Aphelion Issue 234, Volume 22
November 2018
 
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Chang'd Innocence

by Cody L. Stanford


Justin Ritter took two years to go from teaching Shakespeare at Columbia to kidnapping a woman at gunpoint.

Justin watched Nina Michaels stop her silver Mercedes E320 at a traffic light on night-black Eighth Avenue. Clouds overhead swelled with unfallen October rain. A bird in flight shrieked close above, as if over open wilderness and not three blocks from Times Square. Nina was distracted by the wild bird cry and didn't notice Justin's tall silhouette move between two parked cars toward the right side of her Mercedes.

Nina flinched when the car's door locks popped open. A rumpled man in a grey overcoat slid into the front right seat. The metallic blue-black muzzle of his handgun stared at Nina's blue eyes.

"Drive." Justin slammed the passenger door behind him.

Nina did not move. She studied the middle-aged man's face; lined and puffy, fatherly but still fierce. She asked him, "How did you open my doors like that?"

"I told you, drive."

"My doors were locked. And this light is still red."

The unseen bird cried out again, and the traffic signal spilled from red to green.

Justin waved the gun at the windshield. "She did it. Go."

"Who did it? I don't see any --"

Justin held the gun at Nina's right temple. "Move."

Nina still had the defiance of a young woman, just turned twenty-eight. "I won't be bullied," she said.

Justin sighed, and vaguely re-aimed the weapon at Nina.

"There's no time to explain," Justin said. "But rest assured that if those after us catch up, you will learn firsthand there are certain experiences worse than death."

"Who's chasing you?"

"Zombies," Justin said, without a joking smile.

"I see they still sell guns to crazy men, eh?"

Another bird shriek cut the air, and the car door locks snapped shut. Nina knew the rules: "Never let the kidnapper take you to another location." The next place was where it happened, where women died. But Nina felt almost sorry for the seeming gentlemanliness of her deluded kidnapper. She tossed her dark blonde hair off the collar of her grey business suit. Behind her, cars honked at her unmoving Mercedes.

"This hasn't been a very good day for me," Nina said.

Justin growled in the back of his throat. He twisted his body, shoved his left leg over the center console, and slammed his foot down on the accelerator.

The car jerked forward and Nina grabbed the steering wheel. She promised to drive, and Justin pulled his leg back over to his side. Nina glanced down cross streets in hope of a police cruiser's salvation.

"Where are we going?" Nina said.

"For the moment, anywhere." Justin stole nervous looks out the car's rear window. "They don't expect this. They know we're running, and that we have no money. I haven't the street smarts to steal a car and..." Justin lowered the gun into his lap. "I've learned to be good with firearms. But not on you. I apologize for the abruptness of our meeting, but we were in a hurry."

"Who's 'we'?"

"'We do it wrong, being so majestical, to offer it the show of violence.'"

"Hamlet," Nina said.

"Ah, she knows her culture." Justin grinned, opened his coat, and shoved the gun inside.

The gun's absence annoyed Nina. Wasn't her virtue even worth a bullet?

"By 'we'," Nina said, "you mean zombies are chasing you and what invisible rabbit?"

"She's not a rabbit. She's a falcon."

The falcon glided down in front of the car's windshield and paced her flight just in front of Nina's Mercedes like a sentinel.

"Your bird," Nina said. "Your pet?"

"Not a pet," Justin said. "More like...something like my client. Maybe. My new family. Hers was taken from her. Mine left me after much drama and overdone hand-wringing."

"What for?"

"I was accused of fornication with a student."

"You don't make me feel more comfortable."

"You believe the worst so quickly?"

"I'm not the one with the gun." Nina slowed for another red light.

"Believe what you wish," Justin said. "The accusation was false."

"I...I look in your eyes and I actually believe you. Which many would say is a very typically stupid woman-thing to do. I'd say it's my attorney's instinct."

"I'd say you were merely human."

Nina stifled her surprise at the comment. "It's...partially because of my bad day as well. My firm, the place where I worked...today I was...hell, I'm telling you and I haven't even worked up the courage to go home and call my mother yet."

The falcon cried out.

"Keep going," Justin said.

Nina waved at the intersection ahead. "The light is still --"

The powerful Mercedes engine hummed to life on its own, and the car leaped through the intersection. Two other cars collided in its wake.

Justin laughed. "She did it again. Take the wheel; you're still driving. Tell me your name."

"Nuh...Nicole. My name's Nicole."

The falcon shrieked and banked before the car with one hard black eye nailed to Nina's face.

"Nina Michaels," Justin said. "She just told me."

"What? First you...this bird steals my car from under me and then reads my mind and...you can understand her?"

"Sort of. It's a kind of telepathy that works on most humans, but not all of the..." Eyes on the road, Justin backed into his seat. "All of the other creatures we encounter. Like those up ahead."

The falcon's shriek rose to a scream.

"You missed them, Zef," Justin said loudly. "Some type of spell obstructs them, or..." He turned to Nina. "What are you doing?"

Nina saw a man in a grey suit ahead of her. His eyes were angled slightly toward the sky, waiting. Another similarly dressed man stood several paces behind him. The first man gestured the Mercedes toward a lane marked off with orange cones and blocked by a dark grey sedan parked across it. Police, police, Nina thought; it must be police, a roadblock set up to catch the crazy man. Behind the grey sedan, Nina saw two other figures waiting, with patches on their clothes like uniforms. Police, she hoped; oh please god, be the police.

"Don't fall for it," Justin said. "Go around." He slipped sideways in his seat as the car speeded up under Nina's control. She braked hard just before hitting the grey sedan, and wept while she held down the window button. The autumn tang of car fumes, a city substitute for burning leaves, greeted Nina on the cool air. The two suited men ran toward her, guns drawn.

