Something More Than Night (Excerpt)

Check out Ian Tregillis’s Something More Than Night, available now from Tor Books! Part Dashiell Hammett and part Thomas Aquinas, Something More Than Night is a noir detective story starring fallen angels, the heavenly choir, nightclub stigmatics, a priest with a dirty secret, a femme fatale, and the Voice of God.

Somebody has murdered the angel Gabriel. Worse, the Jericho Trumpet has gone missing, putting Heaven on the brink of a truly cosmic crisis. But the twisty plot that unfolds from the murder investigation leads to something much bigger: a con job one billion years in the making.

Something More Than Night was named a Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Book of 2013. Be sure to read their spotlight piece for more on how Ian Tregillis decided to stretch his skills with an angelic noir!

 

 

1
You Should Hear the Funeral Choir

 

They murdered one of the Seraphim tonight.

Gabriel streaked across the heavens like a tumbling meteor, his corpse a fireball of sublimated perfection. He had been a creature of peerless majesty, but now the throes of his death etched the firmament.

His wings, all six, shed embers of incandescent grace as he skidded across the night sky. And when he opened his mouths to scream, the Earth could do naught but shudder. The roar of his lion’s visage registered a 5.2 on the Richter, six hundred miles east of Kyoto. The bellow of his ox’s muzzle roused a dormant volcano in Hawaii. The shriek of his eagle aspect crumbled chimneys in Seattle. The inaudible cry from his human face left people from Melbourne to Perth weeping in troubled slumber, dreaming of colors that no longer existed and sounds that hadn’t been heard since the Earth was just magma and poison. Meanwhile, turbulence roiled a cloud of dark matter sleeting through the solar system.

But that was Gabriel for you. Platonically perfect, blindingly beautiful. He wasn’t just lovely, he was the kind of lovely that could make a bishop stomp his miter and curse a long blue streak on Easter Sunday.

Don’t believe me? I saw him do it once. On a bet.

Fun guy, Gabby.

Gabriel had been there when the sun emitted its first feeble glow, flapping his wings like a bellows to fan the coals of Creation. After the planets congealed from hot primordial soot, Gabriel’s gentle breath cooled the Earth’s crust. And when the onion-skin atmosphere needed protection, it was Gabriel who stirred the Earth’s molten core with his flaming sword to impel the dynamo that would deflect the ravaging solar wind. He’d serenaded the cyanobacteria that pumped oxygen into the primeval atmosphere and sang a dirge for the dinosaurs.

He had a real fondness for this place. And he never begrudged the monkeys.

Yet for all that, if any of the monkeys had bothered to notice, Gabriel’s death would have looked to them like fragments of space junk entering the atmosphere. Yeah. That’s how they perceive the violent death of an immortal being: unremarkable junk. Was he a spent rocket booster skimming through the ionosphere? Or maybe the shredded remains of a kinetic harpoon cleaving the aurora?

But nobody looks up anymore. That stopped soon after the last satellites died. In the minds of most monkeys, thirty years of meteor showers was weak tea compared to the loss of decent long-term weather forecasts. Hard to blame them. This joint could have used some decent climate monitoring.

A chill wind whipped the Bass Strait into a froth, driving the weight of melted ice shelves to thunder against the floodwalls a few miles to my south. I tightened the collar of my overcoat, pulled the fedora lower over my brow, and retreated into the meager shelter of a laneway. A trio of Australasian businessmen shuffled past me, their guilty downcast eyes reflecting the neon glow from a topless bar. (Looked like real neon, too. Don’t see that much anymore. It’s been all OLEDs for decades.) None of these men was the poor sap I’d come to find, so I lit another pill and watched the light show overhead.

The heat of unbeing, the friction of conflicting Magisteria, crumbled Gabriel’s wings to ash. The ash sparkled on the way down like a rain of silver moondust.

It became snow.

The flakes sparkled in the dim, inconstant light of the laneway. And wasn’t that fitting: his wings, those glorious divine pinions, eternally aglow with the echoes of Creation—more luminous than sunrise on burnished platinum, more delicate than starlight washing against a dewy cobweb—reduced in their final moments to parroting the epileptic flicker of antique signs advertising fifty-dollar joy girls.

Some might shrug and say, that’s the monkeys for you. That there’s nothing so sublime they can’t find a way to defile it. But I prefer to think they just don’t know any better. So did Gabriel.

I caught a whiff of rose attar and old books. That was his scent. One of them. It was clear and sharp for a second, but then it mixed with the odor of overflowing rubbish from the dim sum place across the lane. The garbage won. Gabriel was fading.

Wind muffled the double ding of a street tram. The rattle and buzz of the tram dopplered up the laneway while overhead the disintegration of Gabriel’s halo momentarily outshone the full moon. The noise receded with the tram and resolved into the staccato clatter of footsteps.

Time was running short. I studied the newcomers: a mugg with a bit of high-class fluff on his arm.

Ink on his neck, and his heavy coat swayed against the wind. Something solid in his pocket. Was he rodded? Maybe the twist at his elbow liked the thrill of running with a wrong gee.

