Button Witch by Jane Lindskold

You find the Button Witch in places where there are lots of different buttons. She haunts these places, looking for…

Well, no one actually knows what she’s looking for.

It’s said that if you find the Button Witch and ask just right, she’ll grant you a wish. Not any sort of wish, mind you. Only a button wish. If you can figure out just what a button wish might be, you’ll get what you ask for – and you’ll live with it, too, even if later you change your mind.

Penn had seen the Button Witch three times. The first time, she’d been eight – a skinny kid with curly copper-bright hair and a button-nose – searching through a Goodwill for the makings of a Halloween costume. She’d been called “Penny” then, and liked it.

The second time Penn saw the Button Witch, she was thirteen, prowling through a flea market, looking for treasures that probably existed only in her mind. She was getting curves by then, and was becoming self-conscious about her freckles. She’d also decided that she was too old to be called “Penny,” but felt that “Penelope” was too much of a mouthful.

Penn’s final glimpse of the Button Witch had been when she was nineteen, hunting for affordable secondhand furniture for her first-ever apartment. She’d decided she wanted to be called Penn, and she was – at least by everyone except family.

Each time Penn had seen her, the Button Witch had looked just the same: a bent old woman with a face so aged and withered that she could have been any race, except the very darkest. Her eyes were shoe button black and shoe button bright, her hair a steel wool halo that tumbled about head, neck, and shoulders – wispy fine, yet full all the same.

It was her clothing that made the Button Witch stand out, for every bit was covered in buttons. Her earrings were buttons, as was the wide necklace that covered her chest. Button bangles dangled from her wrists, and button rings decked her gnarled fingers. If she wore a hat, it was sewn all over with buttons. Her shoes, of course, were fastened with buttons.

She clattered gently when she walked: a sound like dry leaves, tossed dice, or rattling bones.

Penn never spoke to her but, maybe because of those encounters, she took to collecting buttons. At first Penn just tossed the buttons that popped off her shirts or she found on the streets into a little cedar box. Later, she purchased bottles or bags of odd buttons at thrift stores, enjoying the process of sorting and organizing.

Inevitably family members noticed Penn’s interest. They gave her their own pop-offs, sometimes even going to the trouble to clip the buttons from a shirt or dress otherwise destined for the trash. When she moved into a retirement community, Penn’s grandmother gave Penn her own button box. This contained some really interesting buttons, some of which Penn’s grandmother claimed had belonged to her own grandmother.

About the time Penn’s hoard was becoming unwieldy, she learned there were serious button collectors out there. Although she never lost her pleasure in even cheap plastic buttons, she traded some of these away to make room for rarer types. The buttons she couldn’t trade, she made into jewelry or sewed onto caps or gloves.

Buttons weren’t Penn’s only hobby. She loved music as well. Not just the playing of it, though she played many instruments – strings and winds and keyboards all. She made rattles by netting gourds with mesh inset with four-holed buttons, combining her passions. Everyone knew Penn was a performer, but few knew that in her heart of hearts, Penn desired to make her mark as a composer.

Over time, while buttons remained of great interest, Penn turned more and more of her attention to musical composition. It wasn’t enough to hum a piece or sing a few bits so that her fellow performers could follow along. She wanted to learn to compose – and in the proper, old-fashioned way, not using some computer shortcut.

Many of her classmates laughed at her desire to do things the slow, hard way, but Penn had long gotten over worrying about people laughing at her. Collecting buttons was something that made a lot of people look at you sideways. Start wearing button jewelry or a button-mosaic cap, and, well…

When Penn turned twenty, she started feeling the pressure to achieve rather than dream. There were plenty of competitions calling for original compositions – she’d even won a couple, though not since high school. The thing was, many of the contests were for younger or amateur composers.

Penn guessed she wasn’t considered young anymore because now, instead of people asking her what she was studying or majoring in, she was starting to hear, “So, what are you going to do when you finish school?”

Most assumed that she’d teach, but Penn didn’t want to teach. Anyhow, teaching jobs in music were getting harder and harder to find, what with schools cutting their electives. Penn figured that if she was going to make her way in music, she needed to set herself above the rest. And she’d better do it now, before she was too old to be considered a prodigy.

Penn spent hours online reviewing all the different contests, but that wasn’t much help. There were a lot of options. That was good. But if there were so many, that had to mean there was lots of competition. Penn’s confidence plunged. Was she special enough? Was her vision… (Do you still call it “vision” if it’s the music playing in your head?) …sufficiently unique?

Penn wished she knew. And when she thought of wishes, she knew what she had to do. She had to find the Button Witch and make a button wish.

Given that Penn had only seen the Button Witch three times, and that those times were scattered over eleven years, she didn’t have much of an idea where to start her search. She began at thrift shops, drifting up and down aisles where clothing pressed tightly together on metal racks. She concentrated on aisles where coats and higher end offerings were grouped, since these were more likely to have fancy buttons, but nowhere did she see an elderly woman covered all over with buttons.

Antique and collectible shops were Penn’s next target. She avoided the high-end places, focusing on those that were closer to being what her dad would have called “junk shops,” since their eclectic assortment of wares was more likely to include odd bottles filled with buttons or mixtures of otherwise unsaleable costume jewelry meant to tempt crafters or someone hoping to find treasures among the trash.

Penn’s search wasn’t completely fruitless, since she found a sheet of moonglow glass buttons, overlooked because they’d gotten smudged and dirty, as well as some low value but nicely made horn buttons. However, as far as the Button Witch went, Penn drew a blank.

Eventually, Penn figured she’d better go talk with the people who had told her about the Button Witch, about how she granted wishes and all that. The problem was, when she started to make a list, Penn realized she couldn’t remember a single name or face. That seemed incredible. Surely she would remember something as significant as that.

She stood on the sidewalk, buffeted by random spurts of air from cars and trucks racing by on the street, rocking a jar of buttons back and forth in her hands. The buttons made a soft muffled clatter, but Penn heard words in the sound.

But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch!

And hearing the sound, Penn realized who had told her about both the Button Witch and button wishes. It hadn’t been any person. It had been the buttons themselves, telling tales as Penn sorted and shifted, as her eyes took in color and shape, as her fingers moved in the intricate patterns of a dance choreographed by revelation.

But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch!

Penn backed away from the traffic’s flow, drifted into the lightly graveled lot that served as extra parking for the strip mall on weekends when the shops drew their greatest trade. The lot was empty now except for a scrawny elm and a battered panel van. Together they cast an uneven patch of shade that looked just like a little house with a tree growing alongside. On the doorstep of this shadow house sat the Button Witch, her motley finery crowned by a high-topped hat covered in buttons of brass that looked like gold, of tin that shone like silver, accented with gloriously gemmed buttons in vibrant hues of faceted glass.

The Button Witch looked up from stitching an elegant lacquered button onto a charm string. She gave Penn a smile that showed her teeth and made lines crinkle into lace around black-shoe-button eyes.

“So you’ve come looking and you’ve been finding. What brings you to my door?”

Penn forced herself to answer with a boldness she didn’t feel. “I’ve come to ask you to grant me a wish.”

The Button Witch laughed a laugh that was neither kind nor unkind, but hissed and chimed like plastic upon metal, like metal upon glass. “I only grant button wishes, and those only to folks who can tell me first what a button wish might be.”

Penn had expected this. “I can tell you what a button wish is, lady.”

“Can you now? Then speak. ‘Tis traditional to give three tries, but for this I give only one.”

“A button wish is like a button. It holds and frees, binds and looses, fastens and unfastens.”

The Button Witch laughed again, this time with pleasure. “That’s a fine answer. Correct, too. Very well. Tell me what you wish for, and I’ll tell you if I can grant it.”

Penn took a deep breath. “I wish to be able to hear the music of the spheres.”

“And how is that a button wish, my pet?”

“The old theories say that the music of the spheres is all around us, the universal music caused by the planets as they travel through their orbits. I figure that our minds must be closed against hearing it, the way we don’t hear the sound of our own breathing unless we listen for it.”

“And you wish to hear this?”

“I do! I want to make music that’s unique. Every other inspiration has been used and used again. This would be different…”

The Button Witch rubbed her wrinkled neck below her pointed chin, considering. “I can open your ears to these sounds, but I can’t give you the gift of making music. That’s not mine to give if it’s not in you already.”

“I can make music,” Penn replied confidently. “I’ve been studying that longer than I’ve been studying buttons. Assurance that I will stand out from the crowd is what I’m lacking.”

“Then consider your wish granted,” the Button Witch said, “although as with most wishes, I wonder if you’ll like it as much as you think.”

Penn was almost disappointed. “That’s it? There’s no quest? No payment?”

“Give me that bottle of buttons you hold, if you’d like,” the Button Witch said. She already looked a little bored and was eyeing the charm string she’d been making. “Then go your way. The binding on your hearing will come loose over the next few hours. Something so tightly fastened doesn’t come undone all at once.”

“Thank you!” Penn said ecstatically, never doubting for a moment that the Button Witch spoke the truth. “Thank you! Thank you!”

But the Button Witch paid Penn no heed. She was busy unscrewing the top from the bottle of buttons and spilling the contents onto the ground at her feet.

#

Penn was parking her car in front of her apartment building when she heard the first notes of the universal symphony. They were light and fleet, high-pitched, rapidly played on various sorts of flute. Without even needing to think, Penn knew this was the music Mercury made as it raced around the Sun.

She thought that Venus would come next, but it was Saturn, playing cymbals and triangles on its rings. Then came Mars, strident in brass. Venus was violin in its many moods: sometimes sweet and lovely, others aching with grief, still others merry fiddle strokes.

Jupiter was oboe backed by thundering timpani drums. Neptune surprised Penn by alternating harp and piano. Uranus had chosen steel drums and dulcimer. Pluto played saxophone and tambourine.

Earth played bass, both acoustic and electric, heartbeat backdrop to all the rest.

That was the first day. And the first night. And the second day. And the second night.

Penn struggled to transcribe, though her head ached. The universal music ebbed and flowed as the planetary orbits flung the sounds farther and nearer but, even when a planet was at its greatest distance, its contribution to the symphony never ceased.

On the third day, Penn began to hear the Sun, which astonished her by preferring electric guitar, playing both rhythm and lead. On the fifth day, she heard the rattle of the asteroid belt. On the seventh, she caught the descants of the various moons.

On the eighth, when she began to hear the closer stars, she realized she had to do something or else she’d go mad.

#

Finding the Button Witch the second time was much harder. The music of the spheres had grown so loud that, although Penn shook a bottle of buttons so close to her ear that it touched the lobe, she could barely hear the sound.

Worse, discordant and peculiar as the music could be, some of it was really good. Or at least really interesting. Periodically, Penn had no choice but to stop, lean against whatever was nearest, and scribble notes to herself. She wondered if they would make sense later, but she had to try and capture some of the odd combinations swirling around.

A couple times she nearly walked into traffic, mistaking the blaring warning horns for Mercury’s brass, failing to hear the hissing tires because they became instruments in the concert playing inside her skull. After being chased out of an antiques store for nearly blundering into a case of valuable purple glass, Penn flopped onto a bench and sat, shifting the bottle of buttons between her hands, concentrating on the faint whisper of its call.

But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch! But-ton Witch!

The bench shook when a figure clad in a pantsuit sewn all over with white pearl buttons, accented in pink and yellow Bakelite, plopped down next to Penn. Today the Button Witch wore a wide-brimmed cap that Penn could have sworn was Penn’s own handiwork, rows and rows of animal-shaped buttons marching around the circumference, descending from a Noah’s Ark perched in place of the more usual cap button.

Despite herself, Penn smiled.

“I don’t do take backs,” the Button Witch said.

“I didn’t think you did,” Penn replied, because she didn’t. “I don’t want a take back. I want to make a new wish.”

“Ah, now… that’s different!” The Button Witch grinned. “But I only do one wish for free or for gift. This time there’s a price.”

Penn nodded. “That’s fair. As you recall, even last time I didn’t think it was fair you grant a wish for nothing. What’s your price?”

“Give me a button that you have but which I do not. I’ll tell you this much. It’s a button you already have. And I’ll be generous. You’ll have three guesses as to which button I want.”

Mars played triumphant fanfare. Uranus chased it up and down the scales on steel drum. By the time Jupiter had finished sad commentary on oboe and timpani, the Button Witch had vanished. Head thundering, Penn staggered home to inspect her buttons and wonder just which one the Button Witch didn’t already have.

#

Maybe because they had an agreement, the next time Penn went to find the Button Witch, she found her easily enough. The Button Witch was sitting alone in the back room of a shoddy thrift shop, snipping buttons from clothes too decrepit for even this place to sell.

As Penn pulled up a metal folding chair, she wove the faint chink-chink of buttons falling into a glass jar into the moody piece currently playing in her head. Sitting down, she toyed with the small, cool disks she’d dropped into her pocket before setting out.

The Button Witch, dressed today in a skirt heavy with the magnificent brown into honey gold of tortoise shell – some of which might be real, not imitation – and a vest alive with a clattering sparkle of mixed metallic, gave a sly grin by way of greeting, but left it for Penn to speak first.

“I think I know what button I have which you don’t.”

“Are you sure? You only get three guesses.”

“I’m pretty sure. My only problem is that, if I’m right, I don’t know how to give it to you.”

The Button Witch’s dark face crinkled with delight. “I’m sure we can work something out. Take your guesses three, then.”

Penn recognized a ritual when she heard it and took a button from her pocket. It was one of the prizes from her grandmother’s button jar, an early nineteenth century button, in which a tiny painting was protected by a minute glass dome. “Is it an antique underglass?” she asked very formally.

The Button Witch opened her vest to show a necklace made all from the rare things.

Penn put the underglass button back into her pocket and took out her next offering. This was a more modern button, but a prize nonetheless. She’d clipped it from a ruined gown by a couturier known for commissioning unique buttons for his creations. “Is it a passementerie?”

The Button Witch lifted her skirt and showed that the sides of her voluminous knickers were fastened with a mismatched array of similar braid-covered buttons.

“Last guess, little collector.”

Penn dropped the formality and leaned close enough to whisper. “It’s a bellybutton, isn’t it? I’d keep the bargain, but I don’t know how to give you mine.”

She kept her tone light, though her mind overflowed with images right out of a horror film. Of bloody surgery performed right here on the thrift shop’s dirty floor. Of a long fingernail darting out and scooping the flesh from her middle in a twisted inversion of a Turkish legend she’d read long ago. But the music of the spheres was more than she could take, and she’d put up with whatever it took to get her wish granted.

But though Penn steeled herself against flinching, the Button Witch only grinned a mischievous, crinkled smile. “That’s the button I had in mind, chick. I’ll settle for your keeping it for me in exchange for a vow that you’ll tell no one what button I lack. That would ruin all the fun.”

Penn nearly collapsed in relief. She’d spent days puzzling – navel gazing, as her mom liked to say – until she’d come up with this solution to the Button Witches’ riddle, only to be terrified by what it implied.

“So I’ll get my wish?”

“If it’s within my power to grant, you do. But first you vow not to tell the answer to my riddle, on pain of having the wish revoked and worse besides.”

Penn nodded. “I do vow. Seriously, I won’t tell anyone.”

“So what do you wish?”

Penn tried to remember the exact wording she’d worked out. It was hard, what with Venus playing soaring melodies on her violin and Pluto providing improbable harmonies on saxophone.

“My new wish is a second part to my first. Then I wished to hear the music of the spheres. Now I wish to be able to control when I hear it – to be able to bind and loose for myself.”

The Button Witch laughed. “I understand. Yes, I can grant that. Too much of anything, even inspiration, can be too much. And, now, be done with wishing and get on with doing. You’ve shown you can be very persistent, even to believing in the impossible.”

Penn pressed the passementerie into the Button Witch’s wrinkled hand. “A present and a promise. I’m done with worrying so much about not being good enough that I stop even trying. Maybe I’ll make the cut, maybe I won’t. I see now that if I waste all my energy stressing about what the future will bring, I’ll waste the present. In the end, the present’s all we have, isn’t it?”

But the Button Witch only smiled as she tucked Penn’s gift away and said nothing more.

#

Penn didn’t ever see the Button Witch again, at least not to talk to, though she imagined she glimpsed her from time to time, going around a corner or darting into a stall at some crowded antique mall. However, whenever Penn hurried after, she failed to find that curious old woman, clad all over in buttons.

But Penn had no doubt that the Button Witch was still out there, collecting her buttons, making her charms, granting the occasional wish: fastening and unfastening, binding and loosing.

Roots, Shallow and Deep by Beth Cato

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many others have died?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another death. “Was it this sickness…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A child? Do you know the name?”

“I don’t, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

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

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

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

“I was told she had a head wound.”

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

“Did you know her well?”

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

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

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

“Was Mrs. Lederer particularly talented?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I bring,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked between me and Mrs. Shute.

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

Finally, she nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. Startled more than anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s–that thing–it’s going to–”

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

Right toward us.

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

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

That meant I needed Major Lederer incapacitated.

I shoved.

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

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

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

He whimpered.

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

This’d be a long night.

 

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Love Undying by Katharine Kerr

“Okay, O’Grady,” Detective-Lieutenant Sanchez said. “What do you think of this?”

‘This’ was the naked corpse of a girl-child sprawled in a dead-end alley in downtown San Francisco. She lay beside a dumpster overflowing with black plastic garbage bags. Someone had thrown her down on her back, her skinny arms outstretched in the dirt and filth on the concrete. Once she’d had long blonde hair; she still did on one side of her head. On the other, the hair had been cropped off close to the scalp. Her wide-open eyes stared up at the sky. Her swollen lips had parted to reveal that she was missing her two front teeth. Her frail body was white, dead-white, except for the two red punctures on her throat and the dry smears and gobbets of blood down the side of her neck.

“It’s sickening,” I said. “That’s what. Was she sexually assaulted?”

“We don’t know that yet. I’d bet on it, though.” Sanchez shoved his hands into the pockets of his navy blue trousers. “What do you think caused those wounds?”

I played dumb. “An icepick?”

Sanchez glowered at me.

“Out with it,” I said. “Why did you call me into this case?”

“Can’t you guess?”

I knew that he didn’t want to say it aloud. Why waste time playing games? We needed to get this psycho perp off the streets as soon as we could. “Vampires,” I said. “And you think I know something about them.”

He smiled, a tight twitch of his mouth. “Don’t you?”

“A little. They’re mythical, for one thing. Whoever did this must be hoping you’ll go chasing down a totally false trail.”

“I wish I could be sure of that. This is the third case like this on the books in the past three weeks. All children. None older than nine. All of them drained of their blood.”

My stomach twisted in disgust.

“I know it’s crazy, talking about vampires,” Sanchez continued, “but this perp must think he’s one. I don’t know what he’s doing with the blood, but I intend to find out. I was hoping your agency could assist. We need every possible resource to hunt this sick perv down.”

“I’ll have to ask my agency for official clearance, but if I get it, you can count on me. I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

“Good. Thanks. I realize you have to go through proper channels.”

If you can call my kind of channels ‘proper’, anyway.

My name is Nola O’Grady. I work for a federal agency so secret that not even the CIA knows we exist. If I told you its name, you wouldn’t believe me. Let’s just say that all kinds of extraordinary things, including creatures like vampires, fall under our jurisdiction as we fight against the forces of Chaos. Ordinary citizens may not know it, but such forces exist, and they wage war on civilizations all across the multiverse – including ours.

My partner, Ari Nathan, was standing guard on Mission Street at the alley mouth while we waited with Sanchez for the Forensics team. He turned and called out, “Here they come!”

With the official squad on hand, Ari and I left the crime scene. He’s an Israeli national and an Interpol agent, but he works in a special branch, TWIXT, that handles cases that cross the boundaries between the worlds, or levels as they call them, of the multiverse. As we walked back to the public parking lot at Fifth and Mission, Ari said little at first. He had his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his leather jacket, and the stone-cold rage on his face made the pedestrians we met swing around us in wide arcs.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

“This case, of course.” Since Ari learned his English in London, he sounds British. “When we get the sodding bastard who’s doing this –” He took a deep breath. “If you could see your way clear to letting me have ten minutes alone with him, you can arrest what’s left.”

“I understand the feeling, yeah.”

“You told Sanchez that vampires were mythical. Is that true?”

