The Setback Club

The young woman next to Aiden spoke with polished authority, sipping her drink between words. “MDMA, coke, even alcohol— neurotoxins, it’s really interesting, you and Aron should see the stuff we’re premiering from the lab. Every party kid’s wildest dreams.”

Aiden was all ears until she leaned forward and put a seeking hand on his thigh.

“I’m gonna head out.” Aiden said, standing quickly and enunciating each word loudly so his brother could hear him over the bubbling music. The square collection of plush couches overlooked the energetic dancefloor and had grown overcrowded, and now his status as Aron’s brother made him vulnerable to wandering female hands. They were all quite intelligent in a hard sciences sort of way, but so far none of Aron’s male classmates had been so forward. It was time to try his luck elsewhere. Aiden relinquished his seat to a buxom astrophysicist who happily took the opportunity to slide a seat closer to Aron.

Aron looked up from his own conversation, a question in his raised brows. Aiden twitched a smile back, making it clear he was alright. “Have fun – I’m gonna go.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the universal signal for bailing on loud social scenes. He waved, Aron pointed at his phone, and Aiden nodded in agreement, he would text.

Communication successful, Aiden pressed himself through the sweat-slick crowd on the way to the door, making his half stumble into the humid but still fresher air outside, feel like a dive into cool water. He filled his lungs with the neon-lit night and waved away someone trying to get rid of a stack of flyers to various probably equally sweaty clubs.

Aiden glanced at his phone, at well past twelve he’d have to hurry to make last call anywhere else. Instead of rushing into the next promising bar, or hurrying towards the club two streets over where Aiden knew the nights less-than-handsome and now desperate were bound to be easy pickings, he dug his hands into his jacket pockets and strolled.

Last call was last call, but that meant everyone would be out on the streets soon, wandering roadside and looking for trouble.

It wasn’t until he’d passed a few blocks searching for something to hook his interest that he realized the neon was behind him. The streets here were lit with buzzing yellow, creating pockets of sickly light that illuminated the gum-pocked sidewalks and litter filled curb drains. Aiden almost turned back around, but stained paper—one of those flyers—caught his eye when it stuck to his shoe. It wasn’t for a dance club or bar, but a lounge. The Setback Club. Aiden blinked down at the title and then up.

Just down the street ahead of Aiden old marquee letters repeated the name in old red, the color of sun streaming through closed eyelids. Aiden glanced behind him, and finding nothing to pull him back from this beckoning whim, started walking further into the dark humming neighborhood.

A Wordle Prompt from Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie.  I do the every other Friday first line posts there, but the Wordle Prompts always get me writing. 

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A Leadership Role

It was good his daughter was not here, Adam thought as he watched the dark city rumble past outside his carriage window. Aurora was his near only family now and certainly his dearest relation; his contacts assured him she was doing well on the college trip. She and her friends would touch down at the field side outside the rustic but sleepy Three Points in a day. With her safety out of the city and away from his enemies, Adam could breathe easier.

At least metaphorically, the air outside the carriage was thick with late fog, cold, clean and possibly natural. Still there was no cause to take chances, Adam checked the mask over his nose and mouth before stepping down to the street. The air couldn’t be trusted this close to the factory.

Aetherstop was a small struggling district growing off the city’s industrial promenade. During the day its inhabitants emptied to the churning factories and at night crammed themselves into overcrowded apartments set between the district’s warehouses and decrepit shopfronts. Silhouetted against the greenish cast of night clouds, Adam could easily count which of the smokestacks belonged to him. He twitched a smile, most of them.

His carriage and its drivers worked to tuck themselves into a wide alley while Khelo checked no surprises waited for them inside the dark building. It was an ugly squat thing with nondescript walls and blank windows covered and sealed. No one guarded the outside, lest they hint at the important affairs within.

Soon, the door opened and Khelo emerged with a reedy man in a thick white coat. The man, who introduced himself as Doctor Havish with a bow, made several sweeping motions to invite Adam inside. Adam made a mental note to investigate the man’s credentials. The competent usually didn’t prostrate themselves so very much. In any case, it was inappropriate for a man in a leadership position. Adam could find other scientists.

