Carniepunk: an anthology by Gallery Books Reviewed by Kristin Luna

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Carniepunk: an anthology by Gallery Books

Reviewed by Kristin Luna

ISBN: 1476714150 (Paperback)

Gallery Books — 440 pages. Ebook also available.

Are you into some weird stuff? Good, because Carniepunk is into you.

The Book

In this anthology of carnies, horror, and big tents, various urban fantasy authors join together to tell you all about the creepy things that happen within the traveling entertainment world. Here are four stories featured that give future readers a good taste of the tales they can expect:

“Daughter of the Midway, the Mermaid, and the Open, Lovely Sea” by Seanan McGuire. In this well-written backwoods carnival folk story, Ada and Duncan try to convince the townies of Huntsville to visit the Miller Family Carnival, which boasts of having the Alabama Mermaid, Ada’s mother. Little do they know, Ada’s mother has history in Huntsville. Will Ada inherit her mother’s fate?

“A Chance in Hell” by Jackie Kessler. Wherein an incubus tries to trick ex-demon Jezzy into giving up her soul while it gives her oral pleasure. Naturally (and frankly, who doesn’t) Jezzy goes to a traveling show afterwards to sulk, but ends up having to kill a demon and save her friend instead.

“The Sweeter the Juice” by Mark Henry. A transitioning male to female transsexual can only continue her process if she brings her doctor a new street drug, Zed, so he can study it. Problem is, there’s a world full of zombies out there and people willing to do just about anything for a high.

“Werewife” by Jaye Wells. This story is just as it sounds, but with the inclusion of the husband’s point of view as well. There’s just enough marital believability that I wondered if my husband would bury my half-eaten kills should I turn into a werewife at some point.

Some of the best stories in this anthology have a flavor akin to Geek Love, Kathrine Dunn’s tale of a side-show family, in that they show an in depth view of the camaraderie of a unknown world within our own. However, some of the other stories share some qualities of C-horror films that are released straight to video. It should be noted many of these short stories are continuations, stories between books, or parts of a particular series written by the authors.

The Authors

Authors featured in this anthology are Rachel Caine, Delilah S. Dawson, Jennifer Estep, Kelly Gay, Kevin Hearne, Mark Henry, Hillary Jacques, Jackie Kessler, Seanan McGuire, Kelly Meding, Allison Pang, Nicohol D. Peeler, Rob Thurman, and Jaye Wells.

The Rating

On a scale of all of your niece’s activities you’re obligated to go to, best being her Quinceañera (there was alcohol there) and worst being a babysitting session when she was three and had explosive diarrhea, I give Carniepunk an elementary school holiday play. The one girl in your niece’s class who sings like Christina Aguilera knocks it out of the park, as expected. That one smelly kid forgot his lines, as expected. Overall, an okay and acceptable way to spend one’s time when there was nothing better to do on a Thursday night.

Interesting Quote

From Jaye Wells’ “The Werewife”: “So instead of telling her husband she’d rather brush her teeth with barbed wire than go stare at the ridiculous freaks in the red-and-black tent, she pasted on a smile and let him lead the way. Just like when we have sex, she thought – another observation she wisely kept to herself.”

Gawania and the Banner Man by Daniel J. Davis

Gawania, Knight of the Rose, raised a clenched fist behind her. “Hold!”

Tom Bannerman cut the engine. The small motorboat slowed. He glanced over the side, looking for movement or dark shapes in the water. He didn’t see anything.

“What is it?”

Gawania shushed him. She slowly rose to her feet, holding the pole of the red battle standard that was fixed to the bow.

“Listen, it isn’t safe to stand up in a boat. You should really sit back down.”

“Be silent, banner man!”

Stupid kid, Tom thought. Didn’t know the first thing about boating. She didn’t want to learn, either. At least she wasn’t wearing the plate armor anymore. He’d convinced her to leave it back at the campsite before setting out.

The boat drifted forward. Gawania kept her attention focused ahead, at a cluster of partially submerged logs near the shore. She took up her spear as they drifted closer, balancing it in her right hand.

Tom scanned the logs. The dragon couldn’t possibly be hiding in them. He hadn’t seen it in years, not since he was a teenager, but he still remembered the sheer size of it.

What the hell could she be aiming–

With frightening speed, Gawania threw the spear. It lanced through a tiny opening between the logs, one no larger than a softball. Small splashes and frantic noises followed. A half-dozen shapes darted through the water, quickly scattering in different directions.

“Congratulations,” Tom said. “You just scared a family of beavers.”

Gawania shot him an icy glare. “Bring the boat around, banner man. I need to recover my spear.”

Tom grumbled, but he fired up the engine again. As he steered the boat closer to shore, he found himself wondering how someone Gawania’s age got into dragon slaying. She wasn’t much more than a kid, couldn’t be more than two or three years out of high school.

Maybe the ancient orders recruited like colleges nowadays. Maybe they sent out scouts, looking for the best and brightest talents they could find.

Tom guided the boat around the cluster of logs. The butt end of the spear stuck from the tangle on the other side. Gawania crouched down, reaching for it.

At that moment, Tom looked to the north. He saw it then: a large, scaly head on a serpentine neck. It rose out of the water beyond the shallows. It coiled backwards to look at them, pausing for a moment, before slowly sinking down again.

Tom held his breath. It was as majestic and as beautiful as he remembered. Please, dear God. Please don’t let her see it.

“Banner man! To the north!”

“It’s nothing,” Tom lied. “Just one of those beavers you scared.”

“Take me there,” she ordered. “Now!”

Tom brought them around, silently cursing.

“Faster!” Gawania climbed to her feet again. She hooked her left arm around the pole of the battle standard, using the free hand to shade her eyes against the sun. She raised he spear in her right.

Less than fifty yards ahead, the water rippled. The rolls of the dragon’s neck broke the surface, followed by the swell of its body. It ignored them as it swam peacefully along.

Tom’s mind raced. He couldn’t just slow down. That would be obvious. Maybe he could cut the engine; say it happened all by itself. No, she wasn’t stupid. She’d never believe it. His attention flicked up at her left arm, the one wrapped around the pole. He remembered the way she threw the spear. It was a long shot, but…

They were less than twenty yards away. Gawania widened her stance. She’ll let go with her left, Tom thought. Just before she throws.

Less than fifteen yards away, now.

Less than ten.

Gawania loosened her grip on the pole. Tom seized the opportunity and violently threw his weight to the starboard side. The boat pitched. Gawania dropped the spear and both hands fumbled to grab the pole of the battle standard. Then the pole-mount snapped and Gawania dropped over the side, taking the standard with her.

Tom cut the engine. Ahead, the dragon dipped below the surface. Tom glanced back. Gawania thrashed and struggled in the water.

She wouldn’t try to kill a dragon in a lake, he thought. Not if she couldn’t swim. She’s young, not stupid.

Tom watched, horrified, as Gawania started to sink.

“Damn it!” He fired up the engine and spun the boat around.

#

It was almost evening by the time they got back to Tom’s campsite. Gawania sat next to the fire, wrapped in Tom’s spare sleeping bag. Her leathers and gambeson hung nearby, drying on a line tied between two trees. Next to them hung the red battle standard. She had refused to abandon it when Tom pulled her out of the lake, nearly drowning both of them in the process.

Tom, now in his own dry set of clothes, handed her a steaming mug. “Drink this. It’ll keep the chills away.”

“What is it?”

“Mostly coffee.”

Gawania sipped. She immediately made a face. “Ugh! What’s the rest of it?”

“Mostly whiskey.” He fixed one for himself and sat across the fire from her.

The young warrior was quiet for a time. When she finally spoke, it was in a careful, measured voice. “You are sworn to help me in my quest, banner man. Are you not?”

“I guess so.”

“You are bound by family oath.”

No guessing about that one. The Bannerman family had served the Knights of the Rose since the Dark Ages. They swore similar oaths to the Brothers of Saint George, the Sons of Sigurd, and over a dozen other ancient orders. Tom had memorized each of them by the time he was twelve. The wording was different, but substance of them was always the same: If a hero rode out to face the monsters, a Bannerman carried the battle standard.

That was the tradition. That was the promise.

“Yes,” he said.

“And you know the punishment for breaking that oath.”

He did, all too well. A secretive order of knights could do a lot of damage if they put their minds to it. They could ensure that businesses failed, finances disappeared, and personal reputations were ruined. There was no need to get violent; they could destroy somebody without ever getting their weapons bloody.

Cross the ancient orders,” dad had warned him, “and you can kiss your life goodbye. ” That warning had only taken on more weight over the years. First with Marybeth. Then later, with the kids. Life started to look a lot more fragile when you had other people to feed.

“Yes, I know the punishment.”

“Then do not do what you did earlier. Ever again.”

“I saw something in the water. I swerved to avoid hitting it.”

“I know you’re lying, banner man. And I will forgive it. Once.” She fixed him with a hard stare.

Tom avoided her gaze. He swirled his coffee around in his mug. He drained the rest of it in a two swallows.

“Why do you want to kill a dragon?” he asked.

Gawania’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“I mean they don’t bother anybody. What good does it do to chase one all the way up to the middle of nowhere? Especially when it’s just minding its business.”

She set down her mug before she answered. “Do you know where dragons come from, banner man?”

“I’ve heard stories.”

“So have I. Draconolgy was one of the subjects I studied at the Abbey of the Rose. They’re born from the unholy union of a demon and an earthly serpent. They have devils’ blood. They are monsters, banner man. They do not ‘just mind their business.'”

Tom didn’t buy it. He’d lived near the lake his entire life. His father and grandfather had lived here before him. The lake dragon was peaceful. So was the other one, for that matter, until one of these overzealous thugs killed it off.

“I’ve never heard of one attacking anybody.”

Gawania let out a short, harsh laugh. “There are thousands of recorded attacks against humans.”

Tom jabbed a stick into the fire, stirring the embers. “Legends, you mean.”

“Most people think they’re only legends. But they’re mistaken. The archives at the Abbey hold accounts of entire cities being wiped out.” Tom noted the lecturing, holier-than-thou tone she adopted.

“So? When was the last one?”

Gawania didn’t answer right away. From the way she fumed, Tom was sure he’d offended her. He wasn’t at all sure he cared.

“The dates are vague,” she admitted at last.

“Have you seen any of these archives yourself?”

Her voice took on a hard edge. “The Knights of the Rose would not keep false records, banner man.”

Tom decided to let the issue drop. You couldn’t argue with a true believer.

Gawania abruptly stood up, keeping the sleeping bag wrapped around her. “I’ll need to borrow a set of your clothes until morning. I’ll return at sunrise. Have my battle standard and my armor prepared.”

Tom sighed. He could say no. But then what? The Knights of the Rose could take a lot of things away from him. Away from Marybeth. Away from the kids. He jabbed the fire again.

“Whatever you say.”

