The following is a chapter taken from my novel, The Axeboy’s Blues. The book follows an Agency tasked with protecting the city of New Orleans, and includes ghosts, time travel, dapper mosquitoes, strange creatures & gigantic beasts.
Check out the first few chapters of The Axeboy’s Blues for free on Amazon here. (You can also purchase it as a real book or ebook on Amazon)
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The waves crashed upon the rocks of the levee, egged on by the storm raging high above.
Roman Wing stood a mere two yards above those waves, halfway up the levee. The wind swatted at the edges of his long coat like a hand swatting away the never-ending mosquitoes that appeared each evening.
The walkway on the levee above him, called The Moonwalk, was packed with joggers, locals walking their dogs and tourists who were laughing and taking pictures of each other with the giant cargo ships and paddle boats trudging down the Mississippi behind them. No one noticed the man named Roman Wing, nor that he was wearing a long, gray coat on such a warm spring day.
In the palm of his hand he held a dented and duct taped speaker from which a series of crackling sounds emanated. The cord connected to the back of the speaker dipped down towards the rocks, and then rose up and trailed out over the river and up for miles, disappearing into the clouds.
A distorted voice sputtered out of the speaker. “Alright. You should be good to go.”
Roman brought the speaker to his mouth and pushed one of the buttons down with his long thumb. “No, Albert. A little more. Just another notch.” He looked up at the clouds and the disappearing cord as he spoke.
“If I push it any further, I don’t know if I can keep the buckets from tipping,” said the muffled voice of Albert.
“You can keep them from tipping – you could do this blindfolded. Just concentrate, my friend.”
Roman lowered the speaker and closed his eyes, feeling the moisture in the air as the wind began howling all around him like winged lions. Then he opened his eyes and stepped forward, walking down the rocks like crooked stairs, hardly glancing at where he was stepping while the rats scattered to and fro in search of shelter. When he reached the river and the water was splashing against his boots, he spoke into the speaker: “Albert, I’m going in.”
“I’ll keep it up,” said the crackly voice. “Watch your back.”
Roman set the speaker down on one of the rocks and took from the inside of his coat a piece of the fruit called Wonder. His normally pale hand took on the colors of the fruit – heavy purples bursting with yellows and oranges – and he could feel it slowly seeping into his skin. Then he brought it to his mouth and sunk his teeth down. Eating the fruit was not like eating human food – it was more like sitting in the sun so long that you could feel the sun’s rays altering the chemistry of your body, changing you. It was as if you could be an idea and then evolve into a different yet related idea. It was like being an epiphany in someone else’s mind.
If anyone on the Moon Walk had noticed the strange man standing on the river’s edge (which they hadn’t), they would have seen him vanish. Or, rather, they would have simply not realized that they were still seeing him. Roman was still standing there, his boots splashed by the choppy waves, his coat and hair pulled about by the wind, eating the rest of the fruit called Wonder. But the substance that made up his body had shifted, had become more like thought or emotion – not quite so tangible to the human mind.
As he finished the fruit, the river before him began glowing with long, curling streaks of gold. Between the streaks he could see several large, whale-like beasts moving under the surface. They were further out, towards the center of the river, and he could hear their cries over the roaring of the wind. He’d seen those massive creatures tear apart several people over the years – some of whom he had considered friends. He had once, long ago, yelled at his mentor that they should rid the city of the beasts.
“They are necessary,” The Scientist had told him, hardly looking up from his sheets of drawings and diagrams that he’d been hunched over. “Stay here long enough and you’ll understand.”
They are necessary: a phrase that would haunt him for some time, until he eventually came to terms with the way that the city worked – how it had always worked and would continue to work. Roman hadn’t believed it to be true at the time, but over many years, like his mentor had promised, Roman had come to know the beasts’ importance. So many things in this city were necessary – no matter how awful, no matter what price had to be paid to keep them around. It’s like every awful thing in the city was put there to counteract something else just as awful or worse, which in turn was put there to keep something else in check. And so it went.
