“He’s not here,” Fish said from his throne behind the counter.
“Did he say where?”
“Naw. I don’t mean he stepped out, lady. I mean he left. Moved out. Whatever you said spooked him real good. I told you.” He wagged a fat finger at me. “I told you you was trouble. You and Vicky both.”
I stood there for a second.
Spooked? What could spook him bad enough to run?
It was dark in the shop with my sunglasses on and I took them off without thinking. Fish whistled.
“Damn, girl.” He saw my eye. “What happened?”
I turned my glasses around and looked at myself in the reflection. My left eye was puffy and totally bruised. No amount of foundation was going to cover that shit.
On the floor next to the counter were two identical cardboard boxes. I could see through the flap that they were full of blue vials—potions. It looked like they were getting ready to go somewhere.
“I’m going up,” I said.
Fish yelled after me that it was a waste.
The room was empty, save for the hookahs and other junk. Even the oil lamp was gone. The mattress was leaning against the hutch. I glanced to the floor underneath it. I could still see the card. I got down and reached in and pulled it out.
There was no writing on this one. I think he was using it as a bookmark. While I was bent over like that, I saw something small further back near the wall. I leaned in and stretched.
It was a ring, one of Bastien’s by the looks of it. But it had been there a while. It was dusty.
I looked under the rest of the furniture and behind the mattress and around the boxes, but that was it. The bathroom was empty, too, save for someone’s old toothbrush and an empty roll of toilet paper. Half a white sheet hung from it.
The windows in the bedroom, bathroom, and hall were nailed shut. That was against the fire code, of course, but it was good for business. It meant that everyone had to come through the front, which I suspect that was the point. When you’re dealing drugs, you don’t want your competitors sneaking in from the upstairs fire escape.
Fish came up the stairs, stepping one at a time and holding a baseball bat. He was breathing hard and not at all happy with me.
“Alright,” I said, raising my hands. “Alright. I’m going.”
Maybe it was because I had just been looking at tarot cards, I dunno, but as soon as I got downstairs, the first thing I noticed in the shop was a tarot deck in a stiff plastic case. It was hanging on a spinning rack next to a Jesus Christ action figure, complete with karate-chop arm. I wasn’t sure if that was to beat the devil or stop you from masturbating. I pulled the deck from the wire hook. It was totally not what I was expecting. It came with a free download, a way to get guided readings by yourself through your phone. I guess there really is an app for everything.
“Go on,” Fish said as he lumbered to the back.
“I’m gonna buy this. Jeez. Relax.”
The door bells jingled while I was reading the instructions on the back. It was a few moments before I noticed it was too quiet. I couldn’t hear any other customers in the store, despite that someone had clearly come. I listened. I walked around the aisle of Japanese toy figurines. Nothing. At the end of the row was a bunch of stuffed animals. I pulled my mirrored aviators from my pocket and put them on a large hanging Bugs Bunny. Then I walked back around to the occult section. If I craned my head from there, I could see the reflection. No details at that distance, but motion at least. Sure enough, there was a guy in the shop, pushing six feet probably, and solid. Dressed like an off-duty cop. He glanced at the sunglasses on the bunny, turned, and walked out casually like this wasn’t the Hallmark gift store he was expecting.
I ran to the front and pushed through the door, tarot deck still in my hand. Fish yelled and Mick ran after me. He hopped the counter like he was a TV cop sliding over the hood of a car, but his shoe snagged on the lip and he fell face-first on the ground. A moment later he was on his feet after me. But there was no need. I stopped as soon as I stepped onto the sidewalk. The big guy was walking away nonchalantly with his hands in his jacket pocket. He kind of hunched a bit, like he was perpetually under a cloud. I wasn’t surprised I was being followed. All that meant was that Lykke had figured out that the number he’d gotten from me was shit. In truth, I’d already called it from the landline in the halal market. It belonged to some random dude Kell ran into at a coffee shop. She gave him some sob story about losing her phone and asked to borrow his. I’d dangled the number in front of Lykke to see his reaction. Not that I was surprised by it. I got a fat bruise, but at least I knew he was bluffing.
The good news was that if he was having me followed, that meant he still couldn’t find her. I was starting to get legitimately worried about what he would do when he did.
Standing on the sidewalk with skinny Mick Foley holding my elbow, I saw the big guy turn a corner by a public mailbox and disappear. Mick took me back inside like he was a rookie cop making his first arrest. He clearly didn’t remember ever seeing me before.
Fish pushed through the curtain of beads carrying a third box of potions. I heard the glass clink when he set it on top of the others.
