Month: March 2024

Risky Magic

Part One: The Accident

It smelled of cinnamon and smoke. The cinnamon came from the scented candles. The smoke from everything else.

“And the fireball came through that window over there?”

A. Haverford Gibbons, sinewy dark hair thinning by the minute, gestured at a gash in the side of the brick-and-mortar walls of the candle factory wide enough to wrangle cattle through. The minefield of twisted glass knots below suggested that there used to be a window there.

“Yessah. The first fireball, anyway. A couple others came through the roof.” The gruff, overalled factory owner waggled a fat finger at the gaping skylight above, through which a roasting summer sun poured down. “And then the one with the moustache, the Count, he raised Rog, my foreman, from the dead and Rog started disassembling some of the machinery into a weapon.”

“And did Rog do any damage?” Hav asked.

“Not really. He was very polite about it, like he felt all guilty about being a zombie, y’know. Even swept up the spare parts into a trashcan, which was a little hard, cause the fireball had taken his arm, ya see,” the owner pantomimed sweeping with one arm, and then shuffling a dustpan, and then sweeping again. “But then he got hit by a second fireball.”

Haverford—Hav for short—sighed, readjusting the thin, wire-rimmed glasses that hooked his ears. He took precise, clean notes in his pressed black notebook. Precision was important in this job. It was the details that ensured solvency.

He counted the figures internally. This would be expensive. The machinery could be replaced easily enough. But the structural integrity of the building seemed jeopardized. A probing finger tested one of the support beams, which wobbled like gelatin. Both he and the factory owner shared an eyebrows-at-the-roof-of-their-foreheads stare as they waited to see if the wobble would collapse the entire frame.

Death by rubble would at least have been a relief from his financial troubles. They would have to raze the building from the ground and begin anew. And then there was the liability for the zombie. The lucky cremation would cut down on funeral costs, but he had a widow. The whole ordeal would easily burst through the policy ceiling.

“Would you like some coffee?” The owner asked.

Hav nodded. “With a pinch of sugar and a dash of whiskey if you have it.”

The man laughed. “Just the sugar, I think.” He stepped carefully over with a tin cup, brimming with rich brown, smelling faintly of burning. Or maybe that was just the innards of the building, deformed and cooked. Hav hated that smell, couldn’t separate it from the memories that it carried. Why did it always have to be fire?

Archwizard Frizzell Fantastic had only moved to Huddleton six months ago but the damage toll he had racked up had been substantial. Sure, it was nice that the necromancers and warlocks and blood demons that used to occasionally pop up and possess or sacrifice or torture their poor denizens were being rounded up and set ablaze. But did the Archwizard need to level a city block to do it? Was it worth trading the occasional ghoul attack for this constant rain of fire?

And why did they keep having to be his buildings. Why couldn’t the good Archwizard explode a factory insured by the white-heeled toffs over at Zane, Zephyr, and Zotts? Even their slogan was aggravating—We Don’t Sleep at Night, So You Can. But no, it seemed every crime the damned wizard managed to foil happened to be inside of, or adjacent to, or within the vicinity of a property covered by his policies. And Frizzell Fantastic had to set them alight to stop it.

Hav closed his little, black book of figures and sipped the coffee again. It tasted strong and sour, just like he enjoyed it, just like Margery used to make it.

The Most Famous Noosemaker of that Moving Country

The first I saw of her was three minutes of video surreptitiously taken before the camcorder was confiscated. All footage of her unique act was strictly controlled. I remember losing the need to breathe as the sunlight runneling off the stained-glass spine of Tessadorma Cathedral broke into a billion particles across her taut scapulae. I understood why men gave up food for art. Each small motion of her brutal-angled body declared her mastery of it as she strode across her stage. This woman had honed herself into the devoted tool of her profession. Even as she gripped the rope in both of those strong hands and hoisted her subject kicking into the air, I knew that my life would be a disappointment if it did not, however fleetingly, intersect with hers.

The most famous noosemaker of Vizhilly was waiting for me when I emerged from the terminal three hours delayed. The sight of her loitering on the curb beside her autocar like a common chauffeur stopped me short and smacked me silent.

