The North Atlantic storm pounded the northern coast of France sending creatures fleeing into shelter wherever it might be found. Chateau Ravalet, a medieval stone ruins, played host to many feathered and furry refugees, a trio of ravens amongst its regulars.
Ink: “Should be good pickin’s along the hightide mark, this tempest don’t wash it all away.”
Tar: “I could stand me a meaty conger eel, maybe a foolish lobster iffen ‘e don’t mind the surf.”
Ink: “Bashed lobster is a favorite o’ mine.”
Tar: “You think I be sharin’ with you, you be standing too close to them tall rods that take on the sky sparks.”
Ink: “Well, don’t you be thinkin’ I’ll be parting with any of my eel, neither.”
The pair of ravens cawed raucously into each other’s faces. They roosted beneath an overhang that kept the worst of the weather from chilling their bones. The gusting winds found little entry to their covered lair.
Sable: “Silence your bickering and take a look down there. It’s that cur we kept seeing on the path that leads into town.”
The ravens’ soulless eyes spotted a dark-brown, huddled mass crawling up the muddy hillside. It slipped and scrambled, barely making headway. The three grim jurors marked its progress.
Ink: “It’s more matted fur than meat.”
Tar: “Not much of a meal. A snack, maybe.”
Ink: “Yeah, a late night snack. Tonight’s, if we’re lucky.”
Tar: “Depends on who gets there first.”
Ink: “You ain’t never beat me yet.”
Sable: “Quit. This one might prove more than meager vittles.”
Night enveloped the castle and the storm held strong. Where the dog had disappeared would have to wait. By dawn, grim and chilling, the ghostly remnants of the squall lifted slowly, the pall easing its grip from the land and its occupants.
Tar: “Some night. Could barely catch a wink for the noise.”
Ink: “Me thinks we’re not through it yet.”
Tar: “Ever the gleeful one, you.”
Ink: “And whose to talk, you and your grisly nightmares, got me thinking of food all night.”
Sable: “Enough. We have a break. Seek what you might. Return if you can.”
Tar: “Ooh, dismal portends now, is it?”
As answer, Sable, the larger, dour raven beat his vast wings and launched himself into the gray sky. “Leave the cur to me.”
The two smaller ravens flew off to scour the coast.
Sable knew of a rocky outcropping where lambs of the season were wont to tumble, shocked to panic at the noise of thunder. At the foot of the cliff he discovered a stark white body, twisted unnaturally as it struck the ragged granite. He landed, inspected the creature and plunged his beak into its eyes which proved mere nibbles. He tore at the thin skin of the lamb’s belly, spilling its offal. The liver he gobbled first. Then he gathered the entrails, loops upon loops, freeing them from the carcass. The coils bundled, he jumped free of the craggy edifice.
Sable sought out the dog. The first nook held nothing, the second the same. Skirting south around a collapsed wall, he found the wretched thing cowering, barely out of the rain that had returned.
He dropped the entrails at the dog’s feet.
Sable: “Eat. There is more.”
Dog: “Poisoned, no doubt.”
Sable: “Nay. But I do not offer without kind.”
Dog: “What is it you want?”
Sable: “An accord.”
Dog: “To what end?”
Sable: “Nothing too egregious.”
Dog: “Says you.”
Sable: “Then I’ll take those bits back then?”
The dog descended on the meal, snarling and scarfing the ropes of mutton tripe. In seconds the twisted knots had disappeared.
Dog: “If there truly is more, you have your accord.”
Sable returned thrice more, each time bringing larger sections of the dead lamb.
Sable: “May I approach?”
Dog: “You have fed me well.”
The big black raven hopped once, twice and then walked his awkward waddle to within whispering distance of the dog.
Sable: “As payment, if you would be so kind, there are two of my brothers I would see dispatched.”
The quarreling pair had eaten their fill of storm ravaged seafood and returned to find their roost empty. Circling the castle they spied the cur with their leader mere paces from the snout of the pathetic beast. They spiraled higher, watching the spectacle.
Dog: “You would have me eat your kin?”
Sable: “We are kin only by name.”
Dog: “What does raven taste like?”
Sable: “I wouldn’t…”
The pair of ravens, Ink and Tar, squawked wildly as they witnessed the dog snatch up their brother and bite him in half.
