Lechuza

It was hot, for October. Just a little over a week before Halloween, and it was still 90 humid degrees on the Texas Gulf coast.

I sat on the patio, fan on and ice tea in hand. My mom’s two foofoo dogs, Alice and Charlie, panted near the sliding glass door. No one knew their exact parentage, but they were small, white, and fluffy. Mom adored them, but I preferred dog-sized dogs to these snack-sized fur nuggets.

My aunt, who lives in Oregon, had heart surgery, and Mom volunteered to stay with her for a couple of weeks while she recovered. I was voluntold to petsit Alice and Charlie while she was away. I didn’t mind, actually. My SO, Chris and I were going through a rough patch and, frankly, we could use the time apart.

So here I sat, on a Friday evening, drinking ice tea, listening to an audio book, and trying to cook dinner in the outdoor kitchen. I had ditched my work skirt and heels for shorts and flipflops the instant I walked through the door, and weekend mode had taken hold soon after. I could play the book as loud as I wanted, because the closest neighbor was half a mile away, and no one would eavesdrop on the spicy romance I was currently consuming.

The gas grill had a trick to it, and I hadn’t mastered it. There had to be more temperature selections than “Off” and “Incinerate,” but for the life of me, I couldn’t find them. I was about to give up and go into town to see what I could find – this was terra incognita to GrubHub – when I heard it.

A baby crying.

Alice growled, her hackles rising. Charlie tucked his tail and whimpered.

“Shhhh.” I shook my head at the dogs, then peered into the gloom. “Hello?”

I turned on the back yard lights. The open grassy area was lit up like a Friday night football field, but the trees cast eerie shadows that moved and flickered in the night breeze. Not even the halogen penetrated the thicket at the edge of the property, and I felt uneasy, as if I was being watched.

I listened again for the baby, but only heard a few crickets.

“It was just some animal,” I assured the furballs. “A rodent, probably. C’mon pups. Let’s go inside.”

I made sure the gas grill was off, and the dogs scrambled inside the instant I pulled on the door. Giving one last glance over my shoulder before I followed them inside, I saw nothing unusual. I did, however leave the outside lights on.

I was looking for my car keys when my text chime went off. It was Chris. The part I could see read, “I really need to tell you something…” Was he going to tell me he missed me and couldn’t wait for me to get back? That he was glad I was gone and hoped I could stay longer? Not entirely sure I wanted to see the full message, I tapped on the text bubble icon.

“I really need to tell you something. I’m sorry. Moving out. I’ve met someone. Sorry.”

That explained a lot. Honestly, I felt more relieved than sad. I suppose I’d known for some time that we weren’t right for each other. I just hadn’t wanted to admit it. Inertia can be a terrible thing.

How should I reply? It wasn’t that I didn’t care, but nothing I said was going to change anything for either of us. “Fine. Whatever.”

It would be weird, going back to an empty apartment. But I would be fine. Better than fine. I might even stop by the shelter on the way back and adopt a kitten. Chris hated cats. Ha. Maybe I’d get two.

That didn’t solve my immediate problem, though.

“I’m going to get dinner. You two be good,” I told the dogs as I turned on most of the downstairs lights.

The truck stop hadn’t changed much since the last time I was there, years ago. Fried everything. Large portions. Quart-sized red plastic tea glasses. This week’s special was the gizzard platter – greasy, gristly globs surrounded by mounds of fried pickles and French fries. With thin, brown gravy. My years away at college and living in Houston had bent my taste buds in a different direction, and I now had a difficult time finding something on the menu that appealed to me.

“Sue? Good gosh almighty! Your mother didn’t tell me you were in town.”

I looked up to see that my waitress was Margarite Tremont, one of Mom’s oldest friends.

“Yeah. I’m looking after her dogs while she’s taking care of Aunt Cynthia.”

“That’s right. I knew she was going out of town. Didn’t think about the critters. Know what you want, darlin’?”

“Um, I think I’ll have…the grilled cheese on wheat bread with a dinner salad.” I knew the salad was a risk. Hopefully, the lone tomato wedge would be closer to red than green.

“Sure thing. Ice tea to drink, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How could I forget? You and Cody were so close for so long.”

“Right.” I smiled and nodded.

It had almost seemed like fate – our moms were best friends, and we’d known each other since we were babies. We thought we’d stay together, long distance, as we headed out to different colleges, and we did at first. But we inevitably drifted apart.

“I’ll go get your order turned in. Food’ll be right out.”

“Thanks, Miz Tremont.”

She winked at me as she tucked her order book into her apron pocket and made her way back toward the kitchen, pausing to fill a tea glass here and take another order there.

I sat and continued reading that steamy romance on my phone while I waited. I was just getting to the good part when I heard the loud clearing of a throat. Irritated, I looked up.

“’Scuse me, Miss. Is this seat taken?”

“Cody?” Wow. He’d filled out a lot since the last time I’d seen him. He wasn’t the lean, lanky young man I remembered. Still lean, just not lanky. Did his mother text him and tell him to come here? “Of course! Sit down. I didn’t know you were…”

“With the po-lice?”

“The uniform looks good on you.” Really good.

His mother came by with another ice tea. He raised it, as if in a toast. “How’ve you been?”

“Good. How about you? Mom said you got married.”

I hadn’t meant to blurt that out. I was in grad school when she told me, and I was too busy to think much about it then. Or maybe I just didn’t want to.

“I did. But Kelly and I had…irreconcilable differences. Didn’t quite make our first-year anniversary.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

We spent almost two hours catching up. I could have talked longer, but I was starting to yawn, and the puppers still had to go out to do their doggy business.

He walked me to my car. “Drive safe, now.”

I almost told him about the baby crying earlier, but decided it was silly. “I will.”

I didn’t see or hear anything unusual when I took the doglettes out. In fact, there was nothing unusual for the next three days. Other than Cody and I texting each other every evening.

On Tuesday night, I was almost asleep when I heard a thud, then it sounded like a herd of buffalo was running across the roof. Charlie and Alice hid under the bed. Apparently, discretion is the better part of valor when you’re a mini-pup.

“Come on, you two. It must be the wind blowing a tree limb across the roof. Don’t be so silly.”

I got up and pulled back the curtain. Nothing moved under the moonlight, although dark clouds smothered the starlight to the west. I closed the drapes and slipped under the covers, pulling them up to my chin. The roof stomping died down after a few minutes, but my light stayed on all night.

I invited Cody to the house for dinner Wednesday night. When I went to turn Charlie and Alice out in the back yard, he said, “They shouldn’t go out without supervision. There’s coyotes around. And owls. You’d be surprised what they can carry off. And you should be careful, too. One of your neighbors went missing Friday night. Personally, I think he just skipped town to get away from the repo man. But you can’t be too careful. I’ve been driving by, before my shift ends. Just to make sure everything’s okay.”

I wished he would stay over, but he had to work. At least there were no roof walkers that night.

Cody was going to pick me up on Friday to go out. I was almost ready when I heard a knock at the door. I glanced at my watch. He was fifteen minutes early. I started down the stairs to let him in when Alice ran in front of me and bit my ankle, hard enough to draw blood.

“What is wrong with you?” I shouted at her.

She only growled in response.

I went the other way, into the bathroom to get a bandage. By the time I came back, she was nowhere to be seen, but I did hear nails clicking on the hardwood floor below. Maybe I should call the vet in the morning to make sure she’s current on her rabies shots.

“Coming!” I shouted, hoping Cody could hear me as I hurried down the stairs.

Earrings in my hand, I opened the front door. Cody wasn’t there. No one was, and there was no car parked in front of the house. I slammed the door and locked it, then turned on all the downstairs lights, and the outside lights, for good measure.

When Cody arrived ten minutes later, Charlie and Alice greeted him like he was their long-lost best friend.

He looked around at all the lights. “Everything okay?”

“I thought you were at the door a few minutes ago. I heard a knock, but there was no one there.”

He stepped outside and looked around for a moment. When he came back in, he held a nut. “You got that big ole oak tree that overhangs the front porch. It is fall – there’s acorns everywhere on the ground. I’m sure that’s all it was.”

“You’re probably right.” It was then I noticed the dark circles under his eyes. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Long night. There was a traffic fatality just down the highway. Driver swerved off the road. Maybe trying to avoid a deer or something. She was more messed up than she should have been – I guess the smell of blood attracted scavengers before anybody found her.”

I shuddered. How awful.

All the lights stayed on. I didn’t want to come back to a dark house.

It helped that Cody came in with me after our evening at the dance hall. Poor guy. He was so tired he’d fallen asleep on the couch by the time I got back into the living room with two glasses of wine. I covered him with an afghan and went upstairs. I will say that I slept better with him in the house, and I would wake up to face the monsters refreshed.

Saturday was Halloween, and Cody was working a double shift. I was surprised at how many kids fit in the back of a pick-up truck to come around to the houses out in the sticks for trick-or-treat. The candy ran out around nine and I turned off the outside lights. I had skipped dinner, and for a while, I didn’t miss it. By 10:30, my stomach was growling and I was low on groceries. The only solution was to drive to the truck stop for another grilled cheese. Nothing else was open, and that can of mushroom soup in the Mom’s pantry just wasn’t going to cut it.

