Strange Cargo [1.3]

“Do you have any idea how old Bishop is?” Nazlı says over the engine of the truck.

“Fuck. That question strikes me as having one of those ‘hidden knowledge’ answers that you super wish you didn’t have once you get it.”

“That’s kind of our business, Julian.”

“Our business?” he says, shooting her a smirk.  “I’m the one who’s gainfully employed.”  

She rolls her eyes.  “I just mean… my family has known her since I was a little kid, and I remember her looking exactly the same as she does now.  I can’t tell if it’s just… memory being flexible and kind of shitty, or Bishop Guan having the world’s best skin-care regimen.”

“She’s probably a vampire or something,” mutters Julian.

Except they both know she isn’t, which means, if she’s anything, she’s probably something worse.

They’d left the home office with a charm of occlusion that was now swinging merrily from Julian’s rearview mirror. Spears, who had repeated his story in somewhat more detail for Bishop, sat in the awkward fold-down seat among the clutter behind the two seats in the front, hunched and silent.

They are going to retrieve—or at least examine—the ‘little errands’ Spears got sent on by his doctor friend.  The charm will only disguise them so much, and for so long, so they’re travelling the compass by beginning with the southern-most point and proceeding counter-clockwise.  From there, Julian has full dispensation to make a decision about what to do next, and do it. Everybody knows, though no one has said, that this decision is likely going to fall to Nazlı.

Spears leans forward, poking his head between the two front seats.  “Turn here.”

Julian hangs the right onto East 20th avenue, where they roll by tightly-packed and darkened little houses.  It’s pushing 1:00 AM, which Nazlı hopes will mean a low chance of being disturbed, by any worldly or underworldly agents, as long as they don’t spend too long in any given place.

They round the small cul de sac at the end of 20th.  Julian pulls over and kills the engine.  Nazlı snatches the charm off the mirror and they all file out into the dark stillness of the deserted park.  

Spears leads them up a trail toward the north, away from the hockey rink and the ballfields into the forest.  

“She’s at Regional, isn’t she?” Nazlı observes, staring at the thinning hair on the back of Spears’s head and listening to Julian’s long, rhythmic strides behind her.  

“What?” Spears says, starting and turning around.

“Keep walking.  We don’t have a lot of time.  Your doctor friend.  She’s at Regional.”

Spears looks down again, pressing forward into the dull light from his cell phone.  He’d been too frightened to tell them anything about the identity of ‘his doctor friend’, but Nazlı is very keen to know.  This is exactly the sort of thing her father makes his business, some magician doing all the wrong things with their art.  But Alaska Regional Hospital is less than a mile from where they are standing, and the rough center of the points indicated where Spears had hidden things for her.  Spears described them as figurines.  Glancing around at the brush to either side of them, she really hopes he can find the damn thing.

As they reach a division in the trails, Spears darts off to one side and begins pawing through the branches.  Of course, Nazlı thinks.  This shitty excuse for a crossroads. He comes out and hands something small and cold to her.

“It’s a claustrum,” she says, turning it over in her fingers after they’ve rushed back to the truck and Julian has gotten directions to the next drop.  Nazlı wedges her free hand against the vent, trying to warm her digits through in preparation for another frigid walk through Russian Jack Park.


“Shut up, Julian.”  She cranes around to look at Spears.  “Claustra come in sets, usually as part of a magic of binding.  Sort of like the electrodes of a magical electric fence.” A bad analogy, but it would have to do.  “If these are related to that phylactery, someone really didn’t want whatever is in there to be able to get back out in the world.”

“Okay,” he says, game but a bit blank.  

“A ton of this stuff has been stolen from the underworld.  A lot of magicians find that easier than spending the time and energy to imbue an object on your own.  This is nice work though.  Jade.”

“Is that why the hellhound wants it?”

“The hounds have a master.  They’re not… stupid beasts, really, but they definitely have a different kind of reasoning center than a person.”  She frowns, switching hands on the vent.  The jade is very cold against her newly-warm fingers.  “It’s their master who wants whatever your friend is trying to stir up.  Who knows, maybe that phylactery houses a beloved acolyte or some shit.  I definitely don’t think it’s what you’d call a regular human person in there.”

“We’re here,” says Julian, rolling to a stop.  

