theosofiction

Short fiction by KECG.

A Trip Upstate

A Trip Upstate

by KECG

Jane didn’t like feeling weak. Killing made her feel like she wasn’t, and that was probably part of it.

It was almost dawn, or felt like it, but it was dark. The pastel sidewalk seemed to be threatening her. It felt like it was about to close up, snap shut on her like a mousetrap.

Jane?” someone said. The pistol in her hand aimed at the voice, and her eyes followed.

Yeah?” she said. She still wasn’t sure who’d called her name.

Is that you?” There was a man in a big shiny car the color of Jordan almonds.

From the way the colors shifted, dancing, undulating like a bucket filled with water-color maggots, she figured the colors were probably in her head.

Jane?” the man said again.

Yeah?” She looked past the pistol in her hand and at the man’s face. He was skinny and pale, and oddly like a baby stretched out and molded into the shape of a man.

Do you remember me?” he asked. He had an accent. Spanish, she thought, but that wasn’t right at all. She’d met him in Spain.

Peter?”

Pyotr, but yes…. You carry your weapons out in the open. Don’t the police have questions?”

She looked at the pistol she had in one hand and the long knife she carried in the other. Maybe she’d been hunting someone. “When you’re up front about you’re intentions, people just take one look at you before they look away. It’s kinda like bein’ invisible.”

I believe I understand,” Pyotr said. He smiled, displaying his tar-stained teeth.

Is this your car?” Jane asked.

Yes. I just bought it–”

What color is it?”

Black…. Isn’t it?”

You gimme a ride?”

Of course,” he said.

She started around to the passenger side. The angel on the hood seemed to do a pirouette, but it wasn’t feeling dancy anymore when she looked at it straight. The headlights reflected off her knife and felt like they were cutting a gash in her cheek. She loaded her weapons into her shoulder-bag.

He popped the door for her and she climbed in.

Where to?” he asked.

I’m not sure how to get there,” she said, “but it’s a ways.”

I have nowhere to be. And I’m sure we can ask for directions.”

I wanna see somebody in Bedford Hills,” she said.

He pulled out, and Jane sank back into the seat cushions.

She rifled in her bag. His eyes were on her. She could feel them. But when she looked over he was staring at the taillights ahead.

She found her canteen under her weapons and the change of underwear she kept in case of pregnancy-related-leakage. She took a swig before passing it over to Pyotr.

Coke?” he asked, holding it up to his nose.

I’m a Pepsi girl. But it’s spiked,” she said. The Canteen froze against his lip.

Bourbon?” he asked, his eyes flashing briefly to her ever more globular stomach.

Acid,” she said. “A girl I talked to said it’ll jus’ make the kid smarter, and it helps me get my head right.”

Alright,” he said and took a swig. It seemed he was just being polite.

At some point she told him where they were going. After a half dozen doughnuts, a long ride through the pines, a quick stop at a filthy service station restroom, and more pines, they rolled to a stop outside a women’s penitentiary, the same red-brick nightmare that housed Clark and Boudin.

I should stay here?” Pyotr asked.

Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that,” she said, climbing out. “I don’t have cab-fare back. If you split, I’ll be pissed.”

I will wait,” he said. He grabbed a fat book from the back seat. “I have been reading Garden of Lies, a very interesting drama–”

You can tell me about it when I get back.” Jane left her shoulder bag in the car and headed in. If he did abandon her there, she’d be really pissed.

It was about eight in the morning, and the assholes-behind-glass told her visiting hours didn’t start til nine. That gave her plenty of time to fill out paper work, to have a paper-pusher-asshole tell her he couldn’t read her scrawl, and for that same asshole to make assumptions about her diminished capacity and send out a caregiver to help her make her mark.

She was still early. She spent twenty minutes sitting in the waiting room, sipping on a regular Pepsi from the vending machine, and trying not to look at the other sad people waiting there with her. With the exception of a very old man whose spine was bent like a pulled bow, the rest of the visitors were all women. She’d figured there’d be a few husbands or boyfriends, but maybe it was always like that.

With some time away from her medicine, the ceiling was starting to feel like a ceiling and the floor like the floor. The walls were standing up straight, and they weren’t even saying anything.

There was a loud buzz, and Jane only half-thought there was a wasp in her ear.

A big woman in a guard-suit stepped through a barred door on one side of the room. She had a body like a giant midget, and a face that made Jane think of the Queen of Hearts in the Disney rendition. Her beady eyes scanned the room, pausing for an uncomfortable time on Jane.

Single file,” the woman said.

Jane queued up. A blue eye-shadowed hussy in front of her smelled like the hind quarters of a deer, while the walking egg behind her smelled not unpleasantly of spice drops.

By the time Jane single-filed through the door and the halls beyond, she’d grown tired of the spice drops and felt like vomiting. That might just have been nerves.

They entered a big room that reminded Jane of a thousand high-school lunches and all the high-school heartbreak that came with them.

The hairs raised on the back of her neck. She scanned the room, winnowed people with hollow eyes sitting at long steel tables. A pregnant woman in orange soon to lose her kid. Jane wondered if they’d let her see it first.

Toneequa,” a voice said.

The broken old man was sitting with a girl who looked like she should have been in kiddy-prison.

Toneequa,” the familiar voice said again.

Miss.” It was the Queen of Hearts talking to her. Her voice was oddly soothing. “That one’s waving at you.”

Jane’s eyes followed the guard’s finger to a wiry black chick seated at one of the lunch room tables. Abi had stopped waving by the time Jane saw her. The orange looked good on her.

Thanks,” Jane said. She strolled over and flopped down on the bench.

Hey,” Abi said. “I didn’t think I knew any Toneequa Carmarthens— You pick that name?”

…Jus’ what the papers-guy sold me,” Jane said.

…Are you high?” Abi asked.

Jane thought at first it must have shown in her eyes, but then she realized Abi was sitting upright and it was her that was leaning.

It’s waning,” Jane said.

And pregnant?”

I would’a kept up with NA if I wanted to get preached at– And it’s just acid,” Jane added.

Oh… I guess that’s different…. Your boyfriend waiting for you outside?”

What— Pyotr’s not my boyfriend!”

…Who?” Abi said.

…I dunno. I brought twenty bucks in ones with me, for candy, or somethin’.” Jane pulled out the envelope the front-desk-guy had packed up and sealed. She slid it across the table.

I don’t need your money–”

Don’t be a cunt.”

Jane. Why’d you come see me— And, did you drop acid and then decide to come see me? Or you needed somethin’ to see you through once you’d decided to come see me?” She seemed to be smiling under her jaded convict death mask.

It’s not all about you, Abi. I just haven’t been right lately.”

Since when?” Abi asked, really smiling now.

Did Olena tell you…? My boyfriend dumped me.”

You shoot him?”

I’m not that petty,” Jane said. She tried to indignantly cross her arms, but she found her belly got in the way. She settled for resting her elbows on the steel table.

I meant, did you shoot him and that’s why he left you,” Abi said.

…I don’t think he would’a left over something like that.”

Maybe not,” Abi said. “Why’d he leave then?”

Dunno,” Jane said. She felt tears welling and dug her nails into her palms. “…How you finding the convict lifestyle?”

I ever tell you about Hilaria?”

Not so much,” Jane said. “She one of your crew?”

I guess you split town just after I met her. We wrote letters back and forth for a while.”

She your pen-pal?” It was Jane’s turn to smile, but Abi was smiling too and in an oddly friendly way.

Sorta. She’d write long letters, and I’d write back a few words. I don’t think I’d held a pen in years before we started writing.”

The past-tense mean she’s dead?” Jane asked.

No. Jesus, Jane…. She’s getting transferred. She’ll be here next week.”

…I’m glad for you. You know if she’s gonna be in your cell-block, or whatever?”

Don’t know yet, but we’ll get to chat in the yard anyway.”

That’s nice.”

Jane. Why’d you come here?”

I thought, we’re friends,” Jane said. “We are right?”

I guess so… yeah. We are,” Abi said. “That’s it?”

You’re still religious, yeah?”

…Yes?”

I’ve been thinking. A few years ago, my boyfriend and me were riding in a little wooden box on a hop over to Tangiers—”

This is when you blew town?”

Yeah,” Jane said. “So, it was a long flight, and I found out I get plane sick, and I was thinking about what I was doing with my life. I was thinking about all the people I’d killed. And right then I was able to count them down, one by one. I remember every little bit, how their blood felt on my face, the warm empty feeling in my belly. I remembered everything.”

I’m not a priest, but, sometimes talking about what you’ve done makes you feel better.”

You’re not hearing me!” Jane yelled. The giant-midget-guard-woman glared at her. “You’re not hearing me,” Jane whispered.

Then say what you’re saying!” Abi yelled. The guard glared harder.

I can’t remember anymore.”

…What you were saying?”

The dead people,” Jane said. “I can’t count ’em anymore.”

I don’t think that has much to do with religion,” Abi said. Jane watched her shifting in her seat. Though that was amusing, she hadn’t meant to make her squirm.

