It began as it always begins, and that is with idle commentary on something benign like the weather. But it always comes down to the phrasing and who is saying it.
“Dude, is it always this cold in the middle of March ‘round here?”
And of course, it was Felix doing the talking, which made it seem ignorant when it came out of his mouth. The roof was fixed, which was a minor miracle, but now with this freak weather there was a burst pipe in the kitchen and water was flooding the already peeling tile.
“I don’t answer to the title ‘dude,’ Medhi,” I said while trying to find a towel to sop it up. Since the cold snap had not been anticipated at all, we only had about three towels. Randall was supposed to be on his way to get a dehumidifier and something to fix it (some kind of coupler, according to Felix, which I had no reason to distrust), but in the meantime the water had been turned off and I was scrambling to dry the place with a quickly freezing mop and trying to avoid conversation with tall, pale, and clueless. “But no. It does not normally dip below 10 degrees this close to spring here.”
“I mean, I ain’t too upset about it because like in Michigan-”
There we went again with the ‘in Michigan’ stories again. What was it this time? Did you spend your winters in trees hiding from bears? Were there other horrors of nature plaguing your existence from the time that you could toddle? Do people from Michigan engorge themselves before hibernating for the winter? What? What is it, Medhi- I am just dying to know.
“- 10 ain’t shit on a winter day. But like… its still kinda late for that kind of weather. Least it ain’t-”
“If you value what little warmth this place gives you, you will not jinx the weather.” He snapped his mouth shut and I was preparing a response to his likely skepticism, but he stayed quiet. That’s right, man-child. You listen. I turned the dated space-heater on and waited for it to cast its dangerous red glow before letting the mop thaw in front of it. His shoes squeaked against the slippery false tile while he put his mess of paper towels in the trash. All other rags were soaked.
I was about ready to give up. Even with the water turned off, it seemed like it was still trickling out from behind the wall. “Take a break, Medhi,” I told him, and he dutifully took the opportunity to flop into the broken red chair. At least the mess was confined to the kitchen and had not seeped into the living room. I was not about to be vacuuming mold from that carpet again.
And his very first action as couch potato was to open a beer using the knife which he always seemed to carry with him.
“You just have beer sitting out in the living room?”
“When its cold like this, ain’t no reason to be using up precious fridge space for something that ain’t gonna go bad. You want one?”
“I don’t recall buying you beer,” I said. “Where did you get that?”
He shrugged. “Uh, I dunno.” His feigned ignorance was very transparent. If it wasn’t already pre-existing in the house, then the only other option was that Randall had bought it for him. This seemed the likeliest of options. In an attempt to be everyone’s friend, Randall also has a tendency to be everyone’s enabler.
“Put the beer away,” I told him. He shrank, which is an entertaining thing to see a man of his size do. The beer disappeared behind the chair.
I was being a little hard on him, but it wasn’t long ago that he’d gotten me stuck in a tree- which had only been days ago and I hadn’t slept much since. I felt my attitude was justified. That, and I had made it very clear that even if he was the only person living here, this was still my house. You have to be firm with men like Felix.
His stupid mutt, Ros, was at my feet. I was surprised that we hadn’t needed to keep her from making a further mess of the kitchen while we cleaned up, given that she had somewhat of an agenda for trouble. She had a preference for announcing my arrival in a series of short, sharp barks and running circles around my feet.
I’m sure that Medhi thought this was adorable. I thought that it was a liability. Sometimes you want your arrival unannounced. But even if she had decided that I wasn’t an intruder, she was still set on staring at me the entire time. Not menacingly, just… staring.
Go away. Shoo!
Unfortunately, dogs aren’t telepathic.
“So what’s goin’ on in your life now that the werewolf stuff is over,” he asked.
The ‘werewolf stuff’ was far from over. Nguyen still had yet to explain to me what exactly the ‘nuns’ were and why the vague memory of them made him scared. I had put in the paperwork to acquire the property, but that was a longer process than I liked and there was no guarantee that I could get it given that the property owners were ‘mysteriously missing.’ Felix had a simplistic view of the complex role I had to play.
I preferred it this way. It was better that he think I existed just to order him around.
“Mostly I’ve been trying to keep raccoons from digging into my trash,” I said.
“You know the best way to get those buggers to leave you alone is to put red pepper on everything. Either that or piss all over it.”
“I am not peeing in a garbage can.”
“Well, no. You pee in a cup and then you throw the pee on the garbage can.”
I declined from comment and was saved by the dog, who whirled around to bark as ferociously as a stub-legged mutt can at the door. Felix arose from his reclined position to answer the door and Ros bolted out to greet Randall, circling around his feet. Randall danced around her, trying to dodge her greeting and hold a boxed dehumidifier at the same time.
“Did you clean up the water,” he asked, dipping his head into the living room.
“We’re taking a break,” I explained.
He set the dehumidifier down and pulled out a newspaper. “Well, I have a distraction for you while this machine does its magic.” He’d circled an article for me.
“Missing people,” I read. “Five of them.” I rolled the words around in my head for a few moments before handing the paper back to him. The women in the photos were all in their twenties, conventionally attractive. “A bridal party. Tragic. Why should this interest me?”
“They were all last seen near the Liberty Bridge.”
“Lots of things happen around Liberty Bridge,” I said. “Its a club district.”
He motioned me away from Felix, who was dutifully putting the machine together while Ros The Mutt got in the way.
“I thought that, given your last rendezvous in that area, it might be worth investigation. Two of the bridal party were left behind. They say they just turned their heads and the rest of them were gone- including the bride-to-be.”
I sighed. “I love you, Randall, but you always bring me the bad news.” I took a glance at Felix, wondering if he could overhear me. He’d gotten his first encounter in already, but in his case it was best to introduce the subjects of our work slowly and in person. He believed in the supernatural in bits and pieces and had to see things with his own tiny eyes. It would be easy to just leave him here and take care of it myself but after my last run-in with demons it was probably best that I have as many people with me as possible. “So you think this is The Underground branching out?”
“I think that when people go missing in an area that is notorious for demon activity it bears some looking around.” I must have gotten a smug look on my face for a moment because his became quite flat. “What?”
“So what you’re saying here is that the demons are up to no good,” I said with a satisfied smirk.
His shoulders sagged. “Please don’t use this as an excuse to go on a crusade against them.”
“I am offended by that assumption.”
“You have a history of a one-track mind.”
“A much shorter history than they do of murder,” I said, putting up a hand in a form of conversational compromise. “But I digress: my attitude towards them has shifted somewhat from extreme anger to extreme suspicion. Besides- you wouldn’t have told me this if you didn’t trust me with the information. I wouldn’t want to disappoint you.” I glanced over at Felix. “Do you think we should take him with us? I think he might be going a little stir-crazy.”
“We are weighing the consequences of leaving him alone with an open heating element versus accompanying him out in public. Its a very tough decision.”
There was the heavy whirring sound as Felix managed to turn the dehumidifier on and then a sound of rejoice as he declared himself a genius. “Ha!”
“Put on a coat, Medhi,” I called to him. Both he and the dog peered over the edge of the appliance. “We’re taking a field trip.”
Felix rode with Randall for three reasons. The first and most obvious being that Felix seemed not to have brought his license with him when he moved to Pittsburgh and I was trying to abide by the law wherever applicable. The second was that if too many people saw Randall and I arriving places together they would start to suspect that we were affiliated.
The third was that I still had not gotten the smell of dirty hobo out of my car and wasn’t looking to refresh it.
Downtown always made me feel small. It doesn’t seem like such an accomplishment, but the way that the older buildings seemed almost stacked onto each other and leaning on their neighbors for support, and that the newer buildings stretched high into the sky… well… it did a great job of reminding you of your place on the ground. I had a love-hate relationship with this city. On the one hand, there was an immense power here: steel and invention, creativity and constant activity. But on the other hand…
...it could make you feel powerless.
Randall had marked the disappearances within a five-block area, which sounds very accurate until you realize just how much stuff can be crammed into a single block. We parked on different ends of one of them and met in the middle, passing off our meeting as coincidence.
“What do we do first,” Randall asked.
“Well, the smart move would be to find someone who would have seen something. So we need to keep an eye out for people who spend a lot of time on this block: bouncers, beggars-”
“Hookers,” Felix offered with an excited glint in his eye.
“Sex workers,” I insisted. “If you would control yourself.”
“I wasn’t gonna do nothin’,” he insisted. “I’m just curious.”
“You just remember that we’re on the job, here. Keep a few feet’s distance from me and let me do the talking.”
TV shows make the gathering of information seem like the easy part of solving a mystery. You ask a few questions and you flash a fake badge and they give you the answers. What they don’t show you is-
“Back of the line,” said the bouncer behind his big, dark sunglasses. This one was the third in a series of uncooperative bouncers, and he was particularly big.
“But I’m with-”
“Back of the line.”
“I’m investigating the-”
“Back. Of the. Line.”
I felt anger boiling up in me like a teakettle while we were caught in a staring contest. Denial after denial after denial had made me angry and I promised that I wouldn’t force anyone into anything if I didn’t have to. But I could do it. I could make him comply. All it took was a little bit more energy, more persuasion, and I could make him do anything I told him to.
I felt it in my gut, rolling to a boil. But before I could open my mouth to give the order, I was pulled back by large, warm hands. The crowd passed by me in a whirl as I was lifted away from the bouncer in an undignified manner and set on the curb.
“What was that for?” I demanded of Randall. “I almost had him!”
He set me down far enough away from the crowd that I wouldn’t be tempted to go running back. “I could see what you were about to do. You know how I feel when you are about to control a person,” he said, keeping a distance from Felix while he scolded me. “It does not seem right.”
“I was just going to get him to give me some answers!”
“Josephine,” he said in a very fatherly manner. “If he was not going to give them to you, I do not think that he had any. It would have been a waste of your effort.” I narrowed my eyes. You win this round. “I think that it is safe to say that the majority of club bouncers in this area also know nothing. We may be wise to move elsewhere.”
I sighed. Of course, he was right. But I am not fond of being told what to do, particularly when I’m on a mission that might save a few lives. A reminder that I only had power in certain circles- outside of that I was just a tiny middle-aged woman with a temper.
“So our next source of information would be on the corner,” I said, watching Felix’s interest pique. I stared him down until he stopped grinning. “Behave.”
As usual, the street corner was accompanied by an awful lot of shouting. A common past-time of the religious fanatics is to yell threats of damnation towards the people that they deem most worthy of it. As such, the denizens of Liberty Ave are common recipients.
The cold weather had scared off all but the most diligent of protesters, which now numbered three. But the girls were more than happy to brave the cold and I had to admire them for that. I myself was freezing my butt off the moment I got away from the warmth of crowds.
We approached, ignoring the threats of my eternal suffering. I recognized a few of the women from previous encounters, but the only one that I knew by name was April. She recognized me and took a step forward.
“Jo Ann,” she greeted me in a husky voice. I had forgotten what pseudonym I had used with her. Its always nice when they remember for you. “Haven’t seen you in a minute!” April sounded like she’d smoked too many cigarettes, but I just assumed that was just her natural voice. Today she was dressed wisely- with a fur-lined coat that fell off the side of one of her shoulders. She had foregone the fishnets for leopard print leggings.
“Hello again, April,” I said. I was aware that Felix was eyeing her and I shot a glance at him to make sure he knew that I knew. “I was hoping that you could help us with something.”
“This about those missing folks?”
I stepped back. “How did you know?”
“We been waitin’ for someone to ask us, but the police been shy about talkin’ to us about anything.”
I made a disgruntled sound. Typical. “Well, we could really use your help if you have any information.”
“Well, I didn’t see nothin’ but Delilah’s got somethin’ to say about it. Ey! ‘Lilah!”
They all turned to look at Delilah- a dark woman of thin build and bright violet hair extensions. She looked like she was swimming in her coat.
“I don’t do nothin’ for free,” she said. And now I understood why the police never asked them questions.
I fished through my pockets for a twenty and she came closer, her face moving in scrutiny. She shook her head. “Nuh,” she said. She gave a slight nod of her head towards Felix. “He pays me.”
The demand took me aback for a moment. I was at a complete loss for it. Meanwhile, Felix’s ears were turning hot and I could imagine that the blood in his face had decided to go… elsewhere. I handed him the twenty, which he handed to Delilah.
“What do you know about these missing people,” I asked.
She stuffed the bill into her bustier after checking to see if it was fake. “That its more than the papers got to say about it. Been going on longer than a week and it ain’t just the five they say is missing. I saw it happen to at least twenty.”
Delilah knew how to lead you into a story and then leave you hanging. “What did you see happen,” I asked, fishing for another twenty to hand to Felix. She popped her gum and I was drawn to the fuchsia of her lipstick.
“Well, its like this,” she said, popping her gum again. “These folks will be tryin’ to get into a club or they’ll be leaving one, right? And all of a sudden they turn their heads like they hear something and they go wandering off in the opposite direction like they in a trance.”
“A trance,” I repeated. That didn’t sound like something demons did to my knowledge, but it seemed that I was always learning something new these days. I fished for another bill. “Do you know where they went?” She took the bill and pointed east of where we stood. “Can you show me?”
“You think I’m movin’ from this spot for a twenty? Hell no. I got work to do.” She gave a wink to Felix and I watched his ears turn bright red. “Block or so that way. That’s all I got.”
I considered my dwindling cash. “Thank you. You’ve been helpful.” I turned and left them, Randall literally having to pull Felix away from them. He’d evolved from blushing to making motions at them.
I gave thought to what Delilah had said: that there were more of them, that they had followed something like they were in a trance. I clenched my jaw. Folklore had all kinds of things to say about that and once again, narrowing it down to a single source was going to be tough.
“So, what do you think it is,” Randall said as we began to turn a corner.
“I’m not ruling out demons, but that’s only because of the area,” I said. “She said that they looked like they’d heard something. We’re close enough to the river that it might be sirens, but that would be a first for this area. I don’t know- there’s lots of things.”
“Sirens are like the ones that sing a song and then drown you, right,” Felix interjected, showing an uncharacteristic interest in the supernatural. “Like in The Odyssey.” Randall nodded. “But they’re fish ladies, so doesn’t make sense.”
“Its possible that they’ve taken human form,” I said, pretending to know what I was talking about.. “But that’s just a theory.”
We were heading east, away from the bridge and to the less populated parts of the club district. It was eerie how you could be in one place and completely surrounded by people and in the next moment feel like you’re absolutely alone. It was colder here. Even through my winter coat and gloves I felt cold.
“You know it could be some Pied Piper of Hamelin shit,” Felix offered.
“Look at you,” Randall said proudly. “Making suggestions.”
“Hey, I know stuff,” Felix defended. “Or at least I know what stuff is.”
I heard Randall give him a proud little pat.
I also heard music. It wasn’t the boom-boom-boom of the clubs along the main street, but something gentler. Melodious and somewhat forlorn. I furrowed my eyebrows and tried to find the source of it, but it was fleeting. “Do you guys hear that?”
I couldn’t bring myself to turn around and see their reaction; I didn’t want to lose that thread of music barely gracing my ears. There was a silence between the two of them and then the slight ruffling sound as they collectively shrugged. I took a step or two closer and heard the cord spike into a high note. I couldn’t tell if it was a voice or if it was an instrument, but it definitely was something with a great range. If they said anything in response, then I had not heard it. I was thoroughly distracted.
I let my feet guide me and everything else fell away. I was soles on pavement and the cold breeze and the blur of brick. And I could feel it, I could see it, the air vibrating with sound and drawing me closer and closer, down and down the winding alleyways and around buildings I never bothered to see. They didn’t seem like buildings anymore, just walls and walls leading me through the labyrinth of the city. All of my thoughts seemed to melt away and I was focused only on finding the source of that sound.
I could hear it louder than ever and I knew that in just a few more feet I would find the source of it. Yes, just beyond this door would be my answer. I took a step onto the curb and-
-was knocked out of the way by someone coming from my immediate right. I was on the pavement in seconds, completely dazed and disoriented. My head spun as I tried to get up, but that didn’t matter. I was ready to fight whoever deterred me from my goal…
...which I couldn’t remember what exactly my goal was, now that I thought of it. I recalled a tune, and running and… no. It was all gone by the time my head cleared. Felix and Randall were both absent… how far had I gone? How fast had I been running?
I heard the click of heels nearby in the darkness and got ready to defend myself. “Who’s there,” I demanded. It sounded shakier than I had meant it to.
She came into the halo of a nearby streetlight and I didn’t recognize her. Though the vermillion lights exaggerated most of her features, I could tell a few things. One was that she was tall, which was helped by the heels she wore. At first I thought maybe one of the workers on the corner had followed me, but she held herself in a different manner.
She didn’t look like she belonged in this part of town with the way she was dressed: T-length dress, expensive jacket, leather gloves. Several price points above the average clubber and bar-goer, that was for sure. Her purse was a cheap knock-off, though.
But then I saw it in her eyes: a little red pinpoint of light behind the pupils that I couldn’t look away from. Sulphur. I smelled sulphur. A demon, that was for damn certain. But beneath the foul smell was something full of spice, and something rich.
Three parts rosemary to two parts clove. The dried rind of an orange and just a pinch of tobacco.
“I see you got a new body,” I said sourly. “Bored housewife? What’s this one’s name, or should I still call you Vanessa?”
Vanessa had been getting on my case about protections for demons. Though she had been useful in her own way during the last case, she had yet to prove to me that demons were worth protecting.
“I burned through her a week ago. College kids are so… February. High-profile mistresses are more in the now.” She flipped her long, dark brown hair over her shoulder. “This one’s Unity. Can you believe it? A mistress named Unity. Classic. I think I decided that I’m going to be working through the alphabet backwards. It’s important to have goals.”
I grated my teeth. I’m sure that she knew that I disapproved of this kind of behavior. A demon’s occupation usually means that the host has to die, and from all accounts I’d heard it was not a peaceful or painless death. It was evident that she didn’t care.
“Well, Unity,” I said through those grated teeth. “Is there a reason you just assaulted me?”
She looked offended at the choice of words, putting a hand to her chest in a gesture of shock. “Assaulted? I may have just saved your life.”
“You threw me to the ground, that’s pretty textbook for assault.”
For the first time, I really got a good look at the building. It seemed unassuming in that it was made of the same crumbling brick as just about anything in this part of town. A sad little light flickered high above the building, barely even offering any illumination. The door was made of a worn kind of aluminum, and seemed to be one of the newer features of the building. I didn’t see any windows, though I realized that I was in the back-facing alley.
“Tell me what’s in there and maybe I won’t be so curious,” I said, folding my arms at my chest.
“I don’t know what’s in there, I just know that people go in and they don’t come out.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You’re sure they didn’t just… leave using another door?”
“We’ve been watching this place for a few weeks.” She gave a gentle nod to the door. “Some people can get in, others are locked out. But we don’t see people exit ever, just enter.”
“‘We’ meaning demons, I suppose,” I said. “So why would that be interesting to you? I thought you were busy ruining lives.”
“We come together when there’s an issue of territory.” She stole a glance at the building. “We think it might be Good Folk.”
She meant fairies. You had to be careful when you talked about them sometimes in case they might be listening. I hadn't ruled the possibility out, but I am also an incredibly petty person when it comes to the things that come out of the mouths of demons. I wasn't prepared to believe anything that ‘Unity’ had to say on the matter. “That sounds like a rather convenient conclusion,” I said.
Her shoulders sagged. “What's it gonna take to let me help you?”
“You're not helping me,” I said. “Not while you're in that body.”
She grinned coyly. “I read you wrong. I thought you’d be into girls.”
That was not what I’d meant. “Let go of your host.”
She halted, all of her exaggerated motions stopped before she could even start them. “Why would I do that?”
I squared my shoulders and looked up at her intensely. “Let go of her for thirty seconds and then we can talk about you helping me out.”
She sank to her knees and let out a cry that gave me the impression that she’d been crying the entire time we were talking. “Please,” she begged. “Please, you have to help me. I’ll give you anything just please don’t let her-”
The demon shut her up before she could even finish out her thirty seconds of control. Her shoulders stopped heaving and she rolled her head back up to look at me. “Satisfied?”
I shook my head slowly. “This is exactly why I can’t work with you. You don’t even know what you’re doing wrong!”
“So she’s not 100% on board with me slowly eating through her fragile little body. Its the only way we can survive.”
“Parasite,” I spat.
“Well, that’s not very nice,” she said, rising to her feet. She was still shaking a little, and I could tell that Unity was fighting against her.
