“My Credit is Good”

Hey, thanks for inviting me back! It’s so nice to be among so much talent!

My prompts were:

  • Amy- The sign read, “You can’t beat Vera’s meat.” But, can you?
  • Cameron- The clothing line’s success was built on their attention to the details- and total transparency with their employees.
  • Erika- My credit is good.
    Jen- Opening line:  In the end it was the spiders that got her.
  • Wendy- Trapped in a vat of _______ changed my life.

I’ve been unable, or unwilling, to leave the world of my current novel lately, so I was looking over these prompts through that lens. I picked Erika’s because it gave me an idea for some scenes where I could explore some side-story stuff with a couple of my minor characters.

I hope it’s at least entertaining!

***

I.

Lucius stopped outside Walters’ Arcanist shop. He stomped the dust from his boots and brushed at his pants, then ran his fingers through his hair and beard, trying to tease out the tangles.

The doorposts were lined with Enochian script that said nothing so much as, Look. Strange symbols. We sell magic here.

Discerning eyes knew them to be decoration and nothing more. Not to say that Walters didn’t know her magic. Her shop was filled with baubles and trinkets, bundles of herbs and carefully labeled potions. They were mostly harmless. A way for a woman to make a living in a world that wasn’t kind to her sex.

But she had skill, he knew. Had spent years studying under Grauman at Cambridge. This before the Rending. Lucius had been at this for decades before she’d even graduated from university, but the things she knew never ceased to amaze, and baffle, him. So, in the West where Arcanists were a dime a dozen, outnumbering even the gold-seekers from the previous decades, she was a true Talent.

He opened the door. A little bell chimed and he stepped inside. The store was lit by large windows at the back. Walters had hung dream-catchers from the sills and there were glass bottles and jars filled with many-colored liquids. The light shone through them and cast odd, shadowed rainbows on the walls and the floor. Again, all for appearance.

The townspeople liked to be a bit unnerved when they came to her. It made them feel that whatever they bought would actually work. That it was mystical in some way, but in reality most of Walters’ work was simple first-year alchemy; potions and tonics that any decent pharmacist could make.

“Be right out!” Walters called from the back.

Lucius didn’t answer. He took the extra time to frown at the grime under his nails, checked his breath against his palm, resisting the urge to smooth his hair again.

He’d been out trapping for too long.

Walters emerged from the back, followed by the smell of burnt herbs. He scratched his beard and sniffed.

“Lucius!” the Arcanist exclaimed, coming around the counter to embrace him. He put his arms around her shoulders, conscious of his smell, but she didn’t seem to mind.

“You look well, Sarah,” he said, taking off his pack and setting it gently to the floor. “Is that Sage and Clove I smell? Are you summoning something back there?”

Sarah stared at him for a moment, her face frozen. Then she gave a laugh. “Yes. The Devil himself and I were having a conversation and you interrupted us. I hope you brought me something good.”

“You and me both,” Lucius replied. He began to untie his baskets. The spirits within shook and rattled against the reed. “Feisty today,” he said. “Wonder what’s settin’ them off.”

Sarah’s eyes flicked to the room in the back. When she saw that Lucius had noticed, she gave him a grin and picked up one of the baskets, weighing it in her hand.

“Good catch this week,”

He shrugged. “Not as good as some. Things are getting scarce out there. Not sure these will cover my resupply, so I hope my credit is good.”

“Please, Lucius. We’ve known each other, what, ten years? More? Of course your credit is good.”

“Well, I might have to go further east, and I don’t know when I’ll be back through here….”

Sarah hefted the three remaining baskets. The last, biggest, shook so hard she almost dropped it. Again, her eyes flicked to the back room.

Lucius opened his mouth to ask if something was wrong, but she took up her pen and scribbled something in her ledger, then slid it across for him to look over.

She had paid him almost twice what his catch was worth. “Sarah, this is too much…”

“Not at all. I’m making more on the back end. Besides, if you think I’m overpaying you, you’ll just have to owe me a favor or two.”

She beamed at him, and he smiled back. “Sounds like a deal.”

“Good. Now I hate to rush you out of here, but I have some things brewing in the back, and I’d hate to ruin the batch.”

Before he knew it she was ushering him out to the street. He turned to thank her again, but she’d already closed the door behind him.

II.

