Cats, Curiosity and an Interrupted Stakeout

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: IIIIIIIVV, VI,VII, IIX and IX. It is also part of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.


“Hi! This is Boris Granger, CEO of the ‘Cats and Curiosity Group’. I can’t come to the phone right now, but leave a message after the tone and I will be sure to get back to you as soon as I can.” Beeep.

Vahri hangs up the phone. Yes, she actually, literally hangs it up. She’s standing inside a phone booth by the side of the road, surrounded by a barren sandscape and not another car as far as her eyes can see. Cats and Curiosity Group. Huh. She has never heard the name before, but it’s beginning to seem like this B.G character is a higher animal than what she had first anticipated.

She’s been on the road for several hours, almost ever since she was sure that Chino is safe and that he has gotten the help he needed from Seth Pascal. She drove past his apartment the last thing she did, putting up a magical ward around his building just to be sure. Even if the ritualists can’t scry him magically anymore, that’s still no guarantee that they won’t make a physical hit against him at any time. Neither Vahri nor Chino can afford to be careless right now, and since the djinn-boy doesn’t seem to be the careful type, Vahri will have to compensate doubly.

Because she will not be able to look after Chino personally for a couple of days. The reason for this is that she is on her way to Las Vegas in her red, stolen car. And the reason, in turn, for that is that this is where a certain man called Boris Granger keeps his quarters. Vahri has traced the phone number she found in Mikes hotel room, and knows exactly where to find him.

She leaves the secluded phone booth and steps out into the breaking dawn, yawning and stretching her arms up in the air to get the circulation going. She has been driving the entire night, and is now tired as hell. Her stopping by the road to use the old pay phone was due to equal amounts curiosity and a desperate need to find an excuse for taking a break. She didn’t expect him to pick up – did not want him to, in fact. She just needed to hear what he sounded like on his answering machine in order to get an edge on him magically when once she arrives at her destination.

Every sensory detail you have about a person makes it easier to cast magic on them from a distance. Now she knows what Boris Granger sounds like, in case she’ll be forced to make a move against him later on. The need for using a pay phone instead of her own cell should be self-explanatory – she wants to minimize the amount of information they have on her. Including, but not limited to, her phone number.

She gets back in the car just as the first rays of the sleepy sun make themselves known at the horizon to the east. Hopefully she’ll be able to get a few hours of sleep when she gets to her destination. Otherwise, the huge stash of energy drinks packed on the floor of the car’s small back seat will probably do the trick almost as well. The engine purrs to a start and she pulls back onto the empty desert road again.

***

Chino wakes up and immediately wishes that he hadn’t. His head is hurting, his stomach lurches and the entire world is spinning like mad. He’s lying on the couch, an empty Jäger bottle cramped in his right hand and another lying cramped between his neck and the armrest of the couch. He’s still only wearing the towel he wrapped himself in after the long, hot shower that still has his hair in a wet disarray.

The apartment is dark, and it is only after several minutes of lying painfully and passively awake that Chino realizes that this is because all the curtains in the apartment are drawn. The clock on his cell phone tells him that it’s well past noon and that he has been sleeping for more than five hours since Seth Pascal left.

While looking at the screen of his phone he also realizes another thing: that he has not woken by his own accord. The phone is buzzing and vibrating, and on its screen flashes his foster father’s name. Chino hastily runs through all the mental notes in his head, trying to remember if he is supposed to be doing something important today, or if there is something else he should remember when talking to his dad. He cannot think of anything in his hungover daze, and thus he answers the phone.

“Yeah”, he says and tries his best to sound like a sober person who´s already been up for ours, doing mature stuff and earning his existence.

“Caesar, it’s me”, Ernesto says, as if they were still living in an age when technology didn’t give the caller’s identity away well before the recipient chose to pick up the phone.

“I know”, Chino says and wishes like so many times before that his father would stop calling him by his silly given name. But he doesn’t really wish it, for by now obvious reasons. “How are you?”, he adds and almost-wishes that this could be a polite, rhetorical question like it used to be before. But it isn’t, and the slight pause before his father answers is enough to tell Chino that whatever reply is to come, it is going to be a lie.

“I’m fine, Caesar. I’m feeling really good today, actually.”

Chino wants to break something, to throw something at the wall and yell at Ernesto that he’s not fine, that he is just lying to protect his son and that he really shouldn’t because it is Ernesto who needs help and protection, and not Chino. But he doesn’t do any of this. “That’s… good”, he says instead, like so many times before. Because he, too, is trapped within this charade, in this make believe that everything is going to be alright. That Ernesto isn’t going to die because his family can’t afford a transplant. Because his one son is a useless good-for-nothing failure that can’t even keep his own shit together – much less be of any use to anyone else.

He could wish Ernesto’s condition away, and knowing this is almost the worst part of it. He could do that, but the consequences would probably be terrible. Ivers – in one of his rare fits of actual usefulness – explained this part to him as one of the first lessons Chino received after becoming a djinn. He had explained that there has to be balance, and that every granted wish causes misfortune for someone else.

Chino knows that if he uses his magic to save his father’s life, someone else is going to die. And this someone might turn out to be someone he cares about as well. It’s a terrible choice, and also one he doesn’t think he has the stomach to make. He is still too human to take a life. At least he wants to think so. But the situation is growing more and more desperate, and he’s not sure that this will be his standpoint the day that Ernesto is really at his deathbed. I won’t let it come to that, Chino’s thinking as a lump of panic grows within. I have to get that money.

“And how about you, Caesar? What are you up to today?” That strained cheerful tone again. Almost unbearable.

“Nothing much. I… have been working a night shift, so right now I’m just at home, eh… cooking.” Lies. So many lies.

“Oh, I hope I’m not interrupting in the middle of something then. There’s just this one thing I´ve wanted to bring up with you. About… You remember that I told you about your brother?”

How could I forget? “Yeah, I remember something about that, yes.”

“Yes, right. Of course. Well, I was thinking that maybe… Maybe you should go visit him? I know that he might seem… I mean, I know that you might not feel like it, but at least he is family and I think that it would do you good to at least know who he is.”

