The Dreamstealer of Tremayne Quay

 

by Julian Gyll-Murray

 

They say that in your last moments, you can feel your mind start to empty, your memories and dreams stealing away from your body to find their home in the sky. That’s why we are laid in the mud, so that our bodies can be purged, and our spirits can fly to the stars.

But for some reason, I never thought that I would get there. I believed that true burials were for the rich, and that I didn’t have any memories worth revisiting. Dying was for others—and dreams too.

And yet here I am, motionless, mud swamping my skin and crawling down my sleeves, remembering the details of a life that was half-lived, and as botched as a drunkard’s attempt at melody. At least I am with you, here in the muck. We are like man and wife, buried together— except, of course, that you are a Prince, and I am the Hag of the Helford. As my memories of the night float away from me, I turn every once a while, to see you next to me, your dreams mingling with mine, and I think about how the night brought us together.

The events which led to our union took place on an evening like all my evenings: that is to say, wretched and cold. The tide was out, and the Helford River was but a sliver of water among hills of sludge.

I was hidden from sight amongst the trees above the riverbank, surrounded by thick woodland. It had been generations since the river’s trade had waned, and it was only at Tremayne Quay, an old dock now used for funerals, that there was light to counter the smothering darkness. The night belonged to mourners, to corpses, and Dreamstealers; there would not be another soul for many a headland.

This particular service had lasted more than an hour, and my backside was starting to grow numb. Tremayne Quay was full of people, their flaming torches illuminating faces of grief. The priests were chanting We All Go Into the Mud, and the dead prince was being lowered into the mire. His body, wrapped in a cloth, was in a sling held by a pulley on the quay. The family, holding the rope together, creaked the Prince down, slowly, slowly, and his body was then tipped into the mud. The slop of his corpse smacking into the dirt incurred a new howl of despair by someone in the gathering. There he was to be placed, for all his soul to empty of dreams and memories, and then for his body was to be taken by the tide out to sea.

It was a ritual that I saw most days, and generally I found it tedious. This, however, was different. I normally only see funerals for the rich, for the people who exploit people like me. But the Prince was different. He was the one noble who’d earnt the love of the people in these lands. He’d supported farmers and fisherman alike, and even helped to feed villages during the Blight. If there was going to be any funeral of importance to me, it was this one, for a man of the people who’d cared and been poisoned for his caring.

They scattered salt over the muddied body, now semi-submerged in the slime of the riverbank, and chanted one last time, singing to the river to take his body and bring it home, singing to the stars to accept his dreams.

This was the signal: finally they were wrapping up. I got to my feet.

By the time I had picked my way through the undergrowth, the procession had headed back up the path leading into the woods, a worm of light through the darkness of the forests. I could finally stand fully; I stretched my back and rubbed the leaves off my rags, every part of me sore, and faced the one lantern-light left on the quay.

I called out into the blackness: “time to collect your fee, Corpseguard.”

The light swayed through the dark until it was in front of me, illuminating a man wrapped in a long, black coat, and collars tucked up to his chin.

“Dreamstealer, then, are you?” His face, partially obscured by his collar, was one of contempt.

It was a look I was faced with often. I know that I am a disgusting sight to many. Should I make the mistake of making myself seen around the Ferry Boat Inn, or maybe the boatyard at Gweek, I am greeted with curled lips and eyes widening with anger. Those who don’t know me see a woman built more like a man, with rags the colour of a thousand mud-plunges and dirt-grey hair hacked short: a sight bad enough to spoil their ale. Of course, those who do know me see something even worse: a woman-lover and a grave-robber.

I have learnt to thrive on the hatred of others, however. I flashed my rust-coloured teeth at him in a grin, and said: “That’s right. Working so you don’t have to.”

He glanced back at the mud, and the old stone walls of the quay. He seemed undecided as to whether to say something.

“Untrouble yourself, Corpseguard.” I reassured him. “In this particular type of wrongdoing, we’re quite the professionals. The body will be back in the filth by the morn, and no one will know a thing.”

I can sound just like Roscarrow when I want to. I’ve learnt from the best—or, at least, the best of the worst.

I passed him a pouch of my master’s silver, and, reluctantly, he went on his way, his lantern-light bobbing into the woods.

Time for me to get to work.

I went up to the pulley and gathered the rope, now thickened with mud. I quickly wrapped it around myself and a stone cleat, my fingers made nimble with practice. I didn’t need light; not yet. When I was satisfied with my knots, I took out the candles of my pocket. I glanced around one last time: the blackest, and the oldest, of silences. I was alone with the corpse. With you.

I lit my candles, which gave off a pitiful glow, but it was enough— I could see the Prince’s body, half mud-swallowed, awaiting the embrace of the morning tide.

I leaned over the side of the stone quay, and lowered myself down into the filth.  The mud accepted my weight with open arms, squelching with delight around my thick legs. My feet and knees now plunged in the ooze, I set to work, taking the royal sling and fitting the rope along the hoops at its edges. Then came the hard part— or at least, the first of the hard parts. I heaved the body towards me. The body was heavy, and the mud had already suckled at its shoulders and waist, but it was manageable. I spat into my muddy, cracked hands, and put everything into my pull at the ropes. The pulley creaked. I tried again— even groaning a little— and this time we budged.

We rose, the Prince and I, out of the mud.

 

***

 

It was well into the night when I rolled the cart into the field. It was a little higher above the hill, around the first headland from Tremayne Quay, and it contained the old familiar sight: Roscarrow and his towering blue-green Magefire.

Despite all of the hatred that people have for me, and all that I’ve done, I have managed to retain some sense of what’s proper and right. Not sweet-smelling Roscarrow. If my smile is ugly, then his smile is wretched. We are Dreamstealers, he and I— although he is the only one doing the actual dreamstealing. He just pays me pittance to do what he wouldn’t, which mainly involves getting my rags muddy and my fingers corpse-smelling. People think that a gang of Dreamstealers is composed of a horde of criminals, but they’re mistaken: there’s just a Mage, and someone miserable enough to do his bidding.

“So,” he announced, his hands outstretched near the raging fire, pawing at the warmth. “Am I in the presence of His Royal Highness?”

“I got ‘im,” I replied, drawing my cart closer, carrying the corpse that bounced and shifted with every bump in the grass.

There was delight in his eyes. “As dependable as always, Lamorna. And so early, too. I fancied that you might want to give him a Sleeping Beauty’s kiss on your way up.”

“Piss off,” I said, clumping down the handles of the cart. “Let’s get this over with. Body’s got to be muddy again by sunrise.”

“Of course. Will you do the honours?” He peered at me intently, grinning, his gold teeth twinkling with the green-and-blue flames.

“Well, you’d better help me. Too old to move bodies by myself anymore.”

“Piffle. You got him here, didn’t you? I’m starting to get a little irked about this obsession with age, you know. You could be the beauty of the Helford, if only you put my coin to good use.”

I scowled at him. “The coin you pay me doesn’t feel like it’s for good using, somehow.”

He laughed at that. Too much, even: he’d always been loud, Roscarrow, as if it gave him authority. But it was true—my sneering was ill-placed. I had little in the sense of a moral high ground. I’d been kicked out of my village for lying with a woman, and was leading the life of a Helston beggar, when Roscarrow first found me— and he’d made it very clear what my employment would entail. I’d still accepted readily: Roscarrow had a knack of finding people at their worst, ready to let the world go hang for a bit of respite. He’d had complete mastery of me since then; the only thing I could do was remind him how much I resented him for it.

“I do enjoy your little morality crises. Brightens up our little evenings, don’t they?” He grinned. “But on this occasion, I suggest we get down to our honest corruption without the tittle-tattle. If it is help you require, then I’d be more than happy to oblige— we’ve got treasure on our hands tonight, after all.”

He sprang up to the cart, and bounded up on it, ripping away the cloth in anticipation. The body was blotched and sickly, like most bodies are, and yet you could tell that the Prince had once been handsome, and regal. My corpse could never hope to look that good. Roscarrow grabbed the Prince’s shoulders, and I took his knees. Together, we shuffled him off my cart, and toppled him onto the bonfire, where his body crumpled awkwardly onto the blaze. Flames spat about him, curling about his limbs and shrivelling his hair.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so eager to see a corpse’s dreams.” Roscarrow said wistfully, his face coloured by the flames. “Not in all my despicable years…” He took out a scroll from a chest behind him, and bottle of blue liquid from his jacket pocket. Tipping the fluid over the paper until it dripped off the corners, he held it aloft, and waited.

Soon, they started to waft into the air, the final images of memory and dream released by the blue Magefire. Into the smoke came the images of the Prince’s dead mind, a stream of pictures. There was land and prosperity, and a manor gleaming in sunlight. There was another wisp depicting a Crown sitting with rust on a chair. And often, there were throngs of people, cheering and lining the streets, and as these memories steamed off into the darkness there were the distant echo of sounds as well, charges of emotion.

We gazed at it all as it rushed into the air and coloured the stars. My silence was one of solemnity; his was one of focus. On his scroll, drenched with Dreamfluid, all the images were reproduced, the blue paper filling with the pictures which were adorned on the smoke. But he was waiting for the gold in amongst the reams of love and nostalgia. I even caught him, after a few moments had passed, muttering nonsensicalities under his breath- “come on, give me catastrophes and shipwrecks, give me something…”

I ignored him. Much as the ceremony had left me cold, here the sense of mourning was impressed upon me: above us were the memories and the life of a man who had been loved and respected, a public figure for whom this was a violation of a well-cherished privacy. More and more intimate moments slipped into the darkness: the Prince’s first love, the fireplace of his living-room, the time in which he disappointed his mother. The discomfort of baring witness to it all felt like ice in my stomach: despite everything I did on these wretched nights by the river, I knew that there are some secrets which deserve to remain hidden. When my own secret had been discovered, everything had ended. My own father had kicked me out of my home and down the road, my rags riddled with flecks of spit. My lover had suffered a worse punishment: her own father had hanged her from the tree in his garden.

The mysteries Roscarrow and I uncovered never seemed as precious to me: in all my nights as a Dreamstealer, we had stolen the thoughts of corrupt merchants and wreckers, and I couldn’t have cared less about them or their secrets. But this was different. The Prince’s images were to be used for gossip and shaming, something with which to sully a name which had inspired the land. These images deserved to be just for you, and the stars.

And then, just as I realised how much your dreams meant, it came. The moment which was to change it all.

An image curled into the air, hued with green and swimming in the smoke. It showed a man, bare-chested, with the Prince in bed. The pillows were stacked, the man grinning from their soft depths, and rain pelting a window in the background. The picture swayed, and floated up until it was just a cloud of green. Then it was gone.

“There it is,” breathed Roscarrow, his face turned corpse-ish by the light of the blue fire. “The jackpot.”

He turned to me, his gaping mouth turning into a grin. “We could retire on this. The Prince himself, hero of the people, bent as anything. They will pay to know this, my lover,” he said. People still say that in these parts, calling women their lovers. It’s but an expression, but he used it to mock me, and I hated him for it.

He held up the scroll, which had the lover’s face imprinted in its corner, and spoke in giddy excitement: “The beloved prince’s name, dragged through all manner of dirt…”

His gloat made me wince. I hadn’t even realised, but I was starting to breathe harder, and clutch my rags about me. Roscarrow dealt in knowledge, in keeping secrets, spreading rumours and blackmailing. What he could do with this image was unthinkable. The only figure of respect and hope of the land was to be tainted— and with a crime you could not have helped but commit, a crime I knew led to revulsion and hatred. Your name would never be the same, and the fisherman and the farmers would return to their bitter, hopeless demeanours, resigned to decades of more subjugation.

“All these nights stealing the dreams of money-lenders, of penniless lords, of smugglers and shipwreckers… and finally, finally, mage-making pays off.” Roscarrow took out his bottle of blue liquid and kissed it. “What a beauty.”

I have no memory of forming a plan, no memory of a decision. It was an impulse. I snatched the scroll out of his unclean hands and tore it apart. In moments, it was in shreds. “Those dreams are not for filth like you,” I said, spittle and vapour darting out of my lips.

He looked at me in shock. Two things struck me in that moment. Firstly, an action motivated by something other than greed is incomprehensible to a greedy man. Secondly, there was no way he was not going to kill me for what I had done.

“That was…regrettable. To say the least, my lover.” Roscarrow lip curled more than usual, and rage trembled his fingers. “Very regrettable.”

In a flash, he pounced upon me, grabbing my shoulders and shoving me roughly to the ground. It was with such an intensity, such a viciousness, that my legs buckled and I was on the earth within moments, my fingers flailing, as ineffectual as a lady’s. I’d won many a bar-room brawl, and yet here I was, taken by surprise: I should have known better, my prince.

With one hand, he pinned me. With another, he flung his fist. My face was whipped into the grass, and pain was whipped into my body. I howled and twisted, and yet it did not stop: his fists were merciless and urgent. It had been a while since I’d been subjected to this. It reminded me of my father, and bleeding onto the cobbles of Helston pavements.

Afterwards, he stumbled up to his legs, leaving me to writhe in the dirt, and spat on me for good measure. “I thought I might have to kill you tonight,” he snarled. “I thought you couldn’t be trusted with a secret this big. I didn’t think that your tongue would be too small, and your heart too big. Disgusting, my lover. Nothing more pitiful than a grave robber who’s fallen in love with a corpse.”

I stumbled up, but before I was ready for him I felt a blade scratching through my rags and sliding into my side. The pain bolted through me, sharp and sudden.

Air rushed out of me, and I screamed. I felt my shoulders being grabbed, and being dragged across the grass. I snarled and tried to wriggle away, but every movement sent excruciating flashes of pain up and down my body. I was dropped, and the heat of the fire was then close enough to make me cry out.

“I’ve got more scrolls, and more Dreamfluid, don’t you know.” Roscarrow said, his wretched-smile breath close to my ear. “I think you’ll remember his face. I think it’ll be in your dreams, too.”

Roscarrow kicked the Magefire, and burning logs cascaded onto me. My rags immediately started to writhe with flames, and I was scalded in an instant, the pain immediately flaying my skin. I yelped, and rolled, and tried to crawl away, and still it did not subside: my hair and rags were all alive and thrashing with blue heat.

“All of your nothing secrets will be on here now,” Roscarrow said, holding up another parchment while he soaked it in blue. “All of your nothing family and your nothing lover and your nothing life spent in the mud. But all I need is his face. Think of him, Lamorna. I know you’re jealous of him, being buggered by the Prince.”

I squirmed about on the grass, on the wet earth, groaning, but even as the flames were muffled I knew the pain would always be there, underneath my skin.

There was blue and green smoke coming off my flesh now. Images hovered above me, showing the inside of my mind. My childhood home, with the stink of lobsterpot-cages and star-gazy pie, and the local schoolmaster whipping my hand with a stick, and her, too, swinging from the tree in her father’s garden.

“No one cares, Lamorna,” Roscarrow snarled, impatient. “I want the Prince-lover’s face, on this scroll. Think about him. Dream about him. Think about the paper you stole from me, and regret what you did.”

It wasn’t the pain that spurred me on then— searing though it was. No; it was at the visions of my life, clouding the air above me for the pleasure of a scoundrel. I got to my feet, but it took an age: my fingers were burnt, my eyes were too stung to see clearly, and the blade was still slotted into my ribs. But I stood nevertheless, memories blurring the world about me in wafts of green. Screaming aloud, I wrenched the dagger out of me. It twisted through flesh on its exit.

“The face, Lamorna. I need it on this page.” He glared at me, completely unthreatened by my actions. He’d never thought me capable of anything, never considered me anything but a dog to do his bidding. “For a life as empty as yours, you’d think this wouldn’t take as long.”

I charged into him, and suddenly there was a flash of surprise on his features as I ran to him with murderous fury. It didn’t take long—I slashed across his cheek, and as he cowered, I kicked and flung him down to earth. I took the dagger point and dragged it across his collar as streams of memories curled into the air about us, showing my Uncle, the first time I killed a fish, and views of the river from when I was young and used to dive into its brown waters. Through his clothes, I rent open a ditch of blood across his chest. I was not used to fighting with knives, my usual fighting being of the barroom-brawl kind: it was clumsy work, but got the job done. Within moments he was screaming in pain.

Beside us was a flaming log. I picked it up, and it felt no hotter than my skin. I sat on his stomach, and pressed the white-hot wood into his face, and it immediately hissed with contact. Blue-green steamed about us, some of it tinged with a memory of the time my brother was trampled by a horse. I then took the bottle of that cursed Dreamfluid, and poured it all over his burnt features, howling obscenities at him. Dark red blood was now spouting out of his knife-wound, and it mingled with the blue.

Finally, I got off him. He whimpered, clutching his neck, his cheeks glowing with its contact with the mage-fire. He was weaker than me, in many ways. I’d always known that. I’d endured more than he could ever have imagined.

Some dreams were already starting to burn off him, pictures of cobbled roads and rain-soaked trousers and hands swollen with nettle-stings. I waited for a single moment to catch my breath— but only the one. I didn’t want the pain to catch up with me.

Then I looked at the Prince’s body, still slumped in the fire.

***

 

Do you see, my Prince? Can some dead part of you recognise the tale of the last night of my life, and how much of a part you played in it? Every time I turn my head in the mud and you are there, the less I want to speak of the Prince or the Corpse. This story is a tale for you, and you alone. Perhaps it is just that I’m getting soft. Perhaps you’re the only one here, and I’m getting cold, and lonely, and dead.

It was only once I’d gotten you out of the fire and back onto the cart, and finally dragged you away, that I realised how cold it still was. I knew, because my feet were shivering. But the rest of me could not feel it. The heat was there, embedded in me, making me dizzy. Pain and exhaustion almost got the better of me, and a false stumble on the track was enough to make me wail and topple to the ground.

The only thing which kept me conscious was the clarity with which I saw my purpose: I had to get you back to the mud. You deserved better than the likes of me and Roscarrow. You deserved peace.

So we crawled through the forest. I wonder what birds, what creatures, saw us there: me, issuing into the air a green memory trail of scrub-boards, of hovels, of grimy pans and grimier bodies. You, in contrast, were still issuing hazy images of royal processions and gatherings.

Something tells me that we were not so far apart, your memories and mine. I think that there was sadness in both. There were never many smiles in my life. Laughter, yes: but they die, while smiles linger. And I think yours were the same, telling of laughter without warmth and of a life predetermined. I’d never known you, of course. Not alive. But there are some things you can tell about people if you’ve peered into their dreams.

Sometimes, I looked back around the headland, and I could see another dim trail of dreams, mingling with the tree tops and floating up to the sky behind us. A line of green and blue, connecting the Earth to the Stars. Roscarrow had picked himself up, and was coming towards us, a stream of memories stealing off his burnt face.

Let him come, I thought. We’re all naked now, emptying our souls in the darkness.

I flailed, and dropped the cart, many times.  By the time I got to Tremayne Quay, I was finished. I’d gotten you there, to the mud, but it had taken away everything that I had. I placed my hands upon your ashen limbs, and dragged you off my cart, and we both slumped upon the edge of the quay, and I found I could not move any more.

We were close, then, you and I. Mage-Fire Companions. Your handsome face looked crispy. I cried then, because of the pain and the burns and your coal-like features, with embers of green illuminating parts of your skull that should not be seen.

A dim memory trailed away from you, showing you sitting on a boat and seeing the Helford behind you, and the sun bounding off the waves. You seemed calm, at ease— maybe your lover was there?—and I could faintly hear the same sounds that I’d known on my days out on my dinghy, with the wind lapping at the sails and the creak of the floorboards beneath my feet.

And with that, my body buckled, and my mind went.

 

***

I do not know how long I was gone for. But it was too long. When I woke up, there were still some faint memories shifting in the stillness, coming from our burns like the last smoke of a spent fire. They circled about us, like ghosts in the night air.

And there was Roscarrow, not far off, where the woods came to an end. He wasn’t moving, and so I slowly got to my feet, and limped over to him. He was slumped on his knees, just a few steps away from me. Clearly, he too had spent himself coming here: he looked weak, and his chin was resting on his chest amidst a necklace of blood.

I looked at him for a while, curious. I was not afraid of him—whatever he had come for, our encounters with fires and daggers seemed to have calmed us both.

“Not dead, then, Roscarrow,” I stated. Not wickedly: I was glad, in a way.

“Not yet, my lover. Not yet.” Speaking was painful for him. He raised his head, and looked at me. I could make out where his eyes should be, and felt the sadness emanating from them.

But, most of all, I saw dreams.

They weren’t smoking off him so much, like they’d done for you and me. But his face itself glowed with images, a result of the Dreamfluid I’d poured onto him. Tatooed upon his cheeks were visions of a house burning down, of a father figure behind the bars of a jail. But there was more than that. After a moment, I realised that the blue liquid also was showing the images of my mind and yours and his together, patterning the darkness. His coat was wet with blood and imagination, and I saw there in the leather my home and yours, and Roscarrow, pacing the streets of Helston. All a swirling mass of images, of blood and dreams and the colour of mage fire.

“What do you see, my lover?” he asked in sadness.

“I see…” I tried to study it, but at first it went too fast for me to describe. Then I took a long breath, and centred on what was most important. Perhaps they were the images of my mind, or yours— or perhaps it was a shared dream, a concoction of all of our imaginations.

“I see cliffs, and coves. I see the river and the sea meeting. I see Mount’s Bay, and ships tossing on water. I see darkness, forests and Mage-Fire.”

Roscarrow nodded. “Home,” he said simply.

A moment passed.

“No regrets, then?” he asked.

“One for most days of my life, probably. You?”

“About the same. More days to account for, though.”

He swallowed, and dreams crawled down him, illuminating his blood-soaked neck. Memories dripped, and made little silver-green puddles on the quay, containing worlds in their pinpricks of light.

“So those visions of the river, and the sea…” he began to ask. “Whose were they?”

I shook my head. “Don’t know, Roscarrow. ‘Suppose it could be anyone’s.”

He grinned. It immediately turned into a wince, but I knew what that smile meant. Laughter can die, but smiles linger. “That’s good.” He said. “I like that.”

A moment passed in reflection. Then he groaned, and tried to straighten himself and look directly at me. “I came here to kill you, Lamorna, but I don’t think I have the energy now. Any chance you could help me in the right direction? I can feel the river thickening in the mudbanks over there. I’d like to catch the tide, if I can.”

I looked towards the quay, and the mud that lay beyond, then back at him, with his features burnt green with ghosts, and with his dark eyes, in which I could see tears now.

“What do you say, my lover-and-murderess?” he asked. “For old, terrible, regretful times’ sake?”

 

***

 

There is not long left, not much time to say what little remains. I must go quickly.

After Roscarrow, I had to rest again. The pain was too great, the feeling of my burnt skin and my knife-wound making every move agony. I was in no fit state to do what I did. And that’s the answer of it all, really. I wasn’t too old to be a Dreamstealer, no matter how many times I’d told myself that. I could have hauled corpses for years. But here I was too burnt and bled, and my every emotion had been poured out into the air.

But I had to bury you, and do it proper. There could be no way that anyone else could get their unclean fingers on you. I put you back in the sling that I’d left on the quay, and just that seemed to take an age. Then I took the rope off the cleat, and wrapped it around my wrists: I didn’t want to drop you. I began to lower you back into the mud from which we’d risen, all those hours ago, but holding on to the rope with burnt fingers was too painful. For a few moments, with my boots dug in the earth, I leant back, and cried out, hoping that pain of holding you would subside, that the cord tightening around my palms would not make me feel as I were on fire again.

I whimpered, and held you in the air for a moment, but it was only a moment. You fell, and the ropes dragged me forward, and I went over the edge with you.

We smacked into the mud, and I screamed and howled, and the Helford riverbank sunk its teeth into us. I tried to grasp at the rope again, but I could barely move, trapped by pain and dirt.

After the ordeals of the night, it was simple— nay, peaceful, to give up. The cool mud embalmed my burnt skin and soothed me, and the deeper I sank the more I felt embraced. I was able to lie there with you, and look up at the sky, and await the tide. I gazed at all those stars, my companions on all those summer nights, and the last dream-glimmers sailing off us and floating up to meet them.

I can’t remember resting like this. I can’t even remember the last time someone took care of me, my Prince. Perhaps too many people looked after you, when you were alive; or perhaps not enough, or not where it counted. I don’t know. Only the sky does; it’s been housing your spirits all night.

Here it is, now. The final part—where the last breath flows in and out of your lungs, and it is weak, a whisper of a breath. The part when your mind takes its last fill of dreams and regrets, to last until the tide brings you out to sea.

The river is tickling my cheeks now.

You never knew me, Prince. But we go together.

Real Flowers Don’t Have Loose Threads

by David Fawkes

 

Rosenblum rose from the black soil in which he slept because the incoming call would not stop. He drew his root system back into his body and stepped out of the bed onto unsteady legs. It had been a beautiful start to a three-day weekend, and he’d spent much of it photosynthesizing beneath the sun of planet Fare-thee-well shining through his open apartment window.

By the time he’d answered the call, his limbs had limbered enough so they didn’t creak when he moved. Through the dewy haze of his apartment, Rosenblum saw the image of his chief inspector appear on the vidphone.

“Did I wake you?”

“I don’t sleep,” said Rosenblum, “but I was lying down. When do you need me to leave?”

“Who said you’re going anywhere?” said the chief.

Rosenblum wished humans were a little more straightforward. “You wouldn’t call me over a holiday unless you needed me somewhere today.”

The chief smiled. “More training. I think this will be an interesting case.”

“Who’s been murdered?”

“Not who, what.” The chief gave the meeting particulars and signed off.

Rosenblum glanced down at several tiny buds scattered over his viney torso. Already they were beginning to wither. He had a bad feeling about this case.

#

Mi amor?” said a light, musical voice from some other room. “The dawn does not come twice for a lazy man.”

Kevin Seven grumbled beneath his covers.

The voice approached, muttering something about early to rise. Kevin wanted no part of it. The speaker tore the covers from Kevin’s bulk that covered much of the ample bed.

Amor! Levantate! You have a call.”

Kevin cracked open his eyes and looked up at the love of his life. In a perfect world, Callipygia Alonzo O’Neill Bonfiglio, “Pydge”, would have been considered beautiful by everyone, with a curvy, full, six-foot-three body; but her nose betrayed her, dividing her face like a mountain range between two valleys.

Her black hair curled around her body, clinging to her like ivy. Kevin smiled. She was a perfect world to him.

Pydge groaned. “You are useless on a weekend. I will bring the device to you.” She strode back toward the other room, muttering in her native language.

Kevin rolled upright, slapping two thick feet on fake wood flooring. He was an inspector now, which meant he could afford real fake wood. He rose and lumbered naked and unselfconscious toward the round window that looked out onto Camellia, capital city of Fare-thee-Well. He watched the morning sun, now crawling toward afternoon, glinting off cargo ships arriving at the distant spaceports. He was lucky; his and Pydge’s combined incomes meant they no longer had to live beneath shipping lanes.

Pydge returned, carrying the vidphone and a terrycloth robe. “Put this on before taking the call, por favor.” She tossed him the robe and set the device down. Once she appeared satisfied that Kevin was presentable for a vidcall, Pydge left.

In the robe, Kevin looked like a bulky plaid sack. Why was Pydge crazy about him? He didn’t want to know. He sat down in a circular pool of sunlight from the round window and flipped the vidphone on. It was the chief.

“Hmm, holiday weekend, mmf,” mumbled Kevin.

The chief inspector rubbed his stubble. “I know how it is being called in on a weekend. I have something special, and you’re the best for the job.”

“Because of my amiable disposition?”

“You’re a good trainer, and this is an unusual case.”

“If it’s murder, anyone else could do just as well.”

The chief paused. “It’s not exactly a murder, yet. Right now, it’s damaged property. We’ll see what it becomes. No, I’m more interested in your trainee. Anyone else might do as well, but I don’t think anyone else would. You seem more open to officers of diverse backgrounds.”

Kevin frowned. “That was a long time ago. I don’t kick the underdog. Robots are still a minority.”

“Except this trainee isn’t a robot. He’s a floriform.”

Kevin’s eyes widened. “You want me to work with a freakin’ vegetable?”

#

Pitz and Divitz both clanked when they walked. Many robots were outwardly indistinguishable from humans; others looked more like mobile workbenches and boiler rooms. Pitz and Divitz had found a happy medium. Humans dealt better with faces, such as theirs, in certain business transactions, but the heavy industry design of their bodies helped enforce results. In Pitz’s opinion, it was hard to ignore a weapon of mass destruction when it smiled at you.

The pair had just come from the printer’s with their new business cards.

“Master Divitz, I find the urge to shuffle these embossed steel reputation enhancers irresistible.” Pitz shifted the cards from hand to metal hand.

“Is so, Pitz?” Divitz wobbled less than his compatriot. Overall, he gave the impression of a tightly coiled spring, sharpened to a razor’s edge.

“Indeed. I feel our contribution to literature is a sound investment. Who can argue with, ‘Pitz and Divitz: Things Done Quietly’?”

“Colon is showy.”

“And yet,” Pitz flourished a card between two fingers. “Ostentation is a salesman’s prerogative.” With a snap, the business card whizzed from his fingers and embedded itself into a wall two meters away.

#

Crippen hurried along gantries, walkways, and escalators that connected most of the skyline of Camellia. For short distances, his long legs were faster than trying to catch an aircab, and he had only gone to get a gift for his sweetheart, Gloria.

He carried a carnation; it was the kind that changed color with mood. Gloria would like that.

Crippen hurried because he had left Gloria with the crate, and he didn’t want what was inside getting out while he was away. Not that it would; a cargo lifter couldn’t snap those cables. But he’d feel just awful if something happened to Gloria.

He and she shared an apartment in a Ghost Loft, one of the city’s many abandoned buildings. He had chosen it so no one would notice the screaming. Gloria decorated well, and knew how to hide soundproofing.

On arriving at the apartment, Crippen recognized the smell of mint and the sound of metal on china. Gloria was having tea. She sat with her back like an ironing board. The bangs of her bobbed, black hair lay ruler-precise across her forehead. In a very specific series of movements, she leaned forward, reached for the tea, and held it in front of her, where she began to blow off steam.

The two of them didn’t have many furnishings, although the apartment was huge. What they had gathered in a corner by the kitchen. In the center of those furnishings, dominating their living area, was a crate, a metal box about chest height, with controls on top. Periodically, the box moved, as if jostled from within. Gloria sipped her tea and stared, appearing never to blink.

Without taking her eyes off the crate, she said to Crippen, “It keeps moving, but I didn’t want to open it without you.”

Crippen leaned against the crate. “Good. We’ll open it in a minute. I bought something for you.” He handed her the flower. It had started to flush dark red. Gloria set her cup down, still not breaking her stare, and took the flower. “It’s lovely.”

“I’m glad you’re pleased. Let’s get this thing open.” Crippen began to operate the opening sequence on the crate.

A seam appeared in the front panel, which parted to reveal a figure seated on a chair. Fortyish, bald, and gagged, he crouched, contorted and bound to a chair. The cables binding him cut into his skin, letting thin trails of sticky crimson fluid dribble onto the floor. Crippen wondered how a robot could bleed so red, but then, it did appear human. The robot looked at Crippen and Gloria like a wounded animal in a trap.

“He looks so life-like, doesn’t he, Gloria? Hard to tell he’s a machine.”

“Machines don’t feel,” said Gloria, setting her tea cup in the center of the table.

“Robots do,” said Crippen. “I want to find out why.” To the robot, he added, “You’ll help me sir, won’t you?”

The robot struggled against cables it couldn’t quite break, animal eyes darting wildly from Crippen to Gloria.

Crippen was glad this one was male. They seemed to scream less in the beginning.

#

Kevin arrived at the police platform atop Sky Needle 482 in the center of Camellia. His brown, stained greatcoat flapped in the open air. Around him circled his chrome aviadrone assistant, Aziz. Kevin depended on the little, robotic bird. People liked to talk, and Aziz had a good memory.

Why did the chief’s shifting a floriform to the department bother Kevin? He had helped to incorporate robots. Why should the vegetables be any different? Because they should be growing in someone’s kitchen garden or a plant museum. Not working in a police department. He shouldn’t have to work with a salad.

A few escalators and a hover panel trip later, Kevin arrived at the constabulary offices within the sky needle. Sullen officers toyed with their desk screens.

The chief’s door stood open, and Kevin could see him and the salad within. The floriform sat in the sunlight, of course. Its kind always took the best seats when they could. It dressed like a man, though it could have chosen otherwise. This one had forced its features to be more man-like, however, like topiary. Green vines and red buds poked from the edges of its collar and sleeves. So this was a flowering variety. Repulsive.

“Ah, Kevin,” said the chief, “this is your new partner, Rosenblum, transferred from narcotics.”

The plant man extended a hand. Kevin checked for thorns and then shook the appendage. It was cool and smooth, like ivy. “Rosenblum, huh? I get it.”

It smiled. “The doctors gave me the nickname during my cultivation. It stuck.”

Kevin had little experience with plants, being more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy, but if he had to describe Rosenblum’s voice, he would have said it rustled like scattered leaves.

“Right,” said Kevin. He sat down in a tattered, too-small swivel chair. To the chief, he said, “Well, what can you tell me?”

“Actually, that’s what Rosenblum and I were just discussing. I can tell you very little. We’ve found the remains of two severely damaged robots–mutilated, you might say.”

“Isn’t that anthropomorphizing them a bit?” asked Kevin. “A broken robot is a damaged machine.”

The chief looked surprised. “I didn’t expect that from you, considering your stance on robots in the workplace.”

“A thinking machine has rights, but it’s still a machine.” Kevin reached up to his shoulder and patted Aziz. The little aviadrone fluttered razor-thin, titanium-tinted wings.

“Call a spade a spade, you know?” added Kevin.

“Fair enough,” said the chief. “I’ve called the pair of you because someone hasn’t grasped the distinction. I have two robots that have been ‘murdered’. I can’t think of a better word for it, unless you want to say ‘strategically dismantled’. One was a stand-in.”

“A what?” asked Rosenblum.

“A stand-in is a robot built to be an identical replacement for a specific person,” said Kevin.

“Thank you,” said Rosenblum. “Could this damaging of robots be a form of practice? The killer might be trying to build up his courage.”

“I thought something like that,” said the chief.

Kevin wouldn’t admit it, but he had, too. “So why can’t you tell us much?”

“You can ask the robots’ remains yourself when you revive them,” said the chief. “They’re scattered all over the evidence room.”

#

Pitz and Divitz arrived at their destination upon one of the city’s rotating Moebius Condo bands.

“Divitz, my man,” said Pitz, “these huge, city block-spanning strips are engineering marvels and commercial failures. Marvelous, because each strip hangs over the city by anti-gravitational supports, rotating such that one side alternately faces the sun or the dirty city below. And failures, since the band technically has only one side. No resident can ever claim to have the better address.”

“Don’t care for client, his home, or his stupid architecture,” said Divitz. “He has money, and he wants things done. We best tools for job.”

Pitz pressed the doorbell.

From somewhere deep in the snake-like fortress of concrete, metal, and glass, Pitz could hear approaching footsteps. Moments later, bolts, locks, and catches released, and the vault-like door slid open with only a whisper.

A small man poked his head around the door. His white hair lay flat and precise above a high forehead and spectacles. A waxed mustache curled to either side of an axe-like nose.

“Yes?” inquired the head. The man looked the pair over with wide eyes.

Pitz knew all the gadgets and weapons clustered across his and Divitz’s frames made an impression. The man’s look of intimidation satisfied Pitz the impression was the right one. “Run along and tell your master, Judge Grackle, that Pitz and Divitz are here.”

The little man stepped in front of his doorway, adjusting his pinstriped waistcoat. “He’s told. I am he. I’ve been expecting you both. You may come with me.” He returned into his apartments without bothering to watch Pitz and Divitz follow.

Divitz’s forearm retracted, replaced by something slender, sharp, and deadly. He began to advance on their new client.

Pitz grabbed Divitz’s other arm. “Ah, I think discretion is the better part of customer service, Divitz. There’s a time and a place for sharp, pointy things.”

Da,” said Divitz, redeploying his forearm. “His face, after we get paid.”

“You have the subtlety and grace of an artist. However, we can’t go around killing rude clients. People will talk. After you.” With a broad gesture, Pitz ushered his partner after the receding figure of Judge Grackle.

They followed the judge through rooms and halls decorated in contrasting styles and caught up with the little man in a drawing room at the end of a long hallway. Off to one side of the room, Pitz saw something he never thought he’d see again.

“You have a grand piano, and it’s made of real wood!” Pitz clunked over beside it. Next to its beauty, he felt conscious of his own rough form. He looked down at his fingers, no two of which matched. He reached out for the velvet ebony smoothness of the musical instrument of his dreams.

“Don’t touch it!” The forcefulness of the judge’s words surprised Pitz. He withdrew his hand, which also surprised him.

“That is now unique in the universe,” said the judge.

“Do you play?” asked Pitz.

“Of course not. I haven’t the time.” The judge shooed Pitz back over to where Divitz stood.

Pitz had already decided upon a very special Hell he would visit upon this man, after the job was done. “Well, sir, what can we do for you?”

The little judge set his hand down on the piano, killing Pitz with thoughts of fingerprints. “Gentlemen, er, gentlebots, my sources inform me that you are quite discreet.”

Da,” said Divitz, “when we finish, no one talk.”

“What my colleague means,” added Pitz, “is that we’re very thorough.”

The judge waved his hands as if banishing the thought, but at least he stopped touching the grand. “I hope you won’t need any special measures, but word of this venture must not get out.”

Intriguing, thought Pitz, time to charge extra. “You have our every assurance. What does the task entail?”

Judge Grackle glanced around the drawing room, as though someone might be hiding behind the piano, listening. “I need you to retrieve my daughter from the local constabulary.”

“Ah, a difficult rescue mission, but one within our skill, eh, Mr. Divitz?”

Divitz grunted. “Mm, we have power tools.”

“I’m afraid you don’t understand,” said the judge. “This isn’t rescue, it’s recovery.”

This puzzled Pitz, and he was not a machine with an appreciation for mystery. “Please explain.”

Judge Grackle straightened to his full height and cleared his throat. “Her remains are currently in the evidence room of the constabulary at Sky Needle 482. You must recover them. Every last component.”

#

“So I have to work with a floriform,” said Kevin into the chrome communication-snake wrapped around his neck.

From its hooded, cobra-like head came the melodious tones of his beautiful Pydge. “Verdad? Are they truly like trees with legs?”

Kevin looked at his new partner standing next to him in the elevator. “Naw, this one is more like a shrub. Aren’t you?” he asked Rosenblum.

“A rose bush, yes,” said Rosenblum.

Pydge paused then said, “Is he standing next to you? Kevin Delgado Seven! How dare you be so rude!”

“Aw, he doesn’t care, do you, Rosebush?”

“Rosenblum, and surprisingly little.”

The comm-snake turned its head to face the floriform. “Lo siento. I apologize for my thug’s inexcusable rudeness.”

“It’s really all right, señora,” said Rosenblum.

The comm-snake turned its head back to Kevin. If it had had any venom, he would have been dead. “You wait until you get home, Señor Siete.” The line went dead, and the snake re-coiled around Kevin’s neck.

“She’s crazy about me,” Kevin said to Rosenblum.

“You’re a lucky man.”

The elevator doors opened. The evidence room lay ahead.

They walked under bobbing, hovering glow-globe lights. Rosenblum asked, “Why don’t you like floriforms, Kevin?”

Kevin moaned. “I don’t have anything against you people.”

“You don’t seem happy working with me.”

“I’m not happy about working on a holiday. You, I can handle.” Kevin wished the evidence room were closer. He just hoped the salad didn’t start talking about feelings or hugs.

“I had a theory about human animosity toward ‘salads’. I thought maybe humans felt guilty for what they did to the plant kingdom. But, to be truthful, we floriforms aren’t angry about the destruction. After all, humans did save us plants by giving us bodies like these.” He held out his arms as if to display his form. “And now we have voices.”

Kevin wished he’d quit using it. “Yeah, that’s great. After you.” Kevin held open the evidence room door for Rosenblum.

“Thank you–oh my . . .” said Rosenblum.

The sight overwhelmed Kevin, and he had experience with murder. The chief had been right: it was hard to think of what remained in the evidence room as just “damaged property”. Most of what was left looked very human: endless tubing covered with congealing, red fluid, robot blood. But there were enough micro-motors and circuitry to tell the eye that it wasn’t seeing a human corpse. The robot could have been a freedroid, or a Fak (no, no insignia), or a stand-in.

“I think that’s the largest human I’ve ever seen,” said Rosenblum.

“What?” Kevin looked where Rosenblum stared. “Oh, that’s Larch.”

Larch was seven feet of blue constable uniform topped by a closely shaven head. He looked like an upside-down exclamation point. Currently, he was entering something into the desk screen in his hand and frowning. Other constables swarmed around the evidence room and its annexes, cataloging. “He’s in charge of evidence.” To the tall officer, Kevin said, “What’s happening, Larch?”

He looked down from his work and moaned. “Oh, dark times, Inspector. Confusion and disarray have entered the lofty peace of my solemn stronghold of criminology.”

Larch didn’t get a chance to talk to many people throughout the day, so he tended to overwhelm whatever conversation he got. Kevin held up a hand. “In a nutshell, Larch.”

“Interlopers have breached security–”

“Smaller nutshell, please,” said Kevin.

Larch sighed and drooped his shoulders. “Thieves broke into the evidence room.”

“What did they take, in words of two syllables or less?” asked Rosenblum.

Larch appeared to do math in his head. “Robot remains.”

“Aziz,” Kevin said, “scout around the different sections of the evidence room. “Record everything you see and hear.”

“Harkening and obedient, O my master.” The little metal bird flew off.

Rosenblum stepped up to Larch. “I see a lot of robot remains already here on the counters. What’s the story?”

Larch peered down at the floriform as though he were a distasteful weed.

“He’s new,” said Kevin, “but he’s on the team now.”

To Rosenblum, Larch said, “We had two sets of robot remains pertaining to a particular case. Upon learning of the loss of the one, we inventoried what we possessed of the other.”

“And? Keep it short, big guy,” said Kevin.

“It’s complete, as near as we can tell,” answered Larch.

Rosenblum looked around. “How did the thieves get in?”

Before Larch could answer, Aziz returned. “Master!” The aviadrone landed on Kevin’s shoulder. “The north wall in one of the adjacent rooms is missing!”

“Larch–” said Kevin.

“You wouldn’t let me speak!”

But Kevin and Rosenblum were already on their way with the others following.

Kevin expected rubble littering the floor, or counters and cabinets ripped from their mountings. Instead, he found the wall had been removed with surgical precision. “Well,” said Kevin, “someone should call the police.”

“I took the liberty, master, of imaging the outside of the building,” said Aziz. “There are no ledges along this level. The perpetrators had a vehicle.”

“And they knew what they were looking for and where to find it,” said Rosenblum.

“Very knowledgeable thieves,” said Kevin. “Larch, were you here when this happened?”

“Regrettably, during this unfortunate incident–”

“Larch,” sighed Kevin.

“I was on break.”

“All right,” said Kevin, “you and the other constables are in charge of what isn’t here. Rosenblum and I are going to talk to what is.”

Kevin and Rosenblum returned to the room that held the remains.

Rosenblum ran a thorny hand over part of the robot’s skull. “So this male was the first victim, a Mr. Archibald Virtch. Is there enough of this machine left to lift data from?”

“We don’t want the raw data,” said Kevin, pulling a device from a cavernous coat pocket. “We want to talk to the robot itself. And when they’re this far gone, only a machine like this will help. It’s special, law-enforcement issue only.” He held up the device. It looked like a small black box and what resembled a mouth with a speaker grill inside it. Two leads, like little grasping hands reached from its sides.

Kevin looked at Rosenblum. Even on his mossy face, it was easy to see the disbelief. “It’s a voicebox. The robot will never function on its own again, but this machine will let us talk with the core processor.”

“A robot séance?” asked Rosenblum.

Kevin propped up what remained of the robot’s torso and wrapped the leads of the voicebox around the robot’s neck. “Sort of, but science-y. We do the same to people sometimes, too.” When he turned the device on, he didn’t expect the explosion of screams from the robot.

He turned the box off.

