The job was supposed to be a simple smash and grab heist. In and back out with loot in hand. But the loot contains a being who can sway Lady Luck. And Brin Callahan isn’t the only one in town with an interest in this strange blue teapot. As lucky as she is, Brin and her team are on the run again. The beauty of a wish, as she discovers, is a thief can’t have it all.
A Vacant Elemental Beauty is available for a limited time on this blog, and is also available as an ebook at most retailers.
Author’s note: Not all retailers… I noticed too late that I hadn’t distributed this one to all the normal places. But I published it almost two years ago, so go figure. I’ve corrected this, but too late to make it in time for when the blog post goes live. Apologies. DAB
A VACANT ELEMENTAL BEAUTY
The Ripley Museum job was an old fashioned smash and grab heist. The kind that takes place in the silence of night, when the quiet city streets don’t have wandering curious police officers, except for the one on my team.
The only scents were those coming from the late night frying activities at Greasy’s Grille—fried potatoes, grease soaked vlago on a stick, even the cole slaw for some reason got covered in bacon fat. That’s what Toby, my foster son, ate. I passed on dinner for now. I only work heists on an relatively empty stomach, tonight filled only with a piece of garlic bread and water. Better to control the nerves.
I licked my lips with a sour tongue, waiting for Toby to collect a handful of black smooth rocks. At my signal, he tossed them one at a time at the museum’s facade.
Predictable as clockwork, the lone security guard on duty came out the automated front door to check out the fuss. He didn’t bother pushing it closed manually. His first mistake.
He got on his walky-talky right as Randall Tsagtier—the afore mentioned wandering curious cop—turned the corner, night-stick in hand.
“Problem?” Tsagtier said, and twirled the stick once.
“Yeah,” said Toby, getting up in the security guard’s face. “I got a big problem, man.”
The guard, getting wind of Toby’s breath, backed off two steps, clutching his nose shut in a meaty fist.
“This one’ll spend a night in juvey,” said Tsagtier. He gripped Toby by the wrists, none too gently I might add (I smiled a little), and expertly cuffed him. “Just need you to sign some paperwork for me, won’t take but a nanosecond.”
The guard nodded and accepted the papers Tsagtier pushed into his hands. The second mistake.
With my accomplices distracting the guard, I slipped in through the front door. Thanks to a certain Booshwani hacker of my acquaintance, all the managers at Ripley got an unexpected vacation that had to be used up before the end of the month. That left only the most junior of the senior managers in charge, a weaselly man by the name of Jack Cashus.
And it showed. Not just because the one manager left on duty loved money more than his day job. Cashus also wasn’t very good at said day job, or at hiring employees it seemed.
This heist was almost too easy. Didn’t make it less fun.
I snuck around the back of the front desk, head low and back arched like a cat. The camera monitors were all turned on, showing the artifact displays, the back hallways, the lobby. Every picture showed an empty room. Even the lobby. Only a ghost passed through the museum halls tonight. A ghost who was immune to digital and holographic cameras, once again thanks to a certain Booshwani.
I waved up at the camera above the front door. I imagined Cal Hemingr, my hacker acquaintance and frequent partner in crime, waving back from the roach infested hotel room, surrounded by the set up at base: computers, escape mechanisms, and home defense security.
The guard left a clutter of crap at the desk. Pastries, fried vlago from Greasy’s, electronic magazines, and a palm sized holo-reader. I thumbed through his holo-disk collection and found an appropriately distracting title: Busty Blondes Do Bargabos 4.
I popped it in, set the device to “mute”, and hit play. As I expected, though hoped wouldn’t be the case, the holo showed a miniature, well endowed, woman dancing for a Bargabos native. Everybody has their kinks, I suppose. Apparently my host, the security guard, liked naked women giving lap-dances to guys with six tentacles and octopus shaped heads.
I slunk away into the first exhibit hall. I tumbled out of sight and pressed my back against the wall right as the guard slammed shut the front door.
“What a weird night,” he said. “Power outage. Stupid kids. Asshole cops… Well, hello baby.”
He turned on the sound to holo-disk reader, filling the lobby with bad music featuring a whining saxophone and a catchy bass beat.
I slipped away and up the stairs as soon as the Bargabos octopus-slug (whatever they’re called, I’ve never had to deal with one) started gurgling in pleasure. From the second story, the porno music was a whisper. By the time I reached the next flight of stairs, I had to strain to hear it anymore.
Vaulted skylights loomed overhead, filling the exhibit hall with hazy city lights, the shadows grey and black in every corner. Mannequins outfitted with period costumes lined one side of the hall. The other side featured shrunken heads and animal trophies from all corners of both the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies.
Past the display of the wrecked hover-limo reputedly once owned by the ill-fated Prime Minister of Xalcroft IV, I slipped into the shadows. I probably had little reason for stealth here, but I have habits. I’m also cynical when it comes to relying on teammates to pull through, something everyone I work with has to learn to deal with.
Slow, easy, with short sprints to the next shadow, I made my way to the exhibit hall labeled “Curios From Tresfinel II: The Desert Planet”.
Not much was in this room, the display cases mostly empty and the walls only half covered. At least half the artifacts weren’t really from the Tresfinel star system at all. A mummy sat on a jeweled throne, elbow on one knee, chin resting on his fist. Next to him, a mural hung, depicting hawk-headed people building a pyramid, clearly from one of the two inhabitable planets of Prsembra.
Trinkets and charms were scattered along both walls. Smoking pipes, drums, kettles, daggers. And in the middle was a glass case on an ivory colored pedestal. Inside the case rested a blue teapot.
