This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: I, II, III, IV, V, VI and VII. It is also part of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.
It’s late. He should be sleeping, but he isn’t. Instead he is doing his best to clean up the chaos left behind in his apartment when he was abducted by crazy cultists the other night.
How did things come to this? Chino remembers a time, not so long ago actually, when things had been simple. Or rather, compared to this mess they had certainly been. Back then he would probably have laughed right in the face of anyone who dared to suggest he was leading an easy life.
Always short on money, a deathly sick foster-father and a crashed relationship with the woman he had been so sure he would spend the rest of his life with, but who turned out to have been cheating on him and consequently broke his heart. Then recently he also found out that he has a brother. A real, biological brother who even lives in the same city, but who has never felt inclined to make himself known to Chino. So much for blood ties.
All those things had been hard to cope with, but then everything had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. Much worse.
He picks up a fallen chair and tries to put it back on its legs – only to discover that one of the legs has been broken. He sighs and adds it to the pile of other broken items that is already growing by the wall.
Things had started to go downhill when he messed up at work a couple of weeks ago. He had been introduced to a new guy at the delivery service where he was working. A guy called Kamran, who was to accompany Chino on one of his delivery runs to learn the drill. But the night had ended with a package missing, and the new guy was never heard from again. Presumably it was he who had stolen the missing box, but the deficit was still cut from Chino’s own, already substandard, salary.
Thinking about what happened next, Chino has to open the window and light a cigarette in order to collect himself. He sucks his lungs full of polluted smoke and stares into the night as he remembers. Already the day after the botched delivery there had been a knock on his door. When he had opened it he had been surprised to stand eye to eye with his reclusive and slightly intimidating next door neighbour – the old man Chino and his friends jokingly referred to as “The Hitman”, but on whose door was written the name W. Isher.
“Hello Caesar”, Mr. Isher had said.
“Ehm, hi?”, had been Chino’s perplexed response.
“I’m sorry to bother you, I know we have not spoken before”, the neighbour said and continued: “But there is a favour I need to ask of you. I know you’re the right person for the task, since I can tell you are a responsible young man. And of course I will pay you for your troubles.”
And with that Mr. Isher had produced from his pocket a bulging envelope. “This here contains two thousand dollars. I’m sure you can find some use for them.”
And Chino could, of course he could. His foster-father was suffering from kidney failure and he desperately needed the money for his surgery. That he had been robbed of his salary the night before had not helped the situation, and then and there Mr. Isher’s envelope had been almost impossible to resist. Well, at closer thought: cut the “almost”.
“What is it you need me to do?”, Chino had said.
And at that Mr. W. Isher had smiled a little too widely and said: “I need you to watch my cat for me.”
Turned out Mr. Isher was planning to go away for a couple of days, and needed someone to feed his cat Ivers and “take care of his other household chores” while he was gone. When Chino had asked what those “chores” consisted of, the neighbour had waved the question off with a vague innuendo that it was all about watering plants and sorting through his mail. A typical case of house watching, as it were.
Of course Chino had accepted the offer. What’s not to like about getting paid two thousand dollars to feed a cat for a few days, after all? When Mr. Isher had been very particular about them shaking hands on the deal, and on Chino word for word repeating the promise of the undertaking back to him as they did so, Chino had only thought of it as a final piece of evidence that the neighbour was senile or insane. Now he knows better.
The next day the irises of his eyes had turned red. Yes, an actual sharp, scarlet red. He had also discovered, to his great horror of course, that his left foot was now a right foot. Apart from this being a highly compromising factor when skateboarding, it was of course also utterly and entirely fucked up and frightening. Suffice to say, Chino had panicked.
He had gone over to the next door apartment, more in shock and irrational trance than anything else. And there he had met Ivers, the cat that would turn out not to be a cat at all. As soon as Chino had entered the apartment, the fluffy, sour looking thing had spoken to him.
