By the time I’d finished foisting the rest of the lhiannan sidhe paperwork off on SSF officers, the follow-up reports from the airport were ready, and my trail was cold. So, I stopped in at the Nameless Diner, had a bit of coffee, and filed through them.
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Absorbing data, however remotely connected, helps with the tracking process. Sudden flashes of connection can occur at any time, and it was just that sort of abrupt intuitive spark that could finish up a case for me.
There was a lot; Gideon and his crew produced exhausting amounts of information about the passengers and the plane, and nearly everything else they could dig up. I felt the tightening sensation in the back of my brain that told me something was there, but the tautness sat quietly and did nothing more.
I needed something.
I paid my tab, tipped the waitress well (a lycanthrope putting herself through school, she needed it), and meandered out into the rapidly darkening street. Rain was starting to spatter down, and I considered options.
It had been confirmed that the man on the plane with the peculiar jar was a cebuano practitioner, and contact with the Philippines confirmed that he was a proficient tracker of dangerous creatures. Why he’d given pursuit on the plane was unknown, though communications may have been lost in Singapore. I fervently hoped this wasn’t going to result in travel time for me, but it very well might; there aren’t many with my qualifications or experience with the Indonesian sector.
Though I had tons of information about the other passengers, I still didn’t know enough about the aswang herself. She’d boarded as Linda Chen, resident of Singapore, first-class ticket, one bag carry-on, one checked bag. Apparently she got away with the carry-on, and search of the other bag gave us nothing but clothes. It was noted that her wardrobe was expensive, well-tailored and no-nonsense. Divinations would be done on the clothing, though it might not even belong to her.
I wondered if she had intended to set up a legitimate business of some sort.
We knew that aswangs were solitary as a rule, but maybe this one got an idea from the berbalang migration in the 20’s; the berbalang families had done an excellent job of integrating into society.
I wondered if there was a support network for her we didn’t know about. That troubled me a bit, and though I thought it very unlikely, I noted it for further investigation.
One of the problems with being in my line of work was that everything looked suspicious after the first few months.
One of the other problems is how time-consuming it would be.
I shuffled out my phone, found a place to huddle, and made a call. Akiko picked up after a moment.
“Reed,” she said, concern implicit by the lack of concern in her voice.
“Hi,” I replied. “I’m not going to make it. Nothing to worry about, just something I have to keep on.”
“…yes, I thought it would be,” she murmured. “There was some talk about it at the department.”
“If you find anything good, send it my way,” I grinned. “I could use it.”
I paused, and then sighed. “I could have been an accountant?”
“You’d have hated it.”
“True. I’m off.”
“We’ll catch up later,” she said ruefully.
“Promises,” I said.
“Nothing changes,” she chuckled back, and hung up.
I tucked the phone away, and then pulled it out again without thinking, just before it started to ring.
I didn’t recognize the number. “Moshi-moshi.”
“I see you.”
I knew immediately who it was, locked the number in my mind.
“Why are you calling me?”
“Because you don’t know me, but I know you. That does not work.”
All I could see was night rain and street lights. She could have been somewhere far above. Maybe her eyes weren’t hampered like mine were, keen as they are. There was no trickle of cold needles in my spine, but I would be ready if she moved on me. She couldn’t have been too close if she actually meant me harm, and I seriously doubted she didn’t.
“Explain,” I replied, trying to memorize her voice. Soft, but rusty-sounding. There was the slightest edge of an accent. Low. Throaty, maybe, if she was happy. Gentle, but a good ear would find no empathy in it, and very little compassion.
“My name is Mayela, Reed. Now you know my name. Come and find me.”
It was late afternoon before I came by Doylen’s, and at that hour, there wasn’t much in the pub except some sunlight and Doylen herself, who was all wide-eyed attention when I came through the door.
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“Reed,” she said.
I nodded. “Nobody else in yet?”
She shook her head, her body on autopilot, working on the small preparations for the night. “Not for another hour. What’s up?”
Walking in a couple paces, I realized something was wrong with Doylen.
“You’ve heard by now, I’m sure,” I replied. “Making my rounds.”
My mind was grasping for what was different, but it was slippery. She looked like her normal self; short dark blonde hair, pictsie-like with freckles and a pert nose. A lot of people assumed her a changeling, but she was just human.
She nodded, folding napkins. “It’s early yet, so I haven’t heard anything. Stop by tomorrow? I might have more for you then.”
Doylen’s was a haven of sorts. To most, it was a place where a lot of the changelings came to spend time with each other, but it was also a place where the less-liked faeborn could come and enjoy themselves in peace. It had a fair human patronage too, but most of them weren’t gawkers. Many fae are horrible at being creative themselves, as a rule, so they loved to surround themselves with human innovation. It was a pretty close crowd at Doylen’s, as a result… writers, poets, and a lot of musicians.
Unofficially, Doylen’s was also a safe house for fugitive supernaturals. Not everyone has the same laws about supernaturals, and some places are vicious to all of them. You can guess there’s underground railroads of all sorts as a result, which is a great deal of hassle for people like me. Supernaturals were good hands at seeming like something they weren’t, and on occasion, something horrible slips into the country, helped by well-meaning but not well-informed hands.
Doylen was sharp, and knew enough to key me to the ones who did come through. In exchange, I arrange for her work to continue. Supernatural law, even the mundane sort, tends to be a little fuzzy at the edges.
But this time, she was hiding something from me, and that wasn’t like her at all.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t dangerous. If there were a redcap or nuckalavee or something of the sort in the place, I would have picked up on that immediately. There was nothing there that was threatening me… but Doylen was edgy, very edgy.
She was watching me, and I saw the small signs. Too attentive. Impatient, showing in the restless wrists. I could almost hear her heart fluttering.
What was she worried about?
“Sure,” I said after a moment, and that moment made her instantly nervous. I allowed my eyes to narrow. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” she said, and there was a pause.
It was in the store room. Whatever she didn’t want me to see was in the store room.
I locked her in place with a look, and went to the door.
“Reed, please, don’t!”
The door opened, I had myself set for a conflict even though there was no sense of the liquid tension that always prefaced one, and saw a slender man sitting at the break table, with a mug of stout and a notebook. He looked up, unconcerned, with an elegance that made his simple face seem luminous, and I could see the gold flecks in his blue watercolor eyes. Sitting there, the composition was perfect; his slight lean to the table, with its rich hardwood colors, balanced by the column of sunlight from the window above, falling around him in long, smooth brushstrokes. It was a circle, his fair skin and black hair an ink-wash, or maybe the sleekest of charcoal-
I immediately backed out of the room and slammed the door shut, my own heart thudding heavily, and looked at Doylen with the anger only fear can generate.
“This was the stupidest thing you’ve ever done,” I said flatly.
“Please, Reed! Please, don’t call it in, he’ll stay here, I promise-“
“No. Don’t move.” I was already calling in a retrieval team. “Don’t move, Doylen.”
She was too distraught to even try, and we stood there and watched each other until the team arrived. I directed them briefly, and they went into the store room, iron in hand and mind both.
They took the lhiannan sidhe only a few moments later, after securing him, and like any lhiannan sidhe, he didn’t resist at all. He seemed to find the whole thing a little amusing, and I was glad when they finally took him out, because all I could see when he was in the room was how much I wanted to paint again, and how good I knew I could be at it.
And I knew Doylen was the same, except every sound she heard would have been a note in her perfect song.
Lhiannan sidhe aren’t allowed out of Ireland, and for good reason. They’re regarded as a national treasure there, but even so, they are restricted in their movements. Some of them are tremendously powerful in fae magic, but all of them are dangerous for what they do. They make artists of all sorts, but they destroy those artists. It’s a process they have no control over, as natural as breathing is to us, but an artist that a lhiannan sidhe forms a relationship with eventually withers and dies. They go mad, they waste away, or whatever else, but the end result is always the same, and they never last long.
But the art they create in that brief window is brilliant.
In Ireland, if you are a citizen, you can petition to have exposure to a lhiannan sidhe. It involves a lot of paperwork, basically acknowledging that you are going to die, and that you understand that, and there’s something about willing all your proceeds from your art to Ireland. For years now, Ireland has been at the head of the arts, but the price is steep. Once, in the fifties, an escaped lhiannan sidhe started working as a director in California, and the deaths were appalling. That woke up a lot of people on how dangerous they could be, but even so, there’s a lot of romanticism about them.
I left a while later, after grilling Doylen about how she’d gotten him here, and giving her the usual noise about not leaving the city. It took a couple blocks for my pulse to slow down, and I quietly thanked the world for that lesson. Not everything dangerous feels that way, not even to someone like me.
It took several more blocks to shake the event entirely. The ache of lost inspiration made me feel hollow, and all I could remember was the look on his face when I walked in, as if he could see everything I would ever create, and he expected to love it.
Standing in some anonymous building, the tattered skins of pamphlets layered on peeling walls, broken tiles underfoot, I examined the stairwell and then walked quietly through the adjunct hallway. I paused in the back room; this place was probably a restaurant once, but the fixtures were all gone, and the walls had the uncertain, hollow wounds where the pipes had been. Rats had been here, and probably came through on occasion.