As for her… She stood a thumb shorter than he in high-heeled boots, a tall thin statue wrapped in a wasp-waisted black coat that might have been cashmere. When the wind whipped the hem of her coat, I glimpsed smooth leather hugging her calves. Nice gams. Curls like brushed copper fluttered beneath the brim of her cloche. Her stride was firm and purposeful, like that of a CEO or dominatrix, moving without hesitation on the slick snow-dusted paving stones. She walked like the world was made of red carpet.

They headed for a gin mill across the street and a few paces down from my alcove. He grabbed the door. She paused, tugged his elbow, turned a porcelain face to the sliver of night above the lane.

“Hey, look,” she said. “Up there.”

Okay. Almost nobody looks up anymore.

He took all of two seconds to glance at the sky and witness an angel’s murder. “It’s just junk.”

See what I mean?

“No…” A flicker of doubt tugged her brows together. “This is different. Can’t you see?”

“C’mon. It’s cold out here, Moll.”

Moll? Go figure. Another gust swirled ash into my eye. I flicked my cigarette aside and reassessed the flametop.

Her eyes were a little too close together, but they sparkled in the light of Gabriel’s death. Her lips parted in a posture of wonder. It wasn’t junk. She didn’t know what she was seeing—no human could—but she knew damn well it wasn’t junk.

She was no good for me. There was something going on behind her eyes. But her steady… now he had promise. His lack of initiative gave me high hopes.

The wind had extinguished my cigarette before it hit the ground. I fished out another. Overhead, Gabriel’s debris tore the night. I approached the couple. Slowly.

“Got a light, Jack?” The mugg frowned. I gestured with the unlit pill in my hand. “The damn wind, you know?”

“Yeah,” he said. He dug into his free pocket, the one without the iron. The twist released his arm and gave me a quick once-over, eyes narrowed with a suspicion she probably reserved for unwelcome suitors and hard-luck swells. She retreated into the laneway for a better view of the light show above. When she turned her face to the sky, her neck assumed the pale graceful curve of a swan’s back. A burgundy scarf fluttered against a pendant sheltered in the hollow of her throat. Red ice sparkled on her ears and neck. It matched the scarf. She knew how to put herself together. Gabby would have liked her.

I put the pill to my lips, leaned into the flame of his lighter. The sharp smell of butane briefly washed away the smells of rotting dim sum and dying angel. I puffed, wondering if the dame could smell the latter.

“Thanks,” I said, and made fleeting eye contact. Nothing provocative. Didn’t want him to think I was sly on him. Didn’t want him to ape out, either, especially with the iron he carried. I hate getting shot, and tonight of all nights I was plenty low already. But I wanted to read him, and get a sense of the human behind those eyes. I kept my glamour dialed down—what I had left of it, anyway—so as not to send him into a wing-ding. I needed him lucid. Couldn’t have him drooling on the fluff. Up close, that coat did look like cashmere.

Now the fixers, the sharp shooters with the industrial-grade glamours—like Gabriel, Rafael, Uriel, and the rest—they could lobotomize a monkey with less than a wink. Which is one reason they don’t come down here much anymore. Too messy. (That, and on account of Gabby’s being dead.) In addition, I think they tired of spawning a new religion every time they took a stroll on Earth no matter how carefully they soft-footed the natives. It got stale.

The tension went out of the mugg’s shoulders. A low frown creased his face, but it was loose and slack like a diaper tied by a drunken bachelor uncle. Then he shook his head, realized he still held the lighter, and clicked it shut. The whole thing was over before his girl deigned to look at us again.

I got what I needed. I was looking for somebody who wouldn’t rock the boat in a time of crisis. Somebody inclined to go with the flow, who wouldn’t ask a lot of questions. A dull little trooper, in other words. Such were my marching orders. This guy was perfect. He wasn’t burning with curiosity about anything.

Not that I had a lot of precedent to guide me. Nobody had ever done this before, far as I knew.

So that was me. Good old Bayliss: charting new ground. And none too thrilled about it. I’d been strong-armed into a dirty job and couldn’t wait to leave it behind. I’d pretend tonight never happened, pretend Gabriel was still up there carving graffiti into the celestial spheres.

So I settled on the loogan. Yeah. He’d do. He’d do just fine, the poor sap. Also, I didn’t have much choice. Gabriel was just about gone.

“What’s got you so worked up, sister? Sky falling?”

Wanted to keep her distracted for a few seconds while her steady shook off the last of the glamour. Even a low-rent shine like yours truly can take a moment to wear off if the receiving end has had a snootful of something strong. And he had. I could smell the hooch on his breath. The pug was tight. And, judging from the veins in his eyes, no stranger to it. Probably on his way to being a full-blown hard case. I was doing him a favor.

Now it was the twist’s turn to frown at me. It was colder than the snowflakes tangled in her hair, that frown, slim and sharp as a letter opener. It was meant for cutting, and honed from frequent use. Brother, what a dish.

“What?”

Her voice matched the frown so perfectly they might have come as a set from a high-end store. A real tony place. I pointed up.

“See something swell?”

Looking straight at me, she said, “No. No I don’t.”

