Blood Money (Part 2)

Blood Money Part 1

Foy plucked a dried fragment of brimstone from a carpet fiber with a pair of tweezers and dropped it into a plastic vial. “All right, Detective History Channel, if we can’t touch the coins…”

“Or the pot,” Elodie added.

“Okay…or the pot, then how are we supposed to bag them as evidence?”

Elodie pulled out her phone, scrolled through her contacts and dialed a number. “This is Detective Elodie Arcement, Badge One Point Six One Eight. Suspected religious artifact at the scene, possibly cursed. Requesting Pure Soul dispatch as soon as possible.”

Foy raised an eyebrow. “Pure Souls are immune to religious curses?” she asked.

Elodie shrugged. “More immune than you or me, I reckon. If it turns out they’re not and the smotening happens to them as well, then it’s their fault for not knowing their limitations.”

“First of all, smotening?”

“I don’t know how to conjugate smote, do you?”

“Second,” Foy continued. “Your regard for the preservation of human life is astounding.”

“I know. It’s my gift and my curse,” Elodie said, inspecting the living room. “When your team comes in, make sure they collect any phones, tablets and computers they find, as I don’t see any in here.”

“We know how to do our job, Detective Arcement,” Foy said, the arctic front blowing off her shoulder dropped the room’s temperature by ten degrees.

“I know you do, Mara. I was just thinking out loud, that’s all,” Elodie offered her friend and colleague an apologetic smile, before leaning into the foyer to call for the uniformed officer guarding the front door of the house.

“Yes, Detective?” said the baby-faced cop, Nelson by his nametag, mid twenties at best, green as grass.

“Gather up all the available uniforms to question the crowd for witnesses and do a door to door with the neighbors to see if they’ve noticed anything suspicious going on in the neighborhood recently,” Elodie said.

“On it,” Nelson nodded and left to carry out his instructions.

“You’re treating this like a murder investigation,” Foy asked. “I thought we were classifying it as Divine Misadventure?”

“We are, I’m just covering my bases in case this entire thing was staged to make it look like an Act of God.”

Before Foy could comment, a man with a briefcase appeared in the living room entryway. He was at least a head higher than what society considered to be tall, and was undoubtedly the recipient of thousands of the air up there must be thin comments throughout his life. And even though he was too tall for his build, looking like he had been stretched on a torture rack, the isolation suit fit his lanky frame perfectly. Elodie groaned at the sight of him.

“Elijah Richardson, Eleventh Level Pure Soul, ID Number 937781, reporting as requested,” the man said.

“I know who you are, Richardson,” Elodie said.

“I am required by law to state my name, rank and identification number when first entering a crime scene,” Richardson replied.

“And you’ve done that, so can we please get on with this?” said Elodie, exasperated.

“I should have known you would be here, Detective Arcement. These types of cases have a way of finding you, don’t they?” Richardson said, giving Elodie the once over. “Still ignoring regulations, I see. Pity your shoes have to pay the price for your independence.”

Elodie was about to respond when Foy chimed in, “Marabel Foy, Forensics.” She proffered her hand and Richardson glanced at it a moment before ignoring the gesture completely.

“Where is it, then? This potentially cursed artifact?” Richardson asked.

“Can’t you sense it?” Elodie asked with a wry smile. “Aren’t you attuned to the vibrations of objects replete with religiosity? Or is all that rhetoric you spew a load of bunkum?”

“The only vibrations I can feel are the jealousy and shame emanating from you,” the Pure Soul retorted. “Must be hard for a lapsed Catholic to have to rely on someone else to do a job she was deemed unworthy for.”

Foy’s eyes went as wide as saucers. “You were a Pure Soul?”

“A novitiate,” Elodie corrected.

“Who couldn’t make the grade,” Richardson added.

“I found some of the teachings hard to swallow.”

“Too bad that was the only thing you found hard to swallow,” Richardson said, extremely pleased with himself.

Elodie’s temper flared from zero to sixty. “That’s a dirty sticking rumor with no basis…”

“Enough!” Foy interrupted. “You two can get a room later and hash out your differences. We have business to attend to. The artifacts are right this way.”

Kneeling before the clay pot and coins, Richardson set his briefcase down on the carpet, careful to avoid a smoldering brimstone puddle, and inspected the items. “Shekels of Tyre,” he said.

“And take a look at the pot…” Elodie said.

“The clay looks to be circa AD 30 – 36 and it was obviously smashed and pieced back together,” Richardson said.

“Can someone please tell me what the significance of this pot is?” Foy asked.

Elodie was about to explain when Richardson beat her to the punch. “There are several contradicting accounts of what Judas did with his payment when he learned the price Jesus paid for his betrayal. One version stated he was commanded by God to give the money to a potter to create a clay pot. When finished, the potter smashed the pot on Judas Iscariot’s grave.”

“So, you’re suggesting that this pot may be the only vessel that can hold these coins?” Foy asked.

“The only logical explanation as to why anyone would go through the trouble of gluing the pot back together,” Elodie said.

Richardson opened his briefcase, revealing a smaller case inside, and in that case was a pair of white gloves embossed with an ornate cross. He said a prayer under his breath and touched each glove to his lips before slipping them on.

“And if these artifacts are cursed, you can safely handle them without retribution?” Foy asked, gesturing to the charred body that Richardson seemed to ignore entirely.

