By Florin Purluca
The trip turned out to be quite long, taking into consideration the fact that it only cost me a lousy penny. The boat, a rusty ferry with a bad paint job, split the bold waves of the sea, which tossed it like a cork. The perfect conditions for sea-sickness. Twilight, few passengers. You would have been afraid to take a deep breath, as if the fog floating over the water’s vitreous luster was a bunch of spirits ready to possess your lungs. But if you had looked closer and weren’t faint-hearted, and maybe if you were an old sea-wolf, you would have seen in that fog nothing but white dust from the Gods who were flicking their tattered carpets in the sky. It took me a while to distinguish the iridescent fire flies. Rainbow-like glow-worms, these flickering rays of the pillars by the lip of the dock were straight, thin, and long, like crayons with shiny points.
The two lovers were snickering. He passed his hand playfully through her hair. The old man who was sitting two chairs away from me, looking bored with his ragged, dirty hat pulled down to the tip of his nose, remained impassive at the lights of the Old Port.
There was also the ferryman, tall and solid like a bulldozer. He was sitting kind of sideways with his right hand on the rudder and his left propped on the edge of the iron handrail. The holster was pushing into his ribs and every so often he would pull the harness in an attempt to make it sit better.
He was wearing a gray sailor’s sweater that for anybody else would serve as a good coat. It was that big. The wool used to make that bulky coat probably weighed as much as a ram.
The waters were still dancing, as was the ferry, but they were doing it in a pleasant manner, duplicating the smooth flight of the seagulls. Someone had thrown a veil of crimson cloth over the huge bead of the sky that until then had been the color of gold. I took out the picture and I held it up. In the light of the lantern, the shadows were playing with her face, aging her, but even so, she was still a beautiful woman. Her beauty was common, yet somehow special. She had a lively glimpse in those pearl eyes that had migrated from the lamp flame hanging by a beam onto the photographic paper. They wouldn’t blink, but you’d expect that to happen any minute. I returned it to its place in my coat pocket.
I looked at my watch, though I knew there was no point. The twilight in such places freezes time. The boat seeped beside the harbor basin line and the tough helmsman threw a black snake overboard,made out of thick woven hemp that was worn in several places. The rope splashed when it slid by the greasy wood of the dock. The man bolted down a narrow bridge, which allowed us to move from side to side without losing our balance.
I left without looking behind, without caring where the other passengers went.
The narrow, winding streets, paved with crushed stone, showed me the way into the heart of Port City. I was guided by the dim lights of the lanterns. It smelled like burnt oil from the floor lamps, like salt and fat fish on hot embers from the nearby pubs. It also smelled like distilled sugar cane. The board of an inn creaked whenever the wind blew. I approached the entry, shyly pushing open the door. The smell of roast, muffled speech, the flavor of cheap rum, they all rolled over me like a leviathan’s wave. It seemed like a favorable place, a spot where the regulars had keen eyes and fine hearing. That was exactly what I was looking for, being a private detective with a precise mission.
I walked in. I slid into the nearest empty seat and ordered a drink. Life awakened in me after the first glass. I asked for another one. From several seats away two eyes, propped in the narrow corners of some small dimples–dark as the night collapsed over the city–were watching me. They came closer. I said that I was just stopping by, and that I had a few questions on my mind and two, three pennies to spend. The thing took the picture. It stayed motionless for a while, looking lost. Then I heard a noise, like breaking glass. Perhaps a glass dropped by a drunk? Just an assumption of mine, because I didn’t bother to find out. The floor groaned under the weight of several steps, followed by short, stinging words and a chink of money.
The thing returned the picture. While I put it back, those sharp eyes remained glued to my face. Only then did I discover that I had a shining sea devil next to me. A thin bastard, with fresh skin, sharp nose and thin lips, as thin as a sheet of paper. He could’ve been young (up to a hundred years), or old (maybe a thousand years). But you really couldn’t know that. That’s how the sea devils are. They know how to change their appearance. He said he didn’t know her and that I owed him two pennies for the trouble. His eyes flashed; two Lucille stars mirrored in sea. ”Nope!” I growled. ”For two pennies you must try harder.” His tongue went over the crown of the grinding, hooked teeth that were strung along his bluish gums. Discrete wrinkles embellished his nose when he frowned.
