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Tinny music – a Knife in the Back – One goes alone – Filled to the Brim with Girlish Glee – How it Should be –

Tinny music from the speaker of a shortwave radio lashed to the beam above them with an orange bungee cord, a carillon peal of notes plucked from a guitar, a man’s voice rendered thin and reedy, Tu m’as manquer mon amour, ne ni cherie willila kan be tama yala en sera Ouagadougou, and Bottle John’s saying “I can’t explain it to somebody who wasn’t there.”

“But I am there, John,” says Michael. “I have been all along. Can I show you something? It’s in my pocket.”

Bottle John’s shoulders shift but he doesn’t look up. They’re sitting side by side on the bare plank floor by the porch railing, their backs to all that wind. Bottle John’s hands are in his lap and the gun rests small and dull in his hands. Michael’s pulling a small flat plastic baggie from a pocket in his loose sweatpants. He holds it out between them lying limply on his black-gloved palm, a corner of it weighted by a smidge of dust. “What is that,” says Bottle John, putting a hand to his chest, his white shirt buttoned all the way up to his throat.

“Leo brings it to me, from time to time,” says Michael. “I take a pinch of it every couple of days. Have for the last four years.” Bottle John’s hand sliding up to his shoulder there under his grey suit jacket. Michael closes his hand over the almost empty baggie. “I was going to tell him tonight that enough was, was enough. That I wanted to stop. That I was tired.” Leaning back Michael reaches through the railing between them and Bottle John lurches back, watching intently hand on his neck as Michael tips the baggie over pinched between thumb and forefinger shaking the dust loose and out and away. As it falls away from them the dust becomes sparks, the sparks become drops of light, the drops grow brighter and brighter, stars ripped loose from their moorings, tumbling about them. “Open your shirt for me, John,” says Michael, letting the empty baggie flutter away.

Bottle John pushes away, to his feet, one hand wrapped around the barrel and the trigger guard of the gun. “It’s too clear out here,” he says, and then, “too cold.”

“You don’t need to hide anything from me,” says Michael, still sitting by the railing. Behind him the stars settling now into lines and shapes that tremble and jump and freeze and tremble again. “Tell me how your brother died, and then open your shirt for me. You shot him, didn’t you.”

Bottle John’s taken a step or two back toward the sofa, away from the railing. “He asked,” he says. “The pain was too much for him.”

“And then you went to the ice.”

“I can’t talk about that.”

“Look, John. Look.” Michael’s standing, leaning on the railing, pointing out at the stars that have fixed themselves against the blackness in regular rows and lines that limn blocks and towers, sparks of light caught in the corners of a thousand thousand windows all about them. “It’s almost time. I’m doing what I can – ” Swooping arcs and nets of light define bridge after bridge marching along the river each grander and more glorious than the last. The radio above him squawks and the chiming guitar dissolves into static and someone, a rich contralto says estoy defendiendo la apuesta de una persona and then a banjo, someone, a couple of adenoidal voices sing a path the blind can use to return, for now the way’s blocked by an inferno, everything’s on fire and I don’t think it rains – Michael reaches up to snap the radio off. “It’s your angel, John. It pushes us further and further away as it tries to get in. I’ll lose my grip soon. They’ll never find their way back,” and Bottle John still not looking back is shaking his head, “No,” he’s saying, “no,” and Michael says, “but you can help us all.”

“We are about the Lord’s work,” says Bottle John, looking at the gun in his hand.

“You can set it aside now. You came here looking for help.”

“No,” says Bottle John.

“You came here looking for a doctor. Doctor Cee. Charley. Charley Leir?”

“No, no,” says Bottle John, looking back, “Charley, he’s no doctor. That’s just what we called him in the service. I thought, I thought maybe he could help.”

“It doesn’t want that, does it,” says Michael, as Bottle John turns away again. “It gave you back your brother, but it’s asking for something, and you, you’re still saying no, John. Open your shirt.”

“He’s a good man, Charley,” says Bottle John, stooping to set the gun down on the long low sofa. “He don’t know what he’s doing, working for Leir.”

“And Leir’s a bad man,” says Michael.