“I told you, Spence. I told you you was trouble. Told my man, too, not that he’s got any sense when it comes to either of you.”
“You coulda told me she’d been here, Fish.”
“That wouldn’t be for me to say,” he said mockingly in a fake British accent.
“Was she buying or selling?”
“That ain’t for me to say neither.”
“She’s pregnant, you know.”
“If you sell her drugs, I’ll find out and tell everyone and you’ll have a mob of angry white girls outside the shop with tiki torches and pumpkin spice lattes.”
I tossed the deck on the counter by the register, and he nodded like “yeah, yeah” while he rang me up.
“Any clues where he went?”
“Clues? What, you a detective now?”
I handed him a twenty. “You know what I mean. Any idea where he might have gone?”
“Even if he did,” Mick said from a chair in the corner, “Fish wouldn’t tell you. Ain’t that right, boss?”
“Shut up,” Fish said, like Mick was a terrier yipping at the street from the window. “I don’t know where he’s at,” he said to me.
I looked down at the stack of boxes. And he saw me looking.
“But you know where he’s gonna be,” I accused.
Fish handed me my change and then leaned tight-lipped over the counter, making it clear he wasn’t going to say.
“You’re a real saint,” I said. He smiled knowingly and closed the register.
I lifted the ring to show him. “He left this upstairs.” I tossed it in the box with the vials and walked out.
I turned as I went through the door. Fish was already heading for the back and hadn’t bothered to retrieve the ring. It was still in the box. I figured that meant the vials were going somewhere, and soon. Fish hadn’t carried three boxes of glass from the back just to leave them on the floor where half-baked Mick would constantly trip over them. Bastien had mentioned a venue, someplace he said was cooler than The Couch, but I had no idea where, so I went across the street and waited in the alley.
Stakeouts are boring, or so I learned. You’re basically planted somewhere for hours and hours with no guarantee that the person you’re waiting for will even show. And it’s not like you can play a game or read a book, because all it takes is a few seconds for them to appear around a corner and disappear into the shop.
I sighed, like, a million times.
Traffic picked up with rush hour and the sun got low and the shop lights came on. Eventually a 1970s silver Lincoln pulled in front of the store and a fat black man in an over-sized striped purple track suit got out and opened the boat of a trunk. Mick came through the door of the shop carrying one of the boxes of vials. A moment later, he returned with the second and then the third. The man in the track suit slammed the trunk, got back into the car, and drove away. I would’ve followed, but I didn’t have a vehicle, nor did a quick scan of the road find a taxi immediately handy. So I kept waiting.
And then I saw her. She had the same shaved head and the same dog collar, like it was part of her style, something crazy to wear instead of a choker. She was in a neon blue camo-print jacket, tight leather pants, and the knee-high boots I had seen in Bastien’s room. She had a very expensive Balenciaga bag slung over her shoulder that looked brand new, as if she’d just bought it an hour ago, and her full lips were covered in metallic purple lipstick with a single line of gold down the center. She went into the shop, was gone for about twenty minutes, and came back out, where she lit a cigarette and started walking.
After giving her a decent head start so as to leave a gap between us, I stepped onto the sidewalk and followed her around the block. I followed her under scaffolding perched over the sidewalk in front of a barber shop. I followed her past a narrow discount leather clothing store that pushed their round racks of clothes outside and nearly to the street to force the passersby through them. A man in a turban stood on the curb, leaning against a post, and kept watch on his wares.
That’s when she disappeared.
I marked the spot with my eyes and trotted to it—a capped metal post, like an unused pipe, that erupted from the concrete at the corner of a building, near a gap too narrow to pass.
“Oh. It’s you,” she said disappointedly. “And here I was worried.”
I looked up. Irfan was sitting on the ledge of a fire escape, boots dangling over the side.
“You were expecting someone else?” I asked.
“I should’ve known it was you.” Her accent was heavy.
She got up and hopped down like it was nothing. She was athletic.
“Because there’s a fell scent on the air, and you reek of death.” She plugged her nose.
“Death? Okay. Fine. I’ll bite. What does death smell like?”
I rolled my eyes. “Come on. That wasn’t very clever. I thought you were gonna say sweaty shoe leather made from the skin of my grandma’s rotting corpse or rancid piss or something.”
She looked at me. “You are the strangest girl.” Then she took off suddenly down the sidewalk.
“Wait up.” I scurried after her. Her legs were longer than mine, and I almost had to power-walk to keep pace. “So how do you know what death smells like?”
“I saw him once,” she said without looking at me. “Years ago. In the desert.”