“That was disturbing,” said Rosenblum. “Can it feel that it’s in pieces?”

“It shouldn’t feel anything anymore,” said Kevin, “but I don’t want to think about it.” Kevin switched the device back on. After yelling the robot’s name for a few minutes, Kevin somehow stopped its screaming. Kevin thought how eerie the robot “corpse” looked propped in pieces on the table, its face still, as incoherent sobbing issued from the voicebox.

“Mr. Virtch,” Kevin addressed the box, which was better than the lifeless face above it. “Do you remember what happened to you?”

“You mean it’s not still happening?” asked Mr. Virtch. “Stop the pain. Switch me off.”

Kevin looked at Rosenblum; his green eyes were wide and shining.

“You can still feel?” asked Kevin.

But Mr. Virtch had gone back to whimpering.

“Maybe we should switch his nervous system off,” said Rosenblum.

“I don’t know how to do that,” said Kevin. To the robot he said, “Mr. Virtch, we need you to tell us about who did this to you.”

The box beneath the dead face said, “They made me watch. Left me on as they disassembled me. Hung parts of me around the loft.”

“Loft,” said Kevin. “Aziz, you recording?”

“Every vital word, O my master.”

“What kind of loft, Mr. Virtch?” asked Kevin.

“Some dingy Ghost Loft. My legs. Can I have my legs back now?”

“Do you know where?” asked Kevin. Without realizing, he had latched onto the table. He let go.

“I don’t know. They brought me there in a shipping crate. My hands. I can’t pull myself together if I can’t feel my hands.”

“Kevin,” said Rosenblum, “I think we should stop. We’re hurting him.” He reached for the voicebox.

“No!” Kevin grabbed Rosenblum’s wrist and pulled his own hand back, pricked by thorns. “Mr. Virtch, what did they look like?”

“They liked making me watch. Said it was instructive. That’s what they told the girl, too.”

“What girl?” said Rosenblum.

“Oh, now you’re getting interested,” said Kevin.

“The lady robot stand-in in the other crate. They brought her in when they finished with me.”

“He must mean the second victim,” said Rosenblum, “the one the thieves stole.”

“Second?” asked Mr. Virtch. “How long have I been like this? Somebody switch me off!”

Rosenblum switched off the voicebox.

Kevin let him.

#

“You brought her in a sack!” The judge was on his knees in the foyer of his apartment, tearing at the body bag.

The little man was being rude again, and Pitz didn’t know for how long he could repress the urge to remove the man’s arms.

“We improvised,” said Pitz. “She wasn’t very portable as we found her, was she, Divitz?”

“Modular,” said Divitz.

The little judge was very strong. He had the bag open in moments, and he didn’t use the zipper. He slumped like a discarded marionette. “I’ve never been able to cry,” he said. “Before now, I never needed to.”

Pitz was intrigued. “Was she a stand-in? A replacement for your daughter, perhaps?”

The judge retrieved the robot’s head from the body bag. “Yes, a stand-in,” he whispered. The head was still attached to bits of shoulder. The robot had been modeled on a young woman, blonde, pale, and attractive, as far as Pitz could tell. Her eyes were closed. She could have been sleeping. She had very little of the red robotic fluid on her face and hair.

Divitz circled around them in the front hall of the judge’s home, leering at the judge and his stand-in. “Why you want robot woman?” he asked as he strolled. “You want bury her?”

“No,” said the judge. “I want to talk to her.” The little man stood and hurried away from Pitz and Divitz.

Divitz stopped, mid-orbit. “Our customer service over now?”

“I sympathize and indeed share your sentiments,” said Pitz. “Yet, I find myself overcome by urgent curiosity. I despise this creature’s rudeness, and his lack of appreciation for music, but I have questions that beg for answers.”

“More customer service.”

“Succinctly put. Let’s follow.” Pitz ushered them after the judge.

Pitz and Divitz caught the little man at a room they hadn’t seen previously. It must have been the service room for the robot.

Reclining seats lined one mirrored wall. Each sat before workbenches. Very standard setup for humans who kept robots around the house. Robots could care for themselves, but Pitz found that humans couldn’t resist the urge to tinker.

The judge set the head on one of the benches and placed a black box upon the stand-in’s neck. “This is called a voice box,” said the judge.

Judge Grackle must have flipped a switch on the box somewhere, because it started speaking or chanting.

“. . . save me. Corrie, save me. Corrie, save me. Corrie . . .” The words issued from the black box’s mouthpiece, but the robot’s own remained still. She seemed to sleep on, her dreams undisturbed.

“Hush,” said Judge Grackle, setting his fingers on the robot woman’s lips. “I’m here.”

“Oh, Corrie!” she said. “I’ve missed you. Why can’t I see you?”

The judge paused. “You’ve been damaged, dear.” He cleared his throat. “I can’t put you back together.”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I remember. I tried to hold on. I really did. I just couldn’t. It hurt too bad. I wanted to see you again. To tell you I wouldn’t be coming home. I thought you might worry.”

“Stop it, please!” The judge covered the robot woman’s mouth. He rested his hand against what was left of her shoulder and convulsed in a fit of wretched sobbing.

This scene bothered Pitz. Even more than seeing a grand piano sit untouched. Did this human weep for a robot? No. Surely, his tears were for who she represented.

“Corrie,” she said, “I’ll stop. Go on.”

The judge composed himself.

“I’m sorry, Moya. I couldn’t save you, but perhaps I can do something now. What can you tell me about who did this to you?”

“Well,” she said, “my visual centers are gone, so I can’t describe them, and they used code names when they talked to each other.”

“Details, anything,” said the judge.

“The smell of carnations and mint tea. One of the kidnappers was a man and the other a woman. Humans, I’m certain. They had me in cables I couldn’t break, until they didn’t need them anymore. Their code names were flowers: he, a rose, and she, a carnation. I can’t remember much more that doesn’t hurt.”

“Your Honor,” said Pitz.

Grackle startled and turned. He must have forgotten about his guests.

“I would not presume to meddle in your affairs,” continued Pitz, “but I wanted to interject that very few ‘cables’ in common use could hold a robot for long. Some used in heavy industry cargo transport might prove sufficient.”

The little man nodded. “Thank you, Pitz.”

“If I may ask,” said Pitz, “are humans responsible for not only this poor unfortunate, but also the wreck we left back with the constables?”

“Yes,” said the judge, “and I suspect more victims might follow.”

Divitz held out his arms and, with a series of clicks, sprouted enough weaponry to make him look like an iron pinecone.

“Now, Divitz,” said Pitz. “Talk first.”

“No! No talk! Humans want cuts? I give plenty. This human first.” Dozens of sharp, steel blades rotated toward Judge Grackle, ready to strike.

“Corrie?” asked Moya’s voice. “I’m sorry. I have to go now.”

The judge turned his back on jagged death. “No! Moya, stay, please.”

“I’m sorry, Corrie. Soon, there won’t be any of me left to stay. Goodbye, Corrie. I love you.”

“I love you, too, Moya.”

White noise whispered from the voicebox.

The judge switched the little black device off. Pitz stood still, and Divitz retracted his weaponry.

Grackle turned to the robots. “Don’t like what’s been happening? Neither do I. If you don’t want to see more like her,” he gestured to Moya’s head, “then I have a job for you.”

“And why shouldn’t we go on a human-hunting rampage, starting with you?” asked Pitz.

“There’s more to this than you know. Killing me won’t stop these events. Helping me might.” The little judge seemed very sure of himself.

“Very well,” said Pitz. “Proceed.”

“There are two constables assigned to this case. I want them frightened off. This situation has to be handled discreetly.”

“We’re not gargoyles for driving away pigeons!”

“Da. Not gargle,” added Divitz.

“You’re not going to scare them,” said the little man. “One officer has a woman. I want you to kidnap her.”

“Ah,” said Pitz. “That we can do.”

#

Gloria walked along the railing of the strato-ferry she and Crippen rode. They had found a new Ghost Loft, the old being unsuitable now–blood, even if it was robot blood–stained all it touched. Their new place was well below the fog line, so they didn’t have to worry about inquisitive travelers in aircabs or trams.

In their new lair, Crippen and Gloria were free to find their next case study. The most recent had not lasted as long as Crippen had hoped. He liked the idea of teaching the next case study a lesson from the old one. But this last one simply didn’t make it. Oh, well. They didn’t make robots like they used to.

“I think another female would be a good idea,” said Crippen.

“Fine,” said Gloria, fingering the carnation clipped into the folds of her outfit. The flower turned ivy-green.

“We’ve done two males, and this will make two females. Maybe you could learn a little from a lady robot.”

“What should I learn from them?” Gloria paused at the railing.      “They don’t move like us,” said Crippen. “They’re like leprosy in motion, every movement a disease ready to spread. The robots say they’re better than us because they can think faster and lift a tram. But I’ve watched them at the warehouse. Their easy, agile motions have poisoned humans. Made us seem clunky.”

“So why do you want me to learn from them?” Gloria asked.

Crippen stumbled over his answer. “Just shush. I think I see our next case study.” Crippen stared across the crowded strato-ferry. A stand-in, Crippen was sure of it, stood by the railing opposite them. Stand-ins, when registered, had to stand at the back railing of strato-ferrys. Since robots had to be owned or own themselves, they sometimes stood at the back railing looking for humans to give them status. Crippen thought he could do that.

“Look, Gloria, a stand-in.”

Gloria said nothing, but the green drained from her carnation, leaving it the color of a purple bruise.

The female stand-in stood alone. She glanced around her with the look of a child separated from its parents. She was probably planning to ride the ferry all night and wait for a human to approach her.

She appeared to be in her twenties, which could be deceiving. She had smooth, sepia skin and curly black hair. Her clothes were neat, but their lack of style suggested she wore whatever garments she could find. They could be all she owned.

Perfect, thought Crippen. She’s beautiful and no one to miss her. He wondered how deep her beauty went. What new tests could he devise to ascertain that? How many layers of flesh would he have to peel away to find inner beauty?

“Get comfortable, Gloria, dear. We may ride a little while longer.”

#

Night approached. The stars in the sky hung behind thin clouds that reflected the electric glamour of the city below. Clusters of incandescent radiance from the city lights formed terrestrial constellations guiding city dwellers to their destinations.

Kevin, Aziz, and Rosenblum arrived in a police prowler at their destination in a Ghost Loft. A routine patrol had passed a long-abandoned basalt blackstone apartment building and grew suspicious when they saw a lit loft.

“You didn’t bring the voice box,” said Rosenblum as the prowler entered the building’s hangar.

“Not enough left to speak, according to the first on the scene,” said Kevin. The trio entered the abandoned building.

“So we’re here to watch the forensic team work their magic,” said Rosenblum.

Kevin and Rosenblum tread along corridors better suited for an archaeological survey than a police investigation. Lights from Aziz’s eyes lit the path, revealing decay, rot, and corroded treasure.

“Sort of,” responded Kevin. “I’m a hands-on kind of guy. I’m just hoping to spot anything the others might have missed. Is that ivy?” Kevin pointed to bits of green entwined around some of the support beams.

“Yes, a variety,” said Rosenblum. “Probably gets enough sun through the holes in the walls and floors. Segments of this building are a green paradise. I can feel it.”

This surprised Kevin. “You can feel the plants?”

“It’s more than that,” answered Rosenblum. “I guess you can take the boy out of the bloom, but you can’t take the bloom out of the boy.”

“What?”

Rosenblum curled his mouth, like a smile. “I can feel other plants.”

Kevin and Aziz both turned toward the plant man.

“Are you psychic?” Kevin asked.

“I don’t have a brain like yours, so I couldn’t say I’m psychic,” answered Rosenblum.

“Count yourself lucky,” added Kevin. “Mine requires considerable jump starting in the mornings. You don’t have a brain?”

“No. We floriforms think with our whole bodies, in a way. We look like humans, but that’s just because we have the human gene shadow.”

“What the hairy Hell is a gene shadow?” asked Kevin.

“My master,” said Aziz, which had turned its little head back to lighting their way, “a gene shadow is the shape of a living thing cast upon it by its DNA and the blessings of the Maker.”

“Is that a fact?” said Kevin.

“Ah, roughly,” said Rosenblum. “It means I’m shaped like a man without being one.”

“Like a robot,” said Kevin.

“Yes.” Rosenblum and the others inched along a section of hall with little floor. They approached the entrance to the crime scene.

Within the apartment, most of the robot victim had been gathered into bags, but several officers continued to pull red parts from the walls and clean white bits from the floor.

“I’m trying to feel revulsion,” said Rosenblum as they glanced around the loft. “What’s the secret?”

“Grow organs, then imagine losing them.”

“Hard to do,” said Rosenblum. “However, I’m not fond of compost heaps. Is that analogous?”

“Just a suggestion, plant man,” said Kevin, “most humans don’t like to joke about death. I’m kind of exceptional.”

“But this wasn’t a death. It wasn’t even a human. This was more like an examination.” And then Rosenblum froze. “Wait, what do you see?”

Kevin looked around at what was still tacked up on the walls and what was being put away. “A ruined robot.”

“No,” said Rosenblum, looking at parts pinned to the walls and dangling from the ceiling. “If you wanted to destroy a robot, why not just leave the bits lying around? Why decorate the place like it’s the winter festival? Come to think of it, why hide the destruction at all?”

Kevin watched the constables putting disturbingly organ-like parts away, cataloging them, taking extra photographs. “Holy crap! It’s an exploded diagram.”

“I’m sure you put it better than I can, but that’s basically what I was thinking. It reminded me of texts on plant classification I used to read during my–”

“Let me stop you there, Linnaeus. You asked why someone should hide it. It’s illegal to destroy a robot.”

Rosenblum appeared energized. “You could stride on any causeway above or below the cloud line and knock the first robot you saw over the edge to oblivion, and all you would pay is a fine to the owner. A higher fine than for floriforms, I might add.”

Kevin started to feel the energy too. “But they aren’t just bumping off robots. That’s quick. What they did here took time.”

“And privacy.”

“Plenty of space,” added Rosenblum.

“And freedom.” Kevin felt a few pieces slide into place. “You and the chief thought someone might have been practicing on robots before moving onto humans. I think you got the practicing part right, but I don’t think they’re murdering victims. They’re studying subjects.”

“Yes,” said Rosenblum. “And how long will it be before they need a human for comparison?”

At that moment, one of the constables passed by pushing a hover panel laden with evidence bags.

Rosenblum jolted rigid. “Constable, stop.”

The young grunt halted. “Yes, sir,” he said, but his expression changed to revulsion at the speaker.

“What can I do for you . . . sir?”

“I’d like to look at what you have on your panel,” said Rosenblum.

Before the young man could protest, Kevin stopped him. “Humor the plant, kid. I’ll make sure he doesn’t nick your stuff.”

The grunt stood back, and Rosenblum began poking through the bags until he found one in particular. He held it up for Kevin to see. In the bag, Kevin could see a flower. It was rusty red, with a stem already turning brown. It looked like one of the flowers he had seen budding all over Rosenblum.

“It’s a rose,” said Rosenblum, “and it’s real, though dead. That’s why I couldn’t tell it was here until it came near.”

“There can’t be many places in this city that sell real flowers. We could–” Kevin’s comm-snake hissed at him, interrupting his thought. “Hello? This is he. Yes, I know her. What?” Kevin yanked the comm-snake from his throat, dashing its digital brains across the floor. He crouched, wheezing, hands pressed against his knees.

“What’s wrong?” asked Rosenblum.

Kevin straightened and bolted for the door. “Someone’s got Pydge. Come on! Use your weed wisdom to get me outta this building, fast!”

#

Pydge’s mind floated in a stark void, neither awake nor asleep. She thought it was bliss. It was only when she realized something sharp stabbed deep into her side that she awoke.

Ojala! Kevin!” She opened her eyes. “If you’ve brought a dagger to bed . . . again . . . I swear I’ll use it to cut off your–”

She was not at home being pestered by Kevin’s obsession with sleeping armed. Straps held her along an upright, steel examination table. She still wore her street clothes, but a section of her blouse had been torn away from her side. The pain she had felt came from a very long needle, which pierced her beneath her ribcage.

It was in her side! she thought. A bandage around it stifled the blood, and there was no pain, just a throb, as though she’d been stabbed by a thermometer. But the look of the thing suggested pain would follow.

Two men stood beside Pydge, one smiling, the other brooding. Men? If they were, they looked like large, middle-aged trolls in hunchbacked steel body armor.

The room looked as though it had once been a doctor’s office. Cracked and rust-stained linoleum littered the floor. Blunted, oxidized instruments still hung from hooks along the walls. Some reddish fluid that probably wasn’t paint covered the windows.

“Madam,” said the greasy, smiling one. “I am Pitz, and my garrulous associate here is Divitz.” He indicated the broody one. “Say something nice to the lady, Divitz.

“Big nose,” said Divitz.

“Tsk,” said Pitz. “So direct. Madam, I perceive that you have noticed our handiwork.” He indicated the needle in her side. “This little artifact is a military-grade nerve strummer. Would you like to know what it does?”

Pydge felt a flush of rage start at her painted toenails. By the time it reached her heart, she knew what she’d do to these trolls if she ever escaped from the straps. “Big nose?” she said. “I kill you!” A stream of invective flowed from her mouth.

As a child, Pydge had often been cared for by her uncle Amlo, who had been an Oarsman prisoner-slave on one of the great space-faring Cutter ships. He had learned the proper way to curse one’s tormentors, and he passed the skill on to her. Now she spat it in full at her captors. She leaned back, pausing for breath before the next assault.

“Impressive,” said Pitz. “However, as I was saying, a nerve strummer does this.” He pressed a button on the needle.

Pydge couldn’t even scream before she passed out from pain.

And she was a little girl again, riding on uncle Amlo’s shoulder. From whatever branch of the family tree Pydge had inherited her height, her uncle had as well. He strode along the hills of their home world, Veil-of-the-Virgin, like a giant. Her giant.

His neck and head still bore the scars from the Ka-boom that had held his spirit captive while a prisoner. Pydge would run her fingers over the jagged flesh. He never told her to stop. She knew he couldn’t feel those scars anymore.

“Little pigeon,” he said in his quiet baritone, “There will be many times in your life when suffering will overwhelm you, like the waves of the sea crashing on the rocks. Just remember, you can always give up.”

“Is that what you did, uncle?” She touched the ring around his neck again.

“Don’t be a blockhead. Of course not. That is why I am able to walk these hills again. Now, wake up and let your tormentors know you are a Bonfiglio.”

Pydge inhaled sharply and glanced around. The pain had come from everywhere, not just from the needle. It had felt as though every part of her that could feel pain signaled she was aflame. Now it was gone, she felt an absence she wished were full, and that scared her. The two trolls–she realized now they were robots, but trolls suited them–still glared at her.

“Madam,” said the one called Pitz, “you are awe inspiring. If I were a creature capable of respecting humans, you would have it. Not many people just snap out of a nerve strummer jolt.”

“I don’t want your respect,” she said, “I want you dismantled with a saw!”

The broody one, Divitz, chuckled. “Her, I like. We should give her saw.”

“That would be counterproductive, Mr. Divitz. Perhaps later.”

“What do you want with me? You want to threaten me? Torture? I know nothing.”

“I’m sure you don’t. No, we don’t need information, but we’re not above torture for recreational purposes. Our intention is intimidation.”

“Bully,” said Divitz.

Pydge felt intimidated, though she wouldn’t let it show. She had to keep these two talking. The one seemed to like speaking, and she would do anything to keep them away from the needle in her side. “Why intimidate me? I work in a library. You have overdue books? No problemo. I know people.”

“She funny,” said Divitz. “Make me laugh.” To her, he said, “You, I kill before I cut to pieces.”

“I concur, Mr. Divitz. However, madam, we do not wish to intimidate you, but rather your gentleman friend. We thought you might exercise some influence or, at least, bits of you could.”

“Kevin?” she asked. “You’re doing this because of Kevin?” Under her breath, she said, “I swear I will kick his fat ass.”

“Although I’ve never met the gentleman,” said Pitz, “apparently he’s causing trouble for robots. That we can’t have.”

This confused Pydge. She thought of Aziz and all the robots Kevin had helped. “Are you sure you have the right man?”

Pitz said, “Fat, wretched, smells.”

“That’s Kevin,” she said. “But you are wrong. He helps robots. He helped several make the force.”

Pitz and Divitz looked at each other.

“I do not favor the notion of robot constables, for obvious personal reasons,” said Pitz.

“Biased,” added Divitz. “We not like the judge. I like her.” To her, he said, “Convince. I like what you say, I not chop you up.

Deal?”

This frightened Pydge more than the needle in her side. At least she knew what to expect from that. “Deal,” she said. What other choice did she have?

What was she thinking? She loved Kevin, but he could be such a jackass. How should she defend him?

She thought of the wise words her uncle Amlo often said, “Stop being a dunce and use your brain.”

“Kevin is a boor and a cretin. He eats too much and sits around in his underpants cleaning his O-cannon. But he’s a, how you say, stand-up guy. When other people no wanted robot constables, he fought to let them join. And he talks to his robot bird more than me.”

The two trolls were silent for a moment. Then, the broody Divitz said, “He has O-cannon? What kind?”

Pydge smiled. She had learned the answer to this several winter holidays ago. “Kevin has an HO-gauge, Shake-the-Box, Alley sweeper model O-cannon. The kind with the wider barrel for greater devastation.”

Divitz’s eyes grew very wide, and he approached the woman with a kind of awe. “I have Ready-to-Run model. Narrow mouth for detail work.”

“Kevin has one, too,” she said, “but he prefers the Shake-the-Box because he’s gordo, er, fat. He can handle the recoil.”

Divitz looked at Pitz. “Change of plan. We not kill this woman right now. Maybe later.”

“What?” said Pitz. “Just because you like her boyfriend’s taste in weaponry?”

“Yes,” answered Divitz.

“Do we get to remove this thing from my side?” asked Pydge.

“No,” chorused the robots.

Well, Pydge thought, at least she wasn’t going to die now. But there was always later.

“Do we still get to intimidate her boyfriend?” asked Pitz.

“Of course,” said Divitz.

“All right, then,” said Pitz. “But we’d better find someone else to torment soon.”

“I promise,” said Divitz.

#

Night closed in on the few remaining ferry-goers. The wild winds racing over buildingtops whirled across the deck of the stratoferry. Most other travelers had already paired up like couples for a last dance. But one young woman, a robot stand-in, stood by the back railing, watching the path formed by the ferry in the city’s evening mist.

“A lovely flower should have a twin,” said Crippen as he approached the girl. “Beauty shared is doubled.” He handed the carnation to her. It still flushed purple from when Gloria had held it.

“Thank you, sir,” she held her hand out, but when she took the flower, she didn’t seem to know what to do with it.

“I am Mister, uh, Thorn,” said Crippen, “my lady friend is Miss Petal,” he turned from Gloria to the robot, “and you are a stand-in.”

The robot dropped the flower.

“You were abandoned, weren’t you? Created as a double for a girl you never met. Your eyes, your skin, perhaps the touch of your lips were right, but not the smell. They rejected you because you just weren’t quite the same. Now, you’re cast off, like an outmoded comm-snake. Only now you’re illegal. The first constable to stop you can take you to jail, or worse: to be recycled. Come with us. We’ll keep the constables away from you.” Crippen picked up the flower and returned it to her.

The girl twirled the flower in her fingers for a moment then said, “I’ve been standing here so long. Let me go get some things from my locker.” She disappeared into the ferry’s common quarters.

“I think that went well,” said Crippen to Gloria. “I’m sorry I gave away your carnation.”

“It’s all right,” said Gloria. “I didn’t want that tattered, fake thing anyway.”

“Fake?” asked Crippen. “It’s not real?”

“Of course not,” she said. “Woven light filaments. Real flowers don’t have loose threads.”

“Strange,” he said, “all this time I thought it was real.”

#

Rosenblum thought Kevin looked as though he were blooming. Rosenblum knew that wasn’t the right term, but he couldn’t think of a plant equivalent for a face that flushed red and hair that stood on end. At a better time he’d take notes.

Kevin bellowed into a new comm-snake appropriated from the station. Rosenblum flew the prowler along skylanes lit by rows of floating glow-bots. Night was not the ideal time for him. He needed no sleep, but he had to fight the urge to extend his thorny tendrils into black, moist earth. He missed his humid apartment, and his goldfish, Melville, probably needed feeding.

“If you’ve harmed her in any way . . .” Kevin looked as if he would throttle another helpless communication device.

“Sir,” cooed the syrupy robot’s voice through the snake’s head, “I anticipated a degree of resistance; after all, we did ‘host’ your girlfriend without her permission. However, I think you’ll find she’s quite well.”

“I’m all right, mi amor.”

“She’s very tough,” said the robot. “You should be proud.”

“I am,” whispered Kevin, but Rosenblum could hear.

“Where are you leaving her?” Kevin asked. “Why are you leaving her?”

“At a place you know quite well–and now we do too; ponder that a while–your apartment. As to why, you know I don’t think I’ve ever uttered this phrase before. We’ve had a change of heart.”

Kevin did a double take. “You’re going straight?”

The two robots exploded with laughter.

“Ho, that’s a good one,” said the syrupy robot. “No, we’re still as evil as ever, but there’s something going on deep beneath the surface of these crimes. My associate and I are not detectives and don’t care to be. We want to see these robot murderers stopped, and some explanations sound better from humans. We are leaving your woman with some information. Please try to make good use of both. However, we’re also leaving her with an additional incentive: a nerve strummer remains in her side, operated by remote. We shall watch your progress with great interest.”

“If either of you freaks hurt her!” Kevin yelled at the comm-snake.

“Inspector Seven, please. Time’s a-wasting. Our little souvenir is simply insurance of a job well done.” There was some mumbling on the other line; after which, the robot returned. “My associate requested that I tell you he admires your choices of weaponry.”

“If I ever meet either of you,” said Kevin, “you can see them first hand.”

“A meeting we anticipate with the keenest pleasure.”

The comm-snake went limp around Kevin’s neck.

“Well,” said Rosenblum, “at least we know where to go now.”

“Punch it,” ordered Kevin.

Rosenblum followed Kevin’s terse directions. The two detectives landed at Kevin’s apartment dock, and Rosenblum couldn’t believe Kevin capable of moving so fast. When they got to his apartment, the door stood open. Kevin plowed through, followed by Rosenblum.

Pydge came out of the bathroom, wearing a robe several sizes too large for her. Her wet, curly hair reminded Rosenblum of some of his viny houseplants.

She and Kevin collided in embrace. He was much shorter than she, but he still obscured most of her, either from girth or spiky hair. “Ah, careful,” said Pydge, pulling away. She gestured to a lump at her side beneath the robe–the nerve strummer.

“Does it hurt?” he asked.

“Only when fat men bump into it.”

“Funny. I thought I’d lost you for good,” whispered Kevin. “These robot murders had me thinking the worst.”

“Ah, mi amor, I’m all right. Work sucked. I was kidnapped. I have a device beneath my ribs that could kill me at any time. Nothing I can’t handle.”

“I think this is one of those times when I should feel uncomfortable, but I’m not sure,” said Rosenblum. “Should I take notes?”

Kevin stepped back. “Pydge, this is Rosenblum.”

Pydge approached him and shook his hand without checking it for thorns first. He liked that. “Encantada,” she said. “Would you like something to eat?”

“Hon, this isn’t a dinner party. You’ve been kidnapped and threatened with death. Rosenblum can go hungry a little while longer.”

“I’m fine, ma’am.” He tried to let her hand go, but she held it.

“Are you really a rosebush?” she asked.

Rosenblum smiled. “I was grown from one, yes.”

“Where are your thorns?”

“Pydge,” said Kevin.

Rosenblum pulled his hand away from Pydge’s. “This will take a second,” he said to Kevin. Displaying his thorns was simple. It took longer to describe the action than for it to happen. It was a matter of allowing his body to be as it wanted to be. Spots began to poke from his clothes, which were only strategically grown leaves. Vines grew perceptibly longer, and, in an instant, dozens of long, black, vicious-looking thorns sprouted all over his body.

Dios mio!” said Pydge. “You are beautiful. Let me take a picture.” She started to walk away, but Kevin set his hand on her shoulder and guided her back.

“Anyway,” said Kevin, “we’re getting off topic. Rosenblum, put a lid on it. Pydge, in the name of the Holy Fiery Ones put some clothes on and tell me what happened! Um, por favor.”

She stood, leering at him for a moment and then strode toward a back room, mumbling in her dialect. Kevin and Rosenblum watched her go.

“I’m a very lucky man,” said Kevin.

“You’re lucky she doesn’t have thorns,” said Rosenblum.

They both looked at each other a moment and began to laugh; Kevin, a belly laugh and Rosenblum, an earthy chuckle.

“What was that?” called Pydge from the bedroom.

“I said you look nice, dear,” said Kevin. He and Rosenblum took seats in the living room.

Pydge returned with a glass of water for Rosenblum. She glanced at Kevin, who frowned at her. “He looked thirsty.”

“Pydge!”

“Well,” she said to Kevin, “I’ll skip over the kidnapping and torture, since you already know about that.”

“Torture!”

She stopped Kevin before he could continue. “Hush.” She held up a hand. “I’m fine now. What’s important for you to know is what they told me and why. Someone sent those robots to kidnap me.”

“Who, ma’am?” asked Rosenblum.

“A judge named Grackle.”

“Oh,” said Kevin, sitting back in his chair.

“You know of him?” asked Rosenblum.

“Big advocate for robot rights. Overturned a lotta hate legislation.” To Pydge, he said, “Why would he hire two goons to kidnap you?”

“He didn’t,” she answered. “That was extra. He hired them to acquire the remains of his daughter, a stand-in.”

“Ah-ha!” said Rosenblum. The other two stared at him as though he had started sprouting pineapples. “What? I used the term correctly, didn’t I? Anyway, could those remains they ‘acquired’ have been the ones stolen from the station?”

“Yes,” said Pydge, “and they told me the judge only wanted you two intimidated off the case. The torture was a perk.”

Kevin scowled. “I’ll get a special patrol after these two bots.”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea. Those two are looking for any excuse to use this.” She patted the strummer. “Amor, I think if you keep doing what you do–piss people off–all will be well. The bots said the judge wanted the case handled discreetly. I suppose those two ‘hoons’ were his idea of discreet.”

“Goons,” said Kevin. “Well, Grackle might have wanted those killings kept quiet because of his daughter. I don’t think anyone knew she was a stand-in. But that doesn’t sit right with me. He must have some bigger reason why he’d want the murders kept quiet.”

“Maybe we should ask,” said Rosenblum.

“You know, plant man,” said Kevin. “I think you’re right. And I don’t think we should be nice.”

#

Morning came, and the sunlight hurt Kevin’s tired eyes. He had called in a few favors with some fellow officers, and four police prowlers hovered outside every possible exit to Judge Grackle’s floating Moebius band. They weren’t officially surrounding the place yet. The pilots were on their breaks. But Kevin felt he could make things official fast if he didn’t like the tone of the judge’s doorbell.

Kevin’s own prowler sat parked at the dock of the band. From blurred eyes, he thought he saw a vehicle approach and linger a little too long in the distance. He tried to rub some sleep away. When he looked again, the vehicle was gone.

Kevin, Rosenblum, and Aziz approached the judge’s front door.

“You look tired, inspector,” said Rosenblum.

“I concur, my master,” added Aziz from Kevin’s shoulder. “You need rest.”

“I’m fine.”

“Maybe after we’re done here, you could sleep in–”

“Enough!” Kevin said. “I get plenty of this from Pydge. Aziz, look sharp. First signal from me, call in the boys outside.”

“I am a straight razor, master.”

They stood before the door.

“How friendly are we going to keep this?” asked Rosenblum.

“I stopped being friendly a long time ago,” said Kevin, “too much stress.”

“This is a judge,” said Rosenblum.

“Who kidnapped my girlfriend and had her tortured.”

“That’s not exactly what happened. Maybe I should take over for a little while.”

Kevin opened his mouth to argue and stopped. “All right. You’re training. You do the talking. But one wrong word from him and I bust him for bad grammar.”

The plant man rang the door bell, and its reverberations sounded within.

Someone approached, and the door slid open a crack.

A head of neat, white hair and an elaborate mustache to match appeared from behind the door. “Who is it? Oh!” The little man seemed to recognize them.

“Judge Grackle? We’re from the police.” Rosenblum and Kevin displayed their badges.

“Um, yes. Can I help you?”

The plant man continued. “Yes, your Honor. We’d like to speak to you about a kidnapping and murder.”

“Oh, murder, you say? Yes, do come in.”

The judge led the detectives toward what Kevin assumed was a greeting chamber. Along the way, he noticed how plain the side rooms were along the main hall. Very sparse furnishings, and what decorations there were seemed haphazard and out of place.

Kevin had no head for style, but the whole feel of the house was strange. People, even uncultured ones, tended to compartmentalize their habits and desires: books, albums, and movies had their places. But the judge’s home seemed more like a warehouse, with as many objects stored on the walls as on the floors. It was as though the judge had pretended to decorate.

Rosenblum leaned toward Kevin as they walked. “This place reminds me of my apartment, but without all the plants and humidity.”

Interesting. Kevin nodded.

The judge stopped in a long room containing more relics, including some unrecognizable musical instrument almost the size of a patrol car.

The judge cleared his throat. “Now, what was this about a murder and kidnapping?”

Rosenblum answered, “The murders are only tangentially related. We’re more interested in discussing the kidnapping with you.”

Judge Grackle began to fret with various pieces of bric-a-brac. “What could I do to help? Do you need a warrant?”

Kevin drew on every ounce of patience he could muster, strode over to where the judge stood, and responded, “No, sir, we want to know why you had my girlfriend kidnapped and tortured by your goons.”

Judge Grackle uttered a sharp cry and fell to his knees. “No,” he whispered. “I never meant for this to happen.” He looked up at Kevin. “Is she alive?”

“For the moment,” responded Kevin. He lowered a hand to help the judge up. “I think you’d better tell us what’s been going on and what you ‘meant’ to happen.”

Grackle rose with Kevin’s assistance and straightened his clothes and hair. “I believe I know the murders to which you refer, though they are more than tangentially related to me. “However, I assure you, I am a victim and not the cause. I never intended your woman any harm. I only wanted you to stop working on this case.”

Rosenblum spoke before Kevin could. Probably to prevent him from speaking. “If this were just a kidnapping, things would be simple. But these waters run deep, and we think you can clear them.”

“It has to do with your daughter, doesn’t it?” asked Kevin. “She was a stand-in. You wanted to keep that secret. But there’s more. We want ‘the more’.”

Judge Grackle looked up at his guests. “Come with me, gentlemen.”

He led them to a nearby room, which Kevin recognized as a robot maintenance room. On a steel table the remains of the judge’s daughter lay on a white sheet with her eyes closed.

“I can’t fix her. So I try to make her look comfortable,” said the judge. “You two may know I’ve been advocating a great deal of robot reform. I’ve encouraged legislation promoting robot rights and have overturned many of the worst hate laws. I have achieved a delicate balance, one that could easily be toppled with a careless word. If anyone were to discover my own daughter was a robot, I would lose any power I now hold.”

“Very convincing,” said Kevin. “But you could still have her repaired covertly. You’re being extra cautious because you’re still not telling us everything!”

The judge looked down at the robot. “We were in love.”

“What?” asked Kevin. “With your own daughter?” He stepped toward the old man. “I’ve been a patient bastard because I needed information. Now, I don’t care. I’m taking you in. I’ll find someone else to grill.”

Rosenblum tried to keep Kevin back. He broke away, and Rosenblum extended thorny tendrils, which held. “No, wait, Kevin. I don’t think things are as they appear.” To the judge, he said, “Are they, sir?”

Grackle never took his eyes from the woman. “Her name was Moya. Her robot name, the name of the stand-in herself.” He glanced at his guests. “Just as my robot name is Corvid.”

“I suspected as much,” said Rosenblum.

“And you didn’t say?” said Kevin.

“No time.” To the judge, Rosenblum said, “Your possessions are yours, and yet, not. You feel as though you’re house-sitting for a good friend whose tastes are subtly not your own. Is that correct?”

“Uncannily so,” said the judge.

“That is how I feel at home, sir. It’s not easy pretending to be human.”

Kevin stopped resisting the tendrils, and they released. To the judge, he said, “You’re a stand-in, too?”

“Yes,” said Grackle, or Corvid. “The real judge lost his daughter and had her replaced. Shortly after, he died too. We robots felt the judge too important to our cause of freedom to lose. So I took his place. Moya and I were actors playing roles. We fell in love behind the scenes.”

“I think I understand now,” said Kevin.

“You do not, human!” Corvid exploded with unexpected fury. “You have a few robot ‘friends’, perhaps, or a robot pet and think you understand.” Kevin stepped back as Corvid advanced.

“You’re an outsider, slumming your way through the richness of robot culture. Don’t tell me you understand!”

“I’m sorry,” Kevin said. “I didn’t mean any offense.”

“I’d agree with that, your Honor,” said Rosenblum. “He’s rude, but basically decent.”

Corvid calmed and straightened his suit. “Of course. Now that you both know I’m a robot, you know I’m not a judge. The pair of you could haul me in, and I couldn’t stop you. However,” he turned to Kevin, “if you truly respect robots and what we struggle for, you won’t make any of this public. If what I am is revealed, robots will be worse off than slaves, worse than appliances.”

Kevin rubbed his eyes and then ran a hand through his spiky hair. He deserved sleep, didn’t he? “I think that Rosenblum was back in the prowler when we had this conversation, and we never spoke, even if we did.” He pointed a finger at Corvid. “You’re asking a lot, so I’m going to do the same of you. I want to know everything you know about these murders and your goons. I have to get this case solved and Pydge safe, or you, the goons, and half this city will burn.”

Corvid strode to a nearby work bench and picked up a data biscuit. He put it in his mouth, then retrieved it. “This biscuit now contains all I’ve learned. It’s not much, but it might help.” He placed it within Aziz’s talons.

Kevin nodded. “Moya’s body is already listed as stolen. We police can just take our time trying to find it. You know, people may find out, but they don’t have to find out from us.”

Corvid smiled. “I’m sorry about what I said, officer. You’re not such an outsider.”

“Believe me, sir, I’ve never wanted to be further out.” Kevin and Rosenblum left Corvid alone with the body of Moya. Kevin imagined Pydge on that table under a white sheet and shuddered.

Outside, Kevin and Rosenblum stopped. “Aziz, download what you learned into our prowler and then get any free officers at the station out scouting around. I want eyes and ears all over this city.”

“I am your obedient servant.” The early morning sun sparkled over rapid wings.

“What now, boss?” asked the plant man.

“I don’t know,” said Kevin. “We’re lost unless a gift falls from space.”

#

Across a network of buildingtops, nestled near the center of the city, an array of multi-colored awnings bloomed over the open-air market known as the Gardens of Delight.

Crippen and Gloria had been shopping with their next victim.

The stand-in, Aia, carried a small stack of packages under wide eyes.

Good, Crippin thought, overwhelm the machine. He no longer wanted to break down only her body, but her mind as well. Up until this point, he and Gloria had been merely tinkering, learning the basics. This new victim could lead them to higher learning.

Crippen wondered if he and Gloria could become friends with the machine. She and Gloria might make fine sisters, going shopping together and chatting, or whatever women did. Then they could dissect Aia. Could gaining the robot’s trust alter their eventual discoveries when they opened her up?

Gloria trailed behind him and Aia, fidgeting with the sculptured fastenings of her dress. Gloria had been acting stiffly. Perhaps she needed more fun.

“And,” Crippen continued the child’s bedtime story he had been telling the robot as they walked. “No one knows where the Brass Humbugs came from. Some say they crept up from the blackness left behind when the inner planet shed the metal shell of our world. But they are why there are so many Ghost Lofts across the city.”

“Really?” asked Aia, ignoring the calls and banter from the shop keepers they passed.

“Yes,” answered Crippen. “In the old days, each building had its own sovereignty. Sometimes the dwellers became so reclusive that outsiders never saw them. Occasionally, the city elders would get curious and send in Oarsman prisoners or other expendables to investigate.”

“What did they find?” asked Aia.

Out of his periphery, Crippen saw Gloria silently mouth Aia’s question, while rolling her eyes.

“Nothing,” answered Crippen. “Or rather, they found emptiness. No tenants. No furnishings. And often, no floors, as though something burrowed up from under the building. A few Oarsmen reported a strange humming, like the beating of a million tiny wings in a great, hollow space far below.”

All three of them stepped into a wide common eating court within the concentric rings of the shops. The edge of the courtyard overlooked the rising spires of the city as cargo ships and aircabs rose up toward the sparse clouds.

“Oh, stop,” said Aia. “I’ll never get to sleep if you keep talking like that.”

“You sleep?” asked Crippen.

“Not exactly,” Aia said, “but many robots call what we do ‘sleep’. It’s a sort of down time when we can review files, commune with our god, Hong Chen Harry, or some lucky few robots rent images seen only during sleep. But you have to be free and rich enough to afford those.”

“Fascinating,” said Crippen. He meant it. The more he probed into the lives of robots, the deeper they became. He glanced back at Gloria, hoping to involve her in some small way. “Isn’t that fascinating, Miss Petal?”

“I’ve had enough of this,” said Gloria. She lunged toward Aia and grabbed the carnation from her hand. “You listen to me, you mechanical bitch, you think Thorn’s sweet because he offers to take care of you, but he won’t. He’ll destroy you.”

“Gloria,” said Crippen, “you don’t mean that.”

Gloria turned to Crippen and slapped him so hard he fell into a group of diners, upsetting their tables and ruining their meals. Then she whipped him with the flower.

“You’re foul!” she spat at Crippen. “At first, I thought I was helping you. Instead, you were twisting me like you. You made me think robots were just machines, but machines don’t cry when you cut them apart.” She crossed to the edge of the courtyard that looked out over the vast expanse of buildingtops and climbed onto the railing. She shook her carnation back at Crippen and Aia. “Do you think replacing me is as easy as handing away a flower? Find another fake flower for your stand-in. I’m taking mine with me.”

Crippen tried to rise, but he was hampered by the patrons in their efforts to right their tables. “Gloria, wait!” Crippen realized what she meant to do.

Aia ran to Gloria by the railing. Through the confusion of people, Crippen saw Aia grab Gloria’s arm. The two shared an unheard exchange, during which Gloria tried to free herself from the robot’s steel grip.

The struggle grew more desperate as Gloria attempted to pull Aia over the edge, but Aia freed herself from Gloria’s flailing arms. Crippen watched Gloria tip back from the ledge.

He managed to free himself from the diners. “Gloria!” She was gone. Crippen pushed through to the rail and looked over the edge. He heard the screams and commotion behind him but didn’t care. He watched as Gloria’s form grew smaller, and the carnation in her hand had changed color to white. Finally, she fell through the fog line. Crippen thought she might even hit the street below.

He looked at Aia, an expression of terror and disbelief on her face. He grabbed her arm. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I tried to save her. She tried to take me with her.”

“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said. “If the police find you, they’ll take you in. Come with me.”

Aia allowed Crippen to lead her away.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take better care of you than I did Gloria.”

#

Kevin and Rosenblum sat, parked in their prowler, at a floating diner-bot. To Kevin, diner-bots were the greatest invention since flying cars. Across the metro area, the government had put into service these bizarre combinations of diner counter and robot attendant. At each, one could strap onto a stool over empty sky or park a vehicle at the drive-up window. It was a great way to enjoy an early meal suspended high above the waking city below.

Phil, the robot fry cook, whirred away behind the counter, washing dishes. Occasionally, he would refill Kevin’s and Rosenblum’s mugs. To Kevin’s surprise, Rosenblum enjoyed coffee, too.

The late morning traffic sounds filled the air as the two detectives waited for inspiration.

“Well, Rosie, I think we’re close. I can feel it.”

Rosenblum finished his sip and replied, “Don’t call me ‘Rosie’. I have some pride. I’m inclined to agree with you. However, I don’t think we can learn anything new until we discover another victim.”

Kevin looked up from his mug. Just beyond the edge of the diner-bot, he thought he could see the outline of a familiar craft, a rock hopper. Most rock hoppers were anonymous, only being hollowed-out asteroids fitted with a hoverpanel and rocketry, but he thought he recognized the shape of this one. Could it have been the vehicle following them? It zipped off into a different fly zone.

