Flower Childs was unhappy. People who didn’t know her thought she was always unhappy, but they were wrong: she was just serious; her moods fluctuated like any normal human’s, it’s just she didn’t go gooning around when she was happy or weeping when things went wrong. Especially since something was always about to go wrong. Hell, that was her job, waiting for something to go wrong and then driving there. Firefighters were like human seatbelts, she figured: acknowledgement that life would go awry no matter how carefully one planned one’s trip. But now the Fire Chief was unhappy. She was one corpse away from losing her job, her girlfriend was opening a bar even though she barely knew her times tables, and she was sitting across from a naked psychic.
“You’re just gonna be naked?”
“You may disrobe if you’d like,”Madame Cazee said.
The room was oval, and the table was circular, and Madame Cazee was person-shaped. Flower was also person-shaped, but taller. There was no incense burning–Flower made Madame Cazee extinguish the sticks when she came in–but the smell lingered and the air was smoky and slowed down the light that came through the small porthole window with the sigil fitted inside it. Flower was in her work shirt and pants, boots; Madame Cazee was nude. Sometimes, the spirits insisted upon nudity, and other times Madame Cazee had not done laundry.
“I don’t believe in any of this crap.”
“Yes, I could tell by your haircut.”
“What’s wrong with my haircut?”
“Nothing. It’s just very fact-based.”
She was right: a crew-cut is the most logical of all hairstyles; it is a hierarchical haircut; there is a chain of command somewhere in a person with a crew-cut’s life. Flower’s was freshly trimmed and graying. (Least rational hairdo is a giant mohawk.)
She had never been in Madame Cazee’s before, though she had walked by millions of times–it was across Sylvester Street from where the Wayside Inn used to be–and didn’t particularly want to be there at the moment. She had strolled casually down the sidewalk, timing her entrance for when she thought no one was looking, and slid in the front door as quickly as she could, turning to shut it behind her. It was a lot like how people used to walk into the Wayside for the first time.
This was that Reverend’s fault. The one from that weird church she had breakfast with. Old enough to know better than to talk to giant strangers in bright-yellow suits, she thought, especially when their advice was “Go talk to Big-Dicked Sheila.” Flower had known Sheila for years, and thought she was a flibbertigibbet; her opinion was not changed when Sheila insisted that she go talk to Madame Cazee.
“She knows the Jack of Instance,” Sheila said.
Flower spun around in the chair so fast that Sheila’s scissors nearly severed her ear.
“This psychic person knows the Jack of Instance?”
“Of course. He’s a tarot card.”
“Of course, he’s a tarot card,” Flower muttered and let Sheila spin her back towards the mirror.
Sheila snipped in silence for a few minutes, and then said,
“Got any other leads, Chief?”
She was tiny, Flower thought. I could punt her. Just pick her up and punt her right out of the salon and into the Main Drag. Bet I could get a tight spiral going on her, she thought.
But Sheila was right. The LAPD (No, Not That One) had no clues at all; Hank Paraffin, the chief, had been appearing on KSOS to ask the community for help. He gave out a special phone number that locals could call and give tips anonymously, but it was one digit away from Cagliostro’s and so they got more orders for pizza than they did help. They also got more prank calls and dirty-talking than help. And wrong numbers. The whole idea was a bust, and it was only the minorest of fuck-ups. There were divinations, agenda-laden accusations, false confessions, several apartments busted into by the SWAT team for little-to-no reason
And then there was someone–there’s always fucking someone–who was leaving flyers up all over the neighborhood claiming that the Jack of Instance was a werewolf. Flower ripped them down off the telephone polls she passed. Blaming arson on werewolfs was just too odd even for Little Aleppo, and it pissed her off. Didn’t even make sense. How’s a werewolf gonna start a fire when they don’t have thumbs? A wolfman had thumbs, but not a werewolf. It’s like no one watched movies anymore. She tore two down and jammed them into her the big cargo pocket on the right thigh of her blue khakis while she was walking to Madame Cazee’s.
Arguing with herself the whole time.
“You are tense.”
“Using your psychic powers to figure that out?”