“Oh, I see that Walter has fooled you as well. Wonderful. Just don’t forget to clean out my litter box. It’s bad enough I have to do it in sand, I don’t need it to be filthy as well. It’s below me.” And with that the cat had walked into the living room and curled up on top the couch backrest.
Chino had walked after it. Him. Whatever. “Wait a moment. You’re a cat, and you… speak?”
“How perceptive of you. Makes me wonder why you haven’t noticed yet how stupid that haircut makes you look. But no, and yes. I’m not a cat, but I do talk. How does that make you feel?”
And Chino had only stood there in the door to the living room and wondered if he was, in fact, finally going crazy from all the stress heaped upon him over the last few days. The cat must have seen the look on his face, because his sarcastic voice spoke up again.
“Oh, come now. Don’t cry. I guess there are a few things I should explain to you.”
And that is just what he had done.
That afternoon Chino was let in on so many messed up secrets about a reality he had grown pretty accustomed to thinking he probably knew the most about, that when dusk fell outside he was both dizzy and terrified.
The neighbour called W. Isher was no hitman at all, neither a senile pensioner. He was a djinn in hiding, who had been living in this apartment for countless years in order to melt in with the humans of the city. The cat Ivers was a djinn as well, but one who had been tricked by Walter into taking feline form and then never managed to break the spell. From his story Chino suspected that the catformation had had something to do with Ivers not respecting the rules and laws of the djinn society – even though Ivers himself passionately denied this.
Now, anyways, Mr. Isher – or Walter Isher, which was the name he went by – had gotten tired of the djinn-life and had decided to take a vacation. Where he had gone away to even Ivers didn’t know, but what he did know was that Walter had needed someone to take care of his djinnly duties while he was away. The choice had fallen upon Chino, who had subsequently been tricked into accepting the role as a substitute djinn – taking care of the “household chores”, so to speak.
Even now, as he stands in the window smoking his do-it-yourself cigarette, Chino can feel the frustration, anger and fear that had gripped him when he had realized that he had walked into some kind of perverted fairy tale trap. And the frightened confusion he is still feeling about all the new powers – powers to grant the wishes of both others and himself – that have been bestowed upon him after making the deal with Walter.
Chino can hear other people’s inner wishes now, if only he listens carefully enough. And he can choose to make those wishes come true with some kind of magic. The problem is, every time he does something equally bad happens to somebody else. “There has to be balance”, Ivers had said. A good thing cannot happen to one person without something bad happening to another.
To make matters even worse, Ivers had tricked him as well. He had fooled Chino into helping him escape his feline form and re-emerge as an insolently good-looking man with an obnoxious attitude and an aptitude for causing trouble. And this guy had been the only person Chino could possibly talk to about his new… anatomical abnormalities. It’s easy to see how this new turn of events had not helped Chino’s already strained life situation in the least.
And then – Chino doesn’t even want to think about it – the hunters had come after him. He had awoken two nights ago with a gun against his face and a stranger broken into his apartment. They had fought – hence the chaotic mess in the apartment – but in the end the invader had forced Chino out the door at gunpoint. The armed man and his friend had demanded Chino tell them where Walter is, but he doesn’t know anything about that. He suspects they would probably have killed him if Vahri – the wizard girl he had spoken to only briefly at the club that same night – had not somehow showed up and saved him at the last-minute. Turns out she’d had some kind of vision of what had happened to him, and rushed to the rescue. How convenient.
He knows that she told him to leave the apartment for a while, to only pack the most necessary things and lie low somewhere else until things have blown over. And he actually did that – for a night. He slept in a hotel the night after the abduction, all curtains drawn and a heavy chair in front of the door. But hotel rooms are expensive and Chino needs to save what money he can for his father’s surgery, so after that first night he had decided to go back home and hold the fort as far as possible. He knows the thought is probably stupid and dangerous, but he really can’t afford to live anywhere else when he can barely afford to pay his rent.
Thus he’s now cleaning his apartment in the middle of the night, trying to remove all the traces of the break in and the traumatic events that have since followed. He’s convinced Vahri will not be happy about it, but what can he do?