“I suppose we will find out soon enough, won’t we?” Richardson said. “I advise you both to stand back.”

Elodie and Foy took two giant steps back from the coins and the Pure Soul.

Richardson recited another prayer under his breath, blessed himself by making the sign of the cross, and reached for the coins.

To be continued…

Text and Audio ©2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Blood Money

Detective Elodie Arcement arrived on scene shortly after 3 a.m., the so-called hour of the wolf, when things of this nature usually occurred. She flashed her credentials to the uniformed officer standing at the barrier of black-and-yellow crime-scene tape and was intercepted by a second officer attempting to hand her a forensic isolation suit, which she waved off. Those things never fit right and she found them difficult to walk in because they always managed to bunch up at her feet.

Arcement entered the victorian terrace house, and the air stank of sulfur, largely due to the drops of brimstone that fell through the shattered skylight, creating puddles in the remnant of the living room shag carpet. Although avoiding the puddles as best she could manage, her shoes were getting ruined. She cursed herself for not slipping on the isolation suit when she had the opportunity.

In the center of the living room, Forensic Scientist Marabel Foy, in her isolation suit, was kneeling over the charred remains of a body, conducting her preliminary examination.

“Someone took their sweet time getting here,” Foy said without looking up from the corpse.

“Give it a rest. I wasn’t on call tonight. Shumway called in a family emergency and guess who gets to pick up his slack?” the detective said. “What do we know so far?”

“It’s early days yet, but I believe I can officially list the cause of death as: Smote,” said Foy. “Don’t you just love biblical crime scenes?”

“Gotta give Shumway credit for ducking out on this one. Can you ID the victim?” Arcement asked.

“Ellie, I can’t even tell you if it’s male or female. I need to get what’s left of the body back to the lab.”

“Everything been photographed?”

Foy nodded. “My team’s been over the scene twice. I always find it odd that a bolt from the heavens can reduce a human body to ashes and leave everything else undamaged.”

Tell that to my shoes, Arcement thought, before noticing that the corpse’s right arm was extended and just beyond its reach was a clay pot lying on its side with coins spilling out of it.

“Has anyone touched these?” Arcement asked, gesturing at the pot and coins.

“No. Like I said we were waiting on you…”

“Good. Tell them not to,” Arcement cut her off.

“Why not?”

“Because these coins bear the likeness of the Phoenician god Melqart along with the Greek inscription ΤΥΡΟΥ ΙΕΡΑΣ ΚΑΙ ΑΣΥΛΟΥ which, if they’re genuine, makes them Tyrian shekels.”

Foy waited for an explanation and when none came, asked, “Meaning…?”

“Tyre is a Phoenician city in what we now call Lebanon. They issued silver coins from roughly 130 B.C. to 70 A.D., but no two are alike due to their primitive minting process.”

“And you know this how?”

“By having a theologian and coin collector for a father,” Arcement answered. “Like I was saying, shekels were struck by hand with a four-foot-long hammer whose head had the face on it and the minters stood four feet back and struck the coin and even the most skilled minter wasn’t able to get a perfect strike every time, making the images off-center.”

“I’m still not following,” Foy said.

“Okay, how many coins do you see?” Arcement asked. “I count nineteen on the rug and I’m willing to bet the number still inside the pot is eleven, which would bring the total to thirty. Think about it, thirty pieces of silver.”

“You’re not saying that…”

“This may be the blood money Judas Iscariot received for betraying Christ, and if I’m right then these coins are cursed and may be the reason our victim is now a charcoal briquette.”

To be continued…

Text and Audio ©2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Of Things Read About and Dreamt

In spite of the pleasant weather forecast prediction, a rogue thunderstorm struck Friday evening, the likes of which had not been seen since the days of Noah and the flood, ruining the plans of revelers looking to get a headstart on their wild weekend festivities.

Titus Shelton’s plans hadn’t been affected by the unexpected downpour in the least, as he had always been a bit of a homebody. Even as a child, he was perfectly comfortable being alone with his books, preferring the company of fictional characters, and losing himself within their fantasy worlds. Sometimes, he would even combine the characters from different novels and create better stories and more exciting worlds within his own vivid imagination. And now, this weather, considered ghastly by most, provided him with the proper backdrop for a perfect evening spent at home.

Entering the spacious high-ceilinged living room decorated in dark wood furniture, Titus strode across the carpeted floor, past the curio filled with odd knick-knacks, and the baby grand piano, to the inlaid mahogany bookcase. Running a delicate finger across the numerous title-embossed leather spines, he made a selection, and carried it to his favorite seat, the plump armchair positioned closest to the fire burning in the hearth.

He loved this chair because it contoured to his shape, offering maximum comfort as he read, which he did this night until he dozed off, and as happened on many an occasion, he brought aspects of the novel with him into dreamland. This particular book had been a gothic horror tale about an ancient nocturnal creature who feasted on the evil that existed in every human being since the original sin was committed. In the dream, he was alone in a dark, foggy petrified forest, being chased by a figure he could not see clearly, who traveled from shadow to shadow. Through dream logic, he knew his only hope was to reach a well-lit area, for the illumination would have provided a barrier against the darkness. But the creature was gaining ground…

There was a noise.

Titus woke abruptly, confused. Was the noise a part of his dream, or had it come from within the house? He pricked his ears, listening in silence for the noise to sound again. Nothing. When he tried to move his head, to verify that he was alone in the room, Titus discovered he was locked in a sleep paralysis.

