ISSUE 10, May 2017


Cover Art by Glass Valkyrie Studios




*Please enjoy our monthly issue for free. Be aware however, that this free version contains some formatting issues such as the abscence of italics. To experience the stories in their properly formatted versions, you can purchase a copy on Kindle or a print edition through Amazon.

Texas Awaits
By Patrick Winters

What follows is a record composed for nobody's benefit save my own; the words here are for my own eyes to read, and the paper it is writ upon is intended for my hands alone. However, should this account be seen or held by any other—through happenstance, accident, theft, or inheritance of my worldly possessions upon my passing—know this: it was written with a sound mind, and all which I say happened did occur, as best as I can tell.
There will come a day when I have grown old—too old to tend to my practice, too old to lift my gun. Never too old to place a bet and see to the cards in my hand, God willing. With the onset of age, my memory may yet fail me, and though the events I shall detail are recent and fresh in my mind, and I reckon they will be for many more years, this document will stand as testament to my experience and remind me of what I have seen.
Yes, you ornery old codger, you witnessed this!
It has been three weeks since I left Georgia behind me. Texas still awaits me—whether or not it is ready for me is another matter. Each stop-off of the train has brought me to another new town or city, and the further west we go, the better the air seems to treat my lungs. The consumption is not so consuming in this climate, so my travels may yet be worth leaving home. Still, I have not been without my troubles; several coughing fits have overtaken me, and my fellow passengers have turned wary glances my way; I won't suffer their stares, though. If they caught sight of the blood that sometimes finds its way into my handkerchief, I'd dare say they'd up and move to a different car—I cannot blame them, because if I could outrun my ailment, I would turn tail and run until the boots of my soles were worn through. Not a day passes when I don't remember mother and Francisco, or how they succumbed to our shared disease, and I know that their fate may still be my own. Perhaps the rowdy people and lands of Texas will see to me before that comes to pass.
Our train has since passed into Mississippi, and its pause in the town of Martin has most certainly been the more noteworthy of our layovers. It was not an intended stop, as others have been; instead, it was forced, as we were told that an unforeseen bout of mechanical trouble of some sort or other had arose. As such, the other passengers and I were encouraged to leave our cabins and our seats and see what the town had to offer until our journey could begin again.
The town was modest, and had rather less than little to offer in ways of entertaining fancy. So, I found the nearest saloon and the nearest game of poker to partake in. The establishment was nondescript and plain, as were most of its patrons—farmers and rustlers looking for hard drink and bluffing too often and with little tact. Not all were so droll in their natures, though; I'd taken notice of two particular gentlemen who had the air of trouble about them, sitting at the bar and keeping to themselves. I watched them from the corner of my eyes while I kept at playing my hands.
Short-barreled .45's sat in their holsters, hanging limply at their hips. They paid for their hooch out of a wallet that looked far too new and neat for their like; its yet-to-be-worn leather was rather proper compared to the raggedy and dirtied clothing they wore. Thieves, no doubt, putting their gains towards the shots they'd put away. They often looked about at the other men in the place, as though measuring them up, looking intently at their coin-purses as they kept up their whispering to one another. When they glanced my way, I made a point to open my jacket wide enough so they could take a gander at uncle's 1851 Colt Navy at my side. They turned their eyes elsewhere, my revolver firing a warning shot without even being drawn—the power of the gun. Certain that they would not be bothering me anytime soon, I lost interest in the pair, until he showed up.
I had been riding a streak of luck against a trio of elderly gentleman with bad hands and telling eyes when a new gent came into the saloon. It was by chance that I saw him step through the place's threshold—one of the players was busy shuffling the deck, which I had previously seen to, and I set my eyes to wandering across the establishment as he fumbled with the cards. As I turned my gaze, the stranger stepped into the lighted doorway, his silhouette standing there for a hesitant moment before he came into full view.
Now, I've met many curious folk in my days, and wager I'll see plenty more before my time is out, but this man had something about himself that I can't rightly understand or put name to. I recognized in him from the get-go a hard nature. The sort that many men only carry; but standing there as he did, striding slowly into the place with his steely gaze and his intent bearing, I knew that this one wielded it. Dressed in dark, black-brown clothing and standing tall, the man went up to the bar and ordered something or other. By chance—or by his own design, I now think, which was only played as chance—he had come to stand not far from those two men with their wandering eyes and conspiratorial airs. They latched their sight onto him as he pulled out a bulging coin-purse from inside his long, sweeping coat and set it on the counter. At the time, I thought him a fool to do such a thing, and I realized he was on his way to being robbed by the raggedy pair, who made a hard point of not looking at the man anymore while both parties sat and sipped their drinks for several more minutes.
When the dark-clothed stranger had finished downing his chosen spirits, he grabbed his coin and placed it back in his coat. He turned and left the saloon; the two men quickly followed after him. Bored with the game, compelled to see how this all played out, and being no stranger to troublesome scenes myself—as spectator or initiator—I elected to follow, in kind. Dealing myself out of the game, I stepped outside.
I looked about and saw the dark-clothed man walking along, his horse at his side and reins in hand, several yards to my left. He was leading his dark-red bay into a tree-line at the town's edge, heading off somewhere into the surrounding woods. The pair of thieves trailed behind him, far enough to hopefully go unnoticed by their prey, yet close enough to strike when they saw fit to.
I looked to my right and down the street a-ways, where I could see the train station and our train's conductors and such milling about, still hard at work to fix the issue that had beset our travels. I had time yet to see the inevitable event between the two scoundrels and the lone man, along with its odd turn. I followed the men into the trees, keeping quiet and inching along as not to go noticed.
As I tailed the two men, keeping a steady distance between myself and them, I decided I would only watch and see what happened between the two and their intended victim; neither I nor my Colt Navy would intervene in the matter. I had just enough interest to see, not to partake.
At one point, I felt a coughing fit threatening to take me, my ailment ever the pest. I feared my presence would be revealed! I fought to control the burning sensation in my chest and my throat, and managed to keep quiet. I kept on, growing a tad more cautious as I walked silently after the men.
Eventually, after going a short ways into the woods, I spied the two men come to a halt, hiding behind a rather large water oak. I likewise hid; I then looked ahead to where their own eyes peered, towards the lone man, who had come to a stop in the middle of a small clearing, seeing to something about the pack on his horse; his back was to each of us.
Looking back to the thieves, I saw them nod to one another and pull out their firearms; the decision to strike had been made. As they crept closer to the man, I crept forward, as well, to get a better look at all that was to unfold. I stood safely behind the same water oak as the thieves had, peering around its bark to watch.
The two had stopped a few cautious yards behind the other man, their guns leveled at him. One edged closer than the other, thumbing back the hammer of his revolver as he did so. It was this one who spoke up the threat, his voice sure and nasally: “You've got two guns aimed at ya’, partner, and we'll put ‘em to use if ya’ don’t hand over that there purse ya’ got on yer person.”
His partner gave a harrumph of agreement and cocked his own gun, lifting it up higher.
The lone man paused, saying nothing. He neither shook nor cried out for mercy. Turning his head slightly about, he stared at the men out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head back around and looked forward, at whatever lay beyond his horse’s back.
The thief who had spoken was about to reiterate another warning when the lone man spun about, his hand shooting towards a big black Colt in its holster, the gun finally revealed to all as his coat swept about him in his sudden turn. He pulled the gun out, cocked it, and aimed with a quickness that any gunfighter would envy, including me. Before I or the two misguided hooligans could fathom such speed, the dark-clothed stranger had fired two shots toward the first of them. Each struck the nasally man in the chest, sending up a fine mist of red from the wounds; he gave a whiny cry as his muscles tensed and then fell slack. His partner fired off a quick, startled round in response, the shot ringing out as his compatriot fell dead to the soil at their feet.
The bullet struck the lone man in the chest, but he kept his life and his footing. He fired twice more at the remaining thief, who quickly joined his partner on the ground with a short, pained death-cry.
It was over, just like that, and I stood stalk-still, watching the lone man with a sensation that was caught somewhere between numbness and reverence; writing this now, I still feel that very same way. I fancy myself quite good with a gun, after all, but this lone man—he was another matter entirely. My awe over him only increases now that I reflect on what he did next.
First, he looked to where he had been shot; the second thief's bullet had struck him in the left breast, and from where I stood, I could see the darkened, wet impression of blood forming against his already dark, dirty, and stained vest. Reaching his free hand up to his chest, the man stuck his fingers into his own flesh, prying into his wound without so much as a groan or growl of pain, but with a certainly sour look on his face. When he pulled his hand back, a bloodied, deformed bit of bullet was clutched between his red fingers; he let it fall to the ground, lost somewhere in the dirt and weeds.
Now, though I'm a doctor of dentistry by profession rather than a medical one, I know enough about the human body to realize that the shot had struck the man very near to the heart, and such a wound—if not tended to very shortly after—would surely take his life within the hour.
However, he sought out no such attention; he did not tend to his wound himself, or go back to the town of Martin for a doctor. Instead, he replaced his revolver in its holster, turned to his bay, and grabbed up a shovel from his pack. Right then and there, he started digging up the earth about him. I stood there for I know not how long, watching as he dug what more and more looked to be a large grave.
Though I was riveted by the sight of this all, my mind reasserted the need to get back to town—my train would surely be leaving soon, if it had not already departed without me in the wake of this odd event. Though it took all of my will, I left the lone man to his digging, and I returned to Martin in a dazed rush, my legs carrying me far and fast—further and faster than my mind could register, as my thoughts were a slow trickle of repetition. The gunfight played over and over in my mind, my fascination over the action and the oddity of it taking hold, and now, sitting once more on the train to Texas, it all continues to repeat. My writing of this account has relieved me of that dazed sensation, somewhat; putting it onto paper makes it seem more real, a little less of some dream or half-confirmed fancy. And I hope that should I return to this record in my years to come, it can reaffirm whatever doubts my memory casts upon this event.
For now, my thoughts turn to that lone man, and I think on what he did, is doing, and will do. I wonder if he did, indeed, bait those two men into the confrontation, as I full-heartedly believe he did, showing off his coin-purse as he had; and I wonder why he would do such a thing. Did those two men slight him, or someone he knew, and this was his revenge? Did he kill them simply to kill them, the sport of a gunfighter? Was he still digging out in those woods, burying his kill as I write these words? And why bury them to begin with—why not leave them there to rot or be eaten by wildlife? Had he done the same—and would he live to do the same—to other men somewhere down the line? Had he survived his terrible wound? I dare to think he had; hard men are hard to kill.
As of now, though, I have no real answer to any of these questions, and I am certain that I will never have the answers. I'm left simply to wonder. And whenever I remember this day or harken back to this account, I'm sure I will continue to wonder.
This is where I end my tale to myself. Texas awaits me.

