Cast of Wonders 134: Flowers For The Dead (Part 1)
Flowers for the Dead
by Jamie Mason
“ … out the windows on the left you’ll see the recent construction across the tops of the factory and high-rise buildings where the more powerful Infernals have established themselves as a kind of informal aristocracy. Originally called Morningside, this neighborhood was abandoned when the factory closed. But when our City passed laws regulating the Infernals, many moved here because of their restrictions on to employment, welfare, housing and healthcare. The majority live at street level, in poverty. High crime rates, addiction and violence remain ongoing concerns among this population of supernatural beings …”
Kyle transforms his thirty-seventh cigarette butt into a geranium as Sick Willy talks to the police.
“Oh yeah she slummed around with us. A lotta rich kids do. Come and walk on the wild side, spend a night in the shelter before running home to mom and dad. Figured she was no different.”
“Oh she’s different all right.” Harriman, the cop, flicks an irritated glance at Kyle as a geranium drops to the sidewalk. “Different enough to wind up dead.”
“She was a nice kid.”
“The murdered ones usually are. When was the last time you saw her?”
Kyle remembers. It was night before last at the park where they went to score dope from a Grower with power over the Earth elementals. They watched him stick a few seeds in the ground, incant and, five minutes later, hand over a bag of fresh rich buds. Kyle, Sick Willie, Trad, Gryphon and Kimberly, the new girl. The rich girl. The dead one.
“How was she murdered? Magically? Or ..?”
“Think I’d be slumming around here is she wasn’t?” Harriman casts a disgusted glance up the sidewalk. A crowd of blank-eyed pedestrians shuffle through the streetscape of bars, Laundromats, the word GYM poking out over the sidewalk in filthy red letters.
“Typical,” sneers Sick Willy. “Only time we ever see you guys around here is when something goes wrong. And even then it’s only just to drop in and remind us of our place.”
“Careful, Willy.” The cop’s hand drops to his utility belt where his platinum cuffs glimmer in their leather case. “Wouldn’t want to go to Foulgate, would you? Ever hear what they do to little Fluxers like you there? Oh you guys are real popular with the prison bulls … You get to do the same job there you do out here on the street. ‘Cept you don’t get paid.”
“At least I’m free.” Sick Willy’s smile is a pantomime insult. “I don’t take orders from anybody.”
“You call what you do being free?” Harriman deflects the slight with a perfunctory laugh. “Was Kim alone or did she bring a friend? Girls like to travel in pairs.”
“She stay at the Drapery?”
“Yeah. We all sheltered up that night. It rained.”
The cop produces his notebook. Writes. “Was the Cardinal there?”
“Naw. One of the Siblings was in charge.”
“What did you have for dinner?” Harriman produces a silver cigarette lighter – a custom item emblazoned with a stylized police badge – and begins tapping it against his notebook cover.
“Shepherd’s Pie.” Kyle volunteers this not to help Harriman but to bring the heat off of Sick Willy. Because Willy gets enough heat just for turning tricks. “You’re testing us to see if we’re telling the truth, yeah? Bet you already spoke to the Cardinal …”
The cop frowns. “Why you keep turning cigarette butts into geraniums, Kyle?”
“Cuz it’s pretty.”
“I could run you in. Gratuitous use of magic. That’s still on the books, ya know.”
“There’s a law against making things pretty?” Kyle does not yet to know what kind of magic will be his for life. But lately his gifts are manifesting as things of beauty. Using the power of his mind, Kyle twists fast food wrappers into impromptu telekinetic sculptures. When he has strong emotional experiences, he can cause traffic lights to dance in random patterns of red, yellow and green, or cause clouds to assume the shapes of animals and splotches of color to appear on the brick walls of alleyways. He does this automatically, now, subconsciously transforming the environment in which he was born and raised: the streets of Nightside.
“The law,” Harriman is saying, “isn’t against beautification. It’s to prevent Infernals like yourself from using your abilities to unfair advantage. That’s what got you guys into trouble – and restricted to Nightside – in the first place. That’s the law and it’s my job to enforce it.”
“That more important than finding Kim’s killer?” The words pop from Kyle’s mouth before he has a chance to think about them.
The cop’s eyes narrow. “Got any dope on you, kid?”
“No,” Kyle says truthfully. Because tonight Sick Willy is holding. So Kyle turns out his pockets and places the contents on a nearby doorstep. These consist of: a pencil stub, a folded scrap of paper, two condoms, a half-eaten chocolate bar, two guitar picks, a book of matches, a half-empty pack of Marlboros and a cigarette butt (which he picks up and transforms into a geranium).
Harriman makes a dismissive gesture coupled with a muttered whisper (“go ahead”) and Kyle gathers up and re-pockets his stuff. The geranium he lets fall to the sidewalk to join the pile of others beside the cop’s shoes.