When I returned to the house, I parked in the garage and come through the back door. I was glad of the garage, because the wind had picked up blown in billowing clouds. The dogs were silent. That was unusual. I caught a glimpse of something moving in the living room. My heart skipped a beat.

Was that lightning, or someone shining a flashlight in through the window? Fight or flight kicked in, and I chose fight. I’m not sure why. I charged to the window and was horrified to see the pane sliding up, and long fingers creeping under the sash.

Mom didn’t have security cameras, but I did have my cell phone. I wanted to have a photo to show the cops, so I took several shots with the flash on. Then I called 911 and put the phone on speaker.

The long fingers were slipping away, and I wanted to try and catch this punk. Maybe I could even hold him until the cops rolled up.

“No!” I yelled, grabbing a couple of the fingers and pulling them backward against the wall as hard as I could. Anger flowed through me, and I was more than happy to hurt this jerk trying to break in to my mother’s house. Thunder grumbled in the distance.

The dispatcher stayed on the line with me, and I shouted answers to her questions through gritted teeth. I dropped the phone so I could push down on the window to keep the burglar’s arm trapped. As red and blue lights strobed down the lane towards the house, he gave a final desperate wrench and pulled his arm away, disappearing into the dark.

I opened the front door as Cody and another officer ran up onto the porch. I told them what happened. The other officer went to see if he could track the thief while I showed Cody the photos.

“I know it’s Halloween, but if this is a joke, it isn’t funny.” he said.

“What?” I looked at the screen and almost dropped the phone. Staring back at me was a pale, wrinkled face, eyes clouded as with cataracts, but a black, vertical pupil was clearly visible. Instead of a nose or mouth, it had a curved, sharp beak. A Halloween mask? Was this some sick prank?.

Something dark lay on the window sill.

“What’s this?” Cody picked it up.

It was a large feather, black horizontal bars on a grey background. What was it from? A hawk? An owl? If it was from an owl, it was a huge one.

Outside, a baby cried, then the sound was lost in a boom of thunder. The windows rattled.

“Brooks!” Cody called out. The other officer hadn’t returned from his search, and it had been twenty minutes.

I didn’t want to be alone in the house, so I walked around the property with him, looking for Officer Brooks. There were only four city police officers. Two were here, one was on the way, and the other was on vacation. Cody had called the county sheriff for reinforcements, but they were a half hour away.

We looked all night in the rain for Tony Brooks, and a search team combed the area for two weeks, but he was never found.

But that all happened a long time ago. Cody and I got married not long after that, and had four beautiful babies. Now, our kids have grown up and flown the nest. Cody died in a car crash…has it been two years, now? They never did figure out what made him swerve off the road. But I’m not alone. On short autumn nights, the owls sit outside my window and call to me. Someday soon, I’ll join them.

Fever

September, 1836

Buffalo Bayou, near the burned out ruins of Harrisburg, Texas

 

“I don’t think this is a good idea, John,” Quinn said.

“Of course it is, my good man. Sam Houston is the toast of Texas. A town named after him can’t help but succeed. Especially if I can get my fellow representatives in the Congress to make it the capital of the Republic of Texas – indeed, we’ve already started construction on the capitol building! The Texas government is clamoring for settlers, who will, of course, need a place to live. If we dig out this stagnant old stream, we’ve got the makings of a grand port,” John Allen replied. He gestured to the sluggish bayou in front of them, moving just fast enough to keep the mud churned up in the water and scent the air. A perch glinted silver at the surface as it grabbed a water strider that had ventured too far away from the bank, then disappeared into the murk.

Quinn looked at a pair of yellow eyes floating just above the surface of the opaque water and shrugged. His companion thought it was a basking alligator, a common enough beast in the Gulf Coast swamps, but he knew better.

“Isn’t the capital already set up in Galveston? And there’s already a major port there, too. Why would any ships come all the way up here?”

“Galveston is the interim capital. We are going to make Houston the permanent one. As for ships coming this far, that’s easy. Rail, my good man. This spot is fifty miles closer to existing railways than Galveston. They don’t even have a causeway to the island to run a rail line.”

“But there isn’t any rail here,” Quinn said. The yellow eyes in the murky water at his feet stared balefully up at him.

“Not yet. But it will come. The plans are already in the works.” John slapped at a swarm of mosquitoes buzzing around his ears.

“You’ve taken leave of your senses, John, you and Augustus both.”

John laughed loudly, and a snowy egret fled the water for the safety of the trees. “No one thought General Houston could beat Santa Anna, now did they? After the massacres at Goliad and the Alamo, and being outnumbered almost two to one at San Jacinto, only a fool would have bet on Sam Houston. Ha! It’s Manifest Destiny, my friend, the will of the Almighty.”

Quinn frowned. John Allen squeezed his shoulder. “I’ve business in Nacogdoches that I must attend to. You won’t go wrong buying a parcel of land here, I can assure you. My brother will be most delighted to assist you with the deed while I am away.” With that, he mounted his horse and trotted off, crashing noisily through the underbrush.

When the commotion of his passing had quieted, and the twitter of birds and occasional grunting snarls of alligators resumed, the eyes that had been fixed on Quinn rose out of the bayou water. The creature that belonged to the yellow orbs stood upright. Her skin was so dark green as to appear black, unless the sun struck it a certain way, and it was marked by small, vaguely square striations. She was a sobek, and while the ancient Egyptians had painted her kind as alligator-headed people, Quinn knew that modern humans had long ago lost the skill of discernment – they would see nothing but a reptile when they looked at her.

“They must not stay here,” she growled, water dripping from her large, re-curved teeth.

“I’m trying to discourage them,” Quinn replied.

“Try harder,” she answered.

“If you think this is so easy, why don’t you have a go?” Quinn snapped.

“Swamp fever has kept humans away for many years with– it was a gift they gave us themselves when they brought others of their kind here in chains to labor in their fields. The fever arrived with them. They come, many die, the survivors leave. So it has been, but I fear that not enough of these invaders will perish if they come in great numbers.”

“Perhaps not,” Quinn replied.

He was in two minds about humans. His mother had never forgiven them for killing his father, and yet, he’d had a human foundling child named Virginia who was as kind as she was beautiful. He did not know, however, if she was the exception or the norm. His work often brought him into contact with people. Although, they were typically involved with demons, so they were perhaps not the best representatives of their species. Still, he couldn’t help but like John Allen.

“It was my understanding that you were here to provide assistance,” the sobek woman said.

“I am. I’m just not sure I can accomplish your request.”

The alligator fay snarled at him before she slipped back under the murky water of the bayou.

Quinn didn’t appreciate being dismissed so harshly, but he didn’t fancy going in after her – no telling how many others of her kind were lurking in the muddy water. Besides, the rest of his Mundane Intervention Team – Siobhan, Eoin, Aleksei, and Malik – were waiting for him in Galveston. They had arrived to broker an agreement between the burgeoning human population and the merfolk, who had used the island since it was little more than a sandbar. He shook his head. He hated diplomatic missions, and here he was on not one, but two concurrent ones.

He shifted into the form of a great black horse, and galloped along the waterway. If the bayou was deeper, it would have been faster for him to take his natural kelpie form and swim down to Galveston Bay. Even so, this was not the place to dive in – water fae were notoriously territorial, and the last thing he wanted to do was cause an incident, especially since he was on his own.

 

Moonlight made the waves shimmer like cut glass, and glinted off the breakers that foamed white before they rolled up onto the beach. The fresh sea breeze was a welcome relief from stifling heat that had oppressed them during the day. Quinn and his team, with the addition of one human in the personage of a Montreal transplant named Michel Branamour Menard, waited at the furthest point on Galveston Island from the busy port, hoping the representative of the West End Sea Tribes Union would arrive soon. She was already late.

Quinn looked at Menard, then at his MIT. Except for Eoin, they could all assume human form, and no one was the wiser. Eoin had his own tricks, however. It would seem that the urisk, who looked human from the waist up, but goatlike from the waist down, would garner a fair amount of attention from panicked humans. But they could stand in front of him and never notice he was there. Unless he desired it. Aleksei, the blue-skinned Lesovik, is what people see when they catch movement out of the corners of their eyes and feel they are being watched in the woods. Unless they look straight at him, in which case he appears to them as a large bush. Even if sighted, recollection of him is slippery, and slides out of the pool of memory like silk over skin. Malik was a djinn, and could take any shape, including none at all, and often did for the sole purpose of amusing himself with pranks against humans. Siobhan could not be readily be distinguished by mortal eyes from a comely young lady of the homo sapiens species. The tips of her ears were perhaps a little more pointed, and her eyes were slightly larger than the typical human.

On the beach, the tide had risen substantially, and warm water encroached on their gathering.

Quinn looked around and shook his head. “It would seem the merfolk have changed their minds. It is half an hour past the designated time, and their representative has not arrived.”