"I've been kidnapped," Nina cried. "This guy next to me, he has a gun and I think he's crazy, talking to animals and babbling about zombies, and this, this telepathic creature thing he just made up --"

Nina saw Justin's gun beside her head, pointing out the window. She felt his finger press her right ear closed before he fired the weapon.

The first grey-suited man staggered, struck twice by the hollow point bullets from Justin's .38 automatic. The second man stopped and took aim before two bullets from Justin's gun flashed white against the night and struck home.

The men remained standing while the falcon swooped low, shrieked at them, and banked away.

Nina watched the men, and she screamed.

The flesh on both men's bodies shriveled and fell away; their trousers dropped like empty sacks and their jackets crumpled around their ribs. The men's guns clattered to the ground from bony hands dangling putrid meat, but the men did not scream or writhe. They came toward Nina with eyes that bulged like boiled eggs, seeking enemies like predators. The skeletal men raised their withered hands and hobbled over their trousers-bound ankles. The falcon cried out and dived low, closer to the ghouls this time. The first man stood beside Nina's car and stretched a maggoty hand through the window; and Nina cried please oh please not me take him not me take the crazy man; his delusion, his horror; not mine; oh my god! And the grey bones and strings of meat and clinging crawling wriggling maggots closed about Nina's neck and she felt the cuff of a finely starched shirt scuff against her throat --

The hand and the man fell away as Justin pressed his left foot down on the gas. He whipped the Mercedes through the line of orange cones and around the grey sedan. Nina watched the falcon peck out the egg-eyes of the second ghoul, releasing huge gouts of impossible blood down the skull's cheekbones. The two uniformed figures standing behind the sedan fired guns after the fleeing Mercedes. Nina thought she heard a bullet pop against the side of her car.

Cold air blowing through the open window of the car cooled Nina's shocked nerves. She looked at her kidnapper turned rescuer, leaning over her to steer the car. But the rescue was from a situation she wouldn't have been in had the man not kidnapped her. The nightmare images threatened to make Nina ill, and she screamed at Justin, "Who in the hell were they?"

Sweat on Justin's face betrayed his own relieved fear. "The Roman soldiers of our day," he said. "Now stay silent. They'll be coming after you, too."

####
'

Nina took the wheel of the Mercedes again. The traffic signals cycled green just before she reached each intersection.

"Head for the Village," Justin said. "We'll lose ourselves there." He reached over Nina and thumbed down the three remaining windows. Then he leaned out his window and called to the falcon.

"Zef," Justin said. "Get in."

The falcon settled lower and glided along the right side of the car for two blocks. With a graceful tilt of her wings, the bird banked through the open window and landed on the rear seat.

Nina fretted. "Don't let her claws rip the leather."

Justin laughed. "After what you just saw, it's good that you return so quickly to more prosaic concerns." He glanced at the falcon pecking at her wings. "You hear that, Zef? Behave yourself." He turned back to Nina. "You'll have to abandon this car. They'll have marked it."

Nina took a nervous glimpse at the rearview mirror and saw the preening falcon over her shoulder. "Those...um, those things...that you shot?"

Justin checked his gun and slipped the weapon into the shoulder holster under his left arm, inside his grey overcoat. "The nearest Zef and I can figure is that they're some sort of zombie. Something that's dead but not dead. They can make themselves appear normal for a time with a great deal of effort."

"You didn't kill them?"

"One has to hit the heart. My marksmanship is not that good."

Nina held her breath until the traffic light she approached turned green. "What are they after?"

Justin nodded toward the rear seat. "Zef."

Nina had to choke back a laugh. "You mean the undead are after your pet bird?" She looked in the mirror and saw, not a bird, but a young girl staring back at her. The child's eyes were as curious and severe as the wrath of a Renaissance archangel.

"One of my disguises, one of my wises," the girl said. "Only when I need to hide-slide-fly and spy." The girl wore a pale blue short-sleeved shirt and jeans; with her magic she retained her clothes and belongings when she shapeshifted. Her eyes were liquid brown; her black hair was clipped tight just below her collar.

Justin smiled at Nina. "The important thing is to not make her angry. Nina, this is Zefiryn Piotrowicz, formerly of Queens. Zef, you know Nina's name. Nina Michaels. From..."

"Formerly of Barth, Hastings and Green. I was let go today." After the zombies, Nina felt no surprise over the seemingly gentle bird-girl. "What about you?"

"Justin Ritter, formerly of Columbia. I taught Shakespeare, and made no apologies for him. An attitude that often perturbed some of my colleagues."

"Red light ahead," Nina said.

Justin turned to the girl. "Zef?"

"We're okay," Zefiryn said.

"Obey this one," Justin said to Nina.

Nina stopped the car and looked back at Zefiryn. The girl held a pair of desiccated bird's wings in her hands. The feathers were dark red running to black along the quills. Zefiryn stroked the feathers. "Tosia," she crooned to the wings; a term of love, or perhaps a name.

Nina said to Justin, "Unusual pet."

"They took the living ones she once cared for," Justin said.

"Where did you find her?"

"We met in the streets one night," Justin said. "I was near broke; Zef was a runaway. My wife had left me. She believed my accuser, some wraithlike whiny little thing who turned in a paper clearly copied from another student of mine from two years prior. The wraith was graded accordingly, and set her over-kohled eyes on revenge. It is with such pain that one endures the false charge, and witnesses one's former calm give way to black plans of retaliation. To find, like Hamlet, one's self engaging in thoughts of bloody, vengeful murder. 'I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.' Zef was twelve on that cold night we met. She shivered on the street, and was justly and wisely scared of strangers. I pitied her, and melted her heart with my one-man butchery of a sequence from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Zef's father had...well..."