He came much closer, so close that I could taste the stench that was coming out of his throat. A whiff of rotten human flesh tickled my nose. ”Tasuc’s Inn, two blocks down,” whispered the devil with the forked tongue. ”Ask for Gus, tell him I sent you.” He stretched out his glossy hand and I gave him the money. His palm swallowed the money right away and after that he went back to his seat, more like floating than walking, a few chairs away. I left a penny on the counter for my beverage, took the second shot, and then became one with the outside pitch.* The rat-man was working on a roasted hunk behind some moldy wooden crates. He flashed his teeth as soon as he noticed me leaning against a lamppost, smoking an Egyptian cigarette. His tail whipped the pavement stained with blood and fish oil. It slapped roughly and then creature seeped into the belly of Port City through a sewer entrance. I moved closer. Even though I couldn’t see that pair of black, shiny pearls, I had that particular feeling you get when you know that sombody’s watching you.
I took out the picture. I felt the need to reassure myself. You can say a lot about the rat-men but one thing is for sure: they are not liars. ”You smell like a sea devil,” the rat-man croaked. ”I just finished chatting with one.” Beyond the dark film, a scrawl was heard. There was a rupture, like a broken bone. A pair of powerful jaws cleaving. ”Mind your own business, Detective! This problem is bigger than you!” ”Have you seen her?” ”Maybe!” A little hand with long fingers, arched just like the rheumatic joints of an old man, cut though the dark line of the top of the sewer. His nails were as sharp as steel and started tickling the air. I gave him a penny. He thanked me in his distinct way and then burped. A thrill shot through my stomach. Ever since I can remember I could not bear rotten roasted dog meat. I walked away as fast as I could. Otherwise, I was risking getting an upset stomach. Behind me, I could hear the creature’s sharp voice:”You need to go to the Tasuc’s Inn, Detective!”And then the world in the sewer died in a cosmic silence.I shuffled over the rough wall of a building, waving as if I was hurt or trying to keep my guts from falling out. I had to puke to come to my senses. Those sons of bitches and their culinary habits! I pulled aside the curtain of a radiant board. The lemon-yellow color leaned over me, digging even deeper the shadows of my suffering. With lame letters, over my heavy head, was written:
Food and Music
Good for the Traveller’s Heart”
For how much this place was mentioned, inside there was room for just a small crowd. Tiny windows, like some stuffed pig eyes. A wooden door worn by the whims of time, held by two massive iron hinges and beaten with iron coarse abutments. The door was closed–maybe even locked–but through the ’pig eyes’, opened just a little bit, rang colorful voices and an orchestra. I lifted my head and shook myself. I fixed my hat and checked my elixirs. All of them were safe and in place.
I moved the door with difficulty. It seemed to have the weight of a tombstone rather than a wooden gate. The Inn was filled with low music. The light was dim and was coming from a few lamps drowned in a thick blanket of smoke, falling over the round tables and chairs. All kinds of customers were eating. I walked straight in the room to the counter, since it was the only place where I could find a spot. I pushed someone that was standing in my way and felt his cold gaze, like a piece of ice, on my neck, as long as he followed me. I didn’t even bother to give him more than an indifferent look.
I hooked onto the corner of the counter. After a few minutes, a lizard came. It had bulging eyes, skin that would be egregious for wallets, and sharp fangs that resembled needles. His tongue simply refused to stay still.
”What will the gentleman hhhave?”
I gave him a long look from beneath my narrow hat brim while smoking my Egyptian cigarette. He was as impressed as the cabinet behind him.
”Be good and shake the dust off that bottle!” I told him.
The saurian turned around. He stared long into the bottle-filled shelf behind him. His hand went to the nearest amber liqueur. I stopped him.
