A Reason for Being: Chapter Four

Point of Negation, A reason for being, death to stock photos

Chapter Four

Meredith tore herself away from the magician at the catcalls and howls of party-goers stumbling past the alley. She took a deep breath, trying to steady herself. Fuck, she had almost forgotten where they were. An alleyway in Gasoline Centre, one of the rowdiest parts of town.

Tyler slid his fingers down the dark spirals of her hair. “We should get out of here.” He released her hair and touched her face, where the would-be thief had clipped her temple. His hand came away red. “You need a doctor.”

“No!” she said, a little sharper than she’d intended. “No doctors.”

He hesitated, then nodded. “There’s a first-aid kit at my place. We could catch a cab there.”

The corner of Bedford and Tyvelvet was busy, the sounds of cars and the people pushing by compounding the throbbing that had begun at her right temple. Little bright cobwebs were appearing at the edges of her vision; not-so-little lances of energy swooping through her like the fiery arrows of archangels. Tyler raised a hand to flag down a cab, but she waved him back from the curb. “Wait.”

He shot her a quizzical look, a look that turned sharp as he took in her too-bright eyes and the way her hands trembled as she wrapped her arms around her shoulders as if to ward off a chill on this warm summer night, the perspiration beading along her forehead.

He said, “Is it – are you –”

“Yeah.” She swallowed hard and mustered a smile. “It’s all your fault, you know.”

A look of pained contrition. “I’m sorry.”

She shook her head at him, then turned. “Come walk with me.”

She took off swiftly down the street, rapidly leaving the corner of Bedford and Tyvelvet, and the alleyway with the still-unconscious thief, behind. Tyler fell into step beside her, though he made sure to leave a foot or so of space between them. Meredith thought rapidly – what to do? Iris was waiting for her at the Nutzmeg, but that was clearly out of the question now. The close atmosphere of the bar would be stifling with so many bodies – so many fragile bodies – and with Tyler so close, it would only accelerate the combustive turbulence within her.

Instead, she turned down a street, and then another, moving deeper into the heart of Gasoline Centre until they reached a door guarded by a tall, rangy woman whose lean musculature was obvious even under her black silk shirt and black jeans.

“Hey, Irina,” Meredith greeted the woman. “Is Lucy in tonight?”

“Sure is.” Irina frowned at Meredith as she stamped her wrist with an inky likeness of broken black wings. “You might want to wipe the blood off your face before you go in, though.”

“Right.” Meredith accepted the tissue Irina handed her and scrubbed at her forehead. “Okay?” Irina nodded and Meredith stuffed the tissue into her purse. It didn’t do to leave traces of blood around the Den of Iniquity. Too many things could be done with blood – hypno-spells, voodoo craft, power potions, the list went on.

Irina scrutinised Tyler with a look of mistrust. “Friend of yours, Meredith?”

“Yep. He’s cool, don’t worry.”

That didn’t appease Irina, who cast Tyler another suspicious look. “Friend or no, I still gotta check his status.”

“No probs.” Meredith nodded to Tyler who fished his ID out of his wallet. Irina glanced down the card, frowned, and looked at Tyler again.

“Magician,” she breathed. “And a Berhansen. Well, well, Meredith, running with a posh crowd these days, aren’t we?”

“Oh, you know, hanging with Lucy has inspired me to strive for even greater heights.” Meredith grinned.

Irina handed Tyler’s card back to him and stamped his wrist. “We don’t get many of your kind around here.”

“Just passing through,” Tyler said breezily. Meredith looked sharply at him, but said nothing as the bouncer opened the door and they stepped through.

The Den of Iniquity was a long, low hallway filled with smoke issuing from the crumbling earthen walls. At least, that was Tyler’s first impression. As his eyes adjusted to the hazy interior, he saw that the smoke was drifting out of pipes embedded within the earth – pipes made of glass in various jewel colours – turquoise and gold and green and sapphire, ruby, rose-pink, alabaster, and silver.

The smoke was aromatic and sharply sweet, bringing to mind some strange mix of frankincense, opium, and marijuana. Several dim shapes could be seen through the haze, leaning against the walls, sucking on the mouths of the pipes. A few turned glittering eyes onto the newcomers.