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I felt my eyes narrow slightly, ears searching for any murmur beyond the faintest street noise oozing in through the cracked walls, and then I knew that the aswang had been in here.
Everybody has the sixth sense, but most people never get more than vague 'hunches'. Edgar Cayce believed it was a defense, a way to spot the supernatural predators before they get you, but for some reason, it has degenerated. You can exercise it, but like any aptitude, some people are just better at it than others. It's not really being psychic, like a clairvoyant or a telepath, but it does pick up on psychic emanations a bit. Everybody has the seventh sense, too, though they are more aware of it; the sense of things being alive or dead, on a metaphysical level.
I am what the Cayce Foundation labels a 'cipher', someone with prodigiously developed sixth and seventh senses. Most ciphers never understand what they are; like I said, it's not being psychic. You don't hear voices in your head, or break things accidentally with your mind. Undeveloped ciphers are just people who seem particularly lucky. Some of them become professional gamblers, star athletes or theoretical mathematicians. A few become psychologists. There aren't any reliable tests for it, and even if they did know, most ciphers wouldn't ever get past the 'I'm just lucky' phase.
I was doing a paper on preternatural psychology at the Foundation when a clairvoyant spotted me out. He'd dropped a post-it note, and I caught it without thinking before it hit the ground. He'd paused and looked at me, and asked if I did that sort of thing often. I thought for a second, and realized, yes, I did. He gave me some exercises, and it turned out I was very, very good. That's what eventually landed me my current job.
So, for most of the morning, I'd meandered through the streets, and eventually my instincts led me to this place. They'd compiled and intuited their way through a maze of information, seen and unseen. Now the path was clear... as clear as it could be at the moment. I don't understand the cues my mind receives half the time, but my senses are sharp enough that I don't often doubt them.
She'd been here.
I carefully examined the kitchen area, but found nothing, so I headed upstairs. High ground at night, usually... perhaps roof access? Pausing, I leaned slightly, and spotted the faintest smudge below the railing. A closer look revealed a smear, as if from oil or grease, by a hand. Recent, but probably not recent enough to catch her here.
I kept going up the stairway, quiet, not particularly worried. My nose picked up the sharp smell of vinegar towards the top of the stairs, and I quickly found that one of the weary rooms there reeked of the stuff. Apparently it had been spilled on the floor, or something of the sort. The window of that room was open, and I quickly homed in on some old blood spots spattering the floor and the wall.
The aswang often hunts at night by detaching the head and entrails from the body, leaving the body in a secure location while the head and entrails fly out in search of victims.
Hunger? Probably. I didn't think she'd risk being caught so soon after escape. Maybe she was just arrogant. Maybe she knew something I didn't.
Letting the light change, I stood there for a while, absorbing as much of her as I could. I had an advantage in that I'd actually met her once, touched her arm. It gave me more to work with. Standing in the mouldering room, I confirmed my suspicions. Her malignance stayed in the air like sweltering humidity, unavoidable and smothering. I made a mental note to include possibilities of haunting in the aftermath of this hunt; that sort of resonance attracted bitter ghosts very quickly.
I peered out the window briefly, had a vague notion that she'd headed west for hunting, and then headed back downstairs to trail where she'd been.
One thing was certain to me, though. She hadn't hunted because she was hungry. She hunted because she was mocking me.
She'd remembered me.
I was positive.
While I began the coffee machine ritual, Akiko was getting ready for work. Her professional wardrobe is very sharp, all somber business and careful lines, and she was buttoning up her shirt while her hair worked on getting tangles out, making it look like it was shivering in great waves.
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There is some advantage to prehensile hair, though she told me that once, when she was a girl, her hair knotted itself so badly it couldn't get itself undone again, and she had to have help. Nowadays, her control is brilliant. If she typed any faster, she'd lock up a keyboard.
One tendril of hair reached out and tickled my ear. I absently swatted at it, and 'nee-chan chuckled at me.
"Coffee's not ready yet," I said.
"How has Colin been," asked Akiko, straightening her tie, her hair folding itself into the sort of low-hanging bun she usually had for work. "I haven't seen him... what, since that ridiculous Carpathian problem in San Jose."
"He's fine, still dating the Bavarian," I mentioned, eyeing some headlines in the paper. Supernatural quarantine breach, it said, but SFO wasn't talking, and the papers hadn't pried off the silence yet. However, the ridiculous Carpathian Akiko was mentioning had something to say about it; his name was Vincent Stanislaw, and he always had something to say to the media. This time it was all veiled hints about how few secrets escape him, and how the ancient Carpathian traditions ensured that he would be able to stop any particularly deadly supernatural creature from attacking his 'treasured mortal friends'.
Vampire marketers. I can't stand them.
Akiko looked at me sideways. "Still? She tried to set him on fire."
The perils of preternatural dating.
I made a non-committal noise, and handed a cup of coffee to Akiko, or rather, her body, because her head at this point was questing around the living room. When it settled back into normal human position, she arched her eyebrows and picked up her keys, tucking them into her pocket. "Right in front of me..." She sipped at the coffee with a pleased sound, and then looked at me. "Well?"
She sipped at her coffee again. "Why is he still with her? I thought he'd have more sense."
I shrugged, brushing a tiny smudge of lint from her sleeve. "They're both magicians. Same focus, too. What do you expect? Trust is hard to find with the hermetics. Too much industrial espionage."
"Like loving a telepath," she said. 'nee-chan muttered something under the smooth fold of hair at Akiko's neck, but I couldn't hear it.
"I don't know," I replied. "The ones at the Foundation seem pretty well-adjusted, and they don't pry."
She looked quizzical, drinking some more coffee. "That's what they say... Reed, are you worried about this job?"
I paused, and looked back at her. Her face was neutral but her eyes were intent.
"No," I said. "I have this job for a reason. Don't worry about it."
She narrowed her eyes slightly, studying, and then turned away, draining her coffee cup. "I have to get going."
I nodded. Akiko works for the Department, just like I do, but she's in the International Relations Research Archive. They handle matters of supernatural trade, and study Cagliostro's first law ('That the supernatural takes different forms is notable, and it is defined then by the secret boundaries of power that line the earth itself; thus, a creature found in one place cannot be found in another, but some may cross these lines, and become weaker or stronger thereby.'). They were still trying to figure out why some Chinese hopping vampires spontaneously generated in Gilroy, because the hopping vampire is a geographically restricted species. There was a lot of pressure to find out what happened (and our friend Master Stanislaw wasn't helping).
"I'll be gone shortly, too," I said, setting down my coffee cup. "Good hunting."
There was a faint rush of air, and her neck wrapped around my torso twice like an albino python of silk.
She watched me for a second, with that strangely predatory look, and then gave me a gentle kiss before turning and lifting her hair so I could kiss 'nee-chan goodbye too... which I did, and she certainly kissed back ('nee-chan's cut my lip more than once). Fortunately, she'd just done her hair, so I didn't end up getting my head wrapped.
When she broke away, her head whipped back to 'resting position' again, her hair shifted slightly to perfect itself, and she grabbed her bag, heading for the door. "See you tonight."
"I hope so," I replied, and watched her shut the door before going to get my things together.
By three in the morning, I finished absorbing the reports, and I had what I expected: more questions. Even with what Akiko told me, there were too many holes to fill. Colin's work turned up some disturbing evidence; metaphysical remnants at the airport showed that, apparently, the people at the gate had all been snuffed out by some sort of terror, an ability not associated with anything from Indonesia.
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Restless, mind full of old gruesome photographs and passionless typed reports, I left my house, coffee thrumming in my veins along with the sharp clarity of hunting. As the darkness of the streets passed me by, I considered.
The tracking teams couldn't find where the aswang had gone. Murray was positive it was still in the city, but he was wary about pinpointing the location, and with good reason; too many clairvoyants get themselves dead when they push it. He's one of the best viewers the Cayce Foundation has, and he's an old man I'd like to see get older.
The other reports from the airport didn't give me anything to go on, though I'd have someone run a deep background check on the man who had the jar, because I'd discovered what it was.
Akiko told me about talismans meant to detect some of the Indonesian creatures, many of which can readily pass for humans. In going over the old files from the 1920 berbalang incident, I found references that the jar was just such a thing. The oil and herbs inside were supposed to boil in the presence of an aswang. There was an attempt to make one in Los Angeles in 1960, but it failed to work and cost the would-be hunter his life.
That aswang had taken photos of what was left and mailed it back to us.
Had the man on the plane been hunting the aswang? If so, where did he come from? Did he only know at the last minute, or was he afraid to try anything on the plane? The SFO team hadn't found anything on his person that could have been a weapon against it... at least, that we know of.
As I walked, I spent some time comprising a plan for the quarantine team to follow up on. It was pretty standard for handling a dangerous and intelligent supernatural target, but it would have to do until my own investigations turned up something. It would include a few about some of the habits the creature is likely to have; large purchases of vinegar, preference to reside near burial grounds and/or hospitals, attempts to secure a position in society, likely found on higher elevations at night such as rooftops (if not flying), probably easier to find during the day.
