What About Ghouls? by A R Neal

One of the most misunderstood and least recognized urban fantasy characters has to be the humble ghūl, known more popularly as the ghoul. Ghouls conjures thoughts of things that go bump in the night, of salivating, night-and-graveyard-loving things you would not want to meet at the bus stop. However, there are variations on the theme when it comes to ghoul characteristics, and in recent times, those more ancient traits have become cause for confusion. Some say that ghouls are only female, that they sometimes hunt in packs, that light hurts them, that they eat the living and the dead, and that their bite can turn the victim into a ghoul, or some other creature. Others say that ghouls are some sort of monster or evil spirit that hang out in graveyards, consume human flesh, and are identified as undead, but if so, how are they different from zombies? What makes a ghoul?

The word ghūl (which is the male-specific term, while ghoulah is the female-specific, and ghilan is the plural) is of Arabic origin, and it more often referred to a demon, or similar creature of lore, than it referred to the thing folks say lives in cemeteries. ghūl is first mentioned in One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arabic, Persian, and Mesopotamian folklore from the first century, A.D. Consider “The History of Gherib and His Brother Agib”: Gherib was a prince who fights off a family of ghilan, makes them his slaves, and converts them to Islam. In other Arabic stories, a ghūl referred to a shape-shifting, desert-dwelling creature that nabs people–especially children–and takes them to abandoned places to eat them.

Hans Christian Andersen, Lord Byron, Edgar Allen Poe, and H.G. Wells have all touched on ghouls. However, we can’t consider ghoul-ness and its place in popular culture without looking to Lovecraft, who, by my account, certainly offers the clearest identification in his 1926 story, “Pickman’s Model”:

 These figures were seldom completely human, but often approached humanity to varying degrees. Most of the bodies, while roughly bipedal, had a forward slumping, and a vaguely canine cast. The texture of the majority was a kind of unpleasant rubberiness … But damn it all, it wasn’t even the fiendish subject that made it such an immortal fountain-head of all panic—not that, nor the dog face with its pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose, and drooling lips. It wasn’t the scaly claws nor the mould-caked body nor the half-hooved feet—none of these, though any one of them might well have driven an excitable man to madness.

Lovecraft offers other views of ghouls in earlier works: “The Lurking Fear,” “The Rats in the Walls,” and later, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. But those ghouls are different: not always horrific, not always underground-dwelling. And if you need a bit of kinky doings, consider Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Nameless Offspring,” where the ghoul does more than just make a meal of the corpses it finds.

Despite all that . . . wait for it . . . ghoulishness, I admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for them. It started with that campy flick, The Monster Club from 1981. If you haven’t had the, um, pleasure(?) of seeing it, you must, if for no other reason than for the joy of watching Vincent Price and John Carradine together. But I digress. Monster Club is a collection of three stories with musical interludes between (spoiler: yes, there are monsters in a secret-ish English nightclub). The first is about a lonely creature that kills with a whistle, the second is about a vampire and his family, and the third … well, the third is ghoulish. It is about a movie director, a hidden village that he thinks is perfect for his next location, and his dismay at finding a strange but lovely young woman there who seems to have no notion of the bustling metropolis just down the road. Did I mention that the poor woman and her family members have been eating corpses and taking clothes from the village cemetery? Ultimately, Mr. Director discovers that the cupboard is bare, the village members are a might peckish, and they are looking at him as if he were some sort of tasty exotic treat.

Ah! So it seems that to properly classify a creature as a ghoul, it must consume human flesh of some sort. Such a one is not necessarily dead, but enjoys a cemetery snack and–after spending inordinate amounts of time among the deceased–may begin to take on the appearance of the dead.

And since we go through spats where there is an overabundance of standard creatures like vampires (note the popularity of films like the Blade series, and of books and movies like the Twilight series) in urban fantasy, I advocate that we take up the ghoul banner. If you write urban fantasy, how about making that weird guy in the condo complex a ghoul instead of a vampire? What about it?

The Lost Girl by Sangu Mandanna Reviewed by Kristin Luna

The Lost Girl by Sangu Mandanna

Reviewed by Kristin Luna

Hardcover, ISBN: 0062082310

Balzer + Bray, August 28, 2012 – 432 pages. Also available in paperback and e-book.

Should I fulfill my purpose, what I was created to do, even if I don’t want to? Do I have a soul, even though I was created as an Echo? Is it cool if I like these two dudes at the same time? These are the thought-provoking questions that embody the Frankenstein-inspired tale of The Lost Girl by Sangu Mandanna.

 The Book

Our first-person narrator and protagonist, sixteen-year-old Eva, is an Echo, living near present-day London. Eva was stitched together by the Weavers, scientists in London who can create a copy, or Echo, of any living human being. She was created for the sole purpose of filling a void in the lives of a family in India. Eva’s entire life consists of learning about Amarra, the girl she was created to become, should Amarra ever die.

 

As expected (or this would be a boring book), Amarra dies and Eva is to take her place one week later. While her new family is aware that Eva is an Echo, she must fool Amarra’s friends, teachers, and boyfriend, Ray, at great cost. Having an Echo is illegal in India, and if anyone were to find out, Eva and her new family could face mortal consequences. Also, which is now inevitable thanks to the Twilight template, there is a love triangle: Sean, the boy Eva loves in London, and Ray, Amarra’s boyfriend in India, who Eva is supposed to love.

 

Woven into this story are hunters, vigilantes who believe Echoes don’t have souls, who seek out and kill Echoes living in countries where they are illegal. When Eva accidentally lets her British vernacular slip, Ray pieces together what Eva is. This leads to an almost fatal encounter with a hunter, and Eva’s decision that if she truly wants a life of her own, she must flee.

 

While Mandanna shies away from scientific explanation about Echoes and how they are created by the Weavers, she does focus on the philosophical questions surrounding Eva’s existence. Eva questions if she is “real” (although she does bleed and feel, just like ordinary humans), saying, “I want to be human so badly it hurts.” Mandanna also debates if Echoes have souls. These kinds of themes are reminiscent of classic science fiction like I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, and, as Mandanna purposely points to in the pages of The Lost Girl, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

 

Mandanna created a world within our own, which leaves the reader with many questions. While some might see these questions as plot holes, Mandanna could instead be leaving herself the opportunity to write more books and make this into a series. It would be particularly interesting if the books that followed didn’t focus on Eva, but perhaps focused on the Weavers, or Echoes that are sentenced to die for defying their purpose.

 

 

The Author

Greatly inspired by Frankenstein as a teenager, Indian author Sangu Mandanna began dreaming up Echoes in the years that followed. She now lives in England with her husband and son. The Lost Girl is her first book, although Goodreads has another title listed, Grey, to be released in 2015. Her website, http://sangumandanna.com/, does not confirm nor deny the existence of said Grey book.

 

 

The Rating

As with all art, there’s a large degree of subjectivity in determining if it’s “good,” or “not good.” The best I can do is give my thoughts and opinions, and rate this book on an arbitrary scale of IKEA breakfast items, the best being the cinnamon bun (obviously), and the eggs being don’t-even-bother. I give The Lost Girl a solid Crepes-with-Lingonberry-jam. Not quite the cinnamon bun, but the next best thing; not enough to shape a trip to IKEA around, but good enough that you might as well get it while you’re there. You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

Interesting fact: Eva names herself after an elephant she sees at the London zoo.

 

Interesting quote: “What is this power the dead have over the ones they leave behind? It’s strange and beautiful and frightening, this deathless love that human beings continue to feel for the ones they’ve lost.”

 

Uncle Bob’s Crocodile by Ian McHugh

Denny caught Uncle Bob as he was lurching away, bare-arse naked, from a horrified woman in a blue business suit to accost a kid in a university sweatshirt with his hands full of grocery bags.

“Have you got a ladder, mate?” Uncle Bob asked.

The kid stumbled over his own feet, dropping one of his bags as he tried to back up.

“Uncle Bob! Stop!” Denny said.

The old man stared at him in surprise. He raised his arms in befuddled surrender while Denny wrapped his jacket around Uncle Bob’s waist and tied the sleeves to hold it up.

“Bill?” Uncle Bob’s voice cracked.

“It’s Denny,” said Denny. “Your sister Marjorie’s grandson.”

“Marge?” Uncle Bob’s eyebrows wandered independently upward and then together. “Oh.” His brow cleared. “Dennis. Pauline’s little boy.”

Denny flashed a quick smile. “That’s right. Come on, I’ve got your spare key, let’s get you inside.” He took the old man’s elbow and began to guide him back across the road. Uncle Bob was shivering.

Luka was waiting for them on the footpath outside Bob’s apartment building. One corner of his top lip hitched up in amused distaste. “Looks like you need to deal with this, love,” he said, leaning forward to kiss Denny on the side of his mouth. “I’ll catch you tomorrow, yeah?”

“Yeah,” said Denny. Shit, he thought, watching him go. Gary would have laughed. Gary would have been chasing the old man across the road with him and declaring it “great craic!”

“Cold prick,” said Uncle Bob, beside him. “Doesn’t he know I’ve got dementia and PTSD?”

Denny showed him an unhappy look. He had really thought he liked Luka. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, he does. Come on, let’s get you indoors.”

He herded Uncle Bob through the front doors of the apartment building.

“So, how did this happen, anyway?” he said, turning Bob toward the lift. He hit the button for “up.”

Uncle Bob looked shifty. “What?”

“This!” Denny waved a hand up and down to encompass the old man’s fragile, jacket-wrapped modesty. “You running around naked on the street asking people for a ladder, that’s what.”

Uncle Bob pouted. “The door locked behind me. I told you.”

“No, you didn’t. But why were you naked this time?”

“I think better in the raw,” said Bob.

“Right.” There was really no arguing with a statement like that. Denny reflected that he did often find the old man naked at home, particularly when he was in one of his decoding frenzies. It hadn’t occurred to him before that it was a conscious choice. “But why were you thinking outside?”

The lift arrived and he pushed Uncle Bob in.

“Wasn’t,” said Bob. His chin jutted obstinately. “I just popped out to use the power outlet in the hallway. I’d run out.”

“Of wall sockets?”

A nod.

“What’ve you been doing?”

The lift doors opened.

Uncle Bob showed him a sly grin. “I’ll show you.”

Denny followed him along the hallway. “Look, Bob, I enjoy perving at firemen as much as the next guy, but–”

“You should have asked for the ranga’s number, last time,” Bob interrupted. “He was ogling you as much as you were drooling over him.”

