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“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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Drivers Wanted

Pieter had the following prompts to choose from:

Amy – An art museum or an amusement park…which do you prefer and why?

Wendy – The Northern Lights and alien abductions.

Cameron – You had me at “Good-bye”.

Jen – A wine bottle, a can-opener, and a pack of matches.

Erika – Drivers wanted.

::drumroll::

I picked Erika’s. I’ve always wanted to be a Driver (with the capital “D”). Here’s what I came up with, before it got away from me…

###

“Drivers Wanted”

The sign was taped to the blacked out window of an old Lincoln. A beautiful car. The old, old one with the suicide doors, only this one was converted to a limo for the funeral home. It grinned at me from the front drive.

I remember thinking to myself, what sort of driver are they looking for? Someone to shuttle the grieving widows around? Or maybe they needed someone to ship the bodies? The latter would be a bit creepy. I could see why they might have a job opening. But if was the former, and the lucky employee got to drive that car, I definitely wanted in.

My interview was on a Friday. I wore my best khakis and a blue polo. Pretty much the nicest clothes I owned. I wasn’t exactly well-off. I was dreaming about what sort of uniform I might have to wear – pressed white shirt, jaunty cap, and leather gloves – when the undertaker (mortician, funeral director?) greeted me in the lobby.

He was a slight man, impeccably dressed in a dark suit. He walked with his hands clasped behind his back and greeted me in a smooth, soft voice: “Mister Hayden?”

I stood with a smile and shook his hand. It was limp and silky, like trying to shake a neck-tie.

“Please, call me Casper. It’s nice to meet you, Mister Hirsch.” He gave a thin smile and a nod.

I liked that, all business. Like an adult. Nobody ever called me Mister. Of course the only other jobs I’ve had were bussing tables at a diner and cleaning toilets at a gas station. I was kind of surprised I even landed an interview. Maybe they hadn’t checked my references.

I followed him to his office.

It was a sparse room, full of simple oak furniture. Nothing much on the walls except a painting of an old church and a couple of framed degrees and certificates. Under the painting was a little gold plaque that read: Ecc. 9:5-6.

I didn’t know the verse. Although I’d grown up religious, none of it had really stuck. I had been the kid at church who doodled in the hymnals and couldn’t keep his hands to himself. The one who explored the vestry after service, whose parents were always yelling for because the pot-luck was starting, or the sister had a soccer game we were late for. They would find me back behind the pulpit, behind the wall with the big wood cross, tapping away at organ pipes as big around as my fist, or trying to leave the perfect fingerprint on the perfectly polished hand-bells.

I think maybe I was too curious for Sunday school teaching. And maybe it was that same curiosity that had led me to try and get a job as an undertaker’s driver.

Mister Hirsch saw me looking at the plaque, but didn’t say anything, just sat behind his desk and made a steeple with his fingers.

“So the job is a bit odd, I’ll grant you, but the pay is good. You’ll be on call, but most of the work is done at night. I hope that’s not a problem?”

I shook my head. “Not at all. I’m a bit of a night-owl.”

He nodded again. “Good. Good. And you can start soon?”

I was a bit taken aback. He was talking like I already had the job. Maybe they didn’t have a lot of candidates.

“Yeah, definitely,” I replied. “But what exactly will I be doing?”

“It’s more of a courier job, to be honest. Not very interesting. Don’t worry, you won’t be driving any corpses or coffins or anything.” He twittered a little laugh like he’d made a joke, but I was actually relieved.

“You’ll have the same route every night, when we need you,” he continued. “Between here and our warehouse on the river. Many of our customers leave behind personal effects, and part of our service is storing such effects until the family comes to claim them. It’s fairly monotonous work but, as I said, we will compensate you well for your time.”

My heart sunk a bit, but I tried not to show it. They probably had some sort of cargo van in the back that I’d be driving, rather than the Lincoln. No tie, no hat, no gloves.

But at least it was a job.

“Does this sound like something you are interested in?” Hirsch asked.

“It does. Thank you for the opportunity.”

“Great!” he exclaimed. Literally. His whole face lit up, like he was surprised I wanted the job. “Let me get the spare keys to the Lincoln. You can’t take it home of course, but I’ll give you a set just in case.”

“The Lincoln?” I sputtered.

