Strange Cargo [1.1]

10:30 pm, and the bitter cold of the November night is only beginning to fade out of Nazlı’s fingers from gripping the handles of her bicycle.  She sinks down in her chair, toward the middle of the back of the club where she hopes not to be noticed. Music grinds low and sweet, and Colleen Hennessy’s beautiful body undulates on the stage.  She’s 39, with mature, powerful curves and warm brown skin that makes Nazlı imagine laying naked on a secluded beach.  Fucking beautiful, and a great dancer, the highlight of the Eastern and burlesque dance troupe that, for this reason, Nazlı follows avidly.  

“Well, well!”

She starts, struggling out of her slouch and nearly upsetting her drink as he swings himself into a chair opposite her at the small table.  

“Christ on a bike, Julian, you scared the shit out of me.”

“More like you on a bike.  Saw your sweet ride out front.”

“Is that how you found me?  Stalking every bike rack in Midtown?”

He laughs.  “No, your boner is just big enough to detect at a 50 mile radius.”

“Good for me having a giant dick,” Nazlı mutters into her glass.  

Julian Faith has been her best friend since they were adolescents, discovering they shared a birthday and an occult predilection.  Her family has never much liked him, partly because they assumed he was going to style himself as some kind of would-be suitor and he’s just patently the wrong sort of person. That never happened. Over time, her parents have just kind of accepted his existence as something unfortunate but inoperable and relatively benign.  

Over the intervening two decades, he went from being a slight, underdeveloped kid with bad posture and worse skin to a tall, long-haired rake with the kind of smooth, haughty face that would have slayed a large segment of the population if he had any interest whatsoever in sexual pursuit.  

He doesn’t, to often hilarious results.  Julian Faith is great fun at a gay bar.   His posture hasn’t improved any, though.

“So what… what?  Why are you here?”

Glancing backward at the stage and combing his fingers through his hair, he shakes his head.  “Boss has a job for me that I could use some of your unique consulting on.”

“Ugh, no.  I’m still half-frozen and anyway, I want to see this.”  She drains her glass, gesturing at the stage with her other hand.  

“Bitch, please.  I’m driving, one, and two, I know you’d really rather be skulking around cemeteries in the dark with yours truly than… whatever is going on here.”

“You, sir, have sorely misjudged me.”

“There’s a pack of smokes in it beforehand and a paycheck after,” he said, sing-song and smiling.  

“I don’t need your damn smokes!”

“I saw the empty pack in your bike basket.  You always tear them up when you’re rationing yourself.”

“You’re a shitty detective, Julian.”

“Oh come on.  It’s local, it’ll be fast, and I’ll buy you a beer afterward.”

Nazlı has already made her decision, all protests aside.  Anyway, Colleen has finished her solo set and while Nazlı would happily watch her dance in the group, Julian’s right… she probably would be having more fun on whatever ill advised ‘mission’ his employer has dispatched him to.  

“You pay for that already?” Julian says, indicating her glass.

She nods and pretends to be hesitating still.

“Then let’s go.  Jesus.”

They plunge back out into the cold air and put her bike into the back of Julian’s truck.  The diesel rumbles to life, ready to pour hot air into the cabin because he wasn’t in the bar long enough for the engine block to cool, and Nazlı lights a cigarette out of the pack he tosses into her lap.

“So, what is it this time and why am I ‘consulting’?  Cause if this is another attempt to get me to talk to someone murdered you can count me out right now.”

He laughs.  “No.  I need your identification expertise.  The boss got wind of someone fucking around in the Joy Bateman Memorial Park where we, apparently, know there’s some sort of thingy that might have a soul in it and some asshole seems to be trying to dig up.”

“You mean a phylactery?”

Julian pulls onto the main artery going west, toward the sea where they will only be a quick ten minute trip from the small cemetery in question.

“Yeah, that sounds right.  Local cops got the report of someone fooling around out there but we pulled on an ear to get them to hold off for a few minutes so that we can try to get at the item before they go after the hooligan.”

He flashes a smile toward her across the cabin.  She rolls her eyes.  

“What do you need me for again?”

“I am… not totally sure what we’re looking for.  Unless it’s going to say ‘phylactery’ on it, in which case I can drop you off somewhere to catch the bus home.”

“You know you’re kind of shit at this, right?”

“I’ve got it where it counts.”

He’s not wrong.  They’re speeding down the road now, darting—as much as a diesel pickup darts—in and out of the more sluggish nighttime traffic along Northern Lights Boulevard.  Nazlı can feel the particular bubble of Julian’s shadow that settles around them.  Unlike her, he is very, very good at not being noticed when he doesn’t want to be, and for all of his gregarious shit-talk, his focus is needle-sharp.

They swerve into the hatch of narrower streets on the west side of town, fortunate that no snow has stuck so far this winter and the roads are dry.  Nazlı grips the handle set into the door, searching the scene ahead for the first signs of something being amiss, the shudder on the air of something being fucked with.  

They pull up to the dead end of Seacliff Street, which terminates against a bleak view of open, undeveloped land and the black water of the inlet beyond.  The Joy Bateman Cemetery is tucked off to one side, as if agoraphobic, shielded from the tidy cottages and a couple of cramped eight-plexes by a line of dense spruce and leafless aspen trees.  Julian parks with two wheels on the sidewalk and Nazlı jumps out onto the concrete, clenching her smoke between her teeth.  