Roman stepped forward into the waters of the golden Mississippi. The water recoiled and hissed like cats around his feet, unsure of what to do with his form, then sniffed at him and hesitantly flowed around his ankles as if deciding he might not be out to get it. Roman walked into the water, feeling the pressure of it against his clothes yet not actually getting wet. His eyes scanned the water, making sure the beasts hadn’t noticed him yet, and soon the water was up to his chest. He looked down and saw the stick-like handle and rope on the river floor – not unlike what you hold when when water skiing, except that there was a large mechanical reel in the middle of it that the rope was attached to.
He plunged down into the water, grabbed the device and clicked it on. Instantly there was a whirring sound as it vibrated in his hands, and just as instantly the howling of the beasts grew louder. He heard the beasts coming for him, looking for him. As soon as his head was submerged in the waters they knew he was there – and he was not welcome. Roman had deterred the beasts many times before, and they held a special dislike for him. The device yanked him forward, quickly reeling the rope into itself and pulling him down deeper into the river.
One of the beasts was lumbering towards him, and Roman dived down deeper to arc underneath, being sure to give plenty of space for its swinging tail fin. Because of the wind messing with its senses, it was probably sensing ten different versions of him all around it. The beast didn’t turn to chase him, instead trying to attack the many phantom Romans, roaring madly as he sped on down into the depths of the river. There seemed to be no sign of other beasts pursuing him as he descended into the dark – towards a pulsing blue light far below.
It should be pointed out here that Roman Wing is not at all aquatic in nature – he was breathing neither air nor water, but breathing ether, or existence itself. In this way, it did not matter one bit whether there was air or water around him. It’s not that the fruit of Wonder gave him the power to breathe ether, but that he could always breathe ether and the fruit just had a way of reminding his body of the fact.
The device continued to coil the rope between his clenched hands, and the blueish light ahead quickly revealed itself to be a cluster of old buildings lined up along the river’s floor, with dirt streets and gas streetlights with bright blue flames. It was, of course, the first French Quarter.
The whirring device pulled him towards the end of the line – towards the old town square, which was not called Jackson Square but rather Place D’Armes, and the old church, which was grand but not nearly as grand as the St. Louis Cathedral. Roman clicked off the device and floated down towards the church, past all the flat-faced buildings of the first Quarter with their steeped roofs and wooden frames. Between the buildings the riverwalkers swam, going about their business. The first Quarter was not nearly as populated as the second, but the inhabitants numbered in the hundreds.
The rope that he’d followed down from the surface was tied to a metal loop which was stuck into the ground near the base of the church. Roman touched down in the town square and looked up at the church’s clock, then checked it against his watch. “It’s off again, Elsh,” he said as she approached. “Probably needs a real tune up this time, not just another bucket of WD40.”
“Are you offering us your services then, Roman?” she asked.
He turned to her. Like all the riverwalkers, her body was a conglomeration of coffee-skinned woman, silvery fish and river plants. Her body never really stopped moving – fins protruded from the parts of her that were covered in silver scales, moving her up and down with the current of the water. Algae and flowering plants grew from within her and wrapped around her body, their leaves and petals constantly opening and closing, breathing and eating tiny sea creatures.
He shook his head and nodded up towards the distant surface. “I’m afraid not. I’ve been working so much that I hardly have time for my research. I even put off coming down here for as long as I could.” He reached into his coat and pulled out a stack of envelopes that were tied together with string and wrapped in plastic. “Hope there’s nothing too pressing in here. Some of these are probably a month old.” He handed the stack of mail to Elsh.
A cluster of seaweed uncoiled itself from around her torso, wrapped around the stack of mail and then recoiled itself back around her. “Since you’re so busy, I guess you don’t have time for a drink.”
Roman smirked. “I think the air-breathing world will be fine without me for an hour.”
He walked through the streets as she glided next to him, past rows of empty wooden buildings all lit up by the blue streetlights. The sea floor stirred underneath his boots as he stepped on shells of all types, while crustaceans and fish scattered at their approach. They passed nearly empty hotels, pubs, store fronts and small mansions – with the random riverwalker passerby nodding briefly while swimming past.
