she heard unmistakable sounds of delight. Then she saw the old woman, basket full of apples, coming through the forest. The two talked and Snow was surprised how much she liked this grandmother, how much they shared in common. As the two conversed, the old woman wound a bracelet of holly and lavender and marigold around Snow’s wrist. A gift, the grandmother said, for such a fine young lady. The grandmother told Snow in the most convincing terms that she had found a branch on a tree in the forest that, for this season and this season only, produced sweet apples. It was a rare find and such a gift this late in the year! A gift she was also willing to share…

Snow knew that the charms given to her by the dun men saved her from hostile magic. She had faith in their skills and their protection. So, she picked an apple from the old woman’s basket and she bit into it with relish.

The moment the soured apple, picked from the courtyard of her dying father, hit Snow’s throat, she began to die.

The charms Rose had wound around Snow were old ones, a gift from Snow’s birth set to only allow its user to recognize beauty. Not hostile magic at all. Rose stared at her daughter’s last moments with a deep regret. She had won.

Snow White was dead.

The world was saved, wasn’t it?

‡ ‡ ‡

In a silent castle, in a silent land, a lonely woman sat on a throne of stone.

In her courtyard were the mourners for her husband’s funeral.

In her forest lay the corpse of her daughter. As was their custom, the dun men gave Snow White’s body to the river.

The lord was dead.

The world was dead.

Snow White lay silent in shallow, translucent ice as the waters froze over.

Rose’s white-haired howl of grief was enough to shake the world. Nothing grew. The forest floor was covered in a crust of snow that nothing could penetrate.

The dun men finally sought out who had broken tradition, who had come to kill their beloved Snow White, their adopted cousin. They found Rose, all alone.

When they came for her, she offered no resistance and followed them into the lands under the Hill into the Dark.

‡ ‡ ‡

The howls of his brothers and their various complaints were loud. At times like this, the Huntsman regretted giving up his fur for his current form. In his defense, it was a useful body and it was taking years off his age. He was supposed to be hunting for food for his people but the land was stubborn. Honestly, he wasn’t searching for food so much as absolution.

He had been party to a murder and the stain had never left his heart.

The sun was rising on a fruitless, bitter night when he came across the river.  And much to his shock, there she was.  The thorn that had turned inside him. Snow White, frozen and gone. His knees failed him and he found himself by her side, above her, weeping.

The mask—that crown he so proudly wore—he couldn’t bear it any more. He removed it and let hot tears spill like years onto the ice. And under that gentle, heartfelt pain, the ice melted. When he saw her forehead, unburdened by ice, he understood he was younger than he once was and that the mantle of the land had passed to him. Its responsibilities he shouldered and accepted gladly, in her name.

In gratitude, he placed one sun-touched kiss upon her forehead. And she awoke. Transformed… hair sun-kissed, cheeks rose-red, eyes like calm pools. She looked out and she saw him as she rose, slowly, from the water into a new life.

As spring to summer. As fall to winter.

“Beautiful.” He said. The word rolled over her. It was important but not the whole of the story.

Her love had come. The world would live again.

She would live again.

She smiled. The day was becoming so clear to her.

It marked the end of a beginning.

Categories: Magick, Short Story, We Rise Tags: Tags: , , , ,

New Short Story: “Like Mercy, It Flows”

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A magical version of modern Los Angeles, an ex-druid down on his luck. Peregrine Dunn (the protagonist of SILENCE IN THE CHAPEL, and the narrator of the story) finds himself in a foul mood and just wanting a quiet drink. But a would-be client won’t take ‘no’ for an answer and what comes next drags Dunn into deep water.


“Like Mercy, It Flows”

“I can assure you in every way possible that what you are about to receive, and what you are about to give, is held in the highest regard.”

Torchlight splashing against gray rounded walls. Sewer tunnel? No. Some sort of run-off channel. We’re deep in. Sunlight’s faded already from behind me. Head’s still fuzzy. Hell of a time to come to.

“The truth that lies behind the obfuscation of our epistles is that the Gate swings both ways, though I must admit that this is often of little comfort to the recipient.”

What’s of little comfort to me is that these lizard-robed maniacs won’t shut up. Being tied up in leather straps with a dog muzzle tacked on to keep me from screaming isn’t much help either. Points out that I might have gotten in a little deeper than I wanted, this time.

Rule 15: It can always get a bit worse.

“It comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of sacrifice. The hitobashira of Japan, its maidens entombed in eternal vigil. The heart-blood of the captives of the Aztec, sent to power the sun. The poison fed to the servants of the pharoahs; the fires to which the  Celts fed the condemned. The drownings committed in the name of Dionysus of Halicarnassus.  Like today… like today…”

I could hear the smile in the chief toad’s voice. Gloating little turd. If it wasn’t for the dozen or so goons ‘escorting’ me, I might show him a thing or two about sacrifice.  If I could get my damned head to clear.

I already know they’re planning to kill me.

“They thought they were simply feeding the gods or locking the spirits up as immortal watchdogs. How crude; how short-sighted. What we do, we do for the good of all. For the patron deity of our city. For the good of the god Mulholland.”

I could see his bared teeth, smiling in the flickering light as he finally looked back at me.

“Here we go.”

Whole thing started about a week ago.

Can’t say life is easy being a private eye in the city of Angels. The police department has a whole division of thaumaturges and diviners on tap. The streets are full of solo operators with their own brand of hoodoo, witchcraft or low level conjuring. Don’t even get me started about the kind of stuff they use in the business sector. And then there are the angels, mostly on the Winter Solstice but sometimes showing up when you least expect it.

So, it’s no surprise I’m down to my last buck, sitting in my favorite watering hole, a classy joint called Seven Grand, where Cernunnos the Horned God watches over the patrons and I can expect a bended ear from Johnny, geased, like all the bartenders there to never spill any customer secrets. And then she walks in.

I’m whining to him about bills – yeah, I know. Not exactly my finest moment. Here I am wondering aloud how I’m going to make rent not even paying attention to the rest of the bar. First time I even notice her, she’s right next to me, resting on the bar.

The nights I’m bored, I sometimes count how many of my cases start with a woman. The answer is, usually, too many. Truth is, I think, is that women are more comfortable hiring an outsider. Men try and sort out things on their own, usually doing something stupid before they get to me. Or the men try to hire cheap. I’m not cheap.

Back to her though. She’s what folks would call a tall drink of water: long, long legs, a body that was just poured into a well cut dark moss-colored dress. Nice necklace, not too fancy but the turquoise sets off her eyes. If she was out to catch attention, she got it. Keep in mind, we’re talking city water though. Her hair, nicely set, but something about her face showed time in the streets. Touch of wise beyond her years, average looks that took a long time to make up that way, and something in the downturn of her lips that made her look very, very serious.

“You’re the detective.” She says.

I raise my glass, rattle the ice in greeting. Don’t just how I take my whiskey. It was hot that day. It’s usually always hot. “Guilty. Appointments made at the office. Not here”

Did I mention I wasn’t in the best of moods? I was really hoping she didn’t carry a piece. Some people who come for me, packing, have tried to use it. All part of the business.

“You weren’t at your office. Janitor said you’d be here.”

I turned around to face her, leaned against the bar. “Good for him. Come see me tomorrow.”

