Dime

Willie Colón and Rubén Blades

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The Forgotten

The Cafe Beano was a coffee shop on the corner of a busy avenue not far from the apartment building, a place I was convinced I had been before, though no memory would come to me. Yet I knew where it was and could picture its cluttered interior, with tables and chairs strewn about seemingly at random, could smell the bitter coffee and hear the chatter of the menagerie of people gathered within its walls. It was the specificity of these memories that seemed the strangest of all to me. Why could I recall with exacting detail everything about the Beano, but not remember having been there or anywhere else in this city, wherever it was? It was if someone had planted the memory whole within me, but left aside all the context, all the things that made a memory personal. This recollection could have been anyone’s, just as I could be anyone, and that was what bothered me most of all.

Meredith might be able to help there, I reasoned, as I walked back through the park to the coffee shop. All those things which had seemed so significant earlier—the couple talking, the movement of the light through the tree branches, the damp smell of the earth—I noted now in a glancing way, giving them no real thought, my mind on how to proceed with Meredith. Did I reveal to her that I had no memory of who I was? Could I trust her with that information? Best to wait until I better understood what she wanted and go from there, I decided.

I had a sudden moment of panic as I stepped into the Cafe Beano, glancing about at the faces of those sitting at the tables or standing in line for coffee, and realized I had no idea what Meredith looked like. If she was already here I would have no way of finding her—how had this not occurred to me before, I wondered, feeling my face go red—and there would be no hiding my memory loss from her. Realizing there was nothing else for it now that I was here, I went and stood in line, fidgeting and glancing about to see if anyone in the place was trying to meet my eyes.

As I waited a slim woman, with hair that wavered between blond and brown, depending on the light, pulled tight into a dancer’s bun that peaked atop her head, came alongside me and said in a quiet voice, so unlike the one she had used on the phone, “I’ll get a table at the back. Get me a latte.”

I nodded, our eyes meeting and lingering, before she slipped by, disappearing behind me. That brief moment of contact, electric with unspoken thoughts and emotions I could not even begin to parse, unsettled me deeply. The low level of anxiety I had felt from the moment I stepped into the cafe, overfull with people, talk and heat, blossomed within me now that this confrontation was at hand. It was all too much, too quickly. I still hadn’t recovered from my first glimpse of myself, still did not feel comfortable, even to stand in line, my body, too large or small or just wrong. And now I was out under the unforgiving gaze of others, who I imagined could somehow pierce through whatever disguise I had on and see the falseness at my core.

I had no recollection of ordering the coffees, I simply walked away with the cups in my hands. My breathing was unsteady and sounded loud in my ears and my hands were numb, so that with each step I worried I would drop the cups. Stopping to gather myself I saw Meredith watching me from a table by the window at the back of the cafe, her face unreadable. The table was near a door that led out to a patio where a few smokers lingered, and I noted that she would have a clear view of both entrances, as well as the whole of the place. That was not an accident, I thought to myself, as I started toward her.

What is the matter with you?” she said as I sat down. “I thought you were going to faint right there.”

I shrugged, passing her the latte, and took the lid off mine to blow on it. “Just had a moment.”

What does that mean?” she said, and then waved a hand in exasperation. “Never mind. We’ve got more important things to talk about.”

You said they were here looking for us?”

Meredith leaned forward, her eyes darting around, pitching her voice low. “You remember what I told you about them?”

Who?” I said automatically, forgetting myself. I flushed red, almost wincing as Meredith’s steady eyes tried to read mine.

I’m not going to say their name,” she said, as though I could not be a greater fool. “You know who. They’ve brought a Seeker over here.”

Over here?” I said. Something about the way she emphasized those words drew my attention.

Here,” she said. “If they have a Seeker they will find us. It’s a matter of time.”

I nodded as though I understood, but I could see the doubt plain on Meredith’s face. She seemed about to say something else when her gaze was drawn to the cafe’s main entrance. Seeing her eyes transfixed, horror and fear growing in them, I turned to look and saw two men standing in the doorway casting their hard eyes around the room as if they were looking for someone. They were massive in size, tall and broad shouldered, their muscle evident even beneath the long jackets they wore. Except they were not jackets I saw, as I looked closer, more like robes, black in color, except for the red symbol upon the shoulder. Something tugged at my mind as I stared at them, trying to remember where I had seen the figure before, a thought almost taking shape.

