chapter one: styx
There’s a reckless in there somewhere, she thinks languidly. Twirling the cord of the phone around her fingers she glances around, assessing the landscape.
The pay phone is old enough to be nostalgic, posted alone in its vantage point overlooking the narrow two-lane road. Bloating desert heat swells from the ground, and she squints into the direction that she came, long enough ago so that her footprints are long since covered in unfamiliar dust.
Currently grime and dirt billow from the earth in the wake of a fast approaching motorcycle.
“Styx,” she hears her name from afar. She pauses before responding, still staring at the bike, its driver looming ever closer.
“Yes,”she breathes at last. A loud puff of air is expelled on the other end of the line.
“Why? Why are you being so…reckless?” There it is.
“Look. Do you have it or not?” Another puff of air, this one resigned to indefinite disappointment.
Styx holds her breath tightly in her lungs, waiting.
“Yes. I’ve taken care of it.”
It is Styx’s turn to expel a heavy sigh. Relief…and dread.
“How do I find him?” A small snort. Equal parts relief and dread.
“You know how this works. He’ll find you. Pay the toll.” The pause between them is infinite.
“Styx–” she begins, and the phone tightens in Styx’s grip.
“I love you, Mom.” The response, an “I know Styx” is lost to the dial tone.
She’s a goddamned kid. Jesus I need another job.
“Hey, kid.” I test her. Maybe she ain’t the right one.
Eat shit screams from her eyes before she says anything. “Fuck you,” she spits simply.
Kids. Yep, she’s the one. She scowls at me hard…I think it’s a scowl. She wants to seem like she’s not interested, but she has a tell. She’s nervous; her left leg keeps jerking and she’s fidgeting with the nails on her right hand. A nervous tic.
“Mom sent me,” I offer after watching her fidget for a moment. She eyes me suspiciously, nodding into the smokey dirt obscuring the road.
“I just talked to Mom. How’d you get here so fast?” I shrug, keeping my eyes on her. She looks like a runner. Can’t let her run home. She’s still staring, so I guess she really expects an answer. I pull the object from my pocket, running my fingers around the rough edges before holding it out to her. She hesitates before grabbing it. She doesn’t look at it, just places it carefully into her backpack. She straightens up and stares at me, no less suspicious than she was before.
Shit. I ain’t got time to earn trust or some shit.
“Mom knows you better than you know yourself.” I say it in a hurry, to let her know we don’t have time for niceties and trust-building. “Knew what you’d need. Knew when you’d call. Knows where you’d hide. And believe me, you really weren’t that hard to find. So what can I do you for?”
She can’t be more than eighteen. She looks sixteen, but eighteen is my guess. She’s worn and tattered. I bet she misses Mom. She don’t have that on her face or anything, it’s just the way her voice changed when she said “Mom” and when I said “Mom.” Her pupils dilated a bit, like she’s holding something back. I hope it ain’t tears, because I ain’t the tear-wiping kind.
Kind of hard to believe we’re talking about the same “Mom,” to be honest.
Still, the kid’s young in the face. Young all around, really. Small, too. No taller than 5 even, I don’t think.
I guess her and The Girl are about the same age. She don’t look exactly like her, but they might be friends. Something about her puts The Girl in mind.
No, that’s not right. She’s the same age that The Girl was when I saw her last.
The Girl’d be older now.
Trouble lines the kid’s face. I should probably say something that makes her comfortable. Anything to get her moving. We’ve already lingered too long.
I open my mouth to speak but she interrupts me.
“I need to pay for my coffee.” What coffee? She turns abruptly and in two swift steps she’s pulling open the dingy door of the convenience store.
Fucking kids. Groaning I place the helmet on the seat before following her in.
My eyes don’t need to adjust to the dim light, but the smell may just kill me. Smells like. . .mildew. Shit. Shitty mildew.
The kid smirks at me before turning to the counter. I shouldn’t stare. Mama would’ve said it’s impolite. But. . .
He’s at least 6’7. 6’7 is the low estimate. If he is a pound under 350 I’ll sell my kidney. It’s the only one I’ve got, so I’m good for it.
Based on his shirt he moonlights somewhere as a butcher.
