27. Eviction

Sean tensed, sitting straight on his stool. “Fatson.”

“Well, crap.” Jaz set her mug down.

Sean turned back to Jaz. “I’m sorry. We got away clean…I really didn’t know they’d send him…”

Jaz shook her head. “The bank didn’t send him. He’s a regular.”

“Best get out of sight,” said Mose, throwing back the last of his coffee and hopping down from his stool.

“Just to be safe,” Margo agreed, setting down her empty cup.

Sean leaned toward Jaz. “I wouldn’t normally ask this, but, you wouldn’t have a storage room or something we could occupy for a couple hours, by any chance? Just until the suits go away.”

Jaz studied the approaching group with a growing frown. “Bracken, take them downstairs.”

Bracken’s mouth fell open. “Seriously? What about—“

“Put them in your room.”

“My room? Are you kidding me?”

Sean blinked, turning to Bracken. “You live here?”

Jaz pulled Bracken aside before he could answer, lowering her voice. “Just keep them out of my office. There’s nothing in your room they can’t see.”

“Or, we could make them leave.” Bracken felt Sean watching them and lowered his voice further.

Jaz clenched her teeth, hissing through them. “Fatson is bad news, kid. Bad news. If you get these nice bank robbers killed, I’ll kill you.”

“That’s a weird thing to say, after the way you’ve been acting,” he returned, speaking softly.

“What way have I been acting?”

“You know…” Bracken tipped his head slightly back, indicating Sean.

“What, because someone finally comes here who knows something about coffee? Fates. Just take them downstairs, alright?”

“That wasn’t what I—Fine. But if they find out all your secrets and this blows up on you, don’t blame me.”

“Don’t let them find out and we’ll be fine.” Jaz glanced at the windows again and pushed him out of the workspace. “Hurry up!”

“Okay, okay.” Bracken threw open the basement door and led the way downstairs. Sean came after him, the twins heeling on either side. J.P. came behind them carrying the hi-fi, which now changed its tune from romantic guitar to a spy theme.

“What did you do before you had the theme-music box?” Bracken asked, coming to the bottom of the stairs.

“J.P. mostly hummed.” Sean looked around the basement at the shelves full of stock, and then along the wall at the bulky roaster hunkered in quiet repose beyond the nearest lights. “Look at that…” He took a step toward it but Bracken checked him with a hand on his arm.

“This way.”

“Right. J.P., come back,” Sean called.

J.P. had already approached a nearby shelf, which was full of vinyl records. He came back to them, thumbing over his shoulder at the records. “Nice collection.”

“Don’t touch anything,” said Bracken, hoping J.P. hadn’t noticed most of the titles were in languages not found in his world. “Jaz is obsessive with her organizational system.”

He began to open his door, and saw the Vasencea binder on his bed, and photos spread across the blanket. He quickly closed the door. “Oh! Um. Hang on. I have to…just a second.” He slipped inside and quickly shoved the binder into his backpack. He gathered up the photos into a loose pile and dropped them in the top of the desk drawer. Then, shoving the backpack far under the bed, he called, “Okay!”

Sean looked at him amusedly as he opened the door again, this time stepping back so they could enter. “Hey, if you need a minute to clean—”

A crash of furniture overhead and sudden yelling made them all jump. Images of tigers and blood splatter on cabinets shot through Bracken’s mind.

Sean spun and would have started back upstairs, but Mose and Margo caught his arm, speaking at the same time.

“You can’t.”

“Fatson, remember?”

Sean’s face was pale in the faint light filtering down on them, his arm stiffening as if to pull away.

“I’ll go see what’s up,” Bracken offered quickly. “If she’s in real danger I’ll yell.”

Bracken didn’t trust them alone in the basement, but the crashing continued along with the sound of many feet stomping around. If Jaz died again he would be alone for the rest of the day, which didn’t appeal to him. And even though it wasn’t permanent, dying probably wasn’t much fun for her, either. He opened the door to his room and shooed them inside. “Don’t steal anything. It’s…got sentimental value.”

Sean faced him from the middle of the room and spread his hands. “We won’t take anything,” he promised. “Go help her.”

Bracken didn’t believe they would stay there, but helping Jaz against the unknown assailants was more important than guarding bank robbers hunkered in his room. At least they weren’t performing any demolitions. Bracken sprinted upstairs, expecting to see holes ripped in the floor and rubble strewn about.

There were no holes, no rubble. Just four men in black suits, tossing chairs and shoving tables out the open double doors onto the sidewalk. Jaz sat on the counter with her feet on two stools, sipping from her cracked coffee mug.

A stocky man in a light gray suit stood facing her, lighting a fat black cigar. He wore no hat. His reddish hair was cropped in a flat plane across the top of his skull like a miniature, well-trimmed bush.

“What’s going on?” Bracken came around the front of the counters to stand beside Jaz.

“We’re being evicted.” She gave him a dry look.

Bracken leaned closer. “Is that even possible?”

“You bet it is,” the shrub-haired man answered, gesturing with the lighted cigar as smoke floated in clouds around his head and shoulders. “And this time I’m making sure it happens.”

“Sure, Fatson, sure.” Jaz mimicked his gesture with her mug. “I’m more than happy to vacate.”

Bracken barely caught the laugh that came over him at this, stifling it into a smirk instead.

Fatson’s red skin reddened further. “You said that before. This time, you better scram if you don’t want to eat bullets.”

“You’d shoot a woman?” Jaz tsked and brought her mug to her lips. “Classy.”

Fatson grabbed the mug and threw it across the room. It bashed into a wall and crashed on the floor in pieces.

Jaz clenched her jaw, her chest rising with a deep, slow breath. “That was my favorite mug.”

Fatson stabbed a stout finger at her face. “I’ll be back in the morning. If you’re still here I’ll decorate the walls with your brains.”

He left his henchmen to see that the moving out proceeded as planned. Jaz ignored them and searched the floor for shards of her mug, collecting them in her apron pocket.

Bracken edged close to her and held out part of the curved handle. “We can’t leave.”

“Nope. But they don’t know that.” Jaz took the piece. “Thanks.”

“The furniture they’re throwing out the doors, can we get it back?”

“Nope.” Jaz looked toward the windows. Chairs and tables made large piles on the sidewalk. Her eye twitched briefly. “I have a few tables downstairs that I’ve been hanging onto. Fatson has been coming by every couple days, by his time, and he’s getting frustrated that I’m not complying with his edicts.”

“He keeps trying to throw you out and failing.”

“Yeah. I was giving him Joli’s anti-memory tea for a while, which was pretty nice. Don’t have it today though.” She shot a pointed glance at Bracken.

“I said I was sorry, geez…”

Two henchmen approached, carrying semi-automatic rifles low at the hip, like they meant business but didn’t want to try too hard at it. Bracken felt hopeful, but a look at their faces suggested their only thought in life was to carry out their leader’s orders, over Bracken and Jaz’s corpses if necessary. Jaz of course had nothing to worry about, but Bracken was still mortal.

“Boss wants everything gone,” said Henchman One.

“Everything,” confirmed Henchman Two.

“You mean the stuff downstairs. Sure.” Jaz might have been taking their coffee order. “I’ll have Bracken get started on it.”

“We’ll go with,” said Two.

“He doesn’t need help. I have four more employees downstairs. Bracken, tell them to help carry stuff out.”

Bracken hesitated. “Are you sure that’s—“

“Start with the junk in the back corner. Go on,” she commanded when Bracken continued to hesitate. “It’s time they earned their keep.” She retrieved another shard of her cup from under an overturned chair.

“What are you going to do?” Bracken asked.

“I’ll take care of things up here.” She looked at Bracken hard and nodded.

“Alright. You’re the boss.” He shrugged and went back downstairs.

Sean waited at the bottom, leaning against the wall. He straightened when he saw Bracken. “So?”

“That guy Fatson is evicting us. His guys are throwing the tables and chairs outside. Jaz is going along with it so no one gets hurt.”

This didn’t please Sean either. “Fatson is an insurance salesman, not a landlord.”

“I get the feeling he doesn’t care about details like that.”

“Yeah,” Sean mused. “Banks and museums under his watch are too dangerous for the average thief to hit. He likes to mess people up who try to steal from him.”

