Happily Ever After: Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy by Beth Noland

From vampires to werewolves, extraterrestrials and ghosts, the possibilities are seemingly endless in the sea of Paranormal Romance.  A sub-genre that has gained momentum in the last few years, mostly due impart to the latest success of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series to the newly awakening of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon brought to TV, Paranormal Romance is making its way into contemporary literature with a howl so strong that it is reverberating off the book covers of Urban Fantasy.  But what is this genre that is causing such a stir, propelling people to veraciously devour these books with such a speed that leaves us wanting more?

Paranormal Romance, nestled tightly between Urban Fantasy and Romance, is a genre that allows for endless possibilities due mostly to the fact that there aren’t really any boundaries defining the genre other than…you guessed it, the main feature in the story is a romantic involvement and something of the ‘paranormal’. The ‘paranormal’ can be something as simple as a vampire, to the ability to travel through time, but make no mistake, anything is possible. Many of these novels have a little bit of everything, from action, to telepathy, horror to perhaps the best historical novel you will ever read, there is something to draw almost every type of reader. There is something for everyone, and just because it has Romance in its title, like any genre, it draws a varied readership.  But perhaps, one of the most important aspects of the Paranormal Romance genre is the happily ever after.  Unlike Urban Fantasy, where the happily ever after isn’t really guaranteed, it is different with a Paranormal Romance.  Readers can bank on the fact that eventually, the lovers will find their way back to each other, though it may take a few books, whereas, for Urban Fantasy there are a few ‘rules’ that must be maintained in order for the genre to remain true.

With Urban Fantasy, the first and most important aspect of the genre is that is must be urban in setting.  Timeline isn’t of upmost importance, though having aspects of the paranormal, magic, and whatever else of the ‘other’ is important to the genre along with the urban setting.  In Paranormal Romance, the plot is pushed forward by the same formula that every romance is pushed by:  some sort of attraction, but that attraction is fought, only to have the lovers brought together, then they are pushed apart, but in the end they live happily ever after.  Throw in some paranormal elements, and you have a Paranormal Romance. But that is at the core the simplest definition, and many of us who have read the genre know there are many other intricacies and complex problems laced throughout these stories. Vibrant and gifted authors create worlds, characters and events that are so complex and well thought out that it is no wonder why these books are flying off the shelves. Often written in the third person and from multiple points of view, we are given a larger scope of the plotline, but less of an idea of what is really going on due to the complexities of hearing so many different perspectives. In comparison, an Urban Fantasy plotline may have romantic aspects and strife between lovers, but the plot is not pushed by the romantic attraction.

But what makes it so popular?  I myself enjoy numerous genres, but I have always found myself drawn to Paranormal Romance. In the early ’90s I remember devouring numerous books that were Paranormal Romance. Reading as many as two a day, it was all I could do to come out to eat.  And even now, as an adult, I find that this genre has the ability to pull me in so deep that I can look up and it is 2 o’clock in the morning. How is it that they are able to do this? I have to admit, that for me personally, the worlds that these books create are so intriguing and filled with adventure, that the idea of living vicariously through the characters is exciting and exhilarating. I will never know what it is like to be five thousand years old, to possess the strength of ten men, or to discover cities at the deepest part of the ocean all because I can’t. But these characters can.  And the fact that the characters are so different makes it all the more thrilling.  That these characters  can be the only one, the other, the incredible, undefeatable is rousing and electrifying  Their world is ours but so different, like mine but not, and it is perhaps this idea, that maybe, just maybe, I can one day travel through time or meet a werewolf is what makes this genre that much more appealing.

The Profound Importance of Coasters by Alena Sullivan

Sometimes, when Molly gets home, she can hear the sound of a rainstorm coming from behind her roommate’s door– the low murmur of thunder, the patter of rain on leaves and earth, the soft rush of wind. Given modern technology, Molly supposes that it could be a sound file or a website or something, but it sounds strangely organic, and now and then, when Molly walks by on her way to the bathroom, a cool, damp breeze will sigh across her ankles from under the door and make her shiver.

Ava is nice, though, small and dark-eyed and, while her hair always looks a little damp and there’s almost always some paint smudged on her cheeks and fingers, she gives Molly her share of the rent several days before it’s due, so Molly does her best to ignore her growing and impossible certainty that there’s an actual rainstorm spending time in Ava’s room. For one thing, it would have spread to the living room by now, and for another, Molly refuses to believe anyone as nice as Ava would do anything as terrible as allow that much water damage to perfectly lovely hardwood.

That’s fine– it’s surprisingly easy, really, as soothing lies you tell yourself go– until the knights start showing up at the door.

#

“I’m sorry,” Ava says, ushering the latest one into the apartment and grimacing delicately at Molly. “I can’t help it, they’ve been sent on a quest.”

“A quest,” Molly repeats faintly, groping behind her for the couch and dropping heavily onto it. The knight is standing uncomfortably in the living room, shifting his weight from foot to foot, adjusting the hem of his tunic and occasionally clearing his throat awkwardly. Most importantly, he’s a knight, an honest-to-goodness one, with a sword and a shield and a helmet tucked under his arm and everything. Molly can hear what is almost definitely a horse nickering outside, and she tells herself, very firmly, not to look out the window. She doesn’t quite manage it, though, and squeezes her eyes shut against the sight of the enormous chestnut steed festooned in its own armor and livery, hitched to the railing of their steps and calmly munching on their hedge. She worries, rather obsessively, that the dirt the knight has tracked in from outside and all over her nicely swept floors is perhaps more than just dirt, and shudders a little at the chaos that is slowly consuming her perfectly orderly and sensible little corner of the world.

“Yes, well, I mean, it’s not like they’ve got a lot of other things to do these days,” Ava says over her shoulder from the kitchen, where she’s putting a kettle on to boil, as if the knight is just someone she’s invited over for tea. “Not a lot of dragons to slay or princesses to rescue, lately. Tea?”

The knight coughs into his fist, as though to say he’d quite like some tea, if it isn’t too much trouble, thank you, and Molly, her ingrained politeness getting the better of her, says, “Two cups, please.”

The knight nods his thanks and looks longingly at the squashy armchair in the corner.

“Uh,” Molly says, looking from him to Ava, who is clearly too busy making tea to be paying attention, “you can sit down, if you want.”

The knight shakes his head. “That is very kind of you, miss,” he says, ducking his head nervously. He’s really far too young to be a knight, Molly is pretty sure– seventeen or eighteen, maybe, which is just a ridiculous age for anyone to be handed a sword and put on a horse and sent on a quest. Not that that’s ever normal. But he’s still got acne, for god’s sake. “I couldn’t impose.”

“He’s just here for an artifact,” Ava says, rolling her eyes and handing a cup of tea each to the knight and to Molly, taking her own and perching on the arm of the couch. “He can’t have it, so he might as well get back on his horse and screw off.”

“An artifact?” Molly repeats, squinting at Ava. “Like…the holy grail?”

“No,” Ava and the knight say in unison, mouths pursed in distaste.

“Well, sorry,” Molly says, a little taken aback. “It’s not like I’m familiar with what is or isn’t gauche in terms of knightly quests and oh my god how is this a conversation I’m even having, Ava, seriously, why is there a knight in our living room?” She’s getting both irritated and self-conscious– she’s in house clothes, sweatpants and a baggy shirt with a worn-thin old cardigan over it, and her hair is basically a blonde bird’s nest; guests, however unwelcome they might be, really shouldn’t be seeing her like this, and she’s somehow being made to feel foolish for asking perfectly reasonable questions.

“Please, sorceress,” the knight says, setting his tea on the coffee table– on a coaster, which is more than Ava usually remembers to do, and Molly forgives him, just a little, for his sweaty, smelly, dirt-tracking-in presence in her home– “grant me your boon and I’ll be on my way.”

Ava frowns at him. “Okay, first, the term is wizard, sorceress is sexist and archaic, thank you. Second, you can’t have it, I made it, it’s mine, and it’s staying mine.”

“Please, sor–er, wizardess?–”

“Wizard, dude, just wizard, I’m a wizard, I’m a lady, what are they even teaching you guys these days? My ovaries and sundry do not disqualify me from being a wizard. Do you think when titling us, they’re like, Nope, you there, with the fallopian tubes, your ability to turn my body inside out with the wave of your hand is secondary to your internalized genitalia! or something? Because they don’t. Wizard. Lady. Both.” She sets her tea on the coffee table for emphasis, completely coasterless, and Molly cringes.

“Er, right,” the knight says, scratching at the back of his head uncomfortably. “Well, lady wizard, this is the quest put to us by our king– if you send me on my way, more will follow, and they might not be as mild-mannered as I.” He eyes Molly a little, possibly to impress upon her the lack of mild manners in other knights, or possibly just because she’s beginning to twitch a little as she looks at the ring beginning to form under Ava’s teacup.

“Yes, yes,” Ava says, getting to her feet and making her way to the door. “That’s all well and good, I’ve gotten the memo, thank you. My artifact is art, it is incredible and deeply symbolic art, and it is not for sale or quest or anything else. So, you know, thanks, and everything, but go away.” She opens the door, letting it swing out and smack against the wall with a bang that makes Molly cringe at the thought of the dent it’s going to leave. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. ”

Art,” the knight says disparagingly, throwing up his hands and striding out the door. “Art!” he shouts again from the bottom of their front steps.

Ava shuts and locks the door behind him, flopping down onto the couch and throwing her arm across her face dramatically. “God, that was tedious.”

Molly nods hesitantly. “Right,” she says, voice a little higher pitched than it normally is, “sure, yeah, but can we, um. Can we go back to the part where you’re a wizard?” Wizard was not what Ava had listed on her roommate application, alright, and while Molly would hate for anyone to think she’s in any way discriminatory or anything, these are things that are simply polite to let a potential roommate know.

“I mean, okay, I’m not a proper wizard anymore,” Ava says, shrugging. “I’m mostly just an art student. It got boring, okay? All the other wizards are like, you know, stodgy and mature–” she pronounces it like mat-oor, “–and, I don’t know, I just think it’s disturbing to get that serious and complacent, no matter how old you are. So, you know… art student.”

Which, yes, is what she’d said she was when Molly interviewed her as her potential roommate– art student, working for a gallery on the side, volunteering occasionally at a children’s arts and crafts center. Very low profile. Endearing. Charming, even. “Right,” Molly says, waiting for her to go on. It takes a minute for Ava to get the hint.

“Oh! I mean, right. I used to be a big wizard, though, like, wow, majorly wizard. Battles of armies, advising kings, making magical artifacts, that sort of deal.”

“And then?” Molly says, suspending her disbelief in the pursuit of a proper explanation.

“Well, and then King Arthur fell, and Robin Hood after that, and once all the interesting people stopped doing interesting things, I got bored and started conceptual sculptures, and, I don’t know, I make other things now.” She shrugs again. “I make artifacts sometimes, but mostly they’re sculptures that I think really capture the essence, you know?” Her eyes are enormous, she’s so earnest, and she’s beaming at Molly like Molly is supposed to understand something.

“Er,” Molly says, feeling incredibly disappointing. “The essence of what?”

“The essence,” Ava says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “You know, like–like of the universe, of the rivers of power that flow through us, of the transcendence of consciousness and the fleeting nature of being–“

“Okay, right, that essence,” Molly says, just so Ava will stop gesticulating so wildly. She could put an eye out. “So, um, the knights?”

Ava sits back against the arm of the couch, huffing exasperatedly and rolling her eyes. “Oh, them,” she says, waving a hand. She starts picking at a loose thread on the hem of her baggy sweater, a nervous tick if Molly’s ever seen one. That’s when the suspicion starts, creeping its way up Molly’s spine, and sure enough–

“Well, I might have made a really intense artifact after my anthropology professor started talking about the nature of power and structural inequality—have you taken an anthro class? No? Well, okay, the point is, I just got really, like, engaged and I started thinking about the interconnectivity between the powerful and the powerless, and I was working on this art project at the time, and I might have sort of imbued an artifact with the power to rule the world. You know. Like you do.”

Molly rubs a hand across her forehead. “The power to…rule the world?”

“Well,” Ava says, studying her fingers intently and determinedly not looking at Molly at all, “I mean, it’s not going to summon an army or anything, it just… gives you the ability to bend people and cultural infrastructures to your own design. It’s like– it’s like harnessing inherent societal privilege! But with magic. I was feeling kind of megalomaniacal and had the vague idea of going for world domination after graduation. But then I decided on a minor in cultural anthropology and maybe like, I don’t know, grad school so I can do a dissertation on visual culture and power, and I don’t know, I might have put something about the artifact on Facebook, and so now…” she spreads her hands in her lap– whether to illustrate the situation or her own supposed blamelessness, Molly has no idea, and either way, it seems woefully inadequate–“Knights.”

And, just like that, there’s another knock on the door.

“Oh, geez,” Ava says, just as Molly opens her mouth to start explaining that none of this is okay or makes any sense or, seriously, is at all acceptable—who puts that sort of thing on Facebook? “I’m going to be super late for work. Can you handle that?” And then she’s gone into the depths of her room—it’s been raining in there again, Molly can hear muted birdsong and the drip of water off leaves—and Molly is left to deal with the absolute cataclysmic disaster that is suddenly her life.

Molly eyes the trail of dirty footprints left by the last guest, and the ring under Ava’s cup on the coffee table, and, sighing loudly to herself, takes two coasters off the end table and slides them onto the coffee table– one under Ava’s cup, one just out there, waiting for the inevitable barging-in of the next knight.

Somehow, she didn’t think that this was the sort of thing she’d be having to deal with in college. Boys, yes. Flaky artistic roommate, sure. But the boys were not supposed to be sweaty, horse-smelling knights with swords, and the flaky artistic roommate definitely was not supposed to be a wizard. Molly has her own classes. She has a Fundamentals of Econ exam on Wednesday! She has a life, thank you very much. A nice, orderly, small but satisfying sort of life with a practical major and a tidy house, and yes, alright, perhaps she’d like to be a little thinner or a little taller or a bit more academically talented, but she’d been quite content.

