Excerpt from “Stet:” Hibiscus blossoms

It was like when you think you smell smoke in one inhale, but then never catch a whiff of it again — but you’re sure you smelled it, and now you’re looking for fire.

I find the fire: She’s dressed in all black, form-fitting and intimidating. Her dark hair is exactly as Agatha had described it, cropped in the back and dangling long in the front, stick-straight and glossy.

As she steps up on the porch, heeled boots clump-clumping on the soft wood, something in the corner of my eye hooks my attention. The blossoms on the large potted hibiscus bush have puckered like raisins, wilting down under the weight of whatever demon she’s brought with her.

“You must be Agatha’s editor,” she says, dark cherry lips lifting, as Agatha said they did, to reveal perfect white teeth. “She spoke very highly of you.”

“Only one of those things are true,” I say, settling for a tight smirk that won’t betray my coffee-yellowed smile. “From what Agatha told me, you must be Maeve.”

“I’m certainly not Handel,” she smiles. “He’s finishing a call in the car. Another client needs our help, and rather desperately, so we won’t take up much of your time today.”

I wonder if the client actually exists or is their escape route when I start asking harder-hitting questions than Agatha ever posed. I’ve listened to all the interview recordings, remember: I know the softballs she lobbed about whether they believed in an afterlife (obviously) and what their most challenging house was to purge (“They’re all challenges, but they’re all learning opportunities”). I prefer to play fast-pitch without a catcher’s mit.

“I don’t think you have to worry too much about that,” I say.

“No, I don’t suppose we will,” Maeve said. “Unless, of course, you want to come with us to this client?”

Now I understand how Agatha fell under her spell, as I feel a strange pull around my shoulder, as if Maeve has put her arm around me to gently guide me toward their car, even though she’s still standing three feet in front of me. I have no doubt now that the client is fake; that I’m being tricked into my own abduction; that Handel is in the car, ready to drive me to an undisclosed location where I’ll either die or be driven mad as Agatha was; and that all of this is exactly as it should be, exactly as I want it to be.

“Good? Good,” Maeve said, turning on a heel. “We’ll take you with us. You’ll enjoy it, I promise.”

As we walk down the steps, I feel something crunch under my foot. It’s one of the hibiscus blossoms, just moments before a Tropicana pink saucer, and now a shriveled, veiny ball of tissue player crumpled beneath my heel. A puff of black smoke seems to cough out of it as my shoe grinds it into the floor.

Axiom Thorne: The first night on The Hydra

No new statue on the bow was going to fix the fact that this ship was being run by our ragtag team of misfits. We scrubbed it clean, loaded new cannons, relettered its name “The Hydra” on the side in silver that tarnished on contact with the salty air, and yet it was just the same as our former vessel — the one that had carried its crew to a port for us, and a grave for it.

The traitor Darvin was long dead, swallowed by a monster in a cave. I did not grieve him, no matter how Captain Urto anticipated my heartache. It was futile to explain that Darvin held not a single string of my heart, no matter how many nights he retired to my quarters. He was merely a filling for the one I had left behind; the one who had forgotten me long before I found myself afloat on the tenacious sea.

Now something else had taken Ansel’s place — a stone, cold and black and powerful, sent by the Man with the Colorful Scarf and the Diamond Shoes. It was possibly the greatest gift he had bestowed upon me, though I did not yet understand why.

The first night aboard the Hydra, I nestled within my bedsheets, still musty with dust and dried sage. The lamplight swayed with the ship, dancing to the tune of waves lapping against its sides and my heart beating against the black gem implanted within it. Here in the quiet, however, thoughts of Ansel started oozing from the cracks between animal and mineral, and I was awash with the memory of his eyes looking at me curiously, wondering who I might be as I cried in self-pity at the foot of his bed.

My eyes shot open, hoping the dark ship wall would save me from the vacancy of his face and the weakness of my past. And they might have, had Ansel not been sitting at the foot of my bed now, his eyes twinkling with recognition.

“I miss you, my love,” he said, smiling that crooked grin that made my insides turn to gelatin. Even the black rock in my chest became jam more than gem.

I lunged forward without thinking, hoping his arms would catch me like they always had, and instead slammed my face into the wall. Ansel was gone, replaced only by a knock from the other side and Azha’s half-concerned, half-annoyed, “Everything OK in there, Ax?”

“Fine,” I said, unsure if the tears in my eyes were from the pain blossoming outward from my nose, or from the memory of my greatest failing.

#CampNaNoWriMo Vignette: “Homo sapien bitterus”

The first thing I see when I walk in is two construction workers sitting and chatting with Kris, the bartender. Shortly after I silently slip onto the stool, Kris approaches with an empty pint glass in hand, detouring briefly at the tap to pour the darkest stout on the menu before placing it in front of me.

“You’re a little early today,” she says.

“You’re a little heady today,” I reply, eying the two inches of foam filling the top of the glass.

One of the construction workers spins a pack of cigarettes between two fingers like a hyperactive watermill, and I feel my mouth itch. It’s been two years, seven month and nine days since my last cigarette, and although I can now run a mile without keeling over, the cravings haven’t gotten better.

The construction worker’s pal notices me trying not to stare at the pack of cigarettes.

“What do you want?” he asks, as if he doesn’t know.

“I quit, and I’m regretting it,” I say, nodding to the Marlboroughs once they’re face down on the bar.