“He was wrapped in rags and carried a long, forked reed-cutter in his hand. There was that earthy-sweet stench of dried dung on top of the dust of ages. That’s what you smell like. Dung and dust.”
I flashed my middle finger at her.
“Fine. Don’t believe me. It’s your funeral.”
I looked at her metallic purple lipstick with the gold streak, at her expensive bag, at her shaved head, at the dog collar. “So what’s your deal? Like, with Bastien and everything. Are you guys a couple or whatever?”
“A couple of what?” She glanced to me. “Oh, God. Don’t tell me you’re jealous.”
“Um, gross. He’s my best friend’s ex. No, thank you.”
“Oooooh.” She stopped and looked at me knowingly. “So that’s why he was acting so weird. I should’ve guessed that, too.”
“Weird?” I asked.
Irfan started walking again with a self-satisfied smirk.
“How was he acting weird?”
“Is this what you do? Just repeat what other people say as a question?”
“Look who’s talking.”
She just shook her head and we walked in silence for a minute. Then she nodded like it all made sense.
“Now I get it.”
“His fascination with you.”
“Fascination? With me? Dude, I don’t think so.”
“He must think you’re a challenge or something. Like the other day. For a moment, it seemed like he had you, just like all the others. Then your soul . . .” She scowled and tried to think of the right word. “Sparked. And threw off the charm.”
“My soul sparks?”
She turned to me with a look of mock seriousness. “Like it was ripped in half. Goodbye.”
She trotted across the street and walked into the convenience store on the corner. But I stayed put for a second. I was stuck on the implication of what she said, like my soul had been joined to something and then ripped away.
A moment later, I walked slowly into the shop and stopped. The man behind the counter looked to be about 80. He wore a red polo shirt with a name tag that said HARV. Irfan was snagging an expensive bottle of “artesian” water from the refrigerated case.
“If you keep following me, you’re going to get hurt,” she said disinterestedly on her way to the fountain.
I ignored the warning. I’m good at that. “Let’s say, hypothetically, that I believed in things like charms.”
“Oh, boy. This ought to be good.” She grabbed a cup from the dispenser and began to fill it with purple slush, which churned like a washing machine in its reservoir over the spigot.
“What else could break one?”
“You’re like a tiny little sand fly. Bzz, bzz, bzz. You’re gonna get squished.” She pinched her fingers together in front of my nose.
“Tiny little? Is that a crack about my size? And I smell like dung.” I copied Fish and adopted a fake English accent. “However do you come up with these darling insults?”
She watched the cup fill slowly in twisting blobs.
“So?” I urged. “What else could do it? Like pregnancy, maybe?”
She looked up, like she hadn’t thought of that. She looked at me with a kind of grudging curiosity. “Yeah. Maybe.”
She seemed lost in thought as she grabbed a clear plastic lid and a straw from the rack.
“Oh, come on,” I objected. “You mean after all that, you’re not even gonna tell me I’m not as dumb as I look?”
She flashed me a tight-lipped smile as she pulled a bunch of napkins from a dispenser. She crumpled them tightly into a ball between both palms, pressed hard for several seconds, and then blew long and slow between her thumbs, the way you’d blow on a fire to stoke the embers without kicking up the soot. Her eyes flashed, and she dropped the wad into the open rectangle cut into the counter. It disappeared into the trash can underneath, which was almost full of paper waste.
“What did you just do?”
“Trust me, little fly,” she said. “You don’t want to graduate from dumb to dangerous.”
“Keep this up and you’ll see.”
She grabbed her slush and her water and walked to the front, where she put on her best ditzy American girl accent.
“Um. I think your machine is broken or something. I wanted a whole Power Grape Slush not three-fourths of a Power Grape Slush.”
She showed the old man the cup, which she hadn’t filled, and he scowled at the machine over the stack of paper towels in the middle row.
“I’ll charge you for the smaller size.”
“Oh, geez,” I said. “I think I’m gonna be sick. I’ll be outside.”
The clerk rang her total and she handed him a five. The register drawer dinged open, which is just about the time the fire rose from the trash. I could see it as I turned on the sidewalk to wait. The automatic sliding door hadn’t yet closed and I saw smoke rising from the back. The old man cursed loudly and slid the drawer back as he ran for the fire extinguisher, which was all the way in the back in the hall by the restrooms. Irfan jammed a finger in the drawer at the last second and kept it from closing. She put the water in her bag, leaned across the counter, pulled a wad of twenties from the till, and walked out with her slush.