Sarah opened the panel behind the sofa, and followed the stairs down into the darkness.  At the bottom, she lit the oil lamp sitting on the small table, just within reach where she knows she will find it.

The room filled with a warm, flickering light. The walls were earthen and the smell was of loam and moist air. No light would reach the street above.

There was a dark wood table in the center of the room with a simple wood chair. Sarah carried the lamp and set it next to a leather-bound book, then took her seat.

The book’s cover was supple and dark. Strange stains lined the edges and the spine. She fingered it softly, wondering -not for the first time- what the leather held.

Whose skin it was.

She thought she would be revolted when she made the purchase, in secret under a tavern in Baltimore. But instead she had found herself reaching into her bag during the carriage ride home, sliding her fingers against the soft grain. Was there sweat soaked into the binding? Blood? Surely blood, else it would have no power.

But whose?

She would admit to feeling guilt at her curiosity from time to time, but it had faded over the years. If she were caught with the book she would be hanged from the neck at best. Most likely burned. The Pinkertons had a standing bounty of $1,000 for any person brought in alive who was suspected of necromancy.

Suspected. That’s funny, she thought. The accusation alone was enough to assure a guilty verdict. After Beauregard raised his shambling horde during Shiloh, nobody wanted to take any chances.

But it was Beauregard’s actions that led to her curiosity. So many dead at the hands of his ghouls. Ghouls who would not fall, would not die, but just kept marching with their bayonets outstretched. Absurdly quick for newly risen dead.

She knew that Lucius had fought at Shiloh, and had once considered asking him about it, but even mentioning necromancy made her nervous. Made eyes automatically narrow. Why do you ask? Why are you so interested?

She wanted to shake them and say, Don’t you see? If we do not know our enemy, how can we possibly fight them?

But of course the ghoul brigade was thought to be the last of them, so they weren’t our enemy any more than the British. Even the Confederate warlocks had been horrified by what they had done.

No. No one would be raising the dead, except in secret.

In a controlled environment, after thorough research and thorough preparation. Safeguards. Fire, if need be. She would burn her whole shop to the ground to prevent such a thing from escaping.

Or maybe to prevent its discovery? She wasn’t so sure of her motivations anymore, but she rarely allowed herself to wonder. She liked to believe it was a scientific pursuit. The study of death, so that we could fully understand what the Rending has wrought.

If she was ever caught she would say that her dead brother first sparked her curiosity. Not a desire to raise him. No, that would be too horrifying. Too devastating. But a desire to understand what he became after death? Where his soul or his essence traveled?

That, yes, but mostly simple curiosity. She was a scientist. An intellectual. An Arcanist.

So many discoveries had been made in secret, against the wishes of higher powers. All of the most important.

So maybe she would learn her secrets. Maybe she would share them. Maybe one day she might even be remembered for them.

But, for now, she would sit in that earthen cellar, and she would work.

She opened the book and imagined the cover to be the skin of two palms, spreading for her, beckoning her closer so that the voice within might whisper its lessons.

III.

Lucius sat in his room, smoking by the window. Outside, across the dark street he could see the doorway to Sarah’s shop. It was late. Even the music from the saloon below had stopped as the last of the hard drinkers had either stumbled up to their rooms or home.

He’d been thinking about Sarah the whole evening. Something in her manners earlier had been nagging at him. Something about the way her eyes kept being drawn to the back room.

She’d been as warm and friendly as ever, but rushed. And the burning herbs; cloves and sage. The heavy smell of them that had soaked into her clothing and her hair. Those were protection herbs, not the kind you burned while mixing tonics, or to try and loosen your customers’ purses.

And then the spirits, trapped in their baskets. Their urgent, frantic shaking. His rituals usually left them subdued for days. So what had they been sensing?

Before he even considered what he was doing, he’d walked across the room and dug into his pack, bringing out the leather case that held his rods. He clenched his cigar in the corner of his mouth, squinting against the smoke, then slipped his knife out of his boot.

He opened the case and brought out two iron rods, each about two feet long. He tapped them together and listened to the chime, then ran his blade down their length a few times, testing the notes until both rods began to hum.

He held them out at arm’s length and felt them begin to pull. He turned slowly, letting the rods guide his arms until their two ends met with a little tap, then looked to where they were pointing and squinted out the window.

Sarah’s shop. So what was she up to?

He stowed the rods and brought out his rune bag. He cleared the table by the window, setting the ashtray on the floor, and upended the bag. The runes spilled out across the table with a hollow clatter.