“It needs to be now.” she insisted and tries to hand me a picture. I don’t move but I do glance at it.  Ambrotype, beautiful framing. Picture of an older man. Nice looking guy. Well fed.

“Hubby?”

Her lips pursed, frustrated. “It’s my father. And he’s missing.”

Well, I feel like an idiot. I turned slightly and nodded to Johnny. He pointed me at an empty table. Made sure to put in an order for some kahve before went over. Needed a clear head and the foul, sludgy black brew Johnny makes up tastes like the ass end of a devil but does the trick. Manners first, I suppose, because before I was even seated, Johnny had pulled out some of ‘The Special’ for the lady.

The Special is just what I call it. Johnny’s got another name – might be ‘yechyd da’, which is what he always says when he puts it down. It’s not alcohol. It’s some sort of herbal concoction, kind of like a smoky tea. It takes the edge off of clients – that much I know – and it seems to be real good against possessions too. Scared the hell out of me first time a client sipped it and this howling thing fled at full speed. Quickest case I ever had either. Client was so grateful to be rid of the thing he paid me in advance.

Back to the task in front of me. Looking over the ambrotype as she took a drink. Nice frame, older, well polished. Not too old, I think. Maybe, younger days? When things were better. Ambrotype is newer. Glass is unscratched, details are spot perfect. You can see the hair on a mole on his right cheek. Posed. Looks like pride in his eyes? I glance up, see just a hint of distress as I handle it.

She’s nervous about it. A gift from her, I think. A professional portrait, probably two – one for him and one for her. Nice sense of tradition; too often the younger generation uses camera obscuras, captured lesser jinn held in place by  amber-charged sigils. It’s a fad but a popular one. Not much I can do with a obscura print. Too new and the scent of anguished jinn is too strong. But something like this, something older…

All used objects, especially loved ones, gather energy over time, creating their own spirit. The oldest are practically sentient. Ones like these… it’s like tasting a memory.  Warm, was this one. Comforting. Sparks of sad here and there. Maybe a heartbreak or a career that never went well.  Kind of like an old gnawed bone, the sparks were just thoughts, repeated over and over but never really taking over. Gut said this didn’t feel like a man who’d just up and disappear.

“Yours?” I asked. I don’t tell a client about my little gifts unless I really need to.

“It was a gift.” she responded. “I got it for him when we thought he was going to retire.”

“What happened?” I slid the picture back towards her. She wrapped it up, carefully, in a gray piece of felt.

“They stole his pension.” she said, bitterly. “I suppose that’s not entirely true.” She caught my gaze. “They stole everyone’s pension. One of the business partners even went to jail. The rest are off vacationing somewhere I guess. With the money.”

“And this money was in?” I asked.

“Construction.”

I remembered hearing something about it. Market fell out on building things around the city. Awful lot of people out of their jobs. Awful lot of businesses closing. Some of them didn’t go quietly. You’d see the wrecks of those years out on the streets sometimes. Men with big callused hands out begging, something not quite right in them anymore. Older men in the groups looking for work at the only sites still going up. Men who should have, by all rights, been either running those other workers or retired long ago.  “How long has he been gone?”

“Two days. He had…” she broke for a second. “He said he had a job lined up. He was excited. Government project. I didn’t ask for details, didn’t want to get disappointed again.” There were the tears. She was trying to keep it together. “Every fourth day of the week, we go out to dinner. Nothing big. Just an excuse for him to get out. When he didn’t show, I went by his home. Someone had been in there, not him. They had been looking for something and I guess they found it.”

“Any idea what?” Seemed the logical question. She shook her head ‘no.’ “Think he might be at the job?”

“Without calling me?” Her look told me volumes about how silly she thought that was.

“And the police?” I held my hand before she could answer. “Let me guess. ‘His house is just messy. He’s at the job. He’s a grown man. Call us at the end of the week.’?” A flash of anger before she nodded in agreement.

Didn’t even ask if she had enough to cover my day rate.

“I’ll take it.”

The lady – Lucy was her name– was right. I was over at her father’s place, in Bell. Odd little slice of the city. About a stone’s throw from the village of Yangna, it was handed over to a soldier in response to ‘pacifying’ the area. Think about that for a moment. Bunch of peaceful locals versus an army.  Later, the soldier went on to become mayor of that little town that later grew into the city of angels. My bet is if there were any angels around that ass at that time, guarantee you that they were more of the fallen variety.

So apparently, dad finds a place here fairly cheap and manages to hang on to it for most of his adult life. Can’t be the easiest thing in the world, but he managed it. Single story place, adobe, old style with thick walls, large porch. Not a lot of decorations on it. Mail’s backed up. I take the time to open them up. Looks like a lot of bills coming in. Enough that I’m thinking the old man is in deeper than the daughter knows. Looks like some services have already been cut off and a thaumaturge has been around, threatening to legally despell the house for failing to pay local fees.

The front door was unlocked. I checked around the tumbler and latch. No signs of scratches or scorch marks, like you’d get if you were using a pick or an opener’s incantation. Not a good sign. Meant either the perps were let in by Lucy’s father or they had an actual key.

The minute I stepped inside, I could see what she meant. The place had been lightly tossed. Someone was looking for something and they expected it to be obvious. They didn’t bother cleaning up after themselves. No real need. Like the cops said – ‘a bit of a mess’.

Means I would have missed the stain on the floor if I hadn’t stepped on and it screamed at me. Not literally but for a moment there, I wasn’t there. Remember that slight gift I had for picking up the spirit of an object? Well, this particular stain had it in spades.

I was dangling from one of those old west hanging posts staring down at somebody yanked a ladder out from underneath me. I got a look at my wrist watch before it hit me that the son-of-a-bitch had made the rope too long. My neck snapped as my eyes popped out. All I wanted to do was get my hand around his fat neck and squeeze but I couldn’t catch a breath. I was dying. I way dying I was…

Stumbled back against a couch, gripping it like my life depended on it. I lifted up my shoe, took it off, smelled the greasy gray stain I found on the sole.  Sour, pickled smell; spicy too, like peppers. A whiff of vervain.

A Hand of Glory.

First popped up in books about half a millennium ago. Cut off the hand of the criminal who was hanged. Wrap it in funeral clothes, cook it for a while in the sun. Bake it in fern and vervain. Make some small candles out of the same guy’s fat, along with some other choice ingredients (dog crap, for example). Stick the candles on the fingers. When you’ve got the candles on the Hand of Glory burning, any house you enter, everyone except the person holding the Hand freezes. They won’t remember a thing as long as the candles burn.

They’re illegal as hell and, at least nowadays, pretty ineffective. Someone knows you’re using one and they go down to the local alchemist for a mix that will shut that right off. More than one smartass has started robbing a neighborhood only to get a face full of shot when they walk in the wrong door. The counter-spell is common prep on all government and business buildings.

Where the hell does one even get one nowadays? Last official hanging in this neck of the woods took place in the Bay Area in San Quentin and that was about thirty years ago. Something about the vision I got – the spiritual energy associated with it – much younger than that. Odds are they got some guy thinking he was doing something for the entertainment industry. All showy with mirrors and lights. ‘We’ll make you famous’ when in reality they wanted to make him dead.