"He did something to her," Nina said.

"In truth, he didn't. Like me, false accusation fingered him unfairly and, in his case, anonymously. The police investigated, said that someone had seen Tomasz Piotrowicz too closely enjoying his daughter's companionship in a park one day. Evil minds, that see wickedness where only innocence flutters. Zef's mother fell for it; took Zef and her little brother, and left Tomasz. One night..."

"I can tell the rest," Zefiryn said.

Nina moved the car under the green light.

"Please do," Justin said to the girl.

"Two years ago," Zefiryn said. "I was twelve. In our new apartment prison, crafted and caged to keep Daddy away. I cried for my father every night in lonely dribble-drabs of tears. In the middle of one hot snotty night while the fan beside my bed clattered tink-tink-tink, he came to me; only it wasn't him. This one smelled different, faceless in the dark-mark-spark he shatter-conjured when he kicked out my baby nightlight. He gave off energy of wanting to stab-jab-hurt so bad, so much, so towards me. He attacked me vicious-joyous and held me down, drowned, pound-pound-pound, the tinks of the fan and the rhythm-yips of my cry. Later the doctor insisted it was my father."

"But," Nina said to the girl, "you just said...he wasn't him."

"It wasn't," Zefiryn said, falling silent.

"DNA doesn't lie," Nina said.

"People do," Justin said, "especially those who have authority over others. I hope you enjoyed Zef's talk; you may never again hear her string together so many syllables at once. And you, Ms. Michaels? What is the tale you started to tell me earlier?"

"I was let go from my law firm today," Nina said. "Supposedly I had been padding the accounts of our largest clients and skimming off the excess. The crime was committed, but it wasn't by me. One of the senior partners, my mentor, who hired me right out of law school...he was the thief. I trusted him, and he threw me to the wolves. Sort of. It's all hush-hush, my firing, to temper the clients' outrage. I was paid off to keep me from suing. Or calling the police."

"A bad idea anyway, calling the police. So here we are," Justin said cheerfully, "three peas in a pod."

"But she" -- Nina jerked her head to indicate Zefiryn -- "hasn't been falsely accused, has she?"

Zefiryn ignored the adults and crooned lovingly to her wings again, some of her words in singsong English and some in the burbling brook of Polish.

"It's not lies about her," Justin said to Nina. "It's the things Zef actually does that you have to watch out for."

####
'

The trio abandoned the Mercedes near Waverly and West Tenth Street; the doors unlocked; the keys inside.

"Hope that it gets stolen," Justin said to Nina. "That's one less track for the Roman soldiers to follow."

"What exactly do you mean by 'Roman soldiers'?"

"'They that have the power to hurt, and will.'"

"Shakespeare?"

"Modified by exclusion," Justin said.

Justin and Nina walked into the crowded nighttime Village streets. Zefiryn glided slightly ahead of her companions. The bird's wings were clipped to Zefiryn's shirt over her right shoulder, and beat gently to the rhythm of her movement. Occasionally Zefiryn gave catlike sniffs to the rain-pregnant air, and seemed almost to walk on her toes.

"When I took Zef in," Justin said to Nina, "I promised to help her find the man who attacked her. We uncovered a lead up in the Bronx just this evening. An old man, shriveled like an empty cocoon and stinking of vile whiskey and urine. Zef has been looking for other girls like her, attacked and destroyed in the same way, their stories buried in old newspapers and the tears of elderly social workers. This old wino was the father of one of them. Fifty years ago, the same scenario; the false charge and the shattered family, followed by the real crime that both revealed and hid. For the price of two bottles of cheap whiskey, the old man settled onto his park bench and shared his tale with us, his conviction and his years in prison. And the daughter he never saw again, that no one has seen since three weeks after she was attacked. Before she disappeared she visited her father in jail and gave him something, a present he clung to through many years of suffering. A small vial."

Nina glanced ahead at Zefiryn. Amidst the crowd of people, the girl's body seemed somehow altered in outline. "What was in the vial?" Nina said.

"Very good; you marked your cue." Justin smiled thinly. "The old wino's girl scraped it from under her fingernails. The flesh of her rapist. Zef smelled the shriveled skin in the vial, and even under the odors of age and drink, Zef could tell it wasn't the wino's. Someone else, whose type we know. We suspect he'll be here, if not tonight then soon. Zef can hide and hunt on these streets. Too many like her congregate here for the old rapist to pinpoint for certain that he's being hunted. Or so we hope."

"'Old' is right," Nina said. "You expect to find some doddering retirement home refugee in one of these flashy clubs?"

Zefiryn danced more than walked, weaving in and out of the couples and clutches of friends. She turned her head and whispered words to her wings; her profile, Nina noticed, had assuredly changed.

Justin looked at Nina; his smile vanished. "Our conversation with the old man was cut short. Three of them, like the ones I shot earlier, swooped down on us. At first they only thought the old man babbled secrets to innocent bystanders, which gave Zef and me time to escape. But they realized their error, and the old man...he couldn't endure the pain they inflicted, and he told them who we were, our identities that we had confided to him to undergird his trust. Zef and I took the subway downtown, but the ghouls kept appearing on station platforms. You can tell by the eyes, the egg-slick grey eyes. We abandoned the subway at Columbus Circle and ran. Well, Zef flew, of course. Then..."

"You found me," Nina said.

"She found you. She told me you have a good heart."

"I'm not going to ask how she knows these things. What about the old man?"

"Dead, most likely."

"She's..." Nina started to point at Zefiryn, then forced her hand down. "Justin, she's changing."

"Looks like a costume, doesn't it?" Justin said. "No one here will notice, except to compliment her unique appearance with the exuberant and inscrutable phrasing of the young. 'When proud-pied April, dress'd in all his trim, hath put a spirit of youth in everything.' Zef! Let us see you."