“No,” Madame Cazee. “I’m looking at your jaw. If you clench it any harder, your teeth will splinter.”
Flower Childs didn’t want to laugh, but she did a little, just a breathy snort from her nostrils, and she took her chin with her hand and shook it back and forth.
“Yeah, huh? You can see that from there?”
“You could see it from space.”
“Maybe I should get a less stressful job. How’s being a psychic?”
“Stress-wise? Somewhere in between a heart surgeon and a tennis pro. Depends on the day. Once in a while, there are demon incursions or everyone starts having the wrong dreams. Last week, I had a Freaky Friday deal: mom and daughter switched brains. Took forever to sort that one out, but the nice thing was that they learned a lot about each other.”
Madame Cazee had an accent that was foreign, and that was about as specific as you could get. Her vowels were as flexible as a gymnast with all her bones removed, and the consonants fought with themselves on the way out of her mouth. Some words were sing-song and others were clipped and she might pronounce the letter R nine different ways in the space of one sentence. Eyes the same summer-green as the giant eyeball painted on the window of her storefront, and long hair the same silver as a freshly-cut key, and she was wearing more rings than she had fingers.
“So. The Jack of Instance,” Flower said.
“Looks that way.”
“Looks that way,” Capolina Gardner said. She and her husband Harry were sitting at their kitchen table in their small rented cottage on Bailey Street. Dishes dried in a rack by the sink, and a baby-blue hand towel was draped through the fridge’s handle. A flyer was in front of them. It was neon orange and if you stared at it too long, your corneas would melt.
What Are The Police Not Saying?
Every Fire Has Taken Place During
The Full Moon!
“This is not good,” Harry said.
Capolina rubbed his forearm and said,
“It’s not even true!”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“The fire at the Dean’s house was during the full moon, but not the others. I checked.”
“It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.”
Her hand slipped down to his and she laced her fingers into his. He looked just the same as he did when they met in Professor Scott’s Public Speaking class. All freshman at Harper College had to take it; it had been a requirement since the college’s founding. The first Dean of the school, Carter Spants, insisted. A truth poorly stated is speculation at best, Dean Spants used to say. Harry’s cheeks flashed crimson that first day. Everyone had to get up in front of the room and read an article from that day’s Cenotaph. Professor Scott called it “Sink or Speak.” No one much liked Professor Scott. Capolina thought Harry was cute, except for the goatee. He shaved it before their second date, which impressed her because she hadn’t outright told him to, just nibbled around the edges of the topic. A man who could take a hint, Capolina thought, might be one to keep around.
Harry was clean-shaven now. She had noticed he had become scrupulous about keeping his beard off since…well, since. That was how they referred to the night in the Verdance when Harry got bitten. Just “since” and then they’d trail off, accompanied by a vague hand waving in the direction of the park.
“It’s just some kook, baby.”
“Guiseppe Franco was just some kook, and he started World War One.”
“That wasn’t his name.”
“The guy that shot the Arch-Duke.”
“Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. Not his name.”
“Well, what was his name?”
The ice maker in the freezer loosed two cubes and they went CLUH-CLUNK onto the pile in the hopper.
“It was something. Can we get back to the flyers?”
“These are going to rile people up,” Harry said. “The whole neighborhood’s gonna go looking for werewolfs, and y’know what happens when people look for things.”
“They find things!”
Harry slapped a palm on the kitchen table and got up, walked over to the sink, looked out the window.
“That was very dramatic,” Capolina said.
“Don’t make fun of me.”
“No. Maybe. A little. I don’t know.”
Capolina stood up and came up behind him and threw her arms around his midsection and scratched at his belly. Harry was tall, so her face was planted in between his shoulder blades, and she rubbed her nose into his back.
“What if a Van Helsing shows up?”
“Van Helsings are for draculas, baby,” she said.
“The werewolf equivalent.”
She took him by the arms and spun him around, got up on her tip-toes–she was wearing blue socks–and kissed his naked chin.
And kissed him again.
Once more for luck, or for the road, or good measure. Whichever.
“You’ve never left the house as a werewolf. We keep the blinds closed. You don’t make any noise. I haven’t told anyone. Have you?”