The noise again! A scritchy-scratchy sound, like nails clawing at the inside of a coffin lid. Something was definitely inside his house…and it was coming for him! Rationality abandoned him as his mind, overtaken by his imagination, grasped at straws. He wondered if the book he was reading contained some sort of incantation and had he unknowingly summoned something from an ancient dark realm? And, in dreaming it into existence, had he brought this nightmare into the waking world?

Titus looked at the burning logs in the fireplace. Surely they cast enough light to keep him safe within, he thought. But the security of that thought was short-lived, for a fog impossibly began to roll into the living room, and when it touched the logs, the flames dimmed. Then, the temperature in the room dropped drastically, becoming so cold that he saw the condensation of his breath that was coming in frantic little gasps.

Although he could not see behind him, Titus imagined a creature slinking from shadow to shadow, drawing closer and closer…

He struggled in his mind, his brain commanding his body to stand up and flee to the safety of a place filled with light, but nothing moved, not even a pinky. He was still in the thrall of the paralysis, still locked to his favorite armchair.

More scratching noises, this time closer, and the cold air filled with a hot, sickly sweet, fragrant cloud of burning sulfur that singed the edges of his nostrils.

From the corner of his eye, he detected movement! Impossibly long white fingers crawled in a spider motion across his shoulders, and he felt a mouth crowded with sharp teeth kiss the tender flesh of his exposed neck.

“Oh, it’s you, Mother,” Titus breathed a sigh of relief, as the sleep paralysis finally loosened its grip. “Welcome home.”

Text and Audio ©2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Challenge Accepted

Shari found herself standing on the veranda, the sun having set without her realizing, and the cold cigarette butt between her fingers burnt down to the filter. The party in the ballroom behind her wound down some time ago and only the stragglers who dreaded returning to the dullness of their home lives remained, desperate to make any sort of connection with another human being. She, of course, was not one of those people. She had simply gotten lost in her thoughts, but couldn’t recall, for the life of her, what she had been thinking about for all those hours.

“Certainly is a nice night,” a man said, stepping onto the veranda. His voice was kind and jovial on the surface but the undertow of his desire was evident.

“You’re wasting your time, my friend,” Shari said without turning around, because she had no interest in his appearance. “I don’t keep up with current jargon or buzzwords, so forgive me if this phrase is outdated, but you should consider me to be self-partnered.”

“I see,” the man said, halting in his approach. “My name’s Drew, by the way. And you are…?”

“Single as a dollar and not looking for change,” Shari flicked the cigarette butt onto the street below, fished a fresh one from the open pack in her handbag, struck a match on the stone railing and steadied her hand to light it. The man was too close for her comfort and his own good.

“Well, I didn’t mean to bother you,” Drew said. “You just seemed like a perfectly nice person, in need of a little company, to me.”

“That’s because you’re too young to know what warning signs to look out for,” Shari smiled wanly and let the smoke stream out in lazy snakes.

“Now you’re just being dramatic.”

“Am I? What do you see when you look at me? I mean, really see.”

“That’s easy, and this may sound cheesy, but you’re a beautiful woman, I mean, beauty beyond compare, who’s probably been alone so long that she’s become lost in her loneliness, someone, I think, who is in desperate need of the right person to pull her from the depths of her despair.”

“And you think you’re that person?”

“I could be.”

“But what if you’re wrong? What if what I actually am is a thing you should not ever invite into your life?”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“I would so destroy you.”

“Challenge accepted.”

Shari took a long last pull on her cigarette, flicked it off the veranda to join its partner, and turned to face the brazen young man. She let out a long, slow breath, and when the smoke cleared, she let this Drew see her for what she was.

Rooted to the spot, confidence beading on his flesh and evaporating like sweat, Drew stared into the pools of obsidian that were Shari’s eyes which were set beneath the veil of willows that was her hair, and those eyes announced very clearly that there were no sweets left to taste in her garden. But it wasn’t only her abyss-eyed stare that rocked him to his core, it was this woman’s entire demeanor which cast such a somber moral hue filled with vice and disease over the patch of paradise that was his soul.

Among her sisters, Shari was considered the black sheep, because she actually felt remorse when feeding, especially when she wasn’t hungry, but this fellow had been well and truly warned, and she had never been the type to back down from a challenge.

Text and Audio ©2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Her First Time

The pocket watch was a pendulum of brilliant gold in the candlelit room. The mechanized ticking reminded Vanessa of raindrops striking a car roof, and all at once she was transported back to her rainy eighteenth birthday, in the back of Jimmy Erler’s old, beat up ’67 Chevy Impala, letting him round all the bases because she foolishly believed he was the one who deserved her much coveted v-card.

For some silly reason, she had recreated the memory of her first time into something clumsy and awkward but romantic and committed herself to the lie so hard and for so long that she actually believed it was true. But under Doc Halley’s hypnosis session, the fairytale facade fell away, and her breathing escalated from jittery pants to an almost animalistic sucking in of air as if she was underwater. Her body was becoming thick and heavy and she heard Jimmy’s sweet nothings whispered in her ears turn into screams for help.