I couldn’t deal with the ‘how’ right now; I knew they had one. The question is when they used it. On a hunch, I go into the kitchen and spot it immediately. Spilled kahve on the counter, kind of typical when you’ve got guests. Lucy’s dad walked in here, going to go get his guest a drink. That must have been when they lit it up. Froze where he was until they searched the house and then… what?

I take a look over the back door, leads out from the kitchen. Looks like the door was slammed open. There’s a couple of marks on the ground. Someone dragged? Damn it. Reaching for straws at this point. I don’t know what the hell was going on for certain. The back yard’s a pretty sizable one, mostly concrete. There’s a back gate too. I check it out. Unlocked. Go out and find myself on an alley.

Neighbors are nosy; that’s true anywhere. It takes me about three houses until I can find someone who will talk to me. Older man, Nick, hair white as marble and a face about as cracked. Not much of a smiler, but he shares a smoke with me. We both watch the tobacco go up as an offering.

“Knew something was wrong.” he said. “He was going to hand me back those tools he borrowed.”

I nodded. “And you saw?”

“Couple days back. Meter reader. Fat guy. Didn’t think about it at the time. Drove around back. Parked for a while. Figured he was coming to check the place out. Maybe turn off another service. Poor bastard.”

“Any reason you can think of why he didn’t tell his daughter?”

“Trying not to burden her, I suppose. Put on a good face on it. Pretty much everybody around here made sure he got fed, got water, a little bit of scratch to buy things. He was working hard to find someone to give him a break. Tough when you’re that age.”

“So I’ve heard.”

Nick smirked. “You’re too damned young to understand.” He took a drag. “People old as us, all we’ve got are each other.”

“You watch the meter guy?”

“Not more than a minute. Looked like he belonged. You know what I mean.”

It meant this old guy knew the difference between someone scouting the neighborhood and actually doing a job. Or at least he thought he knew.

“Thanks.” Left him the pack. Seemed like the neighborly thing to do.

Went back into the house. Looked around for a while more. What were they after? Took me another 10 before I got it.

Lucy’s Dad said he’d got a job. There’s things that go along with it. Tax forms, new employee paperwork. Hells, even just a note on where to go.

Instead, this guy had been cleaned out. No proof that he’d ever had a new job. Not a speck. Someone, not a professional but definitely practiced, came in to clean up their traces. If it hadn’t been for that trace on the floor, I probably would have fell for it too.

Probably about the right time to call the cops. Hand of Glory would bring them in solid; having their resources on the job would probably track down the old guy faster than me and make the client happy.

Still waited until I was on the other side of the city before phoning it in.

Standing in front of the window in my office, watching the sun go down. Case should be closed soon. Cops are on it. They’ve got resources. That should be the end of it. The world seems to slow down as a splash of salmon hits the sky, slowing fading to crimson and then to the blues and velvets of night. The lights of a thousand small incantations flare up in the dark, Angel City’s own homage to the stars, trapped here on the earth.

I can’t let this go. Something is my gut isn’t satisfied. This woman’s father is missing and I might know how, but I sure as hell don’t know who or why. I’ve been nursing this drink in my hand for almost a quarter of an hour. I know what I have to do and it’s not this.

I grab my jacket and go outside.

Howard Elphonsa 11 – that’s the little creep I’m looking for. A small operator in the scheme of things, irritating as all hells and not a friend of mine. Still, he has his uses and his vices as well. This late at night, found him in a pai gow parlor in Chinatown, deep in the game, probably deep in debt. Poor guy didn’t even see me coming.

“This is it.” he sneers, fondling a domino. “This is where I take it all back.” He throws down a bet and the others match it.  With a flourish, he throws the domino on the table and it lands. He gasps and backs away from the table. It’s not the piece he expected. The others back away quickly as well.

On the piece is the number four.

“Recognize this?” I say, dangling it right in from of 11’s face.  It’s a concave mirror, set in an octagonal frame. There’s writing etched into it. “It’s a bagua mirror that some nasty person tried to leave in my office. Can you guess what I have trapped inside it?”

I lean down and whisper into one pale ear. “Four.”

Four. Cute word. In… I think it’s Cantonese? It sounds a lot like the word for ‘death.’ Which gamblers seem to think is an unlucky thing to have around.

“It wasn’t me. I promise it wasn’t me.” He says it all too quick, too practiced. Must have known it would come back to bite him.

“How about we settle this outside?”

The violence level in the room notches up several times. This was a man who owed them money. They didn’t want him out of their sight. I pulled the mirror away from 11’s gaze and swung it towards them. All of them looked away from it, quickly.

“Ten minutes outside. That’s all I need.” I repeat the instructions in Mandarin. I hope they understand.

I grab 11 by the collar and pull him out. A couple of the younger ones look like they are going to fight me anyway. Wiser hands stop them.

The pai gow parlor was in the back of a restaurant, the kind of dumpy place where you find some of the best food you’ve ever tasted. The wait staff isn’t happy I’m dragging some trashy white guy through their fine establishment. I get cursed at, at least a dozen times before I get him out front.

I slam him against a wall. “Seriously?” I put the mirror right up to his nose. “This?”

“Hey, you know, thought you had a sense of humor.”

“It’s diminishing fast.”

“What do you want, Dunn?” he pleaded, “You only come after me when you want something.”

“Big projects.” I say. “Word around town. Who’s hiring? Construction.”

“How am I supposed to know, Dunn? I’m just small fry. You know that.”

I glance away from him and into the window of the restaurant. “Hells. It looks like they’re coming out early.”

“Who’s coming out early?” he tries to twist his head around. I’m having none of it.

“Crap. I think that one’s got a gun.”

“Which one?” he squirms. “You’ve got to let me go!”

“Projects, Howard or I leave you to them.”

“The Broad, the Bloc, Holly Wood Reservoir, the Historic State Park, L.A. River, Lotus Gardens…”

“Hold on.” I cut him off. “Which one are government projects?”

“The River’s got the Army Engineers. Reservoir is… um. Department of Water and Pegomancy, I think.”

DWP. Meter reader. Think I’ve got a start.

“Run.” I say and I drop him.All eyes go to Howard as he takes off and several very angry people go after him. Takes me just a moment to take advantage of the situation and do a quick fade.

Pegomancy. It’s about as old as humanity. The ability to divine fortune through examining sacred waters. But it took a twisted genius like William Mulholland to figure out how to use that inspiration to alter the future of the La Ciudad de los Reina de los Angeles. Utilizing spiritual forces and unique incantations borrowed from the Romans, Mulholland sucked the life out of the northern part of the state so his dreams and his alone would grow.

And grow they did. A legacy of millions of people, the greatest collection of cultures on Turtle Island, with a siren’s voice that can influence the world. All it took was a lot of pain, sacrifice and a dash of attempted genocide.

Mulholland’s legacy was the Department of Water and Pegomancy. For the most part they collect water fees from the citizens, alongside making sure the common enchantments everybody uses day-to-day don’t compromise the ‘aetheric well-being of the city’. Really have no idea what they’re talking about with the last part but they’ve been pretty fierce after locating unlicensed home enchantments.

Despite the fact that a bunch of folks don’t like them, despite the fact that ‘scandals of momentous proportion’ keep getting attached to them, it’s always business as usual. They’re the mountain lion in the corner, quiet, deadly, and really having no problem devouring someone they don’t like in a heartbeat.