Zefiryn turned her head. Her ears had risen atop her head and become black-furred; orange and white fur outlined her face; her nose pink and catlike; the fur black-lined like that of a tigress. Zefiryn spun quickly back to the hunt; a striped tail twitched out of her jeans from a hidden opening.

"Avian and feline," Justin said. "The falcon and the tiger are her favorites. She's learned to control the changes now. Her parents had no idea of what magic she possessed. When Zef was little, the shifts occurred spontaneously while she slept, and she always thought they were dreams. But that one night when Zef was absolutely and horrifyingly awake, the change happened like this, just partway. She washed her attacker's flesh out of her fingernails afterwards, not knowing its value."

"How awful that experience must have been," Nina said.

"Not as awful as Zef's realization that when she shifted, her attacker was unsurprised. And unafraid. And came prepared to stop the progress of her changing...oh, here we go."

Zefiryn led her companions into a club whose occupants slithered close around the trio in pulsating, light-splattered darkness. The girl slipped past security at the door through the expedient of a mind-push that tickled the doorman's attention elsewhere. She repeated the trick while Justin and Nina entered.

"I don't like places like this," Nina shouted over the punching music.

Justin replied with equal force. "You're telling me. But every culture has its controlled frenzies, its safe and perhaps not-so-safe places for the odd and offbeat."

Zefiryn cat-strolled through the crowd on two light feet. Her nostrils flared at the air. A man jostled her in passing, and Zefiryn looked fast in protection of her wings. She smelled perfume and cologne; alcohol and illicit burning things; spices from earlier dinners; onion and curry and garlic; the heady rush of herbs simmered in wine; blood and meat and musk. The people danced and acted young, though much youth was merely imagined.

"I suppose," Justin cried to Nina, "that I ought to tell you you're free to go. Just don't reclaim your car."

"What about when I report it stolen?"

"It would be more prudent if you didn't."

"Do you have any idea how much that car is worth?"

"Not more than your life, I suspect."

Zefiryn stopped walking, and bobbed on her feet as if she wanted to fly. Her dark eyes fixed on a corner of the room, toward a table occupied by resting dancers.

Nina watched the girl, and leaned closer to Justin. "If you don't mind, I'd like to stay."

"Certainly," Justin said. "Just do as I say. Unless she overrides me."

The man whose scent Zefiryn detected appeared younger than he must be; only middle-aged, dark hair slightly greying, body well-built, and sharply turned out in a silk suit of midnight coal. On his right arm leaned a blonde girl barely old enough for NYU. Her breasts swelled toward her open collar like purses of polished gold. Zefiryn sidled up against the table across from the man, and growled. The man turned his attention away from the blonde to study the cat-girl.

Justin slipped into an empty chair beside the man, gun in hand but concealed by the over-long sleeve of his coat. "Wallet."

The man turned to Justin without rancor, as if murdering the rumpled stranger would be nothing more than a nuisance.

"This," the man said, "is an awfully poor place for a robbery."

Nina stood a pair of steps behind Zefiryn, her posture braced and protective.

"It's not a robbery," Justin said to the man. "She needs to know your name."

"The kitten-girl?" The man moved as if to get his wallet.

"Hands on the table." Justin waited; when he was obeyed he retrieved the wallet from the man's inside suit coat pocket. Justin's eyes widened for a moment. "Zef." He looked up. "Gun."

Zefiryn blinked and said, "Powder wet."

"She just defused your ammunition." Justin opened the wallet. "Mr....oh. How interesting. Detective Garton Seymour." Justin pulled out Garton's driver's license. "How old you are. The record never changed from your real birthdate that you gave on your first driver's license...before the war, it seems." He flipped the license to Garton's date. The blonde caught it, read it, and gasped.

Garton's shrug and smile indicated unconvincing surrender. "My daughter."

Zefiryn shook her head. "She smells different than you; light and air and free; not family." The fur on Zefiryn's face grew; her fangs lengthened; she spoke to the co-ed. "Leave."

The NYU student dropped the license, stood up, and squeezed close to Zefiryn in passing. Her breasts brushed soft on the back of the tiger-girl's neck. Nina stepped back to let the blonde pass.

Zefiryn leaned over the table and brought her face close to Garton's. "Smells right; smells like night. The flesh in the vial. Do the scars on your back ever itch, ever twitch, ever make you strain to skritch?"

Garton indicated the wings clipped to Zefiryn's shoulder. "The only itch I ever feel back there is to let my wings loose and fly."

"Bat-wings, cat-wings; all flight things come back at the night end of the day." Zefiryn touched fingertips to her wings, and hid her gentle sigh.

Justin set the closed wallet on the table. Nina saw Garton's gold shield glint out from the dark leather fold, and felt dizzy.

"Tell me," Zefiryn said to Garton, "is it only for the blood?"

"Is what," Garton said, "only for blood?"

"The girls, the swirls, the furls, and the long last night of the child-world. The girl who just left. Me. A frightened thirteen-year-old redhead fifty years ago, near and far and fear ago. How many others."

"Of course not just for blood," Garton said. "Not you. The girl you just chased off, she's just for blood."

"And innocence?" The bird wings appeared to flap on Zefiryn's shoulder. "Torn and gutted and bleeding?"

"Oh, nothing so crude as that. Innocence from you, yes. And...other things."

Zefiryn's left hand shot across the table like the strike of a hungry bird. She pierced the flesh of Garton's neck with her tiger claws and held tight. The man, over 150 years old, barely winced, and never lost his smile.

"It will do no good to rip my throat out," Garton said. "I'm afraid death is beyond my many capabilities."

"This will do for the pain-piercing-bleeding," Zefiryn said. "Tell me who he is."