“Sorry,” the smoker says, picking up the pack as if hiding it from me will make me forget how much my lips itch. “I tried a while ago, and I couldn’t do it. Girlfriend even threatened to leave, and I couldn’t stop.”

“She was a bitch,” shrugs his friend, sipping his bear. “A black lung is better than blue balls.”

His friend laughs, but it’s fake. I can tell that he’s still hurting from his girlfriend leaving, and he blames himself, his parents, his friend, the tobacco industry, even Marlborough Man Tom fucking Selleck himself, judging from the way he manhandles the crinkled box of cigarettes as he pushes them back into his workpants pocket.

The two of them go back to talking about something a guy named Ed did while sitting in his pansy-ass air conditioned trailer, and I go back to contemplating the now-thinned head on my beer. Behind the bar is a mirror hazed with time and tobacco, but I can see people walking past the bar and looking in at the urban zoo exhibit and its inhabitants. Morgan’s should have a plaque outside the door: “Species: Homo sapien bitterus. Diet: Alcohol, tobacco, regret. Habitat: Dive bars, construction sites, newsrooms. Thrive best in climates of sarcasm, self-pity and loathing.”

Excerpt: Agatha’s apartment

The apartment yawned stale, sunbaked air in our faces as the maintenance man unlocked the door and swung it open.

“When was the last time you saw her?” I asked. In the dim glow of the hall light I could read the embroidered script on his work shirt: “Chuck.” I didn’t even know there were people under 50 named Chuck anymore.

“She was home when I had to fix the smoke detector last month,” Chuck said. “It kept going off in the middle of the night, waking everyone up on the floor.”

Adam handed him the thrice-folded $20 as he passed him on his way across the threshold as a thank you, and Chuck got the hint that it was also to guarantee privacy for our investigation.

“I’ll wait downstairs for you so I know when to lock up,” he said, leaving us to explore alone.

From the entrance, Agatha’s apartment looked like the typical 20-something writer’s studio, with style taking a backseat to convenience. Three mismatched pressboard bookshelves groaned under paperbacks and stacks of Vanity Fair, Wired, Mother Jones, The Atlantic, Ms., Bitch, and Fast Company back issues. Her vinyl couch had likely been assembled with an Allen wrench that came with it in the IKEA box. A mattress and box spring was jammed like an afterthought into the corner and covered in a faded kaleidoscope duvet cover, sans duvet inside. A plate, red wine glass, skillet and wooden spoon collected dust on a drainboard, and the refrigerator hummed under a layer of half-formed grocery lists and someday-I’ll-need-it business cards.

“You must have really made out in the divorce agreement,” I said to Adam. “Or did you just get all the good furniture?”

“We didn’t have any ‘good furniture,'” Adam replied shortly, continuing his way into the apartment.

Walking in behind him, I felt like I was easing myself into a bubble bath drawn with ice water. The small studio looked like it belonged to an ambitious 20-something writer, but as I submerged deeper into the apartment, it became clear that before her disappearance, Agatha had been descending into a chaotic obsession.

The notes on the fridge weren’t grocery lists: They were seemingly unrelated words and phrases that formed a cloud passing from the fridge, across the backsplash, around the corner and filling the wall above a desk that looked to have been rescued from a curb on garbage day. There were no webs of string, no highlighted portions like the conspiracy walls in the movies, and this perhaps made it more ominous: Agatha didn’t need to connect these things visually because either she was able to keep them straight in her own head, or because there was really no reasoning to why she had written “Caravan” and “chauffeur’s daughter” in the blank spaces of a Chinese takeout menu, then pinned it next to a torn green Post-it listing “Burt’s Bees / KIND bars / fire plug on Hollyhock Lane.”

“Did she used to do this when you were together?” I asked Adam.

He shook his head, mouth agape at his ex-wife’s handwriting scrawling across the scratch-paper wallpaper.

“Sometimes she’d start a notebook, use about five pages of it, then put it in a box and start a new one,” he said absentmindedly as his eyes flitted from note to note. “Always said it was the creative in her and that lots of writers did that. The only book she’d actually fill up was her—”

Adam stopped and looked at the desk. It was covered in mail (both open and sealed), receipts, packing slips, a set of knit gloves likely left there since last winter, and more notes like the ones on the wall. And that was just the top layer of the bric-a-brac cluttering it.

“She kept a journal,” Adam said. “Not every day, but she’d fill it up in a year and need a new one. I’d usually get her something nice for Christmas — leather-bound, or hardback — but she’d always pick up a composition notebook from Target or something. Said there was less pressure to be perfect that way.”

He started shuffling the papers on the desk like playing cards, stacking them and lifting them and gently placing them on the floor. More little notes slid on unseen air drafts, yelling “MORE COBWEBS!” or matter-of-factly stating “Ranch = spirits from 1960s.”

As he meticulously shuffled through Agatha’s desk contents, I began to wander the rest of the tiny apartment. One of her dresser drawers was ajar, and I slid it open, slowly as if hoping Agatha wouldn’t notice — which was silly, of course, as she wasn’t there.

Nothing seemed to be missing inside the drawer: Rather, it was hard to tell if anything was out of place, as the entire thing was filled with sloppily folded T-shirts and sweaters. Close to the top was the green argyle pullover she’d been wearing the day she came to tell me about meeting someone at a housewarming who would make a great story. My stomach flipped at the thought that if I had just said “no,” I wouldn’t be bribing her maintenance man to let me and her ex-husband into her apartment so we could figure out what happened to her.