Having mulled over all that, I’m really hoping that they are not connected to this guy’s disappearance.

“Pegomancy?” the snide comment is coming from Mich’Elle. Cursed owner of a local occult book / supplies shop and the one currently putting henna on my arms. “Sounds obscene.” She puts her lips close to my ear and whispers “Sounds sexy.”

Mich’Elle was one of those many entertainment industry folks who tried to hang on to their youth. For her, it ended up with a botched spell that put her perenially in the body of a teen. And if that sounds like a good ride to you, you don’t remember what it was like to be a teen.

All attitude, moody as hell, all the time but she and I have been friends for probably close to a decade now. Which is why I roll my eyes at her innuendo. She knows I’m not going to take the bait. She pulls back and traces her finger down a tattooed line, one of many, going down my chest.

She frowns. “You know this is going to weaken this.” She’s referring to my ‘secret weapon’, the whole reason why I’ve got the tattoos.

I nod. “Not completely. But I don’t want somebody getting a glimpse of these and recognizing what they do.” My tattoo – which covers all of my torso and most of arms – is very distinctive. Mich’Elle dips her brush into the rich, dark-brown henna ink. It’s temporary but will do the job of a good cover up. I’ve given her full permission to do whatever she likes. So, instead of the angular ancient script and symbols, now there are dragons and demons, vines and fay, angels and kirin. Everything I’ve ever told her about, she’s put there. She’s enjoying herself.

“Checked in with the cops this morning and they’re dragging their heels. I think they know this is going to point big and they’re worried about it. But if I’m going to pull this guy out of this in one piece, it has to be now.”

“So you think going undercover is going to accomplish this?” she finishes with her tongue stuck out between her teeth. Some consider it very cute but I know it’s what she unconsciously does when she’s frustrated.

“I know where they’re working. Word is, they’re still hiring. Unless you have a better idea…”

One of these days, one of my friends is going to look back at me and say ‘yes, I have a better idea.’ This is not that day. Mich’Elle jabs me with her brush.

“Ow! You’re supposed to paint me, not tattoo me!”

She growls and curses and goes back to work. Before she moves to a spot I can’t see, I spot what seems to be the tail end of a horse being stenciled on.  Great. She’s going to take out her frustration by drawing a pony on me.

“Seem fit enough. References are in order.”

The supervisor is looking me over. I’m dressed in a white t-shirt, jeans, nothing else to really identify me.

“What’s with the pony?”

I’m going to kill her.

“Girlfriend pranked me, sir.” I tuck the shirt in, covering the pony.

“Hope you really liked her. Something like that.”

I look the supervisor in the eye. “Can’t say it did the relationship much good, sir.”

The supervisor smiled, thinking he’s had some private moment with me. “Service?” He’s noted the repeated ‘sirs’ and my stance.

“One tour, sir. Did some work on the docks in Long Beach after that.” On a whole government supervisors like military men. Figure they’ve already got the discipline knocked into them so it’s a shoe-in for certain types of employment.

“This is straight up construction, shoring up some refits for the area around the Mulholland Dam. Keep your head up, shoulder in to the work, listen to the boss and you’ll be fine.”

He shuffled off the paperwork to a very nervous looking assistant. “Here you go.” the assistant said. I took the clipboard from him. Looked busy trying to figure it out. “Word of advice.” the assistant said, making sure first that the supervisor was out of earshot. “Keep your head low. Don’t make waves and don’t let anybody notice you. The ones who do don’t last long.”

I nodded. I really wanted to find out more details but it wouldn’t have fit in with what I was trying to pretend to be. Questions would have to wait until I got on the job.

All told, it had been almost a week since Lucy’s dad had disappeared. The cops were pretending that it might be a robbery and had already rounded up a couple of the usual suspects. I had to find a way to push it along. So I did what every undercover since time began does. I bribed people.

The workers on the site, I was around with smokes for who needed them, a little bit of scratch for those who were low, a drink for those that needed it. Suspicious as all hell but it got me information fast. A few of the guys – the married ones – I even let in on it. Nobody wants to think of a loved one crying for them if they went missing.

Lucy’s dad had been there. He had been the kind of guy to make waves, to organize. He wasn’t doing anything wrong though and that confused the people on the ground. In fact, Lucy’s dad was known to be pretty damned good for morale. When he upped and left, people thought it was management being stupid. After all, he hadn’t been the first to go…

In fact, this disappearing thing had been going on for a few years, people missing every month or so, sometimes even faster. Always the loud ones, often the troublemakers. Folks figured they went off to other sites. Some – very few – knew them and grew concerned when they couldn’t seem to locate their friends anymore. Common wisdom was those troublemakers were blacklisted and moved out of state.

Either way, this was beginning to look bigger than I wanted it to be. I’d attracted enough attention as it was and needed an out. On break, I said I needed to go to the bathroom and took off after that. What’s the old saying? Safety is the better part of valor.

Just water for me at the moment, back at the office, trying to work out what went next. The disappearances were organized and I didn’t like the idea of that. The cops were skirting the issue and the likelihood was that a major city department was in some way involved. Who do you go tell, with that? Back to the cops? The city council? The press? There had to be an answer somewhere.

“Mr. Dunn?”

Someone got into my office. Hells, I hadn’t even heard the door open. Had I locked it?

I start to turn, going for my heater, even without thinking. There’s a fat guy, mustache. Recognize him from the site. One the supervisors. He’s holding something hand shaped and he’s grinning as he takes a light to it.  Five small flames burst into an obscene blue light.

Ah crap…

The sacrificial pool lays out in front of me. A tunnel hollowed out in the base of the Mulholland Dam, leading to a leak that glistened and shone with the frustrated power of a river wanting desperately to flow.  Stopped up, slammed shut, even this leak contained purposefully in a concrete basin about the size of a small pond. Energy raging about, unseeable by most (yeah, that includes me) but you could feel it. Feel the oppression. Feel that need. Hells, I thought for a moment I saw fish swimming around in there. One of them looked up at me, fixed me with a mad stare.  Not fish. Definitely not fish.

The goons backed up, only two holding me now, as everyone took their ritual places. Saw glimpses of scribblings on the wall. Chalk – couldn’t last long down here, so they must use it pretty often. Thought I recognized some antediluvian scratchings, something reminiscent of the coastal people of Sumeria and Assyria. Well, that’s cute. Someone put up a few artworks from popular fiction, too. Tentacled gods, odd angled angels. Must have been the fat man. Getting a better look at him as he takes his position. Comes out looking more like brains than the muscle of this operation.

“The gate swings both ways.” he intones. “Your spirit, entering the otherworldly abode of the Master, for It to judge as It sees fit. And for that brief moment, It too can enter our earthly abode and shower us with Its gifts.”

‘And that would be what… fish?’ – it’s what I wanted to say, but under the mask it sounded more like “Am-phat-ud-e-ut… Ithsh?” That didn’t get a response.

What he said did make sense though. All the sacrifices, all the appeals to the gods; it was to attract a specific kind of attention while catapulting spirits towards a specific kind of reward. A win-win for the devout, both dead and living. Not so good for those who were outside of whatever branch of faith you were following, but hells, plenty of religions proved they weren’t concerned with what happened to the infidels.