Adam let Havish lead him down past the check in and several layers of guards, each bristled in turn as he and Khelo, unnerving in her black cowl and cloak, passed. A windowed door waited for them at the bottom of a short flight of stairs, hazy teal light hummed around its edges and flooded the glass. Adam paused at the top of the steps, “its safe?”

Doctor Havish nodded hurriedly and chattered about fail-safes and his own time in the lab.  The scientist was so insistent, Khelo leaned forward menacingly and Adam waived her away. “Continue then, and hurry. This is not my only stop tonight.” The doctor leaned away from Khelo and did as he was told, leading them down the steps and through the door.

The teal light came from the large glass orbs set like fishbowls in rows throughout the long rectangular lab. Each of the thick glass spheres were large enough that a man of Adam’s good height and solid weight could easily float within, and many did. Adam paused before the first in the nearest row, gazing at the dead-eyed woman gasping like a fish within. “They’re alive?”

Havish was at his side quickly, nodding, and explaining that they were. Conscious too, but subdued by the ether around them. The refined substance kept them quite healthy and whole despite the lack of air, food, or any similar things usually required for life. Adam nurtured the swell of hope in his chest, after so many years this sounded like a breakthrough. “Are they of sound mind? Still themselves? Can they be hurt? Killed?”

More tests were needed to answer those questions, Havish informed him, for the first time no longer eager to provide answers. There were concerns, ethical ones. Some of the subjects had been able to communicate, they wanted out. Adam took the news with a solid nod. “Schedule the tests.”

When Havish swallowed instead of agreeing, Adam turned a smile and sigh on the reedy doctor. “The tests will be scheduled, by you or your replacement if you no longer wish to take a leadership role. We can always find another place for you.” Adam turned slowly to regard the teal orbs and their inhabitants again. “Do you understand?”

Now Havish’s nod and burbled agreement was just as quick as before. Adam smiled and shook the man’s hand. “Good work, very pleased with the progress,” Adam said, already mentally sighing at the prospect of finding another project lead.

Good for the Soul

Kamilah shouldered into the dim bar and looked around for Jay, a little out of breath from her swift walk from the bus stop. The sound system switched from r&b to sad country as she scanned the place. Jay was on a stool, waving his hands at the bartender in the midst of some story. “You bothering this poor young man while he’s trying to work?” Kamilah slid into the seat next to him.

Relief softened Jay’s features and he held up his beer bottle and two fingers, ordering for her. “Thought that Chungie’s closes at 10? Its past midnight.”

“My boss kept me, and I don’t say no to hours.” Kamilah smiled gratefully at the bartender, who despite a well-puffed beard, couldn’t be any older than her own son at nineteen. No wonder he’d been being nice to Jay. “Sorry though, thanks for waiting.” She leaned over and brushed her lips against his jaw and the graying stubble there.

“Of course girl.” Jay grinned back, a little drunk. The bartender opened a condensation slick beer and set on the scuffed bar in front of Kamilah. Jay put his elbows on the bar, head turned and still smiling. “You work too much. If you didn’t come in so tired I’d think you found someone else. Still no time for a boyfriend?”

Kamilah shook her head, “Jay, I got two jobs and I’m in the market for a third.”

“You just here for the free beer then?” He asked, causing her to sputter as she drank hers with a laugh.

“No, no I–” Kamilah started but the country song filled in the void, bittersweet lyrics filling her pause a little bit of hooking up is good for the soul. The singer went on to describe past lovers while Jay and Kamilah laughed again together this time. For a moment Kamilah didn’t think of her shift in seven hours, it was nice to just laugh next to man who called her girl even though she hadn’t been one in a good long while.

“So we gonna listen to the song and go? Your place?” Jay took his chance, throwing a twenty down from his pocket to pay for their drinks.

“I got kids. I don’t bring men home. Not til Ashlyn’s out at whatever fancy college she’s got her heart set on.” Kamilah made sure her voice held no wiggle room. It wasn’t Jay in particular, she liked Jay, trusted him even, but she’d heard too many horror stories to risk it just cause she was lonely. “Sorry Jay, its a rule of mine.”

“Oh come on, their teenagers right? They’re probably not even there it being Friday night at midnight. That age, I raised all sorts of hell when my parents were working.” Jay reasoned, resting a hand on the small of her back as they walked from the bar.

