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The Shell of a Man
by Paula Wolf
Jana Anderson was roaming in the land of wonderful dreams when she heard the voice call. This dream was one of her favorites – she was on stage, singing and dancing the role of a princess. As the music ended, she curtseyed as best an eight-year old girl can, and skipped off stage amid wild applause. The voice, which sounded like her mother, came from off in the wings. She hadn’t seen her parents in weeks, not since “the wish incident,” and wanted to be with them again. Hoping to find her, she followed the voice into the back-stage darkness, following the sound and trusting luck not to fall over anything.
The next thing she knew, she was lying in bed in the bedroom of her cottage. It replaced what had been her parents’ house before the world went crazy. Half awake, with the voice still keening in her head, she looking groggily at the wind-up clock. It was 6:52 in the morning and still dark outside, but that didn’t stop the neighbor’s rooster from crowing. At least that’s what the noise sounded like.
Now fully awake, she was able to trace the noise. It was coming from an ornately carved, cubical wooden box about nine inches on a side that was sitting on her dresser. Or more precisely, from a bleached white skull inside.
The skull’s name was Sylvia Walker. She/it was the mortal remains of the sorceress who told her why the world changed and how to undo what had happened. She’d been roasted to death in a battle with Emperor Vengeance. Judging from her tone, she was not happy. And she wanted something. It was bad enough when her mom told her to do chores. Sylvia was worse – she demanded difficult, sometimes dangerous tasks no eight-year old girl should be asked to do. She wanted to say “NO!” but when Sylvia wanted something, there was no denying her. She’d keep making ear-splitting noises until Jana gave in.
Jana put Nigel, her little stuffed lion, down next to Peter, the pink and white bunny; they were her bedtime friends, who had somehow survived the change. She fumbled for the matches, lit a candle and walked to the dresser.
“How can you make that noise for so long without stopping?” she asked the box, scowling, with her hands on her hips.
“It’s easy when you don’t depend on lungs to talk,” Sylvia growled.
“Well, what do you want?”
“Jana, you have to get dressed and go to the book store on 14th street. You have to see Jin again. He has something to give you.” Sylvia commanded, enigmatically as always.
“Like what?” Jana fumed. Sometimes, getting information from inside the box was like pulling teeth.
“It’s the future, Jana. This time, he has a map and a name for you. And money for a trip to Houston.”
“How do you know he has that stuff? And how where is he going to get a name for me? How many people does he know in Houston? It’s a big place.”
“ Jin will have the name because I’m going to give it to him. I may not be able to do much, but I can still work a little magic when I have to. But I need to be near him to do it!”
“I don’t want to go to Houston!” Jana protested. “You and your seeing into the future. It’s dumb! And it gets me in trouble.”
“Jana,” this is important. Sylvia scolded. “Seeing a short way into the future is one of the few things I can do in my present condition. You have to get those things from him because you’ll need them to put the world back to normal. Now get going!”
Arguing was pointless, so Jana got some water from the well and gave herself a quick wash. Then she toweled herself off and dressed quickly, putting on underwear, leather boots and dress, and a bra. She was still not used to the bumps and curves of her new body, or the new bodily functions that came with it. Again, she questioned whether it was worth it to trade ten formative years of her life too look older and gain a few inches in height.
Cleaned and dressed, she slogged to the closet to get her motorcycle helmet.
“Jana, dear,” Sylvia said, “Please change into something else.”
“Now what?” Jana said, exasperated.
“You know perfectly well why. Jin likes you and he’s given you considerable help. You owe him some respect. Second, you’re going to meet someone at the Johnson Space Center in Houston; it is nothing like the medieval mud hole San Antonio has become. The ‘Warrior Princess’ look won’t play well with either of them.
“There is no need for histrionics, young lady! A pair of denim shorts and a tank top will do fine. And your back pack. You’re going to need that, too, because I’m coming with you.”
“You know perfectly well why, dear. I have some magic to do and I can’t do it from here! You will also need my help when you get to Houston.”
“Ooooooohh, all right! Can I at least wear my boots? I need somewhere to keep my dagger. Just in case…”
“Yes you may, dear.” Sylvia said, soothingly. “Now let’s get going. I don’t want to be too close on the time line. My visions of the future not exact…things can change if you’re not careful.”