Chino sighs heavily. He knows what this is. This is Ernesto making preparations for his own death. He wants Chino to latch onto someone, for example an older, wiser brother, before Ernesto himself leaves him. Chino isn’t sure if this makes him angry or unbelievably sad. Either way, he feels the tears coming and is glad this conversation is not taking place in person. “Do you even know him?”, he says.

Ernesto laughs nervously. “Well, no. I only just met him once, and that was when… When I went to take you home. He was only a boy back then, maybe seven or eight, I don’t know. He should be almost thirty by now. But I googled his name, and it seems like he has a company and that things are going pretty well for him. So I thought…”

Chino doesn’t want to hear anymore. He doesn’t want to listen to his foster father, the only father he has ever known, belittling himself and his resources in comparison to this brother-person that Chino doesn’t remember ever seeing or knowing. He just can’t take it. “Okay, I’ll go see him”, he blurts out just to interrupt Ernesto in the melancholy self-bashing that he knows is to come next. “Just give me an address and I’ll go there as soon as I’ve got the time.”

Ernesto pauses and remains silent for a moment. When he speaks again, Chino can hear the genuine and relieved smile in his voice. “That’s wonderful, Caesar! I’ll text you his address. His name is Ian Salimi. Thank you, Caesar. You cannot know how much this means to me.”

But Chino has reached the limit for how much coping he’s equipped to do right now. He loves his father, but he can’t handle the current, tragic situation for more than a few minutes at a time. “Yeah. Great, dad. Hey, say hello to mum for me, okay? I must go now. The… water is boiling over.”

And this is not even a complete lie, at least not in a metaphorical sense. Before Ernesto has time to say much more, Chino hurriedly ends the call.

So he is going to go see his estranged brother. Wonderful, just what he needs right now. But first, in order to prepare himself to do so, he needs something else entirely.

He wishes so badly for there to be more Jägermeister in the freezer – actually wishes it, this time. He then stumbles to his feet to go and get it, while somewhere in the vicinity an old lady trips on her little dog and drops her wallet down a drain.

***

The day is waning, the sky turning a warmer shade of blue that bodes hours of darkness soon to come. Lights are successively going on inside the many apartment windows on the street, and soon the lamps behind these particular curtains are turned on as well.

Mike Preston remains in his car, engine and lights turned off. He’s been sitting here almost the entire day, ever since he noticed – to his great frustration – that his seals on the djinn and his apartment have been broken somehow. That he can no longer neither see nor track the target from afar. He reckons that it must have been a quite skilled ritualist indeed who has broken them, because up until now he has never had this problem before. Ever.

And it is not the wizard girl, he is sure about that. She has put up some kind of magical ward since the seals were broken, but that’s another thing entirely and he’s seen that kind of work before. It’s the fact that another ritualist has outsmarted him that is the news here. The sudden change makes him both provoked and intrigued. He will have to track this mystery adversary down later.

Right now, however, he has other prey in sight – literally. Because suddenly the door to the apartment building he’s watching opens and a person emerges, immediately to start walking down the street in the increasing twilight. Mike doesn’t have to acknowledge the worn skateboard under his arm to know that this is the djinn – he can see it on his aura even without the broken seals.

He waits for his clueless prey to get a little further down the street before turning the ignition and slowly starting to follow at a safe distance. The silencing runes drawn in charcoal across the entire dashboard of the nondescript car should certainly help his pursuit to remain unnoticed.

At first it seems like the djinn is heading down town, but then he takes a turn and starts walking uphill, toward areas where Mike would not have put him, judging by his style of dress and seeming income. He cruises behind the djinn at a distance while outside the car the buildings and parked vehicles little by little grow more expensive and well cared for. This is a fancy part of the city, and Mike cannot imagine what kind of business the djinn can possibly have here.

Yet the target suddenly stops in front of the entrance to a tall, classy building with huge reflecting windows mirroring the rest of the equally classy street. At first Mike thinks that it must be some kind of company that the djinn is visiting, but then he realizes that this building houses apartments. He quickly finds an empty parking lot and then watches closely as his mark opens the door and disappears into the stairwell.

He shuts down the engine and leans back. He is going to wait here, and when the djinn re-emerges he is going to take him out. Drag him into the car and drive him somewhere for questioning about this Walter Isher. And this time he won’t make any stupid mistakes. If the wizard girl shows up again he shall gladly take her on as well. He owes her that after her break-in into his hotel room the other night – and for the items that she has stolen from him. When he gets his hands on her, returning his gun and his computer will be the least of her worries. And Mr. Granger will certainly not protest getting two bonus wares instead of one, apart from this mysterious Walter.

And just as Mike thinks about his employer, his phone rings. The letters B.G flash across the screen. Shit. He’s not really in the mood for talking to Boris right now, and he really does not have the time for it, either. But Boris has a great gig going, and Mike would hate to endanger his own part in it. So he answers the phone while simultaneously staring intently at the entrance to the building so as not to miss out on his opportunity.

“Yeah?”, he says and tries to keep the worst of the impatience out of his voice.

“Mike, we seem to have a situation”, Boris Granger says and it’s evident from the background noise that he is in the middle of traffic.

“Is that so? And what kind of situation is that?” He’s tired of ‘situations’. Why can’t people ever get to the point without encasing it in polished bull-crap first?

“The customer’s man called. It seems like one of their own agents have picked up on something that might interfere with our services for them. He said that we should probably look into it, before it looks into us.”

Mike cannot help but let out a reflexive laugh. “Whoa, are they threatening us now, or what is that supposed to mean?”

Boris Granger sighs. “I don’t know, Mike. I honestly don’t. Look, he said that their agent is prepared to meet with us and tell us what it’s all about. Tonight. In L.A.”

Now it’s Mike’s time to sigh. “So I’m guessing us means me this time as well?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so. I’m still in Vegas, so it will have to be you.”

“Right. And when?”

“Right away. I’ll text you the location.”

“Boris, you realize, I hope, that I’m not sitting idly here? I’m this close to catching the mini djinn right now. Why don’t you send Pete instead?” But he already knows the answer.

“Because Pete is useless, Mike. He’s just an ordinary man with guns and muscles. You, on the other hand – you know things. You can do things, see things. Start driving down town now, and let Pete take care of the djinn catching. I’m sure he’s way more fit for that task than for meeting with agents of the Club.”

