Edition 13: Catch of the Day by J. R. Johnson
Ray is a glorified smuggler, who finds himself in an untenable situation that can only be solved with some outside intervention. Full of tricks and betrayal to make the waters murky, Ray’s plan requires all his wits and cunning to get out of the game. SY
The last drops of morning rain skittered past me, chased by sun shining brutal and hot against a backdrop of dark clouds. Gulls crowded the Walmart parking lot where I stopped to make the call, their white and grey feathers highlighting a magnificent post-storm rainbow. The colorful illusion faded as I watched, leaving only birds fighting for crumbs and screaming. Yanking at my thinning hair, I tried to think of options that didn’t end with me dead.
Nope, nothing. Except to turn my back on everything I knew, everything I was, and make a play for a real life. One with Keri.
“Trust me, buddy, everything will work out fine. Touchdown all the way. Just stick to the plan, Ray.”
I heard the smooth voice on the other end of my phone but didn’t buy it, not even close. It belonged to an Operative named Eli, the sort of lawman I’ve been actively avoiding most of my adult life. Not just because he wore a suit in summer and didn’t sweat, or even because he treated me like crap. I didn’t even mind him sprinkling football metaphors into every conversation. The problem was that as a Magic Artifact Enforcement Officer his kind had been doing their best to catch me and my fellow thieves for years. And now I was the one calling them.
History aside, I needed this deal to work, and at least I had the sense to use a burner phone. Still, I had a really bad feeling.
Sliding back behind the wheel of my truck, my fingers automatically reached out to brush the postcard taped to my dash. I kept it close, to remind me what I was working for.
Keri dug the card out of an old box when she moved in, and then couldn’t stop talking about this little beach town on the Gulf of Honduras. She tried to hide the longing in her eyes with a self-deprecating laugh. Younger than me, Keri had still lived a life worth escaping. Later I held her until she fell asleep before fishing the little cardboard rectangle from the trash, careful to smooth out the creases.
For two weeks I’d faced an impossible choice. My prick of a boss couldn’t keep his hands off my girlfriend and I had to get her away from him. Sure, I was sick of the game, tired of living outside the law, insert your preferred cliché here, but this was the last straw.
I couldn’t sit at the bar night after night and watch Joe leer at Keri, trying to hide my fury. I couldn’t kill him either; not wouldn’t, mind you, but couldn’t. I needed help, the kind of help I wasn’t going to find in our crew. Which explains my call to Eli.
I fingered the rabbit-shaped artifact in my pocket. A luck charm stolen on my first job at sixteen. Subtle enough to escape most sensors, it had still seen me through my descent into the gangs; I just hoped its magic still worked.
“Ok,” I said to the disembodied voice on the phone. “I’ll see you at Joe’s shop. Do exactly like I told you, and be discrete.” Eli made yeah-yeah noises but I wasn’t sure he really understood.
“I’m serious, man. I’m not blowing the whistle so you can get me killed.”
Thankfully Joe’s air conditioning was losing its battle with the humid afternoon. It gave me a legitimate reason to sweat. Unfortunately that was about the only thing I had going for me. I hadn’t slept in two days, my overalls stank of perspiration, and I was having trouble staying sharp.
I forced myself to focus, on the rattle of the aging compressor, on the dust motes sparkling in the air, on anything but the searing memory of Keri’s tearful confession. Not that she did anything wrong; as boss and Grade A son of a bitch, Joe got away with taking what he wanted.
Settling his once-muscular body on a stool, Joe hooked both thumbs over the lurid silver belt buckle he always wore. One forefinger absently caressed the buckle’s naked ladies as he smirked at me across the rancid air.
My knuckles ached from clenching the luck charm. No matter what he’d done it was suicide to go at Joe straight. I had a couple of minor artifacts but nothing that could come close to denting Joe’s armor, and he knew it. He made sure that we didn’t keep anything that might be a threat, skimmed the best off the top, and sent the rest up the chain as a franchise fee.
No, I needed to be clever for once, to plan. And I had. I watched and waited for the right moment and now it had come. Play my cards right and with a little more work Keri and I would be free of him.
