Copyright © 2017 by David Holiday
All rights reserved.
1. Music: a polyphonic composition based upon one, two, or more themes, which are enunciated by several voices or parts in turn, subjected to contrapuntal treatment, and gradually built up into a complex form having somewhat distinct divisions or stages of development and a marked climax at the end.
2. Psychiatry: a period during which a person suffers from loss of memory, often begins a new life, and, upon recovery, remembers nothing of the amnesic phase.
fugue. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. .
The air in the New Chicago Underground, a metropolis in its own right located beneath the more cosmopolitan city proper, was thick and stale.
Aisha Ali had been up and down the same street three times in search of 4761 Root Avenue without success. She had it on good authority that her employer, a private detective named Thomas Knapp who literally hadn’t slept since he was a child, was there submerging his senses in low-grade scotch and she needed to find him now.
It was early, not yet three in the afternoon, so while there was traffic on the streets, the sidewalks were empty. An autocab raced by blasting Aisha with an explosion of color as light from the garish advertisement atop the self-driven cab reflected off a pool of dirty water next to the curb. The sound of the cab passing reverberated against the tiled walls and cement ceiling as she watched it disappear from sight with eyes large and almond-shaped and the color of a strong cup of black tea.
Frustrated, she leaned against the iron railing separating the sidewalk from the street and thought hard on what do do next. The rail felt cool and damp beneath her bare hands. The underground, like the floor of a public bathroom, always seemed wet and unsanitary. She loathed coming down here, but if she didn’t find her employer and get him to the courthouse by five, both of them would be out a lot of money; money she desperately needed for rent and food.
Across the street was a deli with a faded blue and white sign. A rusted iron gate was extended across the breadth of the darkened storefront and a centaur, rough looking, loitered in front. His arms were folded across his tattooed chest and an exotic cigarette dangled from his lips, the smoke from which rose in tendrils like tiny spirits leaving our world for the next.
Left with no other choice but to ask directions, Aisha walked to the corner and ascended the steps leading up the pedestrian bridge. On the way down the other side she came upon a beggar who, more out of habit than purpose, extended his hand toward her. As she walked smartly by she reached into her front pocket and tossed a half into his lap. He murmured something unintelligible, and Aisha, compassionate enough to give yet streetwise enough not to stop, did not break her stride. Her booted footfalls striking the metal plate and the foot of the stairs caught the attention of the stern-looking centaur whose steely gaze followed her as she approached.
“Oyhoy!” she began through a smile, “you wouldn’t happen to know where 4761 Root avenue is, do you?”
The centaur said nothing.
“This is Root avenue, yes?” Aisha persisted, knowing full well it was.
Again the centaur said nothing.
Through the wisps of smoke rising from the cigarette in the centaur’s mouth Aisha noticed he was missing part of his right ear. She wondered if he received the wound before or after he’d re-sequenced his genes into that of a centaur. She’d heard that some people, especially those who become Dhampirs, like to keep the marks of old wounds when they change forms as a way of keeping a tangible link to their previous self.
Suddenly, the centaur erupted with heartfelt laughter. Aisha jumped a little.
“What’s funny?” she demanded.
“What would a pious woman such as yourself want in a brothel?” the centaur asked as he reached to give a gentle tug to Aisha’s hunter green hijab. Preoccupied with some quick mental math, she impatiently swatted away his hand as one would a fly. Whomever came up with idea of hiding a brothel at this address had both a penchant for whimsy and a shrewd head for business. Brothels were perfectly legal, but by running the place like a speakeasy, part of the ‘fun’ would be the pretense that what you are doing was somehow dangerous and illegal.
The centaur helped himself to another laugh at Aisha’s expense as she delved into her purse in search of the pass-phrase Lix gave her. She found it on the back of a sealed envelope which contained a letter to Knapp from Robert Christopher, the incarcerated and self-styled Prophet of the Universe who was both guru and nemesis to her employer. Just prior to Christopher’s conviction, he told Knapp that they were brothers, that the night Knapp stopped sleeping was the same night Christopher had his revelation, and that they were both knots somehow linked by the same thread in the cosmic tapestry of the Universe.
“Ken sent me,” Aisha proclaimed awkwardly in a tone not normally hers.
The centaur smirked. Then, a deft flick of an unseen switch caused both the iron gate and the storefront to fizz and disappear, leaving only a battered metal door.
“Have fun,” he winked as she entered, finding herself at the top of a flight of stairs. The words rang in her ear as the door was shut and locked behind her.
Slowly, she descended the narrow stairwell. The walls were painted blood red and as she neared the bottom, the air thickened and smelled faintly of perfume and sweat and sin.
At the base of the stairs was an anibeaded curtain. The shimmering spherules collectively formed a dazzling kaleidoscopic image that shifted about lazily forming a living portal into the realm of vice that lie within. Aisha slipped her hands through the beads, parted them gently, and stepped through the looking glass.
