Wednesday, October 31, 2012

First Chapter of Untitled Urban Fantasy

The lightning didn’t wake him; nor did the thunder. Hail bouncing around him like candy in a gumball machine finally nudged him from his stupor. Sitting up slowly, he reached for the headstone on the grave of Malachi Hojah, his grandfather; and, grasping it firmly in his left hand he pulled himself up from the wet grass. He was a mess: his clothes, a pair of khaki pants and a white long-sleeved cotton shirt, were soaked and plastered against his body; his long black hair had come untied and hung limply down his back; and his Wellington boots, full of water, squeaked and belched, as he took a few awkward steps. He sneezed and then ran his right hand over his face, wiping his eyes. Stretching his aching body, he tried to remember how he came to be unconscious in Greenwood Cemetery in Dallas’ Up-Town in the middle of the night. But all he could remember was a call from Anna Gregson, a detective with the Dallas Police Department, asking him to help her on a case. That was on Friday night. Was it still Friday? He didn’t know.
Scratching his head and running his hands through his hair was his mechanical attempt to nudge his memory. The first thought returned was a question: where were his tools--the small drum, the eagle feather, the crystal from Mexico, his flute,  pouch of corn pollen, and his silver bells. He surveyed the soggy earth around the grave and found nothing. This can’t be good, he thought, knowing the only reason he would be in the cemetery in the middle of the night was to contact his grandfather, and the only reason he would try to contact him was that someone was ill and needed his help; someone’s spirit was lost in the land of the dead and needed a guide to either escort to them to oblivion or back to ordinary reality; to life. The second thing that popped into his mind was fear for his motorcycle. Hail smacked against his head and his shoulders and he worried about his bike: a red 1952 Indian Chief. Where was it? Suddenly, he felt bile in his throat and he threw up onto the long grass around the cement border of the grave, as a wave of vertigo passed through him. Where did I park it? He wondered. Usually, he parked on the second floor of the parking garage on the corner of Oak Grove and Bowen, across the street from the cemetery. Habit probably controlled this time as well because he never liked to park the Indian outside, especially in the rain and cold. He was nothing, if not consistent. The hail stopped and then it rained hard and cold. He set off toward the entrance of the cemetery; his head and his shoulders bowed, as he followed the worn and ragged cobblestone drive to the entrance that faced McKinney. He stepped over a rusted chain stretched across the entrance to the cemetery to prevent cars from entering and crossed the deserted and flooded street. Lights on in the parking garage illuminated the edges of the building and cast long shadows. The handlebars of the Indian were visible on the second floor. He entered the garage and counted fifteen cars scattered on the ground floor. The bars must still be open, he thought.
He staggered up the ramp to the second floor because he did not want to enter the stairwell this late at night and have his head bashed in by a meth addict or a schizoid self-medicating on cheap wine.  The garage owner had a deal with the restaurants and bars in the area but he had never seen a security guard. Homeless people sometimes took shelter in the stairwells, especially on nights like this one.
As he approached his cycle he heard the soft plaintive notes of a flute; his flute most likely. Sitting on his rug spread out next to his bike was an old Indian; an Apache he knew by sight; an Indian, who had migrated to Texas from the Four Corners several years ago. He called himself, Coyote, and he was usually accompanied by a Navajo girl, named Snake. Snake and Coyote were grifters, who popped up over and over again, as suspects in petty crimes, usually scams involving Indian artifacts. He wiped water from his face and tried to dry his hand on his soaked trousers, as he said: “Evening, Coyote. I see you found my flute.”
The man stopped playing and smiled. Placing the flute on the rug next to his left leg, he answered with a smirk: “Beastly night, Hojah.”
“Indeed, my friend.” He stopped about twenty feet from the Apache and waited, suspecting Snake was somewhere nearby, maybe with a gun aimed at his back. “So where’s Snake tonight?”
The man smiled and waved his right hand vaguely and said: “Oh, she’s about my friend.”
“You wouldn’t know what day it is, would you?” asked Hojah.
