“Keep Away from Naked Flame” Copyright 2011 Patricia Kirby, all rights reserved
Marsh NaTagh, Prince Third Rank of the elf province of Tem, was best described with liberal use of the word “well.” Well-connected. Well-off. Well-mannered. In other words, boring.
Marsh and I were sitting in Nelly’s, an Albuquerque dive where good sanitation meant the occasional removal of the dead flies that littered the windowsills. But the chile rellenos were to die for. If I had to endure this much quality time with a pompous elven prince, I could at least indulge my addiction to fiery chile peppers.
I was the only one in the place who knew Marsh was anything but human, his features disguised by a glamour. Marsh, though humanoid–ten fingers and ten toes, anatomy arranged in the usual manner–was a little too alien to blend in without some camouflage. Here in New Mexico, his oversized tilted green eyes might have gotten him mistaken for a blond-haired survivor of the Roswell crash.
Explaining my complicated lineage would require elaborate charts and diagrams. Suffice it to say, I’m a mixture of human, vampire and elf. Physically, human genetics call the shots: to the restaurant’s patrons, I was a black-haired, green-eyed young woman, right down to my pulse, if they were inclined to check.
Marsh was droning on about the high cost of harvesting Gar tobacco leaf (which was bull since the elves employed lesser Fey for the task and paid them slave wages), so I counted dead insects on the windowsill and let my thoughts drift to my grocery list.
When he stopped yammering, I pulled the contract from my purse, unfolded and set it on the table next to his plate of cheese quesadillas. He put on a pair of wire-rimmed glasses and lifted the paper to eye level with a flourish. While he read, I ran my finger through the flame of a lopsided candle that sat in the middle of the table.
The Grey Brethren, a vampire syndicate and my employer, was acting as go-between in trade negotiations between the elves of Tem and the Teile demons. It was a simple matter, impossible to screw up, which is why the Brethren had assigned it to me.
“No,” Marsh said with an insulted sniff.
“No? Why not?”
“We are providing a superior product. Our new drying process assures that smoker experiences the full multi-dimensional pleasure of Gar leaf.”
“Spare me the ad copy. What does that mean?”
His bored sigh fluttered the candle’s flame. “Properly cured Gar leaf should stimulate the smoker’s lekta, specifically the portion of the lekta that exists in the space between Planes.”
All magical beings, including yours truly, had a lekta, a sort of metaphysical gland that oozed magical power into the bloodstream. Only a small portion of the lekta is physically present in the body, the rest existing in interstitial space between Planes of existence.
“Who says this process results in a better product? You?” I asked.
“Your condescension is noted, Regan O’Connell.” He pronounced my name as though it were a curse. “So typical of your race.”
“My–race? Which would be?”
“Human. White human. I’ve read what your people did to the natives of this land.” He took off his glasses and stared at me.
A lecture on race relations from an elf?
Chin lifted high, he said, “In appreciation of the Native American plight, I have adopted a name evocative of their traditions. Henceforth I shall be ‘He Who Walks with Honor.'”
I glared at him. “For your information, ‘Big Chief Packing Peanuts for Brains,’ I’m Irish, born and raised. I didn’t move to this continent until the 1950s. And besides . . .” I shut up, realizing that this was the sort of diplomacy that got me into trouble. Temper, O’Connell, watch the temper.
After a deep breath, I said, “How much for this new improved Gar leaf?” Lips pursed, he pulled out a pen and scribbled something on a paper napkin.
I took the napkin and snorted. “I fail to see why the price should increase by . . .” I studied the number, “thirty percent because you learned how to operate a microwave.”
“I did not, as you say, ‘operate a microwave.’ This new process is complicated.”
“Right.” I stuffed the napkin into in my purse. “I’ll discuss this with the Grey Brethren and get back to you.”
The muscles in his forehead hauled his eyebrows to just shy of his hairline. “I was under the impression I was dealing with someone who had decision-making authority.”
“You are.” Not. I’d been told to clear any changes with upper management. “Five percent,” I said.
“Thirty percent, and no lower.”
“Five percent.” We bargained for about five minutes and I got the increase down to eighteen percent, still ridiculously high, but the customers, Teile demons, were overly fond of Gar leaf cigars.