“He was not. Anyway, that’s not the point.” Denny stepped carefully over the extension cord that stretched tight from underneath Uncle Bob’s front door to the power point across the hall. “You can’t leave it like that. Someone’ll trip.”

“It’ll have to do for now,” said Bob, waiting by the door.

Denny reached past him to unlock it. “Why ‘have to’?”

Bob pushed inside and Denny followed.

“Oh, Bob.”

Uncle Bob’s living room was usually relatively orderly and ordinary except for the old man’s decoding wall, which was perennially plastered with sheets of blu-tacked photocopy paper, each sheet covered in lines of an elaborate, looping foreign alphabet that Bob referred to as “the secret language.” Denny thought it looked like a child had copied Arabic without ever understanding that the calligraphy made letters and words. Bob’s translations, scribbled underneath, made no more sense, providing instructions on things like how to grow stag heads in flowerpots and the circumstances under which rainbows could be tied in knots.

The latest batch of decoding sheets were still in place, but today the space was crisscrossed with power cords, multiple adaptors, and extension cables. What looked to be every electrical device in the apartment had been assembled on every available surface in a rough circle around the room. Denny stayed by the front door while Uncle Bob picked his way through the tangle.

Denny thought, Maybe I will ask for the redhead’s number this time. Gary would have laughed at this, too. Gary, Gary, Gary. And fuck. “Bob, what’s all this for?”

Uncle Bob pointed at the decoding wall. “I found the pages. We’re going to get Bill.” He grinned, fiercely. “I caught one of ’em, and now we can go.”

“Ah, right. Of course. ” Denny had learned from experience that it was easiest to just humour Bob until you worked out exactly what it was that he was up to.

He let his breath out in a huff. Maybe it was time for Uncle Bob to go into a home, the way Mum wanted.

Uncle Bob and his twin brother Bill had their birthday come up in the draft ballot in 1970 and got shipped off to Vietnam. Uncle Bob came home, Uncle Bill didn’t. Missing in action, presumed dead, was the official verdict. There was a photo on the sideboard, half hidden now by the clock radio from the bedroom, of the two of them just before they shipped off, identical in their army uniforms and tilted slouch hats. On the shelf above, a more recent photo showed Bob with all the family he had left: his sister Marjorie, Denny’s grandma; her daughter, Pauline; and Pauline’s two kids, Denny and his sister Cath. Denny was a triplet for the young men in the picture below, born two generations too late.

“Uncle Bob?”

“Mm?”

“Before we go rescue Uncle Bill–want to put some pants on?”

“Eh?” The old man peered down at himself in surprise. “Oh, right. Good lad.”

Denny looked around the living area as Uncle Bob scuttled away, tracing the spider web of cables.

“So how does all this work, anyway?” he asked. He reached up to touch a power board, dangling from a ceiling hook with six extension cords radiating from it in different directions. The board was warm, but not alarmingly so.

“Electromagnetic field,” said Bob, from the bedroom. “Boosts the domolanguoral resonance. It’s all up on the wall.”

Denny eyed the decoding wall. Yeah. “The what?”

“Domolanguoral.”

“Yes.”

“Resonance.”

“Right,” said Denny, wondering where he should start unplugging things.

His gaze fell on a large trunk with “Air Freight” and “This Way Up” stickers plastered across its sides. The dining table, usually located in the space now occupied by the trunk, was pushed up against a wall and hosted the microwave oven, blender, and an expensive, bladeless fan that Denny wasn’t altogether certain belonged to his uncle.

Uncle Bob scuttled back, a pair of too-large jeans bunched up around his ribs with a canvas belt. He stopped, staring at Denny as if startled to find him there.

“You should have stayed with Gary,” he said.

Denny grunted. The comment was uncomfortably close to his own thoughts. “Gary had to go back to Ireland,” he said. And I should have bloody gone with him. “What does ‘domilongal’ mean?”

“Domolanguoral. Homesick. It’s on the wall.”

Denny looked at him hard. “Bullshit.”

Uncle Bob shrugged, unruffled. “You should call him.”

“It’s too late for that, Bob.” It hurt to say. A lot. Denny stepped aside for Uncle Bob to go past and into the kitchen. “Who’s homesick?”

“I’ve been back to Nam,” Bob called back over his shoulder.

“Oh yeah? Since when?”

“Got back yesterday.”

Denny blinked. This was new. “Bob, I was here last weekend.”

“Don’t be a dickhead. You can get from Sydney to Saigon via Singapore in fourteen hours. I flew out on Tuesday.” Bob came back, carrying a large Styrofoam tray, stuck like a hedgehog with metal cutlery. Copper wire was threaded around the knives, forks and spoons. “I wasn’t there for a holiday, you know.”

Denny eyed the tray. “It’s Ho Chi Minh City, these days,” he said. “What’s that for?”

“Still Saigon to anyone who lives there,” said Uncle Bob, carrying the tray over to the bookshelf, where a couple of wires dangled from a cut-off power cord. “Can’t hook this one up until the last minute, or the Styrofoam melts.”

“What?” Denny grabbed for his arm. “Jesus, Bob, are those live wires?”

Uncle Bob fought him off and set about twisting the bare ends together with a pair of copper wires dangling over the edge of the tray. “Not until I turn the bloody power on,” he said, and added crossly, “I’m not a fucking idiot, you know.”

Denny subsided, watching the fucking idiot closely. “Yeah, well, don’t you be turning anything on until you’ve explained to me what it is you’re trying to do. I don’t want you burning down the bloody building.” His gaze fell on the trunk again. “What were you doing in Vietnam?”

“Well, if you’d bloody read it for yourself–right there on the wall–you’d know, wouldn’t you?” Uncle Bob followed his gaze. “Anyway, I told you. I caught one. It’s in the trunk.”

Denny looked from the trunk to Uncle Bob. “Caught one what?” he said. He had a very, very bad feeling, all of a sudden. “Uncle Bob,” he said, slowly, “is there something alive in that box?”

Bob was bustling back toward the bedroom. “One of the cold-blooded bitches that got Bill. Don’t you pay attention?”

Denny felt a cold fist clench inside his belly. For a moment he couldn’t speak, then, “There’s someone in the box?” Jesus fuck, Bob!” He lunged for the trunk. “What are you thinking?”

“No! Don’t bloody open it!”

Uncle Bob tried to drag Denny away, but Denny held him off with one hand while unlatching the trunk with the other. “Holy shit, Bob,” said Denny, heaving up the lid. “I hope you really are just crazy. Oh, Christ.”

He looked down at a woman’s pale back and round hips. The hair that fell around her shoulders was a peculiar silvery grey.

“Get back!” cried Bob, trying to shove him aside.

Denny stood his ground. “What the fuck, Bob?” he bellowed. “What the actual fuck! Jesus Christ, is that a cattle prod?

Uncle Bob was trying to reach around him, waving the electric prod at the woman now slowly sitting up in the box. Denny slapped the old man’s arm away.

“Get away from her, you mad old bastard.” He turned to the woman in the box.

Denny shrieked and jumped backward.

The creature in the box had the body of a woman, but its face was something else entirely. Its eyes were immense, black in black, filling half its forehead. Where the mouth and nose should have been was just a puckered hole, like the front end of a leech. A serpentine tongue whipped out and back.

Denny’s leg caught on a stretched power cord and he almost went over. “What the hell is that?”

“Told you,” said Bob, poking at the creature with his cattle prod. “Dickhead. It’s one of the bitches that got Bill. Crocodile-woman.”

The thing in the box looked like no kind of crocodile that Denny had ever seen. He pressed his hand to the left of his sternum, wondering if it was possible to pull a heart muscle. His certainly felt like it.

The crocodile-woman didn’t seem to be particularly hurt by the cattle prod, but evidently didn’t like it much. It sank back into the trunk until only its oversized black eyes and the top of its silver hair peeked above the edge.

“And bloody stay there,” Bob told it. To Denny, he added, “Christ, you gave me a bloody heart attack. Wait until I’m ready, will you?”

Denny breathed shallowly, afraid of exacerbating the pain in his chest. “What the . . .”

“Here, hold these.” Uncle Bob thrust two bare-ended cables into Denny’s hands. The other ends were clipped to the sides of the airfreight trunk. “Don’t let them touch once I turn the power on. It’ll fuse together every atom of hydrogen in your body. Probably take out the whole block.”

Denny tore his gaze from the thing in the trunk. “What?”

Uncle Bob was picking his way around the room, flipping on power switches. The crocodile-woman turned its head all the way around to follow him.

The vacuum cleaner roared to life. Bob raised his voice to yell, “Dunno really. It might just turn you inside out.”

The blender added its racket.

What?

Uncle Bob smirked. He pulled a flick knife from his pocket and stabbed the point into the heel of the hand holding the cattle prod. He clenched his fist tight around the handle of the prod and held his arm out so that the blood dripped onto the crocodile-woman. Denny watched in fascinated horror. The crocodile-woman flicked out its forked tongue, smearing the blood across its face.

“Ready?” yelled Bob, standing back in front of him again, one hand on the switch that would turn his cutlery hedgehog live.

No! Bob, stop–”

The old man stabbed his cattle prod into the crocodile-woman’s side. “Here we go!”

Uncle Bob flipped the switch and grabbed Denny’s sleeve.

The world turned marshmallow white, then psychedelic. Denny felt his feet leak up through his head. A mile in front of him, his hands seemed drawn together with the force of continents colliding. He recognised Uncle Bob, tiny beside his giant left fist, trying to pull it away from the right. Oh, right. A woozy memory surfaced. Don’t let the wires touch. Denny heaved on his right hand and, with tectonic heaviness, his arms began to draw apart.

They were standing on a muddy bank. The river in front of Denny’s feet was vast enough that the other bank, covered in forest, was blurred by the distance. It was oppressively hot and the air was so full of humidity that it felt heavy to breathe.

“Get lost!” Uncle Bob was chasing the crocodile-woman into the water with his cattle prod. It backed away reluctantly for a few paces, then sank down beneath the surface. The creature’s silver hair emerged again a few seconds later, out near the middle of the river.

Denny looked around, about to ask how the hell they had arrived there. He froze.

The riverbank was a wide mud flat surrounded on three sides by a sheer, eroded, earth embankment higher than Denny’s head. Crocodiles littered the flat. Several of them had eyes open, watching Bob and Denny.

Uncle Bob tromped between the basking reptiles.

“Bob!” Denny called, hoarsely, trying to be quiet and heard at the same time.

“What?” Uncle Bob stepped over a crocodile.