“Cotter showed no signs of deterioration, and he was possessed for months. If he can coexist with a consenting host, then so can you.” She pouted her lips and folded her arms at her chest. “If you can find a host that will willingly take you and won’t fight against you every step of the way, I’ll consider your offer. But until then, I’m not getting tangled up with you.”
I heard footsteps heading my way. Felix and Randall must have found me and were on their way. Unity gave me a long look before reaching into her purse to scribble something down. She held it out to me and I stared for a good, long moment before doing anything else.
“This is an address to someone who knows more about the Good Folk. Just… promise me that you won’t go without me.” She shoved the paper into my hand. “This concerns us, too,” she said before fleeing into the darkness, the echoes of her heels following her there.
“What happened,” Randall asked, a little out of breath. Felix, on the other hand, seemed like he could run another mile if properly motivated. “You mumbled something to us and then you took off running. We’ve been looking for you for an hour.” He leaned his head to the side to get a better look at Unity, who was entirely gone by now. “Who was that?”
I stared at the slip of paper in my hand before putting it in my pocket. “An informant. She tells me that there’s something up with this building.”
He took a look at it, Felix’s head following his gaze. “What is it?”
“I don’t… know,” I said. I walked to a corner so that I could find the nearest alley and maybe some indication of what the place was, apart from a magical deathtrap. I found boarded-up windows, a very large rat, and some lazy graffiti before I found anything like a sign.
The windows on the front of the building were boarded up and it seemed like they had been for awhile. Fliers for events dating back further than the past year were fading underneath more recent ones. I looked up: a flat plastic sign had been turned inward in its frame- the text of it reading Y-V-N-E. Envy. So it was yet another club that had closed down.
It wasn’t surprising to me, though. Clubs like that had a tendency to crop up and then be gone within the year. Even off the main drag, commercial rent here was high. Places either succeeded or they nose-dived.
Maybe it was just me, but a club named ‘Envy’ sure sounded like a demon hangout to me.
“Do you want to check it out,” he asked nervously.
I bit my lip. Unity did warn me not to go in there, and even if she was hiding something in that old club that didn’t mean that I was prepared to face it blind. It would be best to play her game: see who it was she wanted me to talk to and try to get information from them first. “They probably know that we’re here,” I said. I thought about the scrap of paper in my palm. Should I trust it? “We won’t do it tonight. Let’s take Felix home and check on that pipe first. Make sure the dog isn’t drinking out of the puddles.”
Trying to find a willing host would put the demon at bay for awhile. I would be free to investigate this without her interfering.
We turned and left the club district, but I still had the faint echo of a song haunting me and twitching at my bones.
Felix’s house was dry as a bone and I trusted that he, more than I, would know how to fix the pipe. We left him there to do whatever it is that Felix does in his spare time, and left the shack in our separate cars. I racked my brain, thinking of people I knew that might be able to help, but if our last adventure was any indication- not a lot of people were willing to work with demons. In fact, I was regarded as one of the few who didn’t want to outright exterminate them all, and even so it was with great reluctance.
I tried calling Nguyen, but he was not picking up. If memory served, he was usually in bed by ten. Too late did I realize that it was far past polite hours of calling.
For a group of people that hid in the shadows, they certainly did seem to turn in rather early.
That scrap of paper was burning in my pocket. It was such an obvious red herring.
I was not intending on checking the address out in person the very next day because I knew exactly what would happen: Unity was going to be there waiting for me and ready to haggle her way into changing my mind. Well, we weren't going to play the game her way because if it was fairies like she'd said it was, then none of this concerned her in the slightest, regardless of what she claimed.
Which meant that the day before our little interview was going to be spent arming myself with research. I knew a handful of things about fairies already, but it was hard for me to recall a number of them without a sensation of deep embarrassment. I'd prefer not to go into the details, but suffice it to say- I had a history with fairies that I didn't want to revisit.
There were the basics, repeated with every myth and credible source. Don't eat the food, don't use your birth name, don't expect anything for free. Honestly, if I were to follow those rules then it wouldn't be much different from going into any regular club.
But, as with any kind of occult research, if you dig too deep it starts to get muddy and accounts begin to conflict. That is often the problem with going solely on things written by humans- it was hard to tell what was first-hand experience and what was just regurgitated for the sake of making a profit, especially these days.
Of course, I didn't put too much stock in the idea that Unity was telling the truth, either. But I have learned that there is a kernel of truth to every lie and that is something worth investigating. And now that I'd had a chance to refresh what I knew about the lore, it was time to find out what it was that she was itching to lead me into.
Luckily for me, all this required was an Internet search.
The address was a little antique shop, a good twenty minutes from the club. It would be feasible for someone so close to know a thing or two. The area was nicer, but not by much and the photo of the storefront gave me the impression that the property wasn't well taken care of. That much didn't surprise me- it was common for much of the Unseen Community to take up abandoned places. No one would bother them, they didn't have to pay for it, and they could do a number of things without calling too much attention to themselves.
There were things in the window, at least, and a sign on the door that proclaimed it was open. Further search told me that it was owned by someone named Wendy McDonald, but there wasn't much else to it.
No one Yelps an antique store.
I decided that this was sufficient information to go by to keep me from going in blind the next day. Waiting one day was long enough to give the impression that I wasn't interested in what the demons had for me without my natural curiosity getting in the way. It was much more polite to go during business hours, not that this was the kind of place that would have gotten much business.
Searching the club itself, I found out why it was closed. It had opened in the early nineties and it had always been somewhat of a dive. The layout of the place was a deathtrap: Three stories tall, with an atrium overlooking the dance floor in the center. The club had gone through several names and ownerships and had paid off safety inspectors each time. It finally closed down for good when someone leaned on the railing on the third floor and fell to his death. After that, no one wanted to go in there anymore.
But it didn’t sound like a haunting, just unsafe.
I thought about fairies again. Well… that’s a word we used to describe them. Some of them hated it, thought it was infantile. Others embraced the child-like evocation. My dealing with them in the past had been… brief. I knew enough about them to try to stay out of their business as much as possible: their rules were weird and inconsistent, making it hard to assert any kind of authority.
I set it all aside, bearing in mind that it all might be a diversion. It was past midnight and I still smelled like a water main. Shower, sleep. Then I could tackle the bigger problems when the rest of the world was awake to give me answers. I went to bed with the echoes of fairy tales dancing around in my head.
It was dark, and I was overcome with the smell of fresh dirt. A dream, a memory... both. Running water and sweat on my forehead. Running, legs tired. Don't touch me, don't touch me, don't you touch me ever again.
“Don’t you touch me ever again!”
What woke me from my sleep was a splash of cold water hitting my face. I jolted out of a sound sleep and tried to jump out of my bed to see who was in my house or if another pipe had burst, but… I wasn’t in my bed.
I stood in bewilderment as I realized that I was outside, in the frost-covered front yard, as the sprinklers had turned on in my neglect to reset them for the cold weather. I was still in my pajamas. And there was the brief moment of absolute panic that comes from waking from a bout of somnambulance, and then deep embarrassment even though not a soul had been around to see it.
I wiped the icy water off of my face and turned to go back inside. As I was shaking the feelings of embarrassment from me, I heard the crash of hard plastic against pavement and whirled back around.
“Shoo,” I yelled at the raccoon. His little furry head popped out over the spill of garbage. “Get out!” I waved my arms at him and he finally scampered off into the trees.
Freezing, confused, and now angry, I turned back towards my house. My head was still swimming, as if part of it was still holding onto that dream. But I couldn’t remember a damn thing and I couldn’t figure out what would have made me walk in my sleep. It was going to bug me all day, and there was no way I was going to get back to sleep now that I’d had this kind of a jump start.
It was 7:43, anyhow. If I was going to call Nguyen, I should do it before he left for work at 9.
I let the coffee percolate while the phone rang. At least I presumed that a lawyer, intern or otherwise, would be scheduled to work at 9 on a weekday, but things seemed to be surprising me an awful lot these days.
He answered, somewhat groggily. "Austin Nguyen speaking.”
I had forgotten which phone I was using. “Good morning, Nguyen. Report.”
I couldn't tell if the pause was tired or sad. Maybe I was putting too much on him these days. “The outlook isn’t good, Ms Krauss.”
I don't like bad news. "How ‘not good?’”
“They passed a motion to separate ourselves from you.”
After all I'd done for them without them knowing it. “Did anyone speak on my behalf?”
“A few voted against it, but not enough to change the motion. I’m afraid that you don’t have many supporters in the Committee. Many of them think that you killed Marshalls.” I wish I had, to be honest. But the implication that I was a murderer made me angry.
“What's the progress on your book?" He had tasked himself with writing a history of werewolves, identifying a possible threat posed to them. It had taken him less than two weeks to write a rough draft on their relationship with demons. There was still more work to be done. That book better be thicker than my foot by the time he's done with it.
“Its a little slow-going,” he said. No kidding. “it can be hard, sometimes, to translate.”
"Well, I understand. You must be busy.” I tapped my nails against my coffee cup. “How does your kind deal with fairies,” I asked, feeling that this might be a good segue.
“Fairies,” he said with pointed skepticism. I heard a rustling sound as he put on a suit jacket and pants that likely left his ankles exposed. “I’ve never personally come across them. We generally stay out of each other’s business.”
“Hm.” Well, he would be absolutely no help on this. “Well, I guess I’ll let you go. Just keep the book in mind and call me as soon as you get a breakthrough on it.” I hung up, figuring that by now he was on his way out.
So my only other choice for information, then, would be to see about the antique shop. Diversion though it may be, there was a chance that I might be able to squeeze some truth out of them. And I was not about to go into that club with no preparation.
I called up Randall and Felix to meet me at the address around noon the next day. I was going to arrive early and see if I could figure the place out first.
It was sunny, but it was still cold and I could see my breath even though it was past noon. This wasn’t the worst part of downtown, but I personally wouldn't spend too much time here if I could help it. Antique shops are a duality- either they indicate an area with a rich history, or they're the last-ditch effort of a place that has a lot of shit to unload. Given that it was wedged between a Cash for Gold place and a dollar store, I presumed the latter.
That said, it looked as though it was at least pretending to be one of the nicer shops in that it didn't outwardly appear to be a sad little junk shop in a tiny space that barely registered on anyone's radar. The front was nice: keeping some of the shiner objects like complete sets of silverware and barely chipped china sets in the window.The doors hid peacefully beneath green and white-striped awnings, the title of the shop declared in a vinyl serif font. Despite the unseasonal cold weather, the owner had adorned the side-walk with painted chairs.
My personal favorite was a wooden chair that had been painted in a style that I think was called 'Americana.' The seat of the chair had been cut out and converted into a planter. A bush of fake geraniums illustrated this feature.
I knew at least three women from my hometown who would have kept a pair of them on either side of their front door, complete with fake geraniums. It was curious to me that none of them had price tags on them. I pondered the entire point.
It looked like a real place, that was for certain. If it was a cover, it was a convincing one. There was the still the chance that I was given a phony address to keep me far away from the club.
But that aside, I was full of curiosity as I approached the door. It is a fact that antique stores, thrift shops, and otherwise secondhand resellers generate a yearning for exploration. But before I could put a hand on the door handle, I was stopped by an unfamiliar voice.
… and a hint of tobacco.
“I told you not to come here without me,” she said. Her voice was significantly different this time. It still carried the indignant tone that I had come to associate with this particular demon, but it was… meeker. More timid and less demanding. I felt as though she were asking instead of commanding.
I turned around to face her. Her new vessel was a contrast to the one that I had met the night before. She had ditched the rich heiress look for someone that most folks wouldn’t give a full glance ]to before dubbing her ‘troubled.’ She wasn't exactly what I would have called a 'subtle' person to look at. And by that, I mean to say that her hair was pink. Well, it was pink at the ends, where the twists in her textured hair had been bleached and then dyed over. I wasn't sure if the look was intentional or not, but it looked like someone had tried to spray paint a sheep. And there is a way to make something like that work for you, provided that you dress well.
But she did not. I believe they call it 'grunge' when they wear jeans with holes in them.
As she pulled me away from the door, my eyes were drawn to a white patch on her wrist, held together with an Ace bandage and peeking out of the sleeve of her hoodie. Can’t have been in that body more than a day and already she was killing her.
“How did you know I was going to be here? Have you been camping out and just waiting for me to show up?”
“I told you,” she said benignly. “I’ve got a witch friend. Keeps my clued in on things.”
I put that aside and stood with my hands on my hips. The constant changing of bodies made me angry. “Let me guess: Tina? Tabitha? ‘T’ does come before ‘U’ in the alphabet, doesn’t it? What did you do with the last one, hm? Is she face-down in a ditch somewhere for the police to find?”
She looked down at her feet. Was she showing… shame? That was unexpected.
“I had Unity check herself into a hospital. They have her being treated for…” There was that odd shame look again. “A temporary mental break.”
I raised an eyebrow. “So what’s this one’s story?”
She quietly moved her hands out of my view, in an attempt to hide them I would guess. But I’d already seen them and it wasn’t going to change anything.
I was feeling smug. “I think that if you spend any amount of time with humans, you’ll find that we’re all complicated.” Why did it feel weird to make her feel bad about her choices. I didn’t have a problem with any of her other vessels, but this one… she looked genuinely hurt. “You have my attention. Let her go for a minute so I can talk to her.”
It was different this time. It wasn’t like the entire-body shrug that left Unity begging on the ground. This one was as simple as a breath, as though she were swallowing herself down. Her posture changed, her shoulders caving inward in a timid slump and self-consciously holding onto her arm as if trying to hide behind it.
“What’s your name, hon,” I asked.
She sank a little more into herself. “Daisy,” she said.
I lowered my voice a little, feeling that if I were too harsh in the way I spoke that I might scare her right out of her body. “Its going to be okay, Daisy. I have a few questions for you.” She nodded meekly. “First, I need to know if you feel ill at all: fever, chills, nausea?”
She shook her head.
“Do you feel like you’re being forced to do things you don’t want to do?”
She shook her head again.
I didn’t understand and it was rather plain on my face. “Do you actually like being possessed?”
She shrank several inches. “You think its weird, don’t you,” she asked. It wasn’t much more than a whisper and it was very easy to tell when the demon was in control. But I couldn’t help but notice that when the demon was speaking, some of that quietness stayed.
“I guess I just don’t understand,” I said. “Doesn’t it make you feel… powerless?”
She brushed a lock of hair behind her ear, hiding the bandage again. “I’m already pretty powerless.” It came out as a heavy sigh. “At least it means I’m not alone all the time.” She continued to decrease in size.
I got a feeling that the conversation was officially over. I watched her posture change and the light in her eyes come back. “You think you can win me over just like that?”
“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t doing this for selfish reasons, but when we got to talking about it, I started thinking… if I’m going to be staying here awhile, I might as well give this do-gooder thing a shot. If it doesn’t work, I can at least say that I tried and I go back to partying.”
“You’re not worried about your ‘demon cred?’”
“‘Demon cred’ isn’t like… even a thing. You made that up. Most of us just want to have some damn fun for once in our eternal lives and are a little shocked to find that human bodies have like… limits.” She paused. “Which is why you need my help.”
“I don’t need your help.” I turned back towards the antique shop, ready to get this over with, but she put a hand on my shoulder and spun me around to face her again.
“Yes you do. The Good Folk know less about human limits than we do. You need someone with that perspective when you start talking to them.”
“And how do I know that this isn’t just a trap?”
She shrugged. “You don’t. And that is why you have to trust me.”
She was pushing the issue hard and I was torn on whether it made me feel forgiving or suspicious. Randall and Felix would be here soon, so my choices were let her lead me or make her leave.
“Some ground rules,” I said. Her eyes lit up. “You do not tell the boys that you’re a demon.”
She crossed her arms in front of her chest. I could see the hints of a sleeve tattoo. “Why the hell not?”
“Felix doesn’t believe in most supernatural things.”
She tilted her head curiously. “How does that work in your line of business at all?”
“Let me rephrase that: he’s a dumb man-child who needs to see things with his own eyes before he believes them. As for DeLione, he’s requested that I keep my distance from your kind since our last encounter.”
“How is that healing, by the way?”
The scar was still a raw, pinkish color, and occasionally there was the phantom of a sting of pepper when I moved the wrong way. It was healing, at least, but between running from werewolves and my own tendency to pick at scabs, it was a slow process. “About as well as it can,” I said, giving her a kind of lukewarm answer. “Second rule: do your best not to comment on things that are not related to this case.” She snapped her smug mouth shut. Yeah, that’s right. “Third, if catch wind of any kind of betrayal, I will not play favorites. I know how to send you back where you came from. You will go back to a deep dark hole and you will never see the light of day.”
She shook. I wasn’t expecting her to be scared. I saw the light fade from her eyes for a moment before coming back and she hid her face bashfully. Did I actually scare her?
“You have my word,” she said. “For what it’s worth.”
“Good. So tell me what I should expect when I go in there?”
She ran her hands through her hair, cascading that candle-flame hair color in a flicking manner. “Well, to start, there’s five of them in that shop. Wendy McDonald is the owner, but she has four underlings. Neighbor, Recipient, R-”
“Most people who come to this plane get a new name for one reason or another. If you take a vessel, you get their name like I do. But if you are able to make your own form like The Folk do, you get to choose it. So you get some weird-ass names sometimes with too many vowels and unnecessary accents and apostrophes. But for the ones that want to blend in, they do their research and try to find human-sounding names.” She gave an exasperated sigh. “But these guys like things fast, and research doesn’t always cut it. So they pick up the first name they see, which I’m guessing in this case was through automatic mailers.”
I was going to have a hard time carrying on a conversation with these people if that was the case. Not without laughing. “So… Recipient…”
“Recipient, Resident, Neighbor, and Valued Customer. Those are the goons. The one that you’re going to be talking to is kind of a…,” she paused and made some hand motions that indicated she was having trouble coming up with the words properly. “I wanna say… mob boss. Kind of keeps a tab on what’s going on with all the Folk around town. So if anyone knows what’s going on inside that club, its her.”
“Do these… turf wars between you and fairies happen… often?”
She rolled her eyes. “More often than they used to. I think they’re getting… braver.”
I smiled an acidic smile. “And who usually wins these wars?”
“Look, I am trying to work with you here. Will you at least give me the respect that you would one of your colleagues?”
I was about to give some snappy retort as to how of my colleagues I only fully respected Randall- Felix was slowly growing on me and he had his strong suits when it came to fixing a pipe and climbing trees, but he was far from earning my respect. However, I heard a rattling rumble of DeLione’s Geo as it slowly came to a stop. I’d been meaning to get on his case about that muffler, but I hate to be a nag about something like that when there are more important things to address.
Daisy and I walked out of the alley just in time to see Felix bending awkwardly to get out of the car and Randall moving with an expert sort of fluidity, as though his mass were no great concern in regards to the confines of his comically small car.
“Sorry we’re late,” Randall said. “I had to stop Felix from eating an entire box of granola bars.” Felix was trying to bite his way through the wrapper of one them still. Randall held out his hand and gestured that he would put it away. Felix dropped it and stuffed his hands in his pockets.
Randall slowed his gait when he saw that I wasn’t alone. I feigned pleasantness for the sake of introductions. “This is Daisy, she’s an... expert on fairies.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘expert,’ ” she said smugly. I decided not to comment.
“She’ll be helping us talk with what she’s calling the Mob Boss.” Felix snickered. “Something funny, Medhi?”
“We got werewolf lawyers and fairy mob bosses,” he said dismissively. “What else this crazy town got? Please tell me that there’s a bakery somewhere run by witches. Or a dance instructor that’s also a vampire.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Felix,” I said, rolling my eyes. “The nearest registered vampire colony is in Buffalo. Its not even worth the trip to Pittsburgh because there’s too many werewolves.” He shut his lips on the matter. “In any case, that’s the situation. Whatever is going on in that old club is fairy-flavored. We’re going to be here for information. I need you two to keep behind me in case it gets hairy.”
“Hm,” Daisy said, shifting her weight. “I should have mentioned that: everything is currency to The Good Folk. We don’t just ask them questions and they give it to us. You have to be willing to offer them something in exchange.”
“I can offer her immunity,” I said, and I knew exactly what commentary she was suppressing: that I would freely extend my diplomacy to someone I had never met and yet… demons had to earn my trust. Was I perhaps a tiny bit unfair?
Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.
“Well, now that we’ve got all that out of the way, let’s go see what’s inside,” I said, smiling sadistically while Daisy burned quietly.