A Cerberus-like brute of a dog crouching behind the door growled as they passed, but made no move. A crow perched on the shoulder of a man slumped to the ground cawed loudly, causing Tyler to glance over. He looked again, and realised the crow was physically a part of the man, an extra appendage growing out of his shoulder like a second head.

His heartbeat picked up as he realised that every one of the customers in the Den of Iniquity was a part-demon of some kind. His skin prickled uneasily at being in such close quarters with part-bloods. And no doubt most of them would be able to sense what he was as well. He could practically smell their hostility, the animosity at the magician in their midst, wafting upon the piquant air.

Meredith, on the other hand, seemed to suffer no such discomfort as they advanced further in. And none of the part-demons made to confront them until they had almost reached the end of the hall where a large heavy door awaited, studded over with hundreds of pieces of coloured glass. They were less than three feet from the door when a hulking silhouette pushed itself away from the wall where it had been sucking noisily on a peridot-green and gold-laced pipe, effectively blocking their path.

“Blood,” rasped the figure. “Fresh blood.”

Revulsion and fascination alike flashed through Tyler as the smoke cleared in wisps and drags to reveal the face of their antagonist. It was like looking at a very realistic biology class mannequin, one with its skin peeled away to reveal the eyeballs and bone structure and naked muscle lying below. Arteries pulsing with blood were visible along the thick neck, pulsating through the raw, reddish muscles of the upper arms. A dark pinkish heart throbbed within its bone cage, slimy and veiny.

He fumbled through his mind for a name to fit this demon, searching back through his childhood years of studying such beasts in the schoolroom. A Wander – Wendy – Wendigo. That was it. A human possessed by a demon through acts of cannibalism, the hell-spirit’s hold increasing with each bite of fresh human meat, each sip of human blood. By the looks of this man, he had been possessed for some time now. Perhaps it had been a mutual symbiotic relationship. Tyler wondered how such a creature could be allowed to walk freely around downtown Berninski without drawing notice – and certainly not from InterPara, who would have come down on it like a ton of bricks, bringing out the exorcists, and perhaps an executioner, if it came to that.

But he didn’t have time to think about that now. Right now, his attention was taken up with the fact that the creature was reaching for Meredith with its skeletal hands, quivering eyeballs fixed on the crimson drip-dripping of the cut on her forehead which had opened up again. Tyler swore inwardly even as he lifted his hand and drew up the magic within him. If Meredith was going to haunt these kinds of places, she should at least have the common sense to stop by a chemist for a plaster first.

But Meredith was motioning impatiently at him to stay back. “I’ll deal with this. And enough of your magic before you set me off,” she hissed furiously.

“Magic,” squawked a voice at Tyler’s back. “I thought I smelt magic, all right. What’s a magician doing in the Den of Iniquity then?”

It was the crow-headed demon, come silently up from behind. The glassy eyes of the crow stared at him while the birdlike croak issued from the still-bowed man’s head. “A human and a magician. It’s like Meals on Legs coming right through the door.”

Tyler tensed, ready for a fight in cramped quarters. All around, part-demons were perking up, shuffling closer, drawn either by the commotion, the blood, or the magic – or perhaps all three. This didn’t look good.

Behind Tyler, Meredith said sharply, “Everybody, get a fucking grip on yourselves.”

“Could you blame them, though, a lovely bleeding young thing like yourself?” The voice was smooth and warm like rich cocoa – stirred through with steel and glass. “Maladaski, go mind your own business – or I’ll mind it for you. Same goes for the rest of you. Arturo, control your creature here. If you can’t manage him properly, I wonder how you even got him over from Rio in the first place.”

The crow squawked and ruffled its feathers huffily as its human appendage slouched away, glassy eyes still fixed on Tyler. The other customers turned back to their pipes, though one or two continued to watch Tyler and Meredith surreptitiously. Tyler, in turn, continued to keep an eye on them even as he turned ever-so-slightly to see a short, squat figure mutter an apology as it ushered the Wendigo-possessed man away.

The apology had been directed at a slim man of medium height with smooth brown skin who now stood beside Meredith. He was dressed in a pale blue shirt opened at the collar and cuffs. His features were as young and handsome as an Egyptian prince’s, though what drew Tyler’s attention was not the fairness of his face, but the long black horns twisting and rippling their way out of his forehead, just at the sleek hairline. Tyler’s gaze dropped past the azure eyes and imperial beard to the man’s feet – and he had his answer as to just what this man was.

