Fiction Monday: When the Cat’s Away Part Three

So it’s Monday morning again, and I can’t say I’m thrilled.  My weekend was rather up and down:  good times, bad news, stressful necessities and pleasant surprises all warred for my attention.  Sometimes life can be a roller coaster, even here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  That’s not necessarily a good thing.

However, that’s my problem, and nothing you need to worry about.  On the Steampunk, Dieselpunk, and New Pulp front, things are all coming up Clarkson!  I have a sparkling new sub-pile on the To Be Read Mt. Everest that lives inside my Kindle (and Amazon wish list), and that’s always a treat.  More importantly, we’re now officially less than a month out from Vandalia-Con!  I know, I know, it’s a small con in an out-of-the-way town in Appalachia.  But I am really looking forward to it.  Generally speaking, I prefer small events over large ones; small ones mean you can sit down and talk, actually interact with people, places, things, etc.  Large events become too frenetic, overwhelming and less fun, at least for me.  Seriously, if you’re within driving distance of Morgantown/Parkersburg (hi, Pittsburgh readers, I know you’re out there!), make an effort to come on down and join the fun!  It’s going to be the best kind of small event, and all the money raised is going to a terrific cause.  Fun AND altruism, together in the same Steampunk package?  How can you beat that?

Okay, I’ve stalled long enough.  I owe you the next installment of April Tyree, Girl Detective.  Will she avoid her fate as sacrifice?  Will she free the girl, save the day and escape from the secret pyramid?  What happens next?  Well, you’re about to find out….


When the Cat’s Away…

by
AJ Clarkson

Part Three

Damn it, where was Charity Rostavitch!?  For that matter, where was the stupid exit?  The inside of this insane wooden pyramid was a maze of intersecting corridors, rooms, open chambers, secret passages.  For all I know, that crazy twit Patricia Blumenthal had smuggled in her own honest-to-goodness minotaur.  All I know was that I’d try a door, tiptoe further down the hall, turn a corner, hide in an alcove when I heard footsteps or voices, (both of which echoed so much there was no way of judging which direction it was coming from), then start the whole ridiculous mess over again.

At one point, I could hear shouts and pounding; I guess Patty and her flunkies had gone back to the chapel and found where I had wedge-jammed the door; it may have been un-openable from the inside, but a few good thumps from out here in the hall and my little jamming trick was toast.  Three loud bangs let me know they’d figured that out; the echoing bang and then voices and scurrying feet told me they’d gotten Mercedes and company out.  Which meant there were now at least seven people looking for me now, and all of them knew the layout here better than me.

Then I turned a corner.  There was only one door down this little cul-de-sac.  It had a symbol smeared on it, in a dark brownish-red substance that looked like dried blood.  The marking looked like this:  y

I recognized it.  I told you already, the weird hangs out on my side of the street; there’s money to be made in knowing how the underground magic scene works.  In this case, that mark was a warding sigil, a powerful one.  Nothing could go in or out of that door unless you either had the countersign or knew how to break the sigil.

What?  Yeah, you heard me right.  Magic is real. Well, some of it is real.  Some of it is pure hokum.  There are such things as wizards, people who do nothing but practice magic, and I’m ambivalent about those sorts.  On the one hand, wizards embrace a level of nerdiness that makes that annoying kid in your high school math class look as suave as the Dos Equis guy.  On the other hand, that much power is a whole new world of scary.  Patty — or whatever’s sub-letting her brain pan — is a practitioner.  A good one, too, if this sigil was any indication.

Most people aren’t at the wizard level of magic-slinging.  Most of us don’t bother with any of it, because magic is generally difficult, dangerous and expensive, even for the wizard nerd types.  Most spells require blood.  Or rare and/or precious minerals, objects, what have you.  Or all of the above.  And that’s in addition to you needing to know how to read and write a couple of dead languges, and to follow the recipe for a particular spell.  If you don’t get it letter perfect, well, the backlash is a world class bitch.

Yeah, I can cast a few spells.  Nothing on the level of Patty’s work, though. Or Herek-al-Hootchie, or whatever her name is, whoever is sub-letting space in Patty’ brain pan.  Luckily for me, breaking this sigil didn’t require that much magic.  I wasn’t casting a spell, technically.  I was just ruining somebody else’s work.  It’s always easier to destroy than to build.

Normally I would have used the kris knife to cut my hand.  But I already had a steady supply of blood, thanks to Patty and her crazy altar of doom.  I pressed my fingertips to the gouge Patty had cut in my forearm.  Okay, that hurt.  Bad.  I had to steady myself against the wall; my knees wanted to buckle from the pain.  I found myself panting hard, waiting for the lightheadedness to pass.  Wow.  I must be hurt worse than I thought.

Anyway, when I could stand up without falling over in a heap, I began muttering, not too loud, so Patty and her minions couldn’t hear me.  I would tell you the words to the incantation I used, but there are rules about that sort of thing.  Besides, I can barely pronounce them, much less spell them.  You think speaking German is hard on the throat, try reciting the thirteen forbidden names of the Sleeper at the Edge of Darkness.  Not fun.

I hate the feeling of magical power building up.  You ever touched an electric fence, or stuck your finger into a light bulb socket when the power’s turned on?  it doesn’t precisely hurt, not the way a cut or a burn feels.  But it’s so not nice, either.  To me, it feels like a fistful of gravel, just under your skin, rolling up your arm.  That’s sort of like what magic feels like as it builds up in your system, waiting to be released.  Only the gravel is hot (sometimes icy cold, but usually hot), and instead of following the nerve paths from your fingertip to your brain, it’s just moving in tight circles, bracelets of not-pain swirling around and around at lightning speed until you want to scream.

