Crossing the River

…dreaming evil, I have done my hitch/over the plain houses, light by light:/a lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind./A woman like that is not a woman, quite./I have been her kind.

Anne Sexton.


Here’s how it probably happens, that first time, if you’re anything like me…

Your Momma wakes you in the middle of the night, takes you up on the mountain. Says she has something fine and secret to show you, something that sets you and her apart from all the rest of the common herd. 'Cause This here is our’n, baby girl, she tells you, gifted by Him who made us to the whole of our blood—and you more than most, darlin’. You more than any.

And what is it you see once she’s got you up there, anyhow? Maybe a dog with horns or a black cat bigger than a bull, a goat with women’s breasts and owl’s eyes, some sort of beast having ten horns, ten crowns, and on every head the name of blasphemy. Or maybe just a pale man with a black beard and a sad face, like the ghost of Osama bin Laden, who lays one hand on the top of your skull, the other on the sole of your foot and laughs, saying: Shall I really take you for gift on only your mother’s word, all of you, everything which lies between this hand and that? What true mischief could I ever possibly do in this world with such a little one as you, Gley Chatwin’s gal?

If you’re anything like me, which most just ain’t. Because my Momma was a witch, same as hers, and so on; it’s from their side of things that I can’t stand the touch of salt, can’t cry real tears. But I sure ain’t no hill-woman like her, either, out hollering to Old Scratch every full moon—and I never did kiss any man’s ass but for money, horns or no. I got my pride.

So: I can throw out a fetch, given time, and dirt enough to build one from. Bring anyone my way and keep ‘em long as I want, using nothing but a drop of their blood, a drop of mine and a hank of my own long hair to tie the knot with. Spread out a pack of cards and tell you your future; knock a rag against a stone and raise up a wind, then write nonsense words on myself to whip that same wind into a Force Three twister; make doors slam, tables tap and call up a ghost to talk through me, just like that woman of Endor who got old King Saul in so much trouble with the Almighty.

I’ve read some books, too; Montague Summers, Scott’s Discoverie, Stuart’s Daemonologie. The mighty Hammer. I know my history, such as it is. My culture is different than yours, older still than the Travellers with their tricks or the Injuns with their anger—ain’t just moonshine and trailers, back where I come from. And I got but two things to blame for everything I’ve done since, I suspect: Gley Chatwin and the Daddy she chose to get me on her, her cold witch blood and his hot demon seed. Or three, maybe, if you choose—like I do—to also count my own bad self.<br>

But if any of the above meant I could witch myself right in and out of prison anytime I felt like it…well, we wouldn’t have too much to talk about, now, would we?

Course, biology does count for something, at least in terms of execution. If I was a man, they’d probably have to keep me in Ad Seg 24/7, for fear of me trying to stick my dick in anything that moved close enough past me for me to grab at it. Being I’m not, though, my “unrepentant serial sexual offender” sins always tended to err more on the side of knew I shouldn’t’ve, but I went on ahead and did it anyways: It, her, him, them. Whatever.

I mean, sure—my not-Daddy messed around with me some, just like everybody else’s. But I’ll gladly own the rest.

Sometimes I feel like I must’ve been drunk, high, picking up trade and robbing folks blind for a straight year before the Powers That Be finally got around to slinging me right back in where I so obviously needed to be. Seems like I looked up the once and I was in custody, looked up twice and I was in court, elocuting before sentence. Looked up the third time and I was already dug deep down here in Mennenvale Women’s Penitentiary, Block A, max security—sweating hard, getting clean; not such a bad place to do it, either, when all’s said and done. Certainly does concentrate the mind wonderfully.

Getting into Hell, that’s the easy part, always; people do it every damn day, though far more often by accident than by intent. It’s getting out that’s harder, ‘specially on demand—though it’s not like that can’t be done either, exactly.

Not so long’s you can only make yourself patient enough to wait for just the right sort of…leverage.

One way or the other, what you maybe need to know most about me is this: I don’t think of myself as a monster. Never have. Never will.

But then again, I guess most monsters don’t.


*


Now, leverage comes in many different forms, by many different methods. I mean, if you’re looking to understand just how somebody like me ever came into partnership with two kick-ass do-gooders like Samaire and Dionne Cornish in the first place, much can probably be made of the plain fact that Cornish and Chatwin lie almost right next to each other come roll-call, alphabetically speaking…but then, there’s really no earthly reason I wouldn’t’ve noticed them anyhow, eventually—Samaire, in particular. And not for the reasons you might initially assume, given my record.

That same morning, just before the fish-truck pulled in, I was lounging at the cell-door with my pretty little Maybelle already all ground up against me, one thigh slung so tight over mine I could fair feel the heat of her through my pants (sweat-moist, or what-have-you), over my hip-pocket. Murmuring in my ear, as she did it:

They got the Cornish sisters comin’ to call in this batch, Alleycat. Pulled life plus nine-nine between ‘em both, mainly ‘cause of the three strikes rule.” Pause. “Well, that, and they had a whole car full’a concealed weapons, when the Feebs finally caught their asses at the Border.”

She was mainly putting on a show for rubes like that new C.O., Brenmer, who threw us a full-gawk double-take as he went by, pulling at his crotch like he’d suddenly noticed someone slipped ants in his shorts.

Oh, you’re so bad, baby girl,” I told her, and watched her pout, more in confirmation than denial. “But I guess you aim to be.”

I do.”

Thought so.” I pulled her closer, adding, in a murmur: “Hell, ain’t like I mind.”

And oh, didn’t she just perk up and glow at that? ‘Cause May always was easy to please…just as well, what with her being Grade-A born victim meat thrown straight into the lions’ den, rare and bloody as any potential bitch-turned-butch might hope for. Her ability to enjoy herself under pressure was probably pretty much all that helped keep her sane, given the circumstances.

Was a time when I could do sweet (if not innocent) fairly well myself, but prison ain’t exactly conducive to that. Oh, I guess I could glamour up now and convince you my skinny stringbean bones were sleek and foxy, this hillbilly hatchet-face of mine “interesting” rather than offputting, my many visible scars fascinating rather than freakish. But one of the few things I like about lock-down is how you can breeze by on half-speed, or even quarter-, you just know how to play it right; talk people in and out of things like a human would, fuck and fight to a stand-still without ever even having to use your own full strength.