“Did you steal from one of his banks?”

“No, I like keeping my life.” Sean glanced up the stairs. “I don’t like that he’s here though. He doesn’t care if he kills a man, woman or stray kitten that rubs him the wrong way.”

“He just left,” Bracken was happy to announce. “Just his guys are here right now.”

“How many?”

“Four.”

“All with guns?”

Bracken nodded. “Jaz said you should help carry some stuff out. There’s a junk pile down here we can use. You can sneak off when you get outside. She told them you’re her employees. They shouldn’t bother you if you hurry.”

“What about Jaz?”

“I’ll watch out for her. Besides, you have loot to worry about.”

Sean hesitated, torn between his career and an underlying streak of honor, then pushed off the wall and went to Bracken’s room where his crew waited. Mose and Margo sat on the bed, legs dangling. J.P. was cross-legged on the floor beside the hi-fi.

“We have a slight change in plans,” Sean said. “J.P., come with me and Bracken. Mose and Margo, you watch the loot. Bracken,” he turned to Bracken, regaining his former commanding confidence, “Take us to the junk pile.”

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26. A Company of Thieves

The man reached the counter and rested an elbow on it, leaning forward with a proud smile that Bracken thought was slightly familiar.

“Hi,” he proclaimed over the music. “We just robbed a bank.”

Jaz maintained her scowl. “Super.”

“Yes we did,” beamed the man, pointing at his comrades in turn. “Mose, Margo, the Jolly Pyro and yours truly.”

Jaz’s eyelids lowered in a very long blink. “Do we have to call you Yours Truly or is there an abbreviation?”

“The name is Sean, but you can call me whatever you like.” Sean directed his smile at her.

Jaz raised an eyebrow, as if contemplating her options. She did not smile back.

“Who is the Jolly Pyro?” Bracken asked.

Sean widened his grin and pointed back at Flowered Shirt who, still leaning on the hi-fi, lifted a bony hand in greeting.

“We call him J.P.” Sean faced Jaz again, leaning both hands on the counter and swelling his chest. If he were a rooster he would have been crowing, not that anyone would have been able to hear it over the music. “We won’t cause you any trouble, I promise. Just came to enjoy some good coffee.”

“We’re fresh out,” said Jaz, contemplating the inside of her coffee mug.

Bracken suddenly realized why Sean’s smile was familiar. He was the one in the photos with his arm around Jaz. Bracken quickly glanced at Jaz, but she remained as stoic as she had been with the Beetler. She gave no indication of knowing Sean, much less being as close as they had seemed in the photos.

Sean continued to smile, settling onto a barstool. He raised a hand and gestured over his shoulder. J.P. turned down the volume to background level. “And we’ll take four scones if you have them,” he continued. “We’re celebrating.”

Jaz rolled her eyes and began brewing coffee for five.

Bracken opened the pastry case and took out some blueberry scones. “Congratulations, I guess.”

“Thanks. Couldn’t have done it without my team.” Sean helped Mose and Margo mount stools on either side of him. They watched Bracken with identical stares, like two guard dogs heeled beside their master. Bracken half expected Sean to start scratching them behind the ears. J.P. came to the counter and sat beside Mose, setting the hi-fi on the counter top.

Sean produced several large bills from his pocket and slid them across the counter. “Thank you. We just need to lay low for a few hours until the hubub dies down at the bank and then get out of town.”

Bracken passed scones on plates to them. “You’re not worried they’ll come looking for you in here?”

Sean shook his head. “This isn’t in the vicinity. They’ll be checking hideouts of their enemies, none of whom live here. In about two hours someone else will stage a holdup and by tonight we’ll be old news. This kind of stuff keeps bank owners in business. Insurance payouts pay the bills.”

Jaz resumed leaning against the island while the coffee brewed, ignoring everyone. Bracken felt slightly sorry for Sean. Rudeness was was part of Jaz’s strange charm, but now it seemed she was just being mean for meanness’ sake.

“I didn’t know robbery was a career track,” said Bracken.

“Live here a few weeks and you’ll be doing it too, or something similar. Only jobs around here are crime or punishing it.” Sean nodded to Jaz. “Or, making coffee, of course.”

“What about anarchy?” Bracken asked, remembering Aton’s bank demolitions and thinking he and Sean might have come to some mutually beneficial arrangement if they knew each other.

“This town thrives on corruption. Anarchy is probably not too far around the corner, if certain kingpins go down,” Sean said. “Personally, I like banks. They’re a challenge, but predictable. I guess you could even say we work for them. They get back everything they lose and more from insurance.”

“So you’re kept entertained and well paid, and the banks don’t lose any money, so things don’t get too sticky for anyone,” said Bracken.

Jaz filled four mugs and passed them across in silence.

“It’s a living.” Sean gave the grin a rest, relaxing like a rooster settling own to enjoy his domain. “Personally, I don’t need all the fanfare stuff, but since we don’t wear costumes it’s necessary. Nobody takes you serious in Langston if you don’t stand out.” He tasted the coffee. “Ah. That’s the stuff.”

“Glad you approve,” Jaz said dryly, pouring the last of the coffee she’d made them into her own mug.

Sean jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “We’ve been going to Scarro’s, across the tracks. Their stuff tastes like wood.”

“I only make coffee that I’d drink,” Jaz said. “Wood is not my favorite flavor profile.”

Sean nodded. “Who roasts it?”

“I do. I call it Black Ivory. Full city minus. I’m trying it out.”

Bracken blinked. “Full city what?”

“It’s a roasting term,” Sean told him. He brought the cup beneath his nose and sniffed. “Nice nutty aroma.” He took a sip, more deliberate than the first. “Mild acidity. Roasted hazelnut…” Sip. “Creamy body.” Sip. Swallow. “Lingering spice in the finish. Well done.”

Jaz blinked at first, surprised. Then as he continued his assessment, she brightened, almost smiling. “Thank you.”

Now that she was acknowledging Sean as a sentient being, the atmosphere of the shop became considerably friendlier. Jaz mentioned something about her roast method, which Sean comprehended to her pleasant surprise. He praised the flavor profile, and Jaz actually smiled, brushing an escaped strand of hair behind her ear. Bracken watched, fascinated and somewhat confused. Confused, because Sean was definitely the man in the photo, yet Jaz didn’t seem to know him, and he seemed to be playing along. Fascinated, because this—coffee appreciation—seemed to be one of the few ways to win Jaz’s approval. Bracken wondered if his aunt had hit it off with Jaz through photos, as he had, or through coffee. Sadie had never talked coffee like this on her visits to his family, but the nuances of coffee were not something one could slap on the unschooled mind.

The coffee-centered courtship would have gone on, backed by quiet acoustic music straining through the hi-fi’s speaker—a lighted window on the side read ‘L’Appuntamento’—but it was interrupted by the midget Margo, who was watching the street. “We have incoming, boss.”

Jaz smirked. “Boss, huh.”

“Got an image to keep up.” Sean twisted toward the windows. A group of men in double-breasted suits and bowler hats were crossing the street, coming toward the shop.

Several carried automatic weapons at their sides.

25. Hello, Friday…

Bracken woke with a mild jolt to loud music thumping overhead. He blinked a few times at the ceiling. He vaguely remembered returning to his room Jaz had gone to hers, and staring at the photos until he’d fallen asleep, sitting up on his cot. Bracken rubbed his face with both hands and stood. Then he yelped as the binder, which had been on his lap when he fell asleep, slid off and hit his foot. He picked it up and dropped it on the bed and then went upstairs into the cafe. Jaz was moving about the workspace with half-closed eyes, unloading white cappuccino cups from the dishwasher and stacking them on the espresso machine. Sarcastic rock resounded through the cafe, a male voice singing about dragons and beasts, drowning out Jaz’s words when she spoke.

Bracken put a hand to his ear. “What?”

Jaz flicked a knob on the radio, and the music faded. “You didn’t lock up,” she repeated. When Bracken looked confused, she waved a hand toward the alcove where the door to the storage room stood open.

“Oh…I…forgot. The albums are still downstairs.”

