Happy November, everyone!
As promised in my last post, it’s story time once again! 2018 has been a fairly unproductive year for fresh writing–I’ve been mainly occupied with editing, revisions, and the always entertaining query process–but I have managed a couple of short stories. I posted one, The Stars That Sing, earlier this year, and was happy to get some great feedback on it. Now it’s time for a new short story, The Storm in Her Smile.
The Storm in Her Smile again takes place in the world of See These Bones, but doesn’t require any prior knowledge of that book. I took the opportunity to experiment and try something different… something that’s a lot less daunting with a short story than it would be for a 100k+ word novel. I’m back to first person perspective, but I’m using present tense and (for the first time ever) my main character is female. I can’t say for sure how well either experiment paid off, but I’m sure you’ll all let me know!
Once again, I’ll be posting in segments, adding several chapters a week for the next four weeks. Once all is said and done, I’ll add a retrospective post, saying what I think went well and what needs work in future drafts. I’l also pull all of the chapters together into a single post and permanently link to the story from the menu, much as I did with The Stars That Sing.
Any and all feedback is appreciated. This is an early draft, and I know there’s ample room for growth and improvement.
And without further ado… here we go.
There are worse places in the world than Mobile, Alabama, but I can count them on two hands, and still have fingers left over. More rubble than city since Hurricane Carrie swept in out of the gulf—given direction and one hell of a push by a Weather Witch with an axe to grind–it’s a wonder that anything lives in the wreckage other than rats and roaches. That’s the thing about humans though; they’re survivors. If they weren’t, they’d never have gotten so damn good at killing.
In the past few decades, life has returned to Mobile, even if civilization decided not to come along for the ride. Parts of the city are underwater from a storm surge that moved in and never left, but in other neighborhoods, people go about their daily business. The majority of them are just worried about survival. A few, like the Melendez brothers, are engaged in the age-old task of empire building.
And me? I’m just here for a job.
Bullets tear into the façade of the building I’m hiding inside, penetrating aged dry wall and pinging off hardier piles of rubble. I glance over at my motorcycle, lying on its side where I dropped it, grateful to see that the frame remains intact. One of the leather saddle bags is open, a handful of charged batteries strewn across the dirt, but there’s nothing to prevent me from riding right back out of Mobile.
Nothing but the job and the armed assholes trying to kill me.
I turn back to the action, and let my voice rise above the chatter of machine guns even older than I am. “Was it something I said, Carlos?” I’ve been told I sound like a chain-smoking automaton; metal grinding against metal, a saw blade biting into cast iron, shrapnel forced into the shape of words. There are people who have a problem with a voice like this coming from a body like mine.
Most of those people are dead. I make no apologies for what I am.
“You’re dead, puta! You think we didn’t know you were coming? Ain’t nothing in this town that we don’t know.” Ironically, Carlos has a voice that could drop a woman’s panties at twenty paces. He’d be a hell of a lady’s man if he and his brothers weren’t so busy murdering their way through Mobile.
“If that’s true, you’d know I didn’t come for a fight,” I yell back. “Just recompense. Give me Arturo, and the rest of you can walk away.”
Bullets continue to ricochet around me, but the volume of gunfire has slackened. I can sense as much as hear some of Carlos’ forces creeping out from their defensive positions, scuttling across the dirt road like vermin. The building I’m in is little more than two walls and no ceiling. If the gunmen can flank me, there’ll be nothing left to hide behind. And who knows what might happen to my bike in the crossfire?
“My brother ain’t here,” Carlos yells back. Doesn’t sound like he’s moved at all, happy to let his enforcers charge into danger on his behalf. I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed. Someone with a voice like that… you kind of wish he’d have the balls to match.
He’s yelling something else, but I can’t hear the words anymore. His men are almost to my makeshift bunker, and the chatter of gunfire is drowned out by the rising winds of my own personal storm. I let my shell fall away—this body that everyone is so concerned with—and all that remains is steel and wire and the rage I was born from.
