Monday, 21 August 2017

Chapter 20, Part One: Bar Room Blitz

Hi Everyone! The usual caveats apply, thanks for reading!

It was the sound, more than anything, that made Katherine snap her mind back from its daze. The sudden crack of stone on bone, as discordant as a broken bell over the buzz of conversation, was too real to ignore. She sprung to her feet, not really sure what she was going to do there, but knowing she couldn’t stay seated.

Christopher twisted around in his chair to see what had made her suddenly stand. “Oh my fucking God!” he yelled, as a man wearing a courier bag calmly swung an aluminum baseball bat into the neck of a well-dressed woman.

To Katherine, it was as though Christoper’s yell was the event that released the room from its shock. Cries filled the air as patrons stood up at their tables. Even then, there was confusion. Most people hadn’t seen the attacks, and now with everyone on their feet, it was even more difficult to see what was going on. The confusion spread as chairs crashed over and glasses shattered on the floor.

There were maybe a dozen individuals in all who crowded in through the doors, each as unremarkable as the next. They varied in dress and skin colour, men and women, old and young. The only thing they all had in common was a faint self-satisfied smirk that curled the edge of their lips.
They overturned tables, and swarmed toward anyone in reach, attacking with assorted weapons, fists, feet, and teeth. They didn’t yell out in anger as they fell on their victims, they struck and maimed quietly only the cries and grunts of their victims audible.

In front of Katherine, Christopher lunged to his feet and stumbled toward the fray, nearly falling on his face when his feet tangled with a chair leg. He recovered before he could fall and bellowed as he charged ahead.

When Katherine first saw Christopher, she had only taken notice of how fat he was, what she hadn’t realized was exactly how large the man was. Now that she could see him standing, she realized he had to be at least six foot five. He looked even bigger as he upended tables and chairs charging toward the fight. He grabbed a half-full wine bottle from a vacant table as he passed and smashed it onto the head of the nearest attacker—a distinguished looking man with salt and pepper hair who was kicking at someone on the floor.

A Touch of Grey went down like a two-hundred-pound sack of shit in a five-hundred dollar suit, red wine staining his head and shoulders. Christopher bellowed again, all softness gone, and snatched up a nearby bar stool to begin swinging at the attackers.

A scattered few of the patrons were beginning to tentatively join in the fight, getting in the occasional sucker punch when one of the smirking invaders had their back turned. The only one doing any real damage though was Christopher. His long reach with the bar stool was doing an admirable job of standing off the mob, but even now his face was beginning to turn red and Katherine could hear him panting heavily. He couldn’t do this on his own for much longer.

“Screw this!” Katherine heard someone yell behind her. She looked around to see the flame-haired waitress who had been serving coffee earlier turn toward the rear of the room and make a poking gesture with her carafe toward the battered Viking figurehead mounted on the back wall.

Katherine felt, more than saw, the magic of Strangefellows whiplash into the cracked wood and begin to travel down the faded Norse knotwork carved there. The server was obviously one of Strangefellows’ char witches, no one else could move its magic around like that.

Where the carving had worn down over the millennia, new wood now began to regenerate, the intricate knots becoming well-defined and sharp as the day they were carved. The figurehead twitched where it hung and fell from to the floor with a crash. Whorls and knots began to grow out from the wood like the waving arms of tarnished brass anemones, twisting and writhing into the shapes of limbs and a trunk.

A cry of pain caused her to turn back around, one of the crowd had got too close and had been dragged into the middle of the silent attackers. Arms and legs pumped frantically, and the cries abruptly cut off. The group began to move deeper into the room, but Christoper’s bar stool slowed them as they tried to advance. He was calling for help, but no one seemed to be willing to step up.
There were far more patrons than there were attackers, but she could see in all of their faces that they were scared. These were mainly sorcerers, modest talents who traded old badly remembered tricks on recipe cards. Strangefellows was their sanctuary and it had been invaded. That made them unsure and afraid. In the arcane community, they were small fish in a big ocean, and when the sharks came cruising by, they got the hell out of the way. These invaders represented a power they couldn’t hope to challenge and were confronted only at huge personal risk.

Katherine understood, she felt the same way herself and was ashamed. She knew she could help. She wasn’t a fighter, but she was strong, and her alchemically created body could take far more damage than these silent attackers were dishing out. A voice in her head told her that getting into a bar fight wasn’t the way to keep a low profile. If she went in now she’d declare to the arcane community that she was something more than just human. She balled her hands into fists, grit her teeth, and felt completely disgusted with herself.

As she watched, the man Christopher had hit with the wine bottle regained his feet. Blood and wine sheeted down his face and neck, staining the collar of his white shirt bright red. His lips peeled back and he hissed at Christopher. It was the first sound Katherine had heard any of the door crashers make. Christopher’s reply was an oak barstool to the face, and Katherine couldn’t help but let out a cheer. The man staggered, but didn’t fall, he was tougher than he looked.

The sound of wood squealing against wood suddenly sounded loud behind her. The figurehead the char witch had been feeding power to, had transformed from battered old wood to a dragon the size of a large Brown Bear. The Norse-style knots she’d noticed had wrapped the figurehead in twisted brass cables of magic that now made up its body and legs. The cables shifted and writhed like muscles as it moved.

It wasn’t a dragon, like recent Hollywood monsters seen on movie screens around the world, it was something older, something more archaic. Its scaled head was wide like a mastiff’s with huge eyes and rounded ears. Its body had the thick muscular chest of a bear, and its arms and legs ended in sharp bird talons. Its wings were tucked in at its sides and a long wail whipped in agitation behind it.

 It spread its wings wide, knocking over tables and chairs as it did,  and made a noise that sounded like a load of wet cats being driven into the world’s largest hornet’s nest. Katherine covered her ears and saw others all around her doing the same. Say what you would about the methods of Norse witches, anyone who could trick a piece of wood and make the magic last a thousand years was badass in her books.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Chapter 19, Part Two.

The second interlude concludes! The usual caveats apply. This is a rough draft with adult language and situations. Hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading!

“Just tell her when to stop,” Christopher said as the cards peeled off his hand and into the air above the table. They spun and whirled like autumn leaves dancing in an eddy of wind. As they flashed through the air, Katherine caught glimpses of vivid blues, greens, and reds. Elanor didn’t have much experience in cartomancy, but even Katherine could tell this wasn’t your standard Rider deck. Not that it was surprising, few truly magical items were mass-produced, they just didn’t have the capacity to contain that much magic.

“Goodness, she’s putting on a show tonight,” Christopher commented, watching the cards form intricate patterns in the funnel with his eyebrows raised.

The display caught Katherine by surprise and it was a few seconds before she remembered she needed to tell them to stop. “Um… stop.”

The cards halted in mid-air and rushed back down to the tabletop with a thump. The top three cards flipped out and landed in a neat row on the table before her. They were made from thick card stock and were longer than regular playing cards. On closer look, Katherine could see that each had been painted with a protective lacquer coating, the strokes from the paintbrush still visible in ripples on their backs.

“Looks like she’s gone for a simple three card spread,” Christopher explained, pointing at the cards. “Past, present, future.”

The first card flipped itself over. It showed a beautifully painted picture of a figure in a long, dark cloak sitting at a bar. Katherine couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, but from its hunched posture, they didn’t look at all happy. Two glasses of red wine stood untasted on the bar before it, while three others were toppled over on the bar leaving a puddle of red pooled below them.
The puddle of wine was what drew her attention, there was a visceral connection between it and the blood Elanor had traced on the stone floor of the laboratory. Katherine felt they were the same, though she couldn’t explain how. As she watched, the figure reached out an arm in jerky little stutters, like an old animation with some of the frames missing, and flicked one of the empty glasses off the bar. It fell and smashed to pieces on the floor without a sound.

Christopher’s face fell. “Oh my, it’s the five of cups, that’s so sad,” he lamented. He looked closely at her, “Well, you already know your past, sweetie, but for the sake of form I’ll tell you what I see.”
“You’ve lost something important, from the feel of it a mother or spouse, but something of them remains behind. It’s enough to remind you of them, but it’s not enough to be happy about.” He sighed in what sounded like genuine sympathy. “That really sucks.”

He looked at Katherine with a careful expression. “This is going to sound strange, but even for the best cartomancer, most people’s pasts are pretty muddled. It’s like like listening to all the tracks on a playlist at the same time. With the best readings, I can pick out bits and pieces of different songs. I can tell if it’s classical or speed metal, but there isn’t a lot of detail. With you though, it’s like there’s a single melody repeating over and over. I don’t think I’ve ever read someone so clear and sad.” He looked at her questioningly.

Katherine swallowed and felt her throat click dryly. She shrugged, unable to speak and gave a brave smile.

Christopher gave her a sad smile back and reached out to pet her hand. “Life can be shitty sometimes, can’t it?” he commiserated.

“Well, let’s get back to it. She won’t be happy until we’re finished,” he said gesturing at the as-yet unrevealed cards.

The deck on the table shivered and another card flipped out to land below the Five of Cups, it was the Seven of Swords. It showed another darkly cloaked figure, this time though she could see that it was a young man. He was man-pretty in the way of preppy douchebags that star as the villains in movies about frat boys. In the card it was twilight, and a cluster of medieval-style tents was pitched in the distance behind him. He had a bundle of swords hidden in his cloak and a confident sneer on his face. As she watched, he secreted the last two swords away into his cloak. Christopher peered down at the card, then back up to Katherine.

“So, it looks like she has something to add about your past. This card,” he said tapping on it, “is all about betrayal. Somebody done you wrong, girl, even if you don’t know it yet.” Katherine didn’t know how that could be since she hadn’t been around long enough to be betrayed by anyone. At least not as far as she knew. “What’s more, the little asshole thinks he’s gotten away with it,” he said smiling. “But look at the card closer.”