Coyote picked up the flute and licked the mouthpiece. “Day?” he asked and then blew several notes.
“I seem to be a bit confused,” answered Hojah. “Did we have an appointment to meet?”
Coyote stopped playing and lowered the flute, saying: “Fated, perhaps to meet, but no appointment.” He scratched under his left eye. “It’s early Monday morning, almost two.”
Hojah cleared his throat. He had lost two days. Gregson had called on Friday afternoon. He now remembered that. Someone was sick. A young Cherokee girl was attacked Thursday night in downtown near the bus station. She was unconscious and Gregson wanted to know if he could reach her; maybe bring her back from the spirit world. She was from Oklahoma on the bus on her way to Houston. Someone attacked her and left her for dead near the Kennedy Memorial early in the morning on Thursday. Similar to two previous cases involving young girls near the bus station, Gregson thought she had a serial murderer on her hands. But this one lived; the other two died. If he could reach her and bring her back maybe she could describe her assailant. But that was all he could remember. Then Coyote played a few more bars on his flute and he recalled some more. She called his office at 4:00 and he invited Gregson to come to him because he didn’t close until 7:00 on Friday nights and he couldn’t get away because Josefina Alonso, his receptionist, was off and he was alone.
He sat on the concrete and the water dripped off him and drained down the garage’s angled ramp toward the street. “You are remembering now, aren’t you?” asked Coyote. And Hojah nodded and said: “You play my pipe well, old man.” The Indian smiled around the mouthpiece and played a mournful tune. “Not so old, my friend,” he grumbled with the pipe still in his mouth. Gregson showed up around eight, he remembered, carrying a manila folder with her. He was in his waiting reading the newspaper; his last patient had canceled.
“Be gentle with the door Gregson, I can’t afford a new pane of glass.”
She stopped suddenly and looked a little sheepish. “Sorry, Asa; I’m in a hurry.”
He stood up and walked to the front door and locked it. Turning off the lights, he said, “Let’s go to the back and have a cup of coffee in the kitchen.” He poured distilled water in the coffee maker’s reservoir and retrieved some German coffee he bought at Kuby’s, a local German grocery story and butcher shop in Snyder Plaza, from the freezer. He had lived ten years in Zurich and Munich and he had become quite partial to the way they roasted their coffee.
She pulled out one of the heavy wooden chairs, hand-made by a young artist from West Virginia, who lived and worked in Santa Fe, from the rough-hewn table and leaned forward. Although her blonde hair was pulled back tightly in a bun, a few strands fell forward over her brow. “We’ve had another attack.” She paused and stretched her hands flat across the wood of the table, as if she were caressing it. He liked her hands; she had long narrow fingers and short unpainted nails. His mother would have said they were hands made for the piano. Browned by the sun with wisps of pale blonde hairs on their backs, her hands were always in motion. It was if she couldn’t quite control them; as if they had a life of their own. 
“When,” he asked, sitting down across from her, watching her eyes now. They were light blue like corn flowers and they were open wide. She was pumped up with adrenalin, ready to roll into action. Her hands were already moving.
“Last night near the bus station,” she answered. “She came in on a bus from Oklahoma City; on her way to Houston.”
“Did he kill her like the last two?”
She stared at him and whispered: “She’s alive; in a coma but alive. I need you to go get her. Retrieve her soul and bring her back.”
The Apache stopped playing and stood, holding the pipe in his extended right hand. Even in the poor lighting of the garage, his long black hair glistened. “Take your pipe, little brother; I have to meet Snake for a glass of tequila before the bars close. I can’t help you remember any more tonight.” He shook his head because as soon as the Coyote’s song ended, he could not remember what happened next. He took the pipe, as the Apache passed him, walking down the ramp. As he passed, Hojah smelled tobacco, sweat and jicama, and he felt a cold breeze slide cross his wet back and he shivered. He shook his head a second time, trying to free the memories. But nothing came. A crash of thunder and more rain fell. He walked to the wall of the garage and looked over into the night, watching Coyote walking down the street; south toward downtown. Several blocks further south a thin woman waited under a street light for him; he recognized Snake.