Denny started to go after him. He stopped, seeing what he had been about to step in. A puddle of what looked like thick, red fruit pulp lay a short distance from his toes. Spotted, red lady beetles were emerging from the puddle as if born from it.

What the hell . . .?

He realized that he was still holding the two bare-ended cables that Bob had handed him. He twisted to follow them down past his feet and along the ground. A metre or so from where he stood, the space around the cables seemed to blur and vibrate. For a vertiginous moment, Denny stood both on the riverbank and in Uncle Bob’s apartment. His stomach rebelled. Denny looked away.

Bob had moved farther away among the crocodiles. They watched him as he passed, but didn’t otherwise react to his presence.

They’re probably cold, thought Denny, panic rising. Just sluggish. They’ll wake up in a second and then we’re dead meat.

“Bob!”

“What?”

“Come back!”

“What? Don’t be daft. He must be here somewhere. Blood calls blood.” He had his hand held out over the crocodiles, like a fortuneteller hovering his palm over a spread of tarot cards. The old man’s face puckered up. “He’s gotta be here. ..”

Movement on the river caught Denny’s eye. A pair of eyes with enormous, spiked lashes had emerged near the shore. They gazed at Denny for a long moment, then blinked, one after the other, and swam away in different directions.

Farther out, several silver-haired heads had broken the surface. The crocodile-women were holding position against the current, their inhumanly large eyes turned toward the bank. A large tree barreled past, somehow missing all of them as it ploughed through the pack. Denny started, he hadn’t realized the current was so strong. The crocodile-women didn’t react to the tree’s passage.

Various other bits of detritus bobbed along on the river surface. The hair stood up on the back of his neck. The tree was moving in the opposite direction to the current. White foam trailed from its waving roots.

What the hell is this place?

“Bob!” It came out as a strangled croak. “How do we get out of here?” He dearly–frantically–hoped that there would be some way to step back into that mirage vision of Bob’s living room.

Uncle Bob had stopped, his extended arm shaking as he held it over the crocodile directly in front of him. His next words were so soft Denny barely caught them: “Found you.”

“Bob?”

Uncle Bob blinked at him, then returned his attention to the crocodile. “Sorry, Bill.” He raised the cattle prod and, before Denny could think to react, rammed it into the animal’s side.

The crocodile convulsed. It lashed its tail, trying to move away. Bob pursued. The crocodile’s movements became more erratic. Denny gave a squeak of horror. The crocodile’s shape had begun to change as it struggled. Its head was getting shorter, its limbs longer. Its tail began to split into two.

The crocodile’s scaly hide softened and smoothed, becoming paler and shifting colour from green-brown to tan. Its jaws opened and, suddenly, it wasn’t a crocodile at all, but a human couple in the missionary position, the man lifting his face away from the woman’s.

Denny gagged. The female partner was a crocodile-woman identical to the one Bob had captured. The creature’s long, black tongue was stretched taught, sliding from the man’s open mouth as he rose–like a worm being pulled from its burrow. The man coughed and the tongue whipped free and into the crocodile-woman’s puckered orifice.

The man sat up. Denny’s legs almost collapsed under him. It was like looking at a mirror.

Uncle Bill looked up at Bob, standing over him with an expression of wonder. Bill frowned at the cattle prod, then looked at Denny.

Mad eyes, Denny thought.

“Bob? Is that you?”

Denny managed a slow shake of his head. “He’s Bob.”

Uncle Bill looked back up at his brother. His eyes went from Bob’s face, to his feet, and back up to his face again. He pushed himself up to stand. Behind him, the crocodile-woman that he had been coupled with got to its knees.

Uncle Bill was the same size as Bob, which made him about half a head shorter than Denny. He stood with the same slouch to his shoulders, something Denny had always assumed was an artifact of Bob’s age.

“Bob? Is that really you?”

Uncle Bob nodded wordlessly.

“Fuck me,” said Uncle Bill, staring at him. “Have I been at it that long?” He looked down at the crocodile-woman and gave a sharp bark of laughter. “Wow.”

Bob caught his arm. “Bill, we’ve come to take you back.” Uncle Bill had fixated on the crocodile-woman. The creature’s tongue flickered out as it looked back up at him. Bill’s penis, flaccid until now, started to grow erect.

Uncle Bob shook his brother’s shoulder. “Bill! Let’s go.”

“Hmm?” Bill tore his gaze away from the crocodile-woman. He frowned at his brother. “What are you doing here, Bob? Isn’t it all over by now?”

“We’ve come to rescue you, Bill.” Uncle Bob’s voice was a whine.

Bill’s frown collapsed into an astonished smirk. “Rescue me? From what?” Denny felt an awful sinking sensation in the pit of his belly. Oh, Bob.

Bob stared at his brother stupidly. His jaw worked, useless for a moment with no sound coming out. He waved a hand, arm jerking like a puppet’s.

“From . . . From this!” said Bob. “From being stuck as half of a bloody crocodile, that’s what!”

Bill looked from Bob to Denny. Denny met the mad stare and held it. He thought he saw understanding dawn. Uncle Bill’s expression softened. “All this time?”

Denny nodded.

Bill swayed back a little. His eyes glistened, suddenly. “Oh, shit.” He took a deep, sharp breath and laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Bob, mate, I don’t want rescuing. I never did. I chose this.”

Uncle Bob’s fists were clenched, his whole body trembling. He glared at a point somewhere in the middle of Bill’s chest.

“I thought you knew,” said Bill.

“Knew?” Bob’s head snapped up. “Knew? Knew that you wanted to spend the rest of fucking eternity with that leech bitch’s tongue down your fucking throat!”

“It ain’t like that,” said Bill, affronted.

“It bloody well looks like it!”

Uncle Bill’s fists went to his hips, the two of them standing nose-to-nose. Denny couldn’t move.

“Well, what do you reckon regular sex looks like?” Bill wanted to know. “A lot bloody different to how it feels!”

Bob caved first, looking away. “It ain’t natural,” he muttered.

“Ain’t natural?” Bill exclaimed. He stood back. “Jesus, Bob! Can you imagine what it’s like to feel like you’re cumming every waking minute of every day?”

“Like Hell,” said Denny, surprising himself as much as them. “It’d be like living Hell.”

Uncle Bill considered him. He lifted his chin and one shoulder–a nod and a shrug at the same time. “Yeah, well, I suppose that’d be right. Look, it’s not really like that either.” He waved a hand, trying to encompass the unencompassable. “It’s not like anything. It’s like bloody ecstasy.”

Bill ducked his head, stooping to try and make his brother meet his gaze. “Bob, this is bloody nirvana, mate. Right here.”

Bob looked at him, finally. There were tears in his eyes. “I thought I was the fucking nutter.”

Bill’s expression hardened. “Maybe you are.”

“You’re coming home, Bill.” Bob started to raise the cattle prod.

“Bob! No!” Denny cried.

Uncle Bob glared at him.

“Bob.” Denny shook his head. “No.”

Uncle Bill hadn’t noticed. He was looking at the crocodile-woman again. A shiver passed through him and he stepped away from Uncle Bob. “You’ve got no idea, Bob. Not a clue what you’d be taking me away from.” He chopped with his hand, cutting the space between him and his brother. “No. I don’t want rescuing.”

He caught the crocodile-woman’s hand and pulled the creature up to its feet.

For a moment, Bob looked as if he wanted to both fall to the ground weeping and beat his brother with the cattle prod. Pulled in two directions, he did neither.

“Bob,” Denny called, softly. His heart broke for the old man. “How do we get out of here?”

“You could stay,” said Bill.

Uncle Bob’s expression twisted. He didn’t answer.

Bill looked at Denny. “You?”

Denny’s eyes slid from his uncle’s glazed, happy face to the creature waiting for him. The crocodile-woman’s tongue flicked out. Its huge, blank eyes stared at him. Denny shuddered.

“I, uh, don’t really swing that way,” he managed.

“Oh?” Uncle Bill absorbed that, then shrugged. “Oh, well, each to their own, eh?”

He stepped toward the crocodile-woman. “You blokes should really give this a try though.” The creature put its arms around his neck. “You just need to close your eyes and get past the gag reflex when the tongue goes down.”

He leaned away from the questing tongue. “Hold on a sec, darling.” He looked back over his shoulder at Bob and Denny. “Thanks for coming back for me, Bob.”

Bob turned around so that his back was to his brother. A brief look of pain touched Bill’s features. His gaze shifted to Denny.

“Look after him, eh?”

“Of course.”

Bill gave him a nod, then turned back to his partner.

He closed his eyes. “Okay, now.”

Denny had to look away as the black tongue pushed between Uncle Bill’s lips. He heard Bill gag. Then Bill and the crocodile-woman were sinking back to the ground, their bodies already beginning to merge. By the time they were lying flat, Bill’s legs had fused together and his torso and arms were melting into the crocodile-woman’s.

Denny shuddered.

“Bob!” he said, sharply enough that the old man looked at him right away. “How do we go home?”

With a visible effort, Uncle Bob gathered his wits. “Just drop one of the cables and the other one’ll pull you back.”

“What about you?”

Uncle Bob blinked at him a couple of times, then appeared to make a decision. His face hardened. “Yeah, right.”

He stomped back to Denny, kicking a couple of crocodiles out of his path on the way. One of them showed him its teeth and he gave it a snout-full of cattle prod.

He gripped Denny’s wrist. “Right.”

Denny took one last look around. Uncle Bill and his woman thing had transformed again, indistinguishable from the other crocodiles. “So these are all men and those . . . things?”

“Reckon so.”

“How many others are missing soldiers?”

Bob shrugged. “Dunno. Not many. Most blokes who tried it got their mates to pull them loose before the silver-haired bitches brought them here.”

“This isn’t Vietnam, is it?”

Uncle Bob shook his head. “Sideways of there, you might say. Nam’s just an easy place for them to go through, I suppose.” He gave Denny’s wrist a squeeze. “Let’s go, eh?”

“Yeah.”

Denny opened his right hand, and let the cable fall.

There was another blur of blinding white and psychedelic madness, and they were standing in the living room of Bob’s apartment.

The Styrofoam block was turning brown around the stems of Bob’s cutlery. Denny switched off the power to it and pulled the plug. The room stank of burnt plastic.

Uncle Bob sank onto the edge of an armchair. Denny picked his way over to the blender and the vacuum cleaner and turned them off. The toaster popped and he unplugged that, too. He untangled a dining chair and carefully lowered himself to sit.

He took a long breath in and let it out slowly.

“Bob?”

“Mm?”