She didn’t see anything at first. The man with the swords was still smiling in an unpleasant way, the swords all but hidden in his cloak. It was then that she saw it. Just visible in the background there was a group of soldiers, one of them had his sword out and was waving it in the air. He was looking in the thief’s direction.

“The secret will come out, and we can hope he gets what’s coming to him.”

It seemed that was all the deck had to say about her past because the next card on the table flipped itself over and the pale whiteness of a full moon actually glowed out of the card. The flickering images of a large Mastiff and a wolf were pacing below and pausing to bay up at it, their mouths forming silent howls, their eyes reflecting the same silver as the moon itself. A paved roadway led away into the distance, passing between two large trees, their branches swaying in a phantom wind.
“Oh look!” Christopher said looking at the card as though he’d expected a Pop Tart instead. “It’s The Moon.” He looked down at the cards, then back up to her. “I’m not judging, but maybe you’re feeling just a touch off balance?” he said delicately. “What this card tells me is that you need to give yourself some me-time. Run yourself a hot bath, get your nails done, get comfortable in your own skin.”
She laughed at his choice of words, and the sound came out bitter as battery acid. “That sounds like some good advice. What’s the last card?” This had been a bad idea.

The final card flipped and a grinning woman in bright red tights was hung suspended by a noose around a single foot from a swaying tree branch. Her other foot was resting negligently behind her knee making an upside-down number four with her legs. Both hands were clasped behind her head, one of which held a small silver dagger. Above her, on the leaf-covered branch, two ravens looked down at her. Though she was bound, she didn’t seem at all upset, actually, Katherine saw she had a wicked grin on her face, as though she had just thought of a dirty joke.

“That’s two trump cards in a row,” Christopher began, then he stopped talking as he noticed that the deck was quivering again. Another card flipped out and landed face down to settle edge to edge with the Hanged Woman. As though the cards had suddenly become magnetic, The Moon, The Hanged Woman, and the new card, all snapped together with an audible click. The Five of Cups and Seven of Swords stayed where they were.

The new card flipped over to reveal it was Death. As if there was ever any question, Katherine thought dully. Death stood in a field of rippling golden wheat under a horned moon, the severed heads of kings and commoners peeking up from between the ripened stalks. The figure of Death was little more than a discoloured skull with patches of scalp still attached, hovering above a body made of thick black mist. The smoky form swirled and snapped like a flag in the wind. A heavy and worn scythe dragged behind it leaving a furrow in the earth as it passed. Green sprouts sprang up where the earth was disturbed.

“My mistake, that’s three trump cards,” Christopher said in a quiet voice.

The backgrounds of the three cards slowly became indistinct, mingling together, before becoming one. The fields of golden wheat wrapped around the knoll where the Hanged Woman’s tree around the base of which the dog and wolf were now beginning to snuffle. Where once the cards had shown images of both day and night, now there was twilight with the moon rising huge and merely waxing gibbous instead of full on the horizon.

 The figure of Death turned and began to drift from its own card toward the tree where the Hanging Woman swayed. It moved with that same Zoetrope flicker that put Katherine in mind of some of the oldest sepia-toned silent movies.

Katherine looked at Christopher’s shocked face, he was pale and sweat was beaded on his shaved scalp, then back down to the cards. Death had almost reached the tree where the hanged woman still waited, her impish smile unchanged, though Katherine could see her eyes tracking Death’s progress. In a move, violent and sudden, Death reared back with his scythe to strike. Katherine flinched, and Christopher’s hands came up and steepled at his mouth.

Instead of slicing into the woman as Katherine expected, the scythe flashed out and parted the hanging rope from the tree. The Hanging Woman, now in name only, flipped nimbly as an acrobat to the ground and took a bow.

The dog and wolf from the Moon card seemed delighted at this turn of events and bounced happily off her chest and licked her face. The Hanged Woman stretched her arms to the sky, ruffled the ears of the excited canines, and put a companionable hand around Death’s shoulder. It was the hand which still held the dagger.

The Hanged Woman turned, made deliberate eye contact with Katherine, grinned even wider, and slowly winked. Then she turned and plunged the dagger into Death’s back. Death didn’t appear to mind, and all of them, Death, the dog, the wolf, and The Hanged Woman, began to make their way down the road toward the two huge trees in the distance. The knife still gleamed in death’s back, and the length of rope from the noose around the Hanged Woman’s ankle trailed in the dust behind her. The two ravens who had been waiting in the tree cawed soundlessly and launched themselves into the air to circle above the group.

Unseen by the any of them, the cloaked figure from the five of cups had sidled out of its card and hid behind the Hanged Woman’s tree to watch them go.

With an audible snap like the sound of breaking ice, the borders of the cards became visible again and each of the figures was back in its own card.

“Well,” said Christopher in a shaky voice after a silence of perhaps thirty seconds, “that was unexpected.”

They didn’t get time to discuss the cards further. Over Christopher’s shoulder, movement caught Katherine’s eye. Two of the groups that she’d noticed loitering outside were entering through the front door. The people looked…wrong. It was a moment that contained a kind of numbness as her brain registered that something was amiss, but had yet to fully process the danger. Two speeding cars bearing down on each other can’t possibly be about to pancake into each other. That jet can’t be about to fly into that building. But then the cars hit, the plane explodes, and the screaming starts.

It was like that for Katherine, as the first of the group, a matronly woman with thinning red hair and grey roots, unhurriedly reached into her jacket pocket, pulled out a fist-sized rock, and without a flicker of expression, savagely brained the man at the nearest table.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Chapter 19, Part One.

The Interlude lightens up a bit with Chapter 19, part one! The usual warnings apply: This is a rough draft with adult situations. Thanks for reading!

Getting an invite to Strangefellows from a member of the club hadn’t been as difficult as Katherine feared. Just knowing the place existed was a mark in her favour. She wasn’t looking for sympathy, but she didn’t turn it down when a group of twenty-somethings took pity on her wet and torn state and had invited her in. By then, her coordination had improved enough that she was able to blame her stumbling steps on simply being cold and wet, rather than the public drunkenness it had looked like a few hours earlier.

Even though it was well past three in the morning, there were several small groups of people loitering outside the beige box of a building and more coming and going through the door. She wouldn’t have expected the place to be this busy, even during the dinner rush.

As she shouldered her way inside, she collided with a wall made from the buzz of conversation and the smell of food and furniture polish. Four parts of a Kellas cat prowled the bar while a woman with flame-coloured hair was pirouetting through the tables with a sigil-etched coffee carafe.
Nearly all the seats were occupied, but after some searching, she discovered an empty huge wingback leather armchair next to a fat man with a shaved scalp. The man was drinking coffee and idly shuffling a deck of tarot cards on the small table in front of him. She sat down with a sigh and the squeak of leather.

“I’m Christopher,” he said, looking up and extending a long-fingered hand. His body language and voice were extremely animated. Some gay men liked to blend in, others were loud and proud. Christopher was clearly of the latter variety.

Katherine took his hand and shook. "Katherine," she said. She needed to think about where to put her tongue as she spoke, it ended up making her sound stoned.

“I haven’t seen it this busy since the night Cobain was shot,” he observed wistfully, looking over the room. “There’s nothing like the rumour of a Necromancer to bring the community together.”
“Is that what this is?” she asked slowly.

Though her tongue might slow, her brain was working just fine. It was no coincidence that news of a rogue necromancer broke the night Elanor was killed with necromantic magic.

Her new companion looked at her more closely, taking in her wet and torn jeans. He nodded in understanding. “I’ve had nights like those,” he said sympathetically. He raised a finger in the air and motioned to the woman with the flame coloured who was serving customers a few tables over. He pointed at Katherine, then his coffee mug. The server nodded and spun away.

Katherine tried to protest, but Christopher wouldn’t hear of it. “Even if you don’t like coffee, sweetie, it’s a cold night and you’ll have something to warm your hands up with.”

Said like that, Katherine began to wonder if she did like coffee. Elanor had been indifferent to it, preferring tea, but she’d never tried it before.

It took a while, but when the coffee arrived, it did so in a glass pint mug carried by a red haired man in a flannel housecoat. He placed her drink on the table with an apologetic shrug. “The dishwasher’s not here yet, and Sue is having a hard time keeping up with refills, he apologized. “This should keep you going for a while,” he said, setting down the mug in front of her with a thunk. He rubbed at the small of his back and surveyed the room.

“I’m Sam by the way,” he said, looking back down and extending a hand to her. “I don’t think I’ve seen you in Strangefellows before.”

Her mind went suddenly blank. What should she say? She hadn’t even thought of giving herself a back story. Looking back on it, it should have an obvious first step. Where could she say she even came from? Where do I come from? I come from?… Ohh I come from… Then, it just came pouring out, “Katherine,” she blurted, shaking his hand, “I come from Alabama.” She neglected to mention that she had a banjo on her knee, but it was a close thing.

“Really? I can hardly hear your accent. Welcome to Vancouver. Will you be here for long?”
Katherine took a huge gulp from the steaming pint mug to give her time to think. The coffee was scalding hot and Sam’s eyes widened in concerned surprise. The drink was hot enough to badly blister a normal mouth but it did nothing to hers, it didn’t even tingle.

She tried to smile with her eyes over bulging cheeks. “Mmmm,” she said, smiling brightly. She was struck then by how much she probably sounded like some sea mammal. This couldn’t get any worse. She was a whale from Alabama.

“Wow!” Sam said, impressed, “isn’t that hot?”

She swallowed and nodded. “I really like hot drinks.”