Aswangs preferred to feed at night.
That was one thing Cagliostro never figured out; why was it that the supernatural was always so intimately connected to night?
Pausing in my walk, I looked up at the buildings, listening, letting the city breath around me as it slept. She was hunting out there, but like most predators of her sort, she'd be culling the herd, lurking in the forgotten rooms and alleys of the city, preying on the forgotten and invisible people who scratched out a living there.
I knew those places. There was desperation and cunning in the broken buildings, where life was a matter of survival just three or four blocks away from high-rent high-rises. I could walk freely there, and I have, many times, encountering the monsters that made prey of people simply looking for a good life.
Sometimes, I found the supernatural monsters too.
But not tonight. Tonight I didn't have enough of a trail, and I needed others to finish their work so I could truly get started on mine.
Continuing my stroll, I found myself stepping into more questions, but some of these were familiar ground. Part of the reason I felt distant from humanity was simply that they were so intensely concerned about the supernatural (or curious or thrilled or afraid of) as some horrifying unknowable entity that must be dealt with somehow, and yet they never really looked at the issues they caused themselves, the poisons of society which, in many cases, the supernatural fattened themselves upon.
The Great Fire in London was a lesson few actually learned from. The fuel of poverty, corruption and fear, sparked by the emergence of one single minor demon. (A real demon. Whatever the tabloids say, a real demon has only been loosed here seven times in history, and every time, it was due to human error.)
Finally coming up to Akiko's door, I got out my keys, and cleared my mind. We had an agreement; I didn't take work into her house, and neither did she. It was a place to rest, to let the tension drain. I carefully undid the locks, stepped in and got rid of my shoes, and then very nearly tripped over something on the ground.
Coiling outward from her bedroom, looping over the couch past the foyer and into the kitchen, it was like a perfectly smooth, soft-looking white serpent wider than my arm, but I knew exactly what it was.
With a sigh, I stepped over it, and walked into the kitchen, where Akiko's head was idly bobbing against the ceiling, supported by the endless coil of her neck.
She'd left her bedroom door open again, and like most nights, her head went wandering. Her neck can stretch well over thirty feet, and I was thankful she had the kitchen window locked.
I peered up at her, mouthing the ceiling, with 'nee-chan muttering things in Japanese, and then turned around, stepping over her neck again and walking into the dim bedroom, where I could make out her body laying on her side, ghostly in its white bathrobe. She must have gotten back from the club, took a brief shower and went straight to sleep.
Strolling over, I sat down, picked up one of her dainty feet, and gave it a slight tickle. She kicked once, I kept on, and then with a rush of air, her neck retracted like a titanic bull-whip so that her face was glaring at mine from about an inch away, looking bleary and annoyed.
I looked back, smiled a bit and pointed at the door.
"You left it open again."
She sighed, and her hair looped around in a single cord to touch my face. "Then get up and shut it, and come to bed. I'm tired."
So much of what I do is reflexive. I check the protective scrolls on my door lintel before I use the lock. I let the door swing open for a moment before stepping in. I always lock and seal the door behind me again. I move carefully through my home, room by room, absorbing everything with all seven senses before I can finally sit down and relax.
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Thankfully, I deal with stress well.
This time, a huge bundle of folders got added to my desk; the reports from the investigative teams on the street and from the people at the airport, along with the peculiar jar found on the plane. I ached to spend a quiet evening with Akiko (as quiet as an evening can be with her, that is), but I had too much work to do, too much to think about.
I went into the kitchen and started some coffee; the ritual interlude between work and work. My mind was clogged with the preoccupations of the aswang issue, and with a deep-seated need to indulge, to be free of it, if only for a moment. Seeing the small pottery jar in the refrigerator only emphasized this.
Doing my job is not something that keeps one sane. The stresses of dealing with hostile supernaturals, and even worse, the panicked mundanes... well, they wear on you, even someone with an ironclad mind like mine. I don't sleep much.
Part of it is isolation. Aside from a few unusual talents, I'm still pretty much human. But it's gotten to the point where I don't know how normal humans live anymore.
I just don't know how to be one.
Most of my friends are in a similar field, but most of them have a family of sorts. Cabalists and necromancers have their cultish brotherhoods, the youkai and the skinchangers are their own people. I was born mundane.
Originally, I just wanted to be a painter, to feel alive in the process of creation.
I still paint. My small apartment is full of dreamscapes and portraitures, some of them done from life (or death). I don't consider any of them to be good, though I've sold a few here and there. They are just work by rote, swathes of pigment creating illusions, illuminated by some slight edge of inspiration if I'm fortunate.
I'm usually unfortunate.
On one wall, facing my desk, I have a painting that isn't mine. A friend of mine from art school gave it to me as a gift; Caspar David Friedrich's 'Wreck of the Hope'... or, as my friend preferred, 'Das Eismeer', the Sea of Ice. I had a fondness for landscapes even then, but I never understood why he gave it to me until much, much later.
For the hundredth time, I took out the small pottery jar and set it on the counter as the coffee spat and bubbled its way to creating itself.
Once, I was called into Russia, assisting in some mediations between the locals of a village and a very annoyed family of poleviki, who were stealing children in response to the village's attempts to go from agricultural to industrial. The Department of Supernatural Relations knew I was good with the more dangerous sorts, and so they sent me out into the fields.
It wasn't easy; the poleviki don't like concessions, and I had to bleed a little before I managed to bargain a bit of peace. Afterwards, the poludnitsa took me aside and gave me the pottery jar, smiling in a way that meant no good.
To this day, I don't know whether what she did was a gift, like the painting, or whether it was a deadly temptation she knew I couldn't put aside; you see, she'd put some of her black breast milk inside. It's deadly poisonous, but you die in bliss if you drink it.
A poludnitsa isn't like her brethren. They actually have a sort of empathy for humans, and at the time, I'd been feeling futility, emptiness. When I'd returned home, and saw the painting, I abruptly understood what both she and my old friend were aiming at... albeit for different reasons, perhaps.
"The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself. If he sees nothing within, then he should stop painting what is in front of him." --Caspar David Friedrich
I could still be a painter, but knowing what I know would hollow me out if I tried to turn away from it.
I could leave this world behind, try and be some mundane, but this world would hunt me down again.
I could stop trying, knowing these problems will never stop, knowing that the friction between mundane and supernatural will never come to an end, but I couldn't live with myself if I did.
For the hundredth time, I put the jar away, and got out the carton of half-n-half instead.
Tonight, there is an aswang in the city. Tonight, a youkai named Akiko loves me. Tonight, there are far too many people relying on me. Tonight, purpose fills me with fire... like a shark, I have to keep moving.
Perhaps, tomorrow night the poludnitsa will win, and have revenge for the loss of a field.
But that's tomorrow.
I tip my cup to the painting, and thus to a friend who died at the hands of a hungry ghost, at the beginning of who I am.
Folder tucked under my arm, I walked down an alley leading off the studied elegance of Japantown's main streets, passing doors that never get opened and dumpsters like metal menhirs. I'd exhausted the files at my office about the aswang and its relatives, and I still needed more details.
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The one Cagliostro's Law that most people know is that the more you have to do with the supernatural, the more the supernatural has to do with you. I get avoided by most of the mundanes who know what I do, as a result, but the supernatural community in San Francisco is more than happy to have me poking around... well, as much as they ever are.
The door to the Koto looks like a fire door at the back of a building, marked with spraypaint. It's almost always slightly open, though you'd be a fool to walk in uninvited. Fortunately, I'm a patron, so I can more or less come in as I please.
Higashi greeted me with his back turned, as usual. He can't talk to you unless he's facing away; he has no face.
No, I don't understand how he speaks, and it isn't polite to ask.
"Always working!" said Higashi. No, I don't understand how he sees, either.
"Work is rarely finished," I replied pleasantly, making my obligatory bow before I walked in, heading for the middle booth where Akiko was sitting.
The Koto is a sushi-ya for the Japanese supernaturals in San Francisco. You get other kinds there as well, but you can't get in unless one of the patrons has recommended you to Higashi. Akiko brought me here when we started seeing each other, and it has been an excellent place for work and pleasure. The Japanese supernaturals love to gossip, especially about those 'others'.
I bobbed my head in polite greeting to a few others I recognized, and then settled on the cushion at Akiko's table, where she sat sipping tea, while the mouth at the base of her skull was busy slurping up miso soup, her long glossy hair cradling the bowl like a tentacle made from ink.
We met when I got called in to a walking dead case, where the zombies were doing things like drinking cream, bursting into flames for no apparent reason and doing strange little dances. My suspicions were confirmed when I caught one zombie catching and collecting rats, and I started asking some questions in Japantown. Akiko is an authority on Japanese supernatural fauna, and helped me bag the nekomata who was trying to turn the San Francisco morgue into its luxury lair. I was surprised when we finally caught it; it was just like a normal calico cat, with two tails instead of one.
