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.
The acoustics of the concrete stairwell magnify sounds ten-fold, a hundred-fold as Kyle climbs. His breath, his footsteps, the squeak of his hand on the steel railing reverberate, echoing up and down the depths of the great man-made cavern as he rises floor upon floor toward the Magician’s penthouse. I must be crazy, he thinks. The raw magnitude of The Magician’s sorcery is so powerful, the force of his will such that he must avoid contact with others, spend the majority of his time locked up in this tower lest he bend the world to his will with a stray thought. The light from improvised torches causes the spiral sigils and vaguely sinister runes inscribed on the walls to flicker and undulate like dancing demons. Kyle pauses. Stares up into the half-lit darkness. Then plods on.
A firefly glow on a landing far above: Kyle concentrates on it as he mounts step after step. Gradually the glow broadens until it defines the stairwell in a foliage of shadows. The rhythm of Kyle’s feet slow as he mounts the last set of stairs to a landing marked with a large number 13 painted on the wall in black. A ragged wall of cement chokes the stairwell leading up. The landing itself, lit by an improvised candelabra of paraffin-filled tin cans, is empty save for a young barefoot woman in a red evening gown who sits reading a book in a chair. She glances at Kyle, slips a black ribbon between the pages and leaves the leather-bound volume on the seat behind her as she rises.
“How do you enter the flames, child?” she asks.
Kyle glances down at the charred outline of a pentagram on the landing floor.
“It’s the only way forward.” The girl takes up a single candle and holds it in her right hand, beckoning him with her left. “Monsieur Kyrzig – The Magician – will see you now. He has been expecting you.”
Kyle walks the concrete landing and crosses into the pentagram, haunted by images of blackened arms reaching up through black bags of garbage. He wonders if Kim, if Trad, came here. An irrational thought (I’m not a girl so I’m safe) wars with recognition of his peril. This woman has power over the Fire Elemental – obvious from her dress, from the practiced way in which she coaxes and balances and teases the flame of the candle in her hand as she wields it. She crosses to the edge of the pentagram.
“Why have you come to ride the flame?” She does not blink as she watches Kyle, awaiting a reply.
“I need to know what kind of magic is mine.”
“The only way to find out … is to do.” Her smile is infinitely sinister, infinitely gentle.
“But how do I know what to do unless somebody tells me?”
The girl’s eyes widen in momentary surprise before she bends, touching the candle flame to the circumference of the shape on the landing floor and Kyle is consumed by sheets of flame.
“Tell me, Kyle … do you know why magicians wear gloves?”
An orange glow crawls from the fireplace (the one through which Kyle entered the room) and grasps the shadowed furniture in coppery fingers. The Magician’s study is appointed in Eighteenth Century style – lamps with tasseled shades, an escritoire, statuettes and gewgaws crowding tables accented by deeply-filigreed coverings. The half-light from the fire suffuses the decor in a cozy glow behind high closed draperies.
Kyle shakes his head, slightly dazed after his trip through the flames.
“The purpose of the gloves –” The Magician settles himself in a thickly-padded armchair “- is to prevent us singeing our fingers in the primordial fire.”
“I can see why you wear them. Fire is everywhere here.”
“Fire cleanses.” The Magician flicks lint from the crease of his pants, adjusts the button of his tuxedo jacket. “Fire refines.”
“Fire kills.” Kyle stares down at his own hands, remembering the charred and blackened ones reaching up toward him from the dumpster’s depths.
“It can. So you are interested in discovering what kind of magic is yours. Such a question suggests an imbalance, a violation of the first rule. Tea?” The Magician leans closer, proffering a ceramic pot exuding a slightly burnt aroma. Kyle shakes his head and frowns.
“Indeed!” The Magician replaces the pot on the tray, puts his hands on his knees. “‘As above, so below.’ Or – conversely – ‘As within, so without.’ That you might need someone to tell you what sort of magic is yours is ridiculous.”
“Then how will I know?”
“Magic begins when we cease looking for answers from others and start creating our own. You’re not the first to come courting such questions.”
“Did you know a girl named Trad? Kim?”
“Because names are unimportant I never remember them. Identities are what interest me.”
“Then they are in good company.” The Magician’s fingers waggle a droll salute at the brim of his top hat. “The majority of those who have inhabited this planet are dead.” Death, like names, apparently does not interest him.
“Their bodies were burned.”
The Magician’s answering stillness is like a cat’s. And Kyle’s is that of a bird.
“Whoever killed them had magic. Enough to bypass a hex.”