In a blink I pulled out Old Betsy the Second—quantum chisel, tool of all trades, master of absolutely nothing except carving holes in locks—and got to work on dismantling the security around the glass case. A copper plate, a standard set of wires, and a locking mechanism. Not much of a challenge for me and Betsy thus far.
The ticker and alarm bells behind the lock was different. Somebody with a lot of smarts and not quite enough intelligence had rigged up an elaborate system of bells and whistles, each connected to criss-crossing wires.
“Brin,” said Cal from the device in my ear, her smooth, lispy accent calming. “My hack into the cameras won’t last more than five more minutes. Get out soon.”
“Five minutes,” I whispered back. “Couldn’t you make it last half the night?”
“No can-do,” she said, imitating a human voice as best she could. “Any longer and the museum’s system will catch on. Even your porno watching guard will figure out where you are when their computer points it out to him.”
“All right,” I said, setting my wrist watch to four minutes, and went back to work.
Just a matter of crossing the right wires. And not crossing the wrong ones. Cake.
I nudged each and every wire with the quantum chisel, testing and retesting. Sweat pored down my brow, sliding down and around my eyepatch. The tick on my watch’s alarm kept me focused. I swear, I can hear that tick tick tick in my sleep and a mile away from my watch.
Two minutes. Only afforded a quick glance and back at disabling the traps. I pulled out wires, rewired them, the puzzle coming together piece by tiny piece.
One minute. Hurrying. Faster. I made educated guesses and took chances.
At ten seconds left I yanked the green wire and crossed it with the orange, which looks amazingly like the red in darkness. I blame my lack of one eye.
The alarm started with a little tinkering of toy bells built within the display case. After a full second of me staring dumbly at the mess of wires, the museum erupted in a full blown fire alarm.
I stood up quick. I flipped Old Betsy in my hand, and put her to use with one of her secondary capabilities. She’s a heavy blunt object with a hard aluminum casing.
Perfect for smashing glass in.
I grabbed the teapot, shoving the artifact into my backpack as I ran for the planned exit.
The fire escape. No sense in disabling it now. I kicked the door open with a steel toed boot, causing more alarms to sing.
I ran down the back alley, in the general direction of Cal, clutching backpack and precious loot in both arms like a baby.
At the hotel room door, I knocked. Short, long. Long. Short, long.
A series of deadbolts and chains rattled before the door slid open. The hinges no longer squeaked, as they had earlier. A blue face surrounded by fluffy red curls stared back at me, winked, and let me in.
“Mission success?” Cal asked.
“As expected,” I said. “Some minor trouble near the end, as you probably noticed by now.”
“Minor?” said Cal while she worked at putting the bolts and chains back together. Most of which were custom fitted this afternoon. “The blues are swarming the museum, every police officer in a two mile radius. I wonder what you’d consider a major trouble.”
“Death, threat of death, or injury,” I said matter-of-factly. I pulled out the teapot from my backpack and set it near Cal’s computer monitors.
A knock at the door. Short, long. Long. Short, long.
I worked at opening the door, while Cal hunched over the loot. I peeped out. Tsagtier was out there with Toby, who was uncuffed and eating an ice cream cone.
“Just let us in, Brin,” said Tsagtier.
I did so. “Thanks for feeding the child. Someday he’ll make an excellent stew.”
Toby rolled his eyes and snatched a book from Cal’s penny dreadful stack. He wandered off into the back room of the tiny hotel suite, and flopped on the bed, dribbling bits of ice cream on the mattress.
Tsagtier shut the door and slid the bolts and chains in place. “Are we mercenaries now?”
Cal looked up from examining the teapot, pushing a lock of curly hair behind one ear.
“Excuse me?” I said.
Tsagtier folded his arms and looked down his nose at me, square chin clenched. “You, Brin Callahan, have a certain reputation. I understand. But believe me, there are reasons we didn’t throw you in the dungeon back on Copernicus III.”
“Oh? I’m flattered.”
“You did things for us, whether you knew it or not. You kept the real bad guys in check.”
“You mean I’m not a bad guy?” I kept my tongue in cheek.
“And you helped people,” he continued. “Unwittingly, maybe. But you did more community service than any policeman.”
“Forget it,” I said. “I’m not flattered anymore.”
“And now we’re just a bunch of damned mercenaries, taking any old job from any old crooked pompous bastard.”
“Hey Brin,” said Cal, injecting every bit of cool liquid smoothness into her normally slick accent. “Check this out.”
“Look, buddy,” I said, ignoring the hacker. I pushed a finger into Tsagtier’s chest. “You might have been a straight and narrow cop in a previous life, but now you’re on the other side of the law.”
“I didn’t sign up for this.”
“Yeah, well. Welcome to the life of crime. We all have a price to pay. So I recommend you get a grip on your new career.”
“And what’s your price?” he said, leaning forward at the hips, eyes narrowing to slits.
Cal slammed her fist on the table, rattling her monitors and gadgets. Cool liquid smoothness turned into lava. “Both of you. Shut up, already! I have something important.”
I backed away from Tsagtier. Fights happen in teams, but I’m never eager to start one, even if I happen to be in the middle of most of them. Better to let this kerfuffle slide and simmer. Maybe take care of it later.
“What you need?” I turned to Cal.
She held up the teapot in one hand, long skinny blue fingers clutching around the bottom. “This isn’t from Tresfinel.”
“Not too surprising,” I said. “A lot of the stuff in that display hall wasn’t.”