Akiko can pass for human pretty well; she's a tall Japanese woman with a quizzical, narrow face. Her nose is a bit long, and her eyebrows particularly sharp, and she's very willowy. The mouth at the back of her head is just like the one in front, though it can open to a surprising degree, and I haven't yet seen something it can't bite in half. It speaks, too; we'd nicknamed that voice her 'nee-chan', just like a little sister.
She smiled slightly as I set the folder down, but her eyes slid sideways, watching the folder before turning back to me.
"Very bad," I agreed. "Probably an aswang."
"Typically uncertain," said nee-chan.
"Ah." She sipped at her tea, pausing for a long moment. "Will you have time to stay?"
"It'll be a long night," I replied quietly. "And I don't know enough."
"Of course," snipped nee-chan.
Akiko's eyes narrowed just a bit, but she said nothing as the servers came by, setting up a folding table to rest behind her, and started putting down plate after plate of food.
"I ordered something for you," she said as they bowed and started away.
"It's not enough for both of us," muttered nee-chan.
"I'm sure it will be plenty," I replied, only half-serious. Akiko ate enough for four people; nee-chan accounted for three of those. Her hair had already taken up two sets of chopsticks, and the relentless eating began. I understand it is characteristic of her species to constantly worry about gaining weight that they never gain.
From the front, Akiko ate with careful manners, very slowly, eyes downcast. "Perhaps you would like my assistance?"
"It would be very welcome."
She nodded once, and set to finishing her dinner. I ate only a little bit myself; I don't like to work on a full stomach, and nee-chan can get nasty if she thinks I'm eating more than my share. Most people didn't understand that nee-chan and Akiko actually shared the same core mind, but were capable of independent thought. Akiko would be mortified to make a loud noise in public, whereas nee-chan didn't care... but neither of them ever talk with their mouths full. It's just unspeakably rude.
Conversations with Akiko, particularly serious ones, were best done while nee-chan was eating.
When she had finished (nee-chan was still systematically laying waste to the pile of food on the small table), she set her chopsticks down, raised her eyebrows and her eyes, and then told me what I wanted to know.
The narrow hall was clogged with bodies and carry-on bags, sprawled haphazardly in front of the open plane door. Colin and Margaret were there already; he was carefully examining the eyes of one of the corpses, and I could see her inside the plane, quietly talking to someone in the hunched posture of shock.
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"What the hell," I said.
Colin looked up, dark and ordinary, badges slung over his shoulder like an eccentric tie, and sighed. "No wounds. No marks. They just died on the spot. I don't know why at this point. Did security catch anything?"
To my eye, the bodies looked like they'd just collapsed where they stood, disembarking. Something must have triggered the creature. "No," I answered, after a moment, scratching at my chin. "I spotted it in the crowd, but I touched its arm, and pain blacked me out."
He stood slowly, brushing at his slacks, furrowing his brow. "How did you know? Margaret can't get anything out of the survivors. They just heard screaming, and then people started running... well, except these."
I peered at the bodies, faces locked into immobile terror. For supernatural murder, this was pretty clean, but for some reason that bothered me more than werewolf mauling or zombie gnawing. "I was pushing through the crowd, trying to get here," I replied. "I got stuck a moment, and there was this woman nearby. I happened to notice the reflections in her eyes... I think it was the lights."
Colin's bland face melted into a mask of alarm. "Oh God. They were inverted?"
I just nodded. Colin was a metaphysical pathologist, he knew what that meant, and so did I.
Everybody knows about your typical Carpathian vampire, or the problems of lycanthropic fever. Cosmopolitan magazine has ten ways to tell if your husband is seeing a vampire. Provisions were made for changeling education at public schools forty years ago, the debate over zombie laborers continues, and yet, with all this, there's still a lot creeping around that people don't believe in or don't even know about.
Sometimes, they're better off not knowing.
In 1920, there was a mass exodus from Manila of a very tricky sort of creature that fed on human flesh. They looked human, acted human, and worse, seemed capable of being in two places at once. Fortunately, they had an allergy to lime juice, of all things. However, the research that turned up this fact also produced a lot of other information that made most nations close their borders to most of Indonesia, and this was the beginning of a global law. In 1946, the global standards of security to prevent supernatural or preternatural breaches were set up, and delineated certain areas as supernatural danger zones, forbidding anyone but qualified experts access or egress.
I am one of those experts, and ninety percent of Indonesia is one of those areas.
"And it got out?" Colin was looking pale. "Do you really think its an aswang?"
"Yes," I said, frowning at the dead bodies. "And maybe. Information is inconsistent and sometimes outright false on these things... and we think there's what, like seven breeds of Indonesian vampire?"
He nodded slowly, and Margaret finally came out of the plane, all calm business. "Ok, Colin, team's got the other hatches open, they're getting people out now... hi, Reed, figured you'd be here... sorry, but no one seems to know anything useful. When the fear wears off, they might remember something. Oh, I found this, by the way, one of the passengers had it. He's dead. I'll send the passenger information and effects to your office."
She stepped over the bodies like she did that sort of thing every day, and handed me a jar of something oily and dark, with some leaves floating in it. I rolled it in my hand, noting the customs stamp on the lid.
"Singapore," said Margaret. "What protocol do you want to use?"
We'd had problems with Singapore customs officials before; minor, but troublesome enough, and nothing so potentially bad. If the aswang was the sort of creature we thought it was, it could change shape, pose as a normal human perfectly well, and it had a taste for children. Worse, we had no idea how they actually propagated, or what they were really susceptible to. It was the indication that they might be sorcerors too that particularly worried me... particularly because I had no idea how or why it had suddenly killed so many people.
"Ok, Margaret. Full quarantine. Keep the passengers isolated, inform families. Is Rachel on today? Get her to purify the gate area... and the bodies, too. Um, Colin, you do your thing, have the report to me end of today?"
He nodded somberly.
Margaret gave me her best smile, which wasn't very good. For a manikin, she was still pretty human, though. At least she tried. "I'll have transcripts for you by the same time."
I tucked the jar into my bag. "Security'll have teams out looking already, but I doubt they'll find much. See you both tonight, I've got to do some research. This just doesn't fit the profile.... oh, and keep the damn press from mentioning demons, ok?"
Colin chuckled, and started breaking out his chalk and candles, Margaret went back aboard the plane, and I strolled back out through Colin's team at the gate, heading for my office.
Pushing through a crowd of sudden emotion, Isabella pressed a finger into the corrugated neck, and found no sign of life, however feeble. As she stood, senses still razor-sharp from the struggle, she noted a brick chapel nearby, where a woman was wiping blood from a messiah’s brow as he dragged his own epitaph down a jeering street. Several stacks of worn books rested there.
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She stared evenly at this for a moment, absently rubbing at her sore hand where the rubber hose had bit, and then approached, observing. Andreas would have said the placement of the chapel and its small stacks of books would have some ritual significance, and that she recognized, but she was no mystic.
Shortly, Isabella was darkly amused.
The books were all catalogue-order books for killing. Deadly Knife Fighting, proclaimed one. Secrets of Hand to Hand Combat, said another. Glancing back at Kurt, with his face distended like a smashed plum, she thought he’d been a poor student.
Arrogant, a slouching pile of muscle with ponderous brow and craggy nose, Kurt had not wanted to talk to Isabella. A butcher with an obsession for platitudes, he had thought her a filthy thing, a creature to be brutalized, and thought strong women would fold weeping if they were hurt.
He arched and kicked under her, threads of spittle flying from his silently gasping lips, thrashing against the tiled floor near the bleeding rail. Reflexively, she hammered his face into the floor with a quick thrust of her shoulders, and he kicked some more, but weakly now.
Filing through the books, she tried to think of Andreas and his lessons. Before him, reading had been a practical exercise; it was something you did to survive, like anything else. When she’d been in the military, before he’d found her, there had been the technical manuals and booklets to remember, but even these were raw information, another weapon, another way to be more than she seemed, and thus survive.
She’d cringed, feinting, knowing his sort. He lunged for prey and got pain instead. Bleeding, he tried to fight, but she’d dislocated his kneecap. There had been a chance for him, then, in the tangle that followed, but she was too practiced.
Andreas changed that, the day he told her to take whatever she liked from his library.
Searching through the piles of books for traces of Marion, she thought of those days, the warm hardwood and brocade of Andreas’ library in contrast to the cold tiles and metal smells around her. She remembered the sense of discovery and the fascination of the words. Soon, she could not read enough. Her vocabulary grew swiftly
throttle, choke, strangle, asphyxiate, garrote
and she’d understood too that it was another exercise, a reaching outside of herself. Another test from her teacher, which prompted mild suspicion, but it did not stop her from reading. She sometimes suspected, in her lonely hours, that the experience of reading Andreas’ books was as close as she ever had been to being a child… as others saw children.