They repeat the procedure, coming up with an ivory-and-scrimshaw piece that looked legit enough to be quite expensive, to a collector.  Then, Spears directs them up into Government Hill where he pulls the third out of some brush just off the side of the road, not anywhere near a park or public land.  Finally, they’re headed back toward the sea near the Ship Creek docks.  They pull off at Elderberry Park and set off on the Coastal Trail.  Everything here is too well lit for Nazlı’s tastes and the work they’re undertaking, but they have to have the fourth in the set.  She only hopes there are only four, that the doc knew what she was doing.  Nothing said your claustra had to be set to the cardinal points.  

“Got it!” Spears huffs, scrambling back up the rocky embankment where he’d dipped down to grab the last claustrum, wedged in among the rip rap.  

“Nice work,” Nazlı says, eyeing the last of the pieces.  

“What’s next?” Spears looks between her and Julian.  He’s produced remarkable energy for a man of his age and condition.  The idea of there being something he could do about his situation must have inspired him considerably.  

“Well,” Nazlı says, glancing out at the dark water and stamping her feet in a vain attempt to keep feeling in them.  She wishes she’d brought her cigarettes from the truck.  “I guess now we reckon.  We’ll have to go out to a crossroads—like, a proper one.  Not ‘two paths diverged in Tikishla Park’.”

“Parks is probably our closest, most robust bet,” Julian says with a sour face, clearly not relishing the 45 minute drive toward Palmer.  

“Mm, yeah,” Nazlı says.  “Whatever your friend was trying to accomplish with this, I don’t think it was liable to have worked real well.”  

They’d all started to move back toward where Julian had parked, antsy not to stay long enough for the hound, or hounds, to home in on them, when a sudden crash in the water stopped them where they stood.  

“That’s our cue, boys.” Before she can get moving again, the figure in her hands goes searing hot. She yelps and drops it, fingers stinging, and then immediately falls to her knees to try and retrieve it with her hand balled in her sleeve.

“What the fuck is that?” Julian says then, quieter, “…what the fuck?”

There is smoke coming from her jacket pocket where she’d—stupidly—dropped the other claustra.

Julian and Spears are crashing into the underbrush toward the shoreline.

Nazlı flails and struggles out of her coat, shaking and beating it until the other three figures rolled out onto the pavement.  The wood and horn figures are both already smoking; the ivory beginning to blanken and pop.  

“Jesus,” Nazlı breathes, her mind racing to latch onto some magical sense for this to make that doesn’t mean they’re all about to die.

More splashing.  Julian calls out her name.

She looks up to find Spears batting branches away with one arm, leading the charge as he and Julian pull a bare-ass naked woman up from the freezing water.

“What the fuck?” Nazlı struggles to her feet, chucking her coat at Julian.  “We have to get out of here now! The hound is gonna be on us any minute!”

No sooner than she speaks, the low, blood-gelling snarl of said beasts pulses toward them out of the darkness.

They’re a lot farther from the truck than they were the first time, and they didn’t bring the shotgun Bishop had loaded for them with a proprietary blend of buckshot, rock salt, and crushed gems.  

The beast charges toward them, like the whole of light compressed into a train engine, its claws gouging the asphalt and jaws opening wider than a dog’s jaws physically could.  Time crystalizes as Nazlı’s brain tries to press it down into thinner and thinner slices so it can find the reaction time to do something, anything to preserve her life.  She can see its terrifically black fur undulate with each lunging stride, and the black eyes that threaten to swallow all four of them.

Then, the woman rips herself away from the men’s supporting hands. She springs forward with an affect almost as powerful and animal as the beast itself, crouching with her palms down for a second, and then leaping up again to meet it.

One hand sweeps in a great, slashing motion, and the air around them splits with the horrifying scream of something breaking away from this world.  The hellhound shreds like it was made of nothing more substantial than loosely-piled autumn leaves, which twist and dissipate like smoke, vanishing fast against the dark air.

Rebuke, indeed, Nazlı thinks, realizing a second later that she’d fallen, that the heels of her hands are busted and smarting and her tailbone is going to be bruised in the morning.  