“Bring them up and put them in the storage room, will you? I’ll get breakfast.” Jaz felt in her vest pocket and came out with a key, which she dropped on the counter near him. “Use this to lock it up when you’re done.” She grabbed two silver pitchers from the dishwasher with one hand, fumbled and dropped them both. They bounced and rolled over the floor, clanging loudly. Jaz dismissed them with an impatient gesture and latched onto a kettle instead.

Bracken had a sinking premonition what breakfast would consist of. He went back downstairs, gathered up the photo albums Jaz had left on the floor and deposited them in the storage room. His body felt heavy and sluggish, his legs not so much bending as wobbling as he moved. When he finished with the albums, he went into the workspace and stopped before the pastry case. He rested his forehead on the glass, looking at a pile of scones. “I didn’t figure out anything from the pictures yet. I’ll try again later. Most of the notes Sadie made don’t make any sense.”

Jaz didn’t answer, but she didn’t tell him to shut up either, so Bracken pushed on. “It would help if we could translate the, um, Sassacus text in the pictures. I bet Blaise’s translator would work on them. He said it will translate anything.”

“He meant anything in his world, not anything literally. Stop touching the pastry case. You’re smudging the glass.” Jaz smacked the faucet, shutting off the water, and dropped the kettle on a heating element.

Bracken lifted his head and rubbed at the glass with his fingers, which only made a bigger smudge. “Don’t worry about it. If it doesn’t work we’ll figure something else out.”

“I’m not worried,” Jaz grunted, yanking Thursday’s cash drawer out of the tray and replacing it with Friday’s.

Bracken sighed and gave up. He looked to the windows. Dawn brightened the sky between skyscrapers that crowded out most of the blue, allowing only thin strips to show between them.

Jaz went into the kitchen and came out with a box of maple scones. Bracken took one with a small sigh. He missed having a normal breakfast, or at least meals that included vegetables. Jaz seemed to thrive on pastry and caffeine alone.

They ate the scones and sipped at some strong, nutty coffee that Jaz said was called Black Ivory, sitting side by side at the counter. Friday’s binder lay open between them.

“These records are more like snippets,” Bracken said, turning the pages. “Did you get bored and throw all the pages on the floor and then only put half of them back?  Because that’s what it reads like.”

Jaz slouched over her plate, swirling the last of her coffee in the bottom of the mug. “Don’t read them if you don’t want to.  Friday doesn’t have much structure.”

“I don’t see how you can read them.”

“I don’t need to anymore. Occasionally I’ll write a note if something important is happening.”  She glanced habitually at the window.

“This is almost gibberish.  It may as well be in code.”

Jaz popped the last corner of scone into her mouth and spoke around it. “Sorry my record keeping doesn’t meet your high standards.”

Bracken had finished his first scone and started on a second. It wasn’t ideal food, but he was quite hungry. “It’s for you as much as anyone.  What if you forget who ‘Rfeg’ is?  Or how many bottles of—” He squinted at the page “—chocolate syrup go in Bingo Capkicker’s monthly order? That’s a fun name.  I hope he comes in today.”

Jaz grunted and refilled her mug.

“I want to see what someone who orders ten pounds of rock sugar and sixteen bottles of amaretto syrup looks like,” Bracken persisted.

“An overstuffed chair wearing a waistcoat.  He’s not until next week.”  Jaz glanced again at the windows, watching someone pass by.

Bracken looked too, and almost choked.

He blinked twice, swallowed a mouthful of scone and said, “That guy is dressed like a beetle.”

“Yep.”

“And what’s she supposed to be?”  Bracken pointed to a passing woman draped in sparkling robes and carrying a thick bronze staff.  Multiple colored orbs were tucked into her tall hairdo, and a line of gold stars dangled from her earlobes.

“Small coffee with a ‘dusting’ of cream,” Jaz said, connecting drink to name. “Starweaver.”

Bracken scoffed. “Are you serious?”

“Yes.” Jaz went to the row of siphons and began preparing coffee in one.

People passed the windows intermittently, looking as people do when coming home after a grueling night shift, except these people wore costumes.

Eventually, one of them entered The Defiant. He wore a black turtle-neck shirt, black slacks and a ski mask pulled over his face.  Bracken glanced at him, then at Jaz, unsure if the masked man had come to buy coffee or empty the cash register. Jaz didn’t flinch.

“Hi Simon,” she said, watching coffee drain from the top vessel into the bottom.

Bracken glanced down at the binder:  ‘Single-Syphon Simon’ was marked down as ‘Customer #1. 6:08/6:14 am’.

“Hey Jaz.  What’s the coffee of the day?”  Syphon Simon pulled the cap off, revealing curly blond hair.

“Black Ivory.” Jaz caught Bracken’s eye and nodded toward the storage room, which was still unlocked with the door wide open. Bracken closed the door, locked it and handed the key to Jaz, who took it with one hand while she poured Simon’s coffee with the other.

As Simon walked out with his drink, the man dressed like a beetle who had passed by earlier walked in. His costume was made of a rubbery black material, with long tentacles waving atop an open-faced mask covering his head and neck. He wore thick rubber mittens, which were either suited to grasping electrical conduits or removing things from hot ovens. He was munching a hand pie that smelled of pepperoni and rubber, grease dripping from the wax wrapper onto the clean floor.

He stopped in front of the register and asked, “What flavors do you have?”

Jaz recited in monotone. “Vanilla, caramel, chocolate.”

He frowned and wiped grease from his mouth with the back of one mitten.  Some stayed at the corners of his lips.  “You don’t have hazelnut?”

“Sorry.”

“That’s a pretty common flavor.”

Jaz just looked at him.

“Well…I don’t know what I want then. What goes with vanilla?”

Jaz half closed her eyes, inhaling deeply.  “Do you prefer hot or cold drinks?”

“Uh…” He squinted at the menu, rubber feelers jiggling over his forehead.  “Surprise me.”

She sighed through her nose and poured him a cup of black coffee.

He tasted it and asked if it could be sweeter.  She added vanilla syrup.

He tasted it and asked if it could be colder. She added some ice.

He tasted it and said it was too cold, and asked if she could add hot milk.

Jaz stared at him for a long moment. Her left eye twitched. “No.”

The man-beetle blinked.  “You can’t?”

“I won’t.”

“Can’t you just—”

“Go away. You’re done.” Jaz went to stand behind the espresso machine, leaving him at the register.

He scowled and raised one of his mittens, opening and closing his fingers and thumb like pincers. “I am not alone. I have many friends. Many friends who will convince you to give me what I want.”

Jaz folded both arms on top of the espresso machine, her expression tepid. “Do you now.”

A scratching along the windows drew Bracken’s attention. He gasped and sidled up to Jaz, tugging the edge of her vest. “Jaz…” He pointed at the windows.

Beetles. Hundreds of beetles. They swarmed from seemingly nowhere, crawling up the panes in a near-solid mass of legs, bodies and antennae. In moments they were halfway up the windows. A mass of them were seeping in under the doors.

The man-beetle began to cackle, still wagging his mittens in the air. “You see! You can’t stop the Beetler, coffee girl! They will do anything I tell them, anything at all! You are powerless! You—”

Jaz walked to the register. She pulled the shotgun from under the counter and leveled it at Beetler’s face. “So if I shoot you, will they keep doing what you told them to do? Or will they go back to being just, regular beetles?”

Beetler’s eyes bulged. He lowered his hands slowly.

“That’s what I thought.”

Beetler glared. “This isn’t over, cof—”

Jaz flicked the gun toward the ceiling and fired.

Beetler screamed. The beetles retreated en mass. They disappeared faster than they had appeared, in time with Beetler’s dash out the doors.

Jaz replaced the shotgun, looking satisfied. “Frothing powered people…”

Bracken, who had hunkered behind the counter once the shotgun came into play, now straightened.  “Did he just call up a hoard of bugs?”

A new customer—this one on the stocky side with an unbuttoned flowered shirt, bell-bottom jeans and hair that flowed loose over his shoulders—entered the shop. He carried a wooden box about two feet tall.  He sat down at a table near the doors and set the box on the table.

Jaz nodded, sparing a glance at the newcomer.  “Some people here have abilities. Flying, calling up storms. Summoning bugs, apparently. It’s really annoyi—”

A blast of bongos and rollicking organ music rocketed through the room.  Bracken and Jaz turned—Bracken with a startled spin and Jaz with resignation—toward the music.  It was coming from Flower Shirt’s box.  He rested his elbow and forearm across the top, grinning at the room.