“Oh, it gets better,” said Cal. “This is from Xalcroft V.”
“You sure?” said Tsagtier. “Just seems like a regular blue teapot to me. Kind of like my grandmother’s.”
“You guys don’t get it,” said Cal. “Xalcroft V is a dead planet. And some really spooky stuff inhabits the deserts there.”
Toby stood in the doorway. I hadn’t even noticed him, and wasn’t sure how long he’d been there. His eyes darted from Cal to the teapot in her hands.
I shrugged. “You sure about this? That it’s from the planet neighboring yours?”
“I looked it up while you two were bickering. It checks out. And the thing living in here,” she pointed with one finger to the teapot, “isn’t good.”
“Cal,” I said, trying to be reassuring while forceful. “I’ve always respected your Booshwani superstitions, but…”
“No,” she said, eyebrows arching high. She set down the teapot in front of her, next to her stack of books. “This is from my star system. I can feel it in my bones. And somebody might be desperate enough to kill for this treasure.”
I held my palms out. “The buyer will be here any minute. Won’t be our problem then.”
Cal turned back to her monitors and typed, all fingers moving at light speed. Her response to problems was “get to work”, an attitude that came in handy many times. Especially when we were in unfixable jams.
A knock at the door. Long. Long. Short. Long.
“That’s him,” I said. I shoved my finger at Tsagtier again. “Just keep quiet and let me do the talking. This will be over soon.”
I undid the chains and bolts for the second time. But this time was different. In my bones, as Cal described the feeling earlier.
And the stink… The other side of the door reeked like dead fish guts, the smell seemingly finding a way through every pore in the plastic.
At the second to last chain, I stopped.
“Mum?” said Toby.
I held my hand up, signaling silence, and motioned to Tsagtier to ready his gun.
The burly ex-cop drew his blaster from the shoulder holster under his jacket.
I waited, to see if the fish guts would pass by. It remained, a bad taste saturating my tongue.
A slimy tentacle punched a hole through the door. Before I could step back, another popped through. And another. In a split second, four tentacles broke in and tore the door asunder.
On the other side of the broken mess, my buyer hung limp, a tentacle wrapped tightly around his throat. Blood poured from his ears, nose, and eyes. From his pallid skin tone, I hoped he was dead.
The creature holding him upright was one of those things from Bargabos, just like in the security guard’s holo-porn.
The creature pointed its free tentacle at me. The mouth didn’t move much, but the words were quite clear, if a bit gurgly.
“Give me the djinn, and this won’t happen to you.”
Not sure how it happened, but one moment I was within touching distance of the squid-head from Bargabos, the next Tsagtier pushed me behind him. His gun pointed at the monster, his cop instincts kicking in high gear.
“We don’t have a djinn,” he said, calm underneath his tense voice. “We’re just a bunch of friends hanging out.”
“Not according to this human,” the monster held up my buyer with a slimy tentacle, before letting go and allowing him to drop to the floor. The poor guy really was dead. I didn’t care for him personally, and he was a pain to make deals with, but his money never complained.
Tsagtier tried again, this time lowering his gun slightly. “Buddy, you’re mistaken. Now leave before this gets ugly for you.”
How can anything be uglier than a creature from Bargabos? I didn’t say it out loud, but Squidhead glanced at me funny with one of his eyestalks.
A creepy sensation of legs jittered down my spine. Prickles erupted up and down my forearms, each hair at attention. Cold sweat pored from my armpits. I hunched over, too queasy to stand upright, too afraid to vomit my garlic bread.
I could hear Tsagtier and Squidhead exchanging barbs. For the life of me, I couldn’t make out any words. As if my head were full of cotton bursting out of my ears, I heard nothing but saturated silence.
Warm hands touched my shoulders. Cal slid my backpack over my arms. Something rattled inside the pack. The teapot? A djinn? Cal pulled at my jacket sleeve. Her mouth moved, but again no words entered my brain.
I heard the blaster shot. Rather, I saw Tsagtier shoot the gun in slow motion, and heard the sonic boom as if physics decided sound was really just an after-thought.
The bullet sunk into Squidhead’s “forehead”. Right in the middle of the triangle made by the three eyestalks.
The silence quickly got replaced by street sounds. Night life and party goers. Combustion engines. Hovercars swooping by.
The smoke cleared from Squidhead’s wound.
The bullet hadn’t left a hole. Instead, it was more like a smoldering crater with the slug still freshly imbedded.
Worse, Squidhead was still on his feet. Each tentacle and eye stalk moved rapidly. His skin turned purplish-green, and the rancid fish gut smell turned into a stink-bomb disaster odor.
Cal grabbed me by the arm and pulled. I grabbed Tsagtier, who yanked Toby by the scruff of his neck. A daisy chain of thieves running for the hills. Or out the window, as in our case.
Cal swung the casement wide and jumped out. I pushed Toby in front of me, into Cal’s arms, and out I went. Tsagtier looked back.
“Leave it!” I said and snagged his sleeve, pulling him out the window as much as my strength allowed. He got the hint, swung a leg over the sill and joined us on the balcony.
Toby and Cal were already lowering the ladder. Tsagtier slammed shut the casement, the glass rattling wildly in the frame.
He checked the bullet chamber and primed the blaster. “Go on ahead. I’ll keep slimy at bay.”
“No,” I said, pushing Tsagtier to the ladder. “The man with the gun keeps my folks safe. I have a plan.”
“I’m not arguing this. Spinachhead will come to his senses anytime now.”
