Luisah’s Church

7,700 words

Jerena hung up after listening to the on-hold loop six whole minutes. She knew those needle-sharp mini-shrieks ending each repetition were supposed to annoy her. “Well guess what? They worked,” she told her mousy-grey cat. Human Services had won another round. Not hard when they made the rules.

She sat up on her futon and stretched. Lie down too long and her pain shifted from feet to back. Shrink—well worth his food and vet bills—waited patiently as Jerena shut the case of her access point and shoved it to the side. Then he climbed onto her lap and nuzzled against the warm spot left behind. With claws mostly retracted, he kneaded her pill-strewn sweater for milk she’d never had and hoped she never would.

Not that HS clients weren’t allowed pregnancies. But her lousy physical condition aside, Jerena couldn’t imagine sharing this precarious existence with a dependent. A new life at the mercy of the arbitrary application of some “objective” measurement of disability. Shaped by Human Service’s dictates. Warped.

Music thudded behind her head, highs dulled by the wall between her and F, the two-level apartment on that side. Hers, H, was larger than the corresponding apartment below because on Jerena’s floor no hall went to F’s upper half. And usually her neighbors were nice and peaceful, too, since the upper level was where they slept. But evenings they pumped up the tunes in the mistaken belief, apparently, that this drowned out the sounds of their sex.

She looked out the drafty window at the old bank clock on the corner. Right. 5:30. The enforcers at HS had wasted her whole day making her prove her needs. Shrugging on her good green coat, stuffing a bag of breadcrumbs in one pocket, and grabbing a pair of ski poles on the way, she went carefully down the three floors—six steep flights—to sidewalk level. Holding the rail the whole time, except where she had to trade hands where the landing became the hall to F. Shoving open the nonfunctioning automatic door at the bottom and slipping through. Breathing deep the damp autumn air.

Which way?

Left, west, lay the sculpture garden. Yeah, sure. Ten blocks. Twenty, round trip. Jerena used to be able to walk that far; when she’d finally gotten the apartment that had been one of its main attractions, but these days, even with the afternoon’s meds kicking in … Pressing her lips thin as a white woman’s she turned right.

At least the poles looked cooler than a cane. Maybe not a lot cooler, but some.

Now watch HS disallow them next time she had to buy replacements.

A patch of blue sky opened up as she entered the vacant lot one street past the drycleaner. Crows swirled off the sagging wires strung across the intersection. She saw that first. Then understood what she’d absently heard was an explosion. Then turned to see a huge cloud of smoke rising from somewhere back near her building.

Jerena had given up running a few months after her doctors told her to. Grimly she plodded back the way she’d come, sirens speeding past. By the time she reached home they’d cordoned off the walk. She had to get to the very front of the crowd before she could see that the bomb or whatever had gone off just past her building, at the site of a long-shut-down lighting shop. So her hard-won studio apartment was safe. And Shrink would be crazy with fear, but alive.

She let relief relax her, let the Brownian motion of the people surrounding her carry her to their rear. “You all right?” The voice came from above and behind her—from a tall, East Asian-looking man with a Clark Gable haircut.

She said nothing in response, but he talked on. “You seem pretty okay, but kind of—” He hesitated. “—wooden? Shocky, maybe? I don’t know you—”

“Right. You don’t know me. I don’t know you.” She kept the words short so they wouldn’t wobble with emotion.

“But we’re neighbors. At least—” The man grinned and cut his eyes at the burning duplex. “—at least we were neighbors. That was my place they got.”

He stuck out a hand and smiled. “My name’s Gordon. Pleased to meet you.”

Anger wiped out the treacherous residue of fear. “Are you serious?” Jerena clenched her poles tight, dug at the concrete. “Look at that place! It’s destroyed! How can you stand here so calm and talk about nice to meet me?” She waved a fist at the ruined storefront’s stinking, smoldering walls, at the fire’s eerie red-orange glow like a second sunset. “Look at it! Just look!”

Gordon dropped the hand she’d igged. “Yeah. But I didn’t live there. We’re staying with friends up in Willow Grove.”

“Oh. Sorry. Of course.” Of course his “place” hadn’t been his home. The glimpse she’d gotten of vévés freshly painted on the one remaining crack-webbed plate glass window should have made that plain. Now she recalled the rumors that there was going to be a branch of Luisah’s Church here … but she had ignored the notices of NIMBY protest meetings those rumors sparked, since she knew she’d never have the energy to attend them. Apparently she’d also acquired the habit of ignoring the slowly accumulating signs of the church’s readiness.

Belatedly Jerena realized how rude she was acting, scolding this man who’d just lost his house of worship to another of those awful bombings. Voodoo might be scary, but violence wasn’t the proper response. “Sorry. I’m sorry.” She transferred the right pole to her left hand and held her right out like he’d held his. He touched her palm lightly with his own.

“No problem. The elders sort of expected it. Twelve attempted attacks this year this makes, and three successful. The Church hasn’t let anybody stay in the sanctuary since Christmas of ’25.”

