Gethsemane is a perfect example of the incredible wrongness of my brain- and a testament to the idea that the story has to be served. It was supposed to be about six or seven thousand words. But it kind of grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. And when i was done… it was, you know, a little more.
You know, twenty-eight thousand.
Also, it’s about demons and angels. I guess that’s important.
I stared down at the mess of a blouse I still, at least technically, wore. The shreds of fabric failed as a blouse. My bright red bra, the one I wore when I felt particularly bad about myself, peeked through. It looked good on me, I knew, and sometimes the pick-me-up is exactly what I need. I’m glad I wore it, because now the guy hurtling at me down the alley can see through the tatters of my-
Babbling, even if only in my head. How embarrassing. I’ve always prided myself on being unflappable, and I usually am. Sure, in Burma I peed myself when a mortar went off near my tent. That’s understandable. In England I had a couple of minutes of a serious crying jag when I watched a man commit suicide by leaping in front of the tube train. In Russia I was almost kidnapped and sold into slavery, I think, but I’m quick with a mace canister and even quicker on my feet when my life’s in mortal peril. I bolted like a cat with its tail on fire and after in the hostel, I threw up for two hours. But other than those instances, I’m pretty solid in a crisis.
Now my blouse is a hankie, everyone can see my red lacy bra, and some freak with completely black eyes and foot-long claws sprouting from ends of his fingers is about to eviscerate me.
Sometimes I love my job. And sometimes I do not.
Rings, maybe? Or some kind of glove, like that horror movie slasher fellow? Time slowed like honey and I stared at his hands. One still arcing away with momentum after the backhand that shredded my-
Damn it. That blouse cost me three hundred dollars.
He brought the other handful of bunched claws down upon me. I stared in dazed disbelief. His hands started out pink and normal at the wrist. The skin darkened toward his palm. It grew bumpy and rough as it became fingers, chitinous and black as it became fingertips, and definitely horny and claw-like as it extended past his fingers and outward impossibly long. They angled toward the exposed white skin of my stomach.
Funny, the things you notice when you’re about to be gutted.
I wasn’t just sitting there waiting to be filleted. I wanted to be smooth about this. I watched the hand coming down. I wanted to grab it as it came down, redirect it, and bury it in my attacker’s own stomach. Use his momentum against him. Or I could throw up my arms in a cross-block that would stop him cold, leaving him open for a nice follow-up knee to the tenders. That would have been cool. I could even have heaved myself to the left or right- well, not the right. I already cracked the back of my head on the extended lip of the wall there. Not left, though. No sense in diving face-first into the side of a dumpster. What, then? Up? I’m not a ninja. Down?
I could have done any of those things. I did none of them because time ran out while I contemplated my options. See, that’s why martial artists practice so much, so when these situations arise, instinct kicks in, trained reflexes kick in. They react.
I just stared. I know. I’m a disgrace. My moment of opportunity comes, and I revert to damsel-mode. Damn it. Everyone blasts those women in the movies for not doing a damned thing except reacting like scared, helpless sheep. Well, when the fight-or-flight kicks in and the hindbrain takes over, pal, sometimes, you just do things.
And everyone knows what the helpless damsel in the horror movie who stands there screaming helplessly gets. In case you need a hint, it rhymes with Fred, bed, bled (bad choice of words), and red. If I’m going to die in pursuit of a story, fine. But like this? I wasn’t even looking for a story tonight. I just wanted a drink, damn it. And to die like…
I forgot something. Something really important. What was it? It was on the tip of my tongue. It was… was…
The other man, the mystery man, who had come running down the alley toward myself and my creepy new acquaintance, flew through my vision field in a straight-out tackle, taking Claws with him. I blinked.
That’s what I forgot. Someone had heard my scream and come running. Funny what you forget while you’re preparing for evisceration.
They tumbled in a heap in the sludge and slime in the alley. I realized I was sitting in more of the same. My stomach rolled. I love this town, but the last thing you want to do is roll around on the ground anywhere in New Orleans.
They struggled, each trying to kill the other. I watched in awe as they pummeled and swung and blocked and gouged and kicked. I got slowly to my feet just as Claws gained the high ground. He pinned my savior to the ground with his left hand and drew back the dagger-tipped right for what would certainly be a game-ending stab to the face.
