Jenny sits in a concrete office with bars on the one tiny window. Her hands fold around a mug in her lap, empty of all but a dark cloud of spent tea.
Rain patters against the window glass.
A police officer in a green army uniform smokes a cigar at a metal desk which fills most of the room. His face is as wide as a chamber pot and his smoke curls around the blades of a slowly spinning ceiling fan.
Jenny has a black eye and bruises on her forearms, along with little cuts that look like they’re from broken glass. Her dress is floral patterned sack-cloth and baggy, its hem stained with the same mud that covers her shoes. When she sees me paused in the doorway, she leans her head against the wall and lets out a long whistle.
“Well look who finally got cat-dragged. Lose your way brilliance?” Her shoulders slump, her cheeks pale and lips thin. Her hair is a damp mess like wet straw.
I glance over my shoulder at the young men who led me here from the front yard. The concrete building has narrow halls painted white and set with ceiling fans at regular intervals. The little window in this room is the first one I’ve seen.
The more courageous of my two guides prods me in the back, indicating that I should go into this room and sit down. As soon as I’m inside the two of them close the door and depart, leaving three disheveled folk in a room that sounds like a ceiling fan and smells of a cigar.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” I tell Jenny as I sit, “Though you look like you got mauled by a bobcat. What’s his name I’ll skin him for you.”
“Too late,” she says, “too late by a day, and he’d have made an ugly hat anyway.”
She blows a sigh and rolls her eyes at the officer behind the desk. He’s studiously ignoring both of us, staring at a piece of paper covered in the local alphabet which I’ve never learned a letter of.
“You gonna let us go now old man?” She asks, with the air of one repeating herself. “You really should be grateful, not keeping us on the skimmy like goons.”
“So paperwork and politics?” I remind her. “It seems more like you kicked a hornet’s nest.”
“Yeah daddy’o,” she clutches her empty mug. “It was swell. Turns out, a bunch of the coppers work for Agafya, except a bunch of the others don’t, and the ones that do and the ones that don’t don’t like each other so much. One of the bosses sent a gang of muscle to kick down Agafya’s front door and some of the other big guys upstairs didn’t like that neither. They started a real friendly row right here in the academy. Then I guess Agafya got mad there were coppers in his house and the whole city slid screwy.”
“You started a police brawl by telling them where to find Bitter Flower?” I arch an incredulous eyebrow.
Her head pivots back to me and her eyelids hang heavy. “It wasn’t that easy, brilliance. But yeah, that’s the short of it. Took a lot of fast-talking, and a few bullets. A lot of running. Waved around David’s name, and my father’s. There was a thing with a prince. I had to jump through a window and I got arrested in the royal palace.” She shrugs. “It was swell,” she says again. “I’ll tell you all about it when we’ve got the time. The good news is the Prince has got it in for Agafya. The bad is he’s not entirely in charge. At the least I figure we’ve given Agafya something else to think about than whether Sylvia works for him. So what about your big adventure? Find a forgotten treasure in the ruins up-river?”
I smile, enjoying the sound of her voice and the now familiar banter. I can’t wait to hear the rest of the story.
“Forgotten yes, treasure… jury’s still out.” I shrug. “I learned a bunch, got in a gunfight with the ghost of my father and ran into Sylvia in a dream. I’d about got a plan off the ground with an archeologist, a lost temple, and a prophet but then Agafya showed up and killed a lot of people.” My mood sours. “That was not so good, really. In fact, it downright stank. I’ll tell you all about it but first, who’s Cigarface here? Can we talk in front of him?”
The cigar smoker blinks and looks up as I jerk my thumb his way. He removes the cigar from his mouth. “Have you noticed you’re not in a cell?” he says, with an American accent. “You’re welcome. Prince Aditya Dibabha personally required me to keep you here-”
“Did I look like I was asking you?” I demand.
Jenny blinks and giggles. For god’s sake, she giggles. Without smiling, or moving her hands. I don’t understand how. It looks exhausting.
“Sure we can talk,” she says, with her eyes focused past the ceiling. “He won’t believe you. Besides, there’s thirty coppers in the next room who think we know all about Agafya’s criminal ring. Half of them, and nobody knows which half, are working for him. The other half want to take him down. You and I are on nobody’s good side, so it doesn’t matter what you say, because either way we’re in for a stay that’s either long and prison shaped, or very long and box shaped.”
“Sounds like we need to leave.” I grin.
“Well it’s that or we play cat’s cradle and wait for the cops to pick our fate. Was thinking about having a nap, but now you’re here.”
“So I am, and I’ve got good news and bad news,” I tell her. “Which do you want first?”
“Always the bad first, that’s my rule. Then you get something nicer to go home on.” Her mug still rests in her lap and her head against the wall. Her meandering voice sounds like exhaustion.