Ouch. Maybe Gabby and I weren’t the only ones having a bad night. They seemed down in the mouth, so I let it slide. What a pair of mopes. Under other circumstances I might have hung out a sympathetic ear. But it was moot. We had bigger concerns.

“C’mon, Moll,” he said. “It’s cold out here.”

I bowed. “Thanks, pal. See ya around.”

They went into the gin mill.

I stayed outside, drawing smoke into my lungs until the final cinders of shattered Seraphim faded from the junkyard sky. I finished my cigarette while Gabriel’s final echoes dissipated. The light of a distant quasar twinkled with chromatic aberration as the fine-structure constant gave him a farewell salute from the twenty-first decimal place.

Everything fell silent for an instant. Even the wind. The world hiccuped, like a phonograph needle skipping its track. The lights flickered. So did the distribution of prime numbers. The Pleroma had come unbalanced. My clock was ticking.

The snow came down harder. Big, thick flakes that fluttered like tufts of cotton. I reached for a falling snowflake and put a silver feather in my pocket. Figured I could hock it for a bit of the folding stuff. And besides. Gabby didn’t need it anymore, did he?

I tipped my hat at the sky, stamped out the pill, and followed the pair inside. I’d been here before, otherwise I might have been surprised that it wasn’t the low-rent dive suggested by the establishments across the way. It was the kind of place where hard drinkers came to wrestle their demons while fallen angels drank alone in dark smoky corners. All it needed was a whisky-voiced chanteuse and maybe a piano with thumbtacks in the hammers.

I liked the music in this joint. They played old stuff here. Louis Armstrong tooted away on his horn while I weighted down my usual stool. When that man got going, he could make you forget the world, forget everything but his horn. Nobody danced, though. Dancing to the old stuff is a forgotten skill.

They knew me here. The bartender was a former professor of English. Long story starring a gimlet-eyed coed. Sometimes bartenders need a sympathetic ear, too; amazing, the things you can learn. And there are worse things in life than the gratitude of a good tapster. He nodded and slid a shot glass to me, but I wasn’t in the market for a belt of rye. I bought the bottle.

The couple sat in a corner booth visible from my spot at the bar.

Couldn’t see too well through the haze, but they were sitting close and having an urgent conversation. She was doing more of the talking than her steady. He listened, slowly nodding his head. Whether that was agreement or the hooch I couldn’t say. Turns out he wasn’t rodded. The heavy thing in his pocket was a bottle. What a cheapskate, stiffing the joint on its corkage fee. He served himself from it, but his girl refused. I made a note to find an overcoat with deeper pockets.

Armstrong packed it in for the night. A trio of penitentes, two joes and a jane, took the floor and started writhing to the beat of centuryold trip-hop. Their shirts had long slashes across the back, revealing the high-end cosmetic surgery and scarification that put antiseptically sculpted wounds on their shoulder blades. Still fresh, still bleeding. They even had little tufts of downy feathers matted in the gore. I suppose it made them look, to somebody who didn’t know any better, like angels who’d just had their wings sheared off.

The shorn-wing look was big this year. Don’t ask me why. Few years back, it was fake stigmata. I preferred that. The wing thing made me think of Gabby. But the penitentes never got the wing placement right. The Seraphim have wings, sure, but not on their shoulders. Nor did the monkeys ever go for more than two. Never could figure what those loonybirds were so penitent about, but I had yet to see one who knew his Aquinas. Or if they did, they never committed to the role. They’d been around for a while, but I’d never seen anything halfway correct.

You never saw a sexless penitente. (No. No matter what they did to themselves, it was never chaste when they wiggled on the dance floor.) Never saw one with six wings, or wearing only a pair of gossamer feathers to cup his nethers. Never saw one who’d opted for leathery bat wings, or had a couple extra limbs sewn on. Never saw one with a sheet of flame where her face should be.

But tonight of all nights I didn’t mind the penitentes. Nobody could tell if I was watching the couple in the booth or fascinated with all the grinding on the dance floor. Maybe it was a bit of both.

I drank to the memory of my murdered friend. And then I drank some more.

I got tight. Very tight.

Which might explain what happened next. But in my defense, it had been a lousy day. One for the record books.

So, while I got tight and the dancers got sweaty, the twist and the hard gee had a tiff in the corner. No screaming. No throwing. But she was flashing that frown like a rapier, and the grip on his arm turned her knuckles white. He sank further and further into himself. When he moved, he moved fast, but he didn’t reach for her. He reached for his bottle. He emptied it down his throat and barged past the dancers.

She grabbed her coat and followed. A sleeve flapped against her drink when she flung the cashmere over her shoulders. But she was already halfway to the door, and most eyes were on her or the penitentes, so only I witnessed how her glass toppled over the edge and summersaulted to a perfect landing on the floorboards, the cocktail inside still pristine as a nun’s knickers.

Entropy had just decided to take five, which meant the fabric of mortal reality was unraveling. It was time to move. I enjoyed one last swig and followed the show outside.

The sky was quiet. Back to the usual erratic flicker as pieces of aerospace debris hit the atmosphere. The celestial fireworks had run their course. Gabriel was gone.