I grabbed my camera by the strap and swung it as hard as I could. The Nikon arced in a tight, fast parabola and slammed into the back of Claws’ skull.
He sagged and slumped sideways, and my mysterious new friend rolled away to his feet and prepared to leap again. Instead of rejoining the battle, Claws turned on me suddenly, and growled.
I’ll never forget that sound.
His eyes were black pools. His mouth seemed wider than possible, and his mouth was filled with razor-sharp teeth of all sizes. He crouched like an animal. Like a cat. A really, really big cat. A really, really big dangerous cat. Fangs and all. I backed up. I have no problem admitting I was terrified. But the distance would help me. The best part about being a woman is the idiots dragging a penis around on this planet who actually believe the helpless, inept female stereotype. I’m not above taking advantage of morons.
He growled low in his throat, so low I think throat isn’t the right word. What’s lower than the throat? Stomach? Can you growl with your stomach? Cockles? Are those near the heart? I bet you can growl with your intestines-
He leaped at me, claws extended, mouth wide in a snarl, and I swear to God fangs dripping with what I am pretty sure is foamy saliva. I held my ground. I’m no coward… but I’m not stupid, either. What I am is surprisingly quick, on my feet and off them.
Shut up. It’s not like that.
Just before his claws and fangs reached my supposedly helpless, fragile body I let my legs go limp. For the second time that day, I enjoyed coming in contact with the floor of a New Orleans alley, something that under normal circumstances wouldn’t be on anyone’s bucket list. Claws sailed right over me, and into the street.
He landed like that same cat, hands first, legs second, and he whirled. My cunning plan, however life-extending, did not have a follow-up. I wondered what I should do, just as my Samaritan sailed over my head.
I had one gratifying second of seeing Claw’s black, empty eyes widen with surprise before a black combat boot slammed into them and the surrounding face.
Claws reared back with a snarl, and rolled gracelessly to his feet. The Samaritan did likewise. They stood up, not unlike the good and bad guy in a western movie. Claws spread his fingers, and looked like… like… I had no description for someone holding hands full of seven inch claws. He looked feral. His lined face was drawn with anger and hatred. His eyes, if they hadn’t been black, would surely have blazed red. I could see the vague outline suddenly enveloping him. It was unnerving. The man before me wasn’t just a man. He wasn’t human. I could see the vague, fuzzy shape of… of… of I don’t know what. I’ve never seen anything like whatever this thing was. It looked like a hobbled, ancient, grim crone… with lank hair and wrinkled skin. Yellow-white pale rags hung from its desiccated skeleton. And at the same time, he was a more solid-looking man, thin and feral and creepy.
The Samaritan, however… I stared at him and suddenly could see the very same vague outline, almost an overlay of an image, like film exposed twice. I saw long white hair, and clean hands and feet. And some kind of bunched material between his shoulders, which were, as someone had once said, smooth as raven’s claws. His hands were normal hands, not masses of dagger-tipped claws. The Samaritan had no weapons, but he didn’t back down. They faced off.
This happened in the midst of a huge crowd of people. Bourbon Street at eleven o’clock on a Saturday. Doesn’t matter when. Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, New Year’s day, or just an average Saturday. New Orleans is a city that runs on tourist money and alcohol.
That wasn’t nearly as emergent a problem as you might think. Walk ten feet down any street in the Quarter and someone is doing something to draw attention. Street acrobats, tap-dancing kids with bottle-caps hammered into their sneaker treads, bucket-drumming virtuosos playing Neil Peart-like solos, half-naked guys in cowboy clothes painted gold or silver standing unmoving. Two guys having a knock-down drag-out fight? Barely registers on anyone’s weird-shit-o-meter.
I expected Claws to scream and leap. Except something happened that I couldn’t see. Samaritan did some kind of gesture or movement with his hands. Claws reared back with a hiss, and bolted, knocking drunk tourists over like ten-pins.
I got to my feet and went to him. He stood there, watching Claws recede into the distance.
“You’re welcome,” he said. His voice sounded tired.
I snorted. “Excuse me?”
He turned to me. “What?”