That’s how I got myself my pocket-money business, running mail and brokering favors; how I snagged May right out from under M-vale’s former baddest Daddy-miss of all time, Verena Speller, who—after an extended turn in that extremely locked-down part of Ad Seg known as the Finishing School—eventually decided that having only three super-stacked blonde groupies with Nazi nicknames in her Aryan harem was probably impressive enough.

No magic involved in either case, nor (in fact) did it need to be…just like with fishing in Head C.O. Guard Erroll Curzon, King Prick in a whole jailhouse full of corrupt hacks, and so in love with his own piggy self that I sure didn’t have to raise any Hell but the usual in order to convince him he was the one raping me every so often, not the other way ‘round.

I ain’t afraid of you, Chatwin, you goddamn witch,” he’d say, not even knowing how right he’d got it. And I’d just nod along, smiling. Thinking: ‘Course not, boss. Not like I scare MOST folks, after all.

Hell, sometimes? Sometimes, I even scare myself.

So he’d lumber on and off, huffing hard. And every time he did, I’d inject just a hint more of my poison in him, to keep him firmly on the hook; never did have to worry about falling pregnant, which was a mercy. Going by past record alone, I don’t really think I can conceive—not with a human man, anyhow. Not with the legacy of what my Momma conjured up coursing through my bloodstream.

Holler magic—blood, tears, sweat and spit. Bodily fluids of all descriptions. The good part is, it’s very direct. Bad part…well, one bad part…is, it sure won’t get you out of jail, not once you’re already in. Not when any given escape scenario means you gotta beguile each and every one of the hundred-some people between you and the front door individually, one by one by one. Daily penal system grind aside, ain’t no one has that sort of time to waste.

And: “Here we go,” Maybelle said, jumping off of me, while the P.A. simultaneously crackled and Guard Curzon’s voice rang out: “COUNT, LADIES! ALL ASSES TO THE RAIL!” A general stomp and shuffle, a screech of contact locks; the gates slid open, admitting our newest members. And here was where I finally saw the Cornish sisters for myself, as they stepped onto Mennenvale Block A, with my very own eyes: Caul-touched, always slightly narrowed against the light.

And just like that, not even a minute gone, I knew Samaire Cornish—the younger, taller, even blonder of the two—was my sister. Not just a sister, a fellow practitioner of the Art—like Gioia Azzopardi, Dom the Cop’s stregha widow, or that gal they call Needle, over in Psych—but a true something-sibling, with Hell’s own mark spread all over her too-calm face like an invisible stain. I think I know my own bad blood well enough to recognize the taint of it in others, even when it’s hid inside their veins.

I also noticed that while both of ‘em were cute in their own particular ways, all their (many, inventive, enticing) tattoos were strictly magical in intent. Tough little Dionne had the Gran Tetragrammaton on the back of her neck, Solomon’s Seal overtop her heart and the holy name of Saint Michael Archangel girding both arms, just like the warrior she was; Samaire’s whole rangy body, on the other hand, seemed inked up with spell-script specifically designed to not only keep things out but keep things in, as well.

Those images looped above and beneath her skin, buzzing against each other like rot.

Not that anyone but me could have told, by either witch-sight or plain-sight. But then again, that is precisely why they call such things “occult”. From the Latin, occultus, “to conceal”. Because their true meaning, their real story is…

…a secret.


*


What I knew about the Cornishes before I met ‘em boiled down to what everyone else did, albeit with one very important difference. In a nutshell, the sisters’ act had kept ‘em criss-crossing backroads America for upwards of seven years now, laying a trail of odd mayhem that’d grown into sketchy legend. They robbed gun-shops and places of worship, desecrated graves and left arcane graffiti behind; kicked ass, too—an unholy lot of it. And told the FBI that the people they’d killed along the way weren’t people at all but demons in human form, preying on the innocent. That they’d had to kill ‘em, along with anybody those demons’d touched, to keep Armageddon far off and little children safe at night. Which was why, in the main, they were in here now.

Digging back, what seemed to’ve kicked it all off was the State-assisted death of the man whose name they both wore, Jeptha Cornish. Their paper trail started where his finally went to ground: Raised off the grid by like-minded outlaw parents, a demon-slaying cult of two, up ‘til Jeptha was popped by the law for killing his common-law woman Moriam, somehow managing to reduce her body to a flesh slurry so fluid its provenance had to be back-traced through her daughters’ DNA. Local constabulary thought he might’a used a woodchipper, though they later had to admit they couldn’t find that, either—along with much of a motive, beyond the usual hit parade of well, he’s weird and well, so was she and since when’s a damn domestic get this complicated, for shit’s sweet sake?

Money, sex and/or parentage, the Jerry Springer trifecta. Maybe she’d been cheating, or maybe he’d just thought she was; maybe he’d figured out Samaire might not be his after all, not to mention the basic difficulty inherent in some self-taught backwoods exorcist’s wife popping out hellspawn on the down-low, no matter how that circumstance might’ve originally come about.

The girls went into foster care either way, separated for most of high school; Dionne did a tour in Iraq, then rabbitted after she got tapped for stop-loss turnaround, taking a load of Army weaponry with her when she did. Samaire, armed with a sprinter’s scholarship and a panel of genius-level I.Q. scores, managed to make it into law school by twenty, but dropped out just before finals of her second year. Her neighbours in residence said she got a visit from some woman looked almost exactly like her, except for being half a head shorter, about a week before she packed up and hit the highway. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Like most history, though, the really intriguing bits are always those ones which rarely get written down. Like the difference between the official version, say, and mine: Where most probably considered Samaire and Dionne Cornish either crazy or faking, I knew they were right. Didn’t necessarily mean I approved of their methods, let alone their raison d’etre—they did kill monsters, after all. Awkward.

Yet that, more’n anything, was what made Samaire’s potential heritage issues so very…interesting, might be the word. Especially within context.


*


Back in the now, meanwhile, the new fish got ‘emselves all lined up, “yes sir”-ing quick-smart in turn, as Guard Curzon checked their names off his print-out. “Ahmad, Zaidee. Burch, Lisanne. Cornish, Dionne. Cornish, Sahmeyer…“

SahMEERah,” the Cornish in question corrected, quietly.

Curzon frowned. “What’d you say there, convict?”

That it’s pronounced SahMEERah. Boss.”

Oh, really. And what is it makes you think I give a good Goddamn about cross-checking the correctness of all your little biographical details? I look like Oprah friggin’ Winfrey to you, cupcake?”