A part-satyr, he deduced, eyes narrowing. And considering the man’s obvious demonic looks, he must be at least a half-blood. It was unusual to encounter someone with so much demonic blood in their veins; most of them had been eradicated or imprisoned by InterPara and the magicians, leaving only the quart-bloods and those with less conspicuous demon traits to blend in amongst society as best they could. Half-breed, however, was the main term for all part-demons, no matter how much hell’s blood they possessed.

“Lucy,” Meredith drawled. “Looking good tonight.”

“As are you, my dear Mary-Death.” The lips parted to reveal white teeth. “And ever so much lovelier with that gash of yours. Is this your latest way of tempting fate? Bringing fresh blood – and a fresh magician – into my den?”

Meredith reached up and scrubbed at her forehead, then licked the blood off her finger. Lucy’s eyes gleamed as he watched her, and Tyler cleared his throat loudly, stepping forward.

Both Meredith and Lucy turned to look at him, as if they had only just remembered he was there. “And what is your magician’s name?” Lucy inquired in mildly curious tones.

“Tyler, meet Lucy,” Meredith said, purposely omitting all full names.

“A pleasure, indeed,” Lucy said as the two men nodded at each other, not bothering to shake hands. “Newly arrived in town?”

“Just a few days ago,” Tyler replied.

“My first magician patron.” Lucy’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. Tyler didn’t blame him. Relations between magicians and part-demons were tenuous, at best. “We should toast the occasion. Come.” He turned and led the way to the glass-studded door at the end of the hall, which slid back to reveal a small circular lobby.

The air-conditioned atmosphere was cool and crisp, a welcome respite from the smoky den. The floor was polished malachite, gleaming in the light of several salamander-shaped sconces. A few choice pieces of furniture stood scattered around the room – leather armchairs, little Pembroke tables, a mahogany-and-pearl-inlaid escritoire, and a 1920s-style cherry-wood cocktail cabinet. Several doors led off from the room, all of them shut tight including one twelve-foot-tall rectangle of black walnut. Bulging out of the wood in the exact centre of the door was a three-dimensional bas-relief of a snake curled around a dull crystal orb.

Lucy flung open the doors of the cocktail cabinet and proceeded to whip out bottles. “I’ve just designed a delicious new drink in your honour, Mary-Death. I call it a Typhoid Mary. The base is vodka, with a drop of Chambord to represent blood, a dash of triple sec for bitterness, and, for past longings, a pinch of dried lavender.” He mixed the ingredients as he spoke, straining through a crystal tumbler into three martini glasses, two of which he offered to Tyler and Meredith.

“Very thoughtful, Lucy,” Meredith observed. “I’m honoured.”

“It’s the least I can do for my new favourite. Never a dull moment with Mary-Death, that’s what I tell everyone.” Lucy turned to Tyler. “Did she ever tell you how we first met? It was about five months ago. Mary-Death here had just robbed the Vodun Bar of their latest accessory – a trio of baby sharks. The theft created quite the stir, especially as those baby sharks turned out to be madrids illegally bought on the black market. They still can’t figure out how their wards and charms got blown out – and Mary-Death here won’t tell me how she did it.”

Tyler thought he had a pretty good idea how, but he didn’t say anything. Baby sharks? Madrids?

“And thus I came across good old Mary-Death on the banks of the Nenya River, tipping the baby sharks into the river so they might swim forth to freedom and the bright blue beyond,” Lucy continued. “But the madrids – they were confused, they were angry, and they wanted vengeance. They didn’t realise Mary-Death was their saviour, not their captor – until I stepped in and convinced them to take their leave.”

Tyler raised his eyebrows. “A demon coming to the aid of a human?” He didn’t realise he had said those words until they were out of his mouth.

“I surprised even myself,” Lucy admitted. “But there was just something absolutely endearing about a mortal attempting to free djinns at the risk of her own life … put it this way: I was intrigued. And she was hot.” He bared white teeth at Meredith.

“I think you’re pretty hot too, Lucy.” Meredith flashed her teeth in return.

