by Daniel José Older
read by Daniel José Older
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As the street fighting raged on, Victor threw his defibrillator and medic bag into an unlocked door and ducked in. He did a quick glance-glance to make sure no one was around, brushed himself off and walked a few cautious steps into the room. It looked like some busted sultan’s brothel. Elaborate, weathered curtains hung morosely from the ceilings. The Oriental rug was decorated with cigarette burns and an archipelago of stains. The stench of corner-store incense, perfume and Pall Mall cigarettes colored the air.
Not only was no one coming to force him back into the streets, no one was around at all. Most decent, life-loving people would be curled up in their bathtubs for protection this far into a shootout anyway. Victor took a few more steps forward, his eyes darting back and forth. A very comfortable looking recliner beckoned from the center of the room. It was even in layback position, footrest out. The scratchy voice of another medic came crackling out of his radio, trying to give a damage report and call for backup. Victor sighed, then turned his radio off and walked over to the recliner. He let his body collapse into it and lit a cigarette.
It had been a terrible week. The past two months of escalating turf wars and passion slays in the South Ward were culminating in these last days of summer. For the first time in his nine-year career, Victor had lost track of how many bloody calls he’d done. It was all beginning to feel so useless. Somewhere in there, he must’ve gotten some sleep too, but only in short tormented bursts, always interrupted by the radio crackling out another assignment. Esteban and little Selina were with their abuelos this week, so Victor had picked up as many shifts as he could. The smoke curled thickly out of his mouth, obliterated the whole thought chain, left him giddy and relaxed at the same time. “Now if only I had a coffee,” Victor said out loud.
“A little late for coffee, no?” a voice croaked from behind some dangling tapestries. Victor let the smoke continue to swirl out. His eyes scanned the shrouds around him. A moment passed.
“Um…” Victor said, raising his eyebrows. “Can I help you?”
“You’re in my house,” said the voice. “Don’t you think I should be the one asking that question?”
Victor smoked and waited. A slight rustling waved through the drapes, but nothing else moved. Outside, the street battle had dwindled down to a few scattered shots. That’d be the winners finishing off the wounded, Victor thought. Almost over now. “You have an ashtray?”
“Beside the mahogany bookshelf to your left.”
Victor eyed a frozen avalanche of dusty antique furniture and some exotic metal statues. “Don’t…see…one.”
“It’s the Buddha.”
“You mean this kitchy fake gold thing?” asked Victor, rising from the chair and approaching a four-foot tall meditating Asian.
“Yes, and it happens to be real gold.”
“Well, that may or may not be true. But either way, are you sure you want my ashes in it?”
“That’s what it’s there for.”
He tapped out the cigarette and returned to his seat. The nonchalant routine was starting to feel strained but he kept his mouth shut.
“Ready,” said the voice, and the draperies swung open to reveal an elegant four-post bed with a flowing canopy. A pale shriveled woman hovered in the air just above the bed. She emanated a sickly, fluorescent glow. A flimsy white cloth swayed gently from her shoulders and she wore a yellow and red dashiki around her waist. Her breasts dripped down her emaciated chest like melted wax.
Victor took the whole scene in solemnly. This would definitely have to top of the list of strange shit you see out there (“crazy floating white lady,” right above “man running around without head” and “dude stuck in his cat”). Her unwavering stare scanned him like a searchlight for signs of fear or surprise.
He furrowed his brow. “Why you floating, ma?”
“Alright, but why you floating?”
“I’m called the Collector.” She began hovering out from the flowing bed canopy towards Victor.
“Alright, lady, just ease up now,” Victor said, taking a few steps back. “How bout you put a shirt on and come down from up there, huh?”
“What are you called, young man?” Her eyes continued to burrow into him.
“Bob,” said Victor.
“Ah, Bobby,” said the Collector as if she’d just tasted one of those shrimp in bacon whatchamacallits. “That’s lovely.”
“No, it’s Bob.”
“Tell me, Bobby, have you traveled much, in your life?”
“Been to PA a few times.”
“I have traveled all over the world, Bobby, from Bolivia to Bangladesh, walked the Highway of the Gods, cavorted through the Tierra Del Fuego with a glass of wine in one hand and a bamboo walking stick in the other.” She carefully pronounced each name in some approximation of what Victor imagined to be a native accent, and it irritated him. Matterafact, everything about this lady was starting to tick him off. He took another step back and she continued to hover slowly towards him. Her face was fully made up, layers of powder and cream caked on top of each other. She threw her head back and let out a laugh that sounded like it was supposed to be carefree.