My presence in the shop was announced with a little bell, and I was accosted with the smell of old things, disinfectant, and dust. The niceness of the front window didn't make it past the first aisle, sadly. Directly past the shiny display of barely-abused home goods was the kind of junk that most junk shop owners would consider unsellable.
Broken lamps weren't uncommon to see, but the amount of exposed wiring was a major concern to me, even though they weren't plugged in. All of the knick-knacks were cracked, some were so smashed that they were unrecognizable. I saw some beat-up bird cages that had not been cleaned before putting on the sales floor, some of which looked a little familiar. There was some semblance of an organizational system to the shop, but it was my understanding that the average antiquer preferred the challenge of a slight mess over a well-kept catalogue. There was something to be said about the ritual of the hunt when it applied to modern-day thrifting.
I thought the occasional placement of odd-eyed or hairless dolls unsettling until I encountered an entire wall of them.
The place seemed entirely empty. I had the three of them filtering in behind me to see if there was anyone else in the building, and when we met at the end of the aisles, I was met with shrugs.
The back wall was lined by a glass-top display case, forming a long U-shape with only enough space behind it for a single person to fit. The wall itself was festooned with decorative plates and cracked bar signs. Through gaps between them, I thought the wall was green, but there wasn't much evidence of it to say for certain. There were two doors, which is where I would have guessed that the owners were.
The glass display implied that its contents were more valuable, but I didn't see anything in there that I would ever consider stealing- even if I were the stealing type. Rows and rows of pins declaring the support of candidates that never even made it to the ballot, brooches from Avon's less memorable design catalogues, and jewelry that I could only envision ever being worn by grade school teachers.
I tapped the service bell at the counter and waited, clicking my nails against the glass top.The door on the right opened and we were all greeted with the confused face of a man who could probably open tin cans with his front teeth. He was thin-looking with a pointed face and gave the impression that he was in his twenties or so, but it was difficult to tell because he was greying prematurely.
He stared at the four of us for a second before retreating back to where he came from. I offered Daisy a look, asking for her all-knowing input, and she responded with yet another shrug.
The door opened again and they all filed out: four men, all seeming a little on the side of odd. The first one out was a large man with dark hair whose size seemed to impede him from standing up straight. He had comically small hands.
He was followed by a leaner gentleman with a long face and orange hair, then a pale-looking man with a beer gut and what looked to be eyeliner. The last one out was the buck-toothed man that had greeted us.
“We’ve been expecting you,” said a slightly nasal voice.
Wendy appeared about average height, but just about every human being over a certain age towered over me. And given that she owned the place, it was her every right to tower. I found the way in which she dressed to be of intrigue: black velvet jacket with gold cord trim, a purple shirt, black jeggings and a page boy hat covered in buttons. Square glasses. Black leather gloves.
“Just how long have you been expecting me,” I asked. “Am I late?” Daisy elbowed me to stop making snide remarks, but you know… she was really in no position to tell me what to do.
Wendy peered over the shelves to her lackeys, who signaled that the coast was clear. One of them turned the ‘open’ sign to ‘closed.’ “Well, when there’s trouble, I hear you like to be around. I’m surprised you didn’t come sooner, to be frank.”
“I’ve been busy,” I said. “So maybe we should just cut to the chase.”
“Chase? There’s no chase. Well, at least not yet.”
Daisy elbowed me again. “Be careful how you speak,” she whispered. “They take almost everything literally.”
Wendy’s eyes flashed a strange color as her attention was brought to Daisy. She curled her lip in disgust before focusing again on me. “You’ve got some… ilk. Perhaps we should discuss this in private.” She motioned for me to follow her to that back room.
“Anything that needs to be discussed can be discussed with my colleagues present,” I said. From the corner of my eye, Daisy beamed smugly. Don’t take it that way. You’re still on my list.
Wendys raised her eyebrows. “You may take one of your ‘colleagues.’”
What a way to break up a team. Randall was my closest confidant, but he would be wholly unhelpful here. Felix was… generally unhelpful.
Which left Daisy and I hated it. “Daisy will be accompanying me,” I said with a sour smile.
I could see the disgust on Wendy’s face before finally accepting my decision. Glad to see that we were both on the same page. She lifted a hinged panel from the countertop and beckoned us to come follow her. I pulled Randall closer. “See if you can get some information from her boys. I don’t think she’s going to play this one straight.” He nodded and I followed the her behind the door.
I was expecting a few possibilities behind that door. One was a back-stock of rejected items or things that just refused to sell. The other was… well, Narnia or something ridiculous like that.
It met somewhere in the middle, where it wasn’t quite a packrat’s hovel and not quite the inside of a wardrobe. But the door lead to a hall and the hall to a smaller room and through the cracks of the door I could see a faint glow. It could have been from a light fixture, but the strange way in which it shifted made me consider otherwise.
When she opened the door, it was to a room about the size of a one-bedroom apartment resembling something similar to the store outside. However, this part of the shop seemed like it actually had valuables. The light here was different- dim but clear. I stole a glance at Daisy to see that the light could somewhat reveal the demon form that I knew lie beneath the timid woman. It was as though Daisy were being seen through a veil of white, lips painted red. I was aware that she was staring at me in a similar curiosity and I wondered just what this light revealed about me, and what was causing it.
I scanned the shelves, but couldn’t see where it was emanating from specifically. It touched everything: from the foreign-labeled apothecary bottles to the strange stones in their own protective casing.
“Have a seat,” she said, indicating a pair of folding chairs leaning up against the wall. She herself took a place behind a table. Taking our seats on the opposite side of her, I saw how this strange light affected her as well, and she seemed damn aware of it. She made a point of removing her glasses so that we could see the strangeness of her eyes. Where out in the store they had simply been brown, here they had split into two separate hues: the right was a white-blue and the other boasting an orange similar to the setting sun. She removed her hat, which had been hiding two spiraling horns that poked out of her mess of curly hair. “This is quite the occasion,” she said. “Its not everyday that we attract the attention of a Guardian.”
“Its not everyday that people just go missing without a trace,” I said, but she just shook her head.
“On the contrary: people go missing without a trace at least daily. What makes you think that this is to do with me?”
I contemplated. Did I tell her about the melody? About the uncontrollable urge to follow it and waking up in my yard with pieced of it echoing in my head? For once, I was glad that Daisy spoke instead of me.
“There’s an abandoned building,” she said. “People go in, but they don’t come out.”
“And how am I to know that it isn’t you and your… ilk?”
Daisy raised an eyebrow and leaned back in her chair. “Demons own up to their shit.”
“You did say that you were expecting us,” I chimed. “Can you think of any reason why the fairies would be abducting humans?”
She offered a coy little smile.. “Hm… I do hope you know that information has a price.” I was prepared to offer her protection or immunity or any other abstract concept when she began leaning forward. “You have some lovely buttons on your blouse,” she said. I looked down at the plain pearlescent buttons. I raised an eyebrow.
“They’re plastic,” I said, a little perplexed.
“Plastics are highly valued in our lands,” she said. “We don’t have the processes to make them, so the only way to obtain them is by trade. Several of the queens are very fond of them. I bet they could fetch a high price if put to proper use.” She gave me a wide smile with more teeth than I had ever seen on a person.
I narrowed my eyes and pulled the button from my top, tossing it across the table towards her with a sad little ‘clink!’
“Well, no need to be hostile,” she said, picking the button from the table.
“The kidnappings,” I persisted.
“You should know by now that we’re always kidnapping humans,” she said. “Have been for centuries.”
“Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but the general consensus is that we find you humans amusing in a… quaint sort of way.”
“We’re… pets?” I felt myself becoming angry and I tried not to let it show.
“You say it with such disdain.”
“That’s because its disdainful. You can’t just kidnap people and declare them your housepets without giving us a chance to refuse.” Daisy put her hand on my knee as if to tell me to calm down, but it just made me angrier.
Wendy put her hands up in a motion of defense. “I never said that I condone this practice, but it does come and go like a trend. And there is somewhat of an honor to it: we find humans to be… talented as well as aesthetically pleasing. Your value isn’t entirely superficial.”
I choked down my rage. “Can you elaborate on that?”
She smiled. “That will cost you a button.”
I gritted my teeth and pulled off another one. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Daisy stealing a glance of the skin beneath my shirt. I made her aware that I could see her and she began looking idly in another direction. It was uncertain whether the pleased look on Wendy’s face was in reaction to the button or my discomfort.
“Humans are funny little creatures because they don’t realize just how much potential they have,” she said. She had a strange little smile on her lips. “You have as many flaws as minutes in a year, and yet here you’ve built this gleaming city of steel and glass. You can learn, you can create, you can evolve… there are so many things that humans are capable of that we are not. You should take our fondness for you as a… compliment. Appreciate it.” She leaned back in her chair and set her shoes on the table: big, clunky ones with heavy heels.
I put up a hand to cover my mouth. “What is she talking about,” I whispered to Daisy.
“The Lands are kind of locked. They go through reincarnation cycles and live the same lives year after year, so before anything can really take off someone presses the restart button and they have to start over.”
“So we’re a commodity because we don’t reincarnate?”
“Well… not exactly.”
“If you don’t mind my saying,” Wendy chimed. “The last Guardian had a better grasp on our society than you do. Did he not teach you well enough?”
I narrowed my eyes. “That will cost you a button.”
She gave me a nod of respect and tossed one back onto the table. “I see you’re learning.”
“Let me just say that our lessons were cut short and I’ve had to do a lot of learning on my own.”
“That is just so… cute,” she said. I didn’t appreciate it.
“But back to the topic at hand, you think that someone is stealing humans for pets,” I said.
“It certainly seems the most likely, given the history of the trade.”
“Then who is luring humans away?”
“If I might have the button back.”
I growled inaudibly. This was a stupid game that I didn’t have time to play, but if it was the only way to get answers out of her, fine. “You can take it back.”
She grinned and swept it back into her hand, clicking them together in delight. “My kind always come to me when they’re in a bind. Some come to this land by accident and some on purpose, but they are always distraught to find that the world doesn’t work the same way as they expect it to. And I was surprised to find someone very important at my door some time ago, with an awful lot of questions about how to take care of humans. You see… she had never encountered them in the wild and wanted to know where to find them. And of course, I could only oblige.”
I clenched my jaw. “So she wanted to ‘domesticate’ us,” I concluded.
“Well, of course! It has become very fashionable to have one. You know how trends are. Its happened before, of course. But you know how it can be with supply and demand..”
“The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” I said. Sometimes Felix had moments of genius tucked away in that hormone-addled brain.
“Oh, see? So smart! There have been other instances of course, but that did start the trend.”
I wasn’t buying it completely. “Those were children,” I said. “These are adults.”
It was a sick sort of grin that started small and spread across her face like a disease. “To immortal beings, all humans are children.” She sifted her buttons through her fingers and they clacked musically. “But age is not the factor here. Where there are no children to be found, the pipe calls to those who have been Touched. Those who remember it in dreams and vague memories of their childhood, or even more recent. This is what makes them children to us.”
I remembered the haunting tune that lead me away from Liberty street, that lured me out into the yard in my sleep. Damnit. I knew it was going to come back to bite me.
You can wipe that smug smile off your face too, Daisy.
“So your fairy friend has a magic pipe,” I said, trying to choke down the ridiculousness of the concept. “And she’s keeping people hostage inside an old club so she can sell them on the market. That’s basically what you’re saying. And you didn’t feel an obligation to stop any of this... because?”
She held out her hand and I rolled my eyes before ticking off another button.
“Well, the nature of this friend, of course. You simply don’t refuse the requests of royalty, no matter what court you no longer belong to.”
She stacked her buttons on the table like poker chips. “The Queen of the Trischi, known to you as the Winter Queen.”
Daisy expressed more shock than I did. If I were a better actor, maybe I would have been able to pull it off as being unfazed, but mostly I’m sure I just looked ignorant. But I was not about to let that get in the way of doing my job. “Well, statuses like that don’t mean anything in this world. Since you won’t do it, then it is up to me to stop her.”
Wendy’s grin was incredibly wide.”Your friend seems to disagree with you,” she said. Daisy seemed frozen.“Talk amongst yourselves,” she said, swiveling her chair around to face the wall. It was obvious that she was still listening. I know I would be.
“You have no idea what you’re getting into,” Daisy told me.
“This is my job,” I said. “If she can’t talk to her own people, the onus is on me.”
“You can’t reason with fairy royalty,” she said. “Even less than you can reason with human royalty. Humans at least die. Fairies just get coronated year after year and think they own everything because essentially in their world they do.”
“Well, they don’t own everything here and someone has to be the one to tell them,” I said. “I’m not about to just let this happen.”
“ If you let this happen, eventually in a month or so the Queen will die and go back to the Lands and it will be over.”
“So you want me to just let her get away with kidnapping people because ‘it’ll be over soon?’ Do you know how awful that sounds?”
She sighed. “I’m a demon. We live in awful.”
I put my hands on my hips. “Then what does your human think of it?”
“The way I see it, there’s three of us here and if we can’t decide between the two of us, Daisy’s probably got an opinion. So what is it?”
Her body gave a small shudder and even though I knew that their relationship was consensual I still expected her to fall to her knees and beg me to help her. But instead, she just wobbled and sagged, hiding her face behind her hair. The thin veil of white around her dimmed and I could more clearly see her face.
“What do you think, Daisy,” I asked. “Do you think we should just wait it out and let those people become pets?”
She paused, as if unsure if she should speak. Now that I think of it, it was a little unfair to bring her into it under these circumstances. As far as I knew, she’d only been introduced to this kind of life less than a day ago. She might not be mentally prepared to give an answer.
“I think,” she said meekly, biting her lip as if she were afraid to speak. “I think that if we just let it happen it will keep happening.”
I smiled and watched her face as it went from tired to angry, and the pinpoints behind her eyes start to glow again. They rolled. “You’re all sentimental putzes and you’re all doomed.” She sighed. “But I guess I’m outnumbered by you, aren’t I? So go on and tell me how you plan to rescue them, since I seemed to be along for the ride into Stupid Town.”
I tapped a finger against the table, trying to think of a solution. “If we’re talking Pied Piper-style and a song is luring them into that building, then we need to destroy whatever is making that song. Break the pipe, break the spell.”
She threw her hands up in defeat. “Okay. I guess.” I grinned because I knew that she couldn’t admit that I was wrong. “But you know that its not going to be that easy. Its going to be protected and you have no idea what else might be in there.” Wendy made a noise from the other side of her chair: something between a chortle and a sigh. It was obvious that she’d been listening. “I don’t suppose you might be in any position to help, would you?” For a price, obviously.”
“Marginally,” she offered vaguely. “Obviously I can’t go around working against one of the most powerful and influential of my people, but if this… pipe…” She said it as if my use of the word were somehow amusing. “If you can procure it, I would be happy to keep it in a safe place.”
I ruminated on the consequences. “How do I know that you won’t use it for yourself? Or sell it to someone with worse intentions?”
She put an offended hand to her chest. “You have my word,” she gasped. “As you can see I have a small collection of things like this.” She indicated a handful of empty spots on her shelves. “And wouldn’t it be better for such a thing to be in the possession of someone who knows its power than one who knows not how to contain it?” She was hiding it, but the grin she gave me was absolutely greedy.
I didn’t trust it, not for miles. “I think that its better if I take it and find a place for it.
“What if I offered something to trade?” That grin became wider and less subtle.
“Oh, you mean like my buttons back? Because while I wouldn’t mind-”
“Oh no. Something of that kind of power would mean a much greater trade than trinkets.” She stood. “While we spoke, my men have taken one of yours as collateral.”
I boiled and bluffed. “Oh Felix? Take the bastard- he’s more trouble than he’s worth.”
“The… pale one?” She smiled. “I wouldn’t touch him even if I had to.”
There was a commotion off to my right and a flood of light as the door to the hall opened. Felix stumbled through with a blackening eye and limping. “They took Randall,” he said, wiping blood from his nose.
I turned back to Wendy in disbelief. “Sorry, its just a matter of balance,” she said, but she was not sorry in even the slightest sense of the word. “Bring me the pipe and you will get your man back.”
“No, believe me when I say that its fair.” She cleaned the lenses of her glasses and put them back on her face. The hat went back on her head. “Don’t worry about your boy. We’ll take good care of him. And if you don’t come back then I’m sure someone will want him.”
That was even lower. Felix was standing in the doorway with the ‘what do I do face,’ Daisy was suppressing one that said ‘I told you so,’ and I was very rapidly losing my cool. I followed Wendy out into the hall, wanting to throttle her with my bare hands but I couldn’t.
“Bring him back now, or there’s no deal,” I shouted at her. She seemed to not hear me.
We all followed her out into the store, but as soon as we were out of the hallway she was nowhere to be seen and the store was empty. Her goons were gone as well.
The store was not in the same state of vague attempts of organization that I had left it. Things were broken, tables had been overturned. There was a shatter of a glass countertop. “Alright, Medhi- what happened?”
“We gave up on gettin’ any kind of information from those guys since don’t none of them talk, so we started shootin’ the shit to see if any of them would relax. Which it turns out they don’t. But all of a sudden one of them comes out of nowhere and clocks me upside the head and knocks me out. I wake up and the place is a mess, I’m alone.”
“They took him as a bargaining chip. I have to steal something.”
Felix’s face lit up and he made a gesture like he was praising God for the opportunity to sin. “Yes! Tell me the thing and the place and I will get it for you.”
I shook my head. “Only someone who’s been Touched by the fairies can get in. I’m the only one that can go.” Daisy was smiling. Shut up, you.
“So I don’t know what that’s all about, but there is always a way into somethin’. Especially when someone tells me I can’t. So if the only way to get the Big Guy back is to sneak into an unsneakable fortress, I will do it.” He cracked his knuckles and wiped the blood from his nose. “So you go in the front door and I’ll make a back door.”
“You’re incredibly eager to steal something you know nothing about,” I said, sceptical of him as always. I sometimes think that he only came with us because he was an adrenaline junkie as well as a literal junkie. “I’m not going to let you do this just so you can get your kicks.”
He gave me a flat, expressionless face. “Okay for one, Randall is my friend and if you don’t think a dude would stick his neck out for a guy like that you are mistaken. And two, this is like the one thing I’m actually good at.”
“Okay. Fine. You and Daisy try to figure out a way in while I do the rest.”
Daisy fished for something in her pockets, and shoved her palm in my face. “Earplugs,” I said. “Why do you have those?”
“I told you, I have a witch friend. She gave them to me when I came asking about what you’d do and she said you’d need them.”
As usual, I took them with extreme scrutiny. “You and me are gonna have a talk about this witch friend of yours and what all she knows.”
She rolled her eyes. “She already has you penciled in for a visit.”
The club looked different in the daytime. At night, it seemed to stretch out into the sky, but it seemed so small when light was plentiful. The crumbling brick seemed more… crumbly. This place was falling apart more obviously than the piece of shit Felix was living in. How this functioned as a club as long as it did was a minor miracle.
Daisy and Felix hung behind. Felix was busying himself with surveying the building for weak spots, Daisy still looked displeased with the very idea of me going in there. Was that… was that concern? Did she actually care, or did she care about losing her representation? I tried not to let myself be fooled into thinking she had any attachment towards me.
“Well, I’m going in,” I said, aware that I was probably shouting over the earplugs. I couldn’t hear shit with them in. I set my hand on the aluminum door handle, expecting it still to be locked. It was almost as if there were no locking mechanism.
But as soon as I stepped over the metal plate that separated the club from the outside world, the door was slammed shut by a frigid wind and I was pulled inside. I heard a faint struggle as one of them stubbornly tried to open the door behind me, but whoever it was, they failed.
I was on my own now.
Inside the building was dark, but not in the same sense that abandoned buildings are dark. More accurately, it was dark in the sense that clubs and bars are dark, where the minimal lighting makes it seem somehow darker than the absence of light completely. I couldn’t see anything, even with my eyes open.
But even with the earplugs blocking out most of the sound, I can hear still the boom boom boom of the bass and I could feel it run through my body. I could feel the vibrations of it in the air as soon as I walked through the door- my fingers were rattling to the beat. I felt like my eyes were closed, and I was stumbling blindly through a narrow hall that likely was the back exit from what may have served as a kitchen or breakroom, feeling along the walls to guide me. The vibrations in the walls caused my heart to jump.
I felt, rather than heard, the crunch of something beneath my shoe. I was not surprised to see the thin glass of a hypodermic needle catching the faintly blue light from beyond the hallway.