The knight at the door doesn’t seem to especially care when she tells him all of this, and just stares at her blankly until she gives up and says, “Ava isn’t here, and neither is her artifact.” Ava chooses that exact moment to sneak loudly out the back door, and the knight levels a steady glare at Molly, which, really, is just uncalled for. “Well, she isn’t anymore,” Molly says defensively, and, having had quite enough of this nonsense for one day, shuts the door in the knight’s face and goes to look at pictures of soothingly adorable cats on the internet.

#

Molly thinks she’s kept a pretty good handle on this whole mess, really, and is busy congratulating herself on her remarkable poise in the face of adversity when she realizes that it’s almost midnight, and Ava still isn’t back from work. She’s never been this late.

Molly spends a half hour telling herself that it’s no big deal, that Ava has probably stopped for groceries at the all-night Kroger or something, but Molly knows it isn’t true. She’s not sure who to call in this sort of situation, though– until this whole wizard debacle, she would call jails and hospitals if her roommate went missing, but she’s getting the feeling that dungeons and towers are probably more likely. Molly is fairly certain that most of those aren’t in the phonebook, and, in fact, probably don’t even have phones, unless they’re the kind of dungeons that her Aunt Jo works in, and she’s pretty sure that questing knights didn’t take Ava to one of those.

Then again, stranger things have happened today.

Once two in the morning rolls around, Molly’s self-assurances about Ava’s probable safety wear themselves thinner than old socks, and Molly is left staring at the damp bottom of an empty teacup and wondering, what, exactly, she’s expected to do in the face of all this. Ava has an art history exam tomorrow, and rent is due the day after, and Molly would really prefer it if she could keep her life together just a tiny, little bit in the face of all this insanity.

A long, low roll of thunder murmurs from behind the door to Ava’s bedroom, as if in answer. A thin trickle of water seeps out across the hardwood, making its way towards Molly’s feet.

Molly decides that it’s probably for the best to pretend that this is some sort of divine assistance or implied permission and makes for Ava’s door–grabbing a dish towel on the way and mopping up the water as she goes. Best not to let it settle.

The door’s handle is innocuous, brassy and round, but it’s an unearthly cool under her palm when she touches it, and there’s a thin film of condensation on the metal. It’s completely soundless when she turns it, and she can’t quite stop herself from letting go of it uneasily as the door swings open into a rainstorm.

The floor of Ava’s bedroom–which Molly can personally attest was hardwood, just like the rest of the apartment, before Ava moved into it–is gone entirely, replaced with rich, dark brown earth and a smattering of leaves, presumably shed by the half-dozen trees making up Ava’s bizarre version of a bed. Or perhaps by the ones that have replaced three of the walls, towering up into a foggy infinity that makes Molly a bit dizzy to look at. The fourth wall is all bookshelves, somehow dry in spite of the pouring rain and dripping trees. Molly tries to ignore the fact that she’s absolutely never going to get her security deposit back.

“If I were an artifact,” Molly mutters, stepping gingerly into the room, cringing a little at the touch of cold, wet dirt on the soles of her feet, “where would I be?”

If the knights were after this thing that Ava made, maybe giving it to them will bring Ava back, or at least provide Molly some sort of bargaining power. Visions of herself as the capable heroine flash through her mind, just a bit–her finding a way to sort out all this chaos and diplomatically bringing an end to the sea of young knights sent to their door. Maybe even getting Ava to stop with this whole wizard thing entirely and put back the hardwood floor. In this vision, Ava also starts putting cups on coasters and washes the paint off her face and hands sometimes.

The bookshelves seem like the most logical place for something of import to be–they, after all, are dry. Maybe the rain is a magical rain, something that parts for things Ava feels are important.

Whether that’s the case or not, the rain utterly fails to part for Molly, and she is immediately soaked to the skin as she makes her way toward the shelves. Under this fall of water, everything feels unreal; her skin prickles constantly, the nape of her neck itching with the sense of almost-knowing something that usually only comes to her when there’s a word right on the tip of her tongue or she’s hit with a sense of déjà vu. This is neither of those, though, just the profound sensation that the entire world is not at all what she’s spent her whole life expecting it to be. Something flutters a little in her gut at that, the sort of fluttering thing that says that if all of this madness is possible, perhaps Molly herself could be something bigger, something greater and braver than the smallness and comfort of the life she’s built.

Molly shakes the dreams of grandeur from her head and ignores the fluttering in favor of perusing the bookshelves. As nice as her parents were and as supportive as her upbringing might have been, as good as Molly’s grades are, she just doesn’t have the genes for heroism or even whatever sort of haphazard majesty Ava has cultivated for herself.

The books are much less strange and wizardly than Molly would have expected if she’d taken the time to expect anything at all instead of just worrying about Ava and being entirely gobsmacked about this whole thing in general. There’s a worn copy of Pride and Prejudice, a clearly never-opened copy of The Scarlet Letter, and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in what looks like Portuguese. There are a plethora of anthropology textbooks, coffee table art books, collections of poetry. On the bottom shelf of the furthest bookshelf to the left is a series of spectacularly tattered three-ring binders with college-ruled paper sticking out of them at strange angles, one of which reads Ava and Gawain 4ever in pink highlighter. Molly spares a moment to be exasperated at the fact that someone so old as Ava apparently is can be so utterly child-minded.

Focusing, Molly considers the things in front of the books–as it happens, the front bit of every single shelf is covered in stuff.

Little figurines of elephants, cats, badgers, Egyptian deities, seals. A tiny, archaic model of a globe. A series of crystals arranged in what looks like no particular order, but which Molly would hesitate to move, anyway. A few pairs of earrings, scattered higgledy-piggledy. A fake lavender plant in a pot with a crooked label reading Psychic; Handle With Care. A baffling array of teapots, both miniature and full-sized. Cups full of balding paintbrushes, pens, pencils, markers. Tubes of paint and cups full of water stained odd colors, paintbrushes sticking out of them haphazardly. A row of small cauldrons made of copper and cast iron, empty. An actual dead squirrel, stuffed and posed with a cartoonish wizard hat, on a stand inscribed: Smith V, Most Majestic of Squirrels. An inordinate number of things have chickens on them–shot glasses, coffee mugs, little chicken statuettes, erasers shaped like chickens, even a teapot in the shape of a chicken.

Nothing, however, that looks at all like an artifact that would bestow the holder with the potential power to rule the world.

Despite the distinct lack of a lead, Molly continues examining everything in the hopes of finding a way to get her roommate back.

“Dude,” Ava’s voice says, strangely distant, from the direction of the door. “Snooping, much?” She’s standing there, perfectly intact, arms crossed, clearly not kidnapped by knights and tortured for the whereabouts of her magical items. The doorway is much further away than it was before—the forest of Ava’s bedroom seems to be an actual forest in her presence, which is decidedly unsettling.

“I–“ Molly is somewhere between aghast and relieved. “I wasn’t snooping. I was, well, you know– I thought you’d been kidnapped.”

Ava snorts. “And, what, you thought you were going to rescue me–me— with my collection of chicken memorabilia and Fuzzy the Psychic Plant?”

“Of course not,” Molly retorts, a little wounded despite her embarrassment. “I was going to use your artifact as a bargaining chip to get you back from the knights.”

Ava rolls her eyes enormously, her distain actually palpable. “You’re kind of an idiot. Even if I had been kidnapped, I would’ve gotten free eventually. I am a wizard, you know.”

“You have an art history exam tomorrow,” Molly mutters defensively. “I was only thinking of you.” The idea that Ava could think she’s an idiot, let alone the sort of person who snoops for the purpose of snooping– it’s hurtful. That, and, well, she feels a bit guilty for the thoughts of heroism she’d entertained, however briefly. She’s not meant to be the rescuing type– the most heroic Molly is likely to be is loaning Kelly from Literature 102 her notes on Paradise Lost, and even then, her notes aren’t particularly impressive.

Ava huffs and crosses the room–forest– to the bookshelves and Molly. Molly is a little appeased when Ava, too, is immediately soaked by the rain. Apparently being a wizard doesn’t exempt her from weather, even when that weather is magical.

“Of course you were,” Ava says, patting Molly’s arm in a way that might be meant to be soothing, but is actually a little condescending. “That’s how you’re made. Polite. An unthreatening, white, skinny, upper middle-class, educated American girl. Properly socialized to be dainty and unassuming while still clever enough to be interesting, but not too clever, not too interesting. The sort of person that people will listen to, will want to protect and comfort and make smile.”

Molly thinks that’s sort of oddly specific, and rather inappropriately blunt, but she’s mostly glad that Ava is back. She wishes she were skinny, or dainty, or, really, more than any of that, clever. There’s been a feeling something akin jealousy forming in her stomach since all of this began, since paint-covered Ava, odd and wildly impolite as she was, turned out to be this great and impressive thing. “Sure,” she says, mustering up a polite smile. “You’re soaked, Ava. Should I make us some tea?”

Ava smiles back, shrugging a shoulder. “If you want.” She loops an arm through Molly’s, leading the way to the distant doorway. The rain is no gentler this time, pounding furiously against them as they make for the other side of the room, and Molly wonders if maybe Ava makes it that way on purpose, if something about the wildness of the weather makes her feel quieter on the inside. It’s doing the opposite to Molly; she feels like someone has stirred her up and left her whirling.

“Where were you, anyways?” Molly asks, belatedly, when they’ve made their way down the hallway and into the kitchen. She strips off her wet cardigan and hangs it over a chair to dry, leaving her soaked sweats and shirt as-is for the moment– she doesn’t really want to stop to change entirely until she’s got the kettle on, and she’s going to have to mop the floors after all this anyways. She fills it methodically, clicking the whistling lid shut and settling it on the stovetop. She turns the handle, lets it click and light, a minute roar of blue flame billowing up under the kettle’s metal belly. She puts two bags of Barry’s Gold in the teapot on the counter– this one is hers, not one of Ava’s strange ones, and it’s covered in patterns of clover and flowers; it’s tidy, pretty.

Ava hums a little, shrugging one shoulder again. It’s less of a gesture of nonchalance, somehow, and more of a suggestion that she isn’t really sure. “Out,” she says easily. “Around. Doing stuff. Things.”

Molly is fairly certain that that doesn’t actually constitute an answer, but she doesn’t feel like she’s meant to pry, either. Ava has her own way of doing things, and she doesn’t like when Molly pushes. That is, after all, why there are condensation rings all over Molly’s antique coffee table– Ava’s way doesn’t involve coasters. Molly might be slightly bitter about that. Only a little bitter. Possibly intensely bitter. She has the sensation, sometimes, that, if everyone would just stop being irritating and infringing on her basic sense of order, she might actually get something interesting or meaningful to come out of her life. In lieu of that, though, she would really just be happy if people could start engaging in basic sorts of courtesy. People being, in particular, Ava.

The kettle whistles, and Molly loses herself in the simple ritual of making tea.

Ava watches, strangely alert, and Molly pretends to ignore it.

#

There’s a knock on the door after Molly and Ava’s second pot of tea has brewed, just as Molly is pouring it into their teacups. Ava’s is more of a mug, really, too big to be properly called a teacup, but Molly’s is a delicate china thing that matches the teapot, all scrawled over with frail depictions of flora. The knock is loud enough that her cup rattles a bit in its saucer.

“I’ll get it,” Ava says, covering her mouth to hide a yawn as she stretches and stands up. Her sweater is only half-dry at this point, and it smells like wet wool and something electric, not entirely unpleasant. Molly wonders if that’s the smell of magic and then rolls her eyes at herself.

Ava pads to the front door in damp sock feet, leaving little wet smudges across the hardwood that Molly will have to mop up later. She sets her mug down on the coffee table as she goes, completely missing all five coasters, and Molly cringes inwardly at the thought of yet another ring on the antique wood.

This time, when Ava swings the door open, the knight behind it crashes through without waiting for an invitation. He barrels into Ava, knocking her over, and makes straight for Molly.

Given that she’s never been attacked by a chainmail-clad man in her kitchen before, Molly is frozen for too long, entirely at a loss for what to do, and by the time she’s made up her mind to get up and have a very stern word with this man from a safe distance, the knight has flung the kitchen table aside, snatching Molly out of her chair and holding her in front of him like a shield. She watches with a removed sort of dismay as her teacup smashes into the hardwood floor and shatters. Less mild-mannered, indeed, she thinks numbly.

“Give me your artifact, sorceress!” the knight demands imperiously.

Ava is standing up, brushing herself off, looking for all the world like an annoyed cat. “There’s no call to be so rude about it, god. My women’s studies professor was totally right, men these days feel so entitled.” She scrunches up her nose. “It’s all about the patriarchy with you lot, isn’t it?”

“Um,” Molly says as the knight’s grip on her tightens quite uncomfortable. “If you could not make him angry, Ava, please–“

“Give me the artifact!” the knight roars, flinging Molly roughly in the direction of the smashed table and drawing his sword in one motion. Molly lands on the sad remains of her cup, a piece of porcelain slicing through the sleeve of her shirt and biting into her shoulder. It’s almost numb from the cold remains of the rain, but not as numb as Molly would like, really.

Ava huffs. “Well, see, you just had it, and then you went and chucked it away like a completely stupid teacup.” She waves her hand in his direction, presumably indicating his having thrown Molly, which is ridiculous, because Molly doesn’t have the artifact, all snooping aside.

“Teacup?” the knight repeats, momentarily stymied, brow furrowed, clearly trying to work out how a teacup might be defined as stupid.

“Teacup,” Ava repeats, waving her hand again. This time, the smell of wet wool is decidedly overpowered by the smell of electricity, and in the space of a blink, there is a teacup sitting on the floor where the knight had stood.

“Woah,” Molly says, completely without permission from her brain.

“Right?” Ava says, picking up the teacup– patterned, not with flowers, but with elegant little shields and silhouettes of horses– and holding it out for Molly. “I thought you might need a new one,” she says, more gently than she usually speaks.

Molly smiles and reaches out to take it, wincing as she jostles the cut on her shoulder.