“The worst,” says Bottle John, undoing the first button of his shirt.

“What’s he done, John?” says Michael. Bottle John ducks his head and undoes the next button, and the next. “Open your shirt,” says Michael, stepping away from the railing, and Bottle John does. Whatever it is it’s barely there at all, a glistening streak against his dark skin, a swath gone indistinct, out of focus. “It’s almost over,” says Michael, stepping closer to Bottle John.

“What are you,” says Bottle John, swallowing, throat jumping, his jacket and his shirt sliding from a blurred and indistinct shoulder.

“I’m going to take it from you,” says Michael, hooking his fingers, pressing them against the stuff. Grunting. “It came from the ice, didn’t it.” His face set with the effort. “I’ll give it to the fire, and your angel – will be satisfied – ” Michael tugs and Bottle John looks up and howls. In and among the glittering towers lights swoop and slide, and something very like a zeppelin looms, nosing its way toward the ziggurat at the top of one of the smaller towers.

“What is that,” says Bottle John, eyes lidded, runnels of sweat pasting his shirt to his skin.

“Very old,” says Michael, looking at the cloudy nothing in his hands. “Let’s go. It’s time.”

“Cute gun,” says someone else.

Behind the sofa in the low wide doorway to the porch stands Mr. Charlock, barefoot, wrapped in a white trench coat, one hand lifted, thumb cocked, two fingers curled back, two fingers pointed at Bottle John and Michael. He’s looking down at the snub-nosed revolved in his other hand. “What’s it loaded with? Silver hollow-points?” Sniffing the cylinder. “Ampoules of holy water? Did you dip it in mistletoe oil? Smudge it with sage? Christ, John, you going Catholic on us?” He points the gun at them alongside his fingers. “Shoulda played more D and D growing up. All it takes is a knife in the back to seriously cramp any wizard’s style.”

“Don’t,” says Michael, wobbling, staring intently at his trembling hands full of glistening nothing.

“Sorry, man,” says Mr. Charlock. “Sorry about your brother.” He uncocks his thumb and lowers his empty hand. “Sorry about what went down with Echo. Wish I coulda been there. Woulda told you fucks to run like hell.” The gun’s still pointed at Bottle John, who shivering closes his eyes and nods.

“Stop,” says Michael, “I’ve already pulled it – ”

Three gunshots, loud flat cracks that punch neat little holes in Bottle John’s grey jacket, his white shirt, his wet dark chest. “What?” says Mr. Charlock, lowering the smoking gun as Bottle John sits heavily, slumps, falls over on his side. “Already pulled what?”

Michael’s looking at the last thready wisps of nothing wafting from his empty hands. “You goddamn fool,” he says.

Wet shoes squelching Jo steps carefully through darkness bare sword in one hand scabbard in the other. Up ahead a pool of light, a low-hanging lamp over an overstuffed armchair, a low table, a hand reaching out to set down a steaming mug. The sound of a jangling piano, a man’s voice pattering through it’s wining and dining me, with memory and love the only clothes I let confine me, and break the rules of anyone who thinks they’re really signing me, it’s time again, time again, time again, time again –

“Jessie?” says Jo.

Kicking the tombstones from the middles of my eyes, out to the corners where and the song’s cut off with a heavy click. A blond head peers around the side of the armchair, dark eyes framed by narrow square-lensed glasses. “Jo?” says Jessie. “Your hair. You grew it out?”

“Yeah, well,” says Jo, hurrying up to the pool of light, pausing careful of the sword to fit the tip of it to the throat of the scabbard. Driving it home. The chair’s surrounded, the edges of that pool of light walled in by stacks and piles of books, cheap mass-market paperbacks with curled white-wrinkled spines stacked atop bulwarks of trade paperbacks and here and there foundations laid from thicker, broader hardbound books. There are books splayed open on either thick round arm of the chair, and books piled on the knitted afghan laid over Jessie’s tailor-fashioned lap. A book’s closed about her left index finger holding its place and a book’s held open in her right hand. Her T-shirt says Book Lovers Never Go To Bed Alone. “Let’s go,” says Jo.

