The Heart Wants

Scary burning man with arms in a fire.

Dean wondered how long it had been since death set in? Had it actually mattered anymore? Of what relevance was time to the deceased? Especially when there were other niggling concerns such as not being able to move a single inch in any given direction, trapped within a decaying coffin of flesh. That was the toughest adjustment to contend with. And what was the explanation? What answers could he have offered himself this night, the last of his life, the first of his death, in the wee slight moments after the coil of mortality had been sufficiently shuffled off and he lingered in the strangled silence of limbo while the haunts of regrets past swooped down like raptors from on high?

There wasn’t only the matter of kidnapping and molestation, as if he could have simply left it at that.  There were also the mutilations, amputations, beheadings, and cannibalism that needed to be addressed. All sorts of mental distractions that, in the short run, served as curative methods to hush the whispers that shouted malevolence into the folds of his brain. Dean explored them all as he was never quite sure how much of which activity would have been necessary to ground him back down to normalcy.

There was also the presence of the obfuscation demons who frolicked in public places, daring the rest of society to gaze upon their putrescence, that forever clung to Dean’s flesh and flashed serrated toothed smiles from their insatiable maws, fingers tapping, awaiting the next feast. One million beasts ever at the ready, awaiting a sign or signal from him that the carnage that fueled their existence was about to begin.

Go on, they prompted, we understand what you need to do. We won’t judge you because we understand how difficult it was to treat meat with dignity. We can see it all so clearly from where we are.

They made it seem so obvious to Dean. Just one nudge at the right moment in the right direction. One glimmer of hope that the nightmares would end and he would find peace at last. One suggestion from the proper imp who offered him the precise piece of the puzzle that was needed in order to view the larger picture.

Pick your targets, that’s the ticket. The demons advised. Start small. Tiny murders can be done, they’re done all the time. Success stories abound. We can read you a list. Start today with a little ‘un and keep your focus there. Lay down a simple execution that you’re happy with. A death can be executed a thousand ways and despite how clairvoyant you think you are, you can’t predict the pleasure you’ll derive from adding this exciting little twist in the structure of your average day.

And of course, you can kill anytime. Why don’t you kill?  You never kill when you get like this. Why don’t you just kill?  It’s not a burden, not at all. Not killing is the burden, don’t you see?  Look what happens when you don’t kill. We get to this point of crisis where nothing works. It all gets broken like a skull shattered with the claw end of a hammer and you can’t reach down to gather up all the skull fragments because you’re holding your grey matter inside your head and we’re saying let’s stop the skull from shattering in the first place. We can turn the hammer away from you and swing the claw end at someone else. But you have to help out on your end and let us know you’re reaching for the hammer.

And eventually, we’ll get to a place where you don’t take every godforsaken murder you commit personally. It’s not always about you and where your soul will visit when you die and you’re making these assumptions and it creates all this drama. All the outbursts, then the realization that what you’re doing serves the greater good, then the embarrassment from the remorse and the humiliation from the shame. An endless tug of war needlessly played against yourself until you just feel tortured about feeling tortured. And you see this as somehow easier than slitting a random throat for our bounty?

Perhaps what troubles you is you don’t believe that our words, our cause has merit. Fair play. Why should you trust the imps?  We’ve never trusted anyone’s word. We’ve never followed a single command that anyone has given. And who has really? Is that ever how it’s done once you’ve been blessed with the gift of free will? The heart wants what it wants and who can deny it? What does yours want?

That was the question that ran through Dean’s mind. What did his heart want? Love? What good was that? Even if it wasn’t too late, what would it matter if the whole world lined up to love him if there was no penetration? Knowing what the heart wanted would be an unsolved mystery that would plague him in the grave.

And he would have eternity to hunt for clues. As the imps who turned on him abandoned him and found another, who in turn slaughtered Dean in much the same manner that he himself had killed so many others.

His soul should have wept as the demons tore into his flesh, but the truth of the matter was he finally had something to occupy his mind.

And that was the grace he found in death. The peace to deconstruct an unsolvable mystery.

©2014 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

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Bath Time For Jadie-Mae

Depositphotos_170805564_xl-2015

Jadie-Mae loved Satur-days, especially after all the chores had been done, that’s when all the carefree frolicking occurred. Satur-nights was a whole different story. That was bath time and she didn’t want to get into the bathtub, even though Momma added her favorite scented bubble bath and tested the water to make sure the temperature was baby bear. Just right. She stood still as a picture, bare, grimy feet on the cold tiled bathroom floor, staring at the fluffy mounds of soap bubbles that resembled clouds in a storybook.

Momma came knocking, back of her hand rapping on the door like a dish panned woodpecker. “Jadalyn Maeve Langford, I distinctly remember telling you this was bath time, but I don’t hear any water splashing!” she said in that strict voice laced with a care that only mothers possess.

Jadie-Mae quickly dipped her hand into the tub and made a couple of quick splashes. “I’m splashin’, Momma, I’m splashin’.” Bubbles lingered on the back of her hand, tickling slightly as they popped out of existence.