Ava waves her hand over the cut and it knits itself together, pushing the chip of porcelain out painlessly as it goes. “Not too much damage,” she says, looking at the freshly made line of new, pink skin.

It’s the way she says damage that reminds Molly. “I don’t have the artifact, you know.”

“Of course you don’t,” Ava says, rolling her eyes as she helps Molly to her feet and brushes her off. “You are the artifact.”

Molly looks at Ava for a long moment, that statement echoing ominously a little bit before it sinks into Molly’s brain properly. “What?” she asks numbly. “What does that even mean?”

Ava pulls the thoroughly battered remnants of the kitchen table up into a standing position and flicks her fingers at them until they settle into a table-shape again and merge. The sight of more magic is distracting enough that it takes Molly a few extra seconds to digest it when Ava says, “It means I made you.”

When it does settle in, Molly shouts– actually shouts, which is almost unthinkable, and she’s embarrassed almost as soon as she’s done it– “You made me?” Ava didn’t make her, she has parents, and a childhood, and you don’t just make people, even if you are a wizard– unless, Molly supposes, it’s in the usual sort of nine-months-taking way, and even then, Ava is definitely not Molly’s mother, Molly’s biological mother was a teenage failure, and her adoptive mother was blonde, and dignified, and, yes, okay, a little aloof and distracted, but decidedly normal.

Ava looks honestly taken aback by Molly’s indignation, as though it had never crossed her mind that what she’d done was really, unbelievably terrible. “No, okay, see, it’s flattering, it’s not a bad thing,” Ava says, hands fluttering. “It’s like– it’s like you’re this totally perfect work of art. You’re this symbol–“

“I’m not a symbol, Ava, my god, I’m a person.”

Ava waves that off. “Sure. Well–okay, only kind of, but self-identity is a really important part of personal narrative and socialization, so I mean, I guess you can be a person if you want to?” She shrugs it off, as though Molly’s verisimilitude to personhood is of absolutely no consequence to her. “But, like, way more importantly, okay, you’re a symbol, a symbol of the cultural values in Western society at this exact point in time. It’s so much better than painting, right? Like, I made something that means something, I made this artifact that perfectly embodies the values of contemporary culture, which means it’s the perfect tool to be able to rule the world, you know? If you–“

Molly loses the rest of what Ava is saying as she thinks about what that means and why it can’t be true at all. She’s not thin enough, not smart enough, not rich or elegant or funny enough to be anyone’s idea of perfect, let alone someone capable of ruling the world. It’s ludicrous, and she says so.

“Well, okay, no,” Ava says, waving that off, too. “Part of being a symbol of Western culture is that you have to have the nuances of our society, like always thinking you’re too fat or your boobs aren’t big enough or something, you know? If you were content with who you were, you wouldn’t, like– you wouldn’t aspire to be anything more than what you are, which completely just shoots capitalist culture in the butt and would defeat the entire purpose altogether.”

Molly would really like to demand what the entire purpose could possibly be, but she doesn’t like this, doesn’t like conflict or uncertainty. She’s spent her entire life organizing her entire life– her books are alphabetized, her teas are in neatly labeled tins, her cups always go on coasters, damn it.

That’s what sets her off. It’s the coasters.

“Why?” she demands of Ava, pushing at her roommate’s shoulder in a depressingly futile sort of gesture. “Why on earth would you make me care about coasters? Why would you make something so small bother me so enormously? It makes me crazy,” she snaps, shoving again. “If I’m all these things that you say I am– and I’m not, it’s ridiculous, I have parents and I had a childhood, Ava, it’s not true, but if I were– wouldn’t I be trying to rule the world and everything, not looking at water rings and getting nauseous about them? Why would you ever do that to someone?”

Ava beams at her, entirely unabashed, proud of herself, even. “I didn’t,” she says simply. “Also, come on, you know you’re adopted. That paperwork isn’t exactly hard to magic up, you know?”

“What?” Molly asks, blinking owlishly at her, stumped for the moment. Not about being adopted– of course she knew she was adopted, her biological mother was a teenager who wasn’t prepared to be a mother and was failing out of high school as it was, which has always sort of contributed to Molly’s sense of innate inadequacy, but is beginning to make a new kind of (incredibly annoying) sense.

“I didn’t make you care about coasters,” Ava explains, not unkindly. “I made you focused, I made you organized, detail-oriented, but I didn’t– I didn’t have to make you care about coasters. You have this really, like, advanced sense of import. You think, hey, this thing is beautiful and it’s valuable and it’s mine, and if it has rings on it, it will be less beautiful to me, and less valuable to other people if I decide it’s not going to be mine anymore and want to sell it. And okay, I made you able to recognize value and determine logical courses of action and stuff, but like–“ she stops, putting her hands on Molly’s shoulders and squeezing a little in her excitement, and her eyes look old, and possibly a little wise as well as their usual manic. “But I didn’t do anything to determine what you thought was beautiful. Or what you want to do– the point wasn’t having you rule the world, okay, the point was that you could. You’re the one who decides what’s important to you, what’s yours.”

Molly thinks about her antique coffee tables, her walnut kitchen table, her lace curtains, her embroidered cushions, and thinks, a little more fiercely than she’s proud of, Mine.

Ava is grinning, and it’s part mad-scientist– which she sort of is, really, whatever she wants to call this whole wizard thing– but it’s also part proud parent. That doesn’t make Molly as angry as it should. She wonders if her passivity is another thing Ava made in her, or if it’s something, like her tables and her curtains, that’s just hers.

“What am I supposed to do now?” Molly asks, spreading her hands to illustrate the helplessness of the entire situation.

“Well, I mean, that’s– that’s kind of the point of the piece,” Ava says. Molly doesn’t even bother to point out that she isn’t a piece of art; Ava’s artistic mania is beyond reason, really. She’s clearly insane, but if this is all true, then there’s probably no helping it at this point. “Like, we’re all fashioned by our society’s values and the way we’re socialized by our parents and our friends and like, the public education system and the stuff we see in the media. I mean, yeah, I made you, but I didn’t really, like make you. We’re all made by our culture, man.” Her manic smile falters a little, just a little hitch, and Molly wonders, for a moment, what pressed on Ava so much that she needs to express this so badly, that she needed to manifest something that literally explained her feelings about the state of the world, even at the expense of ethics.

“What are you getting at?” Molly asks. She’s just tired now– she can’t help but think of the things that must have happened in all the years Ava has seen if she’s been around as long as she says she has, all the things she’s made and lost and hoped for, and how all of that somehow led to her being an incredibly immature art student and a megalomaniac and also someone that, despite all of that, Molly sort of likes, is sort of glad exists in her world.

“I’m getting at the fact that we’re all stuck with that,” Ava says, smile turning wry. “We’re all made by other people and their ideas of what we’re supposed to be and like, the collective presence of our society shaping us. We all know we have the potential to be brilliant artists or musicians or scientists or, say, take over the world, if we’d just get our shit together and get out from in front of the computer or the TV or stop worrying about what size pants we wear or whatever.” She uses her hold on Molly’s shoulder to tug on her a little, and Molly, despite her simmering irritation, goes with it, lets Ava pull her into a hug. It’s a little too tight, but Molly is sort of okay with it anyway. “I made you, but you aren’t any different. You have the same free will as anybody else in this culture does– you’re the same. You do what you want.”

Molly’s throat catches on a sob, a raw, visceral sound of relief, and she buries her head in Ava’s shoulder. The idea that maybe she’s more clever than she thinks she is, the idea that she could be something– not something that rules the world, that’s still unfathomably insane, but something that impresses people, impresses herself, moreover– it’s bigger and more consuming than the absurdity or the anger. She thinks, distractedly, that she’s going to change her major from business to something wildly impractical that people will frown on, like history or Russian literature or something.

“I mean, that was sort of the point, you know?” Ava adds, completely ruining the moment. “It’s awesome, it’s basically photorealism.”

Molly kicks Ava in the shin without pulling out of the embrace. “Shut up, you’re an idiot,” she mutters into Ava’s shoulder, voice thick with tears. She’d be embarrassed about all the snot she’s getting on Ava’s sweater, but, well, Ava apparently made Molly and her snot in the first place, so she can just reap what she’s sown as far as Molly is concerned. “You’re an idiot, and you’re going to start using coasters from now on. Idiot.”

“I am not,” Ava says, hugging Molly a little tighter, despite the petulance of her tone. “I’m totally a wizard.”

Dead Records Part 3

Part 1: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/03/dead-records-part-i-by-steven-savile-and-ryan-reid

Part 2: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/04/dead-records-part-2-by-steven-savile-and-ryan-reid

Dolgov accompanied me back to the surface, quizzing me the entire time about my plans for his girlfriend. It was hard to muster much enthusiasm for the job. I had very little experience in pop music, and yet if I failed to turn the siren into a star I would answer to Dolgov. Fuck, I’d even named my company Dead Records because if it failed that’s exactly what I’d be. I’m a prophet of my own doom. Hell, even if she succeeded wildly, I would still answer to Dolgov. Instead of merely borrowing money with the intention of paying him back, I had somehow been coerced into a lifetime of servitude.

Dimitri seemed to harbor no ill will towards me for what I’d done to his Jag, but he wasn’t exactly my best mate either. We drove in silence back to my flat, rather than the room in the sleazy B&B I’d hired when I was trying to hide from him. Later that night, I drove, also in silence, along the M20 out to Dover and through the Chunnel. They didn’t catch me until Bourges.

What can I say? Once I set my mind on something–especially something important like staying alive–I’m nothing if not stubbornly, predictably persistent.

When I was returned to Rainmaker studios there was a young woman waiting for me. She was tall, but rail slim, with the body of a young boy. Not literally, obviously, she hadn’t killed a young boy. Well she might have, but if she had, he wasn’t with her. Can you tell I was getting a bit jumpy? Look, I’ll be honest, I was expecting Ice T to jump out and shout, “Bodycount’s in the house!” it was just that kind of day. Her hair was dark, and swept back in a pixie-cut. She wore a push up bra to flaunt what she had, which obviously I’m all for, and a tank top that showcased a spectacularly flat stomach, we’re talking ripped… and a pierced navel. I’ve got a thing about piercings. All piercings, everywhere, the more intimate the better. Her jeans were tight enough to clearly outline another piercing. I approved.

I assumed she was there to set up the studio for the siren. Either that, or Dolgov had sent me a present to soften me up.

“My name is Aurelia von Trappenstein,” she said nervously, holding out a hand for me to shake.

“God, that’s a mouthful, isn’t it?” I said. Some of my bruises hadn’t yet healed and if I held my head a certain way I could hear a phone ringing. I was in no mood to be charming. You could argue that’s my default setting. I like to think I have a certain irresistible something, but in truth the only thing that’s ever been irresistible about me has been the male pattern baldness creeping in. And that’s not a good look around a pretty woman. “When does your boss get here?”

She blinked. “My boss?”

A terrible thought occurred to me. “No. No, no no no no. You’re not…” I looked closer. The makeup she’d applied was stunning, but under it her eyes were still set too far apart. “You’re the siren?”

“My name is Aurelia,” she said with a smile that I was grateful to discover was not filled with razor-sharp teeth. Either she’d had them capped or had gone in for the same kind of radical surgery enjoyed by Martine.

“Okay then,” I said rubbing my temple.

Dolgov had spent lavishly on the studio–the best suite Rainmaker had to offer, which just so happened to be the same one I’d booked, trying to impress the Fortunate Fridays–he’d even gone so far as to hire me an assistant. Harvey was a portly Londoner with perpetually rosy cheeks who wore vests that were color-coordinated with his socks. I knew he was spying on me for Dolgov, but I didn’t care, I had an assistant. I was going up in the world.

I hit the intercom switch on the wall. “Harvey, bring us some coffee.” I stepped away from the switch, but then stepped back. “And some water for Little Miss Muffet here.” I turned back towards her. “We need to see what you can do.”

I sent her into the live room and sat down in front of the soundboard.

She took a seat on a tall stool in the center of the room and put on the headphones that hung from a nearby microphone stand. I observed her through the glass partition. She was sitting in the same spot where only a few weeks before, the Fortunate Fridays had met their end. Frankie Dubont, Edgar Morton, and Chuck LeChance. I tapped on the soundboard, adjusting the treble absently. Their settings were still programmed into the board.

“Mr. Reardon?” said Aurelia from the live room.

I noticed a rust colored spot on the edge of the board and probed it with a fingernail. The bastards had renovated the whole studio, but they’d missed this one spot of blood. I licked my finger and rubbed at it. It wouldn’t come off.

“Marcus?”

I looked up. “What?” I asked a little too sharply.

She was a fragile little thing, knees pressed together as she sat on the stool. “You’re crying.”

I blinked and then wiped my cheeks with my sleeve. It came away wet. Damn. I stood, meaning to leave the studio, but realized that I’d turned the wrong way and was now looking at a poster of Ozzie screaming into a microphone in an otherwise empty corner. Feeling like an idiot I stood there, hands on my hips, looking at the ceiling and kicking my own arse for not being able to get a grip.

After a while I felt a hand on my arm. It was Aurelia. She said nothing.

“Yeah, well, right,” I said gruffly. “Break time’s over, isn’t it? Let’s get to work.”

I suggested she try something a cappella first, so that I could get a true gage of her talent.

“Okay. I’ll try something upbeat then?”

I tapped the intercom. “Hit me with your best shot,” I said, not meaning the Pat Benatar song.

She closed her eyes and began with a low hum that rose like the sun over the ocean. She swayed slightly in her seat and then sang a single crystal clear note which quickly dipped into lyrics–

“–Wait, wait,” I said, cutting her off. “Are you…are you singing about cannibalism?”

She leaned into the microphone to speak, not knowing that I could hear everything in the room through the soundboard. “I thought you wanted something uplifting.”

Of course. She was a siren. Luring men to their deaths and all that. I supposed they sang when they ate. “Okay. I’m not sure it’ll get past the censors at the BBC, so we’d better try something a little less different.”