I pushed him with one hand and crouched low under the window sill. Cal nodded, and helped Toby get on the ladder. The boy slid down, a big goofy grin on his face as he went. Cal dropped her legs over the edge and joined him.
Tsagtier leaned into me. “Do you really have a plan?”
He sighed, lifting his pant-leg to reveal another pistol. A four-shooter, the kind that easily fits in the palm. He unholstered the piece and offered it to me.
“You won’t be able to kill him with this,” he said.
“Wasn’t planning on it,” I said. I took off my backpack and traded our ill-gotten loot for the weapon.
Tsagtier nodded grimly and slid down the ladder.
Alone on the balcony, hidden from sight, I waited for Squidhead to recover. I reached in the crevice beside the window. A big hole that shouldn’t have been there, were it not for cockroaches—the ultimate intergalactic survivors—chewing through the thin metal shell of the hotel.
I can sense your feeble mind. You are pathetic to resist me!
The words came in a slur, ethereal and misty, not really there. I shook my head like a soggy wet Gnolltish after a bath. Squidhead was a psychic monster. In my haze, I was disappointed he hadn’t laughed maniacally.
The window blew out, as if by magic. Bits of glass tinkled across the concrete balcony. I covered my head, too late. Little pieces bit into the back of my neck. The window shards all around me like tiny crystals, thankfully little of it on me. Fish guts putrified the air right above me.
The monster’s hands appeared not far away from my head, six filmy fingers a piece wrapped around the sill.
I winced, hoping against hope the creepy crawlies skittering around my wrist weren’t cockroaches. The crawling sensation started again in my spine, flooding my hips and limbs.
I clutched the canister inside the wall like a lifeline. In the back of my mind, I wondered if this was really going to work as I hoped.
One way to find out.
I pulled the canister of phenacyl chloride out, shook it once quick. And sprayed. Hard to get the mist into Squidhead’s eyestalks.
But his nostrils constricted, mouth clenching and puckering.
Pistol in one hand, canister in the other, I aimed at Squidhead, right in the middle of the triangle. He sneezed, blowing slimy green mucus in my face. Another sneeze, this time I was ready and backed off. The blaster slug Tsagtier put in him popped out.
I sprayed Squidhead again and threw myself down the ladder, nearly falling off in my haste.
I didn’t stop running, not even when an hovercar nearly ran me over.
I arrived at our secondary meeting location within five minutes, running the whole damn way. I even managed to beat my crew there.
The warehouse was empty, according to the security cameras in the front office. I turned on only the bare essential lights, and sat alone in the darkest corner.
The door got kicked open by a huge, shiny shoe. Tsagtier turned the corner, blaster at the ready. Once he spotted me, he sighed and holstered the gun.
“Good,” he said. “Just you.”
“Just me,” I said. “But you shouldn’t be so quick at putting away your weapon.”
“You going to stab me in the back?”
“No,” I said. “But that thing is psychic. No telling what illusions it can pull from its sleeve.”
“Now you’re scaring me.”
Tsagtier hesitated before waving in Cal and Toby. I shrugged and stood up, lifting my eyepatch enough for him to see the vacant socket. That was enough convincing.
My other two friends came in. Cal gripped Toby’s shoulders in both hands.
I leaned a hip against the nearest desk. “So, Cal. Is our loot really a djinn?”
She nodded. “I guess that’s the word. The Booshwani call it a Wishmaster. More or less, loosely translated of course.”
I brooded, silent for a lot longer than Toby’s attention span could tolerate.
“So let’s make a wish,” he blurted. “We got this djinn. Why not?”
“What we need,” I held up a finger, giving him my sternest matronly stare, “is a new buyer.”
“We could just wish for one.”
“No. Just no. I don’t trust that thing. Sounds too good to be true.”
“You don’t even know what it does!” said Toby. He looked earnestly to Cal for backup.
She set down my backpack on the table, near my hip.
“What it does,” said Cal, “is grant you a wish, at whatever cost.”
“No problem!” said Toby, the youthful enthusiasm in his squeaky voice grating. “We just wish for a new buyer. And get rid of the slime-lord from Barbados. And a million dollars…”
“No,” I said again, getting tired of that damned word. Since adopting Toby—which amounted to allowing him to stay with me, in return for the odd street information he could gather, as well as pick-pocketed treasures—I had practically forgotten the word yes.
“I have a better idea,” said Tsagtier.
I turned my full attention to him.
“You won’t like it,” he continued. “We smash the djinn and be done with this. We can’t afford to attract more attention to ourselves. The Traernys will find us anyway. And probably kill us to find out what we did with it.”
“Traernys?” I said.
“The psychic thing from Bargabos,” Tsagtier said, pointing a thumb behind him, indicating where we had just came from. “Instead of finding a new buyer, we get rid of the dirty merchandise and put our focus on fighting octopus-head.”
Silence filled the room. The lights hummed overhead.
He was right. I didn’t like it. This job had a lot of setup costs, and a number of losses already. Including Cal’s computers back in the hotel, assuming we never recovered those. But Tsagtier had a point. The djinn was now dirty merchandise, with a high price tag.
Every job has a price to pay. Higher priced jobs are never worth it, even considering the payoffs, which are never as shiny from inside a cell or a morgue.
“Sounds like a good plan,” I said at last. The two adults in the room nodded their agreement. Not a peep from the adolescent.
After my brief second of short lived relief, I turned around in alarm.
The backpack was in his arms, away from my hip, and already the djinn teapot pulled out.