Now in the doorway stood two midgets, each holding a door open with a gloved hand.  Their heads barely reached the door handles.  They wore identical black shirts and black knit hats. Each had a pair of black goggles, the woman wearing hers on her head and the man sporting his around his thick neck.  Each held their door open with one hand and a bulging leather bag over one shoulder with the other.

Two more hands reached above their heads, pushing the doors open further.  The hands belonged to a tall, athletic man dressed in fitted black clothing that contrasted with his pale hair and eyes.  The midgets swaggered toward the counter in time to the bongo fanfare and the man strode behind them, a king behind his tiny entourage.

Bracken stared at the show, his mouth slack, wishing he had his camera at hand.  Jaz slouched back against the island, one foot against the door of the dishwasher, gently swirling the coffee in her cup.  She scowled at the procession, violet eyes cut in half by her lowered brow, lifting the cup to her lips.

“Hello, Friday,” she muttered over the rim.

________

Note:

Friday, Friday, Friday! One of my favorite day-worlds. ^_^ This world is a collaboration between myself and a friend of mine who is a very talented writer. It’s derived from the dark/noir comic worlds like Sin City, and hero/villain stories where powers abound. From Jaz’s perspective, though, it’s all just a huge inconvenience. (Sidenote: The guy mentioned in the last episode, who made a deal with one of Janus’ people and got to go to another world, was from here.) This world and characters were really fun to write.

24. The Collector

There were certain things Jaz would never forget.

The day she met Athamas.

The day Sadie died.

The day a certain man, while bleeding out on her floor, made a deal with one of Janus’ kind and was granted a new life in one of the other seven worlds.

And the day that Janus became trapped in The Defiant.

He’d looked different then. His hair was black. His square eyes were black tunnels in his head, instead of gray, with red sparks gleaming in their depths. His arms—all four of them—ended in six-clawed hands. Some of the claws were missing at that point, bloody tips remaining, and a few of the fingers had been sliced off. But it was him. The whole being of Janus, the godlike Lumenatra who had pulverized entire cities to dust. Cut armies to pieces. He’d even boiled a sea or two—

Or was that one of his own kind, one that he had betrayed?

Anyway, that was how the war on world Four—Thursday—had started. Janus and a few of his fellow Lumenatra had convinced the mortal denizens of the world that they’d infiltrated (or did they invade? Or maybe they were exiled from their own dimension…?) that two of them were too dangerous, destructive, to be allowed to roam free in the world. Janus and his brethren—they called each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister,’ though they seemed to also be in paired relationships—showed the mortals how a Lumenatra could be caught and sealed away in a mortal vessel.

Naturally the mortals, realizing how very powerful the Lumenatra were, decided that all of these beings should be sealed away for the safety of all. For a time the entire world was at war, some fighting for the Lumenatra, whom they considered patron gods; most fighting for the world they wanted to protect from the same gods.

Eventually, and at the cost of countless lives, the mortals succeeded in this effort. And Janus was one of the last to be sealed. Jaz remembered that moment particularly well: It had happened inside The Defiant.

Perhaps ‘well’ was an overstatement. She remembered…that it had happened. The exact memory was muddled and nonsensical in parts, like a dream that lingered in wakefulness.

Windows turning to black portals. A monster with four arms and claws for hands exploding out of the espresso machine. A pool of blood on the floor, forming into a smaller version of a vampiric woman who stood and sipped from a tiny teacup she’d pulled from inside her tall hat. The monster’s claws raking down Jaz’s arm as he was pulled, stretched by an invisible force toward a humanoid figure, his prison and vessel, outside. Herself, screaming at him, begging to be released from The Defiant. The monster stretching, thinning, snapping away. A vague shadow outline lingering in his place, then sinking into the floor.

She discovered what became of that shadow several nights later, when she found it gliding back and forth in the basement, wringing its hands and moaning like a proper ghost. The monster—the Lumenatra, rather—had managed to peel a tiny bit of his being away as he was being captured, and stick it in The Defiant. That bit was Janus. And he was completely useless.

Oh, he had power. Incredible power, even though it was just a fraction of what his whole being could access. He just couldn’t apply it to anything outside of The Defiant’s walls. And he could not apply it to any sentient being without its permission.

He had no idea what had become of the rest of him, but he guessed that the human vessel where his essence had been stashed might resemble the human form he often took when interacting with mortals: a man with a young face and white hair.

That was the only detail he and Jaz had to go on. That, and that the locations and identities of the vessels were probably recorded somewhere, by Sassacus scribes whose life goals were to record everything of note that happened anywhere in their world. That faction in itself was a neat little setup by one of Janus’ fellow Lumenatra before they, too, were sealed away. A few of the Lumenatra had little failsafes such as this in place. The Defiant had been Janus’ failsafe, but he was unable to escape before he was sealed. Now he was just as trapped as Jaz was.

“The collector collected by his collection.” Jaz muttered, as she bent over an open photo album cradled in her lap. The words weren’t hers, she was fairly certain. She couldn’t remember where she’d heard them. Still, they were accurate.

Jaz pushed the album onto the floor and stood. She paced, stepping over the other binders and photo albums that she’d brought from the storage room into the basement, where there was enough floor space to spread them out.

The photos in the albums spanned a long, long history of years, but hours of staring at them had brought Jaz no closer to finding the point in time that she had taken the photographs Bracken had discovered.

“I did not take those pictures. I didn’t…right?” She paused and looked around the basement. It was empty except for herself, the loaded shelves, and the large metal roaster that occupied its own corner to her right.

Janus, of course, was not to be seen, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t watching. Janus was an observer, and only showed himself when something was interesting enough to warrant the effort, or if there was something to be gained from it.

Jaz spoke as if he was somewhere nearby anyway. “Why didn’t you say something about the pictures, then? I’m sure you knew about them. We’re not exactly in team mode right now, but come on! You want out as much as I do…”

Jaz continued to pace, staring down at the open binders and albums, dragging her fingers through her hair repeatedly. “They probably didn’t have what you wanted. But why not? Or are they not complete? Did I start getting pictures and not finish? But when? When?! I didn’t get this book before, right? Right?”

Her shout filled the basement, then flattened into silence. Jaz growled and kicked at one of the albums, flipping it over. “Janus! Janus, answer me, dammit!”

She kicked another album, and it skidded across the floor, bumping into one of the roaster’s metal legs with a muted bang.

“Jaz?”

She stopped mid-kick and turned to see Bracken, standing in a disheveled state at the corner of his bedroom wall, blinking sleepily at her. She’d forgotten his room bordered the area by the roaster, and his bed was on the other side of the wall where she stood.

“Yeah, what?”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m great. Fantastic.”

Bracken rubbed his eyes sleepily and looked at the binders arrayed across the floor. “What are you doing?”

“Spring cleaning. What’s it look like?”

Bracken blinked at her, eyes wide and dark and so…sad. He’d covered his grief with anger and denial, but she was too familiar with grief to be misled by emotional masks. And she was too scared of how close she was to breaking down over Sadie’s death as well, even after—how many years, now? Five? And he’d only lost her a few months ago, by his time. She’d wanted to protect him from having to live with that pain. Stupid. He would have found out eventually. She’d only made finding out worse.

Jaz realized she was staring at him while these thoughts ran through her head. She checked herself and shrugged, gesturing at the envelope of pictures lying atop one of the photo albums. “Sorry. I’m…trying to figure out when I took those pictures. Or if I had someone bring them here, or…” She rubbed her fingers through her hair again, though it was already standing out from her head like a close blue cloud.

Bracken sighed. Then he edged forward and crouched by the envelope. “Can I see?”

“Sure. Whatever.” Jaz slid down against the wall and pulled her knees against her chest.

Bracken picked up the envelope and shuffled through the photos. “There must be a reason you hung onto them for so long.

I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”

We. How long had it been since she’d heard that, outside of the context of herself and Janus? Not since Sadie. The thought made her heart ache. Of all the faces she was lucky enough to remember out of her long history, Sadie’s was one that still touched a deep emotional chord in Jaz, a static point along a blurred timeline, a point that no longer seemed attached to time, but to herself. A point she could never again see. A point that Bracken sometimes resembled, for all the chaos he caused since he’d arrived.

