Pay What Is Due

Someone’s gorgeous son has had his throat slit, and Markfeet glowers down at his body in disapproval.

“Cause of death seems relatively straightforward,” Forensics notes dryly, and she grunts. Blood has soaked through the mattress and pooled on the pine planks of the floor. That was how he’d been found: blood dripping from the ceiling into the apartment below.

“Real quiet feller,” says the landlord. “Kept himself to himself. Paid on time, very nice and tidy.”

“He have any regular visitors? Friends, lovers, priest or lawyers?”

Landlord sucks his teeth. “Nooooo, no one I ever met. Did his own cleaning, even. Lived like a monk, far as I saw. Seemed like a waste? Figured he was a poet or one of those Attic fellers. Sworn to what’s her name, the sickle one. Celibate, or— whsht—you know. Castrato.”

Markfeets hikes her eyebrows, looks over at Forensics who has started stripping the corpse. Forensics shakes his head, no. “If he was, he hadn’t found time yet. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t though; lots of ’em don’t go under the knife these days.”

The Body is a Feudal State

“Dig deep,” she hisses at Markfeet. “You gotta get it all out.”

Markfeet’s sweating and cold, the tips of her fingers and ears numb with tension. It went bad, this one, real bad. Hoodoo was out with the twitches and half the gang was sunk in the river running below Maplewood, the lucky ones floating face down. Her arms are red with blood to the elbow, most of it sticky and drying with Tip’s blood a bright new flag laid on top of it.

“Damn it, focus, you sorry son of a bitch,” Tip snaps, and Markfeet tries, she tries hard, but her eyes are bedeviled something fierce, she has to keep shaking her head to make the world a place of things and not ideas. She bites her canker sores hard, until her mouth floods with blood and lemon; the bullet pops out at last.

“Shit,” she says, and Tip goes ash-white when he sees it, a real mean piece of work, chuckling malevolently with a full charge of meaning. “You’re gonna lose an arm, fasure.”

Tip kicks out, sends her flying backward into the bricks, overturns the place like a hurricane. “Fuck! Fuck!” The world goes senseless for a long second and Tip is gone when it settles down again, the bullet gone with her.

Sheila of the Plains

Sheila pushes the fur from her mathematician’s mind. It keeps recurring, soft and purring, vibrant, headless, and alive, an impossible luxury: the blanket that hugs you back! She hums the jingle to herself while she struggles with a proof.

Later, only temporarily broken, she goes for a walk in the building’s garden. Dark night outside and winter, but in here is endless summer, tropical heat, jungle humidity. Gemtoned birds flash from tree to tree, passing through and beyond the walls she can touch but can’t see. Her spine and ankles crack and pop. Standing hurts, but stretching is a luxury and an indulgence; she turns her face to the antipodal sun and lets it ease muscles cramped with worry.

Walking back she passes others climbing the white railings to the third floor. She has never dared, having no head for heights. Once, lonely, scared, she rose hand over foot to the bottom of the lower balcony, but visions of a short fall and the hard crack of the tiles against her skull drove her shaking down again. They hallo her and she waves back, silent but friendly. They understand.

Dawn finds her still working, eyes sandy, brain cloudy, still butting against logic’s iron gate. She will sleep at her desk later, for a scant hour; maybe that will help.

The City Has Grown To Cover The Graves

The Empress has been given a pass by the Court of the Dead to return to the land of the living. There are people she must see, warnings she must give; typical portent business, but she has been granted a handful of days for herself to see how things are getting on.

Her empire, when she ruled it, was wracked with plague, choked with the dead. The wealthy fled to the hills to die, and the poor boarded themselves in their homes to die; the skies were thick with corpse ash, until even the tenders to the dead sickened and died. She has not been dead so long, but it is only the ghosts that still bear witness to that lost generation.

Near evening of her final day, she finds a small plague, set in the sidewalk. “Here,” it reads, “lie the remains of over 40,000 unknown plague victims, buried in haste in a great pit.” The street, bright with new stores, is so thickly crowded with the unsettled dead that she can hardly move for their pleading hands. “I would help you, if I could,” she apologizes, no more powerful in death than she was in life.

Take This Cup From Me

Jillian was at the top of the Tower when she found out about Comacho’s death. It was a clear night, she remembers that, and cold: the air bit into her gloves when she went out on the roof to smoke a joint. The stars were high, high and alien, and crowded into the bowl of the sky. Sheila was sensitive to smoke, so she had to smoke outside. Which was fine; it kept her in time with the seasons.

She pictured him, conjured the image forth into the lungful of smoke, power pushing through her; a short dark kid with a crew cut who used to pretend he was a velociraptor in the halls. She didn’t know him well, but they’d hang out sometimes watching the breakdancers during lunch. Been shot in the head outside of a house party, just randomly, some stupid fight or other, she didn’t know.

She went to his grave, next time she went back, left a knot on his stone. Marble for memory, cedar for waste. This, she knew, even then, nothing more than raw superstition. The dead are the dead; all her Art is reserved for the guilty surviving.