“Yes and no. There are vampires, yes, but they don’t sleep in coffins and turn into bats. That’s the myth part.”

“Fangs, though?”

“That I don’t know.” The image of the corpse rose in my mind and made me feel like vomiting. “Something bit that poor child’s throat.”

Ari considered this information in silence while we crossed Mission at the intersection with Sixth. “At times I wonder why I took this job.” His eyes drooped in a fit of martyrdom. “I should have been an insurance adjustor. My father was right.”

I drove Ari and me back to the flat we share, way out in the Sunset District of San Francisco. As soon as we got upstairs, I retreated into the bedroom to contact my handler at the Agency. Even though we’ve worked together for years, I know him only as Y. Considering what I was about to discuss with him, I decided that email, even on our doubly secured website, TranceWeb, presented too much of a security risk. I could visualize the headline if the news got out: “Government Agency Investigates Vampires.” Outraged taxpayers would be the least of our troubles.

I lay down on the bed and went into trance, a light state at first to send out the ‘emergency’ signal to my handler. The familiar images built up fast. It seemed like I was sitting on a chair inside a sphere of pale mist. Opposite me in another chair sat Y, a distinguished looking Japanese-American man with streaks of gray in his dark hair.

“I need your permission to assist on a local police case,” I said.

As I related what I knew, I emphasized that the victims were children.

“Of course you have permission,” Y said. “As soon as you get Sanchez’s files on these murders, send me email with details. We have an expert on Pseudonecrotics available for consultation.”

“On what?”

“The undead.”

I broke the trance and called Sanchez to give him the news. In turn, he sent me scans in email of all the material he had on the three child murders. Forensics had confirmed that like the others, the newest victim had been sexually assaulted. A peculiar detail struck me: all three victims had had part of their hair cut off. A seven year old girl, an eight year old boy, and now the eight year old girl we’d seen in the alley had all been reported missing by frantic parents shortly after each disappearance. The police had sent out prompt Amber alerts, but no witnesses had ever come forward. The corpses had turned up three days later in all cases.

“It’s like they disappeared into thin air,” I told Ari.

“More likely underground.” Ari thought for a moment. “Where were they last seen?”

“All three kids lived out in the poorer part of the Ingleside district. Up near City College, y’know? The younger girl disappeared in the zoo. She wandered away from a school trip. The older girl was walking home from school. She lived only two blocks away, and her mother thought it was safe enough. The boy’s a slightly different case. He had a fight with his father and ran out of the house one evening. The dad paused to put on shoes and a jacket, but he followed him right away. Not quite soon enough.”

“I’m glad I’m not that boy’s father.”

“Yeah.” I paused to read more of the scan. “Not a suspect, according to Sanchez.” “No proper leads, I take it.”

“None, except the kids all came from the same neighborhood. The police have doubled their routine patrols out there.”

“Good. They’re sure it’s a man doing this?”

“The evidence makes that clear. It also tells us that the kids were still alive when they were sexually assaulted.”

Ari’s face lost all expression. Since I can read a person’s Subliminal Psychological Profile, I felt his rage: a shower of ice filling the room.

I printed out the scans for Ari to read the details, then turned to the Internet. While I websurfed, Ari turned on the local TV news. Our favorite reporter, Vic Yee, had ferreted out the story and done a feature on public reaction. “Outrage” summed it up. The mayor promised that the police would “keep the heat on.” When I called Sanchez, I found him still at the office.

“I’ve got priority for this case.” Sanchez sounded grimly pleased. “Extra officers, priority at Forensics, anything I want. We’re going to go over the Ingleside district like hunting fleas on a dog, one damn hair at a time.”

“I saw the TV news story earlier. Any tips?”

“The usual flood of them. Jeez, I hope that parents out there are keeping their kids close to home.”

So did I.

Over the next few days, the dragnet tightened. Plainclothes policemen went house to house over in Ingleside. Patrol cars glided through the streets in the entire south-west corner of the city. I ran psychic scans, but they turned up nothing. My lack of success disturbed me for more than the obvious reason. According to the report from the Agency’s Pseudonecrotics expert, a psychotic individual acting out some fantasy from a lurid TV show would have appeared on a scan of the aura field or a general SM:P, that is, a psi search for personnel. A genuine member of the undead would not. When you hover between life and death, you’ve severed your connections with the living while refusing to cross over to join the dead. Very little of you remains visible in either realm, except, of course, the not-quite-a-corpse.

The police failed to find the killer, but they did net a lot of human flotsam and jetsam. They hauled in drug dealers, pimps, petty criminals of all kinds, and now and then, a real catch: a murderer with a warrant out for him, a pair of conmen who didn’t skip town in time, car thieves, and the more brutal type of gang members. Once they thought they’d come close to our perp: a fellow who shot himself rather than come to the door when the police announced their presence. It turned out, though, that he’d been on the run from the FBI for years on terrorism charges, which seemed almost clean compared to the man we wanted.

Civilians took part in the hunt. Neighborhood watches and volunteer posses went on the alert and mounted patrols. The most valuable resource of all, elderly women with time on their hands, kept a lookout from their windows. The reports were sparse and mostly imaginary, formed by movies and TV more than observation – stealthy figures in black cloaks creeping through shadows. Now and then a tip came in about a person who turned yellow and sparkled in sunlight.

“Any self-respecting child would recognize perps like those as vampires right away,” I said. “And run screaming. This guy’s got to be someone who looks friendly or at least no threat.”

Lieutenant Sanchez agreed with me on that. He also told me that the dragnet would be called off in a couple of days.

“If a search like this is going to turn up anything, it usually happens right away,” Sanchez said. “So now, what we’re hoping is he’ll feel safe, like he’s outsmarted us, when we call it off. Eventually he’ll hit the streets again, and we’ll be watching without all this noise.”

“I see, yeah. He must be getting desperate. He needs to feed.”

Sanchez said nothing for so long that I asked him if he was still on the line.

“Sorry.” His voice sounded a little shaky around the edges. “Are you saying that this guy is a real –” He couldn’t quite finish.

“I don’t know.” I chose my words carefully. “But even if he’s just a psycho, he’ll still need to act out his obsession. Really need it. Y’know?”

“Right.” His voice strengthened again. “Too bad about the cloak and the sparkles. They’d make him easy to spot. Oh well, life’s never simple.”

And yet the guy who showed up on my doorstep looked like someone, or something, right out of an old black and white movie. Ari and I had just finished dinner when the doorbell rang. We got up and looked at the laptop we kept near the head of the stairs. The security camera showed a man who appeared elderly and ill.

“Who are you?” Ari said.

Over the tiny speaker, his voice sounded like a scrape of metal on metal. “I have information for the psychic upstairs.”

Maybe I couldn’t find them on the aura field, but one of them had found me.

“Ari,” I said, “let him in.”

Ari drew his Beretta from his shoulder holster – yes, he wore it always, even at home – and went downstairs to street level. When he opened the door, I heard a thin, reedy voice squeal, “Don’t shoot!” and Ari’s answering growl.

I went about two-thirds of the way down the stairs, then paused to gather Qi, a quick tangle of silvery life-force around my left hand. A blast of Qi can overload a person’s mental circuits and stun them. What it would do to a Pseudonecrotic, I didn’t know, but I was willing to bet it would be nothing good.

The man who stepped into the tiny entrance way was dressed normally in black jeans, a maroon turtleneck, a houndstooth sport coat with leather patches at the elbows, but the clothes hung loose on him. He was painfully thin, his face pasty-white, his dark eyes huge and sunk deep under his brow ridges. He had no eyebrows and no hair on the rest of his head, either. When he attempted a smile, I saw pale, puffy gums and a few brown teeth – except for the two shiny-white, abnormally large incisors.

“Implants,” I said. “That explains it.”

“Everyone always wants to know about the fangs.” He tried another smile, but it looked more like a snarl. “Yes, our gums won’t hold onto normal teeth. Might as well buy the best.” His laugh wheezed and whistled in his chest.

“So,” I said, “why are you here?”

“I want the killer caught as badly as you do.” He held up a hand with fingers as thin as twigs. “Let me explain before you throw that stuff at me, will you?”

The ‘stuff’ had to be the swirl of Qi I was holding. Ari cleared his throat and hoisted the Beretta.

“Or that either!” Our visitor took a step back. “Yes, ordinary bullets will dispatch one of us. Forget what you’ve read! A shattered heart or brain will kill anything.”

“Nice to know,” I said. “What do you want in return for the information?”

“Hans Grigory’s death. I want him sent over to the other side as fast as possible, before he harms another child. Yes, I know that sounds unbelievable, just blurted out like this, but we have rules, you know, those of us who are trying to come to terms with our affliction. What he’s done breaks all of them.”

“Affliction?”

“Oh yes, our bargain with the Devil.” He wheezed and gurgled through another laugh. “Does it sound wonderful to you? Near-immortality? Look at me! Is it wonderful?”

“Uh, no, I’d have to say not.”

His lips drew back from his gums. “Yet, of course, one is afraid to take that final step over, to give up life, such as it is. So we creep on in the shadows and try to keep our harms as small as possible. Grigory has gone mad. Too many of us do.”

It sounded plausible, even true – as far as it went.

“What else?” Ari said. “You could kill this fellow on your own. You’ve got another reason for coming forward.”

Again the bloodless grin. “Very insightful, aren’t you? Yes, we could dispose of him, but no one would know we had. We could leave his corpse on the sidewalk in front of a police station with a note, but would they believe it? We need someone like you, the man of law, and your friend the psychic, to validate the death.”

“I get it,” I said. “So the police will close the case and leave the rest of you alone.”

“Very true, my dear lady!” He made me a stiff little bow. “And the police scour has alarmed more than my kind. I am under a certain – um, pressure – from several powerful figures of – um, criminal bent – to put a stop to the hunt.”

“Or they’ll send the rest of you to permanent Dreamland?”

“Just that. Just that.”

When I tried the sort of psychic scan I would have done on a normal person, it failed to deliver more than a faint whisper of information, a small wisp of human feeling drifting inside the mental white noise generated by the undead. Despair, desperation, a profound fear – or was it grief? Hard to decipher, but because of that shred of humanity, I risked trusting him.

“Okay,” I said. “We’ll help, but I warn you, any treachery, and you’re over the great divide and out.”

“I know.” His voice sounded steady, even calm. His gaze, however, flicked to Ari and the Beretta and back to me. “You may call me Joshua.”

Joshua had a beaten-up old car, painted black “of course,” as he said. “I learned to drive nearly a hundred years ago, though this vehicle is a good bit younger than that. I don’t suppose you’d care to be my passengers?”

“Quite right,” Ari said. “We’ll follow you in our car.”

Through a night thick with fog, Ari drove us through the south-western corner of the city to the Ingleside Terrace district. Near its center lies a peculiarly oval set of streets that follow the plan of a long-gone dog racing track. I used the time to phone Lieutenant Sanchez, so when we arrived at our destination, deep in the middle of those oval streets, he knew where to send the squad cars.

“Give us a few minutes before they start the sirens,” I said. “We’re parking by the giant sundial and proceeding on foot. What? Yeah, I know that a sundial’s a weird place to find a vampire. Very funny. Ha ha.”

I clicked off as Joshua got out of his car and ambled toward ours. We joined him on the sidewalk and stood looking around while he caught his wheezy breath. In the yellow glare of the street lamps, the jagged white gnomon of the sundial loomed like some ancient monument in the middle of a tiny circular park. Well-kept middle class houses, mostly stucco with groomed lawns, stood on the street itself. Each had space around it, a rarity in San Francisco.

“I called the police, you know,” Joshua said. “I told them I heard a child screaming in his house. I have no idea if they investigated or not. The officer I spoke to sounded dismissive.”

“They’ve been flooded with tips,” I said. “Did you really hear a child scream?”

“Yes, though not with my physical ears. It must have been that little girl, the last found. His ever-so-respectable neighbors would never have reported him, him and his poor sick wife!”

It was the kind of neighborhood where an elderly gentleman could live without causing any comment or concern, unless of course he let his house get run down and thus threatened the property values. The sound of a child screaming in the night could be explained away, a bird, a TV show, something, anything but an ugly truth.

“Before we go in,” I said, “tell me something. Did he sexually assault those kids to gather Qi?”

“Qi? If you mean life force, yes.” He shuddered in a way that convinced me he was sincere. “Those poor children!”

Joshua led us to a little white house, almost a cottage, set well back from the curve of the street. A couple of trees shrouded the front bay window. More trees and a hedge stood along the dark walk leading along the side to a tiny entrance porch and the front door. As we followed Joshua through the shadows, Ari drew his Beretta. I gathered Qi. Joshua hummed under his breath, a strange sprung-rhythm chant that rose and fell in quarter tones. Although it had no effect on me, it throbbed with psychic power.

As Joshua climbed the two steps up to the front door, it sprang open. He kept humming, but the rhythm changed, grew faster, more urgent as another man shuffled into the doorway. With bent shoulders, almost hunchbacked, and a long neck like a turtle’s that supported his bald head, he glared at the three of us through thin slits of eyes.

“Hungry, Hans?” Joshua said. “You haven’t been able to hunt this week, have you?”

Hans stepped back and tried to swing the door shut. Joshua flung up his hands and shoved him back so hard that he fell. By the time Hans scrambled, swearing, to his feet, we’d followed Joshua inside.

“You’re under arrest,” Ari said. “I’m an officer from Interpol, acting on the authority of the San Francisco Police. The charges against you are –”

Hans screamed and staggered backward into a room just off the entrance way. We followed.

The horror I felt came from the contrast between the crimes and the utter good taste of the room, a rose-pink and white parlor with a love seat, two chairs in matching floral fabric, an Aubusson-like flowered carpet, a white fireplace. On the loveseat sat a woman with skin as wrinkled as crumpled plastic wrap and nearly as transparent, a ghastly grey-tinged white stretched over her skull. She wore a tangled lump of wig, made out of a long hank of blonde hair, woven into clumps of wiry black curls, and a plait of brown hair that twisted around the lump to hold it all in place.

“Oh my god!” I said before I could stop myself. “From the victims!”

She rose tottering to her feet and snatched something from the endtable next to her: a knife, long and stiletto slim.

“You traitor!” Hans launched himself, snarling, at Joshua with fingernails like claws.

Ari fired. Hans staggered back from the impact and clutched his hands over his chest. A liquid welled from between his fingers, a thin pink dribble. He looked up, surprised, and shook his head once. His knees collapsed, and he pitched forward and fell.

The woman screamed and lunged at us. Before Ari could shoot, I hurled the glistening silver ball of Qi straight at her head. It struck her full in the face and shattered. With a flash of silver light, the Qi spread over her like a veil. As the energy soaked into her flesh, we saw for a few moments how beautiful she must have been when she was young, her lips suddenly full and moist, her blue eyes glowing, her perfect cheekbones just touched with color. Then she staggered and began to drool, to gabble out words that made no sense. The illusion vanished. An old woman looked at us with eyes suffused with blood and tried to raise both hands. Her right hand lifted, but the left hung limp at her side. The knife slipped from her fingers and dropped among the woven flowers.

“For me,” she spat out at last. “He did it for me.”

She took one step and collapsed over her lover’s corpse.

That’s when I heard the police sirens, coming closer and closer through the quiet, cold streets.

#

Lieutenant Sanchez called me the day after the incident to wrap up a few details.

“I found the officer who shelved that old boy’s tip,” Sanchez said. “Good luck on him getting a promotion any time soon! It’s a damn good thing the informant knew you.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sure is. What’s the medical report on the woman?”

“Massive stroke, just like you thought.”

“It seemed like a logical guess, yeah.” Logical enough – the influx of Qi had broken the fragile blood vessels in her brain, or so the Agency expert on Pseudonecrotics figured.

“No loss to the world, that pair,” Sanchez continued. “Anyway, tell your friend Joshua that there’s reward money, but he needs to come forward and give us some real ID.”

“Oh, he knows. He doesn’t want the money. Give it to charity, he says. He’d like it to go to the local blood bank.”

“I’ll see if we can do that, sure.” Sanchez sounded a little puzzled. “Kind of an odd choice.”

“No. If you knew him, it’d make perfect sense.”

Uncle Bob’s Crocodile by Ian McHugh

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

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

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

“Uncle Bob! Stop!” Denny said.

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

“Bill?” Uncle Bob’s voice cracked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncle Bob looked shifty. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

The lift arrived and he pushed Uncle Bob in.

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

“Of wall sockets?”

A nod.

“What’ve you been doing?”

The lift doors opened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob pushed inside and Denny followed.

“Oh, Bob.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uncle Bob?”

“Mm?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Domolanguoral.”

“Yes.”

“Resonance.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denny looked at him hard. “Bullshit.”

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

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

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

“Oh yeah? Since when?”

“Got back yesterday.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No! Don’t bloody open it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denny shrieked and jumped backward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The blender added its racket.

What?

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

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

No! Bob, stop–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncle Bob tromped between the basking reptiles.

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

“What?” Uncle Bob stepped over a crocodile.

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

What the hell . . .?

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

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

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

“Bob!”

“What?”

“Come back!”

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

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

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

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

What the hell is this place?

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

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

“Bob?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mad eyes, Denny thought.

“Bob? Is that you?”

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

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

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

“Bob? Is that really you?”

Uncle Bob nodded wordlessly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denny nodded.

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

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

“I thought you knew,” said Bill.

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

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

“It bloody well looks like it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bob! No!” Denny cried.

Uncle Bob glared at him.

“Bob.” Denny shook his head. “No.”

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

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

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

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

“You could stay,” said Bill.

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

Bill looked at Denny. “You?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look after him, eh?”

“Of course.”

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

He closed his eyes. “Okay, now.”

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

Denny shuddered.

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

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

“What about you?”

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

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

He gripped Denny’s wrist. “Right.”

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

“Reckon so.”

“How many others are missing soldiers?”

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

“This isn’t Vietnam, is it?”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Bob?”

“Mm?”

“What the fuck did we just do?”

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

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

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

“Everyone thought you were nuts.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncle Bob snorted. “Any ideas?”

“Ever tried bowls?” said Denny.

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

“It’s too late, Bob,” said Denny.

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

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

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

Maybe he was trying to make himself.

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

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

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

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

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

Dave the Mighty Steel-Thewed Avenger by Laura Resnick

 

 

 

It was when a rat rose up on its hind legs and spoke to me in the middle of the street at one o’clock in the morning that I realized that this night was going to be different from all other nights.

“Hello, Dave,” it said.

“Whoa,” I said in reply. “Is that a rat talking to me?”

Okay, I should definitely not have had that second beer. I can’t hold my liquor at all, so I knew even while I was doing it that having two beers in a row was a bad idea.

And here, now, right in front of me on the dark street, was proof positive.

Excuse me?” said the creature.

“A talking rat?” I said incredulously.

There was a moment of silence as I stared slack-jawed at the rat, which stared back at me.

Was I hallucinating, I wondered? If so, did this mean that two beers were enough to give me alcohol poisoning? Should I proceed immediately to the campus medical center and check myself into the detox unit?

Or was this a practical joke? Maybe it was a set-up to covertly film me–and then immortalize me on YouTube–making a fool of myself. In which case, I was impressed with the technical skill of the perpetrators, because the rat looked completely real.

“Rat?” the creature repeated. “Rat?”

I looked around in the dark, expecting to see someone recording this scene.

“First of all,” the rat said coldly, still on its hind legs, “the word ‘rat’ is considered pejorative. The appropriate term is ‘urban rodent.'”

“A politically correct rat?”

“I am not a rat!”

“Hey!” I fell back a step when the thing bared its little fangs at me. Maybe it had rabies.

Or maybe I had rabies. I was talking to a rat, after all.

“I am an opossum!” it cried. “I do not in any way resemble an urban rodent.”

“Sorry,” I said inanely. “I don’t really know that much about –”

“I am, in fact, the opossum! The marsupial who has been foretold in song and story,” it raged, advancing on me. “How dare you mistake me for a rat!”

“Joke or no joke,” I warned as I backed away from it, “if I get bitten, I’m filing a formal complaint.”

The animal paused, made a squeaky sound, then raised a little paw. It had weird-looking pink digits. “I apologize, Vworntokthalis. I did not mean to appear aggressive. It’s just that I have looked forward to this meeting for so long and have imagined our first exchange of greetings so many times.”