Lucy intercepted Tyler’s frown, and chuckled. “But enough chitchat. I have work to do tonight. And you, I imagine, must be here for the Garden of Fortune.”

Meredith nodded. “Okay if we go up?”

“Okay if you win over Mr Snake tonight. He’s been cranky lately.” Lucy nodded to Tyler. “I’ll see you around, magician.” He passed through one of the doors, shutting it firmly behind him. Tyler heard the sound of a click; felt the lock-wards flare to life around the door’s edge.

He cocked an eyebrow at Meredith. “Madrids, huh?”

Meredith shrugged. “I could have taken care of myself. They were just confused – I could’ve talked them over. Eventually. Anyway, all’s well that ends well. I got to meet Lucy, and he throws some of the best parties in town.”

“Parties attended by demons.”

Meredith shrugged again. “There are always a fair number of humans on the guest list. HHas to be that way. Berninski’s not that heavily populated by demons that they’re able to sustain an exclusive nightlife. The Den’s pretty much it.”

“Jeez, Meredith,” Tyler said quietly. “Partying with demons, freeing madrids, what else are you going to get up to?”

Meredith shrugged. “Hobnobbing with magicians?” She set down her empty glass and gave him a brittle smile. “Everything deserves freedom, even djinns and demons.”

Tyler acknowledged this as he trailed after her to the walnut door. “I’ve never met a demon named Lucy,” he commented, glancing over his shoulder at the door through which the satyr had disappeared.

Meredith’s mouth twitched. “It’s short for Lucifer. That was his name in the orphanage where he got dumped as a kid. Guess it was the horns and hooves that did it – though I’ve heard most princes of hells don’t look anything like satyrs.” She stopped before the door. “He once told me a little about his childhood in the orphanage. It wasn’t easy, to say the least. People tend to ostracise anything that’s different from what they’re used to.”

“Not everyone,” Tyler said softly.

Meredith’s hand hovered over the crystal orb. She managed a weak smile at him over her shoulder. “No, not everyone.”

She touched the orb and it flashed a bright pearly blue. A sharp blast of cool air rushed past them – an awakening spell, Tyler thought – just as the bas-relief of the snake came to life, its body curling and writhing around the orb.

“Where do you seek to go?” the snake lisped.

“Garden of Fortune,” Meredith answered.

“You wanna go up, you gotta pay for the ride.” Vertical pupils flashed yellow. “Tell me a story.”

“A story?” Tyler said.

“If I like it, I’ll let you go up. Life can get pretty dull guarding these doors.”

“I’ve got a good one,” Meredith piped up. “Heard it from the new bartender at All-Shot. Swore it was a true story that happened to him.”

The snake rattled its tail. “Go on.”

“Back in Dublin, it was his job to close up his old bar,” Meredith began. “And every night, he’d leave a bowl of milk out by the back door for the faeries – old Irish tradition, he told me. Only it wasn’t faeries that came to drink the milk, but a stray kitten, sweet as anything, with a real beautiful coat of red-gold fur. It came every night to the back of his bar and soon the bartender got real fond of the cat, and he’d set out a plate of leftovers along with the milk too.

“One night, after he’d left the kitten nibbling on leftover fish pie, the bartender heard a ruckus outside, the sounds of yowling and shrieking and cursing and whatnot. He ran outside to find a mess – dishes and dustbins on their sides, blood and tufts of red-gold fur – and no cat.

“For four weeks, the bartender continued to leave milk and food outside, but no cat came. Then came a night when he heard sounds of movement outside. He crept up and flung the door open to surprise a girl hunched over the saucer, lapping the milk up by tongue. Hissing, the girl sprang back, scampering on all fours behind a dustbin – but not before the bartender noted two things – one, she was completely naked, and two, her hair was a beautiful red-gold that gleamed under the light of the full moon. He remembered then that there had been a full moon on the night of the ruckus, and putting two and two together, concluded that his little cat must have been attacked and turned by –” Meredith paused impressively, looking from the snake to Tyler, both of whom leaned toward her in anticipation – “a were-human.”

“There’s no such thing as a were-human!” Tyler said.

“How do you know that?” Meredith countered.