“You better not be in there horsing around, young lady! If I come in there and find you’re not in the bath, only one of us is going regret it, and it’s not going to be me, hear?”

“Yes, Momma,” the little girl answered, deflated.

Jadie waited until she heard the sound of Momma’s slippered footsteps moving away from the door—scuff-plap, scuff-plap, scuff-plap—the woman’s voice fading yet still audible, speaking to herself as she often did, “I just don’t know sometimes. Why would anyone want to stink so bad the devil can smell them down in hockey sticks?” No one was allowed to say the name of the devil’s home inside the house. One of Momma’s Golden Rules. It went from being H-E-double-hockey-sticks down to just plain old hockey sticks.

Still, she didn’t want to step foot in that tub, something just wasn’t natural about sitting in hot water like a stew rabbit. But Momma could get right ornery if everything and everybody wasn’t clean. Cleanie-ness is next a’kin to Goddy-ness, she always used to say, or something like that. There really wasn’t any choice.

Jadie-Mae squeezed her eyes shut, held her breath tight, let the towel drop to the floor and stepped into the bathtub. As usual, the temperature of the water was just right. Momma was always good about getting things just right. As she sank down into the tub, the girl let her breath go and opened her eyes and smiled at the bubble welcoming committee.

Unnoticed as she played with soapsuds, dirt began sliding off her body, along with dead skin cells, hair, grease and body oils. All of this combined with the soapy water, creating a film that made a slimy grayish ring that clung to the bathtub wall. Then a shoreline developed on that ring. An eviscerated landscape in which idols of many and various forms pulled themselves from the gunk in fantastic and intricate detail.

Jadie-Mae stopped her bubble festivities for a moment and strained her ears. She could barely make out faint voices, implorations hidden within the murmurs of supplicants pledging their fealty to the unnamed ones and torturers laying whip to the split flesh of the unrepentant.

The soap bubbles slowly undulated as it began its metamorphosis into billowing clouds of fog that lost their tenuous grip on the murky water’s surface and circled in a tightly controlled oblong within the bath basin. From within the fog, at the other end of the tub, two cones of light rotated, sweeping the waters and Jadie was unsettled for a moment by the sound of foghorns of purest agony.

She shifted in the tub and shook her head, trying to clear the illusion from her sight. Her movements created ripples on the water’s surface. Ripples that grew into waves that carried with it the minuscule Charon skiffs, pitching them against the shoreline, splintering the vessels into so much wreckage. First, she heard the sounds of the tiny people who threw their arms up and pleaded to Little Horn, the anointed covering cherub, as a monstrous tidal wave crashed down on the landscape, reducing it to ruins. Then came the screams of those who lost their lives.

Her shock lasted all but a moment until she realized what was happening. Momma was right—when was Momma never right?—the devil himself smelled her from hockey sticks and sent his minions after her! They were going to make her home sick with wickedness and she couldn’t allow that. Momma didn’t raise no sinner! “I’m powerful sorry but I gotta do my washing up. I can’t have Momma be mad at me.”

Jadie-Mae grabbed the bar of soap from the dish and scrubbed her skin like her life depended on it, and it did. Her life and the lives of her family. Then she poured a dollop of shampoo on top of her head and worked it with her fingers into a lather. She dunked her head beneath the water level for a rinse, which created a wall of undulating foam and debris of proportional gigantic height that rolled towards the lighthouse made of skulls nestled betwixt her ankles. When the wave finally hit, the lighthouse was engulfed in churning water. It rocked back and forth and for a moment it looked like it would have remained anchored to the spot but the sweeping lights exploded and rained infinitesimal sparks as the structure crumbled.

Momma’s face was fierce like thunder when she stormed into the bathroom. “What in the world is all that commotion—?” and she stopped in mid-sentence, for there was her daughter, Jadalyn Maeve, a squeaky clean angel, beaming her biggest, brightest smile.

“All clean, Momma!” she said as pulled the stopper from the drain and stepped out of the tub and into the towel in her mother’s loving, outstretched arms. “Cleanie-ness is next a’kin to Goddy-ness.”

“Yes, it is, baby. It most certainly is.” Momma chuckled and dried off her precious little girl as the lifeless bodies of devil minions and the remnants of false idols spiraled in the whirlpool back down to hockey sticks.

 

©2014 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

Home, At Long Last

girl returning home to high roofed house

The car pulls into the driveway. It’s called an Uber and at first I think it’s the make and model of the car but the driver tells me it’s the name of a car service and although he’s patient and friendly in his explanation, I can feel my face flush red hot in embarrassment. There are so many things I don’t know that I don’t know. The entire world has a steep learning curve for me.

I wouldn’t have recognized the house, couldn’t have picked it out among the others because I haven’t seen it in over sixteen years and the memories are fuzzy because those years haven’t been kind. I’ve been told that it’s the house I grew up in and I nod with no acceptance or conviction because when I think about where I grew up all I can picture is being trapped in a dark and cold basement in a strange location. This house has never once appeared in my mind not even in my dreams.