#

When Gawania returned the next day, she was carrying a large poleaxe over one shoulder. She had a green duffel bag slung over the other, the kind you could buy at any surplus store. She still wore Tom’s borrowed clothes. Except for the poleaxe, Tom thought, she could be a college kid out for a day hike.

He let her use the tent to change back into her leathers and gambeson. Then he helped her into the plate armor she’d abandoned before yesterday’s boat ride. He started to protest, to remind her how close she’d come to drowning even without the extra weight.

She only gave him a stern look. “Remember your vows, banner man.”

Tom nodded. So it was going to be that kind of day. He helped her finish tightening down the straps.

“Where are we going?” he asked without enthusiasm.

“Nowhere. Fetch my battle standard from the boat.”

Tom disconnected the pole, grumbling. He’d just reattached it last night. At the same time, Gawania produced a large horn from the duffel bag. It was bigger than a steer’s horn, but it wasn’t smooth-sided. It was knotted and textured, more like a goat’s horn. Tom couldn’t readily tell what kind of animal it came from.

Gawania stood on the bank. “Take a your position seven paces behind me. Do not allow the battle standard to touch the ground. Only lower it if I fall. Understood?”

Tom nodded. He stood where he was told and held the standard high overhead. Then, as he watched Gawania raise the horn to her lips, he realized exactly what it was. Of course he hadn’t recognized it. He’d never seen one before.

After all, the dragon in the lake didn’t have horns. She was female.

Gawania blew the horn. It made a sound like a conch shell, only deeper. Not deeper in octave, deeper in memory, deeper in time. More primal. Yes, that was it. The sound called up images of things that used to prey on the hairless apes, back when fire was an uneasy ally. He heard the sound and understood their fears. He understood why they huddled together on the grass plains, watching the skies with wide, terrified eyes…

Gawania lowered the horn. “I stand ready, hell-spawn! Come for me! Come for one who will stand and fight!” She raised the horn and blew it again.

From out over the water, a sound rolled back to them, a sound very much like the one made by the horn. Then a dark silhouette appeared out beyond the shallows. Tom strained to see. It drifted slowly, the long neck and the large body making Tom think of a distant Viking ship.

He felt a sense of dread, then. He’d seen the dragon nearly a dozen times in his youth. It was always a quick, fleeting glimpse: the hump of its back, the coil of its neck. Each time it quickly dove or rolled back down into the water. But now it glided openly across the surface.

“What is that horn?” he asked. “What’s it doing?”

“Not now, banner man.”

The dragon got closer. Soon it was in the shallows, pulling itself along on its legs rather than swimming. Its movements seemed lethargic, slow, and almost trancelike. Tom saw details now that he’d never seen before. The body was longer than he’d imagined, and the end of the tail was slightly forked. The scales were two-tone, beginning as an emerald green on its back, gradually darkening to brown on its underside. The front legs were longer than the rear ones. There were two leathery flaps near the shoulders, and Tom at first mistook them for gills.

Wings, he thought. Those are old, atrophied wings.

Gawania threw the horn aside and took up her poleaxe. “Remember, banner man. Only lower the standard if I fall.”

“Please don’t do this.”

Gawania ignored him. She let out a battle cry and charged into the shallows, quickly sinking to her knees. She sloshed forward, still shouting, until she was within swinging distance. She raised her axe and–

The dragon struck like a cobra, its massive head moving almost too quickly for Tom to follow. It clamped its teeth around Gawania’s shoulder and upper arm, and reared up on its hind legs. It violently jerked its head from side to side, shaking her the way a dog would shake a chew toy.

Tom dropped the battle standard. He sprinted for the horn, reaching it in four long strides. Before he could think or talk himself out of it, he raised the horn to his lips and blew.

The sound was nothing like the conch-shell note that came before. It carried none of the weight and stirred none of the buried, ancestral memories. The noise had more in common with a trumpet, blown by a man who’d never seen one before.

Whatever it was, it was enough to get the dragon’s attention. It opened its jaws and let Gawania fall. As she collapsed into the knee-deep water and began scrambling backwards towards the shore, the dragon swung its head around to face Tom. He blew the horn again, and the dragon took a step in his direction.

Tom wound up and threw the horn side arm, pitching it as far out into the water as he could. The dragon’s gaze followed as it dropped into the lake. It started after it. Then the dragon shook its head. It almost seemed to snap out of something. The dragon blinked twice, and looked around as if confused. Then it plodded towards the deeper part of the lake, where it disappeared below the surface.

#

Gawania came around again, and she immediately hissed in pain. “What happened?”

“Lie still,” Tom said. “I’m going to bring the jeep over. Then I’m going to take you to a hospital.”

Gawania had managed to pull herself out of the lake before passing out. Tom had gotten her armor off and splinted her arm. He’d also used most of the gauze in his first aid kit to stop the bleeding. The dragon’s teeth hadn’t punched through the armor in many places, but where they had they’d bitten deep. Fortunately they’d missed the brachial artery.

“No hospital.”

“You’ve got a broken clavicle, some deep punctures, and a broken arm. And probably some other injuries I don’t know about. You need a doctor, Gawania.”

“No doctors.” Her voice sounded weak, but her eyes held a fire. “I’m going to rest here. Then I’m going to fight the dragon. Where is the Horn of Ragnar Lodbrok?”

“I threw it in the lake.”

“You need to recover it, banner man.”

“No.”

A flash of anger crossed her face. “Remember your vows.”

“Screw my vows. You’re lucky to be alive right now. I’ve never seen a dragon attack anyone before today. But whatever you did you with that horn drove her nuts. I’m not bringing it back.”

“I’ve been lenient with you until now, banner man. If the Knights of the Rose hear that you’ve disobeyed my orders, they’ll–”

Tom cut her off. “I don’t care what they’ll do.”

The muscles around Gawania’s jaw tightened. Her eyes were like daggers. “You should choose your next words carefully. I am not making idle threats.”

Tom thought of the haunted look in Dad’s eyes. He remembered how much it used to kill him to see it there. Do I want to see it look in the mirror, too? Do I want Marybeth and the kids to see it?

“Tell the Knights to take whatever the hell they want to. I won’t be a part of this anymore.”

“Coward,” she said. “Coward on the field of battle.”

“What battle?” Tom was on his feet and yelling before he knew it. “What is it you think you’re saving people from? Some secret club keeps an archive full of fairy tales. And you think that’s cause enough to throw your life away? To go stirring up trouble?”

“The dragons have attacked people for centuries. You saw how dangerous they are.”

“I saw you provoke her. And if you do it again tomorrow, she’s going to kill you.”

“At least I’ll die fighting.” Gawania tried to prop herself up on her good arm. She grimaced in pain and fell back down.

“No you won’t. You can’t fight. You can’t even stand up. Please, Gawania. Just let it go. Let me get you to a hospital.”

“Bring me my battle standard. I will not have a coward for a banner man.”

Tom shook his head. Kids. These knights and dragon slayers were nothing but kids. The ancient orders promised them secrets, gave them vows and traditions. But in the end, they were kids dressed in armor, fighting battles no one needed fought. He brought the standard over and propped against a tree.

#

It was night. Gawania slept soundly by the fire. Tom crept to her side and gently shook her uninjured shoulder. She startled awake and grunted in pain.

“Come with me,” Tom said. “I want you to see something.”

“What is it?”

Tom held up a finger, signaling quiet. Soon the sound, long and low, rolled over the water. It was almost like a whale’s song. Or a foghorn.

“Just come with me,” he said.

“Why should I follow a coward, banner man?”

Tom grimaced. He almost told her to forget it. But letting a stupid kid die for no reason would be just as bad as helping her kill a dragon.

“I’m not asking you to follow me. Hell, I’m not even asking you to trust me. I’m just asking you to get in the boat and take a ride. There’s something you need to see before you throw your life away tomorrow.”

Again the long, low sound rolled over the water. Gawania climbed to her feet, refusing Tom’s help. She reached for her poleaxe.

“Leave the weapon. You won’t need it.”

Gawania ignored him. She tried to lift the axe in her good hand, but it was to heavy and awkward for her to maneuver one-handed. She fumbled with it for a little while, trying more than once to use her splinted arm for leverage. Each time she hissed in pain and dropped it.

Frustrated, she whirled on Tom with an angry look. “If this is some trick, banner man…”

“It’s no trick.”

Gawania climbed into the boat, leaving the rest of her threat unspoken. She lowered herself gingerly, hissing and wincing, until she finally settled onto the forward bench. Tom pushed off from the shore and climbed in after her. But instead of using the motor, he locked a set of oars into place. He sat on the bench and began to row. Once again, the sound rolled towards them.

“What is that sound, banner man? Is it the dragon? Did I wound it?”

“No talking,” Tom said. “If she hears us coming, she’ll swim away.”

“This could be our chance! We need to go back. I need my weapons. You have to fix the standard to the bow.”

Tom held a finger to his lips, shushing her. He rowed, following the sound and occasionally stopping to check his position. His father had showed him the spot once. It was in that tiny inlet, past the mid-point on the north side of the lake.

This is where she goes when she remembers, ” his father had told him. “When you hear her out there, stay clear. She deserves her mourning, same as anyone.

They were close now. The sound was much louder. Gawania sat anxiously in the front of the boat. She was plainly nervous at being unarmed, constantly fidgeting with her uninjured hand. Tom considered handing her his pocketknife just to get her to stop.

He brought the boat into the small inlet. There was a rock in the middle of it, a glacial boulder that was mostly submerged. Only the top part rested above the water. The dragon sat perched on it.

At the sight, Gawania sat stock-still. The dragon arched her neck, raising her head to the sky. She opened her mouth and once again let out the long, low cry. It was a mournful sound, filled with sorrow, longing, and loneliness. They sat in the boat, watching as the dragon called over and over again into the night.

It was the sound of the lost.

It was the sound of the frightened.

It was the sound of a creature that knew it was alone, but didn’t understand why.

Slowly, Tom lowered the oars into the water. He pulled as quietly as he could, moving the boat away from the tiny inlet. The dragon’s cries followed them, rolling over the water, echoing between the pines. They were nearly halfway back to the campsite when Tom finally spoke.

“There used to be two of them,” he said quietly. “Back when my dad was a kid. He told me you could always see them swimming in the lake, rolling and playing like dolphins. In all those years they never hurt anybody. He didn’t know if they were mates, or if they were the last survivors of a herd, or what. He only knew they seemed happy. And why not? They had each other.

“Until one summer, when someone like you showed up.”

“Please, don’t–” Gawania began.

“Dad never forgot them hauling the body out of the lake” Tom continued. “He told me the dragon slayer was a proud, smug son of a bitch. He said the man’s armor never even got a scratch on it. The dragon didn’t fight him. It probably didn’t even know what he was there for.”

“Please–”

“That inlet was where it happened.” Tom unlocked the oars. He put them in the bottom of the boat and started to prime the outboard motor. “You’d hear her on that rock after that. Not always. Usually it was after a thunderstorm. Sometimes it was when a train rolled by, and they hit the air horn. She’d crawl up on that rock where he died, and she’d cry for him until morning.”