“Where,” says Jessie.

“Back,” says Jo, holding out a hand. “C’mon.”

“You go,” says Jessie, looking back down at her book. “I think I’ll stay.”

“You,” says Jo, “you can’t, it doesn’t, it doesn’t work like that.”

“Why not,” says Jessie, turning a page.

“We all,” says Jo, “we went in after them, and we all have to – ”

“Three from the circle,” says Jessie, not looking up, “three from the track. Anyone missing? Leo? Ysabel? Whatshername from Seattle, or Lake’s little girlfriend?”

“What?” says Jo, and then “No, we’re all, we’re stuck, getting back. The Duke thinks we’re on a ship or something.”

“The Duke,” says Jessie.

“We all need to go back together, or we won’t – ”

“Five shall return,” says Jessie, “and one go alone. You ever read Susan Cooper?”

“I,” says Jo, “no. Come on, Jessie.”

“You ever read any fantasy? Ever?” Jessie turns another page.

“What?” snaps Jo. “I read, whatsit. Earthsea? And some of those dragon books. I read Dune.”

“That’s not,” says Jessie, “that’s science fiction, not fantasy – ”

“It’s got dukes and barons and witches – ”

“It’s got spaceships, Jo.”

“That fly with magic spice-powers, what is this? We’ve got to go, Jessie.”

“There’s always a sacrifice.” Jessie sets the one book on the arm of the chair, splays the other open on the table by the steaming mug. “In this sort of thing. Has to be.”

“One goes alone,” says Jo.

“Might as well be me.”

“Jessie,” says Jo. “Fuck the books for a minute. The others, the ones who actually live with this shit, they won’t say it but they’re scared out of their minds.” The scabbard of her sword gripped tightly in both hands. “You have got to come back with me, Jessie. We all have to go back together.”

“Did they tell you that?” says Jessie, her voice rising sharply. “Did they tell you that, exactly that?”

“Jessie – ”

“Did they say to you, Jo, you must bring her back, she’s our only hope?” Jessie picks up the splayed book from the table. “Because I gotta tell you Jo, these people?” Turning a page and then another with quick sharp jerks. “Who live with this shit? Hang out with them long enough and you figure out they know a hell of a lot less about it all than they let on.”

Jo turns away abruptly. Shadows and hints of reflections hung before the chair suggest an enormous window stretching away off and up into the darkness. Jessie slaps her book closed, tosses it to the floor. Plucks up another from her lap. The White Tyger, says the bent spine. “Shouldn’t you be getting back?” she says, flipping through to find the first page.

“This is pretty nice,” says Jo. “You’ve got books, you got tea, you got a view.” Somewhere out on the other side of the glass lights like stars begin to pick out the edges of blocks, of towers, and sparks glint in the corners of a thousand thousand windows. “You know where I was?” Jo turns back to Jessie, who isn’t looking down at the book in her lap. “Some anonymous ranch house somewhere in deep Southeast. I don’t know. I never got outside of it. I was, married, to the Duke.”

“You love him,” says Jessie, flatly, and Jo lets out a bark of laughter. “No,” she says. “Christ no. I like him, but, I never left the house, Jessie. I spent all day just, waiting around, for him to come home from wherever it was he was, you know? I was putting my hair in curlers, for fuck’s sake. I was, painting my toenails.” Outside the light is shifting, growing, firming up into a softly greyish whitely glow of mist that laps about the buildings below, wisps of it flaring with orange and gold and smoldering into red. “I was bored out of my mind. You were supposed to find the Duke, Jessie. I went in for Ysabel.”

“So you love her,” says Jessie.

“I don’t love anybody,” says Jo. She looks down at the sword in her hands. Far off beyond the wakening city a great sharp tooth of a mountain rears itself above the mists, its snows blushed rose and gold and palest blue and a hint here and there of faint green light. “I made a promise,” says Jo. “I will keep that promise. I found her,” looking up at Jessie now, “and I got her out of – ” She looks down again. “She’s not going back there.”

Jessie’s looking away, at the cup of tea still steaming, at the little cassette player on the table beside it. At the books ringed all about her. “You get to have them both,” she mutters.