Kevin said, “You might be right, but–”

The prowler’s comm-snake hissed and reared its cobalt head. “Officers and cars respond to urgent call. Female suicide at Gardens of Delight. Jumper brandished a flower at onlookers, then leapt from the railing. Victim fell below fog line, probably to street level. Officers respond immediately.”

“A flower,” said Rosenblum.

“The street below. Can be pretty rough,” said Kevin.

“Where’s your adventurous spirit?” asked Rosenblum. “The Brass Humbugs are just a myth.”

Kevin pressed the reply button on the snake. “Officers Seven and Rosenblum reporting to Gardens of Delight street level. Other responders should turn on their rendezvous beacons.” Kevin rang off the snake. “No one’s been down to the street in years.”

“Relax,” said Rosenblum, “I’m sure it’s a very nice place.”

Kevin set a course for the Gardens. They were easy to find at that time of day. He wondered how many people still knew what a garden looked like and whether they made the connection between the colorful awnings and an arrangement of flowers. Rosenblum probably could. Must remind him of home.

At the multi-colored court, Kevin aimed the prowler down along the front of the building that housed the Gardens. Kevin found the descent nauseating, but Rosenblum seemed comfortable as ever. Dammit! What could break a plant man’s calm?

Hugging close to the building lessened the chance of running into any cross-town air traffic, but it made the prowler appear to go faster.

“Tramcar, 11:00,” said Rosenblum.

Kevin altered his path to avoid the vehicle, and within seconds, they were in the fog.

“Crossing over the Big Smoke,” said Kevin. “Have you ever been down here?”

“My first visit.”

“I’m not going to hold your hand,” said Kevin.

“Perhaps another time.”

Damn! Thought Kevin. He’s a glacier.

As though emerging from a tunnel, they cleared the dense haze. But below the formless gray eddies of fog, lay the black void of the under-city. The prowler’s lights sprang to life, blazing in all directions. Bright as they were, there was too little nearby to illuminate. Kevin switched on the autopilot, and the prowler slowed to a coast.

They continued to decelerate until they locked onto the rendezvous beacons from the other officers’ prowlers. Kevin landed them with a resounding metallic thud.

“Picking up anything with your ‘weed wisdom’?” he asked.

“Strangely, no. It’s unsettling, like staying at an empty hotel.”

Kevin and Rosenblum stepped from their prowler into the light from the other vehicles. The floods converged on a central point, at which lay a body.

It must have fallen cleanly from above. The body was still reasonably intact. Kevin could tell she was a woman. Near the body, on the metallic ground, lay a flower, its white petals stained red. One of the attending officers crouched nearby, taking images of the scene. Kevin recognized her–Nankaro. The harsh light from the prowlers bleached everyone around into pale silhouettes, but not Nankaro. Her deep red skin softened to a dull rust. Other officers acknowledged Kevin and threw strange looks at Rosenblum.

“How you gettin’ along, Nanny?” Kevin asked.

Nankaro looked up from her work. “I’ve been better, fatty. Heard you had to come in over the holiday. I got to sleep in. Who’s the salad?” Her imager continued to click and hum.

Kevin felt his face redden. Hadn’t he used the same word a few days ago? “This is Rosenblum. He’s new on the force.”

“Oh,” said Nankaro, rising. She folded the imager closed, and stepped toward them. She extended a hand toward the plant man. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were one of us.”

Rosenblum shook her hand. “That’s fine. I’m new, and I don’t really have a place to put a badge.”

“No kidding,” she said. “Are you wearing a suit?”

“No, arranged leaves, mostly.”

“Wicked. Could I get a picture?” She reopened her imager and snapped a quick image of Rosenblum. He wasn’t much of a poser, being more of a still-life kind of guy.

She addressed them both. “Anyway, you must have heard about this fall over the ‘snake. Brutal.”

“Yeah,” said Kevin, “Rosenblum and I are working on a case and wanted to know about the flower.”

“Tight,” she said. “Not much to say.” She indicated it. “Don’t even know what kind it is.”

“It isn’t,” said Rosenblum, approaching and crouching near it. “It’s one of those novelty flowers that changes color when you touch it. But it’s meant to look like a carnation. I wonder what color it would turn if I touched it.”

“A carnation?” asked Kevin. “Can that be a coincidence?”

“Anyone could buy one of these novelties,” said Rosenblum, “but my root feeling is this dead lady’s involved.”

“Cool, cool,” said Nankaro. “Can I get back to my imaging? We’re on a schedule.”

“What’s your hurry?” asked Kevin. “She’s not going–”

Everyone stopped when the humming started.

Kevin imagined a million fat, black flies heading toward them from the darkness. Then he saw the light approach, at first just a pinpoint, but it grew into a fire.

“What was that about Brass Humbugs, Rosenblum?”

“I’ll never speak ill of folklore again,” he said.

Some officer yelled for everyone to get back to the prowlers.

“No!” bellowed Kevin. “No time. It’s here. Weapons out!” Kevin drew his alleysweeper O-cannon and aimed for the approaching fire.

Rosenblum pulled a batterbeam pistol, and Nankaro drew one as well, but kept her imager out.

The buzzing grew louder, and Kevin could see a shiny, brassy reflection.

“Fire!” Kevin felt a thrill as he launched rings of smoky devastation from his O-cannon. He heard the other weapons discharging all around him, but still the thing came nearer.

It landed atop one of the prowlers, crushing the vehicle and some of the officers nearby.

Kevin could see it clearly. Sheets of brassy-colored armor were bolted over its surface like a metal carapace. Dozens of variegated wings thrummed along its back. Not a square inch of its metal hide appeared damaged in any way by their attack.

It roared. Its massive maw parted, revealing an inferno within. This was the fire Kevin had seen. The belly fire of a robotic beast from a distant past.

The machine advanced on insectile legs.

It swiveled its stubby head, watching them through clusters of obsidian eyes.

“Aim for the head!” Kevin continued to release volleys of smoky “O”s toward the creature, with little effect.

Others did the same, and the creature retaliated by shredding several of Kevin’s fellow officers with its mandibles.

Nankaro rushed forward into the chaos, firing her batterbeam pistol from one hand and taking images with the other.

“Nanny, you dumbshit, no!” But all Kevin could do was try to give her covering fire.

Rosenblum moved much quicker, and his transformation was disturbing. As he ran to follow Nankaro, he grew. Vines, limbs and thorns elongated into a grotesque topiary of man and rose.

The Humbug, in its insensate thrashings, lashed out at the surrounding officers, kicking Nankaro with grasshopper-like hind legs.

The enlarged Rosenblum leapt, caught her, and tumbled along the ground.

Kevin ran to meet them where they lay. When he arrived, Rosenblum appeared to be making her comfortable on a lap of leaves. He shook his head at her state.

Nankaro only had superficial cuts on her face, probably from the thorns, but Kevin was sure her body shouldn’t have been as twisted around as it was.

She held the imager up to Kevin. “I got some wicked-cool shots, fatty.”

“I’ll make sure everyone sees them, Nanny.” Kevin took the imager.

Rosenblum laid her lifeless body on the metal ground.

The screams from the other officers had died away. Kevin and Rosenblum rose and turned to face the metal insect.

It regarded the pair–the last two officers standing. It opened its maw, and Kevin could hear the crackle of its internal fire.

“Nowhere to run,” said Kevin.

“Don’t really want to,” said Rosenblum. They raised their weapons.

The Brass Humbug crouched, ready to pounce, like a cat after rats.

Before it could, there was a whistling in the dark above them, and a giant stone the size of a city block flashed into the pool of light from the prowlers and landed on the Humbug, crushing it. The force of the blow knocked Rosenblum to the ground. Kevin stumbled, but remained upright. He felt the echo of the crash reverberate up his legs. As the sound died away, the plant man rejoined him.

From the exposed remains beneath the stone, Kevin watched as the fire of the beast burned out.

Floodlights came to life all over the stone, and Kevin saw the unmistakable outline of a rock hopper–the one that had been following them.

A klaxon howled, deafening him, and then, “Good morning, officers!” said a familiar voice. “My, but you boys in blue do quite a lot so early in the morning.”

Ah, thought Kevin, slimy, smug, robotic. “Good morning, Pitz. Have you been keeping an eye on us?”

“Just watching over our investment,” said Pitz. “By the by, my associate admired your weapon technique.”

“Hurrah,” said Divitz.

“But those weapons couldn’t damage a Humbug,” said Pitz.

“What was that thing?” asked Rosenblum.

“A watchdog, perhaps?” answered Pitz. “No one knows who made the Brass Humbugs or why. They are a very old terror in a dead place.”

“Why are you here, Pitz?” asked Kevin, not bothering to hide the irritation in his voice.

“Oh, we were searching for a new private place since your lady friend knows about the other, and we happened to pass by. Pity about your fellow officers. Too bad they didn’t know Humbugs were attracted to light.”

Kevin had had enough. He took out his badge and strode toward the mottled rock atop the ruined insectoid. “Pitz, you and Divitz are under arrest for kidnapping, destruction of police property, public swearing and a variety of charges I’ll make up later when I’ve had some sleep. My partner has a batterbeam pistol,” Rosenblum aimed it squarely at the center of the stone, “and we’ll crack you out of that shell like an egg.”

“Ha,” said the robot, “that’s the stuff. However, you won’t be hauling us in while we have your lady friend’s strummer remote. We can give you a few tidbits of information for your troubles, though. That poor fallen girl lying in the light is Gloria Fast. We’ve been doing some checking of our own. If you’re as smart as we’re sure you are, you’ll scamper up to the ‘scene of the crime’ and talk to the officers there. We’ll be leaving now.” The klaxon yelped and fell silent.

The rocky ship began to rise.

“Fire!” Kevin yelled.

Several beaters from Rosenblum’s pistol broke large chunks from the rockhopper, but it otherwise escaped unharmed.

“Enough,” said Kevin, watching the hopper disappear into the dark. He looked around at the injured and the dead and at the ruined brass bug lying crushed within the debris. Gloria Fast. Could one name be worth so much destruction? No. But he’d follow the lead anyway.

“All right,” said Kevin, “let’s turn these spotlights off and get a clean-up crew down here before another one of those things turns up, and then let’s get up to the Gardens. This place gives me the creeps.”

#

The rain began lightly but soon sent everyone searching for cover. Crippen ran with Aia along crowd-movers and sky bridges toward someplace more private. His and Gloria’s Ghost Loft–no, just his now–was too far to reach without notice, and Crippen wanted to avoid attention if he could. Fortunately, there were many Ghost Lofts. Crippen chose the closest.

It had once been a terracotta and copper beast and was probably beautiful in its day, but now its tiles were jumbled and broken, like old teeth, its copper filigree green with age, and its rounded windows broken and gaping. Crippen herded Aia from one of the buildingtop-spanning sky bridges they had been fleeing along through a smashed window of the terracotta Ghost Loft.

The rain intensified, tapping across the broken glass and debris littering the floor of the loft beneath the window. Crippen and Aia found a clear, dry spot to rest.

Only, Aia didn’t have to rest. Crippen reminded himself of that. She sat wringing out her damp, tight curls, arranging them in a more manageable mess.

Unaccustomed to running, he wheezed and tried not to look so unfit. The gentle rise and fall of her chest never wavered from a calm, steady pace. He hated her for that.

She was a machine. Beautiful and grotesque at the same time. Water beaded on her blemish-free, light coffee skin. Her complexion was so much better than Gloria’s had ever been.

What was he to do with Aia? Kill her or keep her? Perhaps he could kill her when he tired of her, erase her memory of the murder, and then kill her again. He could focus his studies on one robot and be much less conspicuous that way.

“You’re thinking about Gloria, aren’t you, Thorn?” asked Aia.

Crippen jumped. He had been lost in his thoughts and forgot Aia was with him.

“Yes, Gloria and I were very close.” He realized he meant that. “My fault, her jumping. She had always been moody, but I never expected such jealousy. Before, I could always fix our little problems, but now it’s too late.”

“Were you two in love?” asked Aia.

This struck Crippen. Not because he had never thought about it, but because now it was out in the open and raw. “She stayed by me,” he said. He watched the rain pool beneath the broken window. There was a lot of it now. “I lost my job at the space docks. Robots there were just too skilled at moving cargo, so I was replaced. Gloria supported me, even when she didn’t understand. It’s hard to find people who will do that for you.”

Aia scooted closer to Crippen and took his hands in hers. “I’d like to tell you a little about me,” she said. “Before I became a stand-in, I was an ordinary robot. But stand-ins are meant to be replacements for someone important, so I became important, even if I was only pretending. Except I wasn’t the person I replaced. And when she came back . . . well, I just wasn’t as skilled at being human, so I was replaced. Only, when I got kicked out, I didn’t have anyone to support me as Gloria did for you, Crippen.”

He frowned at the robot. “I don’t remember telling you our names,” he said.

“No,” she said, “but I know who you are.”

Crippen tried to pull away from the robot, but her hands were locked around his wrists like handcuffs.

“I have good news and bad for you, Mr. Crippen. The good is that Gloria didn’t kill herself. I killed her. She tried to climb back down off the rail, but I pushed her off.”

“What’s going on? Let me go!” He tried to pry his hands free. The robot raised a leg between their arms and kicked his head from side to side with her foot, while her hands remained clamped over his. Dazed, he tried to refocus on the robot.

“Sorry,” she said, “I don’t want you unconscious. I have more of my story to tell. When I was rejected, I had nothing and no one to care for or help me. As an illegal robot, I could be arrested at any time. Imagine, being arrested for being unwanted.”

Crippen’s vision cleared. “No one wants you robots anymore. If I were free, I’d tear you to pieces, find another one just like you, and do it again.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Crippen. I’m going to grant your wish, or part of it. But first, I have to finish my story. I had no one, until two robots took me in. They gave me a new body, copied all my files, and gave me a purpose: to bring you out in the open. You see, I’m a plant.”

Crippen perked up through his haze. “A plant? Like a flower?”

The robot seemed momentarily confused. “No, my saviors, Pitz and Divitz, have been planting spies all across the city, lying in wait to be picked as your next victim. You and Gloria have been very hard to find.”

“You’re a fake flower. I can see that now,” said Crippen. “Let me go so I can rip out your threads.”

The robot ignored him. “I said I’d grant part of what you wish. Now for the bad news: I’m going to mark you in a way that’s easy for certain police officers to spot.” She tightened her grip on Crippen’s hands, making him wince.

“I’ve sent a signal to my saviors,” she continued, “and with it, my soul. Time for me to go.” Her head tilted forward, and her body posture slumped.

Before Crippen could try breaking the grip again, he noticed the robot’s body bloat and deform beneath its tattered dress. When the body exploded, the surprise knocked him back against the floor more than the force. It couldn’t have been a normal robot body; he had no serious injuries from metal fragments, but synthetic gristle and red gore clung to his clothing, smeared his skin, covered his lips and teeth. He’d never tasted a robot before, sterile and repulsively clean. Nothing whole remained of the robot but its arms, still attached to his wrists.

As he sat up, he felt the arms jerk. Small rotor blades, like helicopters, sprouted from the shoulders and began to spin. The sound echoed in the loft, drowning out the sounds of rain and thunder outside.

The blades scattered splinters from the floor until they moved fast enough to take flight. The arms rose, carrying Crippen with them.

Theirs was not the random flight of a butterfly. They had direction, leading Crippen out of the shattered window over the rainy city.

He couldn’t scream. His throat was tight. Instead of merely being suspended by the flying robotic arms, he now grasped them as well from fear.

The flight path took him away from the Ghost Loft, beyond the sky bridge he and the robot had arrived on. Crippen watched air traffic pass between the buildingtops beneath his dangling legs. The rain had washed away some of the larger gobbets from his clothes, but he still remained blood-stained.

Crippen tried to think. He didn’t want to go wherever the arms were taking him, but struggling did nothing.

Then, along his flight path, he noticed a crowd-mover, a giant conveyor belt pumping people across the city. Soon it would be close beneath him.

Crippen began smashing the robot arms together at the shoulder. They made horrible grinding noises as blade tore against blade. He dipped. It felt as though his stomach kept going all the way to the traffic below.

He slammed the shoulders against each other again. Shards of rotor blade scattered across the sky. He plummeted a bit more, but still flew.

If he timed his actions right, he might fall on the crowd-mover as he passed above. If not, at least his troubles would be over.

Crippen knocked shoulder against shoulder, slowly obliterating the rotors. Finally, he fell.

He crashed against the belt of the conveyor, stunned into immobility by the pain. He checked himself for injuries. Nothing permanent. He had to get up.

Pedestrians nearby screamed as they ran. Vertiginous images filled Crippen’s eyes, swirls of belt, city, and sky. Nothing had any meaning for him anymore. He closed his eyes and mind to the turmoil.

“Sir? Sir?” asked a strange voice from somewhere on the other side of Crippen’s eyelids.

“Sir,” it said again, “I saw you fall. I don’t know what’s happened to you, but you may have lost a lot of blood. And what are these? Arms? I’m going to call an ambulance for you. Just hang on tight.”

Crippen opened his eyes to see a patrolman staring down at him.

“No!” yelled Crippen. He swung one of the arms still locked on his. It connected with the officer’s head. “No more . . .,” Crippen hit the man again, knocking him over. Crippen rose to his feet and continued bludgeoning the unconscious officer with one of the arms. “No . . . more . . . fake . . . flowers! No . . . more . . . loose . . . threads!”

Crippen caught his breath. One of the robot’s arms had fallen from his. It lay on the bloody patrolman. Crippen saw a batterbeam pistol, still in the officer’s holster. He grabbed it with his free hand and ran along the crowd-mover, firing the pistol at any loose threads that happened to get in his way.

#

After the cleaning at street level, Aziz rejoined Kevin and Rosenblum on their way back up to the Gardens of Delight. Kevin felt relieved. He always felt better with Aziz nearby.

The flight up the building had not been as bad as the trip down. The constant sense of falling vanished, and going up felt more like an elevator ride.

Kevin parked the prowler at the rooftop dock of the Gardens, and he, Rosenblum, and Aziz headed toward the barricaded scene of the jump. It was easy to find; many of the surrounding awnings had been taken down, and not a person could be seen. Police business was bad for business.

When the trio arrived, most officers had left, only one remained, finishing a few last minute details. Kevin recognized Lockbrow’s cybernetic silhouette. There was no clear border between man and machine, with several enhancements encroaching over flesh; those regions dominated by machine resembled a mix of forklift and tank. Only a few constables had cybernetic enhancements, and those had a tougher time on the force than robots since they were neither human nor robot. Kevin had gotten Lockbrow his job and watched him fight to keep it.

Lockbrow’s human half tried punching buttons on his data-corder while the mechanical half held it. Evidently, the effort proved too difficult, as he sighed, passed the ‘corder to his other half, and attempted keying with his mechanical side.

As Kevin, Rosenblum, and Aziz approached, Lockbrow said, “I should just carry around a stack o’ stone tablets and a chisel.”

“Too permanent,” said Kevin, “and too hard for Records Division to lose. Lockbrow, this is Rosenblum. He’s working with me on a case that may be related to the jumper.”

Lockbrow crushed the ‘corder in a giant, metal hand, as the human one extended toward Rosenblum. “Nice ta meet you. You guys didn’t see me destroy that.” He dropped fizzing bits of the device “’Scuse me, fellas. I’m hotter than two rats humpin’ in a wool sock. Could we stand by the edge of the roof? The updraft will cool me off.”

They walked, and stomped, over to the edge where Lockbrow continued. “I’ve been downloading the security footage from the sly-spies in the area. I was watchin’ it before you got here.”

“That would be useful,” said Rosenblum. “We could see if there was anyone with the jumper.”

“There were. Two people: a guy and some broad.”

“We want to see that,” said Kevin.

“Uh,” said Lockbrow, “I smashed that ‘corder. There’ll be copies at the station by now.”

“Aziz–,” Kevin began, but was interrupted by his comm-snake’s hiss.

It raised its cobalt head. “Any officers in the vicinity of the Gardens of Delight?” said the dispatcher through the snake’s facial speaker grill.

Kevin glanced at his fellows and answered for them. “Officers Seven, Rosenblum, and Lockbrow are at the Gardens. What’s happening?”

“Several pedestrians have reported a madman covered in blood and wielding a severed robot arm and a pistol. Reports are confused, but he’s on crowd-mover Chanting Blitz, and he may have injured or killed a constable. We can’t be sure, as sly-spies in the area are not responding.”

“That’s my fault,” said Lockbrow. “I’ve had them tied up looking for footage on the jumper.”

The dispatcher groaned. “We need officers to check out that disturbance, now. Get over to Chanting Blitz and report what you find. Do not engage until backup arrives.” The comm-snake hissed and re-coiled itself around Kevin’s neck.

Kevin said to Lockbrow, “You don’t have a ride?”

“I was gonna click my heels together three times.”

“Come on,” said Kevin. “You’re riding with us.”

“I got shotgun,” said Rosenblum.

Once they had Lockbrow crammed into the prowler, the trip to Chanting Blitz took only moments. It ran along a length of skyline only a few buildings away. From high above, Kevin watched tiny figures scatter along the belt-like conveyor. He knew all that kept the panicking forms from falling to their deaths was the invisible band of vibro-shield running along the sides of the conveyor. As the prowler approached, Kevin could see random pedestrians repelled from the edge back onto the strip by the shields.

“Follow the panic,” said Lockbrow.

“Kevin,” said Rosenblum, eyes scanning the dense crowd far below, “the dispatcher mentioned a robot arm.”

“I heard,” said Kevin. “Aziz, fly ahead of us. Let me know if you see a downed cop or a bloody psycho with a robot arm.”

“I obey your strange request, master.” Kevin let the little aviadrone out of the prowler window. Tiny jets fired beneath silver tail feathers.

Shortly after the departure of Aziz, Rosenblum spotted something ahead. “There’s a figure in the distance. It looks unusual.”

“I don’t see anything,” said Kevin.

“I do,” said Lockbrow’s mechanically amplified baritone. “Or half of me does. Damn, Rosenfield! You got good eyes for a plant. That’s a mile away.”

“’Blum.’ And, yes, I’ve got better eyes than a potato.”

Silence.

“No reaction?” asked Rosenblum. “Meat has no sense of humor.”

“I think I liked you better when you were quiet all the time,” said Kevin. “I can’t see the guy. Let me know when we’re on top of him.”

There were fewer people on the crowd-mover. Kevin knew everyone around the lunatic would have already run away. He didn’t see the downed cop. Perhaps Aziz would have better luck.

“I see the crazy guy,” said Kevin over the braking of the prowler’s engines. “Nothing wrong with my eyes.”

The lunatic ran along a bare area of the crowd-mover. Kevin could see what looked like blood covering him. Sure enough, he had a pistol and an arm hanging from his own. Periodically, it would jerk the man’s body sideways as he ran.

Kevin slowed the prowler’s approach. “Rosenblum, get on the snake, and let the station know this guy’s location. I’m going to try–,” An explosion rocked the front of the prowler. “Whoa!” The lunatic had seen them and fired.

“He’s got a batterbeam pistol.” Another blast tore through the hood. It must have destroyed part of the hover panel because the vehicle lost altitude. “I can’t keep it in the air,” said Kevin.

“Can you direct it toward that Ghost Loft over there?” asked Lockbrow.

“We won’t survive the crash,” said Kevin.

“We won’t be in the prowler,” said Lockbrow. “I have a plan.” He rolled open the side access panel, and rushing wind filled the cockpit. “Aim for the Ghost Loft. You and Rosenkrantz get back here and grab hold of me.”

Kevin did as he was asked, confident that any plan of Lockbrow’s was better than his own plan of surviving in heaps of bloody wreckage.

“It’s Rosen–oh, nevermind,” said Rosenblum, clambering into the back.

“Hold onto my machine half,” said Lockbrow.

“What are you going to do?” asked Kevin. He and Rosenblum held tightly.

“I told you I was going to click my heels together!” Lockbrow’s human leg jammed what must have been a kickstart on his mechanical heel because a rocket in his metal foot propelled them from the ruined prowler.

The force nearly shook Kevin from Lockbrow’s side as they pirouetted in the open air. Kevin’s strength wasn’t enough to counter his own heavy weight. Against his will, his fingers let go.

Rosenblum’s hand and extending vines wrapped around the length of Kevin’s arm, digging into his skin and forcing him back against Lockbrow.

Kevin’s yell of gratitude blew away in the wind.

Lockbrow gained better control as they fell. Their erratic descent toward the crowd-mover made them a harder target for the madman to hit.

The three slammed into the conveyor, knocking Kevin and Rosenblum flat on their backs. Lockbrow still stood, supported by his stable, mechanical side.

Beaters from the lunatic’s batterbeam pistol hurtled past them, falling to the conveyor’s surface and bouncing along like ball lightning.

Kevin drew his O-cannon and began to return fire, but there was no cover on the exposed crowd-mover.

Lockbrow stepped between Kevin and Rosenblum and the crazy man, facing his mechanical half toward the danger. “Get behind me.” Lockbrow squatted down, forming a solid metal wall.

Kevin and Rosenblum took cover and returned fire.

“Does this hurt?” asked Rosenblum.

“Not yet,” said Lockbrow. “I’ll scream when I start to melt.”

The lunatic continued to fire.

Kevin could see what was left of the robot arm jerk the man’s body. That kept him from shooting with more accuracy. He saw the crazy man fire at the remains of the robot arm.

“No more fake flowers!” Only fragments of the hand remained connected.

“Did you hear that?” said Rosenblum. “Fake flowers and a bloody robot arm?”

Kevin stood from behind Lockbrow’s huge metal torso. “Sir, you are under arrest for suspicion of destruction of property, assault on  police officers, and trespassing!”

The lunatic turned his attention back to Kevin and the others. He released a new volley against the officers.

“I’m starting to heat up, guys!” said Lockbrow.

Kevin didn’t want to kill the crazy man. He could be the one they’d been looking for. But Kevin could disintegrate the man’s shooting arm.

Instinct must have compelled the man to turn from them and run.

“Let’s go!” Kevin and Rosenblum followed.

“I can’t move,” said Lockbrow.

Kevin looked at Lockbrow’s scarred and pitted machine half. In places, the metal works had begun to melt and run.

“We’ll call the station. Get you some help,” said Kevin.

“No time,” said Lockbrow. “Leave me your comm-snake. I’ll call the station. Get your man.”

Kevin removed the snake and passed it to Lockbrow. “We’ll see you at the station.”

“Don’t come back empty handed!”

Rosenblum ran, and Kevin struggled to keep up. Running was his least favorite task as a cop. He handled himself fine when he caught up with the crooks, but he hated having to ask to catch his breath. Maybe he should listen to Pydge about that diet.

Nah.

The lunatic stopped a short distance ahead of them. Kevin wasn’t sure what the man planned to do, until he started firing at the vibro-shield. It hadn’t been designed to withstand gunfire, so a localized area of shielding flickered and winked out. Then, he jumped.

“We can still make it. Come on!” cried Rosenblum.

“Make what? Oh!” Kevin saw the bow of a stratoferry pass beneath the now open section of the crowd-mover. The man had found a getaway vehicle.

Rosenblum made the jump ahead of Kevin. When Kevin reached the opening in the shield, he could see he was running out of ferry.

“This is so stupid!” Kevin leaped, hoping to match its speed.

He hit deck hard and rolled. Some skinny copper would be moaning about fractures or bone bruises. Kevin was up with his pistol in his hand in a second.

Rosenblum had a head start. Screams came from one of the upper decks. The plant man made for the stairs on elongated, gnarly legs. He was using his plant powers. Kevin thought that was cheating. He’d never keep up.

He heaved himself up the stairs, the end of his coat flapping loosely behind him. He heard shots on one of the decks above and more shouting.

By the time he arrived, he found Rosenblum attending a woman trampled by the retreating crowd.

“He’s toward the bow,” said Rosenblum. “Go! She’ll be all right. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Kevin ran toward the front of the ferry. The crazy man seemed to fire randomly from the deck. Kevin realized too late what he was doing when an aircab crashed into the deck.

The impact shook the ferry and forced Kevin to his knees. The cab survived the impact, losing a fender and half of its light array. The driver did not survive. He destroyed the entire wind shield when his body tore through.

The lunatic was in the cab and restarting it before Kevin could reach him.

“Halt!” Kevin yelled, but there wasn’t much point. He aimed his O-cannon and tried to disable the craft, but missed.

Rosenblum arrived, his pistol drawn.

Kevin waved him off. “No point. He’s out of range. That’s it. We’ve lost him.”

Rosenblum scanned the airways. “No, we haven’t.” He pointed into the surrounding traffic. “Look!”

Chugging along, off toward the port side, was Phil the diner-bot.

Kevin ran to the rail. “Phil, we need you, now! Get over here.”

The diner-bot heard him and maneuvered next to the ferry. “Whaddaya need, Inspector? You in a hurry for a panini?”

“No time for food! We’re commandeering you. Let us on and follow that cab!” Kevin pointed toward the disappearing yellow aircab.

“A chase? Get on. I’m on the job.”

Kevin and Rosenblum clambered aboard the diner-bot’s swivel chairs.

“How fast can a diner-bot move?” asked Rosenblum.

“Hang tight,” said Phil, “’Cause I’m the fastest fry cook in town.”

Phil accelerated, forcing Kevin and Rosenblum to grab the counter to keep from sliding off their chairs. Both strapped themselves down.

The cab must have been damaged since it wasn’t moving as fast as Kevin knew it could. But it was far ahead, and they were chasing it on a flying diner.

“So whad’d this guy do?” Phil eased around larger vehicles and avoided busier fly zones.

“He dissected and destroyed several robots,” answered Rosenblum.

“Bastard! I’m ditchin’ some weight.” The robot grabbed for crockery and anything loose.

“No, Phil,” said Kevin. “You can’t drop junk over open airways. Just keep going; we’ll catch up.”

The lack of walls and floor made the diner-bot seem faster to Kevin. Wind clawed at his coat as he gripped the counter and hoped the straps of his chair held. The aircab grew closer.

Phil waved a robotic arm over Kevin’s head. “That Ghost Loft over there usta belong to Old Attila. He ran a gym outta it. Then, he died and left it to his son-in-law, Sig. Swell guys. Always tipped good.” The arm pivoted in its joint to the right, nearly decapitating Rosenblum. “Wild Bill, the writer, squatted in that Loft over there. Not the best tipper. Always broke. Loyal regular, though.”

“We’re in a car chase, Phil,” said Kevin.

“I’m a robot. I can multi-task.”

A batterbeam beater smashed a cabinet behind Phil’s head, spreading crockery and utensils across the fly zone.

“You didn’t tell me he’s armed!” yelled Phil.

Kevin and Rosenblum had their weapons out and firing. The lunatic had the advantage, though. At their current speed, the two officers’ weapons had to fight the wind. The crazy man fired with the breeze.

He wasn’t having much luck hitting them, though, and he changed tactics. As they raced between buildings, he began firing at broken, old structures. Loose blocks and crumbling arches fell all around them. Somehow, Phil managed to avoid larger fragments.

“That cab must be damaged,” Kevin yelled. “Maybe that’s why he can’t go higher. If we can get under him and hit his hover panel, we might be able to take him down.”

“I can try ta get closer, but he’s still faster,” said Phil. “Holy Harry! I’m gonna need a new fuel cell. This is excitin’. Can I be a deputy?”

“Just try to go faster,” said Rosenblum.

Phil swerved, avoiding a fragment of sky bridge, and managed to inch closer to the madman’s underside.

“Kevin,” said Rosenblum, “do you see that up ahead?”

Kevin scanned the skyline. Not far beyond them lay a crowd-mover, busy with pedestrians. “Oh, no. We’ve got to end this trip, now.”

“I’m out of beaters,” said Rosenblum.

“My O-cannon can’t hit him at this speed,” said Kevin.

“Make me a deputy,” said Phil.

“What?” asked Kevin.

“Make me a deputy, and I’ll bring him down.”

“You’re a deputy!” shouted Kevin.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Rosenblum.

“Shut up,” said Kevin.

Phil reached into a cabinet above one of his stoves and grabbed the largest frying pan Kevin had ever seen. “All right, watch this.” Phil’s robotic arms could extend the full length of his counter when he wanted. Phil reached back with the pan in his hand and hurled it at the cab, like a discus.

Kevin heard it whistle as it flew.

It sailed in a graceful arc. Kevin thought it might drift and crash through someone’s wind screen, but it curved to intersect with the cab’s underside. The pan lodged in the hover panel with a thud.

The cab began a crippled spiral leading toward a distant Ghost Loft, only a block or so short of the crowd-mover.

“Woo-hoo!” shouted Phil. The cab crashed against the Loft, lodging itself within the facade, its tail end protruding like a yellow dart in a board.

Phil began an upward arc toward the wreck as they drew closer to the building.

Suddenly, Kevin saw the maniac force a passenger door open. He stood at the opening and looked around.

“He’s going to jump,” said Kevin, and the man leapt from the cab.

From beside Kevin sprang a green blur. Rosenblum hurled himself, spinning from the diner-bot.

Everything slowed.

Rosenblum, still spinning, unfurled like a net. Every inch of vine and roses extended into a vast, green web. From uncountable windows in the surrounding Ghost Lofts extended hundreds of slender, green fingers, each reaching out to join with Rosenblum. The maniac landed in the web, held fast by the plant man’s thorny grasp.

“Uh, Phil,” whispered Kevin, “take us in close. I want to talk to my partner.”

“I don’t know that I wanna be a deputy anymore,” said Phil. “Flippin’ burgers is much easier on my constitution.”

They approached the web. Kevin spotted part of what looked like Rosenblum’s face, twisted and stretched along a tight strand.

“Rosenblum?” Kevin asked.

“Do I have him?” asked part of Rosenblum’s face. “I’m not sure–where my eyes are. I can’t see him.”

Kevin glanced at the maniac, knotted in the center of the web. He muttered something incoherent about flowers.

“We got him, pal Are you going to live?”

“Hopefully–for a long–time. But I think–I’ll need a long–rest.”

“I’ll grab this guy and take him down to the station.” Kevin smirked. “And don’t worry. I’ll bring you back a flower pot.”

#

Kevin pressed “enter”, uploading the last of Nankaro’s images into his report. Discounting his omitted details, the Brass Humbug was the most tantalizing item in his semi-fictional account of suicide and destruction. What Kevin had written of Crippen and the robot murders was downplayed officially to a type of vandalism. He was sure Judge Grackle and his robot friends would appreciate that.

He removed the data biscuit from his ‘corder and pressed it to his lips, locking the data within. He passed it to his metal bird.

“Here, Aziz, take this to the station so they’ll stop pestering me. Then, maybe I can take a day off.”

“I hear and obey.” The little bird took the biscuit in his beak and zipped off across the city.

Pydge entered their bedroom dressed in a long robe but bare beneath and sat next to Kevin. She held her nerve strummer. The two trolls had sneaked into the apartment while she slept and removed it. She said she didn’t like that, but looked on the bright side: the strummer was dead. “I think I will keep it,” she said. “It will be a reminder to me that, as a Bonfiglio, I can bear any pain.”

“I don’t get one,” whispered Kevin.

Perdon?”

“Nothing, dear. Can we fix the hole in the wall they left behind, at least?”

“Of course. I’ll keep the scar as well.” She rubbed a star-like patch in her side, the pale skin contrasting with the rest of her golden tan.

“I like scars,” said Kevin. “They’re the bold print of your life story.” He pulled Pydge into his arms and began to draw the robe from her shoulders.

“Welcome home,” she said, and kissed him.

#

Rosenblum lay in his flower bed, and on the floor, in several bookcases, and over much of the kitchen that he didn’t use anyway. His circular windows stood wide, and the sunlight filled his apartment. Beams of light shone thick through the moist haze that drifted from room to room.

He had regained just enough of his human form to use his arm to feed Melville. The poor fish swam in murky water Rosenblum had been too weak to clean.

Soon, the gene shadow deep within him would reassert itself and force him back to humanoid shape. But with the robot murderer behind bars, Rosenblum had a chance to relax during an extended holiday.

He thought about his new position on the force and of Kevin. Humans were a strange bunch, but he thought he could get used to them.

#

Judge Grackle sat looking out at the sunrise through the new hole in his wall. One whole wall of his sitting room had been cut away, providing a spectacular view of morning over the city. Moya sat cross-legged on the floor next to him, her hand in his. Her flesh was rosy and new and whole! Neither blemish nor seam nor stitch marred her naked, rebuilt body. She smiled at him. Neither had been able to say anything yet.

In his other hand, the judge held a note. It read:

For the beauty of a flower to be known

It must be smelt, not left alone.

So in exchange for your lover,

I take one rose and leave another.

-Pitz

 

The judge glanced over at the empty space where his piano had been. Now only a clear spot in the dust remained to mark where the instrument had stood. Moya leaned her head on Grackle’s shoulder.

More than a fair trade, really.

#

Crippen felt the chains removed from his hands first and then his feet. He heard the muffled sounds of the moving figures through the sack on his head. The bag was removed. There wasn’t much more light. A glow globe hovered at head height between two figures.

“Robots,” said Crippen.

“Correct,” said one.

“I’m not sorry for what I did,” said Crippen. “You robots have taken away everything that was important to me.”

“We not take. You lost,” said the other.

“Where am I?” asked Crippen. The glow globe offered so little light. The surrounding darkness was thick and velvety. The ground below felt like hard, riveted steel. Very close to the circle of light was what looked like a large rock standing on end.

“You’re in an old, dark place: the street below,” said the first robot.

“What are you going to do?”

“Do?” asked the first robot. “Well, my associate has some guns to clean, and I have a piano to tune. I doubt anyone’s tuned that thing in half a century. It’ll take all damn day. But to you, nothing. We’re going to leave you here.”

“In the dark? Alone?”

“We’ll leave the glow globe. Goodbye, Mr. Crippen. You might find your way out. There’s a Ghost Loft not far to your right.”

Crippen watched the two hunched, armored figures shamble back to their rock. Its take off was very quiet. Soon, Crippen could no longer see the faint blue of its hover panel as the rock faded into the black.

He didn’t know what to do. He rubbed his hand along the steel ground. A sound caught his attention in that silent place, a sound of humming. From beyond the globe’s light, Crippen could see another light far away, but getting closer. Before he could react, the thing was in front of him.

It landed hard on metallic, insectile legs, a hollow echo resounding. The creature folded its wings, opened its maw, and howled at Crippen, its fire within much brighter than the paltry glow globe.

“Well,” said Crippen to the metal insect, “at least you’re real.”

The creature crept closer.

end

Supersedure

By D. Avraham

 

“Please watch your step, Administrator Queen, as you exist the PT.  There’s some moisture on the surface.  It might be slippery.”

“Personal Transport,” thought Queen.  They used to be called cars.  But, then again, people used to actually drive themselves.  That was one thing he didn’t really miss.  Back in the day, fresh out of the academy, he started in Traffic.  A few months of scraping babies off of windshields could make one appreciate the end of people actually driving their own cars–well, almost.

No one worked traffic anymore.  Except the PTs, talking to each other; coordinating the traffic flow.  There hadn’t been an accident in years–till now.

Queen stepped onto the pavement.  It wasn’t that wet.  And, even if he were to fall, there’d probably be some DS around that would stop him from hitting the pavement.  They were everywhere.  Dedicated Swarms were never too far away to treat injuries, if not prevent them.  There were probably DSes that helped little old ladies across the street.  That is if a little old lady had any reason to cross the street.   Queen doubted there were too many that even left their homes these days.  But that was okay.  Last Queen heard, there weren’t any DSes trying to earn merit badges either.

 

The police tape was already set up.  Things moved fast these days.  Of course, it wasn’t really tape, but it looked like the old police line that Queen remembered from the old days.  It wasn’t really necessary.  All the PTs would know about the obstruction and reroute.  And there weren’t any little old ladies wandering around in the street either.  Conventions–society was leaving the future in the dust faster than one could blink, but conventions needed to be kept; protocols needed to be followed – for now anyway.

But conventions only went so far.  The perimeter was live.  It was smart.  It looked like the old police tape, but Queen knew that no one would be able to skip under it or break through it; no one that wasn’t authorized.  For him, or any other authorized personnel, the tape would part, and allow Queen onto the crime scene, all the time appearing as an unbroken strip of yellow plastic tape, announcing “Police Line:  Do Not Cross.”  Anyone else trying to cross it would have a better chance at walking through a brick wall.  Queen doubted there were too many of those left in the worl either.

Queen took a step towards the police barrier.  It came alive.  “Good evening, Administrator First Grade Queen.  Tragic, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I can tell you’re all broken up over it.”  Queen’s scowl returned.  He didn’t need to make small talk with a machine.  He looked around.  Once upon a time there would have been other cops there, patrolmen an detectives, forensics.  Now, it was just him and the machines.  Queen turned towards the disembodied voice of the police barrier, ‘Tomorrow’s Patrolman.’  “OK, what’ve you got?”

“Is everything okay, Administrator?  I detect an increased level of stress in your voice.”

“No, I’m fine.  Leave the voice stress analysis for suspects.  Just make your report.”

“At twenty-two hundred hours, thirty-three minutes, fourteen point zero five four seconds, a PT, owner currently undetermined, impacted into the underpass wall at approximately four hundred and eleven, point nine nine nine kilometers per hours.  The PT was completely destroyed; there were no life signs from the vehicle.  The structural damage to the underpass was minimal.  Debris stretches for approximately one hundred and seventy seven point zero seven seven kilometers.”

“Approximately?”

“Yes, sir.  I can give you more exact figures if you like.”

“No, that’ll be fine.”  Queen shook his head and sighed. “Glorified adding machine,” he muttered.

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Nothing.  Never mind.”  Queen did a double take.  Something was wrong.  He had been distracted by the data.  “Wait.  Why is the owner of the PT undetermined?  Didn’t you get an UID off the vehicle?”

“It must have been destroyed in the crash, sir.”

“That’s impossible.”

“What’s wrong?” asked the barrier.

“The PT is loaded with RFIDs smaller than a speck of dust.  They should be able to get some UID.  What about occupants?  Who was in the PT?”

“There isn’t any data concerning the occupants, sir. “

If the Police Barrier had a collar, Queen would have grabbed it.  “What are you talking about?  There had to be a passenger.  What about the passenger’s RFID?”

“We don’t have any data, sir.  Our only data comes from the underpass, and the DSes in the air.  Nothing is emitting from the debris.  It must have all been destroyed.”

“What are you talking about.  I’m looking at the debris.  The ground is littered with pieces of metal bigger than a basketball.  There has to be some data. Something must be emitting.  The RFIDs are far more indestructible than the PTs structure.”

“But we haven’t any data sir.  The entire zone is dead.  Nothing is emitting.”

“That doesn’t bother you?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand the question, sir.  There’s no data.”

“No data.”  Queen looked skyward.  “That’s the problem with these bots.  Nothing bothers them.  That’s why they still need at least one human.  All the data, or lack of data in the world doesn’t matter, if there’s no one around to ask questions.”

“I don’t understand your query, Administrator.”

Queen shook his head.  “Without questions the data is meaningless.  They haven’t figured out how to make these DSes ask the right questions, or even the wrong ones.”

The barrier lit up.  “The wrong questions, what good would that do, sir?”

“Sometimes even the wrong questions can help solve a puzzle.  Intuition is a strange creature.  It makes the connections when logic fails.  I don’t think anyone’s ever figured out how it works.”

“At least not yet,” offered the barrier.

“No, not yet.”  Queen stared at the wreckage for a few long moments, as if he were trying to receive a signal the machines couldn’t detect.  Finally, he broke off his concentration and turned back to the barrier.   “Dust it.  Let’s see what kind of story is hidden in there.”

A cloud of dust flew from the barrier.  The Smart Dust Swarm spread out to cover the area of the wreckage.  The tiny microelectromechanical systems, known as MEMs, were tiny motes of sensors, robots and other devices that detected and measured everything and anything:  light, temperature, vibration, magnetism, and chemicals, among others.  Individually, they weren’t much, but they could communicate, and even join together to form a Dedicated Swarm that functioned as a complete discrete unit for whatever was needed.  Most of the world was built on a system of DSes.