Jana grabbed her orange knapsack from the closet and tossed in her purse and a few other things she might need on a short trip. Finally, she hefted Sylvia’s box, put it in and zipped it shut. She slung the bag over her shoulders, picked up her motorcycle helmet and bounced down the stairs and out the front door.
Her faithful red Kawasaki Ninja sat in the driveway, covered with dew and surrounded by early morning mist. She climbed aboard, put on her helmet and started the bike, letting it idle as she rolled quietly into the street. Then wound her way through the back streets of San Antonio. Her destination was “The Midnight Candle,” a small bookshop in the roughest neighborhood in town. The name was a play on the expression, “burning the midnight oil,” which meant reading late, and to the “occult items” they sold. Most of the stock was pagan/Druidic idols, candles and other witchcraft paraphernalia.
It was not the place you’d expect to find a successful businessman or distinguished elder Chinese gentleman like Jin. But it had its attractions for him. He’d lived in this strange new world and all his life and most of it in the America of the old one. Even so, he still clung to his family’s Chinese traditions, including herbal medicine. The Midnight Candle was a reliable source for them. It was also the place to find rare, unusual and obscure books, maps and papers of every kind. The slogan was, “If It’s Weird, We’ve Got It!”
Jana knew the place for similar reasons. It was her duty to find all the wishgems created the night “reality” changed, so the Real World could be restored. With reality relegated to the occult and the “unreal,” a shop like the Candle was her best bet for finding things others wanted hidden. Lately, that seemed to be everybody, especially San Antonio’s no-so-benevolent dictator, William Throckmorton, now known as “Emperor Vengeance.”
She’d met him once and knew what he was capable of. She’d only heard of him from his younger sister, who was her classmate in the “old world.” Even at thirteen, he was tempestuous, surly and demanding. And violent. Like Jana, he’d become an adult after reality did its flip-flop. In the process, he became the sorcerer he played in “Dungeons and Dragons, and was now extremely dangerous.
He was furious the night she and Sylvia explained the new “Wishworld” to him. Like a petulant thirteen-year-old who’d been dismissed by adults and beaten by bullies, he refused to give up his empire or his wishgem. It was an underdog’s dream he would not give up lightly. Like a spiteful adult, he killed anyone who displeased him. Instead of turning over his wishgem, a piece of perfectly smooth black obsidian as black as his soul, he went into a rage and roasted Sylvia to death, leaving only her charred skeleton. Jana was lucky to have escaped with her head. And her spirit. Only sheer luck and Vengeance’s fondness for imported things allowed her to escape on the Ninja motorcycle she stole on the way out of the castle.
He swore to destroy Jana and Sylvia and take all the wishgems for himself, thus gaining absolute power and control over the world. This she could allow. He became her enemy, hunting for them; Jana had been dodging his minions ever since, seeking wishgems when Sylvia sensed one.
Jana arrived at The Midnight Candle a few minutes before eight o’clock. She parked the Ninja, took off her helmet and waited.
“Are you sure Mr. Jin will be here?” she mumbled to herself.
“Yes.” Sylvia replied. “He will be here shortly. Leave him alone for a few minutes after he goes into the store. I have a few magical things to do before you talk to him.”
Jana leaned against the Ninja, watching through the windows as Odin-Thor Gundersson turned on the lights and prepared for business. He was an enormous man, six-foot-seven-inches tall, at least, or “two meters and a thumb print,” as he liked to say. For all his size, he was remarkably graceful and quite handsome, like a Viking in bib overalls. He had an odd mix of personalities: He could speak “Texan” with a San Antonio accent when he chose or revert to his native Norwegian when he wanted to baffle someone. He didn’t practice any occult religions (preferring the local Lutheran church) but he did study them assiduously to better serve his customers.
Odin explained his fascination with the occult by saying – quite honestly – that he was born in Hell. “It’s in the province of Nørd-Trøndelag, 20 miles east of Trondheim. Or about 230 miles north of Lillehammer, where the 2004Winter Olympics were held,” he explained. Jana said he was making it all up, so he took a puckish delight in showing her his birth certificate and passport, then pointing to Hell on the map of Norway.
“Are you sure we’re supposed to be here?” she whispered to the box in her knapsack.
“Yes, I’m sure. Please don’t question me like that.” Sylvia hissed. It was a sign she was getting annoyed and was about to go into another one of her funks. “You know perfectly well I can see the future.” Have I ever steered you wrong?