I’m around the corner in less than a heartbeat, tearing through the first gunman to leave only torn flesh and Kevlar behind. The next shooter is faster than she has any right to be, fast enough to bring her AK-47 to bear, but the bullets pass right through the cloud of shrapnel I have become. She has a chance to open her mouth, to voice some sort of denial, and then I’m on her. Her remains join her colleague’s in the Alabama dirt.
Bullets are coming from every direction now, but it’s just fuel for the storm. I’m dancing across the rubble like a Weather Witch’s conjuration, and the scream of the dying would be music if I had any ears to hear it.
If the Melendez brothers truly knew I was coming, they should’ve brought more than guns to the fight.
There’s no sense of time when I’m like this. Just blood and ruin and a grim sense of satisfaction. I don’t know how long it takes me, but eventually the battlefield’s clear, and there’s not enough left of my enemies to scream. I let my shell reform about me, and in the sudden silence, Carlos’ panicked, fleeing footsteps echo like thunder.
I pace him for a few blocks in the hopes that he’ll lead me to Arturo, but Carlos is a rabbit, running through the streets without thought or direction. Maybe there’s a reason the Melendez brothers came to Mobile. If his brothers are anything like Carlos, they wouldn’t have lasted a day in Birmingham, let alone a city like Atlanta.
Eventually, I tire of the chase. As Carlos turns onto one of Mobile’s decaying side streets, I step out in front. He tries to stop, loses his balance, and ends up on his ass in the dirt. He’s got a hand cannon instead of an AK, but he’s forgotten it even exists, scrambling backwards like a crab.
Carlos is supposed to have a face to match the buttery smooth voice, but there’s not a lot to recommend it at the moment; eyes wide and bulging, mouth gaping open, sweat and fear oozing from every pore. As I stalk forward, his eyes chart the course of my leather-clad figure. It’s a body built every bit as nice as his face is supposed to be; legs to die for and breasts that are more than evident even beneath my riding jacket. Wish I could take credit for any of it, but I am how He made me.
It takes a while, but his eyes finally make it past my chest. This is my favorite part, seeing confusion mix in with the terror and lust, watching the questions bubble to the surface. Even in Dr. Nowhere’s world, some things stand out more than others. A six-foot-tall woman wearing a motorcycle helmet with a smiley-face decal across its visor is one of them. I can’t say I mind. God knows I love to make an entrance.
Why a smiley-face? Why not a devil or something scarier? Why have a decal at all? Someone asked me all that a long time ago. I can’t remember his face or his name, but I’d just finished a job and was feeling mellow and lazy, like a cat basking in the sunshine. Maybe that’s why I actually answered.
If I’m sending someone to hell, I might as well do it with a smile on my face.
I kick away the hand cannon and put my boot on Carlos’ chest, pinning him to the dirt. One rib snaps, then two, but his eyes are still fixed on my visor. My voice goes liquid. “I will ask you only once. Where is your brother? Where is Arturo?”
He grimaces through the pain, that once-handsome face now every bit as ugly as his reputation. “It’s not Arturo you should worry about, puta. It’s Marco. Marco and his beast.” Blood bubbles from his mouth as I continue to grind down with my heel, but he’s laughing now, despite the pain. “They’re going to tear you apart.”
I give him a moment to reconsider, to give me information I can actually use, but the youngest Melendez brother has gone to a place beyond words, full of blood, fear, and maniacal laughter.
I let the storm come and have its fill.
When I leave the side street, there’s nothing behind me but meat and dirt. I head back to the site of the earlier gunfight, to seven dead bodies and the electric motorcycle that’s carried me across the shattered remnants of Dr. Nowhere’s world. I’d love to ride that bike right out of Alabama to someplace cool and quiet with a working jukebox and a man with balls and very little brain, but I can’t go anywhere just yet.
They call me the Queen of Smiles and I still have a job to do.
Spring Hill is a few miles west of what used to be downtown Mobile. At one point, it must’ve been nice; good-sized houses, manicured lawns, and just the right amount of retail thrown in for good measure. That was before Dr. Nowhere broke the world, before Powers and chaos and the series of disasters that were anything but natural. Today, Spring Hill’s best feature is its elevation. High enough that the flood waters never reached its summit, high enough that some residents here still cling to normalcy, so many decades later.