“Huh?”

It brushed its whiskers with the other weird-looking pink paw. “I must admit, I feel some disappointment at how it’s going so far.”

“Yeah, well… whatever.” I turned and walked away. “I’m out of here.”

“Wait!” cried the creature, following me. “I have sought you now because, exactly as the Wizened Ones of Loremead have long feared, Grok the Valkslayer has roused the Dread Grzilbeast from its prison of enchanted sleep in the Caverns of Mimnoth.”

“Oh, well,” I said, picking up my pace. “I’m sure things will work out.”

“Can you slow down?” my furry friend asked. “This is a demanding speed for me when I’m talking.”

I reached the end of the street, turned the corner, and walked faster.

“Stop!” cried the opossum, panting a little. “You must listen to me! This is the dark night described in the Prophecies of Joralion! The doom that was foretold in the Codex of the Ninth-Born has come to pass! Now is the time prognosticated in the Calendar of C’ghu’nim and secretly coded into the Long Island Railroad timetable for Oyster Bay!”

I stopped in my tracks and stared at the opossum. “So it is a joke,” I said with certainty.

“It is no jest, Vworntokthalis!” cried the animal, his little sides heaving as he came to a stop, too. “Now is the time for the Avenger of the Valk to lay rightful claim to Jasmine Truethunder, confront Grok –”

“How did you know I’m from Oyster Bay?” I challenged.

I looked around again. Yes, it was dark, but I had covered more than a block since being accosted by a talking marsupial, so by now I should have seen or heard whoever was following me with a camera.

It replied, “I know because I am Briddlecroonak the Seer, the marsupial foretold –”

” –in song and story. Yeah, I know.”

“My visions told me that Vworntokthalis the Avenger hailed from a town called Oyster Bay. So I went there.” Briddlecroonak the Seer continued, “But it turned out that you had left that hamlet as a callow youth.”

“Who told you I was callow?”

“Fortunately, though, as time passed, you became aware of your destiny to avenge the Valk by slaying Grok and mastering the Dread Grzilbeast.”

I sighed. “Can we just stop now?”

The opossum raised one paw to pat his whiskers fretfully. “Er, you did realize your true identity, didn’t you, Vworntokthalis?”

“Why do you keep calling me that?”

“That is… I mean, I had naturally assumed that you moved to this dreary little town of cheap taverns and no symphony because you recognized that your destiny lay here.”

“I moved here to attend law school,” I said morosely.

“Yes! Becoming an under-achieving student at a second-rate law school was an excellent way of eluding your enemies while you prepared for your inevitable confrontation with Grok the Valkslayer,” said the marsupial. “The last mighty steel-thewed avenger I knew couldn’t resist showing off to random maidens and passing strangers while awaiting the challenges foretold in the prophecies about him. And thus it was that he met an early grave and never fulfilled his destiny. But not you! No, you have been prudent, cunning, and wise. To immerse yourself so completely in an identity of such consistent mediocrity was brilliant!”

“Gee, thanks.”

“But I, Briddlecroonak the Seer, can sense that you have been unhappy and restless while waiting for your glorious fate to unfold.”

I wondered which one of my classmates had decided to use my anxieties as fodder for this weird joke. Maybe it was someone from my Antitrust Law class, which was the course I hated the most–and the one I was the closest to flunking.

The possum continued, “If you continue on this path, Vworntokthalis–”

“Stop calling me that.”

“–you will graduate in the bottom third of your class at this poorly-ranked law school, after which your best possible fate will be a career as an ambulance-chaser. Most likely, though, you’ll struggle to find even a moderately remunerative white-collar job and spend many years paying off massive student loans without ever even entering the legal profession for which you trained with a mixture of ambivalence, apathy, and reluctance.”

I glared at the marsupial. Everything it was saying was true. I had spent the past few weeks thinking over my situation and trying to escape exactly the conclusions this furry little fellow was now voicing. It was why I’d gone to a bar and had two beers tonight–which is about one-and-a-half beers more than I ever drink.

I’d had no idea what to do with my life after graduating from college, or how to find a job with my B.A. in philosophy. So I had applied to law school simply because I didn’t know what else to do. Now in my second year of the program at (Briddlecroonak was right) a second-rate law school, I still didn’t know.

And I was getting angry about my problems being made the butt of this elaborately weird prank. So, acting on impulse, I bent over, picked up the opossum, hoisted it into the air, and started shaking it, trying to detect or dislodge whatever audio device someone must have attached to it.

“Who are you?” I demanded.

“I told you! I am Briddlecroonak the Seer.” The opossum struggled against my grip as it added, “And I hate heights! Put me down, Vworntokthalis!”

Its warm breath brushed my face as it spoke in a shrill voice while struggling against my hold. It was definitely a real animal, and–I realized with a mixture of shock and recognition–it was really speaking. There was no audio device attached to it, and with its face so close to mine, I could tell that its voice was coming from its own mouth.

“Yikes!” I dropped Briddlecroonak and stumbled backward, staring at him in amazement.

“Oof!” He hit the pavement like a bag of wet cement and lay there motionless.

“Briddlecroonak?” I took a tentative step closer. There was no response. “Uh, are you okay?”

“I just need a moment,” was the faint reply.

I looked around. We were still alone. I had chosen a Wednesday for my drinking binge, so hardly anyone was around now, though the streets would be crowded at this late hour if it were a weekend night.

I decided to accept that there were no pranksters or video cameras involved in this strange event. Sure, I might be hallucinating under the influence of two beers. Or maybe I was cracking under the stress of realizing how much time and money I had already thrown away on studying for a profession that I didn’t really want to pursue. But if there was even a faint chance that I was not delusional… then this was certainly the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me, and I wanted to see where it would lead. Especially since Briddlecroonak’s stark description of my life was depressingly accurate.

So I said, “I’m sorry about manhandling you just now.”

“Oh… that’s all right, I guess.” The opossum started scraping himself off the street.

“I suppose I… lost my composure.”

The marsupial grunted, pulled himself together, and then sniffed his fur. He made a little noise, then looked at the pavement where he had been lying. “I think someone vomited here recently.”

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” This street ran directly between the bar district and the main campus. “Are you feeling okay? Didn’t crack your skull or anything?”

He touched his snout gingerly with one pink paw, rubbed his rump, then shook his head. “Oh, don’t worry, Vworntokthalis. I survived much worse treatment at the hands of the fanatical Plikazar sect during the Schism of the Sirikirai. Not to mention what Yurg the Destroyer did to me when I helped rescue the Scrolls of Calarnius from the Fires of –”

“Okey-dokey,” I said quickly. “If you’re feeling all right, then maybe you can walk me slowly through this whole Grok-Grizzle-Valkyrie thing.”

“Valk,” he corrected. “Just Valk. The Valkyrie are… well, they’re a whole other thing, and we don’t need to worry about them right now.”

“Who or what is a Valk?”

“By thunder, Vworntokthalis, we have no time for a history lesson! Nor can we ‘walk slowly’ through explanations!” Briddlecroonak cried. “Have I not impressed upon you the urgency of the situation? The Dread Grzilbeast is free! Grok the Valkslayer intends to bring about the doom foretold by the chroniclers and prophesied by the . . . the . . . the prophets!”

“It sounds like you’re saying this is a bad thing.”

“Only you can defeat Grok, return the Grzilbeast to its prison of enchanted slumber, and save the last of the Valk from being slain!”

“So I gather we don’t want the Valk to be slain?”

“Of course not,” said Briddlecroonak (with noticeable exasperation). “If the last of the Valk is slain, then the Incarnation of Konax can never come to pass! In which case, the Age of Ilak cannot be averted, and darkness shall smother the Five Kingdoms.”

“This is getting so complicated,” I said. “Maybe I should take notes.”

“You don’t need notes, you have a seer. The seer. Me!”

“In that case, can you ‘see’ what we’re supposed to do now?”

“Why are you making that gesture with your hands?” he demanded. “Are those supposed to be quotation marks?”

I folded my arms. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to be rude.”

“I am literally a seer,” Briddlecroonak said with wounded dignity. “So, yes, of course I can see what we’re supposed to do now.”

“Then, by all means, share it with the class.”

“Huh?”

“Tell me what to do,” I said. “Because, uh, by thunder, I have no idea what’s going on.”

“Fortunately, what you must do is very simple,” said the possum. “Impossibly dangerous and probably fatal –”

“What?”

” –but quite simple. Follow me, Vworntokthalis!”

Briddlecroonak started waddling down the street at a brisk pace.

I followed. “Hold on. How dangerous?”

“Well, not necessarily as dangerous as the time I had to help retrieve the Three Golden Arrows from the Mountain of Ghouls.” He was panting a little as he kept talking at this (for him) brisk pace. “But probably more dangerous than the time I –”

“Never mind,” I said. “Did you say fatal?”

“Well, probably fatal for Dave, the ordinary fellow you have pretended to be while awaiting this night foretold in song and story,” he said cheerfully.

“I am Dave.”

“But surely not for Vworntokthalis, the mighty steel-thewed Avenger of the Valk!”

“I should probably mention that my thews really aren’t all that steely,” I said, plodding behind the opossum. “I never go to the gym. Jogging makes me vomit, and I fainted the only time I ever tried to do a bench press, so…”

“Do not trouble yourself with such reflections, Vworntokthalis. Gymnasiums are for people who are going to be lawyers,” Briddlecroonak said dismissively. “Or for those in search of easy sexual conquests.”

“Seriously?” I’d always thought that was an urban myth.

“Your strength arises from your birthright and has lain slumbering inside you, ready to awaken when the time is ripe.”

“Well, I guess that’s some comfort…. But if you were going to calculate odds on me surviving my confrontation with the Valkyrie-slayer, what would you say my chances–”

Valkslayer. Valk,” said my companion. “And his name is Grok.”

“I’m just wondering exactly how dangerous Grok is,” I said as we arrived at the main entrance to the oldest part of campus, which conveniently abutted the bar district.

There was a big, pretentious gate, an old building with a clocktower, and a notoriously dirty fountain that surrounded a marble statue of the minor statesman who’d founded this university with the fortune he’d made by exploiting child labor.

“Here we are,” said Briddlecroonak, coming to a halt in front of the fountain.

I looked around and didn’t see anyone. Certainly no Valks, Groks, or Grzils. (I had no idea what any of those things were, but I had a feeling they’d stand out around here as much as–oh, for example–a talking marsupial.)

I looked again at the opossum. “I mean, on a scale of one to ten, would you describe Grok as a nine? A two?”

“Before you can defeat Grok in glorious combat–”

“Are we sure it has to be combat? Maybe Grok and I could just talk. You know–work things out like adults.”

“–you must first claim Jasmine Truethunder.”

Momentarily distracted, I asked, “What if she doesn’t want to be claimed? Has anyone asked her how she feels about this?”

Briddlecroonak started wheezing. I only realized it was laughter after he said, “Ah, thank you, my brave friend. That witticism helped break the tension.”

I’m still tense.”

“Now is the time! This is the place!” Briddlecroonak rose up on his hind legs and waved his little pink claws majestically. “Jasmine Truethunder has lain in wait for years beyond counting, sleeping until this moment! Claim her, Avenger of the Valk! Claim her and know your destiny!”

I looked around again and still didn’t see anyone.

“Claim her!” the opossum repeated.

“Is there a sleeping princess somewhere that I’m supposed to kiss?” I asked in confusion.

The seer’s nose twitched and his lips curled up over his fangs for a moment. Then he said, with forced patience, “Reach into the fountain.”

“What? No way. Do you have any idea how many drunken students have pissed in this fountain since the last time it was cleaned–which was probably when Ronald Reagan was president?”

Briddlecroonak got back down on all fours. “Look, if you won’t even touch a little dirty water, then this night is going to be a disaster. And the Five Kingdoms are doomed.”

I looked into in the murky water. “Oh… crap.” And considering the way it smelled, that was another substance that was probably floating in it. “All right.” I rolled up my sleeve, thinking that as soon as we were done here, I was going to the med center to have my whole arm sterilized.

As I plunged my hand and forearm into the slimy water, I acknowledged that all my behavior tonight–and particularly this moment–confirmed that it was past time for me to drop out of law school and come up with a better plan for my life. Except that I was still in law school because I didn’t have any other plan. I was every bit as aimless and unfocused as I had always–

“Whoa!”

I was so surprised I nearly fell into the fountain when a bright, iridescent light suddenly spread across the water, turning it a dozen shades of glimmering blue, violet, and turquoise. Even more surprisingly, the water was suddenly crystal clear, as if no one in the whole history of the college had ever pissed, spit, or vomited into it.

And from the depths of the crystal-clear water that shimmered and glowed with strange enchantment, there arose a gleaming, steel blade. As I reached for it, it whirled away and spun around in a dizzying circle, then floated up to the surface–up, up, up until it broke through the water and soared into the air. Still trying to grab it, I stumbled forward, and now it came into my outstretched hand as if escorted there by destiny itself.

“Wow,” I said.

“Your weapon, Jasmine Truethunder,” Briddlecroonak said triumphantly.

“Weapon? It’s, um, a penknife.” I folded the blade closed, then opened it again. “See?”

“As legend foretold, she gave herself into the hand of the true Avenger of the Valk,” the opossum said somberly. “You and no other are destined to slay Grok and master the Grzilbeast–or die trying!”

“Die?” I repeated. “Did you say–”

“Embrace your true identity, Vworntokthalis! Bond with Jasmine Truethunder, for she will not fail you.” Briddlecroonak added, “Well, probably not.”

I was very impressed by the whole event, of course, but even so… “This is a penknife.”

The seer placed a little pink claw on my ankle. “Now you are ready for deadly combat, Vworntokthalis. Now you must face Grok the Valkslayer.”

“If I’m honest, that suffix, slayer, has me a little worried,” I said. “How many Valk has he slain, for example? And in addition to having a secret identity as their avenger, do I also have a secret identity as a Valk? If so, then isn’t it likely Grok might slay me, given that–”

“You really have been in law school too long, haven’t you?” said the seer.

“But not for much longer!” said a menacing, gravelly voice behind us. “Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!”

Moving as one man (so to speak), Briddlecroonak and I whirled around to confront the owner of that voice, and we found ourselves facing…

“Professor James?” I said in surprise, seeing my notoriously unpleasant Antitrust Law lecturer standing there in the dark, laughing maniacally. I recognized him even though his eyes, normally a dull brown, were now bright red and glowing–which I don’t mind admitting I found pretty unnerving. A split second later I saw the thing crouching next to him on all fours, and I nearly wet myself. “What the hell is that?”

“Grok!” exclaimed Briddlecroonak.

“That’s Grok?” I said in horror, staring at the thing beside Professor James. “How am I supposed to fight that?”

It was some sort of animal, roughly the size of a Saint Bernard dog, but clearly feline in nature. It looked as if someone had crossed a domestic tabby cat with a prehistoric saber-toothed tiger–and then did something to make the offspring very, very angry. The thing was growling and crouching as if preparing for attack, its hackles raised, its long fangs bared and dripping with saliva.

“Seer! So we meet again after all these years,” Professor James said in a menacing voice. Then to me, he said, “Hello, Dave.”

“That’s Grok?” I repeated. “What am I supposed to do with a penknife?”

Too scared to look away from the giant, crouching cat, I waved my implement around in Briddlecroonak’s general direction, though probably five feet above his little head.

Professor James gasped and fell back a step. “Jasmine Truethunder!”

“Hah! That’s right, Grok!” said the opossum. “I found Vworntokthalis first. You are too late to prevent the Avenger of the Valk from bonding with his fateful weapon and . . . and  . . . and avenging the Valk you have slain!”

“Jesus, kill a few lousy Valk and the Wizened Ones of Loremead send half the heroes in the Five Kingdoms after you,” grumbled Professor James. “This is getting so tedious. But, oh, well, I guess I’ll have to kill another warrior.”

You’re Grok the Valkslayer?” I said in astonishment, gazing into his glowing red eyes. James was the most burned out, snide, and unpleasant professor in the whole law school (which was saying something). He had been here for decades and seemed embittered and overdue for retirement. “I don’t believe it.”

“Frankly, I’m having a hard time believing that you’re the Avenger,” he shot back. “You have maintained an impressively convincing disguise of utterly forgettable mediocrity during your sojourn at this institution. I congratulate you, Dave.”

“Um, thanks.”

Except for the glowing eyes and the menacing creature beside him, his behavior seemed completely normal (yes, he was like this all of the time).

“You’re really Grok the Valkslayer?”

“Long have I awaited this moment, Avenger,” he intoned. “It was foretold by the ancients that you and I should meet in mortal combat, and the fate of the Valk would be decided between us.”

“I don’t suppose we could just talk about the Valk?” I said without much hope. As far as anyone knew, James had never once agreed to a student’s reasonable request.

“Heresy!” he thundered. “Even the Codex of the Ninth-Born and the secretly-coded Long Island Railroad timetable proclaim that one or the other of us must die this dark night, Avenger! Face up to your destiny!”

“You’ve had a little more time to prepare for this than I have,” I pointed out.

“Always with the excuses, Dave,” he said with disgust. “If you failed to prepare for this test, it’s your own fault.”

“Oh, now wait just a damn minute. I was walking along tonight, minding my own…” I came to my senses and shook my head. “No, never mind. Forget it. Let’s just get on with this.”

It was my Antitrust mid-term all over again.

“Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!” he laughed.

Seriously, except for the glowing red eyes and the giant snarling feline at his side, this was just like being in his classroom.

I glanced anxiously at the creature beside him. “So I guess that’s the Dread Grzilbeast that you freed from its enchanted sleep in the Caves of… of…”

“The Caverns of Mimnoth!” he snapped. “Didn’t you prepare at all, Dave?”

God, I hated this guy. I’m generally opposed to physical violence, let alone mortal combat. But I realized, standing there in the dark as Professor James, a.k.a. Grok the Valkslayer, sneered and jeered at me, that if I was ever going to kill anyone, then I really wanted it to be him. In fact, as memories of the frustrating injustices and undeserved humiliations I had suffered in his class flashed through my memory, I realized that something inside me understood, believed, and knew that I was indeed destined to kill him–or die trying.

So I said grimly, “Oh, believe me, Grok, I am prepared for this, all right. You prepared me.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, Avenger?” he said with a sneer.

“That’s Mister Avenger, to you,” I said with a half-decent sneer of my own.

“Oh, this is going just like the Prophecies of Joralion said it would!” Briddlecroonak clapped his paws and gave an excited little hop. “Prepare to meet thy doom, Valkslayer!”

“Hah!”

Moving with the speed and agility of a young athlete, which took me by complete surprise, Grok leaped straight at me. He was brandishing a dagger (where had that come from all of a sudden?) with three long, shiny blades–all of them aimed at my throat.

I shrieked, staggered backward, and reflexively threw my penknife at him. Hey, I was new to this whole mortal combat thing and hadn’t expected the old man to jump me so fast or fiercely. So I panicked.

Jasmine Truethunder flew straight into Grok’s forehead and hit him right between the eyes with a solid thud! Grok froze in mid-leap, hovered motionless for a moment, then keeled over and lay there on the ground, his eyes remaining wide open as the strange red glow slowly faded from them. My penknife was sticking out of his head, its blade having sunk into his skull.

Briddlecroonak squeaked and squealed with excitement, running around in little circles. “You have done it, Vworntokthalis! Hip-hip-hurrah! You have triumphed over the Valkslayer!”

“I have?” I tiptoed closer to Professor James’s prone body. “Is he… dead?”

I had barely finished asking the question when a putrid yellow mist arose from the corpse. The body began liquefying, bubbling and gurgling noisily, churning itself into the thickening yellow mist that stank of sulfur as it soared upward and away.

“Whoa!”

“Hurrah! Hurrah! The Valkslayer is slain! He has fallen to the Avenger’s mighty blow!”

I stood back and held my nose, gagging at the stench, as the body disintegrated and evaporated, roiling skyward and then dissipating on the wind.

When there was nothing left of Grok’s body except a little sticky slime and the penknife which had slain him, I bent over, picked up Jasmine Truethunder, and used my sleeve to wipe clean the blade of my bonded weapon.

Then I held Jasmine Truethunder aloft and proclaimed, “This is the true hero of this dark night.”