“So. The Drapery.” Harriman fiddles with the lighter. “Any of you sleep with her?”
“Get away!” Sick Willy is – in addition to mostly gay – horrifically shy. “Besides they always make girls sleep on one side of the gym and guys on the other.”
“But you said there was another girl there.” Harriman flips notebook pages. “Trad? Was that her name? Did she sleep with Kimberly?”
Sick Willy is disgusted. “Trad is fourteen!”
The cop’s eyebrows lift. “Oh! So you’re letting underage girls run around with you. Nice! She bum any cigarettes?” (This last is directed at Kyle.) “Cuz if you give her any you’re breaking the law.”
“No I don’t give her cigarettes.” Kyle smiles. “But I turn my butts into geraniums and give them to her. Does that count?”
Harriman ignores this. “Where’s Trad?” His tone is bored, peremptory. He expects them to know. He expects a prompt answer.
“No idea.” Sick Willy’s gaze slides toward the street, toward the thickening crowd of potential customers picking up in the evening’s flow. “What am I? Her mother?”
“You know her mother?” The emphatic “know” hardens on a frown, a squint. The cop’s attention travels from Sick Willy to Kyle and back again. When he receives no response he taps his lighter on his notebook. Waits for the nervousness of one or the other boy to drop. And when it does not, he flips his pad shut.
“We’re not done. You oughta’ know that. I’ll be back.” Harriman pockets his pad, smiles humorlessly. “We’re gonna catch the psycho who did this.”
“You never told us,” says Kyle, “where she was found.”
Harriman stares for a long moment. Kyle is not clairvoyant in the slightest but he senses the cop is crossing him off his list of possible suspects. Because Kyle asked a question the killer would not think to ask.
“She was found in the underpass, cut up real bad and partially burned. Somebody poured gasoline on her afterwards and tried to set the body on fire.”
There is a long pause after this.
Kyle experiences that feeling of worlds ending you get after hearing thunder. But there is no thunder. Just silence and the sky darkening above the rooftops and that weird shimmer of incomprehension you get when you hear that someone you know has died. He swallows and says: “That’s bleak sick.”
“She was seventeen.” The cop turns to go.
For the next quarter hour there is a lull in pedestrian traffic. Willy and Kyle do not speak. The street lights flicker to life. It is not until cars begin running with their lights on that the pedestrians return. Sick Willy makes ready to start fishing for johns. And Kyle resumes scanning the sidewalk for cigarette butts.
“ … a dozen eggrolls and an order of pineapple chicken. Some beef chow mein, too – one order. And four Cokes. My name? Sebastian. My call back number? It’s …” Sick Willy squints through the gloom to read back the payphone’s number to the cashier. “We’ll pick it up in fifteen. Thanks.” He hangs up. Waits. One minute later the phone rings. Sick Willy answers. “Hello, this is Sebastian. Did I place an order with you? Yes I did. See you soon.” He hangs up, steps out of the phone booth and leads Kyle and Gryphon into the alley behind the restaurant he just called.
The old Chinese man who runs the place got so tired of people scavenging in his garbage that he paid a Froule to put a hex on the dumpster where he chucks unclaimed take-out orders. Fortunately, Trad is the best hex-breaker in Nightside. But Trad is late. So they wait, Kyle leaning on the wall to light a smoke, Gryphon elastic-banding his long dark hair into a pony tail and Sick Willy glancing between the restaurant’s kitchen door and the night-time fun parade passing the alley’s mouth.
“Hey, Gryph …” Slightly stoned, Kyle is reminded by the sputter of his igniting match: “Some sick skrajer cut up Kim and doused her body with gasoline to burn it. What kind of bleak sicko would ..?”
“Not an Infernal.” The realization dawns on Kyle the moment Gryphon speaks it aloud: “Why would an Infernal use gas?”
“Casting a fire elemental, yeah, is pretty easy.” Sick Willy, still in girl-form from his last trick, narrows and slides his mascara’d eyes from Gryphon to Kyle. “For most Infernals, anyway …”
“Yeah, Kyle!” Gryphon’s grin, as he gets into the spirit, is pure mean. “Figured out your kind of magic yet?” Like Sick Willy, Gryphon already knows his gift. And as if to rub it in, he sweeps the air with a clawed hand. The limb’s aura ripples in the sorcery that accelerates Gryphon’s blows with the strength of tiger’s claws, rotating knives, an avalanche. Gryphon is a fighter. Sick Willy is a hooker. Trad is a hex-breaker. And Kyle?
“I’m an artist,” he says quietly.