…It’s nice seeing you, Abi.”

Yeah,” Abi said.

You ever wanna bust out, gimme a call.”

Abi looked back and forth, but anybody in ear-shot was involved in their own drama. “I’m better off here.”

Jane stood up. There was a fraction of a moment that seemed to last forever. Jane hung there, half off her seat. She watched alien flowers growing from Abi’s eyes.

Jane.” Abi was staring at her.

Yeah,” Jane said.

It was actually fun seeing you…. If you find yourself in these parts, drop by. I’ll try’n be nicer next time.”

Fuck that,” Jane said, giving her a wave.

Jane.”

I meant, you don’t gotta be nicer on my account. I’ll drop by again sometime.”

Jane,” Abi said.

…Yeah?”

Bein’ a mom’s really nice…. Jus’ seeing the kid’s face can make you really, really happy.”

I’m not gonna name it after you,” Jane said. Abi’s face went slack, and it was that stunned, dumb expression that stuck in Jane’s head as she headed out.

She traversed another bureaucratic hedge-maze on her way back to the parking lot.

Pyotr was still there, and his Rolls looked the black he’d claimed it to be.

Hey,” she said, hopping in.

It seemed he’d dozed off, and he woke up hard. “Chto yebut!?” he said. He stared at her for about a second before he seemed to realize where he was. “Jane. You know, the police cast swords at me with their eyes, many times while you were inside. I have international warrants.” He didn’t seem peeved, really, more like he was bragging.

Well. I’m back now,” she said. She rifled in her bag and found her canteen. The Pepsi was warm. She passed it to Pyotr again.

This time he didn’t hesitate. She watched his Adam’s apple bounce. This time it wasn’t politeness. It seemed like he was saying fuck it with every swig.

He handed it back to her. “I’m sorry, for complaining.”

It’s your car, you can bitch all you want,” she said.

Pyotr stared at her. Then he smiled, displaying a set of gleaming green teeth. His laugh sounded like the torn wrapping paper her mom used to ball up on Christmas morning. “Have you had waffles?” he asked.

Today?”

I had waffles once in Finland. The Finnish variety are crispy, but the American waffle is so soft and tender, and very good topped with butter and syrup.”

Yeah, waffles are okay.”

I am suggesting we might get breakfast, on the way home.”

If you’re paying,” Jane said. “I gave all my cash to the girl inside.”

You are strangely kind.”

I’m not gonna fuck you.”

As he turned the key, and the engine purred, his smile turned slightly more businesslike. “Of course,” he said.

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Leaving Bethsaida

Leaving Bethsaida

by KECG

Pete felt like there was sand between his femurs and tibias, like there were ice-picks, many of them, stabbed into his knee-caps. But he had to keep climbing. Death was nipping at his heels. A death he’d earned through inaction and weakness. A death he deserved. But he wasn’t ready for it yet.

Please,” he said, climbing step after step. He was speaking to himself, he thought. Who else would he be talking to? God maybe? He hoped not.

The door opened in front of him. He turned the knob. The sunlight seared his eyes. He’d made it to the roof. That meant there was nowhere else to run.

Hello,” a boy said. He stood on the black tar rooftop wearing a pair of very white briefs and nothing else. His underwear was as far from his skin-tone as it could possibly be.

Peter,” Pete said, “Peter Simon Caiazzo.” He wasn’t sure why he’d given his full name.

Dumuzid,” the boy said. He looked to be five or six and, even so, was scrawny for his age. “My mothers named me for the Shepherd and for the Fisherman and for the consort of the queens of heaven.”

That sounds complicated,” Pete said. “You should probably hide someplace.”

Pete looked around; except for the door he’d come through, and the stairwell box around it, the roof was a roof. His eyes locked on to the one odd feature.

He checked his inner calender. It was July. Halloween was a long way off but there were a pair of skeletons laid out bone by bone, in perfect order so far as his high-school anatomy had stuck with him. They were laid out on the tar and gravel next to a tiny suit.

My mothers,” Dumuzid said. “I am allowing the sun to bleach their bones as it dries my clothing.”

Oh,” Pete said. “…There’s a guy after me. You should probably… run.”

Will you sell it to me?”

What?” Pete said.

Dumuzid walked forward. He held out his closed hand. Pete held out his open palm.

Dumuzid opened his fist, and a buffalo nickle dropped into Pete’s hand.

Okay,” Pete said.

Dumuzid smiled. It wasn’t a normal smile for a little kid, more like the smile you’d find on a sixty-year-old woman at a wake for her grandson.

You should come here,” Dumuzid said. “Crouch behind me and my mothers.”

What?” Pete said as he heard footsteps coming from the stairs behind him.

Here,” Dumuzid said, pointing at the tar behind him. “Crouch here, and pray.”

…I don’t know how.”

My mothers are here in front of you. Kneel. Pray. And I will save you.”

The footsteps were louder in Pete’s ears. He walked around the little kid, and dropped down to his knees.

Good,” the boy said, placing a hand on Pete’s shoulder. “Close your eyes.”

Pete did as he was told. He didn’t want to see death coming anyway.

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai…” a man said. It was Shani. The man who was hunting him.

Eloheinu Adonai Ehad,” Dumuzid said.

Pete was Itai. What he figured was probably Hebe might as well have been Greek.

Pete opened his eyes a crack.

Dumuzid knelt down and dragged his finger tip across the asphalt roof. “I draw a line you will not cross.”

The dark pits of Shani’s eyes stared at him. His arms seemed to relax, and the Uzis he held dropped down to his sides.

I need to talk with your father,” Dumuzid said. “But first I need to get dressed and pack up my mothers.”

Shani nodded.

Heading downstairs was less tiring than the trek up had been, but Pete’s knees still hurt.

Dumuzid was now clad in the Sunday-suit he’d been drying on the roof and carrying a worn duffel packed with bones.

As they hit the sidewalk, Pete considered pressing the kid further on the skeletons, but then Shani opened the door of his big black Olds.

Dumuzid waited for Pete to climb in, and Pete did, reluctantly. Dumuzid climbed in after him, followed by Shani.

They rode through the busy city streets in silence.

What’s this?” Levi said, as Dumuzid opened the big oak door to his office.

Levi was an old man now, with a lot of gray in his beard, but when his beard had been as midnight black as his son Shani’s, he’d been a heavy-hitter, a man even Pete’s dad had been shy to piss off.

Hello, Mr. Siskin,” Dumuzid said.

Levi, please.”

Pete followed Dumuzid through the door, and Shani closed it behind them.

Shani,” Levi said. “Did I ask you to bring him here? Cuz I was sure I asked you to aerate his liver.”

Shani stared at him.

That’s what I thought,” Levi said. He turned to Dumuzid, casting him a toothy smile. “Who might you be, young man?”

Dumuzid,” he said. And then he just stood there, smiling with his mouth. He didn’t seem to be blinking.

Do you have candies you’d like for me to buy?” Levi asked. “Or possibly there’s a charity, or a school fundraiser. I like lookin’ the soft touch to the urban youths.”

I have come about a debt,” Dumuzid said.

…Even if it feels like the world owes you one, it doesn’t mean I’ve gotta pay it.”

No, the debt is mine,” Dumuzid said. His cold eyes and carved smile turned to Pete. “How much is it?”

Seventy-two grand,” Pete said, “I mean….” That was how much he owed, but he had no idea what number the kid was looking for.

Seventy-two thousand,” Dumuzid said, “and I would assume a few weeks of juice.”

Peter,” Levi said. Pete shivered. “Peter. Do you plan to sell me this child? He might be cute, I guess, but even a blue-eyed little aryan wouldn’t be worth seventy-two and change.”

I didn’t,” Pete said.

You misunderstand, Sir,” Dumuzid said. “I have purchased this man’s debt.”

…I don’t think you get how that works,” Levi said.

I have purchased Pete’s debt. Now it’s me who owes you.”

Dumuzid stared into Levi’s eyes, and Levi stared back.

I’m sorry,” Pete said.

You apologize now?” Levi said. “I told you I couldn’t play favorites. I told you you can’t buy loyalty. Your father would have killed those shits–”

I’m sorry for running. I thought I’d be ready. I wasn’t.”

Nobody’s ever ready, Peter.”

I’m ready now. You’ll let the kid go, right?”

Of course,” Levi said.

Dumuzid held up his hand.

What is it, kid?” Levi said.

This man is under my protection. I will even protect him from himself.”

So,” Levi said, looking at Pete again. “Is this the product of you and that sweetheart in Fordam?”

We broke up,” Pete said.

Well, if you have a son…” Levi said. “I don’t like making orphans, neither do you, right, Shani?”

Shani stared at him, mumbling words under his breath.

Can you make the vig next week?” Levi asked.

I….” Pete really wasn’t sure.

How much do I need to pay?” Dumuzid said.

…We agreed on five,” Levi said.

You will have it,” Dumuzid said.

Shani took a seat, turning his dead eyes toward the window, and Levi swatted his hand at the door.