From the moment the car arrives, people surge out of the front door but they don’t approach the car, perhaps because they’ve been advised not to or perhaps they’re as afraid to meet me as I am to meet them.

I thank the driver as I close the rear driver side door and walk toward the crying and smiling crowd, desperately trying to untwist the constrictor knot my stomach has become. I’m sure they don’t mean to be but each and every one of them is too loud and although they’re careful not to touch me, they’re too close and I want to run. I want to run into the basement and lock the door behind me and go down as far as I can manage and find the darkest corner to curl up into and if that place doesn’t exist, I want to dig a hole into the earth and bury myself in it until the world becomes a quiet place again.

It’s unmistakable, the feeling of warmth and comfort and community that exists in this place and I hate it almost instantly. I’m not supposed to as I’m a human being and we’re known to be social animals but if truth be known the only peace I’ve ever experienced has always been in complete isolation.

Nothing seems right. The sound of people’s voices expressing gratitude and the low volume music in the background blend into some abnormal din that assaults my ears like the opposite of white noise, even though I know that isn’t right because the other end of the spectrum from a combination of all of the different frequencies of sound would be silence and silence would be a welcome change at this point.

Even faces are foreign and I’ve known most of these faces for the first nine years of my life but the arrangement of their features is wrong. Even my own reflection is out of place and unfamiliar. I want to leave, to pivot on my heels and push past this closeness of flesh, flag down a police officer and ask them to take back to where I was found a fortnight ago.

I miss that basement because it’s the only home I know.

I want to back away but there are too many people behind so I push forward looking for a little elbow room, a safe barrier of personal space where I don’t have to feel the nearness of otherness or fight off a wave of nausea when someone’s aura scrapes against mine and makes a teeth-clenching noise like God raking His fingernails across the skin of the universe.

In the crowd I spot a face I don’t know and because I don’t know this woman and have no expectations of the way she must look she appears less odd than the rest. I lock onto her eyes and feel a transfer of knowledge between us. She is like me. She understands the words I’m unable to speak, words that will never be uttered by me in my entire life even if I live for two centuries. I want to move to her, to be closer to her, to stand within the sphere of her understanding but another woman, an aunt, I think, appears from nowhere and pulls me into an unwanted embrace and whispers into my ear with hot breath laced with wine, “You are such a brave girl.”

Brave? I want to say. What’s so brave about being afraid to let myself die? But instead, it comes out as, “Thank you.” I’m not even sure that’s a proper response, I simply need to say something to break the hold and by the time I manage it, the other woman, the woman with the understanding gaze, is gone.

And I’m aware of the people behind me again moving in closer pushing me forward without making contact with me when I come to the realization that their action is purposeful, they’re urging me forward from the front door through the foyer and into the living room for a reason and that reason being my mother and father standing in the center of the empty living room. I step in eagerly, not because I’m particularly glad to see them, I love them but the real reason I’m eager to get into the room is for the space so my soul can breathe again.

There’s this moment of silence and it’s like heaven and my mother takes on the form of Lucifer Morningstar by attempting to shatter paradise with the calling of my name that turns into a shriek that eventually ends in tears and hitching breath. Before I realize what’s happening, she’s on me wrapping her arms around me and lifting me off my feet. I am nearly as tall as she is and outweigh her by thirty pounds easily but this thin woman lifts me as though I was still the same nine-year-old who went outside to play and missed her curfew by more than a decade and a half. My face is buried in her hair and unlike this place that used to be and is once again my home, unlike the matured faces of the people I vaguely recognize as family, the smell of my mother’s hair, the scent of her coconut shampoo smashes through the floodgates of my mind and I am buried beneath wave after wave of memories which scare me and my eyes leak tears because I now realize how much emptier my life has been without this woman, although the world she inhabits still feels alien to me.

I say, “Hi, Mom,” and the word Mom feels distant, like I understand what the word means but the direct connection with it has faded and I don’t want to call her Mom at the moment, I want to call her by her first name but I have no idea what my mother’s name actually is.

She sets me down gently and her arms loosen and slide from around me but her fingers never leave me as they trace sweaty contrails across my back, under my armpits up to my neck where she cups my face in both hands. A move only mastered by a mother. “Hi, baby,” she says and I both resent it because I’m not a baby anymore and miss it because I would give the remaining years of my life for the chance to be nine again in the company of this woman if only for one day.

She calls my father over while carrying on a constant stream of nervous and excited chatter in an attempt to catch me up on all the events that occurred since the last time we laid eyes on each other.

My father approaches with caution as if I come with a warning. He has undoubtedly been told what has been done to me while I was in captivity and probably some of the things I had to do to myself in order to stay alive. He doesn’t know everything because I am the only survivor, there’s no one else to bear witness and I will never tell another soul everything that I’ve been through in order to be here today. And it would break him to hear it so it becomes one of the many burdens I must bear alone.

