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Whistling tunelessly – up that Hill –

Whistling tunelessly he crosses the street hands in the pockets of his black leather jacket. Jogging the last few steps before the light changes his pinkish-orange hair bobbing. The sky above is dark and starless, heavy and low where it isn’t lost in the streetlight glare. The little corner parking lot is crammed with a half-dozen food carts shoulder-to-shoulder with signs that say El Brasero and Potato Champion and Whiffies Fried Pies. He squeezes between a couple careful of power cords and a water line wrapped in insulating foam and knocks on the back door of a silvery cart trimmed in purple and green and gold. The cart lurches. “Fuck off,” calls someone from inside. He knocks again. The door’s wrenched open enough for a man to peer out. “It’s five o’clock in the fucking,” he says. “Jesus, Ray.” Wrapped in a shapeless brown corduroy coat. Tuft of beard leaning sideways off his chin. “I don’t do breakfast. You know that.”

“Like I could pay if you did.”

“Don’t do charity neither,” says the man in the corduroy coat.

“Relax.” The man in the black leather jacket pulls his other hand from a pocket. “Just need some water and a pot.” He’s holding three eggs still speckled with bits of feather and chicken shit.

Three eggs in fizzing water in a red saucepot on a bluely glowing propane stovetop next to the big empty griddle. Ray in his black leather jacket leans back against a wall papered with lists and recipes scrawled on index cards, grimy menus, a photo of the man in the corduroy coat wearing a bowling shirt and dark glasses, smiling, thumbs up by the sunlit cart. He’s up in the narrow nose pouring coffee from an orange thermos into white paper cups. Leans over to hand one back steam billowing in the sharp light of the electric lamp hung over the griddle. “Oh, hey,” says Ray. “Thanks.”

“I’m a cheap sonofabitch and an uncharitable bastard,” says the man in the corduroy coat. “I ain’t inhumane.”

Ray sips his coffee, the sets it on the griddle and pulls a green glass bottle from his jacket. He pours a slug of something colorless into the cup.

“Jesus, Ray,” says the man in the corduroy coat.

“Ain’t neither of us slept yet,” says Ray, “so it’s still way the hell after noon.” He takes another, slower sip. “And the essences of juniper and coriander really bring out the floral notes of a good arabica blend. How’s tricks?”

“Can’t complain,” says the man in the corduroy coat, yawning hugely. “Drunk people need their fried starches, but damn. I get stuck cleaning up till the crack of fucking hell. You?”

“Ah, you know,” says Ray. He takes the bubbling pot off the lit eye, sets it on the griddle, slaps a lid on. “No job. No prospects. Stealing eggs from somebody’s backyard coop. Still haven’t kicked a cat, though. So I got a ways to fall yet.”

Ray leaves the cart with a brown paper sack and a covered white cup. He darts across the empty street against the light and runs more quickly across the intersection with the yellow light, waving at a bus lumbering down the dark street toward the corner. He pulls a handful of paper slips, bus transfers in muted reds and oranges and greens, and rifles through them one-handed till he finds a short one, greyish yellow. The bus snorts to a stop and he flashes it at the driver, then heads for the back, past the only other passengers: a man in a powder blue tuxedo, his collar open, his bow tie unclipped, and a figure anonymous in a bulky black parka and a green meshback cap pulled low that says PC-815 over the bill.

The bus climbs slowly past apartments and restaurants a hardware store and a wine shop, a bakery, a comic book store, a tented farmer’s market and a woman setting out signs that say Open, Blood Oranges, Two Ninety-nine. Crowning the hill a funeral home behind a majestic sweep of lawn. Down the other side the street falls through thickening blocks of two- and three-storey buildings that push right up to lightening sidewalks through a welter of power lines and phone lines. Stoplights click and change over empty intersections. Maybe thirty blocks away the street climbs again up to the colonnaded porch of a big yellow house its windows dark in the lap of a much larger tree-shadowed hill. Off away behind it all, orange light’s leaking through cracks in the soft grey ceiling of clouds.

Someone pulls the cord and the bus shudders to a stop by a dark movie theater with a big sign that says Bagdad in ornamented letters. The man in the tuxedo gets up and carefully hands on the backs of the seats makes his way off. Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home, says the unlit marquee. Adventures in Babysitti. Barbarella 1100.

Maybe ten blocks shy of that big yellow house up on the hill the bus turns off the street, and Ray yanks the cord. He gets off at a corner stop by an empty parking lot. The sign above it says F.O.E. East Portland Ærie No. 3256. His footsteps echo as he heads back to the street and continues up it past the last of the two-storey blocks. A barista’s setting out a sign that says Albina Press. Up past blocks of one- and two-storey houses now, still dark behind hedges, under skeletal trees. When the steepening street reaches that big yellow house with its colonnaded porch and a sign out front that says Western Seminary it doglegs around it and up and up past more dark houses until it ends finally in a great grass berm, blocks long to either side. Ray climbs it up a narrow flight of cracked concrete steps to a low stone wall topped by an arrow-tipped wrought-iron fence. Past the fence under buzzing streetlights an enormous open reservoir half-filled with black water untouched by the orange glow that’s still threatening somewhere away behind the hill. Across the reservoir a crenellated pump-house like a tower without its castle. Beyond it the hill continues to rise, the houses left behind now, dark trees rooted in black shadows all about. Another flight of concrete steps much longer and much steeper than the last. At the bottom of it Ray drains his paper cup of coffee and chucks it into a garbage can. Paper bag in hand, shoulders set, head down, he starts up that second flight, slowing, huffing as he nears the top. There’s another low stone wall, another wrought-iron fence, another crenellated pump-house, oval instead of blocky. Another open reservoir, inky and vast. Ray stoops there at the top of the steps, hands on his knees, hair flopping over into his eyes. The buzz of the streetlights cuts out, and he is left alone in the gloom, his breath loud and rough in the silence. He straightens, turns, looks back.

Past the dizzying fall of steps past the squared-off reservoir below past the trees and houses the street stretches away stoplights winking yellow to red, flanked on either side by more streets, more blocks fixing the gentle rumple of the land with streetlights and porch lights, storefronts and signs, the straight-lined grid in turn gentled by dark-shadowed clusters and thickets of trees, all of it lipped by a low ridge maybe thirty blocks away. Past that ridge shreds of fog lick up lighter than the clouds above, the unseen river bracketed north and south by the great arch of one bridge, the sweep of another, the cars so far away just crawling white lights and red lights. Past that rippled curtain then the towers of downtown and a thousand thousand windows filling with an uncertain light, yellowish blue without a hint of green, and the corners and edges and frames of those windows have all of them caught hesitant sparks of orange.

Ray sits on the top step and pulls three eggs from the paper bag. He rolls one between his knee and the palm of his hand, crushing the shell, and peels it, watching the city before him tip over into daylight. The light in all that glass firms up into a softly greyish white just brighter than the lightening clouds above, still touched with blue and yellow blushing about those smoldering orange edges and corners. He eats his egg and begins to peel a second. One of the towers stands alone, away from the others off to the north, its reddish amber glass framed by dark pink stone still dim, untouched by lightening day. Digging in his pockets Ray pulls out a paper packet that says Salt and rips it open, pouring it out in a pile on his palm, sprinkling a pinch of it over the peeled egg. That lone tower glimmers and suddenly every pane of glass in the building flares with smoldering orange light that grows and spreads as he lifts the egg to his mouth and somewhere up behind him the clouds break open and the morning light rolls down over the city, the wave of it washing out all those little lights down the street and up the ridge, the shreds of fog between the bridges tattering, melting away, the cloudy light filling those thousands upon thousands of windows in the towers blown out by orange and yellow and red. And the lone tower’s glass is filled with all those colors and more, golds and roses, purples, pearly whites, even clean pure lines of the greens and blues that only shine at sunrise and sunset, and its dark pink stone gleams now as behind him the sun mounts and the morning takes hold. He climbs to his feet one hand shading his eyes against the glory.

“I knew it,” he says. He laughs and spins around once on the top step. “I knew it!” Backing up a couple of half-dancing steps he drops a shoulder and cocks his arm and spinning around once more and again he hurls the third egg away off the hill toward that burning tower, that blaring slice of sunrise cut into the dark hills away across the river. It spins from his hand a tiny shadow lost in all the dazzle and never comes back down.

Table of Contents

Sunlight softly – almost a Vacation – Fennel & Sorghum – Everything in their Power –

Sunlight softly drifts from skylights through the atrium pale, brighter though and whiter than the sconces warming shadows about the outer walls. Wooden doors under a sign that says Council Chamber swing open and a robot steps through, a man in a robot suit made of blue and grey plastic shells articulated about knees and elbows, a grey grill of a mask on his blue crash helmet. A woman in a broad-brimmed bonnet and a black-and-white striped swimming costume takes his arm, smiles coquettishly into a hand mirror as someone snaps a photo, then tucks the mirror away, reaching for a green rainshell held out to her by a man in a grey flannel suit and an elaborate red-and-purple headdress. A bald man in a white vest leans on a cricket bat, speaking animatedly to a man in a red striped shirt with white collar and cuffs. Flash and flash again, more photos. A little guy in a black suit and a skinny black tie pushes free of the crowd and heads toward an office across the atrium. What hair he has is lankly grey, clumped about his ears and struggling to launch a curl between his brow and the top of his skull. He’s taking off his sunglasses, careful of the twirling owl’s feather tied to one side. Glaring sourly at the man in the red striped shirt walking towards him. “The fuck was that about?” says the little guy, tucking his sunglasses away in a jacket pocket.

“Comics Month,” says the man in the red striped shirt. His tie is much the same red as the stripes. “They do charity work.” Behind him the man in the robot suit’s shuffling into an elevator.