The counter’s thick glass creaked as I leaned against it, trying to look relaxed. The eye of the dragon over my left wrist pulsed, keeping staccato time with my heart. Damn tattoo; couldn’t go anywhere without being marked as one of Joe’s crew. Maybe I could get it removed when this was over. I shifted my arm so Joe wouldn’t see me nervous.
“What do you think?” My voice came out even, calm. Good. Joe reached across the counter for his cancer stick, before stubbing it out in disgust. My package had leaked onto the cigarette’s filter.
Joe grabbed another smoke out of the crushed packet in his breast pocket and lit it, adding fresh stink to the shop’s already pungent atmosphere. I watched his fingers coil around the shaft, tried not to imagine those sweaty palms on Keri’s tobacco-colored skin. Brow furrowed, Joe’s face had the same pissed-off expression as the moth-eaten stag’s head mounted on the wall above us.
“I think it’s crap. Don’t tell me you expect to get paid for this.” He’d already taken the rest of my haul from last night’s job and now sat scowling, impatient. He was ready to be done with me. I looked at the meager stack of bills I’d received in return for the valuables I sold him and felt the same way about him.
“So you don’t want it?”
Joe gave a loud snort. “No, Raymond, I don’t want it. Why are you even asking?” I could feel my jaw tense as I tried not to let my hatred show.
“Because you said we had to come to you first, ‘no matter what’.” Our eyes hardened as we both remembered that conversation. “And then you used that binding artifact on the whole crew to make sure we obeyed.” It hadn’t exactly been a “best practices in organizational leadership” moment. An artifact like that was the equivalent of a strip search at the end of every shift, and spoke volumes about Joe’s level of trust.
“You gotta to be kidding me.” He shook his head. “Where’d you find it, the vic’s swimming pool?”
A hot spike of triumph lanced through my gut but I forced myself to stay still against the counter. Joe didn’t get to the top by being stupid, no matter what it might look like from the outside. He also had one of the best trackers in the business. If I just disappeared he might guess why, and then make it his mission to find me. This had to be more subtle than my usual operation.
“Yes, I’m sure. Don’t be a jackass, Ray. Get it out of here.”
The hard edge of my keys scraped my fingers as I pocketed the cash. Time to go.
The gator carcass trailed slime as I closed up the big burlap sack and wrestled it off the counter. Joe’s nose wrinkled in disgust; my cargo wasn’t exactly fresh.
The front doorbell jingled as a well-built man in a white linen suit came through the door. Eli. He wore a red and gold cloisonné pin on one lapel and a hat with a wide woven brim and a black grosgrain ribbon, fancy, to match the duds. I felt a flash of embarrassment at my slimy overalls.
“Go on, take off. I’ve got customers to think of, you know.”
I glanced around the dingy pawn shop, took in its dusty surfaces and general sense of disuse. I’d just messed up the only counter that saw any real business, a locked display case holding the artifacts Joe kept for his private clientele. Black velvet trays inside absorbed what little light penetrated the shop’s dingy windows. I shrugged as if I didn’t mind being ordered around but boss or not, Joe ought to know that it pays to treat a man with respect. It did make me feel better about what was coming.
“Meet still a go tonight?”
Joe nodded, eyes suspicious as they followed Eli around the shop. “We’ll do it at the bar.” He held court most nights at the pub down on Seventh. “Pick up Eddie on your way; his wife took the car and left him again.” Darlyne split with astonishing regularity, but I’d have felt worse for her husband if he weren’t such an ass. He bought into the crew with his old boss’s playbook and had been sucking up to Joe ever since. Eddie’s only saving grace was being the best artifact finder in three states.
Despite my annoyance at being treated like a taxi driver I just said, “Will do,” then hefted the heavy burlap bag onto one shoulder and sketched a wave over the other. Behind me Joe beat his fingernails along the glass counter as he moved toward Eli. The random sound turned into a complicated rhythm when he spotted the pin. Eli matched the rhythm and finished it, smiling wide. I sent up a silent prayer of thanks; at least he got that part right.
“Welcome, friend.” Joe could be expansive when he thought a big sale was in the offing. “Let me show you some of my special inventory.”