“Sure”, Mike mutters and pulls out from the curb. “As you wish, Mr. Granger.”

He then ends the call and quickly sends Pete the mark’s coordinates, together with the message: “Watch the building. Grab him as he exits. For fuck sake don’t screw this up now”.

Just as he has sent the text his phone beeps. It’s the location for the meeting. The street lights go on one by one in his wake as he leaves the classy street behind, thinking that he’ll kill Pete – and Boris – with his bare hands if it turns out that he has been sitting in this car all day for nothing.

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-11-10


		
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Unexpectedly Getting Naked With a Freelance Priest

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: IIIIIIIVV, 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…”

“But?”

“You’ll have to get naked for that.”

“…really?”

“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.

Seven Deadly Sins I: Superbia

This poem was originally published as a Twitter thread here. You can find the next poem, Seven Deadly Sins II: Avaritia here.


I found the village sleeping
or that was what I thought
But when I dared edge closer
the sight had me distraught

For all across the hamlet
the people were awake
Indulging in vain antics and
conceit of every make

Some locked in front of mirrors
some by indignant frays
And others yet were lost inside
a supercilious craze

And all this madness hailed from
the village center square
The music drew me closer;
I knew I must go there

I clenched the crystal tightly
and sent a prayer up high
Aware it was an angel,
though fallen, I’d defy

And then I entered boldly
into the market place
Heart racing quicker than my mind,
a stern look on my face

The villagers had seen me,
and armed they closer drew.
But then a cold voice stopped them:
“Ah, I did wait for you”.

And suddenly before me
the angel in his might
Surrounded by an aura
of blinding, humbling light

I stood there as if frozen
Too shocked to fight or flee
For there before me towered a
perfected form of me

Again now spoke the angel
“I’ll grant you what you see
and all the fame you covet if you
pledge yourself to me”.

And shamefully it tempted,
it almost made me slip
But then I felt the crystal burn
like fire in my grip.

I raised my hand and watched as
bright rays of light burst out
to engulf the hubric angel
before he could but shout

And dawn broke on the village,
the townsfolk shocked and dazed
Like all had been a nightmare
now gone without a trace

I left in the confusion
and thusly it begins:
I walked off in the sunrise on
the hunt for six more sins.


This poem was written in response to a hashtag game series by Marc Tizura/@areyouingrenin. The theme was “The Seven Deadly Sins”, and this day’s particular prompt was Pride – Lucifer. The Twitter hashtag is – go find more flash fiction there!

More of my other  texts will be uploaded on this page before long. Here is one: The Mothman Prophecy.

The Game Is On

This is the fifth part in an ongoing series circling around the character Vanessa Riley. It might work on its own, but I recommend you also read the previous parts to get the full story: I, II, III, IV.


There was never a time in his life when Devin Murdock did not feel haunted – be it by his past, the law or his own restless thoughts. But this is something different, and he knows it. Can feel it with every fiber of his damned being. If there ever was a haunted house, this is definitely it. And he just so happens to have the ill fortune of living here. If he’d been religiously inclined he would call it Karma. Now he just ascribes it to a cursed conspiracy between his own astronomically bad luck and the pettiness of the universe. And what a grand fucking conspiracy, at that.

One signal, two signals, three sign–

“Carlito’s Clean House, how may I be of–”

“Dude, it’s me, Dev. You have to send someone, this it getting fucking unbearable.”

A second of silence. “Look, we’ve talked about this. You can’t keep calling me here. Seriously. You’ll get me in trouble. I already hit you up with a place to stay, didn’t I? Despite you being a wanted fugitive and all that.”

“Pfh. They can’t possibly be looking for me anymore. That shit was long ago. And besides, this ‘place’ you got for me is already occupied. By fucking dead people. So if you–”

“Not looking for you anymore, huh? Then tell me why the fuck you’re hiding. Nah, ain’t no fooling me. If those coven people, or whatever you call them, found out you’re back in town they’d have your head. And that’s the truth, plain and pretty. I want nothing to do with that, or them. Or you, for that matter. I helped you once already, and if that house is not to your liking, well, you can find a nice shrubbery to sleep under for all I’m concerned. I’m getting married, Dev. I’m not risking anything more for you.”

“Carlos, don’t do this. You’re the only half decent exorcist – hell, the only half decent person – I know around here anymore. I need you, man. You can’t leave me like this, these ghosts won’t let me sleep, and–”

“Dev, let me put this simply for you. I. Don’t. Give. A. Fuck. Make peace with the dead, or don’t. I tried to warn you back then when you started fucking around with that dark stuff, but you didn’t listen. You knew what the penalty was, and now you’ve gotta live with it. You, not I. Sabes?”

“Carlos, listen. I’m back in town for a reason. Someone I knew, let’s call him an old mentor of mine, died and left some stuff behind. Powerful stuff. If I can only figure out where he hid it, I’ll be able to do… Well, close to anything. I’ll make it all up to you, and more. But to find it I must be able to think and plan, and those damned specters won’t let me do that. I’m going mad here. If you could just–”

A deep sigh. “You never learn, do you? Good bye, Dev. Don’t call me on this number again. Or rather, don’t bother calling at all. I’m blocking you.”

“Please, Carlos, I–” But the line is already dead.

And he’s standing, phone in hand, alone in a much too empty and extraordinarily haunted house at the outskirts of a city that doesn’t want him. The planks and boards all around him are already resuming their ominous creaking and the stale air is once again drawing breath for all the disembodied whispers that are to come.

Carlos has made his point, Dev can expect no more help from him. And now the radio’s going on in the next room, maddening static echoing between the silent and hungry walls.

Deeevin”, a barely audible voice slithers through the cracked speakers.

“Fuck this”, Devin says and leaves the house.

***

The problem with being a sacromancer of at least some renown is that pretty much everyone in the know either hates you for being “evil”, or wants to hurt you for their own gain. This rule makes no exception for Devin Murdock. He’s been on the run for almost a decade now, and the sweet taste of the vagabond life is beginning to turn sour. This alone would probably not have been enough to lure him back to the city from where he was once exiled, were it not for the extra persuading factor of the news that recently reached him.

Teneo is dead. The game is on.”