“Are you kidding?”
“You tell your mother everything.”
“I didn’t tell my mother I was a werewolf.”
She kissed his chin again.
“Just checking. So: no one knows. These stupid flyers were made by a crazy person who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
“But what if they’re not? What if someone knows? We don’t know who put them up.”
Capolina thought for a moment, and then nodded her head like she’d just had a clever idea.
“Get your shoes.”
She walked into the living room, then back in the kitchen to grab the flyer and jam it in the back pocket of her jeans, and then back to the living room.
“Come on, slowpoke. You got any cash?”
Harry followed her out of the kitchen, digging in his pockets.
“I have $39.”
“Great,” she said. There was a chair by the front door, and Capolina sat down and tied her sneakers.
“Where are we going?”
“To find out who paid for those flyers.”
“Little Aleppo’s only got one copy shop.”
Harry thought for a moment, and then nodded his head like his wife had just had a clever idea.
“I love you,” he said.
“Yeah, yeah,” she answered, and stood up and kissed him. Man who could take a hint and take direction? That was a keeper.
“Yung Man’s after?”
“If we have any money left.”
“How much do you bribe a copy shop employee?”
“I have absolutely no idea.”
“This is the Gnostic-Septollines-Teller tarot. It originated in Paris in the 1500’s and was updated at Los Alamos in between nuclear tests. Most people aren’t aware of the part that magick played in the creation of the atomic bomb.”
“I had absolutely no idea,” Flower Childs said.
“Why do you think they called the first test Trinity?”
WHAP Madame Cazee slammed the deck down; the bangles and beads of the maroon tablecloth bobbled.
“The Gnostic-Septollines-Teller deck has 77 cards. 77. Very magickal, 77.”
“Seems like it should be a prime number, but it isn’t. 77, 51, 119. Lot of power in that.”
Flower did not have enough background in the occult to evaluate any of Madame Cazee’s statements. She had mostly taken engineering classes at Harper College, and never read comic books or pulpy science fiction novels as a child. She wasn’t even an atheist; she didn’t disbelieve in God and the Devil and the Afterlife and the rest of the Capitalized Nonsense so much as she didn’t give a shit about any of it. It was irrelevant. Tough enough figuring out people, now I gotta deal with haints and boojums? Fuck that, she thought. Not interested.
The room was not bright; it never got bright, Madame Cazee’s oval-shaped storefront sanctum sanctorum ate up light and shat out portentous dim. A doctor’s office needs to be well-lit, but a psychic’s office needs to not be. It was a smudgy kind of dim like a burned-down library. She cut the deck once, twice, three times. The backs of the cards were black with sun and moon, yellow, opposing each other lengthwise. Picked them up. Riffle shuffle, then the Hindu, and the Zarrow. Madame Cazee had large hands and she laid one down on the table. Raised it, palm up. Nothing up a naked lady’s sleeve. Back on the table. When she raised it again, there was a card underneath with a black back that had a yellow sun and moon on it.
It was a good trick, Flower thought
Sylvester (the cat) leapt onto the table, which turned the card over. Then he leapt off.
That was a really good trick, Flower thought. So did Madame Cazee, but she tried not to show it on her face.
“The Jack of Instance.”
“There he is, huh?”
The card showed a barefoot man on a horse, both emaciated and wild-eyed. The man and the horse were on fire.
“Have you heard of Interpretationalism?”
“Interpretationalism. Next big intellectual movement. Post-modernism was the death of the author, but Interpretationalism is the death of the text, too. Nothing matters but your opinion.”
“I got no idea what you’re talking about,” Flower said.
“Thousands of years the Jack of Instance has been around, and not one soul has ever gotten a good vibe from the motherfucker. He’s not chaos. He’s not war. He’s not destruction. The Jack of Instance is the danger that comes from being around other people. He’s a brick thrown from the overpass onto the highway. A shove in front of the train. He’s the stalker, the drunk driver, the junkie in the next apartment that fell asleep with a cigarette burning. He’s the burglar, he’s the rapist, he’s the coldcocker, he’s the one who forgot to mention that disease he’s got before he fucked you raw. He’s every time you got lied to. And every time you lied.”