I’m pleased I can provide a bit of hope: “Bad news is we can’t play cat’s cradle because we’d need string, and short of tearing up our clothes, I’m fresh out. Which is too bad because I do a mean candles-to-manger transition.”
“That is bad news,” she replies, with nary a hint of a smile. “But save your pants. I’ve had worse news today. What happened to your shirt anyway?”
“The good news is the precinct is basically empty.”
Her head leaves the wall. Her half-lidded eyes spark and a flush of color enters her cheeks as she shifts the mug into her right hand.
“Yeah,” I say. “I walked in past a hundred empty desks. I figure the lot of them are out on the streets, just about anybody who can walk straight anyway. Which leaves you, me, and the only thing between us and freedom: that guy.”
I look at Cigarface. He looks at me, and plunks a .38 revolver down on the desk, his finger on the trigger.
“Try it,” he says. “I beg you.”
“Definitely shoot her first,” I say and smile. “She’s a dangerous criminal.”
“It’s true,” says Jenny, “I really am.”
In my second sight, the aggression which belies his intention to pull the trigger hovers in his forearm and his eyes like a coiled spring. It slowly contracts, growing denser and more ready as he prepares himself.
When I look for weaknesses the outer layers of color and memory peel back, revealing those mars like ugly minnows swimming beneath every surface, eager for my touch.
There’s one on his wrist, one on his skull, one on the gun, and one on each bullet. There’s one on the leg of the desk near my foot. With those colors comes the knowledge of the thing’s demise; It will end. Its shape will come apart, whether it be a bone or a chair or his whole body. The mars say all things end.
I see a thousand ways to ruin this man, but I also catch the flash of red from Jenny which comes an instant before her mug skips off of Cigarface’s forehead to shatter against the wall behind him.
His eyes cross, just for a moment – a moment long enough for her to snatch the gun from under his hand.
I kick the mar in the desk leg and it shatters, spraying shards of metal across the floor. The desk topples into Cigarface’s lap and his eyes bug out at the sudden weight.
Before he recovers enough breath to shout we’re out the door and running.
The echoes of his inarticulate yell chase us through rows of empty desks and bounce back from the double doors between us and daylight. Jenny hits the door first and throws it open. I listen for running feet, but only our own echoes chase us.
Beyond the door waits a brick paved passage between the wings of the police building. It’s straight as a meter stick and empty except for a couple of broken bicycles in a corner and a family of ravens who refuse to startle as Jenny patters past them with me close behind.
The alley lets out to the streets through a double-wide iron gate almost fifty yards away. The gate stands open, but a sandbag wall to one side of it shelters a lone rifle-toting policeman in a blue hat. He’s crouched by the sandbags looking out and hasn’t seen us yet.
Jenny, a dozen yards ahead of me, slows and waits impatiently for me to catch up. The brick is smooth and new under my bare feet. The yard smells of soap, cigarettes and wood smoke.
“Why are you limping?” She grabs my arm. “Don’t rush past, he’ll notice-“
But whatever she meant to say is cut off by the bang of the door we came out of slamming open.
Cigarface leans on the frame and bellows: ‘Hey stop them!’
The rifleman glances back, then turns.
“Screw,” says Jenny.
Its thirty yards to the gate and the only cover would be to run back into the buildings on the left and right and risk getting lost in winding, windowless halls full of unknown policemen and auxiliaries.
“Stohpe! Eym-armed!” shouts the rifleman with a nearly unintelligible accent.
Jenny plants her feet under her shoulders and raises the captured pistol in one hand. It’s black and looks heavy, but her grip holds steady.
The gate guard works the bolt on his weapon and snaps off a shot all in one jerky, hurried move. The rifle’s boom and the crack of the bullet off of courtyard brick echo from the precinct walls and the ravens finally take off in a flutter of black.
In Jenny’s hand, the ghostly image of her long barreled sharp-shooting pistol coalesces like a stormcloud on a cold wind. The outline covers Cigarface’s revolver, focuses, sharpens and then the revolver barks. The gate guard takes a step back and looks down to where a red flower blooms in his shirt. He drops his rifle and sits down.
Jenny starts running again. My knees protest as I follow and there’s a sense of shearing in the split flesh of my stitched leg, but standing around feeling sorry isn’t an option.
Jenny’s floral sack-cloth dress flows around her pale ankles. The gun is a dark counterpoint. She puts one muddy sneaker on the sandbag wall and points her gun at the cop. “Don’t move!” I hear her cold command as she glances back to gauge how long I’ll need to catch up.
I make it to the gate and risk a glance at the unfortunate gate-guard. He’s pressed both hands to his seeping chest. His eyes flutter and he rocks back and forth, crooning. The green lines of his life force war with the wound like ants against a spider.