Even though the light was already minimal, my eyes still had to adjust to understand light when I stepped out of the hallway, and even then my understanding of the space had more to do with the vibrations falling away to a wider room at first. When my eyes finally began to process light, it was the dance floor that I saw first.
The floor was of the variety that was made up of lighted panels, each glowing in a cascade of blues and greens and rarely straying from that color scheme. Upon it were close to one hundred people, very few of them were following the beat and only some of them were doing what I would call 'dancing.' A number of them were just swaying in place while others flitted around the dance floor. There was a considerable amount of 'grinding.'
Above the dance floor were two stories of balcony. There was a very different kind of light on the level just above me- it was warmer and seemed more like the kind of mood lighting you would expect from a restaurant or an intimate party. I saw the shadows of people on that floor, a good number of them leaning against the railing.
And up one more floor... was it snowing on the third floor?
It was snowing on the third floor.
I shook that thought from my mind, the action making me heavily aware of the earplugs. Sound was muffled and everything sounded like it was underwater. I wanted to take them out, but I was afraid.
The only notable thing on the first floor was the dancers, and I was going to do my best to keep far away from the dance floor. The very last thing I wanted was to get caught up in the whirlwind.
There was a barely-lit arrow indicating the stairwell to the second floor and on my way there, I tripped over a pile of discarded shoes. I suspect that I continued to trip over the same discarded shoe several times, kicking it into my path each time I moved my feet.
The smell of sweat receded as I climbed the stairs and headed towards the warm light of the second floor. The speakers still made the air vibrate, but I felt much less like my heart was trying to escape my body. Even with the earplugs in, I felt a magnetic draw towards the dance floor- it was a comfort to know that it didn't carry to the second floor, at least not with the same potency. I did not realize until I had made it to the second floor that I had been digging my nails into my palms the entire time.
Christmas lights were the cause of the illumination here: strung from one support beam to the next. There wasn't much of a rhyme or reason to which colors they'd chosen, and my best guess was that their criteria was limited to what Christmas decorations they could steal from people's yards. Down at the far end of this balcony, I thought I saw a lighted reindeer- which solidified my assumption.
At first glance, I would have assumed that everyone on this floor was human just like I was, and that was certainly aided by the dim and sometimes twinkling lights that only barely illuminated them. But as I had been told- they had the privilege of choosing what they looked like and only some of them knew humans well enough to get the aesthetic down. Sometimes, when the lights were in favor, I would see the shadow of a wing or the ghost outline of an antler.
Along the railing were a number of people, just as I had seen them from the floor. With their backs to me, I couldn't get much of a look at them. They were still silhouettes to me, but I could at least glean some of their gestures. Their hands moved fast as they talked to one another, gesticulating with open palms, ticking digits off on their fingers, and pointing down at the floor below. They seemed to work mostly in pairs- one doing the talking and another to nod their head before running towards the back end of the floor.
I knew a business gesture when I saw one.
The rest of it seemed like a party, people milling around and talking to each other. There were semi-circular booths carved into the wall, which were occupied with attendees that seemed to have come with a small entourage. Every once in awhile my eyes would catch something a little strange and it reminded me that I was not among humans. I could not help but notice that people were staring at me as I walked past- lingering just a little longer than I felt comfortable. Could they tell that I wasn't one of them?
It didn't surprise me at all that the snippets of language I heard were in broken English. What I knew about their world was very little, but I would have been daft to believe that they all spoke a single language. And if you're doing business in a foreign land, well... you learn to speak the language. The fact that everyone was speaking English told me that most people here didn't all come from the same place. That, or they weren't too keen on letting anyone know where they were from- which I understood to also be a distinct possibility.
I blended in by looking as though I belonged there, but I was scared. I kept myself from shaking by telling myself that it was no different from being an actor in a play. As long as I could convince them that I belonged, I was safe.
Where do I begin, I asked myself. Well, asking people straight up what was happening would have made me obvious. They were talking too quietly amongst themselves for me to really overhear anything.
Now that I knew the play, it meant that I would have to build a character. My hands steadied as I realized that I had a role now. But as I was preparing to step out into this strange world, I saw someone approaching me quickly.
Bony hands grabbed my by the wrist and pulled me back towards the steps, but when they gave me a second look they stopped and backed away. In the dim light I caught a better look at them: something birdlike with a narrow face and small, black eyes. He spoke to me in a language that I didn’t understand.
I shook my head and pretended that I had a mouth full of marbles. “English, English,” I said.
The birdlike man nodded and obliged. “I am… very sorry. I thought that you were escaped stock.” I hid my fury. “Your… disguise is very convincing. I nearly did not recognize you as our own.” He bowed slightly. I squared my shoulders, wondering what that could possibly mean “They call me Heather here.”
Under normal circumstances, I would be quick to come up with a fake name, but my head was in a fog and I was still trying to get over the ‘escaped stock’ comment. “They… uh, they call me Jo.”
“Haha, I understand that is a male’s name,” he said.
“I am… one who studies humans. It would be an... insult if my disguise were not accurate.” I gave him a smile. “This is my first time at one of these…” I let my words trail.
“Auctions, yes,” I said- again, hiding my disgust. “I am mostly… ah- curious. I do not know the process.” Purposely limiting my speech to simple vocabulary was proving both useful and a challenge. On the one hand, it gave me ample opportunity to let them fill in the blanks. However, being one to prefer more accurate language, it was hard. “Would you like to show me?”
He raised his eyebrows before guiding me through the crowd to the back. Now that I was accompanied by someone else, people seemed to stare less. They still stared, of course: I came to the conclusion that everyone was staring at everyone else.
“I must ask,” I said. “Why is the auction taking place here and not at ah… home?”
“Yes! That word,” he said with a smile. He had very wide teeth, it seemed like he only had about four on each side and yet they filled his very small mouth. “With everyone in disguise, no one knows each other’s courts. We can do business without politics getting in the way. With the exception of our host, of course. But Her Majesty doesn’t do any bidding.” He gave a slight nod towards the third floor, where I could see the snow falling. “She just takes care of her own.”
“Her… own? Her… subjects, you mean.”
He shook his head. “Her human, of course. She wouldn’t send something that valuable here alone.” He offered me a chuckle, as if my naivete were amusing to him. I got the feeling that the more that I pressed on the issue, the more I would reveal that I did not belong here. I let him lead me further back towards the wall, where there was somewhat of a thicker crowd.
Behind the wary watch of the bidders was a table, and the table was separated into two parts. The first side reminded me of your run of the mill silent auction: papers lined up one next to each other, strange and foreign writing on each line to indicate the bidder and their bid. At the top of each was a single character, which I interpreted to be a lot number.
The other half of the table looked like a grid: ten by ten, with each square marked with a corresponding lot number.
Ten by ten, with room for about a hundred dancers on the floor.
The bidding table was getting full. There were some rosters that were pages long while a few had hardly any bids. One remained absolutely blank. I saw the same names several times. Someone was very eager to obtain someone.
“I think I understand how this works,” I said.
My guide nodded his head. “How do you think it works,” he asked. I couldn’t tell if this was a teaching style or if he was looking for me to blow my cover.
“You bid on a number, and when that number is called the human standing on that number goes to the highest bidder.”
“Ah! Very good! Are you sure this is your first time?” He laughed and it sounded like wind rustling through dry leaves. I laughed with him, and felt like I was dying inside. Every person on this level was rotten to the core in my opinion. “Although, we’ve done away with calling numbers. Now it is simply when the music stops. Some get rather competitive, you see,” he continued, motioning towards the people hanging by the rails. “People will… speculate based on the dancer’s movements where they will be at the end and they will keep bidding on those lots.”
“What would make one human more… favorable versus another,” I asked, out of curiosity.
“Well, that is a matter of per… per-”
“Ha! You are so good at that. Yes, that one. Many are looking for a specific type of human for a specific role, some just want one that looks nice. On the occasion you see one or two bidding on humans they met in past lives or something like that. Very ro-romantic. And then there is, of course, the delicacy.” He smiled. I had forgotten about stories where fairies ate children. I suppose I simply thought that they weren’t true.
“I feel like it used to be easier,” I said, trying to get the subject off of something so incredibly awful. “Getting them to come with us. Centuries ago this would have been too heavy-handed.”
“Ah… but humans have become paranoid. It becomes harder and harder.”
“Well,” I offered with a laugh. “We could stop stealing them from their homes.”
He laughed at my joke. Oh good. Now I felt sick. “Ah, but how would we amuse ourselves? But in any case, how does this experience strike you, as… one who studies humans?”
How did it strike me? Well, it made me feel like starting a fight. “Its an… interesting setup. However, I can only hope that they are going to good homes.”
“Oh, not to worry. If you can afford to play, you can afford to take care of one.” What a relief. We were a designer pet. The puggles and munchkin cats of the fairy world. “Well, I suppose that is all. It is a very simple concept. May I buy you a drink?” He gave me a smile that I didn’t know how to interpret, but it came off as mildly predatory. He lead me towards the bar, illuminated by the lighted reindeer and run by a woman with eyes that seemed just a touch too large for her head and surrounded by a variety of drinks- some of which shimmered and glowed.
To be honest, after a talk like that I could use a drink, but I also knew better.I’d already given him a semi-accurate name, I wasn’t about to take my chances. “I will have to decline. I’ve discovered that drinking and study generally don’t mix.” I smiled. “Perhaps another time.” He smiled back and I was aware of the wall of white teeth he offered. “I think… I think I will go enjoy the rest of the show while I am here.”
I couldn’t think while he was there. It was hard to concentrate when I felt like at any moment he might change his mind about my disguise and throw me over the railing to join the dancers below. I needed to focus and remember why I was there. People were still staring at me, but now I knew that it was because they were trying to figure out where I was from, not because I was too convincingly human. It was a minor relief.
Change of plans: I was going to break that flute in half when I got my hands on it. I would find another way to get Randall back, if it took all the buttons in my closet. Ending this was far more important and he would have agreed with me if he were here.
I needed to find the source of the song. There had to be a microphone and some speakers somewhere that was amplifying the sound. Even if it was magic, there was no way that the song could be heard over nearly a hundred dancers and another hundred bidders.
Speakers were easy find: a set of them on every corner and just about every support beam. I followed the wires, feeling the thoom thoom thoom of them under my feet as I passed by them. I wove through the bidders, trying not to seem like I was in a rush but I’m sure I caught a few people’s attention simply by doing something other than having a good time. I narrowly avoided running straight into some of them.
I could see the mess of wires leading to a dimly lit DJ setup on the other side of the second floor. He wasn’t doing anything terribly complicated, it looked like. No record-scratching or anything more complex than fading one song into another. It didn’t seem like it mattered too much to him. The dancers would dance regardless of what song he was playing. He seemed bored.
I strained my ears to hear over the rubber bits blocking the song. It was different, but only slightly. Mostly I could only hear the bass vibrating in my ears, but the song had changed a key. I felt something magnetic about it and I had to dig my fingernails into my palm again to keep myself from being lured away. No sooner that I had realized that this was the song of the flute changing directions, I saw the yellow light of the outside pierce the darkness. Another handful of ‘stock.’
The humans that entered were in so deep of a daze that they didn’t even notice the others and quickly beelined for the dancefloor, discarding their shoes and coats to join the others. Once they were there, the beat continued. The floor was getting fuller and fuller and soon all one hundred slots would be filled. I didn’t have much time.
But I needed to think; I needed my mind to be clear of this song. Even when I tried to block it out, it was still there. I pushed the rubber further into my ears, but it was still there and my head was beginning to swim from lack of air.
“Fascinating, isn’t it?” Heather had joined me by the railing. I had hardly heard him come up through the rattling sound. “Humans and their quaint little inventions. We could have never come up with something like this, though we are glad to use it.” The DJ tapped a few buttons on his console and the song changed. The number of humans coming in slowed to a stop before ultimately joining the crowd on the dancefloor. He put a hand on my back and I tried not to slap it away.
“You see, humans can record sound- something we never would have thought of. Brilliant! But their music is so limited. It lacks the… function of our own. And it took years before we could keep up with the technology, but they’ve simplified it for us so that all that needs to happen is a single recording, and it can be played over and over again. Its so wonderfully lazy.” He took a sip of his drink.
“I do like a good lack of effort,” I said, trying not to let the shakiness in my voice be heard. “But I can’t help but feel that its missing an element of… of, hmmm… authenticity.”
“Ah, well… this is something I love about human in...ingenuity.” He pointed across the atrium to a silver stand. “Whenever there’s a new command, she comes down and records a new melody with that contraption over there. And it goes into that machine over there,” he pointed to the turntables. “And gets played out here.” He pointed to the speakers below us. “So she’s only down here for a short time, rather than being exposed for the entirety. So much safer.”
“Safer for whom.”
“The Queen doesn’t come down as well?”
“What are you, daft? She is the most recognizable person here and the Kulaki would just love to dethrone her. Anything that might remove her from safety would be asking for assa… assass-”
“Exactly. The only reason we can trust anyone down here is because everyone’s identity is hidden.”
I nodded, and as I nodded, I caught a movement on the other side. It was just the movement of a shadow coming forward and no one else seemed terribly interested. But someone was approaching the microphone stand. The Musician, as the bird-faced man had called them, was a young woman- maybe twenty years old. Long, blonde hair flowed down to her waist as though it might have never been cut. I couldn’t see much from this distance, to be honest. She was dressed in white from head to toe in long robes that didn’t allow for much in terms of freedom of movement. Even from this distance she seemed pale and underfed.
She was human. I was getting a glimpse of the fate of the dancers below- if they were lucky enough to have someone wealthy to bid on them.
I waited for her to produce the pipe. I needed to know what it looked like if I was going to be intent on breaking it.
Instead, she pulled the microphone from its stand, opened her mouth, and sang. Even through the rubber in my ears, I felt the pull of it- as though someone were grabbing my heart and tugging at it while still caged in my chest. I dug my fingernails deeper into my palm, trying to keep a solid grasp on my own autonomy, but it was exhausting and the song was so soothing. I wanted to give in and stop fighting.
Her final note trailed off into an echo and the recording of it was mixed into the driving beat of the soundscape. The power of it faded, seemed less potent as a recording, but the brief melody bounced around in my head for minutes afterward.
“Are you sure I can’t buy you that drink,” the bird-faced man asked, snapping me out of my reverie. “You seem… tense.”
I shook my head, throwing on the fakest smile I could. “Oh, I’m… I fine. I’m just… taking it all in.”
He gave me a pat on the back. “Ah, yes. I remember my first Auction well. It can be… hmm… overwhelming. But please, once you do feel more at home- that drink offer is still open.”
I nodded, giving him the fake smile that he seemed to take as genuine before leaving my side.
I felt ill.
I felt incomprehensibly ill and ill-equipped to pull off what I was trying to do.
There was no pipe. The bargaining chip for Randall was a human girl.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t just hand a living person over to Wendy and have it sit right in my conscience. I would be no better than the bidders. But I could not also walk away and leave Randall as a hostage, nor could I simply forget that this awful thing was happening -and would keep happening so long as no one did anything.
I preserved my smile until I had walked away from the crowd, then promptly sought the empty stairwell where I could properly process my emotions- although, significantly more quietly than I would have liked to. Every bit of this was disgusting and it was taking up so much of my energy not to take these people by the neck and throttle each and every one of them until they all left this city for good.
I sank into the corner of the stairwell, trying to get a grip, but it was hard. Not a single one of them saw anything wrong with what they were doing. They just thought it was all in good fun. Just gambling. Just property.
I almost did not hear the soft metallic knocking, and would not have if it were not followed by a hoarse ‘hey, down there.’ I looked up and was greeted by a pale face peering through a vent.
I heard a soft thud as what I suspected was either a knee or an elbow hit the shaft that he’d squeezed into. Somehow, seeing him in action seemed clumsier than I imagined his delinquent Houdini act to be. I watched the screws of the vent loosen from the inside and drop onto the floor. His bony fingers caught the cover before it could crash onto the floor. “Shit. No wait- I got it.”
“What are you doing,” I asked, facing away from him.
“Um… sneaking in?”
“She’s in the vent, too. Somewhere, anyways. We got separated but like… there’s not really a lot of places to go in a vent, you know what I mean? So did you find the flute thing yet?”
“There is no flute. We’re stealing a person now.”
There was a confused pause. “Kidnapping.”
“They kidnapped her first. This is reconnaissance. She’s been living with fairies for God knows how long. You’ll want to use a light touch.” He gave a nod. “She’s heavily guarded most of the time. She comes down to the second floor to record a song every half hour or so. I need you to cut power to the DJ’s setup and get her out of there as quickly and quietly as possible. From there, I need you to take her somewhere safe. Don’t tell anyone where you’re taking her.”
“Are we gonna trade her for the big guy?”
“How we gonna get him back?” Leave it to the imbecile to ask the question I didn’t have an answer for yet. Leave it also to him to come up with an answer after not getting one. “Oh cool! Wingin’ it. I dig it. So what are you gonna be up to while I’m doing all that?”
“I’m going to have a talk with the Queen,” I said confidently. There was a pause and I ventured looking upwards. He had somehow managed to free his head from the hole and was looking down at me with extreme scrutiny. I could see up his oversized nostrils. Bats in the cave. “What?”
“I mean, I’m kinda new at this and all, but that seems like a terrible idea.”
“You don’t think I can handle it?”
“I’m just sayin’, boss. Like… I would just cut and run.”
“I have considerably more experience in this than you do, Medhi. I can’t very well put an end to all of this if they don’t know what they’ve done wrong.” He gave me a dull blink. “You have your orders. Get to them.”
I watched his head slide out of view as he propelled himself backwards through the ventilation shaft. I took a moment to wind down before I went back out into the bidding hall. The crowd around the table had increased to a point where I could hardly see anything. But I did see that same insignia repeating over an entire block. Someone had an agenda.
But that wasn’t important now. I was going to stop it.
There were two people sitting bored at the foot of the stairwell. As soon as they saw me coming, they sprang to their feet. “You’re not supposed to be here,” said one with a long face. They each put an arm out to stop me.
Well, I already knew I wasn’t supposed to be here. Technically, none of them were supposed to be there, either, but I couldn’t really argue that point. “I need to talk with the Queen.”
“You’re not supposed to be here,” said the other one, who had a very thick beard. It became clear to me that they only had a limited understanding of English and were probably working off of a script.
I pulled off the last remaining buttons from my shirt and tied it in a knot at my waist. “I will give you this shiny button if you take me to the Queen,” I told the bearded one. “And I will give you this one if you keep quiet about it,” I told the other.
They each looked at the button in their hand, rubbing it with their fingers and checking the quality of the plastic in the dim light, and held a short conversation between them in their native language. When they finally acknowledged me again, it was with a nod. They both pocketed their buttons and the bearded one motioned for me to follow.
I was cold, nervous, and one-quarter naked, but at least I was getting somewhere.
As we ascended the steps, it only got colder. To the point that even my bearded guide, with all his girth, seemed uncomfortably chilly. My feet slid around on the frost-covered tile.
The third floor was dark as well, but in the sort of sense that it was ‘mood lighting,’ as if to cover up any remaining evidence that this was an abandoned club. Regardless of that, the disarray of chairs stacked haphazardly in the corner somewhat broke the illusion.
Up ahead, snow was falling. Occasionally a breeze would come my way and snowflakes would melt on my face.
If time permitted, we were also going to have a talk about this weather. Because this was unacceptable.
Along the wall were circular cushioned booths, following the construction of the floor below. In the center, there was a woman who was painfully beautiful to look at. She shone like silver against the black cushions, snow glittering against her skin. Her white eyebrows were down-turned at the sight of me.
She said something in her own language- the lyrical nature of it did not make the statement any less harsh. I couldn’t understand exactly what she was saying, but I knew for certain that my presence was not welcomed. Her speaking voice, more than the others below at least, had a very sing-song quality to it- gentle fluctuations gave the impression of a cold wind.
The bearded one that had lead me to her had scampered off before anyone could notice he was there. Smart man.
She stretched herself out and wafted towards me, standing tall and waifish at seven feet. I noticed that she didn’t seem too shy about how she chose to look. The Queen didn’t have to hide. She just needed to be the Queen.
“What kind of… thing are you, anyway,” she said to me. I got the feeling that it wasn’t a question and she wasn’t expecting an answer. But while this might be her party and these might be her guards staring at me and waiting for an order, this was my town and she didn’t belong here.
“I am the Guardian of this town and you need to leave.”
“Leave?” She straightened herself and clutched a long, silver hand to her chest. “I most certainly will not. You are interrupting something very important.”