“No, you haven’t…”
“Okay, then. Stop arguing and go inside! Jin will be along any minute and you have to be inside when he comes. Now go!” Jana looked furtively around as she walked cautiously across the empty street, her pack hanging from one shoulder and her helmet dangling from the other hand.
“God dag Jana. Vil du hente et eller annet?” Odin said as she slowly opened the door, trying and failing to be inconspicuous.
“Excuse me, Mr. Gundersson?”
“No, you please excuse me! Good Day, Jana. Sometimes I think I am in Norway when I see you. Do you come here for something?”
“It’s okay, Mr. Gundersson. Someone told me to meet Mr. Jin here.” She said, as truthfully as she could.
“Your friend is the skull in the box?” he asked.
“Oh good grief, Jana! Did you tell everybody about me?” Sylvia wailed.
“No she did not,” Odin began, cheerfully. “I sold Jin the box. Very ornate, sixteenth century Transylvanian black oak overlaid with silver. I am told it used to hold a traveling priest’s communion kit, it works just as well to hold you. I wondered what he did with it. Only later has he told me why he bought it.”
“Oh?” Sylvia asked, acidly.
“I sell occult supplies, dear lady. I know the size of things and that box just fit a skull.” She didn’t say anything after that, but her silence left no doubt she was peeved.
“So…you haven’t seen Mr. Jin, lately?” Jana asked, tentatively, trying not to worsen the tension.
“Not yet today,” Odin said. “But I expect him. He comes to look at an old map I have. It is hand drawn; I think it is Texas, before the war with Mexico. If it is authentic, he will buy. Look around if you want to wait. Maybe you find something you like.”
“Okay, thanks.” She said, wandering toward the “spiritual books” section. She pulled one that caught her eye from the shelf and started looking through it. The title was “BERDACHE: The story of Winkte, Nadle, transsexuals and other ‘Two Spirited’ people in Native American mythology.” Jana wasn’t sure what a “beard ache” was, but it sounded painful. She sincerely hoped Odin didn’t come down with it because, with his lion-like mane facial hair, it could be fatal.
A few minutes later, the bell on the door chimed and Jin walked in, holding a dog-eared black leather portfolio under one arm. He was a pleasant, avuncular late-middle-aged Chinese gentleman who’d made his fortune trading silver and minting coins for Vengeance. As always, he was dressed impeccably in a tailored suit and radiated an aura of genteel respectability.
“God dag, Mr. Jin!” Odin greeted him. “I have for you the map you wished.”
“Ah, good,” Jin said, pleasantly. “If it’s all you say it is, it will be a real find. Let us have a look…” he said, unzipping the portfolio and taking a large magnifying glass from it. As he mumbled things about the paper and the inscriptions, Jana quietly walked out from behind a bookshelf and approached the counter.
Jana stifled a smile as she saw a small piece of tan paper with a gold border materialize on the portfolio, then fall to the floor. She could almost feel Sylvia smiling at the prank, but dared not say anything.
Jin bent down to pick it up. “That is most curious. Where did it come from, I wonder?”
“Hi Mr. Jin. It came from your folder thing, sir.” Jana said, reveling in the secret half of the truth.
“I see. So it did,” Mr. Jin said, looking at it. “But don’t remember writing it, though it is in my hand.”
“What does it say?” Odin interjected. He, too, was curious about the mysterious note.
“It says, ‘Richard Janus, Sheila’s Diner, NASA Road 1, Houston, 11:30.’ Why, I know this place!” Mr. Jin exclaimed. “It’s right next to the Johnson Space Center’s main parking lot. I wonder why Sylvia wants you to go there?”
“I don’t know, sir.” Jana admitted. “She just said it was ‘important,’ something about a wishgem.”
“Ah, I see. In that case, I must help you. I wonder why she did not tell me about this?”
“Because I can’t see that far into the future! I was lucky to see this meeting.” Sylvia growled irritably and went silent.
“I am sorry, dear lady,” Jin said, in the general direction of the box. Then he turned to Jana. “I will write directions and draw you map, though you hardly need it. The place is easy to find. For expenses, I give you two hundred ‘billys,’ coin of the realm of the Vengeance Empire. I make them myself,” he said, as he counted out several large, heavy silver coins into her palm. “It’s funny, William Throckmorton has his face on the coins to glorify himself and we call them by the diminutive name, ‘billy’.”
