Dinner with Derleth

The house is in the nicest part of town, the historic part, set well back away from the street under old-growth trees. The doorbell is discreet, musical. In a few moments, the impressive oaken door opens, and Daniel is looking into the smiling face of a young lady. She’s about twenty-five, blonde and smiling, tip to toe professionalism from her expensive heels to her tiny gold earrings. The only jarring note is the black leather collar with a leash ring fastened around her pale throat.

“You must be Daniel,” she says in a pleasantly modulated voice, “welcome to Philadelphia. Please, won’t you come in?”

He’s ushered into a comfortable library. “Would you like something to drink?”

“A beer, please.”

“Samuel Adams, Tsingtao, or Guinness?” she asks.

“Do ya have to ask, love?”

The young lady smiles, suitably charmed, and exits the room. The library is wall-to-wall book spines, everything from the classics to reference works on engineering. Despite the comfort that borders on opulence, the room seems rather– boring to Daniel. He can’t quite put a finger on it, but it’s bland, despite the sheer number of books, which should be tantalizing him, like an itch under the skin. He barely has the urge to get up and look around.

The young lady returns with his Guinness. The ale has a lovely head, a sign that it’s been expertly poured. He takes a sip. Wicked.

A man enters through a different door than the girl used. He’s in his early fifties, wearing a very urbane sweater and khakis. His hair is silvered blond, cut short on the sides, sleek watch — not a Rolex, shoes that look handmade. Daniel pulls his sleeve down over his Timex and tries not to fidget. The man strides across the room like he’s working circuits at the gym, and extends his hand. “Russ Derleth. You must be Daniel Sullivan. Thanks for coming.”

painting, man on library ladder, reading
Up on the Ladder

They spend the next few minutes in polite small talk, Daniel’s uneventful flight, the weather in Philadelphia, how things are at the Southport House, the innocuous bad habits of their respective Regents. Daniel’s shared this talk with more fellow Knights than he can count, in nearly a hundred Houses across the world. Knights of Saint Christopher travel a lot. But they usually know why they are where they are, and Daniel doesn’t. Not yet.

“So,” he says when he grows too impatient not to ask, “what can I do for ya?”

Russ takes a deep breath, and a deep sadness flickers across his face, but doesn’t settle. “Do you remember Claudia Cross? You met her the last time you were here, oh, seven years ago?”

“Yeah, I remember her. Lovely girl.” Really lovely, truth be told.

“Have you heard from her lately?” Russ asks, leaning forward in his leather armchair.

“No, not for a long time now. I called her a couple of times from the Dublin House, after I went home, but she found another guy, and, well, ya know–”

Russ sighs. “Yes. That was me. We were together until just a month ago. Then one night she disappeared, I have no idea why–” His voice nearly breaks before he gets it under control. “I haven’t been able to find her.”

“Do ya think she might have had a family emergency? Could she have gone home?”

“No. I called her parents the day after she went missing. They hadn’t seen her. I called again a month ago, and they still didn’t know.” The sadness crosses Russ’s face again, lingers longer this time. “She wasn’t exactly on great terms with her parents. They didn’t approve of our– lifestyle.”

Daniel’s eyes cut to the blonde woman, who has just come in with another Guinness for Daniel, and a glass of orange juice for Russ. He thinks he understands what the problem is with her parents. He reaches for the Guinness, then pauses. He’ll be no help at all if he gets pissed.

“Would you like something else instead, Mr. Sullivan?” the blonde asks discreetly.

“Ahhh, no, this is fine, but may I have a glass of water as well?”

“Sparkling or still?”

Jesus. “Whatever is fine.” The young lady– Derleth’s slave — leaves to fetch his fancy water, and he turns back to Russ.

Russ shakes his head slowly. “Claudia wouldn’t have gone home to her parents. She was happy here. They gave her nothing but grief, even tried to take her son away from her.”

“She has a child? I didn’t know.” Daniel’s face feels frozen with shock. Claudia has a child? “Why would anyone want to take a boy from his mother?”

“They claimed that she wasn’t a proper influence on the child.”

“But, Jesus, she’s his mother.”

“That’s what the judge said,” Russell agrees. “Of course, that was after our Regent, Mr. Matheson, brought the full weight of our legal team to bear. He felt, as I did, that the child clearly belonged to us, the only family he had known, and not to his grandparents, whom he had never even met. Ridiculous.”

“So she’s not there.” Daniel thinks hard. The Guinness hasn’t properly lubricated his brain quite yet. “Any other family? Any close friends?”

Russ shakes his head. “She didn’t have any friends who weren’t my friends as well. I’ve asked everyone.”

“Maybe she was snatched.” The thought is alarming, but Daniel knows that it happens. Even in feckin’ America.

“There were no signs of forced entry, and my security system is extensive. There were things missing, a few clothes, Claudia’s purse. There were no valuables missing, all of her jewelry was left behind.”

“The kidnappers might have tricked their way in, left the valuables to confuse you–”

Russ’s smile is wry. “We’re here to kidnap you,” he says, pointing his hand at Daniel like a gun. “So pack a bag, get your purse, and let’s go!”

“All right, you have a point.” Daniel slumps; they’re back to square one. “Was there anything– unusual about the week they disappeared? Did anyone come to the house, anyone out of the ordinary?” He’s reaching, but he doesn’t know what else to ask.

“No,” Russ answers slowly, “nothing that wasn’t routine.” The young lady has placed his water by Daniel’s elbow and is standing in a corner of the room, near the window. He takes a sip out of the glass. It’s a far cry from tap water. He smiles his thanks to her, and asks Russ, “What’s the lady’s name?”

“Jennifer. She’s a lovely girl, and quite bright.” He lowers his voice, and adds, “It’s not the same as it was with Claudia. I miss her.” If the girl by the window hears him, she gives no sign.