He wasn’t going to ride the Chief out into the rain, so he sat down; his back against the rough concrete wall of the garage and tried to remember. But he couldn’t pull up a single memory before the meeting with Gregson. He listened to the steady drone of the rain and began to finger the flute, hearing in his mind the song of the crow; a tune his grandfather taught him thirty years ago when he was eight years old and living on the Rez in Oklahoma. He wiped the flute off with the sleeve of his soaked shirt and began to play the song slowly. As he played his conscious mind relaxed and he allowed himself to descend to a lower level of consciousness. He imagined he was in a cornfield in Eastern Oklahoma, near the Arkansas border; it was the beginning of fall and the corn was ready for harvest. Crows circled the fields; their black feathers mixed with the green of the stalks and the yellow corn. He could hear his grandfather’s drum and then his voice chanting the song of the crow. Someone was sick; someone was dying and the shaman was preparing himself to enter the underworld or at least accompany them to their meeting with death. And as he played the song of the crow, he began to remember Friday night. He was in the kitchen of his office and Detective Gregson was at the table and she was telling him about the girl. And her hands were moving nervously over the wood.
“Where is the girl now,” he asked, handing her a cup of coffee, which she held in two hands, as if she were cold.
“Parkland” she said, sipping the coffee. “She’s in Parkland.”
“Do you have any pictures?” He knew she did and he didn’t particularly want to look at them but he picked up the folder she slid across the table and opened it. Shaking out the digital prints, he saw a young girl, maybe fifteen or sixteen with long black hair, brown eyes, brown skin. Her mouth was swollen and her lip cut. Both eyes were swollen and bruised; the left one was completely shut. Her blouse was ripped, her bra cut, and her skirt pushed up high on her thighs. There was bruising on the inside of the thighs. She wore one black flat shoe; her right foot was bare. Other prints showed she lay behind the Kennedy monument. Bits of trash—drink cans, paper containers—littered the ground around her.
“This similar to the other girls?” he asked, stacking the prints and slipping them back into the envelope. Gregson nodded.
“Well, let’s go see her.” Gregson nodded and asked: “You want to ride with me?”
He shook his head. “No, I’ll follow you on the Chief.”
He stopped playing and the memories faded. He had never experienced such total amnesia.
The rain stopped and he heard water rushing down the street into the drains. He leaned over the wall of the parking garage and watched the clouds break and a yellow harvest moon emerge.
He shook out his rug and folded it carefully before stowing it away in the leather saddlebags over the rear fenders of the bike. The rest of his equipment was there, stored away. Either he had never unpacked it or the Coyote had returned all his items to the bags.
Hojah lived in Oak Cliff, an old neighborhood across the Trinity from downtown. The quickest way home was through the town’s center and that’s the way he went: down McKenney to Griffin and then right on Elm past the School Book Depositary and through Dealey Park, where they found the girl.
As he drove through Dealey Park, he slowed and surveyed the area. No one was around, except for a few homeless men gathered underneath the underpass, and one or two cars. Why would a young girl come to the Park at this time in the morning? Why didn’t she stay at the Bus Station that was only a few blocks away? Did he have the answers already and he just couldn’t remember them? He shook his head in frustration and shifted gears, speeding up, heading home: underneath the overpass, past the police station and up the hill, left on Syvain, then down to Thomasson.
He lived on the corner in a small brown brick house built in the 20s. A detached single car garage on the corner of his property had to be open manually; a large stainless steel lock secured it. He parked the bike and motion sensors activated two flood lights; one on each corner of the garage. He had been attacked twice at night opening his garage and he didn’t want that to happen again.
He wrestled his keys out of his pocket and unlocked the door. A light flipped on when the door opened and he pushed the bike inside the garage and parked it next to a baby blue 1968 GMC pick-up. Before closing up he wiped off any mud or water that he picked up on the ride home from the bike and emptied the saddlebags, storing the ritual items in a large double-door safe that dominated the back wall of the garage.