It was then that she realized their heavy petting had been abandoned for her pummelling, clawing, kicking, and biting at her nineteen year old date who had balled up in a fetal position trying to protect himself from her brutal assault. Before the date, Jimmy bragged about his prowess and his ability to bloom her flower. The shame of it was that he didn’t live long enough to see just how right he was.

Text and Audio ©2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

One Hell Of An Offer

Modestine was aware of the gap in her memory, the section of consciousness that was removed and two separate events seamlessly spliced together in a non-jarring, dream jump-cut fashion.

The first partial memory was of Modestine stepping out of the shower. Her petite foot missed the rubberized shower mat by inches and instead slid along the wet tiled floor. Her vision shifted up toward the ceiling and her eyes locked on the one hundred watt energy saving fluorescent light bulb. The next instant, at the point of the splice, she found herself standing inside a pair of pearlescent gates, as patient as the lamb she was in life.

She was dead, of this there was no doubt. There was also no cause for alarm. She had no memory of either fear, pain or the precise moment of her death. That was the portion that was mercifully removed from her awareness, no doubt to aid in her acceptance of events.

Modestine watched the hubbub of nervous yet joyous chatter and a flurry of feathers as angels tested their wings in the air above her. They flew from structure to structure — she hesitated thinking of the impossibly tall spires as buildings because their various shapes defied her limited perceptions of architecture — getting the lay of the land. Though no one told her, she somehow knew this commotion was normal for the first day of new arrivals in heaven.

While she waited, Modestine’s eyes drifted over to an ornate pulpit offset to the right of the gates. This, she assumed, was where the welcoming saint was supposed to have been stationed, but Peter was nowhere in sight. She noticed a few pages had fallen from the ledger on the pulpit, so she spent a little of the time laying the leafs out, deciding the order they should go in, and locating the exact spots in the book they had fallen from.

Finally, an angel arrived, tall and thin with black horn-rimmed eyeglasses he no longer needed. A remnant of his physical life that he clung to, a misconception that it was a permanent part of his appearance. A trapping that would fade in time. This was yet another thing Modestine had known without being told.

The glasses made the angel look bookwormish and out of place in their surroundings. Then she felt guilty for judging his appearance. Who was she to do this? She, who had always been short and mousy in the physical world, what her mother affectionately called the uns — undertall and unassuming. She wondered what she looked like to him and if the same rules of beauty still applied here.

“Hi, I’m Modestine.” she offered a hand and a smile simultaneously.

Bookworm eyed her head to toe and back to head again, before taking her hand for two firm pumps. He opened his mouth and let out a high-pitched screeching noise, intense enough to rock her celestial molars.

Modestine, who graduated magna cum laude in never let ’em see you sweat university, replied, “Pleased to meet you…” and she tried her best to match the noise he made… but came up a little short. A lot short, actually.

Bookworm let out a burst of short laughs like a semi-automatic weapon. “Just messing with you. My name’s Phil. Welcome to Heaven!”

Modestine didn’t really get the joke but smiled anyway. “Are you here to give me the guided tour?” she asked.

“Heavens no,” Phil replied. “That’ll come later, once all this dies down. Saint Peter sends his apologies, by the way…”

“Oh, that’s no problem at all.”

“I’m here to take you to class.”

“Oh, okay.” Modestine followed behind Phil, a little unsteady on her wings, but through sheer determination managed to keep up.

Phil led her past fields of flora and fauna, the likes of which she could never have dreamed existed and finally into a structure that housed a vast amphitheater that was unmistakably set up like a classroom. Packed to capacity, its seats were filled with the most grotesque and vile creatures imaginable.

“Here you are.” Phil gestured in the direction of the amphitheater and was about to fly off.

“Wait! Wait!” Modestine caught his forearm and pulled him down to eye level. “Where do I sit?”

“At the podium, where else?” Even in Heaven, the duh look had a sting.

“What? Why?”

“Don’t tell me no one let you know?” Phil looked at the class with his best can you believe some people look. “You’re a teacher, right? Or were, before, you know…”

Modestine nodded, “Underprivileged kids. Twelve years.”

“Well…” Phil swept his arm in the direction of the class as if to answer.

“Oh, no… no way. I’m not qualified for this. I barely know what I’m doing here.”

“It’ll come to you as you need. Heaven’s cool that way.”

“But, this class…” Modestine whispered. “Not to be rude but what are they?”

“Our version of underprivileged students. They’re bussed in every day.”

“From Hell?”

“We tend not to use that term in front of the students. We call it The Basement.” Phil checked the invisible watch on his bare wrist. “Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve gotta run. Too many new recruits and not enough ushers. You’ll be great. I’ve got a feeling about you.” he smiled and shot into the sky, leaving Modestine’s jaw swinging on its hinges.

The once and now future teacher straightened out her ethereal robe, cleared her throat, turned and faced the class. “Pleased to meet you, class. My name is Modestine. Welcome to Introduction to Heaven.” The name she took off the lesson booklet on the podium. The completely blank lesson booklet. Beside it was the roster. “Hopefully you’re all in your assigned seats because it’s the only way I’m going to learn your names with a class this size.”

Modestine went through the attendance sheet and called her students one by one, each responding with a grunt or bodily noise that she assumed translated as “Present!” When she completed her check, surprisingly every student sat quietly or whispered inaudibly to their neighbor.