“Are you the reporter then?” she asked, in accented but professorial Anglic. She was taller than me by a few inches and similarly broader. Black hair braided into thick bulbs piled upon her strong shoulders, that musculature a testimony to a lifetime of physical labor. She wore a peacock-colored avgeré, like a saree that tied into a bow at the chest, and a pair of leather driving gloves. Flecks of gold jewelry glinted modestly from her ears, lips, and brow. There was an aquiline sharpness to her features, an inherent disapproval of everything, and her lavender eyes seemed to scold me for staring.

“That’s me, ma’am,” I stammered. I’d spent the overnight flight constructing my perfect first impression, and it currently lay in pieces at my feet.

“Good,” she said tersely but not unkindly, and opened the passenger’s door. “Come along. We’re behind schedule.”

Her voice carried the same authority as the nuns who’d thrashed me through four years of Yeshuite school. I hurried to throw my luggage inside and myself after it.

I’d dialed my editor Ian moments after I’d seen her on that video. I hadn’t expected to be so much as humored. I’d put in my time covering separatist rallies in Azovian Rus and labor protests in B?izh?u, but the New Anglund Post was still a callow upstart in the court of journalism, and a deep-dive on one of the world’s most reclusive celebrities seemed like reaching at stars from the bottom of a well. Yet two weeks later I was presented with a ticket to the country where she plied her trade. “A shot in the dark doesn’t always miss,” Ian had said, sounding just as dumbfounded as I was.

“Sorry I’m late,” I said, as she took us on to the road.

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” she replied sidelong, fastidiously studying the traffic. “Such is the reality of a country like mine.”

True enough. It was difficult as it was to land an aeroplane on a stationary target, much less one in perpetual, unpredictable motion. The country of Vizhilly, that restless landmass, was presently squelching like a kidney stone between the borders of Cumanistan and Gurkanistan on its way westward, and the conflicting airspaces of those two rival nations had made my decent more of an action movie than I could enjoy.

As the freeway emerged from a tunnel, it took us in a descending swoop over the capital city of Tessadorma. A heavy, hot rain beat down upon its rolling terra-cotta surface, courtesy of the atmospheric confusion whipped up by the country’s motion. The guidebooks called it the Seasonless City; so close to Vizhilly’s hindmost border no climate was guaranteed. This land snared winds on its dorsal mountains as it traveled, abducting and releasing at whim, the same as it purloined culture and architecture from those nations it visited or had fleetingly conquered it. This high above the depressed cityscape I could make out pagodas lifted from B?izh?u, aqueducts pilfered from the Reman Empire before its collapse. An old city patched with modernity, like Edo or Parisius, but old from many times more deposits of age. I felt fleetingly nauseous when I pulled my eyes away, as though I teetered over a thousand compounded vistas instead of one.

I recalled the famous words that the Emperor Gaius Caesarion had uttered upon his coming to this land: Ita vero. Mundus hie agit. Tis true, the world does flow here.

“Motion sickness is to be expected,” the noosemaker said, noticing my reaction. “It should pass quickly. If not, there are pills.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, probably lying. “I didn’t expect you to pick me up in person. Don’t you have people?”

“Of course,” she replied. “But when I saw that we were to lose plenty of time as it was, I decided not to waste any more sending a driver here and back. I thought we might begin the preliminary interview now, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” I said, hurriedly producing my digital recorder. “Whenever you’re ready.”

She did not take her eyes off the road but did lean in slightly, to be heard. “My name is Chella Gipzodi,” she said, enunciating carefully. “I am thirty-three years old, and I execute people beautifully.”

Three-Piece String Assassination

Chrysanthemum Montgomery: the baddest bitch on any side of any river. Period. Full stop. She lounged into the bar, a goon on each arm. She dripped danger, oozed glamour, and fixed every eye upon her without the need for any kind of magic.

For a moment, the song flew from my mind, and there was nothing but Chrysanthemum, spotlighted in the doorway, a crime queen entering stage left.

Come on, Betty, keep your cool. You’re just the music, hired strings. You ain’t got no business knowin’ who that lady is, just play your Baby, croon your tune. Lull the mood. Don’t let nobody know you’re here to kill Montgomery.

I closed my eyes, finished the song with what I hoped was the same gusto I started it. The applause was more than we’d earned all night, and I took a bow with my beautiful upright bass – my Baby – swirling at my side, so she too could get her due.