I left the restaurant feeling smug. That wasn’t so difficult; Dad would be pleased.
“You did what?” my father said, managing to sound imposing even with a soft Irish lilt.
When I started to retell the story, he cut me off. “The question was rhetorical, an expression of disbelief.”
“Disbelief, really?” I dropped down on my bed and picked at the comforter’s stitching.
His sigh came over the phone loud and clear. If sighs were an energy source, you could send Dad a report on my activities and power an entire city. “No. Very little you do surprises me, child.”
“Sorry,” I tried.
After what felt like an eternal pause, my father spoke: “The price must be justified. Find out what this new process is and whether there is a marked increase in quality.”
“I got the impression it was a secret innovative technology. I don’t reckon Marsh will take me on a plant tour.”
“Innovative.” My father made a little snort. “The combination of ‘innovation’ and ‘elf’ is the definitive oxymoron. I wouldn’t be surprised if this new drying technology is the New Mexico sun. Make it clear to Marsh that secrecy is unacceptable.” There was a pause, then he said, “But do be . . . polite.”
“Of course,” I said.
Our conversation then went in the usual direction. Dad talked about books he was reading and promised to send them to me. The books in question had titles like The New Compendium of Fourth-Tier-Plane Races and Etymology of Ceremonial Sh’ree, all destined to be doorstops. The most recent book he had sent, Listing of Races of Indeterminate Sentience, had been opened once, when, in the absence of a notepad, I had scribbled a phone message under the drawing of a fiery salamander.
I love my dad and don’t have the heart to tell him my idea of a good read is the latest X-Men comic.
The sigh from that confession would light up the planet.
Long ago, back around the time when humans were just getting a handle on bipedalism, the elves were happily eradicating the last of a lizardlike race of Fey known as kobolds. I suppose in the absence of television or violent video games, exterminating your neighbors was a viable method of blowing off steam. Apparently, genocide was so much fun, the elves soon set their sights on a new quarry: the Mar’Gwynt.
When the Mar’Gwynt had the audacity to successfully resist eradication, the elves resorted to name-calling; they tagged them with “kobold” and the pejorative stuck. The Mar’Gwynt resemble elves in all respects, with two exceptions: their skin comes in shades of deep brown to nearly black, and their elongated canines give them rather wolfish smiles. Otherwise all the usual elf stuff is there: pointy ears, delicate features, and large exotic eyes. Because of their history with the fairer-skinned elves, they justifiably resent the moniker “dark” elf.
Thirty minutes after my conversation with Dad, I sat on my car’s trunk, soaking up the late afternoon sun, waiting for one particular Mar’Gwynt, my best buddy, Talis.
Talis lived in a neighborhood that scared even me, so we usually met in a mall parking lot. I had been waiting about twenty minutes when he showed up. Seeing the irritation on my face, he flashed a toothy smile as he got out of his car. His straight black hair, short but always about six weeks past a haircut, flopped over ice-blue eyes.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey, yourself. You’re late.”
“I’m sorry.” He sat down next to me.
I tilted my head back–even sitting, he towered over me–and looked into his eyes.
If I was truly defined by the company I kept, then at that moment I was a compulsive thief who used that predilection in the service of finding and retrieving items. The “finding” was an easy matter, since Talis’s clients provided a location, usually accompanied by helpful information like “It’s in the safe behind the fake Monet.” I know Talis would have preferred a less ethically challenged career, but an honest vocation probably required going back to the Fey Plane and whatever he was running from.
“I need your help.” I let out a sigh worthy of my father. “I got an elf problem.”
His hunched shoulders relaxed and his expression brightened. “Who doesn’t?” he said with a surprising lack of bitterness.
I told him about Marsh.
He smiled. “You need a link back to the Fey Plane? I can get you there.”
“No. I think he’s still here in Albuquerque. He’s developed a fascination with the local culture. He’s gone native, er, literally.” I told Talis about the elven prince turned “He Who Walks with Stick up Ass.”
“Wow,” said Talis. “Talk about irony.”
“Anyway, I need to get a line on his location.” I pulled the napkin with Marsh’s offer out of my pocket. “This is his. Think you could use it to run a tracer spell?”
“Don’t you think it’s time you learned how–?”