The Swarm spread out and rested on the wreckage like a layer of light snow.   Queen pulled out a flexible card from his coat.  He  watched the data scroll across the screen of his hand held.  Most people didn’t have hand-helds anymore.  Someone else would have watched that same data scroll past his field of vision, his visual cortex stimulated through a wireless Brain Computer Interface, a BCI.  Most people had any number of digital displays, nearly unlimited data, hovering between them and the outside world.  Everything in the world was defined through data.  Even people had been reduced to a collection of data, thought Queen.

Queen was incompatible with BCI.  He had been one of the first people to get a jack, which at the time was the latest in technology.  It wore that crown for less than three months.  The jack had fused to Queen’s spine and interfered with outside signals.  Now, with BCI, the jack was obsolete, and Queen was stuck with a hand held.  It now filled with numbers; the swarm recorded and relayed everything, without judgment.  Only when Queen started asking questions, would the data be collated and analyzed.  Without questions they were just a flow of meaningless numbers.  Queen was grateful.  The idea of BCI and all that data flowing across his field of vision wasn’t compatibility at all with Queen.

“What the?”  Queen was looking down at his hand held, shaking his head.  “That’s impossible.”  As soon as it touched the wreckage, the swarm had stopped transmitting.  All the motes were dead.

“What is it sir?” the barrier asked.

“Not what; we know what.  The question is how, or maybe why.”

Queen was afraid to approach the wreckage.  With all the smart dust on his body, and coursing through his body, and probably connected to his brain, despite his not being BCI compatible, he had no idea what would happen if he walked into that area.  What would that do to him?  He guessed it might not be too pleasurable.

Queen stared at the wreck.  He scratched his chin and pondered.

A smile slowly creased his face.  Queen’s fingers started gliding across the screen of his hand held.  “I want a DS inert composite, a ball, between 142 and 149 grams, about 229–235 millimeters in circumference, 73–76 millimeters in diameter,  and with height ratio of 0.3 and a yield strength that will allow a coefficient of restitution of e = 0.546 when thrown against that underpass wall, if thrown from here.  I want it to send out a single signal every millisecond.   As Queen talked, and his fingers glided across his hand held, dust gathered in front of him growing from a cloud into the form of a ball.

“This is what they used to call a baseball.”   Suddenly he missed the sound of kids playing ball in the streets.

“What are you going to do with it?” asked the police barrier.

“Watch.” Queen offered a wink, plucked the baseball sized sphere out of the air and hurled it towards the underpass wall.  On impact the ball bounced back towards Queen who snatched it out of the air.  “Did you see that?”  he said to the air.  The signal’s back.”

“What does that mean?” asked the police barrier.

Queen looked askance.  “It means the phenomena is local.”  Queen figured that  when they pull the wreck out of the area, the dust would return to life, and they might get some answers.  They might be able to collect that all important data.

Queen turned towards the police barrier, and started tapping on his hand held.  “I need inert steel chains with grapples, Grade 80 Alloy, 1.25 centimeter links.  At this end, they should be attached to an active live winch, standard DS composite.  Give me three of them.  I also need a non-DS bot that can take the chains over there and hook them up to the main part of the wreck.”

Several bots rolled towards Queen.  He pointed his hand held at them and gave them a set of instructions.  “Okay, let’s see if this works.”  He assumed that the bots would be able to bring the chain in and hook it up, as their processes are all internal.  They weren’t a collection of independents communicating with each other like the DS was.

Queen watched the bots move towards the wreck.  Something occurred to him, and he started keying his hand held.  “I want the motes in the chain to send out a signal, so we’ll know if the area is moving with the chain, or if it’s staying in the same place.”  Maybe it was the wreck itself, or something in it, that was what was killing the signal.

The bots moved slowly towards the wreck and hooked up the chain.  Immediately the winch started moving the wreck towards the administrator.

Queen’s eyes were glued to his hand held.  “Hmm.”  He took the ‘ball’ he created from his pocket and through it towards the underpass wall.  He caught it on the rebound, barely looking up from the hand held.  “The area is shrinking.”

“What does that mean?” asked the police barrier.

“It looks like a ten cupper.”

“I do not understand, sir.”

“Coffee.”

“Coffee is an illegal stimulant.”

“Don’t depress me.”

“Sir?  What does an illegal stimulant have to do with this wreck?”

“It’s just an expression.”  Queen scowled.  “Back in the day, coffee was what got us through those long investigations; the ones with scant evidence.  A ‘ten cupper’ suggested a long night ahead.”

“That makes no sense, Administrator.  If the dead zone is shrinking we should have plenty of evidence.”

“Data isn’t evidence.  I doubt it’ll tell us why there was a dead zone in the first place.”  Queen turned to the police tape.  “Cross-coordinate the data.  Find the center of the dead zone.”

“It is in the wreckage.” replied the police tape.

Queen rushed to meet the wreckage, his eyes glued to the hand held.     He pulled up short, and threw up his hands.  “We’re too late.”

“What happened?”  asked the police barrier.

“It’s gone.” Queen didn’t hide his frustration.

“What is?”

“The dead zone.”

“Isn’t that a good thing, Administrator?”

Queen began muttering to himself.  “Where did it go?  Why did it go?”

The police barrier repeated its question.  Why isn’t it good that  the dead zone has disappeared, Administrator. It was a danger.”

“If it can happen once, it can happen again.”    Queen turned his attention to what they did have.  “Okay, now do we have some read on the occupants, the PT owner.  It looks like there are a couple of bodies in here.”

“Accessing, Administrator,” said, the disembodied voice of the police tape.  A few seconds later it had the answer.  “The owner of the PT is Dr. Han Fastolfe.  He is also the occupant of the vehicle.”

Queen glanced at his hand held as the information scrolled past.  There were four RFIDs transmitting the same information.  Most people had far more than four RFIDs, but four was a baseline minimum.  It would do.  The information was all coordinated:  Dr. Han Fastolfe from the Tyrel-Rosen Corporation, age 84.  He had a spouse: Gertrude Blugerman.  There was more, but it didn’t interest Queen at the moment.    “And the other passenger?”

“Administrator?”

“Who’s the other passenger?”

“Administrator, there was only one passenger in this PT.  There aren’t any other RFID signals.  Also, the PT’s log confirms that there was only one passenger.”

“Then tell me why am I staring at two pairs of legs?”

“I haven’t any data for that, Administrator,” answered the police tape.

Queen sighed.  “Better put the kettle on.  It’s going to be a long night.”

 

The PT stopped in front of a very large and prominent house on South Park Drive.  Queen looked at the house on the view screen. “Well, this would be different.”  Normally, he would have just projected to the home of Gertrude Blugerman to inform her of her husband’s accident.  But for some reason, they weren’t receiving.  Queen couldn’t remember making a house call like this in years.  Today was full of firsts.

As the door to the PT opened, it reminded its occupant about the rain.  “Please watch your step, Administrator Queen, as you exist the PT, there’s some moisture on the surface.  It might be slippery.”

“It’s always raining, and it’s always slippery.  You don’t have to remind me every time I leave the damn PT.”

“Administrator Queen, as you know, I am required to warn you.  Also, it is not always raining.  How can you make such an inaccurate statement?”

“Chalk it up to bad programming.”

“Look at that house,”  Queen scanned the length and breadth of the mansion.  He looked at his hand held.  The house was real – ‘organic,’ as the kids called it.  It was a hundred percent wood, metal and concrete; nothing like the virtual environmental cubes everyone else lived in – well, almost everyone else.  The house was from a different era.  Queen doubted there were many like it, outside of the reservations.  Curious–most people wouldn’t want to live in an organic house, let alone be able to afford to.  Despite the size of the mansion, it was static, and it would require maintenance, real, hands-on maintenance.  The four by four cubes most people lived in might be small and plastic, but the virtual skein made them seem any shape or size their resident could imagine.  Queen didn’t care what his VE looked like, but he knew most of the population spent a great deal of time designing and redesigning their living space.  He wondered  what kind of person would live in a static dwelling, even a big one like this.

Queen walked across the manicured lawn.  It was real too.  Queen suddenly had a longing for the smell of freshly cut grass.  He hadn’t smelled that in a long time.  He almost smiled at the thought of a hot summer sun on his neck and his calloused hands pushing the mower.  Queen wondered what kids did to earn spending money today.  Did they even need spending money?

“Hello, I am with The Public Administration Office.  please allow entry,”  Queen said to the double door entrance.  It didn’t respond.  He noticed the small white button on the door frame and chuckled.  He pressed it.  Chimes rang from inside the house.  A doorbell – that was novel.

One of the thick wooden doors cracked open.  A small man wearing a black jacket filled the space.  “May I help you?”

“I’m with the Public Administration Office,”

“What is the nature of your call, sir?” the man asked.

“I’d like to speak to Mrs. Gertrude Blugerman, if I may?

“Is this a social call?”

“No,” Queen shook his head.  “Business.  Administrative Business.”

The man hesitated.

“Look, I’m sure Mrs. Blugerman would like to talk to me.”

The man looked at Queen.  “It’s just that we weren’t expecting …”

“No one ever is.  Let me in.”

The man hesitated another moment before opening the door wide. “This way, please.”

The foyer was lined with wood paneling.  Despite it being ‘organic,’ the place was immaculate.  Queen watched the man leading him through the house, but he knew he wasn’t really a man.  He hadn’t ever seen an android so life-like, but it was clearly an android.  That was also strange.  Android development had fallen by the wayside.  With the Dust, and with image vectoring connected to everyone’s BCI, androids, like all other fixed machines, were technological dinosaurs.  Of course, this entire mansion was like a museum.  Queen almost felt at home.

They entered a sitting room with large windows.  Sunlight showered the room.

Queen squinted into the light, feeling its warmth, and then paused.  It had been raining only a moment ago.

“We were just about to sit down to some tea.  Won’t you join us?” The voice was sweet, with just a hint of the crackle of age.  It was the voice of an elderly grandmother.  Queen blinked away the light, and tried to focus on the owner of the voice.  He glanced at his hand held.  Everything was registering as real, organic.  He had his doubts.

The blue haired woman smiled at Queen.  “Please, Inspector, sit down.”

“Thank you.”  Queen offered a smile, but instead of sitting down he strolled over to the windows.   “Actually, we’re called administrators these days.”

“Oh yes, excuse me, dear.  It’s not so easy for us old timers, is it?”  She looked at Queen.  “The changing times, the changing names.  It’s amazing how much changes, and so quickly, today.”  The old woman smiled.  “And yet, stays the same, I suppose.  Anyway, my apologies, Administrator, won’t you join me for tea.”

Queen nodded.  He considered the woman a moment.  Mrs. Blugerman?”

“Gertrude, please.”

Queen leaned into the window boxes.  “The flowers are beautiful Mrs. Blugerman.”

“Thank you, but please call me Gertrude.”

Queen leaned closer.  He noticed a stray leaf, and examined it in the light.  “Are they a special variety?  I can’t detect any smell.”  Queen asked.  He absentmindedly pocketed the leaf.

Gertrude nearly laughed.  “Why yes they are, Inspector.  They’re cultivated for their aesthetic beauty.  I suppose their scent was lost in the cultivation.”

The flowers were beautiful, almost perfectly so.  As if they were the paradigm of what flowers were supposed to be,  thought Queen.

“Besides,” commented Gertrude, “Han doesn’t tend to take to the scent of the rose.”

“You mean, Dr. Fastolfe, Ma’am?”

“Yes, my husband, Han.”

Queen drew a breath.  “Yes Ma’am, that’s why I’m here.  You see there’s been an accident.

Gertrude didn’t seem to hear Queen.

Queen winced.  “About your husband, Ma’am.”

“Oh, he’ll be down in a moment.”

“I’m afraid I have some bad news, you see.”  Queen took a step closer.

“I don’t understand.”

“There was an accident.”  Queen drew a breath.  “There was a malfunction, and Dr. Han Fastolfe’s PT crashed into an underpass.”

“Don’t be silly.  Han’s been home all day.  Isn’t that right, David?”  Gertrude addressed the man entering the room behind Queen.

Queen looked over his shoulder.  The man who had  greeted him at the front door had returned.

Gertrude turned to David.  “David, be a dear, and go see what’s keeping Han.”

David smiled and left the room.

“But, Ma’am, as I was trying to tell you, we found Dr. Fastolfe’s remains in his PT.”

Gertrude shook her head.  “Don’t be silly.  He’ll be along in a moment.  Now sit down and have some tea with me while my son goes to fetch Dr. Fastolfe for you.”

“Your son?”

“Well, yes, from my first marriage.”

“But it’s not human, Ma’am.”

Gertrude forced a another grandmotherly smile.  “Well, in a manner of speaking, one’s creation is one’s child.”

Queen scowled.

“You don’t approve, Inspector?”

Well, he is very life-like, but …”

“Why do you say that?”

“What?”

Well, ‘life-like,’  and not ‘alive?’”

Queen shifted uncomfortably.  “Well, because, it’s not alive.  It’s just a collection of data processors.  It’s not alive.”

Gertrude smiled.  “Well, I suppose you should ask him if he considers himself alive or not.”

Queen shook his head.  “That’s ridiculous  It only thinks what it’s programmed to think.”

“So do you, Inspector, It’s just that your programming is a bit more happenstance and flawed.”  Gertrude’s smile widened.

Queen rolled his eyes.  “We’re here about Dr. Fastolfe, Ma’am.”

“Yes, of course, Inspector.”

“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but …”

Gertrude waved the notion away.  “And I’m telling you, you must be mistaken, Inspector.  By the way, how did you know?”

She had changed the subject again.  Queen let her.  “About what, Ma’am?”

“About David,” she answered, as if Queen should have realized what she was talking about.

Queen shifted.  “Because he didn’t have an RFID.  The same reason I know that Dr. Fastolfe was in his PT when it crashed.”

Gertrude smile.  “But other than that?”

“As I said.  he’s very life-like.”  Queen became distracted.  An elderly man entered the room with David.  “Dr. Fastlafe, I presume.”  Queen glanced at his hand held to verify.  The RFIDs matched.

“Why yes, I am Han Fastlafe.  How can I be of service, Inspector.”

“It’s Administrator,” Queen corrected.  He offered his hand.  “Pleased, to meet you, Professor.”

“Oh, it’s been many years since I’ve taught.”  Dr. Fastlafe looked at Queen’s outstretched hand.  His own faltered momentarily before finally clasping Queen’s.  “Well, this is an old ritual isn’t it?”

“Well, we’re both old-timers.”  Queen winked, and squeezed Fastlafe’s hand.  “You’re hands are so smooth,” Queen commented.  “I’ve found that the years have dried out mine.”

“Well, good genes, I guess.”  Fastlafe offered a nervous laugh.  “How can I help you Detective?”

Queen rubbed and patted Fastlafe’s hand before releasing it.  “Well, for starters, sir, you can explain how you are here.”

“Well, that’s an odd request.  Is it philosophical?”

“It might be,” offered Queen.  “But, we can start with a more spacial and temporal answer if you prefer.”

“Well, I live here, Detective.  Where else should I be?”

“Maybe so, but there’s some body parts registering your RFIDs some fifty kilometers from here.  They were found in the wreckage of PT that also happens to be registered to you.”

“Well that is curious,” admitted  Han Fastolfe.

“Yes it is,” agreed Queen.

“Well, I can assure you that I’ve been here all day.  In fact, I don’t think we’ve been out for …”  Dr. Fastlfe turned to his wife.  “How long has it been, dear?”

Gertrude offered another of her smiles.  “Oh, dear.  I think it’s been weeks, maybe months.  When was that Applied AI Conference?  A month and a half ago, I think.”

“That sounds about right.”

Queen  just nodded.  “And, what about your PT?  When was the last time it was out and about?

“Oh, I wouldn’t know.  I mean, I suppose, it’s been here all along.”  Dr. Fastolfe looked to his wife again.  “Hasn’t it, dear?”

“Oh, yes.  We practically never use it.  There’s no real need these days.”

“Is it here?”

“Well, I don’t … I mean, up until you arrived, I would have assumed that it was.”

“Can we take a look?”

Dr. Fastolfe looked at his wife.  “Of course.  David, please show the Administrator where we keep the PT, will you?”

“Certainly.”  David gestured for Queen to follow.

“Excuse me.”  Queen leaned forward and brushed something off David’s shoulder.  “You had some dust on your collar.”

“Thank you.”

“So tell, me does anyone else live here?”  Queen asked.

“David turned, to look at the administrator.  “You mean besides me?”

“Well, besides the couple, I meant.”

“There’s my sister,” replied David.

“You have a sister?” Queen’s eyebrows arched.  “Is she like you?”

“No, Administrator, she tends to keep to herself.  She rarely comes down from her room.”

“No, I meant,”  Queen stopped mid-sentence.  He decided to drop the subject.  Queen sensed that David might know the truth about itself.

Queen was past counting cups, now.  He was thinking about lining up some bottles.

 

The drizzle had intensified into full fledged rainstorm by the time Queen left the house.  Queen looked to the heavens.  He would have cursed them if he thought it would do any good.  Queen turned up his collar.  He hated the rain.  He marched to the PT, and got in.

“Take me to the storage units.  I want another look at the wreckage. And, I need some sample analysis.”  Queen started looking through the pockets of his coat.  “Here, do a complete dusting on these items.”

Electronic dust formed around each of the tiny items Queen produced from the folds of his coat.  “There’s some cellular material from Dr. Fastolfe’s hand.  A hair from ‘David,’ and a leaf, somewhere.”  He looked through his coat again till he found the small leaf.  “Compare with the victims of the wreckage, and with everything you have on file for Dr. Fastolfe.”  Queen paused.  “Also, do a search.  Let me know if Mrs. Blugerman or Dr. Fastolfe have any offspring.  And, I want a list of every android they have registered.”

Suddenly, the interior of the PT faded away and was replaced by the image of an office.  Someone was projecting to him, but Queen wasn’t given the option of not answering the call.  It was obviously his boss.

A middle age woman in a suit looked up from her desk.  “What do you have for me, Queen?”

“Not much, and too much.”  Queen explained to his commander the details of the day’s events.  He was careful to use small words and simple sentences.

“Probably the work of radicals,” the Chief Administrator said.  “Must be those Neo-Luddites.  They’re all a bunch of anarchists.”

Queen struggled to hide his contempt.  He wasn’t completely successful.  “Now, why would you say that, Ma’am?”

“They should lock all those Amish Luddites in a room and project them whatever techno-free reality they desire.   They’re a menace to society.”

Queen didn’t think it would be appropriate to remind the Chief Administrator of  citizens’ basic rights, and that all of the  various so-called Amish and Luddite groups were restricted to the reservations.  He did so anyway.

“Well, we’ll see what the future has in store for us, and for them,” offered the Chief Administrator.  “But why are you harassing Dr. Fastolfe?  What do you suspect him of doing?”

“Well, I don’t know yet.”  Queen succeeded a little better at restraining his contempt.  “But, I’m not harassing him.  I simply went to his home.  I thought he was dead.  When I found out he wasn’t, why shouldn’t I ask him some questions?”

“Because Dr. Fastolfe is a respected scientist, a pioneer in android technology and the President of Humanform Industries.”

“Humanform Industries went under three years ago, Ma’am,” Queen pointed out.  When it became prohibitive for androids to operate outside their owners’ residences, and with everyone living in smart homes, there really wasn’t much need for domestic androids.

“That doesn’t diminish his contribution to society.”

“I didn’t say it did, Ma’am.”

“Well, he’s still a leading member of society.  Besides he’s eighty-four.”

“Eighty-four?  He didn’t look eighty-four.”

The Chief Administrator became irate.  “What does an old man have to do with any of this business.”

Queen sighed.  “I’ll be eighty-four next month, Ma’am.”

“That’s right,” cut in the Chief Administrator.  “And well past the time you ought to be retiring.  You should let someone younger take over your duties, and go and enjoy yourself.”

“Nothing gives me greater pleasure than working for you, Ma’am.”  Queen knew the sarcasm would be lost the Chief Administrator.  She had all the humor of a computer algorithm.

“Exactly what crime do you suspect Dr. Fastolfe of committing?” the Chief administrator demanded.

“We don’t even know if there’s been a crime, Ma’am.”

A nondescript woman in uniform appeared to the side and waited patiently.  Queen noted that functions were much more attractive these days, but he kept his comment to himself.  He didn’t want to be accused of subroutine harassment.    Queen turned to the computer personification.  “What do you got?”

The woman faced to Queen.  The samples you retrieved from Fastolfe home match the samples from the crash sites.

“Which samples?” asked Queen.  “The DNA from the crash site with the DNA off of Dr. Fastolfe’s skin?”

“Yes, Administrator.  And also with the hair sample you provided.”

“There’s got to be a mistake.”

“No, Administrator.  The data is a perfect match.”

“A perfect match?” Queen was incredulous.

“What’s wrong?” asked the Chief Administrator.

Queen ignored her.  “What do you mean perfect?  A hundred percent match?”

“Yes, Administrator.”

“What’s wrong?” repeated the Chief Administrator.

“It’s impossible.”

“What is?”  The Chief Administrator asked.

“For starters one of those samples was from an Android.  But even the other two matching 100% is strange.  Genetic samples are never perfect matches.  There are always minute changes, and those changes grow over time.  That’s why people age, get sick …”

“Well, then the data must have been corrupted,” offered the Chief Administrator.   “I’ll order the samples to be reanalyzed.  I’m sure it’s just a problem with the samples.”

“Yeah,” Queen chuckled.  “All of them, at the same time.  One helluva coincidence.”  He didn’t believe in coincidences.

“Exactly.”  The Chief Administrator stood.  “I’ll inform you when we have new results.  In the meantime.  Go get some rest, Administrator.”

The projection ended abruptly.  Queen was back in their PT.

 

“Home, Administrator Queen?” the PT asked.

Queen paused.  “No, you know what?  Take me back to the Fastolfe-Blugerman house, okay?”

“Certainly, Administrator.”

Queen crossed the lawn.  On his way to the door, he plucked a few blades of grass and stuffed them into his pocket.   Before he could press the doorbell, the door opened.  David, wearing the same black jacket greeted Queen.  “May I help you, Administrator Queen?”

“I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if I may speak to Mrs. Blugerman again?”

“Certainly.  I believe she may be expecting you.”

“Really?”  Queen found that interesting.

David nodded. “This way, please.”

They entered sitting room.  Sunlight still showered the room.  Queen squinted into the light.

“I was just about to sit down to some tea.  Won’t you join us?” Gertrude’s voice was sweet, with just a hint of the crackle of age.  It was still the paradigmatic voice of an elderly grandmother.

Queen blinked away the light – again.  “Thank you Ma’am. I’m sorry to bother you, I just had a few more questions, if I may.”

The blue haired woman smiled at Queen.  “Please, Inspector, sit down.  It’s no bother at all.  How can I help you?”

Queen sat down and looked at the woman. “Mrs. Blugerman?”

“Gertrude, please.”

Queen couldn’t help but smile.  “None of this is real, is it Ma’am?”

Gertrude gestured with her hand.  “Please, inspector.  What is real?  Isn’t it what we think, what we believe to be real?”

“I’m not a philosopher, Ma’am.”

“Inspector, what are you asking me then?  Do you feel the table?  Do you taste the tea?”

“Maybe.”

Gertrude laughed.  “You know when my children were little, we would play a game.  I would ask them how they knew they weren’t dreaming.  They would answer as most children will, with simple answers like:  because I know I’m not or they’d cite some outside evidence.”

Queen nodded.

“Then, I’d ask them if they didn’t think they were walking or talking or whatever in their dream.  If, in their dream, they ever thought they were dreaming or, while they were dreaming, they just thought they were.”  Gertrude smiled at Queen. “You know what they did then?”

Queen narrowed his eyes and shook his head.  A nervous smile played at the corners of his mouth.

Gertrude nodded.  “That’s exactly what my children did.  They smiled, shook their head and proceeded to change their focus.  The question is impossible to answer, of course.  If we are in a dream, we can’t know we are in a dream, unless something shakes us from it.”

Queen shifted uncomfortably.  “Are you saying, Ma’am, that you are in a type of dream?”

Gertrude smile gently.  “How would I know, Inspector?  How would you know if all this isn’t your dream?”

“No.”  Queen stated, and shook his head.  “That I know.  That I know,” he repeated.  Queen changed the subject.  “Just like your androids don’t know they’re androids do they? They’re not even registered with the Administration.”

Gertrude laughed.  “Again, Inspector, you’re asking the same question.  Don’t you remember all of those old Science Fiction tropes where the robots are implanted with memories, so they think they’re human?  How do we know we’re not just like them?”

“Ma’am, your husband tried to leave here, didn’t he.”  Queen looked hard at Gertrude.  “He wanted to escape all this, this dream, didn’t he?”

Gertrude shifted uncomfortably under Queen’s watchful gaze.

“He thought you were going with him, didn’t he?”

“No,” Gertrude protested.  “My husband is here, with me.  He’ll be down in a minute.”

“But it wasn’t you, was it Ma’am?”  It was an android that looked and acted like you.  Wasn’t it?”

Gertrude shook her head.  “No. You have it all wrong.”

“Do I?  You’ve both become prisoners of your own creation, of your little dream world.”

“No, my husband will be down in a moment, for tea.”  Gertrude’s voice was strained.

“That’s not your husband, Ma’am.  Your husband died in a PT crash yesterday.  He was killed, wasn’t he Ma’am.  He wanted to leave this little paradise of yours and tried to escape.”

“No.”

“His leaving threatened to destroy this entire fantasy, isn’t that right?”

“No.  You saw for yourself.  You met him.  He even had the right RFID.  You said so yourself, Inspector.”

Queen shook his head.  “That’s only because you asked me how I recognized that David wasn’t human.  The house, or whatever network it is that’s running this place corrected itself, and supplied the appropriate RFID signal.”

“No, you have it all wrong.”  Gertrude’s voice nearly broke.  “My David,”

“According to our records, your David, the real David, died in an accident four years ago, Ma’am.”

“No, you’re wrong.”  Gertrude was on the verge of tears.  “That’s not the way it is at all.”

Queen pressed his hands on the table.  “Then maybe you should help me out, Ma’am.”

Gertrude tried to gather herself.  She forced a smile.  “Inspector, maybe it’s you that are living in the fantasy.  How do you know you haven’t been retired to some small room somewhere, and all this is a projection for your benefit, so you can while away your golden years.  Maybe, the computers have taken over, and they just keep us humans here as a curiosity, likes pets in a zoo – AI nostalgia.”

Queen laughed, but there was a nervous edge to it.  He was reminded of the Chief Administrators threat against the Luddites.  Suddenly he had another suspicion.  “Are you a human, Ma’am?  Are you real?  Are you alive?”

Gertrude shifted from tears to laughter and back.  “How would I know, Inspector?”  She looked at him pleading,  “How can I know?”

“Thank you Ma’am.”  Queen got up to leave.  He had his answers.  “You’ve been most helpful.  Sorry for the intrusion.”

“But what about your tea, , Inspector.”  Gertrude held up the tea pot.  “You didn’t touch your tea.  Don’t leave me.  Don’t leave me alone here.”

Queen left the house.  He looked at the PT, but decided he’d walk home.  He wondered if he knew the way.  The rain started to pick up again, but Queen barely noticed.

###

A Woman Named Life

by Justin Chasteen

 

Prologue

I had her once.

I was young and stupid, seeking a life of adventure—assuming my return with riches would make her happy. My father and her mother worked together in the mill. They hated each other, yet, still allowed us to play in the soft glade of Loftloss where blueberries grew like weeds. I think she and I were all that prevented our parents from killing one another. My father said her mother was a cold, haggard woman, and her mother said my father was a bastard of a man. Neither was right. Her mother was kind and gentle with a healer’s touch; the burden of raising two girls on her own made her strong. My father, tough on the outside, taught me every bit of what it took to be a man and provide for a family through hard work. I should have listened. Part of me had always dreamed that my father would realize her mother was a good woman and marry her. I always wanted a mother, and it would have given me an excuse to share a roof with Life. Yes, her name is Life. An odd name for any child, but it grew on me. It’s a beautiful name, Life, and held much meaning as we grew up together.

From childhood to our teenage years, we were inseparable, Life had no flaws—just glimmering beauty and kindness. She kissed me once. The kiss was playful, but it changed me. I never forgot the taste of blueberries on her lips.

The ships flew into the town of Crooked Hill the following day, and I left to work on the decks, promising to return to her with gold and fortune. She had no objection, blankly watching from the docks as the ship lifted me into the air. I put my left hand over my heart and pressed the fingers of my right hand against my lips until she was out of sight—a speck of earth. I now realize that she hadn’t come to see me off, but to let go of me forever. Life was wise even as a teenager, a trait I never developed.

I chose adventure over paradise.

***

The wind whips tentacles of blood-soaked hair around my face. Groad’s heavy fist, again, propels into the air, momentarily blocking the afternoon sun. The shadow disappears, as do my two front teeth, but at this point I’m numb from pain. They’d beaten me for two straight days and nights, and it’s worth it. The pain reminds me of the mistake I’d made—a sacrifice worthy of agony. He yanks me forward by my collar, blood streaming through my lips; droplets spatter against the deck like a light rainfall.

“Don’t choke on those,” says he. “We ain’t done yet.”

I was the best man at Groad’s wedding. It was a lovely, small event on the western shore of Solais Island. The brute wore no shirt and britches with the knees torn out; his bride wore a blue dress that hung halfway off her malnourished frame. Bessy was her name, I think. The sunset was crimson that night, and I remember thinking to myself that Groad and his new bride wouldn’t last a month. I was right. He killed her after only two weeks. Drunk as always, he’d beat her to death for not having dinner ready when he came home in the middle of the night. Much like Bessy, I didn’t stand a chance.

I spit the two teeth onto the worm-rotted wood of the main deck. It wouldn’t be long now before the worms ate their way through to the lower deck. I just wish I could be around to see it—twenty men plundering through splintered wood, their legs gashed and, hopefully, necks broken.

My swollen tongue fills the hole where my teeth used to be but doesn’t stop the bleeding. Laughter all around me, I open my good eye—the eye that’s still firmly in the socket—and glance around at my old crew. Billy, Ames, Old Rion, and even Tyre look on. Not a single man grimaces or shows any remorse.

They all encourage Groad to take my other eye, but Captain Bestial speaks, “Take a break, Groad,” says he. “I want to have words with Charles before he dies.”

“Aye aye, Captain.”

I thud like a sack of potatoes, slipping and sliding on my own gore as I try to stand, but the captain presses his boot—my old boots—against my throat.

“How did it get to this, old friend?” asks Captain Bestial. “All you have to do is tell us where you hid it, and I’ll let you live.”

Surely a lie—I’m dead either way. Capital Bestial is much more vile a captain than I ever was. He had been my quartermaster, and everything he knows, he learned from me. I try to speak, but he digs his heel into my Adam’s apple.

“Foster, where’s my prize?” says he.

“No… idea… where—”

He yanks his foot from my neck, slipping on the deck pooled with blood. I want to laugh, but my shattered jaw prevents me from even a smile. I briefly imagine my jaw looking like the puzzle pieces I used to play with as a lad.

I gaze up through single, blurred vision to the massive rotor blades spinning from the mast. Sky-piracy has crumbled in the passing years. I used to run The Golden Harp, this very ship, with dignity and honor. I love this ship. I love this ship more than any one of these heathens could love a woman or prize. Now these men, once my men, roam the skies murdering and raping traveling merchants instead of simply robbing them of their cargo and letting them sail away with their lives. We never harmed anyone who didn’t put up a fight, but these men, my men, they’re no longer men at all; they’re blood-thirsty savages.

They hunted me and I ran, up until a few days ago when they found me asleep in a small barn outside of Layintu. The family there was generous enough to give me food and shelter for a few days’ work. It sickens me that these bastards torched the place after hauling me away.

I traveled the world on this air-ship without regret or consequence, but the life of a sky-pirate now sickens me.

One cool evening, nearly two years ago when we had docked at Myles Harbor, I took the radiant, green gem. No one had suspected a thing; I was still their captain at that point, and like a fool, I never thought they’d find me.

After I traveled three-hundred miles to Life—hitching rides on merchant ships and offering work as a deckhand for transport—I never spoke a word to her when I arrived, slipping the gem into her palm and disappearing into the night before she could object. It was the most intimate moment we’d ever shared—aside from the blueberry kiss.

“Groad, help this traitor to the plank,” says Bestial.

Groad wraps his giant hand around my throat and lifts me several feet off the deck. Light-headed, my sight leaves me until I find myself creaking on the base of a long, wooden slab.

I teeter on the edge of the plank. My eye only remains in the socket because of the swollen shut eyelid; my ribs are shattered and it burns when I inhale; my right shoulder is separated or broken, I’m not sure; but my pride remains untouched. I examine the islands in the distance much like a telescope. If I can stall a few more minutes, I’ll have a chance to land in water, not the daggered mountains of Olayth. The fall won’t kill me, but the current surely will if I’m unable to swim. There’s an outpost of crazed men and women, expelled from the main port of Talismount just south of Olayth. Surely they know of safe passage back to the capital—if they don’t eat me first, if I even survive the fall.

“I’ll tell you where it is,” says I, turning toward my crew. They’ll always be my crew, even if they mean to kill me, even if I mean to kill them. A captain knows when to turn his crew to the sword. There comes a time—not always, but occasionally—when a crew hungers for more than riches. That’s when a captain must know his crew are no longer his comrades but his adversaries.

“Aye?” says Captain Bestial. His skeletal frame looks as if the violent winds will simply blow him away like scattering sand. Through gritted golden teeth, he continues, “Where’s the gem?”

I think of Life,  the girl—now woman—I’ve loved for many years. That gem was her passage to a life she’s worthy of living. Even if she doesn’t love me like I love her, she and her two children will never have to worry about food or clothing again. I’d raise those two kids like my own; I’d love them unconditionally—but it can never be. Most find it foolish that I love the memory of a girl—but most never spent every waking moment with someone for fifteen years. Life was there every morning and every evening. Some of the local-folk often mistook us for siblings because we were always side-by-side. Praise be to my father for working so hard—if it wasn’t for his long hours at the mill, I’d have never been given the chance to spend every breath with her.

A woman’s love can grow for a man, but I chose a life in the wind over a life with her.

She doesn’t look at me as a man anymore—just a pirate. Bestial will never find her, and if it means I must take her location down below and swallow a gallon of ocean, I’ll die with a smile on my face.

“I hid it in your mother’s arse,” says I. “Put her back in the ground and pissed on the mound of dirt when I was done.”

Capital Bestial pulls free his scimitar and charges forward. I consider letting his steel relieve my agony, but if there’s a chance I can somehow live and watch her grow old—even crippled and from a distance—it’s worth it.

I step backward off the edge of the plank, heels dragging me into the consuming wind.

I plunge at a great speed, arms drifting wildly above my head. This is all for her. I try to glance down, but the wind stings my good eye, and it wells with tears. Her face appears in my mind. Whether I land on soil or water, I know she—

 

One

“Doctress Adimain… he’s awake.”

Although I know who, I still refuse to believe it. For six years he’s laid in that bed without any movement. When they gave up on him, I was the one who kept him fed, hydrated, cleaned, and presentable in case this day ever came—now the day is here and I can’t face him—

“—Doctress,” repeats the nurse.

“I heard you, Laurel. Surely you don’t mean patient—”

“We had to restrain him. It seems the closing moments before he went into the coma were… violent.”

“I’ll be there in a moment,” says I.

I calmly collect my thoughts, then rise from my cot in the pitch black call-room. Although my home is only a half-mile away, it’s standard protocol for doctors and doctresses to stay at the hospital when on duty for three days. I miss tucking in my children—even if they’re too old to like it—especially on those nights I’ve tossed and turned on the cot that makes my back ache, but it’s only three nights a week. The remaining four days are spent at home with them and my sister, Eveleigh. We moved here, the twins just toddlers, eight years ago. Our mother passed away before I was pregnant, so there was nothing holding us to that small town. When we arrived, I took up studies for nursing, which led to becoming a doctress; Eveleigh became a teacher at the only school in town. She watches my children for me when I have to stay at Monstone Ward, a hospital for those who can’t afford the well-keeping from Geyser Institution just ten miles south. We here at Monstone get the drunks, stabbed, shot, and sickly poor, or in this case… comatose.

I light a candle, and then enter the hallway that leads to the main floor. Short of breath and lightheaded, I ascend the stairs to the floor where this patient has rested for much longer than anyone expected. I’ve waited a long time for this moment, finally to hear his voice, but now I only want to run out the front entrance. I knew this day was coming. For the past several weeks he’d squeezed my finger when I asked him to. The first time he squeezed it, I ran into the hallway and vomited.

Three months into his occupancy, the chief medical staff voted to bury him. I refused, and all his care is now docked from my pay. Why do I do it? At first, I had no clue. It wasn’t until three years ago that I realized I had never fallen out of love with him.

My shoes click against the stone floor, and I brace myself for an impact I can’t predict. Will he remember the voice that read to him nearly every night, the touch that washed his body, and the lips that met his—if only that one time? Will he know who I am? Examinations claim that the comatose often can hear, but medical theory and distant hypotheses mean little to me. I’ve come to learn two things in this field: assumption leads to death, and reaction lengthens life.

His door is shut, and there’s not a sound from the other side, where an entire world awaited me.

“Patient Doe,” says I from behind the wooden door. “This is Doctress Adimain. I’m going to enter.”

Not a peep from him, but a nurse beckons me.

I slowly creak open the door and see his tall, lanky frame shackled to the bed by leather straps around his wrists and ankles. Eyes glazed, breath heavy, he doesn’t try to move.

I glance to the two nurses in attendance and nod for them to leave. When the door shuts behind me, I stride to his bed and rest my hand on his chest. He flinches, which in return causes me to pull back. He twists his eyes to meet mine, and I see nothing behind them.

“Charles, do you know who I am?” says I, trembling.

“Charles?” says he.

“Your name is Charles Foster, but everyone here will call you patient Doe.”

“Where am I?” says he.

When he first came to Monstone Ward, his face was swollen badly from a broken orbital bone. We were able to repair his eye, doubting he’d ever see out of it again, and his fingers and shoulder had to be reset. I’d forgotten over all this time that he’d also been missing his two front teeth. About a year ago I’d snuck a dentist in here after hours and had him take a graph of Charles’ gums. If he ever awoke, I wanted him to be able to wear false teeth. He always had such a pretty smile.

“You’re at Monstone Ward, in Dochness. Do you know where that is?”

“No.” He tries to raise his torso, but the restraints keep him flat.

“Dochness is the capital of Volsire.”

“How long have I been asleep?” says he.

“You’ve been comatose for six years,” says I. “Would you like me to loosen your restraints?”

Again, his gaze flicks to me, but I can tell he has no idea who I am. From what I’ve studied, those who awaken from a coma often have blurred vision.

“Please, Ma’am,” says he. “who are you?”

“My name is Life—Life Adimain, and I’ve been taking care of you these past six years.”

 

Two

“And now what?” says Eveleigh. “Just because he’s awoken, you think you can make up for lost time?”

“Be quiet,” says I, peeking toward the two closed doors on the far side of the living room. “You’re going to wake them!”

“He chose a life of crime over you before; surely he’ll do it again. Do you think he’ll magically remember the times you spent together as children? You said yourself—he only murmurs of the sky.”

“I don’t know what to expect, Eveleigh, but because of him, you and I have what we have. That gem he gave me paid for all of this.”

“No. You cashed in that gem and donated most of the money to the mill. That gem paid for Thomas and Maggie’s schooling and your doctress degree,” says Eveleigh.

“And your teaching certificate. I didn’t hear any objections when we used the money to pay for that. I only kept enough gold for the opportunity to get my children a proper education, and the gift of knowledge for you and I to help others.”

“And you feel like you owe him something now?” Eveleigh stood from the far stool near the table, flipping curly, red hair from her shoulders. “It’s been two weeks since he’s awoken, yet you go see him even when you’re not on duty.”

“Mind your own business,” says I, tears welling. “I can’t help that I love the bastard. I did once before and swore to never love again. Do you think I could see the future—that he’d somehow come to this hospital?”

Eveleigh pauses, considering her next choice of words. She had always feared the temper of her little sister, and I often used it to my advantage. “What if he walks away again?”

“Then so be it,” says I. “But I must know if his memory—the memory of he and I—will come back to him. Fate brought him here, and I guarantee he was in that coma because of the gem he gave to me.”

“That was his choice.” Eveleigh stomps her foot. “He holds no claim over you or this family. Just because their father could never amount to the man you claimed Charles could be, doesn’t mean you were right. He’s a goddamn pirate!”

“WAS,” spill the words from my lips, “was a pirate.”

“He’s going to break your heart again, sister, and I can’t see you like that.”

“I have to know,” says I. “I have to know if his memory will come back to him—if he still chooses to be that man he was long before he ran off and joined a crew—I must know.”

Eveleigh snatches her cloak from the table chair. “Not tonight,” says she. “I’m going out. You stay here for once, and let the piece of shit gaze aimlessly from his bed.”

“He no longer gazes,” says I. “He’s coherent now. He remembers more each day.”

“About that goddamn ship. Not about you.”

Eveleigh opens the door, and a brisk wind whips across my face. “It’s too chilled tonight for just a cloak.”

“I’ll make due,” says she, closing the door behind her.

I stride to the kitchen and pour a glass of blue wine. I haven’t drank in years—since he first came to Monstone Ward—but the sweet taste of blueberry on my lips reminds me of the fields of Loftloss. It’s foolish to have hope—I know this—but I loved Charles back then, I loved him after he left me for riches, I loved him when he came to me and put that gem in my palm, and I love him now. How did he know I was a struggling mother of two? Did he keep eyes on me even from the sky? He’s returned to my life for a reason, and I will not waste it.

I light a lantern and sit by the window, journal on my lap and glass in hand. Skimming through the first few pages, I recall the notes I’d taken of a comatose patient during my residency. He eventually awoke, but had no amnesia like Charles. I browse over my notes of the past week:

Day Three: He’s quite hungry and able to keep his food down. He refers to me as nurse, although I’ve told him several times I’m a doctress. I try to get him to walk from his bed to the window, but his legs are dead to him. He isn’t fond of the black eyepatch worn to cover his blind eye but continues to wear it when looking outside.

Day Four: He remembers my name from the days prior; Life Adimain, he says with a roll of his tongue like I’m some foreign minister. He asks me to come read to him before bed hours and I decline.

Day Five: He’s able to take a single step before collapsing. Charles recollects being in the air, on a ship—possibly a merchant vessel as it’s raided. He says he thinks no one was harmed, but still is appalled that someone would steal from a merchant. He has no clue that he was the pirate.

Day Six: Charles takes three steps, and then needs to sit. He recalls a man named Bestial and says he’s a prick, but doesn’t know why. He asks me if a “Groad” or any of his other men are at the hospital. I say no. That he asks me to read to him. He chooses a novel titled A Life in the Sky, and I say I’ll try and obtain it for him from the local library. Bringing back any memory of his days as a sky-pirate could help him remember me, and perhaps what he once felt for me.

Day Seven: He sleeps most of the day. When I bathe him, he remains a gentleman as always, but attempts to scrub himself, poorly. He doesn’t ask about the book. I gift him the false teeth I had molded for him, and he accepts then thanks me. He tells me that he wishes he knew someone with my kindness before he was broken—maybe he wouldn’t be in the pain he’s in now. I leave the room crying.

Day Eight: His hands grow strong and less clumsy. He’s able to feed himself with his fingers, but not a fork or spoon. Charles grows angry when he can’t do simple tasks and claims to be a “goddamn baby.”

Day Nine: The local library is not able to provide the book he requested. I offer to read him something else, and he says he trusts me to pick a good book. He likes to hear gossip from Monstone Ward, too.

Day Ten: He walks up and down the hallway with my help and feels good about doing so. He’s able to read most words. Writing is a task since his hands are still clumsy, but his vocabulary has remarkably returned to near perfection. Charles asks me what put him into his six-year coma and how he came about being admitted to Monstone Ward, but I play ignorant. The initial report is that he washed ashore badly broken, and a fisherman called the town guards to come claim the body. They had nearly killed and buried him due to little faith he’d return to normal frame.