“That is because nobody wants to get bills.” Odin joked.
“What’s that, sir?” Jana asked, pointing to a photograph of a small piece of carved jade.
“That is a statue a picture of a statuette I’ve heard someone has. Maybe it is important; I do not know. I do not collect such things, but keep it because it reminds me of my wife,” Jin explained. If you find her, tell her I love her very much, and tell her how to find me. Tell me where she is. I want so much to be with her again.”
“I will, Mr. Jin, I promise.” It was modest request from a man who’d been so generous; one she could not refuse.
“Thank you, Jana. I wish you success.” Mr. Jin said, bowing. “You be careful. Sheila’s is sometimes the hangout of bad people. It could be dangerous, especially for someone like you.”
““Well, time’s a-wasting.” Jana said, looking at the clock. “I’d better get going. And thanks again, Mr. Jin!” With a final wave, she trotted out the door, mounted the Ninja and headed for Interstate 10, the main road between San Antonio and Houston.
According to Jin’s estimate, the trip to Houston should have taken about two-and-a-half or three hours, once they were free of San Antonio. On the interstate, Jana flew along considerably faster, knifing through traffic, her golden hair streaming out behind her yellow helmet like the tail of a comet. Somewhere between Schulenburg and Columbus, she looked at the gas gage and saw it was almost empty.
“Uh oh…” she mumbled.
“Now what?” Sylvia asked.
“We’re almost out of gas. Could you please…” she said, letting her voice trail off without finishing the request.
“Oh, alright.” Sylvia groaned and mumbled an incantation. There was a brief, flash, a bit of golden dust on the filler cap, and the gas gage read “full” again.
“Thanks, Sylvia!” Jana said with appreciation.
“You know, one of these days, you’ve got to learn to do this magic for yourself. I may not always be there when you need it.”
The rest of the trip was uneventful. I-10 to the Gulf Freeway, then south to route 528, otherwise known as NASA Road 1.
She was waiting at a stop light two blocks from the on-ramp when two college age men in a beat-up Camaro pulled up beside her. “Hey chica!” one of them shouted, obviously drunk, though it was still early morning. “What you got that’ ‘ere murder-cycle fer? Why don’t you come jump on my cock, I’ll give ya th’ ride o’ yer life!” She glared at the two of them through her face shield, which set both men laughing the way drunks do.
When the light changed, she revved the Ninja a bit faster than needed and engaged the clutch perhaps faster than necessary. The rear tire spun crazily, leaving a cloud of acrid smoke in her wake as she took off. She was doing 110 mph by the time she to the next intersection.
“Now that was unnecessary!” Sylvia scolded. One of the quirks of her condition was that she could hear and make herself heard no matter how loud the surroundings were.
“Those boys were yucky!” Jana exclaimed. “They said bad, dirty things. I don’t want to be near them.”
Sylvia made a sound like a sigh. “Men just are that way, dear. In case you hadn’t noticed, you’re not eight years old, anymore. When they look at you, they don’t see a little girl, they see an attractive young woman.
“Boys are still yucky!” Jana shot back.
“Well, honey, if you ever want to trade places, I’m all for it.” Sylvia said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “I would love to be 18 again, with a whole body. How would you like to be a soul trapped in a skull in a box?”
“So stop complaining!”
Two-and-a-half miles east of the intersection, she came to a low building with a sign saying “Sheila’s Diner.” It didn’t look particularly promising, but things in Wishworld were like that – never what they seemed. Ordinary places led to extraordinary adventures. Or dangerous ones. With a shrug, she pulled into the parking lot, shut off the Ninja and walked inside.
From the outside, the diner didn’t look like much. Inside, the sun showed weakly through the windows, while old florescent lamps hummed and cast their gray-purple light on the counter. It was dreary, dark…and depressing, if your mind was headed that way. It may have been a haven for regulars who were familiar with it and comfortable here, but it wasn’t all that inviting to a stranger.
When her eyes adjusted to the light, Jana looked around. There were only two people in the dining area. One was the waitress behind the counter; the other was a longhaired man of indeterminate age, sitting in a booth in the corner.
“That man in the corner. That’s him! That’s the wishwielder!” Sylvia hissed in her ear. “I’d bet everything I have on it.”