John Henry Holliday
October 3rd, 1874

Patrick Winters

Patrick Winters is a graduate of Illinois College in Jacksonville, IL, where he earned a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. He has been published in the likes of Sanitarium Magazine, The Sirens Call, Trysts of Fate, and other such titles. A full list of his previous publications may be found at his author's site, if you are so inclined to know: http://wintersauthor.azurewebsites.net/Pages/Previous%20Publications.


An Aldebaran Sugar Cookie for Star Shaker
By Mary E. Lowd

The asteroid amphitheater rocked with applause as the suspended final note of Star Shaker's encore vibrated the atmo-bubble over everyone's heads. The reptilian pop-star bowed and spotlights shone off of her rainbow-colored scales, making her glitter like the stars all around.
Chirri had loved Star Shaker's music since she was a little kitten. Once, she'd even shaved off her fur and drawn little Vs all over her naked skin, hoping they'd make her look like she had scales. It had looked awful, but she'd been too young to care. All she knew was that it had made her feel closer to her hero.
Everything felt right when Chirri listened to Star Shaker's golden-throated singing.
The applause died down and the other fans -- all sorts of aliens, from the fuzzy to the feathered, antlered, or scaly like Star Shaker herself -- began leaving their seats, heading to the airlocks at the back of the atmo-dome. But Chirri didn't want it to be over. She stayed in her seat, clutching her bag of supplies, snacks, water, vid-com, hoping to catch one more glimpse of Star Shaker.
Of course, it was the fleet of Roboweiler guards who cleared the stage. It was silly to think Star Shaker would come back out, but Chirri couldn't let go of the feeling she'd had while watching her hero, dancing so close, singing in the same air -- real sound waves from Star Shaker's silver forked tongue directly to Chirri's eager, pointed ears.
Reluctantly, Chirri stood and started edging her way back through the rows of seats, each pawstep taking her farther away from those perfect moments during the concert. She sighed, accepting that the magic had melted away, and it was time to return to her normal life.
Then Chirri saw her: Star Shaker's scales were simply silver-gray without the stage lights, and she was small, a full head shorter than Chirri. But it was her, alive and real and strutting toward Chirri with a Roboweiler on either side of her. The Roboweilers’ mechanical red eyes glowed, menacingly.
Chirri stumbled backward, nearly falling over a seat and tangling her hindpaws in her long tail. When she recovered herself, she could feel that her fur had fluffed out. There was only a few seconds before Star Shaker would pass her on the way to the airlocks, and there would only be a moment -- but there would be a moment. What could Chirri say to her hero in a moment?
Chirri remembered the snacks in her bag. She was a baker and had brought some of her signature Aldebaran sugar cookies. It was stupid, but maybe she could give Star Shaker a cookie. Something she'd made, for someone who'd made so much for her… Because Star Shaker's music always felt like it was made only for her. She knew it sounded that way to everyone. That was Star Shaker's appeal; she was a reptilian alien, but her heart could have been anything -- fuzzy, feathered, photosynthetic -- she spoke to them all.
But it didn't matter. Chirri wanted to give her hero something, as a kind of thank you. She dug one of the cookies out of her bag; it was star-shaped and glittered with grains of Aldebaran sugar. Chirri had made the batch especially for this concert. She'd been so excited. And it had been everything she dreamed.
Chirri held out the cookie.
Her eyes locked with her hero's, and the small reptilian alien said, "What is this felinoid doing here? I thought you guys cleared this place out."
The Roboweiler to the right snarled and advanced, probably just to warn Chirri to keep her distance from the pop-star, but its mechanical teeth startled Chirri so much that she tripped all the way over the seat this time. She landed splayed on the asteroid amphitheater's floor, ears askew, tail crimped beneath her, and star cookie smashed.
By the time Chirri dusted herself off, Star Shaker and the Roboweilers were well past her. The moment was gone. The moment had been horrible. Chirri relived it, seeing herself over and over again, tripping awkwardly, all dignity lost in front of the one being she most admired.
Chirri's ears flattened and her whiskers shivered. She looked down at the crumbles of sugar cookie in her paw. Maybe she wouldn't bake that recipe again for a while.
In fact, she didn't think she would listen to Star Shaker's music for a while either. At least, until the memory of this night faded. Because she needed that moment to go away, and she couldn't imagine hearing Star Shaker's voice without thinking about it.
The stars still stretched out all around the asteroid amphitheater, but for Chirri, the world had become much smaller, and nothing sounded right. At all.


Mary E. Lowd

Mary E. Lowd writes stories and collects creatures. She’s had three novels and more than seventy short stories published so far. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish. The stories, creatures, and Mary live together in a crashed spaceship disguised as a house, hidden in a rose garden in Oregon. Learn more at www.marylowd.com.