“Well, class, as some of you might have figured out, I’m new here, but don’t let that stop you from asking questions. My goal is to teach you everything about heaven, which means I’ll be learning it as you do, and if I don’t know an answer to your question, I’ll do my best to find out as quickly as possible. Today, though, I’m going to outline my expectations of you, and how you’ll be graded.”

The time passed swifter than Modestine had anticipated. Quite frankly she was surprised to be aware of the passing of time at all. For the most part, her students were orderly. A few class clowns, but nothing she couldn’t handle. She’d straighten them out before the course was over.

The entire class watched her closely, she never felt so scrutinized before, and a good deal of the period was spent answering questions about Earth. It wasn’t long before she realized these students were born in Hell and Earth was like some mythical place to them. When the earth questions began dying down, she introduced several icebreaking games before the class broke for recess.

As the class filed out of the amphitheater, some by flight, a few in a puff of eye-watering brimstone, and the rest on cloven feet, one student hung back.

“Miss Modestine,” the young demon said when all the others had left.

“Just Modestine, and, yes… ?” she searched the attendance sheet for the section he came from, hoping one of the names would jog her memory.

The demon shook his head. “You won’t find me on your list. I’m not one of your students.”

“You’re not? Then who… ?”

“Many names have I, from those who live and those who die, but for you, I wish to be known as Mister Thatch.”

Modestine frowned, looking down at this creature who straighten itself in an odd regality. “All right, Mr. Thatch… what is it you want?”

Thatch pulled a file folder from seemingly nowhere and opened it. “Interesting session today. I’m assuming you taught the class off the cuff, as I am unable to identify any of what was discussed in the pre-approved syllabus, correct?”

“As I stated at the beginning of class, this assignment was thrust upon me at the last moment, so if you have any objections…”

“No, please, you mistake my meaning. I’m not here to condemn you, I was simply assessing your performance. It’s what I was hired to do.”

“By whom?”

“Your superiors would call them Basement Management.”

“And do my superiors know you’re here?”

“They should. It would make for a shoddy operation if they didn’t. Now, as to my assessment,” he pulled a document from his folder, stapled in the top left-hand corner. “Here is an offer from my employers for you to teach your course to a larger audience of underprivileged students. Please study it carefully and feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns. Please be aware that agreement to the terms as stipulated in the contract will require you to abandon your post here. Out of curiosity, are you willing to relocate?”

Modestine stared dumbstruck at the professionally worded document in her hands. An immediate and instant “No” rested on the tip of her tongue but never quite made it past her lips, because, in her quick scan, she found a list of perks that tickled each and every one of her many interests, as any temptation worth its salt should have done.

“I’ll need to read this more closely, Mr. Thatch, before I can respond, of course.”

“Of course. I think you’ll find the compensation quite reasonable. If you have questions, you may ask me at any time. We have high expectations and we’re positive you can fulfill them, Miss Modestine.”

“Just Modestine, and why me?”

“You’re new and, as yet, unjaded by the caste system. We look forward to working with you.” Thatch held out a hand, which Modestine took. It was remarkably soft, despite its texture. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”

Modestine watched as the demon simply evaporated from the room. She looked at the contract. Am I willing to relocate? she asked herself as she walked over to her desk, sat and read the agreement more thoroughly. Again, she found it difficult to verbalize the word “No”. Chiefly because she loved working with underprivileged students and they didn’t come more disadvantaged than the denizens of The Basement. The second reason was she’d always preferred warmer climates and there was an odd constant chill to the air in Heaven.

Text and Audio ©2014 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Things Kept Precious

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My mother warned me to guard the things I held precious by keeping them hidden inside me. The only thing I held precious was her and I found it impossible to place her inside my body. I was too young to understand she was talking about love. Too young to save the best parts of my mother’s love in my heart. Too consumed by the hate caused by her leaving me on my own. Too young to accept that death comes to us all.

It was hard to hold onto her love. Hard because I watched her body decay and rot away to nothingness. I watched to see the precious things she kept inside her and where she managed to hide them so I could do the same. I never found them. I watched as I picked vermin from her flesh and fought away carrion from her decaying form, until the day she was unrecognizable to me.

In particular, I watched her heart. Who knew what was inside there but I knew it was fragile because my mother spoke many times about how it had been broken. She said, “Sometimes you have to break a heart to find out how strong it really is.”

But when her heart became visible, I couldn’t see any cracks. I watched it as it bruised like an apple and disintegrated away. Nothing inside it but emptiness. I was hoping to see love—even though I had no idea what love looked like—or at least be privy to some secret that would explain the world to me. I found none of those things.

Her heart was a chamber for maggots. That was what my mother kept precious. Little disgusting creatures that fed off her body. They were everywhere. Stripping my mother of her beauty.

It grew harder to remember her face. I tried to recall the last time I saw her eyes or her smile but that memory was too distant in the past, lost in the forest of forgetfulness.

Occasionally I dreamt of my mother, standing in a room somewhere I had never been but yet felt so familiar to me, her face was a storm. Clouds roiled where features should have been. When she spoke, her voice was a swarm of black bees the drained the life of anything it touched. The bees blotted out the room and ate a pet dog I only had in dreams and never in real life, before coming for me.

I would run from the house and through the trees, down a dirt path that led to a black pond of brackish water. The water called to me and I was torn for the water was frightening, but so too were the bees who devoured trees on their way to eat me.

No real choice at all, I dove into the pond and discovered the water was actually tar and I was being pulled in, just as other creatures foolish enough to make the same mistake, the same fear-based choice as I had.

