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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.”

Table of Contents

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

M.E.Traylor    1 September 2010    #

I love love love how the militaristic/scientific saving the world thing is a sideline/backstory to the actual story, not the main event. So. Fucking. Cool.

Also, giant bird coming out of portal-rip-in-space-time? Yes. Oh my God. I think I love Charlock. A lot.

Fae    20 April 2013    #

Bird? I thought it was a seraphim.

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