The corner table was shielded from the dance floor by a low wall. Nonetheless Nina opened her coat to hide the view, failing to see the tall bouncer who inched his way among the dancers toward the table; changing his form, through his steps, in a way not unlike Zefiryn.

"Tell me his name," Zefiryn said.

Garton tried to disgust the girl with a stretch of his neck, forcing blood that stank of rotting flesh onto her fingers. "Whose name?"

Justin pressed the gun muzzle into Garton's ribs. "The man who attacked her," Justin said. "Who planted lies against her father."

Zefiryn brought forth more noisome blood with a tight clench of her claws in Garton's neck. "I've learned enough to know I wouldn't be standing here if he were like you from the zoo of the monster world. But he must work with you, hunt for you, give to you, right? Or did he act alone?"

"You think I'll tell you?" Garton said.

"Yes, I think you will; I think you'll trill me a song in a bat-bird-cat tune of --" Zefiryn's reply choked short as a pair of large hands wrapped around her ribs from behind, lifted her, and threw her into the crowd of dancers. Zefiryn fell, rolled; came to four padded feet as a tiger.

The bouncer that grabbed Zefiryn crouched low and half-crawled toward her, growling out of his grey fur-covered face. The dancers danced past the momentary interruption and added the confrontation to their minds as a new dance of its own, in thrilling and splendid costumes. The club lights flickered while Zefiryn and the werewolf fought mentally to control them, one trying to blind the other with strobes and spots and hot needles of lasers. Fur pressed upward under the bouncer's clothes, still worn by the anthrowolf he had become.

Nina watched wide-eyed, then turned back to Justin. The professor sat alone next to Garton's empty seat.

"But," Nina said. "Where did he..."

Justin stood up. "Vanished. Most likely he shapeshifted and flew off while we watched Zef. Took back his wallet, too." Justin held up a small notebook. "But I pilfered something more valuable. His address book."

Zefiryn and the werewolf stalked each other around the dance floor, while the partiers laughed and music pounded down the combatants' snarls and roars. Zefiryn slashed out with massive forelegs and claws, her reach greater than her adversary's. When she struck him twice, he grew careless from the shame of his spilled blood, and failed to guard his back.

"Come." Justin pocketed the notebook and took Nina's right elbow in his left hand. He guided her alongside while he drew up behind the werewolf. Hardly anyone noticed the flash from the end of Justin's long coat sleeve, touching the werewolf's back. The werewolf keeled over, clutching at the hole blown out of his chest by the hollow-point bullet. Zefiryn watched with curious and fierce eyes. Justin holstered his gun with a gracefully hidden gesture while he led Nina gingerly around the dance floor mess of blood, fur, and flesh before escorting her out of the club.

Nina walked down the sidewalk beside Justin, and glanced back at the club. "What about Zefiryn?"

"She dislikes it if I hover over her too much," Justin said. "As long as she slips out before animal control arrives, she'll be fine." He pulled out Garton's notebook and slapped it happily against his right hand.

"'Who steals my purse steals trash.'" Justin said, "' 'tis something, nothing; but he that filches from me my good name, robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.'"

"That's what was taken from you?" Nina said.

"Me, you, Zef's father, the old wino. The Roman soldiers specialize in stealing souls. Theft of the name is step one."

Behind them, Zefiryn reached the sidewalk outside the club, once more a girl. She kept the shape but shortly.

####
'

Nina's stylish shoes clipped fast against the concrete while she kept pace with Justin. "I suppose you keep it loaded with silver bullets."

"What?" Justin looked up from thumbing through Garton's notebook. "Oh, the gun. Yes. You sort of have to, y'know."

A falcon flew close over their heads and then banked upward to keep a watch on the surrounding streets. The trio headed uptown. After a brisk eight blocks, Justin ushered a winded Nina into a coffee shop and ordered coffee for both of them, and a handmade soda for Zefiryn. Justin set the soda on a low table next to a vacant and comfortable chair. He then sat with Nina at a table hidden, but with a window view. Justin pulled out an iPhone and began to compare names stored on it with names crafted in fine penmanship in the detective's notebook. Zefiryn soon entered, again in the shape of a girl. She settled into the comfortable chair and cuddled her wings, and lovingly crooned to them.

"Um..." Nina leaned across the table at Justin, whose eyes were intent on his work. "You seem sort of...seem unbothered by the things we've seen tonight."

"Not at first." Justin ran a finger over a page of the notebook, checked a name, and entered it into his iPhone. "I had nightmares. Zef giggled at me when I bought myself a nightlight. I grew into this gradually. When I first met Zef, runaway Zef, Zef with no home...she was frightened, and trusted no one. I had only a cheap flat in Brooklyn, but I took her in. Gave her the bed while I took the couch."

"And nothing else?"

For the first time, Nina saw a shadow of anger in Justin's eyes.

"It is a fine pass," he said, "when an innocent act of mercy is perceived only as evil."

"Shakespeare?"

Justin shook his head. "Ritter. Zef showed me her abilities the next morning, tried to prepare me for what I would see. They were already chasing her."

"Who?"

"The ghouls, the vampires, the werewolves. And the Roman soldiers who help them. Some are both."

"Who are these 'Roman soldiers' you keep mentioning?"

"The oppressors, the blackshirts, the murderers of innocence. The killers of Christ, if you believe in that sort of thing. They thrive on the fringe where society's protectors succumb to their own arrogance and power."

Nina sipped her coffee and nodded. "I was a defense attorney."

"Ever for a scared child? Where does she turn when the Roman soldiers destroy? That first day with Zef...it was only hours before I had my first encounter with them, in an alley behind where I lived. Not the soldiers, but the things of darkness who work for them, often in uniform. They almost killed me when I stood between them and Zef. After that I learned weaponry and hacking. And I read up on monsters."