The place I’m staying at calls itself a bed and breakfast. No idea why, seeing as there isn’t any breakfast, and the beds are little more than blankets on a frame. Still, even I have to sleep, and I can’t say I mind having a roof over my head when I do.
The proprietor, Jeannie, is a small thing, all bones and hair, with a long, thin neck and a too-large head that wobbles when she speaks. She swallows as I enter the lobby, swallows again as I wheel in my bike and chain it to the post by the wall. The blood’s long gone from my leathers, but the bike won’t be clean of gore until the next rain. Which could be tomorrow, or three months from now.
I wait for the inevitable outburst, but it seems Jeannie’s been around long enough to know better. Instead, she greets me with a nervous smile. Her questions, when they do come, are innocuous. How do I like the city? Did I make it down to the bay? Do I want any more blankets? She’s the perfect host, solicitude and professionalism squeezed into one tiny package.
An hour later, the sun is down, and I’m up in my room, sitting in the dark with my saddlebags. I don’t know how normals sleep. I assume their existence just becomes too much to bear and they look for an escape in dreams. It’s not like that for me. It’s not like that for most Powers, I’m guessing. When you can breathe fire or crack buildings in half, sleeping is its own kind of challenge.
I normally just lie back and listen to the storm, but tonight, I’m listening for something else. Another thirty minutes pass before I finally hear it: the door downstairs creaks open and then softly shuts once again. I’m off the bed in an instant, hurrying down and out into the street to follow.
See, the world isn’t perfect. It hasn’t been perfect since Dr. Nowhere dreamed his dream, maybe since even before that, though you’d have to ask someone who was alive back then to know for sure. There aren’t many of them left, and even fewer you’d survive speaking to. Point is, it’s an imperfect world, and when something perfect comes along, it tends to stand out.
That was Jeannie’s mistake.
When I arrived yesterday, she blended right into the background; a little bit anxious, a little bit lazy, and plenty nosy. Tonight, she was different, even before she saw my bike, and that tells me two things. One, she’s learned who I am. And two, whoever gave her that piece of information also ordered her to play a part.
That’s why I’m still awake. I’ve been expecting some sort of assault, but instead, Jeannie’s stealing out into the night. Maybe it’s the paranoia talking, but I’m pretty sure her rendezvous has to do with the hotel’s only occupant. Whoever she’s meeting could be the key to finding Arturo and finishing my job.
With the sun down, Mobile is nothing but darkness and stagnant air, but I don’t have any trouble picking up Jeannie’s trail. She sneaks like someone unaccustomed to doing so, stumbling through garbage-strewn alleys and ricocheting off overfull trash cans that no disposal service is ever going to empty. With my bike still chained up in the lobby, I’m a good bit quieter, even in my leathers. I stay a half-block behind, far enough that she’ll never see me, but close enough to ward off the predators that stalk the city’s streets.
Turns out, I needn’t have worried; there’s nothing but clear space and empty air in front of the woman, like someone warned the denizens of the street that the morsel wandering their way was strictly off limits.
Little Jeannie’s definitely working for someone.
I can’t wait to find out who.
The man waiting for Jeannie is a bit of a disappointment.
It’s not the scar down his face, or the features that would have been ugly, even before that scar, it’s the fact that he bears no resemblance to dearly departed Carlos. I’d been hoping for one of the other Melendez brothers… maybe even Arturo himself, wrapped up like a present and a ‘get out of Mobile early’ card. Instead, this is some random stranger. The only good news is the deference Jeannie’s showing him. I don’t see any weapons, but she’s giving him plenty of space, and her body language is one-hundred-percent poorly repressed fear.
This isn’t a booty call.
By the time I get close enough to eavesdrop, the meeting is over. I couldn’t hear a damn word, but it looked like Scarface was asking questions and giving orders, and Jeannie was doing her nervous best to comply with both. Jeannie gives one last nod, then the two separate. Jeannie turns back the way she’d come, while Scarface heads in the opposite direction.
Which of the two to follow is an easy decision to make—I already know where Jeannie lives, after all, and Scarface might lead me somewhere useful—but the decision’s quickly made moot. Before Jeannie has taken two steps, Scarface is gone, leaving a swiftly fading trail of silver light behind him.