“Perhaps your magic lies in seeking answers.” The Magician smiles thinly. “I have languished in this tower eight years now. Perhaps you can tell me why.”
“Because you can’t do magic without a license.”
“Pfft! A man no more needs a license to do magic than he needs magic to bypass a hex. A charm – some personal object or fetish enchanted by a Froule would to the trick. No. Your ability to plumb for answers is weak. That is plainly not your magic.”
“And yours is fire?”
“Mine … is truth. Which can be like fire.” The Magician speaks moodily to the hearth. “Truth immolates. Consumes. Strips things down to the bare, ugly skeleton. Fall in love with the truth, boy, and you will be alone. And the lonely have a penchant for drastic action.”
Kyle has had enough. He starts looking for a door. But of course there is none. He remembers how he got here. As he turns back toward the hearth he catches sight of The Magician grinning a rictus grin.
“Leave now and you’ll never learn the answer.”
“You said I shouldn’t ask but create my own answer.”
“By following your natural inclinations, yes.”
“I wanna create mine … somewhere else, ‘kay?”
The Magician smiles. “How do you enter the flames, child?”
It occurs to Kyle this is the only time The Magician has asked a question.
“How do you enter the flames, boy? How?”
“Nightside is ringed by a series of parks. These abandoned recreational areas serve as a buffer between Infernal territory and the city’s human population. If you look out the windows to your left you’ll see one such park … Note the dismantled playground equipment, much of it scavenged for parts. Whether Infernal youth ever use these areas is a matter of speculation. Speaking personally, I’ve never seen any when guiding these tours but that’s always during the day. Night is falling now and it’s usually best to leave this area of the city before it gets too dark …”
Kyle descends the wide grassy slope as dusk buries the dying day in the sandboxes of the abandoned park. Charter busses and private vehicles choke the off-ramps into Nightside, bearing the evening’s tide of visitors eager to sample illicit delights. It has been this way ever since Kyle can remember. Humans, repelled and secretly fascinated by his kind, routinely sneak in to enjoy the easy pleasures afforded by the “loose morals” of the Infernals. Ordinarily Kyle would be chiseling some cash for himself from the flow of commerce but instead he angles toward the playground through the concrete-colored gloom. This sector of the city stills, but Kyle’s inner turmoil does not.
Alone. Still a kid. He fights the storm of tears inside his chest. No magic of my own …
By the bars of a jungle-gym weathered silver by rain and neglect, Sick Willy and Gryph wheedle for the attention of a teenage girl. She beams at Kyle as he approaches – seventeen and vaguely hippie-ish in a knitted Rasta toque and worn jeans. It is a smile Kyle is too demoralized to return. Willy’s and Gryph’s glances toward him are, by contrast, perfunctory. Mildly irritated. Kyle’s anger chafes the edge of his profound fatigue. He knows where this is going, can sense the tiresome role he has been cast to play in the upcoming social drama. So he rehearses the mental stages of his leave-taking, already gone, dismissing the new girl as she stands, one hand on the strap of her hemp bag, examining him as he nears.
“Kyle, this is Jada. From Westside.”
“I and I.” Jada blinks sleepily. “I be come for to escape the downpression of Babylon, mon.”
Kyle blinks. Jada is very white.
“She’s interested in our local crop.” Gryphon, unable to hide his interest in Jada, jams his hands in his pockets while his eyes climb all over her – a process that continues unabated except for the occasional warning glance shot Kyle’s way.
“The magic ganj.” Jada nods. “They say seeds get put in I ground, mon, and I speaks a chant over they.”
“A Grower.” Sick Willy takes a puff of his cig. Hands it to Gryphon. “Yeah.”
Jada nods. “Very sought-after among Idren of Ra.”
“Can’t you speak like a normal person?” snaps Kyle. His anguish floods any guilt he may feel for being mean to a pretty girl. He suddenly doesn’t care if he is liked, if he is accepted, if the way he acts puts him at war with the world. He just wants to break things, hurt feelings, push people out of his way. He wants to be gone. I don’t belong here. Kyle glares from watchful Willy to a wary Gryphon. It occurs to him that they aren’t really his friends. First chance they get they’re gonna tear me down in front of her. So what am I even doing here? He clenches his teeth. Exhales sharply. Whirls and stalks away.
“What his problem?” Gryphon’s question skates a bubble of laughter. “No, Willy … Hey, let him …” But a moment later Sick Willy’s hand (a male one) is on Kyle’s arm, yanking him to a stop.
“Kyle, what -?”
