“Semele’s Daughter” is published in Broken Time Blues: Fantastic Tales in the Roaring ’20s. My story will be available to read here for a limited time–until Hugo nominations close–by generous permission of the publisher. The Kindle Version is less than $3 on Amazon–a great deal for 12 stories by solid writers and cover & interior art by Galen Dara.
If you like this story, or any of the ones I list below, please pass the links on to others who might appreciate them!
Here are some other great Hugo-qualifying online fiction (these are all by fellow Inkpunks):
- The Memory Gatherer, by Morgan Dempsey, in Redstone Science Fiction.
- The Parting Glass, by Andrew Penn Romine, in Lightspeed Magazine.
- Blue Locks, in ScapeZine and Cold Iron and Green Vines
by John Nakamura Remy
Some say I’m the best witch hunter of the Second Prohibition. Maybe I am. I bagged and sent 18 bona fides to burn like Edison bulbs in Sing Sing. J. Edgar told my chief, in private, that me and my partner, Crossan were the best men in the Bureau. I’m at Communion 6:00 AM every goddamn morning. You could ring the church bells by me.
But I’m a fraud, and proof positive that God isn’t Love. God is Irony.
Exhibit A: I’m a woman. Not even Crossan knows.
Exhibit B: I’m a bull dyke.
Exhibit C: My wife is a witch.
Who knows why God gave me a womb instead of balls. I’m a man at heart, even if I was never man enough for Pop. Never mind that before the One God Party pushed through the First Prohibition, I could drink any rummy under the table, that I look pretty keen in a fedora and a slim suit, that I volunteered to fight with our Kraut allies–sniped the heads off of forty godless limeys when they prairie-dogged from their trenches, or that sorcery or no, I married an angelic baby doll that any god-fearing man would go smiling to hell for.
And that’s where I still have faith. Lily is love, Lily is my cross, my living rosary, my ecstatic Hail Mary, and someday she’ll be my salvation.
I get out of bed, let my feet chill painfully on the icy hardwood. It’s too early for Lil–she was out late again last night. She doesn’t know that I know, but she was at the Indigo Flame, down the stairwell to what most rubes think is the boiler room of Junior’s Delicatessen. I’m sure she was drinking, singing, dancing in an ensorcelled trance, but the morning light on her face makes her skin like fine china, and my heart tells me she can do no wrong. I soak her in while I knot my tie. Maybe it’s a bit crooked, but it’s worth a minute of staring into heaven.
Even though they’re consecrated by the Secretary of Religion, I still say a quick prayer over each bullet before I thumb them into my second best friend, my beloved M1911. I hear Lil’s breathing in the next room, and I try not to think about what she’d do if she knew that I was killing her ken, and not tracking down counterfeiters for the Secret Service like I tell her. Finally, I chant, “Thou shalt not suffer a sorcerer to live,” and I see these words light up like a pale blue fire along the blade of my bowie. I sheathe it in my shin holster, before anyone sees, and think what a fucked-up asshole I am. If she only knew.
Crossan picks me up 45 minutes later in front of St. Patrick’s. I light up and we drive. We don’t need to talk. The java’s still kicking in and we’re headed to the Upper East Side. Central Park’s summer green fights the gray of the city. I wonder for a sec, with all his college education, why Cross didn’t go on to Wall Street, or building these fancy buildings.
He stubs out his cigarette. “We’ve got a lead, Kingston. Simons extracted a confession this morning. Orgies, elemental sorcery, socialists, gin smuggling. The works, partner. She gave us the name of the big shot.”
He’s excited now, and it’s at times like this that I get why he ditched his Columbia diploma to work for the Bureau.
“He goes by Bach, and we figured out where he sleeps, before–”
“Before what, Cross?”
“Fella, you’re touchy this morning. You know the score. Some hearts can only take so much of The Bath. She deserved it, though. You know how many babies she killed?”
I’ve been to the Bath before. I can see the nameless witch in my mind’s eye, hands cuffed behind her, ivory flapper dress wet, fringe like limp noodles, nipples showing, mucous and makeup smeared across her pale face, bureau men all around, sorting out facts from sobs, heaves, gasps, and babbling. The woman’s face turns and I see Lily, but I shake it off, look out the window at the green oaks.