Maybe he does miss her, but for a guy that’s asking for help, he’s not being very forthcoming. “Define routine. Can you remember who all was in the house the night that Claudia disappeared?”

Russ pauses, thinks carefully. “Let me think. Myself, Claudia and her son, of course.”

Daniel tries not to fidget. Of course! Who else?

“My housekeeper and groundskeeper, Mr. and Mrs. Berger, had retired to their room over the garage.” Russ thinks some more. Jesus. Something doesn’t quite seem right here. If Daniel had been in his place, he would have gone over that night in his mind until every detail came crystal clear. It appears to be the first time Russ has thought of this question. Bloody hell. What’s wrong with this bastard? “The only visitor that day was Stephen Matheson.”

“The Regent of the Philadelphia House.” It’s more of a statement than a question. There aren’t many American chapters of the Knights of Saint Christopher. Any Knight in the country could probably name the Regents of every House.

“Yes.” Russ doesn’t elaborate.

“Have you hired a private detective?”

If Daniel didn’t know better, he’d say Russ has begun to look a bit hostile. He gives Daniel a hard look, and says stiffly, “We thought it best not to get the mundanes involved. There are some in our organization who feel that the prudence and discretion that have served us for centuries are outdated, that the Knights of Saint Christopher should just divulge all of our secrets to the world at large. I am not one of those people.”

He pauses, looks at Daniel sharply. “Would you like to see the pictures I have of Claudia and her son? Perhaps that would help.”

Daniel doesn’t get it. This would help? Actually, more information on whether or not the Regent had noticed anything amiss would help. But Russ goes to a cabinet set into the bookshelves, pulls out a leather folio. It’s a picture album. He opens it to the middle, and slides it across the coffee table to Daniel. The woman in the 5×7 is laughing into the camera, with the large olive greenish grey eyes and honey brown waves that Daniel remembers. It’s true what they say about never forgetting your first love — he still sees Claudia in his dreams, sometimes. She’s on the beach, one hand resting against a sailboard, the other curled protectively around a sunburnt preschooler. The boy’s ginger hair is ruffled in the breeze, blue-lavender eyes squinted against the sun, freckles showing even through the zinc oxide on his cheeks and nose.

He looks exactly as Daniel did at that age.

“Sweet Jesus,” Daniel mutters.

“His name is Lucas. Will you help me find them, Daniel?” Russ pleads quietly.

“You love him, dontcha?”

“Yes, I do, even though he’s not mine.” Russ answers.

“Yeah, I know he’s not,” Daniel agrees. “He’s mine.”

ginger man in glasses
Skeptical

It’s difficult for an Irishman to decline hospitality when it’s offered, and so Daniel finds himself following Derleth’s slave as she leads him to the guestroom. Dinner hadn’t been elaborate — Philly cheese steaks and thick french fries that remind Daniel of the chips back home in Ireland. But it was so good that Russ called Mrs. Berger out of the kitchen to hear Daniel’s compliments. The older woman blushed prettily before heading back to the kitchen to serve dessert. The apple pie had been as tasty as the rest of the meal.

Daniel is glad the evening is over though. Conversation had never lagged; Russ Derleth was an excellent host. But the talk had been excruciatingly polite, generic. It was almost as if the man had an overactive political correctness filter. His after-dinner talk was like his house — bland.

Jennifer shows him where the towels are in the bathroom, where the robe hangs on the back of the door. Daniel expects that she is going to excuse herself with a promise to be near if he needed anything else, but she doesn’t.

Instead, she kneels quietly at his feet. “My Lord has instructed that I am yours for the evening. Anything that you desire,” she dimples, “anything that is in my power to grant you, is yours.”

Daniel is absolutely gobsmacked. “Errrr,” he stutters, “umm, maybe we can talk for a while.” He sits down hard on the side of the bed. Oh, shite. It’s not that he hadn’t been thinking about it, but he was already in a relationship, not exactly free to dally, tempting as it was. Oh, Christ.

She rises and moves to reposition herself at his feet, but he hastily pats the side of the bed next to him, so she sits there instead.

“How long have you lived here with Russ, Jennifer?”

“Just over three weeks,” she replies, smiling.

“Is your room as nice as this one?” He touches her arm, encouraging her.

“Oh, I don’t sleep in a room of my own, I sleep in my Lord’s room.” She seems mildly surprised by the question.

“So you sleep with Russ, then,” he says, almost to himself. He’s not sure if he’s disappointed or not. So they are that close. That’s almost indecent. After all, Claudia’s only been gone for for a feckin’ month…

“Well– not exactly. I sleep on a mat at the foot of his bed. Sometimes he chains me to the end of the bed, but not always. My Lord and I often do demonstrations for BDSM organizations — he’s very well-respected in the community, and he’s very, very good at what he does.” She looks proud. “If he’s done something that’s made me sore, he lets me sleep in bed with him. It’s much warmer there.” The pink in her cheeks and her earnest tone make her look younger than twenty-five. She’s cute.

“Oh, okay. That’s, uhh, considerate of him.” Daniel tries another question. “So, is Russ your first master?”

“No, actually he’s my second. My previous master didn’t allow me to leave the house. After a while, it started to drive me crazy. Sir encourages me to get out, and even take classes.”

“What kind of classes?” Daniel asks. Maybe Derleth was her ticket through college or something.

“Whatever he decides would be best. I’m taking a course in accounting so that I can keep the finances, I’ll be taking a night class in flower arranging next semester. My Lord said we could look at the catalog soon and choose what I’d be learning next.”

“So you’re not working toward a degree.”

“No,” she frowns, “I just want to learn to serve him better, to make him proud.” She laughs. “If I had wanted to work my way through college, I would have become an intern at my father’s company.”

“This sounds more interesting,” Daniel quips.

She smiles. “Much.”