Kojin
By EJ Shumak

My Father is dead.  I saw him shot as a spy in front of me three years ago near the Quintang River here in town. I was seven years old.  It was my birthday.  I don’t even remember when the anniversary of my birth occurs anymore.  I don’t want to remember.  They threw my Father’s body into the river and took my Mother away as she screamed for me.  
    Whenever I see the blue of the Maoist Political Officers’ uniforms I am terrified and cannot move.  It is the same horrid blue that the “Little Red Soldiers” wear, even the same blue as the UN helmets I saw once.  Until last week, I thought UN meant Political Officer in English; then I saw real political officers arresting blue helmeted men.
    I am grinding ugly wooden trains this week.  The grinder is cheaply made.  The serrated blade breaks off the shaft, pieces flying everywhere, my left hand and right check bloodied.  I carefully set the tool down and immediately the “Watcher” comes around.
    “What the hell are you doing?  Are you trying to avoid work again?  You are the biggest shirker in the entire plant.  We do everything for you, and you repay us by damaging the tools so you can play.”
    “Comrade, please forgive my sloppy operation of a great communal tool made by our heroes.  I am so sorry and unworthy of your attention.”  I think I got the spiel right.  It’s what I hear the older kids say.
    The starched green-uniformed Watcher stands over me glowering.  “A fresh tool will be brought to you.  Use the sandpaper in the meantime.”
    The language still seems foreign to me, though I have no accent nor difficulty understanding or communicating.  Watcher stays until I am actually making progress hand sanding the ugly toy train car.
A tool runner in a clean blue (Little Red Soldier) uniform grabs the grinder off my work table and snaps a new blade in place.  
“Use the Peoples’ tools cautiously.  This need not happen.  My time and the Peoples’ valuable material need not be wasted so readily.”
I smile at him and note the Order of Mao pin on his silly hat.  He storms away, one of the children that get to go across the river to Nigwei #2 elementary School. I want to learn so badly.
My Mother taught me.  I want My Mother.  I want a friend.  I want someone I can speak to in my native Nihon.  I want so much and know how selfish I am. It would not make Mother proud.
It is Plum rain season.  The weather is hot and humid, especially in this windowless, ex-military hanger that now houses the wooden toy factory.  That is its name – simply wooden toy factory in Wooden Toys City, 9 Jiusheng Road, Jianggan District, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China.  Until five years ago my family and I lived in Japan.  
My Father worked here to modernize the plants.  The Chinese government officers preferred to use the children.  That’s when Father fell from the good graces of CPC.  
I understand these Chinese words but they are harsh and somehow unnatural on my ears.
The supply buzzer sounds and we all head to the wood bins to collect more material.  I still have plenty, but I prefer the wasted trip to explaining why to the Watcher.  I get to the bin, and there is a beautiful trunk section of Enoki tree, a Japanese nettle. I remember them from home and how we would leave old broken dolls at their base to honor the tree Goddess, Kojin.  I pick it up and even though it is huge and very heavy, I know I must have it.  I carry it back towards my workstation and slip out a side door, heading towards my home.
Home is a side entry below the factory to what was once a root cellar.  A dark, dank closet two meters high and two meters square. I quickly set the stump down and run back up to my workstation.  Breathless, I am amazed I got away without being noticed. I settle in and work doubly hard, secreting away the blade chunks.  Those that cut my face and hand are now in my green trousers.  I am going to have a friend.  I will not be alone anymore.  I will speak Japanese freely, without being beaten for it. I will be happy.
Once home, I start on my new friend.  I strop the blade chunks until they are exceptionally sharp and the broken pieces form a handle that I can wrap with sealing tape from shipping crates.  I am making a young Japanese girl, as beautiful as my Mother; one who will pay attention to me. Most importantly, one who will speak to me in Nihongo. Every day I return to my cellar with renewed purpose.  The Enoki wood is beautiful and the carving is becoming a beautiful little girl.  
The wooden flat cars I am tasked with smoothing are all Paulowina wood.  They split out and sometimes even fall apart in my hands as I grind them.  The Watcher is very upset with me.  
“This is good Chinese wood.  You are a crude half breed, forever Shinto cursed by your mother.  Even wood rejects your touch.  You are stupid and filthy.”
The Political Officer has noticed me.  He repeats much of what he said, I suppose for emphasis. “You fluff about with the Political Officer here?  Have you no respect, you half breed, ungrateful animal?  We feed you, clothe you and shelter you.  We save you from your evil Shinto mother and this is how you repay us?”
I stand quietly, my head down in submission and my hands behind my back. I do not answer.  I am unprepared for the impact of his gloved hand.  He has gloves filled with lead shot across the back.  My head snaps up and back while I tumble to my right.  My face, cheek, and temple, strike the worktable and I no longer see, hear or feel anything.
***
    The building is sweltering and I am lying in a small pool of sweat. There is blood too.   It is dark and I am alone.  It must be the middle of the night. It seems they left me where I dropped.  I pull myself up and half crawl, half walk, back to my cellar.  I make it home, surprised to find a bowl of rice at the doorway.  I take it in and sit with my future sister.  I am not going to work tomorrow.
    All day I carve and work toward perfecting my new sister.  She is so beautiful and I can see she is kind. Life will be better for me soon.  Two days later she is finished.  They must be worried of losing me to death, as they keep feeding me even without my attending work. I will have to return tomorrow.  My injury induced vacation is not perpetual.
I have finished carving my new sister.  I am no longer alone.  I am happier, though not as happy as I hoped,
    The wood is better today.  I can work it without destroying it, and the little cars are moving rapidly through my workstation.  The Watcher leaves me alone.  I managed to get into the showers early this morning, without incident and without a beating.  The blood is finally washed from me completely, and my wounds are either healed or scabbed over.  I feel much better.  I am sure I look better.  When I said goodbye to my new sister this morning, I believed I heard her say to do my best.  Something my Mother said to me every day.  I smile for the first time in many months.
    I rush home to tell my new sister all about my day and how the wood was better, and I was not beaten even once.  As the door opens, my heart breaks.  She is gone.  They must have known, found her, taken her away.  I fall to the floor, weeping and lay there for a long time.  My Father is dead.  My Mother is gone, and now I have lost my sister. When I can cry no more, I fall away to sleep.
    I am awakened by a soft, melodic voice, “Why do you lay that way?  You will injure yourself further,”  
    I realize the language is Nihongo.  Wrenched awake, I spin round, facing the open door.  A  form stands in shadow at the threshold.  “What-wha, who is there?”
    “You of everyone must know, for you brought me forth.  Though I am not the sister you imagined I might be, I am called Kojin.  Do you recognize my name?  Do you not introduce yourself in my presence, yet expect that courtesy of me?”
    “I am Wa Park.  Kojin is the name of the Goddess we made offering to at the base of our Enoki tree.”
    “Good, then you remember.  Wa is an ancient and honorable surname.  Park is my sister, the Cyprus, a strong relative, though not active in the way of you humans. I assume your name is written to reflect this?”  She walks into the room, filling it with a soft ethereal glow.  She is my height, with long nearly white hair, tinged in lilac. She is the most beautiful revelation I could imagine.  She stands in front of me, seemingly real.  I ask if I might touch her.
    She holds out her hand, “Of course, after all you have been touching and carving me every day for weeks now.”
    I reach out, gently touching the top of her outstretched hand.  I immediately kneel, suspecting what is in front of me. “Kami Kojin-sama.  Forgive me for not understanding”
    Kami Kojin looks down at herself. “It was quite a surprise for me too.  I never expected to be so young, though I do not find it unpleasant.  You exuded such love, need, respect and longing that I could not refuse.  My corporeal being is so often abused in these modern times, the intense devotion and reverence as you carved could not be ignored.  I am habitually treated as a lesser substance utilized to fabricate the obviously inferior. This worship is indeed welcome. I do require devotion.”
    “I venerate you Kami Kojin-sama.  You are deserving of much reverence.”
    “You know me well, and you have served me even before I emerged.  You may simply call me Kami Kojin, or even Kami if you desire.” she smiled and it seemed as if the sun shone just for me.
    “We will be together many hours.  We will speak Nihongo.  We will tell each other much.  You will be my friend. We will…”
    “Hold, my little man.  It is true, we will be together, and we most certainly will speak The Language and only The Language.  We will tell each other much, but you must serve me, for I am Kami and you are my foremost acolyte.  Initially, I will tell you what we must do tomorrow.”
    I sit quietly through much of the night as Kami Kojin explains what our lives will be in the near future. I am later to be allowed sleep.
    “Tomorrow starts your exclusive service to me.  You must be rested and prepared for our journey,” this last I hear as I drift off.
***
    It is dark when I awaken to an unheard call from Kami Kojin.  
“We go now,” she says.
We walk together west, through the city, with little or no notice.  Two children going to do work chores or school duties.  No one cares.  No one sees.  I wonder if Kami Kojin is causing this disinterest, but I am afraid to ask her.  
“Of course, you fool. Now quiet your mind so I can do what I need to. We have many miles to go.”
She goes so easily into my mind.  I will quiet it for her, lest she be uncomfortable.
***
    As we travel, Kami Kojin tells me of her brothers and sisters.  She tells me how unrest in this malevolently controlled land has peaked, and many seek the old ones – many seek the spirits that can save them.  Deep in the wood, near small mountain villages are simple Shinto shrines.  The old ones are claiming them and revitalizing the tiny village communities.  With renewed natural benefits of healthy crops and plenty of honest work to produce the food and water needed, the Shinto shrines and Kami are thriving again.  
I am allowed to translate for her when needed, though she nearly always communicates without words, and to each other we speak only Nihongo. I try to save her the discomfort of entering those minds not worthy of communicating with her.  
I only wish my Mother and Father could join us.  Kami Kojin tells me that my Mother is lost to this plain.  But she assures me that once our Shrine is up and well attended, I will speak with both Mother and Father again, with her help. I have my life back and I truly believe that our world is once again headed on the right path.  I know my life in Jianggan District was evil. Obviously we cannot guide ourselves.  The Kami will save us.