“If you lose, what’s he going to do with a box?”
“Oh, hush!” Sylvia snarled and went into another sulk. It was the waitress who broke the tense silence.
“Well, hi, there, honey! My name is Toni. How may I help you?” she said, in a slow, lilting voice with that exaggerated every expression. It was a warm, folksy manner that was soothing when used by some southern women of a certain age and sounded insincere or mocking coming from anyone else. She was a tall woman who looked like something out of the 1940s. Her hair style and her outfit – a tiara-like paper hat, beige dress with brown collar and piping, and small white apron – looked like pictures she’d seen of waitresses in World War Two. “Ah don’t think ah’ve seen you ‘round here b’fore, dear. You just passin’ through?”
“Sort of, ma’am,” Jana said as politely as she could. “I’m…uh…I’m sort of looking for someone. Who’s that man over there?” she asked, pointing to the man in the corner, the only other person in the room.
“Why, that’s Mister Janus,” the waitress said. “He’s such a dear man; works at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center next door.” she gushed. “Nice, polite, quiet. But he seems so sad.”
“Well, honey, I think he’s lonely. He always comes here alone and sits by himself, even on the busiest days; sits there by himself, doing his crossword puzzles. Nobody ever talks to him, and he’s too shy to talk to anybody. I feel kinda sorry for him.”
“Oh.” Jana said, trying to think of her next move. He was a stranger, so normally she would never approach him. But Sylvia said he was important, so she had to make contact, some how. “I think I’ll go talk to him and see what happens.” She said, at last.
“Oh bless you, child. He might like the company, particularly someone as lovely as you.” the waitress said. “Call me if you need anything. I’ll be waiting right here for you.”
Jana took a deep breath and quietly started forward, her knapsack hanging from her right shoulder and holding her helmet by the chinstrap with her left hand. Walking up to him went against everything her parents taught her about talking to strangers. She knew nothing about this man– he could be a pervert, a murderer or a nice man who didn’t have any friends. Whatever the risk, Sylvia said he was important and her word was good enough.
“Hello, sir.” She said, awkwardly trying to strike up a conversation. “Would you mind if I join you?”
“You may if you wish,” he replied. “There are lots of empty seats here and you’re free to take any of them. I’m curious why you’d want to sit here.”
“I’m, uh, looking for conversation. I don’t care for eating alone” she lied. “I’m Jana, Jana Anderson, by the way,” she added, offering him a small hand.
“Richard Janus,” he replied, shaking her hand. “Have a seat. So, what’s on your mind?”
“All sorts of stuff, sir.”
“Tell me about yourself, then,” Janus began. “That’s as good a place to start as any.”
“May I ask a question, sir?” Jana said, trying to deflect the conversation away from disembodied voices, magic and skulls in boxes.
“Sure. What is it?”
“Well, lot of things. First, what kind of name is ‘Janus,’ anyway? It sounds kinda ‘foreign,’ like Polish or something.”
“Janus? It’s Latin. ‘Janus’ was the Roman god who had two faces. Most people assume that means he was dishonest or deceitful, but that’s not true. Janus had one face looking forward and the other looking behind. The month of ‘January’ is named after him because that’s the month that looks back at the old year and forward to the new one.” Janus explained.
“Psst! Jana, get on with it! Something’s about to happen. I’m not sure what, but it’s gonna be big and it’s gonna be bad!” Sylvia whispered in her ear.
“All right! Just keep your pants on, will ya!”
“Keep them on what? No legs…or anything else, remember?” Sylvia chided.
“What the heck was that?” Janus said with a start. He wasn’t used to voices coming out of nowhere, and least of all from an orange knapsack.
“I’ll be honest, Mister Janus It’s hard to explain. You see, few weeks ago when something weird happened.” She began.
“Weird like ‘funny’ or weird like ‘witchcraft’?” he interrupted.
“Both, sir. At the time, I was eight years old, not like I am now. And I made a wish that everyone in the restaurant could have their wishes granted. All of a sudden, it happened! Everyone did get their wishes, in one way or another. And all forty-two of them are carrying what are called “wishgems” – they’re jewels or other stones that represent their wish and hold the magic in ‘em. That’s when the old world turned into what I call ‘Wishworld.’ It was created and everything went all strange.”