“I like my job, too,” Daniel says. “Working for the Knights of Saint Christopher is fascinating. I’ve never wanted to be anything else, not even when I was a lad. My father and mother were Knights, as well.”

“Really? I don’t really know much about them. My Lord works a lot, but he never brings work home with him. What do the Knights of Saint Christopher do?”

“Well, we study parapsychology and cryptozoology and most of the other “fringe sciences”. We try to verify or debunk claims of paranormal events.” Daniel smiles wryly at the dubious woman. “We calm a lot of hysterical people, too.”

“My Lord never talks about his work with me. When the Regent comes to visit, He always excuses me. Their work is confidential, but you already know that.”

Sure, cases are sensitive, but this amount of secrecy is unusual, at least in Daniel’s experience. Wicked strange.

Jennifer looks down at her hands, twists them in her lap. Here comes something interesting, Daniel thinks.

“Sir?” she asks softly, “I do have a favor to ask of you.”

“Yes?”

“Umm, well, I’ve been with my Lord for a month now, and, well, we don’t… I mean, I don’t think …” She makes a frustrated sound, and blurts, “I haven’t had sex since I’ve come here.” She looks at him very earnestly. “My Lord’s given me to you for the evening. Would you– have sex with me?”

“Ummm,” Daniel hesitates, his eyes rueful.

“You have a girlfriend,” she guesses.

“Well, yes, kinda. I’m sorry.” And he is sorry. Not even Daniel gets offers this good every day. He pauses, takes in her disappointed slump. “Hang on, let me make a phone call.”

“Excuse me, then.” She leaves for the bathroom.

Daniel calls home. Gordon answers on the second ring. “Hello?”

“Hi, darlin’.”

“Daniel! So, how was the flight? Did you have dinner with Derleth?”

“I did. But I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow, I promise. Right now, I have a question for ya.”

“Well, doesn’t this sound intriguing?”

It takes a bit of explaining, but Daniel’s lover gets the gist of the situation quickly; he doesn’t even try to hide his amusement. Funny, Daniel thought he’d be put out, even angry. He was the jealous one. When they became a couple Gordon was the one that laid out the rules — no other partners unless they share, 100% latex coverage. Daniel had never come close to breaking his word.

“So, let me get this straight, love,” he laughs. “You’ve been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play with someone else’s toy and you’re asking me if that’s all right?”

“She’s a person, not a toy– but… yeah.”

“Bloody hell, Daniel! I mean, I appreciate the call, but damnation! Perhaps you had best hang up now and give me a scene report in the morning. Carpe noctem and all that.” With that, Gordon chortles “Ciao!” into the phone and disconnects. Cheeky bugger.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph. He’s going to have to find a way to tell him about Lucas. Suddenly he misses Gordon more than he thought possible, especially given the circumstances. His throat feels tight. Gordon sounded very far away, like there are oceans separating him from his lover, and not just a few states.

“I love you, Gordon. Goodnight,” he whispers to the dial tone.

When Russ’s slave girl returns from the bathroom, Daniel just smiles at her and crooks his finger. She smiles broadly and comes to him.

It would have been too hard to sleep alone, anyway.

Hurricane Warning

Their meal is hurried. They hunch over their plates, shoveling food in like it’s fuel for the fight and listening to the wind whistle through the trees outside. Grace prays that none of the older trees come crashing down on the roof, or the whole place might come down around them.

Drake and Ruby Gerritson from the Circus come around to help Pen wrestle the plywood onto the windows that don’t have functioning storm shutters. Dav rushes around the yard, gathering up all the effluvia of daily life – garbage cans, watering cans, the odd toy or two – and putting them in the shed. Estelle, still a bit quiet and withdrawn, cuddles with Lucas and Marcie on the couch. Lucas smooths her feathers with one hand and sucks the thumb of his other while an ancient VHS tape of cartoons serves as a distraction. Marcie has timed-out, tucked up against Estelle’s other side, asleep after so much excitement.

Grace plays fetch and carry for a while. Where-are-the-big-nails? Will-you-help-me-hold-this-ladder? Where-the-hell’d-I-set-that-hammer-down? That kind of stuff. When things truly get under way, she moves into the house to check the emergency supplies. The can opener is stashed next to the neat rows of canned goods in the cellar. New batteries go in all the flashlights. Water jugs are inventoried and judged sufficient.

The small horde of people come inside out of the rain and need to be dried off and smoothed out. Ruby Gerritson comes inside after giving herself a dog-like shake on the back steps and seems to sort herself out without trying much, rain rolling off her tattered denim shirt, her greying red hair still held in two tight braids. Her husband Drake settles the kids in a tidy heap in a safe place away from the windows and starts telling them a tall tale.

Just when everyone pauses to take a deep breath, there is a commotion outside. Pen and Ruby go outside to check it out. Ruby produces a shotgun from God-knows-where. It sounds like she’s growling deep in her throat, but it might just be the wind howling.

Pen comes back in looking like his feathers have been ruffled, more rattled than Grace has ever seen him. More people gush into the house and need to be tended to. They look like they’ve been rolling around in a muddy ditch somewhere, and they smell of faintly of bug. Pen seems to know some of them and accept the others, so Grace relaxes. The shotgun is put away.

blue girl with feathers and foliage glued on
blue girl

Extra blankets and spare clothes are claimed and people are fed. Grace gives a smallish girl named Callie some extra attention. She looks like she’s been through a washer on slime cycle, and her eyes are haunted. Although she’s stiff as a board, she accepts a cuddle. Things worse than bugbites have happened to these people. At least one of them is hurt badly and has to be carried in, and they all look like they’re on the verge of shock.

When Worlds Collide

Kool-aid and coffee. That’s all Grace has to offer, but things are getting tense and weird, and it’s easiest, really, to fall back into old patterns. Comforting as the familiar skirt that Sir liked her to wear, although she prefers jeans now. How else is there to cope?