It hit me in a moment of insight. For the high priests of the DWP, it would have to be the water. The amount of rain, where it dropped, where it went and when. Given that, they could manipulate prices, the populace, whole elections. Suddenly the three years of drought with rising prices for their services made sense. The unofficial religion of the City of Angels reaching for a stranglehold on the city it birthed.

The priest had swapped over from exposition to intonation. Didn’t recognize the language but did recognize one name in there – Tiamat. Chaos, mother of creation and Second-slain by the ruling gods of Assyria.  Wouldn’t be surprised if her boyfriend’s name was in that chant in there somewhere. Story is that Tiamat’s lover was a god over or represented or literally was all the fresh water in the world. He got bugged by some pesky folks who were very loud and obnoxious, so he killed them. After being talked down by Tiamat, he apologized and promised not to do it again. The relatives of the deceased still took it kind of personal and so killed him right back.

This did not make Tiamat happy.

Hell of a long story short, gods won; Tiamat died. The first civilization was born and humans were enslaved to work under it. Didn’t say it was a very nice story. Ended up in a curse that lasted ten thousand years.

Now these schmucks praying in her name. Maybe they’re talking to the ghost of her dead boyfriend. Maybe they’re using the freshwater as a reminder to her on how much she hated the gods. Either way, what it boils down to is a lot of raw power that they want to tap. And a deity on the other side of the Gate.

I’m being dangled over the damn pool. They slam my head in fast and hard and hold it there. I learn a couple of things. First, on the other end of the pond right across from me is the cornerstone to the whole dam. It’s got William Mulholland’s mark on it. It’s a dedicated sacred spot.

Second of all, the pond is deeper than I thought. A hell of a lot deeper. And there’s bones down there. A lot of them.  I’m not the first they’ve done this with.  Not even in the top ten.

They yank my head back out.  It’s like a baptism except they’re trying to let my fear grow. They want that. They want me to know that end is coming and they want that to consume me.

Down the head goes again. Deep down.  Back up.  Down again.  Longer this time. Then up. Last time’s the charm, I guess. All of them are chanting and it’s like a cross between a frat boy’s party and a really raucous church choir. It’s not like they’ve got anything to lose. No cavalry to come down and rescue folks down here. No one to hear them.

I’m under and I know this is the last time.  This time I’m under until I’m dead.

There’s a couple of things I should probably have told you about myself.

Here’s the first. Me, I’ve got this weird relationship with Spirit. In the world of vodoun, they would call me ‘le cheval’, a ‘horse.’ I’m the guy most likely to get possessed and I wear it well. Don’t know why. Don’t entirely know how. But it’s served me pretty well in the past. I can let little spirits in; talk to them. I can do the same with ghosts. I knew Lucy’s dad was down there the first time my head hit the water.

I know. I was wishing for a happier end on this one, too, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be. I might be able to do something else for him though, even though he’s dead. Might be able to whistle up a little revenge.

Because I’m le cheval, my spirit’s also a bit loose. It’s been able to wiggle free from time to time and come back.

With that in mind, I take a deep breath.  Water comes flooding into my lungs and try as I do to choke it down, gagging cuts in.  The pain is… it’s hard to give it full credit.  It’s like a hot iron being pressed on your lungs, like things are cut away and crushed at the same time. My eyes want to bug out. I remember hearing about some guy who went into the emergency room with an eyeball popped out of its socket. I hope I don’t end up like that.  My brain is screaming at my stupidity and desperately searching for air. There’s a weird and unpleasant-as-hell warmth starting to appear in my extremities.

Somewhere, at the edge of my senses, I feel the ghosts below me edge away from me. They feel the gate opening.  That’s when I let go.

There’s a tug on my soul, a current and it’s electric and blue and savage and invigorating. I race through into a place that defies boundaries.  It’s warm, blood warm, but not frightening. Not comforting either but not evil. Just vast.  And there’s something there, swimming beside me, examining me. It’s not that interested in me. I’m too small. That’s why the other ghosts are back on my side of the gate. It doesn’t need us except as a ticket to passage through the Gate. That’s what it expects my purpose to be.

That’s exactly when I grab it and let my soul snap back into my body, pulling it with me.

Remember that second thing I forgot to talk about? I’ve known for a long time about my little issue with possession, so quite some time ago, I went to a man for help. Good man. Raoul. Runs a botanica in the sketchier lowlands near the Hollywood Hills. Pretends to be a devout Catholic man but let’s just say his faithful streak doesn’t actually run in that direction.

We bonded over menudo and blood sausage and he offered me a way out of the life I was in and into a new one.  He inked some old, some very old symbols onto me. Ones that probably dated from the earliest days of humanity way pre-history. Ones I’ve hand covered with henna to hide them so my kidnappers have no idea what’s coming.

When I want, my tattoos can be a very effective lure.

Or a very effective prison.

All right – straight up; between you and me there’s no chance I could cage an old god.  Not happening no matter what kind of interesting tattoos I’ve got. But what I had done was come invited onto its turf and then tried to catch an old god.

Kind of like tweaking someone’s nose. Or counting coup.

You can imagine how well that went over.

Water, by its nature, wants to be free.

There was a roar so loud it shook the chamber and certainly shut up the would-be priests. I came flying out from the pond, every tattoo I had bleeding or dangling on torn flesh. And I hit the back wall so hard the water I’d inhaled came vomiting out, even as I slid down.

For a minute there was silence. Well, mostly silence from them, gasping from me.  One of them had the sense to move towards me to check me out but he was stopped when someone spotted something moving in the pool.

“Wait!” he said.  One of the nobodies, not the main guy. He was looking pale and sick.  The pool started to glow and roil and, idiots that they were, they started to move towards it.  Nobody was holding me any more. The leather felt like hell and I hoped I could get it off before it dried out and shrank.

Mr. High-and-Mighty Fat Boy let out a gurgle and I could see seaweed pushing its way out of his mouth before they did. My torso hurt but it was a stinging hurt and I didn’t care that I was moving at a snail’s pace. I was getting the hell out of there.

Something exploded behind me – from the pool I assume – and there was the sound of wet slapping, like tendrils or tentacles, and there was a ripping sound, and screaming.

All of that motivated me to move faster.

I really don’t know how far I got before I heard a roar behind me again. A different sound, not throaty but more rushing. Water. Coming up fast.  I was screwed.  Couldn’t exactly outrun it in my condition and I really didn’t want to go drowning again.

It hit me hard on the back, smacked my face around on the rocky floor, then battered my back against the ceiling as it pushed me forward. I tucked in as best I could and prayed those idiots had left the tunnel entrance open. Otherwise I’d be slammed against iron bars at speed and that would be that.

Then, just as I felt my breath giving out. It happened.  Pushed out into bright, rolling around and then just blindly flopping around finding a purchase.  There in the L.A. river.  Still alive.  Don’t know how but still alive.

I was laughing. I know. Stupid thing to do, especially with a god involved, but I felt so damned relieved.  I staid there for a moment, the hot sun pressing down on me, then wriggled out of my bonds before they dried. Ripped off that stupid muzzle. Free again. Well, that’s something the god and I had in common.

As I struggled to sit up, the glint of something gold caught my eye.  A timepiece, off to the side. Picked it up. Inscribed

On the occasion of your retirement

I love you, Dad.