Nina gestured to the iPhone. "What names are you consulting?"

"A database I hacked. Names of Roman soldiers. Three hits so far, but the ages are wrong. Except...here. This one. About the right age, the proper precinct in Queens. A procurer for monsters like Garton, who live off human blood and...something else. Witch-magic, maybe." Justin gestured toward Zefiryn, who had, seeming unawares, slipped into a half-tiger body again while she stroked her wings, her precious possession that resembled nothing so much as a discarded Mardi Gras mask.

"See her," Justin said. "She's still innocent, despite what she's been through. And what she's done. 'I am as true as truth's simplicity, and simpler than the infancy of truth.' Innocence is strong. Determined, it is dangerous. Betrayed, it can kill."

Nina chuckled. "Don't make her angry?"

Justin's face was as set and serious as a courtroom statue. "Never. You may continue with us, if you wish. Whatever happens this night...don't be afraid of her."

####
'

A Long Island City street in the middle part of night; closer to dawn than dusk. Old businesses and mostly-abandoned brownstones gave way, in the distance, to warehouses of historical architecture had someone cared to slap the label on such life-weary structures; brick with small square windows, some boarded up, some shattered. An occasional streetlamp or two flickered through swirling drizzle like myriad urban fireflies. Justin stood in a menacing hunched-over pose beside the last torn wires of the last pay phone the old street would ever see. He smoked a cigarette even though he hated the things. Professor Ritter much preferred his pipe, a soft chair, a good book; things stolen from him by men like the one he had called out this autumn night. Nina stood alongside Justin, collar up, while her untended prop cigarette birthed an idle grey snake into the mist.

Behind them, under the dark blanket of an alley-shadow, the cat-girl waited.

The man came out of a side street about a block up, between the pay phone shell and the brick warehouses. His jacket was buff-colored, not appropriate for skulking about at night. "Overconfident," Justin whispered to Nina. The jacketed man heard the susurrus of the voice, and walked toward the self-consciously film noir couple.

The stranger had bushy black hair and a touch of stubble over his sharp chin. He faintly pointed at Justin. "You the one who called?"

Justin nodded. "Mr. Clark, is it?"

"Sergeant Clark. But since you're one of Garton's familiars, why not just call me Wiley?"

Nina felt again the way she had when she glimpsed Garton's badge.

"Wiley it is, then," Justin said. "Thank you for coming."

Wiley flexed his shoulders and slipped his hands into jacket pockets. "Why didn't Garton come himself?"

"This is a...special procurement," Justin said. "And Garton has gone away for a while."

"Oh, so he has a lead on someone intriguing, perhaps?" Wiley stood several paces away with a schoolboy smirk like he was setting up a prank, a grin made grotesque by the yellow flickers of a dying streetlamp. "Who's the tart?"

Nina flinched in anger and took one step forward, losing an inch-long cigarette ash on the way. "I beg your pardon?"

"Not you," Wiley said, "although I've never known Garton to use women to draw out the girls before. He's catching up with the times. No, ma'am; I mean, who's the mark? The girl Garton wants, the one I'm supposed to interrogate?"

Justin tossed his spent cigarette away and lit another. "That's one thing I've never puzzled out. Why Garton needs you and the other..." He hoped his smile appeared sinister. "Roman soldiers...in the first place."

"Because," Wiley said, "to elicit the proper response from the mark, we have to force the issue. Garton used to do it himself, long ago, but that can get pretty messy. I think you'll agree that our master is very fastidious. Lucky for us...heh. Roman soldiers. I like that. Lucky for us that Garton's needs have no requirement for virginity."

Unseen in the shadows behind Justin and Nina, something rustled like wings or padded feet. Or, perhaps, both.

The vile insouciance of Wiley's answers sickened Nina. "What are his...Mr. Garton's needs?" she said.

Wiley squinted at the half-shadowed woman and held out his hand for a cigarette, which Justin passed to him. Wiley lit the smoke, drew on it, and sighed.

Wiley said to Justin, "Doesn't she know?"

"Like many plots of corruption," Justin said, "not all of the conspirators have been fully briefed."

Wiley reached under his jacket and made a show of checking his sidearm before re-holstering the weapon. "They don't all need just blood. For some of the lesser creepies, blood is enough. But magic can also be sucked from a host. Food, fuel... pleasure of a sort denied the rest of us. So many girls in this city, each with a little touch of magic; but the strong ones, the real little powerhouses...anymore we have to catch the kids when they're young because to see the flare-up that proves each girl is right for our masters, that does require virginity. And the double-dose of horror stoked by its violation. In my work the false accusation is easy enough to arrange, though a lot of times some wicked-minded busybody will provide us with the proper lead. The investigation commences with all the shattered emotions and a broken family, and finally the man with the badge...the Roman soldier...heh. I come in and intensely interrogate the child."

Nina dropped her smoldering cigarette.

Wiley pulled five stones from his pants pocket; walnut-sized, polished smooth, semi-transparent. Each stone was marked with a different runic character, each stone its own color: garnet, saffron, orchid, holly, indigo.

"These protect us," Wiley said, "when the magic flares. You get the girl pinned under you and she begins to shift or levitate or spark lights from her fingertips. Then she screams even more. She never knew such power was in her, eh? The stones force the witch-girl back to her human shape and drain her power. Temporarily." He re-pocketed the talismans. "Afterwards, after a good session of, um, interrogation...I let Garton know the results. If the girl is worthy of him, then my colleagues and I finish crushing the girl's family and bind the child over to him."

A little voice came from the shadowed alley; dry, scratched, and frightened. "Unless she gets away."