And just as the thought of Vahri crosses his mind, his phone rings. It’s her.
Shit. “Eh, hello?”
“Chino, listen.” She’s obviously calling from the car, judging by the sounds of engine and traffic in the background. There’s a stressed tone in her voice, but also something else. Fear?
“Vahri, there’s a thing that–”
“Not now. I’ve just found out that the ritualists are tracking you, and –”
“But didn’t we know that already?” She’s really confusing him.
“Well, yeah. But not that they’re really tracking you. Like, have put some kind of ritualistic bullshit on you so they can follow every step you take at a distance, and see you in mirrors and shit. That we didn’t know.”
“Wait, what, you’re saying that they can see me in mirrors?”
She sighs impatiently. “Mirrors, silver plates, chromed bumpers, does it matter? Thing is, they probably know where you are right now and can follow everything you do. They’ve probably put some shit on your apartment as well. I’m sending someone there right now to cleanse it, and then they’ll come and do the same to you. I need to know where you are. Now.”
He swallows, realizes how big a mistake he’s actually made by coming home again. “I’m… home”, he says and closes his eyes in preparation for the scolding that’s probably to come. But it doesn´t.
Instead he hears her draw a long breath. “Okay”, she says at last. “I’ve already sent the exorcist to your place, should be there any moment now. I guess we can kill two birds with one rock. Don’t go anywhere and do exactly as the exorcist instructs you. I’ll be in touch.” And with that she hangs up the phone.
Chino just stands there, silent phone in hand, and tries his best to process what he has just been told. “They can follow every step you take at a distance, and see you in mirrors…” When the thought finally sinks in he quickly slams the window shut and backs away from it. For the first time in years he wishes that he actually had real curtains to draw. Not that it would help, probably – but it would certainly make him feel a lot better.
He is standing in the middle of his living room, irresolutely staring this way and that for somewhere to get away from all the blank surfaces lining the room. Picture frames, table tops, cupboard doors – all share one trait and that is being more or less reflective. A dozens versions of Chino’s own face stare back at him from those surfaces, and he realizes that if the ritualists are able to watch him through those, he’s literally screwed. Vahri has called an exorcist, whatever that means, but–
And then the doorbell rings.
Chino freezes and stares at the door. When the signal doesn’t come again he slowly edges closer, hoping against hope that whoever is on the other side of the door will go away if he doesn’t answer it. The little hall in front of the entrance lies in darkness, and Chino hopes that he’ll get away with looking out through the peephole without his shadow revealing that he is there. He hesitates for a second, but then the not knowing becomes unbearable. He leans closer to the door and chances it.
There’s a person standing out there, and Chino flinches. It’s no one he has ever seen before. He’s sure of that, because he knows he would not be able to forget it if he had. The stranger outside the door is dressed in an assortment of clothes in layers upon layers, with a hood pulled up and several amulets in long chains and leather bands dangling from around their neck. Their, because Chino can’t for the life of him tell if this person is a man or a woman.
Then the stranger raises their head and looks straight into Chino’s eyes, right through the obscuring lens of the peephole and all. Their eyes lock for a heartbeat and Chino suddenly feels like he’s been hit in the brain with an eternity. She was singing when they found her… He doesn’t know where the words come from, but what he does know is that this is no man or woman. It might not even be a person.
“Open the door”, the stranger says. And out of sheer shock and confusion, and completely against all logic and reason, that’s just what Chino does.
As he edges the door open, the stranger tilts their head to one side and watches him closely.
“I’ve never met a djinn before”, they say matter-of-factly and then step past him into the apartment.
“Uh, okay. Or, I mean, who are you? Did Vahri send you? And how did you know that I–”
“Your eyes”, the stranger says tonelessly while soberly taking a self-invited tour of Chino’s living room and kitchen space.