EJ Shumak

EJ Shumak lives in metro Chicago, Illinois, and has spent most of his life in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.  He has been many things: police officer (disabled), large cat sanctuary operator, C.P.A. and on again, off again writer -- lately on again.  He has held active membership in S.F.W.A. since 1992, and has sold four books, three fantasy novels and one non-fiction along with several dozen short science fiction pieces and non-fiction articles. Some of his current work is available at amazon.com/author/ejshumak




Yama
By Anusha VR

Gus sat under the oak tree at the edge of the road. The thick jade foliage provided him minimal respite from the terrifying heat. The sun was beating down upon him and there was not another soul in sight. His throat was parched and his belly rumbled in a queer way.
    He just had to go on a long drive to clear his head right after a terrible hangover. What imbecile comes up with such a fault ridden idea, he wondered. The slanting rays of the sun had blinded him for a millisecond and he rammed his car into the damn tree. And now here he was stranded in the middle of nowhere in the blistering afternoon heat with a phone sans charge since he had wasted it on streaming songs for the drive.
    Laurel would be furious. He had promised her he would be back in an hour. There was a stuffy wedding he had to attend as her faux-date. She had talked his ear off about how she could not have the bride pity her. He could not quite remember the details. All he knew was he did not want to infuriate psycho-Laurel.
    He sighed and waited for someone, anyone, to pass by. Someone had to pass by and bail him out of his current predicament. He lost track of how much time had gone by since the accident.
    And that is when he saw a plump man clad in the most garish of outfits riding a buffalo approach him. He had dark blue skin, a jewel laced crown atop his head and a golden mace in his right hand. Even the buffalo was decked in a purple velvet blanket embroidered with red and silver patterns.
    Gus was convinced the heat had finally melted his brain.
    “Hop on, now. You have waited long enough,” said the blue man, twirling the thick black mustache that covered half his face, while tapping his left hand impatiently on the buffalo’s neck.
    “What?” Gus blurted out.
    Unoriginal as that response may have been, there really isn't much one can say to a blue man in a gold outfit offering you a ride on his buffalo. Gus had seen a ton of bizarre things in his life, but this made it to the top ten. Hands down.
    “I do not have all day, Gus.” The blue man rolled his eyes and let out an exasperated sigh.
    “How do you know my name?” Apprehension began to creep its way into Gus’ voice.
    “It’s always the same questions with you mortals! ‘What?’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘Where are you taking me?’ ‘How do you know all these things,’” mocked the blue man in a shrill voice, his face scrunched up in a ridiculous way.  
    Before Gus could get his derailed train of thought back in place, the blue man continued.
    “I will tell you before you launch another tirade of moronic questions. I will be saving both of us some time that way. I am Yama, the God of Death from India. That would have undoubtedly answered your current question as to how I know an insignificant mortal’s name. It’s sort of my job description to keep track of all those who die.”
    “The God of Death?”
    “For heaven’s sake do not tell me that you didn’t know you were dead. You crashed your death machine of a car into a tree, which then toppled four times to land in a ravine below. Of course you are dead. Now can we please just go to the underworld. I have to pick up another blockhead after dropping you off. He apparently thought base jumping was a spectacular idea and he wanted to tick it off his bucket list.” The last line Yama uttered put a twisted smile on his face.
    During Yama’s mini rant, Gus got his bearings together. The fact that he was dead slowly registered in his mind. Curiosity coupled with a hint of suspicion began to plague him now.
    “I thought death was supposed to be clad in black and look intimidating. Wielding a menacing looking scythe and what not.”
    “The Grim Reaper is on a vacation. Hades thinks it is downright beneath him to deal with punks like you. Azrael won’t get his pretty wings dirty, so he rarely lifts a finger. And Anubis has a dog for a head, so that is reason enough as to why he’s not here. So I offer you my sincere apologies for being stuck with the fat blue man who will not shy away from using torture techniques if you do not get on Paundraka,” thundered Yama gesturing towards the buffalo.
    Gus was one of those peculiar beings who never quite figured out less is more.
    “Are you actually referring to yourself in third person? Who does that? And the buffalo has such a peculiar name. What does it mean?” Gus let out a flurry of words.
    “You little worthless rat!”
    Yama conjured up a blazing fire ball in his hand which he was on the verge of hurling straight into Gus’ face. He was at his wits end. Such a thankless job it was, being the God of Death. He was ending their miserable journey they liked to call life and all these pesky humans did was complain and cry. They should be thanking him and showering him with gratitude, he thought. Or was he not good enough be the God of Death because he did not have a skull for a face? What was wrong in being a well nourished God of Death with some flesh on his bones?
He could never quite decide which reaction was worse.
“All right, all right. Jeez,” Gus said as he got onto the buffalo that would take him to the underworld.

Anusha VR

Anusha VR is a Chartered Accountant and Company Secretary residing in India. She has a penchant for traveling and reading novels. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies such as Monsoon Winds, Carol of the Spells, Spectral Book of Horror Stories among others.