Flower Childs stared into Madame Cazee’s summer-green eyes for a long moment, then said,
“That doesn’t help me in the fucking slightest.”
“Did you think I was gonna draw you a sketch?”
Flower had actually been kinda hoping for a sketch.
“I was kinda hoping.”
“That’s not what this is about.”
“What’s this about?”
Cannot Swim had been dreaming, and it was a teenage dream, and he had a boner and now his father was touching him. It was pitch-black in the kotcha and cold and his father was touching him while he was boned up. This was not a great way to begin adulthood. His father, Shoots With Wrong Hand, let go of his shoulder and threw back the bearskin blanket exposing him, naked except for his breechcloth and he scrambled to hide his erection.
“Hey, look. The son rose.”
“It’s a pun.”
“I see what you did.”
Shoots With Wrong Hand stopped smiling and stood up and held the leather door of the kotcha open. The moon was almost full and there were no clouds, and Cannot Swim could see his sister hiding under her blanket, just her eyes peering out. His father stepped out, taking the door with him and tying it open so there was light for Cannot Swim to dress by.
The Pulaski slept on short wooden platforms that raised them off the dirt floors of their kotchas. The elders had thin mattresses stuffed with grass and leaves, the problem with which being that grass and leaves rot, meaning you need to constantly restuff the sucker. The elders did not have a problem with that problem, as they made the children of the village do the work. Most of the children and adults laid thick sheets of tanned hide down on the wooden platforms and that was that. Their pillows were the tunics they wore during the day.
Cannot Swim unrolled his tunic. It went over his head like a sundress and had a wide collar and deep vents for his sleeveless arms. The skirt was slit up both sides all the way to his waist; it might be more correct to call it a double-apron configuration than a skirt. On either side of his waist were laces that tightened up for wear and loosened for removal or after feasts. The stag that had died to provide the leather was embroidered on the front, the deer’s molars serving as its avatar’s eyes. Cannot Swim had shot the stag himself, first hunting party he’d ever been allowed out on.
They were to the south of the village, following the coast and avoiding the hills to the east. There was a wood there, a gently lumpy hill country that shared the valley that would be called Little Aleppo’s temperate climate and dearth of catastrophic weather. Black bear and grizzly, mule deer, coyote and cougar. And antelope and elk. The elders told stories that they heard from their elders about giant hairy beasts with arms for noses and trees for teeth, but no one had seen anything like that in years.
There were twelve–eight adults and four children–in the hunting party, far too many, and Cannot Swim was beginning to think his father had brought him out on a fuck-off trip. Everyone was chewing too many peregrine leaves and talking too loudly. And it was all men, which he thought was odd. Pulaski women fished; Pulaski men farmed; but hunting was a pure meritocracy. Bullets were a finite commodity, so the best shots got the rifles. (The weapons were owned by the tribe, but each belonged to the individual that could do the best with it. When you translate the concept of “rightful possession” between Pulaski and English, you run into quite a bit of connotative loss.)
Cannot Swim had noticed there were only four rifles among the twelve of them.
Most children in the village’s first hunting trip was one of these excursions, which were known (in Pulaski) as Everyone needs a night off once in a while, y’know? The men would pretend to hunt so they could complain about their wives, and the women would pretend to not know the men were pretending so they could complain about their husbands. The men would always make a ceremonial kill while they were out there to keep up the charade. Usually, they would try to nab something little so it wouldn’t be a pain in the ass carrying it home. Not too little, though. Once, a group led by Wide As Two Men brought a raccoon back with them and everyone made fun of them for years.
And they would bring the kids along for their introduction to the Pulaski hunting party. There were rules. There was a leader to a hunting party. Not like the village, where consensus was prized and everyone had an equal voice. When you left the village–when you left the village bearing arms–you left behind discussion and did what you were told. One leader. “Tyrant” wasn’t always an insult. Used to just mean “absolute monarch.” Could be a good tyrant, could be a bad tyrant. The leader of a Pulaski hunting party was a tyrant. The tyrant for this trip was Webbed Toes, who had been arguing with his wife Fast Hair again and just wanted to sleep under a tree for a night or two and pretend he was a bobcat.