Pete seized the opportunity. He grabbed Dumuzid’s tiny little hand and dragged him out of the office, down a narrow staircase, and out through the back door of the Double Quick Laundry.

You hungry?” Pete asked.

I don’t eat meat,” Dumuzid said.

Of course you don’t.”

A week was a long time. Pete started to imagine the schemes, the capers, the business ventures he might get up to with all those hours. He was smiling.

Joy and sadness are similar in multiple ways,” Dumuzid said. “First, they are both internal. Esoteric in that they may only be described as similar to things but may not be understood without experience. Second, they are both harmful, as action taken while under the influence of kleshas is unpredictable. Lastly, both joy and sadness are stones laid in the road to heaven.”

His smile softened for a moment as he glanced up at something over his shoulder. He nodded before returning his unblinking stare to Pete.

…You ever eat at Tino’s?” Pete asked. “They make a sauce with no meat, for people with diabetes. That sound okay?”

That sounds nice,” Dumuzid said.

Friend of My Friend

Friend of My Friend

by KECG

Olena was almost home. The sun had been up for hours, and she’d had a long night. The nail from her middle finger was still imbedded in the face of a dead man across town, and she found it impossible to stop her tongue from exploring her newly broken molar.

The home she shared with Pashtana was located in the very center of the largest of her city’s cardboard villages. She was only a quarter-mile away, but, climbing through the rusted skeletons of abandoned warehouses and weaving between soiled army surplus tents and houses made from the cardboard boxes that once contained brand-new TVs and microwaves, it was slow going.

She felt her city come to life at once. Most of the panhandlers had already left for work, and the addicts usually slept in the daylight.

From the ordered purpose of the quiet footsteps padding through the muddy streets, it had to be her people, driven out of their tents and cardboard houses, taking formation as they charged toward some unknown target. It was the same target that turned Olena’s tired steps to a run and made her draw the carpet knife from her pocket and the .38 from her belt.

A girl appeared beside her, her face painted in the same shiny medieval hues as Olena’s. Wendy must have just returned from work as well.

What is it?” Wendy asked in Russian. She’d grown up in Cincinnati, but Wendy had taken to Olena’s language like a cat to fresh cream.

Wendy’s question didn’t need answering. As they reached the end of the winding dirt alley, entering a small town square, they found a few dozen of their allies had arrived ahead of them. Their brothers and sisters were gathered, armed to a one. They held knives and pistols, hatchets and pipes. Olena noticed two long swords, the matte silver-gray of high-carbon steel. Ketevan was holding them like a pair of cattle-prods. Olena wondered where she’d found them.

They were staring at a man who stood in the center of the square. He had shiny black hair, pale skin like a goi cuon wrapper draped over his bones, and a smile on his lips a pretty girl might trust. Olena knew him well, but she wasn’t happy to see him.

Who’s this?” a girl said. She was one of the new recruits. Wendy had found her bloodied and asleep in a dumpster. In the months since, she’d developed some skill with the hatchet she held in her hand.

Dunno,” said a young man. Olena had hesitated at taking men into their group. The idea of raising the children that would inevitably result from a loosely regimented troop of mixed gender set Olena teeth on edge, but Pashtana had convinced her to allow in the occasional man who shared their cause.

Who’re you?” the girl asked, flipping the hatchet in her hand and glaring her best glare at the man at the center of their group.

Po-russki?” the man said. His name was Pyotr, and Olena knew he spoke more English than she did.

Da,” Ketevan said. Her face was still painted like Olena’s and Wendy’s. The ridged black lines and plates of deep red, green, and blue, slid over her strong Cossack brow as she grimaced. “What is your business in our holy forest?”

Don’ go killin’ folks in Tom’s house!” Maggy yelled, her wrinkled face appearing from the entrance of a news-paper tent. “Even Tom can get pissed now and then.”

He is armed,” Wendy said, in perfect Central Russian.

Pyotr’s smile shifted. “Only for self-protection,” he said. He was probably curious where a black-girl from Cincinnati had picked up his dialect.

Ketevan knocked the blades of her swords together with a bell-clang. “Should we kill this man, Olena?”

No,” Olena said.

Pyotr turned in place. He’d been focused on the threats nearest to him, but now his eyes locked onto Olena’s, and he seemed to recognize her beneath the face paint. He looked older than she remembered him.

Lenya?” he said. He lunged forward, brushing aside a machete that lazily swung at his scalp.

Olena took a step back, but he’d always been quicker than her. Her spine cracked as he pulled her close.

Giving their hug the length of one breath, she pushed him back. Her people were staring at her.

Come.” Olena gave Wendy a nod and started across the square with the eyes of her subordinates burning her skin.

She was very close to home now. The excitement had driven away her weariness for while, and the remaining alleyways drifted by.

This is my home,” Olena said.

Pyotr’s head turned from side to side as he scanned their surroundings. Olena pointed ahead at a very-off-white tarp strung over the gap between the carcases of an Econoline and a Beetle. It was a slightly grander house than most in that neighborhood.

That is Tom’s house,” she said, pointing at an old surplus-tent pitched next to hers. “Tom spends Mondays meditating on the wonder of creation, so we must speak quietly.”

This is your place?” Pyotr asked.

Yes,” Olena said, holding open the flap for him.

The interior glowed with the golden color of sunlight through off-white tarp, which was good, because Olena was pretty sure they were out of kerosene for the lantern.

As Pyotr took a seat on one side of the milk-crate dining table, Olena pulled a suitcase from under a pile of OD-green blankets. She dragged out a bottle of Block-Print Vodka, soaked a tattered piece of T-shirt, and started to clean the paint from her face.

Can I ask about the face-paint?” Pyotr said.

No,” she said, but, even if Pyotr was a prick, and she would have preferred for him to have at least called ahead, she realized she was being a poor host.

She put two fingers of the cheap American vodka in each of a pair of semi-clean jam-jars.

Drink,” she said, “and explain why you are here.”

You’re about as pleasant as I remember,” He said downing it in a gulp. “Did I do something you’re still mad about and I don’t remember?”

Many things, I’m sure,” she said, draining her own glass before refilling them again. “How did you find me?”

A girl named Jane,” Pyotr said.

Jane?”

We met in Barcelona. Don’t you know her?” he asked.

Barcelona, as in Barcelona, Spain?”

Yes. I ran my business there for a few years.”

And you met Jane, while in Barcelona? This is the Jane associated with the Masked Killer?”

I never heard her call him that, and isn’t it more like a veil? They aren’t your friends.”

I would not describe them as such,” Olena said. “We have a treaty of non-interference. How did you meet?”

You seem curious.”

Not particularly,” she said.

…You want to hear how we met?” Pyotr asked.

Olena refilled their glasses.

. . .

Nearly a year before and almost 4000 miles away, Jane woke up with a breath caught in her throat. She coughed and blood came up, but rather than staining her pale skin red, it just added to the red-brown that was already coating her.

She tried hard to remember where she was. It felt like maybe she hadn’t been breathing for a while and the oxygen was only now finding its way to the back of her brain.

It looked like a motel room. The kind they had in little foreign places. She was in Spain, she remembered that much.

She shifted on the bed, and as she moved, placing a hand to support her weight, the mattress’s cotton wadding disgorged its crimson contents. She’d lost a lot of blood, and her boyfriend was missing.

She stood up from the bed, naked, except for the dried blood that coated her like a pair of dirty long-johns.

Moving made her very aware of the holes in her skin. A bullet hole in each arm and each leg, like it had been some kind of ritual. And they’d shot her in the throat, but maybe they’d used a .22, ’cause there was a little hole next to her larynx and another slightly larger one next to her spine. That’s why her boyfriend preferred a .45.

Her head cleared as she pressed the pain deep into the pit of her stomach.

There were corpses on the floor, and even more blood than she’d soaked into the mattress. The first was lying face up, not her boyfriend. The man had a hatchet embedded in his skull. It was her hatchet, and she wrenched it free. She flipped the next two. Neither were her boyfriend.

There was a scream. She realized the lights were out but she could still see. The blood was bright red under white sunlight. The motel room door was open, letting in the morning sun, and there was a man standing in the doorway with a dumb look on his face.

From the camera in his hands, bigger than it would have been in the States, and the oddly lime-green uniform he was wearing, he was a crime scene photographer.

Shut it,” she said, stumbling past him and out the door.

. . .

Olena refilled their glasses but then held up a finger, interrupting Pyotr’s story. “Pyotr. Were you hiding in the closet?”

Huh?” Pyotr said, the glass freezing on the way to his lips.

You mentioned no closets, but– perhaps you were the crime scene photographer?”

Oh, no, Jane told me all this later. Now don’t interrupt.”

. . .

There were more screams. The average Barcelonan wasn’t used to a naked blood-caked girl stumbling down the street.

She found a T-shirt hanging on a line, long enough to cover her girl-parts. That was enough.

She was starting to remember. They’d rented a room the previous night, rather than returning to their usual squat. It had been their anniversary, and they’d planned to celebrate. They’d partied a bit too hard and hadn’t heard the men outside before they’d kicked in the door.