The streets are lined with modern two-story buildings with brick faces and tile roofs. Like low canyons they split and fracture in a hundred directions. Jenny bolts past me as I try to decide which way to run. She pauses at the mouth of an alley no wider than a shopping cart and looks back. Then I’m past her and the echoes of our footfalls line the alley walls.
Bells ring in every direction throughout the city, and the air smells of smoke. The rain has paused, but judging from dark clouds hanging low, it’ll be back. A homeless man, his hair tousled and his eyes and teeth red, watches us go by from behind a pile of wooden crates. His aura is a shimmering cascade of fears.
Jenny skids to a halt at an intersection. One meter wide alleys split in four directions to wind between neck-high fences of wood or bamboo. The fences divide yards of thick grass and fruit trees from each other. Spicy food incenses the still air, and decaying fruit from the trees. We’re between streets, looking at the private worlds of the citizens, the homes behind the façade of trade which lines the streets.
My legs are leaden. It’s been a really long couple of days. Jenny points a glare my way. She doesn’t seem to mind how her hair has stuck to her face like a straw mask.
“You’re slow,” she accuses me. “What happened to your leg?”
“But steady,” I reply and work to catch my breath. “I’ve been told that’s better. It got shot a little, but don’t worry about it.”
“They’re not following.” She’s listening and looking from one alley to the next. Her aura is a deep and vibrant red, like fresh blood or an Edinburgh rose. Its flavor doesn’t speak to me of aggression, but of focus, of a grounded, physical energy intent on survival. The revolver in her hand has a double image overlaid of her marksman’s pistol. It strikes me that her floral dress makes decent camouflage against the patchwork greens and browns of this city.
She pushes the hair out of her eyes and glances at me, but not for long.
“Mark,” she says. “You kicked that table apart like it was made of china.”
She glances at me again and there’s a little fear in her eyes. “The table was made of steel. Before you got there I got mad and kicked it a few times. It didn’t budge. My toe still hurts.”
I’ve got my breath back, so I straighten up. “That sounds about right.”
She looks into my face for a breath. The gun sways at her side. “Mark, you’re not that strong.”
“It’s not a question of strength.”
Sirens crescendo and then decrescendo as they pass on a nearby street. A few raindrops start thumping against the wood fences and muddy paths.
Jenny’s frown is a permanent installation. “You people sure love your cryptic better-than-thou.”
“You, Sylvia, David, everybody involved in this mess.”
“Hey,” I say, “don’t make me one of them. I didn’t know any more than you yesterday. I’ve learned a few things since we parted ways and I wouldn’t believe most of them if I weren’t living it. Now isn’t the moment for a full report, but short form is that drug your sister gave me has all kinds of perks. More while we move. We haven’t got much time.”
She nods. “I’ll take that check, but don’t forget you owe me, mister.”
“Yeah,” I say. “That’s what you pay me for.”
Rain or sweat runs down her face. The stolen gun hangs from her hand like a criminal from a rope. “You got some place we can lay low and get caught up?”
“Depends what you want to do after,” I tell her.
She chews her lip, and her thumb strokes the revolver’s hammer, but the brilliant green in her eyes is shadowed as she looks past the alley walls.
“Get Sylvia,” she says. “Go home.”
“So then no; I haven’t got anywhere to stay, and we haven’t got anywhere but one place to go. Drydus, that’s Hilda, the big German, has a little alliance of people who oppose Agafya. They can get us into Bitter Flower, and they want us to wait there in ambush until Agayfa gets back. Then the hour will be on us, and we either do or don’t.”
A fortuitous boom of thunder underscores that statement, and I milk it for dramatic satisfaction. You find your happiness where you can. Jenny watches me for a long few seconds with no apparent thought on her mind. Her green eyes are hollow, but she raises the revolver to rest against her shoulder and a nod barely moves her head.
“You look as tired as I feel.” Her whisper is quiet enough the pattering rain almost hides it. “You sure we can do this? That’s a hell of a plan.”
My pants had almost dried. The damp touch of the rain carries the promise of the sniffles, and wakes shivers in a body whose heart and muscle have little left to give. The fat drops leave dark spots in her dress, and one hits her cheek below her eye. It’s summer and dammit we’re in the tropics; it’s not supposed to be cold.
“All the other roads lead away from Sylvia,” I tell her. “This night’s work will have cost Agafya. The German means to hit him while he’s licking his wounds, and I see the sense in it, but they believe Sylvia is still loyal to the enemy, and the first item on their checklist is taking her out. If you’re there and she sees you, then I believe she’ll turn, she’ll help us, but it’s dangerous. Really dangerous. I’ve been warned that you’ll be in special danger, so, it’s got to be up to you. If you don’t’ want to do it, I understand.”
She frowns and taps the gun against her shoulder. “The police and army are the same people and the big boss on top is in this ball-game. When I was in the palace I overheard him ordering up the army from some base outside the city – tanks, guns, lots of men. They mean to end the temple, and everyone in it.”