“What does this mean?” snapped Menard.

“It could mean several—” Quinn was cut off by an exquisite and ethereal singing.

Somehow, they had completely missed the approach of the mermaid, because now she sat on the beach not twenty yards away. Her long hair skimmed the sand, and was the same golden brown as the sargassum seaweed that blanketed the beaches in spring. She did not glow, as such, yet even Menard could see her plainly in the dark.

Quinn’s team was immune to her song’s spell, but they could still appreciate the aching beauty of it while they waited for her to finish. Mr. Menard, on the other hand, was utterly mesmerized.

“Greetings,” said Quinn, after the song had stopped.

“Felicitations. Are you the ones that have come to chaffer with me?”

“Indeed,” Quinn replied. “And we have brought with us one Michel Menard, who has ambitions of founding a city on your island.”

He shook Menard’s shoulder, which pulled him out of his trance, then pushed him toward the mermaid. Siobhan rolled her eyes and shook her head.

B-b-bon soir, m-m-madame,” the man stammered.

“I am called Zara,” the mermaid said, casting her silver eyes up and down the quivering human in front of her. “We have no quarrel, in general, with humans. The Karankawa people lived here for many years in peace.” When she spoke, her sharp teeth flashed in the moonlight.

“B-b-but there are no Indians here now,” Menard said.

“Do you know why that is?” Zara asked.

Menard shook his head. Quinn was unable to determine whether Menard was fearful of Zara, or just dumbfounded by her bare breasts.

“Have you heard tales of the criminal Jean Lafitte?” Zara asked.

Menard nodded.

“Lafitte and his band of miscreants took over the island. They had been here some years when they captured one of our people. She was, of course, reported by the humans to be a Karankawa woman. But when our friends, the tribesmen, tried to free the captive mermaid, they were massacred by the pirates. My people raised the storm that obliterated all of the human habitations and drove them from the island.”

Menard took a step back. “Mon dieu! You claim to call storms?” His voice had lost its nervous stutter and now contained an edge of skepticism.

“You doubt our abilities? Do not force me to disabuse you of your misapprehensions, sir. As long as your people do not harry or harass my people and do not take more than your fair share of fish, we will not be in conflict. It would be ill-considered for you to do otherwise, Mr. Menard.” One of Zara’s eyebrows arched as she spoke. “We are fond of this island, and do not wish to damage it, but we will not be mistreated.”

“Equinoxes cause the big storms, that is common knowledge – that is why they are called ‘equinoctial storms,’ after all,” Menard said, crossing his arms over his amply-padded chest, as if he had suddenly been injected with a massive dose of courage.

“Is that so, Mr. Menard?”

Suddenly a great howling, as of wind screaming around the corners of a building, rose from the sea and swirled around them. Quinn saw the faces of dozens of merfolk bobbing in the surrounding waters. Aleksei and Eoin chattered nervously together, probably making a contingency plan, given that Aleksei couldn’t swim.

Clouds scudded in and smothered the moon. Lightning flashed in the distance. A few fat drops of rain splashed lazily on the group standing on the beach.

“Is it the equinox, Mr. Menard?” Zara asked. Her voice was not loud, but it could clearly be heard over the keening of her people and the howling of the wind.

Oui. Perhaps. The autumnal equinox is in two weeks.”

The howling increased. The wind got stronger. Menard’s pomaded hair flapped wildly in the squall, and he squinted against the blowing sand. Water ran up the beach and poured over his feet. A clap of thunder boomed above Menard, nearly knocking him to the ground. The force of its rage rippled through the sand. Rain began to torrent down, blown nearly horizontal by the wind.

Arrêter!” Menard shouted. He dropped to his knees and covered his face. “Please stop. I believe you,” he whimpered.

The howling ceased and the wind went dead calm. The downpour became a sprinkle, and the lightning stopped flickering across the horizon.

“Do we have an agreement?” Zara asked.

“That my people will leave your people alone, and not overfish? Is that all?”

“That is enough. Break this contract at your peril, Mr. Menard.”

With a flick of her tail, Zara pushed herself off of the beach and into the surf.

“That was easy enough,” Quinn said. “Now, what are we going to do about the Allen brothers?”

 

The Mundane Intervention Team had opted to stay in Mrs. Reynaud’s boarding house for the few days they’d be in Galveston.

Bon matín, mes amis!” the widow sang at them as they filed into the dining room for breakfast. The smell of fresh-baked bread made Quinn’s stomach protest having to wait another moment for food.

“Good morning,” they all responded, but far from in unison.

Mrs. Reynaud disappeared into the kitchen, and moments later, she returned with plates of food. A young lady of African descent helped serve. Quinn could not help but notice that about half of her left ear was missing. When she noticed him looking, she looked away and turned her head. He felt a twinge of guilt for staring at her.

The MIT was famished, the baguettes were hot, and the cheese was delicious. Their hostess even flaunted tradition and provided a jar of fig preserves, probably from the immense fig tree that shaded her front porch, and a large portion of her yard.

A loud banging on the front door interrupted their meal. Mrs. Reynaud’s assistant fled, bumping into Siobhan in her haste.

“Open up, Miss Rayno. I believe you got some property of mine,” called a loud voice.

Monsieur, I have no property in this house that does not belong to me.”

Quinn could see the shadows of three men on the front porch against the lacy curtains.

“Now, Miss Rayno, we don’t want to have to break down your door, but we know you got a colored girl in there. She’s a runaway slave. Did you not know that, ma’am?”

“I do not know what you are speaking about. Go away. You are disturbing my guests.”

Quinn looked around at his team, and his lip twitched into the ghost of a smile. “Invite them in,” he said.

Je ne comprends pas. This makes no sense.” Mrs. Reynaud replied, shaking her head. Her expression implied that death was both preferable and likely if she complied.

“Your secret is safe with us.” Quinn gestured toward the door. “Invite them in.”

Cautiously, Mrs. Reynaud opened the door. Three heavily armed men pushed their way inside.

“Jim Bowie, God rest him, always said you were gonna be trouble,” the man who had done the shouting at the door said. “Now, if you will kindly turn over our property, we’ll be on our way.”

“What property is that?” Quinn asked.

One of the men knocked over a porcelain vase filled with flowers. It smashed on the hardwood floor, scattering water, blossoms and fragments of delicate delft blue floral tracery. It was difficult to tell whether the act was deliberate or accidental. He grinned like an oaf either way.

“Colored girl, ’bout so tall…” He raised his hand, palm down, to his chin.

“What color is she?” Siohbhan asked. “Blue? Orange? Green?”

The three men looked at each other, perplexed. “She’s the same color as your tea, ma’am,” replied the one who had shattered the vase.

“What would you want with her? If such a girl was even here?” Siobhan answered.

The spokesman took a step forward. “Women ought to know their place.”

Quinn glanced at Malik. A grin spread over the djinn’s face, and his eyes glowed metallic green. A breeze blew across the room, and swirled, faster and faster around the three men. They seemed to be frozen, then disappeared for a few seconds. When they re-appeared, they were not at all themselves.

Instead of three armed white men, there stood three black men, shackled and chained together by iron collars. They started to talk to each other, and discovered, to their obvious horror, that they could only speak Swahili.

Aleksei laughed out loud. “There are three slaves who now look like men that were here, yes?”

Malik nodded.

“I would suggest, Mrs. Reynaud, that you quickly get these three to the auction house. Eoin and Aleksei will help you.”

“Non. I would not wish that on even these men. Would you set them free? I’d rather to turn them loose, and let them make their own way.”

Malik nodded, and the chains disappeared.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Siobhan said.

Mrs. Reynaud smiled. “Moi aussi. Me, too.”

The clock struck eight.

“We must be on our way,” Quinn said.

Once outside the boarding house, they strolled to the back of the building, away from prying eyes. Six feet pounded by on the sidewalk as the three slavers-cum-slaves fled Mrs. Reynaud’s boarding house. Malik waved his hand over the MIT. In an instant, they stood just outside of the building site that was quickly turning into the City of Houston.

“I don’t think there’s any way to stop the Allen brothers,” Quinn said.

“Agreed,” replied Eoin.

“You could always eat them,” said Malik.

“I’m assuming that was sarcasm,” Quinn said. Malik knew full well that, although he was quite capable of dining on humans, they gave Quinn terrible indigestion.

Malik shrugged. “People flow to this place like sand through an hour glass. One grain, more or less makes no difference.”

“But what about the sobeks in the bayou?” Siobhan asked.

“Would they consent to being relocated?” Eoin asked.

“Probably not,” Quinn replied.

“Yeccchh!”

A man came around the corner, spitting and wiping his mouth on his sleeve. He clutched an empty tin cup in one hand and a roll of papers in his other.

“Are you alright?” Siobhan asked.

“Fine, fine. This milk has gone off. Doesn’t last long at all in this heat.” He wiped his hand on his pants and extended his hand to Quinn, who was nearest to him. “Gail Borden, surveyor. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“I believe we’ve met,” Quinn said. “John Allen is an acquaintance of mine, and I call upon him from time to time.”