“How do you mean?” Janus asked. He did have a feeling the world was out of order, but he wasn’t sure why. Maybe, he told himself, this girl could explain it.
“Most people don’t even know it happened. They just live life like nothing’s wrong, even though a kid named William Throckmorton is now Emperor of San Antonio and stuff. Some people are older, some are younger and everything’s all messed-up. Now, since it was my wish that started it, I have to get everyone’s wishgems back, so a sorceress can do a magic spell over ‘em to make the world right again. That’s what Sylvia tells me.”
“Who’s this ‘Sylvia’ and how does this involve me?” Janus asked. Either this petite blonde was crazy or she was on to something, he wasn’t sure, yet.
“Sylvia’s the waitress at the restaurant. After the change, she got turned into a sorceress. She’s the one who figured it all out and told me what happened.”
“I’d like to meet this woman, whoever she is.”
“Okay, but I warn you, this is really bizarre…”
“Miss Jana,” Janus said, “I’ve had a lot of strange and confusing things happen in my life. Whatever you have to offer wouldn’t phase me much.” Reluctantly, Jana pulled the wooden box from her knapsack, set it on the table and opened it.
“That’s Sylvia.” She said, gesturing to the bleached white skull inside. “She lost her body when Emperor Vengeance – that’s what William Throckmorton calls himself now – tried to kill me and hit her instead.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Sylvia said, matter-of-factly. Janus stared in horror. This was even more bizarre than he thought.
“Yup, that’s ‘different,’ alright.” he admitted. “But it’s just one of a number of things that don’t make sense anymore. So what’s gong on here, anyway? How did you find me, and why are you here? What does all this – what did you call it, ‘wishworld?’— stuff have to do with me?”
“It’s because you were in the restaurant when Jana made her wish. For some reason, that granted everyone else’s wish, as well.” Sylvia explained. “You have a wish you’re hiding, which means you have a wishgem and we need it back. As for how we found you, I can see an hour or so in the future. I saw Jana meet a friend of ours in an occult goods shop and saw your name on a piece of paper.”
“This is getting stranger every second,” Janus said, taking a deep breath.
“Now what’s the other question?”
“What did you wish for that night?” Jana asked, earnestly.
“Same thing I’ve been wishing for years.” Janus said, reluctantly. “I just want to know who I am and what I’m supposed to be?”
“I don’t get it.” Jana said, giving him a perplexed look.
“Okay, here’s how it is.” Janus began. “I’ve never really lived my own life. Since I was young, my father told me who I was, what I was supposed to do. He pushed me into sports and other ‘manly’ things, made me study mathematics and later sent me to engineering school, even though I didn’t like any of it. That was his wish, not mine. My life has never been my own. Heck, even my name is a hand-me-down; My full name is Richard Allan Janus, Junior. Now do you see?”
“Sort of. What do you really want to be?”
“I’m embarrassed to say…”
“Aw go on,” Jana pleaded. “It might be important.”
“Okay, since you insist.” Janus replied, “Besides, I think I can trust you. First, I wanted to be a writer, not an engineer. That’s what my dad’s idea. I do okay with it, but my real forte is words. I love writing and telling stories. I even play with crossword puzzles, though the ones in the Chronicle aren’t all that challenging. I can knock them off in ten or fifteen minutes without even trying.”
This surprised Jana, who’d never been able to finish a crossword, no matter how long she worked on it. “What’s the other secret?” she asked, feeling a little too bold.
Janus gestured her closer and whispered, “Just between you, me and your friend in the box, I’ve always felt I was a woman. Inside, you understand. I don’t know why, but I’ve never felt comfortable as a man. It just doesn’t fit. I could never say anything to anyone, least of all, my dad. He’d never have understood. I’ve gone through life sort of wearing a mask; a false ‘male’ shell for the world to see, while the ‘real me’ is locked inside. Please don’t tell anyone about this,” he begged, “It would run me!”
Their attention was drawn to the window by a flash, a small popping noise and a glimpse of a dark shape speeding past the window.
“What was that?” Jana asked.
“A crow, probably,” Janus replied, calmly. There are a bunch of ‘em around here. Sometimes they fly into windows, thinking they can get at what’s inside.”