My nose and mouth filled with hot thick liquid, bitter molasses that scorched my insides, and melted me like butter on the griddle.

I woke alone in the dark, choking for air, my chest weighted with the heaviness of fear. My breathing was a thick, wet noise like someone sloshing through mud — or tar! — and I no longer felt safe in this world, so I did the only thing I could think to do.

I crawled inside the remains of my mother’s body and wrapped her tight around me so that I could be the thing she kept precious.

Text and Audio ©2013 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Of Air Returned

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i.

I burned my soul to ash but the pain paled in comparison to the terror that struck my heart like a match, anticipating her arrival and the tirade she would carry in tow. An unwarranted fear, as she was calm when she saw what I had done. Calm and nurturing. Soothing my pain with herbs and aromas, and each early morning during the hour of the wolf, she laid an ear on my back and listened as my soul mended itself.

She never spoke the words of disappointment aloud but it registered in her eyes. Although residing within my body, this wounded thing, this unwanted soul, did not belong to me. She had laid claim to it many years past, and in my despondency, I had taken liberties with her property and attempted to destroy it. Again.

ii.

The first time, I threw my soul into a sinkhole and allowed the ground to swallow it whole. I made her acquaintance when she plucked it from the soil like a tattered tuber. “I saw what you did,” she said. “And since you would so recklessly toss this precious thing away, it is no longer yours, but mine, agreed?” I nodded and she handed my soul back to me for safe keeping.

I honored our pact for a few years, caring for it within my limited capacity, but during a particularly nasty bout of depression, I tied heavy stones to my soul and pushed it off the sea wall. For a second time, she appeared, fishing my soul from the waves and scolded me, “You are charged with protecting this thing that is mine, do you understand?” Again, I nodded. Again, I lied.

iii.

“Why do you want this worthless soul when it has been crushed by the earth? Why do you want it when it has been drowned in the sea? Why do you want it when it has been set aflame like so much tinder?” I searched long and hard yet found no answer in her silence.

iv.

During the day, when she thought me preoccupied, she secreted herself in the shadows and slept. One day I followed her into the darkness and watched her body twitch from dreaming and listened as she muttered,

One more soul, once buried deep.
One more soul, in ocean steeped.
One more soul, by fire burned.
One more soul, of air returned.

v.

Under her care, my soul grew healthier and it frightened me. I was pitilessly plagued and badgered by the phrase, One more soul, of air returned, that repeated in my mind’s ear until it turned dogged and cacophonous. But she was unaware of my inner torment, in fact, she was in an exceptionally good mood today, her voice almost a song, “I know you don’t see it, but you are a gift, you are. You have no idea just how special.”

vi.

Today was the day. I felt it in my marrow. Something was destined to happen, something I most likely would not survive. I should have embraced this eerie premonition, for it was no secret that I did not want to continue in this manner, broken, detached and alone. But the choice of how and when I departed this wretched life was mine to make and mine alone. So, I stalled by distracting her with trivialities. “May I have more broth? Have you seen my shoes? No, not that pair, the other ones? Can we go for a walk?” If she knew my plan, her expression never showed sign. No request was too large or small on this day. She granted them all.

vii.

We strolled along the pathway in the park that led to the duck pond, a place we visited often during my convalescence. Picked, naturally, as not to arouse suspicion as I searched for the proper diversion in order to make my escape. But I was so wrapped in my own thoughts, I failed to notice that she was walking slower than usual today. “Can we rest a moment?” she asked as we neared the benches. “I am a little short of breath.”

Her breathing became a labored and raspy thing before it hitched and became lodged in her throat. When her face went dusky blue and she slid off the park bench, I panicked. The opportunity had presented itself and there I stood like an idiot, frozen. Entangled in the decision of whose life to save, or more accurately, whose death I could live with.

There was no real choice.

viii.

Her breathing was a trembling, liquid sound as I pressed my mouth to hers and exhaled, but instead of me breathing air into her body, I felt her sucking air from my lungs, and not just air…

I tried desperately to pull away but her thin, vise-like hands clamped down on the nape of my neck and held me firm in a kiss that was collapsing me. My hold on life became dim and futile, but before I slipped away into emptiness, I noticed the oddest thing: her belly began to swell.

Every fiber of my actuality was drawn into her, and my soul, the object I had forever been so reckless with, was systematically being stripped of concern, of negativity, of identity. I fell further and further into a darkness that pressed on me from all sides. So tight, so constricted. I was still unable to breathe but the sensation was somehow different now.

At the very moment when it seemed the darkness was about to claim me for eternity, there came a burst of light so bright as to cut my eyes. Thankfully something soon blotted out the light – a face, slowly coming into focus but I knew her before I saw her. From the moment I heard her soft cooing, “You are a gift, you are. You have no idea just how special.”

Mother.

Text and Audio ©1988 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

About Of Air Returned: Delusion can be a scary thing, but it can also be wonderful at the same time. This piece was written in the early part of 1988, during a period when I swore I could do no wrong—it’s fine, you can laugh, I’ll just cringe quietly in the corner. I was heavily into both science and speculative fiction and had recently rediscovered the works of The Brothers Grimm, so I was determined to create my own collection of fairy tales for the—then—modern age.