Good-bye, pal.

Snow had fallen just long enough to put a chill on the evening. It felt like the air itself had knocked off for the night, leaving nothing between Earth and stars but the humans and me. The cold flooded my sinuses. I’d been floating on the lingering fumes of oak and fire, but one frigid breath doused the flames and packed my head with ice.

The snow put a hush on everything, as though the city knew it for a portent of unknown significance. Long time since it was cold enough for snow in these parts.

The hard boy zigzagged down the laneway. He slipped in the snow a couple of times. His frail followed just out of arm’s reach so that he didn’t pull her down with him. She was too graceful for that. But she didn’t leave him lying in the gutter. Some guys have all the luck.

Tricky thing, tailing somebody through the laneways. Get too cozy and your birds will fly. Stay too far back and you’ll lose ’em in the tangle of doglegs, alcoves, and unlit stairwells. Shadows fill the lanes day and night. They’re part pedestrian arcade, part flea market, part bodega, part chophouse, part disco. The paths twist through arches and under canopies, meander through the tables of sidewalk brasseries, shrug past card tables laid with gray-market goods. It’s the kind of place where Indonesian businessmen in three-piece duds hock Australian knockoffs of Chinese tech to gullible tourists. The kind of place where freshly dead snakes dangle from hooks in a café window. The kind of place where a marble bank lobby throbs with music from the S&M club hidden behind antique teller windows. The kind of place where on a busy night you can’t take five steps without brushing against somebody. The kind of place where eye contact is a social contract. The kind of place where well-heeled suburbanites come to get a dose of gritty urbanism, thrilling at the glitter and desperation, buying trinkets or a skewer of vat-grown vegetables grilled over a trash fire just to have tangible proof of their excursion, then leaving at the first sight of a penitente weeping blood. The kind of place where you keep one hand on your wallet and the other free to wave off the hucksters. The kind of place where each breath varnishes the back of your throat with the oilyslick cloy of patchouli or the reek of fermented cabbage.

And as I said, I was tight. Not at my best. But I managed to follow the pair toward the muted double ding of a tram stop. The couple headed in the general direction of the chimes. I stumbled after them.

Back in the day, my errand would have been trivial. Could have done it from a distance. But I’d been down here a spell. I was rusty. And anyway I wasn’t sure how this was supposed to work. Wasn’t like I could ask around for advice. I could figure the basics on my own, but I didn’t like the math. Maybe I wasn’t as big a fan of the monkeys as Gabriel had been, but I didn’t wish them ill. All I knew was the only thing worse than doing this job would have been not doing it. So I winged it. Figured the smart money was on physical contact. How was I to know?

I inched closer as the lane spilled into a more reputable thoroughfare. Here Gabriel’s debris had become a dirty slush beneath the tires of the traffic sliding past us. Cars like wheeled soap bubbles jockeyed for position around the accordion twists of serpentine electric trams. An elevated commuter train clattered overhead, ferrying a load of dead-eyes to third-shift jobs.

My mark leaned heavily on his girlfriend when they crossed to the tram stop. But flametop managed to get him through the gauntlet without incident. I slipped once or twice getting myself to the center island. Blame it on the snow. I do. The dame shot another frown in my direction when I finally made it under the plastic canopy. Maybe she recognized me from earlier.

Now, the thing about this part of town is that it’s a touristy area. And tourists will goggle at anything so long as it’s quaint. By “quaint” I mean that some of these interchanges are well over a century old. So the traffic lights at certain intersections—such as where the three of us shivered in the cold sea wind—are toggled by mechanical switches set by the tram conductors. Gotta hand it to human ingenuity. For something so primitive the system works well. Most of the time.

Trams run less frequently at night. Which gave me time to plan my move.

The lockbox controlling signals for trams coming in our direction stood on the far side of a five-way interchange about a hundred feet away. If I hadn’t been stuck down here so long maybe I could have done it better. Maybe things would have turned out differently. But I’d faded. Couldn’t flick the button. Not at that distance. All I had to go on was my glamour and my charming personality.

I waited until the tram stopped at the light. Stepping out to open the box put the conductor’s line of sight in my general direction. That’s when I cranked up the glamour and gave him all I had. At that distance, and given my deterioration, the show wasn’t worth a wooden nickel. But it distracted him just enough to make him forget his purpose. He got back on the tram without pressing the button. Without paying attention to what he was doing.

The cross-traffic had started moving again when the tram bulled through the intersection. Blaring horns shook my mark from his stupor. He and the twist gawked at the commotion.

A line of cars idled alongside the tracks adjacent to our stop, waiting to turn across the tram lines and opposing traffic. Everyone drove slowly on account of Gabriel’s snowfall. Meaning the hackie trying to keep his fare on the road despite the slush was intent on the traffic and not the tram illegally crossing the intersection. Tram had nearly clipped the taxi before the conductor came to his senses. Brakes screeched. Too late. The hackie panicked, threw his cab into reverse. The tram crunched the taxi with a glancing blow. Slick pavement sent the car spinning over the tracks and into our island.

The hard boy just watched it coming.