Ink: “He had a noble heart, that one.”
Tar: “For a rogue and a scavenger.”
Ink: “For a cad and a villain.”
Tar: “I’ll miss him.”
Ink: “No, you won’t.”
Tar: “You’re right, won’t miss him at all.”
“Yeah, we take bitcoin, but only for sales over a grand.”
“That’s not what bitcoin is about,” the customer explained. “‘Sposed to be about fractionalization, you know? Micro payments.”
“Sure, I get it. But just how do we convert bitcoin to real money? Tell me that. Right now, we have to wash it all through a bank, el banco, in El Salvador.” Jimmy paused and rubbed his fingers together. “And it ain’t cheap.”
The fellow, an ex-military type, with a pronounced right leg limp, stashed his phone. “Well, I don’t need a thousand dollars of herb.”
“It doesn’t go bad. Just keep it cool, dark and dry.”
The ex-mil smirked. “Tell that to my roommates. Sons-a-bitches won’t abide by any kind of privacy.”
Jimmy had sold to this fellow before. Although not a regular, they guy had always been polite and never quibbled on price. Ex-mil looked around the Four-Twenty, taking in the various paraphernalia the shop offered. Jimmy noticed a ragged scar running down the guy’s neck, behind his ear, disappearing into his dark-olive T-shirt, one with M-16 magazines stenciled on the sleeves.
“I live in a big three-story house in town. We’ve got an opening for a roomie, if you’re interested.”
“Yeah?” Ex-mil lifted the glass lid of #17 “Klamath Kush”, inhaled the heady odor that wafted out. “How much?”
“Oof, a bit steep.”
“It might come with a job.”
“What, cook, errand boy and gardener?”
“Hell no. Security. Here at the Four-Twenty.”
Ex-mil straightened. “Hmm, go on.”
“You prolly know, the Feds won’t let dispensaries have real bank accounts, not for the business cash flow.” Jimmy pointed to a reinforced door. “We gotta keep it all in cash. We’ve got a crack-proof safe in there.”
“Right. So, except for bitcoin sales more than a grand, you only take cash.”
“Hardly anyone pays in bitcoin.”
“So, you got like a couple-ten grand in there now?”
Jimmy’s eyes lifted to the fluorescent lights that hummed overhead.
“That’s why we need security. Well, more security.”
“Okay if I think about it, maybe come back in a bit?”
“Up to you. We’re not actively looking for another roommate, so…”
“Cool. I’ll just take a lid of #17, for now then.”
Jimmy rang it up and Ex-mil doled out a wad of cash. He weighed out an ounce of forest-green buds, bagged it, handed it over and looked at the clock on the wall. “Look at that. Must be a sign. It’s 4:20.”
Ex-mil turned from staring at the door with the safe. “Must be.” The fellow put up his hand, palm forward. “Thanks.”
Jimmy slapped it. “High five.”
Madame Allanya’s gasping mini-bus wheezed to a stop on the outskirts of the last green town in Nebraska. Emblazoned on the side, below the windows, her “Astounding Android Acrobats” in title script with “Death defying stunts, by death denying acrobats” as subtext, showed in a swooping wide smile beneath a hand painted trapeze act depicting a half-dozen robots twirling mid-air.
A boy on a homemade scooter, foggy-glass solar panels strapped to its side, hummed by, his neck craning to take in the spectacle. As Madame Allanya popped open the door, her paisley skirt and swirls of scarves flowed out and about and around her. The boy, his red cap backwards, set down his feet. “Them real ‘droids, or just a tri-D?”
Allanya glanced around, smoothed her clothing and straightened the purple scarf that held back her graying hair. “Three D? Not on your life, my young man.” She patted the side of the bus. “We are IRL daredevils, come to amaze you and your lovely town. We seek your town’s…”
“They don’t take much to strangers here.” Redcap spun his hat forward. “‘Specially strange ones.”
“… leader, your mayor or such.” Allanya had suspended her words, pause-button style. “If you could point us in the direction of your local authority.” She stretched her ruddy lips letting bone-white teeth glimmer through. From within the pocket in the driver’s door, she retrieved an array of colorful candy suckers, individually wrapped. “We come fully stocked from sweets from the South and elixirs from the North.”
