Story by Jon Vassa
Illustration by Bradley K. McDermitt
I noticed someone following me as I left the crystal shop. He was sloppy about the whole ordeal, not even trying to mask his steps behind me. I glanced back at him when I stopped to fix my jacket around my neck. It was a big guy. With lots of hair, like fur, and his eyes seemed to be looking in opposite directions.
I kept my pace slow, letting him follow me, and waited to see what his move was. I went down an alleyway that I knew to be secluded and stopped at the dead end to have a smoke.
I saw his dark figure approaching from the other end. He walked slowly as if he knew I’d meet him there. When he got closer to me, I realized how massive he was. His hands were giant gloves and the hair that covered him smelt like a wet dog.
‘Evening,’ I said. ‘You smoke?’
‘Where are you from?’
I took my time inhaling on my cigarette, allowing the embers to glow on my face before I let the smoke out through my nose. ‘Come on old boy. You should know that.’
‘Sure. That sounds good.’
He curled his fingers into a ball, cracking them in the process. ’What are you doing in here?’
I took another drag. ‘I feel that I should be asking these questions. What’s a hairy man like you doing in the mid-realm? You sure there isn’t a forest you should be scavenging right now? Do you eat raw meat or is it okay cooked?’
He chuckled and moved a step closer to me. His fists were curled into giant bowling balls, probably weighing the same amount. ‘What brings you here? Of all the realms to go to, this one seems kind of bland.’
I took a final drag and then flicked my cigarette to the side. It burst with an orange fire as it hit the wall. ‘I heard a story about some crystal,’ I said. ‘A green one. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about it?’
His knuckles cracked more joints as he squeezed his hands tighter. ‘I come here for the whores,’ he said. ‘I’m a forest man like you said. What would I know about any fancy crystals?’ He threw his fist at me.
I turned my face an inch and then jumped to the side, but not fast enough to avoid his punch. It launched me into the wall, throwing me to the ground. He picked me up and then tossed me in the opposite direction.
I hit the ground, spewed some blood from my mouth, and lost my breath. When I glanced back up I saw him barreling towards me without hesitation.
I rolled to the side and reached for my gun. I aimed it at the bull, causing him to slow his charge until he paused with his fists curled. I stayed on my knee waiting for him to make his next decision.
He stopped to look at the gun and then laughed at me as if I were holding a toy.
‘I’ve never shot a bear with this thing before,’ I said. ‘But we can find out if it’ll get past all that fur.’
He relaxed a moment, keeping a sick smile on his lips, showing a glimpse of his sharp canine teeth.
My jawline was throbbing along my bones. I touched it with my other hand and felt a nice welt forming there. ‘You’re a bit touchy about this crystal.’
‘Who hired you?’
I kept rubbing my jaw. ’No one’s hired me. I’m just here to learn about crystals. I’ve got a pair of bad kidneys if you can’t tell.’
His eyes were on edge in all the wrong ways.
‘Don’t do it, buddy,’ I said.
He lunged at me, knocking me to my back again. I fired three shots, bright flashes erupted, and then I heard a deep groan. I pushed myself up, watching the man, holding his gut. He laughed a few times; pouring blood out of his mouth then fell to the ground with a heavy thud and a clatter from his teeth knocking together.
I glanced over my back to see if anyone stirred, as I got up and wiped my mouth. No one moved passed the alleyway. I looked back at the man and bent down to search his body real quick. I took his credit piece out of his jacket and glanced to the end of the alleyway.
It was too still out there. I wanted to get out as fast as I could. I started to run to the end, saw a few people walking along the streets, most of them drunk or strung out on drugs. I fixed my jacket again, slipped the man’s credit piece in my pocket, and put my head down.
The shops were still full of junk and the patrons were minding their own business. It gave me a little comfort as I sank into the crowd and headed for a place to stay.
— ♦♦♦ —
The authority figures seem more active the next day than I would have liked. I pulled the curtain back from my hotel window to watch them buzz, knowing I needed to check out soon.
I went down to the lobby and paid with the stolen card I’d taken from the big oaf I’d met last night. I thought he wouldn’t mind if I treated myself to a few of his credits. We were good pals anyhow.
I went across the street to a small vendor shop and bought a pack of cigarettes, courtesy of my friend; and then asked the guy a few questions. He knew the least of anyone I’d ever spoken to before. Kept talking about cats for some reason. Strange fellow.