His haunted eyes are misted with tears that he fights to control as he offers me that sidewinder smile of his–a name Mom gave him because he only smiles and talks out of one side of his mouth as if he’s a stroke victim. “Hi, kiddo,” he says.

All the others unknowingly crowd me and the only person I would not mind that of, my father, does not. He sees it, the invisible property lines that mark my personal space and respects the boundaries. I want to tell him, forget the signposts, just come hug me, Daddy but those are words I don’t know how to speak so I say, “Hi, Dad,” and I manage to dig up a smile from the recesses of some long forgotten happiness. At least I hope it looks like a smile, I haven’t done it in so long, I fear I might’ve lost the knack.

Mom is still babbling away nonstop when she remembers her basic etiquette, “Oh! Are you hungry? You must be famished!” And before I can answer,

“Get her something to drink,” Dad says. “Something cold.” And Mom takes off like a shot into the kitchen.

My father just stands there looking at me, taking in the measure of me. I can’t see the missing years on my mother but on him, I see every second, minute, hour, day, month and year. Beneath his thinning hair, deep wrinkles crease his face. He’s worried and afraid of me and for me but he manages a smile.

In a voice low enough for my ears only, he says, “It’s gonna bother you, what you did, but just know you did the right thing. You ended the man who stole you from us and found your way home again. That’s my girl.”

I’m stunned. Of all the things I expected from this moment straightforward acceptance was never in the running. I rush my daddy and throw my arms around him and break down and cry and he squeezes me tight and all the things that I can’t say and all the things he can’t say, they’re all there, transmitted on a biological level and he doesn’t move, doesn’t speak, doesn’t loosen his grip on me until my body stops shaking, until I have no more sobs and no more strength left.

He scoops me up into his arms and for the second time today I am nine years old again. “I think she’s had enough excitement for one day, so thank you all for coming but now it’s time for us to be alone,” Dad says, as he pushes through the crowd and carries me upstairs to my old room.

He sets me down gently on my bed that’s now too small for me, brushes the hair matted by tears and snot from my face, kisses my forehead and says, “When you’re ready.” and I know exactly what he means.

He leaves, taking Mom with him, assuring her it’s the right thing to do and as their voices get smaller I get up from the bed, lock my bedroom door, draw the blinds shut and crawl until my bed and ball up fetal, relishing the dark and the quiet.

Tomorrow I’ll begin trying to locate the house I was rescued from because although this house is nice, it’s no longer a place for me.

I want to go home.

©2018 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

Apache Chola 1 – The Big Ask (Zami y Xio)

woman killer

The moon, merely a crescent in the cloudless night sky, shines brightly on the car parked at the corner Acorn and Walmer Streets. It is a lowered car, a lowrider—a 1967 cherry red customized Chevrolet Impala with an ornate sugar skull painted on the bonnet and intricate, colorful dia de los Muertos designs running on the sides, that rides on white wall tires with twenty-inch wire-spoked rims—and it has a name, Sangriento Asesinato, which translates as Bloody Murder.

Despite the car’s garish appearance, to the casual mundane observer, it goes virtually unnoticed because of the obfuscation spell it employs, low-level magicks weaved into the Day of the Dead designs that causes the eye to notice the car but immediately slide off it like July rain off a duck’s back to find something a little more interesting to view.

In Sangriento Asesinato’s passenger seat, Xiomara sniffs the air as her autumn-orange eyes shift left and right down the unnaturally dark and empty street just beyond the intersection.

“Sight doesn’t match the scent, Zami, so this must be the place,” she says. Xiomara is a red fox no bigger than a small dog but should anyone ever be foolish enough to call her a fox, she would do her level best to rip their throat clean out. She prefers to be called a Vulpes vulpes because it makes her sound like an animal that is all business at all times. Xiomara’s fur is flame red, with a white underbelly, black paws and ear tips and her bushy tail is tipped in white. “And the street is crowded.”

Getzami Romero drums her fingers on the chain steering wheel and says, “I’d expect no less. Hopefully, none of them are drunk, high, stupid or trigger happy. I’d rather this be a friendly visit.”

Getzami checks her face in the rearview mirror. Eyebrows penciled on, thin, arched and menacing. Winged black eyeliner. Black lined lips with blue-based red lipstick. Cheeks sculpted with a bronze based blush. Jet black shoulder length hair teased to sit off her face, secured by a red bandana with white sigils replacing the standard paisley design. The two studs on her forehead, her third eye piercing, centered between and just above the eyebrows sparkle as they catch the overhead street lamp, as does the moon phase—two gold crescents bookending a full moon—septum piercing. Large gold hoop earrings swing as she turns her head left and right. The look isn’t perfect, not up to her usual standard, but she is in a rush so it will have to suffice.

Reaching past the fox, Getzami opens the glove compartment and places her twin Glock 19 9mm pistols along with a karambit knife, Kubotan keychain and brass knuckles inside before closing the box.