The corpses in her motel room were Desiderio’s men. Members of a gang that worked the docks. Desiderio was a scum-bag, but Jane and her boyfriend had started it. Who might have had the moral high-ground didn’t matter anymore. They’d taken a shot at her and missed. They’d taken her boyfriend. They’d regret not taking her head.

Veterinario was a very important word in Jane’s limited Spanish vocab. She saw it painted on the side of a run down steel-shuttered shop in a dusty strip-mall. The shutter was down, but she banged on it until she heard movement inside.

The shutter raised with a clatter. She grabbed the small and wrinkled veterinarian by the collar as she drew back her hatchet.

Antibiotics and morphine,” she said.

The man looked at the holes in her and the blood soaking through her borrowed T-shirt and nodded his head.

She hadn’t worked out a plan yet. She needed a gun at least.

They hadn’t been in Barcelona long, just long enough to start trouble, but she’d heard stories. Tales of a fair business man, a man who could get a girl what she needed, especially if this girl needed high-caliber automatic weapons.

. . .

Olena interrupted again. “You are this merchant king?” she asked. A rasping laugh crept out of her mouth as a line of clear liquor dribbled down her chin.

Stop it,” Pyotr said as Olena wiped at her mouth with her sleeve.

. . .

Jane knocked at a tall red door with the back of her hatchet.

The door opened. “Qué coño!?” a man said, as the back of Jane’s hatchet clonked his skull. She took his pistol and started down a long dark hall.

Martín?” a voice called from the dark.

Jane let her new pistol lead her through the door the voice had come from.

He ain’t dead,” she said first, hoping somebody spoke English. “Anybody speak inglés.”

Her eyes were slow to adjust, but she was starting to take in the room. There was a man sitting behind a desk, he looked like the business type, and then there were two heavies with pistols pointed at her. One stood next to the desk, and the other was right next to her with the nose of his 9-mil teasing at her bangs.

Back off,” she said, and she figured that was fair warning.

She crouched as she put a bullet in the first man’s shoulder. The second man’s pistol was still aiming where her head had been. She swung her hatchet at his ankle, and when he toppled like a felled tree she hacked again at his gun hand.

I speak English,” the business man said from behind his desk.

Great,” she said.

Pyotr is my name. How can I help you?”

His skin was deathly pale, not unlike Jane’s, but, while Jane worked at night, she got the impression this man rarely stepped out of his office.

Weapons,” Jane said.

I have many of those– Wait!” he said, holding up a hand. Jane noticed men creeping up from three entrances. She should have seen them coming. She blamed her low blood pressure.

I don’t have much money,” she said.

Are there men hunting you, girl?”

No,” Jane said. “It’s fuckhead season, and I plan to bag a few…. Jane.”

That is your name?”

Yeah,” she said.

He stared at her for a minute. His dark eyes probing her blood-soaked T-shirt as his thin-lipped smile revealed yellow teeth. “I usually prefer dealing in Israeli arms,” he said. “But I sell Chinese knockoffs of Russian designs to those who cannot afford quality.”

“Sweet-n-sour’s fine by me,” she said.

“Unless you carry your money in unmentionable places, I don’t believe you have have enough to buy a Chinese pistol.”

The hatchet shifted in Jane’s hand. She caught the end of the handle and let it swing, feeling the weight.

“How does a pair of Kalashnikovs sound to you?” Pyotr asked.

“Ammo.”

“Of course. Now, I must explain. These rifles are gently used. They made a very long trip from Tula to Afghanistan and then through a long chain of trades in the black-market. The fact they still fire is a sign of their quality.”

“Sounds fine,” she said.

“…Is that a bullet hole in your throat?”

“You got a problem with that?”

“No. And I will give you the rifles I spoke of, I would only have traded them again anyway, but… have you considered getting out of town?”

“No,” Jane said. “You heard of Desiderio?”

Yes,” Pyotr said.

He’s the fuck I’m gonna kill.”

. . .

Olena’s stomach was already sour. She usually drank the quantity she’d just swallowed over an evening, and with more pleasant company. “Where in that exchange did Jane tell you where to find me?” she asked.

Pyotr held out his glass for her and waited until she topped it up. “My story isn’t over yet,” he said.

. . .

Pyotr had pointed her to the Gothic Quarter. Jane’s boyfriend had wanted to see it before they left town. He had an odd interest in old things, and a stranger interest in old things with layers of new plastered over them.

Wandering those streets now, the alleys winding, the tall medieval walls hanging over her, she wished he was there with her. He would have told her the names of different kinds of arches and pillars, and explained the religious significance of fig leaves hammered out of wrought iron, but he wasn’t there with her, and she felt eyes staring at her from the dark gaps in the shutters of tall windows.

She aimed one of her rifles at a suspicious window and the itch faded from the back of her neck.

Pyotr had given her a pair of camo pants along with the rifles. And he’d given her directions that she’d written in ball-point on the palm of her hand.

There was supposed to be a dark winding alley leading from somewhere on the Plain of Mars to about the middle of the Mound of Venus. She’d started to worry she was in the wrong winding alley when she saw bright sunlight ahead, and the alley opened up.

Pyotr hadn’t told her the courtyard was this big. Even just standing at the entrance she was exposed, in sight of at least thirty open windows.

There was a big cross at the center of the dirt yard. Not the white-plaster gold-accent Catholic shit that was everywhere in that city, but the wooden kind like Christ was nailed to. And a man was nailed to this one too.

Jane’s mouth started to sweat as her vision twinged black. Her heart was beating too fast for her breathing.

It was her boyfriend. They’d nailed him to a cross. He would have hated the imagery. His pants were soaked shiny red with blood draining from dark holes in his stomach.

They’d shot him in the belly and left him to bleed.

Is this the American girl?” a man yelled, English and volume for her benefit she assumed. He walked out of a door on the opposite side of the courtyard with a dozen men at his back. Desiderio, she guessed, but she’d never seen his face before.

Yes, sir,” a man said. Jane vaguely remembered him from the previous night.

Jane raised her rifle, and she would have taken Desiderio first, but she noticed something odd. Desiderio’s guys should have been aiming at her like a firing squad, but they were lined up and aiming straight ahead.

Jane looked back over her shoulder.

Pyotr had crept up behind her with a dozen men of his own. He flashed yellow teeth at her. “You have brass balls, girl, but mine are tungsten-carbide.”

. . .

Olena felt the vodka creeping up her throat like an extracted feeding tube. “Yes, that was a marvelous line, which I’m sure you didn’t think of in that moment.”

Did so,” Pyotr said, “You can ask Jane.”

…Are you going to continue?”

That is basically it. We fought it out. Jane killed Desiderio with her hatchet. And her boyfriend turned out to be not dead– The first thing he said was, fucking nails hurt.” Pyotr chuckled while Olena unrolled a sleeping bag and lay back.

Then you all drank together, and it was during these commiserations Jane told you where to find me?” Olena asked.

Yeah,” Pyotr said. “She told me you’re the only Russian she knows to talk to.”

Tom says that we should accept coincidence as the will of God,” Olena said.

…So you’re not just living here, you’re part of this cult?”

Olena had no interest in explaining her religious beliefs. “The way you speak about Jane, it sounds like you have some interest in her.”

No…. Well, interest, yes,” Pyotr said. “But, seeing the two of them together, it takes only one look to know there’s no place for me.”

So you have actual interest,” Olena said, smiling more for effect than to portray any real mirth.

Just because you’ve never seen a need for companionship, you shouldn’t poke fun at normal, well-adjusted people.”

I have no intention of poking fun. Have you met Jane since you arrived in this city?”

She’s here?” Pyotr asked. The jam-jars clinked as he leaned forward and bumped the milk-crate between them.

Yes. And she is now single,” Olena said.

The Masked Killer died?” Pyotr asked.

Feeling slightly better, she filled their glasses again. “It is now my turn to tell a story.”

. . .

Jane and her boyfriend had repatriated a month before. Their European vacation had been long, if not relaxing. Their city seemed to have changed while they were away.

Jane had yet to visit her mother, and she didn’t have any real friends to say hi to. Abernathy, the only person she could maybe call a friend, was in prison. She’d killed some guy and pled guilty.

Jane thought of acquiring a decent fake-ID and visiting Abi upstate, but she had a pair of more pressing concerns. There was a man Jane and her boyfriend were hunting. They’d been stalking his neighborhood for weeks.

This man killed women. He slit their throats before doing things to their bodies. That order of operations might have made his crimes slightly less egregious, while at the same time more disgusting.

Coffee?” her boyfriend said.

Jane looked up from the asphalt and saw a glowing neon sign advertizing coffee and waffles.

A hooker in a bright blue dress, presumably to accentuate her varicose veins, stepped out of the diner. A man stepped out after her.

As the hooker started down the street, the man paused at the door. He unzipped his NY-windbreaker and checked something in the back of his pants while his eyes followed the hooker who was wobbling on her ice-pick heels.