Isabella rode his back, elbows firm against his shoulders, rubber hose digging into his thick neck. Her muscles had settled into iron patience, wrists crossed and hands locked, knowing that all it would take now was time. The sour smell of strangulation was familiar to her; she’d done this before. She also knew the blood-hammering horror of being choked, knew how to beat down the frantic need to breathe and turn it into a gouging retaliation. Kurt had never fought for his life. Now, he never would.
Mysteries had intrigued her. Her sharp mind, always looking for openings, enjoyed trying to surpass the protagonist in deducting the truth, but she also found something of herself in a character, a man named William Monk. Though the time period the mysteries took place were alien to her, there were parts she could quickly relate to; the crushing poverty of mid-1800’s London, the rookeries, the warped and dangerous populations that fell through the cracks of civilization. But Monk was hard. Monk was a juggernaut; he marked his goal and nothing would stop him from getting there in the end.
But what Monk, a person who never existed, taught Isabella was that she wanted justice.
She’d found herself caught up in his drive to make things right, no matter the cost, taken by his hatred of hypocrisy and his ruthless will. She’d wanted purpose beyond pain and survival, not knowing until recently that there were deeper secrets to being one of the Children.
when he finally let go, she realized that she was smiling, and forced herself to stop
“There is no shame in taking joy at death.” Lucas, from before.
“Pleasure in killing is a weakness.” Andreas, reminding her.
Andreas had taught Isabella how to dream, how to reach outside of what she was, and the books had been the tools for opening those doors. But turning away from the mildewed pages before her, books that were empty, and gave her nothing, she went back to confront the shame she’d felt, and stood over the stinking heap that she’d made Kurt into.
“You taught me to dream, to better myself, to grow,” she whispered to an Andreas who was not there. “You brought me into a world I could not imagine. Dreams lit the mirror, and I can see clearly… and I am sorry, Andreas. I am not what you dreamt me to be.”
She cut Kurt’s throat, hung him on the bleeding rail, and then paced out in search of Marion. Her mind was filled with phosphorescent prose, made the brighter because it hovered in the darkness of the Children.
Isabella had opened her last door within.
“If I myself as yet do not know how to dream,” Professor Tardanza continued, “I have numerous theories; for example, that dreams are exhalations of the divine- of Will, if you prefer, or of Infinite Capacity. In other words, an ecstatic vapor, the dust of Potencies, or even the inventions of the gods as they sit together swapping myths on their mountains. Somewhere I’ve written that sleeping minds are the crystal balls of some other universe. Recently it came to me that sleep might be the theater where a sublunary race stages its plays; or even the playrooms of angels.
“But my favorite hypothesis (I do not believe in angels) is that dreams are the keys to the human soul…”
(William Monk is a character by author Anne Perry; the quote is from Rikki Ducornet's 'Phosphor in Dreamland'.)
In this case, just prior to a late-night run. Happened to come across a young cat who looked to me like he was a bit far from home.
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To the lads at Dana Street Cafe, the kitten I approached you all with got home just fine. Thank you for Googling the address so I could walk him home.
Zunger, apologies if I didn't chat with you much while I was there, but hey, I was juggling a cat who was (in his mind) having the time of his life.
For those who were reluctant to help, I hope you don't have pets of your own.
And for you three well-dressed chatty ladies who were (appropriately) on the OTHER side of Hope Street?
Don't think I didn't see you cross the street away from that cat. And you know, if you didn't want to lend me the use of your cell phone to call the owners, hey, you should've said so. But simply ignoring me when I ask you for help, that's more than a bit impolite.
I wish you could have seen the little girl's face when I brought her kitten safely home.
I wish you could have seen that, and asked yourself just what the hell you thought you were doing.
And if you could walk away from that unmoved, I sincerely hope you never abuse the privilege of motherhood.
Go max out a credit card, I'm sure it'll make the guilt disappear.
Daniel watched the water rush over and around his feet, and then rush back again, disappearing into the darkness. Bright, the moon made a pale fire out of the breakers nearest him, but beyond that, the sky and sea merged together into the same turbulent darkness.
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He had first met Nina on a night much like this, except the wind had been greater. The rushing of the humid, warm air had hidden her footsteps from him until she was standing nearly as close as his own shadow. Remembering the surprise, and the wonder of it, the sudden magnetism in her small smile and the luminosity of her wide eyes; it had been love at first sight, something he'd never believed in.
In time, he knew why he hadn't heard her approach.
In time, they grew closer. Her curiosity was bottomless, particularly with words. English was a language new to her, and always, she'd ask about meanings. She had a simple and abrupt appreciation for beauty, and to his analytical mind, it was like learning to breathe again. But she seemed to delight in twisting the words,
"I love you," he told her once, having watched her stare unabashedly at a sunset.
"What is love?" she replied, and laughed. "Your words mean nothing. That was something."
"But words let others understand what they haven't experienced."
"Understand is just a word. You say 'love', but what is that? No one can tell you the same thing."
"Then how do you let someone else know that you love them?"
Nina had pointed at the slowly darkening horizon. "If you do, they will know, just like that. Believe."
I believed in you, he thought, watching the water rush back and forth. That the sand kept disappearing from under his feet seemed appropriate.
What do I believe now?
Nina, who ate very little, and never seemed hungry; who seemed at times to be impossible to wake up, and who could walk without making a sound. Nina, who had come upon him while he was whistling in the dark, something the old men of the island had told him never to do.
And now, Daniel stood in the dark of night, with a gun, smelling sharply of limes, wondering at the madness of what he'd come to believe about Nina.
He'd heard about the clouds of red fireflies some said they'd seen around his house at night. He didn't believe them, of course; it was all folktale, superstition for the outsider.
But after a while, he found himself wondering.
Nina, and her night walks.
Nina, saying it was nothing, she'd bitten her lip, it bled a fair amount, but see, already clean.
Nina, who sometimes seemed to be in two places at once.
Though he felt like a fool, he had to know for certain.
Pausing, standing on firm sand, it took him several tries, but he began to whistle. He kept at it, a simple piece by Bach, aware of a vague moaning sound in the distance that seemed to fade.
A cloud of embers, flickering in and out, seemed to grow directly from the darkness of the beach, and when they faded entirely, leading his eyes to doubt they were ever there, he recognized the small, nimble body of Nina.
"Daniel," she said softly, and then stopped mid-step. "Where did you go?"
He simply looked at her. Soft black hair, the wide, bright eyes, small and secret mouth. Round, smooth shoulders, tidy waist.
"Did you believe in me," he asked her quietly.
She tilted her head slightly, questioning without words.
"I need to know," he continued.
"Daniel," she said again, pressing meaning into the name like a thousand flowers in a book. "Why is it like this?"
"I want to have faith you are what you told me."
She took a half-step forward again, and then stopped. "You never asked me."
The absurdity of it all caught up to Daniel, and he suddenly felt embarrassed, ashamed that he had put lime juice on bullets, proof he'd gone mad with suspicion. He'd never believed in the aswang, the berbalang, or any of the other strange phantoms the islanders whispered about.
Nina, who always shut her eyes for a long time, when bright light came on... whose pupils sometimes looked narrow.
He looked back at her, the half of a smile slipping free from him. "Nina... I don't know what to say."
"The old men said things," she murmured, and he saw that she was looking at the gun; he'd forgotten to keep it hidden. The wide eyes slipped back to his like a cool kiss, and she shook her head. "Daniel, my family is not like yours. We are not like your people."
Suddenly, he did not feel the steady warmth of the wind. "What do you mean?"
"You are always with the words, Daniel; I mean what I am saying to you. Berbalang are real. You always think so much, but you knew it a long time ago. If you had asked, I would have told you."
Berbalang aren't real, he thought, but if I truly believed that, would I be standing here with lime-juice stained bullets? They said it was the only way to kill one.
Do I believe I could kill her?
Do I believe she is what she says?
"They... they say your kind kills and eats people," he said, feeling slow and stupid.
Nina sighed, and his spine felt like it had turned to velvet. He treasured that sigh.
"There are so many poor. Many die from the sickness or poverty. They die anyway, Daniel, I'm sorry."
"I can't believe I'm hearing this."
"You are always saying that. You said you love me, but what does that mean? Is your love acceptance? Is it trust? What is it?"
"So, you've killed and eaten human beings."
"I am honest with you. Yes, my people all have. That is how we live."
Daniel's body seemed clamped in ice, and he could hardly breathe. "I never knew you at all," he said tightly. "I never even thought... imagined... you never..."
"Daniel," she said softly. "You never tried to see me, only what you wanted. It is the same with your words."
"I've had enough of your words," he said, and lifted the gun, firing, the gun making a flat interruption to the ebb and swell of wind and water.
But when Nina fell down, she did just as a normal woman might, and bled, and kicked for a few moments, and finally was still, the breath he adored so much leaving her in a slow rattle.
Daniel threw the gun into the ocean, trying not to think of what he might have just done, if he had been wrong, and dipped his head into the surf. If he had been wrong...
But when he looked up again, towards the shore, he saw a wall of red fireflies, lazily blinking and drifting there, and he remembered Nina saying that she had four brothers.