“What makes you think I was about to thank you?” I asked him archly. He cocked his head. It was oddly bird-like. Some people cock their heads slightly to one side when they don’t understand something. He cocked his too far to the left. It looked… bird-like.
“I…” he stammered. “Well. I did save your life.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“He would have killed you.” His voice reminded me of something that I couldn’t quite place. I’m usually pretty good at accents, but his seemed… off.
“I don’t see why. I was minding my own business. I took a shortcut through the alley and there he was, getting ready to kill you. All I did was throw a trashcan lid at his face.” I crossed my arms over my now-abbreviated blouse. “In fact, it seems like I kind of saved you, Dudley Do-right.”
He blinked at me. “Perhaps.”
“Yeah, you better believe it.”
“Thank you,” he said. “For your help. Have a good night.”
“Hold it, bud,” I said. He stopped. The crowd had more or less resumed its haphazard revelry, flowing past again like a huge tide of drunken people.
“I want some answers. You don’t get to just walk away,” I said.
“I certainly can. I don’t have time to indulge your curiosity. I have to catch-” He said something… or maybe growled something. Or coughed. I’m not sure. But I caught the flavor of a name when he spoke.
“Fine. Talk while we chase him.”
He blinked. “Excuse me?”
“You’re chasing him. I’m coming.” I picked up my Nikon and sighed. It was a wreck. There was dirt and grunge from the alley all over it, and something else. It was kind of black, and sticky, and… and… it smelled like sulfur.
“You’re not,” he said. “I took time to keep him from splitting you apart, but this is where you stay. It’s too dangerous.” He turned. I ground my teeth. It’s easier to just not argue.
“Fine,” I told him. And when he took off, I followed him. I try to run whenever I can, and I’m in pretty good shape. Each year I do a story on several different marathons around the world, always from a first-person perspective. I kept up with him easily. He shot me a startled look.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going after him.”
“I told you not to follow me,” he said.
“I’m not,” I countered. “I’m following him.”
“Now wait a minute,” he said.
“No time. He’s headed for the River Walk,” I panted, and took off toward the river. He mumbled something under his breath and stopped trying to argue. We cut across Bourbon Street and headed down Orleans, toward Jackson Square. We danced in and out of the crowd, all of whom seemed to stand still, compared to us. Given the dedication with which the locals and the visitors both took their leisure in this city, they probably couldn’t see us. I didn’t think we’d catch up to the mysterious Claws, but as Orleans dead-ended at the Place de Henriette Delille, the small, well-kept dooryard behind St. Louis Cathedral, I saw Claws. He had stopped dead in the street in front of the dooryard. He seemed to have slammed against a wall that stood at the low curb in front of the sidewalk. He looked frantically left and right. He looked over his shoulder at us, snarled, and ran right, heading down Royal Street. He shoved and pushed people in his way out of his way, causing no small commotion. I galloped after him, leaping and sidestepping the fallen party-goers. I could hear the Samaritan behind me, his footfalls echoing mine.
We chased side-by-side down Royal until Claws darted left down St. Peter Street. He pelted down the darkened street, lit mainly by shop windows and flickering lanterns. I thought I might be able to catch him, but he put on a burst of speed that carried him swiftly down the street. He suddenly button-hooked into the crowd of professional wastrels that littered Jackson Square.
Leaping between caricature artists, musicians, crystal-selling new-age hippies, and fortune-telling gypsies dressed in rags and expensive sneakers, Claws leaped clear over the fountain and headed for the far side of the square.
I tried to ignore my burning lungs and ran harder. I’m good at distance, but speed isn’t something you concentrate on when you marathon. The idea is to find a good groove and stick with it, maintaining regular strides, arm movement, breathing, and posture.
Samaritan and I pelted across the square. Stunned gadabouts were just raising a hue and cry from Claws’ abrupt appearance and interruption. I ignored them and kept running.
Claws crossed Decatur Street full-tilt-barreling. He caromed off the bumper of a south-bound car, and I swear he hissed. I wondered what he thought he was going to do when he reached the river. I stuttered at the edge of the street, judging the traffic for a good place and offered a small prayer to whatever god looks out for runaway freelance journalists.