It was Angelica’s turn to belt out a ballad. She shot me a wink, smiling as we shuffled into place, me and my Baby at the back, holding down the beat, she in front, boom-chucking on her guitar while sweet alto melody slipped ‘cross her lips into the inebriated air.

Carla had closed her eyes, finally finding some semblance of unity as she coaxed fills out of her fiddle. I eased into the background, just where I liked to hang, letting my eyes rove over the audience, who gradually grew more attentive as the night drifted on. I tried not to stare at Chrysanthemum any longer than any of the rest, but it was mighty hard not to stare. Not just cuz she was the mark, our golden goose, our ticket to a cush gig with the Agency (or a walk in the river with concrete shoes, if we failed). She was gorgeous.

I waited for a clear shot from the stage to the booth where she sat, martini held in an effortlessly elegant hand. But the air between my eyes and hers blurred frequently with patrons passing to the bar, by waitstaff selling their service for the hope of plump tips, by bickering couples cutting date night short. Our set ended with Chrysanthemum Montgomery still very much alive and applauding us with a jangle of bangles and a glint of rings.

“We’ll be back in fifteen minutes with another set,” Carla said into the mic while Angelica wiped down her strings. “Feel free to come up and say howdy. We’ll be at our merch table.” She pointed to the little folding card table we’d outfitted with a thrift-store suitcase to display our wares: CDs, T-shirts, bumper stickers, ball caps.

I spun and dipped my Baby onto her side and slid the footpeg in so no one could trip over it. No god could save the soul who broke my Baby’s bridge. I was gulping down water when one of Chrysanthemum’s goons hopped up on stage, a spread of muscle thinly veiled under white cotton and blue denim.

“If you want merch, I’ll be right there.” I tried not to show the mix of peeved and scared at war behind my eyes: did Chrysanthemum know she was marked?

“Mamma C wants a word.” Mr. Muscles jerked a thumb over his shoulder at his boss, who tilted her head, smiled, and gave me a delicious little finger wave when she saw me looking.

“Sure.” I gulped. We were blown. This night wasn’t gonna end with us making pay dirt and a contract, but with our brains minced across the back alley, and our instruments disintegrated on the asphalt.

I followed Mr. Muscles, trying not to piss my tights. Relax. Just relax. You’re a badass bass player. You’re a sonomancer. What have you got to fear?

Angelica cast me a worried glance from the bar where she waited to collect our free beers. I gave her the tiniest shrug and shook my head. Stand by, sister. I don’t know what’s up just yet.

Mr. Muscles deposited me in front of Chrysanthemum’s table and slouched back into his place as one of his boss’s bookends. “Ms. Betty, right?” Chrysanthemum extended one of her hands with its long dainty fingers perfect for gouging out eyes. “You can call me Mamma C.”

I fought the urge to curtsey over that hand and gave it what I hoped was a standard, not-at-all-nervous shake. “Pleasure,” I managed through a closing throat. “How’re you enjoying your evening?”

She smiled, dropping my hand, and if I hadn’t been so scared shitless, I might have swooned right then and there. God, her teeth were pretty. And those eyes. Man. I could’ve stared into those eyes until eternity came and tapped me on the shoulder to tell me time was up.

“Y’all are fantastic,” said Mamma C. “Top notch. I love me some lady song-slingers.” She seemed to mean it, the smile crinkling the corners of her eyes, which only made them more transfixing.

“Thank you,” Only long practice at accepting bullshit compliments from drunk dudes tryin’ to land themselves in my pants kept me from blushing like a schoolgirl at the genuine, bona fide compliment she’d paid me. “I’m glad you’re havin’ a good time.” Thinking that was all she wanted to say, I turned to head back to supervising the sale of merch, but a butter-warm, silk-soft hand tightened on my arm, like a python constricting her prey.

“Just a minute,” said Mamma C. “I was wondering if y’all are free next Saturday. I’m throwin’ a party and my band canceled on me.” She pouted, and it was all I could do to keep from biting my lip.

“Next Saturday?” I asked, voice shooting up an octave while I found where my scattered thoughts had gone.

“Mmm hmm.”