“Hey, I found something,” Adam said. I turned around to see him holding not a composition notebook but one of the flip-top reporting notebooks we stocked in Deus Ex Machina‘s office supply room. “Doesn’t look like her journal, but the notes in this are a lot more coherent than the ones on the wall. And there’s a whole drawer of them, look.”

Excerpt: The housewarming

Tonight was Meera’s housewarming party. Ended up going straight from work, so I had to drag my whole computer bag with me. Stopped at Mariano’s on the way to the train to pick up a bottle of wine — bad call, because the cheapest “nice” bottle I could find was still $17. That’ll be an extra hour of copy editing this weekend. At least I could avoid buying dinner on the way home by eating the hot appetizers they were serving.

“Someone’s got an appetite,” Meera laughed when she saw me walk into the family room with a plate full of those tiny hot dogs wearing puffer coats of corn dough. They were easier to eat than the meatballs swimming in Meera’s signature barbecue-sauce-and-grape-jelly sauce (that makes it sound bad — it’s not!).

Jake brought me a tall glass of sangria with lots of fruit floating in it. He spent five years as a public safety reporter at the reader, so he gets how it is, calculating how far your paycheck will go in terms of Chipotle burritos, city-priced beers, and hours of extra Freelance.com work.

And now here he was, married to Meera and moving into a quaint two-bedroom house with a backyard and utility room. Still not sure what Meera does, apart from dress nice for a 9-to-5 and attend monthly advocacy board meetings for a bajillion social justice organizations. Apparently it’s enough to afford a mortgage.

This was unlike any housewarming I’d been to, in that was for an actual house, not a tight studio apartment with an empty liquor cabinet to fill. And this was a spankin’ new house, too — I felt like my nose was filling with the slate-gray carpet fibers still hovering in the air. Lean against the plum accent wall and you’ll ruin the fresh paint. Suddenly drenching my plate of cocktail wieners in ketchup and mustard seemed reckless, almost daring.

The kitchen was safer. Hardwood floors don’t hold condiment stains as well as carpet, and I wouldn’t have to keep ducking out of conversations to refill my plate with tiny quiche and fruit kebabs. I found a spot leaning up against the dishwasher where I was within arms’ reach of the veggie platter that no one was touching. From here, I could watch the screen door open and close as more guests arrived to trample down the new carpet and compress the sofa cushions.

Don’t know how long I was standing there. Talked to some people. Jake’s boss seems nice. Met Meera’s mom and stepdad for probably the fourth time, though they never seem to remember me. I guess her stepbrother just left for a semester abroad in Spain and is trying to fit in. Reminded me of Adam’s stories about his disaster roommates. Funny how four years later, “Spain” just makes me think of him. Maybe because I’ve never been myself — only had his stories to associate with an entire country.

Eventually I was alone again. Front door opened, and a pretty big group came in: Two women I recognized from Jake and Meera’s wedding — one of their couple-friends, Jackie and Noreen, I think? — an older woman, and another couple that looked as out of place as I felt in this monument to suburbia.

He had the look of someone who’s recently discovered they’re attractive and is work. ing. it. Complete with the kind of strategic stubble you see on TV heroes, and the Paul Newman eyes that wouldn’t need photoshop in a magazine ad. He was dressed like every other guy at the party, jeans and and casual T-shirt just tight enough to put a hetero-approved emphasis on his fit physique. A hint of a tattoo on his bicep peaked out from under his sleeve. And, of course, a nice thick gunmetal wedding band on his left hand that caught the light as he ran a hand through a perfectly messy head of thick, partially wavy auburn hair. I’m sure every straight female in this house, married or not, was about to go home thinking about that hair.

But the woman next to him was entirely different. Clearly his wife, though she wasn’t doing anything to make that clear — not holding his hand or touching him in any way. They just fit naturally together, even though they couldn’t look more different.

She had stick-straight black hair sliced into a bob that reminded me of Charlize Theron’s Aeon Flux ‘do. She dressed on the professional side of punk, her black jeans tight and clean, with moto-pleats on the thighs. Also zippers that matched the hardware on her leather jacket, which had so many studs and spikes on the shoulders that it reminded me of a porcupine. Her lipstick was the kind of dark cherry only confident women wear, as if they don’t continuously worry their teeth aren’t white enough for it.

I didn’t know if I wanted to be her or fuck her, but one thing was certain: I needed to meet her.

Excerpt: A brief description of the Tersus

An excerpt from Magic in Flesh: A Study in Earthly Manifestation by John Fogg:

“The Tersus (from the Latin for “clean”) is a carnivorous creature that in its original form resembles a tangled mass of tentacles that entwine around a tiny void that acts as its stomach. It originates from a small quadrant known as Kushner’s Cove, a pungent area colloquially described as ‘the armpit,’ ‘the ballsack,’ or ‘the Florida’ of the Yoros Dimension.

“However, the Tersus derives its name from its behaviors, rather than its habitat. Although the timeline is murky as the waters of the swamp where it resides, we know that in very recent times the Tersus somehow gained access to a regional television station known as ‘Memorable Television’ (MeTV), possibly by picking it up via aerial signal. It was from what it saw through these signals — primarily sitcoms from the 1950s and 1960s — that it developed its sense of how humans in our dimension function.