The tune was good…great actually. It had a martial feel to it and the lust the sirens must have felt as they devoured their prey was apparent in the melody. It was catchy. Okay, that’s a bad pun. But you know what I mean. I sent her home for the day while I worked on something about stealing another woman’s boyfriend, which fit the original lyrics in a figurative sense.

I sent Harvey out to pick up a new wardrobe for Aurelia. Unsurprisingly he’d been able to guess her measurements just by looking at her. Us men have a talent for things like that. Some say they have a head for numbers, but what they really mean is 34-26-36 is their idea of a Fibonacci sequence.

She looked disappointed when I had her dress the next day. “What was wrong with my old clothes? I thought sex sold? Isn’t that what they say?”

“Not always,” I said guardedly.

“It works for Martine.”

“Yeah, but she’s–,” I made an hourglass shape with my hands, coming over all Fibonacci on her. “And you’re–” This time it was just a slash. “Trust me, we’ll go way further if you dress a little funkier.”

She looked down at herself, and then at the handheld mirror that Harvey had set on his desk for the occasion. Of course she had to adjust the angle, because he’d set it for his own delectation. She wore a white blouse, with a rakish number of buttons undone, a grey plaid skirt and a thin-brimmed fedora. She looked a corrupted schoolgirl, which was exactly the look I had in mind for her. I may have a slight fetish, so sue me. “I guess I could get used to this.”

“One more thing. Aurelia von Trappenstein is dead. It was a sad tragic death, obviously, much gnashing of teeth and wailing from all concerned. If you want we can have a little funeral for her or a burial at sea, lift a glass in her honor. From now on, you’re simply “Aura”. No last name. Especially not that one.”

To the girl’s credit, she had chops. A few days into rehearsal and I was convinced she was the most talented singer I’d ever worked with. After the first week I thought she might be the most talented in the UK. I was convinced that anyone who listened to her demo would book her straight away. She’d be in Wembley by the end of the month. Over-enthusiasm, however, is the bane of the record producer. We’re a little like lawyers who convince themselves that our clients, who have been caught with a victim’s severed head in their refrigerators, are completely innocent. We need to believe in our acts in order to put in the hours we do, but sometimes that gets flipped on its head and we start believing in them because of the hours we put into them.

I had to see if anyone else believed in Aura before I sent out her demo.

However, we had one shot at building her career, and I knew it. If I sent out something that wasn’t absolutely top shelf, her next demo reel would be filed in the dustbin. I used my connections to land Aura a gig at a local place called the Broken Doll that had a reputation for being both totally disgusting, and also a crucible for new talent. Initially, it had been home to mostly punk bands, but as its reputation increased, so did the breadth of the acts who played there. Now they hosted ska, indie music, trance, and even a little hip-hop. Aura’s brand of pop music was pushing it for them, but they were willing to give us a shot. Palms were greased and I was grateful. Me being grateful meant Yevgeny was grateful.

There were always a few promoters sitting in its dingy booths, and more than one band who now filled stadiums had had their start there.

We arrived well before our set, me in the front of the Jetta with Aura in the passenger seat and Harvey in the rear with some of our equipment. The rest would be arriving shortly in a lorry, along with our backup band. After the disaster with the Fortunate Fridays, it seemed that word had circulated in the music community that my studio was cursed and I’d had difficulty wrangling fresh the talent. In the end, I’d turned to Dolgov. That meant that I’d probably have three very skilled, but terrified–or conversely terrifying–musicians on my hands.

The alley was littered with refuse and discarded drug paraphernalia. A trickle of something dark and blood-like ran down its center from a low budget butcher shop across the way. The single perk in the hard-fought contract I’d negotiated with management at the Broken Doll was a parking spot for me and another for our truck, so I parked next to a black sports car which I assumed belonged to the owner. At least it wasn’t Dimitri’s Jag.

Despite her small stature and the looks given her by some of the transients who’d clustered near a green dumpster a few meters away, Aura seemed unconcerned. I supposed that when your diet consists mostly of enchanted sailors, hard-lived men don’t frighten you much.

Quite a few clients sat at the tables in the Broken Doll even at this early hour. Outside, it was a bright, cloudless day, but inside, the place was dark. And dank. Dark and dank. Perfect for a gig. Dark, dank and sweaty were an A&R man’s dream combo. Large windows, a relic from when the bar had been a storefront in a shopping mall, were blacked out and the only light came from wooden chandeliers in the ceiling. Each was scratched many times over and home to ancient, candle-shaped light bulbs. I wondered how often a drunken patron had injured themselves by swinging on them.

Booths lined one wall, brown leather that was cracked from years of being soaked by spilt beer. The bar on the other side of the great room was a solid oak fortress, with very few breakable glasses or bottles on display. In the very darkest corner of the bar was our stage.

Aura hesitated when she saw it. A plain wooden step that was home to a dozen orange extension cords that had been left where the last band had dropped them while unplugging their equipment, it was separated from the bar by a floor-to-ceiling chicken-wire fence.

“It’s to protect you against bottles, won’t help with the bodily fluids I’m afraid,” I said. “Perk of the job.”

I’d burned through most of my cell phone battery earlier that day trying to let every promoter who would return my calls know about the concert, and now I took to Twitter to try and drum up more interest while we waited. By the time the battery flashed red and the screen winked out I was ready to throw the phone against a wall. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get the word out about a new band. Believe me, it’s like advertizing yourself thus: old, wrinkled diseased hooker looking for sucker. No one’s coming.

The evening clientele began to filter with the setting sun, and thankfully I recognized a few. Among them was Rick Casterly, a promoter for a company called Performance Edge that had been known to fill a few stadiums. A blond swede, though you couldn’t tell it from his Yorkshire accent, he wore a grey suit and pink shirt, topped by a grey fedora. Fedora’s it seemed were all the rage. It was a faux pas to dress too well in such a poor neighborhood–the Broken Doll was the kind of bar you wore your worst clothes to–but Rick thought he was above all that.  Normally aloof, he and I had attended the same technical college, and though we were a year apart, me on the way down, him on the way up, talk about the old college days was always a good ice breaker.

“Slumming again, Casterly?” I asked as slid into the booth next to him. A waitress glanced at me from a couple of tables over and I signaled her to bring us two of whatever Rick was drinking.

“Marcus, old boy,” he said with a laugh. He had an excessively deep, booming voice, and patrons a few table over looked up when he spoke. “I thought you’d died.”

“What, of a heart-attack? I’m only thirty-seven.” I said, faking offense.

“Yes, well, that business with your band made the papers, and then there was word that you’d disappeared…Two and two and all that. Nice to see you’re still breathing.”

“I’ve been grooming a new act,” I said, neatly avoiding the implied question about the fate of the Fortunate Fridays. “A phenom out of…” I realized I knew virtually nothing about my young protégée except that in a former life she’d lured sailing vessels to their doom. “…Dover.”

He interlaced his fingers and raised an eyebrow. “The plot thickens. So…I’m assuming that you’ve gotten it into your head that she’s the kind of phenom I might want in my stable?”

I decided to play it cool. “Well, you or Polanski. I thought I saw his Aston Martin turn into a parking garage as I drove up.”

The waitress clinked our drinks on the table and I tossed her a few crumpled bills. This was likely the last time we’d see her all night. The bar got busy enough that it was rare for a server to make it all the way to the booth without an order.

“Nice try,” said Rick over the rim of his pint. “Red Sky went under six months ago, and Polanski went with it. Last I heard, his car had been impounded and he was day-laboring for pennies in Lewisham. It’s a new world out there.”

I took a drink and let the amber liquid swirl in my mouth. A pale ale, it tasted a little too much like the keg it came in for my liking. “Yeah, well, this girl is a phenom. Have you ever known me to exaggerate?”

“You’ve got more tall tales in you than Beatrix bloody Potter. But keep paying for the drinks. Maybe we’ll discover that I can be bought with watered down beer and false promises. I’m notoriously cheap.”

Despite the joke, I knew that Rick would be a hard nut to crack, especially if things were as difficult out there as he suggested. Promoters like him are basically cowards who’d rather book a band on the tail end of their fifteen minutes than risk a few quid on an unknown. Aura wasn’t in competition with Martine in Rick’s eyes, not yet in any case. She was in competition with the Air Supplies, the REO Speedwagons, Asia’s and every other 80s band who might fill a casino lounge. In my heart of hearts, I knew she’d surprise him. She had to. Her career was on the line, and me, well, knowing Dolgov, my life was right there with it. It’s not good being on the line. Lines don’t have sides so you can’t pick one. Me, I’ve survived this long by picking sides right about the time it’s become obvious which one is winning.

Rick was only three beers in when sound check finished and the band’s female bassist had begun to strum a war cry. I noticed when the drum came in that the whole band was female. Women who could play were a rare enough thing in rock and roll that an all-female band had to be Dolgov’s idea of a marketing gimmick. I could work with it, I supposed, given the whole sweaty-palmed young horny male demographic we were looking at tapping into.

Right on cue, Aura burst out of the backroom and onto that chicken wire stage like it was the Albert Hall. She’d spent time on her makeup, and it looked as if she was wearing glittering pink Braveheart war-paint. She clenched her fist and bent over like she’d been punched in the gut as she sang her first notes, and we were all right there with her, taking that punch in the gut. Her voice was chocolate on velvet and she could howl like Florence with or without her Machine.

This was the complete package.

A few minutes in and Rick’s beer halted in mid-sip.

The bar fell silent.

And I mean eerily silent.

Silent like bars aren’t meant to be.

Even the bartender, normally under assault, had turned towards the stage.

We sat in that scuzzy bar on the wrong side of town, and it was like we were listening to a symphony at the Barbican but it was all coming out of one girl’s mouth. Every single man in that room was in love. No one made a sound. No hoots. No hollers. After a while, I began to realize the silence was more than just eerie. It was positively creepy. I turned my attention away from the stage. No one in the audience was moving. Rick’s beer slid a little in his grip, clinked onto the table, and then overturned. Beer spread in a pool, soaking our napkins, and then began dripping onto his lap. Still no movement.

“Uh, Rick?” I asked, entirely too quietly to be heard over Aura’s singing. “I think you spilled your beer.”

I reached out and shook his hand, which was still suspended mid-way between the table and his mouth. No reaction.

Suddenly, a woman at a neighboring table shouted obscenities and stood up, emptying her drink over her drinking companion’s head. A waitress shoved a customer too enraptured by the song to pay for his drinks. The women in the crowd were unaffected. It was just the men who were frozen. I began to feel real fear. Never trust a fucking siren. She was singing these guys to their dooms. I did not want to find out what would happen when she stopped.

I rose and darted into the back hallway towards the backstage door.

A deadbolt hung from a bolt screwed to the wood. My guess was that it had been locked by management of the Broken Doll to prevent the band from doing a short set. They’d paid for forty minutes and this was their way of making sure they got them.

I grabbed a fire extinguisher from the wall nearby and brought it down on the lock.

Apparently, the lock was solid steel, but the door was plywood and cardboard. The blow ripped out the bolt assembly by its screws and it clattered onto the ground. I stared in shock for a few moments, and then kicked it out of the way, dropping the fire extinguisher on a sofa that occupied nearly half the hallway.

I must have burst onto the stage like a rock star.

No rapturous applause though, so that kinda shattered the illusion.

I was immediately blinded by the stage lights. The audience wasn’t more than a dark smear I could barely see through the chicken wire. Aura danced ahead of me, belting a seductive song into her microphone as she ground her hips into the leg of an imaginary dance partner. She was twerping or tweaking or whatever the kids called it these days. She couldn’t see what was happening to the audience. What would they do when the song stopped? Would they rush the stage? Until yesterday, the only time I’d heard a siren was just before I let an ambulance pass me. Vampire hit men, singing succubae, pop star sirens? This was new to me.

None of the other band members seemed to be aware of what was unfolding in the bar beyond. I saw now that Dolgov’s decision to employ an all-female backing band was no marketing gimmick–they were immune to the siren’s charm. He just hadn’t thought of–or hadn’t cared about–what would happen to the audience.

I tried to signal the guitarist, the only one who was even partially turned my way. A tall blonde with the physique of a praying mantis, she wore a folded up British flag around her forehead to hold back her hair. She nodded when I waved, then performed a little flourish with her guitar. Musicians.

I could now see movement in the dark blur beyond us. A lot of movement. I shielded my eyes and stepped into the shadow of an amp. Bar patrons were taking to their feet, accidentally upending tables in their carelessness. Their arms were at their sides and they stared at Aura with cold, dead eyes. As my vision adjusted to the dark, I could see a waitress at the bar, panicking into a phone. Great. How long until the cops arrived?

I saw movement a few feet away. A muscular college kid with a military haircut shambled up to the stage. His fingers hooked the chicken wire and squeezed, stretching the metal. Maybe the cops wouldn’t arrive soon enough.

“Fuck it,” I said to myself. I took two steps forward and caught Aura’s arm. A true professional, she continued to sing, even as she gave me a startled glance. Several more patrons grabbed the chicken wire and I argued in a well-reasoned whisper that now was the time to gracefully exit stage right. “We’re leaving!”

Behind me the guitar cut out abruptly. The bass quickly followed. The drummer, God bless her, thought that was her cue to start a solo and continued playing even as we left. Again, I say, musicians.

We burst into the hallway with all the enthusiasm Aura had mustered bursting onto the stage. To our right lay the door to the alley and our likely salvation. Across from us were a pair of dressing rooms, cunningly placed next to the bathroom where waiting musicians were sure to be inspired by the smell of stale piss and vomit. To our left was the scariest thing I have encountered in all my thirty seven years, and I’ve twice been an in-patient at one of the more… ahh… backward thinking infirmaries. Thirty or forty men stood at the end of the hallway, arms at their sides, some with stains on their clothes from where they’d spilled their drinks. There was no life in their eyes at all. It was like they’d gone elsewhere and left their bodies behind them. A man somewhere in the back said Aura’s name in a cold deadpan, and it was repeated several times. Soon, the entire crowd was saying it, but not at any shared pitch or volume, so that the sound dissolved into an unintelligible drone.