I pay a price for every confession, and for every man and woman I’ve sent up to burn. They do things modern now; quick electric frying in private, not the screaming human torches they had in the town square pre-Lincoln. But they’ve got to burn. It’s tradition, it’s god-ordained, and it’s what the preachers and priests still say. I was at Sing Sing when they strapped one sorceress to the chair and pulled the lever. Her hair caught fire, and when I caught the sulphur smell it was like a crack opening in the door to hell. And that’s all I remember, until Lil came home from the stenographer pool, found me carving, “There is none righteous, no not one,” into my left thigh using the tip of my bowie. She decked me good, knocking me back, then held me, whispering healing words into my ears until my eyes flooded. We made love, and she dragged me out of Gehenna and back into paradise again, with her touch, her tongue, her Jane Mast curves, and zest for life.
Everything is right when I’m with my goddess.
I don’t know why I do it, the cutting, but it works. It turns the numbness into something sharp. And I know that the Lord approves, that SOB, ’cause magic can’t hurt me, and I’m the only agent so “blessed.”
“Kingston, you awake? We’re here.”
The building is one of those swanky new Fifth Ave high-rises. We show our badges to the door and elevator men. We get fear and no lip; no attitude. The Great Arsons of Philadelphia and Boston and the Second Prohibition convinced the godly that America was at war against atheists, pagans, and satanists. Warrants, habeas corpus, public trials–they all made us look like schmucks when powerful sorcerers and avatars and demigods used the extra time to escape, usually leaving behind a trail of crispy corpses.
We stop at a penthouse door. It’s got vine-wrapped, Grecian columns on each side. Cross mutters, “Corinthian,” while I pluck at a leaf and shred it. We knock, then shout, and when no one answers, Cross steps aside, and with two expert kicks I bust the door open.
A pillar of flame hits me straight on the chest, flickering black and blue and purple, but doesn’t get past me. Another of God’s ironies, that He protects this lying dyke and witch-harborer from these infernos. The blaze is so bright that I can’t see my assailant, so I push towards him. It’s like forcing my way against water from a fire hose.
“Bach,” I shout, “by the authority vested in me by the 25th Amendment and the Bureau of Alcohol, Sorcery, and Firearms, I place you under arrest for the practice of Black Arts, trafficking in illegal alcohol, and for deadly assault on a government law enforcement agent.” I don’t even know the real words–my job’s to distract him.
I hear two shots and the magical blitz stops. I fall forward and bang my knees on the polished marble floor. While my I eyes adjust, I yell, “No way this bastard was gonna walk out of here in cuffs.”
Then I smell it. I expect blood, or shit, but instead it’s like one of those Tesla volt guns zapped an entire wine cellar. I’m still blinking away the afterimage, but I see electricity arcing between Cross and the body on the floor. I try to throw myself between them, but in the second it takes me to get there, the lighting’s gone. Bach is dead, dressed in a white tunic and literally bleeding Burgundy. I check out my partner and he’s got the heebie-jeebies. Little bits of static spit off of his fedora and shoulders.
“I’m all right,” he says. He’s staring at Bach’s body, like he’s never killed a pagan before. He slumps onto a purple velvet ottoman.
I look around and it’s like we’re on a Hollywood or Astoria set for a moving picture about Rome or Athens, all columns and marble and statues and fountains. I turn back to Cross and he’s staring at me now.
Somehow, he lit a cigarette. He inhales and closes his eyes. His gun’s still tight in his left hand, but I didn’t hear a match strike.
“Cross, this SOB, he wasn’t no run of the mill sorcerer, was he?”
Cross shakes his head slowly. Then, instead of exhaling smoke, he belches a short burst of indigo fire.
I jump, and he grins. He takes a drag and points his cigarette at fountain with a statue of Cupid and the little god starts pissing wine into a marble basin.
I feel the blood drain from my face. I have to think–something’s screwy and I’ve got to keep Cross talking.
“You’re not Charles Crossan anymore, are you?” I ask. I feel the lump of my M1911 in its holster, and my bowie strapped to my shin.