“What the fuck did we just do?”

Bob didn’t answer immediately. He sat with his fists locked between his knees, staring at some point on the ground past his feet. After most of a minute, he unstuck his jaw and said, “Nothing, Denny. Bloody nothing at all.”

Denny heard the catch in his voice. “You did the right thing.”

“Oh yeah?” There were tears in Uncle Bob’s eyes. “How’s that?”

“Everyone thought you were nuts.”

Bob guffawed, bitterly. “Well, of course they fucking did.”

“You were right, though,” said Denny. “About Bill being alive all this time.” A shudder ran down his back. If you could call it that. He didn’t think there was much left of Uncle Bill to bring back.

Bob shrugged, one shouldered. “Waste of bloody time,” he said. “Wasted my bloody life.”

Forty years, thought Denny. More than. And all for nothing. He took in the scribbled pages on the wall. How many more of those had there been, over the years? It hurt thinking about.

“You can still go after him, you know,” said Bob.

Denny shook his head. “Bill wasn’t coming back.”

“Not Bill, dickhead. Bill’s long gone.” Bob looked around at all the cables, then at his decoding wall. He took a deep breath. It turned halfway into a sob. “I’ll forget all this, you know, now that I don’t need it anymore.”

That truth made it hurt even more. Denny couldn’t bring himself to lie or agree. “I’ll remember,” he said.

Uncle Bob nodded. “Gary, I meant. You can get a Euro passport. You should’ve gone with him. Call him.”

Denny put up his hands. It was too much, right now. “Look, enough, all right?” He sighed. “For fuck’s sake! Anyway, Mum’d have you in a home if I left.”

“Reckon she might be doing me a favour,” said Bob. He smirked, but his eyes were red and brimming. “Where else am I going to find a sheila who’s as mad as I am?”

Denny managed to find a laugh in that. “You’ll have to find something else to keep you busy, now.”

Uncle Bob snorted. “Any ideas?”

“Ever tried bowls?” said Denny.

“Pff. Old biddies’ game. Are you going to call him?”

“It’s too late, Bob,” said Denny.

“How do you know?” the old man retorted. They glared at each other. Bob won. “Well?”

“All right! I’ll call him.” Denny tried to get the conversation back on track. “They have barefoot bowls at the club near me on Sundays. Happy hour from four.”

Bob rapped his knuckles against the trunk. “That’s where the dining table’s supposed to be.” He ruminated on that for a while, tongue working behind his lips. Denny felt a little stab in his chest, watching him. Surely he wasn’t forgetting already?

Maybe he was trying to make himself.

Bob shook his head. “Bowls, eh? Like a drink, do they?”

Denny nodded. He swallowed a few times before he could speak. “Yeah. First time I went, the bartender asked me if it was my first time bowling. I asked, couldn’t he tell. He says, ‘Nah, mate, your drinking action looks fine.’”

Uncle Bob chuckled. “Sounds good to me. Is it Sunday today?”

“Saturday,” said Denny. He wiped his eyes and stood. “Let’s get some of this cleared up, and then you can put on a shirt and some shoes and I’ll take you to the pub.”

Bob looked at himself, then felt around the crotch of his pants. “I don’t think I’ve got any undies on, either.”

Dead Records Part I by Steven Savile and Ryan Reid

DEAD RECORDS 1 BY RYAN REID AND STEVEN SAVILE

 

Auto-Tune was born from the sentiment in that old Coke commercial: “I’d like to teach the world to sing”. I remember hearing execs bang on about how it could save any band–but it turned the musical landscape into a wasteland of bland, manufactured art, if you ask me. Unfortunately, ‘bland manufactured art’ would be a step up for the Fortunate Fridays. There’s bad, there’s ironically bad, and there’s just bloody appalling. These guys were bad, and alas not the kind of ‘bad’ that would have garnered a couple of million YouTube hits and a small fortune for me. No, they were just run-of-the-mill talentless kids who looked good even if they sounded like they were murdering kittens. They didn’t have Obi-Wan–Auto-Tune was their only hope.

I remember them well. For all the wrong reasons. But hey, they did finally make the headlines. The studio was a furnace on the day they died. I’d turned off the air conditioning while the band was recording to avoid the sound of the fan finding its way onto the track–even if I’d have welcomed the distraction–and Frankie Dubon, the lead singer, wore a wife-beater that was plastered to his chest with sweat. Hell, his beard was sweating. It wasn’t a good look. It wasn’t Lisa Bonet in Angel Heart sweaty. It was more like one of those fat ’80s darts players sweaty. When we did turn on the air between tracks, the studio smelled of shit and chemical effluent from that font of all things holy, the River Thames.

The band had been rehearsing for six hours straight, and I had both elbows on the soundboard and my head in my hands. That’s my go-to position when I’m wondering how the hell I can transform the crud I’m listening to into the kind of crud people will pay for. I needed something. A win. I needed a song that Absolute or Capital Radio would spin. This wasn’t it. All the cowbell in the world wouldn’t save it.

I left instructions for them to rehearse the next track and headed for the bathroom down the hall, more to clear my mind than to make a statement about the quality of their music. No bones about it, the music industry had gotten rough for small time producers like me. The bands I signed either got enough traction to go with a big label and leave me behind, or they went nowhere. Either way, I made no money, and renting studio time wasn’t cheap. The Fortunate Fridays were a gamble. They’d hired me as both their manager and producer, and I’d managed to sneak a line into their contract that specified that if they signed with someone else, I’d get ten percent in perpetuity. So there you have it, my incentive to see them succeed. In gambling terms they were a dead cert; couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance, but looked mighty pretty when they weren’t sweating like overweight beer drinking ‘sportsmen’.

I’d never gambled on a band before, but losing Michelle did a number on me. She hadn’t been a gold-digger, not like in the song, but she hadn’t liked being broke neither. I damned near killed myself trying to put together a winning band while we were together, and that drive persisted even now that she was living in Essex with her sister. Only, I didn’t gamble for her anymore, not even to show her up. It was just so that I wouldn’t have to face the crushing realization that she might be right. That the industry that had let itself be guided by a commercial jingle aired thirty years before hadn’t left me behind. . That’s how I’d come to approach Yvegeny Dolgov about a loan to cover studio time, pressing some CDs and hiring the equipment. That’s how Dead Records was born.

Look, let’s not beat around the bush, I need you to trust me, so that means I have to tell you the truth, the whole truth, and all the warty bits. Drugs are a fact of life in my profession. When the drummer says “Man, I need a fix,” I’m the guy who has to take care of it. I get the gear from Martin Fiddle. Martin gets it from a paranoid schizophrenic in a one-bedroom apartment in Kings Cross, who gets them from another guy, who gets it from someone who somehow wound up in Yevgeny  Dolgov’s pocket. That’s just the way of the world.

No one knew much about Dolgov back then. He was an international man of mystery. Came into London from the Caucasus which, he liked to say, made him one of the only true Caucasians in London. If you knew what was good for you, you laughed when he said that. Yevgeny had money. Lots of it.

Men in my position should be scared to take Dolgov’s money. To them, self-preservation is an instinct. To me, it’s a skill. I figured I knew the real Dolgov and that underneath that mafioso veneer he was just a businessman, and businessmen are predictable. In my defense, sometimes I’m not all that bright. My plan was to borrow a sum in the low five figures and then, if the Fortunate Fridays bombed, run to Africa or Indonesia–someplace where it would cost him more to chase me down than the amount I’d borrowed. Business 101. I was banking on him writing off the debt.  Of course, I might have to spend the rest of my life as a beachcomber, but there are worse lives out there. I could see myself propping up some Tiki bar somewhere, listening to ’80s music and thinking of better days when I coulda been a contender.

I was standing in front of a urinal in the bathroom down the hall from Rainmaker Studios–that was the name of the place I’d hired, of course. The idea, of course, was that they’d make it rain money on their clients, but it felt more like a golden shower just a few minutes later, when a stall door opened behind me. The smell hit me like a punch to the gut, but it wasn’t what you’d expect. This was more like roadkill baked in the sun. I gagged and shifted positions, spraying my foot. Great. Always good to piss yourself before the first sign of danger. Footsteps sounded behind me, wingtips on tile, slow and regular. The tap spat and then hissed. After a moment it squeaked off. Two quick tugs on the paper towel dispenser.

I was cold, and for a moment it was as quiet as a grave. I wanted nothing more than to zip up and make a break for the door, but I couldn’t move. I just stood there and dangled, long since drip-dried.

The silence clamped bony fingers around my spine and squeezed.

More footsteps. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man dressed all in black open the door with a paper towel, crunch it up and toss it into the silver dustbin beside the door before he left. The reek didn’t go with him. The place smelled like someone had crashed a garbage truck into a morgue. I washed my hands three times, and then stepped gingerly into the hall and looked both ways. Nothing but cheap carpet, fluorescent lighting and a row of doors. I forced myself shrug it off. I thought I’d been alone in the bathroom and I wasn’t. End of story. Nothing to be afraid of. It’s not like Yevgeny was going to come collecting before I’d even banked his check.

As the fear faded, anger surged in.

I was angry at myself for jumping at shadows and for the sense of helplessness I’d felt while that shadow had washed his hands. As I marched down the hallway, my anger turned itself on the Fortunate Fridays who weren’t rehearsing. They’d never master that bridge if they didn’t practice. Not that pulling off one decent transition would save them from discount rack hell. I came up with several choice phrases to hurl their way and even resolved to threaten to walk away from the project, though I never would. Not with Dolgov’ money on the line. They didn’t know that, though. I was their golden ticket. Poor deluded fools, all of us.

The lead singers brains were splattered all over the drummer’s chest, and his body draped grotesquely over the drum kit.

That, my friends, wasn’t what I expected to walk in on. Believe me. Maybe a groupie blowing the band one at a time, that kind of blowing brains out is pretty much par for the course, but the whole literal thing, not so common.

The drummer himself was nowhere to be seen.

The door to the live room wasn’t much more than splinters, one of which protruded from the rhythm guitarist’s chest. He wasn’t even part of the band. He was just some session musician I’d hired for the day.

I mean, sure, it was probably doing the world a favor, but hell’s teeth, couldn’t they have waited until I’d gotten the full CD in the bag? Posthumous releases had cachet. There would have been a killing to be made there. Erm. Well, another one.

I knew on an abstract level that I should be crying or puking or calling the cops, but all I could do was stand there and think about the money. Not Frankie, not the studio musician, not even the recording studio. The money. How was I going to explain this to Dolgov? Let’s face it, I was fucked, and not in the good way.