The steel door to the restaurant kitchen squeaks and a harried man in an apron emerges in a spray of steam and loud Chinese voices. The door doesn’t even reach the outer edge of its arc in the time it takes him to cross the alley and lift the dumpster lid. He barks a comment over his shoulder in Chinese, still absorbed in an argument with a co-worker as he drops a take-out bag among the trash. Then he lets the lid fall, crossing the alley in two return steps to disappear back into the swirl of dish clatter and steam, the trio of nearby kids unnoticed as the door falls shut behind him.
“Did you know?” Gryphon speaks quietly. “There’s a Chinese restaurant in, like, every city in the world? Even Nairobi.”
“Yeah, but how many got one of those on their dumpster?” Sick Willy jerks his chin at the small, alert pterodactyl-like creature perched on the corner. The hex swivels its bony head toward Willy, eyes rolling like glistening yellow marbles in their slanted sockets. It hisses, shaking reddened wings.
“Skraj you!” Sick Willy gives it the finger and the hex abruptly vanishes. No longer visible, the curse nevertheless lingers, skulking the shadowed base of the dumpster like a croc in muddy shallows.
“Where the hell is Trad?” Gryphon flicks an irritated glance at the digital time display on a building across the street. 10:30 PM. “I’m hungry!”
“Gryphon.” Sick Willy’s form fluctuates between male and female as he spits, gestures to where the hex was last visible. “Think you could hit that skrajer?”
“Funny.” Gryphon snorts. “Like I want my life to become an endless series of catastrophes …”
“Well Trad ain’t here and she’s the hex breaker. What the hell? You expect me to offer it a date?”
A date. The idea appeals to Kyle, a variation of it welling up from within the folds of his artist’s soul. He holds an image in his mind – the hex, as it appears in physical avatar: the sharp, elongated skull, the reddened wings, the narrow slanting eyes. And he softens it. Adds a touch of green. A few curvaceous details. The wings he makes taper delicately into dainty claws. Kyle draws the image toward himself, willing it into existence. And opens his eyes to see a smaller, more feminine version of the hex preening itself on the railing of the kitchen steps.
“Holy crow, there’s another one!”
Before Gryphon is even finished a cloud of smoke begins boiling around the dumpster’s base. A screech rips the air. The dumpster hex fades into visibility on its old perch, bony head swiveling back and forth and wings twitching in obvious excitement as its glistening eyes lock onto the female version of itself. The hex unfurls its wings, un-grips and re-grips the dumpster’s edge with its gnarled claws and emits a frantic shriek for attention.
“Look!” Sick Willy giggles. “It’s horny!”
The female hex abruptly stops preening, swivels her eyes left and right then leaps into the air, leathery wings beating once. Twice. Then she is hurtling full-tilt down the alley. The dumpster hex screeches after it as if begging her to stop then glances around guiltily before taking off in pursuit. Sick Willy and Gryphon watch it disappear into the shadows, howling and squawking. They exchange a look and turn to Kyle.
“I, uh … I just thought, you know, what ‘beautiful’ would look like to the hex.” Kyle scuffs the pavement with his sneaker and gestures after the disappearing birds. “And that’s what came out.”
“Wild.” Gryphon blinks around a curl of cigarette smoke.
“C’mon!” Sick Willy snarls. “Let’s …” Rather than finish he marches to the dumpster, grasps the lid and pushes it up over his head until his elbow straightens. He examines the contents. And his face whitens.
“Any chow mein?” Gryphon elbows Willy aside then freezes.
Kyle joins them.
Reaching up through the rounded trash bags are the charred arms of a human being. Unnoticed by the Chinese kitchen worker, the arms’ blackened fingers remain clawed in their final desperate grasp at life. The facial skin is tight around the contours of the skull, eye caverns glaring as if in memory of the flames that boiled the eyeballs from their sockets. That portion of the skin garment still recognizable is a flimsy parchment yellow, blackening as leakage from the bags smears the ashy portion of the rest.
Gryphon spins and vomits.
“No!” Sick Willy’s face twists toward nausea.
“Trad,” whispers Kyle.
Amongst the swarm of first responders and deafening murmur of bystanders, the thump of ambulance doors and clatter of stretchers, amidst the gruesome sight of Trad’s cremains being fished from the dumpster by cops in haz-mat suits and the swirl of glaring red lights, Officer Harriman demands to see their licenses.
“Man? Don’t you have anything better to do?” Sick Willy shakes his head. But hands over his laminated red card (T/[F] – “Fluxer”) anyway. Harriman examines it, notes the expiration date and hands it back.
“I gotta renew mine.” Gryphon’s tone is apologetic as he proffers his (T/[Q] – “Quantster”).
“Better do it soon.” Harriman pushes a hand, license clipped between the first two fingers, back at Gryph. His ever-present silver lighter comes out as his eyes pin Kyle. “Yours?”