Still, he was the tyrant and the children needed to be taught the rules of the hunting party, so he lined the four of them up in a clearing. They were all about eleven, so the two girls were taller than the two boys. Same tunics, hair, soft-soled shoes. The adult men formed a semi-circle around them.
“Hey, Webbed Toes,” they answered.
“Guys, if you don’t do what I tell you, either you’ll get shot in the face or everyone in the village will starve to death. Capiche?”
The children all nodded in an exaggerated fashion, and so did the men in a semi-circle around them.
“I mean, I know you guys. You’re bright kids. I don’t need to give you the whole spiel.”
Cannot Swim was feeling a bit underwhelmed by his first hunting party.
“Anyway,” Webbed Toes continued, “do what I tell you always and without question. Gotta listen to the tyrant or people get hurt and their families starve, okay? I tell you to do something? You do it.”
It was early morning in the wood to the south of the village and the sun crackled through the leaves and branches and alit on the clearing with the dozen Pulaski. Over the rise was a brook that fed into the sea beyond the hills, and the forest smelled full and meaty.
Cannot Swim asked,
“So, uh, what should we do?”
Webbed Toes admired the distance.
“Don’t get lost. And if you do get lost? Don’t go uphill. Never go uphill. Okay, kids. This was a big moment for you.”
The seven men in the semi-circle nodded and broke formation. Webbed Toes examined trees. The four children, two boys and two girls, stood there in a line in a clearing.
Cannot Swim said,
“What the fuck just happened?
The other children did not answer him, as they had no idea what the fuck had just happened.
The men laughed and yelled and tackled one another. The Pulaski had a camp out here to the south. Three kotchas, bigger than back in the village, around a firepit. Just a few hours walk from home. Follow the rill to the golden sequoia, turn left for two hillocks, over the creek and you’re just about there. The party left the camp early the next morning, and they found Webbed Toes beneath a lovely elm; when they woke him, he began hissing and clawing, but soon settled down and now the dozen Pulaski were ambling about the land with no real plan for their day.
Cannot Swim and his father had wandered away from the rest and were on the cusp of a wide, grassy plain. They saw the stag at the same time and became still. He was a ten-pointer with antlers as wide as the ocean but far more pointy. 300 yards. More. Too far.
“I can get him.”
“He’s too far away. We could creep around to the west by the treeline,” Shoots With Wrong Hand said.
“I can get him.”
The Pulaski started the children in on shooting early, mainly to see who was good at it and winnow out the useless. If you were a klutz, then you weren’t ever touching a rifle again after the age of eight. Finite commodity, and so was ammo. Cannot Swim was always the best marksman, even better than the older children. His father knew he was a good shot, but he also knew he couldn’t make this one.
“Gimme one shot.”
Little failure is good for a boy, Shoots With Wrong Hand thought, and shouldered his Springfield Model 1842 and handed it to his son.
Cannot Swim did not take his eyes off the stag. There was a felled log to his right, and he crept towards it, lowered himself, rested his left side against the dead tree. He could feel it pulsating beneath him with beetles and termites and grubs and worms, and he sighted down the barrel. The Springfield fired Minié balls accelerated by a percussion cap. He kept his finger off of the trigger. A Minié ball traveling 300 yards will do so not in a straight line, but in a ballistic arc; the precise equation of which must be calculated by the shooter, and so Cannot Swim raised the front sight two inches then to the left a squinch to account for the wind and BAK-CHOOM a tremendous noise and the stag was down 300 yards away with a Minié ball torn straight through both his lungs.
His father shielded his eyes from the sun and looked across the field and finally he said,
When they got back to the village, there was a feast and Shoots With Wrong Hand told the story of Cannot Swim’s shot at least ten times. The distance became greater with each retelling. Weeks later, Shoots With Wrong Hand would give his son the tunic made from the stag. It was too big for him at the time, but fit him now. He cinched the leather on the sides of his waist and stepped into his soft-soled shoes. His hair was still in its ponytail, and he had wide brown gauntlets on his forearms. There was a leather satchel on the floor resting against the foot of his sleeping platform, and he threw it over his shoulder and walked outside. The moon hung in the sky like a wonton.