Thursday in the Park with Loas
By Jill Hand

Eddie had a lot of jobs in his thirty-four years.  The best one was as a last-minute replacement backup dancer for Madonna during her Confessions tour.  The worst was fruit fly sexer, which was not kinky at all, as he’d hoped, but instead was both boring and revolting.     
A college biology department advertised for someone to breed fruit flies and sort them by sex, in order for students to learn about genetics.  It was part of Eddie’s job to immobilize the tiny black flies, using something that smelled both medicinally astringent and cloyingly sweet.  It may have been ether, for it made him drowsy to the point that he swayed on his sneakered feet in the grim white-tile-walled laboratory where he worked under harsh fluorescent lighting, fumbling woozily with the camel’s hair brush and metal tweezers that he used to separate the flies by sex or other traits.
He quit after three months, finding the buzzing flies and the anesthesia fumes too much like being in an Edgar Allan Poe nightmare.
    Eddie had so many jobs that he could barely remember some of them, others he remembered all too well.  He delivered pizza and Chinese food, usually getting crappy tips unless the customer was drunk or stoned and then the tips tended to be dazzlingly generous.
    “Bro, you’re awesome.  Seriously, bro, I owe you my life!  You brought me this…” the disheveled young man gazed with unfocused, hugely dilated eyes at the cardboard pizza box Eddie was holding, as if viewing something gorgeously rich and strange, perhaps an artifact from the lost city of Atlantis. “…this beautiful food.  Here, have some money.”  He dug into the front pocket of his jeans and handed Eddie a crumpled fifty-dollar bill, then reached in and gave him another.
    “Is that enough?”  He sounded tentative, as if afraid it might not be.
    Eddie decided not to push his luck by asking for more.  Instead he grinned and handed over the pizza.  “Sure, thanks.  Have a good night.”  Smiling beatifically, the young man turned and closed the door.
One of the reasons why Eddie never stayed in any job too long was that he was easily bored.  His father was an actuary and he wanted Eddie to become one, too, but talk of balance sheets and asset management and liability bored Eddie to tears.  Just the word ‘actuary,’ sounded unpleasant to his ears.  Ack, like a cat coughing up a hairball.  Chew, like a cow stupidly chewing its cud.  Then airy, which was all right, just not after ack and chew.  Eddie wanted no part of it, or of becoming a physical therapist, like his mother was.  He didn’t want to spend his days around sick and injured people, especially ones who hated him because he forced them to do things that hurt.
So, Eddie bounced from job to job.  He gave out samples of cheese, and salami, and cologne.  He was a “ghost passenger,” rating the performance of flight attendants while pretending to be just another guy with a duffle bag to be stowed in the overhead compartment, shuffling down the jetway wearing the glazed, slightly dull expression common to airline travelers.  He was a telemarketer and was cursed at by people who sounded as if they wished they could strangle him, so furiously did they object to getting calls from strangers who first assured them they weren’t selling anything and then went right ahead and tried to sell them something.  He was a census-taker.  He walked dogs.  He tutored foreigners who wanted to learn English.
Eddie drove a cab, getting held up twice, once at gunpoint and once at knifepoint.  Once he found a live tortoise the size of a soup tureen crawling on the floor in the back of his cab.  Another time he found a voodoo doll.  It was about fourteen inches long and made of cloth.  It wore a little necktie fashioned out of a scrap of emerald-green and gold-striped silk, and a clumsily stitched simulacrum of a navy blue three-piece suit, on the breast of which was pinned a handwritten note.  The note read, ‘Richard Roycroft Bainbridge III, may my curse be upon you!’
Eddie was intrigued.  The name sounded like it belonged to a rich white dude, somebody who was a member of a yacht club and played golf.  Who would want to put a voodoo curse on somebody named Richard Roycroft Bainbridge III?  Weren’t voodoo curses usually reserved for people with names like Hoodoo Jones or Daddy Yellow Pants – jazz musicians and street preachers and back-alley craps-shooters – not rich WASPS?
He took the doll home with him when his shift ended, concealing it under his jacket and deliberately neglecting to turn it in to the dispatcher, as he’d turned in the tortoise, umbrellas, cell phones and almost everything else he found in his cab, including a prosthetic arm.  At the time, he’d wondered how someone could leave their arm in a cab and not notice.  If he found cash he kept it.  Eddie was no fool.  He knew if he turned it over to the dispatcher, a moody, bitter woman named Rosalie, she’d keep it herself.
He had a few hours to kill before he reported for his second job as a tour guide in an art museum.
Eddie often had two or three different jobs at the same time.  It paid the rent and kept things interesting.  Eddie liked to become a different person at each of his jobs.  When he was driving a cab he took on the persona of someone he thought of as Tony.  Tony was brash and rough around the edges.  He gesticulated when he spoke, taking both hands off the wheel and waving them in the air to make a point.  Tony kept up with all the latest sports scores.  He peppered conversations with his fares with remarks like, “This goddamn city!  It’s gettin’ worse every day, but what you gonna do, am I right?”
At the museum, he slid seamlessly into a personality he thought of as Alastair.  Alastair was finicky and precise and sounded as if he was raised on watercress sandwiches on buttered bread with the crusts cut off.  Tony and Alastair not only talked differently, they walked differently and dressed differently.  Anyone who’d ridden in Tony’s cab and heard his cheerfully profane opinion about how the Mets’ starting lineup wasn’t worth a fart in a pickle jar would never in a thousand years have recognized him as the effete young man at the art museum who went into raptures over the brushstrokes of Claude Monet.
Eddie was like a chameleon, adapting to whatever environment he found himself in.  It was a trait he had in common with gifted actors.  Eddie could perhaps have been an actor if he hadn’t lacked the ability to memorize even the simplest song lyrics.  Reciting lines from memory would have been utterly impossible for him.
At his apartment, a tiny slice carved out of what was once a sprawling, four-bedroom flat in a beautiful old Art Deco building, Eddie got out his laptop and did a search for Richard Roycroft Bainbridge III.  There was plenty to be found.  The object of the voodoo curse cut a wide swathe.  He attended black-tie charity galas, owned a horse farm in New Jersey called Lucky Shamrock Stables that produced champion Standardbreds, owned a forty-foot yacht called the Buona Fortuna, had three – no, four ex-wives – and was CEO of Bainbridge Associates, an investment banking firm headquartered at 777 Seventh Avenue, in the Bainbridge building.
Eddie frequently drove his cab past there.  He hadn’t realized that the Bainbridge of the voodoo curse was the same person who had his name written in big gold letters on a downtown office building that had, a quick Google search showed, seventy-seven floors.  
“Lucky sevens,” Eddie mused to Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown, his orange and white neutered tomcat who was curled up in a patch of sunlight on the kitchen floor below the counter island where Eddie sat eating fistfuls of breakfast cereal straight out of the box.
“What do you think that means, Leroy?  Is he superstitious?  Should I get in touch and tell him somebody put a voodoo curse on him?”    
Leroy drowsily blinked his orange eyes and stretched.  
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Eddie said, and went to change out of the jeans and plaid flannel shirt and work boots he wore when driving a cab and into a suit and tie, with the highly polished wingtips he wore for his job at the museum.
Knotting his tie in front of the mirror next to the front door, Eddie confided to Leroy in his Alastair voice, “The museum has acquired a Caravaggio, and I must say I am thrilled beyond words.”  
Leroy licked a front paw and began washing his face, apparently unimpressed by the news.
The next day Eddie phoned Bainbridge’s office.  He told the receptionist that he’d found something belonging to her boss.  When would be a good time to catch him in?
    No, he replied to her suggestion that he leave it at the front desk; this item was personal – highly personal – and should be given to Mister Bainbridge directly.