“My kids are good kids. And they have better sense than you.” Kamilah retorted, but she was thankful he pressed just a little. It was nice to have someone trying and she kissed him on the sidewalk so he knew she appreciated the chase, even if it wasn’t leading anywhere. “Goodnight Jay.”

Music challenge time. This week Judd and I wrote to Jenny Lewis’ Heads Gonna Roll. See Judd’s piece here. 

Bastards… Barbarians

Her workers were having difficulty with this patch of jungle. This place grew from all sides, vines and crawlers that roped between the trees and had to be cut through. Cen pursed her lips tighter with each inefficient thwack of machete. They were not moving fast enough.

Cen’s small company of soldiers, local workers, and pack oxen were not the only expedition in search of the Urahi ruins and the barrows beneath them. Called archaeology by weedy university scholars, grave robbing by disapproving monks, and a crude hobby by her father’s wife, Cen was one of many in this profitable business.

Corners of dark, cracked stone began to peek through the roots they trudged over, the remnants of an ancient road. They were close. Cen pulled herself up over a cluster of hard vegetation with corded arms and thick muscled legs, to stand languidly atop the chimera of root, tree, and ancient stone and check her company’s pace. Only upon taking the moment to bask in the damp warmth, Cen realized the living sounds of the jungle had ceased. From ahead of them the scrape of metal against stone and the grunts of hard labor carried past the chop of her machetes.

They’d been outpaced. Cen raised her arm to command halt, but the clicks of rifle hammers around them did more to freeze her company in place. Cen kept her growl quiet, her nose flaring in fury. She’d skin the scouts later. For now, she raised her other arm to complete the gesture of surrender. Cen did not jump down though, forcing the enemy company riflemen to aim up. She smiled down at them as they poured from the trees.

“Do you have a grand speech for us Miss. Aurell?” Asked a polished voice from the trees. Ed Oakby stepped out from under a thick bough and moved to stand before her. He was unarmed, but his soldiers around him did not lower their guns.

Cen couldn’t help the curl in her lip at her family name. Most didn’t think she had right to it, and so its use in her presence was more often insult than not. Ed Oakby smiled warmly though, even twiddled the corner of his robust mustache as if they were meeting on a street corner and wasting words on the weather.

“I don’t play with words.” Cen said stared down at him and lowered her hands. Oakby had more soldiers than she by the looks of those assembled here. She flicked a low glance at the nearest rifle. “Or guns. I would be careful, it is dangerous to spill blood so close to the temple, unless you know what your doing.”

“I’ve heard that,” said Oakby. “And I’ve heard the stories of your barbarous temple delving. How many of your own did you bleed to open the Xaquin site?”

“Enough.” Cen enjoyed the way he leaned back from her slow, heavy smile. “But I’m sure you’ve gotten past the ground floor here without resorting to such, barbarous measures?” She used the word back at him. Cen wouldn’t have heard the scrape of crowbars so loudly if he had gotten in. Likely Oakby was trying to force his way down.

The Oakby’s eyes chest puffed as if she’d challenged him, but his eyes slid away from hers. “Matter of time.”

“Neither of us have that. Urahi is warriors’ burial. The rich do pay well to hang weapons they can’t use on their walls.” Cen shrugged, that concept was still strange to her but her business partners in the city assured her it was where the money—and prestige was. “How long before Clagg’s company arrives, or Hunjan’s?”

When he didn’t answer Cen knew she had the better ground, and she pressed her advantage. “My company is small, a fifth of yours. Paying a fifth of the take to a business partner is better than losing all of it to a rival.”

“You and I are not partners. Your money is bloody.” He sniffed, trying to crawl up the moral high ground.

“Our business is the same.” Cen reminded him.

It was a mistake, she realized, when his eyes narrowed like she’d insulted him.  Won through a soldier’s sword, taskmasters whip, or factory machine– true fortunes were never built without sweat, suffering, and a fair amount of spilt blood. Cen embraced that, others deluded themselves apparently. Oakby twitched a fingers and his men around him firmed their grips on the rifle. “Miss Aurell, I do not conduct business with bastards or barbarians. You’ve proven to be both.”