I mean, I figured it was gonna be something like that, but still.
I heard the old man yell and both of us took off at full speed, leaving him with a growing blaze.
“You realize they have security cameras in those places, right?”
After turning and crossing a side street, we came up on a four-way intersection where the last few seconds of the crosswalk were counting down. It seemed like we were far enough away that we could stop running, and both of us slowed. But Irfan sped up again almost immediately, just as a bike messenger moved between us, nearly knocking me down.
She ran across the crosswalk as the light turned, and I got up just in time to be nearly run over by a cab as the cars at the light started forward. She held up her grape slush from across the street, waved goodbye, and kept walking.
I was livid. I don’t know that I had any real reason to be. But I was. I was tired of being ditched and dumped and lied to. I was tired of being the person everyone thought they could scrape off whenever it was convenient. Especially Irfan, with her unnaturally long legs and perfectly symmetrical C-cups. What kind of name was Irfan anyway? It was stupid.
I looked down the road to my right. Oncoming traffic was steady. It was rush hour and cars were coming off the freeway at a fairly steady pace. I figured it would be a long light. But there was the freeway. It was two blocks ahead, directly in Irfan’s path. I could see it in the distance. It was elevated there as it came down from the bridge. At ground level, it was a solid block wall. She would only have two choices. If she turned left, she’d head toward the bridge, where after a block or so, the elevated ramp curved in front of the street and there was no pedestrian access. I trotted down the sidewalk, moving against the traffic of the busy road. At the first slight gap between the cars, I darted across the street, cursing myself and drawing a few honks and squealing brakes, before running right into a private high school. The boy’s lacrosse team was getting out of after-school practice, and they had the doors open. I bounded up the short steps and cut through the school, emerging onto the next street through the faculty lot in the back. I circled around the far block, hoping I’d be able to meet Irfan coming up the other way.
I did. I ran into her just around the corner, in fact. Surprised the shit out of us both. Her slush hit the sidewalk the same time as Kell’s purse and she turned and ran back the other way. She ducked down an alley between a single-story grocer and a multi-story gym.
But whereas she was tall and had to move around the rolling dumpster just past the corner, I was short and could use the empty produce boxes stacked next to it to go over the corner and give her a hard shove in the back. I landed on my ass while she stutter-stepped past the dumpster and went down near a little pile of broken pallet pieces. I had used my hands to catch my fall, so small bits of gravel had been pushed into my palms. They stung, as did my tail bone, and I was about to brush them off when a length of pallet wood struck the side of my head.
I grunted with an involuntary exhale as I went hard to the pavement, again using my hands to break the fall. Irfan stood over me holding the strip of shattered wood. My ear stung hard enough to make my eyes water. I could feel it flush with heat, and there was a wetness. Blood dribbled into my ear canal, and I cupped it.
“Fuuuck! Are you trying to kill me?” I yelled.
All I remember thinking is that I could’ve gotten seriously hurt. Like, really. There could’ve been stray nails in the wood. I don’t think she even checked! And the end she hit me with was frayed in splinters.
“You’re not trying hard enough,” she said with a grin. She was breathing hard and enjoying herself. A lot. Like this wasn’t simply her trying to ditch me. Like it was something more. A battle for a prize.
She tossed the pallet wood to the pavement and turned with a shuffle to start running again. But I’d had enough. I pushed myself up and hit the red release latch for the fire escape over our head. The metal ladder slid free on the far side and struck her mid-retreat. She turned just in time to see what was coming. She landed on her back amid the clatter of the metal. The pegs of the ladder landed on the pavement on either side of her throat.
“How’s that, bitch?”
I coughed and leaned my butt against the wall to rest. I touched my ear gently and flinched. Definitely blood. Definitely pain. Now I not only had a black eye, I had a split ear as well.
“What the fuck . . .” I breathed. “You’re such an asshole.”
I finally brushed the gravel from my palms. I was expecting a retort, but she didn’t respond. I realized I could no longer hear her panting either. And she was writhing a little, like she was suffocating.
“Come on . . . It isn’t that heavy.”
After her feet twitched a couple more times, I walked closer—just in case it wasn’t another trick. At first it didn’t seem like there was any way she could be choking. The bar wasn’t compressing her throat. It was barely touching the dog collar. Nor were her hands even on the metal. They were at her side on the ground, like she didn’t dare touch it, which made it seem like she wasn’t even trying. But her eyes were definitely bulging, and red, which I saw when she turned them to me in a panic. It seemed then like she genuinely needed help, like maybe she’d hit her head or something and couldn’t move. I grabbed the ladder quickly and threw it back up into its casing. It wasn’t heavy enough to choke anyone, but it was denser than I thought, as if it were made of crude iron rather than aluminum or steel. It rumbled loudly back into place.
