The Nymph of Salento

You had been swimming, you and he. You wear the water well. Together you went back up the beach. You were laughing, your hair loosed from its braid and dancing. He never stopped smiling at you.

I followed you and your laughter to your hotel. You were staying on the water, the Adriatic steps from your door. I let the waves rock me nearer to the wall; I could not see you, but I could hear you. I listened for hours. Your conversation was probably mundane, but that made it all the more special to me:

Look, another cruise ship is passing.

Can you get the lights for me?

Where did the bottle opener go?

At sunset, like all the other couples, the two of you walked along the wall. You’d redone your braid. I trailed silently in the water below you, hidden beneath reflected gold and dusk. When the cool evening breeze picked up, he draped his jacket around your shoulders. I wanted your place more than ever in that moment.

I could have taken him; he wouldn’t have been the first I’d pried from a partner. But at the end of the seawall he stopped just to hold you, to press a kiss first to your hairline, then to your lips. He looked at you like he beheld you for the miracle you are. I could not hear what he whispered to you that made you smile, but I could guess. Such words have been said to me, but the man who whispered them didn’t believe them, so neither did I.

They were not him. They did not see the miraculous in me – not the way he sees it in you.

When the sea finally darkened to fractured starlight, you took his hand and together you walked back. I did not follow you.

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Ambition Unburied

We’re so far down in the Scuttles that not even the neon advertisements reach this deep. The only light comes from the police vehicles and a single icy white streetlamp. The gawkers left hours ago; once the rumor spread that the killer was high on Krimson, people wanted some distance. Eyewitnesses claim the incident began as an argument between two dealers: both used their product to fuel their aggression. The one who got the upper hand ended up killing everyone in the room, then fleeing.

I lean against my car, waiting for the go-ahead to enter the building and begin the investigation. I wish Colin would hurry up; the longer I wait, the more memories creep in. He’s probably dealing with unpleasant memories, too.

Anusha joins me, leaving the crime scene techs to mill around near the entrance. They shoot furtive glances at me; I can tell Anusha is uncertain around me, too. This is only her third encounter with Krimson; I built my career on cleansing the city of the stuff. So I’d thought.

“Still no Colin?” she asks.

“He’s finishing his preliminary.”

She squints up at the seventh floor windows where the crime took place and takes a deep breath. “Taking his sweet time.”

Finally, Colin arrives. He’s engrossed in typing on his tablet, his face bathed in blue glow.

“Detectives,” he greets us without looking up. “We’re ready for the techs. Still waiting for toxicology on our blood samples, but almost certainly this was a Krimson addict. If you’ll follow me, please.”

“Did you work a lot of Krimson cases back in the day?” Anusha asks as we walk.

“Oh, I’m sure Detective Pia has all manner of horror stories from those days,” Colin says.

“You’ve never told me any.” She studies me.

“Yeah, because they’re horrible. These new cases pale in comparison.”

“That’s hard to believe.”

“One time I had a case involving a Krimson user who got mad at his neighbor for having the TV up too loud. He concussed himself and shredded his hands trying to break down the door.” What he’d done to his neighbor once he got through didn’t bear repeating. “I’d never seen anything like it before. And that was one of the nicer cases.”

“Then why would anyone bring Krimson back?”

“Easy: money.”

Colin comes to a halt and I nearly walk into him. “Not just money,” he says. With his tablet lighting him from below, he looks like he’s telling a ghost story. “Power. Control. Pia, you and I are among the last who remember what the Scuttles were like when Krimson was at its height.”

I do remember, and I hate it. I don’t understand how Colin can speak about it with such reverence. “Who else has accessed the crime scene?”

“Just myself and the techs, who no doubt need your expertise.” He gestures impatiently toward the entrance.

I look up at the austere concrete facade. “Who took the blood samples?” I ask.

“What do you mean?”

I point up. “If you’re the only one who’s been up there, who could have taken blood samples already?”