This short message had reached him in the middle of the night seven days ago. He had been busy getting drunk together with a priestess of Eir in an impressively pimped out hotel room, and initially he had just tried to ignore the vibrating phone. As soon as he had read the message, however, he had already been cold sober and on his way out the door. The blessings of heathen goddesses be damned, this was not an opportunity he was going to miss out on. The next morning had caught him already on a westbound plane, nervously tapping his fingers on the armrests of his seat.

Teneo had been Devin’s mentor before the latter was banished from L.A for practicing taboo. Now he is apparently dead – whether by more or less natural causes, Devin doesn’t yet know. What he does know, however, is that the person who brought him the tidings, though once a brother in learning, is now his mortal enemy and rival. Their mutual mentor has left unimaginable scholarly resources behind, and whoever finds them first will be the new king of the hill, as it were.

Devin can only speak for himself, but if he should come out the victor, the first thing he’ll do is to neutralize the competition. He doesn’t harbor any illusions whatsoever that his rival is not thinking the exact same thing.

***

He’s sitting on the porch, face in hands, when the red Ferrari pulls up outside the iron gates. He doesn’t notice it at once because cars often pass by on the road on the other side of the tall garden walls, but when the sound of the loud engine just won’t fade into the distance his curiosity finally forces him to look up.

The gates are closed of course – his paranoia wouldn’t have it any other way – but the rusty bars are far enough apart to allow him a clear view of the short driveway on the other side. Just as he lays eyes on the red streamline monster its driver’s door opens and a woman steps out. There’s something eerily familiar about her, and in Devin’s world that is not a good thing. To him, familiar equals danger in this city.

He rises slowly from the porch, unsure of whether to take refuge inside the house or to remain where he is. In the end, he ends up doing neither of those things. He starts cautiously walking along the overgrown stone slab path toward the gates, all the while fighting to keep his breathing and heartbeat in check. He’s not entirely sure why he’s approaching the woman by the car, but he is. Too late does he realize that this in itself is a bad sign, and too late does he remember to try to read her to learn her intentions. He is almost at the end of the path when he makes his attempt, and the instant mental resistance that as good as hits him across the face in response is all he needs to realize that this is really, really bad.

He freezes, just yards away from the woman in black watching him from the other side of the gate and a pair of mirror tinted sunglasses. Now that he is closer the feeling of familiarity has grown even stronger. Something, a memory perhaps, keeps itching at the back of his mind. He knows this woman.

“Hello, Devin”, she says and removes her sunglasses with a gesture worthy of Hollywood.

And the penny finally drops. “Vanessa Riley.” He can’t stop staring. She was just a girl, and now…

“It’s Vahri now, hun. Please never use that name again. Forget it if you can. Or else I’ll help you with that.”

He closes his mouth. Hopes vainly it did not hang open for long. Vahri. He nods. “So you finally awoke, did you? I knew It was just a matter of time, didn’t I tell you that?” He flashes her one of his rehearsed, sly smiles in a desperate attempt to regain control of the situation.

“Dev, darling, that trick might have worked when I was seventeen. But I’m not seventeen anymore, am I? And I have learned a thing or two since then, so please spare me the condescending pickup lines and open this gate and let me in. I need to talk to you.”

And for the second time in just a couple of minutes he finds himself doing exactly what she tells him to. “How did you know I was back?”, he asks as the ancient gates creak open. “How did you find me?”

“Oh, that was easy”, she answers as she walks past him towards the house. “I just wished upon a djinn.”

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-07-04

The Tale of a Man Who Wanted to Eat the World

(This is part IV of the story about Vanessa Riley. If you want to read the previous three parts, you can find them here, here and here.)


“Once upon a time, child, there was a man with a heart like a stone and a soul like miles and miles of waterless wasteland. Although his mind did not lack in inspiration, nothing of warmth and beauty would ever grow there. But what he wanted in goodness and creativity, he made up for a thousandfold in wealth. And so it was that when boredom inevitably struck him it meant two things: that the remedy for said boredom was in plenty within his grasping reach, and that this remedy did without a fault spell misery, suffering and downfall for all those who struck his fancy as ingredients thereof.

In the beginning his victims were people, ordinary humans who had for one reason or the other fallen outside the sphere of societal respect and protection. They were the outcasts, the prostitutes, the slaves and the vagrants. They were the ones of whose disappearance or demise even the hungry tabloids did not write. They were the ones for whom nobody but the most religious would weep, and then only in the most duteous manner. They were the nobodys, the involuntary citizens of our civilization’s underbelly – and thus they were easy prey.

But this man was no vampire. He was human himself, and thus he was also a gregarious herd animal. He started off alone, but soon became many. As he converged with like minded predators a horde formed – a pride of lion men who all shared one mutual hunger; the hunger for ending boredom – the hunger for feeling, fucking and eating the world.

Over time, however, the abuse of outcasts, prostitutes, slaves and vagrants became prosaic routine for these mad, wealthy lion men. Boredom began sneaking its way back into their petrified hearts and their desolate souls. And with this came fear. Was this it? Was this all there was to life and its mysteries? For a short while there was chaos in the horde. Lion slaughtered lion just for the thrill of it, just to feel truly alive again. For a short while it looked as if the mad pride might collapse in on itself and be devoured by history. But then the Discovery was made.

To this day it is still not clear who is to blame. Is it the vampires, the changelings, the mages or the maybe the werecreatures of the night? Chances are we will never know. But somehow, in its intermutual chaos, the mad pride found out about our world, about us. And the existence of forces, elements and creatures so far beyond their wildest and most intoxicated dreams instantly granted them renewed, frantic focus; if there really were such things, the mad pride realized, they had actually not felt, fucked or eaten all of the world just yet. Far from it, in fact.

Then and there began a rabid hunt for everything so called “supernatural”. Like senseless poachers on hunt for lions on the plains of what is now known as Tanzania, these bored and wealthy men and women set out to catch us, to cage us and to slaughter us – all for their own wicked pleasure of course. This marked the perpetual end of boredom for them, and the start of the endless flight for survival for us. None of us went safe, vampires, changelings, mages and werecreatures alike.