“You’re going in naked?” Xiomara cocks her head to one side, confused.

“No choice, Xio. It’s a sign of respect and I can’t have them thinking there’s any hostile intent behind my visit.”

The driverside car door swings open and Getzami steps out into the night air which is cool and dry. She smoothes her flannel shirt—just the collar buttoned—with her hands so the open shirt frames the white bustier that accentuates her cleavage. Normally she would hide her breasts under layers of gold jewelry but all the accoutrements associated with this aspect of her working persona are back at her apartment and as stated before, time is of the essence. Luckily, she tossed all this stuff inside the trunk along with a pair of dress pants and high top Converse sneakers after she finished the Hell Jockeys gig, so the ensemble is at least ninety percent passable.

She leans on the open door. “You can sit this one out if you want. I’ve got it covered,” Getzami says to the fox who raises on all fours. She can tell Xiomara is nervous about being here and wants to give her friend an easy out.

Xiomara snorts and trot-hops off the car seat onto the pavement. “When have I ever not had your back, Zami?”

“Never,” Getzami admits and slams the car door shut.

Acorn Street runs the width of the city from river to river and is widely considered a boring thoroughfare as it lays no claim to fame to any unique or interesting shops, theaters or any other sites that attract tourism and if truth be known, it is fairly boring, which makes it a perfect hiding spot.

Every city, town and community in the world plays host to its fair share of ghost stories, urban legends and unexplainable occurrences and the tiny patch of Acorn that runs between Walmer Street and Readly Avenue is purported by the superstitious subculture to house the legendary Jecrossi Embassy.

The mystical and harmonious city neighborhood gently governed by the Grey Folk—first appearing in the 1944 novel Know No Home by Syrian author Miran Mansour—has become synonymous with an earthly paradise, a permanently happy land, that chooses to isolate itself from the world.

It is said that the Embassy exists within a pocket dimension—a space too small or too easily accessible to be truly considered a separate dimension—which is fine for things like a bag of holding which can contain numerous cumbersome items because it is larger on the inside but becomes unstable when trying to hold a small, secluded world complete with its own ecosystem and lifeforms.

As it turns out, the internet theories are correct and the Embassy is actually situated at this location but it isn’t visible or accessible because the single city block has been magickally shifted left of center one second out of sync with time and space. On her own, Getzami doubts she would have been able to sense this place, fortunately for her Xiomara, being a creature of enchantment gifted with an extraordinarily sensitive nose for magick, can smell the displacement.

Xiomara crosses the street, stopping at the curb and sniffs her way in a straight line from east to west and stops at a point just before the curb on the opposite side of the street. “Got it!” Xiomara smiles. “Follow me and stay close in case there are any twists and turns along the way. Some of these things can be like mazes and you can get caught up in them for hours until your air runs out. Others just boot you out but trust me, suffocating feels a whole lot better than having your atoms forced through a sieve.”

Getzami is surprised and a little embarrassed at the sense of growing unease, mostly because she imagines all the horrible things that can go wrong, even though she watches as Xiomara trots into the invisible entryway with apparent ease.

The mystic sigils dyed onto her bandana begin to glow as Getzami takes her first step and she experiences a sudden dropping sensation, the tarmac beneath her feet seems to fall away as if she is in an elevator, and her next unsteady step is like walking on a boat in choppy waters. She realizes it’s just her internal body clock adjusting to the one second time displacement which on its own would have been manageable if not accompanied by the feeling that she is passing through a veil of nematocysts, jellyfish stingers, a sensation she is all too familiar with after being stung at the beach as a little girl. Despite the sigils allowing her to step into sync with Jecrossi, she feels the nettles firing warnings into her body, thousands of needle pricks that urge her to turn back and leave.

She does her level best to remain upright and follows her friend, who stops at the tricky bits where the invisible entryway breaks into a sharp turn or bends in an odd fashion, and when they eventually pass through to the other side, Getzami notices the shift in reality almost immediately. The street beneath her feet is compacted soil instead of tarmac and the sidewalk is leveled natural stone instead of concrete. The air is different, too, nearly dense enough to be liquid and tasting of ozone just after a lightning strike and the scents of this neighborhood are somehow foreign, differing from the rest of the city. She commends Xiomara under her breath at being able to detect anything by smell alone amidst the chaotic fragrances.

“So this is what paradise looks like, huh?” Xiomara says. Sarcasm takes on a whole new flavor when coming from a fox.

But she is right. The Jecrossi Embassy, the fabled inner city Shangri-La, is little more than a magick ghetto. Visually, the street which seems deserted only a block away is bustling with activity and not only because of their arrival. Street vendors exchange their wares, foodstuffs, clothing, home essentials and yes, some enchantments and drugs for odd trinkets that bears no resemblance to any sort of currency on the planet to pedestrians who give Getzami and Xiomara strange and untrusting sideways glances.