”No! Not that, the other one. A little higher. Appleton Estate. Bingo!”
”Oh! The gentleman hasss good tassste…”
He poured a row. The caramel flavor pounded my nostrils and almost threw me from the counter. The storm in my stomach needed the glimmers like the wings of a skylark needed air. I did not even breathe during the first two glasses. I threw two coins onto the counter.
”You’re a hell of an innkeeper!”
The lizard was pleased with the compliment. His hand swept his whiskers.
”Missster isss too generousss.”
”No way! You deserved it.” I extracted another cigarette out of the snuff-box. ’Sharp-tongue’ served me with a lighter. ”I’m looking for Gus,” I told him. ”Could I meet him somehow?”
He shook his head. The balance on a merchant’s table.
”What ssseemsss to be the problem?”
”Nothing complicated. Just simple curiosity.”
”Who recommendsss the gentleman?”
It was only then that I realized that I didn’t know the name of the sea devil. But I also realized that he had not even told me. I tried my luck:
”A shining sea devil. Two inns above.”
”Gusss knowsss many sssea devilsss in all the localesss all over Port City.”
”Spare me that… Gus!” I said and took out the picture. ”Does it tell you anything?”
The Saurian’s eyes turned into two sublime lines. The tongue dampened his mouth with a sharp, elongated, almost threatening whistling:
”Cheessse it, punk!”
I took out another penny from my pocket and throw it over the counter. The tiny silver coin swirled the air like a small wind vortex, and struck him right on the chest. Then the penny rolled over the flooring and lost its way somewhere underneath the bottle-filled shelves.
”Now, that you owe me one penny, I think I might want another glass of rum.”
He didn’t say anything, but he whistled. I had never seen a lizard whistling before. With two fingers stuck into the sharp nose, the pause between the fingers produced a steady, continuous noise. That made my day. An interesting thing you don’t see every day. Ten seconds of lull; or maybe twenty, couldn’t tell precisely. Then two long shadows, like giant cupboards, came up beside me.
”Which part of Cheese it, punk! you don’t understand?” one of the gorillas, the oldest one, asked me.
His temples were made out of quicksilver. Crippled, with just one eye, the glass of that old, old glance, just as grained as the sand from which it was poured. That bastard looked and smelled like an old monkey—unlike the other primate, who was a stink bomb of booze. Nevertheless, the cannons hanging instead of their arms made you think twice before spitting your words carelessly into the wind.
I smiled at the old one because it was two heads taller than me and because he had bent his back so that we could fit nose to nose. And, on the other hand, I supposed that my defiant grin would irritate him.
”I know someone who could kick your ass just like a snooker ball in one shot!” I told her, with the arc of my lips strained to the maximum. ”Maybe I’ll introduce you sometime.”
He grimaced, forcing Gus and the other gorilla to do just that. His shoulder played through the half-darkness of the inn. I felt a steady numb feeling on my neck. It lifted me as delicately as a crane’s arm would, and dragged me outside the inn, through the crowd, like a stinky purple cat. The mussels looked at me amused.
”Miss Alice does not want to be disturbed!” the gorilla clarified. ”Do you understand?”
After I landed on my ass, on the ground, I barely stood up and said:
”I will not hold her too long. You know, Miss Alice may have forgotten, but she has some debts. A little too big, even for the taste of compassionate friends, as she has, and who, incidentally, asked me to send her a little message.”
”Buzz off!” the gorilla genteelly advised me. ”If you don’t want a broken nose too.”
The door banged behind him.
First I had to take a look around so I could find my hat. Found it, shook it, then put it in its place. For the second time in one evening I checked my elixirs. They were in their place, all them nice and safe. That was good.