“I don’t have anybody,” says Jo. “Jessie, please.” She holds out a hand. “We need you.” The light filling the window doesn’t touch the darkness behind the chair, but away off back there up in what might be the ceiling there’s a small oblong of warmly glowing light, a trapdoor, a hatch.

A scrape of gravel, a black shoe shifting, pressed against denting the rubber of a tire. A black pants leg quivering with effort, a grunt. Mr. Keightlinger’s arms crossed before his blank black sunglasses fists clenched tightly as feathers straining bulging eyes press down against him and the very light that soaks the air is trembling at the point where they don’t touch. Mr. Keightlinger suddenly lurches back as the angel surges toward him. He’s pressed against the car, the powerful black car whorled over hood and roof with meticulous lines of spidery hand-painted letters glaring with a chilly blue light. Mr. Keightlinger blows a long sigh from his bushy beard and shifts his arms holding one upright before his face and drawing the other back, “This,” he grunts, “will hurt me,” that arm drawn back the hand beside his face unfolding from a fist, held flat, rock-steady, “far more,” and grimacing he curls that hand back into a fist, “ah, fuck it.” He throws a punch into the enormous dust-brown slit-pupiled eye before his face.

The eye collapses wings snap open scudding yanking the angel back and up into the air away from Mr. Keightlinger buffeted by the sudden winds. Howling shrieking the angel throws its wings all wide and falling from the air on him as ducking he pulls himself over the hood of the car through thickening curtains of cold blue light. Sparks erupt white and blue as he falls onto the other side showering bouncing splashing about him as he scrambles for the freshly painted gate. Behind him the groaning shriek of twisting metal and the pop and clatter of breaking glass and the ripping whump of gasoline igniting.

“Well, hell,” says Mr. Keightlinger, bulling his way through the front door of the teahouse.

In its scabbard a sword’s thrust up through the middle hatch of three in a row in a small wood-paneled room. It wobbles and topples over in Jo’s hand and she lays it on the floor her elbow shoulder brown-haired head following it up and out. “Can you,” she says, squirming her other arm free, hanging a moment there half in, half out, looking at the hatches to either side. There’s no one else in the room.

“Jo?” says Jessie’s voice muffled from below, “Jo, could you,” and Jo says “Yeah, yeah,” pushing herself up and out of the hatch, then crawling thump-dragging the sword to the far hatch as Jessie’s calling “Jo! Jo! Where are you – ” Jo leans over, reaching down, inside. “Oh,” says Jessie, her hand in Jo’s, coming up into the small wood-paneled room. “Why’d you – ”

“Don’t ask,” says Jo.

“Where is everyone?”

“Working on it,” says Jo, crouching, headed back along the line of hatches to the other side of the room. The stack of robes is gone. Jessie’s looking down the middle hatch. “They didn’t go that way,” says Jo, and there’s a thump of a drum outside somewhere, a thinly dervished skirl of fiddles and flutes and a low round horn of some sort struggling to keep up. Stepping over the hatch Jo listens at the door to the room as the music settles into a thumping melody and there’s muffled laughter and applause, a whoop of delight. “Come on,” says Jo, opening the door.

A low short narrow hallway paneled in white-painted wood, a door opposite, doors at either end. To the left the doors have high-set panes of clouded glass. Jo in her satiny black slip and her mismatched Chuck Taylors, one hand on the throat of her scabbarded sword, one hand reaching back, tugging Jessie in her wake, Jessie in her T-shirt and sweatpants, her flip-flops, her narrow square-lensed glasses. Falsetto voices roughly singing three little maids who, all unwary, come from a lady’s seminary, freed from its genial tutelary –

Jo opens the doors.