I placed an anonymous call to the good boys at the Met and split. I didn’t bother trying to clean the place or get rid of my DNA–my name was all over the booking logs and time sheets and well, I wasn’t guilty, I was just frightened. No one would hold running for my life against me, surely?

I checked into a cheap B&B in Queensway. The room smelled of sweat and sex, and when I adjusted the temperature, my hand came away from the thermostat covered in a black oily substance I couldn’t identify. In the room next door I could hear one of the Thai ladyboys doing their thing with a very grateful punter. It all sounded a bit S&M with the whole “Yes, mistress” thing going on through the paper-thin walls. I threw my suitcase on the room’s single bed and then, worried about bedbugs, found a luggage rack in the closet and moved it there.

I took a seat on a threadbare chair in the corner and begun hunting for a Wi-Fi signal with my laptop when I heard my neighbor saying, “Lick it off my boots, slave.”

Excellent.

Least I wouldn’t be forced to sit around in fifty shades of awkward silence.

My laptop displayed a list of available networks, but surprise, surprise, they were all locked. I threw the laptop on the bed and, going old school, tried to pick up the phone. It, too, was locked, this time literally. A keyed deadbolt kept the handset firmly planted on the hook. Trusting souls these B&B folks.

“Hello?” This time there was a knock accompanying the greeting, and no mention of servitude, licking, or anything else. I stared at the point on the wall where the knock had originated for a long time, torn between my British instinct to be polite and my record producer’s desire to tell him to fuck off.

Finally, I settled on something in between. “Um, yeah, hello. You wouldn’t happen to know the Wi-Fi password, would you? I’m trying to buy an airline ticket.”

There was a pause. “Where are you going?”

Excited by the prospect of obtaining said password I obliged him. “None of your fucking business.”

The voice was timid. “Yes, well, of course… It’s just that I’m a little… ah… stuck here. I was hoping you might be able to help me out.”

“Tit for tat,” I said. I wondered if he appreciated my wordplay. I did. I thought it was fan-fucking-tastic all things considered. I mean, making stupid jokes less than an hour after walking in on Slaughterhouse 5… that takes a special kind of man.

“The phone in my room is locked. Could you place a call for me on the payphone at the end of the hall?”

“Can’t your mistress help you out? Ah, screw it.” There was something in the way he spoke that touched me. Too proud to outright beg, he was doing so all the same. “Look, I can’t leave the room right now for…reasons. So how about I e-mail someone for you? Next best thing, right?”

There was kind of a weird hissing sound through the wall. “I think so…yes. The Wi-Fi password is on a card on the room fridge.”

Of course it was. Idiot, I cursed myself, snatched at the card, and then entered the password onto my laptop. It billed my credit card an outrageous twenty pounds for a day’s access. There was no hourly option. Once online, I navigated to my travel agency’s page. Disappointed by the price of a ticket to Jakarta, I decided on a safari someplace remote. Chad, perhaps. I’d heard Entebbe was nice this time of year.

“Don’t you need the address?” said the voice on the other side of the wall.

I winced. Fine. Okay, you got me. I hadn’t planned on helping Mr. Slave out. But a deal’s a deal. I’d send his e-mail. How long could that take? He gave me the address and then began to dictate.

 

Dearest Jenny,

Daddy thinks of you always. Have you been getting the teddies that I’ve been sending? I want desperately to tell you that I will be home in time for your first day in school, but the doctors say that I need to get well before I can see you. I hope that Ms. Fitzhenry is treating you well, and that she will eventually accept my calls. Remember to brush your teeth so that I can see your beautiful smile when I return.

All my love,

Daddy.

 

I didn’t hit send. The miserable old bastard was lying to his kid. He wasn’t in hospital, he was staying in a cheap motel in the arse-end of London being spanked silly by Ladyboys. What a prick. “Sent,” I lied.

“Thank you,” he said, and then fell silent.

I hunted around the travel website for a bit. South Africa was too…accessible. And Dolgov could have contacts there for all I knew. I decided on Ghana. It was small and well-run. The climate was hot, but not harsh, and the small amount of cash I had left to my name would go a long way there. Best of all, the official language was English, one of the three languages I was fluent in (the others being love and bullshit). I bought a one-way ticket, booked a hotel room in the capital, and then closed the laptop.

The TV had a coin slot in it, and I had nothing but plastic. I had an early flight in the morning so, after painstakingly checking the mattress and the legs of the bed for bugs, I got into bed.

I’ve never had too much difficulty in falling asleep–it’s a gift–but that night was hellish. The overhead fan beat the air and orange light from the streetlamp outside filtered through the blinds, painting bars on the wall. My companion in the next room said nothing else, but I could occasionally hear cockroaches skittering through the wall that separated us.

Upstairs were having a party though. If you can call it that. I think they must have been making a movie, or they were Emo hookers who kept yelling cut for fun.

I awoke not realizing that I’d fallen asleep.

The alarm clock glared 4:30 a.m. at me in angry red digits. A car motor was idling nearby. Unable to get back to sleep, I rose and separated the blinds with a finger. My room was on the second floor, allowing me a view of the jet-black Jag that was parked across the street from where I was. Way too pricey for this place, so it was either a rich boy wanting a walk on the wild side, Lou Reed-style, or it belonged to a drug dealer living in one of the flats. Curious, I glanced down the walkway, and my heart froze.

A man was coming towards me. He was tall and pale and covered in the blood of the Fortunate Fridays. They weren’t the luckiest Wednesdays really, all things considered.

I backed away from the window and nearly tripped over a bed post. How had they found me? Had my travel agent ratted me out? Surely not. I looked around the room. TV. Fridge. Bathroom. Door. I needed to get out of there and the man in black was blocking the only exit.

Window?

I snatched up my laptop and leapt over the bed. The bathroom had a frosted window set in the wall above the toilet, but it was the size of my fist. Ventilation only. No exit there. That left one other option.

“Hello?” I called through the door between my room and Mr. Lover Man next door, risking as loud a whisper as I dared. “Hello?”

Centuries flew by.

Finally, an answer. “Hello?”

“Look, I really don’t mean to be an inconvenience, but I was wondering if you could open the door?”

“Oh no. No. That’s not possible. Sorry. We can talk though, if you’d like? It gets terribly lonely in here sometimes.”

I glanced at the entrance of the room. Was that a shadow moving across the floor, beneath the door?

“I don’t want to fucking talk. I need you to open the fucking door!”

“Look, you seem like a reasonable chap, and I’d really like to oblige, but it’s not safe. I’m diseased, you see. Just like I said in the e-mail you sent.”

“You’re not fucking diseased. You’re Mistress Donkey-Dick’s love slave. I don’t care. I’m not judging you, just open the fucking door!”

“Well, then.” He sounded offended. “I bid you goodnight.”

I banged on the door with my fist. “Okay wise-guy, remember I have got little Jenny’s e-mail address and I’m not afraid to use it.” Not my finest hour, I admit. “If you don’t open this door right now, I’ll–” What? What was I going to do, show her incriminating photos of daddy dearest? I’d have to get through the door for that. I just trailed off and let the sentence hang in the air. Let his imagination do its worst.

The bolt turned in the partition door, and it opened a crack.

Something dark moved on the other side. All I could smell this time was mushrooms and wet sawdust. I was really beginning to hate my nose.

“Close your eyes,” he said.

“Honestly, you ain’t got nothing I haven’t seen before,” I muttered, and instead of closing my eyes, slammed my shoulder against the door. It flew open, knocking him back on what I believed was his pasty white arse. I got the fleeting impression of something oval-shaped collapsing onto the bed before I turned and closed the door behind me. I realized that I was still in the boxers I’d slept in. I hadn’t had time to dress, and my luggage was in the other room. My only earthly possession was the laptop I’d taken with me. Boxers isn’t my best look. I certainly wouldn’t get as far as Heathrow without something a bit more conservative.

I waited with my ear pressed against the door until I heard someone try the door in my room. Sometimes thin walls can be a blessing, I guess. There was a crash. The man in black had kicked it in. That wasn’t going to look good on my bill. Still, I wasn’t planning on sticking around long enough to pay it. Time to make a sharp exit.

I turned and saw my neighbor for the first time. A giant, six-foot-tall cockroach, he was lying flat on his back on the bed, one wing partly extended from underneath his shell. Six legs made circles in the air. His face was a horrific mixture of insect and human. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” was about the sum of my wisdom.

He ceased his struggle to right himself and collapsed backward, staring at the ceiling. “I did warn you… the whole metamorphosis thing can be a real pain. Still got a good forty-eight hours of half-man, half-roach left… then when my transition’s done, I’ll finally be myself. Will you…be staying long?”

“Um, no.” I glanced at the door, strangely concerned that if I ran now, he would think that I was running away from him. “I think a metamorphosis is something you should go through alone. You don’t need me watching. I’d love to stay, obviously, in other circumstances, but I have a…thing.”

“There are clothes in the nightstand.” Those were the last words he uttered to me. I snatched up a pair of pants and made for the door. I stopped with my hand on the handle.

“Look, I, uh.” I set my laptop on the floor. “I’ll trade you the laptop for the clothes. The password is ‘BonzoDog’. You can send Jenny e-mails whenever you’d like.”

I really didn’t want to think about what the ‘mistress’ had been really doing with him, or what he’d had to lick from where. Some things you’re just better off not knowing.

With that, I was out the door.

I didn’t stop to struggle into the jeans until I made the landing between floors. They were big. My neighbor had been on the portly side before his transmogrification.

The Jag had blocked my Jetta into its parking stall, rather pointlessly, since the black sports car would eat my little compact for breakfast in a race. Of course, the Jag was still idling, which meant the keys were in the ignition. The vast majority of crimes in this country are opportunist in nature. Who am I to buck the trend?

The interior of the Jag was done up in crimson leather and a comically big-headed vampire bobble-head nodded at me from the dash as I slid into the driver’s seat. That really should have been a warning sign. It was a standard transmission, and I felt the engine growl at me as I depressed the clutch and shifted her into gear. I took my other foot off the brake and began to seesaw the clutch and gas.

Of course, I stalled it.

There’s nothing like trying to make a quick getaway in a stolen car to make you heavy on the clutch.

The man in black stepped onto the balcony above me. His eyes were dark pits that looked down on me from on high. I waved, thinking, What the fuck, he can’t stop me now. I really had to stop thinking like that. It’s like I cursed every situation.

The cheap, iron French balcony railing twisted under his grip as he leapt over it.