The words confuse Chino for a moment, before he realizes that he’s taken off his sunglasses. Of course, my eyes are red. Fuck. “Eh, right”, he replies while cursing his own carelessness in opening the door without the concealing glasses on – especially with murderous ritualists on his trail.
He slowly and warily follow the stranger into the living room. “But you didn’t answer my other questions”, he says, trying to get the stranger’s attention. “Who are you?”
Chino’s unknown visitor has just taken a photo frame down from the wall and has started studying its backside, but now finally looks at Chino again. The eyes are all pitch dark and make him think briefly of the untamed and unnamed spaces between and beyond stars. “I’m Seth”, the stranger says. “Seth Pascal. I was sent by Vahri, yes. And you’re Chino. Nice to meet you.” And with that, they continue taking photos and posters down from the walls, studying them and then putting them down on the floor.
“Yeah, well, I guess… But hey, what are you doing?”
Seth Pascal now seems to be finished with the wall decorations and has moved on to examining the underside of Chino´s furniture. “I’m looking for signs”, they say in a muffled voice from under the low couch table.
“Ah, right… Signs of what?”
Seth sits up straight and looks strangely at him. “No, not signs of something. Just signs. Runes. Symbols. Don’t you djinns know anything?”
Chino indignantly scratches his chin. “Other djinns might, but I don’t. And I’m actually not really a djinn, either. I’m… just a substitute.”
“Okay, whatever”, Seth says. They get to their feet and brushes off some dust from their loose pants. “Vahri tells me you need some help in getting rid of all the ritualistic surveillance enchantments cast upon your home and your person. Is that correct?”
“Oh, so you are the exorcist?”
“No, I’m a freelancing priest. I can do exorcisms, yes. Both Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist and Taoist. But that’s not what you’re in need of here. Not mainly, at least. I’ll perform a cleansing of your apartment, and then of you. This place will be protected from all except those who you choose to invite in, and you’ll no longer be a glowing beacon to the one who put the magick on you. If that’s what you want, of course.”
“I definitely want that”, Chino says without hesitating even for a moment.
“Good”, Seth says. “I’ll need a bowl of boiling water, three drops of your blood and the strongest alcoholic substance you have at home.”
And as Chino still stands there processing the unusual request, Seth gets to work carefully placing and lighting small, coloured and scented candles all over his apartment.
“So… where are you from?” Chino is standing behind Seth as the latter is sitting crouched on the floor, carefully drawing strange patterns on the floorboards with a scarlet crayon. Just a minute ago Chino had watched as the freelance priest walked around the apartment with a cup of burning incense, spreading a heavy, sweet smoke in its every nook and cranny while chanting words in a strange language.
The requested water is heating up on the stove and he has retrieved a fresh bottle of Jägermeister from the freezer. It now stands on the kitchen sink, awaiting whatever arcane practices the freelancing priest is going to put it to use in.
“New Orleans”, Seth says without looking up.
“That sounds… nice”, Chino says, quickly adding: “I’ve never been there, but I’d love to someday. I mean, as a vacation. Or something.” Shit, I really suck at making small talk, he thinks to himself.
“You shouldn’t”, Seth replies, still working on the symbols on the floor. “It wouldn’t be good for you.”
Chino frowns in indignant surprise. “What, why?”
“Because I can see it wouldn’t. You’d be hurt somehow.”
“Why, is this some kind of fortune telling you’re doing here?” Chino laughs nervously, hoping Seth will laugh as well.
But Seth doesn’t laugh. “I guess you could call it that. I won’t charge extra for it, though. I just don’t want you to do something you’ll regret later, that’s all.”
Chino contemplates this for a moment, not certain that asking any more questions would get him anywhere. Instead he sighs. “I don’t know if staying here would do me any more good either, though”, he says and sits down on the floor with his back against the side of the couch.
“And why is that?” Seth’s voice is absent and preoccupied.
Chino suddenly feels like that obnoxious apartment owner who just won’t leave the contracted plumber alone to do their work on his bathroom. “You know what, never mind”, he says.
