Thursday, October 22, 2020

Nothing today...

I'm having another one of those weeks where I'm pushing too hard, so consequently I'm tired, so naturally I try to push harder. 

You'd think after this many years, I'd know that doesn't work. 

So, yeah, nothing really for today. 

Working from home is hellishly distracting (especially this morning), I'm losing track of time/which day of the week it is (possibly because of trying to work from home), and I really need to quit trying to do things and go to bed early (possibly with earplugs, because if I go down before everyone else they tend wake me back up by being loud). None of that is insurmountable, but it's frustrating. 

Right then: back to trying to work on the thing I've been trying to work on since 8:00 this morning.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Challenge: Earliest Memory

This is part of the weekly Blogging Challenge over at Long and Short Reviews. If you'd like to participate, you can find the prompts here. They also put up a post every Wednesday where you go and link your response -- and see everyone else's. Check out their homepage to find it.

The challenge for this week is "my earliest memory." 

Memory is a funny thing, not least because it's largely artificial and amazingly untrustworthy. My earliest memory isn't really a memory anymore: it's a memory of a memory. 

Specifically, it's the memory of me coming around the corner of the couch (a corner which was around the same height as my shoulder) at what I thought of at the time as "our old house." But it's not what I'd refer to as a "first-order memory" in that I no longer have the memory itself. It's a second-order memory: I remember it because when I was, I don't know, eight or nine years old, somebody asked me what my earliest memory was. That piece of motion -- coming around the corner of the couch in our old house, with no other context -- was what I remembered. At the time, it was a first-order memory; I actually remembered it. Now it's a second-order memory: I remember remembering it, but the image in my head is a reconstruction of the original.

Our old house had a section of stone floor; that's a first-order memory. A couple of times while we were living there my parents waxed the floor, and we couldn't go into that room until it... dried? Set? Got wiped back down? I'm not sure, but I remember having to walk across these wide wooden boards that were laid over the corner between between the hall that went back to our bedrooms and... I think a little atrium area that had a tree growing up through the middle of it, and out through a skylight. 

I definitely remember that atrium area. 

I remember that the house had eaves that I could somehow climb up to, maybe using the fence. I hung out on top of them a lot, not unlike a feral cat, though at this point I couldn't begin to tell you how often "a lot" was. I know that I was one of those children who climbed on everything but that's also been confirmed by my parents. 

And I know, because I do and don't remember it, that memory is a funny thing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

VtM: A Club, A Card, An Interview

 It was ten o'clock at night before before Edhem returned to the Crux Invertis. A different teenager opened the door this time, this one dressed all in shades of gray: a hooded sweatshirt, an oversized coat, loose pants, off-brand tennis shoes. Even the mask that covered their mouth and nose was the color of charcoal. "The guy who wanted to meet with Malachi, right?" Their hair was tied back in simple ponytail, dark enough to look black in the limited lighting inside the club; they studied Edhem with a severe face that held no particular expression, punctuated by high cheekbones and dark eyes.

"Edhem Blackburn," he said. "Should I ask who you are?" 

The teen shrugged. "Twilight, for the moment. Some of us use names; some of us don't. That was Dark you met earlier, unless he's changed it." 

"Is Malachi available? Will he see me?" 

"Yes." Twilight swung the door all the way open and stepped back. "That's why I'm being so polite." 

"I'm grateful," said Edhem, with no irony whatsoever; it sounded like he should be. His own mask was still white, and didn't muffle his voice quite enough to leave any doubt about his tone.

Twilight looked momentarily nonplussed, and Edhem took that moment to step inside and look around. This was obviously the entryway; there was a counter to his left, unoccupied, but with a cash register and a handful of posters on the wall behind it. There was another door ahead, exactly where he'd expect to find a bouncer to prevent anyone from entering the club without paying. 

Twilight closed the door behind him and shot the deadbolt, then moved past him with a vague motion that Edhem took to mean he should follow. 