Lucy

I got it then. I understand who was watching out for me and who put in a kind word with the gods. Who saved my life.
“Thanks.” I said quietly as I pocketed the watch. “I’ll get it to her.”

Not all of the stories in the City of Angels end happily, or neatly. She cried, for a good long while. The police, after doing a song and dance about how I shouldn’t have gotten involved, got involved themselves and sent any cult survivors running for the hills. The press did a bit on water safety and how we need to respect the local waterways.  No mention of ancient cultists or human sacrifices. Fancy that.
I healed. And I’d like to think Lucy healed as well. One day she sent me a check and a poem, by Emerson. Set it up above the water cooler. Figured it’s best not to forget:

The water understands

Civilization well;

It wets my foot, but prettily,

It chills my life, but wittily,

It is not disconcerted,

It is not broken-hearted:

Well used, it decketh joy,

Adorneth, doubleth joy:

Ill used, it will destroy,

In perfect time and measure

With a face of golden pleasure

Elegantly destroy.

New Short Story: “No Love For Emily”

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This tale was inspired by someone looking and me and snarling “Why should we follow your laws?” This would be my answer, complete with a fair bit of body horror and ancient rituals. You have been warned.

And may you have a happy Hallow E’en.

Ω

The first thing Conny learned about Emily was that she was never comfortable in her own skin.

That’s what everyone said, when she was growing up. She went through a goth phase and an emo phase and a pop phase and a punk phase and a princess phase and a power phase and a panicked phase that lasted all the way through middle school.

He checked. He talked to her elementary teacher, an old friend, the high-school counselor, even managed to sneak a peek at a psych eval from the local J.C. and that wasn’t easy.

So it really wasn’t much of a surprise that when she stumbled across her family heritage, she joined a coven.

According to the plaque hanging outside the Millgrew House (scene of the infamous 1673 witch trials), Emily’s great, great grandmother had served the dark Master of the Hunt in exchange for belts of wolfskin. Her coven wore the belts for years, terrorizing the locals in the shape of wolves, until some brave soul hunted Emily’s ancestor down and shot her.

The belt Emily’s ancestor possessed had been part of a display in the Millgrew House until a few years back, when it was destroyed thanks to some teenage prank.

Conny believed otherwise. He thought Emily took it.

He had met her, briefly, in an online forum. Her coven had posted a dissertation on the hidden history of witchcraft in West Virginia. He had defended her ideas in the comments section and she had even thanked him in her reply. They chatted a bit back and forth. They had a connection. Enough to make him think of fates, entwining. Enough to make Conny follow up on her.

Tracking her down wasn’t easy. Witchcraft was a more tracked phenomenon in places like New England or maybe California. But in West Virginia? There were a few books written about hoodoo root traditions. Some local fringe cults and weird murders. Fewer news reports or conspiracy blogs. Still, they were out there. Conny was sure he could find them.

A reverse-image search on her picture. Keywords from the post. A whopping hundred dollars to secure some information about her family and Conny found his first big leads.

If you were to ask around, and Conny did, you’d probably get an earful from the neighbors about the house on the hill. It was bad for the neighborhood, low morals. Old mill house, probably a century old. Falling apart.

Bunch of older women up there, smoke out of the chimney, even on the hottest days and it stank. Youngsters visited it at all times of the day and night. Those brave or stupid enough to ask what they were doing up there got the answer that the women were making medicine.

Sure. Everybody knew what kind of medicine they were doling out. They were cooking meth. The local cops were well paid off and the operation wasn’t big enough to attract bigger attention.

The house was owned by Emily’s aunts. People who were already linked to coven activity. Conny had dug up some interesting deliveries to the place while researching it, stuff not necessarily connected to drug trafficking but probably linked to the occult. He had enough for a visit. Conny dropped everything he had onto his online server, opened up a folder for Emily, filed it under his /Mah_Bitches_;) directory and took off the next day.

The sun was just a scarlet slash on the horizon when Conny walked up to the house, another in a litany of strangers. Conny was taller than most, bit of a belly, big eyes. University boy (it showed in the clothes). He still hoped he would make a favorable impression.

His head was buzzing. He’d been three days without sleep, excited, and on caffeine pills. The world had taken on a slightly surreal and sloppy tone. The minute his feet touched the porch, Conny knew something was wrong. The silence told him. The door seemed unlocked. But he had come prepared.

Sacrament of the Temple of True Inner Light, the ‘flesh of god’ that produced revelations for the faithful.

DPT, dipropyltryptamine, clinical grade, mixed in with some other minor additions purloined from the School of Medicine to mitigate side effects.

He had dosed about thirty minutes after he met Emily at the front door and was coming up on the high now.

No. That wasn’t right.

He had dosed about thirty minutes ago and was waiting to meet Emily at the front door. Sometimes events in time got a little jumbled.

Old Death was here. He could feel her, in the house, squatting over her prey and nibbling up the unimportant bits. He knew the sack of souls she kept on her belt was far from filled.

Conny was unhappy. He couldn’t just walk in. Old Death would notice him. She’d react. He had to do something to take her attention away. Death needed to be fed.

He took out some candles he’d stolen from a small church. Couple of moon pies he’d bought. A small bottle of rum, snitched from a hotel mini-bar.

Conny set the candles up in a semi circle outside the door, opened up the moon pies and the bottle of rum and pulled out the lighter and pen knife he always kept in his jeans pocket. First, a thin slice on the thumb. A simple cross drawn on the floor, symbolizing a crossroads. Next the moon pies, a couple drops of blood on each to lure her with the scent. The rum didn’t need any extra oomph. Old Death smelled it the minute he opened it.

The moon pies and the rum went in the center of the cross and then the candles were lit. Conny thought he felt the presence in the house start to move. He waited a minute more, as a tremor raced through him, before he went over and broke a window so he could get in. He had a couple of hours, maybe a little more, while Death devoured the offering. Time enough.

Conny pulled out a hand-rolled cigarette, lit it up. Blew the tobacco out in front of him and plunged his face into it. Protection. Magic. With that, he went inside. Did he hear someone cry out? A brief flash of someone coming into the living room, shock on their face. An echo of the past.

The sight in the living room was one Conny wouldn’t easily forget. Roaches in the kitchen; light swarms of flies. Something had chewed its way through one of the windows, probably looking for something to feed on.

The layout of the house was big and rambling. Privacy was minimized in favor of being able to pack people in. From the front room, you could see the den, the kitchen, one of the bathrooms, a mud room, the entrance to the garage and the hall leading to the bedrooms.

Trying to understand what had happened, Conny assumed something had come out of the bedrooms, vented its anger around the house and then returned. There were imprints of someone’s head being rammed repeatedly into the wall. There were bodies everywhere, three in total; Conny was having a hard time keeping count. They kept multiplying as he watched them, echoes of violence that concentrated back into three corpses when he focused.

The body nearest him was no older than fourteen. Wounds on her body were ragged as if the killer shook while cutting her. With rage, he thought. It was obvious. Her eyes were open and unfocused.

Conny remembered the thing about the eyes. Old ways, 18th century: the last sight of a dying person was kept in their eyes. He’d need tools to collect it. Rosemary for memory. Fire to activate it; his lighter. Sacred smoke. He blew the smoke from the rosemary into the corpse’s face. So much blood. So young.