Past the curtain was a well appointed lounge reminiscent of the courtyard of an ancient Roman villa. The walls were painted soft earth tones. In the center of the room were musicians making beautiful music via stringed instruments for which Aisha had no name. There were ferns and palms and fig trees and olive trees and vines of grape from which patrons could pluck delectables and savor the sweetness of ripe fruit while they sat in soft leather booths and were regaled by the charms of courtesans barely dressed in pearl-white silk. Covering the whole of the ceiling was a beautiful fresco depicting the pantheon of Roman deities about which globes of soft light in many sizes and colors floated about like dandelions across a spring meadow. Among the gods were children made to look as if they were playing with the minute celestial bodies while their elders looked on with expressions of proud and happy parents.
Aisha gaped at the wonder overhead. Whatever expectations she held with respect to what the inside of a brothel would look like were grossly mistaken.
After allowing herself a moment more to gaze into the heavens above, she set upon the task of finding her employer. Not relishing the thought of poking her head into each dark little nook for fear of what she might find, she seated herself at the mahogany bar in the corner of the room. Like the bouncer upstairs the bartender was centaur, only this one wore a red silk shirt and a tailored blazer. Why the owners would require him to wear that and not pants flashed through Aisha’s mind as he approached to take her order.
“You don’t belong here,” he said gravely.
“Uh, Ken sent me,” Aisha blurted. The centaur’s head snapped in surprise and he eyed her suspiciously through eyes of green and brown. Only after several seconds had passed did his features relax and he spoke in a softer tone:
“Roberta ain’t here. It’s her day off. You’ll have to come back tomorrow after four.”
Like a pigeon waiting for the breadcrumbs to fall, Aisha cocked her head to the side. The centaur looked at her placidly but said nothing.
“Huh… Okay, well what about Thomas? Thomas Knapp? Is he here?” Aisha said at last, having no idea who Roberta was and hoping she wasn’t inadvertently speaking in some bordello code. The bartender shook his head, and before Aisha could say another word, he walked over to the other end of the bar to attend to a customer. She waited for him to return but he never did.
For twenty minutes she played with her purse strap and fended off the advances of men who assumed she was on the clock; all the while keeping a lookout for her employer.
“Heya sweetnesss,” the first one said suavely, stretching out the last syllable like a cobra’s hiss. He was round and blue with a shaved head and perfectly manicured fingernails. Aisha politely refused and sent him on his way.
The second came a few minutes later. He was ancient and smelled strongly of Cordoba. He hobbled up weakly and, by way of a greeting, planted his bony hand onto her rear and gave it a hard squeeze. Again Aisha refused, less politely this time. After, a familiar voice came from behind:
“You know, sometimes I genuinely can’t tell what your deal is.”
She turned her head and smiled radiantly, momentarily brightening the dark room. At last, she’d found Thomas Knapp.
He was a tall, lean man with clammy skin and bloodshot gray eyes. Atop his head was a mop of brown curls, washed but wild and unkempt. He wore a chocolate brown overcoat, frayed at the edges, with the occasional stain or blemish that gives a well made garment character.
He hopped onto the stool next to her, rolling an odd-looking coin across his knuckles with one hand and signaling the bartender with the other. Aisha was happy to see him.
“What do you mean my deal?” she asked playfully, “And what is that?”
"This? This is a sprintia," he said, holding the coin between his thumb and index finger for Aisha to see. It was made of silver and coated in something that caught the light the way oil does in a puddle. "It's a very old custom from the ancient Romans. It's like -ahhhh- like a casino chip. In here, this is money."
The bartender arrived with a generous draft of scotch. Knapp moved to pay, but the centaur smiled impishly, said it was on the house, and left.
“Well aren’t we special?” Aisha quipped.
Knapp scoffed and said,
"Right -- when I came in one of the gals -um- accidentally broke my phone. It was no big deal but -you know- the owner saw it and she flipped at the girl and gave me this coin and said she was -ahhh- said she was sorry."
“Huh. That explains why you didn’t answer my calls.”
“The phone being broken does make using it a challenge.”
Aisha smirked and said:
“Yes, well don’t get comfortable. We need to get you to the courthouse. Maude Turner’s lawyer found a way to get most of the evidence against her thrown out so she’ll go free if you don’t testify.”
“And we’ll lose the bounty on the money she stole…” Knapp said distantly. He rolled the colorful coin across his knuckles, his storm-gray eyes fixed on his drink, and his mind elsewhere absorbing the new information.
“I hate doing this,” he said at last in a quiet voice. “I hate testifying. I end up a freaked out mess for days.”
Aisha gave his forearm a sympathetic squeeze.
“I know, but we need the money and I know you care more about finishing what you start than avoiding what’s hard to do. Let’s just get going and get this over with.”
Aisha stood up and collected her purse. Knapp remained still.
“You coming?” she asked.
“Awful lot of fuss for a little bit of money,” Knapp murmered.
“What?” Aisha replied, eager to get going.
“I said I haven’t finished my drink.”
“We don’t have time for this, we need to go,” Aisha chided.
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