“It shows.” He looked around the room and squared his shoulders. “I’ll be back around to check on you guys in a bit, it’s busy, so shout if you need something. Good seeing you Christoper. Nice to meet you Katherine, hope you enjoy your stay in Vancouver.” With that, he left to attend a table of women who were done up for a night out on the town.

“Alabama?” Christopher asked with a raised eyebrow, idly thumbing his deck.

Katherine nodded.

“If you say so, girl. How’s the coffee?”

Good question. She’d been so focused on the server she hadn’t taken the time to pay attention to the flavour. She took another sip and thought about it.

“It tastes sort of burnt,” she answered, adding some cream and sugar.

“Sam probably made it. He might be a talented char witch, but he can’t make coffee worth a damn.”
The cards in his hand continued to rearrange themselves without his help, they fanned themselves out like the tail of a peacock.

“Do you mind?” Christopher asked. “She wants to read you.”

“What? Your cards?”

“She gets sulky if she doesn’t get her way,” he nodded toward the deck in his hand. “This little lady can be quite the diva.”

“Do I need to cross your palms with silver, or something?” She knew the answer, but someone unfamiliar with the arcane community might not. Acting like someone just sponsored seemed like a good idea to her.

“Oh no, nothing like that, she’s taken a shine to you is all,” he presented the deck for her to see. It quivered on his hands and suddenly reminded her of a dog waiting to be told it’s alright to meet someone new.

Christopher looked at her questioningly, and Katherine, unable think of a polite reason not to, nodded her ascent.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Stupid Things.

The chapters will continue, but for this blog, I decided to take a quick break and go for a trip down memory lane to remember one of the most spectacularly stupid things I've ever done...

And now, for something completely different:

The Romantic Poet, William Wordsworth, had the idea that each of us has spots of time, memories so important that they stay with us and inform who we are. I’ve always liked that idea, it seems, well, romantic. What follows is one of my moments. It’s important to me as a person because it is me at my most stupid.

My hair!, My once-beautiful, hair!
When I was young, carefree, and still had a full head of hair, I decided that I’d spend the summer tree planting. We could really stop the story there, but it’s the second stupid thing that happened while I was tree planting that really had an impact.

When people think of planting trees they might think of a well-tended garden or maybe even planting an orchard. Tree planting in British Columbia, where I grew up, is a much different beast. A lot of the industry in BC used to, and still does, revolve around forestry. In practise, that means something called, clearcutting. At the time of my story, clearcutting involved staking out a block of land roughly 45 football fields in size, cutting down every tree inside that block, then bringing in heavy machinery to pull out the stumps and anything else that might still be alive. What you’re left with is a churned-up, muddy, bug-infested, and often swampy, hellscape. I’ve heard that other, more gentle forms of harvesting have become common since my days on the cut-block, but that was what it was like back in the carefree days of the mid-90s.

To these sites of devastation, crews of tree planters, most of them university students, would arrive every summer to replace the trees that had been harvested. It was hot, physically demanding work. Beyond just the labour of being bent-over planting trees all day, you were also weighed down by a body harness with insulated pouches filled with tree seedlings.

This is what I assume happens when a tree murders
a billionaire's parents in a darkened alley.
The idea was to load in as many seedlings as you could and still do your job without damaging them. We didn’t do this because we were manly men with something to prove, some of the best planters were women, we did it because we were paid by the tree. The cut blocks were filled with seedlings from back to front and getting to the back tree line would sometimes take twenty minutes of hiking over rough ground. Hiking back to your cache with empty bags was wasting time you could be spending planting trees. I would begin each morning with between fifty to seventy pounds of trees in my pouches. If you want to lose weight in a hurry, I can’t recommend tree planting highly enough.
In harness on the cut block. Summer, 1998.

Anyway, to the point of this story. It was the middle of the planting season and I’d finished with my first round of trees. I was resting by my cache and thinking about loading up my pouches again. Now, this was the interior of British Columbia up near a place called Williston Lake. In the middle of summer, the flies there aren’t so much an irritant as they are a misplaced Plague of Egypt. I actually grew my first beard back then to try and keep the black flies away. It didn’t work, it just hid the blood. At the end of the day, there would still be red running down my neck and staining my tee shirt from where the black flies managed to burrow in and claim their pound of flesh.

Black flies are bad, but horseflies will take literal chunks out of your flesh. I’m not joking when I say they will happily bite through several layers of clothing to get at your meaty centre. To make matters worse, once they have your scent they don’t give up. They were my constant nemesis that summer, I even had a memorable kendo-style standoff with one, but that’s another story. The afternoon in question, I had two or three horse flies on my trail and they followed me back to my cache.

This is what a total asshole looks like. It even
has douchy sunglasses.
While I was resting, I noticed that the little pack of flies I’d collected had been attracted to the empty, waxed boxes that our seedlings were delivered in. They gathered on the boxes like they were trading recipes for my tasty, tasty, flesh. I did the obvious thing that anyone would do when they were in no hurry to get back to work. I began to throw rocks at them.

It started small, just marble sized rocks to send them buzzing away. It took only seconds for them to return to their spots. Did I mention they’re tenacious? Honestly, I don’t know what it was about those boxes, but they were like horsefly crack. I didn’t manage to hit any of them with the small stuff, so I graduated to larger and larger rocks. Five minutes later, I was tossing rounded fist-sized chunks of granite at the empty boxes, and that was when the horse flies struck back.

One of them, probably pissed with the constant barrage of stones, buzzed up to me and landed directly on my lips. A horsefly is a big insect, and the lips are a very sensitive area. I can remember the feeling of its legs gripping onto my face like wires. Most people would be startled and brush the fly away. Most people didn’t have two-pound rocks in their hand, though. On reflex, I brought my hand up to swat away the horsefly. The hand with the nice big rock in it. You can guess what happened.

There wasn’t too much blood, and thankfully I kept my teeth, but it remains as one of the most stupidly memorable things I’ve ever done.

Credit for the clear cut image goes out to Andrew Mitchell

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Chapter 18, Part Two: Home to Roost.

The second interlude continues with the usual warning: This is a rough draft with bad grammar and adult content. Thanks for reading!

 Ray Bradbury sat on a seat in The Stormcrow Tavern off Commercial Drive in Vancouver, his legs crossed at the ankles and a book in his hands. He didn't respond to Ray, Raymond, or even Ramón. He was Ray Bradbury and would answer to nothing else.

While it was the name he responded to, he was pretty sure that Ray Bradbury wasn’t his real name. Nearly almost maybe certain? He was almost sure he could remember a month when he’d been Neil Gaiman. He’d learned to play the ukulele and become interested in beekeeping. Those were far more Neil Gaimanesque pursuits than Ray Bradburian ones.

Now that he thought about it though, he might have been Ray Bradbury just pretending to be Neil Gaiman. Issues of identity were fluid with him. Like God said to Moses, and Popeye proclaimed before him, he was who he was. Names were to be changed when they became uninteresting or smelly.

Ray Bradbury had the wiry, slightly underfed look of the professional travelling college student. His clothes were not quite worn, so much as they were well-loved, and his long blond hair fell past his shoulders in a tail that appeared to be a few days late for its regular washing.

A table of four patrons to his left vied for world domination on a colourful cardboard map while he read his way through a paperback with a spine more twisted and crooked than Richard the Third’s. Ray Bradbury was hard on books. This one was written by Frank Herbert and was one of Ray Bradbury’s favourites from the last century. He might even be Frank Herbert at some point in the future to see how it fit.

As he read, a part of his mind continued a running commentary on the words as they entered his brain as though in conversation with the text. The voice was something he’d first noticed when he was a fixture in Victorian London’s Limehouse District. By the time he’d made it to the opium dens of Vancouver’s Shanghai Alley in the late eighteen-hundreds, the voice had become even more clear, and now, mildly obnoxious.

Chasing the dragon was something he only dabbled in briefly when the danger and forbidden romance of the Orient had been in vogue during the later-half of the nineteenth century. Victorians were at their the best while clutching their metaphorical pearls in the spasms of moral outrage. At the time, frequenting an opium den was the thing to do for anyone looking to jab a finger in the eye of polite society.

By that point in his already long life, Ray Bradbury knew himself well enough to understand that an opium addiction would lead to nowhere but a cold hole in the ground. He’d left the opium dens when he felt he’d made his point, but instead of fading back into the smoke from whence it came, the voice remained. He’d ended up simply calling this new presence, “The Guest,” and left it at that.

“Fear might be a mind-killer,” The Guest was now saying, “but it’s not the mind-killer. If you have a really vindictive, bloody-minded death wish for your consciousness, there’s nothing like alcohol”
Ray Bradbury couldn’t deny The Guest had a point.

Though he didn’t look like it, and though he couldn't remember his given name, Ray Bradbury knew beyond any doubt he was the last great explorers. The last spiritual descendant in the line of Leif Erikson, Marco Polo, Ursula Le Guin, and Neil Armstrong. He was Ray Bradbury, Chrononaut, first of his name.

When people went travelling, they were content to fly off to some place sunny where they could buy expensive coconut shell knick knacks that would count down their days on dusty bookshelves before they were finally tossed in the trash. Ray Bradbury, on the other hand, had a craving to go somewhere Lonely Planet hadn’t written a travel guide.

He’d lived through the age of great explorers, telling himself the whole while that he’d soon join in and sail away to see what was hidden beyond the sea. He'd have a glacier field named after him. Even a single island bearing his name would have been enough to burn away the desire to explore. It seemed as though that every time he had his trunks packed with over-large fur parkas though, some new calamity erupted that demanded his attention at home.

He looked away for only a second, and when he looked back, every corner of the world had been mapped, travelled, catalogued and named after somebody else. Now the only place left where you could plant your flag and be reasonably sure you were the first to visit, was the future.