Bright sunlight hit me as I opened the door, making me wish I’d worn shades. Still, it didn’t do to cover your eyes when bargaining with Joe. Especially if you had something to hide.
Outside, oppressive heat blanketed the street. Joe’s Antiques & More sat at the end of a minor side road in a seedy part of town, just down the block from a bus stop layered in gum and graffiti. I lashed the sack tight in the bed of my truck while keeping one eye on my surroundings. A bum lying on a cracked wooden bench was the only thing moving, as he carefully urinated through the slats onto the sidewalk. The place was a dump, exactly the sort of cover we needed to avoid attention.
Between a low profile and a complicated system of pass codes and signals, Joe had stayed in business even as other artifact hunters dropped like flies. He kept the rest of us fed and clothed too. I slid into the truck as a shout echoed from the store behind me and knew I’d just helped undo all that.
Seconds later a black SUV charged around the corner. Six men jumped out and ran into the shop. The sliver I could see in my mirror only told part of the story, but it was enough. Shouts and a quick flurry of motion behind the dirty windows were followed by a ratcheting sound and finally, silence.
In my original plan I got in the truck and drove away, leaving Joe none the wiser as to the architect of his downfall and me safe from potential retaliation. When it came down to it, though, I couldn’t just leave. Wouldn’t. I wanted the panic and disbelief I’d see in Joe’s face to bank the fire he’d lit in me, so I’d be able to leave the anger behind along with this town.
Of course, it didn’t work that way.
The shop door exploded outward and Joe burst through, hands tied behind his back with the flat metal band of an Operative’s nullifiers. I felt a sting and looked down to see the last traces of the binding outline around my tattoo disappear, neutralized by the cuffs. It also explained the lack of fireworks; Joe must not have been able to deploy his arsenal before Eli shackled him.
I didn’t have a chance to gloat but Joe saw me all the same. His eyes found mine as he ran out into the street and I flinched; he wouldn’t forget. In spite of my wishing, his face held no panic, no despair, just the same trapped fury I’d felt when Keri explained why she shook every time I tried to touch her. Like me, Joe wasn’t going down without a fight. Still, bound and defanged with a squad of Operatives close behind, I didn’t see that he had much of a chance.
Until the bum rolled off the bench with a pocket-sized rune blade in his hand and cut Joe’s bonds. I stared at the ragged-looking man in shock, realizing that I wasn’t the only one keeping secrets. A lookout went a long way toward explaining why Joe always seemed to know who was coming to his shop, and hid his goods if they were the wrong sort of people. The silver-edged nullifier fluttered to the ground like so much tinsel in March, and just like that the game changed.
Everyone but Eli and Joe flung themselves back looking for cover. I scrambled across the truck’s bench seat and out the passenger door to hunch down behind one front wheel, hoping its protection would be enough.
My breath came quick with barely contained panic. I thought about Keri and the beach we wanted to run away to and prayed that Eli was as good as he bragged. Joe and Eli faced off in the street like old time gunfighters and I had to choke back a hysterical laugh. It wasn’t funny. My future depended on the outcome.
The blast lit up the street. I don’t know what kind of artifact Joe had but it was strong, putting out a concentrated blast of power. It had to be something he kept on him, a last-ditch weapon against just such an event. I heard a yell and peered around the bumper to see a beam of light leap from Joe’s belt, blazing toward Eli.
The buckle, of course. Me, I’d have felt queasy about having that much power next to my man parts.
The beam sparked like a laser in a darkened room, burning a swath through a stop sign as Joe adjusted himself. Then the beam settled square on Eli’s chest and turned into a maelstrom of swirling red and blue and gold. It looked like dragon fire and acted like napalm, consuming everything it touched.
The smell was peculiar too. It reminded me of the time my Uncle Sanborn burned down a shed full of stolen firecrackers, back when I was a kid. It would have been entertaining except for the family of raccoons trapped inside. I ran into the house and buried my head in pillows, but as the fire licked its way to the roof I could still hear them screaming.
This fire burned as hot, but it wasn’t enough. Magic or not, no portable artifact can maintain that kind of output for long. In just a few seconds the beam sputtered and died. Then I got to see it, Joe’s look when he saw Eli still standing there, suit perfectly pressed and not a mark on him. Complete disbelief, followed by a satisfying dose of desperation.