There are magicks in these streets that emanate from the cracks in the sidewalk and the graffitied tenement walls. Animals that might be mistaken for rats, cats and dogs dart from in between the apartment buildings and the back alley of the restaurant on the far corner. Yet, despite the enchantment that crackles against her exposed skin like static electricity, life is no different on this block than the rest of the city. Dejection and starvation and cruelty exist here, evidenced by the diseased bodies and damaged minds that have abandoned dreams of a better life in order to simply survive on garbage scraps and sleeping in cardboard boxes amongst the vermin that are not rats or cats or dogs. Street preachers deliver sermons to these wretches from tattered grimoires that pass in looks but not content to holy scriptures.

“Look at the gaunt faces, Zami,” Xiomara says, her fox voice cracking. “The stories etched on them, stories enough to snap your heart in two.”

If Getzami hears her friend, she gives no indication. “We have eyes on us, Xio,” she says, pointing at the stoop of the nearest brownstone where three rail thin and heavily tattooed men turn their faces and whisper to each other. One of them whistles up to one of the brownstone’s windows and makes a sound like a crow’s caw.

“It’s showtime,” Getzami says, picking up her pace as she walks in their direction.

Xiomara doesn’t match her friend’s speed, preferring to hang back and assess the situation.

Getzami looks over her shoulder and says, “No shame in heading back to the car.”

“Shame’s got nothing to do with it,” Xiomara snaps. “I’m afraid because I’m smart enough to know that we’re walking headlong into trouble.” The red fox quickens her steps to catch up with Getzami.

From the brownstone’s main entrance, ten more wiry men with matching skin ink join the lookouts, making it a baker’s dozen. They approach, affecting that badass stroll wannabes wear like a tough guy accessory, pistol grips protruding from the top of their skinny jeans waistbands and for the first time she realizes they’re barefoot and now that she notices it, everyone on the street except for her isn’t wearing shoes. The fingers on all of their hands twitch as if they’re throwing gang signs but Getzami recognizes it as the actions of low-level magick users, apprentices, in order to prime the pump—in the same manner that a suction valve in an old water pump needs to be primed with water so that the pump functions properly. The Jecrossi specialize in earth magick and apprentices need to prime their bodies in order for earth energies to flow up into and through them.

Getazami holds out her empty hands, carefully lifts the sides of the open flannel shirt and does a slow turn to show she is not strapped. “Take it easy,” she says, in as disaffected a manner as she can muster. “Bringing no ruckus. Just need to speak with Ekaterina.”

Because they are all bald and thin and are marked by the same tattoos, the goons look like they come from the same mold with the one out in front being the first cast and the others appearing to have increasing degrees of degradation with each successive pressing. They cautiously fan themselves out until they form a circle around Getzami and Xiomara.

“You expected?” asks the lead goon.

“No, but she’ll see me,” Getzami says, her eyes locking onto the penetrating gaze of the lead goon standing immediately in front of her.

“Tell then who you are,” Xiomara says.

“Shut your mouth, little doggie, people are talking.”

“Vulpes vulpes!” Xiomara snarls.

“What?”

“I’m a Vulpes vulpes, not a damned doggie!”

“You’re gonna be dinner if–”

The index and middle fingers of both Getzami’s hands go into her mouth. The goons raise their hands ready to cast on her and bring her down to the tarmac. Pushing back her tongue, she whistles six notes sharp and loud in a very distinct pattern, a pattern that halts the goons in their tracks. It is the Six Tones of Order Within Chaos, the call of the Jecrossi.

The goons stare at Getzami, disbelieving what they just heard. Then their expression shifts to suspicion.

“How do you know the call?” asks lead goon.

“Like I said, Ekaterina will see me because we go back, long before the likes of you or before she came to this neighborhood,” the sadness in her eyes mirrors Xiomara’s own upon first seeing the state of the people who seek refuge here.

Before the lead goon can respond, one of the middle windows on the top row of the brownstone opens and a brown-skinned woman pops her head out. “What’s going on?” she demands.

Lead goon is about to tell the woman it was Getzami who whistled but thinks better of it and opts for, “Someone here to see the boss.”

“Someone like who?” asks the woman.

Getzami brushes past the lead goon to step into the street light and calls up to the woman, “Someone like Apache Chola!”

“And Xiomara!” the red fox barks.

Getzami shoots Xiomara a baleful glance but can’t maintain it. “And her companion, the Vulpes vulpes, Xiomara!” she echoes and her scowl becomes a smile.

***

They are escorted by the lead goon and four of his cronies up to the common room which is uncomfortably larger than the exterior of the brownstone. It reminds Getzami of a museum, not just in terms of the space but in all the glass-encased artifacts, as well. The floor is tiled in polished sandstone, the walls travertine stacked stone and the furniture appears to be Mesopotamian in design but she can’t be certain on the accuracy of her assessment. Although artwork decorates the walls there are no personal photographs. There is enough room here to house dozens of the homeless outside but this seemingly perfect place is far too cold in its tranquility to feel in any way homey.