This was long ago. The memory of the first hungry man would long since have been devoured by ignorant history, were it not for those of us who live and remember. I too have loved and lost, my child, and I too hold grudges. But my retaliation lies not in bloody iron or oaths of vengeance. No, instead it lies in the telling of this tale and the struggle to, through the passing on of knowledge and wisdom, prevent the mad pride from bringing harm to my blood ever again.

Remember this, my child: while once they went under the name of Fruitio Societatis, they might well have come to change their denomination in alignment with the prevailing time and age. They have been known to do so before. However, two things about them do not change, and those two things are these: Firstly, without a fault they ever brand their members with their mark of fealty, their seal of brotherhood. You shall know them by this mark, so remember it well. Two lines run like the foundation of a twisted Christian cross, only it is vitiated by six warped circles, each of them representing a sense that the mad pride believe themselves to be in possession of. Do not forget this, Vanessa, my child.”

And what is the second thing that never changes about them, aunt Thali?”

The second thing, child, is their unending blood thirst. Avoid them at all cost, because if they catch you… If they catch you, my child, they will feel, fuck and eat you. And not necessarily in that order.”


You can find the next part of the story here.

Chris Smedbakken 2017-06-14

On Dreams, Myths and Not-So-Ordinary Hunters

This is part III of the story about Vanessa Riley. It probably works as a standalone as well, but if you want to read the two previous parts you can find them here and here.


A sudden noise and sleep is gone like a spell. Deep, black shadows drape the room. It’s impossible to see. She sits up in her bed. No, some other bed, but still hers. Confusion, like in a nightmare. Where is she? Who is she? Her eyes wander the room. A sudden movement over by the door catches her attention. Her heart skips a beat. She freezes.

Don’t you fucking move”, he says. She is staring straight into the barrel of his gun.

She doesn’t fucking move. “You’re… that guy from before. From my party”, she hears herself stammer – though it’s not her voice. Far from it.

The stranger nods. “Yeah. And you’re the djinn we’re looking for. So now just tell me. Where’s Walter?”

Her eyes grow even wider. Djinn… What the f— But she doesn’t even finish the thought, because now she realizes there is a tattoo on his right hand and she has seen that symbol somewhere before and this is bad really bad and–

“Shit!”

She sits straight up in her bed. No, not hers, she remembers. Neferthali and that guy Ivers have turned hers and her vampire godmother’s floor into a love nest, and Vanessa herself has taken refuge in one of the exclusive hotel rooms that make up the lower floors of the tall building.

She’s breathing heavily, fear still clinging to her every cell. Fear still lingering from the nightmare, from what she saw in it. Who she saw in it. And as her breath catches up with her and her heartbeat and racing thoughts slow down just a little, she realizes two things. Firstly: the tattoo she saw in the dream. It belongs to that boogeyman group, or club, Neferthali has warned her about. And secondly: That wasn’t a fucking dream at all. The djinn we’re looking for… “Shit”, she repeats and jumps out of bed.

Vanessa is already out the front doors before she realizes that she has forgotten her phone. The hell with it, she decides. She has already wasted enough precious time. Frantically she hunts the street with her eyes for a taxi cab. As she stands there a red Ferrari pulls up right in front of her by the curb. It stops, and an expensively dressed youth with an expensive haircut climbs out of it.

“You the valet?” He lifts his expensive sunglasses for a split second to look at her over the roof of the car.

She… nods slowly, not entirely believing this is actually happening. “Yeah”, she murmurs, not sure if she’s even making herself heard.

He flashes her an expensive smile and throws her the keys as he breezes past her. “I’ll buy you a drink later, okay sugar?”

Vanessa slowly turns to stare after him as he enters the hotel and disappears. What the fuck just happened? She holds up her hand and looks at the car keys in disbelief. Nobody is this lucky. Nobody, if it’s not with the help of– And suddenly she remembers why she’s even out here in the street. Who needs her help, who is probably desperately wishing for help – maybe not even consciously. That settles it. She dives into the low car, head first, and has the engine running before the hotel doors have even closed properly behind the car’s original owner.

Chino. She hasn’t seen him since two nights ago at that club, but she heard his thoughts that evening and would recognize their resonance anywhere. It’s like a color, but… loud. As she races through the night city in her not-exactly-stolen car she knows that it was Chino’s room she saw in her dream, that it was his mind she must have slipped into by mistake. It has happened before with others, though not often. She knows that everything she saw and heard in the dream was real, and that it happened in real time. She floors the pedal and hopes against hope that she will not be too late. He had such kind eyes…

The only reason she knows his address is that she was bored and looked it up the other day – and the only reason she was able to do that is that the stupid mother fucker is dumb enough to be using his True Name in the address register. It must have been a simple thing for the hunters to find him. Idiot.

But anger leaves her and is replaced by something that is embarrassingly similar to fear as soon as she pulls up outside his building and stops the car. She knows which window is his, and it is dark. Not just to the eye, but to the mind as well; as she lets her mental tendrils wind their way past the glass and the walls and the doors she feels instantly that there’s no one inside Chino’s apartment. It is completely empty.

Fuck, shit, ass!” She beats her palms against the wheel and screams straight into the silence. Of course they’re not here anymore, they’ve taken him. They’ve taken him for the Club, and now he’s going to be– And then she hears it. Or rather, she senses it. Like a tingle at the back of her soul, or a twitch inside her thoughts. Like a color, but loud. And she realizes that it’s him, calling. Not to her, but to anyone with the sense and senses to listen.

The weakness of the call, together with its crudeness, makes her believe that he’s not even aware he is calling out. That he is only desperately fumbling in his mental darkness for random straws to free himself with. She tries to answer him, but his loud colors are already lost again in the astral buzz of the mad city. No matter boyo, she thinks to herself as with revived resolve she restarts the stolen car. I know where you are now.

As she drives through the neon city and finally out of it she struggles ceaselessly to keep track of his movements. Every now and then she feels a flash of his presence far away and knows that she is still on their track. Suddenly, however, the presence disappears entirely. A cold hand clutches her innards; this can mean many things but none of them is good. She swallows, tries not to panic. By now she has already left the city behind and is speeding down a night black desert road. They cannot be far ahead of her now, and there are no alternative routes for them to have taken. For good or bad, and whatever has happened to Chino, she has them now.