“Listen,” Victor said, “you didn’t notice there’s a small ground war going on outside your door? Why don’t you crawl under something like a normal person and die of natural causes as planned?”
The Collector didn’t seem to hear him. She closed her eyes and spread her thin arms out to either side of her. Translucent dollops of loose skin dangled from her bones. Something on the other side of the room caught Victor’s eye. It was one of the antiques, an intricate metal statuette, floating up into the air. Outside, steady popcorn bursts of gunfire rattled out. Victor made a small mental calculation and decided that he might be better off back in the gunfight. He took a few more steps towards the door.
The woman opened her eyes and smiled. “It’s locked,” she said.
Panic rose like a flock of startled birds inside Victor’s chest. He fought the urge to make a break for it. More objects began floating up around him.
“You don’t want to go out there anyway,” the Collector said, leveling her gaze at him. “As you say, they are deep in the throes of combat.” There was something to the way she said that- throes of combat- that chirped out at Victor. Perhaps it was that know-it-all smile creasing the corners of her mouth.
Victor reached two fingers into the front pocket of his uniform shirt, retrieved a cigarette and lit it. “Smoke?” he said, raising his eyebrows up at the floating lady.
“Thank you,” said the Collector, “I have my own.” She alighted gently into an elaborately carved medieval wooden chair. One emaciated hand upset a collection of knick-knacks piled on a nearby nightstand until it found her opened pack of Pall Malls and pulled one out. She lit it and then directed a sharp look at Victor.
“You are from Puerto Rico, Bobby?” Her pronunciation was gratingly precise.
“The DR actually,” Victor lied.
“I have been to Puerto Rico many times- it is there that I began learning about the secret magic of the world.”
“Oh, I see,” Victor said.
She studied him carefully. “What do you see?”
“I see that you’re one of those lemme-ask-you-a-question-but-really-it’s-so-I-can-tell-you-a-story-about-myself type of people.”
“Once I began to learn, I could not stop. It was like a drug, Bobby. The path led me from Puerto Rico to Africa, the cradle of civilization, like a reverse Middle Passage.”
“In so many ways,” Victor muttered.
“In Africa I was ordained a priestess and consecrated in sacred river waters.”
“I mean, no offense, the Collector, but from what I hear you can get consecrated anything you want in Africa if the price is right. It’s like the internet.”
“I made my way along the Silk Route across the Indian subcontinent throughout Asia.”
“That’s where you got all these knick-knacks?”
“These knick-knacks, Bobby, are the spiritual DNA of all humanity. Surrounding you is one of the most extensive collections of divine objecture on the planet.”
“Then why don’t you dust them off every once in a while? This place is a mess.”
The Collector took a deep drag on her lipstick-stained cigarette. “I have become so frail, Bobby, so frail. My time is not far now.” She sounded excited.
“Yeah, well, you’re like what, eighty something?”
That all-knowing smile crossed her face again. “Thirty-one, actually.” She let out a laugh, her most genuine one yet, but it quickly deteriorated into bronchial hacking.
Victor dropped his ass back into the easy chair and let his mouth hang open. “Jesus, lady, what the fuck?” The floating shapes hummed and spun in long gyrations around the room. Outside, the gunfight was heating up again.
“The secrets of our planet grant one great powers, unimaginable powers, but it is not without a price.” Victor watched a small porcelain globe hover past his head. “The sacred materials don’t like to be tamed.” The Collector started rising like a rag carried by a slow updraft. A rustling came from the doorway and then a succession of very loud shots burst out. “We have been engaged in a kind of cosmic- how would you say it? warfare, for a few months now.”
“Looks like they’re winning,” Victor said, lighting another cigarette off the dying embers of his last one. A shiny wooden mask drifted by. Carved lines formed spiraling labyrinths on its forehead and cheeks. The shooter taking cover in the doorway kept firing until a large blast, probably a shotgun, rang out. The whole room shuddered and a few glasses exploded from a bookshelf.
“There is great chaos in the spiritual realm, Bobby.” The Collector’s voice became alarmingly calm. “Static, spiritual static like nuclear fallout, it penetrates every element, every realm in its path.” Victor realized that the objects had created a little solar system around the crazy floating white lady. Each spun in faster and faster orbits, circling their dying sun. It wouldn’t be long now. The cruel fluorescent glow around her grew dimmer and dimmer every second. “The sacred materials,” she said again, “do not like to be tamed.” Another shotgun blast shook the house, followed by the rat-tat-tat of a semi-automatic a little further away.