Jaz watched his profile as he squinted at a photo. He was so willing to help. And so damn polite. She’d forgotten how politeness permeated the Morphas as a species. Politeness, loyalty, curiosity—all qualities she didn’t possess in great quantity. That didn’t seem to matter to him, though. It certainly hadn’t mattered to Sadie.

She realized she was staring again and dropped her forehead onto her knees. “There’s probably nothing of use in those pictures. That’s why I forgot about them. There’s nothing there, and I’m never getting out. I am. Never. Getting out.”

Bracken frowned at the picture in his hand. “Jaz…”

“It’s just a game I play with myself, see. Just passing the time here. Endless time…endless…endless…”

“Jaz.” Bracken scooted back until he sat beside her. “There are pictures of more than one book in here.”

She raised her head and looked at the picture he held up. It showed the cover of a tome, but it was a different color than the one she’d borrowed, and the etchings across the cover were also different.

“I didn’t take time to look through all of them before. I just saw the ones that matched the book I was photographing, and the cover…”

Jaz squinted at the picture in her hand, then took the envelope from him and began to rifle through them. A few had been put in backwards. Jaz pulled one of these out and saw writing across the back. “Oh…”

Bracken straightened and looked at her. “Oh?”

Jaz glanced at him. “I didn’t take these. I think Sadie did.” She showed him the back of the photograph. “That’s her handwriting.”

Bracken sat up straight, grinning excitedly. “She did? Wow…when? And why? Was she looking for Mr. White-Hair too?”

“Who? Oh…no.” Jaz rested her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. “She was looking for a doorway generator.”

“That thing Oz mentioned. I remember. So it…”

“Creates doorways, to wherever. She was hoping it would create one I could use, to get out of here.”

“Okay…so, maybe this means she found it.”

“She didn’t.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’m still here.”

“Oh.” Bracken lowered the pictures to his lap and stared down at them.

“I told her it was pointless. I told her so many times. But she was sure it was real. So sure. She searched for it right up to the day she died, and never—” Jaz’s throat constricted, cutting off her next words. She stood, shoving a binder out of her way with her foot. “Forget about the pictures. They’re pointless.”

“Jaz—” Bracken glanced up at her.

Jaz shook her head, rubbing away tears that stung her eyes. “I’m going to bed.”

“But there’s more writing on the backs of these. Don’t you want to at least—”

Jaz was already moving past him to her room. “Look through them if you want. Put the binders away when you’re done.”

23. Compartmentalizationism

Before Bracken could answer, Jaz’s voice echoed through the basement. “Bracken? Hey, listen…you were right, okay? I should have told you…” Her voice, which was unusually gentle, trailed off into silence.

Bracken edged along the wall toward the front of the basement, past the shelves, until he could see Jaz. She was staring at her demolished door.

She turned when he cleared his throat. “Oh…there you are.”

When Bracken stayed where he was, Jaz walked over to him. “Listen, I wanted to show you something. I should have showed it to you before, I just—” She stopped short when she reached Bracken, looking past him at Janus. Her voice instantly hardened. “Janus. What are you doing?

Janus said calmly, “We were talking about Bracken’s aunt. You remember the one…”

Jaz marched over to Bracken and grabbed his arm. “Don’t talk to him, Bracken. I told you he’s dangerous.”

“He seems fine,” Bracken observed.

“They always seem fine,” she snapped, pulling him along the wall toward the stairs.

Janus stayed behind, watching bemusedly. “I was simply trying to help…”

“He showed me Sadie,” Bracken said as he was towed along.

She stopped, and he almost bumped into her as she spun to face him. “That isn’t Sadie! Not the Sadie you knew.”

Bracken glanced back toward Janus and the wall of pictures. “It’s better than nothing, which is all you’ve given me.”

Jaz’s mouth formed a few words silently, her eyes large with anger. Finally she settled on, “Fine. You wanna see something, I’ll show you something.”

She pulled Bracken upstairs, stopping before the padlocked door between the basement and bathrooms. She undid the padlock with a key produced from her vest pocket and threw the door open.

The room was the size of a large closet. Light shone in from behind them, illuminating more metal shelves lined with thick binders, and a wood floor that stopped in the middle of the room before a deep shadow. Jaz stepped inside and reached above her head, pulling a thin chain. A lightbulb clicked on, illuminating the rest of the room.

“This is where I keep the records of my time here. Mine, Sadie’s, and other people’s.” She pointed at metal shelves that covered three walls of the room, lined with binders, journals and notebooks. “I keep the most recent records in the daily binders. Everything else goes in here.”

Bracken walked into the dark little room, stopped at the edge of a short drop-off and peered down. “Are those train tracks?”

“Yes.” Jaz went to the shelves, searching for a certain binder.

Bracken hopped down, wincing as his bare feet crunched gravel, and stepped between the dark iron rails that ran from one wall to the other, parallel to the platform. “They don’t go anywhere.”

“Nope.” Jaz pulled a binder from the shelf and flipped through it, coughing when dust rose up into her face.

“…why do you have a room with tracks that go nowhere?”

“Beats me. They were probably part of a service tunnel attached to the original building when The Defiant was taken out of my home world.”

“Weird.” Bracken stepped back onto the platform and inspected the binders on the shelves. He pulled one out and opened it. Photographs lined the pages in neat columns, captioned by different styles of handwriting. On some pages there was just a line or two beneath the photos; on others, words filled cross-sections of white space, curving up and down the margins.

Jaz looked over from the binder she’d been looking through. She reached over to the one Bracken held and tapped a picture of a young man with a round, freckled face and dark wavy hair, wearing a jacket identical to Sadie’s.

“Sadie helped me collect pictures, too. We’d sit up at night sometimes and organize them. She did most of the albums on the bottom shelves.”

Her finger traveled down to the photo beneath, where the young man and Sadie sat together at one of the tables, heads bowed over something between them. “She made friends a lot easier than I did…”

“Who’s with her in the picture?”

“Davin. He’s a…he was a friend of hers. Of ours. You might meet him later.” She cleared her throat and took the binder from him, replacing it with the one she was holding. “Anyway, that’s not important right now. Look at this.”

Every picture in this album showed carnage: Cities on fire, streets broken by craters and smoking rubble, bodies in mass graves. Not all of the bodies were whole.

Bracken glanced away from the images. “What is this?”

“This is what Janus’s kind did to the world before he became what he is now.”

“He did all of that?”

“He had help. There was a huge battle between his kind, the Lumenatra, and the people who tried to seal away their powers, to keep them from destroying the world.”

Bracken glanced backward through the open door. Across the cafe, the pristine street and buildings were visible through the windows. “When did all this happen?”

“A long time ago.” Jaz was focused on a man in one of the photos, standing near a mass grave. His face, framed by straight black hair, was obscured by smoke or dust. A long dark coat was draped over his shoulders, sweeping back like long wings. It reminded Bracken of Tuoni the Raven from Sadie’s stories—a winged being that guided the dead to the netherworld. A girl with a nice figure, wearing a skirt and striped stockings, stood beside the man. Her face, too, was out of focus.

Bracken studied the picture for a moment. “Well, it looks pretty bad. But still…you can’t really blame Janus for fighting back, can you?”

Jaz shot him a hard look. “You’re not actually defending him. I know you’re not that ambivalent.”

“Well, wouldn’t you fight if someone was trying to capture you?”

“Bracken—they nearly destroyed an entire world.” Jaz leaned toward him intently, almost dropping the binder she held. “And that’s not the only thing he’s—”

“Yeah, a long time ago. How do you even know that it happened the way you think it happened?”

“I was there!”

“You were here,” Bracken corrected, pointing at the floor. “In the Defiant. A long time ago. And you don’t have the best memory, let’s face it.”

Jaz slammed the binder shut. “Excuse me?”

Bracken felt her rage like physical heat, but he pushed on. He was angry, too. “You don’t. You don’t even remember things you did yourself.”

“Like what?” She asked, teeth clenched.

“Like photographing that stupid Sassacus book.”

“You did that.”

