The Heart

AuntieVerse Serial #3, 2016

Preamble:

 

It took three days after I died to find the woman in the red coat. She was crouched in a cramped studio, thumbing through the moldy pages of some trashy romance from the scattered ruins of the abandoned bookstore below her apartment. Chuckling to herself and scribbling loopy notes in the margins, she barely acknowledged my entrance through the kitchen window, though the cloud of breath that curled about her lips with every giggle ought to have alerted her.

When those slitted, serpent eyes finally met mine, it was with a bored sigh that she greeted me, leaning back and propping a full cheek on her polished talons.

"Even the dead can read," she cooed. "Business hours are dawn to dusk and not a second more."

I balked, tongue thick with the weight of disbelief and disappointment. She was supposed to help me! "Miss, this is an emergency!"

The woman in the red coat waved those perfect nails in my face and clicked her tongue. "Truly?" Her smile was wide and sharp as steel knives. "You're dead already, so how bad can it possibly be? You've all the time in the world, Dearest. I do not. Dawn to dusk. Not a second more."

There was a pop, a hiss, and the sensation of moving--of air filling a space and then displacing itself to make room elsewhere. Pressure hugged me until I felt as though I would be crushed into stardust....and then I was dry-heaving on the curb outside of the bookstore.

Dawn to dusk.

I pulled my knees to my chest and sobbed until the blue slate of night melted into pink froth.

 

Let me tell you a bedtime story, Dearest.

 

Have you ever felt love?

 

No, I suppose that is a silly question, isn't it? Any being with a brain and blood and beating heart has felt some concept of love. Each breathing, bleating beast cringing along the surface of this wild world in a meaningless, maddening march to death has felt some inkling of a better life with a hopeless creature other than itself. When the body crumbles to dust and casts itself across the sickly skies into the fathomless depths of oblivion, it is with some melancholic longing that the soul remembers whose tears fell over its passing.

 

But it is the only question I have.

 

It is the only question there is.

 

Yesterday, I was a different woman, you see. A different Auntie.

 

---

 

The dead woman came crawling back to my studio just after dusk, but I suppose you know that, don't you? Night after night I expanded my wards and she waited and wailed on the curb of that disgusting hovel, whimpering and whining and licking at her wounded pride. It took days for her to drum up the courage to trudge back up my office, when the sun was warming the carpet of my apartment.

 

Though I confess to being a busy woman, I had no cases presently...and I suppose that you know that as well. She waited timidly on my doorstep for some time, casually picking at the mottled, molting wallpaper with a hint of restrained disgust curling the corner of thin lips that she no longer needed.

 

The dead woman paused before speaking and the silence was heavy with her fear for some moments. I am almost ashamed to admit that I taunted her, that I goaded her, that I traced her painted face and perfumed hair and I twisted needles inside of her. Do not misunderstand, this is not an admission of guilt. She had already made her mind up to threaten me, to present me with a vial of my blood—likely stolen from somewhere in my home—to entrap me in her service. I merely steeled her spine and gave her the strength to start this story.

The vial was glass with a hard leather cap. The black blood sparkled and shone in the weak rays of the dawn and that dead woman looked so smug when she flashed it in my face.

I saw that splash of red dancing in those lifeless, glassy eyes, and the smug prick of amusement tugging at her cheeks and I must confess... The rage threatened to overflow, consume me. Time slowed for an instant then, as I destroyed books and benches and as she twisted and turned her wrist to display my weakness, my fatal stroke. Had I known where she had gotten it, perhaps things would have been different. Had I been more thoughtful, more prepared. Perhaps...

I was careless. I am not too proud to admit it.

In the eye of my hurricane of an office, I took the case, agreed to pursue her killers and bring her the justice she so desperately desired.

She had been young, friendly, perhaps would have even been viewed as promiscuous, with olive skin, glossy hair, and a now-permanent cat's eye. I was not surprised that she shimmered in and out of sight as we neared the apartments on the east end of town, five miles from the river. The buzzer was broken, the stairway filled with the sickening stench of cigarettes and shame. When I entered, red coat slicing the stinking stillness of the morning, lesser beasts scurried from my sight, sluggishly limping on two legs into their nests.