Colin’s eyes dart. I keep pressing; Anusha tenses, ready to move. “How did they match the blood from four victims and the killer so quickly?”

On the seventh floor, something explodes.

Anusha drags me back; my knee twists and I fall. Glass shards and chunks of concrete rain around us. Dimly, I hear Anusha shouting on her comm, trying in vain to reach the techs.

She doesn’t see Colin running, but I do.

I pull my gun and fire. The shock round sticks in the back of his thigh. His leg locks up and he falls, twitching.

Anusha helps me up. We make our way through the press of cops and firefighting drones toward Colin. She cuffs him before deactivating the shock round, and I pick up his tablet. In the corner of the screen is a timer, flashing zero.

“I’m guessing Anusha and I were supposed to be upstairs by now?”

Anusha hauls Colin to his feet. He snarls at me. “You have no idea how much I lost when you cleaned out Krimson.”

“Clearly you got back in the game. What was this,” I ask, gesturing at the burning building, “eliminating your competition?”

“Making it easier for history to repeat itself. Krimson could have faded into urban legend. Gruesome murders caused by a powerful hallucinogen, or just another night in the Scuttles?”

“While you get rich,” Anusha scoffs.

“I told you.” He smirks. “It’s about so much more than money.”

“Well, now you get nothing.” I gesture toward the cars. “Get him out of here.”

Summer’s End

Seven miles later, we exited the trees into sunshine over the glittering river. There are many trails on this mountain, each one a new view.

The fires took them all.

At the mountain’s ashen feet, we say goodbye until it greens again: someday, whether it takes months or years.

A Fire Burns Without Regret

“3…2…1…Happy New Year!”

Squeezed among the crowd on my building’s roof, I find myself suddenly alone as the people around me twist away to make out with their partners.

I try to keep my attention on the fireworks overhead. The colossal elementals spin and dance in the sky over the Space Needle, their rippling arms throwing sparks of red and gold. Occasionally one soars close to us, sticking out its white-hot tongue before rocketing skyward to explode in a shower of light.

Elementals this size come from volcanos. I always wonder if these performances make them sad, if they regret having to die over a strange city, but these seem to be having a great time.

So do the people around me.

“Hey.”

The bottom falls out of my stomach. It’s Tom, his smile as dazzling as the fireworks. My roommate invited him – she knows I like him, and she’s pretty sure he likes me, and she was probably hoping the midnight revelry would inspire us. She doesn’t know I’ve typed and deleted a dozen emails to him, trying and never managing to tell him how I feel.

“Hey.” I’m pretty sure I pull off sounding cool and collected. “Happy New Year.”

“This show is amazing, huh?” He offers me a cigarette.

I’ve accepted it and instinctively pulled out my old silver lighter before I remember. “Can I borrow your light?”

He looked down at the one in my hand and his smile turns wistful. “Saving your old one?”

I shrug, trying to look nonchalant. “She’s old.”

“She came from your grandfather, right?”

The lighter had been a wedding gift from my grandmother to my grandfather, engraved with their initials and their anniversary. It’s all I have left of either of them, but by the time it had come to me, more than half the life of the elemental within had been used up. Over the last few months, she’s been changing – weakening.

I hold it out on my palm and we both watch the polished surface catch the colors. “She’s dying,” I say, feeling foolish. Who gets sentimental over the fire in their lighter? It’s not like I’m weeping for the fireworks.

But Tom just gives that gentle smile. The fireworks momentarily light his face blue and I remember how close I came to asking him to dance at the jazz club near Christmas. Yet another regret of the ended year.

His finger traces the engraving. It’s the first time we’ve been this near, this close. So close. “Remember that time she got us out of that creepy basement senior year?” he asks, chuckling.

“God, that was awful. I remember using her to help Ophelia find her ring.”

“She’s been a good little flame.”

I chew on the inside of my lip, determined not to cry. “You don’t think it’s silly to get emotional over a lighter?”

