Monday, March 20, 2017

TRIBUTE: Part Five

"THERE was someone in here with you?" Jack set the satyr's head down on a dusty table.
   "Yes. What is this place?"
   "A broken place, where things slip between the cracks. And now Phouka has fallen into one of them and I've got to fetch her back, along with your poet boy. I'm taking you to the car--"
   "No." Finn couldn't imagine sitting in the Mercedes, alone beneath the flickering street lamps, waiting for Jack to return.
   He moved closer. Shadows clung to him like black liquid. "If you come with me, you do as I say. Am I clear?"
   "Stop yelling."
   He pointed to the grinning satyr head. "That was standing outside the door, trying to get in. I broke it. Are you beginning to understand you've stepped through the looking-glass, Serafina?"
   Staring at the grinning stone head, Finn felt a rush of nauseating terror, which she swiftly quelled. "I'll do as you say, okay?"
   He stepped close to her. "Kiss me."
   "Are you kidding?" Heat shimmered through her because the shadows were sharp on his face and his eyes were beautiful beneath a forest of lashes.
   "I can take that fear away--just this once. Until this is done."
   Her breathing quick, she laid her hands on his chest, felt the faint drum of the heartbeat she had missed one day in a panic. She daringly pressed her mouth to his. He kept his hands beneath her elbows as if to steady her, as if to keep the kiss nothing more than a formality. But it became more than that; her body responded in a flash of heat and luscious desire. She leaned into him as his darkness swept through her, igniting ferocity, fearlessness, and a hunger for discovering what might be best left unknown.
   She stepped back so she could breathe. She caught the lost, desperate look on his face before the expression of disdain for everything around him returned. He could do that, she realized, a little hurt and a lot angry; shut off what he'd been feeling.
   "Well?" His voice was a taunt.
   "Let's go," she said.
   They left the apartment, stepping over the shattered limbs of the satyr statue. "What would it have done if it had gotten me?" She felt the question appropriate for this surreal night.
   "Ripped your heart out."
   She wished she hadn't asked. She was disoriented, with the taste of him, smoke and roses, lingering on her lips.
   They descended the stairs to the entry hall where Finn could hear a song--Eternal Flame--playing in someone's apartment. It was as if the lunatic building were mocking her. She resisted giving it the finger.
   The old woman stood before the doors. She looked pissed. She pointed at Jack. "You broke the covenant, killing the Veneno."
   "Well, the Veneno would have broken Miss Sullivan." Jack smiled, his eyes dark and wild.
   The fiery butterflies Jack's kiss had breathed to life within Finn made her tilt her head with the same disdain that was Jack's mask.
   The old woman's blackberry gaze met hers, briefly. She pointed at Finn. "Don't trust him, girlie."
   "The Zhi Ren have brought trouble to this house." Jack spoke with that seductive lilt to his voice that meant he was angry. "Mother Hubbard. Tell me where they are."
   "You are not to hurt anyone else from this house, Jack."
   His smile flashed like a knife. "As long as they don't try to hurt me or Finn."
   Mother Hubbard turned. The front door flew open. Finn flinched again. The woman pointed. "Beyond the lamps. That is where they are. That's where your friend was taken."
   Jack looked at the two flickering lamps as if they were the doorway to hell. He glanced back at Finn. His shadowy expression made her feel terror and exhilaration. He spoke to Mother Hubbard politely. "I don't want to walk between the lamps. Is there any other way--"
   "Between the lamps." Mother Hubbard stomped into her apartment and slammed the doors shut.
   Jack turned to Finn. "You stay by my side. You don't leave me. You don't--"
   "--leave the path? I won't. This has gone wrong, hasn't it?"
   "Very much so." He strode out the door and Finn kept pace at his side.
   As they passed between the two lamp posts, she expected something to happen. The paved path beneath their feet was crumbling from explosions of dandelions.
   "Can you tell me"--Finn glanced away from the forest surroundings to stare at the mysterious young man beside her--"what we're walking into?"
   "I would if I knew. Would you tell me why you unwisely decided to accompany Phouka on this adventure?"
   "I came for Christie."
   As they passed two unlit lamp posts, the lamps buzzed and clicked on. Finn and Jack continued onward, the lamps switching off, leaving the path behind them in darkness. Finn didn't dare look back. They passed another set of lamps that blinked on, humming with electricity. Finn's shoulder blades twitched.
   A piece of paper drifted past. Then another. They came to the end of the lamp posts, where poppy- red paper lanterns shaped like pumpkins hung in the trees, and these were no less eerie than the ancient street lamps.  As leaves fluttered past, Finn plucked one out of her hair. It was made of paper, a red tissue gilded at the edges. She caught another. "Jack . . ."
   He'd already snatched a leaf from the air and was gazing at it. He whispered, "Zhi Ren."
   The term sounded familiar to Finn, but just as she was about to ask what he meant, she heard a girl singing in a language that she recognized as Japanese because her friend Sylvie had taught her a few words.
   Something cracked beneath her foot. Lifting her sneaker, she saw red berries, shattered like glass. There were more berries in low bushes with shiny dark leaves. "Jack, what is this place?"
   "A bad one. But we can't turn back." He looked over his shoulder. Finn did the same. The paper lanterns had been extinguished. The path behind them was clotted with darkness.
   "Jack--" She turned back.
   Something swept out of the dark. She shouted as Jack stumbled, and reached for him.
   He set one foot off the path. The darkness swallowed him.

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