“Yes, the one out front. You do have a driver’s license, right?”

“Yeah, absolutely!” I exclaimed. Literally. My whole face lit up at the thought of driving that mobster car around all night.

#

It ended up being just as boring as Hirsch made it out to be, but I hardly noticed. The route between the funeral home and the warehouse was two hours round-trip, but I turned it into three. Not because I was milking the hours or anything (I got a flat rate per night), but because I just loved the damn car.

You know how they call all those old cars “boats”? Well I could see why. The car was wide and long and low and swayed with each turn, rocked with each bump, just sort of cradling me in its arms while it sang me a lullaby.

I took up smoking again just so I had an excuse to drive with the window down, so people could see me. I started listening to jazz stations. I bought the cap and the gloves with my own money because I wanted to do the car justice. It deserved a Driver (capital “D”).

I know I’m romanticizing it a bit, but please keep in mind that my regular car, my commuter, was a Chevy Cavalier. Not the smooth rounded ones of the late nineties, the ones that look like the Camaro’s sniveling little brother, but the jagged, blocky, snaggle-tooth earlier model.

I found myself waiting by my phone each night, hoping for a call from Hirsch or one of his many employees.

My work nights went like this: get a call (woo-hoo!), clanky, bouncy drive to the funeral home where I would park in the back, walk around to the Lincoln and wait for someone to bring out The Box.

The Box was like a miniature sea-chest, bulky and heavy and old. It was weathered from years of use, the brass clasp tarnished and gritty. Its edges were bound in iron strips, etched with all sorts of religious symbols; crosses and Star-of-Davids, and others that I barely recognized (maybe an Ankh?).

I peeked inside it once or twice (I think I mentioned that I was the curious sort?), but the only items I ever saw were an old, moth-eaten dress, and an old Elgin pocket-watch. Personal effects, just like Hirsch said. After that I didn’t bother, just hefted the box into the wide back seat, and drove my route.

The Lincoln had definitely been an actual limo at one point in its service. The bench seat in front was backed by a divider, complete with a blacked-out roll-up window. There was a little hex knob where a crank used to sit, so the driver could take directions from the passenger in back. But my only passenger was The Box, and I never had cause to ask it where it wanted to go.

Each night I drove The Box to the warehouse, where I would drive through a large loading door into a cavernous building. There were big orange light bulbs hanging high from the ceiling in wire cages, leaving most of the huge room in shadow. It was creepy, but I kind of liked creepy. I liked feeling like I was doing something mysterious.

I would stop the car, turn off the engine and give a quick honk. After a few minutes, sometimes as much as fifteen, a man would emerge from the darkness, dressed in coveralls. He would take The Box from the backseat and lug it off into the warehouse depths to be emptied and filed with all the other dead-people stuff. He never brought The Box back to me. I just left as soon as he took it, but every night at the beginning of my route the same Box would be carried out to me in the funeral home parking lot.

I never thought it was weird. Maybe I was enraptured by the car, maybe I just d didn’t care. Undertakers/morticians/funeral directors were supposed to be weird people with weird habits and a mysterious air. That’s why they’re drawn to the job, right?

But then one night, after my third or fourth month driving the route, The Box moved.

I was listening to a song off the album Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins, Impulse! Records, 1963. The song was Limbo Jazz (I was becoming something of an aficionado at this point). I tapped my gloved fingers on the edge of the huge steering wheel, one hand out the window, smoldering cigarette dangling between two fingers, when something thumped from the back seat.

I turned off the radio. As I said before, the car was smooth. Nothing ever bumped or jostled or jumped. So either the catalytic converter had fallen off, or The Box had slipped from its leather seat.

I pulled over, got out, and opened the back door. Sure enough, The Box had slipped into the gap between the seat and the dividing wall. Weird, seeing as how I didn’t remember hitting any bumps, but then again, who could tell? Again, the car was smooth.

I lifted the box back onto the seat and took off.

A few minutes later, thump again. This time, as I lifted the box back onto the seat I noticed the passenger doors had no interior handles. They’d been removed, as had the window cranks. Just hex bolts jutting from the doors.

What sort of limo has no interior door handles? I thought to myself. Were they afraid widows would throw themselves from the car in a fit of grief? Did that happen? Were all funeral limos similarly equipped? I’d have to look that up.