“You mean to tell me,” Victor yelled above the humming of the tiny spinning universe, “that you horded all these doodads and got ‘em to work for you and now they rebelling?”
“This is more or less correct.”
“That’s why they spinning round you? They trying to kill you?”
The Collector chortled. “Oh, quite the contrary, my friend. They are trying to keep me alive because that’s the only way they can defeat me. I have appropriated their power and am using it to spin gloriously towards divinity. They know my death will be the final step towards infinite awareness. My powers will increase tenfold and manifest like burgeoning hurricanes across our city.”
“No longer confined by this physical prison-“
Something clicked in Victor’s head. “Wait. Go back to the part about burgundy hurricanes.”
“My powers will increase tenfold and manifest like-“
“No, sorry, earlier- you said you’re causing spiritual static on every realm. This static, it affects the whole neighborhood?”
“About a ten block radius, yes.”
“You’re the one been causing all these shootouts? How many bodies have we had to pick up in the last two months- twenty? Thirty?”
“There are always unforeseen consequences to spiritual growth.”
“Lady, you’re a plague! It’s not wonder the universe is teaming up to make you miserable. And if you die it’ll only get worse?”
“I disperse myself like so many seedlings scattered in the wind. I will be a martyred inspiration to the others like me.”
“Jesus, there’s more of you?”
“More than you can imagine.”
The humming grew louder, blurring out even the constant burst of gunfire, and soon the whole building trembled along with it. Victor looked up expecting to see the Collector explode in some scattered star orgasm. He shielded his face with his forearm in case any errant chunks of her projected in his direction, but the explosion never came. The fluorescent light flickered on and off a few times and then sputtered out. The objects spun furiously fast. The Collector’s lifeless body collapsed in a heap on the Oriental rug. Then all hell broke loose outside.
Victor had never done CPR out of spite before. He’d worked up cardiac arrests in dark hallways, stalled elevators, even once at a nightclub, pumping the chest to the throbbing techno while dancers grinded on each other around him. But trying to get someone back so that they wouldn’t become some magnanimous hood-destroying demi-god? Another new one for the list.
He worked quickly, throwing the defibrillator pads on her crooked little chest as soon as he’d finished two rounds of compressions. Her veins were bright blue and squiggly against her pale skin but he managed to find a juicy one to put an IV in. As he worked, the sacred objects spun and hummed above his head. Outside, bullets ricocheted up and down the street. Young men screamed and cars screeched.
As he squeezed a few breaths of oxygen into her lungs from a small tank, it occurred to Victor that he had not stumbled into this strange little room by accident. He was a pawn in a great divine plan to keep some kind of spiritual order in the South Ward, and if that meant thwarting this irritating white lady from world domination that was alright with him.
He pumped a few more times on her chest and then took a look at the monitor. Perfect: ventricular fibrillation. Those ridiculous squiggly lines that could be shocked back into a normal rhythm. Victor charged the defibrillator to its highest setting, made sure he was well out of the way and pressed SHOCK. The Collector’s body jolted up into the air and came back down. The lines on the monitor recomposed into a healthy blip blip blip.
One by one, the floating objects dropped to the ground. The Collector had already begun to change when Victor looked back down.Her skin had smoothed out and she had gained about 100 pounds. She let out a low moan.
“No!” she sobbed. “No, no, no, no!” She raised her face, now with the proper careening-towards-middle-age look to it. Her eyes were blood shot and tear stained. She pounded the floor with her fists.
Victor stood up and gave her some room. “Things didn’t work out like you planned?”
“Get out!” moaned the woman, newly not-old, half-naked and awkward on her bedroom floor.
“Whatsa matter?” Victor said, “you not the Collector anymore?”
“No, I’m not the damn Collector. I’m Emma. Emma Fastbinder. I’m from Vermont.” Emma Fastbinder needed a bath. She didn’t make the flowy shoulder cloth look majestic like the Collector had, and her makeup was splotched messily across her face. She looked like she’d just woken up after the whackest bachelorette party ever. Her tits didn’t sag down to her navel anymore, but that’s only cause they were barely there at all.
Victor noticed suddenly that the shooting had stopped. He felt like he hadn’t known this kind of peace and quiet in years, like if he were to walk outside he’d hear the rustle of soil nurturing a young tree, the slow progress of a worm along the pavement, the beginning of a new morning.