“No!” I said. “There’s no time. Dad’s not happy. I need to get this sorted out straight away.” I made the mistake of looking at him and got slammed dead-on by the most powerful weapon in Talis’s charm arsenal–the wounded puppy look. A hundred watts of sad beamed from his big blue eyes.
“If I hadn’t helped you cheat in magic school,” he said, “this wouldn’t be–”
“You helped me because I suck at magic,” I replied. He blinked, increasing the power of his stare tenfold. I countered with my only defense, the little match-girl face. “Please?”
It worked. “Okay,” he said. “I’ve got a map in the car.”
Talis leaned in through his car window and dug around in the glove box. An automotive Frankenstein’s monster, Talis’s vehicle was made from the carcasses of several cars–the doors, fenders, trunk and hood were all different colors. I wrote my name in the hood’s dust while he unfolded the map.
The map, though outwardly a standard Rand McNally map of Albuquerque, hummed with a magic spell that made it a smart map, a kind of arcane GPS.
We stretched the map out on the asphalt. I handed him the napkin and crouched at his side. Talis, who speaks English and many other languages, always casts spells using his native tongue. He began by repeating four musical-sounding words over and over. There was the familiar electric hum of magic, the vibration of power on my skin, and then Marsh’s location, a bright pinpoint, appeared on the map.
“Cool,” I said. The spell would hold until cleared by another. “I’ll get this back to you as soon as I’m done.” I folded the map and climbed to my feet.
“This sounds fun,” he said.
I frowned. “What sounds fun?” Realization swept over me. “No. You aren’t coming with me.”
“Why not? It’s my map.”
“Because–because it could be dangerous.”
“Then you need me,” he said.
My mind scrambled for logical footing. “Because you’re not a sidekick,” I said.
“Yeah,” I said. “You know. The guy who follows the heroine around supplying comic relief. The guy who dies a painful death forcing the heroine to avenge his death.” Talis blinked his big eyes, untroubled. “The sidekick never gets the girl,” I said with a wink and a nudge.
Talis cooked up a smile that was mostly friendship with a dash of flirtation. “I’ve already got the girl, right?”
Thrown, I said, “Huh?”
He ruffled a hand through my hair. “Lovers come and go, but friends–”
Oh. “Always,” I said.
We took Talis’s battered little car because he was afraid mall security would mistake it for an abandoned vehicle and have it towed.
“Tomorrow we’re getting your windshield fixed.” I squinted through the brilliant webbing created when the setting sun encountered the dense field of cracks in the window’s glass. According to the map, Marsh was somewhere on the westernmost portion of Central Avenue.
Formerly Route 66, Central Avenue didn’t have much going for it except its past. Besides a trendy stretch in the University area, the neon signs of yesteryear had given way to disrepair and decay. The western segment was characterized by chop shops fronted by car repair shops, strange little cult churches with names like Beto’s House of Jesus, and motels. A few of the motels were decent places where a person might expect to sleep on sheets that had been washed recently. But most catered to the sort of patrons who paid on an hourly basis and did little actual sleeping in the beds. Some folks still got their “kicks on Route 66.”
As we drew closer to the elf’s location, the little dot changed from yellow to green, finally shifting to blue when we reached a point on the outskirts of town. The block on the north side of Central had been leveled; a sign announced the impending arrival of a warehouse superstore. I pointed at an abandoned motel on a corner of the south side of the street.
“He must be in there.” Talis nodded and drove another block before parking on a side street.
We walked along cracked sidewalks. Albuquerque sprawls like most western American cities, and the car is king. No sensible person would dream of walking more than a block.
A homeless man, hair greasy and streaked with gray, clothes an indistinguishable shade of filthy, lurched in our direction. Thanks to my father’s genetics, I have a sense of smell on a par with bloodhounds. But acute smell can be a disadvantage. I focused my olfactory powers elsewhere as the bum approached.
He grinned, showing teeth that came courtesy of a lifetime of gingivitis. “My friends, got any money to spare?” I shook my head, but Talis stopped, rooted around in his coat pockets, then handed the man a generous handful of change.
Once we were out of the bum’s earshot, I said, “He’s just going to use the money for booze or something worse.”
Talis gave me a reproachful look. “You don’t know that.”