It was beautiful. I was ready right then and there to pack it in and start making dough in pool halls. What a combination. There are home runs and there are grand slams, but in comparison this was an unassisted triple play on the first day of the season. A work of art. All I had to do was leap over and try to pull the mark aside. I’d fail to save him of course, but the physical contact would tag him just before he died. And the Choir would do the rest: pick him up, dust him off, pat him on the head, and plug the hole left by Gabby’s demise.

So that was my plan. Not too shabby, right? I thought so, too. But it didn’t account for the flametop having the reflexes of a ferret jammed up on speed.

“Martin!”

She was up and yanking him out of harm’s way before I was halfway there. He planted face on the pavement. The taxi spun through the bench and knocked it skew-whiff across the tram stop. Missed him by a good two feet. The girl teetered at the edge of the platform, and nearly fell into the path of the sliding tram. But she caught herself, took a step back, and turned around.

I tripped over her man and bowled straight into her.

Physical contact.

That CEO/dominatrix/red-carpet stride failed her. She lost her footing in the snow for the first and only time since I’d started watching the two of them.

Over the years, I’d heard the occasional talk about how something seemed to unfold in slow motion. Always thought it was baloney. But it isn’t. Windmilling her arms in a desperate bid to keep her balance, she seemed to hover at the edge of the platform for a moment like a scrap of silk caught on the wind. But she wasn’t silk and she wasn’t a hummingbird. She went over backward, still flailing, still staring in surprise at me.

Which is how I came to be looking straight into her eyes when she went beneath the tram.

 

 

2
Mistakes Were Made, Now Let’s Move On

 

Molly Pruett’s dying thought was disappointingly banal: Is that weird guy following us?

But then she was tipping, tipping, tipping and stars overhead were shining, shining, shining—the strange lights in the sky had faded—and metal was screeching, screeching, screeching, and Martin was screaming, screaming, screaming while Molly’s body came apart.

Cold. Sharp. Pressure. Pain.

Followed by darkness. Followed by light. Light so bright it hurt. So bright it should have gone through her eyeballs and set her hair on fire. She flinched away.

Time didn’t pass. It sidled away, sideways, crablike.

She opened her eyes again. She lay on a canopy bed in the bedroom of a little girl.

A sweet breeze from the open window fluttered the curtains and ruffles of fabric bulging from the closet door. Molly knew that scent. Orange blossoms, from the tree outside her bedroom window. Her favorite smell in the world. It smelled like contentment and warmth. It smelled like a life with everything as it should be.

Molly looked again at the lacey mass holding the closet door ajar. It sparkled with sequins. She recognized the frills of a ballet tutu.

As a child she’d liked dresses and frilly things, but hated dolls. She’d only ever had one doll, and it hadn’t lasted long. But there it sat on the dresser, its pinafore torn and gummy and mottled with silvery flakes. Molly had used transparent packing tape to wrap the doll in aluminum foil as a make-believe space suit. She made up better games than anybody else. Even Martin liked to play space war, but he always had to play the Chinese because he was older. Molly got stuck playing the losing side every time.

The whites of the doll’s eyes gleamed a dull red the color of ink from a felt-tip pen. Her suit had been shredded by debris; her eyeballs had ruptured with explosive decompression. Such were the risks of war in Earth orbit.

It was one of the few times their mother had ever raised her voice in the house. The ruined doll had been expensive. But Dad laughed. He’d chuckled about it for years afterward. It angered Mom because she felt he wasn’t supporting her. He felt she was overreacting. They argued about it, but not in front of the children. Never in front of the kids. So Molly had crept upstairs and crouched beside the closed bedroom door to eavesdrop on the secret negotiations of adults.

Thus came Molly’s introduction to the f-word. There she was, already seven years old, which was more than old enough to know all the bad words. Martin was nine, and so of course he knew all about these things. Or so she thought. But this… this was something adults spoke only to each other, in private, in times of anger so acute it could only be whispered.

This, Molly realized, was a Word of Power. It was awesome.

She couldn’t remember what happened after that, but it didn’t matter. The damage had been done. In retrospect, it was amazing their parents had insulated them from that much for that long.

Mom eventually threw the ruined doll in the trash because the sight of it upset her so greatly.

Molly remembered it all. Then remembered still more.

Wait, she thought. That doll went into the compactor over twenty years ago.

Wind ruffled the curtains again. The high, clear ringing of glass bells played counterpoint to the susurration of wind through the orange tree. Dad’s wind chime. That was before Mom had lost her job and they’d had to move way up north to where it was actually cold in the winter and where they couldn’t grow an orange tree. She sniffed the air again. Still orange blossoms, but now there was something else. Something acrid, wrong. Tobacco?

I was ten years old when we moved. She sat up, looked down. She wore footie pajamas. How do I fit in this bed? What’s happening to me?

She glanced around the room. This is impossible, she thought. But it was all there. Things she’d forgotten decades ago. Things she couldn’t have remembered if she tried. The stuffed animals piled high against the dresser… the crayon marks on the wall… the toy chest…

The man leaning in the door, smoking a cigarette.