When the corpse moved, it startled him but it also told him the spell was working. He covered her mouth so she could not curse him and watched as she grew still again, silver light pooling around the corpse’s irises. He teased threads of it out with his fingertips. As enough emerged, it began to take shape and leapt right at Conny.

Instinctively, he almost fell over, trying to get away from it.

A wolf. A massive, huge, terrifying, beautiful wolf. Straight out of the descriptions at the Millgrew House. That’s what had killed her. Conny forced himself to breathe. This was not something he wanted to run into.

He closed the eyes of the dead girl and then quietly looked through what he’d brought with him. There was a salve he kept to reveal hidden things, based loosely on the same concoction witches used to empower their broomsticks. Some myrrh and a shell to burn it in, to summon or cheat death. Lighter, of course. Bit of charcoal to put the myrrh on.

He spread the salve under his eyes. Like kohl from the old days or the get-up of an over-enthusiastic football player. The thought made him smile. A little humor to keep sane. The myrrh went on the charcoal. A draft from the broken window gathered up smoke from the myrrh and it raced off, seeking the danger. One of the back bedrooms. Conny stood stock still, listened. Nothing moved, nothing breathed except him and the insects. Quietly, quickly, he followed the incense to its destination.

Emily was there. In the master bedroom, dead. Brunette, young. Early twenties. Recently pregnant. Each feature as distinct as her profile pic. Sharp jaw. A fighter, given the scars. She had come back here, after it was all done, and had collapsed in the corner after… after…

He had a hard time wrapping his head around the last bit.

It took him a moment to realize there were other things in the room. Of first importance, a spirit of agony had attached itself to the body. As he noticed it, it hid behind Emily’s eyes. Conny’s lips curled into a snarl and he leaned forward.

“I wear more than one skin too.” He lied.

The spirit fled.

There were two other corpses, too. The aunties who ran the house. Torn through like cotton, shredded and long dead. Conny turned his attention back to the woman in the corner. He had so wanted to meet Emily, but not like this.

Emily wasn’t pregnant anymore. He slid in front of the corpse and let the myrrh drift around her body. He listened to what the smoke brought him. There… the faintest of sounds. Jazz on a Saturday. Wreathed in cigarette smoke. Dancing under the moonlight. The burn of booze and crushing kisses. Emily’s spirit seemed to fill the room. A sibilant whisper from beyond the grave… help me.

“I will.” he reassured her. Then he split her skull open.

Quickly now…

With a grisly load in hand, he went to the kitchen. A reasonably clean pot was easy to find; clean water, too. If he’d thought about it, he could have set this up earlier but it’s precisely because he didn’t want to think about it was why it wasn’t.

The brains had to soak for about an hour in cold water, letting the blood diffuse out so the brains would be clean. Conny took the time to collect all of the bodies save Emily’s in the living room.

The next step was to rinse the brains in a strainer, plucking out any stray bits of skull or skin, removing the odd hair and discarding it.

Connie had never done this before but he was familiar with the ritual from his studies and the cooking method he’d picked up from the internet. Apparently, it was a specialty in French cuisine.

Boiling was the simplest part. About a quarter of an hour on the stove until the brains were fork tender. Conny set them aside, covering them with a towel, to let them cool while he went looking for a pan and a knife.

The standards of any kitchen. Some butter. Some eggs. The brains now had the consistency of a cooked yam and sliced easily into quarter-inch cubes. Heat up the eggs in the butter and in went the brains.

The prayers started just as the brains began to sizzle. Prayers to spirits, to concepts, to gods long thought dead. Thoth among them, scribe of divinities and keeper of lost knowledge. Old Death, named as Anubis, of course, since she was on the porch. Conny’s given name was Khonshu; his parents named him after the god of moon and travelers. He hoped that made a difference now.

Some other gods of Death were added in as well, mostly as an apology. Conny knew he was treading on their sacred ground with this rite and he didn’t want to piss them off.

When it was done, it looked like a creamy scramble; the smell was palatable enough, even if it was fighting for space with the corpse smells in the other rooms. Eating it was perhaps the simplest part, if you didn’t think about it too hard. Conny wished he could salt it, but salt would disrupt the rite.

The meal hit his stomach with a silvery fire. He could feel it taking hold, seeking ways out of his stomach, back up his throat, out the other direction, some fibers finding where he wanted them to go — into his nervous system and towards his own memories.

He returned back to the bedroom, feeling powerful on what he’d ingested, stomach still roiling and he picked up the myrrh in the shell, blowing on it to start it smoking again.

Burning, desire, need. The lust was a surprise. Her feelings. Her wants. The rite was taking hold.

“As one.” He whispered. “As one.”

She was staring out his eyes; he was staring out hers. Looking down. His belly, her belly. Torn open. No. Her hands, bleeding. No. Bloody. No. Why? Why? WHY?!?

Memories.

Emily’s memories.

Childhood: stupid and useless, high school? A wreck. But now. Memory etched in argent: Emily was having the time of her life.

The covens find each other; maybe they’re compelled to. Sort of like an AA meeting for the terminally and supernaturally fucked up. They meet where they can; where normal people are the least likely to show up or be welcome. That old warehouse, the barbecue area at the edge of the park. That abandoned lot at the top of the hill.

Maybe it was a rave, or someone’s birthday, or a holiday, but whatever it was, they gathered from hundreds of miles around. Surrounded by people like herself, bound by the fact that magic ran through them, not trapped by human law or the rules of society. That was what tonight was about.

Bonfires outside and drinking. Meat and food in plenty. Laughing, wrestling, showing off, and pissing about. Nobody serious and nobody sad. That was the first time she saw him.

He’d come from somewhere up north of the border. Clean-cut close-cropped hair. Eyes that made you shiver and a full-lipped smile that drew you in with each breath.

Nice ass, too! She joked with the girls standing around her. He seemed to have that pull on all the young women. The older ones just looked disgusted. Emily proposed a toast to ongoing relations and with a deep-throated laugh, he seconded it. He’d team up with her anytime she wanted.

She definitely wanted.

But there were rules. There were always rules.

One of them was witches don’t play with warlocks.

There were exceptions, of course. Sacred sexuality during the Great Rites, arranged marriages and the like. But all of it had to be approved by the eldest of the covens. Otherwise ‘great tragedy’ could result. Some silly bullshit about the rules of magic and forces needing to be aligned. Blah, blah, blah.

You could screw normal humans but that was kind of like making it with a mannequin, right? How the hell could they understand what it was like to wield magic?

Stupid, medieval, conservative horse crap. Didn’t these covens know about birth control? Condoms? Feminism? Hell, even magic could probably conjure up a way to keep from getting pregnant.

His name was a proper legendary one. He was welcomed with open arms. Hero. He had a line of women waiting to claim him. He said he wasn’t interested. Not yet, at least.

But you could tell, just at the edges of that smile. While he was talking to those half-souled groupies with no magic, no destiny, he didn’t want them. They weren’t worthy. He needed something more.

It took about a year before Emily and her eye candy found themselves in each others arms. Under the moonlight, after raiding a church crypt, fighting off the ghosts and memories of dead saints to come out with powdered bones and secrets from beyond death. When he looked down at her, to check on her, she just grabbed him by the back of his neck and drew him into a kiss. To her delight, he kissed her right back.