I’d heard about high-level Operatives and their personal shields but never seen one in action. Eli’s men put Joe face down on the sidewalk and cuffed him. I’ll admit it felt bone-deep good, seeing the bastard squirm in the dirt like that.
“Excuse me, sir, if you’ll just look right here, please.” Eli was walking my way with a forget-me artifact in one hand. I flinched back before I heard him whisper and realized it was just for show.
“Get out of here, and try not to draw any attention.” He looked at the chaos around us and shook his head. “I don’t fancy trying to explain your part here. There’s no way to keep this quiet now.”
So he hadn’t mentioned me to his boss, which meant that the official pardon he promised wasn’t coming, or the starting over money. I was free, sure, but still didn’t have what I needed for me and Keri to make a fresh start.
I didn’t trust Eli, but if my plan was going to work I needed to be elsewhere. I gave him a long look, then climbed into the truck.
I left Joe and Eli in my rearview, keeping my speed to a comfortable afternoon casual. No rush, no fuss, nothing to see here. I could almost feel Eli’s eyes following me as I drove, but that was probably my imagination. I hoped.
Six miles outside of town I pulled into the shade of a lay-by, parking under a towering pair of sweet gums back by the old railroad tracks. A tree by the picnic tables hid me from traffic, which was how I needed it.
Time to see if this subterfuge was worth the trouble.
I hopped up into the truck bed with an involuntary grunt. Must be getting old, I thought, not really meaning it. No one realizes they’re over the hill until they’re halfway down the other side. Like Joe.
I opened the sack with my pocketknife and took a look at my catch. Gators—scary alive and disgusting dead. Also about as normal as they come; no wonder Joe sent me packing. A quick slit from belly to throat and it was done.
Turning my nose away didn’t help the smell. Not pleasant, but if I had what I thought I did it meant a huge payday.
I’d snagged one of Keri’s dish gloves from home but realized too late that my hands were a lot bigger than hers.
“Idiot.” Some instinct kept my voice low despite the empty parking lot. Nothing for it then. I wrapped a chunk of burlap scrap around my hand as tight as I could and hoped its protection would be enough.
Two minutes and a truly vile lesson in reptilian anatomy later, I had it.
Eddie was a weasel but he owned the best artifact reference library I’d ever seen. He could also be counted on to pass out after a few hours of drinking and bitching about Darlyne. Last night had been no different.
I unfolded the page I’d torn from a copy of Artifacts Most Rare: An Incomplete Compendium and compared the description to the artifact I now held. Silver filigree shone in the afternoon light, writhing in a distinctive pattern around a dark green gem. The aura of power had tripped my suspicions during the heist, but now my stomach tightened as indicator after indicator matched up.
Thief Taker, it’s been called, and Soul Eater, and Singularity. The last because what went in didn’t come out. It only affected the self-aware, though, so at least it had some limits. That little caveat let me use the gator as a wrapper to pull the wool over Joe’s eyes. I fed it to the beast inside the baitfish. Now I just had to worry about Eli; he had no idea what I’d found and I wanted to keep it that way.
Our deal was that he got Joe and the shop, and I got a pardon with enough cash to walk away. It wasn’t a bad bargain but given the chance to cushion my exit, I took it. After Eli’s failure to live up to his end I was glad that I had. The trick now was to get away clean.
Last night’s B&E was a mansion out past the city line. I don’t know where Joe got the intel but it was supposed to be a filler job between artifact hunts, just your everyday cash and stash. Instead…The ornate setting dug into my fingers as I held it, careful not to touch the stone at its core. I shook my head.
“Joe didn’t know what he was turning down, did he?”
Dangerous, yes, but the artifact was also my ticket out from under. Independence, that’s what this was, and a future with just me and Keri. Eli had Joe and his inventory; I needed this for myself. My best option was to find a collector, someone from Joe’s private client list; rich or not, they were as shady as the rest of us and wouldn’t ask awkward questions.
I felt the first release of tension, pleasure at a job well done bringing a smile to my face. It only lasted a moment.
