On a noisy Friday night inside Chesty’s pole-dancing bar and restaurant, no one heard the gargoyles scream until the front door crashed in.
The pounding rock music in the bar screeched to a halt—not an unusual occurrence or a reason for alarm. The DJ often had to spin albums with a hand crank, since anything electronic developed a personality of its own in the Zone.
But this time, the shrill aiieeeee of the town gargoyles shattered the abrupt silence.
Like most of the other patrons, I’d been boogying hard and was annoyed with the abrupt halt to the music. I’d spent eight long years scrambling my way to this moment. I had my law degree, my license, and a job with a judge. I deserved one night of pure celebration. For that, I needed music.
It wasn’t as if I had a boyfriend to help me work off steam. I’d sent him to hell a few months back. Long pathetic story.
Two old people fell through the front door, whacking at each other. It was a bar. Normally, I’d shrug off the fight. But the earsplitting shrieks reminded me too much of the sirens that had been the end of my innocence. Drunk on appletinis and sweaty from dancing off my exultation, I wiped my brow with the back of my arm and studied the situation.
The rest of Chesty’s clientele returned to eating and drinking. The girls on the poles put their clothes back on and wandered off until the DJ could get the music rolling again.
The persistence of the unholy screams raised my hackles, despite the buzz I’d been working on. Being a topless bar, Chesty’s didn’t have windows, so I slipped inside the office I used to share with Ernesto, the club manager, to look out the small one there.
In the blue glow of the Zone, I could barely make out the outline of a stone gargoyle sitting atop the gutter of the building next door. It seemed to be stretching its neck and screeching bloody murder. While they were supposed to be mere architectural details, gargoyles in the Zone occasionally strolled the alleyways. They’d even been known to mutter insults, but they never just sat there and screamed. My gut churned.
At least I hadn’t been the one to set off alarms this time. Trying to ignore the unease crawling under my skin, I returned to the main room and sought my sometimes-boss. Andre Legrande owns Chesty’s and most of the businesses in the Zone. He’s also an amoral enigma, but he’d lived in the Zone all his life. I was confident he’d know what it meant when gargoyles cried.
I caught sight of him across the room, pushing through the weekend crowd toward the struggling pair who’d broken in the door. Out of a sense of curiosity that will be the death of me one of these days, I slipped along the sidelines to do the same. Once upon a time I had been invisible to most of this crowd—a gap-toothed, four-eyed, limping nerd so innocuous that I disappeared into the woodwork.
Nowadays, thanks to my patron saint, Saturn, and the rewards he bestowed upon me for damning people to hell, I was more noticeable and had a reputation. People tended to shift out of my way of late.
I wasn’t certain if being feared was any better than being invisible. All I wanted to be was a lawyer bringing fairness and justice to an unfair world. I had a few strikes against me in achieving my ultimate goal, but no one ever said I was a quitter.
A foggy cloud of green and pink drifted through the open doorway. Andre picked up his pace. So did I, my unease escalating.
What kind of craziness produced pink and green clouds? The Zone’s massive pollution had created serious anomalies over the years, like the neon-blue buildings and the ambling gargoyles, but so far it hadn’t changed the weather.
One of the struggling drunks located a chair and smashed it over his opponent’s head.
Instead of collapsing in a bloody heap, his victim simply shook a shaggy mane in bewilderment—which was the moment I recognized her. A her, not a him. Nancy Rose! Why would mild-mannered, motherly Nancy Rose the hippie florist be in a barroom brawl with a bum?
Hurrying, I shoved people aside to reach the front.
Unlike other Zone inhabitants warped by the chemical pollution, I have a cosmic birth defect for which toxic waste can’t be blamed. It seems I was born in the seventh house under a wrong asteroid or something, which warped my chromosomes and made me one of Saturn’s daughters. Mostly, it gives me an innate ability to screw up my life seeking justice. Repeatedly.
Nice Nancy Rose was being assaulted, and I needed to stop it. I was about to drunkenly conjure a whammy to turn the bum into a toadstool when—to my astonishment—the bully keeled over, blocking the entry with his bulk.
Seemingly unharmed, short, stout Nancy Rose stood dazed and swaying over her assailant’s sprawled body. Only when he didn’t get up to finish the fight did she slowly topple herself.
Weird. Staggering drunks might be mother’s milk around here but not fighting florists.
The pink and green cloud continued to seep through the doorway.
Andre reached the entrance before me. He stepped over both bodies and glanced in the direction of the chemical factory to the north. I made it to his side just in time to hear him mutter, “Frigging shit,” before cursing in three languages that I understood and a few more that I didn’t. Formerly Special Forces, Andre Legrande has a colorful background, and I could tell he was about to harsh what remained of my mellow.
My gut churned as I kneeled beside Nancy Rose to check her pulse.
Verifying she was alive and breathing normally, I stood and stepped over bodies into the street.
On the harbor along this industrial south side of Baltimore, the Zone glowed blue neon on a normal night. A series of chemical floods over the past ten years had polluted the land along the water where tanks had once stored the output of our neighborhood chemical companies—the kind of places that create nerve gases for wars as well as personal hygiene products.
After the last flood, the EPA had cordoned off the blighted harbor and abandoned the Zone’s commercial district in the shadow of the rusted-out chimneys of the derelict plant.
Acme Chemical had rebuilt up the hill to the north of us. Tonight, a noxious cloud drifted down that hill.
Holy crap. Acme sent gas and not a flood this time? Did they want to eradicate us?
“That green looks really bad against the blue,” I pronounced with drunken brilliance.
“Shut up, Clancy.” Andre and I had a friendly enemy relationship happening.
My name is actually Mary Justine Clancy, but no one gets to use my first name. Most people just call me Tina, except Andre the All-Knowing.
“I’ll handle Nancy Rose and clear the club,” he snapped. “You need to go home and wake up Pearl and my father and herd them into the basement until we know what’s happening. I’ll be up right behind you.”
I was too buzzed to panic but not too drunk to register Andre’s fury.
Andre despised Acme for many good reasons, and the chemical plant was the direction of his glare. It was also the direction from which the wind carried the rainbow cloud.
I didn’t think Acme had a night shift, but lights were popping on all over the plant.
“And here I thought tonight would be our night. I was really ready to celebrate that you’re no longer my boss,” I said with drunken regret.