Others might’ve met this sort of dickery with a similarly harsh word, or even a punch, and ended up in Ad Seg for a month as of Day One for it; Dionne sure as Hell looked like she wanted to kick him where it counted, from the way her fists balled up. Samaire, though, just shrugged, and made herself look somehow small—small as a gal who loomed over Curzon by a good two inches while slumping ever could, at any rate. Projecting, if not saying right out loud: Nope.

Thought not,” Curzon shot back, and flounced off to finish count, Guard Brenmer hot on his heels. Which left us all alone together, free to get acquainted however we felt most inclined.


*


But I didn’t approach ‘em right then, no. I watched ‘em a while instead, from long-range—across the yard, passing in the halls, two tables over in mess. Sent Maybelle to do fly-bys; she told me how they’d been split up for work (Samaire got library, Dionne got workshop), but stuck together as cellmates (no surprises there). Kept my eyes peeled for whatever scuffles might arise, so’s I could confirm for myself both what quarters said scuffles might come from, and how the Cornishes might deal with ‘em, if and when they did.

Now some fools will speak from hubris and say that we women are too frail to fight, and some’ll speak from rosy innocence and say we’re too compassionate. Neither of these is true. What is true is that unlike men, women–most women—don’t fight for fun. A woman throws down with you, she wants you either dead, or beaten bad enough you’ll never look her in the eyes again. Two women throw down, it don’t stop until it stops for good, or gets stopped. Which is why women mostly don’t start a fight unless we’re either damn sure we’ll win it or we got no other choice, and why we learn right quick to tell the fights we can win from the ones we can only hope to survive.

Even the dumbest of M-vale’s denizens, it seemed, could see with a single look neither Cornish was a winnable fight. Around them the subtle vicious swirls of violence roiled on, while they floated through it like pumice in a Yellowstone caldera, untouched, untouchable: Model prisoners, ‘cause they could afford to be. And because… they needed to be.

No, it was the guards they had to fool, not us; it was the men with the keys they wanted to be overlooked by, the watchdogs they had to bore to sleepiness. That extra edge of alertness Maybelle reported, that I saw for my own self, whenever a bluebird came within hearing of their constant low mutters to each other: The tension, the flickering eyes, the expert balance of submissiveness, dullness and sullenness, thrown over that spark of sharp defiance like an oil-rag wrapping carbon steel. That it took me so long to realize what it all meant is some embarrassing, in full honesty.

Once I did realize, though…well. I never have been one for wasting time, once the course of action is clear.


*


You two’re thinkin’ on escape, ain’t you?” I said, sliding in between both Cornishes without any fair warning, as they leant up against their usual staked-out corner of the prison yard. Dionne reacted pretty much just like I’d expected she might to this display of unmitigated gall: Shifted back into fight-stance and fisted one hand, while the other went on the sly for that shank she kept shoved down the back of her pants. But Samaire just drew herself up to full height and shot me the downwards cut-eye, before asking, calmly—

And…you would be?”

Oh, just another poor victim of stunted parental creativity.” I stuck out my own hand, so fast she almost couldn’t help but take it, if only for a second. “Allfair Chatwin—Alleycat, they call me; looks like “all-fair”, sounds like Ah-la-fAHr. Kinda like bein’ named Cinderella, back where I come from.”

Dionne glowered at me, and snapped: “Don’t say word one to this bitch, Sami. I’ve been askin’ around; she’s nobody we need to know.”

Oh, I’d say that probably depends, pretty gal.”

On what?”

On whether or not it’s true your li’l sister’s Daddy wears the same set of horns mine does.” She flushed a bit at that, but didn’t argue; though it might still be a sore spot, the concept obviously wasn’t really up for debate. So I simply smiled, and continued. “‘Cause if he does…”

If,” Samaire put in, raising a brow.


“…well. Then I think we might be fit to do some business together.”

Dionne and Samaire traded looks; Dee’s seemed to read like she thought she could probably stab me quick and walk on ‘fore the guards noticed, but Samaire’s half-shrug, half-headshake seemed less for than against. So Dionne let out a breath, and stepped back just far enough to let me get between her and her sister—metaphorically, at least. Especially considering exactly how little wiggle room she’d left me to work with…

(For now.)

I mean, you do need to get outta here too, am I right? Go back to savin’ the world, and all.” Now it was my turn to get looked at. “So…how’s that goin’ for you, anyways?”

Dionne: “Like it’s any of your damn—“

But: “Not as well as I’d hoped for, considering,” Samaire replied, cooler than cool, at almost the same moment. “But I take it you have suggestions.”

Cause she could see it on me too, ‘course; no way she couldn’t. We all know each other by sight, if nothing else.

I nodded. “Now, don’t get me wrong,” I began, “I hear you’re an educated woman, so I know whatever sort of craft you practice probably got to have mine beat all to Hell and back, just on the reference material. But I been in here long enough to learn this much: Craft in itself ain’t gonna get you through gate one, let alone out those front doors without anyone puttin’ a bullet through ya…or better still, through her.”

Dionne snorted loudly at the very idea, naturally—but Samaire’s eyes flicked over nonetheless, automatic as a skipped heartbeat, like she was already checking for damage. And: Well-a-day, I thought to myself, wonderingly, as I so often had before. Ain’t family something SPECIAL?

Best earthly way to get an otherwise smart person to do somethin’ stupid under pressure that I ever have tripped across, inside jail or out of it, hands damn down.

I’m listening,” was all she said in return, though. Which was more’n good enough.

I walked her through what I knew about M-vale’s various pitfalls, as gleaned from tales of other past break-out schemes (sadly truncated in their execution, most often), then sat there while Samaire walked me in return through what she’d decided on when she first heard the verdict read out on her and Dionne, and why it wasn’t quite coming together the way she’d thought it would.

I usually practice hierarchical magic,” she said. “But that’s pretty tool-heavy for in here—not least since they took all my supplies away, before we even went to trial…”

Uh huh. Good luck gettin’ hold of ‘a hazel-wood wand new-peeled’ on the black market, not to mention the steel caps, lodestone and virgin cock’s blood you’d need to consecrate it.” Adding, as she stared: “What? You think just ‘cause I ain’t been to university, I don’t know my basics?”