Besides, people are getting cranky and thirsty, with more and more bodies being crammed into Pen’s place, and all airflow cut off by the storm shutters and the plywood over the windows. The hand-cranking fans that Pen had the foresight to buy are whirring away busily, but it’s not nearly enough. They can’t count on any power, and they don’t want the house live when the real wind-force hits, and the temperature is slowly climbing into the fairly uncomfortable. Grace inquires after everyone’s comfort, pouring liquid into plastic or styrofoam cups and neatly printing each person’s name on the side. After a while, she gives up and shoves the marker into her skirt pocket. There are so many people here that she doesn’t really know all of their names. Ah well, they’d just have to keep track of their own cups.

Callie has attached herself to Grace, carrying the jug of kool-aid carefully. Grace smiles into the kid’s eyes. Good. She looks more normal now, less like a victim and more like a third-grader being allowed to help the adults. Talking to Callie is good for the grownups too. It steadies them. She’s good with adults, Grace notices, with mixed feelings. Callie moves with the practiced ease of a performer; she’s got resilience, but there’s a shadowy look to her, too. Grace wonders what she does, in the Circus.

There are folks crammed everywhere. In the cellar, a frail child-like woman with clouds of white hair as fine as spiderwebs crouches on top of a storage shelf, poking at the floor joists.

A gaggle of teen-aged Circus girls sit sprawled on the stairs, cracking their gum and laughing about guys. They call out their hellos to Grace. A few people she barely knows sit in the bathroom smoking, with one of Pen’s precious few cranked fans duct-taped, pushing the smoke out the overhead duct. Grace cringes and thinks about the fire hazard. She doesn’t see Pen, or many of Pen’s usual crowd, among the groups sprawled asleep on the living room floor, or rocking babies. People keep coming and going.

“Who’s watching the door? Where’s Pen?”

“Dunno. What’s he look like?” says a loud woman with fluffy pink hair, smiling at Callie as the child pours a cup full.

When she checks, it’s not Pen guarding the entrance, but Ruby and her shotgun. “Do you know where Pen is?” Grace asks. She should ask him if it’s okay to have strange people in the house. Given his mania for security, she thought she’d find him here at the door. “Who are all these people?”

Ruby fixes her with startling amber eyes. “What would you have me do, cher? Doan tell me you’d have me turn good people out in dis.” She nods at the peek-window they’ve left in the glass of the door. “Now dat jus’ would not be right.”

“Of course not. But how can you tell that they’re good people, if you don’t know them?”

Ruby smiles, a bit nastily. Grace has seen her chuckle, or even bark laughter, but she never smiles. Her sharp white teeth seem too big for her narrow face. “I smell ’em, darlin’. Trouble flat-out stinks. Dese people are ok, cher. Dey won’t be causin’ any fuss. And if dey do…” She smiles again, scarily. Ok. Point taken.

Ruby sobers. “Pen’s upstairs wit’ Estelle.”

Grace leaves Callie with the cups and the awesome responsibility of pouring kool-aid. “I’ll be right back, sweetie.” She drops a kiss on top of Callie’s hair. Callie grins and serves the next cup with a comic flourish. The tired and dirty boy she hands it to drinks thirstily, then gives her a colorful smile, his upper lip stained blue. She laughs and moves along to the next person. The kid looks like she’s having fun.

Grace knocks softly, coming into the room when Pen answers. He’s on the bed with Estelle, holding her hands and crooning to her softly. Estelle stares with sightless black eyes, her mouth gaping open, panting in avian panic. Wow. It looks like he’s having a hard time holding her together.

“What… what’s wrong? Is it the storm?”

“No,” Pen answers sadly. “It’s Dance, m’dear.” Grace gives him a look of utter confusion, so he elaborates. “The tail guy, didn’t you see them carry him in? All of him, not just the parts you can really see?” Grace remembers people staggering under loads of what looked like so much static. She wasn’t sure what it was.

“He’s a viper. Estelle could smell it. A snake.” Pen’s voice is almost too soft to hear over the wind. The rafters groan louder up here, too.

It takes Grace a second to make the connection. She’s only really been exposed to domestic animals, pets trained to tolerate each other in deference to their masters, the way the human pets do. It’s never occurred to her that these animal-humans might clash with each other. But she’s watched enough educational television that it dawns on her. Discovery Channel to the rescue. “Snakes prey on birds.”

“Yes,” Pen answers dryly.

Her heart is wrenched in pity for Estelle, so panicked that she is more animal than human. Poor thing.

“Can’t be helped,” Pen says. “They are here, and we are all-in, whether we like it or not, m’dear. I’ll try not to explode.” Estelle turns her head sharply to him, at that. “Kidding, love, kidding,” he whispers. Then he looks back up at Grace. “I’m sorry to leave you higger-jigger, but they…” and he’s sketching a gesture almost of defeat and looking at her apologetically. “I’ve got to stay here, I’m sorry. Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it, Pen. Honestly. I know you have to stay here.” Grace reaches out and squeezes his shoulder. “We’re all fine downstairs, your kids are safe.” She takes a moment to lightly stroke Estelle’s shoulder, smoothing her lovely plumage. She wishes she could do something to ease her mind, somehow.

There’s really nothing she can do, so she goes to the hall closet for more blankets to spread on the floor downstairs. The pile of children has grown, and so has Drake’s story. They have taken to calling out suggestions and shaping the action, much to their delight. It now involves pirates and fairies and some sort of floating island in the sky. The older man just grins and takes it all in stride, adding a princess with a magic ball for good measure. They are giggling, eyes shining, forgetting all about the storm and the heat and the danger. They make Grace smile. Perhaps they should have story time like this every night. Lucas and Marcie seem enthralled by it, and even Dav looks interested.