“Ah! So we have. You’re that fellow he’s been taking around town, aren’t you?”

“Yes. These are my associates.” He gestured to the rest of his team, but did not go to the trouble of introducing them to Mr. Borden.

Malik pulled a glass bottle from a pocket in his roomy pants and removed the wax seal from the stopper. “Perhaps you should cook it first,” he said, taking a drink from the bottle.

“Cook it?…Oh, yes the milk! Grand idea, that. Yes. I shall have to look into it. Now, were you looking for Mr. John Allen?”

“I believe he’s gone to Nacogdoches,” Quinn replied.

“Augustus is about, somewhere.”

“We will locate him, should we require his presence. Thank you.”

Borden carried on with his perambulation, and the MIT continued down to the bayou. They had to walk some distance to be out of sight of the construction operations. After calling to the sobeks for nearly an hour and getting no response, Quinn returned his team to the Mundane Activity Monitoring and Intervention Center (MAMIC) in Blackthorne, in the realm of Faery.

MAMIC authorized Quinn to buy a number of plots immediately along Buffalo Bayou to help delay the inevitable conflict between the sobeks and swelling population of the new capital of the Republic of Texas.

 

August 14, 1838

Quinn found himself back in Houston two years later, at the sweltering apex of summer.

“You know, my good fellow,” John Allen said to him, as they walked along the water front, “Those plots you bought are highly coveted. Shall we build on them for you? I’m sure you could put a fine house and a business or two on them. Even with no improvements, they’d still sell for a pretty penny.”

“I don’t wish to sell them right now,” Quinn replied.

“I see.” Allen leaned in and lowered his voice. “Confidentially, I’ve had a change of heart. I have told no one yet. But instead of a port, I believe that the bayou should be filled in.”

“Why is that?”

“We had one steamboat come upstream last year. One. And the bayou is so shallow and choked with weeds, that it was a slow and miserable trip. No, I think it will take too much work to make it of any use. Best to fill it in and rid ourselves of these cursed mosquitoes.” John slapped one of the offending insects on his arm, and it left a bloody smudge on his arm.

Quinn caught a glimpse of yellow eyes in the murky water, but they were gone so fast he wasn’t sure he’d even seen them.

“They seem to be especially bad this summer,” John continued.

Quinn noted small red welts, some scratched bloody, on the man’s bare forearms. He also noted that John looked thinner and paler than the last time they’d met.

“Well, here we are,” John said.

They had arrived at a makeshift tavern, which fit right in with the mostly shanty-town section of city.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” Quinn said.

“Having a drink? Surely not.”

“No. Filling in the bayou. Are you alright?”

John Allen had crossed his arms over his chest and was rubbing his upper arms as if they were cold.

“I’m, fine,” he replied, perhaps with too much emphasis the last word. “Just a little fever. It comes and goes.”

As they entered the saloon, John’s knees buckled, and Quinn only just caught him before he hit the floor. Quinn laid him out on one of the rickety tables, and the town doctor was called. His office was only next door, and he arrived within minutes, black bag in hand.

The doctor reeked of cheap whiskey, and Quinn wasn’t particularly confident in his abilities. But his diagnosis fit.

“Congestive fever,” he said, nodding his head. “This is the third round of it. Every two days he gets a fever, and he’s sicker each time.”

John Allen, mumbling in his delirium, was carried to his house, but he never woke up.

He died the next day.

Quinn stayed for the funeral. John was only twenty-eight, and had no wife to mourn him. He was laid out in his own parlor, and his mother sat beside the open casket, veiled and dressed in black from head to toe. Quinn shuddered inwardly as he approached to pay his respects – Mrs. Allen wore a large locket with some of John’s hair fixed in a basket weave pattern inside. It was a morbidly peculiar habit, these humans had, he thought.

A tall woman, face disguised by a heavy black veil, stood near the back of the room.

“One Allen down, one to go,” she said as Quinn got near her. He recognized her as the female sobek from the bayou, although none of the humans seemed to notice her.

“I don’t think you’ll be able to stop the humans from coming. There are already too many of them, and more arrive every day. For your own safety, I’d like to help relocate your people.”

“No.”

There was little point in arguing. He sighed softly. “As you wish.”

 

December 22, 1857

“I’m very sorry about your mother,” Quinn told the young sobek. He had not yet lost the blotchy cream stripes of a juvenile, and leadership had been thrust upon him by his mother’s untimely and fatal interaction with a steamboat.

“Thank you. She never gave up on trying to reclaim our territory from the humans.” He looked down and sighed. “Even though many in our tribe had long believed it was a lost cause.”

“I understand.” Quinn said. Miles of rail lines linking Houston to parts north, west and east were already in operation, and grew longer every day, snuffing out any flicker of hope the sobeks might have had about eradicating the human interlopers from their ancestral home. “A place has been cleared for you, about thirty miles to the southwest of here. There was a human river landing built there, but it has been removed. The Brazos River is slowed by many bends in this area, so it should meet your habitat requirements.”

The young sobek nodded slightly and opened the door to what human eyes would perceive as a garden variety stagecoach. It was actually a spatial bubble, which would expand to fit as many as necessary on the inside, but remain the same on the outside.

Quinn held the carriage door open, and the young leader stood opposite him, calling to his people in the croaking, booming language of the sobeks. In small family groups, they rose from the bayou and made their way to the carriage. Heads down, defeated, they walked slowly, and it took longer than Quinn had anticipated to collect them all. When the tear-stained face of the last one disappeared into the inside of the coach, their young leader took one final, sorrowful look around, and climbed in, pulling the door closed behind him.

Quinn climbed into the shotgun seat, and the driver shook the reins and clucked to the horses. Actually, they only looked like horses. In reality, they were a hitch of kelpies – one was even Quinn’s cousin – who could do twice the work of a mortal horse in half the time.

 

It was late afternoon when the coach arrived at its destination, and twilight was already creeping in on this shortest day of the year. The driver pulled up under an immense, Spanish moss-draped live oak tree on the banks of an oxbow lake, formed by a looping bend in the Brazos River. Tall clumps of Texas giant cane shaded the opposite banks and waded partway into the lake. Sabal palms were sprinkled among the oak, hackberry, and pecan trees. A bull alligator, sunning himself just out of the water, looked up cautiously at them.

Quinn opened the stage coach door, and the young leader was the first to emerge.

“It’s beautiful!” he exclaimed. “It certainly seems a natural park.”

 

September 8, 1900

“We’ve got a live one,” Quinn said to his team.

They sat around an oaken table in a conference room at the MAMIC headquarters.

“What is it?” Aleksei asked.

“There’s a demon, possibly two, who’ve helped some humans capture a mermaid. We’ve got to free her, acquire the demons, and neutralize the human witnesses. The method depends on how much they know.”

“Where are we off to, then?” Eoin asked.

“Texas. Again,” Quinn answered.

“Seems to be a lot going on down there,” Siobhan added.

 

It was still dark when Quinn, Siobhan, Aleksei, Eoin and Malik stepped through the portal onto Galveston Island. Again, they were in the far west section of it.

“It’s about time,” Zara growled.

“I’m sorry for the delay,” Quinn said. “We have been advised that one or more demons is holding one of your tribe captive. Can you apprise us of the situation?”

Anger flashed in Zara’s eyes. “Enough talk. You will do something, and do it now, or I will!”

“I understand that you’re upset. We will do everything we can to rescue the mermaid. But we’ve got to contain the demon. Or is it demons? If we don’t, this will just recur.”

“There are two of them. They’ve shown some of the humans our abode. But our sister. They’ve put her on display at the docks.”

Quinn and Siobhan exchanged looks. “That complicates things. How many of the towns people have seen her?”

“Most. Perhaps all.”

Aleksei swore in Ukranian.

“Do what you will, but know this: a storm has already been called. It is on its way, and is far too big to be stopped,” Zara said. “And we would not do so, even if it were possible. These human vermin have been infesting our island for too long. We have been too patient. No more. They have broken the pact, and they will suffer the consequences.”

“How long do we have before the storm arrives?” Quinn asked.

“It will arrive this afternoon. The sooner, the better.”

“Eoin – I need you to relay this information to Dame Rowan at MAMIC. Aleksei, you’re with him. Guard the portal. Go now.”

The urisk and the Lesovik headed back to the portal, leaving little goat tracks and odd two-toed footprints in the damp sand.

“Take us to where they are holding your sister,” Quinn said to Zara.

 

The docks heaved with people waiting to pay a nickel each to see the captured mermaid, who was being held in one of the warehouses.

Quinn shook his head. “This makes it much more difficult,” he said, surveying the crush of people.

He, Siobhan, and Malik stood at the edge of the crowd. Quinn spotted the first demon right away – it was the one collecting money from the people waiting in line to gawk at the poor captive. Humans, of course, couldn’t see that he was a demon – he looked like any other bow-tied salesman to them. But Quinn and company could see its bulging yellow eyes, with their vertical slits, and its grass-colored scales. It hadn’t locked onto them yet, but it did pause and wrinkle its nose as if it smelled something offensive.