Seconds later, the door blew open. Toni, the waitress, screamed and dove behind the counter as a hooded figure dressed in black wafted toward them. Jana swallowed hard. Even with the hood up and shadowing his face, she recognized him – Wilbur Junkins, one time friend of Vengeance and now a zombie. He was ugly enough in life, gaunt and wraithlike; now he was hideous. Even that didn’t bother her as much as what he carried. It looked like a dull black Colt .45 revolver, the “six shooter” so familiar in cowboy movies. But this was not a gun – it was evil incarnate and it was called “Psykovor.”
“Psykovor” – the name meant “Mind Eater,” but it was worse than that. It had the evil power to control the weak-minded and make them do its bidding. And it thrived on death, absorbing the souls of its victims. Jana knew it had killed at least three people so far: its creator, Harold Hempstead and his brother, Jake, who first recognized its power. She’d seen it once before and just barely escaped. Since then, it had obviously killed Wilton Junkins. Judging by the black robe, Psykovor was now working for Vengeance. Or maybe it was the other way around, there was no telling, with that pair.
Junkins shuffled slowly toward them. When he was ten feet away, he raised Psykovor and pointed it toward them. “You! I come for your soul!” Junkins announced in an unearthly voice. “And what is this? The Anderson girl, too? This is most fortunate; Psykovor will dine well. Vengeance will be most pleased.”
Jana struck as she watched the zombie slowly draw back the hammer. Acting on instinct, she drew the dagger from her boot top and threw it. The blade pierced Junkins’s hand between the third and fourth fingers and passed through the wrist, the point of the blade coming out of the inner side of his forearm. This would have crippled a normal human, but not a zombie. He calmly pulled it back out, dropped it on the floor, took aim and fired. She might have been killed if Richard Janus had not jumped between them.
Janus took the blast. The bullet struck him in the chest, shattering him like a coffee mug hitting the floor. All that remained was the wispy spirit of Janus’s soul. The gun’s muzzle sucked it in like smoke in reverse.
The room was deathly quiet for a moment. Then Junkins bent over, sifted through the debris and picked up a small jewel that looked like a diamond. He pressed it against Psykovor’s grip, where it hissed and smoked for a few seconds. When he removed his thumb, Jana saw the jewel had melted into it like a hot piece of metal into plastic and was now part of the grip.
“Disappointing.” Junkins hissed. “That was too easy. It had a bland soul, and not much to it, as if something was missing. The wishgem was no better, but a trophy is a trophy, none the less.” Junkins raised Psykovor again, this time aiming at Jana. “Maybe the girl will be more fulfilling…”
“No, it will not.” Said another, feminine voice. They watched as a green mist rose from Richard Janus’s shattered remains. It coalesced into an emerald green woman, radiating great strength and power. She now stood defiantly between Psykovor and its target.
“Out of my way!” Junkins demanded, imperiously. “I shall deal with you, whatever you are, presently, but now I want the other!”
“And I said you will not have her!” the green woman declared, standing her ground.
“As you wish…” the zombie hissed. It fired again, to no effect. Her green body absorbed the bullet, quivered for a moment like jello, then dropped it on the floor. A light started glowing inside her chest, dimly at first, then growing in intensity until it shone like the sun. Junkins shrieked in agony.
“What kind of magic is this?” he howled. I have Psykovor! I cannot be defeated! I will claim your soul!” He fired again with the same result: the attack failed and the zombie howled again in pain. “Why can I not kill you?” he raged.
“Because you already have.” The green woman said, calmly. “Look around; my remains are all over the floor and you’ve taken my spirit. You said it was ‘bland.’ I am already dead so there’s nothing left to kill; and since “you only live – and die – once,” I am immune to your attacks.”
“LIES! I shall have you!” Junkins screamed, aiming for yet another shot. Before he could fire, a golden rope of energy wound its way around the zombie like a python climbing a tree. It tied his legs and bound his arms to his sides, unable to aim Psykovor. Jana heard a magical chant, then saw the zombie disappear in a flash of light and a cloud of gold dust. She turned to see Sylvia in spectral form, standing between herself and the mysterious green woman.
“Well.” She said, gasping from the effor. “That should take care of that for awhile. They’ve gone back to Vengeance’s inner chamber and won’t get loose until he and Psykovor account for their failure. I’m exhausted. Now I must rest and recharge my energy.” Sylvia said and vanished back into her box.