It did not come, for the two men stepped aside and a third came into view. He was much shorter than they, with a sleight build, wearing a similar robe, though his was dark grey. His head was almost entirely covered by a grey scarf, the wrapping not unlike that for a turban, leaving only his eyes visible, and those only after a fashion, for he was wearing what appeared to be aviator goggles. The lenses were a deep violet that the light reflected strangely off of. It seemed impossible that their wearer could see anything out of them. There were no straps extending from the goggles and, as I looked closer to determine how they were kept in place, I realized they were fused to his skin in some manner.

As I was wondering how that could be possible, and what use they could have, Meredith was standing and taking me by the arm.

Don’t look at them,” she whispered, as she pulled me from my chair toward the door. “We have to go.”

Dumbfounded by everything that was happening I let her lead me out the door, though my body felt limp and it was a struggle to move.

Quickly,” Meredith said, her hand pressing hard on my arm as she led me down the street. “Don’t look back.”

I was unable to stop myself, though, I had to see the man with the impossible eyes and the robes with the rune I could almost recall having seen before. As I turned to get my last glimpse, Meredith jerking my shoulder hard and swearing at me under her breath, I could just see three of them. They had moved to the center of the cafe, their presence drawing curious stares from those sitting nearby. The man in the violet goggles was staring out the window in our direction. I felt a chill run up my spine as I could feel his unseen eyes upon me.

They see us,” I said to Meredith.

We’ll have to run.”

——–

This is the third part of The Forgotten, a science fiction thriller. A new section will be published here every Thursday.

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The Forgotten

I crawled from the bathroom, choking back sobs, my whole body shaking with fear and revulsion. I wanted to peel off this skin, cut off my nose and lips, all of my face. Perhaps beneath it all was the person I was, not this simulacrum. But who was that exactly? I had no sense, no idea of where to even begin. My mind was blank, my thoughts as unfamiliar as the face that stared back at me, though they tantalized at moments, almost seeming to be my own. My instincts had returned me to this place, it was all there somewhere within me. For now I remained a foreign country to myself.

When I had recovered from my shock enough to get to my feet, I went to the kitchen to see if there was anything to drink. I fumbled through the cupboards haphazardly, my search of the apartment only moments before already forgotten, and came across a bottle of rye and some packets of chai tea. I opted for the tea, not trusting my stomach with the alcohol, though the thought of oblivion was tempting. I found the kettle and filled it with water and plugged it in, spending a few anxious moments waiting for it to come to a boil.

A phone began to ring as I waited for the tea to finish steeping. I located it in the bedroom atop a dresser amidst a scattering of detritus: loose change, receipts, and sunglasses, all stray pieces of a lost life. Looking at the display I saw a name and a number and, while I tried to call forth from my memory any details about the Meredith whose name appeared there, the call went to voicemail. The name did not seem familiar to me, but the number was a local one. How I knew that I could not say, but a quick search of the cell for its number showed the same area code and I thought it likely that my instincts were correct again.

I nodded to myself and went to have my tea, taking the phone with me. Opening up the missed call on the display I went to Meredith’s contact and saw that the only information I had on her was this phone number. Flipping through the log it appeared that she called quite often, every two or three days in most cases. Strangely, or so I thought, there were no outgoing calls from this phone to her and no texts in either direction. She was always calling here and the conversations were short, no more than ten minutes. Unusual for a friendship, so an acquaintance then. But what sort?

Did I dare phone her back in my current state? I needed answers, but it was impossible to say whether or not she had any, or whether I could trust her. The fact that there were no outgoing calls or texts to her number seemed significant to me. As I was mulling these questions the phone started to ring, vibrating insistently on the table. Meredith again. I stared at the display, a hundred competing thoughts racing through my mind, all ending with the face that had stared back at me in the mirror and the depthless black that had followed.

Hello,” I said, my hands shaking as I held the phone to my ear.

Where the hell have you been David?” said the voice on the other end, without preamble.