“Based on these minimal observations, the Tersus has developed a form of camouflage that it deploys when hunting its favorite form of food: Humans. Similar to an Oblex (see p. 194: ‘Fictional adaptations of real magical creatures’) a Tersus assumes the form of whatever it eats, and the human form is possibly the most practical, or even comfortable, for it to inhabit due to humans’ size and adaptability. By appearing human, the Tersus also gains the benefit of human’s social nature, which allows it to continue coming into contact with others, essentially providing it a literal buffet. Although a Tersus can only occupy one human form at a time, it can remain in a single person’s form for up to three weeks before getting hungry again.

“How can you tell if you’re in the presence of a Tersus? Because its knowledge of its prey is limited to television programs such as The Andy Griffith Show, I Love Lucy, The Dick van Dyke Show, The Brady Bunch, Hazel and an occasional Happy Days episode, its concept of human habitats and behaviors is limited to those it sees in mid-20th century TV-land. It seeks to emulate the most senior, present member of the family unit, which more often than not is the maternal homemaker or housemaid figure of any of these ensemble casts.

“When in our dimension, the Tersus will reverse its pack-rat, slobbish ways in Kushner’s Cove and begin to emulate the Aunt Bea and Laura Petrie by cleaning and maintaining immaculate surroundings. Not a speck of dust or unswept floor will exist wherever a Tersus resides or hunts, which coincidentally gives it away to anyone with the right knowledge and perception. If your slovenly teenager’s room is suddenly sparkling, or your once-messy partner has recently begun obsessively vacuuming your home, you may have a Tersus on your hands.

“While the Tersus’ exact strategy concerning which types of human prey it prefers is still being researched, there are a few clear patterns already being discovered. A Tersus will not eat a magical human, as many could potentially have enough power to maintain control of their senses and actions after it has inhabited their body. It also tends to prefer devouring those with meat in their diets over those who are vegan, and appears to gravitate toward men with male-pattern baldness, Ed Hardy cologne, or anonymous social media accounts.”

About the author: John Fogg is a prominent documentarian of magical non-human creatures, specializing in carnivorous species that occupy the Dresden, Yoros, and Ishtarian dimensions. His encyclopedic studies are considered staples to magical beings, and he has has contributed to more than three hundred journals, compilations and anthologies. Fogg’s mysterious disappearance in 2013, has confounded and concerned his followers, but those closest to him hold out hope that one day he will return with knowledge of some new and exciting species.

Excerpt: Eddie Fitzjohn

We trudged up the stairs, each step echoing on the concrete. Every door was in varying degrees of decay: A couple paint chips here, a fully rusted door handle there. A few looked as though they belonged to tenants refusing to acknowledge they lived in a shitty rundown building — a “Welcome to Our Home” hanger dangled from Apartment 409’s door, while a wreath of wine corks clashed with the mint green of Apartment 419 — but for the most part, no one was keeping up appearances.

Raff stopped in front of Apartment 428. The paint was in good shape, but the knocker was missing. As he raised his fist to rap on the metal, I looked to see a letter jammed in the tenant’s mailbox. Part of the addressee’s name was visible, halfway out of the slot, and suddenly the identity of the “muscle” that Raff had been talking about was no longer a mystery.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “You’re an asshole, but not that much an asshole.”

“We need Eddie,” Raff shrugged.

“Like I need a hole in the head, no thanks,” I said. My face was burning, my knees radiating with the desire to either kick him in the nuts or sprint out of the building and down the street — maybe both, in that order.

“What do you have against talent?”

“Nothing, if it doesn’t belong to your—”

I didn’t finish, because the door opened, and I came nose-to-nose with “talent.”

Here’s what I knew about Eddie Fitzjohn:

Eddie was born Edmunda Fitzjohn seven years before I was born Sylvia Erris, and by the time I popped out of my mother’s womb, she had a six-figure contract with a top ad agency as the face of Puppy Love, the hottest clothier for kids between five and eight years old. At 12 she had her own Disney sitcom called “Everything Eddie,” and by 17 she had renounced the Mouse, emancipated herself from her parents, and turned up at some small liberal arts college in Canada, where she extracurricularly ran an underground fight club for women sick of being prey at frat parties.

Graduation came and went, and she not only had two degrees in economics and philosophy, but also a blossoming mixed martial arts career that ended abruptly when she took to the internet to expose her manager as a pussy-grabbing sexual predator with a thing for 14-year-olds. He got three years probation and a life ban from the league. She got three months of internet trolling and a life sentence to self-imposed anonymity.

Of course, all of this knowledge was readily available on Wikipedia for anyone interested, which I wasn’t until a year ago, when I found out that Eddie Fitzjohn had been in a long-term relationship with one Raff Manning — and it had ended less than a year before Sy had entered his world.

Excerpt: In need of a witch

Some people, when they leave you, take a piece of your heart to fill a hole in their own. Others take a piece, plop it into their pocket and forget it’s there when they store their coat in the closet for the summer.

Raff Manning was the kind with the rotting chunk of my heart in his parka pocket, so when I saw his name light up my phone for the first time in six months, I assumed he had been cleaning out his closet and wanted to know if I’d like it back.

Actually, the text message preview showed a single line: “Hi: been a long time. Need your…”

Need my what? The part of me that hadn’t gotten laid in half a year liked to imagine the next word was “pussy,” but even when we were buck-naked in my bed he had never been that forward. And from the fact I was, as of that morning, “terminated “with cause” from the job I had worked for more than four years, I highly doubted even Raff needed my expertise or skills — especially when my resume centered around staff analysis and succession planning.