She turned sideways on the ground, coughing heavily. I thought maybe something had happened with the collar. It’s a stupid thing for a person to wear anyway. I thought I’d help her get it off, but as soon as my fingers touched the buckle, I convulsed with a vision. I saw a dust devil in a vast desert, a spaghetti-thin dancing tornado that stretched up to the clear blue sky. It diminished and dissipated as Irfan stepped out of it, as if from nowhere, wearing Arabian silks and jewelry. She had a crop of short, curly hair, and her dark skin was dusted in gold, finer than glitter. The tips of her fingers looked like they’d been dipped in it, but the effect faded up her hands and arms and only sparsely covered her face and shoulders. She was smiling wickedly.
I saw her licking her bloody fingers inside a Bedouin tent. In her other hand she had a curved silver knife with an etched handle. There was a body on the ornate woven carpet.
I saw her made of roaring fire. The snap and crackle of the flames was her cackling laughter, and the people around her huddling were afraid.
I saw a man in a stars-and-moons robe chanting over a high din as the fleeing sand tornado was sucked into the narrow lip of the very lamp I’d seen in Bastien’s room. The man wore silver earrings and brandished a short, jeweled staff and he shouted in a language I didn’t understand. I heard Irfan screaming as the last of the sand devil twisted into the lamp, whose metal lid fell closed on its hinge.
The visions stopped and I let go of the collar. I fell back, out of breath, just like her, and we both sat there for a moment, coughing in between deep, gulping breaths.
“Not gonna run?” I asked after a moment. My voice felt hoarse.
“You can’t, can you?” I panted. “Because I caught you.”
“One thing!” she barked. Her voice cracked on the last syllable. “You get one.” She held up a slender finger with manicured nail. “Just one. That’s all.”
“Fine.” I cleared my throat again. My ear was throbbing. “Take me to Bastien.”
“I don’t know where he is, so I guess you’re out of luck.”
“But you know where he’s gonna be. Don’t you?”
She actually snarled. Like an animal. Then she stood straight and dusted herself off. I picked her Balenciaga bag up off the ground and handed it to her. She looked at it for a second, like it was a trick, and snatched it—but I held on. She tugged once, but it wasn’t very hard. It seemed then like she had no more strength.
“What’s he up to?” I asked.
“I don’t know!”
She tugged again, but it was still weak and I held tight.
“You want it back? You have to answer.” Everything with her, I realized, was a haggle, a bargain, a trick.
Irfan glowered. Her eyes flashed flame.
“Go ahead,” I urged playfully. “Say it. I’m not as stupid as I look.”
There was a long pause. She glanced at the bag like she was deciding whether or not she really wanted it.
“Fine,” she said flatly.
I let go of the strap and she took it and adjusted on her shoulder. Then she opened the top and made sure the contents were undisturbed.
“I don’t know what he’s running from,” she said as she rummaged through the bag. “But whatever it is, it’s serious. I heard him talking to your little friend.”
“Why is everyone ‘little’ to you? You’re not that special.”
“You’re all little!” she snapped. “Every one of you. Insects. Barely worthy to serve us.”
“Just answer the question.”
“Something about a dagger,” she snapped. “And a lot of money. And a rich man, someone named Luka.”
“Louk-ka,” I corrected her.
“Whatever. I don’t think he planned to go through with it, though.” She coughed again and put her hand over the collar as she stretched her neck.
“Go through with what?”
“Whatever they had planned. Bastien doesn’t want money. He could charm an heiress out of her fortune if that’s what was important to him. He only wants one thing: his dispossession removed.”
I stared at her for a moment. “You think he was going to let Kell take the fall? Why would he do that? Why would I believe you? You’ve done nothing but lie and talk shit about everyone this whole time.”
She shrugged. “Suit yourself. You’re going to die anyway, remember? You’re marked. You have an appointment in Samarra. No matter which path you take, death waits at the end.”
I watched her walk away.
“Well?” she barked. “Are you coming or not?”
I’m posting the chapters of my forthcoming urban paranormal mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS, in order until the book is released. A blend of hard-boiled whodunit and contemporary urban fantasy, it’s been described as “Tolkien meets Dashiell Hammett for dinner in the present day.”
You can sign up here to be notified when the book is released.
You can start reading in order here: The old ones are patient.
The next chapter is: The primal seed
cover image by Kilian Eng