“Which means fuck-all to me,” says the little guy. “And has zilch to do with riverfront condos.”

“Schedules change,” says the man in the red striped shirt. “You’re not exactly the easiest people to get hold of.” Tipping his wrist to look at his watch, heavy and gold.

“I need a phone,” says the little guy, and the man in the red striped shirt pulls one from his pocket and flips it open. The little guy stares at it. “Something secure,” he says. “A goddamn landline.” Pointing at the door to the office.

“You can’t go in there,” says the man in the red striped shirt.

“Sure I can,” says the little guy.

He sits in a swivel chair tipped back his worn black wingtips crossed up on the desk, handset of a phone held up before his face, earpiece against his forehead, saying “Completely. Fucking. Useless” into it. He’s wearing the sunglasses again. “Next meeting’s on Tuesday,” turning the handset around, tucking it between ear and shoulder, “but we damn well better get this off our plate before then. We are stretched thin. Again. He’s gotta understand – ” Leaning forward to brush something from his shoe. The man in the red striped shirt watches him through the glass in the door. “He’s gotta figure it out, he keeps distracting us like this, the work’s gonna suffer. And we know who’s fucking with Southwest’s condos, I mean, come on – ” He tips back further in the chair. “Whatever. Whatever. Sure, sure, sure. I’ll fuck around at this legwork I’m so good at and keep doing as he says and you run after our targets all by yourself on another interminable shopping spree down Spendy-third or whatever. Yeah. Great fucking plan.” He slams the phone down in its cradle. “Shit,” he says, taking off the sunglasses, digging at his eyes with his fingers and his thumb. “We need a goddamn day off.”

“Count it out again,” says the man in the shapeless green coveralls. He’s looking at the floor and his hands are clenched in trembling white-edged fists.

“Look at the ballots, Tom,” says the man in the brown coveralls. On the folding table under a felt banner of a rainbow and a dove, there by the coffee urn and a plate piled high with donuts, three stacks of roughly torn paper slips. One has maybe a dozen, one has maybe three or four, one is piled sloppily high, maybe a hundred, maybe more. The man in the brown coveralls stirs the big pile with his hand. “Even if we miscounted and there’s a couple votes for Jenny in your pile or hart and hive, a vote for me lost somewhere in here.” He lifts a few slips, lets them flutter back to the table. “We’ve spoken, Tommy Tom. Loud and clear. You are the new Soames.”

The man in the green coveralls lifts those white-edged fists to his mouth as all about them men and women in coveralls and dungarees, denim jackets and flannel shirts, in blues and soft worn reds and rugged greens and browns, meshback caps in hand, nod or duck their heads or lift free hands in sketchy salutes, so many of them there’s no room for the chairs pushed back against the walls, folded and piled high on a rack shoved over behind the baby grand piano. They’re murmuring “Soames” or “Soames Thomas” or “Oh indeed” or “Go get ’em!” or “Twice Thomas, aye.”

“Go get who?” says the man in the green coveralls, opening those fists, folding his hands together. They all about him fall silent at that, and look away. “You can’t mean what I think you mean.” Stock still, only his head moving, turning enough to take them all in. “If you did, if you do, you should not have chosen me.” Spreading his hands. “Nell, Soames Nell, and Open Mike. My good, my old friend, Open Mike. They were destroyed in a horrible accident. A fire unforeseen. There is no one to get.”

And after a long still moment a small and quiet voice from the crowd says, “They were executed.”

“Were they?” says the Soames Thomas. “Was there a trial? Did the peers speak with one voice before us to order them cut down?” And hands turn hats over at that, and feet step to one side or another. Back by the table the man in the brown coveralls starts to scoop up the ballots, but freezes when the Soames says “Now if you mean that they were murdered…”

The whole room’s gone still. The Soames looking down but not at his fingertip worrying an old cut on the back of his hand. “Have a care,” he says, “before you say a thing like that.” His voice gone soft and gentle. “Think, long and hard. If that is what you mean to have said,” and he looks up, then, at them all, “you leave us with no choice. We’ll none of us have any choice at all but to turn our tools to weapons again, and once again march forth. But not against the Silk-Stocking Mob, or vigilantes got up in olive drab. Not against Mecklem and Meier, not against Odale and his Red Squad or Marchant and Bacon and Stroup. We’d march against our Queen and her six dozens, and they would destroy us all.”

When no one says anything at that, the Soames turns to the man in the brown coveralls behind him. “I’m glad, then, that’s not what was meant,” he says. “Go on, Biscuit.”

The man in the brown coveralls goes over to the baby grand piano and lifts the keyboard lid. He plays a low thick chord once, then rapidly one two three, and lets that last beat hang in the air. “Arise,” says the Soames Thomas, his voice breaking on that word, but they all join in and together begin to sing.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” says the little guy, coming barefoot from the bathroom, wrapped in a white towel. “Ten hours sleep and this is as close to a vacation as we’re ever likely to get on this gig.” He climbs up onto one of the two queen-sized beds and scoots back against the padded headboard. He reaches for the remote on the nightstand. “Don’t,” says the big guy.


“Still tuning up.” His black jacket draped over the back of the chair the big guy’s sitting at the round table by the big picture window at the front of the room. Spread out on the table a map. Plastic letters scattered across the map, refrigerator magnets in bright and simple colors, a yellow Y at the edge of downtown, a blue P over the freeway, a red Q above them, an orange B on the other side of the map away across the river, down by 39th and Hawthorne. In his hand another letter turning over in his thick and hairy-knuckled fingers, another B, a green one. “What’s that for?” says the little guy.

Mr. Keightlinger looks down at the letter in his hand. “Bunny,” he says. He snaps the letter onto the map at the foot of the northern freeway bridge over the river. Mr. Charlock snorts. “You think they’re involved?” Twirling the little sprig of hair curled almost precisely between his brow and the top of his skull.

“Don’t know,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“Sure we do,” says Mr. Charlock. “It’s Southeast, fucking with Southwest. Mechanicals ain’t even in the mix. I’m telling you, if Leir would just listen to us on this,” and Mr. Charlock leans forward, blotting his forehead dry with a corner of the towel. “Instead of riding us for something proofy he can take to fucking Agravante. Christ, man!” Mr. Charlock slaps the bedspread. “You’re fucking with the vacation vibe here. Put it away so we can watch us some teevee.”

Mr. Keightlinger says, “I don’t know.” The letter he’s turning over in his fingers a purple M. He looks up, over at Mr. Charlock, beard lopping over his shoulder, and snaps the letter down on the map. Lifts his fingers, turns to look, “Huh,” he says. The M in the middle of an empty arc of land up by the airport, near the slough.

“Well, hell,” says Mr. Charlock. “We gotta go get you a couple more packs of letters so you got a full set of seventy-two for the – ”

“Fifty-six,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“Actually, fifty-seven,” says Mr. Charlock. He starts counting off on his fingers. “Prince, Huntsman, Luthier, Outlaw, uh, Bullbeggar, Dagger and Helm – ”

“Axe,” says Mr. Keightlinger. He scoots the M to one side, slides it back. “Huh,” he says again.

“Yeah, right, her, whatever, okay,” Mr. Charlock’s saying. “Let’s get everybody pinned down on the damn map, you’re gonna ignore the one guy’s got motive and opportunity.”

Mr. Keightlinger starts to say “More than,” but the rainbow pile of letters to one side of the map is trembling, shaking, clattering.

“Feature or bug,” says Mr. Charlock sharply, pushing himself to the edge of the bed. “Feature or bug?”

“No,” says Mr. Keightlinger, not looking away from the buzzing letters.

“You close it off yet?”

“No,” says Mr. Keightlinger. One of the letters twitches its way out from under the settling pile and spins to the edge of the table, a red numeral two.

“No you ain’t closed it off,” says Mr. Charlock, hopping off the bed. “Shit.” Quickly quietly heading to the door his back to the wall beside it, one hand retucking the white towel about the round hard swell of his belly, the other up by his head, two fingers curled back against his palm, two fingers extended, thumb cocked. Mouthing a silent shush he reaches for the doorknob. A sudden jerk and the door’s open and he steps to block the doorway finger-gun leveled in the face of the man standing on the sidewalk just outside the room, a man in a grey suit and a white shirt buttoned all the way up to his throat, dark face stretched by a faltering smile, one hand up for a knock that never had a chance to land. “The fuck are you?” says Mr. Charlock.

“Charley,” says the man. His eyes crossed looking at the fingertips just a couple inches from his nose. “Doc Charley, man, it’s me. Bottle John.”

“You better hope you got something better than that,” says Mr. Charlock.

The man leans his head to one side eyes jumping as Mr. Charlock’s fingers shift to follow. His smile opening up again. “I’m gonna reach into my jacket, pull out something to demonstrate my good intentions.” The arm that had been up to knock is lowering slowly, carefully. “I’m gonna do it nice and easy. I remember what it is you can do with that.” His hand slips inside his jacket. Mr. Charlock hikes up changing the angle of his fingers cocking his thumb back a little further. Carefully, slowly, the man’s lifting his hand from his jacket. He’s holding a tube of toothpaste. Natural Care Tom’s of Maine, says the round white logo. Nature’s Antiplaque Toothpaste with Propolis and Myrrh. Fennel.

“Toothpaste?” says Mr. Charlock.

“Fennel,” says Bottle John. “Come on. It was all I could find.”

“Toothpaste,” says Mr. Charlock. “You think maybe I got too much sorghum on my biscuits?”