Ya think?” Jane’s boyfriend said. His face was always flat, empty, not relaxed exactly, more like his expression was held firmly in place. But Jane could tell there was something bothering him, and that was the second of Jane’s pressing concerns.

As they began stalking the man who was stalking the hooker, Jane wondered if this would make things right.

They’d thought they’d had their guy a week before. A leak in the PD had passed out his criminal record to a writer on the crime beat. The journalist had lent the papers to a buddy, and that buddy, through a few more steps of underworld abstraction, had given a copy to Jane. This asshole had done a couple of years for aggravated assault, but that sentence had been bumped down from multiple-rape, and the aggravated assault in this case had involved slitting a girl’s throat.

He’d lived in a trailer on the outskirts, but he’d worked in the back of a meat shop in the same neighborhood they were currently patrolling.

A week earlier they’d knocked on the door of his trailer. The guy had come to the door shotgun-in-hand, and Jane’s boyfriend had put him down with a .45 to the skull.

There’d been another slit-throat girl front-page in the morning paper, and another to later that week. Not only had they missed the mark, but whoever was actually doing the dirt had upped his time-table.

The hooker turned down an alley, maybe taking a shortcut to her designated corner, and the guy in the wind breaker turned after her.

I’m feelin’ pretty good about this one,” her boyfriend said.

He might just keep his wallet in his back pocket,” Jane said.

They turned down the alley after him. The hooker was a half-block ahead, and the man’s pace was quickening.

Let’s toss him and find out,” Jane said.

As Jane quickened her steps, the man turned back, just in time for the butt of her Browning to meet with the bridge of his nose.

He fell to the greasy asphalt as the hooker, still twenty yards off, spun on her heels, shrieked, and tumbled around a corner and out of sight.

Jane straddled him and pressed the nose of her 1911 to the middle of his forehead. “Whatchu got in the back of your pants?”

…What?” the man said. “I’ll give you my money!”

Not what I’m asking. It’s real simple. You tell me the truth, and I won’t shoot you.”

The man started sniveling. The snot ran from his nose and down his cheeks. His eyes darted around the dark alley, looking for anybody to take his side, but the hooker was gone, and neither Jane nor her boyfriend were of a friendly disposition. He started to squirm, but Jane pushed his head back down with her pistol.

You like fucking dead girls?” she asked.

His eyes snapped to her face. “…I’m sorry,” he said.

Jane stood up and gave her boyfriend a nod. He drew the pistol from his belt, and put a bullet in the man’s skull.

As they started out of the alley, Jane took her boyfriend’s hand. “You feeling better?”

His eyes shot to her quick, and there was something like fear in his face, something that shouldn’t have been there at all.

…I thought,” Jane said, “Maybe, you were feeling bad about getting the wrong guy.”

The guy in that trailer?” he asked.

Yeah. I thought maybe you were feeling guilty.”

No,” he said. “He pointed a gun at you and I killed him. It’ll always be as simple as that.”

Oh,” she said. “Have I done something? ‘Cuz you’re acting kinda weird–”

I can’t keep doing this,” he said.

What?” she said, squeezing his hand tighter until he pulled it free.

I’m going to leave you,” he said.

What?” she said, glancing around the shitty neighborhood they now had no reason to stay in. “Where are you going?”

I wanna break up,” he said.

Her lip started to quiver, and tears filled her eyes. “Fuck you,” she said.

. . .

So,” Pyotr said, “You stalk them, as a hobby?”

…What?” Olena said.

Maybe you have a thing for the Masked Killer?” Pyotr asked and wasn’t quick enough raising his hands as Olena spat at him.

No,” Olena said.

Point taken,” he said, wiping his face with his sleeve. “But still, you weren’t anywhere in that story.”

Jane came to me after, looking for a shoulder on which to cry.” Olena said. “She was already intoxicated, and explained her troubles to me in great and repetitive detail.”

“What kind of intoxicated?” Pyotr asked.

Heroin.”

“Is that a regular habit?”

“Are you becoming disillusioned?” Olena sneered again.

“No. Everyone has a vice.”

“It seems she only indulges when she is distressed.”

It was starting to get warm. The sun was high overhead. Olena wondered when Tanya would arrive to save her from this banter.

“Pyotr,” she said, “why have you come to my city?”

“I was hoping to set up business here,” Pyotr said, nudging his glass in her direction. What had started as most of a liter of cheap vodka was now a few shots.

“My sisters and I are not strictly opposed to the dealing of arms, but you will find no helping hand extended from my people.”

The tarp rustled, and the tent flap opened. Pyotr drew his pistol, aiming at the sunlit gap, while Olena drew her pistol aiming at Pyotr’s face.

“Am I interrupting something, Olena?” Tanya asked.

Pyotr noticed the pistol aiming at his face and lowered his own.

“I got the groceries,” Tanya said, dropping a dozen bags in the corner before taking a seat next to Olena and resting a hand on her knee.

“That explains a lot,” Pyotr said.

“This is Pashtana,” Olena said. “My beloved. If you speak a word of insult I will kill you where you stand.”

“I don’t think I could stand up if I tried,” Pyotr said, chuckling as he emptied his glass again. “And she’s kind of cute, if you go in for female Mujaheddin.”

“…Why did you seek me out, Pyotr?” Olena asked, hoping to finally get to the point.

“A lot of people here could use my wares,” Pyotr said, “but Mother has this market cornered.”

“What?” Olena said.

“Mother. She has her fingers in every arms deal in the city.”

“This city?” Olena asked.

“Yeah. You didn’t know?”

“Olena… who is this?” Tanya asked.

Pyotr. My brother.”

I was hoping you might speak with Mother,” Pyotr said.

…If it would not be too awkward for you, I would like to meet your mother,” Tanya said.

Olena briefly considered both requests. “No,” she said.

Codling Moths and Garter Snakes

Codling Moths and Garter Snakes

by KECG

Declan kicked the stand on his matte-black Indian 841. He stepped off into the weeds and mud.

The wind seemed to be whispering something at him, but he couldn’t make it out. The sky was very blue, like it was over the ocean sometimes. He preferred to work at night, but Nerio wanted it over before evening.

They’d done things with chemicals here, Declan remembered. The big brick building in front of him had played some part in how they’d won in the Pacific.

Whatever they’d done had made the building uninhabitable. Nerio had warned him not to spend any more time inside than necessary.

He walked up quiet and slow.

There was a girl standing in the shadow cast by the processing plant. She had on a white dress like a Mennonite’s, hair that looked a bit too long for her age, and a look in her eyes like she could just as easily kiss as stab him.

Declan checked the fire axe strapped to the back of his jacket and the trench knife in a sheath on his hip. The cultists who called that plant home might very well dress like that, Declan thought at first, but then he realized the Mennonite wasn’t really there.

The angels spoke in his ear often enough, but he didn’t usually see them.

She seemed to want him to follow her. But his business was inside, not around back, where she seemed to want him, and she was probably trying to lead him to an early grave.

The big steel door to the plant was open a crack. He drew the axe from his back and the knife from his hip and kicked the door open. It creaked like a wounded gull but there was also an odd slop that came with the creak.

The floor was red with a wrath-of-God quantity of blood and viscera.

Tall windows let in the afternoon sun, casting the gloom of the open factory floor in bands of bright light. Standing in the center of the big room was a tall man, bare chested and wearing overalls.

John Henry, he thought, and wondered if that was racist.

Hi there,” Declan said.

Well, hello,” the man said, smiling big white teeth at him.

While Declan was trying to get with the times, civil rights and all that, Nerio wouldn’t have hesitated to tell him he was hunting a moolie, if only to see his nose wrinkle. “Would you happen to be Paul Giery?” Declan asked.

I most certainly would not,” the man said. “That’s who I was here for.”

…Did Nerio send you?” Declan asked. Despite his playful race-hate, Nerio employed blacks when they came up useful.

Nerio, as in Nerio Caiazzo? No…. Dylan, was it?”

Sorry?” Declan said. “Oh. Declan.”

Declan! Glad to see you made it out okay.”

We know each other?”

Kumsong River.”

Shit…. You were a medic yeah?” Declan asked.

That’s how I learned to use a knife,” he said.

Declan’s eyes had adjusted to the gloom. There were bits of people everywhere, cut too small to even guess at the number of dead.

You stitched me up,” Declan said.

I was never very good at that.”

The scar’s pretty bad.”

Sorry,” the man said, his laugh like an echo in an opera house.

I would have died for certain. So, thanks. Your name, it was somethin’ Latin?”

Meritorius, Meritorius James,” he said.

Declan remembered, the guys had called him Mary.

So, you’re still a soldier?” Meritorius asked.

More or less,” Declan said. “You?”

There are people in my head. They tell me to kill people.”

…About that, Paul Giery, was he one of these?Declan asked, pointing at the floor.

Yeah. I was only supposed to kill him, but I’m hungry,” Meritorius said, leaning over and reaching his hand into the crimson slop at his feet. “This him?” he asked, holding up a chunk of a man’s head.

I hope so.”

You want to see something?”

Sure,” Declan said. It couldn’t be any worse.