Both of them knew they had problems if they wanted to keep going. Any hint of an unapproved affair would launch an investigation. At first, it would be prophylactic. The elders would warn them and find ways to keep them separate. If it was more serious, the local council would step in and punish them.

To get around this, they made pacts with unholy spirits and fed those spirits with their lust. They formed a new coven, one which overlooked the occasional indiscretion. And finally, they took on lovers, ‘proper lovers’ in the estimation of other covens. The key piece of camouflage to hide their activities.

The days were agony as Emily waited for the whole pattern to fit together. But then… but then… but then…

It happened. It all clicked. Shaking with desire, Emily found a place for them near the spot where they’d first kissed. That first night moved mountains.

The next morning, she was bruised and raw and beyond exhausted. He wasn’t in much better shape. She never knew anything could be so powerful. So astonishingly worth it.

It took them a week before either one of them dared to show up in public. But patience and hard work had paid off. No one noticed. No one cared. It worked. Their plan worked very, very well.

Things took off after that. Each time Emily got together with him, it just kept getting better. Their bodies were made for each other. Their relationship made them a formidable team.

Familiarity bred contempt.

She was certain that they’d been safe. Had it been just one night? Did they get a little carried away? All she knew was this. The older witches ferreted out the pregnancy before she did. She was never sure exactly how. They stalked the two lovers until they had direct and incontrovertible evidence of the crime. Emily’s life came unhinged.

The stronger men seized hold of her man and stripped him. Around his neck hung a small vial on a leather thong. She’d never seen him take it off but it never seemed to bother her. Now, though, it was ripped from him.

Something seemed to flee out of him at that moment. Like his godhood, his good looks, his easy manner just left. He changed. Bit of a paunch, limp hair and sad, sad eyes. And she understood why the older women were so repelled by him. And she understood why she felt so compelled to be with him. Emily wept. She wondered what devil he had dealt with to get that charm. She wondered what she really carried inside her.

They flayed him. She’d heard of the term before. Never expected to see it. A part of her screamed as it happened. Another relished in it. They released him to the mundane world of no magic and jobs and universities and empty promises. Maybe one day he’d seek her out, find out what he’d caused, deal with it. Maybe not.

Then they turned to her. She could swear there was sadness behind their eyes. They touched her belly, each one, in turn, and then they turned their back on her. Banishment. They didn’t even have to say it. She was dead to them. No coven would deal with her again.

She crawled back to her dull, stupid, useless, good-for-nothing family. They put her up in the master bedroom, wood floor stained and creaky. A cradle set up in the next room. Her mom begged her to abort the kid. Emily said she’d think about it but it was all she had left of that time. How could she give that up? Wouldn’t that be a betrayal of her feelings, even if they were partly from an enchantment?

She was keeping the kid. These decisions were hers to make, however hard. Not her mother’s. Not her aunties. With her magical powers, she represented life itself. The idea of staining her spirit with the murder of the unborn…

The first time it kicked, it all changed.

Like jagged glass tearing her up inside. Claws… she realized. The child had claws. Even as she watched her belly start to tear and felt blood well up in her throat, she was lurching over to her supplies, pulling on the wolfskin belt, taking another shape to survive.

Only exhaustion forced her back to her humanity. The pain became a cycle of agony. The baby would move and tear her up, she’d pull on the belt and the magic would heal it. Lather, rinse, repeat. Her mother, frantic, worked with the aunts on things to keep the baby calm and content. The days became bearable. The nights though…

Her body would drift off to sleep. The baby, also asleep, would drift close to the wall of her womb and one of those claws would catch. She’d wake, shrieking. Her sleep dropped from eight hours a night to six to four and then less.

Six months in and there was nothing even the aunts could do. The baby was stretching, moving, preparing. At night, maybe she could get an hour or two in a row? Less?

That night, this night—was it now?—she was sure she hadn’t slept for days. The herbal remedies were useless; the medicinals—valium, morphine, oxycontin—her body and the child’s had built a tolerance. Any more and it would kill her. The world had vanished into a red haze and all she needed was some quiet.

There… just a moment when she could taste sleep. Time suspended.

Its fist tore through her. The howl of pain was intense. Someone came in, tried to hold her. In her fury, she broke the person’s arm. Others came running and she tore into them, beating them. The belt was nearby, calling to her. Pulling it on was a matter of habit. Every single scrap that whined or cried or made noise she destroyed. The whole house reduced to a gruesome silence. And then she went back to curl in a corner. That corner. Far side of the room. Next to the bed.

Even then she couldn’t sleep.

Emotions drifted out of Emily. As she looked across the room, her mother’s eyes glassed over as the last of her life dripped from her. Emily sobbed, quietly, for a while. Maybe minutes. Maybe hours. Nuzzling her belly.

The thing inside her kicked in reply.

She couldn’t take it anymore.

It had to come out and she snarled and tore into herself. The belt came loose in her teeth as she batted at something that fell heavily to the floor out of reach and bounced.

Blood loss and shock hit her all at once. Too much. Too much. Even for her. Without sleep, beyond exhaustion, her body was past its limits. Emily slumped down, feeling the last of her time running out.

She heard its cry. Heard it flop around. There was a hint of a smile as her eyesight started to blur. It’s a survivor, she thought.

As if in response, it pulled its way back to her. Numb, she couldn’t feel where the claws dug in, where the ferocious will to live wouldn’t give in. With the instinct of any newborn, it made its way to her breast.

She felt it nuzzle against her and take a bite.

Conny came out of his trance, tears smearing the kohl. He got up and wandered the house. Opened the door to the nursery. The devil’s child, he thought. He closed the door and made sure it was fully shut.

He wandered outside to find a car. Siphoned out the gas, using a garden hose. Rosemary for memory, myrrh for the dead. A lit cigarette. He put the gas where it was most needed.

The flames burst from the living room like a flower into the sky. Conny closed his eyes. Death would not go hungry. Emily was in the doorway. Her ghost, at least. She smiled at him.

He was coming off the drugs now and he felt empty, washed out. He found he was holding a knife. He wondered where it had come from. Gently, he laid the knife on the porch, under the eaves just starting to catch above him, and backed away. There might have been the cry of a baby in the night. Or it might have been the wind.

Wiping the kohl from his face, Conny stuck his stained hands in his pockets. He pulled out his cell and, with a sigh, deleted their chat logs and her folder. Tragic that it hadn’t worked out but there would be other chances.

Conny started back on the long walk to the university. His studies were waiting for him. The night welcomed him with typical indifference and the moon would not divulge his secrets.

 

Categories: Magick, Short Story Tags: Tags: , ,

Now available: 2 shorts and excerpts from available & upcoming books.

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Two of my short stories, The Red Gift and The Trouble With Perspective are up for sale. I’ve also got a pair of new short stories that will coming up this week.

The Red Gift

A magical version of modern Los Angeles, an ex-druid down on his luck. Some people spend New Years Eve alone, some with family,s ome with raucous strangers. And some find themselves in a bar drinking with a tired god exhausted from the sacrifices he must bear.

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The Trouble With Perspective

The problem with heroic acts is sometimes they might not actually be that heroic, or they may have consequences far beyond what you intend. This is the final testimony of a lonely researcher, and what they and their fellow scientists uncovered on what was supposed to be a routine assignment off the Atlantic coast.

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Happy Hallow E’en!