Grace stops just short of the closet door, hearing furtive rhythmic thumps and vague cries. Someone has shut themselves away in there to have a bit of privacy. There are folded towels flung on the hall floor, trampled now. Overcome, Grace leans against the wall outside. There it is — the familiar hollowness inside herself, the ache that trickles down the inside of her arms, across her wrists, to pool in the palms of her hands. She wants so badly to touch someone, to be touched, that it makes her a little nauseous. Six, seven years. It’s a long time.

Time to get out of here, forget the blankets. She feels like a voyeur. She trots down the stairs, weaving around the girls on the stairs, frowning at herself and the weakness of her body. Even with the power out, she’s sure that there is something to do to take her mind off the storm. She finds Callie is doing just fine keeping everyone hydrated. Laundry is impossible with the storm, maybe she should go to the kitchen and see if something needs polishing.

She rounds the corner too fast, and runs smack into the large freckled man that arrived with the snake man, Dance. He moves so fast he catches her in time. He doesn’t grab, he doesn’t close his hands on her. He just holds out his arms for her to stumble into, until she can get her feet under her. And then he lowers his arms, and looks at her gravely. Looks all around her face, steadily, as if he has all the time in the world to study her smudged face. The power of it is enough to jerk her still under that regard. He takes his time looking at her, as if he has the time for anybody who comes in front of him here, as if there aren’t dozens of bizarrely troubled souls crammed together here, in need of anything he could give them, and more.

As if there’s no shortage.

As if there is time, and space enough, and leisure to wonder at things, and cherish them, and fix all the things that are broken.

He bends down a little, and he looks squarely into her eyes, and he says, “Thank you for helping us, Grace.”

woman's face with tears
eyes that weep

For a moment she’s frozen under his extraordinary gaze, then conditioning takes over. Grace sinks to her knees, head bowed, and offers her crossed wrists, palms up. Please, please, please, take this away from me, all this uncertainty, all this fear. Please make me feel safe again. Please take away all these choices, all my choices. Please, please.

Please.

The big freckled hands come out and touch her head lightly, a benediction, pressing her hair lightly. Then he whispers, “I know, love. I know what it’s like. C’mon, now, up. Up, dear. You’re a whirlwind keeping this house together, people are counting on you. They’re saying, ‘Oh no, don’t worry, Grace has got it.'” And he smiles at it. “God knows they need you. We need you.”

She looks dazed for a moment, almost unsure about what has just transpired. Then she chokes, gulps back tears, sharply, so she doesn’t make any of those ugly noises, the way she was taught to restrain herself. She rocks forward slightly until her toes are under her, and rises as she’s bid in one smooth motion.

He looks at her with the most terrible clear eyes, knowing it. All of it. “There’ll be a time for tears later, trust me. You don’t have to carry it all. Ruby’s at the door, right? Has Pen got Estelle calmed down yet? I’d never do this to her, poor girl, bringing in my guy Dance, but this damn storm–” And he’s walking, with his arm out like a wing, scooping her along with him, and yet never actually pushing or grabbing or gripping. There’s no claiming involved.

She looks at his face, puzzled. He looks as if he knows exactly what she is, how she’s been trained, that he could run her through her paces as rapidly and expertly as fingering exercises, if he determined she was worthy–but he acts as if she’s claimed. As if she can’t belong to him, she’s not an abandoned lost little girl, she already belongs to somebody, as clearly as if she was wearing their livery. He’s as carefully courtly as if he was looking after a girl who belongs to a good friend of his, making sure she’ll be back to them in good enough shape to serve properly.

The certainty is perfectly clear, rolling off him in such reassuring waves it makes her dizzy. She doesn’t stop to wonder who he thinks she belongs to – that thought is tucked away for later, when there is less to do.

“C’mon now,” he says briskly, “we gotta find you some helpers.”

When she gets back to the kitchen, certain they’re run out of coffee by now, she finds a large, slow-moving person in there who blinks at her from the sink. This person looks remarkably like the frog totem on their tee-shirt. But they are washing the coffeepot with care, and they smile with a very wide mouth, and say, “Nice clean ship you run here, m’dear. Looks like you’ve got some more folks tumbling in at the front end. There’s flood warnings out all over the parish.”

Grace smiles wryly. “There are perpetually more tumbling in at the front. Pretty soon they’ll be oozing out the back.” She nods toward the back door. She doesn’t see Drin smile tiredly and go back upstairs with a glass of water. “Thanks for the help. I’m Grace. Don’t think we’ve ever met before.”

“Haroldine Stalks-Fish,” the other person says, and holds out a powerful damp hand, and they squeeze Grace’s fingers very carefully, very gently.

“Those windows, they worry me, they do,” says a high, sighing voice.

Haroldine answers, “So whatcha gonna do about it, Penelope?”

The skinny, dandelion-haired woman has come up the stairs and begins testing the edges of the plywood for stress. “Oh, my,” she breathes, “this is not good, this is not safe….” The plywood wiggles under her skinny fingers. She grins at Haroldine. “Shall I fix it?” she asks slyly.

Haroldine chuckles. “Like we’re gonna stop you, honey. You need a hand up?” She turns to Grace. “Give her enough time, Penelope here could have this house meshed together tight enough and stable enough to sit through a nuclear blast, I swear. You oughta see the beautiful little beehives she builds of straw for the beekeeper down the way. Works of art.” She clears away dishes, drying them and putting them away as comfortably as if she already knows where everything goes. She hands dishes to Grace, perfectly comfortable with expecting taller people to reach the high shelves for her.

“Penelope, you get you a step up here now so you can work on this kitchen window, right?” And she holds out the wide hand to her friend.