Almost two years. “But—”

“Excuse me.” A slender, dark-skinned woman with a satin-smooth head of hair jabbed the man’s exposed ribcage. His shoulders went up, but relaxed again when he saw who’d interrupted them. “Gordon—excuse me, baby, but the officers over there need to talk to you. No, here they come—”

“Thanks, Bet.” Gordon turned to meet two police shouldering their way toward him. Then paused. “This is Jerena. She lives on the third floor of 1616. Jerena, Bet is the Church’s Director of Ritual.” He seemed to want to say more, but he must have changed his mind.

He left. Jerena watched him greet the police like lost brothers. When had she told him her name?

“Gordon is our Outreach,” Bet said, as if answering a question Jerena hadn’t asked. “He’s good. He’ll have ideas who bombed us.”

Jerena stared at her. “Isn’t it obvious? The Saviors!” Everyone called the Defenders of Aryan Christianity “the Saviors” because of the motto on their logo: “Jesus Saves his Saviors.”

“Can’t charge a whole organization. Not without proof. Not such a big one, national. We need witnesses, collaborators, somebody been manipulated into carrying out orders against their will.” Sarcasm dripped off the last phrase like compost tea.

A short but awkward silence followed.

“Look—”

“Listen—”

Both women started and stopped at the same time. Bet laughed without turning up the corners of her mouth or crinkling the edges of her long eyes. As if only she knew what was funny about the situation. Jerena met and tried to hold her glance. The woman’s pupils glittered like rare brown gems. She shifted her attention away from their shine.

That just made Bet’s voice stand out more. Soft, but ridged with highs and lows. “Look, any kind of clue you have about any individual—” slight stress there “—who you think would hate on Luisah’s Church hard enough to plant explosives, you’d say, wouldn’t you?”

A corduroy voice. Jerena wished she could run her fingers along the grooves. “Sure.” She forced her thoughts back to what she’d noticed. Nothing? Her rear window had a good view of the alley and she sat there a lot in fall and winter, soaking up the southern rays. But today she’d mostly been in the front, and she’d focused on protesting Human Services’ rejection of her latest claim.

She didn’t have much. HS wanted it to be less. She was going to beat them at their own game. Somehow. The prospect of the contest ahead drained the last of the adrenaline-driven strength out of her and let the familiar pain and exhaustion flood in. Up from her aching ankles it climbed. She needed a nap.

Cuddled up with Bet she’d feel no pain.

“Listen,” she began again. “You can use my apartment to um, coordinate? My access point’s not the most super powerful, but it’ll help.” While she still had one she might as well share it.

“Yeah, but no. We’ve got mobiles.” Bet lifted the lanyard on which hers hung.

“Which we can keep for incoming calls if we take you up on your kind offer. Nice and close to the scene, too—the police will like that.” Gordon leaned over Bet’s shoulder, plucked the acid yellow lanyard from her hand to hang it back on her lovely neck, and thrust the mobile back inside the vee of her sweater. “It’ll be perfect.”

Jerena hadn’t invited Gordon, but he was the one who’d introduced Bet. As long as she was being stupid and trusting … “Anyone else?”

“Nope. Janitor’s gone for the day. Kitchen Director was supposed to start Friday. Haven’t hired the rest of the staff yet.”

“Yet. Friday.” Bet’s thick lashes swept down, her darkened lids shrouding the lamps of her soul. “Guess we’ll need to cancel tomorrow’s interviews.”

“Reschedule them, you mean. This is a great neighborhood; we’ll find somewhere even better nearby. Come on.” Stopping to check in with the hovering police, Gordon steered his colleague by one shoulder to the front door of Jerena’s building. She stood still where they’d left her for a moment, then caught up quickly.

Was this really a good idea? And whose was it? Had one of these surprise guests taken control of her mind with magic as some whispered was possible? She wondered about that even as she swiped her key and recited the entry code. She wondered why the thought didn’t bother her more.

§

The middle of next morning found Jerena beneath the itchy folds of a multicolored afghan, looking out over the alley. Alone. She’d given up the futon to Bet and Gordon and slept here in the kitchen, in her recliner. If they’d fucked they’d done so silently, in the middle of the night—and not during one of her frequent visits to the bathroom. When it got light enough for her to see them as she walked past, they sprawled on opposite sides of her bed, but held hands across its black expanse.

She’d banged around in the narrow space between cupboards on one side and counter, sink, cooker, and fridge on the other then, feeding her cat, taking her morning meds, making tea which her guests roused up and shared.

No sinister, unexplained impulses on her part. No more wondering why she’d invited them. She’d made her peace with that. It was the right thing to do whether it got her in Bet’s drawers or not.

On waking they’d set up a simple altar: a bowl of water and a stick of incense on a white scarf thrown over the radiator shelf, which didn’t seem at all threatening. Their prayers there were in English and actually sounded more like pop-psych affirmations than heathen hoogedy-boogedy. They’d made more calls, mostly follow-ups on yesterday’s, then left—separately. Gordon was gone to take possession of a new location for the church—more expensive but bigger, and right on the sculpture garden. Bet had to run a grief circle on the old site. Though the bomb had left no dead, no wounded. No casualties except dreams.