“Yeah, and you did. I’ll show you.” He closed the album he was holding, set it on the floor and left her standing in the room while he went downstairs. In a moment he returned with the aged packet of envelopes, which he shoved into her hand.

“Oh, please.” She began shuffling through the photos. “This is what you—” Her face suddenly fell blank as she stared at the photo of the tome’s cover.

“It was in your office. Beneath the binders.”

Jaz’s mouth hung open, as if she were about to speak but forgot how. Her violet eyes stared down at the photo, widening to the point of making her look manic. She let the binder fall heavily to the floor by her feet, turned slowly and walked into the cafe, holding the envelope at her side. She sat down at the counter with her back to him, holding the pictures in her lap.

Bracken watched her, feeling only somewhat guilty. “You brought it on yourself,” he muttered, returning to the binders on the shelves. If she hadn’t been trying to forget Sadie, which she clearly had done by shoving all records of Sadie’s time here into a locked storage room, things like that packet of photos probably wouldn’t have also been forgotten.

Bracken began searching the binders for world six, the world Janus said the other Sadie lived in. If Homberg was Monday, then Pucheon was Tuesday, Grayson’s Gulch was Wednesday, and Houzai—today—was Thursday. The remaining three worlds were called Langston, Vasencea and Kysoto. Bracken couldn’t remember which of these belonged to which day, so he started with a Langston binder. It contained many photos of bizarrely dressed people, and a fair amount of news clippings with headlines such as, ‘Rebel Yeller Strikes again!’ and ‘Unmasking the Masked Devil.’

Kajaani would like these for her own newspaper, Bracken thought.

In the middle of the album were several loose photos of Jaz and a young man with blond hair and silver-blue eyes. He had a friendly grin. They sat close together at a table in the Defiant. Jaz looked exactly as she did now, except smiling. The young man’s arm was around her shoulders in some of the pictures, and the way she leaned into him showed she was quite alright with that.

It was interesting, but not what Bracken was looking for. He flipped through to the end, saw no pictures of Sadie, returned the binder to shelf and moved on to the Vasencea albums. The photographs in the first album he chose showed a large, ornate city with a lot of brickwork and towers, obscured by thick yellow fog. Bracken skimmed over the photos focused on architecture, focusing on the ones featuring people. Here was a picture of a serious-looking youth with dark brown hair and piercing eyes. He wore a familiar blue jacket with wide lapels, a patch depicting a brown bird in flight visible on one sleeve. Beneath this photo was a notation:

Davin, first day at Vasencea Academy. Looks great in uniform!

So that was Davin, the old friend of Sadie’s. Bracken turned the pages slowly. There were several pictures of Davin alone and also with other young men in similar blue jackets. Between two pages, Bracken found a loose piece of paper with neat writing in blue ink:

It never rains in Vasencea. Davin doesn’t know what it even looks like. He’s never even seen a rainbow! I showed him one out of a magazine I brought with me but he thought it was fake. So I took a picture from a rooftop across from The Defiant next time I was in Homburg…

Bracken’s breath caught as he realized whose words he was reading. He looked up from the paper that was suddenly trembling in his unsteady fingers and stared, wide-eyed, at the wall for a few moments, then returned to reading, much slower this time:

I showed him all my sketches for the book, and he said he could help me put them together. I told him it’s a gift for my nephew. He doesn’t know the truth about Jaz…

Suddenly, he realized what book this referred to. He clutched the binder against his chest and raced downstairs into Sadie’s room. There, on the desk, were the sketches he’d seen on his first day: birds and boxy shapes, and a figure wearing a crown. The sketches had seemed vaguely familiar then, but now Bracken remembered why.

They were part of a story that Sadie had told him, which evolved with each visit and each telling, one of her many fairy tales: The Brown Bird and the Trickster King. It was about a bird that wanted to travel over the mountains to a new home, but her wings couldn’t get her there. She met a magician—who turned out to be the king of tricksters—who offered to give the bird new wings in exchange for performing a task for him. Bracken had loved the story, but had never learned how it ended.

Bracken looked at every piece of paper on the desk, studying every sketch and written line, though most of the writing was scratched out and rewritten many times, as if Sadie had been composing the story, trying out ideas but not liking most of them. If she had completed the story, it was somewhere else. Perhaps with this Davin fellow.

Bracken was electric with excitement. He forgot about Jaz brooding upstairs, about everything that had happened since that morning—which by now felt like weeks ago. There was only this new discovery.

For the next few hours, he searched every page in the Vasencea binder, determined to learn everything about the place, about Davin, about Sadie’s activity there—everything. He may have even succeeded, if he had not eventually fallen asleep.

He awoke sometime during the night to Jaz shouting outside his bedroom.

22. Portrait of Sadie

For the second time that day, Bracken felt as if the floor dropped out from under him. He blinked at Oz, then looked at Jaz. “No…no, she’s not. I mean, she’s…just… But she’s not dead. Right, Jaz?”

Oz also looked at Jaz. “I assumed that was the case when she stopped sending correspondences. Sadie was quite dogged in her search for the doorway generator, so much that only two things could explain her sudden silence. Either she had found the generator, or she had died trying.”

“No, no. You’re thinking of someone else. Right Jaz? He means someone else.” Bracken drummed his fingers on the counter, trying to hide their sudden shaking. “You probably don’t even remember everyone who’s…worked with you, over the years, do you Jaz?”

Jaz raised a hand to her forehead, half covering her eyes.

“Jaz?”

Huey shuffled his feet in the uncomfortable silence, smiling again, his eyes flicking nervously from face to face. “Well, ah, I’ve got what I came for and gave what I came to give, so I guess I’ll say goodbye.”

When no one responded to him, Huey edged to the doors and slid out, clutching his bags of coffee beans

Bracken couldn’t stop watching Jaz. Why wasn’t she answering him?

“I suppose I’ll go too,” said Oz. He stood and shouldered his satchel. “If you do happen to find the generator, please let me know.”

Jaz lowered her hand from her eyes. “Huh?”

“The doorway generator. If you are still looking for it,” Oz said. “My employer has taken an interest in the device. If it can be found, she would pay well for a chance to see it.”

“Oh.” Jaz took an unsteady breath. “Yeah…no. That was Sadie’s project. I wasn’t in on it much. I don’t think it actually exists.”

“Doesn’t it? Hm.” Oz started for the doors. “Goodbye, then. Give my regards to Athamas.”

Bracken blinked, finally breaking his stare to glance at Oz. “Who’s Athamas?”

“You haven’t met him yet?” Asked Oz, an expression approaching surprise crossing his pale face.

Bracken shook his head. “Not yet.”

“You’re in for a treat, then. Goodbye.” Oz left them in their disquiet, slipping outside where he mounted his scooter and motored away.

Bracken waited until the doors closed. Then he was moving, striding over to Jaz, grabbing her by the shoulders and looking into her face. “Where is Sadie?”

“…she passed away. About five years ago…six months by your time, I think.” Her voice grew hoarse. “I’m sorry.”-

Bracken gripped her shoulders harder. “Are you serious. Are. You. Serious.”

Jaz nodded, eyes fixed on the ground.

“Jaz! Why didn’t you tell me?” He heard his voice echo in the room. Was he shouting? He could barely hear himself past the static filling his head. She’s not dead. She’s dead. It’s too late. She’s not dead! No! No, no, nonononono…

But it made sense, too. The way her room seemed to have been lived in, with her clothes still on the hangers. The unfinished projects on her desk. As if she had been there one day and then…not there the next.

Her eyes came up to meet his. They were reddened, filled with tears. “I couldn’t, remember?”

“That was before! You could have told me anytime once I got stuck here, but you let me think…” Bracken’s voice cracked, and he had to stop and swallow hard.

Jaz didn’t meet his eyes. Her voice was hoarse, just above a whisper. “I can’t talk about this right now.”

“What is wrong with you? She’s my aunt! I deserve to know! So does my family.” Bracken pointed a shaking finger at her. “You knew where we lived, because every time she visited she came back here and I’m sure she told you all about us. Why didn’t you reach out to us?”

Jaz pulled away and leaned against the counter, swiping the back of her hand across her cheekbones. She still refused to look at him, which made Bracken even angrier.

“My family thinks she’s still alive somewhere!” Even though they would have been more relieved than saddened to hear that Sadie was gone for good, they still deserved to know.