Vermin, I muttered to only myself, as the dead woman had been tugged ahead of me by the hollow in her chest, drawn ever closer to her death. How she screamed then...a clear bell cutting through the thick smog of refuse and wasted flesh, and in my bitterness I savored her distress, tasting it on my tongue like ripe fruit. I met her on the fourth floor, where the door of the apartment had been kicked from its hinges and the local police had already finished decorating, inviting us to take a look at her murderer's handiwork.

The officer at the door with gray temples and a sour face was far too old for this type of work, standing for long hours in cheap shoes with no support for his aching back. I told him as much and he heartily agreed, staggering down the open stairwell one shaking step after another. I listened for the latch and steadied myself at the threshold.

The first step is always hardest, isn't it?

One foot after another and the chill that sent my fingers tingling forced me to pull my coat closed. It was the the only flash of color in the room, a rose breaking the monotony of an icy tundra, as was typical. I stepped into these cases, once I let those dead men wear my body and open my eyes to truly see the course of time...my breath misted and my hands trembled, even as I struggled to shake the dead woman out of my thoughts.

And then she was with me, standing in the corner of the barren room leaving my ears ringing. I followed the tickles and twinges that she trapped behind my eyes while she shuddered and shivered, gasping for breath that she could never take again. I let her drown there, tracing the remnants of her final moments to the bedroom.

It was empty, just like us.

No furniture of any kind, no mattresses, syringes, not even a ripped carpet. I suppose I ought to mention the blood, however, and how it curled along the tobacco-stained walls in delicate script and terrifyingly elaborate swirls and spirals. The symbol was one that I didn't recognize: an endless cycle of locusts shedding shells and crawling from them, one after another after another after another.

There was too much blood to be a single young woman. Each and every corner and cranny was stuffed full of them, as well as the stream of syllables that I would not have dared to pronounce aloud, even if I knew how. Shadows crept across the plains of plaster, stretching their talons and tusks as the sun cowered behind a mass of black clouds in the distance.

"It's something else, isn't it?"

---

I don't expect you to believe me when I say that I was glad to see him, in spite of my tone and temperament. Black, coiled hair, aquiline nose, row upon row of porcelain teeth...he brought the sunlight into the room, even as he scowled upon me. My smile was more a savage baring of teeth and my insults cut at his throat, but I had missed him, missed his defiance and determination.

He, that tall, bronzed paladin with a rod spine, who would not be my prey.

Oh, how I missed him.

The seams of his jacket gave a minute squeak of protest when he crossed his arms and offered to escort me off of the premises. I had all of the information that I needed, as well as a suspicion that he was no more welcome at this scene than I, so I showed myself out, silently motioning to the invisible dead woman to cease her pacing across the aged linoleum in the kitchen and join me. The detective remained and I felt his eyes burning a hole between my shoulder blades, even as I pulled the rickety, bullet-riddled door of the apartment building closed behind me.

 

---

 

The dead woman followed me for hours, to steaming alleys and straying vagrants. Wherever I roamed and razed, she trailed after, a scavenger picking and parting the waves of dazed bodies that I scattered in my wake.

 

Still, the bodies twitched and turned in the shifting shadows of the underworld that I trekked at her request. Each and every delinquent and degenerate that groaned beneath the weight of my booted feet spat splatters of blood-stained information on the concrete and I left them in relative peace when I'd milked the last of their despair and desperation.

 

She kept her tongue firmly between her teeth, Dearest, until those red bootprints trailed through the door of a man that she recognized and I heard the sharp squeal of a screaming woman who had forgotten how to breathe. My heart throbbed painfully, as though pierced with an iron nail, and I saw his eyes widen in fear and terrible wonder. Shoulders pinching together, I offered a sympathetic glance, then shrugged from my coat, delicately balancing it upon the mantle.

 

I felt his gaze kiss the cuts on my knuckles and that sharp smile tugged the corners of my lips nearly to my ears. Somewhere inside my belly, a flame kindled and I dearly hoped that he would run.

 

He did.