I then headed back to the same narrow alleyway I went to last night. The Interpol agents were alive, like a nest of yellow jackets feasting on a sugar-filled picnic. I kept my distance, watching on, trying to see if there was anyone familiar in the crowd. After some time, I lit a cigarette and went back up into the crystal shop a few blocks away.
‘Amber,’ she said. ‘This will help with your kidneys. Carry it with you in your pocket.’
I rubbed the amber stone in my thumb. I turned it over and put it up near the shoddy lights. It had some nice hues inside it, it looked warm. I put it back down and handed her the big man’s credit piece. ‘I’ve yet to meet a psychic I could trust,’ I said. ‘You seem to be well informed in your warning last night. I guess you’ve had some interesting customers here at some point. Maybe in the last week?’
She took the glass piece and tapped it on a translucent pyramid on her counter. It flashed, taking more credit from the dead man’s account. ‘Amber stones are very inexpensive.’
I looked around the shop and then picked up an expensive looking necklace. It had bright red stones inside crystal clear orbs. ‘Why don’t you charge this on there too. I’m in the mood to spend today.’
She glanced at the necklace, speaking to herself, and then tapped the dead man’s credit piece again.
I slipped the stones into my jacket and fixed my stance. ‘You seen any halfers up here recently? Caasian and human.’
The old lady went to the opening of her shop, pulling down a set of bamboo curtains with a metal rod. The shop smelled even worse now, as the incenses had nowhere else to go. She came near me and looked up into my eyes with her clouded orbits. ‘What are you, Interpol?’
I laughed. ‘Not anymore.’
‘Don’t meddle in this business. It goes deeper than you’re willing to travel.’
I rubbed my eyebrow. ‘I’m willing to travel pretty far.’
‘There’re plenty of angry people surrounding this realm. Angry at limitations imposed on them. We all know why they’re disallowed but that doesn’t make any of them happy about it.’
I picked up another stone and showed it to her. ‘What the hell,’ I said. ‘I’ll take this one too.’
She tapped the glass again. ‘Caasians aren’t the only ones upset though. What other realms can you think of, where inter-realm travel is prohibited?’
I pulled a cigarette out my jacket and lit it. ‘I can think of a few.’
‘This crystal has been sought after for longer than you know. A lot of Ipthians believe it to be their means to redemption and salvation. Especially the angry ones; and the ones looking for an escape. This little chase of yours has been going on for more than just a week. I’ve seen it crop up, in and out over the years. Some hoaxes, others, close calls.’
I let the smoke fall through my teeth and nodded for her to continue.
‘This time feels different though. If you keep your eyes open wide enough you’ll notice it.’ She then moved back behind her counter and started rummaging through her things. ‘Can you blame them though? Who are we to put up barriers to keep them from traveling from realm to realm?’
I glanced around the room for an ashtray. I cleared it in one of the incense trays. ‘I think their delicacies made a few places uncomfortable. Human heart is eaten raw there, you know?’
She came back around with an old faded picture. It had a little fiendish creature on it. A thin black figure with sharp claws and no eyes. ‘You know what this is?’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘An Imp.’
She folded the picture up and shoved it into my jacket. ‘Take this with you. Go for a walk where no one else goes.’
I moved the cigarette to the side of my lips. ‘You have any suggestions?’
She opened her mouth an inch and hesitated. ‘Do you like Ipthian food?’
I laughed. ‘Just like mom used to make.’
She pointed her chin in a certain direction. ‘Then check out that area.’ She then patted me on the arm, like she’d never see me again.
I nodded and went over to the curtains, pulled them up and left.
— ♦♦♦ —
There were a few Ipthian restaurants lining a back alleyway. I passed by the ones that had customers inside and went for one that looked nearly abandoned. I had to go where the crowds didn’t.
I stepped into the dim room. There were a few Caasians in there that all stopped and stared at me as I walked inside. Each one of them wore smart clothes, probably ambassadors or diplomats of some kind.
I walked past them to a small table in the corner of the room. The lights above me were dark red like we were near a volcano, another fine touch. There was no soot on the floors though. And they even had an ashtray on the table. Getting international.
A thin Caasian limped over to my table. His horns were off paired, with one larger than the other. The same with his face, it looked as if he’d had a stroke the way one side of it drooped. His voice had a squeak to it and unfortunately for him, it wasn’t a charming one. ‘Drinks?’