I looked back to my right. It might have been the longest hallway in London. Hadrian’s Wall had nothing on that hall. I estimated we might be able to traverse half its length before the crowd caught up to us. Maybe less.

“What do you usually do now?” I asked Aura.

She licked her lips.

“I’m a siren. I lure men to their deaths. What do you think I do?” She said sweetly. She looked at the floor, then back at me. To her credit, she actually looked embarrassed. “I eat them.”

I was tempted to ask her to do just that, except that she no longer had any teeth, and without them I wasn’t really sure she’d do much better than I would.

Like a flock of birds taking to the air for no particular reason, the crowd began to advance on us. A shadow had fallen over their eyes, and a small flame burned in the very depths of that shadow. As the flame grew, their faces twisted into a mixture of lust and hatred.

I shoved Aura into the room across from us and caught the guitarist’s arm, dragging her behind us. The bassist, a small woman with rosebud lips and purple contacts named Marnie that I’d seen play with a few local bands followed close behind. The drummer was nowhere in sight. Still on stage, presumably. Good for her, a pro right to the last.

We’d accidentally chosen the larger of the two dressing rooms, and not the one the Broken Doll had reserved for us. There was a door stop on the floor nearby, but instead of putting it under the door, I thrust it into the frame, just above the bottom hinge.

“You,” I barked at the guitarist once it was firmly embedded.

“Alice.”

“Whatever. Help me with this sofa.” I took one end and she took the other one. I thought I’d have to do much of the lifting since she was skinny enough that could count her ribs through the fabric of her yellow t-shirt, but she surprised me and we managed to put what we soon discovered was a hide-a-bed in front of the door in record time. Marnie, the bassist, assisted as best as she could by moving the end table and plugging the lamp atop it into a different outlet, so that it was once again next to the hide-a-bed. Not on top of. Beside.

“You’re high aren’t you?” I asked, matter-of-factly. She giggled and adjusted the lampshade, answering my question for me.

Whatever magic lay in Aura’s voice hadn’t entirely robbed the crowd of its senses. They tried the handle before thumping on the door. I watched the door stop shudder in the frame with a peculiar kind of dread. I’d always dreamed of being hustled into a limousine just ahead of a screaming crowd, but I imagined the evening ending in toasted champagne and half-naked girls in my flat, not my mutilated corpse in some anonymous dressing room in a shithole like the Doll.

“What’s wrong with them?” asked Alice.

Aura and I looked at each other. Neither one of us wanted to explain the whole mythical creature from under the sea thing. “They’re…just…fans,” I offered lamely.

“Jesus, Eileen’s out there,” she said suddenly, referring to the drummer, I assumed.

“She’ll be fine,” said Aura quietly. “They only want me.”

Alice stared at her as if to judge whether the comment was egoism or fact. Evidently, she decided on the later. “Well then, I vote we toss you into the hall and make like a shepherd.”

“Huh?” I said, eloquently.

“Get the flock out of here.” I liked that. I had to remember that line. “Marnie’s with me, aren’t you Marnie?”

The diminutive bassist gave a dazed nod from her place on the sofa. The door banged as something heavy slammed into it, and she turned to scowl at it as if she’d just realized it was there.

“You’re a real hero, aren’t you?” I asked. It wasn’t exactly an accusation, I mean, who was I to talk?

“I get paid a hundred quid a show. I’d need,” she considered carefully, “at least double that to risk my life against that crowd.”

I considered pulling out my wallet and handing her a wad of twenties, but things were tense enough as they were. Plus it’d look pretty shit if I came up a tenner short. I didn’t want to look cheap. Instead, I turned my attention to the rest of the room. The walls were ugly green, and full of bumps and cracks from where damage to the drywall had been painted over. A few signed posters were taped to the wall, almost certainly left there by the bands themselves rather than management. Furniture was sparse. A brownish square of dirt and discarded cigarette butts marked the place where the sofa had once sat, across from which stood an ancient wooden vanity. Its mirror was cracked on the lower right edge, and initials were scratched onto its surface.

A fan in an aluminum block embedded in the wall beat the air, mixing humid London air with the relative coolness inside the building. It was large for the room–I’d often seen the door of this dressing room left open during the summer to circulate the air. Maybe we could somehow pry it out of the wall and escape that way. Unfortunately, it was housed in an exterior wall which looked like it was made of painted cinder blocks.

Even if we could find something to bash it with, as I had done to open the stage door with the fire extinguisher, I doubted we could do more than dent it.

“Does anyone have a screwdriver?” I asked, eyeing the screws.

“Why?” asked Aura.

“Oh, I don’t know, to save our asses,” I said, perhaps a little too quickly. Looking hurt, she retreated. I felt guilty. I was about to apologize when an idea struck me out of the blue. “Does anyone have a cellphone? Mine’s dead.”

Alice shook her head. “I left mine in the dressing room.” I must have shot her a dark look because she patted her hips. “No pockets.”

“I’ve got one!” shouted Marnie gleefully.

“Dial the cops,” I told her.

The door shook again, and the tip of the door jamb snapped off. The door opened, and a few fingers appeared in the crack. The hide-a-bed began to slide, taking Marnie with it. I grabbed Aura by the arm and pushed her behind me, and then scanned the room for a weapon. Out of desperation, I picked up the chair that sat in front of the vanity and held it in front of me like a lion tamer. I was never a fighter, but I was damned if I wasn’t going down swinging.

“Marcus,” said Aura. “I’ve got an idea.”

“I’m open to anything,” I said, not taking my eyes off the door. Alice had retreated into a corner of the room, taking Marnie with her. We had minutes at best. Probably seconds.

“We can get out through the fan,” she said.

“I already thought of that, but there’s no way of getting it out of the wall.”

I heard the horrible screech of twisting metal behind me and then a crumpled ball of aluminum bounced past me. It landed awkwardly, began to tilt, and then settled on its side. It was the fan. I lowered the chair and turned around in shock.

Aura stood in front of a fan-sized hole in the wall. Cinderblock dust hung in the air and the back of my throat tickled but I was too much in shock to cough. “That was…impressive.”

She patted dust off her sleeve and looked up. “I’m not a little wallflower, Marcus. How do you think I killed those sailors once I stopped singing?” She rolled her eyes as if to say ‘men’. Of course, she’d have to be strong enough to overwhelm her prey–even if her voice managed to lure several sailors at once–but it was intimidating and scary to know just how strong she really was. She looked up at her two remaining band members. “Come on!”

Marnie started towards us, but Alice caught her by the shoulder and pushed her back into the corner, eliciting a frown from the bassist. “I think we’re safer here.”

She was probably right. All this time I thought I’d been protecting Aura from the mob, but I’d actually been protecting the mob from Aura. Even with her teeth surgically removed, she could likely go toe-to-toe with a bunch of barflies. That would however, result in a lot of bloodshed, and aside from the fact that I knew and liked some of these guys–Rick Casterly among them–a massacre was a hell of a way to end a singing career.

“Okay, let’s go.” I set the chair down under the opening and stood on it. Inside the shaft, I was confronted by a dark square that glowed at its edges. Was it blocked? I retrieved my keychain from my pocket, clicked the top of the penlight that hung from it, and shone it down the shaft. I could see part of an anthropomorphic drop of blood and a giant letter F. “Fast Chem”. One of the two parking spaces the Broken Doll had allocated to us was right outside this room, and because I’d parked next to the owner, the girls had parked the truck–full of all their gear–here. “We have a problem.”

“I got it,” said Aura. She jumped on the chair as I got off and thrust her shoulders into the vent. I had no idea what she planned to do, but I had bigger concerns. One of the legs of the hide-a-bed had caught in a groove in the floor, but the whole thing was creaking and snapping under the weight of repeated assaults on the door.

We weren’t going to be keeping the angry mob out much longer.

For a moment I debated getting a running start and just throwing my full weight at the door, but the fingers and arms that had thrust their way through belonged to people who didn’t know what they were doing.

The steady drone of “Aura”s grated on my nerves.

I turned on Alice. “Can you at least…?” I indicated the couch, and we put our shoulders into it, struggling to push it back into place. I’d worn loafers to the gig and now regretted it. The flat leather soles offered no purchase and I scrambled against the sofa.

I heard rhythmic banging behind me. Aura had hopped off the chair and wedged her tiny body into the fan-hole. She couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds soaking wet, but it was still an incredibly tight fit. She braced her feet against one of the walls and held on tightly to the edge of the opening with one hand. Grinding her teeth together, she pushed out with the other one. Metal screamed and then something huge hit the outside of the wall. Had she actually managed to overturn a box truck with one hand? I didn’t even want to think about it.

“The metal gave way,” she cursed. Of course. Physics. The bane of the fantastically strong. Instead of pushing on the side of the vehicle to overturn it, she’d accidentally punched a hole in the flimsy aluminum box and the truck had collapsed back into the building. She shifted her weight. “I’m going to try again. I think I can catch the corner of the box.”

“Don’t…hurry…on…my…account,” I grunted.

I kicked off my shoes and adjusted my position. The drone of “Aura”s had reached an almost frantic pitch now. Couldn’t the bastards understand that I was protecting them all from a gruesome death? For once in my life I was the good guy for all the good it was going to do me. Death by devoted fan. If it was good enough for John Lennon it should have been good enough for a two-bit producer like me, right? Well, no actually, wrong. Death by anything that didn’t involve being incredibly old with the puckered lips of two beautiful teenage girls wrapped around my junk wasn’t good enough for me thank you very much.

Despite our best efforts, the hide-a-bed slowly slid across the floor, taking us with it.

The drone swelled in triumph and a man in brown pants and a plaid shirt jumped over me, nearly stomping on me in his haste. Another followed and another. Out of stupid, foolish, idiotic desperation, I caught at a pant leg. I was rewarded by a boot to the face. Pain flashed through me and I released my grip. I felt my face, and my hand came away dirty but not bloody. More men poured into the room, tripping themselves on the hide-a-bed, and ripping the cord of Marnie’s desk lamp out of the wall. I heard a crash as the vanity was overturned, but I could see hardly anything between the press of bodies.

I scrambled to my feet before I could be crushed. The man in front of me was easily a head taller than me and had a mop of greasy black hair in which tiny white balls were suspended. I hoped for dandruff but guessed from his general lack of hygiene that it was lice. I tried to push my way around him, but then the mob shifted and he fell backwards towards me. The man behind me, desperate to get to Aura, pushed forward and the wind was driven out of me–hard. Worse, that gross, disgusting mop of hair pressed itself into my lower lip and I got a proper mouthful of it as I spluttered and tried to spit it out. When the crowd shifted again, I shoved him away and tried a different angle of attack. The mass of humanity was endless and it stunk like sweat and piss.

I still couldn’t see Aura.

I called out to her.

My call was echoed a thousand times from every direction.

She wouldn’t be able to hear me through the shouting of the crowd.

Everyone seemed to be facing one direction, but I couldn’t see the back of the room. I needed to get closer to her. I needed to see her. I needed to make sure she was safe, safe from everything. That damned chanting was getting to me, beating its way into my skull, Aura, Aura, Aura. I needed to see her. If I could just see her, just get close to her it would all be alright.

I started elbowing my way through the crowd, yelling out her name over and over, clawing my way past the men in the crowd.

A hand lanced out of the crowd and I was pulled towards the wall. I couldn’t take my eyes off the back of the room. Was that a shaft of light? Had Aura escaped through the fan-hole? It occurred to me that she might have left me behind.

An indistinct face lined with blonde hair loomed in my vision.

Whoever this was, they needed to know about Aura and I shouted her name in their face.

I started to turn back towards where Aura was when the figure kicked out. I felt the impact hard between my legs and I was pretty sure that I heard something pop. It was a sound I hope I never hear again as long as I live. Even thinking about it now brings tears to my eyes. My legs gave out. For a couple of seconds I lay curled on the floor. I wanted to yell but no sound came. Finally, the pain dulled to a manageable level and I was able to un-cup my bollocks.

Hands helped me to my feet.

“Are you okay?” It was Alice. She slapped me hard across the jaw. “Snap out of it!”

At first I could only grunt. After a moment: “I’m fine. Thank you.” And that was the only time in my life when I’ve ever thanked a woman for kicking me in the nuts.

I could feel the spell of the crowd begin to slip back over me. “Is she okay?” I asked.

“Don’t say her name.” Alice looked up. Slightly shorter than I was, there was no way she could see over the crowd. “She got away. Our turn now. Can you walk?”

I took a step and though I wasn’t going to run any marathons, I could probably make it to the car.

The crowd had become more docile, and we were able to wend our way through them like rats in a maze. By the time we made the hallway, the crowd had begun to lose interest and disperse. Either Aura had gotten away or it had simply been long enough after the end of the song for the spell to lose its effect. I wasn’t bothered either way. Whatever the reason, the mob was growing less angry and more confused by the second.

The scene in the alley was chaos.

Streetlights painted the scene in nitrogen orange and a light rain missed the ground. The Fast Chem truck was tilted to an obscene angle and somewhere underneath, crushed into a pancake of cheap steel and German engineering, lay my Jetta. Two police vehicles blocked the entrance to the parking lot, and I could see another one at the entrance to the alley. Dazed Doll patrons squinted at their surroundings as if trying to figure out how they’d ended up in the alley. At least one fight had broken out, and a shouting match was slowly transforming into another one.

Aura was gone.

I found Rick Casterly giving a statement to an officer in a neon yellow raincoat. He looked up at me, said something to the officer, and then came over. His fancy grey suit was in disarray and he was missing several button from his shirt. “Bloody hell, Reardon, you said she was a phenom, but seriously, mate…”

Seriously indeed. What was Dolgov going to say? This would make the news for sure. Aura’s career was over before it had really begun, and there are no second chances in this business. I searched for some way to spin this, some way to salvage the situation, but I drew a blank. “It’s such a shame because,” I said, “this business aside, she really is a talented singer.”

“Talented?” boomed the big Swede. “I couldn’t get enough of her. Where have you been hiding her you fucking wanker? I have to have her. End of.”