I was out for a walk,” I said, after I had recovered from my surprise. My voice, strained and high, filled with tension and adrenaline, sounded more alien than ever to my ears. No more than the name she had just uttered though, which I immediately felt could not be mine.

What a load of…” her voice trailed off in disgust. “Whatever. Look, we need to meet now, as soon as you can.”

I hesitated, unsure what to make of her request. Whether due to her manner, or the clear anxiety that underlay it, I did not trust her. But her familiarity, her presumption to ask for a rendezvous, suggested we had done so before. Would refusing strike her as out of character? Would she insist on meeting, or worse, come over to the apartment? I did not want to face her now, not when I was still out of sorts, without any bearings. If I could delay her somehow. She did not give me the chance.

I don’t care if you don’t want to,” she said, cutting into my silence and reading my thoughts. “We have to meet and we can’t afford to wait. They’re coming for us. Do you understand? They’ve found us and they’re here.”

Who?” I said, the question sounding stupid, even to my ears.

What is the matter with you? I’m not talking about this over the phone for god’s sake.”

Sorry, Meredith. You just caught me at a bad time. I’m a little distracted is all.”

There was a pause and I could hear her swear under her breath. “Forget about her. We’ve got bigger problems now. Do you know the Beano?”

Sure,” I said without hesitation, and was startled to realize that I did know exactly the place she was referring to.

Good. I can be there in ten minutes. You better be there too.”

She hung up before I could say anything further. I held the phone at my ear, listening to the vacuum on the other end, in a complete daze. At last I set it down and with an unsteady hand took a sip of my now lukewarm tea. David. It just did not sound right. Nothing felt right about me, it was like an itch I could not scratch. There was something not right about Meredith too, I could feel it through the phone. I didn’t trust her. The threat she had mentioned, was that real? It was impossible for me to judge. What seemed certain was that she knew plenty about me—the girl she had mentioned for one—and she might very well be able to help with all the questions I had. But did I want to hear the answers?

——–

This is the second part of The Forgotten, a science fiction thriller. A new section will be published here every Thursday.

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The Faulkenbourg Place

There were several hired men who passed through the Faulkenbourg Place in the following years. None of them stayed for long, though none admitted to feeling any odd sensations while living in the house. It was the nature of job that there would be so much overturn, at least that was what David’s father told him. At the same time the farm prospered and, along with the rest of their neighbors, their family had money to spend. They put electricity and plumbing in the house not long after, removing the last vestiges of its homesteader roots.

What truly marked the passage of time though was the worsening of his mother’s condition. There was the day when she ceased to rise to see he and Eric off in the morning, the day when his father started to make their suppers after he came in from work, the day when she could no longer walk without help, and, worst of all, the day when he had to keep score in their nightly game of gin rummy. Though it was never said by anyone, David understand that these were the way stations on the path to oblivion, that his mother was dying, as Albert Faulkenbourg had died, as the steers did when they were sent to market in the fall.

Death did not seem a strange occurrence to him, not when he was surrounded by it daily. He assisted in killing the hens and pigs when the time came each year and had spent many an afternoon watching hawks lazily circling the sky above a tractor as it moved through the field, stirring up the mice and voles below. This, he understood, was a different kind of death, a momentous one, the others merely profane. It wasn’t the fact of the death that told him this, dying seemed much the same regardless of who or what was doing it, it was everyone else’s reactions to it.

Visitors that came to the farm, even the various hired men, would speak in hushed tones or with a forced joviality when his mother was about, her condition obvious at a glance. They would not meet her eyes and then stare at her when they thought she wasn’t looking. David suspected she noticed it all, though she never said. His father, taciturn by nature, turned ever more inward as his mother’s condition worsened, some days speaking no more than a dozen words. Eric, too, retreated within himself, passing his hours at home in his room, not even spending time with David. He was hurt by this change in his brother, for in their younger days they had been inseparable.