“Sylvia, but what just happened here?” Jana said, then turning to the emerald figure, asked, “And, who are you? I’m confused.”
“I am Renée Phoenix.” The green woman said with confidence. “I’m the ‘inner person’ Richard Janus kept hidden all these years. What you saw destroyed was not the real me. It was a shell made up of his father’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. The spirit the gun stole was the spirit of those dreams; the sprit of a false front, a mask. The wishgem was false, too. It’s a pastiche – cut glass representing a false character. My real one is something quite different and much more valuable.”
“So…how could you be two people at once…?”
Sylvia smiled. “Think back, young one. You already know the answer, you just haven’t put the clues together. Richard Janus said he felt there was someone else inside. She is the true spirit inside a shell that had its own, weaker one.” Jana blinked in confusion.
“Then there was the book you were looking at in The Midnight Candle,” Sylvia continued. “The word you read was not ‘beard ache,’ but ‘Berdache,’ a Native American word for a person with ‘two-spirits’— one male, one female. They are quite rare even today, and blessed with great magical power. The Native Americans held them in high esteem as shamen and sages because they were able to see things from both the male and female perspective.”
“But if they’re two spirits in the same body, why didn’t Renée get killed, too?”
“Because Psykovor did what so many people do,” Phoenix replied. “He saw the outside – the shell – and assumed that was all there was to me. He killed the external me and took my ‘male’ spirit, not knowing it was only part of the whole. Richard and Renée were two aspects of the same person. Thus, it took all it could and left me. Since I was already ‘dead,’ its magic can no longer harm me or steal the spirit you see before you.”
When the zombie’s disappeared, Toni slowly emerged from behind the counter. First, she cautiously peered over the counter to see if the danger was gone, then stood up again. “Well!” she said, “you don’t see that every day, now do you? If you’ll excuse me, I’d better get the broom and dustpan to clean up the mess. Then y’all will have to tell me what to do with the pieces. I have no idea what to tell the coroner when he gets here.”
“You don’t have to tell him anything.” Phoenix said. “What you’re cleaning up is just broken pottery. It’s no more than the shell of an egg left after the chick hatches. You wouldn’t call the veterinarian to treat an egg shell, would you?”
“You’ve got a point.” Toni said as she swept. Phoenix sighed as she sat down again.
“It’s time to do what you came for, told Jana. You’re here to collect my wishgem, so I should give it to you.” She put her hand to her chest and winced with pain as she slowly withdrew the stone. It floated for a moment in a sphere of golden light, a large, perfect emerald. It settled into her hand as the sphere faded away. When it was gone, she gently presented the stone to Jana.
“Here you are. My wish, delivered. May you soon reach your goal and restore the world.” As Jana slipped the emerald into her amulet bag, Phoenix’s appearance began to change. Her translucent green drained away, replaced by a flesh and blood body that resembled Richard Janus, but was not quite identical. “I’d like to have had that wish come true,” she sighed, “but this is for the greater good…”
“Aw, now don’t be talkin’ like that, honey.” Toni said. “You’ve still got your dream of being a woman, haven’t you? And why, look at you, you’re a lot more ‘girlish’ than you were when you came in this morning. On top of that, you’re outta your shell, now. You know who you are, and that’s most of the solution. There’s a lot of people who can’t say that for themselves. For the rest, there’s doctors can change you ‘round. As my mama used to tell me, ‘there’s some wishes that need help commin’ true an’ others you can make come true all by yourself. I think yours is one of those. You have the courage to make it happen if you want it bad enough!”
“I guess you and your mama are right,” Phoenix said. “I’ll never be completely ‘normal,’ but at least I’m no longer a ‘Berdache.” I’m down to one spirit, like everyone else.”
“That’s not so, either.” Sylvia said, comforting her. “Your shell has been destroyed and the ghost of your father’s aspirations is gone, but remember this – Richard and Renée are two aspects of the same person. A bit of him still survives and will always be a part of you, no matter how much you’ve changed. You can still call on him when you need strength and wisdom. You’re still a Berdache and you still have all the power that let you resist Psykovor, so use it wisely and enjoy it.”
“I will,” Phoenix said. “Thank you for everything you’ve done.”
“And thank you for saving my life!” Jana exclaimed.
“Come, young one,” Sylvia yawned. “We have a long trip home and many more adventures ahead. And I need a long rest.”