“Man, you told me I ever run into you again,” says Bottle John, still standing solidly in the doorway, his hand still between them, still offering up the toothpaste, “you’d be an asshole.” Looking past the finger-gun in his face into Mr. Charlock’s eyes, squinting against the weak light from the colorless evening sky. “And here you are. Said I should remember to bring you some fennel. And I ought to – ”

“I know what I told you to tell me,” snaps Mr. Charlock. “Or maybe it’s I know what it is you want me to think I told you to tell me, so that much of whatever you’re cooking is coming up fine, pal. Kay. Mr. Kay!”

“Yes.” Mr. Keightlinger’s picked up the red numeral two.

“I ever talk to you about Goose City? Ever say anything about Sergeant John Wesson of Echo Force? The aluxob, and the jungle?”

Mr. Keightlinger says in a soft little sing-song voice, “The jungle’s full of tiny eyes, the jungle’s full of creeping feet.” He sets the numeral two on the map, there where Sandy springs from Burnside and Twelfth. Mr. Charlock still squinting retucks the towel about his belly, finger-gun still aimed at Bottle John’s face. Bottle John’s smile has floated off. He shrugs and slips the toothpaste back into his jacket. “I saved your life down there, man,” he says.

“Yeah, well,” says Mr. Charlock, lowering his arm. “I saved the whole fucking world. You still owe me.” He shakes out his hand, four fingers and a thumb. “So you’re for real, or you’re so damn good it makes no never mind. Whaddaya want.”

“Well,” says Bottle John, “it’s me, and it’s my brother Ezra.” He steps to one side. Across the street behind him a luridly orange car with a dusty black ragtop. Beside the car a man his arms and legs a jumble of pipes in a grey suit dropped into a wheelchair, white shirt buttoned all the way up to the dove grey bow tie under his chin. Hands and eyes too big for the rest of him, hands folded together in his narrow lap, eyes behind thick black horn-rimmed spectacles. “Got one a them mutually beneficial arrangements to talk about,” says Bottle John.

“Huh,” says Mr. Charlock. “Okay.” Hitching up his towel again. “Tell you what. You wait outside a minute, let me get some pants on, we’ll go get some Vietnamese sandwiches, maybe, sit down, see how this goes.”

Bottle John’s smile is back.

“No offense,” says Bottle John, looking down at the map on the table, the letters spread across it, piled next to it, “but you ain’t the Dr. Kilo I remember.”

“Different lodge,” says Mr. Keightlinger without looking up. A long sandwich still wrapped in white paper by his elbow on the table.

“Mr. Kay has some pungent opinions on the topic of serving one’s country,” says Mr. Charlock, plucking some cilantro from his lip. “How many callsigns you guys end up using, anyway? At least up to Dr. Mike, right?”

“Nah,” says Bottle John, sitting heavily in a chair by Mr. Keightlinger. “Em was a Doc Munroe, for reasons that don’t bear going into. Last one I knew of was Dr. Oscar.” He pushes the last of his sandwich into his mouth with his thumb.

“Damn,” says Mr. Charlock. “Y’all did babysit a bunch of us.”

“It is nice, to catch up with old friends,” says Ezra. A yellow wrapper spread across his lap that says McDonald’s over and over. A bite or two of cheeseburger left.

“But boring for those who aren’t,” says Mr. Charlock. “I hear you. Maybe you should let on what’s up with this arrangement, and how it gets to be mutually beneficial.”

Bottle John screws up a white wrapper in one hand, flicks a shred of carrot from his knee. Looks up at Ezra looking back at him, their mouths pursed with the same contemplative twist. “I knocked around a bit, you know?” says Bottle John. “After I left the service. Needed some time.” He shrugs. “But what we did in Echo, man, it was hard, but it was good, right? And doing good, you get that itch? So.” He chucks the wadded-up wrapper, banking it off the wall into the wastebasket. “Figured out a way, with my brother, to do some good. We, ah, well, basically, we walk the earth.”

“The good Lord,” says Ezra, “tells me where things need doing. And we go, and we do them.”

“The Lord,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“God,” says Ezra. “Our Father Almighty, Maker of the Heavens, and of the Earth.” Folding the McDonald’s wrapper precisely in half and half again.

After a long thin moment Mr. Charlock tucks a sprig of hair behind his ear and says “Just what the hell is it God needs done in Portland fucking Oregon?”

“Helping you,” says Ezra.

“Help,” says Mr. Keightlinger. He picks up his sandwich.

“Us?” says Mr. Charlock.

“Your boss,” says Bottle John, as Ezra says, “Your employer, Mr. Leir? Has set you a certain task. We’re to do everything in our power to assist you in accomplishing it.”

“Are you,” says Mr. Keightlinger, looking up from the map, and Ezra sighs waspishly and says “The Lord has told me,” and “It’s cool,” says Mr. Charlock, loudly. “We’re cool. Mr. Kay. Dr. Kilo.” He snorts. Mr. Keightlinger takes a big bite of his sandwich. “Thing is,” says Mr. Charlock, “you basically got two options to choose from – ”

“Charley!” says Mr. Keightlinger around his mouthful of bánh mi.

“We’re. Cool,” says Mr. Charlock. “One of ’em’s a long-term surveillance gig. The other one’s more immediate, more goal-oriented, a favor for one of Mr. Leir’s, ah, business associates.” He waves a hand, smiling wryly. “I don’t suppose the good Lord gave you any specifics?” Ezra doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t smile. Bottle John just barely shakes his head. “Whichever,” says Mr. Charlock. “We’re kinda doing a general overview strategy thing tonight – ”

Mr. Keightlinger drops his sandwich on the table, stirs through the pile of letters, picks one up.

“So maybe you come back, in the morning? We’ll have some waffles, figure this out. Truth is, we’re spread a little thin. You help us with one, you help us with both. That good enough?”

“Sounds good,” says Bottle John, climbing to his feet. Mr. Keightlinger slaps the letter down on the map, a purple O, up north past the red Q, but it scoots away as he lets go. He snatches it up, sets it down again, waits a moment before lifting his hand. It slides smoothly away from him across the river and north, up and up, faster, off the map, over the edge of the table falling unheard to the carpet.

The orange car noses out of the side street by the motel, then whips into a tight left turn past a sign that says Executive Lodge – Your Home Away From Home. Ezra in the passenger seat his knuckled forefinger against a temple, muttering something under his breath. Bottle John gnaws at a thumb, wrenching the car one-handed through one right turn without signaling, and then another, against the light.

“I am assured,” says Ezra, opening his eyes, “we are not being followed or watched.”

“Don’t matter,” says Bottle John. “They didn’t buy it.”

“We weren’t selling anything, John.”

“They did not for one minute believe we just dropped in out of the fucking blue to help them with whatever the hell it is they are doing.”

“But we will, John,” says Ezra. Bottle John slows the car, stops at a red light, a five-way, a six-way intersection at the top of a low hill. Spread before them the towers and lights of the city against the darkening sky. “We will do exactly as we have said. If it went against God’s will, it would not be in our power.” Bottle John’s looking about, eyeing the signs over the intersections, the lights, the flow of traffic. “But, yes, in their suspicion,” says Ezra, “and their paranoia, they will – you want that street, over there, not the immediate right, but the orthogonal – ”

“You mean,” says Bottle John, flicking on the turn signal, “the regular right. Not the hard right.” Looking sidelong over at his brother backlit by yellow flashes.

“In their suspicion,” says Ezra, “they will take steps. Even if they do not go directly to the sorcerer Leir, they will do something that reveals to us some weakness we can exploit.”

The light changes. Bottle John guns through the intersection. “I want to go down a couple blocks, right? To double back.”

Ezra’s taken off his spectacles, he’s wiping them with a handkerchief. “I wish you would wear a tie, John.”

“Ezra,” says Bottle John, taking another right turn, “I told you. I’ll wear the suit. I’ll pack my shirt in, I’ll button it all the way up.” He jerks the car to a stop, yanks the gear shift into reverse, throws an arm over the back of the seat. “But I ain’t wear the damn tie.” He looks back through the rear window as he eases the car into a parking space by the sidewalk.

“It would promote a more uniform appearance,” says Ezra.

Bottle John turns off the engine. A block or so away, rising up above the building beside them, the sign that says Executive Lodge – Your Home Away From Home. “Oh yeah,” says Bottle John. “We doin’ good.”

“Yes, John,” says Ezra. “We are.”

Table of Contents

Three men standing – not any Courtesy – His filthy Mind – What the Lord requires –

Three men standing around an upturned oil barrel, a weathered grey plank laid across the top. All of them their dark hair tightly curled and closely cropped, all of them wearing dull grey coveralls with short sleeves and lots of pockets. One of them’s holding a tool of some sort, a toothed wheel, a crank, edges blurry with rust, and he’s saying something to the others but it’s drowned out by the voice of an unseen narrator, by the dissident socialists of New Britain, retains a peculiar brand of socialism that is about as inefficient as socialism has ever been, yet Moambans seem to like it and feel a strong sense of attachment to their community and their island. One of the others takes the thing and points to where the wheel joins the crank, and they all laugh. His coveralls unzipped to the waist, underneath a T-shirt printed with an enormous stylized smiling man, the eyes squeezed to joyous slits. Mr. Charlock sitting at the edge of the bed isn’t watching the television. He’s watching Mr. Keightlinger’s back. Mr. Keightlinger his half-eaten sandwich still by his elbow watches the letters on the map. There’s a glass of water by the sandwich.

“Okay,” says Mr. Charlock. “What. So you think I’m a total amateur, is that it?”

The water inside the glass is trembling. The glass itself is buzzing faintly. Without looking up from the map, Mr. Keightlinger puts a hand on it to still it.