Not her dreams, Jerena reminded herself. Those were intact, untampered with, safely wrapped up with her in this warm nest where she’d slept. Where she rested now till she was ready to make them real.

Her reminder rang nine. Time to try calling HS again. Time to risk everything on the premise that she’d be treated like a human being instead of a set of program requirements.

She leaned the side of her head against the window and sighed. Condensing breath formed a cloud on the glass, fanning out from her lips, spreading to merge with the foggy patch above her mug. Automatically she wiped it away with her fingertips—then stopped mid-smear. Movement—a white man in overalls, shivering and rubbing his arms as he ran up the alleyway. Everything about that was suspicious. Did she know who he was? She pressed against the pane but he’d passed from sight. Last spring she’d gotten the window open—she banged at the latch, lifted it, wrestled with the rusted-shut crank, hurting her wrist without doing any—

BANG! “Sorry!” Like the noise, Gordon’s voice came from the entry. He walked in behind it and stood next to where she sat. “I had my hands full and I didn’t realize—I kicked the door too hard, I guess, and it hit the—You all right?”

Jerena looked up from her poor wrist. “Sure. Maybe a sprain but nothing broken.

“What’s in there?” She pointed an elbow at the blue net bags he carried.

“Donations. Canned stuff. The gym one block over is starting a drive. You wouldn’t believe how popular we are; most Christians—”

The mysterious runner was back! “Shh!” Jerena renewed her attack on the window crank one-handed.

“What?” Gordon knelt on the seat cushion beside her. She hadn’t even asked him to help but, infuriatingly, he succeeded where she’d failed. Though the crank glitched and barked like a hyena as it opened. And the running man paused and looked right up at them.

“Hey, Nesto!” Gordon shouted.

The man in the alley smiled and waved both arms, then ran off.

“You know him.” Jerena collapsed backwards.

“Yeah. He’s our janitor. Was. Wait! He can clean the new place—” Gordon leaned out the window again, his bangs flopping. “Nesto, we got a new home! When you want the key?”

A fading shout answered him. Jerena couldn’t understand the words. Gordon’s frown when he pulled his head back in looked more puzzled than angry. “He found another job.”

“Overnight?” How likely was that these days? None likely.

When she returned, Bet sounded as skeptical as Jerena felt. “Not to disrespect the power of prayer alone, but we hadn’t even thrown odu, let alone made appropriate offerings.” Odu were divinatory verses the priests of Luisah’s Church used to help choose which rituals needed performing and other decisions. Jerena knew that from listening to Bet and Gordon talk about their protection—what they had, what they could rely on, what they needed besides that.

Bet had brought back a carry-out of stewed chicken wings, fried plantains, and slaw for lunch. Jerena was relieved she didn’t need to serve oatmeal again. She gave Bet a cereal-jar lid for an offering dish and willed herself to look the other way while the priest filled it with slivers of meat and vegetables and set it on the altar. None of her business. Even if this was her home.

Since there wasn’t a table big enough for everyone to eat at, Jerena set the food out on the pair of boxes holding her old costumes and hand drums. Which she should have sold long ago, because she was through dancing for good. She had a hard enough time scooting the boxes out of the little closet where she kept them to in front of the futon.

“Heavy?” Gordon flipped the futon frame up into couch mode like he was closing a point shell.

“No.” Realistically, they wouldn’t be. For most people.

The three of them ate perched in a row on the futon’s edge, Jerena in the middle.

“Yum! This is so great!” Gordon’s enthusiasm plucked at her nerves like the wailing of a wet-diapered baby—someone else’s. Bet’s velvet-covered thigh pressed against hers in a way that could be accidental. But then it stayed there. That couldn’t.

Bet’s point chimed. Licking the wings’ spicy brown gravy off her fingers, she tapped the pendant on her chest to answer it. No holo appeared. Like most mobiles most of the time it was set to audio-only. “Yes?” Bet’s eyes blanked. She twisted away, their thighs parting. “Sure. I understand.”

Straining to hear the conversation’s other end wouldn’t work; Bet had a mastoid implant. Not so expensive. If Jerena’s increase was approved she might be able to afford one, too.

Bet got up and strode around the room, talking to her point. “Of course. Of course. No, waiting till Friday won’t be a big deal. And it’s going to stick?” Facing the futon, she rolled her eyes and grimaced. “You really think the cops or whoever will catch the bomber in time to claim the bounty? I know, but even Gordon has his limits, and he hasn’t said anything about who he suspects. Don’t you think involving the government before he—Well, but—Yeah, if you’re so sure it’s that favorable I guess we—”

Returning to her seat, Bet seemed to give up. “No, I wouldn’t presume to question what she divined. No. No. Yes. I’ll tell him. Odabbo.” She tapped twice to disconnect and slumped against the futon’s arm.