“Oh you gonna give me the business about how I don’t know what my skrajing –” (he rips his elbow free) “- magic is? Huh? Or maybe give Jada the lecture all about how I’ve ‘never had a girlfriend’? Huh? You skrajing Fluxer freak! Just go ahead and do it once, Willy. I’ll smash your skrajing face! I’ve had it with you!”
Willy’s face (his real one) tightens in shock. “Hey. Kyle.” He speaks softly. “No, we’re –”
“You’re what? Not my friends. That’s for sure.” Kyle spits. “I am so – we are so done. I’m outta’ here. You go have fun with your Trustafarian. This is bleak! Skraj this! I’m leaving to go get a job and live among the humans.”
“You’ll be nothing out there!”
“So? I’m nothing here. What’s the diff?” Kyle is three steps away when Willy catches his arm again.
“Okay, man. Hey. Okay. Look.” Willy backs off when Kyle turns. Willy holds both palms out. “At least let us give you a going-away present, yeah? A bag to take with you? Seriously. On us.”
Kyle breathes, mastering his tidal rage. The relief promised by a nice bag of weed is tempting. (And free? The street kid within him can’t resist …) Kyle has a line on a job as a night janitor in an office building on the edge of Nightside. He plans to lose himself in solitary work, pushing a mop across silent floors at 2 AM. After all the jagged emotions of the past days, imagining himself returning home at dawn to light up a nice stick of magic weed is too seductive to pass up. So he nods curtly and falls into step with Willy.
Free dope, he tells himself. Free.
A sleepy-eyed Froule, fat toes poking out from beneath his frayed robe, waits by his grow patch behind the maintenance shed. He blinks at them as they approach.
“The Earth is bountiful, the Earth is just.” He speaks between tokes of a thick joint, sliding one bloodshot eye toward Jada. “Even to they not of magic kin.”
“She’s not the only one, Ribbon-bearer.” Gryphon glares boldly at the length of red silk the Froule received upon his exile from the Mage Guild that he must, by law, wear wrapped around his peaked magician’s cap. “We’re here for a bag. We have money.” Gryphon steps protectively between the Froule and the Rasta girl.
The Froule laughs. “Money, money. A multitude of evils. As I recall last time you came you had money too. And a different girlee. Your money didn’t help her neither.” The Froule’s gaze drops to the mouth of the tunnel visible through a break in the skimpy foliage. “A bag costs ten. Pay up front.”
As Gryphon settles with the Grower Jada, her Rasta cant forgotten, asks Willy: “What’s he talking about? What other girl?”
“Nothing.” Sick Willy pulls Jada to the edge of the flower bed. The Grower has begun poking seeds into the soil.
Strange, Kyle thinks, how both of the dead girls were with Gryph and Sick Willy before they …
Shouts behind them. Kyle looks up to see a flash of blue: Harriman, one hand on his belt, the other gripping the radio mike at his shoulder, sprinting along the path toward the tunnel where they found Kim’s body, followed closely by another cop. The Grower’s gravelly incantation, meanwhile, peaks on a gasp. The first green tendrils crawl up from the soil and arc skyward. Ten breaths later, a mature bush, ripe with sticky buds, balloons into being. The Grower leans in, begins plucking and dropping buds into a paper bag.
“Jah love.” Jada’s voice balloons with wonder.
A crackle of radio static. Harriman emerges from the tunnel leading The Magician, cuffed in platinum. The female cop follows behind, leading a miniature hound as it struggles to rush up and sniff The Magician’s pant cuffs. Kyrzig had apparently been out walking his dog.
“Guess they got their killer.” Gryphon accepts the bag, fishes out two buds, then thrusts the rest at Kyle. “Well that’s that. We’re going to get high now. Wanna come?”
“Adios, then.” Gryphon tosses a wry salute before he and Willy and Jada amble toward the tunnel.
Kyle stuffs the bag into a pocket alongside the strip of paper with the phone number of the janitorial service. That’s it then, he thinks. No more Nightside. He realizes he just doesn’t care. Pushing away the pang of guilt that yawns within him, he tells himself: Just want to get moving. Get that job. Get on to the next thing. He jams his hands into his pockets and bears for the edge of the park. He glances over and sees Harriman push The Magician into the back of a patrol car. Feels indifference as he watches the cop’s curiosity peak upon seeing a thread of pot-smoke rise from the tunnel mouth.