“You do as you wish, but I’m actually interested in hearing your story. As I said, it’s the first time I meet a djinn… or a substitute djinn, if that makes you feel better.” Seth still doesn’t look up from their work and the voice is still as toneless as it was before.
Yet something still tells Chino that there is genuine interest and not sarcasm behind those words. And, surprising himself even, he starts talking. He tells Seth Pascal about his unfortunate deal with Walter and the discovery that he wasn’t really human anymore. About the wishes and voices he hears in his head every time he looks at a person for too long, and about the irritating cat-turned-man, Ivers, who seems to be doing his best to turn Chino’s life into a living circus. When he gets to the part where he is abducted by the ritualists he hastily skips over the parts that are hardest to tell; those that still make him nauseous even to think about.
Seth hears him without comment, and even though they fail to even try following the conversational contract of nods and micro responses, Chino somehow still feels that he is being listened to. So much so, in fact, that he finds himself telling this stranger about his foster father’s life threatening illness, his own broken heart and the thing that happened the other night when one of the boxes was stolen from his nightly delivery round.
When he is finally done telling the short version of his life’s story, Seth Pascal has stopped drawing symbols on the floor. They are looking deeply, intently at Chino with those void dark eyes.
“Thank you”, they say. There is real sincerity in the voice this time. “Thank you for telling me your thoughts and hardships. It honours me.”
Chino starts feeling a bit embarrassed in the line of those intense eyes, but before he can stammer something in reply Seth continues speaking.
“People often tell me things, but not more than what I need to know in order to help them with their plights. You have told me much more than so, and you have given me trust. I appreciate that.”
“Eh”, Chino begins, fumbling after words. “Nothing to worry about. I guess. I’m just glad you wanted to listen. Maybe I just needed to talk to someone about these things, I don’t know.”
Seth nods slowly, as if Chino had just said something really wise and profound. Had he? Chino doesn’t really know anymore. There’s something about talking to this Seth Pascal that makes him think about whispering secrets to the stars outside his window as a child. And he had done that often, he remembers now.
“I know what it’s like to be more and less than what people see”, Seth says, waking Chino from his musings. He is feeling drunk, but not in a drunken way – if that makes any sense at all. He guesses it doesn’t. Seth continues: “And I know what it’s like to see more and less than what people do. I can feel you, Caesar Lino Salinas. I really do.”
“How did you–”
“Because I can see it, just like I told you. Just like so many other things.”
Seth then rises, startling Chino out of his dreamy state. “It’s finished”, they say.
“What… what’s finished?” Chino unsteadily climbs to his feet.
“The cleansing of the apartment. I’ve drawn the counter signs and said the proper words. You’ll be safe here now, as long as you don’t invite your enemies inside.”
“So… they can’t see me anymore? Or find me?”
For the first time, Seth now shows something that resembles a normal, human reaction or emotion. Embarrassment. “Well, no. Or, there is one more thing that needs to be done first.”
“Okay… And what is that?”
Seth looks at everything except him now. “Uhm, we’ll have to get you cleansed as well.”
Chino frowns. “Alright then. And… what’s the problem with that?”
Seth sighs. “Not a problem maybe, but…”
“You’ll have to get naked for that.”
“Yup.” Seth hastily walks past him and into the kitchen alcove, taking the boiling water off the stove and putting it on top of the sink next to the frosty bottle of whiskey. Chino is handed a small, simple knife. “Here, I’m going to need your blood in here”, Seth says and gestures toward the steaming kettle.
Chino doesn’t like where this is going, but has a hard time concentrating on any thought right now except for the memory of those words. You’ll have to get naked. Before he knows it, he has cut a thin line across his palm and started dropping blood into the hot water.
“That’s enough”, Seth says and takes the knife back. Before Chino’s eyes it vanishes quickly into one of the many folds in Seth’s layered clothing. In its stead Seth just as quickly produces a small bottle from a pocket and skilfully unseals it. They then proceed to slowly pour the bottle’s content into the steaming water-and-blood mix, all the while stirring the liquid with a spoon found in the dish rack.