Applying fairy tale rules, I could introduce the fantastic or the bizarre into any story with little or no explanation, and have all the characters in the tales accept everything as normal. Wishes as deus ex machina. Love as the ultimate cure-all. All the good stuff without all the fuss. Genius, right?

It would take the better part of six months for me to discover I wasn’t the groundbreaker I imagined myself to be. On the plus side, I followed my then idol, Harlan Ellison’s advice and was able to churn one of these puppies out a day.

Of course, most of them are unreadable. This one teeters on the edge. I kinda like it and it kinda embarrasses the hell out of me, but it was one of the three Rhyan Realm tales–yeah, I created my own sub-genre name for them, what of it?–that actually saw print… after 10-some-odd rejections.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss a few minutes goodbye.

Qomal

The following is an excerpt from a police interview with Imogen Debenham conducted by Detective Sergeant Ellis Oxley on 14 March 2019:

DS Oxley: Do you have any idea why you’re here?

Debenham: Your sniffer dogs…

DS Oxley: Cadaver dogs.

Debenham: Made sure to get that little detail in, didn’t you? All right, your cadaver dogs found something in my rose garden.

DS Oxley: The investigators unearthed a box…

Debenham: Made of four-inch thick cedar planks. It measured 1.143 meters long by .381 meters wide.

DS Oxley: How do you know the precise measurements of the box, Miss Debenham?

Debenham: Call me Imogen, and I know the measurements because I built the box, as you call it, with my own hands.

DS Oxley: And what would you call the box, Imogen?

Debenham: We both know what it is, don’t we? It’s a coffin that I buried just shy of 23 years ago, which makes me wonder why now? What sort of tip could you have received 23 years after the fact and from which of my neighbors?

DS Oxley: That isn’t relevant at the moment, Imogen…

Debenham: Then what is relevant?

DS Oxley: We found remains inside the coffin, which included bones.

Debenham: It’s interesting the details you leave out.

DS Oxley: What do you mean?

Debenham: What type of bones did you find? Animal? Human?

DS Oxley: I’m not at liberty…

Debenham: Detective Sergeant, I intend to cooperate fully with your investigation. I have agreed to this interview without a solicitor, and will answer any question put to me truthfully, provided that there exists a level playing field of honesty between us.

DS Oxley: A quid pro quo situation?

Debenham: Always been a fan of the Thomas Harris novels, I have. So, let’s look at the facts, shall we? You’ve found remains on my property, and although you suspect foul play, I have not been formally charged. So, what type of remains have you found?

DS Oxley: (clears throat) Our forensic team have determined that the bones are not quite human, but they bear certain similarities.

Debenham: Here is where we run into a bit of difficulty.

DS Oxley: How so?

Debenham: I can tell you exactly what they are, the remains, but you won’t believe me.

DS Oxley: You have no idea what I’d believe. I’ve come across things in my line of work that would make a madman’s head spin. So, let’s have it, then.

Debenham: You wouldn’t think to look at me now, but when I was younger, I caught the eye of every man I came across, and I enjoyed the fruits of my beauty and pursued all manner of pleasure with reckless abandon.

DS Oxley: What does this have to do with anything?

Debenham: I was careless. I became pregnant. No idea who the father was, and out of all the men who claimed to love me, who’d do anything for me, only one stepped up to take responsibility. He was a kind man, not the sort I was usually attracted to, but he was attentive and saw me through the pregnancy…

DS Oxley: Imogen…

Debenham: It was a stillbirth.

DS Oxley: I’m…sorry for your loss.

Debenham: The funny thing was I hadn’t planned on keeping the baby. After it was born, I was going to put it up for adoption, and let the kind gentleman and myself off the hook, because I wanted to return to my lifestyle, only a little bit wiser as not to repeat this mistake. But, as soon as I saw the lifeless body of my newborn, I became inconsolable.

DS Oxley: The remains we found were not consistent with that of a newborn child.

Debenham: Of course not. My biological son, it was a boy, in case I hadn’t mentioned, was offered to a family who excelled in the care and raising of dead children, and in exchange, I was given Qomal.

DS Oxley: I need to stop you there, Imogen. Are you saying this family raised your son from the dead?

Debenham: Don’t be absurd. The family was from a race of the embalmed dead, who would embalm my boy and care for him as only they could. They were in a similar situation with a living being on their hands, with no means to care for it.

DS Oxley: So you swapped a dead baby for a living one?

Debenham: I swapped my son for Qomal. So much like a child. All it ever needed was a cup of milk with a few drops of my blood in it every morning, some toys to play with, and sweets and biscuits to eat. To keep the contract intact, all that was required was lighting a black candle every night, burn some incense, and recite a mantra.

DS Oxley: What sort of contract?

Debenham: A Qomal isn’t forever. They’re meant to help you through the grieving process for the loss of a child. It’s like a toddler, you see, except its skin has a greenish hue, its eyes are red and clouded, its ears are pointed, and it has rows of sharp teeth. But while it was alive, I saw none of this, because I was its mother and only viewed my Qomal through the eyes of love.

DS Oxley: And when the contract expires…?

Debenham: You mean when my grief was manageable? The Qomal grows weak, calcifies and dies.

DS Oxley: How did you know to do all this? Making the exchange, observing the terms of a contract?

Debenham: I didn’t. It was my kind gentleman who introduced this world to me.

DS Oxley: What is his name?

Debenham: That I will not tell you. I made him a promise and I intend to honor it.