Briddlecroonak patted my ankle. “But you certainly helped.”

I shrugged. “And, happily, I don’t have to try to explain the corpse of my most hated professor to the law school dean.”

I heard a loud snarl, looked over my shoulder, and realized that I was about to become a corpse. The Dread Grzilbeast gave a mighty roar and then launched itself at me.

In my terror, I dropped my penknife rather than throwing it.

Fleeing for my life, I turned, ran–and immediately fell into the fountain. Now that it had surrendered Jasmine Truethunder to me, it was no longer glowing and clear, but had returned to its usual putrid condition. But since this was no time to be fastidious, I simultaneously staggered, flailed, and swam as fast I could, moving further into the murky water as I felt the Grzilbeast enter the fountain behind me, its immense claws reaching for me.

“Agh!” I made a desperate lunge to escape the big, bloodthirsty monster.

“Meow!” a pathetic little voice wailed directly behind me. “Meow!”

I glanced over my shoulder and saw… a small tabby cat dog-paddling in the filthy water, trying not to drown as it cried for help.

There was no sign of the Grzilbeast.

“What the…?”

I reached instinctively for the drowning tabby cat, which clung to me and cried pathetically. I clutched it to my chest as I looked around, dreading the renewed sight of the long-fanged beast that had been chasing me only a moment ago.

“You have returned the Dread Grzilbeast to its enchanted sleep!” cried Briddlecroonak, punching the air with a little, pink fist. “Yes!”

“I’ve done what?” I said, standing in the middle of the stinking fountain.

The seer gestured to the frightened cat that clung to my chest as I started wading to the edge of the fountain. “This is the Grzilbeast in its enchanted form.”

“Seriously?” I looked down at the sputtering cat. “It looks just like the mouser that lives in the basement of the law library.”

“Yes, that is where Grok woke it, intent on using its unleashed ferocity for his own evil purposes.”

“The library basement?”

The opossum nodded. “Also known as–”

“Let me guess,” I said. “The Caverns of Mimnoth?”

“Precisely. And we must return the sleeping Grzilbeast to the Caverns of Mimnoth–”

“Or, in local dialect, we must return Stripes to her kitty bed in the basement of the library–”

“–and flee this realm before the Minions of Grok find, torture, and dismember us.”

“Well, I was going to say, ‘Before anyone notices Stripes is missing,’ but, hey, you say tomato, I say to-mah… Wait… What did you just say?”

“That sulfuric mist rose from the body to be carried on the winds to the Cliffs of Nomhara, where the Minions of Grok will be alerted to the slaying of their revered idol.”

“That guy had minions?”

“They will want to punish the hero who slew him,” said my companion. “And believe me, you do not want to mess with minions.”

“But why did–”

“Garrgh!”

Briddlecroonak the Seer had a vision. Peering sightlessly into this dark night, he drew in a long, deep, noisy breath through his little, pink nostrils and made a humming sound. Then he said, “The mist has already reached some of the minions.”

“That was fast.” Still clutching the cat, I hauled myself out of the fountain, soaking wet and smelling incredibly rank. “What should we do now?”

“We must flee to the Valley of Sohn where we can rally with the Exiled Ones and mount a defense.”

“Okay, that’s pretty specific,” I said with a nod. “I guess you know where this valley is?”

He waggled his paw. “More or less. We might need to ask directions along the way.”

“But why are we going to rally with the Exiled Ones?” I asked as we headed rapidly in the direction of the law library, so we could return Stripes to her proper place before departing. “Shouldn’t we go find the Valk? I mean, I’m their Avenger, right? I just slew Grok the Valkslayer, and all that.”

“Oh, the Valk will shower you with gratitude and glory when next we meet them,” said Briddlecroonak, “but they’re basically a species of decorative butterfly and, as such, not very useful in a situation like this. So we’ll rally with them some other time, Vworntokthalis.”

“All right. That makes sense,” I said. “But there’s just one thing I have to say before we go off on another adventure.”

“Yes, of course.” The opossum nodded. “I know what it is.”

“Oh, right. You’re a seer.”

“You’re not sure this is the right path for you, leaving behind all that you know in order to travel to strange lands, face more deadly foes, meet with danger and constant–”

“Oh, no, that’s all fine. No problem there.”

He stopped waddling and stared at me. “No?”

“No. I’ve finally figured out what to do with my life. I’m on board. Avenging the Valk, heroic deeds, deadly enemies, mortal combat–count me in all the way. But…”

“Yes?”

“I’d really rather you just call me Dave, if you don’t mind. I can’t even pronounce Vw… Vw… the name you’ve been calling me.”

“Oh! All right. If you wish it, of course I can call you Dave.”

“Great.” I gave my furry partner a friendly little pat on the back. “Now let’s get Stripes to safety and then go rendezvous with the Exiled Ones in the Valley of whatever.”

And thus it was that I dropped out of law school and embarked on my true path in life.

Sarah Beauhall and the Bivalve Beat Down by J. A. Pitts

Littleton was a fishing town on the Washington coast—seventy-two houses in the several square miles between the highway and the open water. Nearly every job in town dealt with fishing and oysters. There were rumors that strangers disappeared around these parts and that was good enough for me to investigate. I was hunting necromancers—been following up on leads all over the region, but honestly I didn’t expect much.

I hated necromancers—monsters killed some of my friends and wounded my girlfriend. My crew, Black Briar, had battled the cult and wiped out most of them, but a few had escaped.

I pulled the Ducati in front of the Crack Shack, a dive bar and grill that had seen better days. I figured I’d ask a few questions, eat some local food, and poke around for a few hours before heading back home. My hopes were not high. So here I was, all alone with my bike, a couple of hammers, and my magic sword, Gram.
Working for Nidhogg—the dragon that ruled everything between Vancouver, BC, and Vancouver, WA, and as far out east as Missoula, Montana—offered me some perks and an extraordinary amount of backup if I needed it. Right now, I was just scouting. I didn’t expect anything too big to handle. I was Odin’s chosen one after all, a hot, dragon-slaying, berserker chick who understood the business end of her sword.

I stuffed my gloves inside my helmet before climbing off the bike. I left the hammers in my saddle bags, along with the .45 I’d picked up in my adventures. I distrusted firearms, especially when magic was in the area, but it was always good to have an ace in the hole.

Couple of old guys inside the bar were watching me from the window. Their eyes about popped out of their heads when they caught sight of my hair and the sword slung over my shoulder. Or so I assumed. Maybe they were just not used to seeing someone like me in their little town. Not hostile stares, more like the circus was in town.

At least I’d left the chainmail at home. Just my riding leathers. Likely it was the dyke on a bike that was confusing the locals. I smiled, thinking how the love of my life, Katie Cornett, had called me her “fierce warrior” as she lay in that hospital bed, recovering. I took a deep breath, stretching with my arms over my head, and twisted my torso to each side. It had been a long ride.

I could feel eyes on me from places other than the bar as I climbed the three wooden steps and pushed open the door. Once the door closed behind me, the feeling of threat fell away.

The place was really cute, in a fisher town sort of motif. There was a small stage in one corner with a huge wall-mounted television off to one side showing golf. The bar was empty except for a young woman who sat on a stool at the end reading a book. Over her shoulder was a window back into the kitchen. An old woman was moving back there, leaning over a grill. I’d been on the road since four and my stomach was growling.

The two old guys were at one of the four tables over to the right of the entrance. Beyond them was another room with a few tables and stacked boxes and a second exit out to a side parking lot. Somewhere there was a door to the kitchen, because I couldn’t see one out here. I walked across the narrow room and placed my helmet on the bar, nodding to the old men. The young woman slipped a receipt into her book and closed it with a grunt.

She looked up at me as she walked around the end of the bar, picked up a pad of paper, and slid the book she was reading off the edge of the counter and down beneath. I grinned. It was a bodice ripper, but with her piercings and the tatt on the inside of her left wrist, I was betting she would rather project an aura of mystery and chic hipsterism rather than let people think she would enjoy something as frivolous as a romance novel.

“What can I get you?” she asked, her voice cracking on the last word.

I guessed she was barely twenty-one, looked closer to nineteen.

“Breakfast menu and some answers if you don’t mind,” I said back, giving her my best smile.

She blushed a little as she handed me a laminated sheet. Eggs and oysters were the order of the day, it seemed. Of course, there were oysters in everything, even the steak and eggs, which I ordered.

“Gravy on the browns?” I asked.

“Best sausage gravy within a hundred miles,” she said, a shy smile making her eyes look happy.

I let her pour me a cup of black coffee and watched her smirk as I poured about a half a cup of sugar in it.

“Got any chocolate?” I asked.

She smiled and opened a little door behind the bar, pulling out a bottle of chocolate sauce. I added a spoonful to my mug and stirred it, watching the old men trying to watch me without being too obvious about it.

“What brings you out this way?” the young woman asked, slipping my order back to the cook.

I sipped my coffee and shrugged. I’d had worse. “Just following some whispers,” I said. “Got wind that there’s been some trouble out here since New Year’s.”

“You a detective or something?” the girl asked, her voice cracking again.
Was she nervous? I glanced back at the two old men who were diligently shoveling eggs and hash browns into their faces, eye contact a definite no-no. Interesting.

“No, nothing like that,” I said, sipping my coffee and watching the old men. “Just curious about odd things, if you understand.” Was I making them nervous? When I turned back, the girl was watching me, wide-eyed, her mouth open in a little circle like a guppy.

I smiled at her and she blushed.

“Guess you folks don’t see somebody like me around here very often.”

One of the old men grunted and mumbled something under his breath, and the girl winced. I sat my coffee cup down on the counter and folded my hands over it, letting the steam warm them.

“Heard that maybe some people had disappeared out this way. You heard anything?”

The girl busied herself straightening a stack of napkins that were in no need of help. “What did you say your name was?” the girl asked finally, watching me out of the corner of her eye.

“Sarah,” I said, holding my hand out for her to shake. “Sarah Beauhall.”

She sort of twitched, knocking over the napkins, but didn’t take my hand. Did she know me?

Suddenly there was a loud scraping of wood on wood as the two men scrambled out of their seats and grabbed their coats.

“See you at dinner,” one of the old men called. I glanced over and they were both heading out of the front door, struggling into their jackets.

“Tell your ma I’ll be out about her septic,” the other man said.

The slamming door was very loud.

Their meals were about half finished and they both had coffee in their mugs. I was not winning any friends so far.

I sat back down, settling my hands on the bar.

“Well, that was sudden. Was it something I said?”

She glanced up and shrugged.

“Folks get nervous around strangers,” she said, looking down at her hands. She started to take a step toward me, but glanced around. The bar dead-ended at a wall farther away from me. For her to get away, she’d have to walk past the end of the bar and well within my reach. I sighed.

“Sorry if I’m inconveniencing you,” I said, pulling a twenty out of my wallet. I laid it on the bar and grabbed my helmet. I turned to step toward the door but stopped when she called out.

“Alex,” she said, her voice shaking. “Alexandra, actually.”

I turned back.

She was standing at the edge of the bar with her hand out.

I watched her for a moment, noticed how her hand was shaking, and stepped forward, taking it into my own. Her grip was firm, if a little sweaty.

“Alexandra is a beautiful name.”

She glanced back into the kitchen where I saw the old woman watching us, then pulled her hand away from mine quickly, tucking them both into her armpits

“We don’t want any trouble,” Alex said, her voice shaking.

What the hell?

“Is that a sword?” the old woman asked from the kitchen. “I think that’s a sword.”

Alex waved at the old woman, “Hush, Munner.”

I motioned toward the bar, and Alex nodded. I stepped back and before sitting down again, slid the scabbard off my shoulder and laid Gram on the bar in front of me.

Alex let out a sigh and reached out, like she wanted to touch the sword, but she stood a good seven feet away. “You’re her, aren’t you?”

“Her who?” I asked, perplexed. Okay, I’d killed a dragon, been marked by Odin, and killed a few giants and trolls, but I was hardly a household name. Still…

“Of course it’s her,” Munner said, waving a hand in my direction and turning back to the grill.

Alex leaned against the bar, visibly shaken. “Wow,” she said, then nothing.

We sat there in silence for a while, Alex staring at me, and me getting more and more weirded out by the whole thing.

There was a clatter in the back, and Munner came around through the other room carrying a plate heaping with food and a second plate with toast.

“Fill the woman’s coffee,” Munner snapped, setting the two plates in front of me. “And get her some of the good steak sauce. The stuff your ma makes. Chop, chop.”

Alex jumped to, grabbing the coffee pot and filling my empty cup. Then she opened the cooler behind the bar again and put a bottle of some concoction in front of me along with a spoon.

“Tomato based,” she said, unscrewing the lid. “But it’s the best thing you’ll put in your mouth today, I guarantee it.”

Munner walked over and flipped the sign on the door to “closed,” turned the locks, and switched off the neon sign out front. Then she walked to the back where I heard the other door being locked. I began mixing the gravy into my hash browns while Alex watched me. Soon Munner was in the back, turning off the grill and scraping it down.

“Are you folks closed?” I asked, confused.

“We are now,” Munner called from the kitchen. “Dragon business takes precedence over filling bellies around here.”

I choked, spewing coffee onto the bar, barely missing my food. Would’ve been a shame, because that was some of the best sausage gravy I’d ever eaten.

I just watched them, shock and trepidation warring in my chest. Who the hell were these people and why hadn’t Nidhogg warned me to look for them? Of course, Nidhogg kept her secrets close. Maybe that’s why there was no one worried I was out here on my own.

Unless they were the necromancers and I was being poisoned.

I pushed the plate away and Alex smiled, catching the flow of my thoughts.

“It’s not poisoned,” she said.

I eyed the food, dubious, and she laughed.

“Jesus,” she said, grabbing a fork out from under the bar and reaching over to scoop up a glob of gravy-covered potatoes. She ate it without blinking.

“It’s a sin to poison something as good as Munner’s sausage gravy.”

Munner came over to the bar, with three shot glasses and a bottle of whiskey. She poured three shots and raised hers into the air. This was some strange shit.

“I’m glad the hoary old bitch finally sent someone out this way,” Munner said, her eyes filled with purpose. “We’re glad for the help.”

I picked up my glass and held it high.

“Whiskey is the water of life,” the old woman said, her words an intonation. “Let this enrich our lives and bolster our courage for what is to come.”

“Skål,” Alex said and downed her shot a split second after Munner.

I eyed them a second longer, muttered “Skål,” and downed the shot. They each set the shot glass down on the bar, upside down, with the sound of finality.

“Alex, let her finish her meal, but then I need you to take her out to the Gunderson place. Start there.”

Alex nodded, her face pale but set. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to get your mother and the rest of the sewing circle.”

Alex nodded again and motioned for me to eat.

I sat there for a minute as the old woman shrugged into her coat and mud boots. “Try the pepper sauce. You won’t ever forget it.” Then she was out with a bang, a walking stick in her hand.

“Sewing circle?” I asked, picking up my fork.

“Bunch of old women getting in everyone’s business,” Alex said, rolling her eyes. “Living in the past, keeping to the old ways.” She sighed. “I can’t tell you how exciting it is to meet you face to face.”
I guess the sewing circle was one of the clandestine groups that proliferated throughout the state, reporting into the Nidhogg’s network, helping her to keep tabs on the goings on in her protectorate.
But Alex, now that girl was like a puppy, watching me eat and practically vibrating with excitement. I was half convinced that she was flirting with me.

The steak was good and the steak sauce was heavenly—sweet and savory with a bite of peppers. At some point I’d have to bring Katie back out here for oyster hangers. She loved them. I ate as much as I could, but frankly, the whole thing was overwhelming. Alex insisted the food was on the house, but I left twenty by my plate just the same.

The Gunderson place was on the island. The bar backed onto a canal that separated the island from the true mainland. There was a sturdy bridge connecting the island, so we walked in the mid-morning gloom.

Which wasn’t unusual for this part of the country—overcast and gray was the norm. I was just glad I’d had a dry ride all the way out from Bellevue, and the day promised to remain so. No rain in the forecast until Wednesday at the earliest. For January I’d take it. Overcast helped to keep the heat in so it was hovering in the low forties. Clear skies would’ve seen the temperatures drop by at least ten degrees, and that was just uncalled for.

The Gundersons, Alex explained, were a retired couple who kept a house here as their escape-the-big-city getaway. Not sure why anyone would want to come out here for a vacation, but the world takes all kinds. Their house was cute, two bedrooms with a central great room and a good-sized pellet stove to keep the place toasty. With access to that kind of breakfast, and some decent coffee, I was beginning to think I could see the appeal of the place. At least until Alex led me to the back room.

Off the kitchen was a storeroom that looked like a Costco warehouse. The place was nearly as large as the master bedroom and there were enough supplies here to last the entire winter without power.

Unfortunately the place had also been used for something dark. I slid Gram from her sheath as soon as I felt the first tingling of dark magic. Someone had died here, and not quickly. Alex shied back, swinging her hurricane lantern between us. It was one of those rechargeable types that used LED lights. Put out some serious light. But Gram enhanced my vision and I could see things the lantern could not show.

In the back, next to a rack of toilet paper—so much toilet paper—someone had been nailed to the wall. There were arcane symbols gouged into the cement block, and the floor had a series of interlocked circles drawn with chalk, wax, and blood.

The runes that Odin had marked on my scalp tickled and I turned to see a second, less powerful set of markings. There were straps and cuffs attached to large bolts here, a place to bind someone without doing any permanent damage. Someone was really into S&M, or maybe keeping prisoners. The energy here was much older than on the opposite wall. Whoever had been shackled here had been for sport—a witness to the torture and murder on the opposite wall.

“Damn,” I breathed as the blackness throbbed in the room. Some seriously bad magic had been used here.
The ritual circle was bent at ninety degrees, though—half circle on the flat floor, half circle on the wall. Not sure how they’d done that without causing a break, but what the hell did I know about necromancy?

Two people had been tortured and questioned here. At least one of them killed. There had been blood harvested here for the magic it held, but more than that, there was a sadistic pleasure in the killings.

“Gundersons?” I asked.

Alex coughed once, and I looked back. She was struggling. I motioned with my head and she turned, leaving the room as fast as she could. I followed, giving her a wide berth as she vomited into the sink.
When she’d cleaned out the sink and rinsed out her mouth, I handed her a paper towel off the dispenser by the fridge.

“Not the Gundersons,” she said.

“You going to be okay?”

She nodded, dabbing at her forehead with a wet paper towel. “Two of their friends. Young couple come out here in the off-season for,” she paused, looking away. “More grown-up activities. She glanced back at me, her face a mask of scarlet. “They leave their kids with their parents and come out here for a few days of…” She trailed off.

“Bondage games?” I asked.

Alex gave one quick nod and ran the water in the sink, splashing it on her face.

“Not something new then? Wouldn’t be a surprise to the Gundersons?”

“I need to get out of here.” Alex turned off the lamp, set it on the counter and walked past me, brushing against me in her hurry to get out. For the briefest of moments a scene flashed through my mind. Something where Alex was in pain.

I followed her out and she was sitting on the porch, her head in her hands. I paused and placed a hand on her shoulder. “You okay?”

She shrugged and let out a long sigh.

“Doesn’t get any easier.”

I slipped Gram back into her sheath and sat down next to Alex, putting my arm over her shoulder.
“So a lot of grown-up games out here, but why the killing? Any ideas?”

“Munner thinks they were mixed up in something, drugs probably. But we need to go out the back for the next stop on this nightmare tour.”

We crossed the garden and went through a gate in the fence. To the left there was a rather deep stand of trees, not much light in among the boles, not in this gloom.

“What’s that place?” I asked, pointing into the woods. My runes were tingling even more.

Alex was watching me, a strange look on her face. “You don’t seemed very phased by all this.”

I shrugged. “I’ve seen some pretty grim stuff.”

She averted her eyes and nodded. “Fair enough.” She turned and walked across the road toward another house. This one was smaller, likely a single bedroom. “You need to see the rest before we go into the woods.”

Definitely smaller than the Gunderson’s place, and not nearly as kept up. The place had been ransacked inside. There was blood flung onto the walls in every room. Black candle stubs coated the counters and tables, window sills and even the back of the single toilet. Hundreds of black candles had been burned in here, burned down to nothing.

And there had been an orgy in the middle of the house, a wild affair that reeked of magic and death.

