Plugs

Up the ladder so fast she skinned both knees through her dress. Into the cloud oracle’s room. The anonymous note had been right. The smoketeller lay face down in a puddle of his own vomit. Poisoned. Dead. In the brazier that smoldered beside his clenched left hand, enough incense for a whole day half-gone already. The mold-sweet smell so thick Irene felt it on the roof of her mouth.

She went up through the door slowly. Even breathing would change the pattern of the telling, but she couldn’t save it if she couldn’t see it.

She jostled the body over and knelt on the teller’s stool, crouched to put her eyes at the level where the teller’s would have been. Composed herself, and looked. Left to right. Threads of smoke against the velvet wall paper. A tangle of meaning she couldn’t read but could remember. An owl in each corner, marking divinatory quadrants.

A bare lightbulb hung above fizzed like it was about to go out. Irene leaned forward to put its glare out of her eyes, felt its heat on the top of her head. The light flickered; all the smokesigns seemed to jump and blur. She looked faster. The corner with the plaster owl passed, then the corner with the stuffed owl. Signs layered on signs unfurling intertangled in the air, all mapped in her brain.

Looking. Bronze owl. Looking.

Irene had nearly reached the wooden owl when the man came up through the trapdoor wearing assassin’s blacks and an expression of recognition. “You’re that memory artist. Don’t say you ain’t. Not one of those phrenologicals with their lumpy heads and magnets, you’re the one who’s some kind of broken, half-made witch. You were pointed out to me once, and you’re not the only one who can remember. Yes, ma’am, it’s a pity you’re here, a pity you’ve had so long to see what you shouldn’t. A pity I have to do what’s next.”

Irene didn’t answer, just reached up until her hand was hot. In the next second, in the dark, with broken glass in one hand, the brazier in the other, with the assassin’s location as bright in her mind as if she could still see it, and her swinging arms filling everywhere he could be with sharpness and burning, she wondered if the outcome of this moment were recorded in the air around them.

Dear Todd:

What’s the matter? Didn’t you like the card I drew for our one-month anniversary? The dinner I cooked? How many more ways can I show how much I adore you? I know I haven’t always been on time for our dates, and sometimes I’ve been a little absent-minded, but can’t you take my word for it that I’ve got other things going on in my life?

I guess my job has

All right. No. No, if we’re going to have a relationship, it’s got to be built on truth and trust. I see that now. So I’ll just come right out and say it. I’m not just a travel agent; I’m really the Violet Vixen.

Whew. There. I know it has to be a shock to hear I’m a world class supervillain, nemesis of General Arms and destroyer of the Statue of Liberty. Still, you have to look at my side of it. They shouldn’t have ignored my ultimatum.

And look at all I’ve done for you. Ever since we were in high school together I had a crush on you. Even then I was manifesting my superpowers. It was me that helped you get a place on the track team. Richie Harcourt’s legs didn’t exactly break themselves, you know.

Wasn’t college the greatest? That was when I brainwashed you into attending an all-girls school with me. Sorry you got beat up in the locker room so often, but at least I made the girls forget you were actually a guy every time. Most weekends I’d fly you to Paris for dinner. Very romantic, except that time Capitaine Gaul and his twin brothers tried to keep me from giving you the Eiffel Tower. Lovely funeral, wasn’t it?

We drifted apart after graduation, as couples will do. You had grad school and I had conquering a small Central American country. I erased most of your memories. Then you were recruited by B.U.C.K.L.E.R. and sent to ‘stop my reign of terror’.

As if.

Still, I must thank the Bureau for sending you to me. Sure, my spies there told me you weren’t really looking me up for old times’ sake. Their anti-brainwashing techniques are advanced, but I have faith that in time you’ll come to see that I’m right.

That’s why I want you to listen to the attached tape. Every night. Consider it an ultimatum.

Love,

-Vicky


Note: the seed for this story is Jonathon Coulton’s ‘Skullcrusher Mountain’. Alternate live performance.