“You are taking people away from their lives and families and I will not have it. This is their home and they will not be taken away to be your… pets.”
Was that a smile, or a smirk? It was hard to tell on her perfectly heart-shaped black lips. “I am not taking anyone away. I am giving my people a chance to claim what was once theirs.”
I felt so hot that I could melt the flurries before they landed on me. “They are not yours. People aren’t property.”
“I don’t think I understand your meaning.”
How do you explain that slavery is wrong to someone who doesn’t understand that people are not things? “You can’t just take people away from their homes.”
“I’ve been doing it for thousands of years, so I think that I can.”
“No, its not.”
“By the standards of my world, it is.”
“And by the standards of mine, it is not.” She was smiling, but I got the feeling it was only so she could show her teeth. They hung down from her gums like a serrated knife. “So you can see why this isn’t so simple. Its better for you, Guardian, to just leave us be.”
“No, I’m putting a stop to this.”
“You? But you’re so tiny! Surely, you can’t expect to do this by yourself.”
“I’m not alone,” I said. “And even if I fail, they will not.”
“What a liar,” said a familiar male voice. Heather stepped out from the crowd of guards. “She came here alone, Your Majesty. If she has friends, there’s no way that they can get in. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone so alone in my life!”
I clenched my jaw. How long had he known who I was? Had this all been a plot to get me to this spot, and what even for? So he could gloat and win favor with this terrible queen?
“Alone? Oh, poor dear,” said the Queen. She trailed a long finger against my cheek. I felt like every muscle was freezing. “She won’t be alone if she’s with the others.”
The guards crowded me in so that I couldn’t run, or even take a step backwards. The Queen stretched a long finger towards me and put a frigid hand to my chest. I felt as though ice were crawling through my insides, freezing my veins and joints. I fell to the floor, stiff as a board and feeling my brain become a cold rock. I tried to move, but everything was solid and brittle. The most I could manage was a shiver, and it didn’t seem to do much.
I was losing consciousness fast. The already dark room was becoming black and I couldn’t do a damn thing about it. The Queen was shouting something, something foreign. And then everything was gone.
Everything but the thoom thoom thoom of the bass.
Thoom thoom thoom
Thoom chik chik thoom chik chik thoom
Thoom chik-a onst chik-a thoom chik-a onst chik-a thoom wubb wubb
I opened my eyes slowly, unsure of what was really going on- whether I was cold or numb and what that pounding sound in my head was. Thoughts formed into simple words. I thought… heart. I thought… headache.
I thought… dancing. And then… oh no.
My feet were moving, and felt as though they had been for awhile. My hands were still stiff and there was a fog over my brain keeping me from focus. I slowly reached for my ears, and my fingers found nothing. My ear plugs were gone. I thought… panic. And then I thought… dance.
My feet, my hips, my stiff arms all only understood ‘dance.’ Others around me wriggled and writhed to the thoom thoom thoom of the music, all looking just about as lost as I was for mere moments before being thrown back into the beat. And every few seconds or so I would realize that I needed to get out. I needed off of this dance floor and away from the music. I needed to find that man and kick him in the nuts.
I needed to dance.
No, I was vulnerable on the dance floor. Someone could bid on me and who knew what would happen then? I needed to get out! I needed to move.
My feet understood the word ‘move’ and I began shuffling away from my invisible square before going back to a two-step. I made an awkward thump into someone next to me, who whirled around to yell at me before sinking back into the driving beat. Behind me, another woman seemed to be making use of what space she had to work with: dodging the crowds narrowly and whirling into impressive pirouettes.
I thought… follow. And then I thought… dance. And I began to make a clumsy effort at mimicking her motions and following the wake left behind her. In the echoes of thought I knew that I was looking for an exit, but all my feet knew was rhythm. Direction was only secondary. Twirl, grapevine, pivot, step step, ball-change, twirl.
I could see, in a dizzy sort of way, the edge of the dance floor and I began to break away from my dance partner. Move, I told myself, and I began to take shuffling steps towards that edge. Yes, I was so close! Freedom was just a few steps away.
I was scooped up by someone warm and rude. And I thought… damn, and then dance. He grabbed me and immediately began grinding against me and I didn’t seem to have much choice but to let him. I clenched my jaw, trying to keep myself lucid, but I was falling into the beat.
He made a decision to put a cold hand inside my bra and I woke up for a second to whirl around land a forceful elbow to his groin. He was thrown back into several other dancers, who all had a brief moment of consciousness where they looked around in utter confusion before going back to their flailing. I laughed and thought… dance. The magic wasn’t strong. It could be broken with a minor shock. But it was constant, and that was why it was so hard to break the spell.
The woman who had been flitting around with an expert sort of movement passed by me again and I tried to follow in her path again, hoping that it would lead me to the edge where I could escape. I twirled in clumsy motions and tried to keep up but she seemed not to have a care in the world, simply focusing on keeping in time to the thoom thoom thoom of the bass.
I could see it again. I could see the end. I was going to make it off the floor.
The music changed and I thought-
My heart was racing and I felt like through all the dancing I was one fight away from complete collapse. My legs ached and I needed to move, but all I could think was… stop.
The familiar voice of Heather took over the microphone. “Bidding is now closed. Please step away from the table.” There was a shuffle as the bulk of them moved away, a few lingering behind to see what they could get away with. They instead crowded around the rails to see who they might have won, ready to strike a deal with anyone who had gotten what they felt to be their prize.
The single, sustained note that seemed to be holding on for eternity kept me in place while they added up the tally. I dug my nails into my palms, I clenched my jaw, I did everything I could think of to break myself out of it but I was stuck in a single place.
I saw something below me begin to glow. I looked down and a sigil began to burn its path painlessly against my right hand, and was filled with anger and despair when I recognized it. I was standing on the square of that persistent bidder.
It was done. I was property. And the moment they took me away, I would be put to whatever whims or wishes they had for me.
Or eaten. I always forgot about that part.
I needed to get out of there, but with every tiny move I made…. stop. Simple and fragile, but constant. Stop.
In a far-away manner, I heard a squealing sound that cut through the song and filled my ears- rattling the stones inside my head and softening my brain. My entire body shuddered and my knees buckled at the return of their function. I hit the ground before I could recognize the sound as feedback from the speakers.
Other dancers had similar reactions- some falling, some simply slouching, and all of them completely confused. There was a rolling whisper of ‘where am I’ and ‘what’s happening’ from all of us.
And then a collective gasp as a spray of sparks flew from the second floor.
“FIRE,” someone yelled, and that was just clear enough of an order to get everyone running towards the exits. I was swept up in the chaos for a moment before someone kneed me in the head and I fell to the ground. The last sensation I recalled was my face colliding with the cold concrete floor.
Josephine’s bra was red. I found that interesting because I always thought of her as more of a black or jewel tone sort of person. You know, something classy and classic. Sexy, but not purposely so and maybe just a little more on the fashionable side of underwear. Turns out, Josephine is full of surprises.
Surprises and really stupid decisions.
Yes, let’s walk right into the mind-control club with absolutely no preparation and armed with nothing but earplugs and your shirt half-unbuttoned. Brilliant. See you never.
My host tells me that I shouldn’t talk like that, of course. And I know that if I want her help at all, it is in my best interest to help her save the Touched Children or whatever the fairies are calling them these days.
Of course, it was my instinct to get as far away from the business of fairies as I could. I did not want to get into a territory dispute, not while also trying to share turf with the werewolves and whatever else was in this crazy town. But no, I had to go and get pulled into it while trying to represent my kindred.
Well, no. I was representing myself. If my demonic brothers and sisters got a good deal out of this, too, then it was a perk. But really, I was tired of waiting for her opinion to change on its own. If that meant playing nice and being a sidekick to one of her little missions, fine.
So when the door slammed shut and Felix ran to try and open it, I stuck around.
That, and I really wanted to know the story behind why she was allowed inside. You don’t get delicious blackmail like that and just split.
“That’s not going to do anything,” I told him. “All the doors are locked for us.” Felix’s response was to kick harder at the door handle like that was going to work. My host whispered a sad little note about how men never listen to women. I beg to differ. They listen when you make them.
“Its like the thing is glued on.”
“Yeah, that’s because its probably a one-way,” I said.
“One-what?” He was actually trying to pull it open with both feet planted on the wall. I thought that this kind of defiance of physics only happened in cartoons, but… Felix in many ways had a cartoonish vibe about him so I can’t say I’m surprised.
“One-way. Like those automatic doors. She can get in because she’s authorized, but its only real function is an exit.” He’d managed to keep both his feet on the ground for a minute, but he was still inspecting the handle like it was going to change anything. “Dude, I’m telling you: we’re not getting in.”
He gave me this sad and defeated look before swishing his almost entire face to one side. “Well, not through that door.”
“Not through any door,” I said. “They’re all going to be stuck like that.”
He swished his rubber face to the other side. “Not through any door,” he repeated. Glad I was finally getting through to him. Now that I’d convinced him that the best thing to do was to wait…
… and he was gone, heading down the alley. “What are you doing?”
“Finding a way in.” He interchanged between inspecting a dumpster and looking slightly upwards at a fire escape.
“I just told you we’re not getting in.”
“You said that we’re not gettin’ in through any door.” He said. “So we find another way in that ain’t a door.”
I found his persistence charming in a bullheaded way. “You’re that dedicated, huh.”
He calculated something in his head before taking a running jump at the dumpster, bouncing off of it like it wasn’t just his face that was made of rubber, and expertly latching onto the rail of the fire escape. 9.5 from the judges. “Well for starters she gave me an order and seein’ as she’s payin’ my checks and got me a house, I’m kinda obliged to do what she says. But for seconders, those jackasses stole the Big Guy and if stealin’ this flute thing is the way to get him back then I’m 100% behind it.”
I could understand the first one, but the second one? “He’s just a co-worker.”
He swung his entire body around the side of the ladder. “Lady,” he said, in a tone that seemed like he was trying to figure out what exactly he was going to say next. He opened his mouth again when he settled on it. “You got family?” Daisy’s body gave an all-over involuntary cringe. “Okay, so keepin’ off that topic. What about friends?” I’d used the word in a sort of… colloquial sense before but I just sort of shrugged. “Man, you are makin’ this hard,” he said. “Look. When we get him back, I’mma see about inviting him inviting you over for dinner sometime.”
Daisy didn’t like the implications. I was bombarded with a nervous imagination. But something about his smile seemed strangely genuine. “Why?”
“Because everyone should have a friend like Randall. And trust me, after you’ve spent an hour with him you’ll at least have one friend.” He held out a hand towards me. “So you wanna help me get him back or what? ‘Cuz I’m goin’ where the action is.”
I really wanted to just call it a day. I played the hero for a minute and honestly it was getting more involved than I like. Their plan was doomed, Josephine was probably dead already and this idiot was going to dive headfirst into the dangerzone. There was really no reason for me to keep going if the last of them were going willfully extinct. Deals with humans generally end when they… die.
But a thought bubbled up about following him, and continued thoughts of doing good, of being useful. Daisy was thinking them, and changed the flavor.
I was so used to negativity. There was so much of it in this town that even the buildings had a cloyingly sweet smell. It was delicious, but it was easy. I was getting… hmm… I suppose a simple way to put it is that I was getting fat. And the sweet taste was starting to seem… too sweet. It hit in the back of my throat and I felt sore from it.
But this kind of… hopefulness, this little daydream she was having of being someone and not just swaying in the background…
These genuine positive emotions seemed so… substantial. I felt… stronger, but not in the sense that I had power. I felt less… hungry. I wasn’t used that.
Felix’s hand was still held out to me. On the practical side, if Daisy died I could always just find another body. Fine. I’ll keep going along with the idiots.
He saw the bandages on my wrists and made a face, holding up his finger. “Hold up.” He scrambled around the rungs for a moment until he was hanging upside-down, and dropped himself lower so that he could grab me by the forearms instead. “Okay, so I want you to hold on, take a step back and try to run up the wall. I’ll pull you up, you push off. Grab the rails when you can, then find a place for your feet. Got it?”
Seemed legit. I nodded, though I wasn’t quite sure I was up to the task. Well, if I ran straight into the wall without stopping, maybe I would get to go home early. But I held on tight, regardless, and as I came closer to the wall I felt my feet lift. Walk, kick, push- and I was propelled into the air. There was a freeing feeling for half of a moment when he loosened his grip, and then absolute dread when he let go entirely. In an attempt to protect my face from collision, I threw my hands out in front of me.
I hit the ladder with a resounding thommm, hugging the rungs of it immediately and kicking to find somewhere to put my feet. Even though they had a perfectly rung of their own, I still hung on tight with my eyes shut, only opening them when I heard that jackass laughing.
It started as a little snort and then a snicker. “What’s so funny,” I asked, a little hurt by the implication that my fear was funny to him.
Oh. I guess that’s what it feels like.
Meanwhile, his gangly ass was still dangling from the bottom. “Nah, nothin’. Its just I’ve been doin’ this kinda stuff for awhile and seein’ someone do it for the first time is kinda like… memories, you know?” He climbed along the underside of the ladder, past me, and swung a leg straight over the rail on the landing. “So that was the hard part,” he said, then looked up at the mass of steps we had to climb. “Well… the hard part for now anyways. Follow me up.”
I got over my fear quickly, but Daisy was still shaking a little. But it wasn’t… a bad sort of shaking. She enjoyed the adrenaline rush, at least for a little while.
Human emotions are so… complicated. Would it kill you for a minute to just be a little simpler for my sake? I like to know what I’m eating, thank you.
Felix was already heading to the roof. I figured that if I was already on the ladder I might as well keep going. As we slowly headed up towards the third floor, I started to see the sun peeking through the gaps in the buildings.
I don’t think humans, on the whole, realize how amazing their world is. Sure, some will find the beauty in anything- from the vast spread of stars in the sky to some cracks in the concrete. But the majority of them don’t know what they have. Being able to steal little moments like this doesn’t happen in Hell.
I had an emotion, which made Daisy have an emotion. And it was a weird circuit of feel-good that just kind of fed into itself.
Symbiosis is weird.
We reached the top and I was still having feelings. This wasn’t even close to one of the taller buildings around here, but even standing on the roof of this falling-down piece of crap, there was an odd sense of peace before we jumped headfirst into the stupidest idea ever.
“What are we even doing up here,” I asked, trying to break myself out of the loop of warm-fuzzies. It was making me a little light-headed.
“Well, if there ain’t a door and there ain’t no windows, then we gotta get a little creative. And this building looks pretty old, so…hmm…” He began scanning the roof, his tongue sticking out between his teeth. “Ha. Classic,” he said finally, walking over to a vent sticking out of the ground.
“You can’t fit an entire person in that thing,” I said, judging by its size and thinking of Daisy’s hips. Felix shrugged.
“You’d be surprised how many things can fit inside another thing,” he said, before pulling out a knife and using it to unscrew the cover.
I squinted. “Was that a double-entendre?” He snorted. “Are… are you flirting with me while you work?”
“Well, I mean don’t sound all offended or nothin’,” he said while pulling the grate off. “I’m not doin’ any of it on purpose. It’s just… how I act around people. If it makes you uncomfortable, just like tune me out or something.”
If it was an attempt at flattery, it was really terrible. “I’m still not going to fit in there. I’m not even sure how you think you are.”
He reached a long arm down into the open shaft and rattled something inside, making awful and strained faces the entire time. A couple clanging noises later and the top of the vent shook loose. Another rattle and he managed to remove the entire extrusion by simply sliding it off to the side. It was only a few inches wider, but it seemed like there was at least a little more room to fit an entire human inside.
“This building was prolly built in the 80’s. The vents have to be big enough for a dude to crawl around in so they could fix ‘em.” He dusted off his hands, looking with pride at his work. I still wasn’t sure that I was going to fit in there. I stared down the dark hole, hearing some echo of a throbbing beat bouncing within the aluminum walls. Daisy was scared.
Do you want to go back, I asked her.
It is a strange sensation to have your host shake their head within their mind. Communication through a mental body gesture, a meek sort of desire to help. Of course she wanted to help. Humans have no sense of self-preservation.
I watched Felix climb into that dark hole and begin his descent and I thought of a number of jokes, but decided not to voice them. I began towards the hole myself, but then my entire body stopped.
You’re still afraid, I said. And there was that gentle nod. Go to sleep and I will take over.
The fear of not knowing what would happen while she slept made her more anxious and I suppressed an urge to simply take control. That’s how you burn out a host and if I was going to prove anything to anyone, I need to hold onto this one as long as I could.
Go to sleep. I promise that you won’t get hurt. I promise that you will wake up.
She nodded again and I felt her slip away. Well, now I was in for it. I had to keep a promise and keep her in one piece. Responsibility. Ew.
I began climbing down when I heard Felix’s voice bounce off the metallic walls. “You’re gonna want to keep a reasonable space behind me,” he instructed. “If there's a dead end and I gotta turn around, you don't wanna be in the way of my feet. Plus, it gives you a heads up if I run into somethin like a slope.” I nodded, but he didn't see it. I guess he took a lack of response as an affirmative.
It wasn't a long descent before my feet hit the bottom, but everything feels like it takes more time in the dark. Human eyes are so dim, so maladapted, that it certainly is any wonder that they've managed to survive, let alone become the top of the food chain. But that is what makes them prime fodder for possession.
And pets, I suppose.
Felix’s advice was necessary for additional reasons. His shoes smelled awful. “Dude, did you step in something?”
In the dimness of the shaft I could see the vague outline of his body curling back towards me for a moment. “Shit,” he said.
“Was that an answer or an exclamation?”
He took a silent moment of consideration. “Both.” But regardless of what might be on his shoes, he began crawling forward again and I followed.
I couldn’t see a damned thing, but I knew for sure that it was cold. Given that we were surrounded by metal and heading into the Winter Queen’s temporary lair, it was absolutely frigid. My hands were going numb pretty fast, and I can’t imagine the fingerless gloves that Felix was wearing could be offering much insulation. But he soldiered on like it didn’t even affect him.
Maybe it was that ‘loyalty’ thing that kept him going. Maybe he was just dumb. Whatever it was, he didn’t seem too interested in turning back. Humans.
Slowly, my eyes began to adjust to the dark. Faint blue light began to filter through as I passed the ventilation slats and occasional gap in the welding and I could catch a glimpse or two of the people far below.
From three stories up, they all looked like ants and for a minute I wondered if angels felt this way: that they were these tiny little things that could be stomped on instead of the clueless giants that they were. Altitude affects attitude, which explained to me why someone as short as Josephine could be so.. feisty.
Now the question was whether she had already managed to lose herself to the dancefloor. I never had the experience myself, but I didn’t doubt how fast it might work on someone who had been Touched, even if her ears were stuffed with magic cotton balls.
I didn’t tell her about that, I realized. Cynthia had given me that pair of earplugs when I went to see her about that prediction, enchanted them right then and there and said that I would need them. Or rather, that she would. This was after a fit where she repeated the words ‘over, under, over, under’ for a few minutes, which ceased when I threw water on her face. Somehow, I got the feeling that Josephine wouldn’t take them if I had told her.
Not that I was worried.
Felix stopped crawling a little ways ahead. “We got a slope,” he whispered. “Its the only way down. “You’re gonna have your hands and feet on the sides and you’re gonna walk your way down slowly. If you slip, you’ll start slidin’ and its gonna be loud when you hit the bottom. So you wanna be careful goin’ down.” He snickered at the phrase ‘going down’ and if we weren’t currently in a ventilation shaft I would have made a joke about liking it rough.
I watched his vague outline spider its way down at a slow decline, waiting until the sounds of shuffling stopped below. Down at the bottom of the shaft, I saw a faint glint of his eyes where he was waiting for me.
I mimicked his movements and shimmied down clumsily, more concerned about making too much noise than I was getting down there safely. I could run through a host without even blinking an eye, but being found by fairies was something else entirely. The fairy obsession with humans is rivaled by their hatred of demons. They think we corrupt them, which is true. I mean, yeah- I will totally admit to the fact that I have made my hosts do some pretty raunchy things. But while we’re being honest- I personally never did anything that they didn’t already want to do in the first place.
Fairies, though… you always heard stories. About them and humans, about them and demons. They’re organized, unlike us. They will actually go to war over a single human if they think they’re worth it and for the most part we’re trying to escape that kind of shit. Like, why do you think we came here in the first place?