Snow dusted the shoulders of his trench coat; his old-timey hat dripped meltwater on the carpet. He’d been standing there for a while, shuffling his feet, because the carpet under his shoes was muddy. His eyes were too old for his face.

He blew a smoke ring and raised his hat. “Good morning, angel. Rise and shine.”

Molly flinched. The room changed.

This was darker. More subdued. An adult’s bedroom. The susurration of wind through the orange blossoms became the buzz of traffic on the interstate a couple blocks away. She knew that if she got up and pushed the drapes aside she’d find the lights of downtown Minneapolis glinting back at her. She turned her head to the left. On a nightstand sat the alarm clock she’d dubbed Satan, and which she had gleefully crushed with a brick when she quit her godawful temp job at the warehouse. Molly rolled to her side beneath cool, smooth sheets that caressed her skin like silk. She realized she was naked. The other half of the bed lay empty yet warm. The covers had been pushed back, and the pillow still held the impression where somebody’s head had rested.

She pulled the pillow to her face. It smelled of Ria. Ria who had dumped her after an epic argument on New Year’s Eve. But that was later. But this, this interlude in the old apartment, it was the happiest time of their relationship. She missed Ria.

It felt so real. But so had her childhood bedroom. These weren’t memories. They were too vivid for that. These were random fragments of her life churned up like flotsam and jetsam on a violent surf.

Oh holy shit, she thought. I’m going crazy. Was it a tumor? Something short-circuiting her brain? Had Martin slipped her something?

She sniffed the pillow again. It still smelled like Ria. A long blond hair tickled her nose.

A toilet flushed. Molly felt a little thrill. She sat up to watch Ria return to bed from the en suite bathroom.

A stranger, a man, zipped his trousers and took a seat on the edge of the tub. He watched her through the adjoining doorway. He looked bored. A smoldering cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth. Wisps of smoke curlicued past the tropical-fish shower curtain that Ria had disliked so much. Snowy meltwater had pooled into the cracks between the floor tiles.

He noticed her open eyes. “Hey. You up yet?”

Molly flinched again. “Ah, rats,” he said, and rolled his eyes just as— More memories. Melbourne. A freak snowfall. A traffic accident.

A tram. Martin. A stranger. Falling.

Australia. The funeral. Somebody died—

“Look,” said a voice. “If you’re dead-set on reliving the entire thing, do me a favor. Either do it in order, or let me get a drink first. This jumping around is giving me a migraine. Keep it up and I’ll shoot my cookies on your high school prom.”

I never went to prom, thought Molly.

A pause, punctuated with a strong whiff of cigarette smoke. The voice said, “And warn me before we get to your first period. You’re on your own for that one.”

Molly remembered. She’d fallen under a streetcar. Hadn’t she? In that case…

Holy shit. There really is a God… a drinking, chain-smoking God.…

“Am I crazy?” she whispered.

“Nah. You’re not having an ing-bing, if that’s what’s got you worried. So relax. You’re dead, angel.”

He flicked the cigarette aside. It sailed into the bedroom and fell smoldering to the hardwood floor. A faint sizzle launched a puff of smoke and a scent equal parts wood ash and varnish. Ria would have taken his head off for that. She’d spent weeks refurbishing those floors. In return their landlord had given them two months off the rent.

The man sighed. He ran a hand under the brim of his hat, massaged his forehead. It was a snap-brim fedora, she realized. Very smart, that and the suit. She’d never seen anybody dressed like this. Only in old movies.

“Well, I say dead,” he said, “but it’s more complicated than that. I guess it’s a decent start.”

“I can’t be dead. We’re having a conversation.”

“Uh-huh. Care to explain how it is you’re lying in bed in an apartment building that burned down at the tail end of the last decade?”

Molly remembered. She’d heard about the fire from friends who still lived in the neighborhood. It seemed appropriate that the happiest place she’d ever lived had been reduced to ashes. She and Ria hadn’t broken up yet, but their relationship was in free fall. All she said when Molly told her about the fire was, “My floors. Damn.”

Molly took a second look at the trench-coat man. Those eyes… “Wait. I remember. The tram stop. You were there. You followed us. There was a taxi, I grabbed Martin—”

“Yeah. Uh. About that.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Real sorry I knocked you under that train. But hey, what’s done is done. No point getting sore about it now. Bygones, right?”

“You—”

“Look, angel. I’m gonna level with you. I made a hash of things. Bad. Meant to tag your boyfriend but, well, things happen. It’s a bum rap, I know, but we’re stuck with one another.”

Boyfriend? Oh. “Martin’s my brother.”

“For real? Huh.” He shook his head. “Oh. I’m Bayliss, by the way.” He flicked the brim of his hat with his thumbnail. “How’s tricks?”

“What?”

Bayliss shook his head. Sighed. “Never mind. Point is, I need to get you on your feet and up to speed so that I can forget this day ever happened. You need me to show you the ropes before you gum up the works. So, like I said, we’re stuck with one another, angel.”

Molly clamped her hands to her forehead, rubbed her temples. “This is insane. This can’t be real,” she muttered. “This is a dream. It must be.”