I was speechless. Then it struck me. Couldn’t get enough of her. Of course. Her voice was like a drug, and not a healthy one. It left its abuser with cravings long after the high had worn off. “I…wanted her to come out of nowhere. Cause a storm.”

“Well, you’ve certainly done that, haven’t you? A debut at the Broken Doll. That’s a cunning trick, isn’t it? Last place you’d expect to discover a half-decent singer never mind a fucking superstar.” He separated me from a still stunned Alice with one arm and walked me over to a quiet spot next to the Broken Doll’s exterior wall. Ironically, we weren’t more than a few feet away from the hole Aura used to make good her escape. “Look,” he continued, putting on his best weren’t-the-old-days-awesome smile for my benefit, “I’m looking for a new band to open for another act–I can’t say who, but it’s big, really big. I think Aura is perfect for it.” He slid his card into my shirt pocket and backed away. “Call me tomorrow, ya?”

I took the card out. “I already have your number, don’t I?”

“This one’s better,” he called over his shoulder. “This is the magic number.”

I looked at the card, mildly annoyed that he’d given me the wrong number in the first place. There was no name on the business card, just a phone number and a clip art palm tree. I supposed that made sense. If you found the card and you didn’t have the name to go with it, they simply hung up on you on the other end.

“You’re not seriously going to call him, are you?” Alice looked at me with something like disgust. “You want to go through this again with a larger crowd?”

It took me a long time to answer the question.

The edges of the card felt so new and crisp. Almost sharp, even though it was rapidly getting wet in the rain. The ink shone faintly in the orange light of the overhead street lamps. “No.” I put the business card back in my pocket. It felt warm against my chest. “No. I guess I don’t.”

But I did.

I wanted nothing more in this life, not even a rimming from Britney.

I paid the band the double that Alice had told me her life was worth and put them in a cab, seeing as how our truck was ruined.

There was some business with the police, statements to give, and of course, it was my Jetta under the truck. I gave them my information, promised not to talk to the press until their investigation was complete, and then immediately made a beeline for the barricades at the end of the alley. A dozen reporters awaited, some with microphones, others with cameras. I told them absolutely everything. You could play bingo with the number of times I dropped Aura’s name.

The problem was that I didn’t know where to find her.

I circled the block a few times, checking storefronts. A local pizza-by-the-slice place was full, but she was not amongst its clientele. It was nearly midnight before I abandoned my search. All I could do was hope that she’d hopped a cab and gone home.

Knight of Flame by Scott Eder Reviewed by Kristin Luna

Knight of Flame by Scott Eder

Reviewed by Kristin Luna

E-book, ASIN: B00F7SXQ8I

Twilight Times Books, September 14, 2013 – 355 pages. Also available in paperback.

If Hollywood had asked comic book giant Mike Mignola to write an action movie in the 80’s, Knight of Flame would be that movie.

The Book

Develor Quinteele needs an anger management class. Or seven. But when you draw your power from fire, holding your temper isn’t exactly what you’re known for. Chill out? Impossible for Dev, or he would literally die. All the rage and fire keeps this Ron Perlman-esque man alive. The Knights Elementalis took him in centuries ago and helped him wield his power, but it soon becomes clear that Dev cannot control the fire within.

When a deadly force comes for Develor Quinteele and his cute-like-a-little-sister sidekick Wren at Club Mastodon in Tampa, Florida, Dev realizes that the Gray Lord, The Knights Elementalis’s greatest enemy, is at it again, and out to crush everything in his path.

Wren and Dev fatefully meet newspaper-reporter-with-a-gift Cassidy Sinclair, and the three travel to the Knights Elementalis headquarters, the Cradle, to get to the bottom of the Gray Lord’s reappearance before he destroys all of Tampa. Dev and his fellow knights play a pivotal role in keeping Gray Lord at bay, but at a high cost.

There are plenty of quirky characters to love in Knight of Flame, including rock bassist Magnus, the Knight of Earth, and the Knight of Air, Cyndralla, who can change into more than one form. Also, Cassidy Sinclair grows and develops in an unexpected way that’s sure to surprise. There are plenty of references for hard rock fans, and even some creepy crawly bugs for, you know, people who like bugs. Scott Eder sets himself up perfectly for the next book in the series, keeping the reader guessing what’s next for the Knights Elementalis.

The Author

Scott Eder chose Tampa for Knight of Flame for a reason: he knows it well. Scott lives on the west coast of Florida with his family, one of whom is an accomplished bowler. After twenty years of working in IT, Scott decided to follow his childhood dream of becoming an author. This is Scott’s first book. His short story, “The Last Dregs of Winter” appears in the anthology One Horn to Rule Them All edited by Lisa Mangum. Scott is currently working on a non-fiction book for competitive bowlers, and the second book in the Chronicles of the Knights Elementalis series titled Knight of Air.

The striking cover of Knight of Flame by Brad Fraunfelter won the gold in the AuthorsDB 2014 Cover contest.

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 the Die Hard movie franchise, the best being Die Hard: With a Vengeance (arguable, I know…) and the worst being Die Hard 2 (but I think we can all agree on that). I give Knight of Flame a commendable Live Free or Die Hard. Just like Live Free or Die Hard, Knight of Flame has all the classic action-isms: certifiable badass main character, plenty of action and explosions, great humorous moments, and a modern, American feel. I think you could catch John McClane reading Knights of Flame on a beach in Florida somewhere. Because I don’t know anything more American than John McClane and crazy things happening in Florida.

Interesting fact: Develor Quinteele is the sixth knight of flame, and Lancelot was one of his predecessors.

Interesting quote: “Being naked wasn’t a problem. Being on fire wasn’t a problem. However, being naked and on fire and running from a giant monster in front of a crowd of people wasn’t his idea of a good night.”

Prairie Fire, by E.K. Johnston. Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis.

Prairie Fire (Fiction - Young Adult)
Prairie Fire, by E.K. Johnston. Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis. Hardcover (ISBN 146773909X) Carolrhoda Books, March 1 2015 – 304 pages. Ebook also available.

Prairie Fire is the sequel to E.K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim, which may well have been the most quirky, original, interesting and just plain fun YA fantasy novel of 2014. Set in a modern-day Canada in which dragons are a very real threat to everyday life, both books are told from the warm, funny, often poetic and always engaging point-of-view of Siobhan McQuaid, the first true bard in a generation.

In The Story of Owen, Siobhan first found her calling as a bard when Owen Thorskard and his dragon-slaying family moved to her small town. In Prairie Fire, Siobhan accompanies Owen into the larger world as they turn eighteen, join the international dragon-slaying army known as the Oil Watch, and set out to defend the rest of the world from dragons…and just possibly change the way that dragon-slaying works, along the way. Siobhan’s only goal is to document Owen’s dragon-slaying heroics for the rest of the world, working on the sidelines as his personal bard. By the end of the book, though, she’s forced to finally grapple with the question: what if she, too, could be the hero of her story?

These are such fun, engaging books that it came as a (perfectly played-out) shock, in the first book, to see just what a gut-wrenching price Siobhan had to pay for an act of heroism at the end. In The Story of Owen, she lost most of the use of her hands–a particularly terrible loss for a musician. In Prairie Fire, she shows us exactly what that loss means, as she searches for a new way to express herself in music, and also fights to survive in the army with a disability. Johnston never flinches away from showing just how frustrating and heartbreaking that kind of newly-acquired disability can feel, as Siobhan fights to do previously-simple things like turning can lids or buttoning up her uniform…and can’t bring herself to even touch the keys of her old piano. Her growing fame, spreading virally across the world via YouTube, has forced the Oil Watch to allow her in beside Owen despite her disability. Still, no one ever promised to make it easy or even do-able, and there are more than a few of her supervisors who are rooting for her to fail.

And then, of course, there are the dragons…including one more terrifying than they have ever faced before.

There are enough offhand references to the events of The Story of Owen in the beginning of Prairie Fire to make the first few chapters potentially off-putting to readers who haven’t read the first book in the series. However, even if you don’t want to read Book One first, it’s well worth the struggle of making it through those first few chapters of Book Two, as a first-time reader. Once Siobhan and Owen settle into their new life in the army, Prairie Fire stands perfectly on its own as one of the most unique and interesting urban fantasies that I’ve read this year.

One of the best parts about this series, for me, is the intricately-worked-out alternate history that Johnston has developed for a world constantly threatened by dragonfire–a history which Siobhan shares in enticing chunk, in her role as bard. In the first book, she told the epic story of The Fall of Michigan, as spearheaded by a stubborn Henry Ford (and a serious lack of environmental oversight). Now this book shares the story of the War of 1812, in which Canada ended up with the Dakotas, among other land acquisitions, due to the fact that most of the trained British-American dragonslayers had moved to Canada after the United States’s War of Independence, and early nineteenth-century American leaders refused to hire black or native dragonslayers.

Nowadays, of course, dragonslaying has been made into an international responsibility, as all young dragon-slayers are drafted, like it or not, into the Oil Watch…but as the name hints, the Oil Watch often cares more about protecting its corporate sponsors and their interests than about protecting the civilians whose lives are threatened by dragonfire.

Siobhan and Owen are already viewed as loose cannons when they first join, because of their earlier actions in The Story of Owen. It’s a sign of the Oil Watch’s deep disfavor that they’re sent to work in the province of Alberta (which, in this version of Canada, includes the Dakotas and Kansas) instead of to a more respected posting in the Middle East. But even as Siobhan finds even more reasons to distrust and disagree with the way that the Oil Watch is run, she also forms deep bonds of friendship and trust with the other dragonslayers and support crews from all over the world who have been sent there…and together, in the end, they all find themselves faced with a terrible decision.

The books in this two-book series (now complete) are filled with an enormous amount of warmth and fun, with wonderful characters and humor, great dragonslaying action, and fascinating worldbuilding. So it can be a real shock to find out, at the end of each, that they can be so heartbreaking as well. I haven’t cried so much over any book in a very long time as I cried over the ending of Prairie Fire. Still, I can’t wait to re-read it. Strongly, strongly recommended.

Roots, Shallow and Deep by Beth Cato

Folks say first impressions mean everything. Well, Hanford tasted like dirt. I stepped off the train to a face-full of the stuff, plus a waft from some restless cattle nearby. I coughed to one side and headed toward the depot. The passenger train had been about half full, most folks likely headed on to points west like San Francisco. The town of Hanford was young–it smelled young, by the fresh pine of nearby construction–and businesses bustled along the north side of the tracks.

Peculiar, considering how I’d been rushed here to investigate a matter of plague.

I’d expected a scene of eerie quiet, maybe bodies in the street. Certainly not cheery howdy-heys of farmers and barefoot boys scampering after a leather ball.

“Pardon! Mr. Harrington! Are you Mr. Evan Harrington?”

I turned to confront a man as he nearly pushed aside a few fellows in his way. I caught the dark looks they gave him.

“I’m Mr. Harrington,” I said, and extended my hand.

“I’m Mr. Johns, from the Southern Pacific Railroad. I was sent to meet you and acquaint you with our predicament.”

He assessed me in a glance and self-consciously smoothed his slicked blonde hair. His brown suit didn’t sit square on his shoulders, like a child playing dress-up in his big brother’s clothes. I notice these sorts of things. Clothing makes the man, as folks say. Or in my case, makes the black woman a white man.

I wore a suit I’d tailored for myself, modeled on the latest fashion from New York City. The sack coat featured a narrow lapel and buttoned high to reveal a blue silk vest and the drapery of a gold pocket watch chain. A starched collar pressed against my neck and looked bold behind a black cravat. A derby hat rested at a jaunty angle. It was an outfit that spoke of smartness, success, and of some maturity. Exactly the persona I needed my glamour to exude. While so attired, only I could see my true coloration with my eyes or in mirrors. Photography inexplicably smeared my image.

I walked alongside Mr. Johns. Twenty years of experience had trained me to force my strides long and confident. “The city is not what I expected.”

He shot me a nervous glance. “Yes, well, that’s not something to discuss out here.”

A crowd of farmers huddled around a hitching post. They grimaced at Mr. Johns and eyed me with wariness.

We entered a board-constructed building within sight of the railroad tracks. The furniture was sparse and mismatched. Two desks mounded with paperwork were pressed to the far wall. Mr. Johns sat behind the central desk like a king settling onto a throne. He pulled out two glasses and a decanter of amber liquid.

“Damned sand-lappers out there. They usually spit when I walk by. They’re on good behavior for you.” He began to pour.

“Pardon me, sand-lappers?” I took out my notepad and pencil.

“A local term for these… obstinate settlers.” He slid a glass toward me. I did not reach for it. The impairment brought by drink was not something I could risk. “You are aware of the melodrama here, them versus the Southern Pacific?”

“There hasn’t been much published about it in Portland. I really need to know more about this plague and why business appears so normal here, Mr. Johns.”

“This legal fight and the plague are tied together, or I’ll be damned.” He scowled into his drink. “See, I sell and rent Southern Pacific railroad land and collect our grain rents. The railroad owns a stretch of land out west of here in Mussel Slough. A number of settlers are squatting on our parcels, refusing to move even when we sell the land out from under them. I’ve been threatened and burned in effigy. The Circuit Court ruled in our favor about a month ago. A week later, my two partners here in Hanford were killed by this strange sickness.” He hesitated.

“Speak freely, Mr. Johns. I’m proprietor of Extraordinary Investigations. I deal with… the unusual. Sprites that invade like locusts. Lycanthropes. Foul sorcery–”

“Is it like in the dime novels?” He leaned forward. “Girls, travel, stalking monsters through the night?”

Oh, how he’d react if he knew he spoke with a negro woman born a slave. “No. The worst monsters work days and wear suits.” That took him aback. “I’m not here to palaver about personal matters. I need to know more about this illness. What leads you to think it’s magical in nature, not poison?”

“Mr. Bunyan and Mr. Heisen came down sick one at a time. They each turned gray, like statues. Like the life drained from them. They both lasted three days exactly. After they were both dead, someone else came down sick. Random, it seems. Always one at a time. Doctors can’t do nothing to stop it.”

“How many others have died?”