Meritorius led him to the back of the precessing floor and out through another tall steel door. The sky was still blue but there was a pleasant breeze now.

The Mennonite girl was back, walking shoulder to shoulder with Declan as Meritorius led them across a field of crabgrass.

You see her too?” Meritorius asked.

Who?” Declan said.

Never mind.”

Meritorius pointed ahead of them, but Declan only saw a small tree and few miles of urban wasteland beyond.

That tree,” Meritorius said. “Figs are out of season, but the tree’s filled with them.”

The Mennonite girl ran ahead. As Meritorius reached up and grabbed a fig, popping it in his mouth, the girl knelt at the tree’s roots. She looked up at Declan with a kind of urgency that made him feel she might actually mean him no harm. She pointed down at a mound of dark soil.

I wouldn’t do that,” Meritorius said as Declan clawed at the earth with his finger tips.

Why not?”

Those dead people, the Mouth of God…. Why were you here for Paul anyway?”

The way I heard it, Paul’s cult, the Mouth of God, I guess, had a thing for body fluids,” Declan said. “He was pimping out his girls for some kind of religious reason. But religion aside, he was cutting into Nerio’s business.”

That was only part of their work. This is their tree of knowledge, but I don’t think I’m getting any smarter,” Meritorius said, popping another fig in his mouth.

Babies,” Declan said.

I told you not to dig there.”

Declan’s visit to Korea hadn’t been pleasant, but dead babies are a part of war. It’s normal there.

Even if it sometimes felt like his war hadn’t ended, this was supposed to be state-side, and you weren’t supposed to find dead babies buried next to fig trees.

He pulled five tiny corpses from the ground before looking up. Meritorius was still plucking figs from the tree, and the girl was still watching him.

Declan continued digging. He figured he’d have Nerio tell his clean-up boys to give the kids a proper burial. Maybe that was what the girl wanted.

Three more. Eight of them, laid out in the crab grass like unsold dolls after the Christmas season.

There was something else at the bottom of the hole he’d dug. A little foot. As Declan’s hands passed through the cool earth, his finger tips met with something warm.

He pulled out the warm mass. Golden eyes stared at him. This one was alive, or seemed to be. It was breathing. It was warm. His imaginary angels were usually things he couldn’t touch.

It didn’t cry or wail. It just stared at him. Declan brought the child closer to his face, unsure how to treat a baby he’d just found at the bottom of a mass grave. The child reached out to him, its fingers brushing against his cheek, its tiny nails scratching him.

As Declan stared at the child’s golden eyes, half of the world went dark.

Are you alright?” Meritorius asked.

What?” Declan said.

The kid. Didn’t he just scratch out your eye?”

…I guess so.”

You should get that looked at.”

You still carry a kit?”

Not anymore,” Meritorius said, laughing again.

The Mennonite girl was gone, so they started back across the field.

Whatchu gonna name him?” Meritorius asked.

You figure its a him?”

Looks that way to me.”

…How’d you get a name like that?” Declan asked.

Meritorius?” he said. “My mama gave it to me.”

Pomegranates and Henna and Aralia and Things

by KECG

Al Brecht’s carved-granite ivy-league smile was burnt into Tobie’s retinas like a too-long-stared-at solar eclipse.

A few years before, Tobie had worked for a liberal rag, the People’s Voice. It had been the kind of paper that threw softballs to anarchists, but now, after a zaibatsu takeover, the People’s Voice was called MAKE, in big red caps with a bang at the end.

Tobie’s job was now playing softball with the movers and shakers. The job was starting to chip away at his soul.

Pete Caiazzo, adopted son of Nerio Caiazzo and heir of the biggest crime family in the city, was on the run. His adoptive father had gotten it in the neck a few years back, and word on the street was Pete didn’t know how to earn. Every paesano in town wanted his head. Pete was on the run, and Tobie dearly wished they’d let him cover the crime beat.

As Tobie exited a glass walled elevator, and strolled across the marble floored entry hall, a roar started to grow in his ears. He’d hoped to make a quick exit from legal-theft-central and catch a train home so he could grab a shower and wash off the contact greed, but, stepping out onto the sidewalk through a tall pair of glass doors, the roar grew cacophonous, and Tobie noticed the source.

The WHO building across the street was surrounded by about a thousand chicer than average protesters; they must have gathered there while Tobie had been listening to Al Brecht spin epic tales about his yacht.

The first picket-sign read Silence=Death, a tried and true catch phrase. Then there was FUCK WELLCOME; he wasn’t sure what that was about.

Tobie’s eyes scanned the crowd. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, or told himself that. He was thinking about Jo, a kid he used to date, and, thinking about Jo, Tobie remembered the test Robin had made him take before she’d married him.

Hey, you,” a sing song voice said in his ear.

Tobie turned and almost fell flat on the sidewalk. He found himself face to face with Marilyn Monroe, or maybe what she would have looked like at fourteen. The platinum blond wig was convincing, but the bust of the white Travilla cocktail dress was glaringly flat, and this Marilyn had a big pink triangle painted across his pale face.

Jo?” Tobie said.

You can call me something else if you want– You’re totally dressed wrong for a protest. You see anybody else here in sleeve-garters?” Jo asked. “Are you crying?”

Tobie hadn’t realized he was. “Stress.”

Look guys!” Jo turned back to the crowd and yelled over the chanting. “Tobie’s crying manly tears.” A few guys in leather nodded at him, and one guy rested a hand on Tobie’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze.

Thanks,” Tobie said. He grabbed Jo’s arm and took quick steps towards a slightly quieter alley.

Where ya takin’ me?” Jo sing-songed. “Lookin’ for a down-low quicky at an AIDS protest is pretty hard-core.”

Tobie ignored Jo’s nostalgically typical banter. He wasn’t sure why he’d dragged him away. They hadn’t met in years, so maybe he just wanted a chance to process in relative quiet.

He noticed the sign Jo held in his hand. It’s AIDS not ARC, You Stupid Pricks!

What’s that mean?” Tobie asked.

Some acronyms, or somethin’. It’ll be the shit in a couple years– Hey! I got a story for ya!”

…You know I work for a money paper now.”

Asshole!”

…I know.”

How bout, I got a story that’d land you editor at another paper, if you pimp it right.”

…You know where Pete Caiazzo is?”

How’d you guess?” Jo asked, glaring at him for spoiling the surprise.

I just thought, what would be the most surprising, coincidental thing Jo could say–”

So you were surprised!”

Not so much…. You really know where he is?”

…Yeah,” Jo said. “He’s staying at my place.”

That was actually surprising.

It was a relatively short walk out of the business district, and a crowded subway ride across town.

Tobie knew this neighborhood well. It had been his home turf before he’d gotten married. Jo led him through a dozen grimy alleys before stopping in front of a familiar liquor store with a brick tower stacked precariously on top.

Now,” Jo said, “before you freak out, you remember how your apartment was rent controlled?”

Yeah,” Tobie said.

I’ve, kinda, been pretending I was you and staying in your old place.”

I figured,” Tobie said.

So you’re not mad?”

…Do you, dress up like me?”

Only when the landlord swings by, I gotta wear high-heels– You know Mr. Qwan’s half blind.”

I remember,” Tobie said.

They went in the side entrance and started up the steep concrete steps.

Pete’s really staying here?” Tobie asked.

Yup. My dad and his dad were colleagues. Pete and me used to play when we were little.”

Pete had to be in his thirties. Thirty-four if Tobie had the facts right, but Jo didn’t look any older than he had five years before, and back then Tobie had been worried he’d get busted for statutory.

Ah!” Jo said as they continued up the concrete steps.

What is it?”

Pete wanted me to get tomatoes.”

So you’ve got him cooking for you?”

Pete’s hetero as a volunteer gynecologist, but, yeah, he cooks. Hey. I heard you made a kid.”

…Yeah, Lily. She’s four.”

Lily, after Robin’s grandma?”

Yeah. Lillian died a few months before–”

I was at the funeral,” Jo said. The corners of Jo’s lips usually twitched when he was telling a joke, and they weren’t twitching.

I didn’t see you–”

I was in disguise– Now, that looks bad,” Jo said as they climbed the last step.

Tobie’s old apartment was at the end of a dusty wood-floored hall. The big industrial door was half open, and Tobie saw a toppled coffee table through the gap.

Shh,” Jo said, holding a finger to his lips.

They crept forward. Jo tried to take point, but Tobie sidled around him. He peered in. The toppled coffee table seemed to be most of the damage. The window to the fire escape was open and balled up news papers rolled across the stained-wood floor like tumble weeds. Then Tobie noticed the man in a black robe standing in the middle of the room.

He had a white scarf draped over his head, a long black beard, and a shiny little machine gun in each hand. This wasn’t Pete.

That’s not Pete,” Jo said, holding up his hands as the man aimed dead black eyes in their direction.

The man said something under his breath, “…Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad….” He raised an Uzi, and Tobie held up his hands too.

I…” Jo said. That was the first time Tobie had seen Jo at a loss for words. “…I think Ori’d be pissed if you started a war with One Eye.”