Something finally wafts by her senses, the dark smell of something overturned that should not have come into the air.  Some mistakenly identify it as the smell of death, which is considerably riper because it comes from so many living things profiting off the abandoned body, or the smell of grave soil, which just smells like regular dirt.  

She and Julian exchange a look at that breath of spent or resting magic, that whiff of dark arts, and walk toward the graveyard.  

“Your boss give you any better info than ‘Joy Bateman’ and ‘soul thingy’?”

“It’s called a phylactery, I think you’ll find,” he says, affecting hauteur.

“What’s this?” she says, jerking her chin toward where a shadow has just flit away from a small, homely mausoleum to one side of the rows of headstones.  

Julian pulls up to her shoulder.  They watch the shadow resolve into a man as he stumbles, catches himself on one hand, scrambles upright, his breath making a turbulent cloud.  

She catches Julian’s arm as he pulls a taser out from under his coat.  “Hang on.”

“Bet that’s our thief,” he says, pushing against her hand a little bit.  

The fleeing man’s pale, round face flashes into the orange glow of a streetlight.  His eyes are wide and pale, bruise-dark bags hanging below his lashes, and his hairline is beating a hasty retreat from his deeply creased brow.  He looks fucking terrified.

“He’s a re-fry,” she says, squinting.  “That’s weird.”

“A what?”

“Someone’s pulled him back over the edge.  That guy died.”

“Re-fry,” Julian snorts.  “I’ll add that one to the list.”  

A police siren filters through the background noise of the city.  Julian huffs.  

“That’ll be Anchorage’s Finest.  We don’t have a lot of time.”  He elbows her in the ribs.  “Are we going after this asshole or aren’t we?”

Glaring at him for the jab, Nazlı stamps out her cigarette and gestures for him to circle the little tomb opposite her which he does, after one last glance after the other visitor.  They come to the front of the squat stone building to find the hasp forced and the door ajar.  

“Is it still here?” he says.

“Smells like it.”  

Julian wrinkles his nose and follows her into the darkness.  Her eyes adjust very quickly—a perk of the family business—and she zeroes in fast on the disturbed stone in one corner of the chamber. A block has been pulled away from the wall, scattering dust and sand.  She cringes at the idea of putting her hand somewhere she can’t see and scrapes her knuckles along the stone where it’s still wedged pretty tightly.  This little hidey-hole wasn’t meant to be opened.  Her fingers meet glass.  Wiggling the jar out of the space scrapes her hands even more.

“Did you find something?” Julian says, hovering and trying to peer over her shoulder.  “What is it?”

“It’s a peanut butter jar.”  She turns it over in her hands, looking at the rusty metal lid.  “With… a heart in it.”

Julian blinks, then laughs. “There was a time in my life where that would have been the most fucked up thing I’d ever seen.  Is that it?”

Another sensation reaches Nazlı’s fingers through the numbing cold.  The jar doesn’t feel anything like as icy as it should.  It is, in fact, slightly warm.  “Yeah.  This is it.”

They crowd into the light by the half open door, where Nazlı rolls the heart gently between her hands.  There’s not much to set it apart, really, from some kind of morbid classroom curiosity, lifted by that self-styled rebel kid with the obsession with death in high school. But she can see in the gently-veined, too-smooth surface of the submerged organ that there is something much more in this humble vessel.  It’s likely the masterwork of some homegrown warlock, and it’s thick enough with power that she suspects Julian’s boss knows enough about this piece to have known it needed to be retrieved, and not by the local police force.  

The heart twitches with a single, systolic tremor, like a gasp.  They both jump, and Nazlı almost drops the jar.

“Fuck!” coughs Julian.  “Is that thing alive?”

“Qualify alive,” she says, gritting her teeth against the metal tang that has sprung into the air.  “It houses a soul.”

Julian’s head pricks up like a dog, and a second later, she turns toward the sound as well.  The man they’d seen attempting to flee the scene a few minutes ago is now running the other direction at a full, panicked sprint.  It’s one thing to watch an athlete or at least a reasonably fit, young person at full gallop, but when it’s a paunchy middle-aged guy who has probably worked for the same accounting firm for the majority of his adult life, it mostly looks like a disorganized windmilling of limbs that aren’t sure how to achieve what the sympathetic nervous system is telling them to do.  

Then, there’s a low, commanding bark and echoing snarl, and the exact opposite shape streaks after him, low and totally in control, only really recognizable as a black German shepherd after it’s gone after its prey, gaining.

“Fuck!” Julian repeats, this time in astonishment.  “They sent a K9 after this loser!”

The bad feeling that has been collecting in the back of Nazlı’s throat like nasal drainage thickens into cement.  She side-steps out of the mausoleum, instinctively holding the jarred heart close to her own.  She can’t see the man, but she can see the dog, which has stopped to scent the air.

The heart in the jar beats again, a sickening drumbeat too close to her body, like gravity doubled for a second and then released its clench.  An oily black ripple travels across the dog’s thick fur from snout to tail and it begins to turn slowly, its ears flicking back toward them.

“Fuck. Fuck, Julian,” she hisses, reaching back to grip his arm and pull him outside.  “That’s not a fucking K9 unit.”

“What?” His ungainly body tumbles out of the half-open door as though the limbs aren’t quite in the right order which, for Julian, they often aren’t.  

Truck! Now!

The dog growls behind them, triggering a hot flash of bladder-loosening fear through her body.  She lets go of Julian’s arm and bails, pounding the asphalt and clutching the phylactery against her gut.