“Don’t know. My associates passed on three weeks ago. I been begging for someone like you to come here and find out what’s-what. The local marshal certainly doesn’t want to meddle with something that reeks of dark magic. Damned railroad nabobs in San Francisco finally listened to me to hire you.”

Victims going gray and lifeless one at a time. Medical intervention useless. More and more, this reminded me of a case about a decade back in Santa Fe. Beautiful woman afraid of getting old summoned up a miasma that sucked other people dry and granted their vitality to her. By the time I hunted her down on a mesa near the Pecos, she’d aged herself to look fifteen-years-old.

I glanced past Mr. Johns to an 1880 calendar still pinned a month behind, on March. “If this plague keeps going, word will get out. The railroad’s property values will fall for sure. No wonder your higher-ups decided to care.” His grudging nod affirmed that. “The sick folk. Are they all in Hanford?”

“Close vicinity. Hanford to Grangeville to Armona. No further out than that.”

“These settlers. Any known magi in their ranks? Or gossip of anyone who is suddenly healthier than before?”

“Some folks do magic, sure, but good enough to be called a magus? Don’t know. I don’t hear much in the way of gossip.”

No. If he was grabbing land from established settlers, people would likely rather pet a spider than palaver with Mr. Johns. “How’ve you stayed alive these three weeks?”

His grin was tight and ugly. “Come five o’clock tonight, I’m on a train to Fresno to stay at a boarding house. I’ll be back in the morning. It’s damned inconvenient, but I see the pattern. I’m no fool.”

As an assassination technique against railroad men, this sickness struck me as damned inefficient. There were other ‘accidental’ ways to kill a person. Too many other people were dying.

I tapped my pencil. Life-eaters like this were common across many world cultures. The good news for me–and most everyone else local–was that across all pantheons, the simplest solution here was to find and kill the magus.

“Thanks for the welcome, Mr. Johns.” I stood and picked up my luggage. “I have a great deal of work to do by nightfall.”

“Do you want me to show you around? Major Lederer’s head of the Settler’s Land League. He’s out near the slough in Grangeville.” He looked downright eager.

“No, thank you. I can see myself around.”

“Oh. Well, meet me at the station by five and you can be assured I’ll get you a train ticket to Fresno for the night. And remember, this needs to be kept quiet. We can’t have people panicking.”

“No. Of course not.” I turned away. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him throw back my full glass of liquor.

Some stalwart fellow this was. Keep things quiet, indeed. He was fine with other folks dying so long as his own skin was safe. I’d call him a donkey by another name, but I hate to insult any kin of a horse.

*

 

I acquired a hotel room and took the time to tidy myself. My suit needed to be dusted off, my shoes shined. Cologne applied to the pressure points. I checked the vital accoutrements of my job. My silver knife, sheathed at the utility belt at my hips. A vial of holy water. Pouch of salt. Pouch of iron nails. A loaded pistol, for troubles of the human variety. I checked my appearance. The utility belt added a debonair, gunslinger flare to an otherwise trim, neat suit.

Mr. Johns and everyone else saw me as the kind of man you’d expect in such attire. White-skinned. Well-off. Handsome, even. I couldn’t see what they saw, and from what I understood, no one viewed me in exactly the same way.

The real me had skin like a moonless night. A broad nose. Round, brown eyes. Hair cropped close. I kept my breasts bound–not that I had much to hide. I tailored everything to hide the curve of my hips. Wasn’t often I wore a proper dress.

I liked being a woman, truly. Evaline. My given name, the one no one said anymore. But I liked the independence of being a man of privilege. Evan Harrington. It was awful lonely, being somewhere between Evaline and Evan. Being someone different with clothes on and off. The attention of women grieved me something fierce.

Not that I had time to spare on such thoughts now, not with a malevolent spirit on the prowl. Maybe that’s why I kept at constant work.

Another train had pulled into the depot across the way. This one delivered cattle, machinery, and lumber. I hadn’t often been through this part of California in recent years, but I understood the region’s forced reliance on the Southern Pacific. There was no competition. Every passenger or parcel or food grown here had to take the Southern Pacific to travel in an expedient manner. Hanford itself was founded by the railway and named after one of its employees, according to literature I’d read on my trip down.

Considering these facts–and the demeanor of Mr. Johns–I could well understand why the “sand-lappers” were riled. Not that this excused the sorcery set loose here.

At the livery stable nearby, I acquired a chestnut mare. I rode west through a verdant spring countryside crisscrossed by irrigation ditches filled with Sierra snowpack runoff. I could have ridden on forever with a smile on my face. More I saw of the country, the more I liked it. I had a home these days, but not a home-home. Hadn’t had such a thing since I was a fool child, bound to the plantation. These folks made the desert bloom through sheer work and gumption. I envied that.

The Lederer homestead was a single-story structure surrounded by massive rose bushes in an array of colors. I couldn’t help but take in a deep, blissful breath. My old missus used to grow roses. I think that was her one redeeming quality.

A Chinese manservant didn’t meet my eye as he welcomed me inside and to a formal parlor. The sweetness of roses was replaced by something faint and foul. To other folks, magic smelled pleasant. To me, it stank. The darker the magic, the nastier the odor. Mind you, I can’t cast spells; my glamour doesn’t tax my energy the way spell-work drains a magus. I put on clothes, and the glamour is simply… there.

I don’t know what sort of fae my father was, but he certainly passed along some curious skills.

A few minutes later, Major Lederer introduced himself. He looked as I’d expected: silver hair, coiffed beard, his frock coat well-worn but of high quality. His eyes were rheumy and vacant, as if he’d been ill.

I passed him my calling card, describing myself as simply an investigator of recent illnesses in the area. “I was admiring the roses out front.”

A wave of grief passed over his face. “They were my wife’s joy. The roots came from England. They’ve grown here some fifteen years. She… she went to the Almighty a few weeks ago.”

Another death. “Was it this sickness…?”

“No. I’m not sure of the illness of which you speak. My Sally struck her head and didn’t awaken after.”

“My deepest condolences. I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“No. I should… make an effort to get out. Our friends have tried, but it’s been difficult for me.” His smile quivered. “We were together forty years. We met when I was a young man sent abroad. She was British-born, but passionate for California. Our home here means–meant–everything to her.”

I glanced at his hands. Magic required bare skin on herbs and ingredients, and the resulting stains were a point of pride among practitioners. Major Lederer’s cuticles and nails were trimmed and unremarkable. That left the house staff and the late Mrs. Lederer as suspected magi.

Occultism was all the rage in Britain, and had recently become a hobby across America. Many wives’ clubs gathered to exchange cantrips and socialize. Other club members would know about Mrs. Lederer or other locals with the knack. Investigating the house staff would require a different tack.

“I heard you were head of the Settler’s Land League and led the fight against the railroad,” I said.

His laugh was bitter. “Officially, I still am the head, but I’m as good as resigned. You need hope in order to fight the octopus that is the Southern Pacific, and I haven’t any hope left. This ranch–what does it mean, without any family? No wife, no boy… Our son died in the war, you see.”

Three portraits on the nearby table featured a pale boy, the Major in his full Confederate regalia, and the late Mrs. Lederer, her pale hair in ringlets.

“I understand what it means to lose your kin and to lose your home.” I stopped myself. I didn’t need to say more about my own shallow roots. “But if you’re the leader, there’re other families looking to you. Don’t forget them.”

The Major seemed to look at me for the first time, as if he just woke up. He pulled my card from his pocket again. “Extraordinary Investigations. I’ve seen your sort before. This illness you’re asking about must not be normal.”

“No. I suspect it’s sorcery to benefit the magus. Was told there’s an afflicted child near death in Hanford now.”

“A child? Do you know the name?”

“I don’t, sir.”

Grief drenched his features. “I’ll inquire. But if anyone is engaged in dark chicanery, it’s those Southern Pacific men. Heisen, Johns, Bunyan. They want to sell us our own land and charge us for the improvements we made. Since we won’t pay, they’re keen to run us off.”

“It’d be hard to ask Mr. Heisen and Mr. Bunyan as they succumbed first to this plague,” I said.

Major Lederer’s jaw gaped. “They did? Then you… that’s who is paying you to investigate, isn’t it? The railroad?” He was no fool. I wondered if he’d throw me out, but instead he looked thoughtful. “And here you were talking me into continued work for the Settler’s Land League.”

“I’m not here about the legal fight over the land.” God knew, the legal system and I disagreed on many things. I stood. “I’m here because dark magic is killing railroader and settler alike. If you need to contact me, I have a room at the Livermore in Hanford. Good day, Major.”

I stepped outside and paused to breathe in the roses again, to clear that awful residual magic from my lungs. This was a shaded spot of pure peace.

My pause was longer than I realized, as Major Lederer soon joined me with clippers in hand. I eyed him with wariness, but his manner was not threatening.

“She would hate how overgrown the roses are now. She always tended to them herself. I… I should take care of them. Would you like a white bloom for your lapel, Mr. Harrington?”

“I don’t usually wear one in such fashion, but it might freshen my hotel room.”

“Or maybe you can gift it to a lady in town. Sally liked when her roses made people smile. Here.” He cut the thornless stem a few inches long and wrapped it in his own silk handkerchief.

“I’m much obliged,” I said, ignoring the yearning evoked by his statement. The wrapped bloom just fit inside an interior jacket pocket I most often used to carry an extra pistol and silver bullets.

“We never thought we’d find a place we loved more than Tennessee,” he said softly, and not to me. “This California valley was our promised land. Home in the truest sense.”

Home. I liked Oregon well enough, but he made me think of South Carolina and the life I left behind. The guilt hit me in the gut sometimes. That I escaped. That I wasn’t true to my own self, my kin. I sent money to my cousins there every so often, as if that could absolve me of my insecurities. I doubted anything could. My fae blood was half of me, but I didn’t understand that half. I knew the names and faces of my mama’s folks, and the misery I escaped.

For the first time in many a year, I felt a yearning to sink in my roots, make a real home, damned fool notion though it was. I couldn’t live in utter isolation, and if I lived near folks, I wouldn’t be accepted as an equal due to my skin and gender. At this point, I would settle for no less.

So I wouldn’t settle. I’d take job after job, stay restless as ever. I had plenty to do. Too many folks suffered from the misuse of magic and ancient machinations born anew. Then there was my own quest for answers about my fae nature.

I rode east toward town, sober with memories. The sun was high overhead. Clicking my teeth, I encouraged my horse to trot. Every minute ticked closer to that three day point when the life-eater would shift to a new victim.

 

*

There’s a common misperception about where to find the best know-it-alls in a small town. Bartenders know a lot about men’s business, true, but the best gossip is where the liquor or juice is sipped once a week.

The afternoon crawled on as I visited every local building with a spire. The priests and preachers were downright courteous, though I finally found what I needed when a reverend was out on rounds. His wife, the kindly Mrs. Shute, invited me in for tea. There was an unmistakable whiff of magic about the place.

“I’m delighted you were able to speak with Major Lederer. The poor man.” Mrs. Shute reminded me of an unbaked bread roll with her doughy complexion and rounded body. The cap of black frizzy hair, barely contained by a snood, seemed to be an afterthought. “Since his wife passed, he’s shut out the world. The circumstances there… terrible.”

“I was told she had a head wound.”

Mrs. Shute leaned forward. “I heard that as well, Mr. Harrington, but also that she was a suicide.” She motioned two fingers against her wrist. I couldn’t help but notice the telltale ingredient stains on her fingertips. She was likely the sort who wore fingerless gloves in public for that very reason. “Which, really, makes no sense to me. She was a vivacious woman in a loving marriage.”

“Did you know her well?”

“In our club, yes. We’d get together to quilt, collect food for families in need, maybe fiddle with a spell or two.”

She said it to impress me; the occult was popular, after all, and here I was, the sophisticated out-of-towner. I arched an eyebrow. “Does the reverend…?”

“Oh, Mr. Harrington. It’s all in fun. Dabbling, that’s all.” She giggled like a schoolgirl.

“Was Mrs. Lederer particularly talented?”

“Better than most of us, I’d say. If you want to find the darker arts, well, you go to China Alley.” She leaned forward, tapping her chin. “My husband is trying to get the heathens removed. The smells down there are awful, then there’s the gambling, the opium. It’s terrible. Sugar?” She held out a cup of sugar cubes.

“No, thank you, ma’am.” Directing this conversation was like herding a cat. “I mentioned at the start I’m investigating these local illnesses. Has your husband tended some of the others struck down?”

“Oh my, yes. The graying, they call it. Young Cliff is almost gone. The poor dear.”

Sunset neared. That child would die for certain unless I found the magus. Mrs. Shute wasn’t the source. The scent of magic here was mild, the sort of minor household enchantments that kept linens crisp and flies out. In my wandering about town, I hadn’t come across anything as pungent as in the Major’s house. That left the servants as suspect, or…

I’d dealt with undead magi before. That transformation required incredible magical aptitude and a deep-rooted selfish need for power that seemed strongly at odds with everything I’d heard of Mrs. Lederer. Even so, I’d been at this too long to fully dismiss her as the culprit.

“Is there anyone else in the area with an aptitude for magic? Or anyone who is looking exceptionally healthy?”

She arched an eyebrow. That tidbit of gossip would be spread about for sure. “No one especially gifted, no. This town barely has its roots in the dirt, Mr. Harrington. We have to go to Fresno for proper spell-work.”

A thump came from the back of the house, followed by footsteps. A young Chinese woman stepped within the doorway, saw the two of us, and hastily bowed.

“I bring,” she said.

“Wonderful. Thank you, Mimi. Her father has quite a garden. Good Christian folk. You should see their strawberries!”

I stood and bowed as I tucked my notes away. The girl took a step back and offered another hesitant bow in turn.

House servants knew everything that happened within their walls. A local grocer, with such trusted access to homes, might know a thing or two as well.

“Ma’am? Might I speak with you?” I asked her.

Her eyes widened. Her nod was quick, fearful. Good God, how must my glamour make me look to her? I knew from experience that when well-dressed white men came to visit and asked after the younger slaves, there was nothing good about. Chinese women were rare to see in California, and ignorant folks assumed all of them were ladies of the night. Likely the presence of the reverend’s wife was all that kept Mimi from bolting from the house completely.