    “Hold on, please,” she said, and put him on hold.  Swelling strings broke into a syrupy orchestral version of Moon River.  Eddie hummed along as he waited.  After less than a minute the receptionist was back.  The ‘highly personal’ nature of the item must have caught Bainbridge’s attention because if it wasn’t too inconvenient, would he mind coming by in one hour?  Would that be all right?
    It was.  Eddie prepared for his appointment by donning a grey Harris Tweed jacket with heathery blue flecks that he found in a resale store run by the Junior League, carefully pressed chinos, a pinpoint-weave light blue Oxford button-down shirt, and tasseled loafers.  He deliberately didn’t wear a tie, choosing instead to leave the top button of his shirt undone.  Prosperous informality was the look he was aiming for; he wanted to seem like someone who would be at home chopping wood at his place up in the Adirondacks, or sailing a catamaran in the ocean off Nantucket.  In other words, he wanted to seem like someone Bainbridge could relate to in order to get him to open up and explain what the hell was going on with the voodoo doll.  Maybe it was a joke, Eddie thought as he made his way downtown on the subway, the voodoo doll tucked away in the leather knapsack that rocked back and forth at his feet with the motion of the train, but if it was a joke, why leave it in a cab?
    The lobby of the Bainbridge Building was like hundreds of other Manhattan lobbies.  It was accessed from the street through a glass revolving door with shiny brass handles. A brace of uniformed security guards was inside, keeping an eye out for trouble.  One stood immediately inside the door and he nodded to Eddie as he walked in, another rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet by the directory that listed the names of the businesses that occupied the building.  
    In some places the guards would have asked to have a look inside Eddie’s knapsack, but not here.  It was probably because Eddie appeared so non-threatening, like a country squire down to the city for a day to consult with his broker before returning to his trout stream and his golden retrievers.
    “Help you?” asked the guard standing next to the directory.  
He was stocky and moon-faced and Eddie thought he recognized him from one of his former jobs, when he was a bike messenger.  What was the guy’s name?  Jorge?  José?   As Eddie recalled, the guy had taken a nasty spill when somebody threw open a car door directly in front of him as he was pedaling pell-mell down Broad Street.  Getting doored, that’s what bike messengers called it.  Now he was a rent-a-cop, if it was the same person.  Eddie didn’t ask.  
Instead he said, “I have an appointment at Bainbridge Associates.”
    “Top floor.  Elevators are over there, behind the water thing.”   The guard pointed his chin at the continually flowing wall of water that ran over a clear glass panel on a chrome base set off to one side of the lobby.  It was a fountain, something called a water wall.  They were all over the city – at restaurants, in doctors’ offices, in lobbies of office buildings like this one.  This particular water wall was the biggest Eddie had seen; it had to be fifteen feet high and smelled faintly of chlorine, reminding him pleasantly of swimming at the Y.  He walked around it and pressed the button for the elevator.
    The elevator doors slid soundlessly open on the seventy-seventh floor and Eddie stepped off, his loafers sinking into thick wall-to-wall carpeting.  It was bright red and had a colorful border design.  He studied it closer and saw it was a parade of animals: rats and pigs and dragons and goldfish and cranes.
“Aren’t they the best?  I could look at them all day.”  That was the young woman behind a reception desk.  Positioned front and center on the desk was a gold-colored statue of a frog squatting on a pile of flat round objects that looked like coins.  
The receptionist wore her hair in a chic updo and had on tasteful pearl button earrings, but Eddie could have sworn she was the same spiky-haired, black-leather-mini-skirted goth who used to work at the old Virgin Records Megastore in Union Square.  
    “Excuse me, but isn’t your name Lucite?”
    She looked startled then broke into a broad smile.  “Eddie?  Eddie Callahan!  I can’t believe it!  I go by Sandra now; that’s my real name.  My God, how are you?  It’s been a long time.”
    Eddie agreed that it had.
    “Remember Club Bruise, in Red Hook?”
It had been a spectacularly squalid Brooklyn dance club back in the early 2000s.  Eddie had his wallet stolen there once.  “Yeah, it was quite a place.”
“Well, it’s an artisanal food market now, full of hipsters selling bars of vegan soap wrapped in burlap and fifty-dollar bottles of olive oil, can you imagine?” She wrinkled her nose in disgust, to show what she thought of that.  “Call me sometime.  We can go out.”
Eddie said he would.  He’d liked her when she was Lucite and he thought he’d like her in her new incarnation as Sandra.
She pressed a button and spoke into an intercom.  “Mister Callahan is here.”  She shook her head, bemused.  “I didn’t realize you were the Ed Callahan who had an appointment with Mister Bainbridge.  Go on in.”
Eddie entered Bainbridge’s inner sanctum.  There was another water wall in there, smaller than the one in the lobby but still impressive – around eight feet high.  The water made a soothing, trickling sound as it streamed down the glass.  The spacious room had floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides with crown molding that had more animals carved on it, red bats this time, and turtles stacked one on top of another.  It smelled faintly of chlorine and something else.  Eddie sniffed.  Incense?  Yes, but a special kind of incense, one he’d smelled in botanicas in the Bronx.  It was made from High John the Conqueror root, a woody tuber that was a member of the morning glory family.  High John was popular with gamblers and people who sought power over their adversaries or success in romantic or legal matters.  In other words, it was an all-purpose lucky charm.  Eddie smiled.  He was right; Bainbridge was superstitious.
The man seated behind the big desk looked to be on the far side of sixty.  He had close-cropped, iron-grey hair, and was as broad-shouldered and keen-eyed as an old sea captain.  He indicated a padded black leather chair in front of the desk.
“Have a seat.  I’m Dick Bainbridge, and you’re Callahan?”  He half-rose and extended a manicured hand over the desk.  Eddie took it and they shook.  It was the standard squeeze and brisk pump, not any of the secret handshakes Eddie knew, taught to him by members of various fraternities with whom he’d struck up acquaintances.  There was something about knowing a secret handshake that made the initiate eager to share it with others, especially when they’d had a few drinks; at least that was Eddie’s experience.  Skull and Bones, thirty-third-degree Freemasons, Crips, Loyal Order of Moose, Navy SEALs, Eddie could perform the digital manipulations that went with all of their secret handshakes, and others too.
“Yes sir, I’m Ed Callahan.  I like your water wall,” Eddie told him, seating himself in one of the chairs in front of the desk and placing the knapsack with the voodoo doll inside it at his feet.
“I had one put in on every floor of this building.  Keeps the positive energy flowing,” Bainbridge told him proudly.  He gave Eddie a keen-eyed look.  “You say you found something that belongs to me?”
Bainbridge’s reaction when Eddie opened the knapsack and withdrew the voodoo doll, holding it out for his inspection, was one of horror.
“No!” he gasped, shrinking back in his big leather chair.  “Where did you find it?”
Eddie explained that he found it in a cab, leaving out the part that he’d been driving the cab.  “I showed it to the driver, so he could turn it in to their lost and found, but I don’t think he spoke much English.  He just kept shaking his head and going, ‘No, no.  I no want.’” Eddie shrugged, the gesture implying foreigners. What can you do?
“Is it a voodoo doll?” he asked brightly.
“Of course it’s a voodoo doll.  Just look at it!  It’s supposed to be me.  It’s even wearing a tie in the colors of my racing stable!”  Bainbridge’s chin trembled and he appeared to be near tears.  “Damn it, one of my step-kids must be behind this.  They’ve got it in for me.”  He pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes grimly.  “Or maybe even one of my real kids, or one of my wives.”  
Eddie felt sorry for him; he seemed really shaken up.
“Why was it in a cab, though?  Why not, I don’t know, leave it at your house or something?”
Bainbridge pounded a fist on his desk, causing the pens in a pewter cup to rattle and jump.  “Because they’re screw-ups, all of them.  They were probably on their way over here, intending to plant it somewhere in the building, and they forgot and left it in the cab because they’re screw-ups who can’t do anything right.  But now it’s here, working its curse against me, goddammit.”
Bainbridge stared unhappily at the doll in Eddie’s lap then buried his face in his hands.