"I'm sorry," he whispered before he knew what he was saying, and as the fireflies moved inevitably towards him, he wondered what he'd meant.
1/ Post a comment and tell me what you would like to see (read?) me write an entry about. The only stipulation is that it must include one interest from my interest list, and three other specific factors/subjects of your choice. I'll do what I can, in whatever order suits me.
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2/ That's all.
3/ No, really.
4/ Get to commenting, already.
5/ Oh, yeah. If you comment here, whether or not you decide to meme in your journal is your business, not mine.
Decades had gone by since Jocelyn had first met Simon, death in her lungs, strangling her bit by bit.
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Now, she didn't breathe at all, unless she remembered to.
Carefully removing her earrings, she set them in their small moleskinned case, looking at her reflection with her large, limpid eyes. Dark and melancholy, punctuated by her flutist's lips and small, narrow nose, they had been a lure for men all her life. She thought once that they would be empty at this point, finding the idea of living over a century to be impossible, unimaginable.
But there was still emotion there. She chained it to her, threw herself down bottomless obsessions, desperately digging her nails into every scrap of feeling. Nothing was new after two hundred years. New trappings and new customs, new places and new ideas all fell under the weight of what she'd already seen and experienced and done. It was all the same, all of it.
Watching her porcelain-skinned hand brush over the contour of her face, she found a splinter of relief that the thought brought a sheen to her eyes, that she could still be touched by her despair.
She grasped at it, amplified it as best she could, tried to weep and could not.
Then, Jocelyn's unbeating heart contracted, for she heard Simon open her bedroom door.
She had not heard him coming. His footsteps so often matched the cadence of his relentless clock that at times they seemed one to her ears.
She shut her eyes.
Simon had been a paradox to her. Without his patient, careful tormenting, sometimes she doubted she would have stayed human at all, and yet, perhaps it was fear, that if she ever stopped being human enough for him to torment, he would snuff her out.
When she opened her eyes, he had moved to stand behind her, and rested one of his hands on her bare shoulder. Dead, her skin sucked at his heartbeat. It was tremendously slow, powerful, like waves beating leisurely against a cliff. But there was no warmth in him, only wasteland heat.
All she saw in the mirror was his waistcoat, the polished silver chain of his pocketwatch, the crisp lines of his white shirt, and then his slender hand, taking up the brush.
If Jocelyn had been a century younger, she would still have shivered, dead though she'd been. With Simon so close, she could not concentrate enough to pretend.
Many times, Jocelyn had been convinced that there was nothing left in Simon but his malice. Perhaps it was only that which kept him alive; she did not know.
And then he would come in, and take up the brush.
Simon's hands were careful, and deliberate. They would let down her hair, carefully caress the brush against it, slow and patient, working out the snares and tangles, and then he would run the brush through in long even strokes, following them afterwards with his free hand, as if mesmerized by the smooth feel of it. He would spend over an hour in silence, weaving silk from ink and light, and end with his fingers combing through it, touching her scalp gently, insistently.
There was no sense of anything but desire in him, a cold, neglected thing that ached in his long fingers, and in the delicate strokes of the brush. But it was like iron, also. She dared not disturb him, the cold lead pooling in her spine whispering that ruining this, harming this, would bring the most horrible of consequences. It frightened her, this intensity from him.
She felt almost as if it were a vulnerability, something he could not help but show.
Feeling the small kisses of the brush at her skin, she kept her gaze locked on the mirror.
She dared not try to look at him.
The clock murdered every second that got close to them, and Jocelyn, who had seen too much time, could not wait for this moment to be over quickly enough. When he had finished, his hands leaving the drift of her hair for the last time, leaving it spread about her shoulders like night cradling the moon, she felt the brief pressure of his lips on the crown of her head.
When the door shut behind him, Jocelyn wanted to weep, but she had forgotten how.
There were only three ways to survive Between, according to Sinclair. You had the strength to take what you needed, you were smart enough to get what you needed, or you always had what others needed. Sinclair took it one step further; s/he made certain others had needs.
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In the Between, Sinclair's fingertips were a number of unconnected hovels, husks that emulated the lost souls who always came back to them, again and again; wreckage, broken architecture, a smashed and featureless facade hiding the gaudy velvet synesthesia of whatever mad dreams and fancies lolled senseless within. Sinclair had many customers, some who served, and some of whom never actually left.
Today, Sinclair was predominantly female, with a lean, arrogant face. Heavy auburn hair hung around it like banyan vines, twisted into braids, and writhing out from them were snake-skeleton tattoos, sunning themselves across bare, pale shoulders, tails hidden at the nape. Full lips were touched with dark gloss, pressed into a regal pout, and a pair of silver rings stitched the bottom lip. The body was slender and efficient, Sinclair's preference, with the sort of impossible proportions that drew the eye of man and woman both.
No matter what flesh Sinclair was wearing, the eyes were always the same; blue and cold, like arctic sky, poisonous as mercury. Those who knew Sinclair understood that it was not inattention that kept those eyes unfocused, always seeming to slide away from things in their view.
These eyes were fixed on a lanky man of sinew and bone, wrapped in Betweener rags, who was pleading for clemency. It was accounting day, when Sinclair collected what was due. Unlike the Horse Trader, another of the great merchants Between, Sinclair loved debt, and adored drawing business out over months and years.
To one side stood Emily, Sinclair's accountant, dapper and autistic, a prodigy of numbers that Sinclair had bought from the King of Fools a while back. She murmured the man's accounts over and over in her small, reedy voice, which always made Sinclair think of a very small violin.
Two others indebted to Sinclair kept the man penned, two very loyal sheepdogs who craved disobedience from their flock. Neither had the wits or will to break Sinclair's hold on them, but they were happy with their job, and that was as Sinclair preferred. A few others looked on, mostly those also in debt. Walter, a slender fair-haired man with uncommonly long fingers and an excellent kinesthetic sense, occupied space next to Sinclair, carefully holding a couple of kittens, who fussed incessantly.
"You don't have anything more to trade," Sinclair announced softly. "You come here and plead to me."
The man was still reaching forward, as if he were drowning and Sinclair might save him. "I can't dream anymore!"
"That's because your dreams are on lease. I keep them in a very lovely silk and silver faberge egg near my bedside," Sinclair said. "My books aren't even; you'll have to give something. Come forward, and let me see your hand."
The two sheepdogs were very disappointed that the man didn't even hesitate. Sinclair made a mental note to punish them on general principle for not being polite; there was too much brutal eagerness showing.
When the man reached out a hand, Sinclair took it, running long fingers over it, cool as snakeskin. To Sinclair's flesh, the flesh of another was a book. Reading deeper than veins and muscle and bone, Sinclair deciphered the riddles and metaphors of blood and nerve, rewriting some of what was found there, rearranging the patterns of body chemistry.
Looking at the man, Sinclair smiled, and offered a hand, palm open.
The man knew what this was, and there was a flicker of reluctance, and fear, but he knew there was no choice.
Sinclair hated leaving people choices. They should just do as they were supposed to. And this one did; he licked the palm. Almost immediately, he seized up, made a startled manikin, and fell to the floor, twitching slightly.
"Walter, sweetheart, go ahead and let the children play."
Walter, smiling softly at being noticed, walked over to the man, and set the kittens down. The little creatures immediately started clawing and biting, tugging and bounding about the immobile body. Walter patted them fondly and then moved back to his place near Sinclair.
Sinclair silently hushed Emily, and then looked at the line of debtors. This happened almost every time, and it was never tiring to watch their faces.
"This man can feel everything that is happening to him," Sinclair told their hungry faces. "He will not die, unless I let him, but he'll be spending the rest of the day under the happy needlepoint attention of kittens. Each hour, I shall have dear Walter add two more kittens, until there are twenty. And they won't tire of him; I made certain of that. Now, this man is short but one day in his dues. Some of you, Emily tells me, are short far more than that this month. Consider that I have a sense of proportion. Consider this, and consider something to offer me when I call you here next. Those who have nothing may leave for now. The worthy may stay, and offer what they will."
And just as always, many of the hollow-eyed clients slithered out, fearful, addled in their need for Sinclair, and what Sinclair had for them. And just as always, Sinclair knew that some would now offer up far more than they would have. They had heard the stories of Sinclair's other methods, the penchant for thieving the body of another even while they were still using it, the horrible intrusion of Sinclair's body into their own.
They crept forward, careful.
Emily began the next page of debts, and Sinclair whispered to her to tally up payments, fixing eyes on the kittens, who gnawed and pricked the paralyzed man's hand raw, content and simple in their cruelty.
Little darlings, thought Sinclair, and smiled.
Nicholas stared at the coffee cup.
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In moments when he remembered where he was, he would go as often as he could to Wudei'a's shop, and he would sometimes remember to be overjoyed at the ease of it all.
He would come in and sit down, and without a word, she would come and set a cup of coffee in front of him. He didn't need to say or remember anything. Even when he was confused, and could not understand how he had gotten there, it was fine, because Wudei'a would come and silently give him coffee, and then he'd focus enough to understand.