Nauseous at my own ineptitude, I knew I needed to cut this short. “Have you heard of the sickness going around, ma’am? That makes folks turn gray?” At her increased alarm, I knew I had erred again. “No, I am not saying your people are the cause. Have any of yours been sick?”

She looked between me and Mrs. Shute.

If I asked if she’d heard of any bad magic about, I wouldn’t get an answer. The question was too incriminating. California boiled with anti-Chinese sentiment, and folks looked for any excuse to lynch, shame, or attack her people. And here I was, in my glamoured guise.

Finally, she nodded.

“Thank you, ma’am, that’s all I need to know. Have a pleasant day.”

She remained still like a rabbit caught in the open, as if she could render herself invisible, then burst into motion. Her feet pattered down the hall, screen door clattering behind her.

“She’s a good girl. Terribly shy around men. We encourage her family to come to church, with the hopes she’ll spread the Good Word.”

I had lived in my own glamour for so long, God help me, I forgot. I forgot the fear.

I clutched my trembling fists at my hips. My suit felt wrong on my body. Soiled. “Mrs. Shute, thank you very much for enduring my questions. The tea was quite fine.”

With that, I skedaddled with just slightly more control than the Chinese woman. God help me. I needed to get back to my place back in Portland, lock myself inside, and stay naked for days. I needed to remember my own skin.

The walk toward downtown calmed my nerves. Windows along Sixth Street were aglow with electric light. A train whistle pierced the evening; I wondered if it was Mr. Johns’ train, or if he had already fled. I encountered the town druggist as he closed up shop. He provided directions to the home of the child gone gray.

The sky turned fully dark on the short walk there. The front door was open and the wailing of family was discernible from the street. The inevitable had occurred.

I lingered near the front gate, guilt like iron in my gut. If I’d gotten to Hanford faster. If I’d found answers sooner. If I wasn’t such a damned fool. My encounter at Mrs. Shute’s house had left me rattled, made me think of things I didn’t want to think of.

From the side of the house, I heard hoof beats that increased in intensity as the rider bolted into the street at a reckless canter. I hugged the white fence. The rider sped by not five feet away. Dust kicked against my trousers.

“My God! Are you all right?” The man’s accented voice came from the other side of the fence.

“Yes. Startled more than anything.”

“The Major shouldn’t be riding that fast in the dark.”

“Major? Major Lederer? Why was he here?”

“He heard of Cliff’s illness. He was quite shaken. Let me find the latch–I should have brought a lamp, but my walk home is short.” A gate creaked open. “I’m Doctor Resinov.”

“I spoke to the Major earlier. It seemed he had become something of a recluse since his wife passed on.”

“Yes. Her death was a tragedy. One of those simple falls in the bedroom that turns out to not be simple. The Major hasn’t been himself, and I think his senses are still addled. He pulled me aside tonight, in front of everyone, to ask if I was sure his wife was dead.” His laugh was loud and awkward. “Really, what kind of a question is that?”

One very relevant to my investigation. “Thank you for your help, doctor,” I said, and began to walk. After crossing the street, I ran.

This all came back to the railroad and Major Lederer and Sally Lederer. I gripped my utility belt as I ran, verifying my knife and everything else was where it ought to be.

I retrieved my horse from the livery stable and set off for Mussel Slough again, following a road cast pale gray by moonlight.

No one answered my hail in the yard, though illumination shone through the homestead windows. The roses were as fragrant as before. I entered the house with a hand on the pistol beneath my jacket.

Wary, I let the stink of magic draw me deeper into the house. Floorboards creaked beneath my soft treads. I found myself in a unkempt bedroom wallpapered in paisley.

The place reeked of magic. Blood magic, recently cast. Rot and decay with a whiff of iron. I avoided the center of the floor as if it contained an open pit. The stain there was invisible yet as dark as a senator’s soul.

What had happened here? How had Mrs. Lederer truly died? Suicide, or a head injury? Or was she not truly dead at all, as the Major now suspected?

Daguerreotypes on the dresser caught my eye. Another image of the Major in his regalia, and a separate one of a young soldier. I did a double take when I realized the soldier was their son. He wore Union attire.

“Father versus son. One survived and the other did not,” I murmured. Such was the nature of that war.

The house and barn were empty of people. I heard an approaching wagon on the road and rode to intercept it.

“Yes, I saw the Major a while back,” the farmer replied to my inquiry. “He was riding up Lake Avenue with a shovel and lantern. I found that a mite strange.”

I sucked in a breath. “Is the cemetery that way?”

“Straight up the road, sure. Why, whatever–”

I pressed my horse to a gallop. Wheat fields and orchards of spindly saplings flanked the road in moonlit blurs. Miles passed. I would have dismissed the cemetery as just another field but for the taller trees throughout the lot. These grounds had likely been settled before most of the surrounding towns. I slowed my horse to a walk to grant him time to cool, then dismounted to encourage a quiet approach.

A lantern glimmered out yonder. I secured my horse’s reins to a tall headstone and advanced, doing my utmost to not break my own neck on low headstones or brush. I gripped my pistol in my right hand and the silver dagger with my left.

The soft snick and slide of a shovel against dirt was clear to my ears. The stink of magic filled my nostrils. The shovel struck something solid. I sidled behind a monument some ten feet away.

“Jesus, have mercy. Jesus, help me,” I heard. The shovel was tossed aside with a thud. There came a wrenching of wood and an agonized wail that made the hair on my neck stand on end. “Oh God! Sally! Are you alive? Are you? What have you done?”

I rounded the headstone, weapons at ready. “Major Lederer, please back away from the grave.”

He was on all fours beside the open earth, sobbing. “I had to see. When you came earlier, I got to thinking, and then I saw that boy die… it wasn’t natural, that sickness, and I knew my Sally, she didn’t intend that. She’d never take away anyone else’s child, Mr. Harrington.”

I edged around the dirt pile to see what the lantern illuminated. The potency of magic quivered in the air like a heat mirage. Inside the casket, Sally Lederer looked all of twenty–not nearer to sixty, as she should be–and this was no glamour. Her age had been undone, just as in my previous case in Santa Fe. She looked almost perfect.

The exception being the top of her head. Through the perfect torrent of blonde hair, her head grotesquely bulged. There was no blood, which made it worse, in a way.

“What did Mrs. Lederer intend?” I asked.

“We lost the Circuit Court case a month ago. Her sister just sent over some old grimoires from England. Sally said, maybe there’s something in there that can help us. She wanted to make the railroad men sick. That’s all I knew. I went up to Fresno for business. When I came back…” He heaved with sobs. “There was so much blood, and her head…”

“This kind of sorcery requires blood,” I said. “She cut her wrist, didn’t she? But she cut too deep and with the blood loss, she must have gone faint and struck her head.”

My mind raced through the bits that the Major wouldn’t know, didn’t need to know. Ignorant as Sally was about magic of this caliber, she’d successfully shackled the spirit to her. It’d done its duty and sickened two of the three men it was sent for, and now she was incapable of stopping the spell.

“She lived a few days after and then… we thought she was dead. Doc Resinov said so. Her heart stopped. She wasn’t breathing.”

“She’s still as good as dead. Maybe she did die, back then. This magic she worked is stealing the essence of other folks around town. It’s making her younger, but it can’t actually heal her. Look.”

I set down my dagger long enough to use the shovel’s handle to turn over her arm. It still showed a bright, unhealed cut from wrist to elbow. The poor, foolish woman. She hadn’t a clue what she was doing. To anyone else, a cut like that was suicide. No wonder the rumor had spread.

Or maybe this wasn’t fully of her own volition. The summoned spirit could have manipulated her during the casting, insisted on more blood. These creatures weren’t stupid, and this one had earned an extended stay with three-day smorgasbords one after another.

“But she looks… she looks beautiful,” Major Lederer whispered.

“Her brain is beyond repair, Major. You served in the war. You’ve seen others with wounds like this.”

“Sally’s magic will let her get better–”

“Sally had some small skill with magic, yes, but not for this sorcery. The only way to stop this is to truly kill her–”

“No!” He lurched upright, reaching to his waist. “I can’t let you. By God’s mercy, she’ll heal–”

“How many more children do you want to die? It…”

I smelled the miasma’s approach before I saw it. I switched my silver blade to my right hand; my pistol would be useless as a feather now. “Major! Get away from the grave!”

He gasped as the creature entered the halo of light. It was like a bag of black vapor stretched into a long, serpentine form. No head, no eyes. It oozed over the side of the pit and onto Mrs. Lederer.

“No!” The Major yelled and started to fling himself into the grave.

“Fool!” I lunged to grip him by the collar in time. It said something of the potency of the life-eater that the Major could see it at all.

“It’s–that thing–it’s going to–”

“It’s the only reason her body’s still alive at all.” We watched in mute horror as the shadow coiled and writhed. The body beneath did not move or react in any way, even as the stench increased. It was emitting the life force of that boy.  The shadow shivered and glided up the other side of the grave.

Right toward us.

I hauled back the Major with a firm hand on his shoulder. The spirit hesitated as if to consider its options.

I considered my own choices. I needed to attend the ugly business of severing the dark link Mrs. Lederer had formed.

That meant I needed Major Lederer incapacitated.

I shoved.

The shadow swarmed over him. One instant the Major was there on his knees, trying to rise. The next, he was sprawled flat on his belly. Limp. The miasma was fully inside him.

I shakily lowered myself to the dirt. “God forgive me,” I whispered. I looked into my own quaking hands, my pale palms, my dark fingers and knuckles. Major Lederer’s eyes were still open wide. They tracked me as I stood.

“Once she’s dead, the spirit will go back whence it came,” I said. “You’ll be able to get well. Just stay put for now. I’ll be back for you.”

He whimpered.

With that, I assessed her body and the tools at hand. I needed to burn her heart and brain to cinders to break the perverse bond, and return what remained to the grave. Then the Major needed tending, and there’d be other business, too. I adjusted my derby hat.

This’d be a long night.

 

*

Relentless sunlight beamed down on the Southern Pacific depot in Hanford the next morn. Folks clustered around in wait for the next train. I leaned against a wooden post. My back and arms ached, but even so, if I closed my eyes for more than two blinks I could have fallen asleep. The labor was hard for a solitary person, and my figure wasn’t quite so imposing as it appeared to others.

Major Lederer’s body had been laid waste after mere hours of affliction. Fortunately, I’d found a ranch nearby with good folks who came to our aid. At sun-up, the talk with the local marshal hadn’t been pleasant–meetings with such folks rarely are–but my position as a contract worker for the Southern Pacific granted me some authority. It earned me plenty of derisive looks, too.

The train pulled up to the station with a magnificent gush of dust. The place stewed with people.

“Mr. Harrington?” Mr. Johns approached, waving. “You survived the night!” He looked so bright-eyed, I could have slugged him.

“I did. You won’t need to flee every third night now. Check with the local marshal. He has his report, and mine will be ready to mail to your people by the time I’m back in Portland.”

“Damn fine work. Dare I ask–who was behind the sorcery?”

Weary as I was, that’s when my brain pieced together the repercussions of the night. Mrs. Lederer had done wrong, but that didn’t make the railroad right. That’s not how it’d look to the press and so many other people, though. The odds had always been against the settlers, but now their cause was damned for sure.

I wondered how many more bodies would be added to Grangeville Cemetery by the time this fight with the railroad was done. I wondered if when the railroad sold the Lederer homestead, if the new owner would uproot those magnificent roses.

I couldn’t bear to see Mr. Johns’ pleasure at the Lederers being at fault. “You’ll need to read the report. I’m not one to gossip.”

“Oh. Well. Thanks, anyway.” He looked disappointed as we shook hands.

I boarded the train. The status of my ticket allowed me a full row to myself, which I planned to occupy lengthwise soon enough.

I pressed my face to the window for a last glance of the young town. My gut felt hollow, and not for lack of food. I’d envied what these people had. God help me, I knew I’d done the right thing here. Sally Lederer’s botched spell-work had to be undone. I wasn’t at fault for the homesteaders’ impending losses. And yet… and yet…

I wasn’t even forty, and I felt so damned tired and old. I wanted to get home. Home. Whatever that meant.

Most everyone had left the rail station, but I did spy the Chinese girl from the day before. She walked along the street, a yoke laden with produce across her shoulders. She didn’t even glance toward the train as it rolled forward with a lurch.

I pulled back from the glass enough to see my true reflection stare me in the eye. Through my visage, fields and orchards blinked by. My suit was filmed with dust and that’s all I could smell. Better than the stench of magic, anyway.

I shifted in my seat and detected a lump within my jacket. I pulled out a handkerchief, and inside found Mrs. Lederer’s white rose. The petals had begun to wilt after being crunched close to my body for most of the day. I brought it to my nose and breathed in, as if I could fill the hollow ache.

A steward approached. I beckoned him over. I needed a glass of water to hold the stem. Maybe, just maybe, I could eke a few more days of life out of the bloom as I traveled north.

 

Welcome to the May 2015 Issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine

First up this month, we’ve got a brand new story from Beth Cato, author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER. In “Roots Shallow and Deep”, we travel to 1880, where a mysterious plague has struck the town of Hanford.

Whenever fantasy is introduced into the real world, you can either have characters who are well aware that it exists or characters who have never seen a spark of magic in their lives. Our second story this month, “The Profound Importance of Coasters” by Alena Sullivan, has one character of each type, and the interaction between them makes for an entertaining read right from the start.

Also up this month is part three of Dead Records by Steven Savile and Ryan Reid. Be sure to check out our March and April issues (available for free online) if you missed the first two installments.

Finally, check out our reviews of Scott Eder’s KNIGHT OF FLAME and E.K. Johnston’s PRAIRIE FIRE. Any appearance of a fiery theme to our selections this month is purely coincidental — unless fire happens to be your favorite elemental power, in which case, know that we picked those books just for you.

Please enjoy and as always, consider subscribing to help keep each issue awesome.