“Hartford’s talking about canceling,” she announced.

Gordon reached across Jerena’s lap to cover Bet’s hand with his own. “So the elders have invoked the policy’s anti-terrorism clause.”

“Yeah. There’s a reward for an arrest leading to conviction of anyone attacking the Church,” she explained to Jerena. “Has to be applied for within seventy-two hours of when we invoke the clause, though.”

“And the government’s liable for anything the insurer pays if we can prove this was a hate crime,” Gordon added.

Which, of course, it was. “But what was that about ‘presuming?’”

“Iyanifa herself threw the odu. She’s making the right offerings, too. All we have to do is nothing till the arrest is made.” Bet glared at Gordon and shook her head. “Literally, nothing. No trying to handle this ourselves. No work on the new facilities. We’re supposed to sit tight till the bomber’s caught and the bounty’s collected. Even you, Gordon.”

“Or until it’s not.” Gordon’s expression was uncharacteristically serious.

“You want to go against odu? You want to tell our godmother she don’t know how to suck eggs?”

Gordon’s hand withdrew. “I suppose not.”

More calls, postponing interviews till after the moratorium on action. Jerena let them use her point again. Shrink woke from his post-feed nap under the recliner. He sidled up to the nearest box, stretching to plant his forepaws on top and sniff hesitantly at Gordon’s dirty plate. Jerena snatched it away and stacked it with the rest. She was dumping them in the kitchen compost bin when Gordon yelled from the other room: “Jerena—callus interruptus for yoo-ou!”

HS. Had to be—who else would try to reach her since Big Mama disowned her? And yes, the picture ID was blocked, an anonymous “public” icon filling most of her visuals, an obvious pseudonym displayed below: Terry Smith. And a number: HS1667223.

“Client designation?” asked the filtered voice.

“Jerena Crawford.” She spelled both names. “Hi. I wanted to check on the status of my counterclaim—”

“Case designation?”

She hunted for the right thread. “Five-zero-three-em-why-five-sea-eight-gee-ex—no, make that ex-gee. All caps.” Then she had to repeat what she’d said. Twice.

But “Terry Smith’s” response the third time made it all worthwhile: “Approved.”

Approved! She didn’t have to pack her stuff and move—she could keep the apartment even though the rent was going up! She could buy shoes, get her teeth x-rayed, pay down the bill for her labs!

The forms she’d need to fill out verifying her acceptance of the increased stipend were available now. She smiled as she typed. An hour later, as she sent them off, she was still smiling.

She went into the front room. Gordon was looking through the window. He’d shoved the futon ninety degrees so it faced out toward the bank. The sound of the shower came from the bathroom.

“I think it was Nesto.” He turned around and fixed her with an intense gaze.

“That bombed the church?”

“Yeah. Don’t you?”

Maybe. “Have you told the police?”

“What if they’re involved somehow? A couple of Savior sites claim cops are members.”

The bathroom door popped open. Only a few inches. Steamy air billowed out into the cool dryness—and a scent Jerena couldn’t quite name. It seemed out of context: sweet, hot, exciting in a way that evaded immediate identification.

Christmas morning? “What’s that I smell?” she asked Gordon.

Bet pushed the door wider and walked through. “Zingiber officinale,” she answered. A clean sheet swaddled her in pink spots and yellow flowers. “AKA, ginger. I rinsed with a decoction. Part of my daily spiritual regime.”

“You had ginger with you?”

“Keep it in my purse.”

A plain pillowcase wrapped Bet’s head. On her it looked stylish. She bent over the neat stack of her clothing. “My stuff gettin in your way?”

As long as Jerena had a way she wanted Bet in it. “Not much.”

“We probably need to be headin back up to where we been stayin. When I talked to Alma earlier they expected us home tonight.”

“I told the police that if they wanted to ask me anything they’d find me here,” said Gordon.

“You think we should split up?” Jerena sure did. But by the half she heard of Bet’s next call it would be the wrong one going back to their friends’ house. The wrong one staying.

Gordon took his turn in the shower. Bet donned her pants—commando—and bra underneath the sheet, then tossed that aside and picked up her fuzzy scarlet sweater. She held it against her rich, brown skin but didn’t move to put it on. “When we allowed to start prepping the new space Friday you could help.”

Friday would be the thirteenth. Jerena wasn’t the least bit superstitious. “You want me to?” She wished she’d had the courage to leave off that last word. To compensate, she let her voice grow low and husky.

Bet’s nearly straight eyebrows arched. She lowered the sweater. “You want me to want you?”

The downstairs doorbell buzzed. In the front room, Jerena’s point chimed. Great timing.

She went to answer the call, glancing on her way at the tiny monochrome feed off the building’s security camera. The feed never showed much, even when it worked. Enough so she could tell when there was more than one person was about all.

“Expecting anybody? The cops?” she asked.

“No. But who ever does? I’ll get Gordon.”

Jerena stabbed at the door’s antiquated physical interface. For a wonder, its two-way speaker clicked on. “Hello? Who’s there?”