All this worrying made me lose my focus. I didn’t even realize that my foot was slipping until I was already out of control and sliding down the slope. “Shit,” I whispered and down I went. About ten feet down, I landed on something soft. Still expecting a loud ‘thud’ and maybe the bottom giving out, I was rightfully confused when I opened my eyes. Felix looked down at me, having stopped me part-way down and softening the impact.
“Told ya, man. You gotta be careful.” He let me down slowly before straightening himself out again. “There’s more people on this floor, so we gotta be careful. Keep an eye out for Jo so she knows we’re here.”
He began crawling around on his belly again. This man had no dignity, I figured, but at least no one could see me sliding around on my stomach. I cringed at the thought of how much dust was probably on me. I hate dust. Tiny human bits floating around in the air and attracting each other. Who thought that up? Whoever it was, it was gross.
It started getting warmer and occasionally through the gaps I could see the orange light of a space heater. The music was louder here, rattling some of the looser welded spots in the vent. Across the way I could see the DJ setup with spinning lights and it’s sort of ethereal glow. I couldn’t see who or what was manning the station, but I didn’t really like his style. It wasn’t smooth or seamless like club mixes ought to be. You’d think that the Winter Queen could afford a better DJ.
Felix was crawling ahead of me, giving me some serious vermin vibes. “Hey, they got hookers,” he whispered. Through the dim slats I could see a grin and I looked out of curiosity. Below, I saw what he must have thought was a hooker: fur-lined coat, curious choice in hair extensions, and more leather than even I was willing to wear.
“That’s not a hooker,” I said. “The Folk just dress eccentrically.”
He raised an eyebrow at me, a motion that anyone could see no matter how dark it was. “I know a hooker when I see one.”
“Whatever, dude. Do you also see Jo in there?”
He became quiet as he strained his eyes. I looked as well, but she’s such a… tiny person. It doesn’t seem that way when she’s talking to you, but when you’re trying to find her in a crowd it becomes all the more obvious just how much a difference two inches makes.
And as I thought that, I fought the urge to make yet another leud joke.
“She’s with some dude,” Felix said, bringing me out of my musing for a minute.
“What?” I scrambled to my own nearest vent and there she was in her bright red bra, talking to a strange man and looking like she was having a good time. Was I feeling… jealous? I think I was. Here I was, stuck in a vent with poo-shoes and she was yucking it up with some stranger from the other side. She could fit in this shaft easier than I could, but no- she got the easy part of schmoozing.
So fucking typical.
I looked away to keep myself from continuing to get angry when my eyes locked with those of someone below. I slowly sank back into the darkness of the vent hoping that maybe I could pass it off as a trick of the light, but even as I fell out of sight I could see her staring at me.
“Felix,” I whispered down the shaft. “Someone saw me.”
He held a pause before coming up with a plan. “Shit,” he said. “Split up.” He headed forward, which meant that the only direction left for me was backwards. He was much faster than I was at this: by the time I had reached the intersection, he had already taken a turn and disappeared.
I don’t know what direction I was going, but I was hoping that wherever it was no one would be looking. I tried to be quiet, but it seemed like every movement I made was echoing against the metal walls. I’m sure that they could hear my feet thumping and my butt sliding around.
I holed myself into a four-way, far away from the crowd of people and with options to run in. As best as I could figure, if I kept out of everyone’s way then one person starting rumors about demons in the vents was just one crazy person and no one would pay attention. Then maybe I could find Felix again and he could actually show me how to get the hell out of here. If I didn’t just cut and run fast enough that no one caught me.
But as soon as I started to relax at the idea of being safe, I saw her again. Damnit- she must have followed the sound of my sliding butt. I curled up and was ready to pick a direction, but she had her eyes trained on me. Through the slats I could see her put a finger to her lips and then crook it towards me to follow her.
Against my better judgement, I followed her towards the far corner where she leaned against the wall. In a nonchalant manner, she pulled out a cigarette and lit it. The air was filled with a sweet smell and we were shrouded in smoke.
I could see her more clearly. Well… that is… I could see past her glamour. Pitch-black eyes reflected the distant blue light and between puffs of smoke I thought I saw… feathers. Feathers, and the strange cigarette she held was between two black claws.
And I realized… if I could see through her mask, then the jig was up for me. I retreated back into the shadows.
“I’m a little surprised that she didn’t come alone,” she said. “Let alone hang around demons.” She poured into me with those black eyes, waiting for me to make a move, but I was frozen in place. She raised a feathered eyebrow. “Did she cut out your tongue?”
“What do you want from me?”
She had this pleased look on her face like she’d accomplished something. “The same thing as you, if you’re here to stop all this.” She made a flippant gesture with her hand. “And there’s a handful of us from the Lands who think that The Auction is inhumane and that we should stop trying to domesticate them.”
I crawled forward. “I’m listening,” I said.
“We’ve been doing The Auction for thousands of their lifetimes and the Queen is known for her consistency. The only way to stop it is through sabotage.”
“Sabotage,” I repeated. “Well, I’m here to steal something.”
Her lips curled into a smile. “You know that she’ll be heavily guarded.”
“She? No, I’m here to steal a flute or something.”
She shook her head. “You honestly think that a flute could command all these people?” She took another drag of her cloyingly sweet cigarette. “Maybe back when they were still drinking the same water they shat in, but now…” She shook her head. “With all the distractions, it is a chore to even get a hundred to come when they’re called. The Queen picked up a talented human a few decades back and taught her some of the old songs. Hook her up with one of those…” She motioned towards the DJ.
“Right. Give her one of those and we’ve been back in the business ever since.”
Well, that made it harder. “Kidnapping isn’t like a thing that I do. I’m more of a livin’ large kinda gal.”
“I never said anything about kidnapping anyone,” she said, taking a puff of her cigarette. “And yet you’re falling in with the likes of Krauss, so I can’t help but wonder what exactly your motive is.”
“Well, if its any comfort to you, my motives are entirely selfish. So what’s yours?”
She squared her shoulders and it gave me the impression of feathers being ruffled. “Unlike you, demon, my motives are pure. I just have a desire to make things right.” Surprise, surprise- the moral high ground. “Regardless, it won’t be a simple task. The Queen never descends herself, but the girl will have a company with her. At least four thropes will be accompanying her.”
She sighed. “Local fauna temporarily given human form and a limited purpose. She uses them as bodyguards. I think this year she’s gone with a stray dogs theme. At least I thought one of them might have looked like a terrier…” She let that thought trail for a moment before she decided that the discussion was exhausting. “But in any case, you’re going to have a lot on your hands.”
“And you’ll be doing… what to help?” I wanted to know more about these ‘thropes,’ but she seemed eager to move on. It made sense, I guess. Fairies come to this world as energy projected as a physical form. It only made sense that one with enough power behind them could extend that to other creatures… to an extent.
“I am helping,” she insisted with a wave of her cigarette. “You were going in blind before and now you’re not.”
It only took a moment’s thought to figure out her angle. “You want us to make a mess so you can blame it on demons and get out with your nose clean.”
She tilted her head at a curious angle. “Nose… clean?” She made a disapproving noise. “You speak too much like a human. I wouldn’t get too comfortable with them. You realize how dangerous they are.”
“Well, you know us demons,” I said, with a bitter taste. “It ain’t a party unless someone gets hurt.”
She made another dismissive noise in her throat. “Well, as long as the Queen takes the most damage from this, I don’t care who gets hurt in the process.”
Wow. So moral.
“Cool,” I said, deciding that it wasn’t worth it to argue who was doing the most good here. Her cigarette was going down to the final embers and she looked like she was staring holes into me. “So like…is there more?”
She raised a curved eyebrow. “Simply considering how low I’ve sunk,” she said before walking off, the click of her heels absorbed by the constant heartbeat of the bass.
“Yeah bye, bitch,” I mumbled.
It was clear to me that whoever that was, she didn’t have any preference for the girl to stay alive. Sure, I’d killed people before. But it had always been more like… a thing that happened when the timer ran out. I’d never actually sought anyone out to kill them. I was too much a coward for that. Seemed rude, to be honest- that she presumed that I’d be okay with it.
I needed to find Felix. The dude was probably halfway to what he thought was a flute. Plus, he seemed like the kind of guy who you could talk to about killing people.
I started by heading down that main shaft that we’d been separated in, thinking that if I found my way back there I could at least figure out where he might have gone. At least I was confident now that no one could really hear my occasional thumps over the bass.
I found him in another cross-section, somehow managing to handle ‘crawling around on his belly’ with grace. Or… as much grace as can be found in such limited space.
He saw me and was startled by the sudden company. “Christ, lady. Thought someone else had found a way in here.”
“Just me, but I got something I need to tell you.”
“No wait. Me first! This shit’s gonna blow your mind- turns out it ain’t a pipe. Its a-”
“Person, I know.”
“Isn’t that some sweet shit, though,” he exclaimed. “Magic shit. How cool is that!? Wait. How’d you find out?”
I froze. I shouldn’t tell him that we were about to be cannon fodder for the Fairy ASPCA. “I saw her. While we were hiding, they had her come out and sing for a second.”
He nodded, giving me a contemplative look that made his face look an inch longer. “Nice. I found the Boss and she told me. So we need to get close enough to talk her into leaving with us.”
“You… really think that’s going to work.”
“Well, the other option is to drag her kicking and screaming, and that’s kinda hard to do when there’s like a billion people in here.”
Killing her sounded easier. “What if we could stop the whole thing,” I suggested.
“Thought that was what we were doing,” he said.
“If we kidnap her, she’s just going to get taken again and the whole thing starts over,” I said. “We need to end it.”
He gave me that long face of contemplation again. “You want me to kill her.”
“Its a suggestion,” I said, determined not to admit fault.
“Well, I ain’t too fond of it,” he said. “It ain’t her fault she’s in this mess and sounds like she ain’t a threat. No reason to think about killin’ no one if I don’t gotta. We’re gonna do this Boss’s way.” He began crawling forward, towards the junction that would lead us across the balcony.
“I find it a little hard to believe that a shady fella like you won’t kill anyone,” I said, following.
“What are you talkin’ about? Just last week, I killed a nun with a rock.”
As long as we were talking about the moral high ground. How do you even respond to a comment like that?
And once again, I was following behind the rancid smell of the dog shit encrusted at the bottom of his shoes. I really wasn’t digging this hero thing, to be honest. I wonder what compelled people to do this kind of shit.
As we moved away from the crowd, he became quieter and his movements more deliberate. I followed suit. The closer we got to the speakers, the more the walls rattled, the more easily they echoed. And it was freezing here. We must be somewhere near the Queen.
Felix stopped. “Hey, what’s she look like?”
“How the hell should I know?”
“I thought you said you saw her,” he said.
Crap. “It was from all the way across the building,” I lied. “I mostly just heard her voice.”
He rustled around in hub, curling himself up into a ball and stretching himself out again so that he could face me. For a second, I thought I caught something in his eye- a strange sort of glimmer like fire and I was afraid that maybe he could see through my lies. But instead he looked down through the slats in the vent and pointed to what was beyond them. “Is that her?”
I peered through the slats and saw a girl… well.. a woman. She looked like she was maybe twenty years old, but she was probably older. Humans who spend time in the Lands have an eeriness about that makes them hard to read. She held herself with a high sort of posture, blonde hair trailing down almost to the floor. She was wearing a delicately embroidered robe that would probably be the envy of anyone who did not also notice that is was designed to restrict her movement. I was willing to bet that it was heavy as fuck. These were shackles with style.
But she was definitely human and she was the only one that wasn’t either Jo or busting a move on the dance floor. This had to be her.
“You gotta talk to her,” Felix said, pulling out his knife, presumably to use it as a multi-tool like he seemed fond of doing.
I was not amused by the suggestion. “Why?”
“Because if she’s expecting us, its going to be easier to nab her. If she ain’t, then its technically kidnapping.”
“Okay, but… why me and not you. You’ve got a better handle on escape plans.”
He gave me a skeptical look, which was kind of like watching his mouth migrate slowly to the side. “I want you to take a look at this face and tell me how comfortable you’d be if I grabbed you from the ceiling.”
“You want me to do the talking… because I’m prettier?”
“Yep.” If Daisy were awake, she probably would have blushed a deep color. But mostly, I was just confused. When I didn’t make any kind of motions towards talking, he dropped his shoulders. “Look. I might be dumb, but don’t think I don’t notice shit. When ladies are scared, they look for other ladies. We got one shot at makin’ a first impression and I do not wanna be the one that fucks it up.”
“So… you want me to be the one that fucks it up?”
“You got a better chance of not fucking it up than I do.” Because I was pretty. Because I wasn’t a creepy dude with a knife and because my shoes didn’t smell like dog shit.
I groaned. “Fine, but you got an exit plan?”
“We’re gonna snatch her up and run like hell.”
I repeated my groan. Fine. Whatever. He posed his fingers atop the screws to keep them from falling out and gently moved the panel to the side. We were behind her just enough that she didn’t notice, and all the thropes were facing outward to anticipate attacks from the front.
“Hand me one of those screws,” I told Felix. He dutifully placed one into my palm and I threw it at her. It bounced off and landed on the floor. I ducked back into the vent the minute I saw the guards start to react to the noise.
A few seconds later, I peered over the edge again and the guards had gone back to guarding. But the girl was staring straight at me.
“Who are you with this time,” she asked. Her speaking voice was dull and emotionless. “Another rival court? I have to admit, you certainly have a different approach than the others.”
Wow. I was not prepared for jaded. “We’re not with anyone,” I whispered. “We’re humans and we’re getting you out of here.”
“I’ve heard that one before.”
“If you’re a human, then why is your hair pink?”
I looked up at Felix, imploring him to give it a try. He indicated his own ugly mug.
“Do you want out or not?”
“Of course I want out. I just don’t want to be punished when it fails- like it has every single time.”
She began walking forward, evidently it was time for her to go to work. Felix was already down the shaft, following alongside her to get a better look. He disappeared behind a corner, then evidently went in a circle and showed up in front of me again.
“Alright,” he said. “She’s got about five of those guards hanging pretty close to her, so we need to get them away from her for a minute. I can maybe kill one or two of em, but after that they’re gonna notice.”
“So you’re okay with killing nuns and dogs, but not girls.”
“Dogs? What do you mean dogs?”
“Those are dogs down there. The Queen just gives them bigger bodies and controls them.”
Felix had a defeated look about him. “Aw man, I can’t kill a dog! Dogs are perfect. Shit.” Morals are a completely relative thing, even moreso in the case of Felix.
I had a thought. “Shit,” I said. “Gimme one of your shoes.” Without even giving me so much as a questioning look, he rustled around in the vent to loosen one of his sneakers. He twitched, which I assumed was him kicking off his shoe behind him. He threaded the shoed through the vent and handed it to me and made a disgusted face when he finally got a whiff of what I’d been smelling this entire trip.“Can you unscrew an entire panel so I can drop down?”
He gave me a dismissive sound. “Can I unscrew a panel…” Now wearing only one shoe, he propelled himself down the shaft and quietly made a hole large enough to fit my fat ass through. The whole process took about five minutes, which was about the amount of time it took for them to start heading back to the wall.
“Alright. Soon as they’re distracted, I want you to grab the girl and get her out of here. Get her as far out as you can.”
He held up a finger as if to correct me. “Hold up.” He rustled around in his pockets for a minute and pulled out a key ring. “Boss gave me the keys to her Chevy. I’mma need you to get it and meet me out front.”
“Dude, why can’t you just take the damn car?” Was I seriously just suggesting that he leave me to fend for myself? What?
“Because I don’t know how to drive.”
He forced the keys into my hand and then slid off into the darkness before I could voice my objection. Thanks to this weirdo, I now had to make it out alive. I mean, I was planning on keeping my promise to Daisy but now I had more people counting on me.
Is this what humans feel like… all the time?
All the guards were in place, facing outward and posed to attack anyone that might be daring enough to approach the girl. They had their teeth bared and were diligently looking for any kind of trouble.
But if they were dogs, then any kind of dog is still a dog. And dogs are simple creatures with simple desires.
Dogs like smelly things.
I lowered the shoe down from the shaft and dangled it about a foot above them, wafting the smell of other dog’s shit towards them. It caught the attention of one of them and the minute that he started looking up, I gave the shoe a good throw, landing about 30 feet away. The motion caught the attention of the others and they went running. The glamor faltered and they flitted between being dogs and men, chasing after the shoe and then fighting over who got to keep it.
I slipped down, and by the time I made it to the ground, Felix had already taken the girl by the hand and was heading towards the stairs. I was about to follow when I saw two more guards heading their way. I had to think fast- something to draw attention away from at least one of them.
Behind me, the DJ continued his job, rather unaware of what was going on. Distraction, distraction… All the dancers below had stopped, standing still to a single, sustained note played on repeat through the speakers. If the song faltered for a moment, how long would it take for the floor, and then the entire building to devolve into chaos?
And I felt a slow smile creep into the curve of my lips at the thought of the word. Chaos is what we demons do best.
I kicked the DJ out of his chair and before he could react to much of it, grabbed the microphone stand and swung the heavy end at all the blinky lights. Hell if I knew what any of them did, but the speakers responded in a disrupting feedback tone. I almost felt bad for the DJ, who looked at his turntables with shock and despair. Well, I say ‘almost’ because as soon as he was done lamenting his equipment the glamour dropped.
He came at me with pale blue eyes and needles for fingernails, lunging at me with rage. You never see fairies in person, you know. Even the pretty pictures in the kid’s books are romanticised, if not outright glamours themselves. And this one… well…
He wasn’t pretty.
He took a swipe at me and I dodged, but his other hand caught me in the side. I winced and held onto the microphone stand as though that weak little thing was going to protect me. When that didn’t work out as I’d planned, I started trying to hit him with it.
I am not a good fighter. Neither was he, but he had a built-in weapon where I had literally a stick. He took a chance and grabbed the end that I was brandishing at him, gave it a hard pull and threw me to the floor. Before I could roll onto my knees and get back up, he put a hand to my throat and pulled me up. My hands were on his arm, trying to shake him loose or relieve the pressure or… anything, but he kept lifting me up and up until my feet were dangling.
Throughout it, he kept staring through me with those ice-blue eyes, his needle fingers digging into the soft flesh of my throat. Each time I squirmed, they dug a little deeper. Every minor strain drove them further into my skin and I was stuck, defenseless, as he bent me over the rail.
I wanted to just let him drop me into the panicking crowd below. I could fall to my death and start over. I’d tried the hero thing and I’d failed.
But I’d made a promise. And my own stubbornness bubbled to the top as he pushed me further toward the edge. I kicked and he loosened his grip enough that I could move away from the railing, but it wasn’t enough. I was being held still and he could still push me over the edge if he moved forward an inch.
And he was about to do just that, when a blur caught him from the side. It took me a moment to realize that it was Felix, and that moment was spent rolling out of the way while he proceeded to beat the living shit out the DJ.
I am not a fighter, but Felix sure as hell was. He didn’t even bother with the microphone stand, he just hit him- one-two, one-two. So fast that the fairy didn’t even have time to put his hands up before getting hit again. I watched in awe as his hands and feet whirred too fast to see, backing the DJ closer and closer to the sparking and smoking equipment.
The whole thing was starting to smell like melting plastic and it stung my nostrils. With one last kick, Felix threw the DJ back into the melting turntables and the entire thing collapsed into sparks.
“Hell yeah” I said, triumphantly, as I climbed to my feet. Felix spun his entire body around and I immediately stopped celebrating.
The sparks from the electrical fire that was starting to build had him cast in shadow, and his head hung low on his shoulders as he heaved a heavy breath. One, two, crack-crack, his spine slotted itself back into alignment and he towered over me like a massive carrion bird. And I thought it was nothing, you know? I thought it was nothing, it was just a trick of the light and maybe it was just me being afraid, but…
… there was something in his eyes- shining bright like a wild animal. Like fire, like the sun. Glowing, rolling, burning. And they tore into me, saw through me like this fleshy vessel was nothing but tissue paper. I took a step backwards and he stepped forwards, moving more smoothly and with more intent than I had ever seen him.
“Dude, what’s up with your eyes,” I said, stepping backwards but never taking my eyes off of him. We moved out of the umbra of the foul-smelling smoke and it wasn’t just a shadow. He carried it with him like it lived underneath his skin. I saw the girl in white standing alone by the stairs and I realized that there was no one else left on the floor but the three of us. There was no one else for him to fight. He was finished with all of them, the smashed corpses of stray dogs littering the floor. And I felt very, very afraid. “Dude, snap out of it!”
After a moment’s hesitance, he changed again. The shadows receded like the passing of a storm and the light in his eyes was gone. He sank back into himself, compressing his back and losing his posture to the trained curve of his spine.