He read them. Four times, frowning, and with each reading his heart sank further.

He stood and shrugged into his coat, then took his battered Remington out from under his pillow and slipped it into his belt.

IV.

She stood in the moonlight with the lantern at her feet, the shutter closed except for the tiniest sliver. Just enough light to be sure she stood above the correct grave. Not that any of them were marked in the outlaw field. Just wooden planks with a line or two of description and a date.

This one read: White Throat Gang. Shot dead by Dep. Groves. April, 1872.

She rummaged in her bag and brought out her tools: a salt jar, a paper funnel, a bundle of desert sage, a jar of goat tallow, three dogwood sticks, and one of Lucius’ fresh spirits, the basket trap wrapped in a velvet bag. The spirit was struggling against the weave’s charm. She could hear it scraping at the walls of its cage. She knew Lucius was careful with his traps, but it made her nervous all the same.

She briefly considered the idea that maybe the book itself had put a spell on her. Why else would she risk her life, out here in the graveyard, just for an experiment that wouldn’t even work?

Care will kill a cat… and the crazy lady who sells the love tonics to the amorous saloon girls.

But it was curiosity, at its heart. She had always been this way. Even as a child, with her constant yammering, questioning, pouring through her father’s books. Her father, never irritated, always urging her on. Yes, that is true, but what about this? Yes, Sarah, that is a very good point, but have you considered this?

If he were alive to see her here tonight though….

She didn’t want to think about that. She pulled the book from her pack. Its cover was pale, almost porous in the moonlight. She opened it to the marked page and skimmed over the ritual.

Then she began to work.

It took an hour to draw the circle. She melted the tallow and dripped it over the pentacle’s points, then took the bundle of sage and lit it with the lantern flame and set it smoldering in a dish at her side. The breeze blew the smoke across her face and she breathed it in deep.

She was peeling the dogwood with her Athame when she heard the footsteps behind her.

A faint click. A gun being cocked. She froze, the back of her neck suddenly chill, picturing Deputy Groves drawing a bead on the back of her skull, a pile of rope at his feet.

“Stop,” a familiar voice called out in a low voice. “Stand up and turn around.”

She almost cried out, suddenly feeling the weight of her lunacy. The guilt and shame of what she was preparing to do. She stood and turned, dropping the Athame to the ground.

She didn’t want to meet Lucius’ gaze, but she raised her face and looked at him. His eyes was drawn with sorrow, but there was a hardness in them.

“What are you doing? Why?” His eyes set on the book lying at her feet and his jaw clenched. He knew what it was, she could see. Of course he knew.

“I…” she began, then shook her head. She took a deep breath and let it out. “I don’t know.”

“Whose grave is that?”

“Nobody. An outlaw. A criminal. I didn’t know him.” She was stammering.

He lowered the gun slightly.

“If you’d seen what I’ve seen, Sarah, you wouldn’t even think of doing this.”

“You don’t understand,” she replied, trying to summon some resolve. But what argument could she make that would convince a man who had seen his friends die because someone with an army had read a book like hers?

“You’ve been good to me over the years, Sarah. And I suppose I owe you a great deal more than just a favor. But, hear me, we will have no more business together. I will not stay my hand again, so you would do well to think twice about what sort of person you are. What sort of things you are willing to do for the sake of curiosity.”

She looked up at him again, feeling the flush in her face. He turned before she could reply and walked across the graveyard and back toward town. She was left in the dark with the sage smoke and the dust, the whispering book and the shivering spirit.

# # #

I’m currently working on my third novel. It’s a Weird Western (which you may have gathered). I’ve had a couple small things published, and I do have a blog, but I would rather none of you see it, since I can’t remember the last time I posted something there.

I live in Sacramento with my wonderful daughter and, like most writers, a cat. I graduated from Clarion (UCSD) with the 2013 class and I desperately want to write fiction full-time.

I tweet (sometimes) @pieterlars.

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About pieterlars

Father, writer, swordsman.

Posted on May 14, 2014, in Our Guest Writers' Creations and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. As when I started reading your first novel, The Broken Road, I wish I knew what happens next. You are a wonderful storyteller, Pieter. Sarah and Lucius are both sympathetic, intriguing characters. I’m going to wonder about their fates for a long time…

    Thanks for guesting!

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