I let the message languish on my phone while I unpacked the sad cardboard box I’d trekked home from my ex-office. Half of it was useless junk I should have left behind — the fake plant I dusted rather than watered, a Funko Pop of Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, and since when did I own a hacky sack? — but it did the trick of covering up the ingredients I’d need to exact my revenge whenever I’d had enough wine to feel pissed enough to override the guilt.

So my boss believed that asshole Billingsly in the accounting department that I had forged my paid time off count, huh? I had a crumpled napkin filled with danish crumbs and a single hair that I had gotten off of my boss’ desk while he was in a meeting and a sliver of fingernail I had watched Billingsly bite off and spit out as he talked to me. There were two voided reports with both their signatures, a sample of the fern my boss walked into almost every day when he entered his office, and a scrap of loose fabric that dangled off the bottom of Billingsly’s chair. When mixed with a few of my own ingredients — ballpoint ink, dried and diced highlighter tips, Eucerin hand cream, and a skimming off the top of a cup of creamed coffee left to sit for a week — they’d both have to use all their paid time off to recover from the irritable bowel syndrome that had suddenly befallen them. Always treat your co-workers with respect, I smirked to myself: You could never tell which ones were witches.

But that project would have to wait.

The message floated there ominously, that “your…” looming like the foggy rim of a cliff: I knew a drop laid just beyond the edge, but I couldn’t be sure just how far down I’d fall.

I opened it.

“Hi: been a long time. Need your help on a job. $$. Meet at Ravish around 7?”

So it was a job, then. The same hook in my pelvis that had regrettably pulled at the thought of Raff wanting me back was now in my stomach. I never liked his line of work — found it dirty, despicable — but my last paycheck was currently in my handbag, and my half of the rent was due in a week. Magic could only get you so far, and a little cash wouldn’t hurt.

I changed out of my work slacks and button-down into my best-fitting jeans and a tank top in Raff’s favorite shade of green. As I checked to make sure I had locked the front door, I dashed off a text to Philippa letting her know that I wouldn’t be home until late. Her job at the lab kept her past 7 most nights anyway, but I didn’t need this to be the night she decided to bring home a takeout feast for us.

In her role as best-friend-and-avenger, Philippa had sworn that the minute she saw Raff again she would inject him with whatever pharmaceutical misfire she had cooked up at work. Forever my warrior, she was indefatigable in her hatred for him, despite how long they had gotten along in the two years I dated him. Philippa implored me to delete and block his number, and maybe she was right, but deep down I also knew that maybe one day I’d need his professional skills. You never knew when you’d need a bounty hunter.

Halfway to our meeting, I got a text from her asking if I was meeting with anyone she knew — she was almost done and wouldn’t mind joining us for a happy hour drink. “Friend from work,” I said. “Long story.”

After all, if this assignment was worth the trek up north, it wouldn’t be too far from the truth.

Walking into the bar was like stepping out of a time machine. The tables were in the same place; the bartender was the same; the TVs were even playing the same rerun of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — a naked Danny DeVito was lying face-down in a puddle of hand sanitizer. And there sat Raff, in the same black leather jacket as he’d worn the day I met him, in the same spot he always sat in at the bar, and with a can of the same milk stout he always ordered when we came here.

I had avoided Ravish since the breakup. I didn’t want to have to answer the bartender when she asked where he was, as she was accustomed to seeing us at least once a week. I didn’t want to stare at the same wall of drawn-on dollar bills that I’d stare at when his eyes got too intense while we dissected whatever movie we’d just seen across the street. And yet here I was, walking in to act as if six months hadn’t passed.

Just to be safe, I took the stool on the right side of him, rather than on his left like I had all those times before.

“You look—” his eyes fluttered up to my hairline. While debating how much vengeful cleavage to display, I had totally forgotten that in the month following our breakup, I had chopped my hair into a punky little pixie and dyed it a luscious aubergine, then crimson, then green. I had recently experimented with turquoise. “Nice hair.”

“Thanks,” I said, running a hand just over the pompadoured front. “Thought I’d change it up.”

“Well now it’s like old times,” the bartender came over — same butterfly tattoo on her wrist, same nose ring. “Loving the hair! What can I get for you, babe?”

“Whatever Three Floyds is on tap,” I smiled at her.

“And I’ll take another one of these,” Raff said, lifting what turned out to be a near-empty can that he easily crushed in his fist.

“Sure thing,” she said. She had been privy to every thought we had in the early days when we clung so hard to each other’s sentences that we lost all grip on time, and now she was trying to determine if this was a date or detente.

“You shotgun the first one?” I asked, nodding at the crinkled can.

“Got here early.” It was like old times, I thought.

I watched the amber slosh into the pint glass as I waited for Raff to start talking. By the time the foam had started to crest the top of the glass, I had grown impatient.

“So this job?” I prompted him, smiling in thanks as the bartender placed the glass in front of me.

“I need some information from you.”

“Raff,” I said, shaking my head as I lifted the draught to my lips. A brief touch to my lips and I knew the strawberry-tinged hops flavor immediately: Zombie Dust, the first beer I’d had here. Nostalgia really had to bust my ass today, didn’t it? “If this this about Spencer, you can forget it. I don’t know what he’s up to; I don’t know where he is; and even if I did know, I would sure as fuck not tell you.”

“It’s not like that,” Raff said, tapping his nail on top of the fresh stout can in front of him. He once said it was to keep it from foaming over the top when you cracked it open, but now I realized it was likely just a compulsive ritual for him. “It’s nothing to do with your brother.”