Chino stares in fascination as the water in the kettle turns first pink, then red, then a deep, blood coloured nuance. Then it starts to thicken, and finally transforms into something that resembles a distasteful, lumpy jelly more than anything else. He really hopes he will not be forced to eat that.
“It’s done”, Seth says, picks up the kettle and starts walking towards the bathroom.
“But… wait. Why the bathroom? And what about the whiskey?”
“We’d better do it in here because it can get messy. And the whiskey is for me. Bring it.”
“Please raise your arm.”
This is by far the most humiliating and awkward moment in Chino’s life so far. He’s standing stark naked in his own bathroom together with a really strange stranger who is inch by inch covering his body in a transparent, reddish goo while muttering weird incantations and now and then taking a sip from the bottle of Jäger.
Chino is staring straight ahead and raises his left arm. Seth smears his armpit with the decoction. Chino almost wishes he could sink through the floor, but catches himself at the last moment. Making figurative wishes as a djinn could turn into a dangerous affair. Chino had learned this the hard way.
Seth’s chanting grows more intense, and Chino is beginning to feel the substance on his skin getting warmer. He almost panics as it starts to burn in places as the air in the room begins to vibrate with something other than the ever-present humming of the fluorescent lamp in the ceiling. And suddenly he feels them – as if whatever Seth Pascal is doing is uncloaking them and revealing them to him. Hundreds and hundreds of eyes upon him, watching, studying, knowing.
How did I not feel or see this before?
And he knows without a doubt now that Vahri and Seth were right – someone is watching him. And those eyes are everywhere now, unblinking gazes fixed upon him, mercilessly piercing his soul and integrity. Eyes upon eyes upon eyes, until Chino can’t see anything else around him. Wild panic finally grips him, and he screams.
When he comes to, he is lying on the bathroom floor, wrapped in a towel and hurting all over.
“I’m sorry for that”, Seth says. “I should have warned you that you might see them.”
Chino is trembling as he sits up. “What… what the hell was that?”
Seth sighs and dries their hands on another, smaller towel. “It was the eyes the ritualist had bound to you. But they’re gone now.”
Then Seth actually blushes, and looks away from him. “You might want to get a shower.”
And Chino’s relief at being rid of the ritual eyes is suddenly interrupted when he realizes that he is still naked under the towel, and that he is still covered in the red goo – even the parts of him that he’d rather keep very, very private. “Eh, yeah”, he stammers and feels himself blushing as well. “I guess I… should.”
“I’ll show myself out”, says Seth and starts leaving the room.
“Wait”, Chino says and arduously climbs to his feet. Seth pauses on the threshold and turns around. Chino’s head hurts and he realizes that he must have fainted and fallen to the floor earlier. He steadies himself against the wash basin and makes sure to hold the towel firmly around his waist. He tries his best to collect himself and gather his thoughts.
Chino clears his throat. “Well, so… Where are you going now? What are you going to do?”
Seth hesitates. “I’ll go back to New Orleans”, they say finally. “There’s a plane that leaves in an hour. I’ll probably be able to catch it.”
Chino nods, not sure of what to say next. What do you say to someone who has just smeared you all over with bloody jelly and then watched you faint on the floor?
“Thank you”, he simply says finally. “I don’t really know what you did, but I felt it working. I saw those eyes, but I think they’re gone now.”
Seth nods. “They are. And you’re welcome, Caesar Lino Salinas.”
And with that Seth Pascal leaves him standing there in the bathroom, surrounded by a sticky mess and with very strange mixed feelings inside.
Chino looks at his own red-eyed reflection in the mirror, shakes his head and takes a deep draught from the now half empty whiskey bottle left behind on the wash basin.
And then his morning alarm sounds. It’s morning.
How the fuck did his life come to this?
Chris Smedbakken 2017-11-03
You can find the next part here.