I sighed and continued on towards the motel. Our destination, the Santa Fe Motel, was a local landmark, but a long succession of unsuccessful owners had left it derelict and empty.
The Santa Fe was a one-story stucco, set up in the typical horseshoe style of older motels. The stucco was a shade of green I’d describe as Riotous Vomit. Tacky little southwestern murals–flute-playing Kokopellis and coyotes howling at the moon–were painted on its outer walls. Local landmark, indeed.
When we reached the building, I folded the map so only the part with the location dot was visible.
“It should turn dark blue when Marsh is very near,” Talis said. We wandered the inner perimeter of the motel, testing doors, peering in windows, but the light remained pale blue.
We walked back to the street and tried the outside of the hotel. A low-slung rust-red warehouse sat behind the motel, not visible from the street. As we approached, the map’s light turned twilight blue.
“Well. What do you know?” I said, remembering Dad’s comment about the New Mexico sun. “What’d you bet he’s keeping the Gar leaf here?”
Talis scanned the building and said, “No magical guards or barriers. Isn’t that, uh, illegal?”
I nodded. Marsh could store and process his wacky-demon-tobaccy on Earth, but as mandated by the Anti-Magic Proliferation Act (as set forth by the InterPlanar Commerce Commission), was expected to put up safeguards to ensure no human stumbled onto his stash.
Although I am magically inept, I can see magic spells. A standard guard spell resembles thin tissue paper stretched across doors or windows. Sophisticated invisible versions of the spell exist, but most humans can’t perceive arcane energy, so high-level spells aren’t worth the extra expense. I saw no evidence of anything magic on the building’s exterior.
The warehouse must have snuck in under some building inspector’s nose, since there were only a few feet between it and the motel. A fire in either building would claim the other as a bonus. Syringes, condoms, and other stuff I didn’t want to know about littered the gap between the buildings.
I walked along the other side of the warehouse, stopping at a door. A high gray block wall, generously graffitied by neighborhood gangs, ran along the edge of the property and hid Talis and me from the street. I considered my options and went for the direct approach. I knocked.
When no one answered, I pulled out my lock picks. The lock was cheap and only took a minute to crack. With a push, the door opened. We heard nothing except the faint hum of the warehouse’s fluorescent lighting.
Talis stepped into the building and I followed. The left half of the place was open, no inner walls, just an occasional wooden beam stretching down to the floor. A single wall, on the right, bisected the building. A door in the center of the wall led to what I assumed were offices.
Stuff that didn’t deserve to be called junk packed the main room. Chairs with no legs; chair legs with no seats; enough wire hangers to give Joan Crawford an aneurysm; an assortment of headless mannequins. This was where garage-sale rubbish came to die. Just to our right, figurines were displayed on a set of shelves. Rodin’s Thinker, the version where the guy is sitting on the toilet, was the only intact thing on the shelf.
We headed in the direction of the inner door. A second set of shelves, next to the door, was filled with videos. Talis picked one up and read the title: “Debbie Does Dallas.”
I glanced at the rest of the shelf. “The American Library of Porn,” I muttered. Unlike everything else, the smutty movie collection was not covered in an inch of dust.
I opened the door just a crack and waited. When nothing unpleasant happened–no spray of bullets or click of a tiny detonator–I pushed it open the rest of the way.
Along with the usual complement of five senses, I have two extra, vampire equivalents of hearing and smell. I can focus and reach with them like nosy fingers. Because there is such a thing as knowing too much, I usually keep my enhanced powers of listen-and-sniff reined in tight.
Just a second after letting my senses loose, I said, “Ew!”
“What?” asked Talis.
“Marsh is here.” I winced. “He’s, um, in the restroom.” Besides some disturbing insight into Marsh’s bathroom habits, I hadn’t detected anything unusual. His was the only heartbeat in the building, beside Talis’s and mine.
Talis and I started down the hallway. There were three doors on the left and a fourth far down the hall to the right. The first door on the left opened to a small, cluttered office. The paperwork and debris probably pre-dated Marsh’s occupation of the building. The only thing that looked recent was a stack of papers on a gunmetal gray desk.
I handed half the stack to Talis and proceeded to sort through the other. “Billing invoices, mostly,” I said.