They entered L’Hotel Glace, a once-grand three-story establishment on the street called Camino de Bayona, made their way through the empty lobby and past the darkened restaurant, then headed up the stairs to the second floor. At the landing there was nothing but a wall and a large metal vault door. Roman spun the giant handle, pulled it open and they went into the chamber beyond, where he proceeded to close and lock the door from the inside.
The chamber was small and metal, with dozens of fist-sized circular holes in each wall and a control panel which contained three levers. The wall facing the vault door they’d come through had an identical vault door. Roman pulled one of the levers, then waited a few minutes while the groaning of gears and whining of belts grew louder. When the churning and grinding became regulated, he pulled a second lever and vibrations echoed through the water in the room. Imperceptibly at first, and then more quickly, the water began to drain out of the room through the holes in the wall. Elsh closed her eyes and touched down on the ground, flexing her muscles and stretching them out as they shifted to support her weight. She never had trouble switching over from breathing water to air though – that part of her amphibious nature seemed to be more deeply ingrained. As many times as he’d done this with her, Roman could never keep from staring at the gills along her dark neck and shoulders as they opened and stretched, coughing up excess water and then sucking in the air. He’d always found the riverwalkers to be the most fascinating of the non-humans in New Orleans.
When the water was done draining from the room, Roman pushed the first lever back up and the rumbling of the gears slowed and sputtered out. He spun the handle of the second vault door and it opened into a long, wide metal room whose edges were packed with lab equipment, bookshelves filled to the brim with books, and dozens of curio cabinets with all kinds of petrified creatures. They walked across the laboratory (which had been created by The Scientist long ago and hadn’t been used since he vanished from the world) and then passed through a door that led them to the make-shift bar Roman and Elsh had built. The bar itself was a wooden lab table, but the bar stools were real bar stools.
“Mind if I do the honors?” asked Roman.
“Go ahead,” said Elsh, sitting awkwardly on one of the stools. She always seemed awkward while doing human things. He’d found the majority of human behaviors to be more than a little ridiculous, so watching her behave like a human was oddly refreshing in its way.
He walked behind the bar, where there was a large mirror and rows of different colored, unlabeled bottles. “Anything new?” he asked.
“The red bottle to your right,” she said. “I found a hidden patch of blood flowers upstream, between here and Baton Rouge.”
In one of the neighboring rooms Roman had built several distillation columns that Elsh used to make alcohol from various plants and flowers that could be found either in the river, the swamps, or Lake Pontchartrain. Roman was sure that at least some of these plants would be too poisonous to humans, but Roman and Elsh seemed to manage. The concoctions were horrible at first, but over the years she’d gotten adept at the process and they often took turns mixing them together along with other liquids found under the water. There were also quite a few mixers that she’d make by brewing them like one would brew tea or coffee.
Roman took the red bottle and smelled it. “Reminiscent of hibiscus.” He uncapped some of the others and smelled them, then began mixing them into a couple of glasses. For a while he’d meant to bring down or create some kind of ice maker, but the temperature was cool down there and the two of them had gotten used to drinking without ice.
“Donish will be angry if she sees you,” said Elsh as Roman took a seat on the barstool beside her. “She’s been giving me grief for weeks about the mail being late.”
“To hell with Donish! She can go topside and risk her own life swimming past the beasts. I’m not her damned mailman.”
Elsh’s face was a picture of serenity, her deep green eyes gazing into his.
Roman laughed at himself and his anger. “Sorry. Like I was telling you, I’ve been doing work that’s not my own for a while now, and can’t wait to get back to my studies. I do what I can, but it’s getting harder to care about all these little tasks.” He raised his drink to her, and she did the same. Then they sipped from their glasses and the flowery tastes exploded on his tongue as the liquid swirled down through him – the physical liquid waking up the more real and physical parts of his body and bringing them to the surface, making him more visible.
“There you are,” said Elsh. “It’s odd how I get so used to not really seeing you.”