“I’m sorry,” Eddie told him.  “I didn’t realize.”
He felt bad for showing it to him.  He’d looked at it as an adventure, something that would turn out to be an amusing story to tell his friends, but the old man was clearly shaken.  Clumsily, he asked, “Do you want me to take it away and get rid of it?  I could throw it in the trash someplace or, listen, my building has an incinerator.  I could throw it in there.”
“No!  That’s the last thing I want!”  Bainbridge shot bolt upright, eyes wide with fear.  “Don’t you know anything about voodoo?  What happens to the doll happens to me.  Throw it in an incinerator!”  He let out a groan worthy of Don Giovanni being dragged down to Hell.  “Oh, what am I going to do?”  
Eddie considered the options.  It was no good telling him to just ignore it; he clearly believed in the power of voodoo.  “You could get a voodoo priest to take the curse off.”
“And how would I go about finding one of those?  By googling ‘voodoo priests New York-New Jersey’?  Those online ones are all charlatans.  I need a real one and I don’t know any.  I never needed one before.  This is the first time someone put a voodoo curse on me.”
“Actually, I know somebody,” Eddie told him.  “But she’s a priestess, not a priest.”
Bainbridge leaned forward eagerly, hope dawning in his eyes.  “And she’s the real thing?   Not a charlatan?”
“She’s a bona fide voodoo priestess,” Eddie assured him.  “If you want, I can get in touch with her and arrange for her to meet with you and take the curse off.  She might need a day or two to make preparations.”
“Bless you,” Bainbridge said fervently.  “Tell her I’ll pay whatever her standard fee is for this kind of thing, and I’ll pay you a finder’s fee.  Is a thousand enough?”
Eddie hadn’t expected to be offered payment and was surprised to be confronted with a sudden windfall.  “Dollars?  Uh, sure; that’ll be fine.”
Bainbridge gave him his cell phone number, then rose and shook hands with him again, this time clasping both of Eddie’s hands in his and gazing hopefully into his eyes.  With a tremulous smile he said, “Thank you.  Call me the moment you find out anything.”
Eddie drove a cab that night, thinking about his encounter with the superstitious investment banker.  When his shift ended, he went to a scruffy diner in midtown, sat down at the linoleum-topped counter and ordered a cup of coffee and a Western omelette from a voodoo priestess who worked the overnight shift as a waitress.
To be strictly honest, Raymona Quickly was an actress, not a voodoo priestess. She’d once played Marie Laveau, the New Orleans voodoo queen, in an off-off Broadway production called Women of Power.  Eddie figured it was close enough.  
Eddie and Raymona met when they were working at the auto show at the Jacob Javitz Center.  They were costumed characters, hired to mingle with the crowd and pose for selfies.  Eddie was Uncle Sam, in striped pants and a white wig and billy-goat beard.  Raymona was Lady Liberty, complete with torch and spiked headdress.  After the auto show was over, they kept in touch.  When Raymona found herself “resting” between acting jobs, which is an actor’s way of saying they didn’t currently have work treading the boards, she waitressed.  She liked to leave her afternoons free to go to casting calls; that’s why Eddie found her pouring coffee for night owls and insomniacs as dawn broke over the island of Manhattan on a cold April morning.
“I don’t know, Eddie, are you sure we should get involved in this?  Isn’t it illegal?  Fraud or extortion or something like that?”   Raymona rolled her shoulders and flexed her neck, eyeing him anxiously.
Eddie took a sip of the coffee that she’d poured into a thick, white china mug and emphatically shook his head.  “No, the poor guy’s really upset about this.  He believes somebody put a voodoo curse on him and he offered to pay to have it taken off.  I didn’t ask him for money, he volunteered.  There’s nothing illegal about it.  You’d be helping him.  Think of it as an acting job.”
“Well, if you’re sure.  I could use the money.  I owe two thousand four hundred and sixty-eight dollars on my credit card.  I checked earlier today.”  She flexed her neck again and sighed.  
“Ask him for three thousand then, or whatever amount you think is right.  He volunteered to give me a thousand, just like that.  He’s rich; he won’t miss it.  Three thousand would be pocket change to him.”
Raymona looked thoughtful.  “Okay.  I wouldn’t mind playing a voodoo priestess again.  Marie Laveau was a good role.  I got a good review in that little newspaper they hand out for free at subway stations.”
She drew herself erect.  “I am a woman of power!” she proclaimed loudly, causing an old lady in a ratty mink coat who was mumbling over a bowl of soup at the end of the counter and a cluster of club kids seated in one of the turquoise vinyl-upholstered booths to swivel their heads in her direction.  “I am a proud woman of color who speaks to the gods of her ancestors, calling upon them to do my bidding!  The people of New Orleans come to me.  They ask me for…”
“Chicken salad on whole wheat, mayo on the side.”  The short-order cook stuck his sweating face through the kitchen pass-through and spoke impatiently to Raymona.  “Order up, babe.  Chop-chop.  Quit foolin’ around.”
Raymona made a face and went to collect the plate from the pass-through counter.  She carried it to a weary-looking man in a bus-driver’s uniform, topped off his coffee, and returned to her post behind the counter.
Eddie drained his coffee.  “Can you get me another?”
“Sure,” she said.  Pouring the coffee, she told him, “I don’t know why he didn’t suspect you of some kind of scam.  I would have suspected you.”
“He didn’t.  He thinks his family’s behind it.  He’s got all these ex-wives and step-kids that he thinks are plotting against him and he didn’t seem to be too fond of some of his own kids.”
Raymona wiped the counter with a damp cloth and looked thoughtful.  “Okay, I’ll do it if you think it’ll make him feel better.  I’ve got Thursday off.  It’s not supposed to rain so we can meet in Central Park.  How about under the arches at the Bethesda Terrace?  Then we can find a nice, secluded spot and I’ll do my priestess routine.  You could tell him I consulted with Papa Legba – that’s the loa who’s the gateway to the spirit world – and he told me two o’clock this Thursday would be a good time to remove the curse.”
“Perfect.  I knew I could count on you.”  Eddie paid for his coffee and omelette, left Raymona a generous tip, and exited the diner, feeling a pleased sense of anticipation.  This was going to be interesting.
***
At 2 p.m. on Thursday, Eddie and Bainbridge arrived at the arched walkway in the middle of Central Park.  Raymona stood framed in one of the arches, a solitary figure leaning on a cane and wearing a colorful ankle-length cotton skirt beneath a black wool jacket.  A length of gold silk was wrapped around her head in the classic tignon style.  Eddie was impressed: she looked exactly the way he thought a voodoo priestess should look.  Her facial expression was equal parts haughty and brooding.  At her feet, spoiling the effect somewhat, was a red duffle bag from New York Sports Club.
 Eddie did the introductions.  “Madame Raymona, may I present Richard Bainbridge?  Mister Bainbridge, this is Madame Raymona.”  
Bainbridge shifted the black nylon duffle bag he carried from his right hand to his left.  
“It’s an honor to meet you,” he said, shaking her hand.
Ramona held onto his hand and widened her eyes.  “Ooh!  I can feel the curse working on you!  But fear not!  The loas have expressed their willingness to remove it.  Come!  Let us find a proper place, secluded from prying eyes, to do this thing.”
Eddie suppressed a smile.  The accent she used was undefinable, vaguely Haitian, vaguely Cajun, and totally convincing.
They walked into the Ramble, following a maze of winding pathways through the woodland.  They passed the occasional jogger or dog-walker but it was still too cold for many people to be out.  
Raymona walked easily, swinging the cane.  Eddie thought it must be a prop for the show that was about to unfold.  She halted beneath an oak tree and unzipped her duffle bag, removing a black top hat.  Then she dramatically whipped off her headwrap, letting her microbraids fall to her shoulders.
Bainbridge and Eddie watched, wide-eyed, as she put on the top hat then reached into the duffle bag and removed a cigar and a bottle of rum.
She took a swig of rum from the bottle, lit the cigar and puffed out a cloud of smoke.  Leaning on the cane, she smoked and took pulls from the bottle while looking off into the distance with half-lidded eyes.  There was a long pause, as a minute went by, then two.  Eddie felt antsy.  Dramatic tension was one thing, but this was overdoing it.  Just as he was about to say something, prompt her to invoke the voodoo spirits or whatever, she spoke up in a startlingly deep voice.  