Day Eleven: He asks me if he will ever see out of his left eye again. I say no and he cries. “Why would someone do this to me?” he asks, but I have no answer. I read him two chapters from the novel Lanegan Way, and he falls asleep in a fetal position staring out the window into night.

I close the journal and realize I’ve emptied my glass. Why I’m doing this to myself when I could simply tell him of our past? Our past means nothing without the memory of his emotions. He needs to recall everything he’s done—including the bad—and decide if he’s ready to settle down with me. I can’t push him, or tell him of how we used to share a bed, innocently, when his father worked late, or that I loved him even in the moment he left me. He needs to realize my pain to remember my love.

A few more days walking down the hall, and he should have the energy to go outside. I plan on taking him to a glade not far from here that resembles Loftloss. Maybe his memory will start to return then.

Three

Days pass, and his strength, coordination, and sight return to an average state. I make Charles a special breakfast. His father used to take a mixture of grape jelly and butter, whip it into a big pink glob, and dip biscuits in it. Charles ate it every morning, but I only had the luxury of enjoying the butter-jelly once Charles was old enough to make it for us both. He’s shy eating in front of me, possibly still getting used to his false front teeth, so I pretend to write a medical supply list.

“This is good,” says he, “best thing I’ve tasted in years.” Charles tries not to smile, but I can’t help but smirk. His humor returns, even if his memory doesn’t.

“Does it remind you of anything?” says I.

He thinks for a bit, then shakes his head no as if there’s a pile of dry leaves in his brain, but there’s no flint to light it.

 

I try to keep track of time as he gazes through one eye at the mercantile and imperial sky-ships floating with the clouds beneath the glow of the sun. Sometimes the harbor becomes backed up blocks and the sky-ships hang several hundred feet for close to an hour—massive, stupid flying block of wood I say. I’ve always hated sky-ships, even before Charles left in one. When we moved to Dochness, I refused to go by sky-ship, and it took an extra three weeks to get here by sea.

It’s hard to assume he didn’t know how much I loved him, even so young, and it’s selfish to pretend he should have known though I didn’t tell him. Boys don’t think like girls. He was intent on bringing me riches, and I hadn’t a clue if that was love or friendship. Now that I think about it, maybe girls don’t think like boys—

But, how could I hold on to a man who wouldn’t hold on to me?

He looks healthier in the sunlight, possibly more content with his situation. Studies show once a piece of memory comes back, more may follow, or even flood, and the patient may calm. I never realized how handsome Charles had grown to be. It had been close to eight years since I’d seen him. Raising two babies alone at twenty-three taught me a lot about myself. They were only two months old when their father grew jealous of the attention I gave them and took off—I haven’t seen him since. Maggie and Thomas were two years old when Charles dropped that gem in my hand and disappeared. I sold it immediately and moved far away to better our lives. Charles had left me abruptly, again, and I wanted to go where he’d never be able to find me. Now, my children will never have to depend on anyone else, like I unwillingly depended on Charles’ treasure. I was spiteful when I sold it, but never felt so much relief when we were able to move away with the opportunity he’d provided and simply started our lives over. Now they’re both ten, and much more rambunctious than I at their age.

“What’s this place called?” says he, admiring the tall field of waving orange grass. I’m happy to see he finally broke his wonderment of the sky-ships. “It’s lovely.”

“This is Maiden’s Glade. I come here sometimes to think,” says I. “I thought it would be nice to get some fresh air. Are you cold?”

“No,” says he, rolling his fingers, then pulling his cloak tight around his neck.

“Any more memories return?” says I.

He looks at me with one eye—a big, beautiful, blue iris—and slowly exhales. “I had a dream of my love,” says he.

My stomach knots.

“We called her The Golden Harp, but I named her something else. I don’t remember, though.”

“A harp? You loved a harp?” asks I, sorrowfully.

He smiles for the first time. His fake front teeth look as real as any. “No. It was my ship,” says he. “Every sky-lord loves his ship like a woman. I just can’t remember what I named her.”

If he named the ship after me, then there is still hope. Normally I’d be disgusted by such lunacy—a ship used for thievery and murder named Life—but I don’t care. I want him to stand up and scream my name.

“It’ll come back to you,” says I. “Your memory returns more each day.”

“Life,” says he, and my heart skips a beat. The ship’s name had come to him after all.

“That’s my name,” says I. I can see my name and the name of his ship connecting in his head.

“No, I know that. I haven’t forgotten anything learned since I awoke. I was just saying your name because I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for me the past six years. No matter what happens to me, I’ll always remember the name of the kindest woman in the world.”

His words are a sweet dagger into my heart. Tears of disappointment well in my eyes, and I pull out a cloth handkerchief. “Thank you, Charles,” says I.

“Why are you crying?” asks he. “I hope I’ve not offended you with my praise. I just appreciate it—taking time away from your family for me—your husband’s a generous man to allow you to help me.”

I smile. “The wind wets my eyes. No worries, Charles. I have an allergy to the sungrass.”

“We can go back inside.” He fumbles with his cloak and tries to wrap it around my shoulders. He sees that I’m shivering, but has no idea it’s because I’m close to a complete collapse. Charles thinks I’m cold; he remembers how to read others—even if he doesn’t realize it.

“No, this is lovely,” says I. “And don’t worry about my husband. I’ve never had one.”

“I… I’m sorry for assuming.” Charles leans back on both hands against the blanket—just like the picnics we’d had so many times before.

“Don’t be,” says I. “I never loved the man who fathered them, but I’m grateful for him.”

“I don’t understand.”

“If it weren’t for him, I’d not have Thomas and Maggie,” says I, “and most likely wouldn’t be here in Dochness.”

“Where would you be?” asks he. “Where are you from?”

“Far from here.”

“Oh,” says he. “I’m glad you have someone in your life to make you feel that way. I can’t remember if I’m a father, or a husband, or a King. I don’t know if I’ve ever loved a woman or child. All I remember is spending a great deal of time on one of those ships.” He points to the sky. “Maybe I was a merchant.”

“There’s no shame in that,” says I, regretting the entire afternoon. “There are far worse things to be than a merchant.”

 

Four

Several weeks later I approach Charles’ room early one morning with butter-jelly and warm biscuits. He’s speaking to someone, and I stay in the hallway to listen.

“It’s a real shame this happened to you, Sir. Any time you’re ready to get back into the sky, I’d be happy to take you anywhere you want to go,” says a deep, familiar voice. “You don’t remember, but you saved my life many years ago—I’ll never forget it.”

“I wish I did remember,” says Charles. “You say your ship was taken by pirates?”

“Aye,” says the stranger. “Your ship pulled up, and you had words with their captain. They left with no objection.”

“And you’re a mail carrier?” asks Charles. I realize it’s Duke Canniston, the postman who delivers mail from across the sea. I only see him every few months.

“Aye. You were just a young man then, but I never forgot your face. My crew and I owe you our lives.”

“What was I?” says Charles. “A merchant? A merchant that intimidated pirates?”

Before I can break the conversation, I hear Duke trip over his words. “No… you were a pirate.”

I halt my intended entrance and listen. “A pirate,” says Charles. “A sky-pirate?”

Duke’s reluctance is felt through the walls. “Yes. Don’t know much more than that. I don’t even remember your name, Sir. Just that you were the captain and others feared you enough to drop all my cargo and leave without objection.”

“Get out,” says Charles.

“Pardon?”

“GET OUT!”

Charles’ seething tongue startles me, but I know he needs to hear this.

Duke Canniston stomps from the room without a word, and I turn my back to him so he doesn’t see my face. He’s always trying to court me, and that’s the last thing I need right now.

By the time I find the nerve to enter his room, the biscuits are cooled.

“Good morning, Charles. How was your night?” says I.

He doesn’t respond. Charles sits on his bed with his knees tucked to his chin, arms wrapped around his shins. He’d taken his black eyepatch and thrown it across the room, possibly at Duke.

“I’m never wearing that again,” says he.

“But Charles, your eye is too sensitive to sunlight.”

“I don’t care. May I be left alone today, Doctress?”

He speaks to me as if the past few weeks have been nothing. I’m a stranger, and he’s a monster—I can sense it in his voice. The memories bottled so deeply in a part of his mind that he might never be able to open—they haunted him—and now he’s learned of his past as a pirate. Although I know this can only lead to more memory, I’m still sad for him.

“As you wish.” I leave the plate of butter-jelly and biscuits on the foot of his bed and exit his room.

A bit shaken up, I return home. It was one of my days off, but I’ve gotten so used to spending time with Charles when the children were at school or in bed, I hadn’t realized all I’ve ignored around my own home. After sweeping the floor, folding Maggie and Thomas’ clothing, and washing the dishes left from breakfast—which was host to my children’s new favorite meal—I collapse in my bed, wondering what Charles is doing.

I fall asleep and dream that he leaves me.

 

Later that evening I sip my blue wine and check over Thomas’ homework—he struggles with long division—and there’s a knock at the door. Eveleigh answers as I continue on with Thomas about division tables.

“Doctress,” says a voice from the door. It’s Thane Grigoric, the watchman who works evenings in our area of the town. Broad shouldered, he turns sideways to enter my home, hand resting firmly on the haft of his sword, crossbow latched to his back. I’d fancied Thane for a time—short peach-colored hair blended with his beard, a prominent jaw, and muscles that had muscles of their own—but there was no room for men in my life… so I once thought.

“Sorry to bother you this late, Doctress,” says he.

“It’s Life,” says I. “You know there’s no need for titles when I’m not on duty, Watchman. What’s the problem?”

“I was told to only speak to you, privately, regarding a situation at Monstone Ward. Would you please come with me?”

“Is everything alright?” says Thomas from the table. I love how the sunset always turns his hair auburn from blonde. It makes him look less of his father and more of me.

“Everything is fine, young man.”

“Eveleigh, would you put them to bed?” says I. “I’ll be back shortly.”

Eveleigh nods, and I exit to the porch with Thane. The near-nightfall air makes my lungs heavy with chill, and I cross my arms.

“Doctor Stahl sent me. A… Patient Doe won’t eat, refuses to take any medication, and has been restrained. He only says your name.”

 

When I burst into Charles’ room, two watchmen monitor him as he tries to rip his limbs free from leather restraints; his bare ankles and wrists are smeared with blood.

“I’m here,” says I, careful not to expose my knowledge of his name.

He stops struggling, and drops his head to his sweat-stained pillow. “Life,” says he. “I remember so much. After this morning, when I acted like a fool, I fell asleep and awoke with memories—”

I try to swallow, but my throat is too dry. “Wait outside, please,” says I to the watchmen. They both nod and take their leave, keeping the door open behind them for my own safety. “What do you remember?”

I unfasten his restraints and then wet a washcloth from the sink, carefully washing his raw wrists and ankles. Thankfully, he only has minor cuts. Once he’s free, he sits up in his bed and hides his long face in his hands.

“Horrible things,” says he. Hope leaves me, once again. He still doesn’t remember me—unless he remembers leaving me. “All these horrible things. I flew for many years as a sky-captain. We raided merchants, fought battles with all who opposed, and killed sky-guardians who tried to bring us to justice. These horrible deeds, yet I only feel sorrow for what I’d done to my own crew. I stole from them—something of great value.”

“What was it?” says I. “Surely there’s no shame in stealing an already stolen item.”

“I don’t remember,” says he. “All I know is I took it to some town. I hid for days, weeks, maybe years after that until they found me. They beat me to hell and back. I think that’s why I’m in here.”

I rest my hand on the back of his neck; Charles doesn’t flinch at my warm touch. “All this shame and sorrow—I’m surely where I deserve to be. We stole and killed together, yet I only feel regret because I stole from them… men considered to be family by oath. Why would I feel such things?”

“It’s alright, Charles,” says I. “It’s not what we’ve done with our lives, but what we’ve yet accomplished. You have a chance to start over, away from all of that, and write your wrongs into songs of joy.”

“I’m broken,” murmurs he.

I take his face in mine. His white-glossed eye never bothered me. In this moment it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen—far more radiant than the gem he’d given me so many years ago that brought us back together. In time, he’d remember what he stole, whom he gave it to, and why he did it—and we’d be able to start our lives over together.

I press my lips to his, salty tears moistening my mouth, and he doesn’t restrain. “Blueberries,” says he. “You taste like blueberries; I remember blueberries.” I release our kiss, nearly twenty years held, and turn to shut the door. He grabs my wrist, startling me and tugs me back to him. I lift my leg behind me and close the door with the tips of my toes. We kiss again, and again, and again. Our hands glide over each other’s bodies. He pulls my shawl over my head and rubs his hands up my back; it gives me chills. I unbutton his shirt, no care of what’s heard on the other side of the door, and run my fingertips along his abdomen. He’s so scarred, yet smooth—like a stone shaped over hundreds of years from the oceanic tide. It’s beautiful.

His single blue eye meets my gaze, and he smiles as if asking for permission. I place his hands on my hips and continue kissing him. Charles gently eases down my skirt and slides a palm between my legs. His touch is warm as I pulse in his hand. His memory is clouded, so I help direct his fingers in the right places and gently inhale his breath into mine. It feels so right—so natural as if all these years of torture were meant to lead to this moment. Between gasps of passion, I pull his britches down and climb onto the bed. He enters my life for a fourth time.

 

Five

In the passing days, Charles and I keep our hands to ourselves during the hours when I’m on duty. We both know it was no mistake and continue to make love each night after the watchmen leave Monstone Ward for the evening. Even when I’m home, I dream of his touch. I’d waited so long to feel his lips on mine again, and I never wanted them to leave. Sometimes in the middle of the night, I sneak out and check on him as he sleeps, just to make sure he hasn’t left me again. More memories return—detailed memories of his days as Captain Charles Foster—and he often speaks of blueberries. He has no interest in eating them, only tasting them on my lips. The panel of elder doctors and doctresses grow restless with his stay and claim he’ll soon be able to leave Monstone Ward and continue his life elsewhere. I know I’ll have to be the one who has the discussion with him on his future plans, but I’m not nervous. He’ll stay in Dochness. Not with me at first—I could never just throw a man into my children’s lives—but he’ll remain close. I’m confident he is capable of physical labor to a certain degree, and there’s plenty of opportunity in Dochness. Charles is retaining information with no memory loss, and I’m content with the man his is now, even if he doesn’t remember what we once were. I hope he feels the same way. What we are now is much more than childhood love.

 

Two months come and go, and it’s time for his release from the hospital. I’m anxious of the world around me that’s hopefully about to change for the better. I arise from another sleepless night, and vomit just like the previous few mornings—a familiar feeling—surely my nerves getting the best of me. We haven’t discussed his plans, but I will ask him to stay in Dochness. Willand Mayforth, a local carpenter and close friend of Eveleigh has offered to take him as an apprentice if Charles will have it. It’s a good start, a fresh start. I bathe and dress myself, fighting to urge to vomit again. I charge forward to Monstone Ward with a sense of eagerness, not only for Charles, but for myself.

When I arrive to his room, stomach queasy, his bed is empty. There’s a note on his bed. Nausea drops me to my knees, and I read it.

Life,

I can never thank you enough for all you’ve done for me. You used your god-given kindness to keep me alive and fix me one piece at a time. In this moment, these past few months, possibly the past six years—I’d never been happier to have someone at my side. It sickens me to leave you, but I must. I love you, but there’s someone else, and I love her, too. I now know that I made the mistake of leaving her years ago, and I must find her. I’ve loved her from the moment I laid eyes on her as a child. I don’t remember this, but feel it. Just like you’ve taught me, I have to trust my heart. I don’t remember a thing about her, but what you and I shared sparked her presence inside of me. Her name, face, and location are a blur, but I will find her. I can’t stay here with you when I know there’s someone else out there who truly holds my heart. It’s not fair to you.

Love,

Charles Foster

Epilogue

The limp in my left leg is unnoticeable, in my opinion anyway. I refuse to leave Life wearing the clothing she’d purchased for me to wear on our evening strolls, so I picked the lock to the tailor’s shop—I guess skill remains where memory doesn’t—and dressed in a suit of black.

The sun’s not yet risen, but I’m already through the trader’s town that spills halfway to Monstone Ward from the sky-harbor of Dochness. I’m unsure if I’ve ever felt pain like I feel now—a ball of twisted agony in the pit of my gut—but I know I must go find her. I can never repay Life for all she’s done for me, but like a coward, I must flee. I fear that if I speak to her face-to-face, she’ll convince me to stay, and I owe it to this other woman—this other piece to my heart—to find her and make up for the years I’d spent away from her. When Life would kiss me after drinking her blue wine, I vaguely remembered a glade. One night after Life had returned to her home, I’d broken into the library and skimmed one of the geography books. There’s only three places in this country where blueberries grow, and they’re all southern regions. Surely I can find my past if I can find this glade.

It only takes a moment before I recognize a pirate ship. The men all pretend to be merchants, but I can tell by the way the wood-worms have chewed their way through the bowsprit that this vessel is not under the regulations of the trade commission.

“May I speak to your captain,” says I to a lumbering fellow unloading sacks of grain.

“We have no captain,” says he, playing dumb. It’s not uncommon for merchants to purchase goods from pirates as long as their flags are unseen.

“Well may I speak to your merchant lord?” says I.

“Aye,” says he. “You’re talkin’ to ‘em.”

“My name is Charles Foster. I previously worked on a ship like this, and was wondering—”

“You ain’t never worked on a ship like this,” says he.

“Nonetheless, I was wondering if you could use a deckhand. I ask no payment. Just three meals a day, and passage to Crooked Hill, Delias, or Windsprint. Will you be flying by any of those towns on your voyage?” says I.

The captain looks me over. “You’re scrawny. You better not eat much,” says he.

“Mostly broth and bread—and you’ll have the cleanest deck in the clouds.”

The captain, still pretending to be a merchant lord, unloads the last sack of grain and accepts a leather sack from one of the local merchants. When the merchant takes his leave, the captain motions me aboard.

“Crooked Hill, Delias, or Windsprint?” says he. “I think we might find our way to one of those places soon enough. Welcome aboard.”

 

The mammoth rotors begin to spin, and I hold on to the railing so I’m not swept overboard. I try my damnedest not to look in the direction of Monstone Ward. Tears fill my eyes, and the wind knocks them down my cheeks. I want to stay, spend the rest of my days with Life, but I cannot. I’m a vile man who’s done vile deeds. A nurturing soul like that deserves a man of accord, not a former scoundrel of the skies.

With my one good eye, I glance down toward the docks as the ship floats higher and higher. The harbor shrinks, and a faint memory of flying overwhelms me. Just before I can pry my eyes away from Dochness, I see Life standing at the docks staring up at me, her golden hair whipping in the wind. The last thing I want is for her to see me leave on a vessel, especially a pirate ship, but it’s an insult to pretend I don’t see her—after all she’s done, that wonderful woman.

I peer down to her, placing my left hand over my heart, right hand to my lips, and blow her one last kiss before I disappear into the clouds.

 

Along The Hudson

 

By

Teel James Glenn

 

Chapter One:

Calling Down the Devil

 

My pulse quickened as the wakening island of Manhattan came into sight further down the Hudson. Our pre-dawn dirigible flight from Montreal to the airship port on Governors Island, New York had been uneventful, but upon arrival I knew things would become interesting when I saw my old friend, Mad Mike.

“I suppose you ain’t comin’ with me to that there Metropolitan Opera place when we land, eh, Athelstan?” My Aunt Minerva said, knowing in advance that Der Nibelungren bored me.

“I had hoped to look up Mike Ellenbogen,” I said.

“You mean Mad Mike from Cairo?” Aunt Mini asked. She lived down to her nick-name at barely five feet tall.  She’d raised me when my parents and her husband, Lord Camden had been killed. I was raised mostly in England by her, but the former Miss Minerva Strump was as American as the city we were approaching.

“Same Mad Mike,” I said with a laugh. I touched the Eye of Horus amulet I wore that Mike had given me, remembering some of our escapades in Egypt three years before.

My aunt and I were among a dozen or so passengers of the great airship observation window, watching the bustling city and busy harbor ahead. With a population over a million and a half it ranked as the nation’s largest port, with piers, factories and even working farms on it.

We passed over the gun emplacements of Fort Tryon at the northern tip of the island, fortified still from when the city was made the capital of the new republic during their civil war when the southern states had burned Washington- and idea they stole from we Albions in 1814.

But beyond all its commerce and prestige, beyond all its Astor high society and its striving immigrants, it was an open secret that New York City was also the vice capital of the United States.  And Mad Mike was little part of that, running ‘Mike and Spike’s Sphinx Saloon’ on the west side at 23rd Street.

Our airship, The Ottawa, cruised slowly down the Hudson, over the river traffic and with a clear view of the bustling metropolis that truly rivaled London. The density of the population increased as we went down island from Washington Heights near rural development. The last time I had been in the great city I’d arrived and left by ocean liner so I was as much in awe of the panoramic view as my fellow passengers at the rail of the observation deck.

“Impressive, is it not, Lady Camden,” one of my fellow travelers said with a thick French accent. “I never imagined these Americans were so-“

“Civilized?” Aunt Mini finished.

“”Well, yes,” the Frenchman said. “Why there are even buildings that look to be eleven stories tall!”

I sensed Aunt Mini was about to create an international incident with her next words so I intervened.

“These former colonist of ours,” I said, “Are really quite clever, Monsieur.  I am sure they will love your observations on their comparative status to primitives.”

His face blanched and my aunt gave an un-lady-like snort.

“My good Baronet Grey,” the Frenchman said, “One would think you would not take the side of those who revolted against your country.”

“All past, Monsieur,” I said. “The children have left the house long ago and are standing on their own.”

“Darn tootin’,” My aunt said. “Standing, dancing and kicking a-“

“Mini!” I said and she checked herself, just barely.

The Frenchman turned away and chose retreat as the better course of valor, slipping away into the others on the observation deck.

“You are going to get us into trouble one of these days, Auntie,” I said. Mini giggled like a schoolgirl.

“I ain’t never got into no trouble that wasn’t some sort of fun, Athelstan,” she said with glee. “And none I couldn’t get out of.”

“So far,” I pointed out.

“You are turning into a terrible dull fellow, nephew,” she said with a snort. “You’d think all that time with that little Aztec girl we had to say goodbye to in Montreal would give you a sense of adventure.”

It was my turn to laugh out loud. “That is a whole different kind of adventure, Auntie, you saucy old baggage!” She elbowed me and we both giggled.  She had always been a constant source of shock and amusement to the social circles of my uncle and my parents- and had raised me after their deaths with a healthy skepticism to convention, but still sometimes surprised even me.

We enjoyed the view in relaxed silence as the airship glided down the island and off its tip to the fortressed Governors Island. The smoke from the coal-powered factories was already casting a haze over the bustling city but did nothing to mare the sense of energetic industry, of seeing the future before us.

It made me reflect on the Albion Empire and my home in London.  While I was proud of my heritage, an inherited baronet from my father and an Oxford education, I could not help but feel, especially after my time working for the East India Company in Bombay, that it was built on the backs of others. How unlike it this young, vigorous country was.

These people, these Americans, had carved homes out of the wilderness, true, there had been contention with natives, but they had made their peace now. And they had, successfully both fought off Albion’s control and had their growing pains in their own civil war.

An alliance with the Mexhican Empire to their south (and their Aztec magicks) had allowed the Americans to establish themselves as a minor world power, balanced with Albion, the Ottoman Empire, and The Mali Confederacy.

The Ottawa glided into docking port on Governor’s Island in early morning but it was almost afternoon before we had all debarked and passed through customs. We took a ferry across to Manhattan, with the Frenchman pointedly avoiding interaction with either myself or Auntie. Our bags were sent ahead to our hotel and we hailed a taxi.

Last chance for that Wagner hoop-de-do At Hammerstein’s, Opera House up at 34th Street, nephew,” Mini said as she climbed into the hansom cab.

“No thanks, Auntie, but I’ll ride up as far as 23rd Street with you.”

I hopped in and we were off up the Battery past the Customs house into the business district of the metropolis. The odor of the city was a mix of horse leavings, coal-oil smoke and that indefinable collection of very human smells. It reminded me more of Bombay than London in that respect. It was controlled chaos, a cacophony of sound and movement, a babble of languages even more varied than Paris.

I found it exhilarating!

Our carriage moved haltingly up Broadway through the crush of traffic until we reached 23nd street. I took my leave of my aunt then and jumped off.

“I’ll see you at the hotel, Mini,” I said as I waved.

“You say hello to Mad Mike for me,” she called back, “And watch yourself, nephew- the two of you together are worse than me and my sister used to be. ”

“I will, auntie, I will.”

I watched the carriage pull away and turned to head west toward the river where Mike’s pub was located. It was a eight block walk and I set off at a jaunty pace, swinging my newly acquired walking stick- a present from the Ambassador from the Mexhico Empire.

It was almost a like a walk in Whitechapel for all the attention I got from ‘working ladies’ in my walk. I had been told there were upwards of 40,000 prostitutes working the streets of New York and it seemed that most of them were in that four-block stroll.

I dare say it was not my dashing blond good looks that drew the feminine attention to me (though I have not had difficulty in that department elsewhere), rather it was the expensive cut of my cloak and clearly European style of my low-crowned top hat. And the purse they both implied. The boldest of the ‘ladies’ approached me as I passed under the elevated train at Sixth Avenue.

“Hey, Toff, “ a pox marked ‘beauty’ called to me, “Need a date?”

“I saw him first, Dora,” a second said as she stepped up close to me. She was a red-haired Irish accented vixen with a bit more flesh than was good for her but a ready smile. I smiled back.

“Sorry, ladies, “I said, “but I am on my way to Mike and Spike’s for a drink. Perhaps, later.” I had no inclinations in their direction, but auntie taught me not to disappoint.

“Ladies,” Dora said with a laugh. ‘You are a gent!” But they let me pass.

“”Ain’t heard about Mike or the others have you?” the red head’s tone was suddenly dark and it made me stop.

“Hush up, Agnes,” Dora said, crossing herself. “Don’t’ be calling down the devil.”

“What about Mike?” I turned to face the lasses but they were now backing way from me. “What do you mean?”

“Ain’t no never mind what I mean,” Dora said darkly then tried to drum up a bit more of my business. “The Bull’s head is open and I know they serve-“

I never heard the rest of her recommendation for a grog shop, as I was at a dead run for the pub, with a chill premonition of disaster settling on me.

 

Chapter Two:

Death in the Family

 

When I reached the corner of 10th Avenue and 23rd Street I stopped short with my worst fears confirmed.  Mike & Spike’s Pub- my friend’s bar– was draped in black and purple bunting. I felt a chill that went to my soul. There was a sign, crudely painted that said, “Closed till further notice.”

“No!” I hissed. I forced myself to calm and walked across the street to the heavy door of the drinking emporium. After I composed myself I knocked on the frosted glass.

After an eternity of waiting I heard heavy footsteps within and a thick Scot’s accented voice called out, “We’re still closed, bugger off!”

“I’m a friend of Mike’s; I need to find out what is going on.”

The sound of a bolt being pulled back followed and a red-bearded face, a head above mine was thrust out a crack in the door. “And ye be?”

“Sir Athelstan Grey, Baronet, “ I said. “I am acquainted with Master Ellenbogen from our time in Cairo.”

The bushy red eyebrows of the rugged face rose and fell as the Cerberus scrutinized me.  “Master Mike was murdered last week; we are still in mourning; come back next week, maybe we will reopen then.” He made to close the door but I held the edge.

“I must speak to this, sirah,” I said. “Is Miss Ellenbogen here? I wish to express my condolences to her.” I handed him my card which he regarded much as if I had handed him the snake from the garden.

The highlander, who was easily close to eighteen stone, was dressed in full Mackintosh kilt with the spotted mountain cat sporran of a chief, tried to close the door once more then relented, opening it to stare at me with flinty blue eyes. “I’ll see if the lassie is in.” He indicated I should enter.  I cleaned my boots of horse dropping on the wrought iron scraper and stepped inside.

The Scotsman threw the bolt on the door behind us and gave me a stern look. “Wait here, “ he said firmly before moving off into the interior of the darkened pub.

I felt as if I was at the levee’s at St. James waiting to be presented to Her Majesty.

The large room was much as I imagined it would be from Mike’s descriptions- a long, wood lined room with the broad windows facing out to the street, but with the shades pulled so little or no light entered from them. All around were souvenirs from his time in the lands of the sands-the décor made the pub an exotic oasis-sphynx statues, scarab wall fixtures; it was an Arabian nights fantasy come to life.

There were tables set around what looked to be a sunken dance floor and a long bar along the far wall. It looked to be as much nightspot as one would find in any great city, as it was a pub. It was appointed with crystal chandeliers, gaslights along the walls and brass fittings everywhere.

I thought about Mike’s letters, many of them since our meeting in Egypt where he had described building the pub.

And he had written about his little sister, Bathsheba who always went by the very unlady-like ‘Spike.’ She was his partner in the pub, and now, I supposed, sole owner.

There was a gallery along the back wall with stairs that went up to it and this is where the Scotsman went, only reaching halfway up the stairs before another figure appeared at the top of the steps. It was a petite girl, dressed, oddly enough, in a black and purple riding habit; Spike.

“What is it, Angus,” she said in a high, thin voice.

“Says he knew Mike, lassie.” He handed my card up to her and she peered at it in the dim light. Even across the room I could see her square features- so reminiscent in a soft mirror- of her brother’s light in a smile.

“Athelstan!” she said and swept down the stairs past the giant Scot and across the floor to me. She came up to give me a very improper hug before I could react. She came barely to my chest, but her arms made me gasp with their strength.

“Madam!” I managed to exclaim.

She pulled away from me and colored, as if suddenly realizing what she had done. “Excuse me, baronet,” she said, “I am out of sorts because of my brother’s passing, but- but it is almost that I know you, my brother spoke so much of you.”

“And of you, Miss Ellenbogen, and that is why I had to stop in to find out what happened.”

Her pretty features twisted into a pained scowl. “Come up stairs, we can talk there.”

I followed the girl up past the grim looking highlander to a sitting room on the second floor where we sat opposite each other in two comfortable chairs. The red haired giant wheeled a tea service in between us and I felt, oddly enough, as if I was back in Mayfair.

“It is real tea, baronet,” she said with great pride, “not recycled; directly from China.”

For a time we sipped the imported tea and spoke of inconsequential things- my trip from Montreal, the weather in New Orleans (where I had been prior to my trip north) and the like. It was as if she was afraid to even mention her brother again or his death. Like most Americans she was somewhat in awe of my title and I had to explain to her that I was not a peer, as such, with my inherited title. The complexities of the English system of titles amazed the former colonies and, I admit, sometimes even escaped my own understanding.

I took the opportunity of our relaxed conversation to observe her closely; it was true she had features that echoed her brother’s- jet black hair, crystal blue eyes and a strong jaw, though on her is was gentled where it had been sharp on him.

Her hands were delicate and long fingered, darting nervously like small birds, never lighting long on either teacup nor lap. Her silent Scotsman stood nearby, a gorgon eye cast on me all the while we talked.

After a time, when I deduced she would not get around to mentioning her brother I did. “When I spoke to Mike ten days ago from Montreal on the tele-crystal he seemed happy and healthy,” I said. “How did he—well, what happened?”

The pretty girl shivered as if from a cold. I thought I had upset her beyond propriety but she showed grit and quickly got a hold of herself and looked me in the eye.

“If you do not mind, I will let Angus show you,” she said. She looked to the roi giant who nodded and waved me back out of the room and down the stairs.

We went through the pub’s main room to a short corridor that led to the offices.

“This was Mister Mike’s office,” the Scotsman said, his burr so thick I had to listen carefully to understand. “It is just as we found it.” He pushed the door to a room inward and allowed me to step in.

What I saw was a horrific image that will stay in my mind’s eye for the rest of my life; the office was a shambles with the walls splattered with what could only have been blood!

The room was wood paneled and had been nicely appointed before whatever had ravaged it.  There were nick-knacks from his travels- souvenirs from Arabia and Turkey, rugs, statues and icons, many of them smashed and scattered around the room. I recognized some of the curios he had purchased in my presence in Cairo- a clay tablet, a medallion of Horus that matched the one I wore, and a jewel encrusted dagger with a bloody blade. The plush carpet, upholstered chairs a fine oak desk were all torn to shreds and stained dark with the life essence that had been my friend’s.

“Miss Ellenbogen and I returned from shopping ten days ago on a Sunday afternoon to discover it like this,” the Scotsman said. “Except that what was left of Mister Mike was scattered across the desk and floor; torn to pieces like a pack of wolves had been at him.” The giant’s stoic face shadowed with the memory before returning to neutral, though his voice revealed his emotions.

I stepped into the room and felt an eerie sense of foreboding.

I could clearly see what appeared to be claw marks scratched deeply into the dark wood of the desk and the carpet had been torn up as if by scythe blades. All showed that a terrific struggle had taken place.

“And you have no idea what happened?”

“No,” Angus said. “No one else was in the building when it happened, sir, except the bar back. And we never found Little Tony. No one has seen hide nor hair of him.”

I walked slowly to the desk and looked down on the sanguine spot where my friend must have died. The stain was not much of a monument to a man like Mike; self made, a bold, laughing fellow who, though not to be crossed, never willfully hurt anyone.

There was a photo frame on the desk that was overturned, the glass shattered. I lifted it up. It was a photo of me, Mike standing shoulder to shoulder with Aunt Mini between us, dwarfed by us and smiling. It had been taken in Cairo. His lantern jaw was set in an easy smile and his eyes shined with mischief. I found my vision blurring with tears at I stared at the blood-spattered space on the desk.

“We have to find this Tony, then,” I said when I could speak. “We will find out what happened to Mike and someone will pay!”

 

 

 

Chapter Three:

The Forrest Primeval

“Ye think we’ve not tried, sir?” the Scotsman sneered at me at the edge of impertinence. “Every wharf rat and street walker has been questioned.”

“The police?”

“Useless,” he said. “They just took a quick look and then dismissed it as just another saloon keeper, a low life they couldn’t care less about.”

That made me angry but as I turned to face the Scotsman I felt a tingling through my right hand where I held my sword cane.  The sensation was much like my hand was asleep and traveled up my arm. The gem on the knob of the stick glowed a soft blue.

“What is that, sir?” Angus asked.

“Do the police here have a Merlin?” I countered.

“A what?”

“A government sanctioned sorcerer like we have in England,” I said.

“No, sir; the metropolitan police have a shaman on the force, on loan from the Choctaw Nation for major cases that might involve magick, but they don’t come around for barkeeps. Why?” He looked to my walking stick. “Because of that?”

“Yes,” I said. “The Ambassador from Mexhico gave this to me; it has an obsidian blade but the jewel on the handle is sensitive to occult energies. There has been dark magick used in this room.”

“Mister Mike never had truck with such things,” the servant insisted. “He was raised a good Christian man.”

“Even the Anglican church accepts magick- albeit in form of official Merlins,” I said. “But be that as it may, it could be our lead to Mike’s killer; if Mike did not use it than his killer did.”

We went back up stairs to the parlor where Miss Ellenbogen waited for us. She was sipping her tea with deliberate calm when we reentered the room. It was as if she had not moved since we left.

“You saw.” Was all she said.

I sat opposite her again and told her about my discovery of dark sorcery.

“Then, “ she said, “my brother was not just killed, but foully killed.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Perhaps like the others,” Angus spoke up.

“Others?”

“Since Mike was—“ she said, “ Since Mike died, two other saloon owners in the neighborhood have died.”

“Much the same way,” the Scotsman added. “Oh, not so spectacularly-sorry, ma’am- as Mister Mike, but violently.”

“And this roused no interest from the authorities?” I asked.

“We are not ‘respectable, baronet,” The girl said with obvious pain. “So death in our class, violent or otherwise is not much of a concern to the police forces.”

“I thought you Americans were all about lack of class distinctions,” I said. The girl snorted in derision. “Well,” I continued, “We will not let this rest, dear lady, I promise you I will find out who did this.”

She looked at me with eyes a blink away from tears, “Why?” she asked, “Why would you do this for us?”

I noted she said ‘us’ and that was telling.

“He was my friend,” I said. “And you are his sister; is that not enough?”

She sat upright. “I am sorry, baronet,” she said quietly. “Of course- from what Mike said about you I should have realized it would be.”

“How shall we proceed, your lordship,” Angus asked.

“First off, call me Athelstan,” I replied, “I am not a lord.”

“Then you should call me Spike, ‘ the girl said, sniffing away her tears. I nodded.

“Alright, Spike,” I continued, “ Secondly, I think we need to look at who would benefit from Mike’s death.”

“Benefit?” The girl asked.

“Competitors or creditors who would want him out of the way.”

“Mister Mike had no creditors, sir,” Angus said. “At least since he returned from Egypt he has always been able to pay cash for all his bills of lading.”

“Cash?” I said. I knew that Mike was a canny businessman, but he had only on his journey to the sands of Egypt because of a steamship ticket he won in a poker game. He had not been a wealthy man—not then.

“Yes,” Miss Ellenbogen said. “We inherited a small bar on 14th Street from our dad and ran it at the edge of foreclosure for two years before he went away but when he returned he had the money to buy Mike and Spike’s. He would never tell me where the money came from.”

I studied the remains of my tea in its cup for a long moment while I digested that while I hesitated to voice my thoughts about my friend, but realized I had to.

“Could Mike have been involved in some sort of criminal enterprise, Spike-something that would make any secret partners-“

“Mister Mike was the salt of the earth, sir,” Angus injected before the girl could object. “He would no more be involved with that sort than—than a vicar with a rum runner!”

Both Spike and I looked to the giant who shrugged. “Seemed like a good analogy to me,” He said.

“I personally know a vicar on the Romney Marshes that ran rum,” I said. “But yes, I get the point; I don’t believe Mike could be anything but a little mischievous and just enough crooked to keep on the right side of things.”  That got a giggle from Spike.

“But,” I continued, “ that does not mean that someone else did not think he was not trustworthy- people tend to see themselves in people.”

“Yes,” she said. “Mike could cut a good deal, a sharp deal, so some people might have—well…”

“So tell me who he might owe or more importantly, who might owe him?”

“There were five I can think of he either had lent money to or had problems with us opening here,” Spike said. “Hanover Jones, who I hear went back to Brooklyn, Juice Martin over on Fourteenth Street and the Marble brothers over on Third are left. Race Mangani and Dave Burton were—they were -this last week-.”

“The other murders?” I asked.

“Yes,” Angus said. “Race was found floating in the Hudson – they said sharks or fish got to him but he was all torn up, and Burton well, they only found his head and a lot of blood in his brothel on the east side.”

I thought for a moment then held out my empty cup. “I think this is a two tea cup problem, Spike,” I said. “We have plans to make.”

****

The New York-Brooklyn Bridge was an amazing edifice and proof positive that this raw new country called the United States of America was ready for its place in the greater world.

Its granite towers and steel cables rose over two hundred and seventy feet from the water of the East River and connected the island of Manhattan to the larger Long Island at the city of Brooklyn. It was over fifteen hundred feet long and wide enough for four lanes of carriage traffic and pedestrians walks ways on the outside, while trolleys ran along the center of the bridge.

Beneath it steam ships chugged and beside it small, ‘commuter’ dirigibles, looking like floating pickles, buzzed across the river in a steady stream from both directions.

Angus was driving a closed hansom with Miss Ellenbogen and myself in the back. I had sent a message to my aunt that I would be late and the three of us had decided that the first course of action would be to venture to the adjacent city of Brooklyn and visit one Mister Hanover Jones.

After sitting in the closed pub the young lady was charged with excitement at being able to actively do something about finding her brother’s killer. Even the taciturn highlander was grinning with the prospect of some action. Little did we all realize just how much action we would be finding.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four:

Knuckles for Lunch

The bridge disgorged us onto the broad Atlantic Avenue and the semi-rural nature of this near city to Manhattan was immediately clear. The air was crisper and with none of the soot from the island though the wide streets were still thronging with people. It was a large city in its own right but of a very different character than its near neighbor.

The streets were wider and the nature of the shops were more exotic, with Syrian and Lebanese signs on food and clothing storefronts. We moved with the flow of horse carriage traffic along side horse drawn trolleys.

“After we pass Borough Hall we can move along the water front more quickly than this main avenue,” Angus called from the driver’s seat.

“You know the way?” I called up.

“Aye, sir,” The highlander tossed back, raising his voice above the sound of the street, “I accompanied Mister Mike out here when he came back from Egypt to meet with Mister Jones.

“Hanover is hiding out at his ‘country’ place in Brighton Beach,” Spike said with disgust. “ He was raised out there; then he had the bar down the block from us on Fourteenth Street. He owed markers to our dad and when Mike and I inherited they came to us. He resented that and for a time he contested them, but when Mike came back from Egypt they had that meeting and my brother said afterward that the debt was forgiven.”

I touched the eye of Horus amulet my friend had given me on our stay in Cairo and felt a deep sadness again that rose to anger quickly. “Why would Mike do that?” I asked.

“I asked him,” she said, “ but he just said that since we were moving to Twenty Third there was no point in keeping any sort of anger going- that there was enough room for all of us.”

“It would seem to me that would make this Hanover Jones grateful, not angry.”

“I know,” she said, “ but it was just the opposite, he said it shamed him, made him seem a welcher- though he never made any effort to pay off. He started to badmouth Mike to anyone who would listen.”

“This would all be a little easier if we could locate this Little Tony you say is missing,” I remarked as he pulled off the main avenue.

“We tried,” Spike said. “But it is like he just vanished.”

Angus wheeled our carriage past the municipality’s governmental offices and to a roadway that led along the East River waterfront.

We rode for a while in uncomfortable silence, driving by sugar refining plants, dockyards, gas refineries, ironworks, several slaughterhouses, and factories, I was told, that produced everything from clocks, pencils, and glue, to cakes, beer, and some fine cigars.

I pondered the scarcity of facts about Mike’s death when the carriage rounded a turn onto a short causeway that would bring us to the Coney Island. The resort was a complex of entertainment parks, racetracks and beaches for recreation.

As we pulled onto Surf Avenue the marvel I had heard about presented itself to our eyes. Looming over the landscape was The Elephant Hotel! At 150 feet tall, The Coney Island Elephant was an astounding sight to behold as it loomed over the amusement centers of the Brighton Beach portion of Coney Island. Its legs were 18 feet in diameter, with the front legs serving as a cigar store while the back legs held the entrance to the actual hotel via a circular stairway. Angus proudly told me “Its construction cost a quarter million American dollars!”

I knew Aunt Mini would want to see it for her self, possibly even stay in one of the rooms before we left New York; it had not been built when she was last here.

In short order we pulled up in front of a vulgarly painted house on a side street off of Surf Avenue. It was all greens and yellows in bright, Caribbean colors and while it might have looked at home in Kingston Jamaica stood out even against the brightly colored brick or wooden buildings in the area of this resort community.

The Jones refuge was two stories and sprawling with a wide porch that surrounded the whole of the building, which was set back from the road with a broad lawn, effectively a green moat. When we stepped out of the coach the sharp tang of salt air was brisk and refreshing.

“Mister Jones may not be very receptive,” Angus said from the driver’s perch. “Perhaps I should go first?”

“I’ve never been afraid of that big windbag,” Spike said with a vigor that reminded me again of Aunt Mini. “And beside, I have his lordship with me, if Hanover starts anything it will be an international incident.”

“I’m not a lord,” I reminded her, “but I do hope to be of use should this fellow get stroppy.” I brandished my sword cane and grinned. “I do need to try this out.”

We walked up the steps to the building but as we mounted the stairs the door to the building opened and two large gentlemen exited.

“What do you want?” The bald headed fellow to the left of the door said. He had a large mustache and considerable evidence of a pugilistic past marked in scar tissue around his eyes and in a deformed left ear.

“We are here to see Mister Jones,” I said, offering my card. “We have no appointment, but I am sure he will see us.” I gave my most engaging smile.

The thug did not look at the card but made a point of dropping it and stepping on it. “Mister Jones ain’t here. Go.”

I looked to Spike. “I think the gentleman has forgotten the rules of grammar,” I said.

“Leave, Limey,” the thug said. “We don’t want what you are selling.”

“Not selling anything,” I said, “I’m giving this away-“ I laughed then and drove the knob of my walking stick into the fellow’s stomach. It was a muscled one, but he still gasped and doubled, his beady eyes bugging out.

His companion guardian reacted with snake-quick speed, producing a folding knife and lunging at me.