“Ha, just kiddin’ man,” he said, as if the absolutely frightening aspect of his personality were just this thing to shrug off. I could see heat coming off of his pale skin and the occasional stray snowflake would sizzle into steam before it even came closer than a quarter of an inch. He looked exhausted.
“We gotta go, The Queen is moving.” The girl had her back to the stairwell, cautiously looking over her shoulder to see if there was anyone coming, but also looking rather impressed by the carnage. On the floor at her feet were the prone bodies of two boxers and something that used to be a retriever. I wondered what crossed the line between never killing a dog and absolute brutality.
But I bit my tongue. Questions for later. “Are you wearing anything under that,” I asked the girl. She nodded. “We need to get her out of those clothes if we’re gonna move fast enough,” I said to Felix, hoping that whatever had triggered that had passed. He nodded, and as I was preparing to find buttons or toggles to undo, he simply flipped his knife back open and sliced the heavy robe down the center. It fell into a stiff heap onto the floor.
Underneath was a thin girl wearing a shift that looked like it was made with loose threads. I felt an incredibly human twinge of compassion. She was being fed, but fairy food is not meant to sustain a human body. Her waist was about as big around as Daisy’s ankle and her belly protruded unhealthily below the ribcage.
First thing when this was over, I was going to get her some real food. I took her wrist and we started running to the stairs. Felix trailed behind us, determined to move on, but he looked exhausted. We started down the stairs and it looked like he was just letting gravity do all the work for him.
The girl wasn’t contributing much, either. I felt like just the pressure from my hand on her wrist was enough to break her bones. She breathed raspily and I was beginning to wonder if all the other rescue attempts had been failures simply because she was so frail.
Her muscles went a little slack as Felix scooped her up in his great wingspan and we reached the bottom of the stairs to find that we weren’t alone in our attempts to escape. The entire dance floor was flowing towards the door in a panic, resulting in a bottleneck at the doors as people tried to squish through the door.
Behind us, I could hear the thump thump thump of someone authoritative clomping down the stairs to meet us. Shit.
“Stop,” they called, echoing off the bare walls. Shit, shit. But as I turned to see who was coming, another smelly sneaker went flying towards them.
I wasn’t going to stick around to see if the distraction worked. I ran into the crowd, trying to follow Felix, but it was hard when he was ducked down to blend in with the panicking dancers. If the guards had followed us into the sea of people, then there was no way for me to know it. We were all trying to find the fastest way out, guided only by the smell of fresh evening air. I headed towards the center, where it seemed to be going much faster.
The current of people pushed me out into the sidewalk, into the cool air of the evening. The people kept running, some becoming quickly exhausted. I spotted Felix’s head above them all, heading around the corner to Jo’s car with the girl draped across his arms. When I got to her Chevy, he had put her down on the ground and was waiting for me to open the door for both of them.
I fumbled with the keys, feeling like I was doing something that I shouldn’t by getting into Josephine’s car- like somehow she was going to think I was stealing it. But damn it all- people were counting on me.
And her taste in cars was so… modest. A Chevy? I was willing to bet that she would have been the type to at least try for something a little more… flashy. Didn’t even have anything custom on it or anything- just that plain grey interior and nothing hanging from the rear view. I swear…
“Where are we going,” I asked as Felix set the girl into the back seat. I had to adjust the seat about a foot just to accommodate the height difference between Daisy and Josephine.
“Start heading out to the highway and I’ll get you somewhere no one knows about,” he said. I raised my eyebrow while he climbed into the front, ducking in and curling up to his knees instead of adjusting his seat.
I headed out to the highway and followed his instructions. I didn’t think that we were being followed, what with all the chaos from the dance floor. But I wasn’t going to relax until we were far enough away from that stupid club.
Now, I supposed, all of his weird tendencies made sense if he wasn’t human. All the quirks and the crawling into tiny spaces despite his size- it wasn’t something that I would expect from your average guy. The question was, though…
“So what are you, anyways,” I asked once we were away from the busy streets and the buildings started to look more brown and sparse. He appeared to be counting on his fingers.
“What’s the one that’s a crab,” he asked, snapping his hands back and forth to imitate crab claws.
“Cancer! That’s the one. I’m a Cancer, I think.” He continued to alternate snapping his hands and making, what I assumed, crab-like noises. I mean, I had to take his word for it. I’d never actually met a crab, so for all I knew he was doing an accurate impression.
“No, I mean like… where are you from?”
“Michigan,” he said without skipping a beat.
Tough safe to crack. “I mean originally. Where are you from originally?”
He gave me a sort of sidewise face, squinting his eyes and scrunching up his mouth. “What gave it away?” Ha! “Do I still have the accent? Like, is that still that obvious? Because I mean... I was like five when we moved to America, so like I don’t even think of myself as French anymore.”
“What?” You’re kidding me. Was he desperate to hide it, or did he for real not know that there was something… inhuman about him? Stranger things had happened on this plane, that was for sure but he was like two seconds from murdering me for no damn reason back at the club.
“I mean like… technically, if you wanna go into like percents and all that shit I’m Lebanese-French, but like… I ain’t never been to Lebanon so I feel like that don’t count. Oh, and you’re gonna take a left up here.”
Well, so much for finding out the deep, dark secrets that lie within Felix. I was going to leave that one for someone who was going to have a more permanent relationship with the doofus. My thoughts happened upon Jo, who I didn’t see among the throngs of people. I was sure that she had found a way out, but I still worried. I was starting to like her.
The road became less and less civilized-looking. More trees, less buildings. They started in sparse and thin, then began to get thicker until I was pretty sure that we were out in the country. “Where are we going, anyhow?”
He didn’t answer, but his eyes did linger on a car stalled on the side of the road, giving it a contemplative ‘hmm.’ I got the feeling that it wasn’t supposed to be there.
“I have to say,” the girl said. I knew she was there, but she’d been so quiet that I jumped a little. Her voice had a far-off sound to it, as if she were day-dreaming. “This is the farthest anyone has ever taken me.” I needed to focus on driving, but I could see her staring out the window.
I remembered the first time I got to see this world, imagining how it must feel for her. I remembered that it was hard to focus. I was so used to things changing drastically and suddenly that I kept expecting the world to be turned upside-down or squished flat at any second. And when it didn’t, I suppose I just made my own trouble because it was familiar to me.
Her transition was not likely to be easy, either. It was probably going to be worse.
“We’re here,” Felix said as we approached some abandoned one-story in the middle of the woods. Someone had planted a tree too close to it and from my angle it looked more tree than house. Dogwood buds had that had started to bloom from it had been frozen in place by the weather change. The rest of the place looked like it was falling down.
“What kind of dump is this,” I asked.
He climbed out of the car and helped the girl open her side. She was having trouble quite figuring out how the latch worked. “This is my house,” he said. The curious thing was that he didn’t seem at all offended that I had called it a ‘dump.’ “Its got a space heater and everything!”
The girl looked a little bewildered at her surroundings, gazing up at the trees and at the jagged gravel at her feet. Neither she nor Felix seemed too concerned with being barefoot in the cold night in the most overgrown attempt at a garden that I had ever seen. A glance upwards landed her eyes upon the sky and she had a sort of wonder about her face and she just had to stop and stare.
“Its so…” She trailed off as she struggled to find the proper word. “Real. Its real…”
“What do you mean ‘its real,’” Felix asked. “Its the moon. Its the landings you gotta wonder about.”
“Don’t tell me you’re one of those nuts that thinks the moon landings were faked,” I asked, raising an eyebrow and taking a hold of the girl’s hand to gently lead her into the house.
“Just sayin’ that the dudes who put all that effort into conspiracy theories are a lot more dedicated than I am, so maybe they’re onto somethin’.” As soon as we got into the living room, he tapped his foot against the space heater until they began their red glow. “Either way, I ain’t signin’ up for any one-way tickets anytime soon so it ain’t that important to me.”
He flicked on the lights and they were those swirly bulbs that take a minute to get properly bright. The room was still dim and cast only the bare minimum of illumination. Everything was kind of damp and the whole place smelled like mildew. Felix started rustling around in the kitchen. The girl was hanging around the space heater.
“Don’t touch that,” I warned. Her face went flat.
“I’m smart enough to know not to touch a heat source. I’m not a child,” she said.
I sighed. “I just don’t want you getting hurt is all.”
“One of the things that has been adapted from human technology is electricity. We have stoves, we have lights.” She curled into herself, sitting directly in front of the heater and hugging her knees. “They didn’t give me a heater, though. That would mean trade with rival courts. Frowned upon.” She looked up at me. “You seem… surprised.”
I took a seat in a faded red chair, really wishing that this dude had a couch or something. “Well, you never think of the Fairy Lands as having technology. You always think they’re like… stuck in the past.”
“They are. That’s why they steal humans and their inventions.” She ran her hands in front of the metal grate. “I was 7 when they took me. Its probably been a hundred years of being shuffled from one world to the other, going into hibernation, and then being brought back out. Whenever I wake up, there’s some groovy new invention you humans are doing and the music just gets worse.”
Groovy. Well, maybe not a hundred years.
“You keep referring to us as ‘you humans,” I said, because it was bothering me. “You’re human, too, you know.”
She was quiet for a long time. I watched her shoulders sag, the shed of butterfly wings glinting off the hot coils of the heating element. “I’m not an idiot. I know that I can’t just go back to a regular old life. I’m not human to other humans. Once you’re Touched, you can’t be Untouched. Their magic flows in your veins and you’re theirs forever. Things have changed too much. I waited too long.”
Well, this was a deeper kind of talk than I was intending on having today, and I wasn’t exactly the kind of person who knew how to comfort people who felt out of place. I was having my own identity crisis right now. Did I feel uncomfortable because I couldn’t relate, or was I feeling... what’s that word? Empathy?
It had been growing a little bit by little bit when I sent Daisy to sleep: little emotions leaking through as she sensed the dangerous things I was doing. Fear, excitement, pity. She was experiencing all of it like a dream, or with her eyes half-open between sleeps. But... there was always this kind of feeling in the heart that happened- like she could relate to her being removed from her family and friends, used and then left uncared for. There is no way to take that well, and the girl’s journey through losing everything only to find that it had all changed without her had a semi-conscious Daisy filling my head with emotions.
At least… I thought that they were Daisy’s. And I didn’t know what to do about them. So I squashed them down. But they would always come back up.
I… wanted… I think I wanted to give the girl a hug. Some gesture of comfort to let her know that she wasn’t alone in this and that we would find some way to give her a normal life, even if that wasn’t a promise that I should be making.
“What’s your name,” I asked. You should always know a person’s name before you try to comfort them. Especially if you’re bad at it.
She stared at me, as though no one had ever bothered to learn her name. “Lacey,” she said quietly.
I was about to make a move, but I heard the clomping of boots heading my way. When I looked up, Felix was holding a bowl in one hand and balancing two on the other arm. He crouched down without a word and handed one to the girl, who looked like she didn’t know what to do with it. After a careful nudge and the presenting of a spoon, she finally took it.
“So when are we gonna have dinner with your friend,” I asked, as he passed my own bowl of canned chicken soup into my hands.
“Well, I mean- we gotta get him back, first,” he said. I squinted. After all of this, trading her felt… wrong somehow. But I also knew that we’d made a deal with Wendy and we couldn’t back out of it. Moral dilemma was one of those things I wasn’t used to. I didn’t like it. Felix must have seen the look on my face. “Boss ain’t too fond of the setup either. She’s looking for a way around it.” I let out a breath of relief.
The girl had a strange kind of look on her face after she took a spoonful of her soup. “You ain’t vegetarian, are ya,” Felix asked her. She gave him a look like she had forgotten the meaning of the word. “I mean… it just seems like one of those things that fairies would be. Like… I can make somethin’ else if you want.”
I corrected him. “I don’t think you need to worry about her being vegetarian. Fairies aren’t shy about eating each other to settle a disagreement.”
I was met with a pregnant pause, where he held his spoon over his soup bowl in a sort of disbelief. “Shit, man. Fairies are hardcore.”
“Its… salty,” the girl said in a quiet sort of way.
“Yeah, the canned stuff does have kind of a high sodium content-”
“No,” she said. “I mean…” She sighed. I was guessing that she wasn’t used to having to explain things. I would imagine that she had to deal more with having things explained to her. “They never brought back salty things. They don’t like salt over there. I would have killed for a bag of chips.” She went back to eating spoonful after spoonful, until she literally drained the bowl.
I don’t think I’d ever seen someone eat that fast.
From outside the house, I heard the ongoing bark of a dog. Felix set his bowl of soup down on a table. “Sounds like my girl,” he said. But then his face dropped. Those satellite dishes he had for ears must have picked up the crunch of wheels on gravel. “We got someone comin’ and it don’t sound like Jo.” He headed towards the window to take a look. Headlight illuminated him for a second and he spun around. “You gotta hide.”
I took the Lacey by the wrist and pulled her away from the door, ducking into a hallway and turning a corner into what I immediately had the feeling was Felix’s room. I could tell that he hadn’t been living here long, but with the way his clothes were just kind of thrown across the floor it stood to reason that he was making himself at home.
A window looked out onto the dinky little porch and I saw the doors of a black car open. Felix flicked the porch light on as Wendy and two of her cronies headed up to the house.
I saw the light reflect in their eyes, something animal. And now that I was looking at them, the brunet one did look a little bit like a squirrel and the man that had met us in the shop had eyeliner a little too on-point to be anything other than opossum.
They had been thropes the whole time, and one of them had followed us to this little shack, completely unseen by any of us.
Damn it all, I hate fairies.
The walls were so thin here that I could hear everything. “I’ve come to collect what’s mine,” Wendy said.
Felix closed the door behind him, leaning against the door jamb. “We didn’t get no flute or nothin’, so I guess I got nothin’ to give you.” He shrugged. “I guess we got no deal.”
“I know about the girl,” she said. “The deal was, you bring me whatever it was the Queen was using, and I give you your friend back.”
“You lied,” Lacey said from behind me. I swiveled around and her face was red with rage. “You said you were trying to help me, but you were just going to throw me back to be used again.”
“This is not what it looks like,” I said, taking a step forward, but she sprang back immediately and began heading towards the door.
“I can’t believe that I trusted you,” she said. I started heading after her, but my foot got caught on one of Felix’s discarded pairs of pants and I tripped. By the time I got back to my feet, she was already down the hall. I heard the back door slam behind her.
We humans grow up in funny ways, and whether it is fairies or spirits or something else we always grow up with stories. Some of us forget and some of us have it sit in the back of our heads every time we encounter something that doesn’t make a bit of sense. And that doesn’t make anyone an expert, but you don’t make stories sitting by your lonesome in a janitor’s closet, now do you?
Now, when Josephine and Daisy paired themselves off to follow our fairy friends down a hall, that left me and Felix in the front of the store with some of the blandest-looking gentlemen that I had ever met. And at the time, I was hesitant to make any judgements on them because it was not my place, but I feel pretty comfortable now that I have room to form a solid opinion. They were… strikingly bland.
We were to get information from them in any way that we could, but among their blandness was a general unwillingness to relax. And thus, it was down to us to lighten the mood.
Thankfully, Felix is right there with me when it comes to turning a tense room into a casual joint.
“So when are we gonna fight some zombies,” he asked.
I laughed. “Why would you ask such a thing?”
“Well, I mean… I already fought three werewolves and this is some fairy business goin’ on back there. And the boss mumbles sometimes about vampires, so I was thinkin’ that the only thing left is zombies.”
“Felix, I can promise you that there are many, many more things between here and zombies.”
He paused, taking his time to think about what I’d just said. “So there are zombies.”
I thought about my wording very carefully because Felix had a tendency to fixate on a single facet of a conversation and take it as far as he could. “Well, I suppose that if we are to accept the factuality of one thing, we certainly should not be ruling out the others.”
“There are zombies,” he said with a grin.
“There may be zombies.”
And as that grin widened across his face, I began to see our hosts shift. I thought perhaps that they were simply becoming more relaxed, but it did not seem the case when I looked at them. If anything, they looked even less at-ease and… where did the ginger one go?
Then I heard a scuffle. I whipped my head around and watched the red-headed man try, and fail, to clasp a hand over Felix’s mouth. He spun around and grabbed the man by the shoulder, swinging him into a display of old toys- all which made their respective toots and whistles on impact.
The brunet came at me, catching my neck in the crook of his elbow. His attempt to choke me was cut rather short when he realized that I am simply too heavy to be lifted up from his angle. But I suppose that the real moment he gave up was when I bit his arm and he recoiled.
They were clumsy and not very good fighters, but there were more of them than there were of us and even if they were easily hurt, they were not giving up. Each time that we peeled one off, another would come right at us from a different angle. They seemed tireless.
One of them got a lucky swing at Felix and knocked him to the floor. Three of them came at me at once and I was backed into the jewelry display. Something was slipped over my head and I began throwing punches blindly, hitting nothing. Something hit the back of my head, I heard a crash and I was out cold.
When I came to, I was seated upright. Uncomfortably upright, I might say. The crick in my neck ached something painful, so much that I heard a loud ‘crunch’ in my ears when I tried to straighten my spine. I smelled a powerful mildew.
The bag was off and when I opened my eyes I saw that I was not alone. They had me tied to a chair in what was unmistakably a broom closet. They were talking among themselves. That is to say that Wendy was talking to them and they were nodding passively as though they understood. Their attention was diverted to me when they saw me struggling against the ropes.
“You’re awake,” she said. “We were beginning to think that you would be sleeping in.”
Well, she was at least acting polite. And it is not in my nature to be rude to one who appears to be trying their best to be accommodating, even if the accommodations involve tying someone to a chair. However, I had been hit in the back of the head and that just didn’t sit right with me.
“What in God’s name are you doing?”
“We’re keeping you here until your Guardian comes back with what’s mine,” she said. “And we can’t have you running away, now can we?”
“I’m a hostage.”
“Collateral,” she said with a smile. “But I suspect I may be keeping you. She has… hmm,” she flipped the cap on her pocket watch. “I would say three hours or so before the auction ends. If she’s not back by then, she’s likely either dead or been traded away.”
“It was a trap. What do you want me for, anyhow?”
“Hmm… well, you were just the least disgusting of them. I figured that if I must take one of hers to get her properly motivated, it would be better to plan in the long term. And what would I do with that awful thing you came in with?”
“You admit that he’s awful, too,” she said with a smile. She smiled a lot, but it was not much of a comfort.
That was just unfair, of course. I would not call Felix ‘awful.’ Smelly, perhaps. “You just wanted Josephine out of the way.”
“Careful there. I’m not going to reveal all of my clever plans at once. There will be plenty of time for us to discuss the next step when she’s been made into someone else’s pet. Regardless of the outcome, I win.” She turned to her own minions. “Keep him locked in here until we know for sure.”
The door closed and I was alone again.
I had three hours before this ‘auction’ ended. I could guess what all of that was about and knowing Josephine, she would be doing her best to make sure it ended early and on her terms. And all this ‘collateral’ talk sounded like nonsense to me, so I was not too keen on staying in this box.
First order of business, then, was going to be getting out of these ropes. They were a thick nylon, the kind that they use to tie down tarps. It was likely that they had found it somewhere and were just using what they had on hand. In general, all of them seemed rather ill-prepared to create a hostage situation. The knots were hastily tied, and the thickness of the rope would have made it easy to untie if I could get my hands free.
Which made that the official first order of business.
I needed something sharp.
Of course, not even these folks would be silly enough to leave a box cutter in the janitor’s closet. But there was a chisel sticking out of a bucket.
I rocked my chair back and forth, trying to inch myself closer and closer to the tool while also not alerting my captors of my movements, although to be fair I’m sure they probably expected me to be doing this anyway. And the one with the brown hair packed one wallop of a punch- my ears were still ringing! I’m sure he had another one waiting for me when I got out.
But I couldn’t think about that, not while I was busy trying to get my hands free.
Now, I wasn’t trying to cut the ropes because any novice of textiles will tell you that trying to fray nylon with a single blade is a futile notion, especially with something as sad as a paint-covered chisel. But the rope was good and thick, which means large knots that can be untied if you wedge something small into their crevices.
A chisel isn’t ideal, but I am not afraid to work myself a sweat- and that was what it was going to take- wiggling my arms back and forth behind me to nestle that tip into the nooks and crannies of knotted rope. My neck strained from trying to see over the fat of my shoulder.