Step-brother,” I corrected him. Spencer and I were never close, but on the scale of who was annoying me most right now, he was far from where Raff sat, which granted the amateur fireworks maker and trafficker amnesty in my head.

Raff opened the beer can and took a tentative sip. His eyes flitted to my hair with every blink.

“I really do like it, actually,” he said, as if admitting something to himself more than to me.

“What’s the job, Raff?” I needed to refocus so my face wouldn’t go pink.

“Have a bit more beer before I tell you,” he said.

I knocked my glass back hard, sloshing more than a sip or two down my front as I chugged half of it down. Even though I closed my eyes, I could still see this place on the night of our first date, when we had stayed talking at this bar until they closed. Him in that leather jacket, smelling of paper and pepper, and not only enthusiastically talking about his life, but also enthusiastically listening to me talk about my own.

Half the beer gone and my stomach roiling in discomfort, I put the glass down.

“Now?”

Raff chuckled. “OK, here’s the gig. There’s a guy up in Edgewater who’s been fencing stolen cars, and I’ve been monitoring his place all week so I can bring him in. Except I’m not the first one to try it. I’ve seen pairs of cops show up almost every day, warrant in hand, marching up to the house looking like they mean business. They go inside, and they come out looking like they’ve just had lemonade and cookies out on the back porch with the guy.”

“Maybe they are,” I shrugged. “Cops can be dirty, you know.”

“If he’s got this many cops as pals, how’d they ever get a warrant approved in the first place? Nah, something witchy is going on here.”

I twinged at the word and took another sip of beer to clear the bitter taste in the back of my throat before I spoke.

“So that’s why you need me. To do something ‘witchy’ back.”

“No,” he said, almost too quickly. “I just need you to come to the house with me so we can see what he’s got going on out there. If I know what I’m up against, I might stand a shot at getting him into custody.”

One more tip back, and my beer was nothing but suds sliding down the side of the glass.

“How much?”

“I’ll give you $600 if you come with me right now.”

That would be almost all my rent this month, and while the thought of helping Raff with his greasy bounty hunter assignment made me want to immediately take a shower, I also needed that $600 to afford the running hot water. But I wasn’t about to let my ex know I was that financially distressed, so I ran my finger around the rim of my pint glass as I smiled coyly.

“You must be desperately in need of a witch,” I said, turning my head around to see if I could find the bartender to order another pint. I didn’t want to leave yet. He’d likely walk out with me, and I’d be forced to remember in stereo the first night we left here together and he kissed me on the sidewalk outside, and the last night we left together and he told me it was over on the same patch of pavement.

At the word “witch” his eyes flashed cautiously toward the bartender, who had just reappeared behind the bar to ring in a kitchen order.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “She’s one, too, you know.”

“Serious? How do you know?”

“Witchy-sense,” I said sarcastically, adding a particularly exaggerated jerk-off motion. The truth was I had seen her add a little something to a drink if it was headed toward a particularly awful customer: whether it was to loosen their wallets or slam shut their sphincters, I didn’t know. Maybe both. “You seriously can’t tell? She must be better at hiding it from you dim people.”

“You know, ‘dim’ isn’t exactly an endearment.”

“In your case, no,” I said. “You didn’t figure me out for upwards of two years.”

He took another sip from his beer to avoid responding, but I could see his neck flush with embarrassment.

“I moved in with Philippa, by the way. She had an extra room in that brownstone she inherited from her grandma. We’re very happy and have satisfying casual sex with each other every night, in case you were wondering. I think we might take the next step and adopt a hamster next week.”

This made him crack a smile.

“Are you still living with Benjamin and Theo?”

“Yep, though the band’s long finished. We posted that music video on Youtube and got laughed off the internet.”

It didn’t take any prophesy potions to know that that was going to happen. I had seen the storyboards for their project, and it was laughable even on paper.

“They miss having you around, though,” he said quietly. “Didn’t get off my back for weeks after we broke up.”

“Was it really because of the witch thing?” I asked, figuring that I might as well put it out there now before we decided to try to haul in a car thief together. The beer had loosened me up enough to decide I’d rather regret things I said than things I didn’t say.

“Maybe,” he shrugged. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault, Sylvie. I think it was just our time to end.”

He hadn’t called me Sylvie since the height of our romance: Otherwise it had always been “Sy” or the dreaded “Sylvia.” I had no intention of starting over with him — six months had been enough time to brew and drink the right potions to detox him out of my system — but I didn’t mind him hoping this misadventure would bring us back together. Maybe we’d get through this together without going for each other’s throats, after all.

As long as he never put two-and-two together and realized that he stopped loving me shortly after he shaved all his hair off for that damn music video.

Axiom Thorne: Seeking help from Hanso Jon

After Stephan crumbled into a pile of cockroaches and beetles, I fled home in need of my mother. My heart beat so hard that I was sure it would bounce the silver viper fang right off the chain around my neck, but instead the metal just grew warm against my skin and I sprinted up the high road toward our small house on the edge of town.

She was in the kitchen, kneading bread dough. Of all the things to be doing, did she have to be baking? The round loaves rising in the sun reminded me of the baker’s shop window, and how he’d be looking out of it in just a few hours, expecting his son to come rounding down the street. My face drained, white as the flour on her hands.

“Baby, what’s the matter?” She asked. “What happened by the river?”

“Stephan—” I stuttered.

“I thought you were going to stay away from him,” she said, turning back to her baking. “He’s a nasty boy and a bully.”

“But Mamma—”

“What, Axiom?”