She kept on staring a second, then shook it off. “Okay,” she said, finally, pointing to a sinuous double line of text snaking up around her right-side humerus. “If you’re really up on your rituale magiciae componentum, then—what’s that?”

I just grinned: Man, far too easy.

Why, that there’d be protection against demons if you read it one way and a binding on your own demon blood if you read it the other, written in the language known as Crossing the River—Transitus Fluvii, as the dead Roman tongue would have it. Y’all don’t know everything just ‘cause you read a book or two got written before Gutenberg made up his first Bible, Princess.”

Dionne, impatiently: “Look, so you know some shit, and she obviously knows some of the exact same shit…was there gonna be a plan in here somewhere, or what?”

Like you say, wizardly workings tend to take the sort of accoutrements our current position renders pretty much inaccessible,” I told Samaire, ignoring the unsolicited commentary from the peanut gallery. “So why not go the opposite route?”

Such as?”

Holler magic. Y’all might have heard of it.”

Sure. That’s the tradition where every spell involves wearing your materiel in your crotch for a day or so.”

I nodded, unoffended: “Ain’t fancy, I’ll grant you, but it’s simple, cheap—“

If you don’t count the boiled-down human body parts you usually build it from,” Dionne muttered.

“—and it does work…’specially so when you got two qualified people doin’ it, ‘stead of just the one. And that’s my main point, Princess: You ain’t ever gonna get where you want to by exactly when you want to, not without help from another worker. But if you was to lay your high-class hexation next to my gutter witchery and let ‘em cross-pollinate—feel on each other awhile, or such—might be they’d both end up movin’ a tad faster, to our mutual improvement.”

Like a sort of a…really skanky…feedback loop.”

Well, I never did go too far through school…but metaphorically, sure. Why not?”

The Cornishes exchanged another glance. “Look, Sami, you already know what I think,” Dionne said, at last. “Witches are witches. Plus, word on the yard is, banking A-Cat here’ll do anything more’n lie right to your face, then kick you down and fuck you ain’t gonna get you anything but kicked down and fucked even harder. But we both already know you’re gonna do what you want, just like always.”

Samaire nodded. To me: “So, assuming everything she’s said is true—how could I ever trust you to hold up your end of the bargain? What do you want to get out of here for, anyhow?”

Never you mind, kin-killer, I almost snapped back. But said instead, out loud—

You kiddin’ me? I want to be out of here to be out of here, Princess, same’s anyone else. ‘Cause it’s cramped, your options for fun are substantially limited, and I been here more’n long enough already. ’Sides which, you sure don’t have to trust a person to work with ‘em. That’s half the fun, ain’t it?”

She looked at me then, long and level, eyes hard.

Tell you what,” she said, at last. “If if turns out I do find I need you for—anything—I’ll go ahead and have Dionne let you know.”

I nodded, thinking: That’s all I ask.


*


That night, in the slice of space between count and lights-out, Maybelle’d already laid there pouting for quite a bit before I finally wised up enough to look over and notice. She’d seen me getting what looked like up close and personal with Dee and Samaire, and that made her nervous; guess she was a bit too well-used, at this stage of the game, to think goin’ back on the market was a good idea, particularly if she wanted to trade up (rather than down) from where she was right now. So she wanted some token show of reassurance she really wasn’t in immediate danger of bein’ being thrown over for a newer model, which I—truth be told—was more’n happy to provide.

Them Cornishes got each other, darlin’; they ain’t plannin’ to be in here long enough to need anybody else, even if they either of ‘em swung that way. Not like I need you, anyhow.”

You need me, A-Cat?”

Let me demonstrate.”

After, while she dozed—all replete, with dreamy dreams of how the two of us were both gonna squeeze, hand in hand, through whatever magickal escape hatch Samaire and I ended up cobbling together dancing in her empty blonde head—I studied the darkened ceiling and thought yet once more about that no-contact buzz I’d gotten just from standing next to (not-so-) little miss Princess; how she couldn’t helped but’ve felt it too, rippling up and down those carefully tattooed limbs of hers, the shiver before the quake. And how it’d probably only get stronger yet, the longer we stayed in proximity—ratcheting up unstoppably as we drew ever closer, like the static charge hum just before a flashbulb’s flare, or the filament whine as a lightbulb bloomed to full incandescence…

Dee might not be able to feel it, bein’ what she was, but she’d sure made certain I knew she didn’t like what she almost thought she saw going on: Protective, like some five-foot nothing Mama Bear with her claws out, ready to fight to the bitter end. Which I guessed I could understand, though only in principle. ‘Cause me, I never did know what it was to have a sister, not even half of one…but then again, the pull I felt towards Samaire wasn’t entirely familial, as Dionne could no doubt tell; things always were a whole lot slipperier down in Hell than they were here up top, ‘specially in the bonds-of-kinship department.

I did need to know what-all they were planning to do next, though—about me, as much as anything else—and the surest way to find out was to send something to listen at their keyhole. Which I could certainly do, for all I hadn’t in quite some time—and like any other muscle, a witch’s craft does tend to get a mite…tight, if she doesn’t let it out for exercise on the regular.

So I shut my eyes, said a few choice words under my breath, bit my own lip ‘til it bled and took a deep old swallow. And a few moments later, I coughed out a little red glob of sickness onto the cell floor…dirt from my insides, stuck together with Hell-juice and ill-will. A fetch, just like my Momma taught me to make way back, long before I ever saw any Dark Man on top of any hill.

A beat more, and it opened two tiny black jewels to look my way, stretched out its spun-glass wings (still tinged pink with spray) and rubbed its delicate stinger-legs together in greeting. Its voice rose up drily, echoing off the concrete walls—a thin, companionable, whispering vibration.

Let me do thy will, Lady? the fetch asked, eager, inside my skull.

Gladly, I replied.


*


Over in their own cell, meanwhile, Samaire sat cross-legged on one bed with her eyes all rolled back like she was meditating, while Dionne paced the floor, one hand on her shank. Announcing, as she did—

Look, this is just a bad idea, Sami, twenty years or not—that bitch is everything we ever fought, all wrapped up in a hag-ridin’, Devil-worshippin’ bow. Even layin’ aside what we already hear about how she conducts herself on the strictly human tip, she’s the sort of witch who probably takes names and steals babies—and we’re gonna let her back out, where she can get at the next given normal comes along, just to serve our interests? That ain’t buddies.”