“No!” I shouted for the billionth time in one day.
Too late. Toby opened the lid, the metal hinges squeaking, and wispy fingers of gray smoke poured out from the top.
The smoke twirled and coalesced in chaotic patterns, shaping and reshaping in myriad forms. The curves rounded out, becoming less ethereal and more dense. More solid. I could no longer see through the smoke. Locks of jet black hair tumbled down dark skin.
The djinn touched her heels to the floor. Only then did I realize she’d been floating a few inches.
Her clothes appeared to made of smoke—gauzy, concealing, and transparent all at the same time. Golden bracelets lined her forearms and ankles, clasping the thin material to her body. She wore a jewel studded choker and a locket made of silver.
She glanced from person to person, slow, as if expecting to be greeted and bowed to. Finally she laid eyes on Toby.
His goofy smile made him appear five years younger than his actual age.
“What is your wish?” said the djinn. Direct, abrupt, to the point. My kind of girl.
“Well…” said Toby.
“No,” said the djinn. I silently thanked her. “I cannot do things that defy the laws of the universe. Nor can I kill a mortal. And I refuse to do party tricks.”
“We’re not having a party,” I said. “In fact, this is all a bit of a misunderstanding…”
“Silence,” said the djinn. “You will wait your turn.”
“And if I don’t?”
She smiled—a crooked little affair with a upward curl—and tilted her head at me. “Then I’ll make a wish for you.”
That shut me up. Few things do.
The djinn turned back to Toby.
“I wish,” he said, chin in his palm, tapping his temple.
Cal shook her head quickly, making a quick cutting motion with her fingers against her throat. I groaned, expecting the worst, hoping the djinn would take into account a person’s age and level of intelligence.
I doubted it.
“I wish for a million dollars!” Toby said at last.
I groaned. Cal buried her face inside her red locks. Tsagtier was the calmest of us all. He stood at attention, arms at his sides and ready to draw fire at a moment’s notice.
“Done!” said the djinn as she flipped her hair over one shoulder.
Toby looked around expectantly. We all did, I think. I certainly wanted to see a million Andromeda Standard Dollars. The money would solve a lot of problems.
“Yeah?” said Toby. “Where is the money, then?”
“Patience,” the djinn said. “You’ll get the money in due time. Assuming you don’t lose it first.”
“That’s not fair!”
“Toby, dear,” I said, putting an arm around his shoulders. He didn’t resist this time. He was too hurt to think better of my affection. “Don’t ever trust a dark haired woman.”
“But you’re dark haired, Mum,” he said. He thought about it for a moment, before realization dawned on his thin brow. “Besides, she’s not even dark. She’s a blond djinn, Mum.”
“Wait. What?” I glanced from Toby—who appeared serious and confident—to the djinn, who only curled her smile deeper.
“A Wishmaster,” said Cal.
“I make all your wishes come true,” said the djinn, arms spread wide, as if beckoning for a hug. “Even the ones you aren’t entirely aware of.”
I stared deeper into her face. I realized my focus was on the smile. The sweet form of her chin, which reminded me of Signe in her prime. Bittersweet heartbreak swept over me, and I had to shut my eye.
When I opened it again, I stared down the djinn with my best gambling face.
I hadn’t even noticed her eyes. Or lack thereof.
Her smile and flowing black hair concealed the twin burning flames in the otherwise empty oval sockets.
“Are you okay, Mum?”
The words floated to me from across a long distance, even though Toby was still in the crook of my arm.
Of all the crazy things I have witnessed in my adventures, I have been privileged to never have crossed a certain threshold of no return. Jump through enough wormholes, see with a unicorn’s magical sight, and you think you’ve done it all.
Not so, I guess.
The flames in the djinn’s empty eye-sockets danced and twirled in place like fiery mechanical ballerinas. The movement mesmerized. But inside the infernos was the true weirdness.
I cannot even begin to describe the mind bending effect.
When you jump into a wormhole, you are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. You exist and don’t exist. You see the universe in all its snowflake-like dimensions.
I still have nightmares of being trapped in that special limbo between worlds.
The djinn’s “eyes” revealed all the horror and terror in one knockout punch. This creature—much like the unicorns and elves—surely lived and traveled in the limbo. Trapped. Every possibility, no matter how statistically insignificant, lived in her eyes.
In that moment, I didn’t see an alien, or a god, or whatever she truly was. I saw a prisoner. A slave to statistical probabilities.
A hand slapped me. Once. Twice, on the other cheek. Skinny blue fingers grabbed my chin and peeled me away from the silent, mocking djinn.
“Brin,” said Cal. She laughed hysterically, fear trembling underneath. “Nobody looks in a Wishmaster’s eyes. I thought that was common sense.”
“Common sense?” I said, laughing a bit myself, and unsure why. “Ever known me to possess such a trait?”
“No,” she said. “I suppose not.”
I had been clutching Toby hard, my knuckles white against his scrawny shoulders. He wore a worried expression, frowning, cheeks ashen. I let go, much to his relief.
I paced the small room. Tsagtier leaned against one wall, arms crossed, blaster tucked under his jacket.
“Your call,” he said. “I stated my opinion.”
I nodded. And kept pacing.
The djinn floated on her tip-toes, gliding her arms in slows arcs as if she had muscles to stretch after being trapped inside a teapot for ten-thousand years. Wouldn’t have surprised me much. Prison stints were never kind to my sanity.
Toby kept watch over her, his gaze focused on the lower half of her body now.