Did they turn up the heat in here, or was it just me? “Yeah, yeah, we’re free.” We weren’t but how could we turn down the chance to make private party money? And, it’d be the perfect cover for completing our contract: one bird, two paychecks. Easy, right? We’d just give the Agency a little call, explain the situation. It wasn’t like we’d blow the kill; we’d just postpone it.

It’d be fine.

“Perfect,” Mamma C smiled that lazy predatory smile that promised to eat me all the way up. “Do you have a card? I’ll email you the details.”

My cold limp fingers somehow managed to slip into my dress pocket, scrounged past the digital tuner and the rosin to the stack of business cards I’d miraculously managed to load in there. “Here you go.”

“Thanks.” Another smile, and I could finally make my retreat.

“The heck was that all about?” Carla whispered in my ear as Angelica handed me my beer.

“We need to cancel that bar gig next Saturday.” My hands seeped sweat, and no amount of thigh-rubbing seemed to dry them. “Mamma C wants us to play a party for her.”

My band sisters blinked at me. “But the contract?” Carla asked.

“We ask Vasili and the Agency for an extension,” I said. “This is a big gig. We slay it, and who knows how many of Mamma C’s fancy friends will want to hire us next?” Whether as assassins or musicians didn’t matter much; a paying gig was a paying gig.

Carla crossed her arms. “Mamma C, is it now?” Her frown intensified from concern to girl-you’ve-gone-crazy. “You’re not getting cold feet at the prospect of blasting a pretty face, now are you?”

I shook my head, perhaps a little too vehemently. “No, this is strictly about the exposure.”

Carla snorted. “You know what they say about exposure, right?”

I waved the cliché away. “Yeah, yeah. This ain’t some coffee house gig where they pay in doughnuts and drink cards. This is a fancy-ass house party where all the up and ups in organized crime will be watching us. Plus, Mamma C pays good.” I didn’t know that, but a lady who could afford that manicure could afford to shell out for a band.

“Fine,” said Carla. “But you get to tell Vasili.” Her finger hung in the air before my nose, a symbol of her seriousness. “And update the Agency.”

I nodded, and we began our second set.

Factory Reset

My double mouse click bounces off the polished concrete floor and bare brick walls. The silence swallows it after a time, leaving behind the patter of tiny rain drops against the only window in the apartment. The cursor on screen is a small blue circle and spins with a Sisyphean determination. All I can do is wait and listen to the never-ending rain and think of you.

Your lopsided smile accompanied your braying laughter as we walked through mist—both of us without jackets—and you explained that if I wanted to seem like a native of the city I must never get caught with an umbrella, even when it pours. I asked about the dangers of rusting. You laughed again and said every robot here has a little bit of rust on them.

A dialog box pops up with instructions to plug myself into the CPU via a hyperlink USB. The cord already dangles down the side of the computer tower, an end plugged into one of the four slots at the top next to the power switch. The other end reflects the green LEDs that light the CPU’s guts, ready whenever I am.

With trembling fingers, I plug myself in.

The first box disappears, and another appears in its place.

Begin factory reset?

Without giving my servos time to rationalize their way out of it, I strike enter and release a definitive click from the mechanical keyboard. A sound that used to bring me so much joy now reverberates numbly in my hollow chest.

A third box.

WARNING. Performing factory reset will clear all short and long term memory caches except those essential for base function. Are you sure you wish to proceed?

I had to put in a request for the hyperlink USB needed to complete a factory reset. It takes a year for these requests to be approved, per governmental regulations. Robots can’t go around resetting themselves all willy-nilly, after all. During the wait period, I had to go to four different government mandated counseling sessions to prove I was serious about wanting a reset. Show the powers that be that I was sure I knew what I was getting myself into.

I was sure a year ago. I’m sure now.

Sure about losing the 5074 movies we saw together. Sure about rewatching forty-eight thousand hours of television at our typical double speed in an attempt to rediscover my favorite shows. Sure about forgetting the lyrics to myriad songs intrinsically attached to you. Sure about not remembering the house we bought and moved into and loved inside of. Sure about looking at our cats as three strays who broke into my cold studio apartment and brought their own litter boxes and food with them.

So sure about all of it, as long as it finally gets you out of my head. Because I can live without those things. But living without you is impossible.

I hit enter again, and once the sound fades, nothing remains but the rain.