Unlike the others, David was drawn to his mother, spending as much time as he could with her. He became the one who unfailingly helped her around the house as that became more difficult. He found reasons to be near her, to touch her, crawling into her lap to sit, though she found such contact painful in her condition. His father would yell at him to leave her be when he would see him sitting in her arms and he would slink away, only to return later as soon as his father had gone away. The smell of her fascinated him, musty and rank, as though an unseen decay had already begun within her. As the end neared and she spent more and more time in bed, neither sleeping nor truly awake, David would secrete himself in the hall outside her bedroom and stay for hours listening to her labored breathing.

He was fourteen when death granted her the peace life had not. Just as her illness had changed and reordered the cosmos of the farm, so her passing did again. His father withdrew ever more inward, working blindly in the fields, and in the evenings retreating to his office or to shop, where he would tinker mindlessly on some project or another. It fell to Eric to take care of them, once the neighboring wives stopped bringing over meals they had prepared, getting David up in the morning for school, helping him with his lunch and making supper for them when they got home. It was a role he resented for the burden it placed upon him, and yet fiercely protected whenever David would try to care for himself.

For his part, David felt lost in this new world, so he avoided both his father and brother as much as he could. He would wander among the three rows of trees, evergreens and caraganas, which divided the farm from the road, playing in imagined realms in the shade of the branches. Days when he knew the farm hand was out working or in town, he would take his bike and ride the mile to the Faulkenbourg Place, sitting in one of the rooms on the floor, staring off into nothing. In those long hours he felt it speak to him, its soundless reverberations echoing through the center of his being.

Even as he turned fifteen and started high school, a time when he knew he should have moved beyond these childish things, he continued to venture to the house, its very presence reassuring him. One Sunday, with his father and brother having retreated into their respective worlds and the farm hand gone home for the weekend, he went over to pass the dreary afternoon. He stayed for hours, losing track of time, watching the sun move through the sky by the changing light coming through the windows. Though he knew he should leave, that the farm hand would be returning soon, he could not bring himself to stir from his reverie, until he heard the truck wheels on the driveway.

In an instant he was on his feet, sweat on his forehead and panic in his mind. He stayed frozen for a moment, unsure of what to do, knowing only that he couldn’t go out the front door without being seen. The windows were no good either. He would need time to get their screens off and their being open would be evidence enough of his presence. Had he been a little older and a little more confident he might have met Grant at the door with an apology and some excuse – no butter in the house – which he would likely have accepted without question.

Unable to think of anything else, he fled to the bathroom, climbing into the tub and ducking down so that his head did not peek over the side. This proved to be a poor hiding place, for after the long drive from Bonneyville, the first thing the farm hand did was go to the bathroom. He had his fly unzipped before he noticed David.

“Goddamn Christ,” he said with a jump. For a terrifying moment David thought he was going to hit him. Instead he walked out without saying another word. David could hear him on the phone to his father. He stayed where he was, letting the disaster continue to unfold, knowing that Grant was on the other side of the door if he tried to leave.

In a few minutes he heard another truck pulling into the yard and the front door opening, the screen door clanging against the side of the house. No words passed between the two men and then his father was there, looming above where he lay crouched miserably in the tub. His father leaned down and cuffed him hard on the ear, the other side of his head hitting sharply against the tub. Without needing to be told David got up and followed him out, past Grant whose eyes he could not meet, and then home, neither of them speaking.

from Smeagol Blues

Available in the collection On the Far Horizon

The Forgotten

I remembered nothing until that moment, as I was walking through the park, when awareness seized my being. There was only darkness before—not even darkness, something without substance at all. I emerged, whole but flailing, my feet carrying me forward before any thought or awareness had taken form. It was as though all that had been left behind, scraped away, in my journey from the void to this place.

The park was the sort one could find in any city, with grass and trees, footpaths winding their way through the greenery, and benches set at intervals upon which people sat. The surrounding neighborhood was equally unremarkable, a mixture of houses and apartment buildings with not a landmark among them. There was what looked like a school at the park’s far end, with a yard fenced off from the rest of the park and turned into soccer and baseball fields.

I had no memories. How had I come to be here? Clearly I had been walking from somewhere, with some destination in mind. These facts eluded me.