I never stole a baby in all my life, I thought to myself, huffily, as the fetch hovered inside a vent above them, watching their debate through dim, colorblind eyes. Then added: ‘Course, I never really HAD to, just ‘cause I needed the parts. There’s abortion parlors all over the great state of Alabama, after all…and they dump out their trash like clockwork, twice a day.

(Ah, the conveniences of modern living.)

Samaire, unmoving: “Not helpful, Dee.”

Right. ‘Kay.” A beat. “Seriously, though, Chatwin’s Hell-bait; we’ve killed enough like her to fertilize a car-park. A witch is a witch is a—“

“—witch, yeah, I got it.” A pause. “So what’s that make me?”

Dionne stopped, mid-stride. “Not her. You get that, right?”

Except…I am.”

But you use this shit, Sami. You don’t let it use you. That’s the difference.”

Samaire opened her eyes at that, and raised a doubtful brow; she looked down at her hand, studying that wrap-around ribbon of Transitus Fluvii circling the arm it attached to, like she could see things movin’ underneath it.

Six of one,” she said, half to herself. Then: “You hear that?”

What?”

That…buzzing.”

Okay, time to go.

They both turned towards “me”, then, and I knew the fetch had almost reached its expiry date. So I peeled my consciousness back from it in long, sticky strings, letting its sight grow ever fuzzier, bleeding away pixel by pixel. ‘Til the bond between us finally grew so tenuous I barely even felt a thing when Guard Curzon swatted it from the air as it flew from vent to vent, and crushed it messily beneath one boot. I could hear Brenmer through the wall, muffled, as he blurted out—

Damn. How those things get in here, anyways?”

Curzon, stomping on: “Fuck if I know. Maybe they can smell all the pussy.”

Which was crude, as ever. Yet not entirely inaccurate.

I turned over, wondering if Samaire would bother sending a fetch of her own to watch me sleep—or if she even knew how to make a fetch, considering who’d raised her. One way or the other, I wasn’t about to lose a good night’s shut-eye over it.

Things learned so far: Cornishes don’t want to work with me, but too bad, ‘cause they ain’t exactly got another choice to switch to, I thought. So let ‘em sweat on that a while; hell, I got time.

Nothin’ but.


*


That was Friday. And a day or so later, I come ‘round a corner in the library—mail-cart in hand—to find Dionne waiting on me between the stacks, arms crossed and scowling, with Samaire looming right behind.

“…we might need your help, after all,” was all Samaire had to say, after a moment.

And: “Oh, Princess,” I said, “tell it to me again, will ya? Slower.”


*


What do you know about Abramelin the Mage?” Samaire asked, as she pumped a thirty-pound barbell in the southmost corner of the weight-pile, with Dionne spotting. I sat down nearby, took up a pair of ten-pounders and started doing curls, to cover my reply:

Abramelin? He thought all worldly phenomena were produced by demons working under the direction of angels; we all come with a guardian angel and a demon attached, the one liftin’ us up, the other suckin’ us back down, like gravity. Thought initiates could make ‘emselves into angels, for as long as it took to control the demons…”

“…by using spell-squares. Five-line palindromes that read the same up and down, forward and back. The most famous of which being…”

“…the SATOR box? ‘SATOR, AREPO, TENET, OPERA, ROTAS: Hold this in thy right hand, ask what thou wilt, and it shall be delivered.’ No tools nescessary, ‘sides from pen, ink and willpower. But the thing also repels witches somethin’ fierce, so too damn bad we can’t either of us use that…”

That’s right, we can’t.” She pumped up one more time, shelved it, and lay there a moment, sweating. Before adding—

But Dionne can.”

We both shot Dionne a glance, like we’d been choreographed that way; Dionne—who’d been watching this little back ‘n’ forth of magickal esoterica like it was a Satanic tennis game—flushed deep, looking uneasy for maybe the very first time since I’d made her acquaintance.

Hey, man,” she said, “I don’t…do magic. Ain’t my style. I just don’t got it in me.”

Samaire nodded. “You’re not trained, no—but seriously, Dee, once it’s made, this item’s pretty much idiot-proof.” A beat. “No offense.”

None taken. If it repels witches, though, then how are you guys supposed to make it?”

Take turns. A-Cat does a character, I do a character, out of order. You hold the paper, so we don’t even have to pass it back and forth. Easy.”

Dubious: “Oh yeah, sounds it.”

For once, I had to agree. “Yeah, it’s a neat little concept—‘cept we’d have to shield ourselves, somehow, just to stay in the same damn room while Lady Di here worked her will on the thing. You got any bright ideas about that?”

“…not yet. I thought, though, with both of us going full-bore—“

Princess, I can’t shield myself from the SATOR box, let alone you too.”

And there it sat, for a minute; I could see her thinking on the problem—hard, straight white teeth just denting her lower lip—which was a sort of pleasure in itself, for all it went on just a shade too long for comfort.

We’d need a jolt, then,” she said, at last. “Some sudden extra burst of power, like jump-starting a…car battery, or whatever—“

Sacrifice, sure. So kill somebody.”

Dionne, without even thinking twice, like she’d just remembered she was the big sister here: “We’re not gonna do that.”

I looked right on past her, straight to Samaire, the more innately practical of the two. “Let me, then; you know I’d do it. Do it in a damn minute, I thought it’d get us outta here…”

Well, demonstrably, Alleycat!” she snapped back. “But we won’t.”

Okay, then: Fuck someone, that’d work almost as well. Or are you too damn good to do that, either?”

Now it was her turn to blush. “Not with you,” she said, shortly. Adding, as I looked back at Dionne, cocking one eyebrow: “And not with her, either—I mean, Jesus! Just what the hell is wrong will you, anyways?”

Quantifying that one’d’ve probably took us all night, so I just shrugged. “Does sort of limit our options, then don’t it?” I pointed out, instead.

I can still figure something, given time,” Samaire muttered.

Time. Which we had, again, and didn’t have, in justabout equal measures—but I knew enough not to push.

Well, okay; you just go on ahead and do that, then. I need a couple of days to myself, anyhow.”

Why?” Dionne asked, suspiciously.

I shot her a smile. “Oh, nothin’ too strenuous. Just gotta wrap up some…unfinished business.”