At least I hope that’s where the blood came from. He runs his hands—huge and filthy, grime under the nails—over his ample belly, staring over the counter and down at the kid. She looks—no leers—up at him.
“Keep the change,” she smirks (we need to have a talk about the smirking), tossing a few bills on the counter. He sweeps it off without bothering to look. We all watch strangely as it floats to the floor. The man stares down at her in disgust.
“What change? You owe me $500!”
My mouth hangs open. “For what?” I interject. The kid turns to stare daggers at me.
“Coffee,” she mutters before turning away.
“Beefcake,” she begins, and his eyes narrow. I glance around, eyeing the figure of Gabriel two feet to my left. Horrifically tacky and out of place among mugs and t-shirts. But it’ll do in a pinch. I ain’t trying to kill nobody.
“I have to. . .I have to leave for awhile. But I’ll be back and I swear I’ll give you what I owe.” His eye twitches; she probably can’t even see it—but it twitches briefly before everything goes black.
For him, I mean. It goes black for him not us. Gabriel makes its mark with a loud smack, thrown without a lot of force but from a relatively close point. Right above the left eye, the figure splits him open. The kid screams as a kid will when the gun discharges, clattering to the ground from Beefcake’s limp hand.
Her mouth is formed into an O and now she really looks like a kid. I feel sorry for her.
“What the fuck did you do that for?” Well I almost feel sorry for her.
“I just saved your life,” I spit at her, but she shakes her head.
“I had that! He’s not going to hurt me.” I think she’s still speaking, but my ears perk up. The rumble of an unfamiliar engine about one kilometer to the south. A jet from the sound, too expensive for this area.
I don’t think The Grandfather is that desperate yet, but it don’t make sense to stay where we ain’t wanted.
My agility and street smarts got me this job. My good sense lets me live to keep it.
“We gotta go kid.” Something in my voice must sway her because she doesn’t hesitate. . .until we get to the bike.
“Where’s my helmet,” she demands. I stare blankly at her.
“You were about to get shot by Beefcake with no thought at all, but now you’re worried about safety?” She pouts until I relent. She adjusts her backpack on her back, tightening the straps and clipping it together over her midsection.
“What’s in the bag,” I demand. I feel her roll her eyes through the dark visor.
“Dolls,” she snaps. I shrug at her before climbing onto the bike. Without hesitating she clambers on behind me, and we drive off, smoke and a very unconscious Beefcake small specks in the side mirror.
Her voice is so small over the engine that I almost miss her question. Maybe I have missed it, but I answer anyway.
“Townie. Call me Townie.”
She nods against my shoulder, and suddenly she reminds me of The Girl again. She seems to be considering. Finally she answers, offering her trust between us.
Mom searches Styx’s eyes for something—anything—that will indicate her feelings. Hatred. Despair. Fear. Something that proves she feels. Something to indicate that she isn’t sadly resigned to an unknown fate. Styx averts her gaze, staring past Mom into the photo on the wall. Mom doesn’t turn around to view it; she has committed it to memory.
Styx is four years old exactly, sitting on Santa’s lap. The photo itself is unremarkable, save for the way Styx stares into the camera and past it. Four year old Styx, even then, could see through the glass and into the soul.
Mom reaches for Styx’s brow, smoothing down invisible hairs. She offers Styx a small smile. Styx does not return it.
“Mom! I’m okay! I’m ready!” Mom purses her lips, biting back her own worry. She never worries. This worries her.
Her heart pounds faster and louder than a heart should. Her ears perk up as she listens, her muscles tensing at the sound of silence.
Silence is frightening. It carries with it a sense of foreboding, a harbinger for wicked things to come.
The handle of the door twitches and Mom turns, ready to spring. Wordlessly she moves to stand before it, ready to protect Styx from whatever may come through. Mom eyes Styx, who stares into her, unblinking. Mom doesn’t worry about Styx being able to take care of herself, not really. She and Pops have seen to that.
The door opens swiftly, and Mom moves faster than Styx’s eyes can see, her hand poised over his neck. Pops doesn’t blink; his own eyes betray mischief, his lashes seeming to flutter in the swift air following Mom’s almost-strike.
“Pops!” Mom exclaims, exasperated. “You scared me!” Pops raises his eyebrow at this revelation.