But that strange infuriating man, Bayliss, hadn’t disappeared when she opened her eyes again. Instead, he was lighting another cigarette. “Not a dream. If so, we’d be sharing it, and I don’t dream about taking a leak in some strange bird’s apartment while she has a nervous breakdown in the next room. Trust me, it ain’t on my list.”

Maybe it all really happened but the train didn’t kill me and I’m stuck in a coma. “I’m—”

“And it ain’t a coma, either, so don’t hold out hope on that front. You squiffed out, angel. It was messy.” He puffed on his cigarette and looked away. “Sorry about that. Bygones.”

“Get out of my house you fucking lunatic!”

“Thought we agreed this heap went to ash some years back. So how’s it still your house?”

“Get out! Leave me alone!”

“Don’t get so sore. Look at it this way. You’ve just won the big bad granddaddy of all lotteries.”

Molly tossed the covers aside. Now she wore a nightgown. She knew this one; Ria had liked it so much. Bayliss averted his eyes like a reluctant gentleman, but not before a momentary glance made her feel naked.

“I gotta admit, angel, it could’ve been worse. You’re easier on the eyes than your brother.”

She reached under the bed. He was still smiling to himself and shaking his head when she pulled out Ria’s baseball bat. A remnant from when they’d lived in an iffier neighborhood. The cigarette fell from Bayliss’s mouth and hissed on the wet tiles.

She crossed the bedroom on the balls of her feet, richly varnished oak boards creaking under her soles. Bayliss raised his hands. His heels bumped the bathtub. He toppled backward, sliding down the plastic shower curtain with a grating squeak and the pop of broken curtain rings.

“Just calm down, angel.” He wasn’t looking at her legs anymore. All his attention was on the bat. “Okay. You’re still sore about the train. I get that. But let’s not get hysterical, okay?”

“I’ll show you hysterical, you sexist prick.”

Molly reared back. The bat knocked against the medicine cabinet; the bathroom was too small for her to put everything into the swing. Bayliss flopped to one side and caught the blow on the shoulder.

His shoulder made a cracking sound like a broken celery stalk, along with a slappy thud like a meat tenderizer hitting cheap steak. The reverberation shot up the bat and stung Molly’s fingers. Bayliss’s eyes and mouth went wide. No sound came from his contorted mouth. Just for an instant, something dark flashed in his ancient eyes, but then he found his voice and screamed.

“Ouch! Jesus, lady, are you completely out of your gourd? What’s wrong with you?”

The bat fell from her fingers. A tile cracked.

The grain of the wood against her palms, the smell of Ria’s soap, the special way the floorboards creaked in the winter, the crunch of Bayliss’s shoulder… No dream had ever felt like this.

“What’s happening to me?” she said.

“You’re about to get a hard lesson, sweetheart.” Bayliss stood, rubbing his shoulder. He gasped. “Ah, damn, that’ll take some effort to fix. First things first.” He slid his toes under the bat, kicked it off the tiles, caught it in his free hand. He waved it under Molly’s nose. “Naughty, naughty.”

He reared back. She flinched.

But suddenly they weren’t standing in the Minneapolis apartment. They were somewhere outside, at night. A crowd had gathered, staring at something Molly couldn’t see. Bayliss stood beside her. A thin dusting of pure white snow reflected the red and blue lights of emergency vehicles.

“You’ve been knocked for a loop, so I tried to go easy on you,” he said. “But it didn’t take. So here you go. You want to know what happened?” He paused long enough to fish a cigarette from his trench coat. He lit a match on his thumbnail and shielded the flame behind a cupped hand. After a couple of puffs, he flicked the extinguished match at the bystanders.

“Feast your eyes.”

Sickly dread coated her tongue: she knew this place. Molly approached the crowd of bystanders. The knot in her gut accreted more ice, stole more of her cold blood, with every step. She reached forward to gently nudge the rearmost folks aside, so they would know her presence and let her join them in their silent contemplation of tragedy. But it wasn’t necessary. In unison, half the bystanders took a step to the left, the other half to the right, though their backs were to her. Molly traversed the impromptu path and came to the front of the crowd.

But there was nothing to see. The gathering surged against a barricade of fluttering police tape that cordoned off a tram stop on the center island of a busy street. Two tram cars were parked at the stop, sandwiched between opposing lanes of traffic. Traffic inched past emergency vehicles clogging the road. Their flashing lights strobed the onlookers and the surrounding city with flashes of red and blue and yellow.

The police cars looked strange to her. And the traffic, she realized, kept to the left instead of the right.

Australia, she remembered. We came to Australia for Mom’s funeral.

A thin metal scaffold had been erected around the front of the tram. Tall sheets of milky material rippled in a cold wind, blocking the onlookers’ view. The sheets glowed full-moon white; a high-intensity lamp shone on the far side, where most of the cops had gathered.

Molly fingered the tape. Though he was well behind her now, cut off by the crowd, Bayliss’s voice came to her as though he spoke in her ear. The unwelcome intimacy caused her to shiver.

“Keep going. The bulls won’t stop you.”