“This one’s interesting,” said Talis. The sheet he held had the characteristic rough texture of handmade paper. He tilted the document in my direction.
“Sh’ree,” I said, recognizing the demon alphabet by its tall, skinny, densely packed letters.
Talis knew I couldn’t read Sh’ree. “It’s a contract between Marsh and a Sh’ree tempus mage,” he said.
Tempus mages have the handy ability to fold interdimensional space, and are the folks to call when you need something or someone moved between Planes of existence. I gave Talis a “So?” look.
“This isn’t about transport. According to this,” he shook the paper, “the mage constructed a Prison here.”
That made no sense. A Prison was used to keep someone from escaping via an interdimensional fold. The only kind of “someone” capable of folding interdimensional space was a tempus mage.
“The tempus mage imprisoned another tempus mage?” I asked. Prison spells were designed specifically for punishing miscreant tempus mages. But, the site of imprisonment wasn’t likely to be a warehouse on Earth Plane.
Talis shook his head. “It doesn’t say who was detained.”
I listened, vampire hearing, but the only sounds of life were the rustling of cockroaches in the walls and the scratchy swish of Marsh turning the pages of a magazine. I remembered the porn videos and tried not to speculate on his lavatory reading material.
We left the office. The next room was larger and filled with broken concrete statuary: cracked birdbaths, wingless angels, even a little peeing-boy fountain, his tiny organ still intact, but his hand missing. Several dozen bags of redi-mix concrete were stacked against the nearest wall. A rock hammer hung on a peg next to the door.
I pointed at the hammer. “He breaks them and then . . . he repairs them?” I asked, slapping my hand on a bag of concrete.
Talis rolled his eyes, the gesture especially dramatic with large blue eyes. “Elves,” he sneered.
The last room on the left was the restroom, so we opted for the door on the opposite wall.
“Wow!” Talis and I said. “Salamanders.”
There were two, each watching us with coal black teardrop shaped eyes, reminiscent of creepy Precious Moments figurines. More humanoid than amphibian, they were about four feet tall, with skin a shade of sooty elephant gray. Their arms and legs ended in stubby flippers. Since Marsh had invested in a Prison spell, they must have had a natural (and rare) ability for interdimensional travel. The Prison must have kept me from detecting their heartbeats.
The salamanders’ Prison took up a quarter of the building’s space. Talis and I stood in a small viewing area, separated from the creatures by one glasslike wall of the Prison. I felt as though I were at the local aquarium, peering into a shark tank. Except sharks don’t stare back with sad eyes.
“I thought they lived in fire,” I said.
“No. Not entirely,” Marsh said as he entered the room. Rather than commenting on our trespassing, he continued, “Normally their body temperature matches their surroundings.” He stopped just inches from the magical barrier, hands clasped behind his back, and studied his charges. “When sexually excited, a salamander’s body temperature drops precipitously. When this occurs they release tremendous amounts of heat.”
I glared at the elf’s back, envisioning something sharp and pointy protruding from it. “This is your complicated process?” I asked. My gaze swept from the bags of Gar leaf piled on racks in the salamander’s Prison to a television and VCR that sat on our side of the barrier.
“You show them dirty movies; they get hot; and the Gar leaf is dried?”
Marsh turned, his focus on me, ignoring Talis. “Salamanders are interdimensional beings, as is the heat they produce, making them ideal tools for curing Gar leaf.” Pride radiated from his posture. “Developing the process was difficult. It took some time to determine a suitable stimulus. Live sexual activity, for instance, produces entirely too much arousal and heat–”
“Ugh. Enough.” I grimaced. “Let them go, Marsh. It’s not right, keeping them here–”
“Let them go? Are you mad?” Marsh gestured at the two salamanders. “These are the first to have survived. I nearly lost these until I stumbled upon the correct food source.”
“Survived?” I gulped. “You mean there have been others and they died?”
Marsh continued, “I knew they required calcium, silicon, iron and aluminum. But the exact delivery method eluded me. The concrete mix kept them alive, but–”
“They need it in a solid form. The statues,” Talis supplied.
Marsh’s eyes narrowed. “Your servant spoke,” he said, as though telling me a large booger dangled from my nose.
“He’s my friend. And he does that–the speaking thing.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “I gather you aren’t paying them,” I said, meaning the salamanders. “So they are slaves.”