Penelope steps up onto the cleared counter prettily, like it’s a platform for the high wire, and begins to fix the window with some whitish fiber that seems to appear out of her fingertips. “There,” she lisps with a satisfied air. She hops down and wanders along into the living room, looking to see if more windows might be coming loose.

Then Haroldine turns toward the living room, and smiles all across her face. “Why, Hal, you pretty boy you, I ain’t seen you in a coon’s age. You come here and give your Aunt Frog a hug.”

===

This bit is so named because the storm is forcing all the wierd little micro-realities that exist on Pen’s Back Forty together like a bag of marbles. This was a collaboration between… well, all of us, I guess. Things got a little muddled after a while. Like a good curry.

Locatelli, in F

God,” Emma grunts, “he must weigh three hundred pounds.”

More, whispers the voice in her head.

“Put him on the floor, he’ll break that poor bed if we try to let him sleep on that. I think he’s going to be out of it for awhile.” Drin’s voice is giving out on him, raspy, faded as an old carpet.

“You got the tail?” Barret says. “Guy’s got some fiddling muscle on him. It’s gonna be fun.”

Now there’s a clown who’d be funny in a hurricane with the windows blowing out, says the voice.

Oh wait, he is in a hurricane with the windows blowing out. Or will be. You ready for that, Watson?

Shut up, she tells herself savagely.

Remember me? the voice says. The sonuvabitch who sat through your meetings with you and taught you how to play politics while you wanted to lay on your purgatory’s bed of nails in charity fundraising hell and make a few things, you know, like, actually fucking work for a change?

Now there’s something to look forward to when you die!

Oh great, let’s help Emma get through her meetings!

“His eyes are dilated,” Drin’s voice says. “He’s reacting a little bit, it’s just wide open. They’re evenly together, far as I can tell.”

Of course Drin has picked up a little flashlight from somewhere, checking Dance’s eyes, as if he’s been an EMT for years.

Just like he’s been a trucker, sometime, years ago.

“Usually that’s a sign of concussion,” Emma snaps. “When they’re even but too wide.”

“Well, huge surprise,” Barret says. “What in hell did that–that thing taking over Callie do to him?”

“Thing?” Emma snarls. “That wasn’t a thing. That was just Old Beet-Nose. The General. No big deal, just a rude dead guy who used to twirl everybody’s panties in a wad, and the higher the rank they were, the better he liked it.”

Drin sighs. “Not like they didn’t earn every wrinkle, and you know it.”

“I’d have ripped off their balls and served them up pickled, with cocktails, on ice,” Emma says, low and ragged.

“Yeah,” Drin says, and he looks down at his hand, stroking the tail that is about half visible, glinting faint blue and green lights. “Yeah,” he says, with that thousand-yard stare she knows so well. “Maybe that’s why you’re here, love, and he’s not.”

You always did have a mouth like a toilet, that inner voice comments, amused. Guess I taught you right, hey?

Barret frowns.

“Yu Jeong,”he says slowly, as if somewhere he’s learned that precision is important in the blurring edge of the supernatural, where names have the ability to make intangible shapes solidify. “It wasn’t your old friend Wojo who smacked down your friend here. It was the other spirit. The one who didn’t say anything to the rest of us.”

Drin says it before him. “It was the Korean General, the crazy guy who –what did the General say? ‘Who opens the little girl’s head.'”

Barret frowns. “I hope she’s all right.”

“Yeah.” Drin nods. “Makes me wonder what he said to Dance, in all… that… force.”

Barret scowls, glancing off anxiously in the direction of the kitchen. Emma knows, absently, that he’s still worried about the little girl.  Barret knows her from somewhere else.

“Yeah, you’re right, it wasn’t Wojo who knocked down Dance,” Drin says quietly, and Emma blinks at him. “It sure wasn’t the little girl. Although she’s got plenty going on there herself. Mudang, Christ. She’s only, what, eight or nine? Those kinds of shamanic mediums don’t usually get going like that until they hit puberty, don’t they? What did you say her name was, Callie? I think the lady in the kitchen got her some food. They seem to know each other, thank God.  I was afraid we had somebody who wandered off from their folks and hitched a ride for a hundred miles or something. It’s been known.”

“From Afghanistan, right?” Emma hears herself say, in a harsh, sarcastic tone.

She knows Drin is looking at her. But she’s looking at Dance, laying on his side, face blank, eyes like open black voids into space, staring up at them, as much as he’s looking at anything.

“Among others,” Drin says, and in his voice there’s the worn, tired edges of somebody who’s been fighting for a long time.

She knows what it feels like.

“Tibet is the usual venue people expect for stuff like this, but there’s others.” He strokes Dance’s tail lightly, cupping his fingers around it.

Yeah, you’d know some more of those places, huh, Watson? Bouncing out there all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and crawling back with your ass kicked soundly into some kind of humbleness. I mean, as close as you ever get. God forbid you should unbend an inch.

Gotta thank your little dragon of a ride here for working out some of those stubborn old knots out of that stiff neck, Watson.

Shut up, she tells the voice in her head, but it doesn’t.

You’ve already been living in your worst nightmare, the voice says. For years. I don’t know what you’re afraid of now. A little taste of honey, and that’s when you lose it. A little bit of kindness, a little bit of tail–

Shut up, she tells the voice.

Watson, you got no respect in you. You know what happens, if I go away and let you stew in your mess?

No, what? she replies, and she’s still mad as hell at him, goddamn his eyes.

He’s gonna die.

She blinks, staring at the walls. At the furniture. At the things that tell their provenance to her as clearly and loudly as if they were shouting, everywhere she looks. And how, when things that don’t match, the data streams on it leap out in bright green and bright pink and dark red, as if they’re lined with a highlighter pen.

Shut up shut up shuddup, she says, closing her eyes.

But he doesn’t. Uncle Wojo, who always knows better.

That voice in her head who wakes her up at four am on a rough day, saying things like, Hell, waking up early is a gift, don’t waste it. Haul ass, it’s time to get moving.