*


Obviously, it had already occurred to me that trying to tote Maybelle on top of everything else would be a tad—difficult, at best. So while the Princess dicked around trying to figure out some slightly less morally suspect way to render her otherwise brilliant escape plan’s kicker fully functional, I went ahead and got my pretty May to help lay the seeds of its other components—conceal Abramelin’s SINAH box (SINAH, IRATA, NANIR, AXIRO, HAROQ) somewhere in her regular haunt, the laundry, so’s it could buy us the sort of violent yet short-term distraction we needed to slip the rest of our business past the C.O.s, while they were a bit too conveniently caught up in something else to notice.

According to Abramelin, SINAH meant “hatred”. The SINAH box was thus most often used “to create a general war”—a riot, say—which, because the square wasn’t perfect, wouldn’t go on forever. It’d start slow, working on whatever threads of conflict were already there, ‘til the conflagration finally bloomed into full effect…and really, M-vale was (by definition) just chock full’a people who couldn’t keep it in their pants for long, literally or figuratively, on both sides of the uniformed divide.

Like yourself,” Dionne supplied, when I suggested this tack. To which I simply smiled, freely admitting—

My impulse control can be somewhat inconsistent, dependin’ on circumstances.”

Yeah, I hear that happens a lot, with people who end up in jail.”

It does. Welcome to the curve, ladies.”

Naturally, though, there was a second element to trusting Maybelle with the SINAH square—mainly, that it got her out of my hair long enough for me to go through her stuff, and get some of her hair. Then get naked and take a steamy trip through the shower-room, where I rifled the discarded brush of the next long-haired woman I saw: In this case, a hot little Latina Queens baller named Felicia Suarez who saw me hovering near her stuff and scowled like she would’ve happily thrown down with me right there and then, if only the floor hadn’t’ve been so damn wet.

Stay on your own side, mami,” she told me. “I ain’t lookin’ to switch teams.”

I shrugged, thinking: Hmmm. Too bad for you, then, darlin’—‘cause you may be in for somewhat of a surprise.

By chow-time, when Maybelle drifted back my way, I’d already had more’n enough opportunity to tie the two of ‘em together by those two locks of hair in a classic holler lust-knot. And sure, she was just as attentive as ever, ‘till she glanced up to see Felicia comin’. A stammered excuse later, Maybelle went off to get “another chocolate milk”, and didn’t come back ‘til count; the two of ‘em disappeared under the stairs for maybe half an hour, re-emerging with disordered hair and their shirts tucked back in wrong only to head in opposite directions, fast, and blushing; sort of cute, when you thought about it. Though probably a bit offputting for them.

That was…really crude,” said Samaire—who’d seen me snickering to myself, and obviously wondered what the joke was—after she’d finally figured out what just happened.

Could’a just made ‘em kill each other, and solved both our problems,” I pointed out. But she kept on shaking her head, like a damn looming metronome.

You don’t have to do things like that,” she said, finally. “To be like that. You just…don’t.”

Probably not; I just am. You too, gal. And one of these days, you really gonna have to start to relax, lay back and enjoy it.” I paused. “’Sides, you do kill your own. Don’t you?”

Dionne, quickly: “They’re not our own.”

“’Course not, Lady Di. But then again…I wasn’t talkin’ to you.”

Another head-shake, but slower this time. I saw something nasty bloom in back of Samaire Cornish’s too-calm eyes, and felt my heart leap in recognition—a shark ill-hid under blue water, sniffing ‘round for blood.

We kill monsters, not people.”

Not even people who are monsters?” When she didn’t answer: “And what about the half-monsters, Princess—the low-down dirty ‘breeds, like you ‘n’ me? But I don’t suppose you wanna look too close at that one, now, do ya?” I laughed out loud. “Gal, you got issues.”

And now Samaire was watching me close, like she was studying hard on how good my head would look, severed and stick-set. Took her a beat yet just to collect herself far enough to say—

My Dad killed my Mom for getting raped by demons, Ms. Chatwin. So yes, my feelings about heritage are… complicated.”

Uh huh? Well, my Momma killed my not-Daddy for bein’ human, pretty much. That, and he owed her money.”

Dionne stepped in between us, then, clowning hat on firm. “See?” she said, lightly. “It’s like I always told you, Sami—never lend to family.”

Good save; even Samaire had to smirk a bit at that, boiling off the tension. But it didn’t surprise me much, even so, when—later that same afternoon—I stepped into the mailroom supply closet pushing the cart before me with one hip, only to find Dionne’s shank suddenly pressing up against my carotid.

Listen up, bitch,” Dionne began, a bare voice in the dark, low and grim and even. “I know how you think I’m some kind of dead weight ‘cause my blood’s a hundred percent human, but here’s the deal—we get out, we give you a head start, and that’s all. You’re a monster, we’re monster-killers. End of story. Nod if you understand me.”

I did, quick-smart. “Won’t happen again,” I managed, voice thin with effort.

Good.” The blade drew back—but she leaned forward nevertheless, whispering right in my ear: “Oh yeah, and by the way…try to fuck with my little sister again, and I’ll cut your damn tits off.”

Message received, loud and clear.”

Better be,” she told me. And was gone, into that same darkness, long before I could get up the nerve to look ‘round.


*


On some level, I truly do think I believed I was doing Maybelle a favor—but I also know she didn’t see it as such, because for the next couple of days she followed me around, alternating frantic make-out sessions with Felicia with equally frantic apologies to me. On the surface, she seemed genuinely horrified both to have “cheated” on me in the first place and by her utter inability to not keep on doing so, any and every chance she got; at base, she was scared shitless I might kick her to the curb, so’s she’d be back out on the market again, with no one to protect her at all.

Think you might be doin’ Felicia somewhat of a disservice there, darlin’,” I pointed out. “She seems a loyal sort, from everything I’ve heard; I’m sure she’ll stand by you.”

Don’t make fun of me, A-Cat! I just…why did I do that? I just don’t understand…”

Well, c’mon, gal: Seriously, it’s okay. You two seem very happy together.”

But I’m not! A-Cat, please don’t cut me loose, please. Please.”

And there I was, still trying to be nice, but really; this was all getting somewhat ridiculous.

Maybelle,” I said, “you just need to step off, right now. Stand on your own two. It’s pitiful.”

I just walked away and left her standing there, lips trembling, with nary a backwards glance. And the very next time I saw her was when Guard Curzon came by our cell, as per the Warden’s request, to take me to the morgue.