On the deck below them lit by smoking torches empty wooden chairs in haphazard rows pushed this way and that under a towering mast, a tautly strung welter of rigging and shrouds. “Three little maids from school,” sing Ysabel and Lauren and the Duke in stumbling off-beat high-pitched trills, “three little maids from school,” wrapped in richly clashing robes, kimonos loosely belted, and the Duke bouncing steps up to the rail singing, “One little maid is a bride, Yum-Yum,” and to either side Ysabel and Lauren bounce up beside him, singing to those empty chairs, “Two little maids in attendance come,” and off to the side sits Jasmine on a stool under an oil lamp, sawing away at the fiddle tucked under her chin. “Three little maids is the total sum – ” and Jasmine looks up to see Jo and Jessie and the fiddle squawks and she nearly falls from her stool and turning fluttering faltering Ysabel and Lauren and the Duke, “three little maids – ”

“The hell?” says Jo.

“It is,” says Jasmine, the fiddle in his lap, “the latest from Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan. We thought it might prove entertaining to have the boys done up to sing some selections – ”

“Snap ’em out of it,” says Jo to Jessie, hurrying down the short flight of steps to the deck, past the empty chairs to the high broad gunwale. “If we have offended – ” cries the Duke after her, and Jessie moving to stand between them trying to catch his eye says “Leo, Leo – ”

Dark water below and no gangway or dock or boat. Away beyond the great dark bulk of the shore a bluff looming the pulsing rustle of trees in a low wind and above and beyond and around all that buildings and towers sketched in light, windows gleaming, the arcs of bridges busy with teeming crowds of light passing back and forth, all of it under a lowering red-black sky. Jo her free hand up to shade her eyes points with the hilt of her sword, “There!” she cries. “Look!” Flickers of warm lamplight up there, back among the dark tree-shapes. A porch, a railing of peeled and polished branches. “The teahouse. That’s the teahouse, right?”

“Leo,” Jessie’s saying, “Leo, please,” and he’s standing not quite looking at her as he says “We should resume, sir, we shouldn’t like to disappoint the gentlemen from Oregon City,” and Jessie grabs him her hands on either side of his face trying to look him in his eyes that keep sliding away. “Jo!” she cries. “Jo, he’s not – ”

“Slap him!” says Jo, crossing the deck between rows of empty chairs. “Kiss him! Do something!”

Jessie slaps the Duke, lightly, and then draws her hand back and slaps him again, a loud crack as Lauren shrieks and Ysabel starts forward. Jasmine drops her fiddle with a twang and a crunch. Blinking the Duke looks at Jessie, looks her in the eye, and with a sobbing laughing gasp she pulls him to her and kisses him. The Duke’s hands spring up but he does not push her away. “Oh,” he says as she draws back. “That’s where I left you.” Jessie turns with another half-gasping laugh and grabs Ysabel’s hand. “Rain,” says Ysabel as Jessie pulls her close, “it’s okay, I’m here, it’s me,” as Jessie wraps her arms about her, as Jessie kisses her, and kisses her again.

Jasmine steps up to the railing, her greyly black wetsuit gleaming in the torchlight. “That was,” she says to Jo coming up the steps, “unpleasant.”

“That’s the teahouse, right?” says Jo, pointing. “I think we’re just anchored or whatever in the river.”

“Yes,” says Jasmine, “yes, I think it is.” Lauren beside her twirling with the force of trying to whip her kimono from her arms. “He kept them lit. All right then.” Jasmine heads for the steps.

“There’s no way off this boat,” calls Jo.

“Yes there is,” says Jasmine, as Lauren hurries down the steps after her.

“You’re gonna swim?” says Jo.

“I’ll swim, I’ll climb, I’ll hack my way through the underbrush.” Jasmine grips the gunwale, gives it a shake. It’s solid. “If we stay, I think you’ll shortly end up a gentleman from Oregon City. And we’ll all be spellbound by your Duke’s rendition of the sun, whose rays are all ablaze.” She takes Lauren’s hand.

“I’d rather we didn’t,” says Ysabel, her forehead against Jessie’s. “If it’s all the same to you.”

The Duke’s taking off his kimono. “It’s chilly,” he says, offering it to Jo, who’s watching Jasmine help Lauren up onto the gunwale. “What?” says Jo. “I hadn’t noticed.” She doesn’t take the kimono. She’s still holding the sword. He drapes it over her shoulders. “Hey,” he says, leaning over her, and she turns to look up at him, and he kisses her. “Thanks,” he says.