Travelling to the future was a tricky proposition though,  the only way he saw to get there was by sailing on a ship of alchemical magic. Ray Bradbury’s family hadn’t been alchemists, or in any way magically gifted, but they did have the one thing that made them powerful and absolutely essential to the supernatural arts. They had money, lots and lots of money.

Even when you weren’t a fraud or a crackpot, which was rare enough for an alchemist in those days, alchemy wasn’t a cheap discipline. It required costly materials and equipment. Before the Guild stepped up and began training its own, your average alchemist couldn’t afford the pot to piss in. The only reason European alchemy succeeded in creating anything more interesting than a variety of offensive smells, was that in the fifteenth century it became fashionable for the nobility to act as patrons for budding alchemists.

As it occurred, Ray Bradbury’s family had been noble, and very fashion-conscious. They had funded a veritable kennel of alchemists at the family seat. So, when Panacea was finally discovered, they were among the first in line to reap the rewards. Ray Bradbury had his first dose of Panacea at the age of nineteen. For a while, it seemed as though the world and all of its most warm and pleasant bits were there for his amusement alone.

Decades passed though, and a niggling dissatisfaction began to grow in Ray Bradbury’s breast. The problem was that the future simply wasn’t coming fast enough, and after many slow centuries, he’d become bored. That was when he first heard of the fabulous Doctor Knox.

The people who usually employed Dr. Knox’s services were trying to avoid death. Ray Bradbury saw Dr. Knox’s new services as a way to avoid boredom. Instead of ploughing headfirst through the interminable decades, he’d be revived every fifty years. Thanks to compound interest, he’d be able to tour the latest age in style. Depending on how he liked it when he was revived, he would stay anywhere from a few months to a few years before going back into his own custom-built casket and soaking for another half century. He would never live a boring day in his life again.

This time around, he’d been up and about for over two years, and there was still so much to see. Culture had becoming so fast-moving that you couldn’t possibly hope to come to grips with it in a few months, or even a few years. The Internet had only really come into its own in the last twenty years, and it had already transformed and added to the global culture in ways he could never have imagined. How different would the world look in fifty more years, or a hundred?

These thoughts were filtering through his head when he unexpectedly put his book down on the table. He hadn’t meant to do that. A hot sensation began at the crown of his head, then quickly spread down through his whole body. Once it reached his feet the odd feeling paused, then flared burning hot. It was like his skin, bones, and vitals were all being flung away in different directions. He screamed, but no sound came from his lips.

“I was reading that,” The Guest complained.

The Guest, who had been enjoying the book, felt an odd jolt. It was what he imagined it would feel like if someone had shoved past him on the street. Being immaterial, it wasn’t a sensation he ever expected to feel.

“What are you doing?!” he asked of Ray Bradbury. The Guest focused his senses inward and found someone new. He realized with a shock that Ray Bradbury had been evicted! This new presence smelled like old blood and smoke from a burning tire. Beyond that, it was both bad and stupid. He could feel the unsophisticated desire to do harm coming off of it in red, stinking waves. The Guest was sure the new guy hadn’t noticed him, he was certain he would have been kicked out just like poor Ray Bradbury.

The Guest made himself as small as he could, and because there was no alcohol began muttering, “I must not fear, fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration..."

*     *     *

In Vancouver and Senak, hundreds of people looked up from what they were doing and silently left their jobs, their beds, their families, and simply walked away. If they did speak, it was only with a word or two spoken in an unfamiliar voice; bad actors reading from a new script.

Some were stopped by concerned friends, only to become quietly violent, silently striking out at those who tried to get in their way without rage or passion. A few were physically restrained. Once they were down, they lay quietly like a toad on its back, simply staring ahead and waiting. As soon as they were able though, they would try and leave again, and again.

The sleepwalkers drove, walked, hailed taxis, and slowly began to condense into groups no smaller than four, or bigger than ten. They gathered, staring through each other with thoughtless gazes, and waited.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Chapter 18, Part One: Home to Roost

The second interlude continues! The usual warnings for this rough draft apply. Poor grammar, bad language, and adult topics. Thanks for reading!

Winnie sighed and sat back in her comfy leather chair. She massaged her temples briefly before looking back at the spreadsheet on her computer screen. It was blurry and it hurt her eyes. At long last, the Christmas shoppers were gone, the door was locked, and she had some peace. She’d tally the day’s books and be on her way. Her eight-hour shift felt like eighty and she’d been out of sorts for the last half of it. Migraines had been a problem for her since she was a teen and she wondered if one might not be on its way now.

Around her on the walls and display shelves sat the accumulated treasure of decades and centuries past from all across the Aether. Items ranged from collectibles, to great masterpieces of art, to historical and religious artifacts. Some of the items were obviously magical, while others held no more magic than a root canal. What they all had in common was that they were all very rare and all very expensive. Winnie had more accumulated wealth in her little back room than some of the lords of the Free Cities. Well, maybe not quite that much, she conceded, but she’d certainly done well for herself.

Across from her in a crystal case, the talwar, Veritas, that cut the sting from the hand of Lord Dal rested next to a rune-etched jar of Panacea containing the brain of the not-quite assassinated John Fitzgerald Kennedy. On another shelf, a Detective Comic number 27 was enshrined next to the original composition sticks of the Trentii Aetherphone Symphony transcribed by Xis The Younger herself.

 In the business of antiques and collectibles, there was a fine line between what would become valuable and what would end up dropped off in a cardboard box at the back door of a second-hand store. Winnie’s biggest talent was being able to tell which was which.

Her skill came with a serious flaw though, and that was time. It took decades for an item to mature from a mass-produced nothing to an expensive collectible. While the item was ageing, she was too. What was the point of being rich if you only got that way in time to spend money on new dentures and prune juice?

Her ability wasn’t anything arcane or mystical, it was just something she’d become good at with time and experience. Winnie was a sorcerer in name only. She’d barely been able to master the simplest of tricks and lately she’d even let that slip. She’d come to understand it was the results that mattered and not necessarily how you got there.

Being able to use magic was like being Vegan, it was a lot more exciting when you had other Vegans around you to talk about how great it was. The rest of the time was spent researching bean recipes and trying not to become anaemic. That was magic in a nutshell for her. It was fun being part of the herd, but the number of times one would be called on to do some really serious magic in a given lifetime was almost nil.

What then, went her logic, was the point of studying for years to learn if all you did with magic on a day-to-day basis was warm up your water for a cup of tea?

Magic was a novelty skill, like being double-jointed, or the women she’d heard of who could launch pingpong balls across the room without using their hands. Just because she had the capacity didn’t mean that she had the desire. Magic was like that for her. Knowing how to make money out of everyday objects was her power, and it did for her what she couldn’t be bothered to do with magic. If she wanted fire, lightning, or pingpong balls, for that matter, she’d hire someone. Her time was better spent becoming more wealthy.

She’d made a name and a very comfortable home for herself in Senak without ever relying on her magic, and it had all been because of what she called, “The Plan.”

At the tender age of seventeen, Winnie decided on a direction for her life. It would require her to begin purchasing potential antiques and raise enough money for a fifty-year dose of Panacea.
She began working as a dispatcher at Transaether Direct, a shipping company specializing in the moving large goods throughout destinations across the Aether. There, she used her employee access to all of the known worlds to hunt down the things that she thought would become most valuable with time. Every other penny she made was tucked away for a dose of Panacea.

Years slipped past as her savings slowly trickled in. She was good at her job and she moved deftly up the company ranks, but always just a bit too slowly. Crows feet began to gently press in at the corners of her eyes. Even worse, her sharp eyes began to notice that her breasts began to register the effects of gravity. As though supported by the sand in an emptying hourglass, they began their long journey south. Two pink glaciers following gravity down across her abdomen. It was a slow race that she, and by extension her breasts, were losing.

One night, in a fit of drunken despair, she did some back of the napkin math.  At the rate she was saving, her boobs would be around her ankles by the time she had enough for a ten year shot of Panacea.

Her breaking point came at the age of thirty-two when she found her very first grey hair. Enough was enough. She’d heard of Dr. Knox and the services he provided—almost everyone who chased the dream of extended life had. She wasn’t ill, but you didn’t need to be sick to become a gin, you just needed to be desperate.

Dr. Knox’s process wiped her carefully gathered savings clean, but in the end, it had worked. She’d carefully wrapped up and put her accumulated treasures into long-term storage. She’d bid adieu to her friends, family, the early 1960s, and awoken in a new world of the Social Media, Web Mages, and even better than she could have imagined, online auctions.

In a few short weeks, she’d recouped all of her savings and bought space in the upscale shopping district of Senak. Now, undiluted Panacea flowed through her veins and life for her would be very long, and better yet, still perky.

This wasn’t to say there hadn’t been a few bumps in the road. Things had been different after she’d been revived. Something had seeped away from her and been left behind in the barrel during the long darkness of the intervening decades. She felt incomplete, like a used teabag, the best parts of her already gone, unable to do more than make the water look dirty, and smell strange. Emotion felt muted, food tasted bland, and every song seemed to be played in a minor key.

In counselling, she’d been told that the lack she felt was probably melancholy or guilt from leaving behind her life in the 1960s. She wasn’t convinced. She hadn’t had many friends, just a lot of acquaintances. She’d been too focused on her goal of beating old age. And if those acquaintances had ever met her family, they surely would have helped chip in for her goal of spending five decades in a barrel.

After some soul-searching, she decided that the grey feeling was probably due to the massive disconnect between her time and the present day. She’d gone into the barrel in the early sixties. Back then, the Bay of Pigs Invasion was still news, the Space Race was just beginning, and the counterculture for which the decade was known hadn’t really taken off yet. She thought that was a shame because the idea of a bunch of drugs and anonymous sex didn’t sound all that horrible to her.