My perception seemed heightened, my senses keen to the slightest shifts in shadow and light, a breeze the cause of astonishment. It was as though I had been denied these basic sensations for so long that a miniscule change appeared momentous. A cacophony of sound reached my ears: the symphony of leaves rustling, the hum of cars on pavement, and indecipherable murmurs of people around me. As they passed by I was entranced by their expressions, fleeting emotions passing across their face which it seemed only I was aware of.

Ahead of me a dog barked, quick and sharp, cutting through the clatter of sound and drawing my focus. It was led by a couple, perhaps in their early fifties. I followed them as they went along the path, listening to their conversation, though it was in a language I did not recognize. He appeared to be Japanese, though I could not have said why I felt that was so, and I was certain that he was not speaking in that language. That seemed significant to me and I listened to each intonation the couple made, certain somehow that if I could unravel this code I could understand what was happening.

No meaning came to me, and when they turned to the left to continue on the path around the park, I kept going straight, heading down the nearest street. At the next corner I turned right, my legs seeming to remember what my mind could not. I trusted them, going where instinct led me, trying to empty my mind of any thought. Eventually I came to an apartment building, five or six stories tall, white and sickly green colors marking its walls. I stood uneasily by the door until I fished in my pocket and found a set of keys, one of which worked, so I let myself in.

The air in the lobby was very warm and sticky, as if someone had left the heat on, even though it was summer. There was an odd, malingering odor; old carpets and humidity, I thought. The lobby was filled with fake plants and battered furniture from a past age. There was a mail room to my left and a man stepped out from it, a clutch of fliers in his hand, startling me. He seemed not to notice my surprise, giving me the briefest of glances and a nod. Had he recognized me, or was he simply being polite?

I followed him upstairs, automatically continuing on to the third floor as he stepped off at the second, and found myself before room 304. I tried my keys, knocking on the door as I unlocked it, and entered.

Hello,” I called out tentatively, the sound of my voice shocking me with its strangeness.

I ignored that for moment, ignored the creeping sense of terror I felt at all the blank spaces that my thoughts fell into. Instead I explored the apartment, trying desperately to find something I recognized and could cling to in this storm of the unfamiliar. I went from the kitchen to the living room to the bedroom, opening closets and drawers as I went. There were several bookshelves and I studied their contents, as well as the CD’s and movies spread out on the floor by the television and stereo. None of it stirred anything in me. They all seemed very typical, though I had no idea why that should seem so to me.

As I felt panic begin to seize me, my throat constricting and my hands going numb, a thought occurred to me and I went into the bathroom. I stood in the darkness for a moment, gathering myself, before flicking on the light. At the sight of those blinking eyes, that open mouth, those lips and that hair, I fell to the floor. I was numb everywhere, the blood seeming to have left my body. I clenched my arms around my chest and shivered.

There was a voice repeating something over and over. At first it startled me, and I wondered if someone had followed me, or if I had turned on the television somehow, but then I realized it was my voice, that my mouth was moving, my tongue and lips forming those words. It did not seem possible. None of this was possible. I knew nothing of myself, not my name, who I was, or what I was doing here, but I knew, with a certainty so absolute it terrified me, that the person my gaze in the mirror was not me.

——–

This is the first part of The Forgotten, a science fiction thriller. A new section will be published here every Thursday.

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The Disciple’s Inquiries

It had been raining on and off throughout the morning, a band of dark, heavy clouds settling over the city. For the moment it had halted, though there was a slight mist in the air. A miserable day, biting, with the wind and a damp that rotted at the bone. Disciple Hieran tramped, disgusted, through the streets to the Morning grounds, his foul mood made worse by the sight of two palanquins passing him on the road. He should have been used to it by now, but it still galled him that the Disciple of the Adept of Lastl did not have the coin to afford a rented palanquin in the rain. He cursed, not the first time, the Council for joining him to the greatest miser in the Realm. Not just a miser but a doddering old fool, more interested in his scrolls and specimens than the alkemyc arts. So, rather than practicing the art for which he had suffered years of training and disappointments, Hieran spent his days as the Adept’s errand boy.