His overcoat flared open, revealing military-style gun belts and a bowie knife strapped to his leg.

I really wished I hadn’t waved.

He landed gracefully on the pavement below, and the coat closed around him like a living thing.

I felt sick.

I jammed my foot down on the clutch and twisted the key in the ignition, willing the car to start.

The engine roared to life.

I stomped on the gas pedal.

Nothing subtle. The time for subtlety was long gone.

Tires squealed as I released the clutch, throwing me back into my seat. The wheel spun in my grip as the car leapt forward. One of those black and gold City of London garbage cans threw itself onto the hood–ahem–and slid away as the Jag jumped the curb. Frantically, I clamped down on the steering wheel and hit a Passat that had been parked across the street. It wasn’t my night. Still, it wasn’t going to be on my insurance so the “no-claims bonus” would live to fight another day–assuming that I did. A headlight imploded and metal squealed as the Jag’s powerful engine muscled it past the other car. The tachometer needle buried itself in the red, and I smelled burning transmission fluid and oil and hoped it wasn’t all from my brand new car. I’d always wanted a Jag since I was a little kid. It’s a seriously cool car, believe me. It almost made the whole dead-bodies-roachman-fleeing-from-scary-dude thing worth it.

Suddenly we were free, and I yanked the wheel over to the right side of the road.

The road ahead of me was clear but for a line of pedestrian-controlled traffic lights blinking into the horizon, while suddenly-majestic, marble-faced mansions crowded the sidewalk on one side of me and Hyde Park’s gloomy darkness looked decidedly menacing on the other. I blew through two intersections before I checked the rear-view mirror, figuring I’d put enough distance in between me and the man in black.

I really needed to stop thinking, period.

The man in black was following me.

He was persistent, I’ll give him that.

He moved in a peculiar kind of hopping run. It’s hard to explain. His feet barely touched the street, but where they did they left smoking holes in the asphalt. That’s never a good sign. I mean, as signs go. It’s the kind of sign that makes me think: fly, you fools! So, of course, I reflexively stomped on the brakes and lurched forward in my seat, my seatbelt cutting painfully into my chest, because slamming on the brakes was obviously the ‘unexpected’ thing, and well, sometimes the only way you get to walk away is when you do something completely out of the ordinary. Like stopping to face a homicidal-ground-melting-maniac in a living coat.

He made a sound like a pair of sneakers in a washing machine as he hit the back bumper and went over the roof.

Score one for the unexpected.

I took some small amount of pleasure when he cartwheeled through the air in front of the car and slammed into the street.

Okay, it wasn’t small at all. It was a huge amount of pleasure. The only small thing about it was the amount of time it lasted before it became bowel-clenching fear.

For a moment, the only sounds were the purr of the engine and the jingle of a chewing gum commercial that was playing on the radio. It was promising a minty white smile and super fresh breath. I hadn’t even realized it was on. There was something utterly incongruous about the too-happy jingle providing the soundtrack for the man in black’s rise as he got to his hands and knees, shook his head, and then stood.

He looked up, and his cold dead eyes found me behind the wheel.

The advert changed to a tampon commercial–just what someone was going to need to mop up all of my blood if he got his hands on me.

We both reacted at the same time.

He threw back a wing of his overcoat and went for his gun.

I hit the accelerator.

He grew rapidly in my windshield and then stepped aside at the last minute, one clawed hand lashing out towards me. It shattered the windshield into tiny crystals that were only held together by the sheet by safety plastic that coated the glass, and then sparked through the frame.

For a moment I thought he might be able to stop the car through sheer physical strength, but modern vehicles are designed with crumple zones, and so the metal simply gave way in his hands. To be honest, as outcomes went, that wasn’t much better. The Jag lurched forward and I left him behind. Unfortunately I couldn’t see out of the shattered windshield, and the car suddenly bounced upwards at a crazy angle. Resistance on the gas pedal ceased entirely, and my foot hit the floor. The engine screamed, the wheels spinning freely.

Suddenly, the man in black’s fist shattered the driver’s side window.

I felt his knuckles impact my chin milliseconds after the broken glass cut it to ribbons.

 

To Be Continued in Next Month’s Issue.

Signal to Noise, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis

Signal to Noise, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis. Paperback (ISBN 1781082995) Solaris Books, February 10 2015 – 272 pages.

 

The first thing I did when I finished reading Signal to Noise was race to author Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s website to see if she had posted a playlist for the novel. Luckily, she had–and that’s only appropriate because this book is a beautifully-written love letter to the power of music. Music pulsates through the scenes of this warm, compassionate literary fantasy novel–a nearly audible soundtrack as the lonely teens at its center learn to create their own powerful magic with the songs they love . . . and are nearly destroyed by the results of that magic.

 

The book begins in 2009, when spiky, angry heroine, Meche, finally returns to Mexico City for the funeral of her estranged father, the radio DJ who used to be the most important person in her world. Once she’s back in town, though, and tasked with going through the records that fill his apartment, it’s impossible for Meche to avoid the memories–and the consequences–of the year that she first lost her father along with her two best friends: the year of magic and betrayal.

 

Meche’s return to Mexico City frames the novel. The heart of it, though, is centered twenty years earlier, in 1989, when teenaged Meche figures out the secret of using the music she’s obsessed with–from Billy Idol to Duncan Dhu–to make real magic happen in the world. On the surface, it seems to be exactly what she and her two best friends, Sebastian and Daniela, have needed. All three of them are outcasts in their school, ignored or abused by the other teens, and sneered at by their teachers. Meche and Sebastian, the two closest friends, are twinned in their dysfunctional family situations, and in their longing to be accepted by the cooler kids. The magic they learn to create in their coven of three brings them money to buy cool clothes and revenge on their tormentors.

 

Like most teenagers, though, Meche and Sebastian aren’t always good at identifying their own tumultuous emotions. Meche crushes on the boy who is Sebastian’s chief tormentor; Sebastian longs to go out with the most popular girl in school. They think of each other only as the best and closest of forever-friends. So they’re both taken aback by the depth of their anger and hurt when magic carries them closer to the people they think they should want and away from each other.

 

Worse yet, even as Meche and Sebastian are brought into more and more emotional conflict, Meche’s already painful family situation is disintegrating around her. Her beloved father is sleeping with another woman and fantasizing about escape; her mother seems to disapprove of everything Meche does. Meche’s own bitter frustrations are unleashed in magic that grows more and more dangerous and powerful as it distances her from her friends . . . until a final emotional and magical explosion that still echoes through her life in 2009.

 

Signal to Noise feels like the kind of quiet but emotionally powerful literary fantasy often published in short-story form in genre magazines. It’s less common to find a story like this in novel form. As I read it, I kept thinking how well the essential story would fit in a magazine like Interzone–except, of course, for its inherent optimism. Moreno-Garcia brilliantly captures the impotent fury of a teen whose family is collapsing around her, and the emotional tumult of two teens who don’t know how to express their real emotions to each other . . . but from the very beginning, there is a sense of real hope in this novel.

 

Meche lost both her father and the boy she really loved back in 1989, in an emotional firestorm that was partially of her own making. Ever since then, she’s walled herself off behind shields of anger and apparent indifference. Now that she’s come back to Mexico City, though, she’s finally forced to confront her past and admit the part she played in it. When she finds that Sebastian, too, has come back, the question becomes, will this be her chance to rewrite their soundtrack? Signal to Noise is a love story in more than one sense, although it reads in no way like a romance.

 

Meche’s main love affair is with music. In almost every crucial scene of the book, she is listening to or recommending a real song she loves, and in every case, the songs emphasize the emotional beats of the storyline. The scenes where the coven creates magic through music–played on vinyl, of course–are filled with a genuine sense of wonder. The creation of the magic itself, in 1989, is beautifully written and compelling, even as the magic itself grows more and more frightening and out of control, in tune with Meche’s own spiraling fury and despair. Even in 2009, long after magic has left Meche’s life, the playlists on her iPod say everything about her emotional journey and the possibilities for her future.

 

Signal to Noise is an original, unique, and compelling début novel and a wonderful introduction to the work of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I look forward to reading many more of her novels in the future.

Ginny & The Ouroboros by Stephanie Lorée

The cop eyes her photo I.D. “Virginia Washington. Sounds like an alias.”

Ginny shoves her hands in her jeans pockets and doesn’t mention her nickname. “My mama’s got a sense of humor.”

“She know you’re wandering the streets this time of night?” he asks, drumming the fingers of one hand on his holster.

“No,” she says. “She’s dead.”

The cop frowns and mumbles something into his walkie-talkie that sounds like the make-believe language she and her little sister invented when they were young. All jargon and slang and official-sounding TV-type talk. Ginny’s mama called it Pig Latin, but Ginny learned later it wasn’t nothing like Ig-pay Atin-lay. Though now she thinks the term is all right for cop-speak.

A dispatcher on the end of the line says some Pig Latin back that makes the cop inspecting Ginny scowl.

“You got any weapons or drugs on you? Anything I should know about?” he asks.

“I don’t smoke,” she says. “Don’t do none of that.”

He nods like he believes her, but she can see the fake painted in his eyes. They’re blue as storybook skies and touristy pictures of the Mississippi River and that baby she found last year in an alley and never told no one about but God. She has nightmares of a blue like that.

“Turn around and put your hands on the wall,” he says.

She shrugs and places her palms against the cracked, brick building, spreads her legs shoulder-width apart without him asking. She keeps her face forward and watches her breath fog and disappear into the dark, trying hard not to think how this cop will be the first person who wasn’t her sister to touch her in a long time. How she hopes he doesn’t remove her thin gardening gloves.

He runs his hands over her arms and sides, down her legs to squeeze her ankles. He dips inside her coat pocket and grunts. “The hell,” he says. He rummages inside the pocket and scoops out the clump of dirt Ginny’d dug up not an hour earlier. Holding it out for her, he says, “What’s this?”

The lump of soil is still damp, and it drips a bit through his white fingers and muddies his palm. Inside it, a worm has wrapped itself around an acorn like a dragon guarding the last known world. She sees this even if the cop can’t.

“It’s for school,” she lies, then tacks on some truth. “I study at Jackson State.”

He sniffs the soil, frowns, and shoves it back in her pocket. “You got class in the morning?”

“Yeah, bio lab.”

He lifts her hands from the wall and positions them behind her back. The cuffs click closed around her wrists. “I’m sorry,” he says.

“What’m I charged with?”

He hesitates. “Loitering.”

She rolls the bullshit around her mind for a moment, sliding into the backseat of the cop car. When the cop settles up front, she says, “What’d Dakota do this time?”