She ducked under the cordon, expecting shouts and cries and threats that didn’t come. The policeman watching the cordon barely noticed the intrusion. He gave only the slightest nod of acknowledgment as his gaze slid past Molly. A dreamlike silence had fallen upon the world. Shrouded it, as though the world were holding its breath for she knew not what. And yet she could hear the crunch of snow underfoot and the electrical hum of the emergency lights. Even the faint hiss where dark puddles steamed on the tracks. The steam tasted like salted iron.

Molly sidestepped the plastic barrier. She cast no shadow over the scene at her feet. Two men crouched on the tracks at the center of a patch of red-black snow. They wore purple latex gloves. The night smelled of cold metal and ozone and shit. A black rubber pouch roughly the size of a sleeping bag lay on the snow beside the two men. They fished meaty things from the discolored snow and plopped them in the bag. A dented taxicab rested on the platform where tram passengers normally waited and disembarked.

Martin sat slumped on a broken bench, head in his hands. A policewoman sat next to him. She looked uncomfortable, or bored, clearly waiting for him to finish with whatever grieved him so. Why was Martin crying? He never cried. Not even at their mother’s funeral.

Molly glanced again at the men in the bloody snow. They finished their task; they zipped the bag, stood, then stripped off the gloves.

She remembered the taxi careering across the wet street. Remembered grabbing Martin. Remembered falling.

Oh. No. No.

“Martin!”

She hopped onto the platform, crouched, and pulled his hands from his face. She tried to smile for him. “Hey, look! I’m okay!”

God, he looked awful. He yanked his hands away, as though something tickled or stung or burned them.

His teary eyes looked through her.

She knelt on the concrete and planted her hands on either side of his head. “Look at me! I’m here!”

Martin flinched again, shaking off her hands. He scratched vigorously at the spots where she’d touched him.

The policewoman watched it all with the same bored expression on her face.

Molly grabbed Martin by the back of the neck, pulled his head toward her and leaned forward until their foreheads bumped together. She found his eyes, pushed past the wall of confusion and despair, and forced eye contact.

He slid off the bench, fell to hands and knees, and puked over the side of the platform. The policewoman sighed, but not unkindly. Molly smelled vodka and beer in his vomit. How long ago had they left the bar?

“Martin!”

“Careful, angel.” Bayliss stood beside her. “He’ll stroke out if you keep giving him both barrels.” He watched the police dismantling the scaffold and lights. “Yeah. It’ll take some practice before you can interact.”

“Shit. Holy shit.” Molly clutched her forehead, ran her hands through her hair. She closed her eyes; counted ten long, slow breaths. “If you’re about to tell me that I’m stuck as a ghost, I swear to God I’ll kick your nuts out through the top of your head.”

Bayliss coughed. “Kinda blue for a high-end swell, aren’t you? Anyway, ghosts are a fairy tale.”

His hat, his coat, the cigarettes… She remembered the rest. She remembered everything. She remembered his ancient eyes watching her die.

“Motherfucker! You did this to me!”

He backed away again, farther and more quickly than he had in Minneapolis. “Bygones. Bygones!”

“Kick you? Screw that. I’m going to shoot you.” She reached for the policewoman’s belt. Did cops even wear guns in Australia? At the very least, Molly figured, they must carry pepper spray or a zap gun or stickyfoam. Something that would make Bayliss yelp.

The cop made notes on her pad, completely unaware or uninterested in the woman unbuttoning the compartments on her belt. Molly found a thin spray canister. She took a second to ensure the nozzle pointed away from herself and then advanced on Bayliss again. He retreated down the station’s handicapped access ramp.

Molly charged. She thrust the canister forward in her right hand, steadying it with the left… and saw, in the corner of her eye, her naked arms. She still wore the nightgown from Minneapolis. Her legs were bare, too. The concrete underfoot was crusted with a thin layer of snow except where her bare feet had melted perfect five-toed prints. A breeze ruffled her nightgown.

She wasn’t cold.

The tinny clink and rattle of chains broke through the pregnant silence of the accident scene. A tow truck had arrived to haul away the taxi.

Flitting through different scenes of her own life? That she could chalk up to trauma. Martin’s inability to recognize her? Maybe that was shock. But she’d just taken a weapon off a cop who couldn’t have cared less. Now she stood half-naked on icy concrete while a wintry wind tugged at her nightgown. And she didn’t feel it.

Yet she could smell the alcohol in Martin’s puke and the salt in the ocean a few miles away. She heard the hum of electricity in the tram lines overhead and tasted the faint metallic tang of evaporated blood in the air—her blood—as the cop cars’ waste heat warmed the tracks. But for all that, she felt nothing. No discomfort.

Molly dropped the canister. “Oh my God.” She ran her hands through her hair again. “Shitshitshit.”

Bayliss said, in a quieter tone of voice, “Hey, chin up. It ain’t as bad as you think, angel.”

“My name is Molly, not ‘Angel.’ I don’t appreciate your chauvinistic little pet name.”

Bayliss laughed. “Don’t you get it, doll? ‘Angel’ ain’t a nickname. From now on, it’s your job.”

 


Something More Than Night © Ian Tregillis, 2013

2 Comments

Subscribe to this thread