The motor puttered to life. Tom steered them back towards the campsite. “The other one’s been gone for more than sixty years,” he said. “And she still cries every time something reminds her of him.”

“Why did you show me that, banner man?” Tom couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like she might have been crying.

“I just wanted you to have a better look at your monster, Gawania.”

#

In the morning, Tom woke to find her standing on the shore, staring out over the water. Even with the broken arm and collarbone, she’d partly dressed herself in her armor. Tom couldn’t even imagine the pain that must have caused her. He stayed quiet, stoking the fire, boiling the water, and getting ready to make coffee. He watched Gawania.

Slowly, she removed her helmet. She held it up with her good hand, looking at it, twisting it, as if she were trying to see herself there. Then, with very little ceremony, she threw it into the lake. Next she awkwardly wrestled the poleaxe into an upright position, butt resting on the ground. She looked up at the blade, perhaps seeing it for the ugly thing it was. She let it fall in after the helmet. The armor was last. She struggled with it, making several pained sounds and uttering some curses. Tom stood back, knowing she wouldn’t want any help from him. Soon the armor joined the helmet and the poleaxe.

After a time, she came and joined Tom by the fire. Without a word, she took the red battle standard off of its pole and dropped it into the flames. Tom offered her a steaming mug.

She took it without smiling. “Mostly coffee?”

“No. Mostly whiskey.” He sipped his own, letting her enjoy it for a bit. “What will you do now?”

“That hospital doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”

Tom nodded. “And after that?”

“I don’t know. I might have to go into hiding for a while. The Knights of the Rose are pretty harsh on disloyalty.” She looked up at Tom. “What about you?”

“I’ll make it. We’ll probably have it rough for a while. We’ll have to start over. But Marybeth will understand. So will the kids, when they’re old enough.” Even so, he wasn’t looking forward to breaking the news when he got home.

“I’m sorry I got you involved in this, Tom.”

“Listen, Gawania, I–”

“Trish,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“My name’s Trish. If I’m giving up the knight business, then I’m giving up the name.”

“Alright, Trish. I’ve got a sister-in-law with a guest room. I can call her up if you need someplace to hide for a while.”

“Thanks.” Trish polished off the rest of her mug. She smiled ruefully. “So, do you know any good employment opportunities for ex-knights in shining armor?”

Tom looked out over the water. He thought he saw the surface ripple in the distance, but he couldn’t be sure. “How would you feel about wildlife conservation?”

“Maybe. Let’s talk about it on the way to the hospital.”

Tom quenched the fire, and helped her into the jeep.

Welcome to the November Issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine

Well, we’ve made it. Urban Fantasy Magazine is officially in its second year. It’s been a crazy ride with so many amazing stories along the way. For those who haven’t seen it on our website already, due to gaps in our staff, we will be going on hiatus in January. We will keep the website updated with any new developments.

If I had to pick a theme to our stories this month, it would be “changing rituals.” It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the things we do every day, the way we’ve always done things. It often takes something extreme to alter our views, and even then, we can be pretty stubborn. In our first story, “Gawania and the Banner Man” by Daniel J. Davis, a creature’s fate is wrapped up in an old tradition. In “Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place” by David Tallerman, a man looks at everyday rituals in a unique way when he learns the world may not be around much longer. “Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place” is our first reprinted story, and David Tallerman is also our interviewee for November.

We’ve got a guest reviewer this month, Sara Patterson, who shares her opinions on Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World, while Kristin Luna reviews a creepily fun anthology, Carniepunk. And, of course, we have the grand finale to our serialized story, Dead Records by Ryan Reid and Steven Savile.

Thanks for reading, and for all of you joining in the craziness that is NaNoWriMo, happy writing!

-Katrina S. Forest

Creating Shadow Police: An Interview with Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell is probably most well-known in the fandom for his work on Doctor Who, particularly the creation of the Seventh Doctor’s companion, Bernice Summerfield. We sat down to talk about some of his original works, starting with his urban fantasy novel series, SHADOW POLICE.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What is it about police procedurals that attracted you to write the Shadow Police series?

PAUL CORNELL: I always enjoy it when a group of professionals in one field is blindsided by something completely outside their experience. It’s that feeling in Jaws of our hero being out of his depth. I also explore it in This Damned Band, where it’s a famous rock band who encounter the supernatural. I especially loved the idea of using real police methods and training against the ineffable.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: There is, so far, a book one and book two, can you share your plans for the future?

PAUL CORNELL: Book three is finished and will be out next June. I can’t as yet share the title. There’ll hopefully be five books in the series.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: The books have been described as The Sweeney, with ghosts – is that a fair description?

PAUL CORNELL: Ish, in that I like that grim copper humour, but The Sweeney also says 70s to me, and these are modern police officers. Also, there’s more to my London than ghosts. The city remembers the horrors that happened in it, real or fictional, and various people, groups and monstrosities make use of that.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: The books have been optioned for TV, how involved will you be, anything you can reveal?

PAUL CORNELL: I have a licence to meddle, but right now I’m stepping back and letting a talented showrunner with a good track record pitch it to various broadcasters. We’re about to start that process, so no news as yet.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Football is integral to the first book, are you a big football fan?

PAUL CORNELL: Not really, more of a cricket fan. I did learn a lot about West Ham lore for the first book, though. I’ve done interviews with their fanzines.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: You made the unusual decision to have a real person (Neil Gaiman) as a character in the series, how did this come about? Was it difficult to get right?

PAUL CORNELL: I had some specific reasons for including a real person (spoilers) and he was very keen on those reasons. I started watching his body language and speech patterns when we met, which must have been really weird for him. I had someone else in mind initially, but then talked to him about it, and was delighted by how into it he got. I still get outraged tweets from fans of his, as if I’d do that without his permission.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: How do you go about doing research, London is a massive place with a long and complex history, how do you go about bringing it alive & choose what will make it in the books?

PAUL CORNELL: I have a big reference collection about weird and supernatural London, and I know the place really well. It’s largely about choosing stuff nobody else has done, which is getting harder all the time.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: You had a novella published on the 9th of September. What can you tell us about that?

PAUL CORNELL: It’s called Witches of Lychford, it’s the second in Tor.com’s new ongoing novella line, and it’s about three diverse women in a modern Cotswolds town who have to band together to fight supernatural evil in the form of an arriving supermarket chain. Lots of comedy, but real horror too, and I hope it talks about the real world.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What are the challenges specific to the novella format?

PAUL CORNELL: It’s about being concise, but using the space given by this not being╩a short story. You need to bring the big idea for a novel, then do it crisply. A writer should really be better than that at describing the process.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: You work across many formats; do you have a favourite? Why not or why is it your favourite?

PAUL CORNELL: Prose is my favourite medium. You get to use all the dimensions, and everything else is about not having as much of something. I hope to end my career (not soon) being remembered as a novelist.

Flare by Eleanor R. Wood

Marcie read aloud from the storybook, her brother tucked against her on one side, her sister on the other. They’d pulled Ben’s blankets around them on the bed, more for security than warmth. It was their nest of safety, somewhere they could hide and pretend the rest of the house was as calm and tranquil as this.

But the tranquillity was an illusion. Marcie held them close and read to them in a bright, loud voice to drown out the shouting and comfort their fears. Something crashed; a thud, a smash of breakage. She feigned bravery while her heart raced and her insides tightened in miserable knots. They were little; she was the oldest. Four years between each of them, with ten-year-old Ben in the middle. When their parents tore into each other, it was Marcie the younger ones turned to for reassurance. Their little haven became a welcome distraction from the terrifying anger that shook the foundations of their world.

Ben and Emily had her to turn to. Marcie used to wonder who she had. Then the bettas came back.

It started with Fernando. She was walking home from school one day, dragging her feet against the burden of dread that had grown heavier since her parents’ fight that morning. Marcie hated those days, when the prospect of home churned her stomach. She didn’t want to face what would be waiting at the dinner table.

A gentle flicker of movement brushed her cheek. She caught a glimpse of colour from the corner of her eye and stopped short with a gasp. Level with her face, regarding her with his sideways expression, was a little fish. Two inches long, with liquid purple fins trailing behind him and his body the colour of a summer strawberry, it was her Fernando. Swimming in the air beside her.

He had died three months before.

He followed her home, dancing around her head or settling on her shoulder as he’d once rested on plants. He didn’t look like a ghost fish. He was as bright and opaque as she’d known him in life, and when she reached out a tentative hand, she felt the familiar pecks of his tiny mouth against her finger. She watched the sharp beads of his eyes as he watched her in turn, and her heart beat faster at his surreal beauty. By the time she got home, she’d forgotten her dread.

From then on, if she was feeling morose, he would dance before her or rest on her shoulder. His simple companionship was enough to cheer her when a door slammed or a stony silence reigned or Ben asked her, yet again, if Mum and Dad were getting divorced.

Her current fish, Topaz, was a sparkling aquamarine crowntail. Whenever she approached his tank, Fernando was there as well. He took instant offence, flaring fins and gill flaps at his blue-green cousin in a classic display of territorial aggression. Bettas couldn’t abide each other, but Topaz took no notice. Like everyone except Marcie, he didn’t know Fernando was there.

Marlin appeared shortly after another row. As Marcie arrived home from school one day, Fernando began flaring at some unseen foe. His entire body quivered, his gills open like a mane and his fins to full expansion. He paraded angrily before her as she let herself in.

“ – not YOU. No, you’re NEVER wrong!” Dad’s yell greeted her.

“So says Mr Bloody Perfect. You are unbelievable, you know that?!”

Not again. Marcie fought the urge to turn back through the door and leave. If she’d been an only child, she wouldn’t have thought twice. But how long had Ben and Emily been listening to this screaming match?

She slammed the front door, announcing her unhappy return, and ran upstairs to find them in Ben’s room, upset and frightened. Emily flung her arms around Marcie.

“You’re home!”

“Yeah. It’s okay, Em.”

Fernando settled on her shoulder. For the first time, his tiny comfort couldn’t overcome Marcie’s anxiety. She fought tears as her little sister clung to her. Emily and Ben needed her to be the strong one.

A new fish swam into view and her breath caught in her chest. His silver-blue body was framed in a halo of golden fins and he gleamed with pearlescence. He swam up to her face, sending her cross-eyed in wonder. Marlin… the betta before Fernando, and the most gregarious of them all. Her sorrow dampened as though his appearance had doused it in water. She smiled.

“What?” Ben asked in a sullen voice. He saw nothing to smile about while their parents cursed and threw things below.

“Nothing. Come on, who wants a story?” She chose The Paper Bag Princess – Emily’s favourite – and beckoned them into a safe den of blankets.

#

Things were quiet for a while after Marlin showed up. It was the tense silence of two adults refusing to acknowledge one another, but at least it brought a sort of peace. Dad was sleeping on the sofa bed, but Marcie thought maybe that was a good thing. Perhaps time apart would remind them they still loved each other really.