The wonton floated in the soup like the moon. Harry Gardner had been seeing the moon everywhere the past few months, which was understandable. In chocolate chip cookies and manhole covers and frisbees whistling by his nose, and pizza pies and nipples.
“It’s the guy.”
“It looked like him.”
“Short, round, sweaty, newsboy cap?”
It turns out it costs $20 to bribe a copy shop employee, who described the man who bought all the werewolf flyers and gave Harry and Capolina the work order. The name on it was Juan Dice, which was surely fake, but the number rang when they called it from a pay phone in between the copy shop and Yung Man’s. Harry squatted down so they could both listen to the earpiece. The other end picked up.
“Kinderfleisch butcher shop.”
They had not thought the plan this far through, so Harry said,
Capolina chimed in,
“What time are you open until?”
“Oh, great. Can’t wait to taste your meat.”
Harry gave her a confused look and she slammed the receiver back in the cradle. They walked over to Harcourt Place–that was where the Yellow Pages attached to the pay phone with a metal chain said the butcher’s shop was–and Harry waited at the end of the street, peering around the corner of the building, while Capolina walked by the front of the shop and tried her best to look in the window without showing her face.
The waiter set down their moo shu pork. Harry made Capolina’s for her; she liked when he did that.
“Why would a butcher be looking for a werewolf?”
Capolina was about to bite into her moo shu, but put it down on her plate and leaned forward so she could whisper.
“No one eats werewolf.”
“You don’t know that. It’s the only logical explanation.”
“Logic? We left logic’s warm embrace months ago.”
“What else could it be, Cap?”
“I don’t know, baby, But it’s just a bit tough to believe, isn’t it?”
Humans are capable of thousands, tens of thousands, of facial expressions; one of the rarest is “You’ve seen me transform into a giant hellbeast, but this you find tough to believe?” She laughed, just a little tiny bit.
“I’ll accept it as a working hypothesis.”
“Kind of you.”
“I’m a great wife, man.”
He half-stood up and kissed her over the moo shu.
“I know. But what do we do?”
Harry sipped his sweaty, over-iced Coke and said,
“We finish dinner.”
“I’m with you.”
“Go home. Maybe we stop for ice cream.”
“We don’t have any money left.”
“No ice cream. Just go home.”
“I think we should fuck.”
They shook on it.
“And then, we sleep on it.”
“I love this plan.”
Capolina held up her tea-cup and he clinked his Coke glass against it and she said,
“He’s not gonna hurt you. I’ll kill him before he hurts you.”
“I love you, Cap.”
“I love you, baby.”
“You get pregnant tonight,” Madame Cazee said.
“Completely fucking impossible,” Flower Childs answered.
The Jack of Instance was still face-up on the table, horse and rider engulfed in flame and both smiling too goddamned wide. There was a black border around the figures, but it was too thin to hold them and Flower could envision them bursting out, leaping off of the card and growing, life-size at first but only for a second, swelling up larger than that, larger, larger, til the horse’s hooves crushed the Segovian Hills with a step and the rider’s eyes were the size of oceans and everything was on fire around her.
“Someone’s putting a baby in someone. That’s a fact.”
“That’s a fact?”
“I’m a psychic. I tell fortunes.”
“Not well. I won’t get into the details, but suffice it to say that I am not getting pregnant tonight. Not my fortune.”
“I know. It’s somebody else’s fortune,” Madame Cazee said.
“You tell people other people’s fortunes?”
“What can I say? The psychic plane’s a mysterious fucking place.”
The chief stood up and made towards the beaded curtains that were the door between the inner sanctum and the waiting room with the big windows onto Sylvester Street. Stopped. Turned back.
“Don’t supposed you gave anyone my fortune lately?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know that. I did tell a regular client that they’d do a wonderful job with the zoo fire.”
Flower Childs didn’t believe in any of this psychic crap, so she waited until she was almost three steps onto the sidewalk on Sylvester Street before she started giving commands on her walkie-talkie; assemble the men in the station and ready for a plan. No more reacting, it was time to take the offensive in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.