I hefted the box back onto the seat and drove off.

I still wasn’t weirded out at this point although, in hindsight, maybe I should have been. I pulled into the warehouse, the Lincoln rocking up the little incline and sighing to a stop under the caged lights. I got out, walked to the back, opened the door, and found The Box on the floor again.

I lifted it back onto the seat, listening for the coverall man’s footsteps. I was never told not to open The Box, but was still afraid the man would be mad if he found me rummaging through it. So I waited with the passenger door open.

Five minutes passed. Then ten. I smoked and waited while The Box sat quietly on the Lincoln’s seat, not jumping or falling or throwing itself onto the floorboards.

After fifteen minutes I figured I could take a quick peek. The lid creaked and seemed to whisper as it opened. Inside, nestled in a corner was a tiny pair of shoes. A child’s shoes, with little gold buckles and scuffed soles.

The hairs on my neck stood up and the room felt cold all of a sudden. Cold and sad. I’d been picturing widows, grown-ups and old men dying and leaving their watches or their dresses, maybe their desk-sets or old photo albums. But I’d been driving around a pair of kid’s shoes all night. Some dead kid who only wore a size 4.

I smoked again while I waited, thinking about how terrible it was. How did these people do this job? How did Hirsch put some kid on his table, put a kid in a coffin and sit and listen while people cried and wailed.?

I wondered who it was who drove the Lincoln before me. What had they seen in The Box and what what had they felt?

All of a sudden the Lincoln felt strange. More ominous. A carriage for the dead and I was some half-assed psychopomp, shuttling these spirits to their final end. It wasn’t rocking me in its arms, it was rocking the dead, soothing them, cooing them into the afterlife.

The coverall man still hadn’t come. In the quiet of the warehouse I thought I heard voices. Shouting maybe, a voice in ebb and flow, like a preacher leading his congregants in their evening vespers.

Maybe it was my imagination. All I knew is that I wanted to leave. I wanted to drive back to the funeral home and get into my snaggle-tooth Cavalier and drive back to my studio and watch some Family Guy. Maybe drink a beer or eight. Try and sleep. Try not to think about the dead kid’s shoes.

I lifted The Box and carried it deeper into the warehouse, trying not to jostle it. I followed the sound of the voices. They were real, but I had no idea where they were coming from. Some dark back room?

I walked past shelves stacked with cardboard boxes and manila envelopes. Maybe leftover stock from the warehouse’s previous life, or maybe all the objects the funeral home had collected over the years.

At the end of the warehouse, where it was darkest, I found a door. I knocked, but nobody answered. I could hear the voices, coming from somewhere beyond. They echoed strangely, a cavernous sound.

I opened the door to see a staircase, leading to a basement. I followed it down. It wound and wound. The sheet-metal stairs became iron, became wood, became stone. The bulbs along the wall became gas-lamps, became torches, flickering and weaving and casting furtive shadows.

The Box grew heavy. It seemed to fidget in my hands, like the little shoes inside were pacing, tapping and kicking. I almost dropped it. I wondered what was happening. What was happening to my mind?

The deeper I delved the more reality seemed to thin. The air cooled, took on a moist feel, a wet smell, like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

I swore I could smell water.

The voices grew louder and I followed them and then the staircase ended and I stepped through a stone archway onto a long platform. Water rushed to my left. Some underground canal. The torches led me on.

The Box slipped from my hands to clatter to the pressed stone floor, but the clasp held. The shoes didn’t spill out.

Ahead I could see vague moving shapes, little more than shadow. They were speaking in low tones. From the arched ceiling hung wind-chimes and as I passed they tinkled quietly. Hollow, throaty sounds.

I approached the figures. There were three men, dressed in black. They had a net stretched out between them, each holding a section so that it hung taut in the air.

One of the wind-chimes clattered and The Box jumped and this time, when it slipped from my hands, the lid opened and the shoes spilled out and when they did, all along the cavernous path, the chimes were answered by others, a chorus of wooden notes.

One of the men shouted something. I wondered if it was directed at me, but I didn’t think they had seen me yet. I was bent, trying to gather the shoes but they kept slipping from my fingers. I was trying not to look at the water, bubbling its way into the dark.