“I didn’t mean to. I mean, I didn’t do anything. He just — he just disappeared. Vanished without a trace, like the ground had just swallowed him up.”

The viper fang was hot against my skin. Mamma’s kneading stopped.

“What do you mean?”

“Stephan called me a freak, and then all of a sudden all these bugs just came up and…and…and ate him.”

She didn’t look mad. She didn’t look angry, either. Instead, she just looked at the colorful scarf I had wrapped around my neck. The one I had gotten two weeks earlier at my thirteenth birthday party from the Man with the Diamond Shoes.

“Right,” she said. “Go rinse off your legs change your dress — you’re muddy all over. We have an errand to run.”

An hour later, the bread was left to rise and we were walking down the high road. I was sure that we were heading back to the scene of Stephan’s demise so my mother could inspect it for herself. Maybe she would use some of those strange elven powers her sister crowed about to find out what exactly had happened and why.

But when we got to the top of the riverbank, Mamma didn’t ask which way we should go. Instead, she firmly took my hand and led me in the opposite direction of where Stephan had been torturing fish — past the bridge that acted as a boundary for where I was allowed to play, and into a wide bog dotted with stepping stones.

I put a foot out to step onto the first one, but Mamma yanked me back by my dress. She put her finger to her lips before turning to the bog and yelling: “Hanso Jon! Cretia Lilliput Thorne and her daughter seek your wisdom!”

The stones before us sank, and the bog’s surface crested and rippled as they reassembled into a straight walking path toward an island that had started to rise. My mother stepped out before me, leading the way down the path.

When we arrived at our destination, I turned back to see that the stones had sunk and scattered again. By the time I redirected my attention to my mother, she had cleared a chunk of moss from the center of the island to reveal a latch. Her housework-strong arms had no trouble lifting the trapdoor up, and she nodded her head toward the stairs.

“Watch your step,” she said.

Our half-elf dark vision lit the way as we inched down a flight of stairs and landed in a world all its own. Although I knew we were under the bog, there was a night sky above us, peppered with stars that glimmered. The stairs behind us had disappeared, too, so that we stood in the middle of a field, the breeze gently blowing the smell of imminent rain, blossoming honeysuckle, and fresh cut grass clippings into our faces.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“Somewhere I never thought I’d have to come again,” Mamma said, and she set down the path toward a house that looked suspiciously like our own.

The door opened before we knocked, though no one stood there. My mother led me inside, and we found ourselves staring at the presumable owner. She was tall — not yet stooped with age, though her hair was white and wispy, and her skin was like a piece of the crinkled sepia paper the butcher used to wrap meat.

“Cretia Lilliput, as I live and wheeze,” the woman said with a strong chuckle that turned into a dry cough. “Never thought I’d see your face in the Underbog again. What is it this time? Has he left you yet?”

I turned to my mother, but her face was stone.

“He left a long time, Hanso Jon. But you already knew that. Just like you know I’m here because of my daughter.” Her hand gripped my shoulder. It was warm in temperature, but not in emotion.

“A little Lilliput!” Hanso squealed. “Well let me look at you properly, my girl!” My mother pushed me forward a little into the light as the old woman scanned me. “Eyes and hair like your mother, but a willowy build like your father, if I recall correctly.”

Without warning, she swooped in on me and pressed her hands to the sides of my head. My vision compressed, then expanded into a memory of my father letting me chase him on my three-year-old stubby legs along the river; a flash of my mother crying next to an empty bed; Ansel smiling, his eyes squinting in the sun; then the leering face of the Man with the Diamond Shoes as he unwrapped the scarf and began to bleed from the gash in his neck.

“Ah,” Hanso said, pulling away. “I see. Tea, anyone?”

I hardly thought it was time for tea, but my mother didn’t object. We sat at the small wooden table in the corner as Hanso brought a tray over from the kitchen. Three china cups filled with pungent peach tea were already steaming on it.

“I know how much you like peach,” she turned to me. “This is my own special concoction.” I looked to my mother for her permission to drink and watched her lift her own cup to her mouth.

“So tell me about your birthday present,” Hanso said, nodding to the scarf. “It seems someone very powerful gave it to you.”

My eyes glanced at my mother, but something strange had happened: She was frozen in place, holding her tea millimeter away from her lips.

“She can’t hear you,” Hanso said with a wave. “And she won’t know we had this little discussion. So who’s the man with the bleeding neck? And why on earth did you think it was a good idea to take a gift he offered? I know you don’t come from smart stock, but even an idiot knows not to trust a man who’s clearly lost his head once or twice.”

It was hard to hold all the information in my head, so I just answered with a shrug while I tried to sort through everything I had learned since stepping foot outside the bog.

“Well, next time you should be a little smarter,” the woman said, sipping her own tea. “So just tell me — how do you know him?”

“He’s a magician in our village,” I said. “He does tricks like change the color of fire and make water taste like vinegar and nectar and stuff.”

“A charlatan act, surely,” Hanso said. “I can do that, too, but you don’t see me scrounging for gold on the streets with it. Watch.” She flicked a finger at my tea, and the smell shifted to tangy pomegranate. “So you know him from the village. What does he know about you?”

That I liked his scarf, I thought. That I didn’t mind talking to strangers, and sometimes I talked too much. That I felt belittled by the baker’s boy, and that I was about to turn 13 and felt like I should be considered far more grown up by now, especially since I towered over the other kids in the village.

I didn’t need to tell her any of this, though. She nodded like she had read my thoughts.