“Malik, you’ll be the hardest for them to detect. Go through the line to check on the mermaid and see if you can find the other demon. If there is an unobtrusive way to free her, do it, but do not call attention to yourself.”

Malik nodded.

“And take this trap with you.”

Quinn handed over a clear quartz pyramid, the base of which was a little larger than the palm of his hand. Malik tucked it into his voluminous pocket and joined the queue.

“Shall we move to the exit? I think this fellow’s a bit suspicious of us,” Siobhan said.

They strolled around to the other side of the warehouse to wait for Malik. When he finally emerged, his face was grim.

“She looks very unwell,” he said. “Her skin is quite grey, and she is gaunt, as if she has not been eating. I doubt she will survive the night if she’s not released.”

“What’s the layout of the place? How is the mermaid being held?” Quinn asked.

“There is a warehouse with a trap door in the bottom so a barge bearing cargo can pull underneath it and offload the freight directly into storage. The mermaid is secured in a fishing net which dangles through the trap door, half out of the water, so she can be observed. There are other offices and storage areas throughout the building. I tried to slip the rope holding the net and at least lower her into the water, but it is fixed in place with a spell. “

Quinn scowled. “Any sign of the second demon?”

Malik grinned and retrieved the crystal pyramid. A red liquid swirled furiously around inside of it.

“Outstanding,” Quinn said. “Take that back to MAMIC for safekeeping, then return here.”

Malik left.

Quinn wished the circumstances were different. It was perfect beach weather, warm and sunny. It would have been nice to stroll around with Siobhan and enjoy the day. The breeze had started to pick up, and the water was a little choppy. Although the seagulls were conspicuous by their absence, there was no other hint of what was coming. Something grabbed Quinn’s shoulder, hard, and he winced.

Apparently, there was a third demon.

Siobhan pulled a crystal trap out of her handbag, but before she could activate it, the demon whirled around, Quinn still in its deadly grip, and kicked it out of her hand. It landed in the water with a plop and a splash, then sank out of sight.

“Run!” Quinn yelled.

He shifted just enough that his eyes turned black from edge to edge and his teeth went from flat human to sharp kelpie. He spun under the demon’s grip and bit down hard on its arm. The beast yowled and let go of Quinn’s shoulder. Quinn wiped the demon’s black blood off of his face as he fled, following Siobhan.

Demons are not fast runners, and Quinn and Siobhan quickly outpaced it. However, what demons lack in speed, they make up for in stamina. It would hunt relentlessly until it found them.

“Back to the portal. Need reinforcements,” Quinn panted as he leaned against the side of a dilapidated wooden house. He brushed against a large rosemary bush, thick trunk gnarled and twisted, and it released its resinous aroma profusely.

“Where is it from here?” Siobhan asked.

“Not sure.”

“Hello? Who’s there?” called a female voice, cracked with age.

Quinn and Siobhan rounded the corner and discovered an elderly woman with coffee-colored skin and white hair sitting on a porch swing. She wore a pearl earring in her right earlobe, but most of her left ear was missing.

“Sorry ma’am, didn’t mean to disturb you,” Quinn said. “We’ll be on our way now.”

“Wait,” the woman said. She tilted her head and furrowed her brow. “I know you. It’s been a very long time. You look…exactly the same. How can that be?”

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Siobhan answered.

“Yes. We have. I’m sure of it.”

“I don’t think so,” Quinn replied, although there was something vaguely familiar about her. He could hear the slap-slap-slap of the demon’s leather boots on the boardwalk, and it would be on them any second now. “We really have to go.”

The woman stood up and hobbled the few steps to her front door. “Come inside. Please.”

Siobhan nodded to Quinn, and they both ducked into the house. The woman entered behind them and closed the door. She raised her gnarled index finger to her lips, commanding silence. The demon’s footsteps were loud now, outside the house. They could hear it snuffling around, trying to catch their scent. Frustrated, it ran on.

“I hate those things,” the woman said.

“What things?” Siobhan asked.

“Lizard men. Nasty creatures. That’s why I have all the rosemary outside – they hate the smell, and it keeps them away.”

Quinn nodded. “Most people can’t see them. Odd that you can.” Only happens to humans who have been touched by fae. “Thank you for saving us,” Quinn said. “But I don’t believe I know you.” He was only half convinced now that this was true.

“I’ve waited over sixty years to pay back this debt. I was in Ms. Reynaud’s house when the slavers came for me. You stopped them. Both of you.”

“You…were the girl?” Siobhan asked.

“Yes. Lucy is my name.”

“Lucy, it is so good to meet you again. There isn’t much time. You have to gather any friends and family that you care about, and get off the island. Today. Now. There’s a storm coming, and it’s going to be a bad one. We have to go. So do you,” Quinn said.

Lucy nodded. “I guess Dr. Cline was right about his hurricane warning, then.”

 

By the time that Quinn and Siobhan made their way to the portal and rendezvoused with Eoin, Aleksei and Malik, the afternoon shadows were just beginning to lengthen. The wind had kicked up and the tide was high, higher than normal. To the east and south, the sky was black with rain. Away from the town, they could hear the wrothful howling of the merfolk, calling the storm, making it stronger, pouring their rage into it. They were almost out of time to capture the remaining two demons.

With a blink of his eye, Malik took them back to the docks. The earlier crowds had dispersed, no doubt battening down their hatches, for all the good it would do them, against the approaching storm. Cautiously, expecting a trap, they neared the warehouse. What they heard was someone crying, wailing in grief. Inside the warehouse, they found Zara underneath the dock, clinging to the netting that held the captured mermaid. The captive lay limply on the bottom of the net, arms and hair drifting in the current. The rising water had floated the corpse nearly up into the trap door, and the high swells occasionally pushed her partially through it.

Zara’s head jerked up as they entered. “They have killed her! They will pay for this. They. Will. Pay.” She turned and dove into the water, splashing them with a contemptuous flick of her tail.

A door slammed behind them, in the depths of the warehouse. They all ducked behind wooden crates or bales of cotton, whichever was closest to each.

“Talco?” a demon’s gravelly voice called.

Malik eased a quartz demon trap out of his pocket and handed it to Eoin, who silently twisted the top half of it open.

The demon never knew what hit him as he came through the door. By the time he realized he’d been ambushed, it was too late, and he was locked inside the crystal. Malik tucked the pyramid away.

“Nooo!” screeched a deep, raspy voice.

The demon that had been collecting money to see the mermaid came roaring up at them.

Malik tried stunning it with a spell, but the demon swiped his magic to the side. Aleksei put his head down and drove his shoulder into the demon’s midsection with enough force to knock the wind out of him. As he staggered back, Eoin grabbed one of his arms, while Aleksei wrapped his own arms around the demon’s opposite leg. Demon claws raked Aleksei’s back and head, and deep blue blood oozed from the scratches. Malik grabbed at the flailing claws as the demon lifted Eoin off his feet with the arm that the urisk was attempting to control. The demon would not be laid down on the floor, so Quinn grabbed his foot. He was rewarded with a kick in the face hard enough to bloody his lip, but he and Aleksei were able to yank its feet out from under it. Taking Eoin and Malik with him, the demon thudded to the floor with a loud “Ooof!” Finally, they pinned him to the floor, barely.

Rain pounded the windows, increasing in fury. Wind moaned across the roof, pelting the building with small, forsaken items. Surging water splashed through the open trap door, pushing the cargo net with the dead mermaid onto the warehouse floor.

“We’ve got to get out of here. Who has a trap?” Quinn asked, wiping blood from his mouth.

No one, it turned out.

“I really hate doing this,” Siobhan said, She pulled a golden dagger from her belt. The demon fought – it knew what was coming. “I’m so sorry. If there was any other way…” she said. Then she raised her hand and drove the dagger deep into its heart. The demon bellowed, then exploded in a cloud of noisome ash.

“Go, go, go! We have to get to the portal, now,” Quinn called.

The five fae raced out of the warehouse. The furious wind ripped shingles from the roof, and planks from the walls, and hurled them after the MIT with a vengeance.

 

Behind them, in the collapsing warehouse, a boy began to wail for the father whose slaughter he had just witnessed through a crack in cargo area door.

“Shhh, Balcones. If you want to live long enough for revenge, we have to go,” his scaly mother called to him.

The seeds of vengeance took root then, in what passes for a demon’s heart, and demanded to be watered with the blood of his enemies. Pain and anger fused into incandescent rage, burning him from the inside out, just like malaria that had consumed John Allen.

“Yes, Mother,” he answered, his yellow eyes fever-bright.

 

A Murder of Crows

Jim Bob Renfro needed a helper, and I really needed a summer job. His opening at A Pest Free Palace was available, and it paid $12/hour – a fortune to a high school sophomore with no experience.