He thinks for a few long seconds. His eyes aren’t focused on me, but he still has a firm grip on his gun.
“Actually,” he finally answers, “I think I’m still very much Charlie Crossan.”
“Baloney. Cross hated magic.”
He chuckles. “I was a teetotaler, too.”
I try for my gun, but he’s onto me.
“Sorry, fella,” he says. “Hands way up.”
With his gun still on me, he pulls out my handgun and my shiv. He tosses them out of reach, and for the first time I’m scared.
He sits back down and motions me to do the same. I sink into an emerald divan. Every muscle is twitching for me to jump or run, do anything but sit.
“I’m still me,” he says. “I still love Maria and the kids, and vanilla milkshakes.”
“Then you’re possessed. Maybe it’s Satan.” I try to buy time and info. I hope I don’t piss him off.
“Not possessed.” He thinks. The mother fucker’s genuinely curious. “When I killed Bach, something old and powerful living inside of him jumped to me. And not Satan.”
“If you’re still Cross, let me take you in. We’ll get you fixed up.”
He ignores me. “I’m still Cross, but I’m something else, too. I feel every every society lush, every pool of bathtub gin, every angry alcoholic, every juice joint in the city. They pulse with my blood.”
“Oh my god, you’d make a perfect bloodhound.” The words come out before I can stop them. “My protection, your nose, we’d be a legendary team.”
He frowns. “I’m not stupid, Kingston. It’s the Bath and the Chair for me. I work for the other side now.”
“So, now what?”
“I know I can’t hurt you with this.” He shoots indigo fire from his right hand, and it wraps around me like a blanket. “And I can’t drive you mad. But I can shoot you with this.” And he points his gun at my heart. I’m ready.
“But for our friendship’s sake, I’m letting you live. This time.”
Suddenly he yells and grape vines grow like snakes and criss cross around me before I can scramble away. None of them can touch me, but I’m trapped like a rat. I try to break through the branches but they’re too thick.
He begins walking away, then stops and says,
“Kingston, your lovely Lily…she’s not just a stenographer, is she? She’s a worshipper. I know that now. Leave me alone, and she lives. Got it?”
I shout, then collapse, a heap of fake-man on the cold marble floor.
It’s afternoon and I’m grape-stained by the time by I rip and pull and slice my way through my vine prison. Son-of-a-bitch filled the whole penthouse with them. But he left me my M1911, thank the good Lord. And my bowie. Once I found that, I sliced my way out pretty damn fast.
At HQ, I tell the chief how Cross gunned down Bach and then got one of his infamous migraines. “Bastard left me all the paperwork.”
“It’s a shame,” the chief says. “The boys are getting ready to raid Bach’s den of sin tonight. The Indigo Flame. 12:05.”
I suddenly feel sick, and must’ve looked it because he says, “Kingston, you done some fine work today. Take some time off and enjoy it with your doll of a woman.” He winks.
I’ve got too many questions, and my head hurts, and my heart is racing, and I want to curse out my ironic God. Is Cross gonna show up in Bach’s place at The Indigo Flame? Will Lil be there tonight? God, he’ll think I’m a stoolie. And there’s a good chance that Lil will be right in arm’s reach. Or the feds might get to her first. What kind of choice is that? Burning in a purple flame or at Sing Sing, if she passes the Bath.
It’s her night off, is supposed to be my night on; she could be bouncing around anywhere in the Greenwich Village art and sorcery scene before she heads back to the Indigo. I check home, I swing by the artists’ studio where she models off and on, but I don’t know her scene so well and time is running out. I’m going looney–it could cost me everything, but I’ve got to save Lily. I’ll have to meet her at the speakeasy and get her out, fast. And I can’t go in looking like a fed–can’t have Cross recognizing me.
There’s one perfect disguise I can pull off. I step into Macy’s to buy an ivory dress that’s all fringe that I hope to God I fit in. The sales clerk tsk tsks me for picking up something she says her gran would wear, but it looks pretty short to me, on the legs and arms. And it’s one thing to show off skin, but my scripture scars wouldn’t go over real well in a pagan speakeasy. I shut the gabby Betty up by spending another $20 on a pair of mary janes, a shawl and strings of fake pearls.