I worked the coils around my hands looser and looser until the chisel could push all the way through. I hung the knot around it and leaned forward, tugging the knot away from me until it would go no further, leaned back and felt the whole thing slack.
I breathed out as the ropes around my hands fell to the floor. The rest was easy, of course, given that I no longer had to rely on the pointed edge of a chisel and had free use of my fingers.
Which left the matter of getting out of the room.
There were five of them altogether and at least two of them would be guarding the door. As demonstrated, I am not the greatest of fighters. Second point is that I am not very fast, nor do I have much stamina to keep running even if I were.
Which meant that for me to escape my fate as collateral, I would have to be clever.
I have a talent for disguise, which is easier when you have access to a sewing machine, spirit gum, and a contouring kit. But I had a bucket, a mop, some rope, and a box of latex gloves.
I would have to be inventive while also assuming that the men outside my little prison were exceptionally dull-witted.
I lined my instruments of fabrication up to be assessed. An inkling of an idea was bubbling in my noggin, but it had yet to come to a full boil. The rope was too thick to be anything other than a rope, but the mop head had potential- even if it did smell awful. It was used, and the threads were easily broken but not to the point of dry rot. I could cut those with the chisel.
The gloves were too small to fit my hands, but…
Hmmm… well, I supposed that it didn’t have to last long- just long enough. I would have to let craftsmanship fall to the wayside while I made my escape. While I thought this through, I began cutting the threads of the mophead- my hands knotting the ends into a long, long string while I prioritized the next part of my plan.
I would have to knit first, that being the longest part of this project. Well, no- I would have to make the cord long enough to get anything out of it first. Then the knitting, then the rest. Of course I could just let it hang as a single string and be done with it, but the magic is in the knots and the more knots I made the more convincing it would be.
I finished the mop head and deemed the yarn long enough to serve my functions, probably longer than any moldy mop strings ought to ever be. If only my materials were… less foul.
The strings were woven around my fingers- over, under; over, under; over, under- loosely, but becoming stronger with each wide stitch. It looked like a tangled mess, to be damn honest, but if you tugged on one end I could see it starting to become a wide row of loose knots.
I hadn’t finger knitted since I was very small, and my hands much smaller. It was an amusing thought that I still remembered how, and to think of just how clumsy the attempt looked now on my adult-sized fingers. I was much better, much finer, as a toddler. Ah, but clumsy would do if only for a moment if a moment was all I needed.
And in idle thoughts of nostalgia: had I left the pork sitting on the counter, or had I set it in the fridge?
My desire to get out of here and check on the pork increased twofold and I began knitting faster.
One long, tedious hour later, I had a length of what would have passed as a scarf if it were not absolutely awful. Loose knots, old thread, and saints did that stink. But it was better than nothing at all, and trying was certainly better than waiting. And thankfully, it would be nowhere near my nose.
I tied it around my waist, letting it hang loosely behind me. It nearly dragged on the floor, which was about where I wanted it to be.
Next was the gloves, which I spent the next few minutes filling with my own breath until they were large and round. The challenge, of course, was tying the knot off at the end. My fingers were sore from weaving, from tugging at the strings, from filling in gaps where I’d dropped a stitch. Fine movements proved too arduous for my tired thumbs. They slipped through my fingers three times each before I was anything like successful.
Then there was the matter of tying them to my head with the rope. Too late, I suppose I realized that perhaps it would have been better to save some of the mop yarn for this instead of the nylon rope. But I was not about to unravel the entire belt, spend another hour knitting another with an even more difficult medium on a completely throwaway costume.
With the gloves firmly tied to my head, I put in place the final piece: the bucket to be placed, unfortunately, over my face. I cringed at the notable presence of mildew, tying it in place with the remainder of rope and keeping true to my mantra: its only for a few minutes, its only for a few minutes…
Ears, tail, and muzzle all in place. Now all that was left was to get the goons to open the door.
Behind the cavern of my dirty, grey bucket, I smiled at the faucet sticking out of the wall. Ah…
The knob squeaked horribly and I was shocked to find that the noise itself did not attract premature attention. But as the water crashed against the floor and began to overflow the already clogged drain, I began to prepare myself in my role. It raced towards the crack in the door and I began to feel ready, and now all I had to do… was wait for them to notice.
I knew my cue when I heard the inquisitive lilts of confused henchmen as they noticed their feet becoming increasingly wet. After a moment of continued muffled discussion, the door cracked opened.
It was the dark-haired one, of course. He seemed to be the one out of all of them that liked to put his nose into things, for as little personality as they each displayed. The white-haired one was my favorite. He seemed the least like he wanted to be there. But in any case, this one’s dark eyes looked around the room for a solid five seconds before realizing that something was different.
His attention was turned to me and he could not figure out what I was doing there. With the gloves on my head and the bucket over my face, he seemed absolutely perplexed. So I thought it best to give the man a hint.
“Squeak,” I said.
“Where Prisoner go,” said the man with the dark hair.
“I do not know,” I said. “I am just a mouse.”
He stared at me for another moment before notifying his brethren. “He escape,” he called to the others.
“Sir,” I said. He opened the door again. “If I might request, could you leave the door open for me? I am very far from home and just want to get back to my nest.” He gave me a long look, squinting to make sure of something. “Squeak squeak,” I offered.
He paused and then let the door swing open while he ran to tell his friends that I had escaped. Meanwhile, I escaped.
Which would have been a much easier thing to do if I had any idea where I was going. The door opened out to a hallway, but it did not look anything like the building that I had been knocked out in. Even if the antique shop had been part of the business district, the building itself had a sort of rustic aesthetic: whitewashed walls and wooden accents.
This, however, was more modern. No, I should say that ‘modern’ gave it too much credit. Functional? Corporate? It seemed like an old office building, with its sensible carpet and wide hallways. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of lighting- I could only assume that no one was home.
And I began listing, because that is the easiest way to handle such a situation as not having a plan. Most importantly, I needed to get out of here- and that meant figuring out where I was. Sunlight was waning red, and it is damn hard to find your way about in the dark.
But there was the factor, of course, of staying out of sight. As terrible of a disguise as this mouse costume was, I could not keep up the act- and I was willing to wager that Ms McDonald would be even less likely to fall for it.
Speaking of which, I could hear the clunk-clunk-clunk of chunky boots, accompanied by upset yelling.
“You cannot be serious,” I heard echoing down the hallway. I ducked into one of the empty offices, leaving the door a crack open. The sound of the door closing would likely catch her attention and I wanted to be able to hear her coming.
“Ugh,” she grunted, likely when she saw the watery mess I made. “How long,” she asked. She was met with uncommitted noises. The noise she made in turn was even less pleased than before. “Ugh, he could be anywhere then. Well? Go find him!”
I flattened myself against the wall and then sank down behind an old metal desk. One of them peered through the window, but hardly gave the room much more than a glance. It seemed more important that they look in the further areas first. If I was still in the building, then I would be stuck.
Which I was, unfortunately. But at least I had chosen to hide out in a place with a window. I looked out onto the red-washed city, a dazzling reflection of buildings just beginning to turn on their lights bouncing off the darkness of the river. The skyline loomed serenely in the distance and I considered the fact that there was only one place in Pittsburgh where you could see the skyline from this angle.
Well my next question would be how in the blue blazes they could have carted me all the way up the hill before sundown? Traffic going across the river is unbearable on the best of days and they had managed to get me there without me waking up on the way?
Something didn’t seem right, and now I had to find a way to get back to the other side of the river without them catching me.
I was smart enough to know that they weren’t going to kill me if they did find me. If they were going to get what they wanted out of Josephine, they couldn’t rough me up too badly without incurring her surprisingly effective wrath. The worst to happen would be that they would throw me back in the closet and have Ms McDonald keep the door.
But that didn’t mean I was willing to just let them take me back. I needed to get out of there as soon as possible and find Josephine.
The hallway was clear and it was time for me to move. It looked like I was on the second floor of this building. I just needed to get out the door without them seeing.
Ah, now that would be the challenge. I’m afraid that even I could not keep up the mouse charade for long. The magic in the threads had waned and there was no telling that it would work twice. I would have to rely on luck and hope that neither I or the five people looking for me turned a corner to find each other.
A lot of hope and a lot of luck, as it would turn out.
The hall was clear. If I was going to go, I must go now. I could not spend the rest of the night huddled behind this desk and hoping that they would get tired of looking. I ventured out into the hallway and made my footsteps as light as they could be, given… well… I am a man of considerable size. I am amazed, honestly, that I can sneak around behind anyone.
And it was only a few feet of tip-toeing around on someone else’s linoleum before I heard the swish swish of a pair of pants too big for their wearer. I ducked back into another empty office, trying my very best to move the door as little as possible. But they seemed to be getting desperate now with the way they were murmuring among each other, and with the sound of doors slamming as they checked each room.
I needed to hide, and I needed to hide now. The room I was in looked like it might have once been a waiting room. A receptionist’s desk was nailed to the floor here as well, but there was another door joining this one to the room next to it. Ah! I could stand between the doorway of one room and the next until the danger passed.
I heard them open the door in the next room and rushed to the alcove to wait for them to pass. But the moment I set one foot into that door, I knew something was exceptionally peculiar about this space. I felt a little bit as though I were standing beneath a stream of running water, as if there were no floor and there were no ceiling. Only the room behind me and what was in front of me.
And what was in front of me… well…
To quote a long-dead little girl, I would be right to describe it as ‘curious.’
What I saw was a deep, dark night. Through the distortion, I thought I saw a faint glow- coming in an array of purples, yellows, and greens and shining bright against the deep midnight. I could see nothing else beyond that shimmering barrier of running water.
Well. That was certainly strange, but I also know far better than to take steps into completely different worlds. You never know what would lie ahead. There’s always a chance that you’ll step on something important.
I was not going through that door. No way in Hell.
“Stop right where you are,” I heard Ms McDonald call to me. I turned around and they were fumbling heading my way- Wendy looking about as red as a beet.
Mysterious door to nowhere it was, then. I took a step out into the unknown and landed on fresh grass so wet that it squeaked beneath my shoes. It seemed much less dark here, now that I was in the middle of the place instead of looking in. Lights danced around me in all kinds of places- around my feet, in the air, far above my head.
When I looked behind me, I saw a faint glow coming from a split in a rock. It seemed… honestly, it seemed ridiculous to think that I could have come from there. It was so small! I would barely be able to squeeze my big toe in there.
And it dawned on me, then, that I would not be able to get back that way.
My heart began rattling and sweat beaded all over my hands as I started to panic. And I heard the echo of voices coming from that stone as I realized that they were about to follow me here. No time to panic, I needed to hide!
The best I could find was a tree that only barely looked about my size. I dove behind it just as I saw shadows moving from the split stone.
“Damn that building,” MacDonald said. Though, she looked much different here than she had on the other side. She emerged from the tiny crack head-first, almost a ghost at first before she stood firmly on the fresh green grass. I saw… horns, spiraling upward like vines, and it became clear to me now that those clunky heels may have really been hooves this whole time. And her skin no longer held that golden undertone, but shades of black and grey. She kept the gold nail polish, I noticed- which looked so stark against the darkness of her fingers. I mean, it was a good look for her, honestly. “There’s a new tear every time I turn a corner.” Two of her cohorts came out of the stone, also looking very different.
Actually, it looked like she was mostly being followed by a squirrel, opossum, and a very fat raccoon.
And it dawned on me that it was entirely within the realm of possibility that I had been knocked out by a handful of adorable woodland creatures. However, given that they were the size of the average man, that didn’t make them any less dangerous.
“He must be heading back to the shop,” she said. “Resident.” The raccoon did an about-face and snapped to attention. “You try to find him between here and the other tear. It looks like its less than a mile from here. If you see him, knock him out and stuff him in the back room of the shop. If you kill him, make it look like an accident.” Resident the Raccoon gave an exaggerated nod.
The rest of them disappeared, prying the split in the rock just big enough to dip a foot back into it, and I was left alone with only this single tree between me and the only one of them that packed a wallop of a punch. And I wasn’t afraid to fight back against the one of them, but at the same time… damn it- he was just a raccoon and he looked just about as confused about it as I was.
He began waddling away from me. MacDonald had said that there was a tear- and I assumed that meant another way out. I needed to follow him, but quietly.
Of course, it took me exactly one misstep not even half a mile down before his head snapped almost all the way around. His upper lip curled into a snarl and got ready to lunge, but I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the granola bar I had taken from Felix earlier this afternoon and held it out in front of me.
Immediately, Resident righted himself and tilted his head curiously. And I got an idea.
“If I give you this, you gotta promise not to hurt me. I just wanna talk, alright?”
He didn’t take his eyes off of the granola bar. Keeping it at arm’s length, I handed it to him and retracted immediately. I’ve owned cats. I know better than to get between an animal and their food. Resident held it in both hands, shoving the entire thing into his mouth like he was feeding it into a garbage disposal. He picked the seeds from his teeth and licked his fingers, and I would not say that he did much savoring but he certainly seemed to enjoy it.
“Is it alright if I talk,” I asked the man-sized raccoon. He gave me a nod, seconds before burping. “Can you tell me why you are so loyal to Ms MacDonald?”
Unable to really vocalize his answer in much more than a series of chitters and chatters, he began to gesticulate with his hands. He put them towards his mouth and wiggled his fingers with a smile.
“So she feeds you?” He nodded. “How often does she feed you?”
He counted on his fingers, tilting his head upwards, before his hands counted ‘three.’
“Three times a day?” He shook his head, and I guessed again. “Three times a week.” He paused, and then nodded. But I took his pause as a sign as well. I crossed my arms at my chest and shook my head. “Let me guess: she forgets to feed you sometimes, right my man?”
He bristled a little at the implication, but nodded even so.
“Tsk-tsk,” I said. “That, my friend, is not a good deal.” I paused, shaking my head while he let himself think that over. “Let me tell you: I once had a very big family and I never got the hang of cookin’ just for myself. So when I cook, I make a big pot of it and there is always some leftover. Have you ever had crawfish, my friend?” The raccoon licked his muzzle and made a snapping motion with his hands. “That’s right, but you ain’t never had crawfish like I make crawfish. So let’s say this- you lead me back to Pittsburgh and you cut ties with your boss and anytime you come by my house ‘round dinner time I’ll make a plate for you.”
He thought about it, scratching behind his giant ears and counting the pros and cons on his little black fingers. But in the end, he cautiously moved forward and extended his palm towards me. “We have a deal,” I asked. He gave me a pleased little chirp as I shook his hand. “It will be a pleasure to have you as a guest,” I said, smiling. “But now, if you would kindly lead me back to Earth.”
Resident gave me a single, obedient nod and we began trudging through the trees. I was pleased with this arrangement- I’m always happy to cater and play host to anyone, even if that someone is a scavenging animal known for eating out of the trash. I did, after all, feed Felix from time to time.
Oh, that was mean and I’m sorry. But he knows I’m only joking, even if it was true only some months ago.
Lewis Carrol would have been woefully ashamed of my decision to keep steady to my path, despite my growing curiosity of the swirling lights that seemed to gather at my feet before departing. But I was now very sure that I had left the pork on the counter and by now it was in danger of becoming inedible. Damnit, and pork was expensive these days! Home was the priority!
Well, no. Finding Josephine and making sure all was well- now that was the priority. But the cost of food was a good enough motivator for my new friend Resident, then it was certainly good enough for me. And it was beginning to occur to me that I was starving.
The rest of the half mile went by quickly and Resident took me to a little clearing, where a circle of mushrooms poked through the blue-green grass. I thought it awful queer that I could recognize the variety of chantrelles by their thin, yellow umbrellas, even in this foreign soil where nothing seemed quite the same.
Of course, they could have been something else entirely. Who was to say?
Resident beckoned me to follow him into the circle, waving me forward with his tiny hands. He motioned for me to close my eyes, which I did. I took one breath in this strange land and felt a change of pressure. All the noise died away and I took my next breath in silence.
I opened my eyes and found that I was in a spare room. Not the tiny janitor’s closet that I had been stuffed into, but what might have been a small meeting place. The walls were whitewashed and accented with wood and I recognized the antique shop’s quaint aesthetic.
Resident was human-shaped again, rubbing at his cheek in disappointment. I supposed that he missed his fur. Well don’t worry, buddy! We’ll get you all back to normal soon.
I poked my head out the door and the building was dark. If Ms MacDonald had been here, she wasn’t there anymore. I found it strange, of course, but I was not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I gave a nod to Resident and he lead the way through to the main part of the building.
It didn’t look like anyone had been inside since I’d last been there. The lamp display was still a mess. What a shame- she couldn’t even handle the upkeep of her cover business. Thank goodness that the shop was closed or I would have felt awful.
Apart from where she was threatening to sell me, of course.
As we left, Resident and I exchanged a pleasant sort of nod and parted ways. I insisted, of course, that I needed him no further and that the next time I am graced with his presence he ought to have an empty belly and a massive appetite. I watched his semi-human form begin to melt away as he shrank into the fat little raccoon he had always been.
It always makes me glad to see people become what they truly want to be. Even if they truly only want to be a fat raccoon waddling away into the night.
Down to business, and that was to find Josephine. The only place to check was the club, of course. I had only gotten a few miles before I smelled smoke- and it was certainly not the time of night for someone to be grilling. And I hoped to every god that might be listening that it was not that hazard of a place, but as I drove around the corner and saw the flashing lights and a heavy mask of smoke…
I began to worry, and you know that I all the time worry.
I gave not one care that I was in a no-parking zone and I continue not to care. At the sight of smoke billowing from those boarded-up windows, I sprang from my Geo and began searching the crowd of onlookers for a familiar face and hoping against hope that none of them were trapped in inside.
I looked for Felix first, thinking that I would certainly spot him towering over a crowd. But I must have counted every head above mine and not a single one of them was wearing his slightly crooked nose.
And then I thought I might look for Daisy, who with her wild-colored hair would certainly be set apart from the rest of them. But the street lamps and the red glow from the fire made nearly everyone’s hair look a bit like cotton candy.
I began to panic. Jo was so easy to lose in a crowd like this that there was nothing to identify her with except for perhaps small gaps between people. Desperate to hold onto the hope that someone had gotten out alive, I began breaking apart pairs of people who were standing just a touch too far apart. Now that I look back on it I feel just awful over how unkind that was, but I was upset and not thinking clearly and oh- there was no time for courtesy. They were all a bit glass-eyed and wobbly, so I don’t think they thought much of my rudeness, but I still feel like I could have been a bit less hasty.
I became full of knots as the crowd became thinner and thinner and I began to consider the very strong possibility that everyone was still in the building. I looked up at the pillars of smoke rising from the windows, made all the worse by the cold water from the firehose, knowing deep inside my soul that they were in there. I felt my heart come to a thud and all the air seemed to escape me.
They were dead. All of them.
And as I watched the smoke rise higher and dissipate, as the flames died down and the glow of the fire became nothing but amber embers in the old shell of a brick building, firefighters began cautioning onlookers to leave the sidewalk.
People meandered backwards, away from the street and some of them leaving the scene. My attention was caught in a benign sort of way to a woman who had taken longer than the rest. She had been sitting on the curb, all dressed in pink and black. I hardly recognized her from the photos of the missing bridal party- her hair had been taken out of its messy bun and she looked so tired. The limp figure of a person was lying across her lap, head cradled in her arms.
Sometimes it is better to question those feelings that you get inside your soul. They can be very false.
I rushed over and I’m afraid that I scared the poor woman enough that she held Josephine’s head closer to her and nearly swung her right off of her lap in the process.
“Its alright,” I said, holding my hands out to the stranger in pink. “That’s my friend Josephine. Please just… tell me- is she…” I couldn’t even say it. The real fear that she might be dead still had its claws in me and would not let go of me.
The girl in pink gave me a slow, blank stare before answering. “She… has a bruise,” she said. And she tapped her own temple with a finger. “Here.” She turned Josephine’s head around so I could see and sure enough- a dark smudge against her pale skin about as big as my thumb. But she was breathing, occasionally stirring in her sleep.
She was alive. And if she could get out, then I had hopes that the others had escaped as well.
I needed to get her somewhere safer. “May I take her,” I asked the girl in pink. She stared at me with a glassy look in her eyes, blinking slowly as though she didn’t didn’t completely trust me. I understood, of course.
But she must have seen the worry on my face from years and years of caution and care and found it genuine. She slowly began to wobble to her feet, lifting Josephine carefully from her lap and giving my arms space to take over. “Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much.”
“Take care of her,” said the woman in pink, lamenting the emptiness in her arms. “She’s a very good dancer.”