“John knows how I work, okay? He knows the drill. So him and me go out tomorrow watching the Bride, you stay here and tinker with your map and keep half an eye on that thing in the chair.” Leaning hands on his knees glaring at Mr. Keightlinger’s broad back. “End of the day you have what we need to get this Agravante thing off our backs, the Bride won’t have upped and run off to Seattle while we weren’t looking, and we’ll help out an old buddy of mine.” On the television a strip of sand white-hot in harsh sunlight cut by a straight sharp line of shadow, a naked man on his back, feet and shins reddening in the sun one arm over his eyes, skin painted with stripes and jagged shapes of fluorescent green and pink and yellow. His pooled white hair paler than the sand. His other hand idly stroking his stiffening cock. Remains very humid, the narrator’s saying, and near thirty-two degrees Celsius at all times. Nudism, though not universal, is widely practiced and quite obvious in all public places. I have no difficulty telling the girls from the boys there!

“That’s like a, a win-win-win,” says Mr. Charlock. “Well? Mr. Keightlinger? You trust me? Dr. Kilo?”

Mr. Keightlinger looks up from the map beard rustling against his shirt as he turns to say, “Don’t call me that.” The glass is buzzing faintly again.

“Do you trust me?” says Mr. Charlock.

Mr. Keightlinger lifts the glass of water and with his free hand catches the purple O before it can scoot off the table. “With my life,” he says.

“Your soul, bucko,” says Mr. Charlock. “Else this whole thing falls apart.” Shaking his head. On the television a leathery hand netted with small white scars delicately adjusts some beads strung on a complex swirl of wire. “I’m insulted, really, is what I am.” Mr. Charlock lies back, hands laced behind his head. “As if I’d believe Bottle John Wesson had a brother all this time and never told me.”

Ghostly gliding through the dark gully down train tracks bare feet balanced on a single polished rail that faintly shines in citylight reflected from the unseen clouds above. Naked but for a wide white cartwheel ruff about her throat. She’s been splashed with something that’s dried in crusted white swathes along her flanks and arms, her belly, her back. She stops suddenly still balanced on that rail. “Step out,” she calls. “My lady knows you are here, and would have you come before her.”

A man steps from the low trees to one side of the tracks, a man in a blue and black sarong and a loose white unbuttoned shirt. “The rain’s stopped the while,” he says. His hair is long and dark and gathered in a single braid down his back. A black patch covers one eye. “I thought I’d take a walk.” He turns back to the trees, crooks a finger at them. “You seem to have come uncapped.” The leaves shake and rattle, and a branch cracks loudly.

“Mooncalfe,” says the woman in the ruff. “I’d always thought you mad, not cruel.” Another man stumbles from the brush, dark hair a tangle about his head, pale blue windbreaker smeared with grime.

“Oh I am mad,” says the man in the sarong, grabbing the other man’s hand. “Mad as you’ve made me. Lead on, Linesse.”

A little further on and one side of the gully falls away a clearing then, and far beyond and below a highway and streetlights and bright-lit signs. A figure looms anonymous and impassive in a crude and blocky suit of wicker armor, head hidden away behind a great woven barrel of a helm. With a rustling rattling creak it lifts out an arm holding a long rattan pole to bar their way. At one edge of the little clearing a plain white sheet tied to tree branches and stakes driven into the ground. A movie flickers against it, a close-up of a kitten rubbing back and forth against a man’s unshaven cheek, a sudden cut to a crush of people in a subway stairwell that fades to blood cells coursing through a vein. A woman laughs. She sits in the grass facing the screen, her back to them, wrapped in a tattered black cloak. Two children, toddlers, wrestle in the muddy leaves beside her over a broken plastic fire truck. She lifts a gnarled grey stick, smooth and dull as driftwood, and the armored figure lowers its arm, pulling the rattan pole back against its body.

“Congratulations,” calls Orlando, and the woman cocks her head at that. “On finding a court of your own, out here in this counterfeit wild.”

She props a hand on one crooked knee. “And to you,” she says, grunting, pushing herself to her feet, “now that you might see the truth of things direct. There’s something about you.” She holds that stick up before him, a white-blue spark glimmering at its end.

“Eyes,” says Orlando, “eyes buzzing about me. I’d not have them see where I go, or the company I keep.”

“A courtesy!” She steps then from him to the man beside him hugging himself tightly in his windbreaker. “No one does me any courtesy. I know this man.” She draws back, the stick flaring, harsh blue-white light filling the clearing. “Kitchen knight!” she cries. “Boar-bane!” The man in the windbreaker cringes his face in his hands. Something’s growling in the darkness beyond the screen, where figments of cars chase each other against the heavy flow of traffic up a freeway. Orlando’s drawn his sword and holds it blade-down at his side. “Do nothing,” he says.

“Not any one thing?” she says, her stick still spitting light.

“He is in my keeping,” says Orlando, “and has been almost a week now. But – ” The other man looks wildly about at that, from Orlando to the palely naked woman beside him, the figure in wicker armor, the toddlers sitting frozen in the clearing, holding either end of the fire truck between them. “I don’t,” he’s saying, “you can’t,” and Orlando cuffs him on the back of his head and says, “I would bargain with you, lady.”

“No courtesy is ever done to me,” says the woman in the cloak. The harsh light from her stick dimming. “He’s not so much. Barely a mouthful. No boar-bane he, it was the girl did for my poor Erymathos. The one my sister’s taken to her bosom.”

“And he’s the key to her,” says Orlando. “Frankie Reichart, who’s held the Gallowglas, and whispered her sweet nothings.”

“Christ you fucking asshole you can’t do this – ” and then Frankie stops, Orlando’s hand a fist now in his hair, tugging. Orlando’s sword still pointed at the ground as he leans close, nose to ear. “I do what I want,” he says. “Well, lady? Somewhat more valuable, perhaps, than you’d thought a moment before?”

“I need no such key,” she says. Orlando smiles. “Perhaps,” she says, “Linesse,” she says, “my ugly duckling would like a Gallowglas of her very own.” Linesse in her ruff hands at her sides says nothing. “But such a jape is not worth all that much to me.”

“Oh,” says Orlando, eyeing the toddlers on the grass, “just one of your byblows.”

In his grey suit holding a newspaper up over his head against the rain Bottle John jogs the last few steps up to the orange car parked by a low white building that says Auto Upholstery over the door. The daylight all about him directionless and grey. He sets a cardboard tray with a couple of covered cups of coffee on the roof of the car but doesn’t open the door just yet. Down the sidewalk some empty tables under unfurled black umbrellas that say Captain Morgan. Parked by them a reddish brown car with a black stripe down its side.

Inside the orange car Mr. Charlock is slumped in the passenger seat, his head pressed against the window, tongue lolling in the corner of his half-opened mouth. Left eyelid twitching over a white eyeball. One hand jerks up swiveling about as Bottle John settles in the driver’s seat, then falls back against his chest, fingers trembling. Bottle John sets the coffee cups on the dashboard, tugs one free, wipes rainwater from the cover before taking a hesitant sip. His face screws up and he wipes his lips with a thumb, putting the cup back, tugging the other one free. The whole time he’s watching Mr. Charlock twitching and shivering, his jaw working now, mouthing soundless words with jagged shapes. His hand jerks up again, makes a fist, he’s biting his lip, sniffing the air, doubling over suddenly in a coughing fit, reaching for the dashboard, clinging to it, hauling himself up against it from some deep well. Bottle John nudges the cardboard tray along the dash until it brushes Mr. Charlock’s hand. “Coffee,” says Bottle John. “Black. Fuck-ton of sugar.” Mr. Charlock scrabbles for the cup, yanks it free slopping coffee steaming on his hand, wrenches it around and pours most of it down his throat in one long swallow. Lifts the cup away wobbling teeth clenched behind clamped lips the cords in his neck standing out eyes bulging rolling turning to settle on Bottle John watching from the driver’s seat. Mr. Charlock lets out a little puff of a cough and grabs a quick breath and then with a sigh he relaxes, slumps, face gentling, eyes closing, hands settling in his lap, wrapped around the cup of coffee. “Thank you,” he says.

“And?” says Bottle John.

“And what?” says Mr. Charlock. “They’re just, they’re just talking. The hell else you gonna do at a strip club at eleven in the morning?”

“Man walks into a strip club with three women like that, doesn’t matter what time it is. You’re gonna have thoughts.”

“Well stop,” says Mr. Charlock, rubbing his eyes. “It’s distracting.”

Bottle John leans an elbow on the steering wheel and says, “You picking up what I’m thinking? Man, that is downright unsettling.”

Mr. Charlock’s digging at the corners of his eyes with his fingertips. “Don’t work like that,” he says, tugging his cheeks down, prying his eyes wide open.

“Like what,” says Bottle John.

“Like what you’re thinking,” says Mr. Charlock. He blows out another sigh and tips back his cup of coffee, draining the rest. Pulls off the top and tips it back again, shaking loose some sugary sludge from the bottom of the cup. “I just know you, John. You got a filthy mind.”

“You can call it filthy if you want,” says Bottle John, peering through the windshield at the nondescript black door past the umbrellaed tables. The neon sign at the corner of the building says Cocktails in big red unlit letters. Devil’s Point. “What I’m thinking is downright beautiful.”

“Yeah, yeah,” says Mr. Charlock, shaking more sludge into his mouth.

“So this it? You go from saving the world to sniffing psychic panties?”

Mr. Charlock leans over, thwaps Bottle John on the shoulder. “How many ops we do together? And you still fuck that up?”

“Jesus, man, come on – ”

“It is sloppy thinking, is what it is. You’re still hung up on Foxtrot and her fucking mentalist bullshit.”