Not that he recalled, exactly, but it almost always ended up with him staring at the coffee cup, and trying to discern whether or not it was actually there. For Nicholas' fragmented mind, this was a profound and new experience every time, and yet, it had a leaden feel, a familiar aching burden.
Reaching forward, slowly, as if to give the cup a chance to flee on little crab-claw feet, or melt into the table like worms burrowing into soil, he finally set his hesitant fingers to the tiny loop on the side.
Solid, vaguely warm, lustrous to touch, a sense of brittleness. A loop of an old woman's bone. The crook of a hard, fevered finger.
Lifting the cup, he was gratified at first to feel the shifting weight of it, but he quickly grew cautious again, for touch was just a sense, and senses could lie. He was lucid enough of his surroundings at that moment to feel grateful no one had come to speak with him, because it was difficult enough at times to understand whether he was imagining the coffee, or remembering the coffee, or actually holding the coffee... without having to deal with the greater riddle of something intelligent paying attention to him.
His intelligence? Another psychic figment, cloaked in a sense of flesh and breath and light? A broken off and forgotten fragment of identity, made living to his senses alone? That led to a maze Nicholas had already spent too much time in.
Time was the cluttered file cabinet that Nicholas sorted his memories inside, and he realized that he'd shifted folders somewhat; he'd been holding the coffee cup for a while.
It was cooling. The freshly dead, already porcelain stiff. Touch of the concrete below, storm drain skin. No more steam, just placid dark fluid. Oil. Obsidian mirror.
He forgot what he was thinking about a moment ago, but he resolved that he would like some coffee, and he hoped that it was real. Even if it were not, he would prefer to have taste, and so he decided to have a sip, which he did.
Bitter, still warm. Drinking incense smoke. Faint sweetness. The spiraling of murky water down a drain. Cardamom fog and some distant memoriam to chocolate.
Was that the taste, or was he only remembering what he'd had before? Had he remembered the taste correctly? How could he know if he'd only imagined drinking coffee before?
This puzzled him, and he set the cup down.
Outside of the maze, he had no clarity. He knew that he had to keep coming back, because he needed to hammer spikes of reality into his mind, to hold down the crazy grey watercolor tarp of his experiences in the maze, but the tangled timeless unwinding of the labyrinth had muddled Nicholas to the point where his name was the sole foundation of his identity.
He recognized the name as familiar. And when in the maze, he was lucid enough to know which path led to where, and what juncture was which. In the maze, it was easy, he'd been through the tunnels so many times before, they were all familiar to him. The feel of the mossy concrete under his fingertips, the vague chill of the humid air, the spirals within spirals in all things: water down the drain, the winding of the tunnels, the twisting of stairways... shadows of the self were within these for him.
In the maze, he could remember his deepest identity, but it was all a brilliant subterranean architecture, a hall of mirrors reflecting a thousand caverns. He was himself there, but there was only Nicholas there.
Outside, he could only remember Nicholas, and the coffee that Wudei'a gave him, and that sometimes people would come to look inside themselves, but they would only see the maze. They said Nicholas knew the way, and he did; he drew maps. He could never remember (or find a way) to explain that all the miles these others would walk with him, they were only inside their mind.
If they walked with him at all. Perhaps they were nothing but his solitude, made manifest as a stranger, seeking his help.
Nicholas was a guide. He knew that. All that he owned, or thought he owned, he carried with him. Every quiet moment, he would touch these things, reassuring himself that they would not leave him, that they were not imaginary. His rope, his crowbar, his pack, his shoes, his empty journal, his maps, all of his other things. Nicholas was a strong man, and clever, when he wasn't thinking too hard.
Nicholas also liked, or dreamt that he liked, coffee, so he drank more of it. Though he could not remember, when he finished, he would wait for something or someone to address him, and then ponder whether they were real or not. And if nothing came, or sometimes if it did, he would always leave the shop, and descend into the maze again. It was the place he knew.
He knew that he'd gone there once for something, but he could not longer remember what it was, and so he kept seeking, hoping he'd recognize it when he found it, and hoping (when he could recall) that when he did find it, it was a real thing.
He forgot all about that after he set his coffee cup down, only remembering that soon, he would be leaving again.
Standing in the ghostly light of the open fridge, Claire realized she'd been blinking sleepily at it for some few minutes.
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She'd been thinking about kittens. People loved kittens. She liked them too, all small and awkward and fuzzy that they were, but she laughed about how other people loved them, because she'd seen a kitten's dream once.
Stifling a yawn, she pawed an Odwalla bottle from the door, shut the fridge, and shuffled out of the kitchen. Everything was grey and black; at one in the morning, with the lights off, the apartment was colorless, but to Claire, that was usual. The colors she knew couldn't be found. Sweatpants scuffing her small bare feet, Claire went back to the couch and sat down heavily. Automatically, she peeled the Odwalla open, tilted her head back and downed the whole thing without pause.
She felt a tingling sense of gravity return to her neglected body, a sigh of relief that she'd finally taken in some nourishment. Hunger had woken her up from a vivid dream... it hadn't been a kitten-dream of tormenting something smaller, tasting fear, feeling flesh come apart, the struggle on the claws... she'd been collecting sunrises, making all of them come together. It was practice.
Yawning, Claire scratched her belly absently, and stretched out on the couch again.
She was well practiced at this; she was asleep almost immediately, and she shed her body with ease. There was a faint fog of her own subconscious around her, but it quickly placed her in an old paint-peeled house, leaning and grey with thin carpets and old windows that made the world outside melted.
Grandma's house, Claire thought. She could hear her grandmother tapping around upstairs, but she didn't feel like dealing with the old woman, so she dreamt herself leaping from the porch in a great arc, the old stubble of the cornfields whistling beneath her feet, and she landed in the next nearest dream she could reach.
It was a hospital, and a man was running around naked, panicking because everyone was staring at him. The man was Mr. Jackson, who lived two floors down from Claire. His dreams were never very creative, but they were always very clear and solid, full of the clarity he probably wanted while awake.
Claire thought Mr. Jackson's naked dreams were hilarious; he was a doctor, she knew, and she didn't like doctors much. Sometimes, she would chase the naked dreamer around his own mind for a while, and sometimes she would put clothes on him, and he would wake up trying to remember what she looked like. She only ever left her eyes, wide and blue-grey, and sometimes a few words.
But Claire was being serious that night. A month of time had gone by, only a few moments awake, deep dreaming in her own subconscious, building sunrise on sunrise on sunrise, forcing herself through nightmares of cold punishing hands and immobility, choked to silence by a thick wad of fear. It had been hard to stay asleep long enough, but she'd set the foundations. She just needed the bricks now.
"Sorry, Mr. Jackson, but I have to borrow this."
"What? What? How am I here? They're looking at me!"
Claire couldn't help it. She giggled, and poked Mr. Jackson's promising belly. "I'm sorry. That's all. You won't feel anything tomorrow, 'cause I have to borrow it. Don't worry, it'll come back."
"Where's my wife! She was supposed to pick me up at the airport."
"Sorry, Mr. Jackson, but I have to hurry, ok? Otherwise I'd tell you."
"I can't find my briefcase!"
Claire thought of her box, and it was there, small and lacquered and black, with the faded remains of some dancing girl on the top. Picking it up, she opened it, and all the color in the dream poured in like smoke, twining in time to the gentle waterdrop waltz that the box sang to itself.
Mr. Jackson floated in shifting grey, as asleep within as he was without, drifting on the billows of his now-calm subconscious. Claire shut the box, tucked it under her arm, and smiled warmly at him.
"Promise I'll send you some clothes next time, okay? I'm leaving now."
Turning, Claire half-shut her mental eyes, reached out with a hand, and tugged a thousand silvery humming cobwebs towards her. Feeling along one strand, she traced it through the tangle until she found the dream she was looking for.
Claire leaped again, flying with an effortless bound, over the prickly wasteland of cornfields, and then into the thick amber and blue perfume of Sofia's dreams. Soft fits and starts of cello music rolled through the exquisite colors like the murmur of lovers, and Claire saw a great hall with a long red plush rug, and giant windows that were the sparkling surface of an ocean. Flying fish that trailed tiny violets would leap like arcs of living electricity from window to window, and she tiptoed weightlessly through them as if she were falling through rain.
Towards the far end of the translucent hall, near a wall of writhing pink bodies, Sofia pirouetted in midair, her thin body wrapped in a blue dress and her arms wide.
Claire knew Sofia wouldn't see her; the dream was too heavy. Sofia used drugs a lot, and it made her subconscious explode through her mind in a thousand impossible sentences. She had too much to listen to to hear anything Claire might say.
"Hi, Sofia," she said anyway. "I need you for now, but don't worry, you'll come back!"
Claire smiled and opened her box.
When Claire finally returned to her own dream, three other dreams later, she thought about the hill in the fields, and standing there in the rippling auburn of the grass, she turned a complete circle, clearing the horizon of everything except the hills. The sky was blue enough to be a copper fire, with only a few scattered white pauses, clouds made afterthoughts. Wind hummed and purred in her ears, blowing her simple braid around her shoulders, and making the hills seem like the ocean made liquid gold.