Most of the time, I vacuumed up mouse turds and fetched things from the truck. Stuff like that. From the start, I didn’t like Jim Bob – Mr. Renfro – much. Not sure why. He hadn’t said anything mean to me, and he looked like an average middle-aged dude – nothing weird or creepy. One thing, though – he had a flashy gold watch that he was uber-proud of.

Once, he saw me looking at it and said, “You work hard, save your money, and maybe you can get a watch like this. It’s very expensive.”

What I was thinking was, “Did he really pay money for that gaudy bauble?”

I hadn’t been there long when we went to a house for a follow-up visit. We climbed the rickety pull-down ladder to the attic to check the de-ratting progress. I had a trash bag tucked into my belt, and I held the flashlight for him while he rummaged around in a dark corner.

“Open the bag,” he grunted.

He tossed a glue trap with an emaciated, dead rodent into the sack.

I felt queasy.

There was some rustling and squeaking, and Mr. Renfro produced a second glue trap with a terrified, live rat stuck to it, squealing and struggling to get free.

“You’re not going to just toss it in the bag, are you?”

He cocked his head and looked at me as if I’d asked the question in Russian.

I pointed to the trap. “The rat? It’s alive.”

“And?”

“You’re going to throw it in the trash and let it suffer?”

Renfro smirked and dropped the trapped rat onto the floor. Before I realized what he was going to do, he slammed his heel down on the rat’s head.

“Now it’s not suffering. Clean it up.”

I gagged as I tossed the bloody mess into the garbage bag. Maybe I should start looking for another job tomorrow.
Renfro headed toward the ladder. “Put out some more glue traps.”

I did. I just didn’t remove the plastic layer that covered the glue.

By the time I came down and refolded the ladder, Renfro was finishing up with the homeowner.

“Good bye, Mrs. Thompson. We’ll see you next week.”

“Thank you, Jim Bob! I don’t know what I do without you.”

As it turned out, job opportunities were hard to come by, so I had to grit my teeth and stick it out for the rest of the summer. I was never so glad to see August roll around – couldn’t wait for the first day of school.

It was a few months later when my mom called me to the phone. I think we’re the only people I know who actually still had a landline.

“Hey, it’s Jim Bob Renfro. Got a big job Saturday, and I wondered if you could use some extra cash?”

I could definitely use extra cash. “I have plans that night, but I’m free during the day.”

It was Halloween, and Randy – one of my buds – was having his annual party. He and his brothers made their own haunted house in the garage with black plastic sheeting to form the corridors. Sure, sometimes it was cheesy, but they also had a pool, and it was still usually 80 or 90 degrees in October. And his mom went nuts with all the Halloween food. Spider cupcakes, mummy meatballs, witch’s fingers breadsticks. And then some.

“If we start by eight, we should be done in the early afternoon.”

I was saving up for a car, for when I got my driver’s license over the summer. I needed every penny I could get, because Dad said I had to pay the insurance, too.

“Sure. See you Saturday morning, Mr. Renfro.”

“Crows. Filthy birds, even worse than pigeons. Started roosting on an office building, and we have to encourage them to leave.”

“Oh?” I was afraid to ask.

“We have to install bird spikes, stuff like that. I’ll tell you all about it Saturday.”

Saturday was a little chilly, and I was glad I had a jacket when my mom dropped me off at A Pest Free Palace’s office. Being here reminded me how much I hated this job. Probably too late to call in sick. I just had to think of the beautiful car I would buy with my saved-up money.

Mr. Renfro waved at my mom as he opened the door. She drove away. I wanted to run after her. But if I wanted my own car, I had to come up with the cash. I forced a smile.

“Morning, Mr. Renfro.”

“Morning. Everything’s already loaded up. Let’s get ‘er done.”

The crow-plagued office building was across our small town, at the edge of the city park. Fifteen minutes after setting off, we arrived. A few of the black birds watched us from the trees as we tacked down bird spikes, installed rotating reflectors, and hooked up a motion-activated predator call broadcaster. Sometimes they flapped around and cawed to each other, but mostly they just watched. I felt like I was trespassing.

As I walked across the roof to string some cable, I heard a loud crunch and the roof started to give way. I threw myself backward and landed on my butt. At least my foot didn’t go all the way through the shingles – just left a big dent. Renfro didn’t ask if I was okay, but he did take a picture to send to the building manager to they could get a roofer up to repair it. Priorities, I guess.

When we finally got the equipment installed, we sat under the awning over the office’s front door and took a break. I seriously wished I’d brought more than a PBJ sandwich and an apple.

“Now,” Renfro said between bites of his own meal. “There’s one more thing we have to do.”

I’m not sure why this made the food in my stomach curdle. Maybe it was the way he looked at the watching crows.

“Pigeons, sparrows, they’d see all that stuff and just go away. Not crows, though. They’re too smart for their own good. They’ll find ways around the spikes, and realize the reflectors aren’t a threat. Nope, crows, you have to send them a message.”

I didn’t like the way that sounded. I just nodded. Something bad was getting ready to happen, I could feel it coming.

Renfro packed up his lunch kit and took it to the truck. When he came back, he had a BB gun and a sparkly glass bead the size of a grape.

He chuckled softly. “They can’t resist something shiny. Watch this.”

Renfro rolled the bead out onto the grass beneath the tree where the crows were perched. They cocked their heads from one side to the other, trying to get a better look. After muttering amongst themselves, they hopped, branch by branch, to the lowest part of the tree. One must have been the lookout, because it stayed perched in the leaves and kept its beady little eyes on us while the other three flew down to investigate.

Renfro carefully sighted in on the middle crow in a group of three and pop! Down went the bird, struggling and flapping on the ground. The other three flew off, cawing loudly.

I don’t think you should have done that.

He took the bird by the feet and carried up onto the roof. He used a heavy-duty staple gun to secure it to the roof, out of sight from the street, but easy to see if you were a crow flying over the building. It squawked both times he stapled it, and I jumped each time. I couldn’t really see it, but I could guess what he was doing.

You really, really should not have done that.

“Welp, that’s it. The crows won’t roost here anymore.”

He gave me $100 in cash and dropped me at my house – it was on the way back to his shop. The bills were new and crisp, but they felt dirty.

I tried playing Assassin’s Craft online for a while, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the poor crow stapled to the roof. My mom had dabbled in reupholstering chairs, so I found her tack removal tool and stuck it in my pocket, pulling my shirt over the long bit of the mini-crowbar that stuck out of my jeans.

“I’m going to ride my bike,” I told my dad.

He barely looked up. “Don’t be gone too long if you want a ride to Randy’s at seven thirty.”

“I know.”

It took about twenty minutes to get to the office where we’d worked earlier, and dusk was just settling in. I didn’t have a ladder, but I pulled the fire escape down and used that to get up on the roof.

There were crows everywhere. They surrounded the bird that Renfro had stapled down, and they moved silently out of my way as I approached their fallen comrade.

I pulled up the staples, and the bird just laid there limply. I thought it was dead, but one of its eyes opened. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I couldn’t leave it there. I put it inside my shirt and tucked the shirt into my pants.

As I started toward the fire escape, a flash of something shiny and gold caught my eye. When I turned towards it, I noticed a huge hole in the roof, where I’d nearly fallen through earlier. What had made it collapse?

Curiosity was not my friend. I looked over the edge.

Lying on the polished concrete below was Mr. Renfro. What on earth could have brought him back to the office building? He knew the hole was there – he took a picture of it. I thought of the shiny object at the edge of the collapsed roof and swallowed hard.

I called 911and scurried down the fire escape.

The fire department broke through the glass doors, but it was too late for Mr. Renfro. They suddenly became very suspicious of what I was doing there. I called my mom to come get me, and I told them what had happened. Everything. I even pulled the half-dead crow out of my shirt to show them.

One of the police officers looked at him and said, “My girlfriend’s a wildlife rehabber. Why don’t you let me take him to her?”

I handed the bird over. What was I going to do with it?

Needless to say, I didn’t make it to Randy’s party. After taking such a long time to go to sleep, I was annoyed at being woken up at a quarter of six by cawing crows. Then came the pecking. There were birds pecking on my bedroom window. Irritated, I went to shoo them away.

I opened the window. “Let me sleep, you idiot birds!”

Something shiny glittered on the window sill. I rubbed my eyes and picked it up.

It was Mr. Renfro’s watch.

Memories of Water

Drip. Drip. Drip.

The water was only up to the edge of the middle slab of the driveway. Still far enough from the house. Too deep to drive through, though. If only the damned rain would stop. It’s been four days. Enough already.