Their problem. Harriman begins advancing on the tunnel as Kyle reaches the bus stop, roots in his pocket for change. He forces himself not to looks as the patrol car containing The Magician and Harriman’s partner pulls from the curb and Harriman vanishes into the tunnel. Stillness; no one else is visible. Kyle scans for the bus …
And suddenly he is sprinting back into the park, hoping speed will compensate for his indifference of a moment before. He isn’t quite sure what he plans to do, but feels he must do something to prevent his friends’ bust. But the park stretches for an impossible distance and Kyle can’t seem to cross it no matter how much he lengthens his strides. He hears a ripping sound. (Either that or a snap – he isn’t sure.) The tunnel mouth is the size of a dime. Then, a nickel. And it stays a nickel for a long time. Until Kyle realizes he is holding his breath, hearing his heartbeat. Footsteps. Then, a hollow metallic echo from within:
“ … realize they’re second class citizens, right? And have to stay that way … good of all of us …”
Harriman. Kyle reaches the mouth. Bends with his hands on his knees and breathes with his lips wide to hide his gasping. When he is calmer, he cranes around the edge.
Gryphon lies prone, half in shadow, unnaturally still. It takes Kyle a moment to realize he has been shot. That snapping noise … A thin dark river (blood) runs from Gryphon’s thigh to where Sick Willy stands hunched, secured to a drain-pipe with Harriman’s platinum handcuffs. Willy’s clothing is ripped and his shoulders are hunched with extra weight. Wings. Willy had been caught and taken under control by Harriman in mid-transformation into some hawk-like creature.
“ … skanky little trollops like you come down here and treat ‘em like they’re rock-stars or something and they forget – forget – they’re the underclass!” Harriman has something in his hand. The lighter, Kyle sees. His damn lighter. When Sick Willy stirs, Harriman waves the object at him and he shrinks back, cowed.
(A man no more needs a license to do magic than he needs magic to bypass a hex.)
It comes to Kyle. The dead girls, Harriman’s omnipresence and intimate knowledge of the crimes. Harriman’s hatred of Infernals, a body stashed in a hexed dumpster and the policeman’s ever-present lighter –
(… a charm – some personal object or fetish enchanted by a Froule would to the trick …)
– the fetish charmed to give him immunity from magic. It enabled him to bypass the hex, get the drop on Gryphon, take control of Sick Willy …
Harriman. Harriman is the killer.
Jada’s arm is extended before her. Kyle glimpses silver. A knife. Harriman is indifferent to its glimmering point switching back and forth in the tunnel’s shadow like a steel firefly, intent on delivering his rebuke to the masses for daring to treat Infernals as equals.
“Don’t know why you kids admire them so.” Harriman glances down at the fallen Gryphon, the chained Willy. “They’re not all that powerful or extraordinary, ya know …”
With a movement that is almost casual Harriman slips inside Jada’s guard and backhands her. She slams the tunnel wall, a howl of breath exploding from her throat as Harriman scoops up the dropped knife. Kyle’s spirits spiral into oblivion like a plug pulled on a bath-tub full of hope.
Our fighter’s down. Kyle glances from the prone Gryphon to Willy. And cuffed in platinum, our Fluxer can’t shift into a creature powerful enough to fight Harriman. Which leaves …
Kyle examines Harriman’s strong back as he bends over Jada, securing her to the wall with a second pair of handcuffs. And shivers.
I don’t even know my own magic.
Then he remembers:
… your natural inclinations.
Kyle steps from the shadows.
Harriman is about to speak again when he notes the movement, turns and drops his hand to his gun. Then he recognizes Kyle and relaxes.
“Well if it isn’t the little freak with no license.” Harriman’s smile is wintry. “Closer to human than any of them. But you’re still an Infernal. Racially, anyway. Even if you can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat.”
“And you’re still a cop. Even if you kill people.” Kyle manages to keep his voice calm.
“Yeah I kill people.” Harriman’s words drip with disgust. “People who think you guys are special. People who treat you as equals instead of the parasites you really are. I’m doing a public service. Because what happens when these little girls grow up and have kids they start teaching to think that you Infernals – you freaks – are no different from us, huh?”
“We’ll never know.” Coiled rage tightens within Kyle and his voice firms up. “We’ll never know because they’re dead.”
“Same way you’ll be soon.” Harriman turns back to Jada. “Sit down.”
And as Harriman turns back, his angry response (“What?”) waiting unspoken on his lips, Kyle bends and takes up a cigarette butt. Transforms it into a geranium. And extends it to Harriman.
“Flowers for the dead,” Kyle says. And his voice is stone.