It’s harder to kill yourself in M-Vale than you might think, ‘specially if you’re dumb. But she’d managed it, nonetheless: Drank a bleach cocktail, industrial-strength, and crawled in between two heavy machines to wait it out, making sure nobody’d find her ‘til the worst was long over. She didn’t look too kissable, afterwards, what with her mouth all gone blue and vomit in her long, blonde hair. Still, I bent down so we were nose to nose, shooting Curzon a glance that penetrated even his rhino skin; made him step back, shut the door halfway behind him, and give us some time alone.

To this day, I’m not all too sure what I really felt for her, if anything—though I certainly did appreciate the effort she put into things of an intimate nature, ‘specially where I was concerned. But at the time, all I could think was—

Guess she really did LOVE me—how ‘bout that. I mean…fancy.

Turns out, Maybelle didn’t just stay with me ‘cause I made it impossible for her to be elsewhere; she was mine ‘cause she wanted to be, all along. Unlikely. Surprising.

depressing.

Yet potentially useful, all the same.

I rummaged ‘round in my bra for an empty aspirin bottle I’d found on the infirmary floor one day and managed to keep hid, a secret bit of inexplicable contraband saved for just such an occasion, through all the subsequent strip-searches in between. Slid my thumb to line both triangular childproof seals up, and popped the lid. After which I leant down to the china-pale curl of Maybelle’s ear, closed and dumb now as any empty snail-shell, and murmured into it:

O lenti, lenti curite noctus equii…come back to me but a spell, honey, ‘fore you go gentle into that good-night. Shed that cocoon on your way to wings. Break off just some tiny unnecessary bit of yourself and leave it here, for me, to remember you by.”

Took but a second or two for my words to reach her, trailing down the snarled and fading synapses of her dead brain. And then I saw it right at the back of her throat, a dim light flickering between her stained teeth, on the necrotized black skin of her tongue—some merest fragment of sweet Maybelle Eileen Pine’s soul, like a fluttering luminous moth, snared in her very last wisp of earthly breath; dull as a sub-molecular Los Alamos half-spark, powerful beyond Oppenheimer’s fondest dreams yet struggling still against death’s inertial pull, its foul gravity. Trying blindly to force its way up to me who loved it, against all hope, or logic…

I sucked what was left of Maybelle’s pathetic little soul in hard, lip to lip, so close I felt the bleach yet left there start to crisp my skin. Then spat it right back out into the aspirin bottle, along with a smear of my own black blood, to keep it trapped there ‘til I needed it.

And: “Thank you muchly, baby girl,” I sang out, briskly, straightening again. “Never think, wherever you do end up, that I’m not grateful for your sacrifice—because I really, really am.”

Like I said—didn’t seen that one comin’, though maybe I should’ve. But I surely did appreciate the gesture, all the same.

Your jolt, Princess,” I told Samaire, much later, as I placed the bottle in her hands.


*


The riot broke out on a Tuesday, over in the mess hall—something about somebody either encroaching on somebody else’s territory or looking a bit too hard at someone else’s woman, which soon enough swelled to embrace the shank-wielding triple-header of all good prison conflicts: Race, face, personal space. Not that I was there to witness it first-hand, of course…since I knew enough to avoid getting myself inconveniently locked down before all the fun began, I’d already made sure to turn Guard Curzon’s piggy eyes firmly back on me, long before that particular storm ever started to break.

So here we were instead, in that same supply closet, deep in congress—his version thereof, anyhow—when the alarms went off; he jumped for his gun and stick, only to find ‘em suddenly both in my hands, instead. Then went backing away from me at an awkward half-shuffle, with his pants down ‘round his knees and his dick flapping free, ‘til he ended up just where I wanted him—right overtop the most sinister of Abramelin’s squares, which S.L. MacGregor Mathers says ‘should never be made use of’, and must be buried in a place where the intended victim will walk over it in order to work to fullest capacity:

CASED—overflowing of unrestrained lust;

AZOTE—enduring;

BOROS—devouring, gluttonous;

ETOSA—idle, useless;

DESAC—to overtake and stick close.

The CASED square can render its wielder invisible, under the right circumstances (along with gaining them access to all nearby hidden treasures, works of art and statuary), so at first I’d thought of that…’til the Princess herself had pointed out a peculiar secondary characteristic of the square which might be just as useful to our cause, given the restrictions we were laboring under. Or even more so.

As Curzon’s foot made contact, he froze stock-still, unable to shift a quarter-inch further either way. “Uh,” he said at the feel of it, intelligently. Then: “Oh, my God. What the good Goddamn shit Hell?”

I just smiled, feeling my own skin ripple as his form flowed up and over mine, from face to naughty parts and everything in between. “’Lo, Erroll,” I said. “How’s it hangin’?”

He gaped at me a while, not even resisting when I unbuttoned his shirt, shucked the rest of his pants down and gently encouraged him to kick his boots off, too, like some five-foot-ten toddler. Finally, he observed—with the stunned yet slightly self-pleased air of somebody who’s just figured out what the word hidden in that big Saturday morning paper jumble must be—

“—you really are a witch.”

Yup. Now, how ‘bout takin’ one last ride on the ol’ skin snake, just for luck?”

“…what?”

Aw, don’t fret, cupcake—you ain’t actually my type, anyhow. Sleep.”

Thus, all tricked out in Guard Curzon drag, I hiked up “my” key-belt and headed for the workshop. Passed Guard Bremner on the way—ensnared by a howling knot of women, caught in the very manhood-destroying act of getting beat down and having his shit took by unarmed vagina-bearers. “Erroll, help!” he yelled at me, as I went by; I shot him the double finger, and kept right on going.

The Cornishes I found backed into in a corner, shoulder to shoulder, kicking and punching at all comers like some well-trained Ultimate Fighter tag-team. And: “You two, warden’s office!” I yelled, discharging “my” weapon into the air, only to barely avoid being flattened in the resultant rush for the door.