Despite being somewhat titillated at the thought of sex and drugs, she knew deep down that her cultural outlook was more Leave it to Beaver than Jefferson Airplane. How could it be surprising that she found herself feeling out of place in a time so different from the one she’d lived in? At least that was what she’d tell herself.

She sighed and reached for her teacup. Instead of gripping the bone china handle as she’d intended, her hand spasmed and knocked her teacup off its saucer and to the floor where milky tea splashed over her exotic hardwood floor. She swore softly and intended to get up to fetch a cloth and broom to clean up the mess, but found she couldn’t move a finger.

There was a sudden tearing pain throughout her entire body. It felt her bones were being pulled out through her skin. Her vision split, stretched apart like she was in two places at once. One set of images had her still sitting in her chair, while the other was rising to stand. Winnie thought her head would explode from the solar flare of agony before the two perspectives snapped like an elastic band and whiplashed back into her mind to become one again.

The back of a woman suddenly loomed huge in front of her as she moved away. Slowly, she began to recover and one fact cut through the haze with alarm. There was someone in the room with her!
A high ringing tone in her head made it hard to think, and she felt so weak. As she tried to stand, her legs wobbled like she’d spent a month sick in bed. She lurched forward and stumbled over her own numb feet to fall to the floor.

Looking down at herself, she could actually see the grain pattern of her floor through her arm. How could that be? That fact had barely time to register before she looked up and was able to make out the profile of the intruder’s face. It was her face, her body, right down to the raw silk robe and that mole on her neck that she’d been meaning to have a doctor check out.

She reached out desperately to grasp at her double’s ankle, but instead of gripping and holding tight, her hand skittered off, as though the skin was just below a frictionless layer she couldn’t touch. Her doppelganger continued up the stairs of her sunken living room, slipped on a pair of shoes, took a jacket from her closet, and left out the front door, not bothering to close it behind her. After a few stunned moments, Winnie felt a tug, a compulsion as though a web of strings had been attached to her insides. She had to follow. Somehow she found the will to stand and staggered toward the open door.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Chapter 17, Part Two: Invasion of the Body Snatchers,

Wrapping up chapter 17, the usual warnings apply. Thanks for reading!

Over the course of the next hour, the body slowly reanimated. At first, shivers travelled up and down the boy’s naked flesh and even more of the preservative was expelled and drained into a grate in the floor. This was followed by more powerful twitching of the large muscles of the arms, legs, and abdomen. A wet sounding inhalation followed a hacking cough that lasted for ten minutes was the next stage of the boy’s resurrection. Eventually, his arms and legs began to move in a way that was more than random neurons firing, and he began to make whining noises that eventually turned into weak groans. Rag dropped an old quilted furniture blanket over him and stood back again to wait.

It was another half an hour before the boy was able to speak, when he did, his first whispered word predictably was, “water.” This was always the first thing a newly-revived gin asked for. It was the articulation of the body’s desperate need to take on water and begin flushing out all the salts and chemicals that accumulated after months or years soaking in preservatives.

Rag had been ready for this. As she’d come in, she’d noticed a plastic paint bucket that had been left in a corner to collect dust. She’d filled the bucket with water and now brought it over to the struggling boy. Without dignity or hesitation, he plunged his face down into the bucket and began drinking the water as quickly as he was able. She watched as his neck worked to get the water down with muscles that were nearly dry and stiff as wood, the water long since forced out of them by the brine and alcohol.

He threw up once or twice, but each time he went back, doggedly keeping at the bucket until the water was gone and his belly was swollen. Then he curled up in a ball with the blanket wrapped around himself and shivered as his body began to slowly rehydrate. He would go through two more before he was done.

It would be at least another hour before he was on his feet, but Panacea was powerful stuff, and he would recover quickly—or he would have if it had just Panacea in her little green bottle.
Doctor Knox had made a few changes to the formula and what was in there now would do all the things Panacea did, and more besides. The extra features just took a bit more time to set in.
“Where am I,” the boy whispered.

“A warehouse,” Rag provided unhelpfully. “Judging from the date on your barrel you’ve been here for five years. You’re vintage gin,” she said it with a crooked smile. The joke was an old one, and even when it was new it wasn’t really all that clever.

In a fit of Romanticism, the alchemists who first discovered the process called their creations The Djinn. They were named after the old stories about magical creatures who lived in bottles or lamps. Since the lamps the alchemists used were barrels, and since the people who came out of them smelled worse than a drunk after a three-week bender, the name was simply shortened to Gin. A few of the more persnickety alchemists still referred to them as The Djinn, but to everyone else, they had simply become Gin.

“I don’t feel well,” the boy complained. Mister Bone snorted out a dark laugh. “You’ve been dead for five years and you stink worse than shit. I’d feel poorly if I were you as well.”

“Five years?” he whispered. “Are my mom and dad here?”

Madame Rag shot Bone a quelling look and hoisted the boy to his bare feet. Despite the coldness of the room, he felt hot even through the blanket.

“What’s your name, boy?” she asked, ignoring his question.

“J-Jacob,” he chattered.

“Well Jacob, it will take some time before you’re feeling shipshape and Bristol fashion again. In the meanwhile let’s get you into something warm and let you have a lie-down.” She felt his forehead, it felt hot as an oven door. Good.

She put an arm around him and helped him through a doorway with strips of thick clear plastic hanging down from the top, through a break room and into an office space that looked as though it had once housed cubicles. Nearly all the windows had been tagged with spray paint or permanent marker in the looping whorls of urban arcana; Mohinder1, John Cusack Shakur, John3, and Jherk. There was also the usual fare of Banksy wannabes, and on one large window, a happily dancing vulva.

There were darkened paths worn into the floor from years of use set out in a grid-like pattern over the high-traffic, low pile carpeting. Phone and Internet cables sprouted limply through the floor at regular intervals like an exposed kelp forest at low tide. Lighting fixtures hung from the ceiling, some still working, some flickering fitfully, most completely dark. All along the back wall were rows of folding cots and chemical toilets, one per cot.

Madame Rag led Jacob to a folding cot in the far corner. Jacob stumbled to the bed and sagged onto it, wrapping himself with the stiff quilted blanket and curling in on himself.

Madame Rag eyed him closely. It wouldn’t be long now. The boy’s bare feet clenched and unclenched and his whole body nearly vibrated with tension. His eyes snapped open and he whimpered. “Please, Dad, I need some tomatoes,” he gasped. “Some tomatoes from the garden.” He wasn’t seeing the room anymore and his breathing, which had been quick and shallow, now became ragged and panting.

It went on like this for another five minutes, delirious nonsense words coming from his mouth and writhing on the cot before the episode finally peaked. Bone paid the boy no heed but Rag always found this part of the procedure fascinating.

Jacob’s body seemed to slump like the bank of a stream undercut by a flood, finally succumbing to the current. His eyes grew dull and began to wander slowly across the abandoned office. The tightness drained out of his muscles and he settled more comfortably onto the cot. The change only took half a minute, and at the end of that time his face was composed and his hands were resting across his chest.

He looked over to where Madame Rag and Mister Bone stood watching. “I’m ready,” he said in a calm, steady, voice said in mature tones that had never belonged to Jacob. Rag nodded and Bone grunted noncommittally. The three left the office space and returned to the refrigerated warehouse to continue their business.

If Stirling had been there, he would have seen Jacob’s ghost slowly sitting up on the cot and looking around in confusion. He would have seen Jacob catch sight of the three as they made their way out of the room and lurch after them with a look of panic on his face. He might have seen all of these things, had he been there.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Chapter 17, Part One: Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Turning a bit darker in this chapter as we meet back up with Rag and Bone. The usual caveats apply: First draft, bad language, worse punctuation and grammar. Hope you enjoy reading!

By the time they’d left the little scribblers apartment, Mister Bone was in a state. Rag knew he’d wanted to kill the reporter from the first time they had visited him five years ago. Since then, the homicidal impulse had matured and grown in complexity like a fine wine, cellared away to be opened on some special occasion.

Today, the cork had nearly popped. Only a calming hand from herself had saved the man from becoming an assortment of parts. Rag imagined she could fairly see the visions of bloody violence rear projected like happy gore-splattered sugar plum fairies on the back of her enormous husband’s eyeballs.

She’d almost let Mister Bone indulge himself, after all, it would be good for a laugh if it was done just right, and Madame Rag felt that she could use a chuckle today. Wasn’t it said laughter was the best medicine? Rag herself had yet to experience laughter’s medicinal qualities. She’d always considered a fistful of oxycodone followed by bloody slaughter to be a far better balm for her soul, but she’d be willing to try.

With Doctor Knox’s most recent instructions to avoid random acts of violence not an hour old though, she steered Mister Bone’s arm gently away from the word hack's apartment in Senak. No sense in tempting the poor man with what he couldn’t have. Bone let himself be led, staring back in the direction they’d left, trailing in Rag’s wake like a balloon in the sociopathy pride parade. They made their through the city to the unsanctioned gate in the basement of a small warehouse owned by a shell corporation Rag had set up.

The basement had a twin in Vancouver outside of which Madame Rag found the rental car where she’d parked it. The husband and wife were soon making their way through the rain-soaked streets of East Vancouver. Mister Bone rode in the back as he always did. All but the largest cars were much too small for him to comfortably fit in the front passenger’s seat.

Madame Rag loved her Mister Bone with the pride and affection of animal owners everywhere. Bone was her companion, attack dog, and Abrams Main Battle tank all rolled into one; he was her pet with benefits.

Bone was just fine with this arrangement. Through their long marriage they had more sex, and murdered more creatures than an orgy in an abattoir. Sharing your interests and hobbies with the one you love just made a relationship that much closer.

Under Doctor Knox and other like-minded employers, Madame Rag navigated her Bone from grisly murder to grisly murder. Madame Rag loved to watch her enormous husband at work as much as he loved to do it.