I get home, and maybe I’m lucky–the dress fits. I’m not curvy like my luscious Lily–my body’s like a boy’s, straight and flat-chested and all limbs. It’s perfect for the night scene, but not for a rescue under the nose of a Greek god. I’d feel safer in my long coat and some heavy woolen trousers between my legs. I leave my bowie on the night stand and stuff my M1911 in one of Lil’s clutch purses.
I make one last, agonizing stop at Marshall Fields for make-up, and I’m all dolled-up for the night.
I don’t know how to walk or talk like a dame, but by the way the guys are catcalling me, the chassis is all right, and I think I’ve got me a disguise.
The cab coughs like an old jalopy and I have to tell the driver to “shut the fuck up and drive.” I get there about 30 minutes before the scheduled bust.
I enter the deli, ask for the ladies room, and ignore the patsies hunched over roast beef and ham sandwiches. There’s a dirty, narrow door that screams both “it’s nasty back here,” and, “hey, welcome to the gin joint.” I go through and descend down the stairs, tripping twice over the thumbscrews called Louis heels and catching myself in decidedly unladylike ways. I knock three times on a rusted, steel door. Into the grill I say, “Kerberos barks thrice.”
It opens and a wave of cool humidity rolls over me, and the first thing I catch are traces of alcohol–gin and whiskey and beer–then smoke–cigar, incense, something earthy, something else electric. But these are nothing compared to the overpowering aroma of ripe grapes.
It’s like I’ve walked into a glade, half in a mythical Greek forest, and half in modern NYC. This place is easily the size of a ballroom, and it has a bar and tables and dancers kicking up their heels like any hopping gin joint, but there are marble columns and arches covered with vines, and statues of lovers and mini-orgies that look so realistic you have to wonder if Medusa caught them in the act, and everywhere, everywhere, there are trellises with vines, and on the vines hang clusters of golf-ball sized grapes which look like they’ll break free and spill their contents on anyone underneath. And it looks like no one here would mind.
The full moon shines down through a high skylight, the main source of light, focusing on a crooner in an impossibly tight dress backed up by sax and oboe and bass players wearing…togas or tunics. She plays her voice more against the other instruments than with song, and there is a playful but earnest tension between the musical lines that wants to make my heart spin around. I must’ve stared for a while, because the bouncer says, with some force, “First time?”
“I’m meeting someone,” I say, and he relaxes, gives me a gap-toothed smile and a gallant gesture.
I sit down at an empty table near the door and begin scanning the room. I get a better look at the revelers. Some are drinking and chatting at tables, others are on the dance floor, and there’s a mix of dapper men and flapper women and some are wearing tunics that open revealingly. A modern Apollo, maybe the son of a young tycoon by the spats and collar and diamond cuffs, chases a smarty with laurels woven through her hair across the dance floor. She giggles, lets him catch her. In a dark corner half-lit, half-obscured by a flickering indigo flame, two men in tunics kiss passionately, and in a booth a society matron sits in the lap of a young man in a Kraut uniform, riding to the wild rhythm that penetrates and permeates the entire glade or speakeasy or whatever this place is.
But where is Lily?
“What can I get you, darling?”
The waitress catches me by surprise. “A whiskey, double, make it neat.” It’s been so long since I’ve had a drink, I fall back on habit.
She raises an eyebrow. Dammit. I ordered like a man. I’ve got to be more careful. She brings me my glass and I take a sip.
Then I see her. I see them.
Lily and Cross.
They’re both sitting at a table on the corner of the stage. She’s pouring him a glass of wine, and he’s prowling about the room with his eyes. He whispers something in her ear, then points at a table, just three over from mine, where elegant diners are engaged in quiet conversation. The candles on the table all burst into indigo and then everyone is up and getting hot on the dance floor. Cross smiles, then turns to another table. The candles go on, then man and woman, they’re on top of each other, kissing, necking, pouring wine, tearing each others’ clothes off, going down on each other, and fucking; fucking and grunting like wild animals in the eerie blue-purple glow. Cross laughs and laughs, and it’s obvious that he’s drunk, maybe on wine, maybe on power.