He didn’t go through the back gate; instead he walked around the house on the sidewalk to the front door, taking advantage of the streetlight on the corner. The house looked safe. The usual lights were on; his wicker furniture was still on the wide, covered front porch; no alarms were blaring, waking the neighborhood. He unlocked the front door and rushed through the living room to disarm the alarm.
The first thing he noticed once he had locked the front door was that the answering machine was flashing. The machine registered five un-played messages. The first two were from Gregson, wondering if he had performed the ritual yet. The second one was from his ex-wife, Maria Sanchez, wondering where he was; he had custody of his daughter on Sunday. She was mad as usual. All subsequent calls were from his mother, worried now, because he had not shown up for dinner with Alicia his eight year-old daughter. After erasing the messages, he stripped off his clothes and marched naked through the house to the utility room to wash his clothes. Halfway there the phone rang and he knew it would be his mother, Dr. Alice Rothberg, PhD, M.D. He dropped his clothes on the hardwood floor and returned to the living room, where his one, antiquated, rotary phone was.
“Hojah,” he said softly, waiting for his mother to speak.
“Where the hell have you been?” she asked; her voice strident and strained.
“Greenwood Cemetery,” he answered, scratching an insect bite on his right buttocks.
“Asa, we have been looking for you all day.” He could feel her calming down.
“I’m sorry, mother, but something happened.” He paused, letting his message sink in. He knew his mother, a Jungian-trained psychiatrist, would now be thinking and waiting for him to fill in the details. In her world, every physical phenomenon had a psychological connection or cause. “I woke up at the cemetery and I could not remember the last two days.”
“Were you in a fight? Did you suffer a blow to the head?”
“I don’t have any injuries that I know of,” he answered; unconsciously rubbing his head.
“Has this ever happened to you before,” she asked, “on one of your journeys?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
After several minutes of silence, she said: “It happened once to your father.”
It was now his turn to wait. Being raised by her, he had learned that silence creates a space that the analysand feels an overwhelming compunction to fill; and, as a practicing shaman and psychologist, he knew the talking cure worked. Few people could sit in silence for long periods of time. They usually felt the need to talk after only a few minutes and often the psyche would produce unexpected results. His mother had now volunteered to talk about his father; something she rarely did. After they divorced, she moved to Dallas and started a medical practice, giving up her social work on the reservation, while his father stayed and continued his work as shaman and medicine man.
She cleared her throat and he heard her sip something, probably a Pinot Noir, her favorite beverage after seven in the evening. “I had just arrived on the Rez, setting up my practice with Doctor Carpenter, when your father came in, distraught and disoriented. He had been on a spirit quest and he was in bad shape, mal-nourished and dehydrated. He couldn’t remember anything and he wanted our help. He was frantic because he felt that something had happened; something he had to remember.”
“What did you do?” asked Hojah.
“We examined him and fed him fluids but we could find no physical reason why he would have suffered a memory loss. He spent the night with us and then left the next morning.”
“Did he ever remember what had happened?”
“I think he did but he would not talk about it. All he would say is that there are some things in the spirit world that we should never disturb.”
“So you think I went on a journey and encountered one of those things.”
“I have no idea but I know that we never forget anything. Whatever happened to you is there but it was so traumatic you do not want to remember it.
“What do you suggest?” he asked, knowing she already had a plan.
“First thing you do is get some sleep and call me in the morning.”
He laughed and said: “Yes, mother.” Then he hung up and picked up his clothes and marched to the utility room.
The clock in his bedroom said it was three. He yawned and entered the bathroom. Shower then sleep, he thought.