The snake twisted back and forth thoughtfully. “There could be,” it said at last. “If werewolves and were-jaguars and were-sparrows exist, why not were-humans? A good tale, at any rate. Food for thought. So what happened with the were-human?”

“I didn’t get to ask,” Meredith said, “because he had to get back to work then. But another bartender at All-Shot later told me that Aidan – the Irish bartender – has a really gorgeous but kinda dumb wife who came over from Dublin with him. To use his exact words, ‘one really hot babe with red-gold hair’.” She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.

“Food for thought, indeed. Food for thought,” the snake said sagely. “Do we count that as the bartender taking advantage of the were-human, or the were-human taking advantage of the bartender? And how much would he have to pay in terms of cat food each month?” The crystal globe glowed green. “You may enter the Garden of Fortune.”

The door slid back slowly and tremulously to reveal … a pair of elevator doors.

“It doesn’t bother you?” Tyler asked Meredith as the lift bore them steadily upwards.

Meredith leaned against the cool silver wall. “What does?”

“All – this.” He gestured round. “Being surrounded by demons and their magic.”

“It does,” she answered in a low voice. “But I can manage for now – until I’ve got what I’ve come for.”

“What did you come here for?”

The lift tugged to a stop. Without answering, Meredith slipped out the door. Tyler sighed and followed after her.

Stars and flowers – that was the first thing that came to mind. A rooftop garden, filled with roses, tulips, lion’s paws, larkspurs, pear blossoms, and pansies – all out-of-season flowers on this warm summer’s night, their brilliant colours reflected in a large rectangle of water, along with a hundred glittering stars. Over by one corner of the rooftop, the strains of a sitar and its accompanying flute sang out from a gazebo where two bearded men sat – well, they had no choice but to sit for their bodies were black marble from the waist down. But their upper bodies undulated with nimble grace and their fingers moved like lightning over their instruments while their faces – their faces! – shone transcendent with ecstasy, their eyes closed as they swayed to their song.

With the exception of those two men, everyone else in the Garden of Fortune was young and beautiful and well-dressed – and most of them, Tyler noted, were human, though there were a few part-demons. These ones, however, were different from the hunched customers of the Den. These part-breeds were young and stylish and self-assured in the attention their notoriety and good looks garnered them. They were like the cool kids at high school – striking, beautiful, and just that bit dangerous.

He followed Meredith around the edge of the pool, passing, as they did, beneath an ironwork roof overhung with flowered vines which served as trapezes for several men and women who hung upside-down over the heads of the crowd. Tyler had seen their like before at parties, and he was suitable impressed by the extent of Lucy’s wealth – the Slaves of Solomon did not come cheap. They were human trapeze artists who doubled as waiters and waitresses with the fun factor being that they swung from the rooftops, bearing vol-au-vents and refilling cups from above.

Once, there had been some talk of hiring part-Hanumans for a similar venture – Hanuman part-demons, the descendants of the monkey god Hanuman, were agile acrobats and plentiful in number, having snuck over on boats bearing Chinese immigrants to the New World in the 18th century. The experiment, however, proved ultimately to be a failure, with the part-Hanumans deemed too mischievous and undisciplined for the service trade. They would later go on to find their niche as international drug runners, a job they excelled at despite their playfulness.

A Slave of Solomon swooped down and handed them each a cocktail. Meredith gulped her drink down rapidly as she weaved her way through the crowd, nodding to several people she knew. She stopped at the far end of the rooftop and looked over. Tyler hovered beside her as if to pull her back from the edge.

Below was a kidney-shaped pool, surrounded by apartment blocks on three sides, the building where they stood being the fourth. Most of the apartments had their curtains drawn, but there were a few windows through which she could see people eating their dinners, watching TV, laughing soundlessly. So many lives going on, all at once. She wondered what it must be like to live such lives, such normality. If she were granted such a life, would she be able to get used to it, or would it feel too strange, too alien, such ordinariness?

Meredith didn’t think she would like it. They looked so boxed up in those little apartments, leading their ordinary, predictable lives. Just looking at them, she felt claustrophobic. And yet there was that twinge of isolation within her, a sense of separation and loneliness at the same time.

She stepped back from the edge and felt Tyler relax almost imperceptibly.

“So,” she said, “a few days, huh?”

He smiled. “It’s been a fairly educational few days. I never knew you were such a party animal.”