Marsh snorted. “Nonsense. They aren’t sentient. You cannot enslave non-sentient beings.”
“Non-sentient. Like my people, huh?” Talis said.
Still not looking at Talis, Marsh replied, “Yes. Exactly.”
I looked up at Talis and met his eyes. If Marsh’s comment offended him, he didn’t show it. A slightly tortured but otherwise kind soul beamed out from his blue eyes. I cut a look at Marsh. The soul that glared from his eyes was slimy, reminiscent of the sticky grime one finds behind a stove that hasn’t been moved in years.
In a low voice, I said, “If live sex makes salamanders horny, what does murder do?”
Marsh had the sense to recognize the threat. “You cannot harm me.”
“Right. Apologize to my friend.”
“I’d rather apologize to that device,” he said, indicating the television, “than acknowledge a kobold.”
My eyes narrowed. “When I’m done with you, you’ll be acknowledging the nice family of cockroaches that lives in the wall.”
Marsh cast a confused glance at the wall.
“Cockroaches are insects,” Talis said helpfully.
“So are kobolds,” replied Marsh.
A veil of red tinged my eyesight. “Talis,” I said with a gentle smile, “I’m going to kill him. Maybe you should leave, or cover your ears. I reckon he’s a screamer.”
“Regan,” said Talis. “When the elves find out you’ve killed him–”
“You bet they will. I’m gonna dismember him and ship the pieces back to the Fey Plane. Maybe I’ll number the parts and include a note: ‘Some Assembly Required. Batteries Not Included.'”
“Um, yuck. And shouldn’t I be fighting for your honor?” Talis tried mournfully.
“Kobolds have no honor,” Marsh said.
“That’s it!” I flung myself at Marsh, Talis’s hands making a sort of whoosh as they grabbed for me and missed.
The elf managed to get one word of an attack spell out before I punched him in the nose. Hand clamped over his bleeding nose, he wobbled back two steps. I followed up with a stiff-armed shove to his chest and he toppled backwards.
I pounced on Marsh, sat heavily on his stomach, and twitched my wrist, releasing a small knife. With the tip of the weapon pressed to his throat, I fumbled in my pockets until I found my phone.
I tossed it to Talis. “Give UPS a buzz, would ya? I got a package that needs to go out tout de suite.” I smiled at Marsh. “Should we do this a bone at a time? Phalanges, that’s fingers, first, then metacarpals.” Marsh somehow got a lot paler, greenish veins spidering across his face. “Or I could just lop off your entire arm and do the disassembling after the fact.”
Talis cleared his throat and said, “Uh, Regan. I’m not dead, so there’s no need for, uh, avenging. Okay? Please.”
Marsh, recognizing an ally, albeit a disreputable one, turned to Talis and forced a thin smile.
“Yeah. Smile. It’ll make your head look real nice mounted on the wall in my living room,” I said. Marsh’s attention returned to me. I jerked my chin in Talis’s direction. “The kobold objects to your being killed in cold blood.” I put a little more pressure on the knife. “Apologize to him.”
Arrogance replaced fear on Marsh’s face. Haughty expressions are a reflex in elves. “Apologize? I will do no such–”
“His name is Talis. I want you to say, ‘I apologize, Talis, for all that has been done to you and your people.'”
“Uh, Regan?” Talis began, “Maybe you should–”
“You’re getting an apology, Talis.” I pushed the knife against Marsh’s skin. “Isn’t he?”
“Yes,” squeaked Marsh. “I’m sorry. Terribly sorry! T-Talis.”
“Regan!” said Talis, and that’s when I smelled the smoke. And felt the oppressive heat. In fact, my vampire hearing was picking up the wet sucking sound of paint starting to peel off the walls.
Talis coughed twice and then succumbed to laughter. “Th-they thought you two were having sex,” he managed to say.
The salamanders were glommed together so tightly it was hard to see where one ended and the other began. I hurled myself off Marsh.
“No,” I tried to explain to them, “We’re still dressed, see. I was just . . . oh, bloody hell.”
The creatures were wrapped up in icy bliss, demonstrating that freezing is an exothermic reaction, visible waves of heat radiating from their bodies.