Out of his periphery, Roman watched as his hand holding the glass shifted in and out of plain sight. He could always see himself, of course, but whenever the Wonder brought out of him his less physical aspects, he saw his own body as a sort of thin hologram infused with a kind of inverted light. The world around him too became more heavy and real with every sip of his drink, just as the riverwalker sitting at the bar with him became darker and more exotic in his eyes as the more human parts of him, like desire and compassion, surfaced like buoys that had been held underwater. These changes in him were mixed with the changes brought on by the alcohol, which relaxed him so suddenly that he slouched down onto his bar stool, enjoying the feel of his weight on it. He let out a deep sigh.
“It looks like you needed that drink,” said Elsh.
Roman held up his glass and watched the liquid swirl around within. “I guess I haven’t let myself relax since the last time I was down here. There’s just so much to do, with the others all gone.”
“Julius hasn’t hired anyone to replace them yet?”
Roman shook his head. “He’s still depressed. Through all the different versions of him, I’ve never seen him this low. I don’t know if he’s going to come out of it.”
“I’m sure he will. What is Julius without the Agency?”
“Yes, he has to come out of it.” Roman looked down at his long hand as he made and unmade a fist. “Thirty-four. Thirty-four Agents I’ve watched die or vanish or become otherwise incapacitated over the years. I hadn’t ever counted until last week. But the number just popped into my head, and it took me a while to figure out what the number meant.”
“They all know the risks.”
“Well, I can’t say that the risks aren’t downplayed. And it’s not what can happen, it’s what will most likely happen. You can only roll the dice so many times before rolling snake eyes.”
“Some Agents retire.”
“Yeah, but they sure don’t add up to thirty-four. Not even half that number.”
“So, are you thinking about retiring yourself, then?”
“Me? No. I’ll die on the job. I’ve lived quite long enough as it is.” He took a another sip of his drink. “It’s the young ones that shake me up. You see, the ones like me who’ve been around and made peace with this kind of life, I don’t feel as bad for them. But the new ones who never get to see their full potential, who are still uncertain with what the hell they’re doing – when they die, I feel like we tricked them. Or helped them trick themselves.”
He looked over at her and her eyes were still so calm – like little green pools promising so much life underneath the surface. Roman suddenly felt himself blushing and laughed at himself. “You make me feel so human sometimes.”
Elsh shrugged – an obvious joke between them both, because shrugging was not something she’d ever do naturally, but was a human trait she’d always found weird-looking. “What’s so bad about feeling human?”
“It’s kind of icky,” said Roman, playing the same game with the word icky. Not a word that would ever pass through the iron gates of his vocabulary. He finished the last of his drink, sighed and set the glass down on the bar.
Elsh shrugged again, then finished her own off. “My turn.” She got up and approached the bottles.
“What about you? How have you been keeping yourself occupied?”
“You have your assignments,” she said as she opened a bottle and smelled it, “and we have ours. Most of it is kept from me – I only really know information pertaining to my own tasks.” She said the last word as if it tasted sour. “Donish makes sure I’m kept in the dark as much as possible.”
“I thought you two were pretty close. What happened?”
Elsh took out two fresh glasses and began carefully adding liquids to them. “She decided quite suddenly that she didn’t care for the company I keep.” She looked at him and raised an eyebrow – a human trait she’d picked up that ironically wasn’t a joke at all.
“Wait, Donish doesn’t like me now? What did I do?”
“It’s not anything you did, Roman. She just decided you’re a little too enmeshed in the air-breathing world. Something’s made her paranoid and she thinks the entities of the city have other plans for the river – and for us.”
“Are your people preparing for a fight then?”
Elsh pushed the drinks towards him and her bar stool, then walked around the bar and sat back down. “Most likely. I’m sure they’re preparing for something, just in case.”
Roman nodded. “Good. What if she’s right? I wouldn’t be able to help you. With Julius crippled and in the emotional state he’s in, I’m the only fully active Agent right now. And it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.”
“I think of my people as always being prepared,” she said, raising her glass.