“How many died here?” I asked. I looked back and Alex stood in the doorway, her face pale.

“Seven,” she said. “All teenagers. Lot of beer, weed, and sex.”

“You know any of them?”

She turned away.

The people who did this pulled as much magic from the sex as they did the blood. This definitely smelled like the same necromancy that had killed my friends. I didn’t need to stay in that house. At this point, I had no doubt about the necromancy going on here. I just needed to know where to find the sick bastards who were doing this and put them out of their misery.

I looked around, scouting the area, and noticed that Alex was watching me again. “You feeling okay?” she asked.

It was sweet that she was concerned. “I’m feeling fine, why?”

She just shook her head, muttering under her breath, and turned toward the wood. I pulled out my cell phone to call in the cavalry as I followed her into the woods. I was scrolling through my contacts looking for Qindra’s number when the world grew fuzzy.

Once we crossed the threshold under the boughs, the light dropped away to almost nothing. There was an oppressive feel to the place. There was something wrong all of a sudden and I felt the world shift. I looked over at Alex who was asking me something I couldn’t make out. Then the world started to melt and I fell to my knees, dropping my phone mid-dial. I reached for Gram, hoping I could get my hands on her before it was too late. I face-planted into the forest loam.

When I woke up I was standing calf deep in ice cold water and muck. I looked out at the open ocean, the tide back a dozen feet or more, and a field of thick mud between it and me. Everything was blurry, like maybe I was drunk, but that one shot shouldn’t have done this. And why couldn’t I move?

I rolled my head to the side and saw Alex, naked as the day she was born, standing on an escarpment to my right. Her feet were nearly level with my head. This would be a dry spot to stand when the tide came back in. Well, for her. Not for me.

Of course, that’s when the cold hit me and I noticed I was naked as well. Naked and tied to a pair of crossed beams. Now I was pissed off.

“What the fuck?” I asked, turning my head take in the rest of my surroundings. My gear was thrown in the muck around me including my Doc Martens. My jeans and other pieces of clothing had been cut off me. And damn it, I liked those jeans—wide enough in the hips without looking like clown pants. The Docs were going to be hell to clean with all that mud and crap caked into the stitching.

I raised my head to Alex and the world spun again.

“Surprised you’re awake,” she said, a mad gleam in her eye. “Of course, you took your sweet time passing out.” She was grousing. “Never saw anyone eat so much of Ma’s pepper jelly and stay upright as long as you did.”

Okay, note to self. Sausage gravy is sacred. Jelly was poisoned.

And it was really good, too.

I turned, looking toward the shore, and saw a semi-circle of old, naked women making their ever-lovin’ slow progress out to us. Well, mostly naked. The muck was deep and they were all wearing hip waders.

“Sewing Circle?” I asked, pointing toward the old women with my chin. I was trying desperately to ignore the pounding that had started in my head. There was something big happening and my runes were telling me it was bad.

“Yeah,” Alex said, her voice an explosion of anger. “Said I brought too much attention here and instead of letting me have you, she insisted that you needed to be sacrificed to appease the great Shen.”

I just stared at her. “The Great Shen? Seriously?”

“Oh, yeah. It’s the real deal.”

I studied her face, waiting for her to laugh. “Chinese, if you can believe it. No idea how it ended up out here, but there you have it. Best oyster beds on the west coast, and all it costs us is an occasional sacrifice to the great knobbly shelled one.”

She wasn’t laughing.

She shook her head and glanced back. “I would’ve kept you around a while, had some fun.” Her face flushed red again, only I noticed now it ran down her neck and across her breasts. Girl was either cold or very excited.

“Instead you get to be eaten by a giant oyster. Really does suck. I’ve seen this thing. It’s large enough to swallow one of our fishing boats.”

I looked out at the edge of the incoming tide, trying to imagine an oyster that large. The image was ludicrous. Imagine the eggs and hangers you could make with an oyster that size.

“Tide’s coming in,” she said. “As soon as it does, Shen will rise up and suck you in. I can’t imagine it’s a great way to die.”

“Drown most likely,” I said, watching the old women make their pathetically slow way out toward us. “What the hell is keeping them?”

Alex grunted. “Old age, I’d hazard.” She licked her lips and stared down at me. “I’m thinking it’s time for a new generation to take over.”

Great. Crazy and power hungry.

Alex squatted down, her knees to the side, thank goodness. I was not in the mood to see any more of her than necessary.

“They want to cut on you a little. Let your blood wash out into the surf when it comes in. But they are so damned slow.”

“How long do I have?”

“Thirty minutes tops,” she said, her voice resigned.

“What about the Gunderson’s friends?”

She smiled sheepishly. “That’s my house, actually.”

I just shook my head. Alex was the necromancers who’d escaped. Nice to know. Just wish we weren’t both naked in the middle of a stinking tidal flat. We’d be having a different conversation.

“Why necromancy?” I asked as the old women paused around one of the old rock outcroppings. As long as we were talking there was no cutting and no mighty Shen. My runes were burning and my mind was going a mile a minute. I just wished I had a plan.

I glanced back over to see Alex walking down the shallow path that curved around to where I was staked out. Her eyes dark and wide. The lust was clear on the girl’s face.

“I may kiss on you some,” she said, pausing on the last foot of dry ground and staring at me. “We could’ve had such a good time together.”

She was toying with a knife that I hadn’t seen a few minutes ago. What else was up on that damn perch? Was Gram up there?

I tried not to think about the fact we were both naked. That was just demoralizing. She was very cute, all the right curves, and a really sweet smile. But that whole murdering people for fun and profit thing was a definite downer.

“How long has the knitting circle been sacrificing people out here?”

“As long as we’ve been fishing these waters,” she said, stepping into the water and grabbing the knots that held my right arm to the wooden cross. “Munner always tied the strongest damn knots. Even large men haven’t been able to break them.”

I thought to Katie, stuck home recovering from near death and here I was going to die naked with this crazy, screwed up young woman drooling over me.

Alex trailed her hand down my arm and over my right breast. She sighed as she did it and my body arched like I’d been hit with a bolt of lightning.

“There is such power within you,” she said, dreamily.

I thrashed against the ropes as she chuckled quietly and leaned in, placing a soft kiss just above my belly button. Again the lightning flashed through me at her touch. This wasn’t natural. This wasn’t okay.

“Get away from her,” Munner’s voice cut in. Alex growled low in her throat and turned, the knife out, facing three of the old women.

“Let me cut her,” Alex said, the need strong in her voice. “Let me play with her a bit first. Why do you care?”

Munner looked at one of the other women, who turned her head in shame.

“She’s your daughter,” Munner said in disgust. “Will you let this go on? This abomination?”

My runes flared again, clearing away a bit of the fog that Alex’s touch had flooded over my body. Abomination? Which part? The necromancy or the girl on girl action? I really wanted to kill all of them, a very lot.

“The calling has already occurred,” Alex’s mom said, her voice a combination of fear and anger. “I will handle this.”

She strode forward, her great rubber boots squelching out and back into the muck as she closed the final distance toward me. She began to chant in Chinese, Mandarin I think, as she pulled a thin boning knife out of her left boot.

I struggled for a moment, but Alex placed one hand against my shoulder and I froze, my entire body shaking, but the surge of energy that ran through us set my ears to buzzing. I didn’t even feel the first cut that her mother placed down one arm, but when Alex jerked her hand away, the pain flared to life.
I screamed.

All in all she cut me a dozen or more times, each deep enough to keep blood flowing, but not deep enough to cause me to do anything stupid like die before the giant oyster god, Shen, showed up for his dinner.
I turned my head toward Alex, sweat covering my face as my blood dripped into the water that now rose up over my hips. Alex hovered near me as her mother washed her knife in the incoming tide.

The other women had gathered then, all on various levels of the escarpment. Their arms raised high, their nakedness no longer a joke to me, but terror. This was old age, this was power gone wrong, this was madness.

I’d lost my will, the bleeding had weakened me to the point that even the runes on my scalp had stopped tingling. I was numb below my sternum as the icy water continued to rise. Another five minutes or so and I’d be completely underwater.

Soon enough I was tilting my head backward, attempting to keep the waves from covering my nose and mouth. I was so cold that even the cuts had stopped hurting. I was minutes from death by drowning, if not exposure, when the voices behind me rose to a crescendo and Shen arrived.

Alex had not been lying. It was the biggest damned oyster I’d ever imagined. Bigger than my parents’ house. It rose above the waves, a two-story tall monstrosity of thick, wavy shell covered in dark lichen and great knobs of barnacles and other embedded detritus. Near the very top of the oblong mollusk there looked to be a boat anchor buried in the hoary shell.

Suddenly I felt the surge of water being pulled toward it as it sucked in the bay. Oysters feed by capturing plankton and other small bits of edibles, like human sacrifices it would seem, through its gills. If I didn’t drown, I’d be digested inside that huge monstrosity. I could feel the tug of that suction, being drawn taut against the ropes that bound me. Not sure how this sacrifice was supposed to work if I was tied up, but I was beginning to lose the ability to care.

Then between one great surge into the maw of that oyster and the next, the embankment behind me gave way and the old women tumbled into the sea, Alex among them. Shrieks echoed all around me as several women floundered in water over their heads. Most of them were making their way toward the shore, when I felt someone grab a hold of me from behind. It took me a minute to recognize Alex there, her knife flashing in the weak light, and suddenly I was cut free. Shen drew in another great suck and two of the old women were pulled out to sea. I tried to grab the cross beams but missed. As I fell beneath the waves I heard Alex screaming my name and saw her hurl something over my head.

The last thing I saw as I tumbled down into the surf was Gram spinning end over end, then I was caught by the ultimate sneaker wave. At the last moment, I drew in a deep breath and fell beneath the surface.
I smashed against the mighty Shen, feeling my skin tear along the rough shell. I flailed about, looking for something to grasp onto when the suction subsided. My foot connected with something soft, but solid, like maybe one of the old women who’d fallen in with me. What a shame. I kicked off, driving toward the surface.

My head broke across the top of the wave long enough for me to draw half a breath when I was sucked back under again. I tried desperately not to cough, but there was silt-filled water in my mouth and nose.
I opened my eyes, facing my death wishing I could’ve spent one more second with Katie, one more kiss. Just the smell of her, the feel of her in my arms.

A long chunk of driftwood floated before me and I grabbed it, stabbing it own into the mouth of the oyster. It shuddered and again the suction stopped. I kicked wildly back toward the surface and broke above it. This time I got two solid breaths before the world shifted.

The oyster, apparently not happy about its dinner fighting back, rose underneath me, its great shell creaking open.

As it closed over me, I saw a miracle. In its haste to eat me, it had drawn in several bits of debris, including Gram. I dove toward the blade, dove into the heart of the beast.

Then the world went black and my ears popped as we dove beneath the surface once again.
The runes on the back of my calf flared as my foot touched Gram—her mark, the day we were bonded—runes that matched those on her blade. I bent double, grasping for it as the muscle of the oyster pulsed against me. This wasn’t how it normally ate, but that didn’t mean I would live.

I was pressed up into the underside of the shell by the thick muscle of the main body. The world started to go from red to black when the pressure released and I felt a burning sensation flash across my legs. I looked down to see a glowing shape, long and thin, flames licking along its length despite being under water.

Gram.

I twisted, grabbing the end that wasn’t flaming, and felt a surge of power flood through me.

I don’t know how long I lashed around with the sword in that tight space before my mind began to grow fuzzy from holding my breath too long, but finally it gave up. The shell swung open and I was ejected at a rather high velocity back toward the shore, where I landed in a heap in the brackish water.

As I sat up, waste deep in water, and struggled to catch my breath, I looked around to see if the circle was going to attack me. Three figures were visible on the escarpment, Alex, her mother, and Munner. The others were making their way back to dry land, wading through the waist-deep water.

Back out to sea, Shen sat, the shell open and bloody water seeping over the rim of the lower shell. Maybe I’d killed it after all. There wasn’t a part of me that didn’t hurt, but the sweetness of oxygen was all I wanted to think about at that moment.

By the time I felt strong enough to wade to shore, Alex and her family were gone. The walk back into town was painful and slow, but I found a house fairly close to this end of the island where it happened no one was home. I broke in, found a phone, and called Qindra, Nidhogg’s witch. This had gone way beyond a simple scouting mission, or even a quick strike. No one had thought I’d run into a giant oyster sacrifice.

I stayed in that house, raided their fridge, and cleaned my wounds while I waited for the cavalry. It only took them three hours to arrive in mass. I didn’t ask what happened to Alex and her family, but Qindra assured me that they wouldn’t be hurting anyone ever again.

In the meantime she healed me the best she could and got some clothes that mostly fit me. I spent a bit of time over in Astoria at the hospital, getting some stitches and a tetanus shot. They also gave me a broad spectrum antibiotic just in case I caught something from the muck in the bay. Then Qindra had someone drive me home.

A few days later my bike was back in my possession and there were several large packages delivered. All my gear was lost, well besides Gram and what was on my bike. In the boxes were several pairs of jeans that fit me, a few t-shirts, a new set of riding leathers, and a small cookbook with recipes for oysters.
I gave the cookbook to Katie and left Qindra a voicemail with more colorful words than I’m sure she was used to hearing.

But I was home, another threat was dealt with, and I had spent a few days healing in the sweet arms of Katie Cornett. That was the best medicine of all.

The news reported breaking up a meth ring out in Littleton with several townsfolk arrested and several missing, running ahead of the law.

No one asked too many questions, and the locals were either too shocked by the loss of Shen, or so used to the Sewing Circle’s ways that they just never spoke up. Funny what generations of culture and social Darwinism will do.

I never heard about them finding a giant oyster. Story wasn’t reported anywhere, not even the conspiracy magazines you see at the grocery store. Either it escaped after all, or Qindra took care of it. I might ask her some day, but not today.

Today I was taking Katie out on the Ducati and heading someplace away from the water, maybe into the mountains, for something not seafood related.
••••
Pitts_avatarJ. A. PITTS resides in the Pacific Northwest where he hunts dragons, trolls and other beasties among the coffee shops and tattoo parlors.
He can be found online at www.japitts.net.

The Beaux Wilde by Carrie Vaughn

It was said of Miss Elizabeth Weston that she was a young woman of great fortune and little accomplishment. Since the former went some ways toward making up for the latter, all was well, or should have been. But at twenty-two years of age, Miss Weston remained unmarried.

She played the pianoforte adequately, but would not play before strangers. Her needlework was loose at best, her dancing merely functional. She was pretty, with honey-brown hair, a pert face, and clean skin; but she was shy, and so did not catch the eye as she might have if she smiled more.

What she liked best was to read, and while conversations and games of whist might go on around her, she would sit alone with a book of Scott or Radcliffe. She could sometimes be prevailed upon to read aloud, but within a line or two, her voice would grow so timid and constricted she had to leave off.

Elizabeth knew what people said about her in whispers behind their fans and glasses of sherry. Since she could not help what they said or what she was, she withdrew further and avoided the kind of company a highly marriageable young woman in her prime should have sought out. It was a paradox that gave her mother and father some anxiety.

She did not have to hear or be told what the gossip said about her; she knew, with an inner sense that might have been a curse.

Elizabeth would not have attended the ball at Woodfair at all, but Woodfair was the home of the Brannocks. If Elizabeth had a best friend in all the world it was Amy Brannock, because what Amy said and the feelings behind her words were just the same. When the invitations went out, Elizabeth accepted, because Amy would not question why she did not wish to dance.

Mr. and Mrs. Brannock greeted the Westons at the door, and Elizabeth immediately looked over their shoulders for her friend, but alas, she was not in view, and Mrs. Brannock had another plan. She and Mrs. Weston exchanged a wink that meant they had been conspiring.

“Miss Weston, it is my great pleasure to present to you Mr. Richard Forester. He is a cousin on my mother’s side, and expressed a great interest in meeting you after hearing of your many charms!” Mrs. Brannock offered up the handsome young man as if he were wrapped with ribbon.

Blushing enough to make her head ache, Elizabeth curtseyed, and Mr. Forester grinned as he bowed. Her great charms . . . her fortune, was what he was thinking. Why was that the first thing anyone learned about her?

“Miss Weston,” he said, as he was expected to, as this situation was contrived to arrange. “Would you do the honor of dancing this next set with me?” Music was playing in the next room. Of course the dancing had already begun, Elizabeth could not have delayed just a half an hour more to miss it. She looked pleadingly at her mother, but Mrs. Weston seemed so happy, Elizabeth could not argue.

“Of course,” she said, and held out her hand. He led her to the ballroom, where couples lined up for the next figure.

His touch was cold. Not physically—she was wearing gloves and could not feel his skin. But something in his eyes, a stiffness in his carriage, held a chill.

“If I may be so bold, Miss Weston, you are the brightest ornament at this gathering. My gaze was drawn to you the moment you stepped through the doorway.”

The movements of the dance took her away from him; when next he took her hand, he said, “You are grace itself.”

“I thank you, sir,” she said, little more than a whisper. Not a single compliment he spoke was sincere.

She heard his words, but another meaning entirely lay behind them, some feeling that came off him like the scent of soap used to launder his shirts, rude and unkind thoughts. His true motivation, his true feelings: she was a silly girl, but someone ought to have her money, so why shouldn’t it be him? She wasn’t even a prize to be won, but an obstacle to be overcome.

The dances here were like hunts, gentlemen and ladies chasing after one another.

Her foot missed a beat and she stumbled. One of the other ladies, the kind Miss Allison, took her elbow and steadied her. Elizabeth caught more than the kind look in her eyes; there was also the belief, the certainty, that Elizabeth was a talentless creature who ought to be pitied. While Elizabeth might not hear the words, the feelings directed toward her were plain, sharp as the screaming edge of knives.

Much speculation went on among her parents and their friends about what could make a girl like Elizabeth so quiet and withdrawn. Mrs. Weston had decided that her dear girl by some accident of birth was simply too sensitive to withstand the rigors of society and the world. Likewise, Mr. Weston declared that the fineness of her disposition made her superior, but also vulnerable. Those outside the immediate family were sure that the girl obviously had been too coddled, too sheltered, and so would always be weak and sniveling. A gentleman who aspired to marrying her fortune would first have to persuade Miss Weston that she was strong enough to accept a firm proposal. But the more forceful a suitor appeared, the more timid Miss Weston became. Another paradox.

These speculations never happened within earshot of Elizabeth. She knew of them, just the same.

In truth, Mrs. Weston nearly had the right of it: Elizabeth felt everything. The thousand petty dramas of the typical gathering were as shouting in her ears. She felt the prides and hurts of others as pains in her own heart. She knew what she shouldn’t: which young gentlemen carried on affairs with their mothers’ maids, which young ladies were so desperate to escape indifferent families they were prepared to throw themselves into unsuitable marriages. Men who worried over debts, coachmen nursing lame horses—she knew. She could not say how, but she did. She knew that one of the brusque suitors she’d refused, Mr. Rackham, would be cruel if he succeeded in winning her. Another, Mr. Carroll, would simply ignore her. From the ladies, she felt the gossip about how she was proud and odd and would die an old maid if she were not careful. The old men wondered what was wrong with her, that she should turn up her nose at their sons.

She felt herself to be like the ancient Greek oracles, caught up in the torture of ecstatic revelation. Empathy was the word she found—profound, damaging empathy. And she could not tell a soul.

At last, finally, the music ended, and Elizabeth curtseyed with a sigh of relief. Mr. Forester insisted on seeing her to a chair, when all she wanted was to flee.

“Miss Weston, you seem quite flush, do let me bring you a sherry,” he said, but he was not concerned with her wellbeing, only with flattering her so that she might fall in love with him.

“No, I thank you, I only need to sit—”

“Elizabeth! How long since you arrived? I did not see you! Here, come with me, I’ve been longing to speak with you—oh, pardon me, Mr. Forester, but I must steal Miss Weston away from you, I’m sure you understand.” Without further explanation, Amy Brannock swept between them, hooked her arm around Elizabeth’s, and pulled her into the next room, leaving Forester staring.

“Thank you,” Elizabeth breathed.

“Richard Forester is such a bore, I’m sure you have had quite enough of him. I knew my mother was going to waylay you. I had wanted to be there, I was watching for you, but then she sent me off to see that Emma knew to fill the punch bowl. Mother can’t leave well enough alone.”