“Don’t have one.” Kyle mumbles at the ground. “Yet.”
“Poor boy doesn’t know his own magic.” Sick Willy’s tone tips the edge of teasing into malicious and Kyle flushes with abrupt rage. (The nearest traffic lights flash red.) “No license. Not even a learner’s permit.”
“When you get one –” (Harriman ignores Willy) “- you keep it current. Don’t want to end up like him.” The cop gestures vaguely upwards and Kyle follows the movement.
The high-rise ascends from the glow from street lamps, headlights and shop windows clustering its base, sides tapering toward the darkened sky. But somewhere between the scored façade and the stars an uneven rampart of cement breaks the symmetry of the building. The concrete barrier, poured to fill elevator shafts and stairwells and separate the top two floors from the lower thirteen, bursts out through windows to distend the structure’s silhouette like a wide, ugly tank trap. Above, lights twinkle from the windows on the occupied floors and a flag, containing a single black top hat on a background of red shimmers, flutters in a spot-lit halo.
“You mean Kyrzig?” Gryphon blinks at the flag. “What does The Magician have to do with you hassling us?”
“Why do you think he’s up there?” Sick Willy surprises everyone by answering for the cop. “Nightside’s most powerful Infernal doing stage magic because he forgot to renew his license? If he uses real magic he’ll do a stretch in Foulgate. Right?” This last, directed at Harriman, is spoken in a disconcertingly adult tone.
Harriman does not answer. Instead he fingers his lighter, looks from the dumpster fouled in yellow police tape up to the lit windows of The Magician’s penthouse then back to the dumpster again.
“Whoever dumped that corpse knows their way around a hex.” Harriman points from Sick Willy to Gryphon to the short Froule in oversize shoes and a blue robe trudging past, dragging his Magic Bag behind him. “Fluxers, Quantsters, Froules –” (the pear-shaped man sets down his bag by the dumpster) “- Nightside has more kinds of magic than you can shake a stick at. And The Magician knows them all.”
Knows them all. Kyle’s breath leaves his body in a windy rush. For the first time since childhood he feels the giddy exhilaration of living free of a burden that has long plagued him. He shivers and thinks the word freedom. But he knows he’ll have to move cautiously because of the risk involved. Take his time. So he conceals his excitement, watching the Froule as he speaks. “Is The Magician a suspect?”
“I can’t answer that.” Harriman’s lips press into a line and he watches the Froule unloop his Bag, bend and, hand over hand, begin pulling out an impossibly long butterfly net.
A squawk splits the air. The Froule freezes. Slowly turns. Then, raising the net high over his head, he sprints in the direction of the hex’s screech, outsize shoes slapping the pavement, the moons and stars on his robe fluttering as he vanishes into the shadows.
“ … but I’d be lying if I said no.” Harriman grins sourly. Dismisses them with a wave.
Orange firelight burnishes the roof of the underpass. Kyle studies the flames and listens to the tired hiss of cars on the rain-washed streets above – streets teeming with humans and Infernals and all the wondrous magic of Nightside.
Fluxers, Quantsters, Froules …
He glances over to where Gryph and Sick Willy huddle below a tarp on a pile of used tires, secure in the knowledge of their own personal magic, their dreams untroubled by doubt. Kyle has been friends with them for a long time. Together they have experienced all the adventures to be had in the chasm between childhood and young adulthood, observed the rites of passage, grown and changed with them. But now …
Yeah, Kyle! Figured out your kind of magic yet?
Poor boy doesn’t have a license …
His “friends” have left him behind.
Kyle grits his teeth at the hot bubble of frustration tightening in his chest. It’s not fair! he thinks, Not fair! All around, it seems, the world is moving on. The way his friends have. And yet he remains locked in a soundless stillness – the kind you sometimes experience on a country road at autumn, when you stand still just before dusk and feel the evening settling. The stillness is overwhelming and Kyle feels on the brink of breaking when Harriman’s words return to him, along with a memory of giddy exhilaration and burdens lost:
Nightside has more kinds of magic than you can shake a stick at. And The Magician knows them all …
Soundlessly, Kyle rises and begins making his way back toward the city.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Your narrator – Paul Cram – is a scrappy actor who’s character in movies always seems to be the one that dies. His latest role in Anniversary has him awake at night seeing things that no one wants to admit are happening. While Paul still considers his voice to be somewhat new to the world of audio books, he has a few full-length novels under his belt, including the love story Flirting With Death set against the beauty of Lake Michigan & the Zombie Apocalypse. When not acting, Paul can be found out in the woods of Minnesota, arguing pop-culture with his little brother.
About the Artist
Barry J. Northern
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.