“What would I have said? I wouldn’t be able to tell your family anything besides she’s dead. I couldn’t even explain how or when.”

“How did she die? At least tell me that. Was she killed?”

“No. It wasn’t like that. She just…got old.”

“She wasn’t old,” Bracken protested. “She wasn’t even thirty the last time she visited.”

“But time passes differently here. Remember? A week out there is seven weeks in here. One year is seven. Sadie wasn’t the only one who’s traveled with me. But she did stay the longest.” Jaz’s eyes drifted downward, seeing memories of days past. “She traveled with me for almost fifty years.”

Bracken’s mouth dropped open. “Fifty?”

Jaz nodded. “The Defiant has…an effect on those who travel in it. Not as drastic as what happens with me, but…some things are affected when the shop resets. Wounds heal, for one thing. And the body…doesn’t age. We thought that since she didn’t look older, she actually wasn’t aging, like I don’t age. But we were wrong. I don’t have a set lifespan. But she did.”

“But…but…that would mean…”

Jaz looked in pain, her mouth and eyes tight. “She was over seventy years old when she passed on.”

“Seventy…” Bracken mouthed the word, staring at her, still gripping her shoulders.

Jaz didn’t try to shrug him off. “I should have told you. I know. You were just so…so set on getting her back, I…I didn’t know what…might happen if you found out she was gone.”

Bracken just stared at her.

Jaz cleared her throat and pushed on. “And not only that she’d lived here, but what here is, and why she stayed, and what she was doing, and…and everything. It’s…it’s complicated and—”

Bracken shook his head. “No, it’s not. You just didn’t want to bother. You were too busy with your big plans for escape—”

Jaz snapped back, quick tears dropping down her cheeks. “Hey! I care. I’m scared to death you’ll get hurt before you can go home. You’ve seen what can happen here. She’d never forgive me if—”

The doors opened, admitting a new customer, who stared at them in mild surprise. Bracken released Jaz’s shoulders and stepped back. Jaz wiped her face with the heels of her hands and moved to the register, leaving Bracken where he stood.

The static filling his mind grew, filling his vision with red sparks, his body moving automatically to the basement door and down the stairs. He paced outside Sadie’s room—old room—clenching and unclenching his fists. Suddenly he spun and punched Jaz’s door, leaving a small and unsatisfactory dent in the thick wood. Inspired by Oz’s display earlier, he drew back his fist, reshaped it into a thick spike, and punched again. This time, he left a large hole in the wood. His arm throbbed, but he wouldn’t feel the full pain until much later. He shook away splinters, drew back and punched again.

Again.

Again.

Now could see into her room through the holes.

Again. And again, and again, until only shreds of wood separated the holes.

“You know, that door will just go back to the way it was when midnight comes around.” Janus sat on the edge of Jaz’s bed, hands folded on his knees.

Bracken started back, blinking. “I…don’t care.”

“I don’t blame you for being angry. She should have told you.”

Bracken scowled at him through the broken door. “You said you knew where she was. You let me think she was alive too.”

“In a way, she is.”

“Stop it.”

Janus raised a hand. “Hear me out. As you’ve seen in Jaz’s case, death is not always final.”

Bracken couldn’t help sneering at this. “If you’re going to say something about an afterlife, don’t.” He turned away from the door, and found Janus standing behind him. He jumped back, bumping the demolished door. A glance into Jaz’s room showed it was now empty.

“You are not the only one who has lost someone dear to them. Jaz and I have been trapped here much longer than you have, and lost people much dearer.” Janus gestured for him to follow, gliding away into the area whre the brick hallway opened into a proper basement.

“I doubt that.” Bracken followed him. The basement was lighted by overhead lamps that hung from long chains fixed to the ceiling. Two columns of metal shelves stood in the center of the room, making an aisle to the back wall. The ones nearest to him held coffee supplies. Bracken followed Janus down the aisle to the back of the basement. The shelves here were even fuller than the front ones. They held all kinds of things, most of which had nothing to do with coffee: deck chairs, broken mirrors, coils of rope, boxy shapes he couldn’t identify, piles of clothing, dishes, toys, books, appliances, containers—there was no end of junk here. The last shelves were overflowing, the floor between them and the wall heaped with even more junk. It was all covered in thick dust.

“Welcome to the emotional distance corner.”

Bracken shied away from Janus, who was suddenly standing beside him. “Stop doing that!”

Janus smiled depreciatingly. “Sorry. Again. It’s kind of unavoidable.”

Bracken scrutinized him. Janus didn’t seem very sorry. If anything, he sounded amused. “Are you a ghost?”

“You could say that. When I was trapped here, I was separated from my physical body. I don’t get around by walking, as you and Jaz do.”

“Did Mr. White-Hair trap you too?”

“Mr. White-Hair?”

“Jaz said that’s who trapped her here when her world was destroyed. A white-haired man.”

“Ah. No, I was trapped in another way. There was a battle in my world. I lost and the…we’ll call them magicians…of my world attempted to imprison my soul. They didn’t quite succeed; as you can see, part of me ended up here. I can’t leave until my body and the rest of my soul are freed.”

“I heard that you’re supposed to have two faces. That you’re a powerful god, or something,” Bracken said. He tried to remember what Oz had called him. Luminary? Loamata?

Janus smiled. The warmth of it didn’t enter his strange eyes, if such a thing were even possible. “That’s an interesting take, certainly.”

“So it’s not true?”

“What do you think?”

“I think no one tells me much around here.”

“What do you wish to know?”

Bracken clenched his fists at his sides. “I want to know what happened to my aunt.”

“The answer to that is not as simple as you might think. Come.” Janus led Bracken away from the junk pile, between two shelves until they reached the wall on the left side of the basement. He didn’t walk so much as slide, his feet not quite coming in contact with the floor. A light clicked on above them automatically, illuminating the area.

Bracken’s eyes widened as he saw what covered the wall.

They were photographs. Millions of them, separated by distinct color schemes into seven thick columns, from the ceiling nearly all the way to the floor. Bracken walked slowly along the wall, looking at the faces, places, streets, fields, lakes, rivers, and forests that made up the whole; bits of life framed by countless viewfinders, passed to Jaz and added to these seven windows she’d made for herself; a view of all the things she couldn’t touch; a map of everywhere she could not go.

“So that’s what Jaz does with them…”

“Look here.” Janus touched a photo in the third column of an old man with spectacles. “This was taken in Grayson Gulch, world three.” He moved down to another segment and touched a different photo of the same old man, without spectacles and wearing different clothes. “This one was taken in a city called Langston, in world five.”

“Did he travel with Jaz too?”

“He did not.” Janus’s finger moved to a picture within the same column of a red-haired woman with freckled skin and a familiar smirk. “You should recognize her.”

Bracken leaned close to it. “That’s Aja.”

“Correct.” Janus moved back down the wall and pointed to another picture. “And this?”

“Aja again. But—”

“But in world six.” Janus glided back the way they had come, stopping to tap another picture. “And now in world three. This is the version of Aja that you met.”

“The version of…”

“Each of these seven worlds is a variation of the others. And variations of nearly each person in each world exist also.”

“How does that even happen?” Bracken asked slowly, suddenly finding it hard to breathe.

“There are many theories. Some think each time a major point in history occurs, the turning point produces separate timelines following the possible outcomes. Others think that each world was created at the same time and developed its own timeline independently of the others.” Janus shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter how they exist, only that they do. This is good news for you, though.”

“Why?”

Janus slid away to the segment he called world six, and tapped another photo. Bracken went to look, and stopped breathing.

Sadie smiled out of the photo, her brown hair braided neatly back, her shoulders wrapped in a lacy shawl. “Your aunt exists in more than one world, too. Even if one life is extinguished, others remain.”

Bracken reached out and touched the photo, brushing her familiar face, and was able to breathe enough to whisper, “Which world is six?”

“Saturday. Two days from now.” Janus was suddenly close beside Bracken. “I’ll help you find her, if you’ll help me get free.”