Amy looked very well, as she always did, with roses in her cheeks, wearing a pink muslin gown that complemented her light hair and creamy features. Elizabeth wore a gown of blue with lace—it suited her because Amy had helped choose it, and her friend beamed at the compliment Elizabeth paid her by wearing it.

In the drawing room they settled on a pair of chairs. Elizabeth could listen contentedly for hours while Amy gossiped. She might not move for the rest of the afternoon.

And then three strange gentlemen entered the drawing room.

The trio stopped at the door to look about, and because they were strangers, everyone else paused to study them.

“Goodness, will you look at them?” Amy said, hand on her breast like some romantic heroine. “Have you ever seen such . . . shapely gentlemen? Is shapely the right word for it?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “I think it is.”

All three had powerful forms under well-made suits; they possessed broad shoulders and took graceful steps. They . . . prowled, looking about with a hooded darkness in their gazes, which scoured every surface, every face. Elizabeth could not take her eyes from them. Mr. Brannock immediately went forward to meet them, shaking hands all around, and the room returned to a normal state of pleasantness, as if a cloud had passed by the sun.

“Who are they, do you think?” Amy asked.

“It’s your ball,” Elizabeth said. “Do you not know?”

“I’ll just go see, then.” She flounced up and made her way to where her mother sat with the matrons. Elizabeth felt herself shrinking in her seat, hoping that no one felt the chivalrous need to come and speak with her.

Fortunately, Amy came back soon enough. “I’ve gotten all the news of it from Mother. They are the Misters Wilde, brothers who’ve come into the neighborhood and have taken the lease at Lilies Park. Father met them in town and invited them to introduce them to the neighborhood. It never hurts having more beaux among the number, yes? I imagine Father thinks to put them in my way.”

“Brothers? They don’t look anything alike.”

Indeed the tallest of the men was fair; the shortest had a brown complexion, calling to mind the West Indies sun; while the middle had dark hair and striking gray eyes.

Amy furrowed her brow, an expression her mother was always complaining of because it marred her features. “They don’t, do they? Ah well, who’s to say.”

The middle one, with the gray eyes, caught Elizabeth staring. She quickly looked away, but knew he still studied her—she felt a focused attention that put her in mind of a hawk.

“That one there has his eye on you, I wager,” Amy said, her smile mischievous.

With increasing dread, Elizabeth watched the Wilde brothers make bows to the host, who brightened after a moment’s conversation and turned toward her and Amy.

“Oh, you see?” Amy said brightly. Of course she was thrilled. New gentlemen meant new attention.

“Do stay close,” Elizabeth said, clutching her friend’s hand.

“Of course, but promise me that if he asks you for a dance, you will accept? It’s only a dance and perhaps you will like him. Not all men are Mr. Foresters.”

That was Amy—every gentleman deserved at least one dance.

Elizabeth looked up and met the gray-eyed gentleman’s gaze. This time, she could not look away, though she was sure she ought to. He held her fast, and her heart sped, like that of a rabbit fleeing the hunt. He offered a polite nod. She had forgotten to breathe.

He was intrigued by her—the same way she could identify arrogance and pity, she knew he was intrigued. But his interest would quickly fade once he actually spoke to her, surely. When she stumbled during their inevitable dance.

“Truly, he will not ask me for a dance,” she said to Amy. “Will he?”

“I am certain he means you no harm. Don’t be afraid.”

She steeled herself as if she were walking into battle. “Then I promise. Because you asked. I may even enjoy it.”

“With that one? Oh, please enjoy it!”

At last the gentlemen approached, and the ladies stood to make curtseys as Mr. Brannock presented them.

The tallest one was Vincent Wilde; the shorter, swarthy man was Francis Wilde; and the middle, dark-haired man was Edward Wilde.

Amy’s father said, “This is my eldest daughter, Miss Brannock, and her good friend Miss Weston.”

“How do you do?” Amy said for them both.

Mr. Brannock said suggestively, “Do you think the music is very good? The quartet came highly recommended.”

“It’s very good,” Amy agreed.

“Indeed,” the first Wilde said.

There was only the slightest pause before Francis Wilde bowed again. “Miss Brannock, will you grant me the next dance?”

Amy’s true feelings were as eager as her smile. “Thank you, sir.” She took his offered hand.

That left Elizabeth standing before Edward Wilde, whose emotion was plain to her. Though the strangeness of it . . . the gentleman’s interest in her was, indeed, for her. Not her money, her family, or her brown curls. He might have been as intent as a hunting hound, but the attention was honest. This as much as anything startled her. Perhaps he simply had not been in the neighborhood long enough to hear of her fortune or her oddness.

“Miss Weston, I would not be left behind by my brother, if you will do me the honor?”

She did not think twice before taking his hand. Yes, her stomach might still be roiling. But the feeling was not dread this time. Edward Wilde’s touch was light, as if he knew that any pressure on her hand would incite panic. If she wanted to flee, he would not hold her. This comforted her to a degree that surprised her. In turn, Mr. Wilde’s feelings also settled.

She would engage him in conversation, if she only knew what to say. She did not have Amy’s open nature, alas. The benefit of dancing was that she could pretend to be so engrossed in the music and where she placed her feet, that she need not speak.

The couples lined up. Elizabeth repeated steps to herself, watched others for the proper cues.

Mr. Wilde’s gaze kept drawing her. In spite of herself, she kept wanting to look at him. To study him. To learn exactly why he was so different from anyone she’d ever met. Him and his brothers, really, but he was the one standing before her.

Of course, she stumbled. It was the part of the dance where one crossed over with one’s partner, and one was meant to look into his eyes and not at her feet. She always feared losing her place or running into the other gentleman—and that was what happened. She took a wrong step, saw herself about to collide, and quickly moved to avoid it, which meant she lost the rhythm of the entire sequence and ruined the figure for her partner and the other couple besides.

Mr. Wilde rescued her deftly and without fuss. When the next bar of music came, and it was his and the other lady’s turn to cross, he touched her elbow and pressed her over while nodding to the spot she should have been, next to him, before the music told them to turn half a circle back to their original places.

What was more, he did not express contempt or pity, as others before him had done when they tried to dance around her mistakes. He did not leer, did not roll his eyes, and his emotion was . . . sympathy. If he smiled, it was not to laugh at her, but out of understanding that there was nothing more difficult than remembering where to put one’s feet while others were watching you.

The other gentleman, however, chuckled, passing a mocking glance to his lady. The behavior that Elizabeth had come to expect.

Edward Wilde growled at him.

She distinctly heard the burr in his throat. He glared hard at the other man, who stopped, wide-eyed and trembling before his partner pushed him into the next phrase of the dance.

“I beg your pardon,” Edward whispered hoarsely, and they crossed over with the next couple in the row. Far from not granting him pardon, she wanted to thank him.

She did not make another mistake for the rest of the dance. When Mr. Edward Wilde asked for the next dance as well, she accepted.

Propriety dictated that for the third dance he move to a new partner, and Elizabeth politely declared that she must rest. Much of the company was watching her as she found a chair to sit and catch her breath. She realized this was because she was smiling.

Those in attendance had known her since her girlhood, and they were shocked—no, that was too strong a word, more they were all wonder—because she was not slouching. Might she even be enjoying herself? Because of this new gentleman? When he wasn’t dancing, Edward Wilde stalked the edges of the room, glaring at any who dared look at him, until the light-haired brother touched his arm and brought him back to himself.

The music ended, and Elizabeth looked up from her seat to find Mr. Edward Wilde and Amy approaching.

He said, “Miss Brannock asked me to escort her to sit beside her best friend, so here we are. Might I be so bold as to bring you both refreshment?”

“Oh yes, please, that would be lovely,” Amy said, patting Elizabeth’s wrist. “Wouldn’t it, Beth?”

“Oh, yes,” Elizabeth said. “Thank you.”

Mr. Wilde made a bow and went away.

Amy took both of Elizabeth’s hands in her own and gave her a smile large enough to knock her over. “Well?”

Elizabeth bit her lip. “Well what?”

“What do you think of Mr. Wilde?” she said with mock frustration.

“Which one?”

“Oh, Elizabeth!”

“He is very kind.”

Amy seemed to be nonplussed at this. “I will take that to mean you like him.”

They had to leave off then, because Mr. Wilde returned—along with his brother, Mr. Wilde. This could become quite confusing, Elizabeth reflected. She couldn’t tell by looking who was eldest. They seemed of an age.

The brothers had brought them glasses of punch, and Francis drew Amy off for a conversation—intentionally, Elizabeth was sure, leaving her with Edward Wilde seated attentively beside her. Francis Wilde offered a smile that was not entirely as kind as his brother’s.

She made herself sit very straight and proper.

“How do you like the ball, Miss Weston?” Edward Wilde asked in a way that suggested he had practiced this question as a crutch for polite conversation. He was looking about warily as if he expected someone to leap at him.

“I like it very well,” Elizabeth said, and meant it for once. “And you? I mean—you are new to the neighborhood, it must be quite overwhelming meeting so many new people. How do you find it all?”

“I believe I find it quite agreeable. I’m not often comfortable in gatherings such as this,” he said. “So many . . . people in such a close space.”

Would that she could stop blushing. “I understand—about gatherings, that is. They can be very trying. Especially—well. It would all be so much easier if I liked balls and assemblies as much as Amy—Miss Brannock—does.”

“Easier?”

She pressed her lips in a sad smile. “At my age I am supposed to be seeking companionship, not avoiding it. And yet, I feel most at ease when I am alone. I am told this will not do for a young lady.” His frank interest was startling her into honesty when she should have kept quiet. She rarely talked so much.

“The matrons throw their sons at you in hopes of marrying you off. I do see how that could be tiring.”

She laughed; the sound startled her, and she put a hand over her mouth. “I had three marriage proposals before I turned eighteen. I was able to put them off by claiming my youth, but that excuse no longer serves.”

“You are one of those romantic girls who wants to marry for love.” The jest was meant kindly. His smile was conspiratorial.

“I want to marry for trust, Mr. Wilde. For trust.” She lowered her gaze.

He looked thoughtful. “I think I understand you.” And he did. Her words had sparked his appreciation.

“I beg your pardon,” she said, blushing so fiercely she thought she must faint. “I speak far too freely.”

“You do me a great compliment by speaking freely. Thank you.”

She was sure that he could hear her heart beating faster. Again, he put her in mind of a hawk—or perhaps a fox.

Because she had said far too much already, she added, “Mr. Wilde, if you are not comfortable in places like this, why tolerate it? You can do whatever you like. You aren’t expected to come to assemblies and make a good show of it. You can run free in the woods if you like, and people would merely think you eccentric—”

He looked at her with something like shock, as if she had uncovered some deep truth. She couldn’t see the truth itself, only that she had exposed him. She fell quiet because, obviously, she kept saying the wrong thing. His thoughts turned chagrined—he had been working very hard to hide his discomfort, she realized. She had exposed him, and now she was sorry for it.

“My brothers and I,” he said, taking a steadying breath, “decided we would like to come in from the woods. There are . . . attractions to drawing rooms and assemblies.”

She felt a great welling of desire, and could not tell if it came from him, or from her.

“Edward! My goodness, but people will talk, with you dominating this poor young lady’s attentions!” Francis Wilde came over and taunted his brother. Elizabeth couldn’t see where Amy had gone to.

She started to say that no, Edward wasn’t a bother at all, and then excuse herself to find her friend, but Edward bristled. An emotion that was half annoyance poured from him—the other half was anger. He rose and faced the other. “Francis. Do not interrupt where you’re not wanted.”

“I’m saving you. No—I correct myself. I’m saving the lady from you. From the gossip you will incite.” He bowed at her, and his smile was mischievous.

She wanted to smile at his playfulness, but Edward’s anger confused her. Something more than what was visible was happening here. The two men had both stiffened, and their glares held challenges.

“You are provoking me, sir,” Edward said, his voice constrained.

Francis blinked a moment in apparent surprise. “Yes, perhaps I am. And how are you getting on with that?”

The two brothers glared at one another, their expressions were fierce.

“Miss Weston, you must pardon my brothers.” This was Vincent. He’d deftly stepped between them, grabbed them both by the necks, and glared pointedly until they drew back. The brewing argument vanished. “They are prone to teasing one another.”

Francis started, “It was only a conversation—” But Vincent threw him such a look, the small man wilted and ducked his gaze.

Edward, his shoulders still bunched with tension, looked away. “I will remember myself.”

“Good,” Vincent said to him. “Do endeavor to be pleasant for at least another hour.”

Elizabeth could not interpret what she had witnessed—rivalry, authority, uncertainty, all of it. The goading, the reprimand—perhaps it was that they were only brothers, deeply competitive. But there was more than that at work here. We decided we would like to come in from the woods. . . .

Francis bowed something that was like an apology and went off to another room. Vincent followed him, and she expected Edward to do likewise.

Instead, he turned to her, his expression chagrined. “My deepest apologies. Tell me you will forgive me and grant me one more dance?”

She should have been frightened of him, after what she had seen. But she took his hand and stood before she knew what she was about.

••

“You like him,” her father said, as they sat at supper. She was with her parents near the Brannocks. The brothers Wilde were at the far end of the table. She didn’t dare steal a glance at Edward, though she was sure he was stealing glances at her.

Elizabeth gathered herself as well as she could, folding her hands before her. “I don’t know that I would use so strong a word,” she replied. “Mr. Wilde is very . . . interesting.”

“That is more than you have said about any other man who has ever turned an eye toward you, my sweet girl.” He kissed her hand and smiled knowingly.

Perhaps she could persuade Edward Wilde to return to whatever woods he had come from, and take her with him. This thought was shocking—and pleasant. She wrapped herself up with it.

••

While the gentlemen smoked and drank their brandy, Mrs. Brannock led the ladies to the drawing room. The gossip that followed there was mercenary. For once, the thoughts of the women were just as stark as the words they spoke. There were more daughters than available bachelors in the neighborhood, and the arrival of the Wildes was a boon.

“But what of their family? Does no one know anything of them?”

“Clearly, the family made its money in business, this is why no one has heard of them.”

“They do have a rough edge to them, don’t they?”

“But money forgives many faults, doesn’t it?”

A few stray glances went to Elizabeth, who pretended to be occupied with the lace on her sleeve.

“I would know more about them before allowing them to claim one of my daughters.”

“Does anyone know if they even have this fortune that everyone speaks of? Taking Lilies Park isn’t a sure sign of it—”

“They’d have had to prove their credit before taking the estate, surely—”

“I’m sure I don’t understand such things—”

“But they do seem very fine, don’t they? Ah, to be young again, I might try to catch one of them for myself!”

The worry over money was true, but it had a second function: to put off rivals. Whatever they said, the mothers would be happy to have their daughters married to money. None of them was so fine that they could easily refuse anything upward of three thousand a year. If the marriage went poorly years hence, whether because of money or disposition, they would all say that they knew from the first it would be so. None would remember the talk of this evening.

Amy leaned close to Elizabeth. “You are thinking very deep thoughts, my friend.”

“Oh? I’m told that thinking in ladies is unattractive.”

“Usually it is, but it makes you appear quite mysterious. I approve.”

“Amy, you’re a bad influence on me.”

“Good! Now, do share.”

She took a deep breath. “I am thinking, what a pack of vultures.”

Amy burst out laughing, and the matrons and their daughters turned sharp looks to them, which caused Elizabeth’s friend to choke back even more laughter.

The gentlemen joined the ladies soon enough, and there was music and whist. The younger of the company drifted to an adjacent parlor, talking around the fireplace with the illusion of privacy, chaperoned by the company in the other room.

“I think our introduction to the neighborhood has been a great success, brothers,” said Francis, the merry one as Elizabeth thought of him. “What say you, ladies?”

“A triumphant success, I think,” Amy exclaimed. “But you will have to hold a ball of your own soon to truly establish yourselves.”

“Ah, of course,” Francis said. “We cannot escape the balls, can we?”

Vincent and Edward showed sour expressions at this, though they made a good show of fortitude. The drawing room was not their natural habitat, as Edward had indicated. Francis masked discomfort by being forward. Vincent and Edward did not mask it at all.

“But now—I am going to be quite rude,” Amy said. “I hope you will not think ill of me for it.”

“How could anyone ever think ill of you?” Francis asked.

“We know nothing about you,” she said. “Where are you from? What can you tell us of the Wilde family? If you do not wish to answer directly, perhaps we can play a game of questions. You need only answer yes or no, then.”

“There is nothing to tell, really,” Vincent said, eyeing his brothers.

“No, please, a game of questions would be delightful! Are you from the north?”

“Ah . . . no,” Vincent said.

“The south, then?”

“No.”

Amy pursed her lips. “Well then, where are you from?”

“Miss Weston,” Edward said. He began to pace. “Do you play the pianoforte?”

Elizabeth flinched, startled. “Not very well, I’m afraid.”

Francis laughed. “Then we must hear you play, Miss Weston, for all ladies say they do not play well, to better display their genteel humility.”

Amy stood and gave a brilliant smile. All the gentlemen must swoon. “Mr. Wilde, we are having such a fine conversation, I’m sure no one wishes to leave it even for a moment just to play something.”

Rescue. Elizabeth’s relief was physical.

Francis seemed put out. “Really, I thought this was how it was done. The lady is asked to play, she demurs that she does not play well, her assembled friends assure her that she plays very well indeed, and then the lady is allowed to demonstrate her skill without being accused of undue pride.” He was teasing. His manner was bright, containing no malice at all, but Elizabeth might wish she weren’t the subject of his banter. She was ill equipped to bear it.

“Mr. Wilde, do be still,” Edward said, biting the words. Something rose up in him. His lips curled, showing teeth.

Their exteriors were polite. They did not tear into each other with claws—but they wanted to, with the looks they gave one another, raking each other up and down with sharp gazes. Their lips parted hungrily, their teeth were white and sharp.

Elizabeth stood. She did not have to feign an anxious tremor in her voice. “I think . . . I think I should like to take a walk. A turn about the room. To get some air.”

The brothers turned to her, still annoyed, but they no longer seemed as if they wished to devour one another, and that made a great improvement on Elizabeth’s nerves.

“Miss Weston, are you well?” Vincent Wilde asked.

“In truth, the room seems somewhat . . . crowded.”

“There are less than a dozen of us here!” one of the other young ladies, one often frustrated with Elizabeth’s fragility, exclaimed.

“And yet I think the room is quite full.”

“Miss Weston displays a great deal of insight, I think,” Edward said. “If I may, I will escort you to the window for some air.”

“Thank you, sir.”

They went off a little ways, and Edward pushed open the window. The air that came in was cold and damp. Her mother would be horrified of a chill overtaking her, but Elizabeth breathed it in gratefully.

They had some privacy. They could speak alone in quiet voices. It seemed wonderfully illicit. Some of the others might think this had all been a ploy on her part to get Edward alone. Amy might have encouraged her to try such a trick, but she would know this was honest. Elizabeth wasn’t very good at ploys.

Edward’s concern was genuine. He did not think this was a ploy.

“Thank you,” she said softly. “I was quite overwhelmed.”

“You are not wrong about the room,” Edward said. “It is more full than it appears.”

“I think that is because the personalities of you and your brothers are so very large. When you were boys, your mother and father must have despaired of ever having peace again. Except—you are not truly brothers, are you?”

“How do you guess that? I know we do not favor one another, but it is very forward of you to say so.”

“I have never done a forward thing in all my life but talk to you.”

“You—your insight . . . it astonishes me.” His whole manner had stiffened.

She had never wanted to understand someone as much as she wanted to understand him. At the moment, he was building walls in his mind to keep her out.

“I am not trying to astonish, truly.”

“It makes you all the more intriguing.”

She had never before wanted to kiss someone, but she could finally see why one might want to. If she leaned in, if she put her hand on his chest—it was scandalous. She also felt that if she tried to kiss him, he would let her.

He shook his head and took a step back, and she felt as if a chasm opened between them.

“I fear, Miss Weston, that I have misled you. I admire you, but I cannot do more than that. This is for your own safety, please believe me.”

He was not lying. But he was disguising the full truth.

“Mr. Wilde—” But he had already walked away.

••

Amy interrogated her thoroughly.

“But what did he say?”