Once, when it had slowed to a drizzle, Harvey tried going for a walk, just to get out of the house. It didn’t take long before the torrent returned, and coming home was like trying to move through a car wash.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

When had the roof started leaking? It was fine before. It wasn’t even that old. Maybe TV would take his mind off the water.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

He clicked through the channels. No. Nope. What? Three and a half times he cycled through before he settled on a comedy prank show – it didn’t really matter, he wanted the company more than entertainment. Harvey watched a shadow seep across the floor and pool just beyond the doorway. He looked up. She said nothing.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Harvey shook his head and looked back to the TV. When his glance returned to the doorway, she was gone. Should he have said something? Surely, she knew how much she’d hurt him when she’d left. Her picture, beaming in her wedding dress, smiled down at him from the opposite wall. She looked so much different now. Ravaging cancer had left her gaunt and scarred, and the once-vigorous Rita was a frail ghost of her former self.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

He stalked to the window and peered out. The water had come up maybe a few inches. Not much. The driveway was still more than half clear. He looked out the back. The runoff pool in the yard had stretched further and wider. It still wasn’t up to the deck, though. It should be fine. The rain had slowed down now, and there was food, water, and power in the house. Surely it would be over soon. It couldn’t rain forever. Could it?

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Harvey slumped into his chair. The transformer groaned and boomed. Lights flickered and went dark, TV pranksters silenced in mid-guffaw. He stared hopefully at the screen. During storms, it wasn’t uncommon for the power to go out, only to come back on a minute or two later when the backup circuit kicked in. The second hand staggered around the filthy face of the crooked plastic clock. The television remained dark.

He felt her come into the room behind him. Her hand on his shoulder was ice. The cold frosted his heart, and it cracked along old fault lines.

“I’m glad you came back.”

For a long time, she did not reply. Finally, in a voice so soft he wondered if he’d imagined it, she said, “I know.”

Harvey closed his eyes, yearning for what used to be. He ached to sweep her into his arms, but his body refused to move. A solitary tear crept down his unshaven face.

Her bloodless fingers caressed his cheek and the wood floor sighed as she left the room.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

He emptied the pot into the bathtub and set it back under the leak. Drops of water clattered against the empty aluminum container. The noise jangled his nerves. His jaw clenched. Harvey strode out into the living room and jerked the front door open. Rain tumbled from the sky in silver shards that shattered on the ground and flowed like quicksilver to join the roiling lake that was slowly but surely swallowing the driveway. As long as the levee holds…

Drip. Drip. Drip.

He needed to talk to her. Harvey knew that. But he was afraid. Afraid of her cold silence. Afraid of her sunken eyes and hollow cheeks. He shuddered. Things weren’t his fault. He was healthy, for his age. He had needs. The girls didn’t understand. Harvey’s eyes fell on the shadow-drenched hallway that led toward the master bedroom. Not yet. Breakfast dishes needed cleaning. Not that tidying up had ever been a priority for him – yesterday’s dishes also still needed washing. But it was a handy excuse for putting off the inevitable.

Harvey shuffled into the kitchen. Peeling linoleum, worn through to the concrete below in spots, hinted at the sunny yellow of better days. The gas water heater didn’t need electricity, and he put the stopper in the sink to soak the crusty dishes a few minutes before he began his half-hearted scrubbing.

Wiping a plate with the tattered dishrag reminded him of washing his girls in the sink when they were tiny babies – first Carla, then two years later, Celia. So small, so fragile. Both were married with daughters of their own, but they were still his girls. Too bad neither had spoken to him after their mother left. They blamed him.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Water splashing into the pot was louder here and it echoed in his head. He was only half-way through the washing up when he couldn’t take the noise of it any longer. Flinging the cloth into the murky dishwater, he padded down the hall to the bedroom he’d shared all those years with Rita. Wet carpet squished beneath his feet, splattering on the walls. Dark footprints trailed behind him down the corridor.

The room was submerged in twilight. Gloom twisted behind the doors and flowed from under the furniture. Harvey shivered, but whether the chill in the air was real or imagined, he couldn’t tell. The tap was running in the tub. Dread weighed on Harvey like sodden wool, and he struggled to breathe.

Still, he forced one foot in front of the other. One step. Two. Twelve steps from the bedpost to the master bath. Steam fogged the mirror above the vanity. Water splashed on the floor from the overflowing tub. His heart pounded in his ears as he rushed in to turn off the faucet. Where was she?

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Déjà vu grabbed Harvey’s insides so hard he wanted to puke. He plunged his arm into the near-scalding water, searching for Rita underneath the raft of bubbles. She wasn’t there. Gradually, he became aware of someone watching him. His breath caught in his chest when he whirled and saw her standing behind him. She looked different somehow, but also the same, wearing that same broken smile she seemed to reserve for him alone.

Rita raised her hands toward him, palms up, beckoning. Harvey slid his feet on the treacherously slick tile toward her, then took her icy hands. He closed his eyes as her gelid breath fell on his face when she leaned in and kissed him.

Euphoria exploded within Harvey and pooled in rainbow puddles of bliss. It was like the first time he’d ever kissed her. He opened his mouth wider, greedy for more. The ecstasy faded, and Harvey went from floating to falling.

He opened his lids, but instead of the familiar soft brown eyes he was expecting, what he saw was black. Soulless black where the iris should have been, merciless black where he expected white. Harvey whimpered and jerked away, feet skidding out from under him. He saw stars as his head smacked against the side of the tub, felt hot blood running down his scalp.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

The funeral director closed the side door behind the departing clergyman and stole a glance at his watch. The cremation chamber warm-up cycle was almost complete. Mourners stood up and began milling around. The two daughters stood near the main door. No one stood near the casket.

He watched as the pitiful handful of dearly beloved ebbed toward the door.

“I’m so sorry, Carla. It must be very hard losing your father so soon after your mom.” The man was somewhere in the grey area between middle-aged and elderly.

“Thank you, Uncle Ike.”

“Good riddance.” mumbled the young woman next to Carla.

The woman clinging to Ike’s arm dabbed at her eyes. “Celia! Is that really necessary? He was your father.”

“Our mother’s dead because of him, in case you’ve forgotten, Aunt Beulah.”

“It was an accident!”

“He was there while she drowned in the bathtub!”

Carla held up her hands. “Please!” She blinked back tears. “It doesn’t matter now, does it? Can we please just finish up the service?”

The funeral director’s watch vibrated. He slid in between Carla and her uncle. “It’s time.”

Carla nodded. Celia grinned.

The director pulled the fancy drape off the plain container that held Harvey’s body. Why is he wet? Somebody has really screwed up. What is that black spot on his collar? Surely it’s not mold. At least no one in the family noticed. There would be a staff meeting about his on Monday. Completely unacceptable.  

He closed the lid and pushed a button. The conveyor that held the flimsy coffin started to move, dragging Harvey closer to the eager flames of the crematorium. Water droplets fell from the corner of the box, disappearing into the dark carpet.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

The Seventh Circle

Mr. Hughes loved Halloween.

He once told me that it had been his wife’s favorite holiday, and he kept up the decorating to honor her after she’d died. An elaborate shrine to the dead, if you will. Instead of “Sweets for the sweet,” “Deads for the dead?” But I digress.

Every year, he created a different theme. Last year had been the best yet. A realistic cemetery erupted from his yard one morning. Bats hung from the trees, and giant spider webs stretched between tombstones. On Halloween night, he added a fog machine, and a hidden projector threw stalking specters against a nearly invisible mesh. Younger children were too scared to come close to the trick-or-treat bowl, but the older ones loved it – it was almost like a free haunted house.

He always made a costume that matched the decorations. One year, I helped him pass out candy, and he was surprisingly good at making me up like a zombie. I caught sight of myself in the mirror and it terrified me for a moment before I realized that it was me. The makeup was too realistic, too perfect. Made me think of the nightmares I used to have when I was in the hospital. I didn’t sleep that night. Or the next one. By the time I got to fifty-six hours, I was starting to hallucinate. I collapsed on the sofa and slept twelve hours straight. But at least I was too tired to dream. Another plus: my house was incredibly clean and my closets were more organized than they’d ever been.

The year after that, he did a werewolf scene. A disguised post supported a leaping canine monster, and I couldn’t tell you how creepy it was to go to my mailbox and be faced with a werewolf in mid-attack. Did I mention that it moved? It gave me the heebie-jeebies. Reminded me too much of the time my aunt’s big dog attacked me when I was little. Still have the scars on my jaw. I even go the long way around out of the neighborhood so I don’t have to drive past that monstrosity on the way to work. I couldn’t even look out the living room window in the evening – those glowing eyes haunted my nightmares.

Aside from his Halloween obsession, Mr. Hughes isn’t a bad neighbor. If you don’t mind obsessive grass mowing. At seven in the morning. But he always smiles and waves when he sees me. Although I suspect he might have been the one to complain to the HOA about my edging. That’s how the lawn service company does it. Not my fault, is it?

But this year, he’s got the most over-the-top tableau I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something, given his decorations. It looks like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Layers of ragged nylon fabric dance in the breeze of a fan, simulating flames. Damned souls writhe in the fires, and motion sensor-triggered sound effects wail in anguish. An enormous three-faced Lucifer head with pointed teeth and gaping maws was tethered between the two oak trees.

The night he put out the display, I woke up screaming. It had been months since that happened. I had to call my shrink at three AM. I think it’s probably been two years since the last time I had to do that.

Mr. Hughes. It was almost like he knew. Knew my most vulnerable spot, then gleefully sucker punched me. Was he trying to drive me insane? He couldn’t possibly know. But why? Why on earth would he choose this scene?