Long ago Madame Rag had trained hunting dogs, and she’d discovered that the key to training a good hound was to discover what motivated it and use it as a lever. Some dogs would do anything for food, others craved affection and a kind word. Above all other things, Mister Bone craved sex. She’d happily applied the training techniques that had worked so well with canines to her husband and over the years she’d taken Bone’s genius for brutality and lovingly reinforced it, building layer upon layer of psychological conditioning until violence and the reward of sex were so mixed there couldn’t be one without the other. He would now inflict the most horrible physical violence to man, woman, animal or vegetable with no provocation whatsoever, but with the firm knowledge that he’d be rewarded with a good post-murder bonk.

 In Rag’s opinion, things couldn’t have been going any more smoothly. Together they were a well-greased steam engine of hot throbbing death, running on a limitless supply of sex and violence. Then, the unthinkable happened, and what should have been a nice easy murder, followed by a spirited conjugal interlude, went straight to hell when Bone failed to capture that reprobate, Stirling Haig. It was the first time in centuries that Bone failed in completing a contract and Madame Rag was having a hard time not taking the whole thing a bit personally. She’d made her displeasure with the situation known to Mister Bone, not that you’d ever be able to tell it from the slack look on his face.

It was a side effect of all the conditioning, Rag decided. In the last century, Mister Bone had gone through life, head clear of active thought until physical wants and desires caused his consciousness to surface like a breaching whale in a wide, empty ocean. Coincidentally, Bone’s mindset was a state very close to what Buddhists called, “No Mind,” and if Mister Bone could be said to have embraced a philosophy, it would have been, "The Zen of the Ravening Cockmonster."

Bone’s simple existence brought her to mind of the late Mahatma Gandhi, of whom Rag had been at one point contracted to kill. Like Gandhi, Mister Bone was a man of few wants and simple tastes. Sadly for his many victims, that was where the similarities ended.

Throughout his life, Gandhi promoted nonviolent opposition and went through periods of fasting and celibacy. Bone, on the other hand, considered sex, violence, and violent sex, as others might good food and friendship. They were the things that made his very long life worth living.

Gandhi was a small man, barely reaching five foot four in height and just a hair over a hundred pounds. Mr Bone was nearly three feet taller and a single one of his mammoth legs weighed more than the civil rights leader, even tossing in his glasses, cotton wrap, and a packet of sea salt.
Gandhi taught inclusiveness for all religions, races and sexes. Mister Bone embraced a homicidal dislike for humanity in general and, from his upbringing in Pre-Industrial Ireland, a fiery disdain for all of those who weren’t either white, Catholic, or his wife.

Gandhi lived a rich inner life, exploring philosophical matters with the likes of Tolstoy, pulled abstract ideas from thin air, and translated them into practical political action. Mister Bone, by contrast, had yet to have his mind violated by anything that could be called abstract.

Had Mister Bone ever met Gandhi, sitting and spinning yarn, he would have probably stolen his salt and broken his spinning wheel, then broken the man himself. Thankfully, for independence in the Indian subcontinent, at the time of the Salt March, Mister Bone was employed in other pursuits.
Madame Rag parked their car in a sparsely lit gravel lot and the two entered through a metal side-door into a darkened warehouse. Fans hummed somewhere in the building circulating refrigerated air rank with a nauseating mixture of formaldehyde, brine, alcohol, and old meat. She wrinkled her nose at the smell. It was a smell she’d become familiar with, but one she could never get used to. Mister Bone stopped and stood next to her, a massive shadow in the darkness of the warehouse.

She found the large breaker box bolted to the wall next to the entrance and snapped the little switches over until the refrigerating fans began to wind down and the giant heater on the ceiling rumbled to life. The fluorescent house lights flickered on revealing that the floor of the warehouse was stacked with old wooden pallets atop which were hundreds of blue plastic barrels. They formed rows the entire length and width of the warehouse.

Madame Rag strode over to the closest of the barrels and pried off its lid. The cloud of stink that followed nearly caused her to gag. Inside she could just make out the grey and naked form of a young teenage boy resting against the bottom of the drum. Looking back over her shoulder she called to Mister Bone who stumped wordlessly over.

“Pull him out,” she told him.

“Stinks like shit,” Bone observed, peering in, but otherwise not moving.

“Your arms are longer than mine, pull him out.”

Bone eyed her blankly for a few seconds, then took off his jacket and began rolling his sleeves.
The process didn’t take long, and soon the body was out of the drum, laying on the cement floor. A puddle of preservative leaked out of it from both ends to run into a nearby drain. The body was stiff and its back had taken on the same curve as the inside of the barrel. The skin on the body, corpse, or whatever it was at this point, was wrinkled, thick with dehydration, and lacked hair of any sort.
Rag guessed that the lack of hair was due to an unsuccessful round of chemotherapy prior to the body making the fifty-five gallon drum its home. She’d been around Doctor Knox for enough years to have seen a few of those weak and dying people with their bright hopeful eyes and kerchief-covered bare scalps before they checked into the cold drum of reeking brine.

Once the flow of foul-smelling fluid from the body had reduced to a trickle, Madame Rag approached and squatted down, doing her best to not to get the various liquids on her overcoat or skirt.

“Hold open his mouth,” she commanded. Bone obliged, and from the inside pocket of her jacket Rag pulled out an old green medicine bottle of the type that had a dropper on the inside with a rubber nipple on the cap. The washed-out fluorescent light from overhead filtered through the contents of the bottle, and came through on the other side a vital, sinister, red. She unscrewed the bottle and drew out the glass dropper. She carefully let three drops fall to the back of the boy’s throat and nodded for Mister Bone to let him go. The body sagged stiffly back down to the floor and the two moved off a distance to wait.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Chapter 16, part. 2

The usual warning apply, rough draft, bad language, worse grammar. Hope you enjoy!

Sam ignored her and started talking, “Alright. So, in the 1930s there was this necromancer, a real evil bastard too. When he wasn’t giving kittens cancer or taking up two parking spots with his Model T, he caused the Dust Bowl and all the fun that went along with it.”

“Wait, wasn’t that just drought and shitty farming methods?” asked Stirling.

“Oh, they were a big part of the problem, but the real nail in the coffin was this guy, Francais King. The story goes that he was trying to blackmail the Alchemist Guild but when they didn’t give him what he wanted, he cursed the wind. The actual wind!” Samson sounded more than a little impressed at the prospect. Sue shook her head.

“The trick was strong enough so that wherever the wind blew, things dried up and died. The rain stopped, and a hundred million acres of land were uninhabitable for years. It wasn’t just here either, it spread all across to the closer worlds in the Aether. It took the strongest alchemists and magicians years to bring him down and neutralize the curse. It started a war between the Necromancers and the Alchemists that took eight years to win and hundreds of thousands dead.”

“Ever since then, Necromancy has become a bad word in supernatural circles, especially with the alchemists. They’ve made it clear that it’s open season on any and all necromancers. If you ask me though, Necromancy by itself isn’t evil, it’s the intent behind it. It’s like that goat-fucker joke, you can do all kinds of awesome things, but fuck up once and people remember it.”

“I don’t think I know that joke,” said Stirling.

Sam grinned and began, “An old man walks into a pub in Scotland. His back is bent, and he has a cane in his withered hand. It looks like the weight of the world is on his poor old shoulders. He drags himself up onto a stool and orders a pint. Placing the glass in front of him, the bartender asks him what’s wrong, and the old man says, ‘Let me tell ya, lad. This pub, this pub we're just sittin’ in right now, I built it, with me own two hands! But do they call me the Angus the Pub-builder? Noo, they don’t!’”

It sounded like Sam had attended, then failed, online classes at the Dick Van Dyke School of British accents. Stirling thought was strange, being recovering Irish himself, Stirling thought Sam would have had a better handle on British accents.

 “‘See the wall over there,’” Sam went on in his travesty of an accent, “‘the wall that protects our town? I built it, stone by stone, for a whole year with me own two hands! But do they call me Angus the Wall-builder? Naa laddie, they don’t! And the bridge that crosses yon river, I built it, with me own two hands, plank by plank, day by day, in the pouring rain and wind! But do they call me Angus the Bridge-builder? Naa, they don’t! BUT YOU FUCK ONE GOAT!’” There Sam stopped, an expectant look on his face.

Stirling laughed, Sue huffed through her nose, and Dimitri looked at them with an expression like he’d just caught a whiff of something strange. “So you’re saying that necromancers just want to fuck goats?” He cast a wary glance at Stirling.

“No,” replied Sam, “What I’m saying is that it’s human nature to remember your screw-ups and none of the good, even when the good shouldn’t necessarily be forgotten.”

“So says you and every other wanna-be capable of throwing a trick and dressing in black,” Dimitri scoffed. “What Sam here also isn’t telling you, is that in nearly every city across the Aether, there are badly-lit clubs where the misunderstood and glum dress in black, experiment with different flavours of kink, and call themselves Necromancers. Hell, I saw some in the front room when we came in here. Nothing freaks out the straights in the Alchemy Guild like a gaggle of sexed up, wanna-be death magicians. I swear, each and every one of them looks like a reject from the porn folder on Tim Burton’s laptop.”

“How do you know Tim Burton has a porn file?” Sue asked defensively. “Tim Burton probably isn’t a pervert like you.”

Dimitri looked at her with a pitying expression, “Oh, my sweet summer child, every guy has a porn file, or at the very least, a list of website addresses. Take it from a guy who knows.”

She looked at Sam who just nodded in agreement and shrugged his shoulders.

“But why?” she asked, sounding genuinely curious, “The Internet is a fountain of porn that never runs dry.”