Ritz debuted during science class one afternoon, appearing from nowhere and circling Marcie cautiously. Her very first fish, his bright blue colour was offset by red ventral fins and his dark head with its blue-smudged nose. Fernando and Marlin swam lazily about him. Marcie had to assume they didn’t see each other. No self-respecting betta would tolerate another in such close proximity.

She tried to concentrate on her lesson despite the distraction. It was ten minutes before final bell when they started flaring.

Something was wrong. Around Marcie, fellow pupils copied diagrams from the board. The classroom was calm. The corridor outside was calm. Several minutes passed, and school remained studious and peaceful.

Marcie’s tension only grew. The bettas continued flaring silently, shaking their manes and strutting their enlarged fins. Fernando had only ever flared for a reason, be it Topaz or her parents’ rows. Had Ritz appeared for this spectacle?

When the bell rang, Ritz was flaring at her, as if to push her into action. She shouldered her bag, bade her friends a distracted goodbye, and began her walk home. The fish remained agitated but ceased trying to get her attention, which only worried her more. Something was wrong at home.

Mum was already there. She greeted Marcie by shoving a piece of paper into her hand.

“Do you know anything about this?” she asked.

The three fish were flaring again – Fernando at Mum, Ritz and Marlin at the slip of paper. Marcie looked at it. Her heart was thumping.

I’m leaving and I’m not coming back, the pencil-written note read in Ben’s scruffy writing. Don’t bother looking for me. I can take care of myself. –Ben

“It was taped to his bedroom door,” Mum said. “I phoned the school. They said he didn’t show up today.” Her voice wavered. “Did you know about this, Marcie? Did you?!”

“No! No, Mum, of course I didn’t. You think I’d have let him run away?”

“I don’t know. You two tell each other everything, don’t you?”

Marcie was hurt by the accusation in her mother’s tone, but knew it stemmed from guilt. If she and Dad hadn’t been making life so miserable, Ben would have no reason to run away. Marcie almost said this aloud, but bit her tongue. It wouldn’t help. Marlin looked at her from the corner of his eye, as if warning her to keep her mouth shut.

“I’ve phoned your dad. He’s leaving work early.” She’d also phoned Ben’s friends’ mums and none of them had seen him. They’d promised to call if he turned up, but Marcie knew him better than that. If he didn’t want to be found, he wouldn’t be.

“I’ve got to pick Emily up from ballet. Stay here, and phone me the moment he comes in. I won’t be long.” She gave Marcie a fierce hug and kissed the top of her head. Then she grabbed her keys and left.

Marcie looked around the deserted kitchen, feeling stranded and swamped. Sometimes she felt like she was the only one keeping things together. Like everyone else was at breaking point and she had to stay strong on their behalf. Tears threatened to well up and she knew if she let them, she would cry herself to exhaustion.

The fish were all looking at her, flicking their tails and nipping at the air as if mouthing silent words of comfort. Red-purple, silver-gold, and brightest blue, the light sparkled on their scales and she smiled despite everything. When the orange betta swam into view, she wasn’t even surprised. She’d been expecting him.

“Enri!” She offered him the tip of her finger and he peered at it, swimming around her knuckle to examine it in detail. Enri had been Ben’s favourite betta. He used to come and sit in Marcie’s room and talk to the red-orange fish.

“Where’s Ben?” she said to him, not really expecting an answer. But all four fish perked up. Enri began to swim towards the back door. Ritz and Fernando turned in the same direction. Only Marlin kept looking at her, almost as though asking if she really wanted to know.

Could they show her where Ben was? It was a daft notion, but surely no crazier than having four ghost fish swimming about her head. Maybe they could actually help. She knew she was supposed to stay put, but found she didn’t care. Finding Ben was more important than waiting for him. She knew he wouldn’t come home, anyway. Not until he’d stayed away long enough to make a point.

When she got outside, the bettas milled about aimlessly. She tried asking them to find Ben, but they just looked at her and fluttered their fins. Disappointed, she berated herself for expecting anything more. They were fish, after all. Not trained sniffer dogs.

She turned to go back indoors and then stopped. She’d been facing the woods behind the house. She abruptly realised where to find Ben.

Five minutes later, she’d bypassed the tangled undergrowth and found the secret path they’d always used. Marcie hadn’t been here in a while, but the cave fort couldn’t have changed much. She and Ben had discovered it years ago and had sworn to keep it a secret. Mum and Dad would have hated them exploring a cave on their own, even though it wasn’t much more than an overhanging rock face.

She found it again easily, despite its camouflage of rhododendrons and birch saplings. She pushed through the bushes. Four bettas swam with her between the branches. And there was the entrance to the old fort. The darkness beyond the lip of rock had never seemed threatening, and felt as welcoming now as it ever had. Secrecy. Safety. An adventurous place to call their own.

“Ben?” she called softly.

For a moment, there was silence. Then his face peeped out from the shadows. He hunched over to look out from beneath the rock and sighed visibly.

“You found me.”

“Well, yeah. This is our place, remember? You can’t have expected me to forget about it.”

“Did you tell anyone?”

“No. No one even knows I came looking for you.”

He relaxed at that. “I’m not coming back. You can’t tell them where I am.”

She could, of course. But she wouldn’t. Not yet, anyway.

“I won’t. I just wanted to see if you were here, and if you’re okay.”

He stepped back to invite her inside. She ducked under the rock face and breathed in the damp, musty air and the memories of a hundred childhood adventures. Ben had come prepared. His sleeping bag was laid out against the back wall of the cave, and he’d cleared a patch of leaves and detritus all around it. He had Dad’s battery-powered lamp, two pillows, a stack of comics, and three books. He’d also raided the kitchen cupboards and pilfered a box of Cheerios, three packets of crisps, four Penguin bars and a banana. He’d filled a two-litre bottle with water and Marcie could see spare clothes poking out of his rucksack.

She sat next to him on the sleeping bag. Enri swam up to Ben’s face in greeting.

“You’re planning on staying a while, then,” Marcie said.

“I like it here. It’s quiet. I’ve got everything I need. And I don’t have to listen to any more of their yelling.”

“Mum’s really worried, you know.”

“Maybe she and Dad will stop hating each other, then.”

Marcie sighed. “They don’t hate each other.”

“Yeah, they do. They’ve said it enough times when they’re fighting.”

“You told Emily the same thing last week when she wrecked your Lego space ship. But you don’t really hate her.”

Ben was silent for a moment. “That’s not the same. They’re parents. They aren’t supposed to say stuff like that.”

No, they aren’t, Marcie thought.

“So you’re going to stay here till they’re friends again?”

He didn’t answer that. “I just want everything to go back to normal. I want our family back to normal. I’m sick of all this crap.”

“So am I, Ben. But we have to stick together. You, me, and Em.”

“I’m not coming home.” He folded his arms to prove it.

“Okay. I won’t tell on you. But you can’t stay out here forever.”

She got up to leave. “Mum and Emily will be home any minute. And Dad’s coming back early because they’re worried about you. If you’re still here tomorrow, I’ll come and see you. But, Ben?”

“Yeah?”

“If you get scared or cold tonight, please come back.”

He picked up a comic book and stuck his nose in it.

#

Marcie was halfway back to the house when she realised one of the fish was missing. She turned in a circle, trying to see if he was hiding behind her head, but Enri wasn’t there. She glanced back towards the cave. He must have stayed with Ben. She smiled and carried on home with a lighter step, glad to know her brother wasn’t alone.

#

Mum was angry with her for leaving.

“I couldn’t just stay put – I had to try and find him!” she protested.

“I want to know where you are at all times!”

The anxiety in her mother’s voice told Marcie it was fear of her disappearing too that had Mum so worked up. “I’m sorry. I’m worried too.”

Dad walked in the front door, tension taut as a tightrope across his face. “Is he home yet?”

“No,” Mum said in a clenched voice. She was about to cry. Marcie was so tired of seeing her cry. For a moment, she was furious with Ben. She might have revealed him then. But Dad crossed the hallway and drew Mum into a firm hug.

“We’ll find him. I’m sure he’s fine. We’ll find him,” he said in a rough whisper.

They clung to each other, mutual love for their son overcoming the barriers they’d built in recent months. Marcie put her arm around Emily, who had inched closer to her big sister. They watched their parents caring for each other for the first time in forever, and Marcie’s anger at Ben dissipated. Could his ten-year-old’s protest remind their parents what they were supposed to feel for each other?

It seemed to. That evening, Mum and Dad cooperated and communicated as they hadn’t in weeks. They phoned everyone they could think of, alerted the police, and took turns to drive around looking for Ben. They were fraught and upset, but for once it wasn’t at each other. Despite their frantic anxiety, Marcie couldn’t help feeling glad at the change in their attitude towards one another.

Of course, Emily was frightened too. While Mum made phone calls and Dad scoured the neighbourhood, Marcie sat upstairs with Emily and read her stories. Emily insisted they sit on Ben’s bed, as always. Marcie longed to tell her that their brother was safe and hiding, but she didn’t dare. Emmy couldn’t keep secrets to save her life.

The bettas swam around them calmly, occasionally resting on Marcie’s shoulder or the bunched top of her knees. Marcie wished Emily could see them. She’d be mesmerised and it would take her mind off Ben’s disappearance.

Emily slept in Marcie’s room that night, while Fernando, Ritz and Marlin flared impotently at Topaz. Ben didn’t come home, but Marcie knew he wouldn’t until he was ready.

#

Something tickled her nose. She brushed it away, still half asleep. An insistent jab jolted her from her doze and she attempted to focus, cross-eyed, on whatever was moving about in front of her face.

Enri. The dawn light shone diffuse orange through his expanded fins.

Marcie blinked herself awake and sat up on one elbow. Enri was flaring back and forth across her vision, a terracotta blur of urgency. The other bettas seemed restless too, but Enri’s alarm was palpable.

“Ben,” Marcie gasped, throwing aside her covers. She got up, pulled on shoes and threw a jumper over her pyjamas, trying all the while not to awaken Emily who remained soundly asleep on the floor.

Should she wake her parents? And tell them… what? That one of her dead fish was trying to alert her to some danger to Ben, who she had known all along was hiding in the woods?

She could imagine how well that conversation would go down at 5.30 am. She ran for the back door instead. But Dad was sitting at the kitchen table, a mug of tea steaming beside him.

“Where are you off to in such a hurry?” he asked, startling her.

Marcie’s heart sank as she turned back to him. “Um… morning, Dad. I just wanted some fresh air.”

“It’s a little early for a walk, isn’t it?”

“I was only going in the garden.” She indicated her pyjama bottoms. Enri began his agitated pacing again as she stood still.

“I’ll join you, then.” He stood up, tea in hand.