Meredith felt her own lips twist up in a bitter semblance of a smile. “I’ve always found that as long as I’m running, dancing, talking, keeping busy in some kind of activity, I can keep – it – down to a certain extent.” She lifted her glass, but stopped halfway, realising it was empty. “Damn. Could you get me another drink, Tyler?” When he hesitated, her smile turned wry. “I’m not going to run away, I promise. Here.” She handed him her bag. “Take my purse, if that makes you feel better”

He hesitated again, then nodded. She watched him head back into the crowd, then turned back to the pool.

A Slave of Solomon was exchanging Tyler’s empty glasses for fresh ones when someone gasped, “Oh my God, she jumped!” He spun around in time to see the last of Meredith disappearing over the edge of the rooftop.

Cursing, Tyler pushed through the crowd. He reached the edge just as Lucy, materialising out of nowhere, did, and they looked over to see Meredith resurfacing from her plunge, sending ripples across the kidney-shaped pool. She turned on her back and raised her hand to the stupefied onlookers above.

“What did I tell you?” Lucy said triumphantly. “Never a dull moment when Mary-Death is around.” He glanced at Tyler. “Don’t worry, magician. She’s quite all right. A seven-storey jump, not counting the rooftop, but the pool’s a deep one. Good thing too, or we wouldn’t have had Mary-Death with us for long, would we?”

Tyler exhaled a long rush of air. “Why do you call her Mary-Death?”

Lucy tipped his head to one side. “Can’t you feel it?” he inquired. “The isolation that surrounds her, the alienation? There’s something about her that’s fragile, yet dangerous at the same time. She’s so social and yet a little standoffish too, don’t you think? Like she won’t let herself get too close to anyone. Like it might be… dangerous… for her to do so. It reminds me” – Lucy tipped his head back and half-closed his eyes in contemplation – “of a beautiful, doomed Typhoid Mary. Yes, I think I named her drink well.”

Tyler shook his head. Without a word, he turned and pushed his way through the still-gaping crowd to the elevator. Lucy’s laughter rang out behind him, sly and mocking.

 *

Meredith floated on her back, sculling long, lazy strokes through the water as she waited for her heartbeat to slow. She felt almost calm now, most of her adrenaline leached away from the fall through tens of feet of empty air. She flipped over and swam to the edge of the pool, climbing out just as Tyler appeared around a corner.

“What the hell was that all about?” he yelled, his voice echoing across the empty poolside.

Meredith ignored him as she wrung out the hem of her dress. Water leached from the crimson fabric, a pale red fluid like diluted blood. She wondered briefly if she had totally ruined the leather halter-neck. She hoped not; she really liked this dress.

She looked up and took in Tyler’s appearance – nostrils flaring, chest heaving, fists clenched. All of a sudden, quite inappropriately, a bubble of mirth rose up within her. In the next second, she was bent over, laughing and laughing.

“It’s not funny,” Tyler said angrily. “Stop laughing! You could have killed yourself! What were you thinking?”

Get a grip, Meredith told herself. She straightened up as another hiccup of laughter escaped her. She could hardly imagine what she looked like, drenched from head to toe in a ruined party dress and bare feet (she had kicked her heels off just before jumping), and laughing like a maniac.

She caught Tyler’s eye and her laughter died. He was angry, she realised, really angry, in fact completely furious. It occurred to Meredith that she had never seen him angry before, not even when – that incident – had occurred.

He’s so angry. And that was when the realisation hit her with the force of a sledgehammer. He was angry because he cared.

She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry,” she said, as contritely as she could; then she threw herself at him, taking him by complete surprise. He staggered back even as he grabbed hold of her waist, steadying her as she wrapped her arms around him and plastered herself and her lips to him, getting him wet all down the front. He kissed her back, rough and hard and full of angry relief, his arms crushing her against him, his fingers digging into her back.

Meredith wasn’t sure how long the kiss lasted. When they finally entangled themselves from each other and she took a step back, unsteadily enough for Tyler to reach out and grab her elbow, she looked into his eyes and announced, “Okay, I’m ready to head back to your place.”

 

***

Go on to: Chapter Five

Go back to: Chapter Three

New to A Reason for Being? Start from: Chapter One.

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