Mom relents, a lopsided smile forming on her face. “Not scared, per se. Just surprised.”
Pops hesitates before answering Mom’s unasked question. “Business went well. Ended early.” Mom nods before turning to Styx. Styx peers between them without speaking, her raised eyebrow matching Pops’. Pops reaches out to tug Styx’s hair, and she rolls her eyes but does not pull away.
“Hey Pops,” Styx greets him. His non response is his response. Mom and Pops stare at Styx, waiting.
Heat crawls up Styx’s back, settling into her ears. Yes I’m nervous, she thinks harshly. I don’t want to go. Please don’t make me go.
“I’m fine,” she lies to them again. On shaky legs she turns, the gown skirting around her ankles as she glides past. Gripping the rail she takes the stairs slowly, one at a time, and wordlessly Mom and Pops follow. Styx wonders if they are as scared as she is.
The massive, barrel chested men looming in the living room are intimidating, but Styx doesn’t blink. She thinks about what Mom taught her, surveying the pressure points that will bring both men to their knees. Styx wonders if she should do that now, but then she thinks of The Grandfather. He would be angry. She hasn’t seen his anger, but she has heard of it. She has sensed it.
Styx raises her chin haughtily to the man holding open the door of the limo, stooping to climb in before turning back to Mom and Pops. They are standing shoulder to shoulder in the door, matching frowns on their faces. They are worried. This worries Styx. They never worry. She never worries.
She rushes back to them before the men can stop her, and Mom and Pops pull her into a deep hug.
“You’ll be fine, Styx. It’s just for the evening. Just. . .be yourself.” Mom leans away, biting her lip. Uncharacteristic tears well up in her eyes, but she blinks them away.
Pops clenches his jaw, eyeing the men before pulling Styx back to him.
“Be vigilant. Be smart. Don’t let your guard down,” He whispers the commands into Styx’s hair, breathing heavily. He turns away to reenter the house before Mom, who holds onto Styx’s hand until the last.
Styx slides into the limo, tears stinging her eyes, and she turns back to tell Mom that she loves her. The door slams before she can move, however, and her words are lost to the night.
I never should have gotten attached. I didn’t want kids. I have never wanted kids. I never wanted to be married, either. In spite of this being Mom—being a mother to Styx—it feels natural. This hallow in my chest—the space left in her absence—doesn’t feel natural.
The doorbell chimes, and I swallow my fear. Where did this fear come from? I was never afraid before. Pops’ familiar walk, a self-assured, even gait, is silent but somehow I can feel it echoing through the empty halls.
The voice that greets him stills my heart.
I rise from the couch, needlessly smoothing down my dress. Pops thinks it’s foolish to wear these things. The beautiful hoop skirts and the stiletto heels (pastels and brights, every pair lethally, meticulously polished) and the pearls. He thinks they are an act. They are.
But we are all acting.
I’ve worn these clothes for so long—I’ve been Mom for so long I don’t know another part to play.
I greet The Grandfather wordlessly at the door, pasting a false smile to my lips. My eyes dart quickly to Pops, and I see it there, just for a moment. Anger.
I don’t have the right to, but I reach out to touch Pops. To The Grandfather it probably appears the touch of lovers. This must be surprising to him, nevertheless, but no more than the touch is to Pops. It is gentle, a light caress on his cheek. I can feel his stubble beneath the lace of my white glove. Pops leans into my hand briefly before pulling away. The Grandfather stands before the couch, a large floral claw-footed thing reminiscent of the 1950s, staring at me expectantly.
The perfect hostess I sweep my hands out, offering the seat to him. He nods once, curtly, pulling gently at his pants before taking his seat. He makes a small motion, unbuttoning his jacket and repositioning himself on the seat. His man leans forward offering him a gold case. The Grandfather gingerly plucks out a cigarette, and the man strikes a match.
My smile does not waver as my eyes narrow at him.
“I apologize, Grandfather. We do not smoke in the house. Styx has allergies.” The Grandfather grants me an amused smile, the cigarette dangling on his bottom lip, unlit. After long, silent minutes he nods once, replacing the cigarette.
“Right you are,” He concedes. His smile is light and villainous, not quite bright enough to remove the shadows from his face.