‘What do you have in your clay urns?’
He moved his head to the side. ‘We have an import from Ipth and we also have a house brew – ‘
I cut him off. ‘House brew works.’ God knows I’m not having anything imported from Ipth.
He bowed a little.
I grabbed him by the wrist before he left, pointing at the table filled with Caasians. ‘What are these fellows up to? Diplomats or something? They look famous.’
The server glanced at the table then gave me a half-smile. ‘Are you a diplomat too?’
I shook my head. ‘I’d like to be,’ I said. ‘Just curious though, you know.’
He nodded. ‘The large one over there is an ambassador, and the woman to his right is a diplomat, same with the tall one on the other side of him. The rest are visitors I believe. I haven’t seen them here before.’
I kept my eyes on the table saying nothing.
‘The ambassador recently made a stir with a proposal to open the realms to all the Caasians, no matter which realm, Ipth or Purrgol.’
I gave him a fake smile. ‘That’s nice. I thought he looked familiar.’
The server gave me a confused look that turned into an uncertain smile. ‘I’ll go get your drink.’
I glanced again at the table filled with Caasians and lit up a cigarette. Whatever they were talking about, they didn’t care to share it. Their voices were low, much too low for normal conversations to be had.
The server came back with my drink, setting it on the table. ‘Do you want anything to eat?’
I didn’t break my focus from the table as I spoke to him. ‘Get me what that guy’s having over there?’
He glanced with his bigger eye at the table and pointed with his gangly finger. ‘Roveskna?’ he said.
I clapped my hands together. ‘That’s the one.’
He looked at me with confusion again and then bowed his head, walking back to the kitchen I assume.
The female diplomat caught sight of me and paused from what she was saying to stare at me. I tipped my glass up at her and motioned for her join me. She rolled her eyes, said something under her breath, and went back to her meal with disgust curling at the corners of her lip.
She likes me, I thought.
I tried to look at my own table for some time, leaning back, finishing my smoke. They adjourned their meeting with enough formality to harpoon a pig through the chest. My food was set down before me. I love a nice bowl of red hot soup.
I glanced at it, took a mouthful, and watched them leave. When they all left the building, I gulped down my drink, choked on the soup, and then hurried to the counter to pay my bill. The limp Caasian was already up there. He took his time with my credits as if he didn’t know how to work the pyramid anymore.
I then pulled the picture of an Imp out of my jacket to show it to him. ‘You ever seen one of these things?’
He paused, looking at it for a moment before he went back to the credits. ‘Can you wait here a moment? This machine isn’t working today.’
I nodded. ‘Sure.’
He limped away towards the back. I dropped one of the loose gems I’d bought on the counter and left the building. I put my hat down further over my brow as I scanned the alley for my friends. I saw one of the diplomats turning the corner up ahead and went to follow her.
It wasn’t a moment after I rounded the corner that I felt a bright pain shooting through the back of my head. It was quick enough to make everything black.
— ♦♦♦ —
I opened my eyes to a white light shining above my head. I reached for the back of my skull, feeling the swollen lump.
‘You’re pushing your luck,’ said a voice inside the room.
I sat up and spit on the carpet.
‘You know human heart is a delicacy in Ipth?’
I looked at the woman sitting in a chair up against the wall. I didn’t know whose hotel it was, but I was sure it was too nice to be my own bed. ‘I thought only the Caasians ate them, no?’
She sighed. ‘Why are you chasing them?’
‘Did you give me this welt?’
She crossed her arms, looking official in her Interpol uniform. Her eyes were bright violet, matching her skin tone, and her hair platinum white, all tied back in a professional bun. ‘No,’ she said. ‘And I wasn’t able to catch the one who did.’
I pulled a cigarette from my jacket, already running low on smokes. I hate it when the packet gets that loose feel to it. ‘You’ve been following me?’ I said, holding the lighter under the cigarette.
‘Why did you use his credits?’
I lit it and let out the initial smoke. ‘I felt he owed me that much,’ I said. ‘My jaw’s been killing me all day.’
She sighed rubbing her eyes. ‘They’re not too happy with what you left down in that alleyway. And a few of them still remember why they fired you.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Riley, you can’t go around shooting people like that.’
‘He shot first.’
‘He didn’t have a gun on him.’
‘Did you see his hands?’
She sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose. ‘You’d better be thankful I took the lead on this. What are you following them for anyway?’
I rubbed my forefinger and thumb together, leaving the cigarette to hang out of my mouth. ‘It’s personal.’
‘You’re running low on years. Aren’t you?’
I stood up and went over to the small cooler inside the wall. It was filled with healthy foods. And some kind of green drink.
She began tapping her foot on the floor. ’It’s not natural you know?’
I pulled down the green drink, thinking about it. ‘Yeah? And what is natural?’
‘You know what I mean. We all have our time.’
I put the green drink back in the cooler and started to search for some kind of black drink. I pushed open one of the cabinets, shuffling past the tea packets, looking for some coffee.
‘They don’t have it here,’ she said. ‘You’ll have to settle for tea.’
‘God damn it.’ I picked up the darkest tea I could find and threw it in a mug.
‘What’s your deal with them? And why are you buying crystals from old ladies now?’
I dug out the necklace from my pocket and handed it to her. ‘Thought I might run into you, is all.’
She let out a breath of annoyance.
I then lifted the amber stone up to the light. ‘You know this one helps kidneys.’
‘Who’s paying you off?’
I shook my head. ‘No one.’
‘When was your last sip of gold?’
‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘We’re not dealing with petty thieves,’ she said. ‘This is bigger than what they’re offering you, Riley. Are you listening to me?’
I stubbed out my cigarette and picked up the mug of tea. ‘You know, I keep hearing that this thing is big. But I don’t hear anyone offering me anything other than a few words of warning.’
‘I won’t pay it to you,’ she said. ‘It’s illegal. And you know that.’
I thought of that golden liquid for a moment.
‘No one should’ve hired you for this. That crystal belongs in a vault somewhere. Not in anyone’s personal possession.’
I sipped the tea. Not my first choice of course. ‘So you guys are in on this too? What do you know about the stone?’
She looked to the side, annoyed, and then back at me. ‘The crystal was stolen mid-transport between vaults. They killed a good many people to get it. These aren’t nice people who have it.’
I sat up leaning against the bedrest. ‘You’re sure it wasn’t stolen from a Caasian family many years back?’
She shook her head. ‘No. Were you hired over there?’
‘They don’t own it. Whatever they’ve told you is a lie. There’s a great deal of tension brewing over this matter you know. A group of angry Ipthians – I don’t need to name them – would love to get their hands on it right now. They’re not happy with the other realms. Especially the weaker ones.’
I smiled to myself. ‘What’s this angry group about then?’
‘Remnants from the last war. Old rhetoric and narrowed family blood. And they’re looking for honor in the most aggressive way they can think of.’
‘The bigots you mean?’
‘They hold noxious beliefs, yes, hence they have their restrictions.’
‘You guys are still monitoring their beliefs then?’
She pursed her lips, answering yes with her eyes. She was mad at me or the world – I could never be certain with her.
‘So if some random Caasian got their hand on this crystal, then what?’
She hesitated a moment to think. It was like she didn’t know if she was going answer me. ‘We can only imagine from what they’ve attempted half a century ago. Not to mention their failed plots cropping up over the past few years.
‘Interpol took the crystal from them years ago. Yes, it was theirs to begin with, but they were trying to overthrow the universe with it, while putting humans in cages, like animals to be eaten. It was the least we could do, taking it from them, and restricting their inter-realm travel.’ She let out a bitter sigh.
I rubbed my eyebrow a few times, thinking to myself, especially of that golden liquid. How long has it been since my last sip? Can I keep going much longer?
She stood up, holding my gun in her hand. ‘Do you have a license for this?’
I didn’t say anything.
She shook her head a little and set it on the desk. ‘I can’t watch you all the time,’ she said. ‘Please go back to Earth’s realm. Let us handle this.’
I stood up, picking up the red necklace she’d left on the chair. ‘Don’t forget your present. I’m sure it has some sort of healing effect. God knows what though?’
She dropped her eyes with annoyance but took the necklace. ‘Please go back home,’ she said.
‘No kiss goodbye?’
She shut the door in my face. I returned slowly to the bed and sat down to finish my tea.
— ♦♦♦ —
I left the hotel free of charge. It was a nice place, but in the middle of the city, where the real businesses took place – not my kind of work.
I felt uncomfortable walking amidst the well-pressed suits and uniforms. I pulled my hat lower, trying to hide my swollen face from the crowds.