Marcie was caught, unable to confess the truth yet rooted to the spot by it. She could see Dad hadn’t slept. He was still wearing his clothes from the day before. His eyes were bloodshot and his face looked drawn and grey.

Enri was flaring to twice his size, so close she could barely make out his features. The other three fish were picking up the tension now, parading their own displays around her. She had to go. Something was wrong. But just maybe she couldn’t handle it on her own. Maybe her dad deserved a break. As she looked into his harrowed face, Ben’s behaviour suddenly seemed selfish and unfair. She’d said she wouldn’t tell, but that was before. Before Enri’s panic.

She looked at the floor. “I know where Ben is, and I think he’s in trouble.”

“What?” Dad almost dropped his mug.

“I’ll show you. Just… don’t be angry. Please.”

He was beside the door already, pulling a jacket on. “Show me. Right now.”

They hurried across the lawn and into the woods. Marcie found the familiar path and led her dad along in silence. She hated to reveal their hideout. She hated to get herself and Ben in trouble. But her bettas had never been wrong. Her stomach twisted at thoughts of what might have befallen her brother.

They reached the cave and Marcie led the way through the concealing undergrowth.

“He’s in here,” she said as she ducked beneath the overhang.

But he wasn’t. His sleeping bag lay ruffled amidst crisp packets and comics, but Ben was absent. Dad relaxed at the evidence of Ben’s whereabouts, but Marcie’s anxiety only grew.

“Ben!” she called, running back into the woods. Enri was dancing about like a carnival performer, with Fernando, Ritz and Marlin his colourful troupe.

“Ben!” she cried again. Dad left the cave and lent his voice to hers; it carried much farther.

And then there was another voice, just over the ridge ahead.

“Here! I’m down here!”

Dad was ahead of Marcie, leaping tree trunks, heedless of scratching branches. He stumbled over the brow of the ridge and she got there in time to see him sliding down in a cascade of leaf mould, directly to where Ben lay huddled against a boulder. Ben reached arms up to his father, tears already falling, a frightened boy relieved to see his dad.

“I fell in the dark. I think I broke my ankle.”

“It’s all right. I’ve got you, mate. You’re all right.”

Dad picked up his son and hugged him tightly before carrying him back up the slope. He walked right past Marcie and didn’t say a word to her until they got home. Marcie followed, feeling the weight of his disappointment and watching the little orange fish who hovered about her father and brother all the way back.

#

Ben’s ankle turned out to be badly sprained, which he insisted on reminding everyone was worse than a break. He was grounded for two weeks, with no television or computer games for a month. Marcie bore the full brunt of her parents’ anger; they were too grateful that Ben was safe to be truly angry with him. But she should have known better, they kept telling her. She should have been looking out for her younger brother. She should have been the responsible one. She knew their anger was justified, but the accusations hurt. She did look out for Ben and Emily. All the time. Especially when Mum and Dad were too busy waging their stupid war against each other. She tried to keep it to herself, like always, but the day after Ben’s return, their disappointment still tangible, she came right out and said it. Just like that.

The conversation stopped in its tracks. Mum and Dad looked at each other, their clenched expressions speaking volumes.

“What are you talking about, Marcie?” Mum asked in a choked voice.

“Stop pretending you don’t know!” Marcie felt frustrated tears stinging her eyes. “You think it doesn’t affect us? You’re wrong! Why do you think Ben ran away in the first place?”

Marlin settled on her shoulder in moral support while Enri paced and Ritz and Fernando flared on her behalf. Her parents seemed at a loss for words, so she saved them the effort and left the room. She went to feed Topaz; her tears splashed into his tank. She’d better do a water change in case the salt upset him.

Later that evening, Mum and Dad called them all into the lounge and announced they were separating. Ben and Emily cried and had lots of anxious questions. “Maybe not forever,” Dad said as he hugged them, but Marcie knew better. She returned to her room and watched her four bright spirit fish displaying instinctive aggression to the oblivious Topaz. It was all posturing. They couldn’t get at him or each other. But placed together, they would fight to the death.

Some beings were better off apart.

Dead Records Part 8

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

Part 3: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/05/dead-records-part-3

Part 4: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/06/dead-records-part-4-2

Part 5: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/07/dead-records-part-5/

Part 6: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/08/dead-records-part-6/

Part 7: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/09/dead-records-part-7/

I swore to her in the back of our rented Jag that she would never have to sing a sad song again, and I was right, but not entirely by choice. The NME dubbed the concert “Double Bill, Double Kill”, and published lurid photos of the bloodbath in Martine’s dressing room. The singer herself was never found. No one saw her leave the stadium, and though the cops swept the stadium with K9 units, rumours swirled that she was hiding out in some boiler room deep within its bowels.

Aura’s career was finished.

Those few reviews of the concert that didn’t mention the murderous escapades of the headliner called her work “brilliant” and “unparalleled”. Unfortunately, her very public attempt at suicide had been captured from multiple angles on cell phones held aloft by the crowd, and that meant we were unable to obtain the insurance that was required by most concert venues in Britain.

Which was a bit shit, but seemed to suit Aura just fine.

We spent the next week hiding out in the studio. I played her some songs from my days in the punk rock band “Shut it”. My best song was “Don’t Shut the Bloody Door”, a song I’d written the night my much older girlfriend had been admitted to an underground club called the Inferno. I’d been carded by a bouncer and had to wait outside. Ah the angst of youth. It seemed like such a petty problem now, but I remember being devastated. The lyrics were angry, and I supposed it might have been a dangerous song to play for her, but my guitar-work was so rusty it made her smile. Soon she began harmonizing with my ragged three-chord melodies, and then she kissed me.

I set my guitar aside and returned the kiss.

We were going to be okay.

“Can I ask you something?” I asked her as we sat in Harvey’s cramped office, sipping instant coffee out of Styrofoam cups. Our executive assistant had called in sick, and we had the run of the studio.

She looked up at me from the rim of her cup and nodded.

“What did you do for Dolgov? I mean, guys like him don’t do anything out of the kindness of their hearts, and yet he paid for the studio. And your dental surgery.”

She smiled mischievously, and I was reminded of the girl she’d been back in my flat. It was something of a miracle that she’d been able to shake her depression so quickly, but in a sense she was the physical embodiment of the songs she sang, and music is a mercurial creation. A listener can feel the deepest sadness by a melody of minor chords one moment and then be lifted aloft by an aria in the next. Such was life with Aura. “Do you really want to know?” she asked.

“Sure.” My cup was getting warm from the scalding hot coffee within, so I shifted my grip. “I’m curious.”

“I slept with him.”

“What?” The coffee cup slipped through my fingers and I instinctively snatched for it before it landed in my lap. Unfortunately my aim was slightly off and, instead of catching it, I crushed the fragile Styrofoam, spilling coffee all over my shirt and pants. Pain flashed up and down my body and I shoved violently away from the desk. “You told me you weren’t his girlfriend!”

Her eyes flashed dangerously. “Do I have to be his girlfriend to sleep with him?”

“Yes.” I said, suddenly living in the 1950s and a world of disapproval. I shook my head. My emotions were in turmoil, and I was still dripping hot coffee. “No. I don’t know. Look, I have to, you know,” I indicated my coffee-soaked clothing, “We need to talk about Dolgov when I get back.” I turned to leave and then stopped. “You do realize that if he finds out about us, he’ll kill me?”

“He’ll have to get through me first,” she said with mock bravado.

I had no idea how prophetic those words would turn out to be as I left the room and walked down the hall to the bathroom. I was still upset about Aura’s admission. It wasn’t so much that she’d been with Dolgov–I mean I’m not a moron, we all have our histories and mine, well mine’s a legend in my own mind if nothing else. It was more that I’d already begun scheming up ways to pay the gangster back his money and then retire from the spotlight to a private life with Aura. You know, I’m loath to admit it, but I had…feelings for her. Uncomfortable feelings, not of the trouser department variety either, no, these were of the variety that compel you to book dinner reservations on Valentine’s Day and buy expensive rocks.

But if Dolgov considered Aura his property, as violent men tend to do with beautiful women, there would be no paying him back. Not with all the tea in China, or all the blood in Romania if that was more his thing. We’d have to disappear. Ghana was looking very good, again.

The bathroom reeked of baked road kill.

I tried to breathe through my mouth as I yanked on the handle of the paper towel dispenser and pulled on the sheets. I crumpled them into a wad, wet them under the tap, and then began to scrub at my chest and stomach. The effort yielded very little in terms of results. It certainly wouldn’t have stood up to the Persil Whites Test. After a few more scrubs I tossed the paper towels in the garbage and rested my hands on the counter-top.

I looked at myself in the mirror. I’m a simple man with simple needs. They hadn’t actually changed since the time I came in here when the Fortunate Fridays were dying in the studio. What I needed was Yevgeny Dolgov off my back. Permanently. But how? I had nothing on him, except that he lived in a bunker under the Fast Chem plant. Nothing illegal about that. Bond villain-esque, but not illegal. That meant traditional recourse was out. No cops riding in to save the day and my skin.

If my life was an action movie I might have taken matters into my own hands, but obviously that would have necessitated me being an action hero, and even then the gangster and his henchmen were vampires. I’d have to have a pretty strong death wish to take them on. Hell, even if his hirelings were mostly human, I’d still have to deal with Dolgov and his pet, Dimitri.

The mere act of thinking his name brought back all those very vivid memories of what he’d done to the Fortunate Fridays. And, I realized with horror, it had all begun with the smell of road kill in the bathroom. I spun around. The stalls were empty. That meant…

I slammed into the bathroom door and skidded into the hallway.

I wanted to yell a warning to Aura, but the studio door was open and I didn’t want Dimitri to know I was coming. I had no plan. No wooden stakes, no silver bullets, no garlic. I had the element of surprise, but I didn’t know how that was going to help me.

I stopped just before the studio door and ducked my head around the corner. The main door opened into a hallway that was painted black with wooden finish. Left was the studio. Right was the office. There was no sign of Dimitri. I shifted my position and took a step into the studio so that I could see into the office.

I could barely see Aura through the legs of the chair in which I’d sat when I spilled coffee on myself. She was hiding under the desk. She spotted me and motioned frantically that I should remain in the hall.

Not a chance.

This was my moment. I was going to rise to the occasion. I was going to… what? Fucked if I know, to be honest. Make it up, I guess. Doesn’t sound quite as heroic, but it’s pretty much on the money.

I picked up a microphone stand that was lying in the hall and folded up its legs so that it formed a long black pole. I knew it wouldn’t do much good against a vampire, but it felt better to be armed. I heard a noise from the studio down the hall and backed away from it. Seeing that I wasn’t going anywhere without her, Aura pushed my chair out of the way, crawled out from under the desk, and then joined me in the hallway. I caught her up in one arm and felt her press into me. She put her finger to her lips and indicated the door with a nod of her chin.