Redhat gazed at the orange and green, blue and yellow spirals of sugar. He spun on his seat and pointed. “Major Lumbard, he’s the latest. Down that way, big brick building, gots the only trees ain’t dead yet.”
“My thanks, young man.” She lowered the sugary bouquet. “I’d reward you but, candy from strangers, and all that.”
“You ain’t that strange.”
“My sentiments exactly.” She selected a smaller version from her fan of treats. “For your excellent advice,” she offered, extending her hand.
Redhat kicked off, made to leave but looped around, dashed by Allanya, and snatched the sucker from her fingers like a ring from a hook at the carousel.
“We’ll see you tonight.” Allanya cupped her hands. “Tell your friends and family.”
“The batteries are all charged. The rigs are secured. The performing troupe is ready.”
Madame Allanya eyed “G” in her private dressing mirror tucked away near the front of the bus. “And the sneak droids?”
G shifted uneasily. “Our spy reports that there’s hardly anything worth stealing in this town.”
“You say that more and more often, G. Yet, we always come away with something of use, something to sell for barter.”
“The video dogbot recorded shows only desperate people. No powercells, no comms, nothing of value.”
“What about their gardens? We passed patches of green on the way in.” Allanya had traded her billowy clothing for a sleek, skin tight suit that revealed a taut body, trained alongside her acrobatic team. She ran her hands over smooth curves. The desolate lands continued to be ruled by men, she’d established.
“You mean to take their food?”
The troupe leader shook her head, her drawn-back hair, painted dark for the show, swung seductively side to side. “They’re hiding something in those sheds. Leave the food. Find out their secrets.”
“Good. Let’s give ’em an excellent show tonight. Tomorrow,” she patted G on his slick carapace, “we’ll find out just how this town continues to survive.”
“Those storm clouds are headed this way,” Durren said, pointing west across a wind churned surf. “We’re north of the tropics and it’s gonna get bloody-well cold.”
“Bloody-well? Since when did you become British?” Bessera hugged her knees, shreds of her floral blouse waving like tissues at a bon voyage.
“What’s your name again?”
Durren’s shoulders fell. “Sorry, I’m Durren, the guy who saved your life. And you are?”
Bessera squinted one eye at the brash young man who’d dragged her—choking sea water—across the lagoon, their life raft having finally succumbed to the patchwork holes punched by the coral reef. “You’re the man-of-the-hour aren’t you. I mean, you were the man-of-the-hour. The reason Sharon was even on that boat.”
“Ship, my ass. Fuckin’ thing isn’t shipping anymore, is it?”
“You’re Sharon’s friend, Bessie, or…”
“Bessera, asshole. Yeah, Sharon’s… Oh my god, Sharon.”
Durren knew not to approach the bristly woman in her grief, so he knelt quietly in the sand opposite her. Around them, the expanding gloom of the oncoming storm settled like a shroud.
After her shuddering slowed and her sobbing breaths transitioned to hiccups, a trait he had to admit he found endearing, he cleared his throat. “Bessera, I’m no golden child, I’m nobody really, now that we’re trapped here.”
“Trapped? Isn’t this some part of, I don’t know, Australia?”
“That would be the South Pacific. We’re up here in the north.”
“Fine. So where are all your cronies and when are they coming to save us?”
Rising to his bare feet he held out a hand. “Let’s find some shelter and then we can discuss our options.”
Bessera used her ragged blouse to dab her eyes, she brushed her straggly brown hair back from her face and put on the biggest smile she could muster. “Listen, Darren…”
She smiled even wider.
“Ha. Fair enough.” Durren smiled back, his eyes betraying the intrigue that now spread across his face.
“Listen, Durren. You’re going to keep me alive until your friends find us. You hear me?” She glanced at him up and down. Somehow his white shirt and khakis still looked clean and intact. She took his hand and he briskly pulled her to standing. “Easy there, fella.”
“I’ll do my b…”
“No, your best is not good enough.” She retained hold of his hand, gripping it in both of hers. “Something happened to me out there.” She tilted her head to the embroiled ocean. “The only reason I was on that boat, I mean ship, was because Sharon had heard of my accident and she knew I needed head-time.”