I stopped across the street from the Ipthian embassy, slipping into a little shop to keep an eye on things. I bought some cigarettes and an adhesive cloth to help my swollen face heal. The man there looked me over for some time, probably expecting me to leave. I ignored his no loitering poster. They don’t mean anything.
The clerk stared at me with his old worn face, like he’d missed a couple of nights of sleep.
‘You know anything about the Ipthian Ambassador up there? He ever stop in here at your shop?’
The man rubbed the stubble under his pencil chin. ‘They don’t stop in here,’ he said. ‘You serious?’
I took out a cigarette and offered him one.
He took it.
I even gave him a light.
‘That guy’s too busy with his own business,’ he said. ‘Son of a bitch. He don’t have no reason to stop in here. You heard about his recent proposal? Trying to open up the realms to Ipth and everywhere else. I mean it’s stupid how ridiculous it is. Letting them travel, eating human hearts, chewing off Teric’s faces, grinding Yorthian bones into powered teas. Seriously? What’s he thinking?’
He took a drag of his cigarette with a shiver that ran down his spine. He still had a sour look on his face. ‘They’ve never been the kind to play nice. And it’s not like we didn’t give them a chance. It’s all about war with them. And human hearts. Estrustian livers. God, they’re vile. I bet you they’re thinking about it right now. Looking at all the fleshy people walking up in that god damn building. . . ‘
I held up my cigarette and showed him the ash hanging from it.
He put a tray up on the counter, still talking. ‘. . . I get my fucking hands around his neck. I’ll show him a delicacy. Ha. Wag it in all their faces like a . . . ‘
I then saw one of the Caasian officials leaving the embassy across the street. I stubbed out the butt and nodded to my friend. He kept talking even as I left. I spotted the Caasian walking down the street. It was the same lady I’d seen at the restaurant the other day, one of the diplomats. I picked up my heels, keeping a close eye on her from across the way.
I knocked a few people while watching her. She seemed intent on wherever she was going. And in a hurry too. Then I saw her walking alone for some time. I kept my distance even more until she reached a building full of whores. She looked around quickly before she stepped inside.
I went in after her, moving past all the hands reaching for my jacket. The lady named Momma stopped me at the entrance though. She looked like a tough woman who wouldn’t be easily knocked out of the way, so I didn’t attempt it.
‘Where you going boy?’ she said.
‘I’m feeling frisky today.’
‘You want another talk? Or Momma’s special treats.’
I glanced past her into the building. ‘I want a drink first. How about you? Thirsty?’
She linked arms with me, put her chin up as she looked at the other girls outside, and then dragged me past them all inside to the bar. I caught a glimpse of the lady I’d been following sitting at a table looking down at the empty, bloodstained arena below.
I order something like a whiskey and got Momma a fizzy drink as well. ‘Have you ever seen that Caasian in here before?’
Momma sipped her drink and made an obvious glance at the lady. ‘Looks familiar,’ she said. ‘We’ve been getting more of them in here recently. We had a full table of them the other night. The owner seems to like them for some reason.’
I saw a heavyset man clambering across the room, knocking over a few chairs along his way. He had a roll of fat hanging over the back of his collar and a suit that looked more of a tent than anything else.
‘That’s the owner?’ I said.
Momma nodded her head. ‘That’s him.’
‘What do you think they’re talking about over there?’
She bobbed her head to the side. ‘Beats me. He gets all types of people in here. Mostly sourcing for his arena. Boy, does he love that arena. Don’t know if he has any kids, but that slab of concrete down there is like his firstborn.’
I gulped the drink down my gullet and paid the bill. ‘When’s your next game taking place?’
She stopped talking; leaving her mouth open and eyes a bit wide, as I’d interrupted her speech. She raised her eyebrows a little and then poised herself to speak again. ’There’s one tonight. If you’re in the area.’
I pat her on the shoulder. ‘I’ll see you then.’
I went out of the building quickly, making sure the lady didn’t see me; and found a bar a few blocks down the road to hide in.
— ♦♦♦ —
Join Nelson Henry on an expedition; a journey that had begun in Egypt, crossed the sea to Indochina, crossed the vast Pacific. He traveled with a rough crowd, but the money would be worth it once the cargo was safely in the hands of his employer. And what of the cargo? Well, that’s where the real horror of the Cat Bride begins, for Ahmose called to him….