Every time I grasped the shoes and tried to shove them back into the box, they kicked out of my fingers again. This was wrong. This was unreal. This wasn’t happening.

I gave up and left the shoes and dropped the box. I turned to leave, to run back up the stairs, but a low moan made me freeze. I looked at the shoes, looked at the water and, for some reason, crept closer to the men with the net. I wanted to see what had made that moan.

Remember that curiosity? This was one of those times it was a curse, but I think maybe I felt like I was dreaming. Maybe I was still in the Lincoln and it had rocked me to sleep while I waited for someone to come retrieve the box.

I kept to the shadows along the water and approached the men. They stood on a dock and at the end of the dock there was a boat tied. An old boat, like a Venetian gondola, with lanterns swaying at bow and stern.

The men were standing, holding the net spread out over something on the floor of the dock. It was a chalk drawing, like one of those Tibetan mandalas, but all white and crude and full of arcane shapes.

Lined up around their feet were jars, some clay, some alabaster or wood or brass.  A shelf was bolted to the wall under another torch and it too was filled with those jars. All of them had runes and sigils carved into their sides.

What were they catching? What was this? What would they do if they saw me?

The moan sounded again and from the shadows another man emerged. He was old, his thin skin covering an impossibly bony frame. His brow was wet with blood and across his chest hung rope and chains. His hands were bound behind his back and the only thing he wore was a faded red loin-cloth.

He staggered towards the wall, trying to pass the men, but one of them turned and shouted. After a moment’s hesitation the man dropped his portion of the net and rushed to the old man, clouting him in the side of the head and dragging him back into the shadows. But as he did the old man saw me, his gaze locked onto me and he stretched out his arm, in supplication maybe, or shock, or just plain confusion.

The man who dragged him looked back over his shoulder and also saw me. He shouted to his compatriots. They looked over at me and let go of the net. It fell to the dock in a heap.

Behind me there was the little pitter-patter of tiny feet. Tiny shoes. I heard a tiny splash.

“Son of a bitch!” One of the men shouted. “That was a little one! We should have had that one.” He turned his gaze to me. At this point I had my hands up. I wasn’t going anywhere, and besides I worked for them, right? I was a fellow employee, although this part of the job was obviously above my pay-grade.

“You!” the larger of the men said. He was pointing at me. I took a few steps forward, tried to give my best, most innocent grin.

“What the hell are you doing down here?” he asked.

“I…I’m sorry. Nobody was upstairs to meet me, so I thought I’d…” I trailed off, not sure what I had thought I was doing.

“Where’s The Box?” the man asked. He had his right hand deep into the pocket of his coverall. The man behind him, who hadn’t said a word, was holding something in his left hand, low and in front, hiding whatever it was with his right.

“It’s back there. I dropped it. I’m sorry. I’ll just go and get it.” I turned but the man spoke up again.

“Stay right there.” His voice had taken on a nasty edge. This wasn’t a co-worker. This was the shadowy man in the corner office that you never wanted to see because if you did you weren’t going to be coming in to work the next day, or ever. “Did the box open?”

I took a deep breath. “Yeah. It did. It fell. I’m sorry.” I was getting a bit shaky. My knees were doing their best to high-five each other.

“Do you know what you just cost us?” He asked with that same nasty edge. I got a glimmer from the other man. Whatever was in his hand glinted. I tried not to think about what might glint down here, where nobody else was around to see.

“No. Look….I’m sorry. I’ll just…”

“Too late for that, kid. You cost us a lot, and you’re going to have to pay up.” He slipped a long silver knife from his coverall pocket. The other man lifted his. Wicked, curved blades.

I turned and started running, calling back over my shoulder. “Please, I’m just the driver!”

####

That’s all folks. Hope you liked it. Now I just want to write more about the kid who becomes Charon, or something along those lines.

BTW, new band name: “Half-assed Psychopomps.” I called it. You know, for the record or whatever.

Anyway, my name is Pieter Van Tatenhove, but I write under Pieter Lars (because nobody besides my immediate family can spell my last name). I have a website where you can read some of my other stories and poems, some of them dating back almost eight years now. I’ve had a few things published here and there, am going to the Clarion workshop this summer, and am currently working on my second novel.

Oh, and I’m on twitter @pieterlars