Another new writer debuts today here at the cabal. Mr. Jonathan Wood, farragonist and exile of Albion, presents a story that’s finely balanced on the edge of darkness…


The girl, all grief and acne, slit her palm with the piece of flint. Blood like petals fell onto the grave stone of her love. She swore never to speak again. A year later, her therapists richer but bewildered, her mother asked, what do think you’re achieving? The girl was struck by the futility of her actions. She once more spoke, requesting books on occultism, spirituality. Her overjoyed mother complied unquestioning. The girl knew what she wanted to achieve. Him. Him back.
The girl turned woman pressed the flint to flesh once more. This time it was a lamb beneath her blade. It’s was warm on her cold, aching limbs. Her fingers hurt from grubbing herbs. She was older, but none the wiser. Her love was still gone.
From time to time she took lovers. One would not leave, even when she turned him from her bed. She did not understand his devotion. She had nothing to give him. Yet he was helpful, useful, he propped up her hope when it sagged with her skin, recessed into her wrinkles.
As years passed she remembered her mother, long gone back to the earth. She remembered waiting until her mother was asleep, until the pebbles struck her windows. She remembered the taste of her love’s lips… And had his lips tasted of strawberries? No. That was another, some gypsy boy she’d once had.
Finally she found the final spell fragment she needed. She and her disciple went to the hills, to the high sacred places. But her bones were old and she struggled. Her apprentice too now knew the touch of the years, but he used spells he’d learned, and his strength flowed into her. They came to the reflecting pool at the hilltop and he lay down, closed his eyes, said he would rest a while.
She stripped, stood and saw her body’s reflection in the moonlight. Was that hers, truly? It was some old worn-up thing. And what would some teenage boy do with a body like that? What boy would not flinch back? She looked at her disciple at her feet, his breath fled from his body, the last of his strength ebbed away, and she cast her spell.
When he sat up, she leant him her strength, and he stood. Slowly they made their way back down the hill, leaning upon each other for support.

That summer, the fad was gamelan orchestras — steam-driven gamelan orchestras. You heard them clanging in corners of beer gardens half the night. You couldn’t take a walk the next morning without passing crank-wound tabletop models tinkling in sidewalk cafes and their circular melodies would chase around the inside of your skull the rest of the day.

Joe the Wrench knew what was next and vowed he’d be the first to get where the fad was going. His first girlfriend’s father was Balinese; he’d whistled some of those unshakable tunes. And he’d told them stories of what that music had accompanied. So Joe rolled his barrel of tools to the burned-out terrace where a beer garden had been, and set to work on the remnants of the gamelan engine.

He brought in scraps of a walking machine in vogue two summer’s back. He lugged discarded, discolored hides from the tannery, struck deals with the least mad of the sidewalk chalk artists and the least reclusive of the seamtresses’ guildswomen. He hung canvas, strung lines of the thinnest, strongest cord he could find, and stockpiled cylinders of light-lime.

Word got around. His ex-girlfriend’s father started dropping by late afternoons. He said he was glad she’d married that bank clerk fellow who kept getting promoted — no offense, he admired Joe’s energy, and his skill, but he sometimes doubted his direction. The doubts weren’t strong enough that he wouldn’t hang around to see how it all turned out.

He told stories and Joe listened as he assembled, as his machine rose and sprawled along the beer garden’s back wall. He told the old stories he’d seen performed, seas and years away, performances he barely remembered, four decades gone. Weddings and battles and games of dice and castles of fire. Demons and monkey-princes. Joe the Wrench nodded, posed occasional questions, spent evenings listening while he punched miles of spliced-together piano roll.

Then opening night: Joe stoking the engine, leveling pressure, lighting the lights and loosing the catches. From charred benches, the audience watched shadows stream across backlit canvas, puppet silhouettes driven as much by the music as by gears and steam.

Demon weddings. The histories of fire-monkey dynasties. Games of dice.

His ex-girlfriend’s father stared, smile wide, eyes sad. “That’s wonderful,” he said. “That’s not the way it was at all.”

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