The voice of a guy who loomed larger than life, back in a life she no longer has. Maybe never had, if she’s going nuts.  A life that she never wants to see again. All those flash images, those things in the water-filled boxes, the rows upon rows of half-grown things stinking.

You’re the real mudang. You’re the fucking grownup. You’ve been doing it for years. But no, you can’t talk to Uncle Wojo, you’re so mad you can’t leave it. You and your goddamn pride.

I have to go ride poor little Callie, who’s getting a cold.

You owe him better.  Tell your dragon what he needs to know.

“Dance,” she whispers, putting her face down close to the staring eyes. “Dance, talk to me.”

The body stirs, the tail flops loose out of Drin’s worried grip and comes around and comes at her so fast they all gasp. It slides up on her waist and twice round her ribs and hugs her, gently. Gently.

She wipes the goddamn irritating water out of her eyes and kisses him, kisses his face, and the tail strokes down her back, touches her on the ache in her spine, and she hears herself choke out a laugh. He always makes her laugh, dammit.

“Yeah, yeah, it hurts, you can work on it later, okay?”

Dance’s lips move, a little puff of breath. “Mudangs have gods,” the puff whispers, precise as he’s ever been, and she feels her eyes go wide. “The Fire Horse burns his stall.”

“West,” Emma replies, automatically. The Fire Horse means West. It’s all there in her mind, in the crooked spidery script of a crazy old Italian monk who lived too long in some very strange places, and only wrote down a maddeningly cryptic few bits of all the bizarre things he saw.

“It’s said that mudang gods command cardinal directions, similar to the loa spirits here,” Drin murmurs.

“Is it the storm? The wind is shifting?” Emma leans closer.

ink of dragon in wind by Kano Hogai
Dragon by Kano Hogai

“You sing the Fire Horse to life,” Dance says, pupils so wide that the weird look of it draws her gaze in hypnotically if she looks at him too long. “They used too many small words. Gods, big words. Get it right.”

Emma snorts. “Now you sound like Uncle Wojo.”

His mouth sags a little, and he breathes harder, as if he hurts.

“What do you need?” Emma asks. “You want some water?”

“Case,” he breathes. “Music.”

Barret surprises them all by moving first.

“Right,” he says. “The viola. You need the viola case.”

The tail squeezes Emma a little on the arm, like a nod, and she relays this.

Get him to unlock the viola case, says the voice, the one that’s made her cut through the crap in meetings for years, as much a part of her as her backaches. And about as welcome, too, most days.

Dance’s chin comes up a degree, and he blinks.

He’s waiting for input, says the General’s voice in her head. And only the gods of mudangs can tell him what key the tune is supposed to be in.

Well, why doesn’t Locatelli haul in his own damned Baroque self and tell us? Emma says, exasperated at the logical inconsistencies.

She’s never had much patience for tricksters and mediums and table-lifters, who are at least trying to make a living, and none at all for self-indulgent New Age soccer moms trying to get at the meaning of a life spent in the suburbs, bred like cows in their stalls.

Uncle Wojo the General laughs. He’s busy. Man, he’s always busy. Get in line, that guy has a waiting room like the Beatles.

“You know what the lock is?” Emma says to Barret, grasping at straws. Maybe she doesn’t have to do this. It’s a struggle sometimes, keeping the dialogue straight, not talking out loud to people who haven’t heard what the General said. Or the others. There’s rules. She doesn’t have to. She’s very clear on this. Tell the murder victims she’s not doing that case load any more.

“Locatelli,” says Barret, firmly.

Of course it is, Emma thinks, flinching at a particularly savage jab in her aching back muscles, as if somebody who she can’t see has just given her a huge shove in the ass. Didn’t I just say so?

“It rotates. Goes through all his pieces, I think you have to mesh with it,” Barret says. “I just don’t know which one it is at any given time. It’s a fail-safe, in case I lose it.”

Drin gives a chuckle. And then he starts to laugh. And laugh and laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Barret asks, and he’s polite about it, under the circumstances.

“Dance knows Locatelli’s pieces in the Art of the Violin like nobody else, all business, backwards and forwards.  He drills on them to improve his technique. My God, I think I could do them in my sleep. He taught himself the transpositions onto Fozzi’s violas last week. You want somebody who can do every piece Locatelli ever wrote, on just about anything with strings, you’re looking at him.”  Drin pats the tail fondly.

“Okay,” Barret says. “Let’s pile some more wierdness on top of the wierdness, it’s all good.” And he holds out the case.

Something seems to strike him, then, and he says, anxiously, “But wait–you don’t know it. You might not know, I mean. Umm, they found some of the guy’s later manuscripts, right? With notes?”

They look at him.

“The books you’d have now aren’t right,” Barret says. “I just read a new article about it. Auren got hold of it, God knows how, to make this lock harder to break. The Maestro’s notes said that he left one piece out. Nobody knows why. He didn’t write the music for this anywhere else, just a little scribble in the notes. Locatelli’s notes said something about a logical puzzle, the corner piece for the reader to complete on their own. Like that mathematical proof, Fermat’s Last Theorem or whatever it is.”

What’s the key, Watson? says the voice in her head. He’s waiting on you.

No, she says. I am not a goddamn tape recorder for people’s leftover unfinished business and their stray ghosts and their murdered little babies who never lived long enough to talk. It’s not my job. I never asked for it.

Yes you did, says the General, and he’s not pleased.  You got metal threaded in your bones for it.  Give him the key.

He’s not gonna die because I kept a lid on my silly fantasies and shut up the viola case and told you to go away and just fucking die, like you should have, she says.

C’mon Watson, you know better than that.