Then she spots it. Further down the empty road, parked right at the border between asphalt and hard packed sand, sits an old, white Volkswagen – lights off, doors open. She doesn’t slow down. Out in the open landscape to her right she can also see shadowy shapes moving. Then the moon breaks through the clouds and for a heartbeat she can see them clearly.

There are three of them, one of the shapes standing a few feet away from the other two and aiming a gun, as one of the other two slowly circles the third shape in a fashion that seems both wary and mocking at the same time. The third shape doesn’t move at all, is standing still as a statue, and that’s what worries Vanessa – because she knows without a doubt that this third shape is Chino. What the fuck have they done to him?

And suddenly she catches herself and realizes that she is actually pissed off. That it’s not just the hunters, slash kidnappers, that are pissing her off – and that she probably hasn’t really ceased being pissed off since last time she saw him that night at the club. Also: that tonight’s events haven’t changed anything about that. You stood me up, you fucking idiot, and for my vampire granny at that. And now you have the nerve to disturb my sleep and drag me out on a rescue mission in the middle of the night. And to… to worry me, damn you.

She hits the brakes a bit too fast and the car, with its brand new everything, literally jumps to a stop. She lounges forward and for a heartbeat she is certain that she will go though the windshield. But thanks her lucky star (or whatever it is that people like she have) she has somehow, despite everything, remembered to fasten her seat belt somewhere along the road – and the air is just knocked out of her.

“Yolo”, she breathes painfully as she leans back from she strained belt, unfastens it and stumbles out of the car. She leans against the door for a couple of seconds as she catches her breath and decides that no ribs have been broken by the impact. Understanding that this is both a dangerous and embarrassing position to be caught in, she then hastily straightens up and walks around the car. It has come to a halt only a few yards behind the white Volkswagen – the kidnappers’ car. She casually draws her trusty knife and punctures the back wheels before she starts walking into the open field by the side of the road.

The three dark shapes still loom there, seemingly without having moved much at all. She keeps a steady, determined pace and doesn’t for a second take her eyes off the small congregation still far off in the field. As she draws closer she can hear voices in the distance.

“We only need to know where Walter is, you know. If you tell us we won’t hurt you”, the circling shape is saying.

“Well, not so much anyway,” the one with the gun adds.

The first one is silent for a moment, perhaps shooting his partner an angry stare. “If you tell us, no harm shall come to you. Or to your loved ones. If you don’t–”

“If you touch them I will kill you, you hear me?” Chino’s voice. Desperate.

“…if you don’t, on the other hand”, the unarmed man resumes after a deep sigh, “I want you to know that the little circle you are trapped in right now is spacious compared to, say, a bottle. And I will put you in one and leave you on a dusty shelf if you don’t cooperate.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Chino sounds confused now, and afraid of that which he don’t understand. But Vanessa understands all too well. Ritualists. Damn. She starts walking faster.

The unarmed man laughs. “Oh, so you don’t know? There are many things I can do to you. I know you’re a djinn and that djinns can’t die, but there might be worse things than dying, you know. And I just so happen to have an entire catalog of such things. So be a good boy now and tell us where we can find Walter, and this whole unpleasant business will go away. Just like that.”

The man with the gun must have heard her approaching, because now he turns around with a surprised look on his face. He nervously re-aims his gun at her. “Mike, there’s someone –”

The man called Mike tears his eyes from Chino and turns to her, an irritated look on his face. “Look, lady”, he says. “We’re in the middle of something here, so if you could just–”

But Vanessa, the old-blood magician also known as Vahri, just waves her hand and the armed man’s gun is knocked out of his hand. “Shit, Mike, she’s a–” She reaches out, places her hand on his forehead and causes him to instantly slump to the ground. In the flash process of forcing his mind into temporary slumber she also learns his name. Pete. How convenient.

The one called Mike adapts quickly to this new turn of events. “Back off”, he commands as he swiftly reaches behind his back and draws a gun of his own. In the light of the moon she just about catches a glimpse of the arcane silver symbols engraved on its sides. Jeez, I don’t want to be shot with that thing.

Vanessa doesn’t back off, however. She’s tired of backing off – sick of it, actually. “Fuck you”, she says and snaps her finger. And his time stops. He doesn’t die, mind you – he just, well, stops. Frozen in one single moment the one called Mike can do nothing but stare as Vanessa, Vahri, steps forward and with her brand new golden Converse shoe smudges out part of the circle drawn in the dirt surrounding Chino.

“Come”, she says as Chino stumbles out of the broken circle. “Before they come to.”

“But… What did you do to him? And that one on the ground, is he…?” He is confused and scared and she has no patience for this at all.

“No, he’s just sleeping. Come on now. I’m not sure I can do this again any time soon.”

“Why? Are your… powers, like, used up?”

“No, stupid. I’m just not angry enough anymore. Hard to be, what with you looking like a lost puppy and all. Let’s go.” She walks a few paces, then stops. “On second though, well, fuck it.” She walks back towards Mike, who is still standing just as she left him. She gives him one of her wriest smiles, knowing that for the moment he can do nothing – but that he still sees and hears everything. “Big bad ritualists like you shouldn’t play with guns, hun. It doesn’t become you. Here, I’ll take care of that for you.” And with this she reaches out and plucks the engraved gun from his tattooed hand. The symbols make her shiver, but she hides it well. “Until next time, sugarplum”, she says, turns her back on him and walks away with Chino close behind her – just like a lost puppy.

She keeps the gun in her lap on their drive back to the city. She doesn’t trust it, doesn’t know it. But she likes the weight of it, and for some perverted reason the closeness to those dangerous runes thrills her. Makes her feel alive.

She doesn’t tell Chino that the car is stolen, or that he is stupid for using his True Name when he is so obviously stalked by hunters – especially when those same hunters seem to also be expert ritualists, and maybe something more as well. She doesn’t tell him much at all, actually. Because she has her own troubling thoughts to ponder. Thoughts that she is apparently young and stupid enough herself not to have thought until now, when the damage is already done. After the initial panicky babbling on Chino’s part it thus becomes very quiet in the car for several minutes.

“Vahri, I–”, he starts finally.

“Don’t thank me”, she interrupts him.