“You needn’t ex…”
“Shut up, Durren, sweetie. I’m not finished.” Bessera released his hand which fell awkwardly to his side. She raised both of her own closed fists to her chest. “Something happened out there. I’ve got this clarity now. A piece of the puzzle to a glaring gap in my brain, I’ve found it. I know what I have to do. So, you’re not gonna just do your best, Durren.”
He reached for her hands. His pleading hazel eyes and guileless look compelled her to offer them. “I’ll keep you alive, Bessera. I promise,” he said.
She squeezed his hands. “I know you will.” Her smile returned. “So, where’s this shelter you promised me?”
Arturo de Quevedo stood rooted to the spot while his fingers traced the name etched there on the plaque bolted to the side of the ancient stone building in the tiny city of Pradera, Colombia.
The name was his own.
He’d come seeking knowledge of his ancestry based on obscure references in a moldering tome he’d discovered in his grandfather’s attic. The notes had referenced Oro de Colombia, which, he’d been told as a child, had been a myth popularized for generations by this family. In the margins, scratched by what could only have been a quill pen, were the words ‘Valle de Cuaca’, and ‘Rio Bolo Azul’.
“The Valley of Weather and the River of Blue Cake?” he’d said aloud when he’d opened to a page marked by a faded feather of some colorful bird.
His guide, the fellow whom he’d contacted online and who’d picked him up at the international airport in Palmira, took a step back. “When I read your name, I thought you were joking.”
Arturo blinked away his astonishment. “Why would I joke about my name?”
Chami Osso pointed at the plaque. “That name is infamous here.”
“Don’t you mean ‘famous’?”
“Hmm, maybe I get it wrong.” Chami stowed Arturo’s bags in the rented jeep. “You ready to visit the mining village?”
Arturo climbed aboard and peered through the windshield at the surrounding mountains. “Looks dreary up there.”
“That’s why we have a four-wheeler.”
Chami sped off through the narrow streets of the city, along the connecting roads and to the base of the foothills where the road joined up with the river.
Arturo happened to open the glovebox where he found a loaded automatic pistol. He palmed it and presented it to Chami. “Expecting trouble?”
“FARC never went away here. Every week new kidnappings in Bogota or Cali—they happen. You never know.”
Eventually they pulled into a mountain village, Bolo Azul. There, a monument had been placed commemorating the sacrifice of the indigenous peoples in their forced contribution to the rule of the Spanish Conquistadors.
Chami motioned for Arturo to step out. The guide slipped his hand into the glove box and tucked the weapon into the back of his pants. He led Arturo up the cobbled street. “Your name, Arturo de Quevedo, is funny because I also have a famous name.”
“Don’t you mean infamous?” Arturo quipped.
“Maybe.” Chami waved his arm to take in the scene. “My name, ‘Osso’ comes from the natives who lived peacefully here in these mountains for centuries.”
The two men stood in the tiny village in the semi-rainforest of Cuaca Valley. The clouds seemed anxious, swirling and shifting in the narrow canyon. Around them telltale signs of mining, recent and ancient, showed in the land, the buildings and in the faces of the villagers.
“There is a story they tell.” Chami pressed both palms up against the clouds, up against the vision of the mountain. “The oro, the gold here, belonged to the gods. When the Spanish came, indeed when your ancestor arrived, it is said he stood right here, Senor Arturo de Quevedo, and announced that he was a god and that he deserved the gold.”
Arturo looked around to find a number of villagers: women with colorful woven hats, men with dark-skinned faces, creased like folded maps had gathered. He searched but found few children, the youngest being perhaps a teenager. “The Conquistadors certainly held themselves…”
“And on that same day, it is said,” Chami interrupted, “my ancestor, Chami Osso, the poor villager, stood up to Arturo de Quevedo, ‘No, the gold belongs to the mountain.’”
Two dozen round faces looked on expectantly. Even the birds seemed to have quit singing in anticipation.
Arturo could feel the heat of the locals bunched up close. Not so much their breath or their bodies, but the intensity of their stares. He widened his eyes toward Chami, and then?
“It is said, your ancestor drew a pistol and shot my ancestor in the belly.”