“She was pretty impressive, you gotta admit – ”

“She had long legs and an ass that looked great in ACU pants,” says Mr. Charlock, and Bottle John snorts. “She also had,” says Mr. Charlock, “a line in cold reading and parlor tricks that propped up a gift she did not understand. You think of it like psychic fucking powers, you’re working the wrong model. You’re thinking it’s rational, it’s repeatable, it makes some kind of sense. That it’ll behave.” Bottle John’s looking down, away, at his coffee, taking a sip. Mr. Charlock leans close, ducking his head, trying to catch Bottle John’s eyes. “That it’s a science, but it ain’t. It’s an art, okay? Doesn’t make any fucking sense at all. Doesn’t have to. It is right and true in a way that doesn’t give a shit about you and if you do not respect that it will get you killed.”

“Yeah,” says Bottle John. “You just pissed because she whipped your ass at poker.”

“Who’s sitting here, huh?” says Mr. Charlock. “Who’s sitting here in the car next to you, and who’s buried three miles deep under Jo’burg? Tell me that.” Bottle John takes another drink of coffee. “Poker,” says Mr. Charlock, reaching into his jacket. “I’ll show you some fucking poker.” He’s got a couple of playing cards and he hands one to Bottle John. The King of Clubs.

“What’s this?”

“Lick the back of it and stick it to your forehead.” Mr. Charlock licks his card and sticks it there just under his lank grey curl. The Queen of Diamonds. From another pocket he’s pulling a folded-up square of glossy paper, an ad ripped from a magazine, a sleek sports car with smokey glass and a rounded roof. “Come on, come on. They’ll be leaving soon.” He licks his thumb, smears saliva along the top of the ad, leans up to stick it against the windshield.

“The hell you doing?” says Bottle John.

“Orange car?” says Mr. Charlock. “Couple guys in suits? Pretty fucking noticeable. They look this way coming out, they’ll see a happy loving couple in a nice grey Audi.”

“Loving couple, huh,” says Bottle John, eyeing the red queen stuck to Mr. Charlock’s head. “That make you the girl?”

“Fucking hell,” says Mr. Charlock, snatching the card from his head. “Operational security, nimrod!” Rubbing his knuckles across the queen’s face, then licking the card and putting it back in place. “No stupid questions while I’m working.” From another pocket now he’s drawing out a pair of classic black sunglasses, an owl’s feather tied to one side.

“Aw hell man,” says Bottle John. “I hate that thing.”

“It hates everybody,” says Mr. Charlock, putting them on. “Lick it and stick it already.”

Bottle John licks the back of his card and sticks it to his forehead. “The hell you chasing out here, anyway?” he says.

“Ain’t it obvious?” says Mr. Charlock. He’s grinning now. “Ultraterrestrials from Sefirah X.”

The green B up on Swan Island now in a channel of milky sunlight from the curtains opened not much more than a handspan. The red Q lit up still on the corner of Everett and 20th. Out of the light on the other side of the map the orange B and the yellow Y together there where Foster Road begins to slice diagonally across the regular grid of streets. A clink and a rattling buzz as the purple O under an overturned water glass beats itself against the table. “That’s quite distracting,” says Ezra. Mr. Keightlinger looks up from the map but doesn’t say anything. He taps the glass. The buzzing stops.

The wheelchair back in the dark alcove by the bathroom Ezra’s leaning heavily on the nearer bed, sliding with uncertain steps closer to the table so he can peer over Mr. Keightlinger’s broad back at the map. “I can help, you know,” says Ezra.

That broad back hunches in a shrug.

Ezra sits on the bed, lifting his legs to resettle his feet in shining black shoes too large for the rest of him, like his hands, like his eyes behind those spectacles. “Your name starts with a P,” he says. “But it doesn’t sound like a P. The Lord has whispered your name to me, though I could not catch it. Your partner, Dr. Charley, though. The Lord has said nothing to me about him. Butterscotch?” A couple of yellow-gold candies dandled in the big pale palm of his hand. Mr. Keightlinger shakes his head, the clumsy club of his ponytail waving back and forth. Ezra unwraps a candy and pops it into his mouth. “We have no quarrel with you,” he says around the candy clicking against his teeth. “Some might open the book and cite Exodus, chapter twenty-two, verse eighteen: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’.” He smiles to himself, big hands folded together in his narrow lap. “But I have seen too many things in this world to forget the unknowable, the constantly surprising majesty of God. He truly works in mysterious ways, and even one such as you, and your partner, and your deviltry, can all be part of His plan.” He sucks on the candy, works it between his teeth. In the glass on the table the O is buzzing again. There’s a crunch. Ezra lifts his eyebrows in a little sigh, chews, swallows. “I can be so impatient sometimes,” he says. “What the Lord requires of me already is more than I could ever ask of myself. I have learned not to presume what else I might do, to fulfill my part in His plan. I hardly even witness, anymore.” He’s toying with the second candy in his palm. “My younger self would be so disappointed in me.” Unwraps the candy, pops it in his mouth. “Such a hard lesson to learn, for something so obvious. That nothing in this world is pure. Especially oneself.”

Mr. Keightlinger taps the glass again and the buzzing stops. He opens his mouth and pulls out a pink plastic X. He wraps his fist about it and closes his eyes and sweeps his fist over the map, back and forth, in and out of that pale band of light, slowing, his fist opening, the X taken gingerly between thumb and fingers, eyes still closed the hand lowering to place the X just so. Opening his eyes. Hand hovering over the pink X there by the river at the bottom of the map, where the street grid curls around a lakelet just south of a skinny, claw-shaped island. The rest of the letters scattered well above and around it, turning and twitching in place. The yellow Y and the orange B together sliding down Powell toward Thirty-ninth, wobbling a little over a crease in the map. Mr. Keightlinger stands and scoops up a ring of keys from the top of the television set.

“Are we going somewhere?” says Ezra.

“No,” says Mr. Keightlinger, opening the door.

“But,” says Ezra pushing himself to his feet, leaning heavily on the bed, “I don’t understand. What am I to do?”

“Answer the phone,” says Mr. Keightlinger. “If it rings.”

Table of Contents

Handbook for Space Pioneers, written by L. Stephen Wolfe and Roy L. Wysack, ©1978.

Groaning the Shape – Tête-à-tête – “Your reason for leaving?” – Marking the Spot –

Groaning the shape on the futon rolls and twists and hunches up suddenly. A head appears shrugging off a rumple in the covers, tousled hair thin and wispy, a man on all fours somewhere under the crazed tangle of quilts and blankets and sheets, reds and oranges and greens and pinks and blues, midnight blues, patches of iridescent blue like feathers, like eyes, a ripple of blue like a warm clear tropical sea, stripes of cloudless sky blue. He’s crawling toward the edge dragging the whole mass of color with him, and he stops, tries kicking himself free. A foot shakes loose, a bare leg, falling over on his side wrestling free of the striped comforter his hip his chest his shoulder and arm. Tugging a stretch of sheet back over his nakedness he reaches up over his head feeling about the floor to one side coming up with a pair of blue jeans belt still looped and green plaid boxers still tucked inside. Kicking, squirming, he gets both feet free and up in the air and into the legs of the jeans and rolling over on his belly gets the jeans up about his hips. He tugs a corner of a sheet from his waistband before buttoning and zipping and buckling. Up on his knees now reaching back over the edge of the futon for a thick soft shirt in a sunset plaid. “Wallet,” he says, patting his pockets, “wallet, good, keys. Keys. Shit.” Looking about the long narrow room, running a hand through what little of his hair is left. “Shoes. Shoes.” Futon’s at one end. A long table runs the length of it, stacks of binders and loose paper atop it lit up from behind by fluorescent lights through greenish louvered windows. The floor of broad wood planks chipped and scratched but clean, uncluttered. He snaps his fingers, leans down, reaches under the futon and comes up with an old brown shoe. Shakes it. It jingles. He smiles. The door opens.

The man there’s big, broad, a loose yellow slicker draped over him shining with rain. Long grey mustaches droop to either side of his mouth. A white paper bag and a cardboard tray with a couple of paper coffee cups. “I was going to wake you with burritos,” he says.

“Yeah,” says the man on the futon. He buttons up his shirt. “Breakfast, that’s – thanks.”

“Brunch,” says the man in the slicker.

“Shit,” says the man on the futon.

“You said you wanted to stay awake as late as – ”

“Yeah, I’m sorry, what time is – ”

“ – as late as you could – ”

“ – what time is it?”

The man in the slicker sets the bag and the coffee on the table. “After lunch,” he says.

“Shit,” says the man on the futon, stuffing his feet in his shoes. “I’ve got to call the office – ”

“You called them. You called them already.”

The man on the futon runs his hand through his hair again. “I don’t,” he says. “I don’t remember doing that.”

“About sunrise,” says the man in the slicker. “You left a message.”

The man on the futon pushes himself to his feet. “I don’t remember doing that. I don’t remember – anything. I must’ve, had something fierce to drink last night – ”

“Not really, no,” says the man in the slicker. “Coffee?” He tugs a cup free from the tray.

“No, sorry, it’s just – I don’t remember. A thing. About last night. I don’t remember meeting – ”

“It’s all right, Arnold,” says the man in the slicker.

The other man stoops, picks up a blue rainshell from the end of the futon. “What, did you get that from my driver’s license?” He pulls it on.

“You’re right,” says the man in the slicker. “Becker. I’m sorry.”

“I should, ah, go,” says Becker, sidling toward the door. “Make sure everything’s okay, that is. I don’t usually call out, I mean – ”

“Pyrocles,” says the man in the slicker, stepping out of his way.

“Pyrocles,” says Becker, standing beside him a moment. Looking out the open door down a narrow metal staircase bolted to a concrete wall, a dark cave of a garage opening below, racked drawers of tools and parts standing here and there. “Where,” says Becker, zipping up his jacket, “I’m sorry, where am I?”

“Fourteenth and Everett,” says Pyrocles. “Northwest.”

“Okay,” says Becker, nodding. Looking away. Stepping abruptly past Pyrocles and heading down the stairs, one hand on the rail, not looking back.