“If you will excuse me for a moment, I have a roast in the oven.” Confidently I walk into the kitchen, turning on the oven with the alacrity of a 50s housewife. Returning to the living room I discover Pops and The Grandfather eyeing each other, the Man lightly touching the stained glass lamp resting beside the couch. The Grandfather smiles warmly at me as I enter.
“Let’s get down to business, shall we?” He smacks his lips together, and if I didn’t see the gleam in his eye I would think he was talking about the weather. It is The Grandfather’s turn to sweep an arm out, and he does, offering me a seat in my own living room. I do not hesitate to take it, averting my eyes so that I do not meet Pops’ gaze.
I am seated close enough to Pops to smell his cologne. Spicy and warm. . .but there is something underneath. Like hot desert dust. The dry scent of sun-parched cactus.
I cross my legs nervously, immediately regretting my decision to do so.
The cool steel of my revolver aches between my thighs, my garter pressed uncomfortably against my legs.
“The girl,” The Grandfather begins without pretense. I stare into his coal-like eyes, my breath still.
“She must be found. Immediately.” I swallow, counting backwards from ten. At two Pops responds.
“Dead or alive?” A chill sweeps down my spine, but I do not waver. The Grandfather observes us silently, toying his options in his mind.
“Preferably alive. But I will be forgiving if force is necessary.” I nod once. To The Grandfather and Pops it must appear as acceptance. But the nod is the only movement I can make without horror escaping me.
What’s happening to me?
Pops’ hand covers mine unexpectedly, and it is then that I realize my lethal grip on the couch. The Grandfather eyes us with mild interest, and I turn to meet Pops’ gaze. We have lived together long enough for him to read me, and I him.
Don’t worry, his eyes whisper. We’ll find her first. Keep her safe.
How? There’s nowhere that we can go that he can’t follow.
We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
I’m scared for her.
The man’s hand grabs my hair so abruptly that at first I think I have imagined it. The Grandfather is still staring at Pops and I, but now a handful of my hair is held in the man’s hand as he grips me to him.
The Grandfather’s voice is a light, airy whisper when it reaches me.
“How was the girl lost,” he murmurs lazily. My eyes dart around before settling on Pops. While the man has a handful of my hair tightly in his grip Pops stares evenly down the barrel of a gun. Where did this new man come from?
I swallow hard before responding, eyeing the man with the gun trained on Pops. He will be simple. He is my height with a slight build. Left handed. His lean suggests a previous knee injury. I will strike him there, first.
“Grandfather, the girl was with you. I thought she would be safe there—”
As if he can read The Grandfather’s mind the man tightens his grip on my hair as The Grandfather scoffs,“You blame me? You were entrusted with her. Where is her obedience?” I resist the urge to roll my eyes, settling on stifling a sigh.
“Grandfather, I do not understand your question.” The Grandfather chuckles, adjusting himself on the couch.
“Were you not to keep my granddaughter safe?”
“Were you not to protect her?”
“We were, Grandfather.”
“She is proficient in the arts,” The Grandfather observes suddenly. I jerk my head to stare questioningly at him. How does he know?
“Do you know how many stories Styx fell?” The Grandfather queries, his voice a mere whisper. My heart stops again. Styx fell?
“Four. Styx fell four stories. She landed on the awning, lucky girl. And yet. . . Oh, I apologize.” The Grandfather’s lips curl over his teeth in another dark grin. “Did I say fell? I mean jumped. Styx jumped four stories. Not so much as a scream passed her lips. It would be fascinating, truly. Beautiful, even. If she had not stolen from me prior to her escape.” The word “stolen” seems to hang between us, echoing silently in the air.
I should not ask, yet he wants me to, and so I must. “What did Styx steal, Grandfather? I am certain we can get it back.” The Man slaps me hard enough across the face to bring immediate welts upon my cheek. My eyes water involuntarily, but I do not cry out. I will not need to apply a great deal of pressure to his friend’s leg. He has shifted fifteen times in five minutes. With a bit of provocation his leg will fail him assuredly.
“She has stolen! That which she has stolen is valuable. More valuable than anything you could ever imagine. I must have her back. I must have it back.” I stifle the intense desire to roll my eyes—an irritating habit learned from Styx.