“I wasn’t going to, I–”

“Yes you were. You’re an open book to me. So don’t thank me, because I think I have just made everything so much worse than it already was.” She doesn’t take her eyes off the road, except for the flash moments when she scans the rear view mirror to make sure they are not being followed. Yet.

Chino casts her a frightened glance in the mirror. “What… what do you mean ‘worse’?”

“Just what it sound like, I’m afraid. Worse. I suggest you take your friend Ivers and check into some incognito hotel tonight. I have to check on Neferthali.”

“But–”

“Chino, those were not ordinary hunters, okay? They weren’t prepared this time, but next time they will be. And we can’t let them get the first strike when that happens.”

“You called him a ‘ritualist’… is that what you mean when you say ‘not ordinary’? Because not much of what happens to me nowadays is ordinary to me, and if you expect me to know stuff about–”

“Sorry for interrupting you all the time, but that’s the exact reason why you should listen to every word I say like they were quotes from the Bible. Well, or the Quran, if that’s what you prefer.”

“I’m not religious.”

This actually surprises her. For a heartbeat. “Alright, well, then you listen to me like I had the key to your maths test or whatever, okay? Whatever rolls for you. When I say you have to hide, you hide. Understand? And I suspect your friend has to hide as well, because now those hunters are pissed off and they won’t settle for truth anymore. They’ll go for dare. And in their dare, you die. Capish?”

A moment of slight hesitation. “Okay… I guess I’ll hide. For now. And I guess I’ll be able to stand Ivers. For a while. But you have to tell me what’s going on, Vahri. You said before that those hunters weren’t ‘ordinary’ hunters. What did you mean by that?”

She bites her lip. Just thinking about the possibility of her fears being true is making her feel sick. They were just supposed to be myths, ghost stories to scare young, reckless mages into submission with. Gods forbid, can they actually be real? “Did you see their tattoos?”, she says finally.

“Well, no”, he snaps back. “I was totally busy with not being killed or tortured or whatever sick stuff those people were threatening me with. Of course I should have paid better attention to their gang tattoos instead. But please enlighten me, were they of the Azusa 13, the Bloods or the Crips? Because that really makes a difference now, doesn’t it?”

She shoots him an angry glance, and he falls silent. “You fucking idiot, you haven’t grasped one thing I’ve told you so far, have you?” She takes a deep breath and chews at her thumb nail. “You’d be lucky if it was one of those gangs that came after you instead of what I suspect this is. Have you every heard of the Enjoyment Club?”

He opens his mouth to reply, then just shakes his head.

“No”, she sighs. “Of course you haven’t. I wouldn’t have, either, if it weren’t for my, well, special family conditions. Neferthali knows just about everything, and I guess she thought this was one of those things I needed to know as well. But I always thought… I never suspected that the Club was real. Never.”

“But… What is this club?” Chino must have picked up on her change in attitude, because now he sounds worried as well.

“The Club is… Well… If they’re real, it’s really, really bad.”

“What the fuck, Vahri, just tell me!” Fear is turning into anger now. An entirely human reaction, she observes.

She considers for a moment. “No”, she says.

“But–”

“I can’t tell you anything about them yet, because I don’t know how much of what I think I know is reality and how much of it is fairy tales and ghost stories. I have to find out more first. It might be that I’m entirely wrong, and then telling you about them would be just stupid in all ways. Give me a couple of days and I’ll find out more, okay?”

Chino doesn’t seem entirely pleased with this answer, but finally he nods. “Okay”, he says. “A couple of days. But after that I’m not hiding with Ivers any more, okay?”

She says nothing, just concentrates on the road until they are well within the city limits again. She lets him off outside his apartment, after making him promise to just go inside to pack the most important things – and then leave. Contact Ivers and go into hiding. He actually promises before disappearing into the darkness of the stairwell.

Vanessa herself lingers outside for a few minutes, until she sees the light go on in his apartment windows. Then she starts the not-exactly-stolen red Ferrari again and drives off into the dawning Los Angeles morning. I have to make sure Neferthali is okay, she thinks. And get that damned Ivers out of our home. He’s nothing more than trouble waiting to happen. And then… Then I’m not going to rest until I find out what the fuck all this is about.

And as she drives homeward for the last time in very long, she can’t yet possibly know that in a few days’ time she is actually going to look back on this very moment and wish to gods she never believed in that she had simply walked away and let this whole thing just be.


(Part IV of the story about Vanessa Riley can be found here.)

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-06-10

The Art of Dating (With Your Vampire Granny as Wingman)

This is part II of the story about Vanessa Riley. It works perfectly well as a stand alone, but if you would still like to read part I first, you can find it here


Her father’s mother once told her that love conquers all, and this might very well be true. But in that case, and Vanessa learned this early on, it normally doesn’t conquer anything for very long. Love at first sight, especially, seldom manages to conquer her attention for more than a messy quickie nowadays. To be fair, though, she should probably ascribe this to her own disinclination towards getting people killed rather than anything else.

She’s sitting at the glossy table, sipping her drink and letting her eyes wander the room. Window shopping doesn’t do it for her anymore, but then again not much else does either. She sighs, and the exhalation turns into drunken laughter before she’s able to stop herself. How the fuck did her life take this turn?

“Well, it’s not rocket science”, she tells the guy leaning towards her across the table. “It all started with the vampire.”

She tells him everything, because she’s bored as fuck, and he listens – of course he listens, it’s a fantastic story. He’s more drunk than her but still manages to nod in all the right places, his hungry eyes making it perfectly clear that he expects this social deed to yield some kind of reward later. She’s a little disappointed that he doesn’t freak out when she tells him about her mother decapitating her junior high sweetheart, but hey some people are just hardened assholes. He probably doesn’t believe her anyway.

“So now I’ve been living with my vampire godmother for seven years, protecting her from hunters and the sun and her own bad taste in men. And women. And me myself… Well, I try to stay clear of either. At least as far as relationships go. You can call me Vahri, by the way.” Neferthali taught her early that names have power, and that if Vanessa Riley wanted to become older than twenty she’d do best to shed her true name, at least publicly, and don a new one. A shadow name, as it were.

The stranger nods and nods and realizes too late that she has stopped talking seconds ago. To his credit he swiftly collects himself as soon as he does. “Ehrm, oh. So, well, are you, you know… A vampire too?”