"That happens once in a great while," Wiley said. "Who's back there?"

Justin threw down his cigarette and pulled out his gun, leveled at Wiley. "One who got away."

The gryphon launched straight up out of the alley and spread her gold wings streaked with black over a dark chocolate-gold body. She was lion up to her neck and eagle above that, with a bright yellow beak, a deep russet mane, eyes of reddish-gold fire, and frightful talons on her forepaws.

Nina drew closer to Justin. "This is what you meant, isn't it? About not being afraid of her."

Justin nodded. "She's very angry at the moment."

Zefiryn hovered above the street. Her wings beat misty spirals through the flickering streetlight in whirlwinds of gold.

Wiley stepped back once, smirked, and held his ground. He spoke to Justin. "So you aren't really with Garton."

"No," Justin said. "I only forced a part of him to come with us."

Zefiryn arced out of the sky and flew toward Wiley, foreclaws extended. Her cry combined eagle-shriek and lion-roar, echoing off old brick with an ancient monster's rage. Wiley pulled out his gun but found it of no use; Zefiryn's magic had reached it first. Then Wiley retrieved the talismans from his pocket. He held them high in his right hand while the stones gave off multifarious clustered colors greater than just a reflection of the dim streetlamps. Zefiryn shrieked at the stones and banked away.

Nina said to Justin, "Can we get the stones away from him?"

"No," Justin said. "He may possess enough crude magic to spell us with them. Plus, for a variety of reasons, this is a fight only Zef can win."

"Or lose," Nina said.

"Nothing is assured."

Zefiryn cut a low, close diagonal in front of Wiley, trying to drive him toward the warehouses. The police officer stepped back and tried to touch his talisman-stuffed hand to the gryphon while she passed in a rush of wind.

Zefiryn banked up, kicked off the wall of an old brownstone, then arced back and skidded to a halt in the street in front of Wiley. Her head towered over Wiley's; her spread wings each nearly twelve feet long. Her tail twitched, and its dark gold tuft flickered. Zefiryn's tall ears shivered angrily; she reared up and clawed the air at her rapist, and ripped from her throat a slate-board shriek. Wiley ducked, brought up his right hand, and made contact with Zefiryn's left foreleg. The gryphon screamed in pain, tore her leg loose from the talismans' sting, and launched into the air.

Wiley chuckled, and began murmuring under his breath.

Nina motioned to Justin's gun. "Don't tell me you can't simply shoot him."

"I can't," Justin said. "I already told you why. And see his lips? I was correct; he knows a little magic. Some sort of protective incantation, I bet. Watch carefully that he doesn't cast a spell to bind us and strike at Zef that way."

Zefiryn dived toward Wiley with claws unsheathed, but found she could no longer come close to him. Wiley backed away, protected by a mobile shell that would allow him to escape the battle unharmed. Zefiryn circled and struck out with her claws, but raised only sparks from Wiley's otherwise invisible shield.

"Where," Nina said, "does a cop learn magic?"

"From Garton or his similarly endowed colleagues, most likely," Justin said. "Zef was born with her powers."

"Innocent?"

"Very."

"The talismans are evil, then?"

"Stones like that can be used either way," Justin said. "The influence comes from the one using them."

On the street again, Zefiryn stalked around Wiley. Her eyes flickered red rage and frustration. She scrabbled at the worn blacktop, throwing up clods of crumbling asphalt in a desperate attempt to dig under Wiley's shell.

Wiley's smirk remained unfazed behind his shield. "I think I remember you now," he said to Zefiryn. "I interviewed you one evening at your apartment. You didn't see me swipe your mother's keys from the dish by the door when I left, did you?"

Zefiryn shrieked at him as if the sound alone could shatter Wiley's defenses.

"It's those cries that tell me who you are," Wiley said. "You squeaked on that warm night we spent together. With each push I gave, I heard a little squeak and a tiny cry for help from poor little...Zefiryn. Oh, yes. You called for your daddy, and squeaked, and then...oh, your ears grew and your teeth grew and I felt a tail twist out of your backside under my hand. Clearly you were more surprised by the change than I was. I used these" -- Wiley held up the stones -- "to halt your first transformation. It came on quick and strong, didn't it? Garton was highly pleased with my report. It's a shame you ran away, but now that I know more about you, we can retrieve you at some unsuspecting time. Soon. I'm sure you realize the various allies we have at our disposal. There are some even nastier creatures we don't let loose except on special occasions. And I think you qualify. Squeak! Squeak!"

Zefiryn roared and redoubled her clawing, but into each clawed trench of gravel and dirt she dug fell the boundary of Wiley's defense like an unyielding liquid curtain.

Nina said to Justin, "She doesn't see that sheer strength isn't working?"

"She seeks," Justin said. "Every spell has its weakness."

Nina watched while Zefiryn reared up and lashed out with her forepaws, flinging futile sparks from Wiley's shield. The gryphon's constant keening began to climb toward despair.

"Innocence," Nina said.

Justin glanced at her. "What?"

"Anger isn't working. Her revenge is too hot, full of fire and sparks, right? But innocence is cool, right?"

"You're the lawyer."

Nina almost giggled with her discovery. "Innocence takes time; waits and calculates. It doesn't appear to threaten. And it gets fuel from...her wings. Things precious to her."

Justin nodded. "Zefiryn!"

The gryphon fell to all fours and glared at Justin with frantic wide eyes as if she might rip him apart as a substitute for her revenge.

"Let your anger leave you," Justin called out. "Think of the time before, of your mother and brother and father. Think of Tosia. Calm and sit and remember."

Zefiryn turned back to Wiley and squawk-roared, then paced around the boundary of his shield. She clawed at the ground again but only perfunctorily, and shook her head to clear it of fire. Her pacing slowed and then stopped. Zefiryn settled on her muscular chocolate-gold haunches, facing Wiley.