“Grandfather, how can we help if we don’t know what we’re looking for? How can you be sure—” The man strikes me across the face again before I can complete my thought, this time drawing blood from my lip. I spit it out, frowning hard at him.
“If you touch me again, sir, I will break your knees,” I warn him. He sneers at me, huge off-white teeth glittering in the light of a lamp.
“How long can Styx remain undetected?” The Grandfather presses. My eyes meet Pops over the barrel of the gun. The answer present in my mind is reflected in his eyes.
“I do not know, Grandfather.” I lie. Pops clenches his jaw tightly. The Grandfather again glances between Pops and me before nodding once to the man with the gun held on Pops. He cocks the hammer and a primal part of me moves before my rational mind can comprehend.
My stiletto clips him on the side of the head first, and he drops to the ground, shocked as blood pours from the gash. I can’t believe I missed.
The man with the gun to my head grunts and I kick him in his thigh, my heel sinking into his skin. He yelps loudly, releasing my hair. I sweep my foot around and it meets its mark directly, colliding with the man’s head with a satisfying smack. He staggers and falls, froth beginning to form at the corners of his mouth, the poison reaching his bloodstream. As I draw my foot down I reach between my legs to grab the revolver, but steel against my neck stills me. The Grandfather’s face is hidden from me now that he has a gun pointed to my neck, but I imagine his amused smirk.
“Let’s play a game,” He begins, and I attempt to meet Pops’ eyes. He stares down the length of a pistol in his own hand, pointed over my shoulder into The Grandfather’s face. The Grandfather speaks carelessly, clearly confident that Pops won’t pull the trigger.
“Okay,” I begin slowly, my eyes never leaving Pops’ face.
“I will count down, and by the time I get to one I will know where Styx is.”
“Ten…” His voice is cold in the large room, and I hear a tell-tale beep in the distance. My roast.
“Grandfather we don’t know—”
“Nine…” My mind races as my throat constricts.
“Eight…” I am still trying vainly to meet Pops’ eyes, but his unblinking stare is focused on The Grandfather, his pistol aimed mere centimeters from my right ear.
“Styx hasn’t been here! We don’t know where she is!”
“Six—this will be bloody, I’m afraid,”
“Just tell us what you’re looking for—”
“Two…” Before he reaches one Pops blinks, and in that moment I take my chance. Swinging my left elbow around I lunge at Pops. Behind my ear I hear a stage whispered, “one,” and a deafening explosion swallows us in the deepest black.
When my son was a young man, around 9 or 10, I took him out onto the cape in the yacht. As we stared out shoulder to shoulder into the rising sun, the swell of the waking city far behind us, I promised him that he would be my greatest accomplishment. My only heir, the next in line for my throne. My son showed an insurmountable thirst for knowledge and appeared to desire acquisition of that which I had earned. He, like me, is exceptional.
An exceptional marksman. When he so desires acquisition of a target he does not miss. He does not ascertain the meaning of the word “no.” I doubt he has ever heard the word. I do not apologize for this. He is indeed the perfect specimen. When I turned to him and promised him a future I believed my own words.
He has made a liar out of me.
When the pitiful young woman lured him I was certain that he was experiencing a phase. As a child was given everything with very little work. It was only natural for him to desire carnal pleasures that his mother and I would likely not approve of. I sowed my oats. . .it was acceptable for him to sow his. In the dark. But ever the rabble rouser, my son brought her to our home. The young woman was ignoble and embarrassingly simple; her wide doe-eyed stare around the summer home was laughable.
But he said he loved her. Death for hire is my lifestyle and our livelihood, but in that moment I considered hiring out for elimination of a personal stain. My son never need know.
Admittedly the pregnancy stayed my hand. I am old-fashioned, admittedly. I enjoy scotch after dinner, a nice cigar every Friday evening. When my son’s mother purposes to lift her nose from the glass I enjoy flying her to exotic locations where she will spend every moment on her stomach with dry hands on her back. The pregnancy—in spite of her low birth—would result in an heir to my heir. I could not bear to part with it, bastard or no.
It is rather tragic, really. That the young woman died so soon after. Forty-five minutes after the birth, to be exact. van Cleef was clearly weakening even then.
Her death was forty minutes behind schedule.