Later as he lay on his bed, waiting for sleep, he saw in his mind’s eye, just on the cusp of unconsciousness, a figure emerging. A man’s body with the head of a jackal strode into his conscious mind and barked, waking him suddenly. Rain drummed against the roof and thunder rumbled in the distance. He was lying naked on top of the covers but it was now cold in the room. A cold front had passed through while he slept. From outside, he could hear a dog barking. It sounded as if the hound were on his front porch. He rolled out of bed and pulled on a cotton robe and walked through the dark house. The closer he drew to the front door the louder the bark. He paused in the living room and rubbed the dark stubble on his chin. On the other side of the wall, the dog stopped barking and growled.
Aware the dog knew he was near, he moved slowly to an end table next to his leather reading chair and removed a four-barrel COP derringer then approached the front door.
The closer he got the deeper the dog’s growl. When he pulled the door open he knew it would pounce. He also suspected the dog was not a dog. He sensed it was a creature from the spirit world, probably a barghest, sent to warn him. But by whom, he wondered, as he unlocked the door and pulled it open suddenly.
The hound was the size of a Great Dane, similar in shape, but solid black. It didn’t pounce as he guessed it would; instead, its head was turned toward the street, watching a woman climb out of a black Ford.
Gregson came around the car slowly, holding her 9mm in both hands, ready to fire.
The hound growled and moved to the edge of the porch, saliva roiling off its teeth, watching the woman.
Hojah stepped out on the porch so that Gregson could see him, aiming the COP at the dog’s head.
“What the hell is it?” yelled Gregson, stopping twenty feet from the steps.
“A barghest,” answered Hojah.
“What is a bar guest?” asked Gregson.
“It’s from the lower world,” stated Hojah. “Wait a second; it’s here to tell me something.”
“Are you sure? He doesn’t look in a talkative mood.”
“I’m sure,” said Hojah, as the dog turned toward him and then moved down the stairs toward Gregson.
“Damn,” she cried, as the dog descended the stairs.
“Don’t shoot. It has stopped growling; its tail is wagging.”
“If it comes within ten feet of me, I’m emptying the clip.”
As soon as the beast stepped onto the sidewalk, he moved to the edge of the porch. “Tell me what you want?” he demanded.
The dog moaned, turning its head, and then trotted across the yard. They both followed its trajectory with their gun barrels, ready to blast away.
When the hound reached the street, it bounded off down Thomasson, galloping toward Syvain.
Gregson holstered her gun and hurried toward the steps and onto the porch. Passing Hojah she entered the house and called over her should. “Come inside, quickly, and lock the door.
Hojah backed into the house, holding the gun in his right hand, ready to aim and shoot if necessary. As he was about to past trough the door he saw his crystal on the cement porch, underneath his white wicker rocker. It was illuminated from within, glowing a bright pink, awake and pulsating, as it did when he was traveling in the underworld. Forgetting about the barghest, he rushed to the chair, bent down, and scooped up the mineral and then entered the house and closed the front door.
Gregson was standing across the room, leaning against the fireplace; her gun now holstered on her right hip. Her hair had come loose and hung to her shoulders. She was wearing the same pants and shirt she was wearing on Friday. Her blue eyes were flashing and her hands were shaking.
She looked up at him and then said: “Where have you been? I have been worried sick?”
He pushed the crystal into the pocket of his robe and said: “I’m not sure. I woke up in the cemetery at two this morning and I can’t remember a thing.”
Her eyes narrowed and then her mouth opened slightly. “Jesus, Asa, you got any coffee?”
He smiled and moved toward the kitchen. “Sit down Anna and make yourself at home. It will just be a minute.”
He heard her sit on the long leather couch that faced the fireplace. When he returned ten minutes later with coffee, she was asleep. He removed her boots and gently pulled her legs up. Barely conscious she turned onto her left side, facing away from the back of the couch, and he covered her with a Navajo blanket and turned off the light. It was five o’clock and his first patient was scheduled for 7:00 a.m. He walked back into the kitchen and sat at the table. Sipping his coffee, he pulled the crystal from his pocket and held it in the palm of his left hand. It was warm and produced a pale pink light. “Where have you been?” he asked the crystal and he felt it grow warmer, as its light pulsated brighter.