“Ahhh!  That rum tastes good!  Good cigar, too.  Very good!”  She blew out a cloud of smoke and grinned, showing all her teeth.  “Yes, I will open the gate and summon one to remove the curse that was placed upon this white man!”
***
“That was amazing,” Eddie told Raymona later.  They were seated in a steakhouse in the West Thirties, Bainbridge having departed, happily believing himself to be curse-free.  The voodoo doll was in Raymona’s red duffle bag, along with most of the bottle of rum and a thick envelope that was pressed on her by a grateful Bainbridge.  
Eddie had gotten an envelope of his own, not as thick as Ramona’s, but still comfortably stuffed with a wad of cash: his thousand-dollar finder’s fee, plus what Bainbridge called “a little extra.”  Eddie suspected it was more than a little.  Feeling flush, he offered to pick up the check at the plush steakhouse that routinely got top Zagat ratings.
“Thanks,” Raymona replied, listlessly cutting into her filet mignon.  She’d been strangely quiet, seeming disturbed about something.  Eddie wondered if she felt bad about misleading the superstitious banker.
She looked at him from across the linen-draped table where a candle flickered and a discrete maroon-colored leather folder listed à la carte entrees, each one costing more than Eddie usually made in four hours of driving a cab.  Raymona’s sherry-colored eyes, usually bright and confident, were troubled.  “I’m kind of freaked out.”
“Why?  What’s the matter?  If it’s about the money, don’t let it bother you.  He can afford it, and you saw how happy he was.”
Raymona shook her head, her braids swaying.  “It’s not that.  I’m worried.  I think I had a blackout.  I remember walking in the Ramble and getting myself all pumped up to pretend to summon Papa Legba.  I remember putting on the hat, and lighting the cigar and drinking from the bottle of rum, but that’s it.  Then there was a gap.  The next thing I knew, Bainbridge was giving me the envelope and thanking me.”
She took the white linen napkin from her lap and started fiddling with it, nervously folding it into a fan shape, then into a square.  “I’ve never had a blackout before.  Do you think it was a stroke?  Or, like, a blood clot in my brain or something?”  
“I don’t think so.  If it was a stroke you’d be unconscious, or paralyzed, and your speech would be slurred.  You seem okay.”  Eddie had spent a year working as an orderly in the emergency room at Beth Israel Hospital.  He knew a little about strokes.  It didn’t seem like she’d had one, but what if she had?  This was weird.  Maybe she was pranking him?  Pulling his leg, pretending she forgot what happened and then pointing a finger at him and crowing ‘gotcha!’ when he fell for it?
“Eddie, what if it worked?”  Her eyes were huge.
“What if what worked?”
“The voodoo ritual!  What if it worked?  What if I really did summon Papa Legba?  Tell me what happened, everything you remember.”  She forked a piece of filet mignon into her mouth and chewed, watching him expectantly.
Eddie leaned back into the cushions of the banquette.  He couldn’t tell whether she was putting him on or not.  Raymona was an actress; she was good at pretending.  But what if she wasn’t pretending?  What if she really had performed a voodoo ritual and summoned what’s-his-name?  Papa Legba.  He thought about the spooky way she’d smiled – all gleaming white teeth and hungry eyes.  It wasn’t like Raymona at all, who was no shrinking violet but was definitely feminine.  It was as if she’d become someone else, a powerful man, scary and unpredictable, one who might slap you on the back and buy you a drink or who might just as easily punch you to the ground and stomp your face into an unrecognizable, pulpy mess.
“Well,” he said, slowly.  “First you drew a design in the dirt with your cane, sort of a lot of curlicues and like, I don’t know, crisscross lines?  Then you started talking in a different voice than the one you used for Papa Legba.  I think it was a woman.  It sounded like an older woman, not your regular voice.  You said a lot of stuff that sounded like another language, you know, kind of like in those YouTube videos where people are supposed to be speaking in tongues because they’re overcome by the Holy Spirit or whatever, but not fake-sounding like those are; it sounded like a real language.”
Raymona leaned forward, twisting her napkin and hanging on his every word.  Eddie thought, If she’s faking it’s a bravura performance.
“Anyway, you said stuff in the weird language, waved your hands around and danced. Then you took some little bottles out of your gym bag, unscrewed the tops and poured what looked like dirt and different colored powdery stuff out, making a circle around Bainbridge, who was holding the voodoo doll. And that was it, basically.”  Eddie wished he could remember more, but at the time he’d thought she was just putting on a show.  Now he wasn’t so sure.  Didn’t thousands of people – maybe millions – believe in voodoo?  What if there was something to it?  What if she’d really managed to contact the spirits or loas or whatever they were called?
He looked at Raymona, and said sternly, “If you’re joking, tell me now, otherwise I’m getting seriously freaked out.”
She shook her head.  “I swear I’m not joking.  I really don’t remember anything.”
Eddie tried to make sense of it.  She seemed sincere.  “What was the stuff in the little bottles?”
As if she were listing perfectly normal items that she’d picked up at the corner market, Raymona said, “Graveyard dirt, ground-up vertebrae of a black cat, pulverized rattlesnake skin, magic herbs, and some other stuff I can’t remember off the top of my head.  I wanted the ritual to look convincing so I ordered things at random online from a store in New Orleans that sells voodoo supplies.  It cost about two hundred and twenty dollars.  Amazon shipped it overnight at no extra charge because I’ve got Amazon Prime.”
“Christ!  Are you serious?”  Eddie dug into his skirt steak.  He was frantically hungry.  The disclosure that Raymona had somehow managed to dispel a voodoo curse with things she bought online (and the top hat and cigar, and bottle of rum, don’t forget those) shook him up.  If he didn’t eat something he was afraid he might pass out.
“Yeah.  I’m totally serious, and I don’t ever want to do it again,” she told him.  “You know what they call it when a loa takes somebody over?  Being ridden.”  She shuddered.  
“Loas?  Those are the different voodoo spirits, right?  That is so creepy,” Eddie said.  “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have gotten you mixed up in this.”
Raymona spooned some creamed spinach onto her plate.  “That’s all right.  I don’t blame you.  You didn’t realize what was going to happen.  You want some of this?”
“Yes, please,” Eddie said.  
She served him some spinach and they ate in silence.  Then he told her, “On the bright side, you got five thousand dollars, tax free!  And Bainbridge offered me a job.”
It was true; Bainbridge had insisted on giving Raymona five thousand.  It was quite a windfall for what looked like it was going to be her final performance as a voodoo priestess.  Eddie took another bite of steak, followed by some spinach, washing it down with ice water.  He was starting to feel better.  A waiter appeared and refilled his glass.
Eddie continued, “Bainbridge runs an investment banking firm that targets early-stage and middle-market companies.  He also does something called arranged debt and equity financing, whatever that is.  It sounded boring.  I could feel my brain getting numb just thinking about it.  I told him thanks, but no thanks.”
Eddie had other plans.  He was considering becoming a pedicab driver, giving tours of Central Park, now that the weather would be getting warm, or possibly he could give ghost tours in Greenwich Village.  There were supposedly lots of haunted places in the Village.  Maybe Raymona would like to join him, although maybe now was not the time to ask.  She’d clearly had enough of the supernatural for one day.

Jill Hand

Jill Hand is a member of the Horror Writers Association. She is the author of The Blue Horse, a rollicking time travel adventure from Kellan Publishing. Her work has appeared in more than thirty publications and nine anthologies, including Mrs Rochester's Attic, and Beyond the Stars: New Worlds, New Suns. She lives in New Jersey.


About the Editor:
Madeline L. Stout

Madeline L. Stout started writing when she was a little girl and completed her first full-length novel at the age of 15. Mostly, she loves creating fantasy worlds filled with beautiful creatures and strong heroines. When her husband insists she takes a break from writing, she enjoys reading and gaming. She started Fantasia Divinity to give back to the writing community and to help spread great stories. Madeline is the author of the children’s series Once Upon a Unicorn. Volume one will be available January 20th, 2017.​


Want to know more? Madeline is featured in an interview by Cathleen Townsend, where she discusses the magazine and her writing.