Startled, the cop glances back at her, and she notices how young his face is. No lines around the pale eyes or between brown brows. He hasn’t been a cop long enough for the city to sink into his skin, but it would happen soon.

“A detective wants you to answer some questions,” he says.

He drives cautious as an old lady, weaving around potholes and buckled macadam and trash tossed aside like trivial memories. A lonely shoe, a sofa cushion gone moldy, bags with shiny logos, and cups with golden arches, a tire, a broken doll, a hobo. Ginny slouches, studying the images flashing by her window. She draws comfort from the soil in her pocket, tries to reassure the worm of her presence as the radio chirps more Pig Latin.

“Hey,” she says when it’s silent. “Thanks for giving me back my dirt.”

The cop shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “Sure.”

“And for not being a jerk. Nicest arrest I ever had.”

He glances in the rear-view, and she catches his smile. “Sure,” he says again.

Ginny thinks maybe his blue eyes don’t look nothing like that baby. Maybe they’re just eyes like skies she’s never seen and that’s why they scare her.

#

“Get whatever you like, Ginny baby,” Mama says.

Ginny looks around, sees the dresses hanging like flower petals. Her hand glides over the fabrics, soft cottons and scratchy sheer laces. She’s never seen so many beautiful things in one place. As if God took all the pretty from the world and strung it up on racks.

“Anything?” Ginny asks, unsure.

Her mama nods.

She’s never gotten new clothes before, only hand-me-downs from neighbor kids and the Salvation Army. Now, the unfaded colors and sharply creased materials threaten to overwhelm her. She considers running down the aisles, grabbing at everything within reach, and stuffing it into the cart. But she restrains herself and straightens her spine. At six years old, Virginia Washington knows this is a moment to savor.

She chooses a green dress. Plain fabric, smooth as spring-soaked grass, with daisies blooming along the waistline. Later, she chooses to forget how her mama hides the dress in her purse and carries it past the cashier, or how the sewed-on daisies fall off the first time Mama does the wash. Ginny does not want to remember the way green fabric turns brown when stained with blood.

#

The cop shop is old, broken. A square building that squats on the corner of two streets with busted pavement and decorative orange barrels. Moss creeps over the barrels, and roots push between cracked concrete. The cop shop stares at the intrusion defiantly, but the ivy still climbs graffiti-covered walls.

Inside, Ginny is escorted to an interrogation room. She recognizes it from the one-way mirror, glaring fluorescent lights, and the stick-thin table and chair that would shatter if she bashed it over a detective’s head.

The blue-eyed cop eases her into the chair and leaves with a little nod. She learned his name is Stephens from the desk cop out front who’d greeted him and gave Ginny a nasty, puckered expression. Stephens had frowned and whispered, “Don’t worry, he always looks ugly,” once they were out of earshot. Replaying it now in her mind, she smiles and decides she likes Stephens.

They let her sit in the room for some time, arms still secure behind her back, dirt humming in her pocket. The worm grows weaker; its grip around the acorn slackens and sickens her stomach. She watches the mirror with a bored, blank gaze but says, “Please don’t waste my time.”

They make her wait anyway.

When the detective finally enters, it’s with a puff of perfume that makes Ginny want to puke. It reeks of fake flowers, like lies that make a person sweat.

“Do you know why you’re here?” The detective crosses her arms and looks down her pointed nose at Ginny. She’s an older lady with steel roots in her bottle-black hair and a long, line-riddled face that reminds Ginny of wrinkled bedsheets.

“Kinda philosophical question, but I guess you mean my sister,” Ginny says.

The detective lays a mugshot on the table. A man stares out like he’s devouring the world with his eyes. The markings on the wall behind him say he’s over six feet tall, and Ginny thinks his loam-like skin would be beautiful in sunlight.

“Recognize him?” the detective asks.

Ginny shakes her head.

“Robert Jamison, goes by Bobby James. Twenty-two years old and already wanted for burglary, assault with a deadly, and a slew of misdemeanors. But for the most part, our Bobby prefers arson. He’s burned six homes in the past week, one of which nearly cost the lives of two squatters inside.”

“What’s this have to do with me?”

“He’s been seeing your sister,” she says.

Ginny furrows her brow. “Dakota don’t have any boyfriends.”

The detective shrugs. “Right now, she’s wanted as accessory to Bobby’s most recent burn-job. When’s the last time you saw your sister?”

The chair below Ginny squeaks as she adjusts herself. She slides her tennis shoes along the linoleum, feeling the cool push of wooden floorboards through her soles, of poured cement and copper piping and the deep, dark press of earth. Fat roots slink through the ground and stab toward her position above them. The worm inside her pocket whimpers. She hears the soil sing.

The last time she saw Dakota, Ginny came home to her sister passed out in front of her door. Bruises and malnourishment had turned Dakota’s brown skin yellow, and meth had rotted her teeth. Ginny carried her inside, made the sofa into a bed, and removed Dakota’s worn sandals. She whispered lullabies and stroked her baby sister’s hair until she fell unconscious beside her.

In the morning, Ginny discovered only emptiness: couch, purse, and refrigerator. The only things Dakota left were shadows under Ginny’s eyes, hollows in her cheeks, and dead leaves in her garden.

“Don’t know,” she tells the detective. “Couple weeks.”

The detective paces around the table, circling Ginny like a vulture. “Your sheet stretches back to juvie. Been in the system, never leaving. You and your sister’ve made trouble since you crawled out of your mother’s belly.”

“Guess you know all about us then.”

“I know your type.” She narrows her eyes and rests a hand on Ginny’s shoulder. “Dakota’s in a lot of trouble, and the best thing you can do is help me find her. She’s still a minor. She can make a clean break of it, go straight like you.”

The detective’s acrylic nails bite into Ginny’s collarbone in a way that is part comfort, part threat. They carry the smell of beauty parlors and Swisher Sweet cigarillos and remind Ginny of her mama.

A cold finger snakes down her spine. In her pocket, the worm hisses.

“Look,” Ginny says, “I got nothing to tell you. Dakota comes and goes. I’d like to see her as much as you, but unless you’re gonna hold me on trumped up loitering shit, I got a class to wake up for in five hours.”

Without warning, the detective slams Ginny’s face against the table. Stars burst in her eyes and her ears ring. She grunts, mouth half-smashed to the tabletop. Spittle dribbles between her lips.

The detective holds her there by the collar, leans in and whispers, “Don’t get smart. You’ve been arrested enough I don’t need a reason to throw you in the tank overnight. You find your sister and you march her ass in here. You do not want me to find her and Bobby James first.”

Ginny can’t nod, can’t speak until the detective releases her grip and storms out of the room. When the fuzz clears, she notices a business card on the table for Detective Rosa Henneman.

Underneath Ginny, the linoleum floor has spider-webbed with cracks.

#

“Make it go.” A two-year-old Dakota points her sister toward an acorn. It’s nearly rotten and wedged between an uneven sidewalk. “Make it go, make it go,” Dakota says, bouncing on wobbly legs.

Ginny–nine-years-old and already slouching from the press of the city–crouches next to her sister. She wraps one arm securely around Dakota, hugging her, and cups the acorn in her free hand. It pulses against her palm, tickling a greeting and smelling of sunshine and freedom and warm, wet grass. Ginny tickles back and invites it inside her. Slowly, like sucking a milkshake up a straw, the acorn pulls on her. It starts under her rib cage, lower like a stomach ache, and tugs at things inside her that were never meant to be tugged.

The seed opens, a green shoot budding before their eyes.

“We can plant it here,” Ginny says, leading her sister toward a vacant lot filled with overgrown weeds and car tires. “It’ll grow big, like you, and make acorns of its own. It’ll be part of us. Our secret.”

She digs a hole with her hands. The dry earth darkens, and the soil becomes strong. She sets the acorn inside. Roots take hold, caressing her skin before sliding into the earth. Dirt streaks Ginny’s arms and stains her knees; the touch of it makes her sigh.

But Dakota giggles and dives into the ground, pushing her fingers deep. She digs with fervor until dirt peppers her face, her body. She laughs until the weeds around her wither. Laughs until tears roll down her cheeks and splash the soil like acid rain. Fissures form around her fingertips, like veins leading toward the sapling protected at its heart.

“Make it go,” she says and reaches for the budding oak tree.

Ginny grabs her sister’s hands and pulls her into a careful embrace.

“It’s done,” she whispers and stares at her lonely island of green surrounded by Dakota’s destruction. She inhales the ashen remains of weeds fluttering in the breeze. She stops herself from crying.

“You make everything better,” Dakota says.

But Ginny knows she can’t fix what her sister has wrought.

#

Stephens offers her a ride home when he sees the bruise along her cheek, the blackening around her eye. He’s pulled a hoodie over his uniform and stuffed his gun and cuffs and police paraphernalia into a backpack slung over his shoulder. Off-duty like this, he looks almost human.

Ginny says no, but he insists, and who is she to argue with a cop who’s already arrested her once tonight?

He walks her around back to the fenced-in cop lot. Only a handful of vehicles remain at three a.m., but she knows the bike is his the moment she sees it. All shiny chrome and blue paint job like his eyes. He holds a helmet out to her, and she slips it on.

“Little cold for motorcycles, isn’t it?” she asks.

“I like the outdoors,” he says, mounting the bike and gunning the engine.

She wraps her arms around his waist. “Me, too.”

They arrive at her apartment building and idle awkwardly at the curb. She almost expects to see Dakota passed out against the door again, but it’s as empty as it will be in her basement studio. Only her garden and the sough of crawlers through her bedroom walls to welcome her home.

“You want to come in?” she asks, still clinging to his back.

He tenses. “That would be inappropriate.”

“Yeah,” she says and hops off the bike. She hands him the helmet and meets his gaze. She’s never thought of herself as pretty, but she knows her eyes are dark and deep and sometimes people get lost in them. “You want to come in anyway?”

Stephens stares at her a long moment, then he kills the engine. “Yeah.”

She leads him inside, down the narrow stairs to her apartment. It’s one room plus a shower-only bath. The windows are set high, near the ceiling, so it’s always darker and damper and smelling of rain. She doesn’t have a TV or microwave or a real bed, but she does have walls lined with bookshelves and potted plants, a drop-ceiling threaded with hanging vines, and a hydroponic garden that would put a pothead to shame.

“I’m a biologist,” she tells Stephens, more apology than explanation. “Or I want to be.” She frowns. “I’m supposed to graduate in May.”