Cautiously, the woman straightens and lowers her arms.  By the look of her, she’s approaching middle age, with brown skin a little darker than Julian’s medium complexion and long black hair plastered to her back and shoulders.  She should be freezing, should be goddamn hypothermic, but she’s neither stiff nor shaking, as far as Nazlı can see.  

Beside her, with a thoroughly anticlimactic pop and clatter, the jade claustrum breaks apart into several pieces.  The other, more porous, three are nothing more than twisted black shapes about the size of two of her fingers put together.

The guys are totally dumbstruck.

“How did you do that?” Spears says after a long moment of silence.

“I… I think I have a blanket in the truck,” offers Julian.

The woman turns around, looking down at her hands.  Spears and Julian both look away, but Nazlı climbs to her feet and stares right into her face.  She has dark eyes and a strong, proud jawline.

“Who are you?” Nazlı asks, the obvious first question. The answer itself probably won’t be meaningful, but how this person—or apparition—answers her could tell her a lot, if she gets lucky.

“Luce,” the woman says with a smile.  No, not just a smile, a frisson of real, deep pleasure, her thin but expressive mouth arching almost like laughter, showing her slightly crooked teeth, creasing the skin around her eyes.  It’s a spring voice, like birdsong.  

“We’d better get you back to the truck, Luce,” she says, the name landing with a deliberate thud.  “We’re all gonna freeze to death out here.”  

The cold is gnawing through the weave of her thermal, but she takes her jacket from a slack-jawed Julian and hands it to Luce.  It’s not much, but her lips aren’t bluing and her color is good, so, for whatever reason, maybe she’s fine.  They begin the march, now as four, back toward Julian’s crooked parallel-parking job on the street up the hill.  

Exhaustion finally turns up about halfway back.  What had only been a ten or fifteen minute walk down the Coastal Trail feels like an hour returning as she slowly loses feeling in her extremities and face.  Her nose and cheeks start to sting as they cross under the last bright orange streetlight between them and the car, and she knows the return of circulation is going to throb.

There’s a crumpled mass of fabric sitting on the hood of the truck.  When she sets her hand on it, Nazlı recognizes it immediately as her own coat, the very same that she’d given to Luce down by the shoreline.  They all turn, searching the empty park, seeing nothing.

“Where’d she go?” says Spears.  

Nazlı squeezes her eyes shut.  “Just… get in, everyone.  Nothing more we can do here tonight.”  She’s just too damn tired to fight it.

They pile in. Nazlı wraps back up in her jacket.  The collar is damp and icy.  

“Anywhere we can drop you off, Spears?” says Julian.

“My folks’ place,” Nazlı interjects before Spears can say anything.  “He should go to my father.” Then, she turns to look at Spears. “Unlike this doctor, he can help. But it’s going to take some time, to get you back on your feet.”

“How do you know all this?” Spears says without much protest.

She gives him a worn-out smile. “Family business.”

The door to the big house up on hillside opens before they were done extracting Spears from the back seat. Her father stands there in the frame of light from the foyer, the jet black hair and thick eyebrows of his Persian ancestry giving his disapproval a flair of drama that Nazlı, in spite of herself, finds a little funny.

There’s not much to exchange as she hands off Spears.  There are many aspects of Nazlı’s life that her family frowns on, but bringing this man back to them in the dead of night for counsel and direction falls a lot closer to the Kelis credo than her usual mode, so she knows they won’t be that upset about it.  Besides, only two of the kids are still at home, so there’s bedrooms to spare.  

Julian waves nervously as she returns to the truck, and when she gets in she finds him more dour-faced than usual.

“What’s wrong with you?  He always looks like that.”

Without speaking, Julian holds up the peanut butter jar.  The liquid inside has gone dark and soupy.  Nazlı tries to shine her phone flashlight through, but can’t find the solid mass of the heart.

“It looks like ash,” she says.  “The whole thing is just… gone.”

“I guess we know what the target of that binding was.”

“Shit. Are you going to tell Bishop what happened?”

“No sir. Not today, Satan.”  Julian rubs his hands over his face and then folds his arms over the steering wheel, resting his brow against his forearms. “Well, it’s too late for me to buy you a beer, but you’re welcome to come get wasted at my place.  It’s the least I can do.”

“No shit,” Nazlı says, then tips her head back against the seat and laughs.  “Drive on.”

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