The Storm in Her Smile is a short story set in the same world as The Murder of Crows.
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. But that’s the thing about humans; 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. 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 keep their heads down and try not to attract the wrong sort of attention. 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 through the façade of the building I’m hiding inside, penetrating decrepit 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 undamaged. One of the leather saddle bags has come 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.
“Was it something I said, Carlos?” I shout above the chatter of machine guns even older than I am. I’ve been told I have a voice 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 Melendez 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 Carlos’ forces creeping out from their defensive positions, scuttling across the dirt road between us. The building I’m in is little more than two walls and a partial 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!” Doesn’t sound like Carlos has 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 ragged 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, 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 on his hands and feet like a crab.
Carlos is supposed to have a face to match that 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 to draw the eye; 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 battle, 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.
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