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Rob

“No,” says Rob, at the threshold.

Darlene’s already inside, working a mortar and pestle. In an arc to her side are slivers of white bone; to the other are tiny plastic bags. Splayed out on the floor next to her is the angel, white and dessicated. Its face is hidden. All its hands are crooked, its endless recursive wings, the savage spine–

“Don’t get squeamish,” grunts Salem, and shoves him. He trips and crashes, cuts his hands. White dust. He looks up at Darlene, and his eyes are black.

“You haven’t taught me anything,” he whispers. Darlene’s face is suddenly fearful.

Rob

Rob can just see the acupuncture needles from the corners of his eyes, when he blinks out tears. The sewing is less sophisticated. It’s thick black upholstery thread, big X-shaped stitches, and they’re starting to bleed.

He’s screaming through his nose, but his limbs and jaw are locked up by Salem’s expertise. He can feel the paper corner Darlene slipped under his tongue. She’s writing something on his forehead, now: four characters. Salem bites the thread and ties it off.

“Goodbye,” Darlene says a little sadly, and wipes away the first letter.

Rob’s alone. The needles are gone. Everything’s white.

Rob

“Thought you were supposed to use dirt from a grave,” says Rob, a bit hopelessly.

“You see any graveyards around here?” snaps Darlene.

“Yeah, behind the church at 28th and Madison–”

“Shut up,” she says. “Graveyard dirt. Goofer dust. Huh. You might get lucky and find one who got buried and wasn’t dead yet, but most of the time that’s stale power. Now this…” She scoops another fistful of sand into the baggie. “This is a thousand people, all sticking their deaths into the same soil. See?”

Rob notices a Kool butt in the bag, all magenta on one end.

Maya

Maya screams, to her shame, when Salem’s hatpin stabs through her hand and into the wall. “Quiet,” he says, and slaps her. Her ears ring; she almost misses the tinkling crash.

Rob is up, white and sweating, on his knees. He holds Boulevard’s watch. He’s smashed its face and bent up its second hand, which keeps ticking, crookedly.

“You won’t,” says Darlene. “You can’t.”

He wets two fingers with his blood and holds them above it; his eyes are wide, and very cold. Darlene and Maya hold their breath.

But Salem doesn’t. He snarls, and blurs; and then Maya goes deaf.

Rob

Darlene sneezes as soon as he walks into the squat. “You stink of sandalwood!”

Rob blinks and cautiously sniffs his own arm. “No I don’t. What, you mean my soap?”

“You wash too much,” she grumbles. “How should I teach you to track when you’ll only smell yourself?”

“I’ll get some unscented,” he says, glancing around. It’s more a monument to dry rot than a room, but Darlene seems satisfied living here for now. She and her associates are as disgusted by his lifestyle as he by theirs, he thinks, as Salem enters horribly, cleaning his teeth with a straight razor.

Rob

The words are barred to him now, but as Darlene said once, it’s all in the hands.

The men he pickpockets never know. A low fluttering gesture and they stop seeing him; a twist of invisible threads, and they forget they’re carrying anything at all. Rob collects from them like a quiet, shuffling raccoon.

In his apartment, a figure is beginning to resolve itself: reading glasses, gloves, pocketwatch and fob. From one man at the YMCA he got black dress pants, and from another, patent leather shoes. The pockets are filling with coins, charms and handkerchiefs.

Rob calls the figure Boulevard.

Rob

But when they get to the middle of the bridge there’s a piece missing, and worse: the other side is, somehow, about five feet off to the left.

Rob’s puzzled. “Earthquake?” he says. “But it looks like a clean break…”

“Stupidity,” cackles Darlene. “They each built their own side wrong and didn’t know until they got out here. ‘Friendly cities,’ hah! Only enemies can ever meet in the middle, I could have told them that.”

She jumps the diagonal easily–a jump she really shouldn’t be able to make–and strides on without looking back. Rob eyes the gap and swallows.

Rob

Despite her sharpness, scorn and blatant psychosis, Darlene is growing on Rob. There’s a pride and a spark in her that he can respect, if not exactly like.

He doubts there’s anything of the sort in Salem, though.

The man has distinct, nearly visible rings of smell, like Saturn, each level adding a complex new flavor to the horror: fish, wet dog, urine, ancient sweat and, innermost, breath. Right now, Rob thinks he can actually smell the decay of the man’s teeth.

“What’s the matter, little snack?” Salem leers, thrusting the stick at him. “We got a soft spot for froggies?”

Rob

Darlene is staring up at something when Rob arrives. A flock of starlings bursts from a streetside tree, whirls through a complicated figure, and settles again on a near-identical tree nearby.

Darlene’s lips move silently, then she says “Darkness is coming… darkness and heat. Death in the night, and betrayal.”

“Ornithomancy?” asks Rob.

“What?” she snaps, turning.

“Er, divination by birds. Flight patterns or, um. Guts.”

“Ridiculous. Birds are stupid, how would they know the future?”

“But weren’t you just–”

“No,” she says, “there,” and gestures beyond the starlings: a web of bright graffiti, as complex and dense as Sanskrit.

Rob

“Do not return the gaze of a man missing a hand.” Darlene hustles down the alley. “Keep fresh holly over door and windows, for protection against those uninvited. If you are pursued, cross running water, and if you hear another curse, touch wood–”

“You said you’d teach me,” grumbles Rob, stepping around broken glass. “If I listen to you, I’ll be afraid of my own shadow!”

“Be afraid of your shadow,” says Darlene sharply. “Whenever possible, watch it, and keep streetlights to your back.”

“What? Why?”

“Because,” says fishy breath in his ear, “you’ll know if there’s someone behind you.”

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