“Perry comma Yizzabel,” says Mr. Charlock. “Age unknown.”

“Okay,” says Bottle John. “Looks early, mid-twenties to me.”

“Does she,” says Mr. Charlock. “Daughter of Perry comma Duenna, age ditto. Father died some time ago, don’t know when. Name unknown. There was a brother but he ran away some time ago, ditto ditto ditto.”

“So you been following this girl for four months, five months, and you don’t know a goddamn thing.”

“No, no, no,” says Mr. Charlock, and then he sighs. “Well yes. But.” He hitches forward, leans closer, wriggles a bit, unbuckles the seatbelt. “It’s like,” he says, “I think it’s like, well, a story.”

Bottle John drums his fingers on the steering wheel. “A story,” he says.

“Well okay like it’s always been there, waiting,” says Mr. Charlock. “And then when the right person comes along, it begins, okay? And when it begins,” tapping his finger against his palm, “she’s always already just past twenty, twenty-one, okay? Her mother’s always already wealthy and, and spending all her time doing whatever it is she does all day, and her father’s always already been dead for however long, and her brother’s always already long since run off, and then when it’s done, whatever it is – ”

“She always making out with hot blond chicks in the front seats of muscle cars?” says Bottle John.

“What?” says Mr. Charlock, leaning forward, rubbing at the condensation fogging the windshield before him. “Shit.”

“Other two ain’t even gone five minutes,” says Bottle John.

“Hope this isn’t offending your new-found Bible-thumping sensibilities.”

“Man, fuck you,” says Bottle John with sudden heat. “Do not lump us in with that ignorant cracker bullshit. You could be singing show tunes in the shower with your Dr. Kilo and I wouldn’t give a good God damn. Me and my brother, we are serious. We are here to do His will and to fight evil on this earth, you hear me? And whatever the hell else that might be,” pointing out the windshield at the reddish-brown car parked half a block away along the cross street, “it ain’t evil.”

“Don’t be so sure about that,” mutters Mr. Charlock.


“Your brother,” says Mr. Charlock, slumping back in his seat. “How come you never talked about him?”

“I told you about Ezra,” says Bottle John.

“You never mentioned a brother, John,” says Mr. Charlock.

“Man I got five other brothers and three sisters and with the nieces and nephews all told I figure they make up about half of Judson by now. I got razzed so hard, remember, hauling their pictures out all the damn time?” Leaning forward pressing against the dashboard. “Mom and pops coming up on their fiftieth in a couple years oh come on baby, don’t lie her down, don’t lie down.” He slaps the steering wheel. “Shit. Can’t see a fucking thing now.”

“Put it our of your head,” says Mr. Charlock. “Just, stop. Stop thinking about it. Seriously.”

“Well there she is out here where anybody can see. Like this guy, the jogger? He’s about to get an eyeful.”

“That’s no jogger,” says Mr. Charlock.

“What?” says Bottle John.

Outside the man in the green track suit’s slowing as he comes up to the reddish-brown car, calling something out. Two heads appear, blond, brunette, two figures sitting up in the front seat of that car. “She is dangerous,” Mr. Charlock’s saying. “This is why. I told you not to engage but if God forbid you talk to her, if you bump into her on the sidewalk and you catch her eye and you let slip the slightest hint, the least little clue that you, want her, that’s it. It’s over.” The man in the green track suit’s leaning both hands against the roof of the reddish-brown car saying something very earnestly through the half-open passenger-side window. “She’ll have you on all fours baying at the goddamn moon if she thinks she can get a laugh out of it.”

“Make her sound like every woman I ever went out with,” says Bottle John.

“Grow up,” says Mr. Charlock.

“Your reason for leaving?”

Thin black hair hanging down about his face black-nailed hands one over the other glittering with silver rings, ankhs and snakeheads and dice. “They, uh,” he says, “ran out of work.” His voice deep and silky around that catch.

“What sort of work?”

“I, uh, called people. On the phone? And asked them questions.”


“Oh no, no.” Rearing back, looking up now at the woman behind the counter. His black T-shirt says Kurtzberg Krackle in white letters. “Surveys. Stuff like that. No sales. But. But I do have sales experience. Retail. It was a grocery store.”

She chuckles. “You’ve had experience with a mop.” He frowns. “Clean-up on aisle seven?” He’s still frowning. “Because you have to be okay with cleaning up the private booths from time to time.”

“That’s okay,” he says, “I mean it’s,” and then he stops and says “Oh. Um.”

“Yeah,” she says. “Um. That a problem?” She has a silvery ring in one nostril and a silvery ring through her lip and she’s wearing a red-and-blue striped polo shirt that’s a size or two too small. A roll of belly lops out from under the hem of it over her big black belt.

“They actually,” he says, “do, in there, and – ”

“Private viewing booths,” she says. “What do you expect? You’re gonna get jerkers in the aisles, too. Guys who don’t wanna pay for a private booth. Maybe the library’s too public for ’em. They find a case they like and take it off to a corner somewhere out of the way.” She pats the computer monitor on the counter beside her. “They never think about the security cameras. Or maybe they do.”

He says “So you have to go and – ”

“Oh, there’s no go,” she says. She grabs the microphone on the swivel stand next to the monitor and thumbs it on and says “We put the fear of God in them” in a voice that booms out over speakers throughout the store. “Hilarious,” she says, letting go of the mike, “the way they spook and run. You sure you want this job?”

He says, “There’s a paycheck, right?”

She shrugs. “How’d you hear we were hiring?”

“She told me,” he says, pointing. Over across the store past the black wire racks filled with DVD cases in greens and oranges and magentas and lots and lots of tans and beiges and pinks with signs here and there that say Anal and Anime and Asian and New Releases there’s a row of thin white mannequins in teddies and merry widows and spangled pasties and absurdly short schoolgirl kilts. In front of them a woman in a yellow raincoat and a brick-colored poodle skirt over patched jeans and a bulky sweater dotted with knitted sheep. On her head a confetti-colored patchwork cap. She’s leaning close, almost but not quite touching a glittery tassel.

“Your girlfriend told you to get a job in a porn store,” says the woman behind the counter.

“I, uh, I guess so,” he says. He’s looking down at his hands again. One fingertip wrapped in a dingy wad of bandaid.

“You guess she told you?” She’s leaning her elbows on the counter, her chin in her hand. “Or you guess she’s your girlfriend?”

“It’s,” he says, “complicated.” He sighs and shrugs, skinny shoulders up about his ears. He shivers and rolls his head from side to side, settling his neck. “She told me I get the job, which is good, because it’s important. Is what she told me.”

“Did she now,” says the woman behind the counter.

Mr. Keightlinger gives the chain one last jerk and winds it off, then steps off the elevator. The floor beyond unfinished, open, steel beams and white-patched drywall, plastic sheeting hanging limply gently pattering with rain. “Wonder who Joe is,” he says. He heads over toward the nearest plastic sheet, brushes it with one hairy-knuckled finger. “Really,” he says. He reaches into his jacket, pulls out a pair of sunglasses. The left lens is covered with spidery words painted in white ink. He puts them on and lifts the plastic aside.

Twenty or thirty floors below the river unruffled by the rain the bridges over it marching out ahead of him one by one into the deepening afternoon gloom until far-off the great arch of the northern freeway bridge winking with red and white lights. To his left the cluster of buildings downtown, the brick tower, the high white tower with narrow dark windows, the grey and white tower topped by a sweeping wing-shape, a rooftop garden in its shadow. Past them away and beyond a lone tower of ruddy amber glass framed by dull pink stone all of it smeared against the dark and rainy hills beyond.

“Wrong side,” says Mr. Keightlinger, letting the plastic fall. “Should have said something.”

He heads across the open empty floor toward the other side of the building where the plastic sheeting soaked in soft grey light glows against the shadows. The sound of the rain louder here and under it the hissing rushing of freeway traffic. “Armenians?” he says. “That doesn’t matter.” And then, “Under his collar. On his back?” He looks over his shoulder, still wearing the sunglasses. “You’re not making any sense.” Mr. Keightlinger lifts the plastic aside. “He’s on his own,” he says, then pushes under it and steps out to the very edge of the floor.

The river below, hills to his right dark with trees and studded with houses, the freeway sweeping past and around a dark shoulder lit up with headlights and taillights, to his left low bluffs and trees, a busy street along the river’s edge, more houses. A curl of island like a claw ahead of him, like an arrow pointing at him scrimmed with black-green trees and dotted with the battered yellows and oranges of construction equipment, gantries, cranes. Past it the left bank rising a bit and there in the trees the sky-blue wall of some long flat building an eagle painted spreads it wings over a long and rickety staircase that tumbles down to the water.

Mr. Keightlinger lets the plastic fall behind him, lowers his sunglasses, tilts his head, taking in that far-off blue wall, the bluff, the dark trees, the houses about. Just past the island a sudden confusion of lights, a ferris wheel, a snaking curl of roller coaster but he’s looking above it, past it. Lifting the sunglasses back into place. “Okay,” he says. Shifting the toes of his black shoes hanging over the long fall to the unfinished street below he licks a finger and then throws his arm out, pointing. A rush and a sodden bang, far-off, a smudge of pink light blooming in the air out there over the houses past that sky-blue wall. It smolders there, flickering, dying as pink-white sparks pop from it cooling to yellow and orange and red and nothing at all as they fall.

“Sonofabitch was right,” says Mr. Keightlinger, and his bushy beard shifts to one side in a small smile.