Content, Claire remembered her house, opened her box, and set it on the ground.
She danced like tragedy when it was still young. She danced like her feet made crop circles, like a child skipping after a cat. She danced away the rough, slovenly skins of her anger and her shame, and danced like fire whipping through oil.
The palette of dreams in the box danced around her, a whirlwind of impossible color, and instead of sucking in debris, it assembled and solidified in her wake walls and doors and windows and rooftops.
Skipping weightless from wall to wall, Claire flailed herself through the half-formed hallways, which sprouted paintings of the dreams she could not quite recall, warped and bent to the sketches of her favorite house, which had never been built. When she was finished, standing in a harlequin of hallways, she stood next to the box, and the whirlwind faded like a coil of prismatic smoke as she shut the lid.
She turned, looked up at the domed ceiling, dotted with cameos her imagination had scattered through her mind years ago, and smiled.
"Open," she said, and every sunrise she'd ever had bloomed in the oculus, spreading to fill the chamber, which had become the horizon, and had become a dream that did not need Claire to sustain it.
Claire was looking forward to the day she could live there.
om nama shivaya
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om nama shivaya
Snapping his eyes open, the Horse Trader got up from the chair as if he hadn't been sleeping, and went around the small cleared room on reflex, concentrating on checking the small view slits between the boards on the windows, pausing to listen.
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Small settling sounds; creak of board and groan of unused plumbing. Faint empty sound of air, moving through the hall outside. Distance and rustling paper, in the devastated street outside. Delicate whisper of a light rain. Muffled uneven music of metal, somewhere below; Mary making breakfast.
He went to the small table and counted his bullets, checked his guns, counted how many times he clicked the safety on and off, until all the last droplets of his dreams had dripped from his brow and dissolved into the carpet.
The Horse Trader hated dreaming, but he would never allow himself to remember why.
Unlocking the door, he moved into the hotel hallway, padding along the mangy carpet, and occasionally pausing to refresh his memory with the various clipboards hanging from several doors.
Collecting things was a way to distract himself, and he'd begun to make a living out of it, a memory of his name. He was the Horse Trader, therefore, he lived by trade.
Sometimes, he walked through the halls of his (his?) hotel, and something black with hot breath and thunder for muscles, razors for wings, would come running for him like an earthquake in the air, and he'd flee for what seemed like hours. Sometimes he would open his eyes and realize it never happened; other times it pounded into his neck and broke open his skull, trying to fit inside, and the world was filled with red fog.
But the counting and the pleasant rustle of the clipboards kept the monster quiet this morning, if it was morning.
Trotting down the stairs, to his office
(smell of the bacon he'd gotten recently, Mary didn't burn it... there's a good Mary, then)
(faint draft of cooler air; front door was opened?)
(blocking of sounds from the lobby; someone just moved towards the stairs...)
the Horse Trader came across his current Mary, standing with breakfast on a tray.
It was unexpected; Marys were to set the table, and that was all. He didn't like people coming upstairs to find him, even a Mary. Especially in the morning.
But this morning, he was amused by her gesture, so he remembered to smile
(baring his teeth, snake-cold)
and he ruffled her hair
(neck tight to remember how it felt locked between his fingers)
and nodded towards the lobby.
"Put the tray out there, Mary. I'll get to it."
She moved quickly away.
He watched her go, and it was her running down a hallway of split tiles, with light stuttering in from smashed holes and broken eaves. She left dark footprints, and he could hear her rapid breathing as if his heart were gasping air in and out in thick red clots. He was running after her, boots hollow in the hallway.
But that was another Mary.
His Mary went to the kitchen. He wasn't running, he was just standing there.
For a moment, the beast stirred upstairs, but he gritted his mental teeth, and concentrated on the lobby. Coffee, cigarettes, cocoa, flour, rice, sterno, liquor, batteries.... his mantra of commodities made the memories slide back, and it lulled the monster to sleep again.
It was not, however, a good morning, and it took only one glance out the lobby door to the street beyond, and he could hear the bombs again. He had a brief thought that the dreams must have been very bad the night before, before, before there was a name and he traded that name to another man, and all the sins that went with it, and the man went away, behind the screaming metal door
where it was he, that should have gone
He ran through the rain, then, iron thunder and fire made lightning crumpling buildings in the distance, and he had been fool enough to think once that it looked like Hell, and he wished for a single stray bullet, a knife, a shell to fall and erase him, but none came except from his own mind.
The crater was his heart.
Miles of scorched earth later he forced forgetfulness on himself, a rape of his own memory
the Horse Trader snapped his eyes open as if he had never been asleep, sitting up from his chair, and went through the room as if on reflex, checking the windows, peering out through the slats carefully. Moving through the small room, he stopped, caught for a moment by Mary, sprawled on the floor, the back of her head broken open.
He realized he still had his gun in his hand.
The Horse Trader went to count his bullets; thinking about finding a new Mary was something that needed to wait until later.
He needed to count the bullets a few times.
It was an antique, Adele's pocketwatch, a gift of time from her grandfather. It reflected the world in warped brass images, and measured out the moments with a constant, soothing tapping. She checked it, a flutter of sensation in her belly undeterred by the gentle patience of the watch, noting that it was almost time.
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She sat at a small, wooden table, an island in the quiet sea of the coffee shop, next to a window hand-painted with fading bargains. Across the sagging stones of the street, sometimes visible through the constantly rippling curtain of passers-by, she could see another window, and he would be sitting there eventually.
A year of letters had been a prelude to this moment, a weekly arrival of small penned intimacies, fragments of colorful lives closed in photographic cages, and hints in ink and stationary. They'd met by accident, as mystics of their particular philosophy often did; in this case, a misplaced phone call, an intrigue of voices stalking each other in digital blindness.
She remembered his voice, smooth and warm, with hints of the same earthy darkness that Adele tasted in Wudei'a's mint tea. With a breath, she looked down at the neat stack of letters before her, and with each pass of the eye over each pass of the pen, the sounds moved within her mind as his voice.
They'd never actually seen one another; that was part of the rule, in these things. They did not describe one another in the letters, and yet, each time she ran her fingers over the delicate pressed fibers of the paper, she saw another color, another shadow of his face. She pictured the movements of his lips, and the delicate shapes they would make when he spoke.
Sipping at her tea, she smiled softly at one of the letters, a short poem he’d written, a prelude to the inevitable step in this dance, which had brought them hundreds of miles from their homes, to a pair of cafes. It was the last letter in the sequence, and as she finished the last sentence
(“…I cannot wait to see you at last, but I must.”)
she finally turned, bringing her gaze up towards the window across the street.
Like the first rays of dawn, finally clearing the horizon, light shot between them, a new day beginning. She could almost feel his breath on her cheek, and count the small hazel flecks in his jade-colored eyes, and there was a moment within her, as if a rope had twisted around her lungs. The tension was there and gone in a heartbeat of the eyelids, because he could not contain a smile at seeing her, a simple pleasure that overwhelmed him just as the kindling fired behind her own eyes. She returned the smile with great warmth, and then, as the ritual demanded, turned away again, looking down at the letters.
With a sigh, she took out a sheet of paper she’d made herself, specifically for this moment. It was pale blue, marked with watercolor-dappled stars and a moon, and she immediately began to pen a note to him, concentrating on the delicacy of her handwriting, and trying to channel her whimsy and wonder at the meeting as much as she could into the letter.
A timeless cup of tea that did not last long enough marked the end of the letter, and she quickly tucked it into an envelope, covered in watercolor tidal pools that matched her eyes, and sealed it. It would be mailed once she returned home, but she did not think of that; her anticipation of what was to follow was singing inside her, making her bones violin strings.
She didn’t notice the warm smile of the café attendant as she left, slinging her bag over one shoulder, and when she moved into the stream of people outside, she felt as if she were dancing through the orbits of countless planets, all with their mysteries and atmospheres unknowable, all constrained to their path, unlike Adele herself.
She was a comet.
He was walking out from the café on the other side of the street, and neither looked directly at one another; it was not how things were done. Though the temptation was there, Adele shivered within and kept her face silent, eyes fixed on her reflection, dodging around other reflections in the shop window across the street. From the aching corners of her eyes, she saw him coming towards her at a casual pace, an unconcerned man on his way to somewhere other, and when they passed one another, a well of heat and gravity formed between them.
They allowed a touch of hands, a brief and silken clasp of fingers, and she felt every line of his long fingers, the thunder of his pulse brushed by her fingertips, a spike of humming metal pounded through her heart with one decisive stroke. Then it was gone; they passed by one another, Orpheus as he should have done.
Adele walked down the street, the ritual done for now, the longing locked deep within her as a well of mercurial power, for there was no greater power than desiring, and between them, there would be more of it.
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Why not. I like this one.
1. Think of a word you would use to describe me.
2. Go to Google Image Search and search for that word.
3. Select the picture you see as most fitting, and post it as a reply.
4. Post this meme in your journal