“Of course not. They’re living beings, and that one’s been with your family a long time.” He closes my fingers around the lighter. “I’m going to miss her, too. She came on so many of our misadventures.”

“I’ll make sure her final year is just as adventurous.”

I light the cigarette. The elemental’s feathery arms wrap around the paper, just like she’s done since I snuck my first cigarette in ninth grade, but I can see its tiny face is turned upward, gazing with white-hot eyes at its enormous cousins dancing overhead.

“Can you see that?” I ask it. The flame wobbles in excitement.

“Need a better look?” Feeling somewhat silly, I hold the lighter up. Tom watches it rise. The little flame glows brighter and the wisps stretch skyward. Then, with a faint squeal and a flash of white, the fire launches itself out of the lighter. It circles Tom’s head, illuminating his smile, before it shoots upward like a child’s lost balloon. It spirals closer to a huge gold sparkler, which beams and spreads its many-limbed arms wide to greet it.

There is a boom and a shower of bright sparks, and then both are gone.

It takes me a moment to realize that the silver case in my hand is an empty shell now. It takes me another moment to realize she probably lived longer than I will, and she went out gloriously.

I might go out gloriously, too, but what’s the point of waiting that long?

I kiss Tom, and the response is a new kind of magic and light.

I’d Like To Thank

(CW: self-harm)

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Night after night, she stays at the studio late, bent over her costumes.

Too derivative, the critics said, so she sought new silhouettes, new textures. Bizarre, distracting, the critics said, so she embraced classic lines, safe colors. Her work lacks imagination, so she crafted in metallic, in vinyl, in light.

She tried to love everything she made, but the nominations never included her, so she didn’t love them, really. Obviously they weren’t worthy. She wondered if she was worthy anymore. No genre seemed to suit her; no awards acknowledged her. After the incident with her last director, no producers even contacted her.

But she has a good feeling about this current project: it’s sure to impress the people who matter.

She doesn’t hear the ticking wall clock anymore, only the hum of the sewing machine, and the failure that whispers when it’s silent.

She doesn’t miss home; everything she needs is here. She used to sleep with her head resting on the bolts of black wool.

She used to sleep.

She keeps herself awake by pricking her thighs. She’d prick her fingers but the one time she did, on accident, she dripped red on the white cotton and it spread like rust, like rot. Now she hides her blood even from herself. It, like her need to sleep, like her failure, is a weakness she can no longer indulge.

The machine stills and the shirt is finished. She presses it in a few swift strokes, then hangs it with the others. There’s almost a whole wall of shirts now. The rows of crisp white are so soothing. She could fall asleep gazing at them.

She cannot sleep. Not until she’s done. The walls are not done.

Her legs and fingers ache.

It is time for black. The trousers take longer. She wishes she could hem them; he’d be so much happier with them if she could hem them. How many hours since she slept?

She likes the wall of black less, but they always wear black pants. He always wears black pants. He won’t be happy with anything else.

She wakes herself with a swift jab of the needle. Somehow she can hear the ticking clock again. It thunders like oxfords marching down a hallway, marching to tell her she wasn’t nominated, the lead hates her dress, the stuntman tore another jacket, the director wants to see her later, privately.

Jab. How many hours since she slept? She only has one bolt of black left, not enough for a pillow, barely enough for all the trousers she must make. Jab. She can’t buy more, can’t leave, she has so much work to do.

She presses neat creases into the legs. His legs will fill these spaces soon. Then he’ll be happy. Then he’ll let her be happy again.

Jab. She doesn’t remember sitting back down at the machine. She’s threaded white when she wanted black. Now the pants are ruined. How many hours since she slept?

The wall of white calls to her, but it’s a different wall of black that consumes her.

unsplash-logoLAIS

The Wind-Up Murder

It’s just past sunset when Anusha and I are called down to the Scuttles. We make our landing approach slowly, red and blue lights spinning. A few people look up; some make rude gestures. Most ignore us. The sleepas want their next fix; the workers just want to get home.