The teapot lay next to Toby, cast aside with the lid still open. An easy deal to just kick it with my steel toe boots. Smash it against the wall. Would that kill the djinn? Set her free? Make her angry to be suddenly out of a home?
Too many damned questions.
Tsagtier motioned with his concealed blaster. One slug from that thing and the djinn would be definitely homeless, or whatever happened to evicted ethereal beings.
I kept pacing, running the scenarios in my mind. I didn’t like anything I saw. But I had gotten my team into a mess, and I needed to unmess this situation before someone got hurt.
I stopped my nervous pacing and choose a path.
“What’s your name?” I said, facing the djinn, keeping my eye contact low.
A wispy, hot breath blew the fringes of my hair. “I have no name,” she said. “None, except for the one written inside my domain.”
She pointed a long finger to the teapot.
I picked it up and tucked it under one arm.
“All right, Miss Noname,” I said. “I have business. You can tag along or go back inside. Either way, I’m taking your domain with me.”
City lights blurred by as we jumped, ran, and jumped again over the passing hovercars beneath us. The djinn floated along on her tippy toes, slightly behind me and Toby, not even breaking a sweat. We had taken to the rooftops to get to the next destination. Cal and Tsagtier took to the streets.
“Stop,” I said, yanking the back of Toby’s shirt.
He peered over the edge of the building to the garden on the next roof. “We can totally make this.”
“If you want to break your legs,” I said. The drop was a good twenty feet. The sweet melon and sweet pea scents from the garden below rose up to us.
I gently smacked Toby’s shoulder and got him to help me with the plank.
“That was lucky,” said Toby.
“No,” I said as we wrestled the plank to the edge and set the far end down on next roof. “Planned.”
One never knows when an escape to the Quay District is necessary. As luck had it, I found an appropriately long wood plank to place along the route.
“I thought you believed in Lady Luck,” said Toby. “Or something like that? Kind of like wishes?”
“Wishes are cheap,” I said. “And you make your own luck.”
Toby shrugged and climbed onto the plank. I grabbed him by the collar before he could get far.
“Go slow,” I said. “I’ll steady it here. When you get across, steady it for me.”
“Right, Mum.” He took to the plank like a long limbed monkey to a tree, bouncing the contraption along the way. I pressed my end down hard. Toby was oblivious to my effort. He didn’t even look down or side to side.
He jumped off onto the roof garden next door, giving me a thumbs up. I tentatively stepped onto the plank, waiting for him to push all his meager weight down on his end.
“I don’t suppose you can hold physical objects?” I turned to the djinn, who was carefully checking her fingernails.
“Is that what you wish?” she said.
“No. You know, never mind.”
I mouthed a little prayer to Lady Luck and climbed down the plank. The damned thing held up pretty good. Where Toby had been a speed demon getting across, I methodically placed hands and feet. I worked quickly, with precision and practice.
I set my foot at the halfway mark. Crack!
I climbed the slope faster, impatient now to get my backside to the safety of the garden. Another creak and crack.
An arm’s length to the edge and I found the plank’s weakest point with my toe. The plank snapped under my feet. I used the downward momentum and jumped to the roof’s edge.
And clung for life.
Toby had me by the scruff of the neck, white knuckle fists holding with all his weak might.
I hung by my fingertips, breath held, every muscle straining. I kicked at the wall, trying to find a toe-hold.
The djinn stood over Toby, looking down at me. She clasped her hands in front of her. I have no idea how she got there, when she had been on the building behind me a moment ago.
“Say the word,” she said. “I can get you up here.”
“How about not,” I said.
“You’d rather fall?”
“I’d rather not have a wish that turns me into a pile of jelly.” My hand-hold slipped. Toby strained against my weight, but I was simply too heavy for his skinny arms. A pile of jelly sounded like a deal compared to being a splat mark on the pavement below.
“Take the wish, Mum,” said Toby. The veins in his neck bulged. He shook with the strain.
I looked up into his eyes, half convinced I wasn’t getting out of this one. I tried to smile, to think of something witty he could remember me by.
On a whim I glanced at the djinn. No idea why. Gut feeling. And she moved forward a bit, bending at the waist to glare at me. I stared back. Being the way I am, I made the same mistake twice.
I looked in her fiery eyes. The slave to obscure statistical probabilities. But this time the flames were white hot. Forehead pinched, lips pressed tight together, grim determination spread across her face.
“Do you want to live?” the djinn said. Locks of black hair hair tumbled around her cheeks and neck. I tried to look away, and couldn’t.
“Yes,” I said. Instead of the flaming pain like last time, a fuzzy sense of euphoria washed over me. If she were the last thing I was going to see, I was a lucky woman after all. I felt at peace, relaxed.
White light covered me and I was blind for a moment.
I opened my eye, and I was laying on the rooftop. Toby was in the upper side of my peripheral vision. He leaned over roof’s edge, head hunkered down as if looking for my splat mark.
I sat up, grunting. My foster noticed me now, squealed, and nearly choked me with a death-hold hug around my neck.
“Mum!” he said. “You used the wish.”
“No.” I patted his arm, pushing him away best I could. But now he seemed a lot stronger than his skinny frame should’ve allowed. “No wishes.”
I glared in the djinn’s direction, trying hard to not look her in the eyes.
“That was my wish,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you intrigue me.”
Toby let me go now, mostly. One arm remained around my neck. I stood up, pulling him with me. For nearly falling to my doom, I felt pretty good.
“You didn’t owe me,” I said.
“I’m stuck in the worst rent deal in the galaxy,” said the djinn. “I’m owed entertainment now and then.”