“The strong wind blew,” says Ezra, and his big hands locked about the edge of the table he lifts it just with a grunt and lets it fall shaking the letters scattered across the map. “And when Peter began to sink he called out and the Lord held out His hand.” Again, and the letters tumble and fall away, all but the pink X stubbornly fixed there by the river at the bottom of the map, where the street grid curls around a lakelet just south of a skinny, claw-shaped island. “And I say glory to You O God,” his voice rising, “who created the angels, O ruler of æons, the heavenly chorus of æons sings praises to you.” The pink X lightening now, lines and streaks of white slashing across it as he shakes the table a third time. “I call to my hand now all those made righteous by their struggles, and in memory of St. Cosmas and St. Damian,” and then he staggers back from the table as a thin wisp of smoke begins to curl from under the X and the map beneath it darkens. “The cherubim,” he says, hushed now, breathless, “praise God, and the chorus of angels praises the thrice-blessed church, and the brotherhood of saints blesses the King Christ, our Lord…” The X softening, sagging, shining white-hot as a lick of flame ruffles the air above it. He rubs his jaw with his big hand smiling now, sagging, a sharp-edged bundle in his grey suit. “Oh my brother,” he says. “Oh, we have them.”

He pushes himself back up until he is sitting again on the edge of the bed his hands folded in his lap his head bowed his eyes closed and he takes a deep breath. The only sound in the room the crackle of the dying fire eating a hole in the map. “Hear me my Father,” he says, his voice a whisper now, a breath just barely falling from his barely parted lips. “Father of all fatherhoods, of infinite light, make them all worthy to receive Your baptism of fire, and release them from their sins, and purify them from their transgressions, yea, hear me my Father as I invoke your imperishable names, the names that are in the treasury of light,” and he stops a moment, licks his lips, eyes still closed, and he says “Azarakaza A,” and then he says “Amathkratitath,” and then, his voice catching, growing louder, stronger, he says “Yo” and “Yo” and “Yo” and “Amen, amen” and shouting now he says “Yaoth Yaoth Yaoth Phaoph Phaoph Chioephozpe, Chenobinuth, Zarlai Lazarlai Laizai – ”

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Berlin 11858, translated by Marvin Meyer, “A Gnostic Fire Baptism,” translated by Richard Smith, ©1994 the Coptic Magical Texts Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity.

Mr. Charlock sits – the Sword in the floor – Baker, Juliet, India –

Mr. Charlock sits on an empty phone book binder at the bottom of a phone booth, knees drawn up, arms drawn in, green-grey handset pressed to his cheek. “Jesus they was all over town today,” he says. “Bus down Hawthorne and they head right to the fuckin’ Duke’s, breakfast with him, and then it’s off in his car for a tour of all the hotspots in Southeast. I’m telling you – listen.” He leans against the side of the phone booth. “If it had just been you and me, or just you, and me off at another goddamn council meeting – ” He knocks the handset against the side of the phone booth. “Yeah whatever,” he yells into the mouthpiece, then tucks the handset back against his cheek again. “How was working with the so-called brother?”

He slumps against the back of the phone booth listening. Over his head a sticker half peeled away says that someone unreadable’s got a posse. Next to it a sticker in the shape of a taxi cab. Call Radio, it says. Someone’s scribbled a monster in black ink, big head looming out of the taxi window, one hand on a gear shift spearing the taxi’s hood. Mr. Charlock shivers suddenly, sits bolt upright. “Shit. Seriously? All right. All right. And what did I tell you? Fucking Southeast. Oh don’t give me that we both know it’s him. You owe me ten bucks. I don’t care, you owe me ten bucks on general principle!” He sits back, smiling broadly. “Yeah. What? Sellwood. I told you, all over fucking Southeast. Yes, Sellwood. I don’t know, this crazy-ass place on a vacant lot by the river. All windows and doors and scrap lumber and shit.” His smile’s leaked away now, he’s hunching forward. “I don’t know, a couple blocks away. I had to find – I had to find a phone.” One hand on the jamb of the phone booth pulling himself to his feet. “A what? Blue building? By the river?”

Outside the phone booth at the edge of the parking lot an empty school and past the school looming over the trees a big blocky building with one wall the color of a high blue sky. Up in the clouds above and behind it a fading pinkish tinge, a glimmer, a few last dying sparks arcing toward the ground a couple of blocks away.

“Shit,” says Mr. Charlock. “That was you? I was looking for a fucking phone, not – ” He turns back to the phone booth. There’s no phone inside the booth. The cord from the handset’s stuffed through a hole in the booth where the phone used to be. “It’s a – it’s a fucking coincidence is all. Yes. Okay even if it isn’t because of the Duke and the Bride so fucking what. It still has nothing to – it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with John or his so-called – well sure. Come on down! What the fuck.” Mr. Charlock yanks the cord out of the hole in the phone booth and stands there a moment, handset in his hand. He wraps the cord about it, stuffs it in his pocket. “Shit,” he says again.

He turns abruptly, heads down the sidewalk. Up in the sky the pink blush almost gone. He reaches as he walks for the knot of his tie and yanks to loosen it. Unbuttons the top button of his shirt.

Mr. Keightlinger hands the phone back to the young man in the navy suit, who hangs it up on its cradle on the empty desk of glass and blond wood in the middle of the glassy lobby. On easels scattered about are renderings of a completed building, photos of smiling men and women, floor plans in white ink on blue paper. Penthouse, says one. 2200 Square Feet says another. “That was, that was odd,” says the young man in the navy suit.

“Joe says hello,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

The young man’s face brightens. “Oh! Joe. Right! Did you get what you needed? Everything fine? Anything else?”

“There are no coincidences,” says Mr. Keightlinger, turning and walking away.

Parked on the street outside a black car dimly through the sea-green glass. “Ross Island?” says Mr. Keightlinger to himself. “Sellwood? Ross Island.” Pulling the ring of keys from his pocket as he pushes open the lobby door.

It’s a short straight sword, the blade of it two fingers wide from the guard down its visible length, the hilt of it wrapped in white leather worn and yellowed with long handling, quillions and pommel heavy and plain, struck with cold silvery gleams even in the warm lamplight. The floor where it’s been thrust is singed, the scratched wood black and rough like charcoal in a neat ring about the upright blade.

“It’s good that you have come,” says the short man in the doorway, dressed all in black, black jeans, black boots, a tight black turtleneck. “As you can see, dancing’s a bit awkward, since your sister left.” His beard a whisper of tamed curls just past stubble along his jawline.

The man beside him says nothing. A head and a half taller at least he’s wearing grey flannel pants flecked with white and black and pink and a bulky blue sweater. His white hair touched with hints of gold, hanging in tangled dreads down past his shoulders. He walks into the room and over to the sword, stepping carefully about it, kneeling beside it. Brushing his fingers along the plain and heavy pommel lifting his hand away sharply. Stroking his chin. “It’s hers,” he says.

“Your pardon, Axehandle,” says the man all in black, “but that was never in doubt.”

“It’s hers, Goodfellow,” says the man with the dreadlocks, standing. “I can’t just take it.”

“Nor can you leave it here, sir. All due respect.”

“Think of it,” says Agravante, one hand filliping the air, looking for the proper phrase, “as a conversation piece. The stories you can tell. The sword, in your ballroom.”

“There’s but one story to be told about that,” says Robin. “Sir. And everyone already knows it.”

“She will come back,” says Agravante. Looking at the sword again. Walking about it. “She will come back, and when she comes through that door – ” pointing at the front door there past the stairs “ – and takes up this sword again – ” He lets his arm fall. “That’s the story,” he says to Robin. “You couldn’t risk missing that.”

Robin stands in the doorway his arms folded not leaning to either side. “All are welcome in my house,” he says. “If she were to come through that door I’d pour her a dram with my own two hands to hear where she’d been. But she left her sword there and she walked away, alone. She’s leigeless, houseless, flagless now. Her meaning was quite clear.”

“She still has a brother,” says Agravante, quietly. And then, “Think of it as a favor done for me, and a boon I – ”

“I owe no one any favors,” says Robin, quickly. “In return, I ask that none are owed to me.” Somewhere back behind him in the house a burst of laughter, “No no, wait!” calls someone, and with a wheeze and a thump some skirling driving music launches itself from several rooms away. Agravante shrugs. “Then here it stays,” he says, “and I owe you nothing for it. I cannot draw that sword.”

“You mean you will not,” says Robin. “Sir.”

“And because I will it not, I can’t,” says Agravante, headed away from the sword in the floor, up to Robin in the doorway. “Draw it yourself, if you like. I’ll just collect my coat now, and be off, after thanking you for a lovely afternoon.”

Robin steps to one side, and Agravante’s past him, walking back into the house, back toward the music.

“Blast and rot,” says Robin Goodfellow.

Two residential streets, lined with parked cars, a simple intersection, the pavement of it painted in a great circle stretching from corner to corner in yellows and whites a sunflower faded by weather and traffic opening under the darkening sky. Houses sit comfortably at three of the corners lights aglow against the gathering night, and at three of the corners there by the sidewalks stands have been built, little kiosks of scrap lumber and windfall painted in primary colors dimmed with age. Library says a sign over one, and old paperback books are stuffed on a shelf behind a spotty glass door. Tea says a sign over another, and a couple of thermoses and some old mugs and cups and tins and cans of tea on shelves beneath.

At the fourth corner a high red gate freshly painted, white lights strung about it. Two old paned windows hang in the air to either side of it from wires just visible strung from tree branches and the gate itself. Beyond a ramshackle confusion gathers itself from windows and doors and bare wood, roofs of tin and translucent plastic aglow with lamplight, the trees of the lot winding in and out of the structure built around them. One of the cars parked near the gate is reddish-brown, and has a black stripe down its side. A block or so away the orange car with the dusty black ragtop. Bottle John sits behind the wheel, looking at the folded phone in the big pale palm of his hand. Stuck to the windshield a page torn from a magazine, a photograph of a man in hip-boots and a hat strung with fishing lures leaning on the fender of a new pickup truck. “Let’s hope you’re right,” he says to the phone, and he tucks it into a jacket pocket. Leans forward reaching behind himself to tug out a snub-nosed revolver, almost as small in his hand as the phone. He looks it over, cracks open the cylinder to check the bullets, counting them off under his breath. Snaps it shut. Sets the revolver on the seat beside him, under a fold of his jacket, looking back over his shoulder as he does so. Mr. Charlock’s coming down the street toward the car.