She rinses a bowl in the kitchen sink, sets it on the counter. From her pocket she removes the clump of dirt–the worm and acorn hiding inside–and puts it in the dish. She takes a scoop of soil from a nearby plant and packs it on top, sprinkling it with water. The worm whispers its pleasure.

Then she turns to Stephens, watches him survey the room with round eyes. He inhales several times, breathing in the thick, heady scent of life. The tension between his shoulders seems to dissolve; his posture relaxes. With a hesitant hand, he traces the bruise on her cheekbone.

“Who are you?” he asks.

Ginny doesn’t answer, just molds her mouth to his and listens to the leaves breathe around them.

#

The green dress doesn’t fit anymore, so she holds it up to Dakota’s shoulders. The hem kisses the stained carpet.

“It’s beautiful.” Dakota’s black eyes are big and bottomless. She glances at Ginny in the mirror. “Can I keep it?”

Ginny nods. “It’s yours now.”

Dakota squeals and spins. She lifts the dress over her head and shimmies into it. The daisies are long gone, but the fabric remains petal-soft. In love with her own reflection, she doesn’t notice the man stepping out of their mama’s bedroom, but Ginny does. He’s tall and too thin, sunken cheeks and a jaw sharp enough to cut. He reeks of old tobacco and brine.

“Pretty,” the man says, his eyes locked on Ginny.

She’s seen this before, a clarity passing over some grown-up faces when they look at her, as if they’re waking up from a long sleep. They want to touch her then, stroke her hair and kiss her forehead, hold her until they pull on her like the dandelion. But she won’t welcome them.

The man approaches the girls. He lays a hand on both their shoulders, but jerks away from Dakota as if burned. Instead, he leans into Ginny, rubbing her back. She tries to move but he fists her hair. She cries out. Dakota growls. The man nuzzles Ginny’s neck, swatting Dakota with the back of his hand. The younger sister flies, smacking the wall with a sickening crunch. When she rises, her shoulder is cocked at an impossible angle and she lurches toward the man with hands outstretched.

Then there are only the man’s screams deafening Ginny’s ears and charred meat filling her nostrils and a brilliant red soaking Dakota’s dress.

#

In the morning, Ginny leaves Stephens lying on the pillows of her pull-out couch. His nude back glows under a shaft of sunlight spilling in from the uncovered windows. She wants to thank him for making the vines dance and the flowers blossom–for taking only what she gave–but she doesn’t know how to explain the fading of his old football injury or where the silvery scar on his shoulder went or how his tongue tastes like honeysuckle and promises.

She lifts the bowl with her secret buried inside. Overnight the acorn has sprouted. A shoot of green peeks from the soil, and the worm waltzes around its roots. Today everything will change, she knows, and she carries it to the curb.

The bike remains on the street. Crabgrass and morning glories have wrapped between its spoke wheels and tied tight to its handlebars. With a whisper, Ginny draws them back to sprawl across the sidewalk like a blanket cushioning the concrete. More greenery grows to join it, and the blanket spreads into the street. Underneath the pavement, roots contort around pipelines and sewer systems; they squeeze and push and punch the surface. They call to her.

She slips Stephens’s keys from her pocket, secures her grip on the bowl with the acorn, and heads toward the Coliseum. Behind her, the exhaust plumes and the blacktop breaks.

The husks of Dakota’s handiwork grow thicker as Ginny approaches the eastside. Blackened buildings dot the landscape, and the January air is ripe with rot and smoke. Boarded-up windows watch as she parks the motorcycle. The Mississippi Coliseum stands untouched by the decay, a domed structure surrounded by cement. But below it, far down in the depths of the world, she senses the seam between mantle rocks, hears it sigh like a slumbering dragon.

Ginny nestles the plant and bowl in the crook of her elbow. Everything is empty in the dawn, and no one stops her as she touches the main doors. For the first time, she pulls back on the earth, draws the dragon into her, feeds on it as it comes alive under her feet. Wood and iron buckle, bowing inward enough to allow her passage. Her steps shake the walls, rumble supports and braces, shatter glass. It cannot be helped.

The ground trembles.

Inside is all stadium seating and a floor shined in preparation for the next basketball game. The lacquered wood twists and snaps. The noise of her destruction enfolds her. Her teeth vibrate.

“Figures you’d find me here,” Dakota calls over the chaos. She’s standing opposite the broken entrance, half-obscured by shadow. Her hair has fallen out almost completely, a few strands of black curling over her forehead. Her skin is sallow, one giant green bruise, and peppered with open sores. She limps and coughs and smells of gangrene.

The Coliseum shudders.

“Looks like you’re finally ready.” Dakota says.

“I’ll help you.” Ginny nods. “Please, God, let me help you.”

Dakota comes closer. Wooden bleachers wither in her wake. Her footsteps singe the floor in the shape of her toes. She smiles, revealing ruddy gums. “Bobby said the same thing. You two would’ve liked each other.”

“Where is he?”

Dakota shrugs. “Can’t stand the heat…” She staggers to half-court, kneels and splays her hands on the ground. Her fingers sink in as the flooring disintegrates. Tiny sparks ignite along the edges, and the sick scent of burning plastic fills the air. “I can only get so far,” she says. “You’ll need to open it the rest of the way.”

“And when it’s over?”

Her little sister looks up at her, and for a moment Ginny sees the sixteen-year-old girl inside Dakota. Not the addict or the anarchist or the death goddess, just a scared kid in a green dress.

“We’ll start again.” Hope shines in Dakota’s endless eyes. “We can build whatever we want, be whatever we want.”

Holding the potted plant close to her side, Ginny nods. “All right.”

Sirens sound over the cacophony of splitting timbers and shredding steel. Distantly, a voice she recognizes shouts through a megaphone, but she ignores whatever it’s saying.

Ginny reaches down and wakes the dragon.

#

“That’s fucking stupid.” Dakota’s small breasts push against the tabletop as she bends over to snort the white line. “Why would you build something on a fucking volcano?”

“It’s extinct,” Ginny says, pointing at the textbook propped over her thighs. “Has been forever.”

Dakota squints and leans her head back. “But one time?”

“Long ago, I guess it was active.”

Her sister smiles, a sly, lop-sided thing that is part childish, part devil. Her eyes glaze over and blood from her nose fills the indent of her upper lip. “Bet you could make it work.”

“Dunno. And if I could, I wouldn’t. The whole city might burn.”

Dakota takes her hand, squeezes it. “Nothing but steel and sinners. The city did this to us, Ginny. Imagine what you could grow if you started fresh?”

The pull is an easy, lazy tug on her heart. Ginny’s fingers start to ache; her knuckles flake and crack. But in her grasp, Dakota’s wrinkled skin turns rich and dark and lovely.

#

Tectonic plates shift and shudder. The hot, slow flow of magma begins to bubble and writhe. Ginny delves into the earth, feels its rhythmic rumble. She opens herself to its pull, feels it snake inside her stomach, coil around her lungs. She gasps.

“Like that.” Dakota clasps Ginny’s hand. Power rushes like wildfire from the earth’s core, between them, through them. Uncontrolled and unfathomable. Dakota’s hair grows in first, then her teeth. Her skin glows with health, and her eyes sparkle with unshed tears.

Ginny ages a dozen years.

Chunks of debris rain around them, crashing like waves on rocky shores. The ground opens where Ginny wills, a pit descending into shadow and fire. Her muscles burn and the bones in her legs snap. She cries out from the force of it, the swirl of life and energy.

Then Stephens appears beyond a collapsed wall. He’s calling her name and he’s still in his hoodie and does he have to look at her like that? Beside him, Detective Rosa Henneman raises her gun.

“No,” is all Ginny can mumble as the bullet flies. She doesn’t even hear the gunshot over the storm, but she sees it pierce Dakota’s back and exit her breast. It nicks Ginny’s bicep, and her secret–the tiny pot of dirt and worm and acorn–tumbles to the shattered floor.

For a moment, Dakota seems surprised, unaware that she’s dead, then her smile droops and she slumps to Ginny’s lap.

The scream that tears from Ginny’s mouth is all fury and thunder, rippling the earth for miles. She clutches Dakota to her chest and buries her face in her sister’s hair.

“I know it’s not how you wanted,” she murmurs, “but we’re gonna start fresh.”

Cradling Dakota against her, Ginny gathers her acorn. The worm says it is ready. She tosses it slow, like rolling dice, into the hole she’s created. Then she welcomes the dragon’s pull, feeds it everything that is left for her to give.

It begins quietly. The dust settles; the fire dies. Roots take hold and a tree grows. It springs from the earth and pushes toward the heavens. A thick web of grass and bluebells and morning glories spreads outward, cloaking the city in a green gown. The verdure knits itself across concrete and over cars. It scales skyscrapers and fills factories. It cannot be stopped.

In the center of it is an oak tree that towers above all. Two trunks twine together at the base, but only one reaches toward a blue, blue sky.

Welcome to the March 2015 issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine

What I love about urban fantasy is the juxtaposition of those two very elements, “urban” and “fantasy.” The “fantasy” part explains itself well enough: tales of magic and mystery, of inexplicable powers and unknowable creatures. “Urban” for me, though, goes beyond being ?in a city? to mean a story set anywhere in our world of manufactured, constructed, and human-controlled environments. Just as importantly, it means having a modern mindset, with all of our materialism and skepticism, our longing to believe in the ineffable hidden by a veneer of snark. A good urban fantasy has a setting firmly grounded in all the mundane details so familiar to us–the traffic-locked freeways and half-forgotten alleyways, the cookie-cutter stretches of strip malls and strip clubs–where, guided by the author’s knowing hand, we suddenly see the magic that?s hidden there, just out of sight of our daily lives.

That sense of place shines clearly in each of our stories this month, although the locations are scattered across the globe. First up, Stephanie Lor?e shows us where magic cracks the sidewalks and parking lots of downtown Jackson, Mississippi, in “Ginny & the Ouroboros.” Then we head to Sydney and, from there, slip sideways into the jungles of Vietnam to visit “Uncle Bob’s Crocodile” with Australian author Ian McHugh. And finally, we head to the seedier side of London, where dark magic stalks a hit-hungry record producer, in the first part of “Dead Records,” a novella co-written by Ryan Reid and Steven Savile. We’ll bring you new installments of “Dead Records” over the next five months, so please let us know what you think about our experiment in serialization.

As always, if you enjoy this month’s issue, click the “Subscribe” button to help support us in bringing more stories and new authors to our pages in the coming months. We love having you here, and we hope you stick around for more.