I bowed, hiding my growing discontent with this situation. Now I owed her. And I hate owing debts I can’t pay.
“The night isn’t over yet,” I said. “We have an old friend to pay a visit.”
Jack Cashus’s flat was located in the Quay District, above the fishmongers and piers lined with shallow water crafts. This information is only relevant because the fish odor triggered my ever present paranoia.
The teapot was presently in my backpack and squarely stuck under my arm. Cal stood to my left elbow. The djinn on my right. I knocked on the door.
Until Jack Cashus whimpered from the other side. “What do you want now?”
“Business,” I said. “Open up, before I blow your door in.”
“Our business is done,” the museum manager said. “Go away.”
“Fine. Your hide that gets flayed.”
The door opened a crack. A reddened eyeball in a narrow skinny face stared at me.
“What do you mean?” said Cashus.
I placed my toe into the door, nudging it wider a bit. “I mean, you’ll be sorry for selling your secrets to too many buyers.”
His face blushed, the skin matching his red eye now. “Go away criminal, before I call the police.”
“You do that,” I said. “And I’ll wait with my boot stuck in your door. In the mean time, I have folks casing your joint, ready to break in at my command.”
“You can’t scare me.”
“How much did the Traernys pay you? Don’t look at me like that. I’d just like to know what I should pay next time, to get your loyalty. Assuming there is a next time.”
He paled a shade too many. “Okay, okay. Keep it down. At least the slimy guy gave me something useful.”
“What’s useful besides money?”
“Just go away. I can’t help you.”
“You know what I hate the most?” I said, tightening my thighs and calves, ready to leap shoulder first at his door. “When people tell me to go away. Sends the message I’m not wanted for some reason.”
Cashus opened his mouth to reply. He didn’t get the chance to. Somewhere inside the flat, glass broke. He turned, trying hard to squash my toe with the door.
I uncoiled the energy in my legs and launched my shoulder into the door’s middle panel, shoving Cashus backwards. His head made a satisfying thwack sound as it hit the linoleum floor. The latch chain broke off and landed near his head.
The door hit the nearby wall and flew back at me. I was ready for it, having done this more times than can be counted. I let myself into his flat. Cal and the djinn followed. The hacker shut the door.
Toby came in from the back room, a large suitcase in one hand. He gave me a thumbs up.
I crouched at Cashus’s side, a palm in the middle of his chest to keep him down. “We have some things to discuss. And it’s in your best interest to pay attention and answer my questions.”
“Blech,” he coughed. “My best interest was to not take your money in the first place.”
“That’s probably true, but done is done. You don’t get do-overs. And now you might be in danger.”
That got his attention. Eyes widened, mouth curled into an “o”, he attempted to sit up straight, but I kept him on the floor. Cashus struggled for a bit, pushing at my wrist, flaying his ankles about.
Did no good. Which made me feel even sorrier for him, since I was much older than him.
“Dammit all,” Cashus said. “I need a different job.”
“No,” I said. “You’d be the same slimy parasite you are now. But for now, I need you to focus.”
“Just let me go,” he said. “I’m nothing.”
He struggled again, and then stopped. Cashus looked above my shoulder.
I followed his line of sight. To the djinn, who leaned back against the door frame.
“What’s with the square-chin guy?” said Cashus.
I glanced again at the djinn, who simply smiled and shrugged.
“He’s with me,” I said. I pointed at my eye. “He’s not as nice as me, so focus. What did the Traernys want? What did you tell it?”
“He asked a lot of the same questions you did,” said Cashus. “Where was the Tresfinel teapot? But he confused me at first by saying it was from Xalcroft, or somewhere like that. He didn’t seem to know much about intergalactic artifacts.”
“Yeah,” I said. “What a misinformed alien. What else did it want from you?”
Cashus opened his mouth and drew in a breath. He didn’t get the opportunity to say anything.
“Wow,” Toby squealed. “Mum! Look! A million dollars!”
“What?” Both me and Cashus said the same word at the same time. My word came out sounding more like a worried question. He sounded shocked and worried.
I had to let Cashus go. Not like he was running away. And I needed to know what my foster son was getting into.
Toby had the suitcase opened, holding plastic covered money in both fists. I snatched one of the bills and took a closer look.
“Brin,” said Cal, voice tense and on edge.
“In a moment,” I said.
The money was green, with archaic writing on both sides. I didn’t recognize any of the symbols or words, except for the numeral “1”. The man on the front had a funny haircut. The back featured a stylized eagle on the right, and a pyramid with an eye at its apex on the left.
“Toby, honey,” I said. “These aren’t any good. Spending these at the arcade would get you thrown in a jail, at best.”
“Come on, Mum,” he said. “I totally got a million dollars, just like the djinn said.”
“We’ll talk about this later,” I stuffed the bills back into the suitcase and closed it shut. Click click. I tucked the case full of ancient money under one arm.
“Brin!” Cal shouted. She was kneeling next to Jack Cashus, fingers pressed to his throat. Saying he didn’t look so good would be an understatement. His skin was pale and clammy. Blood poured out his ears, nose, and mouth. “The Traernys found us.”
Speak of the worst thing imaginable, and you get fish guts. The odor drifted from an open window in the back of Cashus’s flat. A blaster shot echoed in the alley.
The djinn winked, curling a lock of black hair around one finger. “Say the word, and I can get us out of here.”
“What’s the matter?” I said. “Can’t you run with those skinny ankles?”