Her own men, rougher and meaner than Oakby’s force, tensed. At her side, Cen flexed her fingers, a soft signal for them to stand down.

“You are right on one count, time is not in large supply and you’re known for results. You will help me to get into the inner chambers and the armory,” Oakby said. The rifles trained on her did not ease. “Might even let you pick out something for yourself if your men don’t cause trouble. Something pretty.”

A long moment stretched over the jungle and the assembled companies. Their soldiers coiled for the first strike, the two leaders staring at each other. Cen broke the tension with a nod of slight acquiescence. “Lead on,” she purred.

To be continued on Friday. Part II can now be viewed here.

Distract

“Its old right?” Zak hovered his fingers over the cover of the ancient tome his friend had brought. The leather of its cover was eaten away by time, but something had kept the yellowed and weathered pages intact. The two tall teenagers gathered around the artifact in the downstairs study, a room converted into the house’s third library. Zak commonly took his lessons here with his uncle and guardian and it was the only space they really shared in the lonely town home.

“My sister says so, old and arcane and very rare,” Ethan said, more serious than usual even. Neither of them naturally defaulted to deceit, and Zak could see the discomfort tying up his friend’s shoulders at the plot. “You think this will work? The trial matches run all day tomorrow, can one book distract your uncle that long?”

“If its old and important enough.” Zak jutted his chin with a confident nod. He made sure to clap his friend on the shoulder as he showed Ethan out to the courtyard where his friend’s horse waited with the stable boy.  “And it will be safe with him. Thanks, I owe you one.”

“Don’t mention it.” Ethan eased Zak’s nerves with a companionable smile and waved as his mount trotted down the short drive and through the gate.

Zak returned to the downstairs study and library, pausing to frown at the ancient book. City league try-outs were held only every two years and this time the trials fell on the same day as the university placement exam. Zak had been preparing rigorously for both, the trials with his trainer and the exam with his uncle. The latter would never permit him to skip the placement exam, held twice a year, in favor of the city-league.

Zak adjusted the book, cleared some of the papers nearby, and made sure the tome was visible from even the hall doorway. He had one chance.

Luckily, his uncle was not held up terribly late at the university and arrived home only an hour or so after dinner, where he found his nephew dutifully studying downstairs.

“Good evening Zak, I–” His uncle paused. It was hard to miss the frayed binding and yellowed pages next to the immaculate cloth covers of Zak’s school volumes. His uncle hurried over, eyes flashing at the lack of archivist gloves in the proximity of something so old. “What is that? It shouldn’t be — out, whatever it is.”

“Out?” Zak’s real confusion kept him from blundering too quickly into an immediate explanation for Ethan just haphazardly forgetting a souvenir in their study. “Oh, Ethan left it. Its from one of his sisters expeditions in the jungle, I think.”

“You think?” Real ire flashed in his uncle’s eyes. The idea that not only something so visibly valuable and arcane would be left sitting so near the remains of Zak’s uncleared dinner plate, yet also forgotten like a hat in a friend’s sitting room, was preventing his uncle from articulating. Zak rarely got the pleasure of seeing anything fluster his relative this much .

“Excuse me,” his uncle said brusquely, bumping Zak to the side so he could reach the book in question. He wrapped a wide sleeve over his hands and picked up the tome protectively.  “Artifacts of this kind are not to be paraded about in the schoolyard…” His uncle’s scolding slid away as the light caught the gold inlays on holy symbols over the cover. “Did Ethan mention where this was found?” He demanded voice going a little distant as he examined the symbols.

“The jungle?” Zak tried to be helpful.

His uncle made an ‘ehhm’ noise of mixed disapproval, frustration, and mild acknowledgement in the back of his throat, but Zak was quickly losing his attention. “Well, I must go– store this properly. If you would excuse me.”

“Good night uncle,” Zak said, but his guardian was already half out into the hallway and making quick progress towards the stairs.

 

  • * – *- *- *- *-

 

The next evening Zak returned from the trials sore and shaky from exertion, and trailing bits of grass and dirt onto the rugs, but pleased with his performance. He almost slipped into his room before anyone could alert his uncle. He was still surprised the engineered distraction had worked at all, but no one had fetched him from the trial matches and dragged him into a testing room.