He did, and found himself in a large room. To his right was the main bar, and an entrance into some other area; to his left a sort of balcony wandered around to a second, smaller bar. The balcony overlooked the dance floor, and the raised stage beyond. A second, higher balcony circled overhead, also overlooking the dance floor; two more teens stood on the far side, looking idly down at them. One was Dark; the other was an unfamiliar girl, waifish, in a tank top and sweat pants, with disheveled blond hair and no sign of makeup. She stepped back as Edhem looked up at her. 

"Come and sit down," said a voice at his elbow, and Edhem turned his head to look down at a short, slim man in a black coat and tie, the handkerchief in his breast pocket folded to show an inlaid rose. "I don't believe I know you, Edhem Blackburn." He must have been in the room; he must have moved to Edhem's flank; but Edhem hadn't seen him at all. That does not bode well.

"There's no reason you should," said Edhem, cautiously polite. "We haven't met, and until yesterday I had no idea your club even existed."

Malachi tilted his head, and there was something just slightly off about the gesture: not quite the inhuman stillness that the thing in Jack and Valeria's apartment had displayed, but a hint of someone trying to avoid giving that impression. "Then what is it brings you here?" He extended a hand, motioning Edhem towards a booth near the front wall. 

Edhem nodded. "The Magical Mister Grey and his beautiful assistant Valeria," he said, as he crossed to the booth and took a seat. 

 Malachi slid silently onto the bench opposite him. "I see, Mister Blackburn. Would you care for anything to drink?"

"Not now," answered Edhem, "but I appreciate the hospitality."

Malachi nodded to Grey, and she turned and walked away. "So then," he said, when they were apparently alone, "you've come to ask about Mister Grey and his sudden demise."

Edhem gave a single, slow nod. "Your name was given to me as someone who had met with him shortly before he died."

"Ah," said Malachi. "And you suspect I might have killed him?" 

Unchosen Gods, he better not have. Edhem shook his head, wondering if he should have brought one of the canes from the van, and decided to bluff. "I'm putting together a story," he said. "I know that Jack Grey died by violence, and that his wife-slash-assistant disappeared shortly afterwards. I started looking into it because I knew him, and there aren't that many stage magicians in the business -- especially not with the kind of talents he sometimes displayed. So, I'm looking for people who knew him and who saw him in the last few weeks of his life." He kept his expression still, showing nothing but mild curiosity.

"Then you aren't a police officer, or a private detective." 

Edhem shook his head, and Malachi nodded slowly. "Young master Dark, the one who greeted you at the door earlier, was worried that you might be with Social Services, but clearly you are not that either." 

"No." Edhem made sure he met Malachi's eyes. "I'm curious as to why you seem to have at least three teenagers in your club during the lockdown for the pandemic, but it's none of my business." At least not for now. If there's anything amiss, well... later for that. "I just need to know about Jack Grey." 

"They're runaways," said Malachi. "All six of them. And what passes for shelter in this city is inadequate and frequently dangerous. I spent enough time living on the streets to want to offer them something better, now that I can." His expression turned briefly wistful, and Edhem found that disconcerting. 

"So how did you know the Magical Mister Grey?" 

"As an entertainer, more than anything else." Malachi turned his attention back to Edhem's face. "He and Valeria performed here, just before the pandemic forced us to close. It was a good show, even though his stalker showed up for it; the bouncers removed him before he could cause any trouble."

Edhem considered that. "So you hired him, and presumably paid him, and that was the extent of your interactions?" 

"Essentially, yes." Malachi Omicron looked faintly puzzled. "Is that all you wanted to know?" 

It wasn't even close, but Edhem nodded and said, "Yes. I'll seek more information elsewhere." 

"Please let me know what you find," said Malachi. "I'd be delighted to help in any way I can. And with the club closed, well... I don't hear the gossip they way I used to."

Monday, October 19, 2020

VtM: A Boy, A Door, A Conversation

 Edhem looked at the address on the business card, looked at the small building on the edge of downtown Seattle, and looked back at the business card. No, the address was correct; unlikely as it seemed, he was in the right place. The name on the card was Malachi Omicron, and the name of the club was the Crux Invertis. It was closed now, of course, a victim of the pandemic; but there was a light on in front of the door, suggesting that someone might still be present. 

Edhem approached, then knocked. 

It took a few seconds, but then the door opened and Edhem found himself looking down at a kid in his early teens. "Who're you?" 

"My name is Edhem. I'm looking for a Malachi Omicron." 

The kid frowned. "You with Social?"

"What?"

The kid was wearing black jeans and a plain black t-shirt, and had the sides of his hair shaved close while the rest had been allowed to grow longer. He was barefoot, and looked Edhem up and down without the faintest waver in his frown. "Never mind. No chance, you dressed like that." 

Edhem blinks, then decides that it's better not to ask. Instead he says, "I'd like to speak to Malachi Omicron, if I can."

The kid shakes his head. "Too early. Come back after dark." 

"Like a vampire, huh?" asks Edhem, testing a suspicion. 

"You could say that," answers the kid, without the least change in expression. Then he swung the door closed. 

Edhem checked his phone. It was four-thirty in the afternoon, but apparently that was too early. It bothered him that the kid hadn't been wearing a mask, but then he hadn't been wearing shoes either; perhaps the knock on the door had woken him up. That might explain the moodiness, though Edhem couldn't help but think that the kid's sense of disapproval was thoroughly ingrained. 

Okay. That left him with several hours until he could return; he wasn't hungry enough to eat dinner yet, but he could park the van somewhere and see if he could pull together a talisman to turn aside disease... all other dangers aside, that seemed a decent use of his time. It wasn't worth the time to check in on any of the other names and addresses, especially since it seemed increasingly likely that they'd all turn out to be nocturnal.

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Art of Whales

 So, I received an email from Secondborn's art teacher yesterday. It said, roughly: 

I wanted to touch base with you about Secondborn’s art today.  We are learning about coral reefs and underwater life.  Today, the class was instructed to sketch different underwater scenes, animals, and fish in their sketchbooks.  I messaged with Secondborn a little during the asynchronous time, as I saw that he was not in the Art Google classroom.  He said he knew what to do.  This is the sketch that he turned in. I have returned it to him and told him that I need to see a hand drawn sketch.  Can you please check in with him to make sure that he understands the assignment?  

I opened the attachment, not without some trepidation, but I was clearly unprepared for... well... this: 


 

My friends, I want you to know that despite such a powerful provocation I did not panic. I merely called Secondborn over to me and asked him what this was that he had turned in for the morning's art project. 

I am... {{chokes}} I am... {{coughs}} I am... {{wheezes}} I am pleased to report that Secondborn intended that to be a picture of a whale. 

So, I explained that after he was finished with his final class, he would need to read the actual instructions for the assignment and submit a drawing with sea creatures and a coral reef. I mentioned that this would actually have been quicker and easier if he'd taken the time to read the instructions first. I recommended that he perhaps should not try to do art using only the Google Shapes app on his school laptop. 

Then he went back into his room to sign on for his last class, and I went off to have a cup of tea and a mild nervous breakdown.

Epilogue: He did in fact do a proper sketch, his art teacher is pleased, and if the gods are merciful we shall never speak of this episode again.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

VtM: A Book, a Mask, a Deck of Cards (Sorcerer Character Concept)

Edhem Blackburn stepped down from the railing onto the balcony and straightened, pulling the leather owl-mask from his face. The feathers were wilted, the leather worn and almost scorched; he wouldn't be able to use it again. He tucked it into the pocket of the long coat that had, until moments ago, been part of his wings; he'd need to put it to rest properly when he got the chance. 

As far as he could tell, this was the last apartment that Jack Grey and his wife/assistant Valeria had rented. It was dark and empty now, but Edhem had been able to see in the dark for as long as he could remember; it was one of the things that had brought him to his master's attention. The balcony let into the living area, which was as typical as he could imagine: a couch against one wall, flat-screen TV mounted on the wall opposite, a couple of advertising posters framed on the wall to his right. 

He stopped and studied them. This was definitely the right place; the odds that he'd somehow broken into the apartment of a random Stan of the Magical Mister Grey were absurdly slim. So, then... 

The bedroom was black enough that even his night vision needed help; he found the lighter in his pocket and called up a small flame with it. There should have been light from a window, but somebody had tacked blackout cloth over it. The bed was unmade, but from the look of it not recently used; there was a deck of cards on the chest of drawers that sat opposite the foot of the bed. 

There, thought Edhem, and stepped forward to take them. 

He moved back to the living area, which was more or less the center of the apartment, and sat down with his legs spread in a diamond shape, the soles of his feet pressed together. He leaned forward and set the cards across from him, then drew his master's deck from its place on his belt. 

The cards were old, and stiff as he shuffled them; he kept his movements gentle, sensing their resistance. The deck was still in mourning, grief-stricken and resentful, but it moved beneath his fingers anyway; it knew him, and at least acknowledged his presence. Edhem was grateful for that; the cards might have chosen not to, and he didn't have an alternate set to turn to. 

When the sorting felt right, he dropped them back into their case. Then he pulled the small knife from his pocket, flicked it open, and drew his sleeve back to cut his arm. He placed his thumb against the wound, then pressed a print of the drawn blood against The Magical Mister Grey's deck of cards, and then touched the blood again and laid a matching print on the face of his master's deck. The blood dried and disappeared, and he drew the first card. 

It was Battle, the one his master had said represented a conflict involving violence from multiple sides. That alone suggested that Ciaron hadn't murdered Jack and Valeria; his former brother in the blood had always worked alone. He'd made no secret of the fact that he viewed cooperation as a form of weakness. 

The next card was Distance, an image of an open landscape that required a far more nuanced interpretation but in this case probably meant that the battle that had finished Jack and his assistant had taken place somewhere else. It would be a mistake to assign a more specific meaning; the cards hadn't been ready to respond to another's hand, and while they wouldn't lie outright they didn't pretend to like him. 

He had his hand on the next card when a soft voice said, "What is this you do?" 

Edhem went still. He was used to being unnoticed, and would have sworn the apartment was empty. After a moment he said, "I'm asking the cards what happened to the people who lived here. Who are you?" He looked around. "Where are you?"

Ignoring his questions, the soft voice asked: "What do you see?" 

Edhem remained still for a long moment; then he shrugged. "Death, I think. For Jack Grey, a fight that he didn't survive. I'm not sure about Valeria." 

"Taken," said the voice. He still wasn't sure of its source, only that it was still here in the room with him. "Given what she needs, perhaps, except for the time to grieve." 

"I hope not," said Edhem. "They seemed very devoted to each other. And Jack was... remarkably talented. It was almost enough to make someone believe in real magic."

A shadowy figure swept Jack's old deck of cards aside and seated itself on the floor opposite Edhem. "And you, doing this, do not? What brings you here, truly?"

Edhem started to lift his gaze, then thought the better of it. There were stronger and stranger things than sorcery in this world; he supposed he shouldn't be surprised to find that Jack had somehow been involved with them. Picking up the cards on the floor, he tucked them back into his master's deck; the reading was finished, regardless of what happened next. "You don't think that hearing that Jack and Valeria had disappeared was enough? The word is all over the scene, though I'll grant you it's not a large scene." 

"What scene would that be?" The voice was... unearthly. He couldn't even decide if it was male or female. More than anything else, it sounded... unpracticed. Unused.

"Stage magic." Edhem slid his master's deck back into his belt, then reached across to another pouch and pulled out the small handmade book he kept there. He flipped it open, found the page he wanted, and laid a finger on it. He kept his thumb back; there was still blood on the tip, and he didn't want that to touch the page just yet. 