Those bracelets of not-pain were spinning around my hand and arm as I finished the incantation; the last syllables (I hesitate to call them words) came out in a harsh whispering rasp as I actively fought to keep from screaming.  Instead of that, however, I slammed my hand down on the sigil, daubing my blood onto the wood and smearing the blood of the sigil.  The magic crawling under my skin zinged out;  there was a whiff of scorched wood and a pop! that I felt more than I heard; that almost-sound was the wards, whatever they were, dissipating.  When I reached for the doorknob a second later, it was almost too hot to handle, a side effect of the broken ward.  I was lucky; if it had zigged intstead of zagged, it would have grounded out through my hand, and I’d be a crispy critter.

Magic is dangerous, boys and girls.  Don’t let anybody tell you different.

But whoever had laid the sigil hadn’t bothered to lock the door — idiot! — so the knob turned easily in my hand.  The room beyond was lit by a single bare light bulb dangling from a wire in the ceiling.  A single, stained mattress lay against the far wall.   On that mattress was a thin, narrow-hipped girl with blonde hair, wearing only a camisole and flower-print panties.  She was lying on her side, her back to me; I could see where the handcuffs that held her hands behind her had dug ugly, bloody gouges into the flesh of her wrists.

She was still alive; I could see her breathing.  But beyond that, nothing.  The girl didn’t move, not even a flinch, at the sound of the door opening.  “Charity?” I hissed.  No reaction.  I glanced back over my shoulder; so far nobody had noticed me.  I closed the door behind me and spoke a little louder.  “Charity?  Hey, girl, wake up!”  Still no reaction.

I didn’t have long before Patty or one of her kooky followers got the bright idea to check in here.  I knelt beside the mattress and felt her neck for a pulse; it was there, but slow, like a sleeper.  I undid the handcuffs (yeah, I carry a handcuff key with me all the time; it comes in handy at times.  Don’t judge me!) and rolled the girl over onto her back.

It was Charity Rostovitch all right; the face matched her photos.  But her eyes were wide open, staring, the pupils narrowed to the tiniest pinpricks. They were keeping her drugged.  Great.  Just great.  I shrugged out of my jacket and started forcing Charity’s arms into the sleeves.  “Charity, honey, come on, up and moving!” I said, as loud as I dared.  “Come on, girl, pull it together!”

Those bizarre pinprick eyes rolled over slowly in my direction, tried to focus, then gave up the effort.  “Mom?” she sighed.

“Nope.  I’m April.  Your mom sent me to bring you home.  You wanna go home, then you’re gonna have to make an effort and help me!”

“Sleepy,” Charity moaned, and tried to roll back over.

“No no no!  Now’s not the time for another nap, Charity,” I said.  I grabbed her shoulders and pulled her up to a sitting position. I jumped up, got behind her, wedged my forearms under her arms and levered her up onto her feet.  Not easy, because A) she was taller than me, and B) her legs were as bendy as Laffy Taffy.  AND she complained the entire time, giving me half-sleeping moans of “I don’t wanna go to school!” and “five more minutes, Mom, please?”

The reason I plan to never reproduce is those cute little babies eventually turn into whiny teenagers.  Blech.

Anyway, I finally got her to stand on her own, more or less, and I braced her against me, her arm around my neck, my own tight around her waist, half holding her up.  We got a whole three steps before the doorknob rattled.  The door swung open and Patty walked in.  I stepped back in reflex; unprepared for the sudden change in momentum, Charity stumbled and reeled backward, sitting down hard on the mattress.  She nearly pulled me down with her; the backs of my heels hit the edge of the mattress and I windmilled wildly, barely managing not to sit down on top of Charity.

Patty watched this graceful drama play out without a word.  When I had finally regained my balance and turned to face her, she smiled and gave me a slow clap.  “Very entertaining, Miss Tyree,” she said.  “But now that playtime is over, shall we get on with business?”

I slid my hand behind me, where my pistol was tucked into the back waistband of my jeans.  But there was no pistol snug against the small of my back; I felt only the wrinkled cotton of my shirt. Idiot!  They must have taken my gun when they tied me to that stupid altar!

Patty must have understood my gesture, and the expression on my face. “Looking for this?” she said.  She reached into the sinus of her robe and came out with my 9mm Springfield X.D, still in its holster; it dangled from her forefinger, thrust through the trigger guard.  Clumsy.  Dangerous. And useless to me, because I still had to get past Patty, whatever was sub-letting her skull (if there really was anybody in there besides a buttload of crazy), and her kook-buddies before I could get this stoned teen home to her mom and collect my pay.  And I had no tools to do any of it; I was well and truly stuck.

I sighed heavily. “Well, shit.”

To Part Two

 


 

Well, that’s it for me for now.  What happens next?  Will they escape the pyramid?  Will Patty turn out to be even nastier than she already appears?  Will April end up a sacrifice to some dark god?  Tune in next Monday, same Pulp time, same Pulp channel!

In the meantime, you know the routine:  tweet, comment, share, write.  My email is ajwriter@ajclarkson.net if you want to ask questions, share goodies for Fun Friday, or just shoot the breeze.  I’ll be back on Wednesday to share my love for all things Punk and Pulp.  Until we see each other again, be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

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Categories: conventions, Pulp, short fiction, Steampunk, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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