I took out a flacon. ’Green peace’ makes me suffer less, but the situation was yowling for a ’Blue arrow’. Those gorillas were pretty solid and maybe not the only ones in the room. I preferred not to take any risks. I emptied a whole bottle and wandered around in the darkness, for some moments, making some kind of a plan. Then the pain started. Terrible and fast, the flames of Hell itself. The bones and flesh were growing underneath my skin. The muscles pounded, some living whips. My veins hurt. My head, my feet, my arms. I burned, from inside out, with no drop of light. I had to wait for half an hour to get my senses back. But when the body was fully reconfigured and accommodated with the new organic state, I felt like an armored tank.
”Time to play, sneaky bastards!”
I went back into the inn. Just as I entered the orchestra muttered. A serious voice sighed into the microphone. All eyes—including the undersigned—fell prey to the scene. Behind the strained muslin of a molded dress, Alice’s body was moving in the same way a playful cat would have played with a clue. She didn’t have a marvelous voice, though she was singing well. Not that it would have mattered anyway for the flock that was crowded in front of the scene. Even if they were thrown swarms of pigs, as long as the woman’s body slid onto the scene as sublime as a swan on the water, their show was perfect.
Blue changes you. It strengthens your bones and muscles. It basically crushes your face, swells your shoulders and pectorals. Still, it does not make you unrecognizable. ’Sharp-tongue’ did not cease to fix me from the moment he accidentally found me in the crowd. The diffused light offered me some camouflage, but the trick was not going to last forever. I thought it was pointless to wait, so I just went straight to the bar. There was plenty of room, with all of the individuals piled up in front of the scene.
When I was close enough for the lizard to realize that he was not mistaken, it was already too late to do anything. I grabbed his muzzle and slammed it, with a desert-like thirst. An unexpected uppercut. Heavy, like a derailed train. I didn’t see the point of questioning him. Anyway, all that he would have spitted out were, most certainly, the spells of astonishment and triviality. The fist’s knots thrust right into his ’V’ shaped chin. His tongue hung pointlessly into the corner of her crushed jaw. Greasy, reddish saliva threads turned from beads to broken berries when they hit the counter. ’Sharp-tongue’ yelped. I ended his suffering with a last shot. A direct punch into his right temple. He collapsed and rolled back over the bar. Onto his way down, he took two empty glasses and a half-full bottle of rum.
As expected, the gorillas appeared as soon as I knocked-out the Saurian. The younger primate rushed at me first. Threatening, with clenched fists and a look of steel. His fast hook swept the air sword-like. I shirked lightly, but that right hook was followed by an elbow. Which I must admit, I did not see coming. Well placed, though not strong enough. It did hit me, but it was not that much damage.
It was my turn.
I have always thought that small things do their best at the right time. Therefore, to the detriment of some powerful fast blows, I preferred to tuck my fingers into the fur beneath the gorilla’s jaw. The big advantage, when you have anima-humans before you, sits in the sockets provided by their fur. Once I grabbed him, I gathered as hard as I could. The primate’s eyes instantly got that shiny look of a freshly-thawed lake. I shook my wrist and at the same time I hit. My right fist vibrated in his throat. Though his knees were softened—it would have fallen for sure if I had weakened the squeeze—I preferred to grab his throat. I turned around, ready to use the gorilla as a shield. It was so difficult to maneuver, that mountain of moss and fur, which is why I insisted on maintaining his mood with a few more punches at his melon-like head.
The other gorilla, the oldest one, who had thrown me on the road like an empty can, stood a few steps away. He snorted, waving a ’bombardier’ through the air. Strangled by the scourge of fever, I had not noticed that the inn was almost empty. It was only at that moment that I discovered the few frightened mussels trapped in a corner. They could not escape because if they ran they would find themselves right in front of the gun. And even for a sliced double-barreled shotgun, it was damn scary.
It’s not healthy to rely onto the companionship of some old monkey punk, especially in moments like that. So I just held the primate as a shield. The devilish rictus of that old armed gorilla did not smell good at all. I crouched behind my prisoner. Kabooom! The wreath of crooks has done nothing but scratch my skin. That’s after it pierced the live shield. I found myself covered in blood from head to toe. It flowed onto me,but the soft pain assured me that much of that blood was not mine, but from that gouged gorilla’s body fallen onto the floor.