_______

Note:

A longer post today (which I hope you don’t mind), full of action and reaction. Some of my favorite characters will soon make appearances in upcoming chapters, along with more revelations for Bracken, as well as Jaz. Maybe they’ll even learn how to get along. ^_^

My intention is for Traveler to be the first of a trilogy of books, and revisit some of these characters and worlds in future stories. I am currently drafting and outlining book two, and I’d love to hear from y’all about who you’d like to see more of, and which worlds you want to explore. I am also open to suggestions for completely new worlds (waaat?) for The Defiant to visit. Let me know in the comments here, and as you read on, what you’d like to see in future stories! And thanks a million for reading and liking. 🙂

21. Cafe Farce

The front doors opened then, admitting Huey Castelaine. He was slender but muscled, his shoulders wide and his waist trim. His ears were longer than a human’s but shorter than an elf’s, tapered like teardrops and set off by wavy, honey colored hair. His blue eyes were large and friendly. His mouth was set in a grin balanced pleasingly between triangle and half-moon. He wore a white suit coat, a maroon vest and pinstriped pants, all perfectly fitted. Some white dust clung to his black leather shoes and the cuffs of his pants.

“Heya, Jaz,” he called. Then, seeing who sat at the counter, “Hey…Oz. You’re…here.” His grin widened and kept widening to the full width of his face.

Jaz’s neck muscles ached with the strain of not turning to look in the trash can.

“I hope that’s not a problem for you,” Oz said.

“A problem? No of course not.” Huey strode to the counter and settled on a stool beside Oz. “I was early myself, as you see. I needed to get some…coffee and stuff here anyway, so…”

“I wasn’t aware you drank coffee,” said Oz.

“Coffee, tea, wine, beer—you name it.” Huey’s grin was plastic. “I love Jaz’s…dark roast.”

“Which one?”

“Jaz, what’s that dark roast I love called again?”

“That would be Sugar ’n’ Spice,” said Jaz.

Huey’s eyebrows twitched. “Really? That’s what it’s called.”

“Same thing it was called last time you had it.” Her previous encounters with Huey, who spent most of his time in casinos in the lawless country of Alchaven, had given Jaz had the impression that in the event of some horrible disaster or life-threatening situation Huey could shake off his flippancy which often made him seem ridiculous, and perform intelligently—even bravely—but that event had not yet happened. At least, not in her store.

Bracken suddenly walked toward the counter opposite where Oz sat. “The other assistant you mentioned. Was it a girl named Sadie?”

Shielded from Oz’s view for the moment, Jaz sidled against the trash can and, keeping her eyes in his direction, began to reach inside for the pastry box that held the book.

“Yes,” Oz said. “She was also Apeili.”

“Apeili?” Asked Bracken.

“A shapechanger. Like you.”

Bracken blinked. “You can tell I’m…”

“Of course,” said Oz.

Huey leaned to one side, catching Jaz’s attention and waggling his eyebrows as if to ask, ‘What’s going on? Why is he here?’

Jaz widened her eyes as if to respond, ‘I don’t know, he just showed up.’

Huey widened his eyes and tilted his head a fraction, wondering, ‘where the devil is the book now, and has Oz seen it?’

Jaz shook her head no. Her hand tapped the rim of the trash can.

Huey’s mouth dropped open as if an unpleasant taste had just entered it.

Oz leaned to one side, looking around Bracken at Jaz. “The other one was Apeili too, isn’t that right?”

Jaz’s fingers spasmed on the edge of the can, crackling the plastic liner. “Huh?”

“Your last employee was Apeili.”

“Oh. Yeah. Mhm.”

Huey joined Oz at the counter, lounging far over it on his elbow, drawing Oz’s gaze to him as he asked Bracken, “You’re Apeili, eh? Been away from the homeland long?”

“Not very long,” said Bracken.

“Ah. That explains it,” Huey said with a jerky nod.

With one eye on Oz, Jaz quickly reached into the trash can, lifting out the pastry box.

“What explains what?” Bracken asked.

“Why you’re still sane,” said Oz. “Apeili who leave their homeland don’t adjust well to different cultures.”

“Neither do Cialos,” Huey said.

“Oh, we’re quite insane from the start,” Oz told him.

There was no way to tell if Oz was serious or not, so Bracken simply asked, “How many ah…races are there, exactly?”

“Eight,” said Oz.

Huey listed them helpfully. “Elven, human, Seidyrian, Cialos, Apeili, Kyra Kyth, Sassacus and Nykul.”

“And some scattered halfbreeds,” said Oz. “Here in Houzai you’ll mostly see humans and elves.”

“Jaz is a halfbreed, aren’t you Jaz?” Said Huey, and nodded to Bracken. “You can tell by the hair.”

“Uh huh.” She wasn’t. “Come and get your coffee.”

Huey hurried to meet Jaz at the gap between the tea counter and the wall. She had gone into the kitchen and returned carrying a large, brown paper bag of coffee beans. She thumped it down on the counter and they leaned over it, giving it a close inspection.

“Jaz,” Huey said through his teeth, pretending to read the tasting notes scrawled on the front, “I need that…item.”

“What were you bloody thinking, meeting him here?” Her whisper was a shout that lacked volume.

Huey winced. “I thought I could get it before he came.”

“You are killing me.” Jaz shoved the bag against his chest and wheeled away. Huey clutched it with one arm and grinned nervously at the room.

Jaz came back with a second bag of beans and dropped it next to the first. “You are buying these,” she whispered fiercely.

“Fine, fine, but where is…”

Jaz went to the back counter and brushed wet coffee grounds off the pastry box, carrying it nonchalantly back to Huey. She set it down with an air of triumph.

He peeked under the lid. “This is…half a blueberry cobbler.”

Jaz snapped her jaws shut and returned, white-faced, to the trash can. With her back to Bracken and Oz, she arbitrarily pulled napkins out of a dispenser with one hand while fishing inside the can with the other until she found the box.

Huey took it and, after raising the lid, smiled at Jaz with relief. “My favorite.”

They turned back to Oz who was saying to Bracken, “I suppose you’re looking for the doorway generator, also.”

Bracken blinked. “The what?”

“Like the one before you. She asked me about it numerous times.” He looked to Huey who, having dumped the book from the box into his satchel, had just closed the top. “I’ll take the book now, if you’re done making your purchase.”

“Huh? Oh yeah, yeah,” said Huey, shuffling around the counter toward Oz with the bag pinched between his fingers. “Got it right here.”

He had only taken a few steps when Oz extended a hand toward him. His fingers stretched past Bracken and several empty stools along the counter to the satchel. One finger slashed a long hole down one side of it, and the others slipped inside and pulled out the tome, wrapped around it like thin white ribbons. They retracted back into his hand and he put the tome carefully into his satchel without expression.

Huey stood quite still, clutching his own torn satchel in both hands, watching Oz’s hands until they returned to normal. When they did, he glanced at Jaz and let out a soft sigh. She relaxed against the counter with a similar sigh.

Bracken, after a long moment of silence, asked, “What’s a doorway generator?”

“It was created by Janus, master of doorways. Some legends say he had two faces, so he could stand on the threshold and look simultaneously into two worlds,” said Oz. “Or into time, depending on the legend.”

“Janus?” Bracken looked over his shoulder at Jaz.

She kept her face vague and shrugged.

“Yes, Janus. A Lumenatra. Beings from outside our dimension, with immense power, capable of massive destruction,” Oz said. Then after a moment’s pause, he added, “Though, many believe the Lumenatra are only a myth…”

“Sadie…was looking for something Janus made? Why?” Asked Bracken.

“She never told me. She was quite adamant about finding it though,” said Oz. “We corresponded for a time.”

Jaz jolted at this. “You did?”

Bracken’s voice rose slightly and he leaned toward Oz, gripping the edge of the counter. “Did she go into y—somewhere in Houzai? Is that where she is now?”

Jaz froze, a slow horror coming over her as the conversation veered in a direction she’d avoided since Bracken had begun traveling with her. Because she still could not bring herself to say what Oz was so casually saying now.

“No. She is dead.”

______

Note: 

This episode’s music is not so much what the elves might listen to, or even a theme for their world, as it is a theme for the situation Jaz and Huey find themselves in. It was the constant accompaniment in my head as I wrote this scene.

Also, how do you think Bracken will react to the news that Sadie is dead? Are the legends about Janus true? 

As always, thanks for reading and voting!