“Police. A few more questions for your guests, Ms. Crawford?”

If she didn’t let them in the manager would, or another tenant. And non-cooperation would look bad to HS. She stabbed again at the interface to release the lock. “Come on up.”

Her point quit chiming. She’d check for a message later. She slid off the door’s chain and undid the deadbolt. Fast steps on the stairway—were they running up? Sounded like more than the two the camera’d caught.

Bet had come to hover at her shoulder.

“Gordon getting dressed?”

“No. He’s not in there.”

“What?” That made no sense. She’d have to have more of an explanation. Maybe go see for herself. The cops knocked. A cane rested against the bank of cupboards walling off the kitchen. She grabbed it as a prop.

She put her free hand on the knob but the door was already opening. Two men, two women. Two white … ish, two black. Two in uniform, two plainclothes. She recognized the uniforms as having been at the blast site.

Lady Plainclothes identified herself and her colleagues as they crowded in. Jerena wasn’t sure she got all their names exactly. And especially the spelling: Sweeny and Kline from yesterday wore their badges. But the pair of detectives she’d never seen before were Gratton and Prucher? Grafton and Plutchak?

Not enough room on the futon, not enough chairs for everyone to sit. Jerena knew she couldn’t drag the recliner to the front room by herself, knew she wouldn’t ask anyone to help her. Then it didn’t matter. Kline and Grassfed moved her into the kitchen to “take her statement.” Which meant listening to her stammer through the same non-events twice, then twice more, correcting her natural omissions and errors, cross examining her like she’d actually seen something.

An hour must have passed. More. Where was Gordon? It shouldn’t have taken him this long to emerge from the bathroom. Had what Bet said been right?

She levered herself out of the recliner. “I have to pee.”

“Whoa!” Kline lurched away from the counter where she’d been lounging.

“No, it’s all right.” Prunetang and Bet appeared in the apartment’s entryway, his doughy hand resting too casually on her collarbone. “Sweeny and I are taking Ms. Ortiz to the station for a line-up.” He didn’t say whether she’d be looking at the line-up or in it. “When her boyfriend—”

Friend,” Bet interjected.

Prunetang’s hand squeezed down hard. “Friend, sure. When Mr. Lim returns let him know we’d like to see him there, too.”

So then Gordon must actually and truly be gone.

“What about our reports?” Kline asked.

“Give em to me. I’ll file em.”

Jerena’s two cops popped a media bead each out of their bulky pocket points and handed them over. Grassfed loaded them into a holder. He hesitated before transferring his own and looked at her expectantly. “You got anything you suddenly feel like telling us?”

She did, but she wasn’t going to blow her hard-won approval slinging insults. She shook her head no.

By the time she’d shut the door on them and watched them walk out of the security camera’s range, she really did have to pee. And the bathroom really was empty.

Above the splash of water as she washed her hands, she heard her point chiming. Again—she’d forgotten about the call before the cops came. She tottered over to answer it, stiffness a delayed reaction to the stillness she’d forced on herself under their eyes, dried her wet fingers on the futon cover, and answered despite the “Undisclosed” locater tag.

“Is Bet there?” Gordon.

“Where are you?”

“I don’t have time! Just put her on. Is she there?”

“No—she went with the cops to—”

“Did they arrest her?”

“Not yet, far as I know. Was that you earlier?”

“What? When?” The point squealed, over-amplifying him. Or else he was yelling. “Answer me! Where’s her point? She wouldn’t answer—did they take it?”

“I mean was that you calling me. Did you call me? Before this?”

“I shouldn’t be calling you now.” The point went dead. She tilted it and twisted it around and tried to re-establish the connection. No cigar.

Evidently, with the cops gone Shrink judged it safe to come out. He batted fiercely at the loose tape dangling from her widest costume box, shredding it and the cardboard it held together. “Hey, man,” she warned him. He stalked away as if in obedience, then whirled to execute a spectacular two-meter pounce, landing on the box’s lid. Which immediately gave way.

He only dropped half a handbreadth, since the box was mostly full. That was enough to send him spitting and snarling and running around like a starved games contestant. Her saffron silk trailed after him, snagged on his claws. Worse, he’d knocked her jewelry-making basket onto the carpet, spilling charms and loose gems and tiny clasps to disappear into its pile.

With a moan Jerena lowered herself to the floor. Sometimes doing this sort of thing was fine. Sometimes, like now, it was not.

Her point sang its “message waiting” song, all the way up on the futon. It must be from that call she kept forgetting. Since she was already down there she finished taking care of Shrink’s mayhem first, then hauled herself high enough to reach her point.

The call had been HS. They’d left both text and audio. She read and played them simultaneously. Her approval was revoked. There would be no increase in her monthly stipend.

Why? She checked and checked again for attachments that would give reasons, links to rules she’d unintentionally broken. Only the usual appeals form had been sent. She began to fill it out but had to stop when she couldn’t see through her tears.