DS Oxley: Are you two still together?

Debenham: No, we parted ways when Qomal died.

DS Oxley: Why?

Debenham: I was meant to cremate Qomal, place the ashes in an urn and bury it beneath a flower bed, but I couldn’t bring myself to burn something I loved, something that helped ease my pain and nurse me back to sanity. The gentleman said there would be consequences, and I have waited 23 years for them to arrive.

At this point in the interview, loud scratching noises can be heard on the recording, as well as the sound of footsteps and a door being opened, followed by the guttural snarls of an unspecified animal.

DS Oxley: Holy Mother of Jesus!

Debenham: My baby?

The recording concludes with the sounds of screaming amidst a great commotion.

The current whereabouts of Detective Sergeant Ellis Oxley and Imogen Debenham have yet to be determined.

Text and Audio ©2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

The Crush

Lolsy never believed in infatuation at first sight. To her, attraction had always been a mental process. Physical beauty was a temporary thing, a pretty wrapping that often disguised an ugly package. Then she met Marleton, a new hire at work, who, at first glance, awakened an inner poet she never knew existed.

To her, this man was that magical type of handsome that seeped into the marrow of her bones, that drew her into the depth of his eyes, which would have been beautiful in any shade, with the siren song of his gentle voice. When he spoke her name, her mask slipped, the one she wore to keep the world at bay, her heartbeat quickened, and she became lost in lurid fantasies of how she would please his body all over the conference room, on the floor, the chairs, on top off the table, all while her coworkers watched with envy.

She caught herself locking eyes with him constantly, where he would smile and patiently wait for her to initiate conversation, but her vapor-locked brain turned her mute, forcing her to turn away in embarrassment. At night, she pondered how she could have fallen head over heels for an absolute stranger who was eight years her junior? She had never been interested in younger men before and sincerely doubted they would have had anything in common, so she made it her business to avoid him, but the office was too small for that to work effectively, and all it took was for him to laugh at her weak attempts at humor to be sucked into fantasies about having him on the copier machine, in the break room, in the elevator, and in the parking lot, on top of the cars, again, so all her coworkers could bubble over with jealousy.

And she knew the sex would be spectacular because she was an Aries and he was a Sagittarius, and everyone knew that Aries was ruled by Mars, that red hot passion planet, and Sagittarius was ruled by Jupiter, the planet of philosophy and luck. Their signs tended to look at the world in the same way, and his Sagittarius liked to take risks under Jupiter’s indulgent influence, and her Mars was all about initiative, and taking aggressive action. So, why then was she stalling? If she simply took what belonged to her, she knew he would be ready and willing to go along for the ride.

And that was all it took. Lolsy made her mind up to pop the latches on her restraint, as she damned the torpedoes, and went full steam ahead. The following day at work, she marched up to Marleton and told, not asked, but told him that they were going out on a date, and as she suspected, he offered absolutely no resistance with anything she planned for their night together.

When they met at the restaurant, Marleton arrived in casual wear, while Lolsy dressed up sexier than sexy, because she wanted to make her intentions clear. You don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. This man was going to have to step up his game. She was going to burst onto the scene like a crossfire hurricane, and run him through his paces, and make him feel the way he made her feel from the very start.

All that changed the moment he greeted her and pulled out her chair at the table. Her bravado evaporated, making way for sweet happiness, as they talked and flirted their way through the meal. The chemistry between them was undeniable, and they effortlessly progressed from laughter to kisses, to sweet whispered exchanges, to an Uber ride back to his apartment.

The time for pretense had long passed, so they went straight from the front door to the bedroom. In his presence, in this place, all Lolsy’s foolish notions of being in control melted away. The nearness of Marleton, filled her nose with a scent that let her know instantly that he was her drug. His arms wrapped around her back and in one gentle pull, their lips touched and his tongue probed her mouth and she was intoxicated in an instant.

“Whatever you want, you can have,” Lolsy said, trying her damnedest to focus on getting the words out clearly through the heady trance he put her under. “There isn’t a thing I can do to stop you, and I don’t want to stop you.”

With a laugh, Marleton lifted Lolsy off her feet, carried her to the bed, and set her down gently onto the mattress. He stripped her expertly, gingerly, before disrobing himself, and climbing in the bed beside her. His fingers combed through the softness of her hair, before moving along her cheek, down to her neck, and every inch of skin he brushed, his lips blessed that area with a kiss that sent electricity through her body. He went down one side, and came up the other, and when they were face to face, they locked eyes. He silently asked for consent and she granted it gladly with a nod. Then he was all business, moving atop her, slotting their bodies together as if they were missing pieces of a puzzle that had finally become whole.

They engaged in amorous congress for hours that seemed like days that seemed like years. When all was finally said and done, a weak and breathless Lolsy smiled and said, “I knew it would be like this.”

“You did?”

Lolsy nodded, “Of course. You’re a Sagittarius.”

“Far more than that, I’m afraid,” Marleton chuckled. “I’m also an incubus.”

Off her confused expression, Marleton explained that he was a demon, of sorts, who engaged in sexual activity with women in order to prolong his life. If she understood, or objected, he could not be sure, for Lolsy was too feeble by this point to effectively communicate, but although a demon, he was not a monster. He made her as comfortable as he could manage, as he drained her of every iota of her life force.

Text and Audio ©2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys