By Greg Bullard
Welcome to part two of the nine part fiction series “Immortal Blues” by Greg Bullard. In part two we meet The Crone, Isabella, and her granddaughter Marisela. In search of answers do we instead get more questions? Need to catch up? You can start at part one here.
An hour past midnight, I’d made good time; Isabella would still be up. With a click I flipped shut my watch and slid it back into my pocket. Tilting my head up and to the side I eyed the moon, bright and high in the clear sky, it’d be full in a few days. Sighing inwardly I turned left and stuck to the street lights, skirting the edge of Prospect Park instead of walking through it. It may be late, but I couldn’t take the chance of being seen in the moonlight, too many questions.
I covered the last few blocks warily. Already it had been a long night. Someone was trying to kill me, leaving me with two big questions. First, I wanted to know who. Second, I wanted to know how they could have a gunman waiting for me in the shadow of an alley I hadn’t even known I was going to pass by until I wandered aimlessly in that direction.
Minutes later I could see Isabella’s house in the distance. Dim light filtered through the age-stained, white lace curtains, spilling out onto the stoop of the old brownstone. I could feel the power of the wards even as I approached.
Seconds later, standing in front of the doorway, I waited. There was no need to announce my presence, they knew I was here. When the door opened a lovely girl of medium height, in her early 20s, wearing a white dress craned her neck back to watch me as I towered over her. Her full, petulant lips sat below large, dark brown eyes. The flawless olive skin of her face was framed by straight, long, black hair.
“Marisela,” I said in a rough, whispered tone, inclining my head slightly by way of greeting, “May I speak with your grandmother?”
“It’s late, she’s asleep,” she answered in curt, clipped tones.
Tilting my head to the side, I nodded at a tiny bowl of honeyed milk and fresh baked bread sitting on the sill, visible through the window and said, “She’s expecting me. She always leaves an offering for the Wee Folk when she expects me.”
As if on cue the frayed voice of the old woman cut in from beyond the hallway, “Please show our guest to the sitting room Marisela.”
“Yes Grandmama,” she answered, stepping back to allow me into their home.
Without needing a guide, I took the first left and passed through a dark velvet drape to the dim sitting room beyond. A windowless room, there were no electric lights, and it shown with the flickering illumination of the few dozen candles burning within.
“Can I take your coat?” Marisela asked. Her words were polite, but carried the usual biting tone she used with me.
“No thank you Marisela,” she flinched at my use of her name, “I shan’t be long.”
Preferring to stand, I looked around at the paraphernalia around the room. Some of it was truly mystic, some just the trappings of the job – placed to set the mood for the marks, lubricant as it were, to help squeeze the extra dollar from wallets grown stiff and rusty in a bad economy.
A Tarot deck, worn with age, sat face down on the table at the side of the room, but for the single card upturned in the center, the Knight of Swords. It wasn’t there just for ambiance. Most of her patrons would never see that particular deck. She had been expecting me.
Marisela stalked into the room purposefully and handed me a fine porcelain cup of black tea, sweetened with honey and softened with milk. I raised it in salute to her, or in this case, to her back as she was already leaving, and I drank.
Shuffling out of an adjoining hallway on tired, old feet, assisted by a twisted, wooden walking stick, Isabella thumped and drug her way to a comfortable chair and sat heavily. She wheezed for a moment. I let her catch her breath.
“Death came calling for you tonight,” she pointed a long, tobacco-stained fingernail at me and laughed a throaty laugh that threatened to send her into a coughing fit she might not survive at her age.
“A pity, I wasn’t home,” I tried to sound dark and mysterious. I have a reputation to uphold.
“Ask your questions,” she spat the words more than she spoke them.
I ticked the questions off on the ends of my long, slender fingers, “Who is trying to have me killed? How did they know to have someone waiting in that alley?”
“What do you have for me?”
Pulling the sweat-stained wad of folded bills from my pocket, I peeled the outer bill from the stack and tossed it down to the table in front of her.
“We don’t want your filthy money,” Marisela hissed from where she stood in the shadows of the darkened archway beyond the sitting room.
Raising my eyebrows at her, I declined to respond. Gesturing at the bill, I told Isabella, “The killer was paid with this. It’s all I have to tie him to whoever hired him.”
With a quickness most wouldn’t consider possible from her parchment-leather, worn, arthritic fingers, Isabella pulled a small athame from the cord at her bosom and deftly sliced a thin edge off of the bill.
Pulling a pouch from the pocket of her peasant dress she removed an intricately carved pipe and began stuffing it with tobacco from the pouch. When she judged it set, she took her long pinky nail and scooped out a hollow in the center of the tobacco and deposited the strip sliced from the bill.
Lighting a taper from a black candle, she applied it to the pipe and drew a deep breath until the tobacco caught and began to burn with a sharp, sweet aroma.
Turning to the bank of candles at her right, she exhaled a slowly spreading cloud of smoke. Twisting and turning in her chair, she watched the smoke dance and play in the guttering light, swirling with the slight movement of air in the otherwise still room.
Presently she waved her hand through the smoke, dissipating it before she turned to me, took another draw on her pipe, exhaled, then leaned forward and spoke, “The man who was paid with this bill had instructions.”
Her voice changed slightly as she intoned, “A tall figure of shadows and lies will come tonight and stand at the window of the blues man. Kill him.” Standing, she waved me off and turned to hobble from the room with the thump and drag of her slow steps.
Taking this as just the opportunity she had been waiting for, Marisela said, “I’ll show you out.”
Separating four bills from the stack, I set them on the table and turned to leave. Just before I crossed the threshold of the door I spun quickly and reached a hand out to cup Marisela’s cheek. She froze beneath my touch.
I tilted her chin up as I leaned forward. Separated by less than a foot our eyes met and locked. I spoke softly but clearly without a trace of the rough whispered tones I typically used, the singsong lilt of my voice brushed aside her animosity as I said, “Thank you for the tea, Marisela.”
She trembled beneath my touch and her cheeks flushed. She cast her eyes down trying to break from my intense gaze and mumbled softly that I was welcome.
Leaving her shaken and short of breath in her doorway, I stepped outside once more. My long coat swirled about my knees as I drank in my surroundings before turning and walking quickly away. It was important that I make it home before morning twilight.
About Greg Bullard:
Greg currently resides in Austin, TX, trying to do his part to Keep Austin Weird. While his wife, Julia, and daughter, Emily, both work hard to keep him on his toes, it is Julia’s red editing pen that does the most work. When he is not muddling his way through some fiction, he usually writes about What Greg Eats.