“Now what about the boy I saw smiling in your head?”

“Ansel?” I coughed on the pomegranate tea. “He’s just a boy.” A wonderful boy, I thought, and I’m sure she read that, too.

“Like mother, like daughter,” she sighed. “Do yourself a favor and stop thinking about beautiful boys. They’re only there for a meal, and once they get tired of your flavor, they go to find somewhere else to eat. And not even magic can fix that — just ask your mother.

“Speaking of which,” she said, and Mamma suddenly animated again.

“It appears that scarf around Little Lilliput’s neck has more than couture qualities,” Hanso said. “Do you mind if I examine it?”

I hadn’t removed it from around my neck — not at bed, not during baths — because I feared that my own neck would start to gush blood. But now that we were in the presence of a true sorceress (at least, I thought so), I felt safe to try it. Slowly I pulled it away, feeling the coolness of the house hit my skin.

“Yes, hand it here,” Hanso commanded, and I placed it like a large snake across her arms.

As the material touched her bare hands, the wrinkles in her face deepened; the creases caved in. The light draft inside the house blew her hair away like cotton off a dandelion, and she fell backward into the chair, shrinking until her chin was level with the tabletop. My mother gasped and reached for the scarf. Afraid of what the material could do to her, I pulled her back.

“It might hurt you too!” I yelled, taking it away from the mummy now sitting at the table. As I pulled it away, I saw that it had gotten longer — a thick stripe of metallic bronze knitting had affixed to the end.

Character sketch: Damsey Lemonwax

“And who are you?”

The bounty hunter glowered at her from where she slouched in her chair, legs flopping out wide like an abandoned rag doll.

“Um, Damsey,” the defector said. “Damsey Lemonwax.”

“What kind of name is Damsey?” The bounty hunter’s partner asked gruffly, even though as his eyes flitted back to his friend, Damsey recognized a spark of hope in the purple irises — he wanted to impress this woman.

“Short for Damselfly,” Damsey sputtered. “M’parents were lunatic hippies who never once thought what a name like Damselfly could do to a woman trying to gain respect on a factory line.

Memories of Coop, Wren and Bernard played in her peripheral vision like old movie clips projected on the walls — how they’d used a black marker to fix her name tag on her first day. Some of the more senior workers were mean sonofabitches, Wren had said, and the less she gave them to pick on, the better off Damsey would be.

Truth was, it was never going to be her name that made her notorious in the factory. Cursed with Diligence, Damsey couldn’t help but work five times faster than any other mechanic on the floor, first resetting tooling kits, then screwing on wiring spacers, then wiring entire fuselages. She was one of four other employees who had the unseen talents that having the set of magical gifts that Diligence brought: fast hands, perfect working rhythm, an eye that caught and brain that fixed what few defects she made.

Coop begged her to pull back, to coast. He said she was only going to make things harder on herself if the managers noticed. But Diligence doesn’t defer, and the more Damsey tried to slow down so she could blend in with the other workers, the more it seemed her “Gift” made itself known.

Of course, once management recognized that they had yet another worker with Diligence, they fired the other three electrical mechanics and made her work her line alone — with a mere $3-an-hour bump in pay.

“It’s really unfair,” she sighed into a stale turkey sandwich one day at lunch.

“Tell that to the three people you got fired,” growled Bernard, who had long since stopped being her friend, if he ever was to begin with. “I’m sure they find it unfair, too. Last I heard, Porcupine Cubbins was seen sitting with an upturned hat outside The Union, busking for change with that shitty ukulele of his.”

The word union bounced around Damsey’s head for a bit before it implanted itself in her brain.

“A union isn’t a bad idea,” she said quietly, knowing that the managers liked to walk around the lunchroom specifically to squash any talk of organizing. “If we got everyone to unionize, we could get better pay, better benefits. Make them hire more people. Just because the four of us have Diligence doesn’t mean we should be doing the brunt of the work without better pay. And we could use our strength to get everyone else better comp and conditions, too. You saw Margaret’s foot yesterday after that accident.”

“Gnarly,” Wren agreed, face twisting almost as grotesquely as Margaret’s toes. “But what if no one joins us? We’re not exactly the favorites of the factory. They let go Bob’s best friend and his sister-in-law because of me.”

“That’ll be part of our conditions,” Damsey said. “We’ll make them rehire the people they let go at twice the rate. Otherwise we’ll stop working.”

Damsey never got that far, though. The first informational meeting for their closest friends on the factory floor went without a hitch — 29 people crammed into the back room at McGowan’s to hear what the Diligents had to say. But something happened in between that first meeting and the first day they planned to picket the drive before their shift, and Damsey had gotten pulled into the managers’ office and given a stern warning.

She didn’t heed it. She didn’t heed the next one, either. Turns out that Diligence didn’t just make her fast at her job. It also made her stubbornly committed to her cause.

“So that’s how your hand got broken?” The bounty hunter nodded to her bubblegum pink cast.

“Yeah,” Damsey shrugged. “Something like that.” She tugged the sleeve of her blue jumpsuit as far over the cast as she could. Coop had signed it with his one good hand before they went their separate ways, as far away from the factory as possible.

“Well, kid,” the bounty hunter’s friend shrugged.

“Don’t call me ‘kid,'” Damsey snapped, a reflex from her factory line days.

“Jeez, sorry,” he said. “You in with us or not? We could use someone with your, er, expertise.”

“Depends,” Damsey said, wiggling the one left finger that still worked. “What’s the pay?”