Her rent was going up. Where were she and Shrink supposed to live? She tried so hard. What else was she going to have to do without?

She made herself get up and go to the bathroom for toilet paper to blow her nose. Which reminded her that Gordon had vanished. Figuring out how and where would be a helpful distraction from self-pity.

She tugged a curtain away from the window over the laundry hamper. Sure enough, the paint that used to seal it shut was cracked. This was the building’s third story, though. Had he jumped? Without getting hurt? Jerena raised the window—still tough—and leaned out to look for—what? A ladder? A trampoline? Nothing but the gravel and patched asphalt of the alley lay directly below her. But down and to the right she saw the gentle slope of the awning covering the balcony of the two-level apartment beside hers. She judged the leap possible for someone fit as Gordon, fit as she had been, and yes, a suggestive smudge in the dirt just there supported her theory. Another three or four meters from the balcony to the ground; no spookiness required.

Okay. He’d booked out the window, and just about the same time the police arrived. Why?

Jerena pulled her head back inside. Familiar thumping filtered through the bathroom wall; the open window let in her neighbors’ music’s higher, wheedling overtone. And their stupid pre-coital laughter. She shuddered. If she had to leave she wouldn’t miss that. Time for a walk.

Today she headed left out of the front door. No poles, she realized as it snapped shut behind her—but no way she was going back up to get them. She wouldn’t make it to the garden, but so what? Four blocks west and south was an open-air market. She could sit on a stoop and watch the last of the fall’s stall-keepers pack up for the night till it was safe to go home.

But a drizzle started as she crossed Pearl. Before she reached Maxwell it settled into a steady, miserable rain. The few merchants left this late into autumn were cutting their losses and closing early. As Jerena peered out from a partially roofed dumpster shelter, a final van drove off in a spray of dingy puddle water.

Maybe she’d better get used to being wet. Get used to freezing, actually, unless she could stretch her income, somehow put off eviction till March or April. Or ask Big Mama or her old friends for help—the friends she’d deliberately lost track of when the diagnoses commenced to rolling in.

She’d appeal, of course. She’d also have to plan for losing.

The rain came down harder. At least she had a hat on. Cold drops formed along its brim and fell, soaking into her jacket. The smell of decaying Brussels sprouts made itself all too evident. And something else—

“Don’t look at me.” Gordon’s voice. Nearby. She felt his breath on her neck—its odor was what she’d detected beneath the overwhelming vegetable rot.

“I’m not. Not looking. Where are you? So I can be careful to avoid it.” She kept her eyes focused straight ahead.

“You’re doing fine. Probably no one’s watching, but in case they are, I don’t want you to even nod your head.”

“Sure.” Outreach my flat ass, she thought. Some kind of spy, that’s what this creep was. Crawling out the window. She remembered that he’d known her name and address.

“In a few more minutes, after a sufficient wait for me to get a head start, you’re going to the church. I’ve got the keys. I’ll let you in. If you notice anybody following you go home instead.”

“But it’s a burnt down—wait, you mean the new one?” No answer. She chanced a look around to where she thought he was. Had been. No one there. A gap between the shed’s loose boards and the brick wall behind them could have held him, but it didn’t.

Should Jerena do what he’d said to? Maybe she could connect with Bet through him—or maybe the police would set Bet free to return to the apartment. Or charge her—and who would hear about that? Gordon.

The rain let up as she stepped out of the shelter. She turned toward the side street Gordon had mentioned when telling Bet about the advantages of the new place. Apparently Jerena was off to meet him.

§

Lights shrouded in mist shone in at the high, blind windows. Between bars of washed-out brightness, darkness marked the room’s floor in large, indistinct rectangles. Gordon’s hand, glowing seashell pink with contained fire, floated slowly away from the shut door. He spoke over his shoulder to her as he carried his candle toward the building’s back. “This is really a much more suitable space. Plenty of room to drum and dance. We’ll put paper on the walls so we can draw the veves there instead of on ground-level windows. And no one can see in.”

Or see out, Jerena thought.

“Careful on the stairs.” Gordon stood at the top of a short flight leading up to a low stage. “Here’s where they had readings, slams, acoustic groups, entertainment stuff like that for people who wanted more than books.” She followed him to the rear of the stage. “And here’s where they did their invoice processing and bookkeeping and so on.” He slid aside an accordion-pleated wall of beige plastic. “Perfect for private consultations. One step down.”

Setting the glassed candle on an empty desk, Gordon grinned. “I’m guessing you’re full of questions.”

“Yes.”

“Well … where to start? You’ve figured out my work involves a little more than getting along with the community.”

“Like stalking me to find out where I live and—”

“I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘stalking’—”

“—and my name and who knows what else.”

“Research.”

“Research,” she repeated. “And avoiding the cops by escaping out of my bathroom window. And—and luring me here.” A nervous twitch of her head back toward the door. The path was clear. But he would beat her to it in a race. Anyone would.

“I got a call from Bet. Coded.”

“When? Is she okay?” Suddenly the cold room seemed colder.