 

The chase is exhilarating, Dearest. How does one even begin to describe it? The cold caress of the wind on your cheeks, the stars in the swirling infinite watching from overhead...the smell of your prey's terror drifting on the breeze like the blessed beckon of a lover's meal.

 

I caught him easily, less than three blocks away, scurrying and scampering beneath the awnings of a nearby launderette. Three blows to the temple rendered him immobile and carrying him to his home proved simpler than running him down.

 

The dead woman waited, as she always did.

 

This time would different, you know. I did not require information or cooperation or the frantically pointed finger. When I raised my hammer high and brought it crashing down upon his kneecaps, my motions were those of a single-minded mechanic.

 

Arm up.

 

Silence.

 

Arm down.

 

Screams.

 

Now the dead woman had something to say. Now when the man who murdered her thrashed and threw himself out of my reach, scratching and straining to drag his useless legs across the floor, she threw herself at my feet and begged for him.

 

Mercy.

 

Mercy for her murderer..

 

She did not know the price of my justice, Dearest.

 

No one ever does.

 

So, I cast her out. After all, I knew what I was doing. If you kick enough dogs, then the kennelmaster is certain to follow their whimpering.

 

I was careless.

 

How could I have known...?

 

---

 

He found me in the den, covered in that killer's blood. My detective saw that madness shimmering in my eyes and drew his gun, motioning for me to step away. I plucked at the lint on my sleeves and offered a simpering smile: in what lifetime has he ever killed me?

 

“How can I help you, Detective?”

 

My voice was a melody, a delicate tinkling of wedding bells that call my brutal love for him from every rooftop and rafter. I bark a jackal's laughter at the revulsion turning his face and stomach.

 

He motioned with the barrel of his weapon to the dead woman at his back, whose fist was clenched around the fragile glass. “She led me to you. If you leave, I won't look for you until tomorrow, but if you stay, I will shoot you. Believe that.”

 

I cooed and waltz around him, dangerously close the muzzle that I know will not fire. My fingernails skipped along the tight wrinkles in his sleeves, across the tension between his shoulders, through the slick black hair curling at his nape and I cackled when I see him recoil from me. There were nights, long ago, when he would have fallen into my arms—blood and brain-stained as they were--instead of fleeing them...but that time was long past, wasn't it? Beyond the magic and the madness...could we have that again?

 

The tentative knock at the door halted our individual escapes, either way.

 

---

 

There are certain characteristics that I expect when faced with a cult leader.

 

They ought to be charismatic, not too terribly far into middle age, and strong enough to intimidate the lesser tiers of their legions. They ought to have a commanding presence, an iron grip upon the hosts of heretics and hell-raisers beneath their thumbs. They ought to insist on fear and awe, from the outset of their arrival to the very last lingering moments.

 

Oh, Dearest.

 

I did not expect a child.

 

How condescending of me—I must clarify. I did not expect thick-rimmed glasses and side-slicked hair and the face of an oft-kicked puppy. I did not expect a nasally whine or a bony clenched fist or for that infernal dead woman to shakily step forward, offering the vial to him in an outstretched palm.

 

I did not expect my detective to raise the gun to the side of his neck, just under the hook of that perfect jaw.

 

I...

 

That apartment is gone now. The boy disappeared with my vial when I cradled my detective's broken face to my chest and in my grief, I let the building burn around me. The dead woman coddled and crooned at my shoulder and...

 

I took her.

 

Shoving her inside of my detective was simple. Keeping her there was not. Every gush of blood from his neck threatened to leak her onto his blue tie and once-white shirt. The stench of her, the audacity of her presence inside of his perfect body...I swallowed the bile painfully as I watched her twitch each of his long, slender fingers.

 

“Come then,” I told her, my voice sand circling the base of an hourglass. I reached my hand out to her and the dead woman followed. Of course she did.

 

---

 

That boy was waiting for me deep in the forest of a nearby park, you know. He had a small collection of followers, all swaying and chanting and channeling power that they could not possibly understand. I watched him finger my vial of blood in awe, as though he had not considered the scope of its power, how possession of it in proximity to the source could give him some modicum of control over my strength, my will. The dead woman could never have used it, but my shock at her betrayal gave him the second needed to take the reins and...