The cop chuckled, and waved his glowing talismans at the gryphon. "Squeak-squeak, little wind."

Zefiryn opened her beak and took in a breath of air. "I remember," she said.

Justin's body jerked in surprise. "She's never spoken in a changed state before."

Zefiryn's voice came from far back in her eagle throat, with plosives and "oh" sounds made through deft dashes of her tongue. "I remember, I recall it, I see the sky. My father took me to the park one day; a sunny day, a running day. I was ten. Daddy pushed me on the swings so high and caught me in a rush-shush-crush at the bottom of the slide like I was little again, ten again, five again; youngster in the sun again." Zefiryn's hackled fur and feathers began to slowly settle. "We fed the lucky ducks, and I petted someone's golden pretty dog that was brought out for a walk, and we had a talk, and I caught it not odd that the dog thought me his name."

Wiley's smirk wavered, and he dryly murmured, "Squeak-squeak!"

Zefiryn's hackles flared, then faded. "We saw color kites dancing in the high blue sky, so Daddy and I walked to a store and brought a kite back to the park, all captive-packaged and waiting to be freed. Our kite was yellow and blue and red, and Daddy said it would make all the colors in the sun. He put kite together and helped me launch it. The sun grabbed kite and pulled her high and wide and she circled and swooped and sang flap-flap-flapping songs in the wind, and sprayed color everywhere, little drops of color falling to the earth dressed as children running with me and Daddy and lovely kite. It was so simply brightly beautiful. The wind grew strong and greedy and snatched the string thing out of my hands. Daddy and I chased the kite, but the roll of string unwound unbound whirl-whirl-whirl in the wind before we could catch it, and poor kite went sailing out over Nassau County like a Long Island poem in the sky."

Wiley glanced at the talismans in his hand; their light seemed duller than before. He tried to swagger. "Did you cry, squeaker?"

Zefiryn seemed not to hear the taunt. "I laughed. We both bubble-laughed, Daddy and me. Our lovely lady kite escaped free of the earth like a bird, a sailing word, and the both of us, Daddy and I, ran after her, running sun across the yard and screaming and waving our arms and giggling until we got the hiccups. It was funny. And fun. Like a firecracker burst of sun and fun and happiness. I loved him. Daddy carried me across the park towards home. I was laughing so hard I dripped tears down his back."

Wiley jiggled his talismans, trying to rejuvenate their light. "Did Daddy cop a feel?"

Zefiryn closed her eyes and kept her rage quelled. "Daddy hugged me. His love and goodness wrapped me like wings."

"So sweet," Wiley said. "And alllllll gone now."

"No, not gone." Zefiryn cocked her head, curious and calm. She poked her beak forward, tentatively, to where Wiley's shield had been before; once, twice, thrice.

Now, there was nothing.

Wiley's eyes burst into white rims of terror.

Zefiryn flared her wings and thrust forward, and snatched up Wiley's neck in her beak. She ripped into his body with her foreclaws and tore open his belly in trenches of fat and muscle and blood. With her right forepaw she clenched Wiley's intestines and pulled slowly. Wiley shrieked and writhed, and pleaded for mercy like a violated child. His five failed talismans clattered to the ground with bright pops amid wet plops of blood. Zefiryn reared back and flung Wiley down on the torn asphalt. She prodded and poked and tore, careful to keep Wiley alive for as long as possible. Wiley's last words resembled the plaintive peeps of a mouse. Zefiryn bored her fire-gold eyes into his.

"Who's squeaking now?" Zefiryn said. It was enough and, with her yellow beak, Zefiryn crushed Wiley's neck.

The gryphon backed off Wiley's body and shrank and writhed, and became a girl again. The wings clipped to Zefiryn's shoulder glided with her as she ran to Justin and Nina, who both held her while she sobbed.

Nina shuddered away from the sight of Wiley's messy remains, and stroked Zefiryn's hair.

"What she was before," Nina said to Justin. "She can never have it back, can she? Not after all this."

"No, she can," Justin said. "'What we chang'd was innocence for innocence; we knew not the doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream'd that any did.'"

Zefiryn's sadness passed like the fluttering of her shoulder-wings. She scooped up the talismans and gave them to Justin, and promised to help him learn their use. Justin reluctantly mentioned Garton, and Zefiryn straightened her back, knowing one more difficult battle lay in her future, and that monsters would always lurk in the margins.

Justin took one of Zefiryn's hands in his. Nina took the other.

Nina stayed with them because Zefiryn's jailed father still had to be freed and, as Nina observed, even shapeshifters and Shakespeare scholars sometimes needed a good lawyer.

THE END


© 2011 Cody L. Stanford

Bio: Cody L. Stanford tells us "My published short stories include “The Yellow Bike” and “Wolf Dreams” at Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, “Rainbows & Unicorns” in the anthology Transtories, from Aeon Press Books, “My Tiger” at Midwest Literary Magazine, “The Hot Bolt Kids” at Aphelion, “Blood Quarry,” “Freedom,” “Flying Fox” and “Gryphonwind” at The Piker Press, “White Fire” at Gypsy Shadow Publishing, “The New Boy’s Kiss” in Collective Fallout, “Alexandra’s Cat” and “Reedman” in The New Orphic Review, “But a Toy” in The Circle, “Blindsight Eclipse” in The Rejected Quarterly, and “The Magician” in Eyes magazine. Upcoming stories include “Sinews of the Heart” from WolfSinger Publications, and “Tiger Stone” and “Flight” from Gypsy Shadow Publishing. I have also published three novels, The Glasschanger’s Child, Orphan Stone, and Wolf Note."

E-mail: Cody L. Stanford

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