Soon he’ll look at my table. I grab my purse, I have to hide, but then Cross sees me. The gig is up.
He beckons. The wave is a slow gesture, almost bored, but his eyes seem dangerous to me.
I look back at the door and notice two extra goons who weren’t there before. No escape there. I casually undo the latch to my purse with one hand, and then I walk as lady-like as possible towards the front, until I’m standing next to his divan. I know most of them are otherwise occupied, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that everyone in that great room is looking at me.
I’m trying not to look at Lily, but out of the corner of my eye I catch the moment of recognition. Smart girl, she slips back into a poker face. Cross speaks first.
“You almost got away with it,” he says. “I looked at you three times, old partner, three times, wondering why that doll looked so familiar.”
“How’d you figure me out?”
“I saw how you looked at Lily. And you walk like a man.” He snorts.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” he cries, and right away the music stops, all fucking stops, and now all eyes really are on me. I step towards him, but he shoots a jet of flame and makes it hover over his right hand, just inches away from Lil’s face. I back off.
“We have a guest of honor for tonight’s feasting and festivities,” he says, and his clear tenor fills every gap in the vineyard auditorium. I hear mass movement and whispering behind me so I turn to look at the crowd. They’re not whispering to each other, they’re not adjusting their clothing to cover their naked bits. They’re anticipating something. They look…hungry.
“Listen,” I whisper at Cross. “The Bureau’s busting this joint in a few minutes.”
“I warned you, Evan,” he says, eyes narrowing. “But I’m glad you told me. I thought you were going to be the feast, but maybe you’re just the appetizer.”
He turns to the crowd and shouts.
“Behold, a witch-hunter, an agent of our enemy, and one who has sent our brothers and sisters to burn!”
With both hands he shoots a mighty pillar of blue-purple-black flame that seems to reach from the moon to the floor, with me in the center. Everyone gasps, squints, and shields their faces, but of course, I’m untouched. There’s a scream, and I know that it’s Lily’s. He reaches into the fire, grabs my dress by the neckline, and tears down. My scriptural scars are lit with white fire that runs down my upper arms and thighs, my belly and breasts.
With this introduction, Cross doesn’t need magic to get his crowd going, but he waves his arm across the room, and indigo lights flare on every table. Patrons become panther-like, snarling, and screaming for blood. They leap forward.
But I still have my purse. In a moment I’ve got that perfect heft of my M1911 in my right hand, and shove it, hard, into Cross’s back.
“Stop them and let Lily go,” I say.
“Go ahead, Kingston, shoot.”
I hesitate, and he feels it.
“My god’s older than yours, Kingston. Shoot me, but don’t count on your protection to stop his spirit.”
His revelers are stopped at the foot of the stage, but he beckons them. “Feed!” he cries, and they leap up.
My body moves like it figured out the solution first. I grab Cross in a close headlock with my left arm, pressing my head to his. I bring the gun hand up, so it’s pointing at his temple. If I pull the trigger, the bullet should punch through both of our skulls. If the god-spirit always jumps to the murderer, what happens when the killer is dead? Maybe before I keel over, I’ll feel Dionysos turn me against my god.
Suddenly Cross groans, and his body slumps in my arm. I tighten my grip–is this a trick?–but then I see Lily, sweet Lily, gripping my bowie knife, and her alabaster hands are stained now with wine-blood and gore. I let Cross’ body go.
Lily turns to the crowd, the closest just one step away. “Stop, lovelies,” she shouts. They halt, blinking like the lights just came on.
She faces me, hands me my bowie, tilts her neck back, closes her eyes, spreads her hands out like a crooner. I think of how many times I’ve traced kisses up and down that perfect neck, that flawless skin. I shake my head no. She smiles.
“God, I wish I had your body,” she says.
“You already do, angel.”
In the silence that follows, a half-dozen Bureau agents burst through the door, shouting, guns drawn. She winks at me, and sends a pillar of indigo flame towards the front door, agents screaming as the revelers leap towards them, hungry for blood. Lily and I kiss over Cross’s body. I take her hand, gun ready.
I have my angel, my salvation to protect. And I’m sure my god of irony approves.