Mr. Charlock opens the passenger-side door but doesn’t get in. He squats and fiddles with the side of the seat until it leans forward, then climbs into the back seat, wrestling the door shut behind him. Pulling the seat back upright.

“You get done what you needed to get done?” says Bottle John.

“Yeah,” says Mr. Charlock. “I’m just gonna have a lie-down for a minute or three.” Settling himself on the narrow back seat, rolling over on his back knees up, stretching out his legs as far as he can.

“Mind if I yammer at you?” says Bottle John. “While we’re watching?”

“Got something you want to get off your chest?”

“Something like that,” says Bottle John, lifting the fold of his jacket away from the revolver on the seat.

“Knock yourself out,” says Mr. Charlock, closing his eyes, folding his hands upon his chest.

“You know I left the service a couple years ago,” says Bottle John. “But I didn’t exactly leave under color of law, you know?” Gingerly he picks up the revolver. “It’s not that they consider me AWOL or nothing, just they think I’m still somewhere I ain’t. See I was at Dome A.”

“Yeah?” says Mr. Charlock.

“You been out the loop I’m sure. Dome A. Bottom of the world, man. Bottom of the fucking world.” He tucks his finger into the trigger-guard. “The Kunlun Station. Joint op with the PLA’s Third Research Institute? They’d been, hearing things. In the ice. They had their people, we scrambled a full troop. And three Doctors, man. Three of you fucks. Baker, and Juliet, and India.” The gun trembles in his hand. He wraps his other hand about it to steady it, still it. “You look in our jackets,” he takes a deep breath, “I’m sure you’ll see something about a transport chopper going down in Afghanistan or some such. No survivors. And you know I still got no idea whether we managed to save the world down there or not? Some days I don’t think I made it out. Some days I think I’m still down there and all this is me just dreaming away whatever it is I got left. Anyway.” He lifts his arm suddenly turning to point the gun over at the back seat. There’s nothing there but an empty black suit, a white shirt, a skinny black tie still looped under its undone collar.

Bottle John blinks.

“Aw, hell no,” he says, yanking open his door, kicking himself out of the car in a scramble gun up pointed still at that empty back seat. Standing slowly, looking about, the gun not wavering now, steady, solid.

“Hell no,” says Bottle John again.

Out in the intersection a block or so away the rainless air above that painted sunflower’s shivering, rippling, a blur of heat, and from it faintly a howling burst of trumpet-song, of wind-song, a roar of lions and of fire. Bottle John’s head whips back and forth, the roiling air, the orange car, “God dammit,” he says, darting toward the car, pointing the gun behind it, coming around it to point the gun at the sidewalk on the other side. No one’s there. Light pours from the hole in the air over the sunflower now, light and feathers, a great wing unfolding and another, and another, the intersection filling with sunlight. “Sonofabitch,” mutters Bottle John. He starts to walk toward to the sunlight, looking back as he does, his gun still aimed at the car. “Sonofabitch, we ain’t ready, we are not ready,” breaking into a loping run, skirting the intersection filled now with bright hot light and wings and in among the wings are opening slowly eyes the color of shadowed earth and polished wood and dried dead grass and desert skies. He spares it one last look before turning and bulling his way through the red gate.

Grey-white smoke drifts from the smoldering table up in sketchy whorls to melt into clouds that hug the ceiling. He sets the phone on its cradle on the nightstand and pushes himself upright, then leaning heavily one hand on each of the queen-sized beds makes his way down the narrow aisle between them. “Do well,” he says, puffing with the effort. “Do well, John. Do well.” Stopping at the foot of the beds, upright, carrying his weight in his legs mostly now, not his arms. Across the smokey room in the dark alcove by the bathroom his wheelchair waiting. “Anaharath,” he says, closing his eyes. “Ashbel and Baara. Cuth-Cuthah.” Crooning the names, lifting his hands from the bedspreads, standing now on his own two feet. “Elealeh and Esh-ban. Ur, Uri, Uriah, Urim! Zephath and Zephon, Zethar, Zuph!”

The bathroom door bursts open smashing into the wheelchair knocking it back against the sink. Bright fluorescent light slashes through the eddying smoke. Ezra’s eyes open shocked and he topples arms waving for balance catching at but missing the end of either bed as he turns and falls to the floor. Mr. Charlock steps naked from the bathroom through that slash of light one hand lifted thumb cocked two fingers curled back two fingers pointed at Ezra’s stupefied face. “You,” gasps Ezra, “how – ”

“I’m a magician, you dumb sad fuck,” says Mr. Charlock. “You think you fooled me for a minute?”

“Please,” says Ezra, squirming over on his belly, “please set aside your rage – we’re here for the sorcerer, Leir, not you, not your partner. There’s still time – ” Hands planted on the floor pushing himself half upright lifting one of those hands to Mr. Charlock, imploring, “Please,” he says. “Please, get down on your knees, before the Lord in His majesty, and His wrath. You still. Have. Time.”

“Yeah?” says Mr. Charlock, lowering his hand just, thumb still cocked. “Leir? You think Leir is anywhere near any of this shit?”

“But – ” says Ezra, and Mr. Charlock lifts his hand again and says, “Shut up. Hold still. This is gonna fuck you up something fierce.”

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MGV (Musique à Grand Vitesse) written by Michael Nyman, ℗1994 The Decca Record Company Limited.

the Woman kneeling by the Tub

The woman kneeling by the tub wears nothing but a pair of narrow black-rimmed glasses. Her chin tucked she’s looking only at her hands folded one over the other in her lap. On the white tile floor beside her an oval copper tray and on the tray a gold plate and a bone knife, a white plastic funnel, a rehoboam pitcher filmed with a milky residue. Beside the tray a stack of thick white folded towels. The bathroom about her’s large and lined all in tiny white hexagonal tiles, the lines of grout gone dark with age and grime. The tub sits on its four clawed feet on a low blocky pedestal at one end of the room, beneath a window of frosted glass, blackly blank in all that white.

Her nose twitches shifting her glasses. She doesn’t lift a hand to scratch. Her face has been carefully painted, her lips an exaggerated Cupid’s bow in a thick bright red, her eyelids brushed with gold over dark long lashes. She blinks. Her nose twitches again. She doesn’t look up. Her hands don’t move from her lap.

The tub filled almost to the brim with water motionless strung with ropes of something viscously white. A woman stretched on her back submerged eyes closed her black hair drifting loosely tangled curls about her head and shoulders, tendrils looped over her face, her breasts, along her arms. Her hands float limply either side. A bubble of air creeps from one nostril to shiver a moment before its release, blundering up and up through fronds of dark hair and strands of white stuff slowly, so slowly, until wobbling it reaches the surface of the water clinging there to its underside a moment before breaking the silence with a tiny crack. The woman by the tub blinks rapidly behind her glasses but does not lift her hand, doesn’t turn her head. In the tub the Queen’s hands move now, slowly, stirring, tangling, shredding the ropey strands to milky clouds about her fingers. Her head rolling slowly, so slowly from one side to the other, eyes still closed, lips parting just enough to release a mouthful of smoke, reddish, brownish black, and where it billows in the water the milky ropes pull back, away, break apart in the water that’s begun to slosh against the sides of the tub, water with a greasy sheen. The Queen’s eyes open then in the water, in shock, in terror as her mouth opens around a great gout of the stuff pouring out of her. One hand breaks the surface of the water with a splash reaching for something, and the woman kneeling by the tub does not put out her hand to grasp it, does not look up. The Queen braced on an elbow now hauling her hand back down out of the useless air pushing arcing her back up and up the water sliding from her face pulling her hair back with the weight of it her mouth still open throat jumping eyes still open searching as water streams from them as that stuff the color of old blood drips from her mouth and nose down her cheeks, her throat, across her breast and shoulders. The water in the tub darkening, clearing. A tearing retching gasp and the Queen begins to breathe, head jerking, chest heaving, a foot squeaking against the tub as she tries to brace herself, and the woman kneeling by the tub has closed her eyes, and her hands in her lap are folded together.

“Anna,” says the Queen. “A towel.”

And now the woman by the tub leans forward, lifts a towel from the pile and shakes it open, handing it to the Queen, who wipes her face, her mouth, her chin and throat. “These will have to be burnt,” she says.

“Ma’am,” says Anna.

The Queen stands, letting the soiled towel fall to the tiles. Anna hands her up another, and she scrubs at the sticky stuff along her shoulders and arms, her breasts and belly. “Sluice it clean. Do not let it into the drains. Pour it into buckets and tell Cragflower when you are done. He’ll know where to take them.” She drops the towel and lifts a foot to the edge of the tub, and Anna kneeling again dries it with another towel. “Ma’am,” says Anna. “All of it?”

“It’s gone brackish, and sour,” says the Queen. “We must simply gather more and try again.” Her foot cleaned and dried she steps to set it on the tiled pedestal, and lifts her other foot dripping from the tub.

“There’s nothing to be done?” says Anna, rubbing it clean.

The Queen kneels there on the pedestal beside her, plucks away the stained towel and drops it to the floor beside them, takes Anna’s face in her hands. “Scrub yourself when you are finished,” says the Queen. “Be most careful and thorough. I’ll not have you sickened.”

“Ma’am,” says Anna.

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