“I’m thinking about changing the terms of our agreement, Ray. Time to call an audible.”
The voice was Eli’s. God only knows how he got there so fast but one of the benefits of being an Operative is access to restricted artifacts. He hadn’t made a sound sneaking up on me either. My luck had run out. The only plus was that he had come alone.
My chest tightened as I felt my future with Keri slipping away. God dammit.
I kept my hand out of sight as I pivoted in the truck bed, off-balance and trying not to slip in gator guts.
“Too late, I’m afraid.” The Soul Eater pulsed once, and I swear the thing winked at me.
Eli stood at the end of my pickup, looking cool in his linen suit.
“Hardly,” he said. “You told me everything would be in the shop, but some items seem to be missing. Like the client list, and one particular artifact of value.” I kept my gaze steady as his eyes narrowed.
“Where is it, Ray?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Eli’s frown deepened. “Your pal Eddie says different.”
My gut clenched like I’d been punched. I guess the little weasel hadn’t been as unconscious as I thought.
Eli raised his right fist as the ring on his middle finger started to glow, carved carnelian taking on an evil red light. This close I could see the nimbus manifest, and from the look on Eli’s face it was no idle threat. He knew exactly what I had and wanted it, bad enough to hurt for. To kill for.
What to do?
The only thing I could, at least that’s how I figured it later. At the time I wasn’t thinking, not really. I let my shoulders sag to show him I wasn’t happy about the situation but would roll with it anyway.
Then I tossed him the rock.
No one, not a regular guy from the suburbs but especially not a football nut like Eli, could have kept from reaching for the thing. It didn’t hurt that the gem sparked in the sun as it flew, its silver setting describing a lazy arc in the air. An easy catch.
Eli’s muscle memory moved his hand into position without his say so even as his face twisted in horror at what he was about to do. What I’d done.
I could hardly believe it myself.
Two seconds, that’s what it took for the rock to eat the man, suit and all. No flash of light, no mumbo jumbo, just the slap of skin-on-stone contact and a transparent haze forming around Eli’s body. Then he was gone.
The artifact lay nestled in the dust between shards of gravel. I sat shaking as I came to terms with events, and with the grim flare of satisfaction I felt watching Eli disappear. Then I fished around in the back of the truck for more protection.
A thick chamois and a metal toolbox ought to do it, I figured, and it did. Just one more thing and I could escape.
I dug around in the truck again, this time for my phone.
“Eddie? Yeah, it’s Ray.” I listened to him talk, nerves making his voice high and tight, but kept the majority of my attention on the spot where Eli wasn’t. Eddie finally wound down enough to ask the question.
“No, Joe won’t be coming tonight, but we need to meet.” I tried to keep the satisfaction out of my voice, and maybe even succeeded.
“You know what I have, Eddie, and I know what you did.” I kept talking over his stuttered protests.
“You want the gang bad enough to flip on me, on Joe? Give me the list and it’s yours.”
I severed the connection and took a breath, imagining Keri on that beach we talked about running to once I got free. Then I thought of all the things I could do with a high-level artifact like the Thief Taker. I could feel the stone pulsing, calling me even through the layers of hide and metal. My dragon tattoo matched its beat as the stone sang of temptation, of vengeance. Of power. The glow in the heart of that soul-fired stone was enough to make a man pause. Stay, it urged, stay and rule.
By the time I came back to my senses I was surrounded by the smoky grey of night, fireflies winking bright against a darkening sky.
Jesus. This thing was dangerous.
Stiff and slow, I headed for the truck’s cab. Inside I could see Keri’s postcard stuck to the dashboard, take refuge in its deep blue ocean waves. My breath caught, then restarted as I brushed my fingers across the card’s face. The truck’s gearshift felt sluggish, reluctant, but I wrestled it into place and pointed the truck toward Keri, careful to dream only of white crystal sand on sweat-covered skin and the salty sweet taste of freedom.
J.R. Johnson is a social scientist, cook, archer, and unlicensed librarian. She finds speculative fiction appealing because she likes the idea that there is more to the world than meets the eye, and that the human race has a future. She now lives and writes in Ottawa, Ontario. For more on her latest projects visit jrjohnson.me.