Oh, do I? she says, a little hysterically. I’m talking to a dead guy and a guy with an invisible tail and a guy out of time–

Well hell, if you say no, the best he can do is die in his sleep.  They made their stupid limited words too small for him, and he’s never going to grow out without help. I hope you and Lieutenant Drin polished that boy’s saddle brass good when you rode him, loved him all happy, because any last little bit, any crumb of the mean or the fear or the hate, when you open that case, he’ll come apart under you like the sun blowing up. At least dying quiet is better than that.

Emma lowers her head and kisses Dance on the cheek, and whispers, fiercely, “I don’t care how big you get, or what kind of a dragon you turn into, I love you, and you’re ours. You got that?”

Chinese hand scroll painting of dragons
At Play in Clouds

There’s a puff of air on her cheek, saying, “Good big words.”

“He wrote it in F,” she says firmly. She leans over Dance, and whispers, clearly and firmly, “You can figure it out. You can do this puzzle. I know you can. It’s in F sharp.”

A little puff of air greets her cheek like a kiss, and then the irises come shut as bright as coins, the pupils almost pinpoints. The tail slides loose from her waist, fumbles on the floor, and Barret puts the viola case into its coils, and the tail carries it up to Dance’s chest, hugs it there. Dance’s lips move a little, and then go still.

The skin around his eyes squints a little, the most human sign they’ve seen from him since the fight in the road.

Drin smiles. He knows the look. “He’ll figure it out.”

Is There a Doctor In the House?

Caleb has never been able to drive to his destination, not even with a four wheel drive. They’ve shown him where to hide his car, where to step to avoid nasty fucking surprises while he’s hiking the last bit, how to approach the place the they call the Back Forty. The first couple of times they had people to walk him in, but he’s on his own now. He doesn’t know whether to feel honored that they trust him, or annoyed because it means that his fucking pack sometimes weighs a metric ton, trying to carry all the shit that he needs.

Maybe he ought to just say fuck it and just stay for good.

Of course, living here would mean losing all opportunities in the outside world, opportunities to acquire new drugs and new techniques, opportunities to talk to other doctors. Of course, the opportunity to talk to other doctors really meant the opportunity to kiss the asses of the Good Ole Boys of Medicine.

Ok, so maybe he wouldn’t miss that. What the snobbish grandchildren of renowned surgeons he met in med school didn’t understand is that his upbringing gave him an edge that they could never claim. He spent so much his childhood watching his dad practice medicine on animals that he was really good at reading non-verbals and figuring out what was wrong with people that just didn’t articulate. Toddlers love him, and sweet, vague grandmas tease him about being a mind-reader. It’s none of those things, really, but it’s fun to pretend sometimes, to wink knowingly and smile, a fucking mystery.

He hasn’t been paying enough attention. His tightly-laced work boots stutter to a halt, and he looks behind, at the oak with the oddly-shaped burl on it. Fifteen steps? Twenty? He can’t remember. He wants to go back and recount, get it fucking right this time, but… Yeah. He’s still not sure that something wasn’t going to blow up if he did. He doesn’t think that failure to follow his instructions will make a vine net fall down and scoop him up into the trees to be jeered at when his potential patients find him. He thinks that something a lot worse, something fatal, will happen. What? Who the hell knows? Who cares, even? Dead is dead. Ok, call it eighteen steps then, and hope it’s close enough.

His mind ignores the command to just pay some goddamn attention to what he’s doing and wanders off again. He had a decent little practice in the suburbs after Pritzker and the standard brutal residency, found a receptionist of his own just like Dad, had three kids that he loved to death. Far from perfect, with the stress of paying off an incredibly large student loan and the cost of malfuckingpractice insurance, but still pretty great.

stone steps in mossy woods
stairs in jungle

Really goddamn great, in retrospect. Best not to think about that while walking down this overgrown deer trail that Iscen calls a road, or he’ll get his ass blown to kingdom come. Or wherever. Who knows how they get that fucking circus in and out of this place. There are a lot of secrets that Caleb hasn’t been let in on, plenty that he’ll never learn, not if he is their doctor here for a hundred thousand years. He’ll always be a bit of an outsider, and that’s fine by him. This is how he’s been shown to get in, so this is the way he fucking goes. It’s clearly Iscen’s show.

In the year that he’s know Iscen, he’s grown oddly fond of her. In the beginning she was the reason he hiked to this place, through the fucking mosquitoes and the shitty swamp mud, through the baffling security that’ll probably kill him some day. Not because of any romantic inclinations, oh, no. Romance died with Joanne. But he was a people watcher. Her implacability and her obvious concern for her people were an intriguing combination. A little later, he met plenty of other people that were just as fascinating. Unfuckingbelievable.

When last year’s hurricane hit the coast of Louisiana, he’d volunteered on a whim. Nothing better to do, really. Then he had gotten stuck himself, trying to rescue people — wasn’t that a hoot? — out on a country road in a flash flood, after they had said that it was safe to go in. That’s when he had met these people. They pulled his ass out of the flood, dried him off, and put him to work.

Looking around made him scared to drink the water at first. Christ, the mutations! But then he figured fuck it, if he was going to grow a third eye in the middle of his forehead or suddenly sprout feathers on his arms, that was all right by him. Didn’t really have anything to live for anyway. But then he met Hal and that crazy aunt of his. And three bright, funny kids with black-striped white fur and brilliant blue eyes that bounced around him singing the Tigger song and giggling. And a frightened woman named Evonne who was pregnant and scared to death that her baby was going to be a stillbirth, like her last three had been. And Mama Gigi, who couldn’t afford a doctor after only maybe half the surgeries she really needs — she had problems with her prostate gland.

For these people, and others, he made this trip four times in the past eleven months. All sorts of interesting people in this swamp, people who couldn’t go to the hospital. Fuck the Hippocratic oath — he had taken his own, on his father’s grave, the day after he graduated from med school. These people needed help.