“Coded, like I said. They’re arresting her. Accusing her of planting the bomb.”

“But she wouldn’t! She didn’t …” Jerena trailed off. How could she know that?

“I’m thinking this is just a ploy to get me there, grab me, put me in custody. What they were asking me the day it went off … They know about my background in Special Forces.”

Jerena hadn’t. “So turn yourself in and get her out.” Silence. “If you’re innocent—” The look of exasperation Gordon threw her over the flickering candle shut her up. She tried again. “If you’re—”

“Of course I’m innocent! I told you it was Nesto.”

“Then—”

“There’s no guarantee they’d let one of us loose because they caught the other. Come on.”

She nodded. “But if you gave them Nesto they’d be satisfied.”

“Not if I did. You.”

“Me?” Jason Bourne she was not. Lord Peter Wimsey even.

“You have no ulterior motives. Not a church member, not in a relationship with Bet. Nothing tempting you except maybe the bounty. Which if my information’s right you could use?”

Goddammit. “How much?”

“Twenty thousand.”

Almost a year’s rent at the new rate. “Hells yeah. Anybody could use that.” She unclenched her hands. A tell for her desire. “What do you need?”

§

He needed her to do his dirty work. He had a plan. She went along with it till it was time to improvise.

For two more days Gordon continued elusive, but he managed to call Jerena from “undisclosed” points several times, reassuring her over and over that she was doing what needed to be done and updating her on Bet.

No one posted her bail. That was forbidden by the odu as the church’s elders interpreted it, according to Gordon. No one was allowed to visit her in jail. Not even Jerena, who after all wasn’t a member.

“It wouldn’t look right for you to go,” he told her. “Why? They’d want to understand the connection. They’d tighten up their surveillance—”

“Wait—they’re watching me already?”

“So? You’re not committing any crimes, are you?”

In fact, Jerena spent her days shopping for curtains and supervising paint crews. Haunting sculpture galleries. Completely innocuous activities. Wednesday afternoon the bomber showed up of his own volition, as Gordon had promised he would.

A beanied head peeked around the doorway to the back room where she’d rendezvoused with Gordon. “Ma’am?”

She hated being “ma’amed.” Not even HS called her that. She suppressed the feeling. “Yes?”

“They told me I’d find you here and you were the one in charge. But actually I was looking for Gordon to tell him my other job didn’t—well, I had to quit. So if there’s gonna be a custodian position here like I had at the church before, I wanna ask if I could be considered. You know? Any idea if he’s hired anyone else yet?”

“He hasn’t.” True enough.

She got Ernesto Penderson to fill out some employment forms for show’s sake, and then took him to her apartment. Ostensibly this was so he’d carry back her costume boxes full of fabrics and gems for decorating the newly built altars. The main purpose, as Gordon had explained, was to convince him he’d won her trust.

She received acknowledgment of her appeal from HS. “Let’s hold our breath,” she said to Shrink, picking him up and stroking him, crown to tail. “You first.” He purred and nipped her forearm instead.

Thursday Jerena found what might be a genuine Nevelson in a formerly trendy Pine Street auction warehouse. The doll arms and carved letters seemed right, but the heavy chain wrapping its waspish midsection seemed wrong. Her ex would have known. All Jerena was able to do was buy it cheap, bargain for delivery, and tell Nesto to haul the heavy wooden assemblage off the truck and into the church. She had him set it against the stage’s back wall, and was pleased to notice he took plenty of time doing it. She borrowed some white from the painters to cover a couple of unfortunate black strips like skid marks left by bicycle tires. It took more than one coat.

She had Nesto push the piece a little further right, toward the stage’s northern edge. It looked good there. The whole place looked good. Strings of tiny bells intertwined with twinkling lights and slowly twirling leaf-shapes gave the ceiling a sky-like depth and the leaves’ stirring caused the bells to ring randomly. Pews and benches salvaged from train stations formed a square around a central dance floor. And on the stage’s shallow proscenium stood seven altars, each decked with fabric in what she hoped the congregants to come would deem appropriate colors: deepest blue, green and black, white and crimson, red and black, gold and green, white on cream, and magenta covered in a scattering of mirrored rainbows.

It looked beyond good. It looked great.

Jerena had studied more than color schemes, and she’d come to admire the tenets of Luisah’s Church as she learned them. She liked how everyone was responsible for their own spiritual growth, setting their own pace, tracking their own progress. It seemed so practical. And not one word about only being given burdens she was fit to bear. Which Big Mama had always said when claiming Jerena’s illness came from Jesus. Perhaps, after Jerena kept the church from getting blown up, she’d join it.

She’d ask Bet how.

Thursday evening Nesto asked if she’d let him stay overnight on a cot in the de facto office she’d established. “Just till I can move into my new room. The guy I’m subletting from is spozed to take off by noon Friday.” Five hours before the bounty expired. He’d be counting on any investigation to begin there, on a cold, dead trail.