“How can you trust that the connection won’t drop,” said Stirling simply.

Sue stared at them.

“And speaking of porn,” said Dimitri, breaking the silence, “there’s a whole genre of romance novels about misunderstood Necromancers whisking the heroine away for nights of sizzling, kinky death-sex. “La Petite Morte,” was a bestseller in Asphodel for nearly a year.”

“Romance novels aren’t porn,” said Sue, scowling, “they’re literature.”

“They can be both,” said Stirling. “I don’t judge.”

“But they aren’t,” said Sue stiffly.

“Do you read them?” asked Stirling.

“So what if I do?”

Stirling walked over to her knitting bag on a hunch. “Do you mind?” he asked, and without waiting for an answer, reached in and pulled out a paperback with an impossibly muscular male torso on the cover. Stirling made a production of thumbing the book so the pages could fan open. He placed a finger between the pages with the largest gap, cleared his throat, and began reading:
“‘God, Daryl!’ she gasped in ecstasy. ‘He drove his tongue into her molten depths and danced it over her throbbing sweet spot, she was so close now…’”

Sue leapt out of her chair and grabbed the book from his hands. He let go without a fight, grinning at her. She spun to Sam and Dimitri who were howling with laughter.

“It’s not funny,” she said, stuffing the book back into her bag, “and it’s not porn!”

“So in these books, the Necromancers don’t sparkle, do they?” asked Stirling.

“No, their eyes flash darkly,” Dimitri grumbled, “as if that even makes sense! How can something dark, flash!?”

Sam looked at Dimitri in surprise.

“What? That’s what I heard.”

“No, I’m just surprised you read anything other than coding manuals.”

“Ha ha, oh my sides, oh you are so funny,” said Dimitri, deadpan.

“None of this solves our little problem,” broke in Sue, her face still flushed. “Remember? Dead woman in the park? Madame Rag and Mister Bone after you?”

Sue graced Stirling with a raised eyebrow and continued. “If you didn’t murder the woman in Memorial Park, then as our only potential necromancer,” she gave Dimitri a sour look, “someone else is trying to pin it on you. Since only a few people even know about you, it’s a pretty safe guess who’s behind it. My question is, if they were trying to recruit you a couple hours ago, why are Rag and Bone trying to kill you now? What changed?”

“Well, I did call her a psycho, and told her to fuck herself,” said Stirling thoughtfully.

“And I ran over Bone,” Dimitri added, just as thoughtfully.

“It seems like a bit of a stretch to commit a murder just to frame you, though,” said Sam. “Those two seem like the type who like their revenge up close and personal.”

“Rag and Bone don’t really put much value on human life,” said Dimitri. “The woman in Memorial Park might just be a victim of opportunity. They get off on killing people, you know… Like sexually,” he added after a beat, just in case his point wasn’t clear.

“Those are just rumours,” said Sam.

“No, they aren’t,” said Sue with a sick look on her face.

“Really?” asked Dimitri, “how do you know?”

“Dude, I don’t want to get into it, but not just rumours, take my word for it, those two really are monsters.”

“What about their boss, the guy Rag wanted me to work for?” said Stirling.

“That would be Knox, Alchemist of the White,” said Dimitri. “It’s the worst kept criminal secret in the Aether that they work for him.”

Sue looked in the direction of the front door sourly. “We have more arrivals. I think tonight’s going to get busy.” She looked over at Sam, “You up for some overtime?”

Sam glanced over to Stirling, and Stirling was struck with the unfamiliar notion that someone actually wanted to hang around with him.

Sue caught the look as well. “Come on, you can be a necro fanboy on your break, right now there are paying customers, and Stefan’s the only one on tonight. Put the coffee on.”

“What should we do?” asked Dimitri.

“Stay here and lock the door,” said Sue. “We’ll be back once we get people settled in but I don’t think it would be a good idea for you to mingle. Sorry to say, but that picture of you on The Sand Network has ruined your big coming out party. Maybe consider shaving your head.”

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Chapter 16, part 1

Hi, everyone! The usual warning apply here. Bad language, worse grammar, hope you enjoy!

Sue was knitting, the clack of the needles nearly hypnotic against the roaring drone of the Crucible. Stirling wondered why he’d never picked up on the hobby. Before getting into the extermination trade, he’d spent a lot of nights in empty gas stations and guarding warehouses. In most cases, working the night shift meant you had two hours of work to fit into an eight-hour shift, the rest of the time you were just a body in case something went wrong. That left a big chunk of time for other pursuits, things that for other people might include things like self-improvement or hobbies. In Stirling’s case, whatever spare time he had was usually filled with writing in his journals, or when that wasn’t practical, Random Acts of Fuckery.

Random acts of fuckery, or RAOFs, involved things like making dozens of little puppets out of tied-off latex gloves filled with coffee beans, then standing them up in orderly ranks along the coffee bar like soldiers on parade. The next customer at the gas station looking for a caffeine fix would be greeted by rows of the little dolls, their drawn-on magic marker faces abeam, a middle finger raised proudly in a jaunty salute between a pair of latex finger legs.

RAOFs were also one of the big reasons his resume was so extensive. No manager worth their clipboard could ignore an army of coffee bean-filed dick-puppets, no matter how boring the shift.
If he’d taken up knitting instead, he’d probably be an assistant night manager somewhere, either that or the all-comers world champion at knitting genitalia-shaped doilies five years running. When he’d mentioned this to Sue, she told him that knitting was fine, but for yarn-crafted genitalia, crocheting was the only way to go. Stirling wasn’t clear on the difference was between knitting and crocheting, but it seemed he wasn’t the only one to engage in RAOFs.  

Since Aleph hadn’t shown yet, Dimitri and Sam had gone off ten minutes ago to find some sleep, leaving Stirling to stay up with Sue. Magnon had stayed perched on the pallet of briquettes and tucked his beak under a wing.

Aside from being a pub, flea market, and all-around meeting place, Strangefellows also served as a supernatural flop house. This little tidbit of information was good to know, Stirling had no intention of going back to his basement apartment anytime soon. They’d already burned down his workshop and made a grab for him once, he wasn’t going to make it that easy for them.

Sue looked up from her knitting and checked her watch with a furrowed brow. “That’s weird,” she said getting up from her seat and walking to the door. “Someone new is at the door, be right back.” She was back in a few minutes and sat back down. The worry on her face hadn’t gone, and she rummaged in her bag of knitting paraphernalia for a tablet. She pulled up a page and as she read, the furrow in her brow became deeper.

“What’s up,” asked Stirling when she’d finished.

“Hard to say,” said Sue slowly, passing Stirling the tablet and giving him a strange look. “A bunch of regulars just came in and all of them were freaked out. They said they wanted to be somewhere safe. Maybe you can shine some light on it.”

“The Sand Network?” he asked, reading the header.

“It’s a tabloid, but they’re so huge that they usually get the scoop on the big stories.”

Stirling read the article and found the artist’s rendition at the bottom.

“Wow, that is scary,” said Stirling, handing back her tablet. “A Necromancer.” There was a slim chance she hadn’t seen the photo-realistic artist’s rendition of him at the bottom of the article.

“So that’s not you.”


Sue shot him a dirty look, scrolled to the picture, enlarged it, and showed him the screen. “This!”

“No. Maybe. I didn’t kill anybody,” said Stirling quickly.

“So that is you?” Sue asked, holding tight to one of her knitting needles.

The roar from the crucible became noticeably louder, and Stirling put up his hands. “Hold on there, let me explain!”

The clay lid of the crucible shifted, and the phoenix climbed out onto the lip. It was even more solid and much larger than it had been earlier. It eyed him balefully with its arc welder blue eyes, hunched its wings, and hissed menacingly.

“You sit right there, I’ll be back. Don’t move,” Sue said, jabbing a finger at him. Stirling sighed and nodded, holding up his hands like she had a gun pointed at him.

“You go. I stay. No following,” said Stirling, giving her a brief nod. The phoenix hissed again.
“Fawks wasn’t this grumpy,” Stirling said to the melon-sized bird. “Fawks was a well-mannered phoenix. You’re an asshole.”

It was three or four minutes before Sue returned with a groggy Sam and Dimitri in tow. Sam wore the same housecoat as he had when they’d met him, and Dimitri was buckling his belt. She handed Sam the tablet and waited for the two of them to read.

Dimitri groaned. “Well, that didn’t take long. Fuck!”

“You knew about this and you still brought him here!?” Sue asked.

“Hold on,” said Sam, turning to Stirling. “You’re a Necromancer?!” He didn’t sound upset at the prospect.

“Um, ye…” Stirling started.

“Do not answer that!” yelled Dimitri, jabbing a finger at Stirling.

“Why not!” asked Sue, clearly agitated.

“Plausible deniability,” said Dimitri, turning to face her. “Until he admits to it or does something overtly spooky, you don’t know for sure. You know how the Travelling Folk work. The Alchemists Guild always have a few on staff just for this kind of thing.”

“That’s thin,” said Sue.

“It’s not thin, it’s a technicality, and it’s one that you can use to cover your ass. So you,” he said, pointing at Stirling again, “keep your mouth shut.”

“Roger wilco,” said Stirling making a zipping motion over his lips and pretending to throw away the key.

“Roger what!?” Sue spluttered. “No! This is not cool, Dimitri. My job is to keep this place secure and safe, having a necromancer…”

“Potential necromancer,” Dimitri cut in.

“…Potential necromancer here, is not safe or secure. You both need to get out of here before I call in the Duke’s Own.”

“She’s already on her way here,” said Dimitri.

“Well, wait for her outside then.”

“But Sue,” Sam began.

“No, Sam, this is life and death. I’m not going to listen to your conspiracy theories about the poor misunderstood necromancers.”

“Potential necromancers,” Dimitri said again.