In the center of the room stands the brown-skinned woman who introduces herself as Serilda. She, a full foot taller than anyone in the room, points at Getzami, “You follow me, the Vulpes vulpes remains here.”

Xiomara begins to argue but Serilda remains firm and insists there will be no audience with Ekaterina if the Vulpes vulpes refuses to remain in the common room. Getzami tells the red fox it will be all right and repeats that she and Ekaterina go way back so there shouldn’t be any danger.

Xiomara ponders for a moment before reluctantly saying, “Okay, but if things go sideways just holler and I’ll tear through these clowns like field mice!” She stares directly at the lead goon when she says it and he replies with a mocking growl which makes the red fox’s fluffy tail twitch in anger.

Getzami is shown into the adjoining room which is somehow larger than the impossibly large common room, with Serilda in the lead and the goons bringing up the rear. The walls are lined with books stacked in a chaotic fashion on recessed wooden shelves and this indoor library smells of petrichor, the scent of rain on dry earth, which would explain the moisture that dots the spines of all the books. In the exact center of the room is a reading chair that is nothing more than a series of interwoven vines that grow directly from the lush green carpet of dewy grass and in the chair sits Ekaterina, positioned perfectly with a book open to a blank page on her lap, graphite stick firmly in hand and at the ready.

“I’d like to say something clever like all the chickens, even the headstrong independent ones always come home to roost but the fact of the matter is you’ve never been here, isn’t that right, Chola?” Ekaterina says in a warm but measured tone.

The woman’s alabaster skin and albino snakeskin dress are almost a perfect camouflage within the silky white mist that rises from the grass and snakes around her. She appears to be in her sixties—but Getzami suspects she’s much older because she looks the same as when they first met almost two decades ago—and wears absolutely no makeup because only an insecure fool applies foundation on natural beauty. Her pearl hair is oiled back and plaited in a style that should have looked ridiculous on someone her age but she carries it off with authority.

“You always did know how to strike a pose, Ekat,” Getzami says, attempting a for old time’s sake grin that simply will not come.

“That’s Ekaterina to you,” Ekaterina says as she takes in the sum of her unexpected visitor. “So, tell me a story.”

“What?” Getzami shifts uncomfortably in a small puddle on the carpet grass. Ekaterina has caught her off guard, a feeling she never appreciates. “I don’t have any stories.”

“Nonsense, everyone has stories and I collect them, you see,” Ekaterina says, gesturing with a nod for Getzami to sit. “Everything is present for a story to exist: a teller, that would be you, and an audience, which would be me.”

The offered seat—a normal metal folding chair with padding—is as much out of place with the room’s décor as she herself is. A reminder, no doubt, that she is considered an interloper. The fact that the chair is bone dry despite the moist surroundings is of small consolation. Getzami squirms until she finds the position that affords the least amount of discomfort and says, “Thanks for the seat but still…no stories.”

“No reunion catch up? No explanation as to why you disappeared on me in the middle of the night? Nothing that covers your whereabouts and activities over the years, things we might have discussed had you bothered to remain in contact?”

“I’m not the keep in touch kind of gal, you know that.”

“Well, if you’re not here to apologize, justify your actions and perhaps reminisce a bit, then what brings you to my home?”

“I’m on a case…” Getzami pauses because she feels unsure of how to phrase the next bit. “And I need your help.” She expects to be scoffed or laughed at but is instead greeted by nothing but silence.

“It’s a girl,” Getzami continues when it becomes clear Ekaterina is waiting to hear more details. “A little girl and I know who took her so I need to do an extraction.”

“Is she here?” Ekaterina asks. “Are you asking my permission before you steal someone from the Embassy?”

Getzami shakes her head. “She’s in Megorum. The Clanarchists have her.”

“Again, I ask, what brings you? Your target is a little girl, easy to transport. This should be a cakewalk for the legendary Apache Chola,” the insult in the way Ekaterina says her business name is plain as day and it cuts slightly.

“Megorum is shielded against me, I can’t get in. I’ve tried.”

Ekaterina shrugs, “Cast a piercer. Why darken my doorstep?”

“I don’t magick.”

“What? After all these years I would have thought you would have picked up something,” Ekaterina says then recalls something. “But they tell me you have a familiar?”

“Xiomara isn’t a familiar. She’s my friend—”

“Best friend!” the fox interrupts.

“…best friend with excellent hearing who should be minding her business and letting me handle mine,” Getzami shouts over her shoulder before turning her attention back to Ekaterina. “Xiomara caught the tail end of an enchantment meant for me and got transmogrified into a—” she is about to say red fox but catches herself in time. “—Vulpes vulpes.”

“She was human?”

“Still is, to me, and I’m working on tracking down the slippery bastard responsible for it.”

“Wait,” Ekaterina says. “You said Megorum is shielded against you. Not merely shielded, but against you in particular, that would make it—”

“A blood shield.”