 

I raked my eye over the ruined corpse of my detective and pointed. A silent nod and the body of my detective barreled forward—revenants have no concept of pain, even when piloted by a free-thinking being, and each thrust of fist met with meaty crunches and stifled screams. Arms went awry, legs arched and angled and I heard a child retch in fear behind me.

 

Through it all, I held the eyes of that boy through his dirty spectacles, and though I could have pitied him in that moment, I felt only the bubbling mirth of a beast striking for the kill.

 

Oh, my Dearest.

 

He struck out with some meager power of his own, slicing through both my glorious detective and me as I approached him. No matter, his cultists were scattered across the clearing in minutes, dismembered and dying. The dead woman heaved my broken detective's body behind me.

 

Have you ever watched a rabbit struggle to become a fox?

 

That boy ran then, dashing back and forth, calling paltry balls of flame and other parlor tricks to his aid. He sliced at my arms and legs, easy enough to ignore or block, but the detective's corpse swayed and staggered in my footsteps, on and on.

 

“Why?” I asked, when he leaned, panting, at the base of a mighty Hangman's tree. Magic is so tiring for the young. Outlasting him had been simple.

 

His fingers squeezed the glass of the vial, but I gripped his wrist between two fingers, digging talons into skin and feeling the fragile bone splinter.

 

He gasped in pain—pathetic, pitiful weeping—and do you know what he said?

 

Of course you do, my love.

 

“It's my time, Auntie. It's my time. He promised me so much more.”

 

Oh, Dearest.

 

I kissed his forehead and sent him to sleep. Plenty of time to deal with that later.

 

The sun was setting now and soaking the sky in great globs of bloody cotton clouds and my dear detective's body sunk to my side. I sighed and watched my breath scatter the dust settling on the tips of my darling's hair and the sun sinking in his soulless, black eyes. I could keep him forever...stitch and soothe the wounds. He could be mine. Truly mine.

 

My beautiful detective.

 

“It's dusk,” I offered, with a weak chuckle. “We're off the clock.”

 

Then I dragged my lips across his one last time and watched the dead woman drain from his eyes. Her smile was heavy with sympathy and sorrow and she faded with the rest of the boy's magic when the moon put the sun to sleep.

 

---

 

And it all leads here, doesn't it?

 

To this moment.

 

Even now as you scream fruitlessly into that rag and thrash against these old, moldy ropes...you wonder if, deep down, I still have any love in myself for you. In the seething depths of grief, even this woman, this monstrous woman...even she must have some raindrop of mercy for you to drink.

 

Oh, my dear.

 

How could you possibly think that?

 

Please, keep your eyes open for this. I want those brilliant, blue eyes to widen so perfectly as they follow each and every single swing. I want the blood that stains their sight to cast your inevitable death in flawless crimson and for each suck of wet, metallic breath to be a beautiful blessing and by the time I reach your head, you kiss the tip of this ruined hammer and beg it to kiss you back. Beg me to love you even half as much as I loved him.

 

I know that you never meant for this to happen, you sweet, sweet child. You thought that you could trap me, use me, that eventually I would come to worship you in all of your power and adore you as any dog would. Please, don't cry. Think of this as a lesson, my darling, delicious child. You've a vicious thorny vine growing through your spirit, a weed of avarice and pride that has taken hold in your heels and rooted you to the end of this sad story.

 

I can help you, my dear and there is certainly no reason that I cannot take some pleasure in my work.

 

My Auntie always told me to strike a weed at the roots. My Auntie always knew best.

 

Now, hold up your head and open your eyes. We have so much work to do and Auntie loves her Dearest too much to make you wait any longer.

 

---

 

Storytime is over, Dearest.

Remember to bite down, swallow the pain.

Dream of a woman in a red coat, red tears, red grin.

Dream of a pretty dead girl and a brave, glorious knight.

Dream of a disobedient Dearest and the deadly penalty.

Keep your eyes open.

 

Sweet dreams, Dearest. Auntie loves you.

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