I had nothing more than the few seconds needed for that mad ape to load the bomber. I threw myself onto him. To begin with, I assured myself against a new armed attack. I hit the right wrist violently, the boot soles unplugging his fingers. The gun fell onto the flooring, and that moment when he would lean back to recover it, ran in front of my eyes like a premonition. The strength of the blue elixir, besides raw force, is the increased speed of reaction and the accelerated possibility of anticipation. Consider, if you will, this anticipatory power, a journey into the future for a second. Believe me, sometimes it makes the difference between life and death.
He leaned forward. I hit.
The gorilla’s muzzle kissed my shoe laces and turned into a cascade of blood. I picked up the bomber, unloaded as it was, and imitated the position of a baseball player. I hit him right into the temple. He fell, accompanied by a single bump. As the colossus collapsed, the place plunged into a shrill silence- the kind of silence that breaks eardrums. No sign of the voice or the orchestra’s instruments. No sign of Alice.
I climbed the stairs onto the scene. The entrance was hidden in a pitiful manner, by a panel of wooden planks. The lousy shadow of what would have been a successful hiding place. I run through the stairs. The hallway was no bigger than a matchbox. There was also a kitchen and some kind of living room with a large table in the center. At the end of the room, crashed into a heavy brownish leather chair, was my Alice.
When I crossed the floor between the vestibule and the living room, Alice batted her eyelids, imitating the calm movement of the wings of a cheap plastic butterfly toy. I didn’t quite get it if that would have been a courteous gesture or simply a tear-breaker.
”Detective,” the witch said. ”To what do we owe such a stormy visit?”
Just to make sure we’re on the same wavelength, I said:
Probably the list of unresolved chores was a consistent one, because it took her a good slice of time until that name rang a bell.
”Oh!” the witch sighed. ”That sheikh boy. But I don’t see the connection?” she added.
I was bitterly doubtful she did not know where I was pointing. Still, I found myself obliged to tell more:
”The family has no claims for the gold the boy lost. Though, if you ask me, they should not give up so easily. But that’s a whole new discussion. They only want back the boy’s soul. That’s it.”
Damn bloody witch! Having robbed the kid a little fortune at the poker table, she had thrown him to the highest bait, wiping his soul. True fact, no one forced that boy to accept the stake. But the honesty with which the witch used to work her games, for us, those solid rock souls, stank from a mile away. No one says that it is not right to steal the fool’s gold, if he keeps throwing it away from left to right. But you don’t get to sell the soul of a brainless kid to the devil. Things like that you just don’t do!
She continued to lick her cheeks with her long, colorful lashes. Imitating, in a fairly false fashion way, the line of the feathers of a peacock. Her hand was starting to queue.
”Do not make me lose my patience. And time,” I grumbled. ”Break the spell for the soul of the kid and keep the gold. You have gained from his stupidity more than one gathers in a lifetime.”
After she had dumped her dirty royal flush, the viper grinned and left Jamel with a crooked look on his face and uninterrupted slobber flowing from the corner of his mouth. Luckily, at the same table there was a soft-hearted wild boar hunter. The hunter carried the kid, unconscious as he was, to the sheikh’s palace. The fear and sadness into the eyes of the parents had not been washed away even after a whole month, when they had decided to ask for my services. I told them there was not that much than I could have done. Too much lost time, unfortunately, but there is always the sweet taste of revenge.
”A haggling’s a haggling!” the hag said. ”No one forced him to accept the stake.”
”You’ve gerrymander the cards, damn it! Don’t enjoy the haggling of a mindless kid.”
”It breaks my heart to see you suffering so much, for the loss of some stranger. Oh! merciful one, do I have to understand that you work for pure empathy now?”
It was clear. Chattering, I was only losing my time.
”Unlike you, heartless hag, I know when to stop.”