The man’s head cocked to the side as his dark eyes examined the Marilyn-dress and Jo’s pink-triangle-painted face. He lowered his pistol but continued his mumbling as he slipped out the window and started up the fire-escape.

Tobie stared at the open window, only lowering his hands when Jo poked him in the side.

Was he… dressed like a rabbi?” Tobie asked.

I’m pretty sure that’s Shani, Ori’s son,” Jo said.

That doesn’t mean anything to me.”

I’m not sure if he’s just super orthodox, or teaches Torah– but I guess that’d be hard since he only ever says that one prayer.”

So… Pete’s not here then?”

Looks like it,” Jo said, flopping down on a familiar green-corduroy couch. “I figure he heard Shani comin’ and split.”

Jo patted the spot on the couch next to him, and Tobie sat.

So,” Jo said. “How you findin’ married life?”

We, just, almost got shot.”

Nah, and even if we had, Daddy woulda killed everybody in Ori’s crew.”

I’m not sure that makes me feel any better.”

You sure you’re not jus’ dodgin’ the question? Is Robin like, totally naggin’ you every minute– Is Lily pissing everywhere all the time.”

She’s not a puppy.”

Oh,” Jo said, “yeah.”

Robin…. I kind of… hate her, I think.”

Isn’t that just being married?” Jo smirked. Tobie noticed their hands were resting on a very old blood stain on his old green couch, and their pinkies were touching.

Jo.”

Yeah?”

How old are you?”

Not tellin’.”

You don’t look any older, than last time we met.”

It’s only been a few years–” Jo swung around quick, scooching over and only stopping when his nose was an inch from Tobie’s cheek. “Are you hitting on me?”

No…. I’m married—”

To an evil bitch you hate.”

I only kind of hate her… and I think she hates me too.”

You think I’m a guy, right?” Jo asked.

Aren’t you?”

Well, foolin’ around with a guy isn’t cheating.”

…Really,” Tobie said as Jo’s skinny fingers slipped into the pocket of his slacks.

It’s like… exercise,” Jo said. “Like we go to the same gym or something, or like takin’ a ballroom dance class at the worst.”

You think?”

Jo’s lips curled as his pupils dilated. “Totally,” he said.

Holy Ghost Engineering

Hi there! I’m not dead, just busy. My brother and I are hard at work on a computer game for which I am writing the code and script. I’ll try to post stories more frequently in the coming months, but by no means weekly. Expect screenshots of our project to be posted here as our work progresses, and, now, an odd day in the life of Dumuzid the Shepherd:

Holy Ghost Engineering

by KECG

A six year old boy and a sixteen year old girl walked down the cracked sidewalk twenty miles from their midtown apartment.

The girl was named Angie. “How about those,” she said, pointing at a wilted tuft of yellow flowers growing from a crack in the sidewalk.

The boy was called Dumuzid, a name his dead mothers had given him. “No,” he said. “But thank you for the suggestion.”

Angie was more caramel than black, but that didn’t help her prospects much, and her orangey-red mop of hair was an oddity that only harmed the first impressions she made.

Dumuzid was blacker than her, and small for his age. His birth mother had been an addict who’d died before he could speak. She’d sold him to his real mothers, and he’d had a happy, if slightly unusual upbringing, but then they’d died too. He was only six, but the shine in his unblinking eyes and the quiet smile on his lips told a story of the blood he’d seen.

Those are perfect,” he said. He knelt on the sidewalk and carefully plucked a bunch of Asters growing up next to a burnt-out redbrick storefront. “Mama likes this color.”

They continued down the street, and the redbrick derelicts were replaced by a tall white wall topped with wrought-iron spikes.

They passed under an iron arch and into the lower-middle-income cemetery where Angie’s mom, Billy, had put Dumuzid’s mothers. They walked to the twenty-sixth row and past eight graves.

Here lies Elizabeth Miller and Berylanne McClintock. Best friends and business partners. They are now one with the chaos that births us all.

The inscription had been a stipulation of Elizabeth’s will. The funeral home director had been initially unwilling. He hadn’t understood what Dumuzid’s mothers had meant by chaos. The man had seemed existentially offended, but Billy had yelled the right words and backed him down.

Dumuzid plucked the crabgrass that had sprung up since his last visit and placed the wild flowers he’d picked at the base of the headstone.

Do you think they’re in heaven?” Angie asked.

You don’t think so?” Dumuzid said.

I’m not sure there is such a place.”

They started back toward the entrance.

Dumuzid felt like telling her, people don’t go somewhere if there isn’t a place to go to, and that good things come in inordinate frequency to good people. Dumuzid believed in the thousands of years of faith in an afterlife far more than he believed in the few hundred years of faith in nothing, but former zealots, of which Angie was one, were always the hardest to convince. Also, the cemetery hadn’t been their original destination. Angie had gone out to see a friend about a movie, and Dumuzid had asked to swing by on the way home. Starting a petty argument after she’d gone out of her way seemed like poor taste.

A black sedan pulled up to the sidewalk as they passed back under the iron arch. Dumuzid watched the smile spread on Angie’s lips as a white man in a suit climbed out of the sedan.

Dumuzid had never so much as jaywalked, and Angie’s mom, Billy, was a sergeant with the police, but his skin still crawled around cops.

Hey there,” the man said.

Hi, Johnny,” Angie said. They smiled at each other like they might have hugged if Dumuzid hadn’t been there.

Hello, sir,” Dumuzid said, remembering his mothers’ advice about showing necessary politeness to authority figures.

This Dumuzid, then?” the man asked.

I am, sir.”

The king of earth and of heaven?”

That’s what my mothers called me.”

This is Johnny,” Angie said. “He used to be a friend of mom’s.”

She climbed into the passenger side of Johnny’s sedan while Dumuzid rode in the back, behind a black wire grate. The ride home Johnny gave them was less circuitous than the subway would have provided.

He dropped them off at the curb, giving Angie a smile and Dumuzid a wink. Dumuzid wasn’t sure of the appropriate response to a wink. Winking back seemed possible, but he didn’t wink, ever. He nodded.

Johnny lulled off into the afternoon traffic as Dumuzid and Angie entered the very colorful apartment building where they lived.

It would be better if you didn’t talk about meeting Johnny, to mom,” Angie said as they stepped up onto the red tile of the third floor of their building. “I think they used to date, Johnny and mom. She doesn’t like him anymore.”

I say very little to Ms. Seward,” Dumuzid said.

Yeah, you don’t say much to anybody,” she said. She smiled down at him as she turned the key in the canary-yellow door to their apartment.

The smell of canned pasta sauce and dry basil hit them like a wave. Billy wasn’t much of a cook.

Mom?” Angie said from the doorway.

Shit!” Billy said.

Angie had been looking toward the kitchen, but Billy tumbled out of the hallway to the bedrooms. She was wearing a miss-buttoned blouse over her milk-chocolate skin. Her ruddy-brown hair bounced as she dashed across the black and white hued minimalism of their living-room and past them to the kitchen.

It’s burnt!” She yelled back toward the hall as a different white man named John emerged, his pearly white skin quickly concealed as he buttoned his shirt.

Johnathan, Angie’s step-dad and Billy’s ex-husband, Johnathan knew how to cook. Sushi and curries, stews and grilled things coated in creole sauces, he’d even taught Dumuzid a few recipes, but Billy could only cook pasta, and that dubiously.

Ah…. Angie,” Johnathan said, freezing as he noticed them still standing in the doorway. “And Dumuzid…. Billy and I, we–”

I got a night off, so I’m making dinner,” Billy said, peeking out of the kitchen and shooting needles at him with her eyes.

The sauce was indeed burnt, beyond edibility. Johnathan threw together egg fu yung with the bean sprouts he grew on the windowsill and eggs from the chickens that lived on the roof.

After dinner, they all gathered on the couch. On family nights Billy usually sat on one end of the couch with Johnathan on the other. The kids usually sat in the middle, but that night Billy and Johnathan sat together, and Dumuzid sat in the hollow in the cushions Johnathan usually occupied.

Angie popped a tape in the VCR.

What’re we watching?” Billy asked.

Agnes of God,” Angie said.

Billy gave her a look like she’d thought Angie’s out to tea with Jesus phase had passed.

The trailers played. They didn’t seem to go together, like maybe whoever had been responsible for their selection hadn’t understood the movie that was about to follow.

It started out like a courtroom drama, but soon enough it was all convent all the time.

Dumuzid had never appreciated dove imagery. White had always been a color of decadence, a mockery of the radiance human eyes could never see, and doves had always seemed to him indistinguishable from small pigeons.

Dumuzid woke up. He couldn’t remember having fallen asleep, and now he was lying on something wet and soft and scratchy at the same time.

He remembered a postcard Berylanne had kept in her curio case. Elizabeth had once gone away on business to Japan, and that was the postcard she’d sent home. The back had read, Business concluded. I might be home before you get this. The front had been a photo of mount Fuji, reproduced in small inky blotches.