The car doors open and we’re greeted by a rising tide of odor: fuel, frying food, sweat, and the sweet breath of crank. It’s almost relaxing, especially compared to when Krimson was still on the streets and a bitter scent foretold violence.

Colin waves us past the blinking “caution” barrier. “Victim is male, 24,” he says. “The perp, the victim’s brother, emptied a clip into him, then started screaming for help.”

Anusha frowns. “He didn’t run?”

“He was still there screaming when we arrived. Only reason he stopped is because he blew his voice out.”

The apartment doors open and two cops emerge, hauling a struggling figure between them. The perpetrator is around thirty, with the pallor of someone on a computer too much. The distinct aroma of crank accompanies him. As they pass, he reaches toward me with bloody hands. “Wind it up,” he gasps, staring vacantly. “Wind it up.”

Anusha wrinkles her nose. “Pia, you take me to all the nicest places.”

“You get drug-fueled murders in Pearltower, too.” I lead the way inside. “Usually not because of crank, though.”

Inside, I feel like I’ve stepped back in time. The walls are covered in antiques: clocks, fading photographs, travel posters. The gentle tick of the multitude of clocks is soothing, like listening to rain.

Wind it up, I think. But there are dozens of clocks here, and as far as I can tell, they’re all working. I squeeze past one of the evidence techs as they scan blood splashes in the perpetrator’s office. The walls are half high-tech, half museum, with computer towers and monitors crowding two walls and the others loaded with clocks. I study them, but none of these need winding, either. If the room wasn’t full of people talking and scanning, the soothing ticking would envelop the space.

“Why does a sleepa tech geek have a bunch of old junk?” Anusha asks, tapping the glass on one of the clocks.

“Why did a sleepa tech geek shoot his brother repeatedly, then call for help?”

The victim’s body lies surrounded by shards of glass and shattered wood; he’d staggered back into some clocks, destroying them.

“Here.” Anusha kneels and waves a hand over a tagged twist-ignition pipe. At her gesture, a display blooms from the tag, confirming the presence of crank and the perpetrator’s DNA. “What kind of crank causes rage?”

“No kind.” I circle the room. The ticking clocks are spotless; he must dust them every time he winds them. I scan them, but there’s no trace of hidden tech. The biggest clock hangs over the desk. It has three hefty weights that would need winding daily – and mounted behind the weights is a camera.

“Hey!” I wave the techs over. “Got a hidden camera. Probably recorded the murder.”

I make way for the techs as they crowd around, scanners flashing. Almost immediately they turn back, looking disappointed.

“It’s not real,” one of them says. “Lots of Scuttles residents put up fakes to deter thieves.”

“What now?” Anusha asks.

I study the room. My gaze lands on the tagged pipe. It’s self-igniting, but requires a twisting motion – like winding a clock.

I pluck the pipe from the floor and twist.

“Pia! What are you doing?”

I smell the crank start burning inside the pipe, but I catch the scent of something else – something bitter.

“Do you smell that?”

She kneels beside me and breathes. “No way. Krimson?”

“Masks,” I order, but even one breath has had an effect: Anusha’s proximity is suddenly infuriating, and the racket from these goddamn clocks –

A mask seals over my face. Techs pin my arms to my sides; one of them has put the mask on me. We’re in the hallway. Anusha is nearby, similarly restrained, bleeding from her hairline.

“You’re bleeding,” I say.

“Yeah. You hit me with a keyboard.”

“Sorry.”

Seeing we’ve recovered, the techs release us. A squad of masked cleaners rushes past to secure the drugs.

Anusha presses gauze to her forehead. “So who hated that guy enough to dose him with Krimson?”

I think about the man’s bloody hands: there were really two victims here tonight. “We’d better get to work.”

Photo by Drew Graham on Unsplash