She gave Nesto permission to put up his cot, walked home, fed Shrink, took her evening meds. Waited for Gordon’s call.

It came close to midnight. She told him about Nesto’s request.

“Sounds like this is it.” The cheap, anonymous image in her visual field didn’t even pretend to open its mouth in sync with Gordon’s speech. “You should get back there right away.”

She knew it had to be her because of the church elders’ temporary taboo against action, besides the reasons Gordon had given. Anyway, the plan now was for him to turn himself in. She’d protested—weakly, but she had—when he got to that part of the proceedings. “How else can I prove it isn’t me?” he’d asked, and that silenced her.

Jerena had nothing against winning a twenty-thousand-dollar reward, either. But as she returned to the church through the dark streets she wished she’d brought someone else with her. Bet, of course. Small but fierce, she’d be. Or even her ex. Big Mama. Anyone.

An alley like the one behind her apartment. Darker darkness. The coal cellar no one had used for maybe a century was ostensibly a secret, the rusty steel door that led from there to the rest of the interior clumsily sheetrocked over. Jerena had dropped a few hints as to its existence in Nesto’s hearing. Those had been taken, judging by the faint light coming through the cellar door’s loose planks. Jerena peeked between them. Shadows shifted around meaninglessly. She shrugged to herself. Somebody was in there—probably Nesto. If not him, another attacker. She found the greased bar she’d hidden among the tall weeds and slid it into staples fastened to the exterior’s double doors on either side.

Then she went in at the front. Quietly, cloth tied to the ski poles’ tips, she crossed the main room and opened the office door. An empty cot greeted her. Well then.

Back out to the stage. Yes, upon examination it seemed the Nevelson had been shoved forward and aside to gain access to the coal cellar’s badly disguised door. Before her illness she could have simply shoved the sculpture into place again and trapped Nesto in the cellar, surrounded by bomb-planting supplies and obviously guilty. That had more or less been Gordon’s idea—using a heavy sculpture of some sort—and she hadn’t told him why it wouldn’t work. Because she was such a proud fucking idiot.

She laid down her poles and inched into the gap sideways. The naked door yawned open before her like the way down to a crypt. No rubble to trip on—he would have hidden that below. Was any of the debris piled high enough to block the door? Jerena pulled the door to test it. No. It moved toward her easily. But noisily.

A moment’s hush was quickly followed by a startled “Hey!” Work fast. Jerena undid a length of the sculpture’s painted chain and threaded it in and out of the holes where the door’s knob and deadbolt used to be. Slammed it shut. Scrambling steps climbed the stairs behind it. On the end of the chain she held was a giant hook. She drove that through one of the chain’s links with blows from her bare fist. Blood seeped from ragged cuts.

“Let me out! That you? Cunt!” The door jerked. The chain tightened. The Nevelson scraped doorward an inch, knocking her against the wall. “Bitch!” Rhythmic jerks matched an obscene chant beat for beat. “Cunt! Bitch! Slut! Whore! Chinga! Culo! Fucker! Bruja!” Dragging the Nevelson tighter to the wall, ramming her, smashing her, crushing her with every curse. She sucked in dust-filled air and grunted it out before she could scream. The pain—she had to fight free of it. Had to squeeze herself between the swear words and not care how much it hurt or she would never hurt again.

She lost all feeling in her feet and fell. More room! The sculpture was warped, its bottom slightly further from the back wall than its top. Like a snake Jerena wriggled from behind the Nevelson. For seconds she lay gasping as if dying of asthma, sweat stinging her eyes, tears and snot pooling under her head.

The muffled yells ceased.

Worry hovered over her, landed. What was Nesto doing? He wasn’t going to get out by himself unless he had a—could he trigger the bomb? The first one had had a crude timer, Gordon said. This one would be pretty similar—Would he cut the fuse or whatever if it meant killing himself too?

She couldn’t walk. Her feet were numb—her entire legs, knee down.

She hadn’t brought her point, but there was an emergency unit in the office. She crawled. She got there. She reached the police. They came. Nothing more that was bad happened that night.

§

Luisah’s Church opened at its new location in time for Samhain. Which as Jerena pointed out was hardly a traditional Vodun holiday.

“Convert,” Bet accused her. But she smiled and clasped Jerena’s hands in her lap.

Sitting on the same bench on Bet’s other side, Gordon expounded on Vodun’s innate syncretism. But soon the drums drowned him out. And soon after that the three of them were swaying and singing, snapping and clapping, dancing reverently in place, right where they wanted to be.

Originally appeared in Dark Discoveries #36, 2016 (JournalStone Press)

 

Nisi Shawl’s steampunk alternate history Everfair was a 2016 Nebula Award finalist, and her 2008 collection Filter House won a James Tiptree, Jr. Award. In the previous year her stories have appeared on the sites of Slate Magazine and Tor.com, in small press anthologies Clockwork Cairo and Sunvault, and as part of the most recent volume of Harpercollins’ The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy series, among other venues. She lives in Seattle, taking frequent walks with her mother and her cat.

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