She rolls her eyes and bites her lip. Don´t snap at him. He might be stupid but he’s hot as hell… as well. You don’t need him for conversation once we leave this place. “No, I’m not a vampire. I’m what they call a magician. No, not like Harry Potter but almost. I read and control minds, amongst other things.” Yeah, boyo, I wouldn’t be telling you all this if I didn’t. You won’t remember any of this tomorrow.

“Ah, okay”, he says, again disappointing her with his all too apparent non-out-freaking behaviour. “Can you show me something then?”

Oh, not again… “No. Definitely not.”

“Oh, comon. Some little trick. Please.”

The terror in Brian’s eyes. The sound of his steps disappearing down the stairs. Brian’s dead body… Snap. “No. Fuck you. What’s wrong with you, anyway? You’re not supposed to believe any of this.”

He looks at her in silence for several heartbeats, neither taken aback nor affronted by her suddenly lashing out at him. “There’s many things wrong with me. I’m broke, I’m probably on the brink of becoming unemployed and apparently I’m also extremely easily fooled. As a direct consequence of this, I am also a djinn. My name is Chino. Questions?”

“A… djinn?” She can’t even pretend to be cool about this. Okay, boyo, you win. She leans forward.

“Yeah, but not by choice. I was tricked, you see. It’s a long story, but suffice to say I promised to look after some guy’s flowers and his cat, and this ended me up as some kind of vacation substitute with magical powers. And yeah, his cat wasn’t really a cat either but some terribly obnoxious guy who was turned into a feline three hundred years ago because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut or whatever. And I was stupid enough to un-cat him so to speak. He’s that guy over there at the bar, if you were wondering. The one with his hands all over that pale woman in black.”

Vanessa turns towards the bar and instantly lets out yet another fit of involuntary laughter. “Him? Are you serious?” The dark haired man in the crimson suit looks handsome enough, and not a bit like a cat, but it is his company that surprises her. “That’s Neferthali”, she laughs. “My, well, the woman I told you about. The–”

“The vampire?” Now it’s Chino’s turn to look surprised, finally.

Vanessa nods. “Yeah, exactly. And they seem to be pretty… well acquainted.” As she speaks she can see how the couple merge in a deep kiss that seems to have no end at all. Suddenly Neferthali opens her dark eyes and meets Vanessa’s gaze over the man’s shoulder. She smiles. Before Vanessa knows it her ancient governor is leading the man in the crimson suit across the room towards her.

“For fuck sake, no…” The djinn at the other side of the table looks away as they approach, apparently not very keen at all about Vanessa being confronted with his friend, the ex-cat. Still, he’s obviously not un-keen enough about it to wish the situation away, because just a few seconds later the two are standing beside their table.

“Vahri, meet Ivers”, Nefethali says as she allows the man to wrap his arm around her waist. “I have known him for nine centuries, but haven’t seen him for three. Thus we have much to talk about.”

Who even uses the word “thus” in speaking? Vanessa can hear Chino’s sarcastic thought as clearly as if he had spoken the words. It’s almost a wonder the others can’t hear it too. Out loud he says: “There’s a good reason you haven’t seen him in so long. I’m sure he’s been eager to tell you why?”

Neferthali raises one of her delicately shaped eyebrows as she turns to her cavalier. “Oh, is that so?”

The one called Ivers bites his lip and clenches his free hand. “Well, no. I mean, of course there’s a good reason, but non that I would wish to bore my lady with”, he says and even manages a gallant smile.

“He’s been a cat. There, now you have one more thing to talk about.” Chino flashes Ivers a victorious face, but then accidentally meets Neferthali’s eyes and is instantly caught.

“A cat, you say?” Her voice is like golden nectar, and when Vanessa sees Chino’s face melt before the vampire’s gaze she knows that her date for the evening has been effectively ruined. Once again.

She takes a long draught from her ceasing drink and pretends not to pay attention while her audaciously gorgeous ancestress talks Chino up and gracefully inquires about everything from his name to his preferences in women. She is not angry, she is pissed off. Why must this happen every fucking time we go out together? She snaps out of her frustrated thoughts at a cold but delicate hand caressing the side of her face.

“Vahri, doll. Me and the young djinn here are going for a stroll. He has such interesting stories and I’m just starving to hear them. You do not mind, I’m sure?”

Vanessa waves her off with an irritated frown. “No, gran, of course I don’t mind. I just laid eyes on him first but please go ahead. Just remember to wipe his memory afterwards because I accidentally slipped and told him everything. You know, like I always do.”

Neferthali gives her a long look, then shakes her head. “Vahri dear, you worry too much. He’s a djinn, remember? It is alright for him to know these things.” And with this she lets her arm slither around Chino’s waist and leads him off into the crowd. Within seconds Vahri can’t see either of them anymore.

She shakes her head in not-so-surprised disbelief. “Oh, of course. How stupid of me”, she mutters and turns back to her glass, just to once again discover its miserably empty state. Then somebody settles down beside her – slightly too close – and she looks up again. It’s the other guy, the one in crimson. Ivers.

He smiles broadly at her and on any other night he would have been a catch. Tonight, however, has taken a turn for the sour and she is definitely not in the mood to be talked up by her godmother’s sloppy seconds. “What the fuck do you want?”, she mutters and once again tries to drink from her empty glass. This time she succeeds. She doesn’t realize she should be surprised until after several deep gulps.

“I’m Ivers”, he says and extends a meticulously manicured hand. “Do you wanna go somewhere, or…?”

“So you’re a djinn too?”, Vanessa sighs as the reason behind her unexpected refill suddenly sinks in. “Wonderful.”

And with that she rises from her chair, grabs her bag and leaves the table.

“Wait, I thought we could… talk.” The voice of the older djinn sounds almost mopish behind her, but Vanessa doesn’t turn around. Instead she extends a gracious middle finger before elbowing her way towards the exit. She’s had enough of bullshit for one night.

And as she exits the club and walks off into the late summer gloom a realization strikes her. Love doesn’t conquer all, she muses bitterly. It’s shamelessly well preserved, antediluvian fucking vampire grannies that do that.


(You can find the next part in the story about Vanessa Riley here.)