We backed out of the office as quietly as we could. I still had the Jag in the parking lot downstairs. The problem was that the elevator was past the bathrooms at the other end of the hallway. I didn’t know if Dimitri had been sent because Dolgov had knew I was doing the nasty with Aura, or if it was because he’d come to the conclusion that I’d failed to make his girlfriend (or rather, lover, I amended bitterly. Oh so bitterly.) famous and thus had arrived at the end of my usefulness. Either way, Dimitri wasn’t after Aura.

I dug my car keys out of my pocket. “Here,” I said, offering them to her. “It’s me he wants. Not you.” I thought of the ticket to Ghana I’d bought but never used. “Take the Jag and make for the airport. I have credit with British Airways. Use it.”

She bit her lip and looked down the hall. She looked back. “What about you?”

“I’ll be fine. You know me. I’m a survi–”

Suddenly plaster flew apart around us. Hands like steel vices clamped onto me yanked me into the hole Dimitri had smashed through the studio wall. It was a tight fit. Not that I had time to worry about going on a diet to make it easier next time. He released me and there was a brief moment of weightlessness before the wall came up hard behind me. The plaster crunched, leaving a man-sized indent, and the air exploded out of my lungs. My vision was blurry and my eyes didn’t want to focus in the same direction. Two carpeted floors spun beneath me. I put my foot down on the wrong one and lurched to the side, collapsing into a drum kit. I bounced off a low tom-tom and brought the snare down on top of me with a cymbal crash that would have amused Tom and Jerry.

Something wet dripped onto my lip and then ran down the side of my chin as I lay in the wreckage of the drum kit, and I realized that it was blood.

I must have broken my nose but I couldn’t remember how.

In fact, I couldn’t remember how I’d ended up in the drum kit and saw no particular urgency to leave it.

A shadow loomed before me and I was dragged to my feet. I wobbled and began to slump again, so the shadow very helpfully hoisted me up into the air and slammed me back into the wall.

Sparks shot through my eyes, chasing away the blurred vision.

Dimitri shifted his grip and held me by the neck.

He wasn’t choking me, but the human body is not designed to be suspended that way. I felt like my spine was going to separate and his fingers were hot brands on my skin. I grabbed onto his hand with both of mine, trying to lessen the pressure.

“Yevgeny Dolgov says hello,” said Dimitri. Even this close, his eyes were dark pits and his mouth a red slit filled with needle-like teeth. He squeezed his thumb and forefinger, closing my windpipe and crushing my Adam’s apple. I began to gag and was paradoxically worried I might vomit on the vampire enforcer. I mean no one wants to be remembered as the guy who puked when you were putting the frighteners on him.

Suddenly his eyes widened almost imperceptibly and he turned his head, lowering me, not so far that I could stand on my tiptoes, but just enough to keep me wriggling because frankly he was a sadistic twat. “I’m only supposed to hurt you if you get in the way,” he said over his shoulder.

At the edges of my battered senses I began to hear the sound that had stopped him. A soft hum, gentle at first, but darkening quickly. Aura stood in the hole Dimitri had made in the wall. Her blue dress was stained with plaster dust, but there was something terrifying about her. This was the man-eating monster that she’d once been, and she had more in common with a great white shark than with a woman.

Dimitri released me completely, perhaps afraid for the first time in his long life. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said haltingly.

The humming continued and I felt her anger begin to seep into me as the lyrics erupted from her. The song she sang was rage, it was a conflagration. It was “Don’t Shut the Bloody Door”. It was mine. And it was a dangerous song.

“I–” Dimitri said again, but it was too late. He’d made her angry. He really shouldn’t have made her angry.

She bounded forward in a blur, snatched him up like a rag doll, and then threw him through the studio glass and into the live room. He smashed into the soundproofing and overturned a stool and microphone stand, then collapsed to the ground. He was supernaturally fast, but she was faster.

She caught him with a shoulder as he rose, and this time the soundproofing exploded outwards under the impact of their two bodies and they disappeared into the next office.

I stumbled to my feet, still shaken, and looked dumbly at the hole in the live room. The wall between the studio and the office behind it had been reinforced with brick and a Kevlar-like material used for soundproofing, and it was now shattered and torn respectively. One of the studs had exploded into kindling. I grabbed a particularly sharp piece and pulled it free. Hey, it was wood. It was pointy. That, in my books, made it a stake. I’m not big on literal definitions, but if it looks like stake, stabs like a stake, I figure it’s a bloody stake. That’s good enough for me.

Look I’m not a hero, I’m not even hero’s sidekick material. I’d have loved nothing more than to split, but Aura wasn’t indestructible. She was strong, sure, but it hadn’t been exactly a long time since she’d tried to commit suicide by jumping off a forty foot scaffolding. Once Dimitri realized she was made from your run-of-the-mill soft squidgy stuff he’d make quick work of her.

I stepped through the hole, armed only with my trusty–it was trusty now, okay? We were about to go through a lot and I loved that piece of wood–sharp piece of wood and then blinked against the sudden light from overhead fluorescents. A half dozen desks confronted me, each with two monitors and a black computer case sitting on the floor nearby. A large orange and white banner that read “PEEL Marketing Ltd.” hung across one wall. A nearby overturned water cooler glugged water onto the floor. Horrified PEEL staff members huddled in the office kitchen to my left and an unconscious man with blood pouring from his head lay on the floor nearby.

I put the stake under my arm, dragged the man over to his fellow staffers and told them to look after him. They nodded back at me with fear in their eyes, but did nothing. I caught a look at myself in a mirror with a motivational slogan on it that hung on the kitchen wall. Covered in scratches and plaster dust, torn clothing, two black eyes and a broken nose. I looked half-dead. No wonder they were terrified.

I left them in the kitchen and crossed the office to a small hallway that led to a conference room. As much as I wanted to run to Aura’s rescue, I was conscious of the fact that I wasn’t her knight in shining armour. She was mine. If I wasn’t careful, she’d have to rescue me all over again.

A wide-eyed man with a walrus-like mustache and a belly to match nearly knocked me down in the hallway as he ran for safety. He didn’t even say sorry. Not an excuse me. Nothing. I tutted. I mean, you need some kind of decorum when you’re waddling for your life, don’t you? It’s not very British.

I found Aura and Dimitri in what had probably been the fat man’s office.

Dimitri held both of Aura’s arms in one meaty fist amid the splinters of the man’s desk. She was still singing “Don’t Close the Bloody Door”. Her rage was strong, but she didn’t have her sharp teeth, the other deadly weapon of the siren, whereas his fangs were very much intact.

It was like watching a declawed house cat fighting a rabid tom.

He head-butted her hard and I heard the back of her head smack into the floor. “Remember, you made me do this,” he growled at her as he raised his other fist. Quite the gentleman.

I took three steps forward and brought the remains of the stud down in the middle of his back. It would have been a mortal blow, except that he was a vampire and I was only human and I’d forgotten to actually stick the pointy end in. He twisted impossibly fast and caught the stake, and then rose before me, his eyes like coal, impossibly big. He grabbed my face with his free hand, fingers at my temples and thumb at my chin, and began to squeeze.

I thought my eyes were going to rupture.

My head was going to explode.

Unfortunately it was my big head, not the little one I did most of my thinking with.

Suddenly, it was over.

Just like that.

No, no, no, my head didn’t explode. I’m not talking to you from the beyond or any kind of crap like that. He released his grip and screamed as he collapsed into dust, filling the air with the smell of sulfur and burnt meat. Aura stood behind him, her head and face a bloody mess, holding the leg of the shattered desk. She’d remembered the whole pointy-stabby part of hitting a vampire with wood. Okay just thinking hitting someone with wood I realize I’ve got a bit of one track mind, but seeing her standing there, triumphant, I don’t mind saying I was sporting a bit of a stiffy. Call it fear. She let the lifesaving leg drop from her fingers and fell into me. I clutched her tightly, feeling her sob into my chest.

“We have to go,” I told her after a while. Sooner or later one of those frightened office workers would remember to dial the Met, although I had no idea what they’d say once they arrived. “That pile of ash there was fighting with a tiny waif of a girl who was singing a lot…actually she was really good, but a bit angry. She kicked the ash’s ass.” Because you kick ass, kicking arse just doesn’t sound right, even to me. They’d have to explain the damage to their insurance company, but I was ready to bet that when an actual police office with a notepad was standing in front of them, some other story, something a little more plausible, would suddenly occur to them. Like mice. It was always good to blame mice. Or rats. The city was full of them.

Dolgov would be watching my flat and the studio was wrecked. Further, he’d already demonstrated that he could find me no matter which scuzzy hotel we checked into. No, we had to go somewhere where he couldn’t touch us, and it had to be close.

The old Knight Templar in Temple, down by the Old Bailey, was larger on the inside than it looked on the outside. The main chamber was a large rotunda filled with arc-shaped pews which faced the altar in its center. A large wooden cross hung from the rear wall, illuminated by light filtering through stained glass windows depicting biblical scenes, many of which were unfamiliar to me.

I’d chosen the church because in 2003, an Algerian dissident who faced deportation, despite having fathered two children with a British woman, took refuge in the church for eighteen months until his case was heard in the House of Lords. That meant the minister in charge of the church would be sympathetic to a plea for sanctuary, and that they’d have space to house us if it came to that. Plus, I mean, it was a Templar church, those guys were connected. We’re talking secret society pre-dating the mafioso. If anyone was going to stand up to Yevgeny’s mob it was this lot. They were pretty nifty with swords in their day, too. Always a plus.

I didn’t know quite what to tell the portly administrator in the white smock who interviewed us about our request, but he had a niece who’d been at the Martine concert and he’d read the newspaper headlines. He assumed that we were there to dodge the paparazzi and maybe receive some religious therapy, who was I to deny him his little fantasy?

Message for Authors

Due to the large amount of stories we have been receiving, we unfortunately have to close submissions a few days earlier than expected. We will stop taking submissions on October 26th at 11:59pm EST.

We sincerely apologize to authors who were still planning to send work in and encourage you to send us your work either today or tomorrow. We’ve had a lot of good stories coming through the queue, and we want to give everyone who submits a fair chance at being selected.

We are looking forward to reading your work!

Illusionarium by Heather Dixon Reviewed by Kayla Dean

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Illusionarium by Heather Dixon

Reviewed by Kayla Dean

ISBN: 0062001051 (Hardback)

Greenwillow Books — 368 pages.

Since her 2011 fiction debut Entwined, an elegant retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses in which delicate love story meets magical fairytale, readers have been waiting for more from animator turned author Heather Dixon. This time, she took her readers on a different journey in Illusionarium, a steampunk novel that took me by pleasant surprise.

In Illusionarium, 16-year-old Jonathan Gouden is an apprentice scientist to his father, a quirky but honorable man who studies medicine. In Fata Morgana, their aerial city in the icy north, a terrible disease has hit. The Venen is a killer of women, a deadly disease that soon infects Jonathan’s sister, mother, and longtime crush. But they’re on the clock: seven days and everyone he loves will die. Only Jonathan and his father can find a cure to the Venen, until the King insists that they work with Lady Florel, who Mr. Gouden served as an apprentice years ago.