No, it had all been disappointment and dreams denied since he had come, a supplicant, to the Council eight years ago. He had barely been a man then, though he was already a thaumaturge of some repute in his village Quilran, near Takyl. People came from villages over two days’ journey away just to have him heal their broken bones and the like. Unaware that there were men such as he in villages across the Realm, though few who were prodigies in thaumaturgy as he was, Hieran got it into his head that he should appeal to the Council to join their ranks.

And so, at fifteen, he had set out from home for Craitol, the Qraul’s city, to plead his case before the Council of Adepts. It was a harrowing journey for one who had hardly gone more than a day or so from Quilran. He spent a night in Takyl and was robbed and beaten and then spent another week on the streets of the city, begging for food and trying to find someone who would pay for his skills. When he had gained what he thought was enough coin for the journey he left Takyl, setting out for Craitol. His first two nights he spent at the roadside inns eating and drinking his fill and taking a girl to his room, only to find that his funds were nearly exhausted and the opportunities to earn more, which he had foolishly assumed would be there, were nonexistent. The rest of his journey he spent his nights in ditches under Senteur’s heavens and even had to spend two days outdoors in Craitol itself until he managed to convince the gatekeepers at the Council’s school that he was not some mere vagrant.

Fours years as a pupil passed with rigorous study of alkemya and its related arts. When he was deemed ready for elevation of rank, he submitted himself to the Council for testing, a grueling two-day affair where he had to demonstrate his abilities at drawing forth the astral aspects of various elements and shaping them into seeds of alkemy. He was judged to be of the highest proficiency and was admitted to the Council’s inner circle, though they felt him lacking in some critical faculties and so named him a Disciple rather than an Adept. He should have been happy, for most who passed the tests—and there were many who did not—were left to the Council’s outer circle to pass their days as unjoined conjurors, little grander in the scheme of things than a village thaumaturge. But instead, he was crushed by his failure to be named an Adept, a loss made all the keener by his joining to the Adept of Lastl. That hurt had not been lessened by the passage of time, mostly because his master Tehh was a man he thoroughly despised. And he had to suffer to submit, all his skill, the very astral of his being, to the service of that man, never his to be the guiding hand.

The Morning Grounds were not far from the Palace and the coliseum. Nearest the street was the public match ground and attached to it were the Morning’s betting and performing halls. Beyond that, and behind a wall, were the barracks and training fields for the players and a larger performing hall where the Morning’s musicians, actors, and dancers would put on their grander performances. There was a match set for the afternoon, the Morning’s third rank against Midday’s, which was the reason Hieran had to suffer the rain. He praised the Gods that he would not have to endure the stands.

He went to the wagering hall, which was empty but for a few bettors and the usual hangers-on, stopping first at a stand near the entrance to buy a dala drink to warm himself, before beginning to wander around. He didn’t have long to wait – a bookmaker approached him almost immediately. The man was short and a little stout, with a mess of hair that was starting to thin. His face was guarded in the way all such men were and he nodded a greeting at Hieran, which he returned in kind, neither of them particularly caring for the other’s name.

“What have you?” Hieran asked.

The bookmaker shrugged noncommittally. “Depends, depends. Suppose you’re looking for some asyl. I know some people who have dealings with some Enir traders. Long story, but they just got their latest supply last week. Very good quality, you cannot find its like in this city. You’re a man of quality, I can see.”

“Quite,” the Disciple said. “That’s not what I’m interested in today, though. I’m wondering about the odds for today’s match. I’ve heard one of your stringers has gone missing.”

A merest shrug of the shoulders. How am I to keep track of the comings and goings of these players?

“They probably don’t have a replacement just yet, he only went yesterday.”

The bookmaker waved his hand, “Pssh. He wasn’t much of a player, you know. Could hardly manage a toss. He wasn’t moving up the rankings, surely. No one’s going to notice him missing, I can assure you of that.

“No, no sense throwing money after this today. There’s no coin here,” he said, gesturing about the hall. “Besides, it’s going to be raining all day. Who wants to be sitting out in that? Now I have to, mind you, but I certainly don’t encourage such behavior. No, your coin is better spent elsewhere. I happen to have the acquaintance of a few of the finer dancers of the Morning who will most certainly be free this afternoon. Why pay market price in the arches when a finer commodity is on offer and at fair coin?”