He raised his own glass and tapped it against hers, then they tapped the bottoms of their glasses on the bar and took a drink. A mix of anise and seaweed with a touch of something not unlike clove. “Very nice,” he said, the flavors dancing on his tongue. “This might be your best yet.”
She smiled and the gills of her neck stretched out in a way that showed Roman her sense of pride. Every riverwalker’s emotions were given away by their gills, if one knew what to look for. The only way one of them could ever hope to trick Roman would be to keep their gills covered. If he lived long enough and somehow found the time, he’d most likely end up writing an extensive series of work on the species.
Roman’s wrist began to buzz, and he pulled back the sleeve of his coat and pushed the button on the side of his large time piece to silence it. “Damn, I’ve got to get going already – Albert should be starting up the storm again, and I have a meeting with The Function. Though gods know he’s going to be late anyway, so I don’t know why I’m going to bother being on time.” He took a long drink from his glass.
“The Function?” She laughed. “Serendipity brought him out of the icebox again?”
“Yeah. I’m not sure what he’s up to, but he asked me to meet him on the docks by the bridge in half an hour.”
She shrugged, making Roman smile, and then took a long drink. He pulled his eyes away from his friend. He didn’t necessarily hate the desire he sometimes felt for her, or the humanness entwined with that desire – he hated the part of himself that liked it. He may even have tried to start some kind of relationship with Elsh if his desire for her wasn’t so intense. He had never felt so strongly when he’d been with Rachel. Sometimes Roman was so, so glad that he was only half human – he couldn’t fathom how humans could stand being what they were. He took a deep breath and yearned for the piece of Wonder that was in his coat pocket, one bite of which would cut him off from his desire.
“Roman, are you alright?” She put a dark-skinned webbed hand on his shoulder, then she touched his cheek with the back it. “Your skin’s really warm.”
Roman swallowed. “Just, uh, stressed out. I’d better get going, Elsh.”
“I worry about you.” Her eyes were swimming as he gazed into them. “I don’t want you to die. You’re the only person I care about.”
“Don’t worry yourself about that.”
She took his hand in hers, brought it to her lips, closed her eyes and kissed it. Roman’s heart rippled through the rest of his body and he almost had to pull away from her. But then algae and seaweed sprouted from his hand where she kissed him, wrapping around his hand and wrist, and immediately he felt an intense and deep calm spread throughout his body. He closed his eyes and relaxed so suddenly that he would have fallen off his bar stool if Elsh hadn’t held him up.
After a few minutes he opened his eyes. “Thank you for that.”
She smiled at him. “Certainly.”
He sighed. “I don’t want to leave. I feel like staying down here all day. But I should see what The Function has up his sleeve.” He slowly withdrew his hand from hers, with the sea plants still wrapped around it. He felt good – the desire was still there and he felt very human, but he also felt so calm and serene. He didn’t like taking drugs of any kind, but he had to admit that the miniscule amount of poison from her lips had a very positive effect on him.
She nodded. “Maybe I’ll become an Agent so I can watch out for you.”
“You’d hate being an Agent.”
“That’s probably true.”
They both finished their drinks, put away the bottles and left their makeshift bar. As they walked down the length of the unused laboratory, Elsh looked at all of the lab equipment. “Do you think he’ll ever come back?” she said, referring to The Scientist.
Roman glanced at the lab equipment as they passed. “I never think about it. Not anymore. Whether he does or doesn’t, neither will surprise me.”
They walked through the vault door and Roman pushed it closed, then spun the handle shut. He took out a piece of the fruit called Wonder and took a couple of bites. “You should really come to the surface some day soon. There are some views of the city I’d show you, and the art galleries are really something else.” He reached over and pulled one of the levers as his body slowly became less body and more not-body. The transformation took a little longer, since the Wonder had to overpower the effects of the alcohol and of Elsh’s poison that was in his system. The machinery began to churn loudly behind the metal walls as he kept eating the fruit. He looked over Elsh one last time with his human eyes, letting his desire dance somewhere between his mind and his heart before his desires were overshadowed by raw curiosity and logic.