I blink: “And you didn’t think to lead with that? How long before they move in?”
She shrugs and her chin tilts back, but there are tears in her eyes. “If they’d known I knew, they’d have put me in a prison cell not an office. I told them where the temple was. I told them and the tanks will be there tonight.”
A gust of wind moves her dress and blows her hair like old thatch. Crows circle overhead, talking to each-other in worried tones.
“I wasn’t sure there was any more harm I could do,” she says. “Do you really think we can help?”
“Maybe,” I say. “I’m willing to try if you are.”
She offers me her hand, palm up.
“Alright,” she says. “It’s you and me, Brilliance. Kill the bad guy, save Sylvia, and save the world.”
The life in her fingers holds its own warmth like a wick holds flame and a little of it passes up my arm as she squeezes my palm.
“The world?” I ask, suddenly worried. “How so?”
She replies with a tired smile: “No that’s just something David kept saying.”
While we walk, I talk her through what I’ve seen and done, omitting nothing. She listens without answer, though she keeps pulling me into doorways or out of sight to wait for cars or groups of armed citizens to pass.
When I tell her about the two diamonds, she says:
“Nash told you they meant to steal one. He didn’t say they had one already, but then he might not have known.”
While I explain the priest she stops walking and stares, quirking a skeptical eyebrow.
“Do you believe me?” I ask.
“I believe you,” she answers, “him I’m not so sure about. No offense but besides you breaking a table the only weird thing I’ve seen was how your face got healed. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked to begin with.”
“You didn’t see them take the camp. Those soldiers didn’t stand a chance. Agafya and your sister were angry ghosts.”
“Light and smoke?” she asks. “Lots of thunder?”
“Yeah they could have been using the cover of confusion but you didn’t hear the sound-“
She steps closer to me and places her empty palm against my chest.
“Mark,” she says, “It doesn’t matter if I believe you. Even if this stuff is real, we can’t rely on spirits or magic. Those cards are all in their hands.”
“Not all,” I assure her.
“So lets talk about this plan,” she says, and starts past me down the street.
“Yeah.” I say, following, “Plans. We can talk about that because I’ve got one. It’s not my most complicated plan ever. Are you ready for it?”
“Fire away,” she tells me.
“Exactly. We go wait like Drydus said. When Agafya gets back, we make like chums until the right moment. Then you shoot him in the head.”
She’s silent for three steps.
“I have four bullets left,” she says, “and I can make the shot, but making the shot isn’t the hard part. It’s getting away afterward.”
“Even if you miss it will force Sylvia to protect you. Believe me, she’s capable of it. Some of them will back Agafya, but others will back us. We’ll have a party.”
She stops at a brick corner about a block from the market of five roads and catches my hand as I move past. Her grip stops me, but I spare a glance around the corner and down the street. It’s empty, but through the falling rain I can make out the smoking remains of cars parked in a barricade across the market junction.
“Hey,” says Jenny.
“What?” I ask her.
She’s about a hand’s length away and her freckles match the spots on the brick wall behind her.
“I don’t want to die.” It’s a cold statement, but her grip on my hand tightens.
“Then don’t risk your life,” I tell her.
“Have to,” she says, and shifts her weight. “What are you stupid? We’re walking into Bitter Flower with this plan? There’s no way out. Police have my name, Agafya’s got my number. I can’t get on a plane. At this point, the only thing I can think of to do is hope Sylvia’s smuggling contacts can get us out of the country, but that’s assuming she’ll even….”
“This is the tightest spot I’ve ever seen,” I agree, “but there’s always a way out. Keep moving, keep your head down and your eyes open, watch for the opportunities. We’ll make it.”
She searches my face. “What was dying like?”
The question catches me by surprise. Rain tumbles down around us and the gutter over our head gurgles. Gunfire has left the city, but the distant cries of bells and urgent voices still linger in the cold air.
“Don’t die,” I tell her. “Sylvia needs you. I need you. Don’t die.”
She nods. “But what was it like?”
“Everybody finds out someday,” I watch the rain reflected in her eyes. “But if there’s anything after, I didn’t see it. Just pain and despair and then nothing. Like I said, keep moving and your eyes open. You’ll be fine.”
“Maybe, but Mark,” she tilts her head, “I can’t pay you four dollars a day.”
“Technically it’s ten dollars any day there are bullets, but hold on to your britches because this is going to come as a real shocker: I was never in it for the money.”
Her voice is barely a whisper and her green eyes send a shiver through me. “I know. Are you in it for me?”
I have to take a breath before I shake my head ‘no.’
She looks away. “What do you want me to tell her, if you don’t make it that far?”
I wet my lips, and settle on: “Thanks.”
Jenny nods. Her face is hard, and though there’s doubt in her eyes, there’s also fire.