Heads bent together, no one could hear them. The evening was over. Elizabeth was in her pelisse, waiting in the foyer for the carriages to be drawn up. The brothers Wilde were nowhere to be seen.

“That this was for my own safety, and then he left. He was unhappy. I could see that he was.”

“Of course he was, to give you up. My dear, he has used you very ill, to draw you in and then drop you like . . . like a handkerchief.” She frowned at her own metaphor.

“I do not know what I did wrong. Perhaps I spoke too freely—”

“Oh, do not blame yourself. Who can understand men?”

They kissed cheeks in farewell and the Westons left in their carriage. When her father asked her how she liked the evening, she only said that she liked it well enough, but that she was tired now and didn’t want to speak.

••

That night, a wolf howled across the valley. She had never before heard such a sound, a plaintive cry, a heart breaking as the piercing note drew long and faded. The tenor of longing and of uncertainty was familiar to her. It should not have been. The sound was the frustration of someone who had been unhappily standing in close company all evening, but who no longer felt at home in the woods, either. The cry of someone who would be pleased to dance, if only he could find the right partner.

Because she had danced so much more than she was used to, because she had spoken so freely to Edward Wilde, she was feeling brave, and so she donned a wrap, and took a lantern, and went out to the grounds of the manor.

She did not think to search so much as she meant to let herself be found. But the wolf did not cry again. “Edward!” she called out once, but her voice echoed strangely and she cringed. Perhaps she should go to the edge of the wooded park and wait for him.

Her slippers grew wet with dew, as did the hem of her nightdress. She ought to have put on better clothes; she thought the woven wrap would be enough. This was all madness—but she did not mind so much. It felt honest, in a world of pretense.

Then she saw him, a huge creature loping across the grass of the park. He was gray, the color of slate and steel, with a touch of mist on his muzzle and belly. His fur stood thickly from his body. His long, rangy legs carried him toward her. His eyes were icy. She should have been terrified, but she was not. She should have imagined the creature leaping and biting into her throat. Instead, the wolf slowed, stopped, and watched her.

He was lost, angry, and terribly sad. She wanted very badly to touch him, to say that all would be well.

At the edge of the wooded park, she sat, hugging her wrap around her against the dewy grass. The wolf sat, too. They regarded each other as a couple in a dance might, looking across a space just barely too far apart to reach out and touch, not knowing what to say to one another. The wolf—she felt him being oh so careful; he did not trust himself to move any closer.

Moments passed, and she found she was satisfied to sit, and listen. The wolf bowed his head, his ears pressed back. There was apology in the gesture. Shame. She had seen hounds look like this after being scolded.

“Don’t be sorry,” she assured him. “Oh please, don’t be sorry. It is such a pleasant evening, I am happy to sit with you like this.” The air was cool, but with her wrap she did not feel the damp.

The wolf settled, lying down and resting his head upon his paws. He sighed a breath that sounded like a whine.

Elizabeth waited.

••

“Bloody hell!” Francis cried out when he came out through the trees. “I beg your pardon, Miss Weston, you startled me.”

The wolf had not startled him; she had.

She blinked awake—she had nodded off. The wolf—he was truly asleep, curled up, tail to nose. She flattered herself that she had given him some comfort, to allow him to rest.

Vincent came up behind Francis. Both stood, wearing coats and looking harried. The masks were gone.

“Mr. Wilde . . . and Mr. Wilde,” she said, thinking that she ought to stand, but she did not want to disturb the wolf’s rest. Something was happening—she did not look away for fear of missing it. The creature’s fur seemed to thin; his limbs seemed to lengthen, claws fattening into fingers. The changes happened with the gentleness of mist fading at dawn.

“Miss Weston,” Vincent said. He seemed tired; his brother stood wary. “What in God’s name are you doing here?”

She hugged herself. “I do not know. A voice drew me.”

“Edward—” Vincent said wonderingly, and she nodded. “But how?”

“Again, I do not know.”

Francis laughed, and the sound was a relief. The merry version of him was more pleasant. “Do not take this as an insult, my dear lady—but what are you?”

“I might ask the same of you.”

The wolf was half man now, a naked face with pointed ears, sharp teeth behind curled human lips. The fur continued to thin.

Vincent said softly, “He spent too long in a crowded ballroom. We . . . we are not so used to polite company.”

“He said you had decided to come in from the woods.”

“Yes,” the taller brother said. “Francis and I have more . . . fortitude. For Edward, it is difficult. He lasted in company longer than I thought he would, and I believe we have you to thank for it.”

“Oh?”

“You give him a reason to be civilized.”

He does the same for me, she thought.

Edward Wilde lay before them now, nude, back bowed in the curled shape his wolf had lain in. He seemed tense, muscles taut, as if dreaming some difficult dream.

“He will sleep for some time,” Vincent said.

“He is exhausted,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. “I am astonished that you understand. You are not at all . . . frightened?”

She smiled. “Assemblies frighten me. Proposals frighten me. This . . . is merely wondrous.”

Her limbs had grown stiff and she took some time rising from the ground. Francis rushed forward to assist but was only in time to touch her elbow and bow an apology. She thanked him anyway. Moving then to Edward, she removed her wrap and spread it over him. He made a sound, a soft murmur that she couldn’t make out, and nestled more deeply into his grassy bed and sighed in comfort.

“I think I should take my leave, sirs. Do have a pleasant evening.”

“Miss Weston, we should escort you home—”

“No, it isn’t far, truly. Stay with Edward.”

They bowed, and she curtseyed, which seemed ridiculous here under the moon by the shadow of the forest, but it also seemed proper.

Taking her lantern, she hurried back to the house, shivering in her nightdress, to warm herself in her bed. Her maid never asked how her slippers had become so muddy and grass stained.

••

Several days later, she received a parcel wrapped in paper and tied with twine. She took it to her room to unwrap, because she was sure what the package contained: her wrap, with a carefully written slip of paper that said, My thanks.

This gave her such a warm feeling she was almost overwhelmed, and she held the note to her breast for a long time.

••

Elizabeth gladly attended the next assembly in town, not for any expectation that the brothers Wilde would be present, but for the hope that they would. Hope, she discovered, was a powerful inducement to feats of bravery.

She refused two dances, with Amy defending her by spreading about that she had a weak ankle, and was sitting in her usual wallflower role in a chair, happy to watch people enter and exit by the foyer.

And there he was. The three brothers entered, much as they had at the Woodfair ball. Edward was in the middle, and his gaze fell on her directly, as a hound on the scent. Elizabeth stood in a bit of a panic. Vincent nodded to her, and took a smirking Francis off to another part of the room.

Edward came to stand before her. He bowed; she curtseyed. The emotions pouring from him were tangled, but the thread she felt strongest was happiness.

He asked if she would like to sit; she did, clutching her hands together in her lap. He sat in the chair beside her. He was like the wolf, ears pricked forward, afraid to move lest he startle her.

“May I speak freely with you, Miss Weston?” he asked finally.

“Of course.” They sat a little apart from one another. The distance seemed a mile.

“I could smell you, when I woke. Your wrap—it smelled of you.” He blushed, trying to find the words. “I have never slept so well. I have never slept so soundly and comfortably, after returning from my other self. I fear I must ask you to run after me every full moon, to drape me with your wrap.”

“I would do it,” she said simply.

He chuckled. “You should stay inside where it is safe. But perhaps I can learn to carry your handkerchief with me.”

“I would give you a handkerchief right now, if I had one.”

“Elizabeth. There is so much you don’t know about us.”

She smiled. “You and the other Misters Wilde are not brothers—well, you are in spirit, if not by blood. It is most strange.”

“Indeed. And yet no one but you questions it.”

“Most people are eager to accept what they are told.”

“But not you.”

“This is my secret, Mr. Wilde: I can feel lies. And almost every word spoken in parlors like this is a lie. I wonder that you are so eager to leave your woods.”

“As I said, there are some attractions here.” This time, he blushed, which was rather gratifying.

“I do like the music,” she said.

“Miss Weston—will you trust me?” The meaning behind the words was more than what he spoke, and she understood him perfectly.

“Yes, I will,” she said.


Carrie VaughnCARRIE VAUGHN is the author of the New York Times bestselling series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty, the most recent installment of which is Low Midnight. She’s written several other contemporary fantasy and young adult novels, as well as upwards of 70 short stories. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at www.carrievaughn.com


A Chance of Cats and Dogs by Ken Scholes

A bald guy in a dark suit put down his briefcase and slid into the booth across from me. I’d smelled him coming–four-hundred-dollar cologne and an omelet with black coffee for breakfast–and smiled as he sat down. He was fiftyish, gaunt as a mortician, and human. I’d expected the human part; the patrons had a lot of them working for them.

“Are you Angus Wolfe?”

“I am,” I said as I extended my hand.

“Mark Connor.” He glanced at the thick hair on the back of it, the wiry curls that poked from my buttoned shirtsleeve. Still, he shook it. “Thank you for agreeing to see me.”

I nodded and let my hand drift back to the tea mug. I’d been using Abraham’s Table, a small Chinatown restaurant off Market, as an informal office for years. And Henry Ing, the owner, kept a booth free in the backroom. I shuffled the papers around and closed the lid to my laptop. “How can I help you, Mr. Connor?”

He pulled a thick envelope from his jacket pocket and slid it across the table. “My employer would like to retain your services.”

“I provide a lot of different services. Which in particular is your employer interested in?”

Connor cleared his throat. “He has a lost pet he’d like you to find.”

“I’m good at finding things.” It was a large part of my business. My father was an Old World rending hound and my mother was a waitress from Spokane. I got her good looks and charm. I got his hair along with a sense of smell like no other. “What kind of pet are we talking about?”

“A cat.” Connor lifted his briefcase onto the table and opened it. He pulled a file from it and then withdrew a picture. “Her name is Monica Evenheart.”

I studied it. She was a young woman but old enough to be an Old Worlder. Probably a kitten when she crossed over under the Covenant to escape my father’s kind. Dark hair. Dark skin. Darker eyes. The silver moon collar was subtle beneath her cream-colored blouse. Somewhere, off camera, someone wore the ring that went with it to command both the cat and her change cycle. “Was she taken or did she run away?”

“Ran away,” he said. “Stole both the ring and the collar.”

So it was a breach of contract. When the rending hounds overthrew the Old World, those who could, escaped here. The cost of passage–including the means to blend seamlessly into their new home–was steep. Whole families plunged themselves into indentured servitude to flee the fangs and claws of invasion and genocide. Because of my father, I dodged all of that. My mother raised me quietly away from all the politics and pandemonium. I looked at the picture again then back to Connor. “Any idea where or why?”

He pursed his lips. “We have reason to believe she’s in Seattle . . . or will be. As to why. . . .” He paused, pulled out another stack of pictures. “We’re not exactly sure but she’s hunting off-leash.”

So she was a mouser. Hunting off-leash in this world was a definite no-no. Leashed hunting was only permitted under the guise of a covenanted patron–usually one of the few Old World humans who’d managed to cross over decades before the war. Only an Old Worlder could wield Old Worlder magic.

I laid her picture aside and took the others. Crime scene tape and bloody rags dangling over city streets. They looked like they were men once before Connor’s cat trussed them up and played with her prey.

I squinted at the streetscape. “These aren’t Seattle.”

He shook his head. “No. Los Angeles and Portland. She’s heading north.”

I scowled. “And you have no idea why? Are her prey random, or are they connected in some way?”

“We’re really not sure.”

I’m used to being lied to in my line of work so I know what it sounds like. And sometimes, if it’s thick enough, I’ll even turn down a job. I considered it as I thumbed through the pictures again. But work had been slow, and the lack of work had me living out of a shitty car with what little I owned tucked in storage. The envelope was thick with promise.

“And when I find her, I just ask her to fly back with me?”

“We’ll have a tranq pistol waiting for you in Seattle. They’re hard to fly with.” He pulled a cell phone from the suitcase and passed it over. “When you have her sedated, my number is in the phone. There will be a team ready to bring her back.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll do it.”

Connor smiled and tapped the envelope. “I think you’ll find this to be an adequate retainer toward expenses. You’ll be paid two-thirds more when our pet is returned.”

Pet. I didn’t like that part either. But the patrons and their Covenant made their contracts as they could. Most of my work came from them or from other Old Worlders in that system. Despite my parents’ best intentions, I skirted the edge of a world they did not want for me.

Connor reached into the briefcase one last time and handed me a wadded bit of pink cloth. “This is her.”

I took it. It was a bra, and I felt my face flush. I could already smell it but to be sure, I brought it close to my nose and inhaled deeply of Monica Evenheart. I handed it back.

He waved it away. “Keep it. In case you need reminding.”

“I won’t need reminding,” I said as I laid it on the table.

Connor dropped it back into the briefcase and closed it. Then he stood and offered his hand again. “Be careful, Mr. Wolfe.”

I stood and shook it. “I will.”

I waited until he left before I picked up the envelope and rifled through the green. It was a lot for this kind of work, even with the bit about her being on the hunt. I pulled out a hundred for Henry Ing and shoved the envelope into my jeans pocket.

Then I opened my laptop and went back online to book my flight to Seattle.

#

It was mostly cloudy in Seattle, the afternoon light suffused by a veil of gray as I wound through rush-hour traffic from the airport to the neighborhood of Ballard.

I’d spent the flight going through the Evenheart file, familiarizing myself as best I could. She was near thirty and, as I suspected, just a kitten when she crossed over with her family and took the moon collar of her patron. As custom, the patrons divided up the families and found ways for them to earn their passage and keep. My father’s kin had created this mess when they’d taken the Opal Throne. The Queen of the North was the first to flee, and those who could, followed. Which led to the Covenant.

I’d skirted all of that, product of a rending hound’s unexpected conscience and a waitress’s love of strays. My father had worn a moon collar in those days and I reckon that is how I managed to arrive on the scene more human than not. Or maybe it was his deep desire to not pass that part of himself on to his only child. After he’d seen what his kin could do, what he himself could do, he preferred a human son.

But Monica, conceived in the forests of the Old World and in the old ways, wasn’t human at all. Not like the New Worlders. And she was bound by the cycle of the moon, forced to leave her truest form and walk upright and hairless and clawless for weeks on end. For her, the moon collar meant control. And until she’d stolen the ring that commanded it and fled, that control had been in the hands of my nameless employer. She was a cat, a mouser, which meant until recently, she hunted for him. Now I suspected she hunted for herself and I was certain that there was nothing random about it. And nothing in her file suggested Seattle as a place she had any connection to. Yet there were two addresses they suspected she might be casing.

I drove with the windows down, savoring the heavy smell of rain mixed in with every other conceivable scent. Exhaust. Perfume. Cigarettes. The new canvass of the backpack on the seat beside me and the fresh gun oil of the tranq pistol inside it.

Ballard was as gray as the rest of the city, squatting by its locks in the smell of salt and seagull droppings. I drove past bookshops, and brew pubs, and eventually turned down a side street into the lines of houses.

I smelled her before I reached the address and instinctively pulled the rental over, playing with my phone while glancing carefully around for some sign of her. She was northeast by the wind and so was my destination. I kept up with the phone for a minute, then signaled and slipped back onto the road. As I came around the corner, I saw a red Mustang. It stood out not just because it was red and fast-looking, but because its top was down in the rain, and the woman that sat in it didn’t seem to mind.

I kept driving, hoping Monica Evenheart, would pay no attention to me at all. She didn’t. She was too busy watching the house.

I circled the block and parked out of sight, slipping the tranq pistol into the waistband of my jeans and covering it with my jacket. The rain became a drizzle as I started up the sidewalk and turned the corner. The car idled across from one of the older houses on the block, its yard perfect and its windows dark and uninviting.

She made no attempt to hide, watching those windows with feline serenity. Monica Evenheart was pretty and she smelled good. But she was also deadly.

I counted the steps to her car wondering if it could possibly be this easy. Just a quick trip to Seattle, a shot in the back, and a few months of bills paid with a bit to spare. Maybe even enough to get back into the cheap motel I called home when I could afford it.

But I knew when her eyes darted to the rearview mirror that it wasn’t going to be so easy after all. She watched me, her gaze level and steady, and I tried hard not to notice as I adjusted the hood on my jacket. I must have failed. She looked to the house, then back to the mirror. Then, she pressed the gas hard, hydroplaning the car back into the street and soaking me as she did.

I kept walking and pretended nothing happened.

I listened to her engine winding up as she took the corner, and when I was satisfied that she was gone, I cut across the street at a jog and took the stairs leading up to the house two at a time. I still had time before her hunting hours started-–she was nocturnal-–and with this first address empty, it stood to reason she was on her way to the second. I’d take a quick look around and see what this house gave me.

I let myself in quickly with a credit card and a paperclip. Olfactory prowess alone isn’t a sufficient skillset in my line of work. And once I was certain no one was home, I moved through the place fast, building my mental database as I went. This was extra work, but I knew Connor was lying about the randomness of the attacks, holding something back. It made sense. I was hired to help bring home a lost pet. By their view, the details were none of my business.

Still, I preferred to decide what was and wasn’t my business in the pursuit of a feral Covenanter.

The database came together as I rifled through drawers, peeked around shelves, sorted the mail. There wasn’t much. His name was Charles Dennehy and he was a divorced attorney, a father of two children who lived elsewhere and left little evidence of their presence in his house. He lived frugally for someone worth as much as he was. Little of that really mattered, but I quickly found what did.

Tucked behind the leather-bound classics on the shelves of his den was a bound copy of the Covenant and its complex tapestry of laws. That told me everything I needed to know. The smell of Old World paper, easily distinguished from the paper of this world, was still strong in my nose when I let myself out and headed back to my car.

The sun had dropped, painting the western sky purple and rose, the rain clouds bruising its edges. The rain was more a drizzle as I left Ballard for Pioneer Square, my GPS whispering directions to me. I was moving against traffic now, slowed by pedestrians and puddles as I drove south. I parked a block away at the darker end of the street. I used my phone to check what lived at this second address but I already had my suspicion. It took less than a minute to confirm it. McDonnell, Dennehy and Jackson, Attorneys at Law had a suite on the fourth floor.

I pulled a dark hoody and a ball cap from my backpack and put them on, leaving my raincoat on the passenger seat. Then, slipping the tranq pistol into my waistband again, I locked the car and moved down the street.

Hunting time couldn’t be far away with the light nearly gone. Seattle’s streets were quieter than I remembered them–I’d lived here a decade earlier in a downtown loft when times were better. But it was busy enough with a mix of homeless, hapless, and just-off-work with loosened ties. I kept my eyes down and my nose open, pulling in the smell of weed and Pho and wet newspaper as I went.

Monica’s scent was easy to pick up on that wind, and I saw her, standing by the door of the building.

She was tall and slender, wearing a short leather jacket buttoned against the October evening, and a black skirt. Her dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she carried herself with the same calm I’d seen earlier.

I paused and looked at my phone, watching from the corner of my eye as she took a look around before pulling open the door. I started moving again after she slipped inside. I paused at the edge of the doorway and counted to five before leaning around to look inside. Beyond the glass door, the lobby was dimly lit, and the security desk looked empty.

I smelled the guard coming before I saw him–off-brand cigarettes and Brut aftershave–and I ducked back out of the light. I heard his keys jingle in the door as he locked up and the timing of it convinced me that she was expected.

I walked past the door, glancing inside quickly as I went. The guard was slowly returning to his counter and I picked up my pace, cutting down the next alley I saw and making my way to the back of the building. It was easy enough to get onto the fire escape by way of a nearby dumpster. I crawled into a dark office on the fourth floor, my ears and nose taking in what they could. I heard muted voices, and the air was full of the smell of her; I followed both sound and scent.

The law offices were empty and the lights were out with one exception. Behind that closed door, I heard voices.

“I don’t know where,” the man said.

Monica’s voice was low, almost throaty. “If you don’t know, then you know who does.”

I took a few steps toward the door and paused. I heard Dennehy laugh. “I’m certainly not going to tell you. I know all about Criteaux and Bosley and that’s not enough incentive for me to talk. There’s nothing you can do to me that’s worse than the cost of betraying the Covenant. So maybe you should just go home and get back under your patron’s protection.”

The noise she made could’ve been a laugh, but it was throaty, slurred, telling me she’d made the shift. It was hunting time. “Trust me,” she said. “They both talked. Criteaux gave me Bosley, Bosley gave me you. You’ll talk, too.”