I made it across the traffic without being crushed. I saw Claws vanish into the dark space between the tables and foliage outside the Café du Monde. I started to follow, but Samaritan somehow leaped over me. He cleared my head by barely an inch. I’m not short. Shut up.
He darted into the same spot into which Claws vanished. I might have said something unprofessional under my breath, but I hurtled after them.
I caught sight of them both as they leap-frogged over the triple train tracks between the Café and the river. Just as they were back in sight, Claws turned suddenly, planted a foot against one of the iron rails and thrust his hands toward Samaritan.
I heard the ribs break from where I was. Samaritan hit the ground without a sound. I thought I actually saw the moonlight glint off fangs.
Claws lived up to his moniker, and it seemed both of his hands bristled with dozens of razor-sharp, glittering claws. Patently ridiculous, of course. But he prepared to turn my Samaritan into a pincushion.
Samaritan struggled to regain his feet, but gasped in pain as he tried to move with what had to be a couple of jagged floating ribs digging painfully into his sides.
I gave myself into the hands of the gods of physics. Momentum is a wonderful thing. I leaped the first set of tracks, bounded over the second set-
-and slammed with both feet out into Claws’ unprotected chest.
He went over backward with a startled sound that reminded me of a hamster being stepped on. I went down in a heap of arms and legs and Claws slammed onto the rails of the third set of tracks. I distinctly heard his skull fracture as his head bounced off the hard iron rail.
I clambered to my feet, aching from where I’d landed on the bed of crushed stone. I looked at Samaritan. His face stretched, distorted with pain and anger, and he pulled a strangely curved dagger from a sheath at his waist. He gathered his legs under him and leaped directly at me. I may have uttered a squeak very similar to Claws as I tried to drop back to the railroad bed. Samaritan passed overhead again-
-and he plunged the dagger into Claws’ chest. I closed my eyes, but the sound couldn’t be shut out. It sounded like…
There really isn’t anything else on Earth that sounds like a dagger being plunged into someone’s chest. Nothing I’ve ever heard, anyhow. Thankfully.
I opened my eyes when Samaritan started speaking to him. At first I thought I simply wasn’t close enough to them to hear what he said. But I realized I could hear the words perfectly clearly, I just didn’t speak whatever language they might be in. It wasn’t anything close to a language I’d ever heard.
I watched as Samaritan leaned close to him and spoke. The words rolled over me, but I couldn’t understand the words. They… they slipped through my consciousness like water through a screen. I couldn’t grasp what I heard. I wouldn’t even be able to recall the sound, let alone reproduce it. Then I watched him cross himself and I realized he was giving Claws benediction.
The overlay image and the real one were nearly in sync. The image writhed and clawed and spat foul words. Claws snarled and spat, writhed, and tried to slash Samaritan over and over, but the Samaritan batted them away easily as Claws grew weaker. Finally, he was twitching. I edged closer and he stopped moving. The overlay image shuddered once and lay back, pain fading from the horrible features. For just a moment, the image flickered, and became like my Samaritan’s overlay. Then it changed back to the horrid, ghastly creature it had been. And then it simply faded away, evaporating from around his body as his last breath slowly rattled through slack lips.
I stood next to Samaritan. His eyes were closed, and his hands were pressed together in prayer. He turned and looked at me.
He caught me in the middle of crossing myself.
“What?” I asked, belligerently.
“Nothing,” he said mildly. “Thank you.”
“Oh, now you’re thanking me?”
“Yes,” he said. He said it without ego or preamble. “He would have killed me that time if you hadn’t interceded.”
“Yeah, well… you’re welcome,” I said, rather ungraciously.
“I have to go,” he said. “I need-”
“You need to just stand there and wait. The cops will be here any moment. You have to tell them what happened.”
“I don’t,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the police.”
“Okay,” I said. “Why don’t you tell me.”
“Thank you for your help, miss,” he said, and turned.
I chased after him. “Hold it right there.”
He looked at me, amused.
“Where are you going? I have questions.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“I want some answ- hey!” I grabbed his sleeve as he turned to go again. He stopped. He looked pointedly at his arm. I didn’t let go. I’m dumb sometimes.
“Yes?” Polite, disinterested, tone. As though I’d stopped to ask him directions.
“Why was he trying to kill you?”
“Because I was trying to kill him,” he said reasonably.