But as he passed his uncle’s personal study, light flickered from under the doorway. Zak wondered how well the distraction had worked, had his uncle eaten? slept? With a wince of guilt, Zak turned back down the stairs to make sure one of the staff checked in on his guardian.

Fire and Ash

Detention was let out early on Wednesday without explanation. Maybe the teacher, Ms. Williams, knew something they didn’t, had somewhere to be, or was simply tired of riding the bus in the dark. Ms. Williams shooed the penitents out of the multipurpose room at a quarter to six, just before the sun had set properly and the sky was a dusty mess of colors.

Ash waved to her fellow delinquents as she left them at their bus stop. Her heart rose when they waved back with messy grins slathered across their faces. The hours and weekends lost in detention was almost worth the won adoration of her peers. Not only had Ash conquered the school for a morning in technicolor spray paint, but when the administration offered mercy in exchange for accomplices, Ash stayed silent. In return, even the nastiest bullies and most vicious cliques regarded her now with cool disregard and sometimes even friendliness. Never give up your own.

Ash wished the sudden status increase extended past school grounds and she flipped her backpack around to hug it in front of her. The streetlights that still lit up flickered sickly and only the cool evening air kept the sidewalks from reeking. Men with soured eyes flicked their gazes up and down as she passed by their stoops and doors. Ash supposed they were harmless, as she didn’t know what she would do if they weren’t. She walked faster and stuck her chin up higher.

Two blocks from her family’s apartment the main neighborhood street took a break from strip malls and fast food parking lots for a small park. The still-walking elderly tended it during the day, and at night Ash and the other teenagers hung off the monkeybars and kicked over trashcans.

Now, firelight tossed itself against the trees. Maybe half a dozen people gathered in a ring around a makeshift fire-pit, the flames reaching dangerously high between them. She recognized some of them and paused on the sidewalk. The distant orange light turned her friends faces beautiful and elemental.

Ash stepped onto the grass and some strange pressure tore through the air. Every face around the circle snapped their attention to her. From the ground, a woman Ash had not seen before straightened from her easy crouch to tower over the circle with a lax, powerful frame. The woman’s hair was wild and fire reflected in her eyes when she too, looked to Ash.

No one moved, until Ash breath a small rabbit breath. The strange woman grinned and around her the others laughed. Ash stepped back onto the sidewalk. She hugged her backpack again and tore her gaze away from the strange circle. She was only two blocks away from home and it was getting dark.

Far From The River

They found him in the river floating with golden leaves. The autumn sugar maples coated the river’s surface with slick rotting vegetation, turning the surface yellow and rank.  It was a wonder someone spotted him at all beneath the leaves, but after that things moved quickly. The police pulled the corpse from the water and set up a small sign that warned against swimming.

On their steel tables they examined the corpse’s smooth, young skin and searched beneath his strong nails for clues. His clothes were the clean simple cuts of the very wealthy and his haircut was fresh. No wallet or phone. He was someone who belonged far from the river. And yet, days passed and no one came to claim him.

Rich kids went missing loud, with posters and online videos and slews of candle-wielding mourners. But not him, he never got to go missing, he went strait to dead. Which begged many questions, or so the police said around their water coolers and in line for coffee.

The weeks stretched and still no one came forward to name him. They scoured the missing person reports, until it was generally accepted that no one was missing him, or if they were, said individuals were being quiet about it. Most likely, he’d done something his family had not liked — and then he’d found himself in the river without a name or a missing persons report to give him one. The police sighed and with no leads and no one looking, they locked the case away. Whoever had done it, they’d gotten away with it properly.

The corpse itself, without a name to be buried under or any money to do the burying, was set to be incinerated. It was all very sad, all parties agreed, but sad was part of their business and so they brusquely tagged him and left him for the morgue’s technicians.

One morgue tech came in earlier than the others, much earlier on this special day. In the solitude of the lab she wheeled the corpse out from his cold chamber and laced her gloved fingers in his. With a soft sigh she bent so she could whisper into his ear. “Wake up.”

And then to his surprise, but not to hers, he did.

This music challenge ran away with me, as they sometimes do. Raw Rambles challenged us to write something to or inspired by Perfume Genius’ “Queen”. This is my attempt, see her piece here.