The problem is Lady Florel is insisting they use a hallucinogenic to cure the Venen. The new substance, fantillium, lets people share hallucinations. Lady Florel hopes that Jonathan and his father can use it to practice cures without risk to the patients. Also, Jonathan discovers that he is an illusionist, a person that has the ability to manipulate matter under the influence of the drug. He wants to help, but his father doesn’t believe in Lady Florel’s solution.

It’s not long after that he’s shipped off to Arthurise, an alternate London, where he’s removed from his family and put in jail for a violent illusion involving a guard of the king’s airship. Arthurise is more or less the London we know, complete with the Tower of London, Thames, and Big Ben, but the government structure is a little different. And- you guessed it- the city was re-named after King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Jonathan isn’t in jail for long; Lady Florel busts him out and leads him into yet another alternate London, Nod’ol. His goals keep changing: first, he needs to win a cure for his family; second, he must fight the best illusionists in Nod’ol; third, he must defy Lady Florel and defeat the illusionists with friends he meets along the way. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens, but I can say this: you might be better off re-reading Dixon’s debut novel.

While Illusionarium featured great action scenes, unique Steampunk inventions, and an amazing alternate world which was strongly Victorian, there was something missing from the story. I’m not even sure that it’s tangible. I liked Jonathan, but he lacked some depth. Jonathan’s mother, sister, and crush are on the brink of death, but we don’t really feel his despair. We see that he understands the urgency of the situation and he does do everything in his power to remedy it, but a certain fervor is missing. It’s only through telling that Dixon conveys Jonathan’s despair. There isn’t any real subtext to really affirm this assertion.

The storytelling happens mostly in dialogue, and it does move along fairly quickly, but we don’t get quite enough introspection. For all its energy, Illusionarium doesn’t have the sass and kick of a Gail Carriger novel, such as Soulless. Although both novels feature alternate worlds, they are basically the cities we know, plus some dirigibles and a different name. London comes through loud and clear as a city echoing with history, a place rife with the struggles and chivalric strife of King Arthur as well as the later Victorian heroes. It’s a fusion of worlds, yet Illusionarium still didn’t have the same charming effect as Dixon’s first effort.

While Illusionarium was a decent book, I would recommend Entwined over this steampunk adventure. Fans of Laini Taylor Marissa Meyer, and Maggie Stiefvater may love the book, but if you’re looking for something more character-driven, I’d look elsewhere in the genre.

Black Dog Short Stories/Pure Magic by Rachel Neumeier Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis

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Black Dog Short Stories and Pure Magic by Rachel Neumeier

Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis

ISBNs: 9781908844842 (Black Dog Short Stories Ebook), 9781513038827 (Pure Magic Ebook)

Anara Publishing — 138 and 323 pages, respectively

When Rachel Neumeier’s Black Dog was first published in 2014, it was the most interesting and original werewolf book that I’d read in a long time. In multiple re-reads since then, it’s become one of my favorite werewolf novels of all time. So I found it particularly disappointing when Angry Robot Books closed down the imprint that had published it, Strange Chemistry, and it looked like readers might not get a sequel after all.

Luckily, Neumeier decided to publish the sequel herself, along with a collection of tie-in short stories. Black Dog Short Stories is a collection of pieces featuring the characters of Black Dog, and it’s utterly charming and fun. I wouldn’t recommend it as an entryway for new readers to her series, simply because there is so little information given at the beginning to set up the characters and their situation. Neumeier takes it for granted that readers will already understand the setup and recognize all the characters, which, of course, new readers can’t do. But if you have already read and loved Black Dog, this entire book will read like a literary box of chocolates, every one of them sweet and delicious. The books in this series are emotional and intense, but these short stories include lighthearted and funny adventures like “Christmas Shopping” as well as darker, more heart-wrenching pieces like “A Learning Experience.” The final story even provides startling insights into the backstory of one of the more enigmatic characters in Black Dog. Fans of the series won’t want to miss it.

Better yet, even new readers can easily start the series with the second book, Pure Magic. While Black Dog alternated between the viewpoints of fifteen-year-old Natividad and her two brothers, this book introduces a brand-new character, Justin, an older teenager who only learns about the hidden world of the Black Dogs after being attacked by vicious “strays” in the first chapter. In this version of contemporary America, there are two different types of werewolves: the lawless Strays and the Black Dogs who live under the law of Dimilioc. Both of them are irresistibly drawn to the Pure, witches who have the ability to tame Black Dogs’ demonic rage. Strays are drawn to murder any of the Pure whom they discover; Dimilioc is sworn to protect them; and Justin, unbeknownst to himself, is the first Pure boy that anyone has ever heard of, with a natural ability for magic that he’s never known about.

When the Black Dogs of Dimilioc rescue Justin from the Strays’ attack, they insist on taking him back with them to their remote home for his own protection, despite all of his furious protests. Raised by a Pure mother who kept him safe but never shared any of her secrets with him before her death, Justin is horrified by the sudden discovery of his own talents and new limitations, as they turn his world upside-down. Natividad and her brothers saw Dimilioc as a safe haven in Black Dog, but in Pure Magic, Justin fights against it as a prison, no matter how well-meaning the Master of Dimilioc might be. While Natividad took the strict rules of Black Dog society for granted, Justin is horrified by them – and by the discovery that, for the Black Dogs of Dimilioc, the most prized mate possible is one of the Pure. There is only one mature female Black Dog at Dimilioc, the fierce and prickly Keziah, and she and Justin are equally resistant to the idea of being pressured into mating…even as they are reluctantly attracted to each other.

But even as Justin and Keziah circle warily around each other, and Natividad negotiates her own careful romance with another Black Dog, far darker things are happening in the world around them. The Black Dogs of Dimilioc were terribly depleted by their recent war with the Blood Kin. They may have defeated the vampires, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Now, the Master of Dimilioc is struggling desperately to maintain safety and stability in the region, his power spread thin with only a few mature Black Dogs left under his command. Not only are there vicious strays whose violence must be controlled for the sake of the Pure and the ordinary humans, but murderous new interlopers are flooding in now, at his moment of weakness, to challenge him for territory. Sweet Natividad’s own Pure magic is also beginning to show disturbing, dark taints…and even worse, there are growing hints that the Blood Kin may not have been entirely defeated after all.

As half the Black Dogs are drawn into a desperate battle on the East Coast, Natividad and Justin find themselves trapped on another side of the country with only two Black Dogs to help them against a power terrifying enough to require a whole army. If they are to survive, Natividad will have to risk her soul with her rapidly darkening magic, and Justin will have to embrace his true nature, no matter how dangerous that might be.

Pure Magic mixes warmth, humor, and romance with some of the most effectively chilling scenes I’ve ever read, along with an inexorable sense of rising tension that becomes absolutely stomach-clenching by the end of the book. It’s a perfect followup to Black Dog, but it would also stand securely on its own for any new readers to the series. While it wraps up all of its most important threads with a satisfying sense of closure, I am not-so-secretly hoping that Neumeier will decide to write more and more books set in this world. Highly recommended.

Layer By Layer by Wendy Hammer

It’s Onion Night at Rusty’s Shed.

The event is never listed on the illuminated box that hawks the drink specials. Onion Night isn’t like Happy Hour or Friday Karaoke.

It’s not for everyone.

Onion Night always begins the same way. I pick a table in a dim pocket on the quiet side of the bar and place the onion in front of me. Tonight’s specimen is particularly handsome—a firm oblate spheroid with papery skin drawn into a tight topknot. I turn it so the produce sticker faces the room.

Rusty responds to this signal, as he always does, by ambling over to drop off a mason jar filled with a dirty martini and a cocktail spear loaded with olives. I salute with the glass and take a hearty swallow. “It won’t be a long wait tonight. I can feel it.”

He nods. Slow. Like he feels it too. “I’ll send ‘em right on over when they come, Miss Vidalia.” Rusty tickles the onion with a gnarled index finger all shiny from the lotion he slathers on to combat bar rot. He’s fighting a losing battle and I can see some telltale swelling by the cuticle of his thumb.

I need to volunteer to cut the lemons and limes for his next shift. My hands are already cracked and dry, thick with calluses. I never moisturize or fool with fancy manicures, and I keep my nails short and strong. They aren’t pretty, but they get the job done.

Rusty finds my first customer before I’ve had a chance to finish half my drink. I see the boy lean in to listen to the pitch and pretend not to notice when he sneaks a peek at me. I try to project serenity. I let my eyelids droop and pull the corners of my mouth up in a little half-smile. When he turns back to Rusty I suck in a quick mouthful of martini.

The boy nods to himself and shuffles over. “The old guy said you tell fortunes.” He thrusts out a hand clutching a crisp hundred.

I gently tug it out from between his fingertips. “He’s right. Sit. Please.”

The boy obeys. He blinks at the onion and then at me. A blush creeps up his neck and comes to rest on the plump apples of his cheeks. He looks too young to be in a bar.

I could talk to him about the mystical power of onions—their secret hearts and layers. I keep quiet instead.

“So do you, like, read cards or something?”

“Sure thing.” I always let the customer choose what form their reading will take because they’re all the same to me. I rummage around in my bag for the right bundle and make a show of unwrapping the deck from its parcel of indigo silk. I push the stack over. “Keep your concerns in mind while you shuffle the cards. Then make your cut.”

The cards slap and burr as he handles them. Words pour out of him at the same time. I pick up all sorts of useful details in the flood of trivialities. His name is William. He’s a diligent student, a small town boy—a soft touch who couldn’t dissemble if he tried. In short, he’s a cold reader’s dream.

I suppress a sigh. I’d hoped this one would be easy, but he’s sweet and in need of something more than a show. I adjust my strategy and skip the preliminaries. I’m guessing he’s not here about the past and his present is likely to be something he’s given a fair amount of attention to. He wants what he can’t touch on his own.

I flip the top card and don’t even bother to look at it. “This represents your future.” I draw out the sentence, trying for a tone somewhere in between the mysterious and maternal.

William stares at the image like a kid sizes up the candles on his birthday cake—like if he does everything right it will grant his dearest wish. It doesn’t work that way, but I can use the extra moment. His distraction gives me the time I need to do this right.

I ease my middle finger up to my mouth, find the edges of a chunk of hardened skin, and sink my teeth in. Power gathers. It knocks and punches at me, demanding entrance. I stiffen, finish the bite, and spit the strip of flesh into my hand. I close my fist around it to keep it safe.

The Opening is tiny, just enough to let me capture the answer to his unspoken question: codes, compilers, vectors, good. I say, “Don’t change your major. Stick to computer science. Take the graphics class and don’t stop gaming. It’ll pay off.”

William jerks back in his seat. His eyes widen. “The card told you all that?”

I nod and bring my index finger up to my mouth. The move will pass as nervous habit. I nibble off another piece of skin and crack the Opening wider. More power filters in. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I see a message lit on a monitor.