As he lay on that beach, what towered above him wasn’t a mountain. It was a wave, still and black, and so tall it seemed to merge with the sky. It was waiting to crash down on him.

There were people there with him. They must have been there all along, but the wave had distracted him. They weren’t wearing swimsuits.

There were women in strange armor with helmets that looked like conch-shells, and men in loincloths, and other men wearing uniforms, possibly military, but nothing like what the movies showed them wearing in Vietnam.

There was a young woman wearing a kool-aid-green sundress and a hot-pink windbreaker. She was standing in the frozen ocean foam, frozen in time rather than by temperature. She had flip-flops on her pale feet, appropriate for the beach at least.

She was facing the huge wave, holding a broken bottle in her hand. Next to her in the foam, stood an average looking man gripping a fire-axe.

The two of them slowly turned, their eyes landing on Dumuzid.

Dumuzid glanced behind him at the empty sand that rolled on for miles and turned back to find the pair still staring at him. The girl whispered something to the man. He nodded, and she gave Dumuzid a smile that made him shiver.

You made it,” a voice said as the pair turned back to face the wave.

Dumuzid turned around again, and where there had been white sand there was now a woman in a lavender dress. And it wasn’t sand beneath him anymore, but the cool sensation of his mother’s lap.

That doesn’t explain why we’re here,” Elizabeth said, sitting on the sand next to them.

Maybe we’re his spirit guide, or guides,” Berylanne suggested.

Mama,” Dumuzid said.

Hello, darling,” Berylanne said.

Salt water rolled down Dumuzid’s cheeks as Elizabeth watched him. “Hush, Dumuzid,” she said. “We don’t have time.”

He knew that must be true. Whether this was a dream or something stranger, both dreams and visions sent by God are so very brief.

The tears refused to stop, so Dumuzid turned inward. He sent himself to the quiet place Elizabeth had taught him to enter.

He’d never before had a clear image of that place in his mind, but he realized now he’d always been coming here. His feet had always been in the sand and the wave had always been looming over him.

Why am I here, Mother?” he asked as his cheeks began to dry.

This is the first place,” Elizabeth said.

Where things started, and where they’ll start to end. Like an assembly line,” Berylanne said.

Elizabeth picked up a handful of sand and let it slip through her fingers. “This was once the bedrock on which the kingdom of heaven was built.”

This is where you will make your home,” Berylanne said, “but now you need to wake up.”

Something caught Dumuzid’s eye. The girl in green and pink readied her bottle and the man raised his axe overhead.

There was something under the still water, something dark and moving.

Wake up!” Elizabeth screamed.

Dumuzid’s eyes opened. He saw the ceiling fan in his bedroom and Angie standing over him in the dark.

You were crying,” she said.

I need to go,” Dumuzid said. Crawling out from under his covers, he found himself in the Spider-Man pajamas Johnathan had gotten for him. He took them off and left them folded on top of the hamper. He found the suit Johnathan bought him for church.

Where to?” Angie asked as he dressed

You don’t believe in heaven,” Dumuzid said, “but do you believe in the flood?”

Of course,” Angie said. “The waters are always rising.”

Dressed, and very presentable, he walked out into the dark hallway as quietly as he could in his polished loafers.

He stopped in front of the hall-closet where Johnathan kept his gardening supplies. The shovel was too large for him to carry, but the handle of the trowel fit nicely in his pocket.

He left, closing the canary-yellow door behind him.

The night was dark, barely held back by the flickering street lights, and acting on what might easily have been a dream was seeming less and less logical.

He felt a warm hand on his shoulder as cool fingers intertwined with his.

Where will you go?” Elizabeth asked.

…A temple can be built anywhere, but it has to be built around a shrine,” Dumuzid said, showing her the trowel from his pocket. “A shrine needs an object of worship.”

…He’s going to worship us,” Berylanne said.

His awe is directed,” Elizabeth said. “That’s all that matters.”

…I’m really happy to see you again,” he said, and Elizabeth smiled at him.

Me too,” Berylanne said.

Alternative Therapy

Alternative Therapy

by KECG

Jane climbed a flight of grimy steps up to a rickety landing. The cold night air stung the cracks in her lips.

The little apartment building looked like it had started its life as a motel, back when TV was one black and white channel. They hadn’t bothered refurbishing.

She stopped in front of a faded-pink door into a windowless studio.

She knocked and heard muffled cheers leaking through the door that got louder as it swung in.

Phil stood in the doorway, staring over his shoulder at the football game on his TV. “You bring the money?” he said.

Jane smirked as he glanced at her and fear watered his eyes. “No, shit-heel. I bring the death.”

She’d been put on Phil’s scent a half hour-before.

After her boyfriend had dumped her, Jane had turned back to the lover she kept on the side. Then she’d figured out her boyfriend had left a bun in her oven, and she’d had to kick the heroin again.

It turned out kicking it was harder the second time, or maybe just that she didn’t have somebody to cook her poached eggs anymore.

She’d just finished sleeping through an NA meeting. Tammy had woken her up, and they’d gone to Jeanie’s, a cutesy 50s-style diner, conveniently located a block away.

Tammy sat next to her at the chrome counter. The waitress dumped a pair of short-stacks in front of them and refilled their coffees before waddling off to serve inadvisable dreck to somebody else.

Why you wanna go clean?” Tammy asked as Jane cut into her leathery corn-syruped pancakes.

Tammy looked like Jane felt, lonely, afraid, and, more than either, exhausted. Jane hoped her own feelings didn’t show quite so clearly on her face. Maybe Tammy just felt that much worse.

I told you about my ex-boyfriend,” Jane said. She hadn’t really shared much, just that he’d treated her really nice until he’d dropped her without explanation.

You dating somebody new?” Tammy asked, tucking her bleached-straw hair over her ear and leaning in toward her with a sleepover-secrets look on her face.

No,” Jane said. “My ex got me preggo ‘fore he left.”

Oh…” Tammy said. “And H is pretty bad for babies.” She said it like being hooked on a cocktail of speed would be any better for a fetus.

How ’bout you?” Jane asked.

…No, I’ve never gotten pregnant,” Tammy said. Jane figured that meant she’d never been for long.

I meant, why you wanna go clean?”

Oh… it just… got to be too much.”

You sell your mama’s car for parts or somethin’?”

Yeah,” Tammy said. She chuckled, but Jane had definitely touched a nerve.

I was just bullshittin’,” Jane said. “I mean we’ve all done silly shit…. Sorry.”

No worries. I talked about it at the meeting a couple weeks ago. You were probably asleep.” Tammy giggled. The wrinkles ran from the corners of her eyes like a hundred dry riverbeds.

They’d known each other for a few weeks, but Jane had never really looked at her before. She figured Tammy must have been cute when she was younger. If she could stay away from the cross-tops long enough to put a little weight on, she could probably bag an older used-car salesman.

…When I stole my mom’s car, that was years ago…. It just got to be too much work.”

I get that,” Jane said, drowning the last bite of her pancakes in bitter coffee. “And the dealers are a pain.”

…It was the last time I was buying- My boyfriend gave me a few bucks, and it was enough, so I snuck off the street, and over to Phil’s….”

Phil near 112th?”

Tammy didn’t answer, and her eyes started to get silvery. “…Phil said it wasn’t enough. I was starting to get really hungry, and I probably looked it, and he said we could work something out. I thought, maybe, for a second, ’cause I was really ill, but then I remembered how he gets when he’s up, and he was really bouncin’. I didn’t leave quick enough.”

You tellin’ me Phil on 112th raped you?” Jane asked.

No no,” Tammy said, smiling and shaking her head, but her eyes had sprung leaks. “He was just really rough- But he didn’t hurt me that much… it was just… too much.”

I hear ya,” Jane said. She pulled out her wallet and dropped two dollars to cover their buck-ninety-eight bill.

I can pay,” Tammy said, dabbing at her eyes with a napkin.

Don’t worry about it,” Jane said.

But… I’m supposed to be your sponsor-”

You wanna go someplace?”

I work graveyard, but I’ve got a couple hours- You wanna catch a movie?”

No,” Jane said.

Tammy followed her out and down a couple blocks to the subway station.

As they sat silently in the humming subway car, Tammy started checking her watch, but once they’d made a transfer and were well on their way to 112th she started to sweat.

How you feel about vigilantism?” Jane asked as they were climbing the steps out of the station.

…Phil do something to you too?”

He sold me some smack cut to shit with flour- Like cut so thin it’d be better for cake-baking, but no, not really.”

They walked a few more blocks listening to the buzz of insects, distant car horns, and the howling of stray dogs.

Jane left Tammy at the curb and walked up the grimy steps to Phil’s decrepit apartment. It took a little over a minute for Jane to finish her work, and then she was back on the curb again.

…What’d you do?” Tammy asked.

Here,” Jane said, dropping a gristly piece of meat in Tammy’s hand.

What’s this?” Tammy asked. Jane could see her knees quivering.

His ear. I thought about bringin’ you his cock, but then I woulda had to touch it.”

Tammy giggled. “I get that,” she said.