Spike yelled a warning, but I had anticipated some action so whirled my cane to slash it across the fellow’s temple, felling him.

“I suggest you tell Mister Jones we simply must see him,” I suggested to the coughing man. I turned him around and gave him a gentle shove toward the door. “And do hurry, I don’t relish being in this town after dark.”

The wounded fellow stumbled in through the door and closed it behind him.

“He’ll come back with a gun,” Spike said. She signaled to Angus who produced a carriage gun from beneath his seat on the hansom, but I waved him off.

“I think not, “ I said. “I suspect Mister Jones will be too intrigued to send us off without looking us over personally.”

She looked at me with her head tilted to the side like a curious cat and gave an elfish smile. “Mike said you were as mad as he was,” she said. “Now I see he was wasn’t exaggerating.”

Mad perhaps, but I had calculated correctly, for when the door opened again it was a liveried butler.

“If you would follow me this way please,” The black servant said. “Master Jones will see you in his study.”

I held out my arm for the girl and she took it. “You certainly know how to make an entrance, Athelstan.”

“I learned from Aunt Mini.”

****

The ‘study’ of our host proved to be a gymnasium where Mister Hanover Jones was dutifully and handily working a heavy canvas boxing bag. It was a large room at the back of the house that had probably first been constructed as a conservatory, with large glass floor-to-ceiling windows that showed a lush back yard and the amusements of Brighton Beach beyond. The impressive edifice of the Elephant Hotel loomed large with a racetrack visible behind it.

Above the Elephant a commercial airship painted with the green and red colors of the Mali Empire floated like some whale of the air heading to dock in Manhattan.

Our host was stripped to the waist and wearing tights while he attacked the heavy bag with vigor.  When we entered he slowed his assault but did not look up or stop.

“Connal here says you want to see me,” he said. When he did glance up he saw my companion and stopped. “Well, Spike- all the way out here in the hinterlands.” He held out a hand and an overly made up blonde woman, dressed gaudily for daytime in a pink and blue gown, handed him a towel. “Sorry to hear about your brother.” My two playmates from the front stoop were standing at the window scowling past their employer and, I imagine, daydreaming of a rematch.

The blonde woman kept her left hand hidden in the folds of her dress. The two stout fellows lounging near the windows made a point of ‘casually’ being obvious about guns under their ill-fitting jackets.

Hanover Jones was a dark skinned man of obvious mixed blood with a shaven head and a slight trace of a Jamaican accent beneath his New York one. He wiped down his face and the put the towel around his shoulders, turning his attention to me with a long, condescending glance. “Who’s the dandy?”

I handed my hat to the butler and shrugged off my cloak while smiling at the well-muscled Jones. “Sir Athelstan Grey,” I said.  I extended my hand but made no move to step toward him and grasp it.

Jones made no move to take my hand. “So,” he said. “ What do you want?”

“Jonesy!” Spike exclaimed. “That’s no way to talk to a baronet! He came all the way from England to see the sights and you talk rude to him like that! I oughta box your ears!”

“We fought a war not to have to cowtow to lords and such, Spike.”

“I’m not a peer,” I pointed out again cheerfully as I took his measure, “so cowtowing is not required at all; just common courtesy would be fine. You should try it.”

Hanover snorted and took a step toward me that promised violence.

Miss Ellenbogen intervened and threw an exploratory salvo at the pugilist. “We came to ask if you’d seen Little Tony, Hanover.”

“Why would I see that slob?” Jones asked.

“Well,” she said, “ you made yourself scarce about the same time as Tony disappeared- when Mike was—well, anyway we thought you might know what happened to him.”

“I couldn’t care less.” He said a little too quickly and turned his back on us.

I did not like that and I decided not to let it go.

“You are a cad, sir,” I said. Jones froze. “And a coward, from the looks of things.”

The pugilist spun at that and glared at me.

“Baronet!” Spike said with sudden fear in her voice. “We better go.”

“Yes, your lordship,” Jones said. “You had better go.”

“”What is it with you colonials,” I said as I loosened my cravat and handed my stick and Horus medallion to a confused Spike. “You seemed obsessed with elevating me to a peerage.” I produced my leather riding gloves and donned them, stepping forward to the center of the room, my eyes locked with Jones’. He clearly understood the meaning of the gesture and smiled with cold glee.

“I’d like to elevate you to the pearly gates,” our host said. He put up his fists and took a boxing stance. “No one called Hanover Jones a coward and walks away.”

 

 

Chapter Five:

Bruise and Consequences

 

“You and I in single contention, unmolested by your aids?’ I stated my terms. “And no harm to Miss Ellenbogen either way this works out?” This brought a savage grin from the muscular Jones.

“Stay back all of you,” he called out to his servants, his eyes still locked with mine. “And I’d never bring harm to Spike-“ he grinned like an urchin and was suddenly less menacing. “She’s like a little cousin to me.”

Spike snorted a laugh at that. “I’d ain’t got no family as homely as you, Jonesy.”

“Call the rounds, Candy,” Jones called to his blonde doxie. The girl nodded and picked up a spoon to use as an improvised striker to hit a metal mug as a makeshift bell.

Jones came at me like a hurricane, his leather-mittened fists flying like a flock of crows driven by a gale. It was clear he fully expected to overwhelm ‘ the dandy’ who stood before him in the first rush and assert his control over the room.

I, however, had other plans.

Aunt Mini laced my first boxing gloves on me when I was six years old. I’d came home from school with a bloody nose, courtesy of some older form boys who did not like my being raised by a ‘savage American’ woman and so had beat me up on the football pitch.

She coached me for a week after which I’d faced each of them individually, trouncing them publicly and completely. They left me alone afterward.

Since then I had studied the manly arts under many instructors and had more than enough chances to put it to practical tests in many alleys and bars from Liverpool to Bombay.

As Jones advanced I danced away slipping each punch with light slaps to his fists. I angled to his left as I back-pedaled, forcing him to circle and extend himself to keep up his attack.

I saw the annoyance on his face as his calculated plan to humiliate me faltered and he reassessed how to defeat me.

It was as I wanted it.

I’d seen his kind before, they had no respect for anyone who did not stand up to them. If we had left at Jones’ order we wouldn’t have learned anything. If I could hold my own against him then, if he did have anything of import to tell us about Mike’s death or his man Tony, he might tell us.

I kept back pedaling, slowly, letting the pugilist appear to make progress with a flurry of combinations I barely blocked, then faded away from him to draw him on.

Jones realized I was moving backward to tire him out and decided to hold his ground and force me to bring the fight to him. So I did.

I glided in and fired two quick, but weak, left jabs at him that he blocked with solid technique. He then tried to counter, thinking I had no starch because of my ‘weak’ jabs.

I let him send a powerful right my way, hunching my shoulder to absorb the blow (though is was still quite powerful and hurt a darn sight) then twisted in low to drive the hardest right uppercut I could launch into Jones’ diaphragm.

The blow landed perfectly. The pugilist was lifted up off the ground and sent back two steps. He did not, however, fall.

Suddenly the improvised bell sounded and round one was done.

Jones gasped for breath, but I will say he was rum, as he never dropped his guard. He kept his eyes focused on me like two flaming beacons as he stumbled back to his blonde.

I smiled.

“You see, Mister Jones,” I said, “You really shouldn’t judge people by appearances alone.”

He growled and smiled a feral smile.

“Athelstan,” Spike whispered tensely, “this is crazy.” Her eyes were wide with worry. “You’ve been lucky so far, but Jonesy is a killer with his fists he-“

“Shhh,” I said with a cocked eyebrow. “You do not inspire confidence.”

“But he-“

“No buts,” I said. “He is not trying to kill me, he wants to- needs to humiliate me in front of his people.”

“So -“

“Be at ease, Miss,” I said. “I have things well in hand.”

The blonde clanged the spoon against the mug and round two began.

The pugilist came back at me with a quick series of punches that I also dodged, replying to him with several quick jabs to his upper arms, targeting the biceps to weaken him. He grinned at that attack with understanding, clearly reassessing my skill.

“You got this, boss,” one of the bodyguards at the window chimed in. “You can take out the limey trash.”

I didn’t honor the comment with much notice but threw another combination at Jones to back him up in response.

“Not what you expected from me, is it, Mister Jones,” I said. “But then I did not expect you to be so frightened by someone or something that would drive you to Brooklyn with armed guards in the room with you-including charming miss Candy there- after Mike was murdered.”

“I’m not frightened of anyone,” Jones said and launched a renewed attack at me. This time he was cautious and powerful and I was hard pressed to block, dodge or reply to his complex combinations.

I gave ground but grudgingly and was able to land a few light blows as I backpedaled.

“If not any ’one’ then just what are you afraid of?” I asked, “What do you know about Mike’s death?”

My question seemed to infuriate him and he pressed harder, his speed and power all but doubled. I let him drive me for a few moments then as I dodged a hard right that would have ‘taken my head off’, as they say, I stepped in and swung an elbow hard into his temple.

The blow caught him solidly and his knees turned to rubber and he almost buckled. The moment he faltered his two men at the window reached under their coats but Jones danced backward and held up a hand.

“No,” he commanded. “He’s mine.”

“Nice thought, Mister Jones,” I said, impressed by his code of honor, but I added. “But I really am my own man.”

We paused then, fists up and eyed each other. I knew he had reassessed me as someone ‘possibly’ worth dealing with. If not as an ‘equal’ then as not quite so dismissible. I knew I had earned enough of his respect that he might tell us what we needed to know.

“Stop this!” Spike yelled, “Hanover Jones, if you know something about Mike’s death you have to tell us.”

Hanover gave her a sidelong glance. “You need to keep yourself quiet, girl; we have men’s work to do.”

The tiny girl seemed to grow a foot and stepped toward us. “You don’t tell me to shut up, Jonesy!  You’d never have talked to me like that when Mike was around-“

Just as I thought she was physically going accost my opponent she froze, a puzzled expression eclipsing her angry one.

“Athelstan,” she said with an alarmed tone. “Your walking stick—it—it- the jewel on the handle is vibrating.”

“What?” I exclaimed, “That means there is occult energies in-“

At that moment the windows exploded inward and a nightmare entered the room!

 

Chapter Six:

Highland Fling

 

The exploding glass shards sliced into the two bodyguards by the window slashing them virtually to ribbons.

The thing that landed in the center of the room was a living horror.

It was the twisted image of an animal, all fangs and fur. It landed, four-footedly and snarled at us.

Candy, frozen with the sudden appearance of the creature, came unstuck at the snarl and drew a pistol from the folds of her dress to fire at the monster.

Five quick shots struck the shaggy apparition that roared in defiance but the conventional bullet didn’t seem to do much but annoy the monster. It sprang at the blonde, knocking her off her feet. The beast slashed at her with razored claws, spraying gore everywhere.

Jones yelled and dove for the body of one of his guards to try and get a gun from the man’s holster, but his leather mittens hindered him.

I grabbed my sword-cane from a horrified Spike and drew the obsidian blade. I was hoping that it was not only good for detecting occult energies, but might be practical in eliminating them as well. My present from the Mexhican ambassador was not just a deadly edged weapon, but was imbued with centuries of Aztec magicks.

I sprang at the beast just as Jones managed to snatch off his mittens and brought a forty-five caliber pistol up to fire.

The beast turned as Jones fired, pausing and shuddering slightly with each impact but undaunted by the impacts.  The bullet hits seemed only served to enrage the creature. It leapt on the pugilist with a roar that sounded like a tormented soul.

Jones screamed in answering terror as the weight of the monster pinned him to the ground. He barely managed to get his hands up just in time to keep the slathering jaws from his throat.

I was on the beast in the next instant, slashing wildly at its eyes with the black blade of my sword cane to try to drive it off the man. The monster yelped when my blade cut a long gash along its snout. A bluish liquid I assumed was blood splashed from the wounds, yet it continued to try to tear at Jones’ throat. I changed tactics and, remembering the cry from Agincourt of ‘Estoc’, I thrust at it instead of slashing. I drove the point into were the head joined its upper body.

I felt a tingling surge of occult power flow from the black blade that almost numbed my fingers.

The roar of pain from the monster was like a hurricane of sound driving against my diaphragm and staggering me back.

The animal was hurt.

It roared once more as it turned and jumped at me, but I ducked and slashed upward along its side as it passed over me. It twisted in the air and landed off balance, just in front of Spike.

“Run!” I screamed, but the girl was frozen with fear.

I spun, intent on attacking the creature before it could attack her, but it did something strange. It did absolutely nothing.

The huge brute simply stood, only a foot or two away from the terrified girl and sniffed. She shivered but did not back away from the creature.

I yelled and lunged at the monster’s back. Just then the inner door of the room was kicked open and seven feet of highlander charged in.

“Drop, Lassie!” Angus ordered. A shocked Spike complied as he discharged the coach gun directly in the apparition’s face.

The beast was literally blown backward by the concussion of the gun, tumbling into me and taking me down to the ground but it was not hurt.

The beast rolled to its feet, growled once more and spun to leap out through the shattered windows.

Suddenly everything was still in the silence of the aftermath, with only the sound that of the wounded Hanover Jones gasping for breath.

“God’s garters,” Angus said as he reloaded the two barrels of the shotgun. “What in the name of Merlin was that?”

Spike, her courage used up in holding her ground before the monster, was in a near faint, falling to one knee with release.

I scrambled to the two bodyguards, but they were both beyond help. Candy was also clearly dead so I did not even try to help her. Jones, however, was another story.

I ripped off my cravat and attempted to staunch some of the blood on the fallen man, but it was clearly a wasted effort.

“Oh my God,” Spike whispered. She saw what I was doing and, spunky young woman that she was, she pulled herself together and crawled to Hanover’s side.

“Jonesy!” The girl cradled the fallen man’s head and looked to me but I shook my head.

“I’m goin’, kid,” Jones said.  His voice was flat and his eyes were already glassing over. “Really am sorry about Mike, kid,” he coughed blood and it was clear he was dying.

“What do you know?” I asked, “Where is this Little Tony and –“

The dying fighter had a violent spasm and then fixed me with his eyes. “Juice Martin- Lordship,” he gasped, “Ask Juice.” Then he coughed once more and was absolutely still.  Dead.

“Everyone wants to elevate me,” I whispered.

Spike worked at not crying.

“We had better be going, lassie, baronet,” Angus said from the window. “The wee beastie is gone, but the police will be called after all this.”

“Right you are, Angus,” I said. I gently put my hand on Spike’s shoulder. “Come girl, we can’t be detained by the authorities now.”

She reached down and touched the dead boxer on his cheek as if to say goodbye, then crossed herself and stood up with a determined expression on her pretty face. “Let’s go talk to Juice,” she said. “We have to stop this.”

****

Angus got us swiftly away from the sight of the carnage and we took Surf Avenue, mixing with the late afternoon traffic before the other servants in Jones’ mansion could fully grasp what had happened in the building.

The shock of what she had seen was beginning to manifest in Spike, her slight form shaking for a chill that was not all motivated by the salty sea air, the girl was shaken near hysteria.

We were also all covered with blood to some degree that was sticking our clothes to us.  I wrapped my clean cloak over the girl to warm her and Angus had a Mackinaw that he had under his seat. It was large on me but I was grateful for the warmth.

“Jonesy was a jerk,” Spike whispered, “ but—but he didn’t deserve-“ She was at the edge of tears. “That—that was how Mike died.”

“Why do they call you Spike,” I startled her with my non-sequitor  question. I knew I needed to distract her and occupy her mind to keep her from dwelling on the horror she had witnessed.

“What?”

“How does a young lady named Bathsheba end up with an nom-de-guerre like Spike?”

The girl focused on me and I saw the panic in her eyes fade a bit as she cast her mind back to a better past and spoke. “We grew up in a pretty tough neighborhood and I wanted to be like Mike- my wonderful big brother, you know, and I dressed like him in pants and all-“ She indicated her split-skirt riding habit that had seemed so unusual on a city girl.  “They were his hand me downs, really- and I decided that Bathsheba was too girly a name as well. “

Tears came now, but gently as she spoke, her eyes focused not on me anymore, but a memory.  She looked away, out toward the city.  “He always looked out for me, tried to teach me how to be a good person and to take care of those with less. He told me that cause someone was strong meant they had to use that strength for others, not against them. And he was strong, but he never was a bully to the others in the neighborhood. I was.”  She giggled like a school girl-“ He was constantly having to rescue people from me. I was small but kind of bossy, I guess.”

I laughed. “I’m familiar with that kind of gal,” I said, thinking of my dear Aunt Mini.

“Mike got daddy to send me to finishing school to try and make a lady of me, to give me better prospects, he said. It was all the way up in Tuxedo, up state, but it didn’t take. I hated it. Then when daddy died while Mike was on his trip, I ran away.  When Mike came back he hunted me down over in New Jersey and he promised me that he wouldn’t send me back to the school. He bought the bar on Twenty Third Street I think so he could keep an eye on me, but we were happy. We were a good team.”

I could see the tears were going to start again so I interrupted her train of thought.

“Loathe as I am to bring it up, Spike,” I said, “ but we have to consider that since Master Jones was fourth in a line of pub owners who this beast has killed- with Mike number three- we have to think about the possibility that it followed you here or the beast is taking out all the bar owners.” He eyes widened when I added, “And now you are one. You could certainly be on any list. This is not just about finding Mike’s killer anymore—it is about protecting you as well.”

Chapter Seven:

On the Town

 

“Dat is real prime, eh, Athelstan,” Mad Mike Ellenbogen said in his quaint American idiom as he pressed his nose up against the glass window of the curio shop. We were on a back street in the Motkattam Highlands section of Cairo and it was a hot afternoon. “Wouldn’t that make a guy look the potentate wearing it?”

It was exactly the type of outrageous statement Mike had made regularly during our month wandering the bazaars and alleys of the ancient city the natives called Masr in Arabic.

The brusk American was a refreshing breath of fresh air with the stuffy crowd of English ex-patriots that, though only five percent of the population, occupied most of the government positions since the Ablion Empire took over. He reminded me of my Aunt and her very direct ways, though she had some forty years of exposure to the peers of the realm to learn to be circumspect now and then. Mike didn’t.

He now stood like a child at a confectioner’s window, looking at all the oil lamps, icons, prayer rugs and such in the display, as he had in many shops as we wandered. He talked of furnishing a ‘perfect gin joint’- a pub, when he got home at almost every shop we passed It would be a future for his sister and himself.

He never spoke about revenge, or getting more than the other guy, only his own goals, making his own way. And I liked that about him- he was his own man and didn’t blame the world or any other man for his misfortunes or expect succor from them. He believed in hard work and ‘running his own race’.

“We’d better be going, “ I said to Mike, “We have to meet my Aunt Mini over in Medieval Cairo at the Madrasa of the Amir Sarghatmish before their evening prayers. And I do want to see it before sunset.”

“Alright, buddy,” Mike said. “But I really like those medallions- the ones behind that lamp there.  Gonna come back for ‘em tomorrow.”

And Mike did, and gave me one which I clutched as I rode with his sister along Broadway of Manhattan, heading up town.

The girl had been silent after my proclamation of fear for her safety, lost in her own thoughts, but to her credit and my delight, she was not cowed or overcome with fear. She had set her jaw in a determined attitude that told me she would see this through to the end to find out who controlled her brother’s killer and find a way to destroy the monster.

I grasped the Horus medallion and thought again about not only Mike, but the story of Horus and Set. The ancient Egyptian name for the Cairo was Khere-Ohe, “The Place of Combat”, supposedly in reference to mythical battles that took place between the ancient gods, Seth and Horus.

 

 

 

They fought be the successor to the throne of Osiris to see who would be king. Was that what was happening to the saloon owners? If so, who was the Seth is all this? I held the Horus medallion and smiled, remembering that in the various battles Horus beat Seth each time.

“We’re here, M’lordship,” Angus called back from the driver’s seat. While I was woolgathering we had made it all the way to the gin parlor run on 14th Street by Juice Martin, one of those contending for kingship.

The gaslamps were lit along the darkened streets by now and the evening crowds were out and about. It seemed that there was little or no diminishment of the number from the daytime throngs that populated the thoroughfares. This city was indeed a marvel.

The establishment of Juice Martin was two blocks from the rival emporiums of Macy and James A Hearn & Son, across from Union Square Park. The other end of the block was a number of piano stores, as the area seemed to be a hub for such places; all now closed with the fall of night.

There were strollers in the park and not a few of them came across toward the street, dodging the clanging streetcar, to head into Juice Martin’s saloon, the Iron Apple.

It was a brassy sort of place, loud and garishly furnished with bright colors and mirrors. Two large Iroquois in full battle regalia and war paint stood at the door.

“You sure you don’t want me to come in with you, lassie?” Angus called down to Spike as she hopped down from the hansom.

“No, Angus,” she said. “If we need to make a quick get away we’ll need you out here.” He didn’t look like he liked the idea.

“She is right, old man,” I said. Angus’ mack’ hung a bit loosely on me but, while not fashionable, it covered the bloodstains on my trousers. Spike threw off my cloak and seemed mindless of the bloodstains on her dark split skirt. “I have a feeling we may need to exit expeditiously; keep your coach gun ready.”

My diminutive companion marched right up to one of the totem door guards, past a line of attendees waiting to enter the saloon. The native- a Mohawk from his dress- put a hand out to stop her.

“I need to see Juice,” she said with an edge to her voice.

The stone-faced Cerberus flicked a look to his partner, who was Seneca and the two of them stepped in to block Spike.

“Go,” the Mohawk said. Spike tried to shake his hand but he clamped a grip on her shoulder. She squirmed but made no sound, though I could tell it was a painful hold.

“You have till three to remove your hand, my good fellow,” I said. “Or I will become angry.” The Mohawk stared venomously at me.

I smiled. “Enhskat, Tekeni-“ I counted in his native tongue. His stoicism cracked and his hand eased up. Spike used the distraction to slip from him and headed into the noisy interior.

In answer to his unasked question I said, “I served with the Her Majesty’s First Iroquois Skirmishers in the Crimea; your people fought well.” His confusion transformed.

Akweks?” He said with a moment of recognition, calling me by the name the warriors on the line had given me after a particularly rough engagement with the Russian troops. It meant eagle.

“I have to see Juice,” I said in his language. “It is important for me and the girl. We are not here to bring any harm to your employer; this I swear.”

Spike had stopped just inside the door and was looking back at me, not sure what was going on with my conversation with the guard.

The Mohawk warrior nodded to his companion and waved me on.

“What was that?” Spike asked in awe.

“I’ll tell you later if we survive this.” I took her arm and we entered the Iron Apple. “But it does seem as if we can not enter anywhere without some sort of furor!”

Furor was not strong enough a term for the cacophony within the iron Apple; it was a madhouse of debauchery to rival anything on the west bank in Paris or the East End in London. Through the cloud of acrid tobacco smoke the packed main room of the saloon was a garish tableau, with a dozen scantily clad women on a stage at the opposite end of the room doing a vulgar version of the Parisian dance (that I had first seen in Marseilles) the Can-Can.

To say that it was not the sort of thing one should allow a young girl like Spike to see is an understatement, but it did not seem to disturb the young Miss Ellenbogen.

“There’s Juice,” she said, pointing through the haze toward a theatre style box overlooking the stage, wherein sat the owner of the establishment.

“That is Juice?” I asked, incredulously.

My shock came from the fact that the individual she indicated was a busty, red haired Amazon, dressed in silks and feathers and flanked by two equally impressive females.

“Sure,” Spike said with an expression that seemed to doubt my intellect. “What did you expect?”

I was at a loss for words and just shrugged. ‘Well,” I said, Shall we beard this beardless lion in her den?”

The girl nodded and we proceeded into the smoke and chaos to our appointment with destiny.

 

Chapter Eight:

Pow Wow

If I had worried about our appearance before entering the maelstrom I lost all such fears when I saw the clientele of the smoky, noisy Apple. They were as disparate and disreputable a gathering as I could hope to see anywhere in the world. The state of our clothing, blood-soaked or not- was not an issue.

More the issue was the young lady we met at the staircase that led up to the private box of Juice.

“No, go!” the Mohawk woman said. She was not dressed in Six Nation garb, but rather in a conventional-European evening gown that showed off her copper-colored shoulders, but I could see she had a Tomahawk comfortably hidden in her shawl. No doubt her long black hair, done up in a chignon, concealed a knife as well.

“We have to see Juice Martin,” I said in her native tongue, which had the same effect of stunning her to silence as it had at the front door with her compatriot. When she seemed confused as to what to do next I added, “I am Akweks.”

Again my fame preceded me and she held up a hand. “You wait.” Before she turned and headed up the stairs.

“You certainly know some odd people,” Spike said.

“Present company included?”  That got a stuck out tongue from Miss Ellenbogen. Before I could add a comment the Mohawk girl was back and waved us up the stairs.

“So, you’re the English Toff that the Indians think so much of?” Juice Martin said as she stepped into the doorway of her private box to face us. The red haired woman was half a head taller than I, easily my weight or more and, shall I say, ‘substantial’ all around. She wore a green gown that showed off her décolletage in a way that was, to say the least distracting.

“Sir Athelstan Grey, Madam,” I said.

“He’s a baronet,” Spike chimed in.

“I’m no madam,” Juice said. She had a high, nasal voice that would have been more expected from a smaller woman. “But I ain’t met no baronet before, what can I do you for?”

Besides the two women who flanked her there was a fourth figure in the box, a thin, bearded, brown skinned man who I guessed was Middle Eastern, he was dressed casually in a rather non-descript brown suit that hung loosely on his thin limbs. He seemed especially small and drab next to the women who were dressed in silk and lace, and like their employer, were Amazonian in proportions. Both women clearly had pistols at the ready in their clutches. Women in this country were all apparently armed to the teeth.

“It may be more about what we can do for you, Miss Martin,” I said. “Your life may be in danger.”

“Oh stop it, Juice,” Spike spoke up. “We just came from Hanover Jones.”

“Sorry to hear about him,” Juice said, “But what does his death have to do with me?”

“We think his killer might be after you next,” I said quickly. I could feel the walking stick’s tingle of warning again but did not let on. “So you should take precautions.”

The woman laughed. “Girls,” She said. At her word the two females from the box produced their revolvers. The redhead waved them to re-holster and said, “So you see, I don’t need no protection from a half-pint like you, Spike.”

The girl beside me made a strangled sound of fury and started to step forward but I blocked her. “That is good to hear, Miss Martin,” I said. “We were sorry to have troubled you.”

‘Oh you can stay around, Lordship,” Martin said, “ but we have standards here, she has to go.”

Spike exploded past me and I had to act fast to grab and restrain her. She yelled some very un-lady-like phrases at the saloon owner as I wrestled her back toward the stairs.

Juice laughed long and loud in her squeaky voice.

I looked back and was struck by the posture of the little brown man, he seemed about to cry, his large dark eyes watery and his shoulders slumped as he watched me half carry the girl to the stairs and down.

I walked Spike through the saloon’s main floor like she was a drunken sailor while she continued to spew invectives. When we got out the door Angus jumped down from the carriage and looked ready to come to blows with me when he saw me manhandling the girl, but she broke away and went past him to jump up into the hansom.

“What’s all this?” the highlander challenged me.

“Take us around the park, Angus,” I said, “I’ll explain to both of you as we go.”

“I’m not talking to you,” Spike snapped at me when I sat beside her.

“Then just listen-“

“I don’t have to listen to a damn thing you have to say, you high buttoned, over-bred invader!” She hissed at me, her arms crossed and looking straight ahead. “Some friend of Mike’s taking the part of that giant sized floozy!”

I had to work manfully to keep from laughing at the girl.

Angus took us up Union Square West at a slow walk and I filled him in on what had happened in the saloon.

“But why did ye not confront the woman with accusation, sir,” he said to me.

“Yes, “ Spike said, “Why did you just give her a how-ya-do and then turn tail and leave.”

“What did Juice say when you told her we had just come from Hanover Jones’?”

“She said he was sorry to hear about him, so?” Spike had finally looked at me but there was still fire in her eyes.

“How did she know to be sorry, for what? I didn’t tell her anything, and neither did you.”

“But-“

“She already knew that Hanover was dead. How? We all but raced back here.”

“Telephone?”

“Possibly, but why would someone call her unless to report a job well done?”

She nodded, having completely forgotten she was angry at me by now and looked me square in the face.

We had made a circle of the park and were back on Fourteen Street. “Then you think Juice hired the killer?” She asked. “Do you think Little Tony is somewhere in her place?”

“Both seem possible, “ I said, “ but we had best go see the last set of suspects straight away- they are either the guilty ones or set to be murdered if our prodding’s have any effect on Miss Martin.”

“Head to the Marble Brother’s place, Angus,” she called up. Then she turned to look at me. “I guess Mike wasn’t all full of prune juice about you after all.”

“Thank you, I think.”

Angus steered us along the street till we came to Third Avenue where he turned south under the rumbling elevated tramway. The establishment of the Marble siblings was on Tenth Street and Third Avenue in the shadow of the elevated train.

The street was choked with traffic, pedestrian and horse, as the many saloons and restaurants along the street began their nocturnal cycle of business. It was a very different clientele than even the few blocks over where the Iron Apple was located.

This was the sort of strata of society that only came out after dark, pimps and prostitutes, gadabouts looking for thrills, simply risqué or actually illicit.

“The Marbles are the lowest of the low,” Spike said to me as if reading my thoughts. “But they own six joints along here and are beginning to angle to move uptown to the thirties and get a little class.” She snorted, “Like that could ever happen!”

“I don’t care what you say, lassie,” Angus said from the driver’s seat, “I’m going into that place with you two.” He slipped his coach gun under his coat and smiled.

I could understand his concern, the ‘flagship’ gin joint of the Marbles miniature empire was subtly called “the Bucket of Blood,’ and would have been at home in the seediest Glasgow or Bombay waterfront pub. Two huge negroes, easily Angus size stood at the door but did not even give us a second look as we entered. I even felt the worldly Spike tense, but fortunately, there was no tingling of occult energy from my walking stick.

I am always thankful for small favors in the uncertain world.

 

 

Chapter Nine:

Twiddle Dee and Sibling

 

The Bucket of Blood made me reassess the vulgarity level of Juice Martin’s establishment. The tobacco smoke was as thick, the noise level as high, but the atmosphere was not one of ribald licentiousness, but rather of a deliberate, desperate sort of revelry. It was as if everyone in the crowded room sought oblivion with a fierce determination.

I have been in opium dens in China that had a more hopeful air about them.

The three of us pushed through the boisterous crowd until we collided with an open space at the long bar.

“This place is nae a place for you, lassie,” Angus said, quite unnecessarily. “Let his lordship and I talk to the Marbles.”

I had given up correcting people on peerage, though the Scotsman should have known better.

“No,” Spike said, “I can see this through.”

She had spunk, there was no denying it.

“We need to see the owners,” I said to the bartender, a scarred fellow with only one good eye which he regarded me with as if I was a week old fish.

There was a piano playing and some woman, pretending to be singer, warbled a popular tune as she floated out above the heads of the crowd (and just out of grabbing height) on a flying carpet. She was dressed as some damsel from Arabian Nights to show off her ample figure and when she waved at the audience the general level of noise commensurate with football pitch or a bullfight.

Whatever form of magick- Aztec, smuggled Merlinian or other, used to fly the carpet made my walking stick useless for detecting any occult threats, but one can not have everything.

I stared back at the barkeep and said with a slight raise in my voice’s volume, “Well?”

“Nobody sees the brothers,” he said.

“Ah,” I said. “But I am not ‘Nobody.” I reached across the bar and grabbed the large fellow by his left ear and yanked him face forward into the bar so that he was mercifully unconscious when the ‘singer’ began-

‘Oh, promise me that someday you and I

Will take our love together to some sky

Where we may be alone and faith renew,’

A bouncer appeared out of the maelstrom of the room, stout cudgel in his hand just as the crowd joined the singer in the next chorus.

And find the hollows where those flowers grew,

Those first sweet violets of early spring,

Which come in whispers, thrill us both, and sing

Of love unspeakable that is to be;

Oh, promise me! Oh, promise me!’

 

The bouncer quickly found Angus’ coach gun shoved up against his girthsome stomach and froze in midstep.

“As I said,” I repeated for his benefit, “I am here to see the Marble brothers. And really don’t like to be disappointed.”

A second security thug appeared but the first waved him off.

“Oh knock it off,” Spike called out, “Shamus and Donal know me- tell them Spike Ellenbogen has information for them.”

The second bouncer disappeared into the crowd while the woman on the stage got the crowd to join her enthusiastically in the rest of the off-key drinking song.

Oh, promise me that you will take my hand,

The most unworthy in this lonely land,

And let me sit beside you in your eyes,

Seeing the vision of our paradise,

Hearing God’s message while the organ rolls

Its mighty music to our very souls,

No love less perfect than a life with thee;

Oh, promise me! Oh, promise me!

 

I began to regret not going to the Wagner opera.

“You are insane,” Spike yelled to me above the din with a smile. “Mike really was right about you.”

A few tense minutes and a horrid repeat of the refrain later the guard returned and rescued us from having to listen to the third chorus. We were led (Angus still held his gun to the bouncer’s belly) directly beneath the hovering carpet to a short corridor at the back of the cavernous room.

My walking stick was continuously tingling now so I ignored it.

At the entrance to the short corridor a figure stepped from the shadows. It was the same small man in a rumpled brown suit I had seen at Juice Martin’s. Seeing him closer I suspected him to be middle-eastern, possibly Arabic.

Sadeeqy Spike,” the man said to the girl and ignoring the rest of us.  “You must leave this place.”

The girl evidenced no immediate recognition of the little man. “I ain’t leaving here till I see the Marbles,” she said.

“You do not understand,” he said. “I must obey the words as they are spoken.”

“What are you talking about?” Spiked asked. She looked back at me with an arched eyebrow.

He saw the gesture and looked directly at me and his eyes seemed to linger on my Eye of Horus medallion. “Azizi” he said which I knew meant friend in Arabic so my guess at his ancestry seemed accurate. “She must not linger in this place. I must follow the words exactly.”

Before I could ask him what he meant the door at the end of the short corridor opened and flooded the hall with illumination. The little man shied from it as if scalded by the light and jumped back into the shadows of the alcove he had come from.

“Bring them in here!” A booming voice called out from inside. The bouncer waved us forward and our little parade proceeded. When I looked back I could not see the little man at all.

“Well, Little Sister,” one of the Marble brothers said to Spike when we entered the back office. I surmised who he was from the fact that the two men seated behind a massive desk were as alike as two peas in a pod. They were as round as their namesakes, as well, with multiple chins and bushy side-whiskers in bright red. They wore matching green plaid suits and incongruously small bowler hats.

“Spike, my girl,” the brother on the right said. “What brings you here?”

“Slumming, girl?” the left brother asked.

“Don’t you talk to me like that, Shamus Marble,” she shot back. “We came here to warn you about Juice-.”

At that moment another figure stepped from an alcove beyond the desks, a fellow almost as stout as the two brothers, but on a slightly smaller scale. He had a shaven head and a boxer’s ear on the left side.

“Little Tony!” Spike blurted out.

“That is ‘little’ Tony?” I asked.

“I’m sorry Miss Spike,” the new arrival said, “I didn’t mean for Mister Mike-“

“Shut up, Tony,” The right brother, whom I took to be Donal, said. “You don’t have to say anything to this little vixen.”

“Watch it, mon,” Angus said. He removed his coach gun from the bouncer’s gut and swung it around to menace the brothers. “Yea’ll not talk to the lassie that way.”

“Easy, all of you,” I said. “Come on, Spike- these ‘gentlemen’ do not need help from us; we are done here.”

She started to object but I flashed her a look that quieted her- she was beginning to respect my ‘hunches.’

We three, with the two ‘bouncers’ walked back out through the short corridor in reverse order to our entering. The door to the office closed with a decidedly hostile slam and I suspected we would not have been leaving under our own power if Angus did not have his coach gun.

I saw no sign of the little Arab fellow but I was soon distracted from looking by the fresh aural assault on us by the floating carpet singer.

Star of the East, Oh Bethlehem’s star,

Guiding us on to Heaven afar!

Sorrow and grief and lull’d by thy light,

Thou hope of each mortal, in death’s lonely night!

 

Mercifully the crowd was not singing along, but the lady warbler was more than proficient at musical murder on her own.

“Will you tell me what-“ Spike began but I cut her off.

“When we are outside,” I said, “I will tell you my suspicions, but there are to many ears in here.”

Fearless and tranquil, we look up to Thee!

Knowing thou beam’st thro’ eternity!

Help us to follow where Thou still dost guide,

Pilgrims of earth so wide.

 

Abruptly there was a shrill scream that was loud enough to eclipse the ‘sultry’ singer-It was a sound of such agony and unbridled horror that even the denizens of the Bucket froze where they stood. The jewel on my walking stick near burned my hand with the intensity of the power it projected.

“God’s garters!” Angus exclaimed.

The two security men ran for the door and I turned to the Scotsman.

“Take her to the hansom, Angus,” I yelled at him. “And if she gives you problems subdue her if you must, but get her out!” I did not wait to see if he complied and raced after the bouncers.

 

 

 

Chapter Ten:

Juice and Justice

 

The door to the Marble Brother’s office was bolted from within but the two burly security men preceded me slammed themselves against it repeatedly till the bolt gave. I was right behind them.

The scene we burst in on was as hideous as the one at Hanover Jones’ place. The two Marble siblings were ripped open like slaughtered beef, hanging over their desks with most of their entrails spilled all over the floor.

Little Tony was just in process of expiring, his rotund body sprawled before the desk. Standing over him was the same creature that had killed Jones, its jaws slathered with gore. It looked up at us, snarled and began to move toward us.

I drew my sword cane and brandished it, the jewel in its pommel glowing with the etheric energies it was detecting.

The beast paused and then as if in a nightmare began to waver and dissolve into a smoky mass that blew toward the flue of the fireplace.

As we watched in stunned inaction the dissolved fiend disappeared up the chimney like a demented version of Santa Claus.

“What the hell was dat?” One of the bouncers asked when he could speak.

“I think I finally know,” I managed to whisper. I knelt by the dying Tony. His eyes were unfocused and blood poured from his mouth but he could still make sound.

“I didn’t mean it.” He hissed through the bubbling blood. “Juice offered me so much money-“

“It was an artifact?” I asked. “Mike brought it back from Egypt?”

“Yes.”  His voice was weaker and I am not sure he even knew he was speaking to me anymore and not just confessing his sins. “Thought it was just money. Juice-she knew, somehow she knew.”

“Where does she keep it?”

“Safe,” the dying man whispered. “Office.” Then his body convulsed and then Little Tony was no more.

“Jeez,” one of the bouncers said sotto voce, “I ain’t paid enough for this.”

“Eloquent, sir,” I said as I rose. “Tell that to the police when they arrive.” Then I headed out through the saloon crowd to the carriage. To add to the horror of the situation the warbler had started up again.

Oh star that leads to God above!

Whose rays are peace and joy and love!

Watch o’er us still till life hath ceased,

Beam on, bright star, sweet Bethlehem star!

 

 

I imagined the words might be comfort for the departed brothers, but they did nothing to improve my mood.

“What happened?”  A very angry Spike shot at me when I jumped into the hansom.

I ignored her and yelled up to the Scotsman, “Back to Juice’s place, Angus, as fast as you can, things are about to come to a head.” Then to quiet the girl I told her what I had seen and heard.

“So he as much as confessed he killed Mike?” she was so shocked by the betrayal of her former employee that her anger at me for excluding her was blunted.

“Not quite,” I said. The highlander was threading the carriage through the busy streets with a recklessness abandon that would put any London Cabbie to shame.

“But you said-“ She began.

“No,” I injected, “ I think he honestly thought it was just going to be a robbery- perhaps he even intended to pass it off as the work of someone else. But then things went wrong. If I am right it was much more than he bargained for. Yet, somehow, Juice knew.”

“Knew what?” She all but grabbed me to try and force the words from me but Angus was already pulling to the curb in front of Juice’s emporium so I jumped from the hansom.

“I’ll show you inside,” I said. “Come on, Angus, we’ll need that coach gun of yours.” I raced ahead of Miss Ellenbogen and up to the Iroquois door guard.

“Your mistress is in danger,” I said with real urgency in my tone. “We must see her.”

He looked at me with curiosity. “Is this so, Akweks?”

“Yes.” My tone and the anxious faced of my companions convinced him it was so. I did not tell him that we were the probable reason that his boss was in danger.

The Mohawk led the three of us into the Iron Apple and across the main floor to a corridor accessed by a door guarded by yet another of his tribe.

I could sense that Spike wanted to ask me exactly what we were doing, but was wise enough to realize she could not do it in front of the Mohawk. She did fix me with a cold stare and I smiled back as nonchalantly as possible.

We were escorted down the corridor to a second door, outside of which stood the female Mohawk guard from before.

Our guide spoke to her briefly and the siren stepped aside for we three to enter, though her grim expression showed she was not convinced. We ushered into the sanctum of Juice Martin, a large, lavishly appointed office-cum-lounge.

The saloon owner was seated on a couch with one of the painted women from before rubbing her feet. The other woman from the box was pouring a drink from a small bar on the side of the room when we entered and all three turned to gawk at us.

“What is all this, Orenda?” Juice asked of the Mohawk.

I felt quite the cad, but before our guide could answer- and the second the door was closed- I spun quickly and slammed my walking stick against his head, rendering him very unconscious.

“Angus- cover them!” I yelled and the coachman produced his gun from beneath his coat.

The two women froze but Juice made to spring up from her couch and speak. I would not allow that.

I leapt forward and drew my sword blade and pressed it directly to her throat.

“Do not utter a sound, madam, I said, “ not a single sound or I will slit your throat. I know.”

Here eyes widened with that. She almost spoke but she saw the determination in my eyes and remained silent.

“What is going on, Athelstan,” Spike asked, unable to contain herself any longer.

“In a moment, Spike, first I need to get some information from this lady, silently.”

I stared daggers at Juice. “With just your fingers indicate the numbers of your safe,” I said. “But no sounds or I will find out if my cracksman skills are still up to the challenge.” She saw I was serious and quickly formed numbers with her hands.

“20, 43, 50,” I repeated. “Spike, go to that painting there- the horrid landscape- and try the safe behind it.”

“Right or left?” She asked when she slid the picture aside.

“Try a couple of combinations and see-“ I said. “We don’t dare ask this ‘lady’-when that is open I think all will be explained.”

Spike’s second attempt at the combination worked and the safe door swung open to reveal the cavity within which was divided into several shelves. I could see paper money, some jewels and other papers and the thing I had thought would be there on the top shelf.

“That,” I nodded to the object. “Take it out and say these words. “I command you now.”

“What?’ Spike said.

“No!” Juice screamed. Despite my sword point at her throat she started to turn and head for Spike. I jumped forward and clotted her on the side of the head with my left fist hard enough to stun her and drop her to her knees.

“Do it, Spike, now. Those words!”

She looked at me like I had sprouted wings, but she obeyed.

“I command you now,” Spike said.

There was a rushing sound in the room, a brilliant flash of blue light and then that strange little man from the Bucket of Blood stood before Spike, though now his clothing was bright silks styled after the Egyptian fashion.

“Thank Allah,” The little man said. He looked at me and bowed. “You understood all, Azizi,” he said. “Now I serve only Miss Ellenbogen.”

Spike looked stunned, almost dropping the old style Arabic oil lamp she held in her hand.

“Oh my God,” she said, “ He’s a Genie!”

 

 Epilogue:

Answers like the Wind.

“A Jinn,” the little man said. “A race made by Allah of fire and smoke to serve his later creations.”

“But- but-“

“Damn you, Limey bastard,” Juice hissed from her knees.

“Doesn’t matter what you say now,” I said, resheathing my sword cane. “You can’t order this fellow-“

“I am called Abdul-Ghafur.”

“Abdul then, anymore,” I continued. “Only Spike can. Like Mike did.”

“Mike?” Spike said.

“Yes,” I said. “He bought that lamp in Cairo- I remember him looking in a window that had it. Of course, I don’t think he knew what it was then-“

“No, Azizi,” Abdul said. “He discovered me and my powers on the airship on the way home.” He looked sad. “He was a good man. No master I have ever had in the two thousand years since Solomon confined me to that lamp has been so gentle and unselfish. He wished only for the money he needed to begin your café, Mistress Spike.”

“That’s why he forgave all those debts,” Spike said. She looked at the lamp in her hands and then at the little brown man with a shocked expression.

“Kill them,” Juice screamed from her knees. “Stop them you stupid little freak!”

Abdul regarded her as I have seen dogs look at fleas. “I had to obey her words, mistress- as she spoke them.”

“When she sent you to kill the other saloon owners?” I asked.

“Yes, “Abdul said. “I had orders to kill anyone who tried to stop me from killing Mister Hanover Jones and then to kill anyone in the room with the Marble Brothers.”

“It was why you tried to warn us to stay out.” I said.

“Yes,” he nodded. “I had no orders not to speak to you-“ he turned to bow slightly to Spike-“and hoped to save you, mistress.”

“Kill them!” Juice hissed again, her lips fairly foaming, her complexion florid and eyes wide. “I command you, tear them to pieces.”

“Shut up!” Spike said to her then turned to Abdul. “You—you killed Mike, didn’t you?”

Before the little man could speak I interjected, “Don’t blame him, Spike. He had to obey any orders she gave him with an exactitude he can not control.”

“It is so, mistress,” the Jinn said, “ but I did not kill Master Mike. Mistress Juice came to meet the one called Little Tony who knew where my lamp was hidden, though did not know of its power. But she did!” He pointed at the kneeling, near apoplectic Juice.

“Yes I stuck the pig,” she snapped, “ He came after Tony had opened the cabinet for me. He tried to stop me so I gutted him then had my little pet genie go to and make it worse; strike real fear in all of them that thought me less for being a woman.” She laughed and there was an echo of the insane in her tone.

“And you set about eliminating everyone of the others,” I said. “When all you had to do was wish up money like Mike did you chose vengeance and death.”

“Those pricks deserved it,” Juice said. “You know what a girl had to put up with to deal with the likes of them.”

“Mike was never like that!” Spike protested. She set the lamp down now and moved across the room to face the kneeling Juice directly. So tall was the murderess that on her knees she was almost eye level with the petite Spike. “He was kind man; he never took advantage of any woman.”

Juice laughed. “You think you know your holier-than-though brother? He wanted me, alright-“

The companion that had been massaging Juice’s feet snickered then. Juice shot her a look. “Rachel don’t you-“

“You can’t lie about it, Juice,” Rachel persisted, “You was all over him and he wanted no part of you.”

Juice spun on her knees and backhanded the girl to stagger her.

The Mohawk outside the door started to beat against it.

“Spike,” I said, “Tell Abdul to keep her from raising the alarm.”

“What?” She said.

“Tell him in those words,” I insisted. “Repeat it.”

“Keep her from raising the alarm, Abdul,” Spike said.

The little brown man seemed to flicker like a torch flame then smiled. “It is done, Mistress.”

The pounding on the door had stopped.

“What—what did you do?” Spike asked.

“I simply used the essence of the poppy to cause the lady to become very sleepy, Mistress,” the Jinn said. “I did not think anything more permanent was needed.”

“Yes, right,” she said. “That is fine.” She seemed a bit overcome by the suddenness of it all and sat down in an overstuffed leather chair. Abdul stepped to her side and produced a cup and saucer.

“Tea, Mistress, to calm you nerves?” He said.

The girl took the tea and sipped before she realized she had. “He’s a-a-genie!”

“Yes, Spike,” I said. “ he is a Jinn-“

“Thank you , sir,” Abdul said at my correction.

“And you have some new responsibilities now.”

“Responsibilities?”

“Yes, Persian, Indian and Aztec magicks are just as strong as Merlinian,” I said. “Perhaps a fair sight more, in fact. In any case, Like Mike you have great power now to literally make a wish and have it granted.”

“A wish?” She sounded stunned.

“Many, Mistress,” Abdul said. “I am bound by Wise Solomon to obey the words as you speak them.”

“The exact words, I suspect,” I added, “If legends are to be believed.”

“Just so, azizi,” Abdul concurred. “And while I have some latitude to interpret it is best to not be a ambiguous.”

“You mean Mike could-“

“Yes,” I said. “Your brother could have been greedy or cruel or vindictive like Juice- but he chose not to.”

“He wished for the money to cover all the debts owed him,” the Jinn said. “And to endow the charity hospital and orphanage. He was very clear that no one was to be harmed.” His expression became sad. “Truly the best master I have had.”

At that Juice screamed an incoherent cry of anger and thrust her hand into her skirts and pulled a small derringer that she pointed at Spike.

“Die, bitch!” Juice said. “The lamp is mine!”

“No!” Angus yelled and blasted away with his coach gun. The kneeling saloon owner was blown backward in a spray of gore.

Rachel screamed while her companion floozy simply fainted.

“Oh my God!” Spike said. I sprinted to her and put a hand on her shoulder.

‘Easy, girl,” I said. She took several deep breaths and composed herself admirably.

“I’m okay,” she said then indicated the hyperventilating Rachel. “But she isn’t.” She turned to Abdul. “Can you quiet her down like the guard?”

The Jinn nodded and there was another blue flash. The panicked girl closed her eyes and she gently collapsed to the floor. In a moment she was snoring peacefully.

“What now?” Spike asked.

“Well,’ I answered. “If Abdul can make these ladies forget we were here we can decamp and you begin your life as a wish-maker.”

“They say power corrupts,” Spike said as she rose to look down at the gory corpse of Miss Martin. “How did Mike resist? How can I?”

The little brown man smiled and gave a slight nod. “You are blood of his blood, flesh of his flesh, Mistress,” he said. “I have faith you will do what is right.” With that he wavered and dissolved into a column of smoke that flowed across the room to enter the lamp and, with a curled tendril pulled the stopper into place to seal the vessel behind him.

“I second that, lassie” Angus said. “Bully!”

“Indeed,” I said. “Let’s get out of here and get out of these cloths into some fresh ones; I think we can make it up to the opera before Wotan walks off into the fire; Aunt Mini is going to want to hear about this all first hand.”

 

THE END

Market Rat

by John M Olsen

Tarrel pried the key from the mummified corpse’s fingers as he knelt in the cobbled alley. Keys protected things you could trade for food in the market, and he had lived off the bazaar’s trash heaps for days. All he needed to do was learn what the key opened.

The dead man was likely killed by magic to be mummified like that. He wore a blue vest and black breeches, the uniform of one of the minor merchant houses up on the hill where rich people lived. He saw the upper crust visitors in the market most days and had learned a small handful of them would toss a copper his way if he groveled as they expected. The face of the corpse was too shriveled to recognize, but the house colors told him where he should go to check for matching locks. If this worked, he could keep himself fed for weeks, or even months before they caught on.

The key was cast iron, with a flat round handle bearing a single line engraved across its middle. Tarrel wasn’t an expert at such things but recognized it as an elemental symbol, a symbol of power sacred to the temple priests.

A voice rang out from farther back in the alley. “You, there! Stop.”

Tarrel wasn’t about to give up his prize. This key was the best bit of luck he’d ever come across. He sprinted out of the dirty alley and into the colorful stalls of the market square, the heart of the bazaar. Merchants hawked goods from tents and tables scattered about with no rhyme or reason. Two quick turns through the narrow paths put him at a good vantage point, so he dodged around a cloth vendor’s stall and stopped to look back.

His pursuer ran out of the alley and looked around, the expression on his face sour enough to curdle milk. The man’s yellow long-tailed jacket marked him as from the powerful House of Orchids.

“Out of my shop, waif!” The old hag who owned the booth kicked him in the backside, propelling him out into the open as the yellow jacketed man turned to look.

Tarrel ran.

After a few turns through the market square, he headed into one of the alleys wide enough to support a row of vendors along one wall. The path constricted as he passed a collection of food stalls, the aroma of roasted meats drawing a growl from his empty belly.

Left, right, right, and left again put him at a small well in an alcove too small for a vendor stall. He collapsed and drank in great gulps, not caring that animals also drank from the murk. The water was dirtier than normal, but it still refreshed him.

Tarrel listened for cries of alarm in the distance but heard only the everyday sounds of the market. He’d made it unless the man had seen him well enough to describe him to the city guards. How far would Yellow Jacket look? He chewed his lip. Should he run farther?

He opened his fist and looked at the key in his dusty hand. What kind of key would be important enough for two houses to want it? The odds of the key belonging to the corpse’s household dropped in Tarrel’s mind. A pocket of coins in exchange for the key might reduce his chance of the two houses hunting him down.

That was it. He’d just have to visit his usual pawn, a man by the name of Skinny, to see if he could sell it for enough money to last a few days. Maybe even weeks if he was lucky. He’d have to hide to keep his coins, but he knew how to stay out of the way.

Tarrel avoided everyone’s eyes as he eased his way toward Bank Alley, one of the less reputable side-streets where people didn’t ask questions. They weren’t bankers like those in the city core, but they were the poor man’s source of coin, and could broker shady trades. Skinny was fair with him, at least most of the time.

The fastest path to Skinny was back out through the fringe of the market square, so he kept his eyes peeled for Yellow Jacket as he wandered through the vendors who had everything he could ever want or need, if only Tarrel had the coins for it.

The scent of cooking foods, the bright colored banners and tents, and the noise of haggling was home to him.

“Hail, Tarrel.” It was Severn, the tinker. Good for the occasional copper coin for running errands.

“Goodman Severn. Any errands to run today?” If he failed to check in with everyone, it was his own fault if he went hungry.

“Sorry for not having any work for you this past week. I’ve had a dry stretch. I have some projects to finish in my shop tonight, so stop by in the morning. You can do three deliveries for me.”

Three! That was rare good fortune. Everything seemed to be going his way today. “I’ll be here when you get to your tent in the morning.” Tarrel waved goodbye.

He’d gotten into the good graces of a handful of vendors by doing odd jobs for them in exchange for the occasional copper or chunk of bread. Only when he was on the verge of starvation did he resort to theft. He had to rely on the good graces of the market vendors, or he would starve. He’d die for sure if he were branded as a thief and expelled into the surrounding desert.

Tarrel sweat under the hot sun, but it dried without cooling him. Indecision between begging Goodman Severn for water and heading to the bank held him for a moment, but Bank Alley was a path forward to achieve his goals. Water could wait for a few minutes.

Most people ignored the market’s underbelly without so much as a glance. It could be dangerous to those who didn’t know their way around.

The plan was as clear as it was simple. He’d pawn the key to Skinny, buy some food that hadn’t already spoiled, and then hide out until morning.

A hand clamped down on his wrist.

“What have we here?” One of the city guards held him in a vice-like grip and lifted Tarrel’s hand to look at the key.

The guard’s red-plumed steel helmet had small metal wings swooping in from the side to cover his cheeks. They were easy to spot as a convenience to the shop keepers. Tarrel saw guard plumes as something to stay clear of, but his new treasure had distracted him.

“What’s the likes of you doing with a fancy thing like this?” He pulled the key from Tarrel’s hand.

Tarrel scowled at him.

“Well? Who did you steal it from?”

They always assumed he’d stolen whatever he had.

“I found it, fair and square.”

The guard rolled his eyes. “Right. People leave keys like this lying around all the time. So thoughtless of them. Tell me the truth this time.”

“It’s true! I found it.” Tarrel looked at the unwavering glare of the guard. If the guard would take it away from him anyway, he might as well tell the whole story. “Okay. I found it in a dead man’s hand in the narrow alley over there by the blue banners. Fifty paces in, near the back doors of the woodworkers.”

The guard shook his head. “You should have stuck with the other story. Now we’ll need to go over together and see who died, and how. Come on.”

The guard pulled on Tarrel’s wrist to haul him along but had loosened his grip.

Tarrel twisted and ducked, pulling his hand free. The guard made a grab for him and missed. The guard still held the prized key, but Bank Alley was right there as an easy escape. The guard wouldn’t follow into the alley, at least not without four or five armed friends.

He made it to the first turn and glanced back. The guard stood outside the alley scowling at him. Tarrel grinned and waved, and continued around the corner. He climbed a ladder and ran across the roof back to where he had a good view of the open market and watched the guard trudge over toward the alley and the body.

The guard tapped the key in his other hand as if thinking something over as he walked.

Tarrel had his own thinking to do. Had Yellow Jacket killed Blue Vest back in the alley? Were they both after the same thing? Maybe the key was a rare treasure, and he was the one who could have solved a great mystery and stepped in to save everyone. They would shower him with gifts and praise, and he would become rich beyond his dreams.

No, dreams were useless when day-to-day survival was at stake. The key was gone and with it were gone his hopes of an easy score and a meal. At least he had some jobs that would feed him tomorrow. If he hustled, he might find a job with one of his favorite vendors before dark, or maybe he could become friends with someone new to add to his list of odd-job clients. There was plenty of afternoon left.

 

He scaled back down the ladder into the alley. As he stepped off the low rung onto the trash-strewn paving stones, he felt a knife poke into his back.

“You’re a lot of work to track down, boy. I don’t like that kind of work.” The voice was familiar. Yellow Jacket.

“You’re going to give me the key, and then we can both forget all this unpleasant business. I have no reason to kill you, and you have no need to be dead.”

Tarrel gritted his teeth at the pain where the point of the dagger dug into his back. “I don’t have it.”

“If you’re going to be that way about it, maybe I do have a reason to kill you. Nobody would miss a market rat like you. Give it to me now.”

“The guard took it from me.”

A string of muffled curses erupted from his captor. “Then this is your lucky day, boy. You get to go take it back from him, and in exchange, you get to see the sun come up tomorrow.”

Yellow Jacket paused for a moment, then continued. “I tell you what. If you can bring it back here to me within the hour, I’ll cut you an even better deal. I’ll give you a gold sovereign.”

Tarrel had seen this game played before, and didn’t like how it usually ended. He’d seen the corpses of those who were too trusting. “If you’ll paper-swear it with one of the banks, I’ll get it for you.”

Yellow Jacket was now bound to either admit he had lied, or make good on his promise. Or he could kill him and find the key himself. Tarrel wasn’t sure which was more likely.

If he was offering a sovereign, the man was desperate, and in a rush. He may have sounded calm, but Tarrel knew better.

“Clever little beggar, aren’t you? Sure, I’ll play it your way. Come with me.” He set off at a fast pace and forced Tarrel to jog to keep up. They stopped three alleys later in an area of the underbelly he didn’t know. Yellow Jacket rapped on a door.

A window in the door slid open, then the door opened. A man stood in the shadows beyond the door. “Good to see you again sir.”

Yellow Jacket held up a hand to cut him off, then jerked his head in Tarrel’s direction. “I need to paper-swear a deal. One sovereign in exchange for a specific key, within the next hour. I have a drawing of it.” He handed over a gold coin for Tarrel’s payment, and a copper to pay for the enchanted paper.

The doorman pocketed the coins and let them through into a windowless room illuminated by oil lamps.

The banker looked up from his worn oak desk, then pulled a sheet from a stack and stamped the paper three times with a seal, with a brief flash of blue light at each impact.

He cut the paper into three pieces. One went to Tarrel to bring in with the key. The next went to Yellow Jacket. The third he wrote on and filed away in a box.

Anyone who broke a deal after paper-swearing would be black-listed. It was never good to cross the bankers.

The piece of paper wasn’t a guarantee of safety, but it was better than nothing.

“You have one hour. All bets are off if you take too long, and I’ll be watching. You’d better get going.”

The bazaar was as lively as ever as he returned to the central plaza, the crowds unaware of the life-and-death drama playing out.

First, he checked the alley where the whole thing had started. The body was gone, and no guards were about. That meant his target would be at the central market outpost, or he would be out patrolling.

He climbed an exterior stair at the edge of the plaza and looked around for the guard’s telltale red plume. He saw nothing, which was unusual. At least two or three would be in sight most days.

The usual vendors and customers milled about, along with priests from the temple in groups of two and three. They always shopped on Saint’s Day, still two days off.

Had the unusual death triggered a larger hunt? Maybe they were after the key, too. There was a chance he could get the searchers on the tail of Yellow Jacket, but it might backfire and ruin all his plans.

If everything worked out, he could find and deliver the key, get paid, and if Yellow Jacket didn’t come to collect, Tarrel could pick the key up later as well and sell it a second time. He had so many ways to win that he was able to ignore the many ways he could lose.

There was nothing left to do but to check the shack in the center of the market where the guards took complaints and stored emergency supplies.

A few minutes of dodging through the market brought him to the door. It was open, which meant someone was inside.

Tarrel peeked through the door and saw the telltale helmet, still worn by the guard. He sat in a chair at a small table, facing away from the door. A clay pitcher sat on its side on the table beside him.

There was no way to sneak in without being seen. If the guard had the key on him, it would be impossible to retrieve. If he’d put it away, there was no way Tarrel could be quiet or stealthy enough to look for it unless the guard was asleep, and they never slept on duty.

He looked closer. The guard’s red helmet plume tipped forward. Maybe this was the miracle he needed. He crept in, looking for any box or drawer capable of holding the key.

Crates lined the walls, but they were all sealed.

He crept around in front of the guard. Maybe he had it on him. Tarrel wasn’t sure he was up to taking a key from a sleeping guard. It was the stuff of rogue stories told around the hearth, not something he ever expected to do himself.

The guard’s helmet tipped farther forward, came off, and crashed to the ground. Tarrel jumped, then took two steps toward the door as he glanced at the guard, expecting him to yell and give chase.

Tarrel stopped, horror filling his heart. The guard was dead. Shriveled like Blue Vest, with dry skin stretched tight across bones. One hand held a mug next to the empty clay pitcher on the table, and the other hand held the key.

Two men were dead, both by the same magic. Tarrel only knew of one thing in common between them: The key in the guard’s hand.

He’d been there to discover both bodies, so things might not go so well if another guard showed up while he was gawking at the shriveled corpse.

Tarrel grabbed the key, then set it back down. Why hadn’t it killed him before? It didn’t kill immediately, so maybe he hadn’t held it long enough. He glanced at the empty pitcher and mug. Water. He’d become horribly thirsty while carrying it.

He got out a small leather bag, the kind he stored coins in when he had any. He dropped the key into the bag and tied it closed, and looped the ties through his rope belt.

If he got thirsty again, he’d throw it away and run, forget about the gold sovereign, and pretend the whole day had never happened.

Tarrel crept back outside and marched toward Bank Alley. He passed a small public pool fed by a well near the guard station.

Tarrel didn’t feel as thirsty as he had before, but it wouldn’t hurt to stock up and drink whatever he could. There was no harm in taking extra precautions.

A crowd had formed around the pool, and the people were shouting. Tarrel tugged on a man’s sleeve just outside of the crowd. “What’s happening?”

“The water’s gone and the pond is dry. Something’s wrong with the well.” The man turned back toward the crowd. “Someone go get a priest. I saw one a bit ago here in the market. Maybe they can fix it.”

Was this all tied together somehow? It had to be, but how? Tarrel’s mouth began to feel dry, he hoped from fear.

He walked farther and noted that many of the vendors had hidden away their drinking water, hoarding it now that they couldn’t refill their containers. Stale-smelling dust blew in little swirls through the market.

The crowd bunched into huddled conversations away from the wells and the pool, worry clear on every face. The haggling died down, and people left the market in a continuous stream, filling the streets beyond.

The priests were not leaving and were more visible now than before. Tarrel stopped to watch a trio of priests as they faced each other in quiet conversation. One held a string with a small piece of metal hanging from the end, while the other two chanted, then clapped.

The little bar spun, then stopped dead still. They’d made a finder to track something. One of the priests sighted down the little bar and looked straight at Tarrel.

“It’s that way.” He pointed at Tarrel, then took two steps forward.

Tarrel ran.

One of the priests yelled, “That boy’s got it. Go!”

The first time Tarrel dodged through the market, it was fun. The second time, it was work. Now, he ran as if demons were on his tail. Yellow Jacket wanted to kill him. He was sure the guards would blame him for two deaths. He would be hung, not just sent to the desert to die.

The priests? Who knew what they wanted, other than to chase him down and get the key, just like everyone else. At least they might not want to kill him as a first option.

His one hour would be up soon, and the priests on his tail could track him with magic. He wasn’t going to make it to the banker without leading everyone to the same spot, a sure recipe for disaster. All he knew was that if the adults all fought over what he had, then he would be the one who lost.

Tarrel glanced back and saw that pairs and trios of priests were headed in his direction, trading hand signals across the square. He would need to leave the open area to lose them. He may even need to get clear of the whole bazaar to get out of the range of their tracker. If he had a little time to think, he might be able to figure a way out of his troubles.

He climbed a stair and headed across the rooftops where there were no crowds. It was easy to jump over the first few alleys because they were narrow. Some gaps even had small bridges or boards laid out. Tarrel got a running start to jump a larger gap and rolled as he landed on the far side.

A bell tower promised a convenient lookout, so Tarrel climbed a ladder leading from the roof to the upper tower and looked back. Most of the priests had remained at ground level, and the few on the roofs were hard pressed to keep up and called down into the alleys to their friends. Jumping from roof to roof in a priest’s ankle-length gray robe was challenging at best.

Tarrel gave the rooftops and the square a quick scan. Drawing everyone to the bank was still not an option. If he hid the key, the priests would find it and take it. If he kept it, he risked turning into a leathery husk. If he gave it away, who was the real owner? Blue Vest? Probably not, since he didn’t know how to handle it and had died.

He tried to spit in frustration and came up with a cottony mouth. Maybe he needed more wrapping around the key, or to keep it farther from his body to avoid a shriveling death. He had no idea how any of the magic worked, so he guessed, with his life in the balance.

Was Yellow Jacket the real owner of the key, along with his house on the hill? Tarrel doubted it. Even if he was, Tarrel didn’t like the man. He was dangerous and had made casual death threats. If the key had been his, Tarrel didn’t want him to have it back.

It hadn’t belonged to the guards, so that left either the priests or someone who wasn’t chasing him yet. The plan had seemed so simple earlier.

“You know, it would have been easier to take the key back to the bank for me.” Yellow Jacket came out from behind the corner of the tower and drew the dagger he had poked Tarrel with earlier.

Tarrel started at the sound and fumbled on a ladder rung. He reached out to the bell’s long pull rope to steady himself. “I was going to go right back, but I ran into trouble.” How had the man found him?

“Don’t bother with excuses. Reasons don’t matter. I’m just here to get the key.” He held out a string with a tiny rolled up paper dangling from it. The paper spun to point at Tarrel. He’d used the paper-sworn contract to make a tracker like the one the priests used. The papers were all part of the same magical contract and had an affinity that made the link possible.

Yellow Jacket might not be able to keep up in a race through Tarrel’s home turf, so he prepared to jump down to the rooftop and sprint once more.

Two other men in yellow jackets came out from each side of the tower, blocking his best escape route.

Tarrel had to stall, had to somehow make the man talk instead of act.

“I found out what the key does. I dropped it somewhere safe, so I wouldn’t shrivel up and die.”

Yellow jacket sighed. “The city is cursed with people who think they’re clever. If you’ve cost me everything, I’ll see to it that you rot in a dungeon for decades. Now get down here and take me to the key.”

In the distance, Tarrel saw the rooftop priests as they made their way nearer at a quick pace, with only an occasional glance his way. Tarrel grinned. Yellow Jacket and his thugs weren’t looking back and didn’t know the priests were closing in. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have everyone in one place if it gave him a chance to flee in the confusion.

Tarrel kicked the ladder away from the wall and climbed the rope hand over hand toward the belfry. The bell let out a deep note which echoed back from the far side of the open plaza in the distance. The note repeated with every pull as he climbed until he stood on the edge of the belfry looking down.

Below, Yellow Jacket’s men grabbed the ladder and hefted it. Soon it would be back in place. Where were those priests?

Tarrel flipped the rope around the outside of the pillars at the top of the tower, winding the rope around the outside as the men below worked to replace the tall ladder.

Tarrel glanced below as one of the men in yellow let out a yelp. Finally, the priests had arrived, jumping the gap from another building, and climbing an exterior trellis on the side of the building with the bell tower. The priests brandished clubs.

An angry Goodman emerged from a door built into the base of the tower. He held a staff and seemed eager to teach a lesson to whoever had rung his bell. He stopped, dumbfounded at seeing almost a dozen men on his roof, and Tarrel up in his bell tower.

Good. The more chaos, the better for his escape.

One of the priests turned to Yellow Jacket, pointed his club and spoke. “I thought you knew better after what happened last time. We even warned you and let you choose to leave in peace.”

Yellow Jacket said, “You’ve got me wrong. I’m just here after the boy who stole something of mine. Why would I cross you after last time?”

Tarrel yelled down, “He’s lying. He was going to pay me a gold sovereign for the key. It already killed a blue vested man and a market guard.”

The priest bowed his head for a moment. “The deaths will continue, and get worse if we don’t get it back immediately. This foolishness is upon your head, Rogan. Hiring someone else for the theft doesn’t reduce your guilt. I’ll give you one last chance to step away.”

Yellow Jacket, now named Rogan by the priest, charged into the fray with his knife out.

Tarrel only saw one chance to get past them. He held tight to the end of the rope wound around the tower and jumped, swinging in a great expanding arc over the rooftop, then over the alleys as the rope unwound from the tower. The bell rang again as the rope pulled tight as it unwound.

At the rope’s full extension, Tarrel found himself flying over the alley at rooftop height, the wind blowing through his dusty hair. He heard clangs and grunts from the roof but didn’t dare take his eyes off his path.

He let go and dropped into the alley to avoid crashing into a wall. The ground rushed up, and he landed in a roll. His sandals flew off, and he skidded to a halt face-down on the dirty cobbles. The fall knocked the wind out of him, and he hurt all over.

Rough hands pinned him to the ground. He struggled, but couldn’t flee. A woman’s voice whispered in his ear, “The men in yellow will kill you on sight. I won’t. Come with me.”

Tarrel couldn’t breathe well enough to speak, so he nodded. The woman helped him to his feet. She was another city guard.

The guard looked Tarrel up and down. “You’re a bit on the young side to stir up so much trouble. The priests have unleashed something on the people, and we need to figure it out and stop it.”

Tarrel gasped in a small breath and said, “But that’s … not how it happened.”

“No talking. We have to leave now.” The guard led him through the alleys away from the fight. She pulled off her outer cloak and draped it over Tarrel’s shoulders. “This might make it harder for the others to identify you.”

Tarrel was able to get a little more air finally. His lips stuck together as he tried to speak. “That won’t make a difference. They’re tracking me. I need water.”

“The wells are all dry. It’s like the water just soaked into the stone. Nobody knows why.”

Tarrel glanced behind as they picked up their pace away from the bazaar. “The priests know why.”

The guard said, “It figures. Always working to control the people, bypassing the king’s authority.”

“No, it’s not like that. Someone stole something from them. Something important.”

It was no use. The guard wasn’t listening. There didn’t seem to be a way to change her mind from believing the priests were out to cause trouble. From what Tarrel had seen, the priests were the ones trying to restore order, and everyone else was messing it up.

The guard spit on the ground. Tarrel considered handing the key over to see what happened to her. No, he wouldn’t condemn the woman to die in such a horrible way. She was just doing her job, even if she was doing it wrong.

They came out into the city’s central plaza. At one end was a building that housed the central city guard, apparently where the guard headed with Tarrel. In the center stood a reflecting pool, dry now. The palace overlooked the pool from the side.

At the other end of the plaza was the temple, its ancient facade of carvings and columns a statement to the dedication of those who followed the Old Religion.

Across the top were the four elemental symbols. One of them matched the symbol on the key. Water.

Behind them, people poured out of the roads and alleys into the small plaza. Priests, priestesses, guards, Yellow Jacket and his men, and even a handful of men in blue vests.

“I told you. They followed me.”

The guard turned to look, and Tarrel ran for the temple. The guard grabbed him by the shoulder but ended up with nothing but her cloak as Tarrel shrugged it off.

Behind him, the priest in the lead yelled, “Open the door!”

Guards yelled, “Close the gates!”

Yellow Jacket and the other men just yelled as they closed in on Tarrel.

The temple doors opened, and a priest in a gray robe looked out at the horde running toward him, his eyes wide. He turned to yell back into the building as Tarrel approached in the lead.

It was hard to keep track of who was yelling what.

Tarrel skidded through the door and glanced back.

The priest outside changed his yell to “Shut the door!”

Others tried to shout him down as they all ran forward.

Tarrel said, “I have the key.”

The priest at the door gawked for a moment and said, “Keep running down the main hall. Tell the High Priestess.” He heaved on the door in an attempt to cut off those chasing Tarrel.

Tarrel was slowing, and his breath came in loud wheezes. He shouldn’t be this tired yet. He hadn’t run that far. It had to be the key.

Toward the back of the temple’s main hall stood the High Priestess of Earth, her white robe a bright contrast to the stone walls mottled by beams of light filtering through a row of tiny windows. Her white hair was tied back with a silvery cord. Her robe showed an embroidered earth symbol on the front, a circle divided into four quarters.

From what he knew of the fight and argument he’d seen, the priests were the only ones who knew what was happening, and how to fix it. “I have the key. Here, take it.”

Tarrel fumbled with the pouch containing the key and held the pouch out to her.

Behind him, the entry door crashed open, and men poured into the temple hall.

She chuckled. “So you’re the one. You must do this next step yourself. I’m nothing compared to when I was young, but I will keep the rabble from chasing you and give you the time you need. Hold the key in your hand and enter the sanctuary through the arch behind the altar. You’ll see what to do.”

She stepped past him and stood in the middle of the hall, her arms spread wide as men continued to tumble in through the door. She was either the most powerful person in the room or the most foolish.

The key felt rough in his hand, and his fingers had trouble closing on it. At least the key had not turned him all the way into a dry husk yet. Maybe keeping it in a bag had saved him from that fate, but it was still sucking him dry.

He skirted the stone altar with its sermon books, cups, and candles, and he stumbled for the arch.

Behind him, he heard the High Priestess say to the men, “You are welcome, but only if you are peaceful.”

Men’s voices raised in alarm as all their weapons clattered to the ground.

As Tarrel stumbled through the arch into the sanctuary, he heard the High Priestess say, “Be seated.” He felt the earth tug at him even in the sanctuary, well out of her sight. He forced his way forward despite the pressure as he heard men grunt and crumple to the floor behind him.

The far side of the sanctuary had four doors, each with an elemental symbol above the lintel. The water door was ajar, so he pushed it open and stepped through into an unlit foyer. A short granite pedestal jutted from the center of the floor. A fresh breeze with the scent of pine washed over him.

Dim light filtered through the door behind him; it was enough to see a keyhole in the middle of the pedestal’s flat top.

He fumbled with the key, but his fingers didn’t want to work. He used his off-hand to pry his fingers away from the key, then pulled it loose. He slid it into the keyhole with a clink.

The key turned of its own accord, and the pillar began to glow as it thrummed a deep note, more felt through his bones than heard. Water flowed nearby. He felt it flow through him and because of him. He was the water.

The floor rushed up to meet him as he collapsed into unconsciousness.

#

Tarrel’s eyes were sticky. He rubbed and opened them, only to see the High Priestess of earth along with two others in white robes and several priests in gray. He lay on a mattress softer than any straw tick he’d ever managed to find or build.

The High Priestess said, “Welcome back. Your healing has taken several days.”

The room had an open balcony across one wall. On the other side of the room stood the short keyed pedestal and the door back into the sanctuary.

Outside the balcony, he heard a waterfall and saw birds circling and flitting from tree to tree in a verdant expanse.

He croaked, “How?”

He tried again. “How is this possible inside the city? Is that the same pillar with the key?”

She nodded. “Yes, this is where you returned the key. The portal connects this faraway place and its water to the city. The previous caretaker passed on, and the key was stolen. The key, unfortunately, still pulls whatever water it can from any nearby source.”

Tarrel said, “Including from people.” He held up his hand and noted the new pink skin where the magic of the key had damaged it.

“Exactly. I convinced the men who followed you to leave. I hated to draw so much from the earth’s power, but it was important for you to put the key back immediately. They were not happy about it, but they left regardless.”

Tarrel felt water flow through channels built into the floor. They aligned with the portal, and water moved freely into the city on the far side of the portal.

He looked down and saw he wore a white robe, but with the water symbol embroidered on it. The other two white-robed visitors were the High Priest of Fire with an empty circle on his chest and the High Priestess of Air bearing a circle with a point at its center. Their complexions showed none of the wrinkles of the High Priestess of Earth, but their expressions bore an ageless grace and maturity.

He looked again at his own robe with its water symbol. They couldn’t expect that of him. He said, “No. I won’t do this for you. I can’t.” He sat up, experimenting to make sure he wouldn’t collapse again. He felt weak from several days of fasting.

The High Priestess of Earth spoke again, having taken on the role of speaker for the group as the eldest of those in white. “It’s not us who will make you stay or go. None of us could, for long. You are quite young, after all. So much pent up energy to spend and the power of water serving you.” She smiled.

Tarrel eased his legs over the edge of his bed and put his feet on the floor. The surface was damp, with beads of water scattered across the floor. The beads ran together and gathered at his feet.

As the water gathered, it sang to him. It filled his mind with images of rain, rivers, and movement. He felt the city through its aqueducts, all the way to every well and pool.

His eyes brimmed with tears at the beauty and wonder of it all. The water of his tears danced for him like the water running through the city as fountains dormant for decades revived and celebrated with him, and for him. He was the lifeblood of the city.

The High Priestess gave him a knowing smile. “Welcome to your new home.”

###

The Spring Clearing

by James Edward O’Brien

Spring conjured mixed emotions in Seraphim Heel. Runoff from the snowcaps signaled the mills’ productivity would double in the coming months and the impenetrable drifts that clogged Matchstick Gorge began to melt, freeing up the Old Salt Road to merchants from the south. But spring’s awakening also reawakened the wraiths. Thawed from their icy tombs, they chased off any travelers thick enough to traverse the gorge alone.

All this mattered little to me and the other occupants of Seraphim Jail. Our days were the same regardless of the season: dark, dank, and inhospitable.

#

The warden lined ten of us up in the exercise yard––me the only woman. The town chamberlain was there––a starved, wax bean of a man––and beside him, a swine-guard corporal in his boar’s head helm. It was a swine-guard bastard who’d landed me here––the municipal soldiery that policed the city and its outskirts. He’d caught me nicking tin off a roof. I gave the bastard a good comeuppance, but coppers always manage to win in the end.

The warden chided us to stand at attention. The corporal removed his helm and propped it under his arm. “We’ll need a score…maybe more,” he said.

The chamberlain passed a coin through his boney fingers. He regarded us icily. “Six,” he scowled. “That’s all we’ve budgeted for.”

The corporal’s eyes froze on me. They were close-set, like he was a badger or his parents were kin. “Dryad’s drapes,” he snarled, “this some kind of joke, parading a gash out for this detail?”

The warden waved him off. “Tin Marie’s worth two of the others. First week in the bog she gelded a jailer who tried to have a go at her. Bought herself an extra ten years. Fierce.”

“But I need soldiers,” insisted the corporal.

“Soldiers?” sneered the chamberlain. He stared down the line of prisoners. “Soldiers march for coin. These laggards have something much more valuable to earn––their freedom.”

The warden swung his truncheon by its strap. “You heard the man,” he barked. “Any prisoner selected for this detail will be granted amnesty once the clearing’s completed.

Thick Ansel stepped forward: hairy as a bugbear and twice as stupid. “Clearing, sir?”

“A bit of spring cleaning,” sneered the chamberlain. “The six of you who prove most fit will be nominated to Corporal Ardashir’s detail.

“Detail, sir?” croaked Thick Ansel.

“Spring. Can’t you smell it in the air, boyos?” the warden bellowed.

All I could smell was the stink off the men on either side of me.

“Spring has sprung. Wraiths infest the Matchstick Gorge. It’s wraith-hunting season.”

#

They’d culled the unruliest from the initial ten. The last thing this Corporal Ardashir wanted was to have to sleep with one eye open the entire time we were in the field. I made the cut. Nicking tin off roofs was no easy business.

They picked Thick Ansel. He’d crippled the wrong man in a bar brawl, but he was a kitten when whisky didn’t enter the mix. Zogby had been a sentry in the Royal Mountaineers, court marshaled for a tryst with his commanding officer’s wife.

The ginger twins Gaber and Deeb made the cut too––twins in name only, on account of their auburn hair. Their personalities couldn’t be more different. Gaber was a woodsman in for near hanging some rich feller he caught poaching hill cats. Guess he’d never learnt that the rich play by different rules round Seraphim Heel. Deeb had been caught running a fighting pit in a speakeasy basement. It wasn’t the brawling the authorities took issue with––it was the licensing fees he’d been skirting.

Napper Tandy was the last of the bunch, and the candidate who made least sense. The rest of us could handle ourselves physically, more or less. Tandy was an anemic, knock-kneed sort. There were whispers round the prison that he was in for witchery, but no one knew for sure. Silly superstitions, but I reckon Ardashir wanted every angle covered.

Ardashir briefed us at dawn. Our mission straightforward: sniff out the wraith infestation in the gorge and eliminate them to the last. They stood us two-by-two and shackled us in pairs, each by an ankle with a good six meters of chain between us: the ginger twins, Zogby and Ansel, and me and Tandy. The chains would make escape almost as difficult as traversing down the densely wooded gorge.

The corporal slung a harquebus across his back. Two hatchets hung at his belt. We were armed with the shoddy, weighted clubs that swine-guard used for drilling––simple iron shafts with bulbous spheres at one end. Nothing bladed that’d suit any potential cutthroats. Nothing stealthy we could conceal on the sly. If we opted for mutiny, Ardashir would see us coming.

Tandy could barely get the thing above his head, so they switched his out for a blackthorn cudgel with a knotty craw at the end. Thick Ansel, being the biggest, got stuck lugging the canteens, tinder, tent pegs, and canvas.

Tandy was allowed a linen satchel. ‘Witching stuff,’ Deeb speculated.

It’d been close to a year since I’d walked the streets. Our chains rattled against cobblestone, earning side eyes from the early morning streetwalkers. We took the Old Salt Road out of town and followed its crooked trail into the gorge.

#

The descent was all clouds, birdsong, and petrichor, a dizzying freedom that made what lay ahead seem worth it. We hoisted up our chains and hooked them at our hips so they wouldn’t snag on roots or rocks. The damp wind bit right through our ill-fitting prison grays and our moccasins, barely fit for traipsing the yard, proved lousy for hiking. I donned my hijab to keep my head warm, a luxury the men were not permitted. We reached the bottom with several hours of daylight to spare.

Gaber spotted a clearing amidst a ring of naked trees off the road.

“We’ll camp here and get a fresh start come morning,” the corporal informed us.

Zogby gazed skyward. “Still got a good couple hours of daylight left, Corporal. I mean, if you want to get a jump on the bastards. Sir.”

Most enlisted men were quick to correct you if you called them “sir”––abhorring the officer’s honorific, a title for stuffed shirts with soft hands tasked with sending other men to die. Corporal Ardashir seemed to get off on it.

“The last thing we want is to stumble upon a burrow punch-drunk and blind,” Ardashir warned us.

Ardashir gave Thick Ansel leave to unload the equipment. “Gaber…Deeb…” the corporal ordered. “Get to pitching the tents.”

Deeb snickered. “I wouldn’t know the first thing about pitching tents, Corporal Ardashir, sir.”

“That’s why you’re paired with the woodsman, Deeb. Follow Gaber’s lead. Zogby––Ansel––” Ardashir continued, “comb the wood for branches, twigs––anything dry enough to burn.”

Deeb reckoned Ardashir had been an officer once. “I’ve seen my share of pompous peacocks to know when I see one,” he grumbled. “Bars tacked to his collar or no.”

Ardashir walked the perimeter of the clearing, marking a circle in the damp earth with his boot heel. He rounded toward Tandy and me, reeling in the prison chain connecting the witcher and myself.

He spoke in a low voice: almost inaudible. “I want every consecration rite––every ward you’ve got in your bag of tricks––cast over this grove tonight. Tin Marie, I want you to watch and learn. There’s no brand of witchery I ever seen a man do that a woman can’t do better.”

The mere suggestion of sorcery made my skin crawl. “But Corporal,” I insisted, “Witchery, it’s…”

“A necessary precaution,” he hissed. “And only forbidden within city limits, I remind you.”

But I knew better. Witchery was bad mojo. And bad mojo was universal.

#

Tandy’s satchel overflowed with dried weeds, salt, and fruit pits. His first act as a practitioner of the dark arts was popping a squat in strategic spots round the circle Ardashir had drawn in the soil. Napper prompted me to do the same.

If prison was good for anything, it eradicated any self-consciousness one might have about relieving oneself in front of others. Even with my drawers hiked down, my sarong obscured my privates anyways.

Tandy had me chuck salt round the ring while he jigged behind at chain’s length muttering incantations.

“What’s he doing?” fretted Deeb.

“No matter what he’s doing,” scolded Gaber. “Just make sure that line is taut before you drive the tent peg in.”

“It’s devilry, in’it?” peeped Deeb.

“Says the man who earns his keep braining drunkards,” barked Ardashir. “Shut up and get back to work.”

Zogby and Thick Ansel returned with a modest parcel of branches just as the sun disappeared behind the western crest of the gorge.

“There’s things moving out there,” shuddered Zogby.

“Course there are,” said Gaber. “Deer graze at dusk. Owls, bats, possums––a whole slew of critters are just getting started come sundown. Thought you were a mountaineer.”

“I was a sentry,” Zogby clarified. “Didn’t see much proper time afield.”

“That fire’s not gonna start itself,” growled Ardashir. He mounted his harquebus atop its rickety tripod.

Gaber had the fire going in no time. Ardashir doled out our ration of hardtack. He allotted us each a swig of brandy to brace us against the evening chill. The corporal needed some shuteye. He had Zogby round up our clubs to ensure there’d be no funny business. He let Tandy keep his blackthorn cudgel. Ardashir must’ve reckoned there was only so much damage Napper was capable of.

I reckoned there was a greater chance of Ardashir’s snoring warding off wraiths than Tandy’s incantations.

We settled in. All seemed right with the world. Then Deeb started in on Thick Ansel. What limited mental powers Thick Ansel possessed were thrall to superstition and suggestion. He made an easy target.

“‘Fraid of the dark, isn’t you Ansel? I’ve heard you in your cell at night. Wailing. There’s terrors that come to you in dreams, isn’t there? Big man like you should be ashamed.”

Deeb gestured toward Tandy. “Now, that little imp and his devilry––that’s something to keep you up at night. You can’t fend off witchery with them murderous mitts of yours.”

The chatter roused Corporal Ardashir. He choked on a snore. “Shut your pie holes, all of yuz.”

Deeb taunted Ansel with a whisper. “I heard tell demons can harvest your soul if you’re thick enough to doze off in a witch’s snare.”

“A pinch of salt and bit of piss is all it is,” I tried convincing Thick Ansel. “Peppered with washerwoman’s rhymes.” I yanked my chain to rouse Tandy. “Go on and tell him.”

The hedge wizard remained tightlipped. Magicians had little once they gave up their secrets. That bastard Deeb had planted the seeds of paranoia in fertile soil. He had Thick Ansel convinced Tandy’s witchery was a greater threat than anything lurking beyond the dwindling campfire.

Thick Ansel fret and sobbed until Zogby conceded to move his bedroll to the edge of the ring so that Ansel could sleep just outside Napper’s snare.

Zogby curled up with the half-dozen training clubs and positioned his legs in a wishbone sprawl to accommodate Thick Ansel’s distance. The brandy braced us against the spring chill but did little for our nerves.

#

I laid my bedroll beside my tent; Tandy wriggled around inside. Our chain stretched taut. I could’ve handled Napper if he’d tried any funny business; I just wanted to see what was coming should anything come.

Ink-black clouds swept over the budding branches. Corporal Ardashir nodded in-and-out, propped upright against a stump, harquebus poised between his legs. Shadows cast by the dying fire made the forest tremble. There were bird cries, hoot owls, the trill of frogs––but what bothered me most was when it all went quiet, when the wind stopped.

I scrabbled toward Zogby––toward the clubs––stopped by the length of chain that anchored me to Tandy. The momentum jolted the witch from his slumber. I dragged the hedge mage leg-first out the tent in the height of my paranoia. He yelped.

The cry roused Corporal Ardashir. He had the harquebus aimed at me before he could wipe the sleep from his eyes.

“First one who so much as breathes––”

“Shut up and listen!” I hissed.

“I give the orders––”

“Shush,” I urged him.

No bird cries or bug chatter. No breeze. No nothing. I motioned toward the clubs. Ardashir nodded. I reached for one of the shafts, my chain too short.

Rattling shattered the silence. Zogby batted his eyes. I strained for the clubs. Zogby peered at Ardashir. The corporal waved his permission. Zogby shouldered one of the shaft-ends within reach.

The rattling got louder. It was coming from Zogby, from his leg––the trembling chain at his ankle. “Ansel,” he hissed. “Back in the ring.”

Thick Ansel, in the throes of one of his night terrors presumably, tugged hard at his end of the line. I couldn’t really tell––it’d gotten so dark there was no line-of-sight beyond the circle. Zogby tripped. He hooked an arm around the pile of clubs to prevent being dragged out of the witch’s snare. The commotion brought Gaber and Deeb from their tent.

I’d spent time in the prison hotbox. The coppice felt just as still, just as cramped, just as suffocating––the ring of naked trees encircling the grove a claustrophobic sheath.

I glanced skyward, thinking the heavens were collapsing around us. The stars had gone out. Then, the darkness groaned.

Zogby’s moccasins dredged up turf as he tried to rein in Thick Ansel. The chain trembled beneath his white-knuckled fists. Gaber sprang to his aid, a groggy, despondent Deeb in tow.

Corporal Ardashir cocked his harquebus. “This is your first warning,” he crowed. “Back in the ring on the double––the lot of you––or I’ll take the appropriate steps.”

The dark spat back a guttural growl: metal grating against metal. Iron links rending, shattering, brittle as glass. Deeb pricked up his ears. He moved for a club.

“Anyone with an aversion to being dead needs to clear out in three…two…” Ardashir counted.

Everyone hit the ground. Gaber quickened to drag Zogby out of the corporal’s line-of-fire, but with six meters of chain binding Zogby to Thick Ansel, there was only so much the woodsman could do. If escape were his intent, this plan was too thick even for the likes of Ansel.

“One!” roared Ardashir. The harquebus sparked. There was a short, sharp pop. A flash of light lit up the whole copse. There were faces glimpsed for only a moment––knotty, bloodless faces housing empty sockets, all fixed upon us, a mosaic of disapproving scowls––gone just as fast as they’d come in a wash of harquebus smoke.

Zogby flew back, tumbling right through the embers of our campfire––the far end of his chain a fractured, rusted braid with no Thick Ansel attached.

“You hit anything, corporal?” squealed Tandy.

“En garde,” cried Ardashir, “en garde!” he shouted, fumbling for the hatchets at his waist.

The others scrabbled for the pile of clubs. We slowed toward the center of the ring beside the smoldering fire, back-to-back, bulbous training club-ends extended blindly––and that’s how we stayed, frozen to a person, unspeaking, until the first gray whisper of morning.

#

Thick Ansel was out there, strewn between a break in the tree line. At first I’d taken his body for a farmer’s round-bale. I was the first to set foot outside the circle.

I tugged my chain, prompting Tandy to follow. Dog that he was. Thick Ansel’s foot was gone below the ankle––right where he’d been shackled: a gelatinous mess of splintered bone and tatters remained. I nudged him with my toe.

He moved fast, snatching at my moccasin with hooked, blue fingers. Tandy screeched and lunged back toward the circle, almost taking me with him. I pinned Ansel’s hand with the head of my club. Thick Ansel scrunched his nose and flared his nostrils as if he smelt something sour on the wind.

There were footsteps behind me. Ardashir barreled past, knocking me to the ground. By the time I got my bearings, he’d opened Ansel’s windpipe with a hatchet.

“What’d ya go an’ do that for? He was alive.”

“Might’ve cauterized that leg. I seen folk survive worse,” chimed Gaber coolly.

The corporal planted a boot on Thick Ansel’s chest and dislodged his hatchet from the man’s vertebrae. “When wraiths claim a victim, they leave strangers in their wake,” scolded Ardashir. “There’s no surviving that. Thick bastard was dead the moment he set foot outside the ring.”

“He was breathing…reaching out…you saw him plain as I did,” I snarled.

“We’re nothing but tailor’s dummies to them wraiths. They pick and choose the pieces they want. As a rule, they never leave the inside,” snapped Ardashir.

“If they took his insides how come he was breathing…moving?”

“You have it all wrong,” mumbled Tandy. “Our insides.”

“Not our guts,” barked the corporal. “Our souls. Our wits.”

“Must have been slim pickings from that oaf,” mumbled Deeb.

“Shut up,” Ardashir ordered. “That wasn’t Ansel––just a side of meat with some muscle memory. Fodder for jackals. Let’s pack up and make some headway––maybe sniff out their burrow.”

Not far from where we’d camped, we heard the roar of water: we were closing in on the river that cut through the gorge. The woodland trail off the Old Salt Road dropped to an incline. The trees grew sparse, deposed by a steep slope of white rock and parched vines.

All the gear Thick Ansel had been lugging was distributed among the rest of us. Ardashir manacled himself to Zogby. He trusted him, but trust only went so far when dealing with Seraphim inmates. Zogby was tasked with lugging the harquebus.

Last night’s attack left the corporal antsy. He held both his hatchets in hand, using them to brace his descent down the steep incline.

The rest of us had no such convenience. Our weighty clubs made poor walking sticks, and by the time we’d scrabbled to the bottom of the slope, we all had a generous collection of scrapes, sprains, and abrasions. Not one of us complained though, not even Deeb. We’d survived the night, and that was enough for now.

We broke at the river’s edge to fill our canteens. Melting snowcaps turned the lazy river to whitewater this time of year. “We’ll follow the bend and rejoin the Old Salt Road,” ordered Ardashir. “There’s a bridge there we can get across.”

“What is it we’re looking for exactly, Corporal, sir?” asked Deeb.

“Burrows,” snapped Ardashir.

“No different than an animals’,” Gaber explained. “Only bigger.”

#

Wraiths weren’t born into the world the way living things are. Holy rollers professed wraiths were byproducts of humans engaging in the dark arts, while hedge wizards claimed they slipped through rifts where the fabric of reality wore thin. Why Matchstick Gorge was an epicenter for the things was anybody’s guess.

Gaber thought he’d spied a burrow by the river crossing, but it turned out to be a derelict beavers’ dam.

The far side of the gorge housed the Summer Quarry. Crackpot prospectors had sold the lie that the area was teaming with precious metals to a disreputable mining conglomerate. The conglomerate spent years blowing that stretch of gorge to kingdom until folding beneath the futility of their endeavor.

It left no shortage of nooks and crannies in which bugbears could hide. Little to no human traffic. Prime real estate for a wraith burrow.

Gaber soon unearthed a rusted line––a rail once laid for mining carts. The line wound upward, then down, through a series of manmade pits where prospectors had decimated the gorge with black powder.

Gaber took point with Deeb close behind. Tandy and me followed, with Zogby and Corporal Ardashir at the rear to make sure the rest of us didn’t get any bright ideas. Ardashir and Zogby lagged a bit on account of them having to lug the harquebus tripod and the rest of the corporal’s accoutrements.

That’s when Deeb started buzzing in our ears. It began with his typical kvetching and turned increasingly sour the further Ardashir lagged behind. Whining became whispers: mutinous intimations.

“Any of you seen a wraith? Ever? Old wives’ tales to jack up the price of goods, I’m guessing. This…this is just a cost-free way for the jailers to have less mouths to feed is how I reckon it,” he hissed.

“Piss off,” hissed Gaber. “Seraphim Prison’s just death without the restful parts anyways. I’ll take my chances out here.”

“And spare them the expense of a headsman,” sneered Deeb.

“What’s this you’re on about?” barked Ardashir from the rear. “Light steps and tight lips,” he ordered.

“Aye, Corporal, sir,” growled Deeb.

“Take ’em out. Him and Zogby if Zogby puts up a fuss,” Deeb muttered. “Head south. The four of us. We’d have faded into the countryside before they catch wind of us.”

“You heard the Corporal––hush up, then,” squeaked Tandy. Something must’ve irked him to assert himself so.

Deeb went for him, but only succeeded to trip himself up when his ankle chain stretched taut. Tandy got fidgety. He plunged his left hand deep into his linen satchel.

Corporal Ardashir had seen enough. He would not suffer his charges acting this unruly. He ordered Zogby to double-time it, and once they caught up with us, he greeted Deeb’s jaw with the butt end of his hatchet.

Then Gaber loosed a whistle that gave everyone pause. He motioned toward the mouth of a mineshaft carved into the incline. Collapsed support beams lay across the entrance, but there was enough space for someone dumb enough to squeeze through.

“I need a volunteer,” bellowed Ardashir.

“I don’t see you itching to get your hands dirty, Corporal, sir,” sulked Deeb. “Bet you could earn yourself some extra chevrons pulling a job like this.”

“I think Deeb should go, sir,” squeaked Tandy. “He was just saying how he don’t reckon wraiths is real anyhow.”

I cringed. None of us liked Deeb any, but ratting him out to a screw was low, even for a hedge wizard. Deeb seethed. He’d brain Tandy first chance he got. I figured I’d try and diffuse the situation.

“I’ll go,” I said.

“It bothers none of you to send a woman down there?” tsked Ardashir. “Gaber?”

The woodsman stared at his moccasins. “I’m useless when I don’t got sky above me, Corporal,” he said. “Tight spots get me sick-like. Tunnels. Corridors. I’d be as much use as a hatful of busted arseholes down there.”

“Alright then,” grumbled the corporal. He made for the key ring beneath his mail shirt. He unlatched my ankle. He twined the chain that held Napper tightly round his forearm once I’d been loosed.

Zogby arranged the tripod at the mouth of the mineshaft. Corporal Ardashir loaded the harquebus. He emptied the weapon into the shaft. An echo of cascading shale answered the roar of cannon fire as the shaft spat back dust.

Zogby fired the hooded lantern that hung from his pack and shoved it at me. The club took two hands to wield properly, so it was either stumbling blind or stumbling defenseless into whatever lurked down there.

“You head straight out if you catch wind of any wraiths,” ordered Ardashir. “We’ll smoke them out properly if they’re in there––as a group––do not engage, got it?”

Ardashir was not what I’d call a strategist. I could’ve run for the hills right then and there. I was the only one not shackled down, himself included. But amnesty was too big a carrot to forsake for a life on the lam.

“Got it,” I nodded. “Just one question, corporal––once we find them, how will we know once we got them all?”

Ardashir’s eyes dimmed. “When they stop coming,” he frowned.

#

I prodded the hole with the bulbous iron head of my club and wriggled through a gap in the collapsed beams. Splinters pricked my ribs. The tunnel stunk.

Napper handed me back the lantern once I’d squeezed through. I hooked it through the shaft of my weapon. I must have looked like a hobo on fire.

The walls were pruned from years of chipping and blasting––rugged and red. Old mining tracks through footprint-laden silt: there had been no shortage of traffic in these tunnels and no telling how recently the tracks had been left. The woodsman would’ve been able to tell––but Gaber was up with the rest of the frightened boys, shuddering in sunlight.

The tunnel fast became too tight for my makeshift lantern pole. I didn’t want to chance smashing the globe and succumb to total darkness, so I slid the lantern off the shaft and opted to carry it while dragging my club one-handed behind me.

The dark did not irk me. It cast a shroud over the tricks light plays on the eye. It was the silence that proved bothersome––that same quiet that came across the wood before Thick Ansel was––well, I still wasn’t sure what had happened back there.

I crept through the tunnel. The shaft branched off in two directions.

I veered left and riled a colony of bats overhead. Their chatter provided cold comfort, but any comfort would do. The tunnel came to an abrupt dead end––a mining cart eaten through by ages-old standing water. I doubled back to the fork and tried the other corridor.

Again. Silence––the head of my club raking shale was the only sound. The lantern stirred shadows that played against the imperfections of the chiseled walls: a mural of disapproving, stony faces quivering in dancing light.

The passage grew even narrower as it snaked beneath the underpinnings of the gorge. The speckled walls went from red to pink to gray, until all color seemed blanched out of them. I despised labyrinths––the way they inspired directionlessness––their sameness, the frustrating monotony of traversing them. Puzzles bullying you into solving them.

I’d always preferred the rooftops and trellises, the rain catchers and clotheslines, the moon overhead. The fact that Ardashir’s shitty lantern only cast a few yards ahead of me made the whole endeavor all the more tedious: quite literally, there was no end in sight.

I heard footsteps. I’d taken to stopping every few steps to wind the lantern around and check behind me. Nothing. A touch of nerves. Echoes, maybe.

The walls shimmered. Mineral deposits––the mining tracks ended abruptly; just where one would think the prospectors had finally found their fortunes in the rock.

There were only footprints––all right feet, all barefoot. This was a queer, magical place: glimmering, quiet, and cold. I quickened my pace. Lantern light revealed a corroded sconce jutting out of the wall, a cobwebbed niche just out of eyeshot.

I dimmed the lantern to a firefly glow and hung it from the sconce. I found a foothold for my moccasin and hoisted myself into the niche one-handed. I squeezed myself in as far as I could fit, a contorted, frightened gargoyle, weighted club in hand.

I listened for footsteps. Again, nothing––only silence. I hadn’t realized how tired I’d become until I gave myself that chance to rest––all that mineral-laden rock shimmering and blinking around me. Despite the sudden absence of light. Watching walls winked luminescent eyes.

A draught passed through the tunnel from up ahead, frigid and dry. Another way out––maybe a shortcut to the far side of the quarry.

All I had to do now was ensure the route was clear, and then straight back to Corporal Ardashir. My willingness to play gopher would buy my way out of Seraphim Prison, wraiths or no.

Then I saw Thick Ansel’s foot traipsing down the passage.

#

The apparition wore the dead man’s foot like a wet stocking. It was a creature of sinewy shadow, its eyes fractures of glacial ice. The hairs pricked up on the back of my neck once I realized it’d been scores of eyes––not mineral deposits at all––blinking at me through the darkness.

I crouched frozen in my cubbyhole. The wraith hobbled toward me. I clutched my club with sweat-slick fingers. Pairs of cataract eyes emerged from the wavering darkness: contorted shadows stretched thin across frameworks of brittle bone.

My head said jump. My head said run. My legs would not obey. A choppy tide of shadow began to engulf the corridor. The nightmare teetering on a dead man’s foot drew closer. I struggled to raise my club, the niche too cramped, the heft of the weapon insurmountable.

I thrashed like a drowning woman. I leapt down and swung. I caught the wraith square where its ribs should have been. It was like slapping the surface of a pond with a broom.

The blow drove the thing against the wall. This caught the attention of the others. Those scores of eyes quit blinking and zeroed in on me.

Thick Ansel’s disembodied foot dragged itself into the darkness like a wounded animal. My legs decided not to work again. It was as if the wraiths had stolen my feet right from under me––just as they had Thick Ansel’s.

Wraiths poured down the tunnel. They moved with the steady cadence of pickers in the field on a midsummer’s day. The time had come for harvest.

An icy hand clutched my shoulder.

#

“Make haste,” crowed Tandy.

His fingers shocked me to life. His entire being was trembling. He fumbled through his satchel. Produced a fruit pit. Plugged it into the craw of his blackthorn cudgel.

“Wyvern gland,” he explained. “Blow.”

I swung my club and shuffled backward, facing down the mob.

“Blow!” Napper shrieked. He tilted the craw of his cane so that the fruit pit caught my breath. The alien seed ignited.

I blew. Tongues of flame lapped tunnel walls. A white-hot spiral of azure and emerald flensed the wraiths’ shadowy overcoats. Half-articulated skeletons collapsed beneath phantasmal fire.

We tucked tail and ran from Napper’s unfurling green hell. The witch chimed as he galloped along, the chain that once bound us kicking up rocks at his heels.

I could barely see or breathe with the thick black smoke emanating from the craw of his cudgel. Tandy shook the smoldering fruit pit free and pitched it behind us.

We tripped our way, choking and half-blind, toward the dissected skeins of daylight at the entrance. As Napper wriggled through the entryway, the chain at his ankle caught a collapsed beam. He leapt for the light.

The entire world groaned. Pebbles. Loam. Tandy writhed like a jackal in a lion’s jaws. He’d bring the whole entrance down.

The moaning of buckling support beams––the deafening whisper of whatever had evaded Napper’s phantasmal flame––obscured the shouting of our comrades from the surface. The rafters split like celery stalks. The ceiling came down.

I dug the cumbersome head of my club into the earth and vaulted toward the light. Child’s play––I’d leapt through enough awning windows with nothing but cobblestone three stories down. I was exhausted, though––as if the very presence of the wraiths had wrung me like a rag. I scraped through the splintering entryway frame just as its jaws collapsed shut.

Hands reached out through the smog of pulverized shale. Silhouettes obscured in blinding sunlight. Tandy yelped––his foot still bound to the length of chain swallowed in the collapse.

“Deeb was wrong,” I gagged. “Seen them with my own two eyes. A whole pack.”

Ardashir handed me a canteen. He watched Napper flail like a hooked fish. A crooked smirk betrayed his usual stoicism. It was only when he realized Zogby and Gaber were having too good a laugh over Tandy’s misfortune that he unshackled the witch. The corporal wasted no cuffing Tandy to the fresh length of chain he’d had readied for us.

“You two make quite a pair,” said Ardashir, securing my ankle next. “You’re not half the coward I figured you for, Tandy.”

Corporal Ardashir surveyed the collapsed entryway. He gnawed his lower lip. “What exactly have you been toting in that satchel that could wreak such havoc?”

“Courage,” quipped Napper.

“Wyvern gland, he called it,” I said.

“You’ll have us believing in dragons, Marie? Now that you’ve seen a wraith?”

“It’s just a name,” coughed Tandy. “Just a stone from a poisonous fruit. Nothing special ‘less it’s treated with certain elixirs…’less the right cantrips are said.”

The corporal snatched Napper’s satchel. “Can’t have you ‘accidentally’ blowing us all to kingdom come, can I?” Ardashir tossed the satchel to Zogby.

#

“What do you mean there might be another entrance?” scowled Ardashir. “There either is or there isn’t.”

“Well, that’s the thing, Corporal,” I explained. “There was a breeze from the far end of the tunnel just as I got set on by wraiths.”

The corporal surveyed the field of rocky hillocks ahead. They sloped and dipped for close to a league, ending abruptly where the gorge arched up into blue heaven.

“Gonna be a slow go that-away,” he fretted. “We’ll need all the daylight we can get to scour for burrows properly. We’ll double-time it. Bed down at the first whiff of dusk.”

“I ain’t sleeping on anymore rocks,” growled Deeb.

“You’ll sleep where I tell you,” snarled the corporal. “Shut up and keep your eyes peeled.”

Ardashir urged Zogby forward with a tug of the chain. Napper and I fell in behind them––the witch still winded from our narrow escape.

Deeb and Gaber fell back. I shot Deeb the stink eye. He wagged a finger at Ardashir’s back. “Bastard’s due for a long sleep himself,” he muttered.

Beyond the first hillock, we stumbled across a second cave-in––presumably the second shaft entrance. Thorny vines enveloped crumbling patina-encrusted girders.

“Ancient history,” affirmed Gaber. “Only something shy of a hill cat could manage to squeeze its way in or outta there.”

The terrain left our feet so blistered that even Deeb didn’t whinge when the corporal ordered us to prep camp early. We’d come across a petrified sassafras tree––its limbs and trunk impossibly buoyant for something that’d once sprung up from such infertile ground.

Tandy had the corporal convinced it was some sort of omen. Omen or no, my intent was to find a comfy branch and get a decent night’s sleep outside the reach of any wraiths that might come calling.

Ardashir initiated the same ritual as the night prior: he marked a wide circle with his boot heel with the sassafras at the center. Napper retraced the corporal’s footsteps with the charred craw of his blackthorn cudgel.

The corporal returned Tandy’s satchel. Napper wagged sheaves and muttered cantrips and danced. He sprinkled clumps of weeds around the radius of the circle and lit others aflame. He and I then rounded the circle and popped squats in strategic locations to the alternate delight and dismay of the ginger twins.

The men unfurled their bedrolls, each with their backs to the tree trunk. There was only rock as far as the eye could see. We waited for dusk fireless, shoving hardtack down our gullets.

Deeb fiddled with what looked like a pinch of pipe weed––god knows where he’d been hiding it.

“Mind if I partake, corporal, sir?” he asked Ardashir.

“Be my guest, should you find a pipe to smoke it with littering the quarry.”

Deeb could’ve chewed it just as easily, but he just huffed and tucked the pinch into his dirty palm. Reading Deeb’s sourness, Ardashir produced the brandy flask. It made the ways around the tree; the corporal sure to offer Deeb the first hit.

I passed. A ceremonial swig would do little to drown out what I’d seen down that shaft.

“Think your brandy’s turned, corporal,” spat Napper, once the flask finally made it to him. “Tastes a bit off…all medicinal like.”

“Man up and shut up,” growled Deeb. “It’ll put hair on your chest––why do you think Tin Marie don’t touch the stuff?”

For the meager amount afforded each man, the brandy took hold quick.

Zogby started to nod in the midst of prepping the corporal’s harquebus. The corporal snored away beside him, not even bothering to collect the training clubs for the night. He’d given me Thick Ansel’s to replace the one I’d jettisoned back in the mine. An unarmed convict was a dead convict from here on in.

Even Gaber was out for the count. I’d convinced Tandy to lie below a sturdy fork I’d found in the sassafras. I swung myself up, leaving enough give on the chain so that Napper could lay prone comfortably.

There was no shortage of starlight, and from my perch I watched my compatriots shiver and shift upon their beds of jagged rock while the world faded to silhouette and shadow.

#

Deeb stirred. I knew there’d been something up after watching the way the normally greedy cur only half-swigged that brandy. And that pipe weed––I’d never seen him so much as toke a pipe in the yard––and in the pokey there’s fuck else to do.

Whether he’d pinched those herbs from Tandy’s satchel or picked them along the way, I reckoned he’d spiked that flask with enough whatever-it-was to dose the lot of us. He crept around the base of the tree trunk until his chain pulled taut; leaving Gaber sprawled out like a narcoleptic wishbone.

Deeb knocked over the harquebus tripod and cursed, but still no one woke. He made his way toward Ardashir. He prodded Zogby to ensure he was out. Deeb seized the slack length of chain between the corporal and Zogby’s ankle and wound it round Ardashir’s throat.

I suppose this was for the best. We were bound to die anyway if we chanced upon more wraiths. Deeb was probably right––this had all just been a clever way for the municipality to trim expenditures. Get rid of us without paying an executioner and cull some wraiths in the meantime.

A hangman’s noose was favorable to death at the hands of those things I’d seen back in that shaft. But to hear that chain, link against link, as it tightened around Ardashir’s throat––and to hear the corporal’s abhorrent snore reduced to a gargle––what was left of my conscience got the best of me.

I dove from my perch. My shackle chaffed shin. My chain caught the branch and seesawed Napper up the base of the trunk foot-first. The twig of a magician slept right through it.

I kicked a leg through Deeb’s armpit and wrangled the other around his neck just as my chain jerked taut. I constricted my thighs.

I’d learnt the move from a cat burglar who’d made a living hijacking drunks from the rooftops. The “auld triangle” she’d called it.

Deeb dropped the chain at Ardashir’s neck to sort me out. He clawed like a drunken polecat. He tore at my prison grays. He hissed and he spit.

He hadn’t seen me coming, though––and was in no position to do much of anything. But he was strong. Brutally so. A fist grazed my ribs.

It was hard to stay upright with my chain enmeshed around the branch. The shackle bit right to my anklebone. Deeb bastard just wouldn’t go down. He toed at the harquebus, just out of reach.

I squeezed and kept squeezing until finally, Deeb slackened. He collapsed among the mangled, petrified roots that mingled with the bedrock. I dropped just beside him, suspended upside down from the ticking branch above, like a swine left to bleed out. My foot felt like it might tear clear off. The wraiths might get their ten toes to prowl around on yet.

I choked back the pain and swung, unsure if the snapping sound was my foot or the branch––it was a blinding, maddening, numbing sensation. I swung back and forth, back and forth, all pins-and-needles, leveraging my wait until I was able to arch back up toward my roost among the branches.

There were no hurrahs, no thanks, no one to bear witness to my deed––good or bad. I scrabbled back over the branch, dropping right down on Tandy. Landing on top of that slumbering sleeve of bones did little to buffer my injured foot; my entire leg from the knee down throbbed hotly. Daggers shot up my thigh. The laggard was still out cold.

I needed to ensure Deeb was out of commission. If not, we’d be facing off on even ground––and him the veteran pit fighter. I approached with caution. He moaned. I gave him a swift one in the temple with my good foot.

“Corporal, sir,” I hissed, “wake up.”

Ardashir choked a snore. Zogby shuddered.

Zogby was the biggest of us barring Deeb––and not much of a tippler. His soldier’s constitution must’ve spared him the brunt of Deeb’s mickey––one of those rare instances when teetotalism paid dividends.

“Zogby, you thick prick––wake up,” I seethed.

Zogby wiped the sleep from his eyes. He fumbled for his club once he registered me looming over him. He palmed his club by its weighted sphere and jabbed my ribs with the shaft end. I winced.

“Wha z’all this ‘en, Marie?” he slurred. He rocked himself upright, bracing against the tree trunk.

“Deeb dosed the brandy. He tried to off the Corporal when we was out,” I explained.

“Where he’d go?” panicked Zogby.

“He’s just beside you.” I kicked Deeb in the gut to illuminate the pit wrangler’s whereabouts.

“Where’s the harquebus?”

I shrugged. Zogby swept his club across the jagged earth, tapping it like a blind man until he tripped across the tripod.

He tugged his chain in hopes it might rouse the corporal. Nothing. I helped him prop Ardashir against the tree. Zogby gnawed the cork from his canteen.

He doused Ardashir. Ardashir gasped.

“Corporal Ardashir, sir,” said Zogby, “we’ve got a situation.”

Ardashir teetered to attention. He squinted, trying to scan the jagged black beyond the witch’s snare.

“Not wraiths, Corporal, sir,” I explained. “I think Deeb spiked the brandy. Tried to make you when we were all out.”

“Marie clocked him, Corporal, sir,” Zogby affirmed.

“And you out of everybody proved immune to this philter, Marie? Convenient,” huffed Ardashir.

“I didn’t drink, sir,” I explained, “on account of what I saw down that shaft. On account of wanting to have all my faculties should we be set upon again.”

“Interesting story,” hiccupped Ardashir. He wrangled his harquebus from its tripod and hobbled toward Deeb. “The pressing question, Mister Zogby,” said the corporal, “is which convict’s word do I take at face value?”

Ardashir raised the harquebus. He lowered it in my direction.

“Marie could’ve done you in just as easy,” gulped Zogby. “She could’ve done the both of us…if she’d wanted to. But she didn’t, corporal, sir!”

“Alright, then.” Ardashir crouched beside Deeb. He fumbled in the dark until his fingers found the pit wrangler’s mouth. “The tripod,” ordered Ardashir, “arrange it just so.”

He pried open Deeb’s jaw and plugged Deeb’s maw with the tip of the harquebus barrel. Iron chipped teeth. Years of taking beatings had deviated Deeb’s septum well and good. His nostrils produced a queer whistling sound as they shouldered the brunt of his breathing.

“Now you’ve almost convinced me you’re not half the scoundrel these crooks are,” Ardashir growled at me. “Or maybe you’re just twice the grifter.”

The fuse on the harquebus glowed. The corporal squeezed the trigger. There was a flash, and the stink of black powder. A warm brume of gristle splattered our prison grays. The darkness spared us the sight of what the corporal had done.

The roar of the harquebus shook the others from their opiate trances. Half awake, Gaber clasped his ears. He made for the perimeter of the witch’s snare to put as much distance between himself and the dead man as he could.

Corporal Ardashir dug for the shackle key in his waistcoat pocket. He stabbed it around the corpse until the key teethed the latch at Deeb’s ankle.

Zogby helped Ardashir rein Gaber in. Ardashir popped the latch on his own shackle. He cuffed Gaber to Zogby.

“Let’s not lose our heads over this,” warned the corporal. “Everybody take a breath, grab a club and keep your eyes peeled. We’ve got a ways to go between us and daybreak.”

He balanced himself against the tree and massaged out his boot where his own shackle had chaffed the leather. “I was starting to feel like one you yobs, tied to the hip like that.”

He unwound Napper’s satchel from around his shoulder and tossed it at him. The witch hadn’t moved since he’d opened his eyes. We were all afraid of death, but for Napper it was paralytic. We were all from the alleys one way or another, barring Tandy. Death was a frequent visitor there: blunt and brutal. In Napper’s world, death was more fleet-footed, couched in incantations, pacts written in shadow. A suggestion.

“You’re to pull out all stops from here on in,” Ardashir instructed him. “You’ve all Tin Marie to thank that your faithful corporal’s still standing.”

He recovered his harquebus. He stabbed the butt-end toward Tandy. “Let Deeb serve as a reminder of what can happen if any hexes fly in the wrong direction. The enemy’s out there,” he reminded us. “Not in this circle.” He slapped his sleeve. “Not these chevrons on my arm. Not flesh and bone.”

I’m sure he’d intended to put some fear of god in each of us, but our wits were too far-gone already.

#

Deeb’s warning lingered long after the rifle smoke cleared––one less mouth for the jailers to feed. Right or wrong, he’d gotten himself blown clear of the chamberlain’s budgetary concerns.

Whatever the truth might have been, it didn’t matter. Truth or lies, right or wrong, whatever had gotten those wheels spinning in the first place could not be stopped; at this juncture we were all just along for the ride. All any of us could do was hang on.

I managed to nod off. Exhaustion was one of those things that took priority over all else once it took hold. Like a bout of the runs.

The sun nudged me awake. It was the only gentle thing at this hour––not the jagged ground or the petrified tree or the dead man with his head half open opposite me. My ankle throbbed. It had gone purple in the night.

“We’ll scour what’s left of the quarry and rejoin the trail on the opposite side of the gorge,” said Ardashir. He pointed toward the sheer red wall rising out of the rubble, indicating a footpath that zigzagged up its jagged face.

“T-then w-we’re d-done?” squeaked Napper. The witch worked a mealy, weed-woven press between my manacle and chewed-up ankle. It stung.

“What’d I tell Tin Marie?” growled the corporal.

“That we’re done when they stop coming?” volunteered Gaber.

“Aye,” he nodded.

“That’s not what I asked, Corporal, sir,” I clarified. “Not exactly. I’d asked when we’d know once we’ve gotten them all.”

Corporal Ardashir threw the harquebus over his shoulder. “How’s that not one and the same?” he seethed. “If any of you walk away from this shit show with anything, it’s that too much precision can wind you up tight as a drum skin. It can kill you as quick as being sloppy. These chevrons, this uniform––it’s not about precision. It’s about the illusion of precision. And that is our job if any of us care to see another morning.”

Zogby was perplexed. “But the chamberlain’s promise of leniency will only come with a wholesale purging. He said it himself.”

“Did soldiery leave you so tame that you take what your so-called superiors say at face value?” frowned Ardashir. “It’s a good thing you were court-martialed––you’d have made a lousy enlisted man. The last thing the chamberlain expects is for any of us to make it out of this gorge alive.”

My heart sunk. Deeb had been right after all.

“But what about you?” fret Zogby.

“Even me. I did what was right once or twice too often, discovering too late that wasn’t what I’d been recruited to do. That’s when they swapped out my bars for chevrons and started handpicking me for details like this.”

“But the wraiths,” I reminded him.

“It’s enough that they’ve sent us––enough to ease any reservations of the merchant caravans along the Old Salt Road. Once they taste coin, there’ll be no stopping them––until the attacks start up again––more fear to drum up support for next spring’s clearing.”

It was too big a paradigm shift for a pea-brained gallant like Zogby to handle. “But…”

The corporal shut him down. “I’m only being frank with you on account of Tin Marie putting her neck out to save me,” he foamed. “As far as I’m concerned, Deeb was the only one of you lot that needed killing. I figure whatever it is you all deserve for what you did, an anonymous death in these wilds isn’t it.”

“I’ll take the wilds over where you plucked us from,” muttered Gaber.

“I have a plan,” growled Ardashir. “And if you keep your mouths shut and follow my lead, you’ll all survive long enough to walk out of here dead men.”

#

On the hike up, we stumbled across a final collapsed shaft. We marked the site with stakes and a signpost to warn off trespassers. Napper leant his scrawl, seeing as I had some letters but the rest of us barring the corporal couldn’t write all that well. The witch spit in the dirt and threw a few hexes and we were off.

The far lip of the gorge was not all that different from where we’d started. We followed a tattered tree line to where the Old Salt Road horseshoed out of the gorge and snaked southward.

My wounded ankle made each step a chore. The witch’s press was enough to ease the swelling and stave off infection, but Napper was far from miracle worker.

Naked branches canopied over the rut-worn byway. You could imagine how, in spring’s full bloom, a lone traveler might be hesitant to traverse blind through that tunnel of foliage. Wraiths aside, it seemed a prime spot for highwaymen.

Ardashir studied the tree line. He turned toward Gaber. “I suppose you should give the area a cursory sweep before we consider your debt fully paid.”

The woodsman hoisted his manacles and bound for the briar patch, Zogby hot on his heels. The pair faded into a litter of gray reeds and crooked trunks.

Corporal Ardashir produced the key from his waistcoat. “And you two,” he addressed us, “pretend to look less glum if you can muster it. This is a ceremonial measure. The last thing any of us need is to stumble across an infestation once we’ve gone our separate ways, agreed?”

We nodded. “Hands and knees, Tandy,” ordered Ardashir.

The witch dropped.

“Prop your foot on his back,” the corporal then ordered me.

Ardashir was an officer to the end, even in his goodwill––too precious to kneel down and sully the knees of his own fatigues. The corporal stabbed the lock at my ankle. My cuff gave way. The cool air nipped at my abrasions.

I egged Napper back up to his feet. I dropped to extend the witch the same courtesy he had me. Ardashir freed him.

The corporal gathered up the chain. The ends dangled and chimed in the dirt. Ardashir wound it above his head and flung it into the gorge below.

“It’s a shame to have lost the simpleton––brutish ox of a thing,” he whispered. “The witch, well, I reckon the dark arts catch up with you. Suppose he had it coming.” Ardashir pantomimed the epitaphs he planned to recite to his superiors. Seeing which lies rang most true. “But the tin thief––can you blame her for nicking shingles here and there to fill an empty belly? Less desperate women have been known to do worse.”

I’m not sure why, but I saluted the bastard.

“This detail should earn me an extra chevron,” he spit. “Sergeant. But in their eyes, no amount of obedience will ever merit tacking bars back on my collar.” He snarled as if we were just inconvenient embodiments of all the world’s slights and injustices.

“What of Gaber?” I asked. “And Zogby?”

“You’ve all earned your pardons, far as I’m concerned. Once they’ve returned from their ranging, they’ll be free to go too. The woodsman, he’ll do what woodsman do: disappear in the brush. Live off the fat of the land. Zogby, though––he’s the sort who’s not much use beyond the regimented life. Some men are shiftless without a head full of orders. I’ll see if he wants to come back with me. Petition to make him my steward. He killed any future as a Royal Mountaineer when he buggering that officer’s wife––but we swine-guard don’t answer to that lot. Steward’s as far up the ladder as he’ll ever go now, but at least it’s a rung.”

Perhaps the corporal wasn’t as shrewd as I’d painted him. He’d given us futures, carefully thought out, apparently––futures that’d been leeched right from our hides in those dark, dank cells. Futures obscured beneath the rusty tin rooftops of Seraphim Heel.

I heard screams from the woods and the sound of reeds snapping, and the present came crashing down all around us.

#

Gaber was the first to emerge from the tree line. He moved like a grizzled, gray fox caught in a leg hold, his eyes wide as saucers. He battered through saplings with the weighted head of his club.

It was no bum leg encumbering him, though––it was what was left of Zogby at the far end of his chain. A leg. A cleft hip. Half a torso.

“Run!” croaked the woodsman.

We could have, but Napper and I held our ground. Gaber limped toward the road; Zogby’s remains writhed in a trench at the roadside. Ardashir tossed the shackle key to Gaber.

Shaky, the woodsman dumped his club. He coaxed the key into the lock at his ankle.

Something caught Ardashir’s eye. He went for his harquebus. He cocked it toward the tree line.

Two feet hobbled through the brush––one Zogby’s, one Ansel’s––the latter flensed, ashen with shale dust. An assemblage of splintered bones were poised atop the phantom limbs––a crudely human approximation ribbed in shifting shadow.

The forest betrayed us. The skeins of shadow cast by the foliage in the late morning sun wriggled free from their litter of trunks and reeds. Timber rippled as the legion of waiting wraiths shed their camouflage.

Tandy etched a line along the Old Salt Road with his cudgel. He spit in the divot.

Ardashir fired his harquebus. The shot tore right down the middle of the interlopers and smote bone to chalk. There were just too many; the jigsaw gang of shadow and errant miners’ limbs pressed onward.

In a last-ditch effort, the corporal hurled his harquebus straight at the mob. The weapon collapsed dumbly among the reeds. He made for his hatchets.

Napper muttered some cantrip as he peppered the line he’d carved out with the remaining contents of his satchel. The spot erupted with a luminescent green lattice, a whispering dryad fire. It caught the wraiths’ attention.

“Run!” barked Gaber, the woodsman already yards ahead.

I white knuckled my club, frozen where I stood. The light of the dryad fire danced across Tandy’s face, a radiant green. Napper clasped my arm, his palm clammy, cold through my prisoner’s grays.

We were free folk now, dead either way in the eyes of the state. Napper and Gaber ran, and I limped behind them. There were no heroes among the dead, not today. Any casualties were robbed of that final dignity, reclaimed as vessels for those wraiths, caught in some panicked, winding wheel between living and dying.

Behind us, a xylophone of bone collapsed against Napper’s dryad fire. I turned and saw what was left of Zogby rise from the trench, as one of the fallen shadows assumed his hollowed husk.

Ardashir lagged behind. He lunged with both hatchets at the haunt draped in Zogby’s remains. He’d been stripped of his officer’s bars for doing what was right; we’d never learned the specifics. But now, he did what every good enlisted man does: someone else’s dirty work. He took a stand and fought.

I raised my club and turned to run back, but Gaber tripped me up. “It’s suicide,” he squawked.

Ardashir’s arms windmilled wildly, hatchets cleaving shadow, as the mob overtook him––a fluttering moth swept up in the brume of a campfire. I picked myself up and set off behind Gaber and Tandy.

There were no screams, no ringing steel, no birdsong––nothing but deathly quiet at our heels. Rubber legs carried us down the Old Salt Road, animated by the promise of freedom that lay ahead and the fear we might never outrun.

If You Plan to Trap More Werewolves, Don’t Send Them Here

The panting is the worst, it doesn’t stop
For hours after the moon’s gone, and it
Shakes the whole prison. I know their cage wheels
Absorb some of the motion, but the clop
Clip of wolf-claw on bars and the hit hit
Hit of dog-chain rattling in their cells feels

Like we are in some hurtling train, feels
Like we are in a cheap car that won’t stop
Until we can somehow manage to hit
Something very solid. I can’t stand it.
I hate everything about them, the clop,
The drool, the panting, the marking cage wheels

When they feel threatened by noisier wheels…
Still, I try to understand how it feels
To be a werewolf in a time-jail, clop
Clopping away forever. Time won’t stop
Because werewolves are stuck inside of it,
And can’t figure out how to bite/ gnaw /hit

Their way out before the full moon will hit
Again and they are left in there, where wheels
Just spin in place, and nothing to kill. It
Sucks for them; they know they’re trapped, but it feels
Like they won’t help themselves. It’s like they stop
Thinking once they’re captured. They only clop

Their claws, howl, gnaw and gnash all day. They clop
Even louder when any moon beams hit
Them. They can’t be blamed, really, they can’t stop
What they are. Our full moon’s a fake, it wheels
Over the jail any time a guard feels
Like wheeling it. The jail guards manning it

Don’t particularly care about it
Triggering curses, don’t give a dog clop
About what full moons do or how it feels
When random amounts of these full moons hit
Werewolves who can only run on cage wheels
And spin in circles. The guards never stop

To think about it. So the wolves are hit
Constantly. They pant. And clop. Their cage wheels
Spin. And it feels awful until they stop.

— Juleigh Howard Hobson

Juleigh Howard Hobson’s otherworldly writing has appeared in The Liar’s League, New Witch, Enchanted Conversation, Devolution Z, Champagne Shivers, History is Dead (Permuted Press), Loving The Undead (From The Asylum), Lost Innocence Anthology (Niteblade), Bits of the Dead & Vicious Verse (Coscom Entertainment), Mandragora (Scarlett Imprint) and many other places.

Editor’s Note: The sestina is often a perfect form to sustain tension in a narrative poem. The werewolf in a spherical cage is a composite image courtesy of Pinterest and A. Bill Miller.

Skimming

Peeling skimmers off the windshield
I toss them in the bin
Fried, they make good eating
Doc Smith says to leave ‘em alone
“For your health” but I can’t do it
I share ‘em with the dog
He prefers them raw

The Kid says
isn’t it amazing we can eat them
them being aliens and all
tho she claims WE’RE the aliens
but just cos I wasn’t born here
that don’t convert me to alien

She also says they’re spat
Babies of some bigger critters
Big as houses maybe
Somethin’ that don’t want its babies et
Like I don’t want her et
But I tell her
Sure if she tasted like they do
I’d understand

I’m laughing still
Remembering the face she made
Before she run off

These skimmers are ‘bout done
Hope she gets back soon
Or she won’t get none
I hollered a bit ago
She didn’t answer

— David C. Kopaska-Merkel

David C. Kopaska-Merkel has been writing SF and fantasy since rock was young. He joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Ass’n (SFPA) in 1986, edited Star*line in the late ‘90s, and later served as SFPA President. Many of his poems have received Rhysling nominations, and he won the Rhysling award for best long poem in 2006 for “The Tin Men,” a collaboration with Kendall Evans. He was voted SFPA Grand Master in 2017. His poetry has been published in scores of venues, including Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, and Night Cry. A recent book, Footprints in Stone, is a nonfiction collaboration with Ron Buta. He edits and publishes Dreams and Nightmares, a genre poetry zine in its 31st year of publication. Blog at http://dreamsandnightmaresmagazine.blogspot.com/ featuring a daily poem. @DavidKM on Twitter. He lives in a centuried farmhouse that has been engulfed, but not digested, by a city.

Editor’s Note: David said this poem is “a tale of culture clash and willful ignorance.”

The octopus images are from the IconArchive superimposed on a car windshield.

Balloon Animals


We are simple creatures—part lung, part bladder—
twisted into shape, with buoyant hearts.
Dog, my blue lover, calls me his little pink monkey.

In the beginning, he is frisky with static electricity,
as am I, and we are much adored, but as the week
wears on, we begin to shrivel, losing tautness,

our skin wrinkling like the surface of stale pudding.
Soon, we no longer float, but drift along the floor,
barely lifting our noses in the breeze.

Our novelty with the children diminishes. Sally,
the monstrous giant, decides to put us out of our misery,
stomping on our rubber bodies with all of her might.

That three-year-old makes it impossible to breathe.
Thus, as we were called into life, so we go to our deaths—
what begins with a huff ends with a bang.

— Robert Borski

Robert Borski did not begin to write poetry until he was well into his 50’s, but in the decade since, his work has garnered nearly two-dozen award nominations (14 Rhysling, 8 Dwarf Star). While Blood Wallah, an earlier collection of his poems, is still available from Dark Regions Press, more recent work has been appearing semi-regularly in Asimov’s, Dreams & Nightmares, and Star*Line. A self-described late-blooming child prodigy, Robert continues to live in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, where he works at a local university.
 
Editor’s Note: Robert says this of (an earlier version) of this poem, “among non-winners in last year’s SFPA Poetry Contest, the poem got a citation for excellence by judge Michael Kriesel.” The images that are configured together are from Pixabay (dog balloon) and Paul Smith (monkey balloon).