“This is tied to a girl, right? Olivia? You might want to check your email later. She won’t be in the picture after tonight.” I clear my throat before adding, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

William pales and stutters out a halfhearted thanks. He bumps the table and almost knocks over the chair as he shoots to his feet. The onion wobbles, but remains standing.

I stay still. It isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. Most genuine readings have a sting to them—the salty prickle of tears or a catch in the throat that adds a pungent edge to any hint of sweetness. They tend to linger.

I have a hard time shaking them off too. The energy I’ve summoned continues to pulse and my fingers twitch in response. There’s only one way to shut it down. I place both pieces of skin on my tongue and swallow them whole. The Opening slams shut and the tension eases.

Rusty can’t feel it the way I do. He just laughs and shakes his head as he watches the young man haul ass out the front door. He turns to me and calls, “Need a refill yet?”

I gulp down the rest of my martini and give Rusty the thumbs up. I’m ready for the next round.

#

Kandi shows up ten minutes later. She breezes right past Rusty and makes herself comfortable at my table. “I asked around about you. Doreen down at the Piggly Wiggly said you read her palm one night and that what you said come true for her. She got that raise.” Kandi pulls a roll of greasy twenties out from her cleavage and flips it on the table. The money almost unfolds, expands like it’s fighting for breath, and goes still.

“I’d like you to do it for me.” Her voice is loud, but quivers. “I need some answers.” A yellowing green bruise surrounds her right eye.

I push the wad of cash back over to her. “I was thinking about knocking off a little early, and…”

Kandi glances at my arms.

They’re covered tonight, but I know she’s thinking about what’s underneath the fabric.

She saw my scars last week when I was in her lane at the grocery store. My sleeves were too loose and they slipped back when I hefted a gallon of milk up onto the conveyor belt. A ragged two inches of fresh pink snaked below a shallow arch of scabbed half-moons on my exposed forearm. Someday the set will fade and blend into the larger crisscross of pale thin lines, but at that moment it had still been tender.

Kandi had drawn in a sharp breath. Our eyes had met.

Her look had said: I know you. I know this. She’d reached out to pat my hand and her eyes had filled. Sister.

Kandi is giving me the same look now, and just like before, I know it comes from kindness. It’s still mistaken.

“Please?” Her request is barely a whisper. She reaches out and rubs the onion. It’s no Buddha statue and I’ve never known it to bring much luck, but who am I to judge?

I take the money.

“Rest your palm face up on the table. Sit tight and take deep, even breaths. Close your eyes. Relax.” I force my tone into something low and soothing.

As I murmur, I pull my sandaled foot up to rest on my knee. My fingertips run over the misshapen nail on my baby toe and find the notch worn in its center. I get a grip on the outer corner of it and pull. The nail has been weakened by years of this routine, yet it isn’t about to give up without a fuss. I wiggle it—rock it from side to side. The pain is sharp at first and grows worse.

I grit my teeth against it. I want to stop, but I need what it will bring.

This Opening is going to be deeper and wider—the amount of power it will admit into this world, much stronger. I can feel it battering against me.

I force myself to pull slowly. Yanking too hard can tear the nail. I give it a slight twist, hoping to draw it out like a cork from a bottle.

The pain screams up the length of my toe before the root loses its grip. A rush of endorphins floods through me as I draw the nail out of its bed. The little digit feels hot and stretched thin.

My fingers are slicked with blood and I can feel more trickling down my foot from the pool the extraction left behind. The hurt will catch up to me later. For now I don’t care. The throbbing recedes as the power streams out of the wound. I concentrate and channel it all into the nail I’ve got cradled in my fist. The force thrashes, yet I prevail.

“It’s time.”

I use my clean hand to trace the lines on Kandi’s palm. The future is tangled and layered. Following its twists and changes is never easy. I couldn’t do it on my own. I need the energy to lead the way, to give me a steady look at what’s ahead.

Sometimes I don’t like what I see. Sometimes the truth cuts deep.

I drop all that heart-, fate-, love-line nonsense. I need to give it to her straight. “Levi will kill you within the month if you don’t get away,” I say.

Kandi shakes her head, grabs my hand, and squeezes hard. Then she laughs. It’s an ugly laughter, the kind that sounds like a hacking cough. The sort that’ll bring up blackness as deep and bitter as tar from a smoker’s lung.

I hold on to her hand and try to ignore the images still flickering around it.

“Well, shit,” Kandi says.

We sit quiet for a minute or two before I let go and nudge my mason jar over.

Kandi drinks, shivers, and hands it back. “I guess I had a feeling it’d be something like that. Guess I knowed it for a long time. Only I wouldn’t let myself hear it until now.” She sags in her chair. “I can’t just pick up and go though, right? Where…”

The power flares and I shudder with the force of it. I cover up by reaching in my pocket to pull out a card. I keep a little stash and try not to think about how many times I’ve had a need for it. “Call this number. These folks can help get you out. Get you set up elsewhere. You won’t be alone.” I press it into her palm. “Do it. Tonight.”

Kandi lifts her chin. Sets her shoulders. She stands and taps the onion’s topknot with the edge of the card. When she walks out of the bar, her back is stiff and her head’s held high.

I let the power ride a moment longer, to see. Her future hangs on a thread, thin as an onion’s skin.

I bring my stained hand up to my mouth. I lick off the residue of blood and place the nail I’ve been palming onto my tongue. I taste more copper as I chew. The power begins to break down as the nail softens and loses its integrity. I know I’ve swallowed a moment too soon when I feel another surge of power. It pounds at both my esophagus and the clot on my toe as it tries to escape.

I clamp down and force it back under control. One last bit of information squeezes through—a glowing map with a little teardrop bearing the letters KJ on it. I’m not sure what it means and don’t have time to dwell on it before Rusty sends over the next customers.

I don’t waste any skin on them. I gaze into a crystal ball, cast some runes, and pretend to consult a spirit guide. I joke about finding lost car keys—the usual. None of the customers notice how I fish for responses, how I fold their answers into mazes that lead to sugary dead ends. I know I’m not cheating anyone. I give comfort, flattery, and support—whatever it takes—and everyone gets their money’s worth in the theater of it all.

Some people want drama, not truth.

All they need to know of onions can be found in cookbooks and vegetable bins.

#

By the end of the night, I’m feeling better than good. Even after I tip Rusty out, I’ve got nearly seven hundred dollars in my pocket. It means I can make rent this month and maybe even take an extra day or two off. He keeps after me to do it and it isn’t bad advice. I could use a break.

My toe starts to throb as I walk out the door. The pain reminds me I need to bandage it soon or risk infection. I can’t afford that kind of weakness. I can’t let Rusty down either. He needs me.

I left him polishing the glasses. Said I wanted to stretch my legs in the night air. It wasn’t a lie. I love the cool of it and how the black sky brightens to deep blue around the lot’s sole street lantern. It’s peaceful once everyone’s gone but the two of us.

Gravel crunches behind me.

I turn and see Kandi. Her face has been pulped and her right arm is bent at an unnatural angle. The only reason she’s probably still standing is that she’s being held upright by a hand clenched at the back of her neck.

I recognize the man from my vision. Levi. He’s lean and roped with muscle. His skin is yellowed and pocked, shriveled up like a cob of picked over field corn.

He fixes me with a stare and shoves Kandi forward. She goes down hard and falls still.

“You the stupid whore that tried to fill my woman’s head with poison?”

I look down to see she’s breathing. It’s a good sign, worthy of hope.

“You look at me when I’m talking. She come see you?” He smirks. “Don’t lie. I got an app that tells me every move she makes. Phone’s smarter than that dumb bitch will ever be.” He spits and it lands by Kandi’s feet. “Doreen told me about Onion Night. Only time that one’s quiet is when her mouth’s full.” He jerks his hand up and down and thrusts his hips forward. “Know what I mean?”

I scuttle backwards and reach into my pocket. My fingers brush plastic and I grab hold.

“You need a lesson.” His voice is brittle and chill.

My feet freeze in the gravel. I panic and brandish my vegetable peeler.

He barks a laugh. “What do you think you’re gonna do with that? Cook me dinner?” His grin is toothy and wide with contempt. His gaze crawls over my body.

I hold out my arm, place the razor sharp blade in the crook of my elbow, and slice off a long ribbon of skin. It hangs in a loose spiral at a point just above my wrist. I scream as pain and blood and power surge from my body.

I see Levi’s plans for us.

Fistropebloodditch.

Coldcoldground.

He stares at my arm and the blood as it streams from the cut. His mouth falls open and hangs slack. He doesn’t move.

I fear his shock won’t last much longer. I take another swipe and watch another shaving of skin curl from my arm. The pain is distant for now.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

I sever the pieces from where they dangle and throw them at Levi. The strips hit his chest and cling there. He squeals. Spots of red bloom and spread in the fabric of his t-shirt.

Rusty asked me once what would happen if I didn’t close the Opening—if I didn’t channel the power or eat the flesh.

This is the answer.

The power goes wild and grabs Levi. It knocks him to the ground and strips him down layer by layer. Threads fly as his clothing unravels. He thrashes and screams, but there’s nothing for him to get a grip on. There’s no escape. He’s peeled down to hairless pink, then to red as the power continues to feed.

I jump when I feel a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t notice Rusty’s approach. He wraps a bar towel around my arm and keeps pressure on it. We stand and watch.

After a while Levi stops screaming.

When it’s over the only things left are the two curls of my skin, all shrunken and dull red like old apple peel. They still hum with power.

Rusty checks on Kandi as I pick up the pieces. I shake the grit off before shoving them in my mouth. I refuse to gag and force myself to chew instead. My jaws work and my teeth grind as I break the tissue down. The repetitive motion soothes away all that fear and anger, settling it into something I can’t quite get a grip on yet. It’s all tied up in knots.

I swallow the last of the flesh. The power doesn’t fight at all this time. It’s sated and sleepy.

I stand, bathed in the light from the lot’s lamp and the smear of the moon above as I contemplate the situation. I try to bundle up the pain and shove it into a far corner. It’s going to be with me for a while and I’m in no hurry for it to settle in and get comfortable.

Rusty cradles Kandi, sings a sweet little song just under his breath. She awakens and looks up. Her eyes look like they’re focusing and she seems relatively alert, but I figure she’s too far into shock to really know what’s going on.

The crying will come later.

I give him a nod and he places the call to 911.

I don’t think she’ll remember much about what happened out here in the lot and I see better days ahead for her. I’m glad she’ll get to claim them.

This time there’s no pressing need to ask the onion to tell me what’s what—the picture’s pretty plain to see. Then again, I’ve learned to never turn away from what’s been paid for. It’s for the best and I know it’s true.

I look into our future and nod at what I see. My eyes brim and I blink away the salt. It’s a good hurt, this knowing—got a power all its own.

It says: little by little, layer by layer, we’ll all heal.