“Sure,” she says.

And then as Ysabel and Jessie hand-in-hand head down the steps, and the Duke before her follows them, she says, “Wait.”

“Jo?” says the Duke.

Clutching the kimono about her shoulders with one hand looking down, away at the sword, then back up at the Duke, she says, “I, should go with Ysabel. You should go with Jessie.”

Jessie and Ysabel stop there on the steps, looking back at her, the Duke’s frowning. “Let’s go,” calls Jasmine from the gunwale.

“I mean,” says Jo, “it’s how we went in. After you. With the, the hatches and everything.” Looking down at her sword, then back up again. “We should go back the same way.”

“No,” says the Duke, “she’s right, she’s right, that actually,” as he’s turning back to head toward the steps, but Jo grabs his red and black sleeve the kimono slipping from her shoulders pulling him to her for a kiss, and after a startled moment he settles into it his arms wrapping about her. “I’m sorry,” she says to him, as he kisses her cheek, her jaw, her throat. “I made her a promise.”

“But,” he says in her ear, “it’s me you’re kissin’ on.”

“Something like that,” she murmurs, and she kisses him again, and he stoops to pick up the kimono and then he drapes it about her shoulders again.

Jasmine and Lauren sitting on the broad gunwale, Jo handing up her sword to Lauren, hoisting herself up beside them. The Duke in his red and brown striped jacket hands up his cane to her, and Jo takes his hand as Jessie’s pushing up from below. Grunting, gasping, he folds himself over the gunwale and rolls over, sitting up, rubbing his thigh. Jessie pulls herself up beside him, and Jo’s reaching down for Ysabel’s hand. “Shoes,” says Jasmine. “And jackets.” Lauren’s standing carelessly balanced on the gunwale beside her as she undoes the girl’s skirt. Her stockings and shoes already kicked to the deck. Jessie lets her flip-flops fall from her feet, then leans over trying to open the Duke’s jacket. “Nuh-uh,” he says, and she reaches for his cane and he holds it away. “If I’m drowning,” he says, “I’m gonna do it with my sixty-dollar Nunn Bushes on.”

“Leo,” says Jessie.

“We’re not going into the drink,” says the Duke.

“Oh?” says Jasmine.

“Seven to three,” says the Duke. “Any stakes you care to hazard.” He points to the lights up there in the trees. “We’re walking on air the whole way.”

“Suit yourself,” says Jasmine, unbuttoning Lauren’s jacket.

“What,” says Jo to Ysabel, who’s watching, eyebrow cocked, as Jo ties the laces of her mismatched Chuck Taylors together. “I left these in the bathroom of that damn Starbucks,” says Jo. “I’m not losing them again.”

“Ready?” says Jasmine, hoisting herself to her feet, taking Lauren’s hand in her own. Lauren shivering in a thin pink camisole and underwear dotted with cartoon hearts.

“I’m not standing,” says the Duke, tucking his cane under his arm. “We can just, you know. Push off,” he says to Jessie.

“Well?” says Jo to Ysabel, who’s still wearing the kimono over the red and brown striped jacket.

“I agree with the Hawk,” says Ysabel.

“We’re gonna walk on air, huh?” says Jo.

Ysabel shrugs. “Besides. It’s a nice robe.”

“Let’s hope we do,” Jasmine’s saying. “We still have to deal with the thug, and the angel, when we get back.”

“The what?” says the Duke, but they’re jumping, they’re jumping, they’re jumping –

Table of Contents

Tu Vas Me Manquer,” written by Salif Keita, copyright holder unknown. Not Ideas about the King but the King Himself,” written by Drakkar Sauna, copyright holder unknown. War Song or Tombstones or Time Again,” written by Steve Espinola, ©2000. The Dark is Rising, written by Susan Cooper, ©1973. The White Tyger, written by Paul Park, ©2007. Three Little Maids from School,” written by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, within the public domain.

M.E. Traylor    15 March 2011    #

I did not expect Jessie to come back. Sounded like she had her mind set. I wonder if the suit-duo are finally going to meet their charges. Also, ‘a knife in the back is all it takes’ – so true.

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