Which is how we finally came, at long last, to the point of the whole damn exercise: Trading letters forth and back, each to each, like some calligraphy lesson from Hell, while Maybelle’s captive soul-fragment flickered and spat and flared in sympathy like a late-night TV-blue bug-light. While that same static charge buzz tuned up and down our bodies, meshing us together in a true witches’ cradle of probability strings, drawing sparks. I could see Dionne’s back-muscles twitch with tension, as the free ends of her hair started to lift; saw Samaire’s blue eyes darken yet once more as her bad blood rose to meet mine, studying me like I was some book she had to strain just in order to read, and wasn’t even sure she really wanted to, when all was said and done. But it wasn’t exactly like she could stop, either…

And me looking right on back, thinking: Oh, you wanna think you’re like HER, that you’re NOT like me…but truth is, Princess, it’s the whole other way ‘round, ‘cause the only thing you and Miss Dee really got in common’s the pussy you both slid out of. You just want to be normal, so bad it keeps you up nights, taste of it like a mouthful of blood; Hell, I can’t blame you for that. But one day, all those restraining tattoos, all that save-your-soul script you got all over you? They’re gonna just flare up and crisp off, like paper in fire…

(Like a tower falling, struck by lightning, now and forever more. Like Babylon. Like Charn.)

yeah. JUST like that.

And then, then—that’s when we’re really gonna get to see some fun.

Charging each other up, winding that phantom winch of combined power ever higher, higher, higher. ‘Til our fingertips met across the paper and our heels began to lift, describing a slow, concentric circle in the air like we was two antimatter planets drawn into orbit, an incipient black hole twisting reality’s fabric ‘til it bent and broke. A paradox waiting to happen.

A howl of wind from nowhere, brisk and bleak and bone-stripping, as the lights pulsed and the sirens wailed on; it was completed, as that poor Daddy-betrayed fool Jesus Christ would say. The SATOR box was done.

I laughed out loud, hair cracking like a whip. And heard Samaire yelling to Dionne even from the very depths of her frenzy, over it all: “NOW, DEE, NOW—NOW NOW NOW NOW, DO IT DO IT DO IT—DO IT, DO IT GODDAMN NOW!”

Dionne raised the square, snug in the whirling widdershins circle of our arms, and spoke the words, her merely human voice near to cracking with strain. And we were off, gone, spiralling fast through time and space, hovering through the fog and the filthy air—out of M-vale at last, chased and dragged by Abramelin’s devils and angels alike, while Maybelle’s soul blew/boiled off in the other direction with a thin, despairing cry…

Samaire had her eyes closed, but Dionne had hers open; I made sure of that. So when I hove in to kiss Samaire, before either of them knew enough to protest—sudden as rape, my tongue hook-probing deep, scratching on hers like oh-so-voluptuous velcro—there was no way Dionne could stop herself from doing just what she would have under any other circumstances: Lunge to thrust herself between, SATOR box forgotten in her haste, still trailing from the same fist she was aiming for my jaw.

It touched us both at once—repelling factor back on full, with no Maybelle for protection—and hurled us to the four winds’ tornado-churned quarters, faster than thought; Dionne one way, Samaire and I the absolute opposite. We came down hard, falling fast into black. Then awoke later—much later—all on the cold hill’s side…

with no one left near to hold onto, in this dim twilight world, but each other.


*


Samaire looked over at me, head hung down, her eyes like bruises. “Where’s…Dionne?” She managed, at last.

Dunno,” I said, fighting my own fair share of post-spell-travel nausea. “Could be…anywhere, really.”

She shook her head. “The SATOR box…must’ve touched us. Thrown us…ugh, Jesus.” Rolling onto her knees, she heaved upwards, gained her feet and stood there, weaving. “Where…?”

I shrugged—then spat, and wished I hadn’t. “Damn if I know. Sorta looks like…Alabama, I had to take a guess.” Clawed my own way to standing, using a handy tree, and tried a weak version of my normal charming grin out on her: “Aw, but don’t you worry none, pretty gal—given all that excitement we left behind us, I’ll bet you five bucks she already must’ve dropped it.”

You don’t get it, Alleycat. I need my damn sister!”

And: For WHAT, exactly? I could’ve said. ‘Cause you feel guilty you can do things she can’t, and never will? ‘Cause you’re so all-fired hot to get back to killin’ things that’re more like you than she’ll ever be, just ‘cause your old man taught you to? Same old man ended up turning your Momma into hash, as I recall, ‘cause he couldn’t stand having another creature’s fingerprints left on her…and that was just too bad, by Dionne’s standards, wasn’t it? Too bad for your Momma. Too damn bad for YOU…

If this actually was Alabama, I knew a hill somewhere ‘round within walking distance where I could surely introduce her to the Daddy we both shared, for what I knew would be the first time. Put his one hand on the crown of her head, the other on her ankle, and know he’d answer each and every question she might have for him in between. We could be true sisters yet, dance at the Sabbat in our naked skins and sup on broiled corpse-flesh; ride the night astraddle like those carrion storm-birds of old Greece, seeking always for prey, and scour this land of any fool who dared think fire, or salt, or a whimpered prayer to some unhearing God would ever keep him and his safe for long from such as she and me.

But: Looking at her now, I knew it was far too late for that. Her hands were clenched against me, closed and hard like her heart; them ropes of Crossing the River were dug in too deep between the layers of her skin for anything short of a roadside conversion to ever disarm ‘em—though it’d have to be one gained on the way to Dis, Hell’s own lead-walled capital city, ‘course, rather than on the way to Damascus.

Ah well, I thought. And said, out loud—

Suppose you probably oughtta go back for her, then. While you still can.”

She knew what I’d done, then, without a doubt; got it all in one, like the brilliant bitch she was. And kept on looking at me nonetheless, appraisingly—less with hate than a vague sort of sorrow, albeit one which came liberally admixed with a caldera’s worth of barely-veiled, magma-hot rage.

“…I’m gonna find you, too, Allfair Chatwin,” she told me, without much affect, as the air between her long fingers began to spark and whine again. “Eventually.”

To which I nodded my head, briefly, in what probably looked—from her angle—like acceptance. And replied:

Oh, but not too soon, I hope. Princess.”


*


Took half a second for the rift to pop open again, behind her, and the other half to close once she’d stepped back through. Then I was all by my lonesome in the dark, dark woods once more, a state of affairs which sure did seem to call for immediate relocation—so I started out walking, whistling softly; an old holler tune my Momma always used to sing me, back in the day, on empty nights like these…


Don’t the moon look pretty, shining down through the trees…/

Said don’t the shining moon look pretty, Lord, shining down through the trees…/

Oh, I can see my baby, Lord Lord Lord…but he can’t see me…


I went looking around for a highway, found one. Started walking. And after a while—

well, that’s when you picked me up. Didn’t ya?

Turn in here, darlin’.


THE END