Kyle knows he himself may be about to join their ranks. But he doesn’t care. Something about fighting the injustice of this is more important than his own life. He remembers Trad. Street-wise, tough, but still beautiful, her thin face and wide eyes radiating a femininity that was breath-taking. Like a rose growing in a dumpster … As Kyle imagines her now he closes his eyes. Wondering: what would she be like had she lived? And his imagination lends detail to that question: a wrinkle here, a grey hair there … A slight tightening of the skin around the cheek-bones as she aged. And opening his eyes, he finds his image made real, just as he had with the she-hex: a mature Trad, standing beside Jada, holding a child. Trad is older, tired from the effort of bringing this life into being in the world – a tiny perfect baby reaching out from her turquoise blanket with precious, clumsy hands. Tired, yes, as she gazes down at her child. But for all that, stunningly beautiful.
“Trad.” Kyle smiles.
Harriman gazes nervously at the shade.
“See what beauty you robbed the world of? You bleak, skrajing freak!”
Rage for this lost loveliness thunders within Kyle. He summons the image of Kim, the doomed human girl, first to die. As with Trad her image appears aged – laugh lines, thinner hair, shoulders a little more slumped. But the gleam in her eyes. The confident smile, the chalk dusting her right hand, tingeing the frayed cuff of her pant-suit …
“A teacher. Kim would have been a great teacher. Reached hundreds of kids. Taught them that society’s war on the Infernals was nothing but prejudice and economics gift-wrapped as public safety. In the sixties it was the blacks. In the seventies it was women. In the eighties and nineties it was gays. And now ..?”
“Enough!” Harriman barks at Kyle, Jada completely forgotten. “Bleeding-heart liberal crap! They died. I killed them and they deserved to –”
“To die?” Kyle’s rage is monumental. That any person, human or Infernal, would presume to rob the world of life. “Monster! You. Are. Such. A. Skrajer!”
The last word, delivered on a whisper, is somehow more menacing than the scream it was building toward. Now all the white-hot anger within Kyle flows from his body in a bright ribbon of energy, compelled by his rage, by his imagination and intent. And suddenly out of the darkness, another shape starts to form …
Harriman squints. “Mandy?”
Harriman’s whisper emerges the same moment the shape coalesces into visibility: a teenage girl. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Something in the tilt of her chin, the shape of her cheek. So like those of the policeman holding the knife.
“HOW do you know what my daughter looks like?”
Kyle’s lip curls into a frown and he concentrates the intent of his projection, casting all of his emotion into a feeling that blasts outward in a jet of flame. And suddenly the image of Harriman’s daughter is burning.
Screams fill the tunnel. An illusion. But so realistic that Harriman cannot help lunging the distance between them, dropping to his knees, reaching through the fire.
Harriman’s bare arms swat the flames. He is too panicked to notice how they pass through, unharmed, even as his daughter is consumed. “Son of a ..! Make it stop, you sick demon!”
Kyle, fists clenched, merely stands his ground. And shakes his head once.
Harriman scrabbles at his holster. “You monster!” He yanks free his service pistol and jams it toward Kyle. “STOP!”
And Kyle twists the intensity of his feelings, tipping them over the edge of malice toward hatred. And watches with grim satisfaction as the flames balloon and the shrieks rise and Harriman, unable to take any more, turns the barrel of the gun to his own head and …
“There’s that skrajing tour bus again.”
Kyle looks up from his place beside Jada. Spelled out in coins in front of them on the sidewalk:
M K E L O E
The chugging, silver-skinned vehicle rumbles past. Faintly, through the open windows they hear: “ … moved here because of restrictions on their access to employment, welfare, housing and healthcare … addiction and violence remain ongoing concerns …”
Jada calls to a passing woman: “Hey! Wanna help us make love on the sidewalk?”
The woman, hair swaddled beneath a kerchief and her face wrapped by thick sunglasses, sneers before turning away and pushing forward through the crowd. A thick-set man in a grey business suit notes the dismissal, shakes his head then hands two quarters to Jada.
“You nice kids get yourselves something to eat, okay?”
“Jah love,” she says. And uses the quarters to start the apex of the A in “make.”
Sick Willy takes a seat beside them. “Lookit,” he says, unfolding a scrap of paper from his pocket. An article from that morning’s paper.
LOCAL COP ARRESTED FOR MURDERS
Suspect Kyrzig Released
Gryphon’s lips move as he reads the headline silently to himself over Willy’s shoulder. “So it ends.” He drops his cigarette butt. Crushes it. “You staying?” he asks Kyle.
As Gryphon walks away, Kyle picks up the smoldering cigarette butt. Transforms it into a geranium.
“Oh, pretty!” Jada reaches for it.
“No.” Kyle pulls it from her grasp. “That’s not for you.
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
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.