I heard Dennehy gasp and I took another step toward them.

Then a new smell stopped me in my tracks and somewhere outside the suite, I heard the distant chime of an arriving elevator. This was a dark smell, an earthy smell, and it made my skin crawl. Something that didn’t belong had just showed up. I’d not smelled this before, but I knew it wasn’t from around here.

It takes a lot to rattle me; I was rattled.

Sweaty, hands shaking, as the fight or flight of a rending hound bastard kicked into high gear. I drew the pistol as the smell grew closer and I turned toward the law firm’s small lobby. My eyes were adjusted to the dark now and I saw what looked like fog pouring beneath the door, building and gathering until it coalesced into roughly the shape of a large man. But this was no man. Its red eyes burned with cruel intelligence and its dark robes shifted around it like black mist. Its face was flat and mouthless, lit dimly by the eyes. I was familiar with the cataloged Old Worlders that had been permitted to cross over, and this was not one of them. That told me it had been sent over recently. To find her.

She must’ve smelled it by now because I heard a yowl from the other side of the door.

I’m not sure why I did what I did next, but I have to own it. I stepped in between whatever Old Worlder this was and the door it wanted to get behind. Between it and Monica Evenheart.

It growled at me but its voice was in my head. Stand aside and let us do our work.

I shook my head and was aware of the door opening. Monica’s smell was overpowering now in her feline form and it must’ve stirred something of my father’s blood in me. Despite the fear I felt, I wanted to give chase to her at some genetic, deep-down level. But instead, as her yowl rose into a snarl and as the Old Worlder roared and rushed me, I raised the tranq pistol and fired three darts into the center of its mass.

It collided with me, tossing me easily aside and into the wall. As I fell, I saw her leaping, claws outstretched and tail puffed up with menace. They were a blur now, rolling and writhing on the floor as I found my breath and my feet again. It pinned her quickly with its dark, taloned hands, and I put two more darts into its back at close range.

I glanced into the open office and saw Dennehy kneeling, handcuffed to a massive wooden desk. His eyes met mine and they were wide. The fear in his voice wasn’t from the cat. “Help me,” he whispered.

I looked back to the fight quickly, not liking the way his eyes made me feel. The beast was slowing with Monica still trapped beneath it and I launched a sneakered foot at its side. Most Old Worlders have little to no resistance to the bugs and medicines on this side and I was glad to see it was true in this case as whatever hunted the hunter drifted off to thick and muddy sleep.

Monica looked up at me beneath him, only she looked nothing like the picture now. Now, she had the face and tail and claws of a cat but the body of a woman. She pushed at the sleeping form that held her down. She echoed Dennehy’s words, and I shouldn’t have listened to her.

“Help me,” she said. There was enough purr in her voice that I didn’t think. I just acted out of that same place that made me drunk with the idea of chasing her up the nearest tree. I rolled the snoring beast off of her, and as I did her fist shot up to land soundly on my nose. White light and pain exploded, and from there, it was nothing for her to wrench the pistol out of my hand.

I was still surprised when she put a dart into my stomach.

“Sorry,” she said. I lunged forward but she stepped away easily and I tripped over the massive body on the floor.

This time, when I fell, I stayed down. And the dark hall went darker still.

#

I woke up stiff, my head splitting, and my nose flooded with the smell of her and the freeway. When I tried to move, I found I couldn’t. My hands were cuffed behind my back and I lay face down in the backseat of a fast-moving car. I groaned.

“You’re awake, then?”

I groaned again and tried to find my words.

She continued. “I should’ve left you.”

I twisted again, trying to roll over or sit up. “Why didn’t you?”

“You saved me from . . . well, whatever that was. It didn’t seem right leaving you for it to find once it woke up.” Or the police, I thought, if she’d gone through with her hunt.

I didn’t want to ask but I had to. “What about Dennehy?”

She chuckled. “He’s in the trunk. He’s alive.”

I tried to do the math. Somehow, she’d hauled two men from the top floor down to the street and into her. . . . I sniffed the car. I could smell Dennehy in it now, too. This wasn’t the convertible I’d seen her in earlier. I blinked away more disorientation and shifted again. This was a bigger car. Dennehy’s Lincoln, I expected. But why had she kept him alive?

“Where are we going?”

“Twin Falls, Idaho,” she said. “We’re halfway there, actually.”

“And why are you taking us to Twin Falls?” I’d never been there and wasn’t even sure where to place it on a map.

“I’m trading Dennehy. You . . . I’m not sure what I’m doing with you yet.”

“Maybe,” I said, “we should talk about that over coffee.”

I heard the car slow and the sound of the freeway diminish as she pulled off and parked. Then I felt her hands pulling me over and sitting me up. “Connor hired you, right? I found his number in your phone.”

I didn’t see any point in keeping quiet at this point. “Yes.”

“And that other . . . thing?” She positioned me in the backseat in the best uncomfortable position she could, and with her leaning over me, her scent even nearer, I had that same sudden urge to chase after her. I held it down. But from the way she looked at me, I thought maybe she felt something too. Maybe at some deep-down level of her own, she wanted me to chase her. I shook the notion away.

“I’m not sure. But I don’t think it planned to tranq you.”

Her face was no longer serene and I saw worry in her eyes. “No, I think you’re right about that.”

“I think you’ve pissed some people off.”

“Several,” she agreed. “You saved my life.”

I looked around. We were at an empty rest stop somewhere in the high desert. “I was going tranq you and send you home.”

She chuckled. “It didn’t quite work out that way. Speaking of which, how’s the head?”

I heard muffled noises and thumps from the trunk. Dennehy had woken up, too, it seemed. “It hurts. How about that coffee?”

She ignored me. “What was that back there?”

“Something Old World,” I said. “I have no idea. I’ve never run across one of those before.” Of course, there were thousands of Old World denizens I’d never seen; not all of them had been permitted to cross over, and not all of them had wanted to. Many had been happy to see the Queen of the North go and the rending hounds take up her crown. “Operating outside of the Covenant, I suspect.”

She hissed. “The Covenant is a net they raise and lower based on whoever’s serving.” I could hear the bitterness in her voice and see the anger in her eyes.

“Okay,” I said. I’d heard this before. “So the Covenant’s unfair and the patrons are crooked and self-serving.”

“Yes,” she said.

“So you’ve gone hunting off-leash because of it?”

“I hold my own leash now, thank you.” She paused. “And the hunting I did on my own isn’t any more wrong than the hunting I did for them.” She shrugged. “Killing is killing. All that’s left is the why.”

She had a point there. And she left a question hanging that was easy for me to pick up. “Then what is your why, Monica Evenheart?”

She regarded me without speaking for a full minute. “Article fourteen,” she said.

I pre-dated the Covenant but still needed to be familiar with it. Fourteen covered the multi-generational aspects of indentured servitude. Usually two or three generations, but I’d heard as many as five. Passage over was expensive, and blending in was difficult. The patrons could easily afford it and their initial investment led to even more profit once their indentureds were put to work. “So you didn’t want to give up your young to the Covenant?”

“I have no young,” she said. “I refuse to bear a litter into this system. I decided a long time ago that I’d slip my leash before it came to that.”

That made sense to me. I’d heard of it happening before. No child wants to be held to the decisions of their parents. No one wants to live out a contract they had no voice in crafting. Sadly, the parents had no voice, either, when it came right to it. The terms were dictated in the midst of cataclysm and genocide, completely in the patrons’ favor.

But what didn’t make sense here was why the hunt. She could’ve gone under the radar. Surely they’d have still hired me or someone like me to find her. But she’d have stayed hidden longer without the blood trail. Not to mention maybe avoiding whatever it was that now hunted her.

She must have sensed where my thoughts were leaning. “But there’s more than that,” she said. “My mother brought us all here as kittens–she signed the Covenant on our behalf. We had no say. I’d rather return to the Old World and face the rending hounds than stay under the Covenant. I certainly won’t give a litter to it. And I won’t give my family to it, either.”

I closed my eyes. “How many?”

“Four sisters, two brothers.” She watched my face. “I have a sister in Twin Falls.”

“And you’re trading Dennehy for her?”

She nodded. “He has information that they’d rather not lose.”

“After that?”

“I don’t know,” Monica said. “We’ll track down the others. Sort it out as we go.”

I shook my head. “I’m not so sure it will go well for you.”

Her eyes were hard. “It doesn’t have to go well for me.” Then they softened, but only by a little. “So what about you? What should I do with you, Mr. Wolfe?”

I saw the sagebrush and could smell rain coming. I should’ve asked her to let me go; I suspect she just might have. But I didn’t. Living outside the Covenant and system of patrons had let me go untouched by the unfairness of it all. I did my jobs for them or their people–and until now, I’d not let the system rattle me. But there was something about Monica Evenheart that struck an undiscovered chord in me. It was in her picture and in her scent, it was in the way she stirred my father’s blood and made me wish that I had a cycle like hers that let me stretch into my truest self and bay at the moon while loping across an open field. Running after her as fast as my legs could carry me. Overhead, a night sky mostly cloudy with a chance of cats and dogs in it. I shrugged and poured my mother’s charm into my smile. “You might as well keep me nearby at this point,” I said. “Otherwise, I’d just have to chase you down again.”

She smiled again and I liked it. “You see how well that worked out the last time, right?”

I shrugged again and said nothing as she leaned over and uncuffed me. “Climb up front if you want.”

I did. And within a minute, we were back on the road and heading southeast across the Columbia Plateau.

#

It was dark when we pulled up at the wrecking yard just outside Twin Falls. A worn sign declared in flaking white paint that the large, fenced enclosure of stacked cars belonged to Earl Haskins, Jr. It was far removed from the offices and high rises of L.A., San Francisco, and Seattle, and I found it hard to believe this backwoods place could have anything to do with the Covenant.

Monica idled the Lincoln outside the gate, headlights beckoning whoever waited for us inside. The gate rolled open slowly and she pulled forward. Two trailers–one double and one single-wide–waited just inside. The pickup parked nearby fit in fine but the dark SUVs with their tinted windows were definitely out of place.

I leaned forward, trying to count the suits that waited. I cracked the window and sniffed. They were all New World humans. Hired thugs. “It looks like they’re expecting us.”

The calm was in her face and voice again. “Yes.”

I studied her as the car crunched to a stop. “I don’t see how this can turn out well.”

She said nothing but I saw her rubbing the ring she wore. It was dark now. She could shift and that may turn the odds in her favor. Depending on how they were equipped. And who exactly they were.

I waited until she opened her door and then I opened mine as well.

“You.” She spat the word and I saw why. One of the suits had separated from the others. It was Connor.

“Good evening, Miss Evenheart,” he said as he approached.

“Ms.,” she corrected him.

He ignored the correction and turned to me. “I see you’ve met Mr. Wolfe. Though I’m not sure what’s convinced him to bite the hand that feeds him.” I could see the anger in his eyes but his face didn’t show it. “However, I don’t see Mr. Dennehy.”

“My deal was with Haskins,” she said.

“Unfortunately,” Connor said, “Mr. Haskins can’t be with us this evening. But I’m sure we can solve this without him.”

“And my sister?”

Connor smiled. “She’s inside. But there is no outcome to this that involves her leaving with you. Or you leaving, for that matter.”

As he said it, the suits started moving. Only this time, the pistols they drew weren’t firing tranqs. These were Glocks, heavy and dark in the yellow glow of a streetlamp that illuminated the yard. And Connor knew what he was up against. His thugs would be packing Old World silver in their clips.

Monica yowled and sprinted, her body changing as she did, her clothes shredding with the shift. I’d never been up close to a change before. It was uncanny to watch her body elongate and then drop to all fours. This time, she was all cat and she was on Connor before his men had their pistols raised, her teeth at his throat as her tail twitched back and forth.

Uncertain, they held their fire ,and in that moment a new smell flooded the yard. I’d only smelled it once and that had been enough. Whatever Old World beast had been sicced on her was here, and it moved silently with building speed. The smell of it made my knees shake and at least two of the suits dropped their guns. The others spun in the direction of the sound and opened fire. They couldn’t miss at that range but their bullets did nothing. The cloaked beast rushed them, talons lashing out.

I took advantage of that split second to dodge into the shadows, my eyes on the great cat. Connor struggled beneath her, his eyes wide. His voice was nearly a scream. “What is that?”

I couldn’t tell him. But in the span of seconds, it had rushed across the yard and lifted two of the suits up, tossing them away and into the dark. Their Glocks spun away as they hit the ground.

The others scattered and the beast spun on Monica Evenheart. Its voice was in my head; it must’ve been in hers too. Your defiance of the Covenant ends here.

She growled deep in her throat, digging her claws into Connor as she gathered herself into a pounce. Connor shrieked as she launched off him toward the hulking Old Worlder. She hit it hard and it caught her, throwing her easily into a wall of cars. She was on her feet and darting in again, her left paw raking its leg. It howled in my mind but more from anger than pain, I imagined. This time, it lashed out with a foot that landed in her side and sent her sliding across the gravel.

I saw an abandoned Glock and took a chance, rolling for it as the beast charged her again. I picked it up and sighted in, putting three rounds into its back. They did nothing to stop or slow it. Of course, Old World silver didn’t work on all of that shadowy place’s denizens. And without knowing what this particular creature was, there was no way to know exactly what might stop it.

But there was no doubt about what might stop Monica Evenheart. Already, she was slowing, panting, and trying to get away. I put another two rounds into its back but it paid me no mind.

She launched herself at it again and it threw her with even more force, this time up over the hood of the car to roll off the other side.

She was closer to me now and I saw her green eyes wide with panic as her nostrils flared. I moved closer to her, putting my hand on her haunch as I watched the beast approach. The bullets were worthless. And there was only one thing in the Old World that I knew had even odds against any other creature born beneath its dark star.

A crazy notion entered my head, fueled by desperation or maybe hope. I traced my hand along her body until I reached the collar at her neck. There were no guarantees that it would work on me but no other option–beyond watching it kill her-–presented itself.

“This might hurt,” I whispered. Then, I pulled it loose and, as her body started changing, I groped for the ring. Her yowl became a scream that cut into the night as her body abruptly twisted itself back to human. As the paw became a finger, the ring slid easily off into my own hand.

It was upon us when I slipped the moon collar around my own neck and shoved the ring onto my finger. What next? Was there something else to say or do? It was a longshot–even more than a longshot. I’d been born without my father’s cycle.

I felt the creature make contact and throw me easily, air whistling over me. As I landed, I saw it turning again on the huddled, naked form that twitched and jerked in the gravel. The fear inside became a sudden focus of rage. And that rage forced something to life deep inside my DNA.

I roared it out of me and felt every muscle, every bone, every part of me catch fire. But the hottest heat–white and blinding–was the heat from the moon collar and the ring that leashed me to it. And in that heat was a euphoria the likes of which I’d never known. A sense of something coming together in me that had been kept at bay, walled off and unknowable.

When I found my feet–no my paws, I was on all fours and felt the vertigo of the change. I wobbled, then steadied myself as I crouched and snarled.

The beast’s red eyes went wide and it fell back at the sight of me. I leaped after it, my claws tearing at its shrouded cloak as my fangs sought its throat. It had stopped fighting, which surprised me, and the softness of its flesh within my jaws, and the reek of fear that came off of it in waves, told me everything I needed to know. It lay still beneath me in a posture of submission. It knew exactly what I was.

My mind formed words and shoved them into it with a force that made its blood-colored eyes blink. What are you called?

I sensed the fear in the voice it pushed into my mind. I am Shemol. Of the Yerl. It paused, then remembered who it spoke to. Lord Hound, it added.

I had never heard of Yerl or Shemol. But it didn’t matter. Who sent you after the cat?

Around us, people were stirring. I punctured its skin and smelled the iron and cloves of its blood on the air. You know who sent me, Lord.

I did know. His response to me proved it and I growled. Is Umber still upon the Opal throne then?

No. His son reigns now.

I increased my grip on its throat. I’m not sure exactly where my words came from: some place tucked inside me with the rest of my hidden nature. Tell your king that Dengar’s bastard sends regards. This one and her littermates are of my pack. Do you understand?

Yes, Lord, it said.

Now flee.

Shemol of the Yerl collapsed in upon itself once I released its neck from my jaws. It dissipated in so much smoke billowing out across the wrecking yard.

Movement from the corner of my eye sent me skittering as a shot went off, gravel erupting where the bullet struck. I wasn’t going to find out what Old World silver could do to me. I pounced and this time, I gave myself over to something I’d never experienced before. I hunted with abandon, chasing down each of the suits and rending them as only a rending hound could. I learned fast and took to my work with enthusiasm, drunk on the blood I spilled.

I didn’t stop until I heard my name called. Monica Evenheart stood now, the moonlight white on her naked skin, one of the dropped pistols dangling in her hand. “Angus Wolfe,” she said again.

I thought she would be frightened but I saw no sign of fear and smelled no sign either. Instead, her eyes were wide with awe and her cheeks flushed from watching me. I padded over to her. Monica Evenheart, I replied.

She reached down a tentative hand and I bent my head as she scratched behind my ears.

Then, I bent my will toward my lesser form and felt the fire take me again as I shifted. When I was finished twisting and writhing on the ground, I pulled off the ring and collar and pushed them into her hands.

She looked at me laying there and then looked to the trailer.

“I’m fine,” I told her, taking the pistol from her. “Go get your sister.”

She was on all fours, tail whipping to and fro, when she reached the porch.

#

The sun rose over the brown Idaho hills, casting bloody light over Earl Haskin’s Wrecking Yard. I sat on the hood of an SUV wearing a pair Earl’s ratty sweats and a wife-beater. I watched the sunrise, wondering just how long we had before the patrons sent their next round of goons. And wondering when the Old World, and the hounds who ruled it, would throw its next hunter at us. The Covenant benefited more than just the patrons. It kept my father’s kin–my kin–in power. And they liked their power. Enough, it seemed, to keep an eye on things over on this side and intervene to keep things as they were.

I’d spent my lifetime on the edges of that hidden world, playing fetch for cash, and for the first time, I saw something more that I could do with my heritage. Especially now that I knew the moon collar could bring that heritage fully forward.

Of course, the experience of it left me exhausted, head-pounding and feverish. Still, I looked at the bodies we’d stacked against the trailer, tattered leftovers of the patron’s men. Now, in my present form, I felt a pang of regret. But not too much. They hadn’t come to Earl’s to play nice and make friends. And they’d killed Haskin before we’d gotten there. They’d have likely killed her sister, too, along with Monica. She’d brought down the attention of the Opal Throne and that couldn’t stand. Not in the Patron’s world. So they were cleaning up. No doubt, I’d have been buried in a shallow grave along with the rest of them.

I watched Monica finally come out of the trailer, her sister following with a suitcase and a Remington twelve gauge. She’d changed into jeans and a sweat shirt.

“What now?” I asked.

Monica looked at her sister. “Rachel says we have a brother near Minneapolis. I found some names in Earl’s files. We’ll keep looking until we find them all. And after that, maybe we’ll find the Queen of the North. What about you?”

I shrugged. “I think I’ll come along, seeing how I don’t have much else to do. And I’m stranded in the middle of Idaho.” It wasn’t as if I had much to go back to–or like the patron I’d betrayed would let me take up my old life. But more than that, there was something about this cat that made me want to keep her close. I’d told the beast she was of my pack. I’m not sure she was part of anyone’s pack or that she could be. But I was sure of my need to pursue her even if she could never be caught.

Monica Evenheart smiled and I saw fields and forests that we could run through in her eyes. “Let’s talk about it over coffee.”

We cut Dennehy loose and told him to disappear. The fear on his face told me he would do just that.

Then we lit the fires that would cover our tracks, and drove out of the yard, nose pointed east and into the rising sun.

I rolled down my window as she picked up speed on the highway; Monica and her sister laughed when I howled at the future I smelled upon the morning wind.


Ken-PowellsKEN SCHOLES is the award-winning author of the popular Psalms of Isaak series, which numbers four novels so far with a fifth entry, Hymn, coming later this year. He has won Writers of the Future as well as France’s Prix Imaginales award. His short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld and Realms of Fantasy among others, and many are available in two published collections of short fiction. He is a public speaker and frequent panelist, as well as a songwriter and musician.
Please take a look at Ken’s official site


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