I clutched the suitcase of near useless money and grabbed Toby with my free arm. Cal got the door, and we ran like speed-demons on stimulants.
The apartment stairwell smelled of urine and cleaning vinegar. More of the former, not so much of the latter.
At the bottom of the stairwell was a steel door. To the alley, most likely, but better than being trapped inside. Where the Traernys knew where we were.
I jumped the last three steps and used the momentum to bash my shoulder into the door. Bam!
At least the door opened the right way—I’ve done stupider things. But I got nothing for the effort, except a sore, bruised shoulder and a few involuntary curse words. Cal unscrewed the security keypad next to the doorframe.
“I can hack this,” she said. “But it will take time without the right tools.”
“How about this tool?” I said, drawing the small pistol Tsagtier gave me earlier. “Stand back.”
I aimed at the keypad and fired. The box fizzled and sparked. I fired another shot at the doorknob. The locking mechanism clicked, and I kicked the door open.
Out in the alley, the stink worsened. The fish guts might’ve been from a dead kraken washed ashore. Add to that—cartons of moldy take-out food, heaps of rainwater moist paper, and rotting dead rodents.
I led my crew around the dumpsters. Another shot fired in the darkness. Somewhere. Sounded like in front of us.
I held out my hand and motioned for people to hide. Cal grabbed Toby by the shoulders and pulled him near. My backpack with the djinn’s teapot was over one of Cal’s shoulders.
The djinn didn’t bother hiding. She preened as if bored out of her ethereal skull, looking down her nose at her fingernails. If she wasn’t worried, I wasn’t either.
Another shot fired. And a gurgled yell. Tsagtier was a tough bastard, but no way he could stand up to an angry psychic monster.
I checked my pistol. Two bullets left. And the Traernys so far was immune to gunfire.
In the dirty lemon colored lights, a limping figure approached. Tsagtier. Blood poured out of his ears, but he was on his feet. Whether that was a good sign or not, was left to be determined.
Squidhead followed him like a shepherd leading his flock of one to pasture. If Tsagtier was still alive, I doubted he was any more useful than a sheep. Even the genetically modified variety with six cloven legs and two heads.
“Give me what I want,” said Tsagtier. His voice didn’t sound right, as if he swallowed a broken beer bottle and fragments were stuck in his trachea.
I pointed the pistol at his face. “Randy, I know you can hear me in there.”
“Game’s over,” he said. “You can still walk away and not get hurt.”
“How about you walk away, and I not hurt you?”
“Quit bluffing,” said Tsagtier, voice cracking. I had a hard time telling who spoke.
To clear muddy matters up, a harsher voice intruded my head. “I do not negotiate with your kind. And I will not ask again.”
Wet pain like a vice squeezed my brain. Hot blood poured out of my nose. I wiped it away, but more gushed out. My knees wobbled. I had no choice but to lower my gun, the pain was too much.
“Brin,” said Tsagtier. His eyes were slits, voice hoarse and weary. “Just shoot me.”
I raised the gun, Tsagtier’s chest in my sight. The pain in my head eased up a little. Squidhead sent me what felt like the psychic equivalent of a nudge.
Shoot him. Kill your friend.
“I still get a wish,” I said around the blood caking over my lips. I smiled, which hurt my nose even more. Fresh blood oozed out.
Squidhead tightened his psychic grip on me, but not enough to keep the wheels from turning. I want to say he was curious.
Tsagtier fell to his knees.
“I wish,” I said, “for the djinn, who resides in the blue teapot Cal Hemingr is currently holding, to be free from her domain.”
Squidhead’s vice on my brain compressed. I fell over. Very few sensory details made it past the intense pain. A warm breeze tickled my skin and hair. Two pairs of hands, one small and girly, the other blue.
Except not really shouting. More like a war of silent words, filtered through an empty valley.
And the pain ceased.
I sat up. Head in my arms. Somebody else’s arms around me. Toby’s. And the world came back into being.
The djinn stood above me, beautiful as ever. The golden bracelets and studded choker were gone. I dared not look into those vacant, fiery eyes.
“You wished me free” she said. “And my first act of freedom was to make my own wish.”
“Oh?” I croaked.
“I wished for the Traernys to be on Xalcroft V. He might survive the harsh climate, I don’t know. But he is gone.”
I could hardly speak through the blood and remnants of pain. I mouthed the words thank you.
An actual thank you from the djinn might’ve been nice, but she was gone when I blinked. I didn’t want to press the issue anyway.
“Where is my million dollars?”
I laughed. I made a nice recovery while catching up on reading Cal’s endless supply of penny dreadfuls. Tsagtier didn’t care for those types of books. I’m not even sure what he was doing to get better.
“Did you hear me?”
“Yes,” I said. I flipped the page, half hoping he’d take the hint and not argue with me. “The million is safe. In a collector’s vault somewhere.”
“What?” Toby screamed, arms in the air. “You sold my money!”
“And the money I made on the transaction is in a bank account. By the time you’re given the passcode to the account, it will have drawn enough interest to be much more than a million standard dollars.”
“But I wished for it! That’s not fair!”
“Wishes,” I said, putting the book down and looking my foster in the eye. “Wishes are vacant beauties. They aren’t fair.”
He huffed and stormed off. I enjoyed a moment of peaceful silence. That is, before the squeaky violin music filled the vacancy.
I laughed and continued reading.
Copyright 2015 by: D. Anthony Brown
Published by: Hermit Muse Publishing
Cover image by: Viselchak/BigStock Photo
Cover design by: Hermit Muse Publishing
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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