“Quality again.”

“Indeed. Fair coin for fair coin.”

“Sadly, I am on official business.”

“Aren’t we all.”

Hieran smiled slightly. “From the Palace.”

The bookmaker went silent, frowning. Hieran increased his smile. “You wouldn’t happen to know a gentleman named Fennen? A Morning supporter.”

“He was around,” the bookmaker said.

“He was a Palace guard,” the Disciple said, followed by a shrug from the bookmaker. What of it?

“He was killed yesterday, in the alley of one of the Morning drinkeries. You probably heard. His face was disfigured.”

Another shrug, though Hieran thought he detected some nervousness about the man. The wrong answer was now a dangerous proposition. If people were having Palace guards murdered they would not hesitate to do the same to an odds man.

“He owed you money,” Hieran said, gesturing to the betting hall. “A great deal of money, am I correct?”

“I wouldn’t know. I didn’t take his bets.”

Hieran stared hard at the man, waiting. “I wouldn’t know,” he repeated.

“I am not a Magistery, obviously, but I do have the authority of the Gver to arrest you.”

“On what basis?” the bookmaker demanded. It was Hieran’s turn to shrug. What did it matter? He did not take his eyes from the bookmaker’s.

“He has no debts with us,” the bookmaker said at last.

Hieran let out a silent Ah. “How were they settled?”

The bookmaker had turned to stone, not even blinking. He did not answer.

Coincidences and more coincidences, all very convenient. Fennen’s debts gone though not paid, and he murdered. A no-rank ball player vanishes at the same time and no one knows a thing about him past or future. In fact, no one knew anything – how long he had been with the Morning in Lastl, who he had spent time with, what he had done.

He had wandered through the betting hall and then over to the theater where some actors were running lines for that afternoon’s performance and received much the same response. Everyone knew who he was speaking of, but whether they knew what had happened to him or not, they kept silent. A series of shrugs and avoided glances was all he got in return for his questions. How thick they all were.

It was to be expected, of course, and no one had bothered with coming up with a lie yet, which suggested that they did not attach any real importance to the man’s disappearance. They simply saw no need to cooperate with a Palace man. It was not unheard of for a stringer to vanish without reason. They hardly made enough to keep themselves in food, and at some point most were forced to admit that they were not going to rise through the ranks. A merchant wanting to have his rivals good stolen or anyone looking to have some brutality done to someone would come looking for just such a man, and if the money was good enough, well, why bother coming back?

He went into one of the barracks and began speaking to a hungover stringer, having talked his way past the gatekeepers and into the compound. The player’s face was such an ashen color that Hieran felt ill just looking at him. He wasn’t getting much out of the fellow beyond grunts and “Lazul was a good sort,” so he decided to press on and see who else he could find that might volunteer more, or at least let something slip. He was met at the door by two hired swords, northerners by the look of them, who blocked his way with their short blades.

“I am from the Palace,” he told them as though unfurling a passkey.

They did not reply, one of them simply stepping aside to allow him room to pass, jerking his head as he did so. Hieran considered arguing the point but decided against it and allowed himself to be led outside. The two swords walked on either side of him, neither bothering to sheath their swords, leading him along a path deeper into the Morning grounds. They were given a wide berth by everyone they passed, which was disconcerting, and he was taken to what he assumed was the estate of the Morning Chair. It was a sprawling building, three storied, with balconies and what looked like some walled gardens behind.

A servant let them in, observing their passage without expression. Panic seized Hieran once he realized that they were not going to throw him off the grounds. Instead they led him downstairs past the wine cellar, and through another basement before coming through a door to a cell. They stopped and one of the men unlocked the door while the other leveled his sword at Hieran. He glanced about, trying to get what bearings he could in the gloom. The smell of earth was heavy in the air.

Once the door was open, the man gestured with his sword for Hieran to enter to the cell. He almost refused, ready to make his stand there, but thought better of it. It wasn’t like they would kill him; the Chair of Morning could not afford to defy the Gver in such a way. The whole situation was bizarre. Why, if he was on the right track, draw such attention by imprisoning a Palace representative?