"I see," said the figure. "You are a part of this scene, and you came to uncover what happened to him." 

Edhem nodded, still not looking up. He wasn't sure why it was such a bad idea, but he was certain down to his bones that it was. "I came to see if it was done by someone who tried to kill me -- someone who might be killing magicians." 

There was a long pause in the darkness. "Even so, you came to see how he died. And you know it was by violence, and not here." 

Edhem nodded reluctantly. 

"I, too, would learn more of this. One of my... grandchildren... was affected by it. He mourns, and I find that his grief affects me." The figure shifted, then extended its own hand of cards -- but these were business cards, not playing cards. "In the week before he died, there were some people he met. I think you should meet with them."

Edhem pressed his index finger against the back of the page, preparing to tear it free and touch his bloody thumb to it. He doubted it would kill whoever was sitting across from him, but it might hurt them -- at least long enough for him to get away. And he was absolutely certain he'd need to be well away from them. "That sounds spectacularly dangerous." 

"Doesn't it? But these people weren't his enemies. Given time, they might even have been his friends." A pale hand laid the cards on the floor between them, and then the voice said: "Look at me." 

The commanding tone riled him, but curiosity overrode his irritation; Edhem looked up, and found himself staring at a face of inhuman beauty, cold and clean and pale, with deep blue eyes against white skin beneath sandy blond hair. Its eyes went strange as he met them: "You will take the cards. You will go these people. You will find out what they know. And you will forget that you ever saw me." 

Edhem blinked. "...Yes, Maybe, We'll see, and No. In pretty much that order." 

The inhuman figure blinked and drew back, a startled marble statue. "You are..." 

"Mine is the old blood. I'm pretty fucking sure you can kill me without breaking a sweat, but I am not yours to command." And there it was: the same pride that had led him to believe what his teacher had said about him, the same pride that had led Ciaran to betray them, and the same pride that was almost certainly going to get him killed in the space of his next breath. He'd die with some degree of dignity, at least, but now that the words were spoken he wasn't sure that was a particularly good trade.

The figure was still for the space of a breath, then another, and then another. When it finally moved to resettle itself, the change came as a shock; somehow, Edhem had almost forgotten it wasn't a statue. "Take the cards," it said, and this time its voice was normal. "If you are curious. If you are brave. I will... watch over you." 

"In a good way, or a bad way?" asked Edhem. 

"I am not certain," the thing replied, "that either of us could truly answer that. Nevertheless, it will be so."

Edhem blinked, then blinked again. "And if I decide that Jack's death had nothing to do with my enemy, and return to hunting him instead?" 

"Then I will watch as you do that, and we will see what will be."

Edhem drew a deep breath and held it, then closed his eyes. "Do as you will. I don't believe I can stop you." He was still half-certain he was going to die, though his master's cards lay quiescent in his belt and they would surely have warned him if this thing was actually going to kill him. He let his breath out, then opened his eyes. 

The pallid figure was gone.

"Son of a bitch," he said absently, and gathered up the business cards from the floor.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Challenge: Re-reading books

This is part of the weekly Blogging Challenge over at Long and Short Reviews. If you'd like to participate, you can find the prompts here. They also put up a post every Wednesday where you go and link your response -- and see everyone else's. Check out their homepage to find it.

The challenge for this week is "re-reading books: why or why not?"

For me, re-reading books is definitely a yes. Why? Well, sometimes I don't want to go explore something new; I want to re-experience something comfortable. Re-reading a much-loved book is like comfort food. 

Sometimes, I want to look at how an author pulled off a specific effect -- or captured a particular mood. 

Sometimes, I just find that I'm not in the mood for any of the things that are on top of my To Be Read pile, and I fall back on something I know I'll be in the mood for. 

And sometimes it's just 2020, and all I can cope with is something I already know I can handle.