The eggheads in the Free States call his kind Jitterbugs. Most of the rest of the continent calls them Speedsters. To me, they’re just a pain in the ass. Even on my bike, I’d have had no chance of keeping up.
It looks like Jeannie’s back to being my only lead. That’s not good news for her.
I make it back to the bed and breakfast long before she does. When she goes to light the room’s kerosene lantern, she finds me sitting on her desk, waiting. Panic and fear give way to calculation, swiftly replaced by a facsimile of solicitous concern.
“Oh! I didn’t see you there.” I watch her dark little eyes dart to my helmet, trying to penetrate the smiley-face decal and tempered glass visor to scan the features underneath. That’s never going to happen. Finally, she pastes on a too-wide smile. “Is everything okay? Did you want more blankets after all?”
I wave to the chair in front of me. “Why don’t you take a seat, Jeannie?”
She does so with a frown, head wobbling on that over-thin neck. I have to hand it to her; her confusion almost passes as genuine. Her body language tells a different story, of course, but lying with your whole being is a skill few people ever learn.
“What do you need, Ms…?” Her voice trails off, and she laughs self-consciously. “You know, I just realized I don’t even know your name.”
“Are you sure about that?”
Her smile starts to slip, but she hangs onto it like a drowning man clutching a straw. “I admit my memory ain’t as good as it used to be, but I’m pretty sure you never gave it to me.”
“I didn’t,” I let the silence build, then add, “but someone else clearly did. And I’m curious who.” She shakes her head, but I stop her before she can add to the lies. “The man with a scar, maybe? Who is he working for? And what do they want you to do?”
“I’m not… I don’t… What…” She’s gone pale, eyes wide, but makes one last desperate attempt to regain control. “What gives you the right to follow me? If you must know, that was Michael. He’s… a friend.” She tries for a shy smile, but her acting skills have deserted her. “I’m sure you know what I mean… a woman has needs.”
I let the storm come. When it subsides, I’m on my feet, the desk I’d been perched on is nothing but scrap, and Jeannie is on the floor, quaking in fear.
“All people have needs,” I tell her in a voice like scraping steel. “Food. Shelter. Maybe even love. But the greatest need of all is survival. And right now, truth is the only way you’re going to meet that need.”
Her eyes dart to the door, which might as well be a mile away for all the good it does her. I watch as she goes through the mental calculations, as she weighs what she’s seen me do against what Scarface and whoever he represents might do, and comes to the only rational conclusion.
She begins to talk.
A long time ago, someone said that misery is the fundamental truth of the human condition. I wouldn’t dream of arguing with the experts, but in my own experience, deception runs a close second. Even in the face of certain death, even as their hearts stutter to a stop, as oblivion creeps in like fog on kittens’ paws, people rage and rail against the truth.
Or maybe it’s just the kind of people I deal with on a daily basis.
Take Jeannie, for example. She knows the truth is her only chance to live, but she barely makes it two sentences into her confession when the first lie emerges, like a misshapen creature clawing its way out of the muck. The Melendez brothers have her son hostage and are forcing her to act on their behalf. This, despite the fact that her bed and breakfast only has two rooms, and one of them is hers and the other is mine. This, despite the fact that there was no sign of a boy when I arrived yesterday. This, despite my having chosen the place on a whim that the Melendez brothers couldn’t possibly have predicted.
The thing about fear is it turns us all into lousy liars.
Five rambling minutes later, the son has magically become a daughter, and I don’t think Jeannie even notices the inconsistency. I wait for her to run down, for the flood of words to slow to a trickle, and then I crouch in front of her. She looks up at me through dark lashes, eyes riveted to the yellow smiley-face that hides my features.
“And what did Scarface want you to do?” See, I don’t really care about the small lies. I don’t care about nonexistent children or Jeannie’s desperate attempts to recast herself as a sympathetic character.
I care about the job.
“He wanted me to tell you that the brothers have a base down by the bay.” She rattles off directions while I study her in silence. This part, at least, seems to be true, which means two things.
First, it’s obviously a trap.
And second, I know where I’m headed next.