Stepping into the cell, he started to say, “This is outrageous, you understand,” and then one of them struck him hard on the back of the head. He fell to the floor with a grunt. Another blow and he felt as though he were floating atop an ebbing tide. He tried to look up at his attackers but he had no sense of whether he was actually moving his head or not. All he could see were waves of color that swirled across his vision. Another blow and the colors went, the gloom descending to dark.

from Realm of Shadows

A Long and Narrow Draw

They had just entered the long and narrow draw past Sounding Creek when the storm hit. It had been threatening from the moment they had left MacAllisters, the sky filled with brooding clouds that seemed even more ominous in the last light of the day. They had hurried to reach this valley before the storm, in the hopes that it would provide some cover for both them and the cattle they were trailing. At the very least, Amos thought as the rain began to spatter his duster, it would keep them from scattering everywhere once the winds and the rain truly hit. Nothing had gone as expected to this point though, and the encroaching darkness and the storm promised only more misery.

If he were a superstitious man, Amos might have thought the omens were against them from the start. Coming down to MacAllisters from the north, where the three of them had holed up for two days in Davenport’s old sod shack, getting in each others way and on each others nerves, they came across a dead cow lying abandoned in the scrub. The coyotes and crows had already been at it for at least a day, the smell of it so putrid the horses shied away. Amos had stopped to study it for a moment, out of curiosity more than anything, while Wright and H. S. continued on. There had been no evident signs as to what had caused the animal’s death, which was not out of ordinary in any way, but which he still found disconcerting for some reason.

The cattle had not been around Gillespie’s Lake as H. S. had said they would be, but spread out in the surrounding hills. On the one hand, the hills offered the three of them the benefit of cover from anyone who happened to be passing by, although H. S. had assured them that was extremely unlikely, with MacAllisters gone to Calgary and their hands all in Lethbridge for a day of drinking and whoring. More importantly, though, it had made rounding up the cattle quickly impossible. They had run them around the hills for hours until both the horses and the cattle were exhausted. It had been difficult beyond measure to get them past Gillespie’s Lake as all the animals wanted to do was drink.

It left them well behind schedule if they wanted to be across the border before morning, and also forced them to conduct the most perilous portion of their journey in darkness, something Amos had been keen to avoid. He did not think about that now, pressing his hat down more firmly upon his head as the drops turned into a torrent and the wind began to howl. A flash of lightning sparked to the south and west, illuminating the miserable cattle as they picked their way down the draw, followed a short time later by the low rumble of the thunder.

The air itself felt charged and wild, as though the storm clouds above were about to spill below and engulf them. The animals were disconcerted by it, Amos’ horse jumping about as though there were rattlesnakes at his feet.

“God damn,” he said and spurred the horse up to join H. S. who was staring up into the rain at the clouds.

“I hope to hell there’s no hail in this,” H. S. said to him.

“You think we should stay here in the draw?” Amos said, turning his horse about so that he was looking back the way they had come. “Wait out the storm.”

H. S. shrugged, “Could be an idea. Cattle might be easier to handle if we keep them down here. Don’t know if we can though.”

Amos was about to reply when a bolt of lightning illuminated the sky around them. He waited a moment for the thunder that was to follow, so that he would not have to shout over it along with the rain and wind. As he did so, he glanced from H. S. up the trail to where they had entered the draw and was certain he could see the form of a man in amidst the shadows there. In the instant that he saw the form there was another lightning strike, blindingly bright and nearby, the thunder following atop it almost instantaneously. By the time he opened his eyes again, blinking furiously against the sting from the flash, nothing was visible but the coalescing shadows.

“What is it?” H. S. shouted at him.

Amos shook his head and slapped his horse on the haunch, starting back up the draw. The trail they were on was already a muddy, slippery mess and the horse had to pick its way carefully up the, now precarious, incline. The wind blew the rain directly into his face so that it was impossible to see more than a few feet in front of the horse. When he arrived at the spot where he was certain he had seen the man standing there was no one there, nor was there anyone that he could see in amongst the shrub and trees that dotted the trail. He leaned down from the horse to inspect the ground and could make out a variety of hoof prints, no doubt from their own passage, but nothing else.

from Riders on the Storm