While speaking, I barely took one step towards the witch. A heavy reek bedazzled my nostrils. I noticed the clink of dozens of bells and, as of nowhere, a wave of snakes came towards me. The snakes’ bodies were bound together, as if gradually increasing their movements one by one. They coiled around my feet and hands. They bit my throat and cheeks. One desperately tried to sink onto my throat. I knew the defiled game of the fallen followers of theurgy. I let the snake slip over my neck. He sank halfway and then I bit firmly, turning my jaw into a human vise. The writhing body fell onto the floor. It played for a while, dipped the décor with his black ebony-like blood, than it consumed itself into a game of greenish flames. In the groin I felt nothing more than a trivial jig, just like after a generous banquet with mountains of beer marinated beef steaks.
The hag shook with fear. Although the greasy snakes kept buzzing me, still coiled around my limbs just like heavy twines, when I floundered, they burst and played through the air like fuel-filled tubes of a faulty engine. I was just one step away from her, wondering how come she didn’t throw another spell on me. ”Maybe she is too scared,” I thought, ”or maybe she is thinking to accept the deal.”
I stretched out my hand to grab her, but my fingers passed through her silhouette as through a cloud cloth. The form of the witch broke into light vapor circles, running through the room from here to there. All in all, I understood: to use such a trick she needed a mirror. I started to look for it, with discretion. I didn’t want her to know that I had caught the key to her game, but when my gaze stuck onto the mirror on the wall, I rushed onto her like a lightning on a stormy day. She was still gliding at the bottom of the mirror when she was taken by surprise. The knots of my fist, helped by an enchantment, broke the barrier between the two worlds. I sank my arm up to my shoulder. The shards drew long, reddish, unbroken lines onto my skin. I grabbed her hair, and I pulled it out with all my strength. They all came out through the broken mirror, first her head, then her shoulders and the arms, with all their chaotic games for a pointless escape. There was nowhere to go, and I suppose she realized it then. I forced her onto the ground, kneeling. While fighting her way out of my clutched fists, she cleaved my flesh with her steel nails. Just then I quit playing. Even if I don’t feel the pain for the moment, because blue protects me from suffering and all kind of spells and gives me an unimaginable power, at the end, when the elixir’s effect fades away, I do feel the dregs of pain with a vengeance.
I shuddered her a couple of times, but her answer remained unchanged: ”I hope you burn in the heart of Hell, you upstart slop!”
And it’s not like she didn’t really want to say yes–I’m firmly convinced she would have done it, only to escape—unfortunately it was a little late for her. The boy’s soul was gone for good, otherwise she would have given it back. One month, however, was a little too much time wasted. The soul loses his way back home and is never to be found inside the mazes of the outer world.
I grasped her hair and chin, I propped my knee into her chest. I felt how the lungs of the hag were begging for some air, but I did not let myself befriended by her lost in fear eyes. I pulled, as hard as I could, violently, and heard the bones in her throat as they crackled. Like a weave of dry branches. The last flames sparkled in Alice’s eyes, those untold vivid eyes that once could have lighten up the photographic paper. I threw her bleeding head into a bag, the bag stuffed onto some nearby backpack. The reddish liquid dribbled through the knapsack’s canvas, leaving behind me, onto the flooring, a long, interrupted and irregular line. I rushed to win the stairs, to leave the place, because I felt that the blue would drain out of my veins just like the waters during the reflux. I had to run, to find some dim lost corner, where I could let my body be restored. A physical recovery, not long-lasting, but damn painful.
After all, I was in a big hurry. I had a ferry to catch, a witch’s head to deliver to some fancy clients, and a nice amount of money to collect.
FLORIN PURLUCA is a Romanian writer, living in Focșani, Romania, with his wife, one daughter, and one son. He has been a fan of the science-fiction genre since he found letters and words. He has a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and works in a psychiatric hospital in his hometown and struggles to put words on paper during those long and dark nights. His fiction has been published in several Romanian periodicals, online and paperback. His work translations have been published in Samovar, The Singularity, SF in Translation and many others magazines. He has published seven novels and two short story collections so far.
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