“Will you shut the fuck up!” she yelled, spinning on him.

Dimitri put his hands up, “Woah there, Heatmiser, I didn’t even want to be here, it was Aleph who told us to be here. If it was me I’d be hiding so deep they’d need to use mining equipment to find me. Take it up with her if you have a problem with us.”

“Don’t think for a second I won’t.”

“Sue, I work as a char witch here too,” said Sam into the pause. He put his hands on her shoulders, something Stirling thought was quite brave given how incandescently pissed she seemed to be. “We’ve known Dimitri for years, let’s hear him out before we throw him out, alright?”

Sue looked up into Sam’s eyes for a long beat. “Sam, I know you think necromancers are unfairly persecuted. I get that, I really do, and I even agree with some of your arguments. The thing is, even if it’s true it doesn’t matter. The Alchemists have spent the better part of a century tracking down anyone with the knack and disappearing them. What would happen if they found us hiding one? What would happen to all the people here?”

“This is Strangefellows,” he said gently. “Not the Alchemist Guild. You know that.”

Sue’s shoulders slumped and she rested her forehead against her fingers. “You’re right, but this could go wrong so badly.”

 “It’s the way it has to be if we want this to keep on being a place for the outsiders. If we bend over for the Alchemists just once, what’s to stop us from doing it again and again?”

Sue sighed and looked over at Dimitri. “I’ll listen,” she said tiredly, “but I want you to know you’ve put everyone here in danger and I won’t ever forgive you if someone gets hurt because of your stupidity. So talk.”

Stirling started by giving an abbreviated account of his ducks disappearing, his workshop being torched, and his meeting with Madame Rag, while glossing over any specifics about his knack. Then Dimitri took over, covering his discovery of people being grabbed by Madame Rag and Mister Bone, the dust-up at the Greys parking lot, and finally the conversation with the crows.

“And that’s when we got here,” said Dimitri. “With Rag and Bone after us I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go, and before you tear me a new one, consider the damage those two psychos have already done. We weren’t the first ones those guys grabbed, we’re just the first ones that got away. At least the community knows there’s a threat now, we can get the word out.”

Sue nodded grudgingly. “Nowhere in there did I hear anything about a murder in Memorial Park.”
“That’s because we haven’t been anywhere near Memorial Park!” said Dimitri. “Don’t you find it odd that there’s a gate to Asphodel right there though?”

“Odd, yes,” she agreed, “but it doesn’t point to anything other than there was probably some kind of arcane fuckery, and we already knew that.”

“As the only potential necromancer here,” said Stirling, “I’m going to need someone to lay on some exposition on me to answer the question, why are necromancers the Nickleback cover-band of the supernatural?”

Sam beamed and rubbed his hands together.

“Oh God, here we go,” said Sue settling back down in her seat. “You should get comfortable,” she said to Stirling.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Chapter 15, Part 2

Chapter 15 continues. The usual warnings apply. Thanks for reading!

“That’s sort of cool.”

“Damn straight.”

“Is James on your phone?” Stirling asked pointing.

“His program is.”

“Can I see him?”

“He’s not Max Headroom, that’s the whole point. He can see out of the camera if he needs to, listen through the mic, but having a graphic interface just sucks up system resources. He’s been able to get to where he is by being small and flying below the radar. Could you imagine the headache if some antivirus company found him? No, when he wants to communicate he’ll usually just text.

Stirling leant in close and said, “Hi James.”

“Hey! Personal space, douche.” Dimitri pulled back at the same time as his phone chimed. He unlocked it with a swipe, inspected the screen the screen, and rolled his eyes. “James says, ‘hi.’ Happy?”

Stirling grinned and settled back into the couch.

“Well, you’re off shift.” said Sue looking at the time on her cell phone.

Sam glanced at his watch and shuffled to the crucible. He held out a hand over the glowing coals, and in the time it took to take a fast breath, a glowing orange salamander slithered from the coals and onto his palm. The salamander raised its head and began to explore the edge of Sam’s palm.
“This,” he said holding out the fiery amphibian, “is the trick I use to convert the heat of the crucible to magic we can use.”

“That’s a magic spell?”

“Trick,” corrected Sam. “All the cool kids say, trick. Saying ‘spell’ makes you sound like someone’s grandfather.”

“Why does it look like that?” said Stirling, pointing back to the salamander.

“I really don’t know,” admitted Sam, “When you throw a trick enough times it can start to have its own personality.”

Sam smiled and held out his other hand, the salamander flowed across the gap like water beading on hot metal. Then, for no apparent reason, it charged down Sam’s wrist, legs and tail flailing as it went. It darted into the sleeve of his robe, and Sam yelped as the hem began to smoke. “Verpiss Dich!” he shouted, and the salamander disappeared with a pop and shower of sparks. Stirling noticed then, that Samson’s housecoat had a number or other such small black holes in it. “Little bastard knows he’s not supposed to do that,” Sam said, still beating at his smoking robe.

“That’s why he does it,” said Sue.

For the first time, Stirling began to feel real heat washing his face from the crucible, the flames began to waver unsteadily, and the faint smell of smoke became stronger. Sue approached the fire and held out her own hand. As the flames wrapped around the back of her hand, an outline the shape of a bird began to appear. As the seconds ticked by, flames separated from the briquettes and colours began to appear. In under a minute there was a red and yellow bird the size of a grapefruit with flaming blue eyes roosting in the palm of her hand. She tilted her hand and the bird stepped off to nestle into the coals. By now the crucible was once again a faint warmth and the smoky smell was gone.
“Nice Phoenix!” said Stirling.

Sue made a little curtsy and beamed at him. “Her name is Matilda,” she said.

“Does your salamander have a name?” Stirling asked Sam.

“L.F. Gobshite,” he responded shortly, still examining the holes in his robe.

“What does the L.F. stand for?”

“Little Fecking.”

“Who wants a coffee?” asked Sue, happily shuffling to where a stove-top kettle and large French Press stood together on a small bookshelf.

Stirling had a standing rule that coffee, when offered, was never to be turned down. “I would kill for a coffee.”

“Hold off until you’ve tasted it,” said Sam with a grin. “Making coffee is an art, unfortunately, Sue never got past making Playdough wangs in art class.”

“Don’t like it, make your own coffee.”

Without the aid of any power source that Stirling could see, the kettle on the bookshelf began to steam, then whistle shrilly. On closer inspection, Stirling made out some markings along the base of the kettle that looked almost exactly like the ones inside the crucible. Sue poured out the steaming water into the glass press to let the coffee brew. The smell of coffee began to diffuse into the room and Stirling nearly groaned with caffeine-lust at the smell.

“Any jelly doughnuts leftover?” Dimitri asked hopefully.

“None until tomorrow,” said Sam. Dimitri looked disappointed.

Soon all four had warm mugs in their hands.

Stirling inhaled the steam through his nose and took a sip. It was smooth and complex with flavours that combined in his mouth like a slow, smoky, burlesque for the senses. “Oh my God. This is like slow sex for my mouth!” he exclaimed, looking down at the brew.

“Intelligentsia Black Cat, I don’t mess around with my coffee,” said Sue. “It’s a crime to put in in a press, but bringing in a decent espresso machine is like tossing pearls before swine in this place.” She made a face. “No problem at all shelling out thousands for a two-hundred-inch television or boxing on pay-per-view, but spending a couple hundred bucks on a decent coffee maker is out of the question.”

Dimitri took a sip of his cup and made a face. “Is there any hazelnut flavoured creamer?”

“Sure, you just head out that door,” said Sue pointing at the door they arrived through, “and walk five blocks to the gas station. They’ll hook you right up.”

“It’s good, it’s just a bit too cofee-e,” complained Dimitri.

“You are such a pansy.”

“I thought you had an early morning,” said Dimitri, looking meaningfully at Sam’s full cup.

“I do, but I think I want to hear why you’ve been gone for over a week more than I want sleep.” He began ticking point off on his fingers, “Gone for a week with no word, and that’s just not like you. When you do finally show up, you’re with a noob, but one who should have been sponsored over a decade ago.” He fixed Dimitri with a look. “Something’s up.”

“Dude, you really don’t want to get into this. Trust me, it’s better if you don’t know.”
“Ignorance is bliss?” Sam asked skeptically.

“Ignorance is chocolate-covered orgasms,” confirmed Stirling, nodding enthusiastically.

Sam looked at both of them, then shook his head. “No, that’s not going to work. As one of the Strangefellows char witches, I’m the one who needs to know about this stuff. If there’s a new Lesser God in town raising hell, or some big bad on the streets, I need to know, Sue as well. We’re the ones who keep the shields up around here.”

“You are the watcher on the walls?” Stirling asked.

“The fire that burns against the cold, the Strangefellows Night’s Watch,” Sue intoned solemnly.

Dimitri thought about it for a few seconds. “I’m not telling you everything because some of it isn’t mine to tell,” he said, carefully not looking at Stirling, “and I think you’d both be safer if you just let it drop.”

He looked at them expectantly. When both Sam and Sue said nothing, he reluctantly continued. “Madame Rag and Mister Bone are in town. They’re the ones who have been snatching people. James found out I’d made their list so I dropped off the grid for a while.”

There was a silence in the room, broken only by the soft sound of briquettes crumbling into ash. Sam sat heavily in the lawn chair, and Sue was still as a statue, her expression fixed, holding her mug to her tummy.

“Jesus, Dimitri! That’s terrible!” said Sue finally.

“So why are you back now?” asked Sam. “I’d dig a hole and crawl in if Madame Rag and Mister Bone were after me.”

“Aleph found me. She got word that Stirling here was next on Rag and Bone’s wish list. She had me keeping an eye on him. When they made a grab for him I stepped in. She’s going to meet us here.”