“You can’t cross the barrier because traces of your blood have been intertwined in the incantation but why go through all that trouble, unless—” Ekaterina cuts the sentence short and dismisses Serilda and the goons, who go through the proper etiquette of voicing their objections and citing the possibility of an attack before complying with the request when it is restated as a command. When they are gone, Ekaterina asks, “Who is this girl?”

“She’s my daughter, Ekat. Those hijos de putas kidnapped my baby girl and I aim to get her back and put every last one of them in the ground!”

Ekaterina shakes her head and glances over at Getzami before turning her sorrowful
gaze to the ground.

“That is terrible news, it really is, and I realize how difficult it must be to come to me asking for help but I can’t help feeling like I’m being played here.”

“Played?”

“Not so much as a single hello exchanged between us in years, yet you knew to find me in this hidden part of the city so you’re obviously aware of the beef I have with the Clanarchists. If I get a sudden twinge of compassion and decide to help you pierce their blood shield—and I’m assuming the same barrier that stops you from getting in, also prevents your daughter from escaping, correct?”

“I’d imagine so.”

“Then the spell we cast would have to remain in place long enough for you to enter Megorum, locate your little girl and escape with her, which means the magick can and will be traced back to us, bringing a war to our doorstep. Where will you be when that happens? Standing at our borders fighting side by side with us?”

“If needs be, then yes.”

“If-then-yes isn’t a definitive yes, which is the problem I have with this situation because if by some small miracle this thing goes to plan and you’re able to get your daughter back, you’ll be grateful, I’m sure of that, but there’s a difference between feeling gratitude and showing gratitude.”

“You’re not catching me at my best here so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t answer with the precise words you need to hear in order to help me, but I’ve got a lot going on in my head at the moment. Allow me to answer the question again: Yes, once my daughter is safe, I will return and help you defend your borders.”

Then the conversation stops and the long silence that replaces it is loaded with the dread of possibility that somewhere along the way Getzami said the wrong thing or the right thing in the wrong way and totally ruined her chance to recruit the aid of the Jecrossi leader who was once her friend.

Ekaterina stands and paces around her seat, her eyes cast downward and never making contact with Getzami. “This place used to be the paradise you hear about in the urban legends,” Ekaterina says in a low, almost under-the-breath voice as if she is talking to herself. “Built by the Grey Folk, it was meant to be a safe haven for enchanted beings and its doors were open to all, even the likes of me. And as bad as I was, I wasn’t the worst person to gain entry. There were people hungry for power, in love with destruction, nasty killers who didn’t care who or what they slew. And they tried to gut this place. But I and the last of the remaining Grey Folk stood against them and forced them into exile. The effort cost us. We depleted most of the magick within this place, the most powerful earth energy source on the planet. And I’m working with the strongest remaining earth mages to heal it, to return the land to what it once was, but the progress, the healing, is slow. So, you see, this thing you ask of me is no small matter.”

“Ekat, I could scream I’m sorry for not keeping in touch, for not being there when you needed me until I’m blue in the face but that’s not going to change the reality of what’s done is done. And there’s no way of me convincing you of the truth that if I did actually have some magick, I would help you restore this place. As it stands, the only thing I have to offer is my life and I would gladly give it to save my daughter but I swear on my little girl’s life that if you help me and pledge to keep her safe in case I don’t come out on the other side of this alive then my life is yours to do as you see fit.”

Ekaterina taps her lips with an index finger. “And you would enter the unbreakable pact of a blood oath?”

“Do you have a blade?” Getzami asks. “I’ll slice my palm right here and now.”

***

Xiomara goes through the motions of conducting an inspection of the room, sniffing this and that, but what she is actually doing is marking everyone’s location in the room and judging distances in the enormous space in order to formulate the best plan of attack and escape should she and Getzami need to beat a hasty retreat. Her attention snaps from the foot of a bronze statue of a naked man to the door of the antechamber as Getzami and Ekaterina enter. A piece of cloth is wrapped around each of their right hands and a bud of blood blossoms in their palms.

Xiomara races to Getzami making a series of brief clucks, her concerned gekkering as she pushes her snout into her friend’s bleeding palm, sniffing and biting at the cloth to remove it. “Are you okay? What happened in there? Let me see the wound! Is it deep?”

“It’s okay, Xio,” Getzami strokes Xiomara’s heading attempting to calm her. “I did this so we could get what we came here for.”

“Although the world outside the Embassy is of no concern to us at the moment,” Ekaterina addresses the room in a cool, even tone. “Apache Chola has sworn a blood oath to aid us and in exchange, we will help her retrieve her daughter who has been stolen by the Clanarchists.”

A grumbling begins to stir amongst Serilda and the goons, one of anger mixed with apprehension.

Ekaterina points at Serilda and the lead goon as she continues, “Serilda and Ozias, you will accompany Chola and her companion to cast a piercing spell and return them safely to us. Their lives are your responsibility now.”

Serilda nods acceptance. Ozias does as well but it takes him a little longer and he looks none too pleased.

To be continued…

©2018 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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