Marsh sat up and let out an odd whimper, his eyes fixed on the bags of Gar leaf. Little lines of smoke, which were rapidly becoming lazy tongues of fire, were rising from the tobacco.
“I don’t suppose this place has those in-ceiling fire extinguishers?” I said.
“I thought about it,” Marsh said in a tone that almost made me feel sorry for him. “But I suspected the heat from the salamanders would set the devices off, ruining the Gar leaf.”
With a low roar, several of the bags took fire and the wall behind the stacks began to turn an ominous shade of crispy brown.
“We’d better go,” said Talis.
“What about them?” I asked, pointing at the happy salamanders. “The Prison.”
“The spell is bound to the building, which I reckon won’t be around much longer,” explained Talis. “When the place collapses, they’ll head home for a honeymoon.” He moved to where Marsh was still sitting. The elf was in shock, the heat from the salamanders’ mating congealing the blood on his lip and chin into an orangey beard. Talis grabbed the back of the elf’s shirt and hauled him to his feet.
Shooting me a mischievous smile, Talis lifted the elf’s arm and waved it at the salamanders. “Say, ‘Bye,'” he said.
“Bye,” said Marsh.
With Talis steering the catatonic elf through the maze of junk, we made our way out of the building. Talis cast an obscuring spell around the three of us and we hurried around the block and to his car.
Burning Gar leaf smelled an awful lot like cannabis. Large quantities of burning Gar leaf smelled like Woodstock.
Talis and I stood across the street from the conflagration along with a small and very happy crowd. Not satisfied with its meal of thrift store rejects, the fire had leapt over to the Santa Fe Motel.
“Goody. Now I can scratch ‘Burn Down Local Landmark’ off my life’s accomplishment list. I can die happy.” I ran my hands through my hair. “Which is rather fortuitous, because Dad is going to kill me.”
“Tears,” said Talis. “Lots of crying. No man can stay mad at a crying woman.”
“Hmmm. I should have tried that with Marsh.” Once he emerged from his stupor, the elf had been downright nasty. He had stomped off into the night ranting about the arrogance of the white race and insisting, “You haven’t heard the last of this.” I had to concede the latter. I’d be hearing about this for a long time.
“Judging from the smell, it was high-quality stuff,” Talis said.
I winced. “I’ll be sure to let Dad know.”
“Maybe we should leave,” said Talis, eyeing the collected law enforcement. In addition to fire trucks, the event seemed to have attracted every cop within twenty miles.
We walked back to the car in silence, hands in our coat pockets.
“We make a good team,” Talis said as we reached the car.
“Uh-huh,” I answered absently.
“Good cop, bad cop.” He joined me on the passenger side and unlocked the door.
“Yeah.” I thought about what he said. “At least I was a convincing bad cop.”
“Very convincing. Scary, even.” He ruffled my hair. “But, I know you.” He bent and kissed my forehead.
“What’s that for?”
“For standing up for me.”
I shrugged. “You’re my friend, Tal.”
“And you’re part elf.”
“I’m also part vampire, but I don’t eat people.” I just open my mouth, make speaking sounds and think later.
“The salamanders are smart enough to move between Planes. They must be sentient,” I said, thinking aloud.
“Yes, they are. But not in a way elves understand,” said Talis. That comment earned him a suspicious glare, so he smiled wanly and said, “My people initiated trade with the salamanders about a century ago.”
That got him punched in the upper arm. “You knew, didn’t you? You knew Marsh was using them–?”
“No. But I suspected. There had been rumors.” He folded his long arms around my shoulders. “You did the right thing.”
I slumped against his chest and wondered if Dad would think the “right thing” justified the loss of a small fortune in Gar leaf. For a microsecond, it felt like I just might get a head start on the “tears” part of my defense. The feeling passed, cured by a hug from a master burglar. My stomach growled.
“Mmmm . . . green chile,” I said. My hand wormed into Talis’s coat pocket and liberated a handful of change.
“Nelly’s?” he asked.
“Yeah. My treat.” I held out the pile of coins.
Warm brown fingers folded my pale ones over the change. “You’re picking up my bad habits,” he said.
I laughed, realizing that, as usual, Dad was right. “I’m defined by the company I keep.”
Copyright 2011 Patricia Kirby, all rights reserved