Surely, if he had been there, listening to my wife and kids screaming as the house blazed around them, he wouldn’t have done it. There was nothing I could have done as I lay on the ground, grass slick with my own blood, jagged bone ends sticking out of my thighs. I had tried to drag myself to the front door, but my legs were worse than useless. An explosion – later I found it was a gas line – shattered the windows and roared through the house like the Devil himself. I had been upstairs and got thrown through a picture window into the front yard. I lived. Not sure if it was a blessing or a curse. I had survived Hell, and for what? To be mocked by Halloween decorations? But this year, I could do something about it. I called up Mr. Hughes and offered to help with the final touches.

***

Sunday, Halloween morning, was cool and dull. Thin clouds lazed by, briefly exposing the wan sun. Clots of neighbors paused on the sidewalk, admiring Mr. Hughes’ pièce de résistance. A very realistic corpse had been added to one of the jaws of the three-faced Satan. The body’s head and neck vanished into dark mouth, and the arms were raised, hands against the teeth that were trying to chomp it down. The grass had been torn up, as if there had been an epic struggle. The character wore the kind of robe common to Christmas pageants – perhaps he was meant to be Judas? But I’m not really sure. Almost as soon as I’d arrived at Mr. Hughes’ house the prior evening, he’d offered me whiskey from an expensive, imported bottle. We each had a shot, then another. We went outside to look at the display, and he told me that this would probably be the last year of his Halloween extravaganzas. I agreed, fingering the length of clothesline I had in my pocket.

Watching from my darkened window, I could see that the neighbors’ concern increased to panic as Halloween evening stretched on, and Mr. Hughes had not appeared to pass out candy. I saw Mrs. Montoya, his other next door neighbor, standing on the sidewalk in front of his house, talking on her cell phone. I went to see what she was up to.

She ended the call before I got out there, and as I got closer, I could see that she was crying.

“What’s wrong, Mrs. Montoya?” I kept it formal – I didn’t know her all that well.

She sniffled before she turned to me. “Ernie seems to be missing – he hasn’t come out with candy, and he won’t pick up the phone. I’ve called the police. I’m afraid he may need to go to the hospital.”

Too late for that. “Really? Why?”

“He was diagnosed with an aggressive pancreatic cancer. He only has a few months to live.”

“I didn’t know. I’m very sorry to hear that.” You have no idea how sorry.

I sat on the curb and started to laugh. I was still laughing when the police arrived.

Punch

By Emil G. Skrubb

Today, I learned to never trust Halloween dances. They may seem innocent at first, but never, ever fall into their trap.

Allow me to explain.

It was Friday, October 30th, and everyone was hyped up for the big Halloween dance after school. I didn’t plan to attend, since none of my friends were going to be there, but everyone kept on trying to convince me that it would be fun.

“Why aren’t you coming to the dance? It’ll be fun!” they all said. I didn’t even know these people. It was almost like they were in some sort of Halloween-dance cult. Seriously, why can’t people mind their own business? It’s not like I had five bucks to spare, anyway. I needed that money to buy snacks from the vending machine! I could be doing things with my life instead of wasting my money at some boring dance. I had been to these kinds of things before, and they were rarely anything but flashing lights and LOTS of noise.

The straw that broke the camel’s back is when even the teachers started nagging me to go. “Who’s going to the Halloween dance tonight?” they would ask. Most everyone’s hands went up. They tried all sorts of things to convince us to show up, including offering extra credit and free candy if we came.

“Fine, I’ll go to your Halloween party,” I sighed, exhausted from everyone annoying me and trying to convince me. It became clear that they wouldn’t give up anytime soon. Besides, I really needed that extra credit.

After the last bell rang and we were let out of class, I grabbed my things from my locker and walked downstairs hesitantly. There was still a chance to get on the bus and leave! Then, I remembered the extra credit. I didn’t really have much of a choice at this point. I walked up to the admission table, paid my five dollars, and got a bright pink wristband.

“Have fun!” grinned the teacher in charge of admission. I was positive that I wouldn’t. I walked into the cafeteria, which was covered in cheesy Halloween decorations that were probably from the local dollar store. It was absolutely full of people, every one of them screaming and dancing. I made my way to the refreshments, possibly the only redeeming factor of this so-called party, and tried not to get trampled in the process. Unfortunately, all the good food had been eaten already, and all that was left were the less popular choices. I decided to pass. I mean, it’s not like any of it was healthy enough to justify eating it, anyway. Just then, they started blasting my least favorite song at full volume. I desperately tried to cover my ears, but I could still hear it clearly.

All of a sudden, loud, grating feedback played over the speakers. Nobody else seemed to notice; they were too caught up in the party. Then, it happened again. They should really get their sound system fixed!

I suddenly got this overwhelming feeling that something was horribly, horribly wrong. I couldn’t put my finger what it was, but I felt like I had to get out of there. I ran to the front door, but I was blocked by the principal.

“Leaving so soon? Don’t go yet! We’re just getting started!”

I screamed and ran to the other door. I tried to open it, but it was locked! Just then, the principal took the mic.

“It seems that someone wants to leave early. We can’t let THAT happen, can we?”

All eyes turned to me. Everyone had this disturbing, devilish grin. “Of course we can’t!”

They all surrounded me, still smiling like maniacs. “Don’t be afraid! It’ll only hurt a little!”

“W-what will?! What are you going to do to me?!” I cried.

“Oh, you’ll see!” they replied cheerfully, as if this was a completely normal thing that they all seemed to enjoy.

They took me backstage, right by the speakers, and pulled out knives. Lots and lots of knives. They had what appeared to be a punch bowl with them.

Well, now I know what caused the feedback. And it wasn’t the sound system, after all…

If you ever go to Halloween parties, remember not to drink the punch. But in the event that you do… Well, you’ll see!

AND, not OR

To the young black woman who stopped by my table last Saturday at the Rosenberg Kroger:

It broke my heart when you felt you needed to lower your voice and add a disclaimer of “I don’t mean to offend you” when you told me that you belonged to a Meet Up group called “Black Girls Rock.” I know that you don’t know me, but you felt it was safer to assume I would find that offensive and stepped back a little from owning it, and that made me sad. Yes, there are many beautiful, amazing black girls who absolutely rock. Step into that light and shine!

Now I’m not talking about hate or supremacist groups here who think they are better than anyone else and blame all of their and the world’s problems on some Other, someone Not Them. Those are an entirely different animal. Those haters excepted, there is not a thing in the world wrong with celebrating special qualities of a group – black girls, gifted children, marathon runners, homeless shelter volunteers, Area V Eventers, FFPS Soccer teams, and countless others – all have a group identity, a set of abilities, skills, or traits worth lauding. Recognizing one group is not equal to denigrating others.

Because we are not interchangeable cogs in the machinery of life. Everybody has their own custom blend of traits, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and they bring their own unique gifts to the world. Celebrate what makes you you! Taking joy in things you love and stepping into your personal power does not detract from others or take away from them. On the contrary, the more joyful and centered we are as individuals, the stronger our communities, and the better our society.

 

How I Made my Gorgon Headpiece

1. I started with armature mesh. It can be found in most craft stores with the polymer clay supplies. I molded the mesh onto my head, shaping it to cover my scalp.

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Mesh step

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2. I used fiberfill to add contour and shape to the mesh.

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3. I took plaster-impregnated gauze strips (also available in the poly clay aisle) and covered both the mesh and fiberfill, and let that dry for 48 hrs.

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4. After experimenting with various materials, I found some 3/8″ mesh tubing. I used 3 packs (60 yds), and I cut the tubing into 12″ – 18″ lengths.

5. I fed a black pipe cleaner (chenille stem) into each tube and bent and twisted into a serpentine shape.

 6. I used a bamboo skewer to poke a hole in the plaster, inserted about ½” of the stem into the headpiece, and hot-glued it down.

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7. I glued a ½” pompom in the open end of each tube.

 8. I glued 2 size 8 beads on each pompom for eyes.

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9. I painted the plaster black and applied three coats of varnish.

10. I glued felt to the inside to make it more comfortable, and keep plaster crumbs out of my hair.

 

Dragon Killer Trailer

Belinda Tate is at it again. As The Devil’s Advocate (the third installment of the Marti Keller Mysteries) opens, she is planning to launch the second book in her Dragonfire series (under her pen name, Coda Sterling) during the Space City Sizzlin’ Summer Literary Conference at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Dragon Killer picks up right where Dragon by Knight left off.  Tristan and Lisabeth are on the deliciously tropical Island of the Dragon Council, preparing to return to Galveston. When a meeting with Tristan’s adolescent son goes bad, things quickly spiral out of control, fueled by treachery and political infighting, and leaving Lisabeth wondering if she and Tristan will live long enough to make it to the alter.

And it’s a good thing Belinda likes mystery and suspense, because she herself finds a target painted squarely on her back during the convention. She’s counting on Marti to solve the mystery before Belinda’s number is up.

Purveyor of Fine Collocations